What does the Algarve have.. Great beaches..yes.. Great food.. Yes.. Great weather.. Certainly.. But what it really has is variety. It isn’t just hotels and apartments and fighting the towels for a sun bed. Perhaps you would like to see the African bee eaters at Boco do Rio or play a round of golf beneath the Algarve sun.
Along the Algarve coast the tourism boom of the 80’s saw small coastal villages grow to be modern resorts providing all the comfort and facilities which todays visitors expect.
The arrival of the millennium saw an upturn in the Algarve property market and with it the coasts latest resort started to emerge along the beach of Meia Praia near Lagos.
Contrast that with the intimate village character of nearby Praia da Luz where the latest phase of The Ocean Club promises to preserve the charm that has made this one of the Algarves most loved destinations.
Take the opportunity to explore the charm and character of the Algarve. The ancient city of Lagos should really not be missed and a trip to the top of Monchique offers an unparalleled view of the Algarve.
Although the Algarve has cheap and accessible public transport a hire car opens up so much opportunity to explore the countryside. The best deal is available by hiring from the internet before you leave for your holiday.
Set out to explore the Algarve and you will be pleased to know that times have changed. Its not just the new roads that have made travel faster but also the virtual disappearance of the once ubiquitous donkey carts.
Only 25 years ago it could take 6 hours to drive from Sagres to the airport at Faro. Today its less than 2 hours to catch your plane., Gone are the winding lanes through villages and towns. Gone also are the cobbled roads that made anything more than 30 mph totally deafening.
It was the existing roads and the natural geography that shaped the growth of tourism in the Algarve. To the east of Faro airport the coast is fringed by a marshy lagoon and the beaches are on offshore islands. Tourism naturally spread to the West and villages like Albufeira and Armacao de Pera became the new Algarve.
Bridge too Far
As the apartments and land prices went up in the Albufeira the Western Algarve remained virtually undeveloped. The barrier to the tide of tourism lay at the Portimao where a narrow bridge and bottle neck town centre could mean an hour or more sitting in traffic.
Today Portimao has a bypass and new bridge and the golden gates are unlocked for Lagos to build its new tourist town on Meia Praia.
But if the coast has sprouted its necklace of resorts the body of the Algarve remains for the most part unchanged.
Travel just a couple of miles inland and you are in a different world. Not a museum or a showpiece but the modern Portugal blended with the old from which it is emerging.
The villages are changing as old tiny soundproof room houses are giving way to modern family homes.
Take a look at the people and you will see a remarkable change. The older generations small from growing up on inadequate diet compared to the tall young kids home from school and college.
Standing on the strip at Albufeira, in a scene dedicated totally to tourism, it is hard to accept that within a few minutes drive there are communities who rarely see a tourist although they send their sons to work in this other Portugal.
Nowhere is the change of Portugal more evident than in the town of Aljezur. Twenty minutes north of Lagos in a completely unspoilt countryside of small fields and eucalyptus forests the old town of Aljezur huddles on a steep valley side beneath an ancient castle.
Across the valley on a spacious sunny slope a new town is growing. Even the monthly market has moved to the wider streets and easy access. The market is a real country gem unbothered by the gipsies who predominate in the more lucrative tourist areas.
At Lagos the coast takes a dramatic change. The long sandy beaches which characterise the central Algarve come to an end at Meia Praia. From here westwards the coast is high cliffs studded with picture book coves.
From the mouth of the river at Lagos the cliffs run south towards the lighthouse at Ponte de Piedade. At the foot of the cliffs lie bays of golden sand. Long ago the soft rock was carved by rainwater into deep pot holes and underground passages.
Today the sea is washing away the clay which choked these cave systems for millions of years. You can visit the grottoes by boat, but beware of the small open boats offering trips from the Lagos avenida. They have no adequete safety equipment and you and your family could be at risk.
But its not just the beaches which are different here in the Western Algarve. The resorts are also smaller, more intimate and still rich with the character of Portugal.
Here lies the secret of the Algarves popularity: Albufeira and the central Algarve catering to the holidaymaker who wants lots of people and vibrant fun. Penina and Quinta do Lago for a more reserved holiday with fine golf and the resorts of the Western Algarve, like Praia da Luz, with a relaxed intimate style. Across the Algarves variety there is sure to be an Algarve which suits you.
Beyond Burgau the coast is now a National Park and protected from the virus of virtually uncontrolled development which the local authorities have allowed to ravage so much of the Algarve.
Protected through the 70’s and 80’s by the traffic jams at Portimao this part of the coast was never developed and there remain deserted beaches with not a house in sight.
A tightening of controls for summer 2001 means that many of the ramshackle timber beach bars which have been so well loved will also disappear. Unfortunately this attempt at improving the quality of tourism is probably ill thought. In place of the beach shacks there will be modern incongruous cement buildings or the beaches will be left with no facilities what so ever.
However the loss of the beach bars may be a price worth paying if the unspoilt coves and bays can remain protected from the misuse of building control which characterises some of the Algarves local authorities. It cannot be without justification that there are repeated allegations of misconduct made against the likes of Lagos town council.
Beyond the hidden bays of Ingrina and Figeuira there lies the town of Sagres sheltering from the Atlantic storms which crash against the cliffs of Cape St Vincente throughout the winter months.
The town itself lies across the promontory from the exposed Atlantic cliffs and holds a surprise. Beyond the main street in a sheltered bay lies a modern fishing port, constructed with waves of EEC money to support a handful of boats fishing by outdated methods.
The view is amazing as the port lies at your feet and the shimmering blue ocean stretches away towards the east. This sheltered curve of ocean is called the Bay of Whales and recalls a time before the sea had been fished near to emptiness.
Standing on a headland beyond the houses of Sagres appears the walls of the towns ancient fort. Behind the curtain wall and gatehouse there is nothing to justify the admission fee.
In an attempt to create a nice little earner the ever greedy government demolished the old buildings and built a tasteless concrete and glass commercial centre. Now you are supposed to pay admission to go and spend your money.
Better to give this monument to misthinking a miss and follow the route to Cape St Vincente. Perched on high cliffs this is the turning point in the coast. From here high cliffs and sandy beaches run north and stand exposed to the winter storms as they sweep in from the Atlantic.
Here on the West coast the villages shelter inland away from the wind and salt spray that lashes the sand and rocks during the winter months. The beaches are deserted and loved by those who admire untamed beauty.
This is a surfers paradise with long swells sweeping in from the Atlantic to provide spectacular year round breaks over the submerged reefs.
To visit this coast of wild beauty a hire car is an essential. Access to many of the beaches is by narrow lanes from the main road and there is no public transport.
Faro airport stands perched on the edge of a great estuary. Wild marshes fringed with abandoned salt pans are separated from the sea by low sandy islands. Hidden beyond the dunes and clusters of holiday homes lie idyllic sandy beaches and the azure ocean.
Many of the islands are accessible only by the ferries which cross the inshore lagoons from the piers at Faro and Olhao. In the boom years of tourist development these offshore fragments of paradise were protected by their lack of infrastructure and water, today they are a national park where the move is to demolish not erect buildings.
Further east the town of Tavira marks a change in the coastline. The inshore marshes dissapear and the ocean is backed by broad sanddunes. The coast is one amazing stretch of golden sand. The climate here is warmer and drier than in the west and the summers can be very hot. Tourist development in the area is characteristically family orientated and with the border so close there are as many Spanish on the beaches as northern Europeans.
The eastern Algarve promises to be a rising star in the world of tourism. The area now has one golf course and there are others in the course of construction.
One great appeal of the eastern Algarve lies in its proximity to Spain. The fascinating city of Seville and the Donana nature park are within an easy “day trip” drive. Some car hire companies will let you take a car to Spain with no additional charge except for the purchase of a green card.
Appealing though the beach and sun soaked sand may be the Algarve is not just the coastline and there is lots for the more adventurous to go and see.
Away from the coast the Algarve is largely untouched by tourism. Portugal is a developing country and the towns and villages are a muddle of the old and new. Small houses and shops are giving way to modern buildings as people seek a new way of life.
Still there remain some gems of character soaked Portugal and none more so than the village of Caldas de Monchique where the sick used to come to bathe in the thermal springs. Its easy to miss this small jewel with its atmospheric village square standing beside the road to Monchique.
The Central Algarve is where tourism originally developed and here are to be found the major resorts. The towns of Albufeira, Armacao de Pera, Praia da Rocha and Quarteira are vibrant resorts with large hotels, hostels and apartment complexes.
This are also has luxury resorts including those built around some of the worlds finest golf courses.
The Western Algarve from Lagos to Sagres has a more typically Portuguese feel and the resorts are more intimate. Typical of these is The Ocean Club at Praia da Luz which combines modern comfortable cottages and apartments in a village setting.
The Eastern Algarve has a character all of its own with beautiful sandy beaches and the hottest of weather. Although the area is developing some may feel that there is not as much to do as in the more established parts of the Algarve.