On the waterfront: Sampling Lisbon's modern side

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LISBON, Portugal -- Think of this venerable Iberian capital and what comes to mind? Soulful, mournful fado songs; churches adorned with colorful azulejo tilework; and creaking, ancient yellow streetcars clanging their way through noisy and narrow medieval streets?

You'd be right, but there's another, more hip and modern side to Lisbon that's sprouted along its once-proud, then neglected and now revitalized waterfront along the Tagus River.

From trendy restaurants and pubs in old dockside warehouses to hyper-modern World's Fair fun at Parque das Nacoes, the city's entire coastal stretch between the April 25th and Vasco da Gama bridges has come alive with new development.

The Nations Park teleferico, or cable car, offers spectacular bird's-eye views while shuttling visitors to major attractions. I spent nearly 24 hours of a three-day stay sampling the relatively recent delights of this "other," newer Lisbon, beginning with my most futuristic find: the Parque das Nacoes, or Nations Park, which glistens in true Jetsons-style on a former riverside industrial site.

Originally built for the marine-themed Expo 98 event five years ago, Nations Park -- the World's Fair that wouldn't lie down and die -- continues to offer family fun with a 21st century edge in what was one of Lisbon's most polluted areas, once home to a slaughterhouse, a waste treatment plant, a landfill and a munitions dump.

The world of nations

Today, in their stead, clients will find Europe's largest aquarium, Portugal's biggest bowling alley, several concert venues, an amusement park, educational pavilions, a 575-foot viewing tower, restaurants, shops and gardens -- all connected by a 65-foot-high, suspended cable-car system.

This 148-acre "invented city" -- built from the ground up -- also contains high-tech, high-rise residential, commercial and transportation structures.

Although I took the traditional approach and stayed at a city-center hotel, the Lisboa Regency Chiado in Bairro Alto, clients can take up temporary residence at two new four-star hotels in the park complex itself, the Melia Confort Oriente and the Tivoli Tejo.

The jumping-off point to Nations Park for most visitors is beautifully sleek Oriente Station, a public transportation hub at the eastern end of Lisbon's "red" metro/subway line.

From its futuristically gabled halls (home to open-air markets on Sundays), I made my way across a footbridge to the Oceanarium, a waterside giant of an aquarium that's home to 450 species of creatures that live in water.

Though jet-lagged, I could barely tear myself away from the Oceanarium's cool, dark display rooms. My favorite exhibit features tanks filled with ornate, feathery seadragons, flamboyant cousins of the more sedate seahorse. These creatures are so sensitive that visitors to this tank are advised to avoid flashbulbs and loud noises.

The Oceanarium offers discounted admissions to agents reserving clients' tickets in advance. Agent-only pricing is about $4.15 for kids ages 4 to 12; $8.25 for ages 13 to 65; and $4.50 for seniors age 66 and older. Call (011) 351-21 891-7002 for information and reservations.

I took the cross-park cable car -- which offers spectacular bird's-eye views -- to Lisbon's tallest building, the Vasco da Gama Tower, where a mere $2.70 (or $1.35 for kids and seniors) got this acrophobe an even more terrifyingly thrilling, panoramic view of all Lisbon.

A less harrowing way to get around is by Excursion Train shuttle, which stops at major attractions from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fares are 50 cents for kids and seniors, $1 for adults.

Nearby, the Macau Pavilion -- the only international exhibit left over from Expo 98 -- offers Chinese gardens and educational displays from the former Portuguese colony off China.

And just across the Rua do Mar Vermelho (or Red Sea Road) lies BIL, the Lisbon International Bowling Center, which has 30 lanes and -- in true Latin style -- is open until 2 a.m. weekdays and 4 a.m. weekends.

If clients aren't planning to attend a concert while in Lisbon, they'll probably not venture into the on-site music venues Sony Plaza, the Atlantic Pavilion or Camoes Theater. Still, those with kids in tow should check out the Knowledge Pavilion, an interactive science center.

Dockside dining, dancing

Too tuckered out to explore the massive Vasco da Gama Center mall, I decided to head across town to the Docas de Santo Amaro complex of restaurants, housed in former river warehouses in the shadow of the April 25th bridge.

The 25 or so pubs and eateries in the area offer a wide range of cuisines and entertainment options, from venues playing rhythm and blues to techno and dance music, all open until the wee hours.

I tucked into an excellent Argentinian steak and fries at an outdoor table at restaurant Doca Seis, which boasts lovely river views. Clients should be advised to head to the complex for lunch or early dinners on Friday and Saturday nights, as the area gets swamped with tourists later in the evenings.

After a recovery nap back at my hotel, I headed out at midnight for an evening -- and morning, it turned out -- of riverside clubbing at Lisbon's top nightspot, Lux, which sits in a renovated space amid the cranes of the Santa Apolonia docks, on Avenida Infante Dom Henrique in the Alfama district.

Co-owned by actor John Malkovich, Lux attracts both young "ravers" and Lisbon's beautiful people. As the city is very small, visitors might well find themselves rubbing shoulders with Portuguese television stars -- if they get past the velvet rope and picky doormen.

Key cards

It won't get anyone through the door at Lux, but the Lisboa Card from Lisbon Tourism does offer free or discounted entrance to public and private transport and some 60 Lisbon attractions, including the Oceanarium, Vasco da Gama Tower and the Macau Pavilion.

Available in 24-, 48- and 72-hour increments, the Lisboa Card is priced from $13.75 to $28.50 for adults, and $6.15 to $12.30 for kids ages 5 to 11.

The similar, 72-hour Lisboa Restaurant card offers savings of 5% to 15% at some 51 dining establishments; it's priced at $6.25 for one person, $8.35 for two and $11 for a family of four.

Nations Park also peddles its own card good for savings at area attractions and eateries, priced at about $15 for adults and $7.50 for kids and seniors.

All three cards are available at Lisbon Tourism offices (including its information stand at Lisbon's Portela Airport) and at many hotels, transit kiosks and other sites such as Lisbon Zoo, the National Art Museum and the Jeronimos Monastery.

Operator options

Several commission-paying operators specialize in FIT stays or packaged tours that allow clients enough free time to explore Lisbon's waterfront sites.

EC Tours, of Valley Village, Calif., pays 10% to 15% on its upscale and mid-range Portugal product. Call (800) 388-0877 or visit www.ectours.com.

And Skyline Travel, of Huntington, N.Y., offers 12.5% pay on packages such as its six-night, air-inclusive, four-star stays priced from $874 per person. Call (800) 645-6198 or visit www.skylinetravel.com.

For its part, Portuguese Tours, of Williston Park, N.Y., pays 10% on off-season, four-night city stays priced from $579 with air, for travel Nov. 1 to March 31. Call (888) 767-8842.

Meanwhile, Petrabax USA is offering 10% commission on its own fall/winter Lisbon Special, starting at $619 for air fare and six nights in a first class hotel; call (800) 634-1188 or visit www.petrabaxusa.com.

For more information on Lisbon, contact the Portuguese National Tourist Office at (212) 354-4403 or visit www.portugal.org.

Room Key: Lisboa Regency Chiado
Address:
114 Rua Nova do Almada, 1200-290 Lisbon, Portugal
Phone: (011) 351-21 325-6100
Fax: (011) 351-21 325-6161
Reservations: (011) 351-21 325-6200
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.regency-hotels-resorts.com
Manager: Miguel de Andrade
Rates: About $145 to $355 per night, with breakfast and tax.
Commission: 10% on rack
Rooms/Suites: 37/1
Facilities: Bar/terrace with meal service, breakfast room, parking garage.
Review: In the heart the artsy and trendy "Chiado" district, the Lisboa Regency Chiado is set in the renovated Armazens do Chiado complex, which also includes a subway station and shopping arcade. Many of Lisbon's top sights -- such as the Santa Justa Elevator and the ruins of the Igreja do Carmo church -- are steps away. The hotel itself has a hip, laid-back ambience in keeping with its environs, and service is efficient and friendly. Public spaces are more modern and glamorous than the ordinary -- but spacious -- guest rooms, some of which boast views of the Baixa and Alfama areas, as well as St. George's Castle.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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