Britain may have lost an empire, writes Tim Ware, but it’s gained the Algarve.
Fifty or more years ago it was the British who led the way for tourism in the most southerly region in Portugal – and they’re still making regular pilgrimages there today.
It’s easy to see why. There’s an easy going charm about the Algarve. Cut off from the rest of the country by mountains, it is different in character from the rest of Portugal. Life outside the main holiday towns moves at a slower pace and the lifestyle is correspondingly more relaxed.
Head to the western Algarve and you discover wide, smooth beaches and rocky coves backed by orange cliffs eroded into strange shapes by the sea. There’s a slightly otherworldliness about it all and as you approach the end of the peninsula you get the feeling of land beginning to run out.
And inevitably it does. The tip of the peninsula, Cape St Vincent, is the most south westerly point of continental Europe and is effectively a nature reserve, with not a high-rise hotel or apartment block in sight.
Atlantic rollers crash on to the 200ft high cliff which is bedecked in spring with wild flowers, some unique species clinging to crevices in the rock face. This is the place where, in the 15th century, Prince Henry chose to build his famous navigation school in preparation for Portugal’s great seafaring exploits.
Nothing much remains of the school today. It was pillaged and burnt and all the valuable maps and library of valuable documents destroyed – to be replaced in 1846 by the present fort, topped by its distinctive red and while lighthouse.
We arrive in the Algarve at Faro airport and, picking up a hire car, head for a boutique hotel near Lagos. Quinta Bonita began its life more than 30 years ago as a holiday villa, but in 2009 it was extended into an eight-room luxury hotel. The well furnished rooms are large enough to be described as suites and come complete with creature comforts like flat-screen TV, tea and coffee making facilities and enough bathroom fragrances to keep Naomi Campbell happy.
Owners Chantelle and Fraser are perfect hosts: Chantelle runs the front of house, Fraser is a top-notch chef who, once a week, produces a dinner for his guests which would not be out of place in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
In fact staying at Quinta Bonita, the atmosphere of the place is so relaxed you feel more like a house guest staying with friends rather than a paying customer.
One of the highlights of the day is the breakfast buffet, supplemented with a choice of freshly-cooked hot dishes including Fraser’s tasty smoked salmon omelette. Light lunches are available and guests are also treated each day to afternoon tea.
The hotel became a hobby. As well as enlarging the original building, the family developed the grounds, putting in 1,500 plants by hand in the Italianate garden. In the grounds there are also fruit trees and a heated swimming pool.
From the terrace, the views stretch south down to Praia da Rocha and Lagos and eastwards down the coast towards Portimao. Inland the Monchique hills separate the coast from Portugal’s rugged hinterland.
In summer the town of Monchique is a cool retreat from the heat and if you head up farther up into the hills you eventually reach Foia, at 2959ft the highest point in the Algarve.
Foia has the views, but little else apart from a souvenir shop. You might prefer the village of Caldes de Monchique, down a corkscrew road just below Monchique where, in a handsome square dotted with a couple of small hotels and bars, you can enjoy a cool beer .
As public transport is virtually non-existent in the Algarve, a car hire is essential for getting around, not just for daytime exploring but for seeking out places to eat in the evening. My own favourites are Sitio do Forno, a simple restaurant on the west coast near Praia do Amado which serves superb fresh fish, and Cantinho Algarvio in Lagos, which offers excellent locally inspired food at reasonable prices.
Carlos, the owner of Cantinho Algarvio, let me into the restaurant’s secret. Producing an exquisite lamb stew he said: “I got some of the recipes from my mother.” Like all good Portuguese sons he followed Mama’s advice - and created a successful business for himself at the same time.
Which just proves that Portugal, and hotels like Quinta Bonita hotel are still attracting Brits today.
Several airlines offer flights from the UK to Faro, including easyJet (www.easyjet.com) with return fares beginning around £60.
Double rooms at Quinta Bonita (www.boutiquehotelalgarve.com) cost from €100 (£83) a night. Information: The hotel current has some special Summer and Autumn offers available.
7 Night Summer Stay & Drive Package
Stay between the 1 July and the 30 September 2012 including 7 nights in a double suite with sea view, car hire (collection from Faro or Lisbon airports or Quinta Bonita), buffet breakfast and afternoon tea daily and sparkling wine on arrival for just 1680euros for 2 people. Conditions apply.
10% Autumn Discount Offer
Book to stay a minimum 5 night stay in October or November 2012 with car hire and we’ll give you 10% discount off the room rates below.
Portuguese National Tourist Office (www.visitportugal.com.)
Tim Ware is editor of the travel website www.mainlycities.com For more information please contact: Graham Ross or Caro Hembling at 01255670661