May 27, 2011
At 4.30am on Sunday 22 May 2011, a group of 45 – journalists, travel agents and tour operator staff, together with a few Sunvil clients – gathered at Heathrow’s Terminal 1 to make history. For on this day, we were the lucky passengers on the first-ever flight to the new passenger terminal at Beja airport in Portugal’s beautiful Alentejo region.
We were going on a day trip to Portugal – flying there and back on a BMI Embraer 49-seater. Check-in time was at 4.30am for a 6am flight. One running-late car load of precious cargo (including the deputy travel editor of the Mail on Sunday) had to be driven from Twickenham to Heathrow in a rather frightening fifteen minutes, but they did better than two travel agents who forgot their passports. And so, without this unlucky couple, and a notable absence of queues, the rest of us swiftly sailed through the gates and boarded the first-ever civilian aircraft bound for the alluring and unspoilt Alentejo – classic territory for tour operator Sunvil, charterers of the weekly flight.
Having flown solely on no-frills airlines to destinations firmly on the beaten track for the past couple of years, the prospect of full catering, served in a comfortable cabin with 1-2 seat configuration, and touching down in an undiscovered corner of Europe, was exciting. This was a return to the golden age of aviation – the clink of cutlery, a starched napkin, full English breakfast, proper butter, orange juice and coffee, plus a celebratory glass of Buck’s Fizz. I saw a couple of orange easyJets whizz past and felt grateful to be in the relaxed cabin of the more private-jet-like Embraer. And we all felt especially smug because a number of members of the general public and the trade in the UK and Portugal didn’t think the Embraer was ever going to make it off the ground in the run up to 22 May.
No such negativity when we landed at Beja, though. Our group was literally mobbed by the local paparazzi, greeted by local MPs and Sunvil’s MD and clients were interviewed for TV. We were all given flowers. And the weather in the Alentejo was sunny and bright, after rain at Heathrow. This just got better and better!
We then crammed in as much of the Alentejo as possible in the roughly seven or so hours we had before our flight home at 5pm. We coached past sweeping sunflower fields, cork forests and vineyards – plus many nesting storks perched on telegraph poles – to Evora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, we went on a guided walking tour, were treated to wine tasting at Vinhos do Alentejo and had a sumptuous lunch at the restaurant Dom Joaquim. We then drove back towards Beja, stopped off at a 13th century former convent, now the impressive Pousada Sao Francisco and were served a refreshing melon and mint smoothie before heading back to the airport for 4.15pm to check-in for our 5pm flight that landed us at Heathrow at 7.45pm. We’d made it – there and back in one crazy day – in comfort and style. Mika Bishop.