Travel: Cape of good times

The south-western tip of Portugal offers an intriguing base to explore the Algarve.
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The Independent Culture
At the tip of the Algarve, on the south-western extremity of continental Europe, lies Cabo de Sao Vicente. For the Romans, this windswept promontory marked the limit of the known world. It was a sacred spot, the Promontorium Sacrum, where the sun sank into the ocean each night in a blazing fireball. In 1797 the cape marked the site of a decisive sea battle between Britain and Spain.

These days, two rather different hordes converge on Cape St Vincent. From the east, from their high-rise apartments in Albufeira, package tourists come to peer over the headland and eat hot dogs under the sign "Letze bratwurst vor Amerika". From the north come surfers - tattooed road warriors heading down from the beaches of Odeceixe, Arrifana and Carrapateira.

Sagres, where the coaches and camper vans meet, is a blustery one-horse town. Its 15th-century school of navigation once attracted cartographers, mariners and astronomers. Here shipwrights designed the caravelas, the revolutionary three-sailed ships that took Magellan and Vasco da Gama on their voyages of exploration to Africa and India. The coastline is now protected by a national park. Take a walk along the clifftops and you'll see peregrines swooping around the cliff-face while Atlantic rollers pound the rocks.

Twenty miles north of Sagres lies Carrapateira. Hemmed in by sand dunes and buffeted by constant northerly winds, the beach of Carrapateira is one of the most dramatic and desolate in Europe. Its bracing climate discourages all but a handful of surfers, walkers and horse riders. Around the headland lie sheltered coves where you can swim and sunbathe.

Carrapateira is an excellent base to explore the hinterland. The marshy river valley is home to osprey and herons. You can walk or ride up through eucalyptus and chestnut groves into the Serra de Monchique, a verdant mountain range which forms the northern boundary of the Algarve. Along the roadside you will see gnarled cork oaks, their trunks stripped and daubed with the date of harvesting. Although the western Algarve is an important centre of cork production, it is one of Europe's most deprived regions. Tourism has yet to make an impact here, although the European Union Development Fund has sponsored a programme of road-building in an effort to open up the interior.

An hour's drive along one such road brings you to the spa town of Caldas de Monchique. Nestling in a ravine of eucalyptus and plane trees, Caldas de Monchique has been a favoured destination for health seekers since Roman times. In the 19th century wealthy Spaniards came here to take the waters. Trails wind up from Monchique to Pico de Picota, a 770-metre rocky outcrop from where you can see Cape St Vincent, the beaches of the southern Algarve and, on an exceptionally clear day, the hills of Spain.

Getting there: Charter flights operate from several UK airports to Faro (about 90 minutes' drive from the area), but in winter it may be easier to find space on a scheduled flight. British Airways (0345 222 111) flies from Heathrow and currently has a World Offer of pounds 160.80 for a return ticket (including tax). TAP Air Portugal (0171-828 0262) flies daily from Heathrow and is offering return fares of pounds 157.80 (including tax) for midweek departures. While British Midland (0345 554 554) has two flights a week from East Midlands airport and has a return fare of pounds 118.80 (with tax).

Where to stay: In Carrapateira the villa Casa Fajara (00 35 1 82 97 123) charges pounds 35 per twin room. The three-star Albergaria Velha (00 35 1 82 91 01 20) in Caldas de Monchique costs around pounds 22 per night for a twin room. Between May and October, try the Albergaria Lagedo (00 35 1 82 91 26 16) in Caldas de Monchique - it boasts an outdoor swimming pool planted with camellia and jacaranda