Tavira, Portugal

Photo: fazenda nova.
Photo: fazenda nova.

The beautiful Algarve. Portugal’s southern coast is full of massive rock formations, powdery beaches, windswept dunes, and tons of tourists. Of course, everyone wants to vacation here. It’s not surprising, given the gorgeous setting and the near-perfect weather. Like the Amalfi Coast or the French Riviera, it’s hard to enjoy the Algarve—and sometimes even see it—with bumper-to-bumper traffic and camera-toting gawkers. But with nearly 100 miles of coastline, there must be a place to which you can still escape. So it’s time to head farther east.

You’re almost in Spain by the time you reach Tavira. To get here, you drove through green fields, around carob and almond trees, and away from the areas built-up with high-rise hotels and manicured golf courses. Tavira, located where the Gilão River meets the Atlantic Ocean, is a pretty, little fishing town. The Phoenicians settled it during the Bronze Age. The Romans followed. But the Moors, who built a castle, a “Roman” bridge, whitewashed houses, and elaborate gardens, left the biggest impression of all.

The best way to get to know Tavira is to wander the cobblestone streets. From the ruins of Tavira Castle, see the 37 spires—churches outnumber hotels here—the river cutting through town, and the Ria Formosa. These barrier islands form a natural lagoon along the coast. It’s now a nature reserve where flamingos and storks nest. It also has eight miles of undeveloped, golden-sand beaches. Visit a few of the churches. Santa Maria do Castelo, next to the castle, was built on a Moorish mosque in the 13th century. São Paulo has a hand-carved alter. Santa Ana has river views from the bell tower. And Misericórdia is a Renaissance masterpiece. Walk through Praça da República. Slaves used to be sold in the palm-lined central square. Listen to musicians on Ponte Romana, the seven-arched bridge. Watch men pull mussels off the rocks exposed by low tide. Then smell oleander, jacaranda, and salt in the air while you drink coffee at a riverside café.

Photo: fazenda nova.
Photo: fazenda nova.

You’ve already fallen in love with little Tavira, and you haven’t even seen your hotel yet. Drive into the hills outside of town to find Fazenda Nova Country House, an old farm that’s been turned into a peaceful retreat. The British owners welcome you with a glass of Arinto wine and a tour of the main area that’s decorated with salvaged wood and antique farm equipment. Your large suite has a king-size, Balinese-style bed. The modern bathroom has polished concrete and a rain shower. The terrace leads to a garden with a fire pit, wild flowers, and olive trees.

Spend the afternoon by the infinity pool. The smell of lavender and rosemary eases the remains of your leftover travel headache. Browse the vintage magazines in the library. Take in the view of the orchards and the gardens, plus the salt flats and the ocean in the distance, from the upstairs terrace. Plan which beach—Praia do Barril, Praia da Terra Estreita, or Ilha de Cabanas—to visit tomorrow.

Then eat a seafood dinner at A Cozinha. The vegetables are from the garden. The olive oil is produced on site. The bread is made in a 200-year-old outdoor oven. The local wine keeps flowing. You may have had to do a little more research and drive a little longer, but you finally found a quiet haven on the Algarve.

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