Take a walk on the wild side
The small boat sitting in the sun-baked harbour has holes in it now, which belie its extraordinary seafaring history. A simple plaque nearby has the barest details of what must have been one of the great sailing adventures of any age.
The stone monument in Culatra, an island off the Algarve coast, pays homage to local man Jose Rodrigues Belchior, who set out on this simple sailing boat on October 1958 and was not heard of again until he landed in Brazil nearly nine months later on 29 June 1959.
One local told us he went out fishing with his wife and three sons and was lost in a storm. The family was considered dead until a phone call from Brazil revealed they had crossed the Atlantic surviving on fish and rainwater, although the youngest son had perished.
Further inquiries suggested that Jose had deliberately set out for Brazil looking for adventure with his lover and two friends. Whatever the truth, Belchior survived the 7,000km journey and has been immortalised in local folklore.
Today, you would wonder why anyone would want to leave the sun-kissed islands which now make up the Ria Formosa Nature Park just off the coast of Faro.
A short boat trip from the Algarve capital brings you to these wildlife-rich waters, which have the largest concentration of sea horses in the world.
With the tide dropping three metres, a whole new world of marine life is uncovered around the abundant sandbanks, such as sea cucumbers, urchins and a wide variety of birds hovering overhead.
“Seabass is the biggest fish around here because they love the clams,” our guide Carlos tells us.
We ate in a restaurant on Culatra where the locally caught shrimp and fish could not have been fresher if we reeled it in ourselves.
We were in part of Culatra known as Lighthouse Island because of the picturesque red-topped light tower which was surrounded by colourful holiday cabins.
Back on the mainland we did a tour of Faro’s beautiful old town.
From the air and sea, it looks like a modern city of white skyscraper holiday apartments, but get up close and you can still find cobbled streets leading to quaint squares and palaces.
We were lucky to be staying in a pousada (a chain of beautiful hotels in historic buildings), the Palácio de Estoi, just outside Faro.
Known as the ‘pink palace’ it is a stunning mix of the old and the new, with the tastefully decorated huge modern rooms complementing the magnificent main 19th-century building and gardens. We were sad to leave the following morning, but there was lots of walking to be done.
Our group was trying out a range of new hikes which have been launched in the Algarve and the neighbouring region of Alentejo to attract outdoor enthusiasts to the country.
Our first walk was an hour away on part of the long-distance Algarve Way which crosses Portugal from the Atlantic to the Spanish border.
After driving up narrow switchbacks, climbing ever higher, our minibus dropped us near the top of a mountain called Picota, where we set off downwards towards the town of Monchique.
Our local guide, Bruno, turned out to have a PhD in geology from Dublin’s Trinity College so spoke fluent English and was a minefield of information.
Starting off in a cool mountain mist we were soon descending through a never-ending forest of cork trees – Portugal produces half the world’s supply of bottle stoppers – as the weather got hotter.
In Monchique we had a welcome break in a family-owned distillery making Monte da Lameira, an invigorating liqueur made from the local medronho berry.
We stopped off in a magnificent spa hotel for lunch, the Villa Termal das Caldas de Monchique, where the manager told us they organised many weddings from the U.K. And it was easy to see why. The location was stunning, set in a deep wooded valley, surrounded by terraced gardens, where its hot springs have been enjoyed from Roman times.
In the afternoon we tackled a coastal walk an hour away, part of the Rota Vicentina, a new path running beside the Atlantic for 350km, where we passed empty golden beaches and enjoyed fabulous clifftop views.
Our accommodation was just as inspiring, the Herdade da Estacada, a beautiful modern oasis built by a couple who left the rat race of Lisbon to live in their version of paradise.
Car engineer David Ingham and wife Maria wanted their four children to know that what was important in life “was not money and designer labels”.
They now rear pedigree sheep and goats, sell electricity from their solar panels, and take in walkers who they will pick up and drop off on the coastal walk 10 minutes drive away.
The next day we hiked a stunning section of the Fisherman’s Trail, part of the Rota Vicentina, from near Porto de Pesca south to Ponta da Carraca.
We then caught a boat in Vila Nova de Milfontes for a trip up the River Mira, a relaxing way to spend the afternoon.
That night was spent in another beautiful villa, Quinta Do Chocalhinho, where the gorgeous furniture was bought largely in the former Portuguese colony of Macau – now part of China – where our host Luis Freitas was a former judge.
Luis and wife Margarita were terrific hosts and much of our time was spent round the pool which looks out on sun-drenched hills.
The next day we hiked 13km in intense heat near the village of Traviscais.
Thank heavens the beer in this rural region is less than €1 a bottle because quite a few of them were consumed at the end of a glorious day.
Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Faro.
Pousada do Palácio de Estoi, www.pousadas.pt, from €218 for two nights including breakfast.
We visited the Nature Park Ria Formosa with the Formosamar company: www.formosamar.com Tel. +351 918 720 002.
Herdade da Estacada from €80 a night for two.
Quinta do Chocalhinho from €75 a night for two.
More info www.rotavicentina.com
Hotel Faro has single rooms from €87 and double rooms from €107.
Guide Prices: Alentejo Mr Nicolau da Costa (Atalaia Walking) from €30 pp
Algarve Half day (4 hours) €80,
Full day (8 hours) €120.