Cabanas Beach in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

A relaxing weekend in the Eastern Algarve

We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to find a thick blanket of fog hanging over all of Porto. Sleepily, we went through the motions. Shower, last-minute packing, grab the free soap, scour the Airbnb for anything left behind. We donned our warmest clothes–jeans, hoodies, flannel–but still winced when we opened the door and a rush of chilly, damp air greeted us.

We sped north in the dark, barely registering the Italian pop music blaring from our cab’s speakers. The train station was sterile, cramped and barely open at this early hour. Our hopes of grabbing a hot coffee at the snack stand were immediately dashed.

But we didn’t care much. After all, we were on our way to the Algarve.

Anyone who knows a little about Portugal’s southern coastline probably hears the word “Algarve” and immediately conjures mental images of Cancún-like resorts and thumping clubs packed with European twentysomethings.

But the truth is, the Algarve contains multitudes. Sure, in the height of summer, the central region’s countless resorts and overpriced pubs fill up with holidaymakers. But travel far enough east or west and you’ll find wild landscapes, untouched beaches and blissful quiet…sometimes even in August.

Frankly, our last days in Porto had been so cold that I probably wouldn’t have cared if the beach we picked was strewn with red cups and coeds, so long as it was warm. But in retrospect, I’m glad we traveled off the beaten path in search of peace…because we found it in spades.

Cabanas Beach in the Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

We’d found Forte de São João da Barra in a hotel search many, many months before our trip, and we couldn’t let it go. The 17th-century fort’s quiet, whitewashed austerity was unique and beautiful. Its location, right along the water and wildlife of the Ria Formosa Natural Park and a two-minute boat ride away from an expansive island beach, was perfect. And the others who had visited, judging by their reviews, seemed a lot like us–people looking for a mix of culture, nature and good old-fashioned beachgoing.

Our stay at the fort was by far our biggest splurge in Portugal. In a country where $60 buys you a night at a small, stylish Airbnb in a nice neighborhood, we felt a little silly plunking down more than twice that.

Until we arrived.

Front door of the Forte de Sao Joao da Barra in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

The front door looks giant…until you realize it’s actually the tiny metal one on the bottom left.

The minute we stepped through the (comically tiny) front door and gazed out at the sun-soaked courtyard, I swear I felt my whole body relax. The whole place was still, save for some palm trees rustling in the breeze. Everything was simple and spare–an old well in the center, some fading bougainvillea creeping up the stone wall of the main house, not much else. There were no car horns or children’s voices, no music or sirens. For a moment, it was as if we were the only two people in the world.

Courtyard of the Forte de Sao Joao da Barra in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Ian Bishop

Photo by Ian Bishop

Then we met Cecilia, the hotel manager and the sassy grandmother you always wanted. We were too early for check-in, but she ushered us into a room anyway. (“Where are your bags? What, that’s it?” she said as she spied our two backpacks.) A half hour of chatting later, we were up to speed on local land disputes, in the know about the best restaurants in town and furnished with towels and umbrellas for the beach.

There were only a few hours of sunlight left, so we headed straight to the sand. In high season, the hotel ferries passengers over to the beach on its own boat. But we were there in low season, so instead we walked five minutes west to catch the town ferry, which pretty much operates on demand as long as the weather’s good and there’s no Primeira Liga football on TV. (Seriously.)

The boat ride took all of 90 seconds and docked at the barrier island’s north side. After a short walk on an elevated ramp through grassy dunes, we grabbed beers at the subdued snack shack and set up camp on a sparsely populated stretch of sand.

Elevated walkway to the beach from Cabanas town, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill KimballBoats along the elevated walkway to the beach from Cabanas town, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

A couple of blissful hours later, we headed back to the fort to watch the sky darken from the old battlements, now used exclusively for lounging and pool swimming rather than for defense. I put down my book and just stared ahead, still captivated by the place’s eerie calm.

Once we’d worked up an appetite, we strolled down the town boardwalk to a no-frills seafood restaurant Cecilia had recommended. It was probably the least touristy dinner we’d experienced thus far, and for that we were grateful: We actually got to practice speaking some Portuguese!

The next morning, we found the outdoor breakfast area deserted save for one other guest. We happily sipped coffee and juice and munched on fruit, yogurt, bread, cheese and sweet treats at a table overlooking the water, laughing at the reviews that had complained the breakfast selection wasn’t adequate.

 

View from the breakfast area at Forte de Sao Joao da Barra, Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Ian Bishop

Photo by Ian Bishop

It was another warm, sunny day, so we immediately set off to the beach again. The wind was strong that day, though, so we set up towels and snacks farther inland among the sand dunes, where the gusts were nothing more than light breezes. It was the perfect setting for a lazy day of swimming, reading, napping and making shell art.

Once my skin was good and crispy (whoops), we crossed the water back into town to secure a dinner reservation at Noelia & Jeronimo’s, the best restaurant in town and quite possibly the entire region. If you visit Cabanas without eating here, you’re doing life wrong. We had squid-topped risotto and seared tuna on mango rice, respectively, and it was pure heaven. We both agreed it was the best dinner we had in Portugal.

Our third day at the fort was cool and cloudy. We skipped the beach–the ferry probably wasn’t running anyway–in favor of a day trip to nearby Tavira. This charming cobblestoned town is effectively the capital of the Eastern Algarve, and it’s a pleasure to get lost in the small maze of streets here.

Street in the town of Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

A light rain started to fall as we left the train station, so we killed some time by ducking into some cute gift shops on Rua Liberdade. After the rain passed, we explored the attractive main square, Praça da República. The cobbled amphitheater and stately stone bridge matched the steely sky, and the pool-like fountain seemed piercingly blue in such gloomy light.

Fountain at Praca da Liberdade in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball
Ponte Romana in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

As we wandered through a nice public garden, sun-induced sleepiness from the day before began to take hold. We were determined to see more, though, and after a quick espresso, we set our sights on the highest point in town.

Stairs to the castle in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball.

Tavira’s castle dates back to the 1200s, but it’s not much more than a few ruined walls these days, thanks to the 1755 earthquake that also wiped out Lisbon. There’s not much of the castle itself to see, but the view from the top can’t be beat, and the gardens inside are lovely.

As we wound our way back down through the town’s quaint tangle of lanes, we grew even more tired and resolved to leave soon. But there was one more thing I had to see before we went, and it was a bit off the beaten path.

Biblioteca Municipal dos Campos Alvaros in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

Tavira’s Biblioteca Municipal Álvaro de Campos isn’t your average public library…because it used to be the town prison. About a decade ago, the long-neglected building’s cell walls were knocked down to make room for a large, light-filled book gallery. Its stern front facade still stands and today serves as a noise-blocking cafe courtyard. The new entrance’s corten steel and glass design works so well with the original facade–both are minimal and angular, unobtrusive yet statement-making. The architect apparently wanted his remodel to be like a book itself: attractive enough on the cover to draw inital attention, but enigmatic enough to pull the reader in long-term.

Tavira's public library used to be the town jail. Photo by Jill Kimball

By now, we admitted to ourselves that it was time for a nap. We headed back to the fort for a few hours of much-needed rest–including, for me, a relaxing bath.

That third night in town was eerily quiet, even by Cabanas standards: Bad weather really does seem to shut the whole place down. We passed absolutely no one on the way to dinner, so it was surprising to find our restaurant of choice, Cecilia’s third and final recommendation, not only open but also buzzing with business. We were thrilled we finally had an opportunity to order the seafood cataplana, an Algarve specialty. The giant stew, which typically contains three or four types of whatever seafood is freshest that day and some hearty vegetables, arrived at our table piping hot and still in its round copper pot, as is tradition. We ate happily until we couldn’t move.

Cataplana at a restaurant in Cabanas, Algarve, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

And just like that, our time in the Eastern Algarve was at an end. In retrospect, I could have spent a week here, rain or shine; there are so many charming towns, beautiful beaches and natural wonders to explore. I hope we’re back someday.

Photo by Ian Bishop

READ NEXT: Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

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Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Sure, the water isn’t as clear and warm as it is in the Maldives. True, the sand isn’t as white and powdery as it is in the Caribbean. But you’d be hard pressed to find a sight more magnificent than the beaches of Lagos.

While planning our honeymoon, my husband and I struggled to figure out which Algarve destination was right for us. We’d read that major destinations such as Lagos and Albufeira attracted loud, hard-partying spring-breaker types and were built up so densely with resorts that they’d lost a lot of their charm. By contrast, the eastern coast was still relatively quiet, attracting mostly families and older couples in search of lazy beach days and bird-watching.

Given that this was the one and only relaxing leg of our trip, finding the perfect quiet beach was our number one priority. If I’m being honest, avoiding drunken college kids was priority number two. I knew in my gut that the towns east of Faro would be best, but my heart ached at the thought of missing the western Algarve’s stunning sandstone cliffs.

Sandstone cliffs of Lagos, Portugal

So we came up with a compromise. Instead of traveling to just one place for five days, we split up our coastal time into three parts: three days of beach-bumming in sleepy Cabanas, one day kayaking in scenic Lagos, and one day sightseeing in Faro, where we’d catch a direct train to Lisbon the next morning.

Let me tell you something you’ve probably already figured out: One day in Lagos is not enough! I mean, how was I supposed to tear my eyes away from this view after less than 24 hours?

Sunset at Ponte da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

Because our time here was limited, we thought we’d make the most of the town’s best feature–those gorgeous cliffs–by getting out on the open water. And what better way to do so than on a kayak?

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

A three-hour kayak and snorkel tour with Kayak Adventures Lagos was pretty much the only activity we booked in advance of our trip. Typically, we like to play things by ear, sketching out a tentative itinerary and adjusting according to the weather, our mood and other factors. But we West Coast natives were desperate for some paddling action, and we knew these tours booked up weeks in advance, even in shoulder season–so we took the leap.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

After a windswept walk from the Lagos train station to our simple Airbnb rental, we headed down to the small but hopping Praia Batata (literally “potato beach” in English), where Kayak Adventures gave us some preliminary instructions and two kayak paddles. We stuffed everything we had in the shared drybag they provided, keeping only the adorable waterproof disposable camera we’d received as a wedding gift. (Yep, that’s why most of these pictures look oddly vintagey.)

Once our group of about a dozen had all arrived, our British guide greeted us with a few funny icebreakers and gave a short lesson on paddling for the newbies. Even though I’d kayaked before, I was grateful for the refresher; My only paddling experience was in a one-person, sit-inside kayak on a relatively calm lake, and this was going to be my first time negotiating the open ocean on an open-faced, two-person kayak.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

It was slow going for about five minutes after our guide pushed us off the beach as the two of us tried to get our bearings and get our paddling in sync. But the guide seemed unconcerned, and once I saw that most of the other couples with us lagged behind and tried in vain to face the right direction, I felt much better about my own struggles.

Things went smoother once we had all left the beach and reached the seawall, at the end of which was perched a stately red lighthouse. Around the corner, we glimpsed the cliffs I’d only seen in pictures thus far, and my heart skipped a beat.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

The next hour and a half flew by. As our guide described the geological phenomenon that eroded the sandstone cliffside into the shapes of natural bridges and narrow columns and explained the way the tide etched ribbons of red and orange across the face of the cliffs, we glided slack-jawed through archways, caves and grottoes.

We traveled all the way to Ponte da Piedade, where the cliffs turn from red to white, before turning around. When it was time for a snack break, our guide led us to the impossibly beautiful Camilo Beach–so named, she told us, for a camel-shaped rock formation in the cliffside. Once the two of us had had a bite to eat, we grabbed the masks and snorkels on offer and swam out from the beach. Unfortunately, the water was pretty cloudy and colder than we’d expected, so our quest didn’t last long…but the ocean made a great backdrop for a photoshoot with the last few frames our camera had left!

Swimming at Praia do Camilo in Lagos, Portugal

Swimming at Praia do Camilo in Lagos, Portugal

…aaaand that’s when the film ran out.

We spent the last few minutes of our break exploring nearby caves and ducking through archways that led to adjoining beaches. Then, we hauled our damp selves back into the kayaks and onto the water for another half hour of ocean paddling and basking in the warm Algarve sun.

Three hours later, saltwater-soaked and happy, we arrived back on Batata Beach, thanked the guide and turned in our paddles. The sun had begun to set, and it was time for a well-earned beer back at our apartment and a sunset walk to the cliff’s edge.

Sunset at Ponte da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

For anyone who’d like to follow in our footsteps, I highly recommend booking the kayak and snorkel tour with Kayak Adventures. As you’ll see when you arrive at Batata Beach, Kayak Adventures has a lot of competitors–but it’s one of the longest-standing and highest-rated companies out there, so you really can’t go wrong with them.

If you go on a sunny day, make sure to bring tons of water and sunscreen. If you’re especially sensitive to sun, wear a hat and UV-protective clothing over your swimsuit. No matter the weather, I recommend you bring as little as possible with you to the beach; take some snacks, some money and your keys, and leave phones and non-waterproof electronics at the hotel.

READ NEXT: TIPS ON TRAVELING TO PORTUGAL

Sunset at a beach at Ponte da Piedade in Lagos, Algarve, Portugal

Tips on traveling to Portugal

Tips on traveling to Portugal

Boasting a wealth of cultural sights, a world-class wine region and some of the most remarkable beaches on the planet, Portugal deserves to be at the top of just about everyone’s travel bucket list. Yet compared to some of its European neighbors, it still flies under the radar. This is great news for trailblazers but somewhat frustrating for overplanners like me, because it means there’s criminally little information out there about all of Portugal’s cultural quirks–you know, all those little things you wish someone had told you before you made an utter fool of yourself by counting with your thumb or wandering into a church with a miniskirt on.

(For example, why didn’t any of the guide books mention that the center of Porto is so crowded that you’re basically SOL if you don’t have a Saturday night dinner reservation? That would have been great to know.)

So here I am, filling the void. Without further ado, here are all the things I wish I’d known before landing in Lisbon.

Port glasses at Sandeman in Porto's Ribeira district

Slow it down

If you’re looking for fast-paced food service, you’ve come to the wrong country. Like others in Southern Europe, the Portuguese believe going out to eat isn’t as much about the food as it is about connecting with one another and taking some time to unwind. (They also seem to believe it’s rude to drop off the bill before you’ve asked for it, so don’t expect it to magically appear once the plates are cleared like it does in the U.S.) During our two weeks in Portugal, we often spent one and a half or two hours enjoying lunches and dinners, and we really didn’t mind the languid pace: We used that time to bask in the sun, admire a wonderful view, talk about life or plan out the rest of our day.

Cypress tree at Lisbon's Jardim do Principe Real in the Bairro Alto

Take a hike

If you’re headed to Portugal for a city break, be prepared for hills…LOTS of hills. With many of its popular sights and neighborhoods situated hundreds of feet above the sea-level city center, Lisbon gives San Francisco a run for its money…and Porto isn’t exactly flat, either. Just like in SF, many tourists get around by riding the cities’ adorable historic trolleys, but unless you’re visiting in the dead of winter, those get so crowded that I recommend skipping them altogether and hoofing it if you can. The view’s better anyway–what’s a trip to Lisbon without a glimpse at its many historic staircases and romantic, narrow alleys? Just make sure to wear comfortable, cushioned shoes and be careful on rainy days…those tiled sidewalks can be mighty slippery!

Giant meringues in a pasteleria in Coimbra, Portugal

 

Break out the Lactaid

If you, like us, elect to stay in apartments instead of hotels while you’re in Portugal, you’ll probably end up hitting a pasteleria or two for breakfast. Whether it’s the famous Pastéis de Belém or a nondescript shop around the corner from your temporary home, here’s what you can expect to find: eggs, cream, sugar, eggs…and more eggs. I knew Portugal’s most famous dessert was the pastel de nata–a tiny, delicious and delicate custard tart–but I had no idea its signature pastry was just the beginning of this country’s sugar-and-egg obsession. Almost every takeaway breakfast item you’ll find involves sugar and eggs, whether it’s in the form of a sponge cake, a custard or a giant meringue. Portugal sure has a sweet tooth–but if you don’t, I recommend finding a grocery store when you arrive and stocking up on crusty bread and deli meats, fruit and yogurt or cereal and milk.

Sunset on the boardwalk in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal

Dine in the dark

Just like their neighbors in Spain, the Portuguese wouldn’t dream of sitting down to dinner before sunset. Even though restaurants in the major tourist centers open for dinner at 7 p.m., you might prefer to embrace the local late-night ways and shoot for a dinnertime of about 9:30. Those who eat later and venture farther from the city center will get a better glimpse of real Portuguese life…and probably better food, too.

Crowds in a well at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Prepare for crowds

I have no idea why, but Americans almost never visit Portugal. When I asked my Facebook friends for advice on where to go, only a tiny handful had information to share. I reasoned that since so few Americans would be there and we were traveling in the off season, we’d see practically no tourists. Um…I would like to take this moment to admonish Past Me for making such America-centic assumptions.

While the Algarve was blessedly quiet and there were more black-caped students than white-sneakered foreigners in Coimbra, both Lisbon and Porto were packed TO THE GILLS with travelers, especially groups from the UK, Germany and France. We were so surprised and overwhelmed by the crowds that we found ourselves skipping out on a handful of major sights just to avoid the constant close proximity with other people. I later found out that the number of annual visitors to Portugal has actually eclipsed the country’s population of 10 million, and it’s only getting worse. Had we known this ahead of time, we might have planned ahead a bit more with dinner reservations and earlier mornings.

Sunset at a beach at Ponte da Piedade in Lagos, Algarve, Portugal

Layer up

I’m from Northern California, where the surfing is great…as long as your wetsuit is thick and you’ve got the neoprene boots to match. So I was thrilled to find out the sea temperature in the Algarve would be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit in October. Room-temperature water is basically like bath water, right? Wrong! While Portugal is known all over Europe as a beachy resort destination–and make no mistake, summers get extremely hot there–you won’t find the sort of tantalizingly warm water that Ibiza or Sicily boasts. While it’s just as far south as its Mediterranean neighbors, the southern coast of Portugal actually lies along the wild, untamed Atlantic Sea, where waves are a lot chillier than in the Med. If you’re sensitive to cold water, consider bringing a rashguard to keep warm, or try kayaking instead of swimming.

What do you wish you’d known before traveling to Portugal? Or, if you’re Portuguese, what do you wish tourists knew before traveling to your home? Share in the comments!

READ NEXT: Seven non-touristy things to do in Lisbon