Portugal’s Algarve region has been on my beach-destination bucket list for a while now, but it took a little bit to convince the hubby that it was worth a flight when Croatia is “right in our backyard.” I understood, of course, as the eastern European coastal countries boast some of the most beautiful beaches in the world! (Oh, hello Greece, Croatia, Mediterranean islands…) However, once I showed him a few destinations and explained the diversity of landscape along the coast, not to mention showed him the (very reasonable) prices for lodging, he was all in!
The kids missed a week of school for this trip, so we made a point of collaborating with teachers (who were very accommodating) to get work for them so they didn’t get behind. It was a fun challenge to incorporate homework time while we were away – something we hadn’t done quite so formally before – but the kids did awesome with it! At one point Beau said, while sitting on our little balcony overlooking the water, “now this is a great place to do school work!” I couldn’t agree with you more, buddy! I loved watching Didi write about the trip – chronicling things she noticed in each place we traveled to. After our week in Portugal we drove to Spain to see friends (see blog here), bopped over to Gibraltar, and enjoyed an incredible day in Morocco (see blog here). The whole reason for the getaway, however, was to have family beach time together in a brand new place, so that’s where the story begins!
Praia de Monte Clerigo
We flew into Lisbon, rented a car, and headed down the coast. Our first stop in the Algarve region was the small town of Rogil. We found a lovely, cheap place to stay for the night so we could spend the entire day at Monte Clerigo beach. The west coast of southern Portugal is flanked with cliffs and the Atlantic displays impressive waves for surfers and little boogie boarders. Our travel day from Eastern to Western Europe was so long that the kids were more than ready to get their feet wet and spend an entire day digging in the sand. Boy, was this place glorious! It was a great first impression, and Derek couldn’t say enough about how perfect the place was. He and I have slightly different ideas about what an “ideal” beach experience is, but we could definitely agree that the great waves, gradual depth, spacious sandy beach and fun rock formations made for a most memorable first beach day! It is worth noting the waves – impressive, consistent and very long.
We arrived just before noon time so parking was sparse. We just got lucky and found a free spot at the top of the hill; it was loaded with surfers in their little vans all along the side of the road! At the end of the day they had buckets of water they were using to “shower” with. It was hilarious! There were groups of surfers doing surf school and the water was peppered with dudes hanging loose in the waves. The kids wanted to try boogie boarding, so we added that to the list of things to consider for another day. After we found a spot to plunk our stuff down, it was non-stop in-and-out action on the beach for the rest of the day!
Everyone got wet, everyone got a scalp full of sand, and everyone got toasty skin! We worked up an appetite and knew there was a great little place in the village at the end of the beach, so we cleaned up and headed to O Sargo for dinner. It was just in time for sunset – and we almost missed the best view of it! The sun wasn’t visible from the village, so a quick climb up to the top of the cliff opened up to an awe-inspiring sight. Delicious food and a time-stopping sunset put a happy stamp on that first day. The kids were on a high and Derek had fallen in love with Portugal.
The next day we traveled to Lagos, where we spent the remainder of the week. There are SO many beaches in the area that we made Lagos a home base and hopped from beach to beach with ease. First we drove to the tip of the peninsula to scope out the area. We walked around and looked out over the cliffs, getting our first view of the infamous rugged coastline. As it was a weekend, it was quite busy. We managed to find a space to park around Ponta da Piedade, but I’m sure it’s tough to find parking in the highest seasons. Using gps as our guide, we walked along the trails trying to spot different famous arches, beaches or rock formations. We took note of one beach we wanted to visit for the sunrise (Praia da Balança) and then made our way to one of the most popular beaches on the strip, Praia do Camilo.
Ponta da Piedade
Praia do Camilo
This beach was by far the busiest one we went to the entire week – likely because it was small and we went on a weekend. In spite of the crowds, it made us all say “wow” as soon as we started down the many levels of stairs from the parking area.
The lovely light sandy beach is nestled in a cove flanked by huge cliffs and monolith rocks. Everywhere we looked there were nooks and crannies in the massive cliffs around us that nature had created, and even natural archways and caves. Right away we also saw a man-made tunnel on the north side of the beach that led us to another beach on the other side of the cliffs. We eventually realized that this is very common in this peninsula – most beaches connect to other beaches via little caves or tunnels. It’s the coolest!
As it was extra busy in the main beach area, we went through the tunnel to the adjacent beach and found ourselves a spot complete with a little cave of our own. The kids went to work collecting shells, splashing in the waves, and floating on the lobster floatie that Derek manually blew up. Eventually we realized there was yet another beach area that was practically deserted – right through a little hole in the cliffs on the north side of this beach area. With the tide coming in, it deterred many swimmers from venturing over, but it was definitely a fun area for the kids to play with many rocks, perfect sand, and tons of privacy. We didn’t spend much time on that side of the hole as the tide continued to rise. The tide continued to make its way up the beach, which had a way of clearing people out. Eventually the numbers of beach goers dwindled and only about 5 meters of beach remained. The water was perfect and Derek noted that he liked the beach a lot better with less people. We learned to make friends with the tide schedule – it helped us out a lot! We all realized we were on European beaches quickly, as the numbers of topless sunbathers were higher here than anywhere else we had been yet in Europe. So what did the kiddos do? Join in, of course!
After a long afternoon at the beach squeezing in every bit of seawater, sunshine and sand we could, we headed to our apartment – our home base for the week. We stayed at the Dona Ana Beach House apartments which were a great location and price, with ample space for our whole family in 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. The balcony overlooked a pool and the nearby beach (Praia Dona Ana), and the central location was walkable to several beaches and into town each night for dinner and supplies. It was perfect!
We regrouped and headed into town for dinner. We all had a hankering for seafood so we found a great place called “Ol’ Bastards” that served delicious fish tacos and an onion ring tower over a foot high! The kids still wanted to be able to walk down to the beach after dinner, so we made a point of eating early enough that we could catch the sunset on the beach near our apartment. So far everyone in restaurants and in town spoke perfect English (we do not speak Portugese) so that made things very convenient. The food was delicious, and we all stuffed ourselves! It was nice to log some miles, too – each day we ended up with 3-5 miles walked. It may have been relaxing, but it was also an active vacation for sure!
After dinner we walked back to the apartment and quickly changed into our swimsuits again for a walk down to the nearby beach, Praia Dona Ana. As it was late in the day, the people were clearing out, and the tide was fairly low. We explored the north side of the beach and had it entirely to ourselves. We looked over a large rock wall to another beach, Praia do Pinhao, but just looked – didn’t climb over. Willow saw a huge crab on one of the rocks and flipped out in fear…so I realized we had some work to do! By the end of the trip Willow had made friends with all the crabs!
Praia Dona Ana
Walking back to our apartment allowed for a beautiful view over the whole beach as the sun was setting. Everyone felt great – what a day! Little did we know, poor Didi had over eaten (and probably swallowed too much seawater) and woke up in the middle of the night in puddles of her own puke. We cleaned it all up – thank goodness for a washing machine in the apartment – and she woke up perfectly fine the next day. But what would a family vacation be without a hiccup? She was a very good sport.
Benagil Beach & Caves
The next day we awoke to the most amazing red sunrise! Beau always gets up early, so it was no surprise to see him making a cup of tea and a little breakfast sandwich to take out onto the balcony and watch the sun come up. He is such a little man! We got ourselves ready and made a pitstop at the store for breakfast. Then we drove about 30 minutes east along the coast to the Benagil Caves. We parked in a huge free lot at the top of a hill and were early enough that there was ample space, and then walked down to the beach. Mommy didn’t do her research on this place very well, and we quickly realized that most people were visiting the caves via a boat tour or kayak rental. We didn’t want to bother ourselves with such things, and noticed there were plenty of folks swimming from Benagil Beach around the cliff to the caves. I figured that was going to be our best bet.
So, off I went, floating on the lobster, to scope out the scene, while the kids swam at the beach and rescued a bunch of sea slugs. It took me about 10-15 minutes to paddle-kick my way into the cave on our giant lobster floatie, which meant it would take 6-10 minutes to leisurely swim there. Once I arrived at the entrance of the cave, I was taken by its enormity and tremendous beauty. I had never seen anything quite like it! It really was something out of a fairy tale. I snagged some photos and noticed that most people inside the cave had either swam or taken a kayak or SUP. There were a few boats coming just into the entrance of the cave, but none of the passengers disembarked. Quickly I realized that if you had booked a (pricey) boat tour, you wouldn’t even be able to realize the splendor of the place since you couldn’t get out and explore the vast inside. It’s hard to describe! I wanted the kids to experience it so I made my way back to the beach on the lobster and the girls got on top. Beau, Derek and I swam along side the lobster and made our way back to the cave in no time. They loved it! They stacked rocks, made shadow puppets as the sun beamed through the ceiling, and noticed that the rock walls were littered with seashells. Truly beautiful.
We allowed for plenty of time in the cave and then went back to the beach to swim and play for a bit longer before leaving. We always packed plenty of water, snacks and healthy, simple lunches from the very nice supermarkets in town. We always found delicious savory pastries for breakfast and plenty of fruits and veggies to snack on throughout the day. We know how to travel on a budget! And we never went to the beach without supplies. “Never let hunger or lack of water be the reason we need to leave,” we agreed. This time it was the crowds that began to gather around lunch time that inspired us to head back to Lagos. We stopped to grab a cheap boogie board and a few “pasteis de nata” (famous Portugese custard tart) at the market and drove back – just as Willow drifted off to sleep.
When we got back to the apartment I let Willow sleep on me while Beau and Didi worked on school work in the sunshine. While I sat there watching them work diligently, I snuggled with my little girl (who smelled like the ocean) with the sun on my legs and realized this was one of those moments I want to remember forever.
Didi got her work done first, just in time for Willow to wake up, and they went down to the pool with daddy to splash around and make friends. I stayed behind with Beau to finish up his work. Then we all met to head back down to Praia Dona Ana, where we did a little exploring on the opposite side of the beach before getting cleaned up for dinner in town. It was no surprise we felt like seafood again, so we agreed upon an all-you-can-eat sushi place in town. It was fun! Again we were all stuffed – but this time Didi was a little more careful to listen to her body and stop when she was full! We did a little bit of souvenir shopping as Portugal is well known for its cork and tile gift items, and of course we couldn’t walk home without gelato! The day was a bit slower paced – which is what we needed – and it was good to explore downtown Lagos a bit more.
Praia da Balança
I was determined to catch a sunrise ON the beach, so the next day we got up early and drove down to Ponta da Piedade to take in a sunrise on the water. It was a daunting task – we knew from our first day that the climb down to the beach was formidable. It was a total crapshoot as we hadn’t done this climb before, but we prepared the children that it would be challenging and even a bit dangerous, so to use all of the things they learned about climbing to stay safe. The sun rose fairly late, around 7:45 AM, so that was an advantage for us. We found a reasonable path down to Praia da Balança, carefully walking past a tent that had been pitched right on the cliff. We slowly climbed down the crevasse using our hands to brace ourselves on either side of the wedged in walls. The orange rock was very dusty and crumbly – almost like clay. The kids did amazing! Didi got scared at one point thinking she was stuck, but with a little bit of guidance she made it all the way down. Even Willow climbed like a little monkey!
We almost had the beach all to ourselves – except for one dude who had the same idea as us! We made friends with him, a solo traveler from Utah. He was very nice and chatted for a while and took a nice family photo of us. He didn’t stay long, so we really did have the beach all to ourselves for the whole time we stayed there that morning. It was such a peaceful, still morning. The water was gentle and was only disturbed by the occasional line of SUPs or kayaks passing in the distance. It’s easy to say this was my favorite moment – even after chasing Beau down and throwing him into the water for picking on his sisters. HA! This beach is especially fun because, like other beaches, at low tide you can walk along to other little cave/beach areas and there is a little open cave-like place to climb into on the other side of the beach. The rock formations, including an iconic archway in the water, were magnificent! Below it is possible to see the entirety of the crevasse we descended, and next to it a full shot of the cliffs with the moon still visible as the sun rose.
We took another quick peek at the Ponta da Piedade cliffs and then headed straight for another beach I was very excited to see. The theme of the day turned out to be “climb down to the beach,” and the kids were becoming experts at it at this point, so they weren’t daunted at all when I told them they had more climbing to do. “Can I just have bare feet??” asked Didi, and I said yes – and followed suit with my own bare feet.
Praia João de Arens
We arrived before noon to the second beach, Praia João de Arens, situated just east of Lagos. The walk there was soft and sandy along a well trekked path, but wasn’t labeled so we just followed the gps. There weren’t many people there which was nice, and once we made it to the cliffs we could scope out the beach down below and figure out a path down. It was easier to climb down to this beach compared to earlier that morning at Balança, and we had found our way down in no time. There were only a couple of other people on the beach – so we felt like we had scored again!
If I had done the research, I would’ve been able to prepare the children that this was, in fact, a nude or “naturist” beach. However, I did little more than scout the site and didn’t read reviews so we quickly got the hunch that this was going to be a new exposure for our littles. Nevertheless, we made the trek all the way there and hiked/climbed all the way down, so we weren’t about to turn back after discovering this remote paradise just because of a few happy naked bodies. We gave the kids a quick “be respectful” chat and plunked down in our very own sunny cave spot to enjoy the day at this very exotic beach.
Like almost all beaches in this region, Praia João de Arens features natural tunnels and caves that lead to various other beaches and private openings that made for an especially fun place to explore. The kids were occupied with floating on the boogie board, climbing through caves and burying each other in the sand! This was the first time I felt comfortable (and in good company?) going topless as the girls did it naturally, and I must say it was very freeing! Obviously I had to be careful about my photography so I was discerning about where and when I took out my phone, but this is a decent overview of the beach – certainly one I recommend if comfortable with naturist beaches! As we learned early on, if you time this place right with the tides, it is a magical place indeed.
By the end of the afternoon we had eaten all of our sandwiches and had enough for the day. I managed to get a pretty hefty battle wound climbing around on the rocks (a nice deep gouge along my ankle from barnacles) and Beau had his fill of having to be discrete. The girls didn’t want to leave, but it was time. As we were walking back to our (free) parking area up the road, I told the kids how proud I was of them for their polite behavior at the beach. “This isn’t something your friends back home would be comfortable with,” I told them, to which Beau quickly responded, “yeah, that’s because there are no neutered beaches in the states!” HAHAHA! I didn’t correct him – it was just too cute. I definitely don’t want to forget that Freudian slip!
Nearby is another beach we didn’t get a chance to see, but it looked great. Praia dos Três Irmãos is a lovely and versatile beach. On one side rose high cliffs and natural archways that are so notable in the region, and on the other side a vast, 4km beach that leads into another 6km long beach. Maybe next time we can go…
Praia Do Pinhão
That night before walking down to dinner we stopped at Praia Do Pinhão, the beach Didi peeked at from Dona Ana the day before. It looked like a nice beach but was kind of sketchy to walk down to on crumbling stone stairways. With all the other lovely beaches to see, this one was probably the least impressive.
From there we walked back down into the old part of Lagos to scope out “Beats & Burritos,” a super hip joint serving all sorts of fresh Mexican favorites. The walls were covered with napkins that patrons had decorated with artwork and the kids were amazed by it. “Can I make one?” Didi asked. “Of course you can,” said the waitress, again in perfect Kiwi English. All three kids kept busy decorating napkins and when the food came we gobbled down quesadillas, burritos, guac-a-nachos, tacos and a yummy taco bowl! I was impressed by the high quality of ingredients, the cute atmosphere and great service, and especially the price. This place is not to be missed – there’s something for all diets at Beats & Burritos!
Praia do Castelejo
After a couple of days of cliffs and monoliths, Derek was eager to get back to the vast beaches with huge surfy waves so we spent our last day at Praia do Castelejo on the southwest Atlantic side of Portugal. Once again, at low tide a large walkway between jagged rocks is uncovered and it is possible to walk between the neighboring Praia da Cordoama. Cordoama was much longer – we took a walk over there and the kids had sprint races – but we preferred Castelejo as the sandy area was larger between the cliffs and the surf, and the rock formations were unbelievable and so fun to explore! At this point in the journey I ran out of words to describe just how cool these beaches were.
The kids did some school work between boogie boarding on epic waves, climbing rocks and spotting crabs, and digging in the sand. Didi loved practicing her handstands and Willow insisted on being buried multiple times! The kids even dug a hole so deep that Willow disappeared in it! She also may have taken a huge beach poop behind some of these rocks above. I started calling her Mowgli – the little wild thing! It’s safe to say our need for peace and family time was perfectly quenched in Portugal’s Algarve region. All of us ended up well rested, very brown, and with sand in places where the sun don’t shine!
We left the beach so satisfied, stopping at a little beach restaurant before sunset to grab a bite. Willow is obsessed with all things shrimp, so she orders it whenever she sees it on a menu. That happened to be every day we were in Lagos! She was straight up Bubba Gump about it – fried shrimp, steamed shrimp, grilled shrimp, and sauteed shrimp. HA! She was in shrimp heaven! We booked it out of the Castelejo (the eatery) in time to drive up to the nearby cliff (about 15 minutes, mostly dirt roads) that overlooks Castelejo, Cordoama and into a cove called Eagle Beach just as the sun was setting.
We passed a bunch of sheep and goats crossing the road but couldn’t let them slow us down! Once we reached a parking area near the cliffs we had to walk the rest of the way. At one point I was in a dead sprint down a little path to make it to the cliffs before the sun sunk below the horizon, and my ankle was bleeding from being roughed up by the sand all day…and I may have peed a little. HA! funny how that’s not what I remember. It was this view with the wind in my hair that will forever be etched in my mind…
Everyone was completely spent after the long day at the beach and all three kiddos fell asleep on the 25 minute ride back to Lagos. The next day we packed up our things to drive to Spain, Gibraltar and Morocco…but not without one last look at a couple of beaches we hadn’t yet seen.
Praia dos Estudantes
Very close to our apartment was a small parking area near a couple of beaches – Praia dos Estudantes and Praia da Batata. The stairs led down to one part of Student Beach, and true to form, a cliff tunnel led to a second part of the beach, where a beautiful stone archway connected two monoliths – the Lagos Roman Bridge. It was so nice to see this in the light of the morning with very few early birds on the beach. The lighting was perfect and the water was low so we didn’t even need to get our feet wet!
After returning from Spain we headed back up to Lisbon for the day before flying back to Hungary. As if we hadn’t done enough swimming, we hit up the hotel pool that overlooked a soccer stadium. So cool! It reminded us to add a European soccer game to our to-do list while living over here.
On our last day we walked all over the Lisbon waterfront and saw beautiful parks, statues and monuments, as well as enjoyed one last lunch of yummy tapas. Poor Derek cracked his phone screen and Willow had was disappointed the dinosaur exhibit at the museum had closed down (they replaced it with another Banksy exhibit! Cool, but we had already seen that, so…), so everyone had reached their limit for travel when it was time to leave. We had plenty of opportunity on our trip home to pour over photos and videos from our time in Portugal (and beyond) and were overcome with gratitude for another successful family vacation! I’m so proud of the big kids for taking their homework seriously and being so engaged with the various landscapes we explored and cultures we were immersed in. They have certainly learned a lot and have become experienced little travelers! We saw ten beaches and had a quick city tour in just six days…what’s next?