Who could have thought back in the dark days of the recent financial crisis that Portugal would emerge with such vibrancy and become one of the hottest destinations in Europe?
Portugal's renaissance appears to be touching all corners of the country. The last time I wrote about this Atlantic nation in these travel pages was back in 2015, at the beginning of the new wave of interest in the country. Now, a few years later even the somewhat melancholy streets of Coimbra and Porto have an optimism and energy not seen in years. Curious millennials, culture buffs and foodies have helped put these northern cities well and truly on the tourist trail, driving new hotel, restaurant and bar openings.
Meanwhile Lisbon has also been capturing the hearts of a new generation of visitor. Now it's a case of 'move over Barcelona'. Portugal's first city is now also the capital of cool - it has the dynamic food scene, the cool waterside café culture, and of course loads of history - yet, at least for now, it doesn't quite have the overwhelming crowds of the Catalan capital.
Portugal's revival of fortunes has reached the Algarve too. The south-facing Atlantic coast offers a warm Mediterranean climate and way-of-life - and now a stylish vacation infrastructure that's getting hard to beat.
A few years ago, if one mentioned the Algarve thoughts probably turned to golf and beaches. Yet there's considerably more to engage the visitor. Admittedly southern Portugal remains one of the finest golf destinations in Europe; and the beaches are spectacular. Yet the region is diversifying into adventure activities, elite sport coaching, as well as providing experiences highlighting its gastronomic and cultural heritage.
Portugal's renewed self-confidence and pride in its culture now makes a visit significantly more rewarding. Sun and beach is of course the draw, yet once here it's likely that one experiences a great deal more - from rural spa and wellness retreats; 4x4 'safaris' or hot-air ballooning exploring the countryside of orange groves and cork forests; to catamaran boat tours, snorkelling trips; and foodie visits to bustling local markets.
International groups are investing in Portugal like never before. Anantara, the elite hotel group from Asia, has chosen the Algarve for its first and only luxury resort in Europe. Found surrounded by golf courses, the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort reflects the new style of hotel property that celebrates its location. From the local cheese, honey and delicacies served at breakfast, to the personalised 'Spice Spoons' cooking classes, where guests learn traditional Algarve recipes like a 'Cataplana Algarvia' fish and seafood stew, guests can indulge in local gastronomy.
The Quinta do Lago residential and leisure estate just west of Faro has developed far beyond being a community of luxury holiday homes with championship golf course views. The estate, right on the edge of the remarkable and beautiful Ria Formosa protected lagoon area, is now emerging as one of Europe's elite sports coaching destinations. With the opening of The Campus, a sophisticated sports complex, international teams have access to all-year, world-class training facilities. For holidaymakers that also means access to quality bike hire, well-maintained tennis facilities, and of course a top-notch golf academy.
Introducing the Algarve to a younger, more budget-conscious, yet no less demanding visitor, The Magnolia Hotel offers on-trend accommodation for the Instagram generation. Rooms and services are simple yet delivered with style and flair. The less-is-more focus means high-quality facilities, and a youthful, well-trained and friendly team offering accommodation and dining at surprisingly accessible prices. What's more there's a free shuttle to the sporting venues, dining and nightlife of Quinto do Lago; and the Ria Formosa natural park is right there to explore.
Faro, much like Malaga on the Costa del Sol, was once regarded by many visitors as little more than an airport gateway to the golf resorts and hotels that spread out along the coast. Now this regional capital is being rediscovered and enjoyed for its historic castles, convents and churches as well as its local eateries and relaxed café culture. Without doubt the town also offers the most authentic dose of Portuguese daily life compared to the more contemporary resorts and gentrified towns further west. It's also a town where you can eat very well on a budget. Expect traditional seafood stews served in cataplana copper pots, as well as plenty of cheap eats like the 'Menu do Dia' fixed menus on offer in small cafes and bars.
The coast around Faro is among the most unspoilt of the Algarve. I particularly like the lagoons and coves between Faro and the delightful town of Tavira close to the border with Spain. This still somehow feels like the hidden Algarve and for that is has a charm and tranquillity that's not usually associated with this part of Portugal.
For a stylish long weekend, the Algarve is an ideal destination. Within four and half hours from Malaga, one can be sipping a 'vinho da casa' or a refreshing white port with tonic, and tucking into a rich, flaky 'pastel de nata' on a sun-dappled terrace yet feel worlds away.