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Family Vacation in Portugal’s Western Algarve

by Barbara Rogers

Mar 30, 2020

Photo: Stillman Rogers

Destinations / Europe

Sagres, on Portugal’s southwest corner, proves the Algarve is a lot more than just a pretty beach. This less-known western Algarve combines all the ingredients for a family vacation: beautiful landscape, beaches, plenty of sports options and a fascinating culture — just the right blend of exotic and familiar. And you can squeeze in a history lesson or two, as well.


The fact it’s a foreign country adds spice, but it’s one where English is the widespread second language. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t speak well enough to answer your questions and point you on your way. You’ll have no problem communicating, but your kids will enjoy having a language app so they can try out a few words of Portuguese.


Surf at Castelejo Beach. Photo: Stillman Rogers


The Algarve forms the southwest corner of Europe, stretching from the Spanish border on the east to Sagres and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. The towering stone cliffs at the western end get the full force of the Atlantic. But when the shoreline turns abruptly east at Sagres, these are replaced by fantastically carved sandstone cliffs and formations, hiding beaches with more protected waters for swimming and water sports. The entire southern shore is dotted with golden sand beaches, ranging from tiny cliff-bound coves to long strands of soft, white sand.


Inland, behind these beach towns, hillsides of vineyards and orchards bask in sunlight about 300 days a year. Even in the winter, temperatures are mild. Because the Algarve is relatively small, only 85 miles in length, you can easily visit all its attractions from a base in Sagres or Lagos at the western end. Resorts there are family oriented and the beaches less crowded than in the packaged holiday towns farther east.


City of Lagos waterfront and harbor. Photo: Photo: Stillman Rogers


The beaches and water sports are the big draw, and family resorts like Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel offer lessons for all ages and include equipment. With a luxury spa, multiple restaurants, pools and kids’ activities for everyone from tots to teens, Martinhal is in the Algarve’s quiet corner, but only a few miles from Lagos.


Day care center , Martinhal Resort. Photo: Stillman Rogers


There you’ll find a busy harbor filled with pleasure boats, where you can book day cruises to secluded beaches and the sea caves of Ponta da Piedade. Kayak underneath the fantastic carved arches and wind-sculpted rock formations, or walk to beaches from the town center, where you’ll find shops selling Algarve pottery, tiles and bright embroidery. For a look at one of the breathtaking, gold-lined churches Portugal is known for, step into Igreja de Santo Antonio.


Kids can cross the moat to explore Forte Ponte da Bandeira and see old navigation instruments used on the caravels built here to explore the New World. In Sagres, you can learn more at the navigation center where Portugal’s Golden Age of exploration began and was directed by Prince Henry the Navigator.


Dunes at Bordeira. Photo: Stillman Rogers


A short distance inland is the immense castle at Silves, once a citadel of the Moors, Islamic rulers who controlled the Algarve for more than 500 years and brought the influences of North African culture and cuisine that set the Algarve apart from northern Portugal. This huge fortress offers towers to climb, ramparts to walk and a giant cistern you can descend beneath the courtyard.


North of Sagres, a protected natural reserve follows the Atlantic coast with clifftop walking trails that drop to long beaches loved by surfers. Views from the cliffs are spectacular.


Whether photography, water sports, spas, history or beaches, the western Algarve offers something for every member of the family.


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