When I'm in need of some sunny respite but funds are tight, Portugal's Algarve coast is one of my favourite short-hop holiday destinations. Lying on the southern edge of the Iberian Peninsula beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the Atlantic-carved coast of sandstone cliffs and scooped out beaches was once outside the known world and even today there are places in the western Algarve that still seem wind-swept and remote.
In general Portugal's most southerly region shares a mild climate, laid-back vibe and easy charm with its Mediterranean neighbours, yet it remains much quieter and more low-key than Spain's Costas. That said, this is still prime package holiday and rental villa territory with the concomitant international bar and restaurant scene, water parks and tourist attractions, but it's easy to navigate around these if you want to. Hotels tend to be tucked away behind the sea cliffs so they don't spoil the view from the beach, and traditional villages have been integrated into resort areas so there's a degree of authenticity and some very decent tabernas serving local food.
Centuries of wind and wave erosion has worked wonders on the coastline. The soft sandstone cliffs crumble into the emerald sea like biscuits in hot tea, with chunks bitten out to form caves, arches, stacks and pinnacles dropping away to wide golden beaches and sandy alcoves.
The overall effect is of a truly picturesque coastline where it's difficult to go far without finding another hidden arc of sand or alluring aquamarine pool to swim in. It's little wonder then that the region holds an International Sand Sculpture Festival every year, when art imitates nature, turning part of the town of Pera into a sandy wonderland.
Fronted by a wide half-moon bay divided by jutting cliffs into Albufeira Beach and Fisherman's Beach, the town of Albufeira is a good central gateway to the Algarve situated halfway between Faro to the east (with the region's main airport) and Lagos to the west. Once a fishing village that has since burgeoned into a popular tourist resort, Albufeira's rustic old town lends it a charm that's sometimes lacking elsewhere on this coast. Classic Mediterranean white-washed buildings tumble down to the honey-coloured cliffs that shelter golden sands washed by long sweeping waves.
As its name suggests, Fisherman's Beach is where the daily catch was once hauled in, but the colourful wooden fishing boats that once lined the shore have all but disappeared since the artificial harbour was created west of the town. Incidentally, there are boat tours of all kinds available down by the harbour and being out on the water definitely gives you the best vantage point to appreciate the Algarve's natural beauty.
The beaches here are usually safe for swimming, but the Algarve coast is exposed to the whims of the Atlantic so the water can get a little frisky. In fact, on one occasion a freak wave caused some commotion as it swept much higher up the beach than expected, soaking towels and beach bags and claiming plastic balls, buckets and bottles. A man snoozing on his floating lie-low stirred to find himself beached between scurrying sun-worshippers.
I opted to stay a small stroll away from the main beach at Vale Santa Maria Apartments hidden behind a quiet street just west of the old town. It has a pool area, which is a nice place to sit and would be great for families. Out of high season it was really peaceful with only two other apartments occupied. It was a huge bonus to be far away from the sprawling resort suburbs and tacky strip to the east of Albufeira, and the price for the apartment was very reasonable.
Walking around Albufeira's largely pedestrianised old town is a really pleasant experience at any time of day. It's only a little maze but it's still possible to get momentarily lost in the sloping cobbled lanes that open out onto wider avenues paved with grey and flint geometric mosaics. Rua 5 de Outubro is a main point of reference with the tourist office and a tunnel through the cliff-face to the main beach, that's flanked by stairs to higher levels of the town.
At its heart is a large tree-shaded square enclosed by traditional Portuguese buildings, their ground floor levels filled with tourist shops and eateries spilling into the open air. Particularly charming are the little passages and steps climbing between cottages to the tip of the town where there are lovely vistas across the terracotta rooftops and distinctive delicate grilled chimneys to the ocean beyond.
There are some nice churches here too. I stopped to look around the white and sandstone Church of St Sebastian, now the Sacred Art Museum, on the small square of Praca Miguel Bombarda. Poking above the rooftops of the old town, the graceful Igreja Matriz with its latticed windows and angelic bell tower is a neoclassical world away from the gothic churches further north.
Though the delights of the Algarve are nearly all outdoors, I was also curious about the Archaeology Museum in the former town hall, which made a cool diversion from the heat of the midday sun. The artefacts I saw were similar to those unearthed all across the Mediterranean dating from Neolithic, Roman, Moorish and more recent times. Actually the most memorable exhibits were evocative vintage photographs of the area before the advent of tourism.
The lay of the land
The coastal paths that crisscross the area, skimming cliff-faces, emerald inlets and little headlands, offer the best way to experience the shore. From Fisherman's Beach you can walk along the boulder-strewn coast, pausing for a dip in the inviting coves as you go. The rock arches provide plenty of photo opportunities and the spurting blow holes are huge fun at high tide. The path occasionally gets a little adventurous requiring you to cling to the cliffside or hop over a rock bridge, and there are forks in the track that rejoin again a short way along.
I spotted quite a few creatures here – a tail-less lizard scrambling up the rocks and little crabs inching in and out with the waves. Though I saw few other ramblers, a weathered local angler the colour of teak gave a friendly wave as he perched strategically on the rocks over deep water.
After a few kilometres the path leads down onto scenic Praia da Oura beach, divided into sections by huge rocky outcrops. In the warm air and dazzling sunshine its sultry beauty is soporific, but a quick dip in the cool ocean is instantly reinvigorating. At the eastern end of the beach, the trail picks up again and continues on over the cliffs to the sandy bay beside the small fishing village of Olhos de Agua. I stopped for lunch here one day and was told to look out for the underground springs that bubble up beneath the sand.
Sure enough a patch of the sandy shallows was bubbling like a cauldron. The coastal tour continues up a well-trodden path at the far end of the beach all the way along undulating cliffs to the marina in the large resort of Vilamoura. There are some entrancing views from the high points and it's surprisingly serene given the density of holiday developments in the area.
Though this stretch of coast is undeniably beautiful, you have to go west to see the Algarve from its best angle. A few kilometres beyond the popular seaside town of Lagos, Ponte da Piedada – a steep and narrow peninsula indented with beaches – is a real natural marvel. From the deck of a small fishing boat the promontory is completely captivating. Weaving among its giant sculpted rock formations, high scooped out cliffs, unknown bays and little shimmering blue grottoes with names like The Cathedral, Fine Arts and Grotto of Love, feels like a dream of a semi-submerged ancient lost city.
Once I had got the lay of the land from the boat, I set out along the clifftop paths to do some beach-hopping. Some of the enclaves are accessible by precipitous staircases, but kayaking is another way to access the most remote scallops of sand. I hesitate to use the word paradise but this place could certainly qualify.
To glimpse the real Algarve, however, you have to head inland. I visited the cute little village of Alte tacked across a hillside to the north of Albufeira. Cobbled passages zigzag among white cottages draped in shocking pink bougainvillea, the odd flash of blue frames windows and doorways, and in the square bronzed and wizened old folk sit on benches beneath the trees, chatting, reading the newspaper or just watching the world go by. It's a perfectly quaint picture of the Algarve. Just beyond the village, the seemingly-sleepy River Alte is transformed downstream into the plunging Vicar's Falls (Queda do Vigario).
It's a disarmingly beautiful little spot and the bowl-shaped lake below the waterfall is irresistible for a quick swim on a hot day. Part of the waymarked Algarve Way runs by Alte and onwards to the small town of Sao Bartolomeu de Messines. Though I haven't yet done the walk, I'm sure it would enhance the rural Algarve experience.
You are never far from a good pit-stop along the central Algarve coast, with some reliably good eateries dotting the shore. I stumbled upon La Cigale while walking along the coastal path from Praia da Oura to Olhos de Agua, perched in a corner just above the beach. It's a relaxed restaurant with a light nautical theme and the tables on the terrace are perfect for lunch with an unobstructed sea view. Delicious Portuguese cuisine comes in the form of red hot tender Piri Piri chicken and yummy perfectly-seasoned seafood. As is often the case, you are paying for the view as well as the food, but prices are reasonable enough.
Similarly, Restaurante O Farol provided much needed sustenance after an afternoon swimming and picking my way across the rocks and cliffs between Praia da Oura and Albufeira. An understated beach grill, it makes the most of its position right at the edge of Fisherman's Beach to serve succulent fresh fish. Even for someone who doesn't eat much seafood, the barbecued seabass is sensational.
There's quite an array of places to eat in Albufeira, but lots of them have the same uninspiring menus you could find virtually anywhere in the world. Merging into the ochre cliffside overlooking Fisherman's Beach, the rustic A Ruina restaurant is literally head and shoulders above the rest. Laid out over several floors, it's one of my favourites for the warm service and the view of the bay from the balcony and terrace. The delicious food is a little pricey compared with the other restaurants but this is a place to linger over your food and relax with some drinks. If you're lucky the friendly staff will offer you a complimentary digestif – in my case, a lovely honey and berry brandy liqueur produced in the local area.
But the prize for most atmospheric and authentic eatery goes to Casa da Fonte, a taberna set around an atmospheric Moorish courtyard under a canopy of lemon trees. I noticed locals as well as visitors eat here, which is always a good sign. After a long day walking I tucked into a hearty Portuguese-style steak in garlic, wine and herb gravy with sliced potatoes served in a shallow earthenware cooking pot. Some variations I tried in the Algarve use bacon or palma ham in the sauce, which in my opinion makes it even more delicious.
My encounter with Portuguese bullfighting was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Having given El Toro a miss in Seville and in a misguided effort to understand the spectacle much loved by macho Hemingway, I accepted an invitation to the Portuguese version while I was in Albufeira. It was in a fairly large bullring encircled with concrete tiers raised above the pit that felt abit like the dusty amphitheatre of an ancient Roman outpost. Indeed, what I found was a sad and outdated custom devoid of valour that reminded me of the final scenes in the film Gladiator when the cowardly emperor secretly stabs a defenceless Maximus before they publicly duel.
Matadors mounted on horses chased the bull about the ring and stabbed short spears decorated in streamers into its hind quarters until the bull was in no shape to pose any threat. Only then did the matadors enter the ring on foot and tease him with red rags. On this occasion, the bull did manage to toss a matador into the air on his stumpy horns, and I felt a slight sense of triumph. But realising how at odds I was with this brutal spectacle, I decided to leave.
I like to see wildlife in the wild, but I can appreciate the merits of the well-run Zoomarine Park that's a prime family attraction in the central Algarve, and has a subtle emphasis on education and conservation. If you have youngsters in tow, they will probably love Zoomarine. There are classic acrobatic dolphin shows and a dedicated area where you can book a session swimming with them. You can meet the sealions and feed the seals, and explore the aquarium recreating different underwater habitats. One section has a few water rides, a rapids river, and a wave pool with a beach. The park also has resident parrots and macaws performing stunts in a show themed around rainforest conservation. When I visited, a bird had fluttered free and the zookeepers were trying to coax it back into its enclosure. I was pleased at least to see that they hadn't clipped its wings.
To enjoy the Algarve at its best I would advise against travelling in high season (July-August) when the seaside towns become crammed to bursting point with tourists, and the beaches are busy. Visit when it's quieter and the weather is still reliably warm: in May, June, September or October. If, like me, a local feel is important to you, look for somewhere to stay close to the old town centre in Albufeira or Lagos, explore on footpaths and avoid the sprawling suburbs of non-descript resorts. You'll definitely come home bronzed, relaxed and with your batteries fully recharged.