Point and steer

A houseboat in the Alentejo sun is a mobile family playground, writes Sally Weale.

I am not entirely new to boats. I've taken ferries, I nearly killed myself in a canoe on the Ardeche, I've spent time on a Turkish gulet, I've done feluccas in Egypt and I had a week on a barge on the England and Wales border. I have discovered I rather like boats: I like the portholes, compact kitchens and cooking on the move. In fact, I like boats so much I'm seriously considering buying one and making a new life on the water.

So, a recent trip to Portugal including a few days on a houseboat on an enormous reservoir in the middle of nowhere is a perfect opportunity to test my "sea" legs. Even better, this boat comes with sunshine and a swimming pool and without locks, tunnels or horizontal rain (though I like all that, too). The trickiest element, apart from the chemical toilet (of which more later), is parking the thing but then I find that difficult in a Nissan Micra.

As my children grow older, there are many joys but one of the small sadnesses is that they are not quite so easily pleased. Whether it's packed lunches, T-shirts, birthday parties or holidays, they now have their own strongly held views. There was a time when they were thrilled to spend a week with us anywhere. Now holidays have to be carefully negotiated around friends, girlfriends, sporting events and parties. At home we rarely spend all day together, just the four of us. And while I like boats, do they? How will we fare on a cramped motorboat on a deserted reservoir?

But that was before I'd seen the reservoir. Alqueva Lake, in the unspoilt Alentejo region of southern Portugal, is the largest lake in the country, covering a surface area of 250 square kilometres and is 83 kilometres from end to end. It was created in 2002 after the Alqueva dam was built on the Guadiana River to irrigate the impoverished and arid Alentejo. Locals were promised much from its construction. Something might still come about but probably not enough and not quickly enough for the poorest part of a country in an economic mess.

The Alentejo covers one-third of the country and is its least populated region. As you pass through, by car or on water, what strikes you is its emptiness - it's a vast, barren, unchanged and unchanging landscape. There is little development; just a few isolated villages and stunted trees.

For travellers, this is one of its great pleasures. The only tourists we meet are an English couple who had been on a boat for two weeks. He's a keen fisherman, crates of Super Bock piled up next to the rods. I have no idea how she kept herself entertained: maybe she was a keen open-water swimmer.

But for a few days, with a couple of kids, it is the most brilliant fun. The boat - worth €150,000 ($195,000) - is a mobile playground. We all want to be captain and fight to be at the wheel. We all love the GPS and the sonar system, which shows depth of water and obstacles, including large shoals of fish. It's lovely to be out on the water, self-contained and independent.

We motor gently down the length of the lake, travelling about eight knots, which feels very slow when the sun is setting and you're struggling to reach the next jetty to moor for the night, but super-fast if you're swimming and your family think it's funny to cruise away without you. Really, though, these boats are incredibly sedate - no driving licence or sailing experience is needed - and virtually without risk.

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The nearest we come to disaster is on our first day when we radically underestimate the time it will take to reach our destination. The light begins to fail and there's no coaxing this boat to go any faster. I don't think you're meant to travel at night and the advice is not to drop anchor in the middle of the lake because there's a flooded village and who knows what else down below. (Of course, we make it to the next jetty and then have a spectacular row as we try to park.)

Mapped from above, we probably steer a peculiar course but it's fun. If the youngest is driving, we go in 360-degree spins just for the hell of it; the older boy takes it much more seriously, while all the time listening to Portuguese radio at full blast. We often stop to hurl ourselves into the water, which is clean and warm. We all love the kayaks that we pull behind us, often with the boys in them, being towed like mini banana boats.

We could have taken bikes, which might have been useful for exploring - villages that long pre-date the lake are quite a way from its shores. We take fishing rods but don't catch a thing, despite one night seeing hundreds of fish surfacing in a seething mass of plops and splashes. There is sailing and water-skiing from the Amieira Marina (our youngest has a go at wakeboarding) and there are visits to nearby villages. Marina staff help with taxis and activities - they'll even do your shopping for you.

We eat well - at the restaurant at Amieira Marina and at a fantastic former olive-oil factory called Sem Fim on the outskirts of fortified Monsaraz, where the food is delicious, wholesome and hearty and the setting is even better. We spend a day in Evora, one of Portugal's best-preserved mediaeval towns, with its Aqueduto da Agua de Prata (aqueduct of silver water) and its Capela dos Ossos, a macabre chapel built by 17th-century Franciscan monks entirely out of bones and skulls as a memento mori, or reminder of death.

A new charter flight from Heathrow to Beja airport in the Alentejo has opened up an area widely described as a hidden gem and it really does feel like that.

Ah, the toilet. Yes, the boat comes with all mod cons. Television, shower, fridge, barbecue - and chemical loo. I didn't quite conquer it. You turn the handle this way and that; water comes, water goes, things disappear and then they reappear. I just didn't get it. I am famously squeamish about this sort of thing, so it is some measure of the joyousness of this holiday that even the primitive loo could not put me off.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Lufthansa has a fare to Lisbon for about $2500 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. You fly a partner airline to Singapore (8hr), then Lufthansa to Frankfurt (13hr), then to Lisbon (3hr). From Lisbon to the town of Beja is about 150 kilometres by road.

Boating there

Amieira Marina has boats that sleep between two and 12. The four-berth Duo costs from €163 ($213) a night, plus a one-off tax of €76. See amieiramarina.com.

More information See visitalentejo.pt and www.visitportugal.com.

- Guardian News & Media

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