East of Faro – The Other Side of Portugal’s Algarve

| February 16, 2015

If you thought that the Algarve was all about boozed up Brits beached in bloated resorts and gorging on fried breakfasts in Union Jack flag clad bars then you might want to take another look at this sun-drenched oasis. Away from the popular mass market resorts another Algarve awaits of slick resort hotels, charming villages, remote beaches on uninhabited islands and authentic restaurants that lie sprinkled along one of Europe’s most dramatic coastlines.

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Olhao Waterfront @Robin McKelvie

Even the most popular resorts in the Algarve, like Albufeira and Lagos, have started to clean up their act in recent years and beyond them lies a corner of Europe blessed not only with year round warmth, but that is also home to tantalising Roman and Moorish ghosts, as well as the beguiling legacy of the days when Portugal ruled the waves from these very shores. In those days the Portuguese empire stretched as far as Goa and Macau and teasing snatches of that grandeur still flicker into view along the coast.

My exploration started at Vila Vita Parc (www.vilavitaparc.com). I’ve been coming to southern Portugal as a travel writer for fifteen years now and this remains my favourite hotel. Their secret swirls around seamless service, the personal touch and constantly evolving. A two Michelin star restaurant, award winning spa and a private beach also help. Just before this visit they had refurbished the main building and many rooms, as well as replenishing the lush subtropical gardens that ease off down towards the Atlantic.

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Beach at Vila Vita Parc @Robin McKelvie

 

Some resort hotels at the top end tend to either try to palm off families or, even worse, treat them as patronised second class citizens. That doesn’t happen at Vila Vita Parc as they offer dedicated family packages that include toys in bedrooms, wee dressing gowns and a day at nearby ZooMarine, the region’s star family attraction, with its mix of water park fun and dolphin and sea lion shows.

It was time now to leave this slick five star cocoon and explore the other Algarve further east of Faro Airport – most of the resorts lie to the west. Olhao is less than a half an hour drive from Faro, but this laidback old fishing town is a world away from the resorts. The waterfront bursts alive every morning as the local fishing fleet bustles in and the grand old fish market – the handiwork of a certain Mr Gustav Eiffel – overflows with myriad fish and shellfish.

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The McKelvies on the Olhao Waterfront @Robin McKelvie

 

Edge back from the waterfront and little restaurants dish up their ‘prato do dia’, almost always fresh fish, and the seafood delights make their way into the cataplana, the local version of bouillabaisse. I wandered a few streets further into the warren like old quarter and gone were foreign voices, with little family run shops and tumbledown cafes plying their trade amongst a rich collage of buildings charmingly the wrong side of faded grandeur. Tourism may not be far off, though, as I stayed at the Real Marina (www.real-marina.com), a flash new hotel and apartment complex that reclines just back from the waterfront.

The coastline from Faro east towards the Spanish border is fronted by the brackish waters of the Rio Formosa National Park. The outer barrier of sand islands not only provides superb beaches on its myriad isles, but protects a fragile ecosystem from the ravages of the Atlantic Ocean. Myriad boat operators offer trips out along the coast. I ventured out from Olhao with Passeios Ria Formosa on a half day trip that took in an uninhabited isle, a talk on the local environment and a superb seafood lunch on the traffic free Ilha do Farol.

My last base was back a few miles into the Algarvian hinterland, but still less than 20 minutes from Faro airport. Villa Gomes (booked through www.vintagetravel.co.uk, week rental from £495), was the antithesis to the crowded shambolic hotels of reality TV lore. This massive three bedroom split level villa slept six, but boasted outdoor and parking space for many more. The views swept around from the ocean towards the crumple of eucalyptus and pine tree clad hills that frame the Algarve to the north. The expansive swimming pool tempted by day, while at night the skies opened up in star spangled glory with minimal light pollution even this close to the Algarve’s only city of Faro.

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The McKelvies at Villa Gomes @Robin McKelvie

 

Pushing on every further east towards the Spanish border – most of the Algarve resorts lie west of Faro – I arrived in picture postcard perfect Tavira. It was Sunday morning and there appeared to be more churches than people, until the first services chimed in and the cobbled streets filled with families heading together to church in what is still very much a devout corner of Europe.

I made my own pilgrimage down to the Ponte Romana, the old artery that bridges the Rio Gilao. I was in search of Tavira Romana, famous for its homemade ice cream. I was not to be disappointed as it was still there, as it has been for decades, as was the leafy riverside park by the Praca da Republica. I reclined on a bench and gazed out on a town that has still retained its dignity and character despite a marked increase in tourist visitors over the last decade or so.

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Enjoying Algarvian Seafood @Robin McKelvie

 

My last stop was in Santa Luzia, a wee village I had long been keen to check out as it is renowned locally for its octopus. I was expecting to find a whitewashed little gem, set near a glorious sand bar beach with more Portuguese than foreign tourists lazing around. By now you would probably be too rather than the other brash, touristy Algarve that still pollutes many people’s minds. I won’t spoil your own discovery so enjoy Santa Luzia if you too choose to fly south and discover an altogether different Algarve.

 

Factfile

  • – EasyJet (easyjet.com) offer return flights to Faro from Edinburgh starting from £61.98.
  • – Tourist info www.visitalgarve.pt.
  • – Beware car hire companies that don’t have automatic toll road stickers and charge in advance for fuel. Carrentals (www.carrentals.co.uk) offer myriad operators.
  • – Lonely Planet’s Portugal guide has a strong section on the Algarve
  • If you want to continue your explorations of the Algarve then check out this blog from The Crazy Tourist on 15 Things to Do in the Algarve.

 

 

 

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