Yet it’s wrong to write off the Algarve.
Turn east — between Faro, the regional capital, and the Spanish border — and you’ll discover a coast fringed by spacious sandbar islands gently lapped by the Atlantic.
Even in the Algarve’s oft-maligned central strip, those in the know can find secret beaches, villages oozing charm, exciting new hotels and hidden restaurants serving the region’s Mediterranean-style cuisine.
Along the 10-mile stretch of shore between the low-cost, high-rise resort of Armação de Pêra and the Arade River estuary, satellite images show a string of bite-shaped indents in the cliff face, as if some giant sea-creature has nibbled away at the coast.
More than 40 such coves are cut into the honeycomb cliffs. All are lined with golden sand that slopes softly to the ocean. Their southern exposure means the beaches are perfectly positioned to trap the rays during the Algarve’s 300 days of annual sunshine.
Praia do Pinhao is one of dozens of thin ribbons of golden sand at the foot of sheer cliffs near Lagos.
‘King of the beaches’
While Praia da Marinha, which often gets a nod in best beaches listings, is famed for its yellow rock formations rising from a lapis-lazuli sea, all the coves have a special character.
The shores here take their names from the mists of local folk history: There’s a “rabid dog beach,” “the brunette’s beach,” “mosque beach” or “little kisses beach.”
Some of the smaller strands are reachable only by scrambling over rocks, filing down scrubland paths or by taking a boat — guaranteeing solitude even during the height of summer.
Although there’s a scattering of vacation villas in places, much of the clifftop has escaped development. A three-mile hiking trail leads from Nossa Senhora da Rocha to Praia de Benagil, almost without passing any human habitation. Instead, there are shady umbrella pines, wild figs, and almond trees that bloom white in February and March.
All year there are flowers, but spring sees the scrubland erupt into blossom: Purple cistus, lavender, oleander and yellow gorse. The color scheme is augmented by dashes of pink hoopoes, azure-winged magpies, rainbow-hued bee-eaters and other exotic birdlife.
Praia Nova is separated from Praia da Nossa da Senhora by a chapel on a narrow promontory.
The bigger picture
Amid the unblemished beauty, the area hasn’t entirely escaped the impact of mass market tourism.
Shooting its beachside fishermen’s homes with a narrow lens, the village of Carvoeiro still looks postcard perfect, especially at sunset. Widen the focus, however, and you’ll catch a sprawl of holiday homes and downtown streets jammed with souvenir stores and bars serving cut-price cider, technicolor cocktails and Premier League soccer on TV.
Other places, however, are better preserved.
Ferragudo is a painfully pretty pile of terracotta-roofed houses curled round a low hill between a 17th-century fortress (built to guard against pirates) and a line of riverfront restaurants which expertly slap locally-caught fish on their grills.
The village’s reputation as an artists’ retreat is maintained by the Studio Bongard, a traditional tile-covered Algarve house with a bougainvillea-shaded patio overflowing with ceramic sea-life and other phantasmagorical creations by the resident sculptors.
A wine-soaked comeback
Algarve cuisine is based on abundant seafood, pork and lamb raised in the hills, with fresh local fruit and vegetables. More than any other part of Portugal, it’s influenced by the Mediterranean and a legacy of over five centuries of Arab rule in the Middle Ages.
The Algarve played a key role in the successful 2013 campaign to secure UNESCO cultural heritage status for the Mediterranean diet. But while the region’s food has long been appreciated, its wines are only recently making a comeback.
Vines have been grown in the Algarve since Roman times, but local tipples were long overshadowed by the notoriously tasty nectars produced on the rolling plains of the Alentejo region, just to the north. Lately however, Algarve reds and whites are generating excitement in the Portuguese wine world and beyond, as a new generation of producers — many originally from outside — exploit the region’s blend of climates, soils and slopes.
Quinta dos Vales wine estate is at the forefront of the Algarve’s wine resurgence and offers tastings, overlooked by striking sculptures.
Quinta dos Vales
“There’s a great terroir here, a great climate. For wine-makers there’s plenty of variety — some places have sandy soils, but where we are there’s schist. It allows us to make wines that are full of fruit,” Fatima explains. “The way of life is more relaxed here. We love the climate, being close to the sea.”
The Algarve’s growing popularity — 2016 was a record year for visitor numbers — is triggering some exciting new accommodation options.
Underestimate it at your peril.