Exploring the Algarve

Exploring the Algarve photo

With a 120-mile coastline, Portugal's Algarve features a variety of golden sand beaches beneath towering red cliffs. Wide and long beaches line a calm Atlantic surf, while grottos and rock formations surround an assortment of smaller ones, accessible only by boat. All this is only a 40-minute flight or a three-hour drive or deluxe bus ride from Lisbon.

But you'll miss the Algarve's full flavor if you focus only on sun and sand. The Algarve extends around the Atlantic Ocean to the Spanish border and 23 miles inland to low mountain ranges. It's greatest asset is its climate. Even when the rest of Europe is damp and cold, the Algarve remains sunny and warm.

Historically, the Algarve has always been somewhat separate from the rest of Portugal. Mountains separate it from the rest of the country — and so does history. The culture here has been more influenced by the Moors than was the rest of Portugal. Simple white stucco houses with red-tiled roofs and delicate lace chimneys grace colorful fishing villages and small quaint towns once occupied by the Moors. And the people use different expressions and listen to different music.

It's best to explore these villages and the countryside by car. A modern coastal tollway runs from west to east with arteries to inland towns. For maximum leisure and comfort, stay at a villa in one of several towns west of Faro, the capital of the region, from which you can plan day trips. There are plenty of luxury villas to rent in the Algarve.

Faro is the Algarve's largest city. It's narrow winding streets, medieval walls and gates make for pleasant wandering. Stop for lunch at one of the local restaurants specializing in catapalan dishes — fish stews simmered in copper pots.

The coastline in fact has two distinct characters. To the west of Faro you'll find the classic postcard images---tiny bays and coves, broken up by rocky outcrops and fantastic grottoes. They're at their most exotic around the major resort towns of Lagos, Armação de Pêra and Albufeira.

Once the center of trade between Africa and Portugal, Lagos is now a picturesque small town with an inlaid cobblestone square surrounded by white houses with tile facades and wrought iron balconies, all within the remnants of a protective wall. You'll find winding streets, barely wide enough for small cars, filled with quaint shops and wonderful restaurants.

The fishing village of Salema overflows with charm. Just 12 miles (20 kilometers) west of Lagos, down a delightful semi-cultivated valley, Salema is the essence of an Algarve fishing village. Brightly colored fishing boats clutter the beachside promenade. The beach, stretching along a wide, rock-sheltered bay, is spectacular.

The south coast ends at a dramatic cliff-edged plateau around the town of Sagres. The coast north of here is the least developed part of the Algarve because this stretch of the Atlantic is cold and often pretty wild.

East of Faro, there's a complete change as you encounter the first of a series of sandy offshore islets, the ilhas, which front the coastline all the way to the Spanish border. The resorts here have a more Portuguese feel than those in the central part of the coast.

Heading inland, you'll discover the old market towns of Loulé and Silves. The former is a small inland hillside town and handicraft center where you can visit combined workshops and showrooms where craftspeople work in leather, copper and brass. There's also a local indoor market in the restored Moorish fort. The latter town of Silves, with its red stone castle, used to be the capital of the region under the Moorish occupation. It's easily reached from Portimão, an old fishing village and center of the sardine canning industry. Here, outdoor restaurants serve freshly caught grilled sardines where fishermen unload the day's catch. The road is narrow and winds through some rural areas, but it's definitely worth a half day trip. The outstanding area, however, is the Serra de Monchique, the highest mountain range in the south, with cork and chestnut woods, remote little villages and a beautiful old spa in Caldas de Monchique.

If you go to the Algarve and just lay on the beach, you'll have missed a chance to sample its charm.