By Pete Wolstencroft
I had booked a meal in a restaurant with a romantic setting to celebrate a special anniversary. I wanted somewhere quiet. My wife and I were the only diners, so that was one wish granted. I also wanted something a little different. That was when the container ship hoved into view, passing so close to us that we could make out individual barnacles clinging to its grimy hull. Wish number two: granted.
The venue for our special meal was the Restaurant Estaminé on Ilha Deserta, a short boat ride from Faro harbour. If ever a place was accurately named, this has to be it. One of a chain of barrier islands that protect the westernmost tip of the Algarve from the worst of the Atlantic storms, and the only truly uninhabited island in the group.
These secluded sandbars are part of a fascinating ecosystem that makes up the Ria Formosa Natural Park. Once the current pandemic is over and, hopefully, a distant memory, if you have not been to this part of Portugal, drop everything and go. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
Nature lovers will find a protected, pristine wilderness where the birdlife is exceptional, in terms of both variety and sheer numbers. Snowy white spoonbills compete with rosy flamingos for dining space in the shallows of the estuaries and creeks that make up the park. There are thousands of white storks and any number of busy little waders scurrying about in search of the various shrimps and worms that populate the shallow seas. The vast majority of the shellfish consumed in Portugal is harvested in these waters.
If you have not been to this part of Portugal, drop everything and go.
All of these offshore islands have stunning beaches. The sand is the colour of mother of pearl and the shallow waters are warm well into the autumn. In the height of summer, these beaches are as busy as you might expect them to be. They really come into their own in December and January, when you are unlikely to have to share them with anybody else and the only footprints on the beach are those you have made.
Judging by the vast number of shells washed up on these shores, the waters must be free from any major pollution, as most shellfish are filter feeders and thus act as a sort of canary in the coalmine: fewer shellfish equals more pollutants.
In such a location, seafood is a good bet when dining out. Sardines are probably the most well-known piscine offering, but for the adventurous, there are cataplanas: stews of pork and clams cooked in the eponymous copper pans. Or you might want to try a tasty dish of rice with razor clams. Not for you? Then why not take on a tempting Açorda stew, made with bread, eggs and mussels. If you order it for lunch, you may as well cancel dinner, because you certainly will have neither the room nor the appetite to eat another morsel.
Faro is not only the capital of the Algarve, but also the gateway to it for foreign visitors. The airport is surrounded by marshes, and the views offered from the air are fabulous – whether arriving or leaving. The shame is that most visitors pick up their luggage and head for the big resorts further east. By doing this, they are missing out. Faro itself is a charming and laid-back town. If you need a bit of retail therapy, there are plenty of stylish shops on its busy streets. If, like me, your more pressing concerns are those around food and drink, you would be hard pressed to find a bad restaurant. The last time I was there, I had a splendid meal of roasted kid. Culinary experts reckon it is much tastier than lamb.
But if you want to really get to know this part of the world, I suggest you make your base in Olhão. Let me make it clear right from the off. Olhão is not some sort of Portuguese version of St Tropez or Portofino. This is a working port. It might be a bit rough and ready, but it has an undeniable, utilitarian charm. Allow me to illustrate with a story…
My wife and I can both speak a bit of Portuguese (I confess, she is much better than I am), so when we saw a down home establishment on the sea front offering coelho frito, we reckoned a bit of fried rabbit would be just the ticket for a December lunch. We ordered two portions and a bottle of local red wine. The proprietor – a robust woman in her sixties – duly brought out a large platter of rabbit and chips. A while later she appeared again with another platter and an apology for having served such a measly portion at the first time of asking. I had not thought the original offering to be anything other than gargantuan. So with the sun shining and spirits high we thought a local brandy might be a pleasant way to round off the meal. As the sun showed no signs of retiring for the day, we ordered a couple more brandies and set about some serious people watching. The bill, when it finally came – the princely sum of 20 euros.
We reckoned a bit of fried rabbit would be just the ticket.
I should, given the time of year, return to more romantic themes. This western part of the Algarve is perfect for amorous getaways. The villages and towns of the hilly interior, such as Silves and Estoi, are full of history and interesting architecture. If you can muster up a few words of Portuguese, you will be treated like a member of the family by all and sundry.
You might even like to treat yourself to a stay in a state run poussada, such as the one in Estoi, where the outside world seems but a distant memory and the service is amazing. For some people romance means roses and candlelight, but there are those for whom it means absorbing the atmosphere of a truly timeless place – like the western Algarve.