Head to the Algarve, the very tip of Europe, to discover world-class beaches, beautiful landscapes, captivating towns and the best of Portuguese cuisine
Natural features make good borders. A river is the perfect barrier between one country and another, or even one local district and its neighbour. The same goes for mountain ranges, or forests, or broad sweeps of grassland.
In southern Portugal it’s a different matter. Presumably by design, the recently built motorway running from the Algarve to Lisbon neatly delineates Europe’s most southwesterly corner from the rest of the region. The effect is almost to section off the most beautiful, relatively unspoilt and quietest part of this major tourist destination from the livelier, rowdier, busier central and eastern Algarve.
Sure, you have to drive a bit further from Faro airport. Yes, the choice of accommodation is smaller. But that’s nothing. What you get for going the extra few miles is worth bragging about – or maybe not if you don’t want to see the western Algarve overrun. Whatever you want from your trip, you’ll probably find it here: history, culture, monuments and ruins, traditional towns and villages, excellent food and, more than anything else, beaches.
The beaches are magnificent. From Lagos all the way to Cape St Vincent and then northwards to Aljezur, the coastline is a succession of broad bays and seemingly endless golden sands. The Atlantic waves that wash the Portuguese coastline may mean the sea is a degree or two cooler than the Mediterranean. But the crystal-clear water and the lack of crowds more than make up for that.
It’s not just families who flock to this part of the Algarve coastline. The beaches of Arrifana, Monte Clérigo and Amoreira are big hits with surfers, while further south, around Sagres, the windsurfers skip back and forth across the bay.
Monte Clérigo is one of the best stretches of sand. A deep, V-shaped bay is lined on one side with pretty blue- and pink-painted holiday cottages and a clutch of bars and restaurants. The beach spreads out in front of them, with a rivulet for the dinghies and rowing boats to come and go. There are beaches every few hundred yards all the way down to Cape St Vincent. Not much sign of bathers here, though. Even on a still day the waves crash high against the cliffs of Europe’s most southwesterly point.
A couple of miles away, Sagres lies on another headland. Just outside the modern town is the gigantic clifftop fort Prince Henry the Navigator built to help train Portugal’s explorers. His 15th-century zeal turned the nation into a seafaring superpower but there’s little sign of the wealth he created as you stroll around the walls and through the few atmospheric buildings still standing.
Sagres is surrounded by beaches. The best lie to the east of the town. Facing them is the harbour, also home to a couple of restaurants where the fresh fish is as good as the views over the water.
Back towards Lagos, the region’s main town, a string of coastal villages have happily embraced the low-key tourism that typifies the area. Figueira, Salema and Burgau are all picture-postcard pretty. Each has a lovely crescent-shaped town beach and each is a mixture of old cobbled streets full of brightly painted houses and newer rental properties, restaurants and bars.
Boca do Rio, on the same stretch of coast, is another beach worthy of a visit, though the ruins of a Roman settlement are the extent of its infrastructure. Nearby, another Moorish fort sits on a hilltop at the furthest extent of the national park that covers most of this coast. It’s not just nature-lovers who should be thankful for the park. Protected status has been the saviour of the western Algarve’s simpler way of life and turned it into a bastion against high-rise holiday development.
The nearest thing to a resort west of Lagos is Luz, a cheery seaside town, again with its own beach and a string of good quality restaurants. This is villa land, great for families, couples, groups of friends – great for anyone, really.
Lagos itself is a revelation. The warren of whitewashed streets, with their bright window and door frames, is great for strolling through. Old churches, leafy squares and a broad riverfront promenade complete the picture.
If the coast is what the Algarve’s famous for, that doesn’t mean you have to stay within a running jump of the sea. For a region basking in year-round warmth and summer heat, the landscapes are as green and easy on the eye as they are varied. Taking the road from Aljezur to Silves, for example, you pass through cedar and pine forests, heathland, steep wooded valleys, fields of sunflowers and wheat, even the odd palm plantation.
The best place to stop en route is Monchique, which is centred around a well laid-out square full of cafes serving good coffee and better cakes. The streets that lead up the hill are home to high quality craft shops, which sit happily alongside the butchers and grocery stores and everything else that goes to make an authentic Portuguese town.
Monchique may bring everyday life and tourism together, but Silves presides over their marriage. The restaurants and bars clustered around the lovely old cathedral are used by locals and visitors alike. The tranquil streets of paint-peeling houses echo to the sound of children playing as much as cameras clicking. It’s a trick they’ve mastered in the western Algarve: making tourists feel at home without allowing themselves to be overrun.
Where to stay
Tivoli Lagos: four-star resort hotel in charming town of Lagos.
Casa Grande: an old manor house on the edge of Burgau, a small fishing village with a good beach within easy reach.
Hotel Belavista da Luz: a few minutes' walk uphill from Praia da Luz beach but with a nice family atmosphere.
Vila Valverde: a 15-room renovated manor house overlooking Praia da Luz.
Pousada de Sagres: one of the impressive state-run pousada hotels overlooking Sagres’ fort and the Cape of St Vincent.
Villa Termal das Caldas de Monchique: as the name suggests, a spa resort set up in the hills of the western Algarve.
Pestana Alvor Park: modern resort hotel near pretty seaside town of Alvor.
Tivoli Marina Portimão: resort hotel in Praia de Rocha with good facilities, two pools and access to beach and restaurants.
Where to eat
Praia de Mos, Luz (00 351 282 763 560)
Has gone from beach bar to restaurant without a big price hike. Fantastic fresh fish and views.
Barão de S João, Lagos (00 351 282 687 204)
Cosmopolitan restaurant with large terrace in lovely woodland setting.
Sagres (00 351 282 624 177)
Great little fish restaurant overlooking fishing port.