The value’s outstanding, the seafood’s superb and it’s home to some of the best beaches in Europe. Our writer goes beyond the golf course in southern Portugal
A few years ago, much talk in the neophile world of travel was about holidays in the Alentejo region of Portugal — because, essentially, it wasn’t the Algarve. By which they meant it was authentic and wild, and devoid of high-rise hotels and beach discos. Truth is, though, most of the Algarve isn’t like that either — and it has better octopus restaurants than the Alentejo.High-street tour operators tend to send us into the thick of things, around Faro, Albufeira and Portimao, for big family resorts and some very good golf courses (see panel: Ricardo Gouveia’s top five golf courses). Which is all well and good. But if that’s not your thing, head west or east: to Lagos and beyond for hiking, surfing and — I’ll say it — the best beaches in Europe; or towards Tavira for fishing villages, barrier islands, calmer sands and the flamingos, seahorses, dolphins and birdlife of the Ria Formosa estuary (see panel: go wild in the Ria Formosa).
The River Gilao flows through Tavira
There’s a temptation to pick somewhere near the seaside and stay put, but, seeing as it’s less than two hours along the hassle-free A22 toll road from Sagres, Europe’s most southwesterly town, to the Spanish border, it’d be rude not to explore. Inland, there are Moorish castles, natural springs, ruined villages that have become cool hotels — and Cliff Richard’s vineyard, Adega do Cantor.
Whatever the worries over exchange rates, Portugal remains cheap. When was the last time you paid 85p for a beer in a seaside restaurant? We did, last summer, post-Brexit, at Cafe Janoca — where the oysters were rather lovely, too. A lot of the fun here comes free, including most of the car parks at the beach. Oh, and it’ll hit 20C in Tavira in April. What are you waiting for?
A good way to ingratiate yourself with the locals is to ask them what their favourite beach is — and the number of different answers they’ll give you is revealing. The choice can be overwhelming, especially on the Costa Vicentina, between Sagres and Odeceixe, where seemingly every turn-off from the N120 road ends up at a sweep of sand and dunes. The more sheltered southern coast is easier to get wrong — piped music and rows of sunbeds for hire are more common here — but still has some crackers.
Catching a wave off one of the Algarve’s wild west-coast beaches
Praia da Amoreira
Beach nerds, have your clipboard and pencil at the ready: I’ve yet to visit a European beach that ticks more boxes than Amoreira. It’s a giant arc of flat sand that gets even more giant at low tide, when the surf rolls back to reveal rock pools and sticky sand that’s perfect for beach cricket. Just the one catering facility, the Paraiso do Mar, but it’s a proper restaurant that does grilled bream and spuds for £12. There are dunes to muck about on (warning: some nudists). Best of all, perpendicular to the shore is the warm, calm River Aljezur, perfect for kiddie splashing and stand-up paddleboarding. Yes, it can get a bit blowy — we’re on the Atlantic — but that’s all the better for the surf lessons run out of the Surflife Atlantic Riders’ shack on the sand (three-day course £110pp, board hire £8.50 a day; website).
Praia da Bordeira
You may well be reminded of the Gower coast, or Cornwall at its most robust. While that might prepare you for the elemental, edge-of-the-world feeling induced at Bordeira, it won’t prepare you for the scale. Checking out its epic golden splodge on Google Earth might help, but only a bit. There’s a car park inland, but it’s more fun, if there’s space, to pull over on the Estrada Praia coast road, then clamber down from the western headland via the wooden walkway. (You’ll need to wade through the River Carrapateira to reach the sand.) There might be hundreds of people there before you; it’ll still look empty. Waves crash noisily along nearly two miles of shore. There are dunes at the back there somewhere, but it’s a long way back there somewhere. Not much in the way of amenities — there’s a hut that sells Cokes and rents surf kit — but that’s not the point. There is a lifeguard on duty in summer.
Seeing the light: Silves Cathedral
Praia de Odeceixe
Another Costa Vicentina classic that does the river-hitting-sea thing with aplomb. This time it’s the River Seixe, which forms the border between the Algarve and the Alentejo, and whose final meander into the Atlantic has formed this thumb of sand, popular with families and the local pet dog population. A mini resort mainly made up of surfers’ whitewashed holiday cottages clings to the steep hillside to the south. Here you’ll find the Esplanada do Mar cafe — its terrace is a hardly improvable spot for elevenses of an espresso and a nata custard tart.
Praia do Barranco do Martinho
It’s hard to think of many other beaches that can be filed under both “city beach” and “secret beach”. Head south out of Lagos, the western Algarve’s biggest town, until you hit the lighthouse (a matter of minutes). Leave the car there, then head west on foot, hugging the edge of the orange cliffs. You’ll spy Barranco do Martinho way below, a W-shape of sand with a few beautiful young backpackers flopped on it. And it’ll only be a few, because getting down’s a bit of a fag — one steep section of the path requires you to hang off a length of rope. It’s all worth it, mind, when you’re skipping in and out of sea caves and waving to the sightseeing boats that bob past enviously.
Praia do Barril
You get to this beach via a floating footbridge across the lagoon, then a miniature steam train. Which makes this a strong option for families — but you should have seen the grin on my face. The beach itself is pretty regulation, a straight line of sand on the outer edge of one of the Ria Formosa’s barrier islands, but it’s backed by a cluster of abandoned fishermen’s cottages, now filled by tasteful giftshops and cafes, one of which optimistically sells “anti-cellulite” juice. Weirder yet is the “anchor graveyard”, hundreds of rusting metal anchors lined up in rows on the sand, remnants from a tuna-fishing industry that died out in the 1960s. The train is £2 return. Or you can walk, if you’re a sad sack.
The days out
The end of the world at Cabo de Sao Vicente
The fact that so many explorers were Portuguese might be explained by Cape St Vincent, Europe’s most southwesterly point, where there’s not much to do but gaze out from the cliffs at the wild Atlantic and imagine what lies beyond (America, eventually). There’s a lighthouse, Germans selling bratwurst from a truck (letztebratwurst.com) and — often — fog (check the forecast). It’s also the end point of the Rota Vicentina pilgrimage trail from Santiago do Cacem, 140 miles away on the other side of the Alentejo, so expect to bump into happy, exhausted hikers — or nervous-looking ones if they’re doing it south to north (rotavicentina.com).
Photo ops in Tavira
Cameras ready for artfully composed shots of patinaed shopfronts, sunflower-yellow walls, bright blue skies and the giant clock face on the side of the Santa Maria do Castelo church in this charming port town. Climb the battlements of its ruined castle; on the way down, don’t miss the Misericordia Church, its walls lined with 18 panels of blue and white azulejo tiles depicting the acts of mercy. In the little museum at the back, the waxwork of Mary Magdalene appears to be based on Wednesday Addams — as does, weirdly, John the Baptist. On the riverfront, Soares is an efficient off-licence for picking up local grog, and Mercearia Conserveira sells tinned fish and olive oils. Hourly ferries chug out past saltpans and flamingos to the party beach of Ilha de Tavira (£1.70 return). Park the car to the east of town, by the huge — and tremendous — indoor market (with a highly photographable sign).
A medieval pit stop in Silves
If you’re driving between the west and east Algarve, break the journey at Silves, the capital of the region when the Moors were in charge. (“Algarve” comes from Gharb Al-Andalus, meaning the west of the Iberian peninsula.) Cool off on the medieval streets, where tat shops jostle with genuine artists and craftsmen, and climb to the well-preserved castle, eventually taken by Afonso III’s Christian forces in 1249 (from £2.50). Save most time for the cathedral (80p), a gothic, 13th-century thing that nattily mixes sandstone bricks with whitewash, and features suitably melodramatic mannequins of Jesus, John the Baptist and the rest of the squad.
A hand-thrown vase from the Porches pottery
Pot luck at Porches
The giftshops of the Algarve won’t leave you wanting for ceramic tiles and bowls, much of it mass-produced rubbish. The class act is the tin-glazed majolicaware from the Porches factory, outside Lagoa, which was founded in 1968 by two artists, Lima de Freitas and Patrick Swift, an Irishman, to save the region’s dying craft. Every piece is hand-thrown, and the archive floral patterns are painted by hand, with not a Nando’s-style cockerel in sight. Mugs start at £10, you can commission your own tile panel and there’s a cafe, where the crockery’s pretty nice (porchespottery.com).
Market day in Olhao
If you’re not flying back on a Saturday, make this your morning excursion: a market that would be all over Instagram if it were in Barcelona, rather than in a congested port town nobody has heard of. It’s the real deal: two indoor galleries, one full of bright eyes, scales and tentacles, the other fruit and veg, with more stalls on the waterfront. It’s for serious shopping rather than snacking, though, and the seafood restaurants across the street are overpriced and aimed at tourists. Head into the backstreets instead, to Vai e Volta, where there’s no menu, but where all-you-can-eat platters of barbecued fish cost £8 a head, including bread, salad and potatoes. It sounds too good to be true, but isn’t. No reservations, lunch only. For all the above reasons, arrive as close to noon as possible (vaievolta.pt).
A boat ride round the Ponta da Piedade
Enter the grotto, Ponta da Piedade
There are few compelling reasons to hang around in Lagos. The slavery museum’s a bit of a downer and the Fools and Horses pub was screening Burnley v Watford on my most recent visit. However, it is the embarkation point for boat trips to the weird sandstone caves that loiter underneath the city’s Ponta da Piedade lighthouse. Yes, it’s touristy; yes, they’ve given the rock formations silly names (the Kitchen, the Camel, the Grotto of Love); but book with Bom Dia and you’ll get to sunbathe on the deck of a 1920s sailing ship and jump into the sea for a swim, before an inflatable motorboat takes you into the nooks and crannies. It’s handy for making a recce of the beaches you might want to clamber down to later, possibly including the naturists’ favourite, Praia dos Pinheiros (£20 for a two-hour trip; bomdia-boattrips.com).
Where to eat
Sitio do Forno, Carrapateira
If I had only one day in the Algarve, this is where I’d have lunch. To be honest, I’d happily have lunch here every day for a week. Up the winding road from Amado beach (another winner), Sitio do Forno is hardly much more than a crazy-paving patio with plastic tables and chairs, Coca-Cola umbrellas and an Atlantic view. There are starters and desserts on the menu, but you’re here for the octopus cataplana — a copper casserole filled with tender tentacles, sweet potato and giant shrimp, in a sauce of peppers and tomato. It’s £31 between two, with plenty left for tomorrow’s beach picnic. The only downside is, you’re probably driving, and the house red (£7 a bottle) goes rather well with it. Mains from £7; book in advance; 00 351 282 973914
Cafe Janoca, Ilha da Culatra
The tourist boats that run along the Ria Formosa funnel their clients towards this unprepossessing bar on the fishermen’s island of Culatra (permanent population: 1,000). This would normally set alarm bells ringing, but there’s no cynicism or price-gouging here. Service is warm yet casual (our waiter was in trainers and football shorts), a glass of local fizz is £1.30 and the superfresh seafood is cooked over half an old oil drum. Have the wine-drizzled clams and the oysters, either raw or grilled — they’re a rarity in restaurants here, as most are shipped off to France. Finish off with an espresso — for 50p. Take the ferry from Olhao (£5 return; 30 minutes) or make sure your boatman knows you want to have lunch here. Mains about £10
The old town in Olhao
Casa do Polvo, Santa Luzia
Santa Luzia is known as the octopus capital of the Algarve. Here, two restaurants, literally next door to each other — Polvo & Companhia and our slight favourite, Casa do Polvo — compete to get their tentacles inside you. The “House of Octopus” has been run by a Portuguese-German husband-and-wife team for 20 years, and the menu proudly shows photos of their industrial octopus-tenderising facility, looking every inch Dot Cotton’s laundrette. It’s clearly some winning spinning. There are non-tentacled options on the menu for contrarians, otherwise it’s octo-fritters, octo-burgers, octo-croquettes and, more simply, roasted cephalopod with garlic and potatoes, all served on gingham-cloth tables on a seaside street. Mains from £10; casadopolvo.pt
Jardim das Oliveiras, Monchique
Seafood is inevitably the thing in the Algarve, and while we’re not saying you’ll get bored with it, you may occasionally hanker for, say, a thick stew of cabbage and piggy bits. Inland, Jardim das Oliveiras deals in the unreconstructed cuisine of the Monchique mountain folk, who, seemingly, think there’s nothing peculiar about a pig’s ear in their casserole. The heft of your lunch might be slightly at odds with the pretty garden you’re eating it in, but it’s a problem you’ll get past. Try the local alkaline mineral water — it has a natural pH of 9.5 — and factor in some nap time. Mains from £9; jardimdasoliveiras.com
Beach Bar Burgau
The food’s mainly grilled stuff out of the sea (swordfish, more octopus), served by young yachtie waiters in polo shirts — and there’s nowt wrong with that — but we’re here for the setting. This is the closest the Algarve gets to a feet-in-the-sand Caribbean shack. You’ll find it right by the water’s edge in a cute cobbled fishing village off the N125. There’s a low-level beach-party vibe during the day, sometimes with live music. Dinner’s the time for hand-holding and wistful gazing out to moonlit waves. Mains from £11; 00 351 282 697553
The British-run Quinta Bonita hotel, outside Lagos
Quinta Bonita, Lagos
It was the family holiday home. Now it’s their eight-room hotel, up a clutch-bothering lane on the outskirts of Lagos, surrounded by water features, a cool tiled pool and gardens that’ll only get prettier. Britons Fraser and Chantelle are attentive hosts: coffee and cake are put out every afternoon, and Fraser does a mean french toast with bacon, banana and local honey for breakfast. They’re also founts of knowledge on beaches, cycling routes, golf courses and anything else you’d care to get up to. Dinner’s only one night a week, but the quinta has hooked up with local restaurants, which will throw free bottles of wine in your direction. Doubles from £93, B&B; boutiquehotelalgarve.com
Quinta do Marco, Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo
Donkey rides. We wish all hotels did them. There’s a hippie-ish back-to-nature vibe at this sprawling hillside agroturismo, 15 minutes inland from Tavira and under new management since last year. Local families come for the day to loiter by the pool and beach bar, steam in the hammam — or ride and stroke the livestock. (There was a cute baby goat last summer.) Rooms are simple, but have balconies pointing seawards, and the restaurant’s open-sided terrace affords loved-up couples views along the coast towards Spain. Doubles from £70, B&B; hotelquintadomarco.com
Sunset over Praia da Cordoama, near Vila do Bispo
Aldeia da Pedralva, Vila do Bispo
When Antonio Ferreira arrived in 2006, Pedralva was a shepherds’ village with just nine shepherds left in it. Now its 200-year-old homes have been converted into good-value holiday cottages with kitchenettes, the perfect base for active families pretty much year-round — the hotel can organise hikes, bike rides and bird-spotting. There’s a central shop and restaurant, and a bar frequented by members of the (nearly) self-sufficient German commune down the lane. Prince William and his bodyguards ate at the village’s pizza parlour when he was surfing off the Costa Vicentina — it’s nothing flash, but then Wills is a man of the people. House sleeping two from £58; aldeiadapedralva.com
Pousada de Tavira
If you’re after a hint of city break on Portugal’s southern coast, try a few nights in Tavira, and get into the habit in this palatial place at the top of the town — in the 16th century, it was the Convent of Our Lady of Grace. Its sunflower-yellow walls are striking against the blue sky, there’s a pool for cooling off in — it gets hotter the further east you go in the Algarve — and there’s probably a wedding on in the courtyard. Doubles from £110, B&B; pousadas.pt
Memmo Baleeira, Sagres
We’re normally immune to hipster branding, but beyond its funky typefaces, this Lisbon hotel chain brings genuine style to the south coast. It’s part of the Design Hotels group, and there’s a pleasing whiff of Le Corbusier housing estate about its cuboids of glass and white concrete, above a sweeping lawn. You’ll want to head elsewhere for beach time — Praia da Baleeira, directly below, is rather scrappy, and next to a harbour — but it has its own surf school, which will take kids. Dinners are centred on — what else? — a wood-fired pizza oven. Doubles from £72, B&B; memmohotels.com
The villas Resort-style complexes on the south coast dominate the Algarve’s villa portfolio, and big groups might struggle to find somewhere next to those wild west-coast beaches — but there’s good stuff out there.
The British operator Vintage Travel has 26 villas in the Algarve, including Casa Por do Sol, which sleeps six — it’s just over a mile from the front door to the Blue Flag Costa Vicentina beach of Arrifana (from £960 for a week in June; vintagetravel.co.uk). At the posher end of the market, CV Villas has 55 Algarve properties, some set in full-facility resorts such as Martinhal, at Sagres, where a house sleeping six starts at £2,820 for a week in June (cvvillas.com). James Villas has more than 300 properties to pick from (jamesvillas.co.uk). These operators can sort flights and car hire, too.
You’ll want Faro airport, served by dozens of flights a day from Britain in summer. Get there with airlines including British Airways, easyJet, Jet2, Monarch, Norwegian, Ryanair and Thomas Cook Airlines. There are bike-assembly areas by the baggage carousel, if you’ve brought your own wheels, and the car-hire lots are right outside arrivals. Bring an artisanal picnic for the flight home, though: the catering’s expensive and a disappointing end to a holiday. They sell Cliff Richard’s wine in duty-free.
Martin Hemming was a guest of Sunvil, which has 12 hotels to choose from in the Algarve. An eight-night Hidden Algarve trip, split between Quinta Bonita and Quinta do Marco, starts at £720pp, B&B, including flights from Gatwick and car hire (020 8758 4722, sunvil.co.uk).
The high-street tour ops and online agents all do Algarve packages. Look for resorts and villas near Sagres and Tavira, rather than Albufeira. A handful of operators offer hikes along the Rota Vicentina. Celtic Trails has a seven-night walk starting in Almograve, in the Alentejo, crossing into the Algarve at Odeceixe on day three; from £600pp, B&B, excluding flights (celtictrailswalkingholidays.co.uk).
The top five golf courses
Chosen by Portugal’s No 1 golfer, Ricardo Gouveia
1 Quinta do Lago Laranjal “This is a special course for me, because it’s in my backyard. It used to be my grandmother’s land, and I have a great relationship with all the staff here. The greens and fairways are always in great condition.” (Visitor green fees from £89; townhouse sleeping six from £600pp a week, including three rounds of golf; quintadolago.com.)
2 Monte Rei “It’s probably one of the toughest courses in the Algarve, but fair at the same time.” The course was designed by Jack Nicklaus. (From £145; one-bedroom villas from £145 a night; monte-rei.com.)
3 Penina “I like tree-lined courses, and this is a shining example. It has hosted the Portuguese Open 10 times, and the hotel here is great.” (From £70; doubles from £148, B&B, including a round; penina.com.)
4 OceanicoOld Course “It’s always in great shape. I used to come here to watch my dad and his friends play, when I was too young to join. I’d get jealous.” (From £113; oceanicogolf.com.)
5 Quinta do Lago South “Another great tree-lined course. The greens are of the highest quality.” Colin Montgomerie’s course record of 63 has stood since 1989. (From £89; accommodation as above; quintadolago.com.)
Go wild in the Ria Formosa
Follow the Algarve coast east, round the pointy bit south of Faro, and you’ll hit some of the region’s best beaches. This is the Ria Formosa — but it’s not there purely for your sunbathing pleasure. This protected natural park is one of the most important natural habitats on the planet.
The 40-mile-long coastal zone is made up of two peninsulas and five barrier islands. Sunbathers can pick from seaside and lagoon-side beaches, while flora and fauna get to pick from marshes, tidal flats, dunes and saltpans. Shellfish thrive, as you’ll know if you’ve eaten the clams, mussels, oysters and razor clams round these parts. Birdlife is abundant. This is an important wintering spot, and a pit stop between northern Europe and Africa. Look out for flocks of flamingos and the rare purple swamphen, the area’s official emblem.
Horsing around: snorkel with seahorses
Beyond the islands, dolphins do their thing in the Atlantic, with tourist boats in pursuit. Coolest activity, though, is snorkelling with the seahorses. By some estimates, this is the world’s largest community of hippocampuses, with short- and long-snouted varieties in attendance. Passeios Ria Formosa has two-hour seahorse trips out of Olhao or Fuzeta (from £34), and can organise almost anything else on the estuary. A three-hour nature-spotting boat trip starts at £30: time your visit to coincide with low tide (passeios-ria-formosa.com).
The Ria Formosa, incidentally, is where the Portuguese water dog comes from: the big black poodle-ish things that can herd fish into trawler nets, and latterly became pets to President Obama and family.
In restaurants, don’t balk at the cover charge. It often includes bread, cheese, olives and a sardine pâté you’ll become slightly addicted to, and it means you can skip starters
Don’t be too proud to pack a windbreak, such as Coleman’s Sundome Beach Shelter (£40; cotswoldoutdoor.com). The beaches are pretty, but this is the Atlantic we’re talking about