Portugal Diary:  DAY ONE

“Don’t listen to what they say.  Go see.” 

“A day of overseas travel is a lot like waking up from a mid-afternoon nap to find yourself slightly dazed, a little disoriented and wondering what just happened to you. Our arrival day in Portugal started with a gathering of women at the Lisbon airport who drifted in at various times like lost sheep eventually finding their flock. Sleepy eyes and confused expressions gradually transformed (with the assistance of coffee) into laughter and recognition, as everyone began to make common connections as to what drew them to this trip, from wherever they were arriving across the globe. The predominant shared themes were something like these: ‘I’ve always wanted to do something like this, but never had the guts to do it. I felt like it was time to just take the plunge!’ ‘I’ve never visited Portugal or tried surfing/dancing before, so this is exciting and new!’ ‘I was feeling super burnt out and just needed to treat myself and get away.’ ‘I liked the idea of joining a group of women and having everything taken care of so I don’t have to think, just show up and enjoy!’

By the time we all packed into shuttles to depart for our villa in the countryside of Leira, multiple conversations danced throughout the group. Some guests knew each other from their home dance studio in Toronto, some arrived solo from other countries knowing no one on the trip prior to arrival. Others had been friends for years but had never given themselves the gift of a proper getaway together. Despite fatigue and jet lag, the energy was bubbling.

Rounding one final bend in the sleepy, narrow streets of Columbeira, the turreted top of Buddha Retreats beckoned in the glow of late afternoon. We had arrived. Time to settle in and unpack. Met at the gate by three generations of doggies and a handful of jet black cats, we were ushered into a villa that could very well have played host to the Portuguese adaptation of a scene from ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’. Latticed bedroom windows opened onto sprawling fields and forested hills where donkeys grazed and tractors lazily went about their business.

The most striking of our first impressions was the silence that blanketed the house. Save for the cooing of doves and a constant, dreamy buzz of bees which were invisibly nestled into the vine covered archways heralding our arrival, it was completely still. As suitcases were released to the floor, a collective exhale palpably filled the rooms and spilled out into the evening air.

Day one was designed to gently draw everyone into their new surroundings and ease out travel stiffness. Rolling out our mats onto the stone terrace, we bathed in the late day sun like the cats that meandered in and out of the house, and moved through a soft stretch class that combined classic ballet strategies for releasing the hips with yoga inspired postures.
As the sun’s rays turned from gold to rose, a dove landed beside my head and remained there while I taught the class. I don’t know if it was lured by the monotone of my voice, or the collective release of the group, but it seemed content to simply perch close by and observe the shadows lengthen on our mats.  As the class concluded, I made my way through the group, softly offering some pressure to open each individual’s chest and massage tension from temples. The dove kept watch.

We floated from class into our first meal, served on the terrace as the sun set, and from our first bite, knew that we would be in culinary heaven for the week. Ruby red root vegetables and plump wedges of pumpkin from the surrounding fields danced amongst leafy greens and hearty grains, topped by a jewelled crescendo of edible flowers. This is a place that is intimately connected with its local harvest and celebrates it. I’ve often heard how a rich colour palate on a plate enhances the taste and enjoyment of a meal, but never truly experienced it til now.

Vino verde and conversation flowing, we gradually succumbed to the siren call of sleep, anticipating our first full day of adventure. We had arrived.

Portugal Diary: DAY TWO

“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

Our first full day in Columbeira dawned with promise and expectation, and despite the early hour, we wandered with sleepy smiles into the studio for a yoga and meditation class, designed to help us align our breath and set intentions for the week ahead.

Our instructor, Carlijn, spoke so softly it was as if she wanted to ensure that all life outside the studio door stepped out of sleep in their own timing, without her assistance.

Feeling more now like humans than the collection of sore muscles we dragged off the airplane, the group floated happily into various chosen activities for the morning, some descending to the pool with book and towel, others off on a countryside hike into the surrounding hills. And of course there were the lucky few who had their massage scheduled for that day.

Women are fabulous creatures. We have the innate ability to progress from total strangers to fast friends within a few short conversations. We are empathic, intuitive, and curious: natural nurturers. It’s one of the reasons why a curated female trip goes so much further than pleasantries or small talk, and ultimately encourages personal breakthroughs and lasting connections. I’m not sure if we realized the extent of this when we began Pointe Break, but it’s one of the things we are consistently amazed by and grateful for.

One of the most ideal activities to spark conversation, is of course, walking. Our morning hike into the foothills around the villa, guided by our intrepid leader (and world’s most wonderful dog, Oscar), was accompanied by a running commentary on the extraordinary fields of curiously shaped pumpkins, identification and inspection of eucalyptus trees and their delicious aroma, as well as wagers on whether or not we could snag that last plump pear hanging just out of reach (the region is known for its pear orchards, which were mid-harvest at the time of our arrival). A few attempts at a contemporary dance inspired boost lift ended ultimately in one clever brain giving the branch a gentle shake, and boom: pear’s your snack! There’s always one brain in a group that’s slightly more attuned to efficiency than the rest. 😉

Warmed up and hungry for lunch, we mentally began to prepare for our first afternoon of surfing. Discussions the evening prior included each individual’s excitement and apprehension going into the week, and surprisingly enough, the most common fear was not sore muscles after dance class or battling waves, it was getting into a wet suit for the first time! One of the most hilarious one-liners of the whole trip (and there were many!) was one woman’s fear that she ‘may have low-balled her weight’ on her pre-trip info sheet. That one took about five minutes for the laughter to finish.

Wetsuit terrors in hand, we arrived at Peniche to discover that yes, it’s certainly a more arduous process to prep for surf in a wet suit than throwing on a rashie, but not nearly as bad as we feared.  Plus, one foot in the water we were more than grateful to have a full body barrier between us and the ocean. Some places in the world boast water barely cooler than a bath. Portugal is not one of them. However, I will say that wetsuits are actually a miracle barrier from the cold! As someone whose fingers turn blue the moment Starbucks puts pumpkin spice lattés back on the menu, I can tell you I didn’t feel the chill at all under that neoprene layer. It’s worth the time spent ridiculously hopping on one foot to struggle in.

Now for a word about surf instructors. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world: Costa Rica, Mexico, Portugal, Scarborough Bluffs; these people are HAPPY! Maybe it’s the fact that they clearly live a very Pura Vida lifestyle, maybe it’s the constant rush of catching a wave, or maybe you have to live in a state of optimism to battle the ‘paddle out’ day after day. I’ve never seen more positive group. It’s infectious. By the time we were finished with our beach warm up and pop-up dry-land lesson, we walked into the surf with a collective grin from ear to ear. Impossible not to.

First day in the surf is humbling and eye-opening. There is no better way to truly grasp the immense power of the ocean.  And its beauty. Wading into it with a floatable vessel attached to you is a lesson in absolute awareness and being alert to every tiny detail of where your body is at any given moment. It’s a strange dichotomy of being simultaneously hyper cautious and completely fearless. Oddly, you have to be a master of both to become successful at this sport. It’s like the ultimate lesson in zen mastery.

Day one was a gift of many lessons and an introduction to the rugged beauty of the Portuguese coastline. That’s the thing about beaches. They’re all massaged by the tides, yet they’re all unique.

Portugal Diary: DAY THREE

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn.  Climb that goddamn mountain.” 

“Do one thing a day that scares you.” We all know this saying. We see it splashed across shopping bags in bold print and posted as daily social media mantras. How often do we practise it? Pointe Break may well be the ultimate test of this challenge, and as a result, a facilitator of some remarkable personal achievements and breakthroughs.

Afraid of flying? CHECK
Afraid of water? CHECK
Afraid of not knowing anyone? CHECK
Afraid of not being ‘good enough/flexible enough/co-ordinated enough…just enough in general? CHECK
Afraid of taking time away from your job? CHECK
Afraid of taking time away from your family? CHECK
Afraid of putting yourself first? CHECK
Afraid of discovering how you feel after you step away from the life you know so well for a bit? CHECK

Hmm. It’s a pretty comprehensive list. But when you get to the end of it, it’s not nearly as daunting as when you started. And quite frankly, it’s liberating. Makes you want to keep adding to it and obliterating all of those boxes.

We danced our way into our third day in Portugal. Morning mist lifted from the emerald fields surrounding the villa and we downed one last sip of coffee before making our way to the outdoor pagoda where we would do our first barre class. Between our first plié and our final forward bend, the difference in temperature was a good 8 degrees. The weather variation of the region is remarkable. From dawn to dusk, it’s a journey through micro-climates, which gives a beautiful variation to each day (and also requires an adaptable wardrobe!)
Sweaters shed as fondues progressed to grands battements, and heat loving insects drew closer. Our dance platform was a pastoral stage, our performance for a myriad tiny creatures busying themselves with gathering nectar and spreading seeds.

Feeling longer and lifted after class (ballet dancers will testify that there is nothing more valuable and invigorating than daily barre), we were ready for our first “mini-excursion”. Today we were Sintra bound.

One of the most remarkable things about this retreat location was that within just a short drive, no more than an hour in each case, we could experience vastly diverse environment, culture and history. Windswept beaches and verdant farmland coincided with medieval villages and urban centres to offer us a wonderfully rich week.

Something to know about Portugal, in particular Lisbon and the historic villages built inland from the port towns: it is HILLY! And I don’t mean gentle slopes. I mean walking at an incline that will transform your glutes into titanium! Bouncing a quarter off them? More like bouncing a euro.

Sintra was our first introduction to the infamous hills, and what an introduction it was! Coupled with the incline are cobblestones, so don’t even think about packing that cute pair of heels into your suitcase. Wasted weight. Our quads may have been screaming, but there was not one member of the group who regretted it as we emerged from the shade of the Sintra forest to the most breathtaking view imaginable.
This medieval village, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits atop a mountain known as ‘Moon Hill’ and is nestled within forests that are the legendary home of the huntress Diana, and purportedly haunted. Our destination was Peña Palace, a staggering, brightly coloured royal landmark in the Post Romanesque architectural style. Originally a chapel constructed after a reported ‘vision of the Virgin Mary’, then a monastery, and finally a royal residence, stepping onto its ramparts is like stepping onto the page of a Hans Christian Anderson storybook.

As un-romantic as it may have been in the shadow of this landmark of Romanticism, we all rewarded ourselves for the several hundred yard steep climb with the most delicious cold beer we’ve ever tasted. I think you all can imagine just how good that cold brew was!

Part of the Pointe Break experience is re-imagining and broadening our perspective of our place in the world. There is nothing like contemplating centuries of civilization, standing beneath trees that dwarf the oldest of these by centuries more.  Descending back down from the palace to the village, we rounded out our day by uncovering treasures in artisans’ shops, and had the ultimate satisfaction of enjoying a glass of Portuguese wine as we gazed up at the enormous elevation we had summited.

Ah, yes. Speaking of wine…we made a delightful discovery at our very first meal. It’s called ‘vino verde’. Dictionary translation: green or ‘young’ wine. Alternate translation: heaven. This light, slightly carbonated white wine (there is a red version, but I highly recommend the white) is perfect easy drinking. It’s refreshing, has a slightly lower alcohol content (which means those pesky headaches don’t seem to creep up on you), and I’m convinced it has some other compositional quality that guarantees HAPPY drinking! I’ve never seen a wine transform and energize a group of women so quickly. And it’s pretty much hangover resistant. Oh! Did I mention it’s ridiculously cheap? Sold.

Portugal Diary:  DAY FOUR

Day four dawned with a hazy, golden glow, mist shrouding the rolling hills around the villa. As morning kissed us all, it lifted and left everything dazzling in sparkling dew. We sleepily wandered out onto the terrace, clutching mugs of coffee. There are some places in the world where easing into the day is gentler.

Today we were ready to leap into our first truly sweaty dance class! The Double Bill is a perfect blend of cardio (Allegro Ballet Bootcamp) and sculpting (Développé Ballet Sculpt), designed to get bodies jumping, spinning and kicking for the first half, followed by a smooth transition into controlled muscular conditioning. Apprehensive as we were to dig into those quads and hamstrings after our previous day climbing the Sintra mountain, it soon became clear that this was the best possible remedy for stiffness. We pirouetted our way happily out of the class and into a morning of luxurious lounging by the pool.

Our sunny dispositions carried us into a likewise sunny afternoon of surfing, and today we were not only met with golden rays, but perfect conditions.  With the first day on the water under our belts and fear of the unknown vanquished, we were ready to tackle those waves. And tackle we did! Our photo album tells the tale: the group was popping up as confidently as we had leapt off the floor in the studio.

Soggy, proud and salty, we hoisted those boards back onto the vans and rewarded ourselves with beachside cocktails. There’s nothing like washing the saltwater out of the lungs with a big, fat glass of sangria.

Dinner that night continued a trend that had begun from our first meal together. After each day of discovery, determination and adventure, our dinner table conversations seemed to somehow get longer and longer… Gather a fabulous group of women around a delicious meal, throw in free flowing vino verde, and the tales spin further into the night. Fatigue from a full day of exercise was dismissed as we laughed and commiserated for hours. Time ceased to exist.

One guest summed it up perfectly when she said she believed the muscles we exercised the most that week were the cheeks, because we never stopped laughing.

Portugal Diary:  DAY FIVE

Hump day at Pointe Break is always marked by a decadent ‘day off’ (no dance or surf) excursion, with endless surprises.

Our day trip to Lisbon began with a culinary dream- a custard one.  Arriving first in Belem, we had our priorities straight as we marched immediately to the oldest, most famous pastry shop known world wide for its ‘pasteis de nata’ (egg tarts).  These billowy, golden mouthfuls, still warm from the oven, were our introduction to a Portuguese treat so beloved it can be found at almost every street corner, tempting passersby from window trays piled high and decorating the glass with sweet steam. After checking out the century old baking process carefully nurtured at  Pasteis de Belem, we carried our precious cargo to the park across the street to discover why the fuss.  It was a good start to the day.

Fully awake now and peaking with cream and sugar, we made our way towards Lisbon central, stopping first to admire the Belem Tower, then following the cobble stone streets lining the Tagus River. Any day of luxury for women involves at some point a little shopping, and our next stop was LX Factory, a charming hipster paradise in the heart of the city. We dispersed into artisan shops and fashion boutiques bursting with cork design, and emerged in time to step through the doors of what is universally known as the world’s best piece of chocolate cake. Landeau Chocolate did not disappoint. Anyone who professes to be a true chocolate connoisseur cannot maintain this badge if they don’t pay a visit here in their lifetime.

If there’s anything a little sugar can do well, it’s awaken an appetite, which meant we had planned our next stop perfectly: Time Out Market. Torontonians will liken this massive wharf side industrial food haven to St. Lawrence Market. They would be correct, except double it in size and throw in seafood from a country that can confidently boast its catch as some of the best and varied in the world. The best part of this taste adventure was the ability to load up on tapas size plates in order to sample a little of everything, from inky black squid pasta to softly steamed cod fish to crispy crab cakes. All to wash down with a liberal pour of our fave, vino verde.

Moving slowly back out onto the street, we knew it was time to walk. No better than the steep, tram lined streets of Alfama and Bairro Alto to climb off our morning of culinary indulgence! There’s something about hiking through neighbourhoods with great friends that makes you forget how many kilometres you’ve covered or how steep the hill may be. We browsed, photo documented, sampled, and explored our way around every bend, stopping to try shots of gingha (cherry liquor) or purchase soft leather gloves from a tiny glove store circa 1925, that only served one customer at a time at its closet sized counter. Lisbon is a city that defies description. It is colourful, vibrant, elegant, and steeped in culture and history. And it somehow pulls it all off without any air of superiority.

The sun was starting to drop towards the horizon as we made one last stop before our dinner reservation in Chiado. Climbing all the way to the top of the classic Hotel Mundial, we emerged onto one of Lisbon’s famed rooftop patios, with the most spectacular view I had ever seen. With a full 360 degree bird’s eye view of the city, we sat below only one point, none other than the Castle Sao Jorge. The setting sun reflected off it’s turreted ramparts as we raised our glasses in silent admiration, then grooved to an impossibly cool soundtrack which floated out into the evening and blanketed the streets below.

With our bellies full after yet another journey into Portugal’s divine cuisine at Xapuri Bistro, we dozed our way home to our idyllic country home. In true Pointe Break fashion, the night was capped off with a scene of spontaneous hilarity, as our driver decided to curate a playlist of only tunes by ABBA, to which he sang along and insisted we join in. We pulled into the driveway of Buddha Retreats, a van load of tired women clapping in unison and belting Fernando into the moonlight.

___ Jennifer Nichols

Stay tuned for the final instalment of our Portugal diary…

THE FINE PRINT:  Under the Surface.  Above the Noise.

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