Road Trip: The Authentic Algarve : New Worlder

Along Portugal’s southern coast, the Algarve is often called the Florida of Europe. In some ways, that’s a beautiful thing: It’s consistently the warmest, sunniest part of the continent, with mild winters that have long lured the Easyjet set from Germany and the UK, delectable seafood and Michelin-starred restaurants. But in others, it’s a detriment. Parts have been so overdeveloped with high-rise resorts and golf courses that some see it as a cautionary tale of tourism run rampant.

But on my recent drive through the region, it was the small fishing villages and intimate, locally owned hotels, such as Praia Verde close by the beach in Castro Marim and Vila Monte, amid the orange and olive groves near Olhão, where my enthusiastic “experience manager” took me hiking with a local goatherd and his flock and drove me to taste olive oil at the award-winning Monterosa. There were even some excellent hotels within some of those big resorts, such as the new Anantara Vilamoura, which has a smart and personable “wine guru,” who schooled me in Portuguese varietals and took me to the delightful Convento do Paraíso winery and all of these spots tipped my trip to the beautiful side.

The Algarve spans nearly 2,000 square miles and has some 125 miles of coastline, so my week of driving along the regional N125 route (the regional roads are more picturesque than the toll A22 highway, if congested in summer and full of roundabouts) was more exploration than immersion. To find the ultimate “off the books Algarve” itinerary, I asked my friend and colleague Carla Xavier, a partner at the Portuguese travel design agency Lounge, to open up her little black book on the eastern, less developed part of the region.

Because the Algarve is so densely packed with sights and because so many of them (and the hotels) focus on eating and drinking, Xavier recommends spending two nights in each of three hotels, all of which are intimate, simple yet sophisticated destinations. This allows for leisurely explorations of all that’s nearby and time to relax and enjoy all the gastronomic pleasures. Unless you’re combining it with a larger itinerary, the most convenient and cost-effective option is to fly to Faro book a round-trip car rental from there.

Days 1 and 2: Tavira

After driving from Faro (about 18 miles or 30 minutes), settle into Fazenda Nova, a country house hotel with 10 suites, where most of the food is grown onsite or purchased at the excellent fish market in nearby Olhão. Once you’ve had a chance to relax, head back out to drive or walk through the Serra do Caldeirão, rounded hills to the north that are covered with beautifully gnarled cork oaks, strawberry trees, holm oaks, orange groves, and orchards of fig and almond trees. Legend has it that the Algarve is full of almond trees because when the area was ruled by the Moors, a prince met a Nordic princess, who became his wife and moved to Silves, where she missed snow terribly. To ease her suffering, he planted trees whose white blossoms would replicate snow.

The area is also known for its mountain cuisine—pork, sausages, cabbage, potatoes, corn, tacho cake, Monchique honey pudding and arbutus brandy—and the Portuguese are quick to tell you that their cured ham is the real jamón ibérico. A Tia Bia is one of the best places for an authentic, hearty lunch of wild boar or black pork cheeks, made the way a Portuguese aunt would.

Spend the evening and following morning enjoying the hotel, a former family farmhouse that has been restored to blend traditional architecture with modern style. It’s on nearly 25 acres of beautifully designed gardens, plots of vegetables and herbs, wild areas rich with bird life, and orchards of almond, carob and olive trees that become riots of wildflowers in spring. The fazenda produces its own olive oil, which, like all the produce, is put to excellent use for dinner and breakfast.

Around noon the next day, head out toward Cabanas de Tavira for a casual seaside, seafood lunch at Restaurante Noélia & Jerónimo. Expect to wait a while but be rewarded with blissfully simple fresh-from-the sea meals. (And given Portuguese portion sizes, it’s pretty safe to order one meal for two people.) From there, drive to the town of Tavira and walk along the narrow streets of the old town and the river. A good stop for a coffee or an aperitvo is Gilão. After a good interval, drive on to Luz de Tavira and dine at Restaurante o Fialho, a classic Portuguese cervejeria, where super-fresh seafood is simply cooked with olive oil and garlic or mixed with rice and served with ice-cold local beer. It’s just over 15 minutes of driving to return to the hotel.

Days 3 and 4: Barrocal

After a short drive further east (13 miles or 25 minutes), arrive at Pensão Agricola, another charming small farmhouse hotel just about one mile from the Ria Formosa National Park, which covers miles and miles of wild, empty sandy beaches dotted with driftwood. Build in time for relaxing there, but first drop your bags and set out exploring. Xavier says the region is “ideal for walking, horse riding. and cycling. You can also rent a canoe for a stroll in the Arade or the Funcho Dams.” Simply spend your first day exploring—and enjoying the farmhouse hotel, built in 1920 as a wedding gift for a daughter and has been restored with furniture, photographs, clothing and books from those times.

Stay in for the evening and enjoy the hotel’s hearty “snacks” (remember the huge portion sizes!) or make the scenic 20-minute drive to the waterfront Marisqueira Capelo in Santa Luzia, known for superb fresh fish, a famous tuna stew, and shrimp with piri-piri. Book in advance for a table on the terrace.

The next day, drive ten minutes to the charming fishing village Cacela Vehla, where the beautiful natural park of Ria Formosa begins. Get some exercise on the sandspit beach or exploring the saltpans, tidal flats, marshes, and woodlands of the national park, a unique coastal lagoon that chances constantly with the winds, currents, and tides. Or simply sunbathe or bird-watch, as more than 200,000 birds nest here in winter.

Take a lunch detour to Sem Espinhas in Praia do Cabeço, an old-school beach bar that’s been around since the 1970s. The menu is, unsurprisingly, seafood heavy, but there are salads and meat options if you’re feeling fished out. Resume your relaxation in the Ria Formosa near Cacela Verde through early evening—sunsets here are some of the most spectacular in Portugal. Make your way back into the village for dinner at Fábrica do Costa, another storied seafood palace, for shellfish the enormous, briny sustainable oysters and clams varieties. Reserve ahead to get a table on the terrace.

Days 5 and 6: Castro Marim

After another short eastward drive (7.5 miles or 16 minutes), check into your last little agritourism hotel, Companhia das Culturas, which is not named “the company of the crops” for nothing—everything is grown onsite or procured nearby. Talk with the hotel staff about what they can organize for you: walking or biking tours, horseback riding, visits to olive farms, yoga onsite, time in the Turkish bath and spa, where the treatments draw on Ayurveda and Chinese medicine as well as the expected basics.

Drive 15 minutes into riverside Vila Real de Santo António, and have a seafood lunch on the terrace at Dom Petisco, another regional favorite. Continue on the town center in Castro Marim and walk up to the castle, which has a small but interesting museum focusing on the Phoenician and Greek presence along the mouth of the Guadiana River separating Portugal from Spain. It also has an excellent viewpoint over the river and the traditional saltpans that extend to the east. After the castle, stroll over to the São Sebastião Fort, built in the mid-17th century, and take in the views over the industrial saltpans and the undulating Serra. If you’re visiting in late August, stick around for the town’s highly rigorous historical re-creation of its medieval days. Otherwise, have a simple, freshly farmed dinner at the bistro in the hotel.

For the last full day, have Companhia das Culturas organize a visit to its sister property Lagoa Velha (“old pond”), a 200-acre oasis of stone pines, cork oaks, fig trees, and carob trees. You can drive there or take the scenic, easy 2.5-mile walk. The namesake reservoir is lined with rushes and reeds, home to many birds, and a watering hole for the property’s sheep. By now you’re probably ready for a break from marisqueirias, so plan a picnic here—Companhia das Culturas can organize provisions if you don’t want to get your own. From the highest point, near a century-old eucalyptus tree, you have immense views: the mouth of the Guadiana River to the east, the Monte Gordo Bay and the Ria Formosa to the south, and the vastness of hills and hillocks of the Serra do Caldeirão to the north.

Refresh after your walk back to the hotel, then head out for one last formal Portuguese meal, this one at restaurant of the Clube Naval of Guadiana in Vila Real de Santo Antonio. It has a clubby ambience and good menu with specialties like seafood rice, monkfish, kebabs and cataplanas (seafood mélanges prepared in copper vessels).

Plan on at least one hour to get back to the airport in Faro the following morning.