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Portugal: Traveling far from the Algarve crowds

Hoteliers invest in boutique properties along the Alentejo coast, despite Portugal's economic woes.

In Alcacer do Sal, the castle has been converted into a luxury hotel offering breathtaking views of the River Sado and the surrounding rice fields. Aljezur was one of the last Arab strongholds in the Kingdom of the Algarve before it was conquered by the Portuguese in the 13th century.

The barren, windswept Sagres peninsula was sacred to the Celts and Romans; Sir Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson fought battles beneath its cliffs and in the 15th Century, Henry the Navigator plotted the Portuguese discoveries from the austere fortress that is now a popular tourist attraction.

Those early explorers left from the port of Lagos, where a replica of one of their caravels floats among the brightly painted fishing boats in the harbor and the church of Santo Antonio is lined with gold brought from the empire in Brazil. A more somber reminder of those colonial days are the arches of a building said to be Europe's oldest slave market.

Later naval encounters between the French, Dutch and British fleets have left legends of sunken treasure under the waters of Lagos bay off the great curve of fine sand that makes up Meia Praia beach.

To see the treasures that surely lie beneath those waters, you only have to visit Lagos' daily riverside market, where gleaming sea creatures, from tiny sardines or baby squid to groupers and swordfish bigger than a man, are brought from the boats every morning. Superlative seafood combined with excellent Alentejo wines make dining here a delight.

There are plenty of great waterfront restaurants to eat the freshly barbecued fish while being lulled by the sound of the surf. Among the best are the Sao Roque on Meia Praia or A Tasca on the quayside at Sagres.

Other places go for more exotic local specialities. A recent dish-of-the-day at Ruth O Ivo in Aljezur was cuttlefish with peas and sweet potatoes. The Eira do Mel in Vila do Bispo is a member of the Slow Food movement specializing in shrimp, pork and chorizo cooked together in a cataplana, a unique Algarivan utensil that is part wok, part pressure cooker.

Naturally, all of these dishes are best appreciated after an appetizer of gooseneck barnacles simply boiled in pan of seawater.