Zoe Bishop

Portugal’s wild (south) west

Zoe Bishop
Portugal’s wild (south) west

Head to the Algarve for blissful landscapes and fantastic food

 

The Algarve, Portugal’s southern-most region, is famous for its sun, sea, sand and sardines. And while the iconic beaches are among the world’s most beautiful, there’s so much more to the area than you might expect. Steeped in history, its south-western corner holds some incredible ancient findings, and its Atlantic waters – now home to surfers, tourist boats and passing dolphins – have been traversed by explorers and crusaders alike.

 

Nature’s finest

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Despite being known as a tourist mecca with plenty of hotels and resorts, much of the Algarve is deliberately under-developed in an effort to preserve the local wildlife. Large swathes of the area are actually protected nature reserves, including the Costa Vicentina Natural Park, with its steep cliffs, sand dunes and mountains, and the Ria Formosa Nature park, a unique lagoon system that changes with the winds and tides. 

There are plenty of hiking trails and cycling routes, but for a tour that takes in more, try a full-day, open-top jeep safari run by Geographic Algarve (Geographic-algarve.com). With expert guides to take you off the beaten track and show you the region’s hidden gems – including the impressive dinosaur footprints on the rocks at Salema beach that would otherwise be missed – you’ll also eat lunch like a local at the tucked- away Restaurante Escondidinho. The tour encompasses picturesque fishing villages, prehistoric menhirs and the south-western-most point of Europe, Cape St Vincent, which – when people still believed the Earth was flat – was deemed to be the end of the world.

 

Beach life

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With more than 100 to choose from, the Algarve’s beaches are renowned for their beauty, boasting golden sands, rocky cliffs, caves and hidden coves. At the west are Sagres and the Costa Vicentina. Rocky and wavy, this area is a surfer’s paradise, and includes Cape St Vincent, where you can catch the most famous sunset in Europe.

Along the south coast, there are plenty of secluded beaches surrounded by cliffs of incredible shapes and colours. Mixed with the striking blue of the water, these postcard-perfect shores continue east to where the sandy stretches are white and wide, and the shallow, peaceful waters are perfect for families with children.

To fully appreciate the Algarve’s beaches, we recommend taking a boat tour of the coast. X Ride Algarve (Xridealgarve.com) offers a dolphins and caves tour, which lasts two and a half hours and goes west along the coast from Marina Albufeira – a colourful harbour. Weaving in and out of the caves, including the famous Benagil Cave, the return part of the cruise focuses on spotting the dolphins and whales who regularly pass through.

 

Food and drink

As you’d expect, seafood is the staple here. From the sardines and canned fish that the region famously exports, to the patés and fresh fish stew (caldeirada) that are served everywhere, there’s plenty to enjoy. We recommend trying Bacalhau a Gomes de Sá, a baked cod dish made with potatoes, onion and boiled eggs. For great traditional restaurants, try beach-facing Restaurante O Pátio in Carvoeiro, which is considered one of the 50 best restaurants in Portugal, and the charming Restaurante Don Sebastião in Lagos old town, which offers fine dining and a great selection of wines from its extensive wine cellar.

If you don’t fancy fish, head to Ramires restaurant in Guia. The original piri-piri restaurant in Portugal, this place has been serving its famous barbecued chicken for over 50 years, and is well worth a visit.

For sweet treats, figs, almonds and marzipan are popular, but the must-try desserts are the classic pastel de nata (custard tart) and the cult Dom Rodrigo – made from egg yolks, sugar, ground almonds, and cinnamon. The local beers and wines are great, and you should sample a shot or two of medronho – the local spirit that’s colloquially dubbed “firewater”.

 

Culture clash

The name Algarve comes from the Arabic “Al Gharb”, meaning “the West”, but even before the Moors came and went, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Maghrebis and Mauritanians all left their mark here. For an insight into the region’s rich history, head to the Roman ruins of Milreu. Once a grand villa with baths and fine mosaics, there’s also the ruins of a 4th-century basilica built on the site of a Roman temple. Then, less than 1km away, you can visit the Palace at Estoi – a sumptuous 18th-century building surrounded by beautiful gardens. It’s now a luxury hotel, but you can pop in for a drink and a wander to soak up the romantic opulence.

When it comes to industry, Portugal’s famous for its cork production and canned fish. The Ethnographic Museum of Sao Bras, housed in a Moorish-inspired mansion, is worth checking out. Charting the local area’s history via an interesting collection of traditional clothes and toys, the stables now hold an exhibition dedicated to the history of the cork industry. 

Finally, stroll the promenade at Olhão to get a feel for the area’s fishing heritage, and we recommend visiting the Sala de Exposicoes Conserveira do Sul. This tiny, nondescript museum is dedicated to the Manna canned fish brand and, with a shop attached and tastings available when booked in advance, you’ll be won over by their tinned sardines. 

For more inspiration, or to book guided visits and tours, head to Algarve Treasures (Algarvetreasures.pt).

 

Where to stay

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Book with beach holiday specialist On the Beach and stay at the five-star Pestana Alvor Praia. Situated in gorgeous grounds and with private access to the beach, this is a stylish and comfortable hotel with a great bar and breakfast offering. Prices start from £351pp and include return flights from various locations across the UK and seven nights’ accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis. Half-board holiday packages are also available, starting from £581pp. You can book online at Onthebeach.co.uk or call 0871 474 3000.