Road Trip to the Algarve Part 1 – Olhão

After hearing so much about the Algarve, it was time to see it for ourselves…

The Algarve is the southern most region of continental Portugal (don’t forget about the Azores and Madeira islands). It has an area of 4,997 km (1,929 sq mi), ~450,000 permanent inhabitants, and incorporates 16 municipalities. With such a vast area, it was obvious we weren’t going to see it all in one trip. This meant we needed to be strategic in our planning. We decided that Tavira (pronounced tah-vee-dah) had to be the first place to go because we both fell in love with it after seeing multiple YouTube videos. Then, in a surprise twist, our trip was extended when we learned Sweet Pea was going on a vacation of her own.

Let me explain…a few weeks back we met Inés who has a dog walking, sitting and boarding business called Patas na Rua. Inés had agreed to watch Sweet Pea while we were in Tavira; however, she got the dates of her own vacation mixed up. Turns out they overlapped with the dates of our trip. We attempted to change our hotel reservation, but the hotel was fully booked on all the alternate dates we looked at. Out of the blue, Inés proactively offered to take Sweet Pea with her! She was planning to visit her mother who lives in Vila Nova Santo André in the Alentejo region (about 2-1/2 hours south of Lisbon). She assured us it wasn’t a problem because she was going to have a couple of other dogs with her (including two of her own) and said Sweet Pea was really easy to have around, so it was all set! The bonus? We ended up with two extra nights that we could add to our trip.

Our heads were spinning!! It’s a lot like getting the news that your kids have been unexpectedly invited to stay the weekend at your mother-in-law’s! Yee haw!! We gleefully spent a few hours researching and discussing what we should do with the extra time. During this process, I stumbled upon a highly rated boutique hotel, called Convento Olhão located in the town of Olhão (pronounced “ole-yeow“), also in the Algarve about 30 minutes from Tavira. We were able to make a reservation for Saturday and Sunday nights. Awesome!

Knowing our little one would be in good hands, Won and I were excited to begin our adventure!

Day One – A Sublime Experience

After dropping Sweet Pea off with Inés Saturday morning, we headed south to Comporta. Comporta is a small coastal town on a 60-mile stretch of unspoiled, stunning beach about two hours from our home and is known as the Hampton’s of Europe. Here is a map to help orient you.

The purpose of our stop was to have lunch at the Sublime Beach Resort in order to break our drive down to Olhão. It was a spectacular day, warm but not too hot, no humidity, and a clear blue sky with a good breeze. I had learned about Sublime months ago and was intrigued to see it for myself. It is a high end beach resort and let me assure you, it lived up to its hype. The setting was stunning. The restaurant was elegant and tasteful, but laid back and relaxed. We made reservations in advance and had lunch on the covered deck. We decided to split a 7kg grilled turbot for lunch (and no, it’s not that GIANT fish the server is carrying on the platter in the pictures below).

Feeling relaxed and positively sublime, we got back in the car and drove the coastal route south through the Alentejo region, including the town where Sweet Pea was staying (and had to fight with ourselves not to go see her). We arrived in Olhão in the late afternoon.

As mentioned earlier, our hotel reservations were with Convento. They don’t advertise. All their business is by word of mouth. They are so under the radar, they don’t even have a sign on the front door! I’m not kidding. This is what the front door of the hotel looks like.

Even though they provided directions on how to find the front door in an email they had sent in advance, we didn’t read it nearly closely enough. I mean, how hard could it be to find? It’s a hotel, right? After wandering around for about 10 minutes using Google to navigate narrow, winding cobblestone streets that zigzagged between ancient Moorish-style houses, we ended up in front of the door, but since there was no sign, we weren’t sure it was right. Won called the hotel. Eleanor, one of the owners, popped right over and welcomed us. She was lithe, kind, and soft spoken. There is no reception desk. No check in counter. No valets. Oh…and you pay in advance with a wire transfer or cash upon arrival. No credit cards are accepted.

All of that might put you off, but once you step inside Convento, you are transported to another time and place. The first thing you do is remove your shoes in the entry alcove and place them on a shelf. A convenient white bench against a curtained-covered wall creates a quiet moment to take care of this necessity. No one wears shoes in the hotel, if you do, they must be slippers that have never been outside.

Once your shoes have been tucked away, you pass into another world. White walls wrap around the stillness of an open-air central courtyard with arches and columns rising two stories high. When you look up, a large sail cloth strung across the opening is softly billowing in the breeze. A low vessel in the center of the courtyard holds water and a few orchid blooms. Floating candles are added in the evening. A lovely Bougainvillea, with pink blooms, adds color to one corner and antique crystal chandeliers add a magical sparkle when lit at night.

Off the center courtyard is a breakfast room with refectory-style seating, small kitchen that is always open to guests, and a library in one corner. Comfy white couches are available to lounge on in a large, bright, arched space off the dining area.

The ONLY way to the upper levels is via a dizzying set of ancient, narrow, and steep stone stairs with the slimmest handrail in existence. The stairs wind up to the first floor and then on to rooftop in a tight spiral. There, you will find large white sofas shaded by wooden slats with views of the Olhão lagoon and across the tops of the buildings of the city. A perfect slice of blue pool lies at your feet. The hotel tells you in advance that only an over-head size piece of luggage (that has to be hand-carried) will fit up those steps and they aren’t kidding. We brought everything we needed for two days in backpacks.

The hotel has nine rooms – three on the ground floor, four on the first floor and two on the roof top. We reserved the ‘Edvirgem’ suite on the first floor, which meant we had to traverse that staircase multiple times a day. There is no air conditioning, not even in our room, but when you open the window and turn on the overhead fan, the room feels cool and comfortable. There are no TVs anywhere in the building. It is a place to read, reflect, relax and rejuvenate. The vibe is nearly spiritual.

Being on the first level was an ethereal experience with the canopy above and the courtyard below and the wrap-around arched balcony bisecting both. We had a sweet little door within our door and a window draped in wispy linen that looked into the courtyard area.

Convento is perfectly located down a narrow alleyway, just steps from the waterfront and the region’s best fish market housed in an early 20th-century red-brick, turreted hall, now a landmark of Olhão (the Mercado do Olhão). The hotel is also within walking distance of the old town, which is delightfully artistic!

Olhão celebrates art in so many ways. From the architecture – both old and new – to sculptures you find tucked away in random little squares and openings, to wall murals, to beautifully carved doors, to the azulejo tile work, to the painted boat bow planters flanking store fronts and municipal buildings, to the artwork over your head which, this year, is celebrating the town’s heritage as a fishing village! Last year it was brightly colored umbrellas! It’s an amazingly art-filled place.

The main road along the waterfront is blocked off at night when the restaurants and bars are filled with people. Adding to the fun are the legions of folks who are just returning via ferries from coastal islands offshore after a day in the sun and sand carrying their colorful beach umbrellas, bags, towels, and water toys with them. With all that activity, you would think it would be noisy in the hotel, but it’s as quiet as, well, a convent.

Saturday evening we sat down for dinner at O Farol Restaurant. After carefully perusing the menu, we decided to split the seafood and rice stew for two. When it was delivered to our table, our eyes nearly popped out of our heads. It was more like a dish for six!! Won wasn’t deterred, though, and dove right in. After his first attempt to crack open a crab leg, a la Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (remember the scene with the snail?), the staff quickly draped us both in bibs and took cover. Social distancing was an added bonus to those around us that evening!

This is how much seafood was in that thing!! Crab, mussels, lobster, clams, barnacles, prawns…

We gave it our very best and nearly got through all of it. The dish between our plates had to be replaced three times because it was full of seafood shells. You can see the aftermath by looking at the table! Yikes!! After we could eat no more, the staff took us out back and hosed us down. Just kidding about that part, but it would have been helpful if they did, we were practically drenched in seafood stew!

We finished the evening with another walk along the waterfront and enjoyed a cup of gelato to end the evening on a sweet note.

Day Two – Oops! Nearly Everything is Closed on Sundays!

Our big plan was to take a boat tour of nearby islands and the Ria Formosa. Unfortunately, once we arrived we learned that nearly everything is closed on Sundays! We quickly re-calibrated, booked the boat tour for Monday and then decided to drive into Faro, one of the main cities in the region to take a look around. We reasoned that more stores and restaurants might be open there plus we could walk the old town and the marina.

We hung out in Faro for a few hours before going back to Olhão for lunch at Vai e Volta, a place Won had read a lot about. Here’s how Vai e Volta works: No reservations. One thing on the menu. Outdoor seating only. No substitutions. Cash only. They are open for three hours a day, six days a week. When we got there we were told there would be a minimum of 30 minutes before we could be seated. So we decided to walk back to the waterfront to purchase two beach towels and a woven beach bag for the next day’s boat outing. Our timing was perfect and when we got back we were seated within five minutes.

Master of the Grill
The menu at Vai e Volta

It was amazing. There is a guy, whose t-shirt says he’s the ‘master of the grill,’ continuously grilling a variety of fish. When the fish is ready, he walks around with a platter and offers it to the diners. Basically, it’s all you can eat grilled fish! It was delicious and fun. We had sea bream, sea bass, salmon, sardines, and mackerel, to name a few. The only thing that we weren’t fond of was the açorda (pronounced ah-sorda). It’s a kind of mushy bread soup/stew with garlic, coriander and olive oil. We think it’s an acquired taste. Other than that, we gorged ourselves on fresh fish straight from the ocean, briny olives, fantastic bread, steamed whole potatoes, and chopped tomato salad. Simple. Spectacular.

Full tummies require one of two things 1) a long walk or 2) a long nap. We opted for the latter. Feeling fully refreshed and revived after our siesta, it was time to think about dinner! We had not made any reservations believing that we would be able to stop in at any one of the many, many, many restaurants that lined the waterfront, but boy, were we wrong! The fact that some restaurants were closed on Sunday meant the others were PACKED! After being told that a reservation was required at several locations, we were beginning to think we might have to eat at McDonald’s for dinner (yes…there are a few here in Portugal). I convinced Won to try a place that served Italian food. Turns out, it was fantastic! Is it possible to have bad food in Portugal? We’re beginning to think not. And, because the wine is so good and so affordable, Won always reasons a bottle is more cost-effective than individual glasses of wine. That means we feel obligated to drink it all. Egad…I guess you could say we’re always very happy and relaxed at the end of each meal.

While the days were warm, sometimes hot, the evenings were pure pleasure. We decided to go to the rooftop of our hotel that evening, lounge on those comfy white couches and chat about our good fortune at having found such a wonderful country.

Day Three – All Aboard!

The hotel suggested Sabino Boat Tours when we asked for their recommendation. Sabino’s website was super easy to use and allowed us to make a reservation online. We selected the three-hour tour that would take us through the Ria Formosa and to two islands just off the coast. The cost was €25,00 per adult, but we received a 20% discount by mentioning the hotel had referred us. The 11:30AM departure time gave us the chance to have a relaxed breakfast before checking out. Breakfast was included in our room rate, and it was great every day! A variety of unusual, tasty fruit, homemade jams and jellies, freshly baked breads and pastries, and other yummy items like scrambled eggs with oregano and olives (who knew?!).

Prior to boarding, we stopped in at the Mercado do Olhão to buy some bananas and nuts to snack on while we were on the boat. Happily, Sabino provided ice cold beverages for free while on board. It happened to be high tide for our tour which meant we didn’t get to see the oyster beds or the workers who tend them. The oyster industry in Olhão employs 7000 people to work the oyster fields year round.

The Ria Formosa is a system of barrier islands that communicates with the sea through six inlets. The Ria Formosa is a designated Natural Park of over 170 km² (66 sq mi) and a stopping place for hundreds of different birds during the spring and autumn migratory periods. Besides being a natural park, the Ria Formosa is classified as a Ramsar site and is listed by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area, both in its lagoon area with 23296 hectares and the oceanic zone with 19900 hectares. The most important cities near the Ria Formosa are Tavira, Faro, and Olhão.

Captain Daniel was very knowledgeable and gave us a running commentary on the history of the area as we gently and leisurely maneuvered through the lagoon. There were 10 of us on the boat, which normally holds 18. The reduced number is due to COVID-19 restrictions. Everyone wore a mask the entire time we were on the boat. Won and I were the only ones sitting in the back and it felt as if we were getting a private tour.

About an hour into our tour, we pulled up to Culatra Island where the boat did a “D-Day style” landing allowing us to step off the boat and directly on to the sand (minus the artillery explosions, thankfully). Captain Daniel told us he would be back in one hour and encouraged us to explore the island or just relax and enjoy the solitude. Won and I were prepared with our bathing suits on under our clothes. We had the beach towels we had purchased the day before and extra sun screen tucked into our new beach bag. There was absolutely no shade and the water was chillingly cold (it was the Atlantic Ocean after all), but there was a cool, constant breeze and we felt like we were on a deserted island. Here is an aerial shot of the island I pulled from the internet. Won and I set our towels out on the closest point you see in the picture below.

Just as he had promised, Captain Daniel returned and we all boarded for the next stop; an ancient fishing village at the other end of the island where about 1000 people live. There are no roads or vehicles on the island, only interlaced wooden walkways. The island has been inhabited for hundreds of years by families of fishermen who make their living from the water. We disembarked one more time to see the fishing village (this time onto a dock). About 40 mins later, we were back on board returning to the marina in Olhão.

We both LOVED the boat tour and want to do it again, but, next time we’ll select a tour during low tide so we can see what the lagoon looks like with the oyster beds exposed and people working in them. We’ll make sure that trip will be during one of the two bird migration periods. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!

Back on land, it was time for another tasty lunch in Olhão before heading to Tavira. While we were sorry to be leaving such a surprisingly wonderful and interesting place, we were equally excited to finally experience Tavira.

Next week’s blog will be all about one of the most charming towns in all of Portugal. Until then, stay safe, stay healthy and stay in touch!

From Portugal with love,

Beth

Published by Beth Thomas-Kim

After working in corporate America for companies like Mattel, Nestlé, and Johnson & Johnson, I retired and moved to Portugal in January of 2020 with my husband Won and our 12-year old wire fox terrier, Sweet Pea. We now live in Monte Estoril, a lovely seaside town just outside Lisbon. We spend our days happily exploring this beautiful country and learning about its fascinating history, engaging culture, warm and welcoming people, delicious food and wine, and stunning architecture. This blog was started primarily as a way to keep family and friends updated on our transition from the US to Portugal. Now, my subscribers include people from all over the world. Enjoy!

16 thoughts on “Road Trip to the Algarve Part 1 – Olhão

  1. Beth,
    I love a road trip. The hotel/convent you stayed at reminds me of the Pousada Castelo Alvito near Beja where we stayed (https://www.pousadasofportugal.com/pousadas/alvito/). I had to laugh at the Vai e Volta lunch protocol. It seems like eating a fussy relative with lots of rules (but so worth it). Our 1st trip to Provence, restaurants would tell us “too early”, “do you have reservation even when it was empty”, or “we’re closed”. I declared the French motto should be, “Égalité, Fraternité, FERME”! That seafood stew looked amazing.

    So glad that Captain returned to get you off that island, or it might have turned into a Gillian’s Island type of experience.

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    1. We just got home on Thursday (2 days ago) and we are already looking to plan the next road trip (I think we’re becoming addicted!!). So funny you should mention the pousada in Beja. We stayed at the pousada in Tavira (which I’ll be writing about this week and posting on Friday). We are members of the Pestana Hotel group (they own and operate all the pousada’s in Portugal now – it’s no longer the government). We’ve spent the entire morning reviewing all the pousadas and trying to decide which one to go to next. We’ll add Beja to the mix! The Moorish influence is all over the south of Portugal. We love it. I hope you and your family are staying safe and healthy.

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  2. What a gorgeous place you stayed in! Those murals are incredible. The Algarve is a bit of a trek from where we are and we’re still getting to know our own locality (we’re in the Coimbra region). However, maybe next year – I’m taking notes!

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  3. Beth, after reading this edition, I could almost taste the savory sea food and feel the evening atmosphere And enjoy the Convent

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    1. Wonderful!! I’m so happy it stimulated your senses (but, it’s much better in person). 🙂 Can’t wait for you to visit and experience it for yourself. Keeping my fingers (and toes) crossed that that might be possible next year. Give my love to Trudy. Stay safe.

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    1. It’s been added to your shopping cart. Please feel free to continue to shop at your leisure. (LOLOLO!) Can’t wait until you can actually come and see some of these places. Miss you. Love to Adam.

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    1. We have only scratched the surface of the Algarve. There is so much more to see and do. We’ll definitely being going back this year. Funny enough, we’ve spent the last few days researching and planning our next trip down there.

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