We finally made it to the southern coast of Portugal - and almost on queue the sun was shining, without a cloud in the sky. This is where having a campervan is absolutely brilliant, allowing us to duck and dive into hidden bays, small towns, and generally just go with the flow each day based on what 'looked cool', whilst also spending a few extra nights in places we loved.
Here's what we got up to as we explored as much of this coast as possible, heading from the south-western most tip of Portugal (and Europe), towards the Spanish border. This is by no means exhaustive, and whilst we did get to a fair chunk of this coastline, there are literally hundreds of areas to explore.
1. Cape Saint-Vincent Lighthouse
Thanks to the recommendations of Dan and Linda (Germans we met earlier), our first port of call was the most south-western corner of Europe; the Cape Saint-Vincent Lighthouse.
It's worth a quick look, as it almost feels as if you can see the Atlantic ocean's currents swirling around the point ahead of their eventual collision with the Mediterranean. Whilst here we got our first glimpse of some epic beaches down between the cliffs.
2. Sagres & Praia do Beliche
Whilst we didn't spend too much time in Sagres itself, and mostly used it for refueling both Gary's fuel tank and our grocery cupboard, we did notice an epic little sheltered beach about half way between the lighthouse and Sagres called Praia do Beliche.
Even though the sea was windy, wild and FREEZING (definitely still the Atlantic), the sun was however finally shining brightly, and we found a great calm spot to relax and soak up some rays. Don't be put off by the large staircase, it's well worth it.
3. Gary is not a 4x4; Trying to get to Praia da Barranco
This would be our first case of Google Maps trying to take us along "roads", which should more suitably be described as where one goat once walked 100 years ago; an area marginally more cleared than the scrub around it, full of boulders and massive ditches. Well beyond that of Gary's capabilities, let alone most 4x4 vehicles. Needless to say we had to turnaround and ended up parking near Praia da Ingrina, a small little beach with some nice private spots looking over the ocean.
We found these initial beaches to be quite windy, whipping up sand, which is no fun for anyone. So after a quick swim, we grabbed some beers from Gary and went exploring the earlier "trail" on foot. About 2km later we eventually found Praia do Barranco, with a paved road from another direction, and with about 20 campers parked up. Needless to say, you must ignore Google to get to this beach, don't take the suggested route via Praia da Ingrina, and approach it from the most western route which branches off the M1257 (as all the rest are actually not roads). We spent a few hours relaxing here and then headed back to Gary to prep dinner. If we had arrived earlier in the day, we would probably have made the effort to find the correct route in and park at Barranco. But nevertheless we ended up with a quiet and peaceful spot looking at the ocean.
4. Walking into Praia da Santa
While trying to drive to this beach, we ended up down a tight dead-end road and had to reverse 400m (quarter of a mile) until we had enough room to turn around. We then parked up and continued on foot, walking in about 1km to Praia da Figueira, before then heading along the coastline to Praia da Santa.
Whilst a nude beach, there was only about six other people there (two families). This was one of our top beaches of the entire region - a simply stunning and secluded spot.
5. Sleepy Salema
Next we wandered into Salema, a cute little town with great beaches, restaurants and bars, but not too many tourists! We parked up and headed for lunch at a great spot right on the beach called A BOIA. As we were right next to the coast we picked a seaside classic mussel dish (white wine and garlic) alongside a mainland classic; Peri Peri Chicken. Both were stunning (in fact the best Peri Peri we had in Portugal). We also tried our first white sangria, which is much more refreshing on a hot day than the traditional red.
Also, after over a month on the road, we decided we were due a break to help us get on top of washing, etc. We were delighted when a quick check of Airbnb showed us a great apartment only 50m from where we were eating, for only €38 per night. We booked it at the table, finished our lunch, and then went and checked in after grabbing what we needed from Gary. Funnily enough the hosts actually mixed up our booking, so we enjoyed a larger apartment for a few hours (with views directly of the ocean), before being moved to our actual space, which was still great. Next we headed down to a local bar (which was kind of annoyingly not very Portuguese and run by English) to watch the thrilling Spain v Portugal football world cup match (where some Ronaldo magic resulted in a 3-3 draw). Needless to say the Portuguese watching with us were pleased with the comeback. Following a great sleep, we then relaxed on the beach for the day and got on top of some life admin.
6. Praia da Boca do Rio
Having driven not even ten minutes from Salema, we popped into a little beach we wanted to check out which looked great for a night.
After parking up at Praia da Boca do Rio, we headed directly to the beach and spotted what is a life-saver when it comes to freedom camping; a fresh water stream right next to the beach. Given almost none of the Algarve beaches have fresh water showers, and Gary doesn't have a shower (well at least we thought - more on this later), this was a no-brainer due to the ease of bathing. We spent the day planning whether heading across to Morocco made sense (it didn't), and starting to game-plan our route through the south of Spain, across France and into the north of Italy. Funnily enough the beach must have been so relaxing as we didn't even take any photos of the beach itself! The next day, following a great night sleep, and a relaxing morning with more planning, we continued east.
7. Cabanas Beach Restaurant
Following another massive ten minute drive (there are so many beaches), we pulled up at a little restaurant right on the sand which was recommended to us by some English holidaymakers we met in Salema.
The beach was nice (although most of it covered in "pay to use" sunbeds), but Cabanas Beach Restaurant was excellent and well priced. We snuggled up on some bean bags, ordered some Peri Peri Prawns, fresh Calamari, and a few beers (for a reasonable total of €22). The food was excellent, however once again the place was clearly owned and operated by English, full of English customers, and one couldn't help to start feeling the whole of southern Portugal was owned, if not full of, people from England or the U.K. This would start a trend we would experience throughout the rest of Europe whereby each country was certainly preferred by holidaymakers from another particular country... but more on that later. Realising we needed to get moving, we then hit the road again, with Gary pointed directly towards the infamous Lagos.
Ok so this is where a lot of people head in Portugal. Thus it was naturally somewhere we initially wanted to avoid. There are very few campgrounds near the old town, so whilst it has terrible reviews (2.6/5 on Google), Camping Trindade was a logical stop if one simply wanted to explore the main beaches and town center that Lagos is famous for.
As this was exactly what we wanted to do, as soon as we had parked up, we headed directly towards the beaches. Needless to say, the location was excellent for this. We walked along the coast and popped down the stairs to every beach, finally settling on Praia Dona Ana given it was getting late. After a few hours reading, we got changed and headed into the old town, which was bustling with trendy restaurants and bars full of tourists. After a few laps of the main streets, we found a quiet little Portuguese bar for a few wines to debrief the last few days and chill, before heading home.
The next morning we went for a run out to Ponta da Piedade, the end of the main series of beaches all nestled among spectacular rock formations, and where for most of them you have to walk through caves to get there (see above). This was simply stunning, and if it wasn't for all the tourists, one could definitely spend a few days lying on these unique beaches. One of these was Praia do Camilo, which we had originally planned to get to the previous day, but ran out of time. This ended up being a perfect beach to finish our run on, as it was one of the most picturesque of the whole area (see left photo above).
10. Praia da Marinha
We planned to sleep here, but upon arrival we realised it was clearly not possible. There were "no camping" signs everywhere, cars parked almost everywhere and not a single other camper (which is always a bad sign).
Nevertheless we went down to Marinha Beach for a few hours, which was absolutely stunning, and could clearly see why freedom camping in this area would be such an issue, as demand for access to this beach was extremely high. Being quite late in the day, we then headed to a campground called Camping Canelas for the night.
11. Our favourite free camping spot in Portugal; Praia de Arrifes
Following a day getting on top of a few jobs, watching the Portugal v Morocco world cup game among locals, and a bit of blogging during a small thunderstorm, we left Camping Canelas quite late in the day and headed back to the coast.
We couldn't have been more lucky as after only a short 30 minute drive we arrived at a stunning free camping spot on Praia de Arrifes, literally right on a cliff overlooking the sea, with a bunch of beautiful beaches only meters away. Also, the afternoon's rain had meant all the previous campers had moved on, giving us prime locations to choose from. Getting ever increasingly more confident with maneuvering Gary, we got him right up the top of the cliffs, overlooking the beaches and ocean.
Easily our favourite spot so far, we also met Nick and Lucy, an English couple who were taking their brand new VW Camper for it's first tour. Following a night of red wine and chatting, we decided we would stay another night, giving us a full day to lie on one of the very close, very beautiful and very private beaches.
12. Praia de Santa Eulália
Not far from our favourite spot above, Praia de Santa Eulália was a nice beach we popped in to on our way to Faro. It was yet another area where being a van versus an RV paid off. The narrow road meant RVs weren't even allowed to park near the beach during the day (let alone at night).
Whilst we didn't spend the night here, at least we could easily pull up and fit into a normal park among the locals, and easily enjoy a few hours relaxing on the beach. Meanwhile we also grabbed a few bolas de berlim (famous Portuguese custard donuts) being sold by local merchants on the beach for only a euro each. These things are dangerously addictive.
With quite a small old town area, we simply popped in here and parked as close as we easily could. On our way in we also made a quick stop at our new favourite store, Decathlon, to further top up some gas supplies and other bits and pieces. Google Maps then took us on a relatively tricky myriad of one way streets on the way in (so once again lucky Gary is quite narrow).
We then used the paid street parking here. It was very convenient, only cost a few euro, and was in a busy area where Gary would be safe. After wandering around the old town, we grabbed some tapas at 8 Tapas (Octopus was stunning - see below), and craft beers at Boheme (nice to have an Portuguese IPA for a change after so much lager). Faro is a cute wee place to stop, but definitely not a necessity if it's out of your way.
And suddenly, just like that, we were at the end of our time in Portugal. We popped into a campground near the Spanish border, where after a thorough clothes washing session and some R&R by the pool, we prepared our route for southern Spain. We simply loved Portugal, and couldn't recommend it more. We will be back.
Bidi & Dan