As the nights start getting longer and the days get colder and wetter, it’s easy to forget that summer was only a few weeks ago, and more difficult to remember that we did use to have sunshine. I’ve realised that time has slipped away and we’ve somehow ended up in December and I haven’t written about our summer holiday yet.
It’s always difficult deciding where to go on holiday with the kids. It’s through a combination of having too much choice, my not wanting to go back to the same place twice, and finding somewhere with enough to keep three teenagers happy without spending all our time at theme parks. We decided to give Portugal a go this year, and I think we made a good choice.
We booked the flights as soon as they came on sale as normal, but left booking the accommodation until quite late, but fortunately we ended up with an apartment in a holiday complex with a pool in Albufeira: flying into Faro and driving over. It wasn’t quite in walking distance from a beach, but close enough to drive down during the day and get a taxi down in the evenings. The kids absolutely loved going down to the strip in the evening to wander around and have dinner.
Before we went we weren’t sure we would find enough for the kids to do, but we didn’t need to worry as not only was there lots, but there were things that they would have happily gone back to multiple times. On our first day we tried to have a quiet day and went to Parque Aventura, a tree tops high ropes course near Olhos de Agua. Being away from the beach it was a bit quieter, but we were surprised to find there was enough there to keep us for a few hours, and at a reasonable price. I haven’t been to similar things in the UK so I’m not sure how it compares, but there were several courses of differing challenge levels, and you pay deciding on whether to go on or not.
There were the normal ladders and zip wires, as well as balls to swing across on and a suspended skateboard that you had to jump on with enough momentum to get you all the way across. After an initial induction you’re left to get on with it, with staff around if you need help and to make sure you’re keeping the rules. It meant that you could go at your own pace and just enjoy the course. We came away hot and sticky and with a few scrapes and bruises, but having really enjoyed ourselves.
The kids have now got to the age where they are enjoying water sports, and after a school residential, Sam decided he wanted another go at paddle boarding so we drove over to Lagos to see if we could have a go. After finding somewhere that hired boards but being told it was suicidal to take them with the weather that day, we gave up and wandered around Lagos marina to book a trip kayaking the next day instead. When the time came we boarded our boat in the marina and then went out a little way before being unloaded in the kayaks. The benefit of kayaks around the coastline of Portugal is that they give you a better opportunity to explore all the tiny caves that a normal boat wouldn’t fit into. It was fairly easy to get the hang of the kayaks and then I quite enjoyed having a bit more freedom to explore, although there’s only so far you can go as part of a group. Ryan ended up in a single kayak and managed really well, but the younger two in our double kayaks were pretty useless!
After rescuing another capsized child we clambered back onto the boat and spent a bit of time jumping off the top and swimming while everyone got themselves sorted. One thing I hadn’t anticipated was how cold the water would be – it was absolutely freezing! While jumping off the roof of the boat was fun, the shock of the water put me off doing it too many times!
We decided to make the most of the children all being comfortable with boats and booked another boat trip while there was so much to see around the coast. We booked a dual trip going to the caves and looking for dolphins. The faster boat allowed us to go further along the coast and make it out to one of the most famous caves in this part of Portugal – Grutas (Cathedral) do Benagil. This beautiful cave has two arched entrances and a hole in the roof. There is a small beach inside depending on the tide, and is accessible only by water – whether boat, kayak or paddle board, or by swimming around from the neighbouring beach. Although we went into the caves by boat, part of me would like to ban boats from the cave to make it a bit safer for those without an engine. Although there is a traffic system, there’s too many tourists around who don’t know it to be fool proof.
After investigating some more nooks and crannies and seeing the fossilised shells in the cliffs, the boat headed out into open water. The surf got bumpier the further out we went, and at one point we wondered if we were actually being kidnapped and taken to Africa, but eventually we found some dolphins. I’ve being dolphin spotting before and been excited to see a handful of dolphins, but this time we saw the biggest school I’ve ever seen. Our guide estimated there were over a hundred dolphins including several calves. Although it was difficult to count as they were never all above water at the same time, the area that they covered suggested that might be right, and the amount the little ones jumped about showed they were quite young. They stayed with the boat for quite a long time and let us get a good look at them.
The other benefit of a boat trip is that you can see some of the other beaches along the coast that you may not have found just by keeping along the main roads. One beach that applied to was Praia de Marinha. It was quite busy but it felt more like locals than tourists. There’s parking at the top and then you need to walk down a path with some steps to the beach. The beach itself can get quite narrow but it’s much better for swimming. We spent most of the time in the water or scrambling around the rocks where we couldn’t swim. There were some good rocks for jumping into the water, even more if you don’t mind crabs, and some good snorkelling. Apparently you can see octopus around here but we didn’t see any when we went. We spent a couple of hours or so on the beach until the tide was too high when we climbed back up. The view from the top was definitely worth hanging around for, and there’s a small park you can hang around in.
After the first shock of cold water we were hoping that we might find it was just the boats that were cold, but we discovered the water on the beaches was just as chilly, which was a shame as it was the kids favourite thing to do. There were two beaches in particular that we kept going back to – Praia de Santa Eulalia and Praia dos Pescadores, primarily because of the inflatable assault course in the sea. You pay for an hour at a time and the kids easily spent that time there. I went out with them once and didn’t see the attraction – after a while I felt a bit sea sick, but they loved it.
On one trip down we hired a pedalo with a slide. You were only allowed four on so Sam got his paddle board. This is one of those occasions when the idea is better than the reality. In reality, the boats are really heavy with effectively four adults on them, only two of whom are pedalling. The current is really strong so you’re constantly having to peddle in one direction to stop drifting away, and as soon as you stop the current takes you again. The sea is still freezing so it takes a lot of coaxing and threatening to get anyone to use the slide, and while this is going on poor old Sam is battling against the current all on his own. We stayed out the full hour out of sheer stubbornness, but it probably isn’t something I would do again!
However something I would do from a boat again in parasailing. Steve and I had done this before in Gran Canaria, and we decided the kids would be old enough to enjoy it, and we were right. They were a little bit unsure on the boat but after they watched us and realised we hadn’t died, they were willing to give it a try. Once they got up in the air and discovered that it’s a lot sturdier and smoother than it looks they relaxed into it and really enjoyed themselves. The best bit was the look on their faces when they got a proper dunking before being returned to the boat. It was a great way to spend our final afternoon.
One thing Steve and I normally try and do when we travel somewhere new is to do a food tour, it lets us explore making the most of local knowledge and find places we wouldn’t have on our own. We didn’t think the kids would like enough food for a food tour so we decided to go on a zebra jeep safari instead. The tour was fantastic, taking us to Castelo de Paderne, a tiny castle in a valley that you could only reach with a 4×4, teaching us about cork trees as well as almond, fig, thyme and citrus. We then followed the same tiny tracks up and down some terrifying hills to see the ancient beacons up close before making our way to a local farm to try some of the produce we’d been driving through. After sampling 16 different jams, marmalades and honeys from pumpkin to fig, we finished off with Aguardente del Figo- the local fire water. About 45% alcohol and with the burn to prove it!
Our final stop proved to be a popular one that we went back to a couple of times. Outside the village of Alte are a series of public swimming pools fed by spring water. There’s a little restaurant there to buy drinks and snacks, and then you just jump in and out of the pool. It’s nothing fancy but a good way to spend a relaxing couple of hours. Apparently there is still a day set aside each month for the community to come down and do their laundry in the clean (ish) water, but we weren’t there for laundry day. It’s just a slower pace than all the tourist things by the beach, there’s no one trying to sell you anything, the water is marginally warmer than the sea and it’s a nice family place.
We normally hire a car when we go away which means that we can go and find these places without relying on working out bus systems or spending a fortune on taxis- we did appreciate having Uber to order one home after dinner though! It allows us to go exploring and see more of an area than the tourist town centre and beaches. One day we decided to venture up into the mountains towards Monchique in search of some springs. When we arrived we discovered that hotels and spas had conveniently been built up over the springs so there wasn’t really anything to see. The journey had been fascinating though as there had been large forest fires in the area, and the mountain to the side of the road was all black and burned. For the locals it meant that they were without phone lines and power, although it seemed to have been stopped before damaging any buildings. We stopped at a restaurant in someone’s olive garden very close to the fire. While they had been worried about losing their home, the fire passed them by, but it had taken out their internet and phone lines so we had to drive to the nearest village to get some cash before we could leave. It was one of the nicest meals we had though, with local dishes and a knowledgeable host who helped us to branch out fairly confidently.
After giving up on the spring we drove further up the mountain to Serra de Monchique, a view point right at the top giving stunning views out to the sea and further inland. There was a little cafe and gift shop at the top, but the views were really the highlight.
Another day we drove out in the other direction, past Lagos, to Sagres- right on the tip of Portugal, to see the fort on the side of the cliff. We got there quite late in the day and weren’t very well prepared, as it was freezing! The fort has three sides to the sea, so the wind seems to blow in from every direction. We spent some time wandering along the coast inside the fort and enjoying the views- until the fog came in when we went for cover in the fort itself. Sagres is quite big with a chapel inside, an armaments store and large walls that you can walk along, complete with cannons. There was also a strange little walled area that felt like something out of Star Wars. You enter a circular structure and follow the walls around to go deeper inside, until right at the middle there’s a chamber with a hole in the ground. The hole goes all the way through the cliff to the sea below, and if you listen carefully you can hear the wind whistling around and the wave crashing on the rocks in a cave below.
On one afternoon we drove out to Pera to see the International Sand Sculpture exhibition. There were signs for this all over Albufeira, and a a display at the airport in Faro when we arrived, so we thought it would be worth a look. I thought initially that it was only there for a few weeks in the summer, but it turns out it’s there for about 5 months- the sand sculptures are so large that they can last that long. It was really impressive what could be done with sand, and it must have taken the artists days to complete them. The exhibition was divided into categories such as art, music, animals, children’s, and Star Wars, and each sculpture had a description of what it was, who made it, and where they were from. I was most excited about the Star Wars exhibits, and was disappointed when there weren’t that many of them. But there were plenty of others, and lots of minions dotted around as well! We looked around all of them but didn’t stay that long as it was very hot and dry. The sand sculptures made you feel even more like you were in a desert- so we basically spent the whole time feeling very thirsty!
Of course, no holiday with teenager is complete without a trip to some sort of theme park, and this holiday was a water park called Slide and Splash. There’s a couple of water parks in this part of Portugal, but we went to this one first, and with their reduced return deal, decided not to try any of the others. It does get fairly busy in the summer, but the queues aren’t too bad, and there’s enough variety of slides to keep everyone happy. There’s a handful of the bigger slides that need a tube to go down on- including one of the massive ones where you slide high up the wall; but there’s also a lot of smaller tubes where you can just slide down on your own. One of the kids favourite was a multiple lane one where you can control how fast you go by how you sit. It’s good for smaller children as they can go quite slowly, but you also had a lot of adults whizzing down and crashing into the pool at the end. There were lockers there and you could bring in food and umbrellas to stake out a patch of grass. There were also plenty of food options there that weren’t too expensive, but it was useful to have a supply of snacks and drinks. We probably would go back if we were to return to Portugal, but I’d be interested in seeing how busy it is when it’s not peak season! The kids loved it and would definitely have spent more time there if they could, but it is comparatively expensive for a day out.
So I think that’s the main bulk of what we did. There was also time spent wandering around the Old Town in Albufeira, having BBQs on the patio, swimming in the pool, sunbathing, and messing around in the surf. One thing we loved was that it was hot everyday and didn’t rain while we were there- which I think is a first for a family holiday!