Portugal's Algarve Coast: Where small is beautiful

Magnificent golf is only the beginning of The Algarve's many attractions.
December 01, 2009
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.
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If you have been incessantly looking through travel magazines, searching through tourist office brochures, questioning your travel agent, asking your friends and browsing the internet, all in quest of a special destination for your next vacation, chances are you may have been missing one of the very best.

Portugal, one of Europe's oldest nation states, may also be one of its most under-recognized and totally, unappreciated, at least from this side of the Atlantic Ocean. No country has as rich a history, nor as fascinating a culture as Europe's westernmost nation, despite its small size and population of only 10.5 million - few countries of Western Europe remain as unfamiliar to Americans. If, as the saying goes, precious things come in small packages, then never were these words of wisdom as true as they are in the case of this utterly charming country

Anyone who gets to know Portugal will discover a friend for life and for golfers the friendship is more likely to become a passionate love affair. With more than 70 world-class golf courses, little Portugal has developed into one of Europe's premiere golf destinations and nowhere is this more evident than along the southernmost region, known as The Algarve.

This gorgeous, 90-mile stretch of sun-drenched Atlantic coastline, set against a backdrop of impressive mountains and rural countryside, contains more than half of Portugal's courses, including some of the very best, not only in the country, but in all of Europe.

It's often difficult to convince those unfamiliar with Portugal, just how good the golf is, especially if the courses do not have household names, so look at the proof.

A few years ago, noted America golf journalist, Jeff Barr, published a book entitled, "1001 Golf holes you must play before you die", 21 of the holes described in this fascinating book, are to be found on Portuguese courses, more than any other country on Continental Europe, and all except one of these layouts, are located along The Algarve coast.

There's good reason why The European PGA Tour, regularly schedules important tournaments here and why members of the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO) the golf travel industry's global trade association and a group that knows their golf very well, recently voted The Algarve as their, Golf Destination of the Year.

Everyone agrees, golf on The Algarve is very special, only made all the more so by the never-ending array of other distractions, certain to appeal to any vacationer, whether they are golfers or not.

The climate is as close to perfect as can be found in this world, with clear, sunny blue skies all but guaranteed for 320 days of the year. In July and August, the warmest months of summer, temperatures rarely reach much above the mid-80's. Even during the coolest months of December and January, the lowest temperatures seldom drop below the mid 60's. Golf and other outdoor activities are a 12-month a year affair and the stunning golf courses and pristine beaches, constantly washed by the crystal-clear Atlantic Ocean, are there to be enjoyed year round.

With some 36 layouts sharing The Algarve coastline, each one of them calling out to be played, the serious golfers will want to get down to business as quickly as possible, squeezing in as many rounds as they are able. Most of the courses are located conveniently close to each other and for the ambitious, 36-hole days are easily accomplished. But save some time to explore and experience the many other attractions of The Algarve - even the most ardent golfer will discover, they are every bit as enticing as the golf. Remember, this is a vacation and with the easy going, relaxed atmosphere of The Algarve, it's just as important to slow down, forget time for a while and simply kick back and do nothing at all but smell the roses and watch the world go by.

The Algarve is synonymous with the good life and an important part of good living is eating and drinking well and nobody knows and enjoys good food and wine as much as Algarveans. Spoiled for restaurants, the dining possibilities along this picture postcard coastline seem endless, ranging from the fanciest of haute cuisine establishments to far simpler, family run restaurants, favored by the locals. This is where some of the tastiest regional dishes can be experienced. Modest, very reasonably priced and always friendly, it's likely to be in these small restaurants where you will enjoy some of your finest meals and gain the fondest memories of The Algarve.

It may be golf that attracted you to The Algarve, but don't miss the opportunity to discover at least some of the fascinating history and culture of the region that abounds. It's all close to the courses you want to play, so turning a half day golf excursion into a full day of golf and sightseeing is about as easy and convenient as it could possibly be.

If you are playing courses at the western end of The Algarve, such as Palmares, Penina, the Pestana Carvoeiro golf complex or Margado do Reguengo, don't miss visiting, awe-inspiring, Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape St. Vincent) Europe's southwesternmost point. Once thought to be the end of the world, this blustery headland of soaring cliffs, spectacular rock formations and superb sandy beaches, was the last piece of home 15th century Portuguese discoverers saw as they sailed off into the unknown. Nearby is the small town of Sagres where Prince Henry the Navigator founded the first school of navigation in 1419.

Explore the bustling, historic town of Lagos -- conquered by Arabs in the 8th century, the old town, complete with ancient walls and a fort, originally built by the Phoenicians, is fascinating.

For another aspect of The Algarve, venture inland a few miles, to the Serra de Monchique, the impressive mountain range that watches protectively over the shoreline. The lush vegetation, brilliant flowers, refreshing mountain air and spectacular landscapes are in total contrast to the coast. Dotted with intriguing small towns and villages, the Roman spa of Caldas de Monchique and bustling little market town of Monchique are especially delightful.

The ancient Moorish capital of Silves is a must see for every visitor. Though little remains of the grandeur of Silves' magnificent architecture, once reputed to exceed that of even Lisbon, the surviving city walls and Moorish castle are worth the diversion and easily accessed from anywhere along the coast.

If the focus of your golf is on the central and eastern Algarve where names such as Vilamoura, Vale do Lobo, Quinta do Lago, Quinta do Vale and Castro Marim will be among the main golf attractions, there are many more sightseeing temptations. Not the least of these is the capital, Faro, with its fetching harbor area and charming small Old Quarter, both of which invite exploration.

It's only a little further east along the coast, to reach Tavira, considered the most beautiful town in the Algarve. Straddling the River Gilao, the two halves of the town are linked by a pair of bridges, one dating from Roman times. Filled with ancient palaces, riverside restaurants and no less than 30 churches, Tavira is one of those irresistible places where a few hours spent exploring the nooks and crannies of the town will prove fascinating for all.

The easternmost reaches of The Algarve, reveal the Portugal of yester-year, where small hamlets and fishing villages with their traditional, blue and white cottages, dot the landscape. Especially worth visiting is the picturesque seaside village of Cacela Velha, which even today remains totally untouched by time. Follow the River Guadiana, Portugal's natural border with Spain, just a few miles inland to discover the utterly charming small town of Alcoutim. Occupied over the centuries by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and of course, the Moors, this little gem has an amazingly rich and colorful history to tell every curious visitor.

But perhaps that is the real Portugal and Algarve story, a small but totally fascinating part of the world, which has always kept a low, unassuming profile, yet beneath the modest exterior lies a wealth of history, culture and pure delight, seldom found in today's world. For those who take the time to discover this unpretentious jewel, the rewards will be immeasurable.

For more ideas and suggestions on discovering the best of Portugal's Algarve Coast, whether golf will be involved or not, click here.

©2009 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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