Algarve offers good food and more

Eating in the Algarve is a culinary extravaganza, especially if you enjoy seafood. We did not have a bad meal during our two-week stay on the beautiful south coast of Portugal. Even the wine and food selected for our picnics was wonderful. We ate with gusto at roadside tables along some of the secondary roads.

Restaurants are many and mostly small, just nine or ten tables. Check out the small restaurants advertised in local tourist papers or search out the local spots. You won’t be disappointed. Some travel literature indicates that most restaurant prices include the tip. This was not our experience. So expect to tip.

An old custom (used more today by tourists than locals) is to have your morning breakfast of the catch of the day along the seashore. It’s cooked outside on large wood burning barbecues.

Grilled sardines
The Algarve is a major exporter of sardines and you will miss a treat if you don’t partake of a morning feast of grilled sardines. These are much larger than you find in sardine cans in our local food stores. They’re six to eight inches long, although the taste leaves no doubt they’re sardines.

There’s a variety of shellfh available, scrumptious shrimp, mussels and escargot. Just as delicious are the varieties of lobster, but expect to pay as much as $30Cdn per pound for fresh live lobster.

Wine, port
Wine lovers may be well challenged to find the drink of their choice. Not because good wine is unavailable, but the number of brands and quality are extensive. If you ask for a house wine without specifying color, expect to be served red.

It took us several days to find a good white wine. A wine connoisseur presented us with a palatable variety at his restaurant. My opinion is that you should try at least one serving of what is called ‘Green’ wine to see how bad commercial wine can be.

You are in good luck if you enjoy port, because that is the specialty.

Grocery stores
Shopping for food can be interesting. Keep in mind that the term super market is reserved for small outlets in a hotel or a mini mart on a street corner. Finding food in a large grocery store can be frustrating. Getting help from someone who speaks English is difficult. Even when you do find a clerk who understands English, it is usually rudimentary and you revert to sign language.

None of the products are listed in English, so item recognition becomes key. You can tell the inexperienced North Americans as they wander aimlessly, scratching their heads or performing antics for a clerk to get the product they want.

Be sure to have your produce weight prior to checkout or you will be sent back to have it done. This is true for all loose produce no matter how small the store.

All eggs are brown shelled and stored at room temperature. Make sure you check each egg for cracks. Items like peanut butter and microwave popcorn are not readily available and choices are limited when you find them. Both are imported from the United States and have uncommon brand names.

No billboards
One of the nice things about the Algarve is the absence of billboards. Store signs are small. Even McDonalds’ golden arches are no bigger than twice the size of one of our street signs.

On our last morning, we made our way into Faro to get to the airport. We had gassed up and were following the small McDonald signs that took us right down to the centre of town in morning rush traffic. I knew we had just enough time for a quick bite before turning in the car.

We finally found the very small outlet-no drive-through or parking. So I double-parked with the engine running while my wife went in for the food.  It was around 8AM and she ordered egg McMuffins. They didn’t have any eggs. Go figure!

So the server replies that it will take a few moments. The restaurant was very small and my wife could see her go out the back door, then return a few minutes later with a dozen eggs purchased from the store next door. 

Meanwhile, I’m outside with traffic whipping by and an impatient meter reader tapping his watch and keeping me under close observation. Finally, we had our food and were off to the airport without further delay. It was a hectic but funny ending to our Algarve trip.

Advance planning
Here are some useful tips for advance packing and planning:

  • Use a collapsible soft-sided cooler that fits inside a piece of carry on luggage. On your way, use it to carry your cameras, tickets, travel documents, reading material and munchies. At your destination, use it as a cooler for picnics and other things requiring protection from the heat or cold. When not in use, you can collapse and store it.

  • If you require air-conditioning, make your request in advance. Don’t assume rental cars are fully equipped as they are in North America. The same caution is extended for your accommodations. Even though our apartment complex advertised air-conditioning, it was not centralized or available in every suite.

  • If you like small cups of Espresso coffee, you’re in luck. If you enjoy your morning coffee North American style, bring not only your choice of grounds, but also a coffeepot. You won’t find them easily in the Algarve.

  • If you have medical equipment that requires electricity, have a converter for each piece. I have a CPAC required for sleep apnea. The system has two pieces, one for the pump and another for the humidifier. The pump worked fine but the humidifier blew two fuses. You won’t be able to rectify the problem in the Algarve, so ensure that you discuss you requirements with the manufacturer before you leave. I made the mistake of talking to the retailer and was not advised of this potential problem.

  • Dress code
    The dress code in the Algarve is relaxed and you won’t have to pack ties, sports jacket or dresses. If you travel in March, you’ll be able to dress in shorts and T-shirts during the day. But pack heavier clothing as well as sweats, long pants and a jacket for evenings, which begin around 6 PM at that time of the year.

    If you’re expecting to swim in the Atlantic in March without a wet suit, forget it! We saw only two people try and they didn’t stay in the water very long. I got caught in the tide on one occasion, and the water was so cold that it sent pains up my legs. However, lots of people were sun bathing. 

    The Algarve is very clean and tidy. If you are a walker or jogger, the large damp beaches provide an excellent runway that is gentle on your limbs and feet. When dry however, the sand is very difficult to walk on.

    As for personal security, I walked alone each day and at no time did I feel threatened.

    Gene and Diane Black are members of CARP, Canada’s Association for the 50Plus.