When the Irish first went seeking the sun, it is no surprising that the Algarve should be one of the first stops.
It might have been the name, the near-Celtic sounding Al-Garbh is Arabian for “God’s western country,” or the south facing beaches at the bottom of high cliffs that had been attracting Portugal’s well-to-do on beach holidays since the late 1700s.
Whatever it was, we set off in our droves for a cheaper and often more beautiful alternative to Malaga and that’s where we have stayed since.
Praia da Rocha remains one of our favourite resorts and is the landscape that most of us associate with the region. The high cliffs and ocean-battered obelisks stand out from the south-facing beach, cosseting the sand from the northerly breezes all year round. The Algarve gets more than 5m international tourists, and Ireland is one of the fastest growing markets.
The headline attractions are growing, boat trips along the coast from Lagos with a Kerry skipper, the golf courses designed by famous architects such as Frank Pennink, Henry Cotton and Robert Trent Jones Junior, the Eu700m investment in creating the Vilamoura resort on 200 acre farm where olives were grown, fadó fadó by fado-singers in Faro.
But there are lots of delights a few minutes away from the over-populated beaches and bars. A roman museum, Museu e Estacão Arqueologica, within a few minutes of Villamoura where you get a glimpse into life in the region 2,000 years ago. Among the academics who have worked there is Ann Neville formerly of NUIG.
The best culture is easier to find. In fact you can’t miss it. A whole town that shouldn’t be missed. The pretty town of Tavira was rebuilt in the 18th century after an earthquake in 1755 and retains fine period buildings constructed on both sides of the River Gilão and linked by a memorable arched bridge, earning it the nickname Venice of the Algarve.
Need a hotel that isn’t above the karaoke bar? Here you will find the Pousada de Tavira, in the Graça Convent founded by King Sebastião around 1569.
It is a 16-bedroom gem fit for a Wild Goose fleeing Elizabeth’s wars in Ireland, has a Renaissance cloister, baroque-style facade and a collection of Islamic artefacts uncovered during renovations.
Old world charm comes with new age comforts. The rooms, of which five are suites, have been given a cool, contemporary design. There are swimming pools for adults and children, and a restaurant serving regional specialties.
Summer rates start at Eu100 per person. And remember, because this is the Algarve, getting there is cheap.
Don’t come home without the most delicious treasure of them all, the special reserve Esporão wine (produced in the Alentejo Region), Eu17 in a supermarket or in the Faro airport travelshop – not the wines shop, which is more expensive.
- Faro airport is the major charter gateway into the Algarve. In high season there are 35 chartered fights from Ireland in high season from all the main tour operators including Budget, Falcon, Panorama, Sunworld and 28 scheduled flights, including Aer Lingus and Ryanair from Dublin, Aer Lingus from Cork, and Flybe from Belfast.
- The Algarve Casino in Praia is an upmarket offering with good beachfront location and wide range of facilities, but rather staid decor. Avoid the show, an endless series of lip-synchs and costume changes, but visit the small blackjack room to see some uniquely Portuguese gambling games, not found outside the country.
- Brown’s Sports and Leisure Club, which provides sports facilities for leisure visitors and clubs. Their first customers were the Bradford Bulls, from England’s rugby league.
- Museu e Estacão Arqueologica 00351-289-312153 Fax 00351-289302783
- Southwest charters, run by Tralee-born Derry Jones, organise dolphin watching, sightseeing trips and yacht trips from the Marina of Lagos, stopping briefly at key points of interest along the coast. Prices Eu30 for a great trip. www.southwestcharters.com email@example.com
- Portuguese Trade and Tourism Board, 54 Dawson Street, Dublin 2. 01 -670 9133
- The Algarve is served by all the major Irish tour operators with resorts and prices ranging from entry level self-catering to five star spa hotels. Check your travel agent or tour operator website .
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