Ahh…the Algarve. 200 kilometres of sun-kissed beaches cooled by Atlantic breezes where days of ten hours of sunshine end in a golden glow.
Spring arrives early here and a drive through the hills is full of surprises…sleepy little villages, stunning sea views and even a Buddhist monastery near Loule which is a village worth visiting, on one of the highest points of the Algarve coast.
When commercial jets replaced cruise ships back in the fifties and early sixties, those were glamorous heydays for those lucky enough to jet off to exotic destinations. “Exotic” in those days, though, meant places quite close to home, such as France, Spain or Portugal. Word quickly spread about the secret sun-soaked playgrounds on those southern shores and over fifty years later the lure of those southern coastlines is as strong as ever.
A perennial favourite is Portugal’s Algarve. With ten hours of sunshine daily in the summer months, and temperatures hovering in the late 20s and early 30s, the Algarve benefits from Atlantic breezes for a welcome cool down on very hot days.
What the Algarve does well is breathing space, and there’s lots of it along its two hundred kilometre coastline. There are the busier spots like the capital, Faro, or quieter beaches like Praia de Odeceixe near the village of the same name – and despite the cliché, this really is a destination with “something for everyone” whether it’s five star golfing and sailing in Vilamoura, or an afternoon in Monchique, a village that has escaped mass tourism.
Here are some of the highlights:
This is the town everyone’s heard of, where most of the most popular resorts are – and where most of the action in the Algarve takes place; the restaurants start filling up at seven and the bars are busy by eleven. There’s a lot to enjoy here and the party town is split into two, the Cidade Velha (the old town) and Oura Strip, where a lot of the touristy bars are. In summer there are open air concerts – often with free entry – near the beach. This would be the area to stay in if you don’t have a car but want to be close to the action.
Like Malaga and Palma airports, Faro gets very busy in summer but the town itself is worth visiting if you happen to have the time. It has a year-round population which makes it feel more authentic than some of the more summer-only resorts and a large student population.
There are two museums, the Museu Municipal and Museu Maritimo – and the Archaelogical Museum, housed in a 16th-century convent, has a Roman Mosaic unearthed in Faro in 1976 – the amazing piece is ten yards long with a handsome portrait of Neptune – complete with moustache! – at its centre. It’s a lovely place to wander around on a particulary hot day, cooled by the museum’s cloisters. Worth a visit is Teatro Lethes, a one time church apparently converted into a charming little opera house by an Italian family who made their fortune in Portugal after being shipwrecked en route to London.
This small scale fishing town retains a lot of the authentic Algarve experience. There’s less hustle and bustle here than at some other places along the coast although it is expanding to meet the growing number of families that love to holiday here. The town beach, Praia do Carvoeiro is a lovely sheltered sandy bay with cliffs protecting it on both sides and there are bars and cafes around the main square where you can sip “um galao” (a milky coffee) and take in the sea views after you’ve left the beach.
There are just two roads leading down into town which meet in a small square behind the beach and parking can be difficult but Carvoeiro overall is an ideal self-catering holiday destination, with plenty of shops in town and a large international supermarket on the Lagoa road on the outskirts of town for stocking up on those holiday storecupboard essentials.
Don’t miss a trip on a fisherman’s boat. It’s a great way to see more of the coastline and get another perspective on the Algarve’s astounding natural beauty.
Lagos is a lovely town to explore – it’s hilly, so be prepared. One of the best beaches for getting away from it all is Praia Porto de Mos at the far end of town – surrounded by stunning cliff views and crashing surf, you could easily while the day away here just gazing out to sea, walking where the water meets the sand, or finishing that really good book.
It may not be a household name yet, but on the eastern stretch of the Algarve lies Praia de Monte Gordo beach where the waters are some of the warmest on the Algarve coast because it’s so close to Spain and the Mediterranean. With its soft sand and flat beaches it’s one of the most beach-accessible spots in southern Portugal. It’s usually beautifully quiet in the autumn-winter months but is getting more and more popular in summer.
This charming town is the official “second city” of the Algarve after Faro, and a great place if you want a holiday that combines beaches, fishing…and history. The seafood restaurants tend to be excellent. There are plenty of churches, palaces and monuments to see here, but it’s quieter on the nightlife front than, say, the more international Praia da Rocha. Some excellent street markets and there’s also golf.
Quite different from most of the other Algarve beaches, Tavira is pretty seaside town with a long-standing fishing history. In the 17th century, its port was important, shipping salt, dried fish and wine but like many parts of the Algarve the small town’s buildings were hit by a significant earthquake in 1755.
Tavira is hosting an oyster festival for the first time this July, and like Portimao, there are excellent fish restaurants to be found around town. Tavira Island which juts out from the coastline is a haven for birdlife and salt is harvested here…you can see the piles of salt as you drive towards the island. Close by, Cabanas and Pedras del Rey are small beachfront villages that cater to tourists and in Pedras there’s an olive tree which is legendary with the locals – it’s said to date from the 17th century and be one of the oldest in Portugal.
It may be the Algarve’s largest purpose-built holiday resorts but it still oozes style. Vilamoura is centred on a chic marina with rows of restaurants and cafes by the side of the water – you’ll find a very international mix of cuisines, making it the perfect place to end the day. It’s a golf mecca, too, with excellent championship courses and like Quinta do Lago it’s where five star golf meets five star spa hotels.
The big focus here is on golf and sailing and other water sports and there are two fabulous sandy beaches to stretch out on.
The Algarve has a high number of Blue Flag beaches, reflecting the quality of its coastline. To see which beaches and bays have Blue Flag Awards, click here: http://www.blueflag.org/Menu/Blue+Flag+beaches/marinas/2010/Northern+Hem…