With its stylish marina, beach bars and restaurants, Vilamoura is a purpose-built shrine to pleasure – ideal for a short break. Just up the road is Quarteira, where you can savour the real Portugal
OK, I get the picture… The boss is away, it’s raining again and you’ve spent the morning idly musing over the meaning of life and scouring the internet for "vacant Scottish crofts." You know you need to be some place else, but where to go and how to get there? In desperation you’ve turned to Simonseeks for suggestions and therapy.
Well, forget about the therapy. If I ever figure out the meaning of life, I’ll let you know – but don’t hold your breath. I do, however, have a suggestion: take a short break in Vilamoura on the Portuguese Algarve.
Vilamoura is a purpose-built playground less than 30 minutes from Faro airport, served by a wide range of flight options from the UK, including both no-frills and charter. As a general rule, no-frills flights tend to be cheaper if booked in advance while charter flights often have the best last-minute deals – so check both options. May/June is a good time to visit. The sun is hot but not too hot, flight prices are generally lower than in the summer or autumn, it’s not too busy and the resort still has a fresh look about it.
If you’re seeking the "real" Portugal, Vilamoura is not the place to find it. Pre-1974 there was nothing here but virgin coast, but don’t come hoping for a quiet fishing village with cobbled streets and nets festooning the harbour wall. Vilamoura is built exclusively for pleasure and entertainment, something it does very well.
The focal point of the town is the marina, dominated at one end by the five-star Tivoli Marina Hotel. If you want to relax in total luxury, this is the place to be. Ideally located for both the marina and the beach, the hotel has everything you would expect and probably quite a bit more. Staff are pleasant and the reception area and bedrooms are most impressive, especially if you can persuade them to give you one of the newly refurbished rooms.
There are countless activities available either at the hotel or nearby, including golf, horse riding, snorkeling, cycle hire, fishing and most water-based sports. Reception can advise and book these for you. If you fancy some big game fishing, this can be arranged at the very far corner of the marina. There can sometimes be an issue with late-night (or rather early-morning) noise from the nearby beach bar, but in high season this is party town – albeit a rather up-market party town – so don’t be surprised if things occasionally get a bit rowdy.
If you prefer somewhere a little quieter – and a whole lot cheaper – you need only walk a couple of hundred yards or so to the Dom Pedro Marina. This is more of a good three-star than a four-star hotel, but don’t let that put you off. I’ve stayed at both the Tivoli and the Dom Pedro, and of the two I preferred the latter.
The rooms are pleasant and, while everything is on a smaller scale than its five-star neighbour (including the balcony), the bedrooms are clean, comfortable and well equipped. I only ate breakfasts in the hotel, but the food was good and the service excellent. It has an attractive pool area and its quieter location is almost as convenient as the Tivoli, being about three minutes from the beach and not much more from the marina.
Most people seem to start their evening at the marina. There’s a splendid range of restaurants, all serving excellent food – but rents here are high, and this is reflected in the prices. You’ll find that the restaurants behind the marina serve equally good food at a substantial saving – but be prepared to compromise on the view.
There are so many good restaurants in Vilamoura, it seems unfair to single out any particular establishment. However, if you fancy some good Portuguese cuisine, the Concorde (+351 289 388 260) on Vila Lusa is well worth a visit. Despite its excellent location in the marina, I found the Old Navy (+351 289 301 200) at 10 Marina Plaza disappointing. The food was expensive and the service could have been better – but maybe I just hit a bad night.
Later in the evening you can enjoy the craic at the Irish Bar, party the night away at Nikki Beach or take in a show at the fabulous Casino Vilamoura before trying your luck at the tables. There is no shortage of entertainment.
Just up the coast is the town of Quarteira. Once a small fishing village, it has grown over the past 50 years into a major tourist resort with 2km of excellent beach. A local bus service runs every hour between Vilamoura and Quarteira, but you can walk it in 15-20 minutes. From the Tivoli, turn away from the marina and walk along the coast past the old fishing harbour; there’s usually an impromptu fish market here in the morning, when the fishermen sell their daily catch.
Visit Quarteira on a Wednesday and you can browsethe Gypsy Market in the town centre, one of the biggest on the Algarve. It’s a good place to pick up gifts for the family as shopping in Vilamoura is both limited and expensive. Look out for lace tablecloths, pottery, leather belts and bags.
Quarteira is cheaper and less intense than Vilamoura. Its beach is better and it has some excellent restaurants. Try La Cabane (+351 289 313 819) on Rua do Levante if you want to eat with the locals. Give them a ring and they’ll pick you up and take you back to Vilamoura for free. They serve excellent traditional Portuguese food at very reasonable prices, every day but Sunday.
When you need a brief escape from the work-a-day routine, Vilamoura could be just what the doctor ordered. It’s a trendy resort – but if you do your homework, it needn’t be desperately expensive. Families may well prefer to base themselves in Quarteira, but Vilamoura is still worth a visit. When you need to escape, it’s a lot more accessible than that Scottish croft – and probably a lot more fun.