Beautiful sandy beaches, white-washed picturesque villages, and an average of 300 days of sun per year make the Algarve, the southernmost region of Portugal, an ideal location for a holiday. Within this region, the Golden Triangle area is strategically located between Faro, the Algarve´s capital, where stands the international airport, Albufeira, notable for its lively nights, dance clubs and beach bars, and Almancil, home to several Michelin-starred restaurants.
The area is rich in green spaces and cultural history. The village of São Lourenço – a stone-throw from Almancil – boasts a church decorated with characteristic blue tiles telling the life story of its patron saint, this example of “azulejo” work dates back to 1730, and is attributed to one of the masters of the time, Policarpo de Oliveira.
The Baroque church of São Lourenço is one of the best examples of 18th century azulejo art in the Algarve.
The Golden Triangle is also well known for its five-star hotels and resorts. Quinta do Lago and Vale do Lobo are well-established developments which offer luxury accommodation, top notch food and excellent golf.
Quinta do Lago is a quiet and secluded resort, world-renowned for its fantastic golf courses which are built close to the beach or lagoons. This resort is also a favourite among birdwatches, because of its privileged location, in the protected coastal lagoon of the Ria Formosa Natural Park. More than 200 species of birds have been recorded in the area. The greater flamingo, glossy ibis, peregrine falcon and booted eagle are just a few examples of what awaits twitchers here. At the very front, you’ll find the eponymous beach, discrete and secluded, ideal for those seeking to spend a relaxing day by the sea, far from the crowds of other beaches in the Algarve.
The greater flamingo is one of the many species that can be seen in Ria Formosa Natural Park throught the year.
Vale do Lobo, the largest luxury golf and beach resort in the Algarve, also spoils golfers with courses built on top of cliffs and on the edge of the beach, which, like Praia da Quinta do Lago, is very discreet and away from the hordes of tourists that visit the region every year. Whether you prefer to be in a hotel or in a private villa, you are sure to find the luxury accommodation you are looking for at Vale do Lobo.
As I am not a golfer, I chose for my trip to be based at the Ria Park Hotels, which are strategically located between the above two luxury resorts (but within what is considered Vale do Lobo), in the Ria Formosa Natural Park, with easy access to any of the top golf courses in the area and to the exclusive golden sandy beaches that run from Praia de Vale do Lobo down to Praia da Quinta do Lago. In between, there are two other outstanding beaches, Praia do Garrão – just in front of Ria Park – and Praia do Ancão.
Ria Park consists of two hotels and a group of villas. All of them enjoy magnificent view over the pine forest, and the splendid gardens of the hotels provide a unique experience of tranquillity and natural beauty. Inspired by the Mediterranean influence which dominates the resort, the Ria Park Hotels offer comfort and refinement for a memorable stay, whether you are an adrenaline-seeking traveller or one that prefers to see the hours pass by on a sun lounger with a good book.
I stayed at the Ria Park Hotel & Spa because of its vast spaces and breath-taking views of the Atlantic Ocean. There are a 175 rooms and suites, some with garden views and others looking out to the ocean, three restaurants and bars, three swimming-pools and plenty of meeting rooms for an unforgettable company weekend (talk about employee incentives!). I had a Premium room with garden and ocean views, so large, that it even had a sofa in it. The toiletries are Molton Brown and the bathrooms have a proper hairdryer (hourrah!) and a magnifying mirror (if you are under 40, you won’t understand why this is important, but you’ll soon find out). A detail I loved finding here that it is often missing in five-star hotels were the tea and coffee facilities in the room. I like starting my day with a cup of tea in bed, without having to call room service, which unequivocally means a 15-minute wait and a luke-warm drink.
My Premium Room had a more than generous size and a lovely balcony overlooking the resort’s tropical gardens and the Atlantic Ocean.
The soft colours and cherry wood furniture welcome you to a delightfully relaxing stay. As a fanatic of horse-riding, the first thing I asked the concierge was to recommend stables where they take clients to the beach. There are many of them in the area, including one in Vale do Lobo. I went to the Albufeira Riding Centre, and joined a two-hour beach trek. There are very few experiences in life more exhilarating that galloping through the surf on a beach, feeling the droplets of sea water on your face and the wind on your hair. It is an early start though, as to avoid trampling people. Not fond of getting up early? Worry not, they also offer sunset rides.
Praia de Garrão, between Quinta do Lago and Vale do Lobo, features private areas dotted with sun-loungers as well as others open to the public and some of the finest beachside restaurants in the country.
A visit to the spa was the rigueur after a couple of hours on the saddle. A bit of time in the sauna, a bit in the steam room and a massage left me feeling so relaxed that I felt as if instead of walking back to my room, I floated to it.
Dinner took place at the main restaurant, the Lusitano, where the best of local and regional produce is turned into morish dishes. After dinner, I had a cocktail at the terrace of the Lounge Bar, overlooking the resort’s lush tropical gardens, chatting to other guests, two of whom where regular visitors to the Golden Triangle (they referred to it as the Beverly Hills of Portugal) and gave me some tips about hidden gems to visit.
The Cocktail bar, overlooking the tropical gardens, is a popular location with guests to enjoy a couple of drinks before or after dinner.
I followed their advice and the day after I went to Loulé, a small town with an Arabian inspired covered market (Mercado Municipal), where you’ll find all kinds of fresh produce and local crafts. On Saturdays, there are two extra markets, a farmer’ market in the centre and a gypsy market near the outskirts. I really liked that this is not a “touristy” place at all but one where you can soak on the local culture and explore the Old Town (Cidade Velha), with its tree-lined plazas and alleys that have hardly changed since the Middle Ages and its picturesque traditional tradesmen’s houses.
Left, Loulé’s Mercado Municipal, inspired by Arabian architecture. Right, the 13th century castle, where the Municipal Museum is located.
The castle, which once marked the northwestern corner of the city walls, dates back to the the Reconquest from the Moors in 1249, but the site had been used as a fort by both Moors and Romans, as far back as the 2nd century. Within its courtyard is the Municipal Museum, which features very interesting archaeological collections. In the Middle Ages, this whitewashed building (Alcaidaria) would have been the residence of the town’s governor.
In dramatic contrast, Vilamoura, just in the suburbs of Loulé, is a super luxury resort town with the country’s largest marina, hosting 845 berths and a superyachts dock. Although the main beach there is very fashionable, I was recommended to go a bit west, to Praia de Falésia, a very long stretch of golden sand, backed by distinctive orange clay cliffs.
Renowned as one of the most luxurious spots in the whole of the Algarve, Vilamoura Marina is the place where high-end yachts and luxury boats gather in the region.
I spent my last day in the resort, lazy breakfast in my balcony and then a tennis lesson. In the centre of the resort, they have two hard tennis court in excellent conditions. I managed to squeeze a couple of hours by the pool as Faro airport is just a 30-minute drive from the hotel.
The main pool at the Ria Park Hotel & Spa surrounded by luscious tropical vegetation.
It has been my first time in the Algarve, but it won’t me my last. I have been dazzled by the stunning natural beauty of the Atlantic coast, the rich history and culture of the region and the first-class service I enjoyed at Ria Park.
Words: Julia Pasarón