Portugal’s “eastern” Algarve is a quieter vacation
frontier well worth exploring.

Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees which is why Portugal’s eastern Algarve escaped my radar screen for far too long. Like the great majority of visitors who travel to the sunny country on the western rim of the Iberian Peninsula, I historically focused on the western Algarve visiting popular oceanfront cities like Lagos, Vilamoura and Albufeira. Indeed, the eastern region was a blank page until a few months ago when I removed my blinkers and discovered a whole new Algarve.
The east fails to receive the hordes of British, German and North American sun seekers who annually descend on the western Algarve–some for short-term getaways and others for long-term winter stays–consequently the east is clearly less crowded, less busy and prices for everything from accommodations to dining, entertainment and golf can often be less expensive than in the west’s high-profile resort areas.

So why don’t more people travel to the eastern Algarve? Good question, since the strip of land that runs from the region’s capital of Faro, east to the Spanish border town of Villa Real de Santo Antonio, seems to have plenty going for it in terms of ancient cities, castles, beaches, golf, quaint harbour towns and, of course, it’s bathed in the same sunshine that radiates over the western Algarve.

Last year alone the slender country that shares a border with Spain attracted more than 100,000 heat-seeking Canadians with the bulk of them choosing to stay in the Algarve region. This southernmost part of Portugal extends along 240 kilometres of Atlantic seacoast and those that chose to holiday in the eastern area will have likely discovered, as I did, that the region’s cup runs over with things to see and do.

Among its attractions are charming urban centres, many of them with historical roots dating back to the times of the Phoenicians, Romans and Moors. Widely considered the eastern Algarve’s most beautiful town is Tavira, a working tuna fishing port divided by the Gilao River.
Once a walled city (some walls still remain), its Old Town section and beyond contain at least 30 ancient cathedrals, palaces and temples. Tavira is best enjoyed by strolling its labyrinth of cobblestone streets and exploring the shopping and cafe district that runs along the river’s west bank. Moreover, it may be the only place on earth with a tuna fishing museum, a modest repository that pays homage to the town’s chicken-of-the-sea industry.

Other eastern Algarve centres like Faro, Olhao and Vila Real de Santo Antonio share many of the same characteristics as Tavira: splendid ancient architecture, Old Town quarters, a proliferation of shopping and dining opportunities and Portugal’s ubiquitous pastelerias (pastry/coffee shops). By Canadian standards, the Portuguese’ passion for sweets is a virtual phenomenon. Indeed, the incredible consumption of baked goods is country-wide: cakes, tortes, custards, cookies and tarts. The Portuguese eat them with abandon and although coffee is the preferred accompaniment, they will even wash them down with beer. The obsession is somewhat akin to the fondness Canadians have for Tim Horton’s or Starbucks–only multiplied three times over. One thing you can be sure of in any Algarve city is that a pasteleria is never further than a stone’s throw away.

Also in abundant supply are beaches. While the west is renowned for its sand-fringed resort areas, the eastern Algarve’s shoreline is likewise punctuated by a string of white sand beaches that are typically quieter, less crowded and the waters are warmer than in the west. Beginning near Faro and stretching east almost to the Spanish border the Ria Formosa is a protected natural parkland of beaches, lagoons and offshore islands. Some of the best out-islands for sunbathing, swimming and windsurfing are virtually sand bars reached by public boat shuttle from the mainland. How does the beach scene in the east compare to the west? The answer came from my tour guide, Martina Kerk, who has lived in the Algarve for 15 years. “When I want to enjoy a perfect beach day where I’m not surrounded by crowds, I always head to the eastern Algarve,” she said.

Other places where there’s apt to be less crowded are on the east’s golf courses, again because of the lower visitation factor. In total, the Algarve region is home to 28 courses with six of them located in the east where green fees are generally cheaper than in the west.

In spite of the east’s fewer number of courses, Antonio Pires, manager of the 18-hole Benamor Golf Club insists there’s no relationship between quantity and quality. “We’ve got great courses here in the east and we hope to change the trend of tourists arriving at the Faro International Airport and making a sharp left turn to the west,” he said. “We’re the forgotten part of the Algarve and there’s no good reason for it.”

Pires was right but he was preaching to the converted. Not only did the eastern Algarve make it onto my radar screen, I liked what I saw.

For more information and free travel brochures contact the Portuguese Tourism Commission at 416-921-7376 or go online at www.visitportugal.com

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