The Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost region is the little-known secret that is fast becoming mainstream (at least in Europe). Dotted with immaculate Atlantic beaches, sublime soaring cliffs overlooking sandy bays and coves. Moving further inland - whitewashed fishing villages greet you and these quaint settlements form the setting for a plethora of fine hotels, villas, eateries and bars. Are the frenzied cities of Madrid and Milan already sounding like a distant planet away? If so, brilliant, I’m succeeding so far.
Don’t get me wrong, while it may seem like an idyllic refuge for the elderly, it’s also a utopia for surfers (in particular the delectably undeveloped west coast). From water sports to cracking nightclubs to classy beach bars to national riches such as the safeguarded islands of Parque Natural da Ria Formosa (straddling 60km from the capital of Algarve - Faro to the fishing village of Cacela Velha). Driving along the undulating country you will uncover a previously unseen world of rural farmhouse restaurants, citrus orchards and almond trees.
So, in an area spanning nearly 5,000 km², what should I be looking to cover? I hear you ask.
Benagil, a teeny-tiny fishing village on the southern coast of the Algarve has reached soaring heights of stardom in recent years, largely owing to its staggering sea cave - known as Benagil cave. Perhaps Algarve’s most prominent sight, this natural sea cave adorns a considerable cutout of a hole in the ceiling of the cave, through which beams of sunlight cast their light upon the sandstone caves below. Think a panoramic sunroof, only supersized and much grander in scale, more natural in appearance and rustic in design (so nothing like a sunroof then).
Welcomed warmly by my senses; whilst sitting under the cutout I could swear nature played its symphony orchestra right in front of me. The visuals of the golden beach in front of me, the dense, thick clouds shone through the cutout in the roof above. Coupled with the sound of crashing waves, the taste of sea water still fresh in my mouth from when I fell over my paddle board (twice, I might add. Damn those enormous boats generating unwanted tidal waves) and the smell of sulphur that is typical of the sea. All amalgamating to form conceivably one of the best moments of my life.
What makes a visit here so attractive is that its interiors are only accessible through passage of water. One could look to hire a kayak or a SUP (stand-up paddleboard) as I did or just book passage on a boat trip from the multiple tour companies on the coast. While a swim from the nearest beach would only take about 10 minutes, it is not advisable due to the strong currents and tides.
Cabo de São Vicente
The wind blasted and storm pounded headland known as Cabo de São Vicente (the cape of Saint Vincent) is the most south-westerly extremity of Europe. The gargantuan, barren, jagged cliffs that rise vertically upwards from the sea seem like a fitting location, for what was considered, up until the 14th century, the end of the world!
Lying 6 km from the center of Sagres town, once upon a time, this was the last town sailors saw before they embarked on untold adventures of a lifetime into the unknown. A truly striking, picturesque spot, I would suggest you time your visit around sunset to make the most out of your visit. Scant spots around this football called planet Earth compare to Cabo de São Vicente as a sunset spot. Another noteworthy suggestion, without a shadow of a doubt, avoid looking down at the titanic waves battering against the face of the coastal landform, especially if you are afraid of heights as the fear of god was reintroduced in my life in a very timely and stark reminder.
There is also a lighthouse that plays host to a small museum. Here you can discover the role Sagres played in Portugal’s maritime history.
A municipality in Faro District with a modest population of roughly 6,000 (as of 2011). Monchique is ideal for nature lovers as the mountains of Monchique not only offer remarkable views of the surrounding landscape but also offer opportunities for nature hikes. What’s more is that within the geographic confines of Monchique lies Mount Fóia – the highest point in the Algarve. However, hold your horses, in fact rack-up as I build up to the crowning glory of the region.
Foremost comes the quaint town of Monchique that is located in the Serra de Monchique. A sleepy town with not much going around, one could simply have a walk around the cobbled streets and marvel at the architecture. Visit the panoramic spot at the entrance of the town that permits views of the entire township (which at times, gave me an air of being akin to a little-known Santorini owing to its hillside construction and dual colour scheme albeit not blue). The community pool which was teeming with people for a Tuesday afternoon, seemed to me an indicator of the unperturbed and slow-paced style of life enjoyed by the locals of the area. While there are no international cuisines on offer in Monchique, you can be assured of finding excellent food at one of the local establishments.
Onwards and upwards, after a drive through a brilliant series of winding and turning corners, in due course you reach Mount Fóia, standing 902 metres high. Standing atop the peak of Fóia with the whole of Algarve as your vista below, you will truly feel like you are standing atop the world. A word of caution, make sure to visit on a clear day otherwise your view won’t include much.
The port town which was the home ground for many a naval expedition during Portugal’s extraordinary Age of Discovery, so much so that it was indeed from here that Vasco da Gama set sail for what was to be his discovery of Brazil. As a modern-day tourist attraction Lagos offers up simply sublime beaches, a historic city center that boasts a ton of character and picturesque squares that are all enclosed within 16th century walls. People of all ages are drawn to the cobbled streets of Lagos, from water sports to golf to scrumptious restaurants to a buzzing nightlife to taking fishing or boat trips, all accompanied by some glorious weather makes Lagos the place to be in Algarve.
After having spent a half day exploring the historic center, one could look to explore The Ponta da Piedade – a series of beautiful sandstone cliffs that are an upshot of millions of years of storms fashioning some truly unique cliff formations. If you have made it to the coast, what’s stopping you from visiting the beach. Within walking distance of Lagos are four outstanding beaches, with a beach to satisfy all.
Thus, if you seek a European holiday that is devoid of droves of tourists yet offers up the true essence of Europe – the history and the culture, you now know where to go!