It’s Thursday afternoon and my face is in someone’s armpit. There’s a smell of Monster Munch in the air. I can feel my bag getting slowly crushed into my back. My feet are slipping on the damp floor. Just another rush hour journey home on the London Underground.
As we emerge overground, I try to catch a glimpse of the sunset. It is obscured by the grey suburban buildings. Again.
Twenty-four hours later, I’m clambering over sandstone rock, trying to catch the same setting sun. This time, there’s no city smog or high rise flats blocking it from view. We’re perched high on a yellow cliff, watching the sun dip into the rippling blue waters of southern Portugal. And it’s only two-and-a-half hours from the UK.
Clem, our enthusiastic host from Bura Surfhouse, is taking us on a hike along the rugged cliff tops over Porto de Mos near Lagos. “I moved here because I just wanted to get out of the UK and surf everyday,” she explains as we power up steps cut into the rock.
There is hardly anyone else in sight, apart from a few fisherman perched along the cliff side. It’s November, not your typical time to visit Portugal, but the air is a balmy 20°C. The boozy Aussies and families on package holidays are long gone.
“I’ve never seen anyone come to the Algarve without golf clubs,” said our taxi driver when we arrived at Faro airport that morning. But we’re not here for the glamorous 18-hole courses or fancy hotels. There’s far more to Portugal than golf.
Morning surf sessions, BBQs on the beach, fresh seafood from the local farmers market and Sundays spent exploring hidden caves and climbing spots on stand-up paddleboards. As Clem describes life in the Algarve, we listen engrossed. This could be somewhere we like. A lot.
Back at the Bura Surfhouse, we’re introduced to the staff, shown our room and invited a group dinner later that night.
“In the summer, all 46 beds in the surfhouse are filled with backpackers. Some like it so much, they end up staying indefinitely…”
The house itself is a big Portuguese villa converted into a hostel with big comfy sofas, an open fireplace and a coffee table made from driftwood the staff found on the beach.
Outside, we’re met with an open-air swimming pool surrounded by hammocks and beanbags, plus a pool table outside our private bedroom.
In the summer, all 46 beds in the surfhouse are filled with backpackers from all over the world. Some like it so much, they end up staying indefinitely and wind up with a job in the hostel.
As we sit down to dinner that night with all the staff, it feels like we’ve known them all for years. Group meals are a regular occurrence at Bura Surfhouse. When the weather is good, staff and guests gather on the rooftop to drink beers and tuck into a sunset BBQ.
However, tonight we’re gathering in the cosy dining room for T.J.’s Portuguese piri piri chicken and king prawns with mounds of potatoes, vegetables and glasses of red wine. He may come from Missouri, USA but he makes the best piri piri I’ve tasted.
It’s an early wake-up call on Saturday. Pancakes and orange juice await us upstairs. Hot coffee rouses us from our sleepy state before we load ten surfboards on top of an old VW Transporter and head off on one of T.J.’s West Coast Adventures. The surfhouse run everything from adventure tours to surf, SUP, kayak and wakeboard lessons.
Bus tours can veer into the cheesy tourist territory, but that’s not T.J.’s style. Instead, we sit back and listen to Bob Dylan-style acoustic tunes, stopping off at deserted cliff top vistas to clamber across the rocks and check the surf spots on the way.
We pick up some mini mangos from the farmers’ market, the sticky juice dripping between our fingers before we pile back into the van and head down to check out the surf.
“If the waves are too big in the west, then there’s plenty of bays around the south coast that still catch the swell”
Unlike the UK, there isn’t a whole network of webcams set up to check the waves here. You have to drive there.
The good thing about surf in the Algarve is if the waves are too big in the west, then there are plenty of bays tucked around the south coast that still catch the swell but the waves aren’t nearly as big.
Our first stop was Zaviel but it was totally flat. Next Beliche, a super hollow wave that breaks close to the shore. Not ideal for longboarders as it was closing out when we pitch up, but perfect for those looking to tuck into barrels.
The swell picked up and there were soon some four to five foot clean beasts rolling in. By 11am, rumour had it the waves at Zaviel had reached double overhead. Conditions change fast here.
When our arms couldn’t take any more paddling, it was time to scale the cliffs on the side of the beach. The fellas in our group took turns climbing as high as they could, while I sat and watched two tiny six-year-old Portuguese rippers tearing along four-foot walls.
By the end of the day our city-dwelling bodies were shattered, but we still managed to squeeze in dinner at Mullen’s, a traditional Portuguese joint with long beer hall style tables and beef Mozambique, a dish we’d been told we couldn’t leave without trying.
Sunday saw another great day of surf as we hopped in the van with the friendly guys from Jah Shaka Surf Camp down the road. But by Monday, the surf was flat. Luckily, this made it ideal conditions for stand-up paddle boarding.
David from SUP Lagos helped us carry boards down to Praia da Marinha, once voted the best beach in Europe. We pushed off the beach and followed David between the sea stacks into giant caves cut into the rocks.
As we paddled back to the beach, we spotted a fin ducking out of the water. I froze. Soon, there were dozens of them swimming towards us. It was a pod of 30 bottlenose dolphins.
I nearly fell off my board with excitement. “I’ve taken around 100 trips out with customers this year, said David, “and that’s probably the second time I’ve seen dolphins. They don’t usually come this close.”
“We spotted a fin ducking out of the water. Soon there were dozens of them. It was a pod of 30 bottlenose dolphins…”
After just three days in Portugal, we’d already slotted into a rhythm dictated by tides and the sun, rather than clocks and deadlines. Afternoon naps and post-surf beer are a given. Fresh seafood for dinner was obligatory.
By the time we met Matt, the owner of Bura Surfhouse, for lunch we were pretty much ready to uproot our lives and move to Lagos.
“I came here because I watched that Corona advert. You know the one? Where a group of friends head off on a surf trip in a van through Mexico. As soon as my girlfriend Heather and I saw it, we knew we had to open up a surfhouse.”
Matt has spent nearly a decade running the Bura Snow chalet in La Rosiere in the French Alps during the winter. Two years ago, he opened the doors of the Bura Surfhouse in Lagos to fill the summer season.
There are plans to expand even further afield. “My mate keeps telling me Senegal is going to be the next big surf destination,” he laughs. “So who knows where we’ll be next!”
As we board our plane back to the UK, I can still feel the sand between my toes and slightly rosier cheeks than when we left.
If you’re looking to escape the city in off-season for sunshine, surf and a really good laugh with the Bura Surfhouse crew, then there’s no better place to visit than the Algarve. I have a feeling we’ll be back, maybe sooner than we think.
We stayed for three nights with Bura Surfhouse in Lagos, Portugal. Rooms start from €12-33 per person per night. Make sure you check out their Bura Snow chalet in La Rosiere, France which is now taking bookings for the winter season.