With its spectacular coastline and breezy, laid-back way of life, this southern part of Portugal has never had a hard time attracting visitors. Now, as government efforts to combat overtourism begin to bear fruit, a new spirit of cultural and ecological preservation is blowing through. Rosecrans Baldwin roams a region on its way up in the world. By Rosecrans Baldwin Photographs by Sivan Askayo
The Algarve, the province at the very bottom of Portugal, is scruffy with abundance. Gardens spill over their crumbling walls. Fish markets are mosh pits. Orange and fig trees grow next to the street, dropping fruit on the sidewalk in riotous spatters. It’s a region where many people still live off the land and the sea, where in every other yard there’s a chaotic pile of outboard motors, and around every other corner, a tractor going dangerously slow—or a teenager on a motorbike who tries to run you off the road. The point is, a lot of the Algarve feels untamed.
One night in the dark, dusty middle of nowhere, you’ll be talking to a man in a small restaurant, a Portuguese guy in work pants with a three-day stubble, and suddenly he’ll come at you with a two-tined fork bearing a hunk of something fishy, a hot little bite dripping with olive oil—some oceanic specimen the name of which can’t be exactly translated into English—and he’ll insist, “You try this”. So you do. And you burn your mouth. But boutique lodgings to enjoy and small shops to discover. The suggestion was that Portugal was finding a way to reverse the effects of overtourism.
So in September, I flew to Lisbon from Los Angeles. At that time of year, the air and sea would still be warm, I was told, but the crowds thinner. My plan was to avoid the Algarve’s busy southern coast, and instead explore its wild western fringe—full of protected wilderness, dramatic cliffs, and roaring surf—then drive east to experience an updated take on agritourism in a landscape of old villages, fishing towns, and working farms.
My flight landed just in time for breakfast. I stopped in the airport for an espresso and a pastéis de nata, one of Portugal’s treasured custard tarts, then picked up my rental car and drove south—a straight shot that took about four podcast episodes and one filling-station coffee (or approximately 21⁄2 hours) before reaching Lagos, which served as the Algarve’s provincial capital from the 16th to the 18th century.
The old town of Lagos is hilly and labyrinthine, a jumble of whitewashed houses, colourful tiles, and terracotta roofs. On a Sunday morning, the place was empty. Street signs were not abundant. I parked my car and set off on foot to find my hotel— and promptly got lost. I could suddenly feel the effects of my long journey. Then a whiff of garlic turned my head. Through an open window, I could hear a Portuguese duet on someone’s stereo. I put down my bag and stood still. The song ended, and, equilibrium restored, I soon arrived at my hotel. “Did you have any trouble finding us?” the woman at reception asked with a smile. Before I could lie and say no, she was offering me a glass of white wine.
Located on the old city’s quiet northern side, Casa Mãe is a stylish boutique property set in an abandoned estate—a splash of contemporary craftsmanship in antique surroundings. It’s also resolutely Portuguese. The rugs, the pottery, even the notepad in my room were made by local producers; the shampoo in my shower was stored in an artisanal clay pot. “We are Portuguese, so we have this historical link with exploring the ocean, with the fishermen, the surf,” I read in the in-house magazine (of course the hotel had its own magazine). “It’s part of our identity, this Atlantic mood.” After a long walk and a light dinner, followed by an early night, I got up the next morning, did a few laps in the deep blue pool, then set off to find the Atlantic mood for myself.
First I drove through the sleepy villages of Salema and Sagres, where residents drank coffee at sidewalk cafes. Then I headed north toward a beach that a friend in LA had recommended, Praia do Amado—part of the Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina Natural Park. This 100-kilometre strip of protected land runs the western length of the Algarve and is edged with mossy headlands, wave-beaten cliffs, and glorious beaches. The reserve has been the beneficiary of a major push on the part of the government to beautify the coastline, and it shows.
As I drove north, the two-lane road became a path weaving through pine forest. After about half an hour, I reached a long sand beach. Families were out sunning, picnicking, doing nothing at all. I parked next to a blond German in sunglasses airing out his wet suit. “Not too crowded?” I asked. “Not here,” he said. “There’s waves for everyone.”
Twenty minutes and $6 (INR 428) later, thanks to a friendly operation above the beach called Amado Surf Camp, I was in the ocean with a rented surfboard, talking to a friendly French guy. We agreed this was a very good way to spend the morning. Later, I asked a young woman in a shop where locals went for lunch. She sent me 200 yards down the street to Restaurante do Cabrita, a small joint with a terrace, shaded by wooden beams, that was packed with customers. Most of them were eating fish or prawns. For about $15 (INR 1,070), I had half a dozen sardines—a regional speciality, grilled and flaky, more like tiny silver trout than the ones that come from a tin—plus a salad, boiled potatoes, and the coldest beer of my life. One of the waitresses, with a tone of concern, asked me, “As sardinhas…you like?”
I assured her that I liked them very much.
After lunch, I drove aimlessly, my GPS switched off. Through my open window came a whiff of the sea, the resinous scent of pine trees, and the occasional puff of barbecue smoke. At one point I pulled off onto a dirt road. A Land Rover was parked where a hiking trail cut west. I followed the path for 15 minutes, past banks of wildflowers and a crumbling old cottage—or was it a chapel?—until I walked out onto a rocky bluff above the vast Atlantic with a never-ending view. It was basically the rim of the continent. If people once stood there, I thought, and figured this for the edge of the world, I could understand why.
“If you want to really appreciate the Algarve, you need to go out on the water,” Paulo Gonçalves said the next day, as we puttered away from land in his boat. While the western Algarve is all rugged bluffs and ocean winds, the southeastern shore is known for its protected lagoons and strips of perfect beach. Gonçalves leads boat tours through his company, Algarve Wow. We met him and his staffer Sara Kellen at a dock in Faro, the eastern Algarve’s biggest city, and cruised out at high tide between fishing boats. The plan was to explore the Ria Formosa Lagoon. Classified as a marine park in 1978 and, more recently, cleared of unlicensed developments, the Ria Formosa lies between the Algarve’s southeastern coast and the ocean, from which it is protected by a string of barrier islands. “People have been fishing here for centuries,” Gonçalves said. Most of the sea bass, sea bream, octopus, and cuttlefish they catch is sold in markets on the mainland, he added, pointing out two buildings in the town of Olhão.
We headed out to Culatra Island—seven kilometres long and less than 1.6 kilometre wide. The island’s three villages support about a thousand
A young couple in city clothes drank wine at a small bar that rented out beach chairs and umbrellas. I asked if they’d come out for a day at the beach. “No, just a cocktail.” I rode the ferry back with them and stopped at a small restaurant across the road. On the waitress’s suggestion, I ordered a platter of camarões (giant prawns) grilled with garlic, plus a glass of vinho verde. I asked where the shellfish had come from. The waitress looked confused. “Over there,” she said, pointing past the boats. “The ocean.”
If the eastern Algarve’s coastline is mostly fishing, the interior is mainly agriculture: small, quiet villages and dusty roads. My last hotel, Fazenda Nova Country House, near Tavira, is both a working farm and a stylish getaway. Dating back to the early 1800s, it is surrounded by 24 acres of olive groves, plus an orchard and gardens. Every guest receives a bottle of house-made olive oil as a gift. But it wasn’t all pastoral. There was an infinity pool, and the meals served in the outdoor dining room were wonderful. On the second floor, above the bar, was a “vinyl library,” stocked with several comfortable seats, a pair of turntables, wireless headphones, and 3,000-plus albums for guests to enjoy.
Fazenda Nova’s owners are a pair of Londoners named Hallie and Tim Robinson. Before they renovated the property, the farm had been inactive for a decade. “Other people had looked at it, but no one was quite as crazy as we were,” Hallie said. Southern Portugal was having a renaissance of sorts, Tim added. And the locals of the eastern Algarve were still coming to terms with it. “They can’t really believe people are coming here en masse.”
Tim and I must have pretty different ideas of “en masse.” I saw few other travellers on my entire trip. Then again, that was the idea. On my last morning in the area, I drove into Olhão. The fish market was buzzing; at bars around the perimeter, old men sat drinking small glasses of red wine. I found my way to Chá Chá Chá, a restaurant housed in a former bordello a short walk from the market. The menu changes depending on the catch. For lunch I started with a salad of figs and salty cheese with pickled cherries. Next came a steaming bowl of mussels and white beans served in a light tomato sauce. It was opulently simple, and exceptionally good.
The owner of Chá Chá Chá, Kevin Gould, is a former food and travel writer from the United Kingdom. I asked him, of all places to settle, why he’d chosen Olhão. He mentioned the climate, the markets, and the culture. But the main reason, he said, was more intangible. “In this place you may be rich or poor, black, grey, or white, gay or straight,” Gould said. “To be accepted, the only thing you have to be is authentic.” I couldn’t argue with that. I’d gone to the Algarve in search of something real, something unvarnished. By the end, it was everywhere I looked.
How to Explore the Algarve
Spend five nights touring the coastal and rural reaches of Portugal’s sunny, relaxed southernmost province.
Lufthansa flies from Delhi and Mumbai to Faro, the regional capital, with a stopover in Frankfurt or Munich. Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways fly from Delhi to Lisbon, with stopovers in Istanbul and Doha respectively; from there, you can rent a car and drive three hours south to the Algarve.
Where to Stay
In the atmospheric old quarter of Lagos, the Algarve’s former capital, Casa Mãe Lagos (doubles from INR 13,700, two-night minimum) has chic rooms, suites, and cabanas overlooking a kitchen garden. A half-hour drive inland from Faro, the elegant Vila Monte Farm House (doubles from INR 21,763) has a peaceful country setting and offers numerous excursions—including trips on the hotel boat or to the nearby Barra Nova beach. Farther east, Fazenda Nova Country House (suites from INR 18,552) has 15 rooms set amid scenic olive groves, including five recently redesigned suites, some of which have private gardens.
Where to Eat
Tucked away on a side street near the fish market in the eastern port of Olhão, Chá Chá Chá (entrées INR 785–INR 1,427) is a charming spot for lunch or dinner. It serves traditional Algarvian dishes with a contemporary twist, using seasonal ingredients.
The team at Made for Spain & Portugal can curate custom Algarve itineraries with exclusive experiences like a visit to a cork factory or an oyster-tasting trip with local fishermen. (six-day trips from INR 3,60,340.