Off the old coast road that first delivered masses of holidaying Lisbonites to the Algarve in the 1970s, lie two single-storey, whitewashed cottages surrounded by sun-scorched fields. From a distance they look like many of the old farmhouses and homes in the coastal stretch of Portugal's Alentejo region – modest in size, perfectly rectangular and seemingly unadorned.
But as you emerge into the drive of Cerca do Sul, you're greeted by manicured grounds that take in a small orchard, a vegetable patch, and an inherently relaxing ambience. The houses occupy two sides of a pristine lawn. To the other side is a deck with a small pool, hammocks, loungers, day beds and a children's playground.
Cerca do Sul sits just north of the tourist-thronged Algarve, in the predominantly rural Alentejo region. The seemingly middle-of-nowhere location is just over an hour's drive north of Faro and 3km from the rugged Costa Vicentina Natural Park. Protected since 1995, the park is home to the rare white stork and is one of the last places in Europe where otters can be found in a marine environment.
The seven simple but lovingly furnished rooms are split between the two houses. The rooms reflect the relaxed, eclectic, home-from-home vibe of Cerca do Sul: bright, upholstered footstools, vibrant modern paintings and antique furniture. The bathrooms are small but serve their purpose with mosaic-tiled showers, or baths.
Tea and coffee are provided in the rooms but there's an open lounge where you can help yourself to fruit, or drinks, then relax among the sofas, throws, patchwork armchairs and statuesque piles of design and travel magazines, which double as tables.
The typically Portuguese breakfast is served in the dining room or on the long shady porch under a canopy. The serve-yourself menu includes goat's cheese, ham, scrambled eggs ("with bacon, or sometimes not"), herb marinated tomatoes, crêpes, home-made cakes, fresh fruit, yoghurt, bread from the bakery in nearby Brejao, homemade quince jelly, fruit juice, tea and coffee.
Sara Serrao has been running Cerca do Sul for four years. A marketing executive from Lisbon, Sara holidayed on the beaches of the Costa Vicentina as a child. Tired of the city, she bought the plot of land, an old farm, and built Cerca do Sul. Walkers, cyclists and surfers are particularly welcome and Sara can help organise an active stay. She offers yoga retreats in spring for €30 (£24) a class (two-to-one). There are also four bikes at your disposal for meandering along the lanes.
Cerca do Sul is one step away from the stunning, unspoiled surfing beaches of the Costa Vicentina (visitalentejo.pt) and another from the hills of the Serre de Espinhaco de Cao. The newly opened Rota Vicentina (rotavicentina.com) is a 340km footpath that follows cliff-top fishermen's trails along the south-west coast. Short sections of the path make good day walks (rotavicentina.blogspot.com) and Sara can provide picnics for €7 per person.
Drive 3km west to the remote Carvalhal beach, where there's little more than a snack shack and a lifeguard. Or hole up for the day at Odeceixe beach, where the roaring Atlantic waves are perfect for surfing. A three-hour surf lesson costs €45 (00 351 963 170 493; odeceixesurfcamp.com). The village has a handful of tavernas and a couple of shops.
Donkey trekking is an alternative way to enjoy the coastline and is popular among families. Burros & Artes (00 351 282 998 331; burros-artes.blogspot.co.uk) offers an interesting combination of cliff-top rides and art workshops from a donkey centre in Aljezur. A three-hour Moonlit Donkey Hike with picnic and drinks costs €30 per person, or €20 for six-12 years-olds.
The Pit Stop
Cerca do Sul is a 10-minute walk from Brejao, a hamlet with a couple of bars and a small shop. Sara offers dinner twice a week during the summer months, but satisfying your appetite on other nights will require a drive. Taberna do Gabao in Odeceixe village (00 351 282 947 549) serves local dishes, such as feijoada de choco e polvo (bean casserole with squid and octopus) and arroz de tamboril (monkfish rice). Mains from around €13. Starters from around €6.
Cerca do Sul, Cabeco de Arveola, Brejao, Sao Teotonio, Portugal (00 351 931 105 167; cercadosul.com). Doubles in high season from €90, with a supplement of €10 per night for stays of less than four nights. Breakfast included.