A coastal calling

The coast always beckons me. And I got a coastal trifecta today – hiking, kayaking and swimming on the stunning Algarve Coast in southern Portugal. It was another bucket-list day and I am feeling weary, but so, so thankful.

I was born just up the hill from Merewether Beach, internationally recognised as one of the best surf beaches in the world. I think it must have been the sea air at birth, but the coast always calls after me. At home or travelling, I’m pulled to salt water in all seasons. It is good for my soul!

Last week I got to breathe in the sea air and get my feet wet in the Mediterranean while hiking the five villages of Cinque Terre. Today I feel privileged to have hit the Atlantic coast and wow, yes, the water was fresh – both from a boat out in the deep and at Praia da Marinha, rated as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

It certainly is a postcard beach – gorgeous, shadowed by giant cliffs and unusual that on high tide, like this afternoon, you have to pick your moment and run the white water gauntlet around a large rock formation that divides the smaller and larger section of the beach. Marinha is recognised on a number of international best beach lists and one glimpse and you can see why. It is unique. It’s not a great surfing beach, but that’s not why you go there. This is a beach just to sit and breathe in!

Yes, it’s always a very touchy, parochial subject – what’s the best beach in Australia, or the world. I think in Australia it’s often so subjective based on place of origin and in a big city like Sydney whether you are from the Northern Beaches or “the Shire” and what bridges you are willing to cross.

I started the day in the Algarve city of Albufeira, joining the very friendly and welcoming crew at SeaAlgarve for a 45-minute Atlantic boat trip. The wind was up and so was the sea – seasonally high Maceo told me. You had to feel for one English woman who was seasick within 20 minutes and it didn’t get any better for her. Close to the coastal town of Benagil we were on to the water in our kayaks, paddling with unspoilt views of a very special coastline.

The big seas meant we couldn’t paddle into the sea caves, including the legendary Benagil Caves, but who could complain with the amazing rugged and colourful creation tapestry laid out before us.

Feeling more at home in the kayak than some with little to no experience, Frederic from Denmark and myself tried to stretch the friendship a little to get as close to some of the caves and rock formations as possible, only to hear our gracious guide’s warning whistle a few times.

Following the paddling experience, it was back to dry land and time to follow some more hiking stripes, which have been a feature of this trip. They’ve come in different colours in Italy, France and Portugal, but they are another soul-giving sight for me.

The stripes point to unexplored paths, the likelihood of some physical challenge; the certainty of some natural beauty and the opportunity to slow down and see the world through a lens that is often neglected in the rush of day to day life.

Now I’ve walked many kilometres on this holiday, but not the distances friends and former colleagues Ross and Di Coleman are doing each day on their third Camino pilgrimage – this time round the Portuguese trek. Ross commented on Facebook this week that despite the physical challenges of long-distance hiking he is beckoned back to the Camino because of how it touches his life and renews him as a person.

It is so good for all of us to discover those things that bring refreshment and renewal to our lives. 99% of the time in life these experiences will be in our own backyard – occasionally somewhere out of the ordinary, and then we get the extraordinary like my coastal experiences this trip in Italy and Portugal, along with the wonder of the Alps.

Now living in Melbourne, I still find myself regularly driving to the coast or the bay – they are not the beaches I grew up with, but places like Black Rock, Mt Martha and Smith’s Beach are also gorgeous spots and they do their trick and breathe life back into this middle aged man, often stretched at the margins.

My earliest childhood memories are closely aligned with coastal experiences – in Newcastle – or on holidays, particularly the annual summer Gold Coast ritual.

My grandparents lived less than a five-minute drive away from Merewether Beach. I spent so many weekends and school holidays at their house and by my teenage years I could walk to the beach and the ocean baths. So many special memories were forged in their small, humble home in The Junction, with my brother and cousins by my side.

My grandmother’s mantra as we left the house was always the same: “Don’t go out too far and watch out for sharks.” My cousin Steve would always push Gran’s envelope on how far out he went, but to this day he’s still got the same coastal beckoning as I and he’s a very good ocean swimmer.

On any flying visit to Newy, the beach and adjacent ocean baths are still my “go-to” place, although times have changed since when I was a kid. On a hot summer day we would swim, play, wash down and then head back to my grandparents for home-cooked corned beef and pickle sandwiches, before jumping in their tiny, above-ground pool for another cool down. There wasn’t a café in sight at the beach. It was down the road to the fish and chip shop if you wanted a bite to eat. Now you can grab a coffee, milkshake, gelato, pizza, wine, meal and beer all within a couple of hundred metres from the surf.

It’s the same the world over these days. Locals and visitors were enjoying a meal, beer, snack and ice creams at Marinha today and one of my most simple, yet favourite meals on this trip was an anchovy bruschetta with my feet in the sand at Monterossa.

Tomorrow I am planning to head inland to explore some river paths in a southern Portuguese national park. I know little about it, but it looks like a good adventure and it will nice to see come countryside and the colourful houses that dot rural roads.

It’s only two more sleeps to I head back home so all going to plan I should have time for a little more coastal exploring on Friday morning.

Yes, the coast keeps beckoning – I think it always will!

Beyond so many childhood memories, I would often head up the hill in my Newcastle Herald days for lunch at Bar Beach. I have spent countless hours with all my kids at the beach – they all have the same salt water sniff. Megan and I married overlooking the beach in the first house we shared with our blended family. The plan was to have the service on the beach, but maybe we were overly optimistic for a Saturday in August. A huge storm hit that morning and there was a sudden change of plans – but we still tied the knot with the smell and sound of the ocean as a backdrop.

In all seasons of life – good and bad – the best and the darkest – I have found myself at the beach.

What about you? Where is your go to place for refreshment and renewal? What are those places and spaces that are good for your soul? Where are those places that connect with you innately – beyond the physical, touching the emotional and the spiritual.

As I walked the cliff tops of the Algarve today – most of them with no rails or fences – I marvelled at the sheer, rugged beauty of nature all around me and I was reminded again of the power and pull of the coast in my world.

Standing in such a place I seem so small and I am reminded of a majestic, sovereign Creator God – so beyond me – in some ways indescribable and beyond me – and yet in his grace he comes to someone like me and fills my life with significance and purpose – because of who he is and what I mean to him.

And as I stood and watch the waves roll in one after another at Marinha and Benagil I was reminded of a God who is faithful – a God who like the waves is always there. A God who is enduring. A God who is always there for me – for you! A God who stands with us when life is good and bad.

And then I run and dive into the Atlantic – and I immediately struck by the water temperature. It’s cold. But as I swim and move I am so refreshed after going the distance on the hiking path. As my body is recharged I am reminded again of the Spirit’s renewing work in my life day to day.

I am sitting and typing right now from my hotel balcony and there is the Atlantic blue – just down the hill. The coast beckons me and it is so good for my soul.

A loving God beckons as well – always ready to shower his grace on us. And as we open our eyes wherever we are today and catch our breath we see glimpses of his beauty all around us. Beauty that inspires, renews and recharges us in the midst of life!

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