Home Grown Charm of Portugal’s Sun-Soaked South Coast

There’s more to The Algarve than golf courses, writes Heidi McAlpin

“There’s more to the Algarve than golf”, suggests convivial tour guide Antonio as he leads us through bustling Faro Market. Monstrous tuna heads and writhing snails battle for our attention as we head for a most unassuming restaurant, the owners of which look like traditional Portuguese grandparents straight out of central casting.

And that’s what’s so charming about Antonio’s ‘Eating Algarve Food Tours’, a business he established to showcase the authentic epicurean side of Portugal’s sun-soaked south coast. As Antonio begins to ladle out the homemade fish and potato soup, owner Custódio bustles across to take over serving duties. “I love this soup,” Antonio adds with a dreamy look in his eye. “It’s just like my mother used to make.” Several hours and a platter of pit stops later, and we are well and truly replete with the freshest seafood served with a side order of Algarvean history.

And that is exactly what Antonio is working hard to achieve. Yes, we all know Algarve for its golf resorts and party venues, but scratch the surface and the region reveals another side designed to woo couples and friends demanding more from their sunshine break. A week in Albufeira was an impromptu treat for myself and husband Ray, having been before with our young children.

This time, kids safely ensconced with granny, we were determined to see more of the area than a self-contained holiday resort and clamour of neon-clad nightclubs. Imagine our surprise, then, when we reached Oura, a beach destination a short stroll from Albufeira itself. As the taxi passed a cacophony of bars pumping out retro pop, my memory regressed to our previous trip. But once we arrived at our hotel, a dreamy oasis of tranquillity spread out before us. It truly was the calm within the chaos.

One of the area’s few seafront hotels, the Grand Muthu Oura View Beach Club makes the most of its enviable position. A fabulous oval pool reaches out to refreshing Atlantic waves, with only the pristine golden sand of Oura beach breaking the beguiling blue palette of pool, sea and sky. Like most of the rooms at this large resort, ours comes bedecked with that Insta-friendly sea view, as well as a small kitchen, seating area and wallow-inducing bed. The ‘wow’ factor continues with glossy marble floor, mosaic-tiled walk-in shower and luxe velvet armchairs.

Unlike Oura’s famous party ‘strip’ of bars, nightclubs and fast food outlets, the hotel’s ‘no stags and hens’ policy ensures families and quieter couples can enjoy a fantastic beachside stay within walking distance of vibrant Albufeira and its quaint Old Town. Which, after a refreshing dip in the pool, is where we headed in search of an authentic watering hole of a different kind. Anyone who has been to Albufeira will know that it is Portugal’s answer to Magaluf.

Put it this way, you’ll not die of thirst. And if you fancy a souvenir tattoo, there are plenty of parlours primed to ink your sunburnt canvas. Undaunted, we were on the lookout for a more sedate stopover which was soon discovered at Sal Rosa, a bijou Portuguese bar overlooking Albufeira’s magnificent beach (does the Algarve have any beaches that aren’t magnificent?). Two cool pints of local beer and a seafood tapas of octopus and sardines later, and we were living the Algarve of our dreams. And we’re not alone. A recent survey has shown more of us are choosing holiday destinations for the local food they offer. Away from the full English Fries and belly-busting kebabs, Albufeira has some of the finest seafood this side of Portavogie.

As well as our delicious afternoon tapas, later that week we dined at A Ruina, a renowned seafood restaurant. Set within the ruins of an 8th century castle tower, its marine bounty hails from the sea that laps its solid walls. It’s not cheap, but the prawns, squid, mackerel and seabass nestling on their icy bed surely deserve a send-off befitting their culinary status. We duly obliged, aided and abetted by an agreeable bottle of Algarvean white. Keeping with the maritime theme, no visit to the Algarve is complete without a boat tour along its captivating coastline. Dream Wave Algarve is one of many companies that whisk you along this stunning shoreline necklaced with limestone caves, arches and stacks carved by the Atlantic’s relentless tide.

As well as darting you through these natural wonders, their ‘Caves and Dolphin Watching’ tour also teases a glimpse of everyone’s favourite aquatic mammal. “The dolphins are wild, so we may not see them,” concedes our honest guide. But, with several boats on the lookout, ours made a beeline well off-shore to witness a pod of these graceful creatures cavorting in the ocean without a care in the world. It was an amazing sight to end our Algarve adventure that took us off the beaten path and into the authentic side of southern Portugal. And before you think we abstained from the full-on Albufeira experience, Ancona Cocktail Bar’s ABBA Tribute night had us sipping pina coladas and dancing into the wee small hours with the best of them. At least we didn’t come home with a dolphin tattoo.

ALGARVE IN A NUTSHELL: For an authentic taste of the Algarve visit eatingalgarvetours.com Get up close with dolphins and explore the coastline with dreamwavealgarve.com Find out more about the region at visitalgarve.pt. Heidi and Ray flew from Belfast to Faro with Jet2 and stayed at MGM Mutha Oura View Beach Club with loveholidays.com.