Algarve amounts to much more than the sum of its parts
Formula One racing-track lessons, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, five-star hotels and a nine-course lunch all added up to quite an introduction for Fergal Hallahan to the Algarve, ‘Europe's most famous secret'. Oh, and there was dolphin kissing too...
I TOTALLY see the attraction for employers of team-building days at motor-racing circuits: you get the staff bonding benefits, sure, but more pertinently, performance is very revealing of psychology.
There’ll be one in the group who’ll charm their pro-driver-instructor into giving them an extra go at the skid-control exercise. (Once you’ve forgotten your terror it’s exhilarating.) There’ll be a cautious stop-starter or two. And then – and this is where you’ll really think ‘Who knew?' – there’ll be the ones who’ll go hell for leather, heedless of the toll of scattered marker cones. (And despite it having been suggested of said cones: “Imagine they’re small children.”)
As the owner of a 12-year-old station-wagon, if you’d told me a week before I did it that I’d be stepping out of a throbbing Porsche having driven two laps of a Formula One track in something-stupid seconds, as pumped as someone off The Apprentice, I’d have said you were bonkers.
Same goes for the other participants in what was probably the best press trip in the world, ever, hosted by the Algarve Tourism Bureau last month. Many were, like yours truly, on the not so wild side of 40. But there we were, grinning like we were high and egging each other on, made up with the memento miniature BMWs we got at the end, ruthlessly competitive when comparing lap times.
Mind you, the adrenaline-fuelled tone had been set after breakfast when two helicopters landed beside our hotel, the ultra-swish five-star Epic Sana near Albufeira, and, to our amazement – all events on the programme were surprises – we were told: “Get in.”
I know it’s a cliche but how could Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries not be playing on your internal stereo as you zip along a coastline featuring beautiful beaches, dramatic rock formations, lighthouses and historic fortresses towards what was once the end of the known world, especially when you’re practically formation-flying with another helicopter a couple of hundred metres away?
“I can help you get a better shot of that,” our pilot teased, before banking sharply to come back around low over a sea arch. Cue much screaming in headphones as we flew side-on to the waves. Cheeky sod.
The jaunt made it clear why this jagged coast is so popular for water sports – we pretty much buzzed a group of paddle-surfers and it's ideal for kayaking, while four decommissioned naval ships scuppered off the resort of Praia Da Rocha to create artificial reefs make it a top dive spot.
But, though the weather and water were certainly warm enough, a boat was among the very few modes of transport we didn’t use; we had progressed to helicopters, which handily dropped us off at the aforementioned racing circuit, via a ‘Jeep safari’ the previous day and, ahem, a Segway tour.
The former involved something which for anyone from Northern Ireland is a daunting prospect – a journey in the back of a Land Rover; the latter may well be a trademarked synonym for uncool but I’ve got to tell you, they're fantastic fun. Then there was propulsion by dolphin, but I’ll come back to that.
Our safari was enjoyable and instructive. (Though our driver did dismiss what struck me as a lovely town, Loulé, as "somewhere you come to buy shoes".)
As well as leaving an architectural mark on Portugal’s southernmost province, the Moors, like the Romans before them, introduced plants that are still mainstays of the Algarve’s agriculture: the ubiquitous olive, for instance, as well as fig and almond trees, and carob bushes, the fruit of which features prominently in the region’s characteristic sticky pastries. The smells, driving along hilly dirt tracks through groves of these plants, were heady.
The historic port of Lagos was the site of our Segway tour. Picture, if you will, 14 journalists getting to grips with these odd-looking two-wheeled machines which depend on balance to move, stop, start and, well, stay upright. A quick lesson and we drove (rode?) confidently if bizarrely through the old town, stopping at St Anthony's Church wherein lies the tomb of an Irishman who led a local regiment in one of several wars with Spain in the 1700s; and at a statue of Henry the Navigator, the father of 15th century Portuguese exploration.
This whole coastline was pivotal in Portugal's Age of Discovery when, among other great strides forward, the sea route to India was pioneered. Tellingly we also stopped at the building that housed Europe's first slave market.
And then it was time to eat. Reading back over what I’ve just written, I don’t know how we managed to fit half of it in because we seemed to spend most of our waking hours eating. And drinking. And oh, what food. What wine...
Being a fellow of simple tastes, I have to confess that the culinary highlights for me were two restaurants at the traditional, family-run end of the spectrum: Veneza, 10km north of Albufeira, which specialises in Portuguese wine – hundreds of bottles line the dining-room walls – and in rustic dishes such as slow-cooked pork cheek and beef tongue (don't knock it til you've tried it – both were delicious); and Jorge do Peixe, a fabulous little seafood restaurant in Quarteira, on the coast.
But that's not to say I didn't thoroughly enjoy the high-end treatment too. Bela Vista, one of the Algarve's oldest hotels, in Praia da Rocha, pulled out all the stops with a nine-course lunch, each dish as amazing to behold as to taste, and all served with synchronised showmanship by very well-schooled staff. If they don't get a Michelin star some time soon I'll eat my Prawn Tartar with Sprout Salad, Citrus Seaweed and Caviar (Yup, it looked great and tasted fab).
On which note, we also dined at the two-Michelin-star Ocean restaurant at Vila Vita Parc, a resort hotel where we roughed it for another couple of nights. (It's one of the Leading Hotels of the World, according to a very shiny brass plate at the gate; has its own beach, eight restaurants, lawn sprinklers making that soothing chick-chick-chick-chick-chick sound outside the patio doors of your suite – you know the sort of thing.)
Belfast chef Michael Deane is a fan of Ocean and I can see why – oysters and sea snails were among the fare in a meal that was, again, an event in itself, all orchestrated seamlessly by perfectly groomed, multilingual staff who are uber-busy yet chat away as if shooting the breeze with you is all they're really there for. A classy joint.
And so to being propelled across an aquarium by two dolphins and goaded into, eh, kissing one by a bunch of people who let all of this carry on go to their heads. What, I've run out of space? Ah well. I guess I'll just have to save that tale for another time...
:: Daily flights are available to Faro, the Algarve's international airport, from Belfast and Dublin
:: Vila Vita Parc, a 22-hectare five-star clifftop resort in Porches, 45 minutes from Faro airport; vilavitaparc.com
:: Epic Sana, a modern five-star hotel overlooking Falesia beach in Albufeira; algarve.epic.sanahotels.com
:: Bela Vista Hotel, Praia da Rocha; hotelbelavista.net
:: Restaurant Veneza, Paderne, Albufeira; restauranteveneza.com
:: Jorge do Peixe, Quarteira; restaurantejorgedopeixe.com
:: Tertúlia Algarvia, Praça do Afonso III, Faro; tertulia-algarvia.pt
:: Driving experience at Algarve racing track; autodromodoalgarve.com
:: Jeep Safari; extremoambiente.pt
:: Segway tour; algarvebysegway.com
:: Dolphin experiences; zoomarine.pt
:: Portimao Museum; museudeportimao.pt