The next Florida

Bill and I flew to Faro and drove our rental car to Vitor’s Plaza, a complex of five apartment buildings built around a swimming pool. Our unit was comfortable and clean, with a balcony overlooking the pool. It came complete with kitchen, living room with television and phone, bedroom, bathroom with tub and shower and maid service five times per week. We were about one kilometre from the beach and just a jog down the road to Alvor, a little fishing village.

Alvor was chock-a-block with cheap and cheerful restaurants, pottery shops and British pubs. At dusk, fishermen started barbecuing their catch of the day. Women in black leaned from their windows to gossip and hang laundry. The whiff of charcoal filled the air.

We followed our noses to a tidy little place where Papa was out on the street basting his churrasco grilled chicken with hot Piri-Piri sauce. Inside, Mama was adjusting the television to tune in the soccer match for her patrons. While Bill waited for the crispy bird, I went around the corner for some hot cornbread and a bottle of wine. The most expensive bottle in the store was about $7. Other than Mateus (which even the locals call plonk), we found Portuguese wine to be delicious and cheap. We took our little feast back to our hotel balcony to watch the sunset. Grand total for dinner was $12.

Most nights we dined out. A dinner for two with plentiful portions, a bottle of good wine and a nip of Port set us back less than $35. The majority of the tourists in the Algarve are German or British, so most menus are written in three languages.

During the day, we’d jump into the car and go exploring. The Algarve is dotted with towns, some more modern and touristy than others. Some, like sprawling Portimão, were obviously slapped together by greedy developers. But there are many gems. One morning we drove inland along winding country roads past fragrant groves of orange trees to sleepy Silves, once the capital of the Algarve during the Moorish occupation. We walked along the ramparts of an old red-stoned castello, then stopped for coffee at the town square surrounded by flowering almond trees. Just as charming was Lagos, with its well-preserved old quarter, complete with fort, cobblestoned pedestrian streets and a myriad of inviting cafés and shops.

When we weren’t visiting historic towns, we were hitting the links. The Algarve boasts about 30 courses. Our favourite was the Royal at Vale de Lobo, where hole number 16, a par three set atop spectacular steep red cliffs, is the most photographed in Europe.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

From the February/March 2003 issue.

Subscribe to MoneySense magazine