Travelling the Algarve in southern Portugal, one of the most popular travel regions in all of Europe, can sometimes lack a bit of singularity. Waiters addressing you in German at first sight aren’t what I am looking for in a place and neither are streets seamed with nothing but souvenir shops. Olhao is different, for a particular reason elaborated on later. It’s the perfect place for your first rendez-vous with Portugal.
- Olhao, Algarve, Portugal, Atlantic Ocean coast
- Traveled there: early September 2015
- Stayed at: Real Marina Residence, Av. 5 de Outubro
Arriving at Faro airport, you have quick access to your typical Southern European travel spots. Plenty of restaurants and hotels are at hand and in most cases, you will be only steps away from pretty beaches. For everyone just looking for a place to dip your toe in the sand for a few days, Algarve is your spot.
However, that way won’t really bring you any closer to your host country. From the same airport, Olhao is only a few minutes away and that little town has a clear disadvantage, marketing-wise: it doesn’t have a beach. That’s why the large tourist corporations didn’t put the same effort into Olhao as they did in neighboring towns and that in turn has been a stroke of luck.
For sure, when we went there, a large vacation apartment and hotel complex had just opened and we stayed there, enjoying spacious, spotless facilities. But it has been the only such establishment in town and it has a pool on the roof of each of its buildings. The actual bathing is done by boat. There is a boat service that charges a few Euros per tour and will bring beachgoers to one of two islands off the coast, Culatra or Deserta. Both of these are spectacular and feature long, pristine beaches. Culatra has a few houses and even a school building, but the walkways between those houses are just lines in the sand. Deserta is – as the name indicates – void of any buildings or facilities apart from a lighthouse and a solar-powered restaurant next to where the boat drops you off. If you’re willing to walk a few minutes from that spot, you can actually have a stretch of beach all for yourself, with the ocassional beachwalker passing by. This is a different bathing and swimming experience than what you usually get in the Algarve, where rock formations often worth seeing sometimes open up to allow for a stretch of sand.
The boat reliably brings you back to town, passing fisherboats along the way. Olhao is not a big town, but in the narrow, meandering streets crossing back and forth, one can sometimes get lost.
If you do, your orientation point is the red market hall building, which is the central point in town in more ways than one. Local fishermen drop their catch here in the morning and chefs from all the Algarve restaurants know that this is the spot to make sure that hungry tourists are being served the freshest the sea has produced that day. It’s also a must-see stop if you’re a visitor. You don’t necessarily have to be there when the fishermen return. A little later, local farmers will set up their stalls with vegetables, fruit, fresh baked bread, spices and a few handmade craft pieces. If you don’t have an opportunity to prepare food in your vacation rental or if you just don’t want to, there are a number of good restaurants in the vicinity of the market hall that can be recommended.
We have probably spent hours walking up and down the promenade along the waterfront, enjoying the warm weather and the authenticity of the town, with only a few tourists mingling with the friendly locals. For a day trip, I recommend taking a trip to Tavira, a lovely town about half an hour away where salt is extracted from the sea and stored to dry under the sun in large white heaps. Another place worth seeing is the Rio Formosa nature area. The wetlands here are in constant flux thanks to the tides, creating habitats for many species. This part of the Algarve coast is the only spot in Europe where you can see flamingos.
Portugal’s Algarve coast can be a destination that doesn’t differ much from others. But a stay in Olhao gives you the opportunity to make your very personal Portugal discovery.