The next Florida

Looking to escape winter's blast? Consider Portugal. It's historic, warm — and amazingly affordable.

Let me say, right off the bat, that there’s nothing wrong with Florida. I like orange trees, Disney World and spring training. I’m even okay with early bird dinner specials and mega-mall excursions. But what I can’t abide is the cost of this plastic paradise. Especially as the Canadian dollar has headed south, Canadians themselves have been forced to stay north.

So can I suggest an alternative? Portugal is beautiful, warm, historic ? and amazingly cheap. A mere $1,679 will buy you a month of European indulgence in the country’s Algarve region, including flight, rental car and fully equipped apartment. That’s considerably less than you would pay simply to rent a condo for a month in Orlando ? without a car or a plane ride thrown in.

If you’ve been curtailing your winter vacations in the southern U.S. because of the struggling loonie, Portugal may be the answer to your prayers. The Algarve has its share of malls and golf courses, but it also boasts tiny fishing villages, gorgeous cities and spectacular scenery. Thanks to the number of British tourists who frequent the area, English is widely spoken in restaurants and shops. After spending a month there this past year, my husband Bill and I found that we preferred the Algarve’s rustic European ambience to the American “all-you-can-eat-have-a nice-day” mentality. We also discovered that we could dine out on freshly grilled fish and delicious vinho verde for the price of a burger and Coke in the States.

The Algarve coast stretches about 150 kilometres along the Atlantic Ocean from the Spanish border to Cape St. Vincent, the most southwesterly point in Europe. And what a picture postcard of coastline it is ? a series of tranquil sandy coves fringed by clear turquoise waters. Huge ochre rock formations resembling sponge toffee soar out of the sea. In summer, this playground is packed but in the winter and spring the beaches are blissfully empty. The average daily temperature from November to March is 18 degrees ? ideal for sightseeing and golf but a bit nippy for an ocean plunge.

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.

Our vacation was so cheap we had no problem justifying extended jaunts to Lisbon and Sintra. You would have to be hopelessly unromantic not to be smitten by Sintra’s mossy winding lanes, misty mountains and fairy tale castles. No wonder the poet Lord Byron loved it.

To get the lay of the land in Lisbon, we hopped aboard historic tram 28 and rattled and lurched up and down the oldest quarters, a medieval jumble of Moorish alleys, cafés and laundry hanging from ancient balconies. Then we hiked up to the belvedere of São Jorge castle for a panoramic view.

Never have I visited a cleaner country. Even in bustling Lisbon, the streets were litter-free. I spied a woman mopping the cobblestones in front of a church and another up on a ladder in a gas station scrubbing the toilet sign.

So is there any drawback to Portugal? Just one that I discovered. The Portuguese word for diesel fuel is gasoleo. It sounded like gasoline and the nozzle fit into the fuel tank. Let’s just say that the car rental company was not amused.

Getting There

JM Vacations Ltd. ( is the leader in organizing long-stay packages in Portugal and Spain. Two-week deals, including Air Transat charter flights from Toronto to Faro and accommodation start at $1229; eight weeks start at $2499. Some packages include a car rental for part of the stay; for those who prefer not to drive, transfers to and from the hotel and shuttles to beaches and towns are often included. Independent travelers tend to opt for an equipped apartment or villa where they can cook or dine out. Others prefer all-inclusive packages that include activities, breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets with local wine, beer and spirits, plus snacks.