PORTUGAL’S ALGARVE COAST is sometimes mentioned in the same sentence as Cancun or Benidorm in Spain – synonymous with the package tourist and concrete resort hotel.
But the Algarve has two things going for it that Cancun and Benidorm don’t. One, most of the ugly resorts and their clientele in the Algarve are confined to enclaves out of sight and out of mind. Two, it has some serious surf.
Whether gentle white water rollers, hollow beach breaks, or thumping reef breaks are your thing, the Algarve offers it all.
Where to stay
The Algarve region stretches across the south of Portugal. With both south and west-facing coastline, it’s perfectly angled to pick up Atlantic swells from almost any direction. It also means that to escape an unfavourable wind on one coast, it’s just a short drive around the southwestern tip to beaches facing the other way.
Lagos is a good compromise between enjoying Algarve culture and being close to the surf. The consistent beaches of the west coast are a 30-minute drive away.
If you can look past the English language menus and throbbing backpacker bars, this historical port town offers a laid back existence among the narrow cobblestone streets and whitewashed terraces. Dorm beds at any of the several hostels (Lagos Youth Hostel is among the best) start at around €10. Rooms in guesthouses start at €30 per night.
Sagres is another option, located near the south west tip of Portugal and home to a variety of beach breaks in medium to big southerly swells. Unlike Lagos, Sagres has retained its fishing port roots and apart from a few surfer bars on the one main road, it remains a quiet town outside of peak season. Rooms in guesthouses start at €20 per night.
The west coast is dotted with a variety of pleasant beachside towns: Carrapateira, Arrifana, and Monte Clerigo are all excellent surfing options. Arrifana’s new youth hostel, Pousadas Jueventude offers beds from €10 per night.
Bring your own board, or rent?
Surf schools are a great option for people who are backpacking through Portugal and are keen to get into surfing for a couple of days to a week.
The schools provide wetsuits, soft foam mini-Malibu surfboards, and coaching. In some cases, schools also provide accommodation, like the long-established Surf Experience in Lagos.
Surf schools also have the added benefit of surf instructors’ local knowledge: many spots in Algarve are hidden at the end of rough dirt tracks or beneath steep cliffs.
Experienced surfers should consider bringing two boards. If the rocks at a spot like Arrifana Reef don’t get your board, the shallow beachbreaks just might.
The Algarve beaches experience a huge a tidal range, so knowing when to go is almost as important as where. A beach break at dead-low tide could be one long close out and six hours later be miraculously transformed into a series of beautiful peaks.
As a a very rough guide, the southern Portuguese beaches tend to be best an hour or two either side of high tide. It’s for this reason that you’ll arrive at midday and find no one around until, like clockwork, surfers start arriving en masse for the high tide session before disappearing just as quickly again.
Learn the language
Some guidebooks encourage learning a few simple phrases of the local language to endear the traveler to the local population. In Portugal, this is more of a necessity than simply a nicety as English is not widely spoken outside of the main tourist and surfer haunts.
A basic grasp of Portuguese might help you find that hidden surf spot or order lunch successfully.
Post surf refuel
For a filling snack, try a bifana, a bread roll filled with garlic roast pork, which is sold at most cafes for a couple of euros. The Algarve also has some of the best, freshest and cheapest seafood in Europe.
Budget on €8-10 for a main course dinner of whole grilled fish with salad and vegetables. The Portuguese wash it down with medronho, a local moonshine made from fruit served in a small brandy balloon that goes well with a strong espresso.
Localism is alive and well.
It’s worth mentioning that while the majority of Portuguese are friendly, some are less than stoked about having their waves regularly invaded by touring surfers. Sagres seems to be the worst area of the Algarve for localism, with reports of drop-ins, intimidation, and occasional damage to cars.
Problems often stem from European surfers traveling in large groups and hassling for waves. By traveling alone or with a friend and showing respect, you should have no problems.
Four great waves
Arrifana Reef is perhaps one of the best rights in the country. This point break needs a big swell before the wave breaks wide enough to clear the rocks sticking out of the water halfway down the line. Entry and exit is relatively straightforward through the fishing harbour, but watch out for the currents.
Just next door is Canal, which offers both an intense right hander under the shadow of a cliff and a more mellow right further south breaking over sand-covered boulders.
Zavial is one of the best spots on the south coast when there is a huge swell running. It can also be one of the most crowded. Zavial is a right hand point break that, in northerly winds, peels cleanly for a couple hundred metres.
Another protected spot in big swells is Beliche in Sagres, a beach break that can throw out perfect lefts and rights depending on the sand banks.
This article was originally published on December 11th, 2008