Lapped by the Atlantic Ocean, yet enjoying a Mediterranean climate, the Algarve boasts historic locations, stunning beaches and lively nightlife, as well as award-winning golf courses. Angela Youngman offers a glimpse of what groups can enjoy
As flights arrive at Faro airport, passengers catch tempting glimpses of golden beaches, blue sea and gleaming white salt marshes below.
The sun shines most days in the Algarve, no matter what the time of year. Warm weather is enjoyed all year round, except during the high summer when temperatures can reach as high as 32°C.
Located on the southern coast of Portugal, the Algarve is an area which specialises in catering for tourists. There is no need to worry about a language barrier, as virtually everyone speaks English.
Flights into Faro, the region’s capital, take less than three hours from the UK. Work is scheduled to begin on modernizing and improving airport facilities, and this is due to be completed in March 2017.
Faro itself offers fascinating architecture and culture, together with shopping opportunities.
Lemon and orange groves dot the landscape, and there are masses of purple Jacaranda and pink Oleander to catch the eye. The coastline varies between long stretches of sand to the rocky inlets and sheer cliffs interspersed with hidden beaches bordering the western coastline.
Many visitors come to the Algarve for the beaches. There are over 100 beaches in the area, 83 of which are Blue Flag standard. Every resort along the coast has extensive golden beaches, with the most popular being Farol Island, Meia Praia at Lagos, Manta Rota and the Ilha de Tavira.
Albufeira is the largest resort in the Algarve and is very popular with hen and stag parties. It is also a good touring centre since it is midway along the Algarve, providing good access to the western coast as well as the east.
The historic old town forms the centre of the resort and is now surrounded by modern hotels, shopping and entertainment venues.
Typical of these new hotels is the Vila Gale Cerro Alagoa. Located within walking distance of the old town and the Praia dos Pescadores (Fisherman’s Beach), it has outdoor and indoor swimming pools, an international buffet restaurant, spa and children’s club.
Albufeira enjoys a lively nightlife with numerous bars and nightclubs. There are also theme parks such as Zoomarine, Aqualand, and Aquashow in Quarteira, near Vilamoura.
The western coast of the Algarve faces the Atlantic and enjoys a much cooler sea temperature. There are many broad beaches, particularly around Aljezur, which attract large numbers of surfers. Some of the best surfing spots are on the Vincentina Coast, which attracts experienced surfers and is the venue for professional competitions. The coastal area from Burgau to Cabo de Sao Vincente is a nature reserve and is protected from development.
Going for golf
For golfers, the Algarve is a paradise. This year marks the 50th-anniversary of golf in the area. Sir Henry Cotton laid out the first course in 1966. Since then, the popularity of golf in the area has soared. Many of its courses are in extremely picturesque surroundings along the 100-mile coastline. There are now 42 championship courses, comprising nine or 18-hole layouts, which can be played all year round. Not surprisingly, the Algarve now attracts hundreds of thousands of golfers to its fairways each year.
Quinta do Lago in Almacil, has become the winter training base for England Golf’s national squads. With several courses, including a new short game area, the hotel has considerable appeal for golfers. It is also home to the only McGinley golfing Academy in the world, founded by European Ryder Cup captain, Paul McGinley. Other notable courses are at Vale do Lobo, Onyria Palmares near Lagos, and Vilamoura where there are six championship layouts.
History & nature
Travelling further afield, there are historic locations to explore, such as the Moorish town of Silves with its red sandstone castle and stunning Knights Crusader statue. Lagos is one of the most attractive historic towns in the Algarve. Apart from possessing some stunning beaches and cave formations, it’s also home to the ‘Wax Museum of the Portuguese Discoveries’ which focusses on the voyage of navigators and sailors such as Christopher Columbus who set sail from this area to ‘discover’ America and Vasco Da Gama who was the first European to sail to India.
Six-miles from Sagres, Cape St Vincent is the southernmost point of the European continent. The dramatic cliffs rise almost vertically to 75-metres above sea level. This is an area popular with bird watchers as there are many rare birds to be found in the vicinity including the Bonelli’s Eagle.
A lighthouse still operates here as it has done for centuries, and there is a small museum, café and shop together with a giant’s stone chair. The lighthouse is said to be one of the most powerful in Europe as its lamps can be seen up to 37 miles away.
Deep in the valley below Monchique - the highest point in Portugal - is the pretty spa resort of Caldas de Monchique. Both thermal and hydrotherapy spa facilities are available here, as well as pleasant walks or mountain biking tours within the Serra de Monchique national park. Climbing, canoeing and paintball facilities are all within 10-minutes of the spa.
Explore & Enjoy
Several tour companies offer jeep or minibus tours around the interior of the Algarve. Portitours focus on the western side of the country, taking groups to the historic centres of Silves, Monchique and Cape St Vincent.
Tours of the cork forests and explanations of the way cork is harvested are fascinating. The cork shops found in every resort highlight the increasing range of products being manufactured from this renewable source. Quite apart from wine corks and tablemats, cork is now used to make handbags, umbrellas, jewellery and even fabrics.
On the eastern side, Riosul specialise in jeep tours combined with boat trips through the Castro Marim Nature Reserve and down the Guadiana River, marking the boundary between Portugal and Spain.
Their one-day Moorish Trail tours involves an off-road tour passing through the nature reserve, past salt lagoons and flamingos and into countryside that has hardly changed for hundreds of years. The route passes up steep hillsides, across rivers and into tiny villages where local craftsmen demonstrate age old skills of basket making, before reaching a farmhouse where visitors can stop for a swim in a private pool before being served lunch with entertainment from local folk and fado singers. The return journey is by boat along the Guadiana River accompanied by a folk singer.
Sea-borne excursions are available from all the resorts along the coast. These include sailing cruises, jet boats and hen and stag booze cruises. Among the most popular are trips to catch sight of dolphins and the cave formations found at Benagil, Lagos and Sagres are another popular attraction.
For those seeking more adventurous activities, the Algarve offers opportunities for floatplane flights, horse riding, kayaking, cycling, fishing, quad biking and scuba diving. One of the more unusual options is biokarting (similar to land sailing/yachting). Based at a centre near Sagres, it involves racing in a three-wheeled cart fitted with a large sail. Hand steered, it is powered completely by the wind.
At Portimao, divers can swim through a slice of Portuguese history while exploring a artificial dive site which contains four sunken historical warships. The area offers ideal diving conditions, with still and clear waters. A land-based exhibition centre accompanies the site and it’s here that the history of the naval vessels can be discovered.
Hiking is another option for groups. The 300-km Via Algarviana is a long distance path which follows part of an old religious trail from one side of the Algarve to the other. Another path, Vincentina, has just been introduced along the rugged western coast. This is linked to the European GR11 route which connects Sagres with St Petersburg. Each April, a walking festival with more than 10 hiking tours and a trail running event is held at Ameixial.
Longer trips are possible from the Algarve. Lisbon is about three hours’ drive away, while the opening of the bridge over the Guadiana river between Portugal and Spain means that the city of Seville can also be reached within three hours.
Food & accommodation
Accommodation is available at all price levels. Among the new openings scheduled for 2016 are a group of independently-owned luxury villas at Martinhal Quinta in Quinta do Lago. The Rural Quinta do Marco, located in Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, Tavira, is about to re-open under new management and offers guests spectacular views of the coast of the eastern Algarve from Monte Gordo to Lighthouse Island.
Restaurants throughout the Algarve cater for every taste including regional and artisan food. The Vila Joya Restaurant has been ranked 22nd on the world’s best restaurants list. Executive Chef, Dieter Koschina, specializes in combining northern European cooking techniques with Portuguese produce. Festivals such as the Festival do Marisco in Olhão celebrate traditional delicacies including the ‘cataplana’ made from various types of seafood, bacon and chorizo.