A pleasant alternative to Canada’s winter

Why not consider Portugal’s Algarve Coast as a pleasant alternative to Canada’s winter?

The weather is generally very nice, mostly sunny with temperatures in the twenties, however until Mid-March it still does get quite cool at night. It is also too cold to swim in either the pools or the ocean, at least for our taste. It is not very crowded at this time of the year — you meet mostly “snowbirds” from UK, Holland and some Germans. This year we noticed quite a few more Canadians and many of them told us they had come because of the loonie’s nose-dive, making going to the USA more expensive. Some restaurants do close at this time of the year but you’ll always find a good spot and by the end of February, everything is back in full swing. The people are friendly and helpful and you get along very well in English.

The coast and surrounding “sierras” offer beautiful vistas, from the steep reddish yellow sandstone cliffs that hide secluded golden beaches, to hillsides full of gorgeous views at every bend in the road, to the more rugged coast of the Western Atlantic you can always find a new area to discover.

The main tourist area is undoubtedly Albufeira. Here you have everythg you need: large and modern supermarkets and a variety of good restaurants. Albufeira is located somewhat in the middle of the approximately 150 km long Algarve coast. Going east towards the Spanish border, there are fewer tourist centres and related services, therefore it’s much quieter there. And again the further West you travel the more rural and quiet it gets till you hit Europe’s south-western most tip.

We like the Carvoeiro area best, about 30 minutes west of Albufeira by car. There is less hustle and bustle, the “village” is small and centred around a nice beach, with the tourist accommodation spreading up and around the sandstone cliffs. All you may need in groceries, restaurants, etc. is within easy reach.

What to Do and See
There are so many places to discover that I can only tell you about our favourite spots. A good help for exploring are the brochures issued monthly by the tourist authority and distributed through the hotels. All along the coast you will find resorts, golf courses, smaller less discovered villages and cliffs and beaches of great beauty.

Our favourite beaches are at Ferragudo, where one can collect seashells in the shadow of an ancient “castello” (castle). The other is at Armacao de Pera. This is a very long stretch of beach ideal for walking off the many glasses of vino. In the morning you can also watch the small fishing boats being pulled ashore and see how the fisherman sort out their catch of fish, octopus, crabs and and whatever else got tangled up in their nets overnight. The rugged coast of the Costa Vincentina National Park along the Atlantic Coast boast more beautiful and practically deserted beaches. And the “sierras” to the north of the coast offer the most spectacular views of green hills and valleys, and glimpses of the distant ocean. A drive along the winding and climbing roads leads you through orange and olive groves. Further up you see eucalyptus trees and cork oaks their trunks bare, where the bark has been stripped off to harvest the raw cork that will be made into all sorts of products. In January the hills glow pinkish-white when the almond trees are in bloom, and right thereafter all turns a sunny yellow as the mimosa trees come into flower. The heady aroma cannot be described it just has to be experienced. Later on you may come across miles of white iris growing wild along the ditches and into the fields. And everywhere especially along the coast are daisy-like flowers clinging to cliffs and tumbling down walls.

All through the countryside you find old castellos dating back to the time when the moors occupied the country, some old bridges actually have been there since the Romans marched through the countryside. Our favourite cities are Silves and Loule. Silves is a historic small town where all streets (after a steep climb) lead to the castle which is worth a visit. Loule is a county seat and is famous for its Saturday markets and the Carnival celebrations. Another wonderful romantic town is Alte, where you can fill up your water bottles at the spring fed fountain.

I must not forget to tell you about the gypsy markets held daily in one town or another, where you can buy anything from tablecloths, to pottery, clothing, shoes and everyday household articles. Although those held in the larger town are magnets for tourists looking for a bargain, the markets do represent the only variety of shopping opportunities for the people living in small places. You find a market hall practically in every town, where vendors sell fresh vegetables, fruit, bread, and of course the ever present fish. Have a look at all the many different kinds that are for sale — lots of them you’ll never see at your local Canadian supermarket. There is also a corner where shrimp and mussels are for sale, everything as fresh as can be.

Now a word about food and drink. Algarve is fish and seafood country, and every restaurant will proudly present you with the “fish of the day platter”. Your choice will be grilled and served with potatoes and salad. Another speciality is the cataplana, fish and seafood or chicken steamed with peppers, onions and more things in a lidded copper pot. Chicken piri-piri is the other all-time favourite. At lunch time you see the small charcoal grilles at every corner, where the chickens, split at the back and flattened out are grilled and basted with a spicy chilli marinade. Apart from those traditional dishes, there are restaurants that cater to every other taste as well. We really liked the lamb and wild game dishes. The average cost of a meal for two with a bottle of house wine will cost about $50.00. But do try out some of the daily specials at the smaller roadside cafes — they are good and cheap.

The largest selection of accommodations you will find in Albufeira, usually Apartment-Style in all price ranges. But all along the coast there are many villages and resorts all offering a variety of places to stay, from hotel rooms, to apartments and golf resorts. You may also want to look for private advertisers on the Internet. Be aware that prices are lowest between November and March — they do go up drastically after April 1.

We rented a one-bedroom apartment (T1) in Rocha Brava, a very well kept complex a few minutes from Carvoeiro at an average cost of $52.00 per night. Though by far not the lowest priced accommodation, we like what they have to offer. The service is excellent and the large grounds and gardens are lovingly tended by a small army of dedicated gardeners. There are 3 pools, one of which is heated. Our apartment had a distant ocean view and we enjoyed lovely sunsets on the very large balcony. It was nicely sheltered so we took every opportunity to soak up some sun. The apartment is compact but well equipped, with satellite TV, separate kitchen, living room with wood burning fireplace and a bedroom. Having a washing machine was particularly great for our long stay. The rental price included daily maid service, linens and towels (no washcloths are provided, so bring your own), and of course, all your utensils in the kitchen. It also included the cost of electricity and there was an electric wall-mounted heating panel in the bed- and living room. That’s quite important, as the houses normally have no heating, and being of stone and brick construction can be very cold in the winter months. Electricity in Europe doesn’t come cheap, and some complexes charge extra and/or only provide tiny space heaters. Several evenings we had a nice fire going, you can collect the firewood on the beach or in the mountains or buy it at roadside “stands”.

So, before I get carried away and write a book, why don’t you just go and see for yourselves.