Cascais, home of Carcavelos beach

Editor’s Note: Diary from Portugal is a series from trip around Portugal with Ace Buchan, Mikey February, Pedro Boonman, Clay Marzo, and, on occasion, Nic von Rupp and Adriano de Souza. It was made possible by The Perfect Chapter and Visit Portugal. This is the first installment. 


“It’s firing,” Rui said, staring out at the sea with a sort of awed smile on his face. His arms were crossed, hugging his chest against the cold morning wind. It was early still, but the contest was on. Really, really on. The contest is the Perfect Chapter, a one-day invite-only event that, for my money, is one of the best in the world. That’s because it runs on the best day of the Portuguese winter, and Rui Costa is incredibly picky about which day that will be. This year, he nailed it.

Somewhere around 72 hours ago from the time of this writing, I left my house on Vancouver Island at 4 a.m. There was a pile of fresh snow on the ground, and the plows hadn’t made their way to our area yet. After 30-odd hours of travel made worse by a debilitating inability to sleep in public, I arrived in Lisbon. I found Clay Marzo there in the airport, lying on his back with a hand over his eyes among his bags behind a pillar at the airport.

He’d come from Maui with his partner Leilani, who looked weirdly fresh-faced for just having traveled from Maui to L.A. to London to Lisbon. Our driver Carlos, a friendly guy with gold rimmed glasses and an iPad letting us know he was indeed our driver, told us we were waiting on Mikey February, who, by the grace of God, only had a quick flight from France. It had almost landed, but was forced to skim the runway before picking up again to circle around a few times, thanks to some mixup by air traffic control. Eventually, he breezed out of the terminal, moving with the same easy grace and quiet confidence on land as he does in the water.

We all piled in the van and began the 40-minute drive to Cascais, a stunning little town to the west of Lisbon. The other surfers, aside from a handful of late-comers, had already arrived at the Oitavos Hotel, which sits on top of one of the most amazing golf courses I’ve ever laid eyes on. Not too difficult, not too narrow, and relatively forgiving. A wonderful little links course that, after shooting 18 this morning, required that I shoot another 18 holes after a plate of ceviche and a couple of mojitos. According to my phone, 36 holes adds up to about 30,000 steps and according to my face, one hell of a sunburn. From the balcony of my room, the ocean, and the waves that the surfers are here to compete in – and I’m here to watch them compete in – looked close enough to spit into.

Cascais is, as I’ve said before, everything you’ve ever wanted in a surf town, and I am exceedingly happy to be back here. In the morning, after one of those weird sleep/no sleep sleeps that seem only to come when one has had too much to drink or has found themselves in a different time zone having had too much drink, my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. It’s a terrible time, unless one has something fun to do. Which, thankfully, I did. In the lobby, standing around piles of surfboards strewn haphazardly on the tiles, I found a few of the surfers.

Mikey was there, as was Clay. Torrey Meister and his dad too, a ridiculously nice man with sun-baked blue eyes, long greying hair, and a perpetual smile who looks exactly like Torrey will when he’s older. Genetics are crazy. William Aliotti and a few others milled about, waiting for the Oitavos breakfast buffet. Which, by the way, beats the living hell out of all other breakfast buffets on the planet. All looked tired but excited. I asked Aliotti whether he felt nervous for the contest, as I imagined I would. He sort of shrugged. “I was nervous the first time I came here,” he told me from deep in a lobby couch. “It was at Nazaré and I’d never surfed there. I didn’t sleep all night.” Luckily, he explained, it wasn’t the Nazaré most of the non-surfing world knows. Instead, it was just perfect a-frames off the beach instead of in front of the cliff.

When we arrived at the contest site, it was immediately clear that Rui, once again, had made the right call. The waves were incredible. The current ripped along the shore like an angry conveyor belt, and the sun was just over the horizon enough to turn the sky that cloud-dependent dusky shade of purple that only happens at sunrise and sunset. The contest flags waved at us in the offshore breeze, and already the lineup down the way from the contest site was full of free surfers. The locals here at Carcavelos rip very hard. It was, in fact, 11:44 a.m. before I saw someone bang out a turn. The rest of the waves I saw were all barrels, followed by either dramatic kick outs or even more dramatic closeouts. Carcavelos locals are not afraid to pack one.

I watched a handful of waves in the first heat, then decided to get the lay of the land and shake the jet lag from behind my eyeballs. Covering a surf contest can be hard from the beach. It’s hard to see who’s who and it’s hard to hear the announcers telling the spectators who, in fact, is who. So I walked. First under the bridge and into the town, where I bought a bag of nuts and a bottle of water. Then, just… around, stretching my legs and my airplane-kinked back and filling my lungs with something pleasant in the air that mixed with the smell of the sea. Maybe it was jasmine, but I couldn’t say for sure.

I got lost, which was nice. I walked past little cafes with handsome men in perfectly-tailored pants smoking cigarettes and drinking espressos. I walked past beautiful women, their heels clicking on the cobblestones. I walked past another grocery store with mounds of fresh, whole carapau pequeno sitting on ice.

The morning was a cold one, but the sun felt nice on my face after months on end of dreary Vancouver Island weather. An hour or so later, with cashews stuck in my teeth, I found my way back and sat down to have a couple of eggs on toast with bacon and avocado. I also ordered a caipirinha, which either helped the jet lag or made it worse. Sitting down with my drink at a sunny little table that looked into the guts of the left-hand barrels, I watched as Aritz Aranburu came screaming out one of the craziest barrels I’ve seen first-hand. He was awarded a 9.5 for his efforts. It was a score that, I thought at the time, was a little light. I thought that it should have been a 10, until I saw what Nic von Rupp would do later on. Then I was glad the judges left that half-point on the table, just in case.

Beyond the contest zone, mountainous waves were breaking halfway to the horizon. Cargo ships tried desperately to navigate them, their bows leaping from the sea before crashing back down in a spray of foam visible from the beach. There must be some kind of reef out there, because the waves, even from that distance, looked enormous. In front was a near-constant stream of whistling men pushing kegs of Superbock on chipped red dollies. In between, the backwash threw itself back to sea before colliding violently with its beginnings in a blue-green fan reaching upwards to the mottled grey clouds. Little kids with rolled up pants played soccer in the sand while kicking each other mercilessly in the shins and throwing sand at each other. Every thing felt very… Portugal.

Before the day was done, I returned to the hotel. That meant I missed the final and the celebrations afterward, but I returned because first is best in the internet world. I hated to sit in my hotel watching Nic von Rupp getting chaired up the beach through my 13.5 inch screen, but c’est la vie.

In the next few days, we’ll be heading to a different zone. To Oeste, with its Bacalhau (com natas, of course) and its octopus and its Pastéis de nata. To Peniche, home of a glut of amazing waves. Then north to the land of severely uncrowded waves for a few days before heading over to Duoro. Then Lisbon and back home to the snow that’s been steadily falling all week. I miss my dogs and my fiancé, so I’m looking forward to it, but it will be a good week, to say the least. It’s hard to have a bad week in Portugal. If you haven’t been here… come. Come as soon as you can. Because even if it’s not firing, Portugal is, for my money, the best place in the world.