The Berlengas Islands! Now You See Them, Now You Don’t!
On a clear day, we can see the Berlengas archipelago from our bedroom window in our home on the Silver Coast in Central Portugal. Sometimes the islands look so close, you can clearly see the rock formations and the lighthouse; yet on many days, the islands are completely invisible, shrouded in a thick sea fog. We had heard from many sources that the Berlengas Islands were beautiful and we had wanted to visit them for ages but one thing was stopping us – me! I’m not good on boats, well ok on riverboats and canal boats but on oceans, and in particular a boat ride on the unpredictable ever-changing moods of the Atlantic Ocean, no way! But on one day in mid-October, the Atlantic Ocean was surprisingly calm!
The Berlengas Archipelago
The small, rugged islands of the Berlengas are located roughly six miles (10 kilometres) off the coast of Peniche, Portugal. The archipelago consists of three islands – Berlenga Grande, Estelas and Farilhoes. They are uninhabited, unless you count the summer tourists, the lighthouse keepers and millions of seabirds- seagulls, and cormorants. The islands are a nature reserve (Reserva Natural das Berlengas) and a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Not only are the islands protected, but so are the surrounding waters.
A Little History About The Berlengas
The island of Berlenga Grande was the only island in the archipelago to ever have been inhabited. During the 16th century, there was a monastery on the island founded by the monks of the Jeronimos Order. The monastery was originally built to help with navigation and offer assistance to the many shipwreck victims. However, with constant food shortages, pirate attacks, diseases, the monks were forced to abandon their lifestyle and in the mid-1600’s the monastery was demolished.
The São João Baptista Fort
The São João Baptista fort is located on Berlenga Grande Island. It was constructed in 1651 from the stones of the old monastery. The fort was built to prevent the islands being occupied by the Spanish and pirates from North Africa. A garrison of twenty men lived there.
The fort, abandoned in 1847, is connected to the island by a narrow, uneven path. The fort was renovated in the middle of the 20th century and now provides accommodation for summer visitors. See below.
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The Duke Of Braganca Lighthouse On Berlenga Grande Island (Ilha da Berlenga)
The lighthouse (Farol Duque de Braganca) on Berlanga Grande was built in 1840 and is located at the highest point on the island. Before electric power came to the island in 1926, the lighthouse was fueled by olive oil, and then oil. Now it is operated by solar power and can be seen up to 30 miles (50 kms) away, such as from our home!
Walking Trails On The Berlengas Islands
There are a series of walking trails in the Berlengas Nature Reserve on Berlenga Grande, that will allow you to explore the whole island. Although the paths are clearly defined, many are just rocky dirt paths so wear proper walking shoes. Do keep to the trails, as the island is a nature reserve and a safe haven for many species of birds and plants. The island of Berlenga Grande isn’t too big though, it’s less than one mile (1.5 km) long and only half a mile wide (800m) wide. However, the walk up and down the steps to the São João Baptista Fort is a little bit steep and has no guard rails!
BirdWatching On The Berlengas Islands
For bird lovers, the Berlengas Islands are home to colonies of crested cormorants, gull-hawks, peregrine falcons and millions of seagulls!
Is There A Beach On The Berlengas?
Yes, there is. There’s a small, pretty sandy beach. It’s a good place to go snorkelling but remember this is the cold Atlantic Ocean not the balmy waters of the Caribbean. And watch out for seagull poo!!!!
Other Activities Available In The Berlangas Archipelago
Visit the caves in a glass-bottom boat.
If you like cold water scuba diving, there are many sunken wrecks around the island. These activities should be booked in advance or at one of the many ticket booths at Peniche Marina.
Where To Eat On The Berlengas
There are a couple of places to grab a snack or have a bite to eat on the island. One by the harbour and one in the fort. The food is a little bit overpriced and not the best food in the world. Our advice is to bring a picnic with you but remember to take your rubbish home!
How To Get To The Berlengas Islands
Ferries depart from the fishing town of Peniche, located about an hour north of Lisbon to Berlenga Grande. They only operate during the summer months from Peniche Marina to Berlenga which according to most websites, means from mid-May to mid-September. We took a day trip there by boat in mid-October. I guess if the weather is good, it’s worth visiting the ticket offices at the marina in Peniche to find out if there are any boat trips going across that day. When we spoke to the boat companies, they said they would probably be still taking small tours out to the Berlengas until the end of October -weather permitting. Round-trip ferry cost €20 per person, €22,50 in August.
Note: The boat crossing to Berlenga Grande can be rather rough. You know it’s going to be bad when they hand out plastic bags as you board. If you suffer from seasickness, bring tablets or wait for better weather.
Express buses with Rede Expressos go to Peniche from Lisbon’s Sete Rios Bus Station. The journey time from Lisbon to Peniche is 90 minutes and costs €8,60 per person.
Accommodation On Berlenga Island
Although most people visit the islands as part of a day trip, it is possible to stay overnight on Berlenga Grande (Grande Island). As the island is part of a nature reserve (Reserva Natural), accommodation is very limited.
There are only three options for places to stay.
- Fort of Saint John the Baptist (Sao Joao Baptista). The fort can accommodate 50 people in dorms and costs just twenty euros per person. Don’t expect luxury. Linens are provided and you will need to book in advance to get a bed here. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Sea & Sun Pavilion ( Pavilhão Mar e Sol) has six double rooms with private bathrooms and costs 75 euros per couple.
- Berlenga Campsite – It’s also possible to camp within the nature reserve. Space is limited and costs around eight euros. Contact the Peniche Tourist Office for an up to date price list and to make a reservation. Email: email@example.com)
Top Tips For Visiting The Islands
- Do wear comfortable walking shoes
- Stick to the island trails
- Don’t disturb the local flora and fauna
- Bring water and sunscreen
- Don’t forget your camera
- Flying a drone requires special permission
- If you plan to stay the night, book your accommodation in advance.