YOU might have thought that the tourist industry in the Algarve is as old as time itself. In fact, it was not until 1965, the year that the Rolling Stones were singing '(I can't get no) Satisfaction', that Faro airport was opened and the charter flights began to zoom in.

Of course, the developers and tower block specialists doubled their efforts to make up for lost time. Undeniably a lot of the Algarve has been spoilt by thoughtless development, but it boasts a 100-mile stretch of coast, and the worst of the holiday blight is concentrated in a 40-mile strip between Faro and Portimao, which itself contains many unspoilt areas.

East of Faro the package tourist is practically an unknown beast. Tavira, 20 miles north-east of Faro, is the prettiest town in the Algarve. West of Lagos towards Sagres and Cape St Vincent lies probably the best of the province, with scarcely a straw donkey or 'EastEnders Bar' happy hour to be seen. And in the hills behind Faro a curious mixture of old-fashioned towns and villages, such as Loule and Sao Bras, are heavily sprinkled with smart villas.

Less than an hour's drive from the Spanish border, Faro provides a cheap and convenient access point for exploring western Andalucia: the Costa de la Luz around Cadiz is probably the least known - and least developed - of Spain's southern coasts. Thanks to the new bridge between Vila Real and Ayamonte - and motorway from Huelva - Seville is just two hours' drive away.

Getting there: From the operators' late availability lists, many of the best buys seem to be to Faro. The city receives charter services from more than a dozen UK airports, with flights operating mostly on Fridays and Saturdays. A charter specialist admitted that business to Faro was slow, 'but May is always a slow month'. Consequently plenty of last-minute special deals are on offer: expect to pay from about pounds 89 to pounds 109, with fares from about pounds 129 in the school holiday summer peak. For the best deal, check the small ads and phone around: operators to contact include Avro (061-489 2989), Falcon (061-745 7000) and Unijet (0444 458181).

Car hire: During May, Suncars (0444 456446) offers car hire from Faro for pounds 99 for a week, including unlimited mileage, collision damage waiver, insurance and local tax.

Accommodation: For my money, the best place to stay on the whole coast is the Vale do Lobo estate: a collection of privately owned houses and a Forte hotel beside one of the best beaches in Europe. During May, Something Special (0992 552231) has three-bedroom villas with private pools for pounds 625 per week (rental only). Along the coast - and inland - good-quality bed and breakfast accommodation is easy to find from about pounds 30 per room per night. The Portuguese Tourist Office (below) can provide lists of hotels and residencials.

Further information: Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22/25a Sackville Street, London W1X 1DE (071- 494 1441).

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