Portugal: Traveling far from the Algarve crowds

Surfers prepare to hit the waves at Arrifana beach in southwestern Portugal on April 22, 2011.</p>

Surfers prepare to hit the waves at Arrifana beach in southwestern Portugal on April 22, 2011.

ALJEZUR, Portugal — Gooseneck barnacles are a prized delicacy on Portugal's wild southwest coast.

To be eaten, the worm-like creatures must be extracted from their leathery, black skins, then separated from their shell-like tips. Only then can you suck down their delicate, briny bodies.

But if eating the barnacles is not for the faint of heart, you should see how they catch them.

The crustaceans, known here as perceves, live in colonies, clinging to caves and crevices at the foot of the great sea cliffs that form the southwestern perimeter of the European mainland.

Local fishermen, often advanced in years, clamber over the rocks to harvest them from waterline hideaways while dodging the great Atlantic waves that constantly buffet this exposed coastline. It is a dangerous, sometimes deadly, profession, but the high prices the wriggly creatures command in the region's restaurants make it worthwhile.

Those hardy fishermen are symbolic of this rugged and sparsely populated seaboard that bounds Portugal's Alentejo region south of Lisbon and runs down to the southwestern tip of Europe at Cape St. Vincent.

From the cape, the coast turns to face south and the untamed landscape of towering headlands and broad, surf-battered beaches gradually gives way to the gentler waves and sheltered coves that have made the southern Algarve region one of the prime warm-weather getaways for European tourists.

Portugal's recent economic woes have generated a storm of negative headlines, but the tourist trade is thriving thanks to European travelers seeking a safe alternative to restive Mediterranean destinations in North Africa. As a result, better-known resorts along the south coast of the Algarve, like Albufeira or Praia da Rocha, will be heaving this summer with holidaymakers lured by low prices, reliable weather and some of Europe's tightest concentrations of sandy beaches, golf courses and seaside hotels.

The Ria de Alvor, a lagoon of lazy turquoise water that's a haven for yachtsmen and birdwatchers, makes a rough border between the mass tourism playground of the central Algarve and the unspoiled coastline to the west.

Beyond the town of Lagos, much of the shore is included in the Costa Vincentina Natural Park, which has protected the southwest from the high-intensity developments that have scarred much of the central Algarve.

With spectacular beaches like those at Odeceixe, Arrifana or Carrapateira, the region has long been popular with surf bums who come to ride some of Europe's best waves, and seekers of solitude happy to camp out in the hills and dunes. Lately however, there's been a new wave of more sophisticated, boutique accommodation springing up, much of it in converted farmhouses, estates and eco-resorts. The new lodgings are helping preserve local architecture and traditions.

One such place is Muxima, where a couple of long, low whitewashed cottages of stone and adobe that once housed farm workers have been converted into a charming collection of rooms and suites hidden among eucalyptus and cork oak groves near the little town of Aljezur.

There are shady verandas, hammocks slung between trees and silence that's broken only by the frogs croaking in the pond turned “biological swimming pool.”

“It's another way of life here,” said owner Sofia Faustino, who gave up a busy life in Lisbon to open her bed and breakfast in this remote spot. “So peaceful, so much space, you have time to really relax and enjoy life.”

Muxima is part of a rural tourism network called Casas Brancas, which comprises three dozen small hotels and bed and breakfasts dotted around the area.

The Casa do Adro has seven rooms in a 17th century townhouse in pretty Vila Nova de Milfontes, where a string of golden beaches frame the meeting of the River Mira and the Atlantic Ocean.

Inland, in the thickly forested Serra de Monchique mountains, Villa Vina is a typical rustic home near the recently refurbished historic spa town of Caldas that offers guests splendid views over the lush, green hills.

From the port of Sines southward, there are no big cities along the Alentejo and west Algarve shore, but the old road that winds down the coast from Lisbon passes a succession of small, whitewashed towns like Alcacar do Sal, Santiago do Cacem and Aljezur, each clustered beneath the remnants of castles that recall the battles between Moors and Christians for control of southern Portugal in the Middle Ages.

In Alcacer do Sal, the castle has been converted into a luxury hotel offering breathtaking views of the River Sado and the surrounding rice fields. Aljezur was one of the last Arab strongholds in the Kingdom of the Algarve before it was conquered by the Portuguese in the 13th century.

The barren, windswept Sagres peninsula was sacred to the Celts and Romans; Sir Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson fought battles beneath its cliffs and in the 15th Century, Henry the Navigator plotted the Portuguese discoveries from the austere fortress that is now a popular tourist attraction.

Those early explorers left from the port of Lagos, where a replica of one of their caravels floats among the brightly painted fishing boats in the harbor and the church of Santo Antonio is lined with gold brought from the empire in Brazil. A more somber reminder of those colonial days are the arches of a building said to be Europe's oldest slave market.

Later naval encounters between the French, Dutch and British fleets have left legends of sunken treasure under the waters of Lagos bay off the great curve of fine sand that makes up Meia Praia beach.

To see the treasures that surely lie beneath those waters, you only have to visit Lagos' daily riverside market, where gleaming sea creatures, from tiny sardines or baby squid to groupers and swordfish bigger than a man, are brought from the boats every morning. Superlative seafood combined with excellent Alentejo wines make dining here a delight.

There are plenty of great waterfront restaurants to eat the freshly barbecued fish while being lulled by the sound of the surf. Among the best are the Sao Roque on Meia Praia or A Tasca on the quayside at Sagres.

Other places go for more exotic local specialities. A recent dish-of-the-day at Ruth O Ivo in Aljezur was cuttlefish with peas and sweet potatoes. The Eira do Mel in Vila do Bispo is a member of the Slow Food movement specializing in shrimp, pork and chorizo cooked together in a cataplana, a unique Algarivan utensil that is part wok, part pressure cooker.

Naturally, all of these dishes are best appreciated after an appetizer of gooseneck barnacles simply boiled in pan of seawater.