July 18, 2012
Fine swathe of sand ... Portugal's Algarve coast offers an ideal escape. Photo: Getty Images
Mary Lussiana finds a quiet, unspoilt stretch of sand at odds with the rest of the Algarve.
'The end of all the inhabited earth" was how Strabo the Geographer described this coast in the early days of the Roman Empire. The Moors, who occupied it from the eighth to the 13th century, named it Al-Gharb, meaning "the West", as it was the most westerly point of their domain.
Moorish influences can still be seen, in the almond, quinces and fig trees which cover much of these rugged lands (and are the basis for many sticky cakes); in the architecture, where delicate latticework chimneys sit atop low-lying whitewashed houses; and in interiors, which are often heavily clad with azulejos, or hand-painted tiles.
By the 15th century, this was the coast from which young men set sail to seek new lands, launching Portugal's Golden Age of Discovery. You can picture the caravelas setting forth, as you drive along the coastline from Lagos to Sagres, twisting and turning through an unspoilt, authentic, windswept region, where the waves crash against the cliffs and the seas beckon to an empty horizon.
It is a completely different Algarve to the manicured gardens and large villas of Quinta do Lago on the east, or the concrete strips of Albufeira and Vilamoura in the centre.
Praia do Martinhal, or Martinhal beach, is one of the finest swathes of sand you reach just before the promontory of Sagres. Here the stark, 18th-century fortress that dominates the clifftops is thought to have been built on the site of Henry the Navigator's famous school of navigation, Vila do Infante.
Henry drew together skilled cartographers, astrologers and astronomers and the best boats, laying the foundations for a maritime expansion which discovered the sea route to India - bringing Portugal a monopoly on the spice trade - as well as reaching Brazil and its treasures. Beyond that lies the Cape of St Vincent, the most south-westerly tip of mainland Europe, where you can watch the sun rise and set from the same vantage point.
Beside the huge lighthouse is a tiny museum with information on the lighthouse, Henry the Navigator and the fourth-century martyr St Vincent, whose body was supposedly washed up here.
At this point, the coast turns upwards, facing the full force of the Atlantic and providing spectacular surfing conditions. But the gentler waves that lap the sands at Martinhal make for a perfect swim, even if the Atlantic is much more bracing than the Mediterranean.
The sea breeze farther from the cove means that wind surfing is also particularly good on this beach, but the waters offer a plethora of activities, from seabird-watching trips and diving to shark-fishing and spotting dolphins in the wild.
Above the beach, the Costa Vicentina Natural Park rolls inland with its maritime pines and hardy shrubs. Between the two lies the Martinhal Hotel, from where -- cold vinho verde in hand - you can watch the sun go down in considerably more comfort than standing on the Promontorium Sacrum as the ancients once did.
DID YOU KNOW?
Portuguese water dogs, one of which resides in the White House, originate in the Algarve
The beach of Martinhal and its nearby hotels are approximately 90 minutes' drive from Faro airport.
THE INSIDE TRACK
- A new toll system was introduced along the Algarve's A22 motorway late last year, so check your rental car is supplied with the required Via Verde box, which debits the toll automatically.
- Rather than a starter in a restaurant, take the standard "covers" of cheese, olives, carrots sliced with garlic and coriander and the delicious presunto, or ham - all are typical of the Algarve.
- Visit the Fortaleza at Sagres and see the giant wind compass, the Rosa dos Ventos, thought to have been built for Henry the Navigator, which measured the direction of the wind.
- Book a boat trip with Mar Ilimitado, which operates from the tiny port of Baleeira, next door to Martinhal beach, and look for dolphins, sea turtles and blue sharks with a knowledgeable marine biologist (91 683 2625; marilimitado.com).
THE BEST HOTELS
This lovely design hotel, all clean white lines and bracing sea views, is as cool as the surfers who frequent it. 144 rooms, a spa and a surf centre (00351 282 624212; memmohotels.com; doubles from euros 97.50/$A116).
Pousada do Infante
Spectacularly located on the cliff's edge overlooking the sea at Sagres, this pousada (hotel) was purpose built in the Sixties to accommodate the dictator Salazar (among others); 51 rooms, most with a sea view (282 620240; pousadas.pt; doubles from euros 180/$A214).
Martinhal Beach Resort and Hotel
Directly overlooking Martinhal Beach, and with access to it, this luxurious 38-room boutique hotel with surrounding two- and three-bedroom villas has proved a big draw for families, with its wide choice of activities for all ages (282 240200; martinhal.com; hotel doubles from euros 190/$A226 two-bedroom villas from euros 138/$A164).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
This rustic restaurant, right on Martinhal beach, serves an excellent selection of fresh seafood, including Sagres oysters, clams and more (Praia do Martinhal; 918 613410).
Mar a Vista
A typical Portuguese, family-run establishment that offers delicious sea bass and sea bream, often caught by the patron, Paulo, himself (Praia da Mareta; 282 624247).
A sophisticated choice that offers contemporary Portuguese cuisine with an international twist - cod fish confit with a black olive crust - accompanied by an impressive selection of Portuguese wines and a view to remember (Martinhal Beach Resort; 282 240200).
WHAT TO AVOID
- Don't rely on paying by card. Many restaurants (and some shops) only accept cash.
- To avoid getting into difficulty in the water, check the flags on the beach. Green is safe to swim; yellow is caution - remain at the water's edge; red - swimming forbidden.
- If you go up the west coast, be aware of the strong currents, which are often not suitable for young or inexperienced swimmers.
- The Telegraph, London