The Algarve, the slice of land on Portugal’s southern coast, presents a serious dilemma for the average surfer: whether to go in winter when the surf’s pumping, beds are cheap and the beaches are mostly bare, or wait until summer when the beaches and bars are heaving, the water’s a little warmer and your chances of getting drunk/laid/sunburnt (possibly in that order) increase dramatically.
Going for the in-between option, an April visit promises to tick enough of these boxes. While my hosts admit the swell has dropped considerably from previous months, the warmth of the sun and the scarcity of tourists and hibernating locals fighting for waves make it a fair compromise.
With boards strapped high on two landrovers, we head to Meia Praia, a long, exposed sandy beach on the south coast east of Lagos. There are some good onshore waves – about 1-1.5m – to be had early on the low tide. But with no protection, the wind blows the swell flat by lunch. By late afternoon, though, the wind has dropped again and there are some nice waves breaking by the rock wall marking the entrance to Lagos’ natural harbour. With little competition, most of our posse enjoy a succession of long right-handers until the light’s almost gone.
I just caught the best wave of my life,” boasts Seb, 21, an anthropology student who grew up surfing off Cornwall. “It just went on and on forever.”
Blessed with some of Europe’s best beaches and year-round sunshine, the Algarve is a favourite among beach bums and serious surfers alike. For the latter, the south-west corner – west of Lagos on the south coast and north to Arrifana on the west coast – offers the better choice of breaks. The mixture of sandy beaches, rocky point breaks and small, protected bays dotted along the adjacent coastlines means you’ve a good chance of finding surfable waves in most conditions. But be prepared – with water temperatures ranging from 12°C-18°C, this is definitely wetsuit territory.
Lagos, an hour’s drive from the region’s capital Faro, makes a good base for accessing both coastlines. Far enough away from the manicured, Brit-friendly resorts hogging the coast around Faro, this working fishing port has more than its share of quality restaurants and inviting bars to cater for visitors while the narrow streets of the old town, rowdy market and lively town squares where po-faced old men in faded flat caps gather give a glimpse of a more authentic Portugal. In the town’s southern side, ochre cliffs ravaged by wind and water form clusters of protected coves and caves, with distinctive arched ‘doors’ providing a thoroughfare between beaches. Indeed, spare the remains of fortifications guarding the harbour and a new marina, the town’s major attractions are the beaches that surround it.
“Lagos attracts a different type of tourist – you get more travellers and surfers up this way,” explains Jez Browning, 28, an investment banker-turned-surf instructor who came to Lagos from Guernsey last September for a career break. “I was only meant to stay for two months but somehow I just got sucked into the Lagos vortex. Surf-wise, Biarritz in France had always been my mecca until I came here.”
The wind gets to our next destination, Amado, on the west coast, before we do, whipping the exposed beach break into unsurfable conditions. Determined to get wet, some of our group join the surf schools paddling about in the churning froth, but battle to get past the breakers. It’s not a total loss, though – like most beaches, Amado comes equipped with a sunny beachfront café to recharge on caffeine between sessions.
After a lazy day of sunbathing, reading and quality coffee, we’re gunning to make up for lost time and Arrifana beach doesn’t disappoint. A 45-minute drive from Lagos on the west coast, the beach (and its superb café) is found at the base of a whitewashed village built atop dramatic jagged slate cliffs. There are two breaks on offer – the reef is famous for big right-handers surging over jagged rocks, making it popular with experienced surfers, while the beach break turns out fun, hollow peaks for beginners. We greedily jump on everything the low tide can offer before the wind picks up on mid-tide, sending through some bigger sets. Snagging more waves than frozen feet, limp arms and bruised ribs would advise, it’s easy to feel that vortex pulling. Reluctantly catching a final wave to shore, I’m convinced summer, autumn and winter visits might be necessary after all.
The best of both coasts
The south coast is fed by huge northerly swells during winter while in summer these same breaks work best on a south swell called a Levant, created by a strong south wind predicted first by the local fisherman. Meia Praia is a popular beach within walking distance to Lagos, and has a decent beach break which is good for all levels. Further west, Cabanas has a beach break in both directions and is good for a guernsey in winter when other breaks are too big. Zavial has a right-hand point break, turning out clean swells in winter. Sagres, on Europe’s most south-western point, breaks in both directions and tends to be very localised.
Arrifana has a great beach break which is ideal for beginners on mid-high tide. It’s protected by slate rock cliffs, and has a café with views over the beach. Protected from the north wind, Amado has a good beach break in both directions with a soft wave on the right-hand side. It’s best at midtide and suited to all levels. Rocks, rips and surf schools to avoid. Castelejo is only for experienced surfers who can deal with reef and rocks. Cordoama has a huge beach break in both directions, works best on mid-high tide with east/south-east wind and a north-west/westerly swell. Sporadic rock crops, rips and nude sunbathers.”