The mediaeval Monsaraz.

The mediaeval Monsaraz. Photo: Geoff Stringer/Lonely Planet

Ray Kershaw finds the time-honoured ways of village life have changed little around Portugal's vast new man-made lake.

WE MOOR the first night on our own desert island.

Black bass are jumping. Our chicken and pimentos are simmering on the stove. Serenaded by cicadas, we uncork another bottle of chilled Alentejo rose as a full moon rises over the shore.

Tonight, we are sharing 617 square kilometres of water with just nine other boats. There are myriad uninhabited islands and 1126 kilometres of virgin, sun-drenched coast. There's nothing to suggest that a few years ago Portugal's vast Grande Lago, Europe's biggest man-made lake, did not exist.

The Alqueva dam on the Guadiana River was conceived in 1952 during the Salazar dictatorship. The scorched Alentejo region would be transformed into an oasis. Democracy delayed the scheme, which was eventually completed in 2002, giving lonely hilltop villages new waterside locations. The lake is now more than 96 kilometres long.

Our small rented cabin cruiser, the Alandroal, comes from the pioneering Amieira Marina, whose founders hope to inspire similar eco-friendly projects on their landlocked new sea, now billed as the "all-year-sunshine Grande Lago". The round trip to Juromenha, where the lake borders Spain, should take us a week. Reassuringly, the boat comes with landlubber-proof charts and from our first island we steer a confident course to the village of Luz. The Grande Lago may be new but in the old Guadiana villages life has scarcely changed for years. Men doze in the shade; black-costumed widows clank with buckets to fountains. This is archetypal Portugal. The rare tourists are normally greeted like guests, save for in Luz. Ancient Luz went the same way as Atlantis when the town was submerged.

The new Luz dazzles like a brochure for villas in the sun - a virtual replica of the original, where everyone received new homes for old. They even moved the cemetery. Yet it seems as soulless as a stage set and the village's strangest sight is its underground museum. Sumptuously built in marble, it is like a mausoleum of happier days. Locals come frequently to see their flooded homes on videos.

The bay covering old Luz makes an idyllic mooring but we are hooked on island hideaways. Life is as simple as Robinson Crusoe's: it's back to basics.

Or almost, because the boat's stainless-steel kitchen is always at hand. Wherever we moor, the Alandroal becomes a luxury apartment, complete with a kayak and lake-size swimming pool.

Our next destination, the tiny town of Mourao, seems cheerfully content to be attractively redundant. The ancient paper mill was flooded but the houses are so white you'd think the paint was still wet. Many of the houses have curious minaret-like chimneys built by the Moors, from whom the town takes its name. A handful of bars girdles the plaza's manicured gardens. Here we draw stares - foreigners are oddities - but our mangled Portuguese also triggers friendly smiles. As we progress towards Spain, we hone our island-landing skills. While I inch the prow forward, my wife peers for rocks and bellows commands: "Back a bit! Slow! Bit to the left!" It is a heart-pounding manoeuvre. "Back again! Stop!" Just before collision, she springs ashore with the ropes.

A few days ago, such feats were simply unimaginable.

In the noon stillness the heat is fragrant with rosemary. Raptors wheel above the lake. They say the big bass queue to be hooked but we have forgotten to load the marina's angling gear. Jeering fish jump around us when we moor for a swim.

Even at our modest flat-out seven knots, the waves make satisfying clunks. Steering at the outside wheel, spray igniting rainbows, is exhilarating. Our day's destination is any place we choose.

The lake nearing Spain narrows to a river. Both banks are equally wild but occasional Spanish flags betray the international border. Juromenha is Portugal's far-flung final outpost. This is the Guadiana proper. Portuguese and Spanish fishermen are casting lines from skiffs midstream. Although Juromenha's monolithic castle glowers northwards towards Spain, it feels at Europe's outer edge.

We moor in an olive grove where sheep graze between the trees. A dozen laughing women are drying washing on the battlements.

We have saved the lake's loveliest bay for our last night. Magical Monsaraz, which has produced wine since Roman days and was Moorish for seven centuries, would remain a hilltop village if they flooded all of Portugal. Known as the Ninho das Aguias - the Eagle's Eerie - it soars 300 metres above its new beach. The enticing whitewashed labyrinth inside its ancient ramparts feels centuries away from the Portugal of the Algarve.

Yet this happy time warp will soon come to an end. Five golf courses are planned, with luxury hotels and holiday homes. Soon our isolated mooring may be a lakeside fairway but tonight our deck-top dinner is watched only by cows.

As a finale it feels obligatory to see the dam itself. Though nine metres tall, it still looks too puny to restrain the inland ocean we have travelled. Inspecting the mechanics that engineered the spell feels rather like being in The Truman Show, in which the hero finds his home town is a film-set hoax. Yet the Grande Lago still seems as close to paradise as you could invent.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies daily to Portugal via Heathrow, codesharing with British Airways, priced from $1996. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au. There are daily trains from Lisbon to Evora, priced from €16 ($22) return and daily buses, priced from €21.50 return.

Sailing there

Amieira Marina has seven sizes of boat available to rent all year, for two days or more. A weekly price for two adults is from €1262; eight adults from €1733, according to season. Fuel costs extra. Angling gear and licence, €20 weekly. +351 266 611 063, amieiramarina.com.

Further information

visitportugal.com.

Messing about on the Continent

EUROPE is a bonanza of bays, islands, lakes and rivers. Sailboats, catamarans, gulets and motor boats are available for hire, bareboat or with a skipper or crew. It's vital to book ahead to sail in high season (June, July, August). Here's five great places to mess about in.

- Finland Sailing goes hand in hand with a Nordic summer. The 90-kilometre Tahko Boating Route between Kuopio and Tahko is perfect for leisure craft. Part of the Great Saimaa Lake system, Kuopio is less than an hour by air from Helsinki. saildream.fi, kuopioinfo.fi.

Greece A catamaran, an instructor and a week on the island of Lefkas in Vassiliki will do you the world of good. The harbour is lined with tavernas, cafes and bars, of course. wildwind.co.uk.

Croatia Split is considered by many to be Croatia's nautical centre from which you can sail south (Hvar, Koreula, Dubrovnik) or north (Sibenik, Krka falls, Kornati archipelago). + 385 98 162 0992, croatia-charter.hr, adriatic-sailing.com.

Ireland From the sheltered waters of Bantry Bay, West Cork, mariners set out, sighting birds, watching dolphins, counting puffins and dropping anchor to snorkel.. Back in Cork's harbour waters, heritage sites at Fort Camden, Fort Carlisle and Spike Island are within reach. westcorksailing.com. irelandcharter.com.

Malta The archipelago's coastline and mild Mediterranean climate are a perfect combination.Take your time exploring historic harbours and ancient villages. sailingeurope.com.