Go East the other Algarve

Imagine a picture-postcard Algarvian beach and what comes to mind? Very likely, the cliffs, coves and bays of the central and western Algarve.  Along this stretch of coastline, our sand comes with a lot of rock attached, albeit with stunning results: from Benagil and the ‘seven hanging valleys’ to Ponte da Piedade in Lagos and the less well-known Ingrina sea caves. This rugged backdrop provides the best-looking rock-adjacent beaches anywhere in the world. Things are different when you venture east of Faro: these parts have a completely different landscape of barrier islands, long sandy beaches, dunes, wetlands and not very many rocks or cliffs. Your toes-in-the-sand experience is a lot less likely to be compromised by a sharp rock just under the surface – but that’s certainly not the only reason to turn left instead of right when you leave Faro airport.

We will skip Faro itself this time and just explore a series of sandy barrier islands just offshore – each of them quite distinct in character. You can get to Ilha Deserta from Faro, but the larger and, in my view, more interesting islands of Culatra and Armona are best reached from Olhão, which has regular and cheap ferries to all of the Ria Formosa islands. From the moment you step on the ferry, you are in a very different world – goodbye to cars, roads, ATMs, and commercial tourism. These islands are truly local. Culatra has an active fishing port, oyster and mussel farming, and is the kind of place where you can see local fishermen relax from their night shift with a brandy or beer or two at any time of day. 

Armona is a charming beach escape for Olhão and Faro locals who do not have easy access to beaches. There are a few hundred small ‘casitas’ of various levels of sophistication and architectural styles and NO CARS. It is hard to describe how relaxing it is to be ‘away from it all’ so close to home. You can’t easily stay anywhere on these islands – there are no hotels, although it is possible to rent houses and there is a small campsite on Armona. They are a perfect day-trip destination, with great restaurants (Rui’s on Culatra, A3 and Lanacosta on Armona). Choose between the calm and warmer lagoon side or face the onslaught of big Atlantic waves on the other side – the vibe is so different and unique you could be forgiven for thinking you are in the Caribbean. Sunsets here are something else, so try and stay as late as you can!

A quick ferry back, and our next stop is all the way east to Vila Real de Santo António on the Spanish border. Vila Real is a small town with big-town vibes – it is famous for the grid-like streets designed by Marques de Pombal, a layout he later used to great effect in the Baixa area of Lisbon. In 2018, the aptly named Grand House Hotel opened in the centre of town. A stunning but dilapidated 1920s grand hotel, it was completely renovated and now offers a sophisticated and cosmopolitan take on what a classic ‘grand hotel’ should look like in the 21st century. 

Its location opposite the marina means there is no beach in front, but Grand House has turned that into an opportunity and opened a stunning contemporary beach club ten minutes away. Grand House is part of the Relais & Châteaux association of luxury hotels, a reliable indicator that you are going to eat well and be looked after with an old-fashioned eye for detail and customer service. Classic old-school hotel luxury with a contemporary attitude is an unusual combination for the Algarve and the venue is highly recommended for a sophisticated couple or girlfriends’ break.

Vila Real is on the Guadiana and is a great starting point to explore the river on either side of the border. There is a fun zip wire between Sanlúcar de Guadiana on the Spanish side and Alcoutim in Portugal. Limite Zero bills itself as the only cross-border zip-line in the world and is great fun for children and childish people of all ages  – I screamed all the way!

Our next stop was in Praia Verde, a gorgeous and enormous sandy beach next to a unique forest of umbrella pines. We stayed in the Praia Verde Boutique Hotel (recently renamed to Octant Praia Verde), a small oasis hidden in the pine forest. It is very family friendly with a kid’s club. Your walk to the beach is via a picturesque tree-covered trail.  The beach experience is boho-chic: Praia Verde has a great beach bar and restaurant called Pezinhos n’Areia (toes in the sand), which caters to a well-heeled crowd of mostly Portuguese tourists. You are quite likely to bump into TV and media celebrities here – on the beach or in the hotel restaurant. I don’t often recommend eating dinner in your hotel, especially in Portugal, where we have so many fantastic local options, but A Terra is very much worth a visit, even if you are not a guest. The ‘cooking with fire’ trend arrived early here, and the kitchen produces a wonderfully contemporary take on Portuguese classics using wood-fired ovens, Josper grills, clay pots and cast iron. If there was a word for robust finesse, I would use it – a total recommendation! Our gorgeous room looked out over the tops of the umbrella pines – it felt like a world unto itself.

One last stop before returning west to repent for our sins of indulgence: a spa with a difference and a half. The SPA Salino in Castro Marim is a salt pan which has been repurposed to provide a somewhat unglamorous and rustic but super-effective and fun treat for your skin. Surrounded by traditional salt pans which are still producing delicious gourmet salt, the Salino is effectively a miniature Dead Sea experience: you float around in salty, muddy water and cover yourself with the ‘argila’ clay, which contains 80 minerals – usually an expensive and hard-to-find commodity. Here, you just slap it on and let the salt, minerals and the outdoors do their magic. 

I live close to Lagos in the western Algarve, but we escape to the Eastern Algarve on a very regular basis – the difference in vibe, style, natural landscapes and unique experiences really does feel like you are on holiday in your own backyard!

Ann Botterman is a personal travel consultant.

+351 966 964 763





Share this edition