Portugal's Algarve: Not just for golf-mad pensioners

Portugal's Algarve: Not just for golf-mad pensioners

It's known for golf, sun and British retirees, but it should be famous for more. Here's why

The southernmost region of Portugal, the Algarve has a reputation for being a retirement home for wealthy British pensioners.

While this is partly the case, the Algarve has moved into the 21st century with a more varied outlook on tourism.

Thanks to golf-mad Brit retirees, the region has become a serious golfing destination, winning awards as Europe's best place to swing a club.

But this delightful area with southern and western Atlantic coasts, and more than 300 warm to hot sunny days each year, has more to offer than the most maddening game ever invented.

The region

Falésia Beach, one of hundreds in the Algarve, unspoiled and often empty. The Algarve is a haven for sailors, with seven marinas along its southern Atlantic coast; a world class surfing destination; and a great place for swimming, deep sea fishing, body-boarding, diving and kite-surfing.

On land there's motor racing, tennis, athletics and skydiving. Many of Europe's top soccer teams stay in the Algarve for pre-season training.

When I stayed at the Hotel Quinta do Lago, the Libyan national soccer team was there preparing for a friendly match. OK, they're not Barcelona or Manchester United, but the Libyan team proves the area's worth on the national football circuit.

There are more than 100 beaches along the 200-kilometer coastline and a plethora of luxury spas.

Local heritage reflects the various peoples who have inhabited the Algarve -- Arabs, Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Celts.

The Algarve also has a reputation for some of the best seafood in the world, reflected in the excellent restaurants in the region, which has the highest number of Michelin stars in Portugal.

It's also a place for environmental tourism, centred around the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve, with its 60 kilometers (37 miles) of islands and channels creating a birdwatchers' paradise.

For a completely back to nature eco-tourist vacation, you can get away from modern civilization and backpack along the Via Algarviana.

The 300-kilometer (186 miles) footpath begins in Alcoutim near the Spanish border and ends at Cabo de São Vicente, where the southern and western Algarve coasts meet. The path travels through towns that still live according to the traditions of the rural world.

You can pitch your tent wherever you want or stay in local tavernas.

There's plenty of nightlife, especially in Vilamoura, the largest resort town in Europe, and Faro, the region's capital.

Food

Terrace at the Sea Breeze restaurant at the Hotel Quinta do Lago. In the Algarve seafood is king.

Caught daily in the Atlantic, crab, clams, king prawns, sea bass, sea bream, cod and other ocean delicacies are guaranteed to be superb.

Reflecting the region's Moorish heritage (five centuries of Islamic occupation), Moroccan restaurants serve chicken couscous and traditional lamb tajine.

There are restaurants for every budget, from fast food to Japanese and, of course, Mediterranean.

As Dunas, Martinhal Resort: At the excellent As Dunas restaurant at the Martinhal Resort in Sagre, two people can have a lovely dinner including wine for less than €40 (US$52).

Seafood, fresh fish and traditional Algarvean dishes adorn the menu; set among the sand dunes of Martinhal beach, the location is superb.

Martinhal Beach Resort and Hotel, Quinta do Martinhal, Sagres; +351 282 240 200; www.martinhal.com

La Bella Vita: This Italian restaurant does the usual pizza/pasta along with more elbarorate dishes, like scallops with king prawns and rice. Ravioli and dishes featuring truffles are also a speciality.

Algarve Club Atlântico, 20 Alfanzina, Carvoeiro; +351 282 358 556; http://bella-vita.pt

O Costa: With panoramic views across the Ria Formosa lagoon and close to the Algarvean capital Faro, O Costa serves a mix of traditional Portuguese, Spanish and other Mediterranean recipes.

A great selection of tapas is available.

Avenida Nascente, Praia da Faro, Faro; +351 289 817 442; www.restauranteocosta.com

Activities

The fourth green at Onyria Palmares. These looks won't kill, but they might frustrate. Golf: The Algarve has a justified reputation as mainland Europe's finest golf destination.

From Onyria Palmares in the west through the five superb courses at Vilamoura, San Lorenzo and the Laranjal course at Quinta do Lago, to Monte Rei in the east (where you can see Spain from the fairways), there are more than 30 championship courses in the region.

For details go to www.algarvegolf.net.

Surfing/kite-surfing: Nowhere else in Europe offers year-round great surfing waves in the morning and steady kite-surfing winds in the afternoon like the southwest tip of the Algarve, between Cabo de Sao Vincente and Sagres.

For details on all watersports available in the Algarve go to www.algarve-watersport.com.

Sailing: With the Portuguese history of seafaring and seven marinas along its southern Atlantic coast it's no surprise that the Algarve has sailing in its blood.

Bring your yacht, hire one or just take a pleasure boat cruise along the 200 kilometer coastline.

Land and water sports: Other water sports include kayaking, deep sea fishing, swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving.

Land sports include ample tennis courts, motor racing at more than 300 kph (185 mph) on the Algarve racetrak, skydiving or soccer at a variety of sports complexes, horseback riding at the Vilamoura equestrian center, mountain biking or trekking through the Algarve mountains and ordinary road cycling.

Culture: Various peoples have inhabited the Algarve -- Arabs (five centuries of Islamic occupation), Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Celts.

The Algarve is home to 13th-century castles, 16th-century churches, modern museums, local arts and crafts, markets and music, from old folk through new wave.

Nature: From stunning Cabo de Sao Vicente, where the west and south Algarve coasts meet, to the Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim in the east on the Spanish border (and home to one of the largest flamingo habitats in Europe), the Algarve is awash with nature reserves.

The most beautiful is the Parque Natural de Ria Formosa around the region's capital Faro. You can leave civilization behind and rucksack along the 300-kilometer (186 mile) Via Algarviana, a great way to take in the Algarve's natural beauty.

Spa: Here SPA means Sanus Per Algarve ("Health through Algarve") and spa lovers can indulge in aromatherapy, thalassotherapy, sports and therapeutic massages, hot stone therapies, reflexology, yoga or reiki.

You can also visit Caldas de Monchique, a natural spa since Roman times when it was known as Aguas Sagradas (Sacred Waters).

Beach: The Algarve has more than 100 beaches along its 200-kilometer (124 miles) coastline, many of them usually deserted.

Hotels and resorts

The Algarve is home to numerous luxury resorts, many more affordable than you might think. The Algarve is filled with five-star hotels and resorts, plus options for those on a tight budget. For a complete list of accommodation in the Algarve go to www.visitalgarve.pt.

The Conrad: Opened in September 2012 and the only Conrad hotel in Portugal, this luxurious residence, created in the form of a Moorish palace to reflect the Algarve's Moroccan influence, is already winning awards.

Voted the World's Leading New Resort at the World Travel Awards in December 2012, it's spa includes a Caribbean storm shower complete with piped-in birdsong and thunder and lightning effects.

Quinta do Lago, Almancil; +351 289 350 700; from €209 (US$272) per night; www.conradalgarve.com

The Pine Cliffs Resort: Voted Portugal's Leading Family Resort in 2009 by World Travel Awards, the Pine Cliffs Resort includes a Sheraton Hotel and 280 apartments, town houses and villas.

Its restaurants serve seafood, Portuguese, Italian, Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine.

There's also a 7,000-square-meter Kids Club and almost every leisure and sporting activity known to man.

Praia da Falésia, Albufeira; +351 289 500 100; from €66 (US$86) per night; www.pinecliffs.com

Vila Galé Ampalius Hotel: Located 10 meters from the marina in Vilamoura, the Vila Galé Ampalius is a four-star beauty.

It has two outdoor swimming pools, great views from room balconies and is ideally situated to explore Vilamoura, the biggest resort town in Europe, loaded with nightclubs, restaurants and a casino.

Alameda Praia de Marina, Vilamoura; +351 289 303 900; from €68 (US$88) per night; www.vilagale.co.uk

The Hotel Quinta do Lago: This beautiful hotel has a gracious staff. The rooms are good, food is great and views from the upper floor rooms across the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve, the Atlantic Ocean and coastline make for spectacular sunsets.

Quinta do Lago, Almancil; +351 289 350 350; from €335 (US$435) per night; www.quintadolagohotel.com

Quinta Monte Serra: This charming farmhouse in the eastern Algarve, close to Tavira, is owned by Jean-Jacques de Coninck. He's transformed four of the farm buildings into beautiful cottages, retaining the old rural exteriors while completely modernizing the interiors with kitchens and bathrooms.

The tranquillity is disturbed only by the occasional sounds of the local wildlife.

Esti Rainanteus, Tavira; +351 961 142 562; from €350 (US$455) per week; www.monte-serra.com

For more details on all the Algarve go to www.visitalgarve.pt.

Tony Smart is a lifelong golf fanatic and journalist who's been lucky enough to play golf all over the world. He has written for a wide variety of magazines including Golf Digest Ireland, Golf World, Golf Monthly, Golf International, The Robb Report, Asian Golf Monthly, Golf Vacations and The Peak.

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