The number "zero" in Canada has magical properties. Once the Celsius thermometer dips below 0 degrees in our northern climes, a metamorphosis takes place. Many inhabitants sprout imaginary feathers and wings and start thinking of warmer venues.
These snowbirds, especially the ones from Ontario, have traditionally headed to Florida in wintertime - much to the delight of the local merchants but sometimes a bit of grumbling from residents who liken the influx to an unexpected visit from distant relatives.
Travellers who chase the sun for three weeks to six months are known as long-stay vacationers. Increasingly, those who find Florida and other southern states expensive, tacky or boring - how many times can you visit Mickey and his friends? - are turning to another destination with a lot to offer: Portugal.
Not only is this long, narrow country on the western edge of Europe far less expensive in terms of food, lodging and medical care than the southern USA; the natives are very friendly and you have all that Old World culture and history to experience.
One retired Ontario couple adopting Portugal as their winter home for the past 15 years - Marilyn and Lyall Trites - still get excited when they talk about their experiences.
"We love the European flavour," says Marilyn. "It's a lot of fun to pack a picnic lunch, get into your rental car and drive east or west along the Algarve (the south-western resort area of the country on the Atlantic Ocean) and explore small towns. Portugal has invested heavily in miles and miles of boardwalks and that's a great way to see the countryside."
Lyall matches Marilyn's enthusiasm: "Portugal is a magical place, especially the smaller centres, with ancient buildings and narrow, winding streets. We enjoy the quaint little restaurants and, quite frankly, the absence of McDonald's and Tim Hortons. You have to go to the big cities to find those places. Sure they have good coffee but the Portuguese galão (espresso with milk) is delicious. The locals drink something called bica in a tiny cup and it's absolute open-your-eye stuff. I don't know how they stomach it but they do."
Lyall, a butcher and grocer before he and Marilyn successfully operated then sold several bookstores in the Orillia area of Ontario, appreciates the food offerings of the country.
"We stay in a small village called Armação de Péra where you can get all the fish you want," he says. "Actually, it's fun to go to the waterfront auction with its wide variety of fish, including octopus and squid. But you have to keep quiet because the bidding is done by grunts. There's a digital counter on the wall with descending prices and the bidders grunt when the number displayed matches what they want to pay for that particular batch. A loud yawn could prove costly."
Lyall adds that beef or shellfish lovers are in for a disappointment: "Shellfish is imported so if you want lobster you're going to pay a hefty price for it. And beef isn't one of Portugal's prime products - if you'll pardon the play on words. But chicken and pork are relatively inexpensive and quite good."
Most long-stay vacationers in Portugal rent units with full kitchens and the Trites are no exception. They enjoy visiting the local market on Saturday to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables.
"At first we went there as another new adventure but eventually we made friends with both the locals and with other visitors like us from Canada, Germany and Holland," says Marilyn. "Now it's a great place for all of us to meet on a Saturday morning. And they have everything you could want there. The leaf lettuce is so sweet and there are mounds of carrots, sweet and regular potatoes, beets, tomatoes and beautiful flat beans. Portugal has prize strawberries and they usually are available just before we leave."
The produce the Trites really rave about are the local oranges. Marilyn says they are particularly inexpensive these days because the growers have lost their biggest customer - Russia.
"They've had to cut them off because of the sanctions," she says. "And other countries won't buy them because Portugal refuses to spray them. It's unfortunate for the country but it makes for some good deals. Spread out along the roadside between villages you see people selling oranges. You can buy ten kilos (22 pounds) for less than three euros (a euro is worth roughly $1.50 Canadian). You can also get a flat of the sweet Portuguese strawberries for about three euros and they'll last you a week."
While it's convenient to cook in their rented condo, the Trites consider dining out at the many inexpensive restaurants that abound all over Portugal as a form of entertainment.
"In the Algarve during the winter months it's mostly older people, so night clubs and fancy entertainment aren't that important - although they're available of course in the bigger cities like Faro or, farther afield, Lisbon," says Lyall. "You can get a terrific fixed menu meal in a small restaurant for anywhere from eight to 12 euros. This includes a starter course of bread, butter, olives and sardine paste as well as salad or soup. Then there's the main course of fish, beef, chicken or pork with a glass of beer or a half-litre of wine, followed by dessert. You finish off with coffee and almost every restaurant offers a complimentary shot of port or brandy at the end."
The Trites have found that the first long-stay visit is hit-and-miss, like most vacations, but once you get to know the locals they will give you tips on the best places to rent cars and buy food as well as which restaurants feature the best Fado - traditional music that consists of mournful and poignant folk songs usually performed by a female singer, a fadista, with guitar accompaniment.
"One of the best tips is which restaurants feature good Fado without busloads of tourists descending on the place," says Marilyn. "That kind of crowd really isn't interested in the music but in drinking and talking loud so that you can't enjoy the entertainment."
Over the years, the Trites have built up a storehouse of knowledge that they are happy to share with people heading to the Algarve for the first time. Here are some of their recommendations, warts and all:
Lyall points out that visitors should realize that Portugal is not Florida. "This is their winter and there's not the hot temperatures they might be used to. There's no going down to the beach and lying in the boiling sun. You can lie on the beach but you don't go into the water because it's too cold. It's even a challenge to go into a pool at that time of year because they aren't heated - electricity is very costly.”
He adds that while some of the larger centres have luxury hotels, they are extremely expensive, whereas an apartment in a smaller town or village can be rented for 300 or 350 euros a month.
"Plan to stay for at least three weeks because the rent for one or two weeks will be higher," he says. "We find that around ten weeks is about right - and very economical. We can go over there for that amount of time, including airfare, car rental and accommodation, for about $5,000. Food and propane for your cooking are the only extras, outside of what you choose to do in terms of entertainment and short trips to other places in Portugal or even neighbouring countries."
Marilyn cautions that in most of the smaller long-stay communities there are no shopping malls along the lines of what Canadians are used to. There are, however, gypsy markets every day of the week somewhere in the Algarve with all sorts of goods for sale - everything from watches and clothing to pirated movies, leather goods, jeans, bedding and linen.
"You have to shop for quality," she says. "There are some real bargains and there are rip-offs. But that's part of the fun."
Both the Trites agree that they feel safe while in Portugal but when you visit the bigger centres you have to use your common sense, just as you do back home.
"In Lisbon, women with purses and guys with wallets in their back pockets are prime targets," says Marilyn. "I'll either carry a belt wallet or purse with a strap under my jacket. If it's too warm, I'll keep my valuables in a special wallet I can hang around my neck - but only in downtown Lisbon."
Medical care gets top marks. The doctors and nursing staff are highly trained professionals and there is usually a state-of-the art medical facility within a twenty-minute drive of most places. One of their Canadian friends had to have spinal surgery. A surgeon from Lisbon came down to the Algarve to operate; there was an overnight stay and the cost of anaesthetics. The total bill was 1700 euros (about $2500), most of which was covered by insurance.
Car rentals are fairly inexpensive and once again the Trites recommend asking around to find the best bargains after perhaps renting the first time from a travel agent or over the Internet. And because Portugal is so small, short trips to Lisbon, Sintra or as far north as Porto and beyond are not at all onerous. The Trites and friends have also taken bus trips into Spain and across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco.
"As with any trip," says Marilyn, "you have to approach it with a sense of adventure. We've had countless great experiences and made lots of very good friends. We look forward to seeing them each time we return. We've been doing this for 15 years and we're not the least bit bored. There are still lots of places in the Algarve alone that we want to see."
Tom Douglas is an Oakville-based travel writer and Fifty-Five Plus' travel editor with many travel articles published on this website (see: Our Writers) and author of a number of books on Canada's military heritage. Read Tom's bio at: