Wave rider

Learning to surf on the beaches of the Algarve's most beautiful nature reserve sounded perfect to Alex James. And after two days on his board, he was exhilarated, addicted - and bedridden
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The Independent Travel

It takes a bit of practice to get good at going on holiday. It's an art. Some people want to relax and some people want a challenge. Surfing is a good option if you want a bit of both. Doing nothing is really the secret of having a great time on holiday. If you can happily do nothing, your mind can wander towards new dreams and hopes. That's what's good about going to the beach. It's nice on the beach. It might seem a bit aimless, but that's where the surfing comes in. It makes the doing nothing that little bit more appealing, when you know you should be out there thrashing around in the white water.

It takes a bit of practice to get good at going on holiday. It's an art. Some people want to relax and some people want a challenge. Surfing is a good option if you want a bit of both. Doing nothing is really the secret of having a great time on holiday. If you can happily do nothing, your mind can wander towards new dreams and hopes. That's what's good about going to the beach. It's nice on the beach. It might seem a bit aimless, but that's where the surfing comes in. It makes the doing nothing that little bit more appealing, when you know you should be out there thrashing around in the white water.

My first surfing trip didn't start well. Arriving at the British Airways check-in desk at 6am for our flight to Portugal we were told that it was full and sent round to another desk where there were a lot of upset people. It wasn't a great way to start a holiday. A small boy next to us started crying. He was supposed to be going away with his dad, they'd booked their flights, the father said, in December. They were behind us in the queue for the two spare seats in club class that would be re-allocated if the passengers who'd booked them didn't show. I felt awful. They did show, so we were all stranded. There was a gentle retired couple, Telegraph types, who were rather enjoying the drama, and a guy who was part of a golfing crowd, the rest of whom had been given seats. There was no point arguing. The flight was obviously full. We eventually got to Faro by way of Monarch.

Next, we had problems with the car hire. The company wanted more money or there would be a £500 excess, which was another decision I could have done without as I was trying to enjoy my short weekend break. Portugal has the worst drivers in Europe. Easily. A few years back, Blur was playing a festival a couple of hours from Lisbon. There had been, unsurprisingly, quite a nasty pile-up on the southbound carriageway and it looked like we were going to miss our slot. We were given a police escort, which consisted of a couple of police motorbikes flying full tilt down the overtaking lane of the other carriageway in the wrong direction waving the oncoming cars into the fast lane as we followed in their wake. The policemen and the bus driver were all having the time of their lives, grinning and gesticulating. It was scary. But I still didn't go for the excess cover.

It was warm and sunny as we pulled onto the open road and headed west for the Atlantic Coast. We were headed for the Monte Velho nature resort near Carrapateira, a couple of hours from Faro on the south-west tip of Europe. It wasn't a difficult drive and there was no arguing. The worst arguments can happen on holidays, but we had been united by our struggle against the cruel, unfair trading practices of British Airways, and the warm sun was starting to work its powerful magic. The Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula is different to the Mediterranean. Soft and green. By the time we were driving through the nature reserve we had left our lives behind. Rows and rows of neat rosemary bushes on gentle hills, as far as the eye could see, lend Monte Velho a sense of subtle, visual orderliness, and of course it smells amazing.

The hotel was basic, and all the better for it. There was no television or mini bar or trouser press in the room, but there was a big hammock outside. There was nothing happening and no one around, so we went in search of food.

The coastline was stunning. In 50 years, undeveloped coastlines will probably be a rarity. It still feels undiscovered here. The road wound through huge aloes and strange flowers to a vast, perfect beach, with nothing but a shack and a few camper vans. The water was a nice colour. Navy blue. The waves were rolling in. We had lunch at a rustic café on the clifftop. Sardines. Delicious.

This beach is the perfect antidote to the stifling nausea of executive luxury. There is a sense of space and benign peace. All those luxury hotels shut the world out. This is the world and it's lovely. Here's a beautiful, untouched place that makes you feel alive and connected with sun, sea and sand. A host of flags flapped in the breeze, near the Coca-cola-cappuccino-choco-lade man. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. There were one or two hot chicks and posh skinnies around the place and a few fat grannies keeping it real.

I love beaches and don't need anything else except the right girl to make me happy. Growing up in Bournemouth, summers were spent more or less permanently on the beach and in the sea. Surfing never really seemed liked a necessary activity. We'd bodysurf when the waves were big enough, but mainly we'd just be goofing around, jumping off the pier, throwing wet sand and burying each other or playing catch or keepy-uppy. There just wasn't time for surfboards. And frankly the idea of putting on a wetsuit and clunking around with all the gear was uncool, and unlikely to impress the nice girls. Now, however, surfing is cool, with its own magazines, vocabulary and hairstyles and Bournemouth Council is, in its folly, building an artificial reef to create waves for surfers.

We were in Portugal to learn how to surf, so we went in search of our mentors Joao and Andre. They were putting the boards away for the day, so we arranged to see them in the morning and spent a happy hour paddling and looking under stones. We stopped in a tiny, cool, dark shop on a sunny square and bought oranges, nectarines, apples, little lemons full of juice, olives, and a lot of crisps. It was like nowhere else I've been. It still has its precious little identity. Sunset was a whole chunk of the day here; it goes on for a couple of hours. The hotel was on a hilltop. There were little pagodas for loafing, contemplation, whatever you want to call it. The sun went down slowly.

In the morning we were ready. Our little firm was already gathered in their rustic arbour on the beach. They were all very smiley and friendly. We seemed to have quite a lot to say to each other. One of the three laughed a lot. They were all just brimming over to be living the surfing life. It was quite remarkable how genuinely pleased and happy they were. Ecstatically, Joao, the happiest one, recounted how, last week, they had been teaching Prince William. He could barely contain himself. "So," we said, "When do we start?" "Oh, just relax half an hour, maybe? Then we start," they said. So we lay there enjoying the sun and dozing; all very agreeable.

We started with a warm-up to get the blood flowing to the muscles. It was along the lines of what you see footballers doing before kick off. Skipping sideways, touching the ground and then waving, shaking or stretching practically every fibre in turn. It was invigorating, and I felt fitter already.

Then we lay flat on the sand where we drew imaginary surfboards around ourselves with our fingers. There were a few safety drills. Beginners stay in the white water. That's the rule. You have to curl up and cover your head if you lose hold of your surfboard so it doesn't smash you in the face, and when in the water keep the board at 90 degrees to the wave fronts or it will knock you over. It seemed straightforward.

Catching the wave and standing up are the tricky bits. Our instructor, who was as fit as a footballer, had a mantra-like incantation that we memorised and took to our hearts. It went, "White water is coming, now white water is coming good and strong. Paddle, paddle, paddle... one... two, three." There was a slight pause after one. One meant arching your back like a sphinx. On two, you bent your right leg to sprinter-on-starter-blocks * *position. Three was a sort of magic leap into the classic surf posture of feet one in front of the other, knees bent, arms as if flying. It was pretty hard to pull off on the beach. You could tell it wasn't going to be easy in the frothy Atlantic.

Like all addictive pursuits - flying, horse-riding, golf, snooker and skiing - it gives you just enough back to make you want to try again and again. When you pick the right wave and it gets hold of you, you want the feeling again, and you persevere till you can take no more. Eyes stinging and burning from the sun tan lotion, bodies aching, exhausted and exhilarated, we eventually stopped for lunch.

You always get a little tub of sardine paste with the bread-basket in Portugal. I've been craving that stuff since I got home. They have taken a rather different approach to tomato cultivation here, too. You can't forget a Portuguese tomato, once you've seen one. They're so ugly-looking. They taste amazing, though. Not like our impostors.

Beauty is still pretty idiosyncratic here. People's smiles often featured a black tooth or some other weirdness. There were some quite hairy ladies, too. Such features didn't seem to detract from anyone's loveableness. Different norms. When we got back to our shelter on the beach, there was a competition going on between the dudes to see who could register the highest reading on the pressure gauge of an air pump by blowing the wrong way down the tube. It was being taken quite seriously. A glamorous girlfriend had shown up. It was a good scene, like Bournemouth in the old days.

I was pretty whacked, but we got back in the wet suits and hammered it for another hour. I didn't get upright, but I caught a few waves. We limped back to the hotel, where a masseuse was waiting. She had nice warm hands and she told me to eat more magnesium. Whatever. It was a very reasonably priced rub-down.

Portugal is good value across the board, though. We sought out the most highly recommended restaurant, the Sitio do Rio. It was excellent, and like most of the local places, with notice, they will serve wild boar, hare, venison - anything at all, I imagine. Otherwise, on the spur of the moment, you're looking at seafood.

We split a sea bass. They sell the fish by weight - it's an excellent system, and you can see the chef putting everything on the scales before it goes on the charcoal grill. It came with the traditional European accompani- ment of overcooked vegetables and a wodge of lemon in muslin.

The clientele was a mixture of local salts and German caravanners. There were a number of large motor-homes ranged like yachts around the bays and coves. Motor-homes will never have the cachet of yachts, but they're essentially the same thing. You're not allowed to camp here, but motorhomes are fine, apparently. It was a good scene, people exploring the world and themselves. We didn't take much rocking that night.

We were back on the beach right after breakfast the next day. There was much mirth as usual. The boys had found me an enormous surfboard; it was a boat, more or less. It would obviously make standing up that bit easier. Sure enough, I was on my feet in no time. (My wife, Claire, had her eye on the big board, but it was mine. They gave it to me.)

The fact that I could stand re-invigorated me to commit further exertions. By lunchtime I was pretty much in pain. It is a devastating business. I try to run seven or eight miles a day, and that's energising, but this surfing thing was really, really wearing me out. A couple of weeks of this would be better than a boot camp. Just standing in the water burns calories, keeping your body warm, but when you're surfing you're getting aerobic exercise and you're toning muscles as well. What with drinking the tap water, you're guaranteed to lose a few pounds.

I'd become quite fixated with the black pudding at Sitio do Forno, this restaurant on the clifftop, so we went back there for our lunch. Another hour in the water and I hardly had the strength to change gears driving home. It was a long, warm, perfect evening in the perfect spot in the perfect world.

I couldn't get out of bed the next morning. Claire wanted to get her hands on the big board and went alone. She came home smiling. It was, once we'd arrived, a great way to spend a long weekend. Be warned, though: once you've started surfing, you might not want to stop. It might be worth taking a week off, though. I couldn't actually get out of bed until Wednesday.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Alex James travelled to Monte Velho with Original Travel (020-7978 7333; www.originaltravel.co.uk). A similar three-night trip costs from £380 per person. This includes return flights from Gatwick to Faro with British Airways, four days' car hire and bed and breakfast accommodation at the Monte Velho Nature Resort. In July and August, there is a minimum stay of seven nights, when prices start at £525 per person. Original Travel can book and arrange surf lessons and board and wetsuit hire, with prices starting at £25 for one day, £60 for three days and £95 for five days.

Faro is served from airports around the UK by a number of airlines. Scheduled carriers include FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com), MyTravelLite (08701 564 564; www.mytravellite.com), Monarch (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com), Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), Jet2 (0870 737 8282; www.jet2.com), GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.gbairways.com) and EUJet (0870 414 1414; www.eujet.com).

STAYING THERE

The Monte Velho Nature Resort (00 351 2139 07170; www.wonderfulland.com/montevelho). Doubles in the old farmhouse start at €90 (£64), including breakfast.

EATING THERE

Sitio do Rio (00 351 2829 73119) serves delicious authentic Algarvian dishes, while Sitio do Forno's (00 351 2635 58404) speciality is grilled fish.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Algarve Tourist Board (00 351 28 98 00 400; www.rtalgarve.pt).

Portuguese Tourist Office (0845 355 1212; www.portugalinsite.com).

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