Algarve | The Coast
Bright and warm, the Algarve Coast (blue area on the map below) is also a showcase of seaside landscape diversity. The western seaboard is marked by the unbroken presence of towering sea cliffs. From Odeceixe in the north, down to historical Cape St. Vincent and to Sagres, the landscape is rugged, wild and imposing; never overcrowded, this grand scenery invites you to walk the cliff-tops to take pleasure in finding the long string of secluded beaches and remote coves.
Here, the lengthy Vicentine Coast Natural Park provides shelter to a wealth of soaring and marine birds, endangered botanic species and rare amphibians, a lot of them existing only within the park boundaries. This is an ideal setting for people in need of a more off-the-beaten-path retreat, or longing for a deeper contact with the joys nature has to offer, be them more active – surfing, windsurfing, recreational fishing, scuba diving – or more relaxed (walking, hiking, bird watching, spotting dolphins and blue sharks, or just chill out on a deserted beach).
To the east of Sagres, the water’s edge gradually morphs into golden cliffs interspersed by unusual grottoes and rock outcroppings. The shoreline around Lagos, Carvoeiro or Lagoa nestles a wide array of sandy coves and cosy beaches, many of them, like Praia da Marinha, considered as one of the very finest in Europe. Their crystal clear waters and smooth sands paint a vivid watercolour canvas of greens, blues and yellows. Strolling around, you will be delighted by the remarkable geological features, the fragrant shrubbery, the seabirds and the dazzling views. In Alvor you’ll also find an inviting estuary and a rich marshland.
Albufeira municipality starts the transitional zone between the west and the east coastal landscapes – there, you’ll find a variety of beach types, from the typical long stretch of dunes and sand to a variety of rocky strands. The tallest cliffs end a few miles before Vilamoura, in Praia da Falésia (see main image above) and around the Pine Cliffs resort. As this was also the first part of the coast devoted to tourism, you will find the odd 80’s or 90’s building monstrosity lining the beachfront. Fortunately, this is not a prevalent occurrence.
And then, on central Algarve, commences a natural jewel and a true sanctuary: Ria Formosa Natural Park, teeming with wildlife, from freshwater turtles and terrapins to notable birds like the Purple Swamphen and the Glossy Ibis, accompanied by a variety of ducks, herons, cormorants, storks, and even African exotics like the Black-headed Weaver and the Waxbill. Crustaceans and molluscs populate its lagoons, together with plenty of fish, including rare species of seahorses and pipefishes; shading the watery surface near Quinta do Lago and Quinta do Ludo, in Faro, elegant umbrella pines serve as a last refuge for the endangered Mediterranean Chameleon. Here, man established a symbiotic relationship with the prodigal land – traditional salt pans provide both prime Flamingo habitat and valuable, pure sea salt and delicate fleur de sel; throughout the shallow lagoons, shellfish catchers harvest delicious cockles, clams and other gastronomic delicacies, all the way respecting their secular traditions and the ecological backdrop where they arose a long time ago. After a day spent on the top-quality beaches literally a stone’s throw away, a fiery sunset in Ludo may be the perfect way to welcome a warm night. Then, enjoy yourself with a beachfront repast of chilled Portuguese wine and freshly caught fish drizzled with golden olive oil.
Gentle and warm sea waters bathing exceedingly long stretches of light sand typify the landscape from Tavira and beautiful Cacela Velha – where Ria Formosa ends – to Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo António, on the estuary of the River Guadiana close to the Spanish border. In a landscape dominated by the wide open spaces, you’ll find the Marshland Nature Reserve of Castro Marim, a natural area inhabited by more than 150 different bird species throughout the year. Here, you’ll also encounter the ancient stronghold of Castro Marim, whose origin goes back to the Bronze Age, and Vila Real de Santo António, a city founded a few years after the Great 1755 Eathquake and a quaint architectural tribute to the 18th century Age of Enlightenment.
Algarve | The Countryside
In the Algarve Countryside, you’ll find two different areas, the ‘Barrocal’ (limestone rolling foothills, the green area on the map) and the ‘Serra’ (interior hills and small mountains, in gray). The Barrocal is a floral wonderland just a few miles away from the shoreline. Its fertile shallow soils and unusual landforms created a distinctive territory where rare orchids are accompanied by blooms of aromatic lavender, thyme, rosemary and sage. Here and there, mainly around interior cities like Loulé and the noticeably medieval Silves, you can visit petite villages whose whitewashed villas and small houses reflect both European and Arab influences. Within the Barrocal there are several natural and historical protected areas; mainly due to its geologic, botanic and ethnographic features, worth mentioning are Rocha da Pena (a ‘geologic monument’), Fonte Benémola, Castelo de Paderne, the village of Alte and Nave do Barão.
Throughout the Serra you will encounter a large stretch of rounded hills and small mountains, narrow valleys and deep gorges covered in cork oak, a notable tree whose notable bark is harvested in order to create a variety of goods, from premium wine stoppers to spacecraft heat insulators, and from flooring tiles to iPad casings. This is a sustainable and ancient practice, and no tree is ever damaged. Cork oak forests compose a quite scarce and specific ecosystem with stunning biodiversity, including not only birds, but also a large number of amphibians, reptiles, mammals and butterflies. The Serra encompasses two very distinct landscapes, one on the extreme west of Algarve – the Monchique mountains – the other on the extreme east (the Lower Guadiana valley). The Monchique mountains are the highest in Algarve. From Fóia it is possible to glimpse both the distant sea to the south and the vast Alentejo plains to the north. The mountain range is characterized by its dense vegetation cover and by the presence of abundant, little freshwater streams, particularly around the village of Caldas de Monchique. These natural settings are home to spas, picnic areas, and to newly developed, first-rate resorts dedicated to the recently born concept of wellness and health tourism.
On the other hand, along the upland, oriental extreme of Algarve, the landscape is much, much drier, despite the presence of a large river valley. The winding River Guadiana, flowing throughout schist rock faces, has created an unforgiving but appealing landscape, made of curled hilltops and steep crags, sparsely covered with holm oak, stone pine, olive groves and traditional groves of almond and carob trees. A somewhat more remote place within the Algarve, the Lower Guadiana valley is renowned for its substantial number of inhabiting reptile and amphibian species, including the colourful Iberian Schreiber’s Green Lizard, the non-venomous Ladder Snake, and the large, bizarre Sharp-ribbed Salamander.
With year-round sunny weather, the Algarve constantly offers its visitors a wide palette of blissful places, great experiences and memorable sightseeing. There’s always something for everybody, from comfy romantic retreats, to extreme sports, superb golf, great summer parties, family holidays and all inclusive, hassle-free, resorts. And since every place is well connected by road you can always embark on a personal journey of discovery. But you do not have to go as far as Prince Henry’s mariners did to find new seashores. Even if you were not thinking about walking, hiking or cycling, here you’ll probably find an interesting, nearby place, to discover not very far from your hotel or villa. Just a little bit away, in the Algarve.