Winter self-drive - Portugal’s Algarve (First of three parts)

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 50 of the March 2019 issue.

Painters whitewashing in traditional style in Porto Côvo, Portugal. Photos by Randy Keck

From late November to early December 2018, my wife, Gail, and I did an 8-day, self-drive exploration of Portugal's sun-blessed Algarve holiday playground.

The enviable mild winter climate makes the region a highly popular part-time and full-time retirement destination for thousands of British expats and other Europeans. We were there to discover the off-season heart, soul and pulse of this desirable stretch of gorgeous Atlantic coast some 280 kilometers south of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. Picking our spots and avoiding the temptation to cover too much ground would prove to be our biggest daily challenge.

Upon arriving in the Algarve, we were quickly taken by the magnificent seascapes, featuring long stretches of inviting beaches, with steep hilly backdrops adorned by a wide range of evergreens and other attractive flora.

We, however, had gone there to experience the regional Portuguese culture. We would meet locals whose spirits and giving nature have, for the most part, somehow not been dampened by the swarms of visitors who annually descend on their coastal Mecca during the lengthy summer season.

On both guided and self-guided walking tours in the larger towns, we were fascinated by the regional history, dating back to the age of discovery, when Portugal was a great sea power committed to exploring and establishing outposts in Asia and the Americas.

This 3-part report of our Algarve self-drive adventure will focus a lot on the "how tos," dos and don'ts involved in undertaking such a journey.

Frequent-flyer miles to Portugal

Our journey to Portugal involved the expeditious use of American Airlines (AA) frequent-flyer miles. Departing from Providence, Rhode Island, our only choices with AA were to route through London, in conjunction with British Airways, or Madrid, in combination with Iberia.

We always avoid London's Heathrow because of the heavy airport-tax hit imposed on all who route through that lemon of an airport. Connecting via Madrid, Spain, however, which is what we chose, nearly doubled our overall travel time. There is almost always a time price to pay when using miles for economy-section air travel.

The car-rental equation

Gail Keck, with Porto Côvo’s tiny harbor in the background.

We chose to pick up our rental car at the Lisbon Airport upon arrival because we planned to return to Lisbon from the Algarve for four days before returning home.

Before the trip, I had done an exhaustive comparative search of car rental companies before settling on Sixt Rent A Car (888/749-8227, www.sixt.com), a major player with a good service reputation.

Many considerations come into play when planning for self-drive in Portugal. First, the vast majority of autos are manual shift, which is what I drive at home. An automatic nearly doubles the cost of a rental.

Auto rental insurance is also a critical issue. To begin with, liability insurance is included in the rental rate with all the companies but with a huge deductible of nearly $1,700, regardless of the length of rental. To insure down to zero deductible would have cost $26 per day, so we opted to live with the large deductible. I labeled the experience "auto rental roulette."

We also rejected the extra-driver option at $10 per day.

We did opt for a mobile phone unit, the size of an iPad, that offered free unlimited worldwide calling and also included GPS and Wi-Fi, all for $15 per day. The GPS proved to be a necessity anytime we were not on a motorway, and we were also able to activate Google Maps with our Wi-Fi. The portable Wi-Fi was invaluable because we could pick up emails and do searches anywhere we were during the trip.

We also elected the option of activating the toll device on our vehicle for a fee of $1.75 per day. This allowed us to drive through the green fast lanes to the far left without stopping at tollway booths and for the tolls to be charged directly to our credit card. Our total toll charges for the trip were about $55.

The rental rate for our Opel Astra diesel wagon with a 6-speed manual transmission was a reasonable $295 for 10 days, including our phone, GPS, Wi-Fi and toll card extras.

Our research had revealed that pre- and post-rental car inspections should be undertaken carefully. You must insure that the inspecting agent notes every small ding and scratch during your car inspection at pickup because they inspect with great diligence when the car is returned at the end of your rental. (I took along a Tac Light and a digital camera, which I used during our pickup inspection.)

Driving with great care, we returned the vehicle at journey's end without incident.

We will use Sixt again.

Sunrise as seen from our apartment's balcony in the Porto Côvo Hotel — Porto Côvo, Portugal.

Lisbon to the Algarve

By the time Gail and I were able to depart the Lisbon Airport with our rental Astra, it was mid-afternoon. We carefully navigated the busy Lisbon streets with our GPS the relatively short distance necessary to connect with the A2 motorway south.

Our prearranged one night stop was about a 1½-hour drive away in the small Atlantic seaside enclave of Porto Côvo, in the Alentejo region, about halfway to our western-Algarve destination of the next day.

We were able to check into our prebooked small apartment at the well-located Porto Côvo Hotel (Rua Vitalina da Silva, 1, Porto Côvo, Portugal; phone 351 269 959 140, www.hotelportocovo.com) just before dark, as had been our plan, and then wandered into the main part of the pristine coastal village to find a local hangout for dinner. Because it was off-season, with few tourists around, many shops and restaurants were closed.

We discovered Restaurante Miramar (Rua Candido da Silva 55, Porto Côvo; phone +351 269 101 004), where we enjoyed dining with a dozen or so locals just above the tiny, small-craft harbor. Dinner for two, with beer and tea, cost $40.

The next morning, following breakfast (included in the apartment rate of $69 double for the night), we strolled into town on a path along the scenic clifftop overlooking the sea. At the small, rather basic morning market, fresh fruits and vegetables and a smallish array of seafood were on offer at most inexpensive prices.

Southward bound

We had a top-floor, ocean-view apartment in the Casa Praia Mar apartments — Salema, Portugal.

Upon departing Porto Côvo, we had our first experience with our GPS and Google Maps disagreeing on which roads to take. Clearly one was trying to steer us to the main roads, while the other was happy to direct us along small and often narrow shortcuts, utilizing back-country roads. While at times it was frustrating and confusing, we ended up using a bit of both.

Preferring not to explore on foot away from a vehicle full of luggage, we continued south to our 2-night stop in the tiny, quiet hamlet of Salema.

On arrival, we checked into our apartment, Casa Praia Mar (Largo da liberdade, 8650-199 Salema; phone +00351962619037, www.casapraiamarsalema.com/en-us), at $74 per night, double.

Our well-appointed one-bedroom featured a balcony with an unrestricted view overlooking a small beach bedecked with colorful wooden fishing boats. This was precisely the Algarve I had envisioned from home.

In next month's column, I'll provide a taste of the western Algarve before taking you east to Quarteira, our home base for the balance of our early-winter Algarve escape.

Contact Randy at 80 America Way, Jamestown, RI 02835; 401/560-0350, randykeck@yahoo.com.


Painters whitewashing a building in traditional style in Porto Côvo.