I used to have a phobia of birds. I’m over it now, but when I first heard that Berlenga Island was a nature reserve with a huge seagull population, I had misgivings about going there. Curiosity and a few glowing reports of its natural beauty eventually got the better of me so I took a friend to see what all the fuss is about.
Was it worth going? The short answer is yes!
Important update: From 1st June 2022, there’s a limit of 550 people on the island at any one time so you’ll need to get a licence and pay for a pass from the ICNF website. To be honest with you, while checking to see how easy this is to accomplish, I gave up after registering as a user and being asked to input a whole page of details.
It would be much easier to visit Berlenga as an organised day trip from Lisbon. Click on a tour for more details and availability.
Ferries from Peniche to Berlengas
During the summer season, which is roughly the end of May to mid-September, several boat companies offer a ferry service from Peniche Marina to Berlenga, the main island in the group. If you’re visiting in peak periods, it’s probably a good idea to make a reservation online or buy a ticket in advance from one of the cabins at the marina.
We went with Viamar, joining a rowdy party of possibly Romanian tourists. At the start of the voyage, the men were showing off and kidding around. That didn’t last for long. As we left the weird rock formations of Peniche behind, the violent lurches of the ferry forced everyone to cling on to their seats. No wonder the boats don’t run in winter! I didn’t mind the rocking too much; it reminded me of a roller coaster ride in the rain. If you suffer from seasickness, however, take tablets before you travel.
The views of colourful craggy cliffs on arrival compensated for the choppy ride, as did the turquoise waters of the bay we docked in. By this point, we were more than happy to see the tour group disappearing up the hill towards the café, leaving us to share the tiny beach with the seagulls while we ate our sandwiches. If you go to the beach, make sure you check where you’re putting your stuff as the sand is covered in seagull crap.
The clear water looked inviting and the beach is sheltered but we’re talking Atlantic Ocean in May here. Neither of us were brave or hot enough for more than a quick paddle.
Walking on Berlenga Island
The whole island is a nature reserve and home to several protected species of birds and plants. For this reason, you shouldn’t stray from the marked paths.
We wouldn’t have dared, even if tempted.
The seagulls we passed looked and sounded quite menacing, largely because they were protecting their eggs. Be aware that with this many seagulls, the chances of getting splattered by one is high.
We didn’t have time to walk all of the trails on the island but we dutifully climbed down and then, much more slowly, back up the steps to the fort of St John the Baptist. If you’re looking for photo opportunities, this is the place to come. The walkway out the the fort takes you past arches, coves and enticingly clear water with little motor boats bobbing patiently.
The highlight for me was the last section we walked. After struggling back up from the fort, we decided to explore a little further and discovered a gorgeous landscape covered with golden grasses, strange yellow tree-like flowers and pinky purple ones. On one side of the island, several islets rose out of the glistening water and on the other, we could see some impressive caves.
Other things to do on Berlengas
We had four hours on the island, which was plenty of time for a bite to eat and a pleasant walk but not enough to take a trip on one of the glass-bottomed boats that take you along the coastline to explore the various caves.
Had it been more obvious when trips were due to depart, we might have tried to work around it but we were happy enough with our walk. In the height of summer, boat trips are much more frequent.
There are apparently several sunken wrecks around the island, despite its lighthouse, making diving an intriguing option. You can also go snorkelling, either by bringing your own gear or through a tour operator. Stand up paddling, kayaking and dolphin watching can be arranged in advance, too.
Eating, drinking and sleeping on Berlenga
This is a nature reserve with extremely limited services. There is a café restaurant called Mar e Sol near the harbour, and I believe there is now one inside the fort. Other than that, you’ll need to bring your own supplies and preferably take your rubbish home with you.
You can stay overnight if you arrange it well in advance. There’s a municipal campsite and a few rooms at the restaurant. I’m not sure what the current situation is with the fort. When I visited, it was being done up but I haven’t been able to find out what, if any, accommodation it now provides.
Other options for exploring the Silver Coast
Looking for a Portugal guide book?
Click on the links below to see my top picks via Amazon
My first choice would be a DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Portugal, partly because I’ve contributed to them in the past and partly because I like the pictures, maps and layout.
The Frommer’s Portugal Guide is written by two well-respected journalists who live in the Lisbon area, one Portuguese and the other British. Having met them both, I would certainly trust their recommendations.
I also like Rough Guides’ approach to travel guides and their Portugal travel guide is no exception.
As for Portuguese phrasebooks, the best of the bunch is probably the Lonely Planet Portuguese Phrasebook & Dictionary, which has sections on eating and drinking as well as all the functional language you’d expect and help with pronunciation.
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