By Allan Richter
The southern region of Portugal, known as the Algarve, is living art. Embed yourself long enough within its magnificent coastal rock formations, either by hiking or biking their upper reaches or hugging the coast below by kayak and with the help of the shifting sun you can watch these cliffs turn many striking shades of ochre.
With soft beige, sandy beaches on which to land your kayak, bountiful fresh fish from the Atlantic, quaint towns and warm, friendly people with easy smiles, the nearly 125 miles of the Algarve coastline are inviting and worth exploring. Certainly more friendly and inviting than in ancient times, when the many fortresses that still stand were built to ward off pirates and invading armies from North Africa.
These days getting to the Algarve is a lot simpler. TAP Air Portugal recently launched new direct flights from Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, DC, to Lisbon; from a connection in Lisbon, it’s just a short hop to the Algarve’s Faro International Airport. The new flights add to TAP Air Portugal’s existing non-stop flights to Lisbon from New York, Miami, and Boston.
That’s good news for travelers who want to escape to an area that has won multiple awards as Europe’s leading beach destination. On the following pages, you’ll learn how to make the most of your visit. You’ll find yourself repeating an oft-heard phrase in the region—Obrigado! Thank you!
Where To Keep Fit, With A View
The Algarve is all about stunning coastlines, captivating rock formations, inviting grottos and spectacular vistas. In the Lagoa region, the nearly 7.5-mile hike of varied terrain from Praia da Marinha in the east to Praia de Vale de Centeanes in the west—known as the Seven Hanging Valleys trail—is considered one of the top hikes in Europe.
Running atop sun-splashed golden coastal cliffs, the trail offers views of limestone arches and other rock formations protruding from the ocean floor. At one point, we settle above a huge hole in the roof of a cave, as several beachgoers below explore the sands and shallow water within it.
This medium-difficulty hike lets us study a variety of fauna and some of the animal life along the way. We see rabbits scurrying beneath dwarf palm, irises, thyme, and juniper thickets. Gulls flying at eye level are a reminder of how far we are above the turquoise shallows below. Fueling up with a picnic of salted cod (see “Where to Eat”), salad, rice, and almond cookies, our group covers about a third of the full hike, to Benagil Beach, before hitting the next stop on our busy itinerary.
Biking the Algarve is as satisfying as hiking it, and not only for the enchanting landscape. As we embark from our hotel in Vila Real de Santo António for a roughly 18-mile trek, experienced cyclists in our group comment on how drivers move to the side to let us pass or patiently and slowly move behind us.
We make our way through town to more remote trails, including dirt paths through parks and a boardwalk trail at a beach, before stopping at Cacela Velha, a fishing village in Ria Formosa Natural Park. There, we explore the perimeter of the Cacela Fort, which offers layers of history dating back to the 12th Century as part of the region’s coastal defensive system.
Our bikes are provided by Bike Tours Portugal (biketoursportugal.com), which outfits our group a day or two later for another ride, this one even more scenic. Until this trip, I had never put the words “luxury” and “biking” together; the Bike Tours Portugal group meets you at your hotel with a 23-foot trailer with the space for a bathroom, a small kitchen, a repair shop and more than a dozen bicycles. On the side of the van: “LTW,” in fancy script, for “Luxury on two wheels.”
For our second ride, we depart our hotel in Sagres, at the extreme western tip of the Algarve and seemingly one of the most untouched areas in the region, for a bike tour along Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park. We stop for fresh strawberries at a roadside market with a sizable organic produce area.
Along the open roads, we pass sunflower and lavender fields before settling down on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. Atop the cliffs around us, there is nothing but a single house as far as we can see. After meditating on the scene, we turn back a few miles, where Bike Tours Portugal’s resident chef, André Martins, has prepared a picnic lunch of cod for us. Afterwards, some of our group, hungry for more expansive vistas, bike on to he Cape St. Vincent’s lighthouse in Cabo de São Vicente, Europe’s southwestern-most point.
Where To Follow The Coastline By Kayak
A kayak tour from the Lagos area in the western Algarve gives our group a close look at the kinds of gorgeous rock formations we saw from atop the cliffs on our hike days earlier. As we kayak past beautiful sandy beaches, we navigate around and through arches, and into small openings that lead us into grottos and caves. The mysterious turns mystical as rays of sunlight peek through holes in the rocky roof, bounce off the shimmering water and dance on the grotto walls.
We land on a beach at the bottom of a towering cliff. Olive-skinned couples with paddles play kadimah while a few stalwart swimmers brave the frigid crystal water. We are given a treat back to shore—we link our kayaks and are towed back. My baseball cap flies off my head but is quickly scooped from the water by a police patrol on Jet Ski.
Where Music Is Magic
After exploring the Moorish-period Tavira Castle, we walk the cobblestone streets of this quaint town where the air is sweet from pomegranate, lemon and other fruit trees. Before long we are beckoned to a storefront, not by a shopkeeper, but by the alluring songs of a woman singing in a beautiful but unfamiliar style.
We are drawn to the voice as if it is coming from the mythological Sirens of the sea that summoned ships to shore. We arrive at Fado com História, a small performing arts center where singer Vânia Leal, Virgílio Lança on classical guitar and José Pinto on Portuguese guitar are holding court. Like blues songs that are at once sad and joyful, Fado, a 19th century Portuguese music, is both melancholy and uplifting. Its beauty compels me to upload some Fado music.
Fado com História presents shows Monday to Saturday at 12:15 PM, 3:15 PM and 5:15 PM (except for Saturday 3:15 PM shows at the neighboring Misericórdia Church). A short video explains the history of Fado before each performance, followed by a tasting of wine and the Algarve’s fruits. Visit fadocomhistoria.com.
Where To Make A Great Beach Day Historic
Barril Beach, in the Tavira area of the Algarve, is part history lesson, art exhibit and relaxing respite—and wholly surreal. The area was once the setting of a small but vibrant tuna fishing community, and the artifacts of that era remain to this day. Most notable is the Cemitério das Âncoras, or Anchor Graveyard, featuring dozens of rusting anchors of the former fishing fleet partly buried in the sand. No need to worry about scraping against one of them—the anchors are set in dunes away from the area where beachgoers soak up the sun and wade in calm waters.
Adding to the dreamlike vibe of the place is the mini-train that transports visitors just under one mile between the mainland and the beach. Other remnants of the bygone tuna fleet are the former fishermen’s huts, now serving as cafes, restaurants and shops.
Where To Eat
Perhaps the Algarve is more about “what to eat” than where to eat. With the region’s long coastline, it’s a no-brainer to enjoy fresh seafood here. You’ll find first-rate fish in high-end restaurants as well as small, cozy seaside nooks. Wherever you dine, it’s pretty certain that you’ll be offered what seems like the most ubiquitous fish served here—cod—with octopus a close second.
I’ve seen enough Discovery Channel shows to know that an octopus is an intelligent, sentient animal, so I politely declined any offers of the cephalopod. To avoid mistakenly eating it, I also carefully eyed the mystery appetizers that would appear to make sure I didn’t see anything that resembled octopus arms (they’re not called tentacles) or the suckers on them.
The Portuguese obsession with cod dates back to the 13th Century, when Portuguese fishing boats caught cod off the coast of Newfoundland. Because of the long distance it took to haul back their catch, the fisherman salted the cod to keep it from spoiling; this explains why one of the most popular cod dishes is bacalhau, or salted cod. But it is far from the only way to prepare the fish.
“We have a saying in Portugal,” I heard from more than a few servers, “‘There are 1,000 different ways to prepare cod.’” And they were telling the truth. Servers offered cod soup, cod with milk and potatoes, baked cod, and cod with bechamel sauce and prawns, among others.
Each cod dish I tried was delectable. Despite the variety, I grew tired of it. At Restaurante Martinhal, a simple beachside restaurant in Sagres, I sought out another popular Portuguese catch—sardines. The pursuit of this dish went against my instincts—favoring fresh foods, I tend to keep canned food at a distance. And canned sardines, with the poor little fish scrunched together like, well, sardines, was all I knew of these fish.
No surprise that Restaurante Martinhal owner Luis Galhardo, from a long line of fishermen, abhors anything canned as well. Pan-frying with no oil because of the rich oil content of sardines, Galhardo cooked up some of the best-tasting fish I’ve had, with layers of raw tomato and onion adding a nice contrast of tastes and textures. Visit their Facebook page, Restaurante Martinhal.
Where To Stay
The 40-mile ride from Faro International Airport to our lodging begins to shed light on what’s to come. First, despite being told the region has suffered a recent drought, the landscape is dotted with small but lush groves and other green fields. Second, there’s no sign of a cookie-cutter chain hotel anywhere.
That second observation is supported by my arrival at Grand House, a five-star property in the historical town of Vila Real de Santo António, in the Algarve’s easternmost corner. The Belle Époque hotel is set in a serene location, along a marina at the mouth of the Guadiana River, which separates Vila Real de Santo António from the town of Ayamonte in Spain, in view just across the way.
The hotel, with intricate woodwork, antique touches, and 30 rooms and suites, is warm, inviting and well-equipped for the working road warrior, with wireless Bluetooth speakers and free WiFi. A complimentary shuttle brings guests to and from the infinity pool or a yoga session at the Grand Beach Club down the road, offering a way to work off the Portuguese wine at Grand House’s speakeasy – style bar or hearty but healthy buffet breakfast of assorted seeds, nuts, fruits, artisan breads, eggs, and fresh smoothies and juices.
At the end of a long day, the Grand House foyer staircase, lined with candles on both sides, was a welcome sight. Visit grandhousealgarve.com.
Our move to Sagres, near the westernmost point of the Algarve, brings us from classic luxury to modern high-end lodging at the stylish Martinhal Sagres Beach Family Resort, a collection of contemporary villas, apartments and spacious rooms that let in plenty of light, just one eco-friendly piece of the Martinhal group’s aim to reduce energy consumption and pursue sustainability.
The sprawling property, which feels like a natural part of the landscape, touts five swimming pools, four restaurants and myriad ways to be active or rest in a sleek, minimalist, modern setting. We loved the daybeds in teardrop-shaped rattan cocoons, each equipped with a call button with which to order a drink or snack.
Frankly, it’s a brilliant model in hospitality: Offer a family destination with enough kids’ activities to give parents a respite in the spa or pool. Whether it was the politeness of the many British families on hand during our stay, or the resort’s expansive layout, our group, with no kids, felt no encroachment or disturbance. Visit martinhal.com.