The best resorts in; The Algarve

Despite the popularity of southern Portugal as a family holiday destination, there are still some pockets that haven't been invaded by the tour operators. Jill Crawshaw knows them well

inety miles of golden beaches washed clean by the Atlantic and tempered from the fierce heat by cooling breezes: they even used to call it Europe's best-kept secret, until the builders arrived and covered large chunks of Albufeira, Vilamoura, Quarteira - and further west still - with concrete. But if you avoid the monstrous developments, the Algarve's trim white villas, relaxed atmosphere and modest prices combine to offer excellent holidays, particularly for families and golfers.

Tavira

While earthquakes demolished many of the Algarve's ancient buildings, and the ravages of tourism finished off much of the rest, the little town of Tavira has remained untouched by either. A fine Roman bridge spans the lazy River Gilao, while locals and visitors who are prepared to come this far linger over coffee or vinho verde in cafes along the palm-lined banks.

Compared with the Algarve's usual bold, chunky architecture, Tavira is elegant and patrician. Sixteenth and 17th-century mansions and balconied houses covered with decorative azulejos (tiles) line its cobbled streets, and white domes and the spires of 37 churches pierce the skyline - best seen from the Santa Maria do Castelo, which contains the tomb of Dom Palo Peres who took back Tavira from the Moors in 1224. For beaches, cycle, take the bus or boat-hop from the town to the nearby huge sandy spits of the llhas (little islands) opposite.

Individual Travellers offers a village studio sleeping two for pounds 399 to pounds 575 per week, or pounds 537 to pounds 839 per fortnight, including car hire or ferry crossings for your own car. Flights can be arranged from between pounds 170 to pounds 290 per person.

Cacela Velha

Just east of Tavira, Cacela Velha is what the Algarve must have been like 50 years ago - a tiny, almost untouched hamlet which tourists completely by-pass as they flock to Cabanas and Monte Gordo nearby.

Spectacularly sited on a rocky promontory occupied only by an old church, the remains of a fort, a tiny restaurant and a few rooms to let, the views from the village are sensational, the almost virgin shore on the sandy bar way below even more so. The developers must surely be reaching for their cheque books.

For independent travellers only. For flights, see Tavira.

Carvoeiro

Once one of the quaintest fishing villages on the Algarve, Carvoeiro has been colonised by the British, but its steep red cliffs have fortunately protected the cove and village from too much building, and the resort remains attractive and intimate. The town's beach, however, is ideal for families with very young children. Go off-season and avoid August.

Few visitors stay in the resort itself, spreading out instead over the dramatic eastern cliffs, where there is a rash of ugly factory-style hotel developments, and to the more mellow west, where high-quality villas, some of them old converted mansions, pepper the rural landscape.

Anyone who gets bored with their private pool, or the Atlantic beaches, can always pop off to Silves, a few miles inland. Ghostly but still intact battlements defend the old capital of the Algarve, a city then so embellished by Moorish craftsmen that it was described as "10 times more remarkable than Lisbon" until it was sacked by 13th-century Crusaders.

Meon Villas offers a selection of villas in Carvoeiro. A typical property with pool sleeping between two and six people, just outside Carvoeiro village, costs from pounds 337 to pounds 646 per person per week, or from pounds 543-pounds 979 per fortnight, including flights and car hire.

Lagos

Lagos is true Portugal - a real town with a fishing port, market and a traditional character and life of its own. It has long been an important centre - the Phoenicians founded it, the Moors traded from it, Henry the Navigator's explorers used it. The town also infamously hosted Europe's first slave market - you can still see the arcades, along with a few ornate churches, the old Customs House, bits of the old walls and fortifications and the cobbled streets, which are all part of the original port that survived the devastating earthquake of 1755.

But even the "newer" parts, the waterfront, the mosaic-decorated squares and mostly traffic-free centre are easy and pleasant to walk in, and the town is an excellent base from which to explore the western Algarve - boats head off for different bays every morning, as do regular buses. A splendid little old railway will take you eastwards, but beware - the station is 20 minutes from the centre.

Not surprisingly, visitors throng into town for its many restaurants, bars, wine cellars and clubs. Lagos is one of the few resorts on the Algarve where you will find much action after midnight.

A few minutes' walk away, a series of coves wrap themselves around small beaches - Praia de Dona Ana is the most popular - and on the eastern side of town the huge sands of Meia Praia stretch for nearly three miles. But, in truth, if it is beaches you want, you will find them more easily accessible elsewhere. If you want a bit of everything else, Lagos should suit you just fine.

The Travel Club of Upminster offers studios and apartments, some of which are in the centre, which can be rather noisy. Studios for two in the old town, with a shared pool, cost pounds 258-pounds 398 per person per week, or pounds 306-pounds 506 for two weeks, including flights.

Ferragudo

Sprawling scruffily yet charmingly set around a port, and unshaded as yet by skyscrapers and cranes, there is still very much a sense of a local community in Ferragudo. Outside the houses along the shore, the fishermen spend their days untangling and repairing their nets, and not just for tourists' cameras; their wives sit basking in the sun on the doorstep or tend their tiny gardens. The local dogs and children command the tiled village square, while their elders watch them, sipping coffee.

There are surprisingly good bars, some with jazz, as well as a couple of restaurants, and a good windsurfing beach half a mile away. Across the estuary, the little sardine shacks along the quayside at Portimao offer the best and cheapest eating on the Algarve.

For independent travellers only - the village has a few pensions and there is a campsite south of the beach. For flights, see Tavira.

Praia da Luz

Lively teenagers and late-night ravers usually expire from boredom at Praia da Luz after the first day, and since there is nothing much else around, end up rushing off to Lagos four miles east, never to return.

But families with young children return again and again to this small, quiet relaxed spot, far away from the razzmatazz of Albufeira and Vilamoura. The beach isn't big but is rarely crowded even in high season, and a number of whitewashed child-friendly apartments and villa complexes, notably the simple Beach Studios and the more spacious villas of the Luz Bay Club, offer children's amenities such as tennis, separate pools and kids' clubs during the school summer holidays. A riding centre and three neighbourhood golf courses are a bonus for sport enthusiasts.

The Travel Club of Upminster offers a two-bedroom villa at the Luz Bay Club from pounds 278 per week per person, rising to pounds 414 in August, or from pounds 346 to pounds 532 per fortnight, including flights. There are also some good reductions for "children" under 20.

Burgau

Along with the neighbouring fishing village of Salema, Burgau is being rapidly discovered by British holidaymakers, although the big tour operators haven't got there yet. The old core of the village, with its geraniums, cobbles, fishing boats and sardine restaurants, is very appealing - the sprawling outskirts, rather less so. The sandy beach is superb, though heavy seas removed a large chunk of it a few years ago.

Burgau is one of the last of the recognised resorts in the far west, but you will find a number of isolated beaches (with few tourists or facilities) beyond it. Great for breezy coastal walks, it is also where the scenery changes from the cosy to the gaunt and windswept, as the coast reaches Sagres where Henry the Navigator's school trained some of the world's greatest seafarers (including Columbus).

The landscape becomes even more bleak at Cape St Vincent, which, in the eyes of the Portuguese, has always been O fim do mundo (the end of the world).

Individual Travellers offers villas in unspoilt rural locations about two miles from Burgau. A house sleeping four costs pounds 761 to pounds 1,257 per week, pounds 1,009 to pounds 1,725 per fortnight, including car hire but not flights.

Vila Nova de Milfontes

Although it shares its climate with the Algarve, Vila Nova de Milfontes does not belong there - it's on the west coast of the Alentejo, a rich wine-producing historical treasure virtually unknown to the British.

Flanked by low hills, Vila Nova is on the estuary of the River Mira, so if the coastal breezes get too much, you can swim from the sandbanks . The harbour was once important enough to be guarded by a little castle, sacked by pirates, later converted into an inn listed by peripatetic poet, Robert Southey (1774-1843).

Today the resort is pretty rather than dramatic, and teenagers love it for its water sports and bars, so if you want to see the Portuguese at play, head for Vila Nova.

Fly to Lisbon for pounds 150 to pounds 220 return, and either take a bus or hire a car for the two-hour mainly motorway journey. There is a variety of pensions and hotels (often booked up in August) and a large campsite.

THE ALGARVE

TOUR OPERATORS

CV Travel (tel: 0171-591 2810)

Magic of Spain & Portugal (tel: 0990 462442)

Meon Villas

(tel: 01730 230370)

Portuguese & Spanish Chapters (tel: 0171-722 0722)

Individual Travellers Portugal (tel: 08700 780187)

Mundi Color

(tel: 0171-828 6021)

Travel Club of Upminster

(tel: 01708 225000)

The Villa Agency

(tel: 01273 747711)

Portuguese Tourist Office

(tel: 0171-494 1441)

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