Kate Armstrong escapes the crowds of Portugal's premier destination to find its inland soul.
Some call it heaven, others call it hell. With its scalloped bays and crumbling cliffs, Algarve is nirvana to the hordes of visitors who flock to Portugal's premier coastal destination each summer. But others loathe the mass of resorts and villas that extend like a giant and disjointed Lego construction from Cabo de Sao Vicente in the western point of the European coastline, to Vila Real de Santo Antonia in Portugal's east.
Coastal Algarve has prostituted itself to tourism for decades. The 1960s saw the hippies "discover" the quaint fishing village of Albufeira, which is now a package tour destination. In the '70s, visitors gorged on sardines in Portimao. Today this is a sprawling city with a depleted fish supply. In the '80s, hoards of backpackers partied in the ancient walled city of Lagos. Although growing, the town retains its soul thanks to its historic centre's picturesque plazas and cobbled streets. In the '90s, golfers perfected their swings on the region's many links courses. These days, discerning travellers have cottoned on the Algarve offers more than a sun tan, fish dishes and bars.
The inner Algarve, which extends about 55 kilometres north to neighbouring Alentejo, harbours many delights: historic villages set against hillsides of oak trees, cork plantations and wild rosemary; local eateries dishing up oodles of black pork, olive, fig and olive dishes; and forested mountaintops with walking tracks. Stunning areas of protected forest and grasslands provide great bird-spotting opportunities and wildflowers. Best of all, it's free of coastal crowds.
Where to visit
Faro, with an international airport, is a great springboard to inner Algarve. Within an easy day's drive are several picturesque towns and sites. There's Silves, a medieval hilltop town complete with castle, above the banks of the Rio Arade, and Loule, a popular festival town (see Where to party). Further northwest, Monchique, an enticing spa village, nestles in the mountainous woodlands. East of Silves, narrow, winding roads lead to the quaint traditional villages of Alte and Salir.
From here you can hike up Rocha da Pena (see Where to hike). Further east, road N124 climbs and loops through lush woodlands as far as the tranquil town of Alcoutim, on the Rio Guadiana and only 100 metres from neighbouring Spain. See atalgarve.pt.
Where to hike
VIA ALGARVIANA One of the few places in Europe where you can walk the breadth of a country, this 300-kilometre trail starts in Alcoutim on the Rio Guadiana, Portugal's eastern border, and ends at Cabo de Sao Vicente, the country's south-westerly tip. Along the way it passes through grasslands, protected areas and the forests of the Serras de Caldeirao and Monchique. Although it's formally open, it's not yet fully marked, so accurate maps are a must. Avoid hiking in winter and be aware hunting season goes from October to June. During this time, ensure you hang up your boots on Thursdays and Sundays, when hunters are out in force shooting partridge, hare and wild pig (and, well, anything that moves). See viaalgarviana.org and algarveway.com.
PENA DA ROCHA The mountain top of Pena da Rocha is the Algarve's miniature equivalent to Capetown's Tabletop Mountain and its well-defined trails make for a pleasant half-day hike. Contained within a protected area, the Pena da Rocha boasts more than 500 species of plants and 122 of birds, including the rare Bonelli's Eagle. Atop the plateau sit two defensive walls from the Iron Age, used by the Moors during the reconquest of Portugal by King Afonso III. Two windmills stand in ruins on the mountain's eastern slope. It's worth climbing for the birds' eye views as far as coastal Algarve.
Where to cycle
The Ecovia do Litoral is a brand new eco-friendly project organised by the national tourism authority. Spanning 214 kilometres, this cycling route runs through 12 Algarve municipalities, between Cabo de Sao Vicente, on the west coast to Vila Real de Sao Antonio in the east, taking in coastline and inland villages and towns. Not all routes are on cycling paths; cyclists tackle traffic-infested roads as well as rural tracks. See ecoviasalgarve.org.
Where to indulge
If you must splurge anywhere, do it at Vila Joya, a subtly opulent, boutique guesthouse on Praia de Gale, about eight kilometres from Albufeira. This neo-Moorish building is a kind of Rockpool meets El Questro, with a Morocco-by-the-sea ambience. Think lush green lawns with Taj Mahal-sized brollies, several pools and the ocean a mere amble away. (OK, so this choice is on coastal Algarve but it's an exception; it's an obligatory stop for any foodie or luxury-loving aficionado). The delightful owner-hosts, Klaus Jung and his daughter Joy, know all the hospitality tricks in the five-star book. And it just happens to have a Michelin-star restaurant. Main courses start at $80; the three-course luncheon menu costs $140. Oh and did we say anything about the in-house beauty spa? See vilajoya.com.
Where to go DIY touring
If you have your own wheels, don't miss the DIY cork trail starting in the small town and former cork centre of Sao Bras de Alportel, 17kilometres from Faro. Cork production has been the mainstay of Portuguese industry for centuries and the region is covered in ancient, gnarled cork trees. The route starts in Sao Bras' own cork museum and takes in the pretty forested surrounds. During cork-cutting season (August), you will see men slicing large rings off the tree; it's laborious and difficult. The "nude" trunks stand upright like cinnamon-coloured sentinels. See rotadacortica.pt.
Where to party
Twenty kilometres inland from Faro, the town of Loule kicks up its party heels at its annual festival, Festival Med. During five days you can bop 'til you drop at live world music performances (last year's festival featured Jamaican singer Jimmy Cliff), plus street theatre, puppetry and gastronomy. Although only five years old, the festival now attracts thousands of visitors. See www.festivalmed.com.pt.
The writer was a dining guest of Vila Joya.
Qantas flies to Lisbon via London (from $2500). Alternatively you can fly with major carriers to London and purchase a separate flight to Faro with TAP Portugal (flytap.com; about $200 one way).
WHEN TO GO
To avoid crowds and high-season prices, steer clear of July to mid-September. December to February can be a bit chilly. The remaining months of the year are wonderful alternatives.