Chasing the Sun in Portugal’s Algarve

Limestone cliffs, secluded beaches and affordable prices make Portugal's Algarve the perfect beach destination

Credit: John Thomson

Albuferia is one of the more popular destinations in Portugal’s Algarve

Albuferia is one of the more popular destinations in Portugal’s Algarve

Portugal’s Riviera is a charming alternative to its French and Spanish neighbours

Cannes and St. Tropez are up the coast and Spain’s Costa del Sol is just around the corner. But if you’re looking for an affordable beach destination, add Portugal’s Algarve to the mix. The Algarve, Portugal’s most southern province and often called Portugal’s Riviera, is a 150-kilometre stretch of stunning beachfront skirting the Atlantic Ocean.

The thought of catching rays west of the Mediterranean may discourage some travellers, but the Algarve’s climate is surprisingly hospitable. The temperature rarely falls below 12 degrees Celsius even in the wintertime (the summertime average is 26 degrees) and Portugal’s southern beaches actually receive more sunshine than its French or Spanish neighbours – about 3,000 hours a year.

The magnificent limestone cliffs of the Algarve (Image: John Thomson)

History and Climate Come Together in an Affordable Package

Lagos, in western Algarve, is the home of Dom Henrique or Henry the Navigator. Born into royalty in 1394, Henry was a prince with the cash and the clout to finance a navigation school and is credited with founding Portugal’s Age of Discovery. Henry sent caravels – fast and sturdy sailing vessels – to Africa in search of land and wealth. Years later the Portuguese had gone as far as India.

A statue in central Lagos honours Henry’s vision, and there are other markers throughout the province. But today, the travellers flow in the reverse direction as northern Europeans flock to the Algarve, drawn by its proximity and cheap flights. The area is particularly popular with thrifty Brits, many of whom have transplanted their Blighty lifestyle to Portugal’s sunny coast. Who doesn’t like fish and chips? There are plenty of English eateries around. And while parts of the Algarve look like any other mass-marketed tourist destination catering to modern tastes, or in this case British tastes, old Portugal with its churches, whitewashed houses and relaxed lifestyle is never far from the beaten track. The Algarve is a mix of the modern and the medieval, with food and accommodation prices slightly cheaper than in Spain or France.

Drive Through the Algarve at Your Own Pace

The Algarve is dotted with sheltered, secluded beaches (Image: John Thomson)

Faro in central Algarve is the usual point of entry. More than 30 airlines fly directly to the city. But not Air Canada. Canadians usually fly into Lisbon and drive south to the A22. The A22 is the spine of the Algarve, a brand new four-lane freeway that connects all the major centres. It supplements the N125 which winds its way through the Algarve’s smaller communities with secondary spin-offs to the smaller fishing towns by the water’s edge. The N125 is slower but more scenic. Trains and busses  also serve the coast.

Live Like a Local in a Pousada

While the Algarve is awash in modern hotels and condos, the canny Portuguese have converted their old castles, villas and even a convent into high-end accommodations called pousadas. Once the preserve of the young and thrifty, pousadas are a great way to get a feel for the real Portugal by sleeping in historical surroundings and dining on local delicacies like amêijores na Cataplana (clams in a tomato sauce) or bacalhau tapas com batates (codfish tapas with potatoes). Be sure to sample vihno verde, literally green wine, produced from grapes picked and processed before maturity. Its tart taste is a staple in Portugal.

The Algarve’s Coastline: Pristine Beaches and Limestone Cliffs

The Algarve’s coastline is simply breathtaking. The constant pounding of the Atlantic has sculpted the Algarve’s limestone cliffs into craggy inlets and hidden coves. These outcroppings are particularly impressive in the western part of the Algarve where there’s a lively tourist trade in boat tours in and around the seaside caves that have been carved out of the softer rock. The beaches are plentiful, pristine and secluded and yes, clothing is optional.

The Algarve is peppered with almond, orange and fig trees and in March the air is especially pungent with the smell of orange blossoms.

Left: The end of the world at Sagres, Portugal. Right: The lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent (Images: John Thomson)

Tavira, Faro and Albufeira are the major centres. Initially fishing villages, they’ve been gussied up to cater to the tourist trade. Faro and Albufeira have a lively bar scene to satisfy the party-hearty crowd. Smaller villages like Ferragudo offer respite from the resorts. Here, life still revolves around the doca (harbour) and the brightly coloured fishing boats. The people are friendly and uncomplicated, free of the pretense of the larger centres. As a rule, the quainter side of the Algarve can be found the further one travels from Faro.

Sagres, at the most south-westerly tip of Europe, is the quietest part of the Algarve; 600 years ago it was considered the end of the world. Henry established his School of Navigation here, drawing the curious and the adventurous to his school of mathematics and cartography.

Six kilometres to the north, the lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent overlooks the vast Atlantic. The next landfall? A mere 6,000 kilometres away.  It’s hard not to look down at the crashing waves and wonder whatever possessed Henry’s 15th century recruits to take to the sea and test these uncharted waters. And yet they did.  It’s enough to make one reach for the vinho verdi.