New Year’s Eve in Albufeira: the Algarve’s main party spot is hopping, its narrow streets filled with revelers young and old, families and friends, tourists from northern climes but also a sizable contingent from within Portugal itself. At year’s end, many Portuguese families head south to enjoy the holiday and stroll the sunlit towns and beaches that are choked with visitors in the spring and summer seasons. Tonight, the pedestrian streets of the Old Town area are garlanded in lights evoking a child’s-eye view of the Christmas just past; star shapes, boxes with bows, teddy bears and little planes are formed by twinkling bulbs that arch above the walkways.
The scene below those decorations is what you would expect from a town that boasts a Rua Dos Bares (Street of Bars). Music blares from dozens of clubs and nightspots, many beckoning to tourists with the promise of English soccer or cricket telecasts, others through their drink lists painted on the outside wall (caipirinha may be a Brazilian cocktail but at least it has a Portuguese name; Sex On The Beach does not). Groups of friends stroll cheerfully, clutching bottles of cheap champagne and heading towards the Atlantic.
A sound stage and large video screens have been set up on the quarter-mile-long section of soft sand known as Praia dos Pescadores (Fishermen’s Beach). The air is cool, the stars are bright, and Boss AC, a Portuguese hip-hop star, is keeping the crowd entertained and boppin’. The mayor of Albufeira will join in for the countdown to midnight; at the final stroke, the air is filled with pops, flying corks, and the spray of inexpensive bubbly shaken and stirring. Cheers, hugs, and a fireworks display ensue, the shells from five posts along the Albufeira coast exploding so close overhead it feels as though you can catch the bursts like fireflies. And then – because the clubs here don’t close until three or four a.m. – another concert, by former Spice Girl (Sporty) Melanie C, to be followed by more revels into the Algarve night. As the beach throng presses towards the narrow stairways leading back up to the street, the visitor reflects on the fact that New Year’s Eve in Albufeira is redundant.
The Algarve stretches approximately 100 miles along Portugal’s southern coast, from the Spanish border to Europe’s southwestern corner, and runs about 20 miles deep from the Atlantic shore up into the hills to the north. Its history reaches back to more than 1000 years before Christ; the Phoenicians had established trading posts here, many Roman ruins are still visible, and the town of Portimão (named Portus Hanibalis by the Carthaginians) was believed to be the point where Hannibal landed with his armies on European soil.
The name Algarve is from the Arabic Al-Gharb, meaning “the west.” The Moors ruled here for five hundred years, beginning in 711, and Moorish influence is very much on display in the region today, in the lacework patterns visible in balconies, roof terraces and chimneys, and in the whitewashed houses of so many Algarve villages. Despite the recapture by Christian forces in the mid-13th century, Islamic decorative arts continued to thrive, particularly in the form of the painted ornamental tiles known as azulejos. Moorish motifs of loops and lace-like designs were later adapted to depict Christian historical scenes; the tiles adorn walls, floors, even some ceilings in an embrace of decorative excess. The Church of Saint Lawrence (Igreja de São Lourenço), in Almancil, offers an outstanding example of this quintessentially Portuguese form. The chapel’s interior is covered nearly top to bottom with blue-painted tiles, installed here in the 18th century, that portray the life and sacrifice of St. Lawrence in the third century A.D. The effect of the whole is to feel that one is actually standing within, rather than in front of, a work of art.
In the 1400s, Prince Henry the Navigator gathered the world’s finest astronomers, cartographers, geographers and scholars to establish a school of navigation at Sagres that contributed greatly to the period of naval discovery. Magellan, Diaz, and Vasco da Gama were among the apprentices here. Portuguese caravels – long multi-masted boats with wide hulls and shallow draughts, well designed for large crews and extended voyages — left from the Algarve and sailed to all the coasts of Africa, to India and Sumatra, and southwest to the Americas. To stand upon the headlands at Ponta de Sagres and Cabo de São Vicente, gazing at the vastness of the ocean from what was once the edge of the known world, gives one a sense of the courage that was required to set out on a voyage into the great unknown.
Travelers today are more likely to be flying in than sailing out. Bolstered by the availability of cheap flights into Faro, especially from the U.K. and Ireland, tourism has become the prime force in the Algarve economy. Since the 1960s, Europeans have flocked to the region to enjoy its spectacular beaches and hospitable microclimate – comfortably spring-like in winter, warm and pleasant in spring and autumn, tolerably hot in summer thanks to the Atlantic breezes.
The modern face of the Algarve is in Vilamoura, where the building boom of the ‘00s created an international tourist center. The continent’s largest marina is ringed by a huge horseshoe of shops and restaurants – designer boutiques, shoe stores, sports retailers, perfumeries, Indian and Italian restaurants – and the area includes a variety of recreational opportunities designed to provide a generic, self-contained world for the visitor.
Fortunately, the eternal face of the true Algarve is not far away. Ten minutes’ drive towards the hills will take you to the compact center of Loulé, where cobbled streets weave their way from a stolid Moorish castle to the palms andbelltower of a 13th-century Gothic church. Stroll along the white tiled sidewalks, decorated with black whale’s-tail patterns, and head for the onion-domed building that houses the daily food market. Operating Monday to Saturday from 8-3, the mercado features stalls groaning with local cheeses, olives, beans, sausages, dried meats, bacalhau (the salt cod so beloved in Portuguese cuisine), flowers, nuts, citrus, onions, garlic, and assorted fruits and vegetables. On Saturdays, a gypsy market in the northwest part of town offers a more motley array of ceramics, clothes, leather belts and purses, linens, and inexpensive jewelry. After a visit, nip down to nearby Quarteira, where the Beira Mar pastry shop awaits. Try the pastéis de nata (a small, round custard tart in flaky pastry), and ask the server to sprinkle cinnamon on it. Also good are the coconut tarts and the famous Algarve marzipan creations, in a variety of cute shapes and designs.
Vilamoura’s prime blessing is its location; convenient to the Faro airport, not much more than an hour’s drive from the Algarve’s eastern and western extremes, it is an ideal site for exploration in all directions. The developers have responded by creating hotel and residential properties that rank among the finest in Europe.
The Vila Sol Spa and Golf Resort proclaims its dedication to “art & nature,” reflected in the large mosaic that graces the sweeping lobby and lounge area, and modern sculptures scattered across the terraced grounds and even on the golf course. Its 149 rooms include 48 suites, and an assortment of villas and apartments ranging from two to five bedrooms. The golf course and spa are a quick walk from the center of the hotel, and shuttles run to an exclusive section of a nearby beach. Vila Sol was recently named one of the ten best golf resorts in Europe by Golf World Magazine in the UK, and its Donald Steel-designed course hosted the Portuguese Open within months of its opening.
The first resort in Vilamoura was Vale do Lobo, a 1000-acre development that opened in 1962. Its residences and Le Meridien Dona Filipa Hotel still set a standard for luxury that others have to match. The similarly sprawling Quinta da Lago offers villas and residences and a five-star hotel near the Ria Formosa estuary. Both properties feature two eighteen-hole golf courses ranked among the country’s top ten.
For all its renown as a summer hotspot, the Algarve is rich in contrasts that make it a delightful four-season destination. In winter, the hills are filled with white almond blossoms and fruited orange trees; the almond trees, according to legend, were planted by a Moorish king to ease the homesickness of his Nordic queen, the full white flowers taking the place of the snows of her homeland.
Even when the weather is too cool for sunbathing, the beaches are spectacular, dotted with striking rock formations and grottoes. At Ponta da Piedade, local boatmen offer rides throughout the year, maneuvering their outboard-powered rowboats around outcroppings whimsically named for their shapes (Cathedral, Camel, Ladies’ Shoe, Wedding Cake, Julius Caesar), through small openings and into rock-walled grottoes where the sunlight filtering up from below tints some sections of water an unearthly glowing green.
No visit to the Algarve is complete without savoring the fresh local seafood. At the broad beach in Armação de Pêra, even on the New Year’s holiday local fishermen are mending their nets, the boats lined up before an array of huts that hold their equipment, octopus pots piled together awaiting their next dip into the ocean. The small street by the beach consists of eight storefronts, six of which are restaurants. Choose one at random; all offer varieties of cataplana, a garlicky tomato-based seafood stew cooked and served in a covered wok-like copper pot that shares the name. At lunchtime, the perfect accompaniment is vinho verde, the “green” – as in young – white wine that is light, refreshing, and slightly effervescent. Vinho verde was little known outside of Portugal twenty-five years ago, but today trails only port among the nation’s alcoholic exports.
For simpler and equally fresh seafood choices, A Ruina in Abufeira dispenses with a menu altogether. Carved into a Roman ruin above the beach, this 35-year-old restaurant greets diners with a display case and a fiery grill. Before being seated, you select your first course from among dozens of hot and cold choices (octopus salad, prawn salad, tuna salad, fried sardines, garlic squid), then point to the particular whole fish (or prawns or crab) you would like prepared for your main course. The glint in the eyes of the red mullet or sea bream or bass attests to how recently they’d been brought to shore.
A world apart in culinary sophistication, Vila Joya (at Praia da Galé in Albufeira) is Portugal’s only restaurant awarded two stars — “worth a detour” — by the Guide Michelin. Its Austrian chef Dieter Koschina has worked in Portugal since 1991, seeking out local ingredients, adding such luxury items as foie gras, caviar, and truffles from across Europe, and combining them with contemporary techniques in dishes such as a “piccata” of monkfish with tomato foam and zucchini; celery soup with black truffles, served with celery puree and a toasted celery ravioli; saddle of lamb with a crust of fresh cheese on rosemary jus; and a playful amuse bouche that paired baked quail leg with fried quail egg, the latter atop brioche toast and the local acorn-fed ham called pata negra. The menu varies constantly, depending on what’s available at market each day. The five-course prix fixe is offered in two comfortable dining rooms with just seven tables each in what was originally a private home, but now has twelve terrace guest rooms and five suites, so visitors can linger over a vintage port or three by the fireplace before rolling contentedly upstairs for the night.
What about the golf? The game has, after all, been at the heart of Algarve marketing ever since Sir Henry Cotton designed the first course, Penina, in 1966. There are now more than thirty courses in the area, with more being built every day.
The region’s best is San Lorenzo, a gem of a layout that winds its way through tree-lined hills, down to the waters beside the sand flats and walking trails of Ria Formosa, and back to a rousing finish that crosses water twice en route to a peninsula green. San Lorenzo has an enjoyable mix of short and long holes, doglegs in both directions, plenty of challenge and plenty of charm. No surprise that it’s consistently ranked in the top ten in Europe.
The other courses sampled on a recent visit provided decent but not exceptional golf – more suited to a trip that includes golf rather than a must-play pilgrimage. Vilamoura’s Victoria Club de Golfe, host of the WGC World Cup in 2005, is an Arnold Palmer design with minimal elevation changes and water hazards that would look completely at home in Florida. Vila Sol has twenty-seven holes (oddly, numbered one through twenty-seven) that form a championship eighteen and a simpler extra nine. Most of the fairways are framed extremely tightly with umbrella pines, eucalyptus, and almond trees; hit the ball straight or have a long day. Quinta do Lago’s South course, the more challenging of its two layouts, rises and falls through its corridors of pines, but few of the holes are memorable.
In short, golf in the Algarve is not worth crossing an ocean for. But the Algarve itself most certainly is.