An easy pace, uncrowded, mostly sunny - Winter and Spring in the Algarve can be the best time for getting active- walk, cycle, play golf or simply sightsee around some lovely towns and villages.
Long renowned for its beaches and golf courses, the Algarve is a wonderful place to indulge a little gentle activity. Get out of the resorts and into the countryside to really appreciate the Algarves gorgeous scenery. It's easy enough to get started. Pick up a copy of Portugal News (free at the airport) to find details of guided walks in your area. It's nice to have some company and to share a little local knowledge. I joined a group who walk in the eastern end of the Algarve. Afterwards they eat and swap stories in a typical Portuguese restaurant - very cheaply, of course.
If you prefer to go it alone, why not purchase a book in advance of your holiday and do a little armchair planning? Walking in the Algarve by Julie Statham has clear easy-to-follow descriptions. Two of my favourites are the levada walk, near Silves, and the cliff top walk from Marinha to Benagil.
If it’s really gentle exercise you’re wanting, the Quinta de Marim is a small place of enchantment, just off the coast road E125, near Olhao. Part of the Ria Formosa, you can follow the 3km nature trail, stopping off at the tidal watermill for coffee and cake. The information centre tells you all about the flora and fauna. It's also home to the Portuguese Water Poodles, famed for their webbed toes and the part they formerly played in the local fishing industry. Strange but true.
I really love to walk, but even more I love to explore. Still on the E125, beyond Tavira and heading towards Spain, a right turn will bring you to the tiny beguiling village Cacela Velha (old castle). A church, sturdy fortress walls with glorious views of the lagoon and a handful of cottages are about all you’ll find here. Come quickly- the developers are hovering and a restaurant or two has sneaked in.
Carry on to the border town of Castro Marim - the first settlements here date from 5000BC when the town was an island surrounded by shallow waters. The remains of the imposing castle are still undergoing excavation and a small archaeological museum tells its history. The nature reserve is the place to see flamingos, but never on a hot day as there's no shelter out on the salt pans. Journey north from here along the River Guadiana and you come to the biggest fortress yet, in the sleepy town of Alcoutim. Gazing down on the yachts peacefully moored on the river, it’s not easy to imagine this a place of conflict, yet the fortress across the water in the Spanish town of Sanlucar de Guadiana tells a different story. It’s possible to catch a ferry across the river from the jetty but remember the two hour time differential with Spain. You might have to wave to the ferryman on the opposite shore for a lift back. In any case, it’s a lovely spot to linger. The Riverside Bar was for sale when I was there last and I felt very tempted to try my hand as a landlady.
If you really want to get off the beaten track you should consider the Via Algarviana. Starting from Alcoutim it is a 240km trail for walking or cycling and extends right across rural Algarve to Cabo st Vicente, the most south-westerly point in Europe. It’s divided into 30km sections with accommodation options along the way and passes through some wonderful scenery en-route. An eco-tourism and healthy living initiative, the idea is to divert some of the money being spent in the coastal resorts to help preserve struggling remote communities. You can walk or cycle as much of the route as suits you, using the downloadable guide on www.viaalgarviana.org - I've been already to lovely Alte with its thermal springs, the tranquillity of Vaqueiros and the grandeur of Sagres, but having read the guide I can't wait to fill in some of the gaps. Cyclists might also like to try the Ecovia do Litoral or Algarve Coastal Cycle route - 214km of clifftops and saltmarshes from Sagres to Vila Real do Santo Antonio at the Spanish border. Vila Real is the place to make that ferry crossing to Spain. Ten minutes will take you over to Ayamonte where you can stroll in the pleasantly tiled plazas and do some shopping, or simply sample tapas.
Different, but equally enjoyable, especially with children, a couple of hours can be spent at the FiESA Sand Sculptures at Pera, near Albufeira www.prosandart.com/fiesa2010 from May till October each year. The work is inspirational and full of humour and once having bought a ticket you can return to view the site floodlit in the evening. Adults 8 euros, 6-12yrs 4.50
Better not leave out the golfers - the eastern Algarve is fast catching up with its competitors in the west and winter rates are nicely competitive. Quinta da Ria (281 959 000; www.robinson-ep) is right by the shore and has stunning coastal views - not too challenging in case you keep taking your eye off the ball! There are also tennis courts, 5-a-side football, beach volleyball and a Wellfit Spa. Quinta de Cima, running parallel to Quinta da Ria, is for more experienced golfers. Benamor is the oldest course hereabouts while Castro Marim Golfe and Country Club (281 510 330; www.castromarimgolfe.com ) has luxury villas to rent if you can't tear yourself away from the game. Robinson Club at Quinta da Ria offers an unlimited golf package from 244 euros for three nights with full board.
To be near the golf but not stay on a course, Suite Hotel Praia Verde has the best of both worlds - sleek design and a terrace with coastal views, while down below lies one of the best beaches in these parts. Better yet Pezinhos na Areia restaurant nestles by the shore (281 513 195; www.pezinhosnareia.com). A sure sign of its success is the recent stunning makeover- the building is now clad in wood with plush seating in circular arbours.A hint of jet set with beautiful views. The menu is extensive, from reasonable pataniscas de camarao (delicious prawn cakes) up to lobster rice (70euros for 2) or red prawns (99euros for 2) if you're in pushing the boat out mode.
If you like to be nearer to town Quinta Velha Village in Cabanas (281 370 432; www.quintavelhavillage.com) has all the facilities you could want including a top class restaurant O Monte (phone 915 384 220) where the traditional stone decor and warm atmosphere is complemented by wonderful food. Cabanas itself has plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from, and you can ferry across to its immaculate beach.
Along the Guadiana shoreline a wonderfully peaceful retreat is to be found at Guerreiros do Rio River Hotel Algarve. With high standards of comfort from 45 euros for a double room, if you don't stay here it's still a great place to call for a midday meal, having exceptional regional food and a bar overlooking the river. Further north, just past Alcoutim, Estalagem do Guadiana has a small pool and terrace with Guadiana views. Lastly Colina dos Mouros is a very good value hotel with an outstanding location in a former Arab castle in beautiful Silves (twin rooms from 37euros).
With so many choices there really isn't any need to hibernate in the UK. You may get a rainy day in the Algarve, but there are good shopping complexes at the Forum Algarve, near to Faro, and in Tavira, Gran Plaza is doing good business. The food courts include many kinds of cuisine. I found a new love at Saboreia -a small specialist in exotic teas and coffee. Cioconat - hot chocolate mousse in a cup for 1.85 euros- delicious!