Pure Portugal - why shoulder season is the perfect time to visit the Algarve
Fewer tourists, emptier beaches, perfect weather. Shoulder season is the perfect time to visit the Algarve.
In the taxi from the airport, I talked football with the driver.
It's a religion in Portugal, fiercely debated, dominating the front pages - a subject never far from anyone's lips. Lowly minnows Gibraltar made Faro their home base during the Euro 2016 qualifiers and, the night we arrived, were due to face Poland at the Estadio Algarve.
The locals had taken the islanders under their wing and wished them well, but me and the driver reckoned they were in for a right thrashing at Polish hands, and so it proved. The poor man cannot have known that his beloved national side would also be administered a stern dose of ignominy, losing at home the same night to lowly Albania and unleashing much hand-wringing and bitterness in the media.
But all's well that ends well: Portugal recovered to top their group, while Ireland reached the Euros in nerve-jangling fashion via the play-offs.
Discovering we were from Ireland, the taxi man was also keen to share notes on the dreaded austerity, and his lurid tales of lost homes and a troubled health system left me in no doubt that in recent times the Portuguese have had it hard - a good deal harder, I suspect, than us.
Not that you'd know it at the Ria Park Hotel & Spa, the plush retreat that would be our home for the next week. The Ria Park sits in tranquil surroundings a stone's throw from the Atlantic Ocean, and midway between the resorts of Vale do Lobo and Quinta do Lago. Golf courses abound in these parts - very fine ones too, which are particularly pleasant in the off-season, when players are spared the searing heat. But I'm with G.B. Shaw on this subject, who once described golf as "a good way to ruin a nice walk". The fairways of Vale do Lobo were spared my presence.
Besides, I had a two-year-old boy to look after: this was his first sun holiday, and he had very exacting standards.
He needn't have worried. Built in the early 2000s in a pleasantly low-key Moorish style, the Ria Park is built around an airy central atrium, boasts comfortable, spacious rooms and relaxed, friendly service. There's an attractive swimming and sunbathing enclosure at the rear, but chasing a crazed toddler around a pool's edge is even less fun than it sounds, and we spent most of our time at Garrao, the nearby beach.
July and August are the hectic times in the Algarve, with packed resorts and temperatures tipping the high 30s. But May, June, September and October are the most pleasant months, with fewer tourists, milder weather and a choice of empty beaches. Even in December and January there's warm sunshine in the middle of the day, and the hotel rates are much lower. It's a plum time to visit.
With the possible exception of parts of south western France, the Algarve is the only place I've come across in Europe that boasts beaches as fine as our own. This is particularly true in the wild and unspoiled western Algarve, but Garrao is a really beautiful, white-sand Atlantic beach in the middle of a coastal national park.
The 800-metre walk from the hotel takes you downhill past sumptuous villas and beach houses: this part of the coastline is a playground for the very wealthy. We visited in September, my favourite time in the Algarve, and the golden sands were deserted. But you can expect similar conditions if you travel in April or May, before the summer rush begins in earnest.
Being on a beach with a two-year-old is a bit like being the eunuch factotum of an Egyptian Pharaoh. One is commanded for hours on end to rush, back-bent, to and from the sea's edge carrying water, or to build endless sandcastles that are stamped on gleefully as soon as they're finished. No lolling on the sunbed reading potboilers for me.
I did get a break when invited for lunch in Quinta do Lago by Hugo Nascimento from the Algarve Tourist Board, however. The Casa do Lago is an open, airy restaurant serving superb seafood on the banks of a tranquil lake. Hugo reminded me how very recently the Algarve was transformed into an international tourist destination: in the 1960s politicians decided to develop the infrastructure of this poor and rural region in the hopes of aping the success of the Costa del Sol across the Spanish border.
They succeeded, and although there are some eyesores along the Algarve's coastline, some of the ghastly mistakes perpetrated by the Spanish have by and large been avoided. And if you head due west, towards Sagres and beyond, you'll find plenty of quieter and less carefully managed areas and beaches.
But given their relative proximity to Faro (just 20 minutes or so in a cab from the airport), the resorts of Quinta do Lago and Vale do Lobo offer surprising peace and tranquillity, a child-friendly atmosphere and access to some truly special beaches. We also ventured west towards Vilamoura, a bigger and livelier resort with a long seafront walkway lined with decent restaurants and bars.
Then the boy got a fever. For the last few nights he played in the bath at Ria Park while we sat beside him dining on room service fish fingers and chips. Which was actually a lot more fun than it sounds.
What to pack
If you play at all, pack the golf clubs. This part of the Algarve boasts some of Europe's finest courses. Take walking boots if you plan on hiking (a good idea in off-season), and bring a proper coat. However benign the days are, temperatures tend to drop in the evenings.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) travel direct from Dublin, Shannon and Cork to Faro. We travelled out with Ryanair and back with Aer Lingus because of timing. Faro's a small airport, though if you have small kids you might want to check with your hotel about pre-ordering a taxi with car seats.
Where to stay
Set midway between Quinta do Lago and Vale do Lobo, in the heart of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, The Ria Park (riaparkhotels.com) is a quietly stylish hotel that offers tranquillity rather than excitement. Room rates start at €136 per night, with special golf deals and lower rates in winter.
The whitewashed exteriors of the Algarve's many churches give no hint of the opulent splendours that often lie within. One of the best is the San Lourenco Church, a short drive from Vale do Lobo in Almancil. Blue and white hand-painted tiles dominate the interior, set off by a richly gilded altar.
Not too far from the city of Faro lies Silves, the ancient Moorish capital, and a place full of history and charm. Its narrow streets and red sandstone walls are dominated by the Castle of Silves, built between the 8th and 13th centuries and one of the best preserved Moorish fortifications in Europe.
If you've hired a car and don't mind a bit of a drive, travel due west to Sagres on the south western tip of Portugal. A quiet fishing town that's popular with surfers, Sagres is surrounded by unspoiled beaches and two spectacular promontories, the Cape St Vincent and Sagres Point.