Almost everyone goes to the Algarve Region for its beautiful golden beaches. You know the ones with the soaring cliffs, the turquoise waters, the sea caves and unusual rock formations. And why not, it is surrounded by two sides of the Atlantic, it offers a surfers’ paradise on the southwest coast and a natural, authentic and undeveloped east coast, with the tourist hotspot right in the middle. That is where you will find the newly developed villas, condos and resorts being built in close proximity to the gorgeous beaches. It is also where you will find lots of shopping, restaurants, watersport activities and nightlife. When you visit this region in Portugal’s winter season, like we did, you will have the beaches all to yourself. And, this Canadian girl loved the warm sunshine and 20 degree temperature in February! The further inland you go is where you will find the historic white-washed villages, the rolling countryside and farmland with its cork and olive groves, this is where it eventually meets up with the Alenjeto region.
We stayed in the east, where you find 18,000 hectors of protected land, with bird-filled lagoons, islands of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa and the authentic fishing village of Cacela Velha. The Ria Formosa lagoon is a system of barrier islands that connect the sea through 6 inlets. This is one of the most important areas for aquatic birds in Portugal, hosting on a regular basis more than 20,000 during the winter period. As well as being an important stop-over point in the migration routes between Europe and Africa. This part of the Algarve, which is not as well-known to tourists, is oh so beautiful, and it is no wonder that it has been elected as one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal.
Our home base for the next 5 days was at the modern retreat of Casa Modesta located in Ria Formosa just outside the town of Olhão. We were welcomed by the owner, Carlos Fernandes, who shared the unique family story of how this 9-suite retreat came to be while providing a tour. Built on the site of his grandparents’ family home, it was named after his mother, Modesta Maria. Designed by Carlos’s sister, who is a local architect, Casa Modesta consists of two whitewashed buildings that offer guests a common kitchen/bar area, featuring the original bread oven and the other bulding is where we dined and had a small lounge/reception area. Every room, ours was #9, offers a large private terrace where you can enjoy both the sunrise and sunset. The interior design includes a mix of traditional materials, like the terracotta floor tiles, but is decorated with modern elements as well as family heirlooms. And lastly, the brother of Carlos, is the wonderful host and cook who will prepare the most delicious daily breakfast. Guests are also offered the option for making reservations to join for dinner. We did, and it was by far the best meal we enjoyed while in Portugal.
The ferry from Olhão links the town with a number of barrier islands – long, narrow strips of sand that shelter the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa from the open sea. The Culatra village, only assessible by boat, has maintained a traditional way of life (there are no cars) by its residents. There is not much there, but you do get to see how residents live a very quiet and simple way of life. Back on the mainland, Olhão, is essentially a fishing port but there is lots of vitalization happening here. The preservation of the small historic town is underway with the restoration of many of its original buildings from 16th to 18th centuries. The parish church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário, built in 17th century, is the most prominent historical building in the charming old town. Also, the Mercado is a lively daily market, where to this day, the local fishermen deliver the fresh catch of the day before sunrise.
Olhão is 10 minutes from Casa Modesta
Set on either side of the slow flowing Rio (river) Gilão lies the most charming town. Here you will find the traditional whitewash buildings with coloured borderlines and cobbled squares and pathways. It is extremely close to the Spanish border, and is a definite must-visit city when you are in this region. Tavira was rebuilt in the 13th century, after the town was recaptured from the Moors, you can still see the deep-rooted Moorish influence today. The castle, partially destroyed in the 1755 earthquake, offers wonderful city views. An entire day can easily be spent here wandering the old city, or even perhaps sending time at the beach.
Tavira is 20 minutes from Casa Modesta
This is the biggest city in the Algarve, and often overlooked, but what is worth visiting is the picturesque cidade velha (old town). You enter through the a very stately tunnel passage with 1,000-year-old stonework, and can easily spend a couple of hours just wandering the streets. Most check out the Faro Cathedral and Igreja do Carmo which features the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones); and there are many restaurants in this city.
Faro is 30 minutes from Casa Modesta
There are more than 150 beaches in this region. The most popular, and for good reason, are Praia Da Marinha, Praia do Carvalho and the nearby Benagil Caves, which can only be reached by sea, Praia Do Camilo offers gorgeous rock formations and Praia da Falésia is a long stretch of beach. Because we visited during their winter season, we essentially had the entire beach to ourselves. But come summer time, I can only image how busy these beaches get.
I hope this has inspired your planning to the Algarve region. There is much to explore so give yourself a few days to see how much this region has to offer.