The Algarve is Portugal’s favourite stretch of holiday coast, offering a variety of experiences.
Bernard O’Shea outlines how to find the best spot for you.
Earlier this year the good citizens of Albufeira in southern Portugal made a startling discovery on the busy Avenida dos Descobrimentos (Avenue of Discoveries): a young man was stripped naked, bound with masking tape to a lamppost and left there gagged and with a beer bottle protruding from his rear. A stag party prank by his British holidaymaker mates. Hilarious.
The incident highlights the dilemma you face when going to the Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost province (and you should go, because it boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the world): you have pick to the right spot for you. Otherwise you might find yourself in the midst of a swarm of tourists whose sense of humour and idea of “harmless fun” might not match your own.
Thankfully, however, this wonderful, very explorable region has a great variety of scenery and experiences to offer. Let’s have a look at the most popular options.
This once quaint fishing village (pictured top) is now, as you might have gathered, party central. At the height of summer it can seem like it has been invaded by Brits who congregate in pubs advertising British beers and showcasing British sports teams on their giant TV screens. But strip that away and at heart it is still an attractive whitewashed town (you’ll need sunglasses to counter the glare) with a very appealing stretch of beach in front and alongside it. If you are young and after fun and night life, you’ll be in your element here. If you yearn for something more soothing, visit out of season, when its more natural charms come to the fore.
This easy-going harbour town about 30 kilometres west of Albufeira would be my starting point for anyone visiting the region for the first time. The historic town centre is attractive and easy to explore at leisure, and all sorts of boat trips are on offer down on the quay. By far the main attractions, though, are the beaches, coves, cliffs and rock formations on the southern outskirts of the town – the most spectacular stretch of coastline in the Algarve. Praia Dona Ana (“praia” means “beach”) is often ranked the top beach in the Algarve, but it’s outshone by the rockpool at Ponta da Piedade, said by some to be the most beautiful spot in Portugal. Here a 180-plus step staircase takes you down the cliff face to the water, where the local sailors will beckon you to come on in for a ride in their little boats. Don’t say “no” – bobbing in and out of the grottoes and through the arches by boat is the best way to take it all in.
The shimmering estuary of the Rio Arade gives Portimao a deceptively sleepy air, but it is one of the most vibrant and built up areas of the Algarve. Its main drawcard is the expansive Praia da Rocha, where the holiday resort concept had its infancy in Portugal. The cliffs and rock faces here are in their way as hauntingly beautiful as those further west.
Tavira, on the eastern end of the Algarve near the border with Spain, is probably the most picturesque city in the Algarve and is the place to go for purists who prefer elegant classic architecture to modern resort developments. The city is on the Rio Gilao, a couple of kilometres inland, and its popular beaches on the large barrier island Ilha da Tavira are a short ferry journey away. There is also a footbridge to the island at Santa Luzia, but as I discovered, from there it is a long walk back into town if you miss the last bus. Few British yobs come here; rather, it is a popular holiday spot for families in nearby parts of Spain.
FARO, OLHAO AND THE RIO FORMOSA NATURAL PARK
The coastal scenery changes at the twin cities of Faro and Olhao, which are fronted by the V-shaped Rio Formosa lagoon, a series of flat, sandy barrier islands and inlets that attract a great deal of bird life as well as tourists. Faro, the capital of the Algarve and site of an international airport, is often overlooked by incoming tourists who hastily depart for the famed beaches, but it is an appealing city well worth exploring (I spent a month there while doing a summer course at the local university, and it really grew on me). Faro does have a pleasant stretch of beach but it is a bit of a trek by bus or car out west, on the other side of the airport. Olhao’s most popular beaches are accessible by ferry on the Ilha da Culatra (also known as the Ilha da Farol at the lighthouse end) and the Ilha da Armona.
SILVES AND THE INTERIOR
Most tourists don’t give the Algarve interior much thought – after all, the beaches and golf resorts are what they hanker for. But there are some great excursions inland. The most important site, historically, is the hilltop former capital Silves, which so thrived under Muslim rule that it was apparently even called the Baghdad of the West. But after the Christian reconquest, its importance declined as that of Faro grew, and now it’s a sleepy city of about 40,000 inhabitants overlooking the Arade river. The city’s glory days are re-enacted each August during the lively medieval fair. To the west, The Serra de Monchique mountain range is another popular spot (there are spas at Caldas de Monchique), while to the east another great place to escape the heat is in the hills the shady village of Alte. Bring your swimming costume – there are two pools that tap into the Alte river. For a more regal experience, just north of Faro at Estoi, a former neo-baroque/rococo palace built for a local viscount has been beautifully restored and converted into the Pousada of Faro – Hotel Palacio de Estoi. TTW
Bernard O’Shea travelled to Portugal at his own expense. Photos: Albufeira photo at top © Jose Miguel/Turismo de Portugal.