Olhão is a big surprise. The Algarve’s largest port and a bustling fishing town with a very working place feel to it, Olhão is also the entry gate to one of the most beautiful landscapes in the region and some of Europe’s best beaches.
The town itself is a colourful mix of sights and sounds where life is plainly centred on the sea. Fishing has always been the population’s main livelihood and its importance is reflected everywhere, from the vibrant harbour that becomes a frenzy of activity when the boats return with their catches, to the impressive array of fish and shellfish on display in the stalls of the waterfront fish market. Olhão’s fishermen are legendary and are widely renowned for their expertise – culinary as well as piscatorial! The rich supply of seafood in the area, coupled with a talent for transforming this into mouth-watering dishes, have earned Olhão fame as the gastronomic capital of the Algarve. Fish restaurants dotted all over the town serve the delicious local seafood specialities, while a visit in mid-August will coincide with the annual Shellfish Festival, a six-day outdoor party of eating, drinking, music and dancing when the amazing variety of shellfish is on full show for everyone to enjoy.
Just a short boat trip away, lie the jewels of Olhão’s crown: the breathtaking natural beauty of the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve and the miles of undisturbed beaches of the two barrier islands lying closest to Olhão, Culatra and Armona.
Olhão is situated in the heart of the estuarine Ria Formosa Nature Reserve, an intricate landscape of lagoons, canals, salt pans and sand banks that are separated from the Atlantic by a series of barrier islands that stretch from Faro to the village of Cacela Velha, near Tavira. A sanctuary for plant and wildlife, the estuary’s fertile wetlands are a breeding ground for numerous species of birds, fish and shellfish and a delight to explore. Boats departing from Olhão’s harbour and marina provide exploratory trips around the maze of canals and salt pans, while the park’s Environmental Education Centre in Marim organises walking itineraries that provide in-depth information on the area’s plant and wildlife, visits to the breeding kennels of the Portuguese water dog and detailed explanations of the salt harvesting process.
Such is the beauty of the Ria Formosa that nothing quite prepares you for what lies ahead on the barrier islands of Culatra and Armona. When you set foot on Culatra’s jetty, the boardwalks leading away from the fishermen’s settlements take you over dunes and lagoons to beaches that are so long that they disappear into the heat haze of the horizon. Gone are the loud motorised jet skis, the rows of sun loungers and the cries of ice cream vendors of mainland beaches and in their place lie deserted expanses of shimmering white sand dunes and the glistening ocean, disturbed only by the occasional cry of a seagull. Neighbouring Armona island is equally beautiful. There is a fishermen’s village surrounding the beach on its western tip and a campsite providing water sports facilities but if you walk eastwards towards Fuseta, your reward will be a seemingly endless beach where you can enjoy blissful moments of uninterrupted solitude and peace.
Perfectly located behind Olhão’s new marina from where boats make the crossing to the barrier islands, Real Marina Hotel & Spa’s spacious sea view rooms offer dazzling views across the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve, a comprehensive spa, children’s entertainment and swimming pools with glorious sunbathing terraces. If you prefer the independence of serviced apartments, the neighbouring Real Marina Residence offers a choice of beautifully-appointed, contemporary apartments with access to all the hotel’s facilities. A unique base from which to enjoy the spectacular scenery!