Portugal’s most southerly region is well known for its sandy beaches and lively nightlife but the Algarve entices through diversity. Here are a few tips on activities, including dining-out options, that could make your stay here even more enjoyable.
No better way to get an overall feel for the region on your first day than an off-road safari with Sangres Discovery Tours. Friendly Sandro, who started his company more than four years ago, has developed a wide following of international and local clients and is familiar with even the most remote corners of the countryside. His guided tours by jeep traverses pine and eucalyptus forests, sweeping beaches and undulating hills in an area stretching from Sagres to Cabo de São Vincente (Cape St Vincent), Europe’s most southwestern point.
The tour includes a stopover in the rebuilt picturesque village of Pedralva, now a focus of traditional rural tourism, an 18th century Sagres fortress, the lighthouse at the cape, as well as a 30-minute nature walk in the Parque Natural da Costa Vicentina. Sunset, with a glass of wine, viewed from the cliffs near Sagres is a perfect end to the trip.
Hungry after a day’s exploration? Try Michelin-star Willies near the Pinhal golf course in Vilamoura. Opened 15 years ago, the restaurant is located on a quiet residential suburb and resembles an elegant living room. Its sense of intimacy is enhanced by terracotta-tiled floor, satin curtains, low ceiling, brass ornaments hanging from the walls and a shelf lined with traditional gourds. A mirrored rear wall makes the room seem larger than it actually is.
Start off with the house drink special – ‘Balalaika’ cocktail, a refreshing mix of vodka, triple sec, lime juice and JP Moscatel De Setubal. The menu is classic French with duck breast magret with lavender sauce and chicory leaves and sole meunière with brown butter sauce among the mains. Dishes are served on unadorned plates, with emphasis placed on fine taste than fancy presentation. Local influences have a bearing on the dessert offer, which includes chocolate moelleux with Algarvian orange parfait and peanut butter ice-cream with pistachio brownie and passion fruit coulis.
Renting a car is highly recommended to best see the Algarve and we enjoyed working with Auto Europe. Start your second day with a leisurely drive to historic Loulé about 16 km north of Faro. Try to make it on a Saturday as the town is famous for that morning’s gipsy market at the end of Rua da nossa Senhora da Piedade. It also has a really good daily market in a hall on Praça da República, built in neo-Arabian style with art nouveau interior decorations. From there a network of cobbled alleys and streets leads you to a 13th century castle.
Afterwards head out of town for Vila Joya (House of Joy). It offers a wonderful alfresco lunch experience on a bare brick terrace with cane-backed armchairs overlooking the Atlantic where the more athletic bodysurf in the sparkling waters below. The two Michelin star restaurant’s fragrant garden of exotic flowers, pine and palm trees present a perfect backdrop to fine dining. Efficient multi-national service is provided by Edinburgh-born sommelier Hardie, and Algarve-born waiter, Diogo, under the supervision of Kimberly from England. Even the kitchen staff reflects impressive cosmopolitanism with chefs Dieter Koschina being from Austria and Matteo Ferrantino from Italy. While the menu is succinct, don’t be mislaid: presentation and taste are sophisticated.
Reminiscent of El Bulli’s experimental style, dishes are precise reconstructions of simple tastes with the most unpretentious of names such as ‘gamba,’ ‘avocado’ and ‘tomato.’ The latter dish was intricately designed, the reconstructed tomato – more convincing than any fresh equivalent I’ve ever tasted – ringed by a colorful garland of prawns, dried smoked caviar, coriander mousse and borage flowers. Intriguing taste combinations also included savory macaroons with passion fruit and foie gras and with red beetroot and eel. One of the desserts is ‘a culinary walk in the forest,’ with mushrooms made of bananas and logs made of chocolate and reconstructed coconut shells. To do full justice to food quality, a tasting menu is the best option.
Having surveyed Algarve’s landscape from a jeep and the comfort of a rented car, perhaps a boat trip is in order. Best bet is the guided tour to Ilha Deserta, Portugal’s most southerly point and part of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa. The one-hour boat ride, which begins in Faro harbor, passes through two-meter deep saltmarshes, a haven for nature lovers featuring more than 600 species of flora and fauna, including little terns, igrets, redshanks, grebes, flamingos and cormorants.
The area is also home to the largest reservation of seahorses in the world. The island has one restaurant, Estamine, with spacious seating inside and an al fresco option on its sea-facing terrace. Opened seven years ago and run by Isabel Vicente Vargas and her husband, Jose, fish and seafood are menu highlights, including bream, sea bass, tuna, octopus, mullet, as well as fresh clams from the nearby salt marshes – all of which can be served tapas style. If you’re lucky, you might bump into the island’s sole inhabitant, Alves, a fisherman and guard, who’s likely to offer you a glass of the local ‘firewater,’ Medronho, made from local fruits.
Back in Faro, spend a few pre-dinner hours wandering around its compact old town. The domed 16th-century Renaissance Convento de Nossa Senhora da Assunção houses the town museum where highlights include the 3rd-century Mosaic of the Ocean; 9 to 13th-century Islamic artefacts; and paintings by local artist, Carlos Filipe Porfírio, based on local legends. See the tiny, exquisite Italianate Teatro Lethes dating from 1603.
Dinner time. Meat to complement the seafood lunch sounds good. Carnivores head for Piri Piri Steak House within the Pine Cliffs Resort a few miles outside town. With bare wood surfaces, open rafters and terracotta-tiled floor, it radiates sheer rusticity and succulent prime cuts derive from countries as diverse as Uruguay, Scotland, Argentina and the US. Alfresco dining is offered on a spacious wooden deck. A bottle of Filipa Pato’s FP Baga was the perfect complement to my starter of Black Angus beef carpaccio drizzled with a delicate homemade dressing of ginger, peanut and chilli. My main, New Zealand lamb, was exceptional, Chef Frederico Oliveira creating a texture as soft as mousse on a bone.
So, from overland safaris to island boat trips, from lively markets in historical towns to fine food, the Algarve offers much more than just sunbathing on the beach.