Overview of our Algarve trip
We decided to seek out some sunny climes this winter break, and so spent five days exploring the Algarve. I have to admit, it was quite a debacle choosing a destination – we were going back and forth between Dresden, Innsbruck, Vienna….. until finally we decided on somewhere warm. Alex was able to use some of his air-miles on tickets to Faro, in southern Portugal, so that’s ultimately where we ended up.
We decided to go for five days, from Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve. But in typical fashion (for us), we didn’t want to spend all five days in the same place. So we booked the first night at a hotel not far from the airport in Faro – a Hilton resort in Vilamoura. I have to admit, we didn’t really like Vilamoura. It’s very much a tourist trap town. There is a harbor with some boats, but all the restaurants are geared to British tourists, and there was nothing that felt authentically Portuguese. For dinner our first night, we had a choice of: British pub, Chinese, Indian, or Italian. (We decided to go with Italian.) The resort in Vilamoura could have been located in Florida or Southern California or Mexico … it was very much a generic holiday resort. Nice pool, hotel bar, standard hotel rooms…. but it was soul-less. It was also deserted! Little did we know that would become a theme for our entire trip.
On our first full day in the Algarve we drove up to the market town of Loulé, where we wandered around enjoying the market and the old town streets. It wasn’t quite what we were expecting – although we did see a man driving a cart and donkey on our way in. In hindsight, this was the day when we encountered the greatest number of people! Although I wouldn’t describe the market as “thronging with people”, there was a pleasant buzz.
Then we drove eastward to the town of Tavira, which would be our home-base for the next two days. Tavira was nice. It’s been described (on the internet) as being “the jewel of the eastern Algarve” …. which is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Overall we thought the eastern parts of the Algarve were not as nice as the western parts. Tavira is lovely, of course – cute cobblestone streets, nice main square, lovely old Roman bridge, good seafood – but it lacks the drama and impact of the western cliffs.
This lack of impact is largely due to the seafront. Although Tavira is close to the ocean, it’s not really ON the ocean. This is due to the Ria Formosa – a lagoon that sits between the mainland and the sea. Due to a badly-written guidebook (avoid the Marco Polo Guide to the Algarve – it’s useless!) we ended up on a rather silly “tourist train” to explore Tavira. (Don’t worry, it deserves an entire blog post to it’s own!).
On our second day in the Algarve we drove into the town of Faro, to take a boat trip out to explore the Ria Formosa. It’s a salty, marshy lagoon, and while it’s very rich in wildlife, it’s poor in entertainment value. Although I should clarify that by saying that it wasn’t that entertaining for us, but I’m sure it’s great for other people. Namely, bird watchers! There were tons and tons of birds. But neither Alex nor I are really bird-people. We took a boat out to the “Deserted Island” – but unfortunately it’s not really deserted. There is a restaurant and some fishing shacks…. it was a bit of a disappointment. We entertained ourselves by making up silly names and facts for non-existent birds. I think the best one was the “ruby-throated twiddle twaddle”.
Back in Faro we explored the old town, but since it was a Sunday, the place was closed up tight. The combination of being off-season, a Sunday, and just a few days after Christmas meant that 95% of the businesses and sights were closed. It felt a bit like an episode of the Twilight Zone, where all the people have disappeared. Combined with poorer-than-expected weather, it was a cold and slightly miserable experience. So we headed back to Tavira for the evening.
On our third day in the Algarve we jumped back in the car (yes, we rented a car for this trip – shocking, I know!) and headed east. All the way across the country. It was about 140 kilometers (90 minutes) on the toll expressway. We ended up at the ends of the earth at Cabo de San Vicente, where we looked out over the immense Atlantic. And I think this is where we started to fall in love with the Algarve. The cliff-faces are incredible. The water was so clear, and the sun was finally shining. FINALLY we felt like were on a true holiday.
Then we headed to our last hotel for our final two nights in Portugal. We decided to splurge and stay in a fancy-pants resort, and we found a pretty good deal at the Vila Vita Parc. Little did we realise that it was a German owned company, and we were about the only non-German speaking people there! It was like being dropped in the middle of Saxony! But it was a lovely break from reality.
On our fourth day we drove to Lagos. We had originally booked a hotel near the center of town, but at the last minute the owners called to tell us that they had to close for unexpected repairs. And I think it was a stroke of good luck for us, because Lagos was was nothing to write home about. It was completely full of bars and pubs and cheap restaurants that seemed to cater to the British stag-do crowd. We were in and out in only a few hours, and I can’t say I’m all that eager to return. The beaches looked lovely though.
Our final day was spent relaxing in the sunshine, checking out a cute seaside chapel, and then catching a flight back to rainy-old-England.
I have to say that, reading back over this blog, it seems like none of our individual experiences in the Algarve were that great. We didn’t like this, we didn’t love that, we were disappointed and bored…. blah blah blah. I sound like a whiny brat! But the thing is, we had a really great trip! The whole of the Algarve is more than the sum of it’s parts. I would recommend it to Americans if you’re looking to get off the beaten path of Spain or Italy – but definitely go in the off-season. i think the summers must be unbearably crowded. Someone told us that 65% of the people who own property in the Algarve are British, and they all go for their summer holidays. In fact, in one small town, we were told that the winter population was a mere 4,000, but that in the summer it grows to be more than 100,000. That’s a crazy amount of fluctuation for any community, and I think the explosion and growth in the Algarve in the past 20 years has probably harmed the area as much as helped it.
The next time we go, we’re going to explore inland a bit more – away from the tourist resorts on the coast. We’ve heard great things about Alentejo, so I think that’s next on the list. Of course, Porto is supposed to be nice…. and the Douro valley is lovely…. sigh….