While the western Algarve is known for its white-sand beaches, nestled below spectacular sandstone cliffs, the eastern Algarve has a few seaside secrets of its own.
A string of sandy islands fringes the coast from Faro to Cacela Velha, and each one has its own distinct character. The islands range from true desert islands (with little more than sand and sky) to more developed places with little towns, bars and restaurants, as well as the occasional fisherman.
The only way to visit a beach in this part of the Algarve is to cross the Ria Formosa between one of the towns on the mainland and one of these islands – but what a treat! Easy places to do this are from Tavira, where a boat from the Western side of the river (a short walk away from the market) takes tourists to 11km long Tavira Island, where facilities include bars, restaurants, a camp site and even an ATM. Boats run between 8am and 8pm in season, and water taxis are also available.
A little further down the coast, Fabrica Island is much more wild, with similar vast swathes of golden sand but with far fewer people and a solitary chiringo for drinks and snacks. The best way to get there is to take the short boat ride from the village beach – you have to wade out a little way to the little motorboats that wait in the shallow waters of the ria, and from there it’s a five-minute ride which sets you back about a Euro each.
Armona Island is one of the bigger and more developed desert islands, lying off the coast between Olhão and Fuseta. We ended up here almost by accident, but it was a happy accident. You can buy tickets from the harbour in Olhão to the various islands just offshore, either on the utilitarian ferries or one of the more tailored tourist boats (which offer combined trips to a number of islands, dolphin spotting, etc) – we took the ferry to Armona.
The boat leaves you at the main town on the island – which is a Robinson Crusoe-esque collection of sandy streets, beach restaurants and cute bungalows, some dating as far back as the 1920s. A half-hour walk takes you to the other side of the island, where there are a couple of bars with a bohemian, sunset vibe and great views of the open sea. The beaches are – as with the other islands along this coast – long and largely empty, with white sand and tantalising views of neighbouring islands Coco, and Culatra, both of which are also accessible from Olhão.
If you have more limited time or are looking to fill in a few hours before your flight, Faro Island is easily accessible from the city and just a few minutes from the airport – it’s actually joined to the mainland by a bridge over the Ria Formosa and is well-equipped with bars, hotels and other amenities. Again, the beach is blessed with white sand and is long enough for space to be plentiful, even on summer weekends. Buses run regularly from the city centre throughout the year.