woman and donkey hiking eco trekking trail in cascais portugalLooking to go hiking in Portugal? A new eco-trekking trail through Quinta do Pisão nature park in Cascais, Portugal, offers sun, sea and spectacular sights, as WF writer Mary Comber discovers…

‘Come on, Mel!’ I call to my hiking buddy. ‘Not far to go now!’ It’s a glorious, summer’s morning in Cascais, Portugal. We’re trekking through Quinta do Pisão nature park, heading for our glamping spot where lunch awaits.

Mel, however, seems more interested in foraging for snacks in the flower-strewn hedgerows. ‘Oh well,’ I think. ‘She is carrying my pack and it must be hot work in that fur coat.’ Mel, you see, is a Miranda donkey or ‘Burro de Mirandesa’, one of a lucky group of this endangered breed that lives protected in the park, helping manage the pastures (thanks to the donkeys’ huge appetite for shrubby fodder). They also provide trusty trekking partners for us hikers.

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Hiking in Portugal: new eco-trekking trail

Today, we’re walking one section of a new, three-day trekking tour, The West Route. This takes you from Portugal’s wild Atlantic coast up through Quinto do Pisão to the misty Sintra mountains. Once an abandoned wasteland, this beautiful wilderness has been transformed into a thriving ecosystem. There’s forestry, traditional farming, beehives and rewilding zones where wild horses and deer roam.

At the heart of the Portgual park, is a network of 15 nature trails perfect for hiking, horse riding, biking and birdwatching. ‘Hunters used to walk up from the coast to track wolves and bears here,’ says our guide Joao.

These days, the wildlife en route is a little tamer. You can try your hand at beekeeping, help park rangers tend sheep and donkeys, monitor fauna with local biologists, go horse riding or get a bird’s eye view on a canopy trail. The rangers create beautiful, eco-friendly glamping spots for you, complete with local cuisine. And, if you ask the donkeys nicely, they’ll carry your bags through the park.

‘You and the donkey work together,’ says Joao. ‘They’ll treat you as you treat them.’ Bearing this in mind, I coax Mel away from the hedgerow with the promise of picnic treats. ‘Keep to the middle of the track where there’s less temptation,’ advises Joao. Off we set again, strolling past fields of poppies, the Atlantic Ocean shimmering on the horizon, and through wooded rewilding zones where wild horses eye us warily.

Just in time for lunch, we reach our glamping spot, complete with sweeping 360-degree views and a delicious Portuguese picnic – cheese and veg pastries, olive and tuna buns, zesty meringue and fresh fruit. We’re busy tucking in when we realise a crowd of hopeful Miranda donkeys has gathered. There’s Galo or ‘potbelly’, Zorro ‘the most beautiful’, Torrao ‘father of many donkeys’… they’re adorable and we’re sad to leave them when we head back to Cascais, our base for the weekend.

cascais town centre

Exploring Cascais, Portugal

Known as the ‘Charm of the Atlantic coast’ and just a 30-minute train ride from Lisbon, Cascais, is the perfect, stylish seaside resort. A popular 19th century retreat for European royalty, the former fishing village blends grand villas with a laid-back vibe and all the culture, history and delicious seafood you could want. Year-round sunshine and fresh winds make it a mecca for surfing and outdoor activities.

We’ve already spent a fun-packed day exploring this vibrant town. We scaled the historic Farol de Santa Marta lighthouse. First, we strolled along its stunning, sandy beaches buzzing with beach volleyball, surf lessons and paddle boarding. Then, we feasted on fresh fish at beachside restaurant, Azimut.

Next, we meandered through the old town, admiring its beautiful tiled pavements, purple jacaranda blossoms, chic boutiques and rustic bars. Lastly, we rounded off the day whizzing along the dramatic coastline by boat, glimpsing Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth), a dramatic natural rock formation where waves crash through with thundering power.

Sea & spa at Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel and Spa

Our hotel, the five-star Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel and Spa (realhotelsgroup.com) offers stunning ocean views, a sleek seawater pool perfect for a morning dip, a breakfast spread fit for a king (the hotel is former residence of the exiled, last King of Italy) and, joy, a spa.

After a long day of hiking in Portugal, I sink into the thalassotherapy pool, feeling the heated seawater and massage jets easing my muscles. Also recommended is the spa’s signature massage with heated Portuguese cabacas (giant gourds), great for lymphatic drainage.

Revitalised, we head into town, to cool bar Taberna Clandestina where we dine al-fresco on mouthwatering petiscos (Portuguese-style tapas) including salt cod croquetes, octopus with roast potatoes, and crispy shrimp with mango salsa.

Experience the magic mountains of Sintra

We can’t leave Cascais without visiting Sintra, medieval town of mists, forests and fairy-tale palaces, a 30-minute drive into the hills. It’s every bit as magical as we hoped. First stop is Casa Piriquita, a tiny bakery that’s been serving divine puff-pastry pillows (travesseiros) filled with almond cream since 1862.

On a sugar high, we explore the exotic gardens of Palácio de Monserrate, then wow at its exquisite interiors. Driving the coastal route back to Cascais, we spot stunning surf beach Praia do Guincho then walk along the rugged cliffs of Cabo da Roca, Europe’s most westerly point, buffeted by the winds as we watch the waves crashing below.

Totally invigorated by the huge skies and glittering sea, we vow to come back and explore this exciting region again. And maybe next time I’ll learn to surf.

beach at sunset hiking in portugal

Travel facts:

  • Mary flew to Lisbon with TAP Air Portugal*; visit flytap.com
  • The all-inclusive West Route package costs from approx £416 per person a night, including food, glamping and three activities; visitcascais.com
  • For tours of Cascais and Sintra, visit shortcutstourism.com
  • For boat trips, visit aquastart.pt

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