The complete guide to the Algarve

The southern region of Portugal may be known for its timeshare flats and abundant golf courses, but it also has plenty of culture and history to offer. Cathy Packe takes a tour


GOLF AND TIMESHARES?

GOLF AND TIMESHARES?

The Algarve can offer over 500 holes of golf and has a well-deserved reputation for multi-owner properties. But the southern coast of Portugal also has 200 miles of sandy beaches strung out along a dramatically changing shore. The east, from the Spanish border to Faro, is flat; wide sandy beaches and salt marshes are protected from the ocean by a string of islands just offshore. West of Faro you find a mixture of rocky cliffs, small, sheltered bays, and some of the region's biggest resorts.

Further west still, beyond Lagos, the coast is wilder and more deserted. It turns north at Cape Vincent, and from here to Odeceixe you will find some of the best surfing beaches in the country. The most extraordinary thing about tourism in the Algarve is that its hinterland remains largely deserted. The interior reveals a handful of memorable towns and some spectacular hill country, with dense vegetation and villages that appear not to have changed for years.

ANY CULTURE?

Yes, as you will find if you pause in Faro - the sprawling city often ignored by visitors who leave the airport and head straight off along the coast. Besides a pleasant centre which curves around an attractive harbour filled with fishing boats, it boasts an impressive old town, or cidade velha.

The old town is an interesting combination of white buildings, cobbled squares and cafés. The oldest buildings are within its ancient walls, and are reached through an imposing old gate, the Arco da Vila. The ensemble is dominated by the Se, or cathedral, which is worth visiting for the ancient tiles that decorate its interior and for the views from its tower. It opens Monday-Saturday 10am-12.30pm and 1.30-5pm, and on Sunday morning for Mass. This is one place of worship for which you must pay; there is an admission fee of €2 (£1.40), which includes entrance to a small museum. Around the corner on Largo Dom Alfonso III, is the Municipal Museum (00 351 289 897 400), housed in a lovely 16th-century convent. It opens Tuesday-Friday 9.30am-5pm, weekends 11.30am-5.30pm (all opening times half-an-hour later in summer; year-round admission is €2/£1.40) and has some interesting relics from the city's Roman and Arab past.

AN ARAB PAST?

Yes. The Arabs, who established a kingdom and remained in the region from the 8th to the 13th century, gave the Algarve its name. In Arabic, Al-Garb means western, and the region was so called because it is the most westerly part of the Iberian peninsula to be conquered by the Moors.

The Arab capital was Silves, an important Moorish stronghold. The town is dominated by a castle, which has been carefully restored so that the walls and defensive towers are more or less intact. The space inside the walls is being excavated - so far an ancient cistern and the remains of a dwelling have been discovered. The castle opens daily 9am-6pm, until 7pm in summer, and entrance costs €1.25 (90p). Below the castle is the cathedral, built on the site of the town's mosque, which opens daily from 8.30am-6.30pm.

You can find occasional relics of Arab-style architecture elsewhere in the Algarve, including the remains of a house - preserved beneath the Archaeology Museum in Loule (17 Rua Don Paio Peres Correia; 00 351 289 400 600). The museum opens Monday-Friday 9am-5.30pm, Saturday 10am-5.30pm, admission €1.80 (£1.30). One of the attractions of exploring the Algarve's cultural heritage is that you are likely to be able to avoid the crowds: most visitors head straight to the coast.

WHICH ARE THE BEST BEACHES?

Are you looking for miles of uninterrupted golden sand and few people, or somewhere with a lively resort attached? In the latter category, Albufeira is one of the Algarve's main destinations, and although a boom in the building of timeshare apartments in the 1980s has caused it to spread, it remains a pleasant seaside town with a small promenade and some lively bars and restaurants.

Further west is Praia da Rocha, one of the first places along the coast to be developed. The seafront is now a forest of high-rise apartments and hotels that could have been built anywhere, but the beach is perfect: sandy cliffs and tropical vegetation sheltering a wide sandy bay with large rocks looming out of the sand to provide shelter from the sun. Between these two is the smaller and more enticing village of Carvoeira, which is enclosed on either side by cliffs and has a small esplanade lined with ice-cream shops and cafés.

West of Lagos the coast is less developed and the landscape wilder, until it reaches Cape St Vincent, the south-western tip of Europe. This area used to be described by sailors as "the end of the world" because of its remoteness. In Sagres, at the end of the headland, is a fortress built by Prince Henry the Navigator in the 15th century. He founded a School of Navigation here, which opened the way for a golden age of exploration. The fortress - an excellent place from which to watch the sunset on a clear evening - opens daily 9.30am-5.30pm (until 8pm in summer), admission €3 (£2.15).

ANY ISLAND HIDEAWAYS?

The coast to the east of Faro is sheltered by islands - good places to visit if you want beaches that are sandy and undeveloped. Tavira, a pleasant fishing village on the river Gilao, is the jumping-off point for the Ilha de Tavira, a sandy strip nine miles long where there are several beach bars and a campsite. Water taxis (00 351 964 515 073) leave from the quayside and charge €15 (£11) to take up to six people to the island; alternatively, a boat leaves Quatro Aguas beach a mile or so out of town and charges €1 (70p) for the return trip to the island. There are also ferry services from the marina at Olhao to the islands of Armona and Culatra. From Faro, ferries leave from a jetty just south of the old town to Culatra and the Ilha Deserta, in the Rio Formosa Nature Reserve.

SHOULD I VISIT NOW?

A prime attraction of the Algarve is its climate: it is never too cold, and is uncomfortably hot only in the height of summer when temperatures above 30C are the norm. The mild winter weather makes off-season holidays in the region popular. In February you can expect sunny days that are warm enough for al fresco lunches, though the temperature drops rapidly in the early evening.

HOW CAN I GET THERE?

Faro is the main airport for the Algarve. It is served by scheduled, low-cost and charter airlines from most British regional airports, and carriers include TAP (0870 607 2024, www.tap-airportugal.co.uk); British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com);

Monarch (08700 405040, www.flymonarch.com); easyJet (0871 750 0100, www.easyjet.com); bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com); Flybe (0871 700 0535; www.flybe.com); and jet2 (0870 737 82 82, www.jet2.com). Fares typically start at around £55 return in winter, but can be four times as high during school holidays.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

Faro airport has a good choice of car hire firms, though it is best to book in advance through a company such as Holiday Autos (0870 400 4468; www.holidayautos.co.uk) or Suncars (08705 00 55 66; www.suncars.com). Out-of-season driving is easy, although if you take to the roads in summer you might get the impression that everyone in Portugal has driven down to the Algarve. The N125 meanders close to the coast, all the way from Vila Real to Sagres. If you are planning to drive long distances it is better to take the main E1, a well-maintained and quiet highway that joins up with the Spanish road network at an impressive bridge a couple of miles north of Vila Real and continues as far as Lagos.

Visiting the region on public transport is surprisingly easy, particularly if you are not in a hurry. From Faro airport you can take the number 16 bus to the main bus station on Avenida da Republica and connect with one of the regional buses or trains. The railway station is nearby, on the same street.

The coastal rail service (00 351 808 208 208; www.cp.pt) runs several times a day from the border town of Vila Real de Santo Antonio to Lagos, although covering the whole route usually involves a connection in Faro. There is also an extensive bus network which runs along the coast and connects up most of the inland towns.

SHOULD I VENTURE INLAND?

Development in the region has been concentrated along the coast, so venturing into the hinterland is like stepping back in time. The landscape is at its most spectacular in the Serra de Monchique, the magnificent, unspoilt hill country north of Portimao.

The centre of the region is the town of Monchique, but more interesting is the spa of Caldas de Monchique further south. This pleasant village is built in higgledy-piggledy fashion around a main square, and spring water runs down the hillside in the shade of eucalyptus trees.

To find the spring follow the locals up the hill to the pipe where they fill their containers with the pure water, then continue uphill. There is a thermal complex in the village (00 351 282 910 910; www.monchiquetermas.com) which opens Monday 9am-1pm, Tuesday 10.30am-1pm and 3-7pm, and Wednesday-Sunday 9am-1pm and 3-7pm. Admission is €25 (£18); treatments cost extra and prices start at €9.50 (£6.80) for a jet-shower. Prices at one of the three hotels in the village start at €53 (£38) for a double with breakfast.

A TWO-COUNTRY HOLIDAY?

Easily achieved, with the help of the fast road link to Spain. Portugal's Algarve is divided from Spain by the Guadiana river. The only two towns of any size along the Portuguese side of the river are Vila Real de Santo Antonio on the border, and Alcoutim, some 20 miles to the north. Each has a Spanish counterpart town across the river: Ayamonte and Sanlucar de Guadiana, respectively.

Vila Real is a busy little town with a faded charm, yet Alcoutim is a gem that is usually ignored by visitors. It is dominated by a large castle, as is Sanlucar de Guadiana - the small, whitewashed Spanish town on the opposite bank, a reminder of old hostilities between the two communities.

The Archaeology Museum inside Alcoutim's castle (00 351 281 540 509) is open daily 9am-1pm and 2-5pm. Admission costs €2.50 (£1.80), and the ticket is valid for entry to several other small museums in the area. To make the trip from Alcoutim over to Sanlucar, wait for the boat, which operates daily, according to demand, from 9am-1pm and 2-6pm and charges €1 (70p) for a one-way trip.

Vila Real is now a short drive from Spain, thanks to the bridge. But the ferry, once the only way to travel across the river, still exists, with services roughly every 40 minutes between 8.20am and 7pm. On Sunday there are fewer boats, and they run from 9.15am-5.30pm; the one-way fare is €1.10 (80p).

Cruises (00 351 281 956 634) up the river from its mouth to Alcoutim run in the summer, usually leaving at 9.30am and returning to Vila Real at 6pm. They cost around €30 (£21.50) with lunch, but this year's fares, and timetable, are not yet fixed.

DIVING DOGS

The Rio Formosa Reserve is home to the Portuguese water dog ­ a large, black, very friendly poodle, which looks like an ordinary family pet until you notice that it has webbed feet. These aquatic canines are the only breed of dog in the world that can dive, and unlike other breeds they eschew the doggy-paddle and swim like humans. Portuguese water dogs were used by the local tuna and sardine fishermen to sniff out shoals of fish, then dive into the water, round them up and drive them into the nets. When technology took over in the 1970s they faced extinction, but a dozen have been bred in captivity and are kept in kennels in the Marim Environmental Centre (00 351 289 704 134) just outside Olhao. These unusual canines come out to greet visitors from Monday to Friday 10am-4.30pm and at weekends from 10am-2pm. The park itself opens longer hours and entrance costs ¤1.50 (£1.10). As you head along the N125 from the east towards Olhao, take the left turn marked Ria Formosa and cross the railway line.

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