Travel: 48 hours ... in the Algarve

With cheaper flights to Faro, now is the time to discover Portugal's most beautiful coast.
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Why go now?

starting at 12.25pm tomorrow, Faro airport will be the focus of the next big European fares war. Go is launching its first flight there from Stansted, but already its no-frills fares are being undercut by other airlines. And, until the summer charter season begins in May, the beaches are almost deserted, and accommodation is cheap.

Beam down

Go (0845 60 54321) is charging pounds 120 return; already, another company affiliated with BA, GB Airways (0345 222111) has come in with a fare of pounds 119 return from Gatwick. Expect reprisals from Air Portugal (0171- 828 0262), too.

Get your bearings

The Algarve stretches from Portugal's Spanish border in the east to Cape St Vincent (or the end of the world, as it was known) in the west, a distance of about 90 miles. Faro is planted in the middle. Faro airport is 10 minutes' drive from the centre of town. Taxi fares are reasonable but there's also a regular bus service to the town's bus station. Buses from there go all over the region and the train station is nearby. If you're keen to cover as much ground as possible, car hire is available at the airport, at relatively cheap rates. The motorway runs from Spain to Albufeira, following the coast.

Check in

Most visitors to the Algarve stay in self-catering apartments, but there are plenty of options for the independent traveller. The Penina Golf & Resort Hotel (00 351 82 415415), between Portimao and Lagos, has one of the oldest golf courses in the Algarve. Its single rooms start at 24,000 escudos (pounds 80), doubles at 37,000 (pounds 123). The more modest Hotel de Bela Vista (00 351 82 78 86 55) at Praia da Luz has single rooms for 13,000 escudos (pounds 43) and twins for 14,000 (pounds 46). The pensao Caravela (00 351 82 763361), centrally situated on Lagos' main pedestrian street, rua 25 de abril, costs 3,000/4,500 escudos single/double (pounds 10/pounds 15). All include breakfast.

Take a hike

The sight of the sun sliding into the sea is beautiful anywhere along this coast, but it's particularly impressive at Cape St Vincent. The western most point of mainland Europe is crowned by a powerful lighthouse, reminding you of Portugal's adventurous past. Henry the Navigator is thought to have had his famous school of navigation a few miles away in Sagres. Walk across the high cliffs and admire the Atlantic ocean crashing onto the rocks below you.

Lunch on the run

There are endless small cafes and bars throughout the towns and villages of the Algarve, many of them displaying a tourist menu in English. In Lagos, the Cervejaria dois Irmaos, in Praca da Republica, offers a friendly environment, fresh seafood, speedy service and a very tasty pastel de nata - the little creamy custard tart that is a speciality of this sweet- toothed country.

Cultural afternoon

To learn something of Portugal's turbulent past, and immerse yourself in an era when the Moors and the Christians fought each other for possession of the country, the ancient capital of Silves is worth a visit. Little remains of its former splendour, although at one time it was said to be more wealthy and beautiful than Lisbon. But the Moorish fortress still dominates the city and some of the tombs in the cathedral are thought to be those of Crusaders who fell in the final assault on its walls.

Window shopping

If you're after the brightly coloured and often beautifully patterned tiles which decorate many of the houses in towns like Lagos and Olhao, you'll find them in the shops strung out along the road between Albufeira and Portimao. For a different shopping experience, go to the markets in Olhao, housed in two great brick halls by the quayside. One offers a huge variety of fish and seafood, and the other, fruit and veg. Both close at 2pm on weekdays and 3pm on Saturdays.

An aperitif

On the way back from Cape St Vincent, stop by at the Pousada do Infante in Sagres. You can sit and sip a glass of chilled dry white port while admiring the view of the cliffs and the old fortress.

Demure dinner

If you've worked up an appetite, head for the Restaurante Don Sebastiao on rua 25 de Abril in Lagos. Its high-backed dark wooden chairs and crisp white tablecloths evoke a grander, more formal Portugal. The sardines, olives, bread and spicy sausage that the waiter brings to whet your appetite are almost the best part of the meal, but leave enough room for the main- course seafood dishes. For somewhere less formal, try the Restaurante a Ria on the quayside in Ferragudo. It does a very tasty rice and seafood stew.

Sunday morning: go to church

The Algarve has many ornate, baroque churches, but if you walk up to the simple little church on top of the cliff in Carvoeiro, you get a beautiful view of the coastline - especially looking west to Cape St Vincent - and you can stop off at nearby Alfanzina beach afterwards.

Bracing brunch

The Portuguese don't really go in for breakfast. A brioche and a cup of milky coffee is the standard morning fare. The cafe overlooking the beach at Praia do Vau, though, is recommended, both for its view and for its bifana - pork steak in bread.

A walk in the park

Take a leisurely stroll through the Joaquim Lopes gardens on the waterfront at Olhao and admire the view over the wide, flat harbour and the distant sand dunes. The trees may be still bare, and the flowerbeds not in full summer bloom, but the atmosphere in this quiet fishing town is so peaceful that a walk and a sit in this park will refresh and restore you.

The icing on the cake

If you're feeling energetic, go on from Olhao to Tavira, arguably the prettiest town on the Algarve. If you're not, stay in Olhao and watch the world go by from the Pastelaria Sol d'Oiro on rua Vasco da Gama, making sure you take the opportunity to sample one last pastel de nata before you leave. If you get there just before 3pm you'll catch the moment when the town wakes up from its siesta, stretches itself, and sleepily goes about its afternoon business.