The Algarve: Delira in Albufeira

The Algarve gives you enough options to cut the cloth of your holiday to fit perfectly, whether you want to lounge by the pool or take a trip to the end of the world

 

There are various types of holidays out there. Adventures into the unknown involving dirt roads and strange cuisine; sorties to discover wonders of nature and Unesco-certified marvels; and high-class excursions with no expense spared on the pampering.

Queuing in Dublin airport for check-in ahead of our flight to the Algarve, it was clear we were facing a different animal again. The queuing itself is a shock given how used we’ve become to streamlined check-ins. The group was skewed heavily towards families with babies and small children in tow, with multiple bags and buggies (AKA Michael O’Leary’s nightmare).

Many are heading to the Algarve for the nth time, drawn to return by how the ease of the process lessens the obvious stress of travelling with knee-high humans. There’s a collegiate atmosphere between the adults, happily exchanging tips and information, while the small folk engage in impromptu stare-off situations.

I imagined transports from airports to hotels on sun holidays to entail excited songs and great cheer, somewhere between Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday bus and Ibiza Uncovered. As it turned out they’re much less interesting. But the main job of transfers is to get you where you’re going, which they did. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about the airline and my baggage. After all the buggies and suitcases with county ribbons had been collected from the carousel in Faro, my bag was still sitting in Dublin – I imagine on its own, feeling as sorry for itself as I did for myself.

The airport staff were fantastically efficient, taking 10 minutes to locate my bag and assuring me it would be delivered to my accommodation the next morning. Which it was. Hurrah!

Many people aim to do as little as possible, with as little fuss as possible on a sun holiday, and the self-contained Algafar complex makes this easy. With a mini market on site supplying everything you could need, from necessities such as fresh vegetables and fruit to non-necessities like inflatable pool items.

With a choice of four swimming pools in the village, one specially catering for little ones, and various bars and cafes, you can snack and loll your way through the day nicely.

There’s also some evening entertainment laid on, and it’s a world away from Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. My personal favourite was the extraordinary keyboardist whose Tina Turner impression was only bettered by his rendition of a Tina Turner/Sting duet where he performed both parts flawlessly. As Billy Joel might have said, “Man, what are you doing here?”

We enjoyed poolside living so much that we visited Albufeira beach only in the evenings, to see the sunset and the local fishing enthusiasts take to the beach to cast their lines into the breaking waves.

The beachfront, unsurprisingly, has a number of excellent seafood restaurants, with the pick being the Casa del Mar. Set high on the cliff face over the beach in the old town, the views are stunning and tranquil. There’s no menu, instead you are guided to the counter, where you can look your fish in the eye before making your choice and having it weighed and prepared.

My test for any good fish restaurant is if they don’t flinch when you say one of you is a vegetarian, and rustle up a pasta dish that would be well served in any Italian restaurant.

It’s best accompanied with some of the local vino verde (green wine), whose slight effervesce makes it light and refreshing, and perfect for warm weather.

The old town of Albufeira has a pleasing rambling feel to it, with the cobbled streets never dull enough to do something as boring as a straight line. Those looking for something with brighter lights and louder music are well served by the strip, the frenetic and condensed area packed with burger joints and Irish bars.

Some locals advised that during peak months the narrow streets can feel a bit claustrophobic and hectic. Those planning with young children might prefer to travel either side of this time frame, but regardless there are enough options within a short distance to cut the cloth of your holiday as you see fit.

With children in mind, there are lots of water-based activity parks to visit around the Algarve, or at least it felt that way. There may actually only be two but the prolific signage dotted everywhere around the area can give the impression of there being one on every corner. Of the many (or possibly two), we visited the Slide and Splash (later rechristened the Slide and Flash, after some ungainly exits from tubes).

The park is, again, set up to make things as painless as possible for harried parents, with snacks, shade and animal attractions all close at hand. Tickets and transfers can be easily organised at the reception of most hotels, although it’s worth noting that the circuitous bus route takes considerably longer than simply driving there.

If you are of a mind, car hire is easy and reasonably priced. For those able to relax driving on the right, this is a wonderful way to see the Algarve at your leisure, and the full length of the coast can be driven in just a few hours. You can also stop along the way to buy bags of oranges, juicy and warm from the day’s heat, from the many road-side sellers. Think Wexford and strawberries.

There are bus tours that cover the breadth of the northern coast – we took an all-day bus tour of the historical Algarve, which at nine hours was a bit long, and not being able to set your own timetable along the route can be frustrating.

Driving affords the opportunity to take in the sights at your leisure, and get a better sense of the geography and scenery of the coast and up into the luscious hills. Much of it deserves to be appreciated at this slower pace.

Worth visiting is Silves, the capital of the region during the Algarve’s Moorish era, with its imposing red sandstone castle dominating the town from a central hillside, and you can stroll through the steep cobbled limestone streets, taking the opportunity to sample some wares in the food market, where the locals are polite enough to smile at your pathetic attempts to speak Portuguese. Make sure to try the traditional Portuguese dessert of pastel de nata, an egg tart pastry that is far tastier than that description makes it sound.

Continuing along the coast will take you to Cape St Vincent near Sagres or ‘the end of the world’ as it was once thought (silly Romans). We now know it as the most south westerly point in Europe, where you can pee for 50c and eat a Solero.

The 75-metre vertical cliff-faces are stunning but getting some nice photographs can be treacherous – unsurprisingly the exposed headland is very windy. After all, the nearest bit of land to the west and south respectively is America and Africa. Locals will also tell you that the lighthouse there is the brightest in Europe, but that is: a) impossible to corroborate; and b) a strange thing to boast of.

We decided on a recommendation to revisit Caldas de Monchique, a tropical spa village with a fairytale quality high in the hills that separate the Algarve from the rest of Portugal. En route you’ll spot countless storks nesting, having migrated across the African continent to settle in Portugal for the summer, and maybe even start to see them as quite wonderful birds, not just associated with butter or babies. Or buttery babies.

The peaceful and serene village of Monchique is where the Romans built baths to make the most of the natural spring waters that are still in use in the Thermal Hotel. For around €15 you can spend the day in the thermal spa and wash away all your cares.

That should leave you in the perfect relaxed mindset to retake your place in the check-in queue, this time heading for home. At that point, you’ll probably be so relaxed you won’t unduly care whether your bag manages to make the return journey with you.

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