Following the first part of the article, Bob Tidy switches his attention to the present day, where Olhão is gaining a reputation as an appealing and quality tourist destination.
WORDS | PHOTOGRAPHY Bob Tidy
When the fish canning industry went into decline, the town followed suit and became famous for things that are better left where they belong – in the past. Despite the reasons for a visit, including the excellent fresh seafood restaurants, the locals’ market on the seafront on a Saturday morning, the town needed a serious facelift. A regeneration project that took place on the waterfront back in 2008 was a step in the right direction.
Approaching from Faro and turning off of the EN125 towards the town, a huge “mountain” of salt can be seen in the salt pans. It is a reminder that we are in the Ria Formosa. This is an interesting area for evening walks and cycle rides. A little further on and the first line of new luxury apartments can be seen on the left. To be writing luxury and Olhão in the same sentence is a bit weird for me because I remember the place from around twenty years ago. Whilst the old town has its charm and there was always something very gritty and genuine about the place, today’s advertising campaign that announces the town as a “good place to live” could be an exaggeration. I am here today to check out some of what has contributed to the change in status.
The first factor is the 5-star Real Marina Hotel, complete with an open terrace swimming pool that offers views of the nearby islands. As part of the regeneration project, access to board the ferries, the availability of guided trips and improvements on the Island’s infrastructures have made the visits far more appealing than in the past. And here lies the main reason for the town’s recent success, the potential was always there, it just needed investment, development and improvement.
Naturally, there is nothing quite like a five-star hotel to raise awareness and attract some money spenders. The town and surrounding area now has its own slice of the high-end property market. Many of the older townhouses have been and are being renovated. The number of quality restaurants has increased (along with the prices), and this is still a great place to buy your fresh seafood or to dine out. Talking of slices, there are a couple of very good places for pizza. On the other side of the road from the hotel is the marina, Porto Recreio de Olhão, where the old-time fishing boats that started the town’s development have simply been replaced by others with sails and modern navigation systems. The sea-faring traditions live on. Construction works on the infrastructure began in 2001 with an investment of around 1.6 million euros. The development project increased the available moorings from 300 up to 700. This is only 125 less than the famous Vilamoura Marina, and it seems to represent a good alternative in many ways. Along with an administration office, today’s marina includes nautical services areas, restaurants and a fuelling area. It also follows a set of good environmental practices, to be considered a green port, especially regarding oil and waste management.
From here the promenade begins and can be enjoyed by those of us who don’t have an expensive yacht or can’t afford to stay in luxury accommodation. Real attention has gone into landscaping the spacious waterfront gardens and I had a very pleasant feeling simply strolling along catching the sea air with the busy road to the left and the marina to the right. A children’s play area, a traditional bandstand and an area dedicated to events and open-air concerts complete the picture, not forgetting a fair amount of seagulls. Halfway along are the restored red-bricked market buildings, iconic by Olhão standards, and an array of cafés and benches to sit and enjoy the views. If I were to cross over the road from here, I would enter the main shopping area, the maze of back streets where some fine examples of period buildings can be seen, to match any found elsewhere in the region.
Moving down to the other end of the promenade is the place to catch the island ferries. To be completely honest, catching the boats a few years ago was not that pleasant and even today parking your car anywhere near the pier is still a nightmare (be warned). However, improvements have been made.
A trip to the islands is a must and the beaches really do live up to their splendid reputation. Of course, you can always take a private taxi boat and avoid all the queues. Despite the updates and recent developments, the town has not lost its charm and identity. For those who like to explore and find it and at least (or some would say at last), it has not been left behind and written off as the Algarve continues the push for a more exclusive and luxury-based image for the future. On the contrary, further plans are in place, and the next phase of investment will soon begin.
From my point of view, if the local council continues with the same quality as the work that it has done so far, I feel that this town has a real stake to claim. Worth a day trip? Definitely. A good place to live and holiday? I think that there are better options travelling further east, but yes, it has some genuine appeal. One thing is for sure, I wouldn’t go elsewhere to buy my fresh crabs.