I enter a meditative state as I watch the giant waves crash onto the cliffs in front of me, one by one, each new set arriving on shore like clockwork. It is my third day visiting Portugal and although it is October already, the sun is beating down on me, not yet ready to let fall take over.
A voice behind me pulls me out of my daydreaming. An elderly lady approaches me from a few metres behind, accompanied by a gentle golden retriever.
In a Portuguese accent, she chuckles: “Oh Lord, that surfer out there! The conditions today are really not ideal.” “Oh...”, I start mumbling, unsure what to respond, trying to find the tiny dot of a surfer she has spotted in the distance.
Her facial expressions soften: “Oh well.. Don’t worry about him. Somehow they always turn out fine! It’s the thrill for them, you know? My husband used to go out there all the time.” She tells me they have always lived close to the beach here in the small town of Aljezur, appreciating the slow pace of life with their dog Leila.
Again, I think to myself how beautifully welcoming and warm the Portuguese people have been so far. She asks me whether it is my first time in Portugal and I tell her about my recent journey and stay in Albufeira. She gently rolls her eyes at me: “So you are visiting the South Algarve then?”
“Yes,” I respond, slightly taken aback by her straightforwardness, “the South has long been on my list of places to visit, but this beach was recommended to me and I had some spare time.” I try to read her mind.
She nods slowly. A few moments later, she turns towards me and gives me a soft pat on my shoulder: “Well I’m so glad we met - we don’t see as many people from abroad here on the West Coast. Everyone always flocks to the South Algarve, which makes sense of course! The water is a lot better for swimming.” I look at her as she hesitates. “But...?”
“Well...” she continues, “this right here is Portugal, you know? The endlessly wide beaches. The coastlines with not a single soul in sight at times. I think it’s the more spiritual, more serene side of Portugal, which most people don’t see. Anyway, have a lovely time, my dear!”
I watch as the lady walks back up the stairs to the car park of Praia da Amoreira, quickly vanishing behind a large truck.
I turn around and look at the beach spreading out before me. Upon my arrival in Portugal, I hired a car at Faro airport and had planned to spend my time exploring the south of the Algarve only. Driven by promising pictures of the Benagil Caves and the stunning rock formations of Ponta da Piedade, I knew this was where I wanted to make use of my valuable time.
But what the lady had just mentioned had struck a chord with me. After two days of covering most things that had been on my list, I had already grown somewhat tired of following the beaten path, ticking off classic ‘bucket-list’ experiences. I craved something.. well.. LESS advertised.
Back at my rental, I decide to bury my initial plans. I pull up Google Maps on my phone, determined to make the most out of my three remaining days. Inspired by our warm encounter, I drive up to the centre of Aljezur, a small coastal town characterised by its Moorish castle, built in 10th century.
I notice a small café on the side of a street made of cobblestones and decide to sit down for a bit. The owner of the café, who is about my age, brings me a mouth-watering waffle garnished with fresh fruit. He tells me he’s been living in Aljezur for most of his adult life and thinks it is the most charming spot in the whole country.
Back at the hotel after a 1.5-hour drive, I let the memories of the day settle, grateful for the lady’s nudge to rethink my itinerary.
In the morning, I pack some lunch after breakfast and to my delight, the hotel owner hands me two traditional Pastel de Nata to enjoy on my drive back to the west coast. I devour them before I‘ve even started the engine.
I arrive at the Praia da Bordeira car park just after lunch. I press my entire body against the car's door as the ferocious winds are trying hard to keep me inside the vehicle. Looking around, rugged limestone cliffs rise to my left and right, leaving me wondering how far I still am from the actual beach.
I hurry to keep pace with a group of people in front of me, making their way to the beach, jumping over what seems to be a shallow lagoon. As I learn from the group, walking up to the Praia da Bordeira inevitably leads you along this small river bordering the beach of Bordeira (the Ribeira da Bordeira), ultimately ending up in the ocean.
I climb up the wooden stairs on the left side of the bay and am rewarded with an astounding view of the almost three-kilometre-long beach. Above our heads, seagulls are circling, waiting for the perfect opportunity to secure some leftovers.
The day before my return flight, I set off from Faro to one last stop on the West Coast. I can’t help but appreciate the smaller size of the country, making the drive between the South Algarve and the West Coast just two hours long.
I take a long last walk on the golden sands of the Praia do Castelejo, waiting for the sun to slowly set down on us. I go back to the car and drive up the mountains, back to the main road.
But instead of turning left to the motorway, I leave the village of Vila do Bispo behind me and cautiously make my way up the gravel road to Torre de Aspa. For a moment, I doubt my rental’s capacity to make it without popping a tyre, but eventually, I arrive at the highlight of my 6-day trip.
I am able to park the car close to the cliff’s edge, my eyes already running wild in both directions of the lookout, trying to grasp the immensity of what lies before me. It is surprisingly calm and the roaring ocean below looks entirely peaceful and quiet from up here.
I watch the colours of the sky turn blue as the sun sets over this slice of Portuguese West Coast, only to rise again in the morning.
As I make my way back to the airport in Faro on the day after, I feel a sense of calm. I can’t help but wonder what the lady I had met had thought of our conversation after we parted ways. A wave of gratitude washes over me.
As the plane touches down in London, I overhear a friendly, elderly man sitting in the row behind me say to his wife: “What a beautiful holiday! The South is just the absolute best Portugal has to offer.” I look out of the plane window at the tarmac, subtly rolling my eyes, smiling to myself.
Tips for visiting the Algarve and the South West
West Coast Beaches:
While the beaches of the South Algarve - with their golden sand and cove-like shapes - are among the most popular ones in Portugal for swimming and family holidays, the West Coast is not only a paradise for surfers of all levels, but a not-to-miss destination for travellers who rather enjoy going off the grid.
Endless beaches backed by dramatic cliffs and sand dunes invite visitors to get lost in the freeing feeling the West Coast conveys, and to appreciate life as nature serves as a gentle reminder to stay present.
The best West Coast beaches for travellers:
• Praia de Odeceixe (Odeceixe)
• Praia da Amoreira (Aljezur)
• Praia do Castelejo (Vila do Bispo) • Praia da Bordeira (Bordeira)
What you need to know:
Getting here: To explore the West Coast, you can best fly into Faro Airport. Alternatively, travellers can fly to Lisbon and go down south.
Getting around: If you want to explore flexibly, renting a car is definitely the easiest way to do so. Beware of toll fees though! Portugal has a toll road system and fees need to be paid before leaving the country. The public transport network will connect you to the major cities and special bus shuttles can get you to remote locations too.
Your stay: The Algarve offers lovely hotels and charming AirBnBs. If you can get around easily, you can essentially stay anywhere. Make sure to book in advance!
Highlights: If you travel by car, stop at one of the iconic ceramics warehouses. Pottery and ceramics is a typically Portuguese craft and you might find some pieces to take home with you as keepsakes.