Action in the Algarve: surfing, cycling and kayaking
Never say “Albufeira” to an inhabitant of the Algarve. All the natives of the southernmost region of Portugal to whom I have blurted out the name of the most touristic city in the region responded with a grimace, or at best an unimpressed lip curl. They seem genuinely mystified by the millions of tourists who flock to the Algarve just to crash into the sand, and even more so by the number of people choosing to settle into the whitewashed apartments of Albufeira, stuck in the same stifling proximity as the pink bodies jostling each other on the city’s beaches.
“There is so much more to do here”, that’s what I hear from the driver who picks me up at the airport, from the surfer who shows me how to catch a wave, from the guides who take me hiking in the mountains of the Algarve – to name a few. For a handful of days in the region, I was struck again and again by this amazement at the failure of strangers to discover more than sunbathing.
The first local to show me a more active time in the Algarve is Martha. With her faded blonde locks, dented pickup truck and Billabong sweatshirt, it’s not hard to guess her trade. During our short drive to Cordama Beach in Sagres, on the Vicentina Coast, she chats animatedly about a recent report on surfline.com. “He named Portugal the best place to surf the world over in February,” she says. “I was so excited I passed it on to all my friends.”
Perhaps the best part about surfing in Sagres is that the swells are most impressive throughout the off-peak tourist season. Strong summer winds create better conditions for kitesurfing, while winter swells on the hollow west coast beach breaks attract serious barrel hunters and few other gamblers. It’s an epic destination for you and your board – miles of deserted golden sand bordered on one side by jagged, menacing cliffs, and the endless royal blue of the Atlantic Ocean on the other.
There is also a range of beaches suitable for beginners, which is good news for me. In a wetsuit and awkwardly falling off my foam in no time at all, I can see why this is the perfect place to do your first temporary wipes. “A lot of Australians come to us to learn,” Martha tells me. “Maybe they were embarrassed to be a newbie at home.” In Sagres in winter, there aren’t many crowds to witness your faltering departure.
A word of warning – the growing fame here has led many shonky surf operators to settle down without any certification or insurance. Martha is co-owner of the surf center at the Memmo Baleeira hotel in Sagres, which is part of the Algarve Surf Association. She recommends that you only get involved in outfits approved by the ASA.
Besides surfing, there are a multitude of ways to venture out with a view of the sea. The Ecovia cycle path runs through the Algarve coast from end to end, covering 214 km from Cape St. Vincent in the west to ‘to Via Real de Santo Antonio to the east. As I pedal the 27km from the small town of Tavira to Via Real, I find myself entertaining wild fantasies of a day traveling the entire route. There is an immense sense of satisfaction that comes from perching in my saddle, passing peaceful orange groves and the great sociable blue, while above me the sky remains virgin of clouds. I breathe and smile at the idea that there is never a beach very far if I want to rest.
Another day I take a kayak in the Ria Formosa. This protected natural park includes a landscape of coastal lagoons, incredibly blue under the incessant sun of the Algarve. Here I have an idea of how the area must have been before the bundle city vacation. Weather-beaten old men pluck oysters from traps as seabirds spin in the still air, and I spot a grizzled fisherman asleep at the wheel of his boat as he cranks up the engine. After about an hour of paddling, I come to a deserted beach that stretches farther than I can see.
The ancient life of the region as an assemblage of sleepy fishing villages is most keenly felt around the Ria Formosa, where there is a palpable pride in this past. See, for example, the “Anchor Cemetery” on Ilha de Tavira, laid out in honor of the tuna fishing fleet that was based here.
Curious to discover more of an Algarve untouched by time, I head inland to explore the Via Algarviana. The 301 km hiking route winds along the green hills and valleys of the region, passing through various rural villages. I take a 20 km section of the trail, where my guides, Ana and Cristina, stop to chat with the elderly people who gather in the shade of the trees in the village.
“They don’t see many people, so when we pass by, they always like to talk,” says Ana. “When they die, it will be nothing but ruins,” adds Cristina, looking around at the small set of houses and crumbling stone walls. This is the fate of country life in many corners of the world these days – the young move to the cities and the village dies along with the generation that remains.
I watch from the local weaving a basket in the shade of his front door to the green and wild mountains beyond. The Algarve receives seven million foreign tourists per year; how cool that even in the busiest places there is still so much to discover.
Laura has hiked and biked with Megasport, which offers a variety of active vacation packages and equipment rentals megasport.pt; surf with Memmo Baleeira memmobaleeira.com; and kayaking with the Vila Gale Albacora hotel in Tavira vilagale.pt
Click below for food, drink and hotel recommendations >>>
Where to eat
BUDGET: Just outside the Memmo Baleeira parking lot in Sagres, there is a strip of small restaurants serving budget dinners. Take a look at the menus and see what makes you happy. There are burgers from £ 2.50 and cataplanas – the famous Portuguese seafood stew – from £ 15 for two.
MIDRANGE : The colorful A Eira do Mel may have a Michelin rating, but it’s a relaxed and friendly restaurant in which to enjoy a sublime lamb stew or octopus cataplana after a day surfing the waves of Sagres. Main courses from £ 12. (eiradomel.com)
LUXURY: If you are looking for something really special try Henrique Leis in Vale Formoso, Almancil. Expect duck foie gras with quail breast and truffle. You will expect around £ 50 per head, without wine. (henriqueleis.com)
BUDGET: Warung in Sagres has comfy sofas and cushions, DJs and live music, plus plenty of surfer friends waiting. Beers from around £ 1.70 and spirits from around £ 2.50. (warung.eu)
MIDRANGE : Converted from an old farmhouse, the Piano Bar Dom Paio is a sophisticated place in the seaside resort of Pedras d’el Rei. The bar serves surprisingly sweet local fire water and there is live jazz in the summer. Located in Santa Luzia, the restaurant also prepares an excellent octopus with sweet potato. Firewater from £ 2.50. (pedrasdelrei.com)
LUXURY: The Algarve is full of laid-back beach bars and hangouts for surfers who sell cheap beer in spades. But if you’re looking to spend the money, try Taberna de Lagos. The vibe is more polished, which means higher drink prices – consider cocktails starting at £ 7. (tabernalagos.pt)
BUDGET: About 10 km from Sagres, the Goodfeeling Hostel is surrounded by beautiful hills and beautiful beaches. Dorms from £ 13pn. (Hostelworld.com)
MIDRANGE : For a rustic stay, head to Casa do Lavrador in the small hilltop village of Furnazinhas. The two-story rooms are huge and warm, with chic wood-burning fireplaces and stone walls. Owner Judith speaks excellent English and serves a delicious breakfast of homemade cheeses and jams. From £ 26pn, B&B. ([email protected])
LUXURY: The Memmo Baleeira is an impressive all-white masterclass with a modern design, with stunning views of the Sagres Sea and an in-house surf school. Special offers from £ 54; standard rates from 87 pn. (memmobaleeira.com)
GETTING THERE : Fly direct from London Gatwick or London Luton to Faro from £ 36.99 one way with Monarch including tax. (monarch.co.uk).