What a delightful suntrap the Algarve was when I visited this spring, the early season sunshine most welcome to escape the grey UK for a few days. The fine white sand of the Algarve beaches stretched for miles, the sea not quite warm enough to swim, but certainly perfect weather to walk on the seashore and unwind to the soothing rhythm of the waves. We went on boat trips – not one but two. Walked along the cliff tops and watched the sun turn the limestone golden and the sun set over the sea stacks and arches. I’ve already written about our stay at Quinta do Lago Country Club and the fun things to do in nearby Faro. But this is the story the sea and lagoon, the wild cliff tops and beaches of the Algarve that we enjoyed and the tranquil waters of the Ria Formosa.
A walk in the Ria Formosa Natural Park
A short stroll from Quinta do Lago Country Club, the path skirted the edge of the salt marsh, leading the wooden bridge across this tidal basin to Quinta do Lago beach. If you’re not staying nearby as we were, there’s a car park by the bridge, which I’m sure must be packed in summer. Along the nature trail we looked out for the native plants listed on the information boards, that grow throughout the Ria Formosa reserve, the umbrella pine, yellow broom and lavender.
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The mud flats, lagoon and woodland make this one of the most important bird watching sites in the Algarve, a resting place for birds migrating from Africa. It was mesmerising just to stand on the bridge to see the waders picking over the shimmering sheets of water for small clams and crabs that are exposed at low tide.
Quinta do Lago beach in the Algarve
Crossing the boardwalk takes you to the sand dunes of Praia Quinta do Lago, one of the best Algarve beaches which stretches for 3km to Faro in one direction and Vale do Lobo in the other. During our stay in February the weather was unbelievably sunny and warm and the beach deserted except for a few dog walkers and people enjoying a low season break.
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In high season this is a very popular beach for families, but if it gets too crowded, you just need to walk a little further away from the boardwalk in either direction to find the less accessible spots. Tucked into the sand-dunes by the beach, there’s a popular seafood restaurant Gigi’s which sadly was not yet open when we passed by.
Where to stay in the Algarve
If you want to have easy access to the beach at Quinta do Lago, I can recommend the luxurious Quinta do Lago Country Club, where I stayed with fellow blogger Kathryn of Travel with Kat. It’s in a wonderful location, an easy 20 minutes drive from Faro Airport and is set on the edge of the Ria Formosa natural park, overlooking two small lakes. The boardwalk and beach are only 10 minutes walk from this luxurious apartment complex, where you’ll also find indoor and outdoor swimming pools in the beautifully landscaped gardens.
Our apartment was decorated in restful shades with tiled floors, designed to stay cool in the heat of the summer. Since the main apartment building is set on a gently sloping hillside, each apartment has slightly different levels. We awoke to views from our bedroom balcony of the lakes used in summer for watersports. From the living area we could walk onto a shady private patio within the gardens with shrubs and tall trees. Each of the two bedrooms in our apartment had its own en suite bathroom, with a huge living room and well equipped kitchen. If you can’t be bothered to shop there’s the option of taking breakfast in the Quinta Lounge offering a continental style breakfast with hot dishes cooked to order.
Over the last year, the decor at Quinta do Lago Country Club has been refreshed, with all the public areas refurbished in the updated contemporary look with accents of turquoise blue and green. You can see examples of the new contemporary style apartments below, all of which will be updated in the next 12 months.
Read my full review of Quinta do Lago Country Club
If you want the flexibility of your own apartment, but the facilities and services of a hotel, you’ll have the best of both worlds at Quinta do Lago Country Club. The Country Club offers one, two and three bedroom self-catering apartments with spacious living areas and well equipped kitchens, but you can breakfast in the Quinta Lounge, buy snacks and light meals at the poolside bar, and try a range of fantastic restaurants a short distance away.
The Country Club has a friendly atmosphere, with most of the apartments in shared ownership so that guests and owners return year after year and know all the staff. Since not all the apartments are in use at any time, there are always some available to rent, with a minimum stay of 2 nights in low season.
To book Quinta do Lago Country Club
Reservations for Quinta do Lago Country Club may be made directly through the website, or the English speaking reception staff will be happy to help you with your booking requirements. I can highly recommend the country club for your Algarve holidays, especially for spring and autumn breaks when the resort less uncrowded.
Address: Quinta do Lago Country Club, Rua das Palmeiras s/n Quinta do Lago, Almancil, 8135-024,
Phone: +351 289 352 352
Vale do Lobo beach in the Algarve
A short drive away is the resort of Vale do Lobo, where the same broad, sandy beach continues, offering shallow waters for swimming and plenty of space for sunbathing. We stopped for a quick look at the beach and then returned in the evening for dinner at the lovely beach restaurant Maria’s which has glass windows and a terrace, opening to views over the beach. The menu offers plenty of seafood and a range of other dishes too – I enjoyed my trio of grilled fish with new potatoes and vegetables.
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Like Quinta do Lago, Vale do Lobo is one of the more luxurious Algarve Resorts with lots of holiday apartments, golf and centrally organised activities. We were also recommended the nearby beach bars like Julia’s and Izzy’s – in fact all along this beach there are fun beach bars to try out if you are there in the summer season.
Our Ria Formosa boat trip to Ilha Deserta
Staying on the edge of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, of course we had to go on a boat trip within the lagoon, which is one of the top things to do in the Algarve if you’re staying near Faro. Designated as a protected area since 1987, the Ria Formosa covers the coastal lagoon, sandy islands that face the ocean and areas of natural wetland that are a paradise for birds.
You can check the various Algarve boat trips on offer along the waterfront at Faro near the Portas do Mar of the old town. The ticket booths line up on the waterfront, where each company can tell you what’s on offer in terms of length and cost of trip. Ferries and water taxis ply back and forth to the islands, or you can take a 2-3 hour boat trip with a guide, taking you to more than one island and sometimes outside the lagoon to spot pods of dolphins.
Our sunset boat trip with Islands4you took us in a comfortable open boat from Faro with a chance to look back at Vila-Adentro, the walled old town, where Faro’s population lived for centuries as protection from sea raiders. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon on the water, although in the early spring I was glad of my jacket in the open boat.
Our tour passed areas of reeds and we spotted sea birds dipping in and out of the water, heading to Ilha Deserta, also known as Ilha da Barreta. This part of the ever shifting sandbar overlooking the mouth of the lagoon, where boats can pass in and out to reach the ocean, with lighthouses on both sides of the opening.
Ilha Deserta pretty much lives up to its name, an open expanse of sandy shore covered by low growing plants. There’s a long and uncrowded beach on the ocean side where the lighthouse is located and miles of sand to walk along. No shade is available on the beach, but the boardwalks lead to Estaminé, the only cafe on the island, serving seafood including local clams from the lagoon.
The restaurant building is designed of wood with sustainability in mind, fitting into this natural landscape with solar power and purified groundwater. It also offers the only toilets around. As you get off the boat there are some cute fishermen’s huts, used by the fisherman who lives part of the time on the island. An hour is probably long enough for a wander around here, unless you are settling in for the day on the beach with a picnic. We just had time for a quick coffee in the restaurant and walked around the beach and boardwalks to take some photos, before our boat trip continued on to the next island.
Ria Formosa boat trip – Ilha do Farol
On the other side of the lagoon entrance is the village of Farol, named after the tall lighthouse that warns approaching ships and sits at the back of a long sandy beach. This is actually part of the Ilha da Culatra, which has two villages, although there are no cars and only a few year round residents. Most people who have houses here just use them as a summer get away.
We wandered through the narrow lanes between the painted summer houses showing off their decorative Algarve chimneys, with small gardens and roof terraces. There are a couple of cafes within the village, and in summer we heard it gets quite lively here as people also come over on the ferry from Olhao to spend the day (an night) relaxing and having fun.
By the time we’d walked around to look at the lighthouse, beach and pretty houses, it was late in the afternoon and the sun was setting over the lagoon. It was peaceful out on the water as we headed back to Faro, with the sun turning pink and the birds flying over the water.
Drinks at O Castelo in Faro with a view of the lagoon
For a view of the Ria Formosa lagoon, climb up the belltower of the Cathedral of Santa Maria in the old town of Faro. For a small fee you can visit the cathedral and climb the tower, with a terrace where you can see the bells (and hear them ring if you time it right) as well as getting panoramic views over the lagoon and the old town.
After our Ria Formosa Boat trip, we found the perfect spot for a sunset drink at O Castelo, a bar and restaurant with a terrace that faces the water, perched at the top of the high stone walls. We ordered our aperitif – try the Porto Tonic! – and watched the sky turn all the shades of orange, red and purple and the boats speeding back to the marina.
Ponta da Piedade
On other days of my stay at Quinta do Lago Country Club we decided to seek out the best Algarve beaches to the west of Faro. We were drawn to Ponta da Piedade by the stunning photos we had seen of rock formations amid the sparkling water. The dramatic limestone cliffs have been carved into sea pillars and rock arches, which can easily be viewed from the clifftop above.
Numerous paths lead along the top of the cliff offering lots of different photographic viewpoints, although you should take care as some take you perilously close to the edge. The viewpoint is close to the town of Lagos and there’s a car park next to the lighthouse with a few shops and cafes. To reach Ponta da Piedade from Lagos you can take a taxi or the tourist train in summer, or there is a coastal path offering a 30 minute walk via the beaches at Praia Dona Ana and Praia do Camilo.
A stone staircase leads down from the top of the cliff to the small cove at the bottom, where small boats are waiting to take you on a boat trip – we paid €20 per person for a 30-40 minute trip. The Ponta da Piedade boat trip was one of the highlights of our stay, as our incredibly skilled boatman Vitor steered us smoothly in and out of arches and sea caves.
While dealing with the waves and swells, we got a rundown of the names given to the shapes of the rock formations, such as the elephant or camel head, and explored sea caves with names like Pirate cave or the Art Gallery.
Vitor told us that the building that is now a lighthouse was once an old church built in the 18th century that was much visited by fishermen’s wives, where priests would keep a fire burning like a lighthouse to be seen by those out at sea. Boat trips are also available direct from Lagos marina, and if you do it this way the whole trip would then take 1-2 hours.
The beach of Praia Marinha
Our search for more beautiful Algarve beaches continued with our final stop of the day at Praia Marinha. It’s another beauty spot, one of the string of coves and beaches that are joined by a coastal trail. At the edge of the car park you’ll see the path leading down to the beach at the base of the cliffs, while numerous paths meander over the headland to photographic viewpoints.
If you find just the right spot, you can take a photo of the sea arch known as M-Rock, where the position of the limestone stack creates a heart in the water – take a look at my image below. The beach is bigger than it looks from above and you can get quite a long way along it at low tide. The furthest end is reached by skirting some rocks so be careful not to get cut off as the tide comes in.
Praia Marinha is the start of the Seven Hanging Valleys trail, a marked cliff top walk that runs to Praia de Vale Centeanes, with access to other beaches along the way. If you are walking the whole trail, it will take around 6 hours there and back and you’ll need proper walking shoes or trainers. Of course you’ll also want to spend some time at the beaches for a swim to cool off!
One of the most popular landmarks along this stretch of coast is the Benagil sea cave which can be accessed by boat and makes a stunning photo. There’s a small sandy beach within the Benagil cave that has an open hole letting light in through the domed roof.
Praia Marinha made a beautiful spot for us to end our day with a grandstand view of the sunset, the sun turning the limestone golden and the sky pink and orange.
There are plenty more gorgeous Algarve beaches, including the ones to the west of Lagos on the Atlantic coast, that are popular with surfers. I can highly recommend visiting the Algarve in the springtime as we did, or any time outside the peak season of July and August, since the weather is warm and the beaches less crowded.
If you enjoy being beside the sea, for swimming, walking and relaxation, these are just some of the best beaches in the Algarve to visit, and I especially recommend taking a Ria Formosa boat trip for those who love to be out on the water or in natural, unspoiled surroundings.
More information to plan your visit to The Algarve
You can find more information to plan your holiday in the Algarve at Visit Algarve Tourism site
There is information about holidays in Portugal at the Visit Portugal Tourism site
Looking for a boat trip in the Algarve? Check out these boat tours
Need a guidebook for the Algarve? We recommend the DK Top 10 Algarve Guide
My trip was sponsored* by Quinta do Lago Country Club who provided the accommodation stay, some meals and experiences mentioned. Some links on this page may be affiliate links.
* More info on my policies page