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Portugal: Discover the undiscovered Western Algarve

BY ROGER ST. PIERRE

Stretching like a string of pearls right along the Atlantic coast, from the Spanish border all the way to Cape St, Vincent – the most southwesterly point in Europe – is the Continent’s largest concentration of glitzy de luxe resorts and spectacular world-class championship golf courses.

But Portugal’s Algarve has much more to offer than tee times, the 19th hole and ostentatious displays of bling. Head due west from Faro airport along the uncrowded A22 motorway to Lagos then strike just a few kilometres inland and you’ll discover a rural idyll that has hardly changed down the years. There are picturesque rolling hills, well-tended fields, tranquil little whitewashed and red tiled villages clustered around exquisite cobbled squares and historic churches and year-round sunshine, while life ticks gently along and the locals are more than happy to pass the time of day with exploring visitors.

If those big-time resorts back along the region’s south coast are aimed at high flyers who live their lives in the fast lane, here on the less well-known west coast there’s an opportunity to ease up on the throttle and spend some quality time on nature’s hard shoulder.

It’s a lifestyle that caught the imagination of British couple Chantelle and Fraser Kortekaas who returned to Europe from Australia and inherited the reins at their family’s property, the delightful Quinta Bonita (www.boutiquehotelalgarve.com; +351 282 762135) – billed as a boutique hotel but still very much a welcoming family residence for the couple, their little son and new baby and a team of staff whose driving mission is to make guests feel totally relaxed and at home.

Perched high on the slopes of the Matos Morenos hillside, with sweeping views across the busy old fishing town of Lagos and Luz bay and a backdrop of the alluring Monchique mountains, this eye-popingly gorgeous property was developed in the 1970s on the site of an historic farming estate – in Portuguese, ‘Quinta’ means estate and ‘Bonita’ means beautiful and is more usually used to describe a lady than a house, which is why the tag unfailingly gets the locals smiling.

The house certainly lives up to its name. Set in 10,000- square metres of immaculately manicured Italianate gardens – replete with cobbled pathways, ponds, fountains, statuary, an orchard, two large lawns, a commodious and inviting heated outdoor pool and a gnarled 400-year old olive tree – it’s perfect for the outdoor lifestyle.

Back inside, you’re enveloped in luxury, with traditional charm complimented by contemporary flair and furnishings.

The lounge has huge glass doors leading out to the terraces, in effect bringing the al fresco ambience right into the room, while there’s a choice of eight light and airy bedrooms with super-king beds, Egyptian cotton linen and spacious bathrooms gently warmed with under-floor heating.

A bounteous buffet breakfast gets the day off on the right note while light lunches can be taken around the pool and afternoon tea, with delicious homemade cakes, is a daily ritual.

With a wide choice of good restaurants available just minutes away, Quinta Bonita only serves dinner on Friday evenings, when all the guests forgather for cocktails on the terrace before a masterpiece of Portuguese cuisine, using the freshest of local ingredients, is served.

We were recommended to try the traditional O Cantinho Algarvio, and unprepossessing little place set down a pedestrianised street lined with identikit eateries in the heart of Lagos’s old town. Its rivals were doing ok but O Cantinho was rammed, with people queuing for tables – a reflection of its reputation. Here, booking is most definitely advised.

There’s nothing trendy or gimmicky here, just rows of happy faces tucking into perfectly prepared specialities like pork and clams, grilled sardines and salt cod – the accent being very much on fresh from the sea fish and seafood.

`The key to the success of this gem is the boundless energy and bonhomie of its owner who somehow finds time to chat with each table while still doing his job efficiently. When I went seeking a cab and got myself hopelessly lost, he happily helped my partner go search for me – now that’s what I call service!

The western Algarve is uncrowded yet has some of Europe’s most beautiful beaches, including our favourite at Bordeira, with its sweeping bay and magnificent cliffs, its impressive breakers a veritable magnet for surfers.

Take in the dramatic view from the look-out point at Castelejo before savouring lunch on the terrace of the rustic little Sitio do Formo, perched on a cliff above Amado, where the fishermen pull their brightly painted boats up on the beach. The seafood rice here is near legendary.

The wild and unspoilt west coast is at its most impressive at Cape St. Vincent, where you can drive right up to the fort and lighthouse, with nothing between you and America but the vast Atlantic Ocean.

You can return to Quinta Bonita via the fishing villages of Salema, Burgau and Praia da Luz or do as we did and opt to take the quiet byways inland, through beautiful countryside, stopping to explore the elegant spa town of Caldas de Monchique and the historic fortified town of Silves to discover the undiscovered rural charms of this enchanting region – and there will still be a pot of tea and a slice of homemade cake awaiting you back at Quinta do Bonita.

Bespoke wedding and corporate meeting packages, yoga and well-being programmes are among a wealth of special breaks and deals on offer while, if you should crave some Algarve golf time, the renowned Boavista course is just five minutes away. Good transport links make Quinta Bonita good for weekend sunshine breaks as well as longer holidays.

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