As the plane drops down into Faro, you catch a tantalising glimpse of them – the offshore islands of the Algarve. With their beaches, dunes, lagoons and seafood restaurants, the "Ilhas" are idyllic
Most visitors to the Algarve step off the plane at Faro and head west to the tried-and-trusted resorts of Albufeira, Portimão, Lagos and the beautiful bays and coves in between. The coastline to the east of Faro is less well-known and relatively unspoilt – especially where the estuary of the Ria Formosa forms a series of sand spits or islands (Tavira, Armona, Faro, Culatra and Barreta) with long beaches backed by dunes and, behind them, lagoons, salt marshes and mudflats teeming with birdlife. Here is my guide to the Ilhas:
Ilha de Tavira
If you have time to see only one island, it has to be Ilha de Tavira. It lies directly opposite the lovely town of Tavira, on the mainland. With its cobbled streets, beautiful churches, riverside restaurants and gardens, Tavira makes a good base for exploring. Fishing boats and small craft ply a steady trade from the quayside for most of the year and, from mid-May to September, the Tavira Island ferry chugs to and fro down the river, out through the salt marshes and across to the Ilha and its beautiful beaches.
I was captivated by my first sighting of the island of Tavira – and it remains my favourite. The ferry docks at the river shore and, disembarking, you are surrounded by the warm scent of pine. It's tempting to linger, looking back at the serene expanse of water and the boats scurrying about their business. Follow the path across the island, though, and you will come to the most glorious beach. A few beach houses are dotted among the trees and at the centre of the island are a campsite and shop which somehow don't detract from the beauty of the place.
It's lively here in summer, with beach volleyball and sailing competitions organised, but peaceful the rest of the year. When you can prise yourself away from the golden sands, the well-established Sunshine Bar always delivers sangria with a smile. There are also an increasing number of restaurants on the island. Ferreira does a wide range of pizzas and pasta dishes from €6.50, in addition to the usual fish and meat courses. If it's late enough in the day, they do a mean caipirinha too – but be warned, don't forget to check the time of the last ferry time unless you fancy an exhilarating ride home by water taxi at sunset.
Access to the island is easy. As well as the ferry departing from the quayside in Tavira, a short drive south-east through the salt pans will bring you to Quatro Aguas, from where there is a shorter year-round crossing. There's a little green tourist train that calls at Quatro Aguas after its circuit of Tavira town. If you're in need of spaghetti with shrimp, Portas do Mar (281 321 255), right by the waterside, is the perfect place to while away a beautiful evening.
Ilha da Armona
My second favourite island, Armona, is very different in character to Tavira. It has many more dwellings – and lots of them are holiday lets. There are regular links to the mainland by ferry, as much to enable locals to stock up on provisions as to convey tourists here; the journey takes just 15 minutes from the Moorish town of Olhao, 16km to the west of Tavira along the E125. The harbour is at the eastern end of Olhao's long seafront. Take time to browse and buy fruit and veg in the distinctive indoor market, or maybe some fish for a beach barbecue, before you board. Then watch the spectacle of improbably-shaped goods and animals being loaded.
The ferry docks in a delightful small sandy bay. A maze of streets run away from the harbour – a riot of chimney pots and gardens full of sand and Livingstone daisies. Any one of the paths will bring you to a bay, and the main Atlantic-facing beach is a long swathe of sand. A beach café provides welcome shade and decent food, too – or you can return to the harbour with the locals for a little more choice.
Ihla da Culatra
Culatra is the most visible island, thanks to its towering white lighthouse. The ferry trip, from Olhao, takes about half an hour and there are a minimum of four sailings daily, starting at 9.30am. In summer, there are two ports of call. Both have a cluster of houses and the walk along the beach from one to the other is just time enough to check out the sea shells. Farol, named after the lighthouse that dominates the island, is a year-round destination with modest facilities. The restaurant A do João serves good seafood and cataplanas (seafood tagine) and there are several beach bars.
Ihla de Faro
I'm cheating a little here, as the island is in reality a sand spit reached across a narrow causeway not far from Faro airport. Nevertheless, it has all the feel of an island. I first went there after a winter storm and the sand was piled high – but in England it was snowing, so I was perfectly happy to sit and watch the waves endlessly bruising the shore. One of the best places to do so is O Paquete (289 817 760) at Praia de Faro. Its "Big Toast" (€4) must surely compete for "biggest toastie in the world" status, though I watched enviously as more traditional dishes such as bifana a casa (pork house-style) were served. The restaurant benefits from both sea and lagoon views, depending on whether you want to be inside or out. Sea views and haute cuisine are on offer at the stylish Sui Generis (289 818 996) at Praia de Faro
The Praia is an intriguing mix: a boardwalk endlessly follows the lagoon, where numerous boats idyllically drift, while the occasional jet-ski roars into life and planes take off with great frequency – but, strangely, with little disturbance across the lagoon. It's a lively place with evening venues such as the Bar Naucaterina music bar; out of season, though, you could easily have miles of beach to yourself. Buses 14 and 16 run to the Praia from Faro marina. In July, mayhem sets in briefly when the Biker Festival comes to town.
Ihla Deserta (Ihla da Barreta)
Finally, this is the island that boasts "the southernmost restaurant in Portugal" – O Estamine. As you might expect, seafood features prominently on the menu – and it's not cheap. However, its situation on another endless beach makes it the focus of a boat trip, from Faro, through the Ria Formosa on a daily basis, weather permitting. Tours can be booked on 00 351 918 779 155, and the company also does boat rental if you want to explore further yourself.
Where to stay
You couldn't be better positioned for trips to Tavira Island than the Vila Gale Albacora in the Ria Formosa National Park. It's a little away from Tavira town, but has a private ferry for trips to town or the beach, so you have the best of both. The hotel has excellent facilities and a good entertainment programme. Its sister hotel Vila Gale Tavira is another good choice, and more centrally located.
In Faro itself, the best place for marina views is Hotel Eva. It can be pricey, but has stylish decor and a decent menu. Try for a room with a sea view. If you don't, the hotel's (admittedly convenient) location next to the bus and rail stations can make it a noisy choice. However, the views and rooftop pool are unbeatable. A very good and cheaper alternative is the Residencial Sun Algarve where obliging staff, good food and a central location are on offer.
In Olhao, the Pension Bicuar is a cracking little guesthouse with good sun terraces and use of a kitchen. Should you wish to push the boat out, literally, Olhao has a plush new 5 star hotel, Real Marina Hotel and Spa. The swimming pool and sundeck look directly out on the islands, and thalassotherapy is featured in the Spa. In the wake of the marina development many new bars and restaurants are opening along the seafront, and there's a pretty blue tourist train to get you around.
The Algarve also has some excellent campsites, several of which would make good bases for exploring the ilhas. On Tavira Island, try Camping Tavira. In Olhao, Camping Olhao is good – as is Camping Fuzeta, opposite Armona island.
Eating in Tavira
You're really spoiled for choice. Current favourites include Pizzaria Fenicia (281 325 175), Largo da Caracolinha 2. Here you'll find an unfailingly happy waiter who never cracks under pressure – and the best Italian food in town. If you like spice, Punjab Palace (281 370 872) is the place to go. Due to its success it is newly moved to stunning premises in Praca Dr Antonio Padinha nos 42,43 & 44. The building has lovely alcoves and vaulted ceilings and now includes a small bar to absorb the atmosphere. It's easy to find, just back from the waterfront through Rua 5 de Outubro.The lamb karahi is sensational. While you're in the neighbourhood try out A Taska A play on the word "tasca" meaning a cheap eating place, it specialises in Steak on the stone and fondue dishes. The decor is very pretty and the owners eager to please. My husband loved his steak in port and mustard sauce for 12euros. (Rua da Porta Nova 8- tel 919 472 195)
I'm in Tavira as often as I can be and regularly feature the Algarve in my blog www.restlessjo.wordpress.com. I'd love for you to join me there, and will help with any enquiries you might have.