Algarve still a special destination
With splendid beaches and history to match Jasbir Authi discovers why Portugal is such a treat.
Imagine being in a place where you can stand ankle deep in sand and gaze out to a deep blue sea.
Eat fresh seafood, succulent olives, sun dried tomatoes and spend your nights drinking wine while listening to a raven-haired beauty sing of her lost love against the backdrop of Moorish architecture.
The enticing Algarve is all but a click away.
A Monarch Airlines flight leaves at 6.20am from Birmingham Airport – early but it gives you ample opportunity to catch up on the few hours lost sleep.
You are there by 9.30am and the blue skies and heat will be enough to re-energise you faster than immersing yourself in a vat of Red Bull.
The Hotel Vila Vita sent one of their courteous drivers to pick me up and within 30 minutes of collecting luggage off the racks, we were passing through the imposing gates of the impressive whitewashed five-star complex.
Sprawling over 54 acres of beautifully manicured subtropical gardens with steps leading down to its own private beach, this resort caters for everyone from the rich and famous to families and honeymooners.
It boasts eight fine restaurants, a wine cellar and excellent sports facilities, including golf.
My luxurious bedroom suite was tastefully decorated in pale blue, furnished with sofas, widescreen TV and cupboards with lattice doors.
The patio doors lead out to their own little garden, with the view of the waves beyond.
You can expect all the personal touches at this exclusive resort, such a complimentary bottle of wine, homemade chocolates, fresh flowers and afternoon turn-down service.
There is a spa, but for those who prefer the privacy of their suites, pamper yourself with the selection of Bvlgari products and enjoy a candlelit bath.
Breakfast is served in the main restaurant and is, for a refreshing change, tropical Mediterranean and dried fruit, pastries, cereals, meats, cheeses, fish and hot dishes.
Remaining marooned inside the hotel is a tempting prospect but having come this far it would be sad to miss out on the wealth of culture and history on your doorstep.
A half-an-hour bus ride away is the charming old town of Lagos.
One restaurant worth venturing to is the fabulous D. Sebastião restaurant where, ask nicely, and waiters will escort you downstairs to their a candlelit wine cellar with 15,000 bottles and a 200-year-old bottle of Port. Burn off a delicious lunch of the finest olives, breads, just caught seafood, and flambé sausage by walking along the narrow cobbled streets and popping into the shops selling ceramics and other local wares.
For wine connoisseurs pencil in a stop at Adega do Barranco Longo where you can go on a tour of a 15-hectare winery with its gregarious young owner Rui Virginia.
The winery has received many prizes for its fruity Rose which is available to taste accompanied by local bread and cheeses.
Dinner that night was spent at the Arte Nautica restaurant which is affiliated to the resort. This restaurant is situated a short bus ride away on the lovely Armacao beach.
The next day, our party boarded the bus to the charming town of Alcoutim, which makes a perfect morning visit.
The present castle forms part of a Moorish fort from the 11th century. Inside the restored walls is an exhibition of archeological finds.
Enjoy a drink sitting on the castle ruin walls while gazing out across the blue river winding round hills dotted with citrus fruit plants, orchards and traditional old white houses.
When the sun gets too much, take a long leisurely river cruise but don’t be alarmed as your mobile receives messages welcoming you to Spain.
After lunching at Guerreriros do Rio restaurant, which overlooks the river, the afternoon was spent at the attractive coastal town of Tavira, known as the Venice of Algarve.
Like most of the region, its buildings were all virtually destroyed by the earthquake of 1755.
The town has since been rebuilt with many fine 18th century buildings along with its 37 churches.
The town has a few pretty beaches, surrounded by orange orchards, hills of fig and almond trees and houses with dazzling whitewashed walls and distinctive chimneys. The evening was memorably spent dining at the rustic O Patio restaurant, situated in the bustling Carvoeiro Square.
The original water well in the restaurant has been converted into a wine cellar and over courses of fish, meats and desserts, we were serenaded by a young Portuguese lady in a red number, singing old romantic songs.
The next day we visited the historical town of Silves.
The market is brimming with fresh fish, vegetables which would never pass the British supermarket shape test and other foods which judging by the robust pensioners around me, must ensure longevity.
The amazing castle dates back to the Moors and affords stunning views of orange groves, hills and the sea.
The next stop on our tour was a drive up the mountains to the spa town of Monchique.
Sandwiched between the hills of Foia and Picota, Monchique had, until recently, been untouched by the 20th century invasion of tourism.
The Portugese flock here to enjoy the cool temperatures and rustic atmosphere with steep cobbled streets and small dark doorways, where traders sell their homespun wares.
There are spa resorts where visitors can indulge in the curing elements of the sulphur smelling spring water that emerges at a constant temperature of 32C.
Another local delicacy are the breads and hams cured using centuries old methods which give them a smoky, nutty flavour.
As your trip draws to a close, book a gourmet dinner at the resort’s Adega restaurant.
Set aside an entire evening, dress to the nines and totter down a old windy stone staircase to a gothic styled, candle-lit wine cellar.
With tiles imported from Greece and Egypt, nooks and crannies at every turn, the cellar houses 11,000 bottles of the world’s finest wines.
The sommelier will talk you through a selection as you are seated.
Unscroll your menu and enjoy assorted Iberian tapas, Atlantic monkfish, veal and ginger parfait all complemented with carefully chosen wines.
The perfect end to a holiday which combines culture with the beach splendour of the Algarve.
* Travel Facts
* Vila Vita Parc Resort log on to www.vilavitaparc.com/
* Low fares airline Monarch offers flights to Faro from Birmingham, London Gatwick, London Luton (summer season only) and Manchester airports with fares, including taxes, starting from £48.50 one way (£85.99 return). For more information or to book, visit www.monarch.co.uk
* For details about sightseeing in Portugal log on to www.visitalgarve.pt