Beaches, history and bargains - what's not to love about Portugal's Albufeira resort, says Gerry O'Carroll.
I love Portugal and I have been there several times over the years, visiting many of the magnificent castles, cathedrals and monuments, but sight-seeing trips can be quite tiring and hectic.
So I decided to go for something more relaxing when I chose Albufeira in central Algarve for my recent holiday - and what a good choice I made.
Albufeira - a perennial favourite with Irish holidaymakers - was originally a little fishing town. It's built high on the cliffs with golden stretches of beaches below.
It still has the quaint fishing village atmosphere with the little white houses on the cliffs, but in more recent years the town has been expanded into a wonderful resort with lots of restaurants and hotels and a beautiful new marina.
On a Sunday afternoon we walked around the Old Town square which is the approach to the Moorish-felling heart of the resort. The historic area is full of lovely outdoor cafés and shops, street entertainers and musicians.
We made our way down through the square to the Praia De Pescadores, the old fishermen's beach where we had sumptuous prawns and a glass of vinho verde - the typical Portuguese "green" wine - in a little café on the side of a cobbled street.
We walked a little further to the Praia De Peneco, past the municipal archaeology museum and the museum of sacred art, situated in a beautiful 18th Century church. The archaeology museum isn't what you'd expect of a touristy town - but it's full of artefacts found locally from prehistoric times, as well as the Roman and Islamic periods of the air and it costs just e1 to visit. Then we took a trip around the town in the Turis Trem (€4 for a full day/€3 for children), a mini train that takes you to see all the town.
We were staying in the Luna Clube Oceana (above) in the quiet green leafy district of Forte De Sao Joao. It's a beautifully laid out aparthotel with restaurant, swimming pools, jacuzzis, gym and a terrace with a bar. All the apartments have spacious balconies overlooking the pool terrace and gardens. The apartments are large and bright with all mod cons. Club Oceano organizes lots of activities and trips to local places of interest - and some not so local.
You can book a trip to the country's bustling capital, Lisbon, the holy shrine of Fatima or even to the historic city of Seville in Spain.
You can also arrange full-day safaris, touring the coastline's coves and pretty villages by jeep; check out the water park at Aqualand, with adrenaline-fuelled slides like Kamikaze and Banzi, or try a gentler day out at Zoomarine (a mini version of America's Seaworld), with water slides too.
Closer to the town, you can try your hand at wind surfing or sit back in the sun and take to waves on a great selection of cruises, including dolphin and whale-watching voyages. We took a three hour cruise one afternoon to view the caves and the lovely sand stone cliffs. The caves are truly spectacular and the boat will stop off in any of the little beach grottos if anyone wants to go for a swim in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Each Wednesday the hotel hosts a barbecue on the terrace for €16 per person. It was great value, with a variety of grilled fish (fresh fish from this area is simply delicious), steak, chicken and salads with fruit and desserts to top it all off.
The hotel is situated in a little laneway just a minute's walk away from the beach, and you can walk along the sands, passing a couple of beach café bars into the Old Town, it just takes about 15 minutes. In the Montechoro district of Albufeira is 'The Strip', where all the night clubs and bars are situated. It is teeming with fun and music and we saw loads of young people heading out for the night, lots of them in fancy dress. In the centre of the new town there is a fine shopping centre with a taxi rank outside, and one evening after a lot of walking we asked a taxi driver to recommend somewhere to eat.
Instead of taking us around town in his taxi he sent us across the road to Tim Tims Chinese restaurant where we got a top quality self service buffet - as much as you could eat - for €10.20. We had a wonderful trip which I would recommend to anyone.
And that's the joy of Portugal - it's got the sun, some of Europe's best beaches and even at the height of summer, there's plenty of value to be had.
Flights: Gerry travelled with Sunway (01 231-1800; sunway.ie), staying seven nights in the three-star Luna Clube Oceano Apartments, on a self-catering basis. Holidays to the Luna Clube Oceano Apartments start from €549pp.
Package holidays with Sunway start from €399pp in the three-star Colina Village Apartments, including flights, seven nights self-catering, transfers, 20kg baggage and services of a Sunway rep.
Prices per person and subject to availability.
The Algarve is a great choice for families, and boasts some of Europe's best beaches. And all those golden sands are crammed into a smallish space - it's only 150km from Cape St Vincent on the west to the Spanish border - so they're all within easy reach.
Check out four of the best, and their distance from Albufeira:
Praia da Marinha, Carvoeiro, 30 minutes' drive
Named one of the top 100 beaches in the world, it's quiet and unspoilt. Not big on facilities, so pack some food and other essentials, but it's got decent snorkelling and plenty of rocky coves to explore.
Praia da Falésia, Olhos de Agua, 27 minutes' drive
One of the longest stretches of beach along the Algarve, it gets its name from the red-coloured cliffs behind it. It's got resturants and other facilities and is convenient for the pretty village of Olhos de Agua.
Ilha de Tavira, 57 minutes' drive
For something different, drive to the town of Tavira, and take a cheap, short ferry trip (or pricier water taxi) to Tavira island. Over 11km long, it's got a number of bars and restaurants (even a campsite). Nudism is OK in some areas, but there's plenty of space to find your own family sunbathing spot.
Praia do Corveiro, 34 minutes' drive
The small town of Corveiro has a number of beaches, but this, the town strand, is a favourite of mine as it's just so convenient. It can get busy, but that's the price you pay for having a plethora of bars, restaurants and stores in a lively town on your doorstep.