We spent a total of 9 days in the Algarve. 4 at a resort in between Portimao and Alvor and 5 in a sleepy town called Salema. We spent our days switching between the beach and the pool with a little nearby town exploring thrown in. We chose to rent a car and drive from Lisbon so we could make day trips. Though Lisbon was fascinating and exciting, as a family with small kids, slowing down at the beach was relaxing and almost a vacation ;) (Link to Lisbon travels Here).
We took the tolled highways which are smooth and mostly empty. Our (very) compact car was rented from a Portugese company called Amoita because their car seat rental rates were significantly cheaper than the larger rental companies. We found them to have exceptional customer service and were happy with the ease of the rental process. [I should note that Portugese safety regulations do not require babies to be facing backwards. So Mae faced forwards for our trip. Mae is quite tall and big for her age so we were comfortable with her facing forwards but I know other parents might take issue with this so wanted to mention it.]
We seemed to still be on the shoulder season of the Algarve. Most of the places we stayed were half empty and we never lined up for anything, anywhere. It was a really nice way to travel especially when there were never more than 20 people on any given beach. Theo could run for a mile on the beach and we could still see him and not worry.
We took two day trips to Lagos that was about half way between our two different rentals. It is a beautiful town with lots of charm. I had the impression it was touristy but found it to have plenty of local character. It's also where I fell in love with Casa Mae, the boutique hotel of my dreams. If I was to do the trip all over again I would stay there for at least a few days (ideally sans kids). It was incredibly beautiful with handmade details to discover for days, but Trevor spent most of our time there preventing Theo from knocking over the Flos lights or jumping on the custom upholstered white sofas. The tour we were offered of the space by one of the designers Ruben, was a true highlight of our trip. Also their coffee was the BEST in Portugal by Copenhagen Coffee Lab.
We had one of our best meals at Calhou in Lagos (recommended through Ana on Instagram, thank you!) outside of the more popular tourist area. Most meals in Portugal start with Couvert which is usually marinated olives, bread, butter and sometimes these amazing cumin dusted marinated carrots, and fish pate. You can decline Couvert, but we loved it and ordered it even when they didn't just bring it to the table. In the Algarve, fresh grilled fish is the most popular order. A few other notable things we ate were "Cataplana" a tomato based seafood stew that is incredible and keeps you full for two meals. Theo basically lived off of "Batatas Fritas" (french fries) and fish sticks and fresh orange juice. Mae has 8 teeth already so she ate much of the food off of our plates and Theo's.
Another gem of a restaurant in Sagres was Adega Dos Arcos. We had a wonderful meal here and it was also one of the most affordable meals of our trip. We still ate a lot of pastries and croissants, oh and Natas but the Natas on the coast never compared to Lisbon.
We were also regulars at a beach side bar near our resort (Canico), with an elevator that felt like a secret and was built into the rocky cliff and a patio that was a few feet from the ocean. Upstairs was a Michelin rated restaurant we couldn't afford but the bar below served coffee and drinks and fresh lunch that suited us just fine. We made sure to try a Brandy and coffee as the Brandy is made locally. But mostly we drank Rose.
We stayed at a resort called Prainha Clube where we had a 1 bedroom with a kitchen. It's the closest we have ever come to an all-inclusive (there was nothing included) because the property had everything we needed so we didn't have to leave. The accommodations were comfortable but sparse (ex. you have to pay for an extra bath towel, no beach towels provided etc.) but the grounds were stunning. It was a short walk through grassy fields, down beautiful steep rocky steps to an essentially private beach (also where our beach bar was). The beach was full of rock formations and caves right off of a postcard. Back at the resort, there was a small wading pool (and all important for pale gals like me...beach umbrellas) that was perfect for Theo. The other restaurants onsite are best avoided, but we brought groceries from the Jumbo in Portimao so we cooked more often than not. Even though there were some things that bothered us about this resort, I would actually stay here again, especially with a group of friends or family because of the beautiful grounds and stunning beaches.
We went into the small fishing village of Alvor for dinner one night and left it at that.
Oh I feel like I should mention. All of our rentals in Portugal had a kitchen and most had a washing machine. But none of the locations included dish soap, a sponge or laundry detergent. But we were responsible for cleaning the kitchen. I found this so weird, so we would use body wash or sometimes buy soap or laundry detergent. I wish we had brought travel sized soap and detergent with us, to avoid buying and leaving behind so much soap.
Our townhouse in Salema (Salema Beach Village) was very modern and comfortable. It certainly wasn't an authentic experience but the pool was great and the service very welcoming. They upgraded us to an ocean view which was a real treat considering that with kids we are often at our accommodations more than we would be if we were alone. The town of Salema we could have skipped, though we did have some wonderful meals there without the tourist prices of nearby Lagos or Alvor. Also there were quite a few young families staying here so Theo always had a friend to play with at the pool which was nice for him and for us.
Cape St Vincent
Cape St Vincent, a few minutes drive from Sagres was at one time believed to be the end of the world but is in fact the southern most point of Portugal. It is quite stunning to see in person and a bit nerve wracking as there aren't many barriers to the cliffs . This was definitely a benefit of having a car (though Mae fell asleep both times we drove there). Theo and I spent an hour wandering the grounds which was nice for me and I got him a strawberry popsicle so he was thrilled.
Most of what I read online about Sagres is that it was a sleepy town with not much to offer. I would completely disagree. We found it to be a lovely surf town with good food and cute coffee shops. We would have been happy to stay there, luckily we were only a 15 minute drive away so spent most of our time in Salema actually in Sagres. A car was useful as we drove to different beaches with our rented surfboard. The surf was accessible and the beaches sandy with the signature rocky cliffs and wildflowers we had come to expect from the Algarve. The water was still really cold in May so most people wore wetsuits. We found a used one for Theo at a friendly surf shop which came in handy for wave jumping and his first attempts at surfing.
On our way to the Faro airport we spent a few hours in the beautiful eastern town of Tavira. We mostly wandered and picked up gourmet gifts for friends and family (canned fish and salts at this friendly shop). I could have spent more time here as every corner seemed to have a prettier tiled building or trailing flowering vine. It made for a long travel day and we dealt with some meltdowns in London when our flight landed in the evening but it was worth it to see one last beautiful town in the Algarve.
I had a great question about packing food for Mae that I can respond to here: We only brought one bottle for her (her ComoTomo, the best baby bottle we've ever used) and a double ziploc of formula. An important detail that a friend who just travelled to Italy learned the hard way and kindly passed on her knowledge to me (hey Allie!) is that European bottled water often contains sodium. You need to look for bottled water that has a symbol on it of a baby or mother and baby. This is low sodium water that is safe for babies to drink (the other water can cause vomiting etc...). We were careful to buy the right water and we still boiled water for her formula when we had the time. In addition, we brought 12 Lovechild pouches for plane rides and emergencies. We also purchased Portuguese brand fruit purees to supplement her eating and she loved them. Like a reader kindly mentioned when I was planning for the trip. Anything you need you can find in Portugal and for a reasonable price.
The slow pace and beautiful beaches of the Algarve were a perfect family escape for us. We were able to accommodate the kid's needs and wants but still experience some local culture and natural beauty.
[nothing on this post (or any post unless noted) is sponsored. I just shared links to our accommodations and restaurants in case you are planning a similar trip and looking for ideas. It would be a dream to have a vacation sponsored one day :)]