Summer on the Beach: The Algarve

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To most, it's a land of factor 30 and golf. But there's plenty to get you out of the resorts, says Kate Simon

The communal pool at Parque da Floresta is packed today. The transient population of this holiday housing estate has turned out en masse, rubber rings at the ready. It's a squeeze to find a vacant sunbed around its shapely edges.

Those few who are not slapping on the factor 30 are on the golf course, improving their handicap, or maybe not, and perhaps hoping to rub shoulders with one of the resident football superstars at the 19th hole. The Algarve has fly, flop and sporting fun down to a T.

But there are more ways to see this coast than along the shaft of a five iron or from a lilo in the resort pool. Away from the package-holiday hubs lie rocky coves and dune-backed sands where surfers battle with the Atlantic waves. There are fantastic nature reserves where birdwatchers flock and walkers step out, and there are fishing villages that still bring in the daily catch and haven't entirely given themselves up to the tourist euro.

You could ignore the beach altogether and follow a historic trail to the old Moorish capital of Silves. Then there's the 13th-century fortress at Sagres where Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) studied the art of seafaring before becoming one of the great patrons of exploration. And there's the Roman bridge at Tavira. You could spend a night at the elegant new pousada in Estoi, housed in a restored 19th-century palace.

But these impressive diversions are unlikely to make you turn your back on the sea; its warm waters seduce bathers well into the autumn months. This is the real secret of the Algarve's success: summer doesn't shut up shop in September. This is the place to come for the last rays of Europe's sun.

The beaches

It's all about the beach here, but which one? The bays and coves west of Portimao lace the coast connecting the quieter, tourist-friendly fishing villages of Luz, Burgau and Salema. They lead to broader sweeps of sand on the wind-blown Atlantic at Belixe and Martinhal, popular with the surfing crowd. In the east, beach islands in the lagoon of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa entice hardcore sunseekers.

A day off the beach

Leave the coast behind to climb the wooded slopes of the Serra de Monchique, by foot or in the car. A forest of cork, chestnut and eucalyptus trees leads the way to the charming town of Monchique and the spa resort of Caldas de Monchique, which dates from the 19th century. If you're feeling fit, make your way to the highest point, Foia, for spectacular views across the coast.

The nature reserve

Follow one of the marked trails into the wetlands of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa to explore this landscape of lagoons, sand islands and salt marshes. This is one of the most important wetlands on the Iberian peninsula. Migrating birds, including flamingos and the elusive purple gallinule, alight here – visitors can watch them from hides. There are Roman ruins to discover, too.

The resorts

The Algarve isn't overwhelmed by hot spots such as Albufeira and Carvoeiro. In Tavira, you can stroll around streets of atmospheric, crumbling 18th-century buildings with ornate wrought-iron balconies. Discover the Moorish houses beyond the riverside gardens in Olhao and explore the cobbled streets of Faro's old town. Sail from the fishing port of Lagos and discover grottos and weird pillars of rock fashioned by the elements. You can also sense the end-of-the-world feel at Sagres, departure point for Portugal's great global explorers.

Compact facts

How to get there

British Airways (ba.com) flies to Faro from £213 return. Keytel (020-7616 0300; keytel.co.uk) offers five nights at Sao Bras pousada from £445 per person, based on two sharing.

Further information

Contact the Portugal Tourist Board at visitportugal.com

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