The southern Portuguese region of the Algarve is a huge summer destination for many Portuguese residents, as well Europeans, as the vast coastline of warmer water currents and consistent sunny weather are ideal for the perfect beach vacation. That said, the Algarve also tends to have a reputation for being crowded and touristy, especially in the major coastal cities of Albufeira, Portimão and Lagos. But there is one beach-front area that has managed to not only avoid heavy exploitation, but has also remained unspoiled and pure, and that is the lovely area of Sagres.
Despite vacationing numerous times in the Algarve, I had never been to Sagres until exactly a month ago. Located on the southwestern-most tip of Portugal in the municipality of Vila do Bispo, the town of Sagres sits on the small peninsular area that stretches out to Cabo São Vicente (Cape Saint Vincent) and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean at the edge of continental Europe -leading it to get the original nickname of “the end of the world” until the age of the discoveries when it was renamed “the land closest to the New World”. Though the municipality was only officially founded in the early 16th century, there is plenty of evidence of the numerous ancient civilizations that inhabited there for centuries before by the ruins scattered throughout the area. And despite once being a major shipbuilding harbor and marina, with a prominent naval school, Sagres has remained a quiet little fishing town free of major tourist traps. Along with having many rocky, deserted beaches, great for surfers, the land around the town has become a protected natural park, part of the greater Parque Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincentina and is a stunningly beautiful expanse of unique Mediterranean-climate tundra, filled with hundreds of rare plants and species and endless plains- making it the perfect place to get away from it all and be one with nature! And unlike the rest of Algarve, summer in Sagres is not necessarily the best time to come for a visit. July is the windiest month, which doesn’t fare well for eager beach goers who are typically paying double for accommodation. Instead, the locals suggest checking out Sagres in late September and October, or April and May, when the weather is still warm and pleasant and your money will go farther.
Along with its natural beauty and pristine coastline, the area of Sagres is ideal for enjoying Algarve’s delicious seafood-prominent regional cuisine. For hundreds, if not thousands of years, fishermen have hauled to shore an array of fish including tamboril (monkfish), carapaus (horse makerel), sardinhas (sardines), and Peixe Galo (John Dory) and shellfish, including camarão e gambas Algarvias (Algarvian shrimp and prawns – one of the few regions in Portugal that you can find them fresh) ameijoas (clams), mexilhões (mussels), ostras (oysters) and the odder but very popular percebes (gooseneck barnacles) and buzios (welks or sea snails). Polvo (octopus), chocos/choquinhos (cuttlefish/baby cuttlefish) and moreias/enguias (moray/eel) are also very well known in the region. In the local cuisine, much of the fish and shellfish are either grilled or fried ,or mixed together in various types of stews usually made with garlic, onions, peppers, tomatoes and either potatoes or rice.
I experienced Sagres’ wonderful bounty of seafood (and actually some of the tastiest seafood I’ve had in all of Portugal) at the highly recommended As Dunas seafood restaurant, part of the Martinhal Beach Resort. I spent a long weekend at the resort for the Luxury, Art & Design Weekend where I savored lunch on both days at As Dunas.
The restaurant exemplifies the freshness and pure flavor of Portuguese fish. On the first day, I enjoyed platters of steamed mexilhões (mussels) and fried gambas (prawns) mixed with garlic, cilantro and piri-piri and washed down with a crisp Algarvian white wine from Quinta do Barranco Longo followed by a rich massada do peixe (seafood stew with pasta). On day two, I slowly savored a bowl of their famous Cataplana de Marisco (Portuguese fish and seafood stew), which surprisingly, was my very first in Portugal and cooked in the largest cataplana I’ve ever seen! And man was it tasty! The art of steam cooked seafood (and meat) in the clam-shaped cataplana pot originated from Moors and has become popular across Portugal, not just in the Algarve. As Dunas offers this specialty every Sunday, and should be missed, especially when enjoyed on their outdoor terrace by the sun-drenched Mareta beach, overlooking the town of Sagres. Amazing.
Martinhal Resort’s O Terraço, another highly recommended restaurant in Sagres, demonstrated several gourmet preparations of the local seafood at their special dinner from the Luxury, Art and Design Weekend event prepared by guest chef, Igor Martinho, a contender on “Portugal’s Top Chef” with the aide of O Terraço’s house chef, Micael Valentim. My favorite seafood dish of the meal was his scrumptious John Dory with bellpepper cream and tarragon potato rosti but I couldn’t help devouring his traditional Portuguese toucinho do céu (almond and egg custard tart) for dessert with local fig ice cream and cream cheese foam. The abundant use of figs and almonds in Algarve is another nod to their Moorish influence. Read more about my experience here.
After having such delicious Portuguese seafood, while relaxing in the peaceful, natural surroundings of this quiet coastline, spending only two days in Sagres was simply not enough for me. Its wonderfully wild and natural landscape was captivating, and the freshness of the ocean cuisine kept my tastebuds salivating throughout the ride home. Sagres is the kind of Algarve that everyone can enjoy, especially food lovers, and there is plenty to draw you in during the off season. So, don’t miss out on this diamond in the rough the next time you come to Portugal.
If all this food and drink porn has got you lusting after the real thing; then check out Catavino’s recommended gourmet tours of Portugal.