Traveller's Guide: The Algarve

This southern sliver of Portugal draws crowds to its beaches and golf courses, but there's plenty more to see, says Harriet O'Brien

The southern fringe of Portugal has been a favourite for British visitors since the 1960s, and this summer the options for reaching the Algarve increase; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) has resumed flights from Heathrow to the Algarve's gateway airport at Faro. On a pragmatic level, part of the Algarve's appeal is down to cost. Of all the Western European nations, price levels for anything from coffee to car rental are the lowest in Portugal. This is one reason why you can find many cheap packages to this Portuguese province. Travel this month or in the autumn, and you can pay of the order of £45 a day including flights and accommodation.

Thomas Cook (0844 879 8442; thomascook.com) has a three-night break this month from £129pp (based on two sharing a room) including flights from Gatwick to Faro and self-catering accommodation at Vilamoura. Also during May, Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) is offering a week in a self-catering apartment at Albufeira from £292pp with flights from Luton to Faro.

Yet, look beyond the bargains and you'll find much more than a cheap'n'cheerful destination with great weather (locals say there are 300 days of sunshine a year). Around the same size as Norfolk, the Algarve offers semi-secret stretches both inland and along its 150km coastline, plus chic hotels and rural villages with cobbled lanes and whitewashed houses.

Even the major tourist towns of Albufeira and Lagos retain old centres that exude traditional charm – except when thronged with hot crowds in August. Faro is also well worth a day or two –there is much more to this compact city than the airport.

Among the Algarve's cultural riches, perhaps the most flamboyant is the hilltop town of Silves with its imposing castle (00 351 282 445 624; www.cm-silves.pt; €2.80) whose turrets and castellations enclose an area bigger than a football pitch. Mainly built between the 8th and 13th century, it reflects the intriguing history of Portugal's occupation by the Moors (Algarve comes from Arabic al gharb meaning "the west"). A trip here should include lunch in the castle's café serving great local tapas-like dishes.

However, the outdoors is the glory of the Algarve. The region is renowned for its golf courses, of which there are 38 or so, including the recently redesigned Onyria Palmares Golf Resort (00 351 282 790 500; onyriapalmares.com) near Lagos.

Great swathes of unspoilt countryside are yours to explore, too. There are two striking conservation areas, the Ria Formosa wetlands off the coast by Faro and the Costa Vicentina Nature Park along the rugged west coast.

There are also a number of spectacular hiking, biking and horse-riding trails. These include the Rota Vicentina long-distance footpath (rotavicentina.com) from the tip of the Algarve, at Cape St Vincent, to Santiago do Cacem in neighbouring Alentejo; and, perhaps best of all, the Ecovia cycle route along the entire 138km south coast from Sagres at Cape St Vincent to Vila Real de Santo Antonio on the Spanish border.

Fine flavours

One of the joys of the Algarve is the wealth of local ingredients: from sardines to swordfish, almonds, oranges, figs and more. Carob is increasingly grown here. Grapes, too.

While the Algarve can't boast wine quite of the calibre of Portugal's Douro or Alentejo regions, the quality and quantity of its vineyards have been increasing significantly. Sir Cliff Richard's Adega do Cantor (Winery of the Singer) (00 351 968 776 971; winesvidanova.com) offers tours for €7.50.

The best way to take in the region's food is to visit one of its 13 market halls (mainly mornings). Among the most colourful are at Lagos, Loule and, especially, Olhao with more than 80 stalls. Fazenda Nova (00 351 281 961 913; fazendanova.eu) offers a four-day food tour of the eastern Algarve during the November olive harvest; €950 double, half board.

Inland artistry

There's an appealing buzz in pretty, hillside Loule. At the beginning of the year the remains of an extensive Moorish public bath house were discovered here. The archaeologists are happy to show visitors around: enquire at the archaeological museum (00 351 289 400 642) opposite the baths at Rua Paio Peres Correia 17 (museum admission is €1.50). There's a great spirit of creativity elsewhere in Loule thanks to Projecto Tasa (00 351 289 416 198; projectotasa.com). This enterprise has been set up to revive Algarve crafts, taking traditional techniques and producing new designs, ranging from ceramic salt shakers to cork lampshades. Workshops will also be run for visitors. Participants will be involved in the entire cycle of a craft so linen weaving will include picking flax while basket making will start with cutting reeds.

Family style

With the recent introduction of upscale resorts that offer super-stylish luxury and superb facilities for children, the Algarve has been raising the bar for beachside family hotels.

In the far west, Martinhal Beach Resort and Hotel (00 351 282 240 200; martinhal.com) was beautifully devised in 2010 by former Londoners Roman and Chitra Stern.

It is a chic 37-bedroom hotel (with wonderful cork and wicker furnishings) and a development of holiday villas, all set around four pools, several tennis courts and a spa. A central square has shops, play rooms and a cinema for children.

An early-summer package of four nights in a beach room sleeping two adults and a child costs €896, including lunch or dinner daily; flights not included.

Last year saw the opening of Epic Sana Algarve (00 351 289 104 300; algarve.epic.sanahotels.com) set above long, golden-sand Falesia Beach east of Albufeira.

This large complex has 229 pleasingly airy rooms set over eight hectares of pine woods. Impressive facilities include five swimming pools, spa, the Little Stars kids' club, a playground and a baby club. Shady boardwalks lead to the beach.

In May, a family apartment sleeping two adults and a child costs from €220 per night, including breakfast.

The Algarve is brilliant biking country The Algarve is brilliant biking country Offbeat journeys

With its rolling landscape and rural roads, the Algarve is brilliant biking country – and thanks to the ever-improving technology of e-bikes, with small motors to assist pedal power, there are options to suit all levels of fitness and enthusiasm.

Bike Tours Portugal (00 351 96 525 6841; biketoursportugal.com) is a stylish operation with state-of-the-art bikes as well as e-bikes. The company runs trips all over Portugal, providing guidance and a sumptuous lunch every day, conjured in the middle of nowhere out of a trailer. Its "Algarve From West To East" eight-day guided tour costs €3,180pp including bike hire, accommodation in some of the Algarve's best hotels and all meals. Other bike operators include Algarve Bike Holidays (00 351 96 230 1870; algarvebikeholidays.com). The company organises week-long trips across the province – with a wide choice of bikes – as well as half-day tours from some major holiday areas. Almost magically, you're taken from tourist hotspots to hidden country lanes. A 35km tour from Albufeira takes you past almond orchards to bird- and turtle-filled Salgados Lagoon for €45pp.

Or you could get right off the beaten track ... by boat. Trips to white-sand Deserta Island in the Ria Formosa wetlands are run from Faro by Animaris (00 351 918 779 155; ilha-deserta.com) and cost €25 for both half-day and full-day excursions. On your journey through crystal-clear water you'll see spectacular birds. Flamingos, spoonbills and storks are common.

Best beaches

The Algarve offers many of the prettiest and safest beaches in Europe. And it has plenty of variety, too. The far west is largely limestone and granite country where the coast is characterised by golden-sand bays and dramatic cliffs.

Moving east, you're in a landscape of sandstone and soft rock weathered into weird and wonderful shapes beside long dunes. All of which means there are beaches to suit all requirements.

The west is best for surfers, with Amado Beach near Carrapateira particularly renowned for its waves. Hidden beaches include Furnas on the south coast near the small town of Salema, with access down a 2km rough track. In central Algarve, little Gale and Ancao beach near Quinta do Lago are good options for families. While in the eastern Algarve, the barrier islands that protect the Ria Formosa – such as Tavira Island, a five-minute boat ride from Tavira town and Armona, reached from Olhao – offer enormous stretches of pale sand, all backed by grassy dunes.

Getting there

Getting to the Algarve's gateway airport at Faro is remarkably easy from the UK. Quite apart from flights from Gatwick and Heathrow, Faro is served from 24 other UK airports by airlines including Thomas Cook, easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), Jet2 (0800 408 1350; jet2.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) and Monarch (08719 405040; monarch.co.uk). Faro airport's site at ana.pt gives full details of all airlines serving the Algarve.

More information

For further details about the Algarve, including free downloads of maps and guides, see visitalgarve.pt and visitportugal.com/en

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