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Renate Ruge taste the fruits of the Algarve, from clams at casual fisherman’s cafes, to piri-piri chicken at old-school grills, and Michelin-starred restaurants
The Algarve hugs Portugal’s southernmost coast, basking in 300 days of sunshine a year. Inland, the eucalyptus-scented Monchique mountains are home to honey and medronho fire water, its hills blanketed with vines stretching to the azure blue Atlantic.
To get the most of our trip, we stayed inland, at wineries and boutique hotels on the beach.
The cube-like villas and infinity pool at The Vines, Quinta dos Vales winery are chic, and where owner and modern artist Karl Heinz Stock’s flamboyant sculptures pop up around the estate. This is the place for wine buffs. In a new initiative wannabe winemakers can buy a slice of vineyard to make their own vintages, and as it’s harvest time we pick plump ripened grapes from the vines in the fading sun, before blending our own.
Modern resort São Rafael Atlântico, with its peaceful palm-fringed pools, is perched above Albufeira’s golden sands. Rooms are spacious with walk-in showers and most have small balconies. Just beware the seagulls at the breakfast buffet, as they’re keen on the tasty carob pancakes drizzled with velvety chocolate sauce.
At Vila Real de Santo António, the Guadiana River meets the sea, and we check into the luxurious Grand House hotel where pretty canaries in golden cages sing us a welcome in a plush drawing room. Our room overlooking a marina is very romantic, yet the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming – on check-out even the hotel’s resident ‘junior butler dog’, Grand, curls up around my feet.
Sleek hotel 3HB Faro is handily located just 15 minutes from the airport, in Faro’s old town, where the streets are so narrow that helpful bell boys retrieve you and your luggage in a tuk tuk. The hotel has a mini spa and indoor pool. Super modern rooms with walk-in showers and Molten Brown toiletries have TVs built into the wall. Breakfast on the rooftop is leisurely, grazing an impressive hot and cold buffet.
As soon as our plane touched down, there’s one thing on our minds… pastel de nata, and local guide Catia knows just where to find Portugal’s famous custard tarts, so we stroll down Faro’s historic streets to pasteleria Gardy. The warm pastry tarts are sprinkled with cinnamon, a reminder of Portugal’s explorers bringing spice back from the East Indies.
At O Patio restaurant in Carvoeiro beach, eating seafood with water views is joyous. Colourful arroz con mariscos (seafood rice) arrives studded with giant prawns and comfortingly soupy. An almond tart with orange-flavoured sponge and nutty topping is a fitting finish.
A pilgrimage to gorgeous Guia, famous for its barbecue, is a must. The piri-piri chicken at Restaurant Ramires, where farmer José Ramires set up a grilled chicken stall in the 60s, is legendary. Fiery, flame-grilled chicken is delicious with fries dusted with local sea salt and extra chilli (for the brave). You can’t book but it’s worth the wait.
Adega at Vila Vita Parc’s delightful dishes from the ‘pica-pica’ (share and play) menu include huge grilled tiger prawns swimming in a saffron and garlic Mozambique sauce. Sundown is toasted with orange Per Se cocktails as guitarists play. Vila Vita Parc is also home to the two-Michelin-star Ocean restaurant.
Over in the eastern Algarve, lunch at the stylish Grand Beach House is sublime. We feasted on local clams with lemon and garlic, and grilled dorado sprinkled with flor de sal from nearby salt pans, watching boats sail by. Talented chef Jan Stechmesser also oversees The Grand Salon, where dinner of next-level dishes like slow-poached egg in tarragon foam with tapenade and crispy-skinned sea bass with bivalve velouté are divine. Meanwhile, bartender Filipe’s bespoke cocktails are made to “suit your mood”. Mine’s a Green Witch…
Chef Adérito de Almeida is the star of the show at 3HB’s Hábito restaurant, celebrating Algarvian flavours in modern style, with oyster ceviche, seared tuna, and pink lamb in a glossy jus. Dessert of rosemary ice-cream and carob churros is a perfect end to the day on the rooftop bar.
There are some great wine stop-offs too. Morgado do Quintão is a real gem of a boutique winery, producing only Portuguese varieties and where you can while away an afternoon wine-tasting under the shade of a 2,000-year-old olive tree. At Veneza in Paderne, dining in the wineshop among shelves of bottles is atmospheric. The Malaca Sauvignon Blanc is super with fresh crab dip and tiny sardine toasts.
At Vila Sodré Silvinos, owner André does wine tastings in his candlelit cellar. Oak barrels are covered with platters of cheese, olives and presunto cured meat. We taste a blushing local rosé, Al Mudd, made of native Negra Mole grapes and a riot of rare reds. For the finale, he dusts off a sultry fortified vintage, Porto Messias Colheita (Single Harvest) 1966.
Chill out on beautiful beaches – from miles of unspoiled wild coastline around Sagres, the most south-westerly point of Europe, in the west. Golden sands galore stretch from Salema and Burgau to Meia Praia, and in the east, peaceful beaches like Fabrica are so remote you need to take a boat to get there.
Soak up the views on a cliff top walk – The Seven Hanging Valleys trail, Armação de Pêra coastal path winds around seven kilometres of sheer cliffs with incredible views. Spot people paddle boarding and kayaking in the azure sea below.
Jet along the Algarve’s craggy coast aboard a speedboat with Algar Experience – dipping in and out of inlets and spectacular caverns, like dome shaped Benagil Cave, speeding across electric-blue waves.
Adventure to the Monchique mountains on a jeep safari with Extremo Ambiente – accelerating through rivers to a sweet pit stop at beekeeper Antonio’s place, to sample honey straight from the hive and take a shot of Aguardente de Medronhos fire water – a schnapps-style liquor made of medronho fruit.
Join a walking tour to lively fishing village, Olhão – guide Christine from Portugal4U’s tour weaves around faded blue and green tiled streets and past outdoor street art to the fish market to marvel at huge tuna and piles of prawns.
Take a ferry or water taxi hop to Culatra island – people are drawn for the island’s solitude and calm waters and sand dunes. Watch the fishermen – and ladies – dig for clams as the tide goes out, before tasting oysters and clams at the nearby cafes.
Enjoy a spa experience at luxe Monchique Resort & Spa in the therapeutic thermal waters of the Monchique Mountains.
Besides beach togs, sturdy walking shoes are great for rugged terrain. A light sarong’s a handy cover up and doubles as an impromptu picnic blanket. Leave room in your suitcase for tasty souvenirs of flor de sal salt, fig jam, olive oil, sardines, local orange marmalade and other essentials, such as custard tarts…
Tasting clams and plump oysters straight from the seabed is unforgettable. Passionate about preserving Culatra island’s clam-digging and heritage, our oysters were shucked for us by community leader Silvia Padinha. At Café Janoca, a blue-and-white shack on the jetty, we savoured juicy sardines, blackened by the chargrill. The smell? Pure Portugal.
Explore the Algarve’s capital, Faro, with its peaceful marina and picturesque old town filled with lively cafes, tiny bars and independent shops, its houses tiled with Moorish facades.
Renate travelled as a guest of Algarve Tourism Authority, staying at The Vines, Quinta dos Vales winery; modern Albufeira family friendly resort São Rafael Atlântico; the luxurious Grand House hotel and stylish boutique hotel 3HB Faro. Return flights to Faro start from £90 with Jet2 from Manchester, and from £200 with British Airways from London Heathrow.
For more information and inspiration visit, www.visitalgarve.pt