The most south-western point of Europe, the Algarve is a mecca for surfers, hippies and traveller’s alike, drawn to the colourful coastline to surf, chill and watch the most dramatic sunsets.
This wasn’t our first time in the Algarve. Apart from last year, we’ve frequented Sagres in December to take advantage of the winter sun and Atlantic swells for the last 4 years. This year, we took the opportunity for a last-minute jaunt the week before Christmas.
Prices at this time of year (week before or after Christmas) are often significantly reduced to account for the lack of travellers and the number of attractions and restaurants that typically close.
This however, also makes it one of the best times to travel. There have been days (or a whole week the first year we went) where we’ve enjoy 20-25 degrees and 7 days of sun. Shorts and a t-shirt are the perfect items of clothing for a picnic on the beach by day, but jeans, a warm jumper and a decent jacket are quite often needed come the evening. You’re probably best packing a wetsuit if you wish to swim too.
You’d think after 4 visits we’d be bored of the area. But with 4,997 square kilometres (1,929 sq mi), the Algarve is expansive. In just one week, we can drive a good 1000km exploring the local areas and beaches, especially if we’re surf-hunting.
Where to visit
We typically stay in or near the surf town of Sagres, close to numerous beaches suited for all levels of surfers and a great place for dinner (fresh fish a must!) and drinks in the evening.
Although the main town may not be your traditional cobbled moorish town, the sweeping cliffs are steeped in history. The Fortaleza de Sagres was home to Prince Henry’s navigation school (although, ironically born in into the English Royal Family in Windsor). You’ll find a statue of him in the main town square as well as the on the vista in Aljezur (see below).
Cabo de São Vicente, or Cape St. Vincent to you and I, is officially the most southwestern point in Europe and identified by the lighthouse; fisherman clinging to the sides of the cliffs. It is said to have been attacked by Sir Francis Drake in 1587 and suffered destruction in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
Buy some of the best ice-cream from Gelateria Alice, walking distance of Praia de Mareta. Given it was a couple of days before Christmas, I opted for Chocolate Orange and Panettone. I did not regret it!
20 mins East from Sagres, Lagos is a vibrant moorish town and a popular tourist hub in the Algarve. In the winter it can be rather quiet, unless the warm sun is shining on the market stalls along the promenade. Otherwise, it’s a great place to wonder the local shops and enjoy the cafes and restaurants.
5 – 10 mins drive south of the centre, small beach villages such as Pria de Luz, Salema (look out for the dinosaur fossils), and Burgau providing winding cobbled streets and local fish eateries, not forgetting the golden sand beaches.
Ponta da Piedade to the south of Lagos town is one of the most sought after sights in the Algarve. The sea-blown sand-stone arches and coves towering over the crystal turquoise waters are stunning any time of the year (even if they are soon to be surrounded by up and coming holiday villages). Be warned – there are multiple steps down to this.
ProPutting Garden – The 18-hole putting green overshadowed by the old town walls is a fun and challenging way for all to spend an hour or two and one of the best we’ve played. Just watch out for the frogs!!
Carrapateira, AljezuR & Arrifana
Heading north along the wild Atlantic coast, there are many beaches to explore, whether by car, on foot or by bike., including the spectacular beach of Carrapateira (or ‘carrots and potatoes’ as we like to call it) and the famous wooden boardwalks.
Head a little further north and you’ll reach the white-washed market village of Aljezur. Stop in the old-town and meander your way up through the cobbled streets for breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside from the ruins of the 10th Century Moorish castle. Free entry includes a brief history of the town, the muslim-christian history and the views provides a great sense of how the local farming and market town has functioned through time.
Jumping back in the car, the road west winds through the cork forests, leading to the fishing village of Arrifana with quite possibly the steepest road down to the little port. Fun to watch the locals trying to haul fishing boats up it.
Dwarfed by the cliffs, the beach here can provide a great haven to cooler Northern winds and a great surf location for all levels. At sunset, the sky is smashed into an array of fiery colours; a sight to behold.
Atop the cliffs, the once home to 12th century prince, the ruins of Castle Arrifana. A great place to sit and ponder (much like the Prince would have done) or watch the sunset.
One of my favourite restaurants in the world, o Paulo is a must. We typically eat here in the evening after a good surf session, however situated just under the castle ruins on top of the cliffs, the panoramic windows provide amazing views throughout the day. Although they have a large lobster tank and fresh fish counter, our favourite dish is actually the crusted guard of lamb for 2. DELISH! Plus, if you can’t quite finish your bottle of wine or are driving back, they’ll happy provide the cork.
Serra de Monchique Mountain Range
The Algarve may be famous for it’s dramatic coast line, but head 20km in land and the landscape quickly changes. The Serra de Monchique mountain range reaches a height of 902 m at the peak of Fóia and provides breath taking panoramic views across the county.
This region is great for a change of pace and provides ample cycling and hiking trails. We’ve yet to do this, but trail 2 is a 15km loop of Fóia and the surrounding area with some decent climbing thrown in. Road cycling is becoming ever more popular in the region with looked after roads and rolling climbs.
Alternatively, step back in time in the small Roman spa town of Monchique. We first spent a rainy afternoon a couple of years ago at the ‘Hydrotherapy Spa’ Villa Termal das Caldas de Monchique; the healing water rich in bicarbonate, sodium and fluorine sourced from the local hot sulphur springs .
This was an experience we can only describe as ‘the mental asylum’ complete with water treatment rooms much like those used to wash down ‘insane women’. I booked a water massage not really knowing what I was getting myself into; it was more like water-boarding where the masseuse also strips down to a swim suit!!! Not an experience we wish to repeat.
Where to stay
We’ve nearly done it all in Portugal – the hostel, the self-catered cottage and the boutique hotel. Each have their own unique benefits but here’s what we’ve most enjoyed.
The Hostel – The Good Feeling
In a small village 8km from Sagres, The Good Feeling hostel and surf school is a fantastic place to stay. The shared dorms and private rooms share a living space with wood fire and decent sized kitchen. The private rooms are situated away from the main building, allowing additional privacy and the hammocks are a great place to chill in the warm winter sun.
The Boutique Hotel – Memmo Baleeira
Recommended by Mr & Mrs Smith, the ‘designer’ hotel with white washed walls, panoramic sea views and a maze of corridors, features a ‘to-die-for’ outdoor pool, a spa and water sports centre. In the off-season, sea-view rooms with an extremely good breakfast can be found for €65 Euros per night instead of the €150-200 per night in the high season.
We also took advantage of the decent sized mini fridge in the room… which we emptied and filled with our own food for beach-lunches each day.