The southern edge of Portugal, called the Algarve, has long been known as the Florida of Europe: the continent’s warmest weather and mildest winters, an embarrassment of golf courses, beachfront condo high rises and all-inclusive resorts designed for EasyJetters’ weekend breaks. Even with the delectable oranges—nearly the size of my head and dripping with sweet juice—it wasn’t enough to sell me on the region when I visited several years ago. I mean, if New Yorkers want that kind of vacation, the Florida of North America (i.e., Florida) is much more accessible.
But a recent visit made me reconsider. Outside certain areas, those beaches are truly beautiful. The ocean is warm enough for swimming and punctuated with surf breaks. The restaurants are much better. And since my first visit, the hotels and the culture have gotten classier—now there are many weekend festivals attended by locals. And the pure-pleasure seafood would be worth a visit on its own.
It’s still not quite a long weekend from the US, but now that the world has discovered Portugal, the Algarve is an ideal extension after touring city museums and neighborhoods, visiting castles and tasting wines. Just about three hours by train from Lisbon or two from Seville (less by car), it’s the place where you take a relaxed vacation to recover from your learning vacation.
To be sure, parts are unattractive, overbuilt and disdained by the Portuguese. But parts are still innocent. Conventional wisdom holds that you should stay to the far east or the far west. But there are dots of joy all along the coast—especially when you leave the beach and head for the hills. Here are 9 reasons to visit. (Disclosure: several of these places hosted me as a journalist.)
The “farm house” in this charming hotel’s name isn’t just marketing. Its 22 acres of grounds are dotted with herb and vegetable gardens, which play a big role in the kitchens—chefs step outside in their whites to snip rosemary and thyme—and add to the general beauty of the place. It’s a five-minute drive from the city of Olhão, but it feels far away from far away. After a major renovation two years ago, the 55 rooms are the height of simple boho chic—lime-washed walls and floors, straw hats and colorful sarongs hung as art. It’s a fine base for venturing toward the beach or into the hills, and the dedicated “experience consultant” has made it his mission to come up with activities to enlighten and entertain guests every day of a weeklong stay.
What comes to mind when you picture a perfectly picturesque Portuguese fishing village? It probably looks something like Tavira: cobblestoned streets, a pretty riverside harbor, buildings clad in colorful azulejos, ancient churches and simple seafood restaurants. It’s a short drive from Vila Monte.
It’s not by the sea, but it’s the quintessential seaside restaurant: no frills, no pretension, just seriously good fish that was swimming a few hours earlier. There’s no menu. You pick a fish from the counter by the entrance, sit down and eat what they give you: bread and olives, tomato and onion salad, roasted potatoes, a carafe of wine and finally, that fish.
Tasting olive oil at Monterosa
Olive oil is a cornerstone of Portuguese cuisine, but it’s only recently that the country has started making small-batch, artisanal oils to compete on a world stage. One winner is Monterosa, a premium brand whose annual output isn’t enough to fill a shipping truck yet is good enough to earn awards from the likes of the New York Olive Oil Competition. It’s open for tours of the groves and production facilities, tastings of the oils they produce and picnics alongside country houses underneath the trees (BYO lunch—or let Vila Monte arrange).
Hiking with goats
The Algarve is home to small-scale producers of other delicacies, including cheeses made with goat milk and cured meats from free-ranging black pigs (hence the ibérico in much jamón ibérico). With the right connections, you can arrange to hike with a local goatherd as he moves several dozen goats around his rugged land. The capper is a picnic lunch of their cheese and meat. The family behind it doesn’t sell directly to visitors, but Vila Monte can make arrangements.
For nearly 50 years, this shop, the brainchild of an Irish and a Portuguese artist, has set out to demonstrate that traditional craft isn’t destined to the dustbin of history. The distinctive, beautifully painted ceramics gracefully recognize the past while carrying a contemporary sensibility that makes them transcend time and place.
The Asian luxury brand’s debut in Europe, which opened in April, hit all the right notes. After a significant renovation, what used to be the somewhat troubled Tivoli Victoria, emerged as a five-star hotel that holds its own on a world stage. Public spaces were redesigned, partnerships with the best local artists and food purveyors were forged, and the commitment to authenticity grew. That means a tree in the lobby, made by a local artist, that combines branches from carob, almond and orange trees (the three main crops in the region); nightly fado performances with singers from the local fado association; and restaurants with a deep connection to Portugal, especially the new Ria, which pays homage to the Ria Formosa national park and the mind-bogglingly good fish and shellfish from the southern coast. Even the sea salt was painstakingly sourced.
Algarve wines don’t have the cachet of Douro or Alentejo wines—too much sun, too much sugar (the award-winning sommelier at the Anantara told me he wouldn’t recommend an Algarve wine with Algarve food and would choose something lighter from the north instead)—but a growing number of winemakers is challenging that. One of them is Quinta do Convento do Paraíso, a family-run winery that’s producing some sophisticated bottles and offers tastings of them (book through Anantara) at their house near Silves. The house is a dream of a Portuguese country home, all blue and white and charm. (You can book it as a private rental.) It’s not for nothing that their signature wine is called Euphoria.
And, okay, the beaches
Just slightly east of the developed marina at Vilamoura is Praia do Almargem, which stretches for nearly 10 pristine miles of protected land—you could walk to the regional capital of Faro. And the namesake beach at the Praia Verde Boutique Hotel, the sister property of Vile Monte, in the eastern part of the Algarve goes on and on. And if you go in the off-season (now), it’s plenty warm but there’s no one there.