Among the many misconceptions I grew up with was that the Algarve was an independent state that had broken away from Portugal. Impatient with bureaucratic planning controls imposed by Lisbon that were hampering golf course development, separatists armed with little more than pitching wedges and Top-Flight balls had, I imagined, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, written a fresh constitution broadly based on the Rules of Golf and created a golfing paradise here on earth.
For those unfamiliar with Europe’s favourite – if not yet fully independent – golf destination, the Algarve is the strip along the southern coast of Portugal which fronts onto the Atlantic Ocean just to the west of Spain. It enjoys all sorts of natural advantages, not least of which is a wonderful climate that allows golf to be enjoyed throughout the year.
Predictably, it was the British who first recognised the enormous golfing potential of the area and the legendary Sir Henry Cotton deserves a great deal of the credit for unlocking it. It was back in that great sporting year of 1966 when Geoff Hurst was ripping West Germany’s defence apart at Wembley that Cotton converted drainage ditches into water hazards and a former paddy field into Penina, the flagship of Algarve golf. The first of five courses that he built in the area, its opening heralded the beginning of a colossal golf explosion that continues to this day.
Apart from the benign climate, one of the reasons that the Brits love the Algarve is that the Portuguese genuinely love the Brits. Close historical links between Portugal and Britain – rooted in a mutual suspicion of Spain and fostered by centuries of trade – are today manifested through golf.
Fortunately this friendliness has been further cemented by the fact that the Brits who visit the Algarve from the 22 regional airports that link into Faro tend to be, how can I put this without sounding snobby, a tad or two more sophisticated than those who flock to other parts of the Iberian Peninsula. Golfers, of course, know how to behave and make up a significant proportion of the Brits who holiday or have second homes here.
There is an old world charm and appreciation of traditional values in the Algarve which appeals to the British, especially those of a certain age. Although it would be wrong and misleading to imply that there’s nothing here for the young – you only need visit one of the scores of beautiful beaches along the spectacular coastline and see kids frolicking in the surf to realise how untrue that is – nevertheless, the bulk of visitors, particularly outside the school holidays, are more mature in age and outlook.
Back from the coast is a hinterland of vineyards, olive, carob, fig and almond trees, which rise up to the rolling hills and the plains of the province of Alentejo beyond. The best time to enjoy the blossom and the full bloom of the countryside is the spring, which starts around early February and lasts right up until the end of May. One golf course in particular which, if you time it right, is awash with almond blossom is Palmares, just east of the lovely old town of Lagos.
From a few kilometres inland, the Algarve is covered with evergreen trees and shrubs and so the countryside remains refreshingly green even in the height of summer. And it’s at this time, when the thermometer rises quickly after breakfast, that visitors appreciate the constant Atlantic breezes that keep things comfortable, especially out on the fairways. These same gentle winds ensure that there’s no air pollution so that you can breathe deeply before teeing off and after sinking a putt.
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Clive's Five Top Courses
Penina Partly because it was the first but mostly because it’s a glorious parkland experience, Penina’s Championship course has to be included on anyone’s top five in the Algarve. It’s a gentle walking course so you won’t need a buggy and the flowers, of which there are many, deserve to be smelt. Tightish, fair and with some wonderful water features, it’s a delight.
San Lorenzo This is probably my favourite course on the whole continent. It runs alongside a bird sanctuary and looks out over the Atlantic. The views are stunning, there’s plenty of elevation and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s tough to get on and rather expensive, but it really is worth both the effort and expense.
Monte Rei North Rarely does reality exceed expectations, especially when there’s a whole heap of hype. But the much vaunted new Jack Nicklaus signature course is breathtaking. Mountains have literally been moved to create it and I’m sure God will forgive Jack for being so presumptuous as to attempt to improve upon what He had made. The stark truth is that Jack has undoubtedly succeeded. An incredible clubhouse is, to mix metaphors, the icing on the top of the hill.
Victoria The World Cup was played here and Wales were a little lucky to win when bad weather curtailed the competition. England, of course, would and should have won! The delightful Victoria course is now the regular venue of the Portugal Masters. But although it presents a demanding examination for the pros, it’s a lot less daunting off the forward tees and is great fun. There’s quite a bit of water but no silly carries or anything too terrifying.
The Old Course
Designed by the legendary Frank Pennink, it’s the second oldest course in the Algarve and therefore it’s fair enough that it should call itself ‘The Old Course.’ Rather tight and with narrow fairways, it’s made even more difficult because of the presence of umbrella pine trees, which have a habit of getting in the way. All that and rather small greens make it tough.
Clive’s Five Top Holes
Boavista 6th The sixth is a tad over 200 yards off the back tees and is a rather terrifying par three. You have to carry a yawning chasm to land on a severely stepped green that can turn a potential birdie into a solid bogey quicker than it takes to say “Oh s**t!”
San Lorenzo 8th San Lorenzo is simply a sensational course and a case could be made out for any one of its 18 holes to be included in this list. Although I’ve never actually completed the par five eighth without losing a ball, it’s both so beautiful and demanding that you just have to love it. There’s water all the way down the right-hand side and it’s out of bounds on the left. Even if you hit two long, straight shots you still face a rather frightening approach to what is effectively an island green. Good luck!
Sheraton Pine Cliffs 9th Although it’s only a nine-hole course, Pine Cliffs is lovely. And your abbreviated round comes to a fitting climax at the last. Known as ‘The Devil’s Parlour’, this thrilling 170-yard par three has you teetering on the cliff edge to tee off and obliges you to clear a ravine. Anything short plunges to oblivion while shots pulled left end up on the beach. Hit the green and your beer will taste that much better.
Quinta da Ria 10th Most people turn left as they leave Faro airport and head to Central and Western Algarve. If you turn right, you will discover the far less crowded Eastern Algarve. Two of the best courses here are the non-identical twins, Quinta de Cima and Quinta da Ria. The latter’s tenth is a true risk/reward hole where you can take on the bunker on the left or opt for the open spaces on the right and then have to hit your approach over the water. Whatever happens, be sure to admire the ancient olive tree guarding the front of the green.
Vale do Lobo 16th Although conscious that I’ve selected three par threes in my top five holes, you simply can’t leave out the iconic 16th on the Royal course at Vale do Lobo. It runs along the cliff top with the beach on your left and disaster below. It’s a knee-knocking tee shot, especially if you’re unlucky enough to be playing off the back tees (220+ yards) and into the wind. But, if you make it onto the green, you can legitimately bore your friends and family for weeks with an account of how you played it.
Clive’s Five things to do after golf
Clive Agran is one of the UK's most prodigious golf travel writers spending more than 100 days a year visiting new resorts and destinations for leading magazines and websites. He lives in East Sussex.
- Casino – the Casino in the exciting port of Vilamoura houses over 500 slot machines and there’s all the usual euro-gobbling games such as blackjack, roulette, baccarat and poker. And if you’re looking for a novel way to lose money, there’s also Portuguese dice.
- Surfing – if you fancy ‘riding the green cathedral’ and ‘shooting the tube’, the Atlantic rollers crash in right the way along the Algarve coast but are especially pronounced on the south-west corner. For beginners (which is pretty well everybody), there are a variety of surf schools.
- Fish restaurants - fish is the best food to eat in the Algarve. From the freshly caught local specialty of sardines to barbequed tuna steaks, it’s all good and should be washed down with a glass or two of chilled vinho verde. Cataplana and the Caldeirada fish stews are a delicacy that every visitor must try. And don’t forget to try the local cockles, razor clams, oysters, squid, octopus and cuttlefish. Bon appetit!
- Portimao Marina – wandering around admiring million-dollar yachts is both aspirational and free! There are plenty of big ones to ogle at Portimao Marina and, you never know, you might be invited on board by the millionaire/millionairess of your dreams.
- Tennis - for those who don’t find golf quite tiring enough, there’s always tennis. Decent courts can be hired at Vale do Lobo and Quinta do Lago, whilst clay court specialists should check out what’s available near the Pestana hotels in Alvo or by the Alfa Mar Hotel in Albufeira.
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