Isle Heads to Portugal by Van & Moroccan Sahara for New Year’s 2015

Lost Boards & Lost Swells in Portugal

a beautiful sunset with an ocean view on a coastal bluff in Lisbon Portugal

After seeing the footage of the now famous big waves of Nazare, Portugal I figured it was time to hop across the pond for the holidays in search of a glimpse and maybe even a paddle in the waves of Nazare. Sadly the swell timing couldn’t have been worse and we would be greeted with near flat seas and stormy skies for most our time in Portugal. To make matters worse the airline lost all of our surfboards and paddle boards and we had to sit tight in the capital of Lisbon for several days waiting in the excellent weather and biggest swell of the trip. But all was not lost and what we missed in surf and weather we made up for with food, nightlife, and sightseeing in downtown Lisbon.

Feliz Navidad Eve en Lisboa

Its christmas time and the cheer is spreading at the Palace Square in Lisbon Portugal

When searching online for places to stay in Lisbon I came across a sweet little apartment in the Cais do Sodre district. The reviews on the apartment said “Wonderful apartment sketchy neighborhood “and the price was right so I booked. Turns out the apartment was overlooking a charming little street filled with bars and restaurants. Being late afternoon we managed to get in some sights along the waterfront just down the street from the apartment. Couldn’t miss the big red suspension bridge that looks just like the one in San Francisco along with all the historical buildings from Lisbon’s golden age of exploration in the 15 and 16th century. Portuguese sailors discovered and mapped most of Africa, Brazil and Asia and set sail and returned into Lisbon harbor with vast gold, spices and slaves changing the way people viewed the world and sea navigation forevermore.

delicious Sardines and Anchovies in Lisbon Portugal sold on every street corner

As the sun dropped the tiny cobbled streets sparkled with holiday lights and decorations and around every corner was a piece of old world architecture or statue to please the eyes. Since Christmas Eve is typically spent with family the entire city was shut down that evening except for one small bar on our street below the apartment called Sol de Pesca.  The bar is filled with hundreds of different selections of canned fish (Portugal is famous for its canned fish) you can enjoy with olives, bread and beers. Just select the tin can you want from behind a sliding glass door and you’re off.  And don’t be fooled it is absolutely delicious!!!! We ran into a couple Croatian Basketball players and shared a few plates of spicy mackerel and olives for dinner while the drunken local fisherman slowly filled into the bar over the course of the night harmlessly screaming and yelling at the large out of place Croatians.  Definitely a Christmas Eve dinner I won’t soon forget.

Skating the Streets of Lisbon on Xmas Day

Skating the streets of Lisbon Portugal on tranquil Christmas night

The next best thing to surfing and paddling is skating and no better place to cruise around than the backstreets of Lisbon. After catching a delicious meal uptown (One of the best hamburgers I have ever tasted) we proceeded to skate around the windy roads and streets of Lisbon well into the night. With all the Christmas lights and so many windy little alleys and roads it was a blast and by the time we made it back to the apartment the entire street was filled with party goers as Christmas Day is the big night out for Lisbon. Turns out the Cais do Sodre side of town was the old red-light district and was traditionally a haunt for sailors from all over the world to pick up ladies of the night and hard drugs and only recently remade into a bustling nightlife district with a pink street. The bars are original and have names like Bar Oslo, Bar Rotterdam, Bar Tokyo in order to attract sailors from the those countries who had pulled into port back in the day. We hopped from bar to bar until we eventually made our way to one of the most interesting. Named Pension Amor or (love pension)  for its history as a former brothel house and strip club converted into a nightclub. Its Equipped with stripper poles, a taro reader, erotic book library and a host of kinky photos and art in every nook and cranny in a red velvet chandelier setting. Oh and they make and damn good Gin Martini! It was hands down my favorite of all the spots.  The night raged on into the wee hours and it was finally time to pick up our boards and rental van the next day and start driving up the coast in search of waves.

isle-trip-portugal

Portugal by Van – Exploring Ereciera

camper van adventures in Lisbon Portugal

 

In planning the trip months earlier I opted on the tip of a friend to reserve a Motorhome or House Wagon as they say in Europe. For a very reasonable price I scooped up a nice sprinter converted into a camper with sleeping for 4, a kitchen and small dining area. Having never driven in Portugal before it was definitely a new experience but once out of the city it was an excellent way to see the country. We loaded up all our gear and made way for our next stop Ereciera by dark. It’s a small fishing village with excellent waves just outside of Lisbon. Stoked to finally have the boards and get out of the city we hit a new storm with gusting onshore winds and near flat surf by the time we reached the coast. It was a total bummer but we didn’t let it get to us and opted to take a stroll around town and enjoy a delicious seafood meal. It was a charming little village situated on the high cliffs of the chilly Atlantic. The main strip was dotted with lots of little shops and restaurants and we found a nice cozy spot and chilled out with some excellent seafood and wine. After stuffing our bellies we decided to spend the night and head to Peniche in the morning in search of more waves and shelter from the storm.

Delicious bbq for sale at the Marrakech Market

More stormy weather for Peniche

on a rocky ridge enjoying the sea below in Peniche Portugal

The storm just wouldn’t let up and after getting lost for several hours in the farmlands we finally pulled into a nice campground in Peniche for the evening. Cruising Portugal by camper is quite common and the campgrounds get crowded. This particular campground was filled and offered up a nice restaurant bar on the beach. Since the sun had already set we strolled in for a few pints and to watch the Portuguese cover band jus setting up in the crowded bar. They did just about every hit song from the 80’s, 90’s and beyond to perfection and it sounded almost better than the real thing. These guys totally killed it and the beers and good vibes started to flow freely.  After several hours of the band a DJ took over and rocked the dance floor into the wee hours of the night. After closing down the bar we cruised down the road to a sweet little skate park and snagged a few grinds before retreating back to the camper. Amped to finally get wet the next day and also our last we prayed for good weather but it was not to be. Again we made due and explored some of the coastline around Peniche and cozied up in a nice restaurant on the waterfront for another splendid seafood meal.  Super tubes the famed wave of the area had decent wind but was flat as a pancake and everywhere else was blown to bits and small. It was the kind of wind that almost lifted you off your feet so basically the worst possible weather for surfing and paddling.

Barnacles for Dinner – A Portuguese Delicacy

a delicious Portuguese sautéed barnacle dish for two

 

Having pretty much been skunked this trip with flat surf and crap weather, and no time or chance of making it more north to Nazare, I had to at least try the Portuguese Barnacle dish I heard so much about. Yes fresh sea Barnacles on a platter. I really didn’t know what to expect but planned on a very disgusting meal and to my surprise it was excellent. Tasted like fresh jerky of the sea. You simply peel back the hard outer cylinder of the barnacle shaft to reveal a delicious inner ring of goodness. Fresh and tasty it was one of the most pleasant meals of the trip and was washed down with pork, steak, fish and ice cold beers. I was finally falling in love with this place and I haven’t even surfed or paddled yet. If the waves were going off I wouldn’t ever want to leave and I will definitely be back soon! Ciao Portugal

Ciao Portugal – Hello Africa

Locals strolling the medina at the marrakech market

With swell on the way and bound for the world’s 2nd largest continent we gathered up the gear and headed for the Lisbon airport direct to Casablanca Morocco. Timing our arrival just before New Year we made plans to visit the Sahara Desert and ring in 2015 on the dunes before hitting the beach. I even brought a surfboard along to surf the dunes should they be large enough. We arrived in Casablanca by the afternoon greeted by our Moroccan host Adil. Introduced via Facebook by a friend living in Bali he turned out to be one of the nicest guys I have ever met and hung with us for the duration of our stay in Morocco. Since I don’t speak Arabic or French it was a tremendous help to have a local with us.  After gathering up all the gear we made our way to the rental car bound for Marrakesh. Turns out Adil doesn’t drive all that much and we got lost on the way and the 2.5 hour drive turned into a 7 hour drive with a lost hotel reservation at our arrival. The weary crew after traveling all day from Portugal voiced their bottled up discontent and luckily Adil found us a cozy bed at a friend’s house in Marrakesh and took us to our first real Moroccan meal. The grumblings quickly faded as we enjoyed delicious tajin cooked steak and vegetables with fresh bread and Moroccan tea to wash it all down. A tajin is a large ceramic pot that looks like a teepee and is filled with goodness and cooked in a big oven. Incredible first meal and bed never felt so good. With only a few hours of sleep before our early morning departure to the Sahara the next day it was light outs…

The Sahara Awaits

a panaoramic view of the snowy peeks of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco

Morning came quick and once again several members of the crew became weary with complaints of toothaches, hangovers and lack of sleep. Upon boarding the short bus to the desert they suddenly decided it wasn’t such a good idea and abruptly wanted to cancel. The crew was suddenly split with some staying in Marrakesh to nurse the toothaches and others heading off bound for the dusty Sahara. It turned out to be a good and bad choice for the departing members who stayed behind in Marrakesh. The drive to the Sahara was no easy feat and would take us across nomadic valleys, dry deserts, snow capped mountain passes, gorges , and rivers to finally reach the Sahara 15 hours on the road driving only in daylight and a full 2 days later with a night stopover in the mountains. Oh and the temp drops below Zero at night to boot… It was not for the weary and clearly would have broken the cranky crew members who jumped off the bus but in retrospect it was probably a good thing they did as a meltdown in Timbuctoo would be certain disaster.  Sad they would never make it to the world’s biggest desert and tallest sand dunes something most people on earth will never witness but at least they got a good night’s sleep in Marrakesh. They did find time to drive into the high peaks of the Atlas mountains above Marrakesh opting for a snowy paddle in the upper mountain lakes and some snowboarding under sunny skies so not all was lost.

a crispy mountain lake Paddle boarding session with a scenic view of the Atlas Mountains on an Isup

The Sahara in All its Glory

Camel backing through the Sahara Desert and the illumines red sand dunes

After Driving for what seemed like an eternity we finally reached the start of the Sahara near the border of Algeria. As we approached the dunes grew larger and larger and resembled a Martian like landscape. Once we arrived at the base camp they gave us no more than 5 minutes to collect our items and rush to the camels to head off to our camp 3 hours into the dunes behind one of the largest peaks of sand in the distance. The rush was to catch the sunset somewhere along the way before bunking down for the night in our tents with the local Bedouin tribesman at our camp. The ride out to the camp and the sunset was something that will forever be ingrained in my memory as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon and the infinite red dunes slowly slipped into dusk and then darkness. With a clear night sky you could see the glow of the red sand well into the later evening and as the temperature started to drop we found ourselves ill prepared and literally freezing our asses off in subzero temps to the beating drums of the Bedouin and rambunctious Italians who crated in several boxes of vino and beers to ring in the New Year.  As I shivered in my berber rug tent, covered in as many blankets and clothes as I could muster along with a now empty bottle of Cuban rum I just couldn’t seem to warm up.

walking atop the ridge line peaks of the Sahara Desert dunes

The next day we woke before dawn to board the camels once again and enjoy the sunrise over the dunes before starting our 15 hour drive back to Marrakesh. The sunrise was even better than the sunset and since the sun was blocked by towering dunes the light slowly spread across the distant dunes until eventually it peaked over the highest peak and hit our cold faces and surrounding dunes with a glowing red light. The sand was so cold in some places you could notice white trails of ice that had collected from the previous cold winter night. A 3 hour camel ride back to base and then after a quick shower we rushed to board the van back to the Marrakesh.  It was a long trek and drive back to the city and when we finally arrived the driver put on his favorite song Mama Africa while flickering his neon colored lights of the bus. Everyone clapped and sang happy to be back to the city and the soon to be comforts of a nice hotel.

a bedouin guide leading the camel caravan through frost laden sands in the Sahara Desert

Mama Africa Video

Marrakesh Markets

spice traders selling a plethora of spices at the Marrakech Market

 

After so many days of traveling and still no surfing or paddling we rallied with the crew in Marrakesh and swapped our tales of the Sahara with their tales of snowboarding and paddling in the Atlas Mountains. They had at least caught one paddle but were very excited to get to the coast and jump in the Atlantic especially with the pending forecast of new swell. Before departure we did a cruise of the famous Marrakesh markets the busiest marketplace in Africa enjoying all the sights, sounds, and snakes it had to offer. The markets are an endless maze of food and trinkets and you could spend a whole week just getting lost in the madness. The outskirts are filled with snake charmers, story tellers and dancers aiming to please the thousands of people passing thru for tips.  The great part is you can find a top deck of a high rise cafe and enjoy some coffee and a smoke in the sun overlooking the chaos with the snow capped Atlas Mountains at your back. It is a one of a kind experience and I only wish I had more time to explore more.

The Road to Safi and the Coast

Moroccan Cobra striking a pose at the Marrakech Market

Eager to leave the hustle bustle of the city we set off for Safi along the central Moroccan coast. Safi is an industrial town famous for sardines, tajin making and phosphates. It also holds one of Morocco’s most famed sand point barrels on the right tide and swell. In addition it was the birthplace and hometown of our host Adil so always a pleasure to get the hometown tour by a local.  After several hours on a desolate road we finally reached Safi and bunked down in a comfy Riad for the night. A Riad is an old converted family house from days past much like a bed and breakfast. Ours was a cozy little nook overlooking a large shipbuilding harbor.

Our First Surf in Africa

excited and ready to test the paddle boards in the Moroccan african surf

With new fresh swell on the rise and not enough to light up the points we made our way to a sandy beach break a few miles up the road. The waves packed a nice punch and offered up long peeling riders into a semi channel. With no one around and no surf in over a week it was time to jump for joy and we put our wetsuits on faster than a speeding bullet and sprinted into the water. The sand was a fine brown dust almost like the Sahara in a way and was a welcome delight to the toes before jumping into the brisk Atlantic.  We swapped dozens of waves into the morning hours and after a delicious lunch jumped back in for another session to a building swell. So nice to be back in the water and the anticipation of the new swell hitting the famed points down the road grew larger with every new and building set unloading over the sand.

Paddling around Safi Bay

Paddle boarding around Safi Bay Morocco with the explorer Isup

After a day of surf we opted to catch the Sunset at Safi bay and give the paddle boards a whirl and scope out the point from the channel. The wave is a long spitting sand bottom barrel when it’s on peeling into a sheltered bay. With the giant starting to awaken small waves started barreling into the rocky headland at the top of the point not quite big enough to wrap.  We cruised around the point and surrounding jetties enjoying the sun and warmer weather of the trip thus far. One could only imagine just how good this wave gets when it’s on and the anticipation was building to see it break. The sunset turned out to be a beauty and turned a great big ball of bright orange as it sunk below the horizon with the paddle boards making the best seat in the house. The temps quickly dipped into the chilly zone and we packed up for my favorite time of the day – DINNER TIME!

World’s Best Barbecue – Hands Down!

Safi Morocco delicious bbq served hot and fresh

Safi is filled with delicious barbecue spots offering all kinds of fresh meats from goats, sheep, and cows fresh from the pasture to your plate and coming from the USA were most meat tends to have a long shelf life along with tons of chemicals and hormones etc. the flavors of the meat in Morocco are unbelievable. Central Morocco is covered in small family farms and it shows in the quality of the food. The meats hunks are displayed fresh on hooks ready to be ordered by the kilo along with fresh veggies, salads and always fresh baked bread. The meat is then treated with spices and slow cooked on double sided skillets over hot coals for a solid 15 munties. It’s then served fresh with several hot sauces and Moroccan tea to wash it all down! It tasted so good it didn’t even seem real and all for under the price of a pizza in the USA. I am so jealous they get to eat this way while we Americans choke on average over processed food. When I first arrived in the country I asked my Moroccan host what his favorite local dish was and he was overcome with the biggest smile I have ever seen and now I know why! The seafood and meat in morocco is top notch.

 Phosphate Point

Phospate Point Morocco waves

Morocco is Famous for food, surf and its number one export, phosphate. With the new swell starting to build we heard of a point just down the road in front of a phosphate refinery. I don’t know too much about phostaphte other than by the looks of the plants refining it and spewing crud into the air and ocean it can’t be a good thing for the environment. The factory has actually closed off the entire point with barbed wire fences and it’s a perfect empty peeling right-hander. We took the back way around the fences near south end of the factory and paddled in on our sups. The waves was super fun but after some time in the water we began to gag from the nauseous fumes permeating the water. A total bummer for a wave with such good potential but we had to cut the session short due to the pollution and hit the showers. Saddened to see such a good wave ruined by pollution and eager to get more outside the city the following day to the more pristine coast.

Exploring the Surrounding Coast of Central Morocco

Paddle boarding around a fishing port in central Morocco with the Isup explorer

Morocco has endless miles of desolate coastline facing open ocean winter swells of the Atlantic. Beaches, points and inlets one after the other with so much surf and paddle potential it’s ridiculous. We opted to take a day and explore a few hours south and found a cool little harbor with a castle and lots of little fishing board along with some fun little beach breaks and points. Not a soul around other than a few locals and finding the time to explore all this potential this trip would be next to impossible. We grabbed a paddle in front of big bay amongst the boats with several right point breaks peeling of behind the reef in the background and called it a day. With the swell building we were eager to get back to town and jump on the world class right point break in the am.

The Solid Swell Finally Hits

Surfing a perfect sandy point off the coast of Morocco

After lots of waiting the big swell arrives on schedule and the main point finally starts to awaken. It likes the lower tide and turns into a perfect spinning barrel for hundreds of yards around a sandy point with just a small crew swapping tubes. It was an amazing sight to behold after waiting for so long and getting totally skunked in Portugal. The crew surfed for hours on end into the low tide perfection until the sun dropped below the horizon for 2 straight days. With even bigger swells foretasted behind this one it would be even harder to leave but unfortunately all good things must come to an end.

Dreading the Long Haul Home

atop a hilly ridge overlooking the contour Moroccan coastline

After weeks of traveling across multiple countries it was finally time to pack up and head stateside. With a 20+ hour multi flight itinerary looming it’s never easy to leave especially with so many waves coming but we vowed to chase a solid swell and good weather back one day and truly explore the untapped potential of both Morocco and Portugal.

 

Isle Heads to Portugal by Van & Moroccan Sahara for New Year’s 2015

Posted in Travel
Marc Miller - Co-Founder of Isle Surf & SUP. I started Isle back in 2004 to share my love of paddling and surfing in the ocean with others one board at a time. I love to surf, paddle , travel and write about it. When im not in the office I can be found on foreign shores searching for waves and fun.

comments