Amanda Fisher takes us off the beaten track to explore the rich and varied landscape of this far-flung corner of the Iberian Peninsular
The Algarve region has always found special favour with UK visitors, many falling for its charms so deeply that they have been tempted to put down roots, snapping up retirement properties and holiday homes throughout the region.
The result has been a boom in housing and leisure developments built across the Algarve, the southernmost region of mainland Portugal, a modest 50km wide, 155km long strip of land with one foot in Spain in the east, the other in the Atlantic Ocean in the west, its toes dipping the Mediterranean Sea in the south.
Despite the building bonanza, the Algarve has managed to retain the wild, open, untamed land- and sea-scapes that attract thousands of visitors to this far-flung corner of the Iberian Peninsular every year.
Who could fail to be impressed by mile upon mile of wide, unspoilt beaches, isolated coves, scalloped bays and secret grottos. Inland from the scrunchy golden sands and turquoise seas, the coastal plain with its lighthouses standing sentinel gives way to a swathe of native pine- and cork oak-covered hills, rolling mountain ranges and lush river valleys. Dotted everywhere in between are sprinklings of ancient cities, scatterings of traditional towns and villages with their bright white-washed terracotta-tiled villas, shaded squares, bell-towered churches, cobbled streets and thriving markets.
You can read, rest and relax, or throw yourself into learning new skills – from how to handle a horse to cooking country cuisine. Actually you can do both in one location via horsesinthesun.com and golearntocook.com thanks to the equestrian and culinary courses expertly combined at New Forest Lodge, a family-run farm a short carriage-ride from the cosmopolitan coastal city of Lagos.
Those who like a round of golf will also be spoilt for choice. The Algarve’s 43 nine-and 18-hole layouts are playable all year round thanks to their quality and diversity. When checking out courses off the beaten track, the Tavira end of the coast is a great option – with less-crowded courses at Benamor, Quinta do Vale and Castro Marim offering a great game in typical Algarvian countryside.
This June marks the 50th anniversary of golf in the Algarve and all of the its top courses will feature specially-commissioned commemorative golden tee to celebrate. Each visiting golfer will be invited to play from the new golden tees, then register their details on a dedicated website for an opportunity to win 50 green fees. Full details at visitgolfalgarve.com
If you yearn for the open road, hike or bike the extensive network of scenic routes that criss-cross the countryside. Pedal or trek along the rugged coastline to reach the towering 100-metre-high cliffs of Cabo da São Vicente (Cape St Vincent), the southwestern-most point of continental Europe, and discover the history, culture, and architecture of Phoenician, Moorish, Roman and Arab invaders whose influences can still be seen in many ancient towns and cities across the Algarve, alongside its splendid cathedrals, enchanting castles and spectacular lighthouses.
Don’t miss a quick dip beneath the Pego do Inferno, the Algarve’s most beautiful waterfall, or the breathtaking panoramic views from the 902-metre-high Fóia peak, highest point of the Serra de Monchique, the Algarve’s mountain range, above the picturesque spa town of Caldas de Monchique, which boasts the best brews of medronho, a fiery local liqueur. Find out more at macsadventure.com
If you have the stamina, consider a religious pilgrimage. A journey undertaken to venerate the mortal remains of Saint James the Greater in Santiago de Compostela (St James of the Field of Stars) in Spain is one of the oldest forms of tourism, having flourished in Europe for more than 1,000 years.
Hundreds of pilgrim routes lead to the city of Santiago from all over the world, but one of the oldest follows a 952km path that starts at St James’s church in Tavira on the eastern coastal strip of the Algarve. Following this ancient route is a wonderful way to experience the cultural, archaeological and rural delights of Southern Portugal, walking or cycling the 34 marked stages north from the coast through glorious countryside, passing tiny hamlets, historic manors and ancient monuments.
For lovers of all things Gothic, Faro’s magnificent 13th century Sé (cathedral) has them in spades: awesome architecture, amazing atmosphere and extraordinary artifacts; a fairytale tower you can climb for superb sea views across the walled town, a small museum full of bejewelled chalices, priestly vestments and grisly relics – including both forearms of St Boniface – and an ornate 18th-century shrine built entirely of bones.
With its sub-tropical climate, the Algarve is also rich in wildlife – plants, animals, insects and amphibians. From Vila Real de Santo Antonio in the east, to the Sagres Peninsula at the south-western extremity of the country, the Algarve coastal plain provides quality birdwatching throughout the year. More than 400 species of native and migrating birds are drawn to its shores to feed, breed and overwinter.
If you prefer to catch a wave and experience the high octane water sports that make the most of flat sands and onshore breezes along the Algarve’s long shoreline you can kite-, wind- and sea surf; wakeboard, waterski and coasteer (swim/jump/climb); take a speedboat or yacht trip to dolphin- and shark-watch; explore coast and caves by Kayak, paddleboard, pedalo or canoe; learn to sea fish, snorkel and scuba dive.
The more adventurous can get a bird’s-eye view over land and sea from a hot-air balloon, helicopter or microlight, before basking with a glass of bubbly deckside prior to dining aboard a luxury 5-star offshore cruiser (boatcharteralgarve.com/en) – now that’s what I call a holiday.
For more information: visitalgarve.pt