Take the road to nowhere

The Alentejo region of Portugal offers an escape from the bustle of the Algarve with its sleepy villages and beautiful, dusty hills

"Two hours' drive?" asked another family, shocked, as we picked up our hire car at Faro. We were heading north for a holiday in Portugal's least developed region, the Alentejo, and they were aghast that we would travel so far rather than simply drive a few miles to a hotel in the Algarve. But although we were taking our 18-month-old child with us, we had no reason to worry. The road surface actually improved as we entered the Alentejo (probably a result of recent EU investment in the region) and it was only when we reached the stony track leading to our hotel, the Quinta do Barranco da Estrada, that this beautiful area began to feel empty.

"Two hours' drive?" asked another family, shocked, as we picked up our hire car at Faro. We were heading north for a holiday in Portugal's least developed region, the Alentejo, and they were aghast that we would travel so far rather than simply drive a few miles to a hotel in the Algarve. But although we were taking our 18-month-old child with us, we had no reason to worry. The road surface actually improved as we entered the Alentejo (probably a result of recent EU investment in the region) and it was only when we reached the stony track leading to our hotel, the Quinta do Barranco da Estrada, that this beautiful area began to feel empty.

In fact, we arrived there in the late afternoon in well under two hours. Set in a dry and dusty September landscape, the hotel was four miles from the nearest village, and 11 from the nearest town, Santa Clara a Velha. The building itself was a pleasant stone and wooden house situated at the top of a series of cool, green terraces leading up from a lake. We were shown to our room by a friendly New Zealander. "I think we have some keys somewhere," he said, "but we don't tend to use them."

The toddler was already exploring. He had hated the flight but, after sleeping the rest of the way in the car, he was ready for anything. Which was a good thing, since living in the grounds were six dogs, as well as assorted ducklings, hens, lovebirds, budgies and cats.

Quinta do Barranco da Estrada is owned by Frank and Lulu McClintock, who left Britain 12 years ago to start the hotel and bring up their three young children there. With only 16 guests present at any time (mostly English speaking, but some Portuguese), the atmosphere is that of a friendly family house. Guests eat together on the terrace in the evenings and Frank and Lulu are usually there, regaling the company with stories about the track being washed away in the winter and having to jet ski their way in and out.

We were looking for a quiet holiday, miles from anywhere, and that is exactly what we found. The lake at the bottom of the terraces turned out to be a reservoir - the dam at Santa Clara was constructed in 1973 to provide water for the farms of the Alentejo - but the water was warm, clean and inviting. During our two-week stay, we swam, sailed, splashed stones into the lake (one of us), and relaxed in the sun reading from the extensive library left by previous guests. All we had to do was turn up at dinner time and eat (including our toddler, who was catered for entirely to his satisfaction).

The parched countryside around the hotel offered fresh figs from the sunny walls of deserted farmhouses and scrambles along dry valleys through cork oaks. As we walked into one hamlet, we passed a huge white pig asleep in the shade of a cactus. We stopped for a beer at a tiny bar where our phrase-book Portuguese was incomprehensible to the old woman there, but we were nevertheless made to feel welcome.

The few trips we took further afield were well worth the effort. Visits to the hill towns of Silves and Monchique provided us with a little of the history of the region. Monchique, high up in the pine forests, was the site of an ancient spa and Silves, the original capital of the Algarve, was still dominated by castle battlements. Even without a car, travelling is straight-forward. Two first-class train tickets from Santa Clara to the atmospheric, old fishing port of Tavira cost us £12 for a round trip of perhaps 150 miles.

This holiday was not going to be the "every standing stone, every barrow tomb" type, so we rationed the amount of time we took our toddler around the hot countryside in the car. But on the day before we left we headed for the west coast. Here were stark cliff formations pounded by Atlantic waves and little seaside towns stuffed with holidaying Portuguese. As the sun set, we drove back to the Quinta and realised that we had hardly even begun to explore this region of Portugal.

Two weeks bed and breakfast at the Quinta do Barranco da Estrada currently costs £942 per person through Simply Portugal (020 8541 2207, www.simply-travel.com), including return flights on Air Portugal from Heathrow and car hire

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