The Algarve remains a popular draw for many, and nourish reader Catherine Honeyman enjoyed a spring girls’ break in Portugal. 

Following a nice and easy flight from Stansted to Faro, we arrived in sunny Algarve at lunchtime. Having collected the car from the airport, it was a 40 minute drive to Vila Nova de Cacela, our home for the next few days. We immediately felt relaxed, it was so tranquil and beautiful. Situated in south-east Algarve, Vila Nova De Cacela has no shortage of high quality beaches stretching as far as the eye can see, framed by golden cliffs. There are also virtually deserted islands marking the boundary between Ria Formosa and the sea, plus small coves sheltered by the rocks. Stretching for 60km along the Algarve, Ria Formosa is a nature reserve and a protected area, meaning building is restricted, and high-rise are no longer permitted. The ocean, in every shade of blue and mostly calm and warm, invites you in for long swims and to indulge in water sports. 

a boat on the river Ria Formosa Santa Luzia, Tavira, Portugal

Once settled in, we were eager for our evening out. Not wanting to go too far on our first night, we decided on a restaurant that was five minutes by car/taxi from the villa in Cacela Velha or Old Cacela. This is a charming village nestled on a hill on the eastern end of the Ria Formosa. It has Moorish influences and once a year holds a Moorish Festival Noites da Enchanted Moor Women that shows the region’s Arab and Berber heritage. It is also the site of Fortaleza de Cacela, now a radar station. The village has a few houses with three restaurants and a lovely church. We had dinner at Restaurant Casa Velha, a typical Portuguese restaurant and very popular – people queue from 6.45pm for their 7pm opening! We began our meal with oysters, grown a few metres away in Ria Formosa, followed by arroz de marisco – seafood rice full of clams, mussels, prawns, and langoustine. It was all delicious and washed down with the local Vinho Verde wine!

The next morning, we awoke to blue skies and rising temperatures, slightly unusual for April. With that in mind, we lunched at a beach restaurant in Vila Real de St António, a city on the edge of the Guadiana River. The Grand Beach Club Restaurant is part of the newly refurbished Grand Hotel in the centre of the city. However, the beach restaurant is situated a five-minute shuttle ride away, provided by the hotel for its guests. There is a small cove to swim in and the restaurant and its pool overlook the mouth of the Guadiana. The setting is very picturesque! The restaurant has a very nautical feeling with blue and white linens and lots of wood. After glasses of fizz, we ordered the couvert or cover, which usually comprises bread, olives, and cheese. However, that day we had dips followed by seabass, and a tuna burger, finishing with the most delicious coffee.

We returned to the villa to get ready for our evening out, again staying fairly local. We visited Sem Espinhas-Cabeço a restaurant that is touristy during the day but has a lovely ambience in the evening as it is right on the beach. It is situated between Altura and Monte Gordo. To make the most of the local seafood, we went for seabass and tuna steak, both of which were chargrilled over a charcoal grill. This is the usual way for restaurants to cook most meat and fish.

Another day of blue skies and further warming temperatures followed. Again, we went for lunch by the sea for the cooling breeze, this time heading to a new restaurant near the Beach Club, 818 Centro Nautico. Also overlooking the Guadiana River, that separates Portugal from Spain, 818 has several cabins overlooking the pool terrace and the river. We had lunch on the river terrace and enjoyed sautéed prawns, or gambas, with chili lime and ginger, plus folhado de legumes – vegetables in puff pastry, with sweet chilli. Delicious!

818 Centro Nautico

There is only so much eating out you can do. We visited the local market and ordered some fresh prawns, crusty bread, and olives to eat at the villa, enjoying the remains for lunch the next day!

Next on our list was a trip to Tavira, such an interesting town to stroll around, with quaint little side streets and small squares to explore. A must is a walk up the hill to the castle ruins and its gardens. The views over Tavira are amazing, and here you will find A Ver, a newly awarded Michelin star restaurant. If you visit, try to get a table on the terrace so you can enjoy the views of the town. During the day, you can get ferries from the waterfront to the local beaches for a couple of euros. However, we walked around the town and enjoyed a pre-dinner drink at a bar overlooking the river. Tavira is beautiful at night! We then did the short walk up the hill to the old convent, now converted into the luxury hotel Pousada Convento de Tavira. The atmosphere was elegant and tranquil. The food was exceptional and not overly priced, considering the surroundings.

amazing view from the sky of the village Cacela Velha and Ria Formosa

On to our final day! With clear blue skies and temperatures now in the 30s, we again went to a riverside restaurant in Vila Real de St António. On the same street as the previous restaurants, this was more of a local spot. Dom Petisco is surrounded by a fence of bougainvillaea and is very rustic looking. The restaurant opens at 12pm but if you want a table right by the river you need to be queuing beforehand. We arrived at 12.15pm and they were all taken. You cannot pre-book and everything is on a first come, first served basis. We enjoyed a mixture of seabass, prawns, and salmon with lovely salads and the local batatas com pel – potatoes with the skin on!

For our last evening, we ventured across the Guadiana to try some Spanish tapas in the local town of Ayamonte. You can drive over the bridge or get the ferry from Vila Real across to the centre, which is very cheap and runs regularly in season. We were given a lot of recommendations for a restaurant called LPA TheCulinary Bar. We were not disappointed. The tapas were some of the best we have had. Highlights included calamari croquettes with aioli, langoustine tempura with vegetables, and burrata with tomato. The evening ended with coffee and glasses of port, sat in a local bar overlooking the harbour! Taxi!

Details Flights from London Stansted direct to Faro with RyanAir

While we enjoy fresh oysters and the local seafood, the specialities of the region include:

Frango da Guia – undoubtedly a staple of Portuguese cuisine, a wonderfully delicious spicy chicken

Conquilhas à Algarvia – the region’s succulent clams, fresh from the Atlantic Ocean, are the star of this wonderful dish along with fried onions, garlic, and sliced Portuguease sausage. They are all cooked together in a pan and garnished with parsley or coriander

Cataplana de marisco – a dish which truly celebrates all that the sea offers, combining lobster, clams, squid and whatever else is available on the day

Sardines in Portimão – summer in Portugal mean sardines. You definitely shouldn’t miss out on the chance to sample this popular dish that goes hand in hand with parties and celebrations of all types. There is even an annual Sardine Festival each August in Portimão 

Shrimp – the prawns of the Algarve are really in a class all of their own. Used in many different ways throughout the region’s cuisine. I like them best when they are simply grilled over charcoal and eaten hot

Javali – wild boar is something that you’ll see on restaurant menus throughout the area

Doce Fino do Algarve – small marzipan treats, shaped and sculpted in different forms, are a point of significant regional pride in the Algarve. Made from almond paste, the origin of these delicate, and delicious, works of art can be traced back to Moorish times

Dom Rodrigo – delicate little nests made using strings of egg yolks finished in syrup, or ‘angel hair’, along with egg yolk, cinnamon and almonds

Tarte de Alfarroba – one of the most typical desserts in the Algarve. Carob, alfarroba in Portuguese, is a weird-looking fruit, but what it lacks in appeal, it makes up in flavour. It is sweet and flavourful, tasting a bit like cocoa. This pie is delicious and soft, especially because of the perfect mix of dry fig and crushed almonds.

Then, of course, there is the wine! The four regions of the Algarve – Lagos, Portimão, Lagoa and Tavira – all have their own distinct wine varieties. Each offers something unique to discover.

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