From watching wild dolphins, hiking in the hills, exploring historical castles and dining on delicious local cuisine, Margaret Scully finds it all in Albufeira
After a high-speed, high-jumping boat ride, all the sight of land is lost as our skipper switches the engine off, and switches Enya on. The aquatic audio from the Irish singer is the soundtrack to our immersion into the wonderful world of wild dolphins playing in the deep blue sea.
Surrounded by 360 degrees of blue sea and sky, and escorted by the joyful jumping charmers of the ocean, I’m offshore from the craggy cave coast of the Algarve, Portugal, and the holiday is off to a blissful start.
The soundscaped boat ride enhances echoes in the famous cave at Benagil, gets dreamy with the dolphins and ends with traditional Portuguese ‘Fado’ as we sail back into the marina of Albufeira, which is built on ochre cliffs and spreads out from whitewashed houses and twisty lanes in the old town to a sprawling coastal metropolis of apartments and hotels.
Descending the outdoor escalator to Fisherman’s Beach in the heart of old Albufeira, dining al-fresco on the water’s edge is a delight. Calamari and sea bass at the locally
recommended Flavours restaurant doesn’t disappoint. I’m on a relaxing break with my mother, so we’re not enticed by the bright lights and bars of ‘The Strip’, which is jam-packed with creatures of the night as we drive through.
Creatures of the ocean are a big attraction in Albufeira and families flock to Zoomarine, at nearby Guia. Having had the dolphins in the wild experience, I’m a reluctant visitor to the main attraction: the dolphin show. We take our seats in a large auditorium surrounding a bright blue pool.
When the bottlenose dolphins enter the pool high jumping and flipping into their
synchronised performance, it’s impossible not to be lured into the joy and happiness exuding from the dolphins, their trainers and everyone else present.
Walking through the dark hall of aquariums is the nearest thing to diving I’ll possibly ever experience, as I’ve no desire to be submerged underwater with a tank on my back. The underwater world is replicated with tiny sea horses, blue stingrays, guitarfish and shining shoals of multicoloured fish are hypnotic to watch.
At a glass-sided pool, we make eye contact with the ghost-like faces of the common eagle ray. Unable to resist an invitation to feed them prawns, I dip my hand in the tank for the toothless creatures to suck food from my rubber glove-covered fingers. Yuck, I hear you say. Well, it is a bit strange but amazing to get up close with the ray.
Feeding time for humans in the Albufeira region is all day every day in our case as we’re staying at the ‘all-inclusive’ five star Sao Rafael Suites, where we have a bedroom, bathroom and balcony each, with sitting area and kitchenette in the middle. Balancing the wining and dining with exercise, we set out for a hike on the Paderne trail, in the hills nearby.
Meandering through fields and laneways in the beautiful sunshine, this is a nice and relatively easy loop walk that takes three hours. The friendly locals help us in our quest to reach the summit ruins of Paderne Caste. Arriving back to the village of Paderne we land at Os Arcos restaurant on Rua Migues Mombarda.
We’re the only tourists in the dining room full of lunching locals, enjoying fantastic freshly prepared dishes and wine on their break. Paderne is only 20 minutes by car from Albufeira and a completely different experience, also reflected in the price,
with lunch for two costing €15 without wine, which in Portugal will only be a few euros extra. Meals with wine average at €50/€70 for two around Albufeira.
At the Sao Rafael Atlántico a la Carte restaurant, the turbot with red onion and beetroot risotto, scallops and guinea fowl are all perfect. The almond meringue served with lime ice cream, fig compote and mint is a sumptuous combination of flavours and textures. Alas, the drab dining room interior is no match for the warm and wonderful personality of well-travelled waiter Jose and the creative cuisine of talented head chef, Victor Monteiro.
Having enjoyed lunch on a balcony overlooking the sea earlier, I’m missingthe view, so I head down a steep road beside our hotel to A Sardinha; a gem and the only restaurant on the stunning Praia dos Arrifes beach. Relaxation can be extended up the hill again
at the Sao Rafael Atlántico spa experience. The therapeutic A 50-minute massage is effective and well priced at €55.
It’s our last afternoon in Albufeira and we head for the hills one more time, for the highly recommended Jeep Safari tour. Driver guide, Joe, picks us up in his cool open-backed off-road truck and we collect five more adventurers en route. Back at Castello
de Paderne again, this time our guides bring the place to life.
It’s a miracle that the walls are still standing at all, considering they withstood two earthquakes, a tsunami and a fire, all on the one day in 511AD. Continuing uphill to a Cork tree plantation we learn that harvesting cork is a dying art than can only be
done once every nine years on each tree, by hand.
Stopping at various spots to taste fruit, the strawberry like ‘medronho’ is a first for me and favourite with the locals who use it to make ‘Fire Water’. In the high village of Alte, we visit a still, where a local woman makes moonshine as well as native carob liqueur
and cinnamon honey.
The sun has set by the time we land back from the five-hour drive around the scenic hills, a fitting finale to an action-packed Holiday in Albufeira. It’s time to say farewell to the craggy coast with its gorgeous beaches, friendly people, sunny weather, an
abundance of activities, great food and wine and fabulous hotel suites.
No doubt, whenever I hear Enya again, I will see those beautiful wild dolphins rhythmically dancing in the deep blue Algarve sea.