For some reason, I had never fully considered the Algarve as a top beach destination, but then I rarely regard popular beach destinations at all. But when I was researching where to go for some winter sun, cheap flights were coming up for Portugal and I found some perfect opportunities for volunteering on the coast, and it all started coming together. The more I looked along the coastline at all the beautiful beaches, the more confident I was that I’d made the right decision.
Thankfully my time on the Algarve allowed me to explore some of the absolute best beaches; some of them among the best in Europe, and one or two regarded among the best in the world.
The first beach I visited was actually in Faro (spoiler alert: it’s not the above photo), after several days of being in the city and still not setting foot in the sea, and although it’s a lovely stretch of sand for as far as the eye can see, it wasn’t quite what I had expected when I pictured the Algarve. There were no rocky outcrops; no cliffs at all, in fact. You have to get a bus there, through the airport, and then walk across a bridge as the beach is actually on its own island. Sounds pretty romantic going to a secluded island, but it didn’t really feel it.
Unless you go for Faro’s daily sky spectacular: sunset!
So a couple of days later, it was time to bring out the big guns. And they were big. I was off to Lagoa to visit Praia da Marinha.
I had been recommended to take an Uber to the beaches, as Lagoa itself isn’t actually on the coast, but when I got off the train, I got chatting to a group of older Canadians who were planning to get a taxi to Benagil, and we decided to split the cost.
It was thanks to them that I ended up at Praia do Carvalho.
Praia do Carvalho
It was kind of funny – I had read everywhere that Praia da Marinha is one of the top 10 beaches in Europe, but my new companions insisted that they had heard the same thing from everyone about Praia do Carvalho and it was number one on their list to visit. I didn’t question it, but I was a little confused that I had heard very little about it.
Whether it’s in the top 10 beaches or not, I’m very glad it was on their list!
IT IS BEAUTIFUL!
It’s a short walk from Benagil beach to Carvalho, and easy to follow because the whole path is laid out with red and yellow markers.
One of my favourite parts about Carvalho was that to get onto it, you have to walk down a staircase built through the cliff onto the beach. This is where it got weird though, because I asked my new friends if they were coming, and they eyed up the cave entrance warily and said no; they’ll see me at the top. I had a quick explore of the beach before following the path back up to join them… but I couldn’t find them anywhere! I took a wander further along until I could see the whole path stretched out far further than they could have gone, and there was no sign of them so I turned back and spent the next couple of hours on Carvalho beach. There were no cafes nearby that they could have disappeared into, but I never saw those people again and I don’t think they even went onto the beach. Huh.
Back on the beach, I eagerly explored caves, clambered along a narrow shelf running above the sea, sunbathed, and almost got photobombed by a topless girl (literally – I started posing without realising she was behind me, and then she jumped into the picture and ran away laughing!). I kind of wanted to invite her back into the photo anyway, but I reckon that would have been a little bit awkward. She was pretty smoking hot, though!
Praia da Marinha
Eventually, I tore myself away from Praia do Carvalho, took a walk back to Benagil and followed the road up towards Praia da Marinha. The road snaked its way up a hill, and at the top I promptly got lost in a labyrinth of bushes that kept coming to dead ends. It was like a maze, and after I hadn’t seen a single other person for fifteen minutes, I started to panic. What if I did see another person now? “If they tried to kill me, I’d never be found!” I thought, eyeing each bush warily in case someone was watching. I didn’t even know if I’d come the right way; I was just trying to stay close to the coastline while the road veered off to the north, and figured I couldn’t go too far wrong.
Eventually though, I reached some holes in the ground that were essentially caves with the sea underneath! Weird, right? You couldn’t get too close as they were fenced off, which is definitely a good thing! The best part is I found PEOPLE! People who didn’t try to kill me!
(the people who didn’t try to kill me)
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And then I kept going, and I have no idea what I expected to find, but it was not THIS.
Suddenly I wasn’t in a hurry to find the beach, and instead sat up here for at least twenty minutes just taking this in. A couple of other people did the same.
The landscape was ever-changing; from the green shrub to the caves to this, and then at one point I felt like I was in Australia!
Then I got a view of the beach, and I was hyped.
Okay, the lighting wasn’t great as the afternoon was ticking on, but what a view! And seriously: the beach is AMAZING.
I could have come here for the day, just as I could have spent a day at Carvalho. Again, the first thing I did was explore a huge cave immediately to the left as you get down onto the beach. You can follow the cave right around until it comes out at the sea round the corner!
Even better: there are entire sections of beach that you have to climb over rocks to get to! I think there was one right at the end that I didn’t even reach, and if you’re lucky you might get a virtually private beach!
And then I made a huge mistake. I decided that I wanted to hitchhike back to Lagoa, but when I went back up to the car park, it was virtually deserted and I started walking, hoping to pick up a lift on the way. And I walked and walked, all the way back to Lagoa, about eight miles away.
That’s when I realised my biggest mistake of all. I walked around in circles trying to find signs for the train station; I went into cafes to ask the staff and hardly anyone could speak English and no one could tell me where it was. Eventually I just wanted to jump into a taxi and tell them to take me there, but I couldn’t even find a taxi! It started to get dark, and just as I was getting really frustrated, I realised I was back on the road where I had come in to Lagoa. I had just walked in a massive circle. I saw a hotel and frantically ducked in to ask the receptionist.
“Oh, the train station isn’t actually in Lagoa. I think you can get a bus to Estombar, though.”
I literally burst into tears. How could I have fucked up this much? My train was in fifteen minutes and it was looking extremely unlikely that I would catch it. I asked the man behind the desk if he could call me a taxi, which he did.
I missed my train by five minutes, and had to wait an hour for another one. It was a pretty miserable hour. I had run out of data the day before and decided not to bother buying any more; another fail, because I wouldn’t have got so lost if I could have just looked at Google maps! I hadn’t even brought a book. For a BEACH DAY! And I was starting to get seriously hungry, my dinner now being delayed by another hour.
I got back to Faro at 9pm. My advice? GET THE UBER. Don’t walk. And if you do walk, WALK TO ESTOMBAR. NOT Lagoa!
A week later, I went on an adventure to one of the main tourist towns of the Algarve: Lagos. It was completely different to Faro; I heard more British accents in the first five minutes than I’d heard in two weeks in Faro. The promenade was lovely, but everything felt just a little less authentic and a little more touristy, which was what I expected. I didn’t spend a huge amount of time in the actual town; I was actually meeting a fellow volunteer there, and we went for a beach and cliff walk down to the southernmost point of Ponta da Piedade.
Unfortunately, I thought perhaps I’d be underwhelmed by the beaches in Lagos – and I was kind of right. The beaches in Lagoa blew these ones out of the water.
But it’s a really enjoyable walk, and the secluded beaches are nothing short of picturesque.
Plus you’ve got more of those stunning rocks.
But my highlight of the whole walk was the viewpoint at the end. You can walk right down to the water and take in views of your absolute typical golden Algarvian (is that a word?) cliffs and turquoise water; it’s beautiful.
We had been eyeing up a couple of beaches on our walk down, so we chose one to stop at on the way back: Praia Dona Ana. And sure, it was beautiful, but because all the beaches along here are so secluded and short, you only get a limited amount of time in the sun (especially in winter) – and it was cold in the shade. It was the first time in Portugal that I had been cold!
The other thing was the sand: on all the beaches, they were made up of pieces of shell that made it uncomfortable to walk on compared to the fine sand beaches around Lagoa.
Don’t get me wrong: it was still beautiful, and I think if I had visited Lagos first, it would have had more of a wow factor for me! But all my postcard perfect photos are from Lagoa, and my best ones from Lagos… you’re looking at them.
Still, I came very close to staying a night in Lagos; in the evening, we went for dinner with another girl in my friend’s hostel, and we got chatting to a really interesting Portuguese lady who could speak six languages and had led a fascinating life, and we fell in love with her deaf dog! She was joined by an English man (from Birmingham) who emigrated to Portugal 17 years ago. There were some fantastic conversations going on, which continued long after I left.
It feels strange posting about beaches on Christmas Eve, but I wanted to get it out before Christmas, and I’ve done it with 20 minutes to spare. Hope you all have a wonderful Christmas, wherever you spend it!
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