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The Immerso hotel is one of the recently opened luxury hotels in and around the Portuguese surf mecca of Ericeira. Photo: Hotel Immerso

The sleepy Portuguese surf town turned luxury travel hotspot – could it attract the likes of Barack Obama and Kendall Jenner to hang 10?

  • Ericeira’s evolution over the past decade from quaint fishing community to surfing hub has brought hostels and yoga – but no luxury amenities, until now
  • Seeing a gap in the market, hoteliers have opened high-end lodgings to cater to a breed of well-heeled surfers that includes Barack Obama and Richard Branson

A laid-back surfing destination along Portugal’s rugged coastline is getting a luxury upgrade.

Once frequented mostly by Lisbon residents looking to escape the city, the historic village of Ericeira is the latest seaside village to be discovered by foreigners who have come to Portugal to live, work remotely or holiday.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic began, tourism in Portugal was on a steady rise, with more than 27 million visitors in 2019, according to the country’s tourism board.

Now, a wave of Americans and others with the ability to work from anywhere are moving to Portugal, taking advantage of its golden visa programme and driving up home prices. Starting this month, a new digital nomad visa will give remote workers even more flexibility.

The Portuguese fishing village of Ericeira is located around 45 minutes’ drive from Lisbon. Photo: Getty Images
Ericeira, which is 45 minutes’ drive north of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, and with just over 12,000 residents, looks like many of the country’s seaside villages – with rocky cliffs, tranquil bays, low-lying whitewashed homes, and a main plaza with cobbled streets and walls adorned with azulejo tiles.

Ericeira’s eight kilometres (five miles) of shoreline has long since made it a place where surfers of all skill levels enjoy the variety of breaks.

Ericeira’s quiet, cobbled village square is typical of Portugal’s seaside villages. Photo: Getty Images

In 2011, the destination itself had its own big break. It was named a world surfing reserve by Save the Waves, a non-profit organisation that aims to preserve beach destinations with particularly spectacular surf zones.

What followed was a decade of contained development and an increase in surfers making a beeline for the village. It now hosts surf competitions, including Quiksilver Pro Portugal – a major contest on the pro circuit.

The village became home to a smattering of surf schools and camps, juice bars, yoga studios and stores selling surf brands like Billabong, as well as ocean-facing hostels for surfing nomads. Residents and investors turned local houses into long-term-stay villas.

Ericeira’s eight kilometres of coastline have long made it attractive to surfers. Photo: Getty Images

What it didn’t have, however, was luxury places to stay – until now.

You might think of surfers as beach bums happy to camp in a tent on the beach or even the back of a van. Now though, the sport has matured and there are plenty of well-heeled, white-collar participants.

Everyone from Barack Obama and Richard Branson to Kendall Jenner surf. They want their long days of hanging 10 to end with an evening at a fancy hotel with luxury amenities.

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“Today the people who surf are like me: they have families, they have jobs, and they have money to put into great surf vacations,” says Gonçalo Menezes, creative art director at Inspire Capital, a Lisbon-based investment firm that in June opened a luxury hotel in Ericeira.

The hotel, Immerso, has 37 rooms spread across three buildings discreetly staggered into a valley about a mile away from the powerful waves that pound Coxos Beach, and two kilometres from the heart of central Ericeira.

“I’ve surfed Ericeira for a long time, and I thought it has the potential to be the next Biarritz [a surfing hotspot in southwest France],” says Menezes, who lived in Lisbon but moved to the village.

Great views and conditions for surfing have made Ericeira a popular holiday destination for some time. Photo: Getty Images

Menezes says he recognised this opportunity to open Ericeira’s first five-star hotel because he saw how the demographics that make up the surfing community have evolved. In places like France and the Maldives, he saw his fellow surfers booking up the area’s most expensive hotels.

Another hotel, Aethos Ericeira, opened on September 1, about five kilometres north of Immerso on a 40-metre-high (130-foot) limestone cliff near family-friendly Calada beach.

Benjamin Habbel, co-founder of Germany-based chain Aethos Hotels, says he and his partners were originally looking to plant their flag in Lisbon, hoping to take advantage of the buzz that has surrounded the capital in the last decade. But finding a nearly finished, abandoned project in Ericeira changed their mind.

Aethos Ericeira affords 180-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean. Photo: Aethos Ericeira

“You have this property on a cliff with 180-degree views of the ocean – it’s something you’re not really going to be allowed to build here any more,” he says of the perch that Aethos now calls home.

Originally planned for a rehab facility in the village of Encarnacão, the building’s blueprint was perfectly suited for a hotel. There were already rooms and common areas.

Habbel says they just needed to do the hard work of tweaking it all to accommodate the specific plans they had for Aethos: a double-height lobby, 50 rooms, a heated saltwater pool, a Turkish bath, a yoga and meditation deck, and an indoor-outdoor restaurant overseen by Portuguese chef Afonso Blazquez.

New hotels like Aethos Ericeira are adding an upscale dimension to the surfing mecca of Ericeira. Photo: Aethos Ericeira

The laundry list of amenities is a major upgrade from the more limited options that were offered in the surf hostels around town.

But Habbel says this is exactly what the modern surfer is looking for, echoing Menezes’ earlier sentiments.

“The surf community is now attracting segments that may not have previously been part of that world.

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“What we were seeing is that surfers aren’t just beach nomads travelling around in Volkswagen vans.”

While Immerso has the look and feel of a more traditional luxury product, Aethos is aiming to be an upscale hotel that could appeal to surf lovers of every ilk.

Joana Andrade, Portugal’s first big-wave female surfer, is the hotel’s partner for surf lessons. A three-hour class costs €56 (US$55).

A group of surfers in Ericeira, going for a sunset surf session. Photo: Getty images

“We definitely have the amenities, design and service that would place us in a more luxury lifestyle category, but we liked the idea of gathering into one place the diversity of the surf community,” Habbel says of the hotel, done in a mash-up of mid-century, art deco and beach-chic design.

“We have bunk-bed rooms for surfers who might be on a lower budget all the way up to larger suites with balconies that look out to the most amazing views.” The bunk-bed rooms start at €162 per night for up to four people and larger suites start at €274 per night.

The opening of these two hotels add a long-missing layer of high-end hospitality to this surf town. Their dining concepts have the potential to become destination restaurants.

A view from Ericeira at sunset. Photo: Getty Images

They are joining a growing band of high-quality outfits that have recently popped up in and around Ericeira.

Ummi, an organic, gluten-free hard kombucha outfit, was just founded here. 5 e Meio is a new craft beer taproom. There’s Indigo, a beachside hang-out that has become the go-to for sunset cocktails. And Terco do Meio is a vegan-friendly sourdough bakery.

Most of these would have been unheard of in Ericeira five years ago. So while these hotel openings might be expediting the journey, the direction Ericeira is slowly heading was written in the sand almost as soon as that World Surfing Reserve designation was announced.

And there is already talk of more development to come. With every new opening, Menezes says, “Ericeira is writing a new story.”