THIS A TRUE STORY. A TOUR REP was once asked by a newly-arriving holiday maker in Albufeira: “How big is the island of Algarve?” The bemused rep replied that the Algarve was firmly attached to Portugal whereupon the tourist angrily exclaimed: “I thought I was going to an island off the coast of Spain!”
Of course the Algarve is not an island but it does boast a string of remarkable coastal barriers and islets that make up part of the Ria Formosa Natural Park. From west to east these barrier islands are separated by natural and man-made inlets and bookended by two peninsulas.
Which is which?
Ancão peninsula in the west is commonly known as Faro Beach but is also known locally as Faro Island. The Ancão inlet separates it from Ilha Barreta or Ilha Deserta as it is popularly known. The next inlet is the Faro Olhão inlet on which work began back in 1927 to improve access to the ports of Faro and Olhão. But it got ignored and fouled up in political indifference for many a decade, and was not completed until 1952.
The next barrier is a confusion of names. On the one hand it is called Ilha da Culatra and on the other Ilha Farol. In fact it is just one island and its true name is Ilha Culatra.
There are two villages on the island; Farol which is just across the water from Ilha Deserta and Culatra on the lagoon that faces Olhão. Eastward of Ilha da Culatra is the Armona inlet and then Ilha Armona itself followed by the Fuseta inlet with Ilha Tavira on its shore. Tavira inlet leads on to Ilha Cabanas and finally the barrier islands finish at the peninsula of Cacela. Confusing, yes, but only at first; the joy of discovery takes over fast and always delights.
The Ria Formosa Natural park meanders along the coast for 60 kilometres and runs through five municipalities: Loulé, Faro, Olhão, Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António. It was constituted in 1978 and is recognised by the Ramsar Convention for its crucial importance as a wetland habitat.
Each island hosts some form of human activity including Ilha Deserta which is home to the renowned sea food restaurant, Estaminé, worth a trip for an unforgettable lunch. Apart from the restaurant, the majority of visitors mainly enjoy the seclusion of the place. Many bring picnics and simply relax in the unspoilt surroundings. The island also features the most southerly point of Portugal at Cabo de Santa Maria.
The neighbouring island of Culatra consists of three parts – Farol, Culatra and Hângares. The entire island, which is vehicle free, is six kilometres in length and one kilometre at its widest and has a resident population of 1,000. The ocean side of the island has beautiful golden sand beaches and on the lagoon side there are marinas and moorings for leisure and working boats.It is also the starting point for the channels of Faro and Olhão. A dramatic focal point, a lighthouse, interestingly also named as Cabo Santa Maria is in the village of Farol on the western tip of the island. There is a network of boardwalks criss-crossing the island one of which connects the villages of Farol and Culatra.
A nice way to experience the island is to take a ferry from either Faro or Olhão to Farol, walk the sand-roads lined with colourful houses, lunch at one of the cafés and then stroll across to Culatra village. The direct walking route is four kilometres.
But this is a working island; the people here rely on fishing for their income and they work hard to make a living. The waters around the island contain an abundance of fish such as sole, flounder, plaice and turbot plus dorsal species like mackerel and rock salmon. Shellfish and 300 species of molluscs including ribbed clams and razor clams were once plentiful but have recently declined due to over catching and pollution. A recent proposal to establish a ten-hectare clam farm is meeting strong opposition principally because of its intention to introduce an Asian species of clam into what is, under international law, a protected marine environment.
East of Ilha da Culatra lies Armona, nine kilometres long but just as slim as its neighbour. It is home to a good number of small, characterful beach houses, some of which are available for holiday rental, plus a few quality cafés and restaurants. It is a favourite of those who want to escape the crowded beaches along the Algarve coast. Pristine golden sands run along the coastal side of the island where often no one is to be seen. There is also an inland lake fed from the tidal lagoon that provides safe and peaceful bathing.
The availability of regular ferries is crucial to the survival of these special islands in the Ria Formosa. There are a number of ferry companies running every day of the year from both Faro and Olhão with prices ranging from €3 to €6 for a return ticket, depending on your island of choice. Tavira island which has a popular camping site is serviced from the dock in Tavira and Ilha de Cabanas is reached by a short ferry boat ride from the village of Cabanas.
Some of the ferry companies offer other services such as hop-on-hop-off options to some of the islands and also eco tours and bird watching exxperiences.
There are more than 300 species of birds with a combined population of 30,000 in the Ria Formosa Natural Area ranging from, to name just a very few, Egrets, Terns, Cormorants, White Storks and of course the Great Flamingo. And the famous Portuguese Water Dog originated here; it was bred by fishermen who trained it to herd fish into their nets, to retrieve lost tackle and also to act as couriers to and from the shore to the inshore fishing fleet.
The seabed all along the Ria Formosa is home to a very special species that is facing a battle to return to the record numbers that were verified back in the year 2001. The highest population density of seahorses in the entire world was recorded in the Ria Formosa then but by 2008 there was an alarming decrease – 94% in long-snouted seahorses and 73% in short snouted.
Very recently seahorses have been gathered illegally in the Ria Formosa and traded as nonsense curios and bogus Chinese ‘medicine’. The seahorse is indigenous to the Ria Formosa and its biology and ecology is remarkable. As well as the long- and shortsnouted varieties that were common here in Algarve, there are another 44 known species. Males fertilise the eggs and carry the babies to ‘birth’ in a pouch much like a kangaroo. They remain as monogamous couples throughout their lives and greet each other every day by entwining each others tails.
The seahorse is important in maintaining habitats like the seagrass and mangroves of the Ria Formosa. Their natural surroundings are being eroded here by bad practice such as anchoring pleasure boats instead of using mooring buoys and by jet skiers practising their sport in the shallow waters of the lagoon and as a result tearing up the sea beds.
If you find yourself on a central Algarvean hill looking out to sea, observe a lighthouse a little to the left of the airport. That’s Farol, and a landmark surrounded by a unique seascape. Go and explore this special part of Algarve that is not actually an island but is made of islands. It will lift your spirits.