Touch down in Faro and you have arrived in the Algarve. Faro is the busy centre of activity from which visitors emerge, full of excited anticipation, to catch their rides and shuttles to the resorts of their choice; here is the gateway to tourist Mecca.
But all roads are not alike and, while many tourists will depart for the bustling resorts offering attractions such as water-skiing, banana boating, go-karting, bars, clubs and karaoke, there are other, quieter options on the horizon. Pick up a car hire in Faro to hit the road in the opposite direction and you will be well-rewarded.
Just a short drive from Faro and you can be in the largest fishing port in the Algarve. Now if this doesn’t sound particularly quiet, or appealing, you may be forgiven. But the port of Olhao has many different sides. Many of those sides involve nothing more than kicking back, sampling some delicious seafood and participating in some serious cafe culture and people watching. Others might involve a brief ferry ride to one of the many sandy islands just offshore, with their near-deserted beaches and peaceful ambience.
Olhao has its origins in the medieval period, or before, when it would have been, like so many other settlements, a sleepy fishing village. It grew in size and wealth throughout the centuries to become a prosperous town by the 1800s. A fort was built in the late 1600s to protect the town from plundering by pirates, and there are many other historic buildings to explore at a leisurely pace, such as the 17th century baroque church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário and the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Soledade from roughly the same period.
The historic centre of Olhao, in fact, is a real gem. This is a contemplative area of grand, crumbling townhouses fronted with tiles and wrought iron balconies, and of winding, cobbled streets lined with tranquil cafes and delightful boutiques. You could happily spend an afternoon here if so inclined.
If you prefer to be more in the heart of things, then you may prefer the marina, with its paved promenade and shady pleasure gardens, together with the nearby superb fish market and seafood cafes. This is the perfect spot to sit back and take in the quiet activity of the area, from the boats gently bobbing on the waterfront to people walking and cycling and kids playing.
There’s no beach in Olhao itself, but all you need to do is hop on one of the ferries or hire a water taxi, and you can be on the islands of Culatra or Armona before you know it. Culatra has no roads, but there is a permanent population of a few hundred people. The tranquil atmosphere that permeates the island is shot through with the vibrant pink of bougainvillea and a couple of colourful guest houses. Wander along the boardwalk, past the wildflowers, the fishing nets and the dunes, and the gorgeously empty beach, the sparkling Atlantic beyond, is all yours.
Armona is another delight. Less populated than Culatra, there is nevertheless a campsite for those wanting to stay a night or two, or more. The broad sweeping sands of Armona are irresistible, and there are a handful of cafes where you can relax, play board games, read and – of course – try out the local fish delicacies. You can meander over the dunes, build sandcastles on the beach or swim in the turquoise waters. Alternatively, it’s the perfect place to do nothing at all, but lie back and soak up the Atlantic sun.
Photos by Hugo Silva & Aires Almeida via Flickr Creative Commons