It’s no secret that Portugal has some serious credentials when it comes to premium beach holidays and super-cool city breaks. After all, this famously sunny and coastally-blessed country is home to a seemingly endless supply of golden sands, as well as the considerable cosmopolitan charms of Lisbon and Porto.
But few people realise that, away from the beaches and the big cities, another Portugal exists. This is a Portugal of snow-capped mountains, star-filled skies, glistening glacier lakes and the country’s one and only ski resort.
Yes, you read that correctly. When winter rolls around, the Portuguese dust off their padded ski jackets and head for the slopes of Serra da Estrela Natural Park, where the Serra da Estrela ski resort has been attracting hordes of winter sports enthusiasts for generations. The site clings to the slopes of Torre, mainland Portugal’s tallest peak (and – unsurprisingly – also part of its highest mountain range), which reaches almost 2,000 metres and is blanketed with snow during winter.
It’s long been the winter holiday destination of choice for legions of Portuguese citizens, but remains refreshingly under-the-radar among international visitors, save for a few savvy stargazers. Serra da Estrela translates roughly as ‘mountain range of the stars’ and the name is well-deserved. When darkness falls on this remote region, it’s really, truly dark, making for incredible night skies untroubled by light pollution. Here, there are no high-rise hotels, packed beaches or bumped-up prices. Instead, visitors will find a pollution-free landscape, tumbling waterfalls, clear lagoons, ancient mountain villages and – from November to March – that seemingly implausible ski resort.
Established in 1947 as a way of increasing winter tourism to a region known for its clear mountain air, rather than its snowsports potential, Serra da Estrela soon attracted visiting families from across the country. Today, annual winter excursions to ski and ‘see the snow’ in Serra da Estrela are now deeply entrenched in Portuguese culture.
Particularly well-suited to newer and intermediate skiers, the small resort has nine pistes, ski lifts and its own ski and snowboarding school. Add to that some killer mountain views, and you’ve got the ingredients for ensuring a steady flow of winter visitors.
Adriana Vnenkova, who is originally from Slovakia, now lives in the seaside village of Sesimbra, south of Lisbon, and skis in Serra da Estrela each winter. “I grew up surrounded by snow in winter and have skied all my life, but Serra da Estrela has a real magic to it,” she says. “It’s not well-known outside Portugal, so it isn’t crowded. It’s a place full of beautiful hotels and a sense of peace. I think it’s amazing that a country known for beaches and hot weather has such an incredible place to hide when you need a little snow and cosiness by the fireside.”
Fireside cosiness does indeed abound at Casa das Penhas Douradas, a welcoming Serra da Estrela boutique hotel and the first mountain resort to open in Portugal. Perched high above the traditional factory town of Manteigas and boasting an altitude of around 1,300 meters above sea level, the hotel blazed a trail for health-focused hospitality when it opened in the late 19th century inside a former sanatorium. At the time, it proffered fresh mountain air to help with the treatment of respiratory diseases.
A series of revamps mean there’s nothing clinical about the property today, though. Guests can now look forward to a fancy restaurant, a swimming pool, a spa, a log fire and a cosy-chic interior that makes stylish use of burel. This durable sheep’s wool has been produced in the region since the 19th century and is now in high demand after becoming a popular material for hip home furnishings and within the fashion industry.
But while both the hotel and the wider region increasingly offer modern comforts, one foot remains firmly rooted in the past. Visitors to Casa das Penhas Douradas can peek at wall-mounted artifacts from early discovery expeditions that took place in the mountains, and there’s even a miniature ski museum. Hotel owner João Tomás explains: “It’s a beautiful museum of wooden skis, produced from the 19th century to the 1960s, as well as ski teaching manuals. Serra da Estrela is the only ski resort in Portugal and the museum reminds us of that.”
The slopes are the star attraction in the winter months, but Serra da Estrela also shines year-round. “Serra da Estrela has very distinct seasons, with very different scenery,” says Tomás. “In summer, the green of the high-altitude pastures, the yellow of the rye fields and the crystal-clear waters of its lakes are the dominant features. In winter, the white of the snow invites us to go snowshoeing, skiing and to contemplate the landscape.”
Whether you’ve spent a wintry afternoon swishing down the slopes or a summer’s morning taking a dip in a mountain lagoon, the gastronomy of the region will be a major highlight. The area’s natural bounty makes for rich, distinctive cuisine and produce, from strong cheeses to wild mushrooms, chestnuts and cherries that are cited as some of the best on the planet by advocates.
All this means that a visit to Serra da Estrela feels like a real escape from city life, but you don’t need to embark on a major expedition to get here. It’s around a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Porto and around three hours from Lisbon. Better still, direct trains from Lisbon Oriente to Belmonte-Manteigas take less than four hours, following a scenic riverside route that cuts through deep gorges and valleys, revealing castles and fairytale villages. From here, local transfers head out to the ski resort and neighbouring Covilhã.
Serra da Estrela usually sees snowfall from November to March, with the ski resort announcing its opening dates in mid-October each year. And while increasingly unpredictable conditions mean that snow might arrive earlier or later than expected, skiing and snowboarding are guaranteed throughout the season thanks to an artificial snow system that keeps things moving on the slopes, whatever the weather.
So, grab your skis, your snowboard, your hiking boots, your swimwear or just your sense of adventure, and journey out to this genuinely unique site. Whichever season you choose will provide plenty of reasons to stick around for a while.Book flights to Portugal Book holidays to Portugal