Portugal's Algarve Deserves its Reputation: Stunning!
By Max Hartshorne
By the time we reached the sunset that envelopes the small beach town of Salema, Portugal every evening, it was clear that this small, undistinguished place had been a perfect choice.
Our inexpensive accommodations, perched like an eagle's nest on a bluff, overlooked the Atlantic and the fine sandy beach has dramatic ochre cliffs rising up behind them.
We settled into our rooms at A Mare and set off down the windy road to the beach and the small sliver of commerce that makes up the town.
It was that perfect sunset time so beloved here on the sunny Algarve coast.
Although the Algarve is well-served by railroads, the lines end at Lagos, so once again we were happy that we had picked up a rental car in Lisbon from Europcar, and were Freebirds on the freeway. (The tolls for just four days were about $20).
Our ability to enjoy the wide-open and safe A2 out of Lisbon enhanced the whole trip south. The great thing about Portugal is that it's not very big...so even driving all the way from Lisbon to Lagos, it wasn't more than three hours.
Nuno's Grilled Sardines
We also made some intentional detours, and one of the best was to an outdoor restaurant in Fuzeta, the most excellent Nuno's Pizza.
But here we were after what the gregarious chef was hunched over on the grill. No pizza for us, instead, grilled sardines and other fish charred perfectly and dashed with fresh lemon. SO GOOD!
Everywhere we went in the Algarve, meals were almost the best part of everything. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a simply grilled small fish, or those little potatoes come with just about any meal, it was clear to me and my traveling companion Paul Shoul that this is a great place to be hungry.
We didn't expect to get a table but we slinked around outside long enough to find a table at Mira Mar Restaurant in Salema. It reminded us a bit of the old Seinfeld joke about the soup Nazi, but instead of "NO SOUP FOR YOU," we got "NO CREDIT CARDS!" But believe me, it was all worth waiting for. And not expensive--under $50 for two with lots of local wine.
Tivoli Carvoeiro Algarve
When I look back at both the gourmet food offerings we experienced at the Tivoli Carvoeiro, and even in what is shared during a wine-tasting at a local vineyard, the standards are high and the costs are not. It's a good combination for travelers.
The Asia-based company, Minor Hotels, owns ten properties in Portugal and in 2017 they completely refurbished the 248-room Tivoli Carvoeiro property.
With such killer views, no wonder they wanted to make the rooms bigger and create more suites!
Henrique Pires told us that with a room average of around $300, they are seeing a 95% occupancy, and this is the busiest year ever for visitors from the UK, Ireland, and Spain.
The Tivoli brand is strong in Portugal with an 83-year-tradition, and plans for the Tivoli Carvoeiro include a new conference center and a popular day club to offer the hotel's amenities to other Algarve visitors.
But the most important asset that Tivoli Carvoeiro has is the staff of local cooks, waiters, bell captains and groundskeepers who make it all work so flawlessly.
Time and again we found them be friendly and helpful, and quite funny when dealing with an inebriated customer.
Everyone we met with a Tivoli uniform on was cheerful and the feeling about the hotel was very upbeat.
We were lucky to have the Tivoli as our base for a few memorable extended day trips to different parts of the Algarve. One morning we headed out early to the town of Faro, where we met up with Antonio, one of the owners of Eating Algarve Tours. website
Their "Fishermen's Food Tour" started, logically, at the local market, and took us to many hidden restaurants and interesting places in the old city of Faro. This capital of the Algarve is a wonderful walking city, with little food shops tucked away and a big marina facing the ocean.
Our lessons began at the market with perhaps the most famous, and humble, snack in the country. The Bifana. This little sandwich, made with lean pork, chile oil and mustard on a soft roll is the favorite working man's go-to snack, and it is eaten early and late across Portugal.
The market was not crowded, it was a weekday, so we followed Antonio as he made his rounds, we met the goat cheese making family, the Martins, who have been serving up their day-old goat cheese here for three generations, and we learned about the thistle that is in the goat's diet that gives this cheese it special quality.
Plus, as Antonio said, it was "Portugal cheap," about a euro for a package--the prices in this country continue to be very low, reflecting the low minimum wage. Which is hard for locals but advantageous for visitors.
There were perhaps more fishmongers in the market than any other category--that's because the Portuguese eat six times as many fish as they catch in the Atlantic. So today, 5 out of six fish here come from somewhere else.
After seeing most of Faro's market, we were treated to another Algarve specialty--Acorda, or bread soup. Using stale bread, (and with every meal including bread there is no shortage!), a combination of seafood broth, shrimp, parsley, and garlic salt is what goes into Acorda.
Muxuma, another Specialty
The tour weaves its way into real working man's joints like this one, and then we headed back out to the street and we met a young couple of sommeliers, who run an upscale wine store called About Wine. No, it wasn't too early to sample their Algarve wines, the red one called Odelovca and the Branco, or white wine Joao Clara.
The wine was paired with a very special food from the Algarve--Muxuma dried thinly sliced tuna with extra virgin olive oil. "This is hard to find, even in the Algarve," Antonio said. It's popular in nearby Andalusia, Spain and in Sicily.
For anyone who heads to this part of Portugal, there will be offers of opportunities to get out in a boat and see the cliffs from the water.
We decided to combine our two loves, fishing and sightseeing, and we joined a charter fishing expedition early one morning out of Albufeira, a center for boating with a large set of docks and moorings for many different vessels.
We met up with our captain, who works for Algarve Experience, and soon we were chugging out of the harbor watching him slice very small pieces of fish to be used as bait. That should have been a clue.
Ok, Ok, we weren't going to be bringing up any big fish during our morning jaunt. But we did have a lot of fun hauling in five and six-inch fish and enjoying the beauty of the coast from the ocean.
Ready to go!?
Find flights to Portugal via the fantastic Azores Islands on SATA airways. Service from Boston is non-stop to the Azores.
Get a rental car from Auto Europe, and enjoy the freedom of the road all across Portugal.
Algarve Tourism: Find day trips, lodgings and interesting facts about the Algarve on their comprehensive website.
This trip was sponsored in part by our Algarve hosts but the opinions are the author's own.
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.