After a few days in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and home to medieval castles, cobblestone alleyways and Gucci storefronts, I sat in a small café at the train station waiting for my ride to Lagos. Crowds of Portuguese professionals and travelers were rushing by when a group sat near me that immediately stood out: three young men, all with bleach blonde hair, heavy tans (especially for spring) and flip-flops. They were Australian, clearly experienced surfers, and, like me, headed to the coast—to the Algarve.
When I booked a trip to Lagos (a city within the larger Algarve region), I knew there were beautiful beaches and rugged grottos. I knew the seafood would be fresh and plentiful, and the vino expertly made in the nearby wine-centric city of Porto. What I didn’t realize until seeing those surfers, and subsequently the coastal landscape, was that the southern tip of Portugal—a seemingly well-kept secret—is a European Mecca for the wellness-minded traveler, especially for those with a healthy sense of adventure.
How to Get There
There is no international airport in Lagos, so you have to fly into Lisbon or the smaller city of Faro and take a train from either. If you’re eager to spend a few days in the cultural hub of Lisbon (highly recommended), opt for the easily navigable four-hour train ride from there. You won’t be disappointed with the picturesque countryside views and pleasant company of other travelers found along the way.
Where to Stay
Upon arrival, the white-washed buildings and open-air markets immediately speak to the coastal lifestyle that dominates the region. Within the bustle of the historical city center, there are plenty of places to stay, but a short taxi ride from the train station will take you to a heavenly property perched on a verdant cliffside overlooking the ocean. The Boutique Hotel Vivenda Miranda is an 18th-century traditional Portuguese-style residential house that was transformed into a 28-room boutique hotel, complete with a full-service spa, restaurant, garden yoga studio, private pool, fitness room and direct access to miles of beach and cliffside trails.
“You sit on the terrace and within minutes you can’t imagine that the world is still going on elsewhere,” says Dörte Ahlgrimm, director of communications. “There are 180 degrees of stunning ocean views. You can relax and really let go.”
Aside from the stunning visuals, the property is perfectly crafted with wellness in mind. Fresh local food is a major component to the overall experience, and the rotating menus contain roughly 60 percent vegan and vegetarian options. However, they do provide plenty of seafood (most of which is caught on boats you can see dotting the horizon from your room) and meat options for those who want them. In between meals at the Mirandus Restaurant, guests can head to the spa for full-body salt scrubs, healing massages and facials highlighted with organic products from Natural Remedies or enjoy an outdoor yoga class in the breathtaking garden.
What to Do
Beach and water-based activities dominate the Algarve, and Lagos is no exception. A refuge for surfers, kiteboarders, boaters and sailors, the waves are consistently good and the beaches far less crowded than expected considering the surplus of natural beauty. With numerous semi-private beaches accessible by boat or foot, there’s a spot for everyone, even those just looking to curl up with a good book. Locals praise a town called Sagres, located a few miles north of Lagos, as the best surf spot in the Algarve, but the beaches of Lagos can certainly hold their own and include a few friendly beachside bars.
For many visitors, the highlight is the cliff hiking. There are endless trails that follow the rugged coastline, and they can get as adventurous as you want, with stairs carved carefully into the natural rock. The most picturesque hiking spot in Lagos is arguably Ponta de Piedade, a cavernous cliffside with bright blue swirling pools and a lighthouse looking over the ocean. Boat tours given by knowledgeable locals through the grottos and caves are common and well worth it.
“I go to the ocean to lose my mind and find my soul,” Ahlgrimm says. “I’m a water person. It has a very special power, and it makes you feel at peace.”
After a day’s activity, a 20-minute walk (or five-minute drive) from Vivenda Miranda will take you back to the city center where the nightlife consists of delightful wine bars and quaint shops. And if you do want to escape the beach for a day, Ahlgrimm says you can always take a jeep tour through the Monchique Mountians that loom in the distance.
Where to Eat
With charming fishing boats constantly trolling the waters, it’s no surprise seafood reigns king in the Algarve—specifically the sardines. One cab driver, a local to Lagos, explained the superior taste is due to the location. Lagos sits on a point where the water is a unique mixture of Mediterranean and Atlantic waters that results in a flavor all its own. He suggests preparing the sardines (or ordering them) simply with salt, pepper and olive oil to savor the unparalleled taste and eating them only from mid-May through October for peak plumpness.
However, while the sardines are world-renowned, he says the true delicacy of the region is percebes, also called gooseneck barnacles. The quirky looking mussels grow on the grottos and rocks and are notoriously dangerous to harvest—hence why they are rare and somewhat of a splurge. They are seasonal, so if you get the chance to try these naturally salty delicacies, take it. These and other seafood staples—like cod and prawns—fill the menus of the many restaurants in the city center of Lagos, so take your pick and enjoy with a glass of Porto, the official wine of Portugal. “I suggest that once you get to the city, you just follow your nose,” Ahlgrimm says.