The Algarve’s Desert Island

Ilha Deserta. Space to roam, time to think

Normally, when I write about a destination, I focus on the things it has to offer and the places of interest; I pump up the “must go there” feeling. However, sometimes it is what a place doesn’t have that makes it more interesting. 

One such place lies to the south of Faro and takes 45 minutes to reach by ferry unless you take a faster taxi. Ilha Deserta is praised for its untouched nature and is one of the five islands that protect the Ria Formosa Natural Park from the ocean’s waves. As the name suggests, no one lives on the island apart from a lot of seagulls who breed and nest here. 

The main beach on the south side is a stone’s throw away and is exposed to the ocean, which dictates the atmosphere of the season, the time of the month or even a particular day. A rising spring tide can mean a windswept walk with a jacket on and on another day, the gentle lapping of the waves encourages sitting down to watch and reflect in the sunshine. Depending on the day, there will be shells to pick up, huge jellyfish washed up on the beach, fish jumping through the shallow surf, groups of smaller sea birds pecking for food on the crystal clear waters’ edge and the sound of seagulls overhead. Crystal clear waters is not an exaggeration; this is the southernmost point of the country and it was the first beach in the municipality to be awarded the Blue Flag, Gold Quality Flag, and Zero Pollution Flag. 

There are none of the crowds that can spoil a beach experience in the summer months on other beaches of the area or beach bars serving expensive food and drinks and pumping out music. Instead, there is a circuit of wooden boardwalks that takes around three hours to walk, including a nature trail where you might get to see bird species such as Sardinian warblers, Eurasian spoonbills and Kentish plovers if bird watching is your thing. Ilha Deserta is also home to chameleons that I have never seen for myself and I guess this is why they are described as elusive. 

Once you get around to the lagoon side of the island, the atmosphere changes with calmer and warmer water in the shallow bays. Here, the opportunity to de-stress and relax takes on another level and off come the clothes, if that is your thing. This is a designated beach for naturalism and being so far away from the main beach, no one else can possibly be offended. 

There is nothing original in the Algarve about a wood-constructed beachfront restaurant serving amazing fish and seafood dishes. Being the only building surrounded by sand dunes and offering a view to the ocean are added attractions but they are not what makes the island’s only restaurant so special. Estaminé is not only an eatery but also a centre for solar energy and potable water production, which supply the building and ensure the energy sustainability of the entire infrastructure. Now, the pleasure fits the environment. 

The island is actually rented by Animaris, the company that operates the ferry service. As well as carrying passengers, the ferry transports supplies to the restaurant. In the early evening, when the restaurant closes for the day, the seagulls and other wildlife have their home to themselves again. 

Like other destinations in the group of islands like Culatra and Farol, the shallow bays allow for boats to sail in from the mainland or from the open sea to moor up. This adds a certain exclusive appeal to the restaurant where the rich and famous often slip in quietly to enjoy a special meal and then slip away quietly, as elusive as some of the sea life. 

If you don’t have a yacht, one of the most popular ways of visiting Ilha Deserta is to take an island-hopping trip from Faro or Olhão. Or include a trip to the island on a day out in Faro. Catch the ferry from the arch in the stone walls at the back of the historical old town. This area has its own fascination and is well worth exploring. For those who know the main Faro beach, Ilha Deserta is a genuinely remote alternative and for those who are yet to discover the Ria Formosa, there is no better place to start. Take it from a local.

Animaris –

Photos © Bob Tidy


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