Call me mean if you like but I’m always reluctant to share too many tips, for fear that my favourite Algarve places become over popular. In general I like my beaches to be empty. But Easyjet have tempted me to share a few things that might make your Algarve experience that little bit more special. I’m always glad to promote Portugal – it’s a beautiful place.
So shall we start with the beaches? They’re hard to ignore, and why would you? My personal favourites are those that you reach by boat. Watching the sun glint off the water as you glide towards your beach of choice is my idea of heaven. I’m an Eastern Algarve lass, and Tavira Island beach is my natural habitat. It’s in the Ria Formosa so you’ll be able to spy out egrets and heron as the boat heads down river. Looking back, pretty Tavira fills the skyline.
If you happen to be a landlubber, you can reach a stretch of the same beach by land train from Barril, a little further west. I usually ride out and walk back, depending on the time of day. Tiny crabs scuttle in the salt marshes and wispy pines shade the varying blooms.
I’ve already hinted that I love boats, and the harbour at Olhao is the perfect jump off point for the islands of Armona and Culatra. The ferry loads up with all manner of goods from the local market before slipping past the yachts in the marina and across the limpid sea. Armona, my favourite, is a bare 20 minutes away, but it’s a different world. In Summer the beach houses that line the narrow paths across the island may be lazily occupied, but it’s still not hard to find your very own stretch of sand. If the heat becomes too much, a cluster of restaurants provide welcome shade. Youngsters cool off rather more dramatically by plunging off the pier.
Culatra is slightly further distant. Chances are you’ll have seen the lighthouse at Farol as the plane banked in the skies over Faro airport. As with Armona, a small community lives on the island, and you can wander the sandy paths down to the sea. The ferry makes two stops on Culatra so it’s possible to disembark at the first and paddle along the shoreline to Farol, then pick up a later ferry back to Olhao. A couple of cafes offer shade with a sea view. The sun sliding down the sky on a golden evening is the perfect ending to a day by the water. You might even spot a dolphin or two, playing in the waves as you sail home.
If your base is further west in the Algarve, you can sail out of Faro to reach Culatra, or to Barreta, popularly known as Ilha Deserta. Don’t go without your sunscreen- the reflection off the sea will tan you instantly, and the only shelter is at O Estamine, the Algarve’s most southerly restaurant.
As well as bobbing about in boats, I very much like to walk. The Algarve has some truly beautiful countryside, and one of the best ways to see it is to join a walking group. These are advertised each week in the “Portugal News”. You benefit from the local knowledge of the walk leader, and like-minded people to chat to along the way. People are always keen to share tidbits like the best places to eat and drink cheaply. The walks usually include a stop off at a restaurant as a reward for your walking efforts.
Really keen walkers might like to check out the Via Algarviana, an inland walking trail which stretches all the way from Alcoutim at the Spanish border out to the very tip of the Algarve. It’s possible to walk just a small section, or to book accommodation along the route in local farmhouses. It’s an Algarve many people never glimpse, or even dream of. You might be lucky and spot some of the spectacularly pretty bee-eaters, swooping low over the water, or a hoopoe hiding in the trees.
Bikers are not neglected either. Cycle tours are also featured in the “Portugal News” (grab one free at the airport on your way in). There’s a coastal cycle path which is great for getting the wind in your hair on one of those warm Algarve days. Bike hire is widely available throughout the area.
To really add some Algarve flavour to your holiday, you should try to seek out a festival. The Portuguese are often quite serious natured, but they love to celebrate. Carnaval in February is one of the year’s major events, and the parades are full of joy and laughter. The town of Loule hosts the main one, but many of the villages have their own celebration. I was lucky enough to catch the one in Paderne, not too far from Albufeira, this year. The children delighted in wearing their fancy dress and skipping along behind the main procession. If you do visit Paderne, don’t forget to check out the Corte Real art gallery. It’s a lovingly restored very special farmhouse.
Further inland, Alte has a great Carnaval celebration too, but more than this, there’s a superb Folklore Festival in May, and in September a traditional Wedding Ceremony.
You can even pop very easily over the border to Spain from the Eastern Algarve. Sanlucar de Guadiana has a beautifully costumed gypsy romeria the first weekend in May. I came upon this quite by accident and it’s one of the delights of time spent in the Algarve that you can happen upon a local festival at almost any time of year.
There are lots of reasonably priced places to stay across the Algarve, but if you like the sound of the Eastern Algarve and don’t mind being just a little way from the main towns, newly opened Fazenda Nova will give you a warm reception. Their “things to do” page will give you lots more ideas too.
These are my tips for tourists visiting the Algarve. If you wind up in Tavira you may even find me, sitting with my evening glass of port, outside Anazu, watching the tiny swifts dart up to their nests above the cafe. The riverside setting is perfect. If I’m eating out, I could be round the corner at A Taska, just off Praca Dr. Padhina. It’s the prettiest little restaurant I know.
If you need any more details, just ask. Many of my posts relate to the Algarve. http://restlessjo.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/b-is-for-beaches/ will give you a flavour of the area.
How fitting that I’m flying south again tomorrow. Hope to see you there soon.