At 45 kilometers per hour, Sara Magalhães steers the dinghy towards the abyss. "They're usually here," she yells over the roar of the engines. Her eyes wander over the blue waves. Then they narrow: "There!" Indeed, several dorsal fins, a hundred meters ahead. They appear, disappear, reappear. dozens of dolphins.
"The continental plate breaks off directly below us," says the 46-year-old marine biologist. "The sea is 100 meters deep in front of the edge, then it suddenly drops to 500 meters deep. That's why it's rich in nutrients, fish, dolphins!” Sara Magalhães drives on slowly, several schools of dolphins are now swimming next to the boat, playing in the waves, jumping meters out of the water.
Here, a good 16 kilometers off the coast of the Algarve, Magalhães and her team from tour operator Mar Ilimitado help to record the population of dolphins and other whales - and take interested visitors out to sea. “Autumn,” says Magalhães, “is the best time. The strong August winds have died down, the whales are migrating from the Mediterranean along the coast into the Atlantic.”
Autumn is not only the best time in the Algarve for whale fans. Hikers and cyclists enjoy milder temperatures than in summer. The sea is not much cooler than in August, but the beaches are empty.
Everyone is more relaxed now, it's the time when people take a deep breath after the summer crowds here and enjoy the benefits of their region for themselves. The advertising slogan of the Algarve is "Europe's most famous secret" - logically autumn would be the "most famous secret of the year" for visitors to the Algarve.
The autumn of last year had another special meaning, because since then Portugal has been one of the world leaders in vaccination, with around 90 percent of the population being fully vaccinated against Covid-19. That is why many corona restrictions were lifted on October 1, 2021.
But the Portuguese are cautious about their newfound freedom. Tourist guide Diana Nunes, 35, has struggled through the Corona period. When fewer and fewer tourists came, she worked in a newspaper kiosk, baked sweets that she sold, and also looked after 60 street cats.
"I notice that most of the people I deal with now have changed," she says on the short boat ride from Olhão across to Ilha de Culatra, the fisherman's island. "People here complain less, are more grateful for everything what they experience. The visitors too: they are now more conscious on the move and attach more importance to experiencing the real Algarve, not just the scenery.”
A few sacks of flour are just arriving on the beach at Culatra. A tractor takes the sacks to the island's only bakery. There are no cars on Culatra, only the tractor and a few motorbikes. 700 mussel farmers and fishermen live here in low, white cottages, there is a school with 14 students, a church and a football field.
A boardwalk leads to the main beach, one of the most beautiful in the Algarve. If you walk a few hundred meters to the left or right, everyone will find their box seat in the sand with a view of the sea. In "Café Janoca", one of the few places, guests sit on plastic chairs, drink white wine and enjoy cataplana, the traditional mussel stew.
Tourist guide Nunes has started her own company Portugal For You during the pandemic. Now she no longer shows those who are interested the standard sights, but the lesser-known corners of her homeland, explains the work of oyster farmers and beekeepers, visits aged cheesemakers or creative potters. "We not only have to be careful with Corona," she says, "but also with our culture and our traditions."
The Algarve is only about twice the size of Saarland, but has fewer inhabitants than Leipzig, a good 430,000. In the summers before Corona, millions overran the coasts between Albufeira, Portimão and Sagres. Most visitors were British and Irish (35 percent), around nine percent Germans, attracted by dream beaches, reasonable prices and 300 days of sunshine a year. Tourism recovered this summer, but 2021 was still a long way from the 2019 figures.
"It's okay, I like going to the beach too," says Ricardo González, 41, about the typical bathing holidaymaker - and adds with a grin: "When I carry my surfboard from the car to the water." When he's not surfing, the athletic one accompanies him Man hiking fans and cyclists as a guide and Algarve explainer.
For example on the famous Rota Vicentina between the coastal towns of Burgau and Salema. The track is a bit like a roller coaster, a constant up and down with great views after every turn.
"Only those who experience the country in peace really experience the country," says González and even on the steepest steep section he doesn't catch his breath a bit. “More and more of the people who visit the Algarve now have realized that. My business is booming, I have bookings well into the coming year.” He sits down on a rock at the top of the cliff and gazes dreamily at the blue sea below. "It's okay to go a few hours without a beach, isn't it?" he finally asks.
That's true, but the beauty of González' tours is that you're rarely far from the water on a hike or bike tour. The Praia das Furnas near Figueira, for example, accessible via a gravel road, rocks washed out by waves, wide sandy beach, hardly any people. This is where González leads his group after the three-hour cliff tour. He points up at a house: “I live there with my family. Sometimes I come to the beach with my children before school. But not for lounging, but for surfing.”
João Ministro, 47, sits in his office on a side street in Loulé, a town in the Algarve hinterland. He is another pioneer of active tourism, as he is one of the founding fathers of the Via Algarviana hiking trail system. This is an old pilgrim route that connects the town of Alcoutim on the Spanish border with the Cabo de São Vicente in the far southwest for 340 kilometers.
For a good ten years he has lobbied, convinced local councillors, fought against bureaucratic windmills, painted stones with marking paint and wrested rights of way from farmers. "Now the success is showing," he says proudly, "along the route, cafés or guesthouses are springing up in villages that have been abandoned for decades. The first hikers are even settling here because they discovered this magical corner while walking: Germans, Britons, Swedes, Danes.”
The paths between Salir, Alte or Benafim lead along old stone walls through orange and lemon groves. Farmers cultivate figs, almonds, vines, olives here. Old men salute from rickety wooden chairs, a bottle of local Medronho liquor in front of them. No mobile phone reception, no cars, instead the scent of sage and the happiness of walking alone on paths that are thousands of years old.
Here, in the isolated villages of the hinterland, the so-called TASA project started, fueled by hiking pioneer João Ministro: Young creative people come together with old craftsmen. Some have experience, others fresh ideas. The project is intended to ensure that old techniques such as pottery, coppersmithing and basket weaving do not die out with their masters and that new approaches or products are also tried out. "Our elders are like Wikipedias with gray hair," says Ministro, "we have to preserve their knowledge."
Five workshops have emerged in Loulé alone, from violin makers to watchmakers and cork specialists to the coppersmith who creates the perfect vessels for the region's popular stews. “At the beginning there is a crack,” says Ministro with a subtle smile, “the old people think the young people don't get it, and the young people think the old people are completely inflexible. But after a few days, they grow closer and wonderful new creations emerge.”
João Ministro has a degree in environmental engineering. One of his college friends is also called João, is also 47 and also an environmental engineer. João Fernandes has been head of the Algarve Tourism Authority for three years. He previously worked as a professor at the Institute for Wastewater Technology.
He sits enthroned in a dignified office in a high-rise building in Faro, the capital of the Algarve. He almost seems uncomfortable sitting up here with a view of the sea through the glass front and talking about sustainability. He just took over the office from his predecessor.
He also believes that Corona has made his region think: "The virus has shaken up the world and the way we look at tourism. It was painful at times, but in the long term it will lead to a rethink.” He sees a strong trend towards more conscious travel: “Visitors attach more importance to getting away from the hustle and bustle and mass tourism. This is our chance, because we have enough opportunities to immerse ourselves in nature.”
Sometimes a tiny change of perspective is enough. Why not watch birds in the Ria Formosa nature park near Faro with binoculars instead of sitting dozing in a deck chair? Why not pedal along lonely slopes towards Vila do Bispo instead of looking for a new handbag in the shopping mall?
Why not take a surfing lesson just before sunset instead of watching Netflix in your hotel room? Or paddling from the sea to the cliffs and sea caves of the Ponta da Piedade near Lagos instead of driving to the vantage point on top of the cliffs by car?
Marine biologist Sara Magalhães has also gained a new perspective on her life. “This fall after Corona is a bit like a rebirth. Everything is fresher, the senses are sharper. I know that a lot of things have become less important for me and other people here.” She is sitting in her small office in the port of Sagres, seagulls are screaming outside. On the table are photos and statistics of dolphin sightings.
"And I know what has become even more important to me now." What is that? Magalhães doesn't say a word in reply, but gets up and opens the window. She then stands there for minutes in the gentle air that flows in from the sea and lets the mild light of the autumn sun shine on her face.
Arrival: Lufthansa, for example, flies to Faro from Munich and Frankfurt, and Easyjet flies there from Berlin. Continue with the rental car. Accommodation: "Cardeal Suites" in Faro, family-owned for 80 years, newly renovated apartments, 90 to 120 euros/double room, cardeal.pt. "Vila Valverde", five-star country hotel with a view of the bay of Praia da Luz, quiet location, orange groves, non-chlorinated pool, excellent cuisine, from 160 euros/double room, half-board costs an additional 35 euros/person, vilavalverde.com. "Alte Tradition Guesthouse" in the center of the village of Alte on the Via Algarviana hiking route, hotel opened in 2019, whirlpool on the roof terrace, from 80 euros/double room, zitur.pt/en/Menu/Home.aspx.
Algarve tours: Olimar offers panoramic hikes on the prettiest sections of the Rota Vicentina long-distance hiking trail along the wild and unspoilt coast, seven days of alternating accommodation with luggage transport, from 640 euros/person, olimar.de. Bike Tours Portugal offers guided seven-day tours to highlights on and near the coast for luxury bikers, from 3500 euros/person, including hotels, full board, transfers, biketoursportugal.com. Diana Nunes from Portugal for you undertakes individually tailored tours with her guests on topics such as olives, seafood, traditional handicrafts, honey or history, four to six hour excursions from 25 euros per person, pt4u.pt.
More information: visitalgarve.pt/de; visitportugal.com/en
Participation in the trip was supported by the Algarve Tourist Office. You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at axelspringer.de/independence.
This article was first published in October 2021.