Surf's up in Portugal: 'I crashed, I wiped out - but I loved every second of it'
A surf holiday in the Algarve is just the ticket for Wayne O'Connor
Russ 'Rusty' Keaulana is a gifted and talented surfer capable of showing his prowess on his board on an international stage. You may not realise it, but most of us have seen him or his brother on TV at some point.
A recent trip to Portugal taught me many things but my main lesson was that Rusty and I have absolutely nothing in common.
Rusty comes from good stock. His father is legendary for his exploits on the waters around Hawaii. His brother Brian was a stuntman in some of Hollywood's blockbuster surfing movies and featured on Baywatch.
Rusty followed their path, making a career of travelling the globe to compete on the water. He then featured prominently in a famous Guinness advert about a group of surfers who waited all their lives to catch the perfect wave. When they caught it, camera trickery showed the wave mystically transform into a pack of wild horses. But these skilled surfers grappled, battled and tamed their wave before confidently surfing to shore, standing upright on their boards with their arms aloft.
Me? I failed as a surfer in Portugal. I crashed, I wiped out - but I loved every second of it.
The beginning of our trip could not have been further from my adrenaline-fuelled grapples with the Atlantic waves in the sunny Algarve, showing that the region has something for everyone.
We touched down in Faro under the cover of darkness before being shuttled 30 minutes east, to the relaxing Hotel Quinta do Marco - a family-run operation sitting on an 18 hectare farm.
Situated in the rolling hills of the Serra do Caldeirao, it is the perfect spot to recharge your batteries.
We were welcomed upon arrival and invited to the hotel restaurant for a traditional Algarvian dinner. Local wine was poured while we waited for dinner of a traditional fish stew and custard tarts for dessert.
Morning came with a cock crowing on the farm. The sunrise meant that we got our first glimpse of the spectacular valleys below and the glistening ocean off in the distance.
Breakfast included eggs taken from the farm's hens that morning as we sat overlooking the hotel swimming pool and sipped coffee.
Food is one of the Algarve's star attractions. Even simple dishes, such as the couvert (a dish of bread, olives, tuna or sardine paste, and maybe some small cheeses, which is served before every meal) are addictive and hard to resist. So, to get through the region's fantastic cuisine, it is essential to keep building up an appetite.
After breakfast, we headed for the coast and picked up some bikes to tackle the Ecovia Trail, which stretches from one end of the Algarve to the other.
The 214km route is part of a European network of cycle trails and for those who like a pedal, it is probably the best way to see some of the region's finest beauty spots.
The trail is well mapped and marked with signs, and is very easy to follow.
As a mixed group of novice and intermediate cyclists, we were never going to attempt the whole trail - but it was fairly flat and a comfortable way to spend a morning before attempting the generous lunch.
We pedalled from the sleepy seaside town of Cabanas de Tavira to Praia Verde beach, mainly via a series of tracks and paths away from the main roads.
Along the way, we stopped for refreshments by the Cacela Velha fortress - where the influences of Portugal's former Roman and Arabian occupiers are most obvious in its picturesque surroundings.
The fortress was built by Muslim settlers in the 1700s and is now used as a vantage point to watch locals fishing for oysters, clams, prawns and baby squid in the lagoon below to supply the local restaurants.
Our cycle conveniently ended at the beautiful Praia Verde Boutique Hotel and its splendid A Terra restaurant. The menu is rustic and authentic. Great pride is taken with its local ingredients, and the expert staff guide guests through each dish as it is served.
There is a strong emphasis on sharing. As part of a group, and whether you intend to or not, you end up eating everything that is on offer.
None of it disappoints.
After gorging on meat and fish, we headed further east towards Portugal's border with Spain for a walking tour.
This walk brought us to a local saltpan in Castro Marim, where we took part in a salt tasting. This is carried out much like a wine tasting but with samples of the various salts produced in the area.
"Salt is salt," I said to myself on the way - somewhat sceptically - but Jorge Filipe Raiado, who runs the Salmarim salt pans in the Castro Marim nature reserve convinced me otherwise. Admittedly, it helped that the variety of salts are served with appropriate nibbles and a glass of wine - but it is only when he shows us the taste difference between traditional shop-bought salt and the products produced on site that I really bought in to the experience.
It is easy to see why the region is a favourite among Michelin Star chefs looking for the best ingredients for their kitchens.
Because of the taste difference, our curiosity is sparked and Jorge demonstrates the laborious work he and his small team go through to harvest the salt crystals which form on the surface of the pans.
We retired for the evening to the famous Quinta do Lago resort, a gated community of exclusive hotels and restaurants scattered among some of Europe's best golf courses.
The following morning we skipped the fairways and instead headed for Loule, a nearby town, to wander through its atmospheric and historic streets, stopping between cups of coffee to look at the local craft stores.
The town is also a hub for many of the Algarve's fabulous walking trails and eventually we arrived at the quaint village of Querenca. However, it is our next destination that proves to be the highlight of the trip - Sagres - a beach resort and surfer's paradise.
On arrival we enjoy a relaxing massage at the luxury Finisterra Spa. As wonderful as it was, we would probably have been best leaving it until after we hit the waves.
Local surf instructor Hugo Figueiredo with Freeride Sagres picked us up, fitted us with wetsuits and boards and took us down to one of the region's quieter beaches for a lesson. The western Algarve is littered with little inlets and coves for surfers to set up base in and wait patiently for that perfect wave.
Most of the surfers seemed content with their day's work among the waves as they kicked back in O Carlos, the locals' hangout in Sagres, where the food, beer and wine flowed. Meanwhile, I was waiting in the water for some divine intervention so that I could actually manage to stay on my board.
Hugo carried out the lesson on the beach and in the water, guiding us through our mistakes and refusing to go home until he was satisfied I could get up on my feet on the water.
I kept him waiting a full three hours. Like I said, Rusty and I have nothing in common.
Then, eureka. Both feet on the board. Head up looking for shore, thinking I looked like an extra from Home and Away or Hawaii 5-0 instead of one of Kerry's worst bogmen. Until bang! Wipe out! My board was taken away from under me as I got caught up in the moment and lost focus.
According to Hugo, I stayed on the board for only a matter of seconds before I crashed and burned.
But that short moment felt euphoric - like I had achieved something and because of this, and the rewarding food and drink in O Carlos afterwards, I'll be back.
Take Two: top attractions
The sights of Sagres
Sagres, on the western tip of the Algarve, has something for everyone. It is pretty, scattered with some fine hotels, and has great food. It offers plenty for the adventurous too as a top surfing destination.
Praia Verde Hotel
This stunning boutique hotel has rooms with panoramic sea views over a luscious green canopy of trees. The hotel’s A Terra restaurant is a big draw, with its gorgeous (and generous) food options.
The Algarve is one of the easiest destinations to get to from Ireland, and stretching just over 200km from east to west means getting around is relatively straightforward.
Ryanair is Faro airport's number one airline with about 30pc market share. The airline recently launched its new winter connections from Cork.
Ryanair offers 11 weekly flights from Ireland to the Algarve between November and March and direct flights are available from Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Shannon, Knock and Belfast.
For further information on routes and availability see ryanair.com.
For more information on travelling to the Algarve see visitalgarve.pt.
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.