Algarve: A walk on the wild side in Portugal's sunny south
With stunning Atlantic beaches, guaranteed sunshine and pretty local towns, Portugal's Algarve has a lot to offer by way of a relaxing holiday.
All that was not for me, however - I had other plans!
I love walking, which is just as well, as a very bouncy young labradoodle drags me out at least twice a day up and down dale. However, a wish to avoid the endless pee-stops - a habit of all male dogs - and just the desire to walk to my own pace was calling me.
The south western region of Portugal, the Algarve and Alentejo regions in particular, offers a wonderful selection of trails for walkers and cyclists, showcasing a variety of environments, historical places of interest, and beautiful landscapes.
We arrived into Faro, and just a short drive out of the city brought us to the gorgeous hotel Pousada do Palácio de Estoi. This restored palace sits beautifully in ornate gardens. The older part of the hotel has a fabulous series of salons with high ceilings and impressive mirrors and chandeliers. The outdoor pool overlooking the lovely landscape makes it a wonderful oasis for guests. The bedrooms overlook the gardens. The scent of honeysuckle, roses and lavender outside was a delight. With a full day ahead of us, I took advantage of the extensive breakfast buffet.
The office of Tourismo Portugal is developing contrasting holidays to the existing sun-lounger escapes. The days ahead were mapped out for the group I was with. Our first day was just a gentling-in before a few days of discovering this unspoilt wild Atlantic coastline and historically rich hinterland. We hopped onto our boat for a tour of the Ria Formosa Nature which forms a huge lagoon sheltering strings of small islands. We stopped on the island of Culatra with its striking lighthouse, and we took time to explore the island and its relaxed laid back atmosphere.
The turquoise waters of 22C were tempting and made for a lovely swim. We were shown what looked like floating turds and were told these were successfully harvested for the Far East markets, which, as we know, have different tastes. They were sea cucumbers, a delicacy - which I found hard to fathom as the sluggish turd-like creature slowly and very disturbingly moved in the palm of my hand. The other, and much more attractive, magical creature that flourishes in these warm benign waters are seahorses.
The Portugese know how to do food. At the A do Joao Restaurant we were served guppy, a fish so large that one fish fed seven people. Served with a salsa and golden new potatoes, it really was a meaty but delicious beast. The belly and cheeks are considered the tastiest parts. An outstanding trifle made from crumbled chocolate biscuits and homemade custard and chilled Rose finished of this feast. I really needed to walk it all off, and walking was, after all, the reason I chose this holiday.
Back on Faro, we meandered through the old town full of lovely squares, and cobbled streets with typical low buildings with ornate doorways. On our return to the hotel, there was time for a sumptuous meal with delicious succulent lamb from the region, and with more Rose, it ended the day perfectly. Tomorrow, and the real walking starts - just as well, as the girths were definitely beginning to expand.
Another excellent breakfast buffet for the hills - actually, the mountain top in Algarviana of Monchique. As we drove through lovely wooded countryside, we did leave the sunshine behind. The panoramic views of Picota made up for the lack of sun, and gave us a great 360 degree vista. Our guides, Anna and Bruno, were full of information about the fauna, flora and geological make-up of the mountain. We ambled down through forests of ancient cork oaks, which are harvested for their bark. Portugal is the largest producer of cork in the world. Wild rosemary and strawberry trees - known here as Arbutus - also thrive. As we descended, we passed lemon groves being harvested, and the perfume of the crop filled the air. We took a detour to a distillery to sample the local liquor made from the berries of the Arbutus tree. It really packed a punch, but was not as crude as other homemade brews I've sampled.
We pushed onto the Villa Termal Caldas De Monchique. The warm waters of the spa, rich with bicarbonate, sodium and a mineral called fluor, were first used for their healing benefits by the Romans. The gorge has evolved over time, gaining a royal decree from the Bishops of Algarve. This historical site continues to attract guests and visitors. Lunch was local cuisine of delicious goats cheese tartlets, followed by a risotto of beef, pork, chicken and chorizo sausage. Our shorts now feeling very snug, we headed off to complete a walk along the coast.
Portugal belly pork
The Fisherman's Trail at the Parque Natural da Costa Vicentina, is a stunning 8kms Rota - a route along the southwest coast from Arrifina to Monte Clerigo. This was torture for me - with views of the most splendid coastline but with no access down the cliffs to most of the stunning beaches and the inviting water. I was distracted though by the bounty and variety of plants that carpeted the clifftops. Not for the faint-hearted, when it comes to heights, the views were breathtaking. The more you looked, the more you saw with a huge range of bonsai-like wild flowers of every shade, shape and variety.
At the end of a full day, the Herdade da Estacada was a perfect place to stay. David and Maria Ingham had created a haven. Driving into their farm, I spotted a small lake golden in the setting sun. The house was a tasteful open-plan modern home built around a classy courtyard. Our rooms overlooked rolling farmland. David promised a stunning setting sun and a delicious meal from the nearby O Sacas seafood restaurant. We weren't disappointed.
The meal started with an unusual sparkling strawberry wine. Then I spotted something on the menu which made my head spin - weever fish. I hate weever fish, having stood on one the year before. The pain was so severe and myself and my son were tortured until we discovered the cure - very hot footbath and lots of wine. I decided karma had to be rebalanced - I ordered the little bugger. It came served in a light batter, and was divine. Full circle weever fish. I win! The meal was of seafood, beautifully prepared.
We all slept well. I woke with the dawn and headed to the lake. There I had one of the most delightful swims, as the mist rose on a stunning golden lake. A quick tour of the farm which grows pine nuts, and has a flock of Suffolk Sheep bought in France, and the nicest hosts you could imagine. Home-made bread and preserves added to the generous breakfast. Sad to have to leave, I will definitely return to this haven again.
Our walk on the Fisherman's trail continued from Lapa das Pombas to Cabo Sardao. The cliff-top terrain varied as we strolled along, from Namibian-like dunes to shaded cork forests mixed with eucalyptus. The end of the walk was my favorite part, as a steep stairway led to a beautiful beach where I had a divine swim. I would have stayed in the big warm surf all day, but the picnic and next stop beaconed.
Set up by our al fresco packed lunch of smoked salmon sandwiches and fruit, we headed to the river Mira for a boat ride up the tidal river with host Rui Caalo. We spotted lots of wildlife and a blue heron, huge and graceful, the dreamy tour stretched the day for us all. A short drive inland brought us to Quinta do Chocalhinho. The host Luis Freitas had turned what was his grandfather's farm into a lovely small hotel. He manages the hotel with his wife. They are very generous hosts who are walkers themselves, and delight in sharing advice on places of local interest and the best routes. After a lovely roast pork dinner, I slept like a top.
The next day we were not accompanied by guides, but went solo. The starting point of the Circular Route Troviscais ao Mira is near Sao Luis. By mid morning, the heat had built to 33 C. Walking in this heat means you need to have the right gear, no matter how nerdy it makes you look. That means we were all decked out in big floppy hats, with lashings of sun screen and insect-repellent. We all felt pretty fatigued by the end of the walk, but there was also a tremendous sense of achievement. And the ice cold beers we downed in a small bar made it seem worthwhile.
When our last walk was completed, we headed back to Faro. As house martins and swallows dived under huge stormy clouds, I determined to re-visit this beautiful country. It was my first visit to Portugal, but it won't be my last.
The island of Culatra
On the shoreline of the island of Culatra you will find a pretty church with a boat outside. It has a unique history. In 1958, a family set out and met with a terrible sea storm. Everyone presumed the worst, but in 1959, it emerged the family had survived and were living in Brazil. The boat was returned, the family stayed in their new homeland (nine months at sea had been enough) and the boat has stayed outside the church since.
Everywhere we travelled there were storks nesting on the top of steeples, chimneys and telegraph posts. The storks are huge and the messy nests were full of demanding chicks squawking for food. They also nest on the cliffs along the Southwest coast from Arrifana to Monte Clerigo, the only place in the world that they do this. The sight of these huge birds on precipitous nests where young chicks wobbled perilously was fabulous if not scary.
Food and drink
Take time to sample the local produce. We took a detour to a local farm where we tasted some of the most delicious organic peanut butter. Some of the group didn't know that peanuts like spuds grow underground and are harvested in the same way. We also checked out a local distillery to sample the liquor made from the berries of the Arbutus tree - also known here as the Strawberry Tree. It really packed a punch.
Deborah travelled with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), Dublin to Faro return, organised by the Portuguese Tourist Board, to experience the walking routes of Alentejo and Algarve.
Alentejo: Herdade da Estacada, from €80 per night for two
Quinta do Chocalhinho, from €75 per night for two
More info: rotavicentina.com
Algarve: Hotel Faro, single room from €87 and double room from €107 Pousada de Estoi in Algarve, from €218 for two nights including breakfast
Guide Prices: Alentejo: i.e. Mr. Nicolau da Costa (Atalaia Walking) from €30pp Algarve: Half day (4 hours) €80; full day (8 hours) €120
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