After a summer like a dodgy tap — mostly chilly with the odd spurt of boiling temperatures — I was craving sunshine by the onset of autumn.
Dismissing the top suggestions — the Caribbean was too stormy, too pricy, Cyprus seemingly entirely booked up — we found ourselves looking at Portugal.
But while the Algarve is packed all summer long, its beaches teeming, picky restaurant Maitre d’s turning away anyone without a booking, isn’t it one of those places with Nothing To Do unless the sun shines?
As room rates drop as low as half the price of summer peak prices in the ‘shoulder seasons’ of October-November and March-April, and temperatures hover around 20C in October, we decided to risk it and discover whether there’s really enough to do on Portugal’s south coast beyond the sunbeds.
Because with new day out experiences and pampering deals to tempt, you needn’t face huge crowds or lengthy flights either — even if you might want to pack a jacket.
Arriving in Vilamoura, a 30-minute drive from Faro airport, we initially struck the weather jackpot: in mid-October temperatures were still close to 30 degrees. “It’s unusual,” said the pool staff as they rapidly unfurled more towels on the plentiful loungers at our hotel, the newly-opened Anantara Vilamoura Resort.
“It’s so hot for October!” said the croissant waiter (what a job!) proffering a basket of Nutella, apple, wholegrain, cinnamon and every other type you can imagine at the enormous breakfast buffet.
Yet the gleaming hotel wasn’t even at half occupancy, leaving us oodles of space around its Instagram-ready palm tree-lined pools. There were no queues at the breakfast egg station, and ready access to the free shuttle into the marina’s shops and restaurants.
That journey, taking 10 minutes along largely traffic-free roads stretches to 45 minutes or even an hour during the summer peak, the drivers told us. “Cars and traffic everywhere. The whole town is packed with people in August.”
Not in autumn — especially if you avoid half term. It’s true that only the British were flopped onto loungers at the bling Purobeach club (which Anantara guests can access for free) while the Portuguese all sported trousers as temperatures dipped to the low 20s. But it was still warm enough for us all to enjoy the golden sand, buckets, spades, sea and largely empty beach.
It was the same story as we pootled along to beautiful coastal towns like Quarteira — a 15-minute drive from our hotel — with its long, sandy beach and restaurants serving freshly caught fish, or the local village Olhos de Agua,
The Algarve is admittedly more action-packed in summer: Purobeach, has a DJ and dance vibe in peak season, for example, plus an enticing pool that shuts by October. But if you’re after more relaxing than raving (and with a newborn and toddler, we were) you might be glad the decks are packed up.
Besides, our swimming needs were well catered for at the Anantara, the first European hotel for this luxury Far East brand. After spending millions on the former Tivoli Victoria hotel and re-opening it in April, the Anantara has installed three heated pools — very rare in the Algarve, and very worthwhile if you’re travelling out of peak season.
It meant we could swim lengths in the gorgeous main pool or splash in two kids’ pools without shivering; the adult-only outdoor pool and its champagne cabanas do close in October.
If the sun isn’t shining, the 280-room hotel has plenty to occupy — tennis courts, an expansive kids’ club (which costs extra), a spacious, soothing Thai-style spa with vitality pool, gym, sauna and steam room, and manicured Victoria golf course, which hosts the Portuguese Masters each September.
With many other top-notch courses nearby, autumn is a popular time for golfers, although the closest we got to a putter was Roman-themed mini-golf in Vilamoura.
Taking a drive around the Algarve, rather than across a green, will keep you just as busy too.
And walking and boating around the woodlands, marshes and islands of Ria Formosa, a natural park a half-hour drive away, revealed a beauty that summer visitors miss out on.
Foodies will love Loule’s covered market, which first opened in 1908 and sells every type of vegetable, sauce and fish you can imagine — plus sheepskin slippers and ceramics that are eminently more packable than sea-fresh sea bass. As packed as a Tube train all summer long, there’s lots of strolling room when you travel off peak.
Even without your own kitchen to hand, you needn’t miss out on turning the market’s ingredients into something delectable. The Anantara’s Spice Spoons half-day outing is a good one: a chef-guided tour of the neo-Moorish market sees you shop for ingredients, such as tuna steak, figs and anise, before returning to the hotel’s open kitchen with the chef to discover the cooking skills required to whizz up a gourmet meal, like gazpacho, fish stew and Dom Rodrigo local sweets.
After eating the results for lunch, there are recipe cards to take away. Another local tour, Flavours of the Algarve, sees you jump into a convertible Jeep to squeeze juice at an orangery, visit a distillery, get hands-on at a pastry-maker, and get involved at a cork factory.
Then there’s the Algarve’s Spa Week, a twice-yearly initiative in October and March, with half-price treatments at 10 top spas letting you splurge twice as much on massages, scrubs and more without getting stressed again when the bill comes.
Algarvian food was memorable too: locally caught fish on the waterfront at the marina-based Akvavit or grilled metres from our poolside seats at the Anantara’s Ria restaurant.
With some restaurants closing out of main season, it’s worth checking direct before you book though — half-boarders at other hotels complained they could only dine at one restaurant in the evening.
Shutters start coming down in the marina restaurants too as the nights draw in: at the (delicious) Veneza ice cream parlour, for example, the scooper told us it closes between November and February — explaining “it’s too cold for ice cream,” before laughing when we told her of queues at London gelaterias even when it’s snowing.
With hefty discounts on room prices, and far more space at the beach, pool, parks and greens, it’s worth living with limited ice cream options though — and booking a trip before word gets out.