Fuelled by a sense of adventure and exploration we drove through Spain to discover a warm and peaceful Portugal
England is a great place to live, there is nothing better than an evening in Covent Garden or walking through the countryside with our dog but sadly it doesn't hold the same attraction in the winter. This year I used Simonseeks to look for somewhere we could spend November as a group that met all our needs. We settled on the Algarve and drove through Spain via Brittany Ferries (www.brittany-ferries.co.uk) from Plymouth to Santander.
Taking a dog so far was a bit of a risk but Busby was comfortable in our car during the ferry crossing and travelled well. To get a Pet Passport it is important to visit your own vet for Rabies vaccinations at least 6 months before you travel. On the return journey a vet has to verify the dog has had tape worm and tick treatment between 24 and 48 hours prior to boarding the ferry. We found a very helpful vet in Portugal on Quinta dos Areoes Espiche (pronounced S peach) on the N125, west of Lagos - telephone (+351) 282 761 827
The journey was marvellous; the motorways are easy to drive on. Despite being toll free in Spain, we hardly saw another car, in fact we saw more birds of prey flying over head than humans on the road. The scenery is spectacular changing from snow topped mountains to wide open plains, interspersed with castles and church spires.
Several of the signed services were a deceiving distance from the motorway and best avoided unless you have a detailed map. The best places are marked by tall Repsol or Petronor signs where you can buy fuel and sample local tapas. I can recommend Tuareg on the A66/N-630, near Cáceres (www.complejotuareg.net/intro.htm) and Valle de Iguna (+34 942 826127) on the N-611 plateau between Santander and Palencia, as good places stop.
We chose a dog friendly hotel in the beautiful city of Salamanca for our overnight stay. The Hotel Castellano 111 is a typically Spanish, the restaurant is empty before 10pm. It is in the ideal spot being close to Parque de los Jesuitas where Busby had a good run. It is also close to the majestic architecture of the old city where we spent several hours' sightseeing before descending on Plaza Mayor for great tapas at Cafe Real. Busby entertained the other customers with his tricks.
The next morning we continued to Portugal, stopping frequently en route. There is little to define the border except the landscape changing to fields of Cork trees, stripped naked to the waist. Just over the border in Estremoz is a roadside cafe that sells good snacks and unusual cork souvenirs; not just place mats and the like, but delicate handbags, purses and umbrellas!
Twenty eight hours after leaving Santander we were in, what for us was the perfect Algarve retreat, a tranquil villa, set in the hills between Burgau and Luz. The nearest large town Lagos (pronounced La Gosh), 10 minutes drive away, is full of history. It was established as an important sea faring town from where the ‘caravelas’ departed to explore new worlds. Despite the efforts of Sir Francis Drake, Lagos still has many of its original buildings, like the 15th century slave market, surrounded by sturdy city walls. There are also pretty shopping streets, a marina and the 4km beach of Meia Praia.
Beaches: The coast in this area is staggering. There are small bays nearby at Burgau and Luz, a pretty fishing village at Salema and a deserted beach at Praia das Furnas, reached via an unmade meandering track. At Cape Vincent on the western peninsular are spectacular cliffs, thought to have been the end of the world by the ancient civilisations. There are more fabulous beaches at Sagres and Amado where the Atlantic ocean dramatically sculptures the landscape, it is surfers' paradise.
The Algarve is certainly a golfers' paradise with at least thirty-six courses. Parque da Floresta, a 13 minute drive from the villa, is scenic, but very challenging to play and to walk. We were told that it is suitable only for mountain goats, and whilst that is an exaggeration, our legs were quivering at the end of play. Boa Vista is closer; it has spa and health club facilities as well as a spectacular course and golf academy. Rounds can be expensive for non-members but it is possible to book at discounted rates through an agency called Tee Times Golf (+351 289 300 680; www.onlinebooking.tee-times.info/algarve.php)
Diving: The Atlantic does not hold the attraction of the Red Sea, but if the visibility is good, there is plenty of life around the wrecks. During the dives, I saw two cuttlefish, the tiny rare blue and yellow nudibranch and several octopus apart from various shoals of fish. One intrepid octopus crept out of his home and attempted to steal our reel, as several conger eels watched from holes in the rocks. I dived with a very friendly PADI training centre at Lagos marina called Dive Time (http://dive-time.net).
One of the share holders at Dive Time is a Pilate's instructor, with a dance studio conveniently situated adjacent to the dive shop to occupy a non diving partner whilst you are submerged. To join the Pilate's classes , ring Veronica on +351 938 630 954 for more information.
Walking: There are paths all along the coast. From Burgau an hour's stroll will bring you to Salema or Luz in the other direction. The scenery is dramatic and at times the path is steep so sturdy footwear or at least trainers are required.
Where to stay: We wanted to glimpse life from the inside so stayed at the Villa Red Admiral. Comprising two houses it is ideal for a large group wanting to holiday together without cramping each other's style. The main house has three ensuite double bedrooms and the Guest House is perfect for two or four. Both dwellings are tastefully furnished and contain everything, inside and out, including toys for the children, games and CDs for the adults, there is even a punch bag on the veranda. Poplars screen the well-maintained grounds where eucalyptus, orange and lemon trees are strategically placed to provide dappled shade. The layout is pleasing to the eye and sympathetic to the surrounding countryside. In the central terrace is a heated pool with its own barbecue and outdoor kitchen for those al fresco lunches. All around the fragrant flowering shrubs are a magnet for beautiful butterflies and the only sound to break the silence is tinkling bells of goats grazing nearby; a heavenly place to kick back and relax.
How to make it happen: I am secretly hoping this guide doesn’t inspire you, we want to keep it for ourselves but if you must make a booking go to www.affinityvillas.com and do a villa search on Red Admiral. We intend to stay there again, so do let me know what you think of it.