I’m typing this tanned while still feeling some sand and salt in my now much blonder hair. However, outside of my window I see nothing but gray skies, intermittent rain showers, and people slugging around with jackets, scarves, and umbrellas. Germany sure knows how to welcome a gal home!
Due to Germany’s cold, gloomy weather (and this is mid-June, mind you), I feel extremely fortunate to have had the chance to experience a week in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, the Algarve coast in Portugal. Our week in Portugal was filled with warm, Mediterranean-like weather with no humidity, bright blue skies, gorgeous rocky coastline, silky-soft sand that never seemed to get too hot, crystal clear water that lapped slowly on the beaches, but crashed with dramatic booms on the rocky points. I was definitely in my happy place, here.
The towns we visited in the region were fairly similar to each other all having slick cobbled stone roads, faded red-roofed stucco architecture, brightly colored bougainvillea coating walls and arches, and desert like plants mixed in with palms. I could have stayed in the Algarve for much longer if money and obligations were of no matter.
The Algarve is the southernmost region of Portugal and after our short visit, I can see how a trip here can appease almost any type of traveler. Not only is there a lot of cultural history, but the natural history, geography, flora, and fauna are fascinating! The wine is refreshing, the seafood fresh, the outdoors/active options are extensive, and there is totally some rowdy nightlife to be had in the region’s bigger towns.
Weather & Water Temps
We planned our trip during the 1st week of June which is not yet considered the busy season for the region. Late June and early July start the peak of summer visitors and high temperatures. We were fortunate to have much of the area to ourselves. We were able to drive around the central and western Algarve areas with nonexistent crowds and no wait lists for restaurants, major sites, beaches, or tours.
The weather was fairly consistent throughout the week with a high between 80-85 degrees in the day and about 65-70 in the evenings. The ocean temp was chilly at about 68 degrees, but as a previous resident of San Diego, I still went for a swim. I may have been gasping for breath every time my head went under in cold-shock, but I convinced myself that it was just overly refreshing.
Arrival, Airlines, Rental Car
The flight in took just under three hours and provided us a bonus hour since Portugal is an hour behind Germany. In my opinion, that’s a perfect scenario when taking a vacation to a warm, sunny, beach spot. I’ll take all the extra sun and fun I can get.
TUI is a budget airline with excellent rates and surprisingly good food options on the plane. Vegetarian curry, pasta, sandwiches, and the usual snacks were available, and we purchased the pasta for our son. He happily gobbled it up while we shared a few glasses of very affordable wine and dreamed about our long-lost friend…blue sky.
The Algarve region can be accessed by various modes of transportation, however, we opted for the easiest option: rental car. We rented from Sixt and although this was based on a recommendation for cheap rates, there are a couple small things I’ve given you a heads up on if you plan to do the same.*
If you decide to rent a car in Portugal, I will highly recommend getting the toll scanner as part of your rental. There are unmanned tolls all over the region and if you do not have the scanner, you will be required to pay the full amount via mail within five days of receipt. TripAdvisor has a great, detailed article on this, read here for more info.
My husband and I joined into marriage with some timeshares under our belts and haven’t been able to use them as often as we’d like abroad. The reason is mostly due to limited availability in the locations and times we want to visit. When traveling to surrounding European countries we typically stay in apartments, hostels, and B&Bs because they are affordable, we can be pickier with our timing and location, and because we always travel with our son which creates a whole new list of amenity requests. That being said, finding a timeshare to use in an area we want to visit is the unicorn we’ve been chasing for over three years, and we found him!
Hotel Vila Atlantico is a refurbished hotel near the beach Praia Da Gale in central Algarve. The town is very quiet and there isn’t much nearby as far as nightlife goes, but there are a few beach restaurants and a lounge located on the beach. The hotel is a 40 minute drive from the Faro airport and the closest “big” town is Albufeira. Albufeira is a short drive or cab ride away (about 15 mins or an 8-12 Euro cab ride). It’s known for its touristy draw of nightly live music, shopping, abundant restaurants, and marina which is the hub for oodles of boating tours. There is no shortage of nightlife activity, here.
The hotel is in a wonderful location for families having a huge, sandy beach and grocery store nearby. Both are about a five minute direct walk from the hotel. The children’s pool was excellent with multiple, animal-themed water slides and a fountain in the center. Next to the pool is a small playground and a grassy area for the kids to run around.
Our room was a one bedroom suite with a kitchenette and ocean view balcony. Timeshares with small kitchenettes usually have most of what’s needed when cooking meals at “home”. We made dinners and breakfasts most days throughout the week using fresh, local local ingredients. I absolutely love going to the local grocery stores and markets! I always find such cool stuff and it’s an adventure in experimental cooking for me. I’m a food nerd, I can’t help it. Plus, we saved money and still tried local cuisine during lunches and a couple of dinners out.
A few things to note about the hotel:
- Entertainment schedules were posted up all over the hotel and lasted well into the evening. The entertainment staff in the orange shirts did a great job with the kids by having games set up by the pool, a reptile experience, and by always engaging the guests in their activities. Not much in the evening hotel entertainment for adults that we saw, however, we didn’t really stay too long to find out. We spent most of our evenings in the room or at nearby Albufeira checking out the live music.
- For ocean view, book on at least the 2nd floor and above. We stayed in room 210 and had a gorgeous view!
- There is a restaurant on-site and breakfast buffet is available for 10 Euro. We didn’t eat at the restaurant, but the menu looked great and people seemed pleased enough to purchase the all-inclusive option. Room service is available until 12am…we know this because french fries and wine appeared at our door a couple of times after the little prince knocked out.
The hotel’s website is very helpful and they respond fairly quickly to emails.
Hotel Vila Atlantico: http://www.vilagale.com/en/hotels/algarve/vila-gale-atlantico
What We Did
Took a boat ride to see the caves, a must do. Pre-baby we would have probably opted for a kayak or a more athletic adventure, but post-baby, this was the best option. We paid 26 Euro plus an extra 5 Euro to sit on top of the boat and get a private guide to explain the geology and history to us. Drinks and snacks were sold on-board and were very affordable. We were able to bring water and small snacks on-board for our ever growing, non-stop eating machine. The tour lasted about 3 hours and the guides were knowledgable, goofy, and kind to our son. Highly recommend! http://www.algarexperience.com/en/
Visited the town and castle of Silves. The moorish castle is the best preserved in the Algarve and fun (but slightly precarious) for little ones to explore. Silves has many cute alleys to explore, a town center with great restaurants and wine tasting booths (and wifi!), a beautiful cathedral, and a newly paved riverfront for strolls. Silves is a quick drive from anywhere in the central/western Algarve with plenty of free street parking. More about the town: http://www.silvesuncovered.com
Shopped for pottery in Porches. Portugal has a gorgeously varied amount of pottery and as a huge fan of functional art, I had to visit the town of Porches to browse the shops scattered about. There are pottery studios and shops throughout the Algarve, but a the concentration of them are located in Porches, which is very close to Silves. This is a great blog post about the region’s pottery: http://www.azores-adventures.com/2015/02/the-pottery-of-portugal-a-world-of-color-and-style.html
Visited the lighthouse and what was once thought to be the end of the world, Cabo de São Vicente. Extensive trails (bike and foot) lead all around these amazingly steep and rugged cliffs. The lighthouse is one of the most powerful in Europe sitting atop of a 16th century convent. The history goes back thousands of years and the Romans considered this a holy place where the sun sank into the sea at the end of the day: the end of the world. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_St._Vincent If you look over the edge, you might get to see determined, crazy (or brave?) fisherman throwing lines off the high edges. It was way too nerve-wracking for me to watch them, but I did gaze out at that sea for a good amount of time while my son napped in the car. If you enjoy rugged nature, the power of the ocean, and centuries of history, make sure you don’t miss this spot.
Toured the caves and beaches on the north side of Lagos. We only just drove through the city of Lagos. We decided not to stop since it was a bit too busy and overwhelming for us at the time. It’s a huge tourist destination and was filled with ample shopping opportunities, a marina for boat tours, and plenty of beaches. The beaches north of the city were rugged and exciting to explore since they were all connected by worn through caves in the cliffs. We really enjoyed clambering through the tide pools and rocks as each new “portal” we crossed through gave way to a new beautiful view. Be careful around here at high tide! Lagos: http://www.lagosportugalguide.com/index.html
Fell in love at the awesomeness that is Ponte Piedade. The Ponta da Piedade (Mercy Point) lies 3km to the south of Lagos. There is a road that leads there (I used my phone to navigate) and ends at the lighthouse with a large, free parking lot. To get to the bottom, you will need to climb down a flight of 182 steps (and then back up!) so consider how you want to approach the point. Plenty can be seen from the first few flights, but the other option is to start at the marina and rent a fishing boat to get up close and personal from the sea. If you are in awe of nature as much as I am, this is another don’t miss. Trip Advisor reviews, here: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g189117-d1755231-Reviews-Ponta_da_Piedade-Lagos_Faro_District_Algarve.html
Explored the small, bustling tourist town of Albufeira. We decided to head the short drive over to Albufeira one night and were pleasantly surprised. So much that we headed back the next night. The city was much more quaint than I had expected with smooth cobbled roads, funky boutiques mixed in with tourist shops, a seemingly endless supply of restaurants ranging from local seafood to Indian, and plenty of entertainment. Almost every other bar had signs announcing live music which made staying for a few hours an easy family decision. Live music was blaring through the streets, people were lively and friendly, and the atmosphere was fun and festive. I didn’t think it was overly crowded, but the latest we stayed until was 11pm. I’m sure like most beach towns, the tide shifts after then. http://www.albufeira.com
A few more notes…
Vegetarian friendly?: Eh, not really. Not in my opinion. I did have some wonderful salads and my husband raved about the seafood, however, at most spots the only vegetarian friendly stuff we could find was grilled cheese, salad, or pasta, it was all quite redundant.
Wine? YES YES YES! Portugal is well-known for Ports, but there are so many more varieties. Wine and Port tasting is available throughout the region and the spot we tried in Albufeira was excellent. As for Beaux at Adega 31, he was the best!
One of my new favorite summer wines is now the Vinho Verde. It’s a young, white wine with a bit of bubbles and fairly low alcohol content (think 8-10%). Thankfully, it can be purchased in grocery stores in Germany for the same price in Portugal (2-5 Euro), so I only lugged one brand I hadn’t seen before back in my luggage, Aveleda.
Affordable? Yes, absolutely, with both merchandise and dining. In the bigger cities like Albufeira and Lagos the prices are much higher and I feel the quality goes down. The drinks and food we had in Albufeira were definitely not as good as what we had in Silves and in Gale, and the prices were sometimes tripled. There are fish shacks and small snack shops all over Algarve which I highly recommend trying. We had some wonderful pastries, local dishes, and drinks for only a few Euro once we got off the beaten track. That’s pretty much the same all over the world, though.
I highly recommend the Algarve for so many reasons and if you love the beachy outdoors, do not miss this place! Hiking, biking trails, kayaking, family fun (several theme parks are also in the region!), surfing, paddle boarding, and beach bathing are only some of the many things to be experienced here. Loved it!
* We pre-paid and pre-ordered our car on their website along with a car seat selected for my son’s weight. Once we arrived, the wait was extremely long, we had to wait for their attendant to get the car seat (which was in a different town), and noticed upon departure we were double charged for the car seat. We assumed this may have been a one-off mistake until we chatted it up with another couple. They were also stuck waiting with their toddler in the hot parking lot after a flight for a car seat they had pre-ordered. If someone pre-orders the car seat and all extras on the website (which is very specific, mind you) wouldn’t the car company do best to have these items installed and waiting for pick up?
Regarding the long wait time…we weren’t sure why the wait was so long since there were several attendants…however once we arrived at the clerk, the process that we completed on their website seemed to be pointless as we had to re-do all of the same info and paperwork on-site. We also had to dodge and decline several add-ons they continued to push on us.
These aren’t huge issues at all, but I wanted to fully disclose my experience just in case you decide to go with Sixt and are traveling with children. Hopefully this will help you be prepared for a long possible wait in the heat. Bring snacks and games!