The Algarve in southern Portugal is famed for being one of the most family-friendly travel destinations in Europe. Boasting hills, spectacular cliffs, wide golden beaches and picturesque villages, the region enjoys a rich scenic diversity. It also has plenty of leisure and recreational activities on offer– as well as some almost uncharted insider tips!
Even the airport is Instagram-worthy: as we approach the landing strip in Faro, our aircraft is a mere few metres above the Ludo salt-pans in the marshy Ria Formosa lagoon. Its widely ramified waterways are reminiscent of Norwegian fjords and shimmer like silver threads woven into the earth. It is quite a magnificent sight, and we manage to take a snapshot from our aircraft window as proof.
Instantaneous holiday bliss thanks to scenic landscapes
That blissful holiday feeling sets in immediately in the Algarve. The rental car companies are located just outside the airport’s “Arrivals” area and can be reached via an underpass. Hiring a car is recommended, as there are many sights of interest in the Algarve that cannot be reached by public transport. Conservation areas and nature reserves are a case in point. Ria Formosa, which we have just flown over, is just one of many natural gems. The lagoon, with its canals, swamps and dunes, stretches for almost forty miles (60 km) along the eastern Algarve coastline forming a natural barrier to the sea.
We head for the Costa Vicentina National Park that stretches from the southern Algarve coast at Sagrès right up to Sines. It is considered one of the finest protected landscapes in Europe: shallow, hilly groves alternate with steep scenic cliffs, occasionally interrupted by small, non-intrusive villages and tourist facilities. This is a protected area of stunning natural beauty.
A good way to ease the one-hour drive from Faro is to stop at a restaurant, which is never stressful in this part of the world – not even in the upmarket lounge-style restaurant we fortuitously happened upon. No one is bothered or offended by my wild, loud and slightly travel-hyper five-year-old son, nor by my three-year-old daughter who is going through a fiercely defiant phase. In no time at all, the creative waiters have crafted a butterfly out of drinking straws and serviettes for the little ones. Children are welcome everywhere in Portugal!
Arrifana – a real insider tip
Our destination is called Arrifana. Embraced by high cliffs, the crescent-shaped sandy beach is one of an armada of coves that adorn Europe’s southwestern tip and have a likeness with the jagged edges of a stamp. Southern Portugal’s more than 125-mile-long (200 km) coast plays host to over fifty surfing hotspots. And yet, we feel, “our” cove stands out – it is a real insider tip!
Arrifana is the type of cove where surfers of all levels, from beginner to pro, feel at home. As for us, who will be attempting to surf for the very first time, we have a choice of several surf schools in the little village perched on the steep cliff above the beach. The white-water rollers close to the beach make it fairly easy to chalk up a success after just a few surf attempts. Prince William is said to have learned how to surf in Arrifana. If a prince can master the art of surf, my little king (aka son) most certainly can too!
Further out in the water, more advanced surfers are tackling the big waves, offering some film-worthy scenes. So we spend hours watching them from the beach, eagerly waiting to see who of the five (sometimes even as many as fifty) surfers manages to ride the approaching swells. We partake in their thrill, place bets, and relish seeing their spectacular wave rides. And, once in a blue moon, we even get to see the hint of a “pipeline”. All great fun!
We do not have our own surf equipment. So just like most people, we rent our soft top surfboards (boards suitable for beginners) at the beach. These beginner boards are huge, but made of foam and thus ultralight. Of course they look nothing like the chic speedsters used by the pros. But our boards are stable and easy to carry. We also rent wetsuits, as staying in the water for any real length of time without them is not an option.
Cooling down and admiring surfer vans
The Atlantic never gets really warm. August is the only time water temperatures rise to almost twenty degrees (Celsius), which is when the air temperature climbs to thirty degrees. Even then, thanks to the (always) windy coastline, it never feels too hot. Whereas such temperatures are perfect for a short dip in the ocean, when it comes to surfing and waiting for the perfect wave, a wetsuit is recommended all year round. But these cooler water temperatures do nothing to diminish the Algarve as a surf mecca. As far as we can tell, practically every village houses at least one surf shop. Surfing is, unsurprisingly, omnipresent. This is obviously also due to the three hundred days of sunshine a year that this tourist region proudly brags about.
Whereas the white beaches around Sagrès, and the eponymous beer, enjoy world renown, the small cove of Arrifana is less known – and seldom gets crowded. However, things have changed somewhat in recent years. Once upon a time, the fishing huts along the curvy cliff road were largely empty. These days, many of them have been converted into dream holiday lodgings that feature panoramic terraces, washing machines and other such luxuries. The former huts are usually booked up months in advance. And, as we learn from a signpost on the main road, a hotel is also in the making.
Several years ago, when we first visited Arrifana, “our” cove was practically empty and the pristine sand without a footprint – bar those of seagulls. Nowadays, in summer, the road to the beach is lined with a large number of campervans. These vehicles offer quite the outdoor-adventure-exhibition and include converted VW buses, survival-equipped Land Cruisers as well as high-tech mobile homes. The motorists use the space between their respective home-on-wheels to grill fish and wax their surfboards. There are, of course, more luxurious ways to spend a holiday in the Algarve: at the “Martinhal Beach Resort Hotel” in Sagrès, for instance, that has won several awards for family friendliness. Encompassing more than two hundred villas, houses and rooms, the hotel, which is under Swiss management, caters indiscriminately to the wishes and wants of all family members.
The touristy razzle-dazzle in the region’s western part is just one of many facets of the Algarve: the hilly hinterland around Monchique is very popular among hikers and mountain bikers, and features thermal springs and historical sights. As well as a fortress, the city of Silves is home to an archaeological museum and a medieval market that is held every summer.
Indeed, markets are a must-visit for vacationers in the Algarve! Be it a fruit market (on discovering the sensational “Fuji” apple, we visited the Aljezur fruit market every single day), or a crafts market (to be found in all larger villages and towns). There are always stalls that sell nice bags and other accessories made of locally produced cork leather. A visit to a fish market is another must-do!
Nowhere better than in “III Geração”!
The best-tasting fish we have ever eaten was in the Algarve, more precisely, in the “III Geração” restaurant in Aljezur. My children were allowed to choose our “robalo” (sea bass) from the catch of the day. Of course they always went for the largest one. A “robalo” can weigh over six pounds! The restaurant’s chefs then add coriander, garlic and orange. The result: a small culinary miracle. “III Geração” also serves the best “pulpo” salad we have ever tasted - at least that is what we think. But since we chose to eat there almost every day, we are not really in a position to draw comparisons. That notwithstanding: anyone who has eaten “robalo” there will understand where we are coming from.
But let me return to the main focus of our holiday: surfing. As my young son points out, this sport requires the same arm muscle used to brush one’s teeth: it is located on the back of one’s upper limb. According to Google, the muscle is called “triceps brachii”. Incidentally, googling is possible almost everywhere in the Algarve, given the availability of open WLAN on every corner of the region’s tourist resorts. The “triceps brachii” muscle is required to crank up a surfboard – and, just as my son says, for teeth brushing too. He owes this important insight to his very sore “triceps brachii” after a day surfing.
Indeed, surfing is not a piece of cake. Not even in Arrifana where, depending on the tide, the water is no more than knee-deep. My son keeps at it for hours. The Algarve is known for its dangerous currents, so I never leave his side. Eventually, my son gets the hang of it and manages to stand on his board, albeit in wobbly fashion, grinning from ear to ear. This feat is clearly something for him to brag about in kindergarten! His proud mother is doing so herewith.
Igniting a spirit of discovery and making friends
Part of our holiday is also spent exploring the region. As early risers, we are the first at the beach. The calm and solitary mood at dawn, the mist of the night still lingering in the air, and the morning chill followed by the welcome warmth of the first rays of the sun – wonderful! We manage to build entire sandcastles before sunrise. The flat, smooth stones are great for creating real works of art. We must have built at least 100 towers! The only other person on the beach at this early hour is Raoul, a fisherman from the village who may well be 100 years old. Raoul always carries a hook with him, which he uses to catch his daily squid from the spray. Within days, Raoul and the children have struck up a friendship of a sorts. Although their daily encounter is limited to a brief mutual “Hola”, it becomes an important ritual and adds to that nice feeling of being truly welcome in this lovely corner of the world.
One morning, my daughter discovers a beaten track winding its way between the cliffs up to the hills. We climb up the path for about half an hour, wading our way between knee-high bushes, until we unexpectedly come to a sensational viewing platform: from here, spectacular vistas of the entire crescent of the cove can be captured in one single photographic shot. Besides surfing and nature, we also devote some of our holiday to culture. To that end, it is worth spending a day in the regional capital of Faro. We decide to do so en route back to the airport. As well as pleasing opportunities to shop, this university town is, above all, a feast for the eye, with highlights such as the historic centre, which is divided into three areas, and the baroque “Solar do Capitão-Mor” city palace that is adorned with the famous “azulejos” (blue tiles). The airport is a stone’s throw from the city centre, and Switzerland just a short flight away – where we return armed with many delightful memories.
Three Algarve tips for families
1. Praia da Bordeira” beach: This gently-shelving, wide sandy beach offers plenty of space to play. Tourists are few and far between here. Situated next to a stream, the beach is highly suitable for families with small children who can resort to the stream when the sea gets too rough. The beach is in the heart of a nature reserve and popular with surfers and fishermen. (https://www.visitportugal.com/de)
2. Restaurant “III Geraçao” in Aljezur: This is where we savoured the best fish ever! The sea bass is prepared with orange and coriander and tastes so delicious we ate there every second day. The “pulpo” salad is also second to none. One piece of advice: it is best to order local specialities (my daughter was not impressed with the special children’s menu that consisted of hamburgers and chips). (https://www.facebook.com/restaurante3geracao)
3. “Martinhal Family Beach Resort Hotel” in Sagrès: The hotel has won several national and European awards, including in the category “family friendliness” – not least thanks to its Swiss management and hospitality! https://www.martinhal.com/sagres/de/