The beach at Albufeira is superb. Picture: Peter Lynch

Perched on the south-west edge of Europe, tiny Portugal shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the south and west.

Its diminutive size belies a global colonial past, stretching from Brazil, through Mozambique and on to East Timor in South-East Asia. Today its only overseas territories are the tiny Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores.

Portugal and Britain have clocked up the world's longest-standing military alliance that is still in force, unbroken since 1373.

That may be why the Portuguese seem to like the Brits, and the Algarve, the southernmost region of mainland Portugal, is a top destination for sun-seeking British holidaymakers.

The Algarve's exceptionally good weather also makes it popular with Germans, Dutch

and Irish but not just for holidays - many northern Europeans

have bought beachside property there.

All across Portugal, the European recession has cut deeply and austerity measures have pushed unemployment up to 16 per cent, especially around the big cities of Lisbon and Porto. But in the Algarve, tourist cash manages to maintain an air of prosperity.

Fishing is a major livelihood and locals can be seen wading into the Atlantic at low tide to collect cockles and barnacles.

All along the coast fishermen, having learnt the trade from their fathers, sail out to catch squid, octopus and sardines. At night, the sea twinkles with tens of dozens of lights from little fishing boats busy harvesting tomorrow's catch of the day.

Prices are amazingly low. A pint of beer can be had for €2 ($3), a three-litre box of reasonable local wine for €6 and a two-course meal in a decent restaurant for €12 - great value in Europe.

It's the beaches that are the big draw and all along the Algarve they are superb. But because it's the Atlantic the sea is never warm. The central Algarve region, including resorts such as Albufeira and Carvoeiro, is highly developed and has been nicknamed "suburban villa land", but it's ideal if you want to rent a large villa.

And that's what drew us to the area. With 22 children and grandchildren scattered around England, Ireland and Scotland, it's a mammoth job getting everyone together.

The family is too big to accommodate at home and not many places have villas that can accommodate such a big group - with a pool and games for the children. But the Algarve boasts some mega-villas that are affordable ($3000 per week) during the shoulder season, when the autumn sun can still be relied upon.

Our villa was in the uninspiring Montechoro but the accommodation itself was great - five interconnected villas around a heated pool with outside table tennis, pool table and barbecue, which meant the children were always entertained and the adults got to relax. With the end of the season approaching, nowhere was very busy but most facilities were still open. Our kids swam with dolphins, went crazy in a water park, did some hair-raising paragliding and rode Segways.

The whole family took boat rides along the glorious coast of craggy limestone rocks, caves and grottoes.

The Algarve is a great family destination, where you can go to the beach with the kids, have lunch on the coast, then visit one of the big entertainment complexes that are not far away. In the evening, the eating options are immense - Italian, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, English, steak houses, even an American diner.

On the down side, parts of Albufeira, notably Montechoro, attract the stag and hen-party crowd, so become booze-fuelled and grim during the high season. But you only need to travel a few miles north into the countryside and traditional Portugal reappears.

The beautiful town of Silves sits beside the Arade River and perched on a hillside overlooking the town are a 900-year-old medieval castle and an ancient windmill driven by sailcloth.

Silves is one of those rare towns where history and modern life seem to get along perfectly. Little cafes and restaurants spill out on to cobbled streets, shops sell things locals need rather than what tourists want and there's not a tacky entertainment venue in sight.

A little backstreet restaurant in Silves seemed the right place to try the traditional Algarvian dish, cataplana. Much like the word tagine, cataplana is the name for both the recipe and vessel in which it's cooked - a bit like a wok with a hinged lid.

There are probably as many cataplana recipes as there are mothers cooking it: essentially it's a seafood stew but that's an insult to this fabulously aromatic and tasty dish.

The house speciality of the restaurant we visited was a prawn and chorizo cataplana made with a roast- pepper base, chicken stock, tomato, oregano and lemon along with heaps of other ingredients.

It's classic Mediterranean food but with a hint of Moroccan spices - absolutely fantastic.

The Algarve has become famous as a top destination for European golfers - its mild climate, cheap prices and excellent winter season make it ideal. In the past couple of decades, the short stretch of coast between Faro and Portimao has boomed with 42 golf courses. The Portugal Masters was being played at nearby Vilamoura when we visited, and the previous year's champion, Irishman Shane Lowry, just failed to retain his title.

So if you need a family villa, want to maximise the value of your Aussie dollar or just want some late autumn sun while in Europe, Portugal's southern Algarve could be the answer.


The Algarve is a 2½ hour flight from London. Easyjet has cheap flights from Gatwick to Faro.

Villa Plus offers holiday villas in the Algarve, and throughout Europe.

For more on visiting the Algarve, go to

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