The Algarve is deservedly popular, with millions of annual vacationers thronging here to enjoy sandy beaches, superb golf, and all the other enticements of seaside resorts. A mere 40 km (25 miles) from top to bottom, Portugal’s southernmost province is bordered by the Atlantic to the south and west, the Serra de Monchique (Monchique Mountains) and the Serra de Caldeirão (Caldeirão Mountains) to the north, and the Rio Guadiana (Guadiana River) to the east. Its coast is cooled by sea breezes in summer, and the province as a whole is much warmer than the rest of the country in winter. The vegetation is far more luxuriant, too; originally irrigated by the Moors, the land supports a profusion of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Proximity to the ocean, meanwhile, has allowed the fishing industry to flourish. And the region's 300 days of sunshine per year helps lure in tourists year-round.
During the past two decades, tourism has flourished, and parts of the once pristine, 240-km (149-mile) coastline are now traffic-clogged and overbuilt. Even where development is heaviest, construction generally takes the form of landscaped villas and apartment complexes, which are often made of local materials and blend well with the scenery. And there are still small, undeveloped fishing villages and secluded beaches, particularly in the west. The west is also home to extraordinary rock formations and idyllic grottoes. In the east, a series of isolated sandbar islands and sweeping beaches balances the crowded excesses of the middle.
To see the Algarve at its best, though, you may have to abandon the shore for a drive inland. Here, rural Portugal still survives in tradition-steeped hill villages, market towns, and agricultural landscapes, which, although only a few miles from the coast, seem a world away in attitude.