Sun and Sea
Perhaps the most famous of the Portuguese regions, the sun, sand and sea of the Algarve have long attracted those in search of a little piece of paradise. However, as many find, there’s more to this beautiful region than meets the eye
‘The region was voted Europe’s best beach destination at the 2015 World Travel Awards’
HE SOUTHERNMOST region of Portugal seldom needs an introduction. Its miles of golden beaches, bathed by the Atlantic, are perhaps rivalled only by its manicured golf courses and its enviable year-round climate, where the sun shines 300 days a year. But, as the thousands of people who return here year after year can attest, the Algarve is a place full of undiscovered charms and hidden treasures that need to be seen to be believed.
Of course, there is no denying that the region is famed for its beautiful beaches, and quite deservedly so. The Algarve boasts around 200km of Atlantic-bathed coastline, from the western coast to the south-eastern area that borders with Spain, and the scenery changes accordingly. From the lagoons and salt marshes of the Ria Formosa natural park, and the long sandy beaches of the eastern Algarve, where the sea is calmer, to the jagged ochre cliffs that frame the coast towards the west, it’s no wonder that sun-worshippers flock to the region that features on so many postcards and in so many holiday brochures. Unsurprising, then, is the fact that the region was voted Europe’s best beach destination at the 2015 World Travel Awards. The status of beach destination also goes hand in hand with a plethora of watersports, including surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, bodyboarding, wakeboarding and stand-up paddle.
While the traditional golden cliffs and the turquoise waters of the coast provide a veritable treat for the senses, the landscape is also dotted by plenty of green – or should we say, greens. Consistently voted one of the world’s best golfing destinations, the Algarve is home to dozens of golf courses, all with distinct features and suited to all tastes and levels of play. And with its mild weather making it one of Europe’s most appealing destinations, the south of Portugal is every golfer’s ideal retreat all year round.
However, look a little further inland and you will be rewarded with a less manicured, more natural but absolutely breathtaking scenery that many, almost criminally, forget is there. The Monchique mountain range is one such natural treasure, home to a pretty town of cobblestoned squares and whitewashed houses, the thermal springs of Caldas de Monchique (historically the preferred destination of the nobility due to its healing waters), and the highest peak in the region, Fóia. The view towards the ocean makes the drive up along the winding hillside roads incredibly worthwhile. Stop for a picnic on the way and breathe in the omnipresent scent of eucalyptus, or at one of the many traditional roadside restaurants.
Those flying into Faro airport are blessed with a bird’s eye view of another point of natural interest: the Ria Formosa, a protected natural park comprising a striking labyrinth of islets, marshes and lagoons. Granted World Heritage status by UNESCO, the Ria is home to traditional fishing communities, beautiful islands, deserted beaches, rich wildlife and some of the best seafood you will find anywhere in the world.
Nature-lovers – whether on foot or on bicycle – have long recognised the appeal of the Algarve, and many choose to follow the Via Algarviana route, which stretches across the region, or the Rota Vicentina walking trail, which extends north along the Vicentina Natural Park towards the Alentejo. This area is also a haven for birdwatchers. Home to many indigenous and migratory birds, every year, the historic town of Sagres holds an international Birdwatching Festival, which attracts twitchers from around the world.
While there are a number of bustling resorts that cater to all types of visitor, such as the holiday favourites of Vilamoura, Albufeira or Portimao, it is inevitable to visit modern-day Algarve without coming across its historical roots. The region’s heritage is incredibly rich, with evidence of its Roman and Arab occupation still visible today, in places such as Silves – the region’s former capital with an ancient castle and Roman bridges, where a Medieval Fair takes place every August –, and Tavira, a quaint city in the eastern Algarve known as ‘The Venice of the South’.
The Algarve is also famous for its role in the Portuguese Discoveries. From the 15th century, it was the centre of the Age of Discovery, best depicted in the picturesque city of Lagos. Despite being one of the region’s most popular tourist destinations, with a buzzing nightlife of bars, restaurants and young people, its seafaring history is everywhere you turn. For a true feel of this historical heritage, head to Sagres and visit Cape St. Vincent, the south-westernmost point of Europe that was once considered the ‘End of the World’ and from where many of the ships were launched all those centuries ago.
As well as in the architecture and the traditional handicrafts of this area, the region’s many cultural influences and the past of its seafaring people can also be seen in the food, which incorporates many spices and techniques, such as the cataplana, the name of the dish and cooking utensil similar to the North African tagine. Gastronomically, however, the cuisine is a reflection of the local produce – inland and in the mountains, dishes such as wild boar and rabbit are popular delicacies, while on the coast, the fresh seafood, cooked simply but oh-so-perfectly, is the culinary calling card of a region that still has the power to surprise.