Can’t decide what to do on your next break? Then try the Algarve and have it all
It’s another difficult morning over coffee in the Algarve. The sun is shining – again. The surf is pumping – again. The hills are looking inviting, and there’s a decent sea breeze forecast for the afternoon. Oh dear.
The Algarve? Isn’t that the south bit of Portugal, where businessmen play golf and old folk play bingo? Well, yes. But there’s also a whole lot more. Especially if you go west to the wild Atlantic coast, or head inland to a timeless world of cork oaks, hamlets and trails. And with more sun than California, the Algarve is a great year-round destination, and a fantastic playground for outdoor sports.
It’s the decisions. I hate making decisions. Surf, bike, climb, hike, dive, kite – what shall I do today?
Portugal has long been a major surfing destination, an essential part of the classic European surf trip. And with its exposed west coast and more sheltered south, the Algarve has something for surfers of all abilities, and surfing for all conditions.
But there’s a lot more to do here than riding waves. There are well-established windsurfing hotspots, sea cliffs that will satisfy the most adventurous climber, the scuba diving is among the best in Europe, and the network of trails over the steep little hills are a bikers’ and hikers’ paradise.
My coffee’s nearly finished. With the van full of kit and ready to go, all the options are open. South to the Lagos lagoon, a great spot for learning to kitesurf? Or north to Arrifana and a fine longboarding wave? Perhaps inland to Monchique and a hike along the empty trails?
Of course, you can jump on a cheap flight to Faro and be there in three hours. But if you’re looking for a bit more adventure, and a lot more independence, the ferry to Santander in northern Spain will leave you just 10 hours of driving south. It might not be the cheapest crossing, but add up the fuel and tolls to drive from France and it starts to make sense. Take a van filled with toys and you’ll save a fortune on kit hire too. And after all, a comfortable cabin – and a great chance of spotting whales and dolphins in the Bay of Biscay – is not a bad way to start a trip.
If you do take a van to the Algarve, you won’t feel out of place among a fair number of Europe’s travelling tribes. But you don’t have to be a Dutch empty-nester or a gap-year German to have your own van adventure. You don’t even need your own gleaming Winnebago or rusty surf bus. There are a growing number of companies in the UK offering campervan hire, and some of them even specialize in vans for the more action-minded.
Campsites are cheap and plentiful in the Algarve, and indeed throughout Portugal. Wild camping is not officially allowed in National Parks or on beaches, but that doesn’t seem to stop small gatherings of campervans at many of the more out-of-the-way west coast beaches, and even at some more obvious places too. There’s a rumour that a clampdown is coming, but it feels like a rumour that’s been around a long time.
Maybe a quick cake before I decide? Perhaps I should have a combination day. A surf in Carrapateria, and then a spot of biking up in Monchique? Or a morning climbing the sea cliffs of Sagres, then a dive exploring the area’s spectacular wrecks, sea caves and marine life?
If camping isn’t your thing, there’s no shortage of accommodation options at every level. Lagos is a good base if you don’t want to leave town life completely behind, but still be within reach of all the west coast has to offer. It’s a well known party town on the backpacker trail, and full of expat Brits in the winter, yet somehow still retains its considerable elegance and historic interest.
Further west, the quiet little town of Sagres was known by sailors for hundreds of years as The End of the World. During siesta time, it still hasn’t quite lost that vibe.
Or do like me, and get a lovely house in the west coast village of Carrapateira. It’s surrounded by two great surfing beaches, and laidback village life means it’s always a good time for coffee and cake in the square.
So if you want to do it all on your hard-earned holiday, then make just one decision this year – try the Algarve. Just don’t expect the decisions to get any easier when you arrive.
Coffee finished, cake scoffed, time to go. So – surf, bike, or climb? Kitesurf, windsurf, or scuba? Or maybe, just maybe, some time off at a yoga retreat? Oh dear, decisions, decisions. Sometimes, life can be so tough.
The Algarve has some of the best surfing in Europe, and there’s something for all levels. The west coast can be good for beginners in summer. In winter these exposed beaches are for experts only, but then the south coast waves start firing.
There are surf schools and camps all over, and you can hire wetsuits and beginner boards on a number of beaches, including Amado, Bordeira and Arrifana. Both Lagos and Sagres have a number of surf shops, many offering hire and lessons. If you’re doing the van trip from Spain, there are world-class waves to visit on the way too.
Idyllic surf camp just outside Carrapateira: http://www.amadosurfcamp.com
Sagres-based surf school: http://www.sagresnatura.com
Kitesurfing and windsurfing
The massive lagoon between Lagos and Portemao is an ideal place for learning, with waist-deep water and plenty of space. On the south coast, kite and windsurfing kit can be hired at Martinhal beach in Sagres and Maia Praia in Lagos, both great for flat water blasting in the summer thermal winds. Tonel, just west of Sagres, is the most popular spot for windsurfing in the waves
Few kiters or windsurfers seem to have discovered the great potential of the west coast – the many miles of beaches are there waiting for the brave and adventurous to find some killer spots.
Kite and windsurf lessons and hire: http://www.windsurfpoint.com
If you really want to get away from everyone, then head underwater and explore the seas around Sagres. There is a wealth of wrecks, marine life and rock formations to discover, and visibility can be excellent, but needs a period of calm seas and light winds to be at its best.
According to Chris, dive instructor at Divers Cape, it’s the great variety of diving adventures that makes the area so attractive. “Caves, canyons, fantastic sea life and fascinating wrecks, all within 10 minutes of our centre,” he says. “And all at depths of 10-20 metres, so any diver can enjoy them.”
Dive centre and school on Sagres harbour: http://www.diverscape.com
It might not be well known as a climbing destination, but there’s enough in the Algarve to keep all levels of climber happy. The spectacular Sagres sea cliffs are mostly traditional style and not for the inexperienced, but there are a number of bolted routes too. There’s bouldering on beaches, and a couple of small inland crags. Further east, the escarpment of Rocha da Pena has about a hundred bolted routes covering all grades.
The Jingo Wobbly guide for Portugal covers Rocha da Pena well, but not the Sagres cliffs in any detail. For this, spend some time in the Dromedário café bar in Sagres, where the folder of hand-drawn topos and comments is a mine of information.
Climbing for beginners with a friendly and qualified instructor: http://www.algarve-adventure.com
It’s might not be the Alps, but walking in the Algarve certainly has its own pleasures. Head into the interior for the network of virtually empty trails linking up hamlets and villages and enjoy the diverse landscapes and great birdlife. Or take the air on bracing and spectacular coastal walks, stopping off at one of the little cafes that often overlook even the most isolated beaches.
Cicerone publishes the ‘Walking in the Algarve’ guidebook, while the Portuguese tourist board has also produced a handy guide, complete with contoured maps, which is available at tourist information offices. A number of companies offer luggage transfer and guiding or route recommendations.
Guided and self-guided walks with the author of ‘Walking in the Algarve’: http://www.portugalwalks.com
From crazy down-hillers to more sedate coastal cruises, the Algarve is fantastic biking country. A qualified instructor and ex pro downhill racer, Jim Carroll of the Sagres-based Mountain Biking Adventure Company believes it could become a world-class biking destination. “The landscape is ideal and the climate is great all year round,” says Jim. “And there are hundreds of years’ worth of trails crisscrossing the hills, linking up all the farmhouses, hamlets and villages.”
But Jim is still out with his shovel most of the winter building new trails, so there’s a constantly growing playground for even the most advanced bikers.
Guided mountain bike trips with bikes and uphill transport provided: http://www.themountainbikeadventure.com
Retreats have been springing up all over the Algarve in recent years, but for a really unique experience stay in a tipi set in a beautiful valley for a week of yoga and surfing. Tipi Valley, two kilometres from Aljezur, has made it into the bible of outdoor style, Cool Camping Europe. With no more than 10 people staying at a time, it’s an incredibly restful place. Though with yoga sessions morning and evening, surfing in the day, and bikes and canoes to borrow, you might not have much time for resting
If you don’t want a full retreat, The Light Room in Lagos has drop-in classes most days of the week.
Week-long retreats of yoga and surf: http://www.surfalgarve.com
Drop-in classes in Lagos: http://www.thelightroom.info
Ferries to Santander from Portsmouth and Plymouth
Accommodation in Carrapateira
UK campervan hire