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Algarve on the water

10th July 2012 Print

Framed by a 200km coastline, the Algarve’s warm waters play a central role in highlighting the history, culture, gastronomy and nature of the region. The Western Algarve, known locally as the Barlavento region, is characterised by golden cliffs with a honeycomb network of caves and rocks carved by the sea. The Eastern Algarve, also known as the Sotavento region, is made up of vast expanses of sandy beach, interrupted only by the Formosa Estuary. From water sports to wildlife to seafood festivals, locals and visitors alike can find a number of ways to experience and appreciate the region’s coast.

From Odeceixe to Vila Real de Santo António, the entire coast enjoys a Mediterranean-style microclimate with temperatures that vary from 15º C in winter through to 30º C in summer and the Algarve’s beaches are not to be missed. The region boasts 74 beaches awarded with Blue Flag status, the highest number of flags in the country, which adhere to 32 separate criteria including environmental education and management, water quality, safety and services. All Blue Flags are only awarded on a season by season basis so beaches must continue to maintain the same standard to keep their Blue Flag status.

While all of the Algarve’s Blue Flag beaches are family-friendly, some also hold further appeal with facilities such as beach tents and water sports schools such as those at Ancão and Quinta do Lago. The calm waters of the east coast beaches of Barril, Tavira, Manta Rota and Altura are perfect for families and are manned by lifeguards while the vast sandy beaches of the central coastline are also popular including Rocha Baixinha, Vale do Lobo, Garrão, Ancão and Quinta do Lago.

With on average 300 days of sunshine a year, the warm waters of the region have provided perfect sailing conditions for centuries. The historical significance of the Algarve’s coast is prominent in the town of Sagres, where Infante D. Henrique (Henry the Navigator) founded a school of navigation during the 15th century instigating an international wave of maritime exploration. Moving east, Henry the Navigator also had a great influence in Lagos which was once an active naval centre and is now an attractive, bustling town. Evidence of its important naval history is still visible today with a large statue of Henry the Navigator gazing out to sea situated in the town’s main square.

The Algarve’s coastline remains popular with sailors today offering a range of stopovers from scenic marinas to quaint fishing villages or simple coves which make pleasant anchorages. The marinas of Portimão, Lagos, Vilamoura, Olhão, Albufeira and Vila Real de Santo Antonio offer lively shops and bars as well as a fine dining experience featuring fresh produce and a stunning Atlantic Ocean backdrop.

The sea is a key source of ingredients for traditional Algarvian cuisine and the annual Festival do Marisco is a paradise for seafood lovers. Held in August each year the festival takes place in the Jardim do Pescador Olhanense in the town of Olhão, just a few kilometres east of Faro. One of the most important gastronomic events in the Algarve calendar, the Festival do Marisco, is an opportunity for local fishermen to proudly display their catch on one of the hundreds of stalls that line the fishing port. Music and folk dancing accompany the festival which offers visitors the chance to sample some of the local delicacies.

More than 70% of the coast is protected nature reserves and the waters of the region’s Natural Parks provide a haven for a variety of wildlife. The Ria Formosa Natural Park is Portugal’s largest protected coastal zone covering over 18,000 hectares and is comprised of sand dunes, marsh lands, lagoons and fresh water lakes. The barrier islands of the Formosa Estuary feature spits of dazzling white sand divided by natural inlets which start at Quinta do Lago, continue all the way through to Faro and Olhão and end in Tavira. The park’s diverse group of inhabitants includes birds, fish, mammals and amphibians and it is famous for bird watching with many birds resting and feeding here during the winter months. Accessible by road or ferry from Faro and Olhão, the park is best explored via traditional fishing boat.

On the coastline facing south, where the sea is calmer and crystal clear, lie sandy beaches with easy access to water sports facilities where thrill-seekers can satisfy their appetite with activities both above and below the water. Popular beaches for water sports include Meia Praia, Praia da Luz (Luz beach), Faro (Faro Island beach), and Ilha de Tavira (Tavira Island).

It’s no surprise that the region’s waters attract divers all year round. For experience divers, Pedra de Âncora is a leading dive site in the region with an enormous reef to explore close to the stunning Praia da Rocha. For a historical dive divers can head to the Vapor das 19 in Sagres, a steam ship wreck from the First World War which lies at 30 metres and the Ocean, a mid-18th century relic from the Battle of Lagos between England and France. Beginners can descend 10 to 15 metres in Pedra da Torre (Lagoa), and rub shoulders with cuttlefish and crabs, or take a fun dive exploring rock formations in Porto de Mós (Lagos) and come face to face with dolphins.

Lagos is also a good spot for wakeboarding which is a combination of water skiing, snowboarding and surfing and involves riding the waves on a wakeboard as you are pulled by a speedboat. Visitors of all skill levels are welcome and lessons are available at the majority of clubs along the coast.

An up-and-coming coastal sport in the Algarve is kite-surfing. The northerly ‘Nortada' wind filters through the mountain range of the Serra de Monchique creating perfect year-round conditions for this sport. For those who prefer just to surf, the Algarve’s rugged western coastline makes it a great sport for surfing. There are many opportunities for all skill levels with surf schools for beginners and surf tours around the coast for the more experienced.

Some of the rock formations in the western Algarve are only accessible by water and visitors can hire state-of-the-art kayaks to explore hidden caves and grottos. From west to east, across the region’s coastline visitors can also enjoy the open sea and try their hands at sport fishing, get the adrenaline pumping on a Jet Ski or inflatable ‘banana’ boat or rent a motorboat to speed up and down the coast taking in the beautiful beaches of the Algarve.

It’s no wonder the Algarve is so proud of its spectacular coastline where a wealth of activities, history and wildlife are waiting to be explored and with 26 UK airports offering direct flights to Faro there’s never been a better time to experience the region first-hand.

For more information on the Algarve, visit /