“Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem recently visited the Algarve,” textile artist Vanessa Barragao’s studio assistant said during my visit. She was one of many who mentioned the Hollywood elite who flock to this region with 300 days of sunshine a year, a coastline that forms a jagged smile across the Atlantic, and a thriving wine scene. A much less elitist Angeleno, I thought to myself, had traveled almost 6,000 miles (9,656.06 km) to discover the “California of Europe”?
I didn’t care, I love California. And after spending 10 days in the southernmost region of Portugal with my boyfriend, it was obvious that California and the Algarve have striking similarities and differences.
A common thread is that the Algarve has more Michelin-starred restaurants than all other areas of Portugal combined (and California has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other US state). We taste the local cuisine during a three-hour meal at Vista, a restaurant run by chef João Oliveira.
Within minutes, I shed tears of joy. From the first bite (a molecular explosion of green apple, wasabi and fennel) to dessert (a miniature citrus fruit with an orange sphere encased in a ganache-covered shell and filled with orange chocolate mousse), Oliveira and his staff interpreted an opera of flavor
But stay away and the local Algarve cuisine is divided with that of California. The Algarve is influenced by a North African influence. After all, the area spent centuries under Moorish rule. Pepper, curry and coriander spice up the menus, and a traditional dish called cataplana is the Algarve’s answer to the tagine.
Similar to California, the Algarve offers a beautiful mix of beaches, countryside, and city life, but it looks a little different. For example, in the fishing village of Olhão, we climbed the bell tower of the Church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário for a spectacular view over a zigzagging blanket of white cubist buildings that evoked comparisons to the cities of Tetouan in Morocco or Cadaqués in Spain. .
Later, we spent a few days in Vila Real, the border city between Portugal and Spain, on the right bank of the Guadiana River. This destination was planned during Portugal’s “Age of Enlightenment” and features neoclassical buildings and symmetrical Pombaline blocks (similar to Lisbon). Nothing in California compares.
A guide to spending time in the ‘California of Europe’
On the other hand, in the capital city of Faro, the comparisons with California returned. Here, you may notice nods to William Krisel’s Palm Springs or John Lautner’s Hollywood, as it’s a hotbed of modernist buildings designed for a tropical climate.
Michael Stock, co-owner of the Quinta Dos Vales vineyard, explained that Californians flock to the Algarve looking for a similar laid-back lifestyle with a lower cost of living and without divisive politics. He added that there are a large number of international schools, almost all of them speak English, and the taxes are low. Walking with him among his vineyards, with the Monchique mountains as a backdrop, the view and the landscape were slightly reminiscent of Napa or Sonoma.
And when we later did a tasting at Morgado do Quintão, a historic estate with a 2,000-year-old olive tree, it also became clear that the Algarve wine scene could follow in Northern California’s footsteps. Quintão’s approach is to recover its roots: low intervention, organic practices and use of indigenous grapes (called crato, negra mole and castelão). They are also one of the first Algarve vineyards to export to the US and have their wines in Michelin three-star restaurants around the world.
The coastline here also rivals the Golden State. Algarve beaches have won 87 Blue Flags, one of the highest concentrations in Europe. The calmest and sandy beaches are said to be on the eastern side of the Algarve, with warmer waters and calmer winds.
I walked along Praia de Santo António on the east side and experienced a pristine panorama of sparkling ocean and untouched golden sand. However, lovers of cliffs and coves should keep an eye out for the western side, which has echoes of Malibu and sometimes San Luis Obispo.
After returning to Los Angeles and reflecting on this trip, I thought of the Mark Twain quote: “Every landscape in California requires distance to give it its greatest charm.” The same could be said of the Algarve. His version of sun, sea, and Michelin stars may approximate California in some ways, but it definitely has its own special vibe, too.
The best places to stay in the Algarve
modest house: Overlooking the Ria Formosa lagoon, this nine-room boutique hotel offers a design-oriented place to synchronize with the rhythm of nature. It is also the house of a former fisherman, carefully restored by his architect granddaughter and run by his brother.
Book your stay at Casa Modesta through Booking.com
Book your stay at Casa Modesta through Agoda.com
Bella Vista Hotel & Spa: This 19th century Moorish-style family home-turned-hotel offers gated privacy within a walkable neighborhood on one side and direct beach access on the other. Breakfast on the panoramic terrace is a must.
Book your stay at Bela Vista Hotel & Spa- Relais & Chateaux through Booking.com
Book your stay at Bela Vista Hotel & Spa – Relais & Chateaux on Agoda.com
The best places to eat and drink in the Algarve
the crazy ones: A small candlelit restaurant tucked away in a cobblestone alley offers surprising combinations of flavors and techniques. Trip: Try the salad with smoked vegetables.
sushi pearl: This upscale sushi place serves freshly caught local fish with Portuguese trimmings.
View: Expect an unparalleled Michelin-starred dining experience focused on seafood and vegetables.
Big house: A Belle Epoque style bar where you can say your favorite spirit and finish with a unique cocktail made to measure.
Cha Cha Cha: A British food writer opened this charming restaurant, which revolves around the morning’s catch.
The best things to do in the Algarve
Benagil Sea Cave: Accessible by boat, kayak or paddle board, this place resembles nature’s cathedral, with an open-air oculus framing the blue sky.
Modernist architecture walking tour: Faro’s impressive collection of modernist and art deco buildings can be discovered with a guide created by the owners of the Modernist Hotel. (There is a copy in the room for use by hotel guests).
Morgado do Quintao: Come to the wine tasting and a romantic evening, and leave with the maximum number of bottles that will fit in your checked luggage.
The best places to shop in the Algarve
kozii: This Tavira boutique sells beautiful eco-friendly clothing and jewelry inspired by the techniques, people and landscapes of Jaipur.
Vanessa Barragao: A young textile artist weaves giant tapestries that reflect on climate change, especially its impact on the oceans. (By appointment only.)
Loulé Design Laboratory: Local artisans make and sell unique clothing, jewelry, and handicrafts here.
Book your stay at Vila Vita Parc Resort & Spa through Booking.com
Book your stay at Vila Vita Parc Resort & Spa through Agoda.com
(Main and hero image credit: Rui Carvoeiras/Getty Images)
This story first appeared on travelandleisure.com
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