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The news of winning one of the October prizes of 5 nights
with bed and breakfast to Portugal in one of the stylish Luna Hotels was
fantastic. There were four hotels to
choose from, but unfortunately the Luna Alpinus and Acoteias were both fully
booked for the February dates I chose. So it was a choice between Luna Olympus
or Luna Forte da Oura. I went for the Olympus which turned out to be a good
There were two additional 'extras' included. A visit to
Animaris, a boat tour the Ria Formosa Natural Park, Faro and a 'Dolphin
Experience' at Zoomarine, Guia, a 10 minute drive north of Albfeira. I managed
to book the Animaris trip, but very disappointed that I was unable to secure
the Dolphin Experience because it was closed down in the winter months. This
was to have been my 'highlight,' as I love dolphins, but despite a plea to
Zoomarine, it was not possible. Maybe, one day!!
We left home very early on the morning of 12th
February to be at Gatwick for a 7am flight to Faro with Monarch Airlines. After
arriving and collecting our luggage we headed for the bus terminal for our
pre-booked 'shuttle direct' connection to Vilamoura. We boarded a white mini
bus with about half a dozen other passengers and set out on our journey on a
pleasant sunny day – unlike the cold, cloudy skies back home. I sat in the
front of the bus next to the young, male driver who engaged in conversation as
we drove along. We were the first to be dropped right outside our hotel as the
other passengers were journeying on to Albufeira. I found it rather strange,
that throughout the trip, not one of the other passengers uttered a word!
We checked into the hotel where the receptionist on duty
kept us waiting for quite a while, despite not being busy. Didn't give a very
good 'first impression' but on later occasions, found other receptionists very
pleasant and helpful.
We were allocated a room on the 5th floor with a
view of the marina. The self catering
apartment had a bedroom, bathroom, balcony, air conditioning, television and
telephone as well as an equipped lounge/kitchenette. There is a fridge, microwave and tea and
coffee makers. We found the room to be clean, tidy and spacious and it looked
as though it had been refurbished fairly recently. It featured a modern blue
and green decor and had wonderful large
windows and tiled floors. I discovered it didn't have a hair dryer, but was
given one when I asked at reception. Shower gel, shampoo, soap and shower hat
were the only bathroom accessories, which is worth bearing in mind. Maids visit
to provide clean linen and towels and make the beds.
The hotel is located in the most cosmopolitan touristic area of the Algarve, in front of Vilamoura’s marina, close to the casino, and beach. It is also near one of the best and renowned golf courses of Europe and is therefore very popular with golfers. Surrounded by commercial areas, you can find a range of restaurants, bars and night life.
Our first trip out was down to the local supermarket to buy a few basics. Mid afternoon we decided to explore the marina and enjoy the sunshine. We headed for the 'Fisherman's Shack,' a few yards from the hotel around 6pm for an evening meal. It was a fabulous meal, with friendly owners, keen to please. My moist sea bass was perfect and boned at my request, next to our table. We enjoyed the place so much we revisited on another evening.
Breakfast at the hotel is served between 8-10am. It is a large, light area with laid out, self serve buffet. Variety of hot dishes include, eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms etc., or cereal, cheeses and ham. Tea and coffee machine and various fruit juices. After our first breakfast, we walked around the grounds outside with its lawns and outdoor swimming pool.
It was such a bright sunny day, we walked down to the beach and along the sand before venturing further into Vilamoura.
We were determined not to drive, but to walk and use the local buses.'
Before leaving home I had found an interesting 18th century church called Sao Lourenco at Almancil. So the following day we made our way down to the nearby bus stop and caught the 10.45 bus which stops at Almancil on its route to Faro. It was to prove quite an experience and I should have done my 'homework' on the exact location! We had a pleasant drive and got off at the stop as we reached the town. We saw a sign highlighting the church and commenced walking and walking until we finally reached the far end of the town after stopping someone to ask the way. We veered off the main road where we met a shepherd and his sheep, not speaking English, but articulating the direction. In the end we had to give up and walk back into town and have a cup of cup before catching the next bus back. (We later learnt that had we stayed on the bus route we could have got off outside Almancil, crossed the road, and found the church.) So much for a 'gem of the Algarve' with its blue and white azulejos!
We booked a 22 Euro bus tour on the Sunday with 'Paradise Tours' to go on their 'Historical - Algarve', a full day, taking in several places. We had an 8am pick up just outside the hotel. The hotel was very helpful and had sent up a tray for an early breakfast the night before. A white mini bus collected us at 8am, and we had a very fast, bumpy ride until we reached the main coach pick up. The coach driver was quite a character, telling us his name was Johnny be good!
Our first stop was the ancient Moorish capital of Silves. We were dropped off for an hour to look at the cathedral and castle and walk around. Littered with orange and lemon trees, the town sits on the banks of the Arade River. Once an affluent Moorish capital, its importance lay in the fact that it was the main access to the inland areas of the Algarve because of the location of its river. The cathedral and the castle are the most prominent buildings as you approach the town because they sit on the hilltop above the town.
We didn't have too much time to see what must have been a spectacular view from the high battlements of the castle. There is not much left of the defensive walls and towers which protected the town. One of the 4 gates remains – the turret of the City Gate.
The cathedral (Se de Silves), sitting alongside the castle and narrow, cobbled streets, is one of the Algarve's few remaining Gothic buildings, with ancient tombs. Built as a mosque during Moorish rule,it later converted into a cathedral after reconquista. It is very dark inside with statues and paintings.
Numerous cafes with outside seating offers lovely river views. Our coach driver told us that the place is quiet now because all the young people have left because there is no work.
As we continued on our tour, the driver pointed out some of the many cork trees. They live for an average of 150 – 200 years. For each tree the cycle is repeated every 9 to 10 years, with stripping occurring in late spring and summer. The tops of the trees are not stripped in order to protect them from the sun. It takes at least 25 years for a new tree to become profitable. Without permission of the government, it is illegal to cut down any cork oak trees. Our driver told us that a number is written on the peeled cork which refers to the year it was stripped. Portugal produces more than 50% of all the cork in the world and top champagne producers only ever use cork from here for their bottling operations because it is considered to be of the best quality.
It was very pleasant, driving through the lush green vegetation, winding roads, with eucalyptus trees, acacia, rock roses and sea eagles before heading towards the thickly wooded mountain range of Monchique. There are natural springs where you can fill up bottles with the unique Monchique water, said to have healing properties. Houses in Monchique are typically Algarvean with white walls and bands of colour around the windows and doors. In the small hamlets, artisans uphold age-old traditions and farm labourers tend their terraced vegetable plots or citrus groves. Traditional methods are used to produce black pork sausages and cured hams. Unique honey comes from the region’s scented wild flowers and medronho liqueur made from the fruit of strawberry trees.
We drove on to the highest point which is 902 metres high. The view from this point was supposed to fantastic, but sadly, it was cloudy and misty when we were there! We got off the coach to visit an artisan shop and tastings of wines and brandies from the area. It was a relief to go inside as it was cold and very windy outside.
On the way back down the mountain we stopped off at a restaurant for lunch. Earlier, the driver had asked who wanted to order lunch in order to book ahead and save time waiting. It would have been nice to know that this was an option, as it wasn't mentioned in the itinerary. Like us, some people had brought sandwiches in anticipation that food had not been arranged. Instead of the restaurant, we enjoyed a hot bowl of soup and coffee in the adjoining bar.
Lagos was our next visit where the first slave markets appeared in Europe and the church of St Anthony in baroque style. Full of historical interest, its origins date back as far as 2000 years BC. Lagos has always had a seafaring connection and during the 15th century, was the base for the 'voyages of the Discoveries' instigated by Henry the Navigator.
Walking across the square we visited the Santa Maria church before going on to the famous Lagos 'golden church' of St. Anthony which was rebuilt in 1769. The entrance to the church is through the museum at the side and both the museum and the church are really worth visiting. We were disappointed that we didn't have a longer time to take in everything inside the museum. We talked at length with a very informative lady inside the church which was very interesting. A small, underground chapel marks the exact location where St Anthony was born 1195.
On the opposite side to the churches is the 'Slave Market' from the 15th century. Slaves were brought back from the discovery voyages and sold.
Finally, our last port of call was to Cape St Vincent, the most south-westerly point of Europe with spectacular views over the Atlantic ocean and where the next stop is New York. Here you can see the lighthouse and look down the sheer cliffs below. Several navy battles were fought here and pirates are known to have plundered the area. By now the weather had much improved, with blue skies and good visibility for photographs.
The day before returning home we had our freebie trip to The Ria Formosa - a natural park system of barrier islands and channels with thousands of visiting birds. We caught the 9.25 bus to Faro for our 11.30am trip on a catamaran from the 'old port' area. I was met by a very nice Portuguese man with a South African accent, who was expecting me. Once on board we set out with another 4 passengers for our professional guided tour through the channels. We were given background history of Faro and birdwatching as well as local biodiversity and traditional activities.
More than 30,000 birds arrive daily. Flamingos, spoonbills, dwarf sea swallows, grey plovers, dunlin, curlew, common hawthorns, straight beaked kingfishers, ducks and water cocks are but some of the species to be found here. Birds of prey like the hunting kestrel are also seen in the area. Fauna include sea daffodil, shrubby pimpernel, grape hyacinths, mirror orchid and bumblebee orchid. 300,000 seahorses used to be in the area, but seaweed began killing them off. At low tide fish get stuck and the birds have a great feeding time.
An earthquake in 1755 was the biggest such event recorded in Europe and is known as the Lisbon Earthquake. We were dropped off on the island (type of spit-head) where you can walk along the beach, have something to eat at the one and only restaurant or just enjoy the time as you want before choosing your time to return.
The desert island, has 11 km of white sandy beach and crystal clear water with an amazing amount of beautiful shells lying around. We had a light lunch snack in the restaurant then just spent time walking around and soaking in the atmosphere and sea breeze – fantastic!
After a cloudy start to the day, the afternoon brightened up with sunshine and blue skies. We were able to visit the Faro Cathedral before catching the bus back to our hotel.
What a way to finish our five days in the Algarve with its wonderful mild climate and many beautiful, historic towns and villages to explore. Not forgetting the food of course and its bountiful selection of fresh fish.
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