Our kayaks slid across the mirror-flat water. It rippled like silk in our wake. We were on a preternaturally beautiful lagoon, its surface reflecting the pale, cloudless blue sky: it felt as if we were enveloped in light, our boats dark brushstrokes on a luminous canvas.
Gabriel, my 13-year-old son, had been grumbling about having to leave behind his friends in the UK to head to the sunshine, beaches and watersports of the Algarve – poor him – but as soon as we had the chance, he was first into a boat, zipping out towards the horizon.
He was clearly thrilled by the freedom of this calm expanse. Herons and cormorants flitted above the surface to gather on tiny weed-bundle islands. Wild samphire, prickly pear and purple-tipped cactus fringed the banks. In the distance a man was bent double, weeding something from the water’s edge.
Our guide explained that he was plucking out clams. Before we climbed aboard our kayaks, Gabriel discovered a praying mantis on the banks of the Ria Formosa and brought it over to us, gazing at this alien creature that resembled the love child of a leaf, a butterfly and a grasshopper. Minutes later he and his brother were arguing about what to do with it (it survived unscathed) but for a moment they had been silent, in awe.
It’s hard to believe that this extraordinary natural park lies so close to Faro airport, such an easy trip from Britain. When you think of the Algarve, it conjures up resorts and beaches, but the Ria Formosa is a 38-mile (60km) maze of lagoons, channels, marshes and islands, that stretches along almost the entire length of its coast. Its dunes are knitted together by Mediterranean maquis, a wild tangle of scrub that’s tinged chalk-green, mauve and rust.
I was here with my husband and two sons at the Algarve’s Quinta do Lago, to kayak, run, play tennis and more as part of its new Active Living packages with Helen Glover, twice Olympic rowing gold medallist. Her four-month-old son Logan (dad is TV naturalist Steve Backshall) was there too, and cheerfully bobbed along in a sling, blue eyes constantly curious, for most of the activities. I’m closer to an olive than I am an Olympian, but I was hoping this introduction to the outdoors with Helen would be a chance to get us all outside, away from our moth-like devotion to our screens.
I had felt slightly nervous about taking to the water with an Olympic rower, but Helen set us at ease. When we tried stand-up paddleboarding the following day, she explained how to angle the board when the wave of a motorboat threatened to upset our balance. Gabriel was off again into the distance before I’d even stepped aboard. I watched him paddle away, a trail of sunlight sparking across the water. The sun warmed our faces, and we were all in T-shirts – no need for wetsuits, even though it was midwinter back home.
It took a few minutes to get my balance: I’d never tried stand-up paddleboarding before, but in calm water it was much easier than I expected. I instantly saw the appeal of this graceful-looking, tranquil sport, and it was only moments before I felt as serene as a duck trailed by her ducklings (OK, mine are way ahead in front).
At 8am the following day, Helen took us through some stretches, explaining how stretching noticeably improves sporting performance. She told us about training for the Olympics, and how she used to wake at 4am to train before work (as a PE teacher), then again until 11pm. I glanced across at Jack, hoping that he was absorbing these inspirational tales of Olympian grit, but he looked half asleep, midway through a stretch on the mat. Perhaps we were not quite in the zone for pre-breakfast family exercise yet.
Our base, Four Seasons Fairways, was a whitewashed collection of immaculate villas and apartments, surrounded by golf courses (Europe’s finest). It’s a let’s-take-a-break-from-reality complex: no traffic, no noise, and no trying logistics. On arrival, Jack said, approvingly: “I feel like we’re in Bel Air.”
Jack is the keenest runner in the family, and so joined Helen for a run along the bank of Ria Formosa. They ran down to the water’s edge and around its banks, before crossing the bridge. It made a change from cross-country at school. Birds flew overhead, insects buzzed, ferns filtered the sun by the water’s edge and the whole landscape was a messy paintbox of colours, the winter sun beating overhead. I could see Jack’s stubborn determination to run ahead of Helen all the way, and once they had circled the waterway and run back to Fairways, we were amazed to find they had covered 41/2 miles (8km) – it’s so much easier to run when you’re distracted by the scenery.
The following day we took an open-backed speed boat from Faro to the Ilha Deserta. This is still part of the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve, a desert island only 20 minutes offshore. We sped across lapis-blue sea in a yellow-canopied boat, to the protected island, which has just one restaurant, Estaminé (meaning, simply, “place”), at its centre. Its building is sculptural, rust red, accessed via boardwalks to protect the vegetation. The owners told us how, on rare occasions, storms have blown up and they’ve had to stay overnight on the island. “It’s wonderful,” said Isabella, the crop-haired, smiling restaurateur.
A marine biologist, Tom, walked us around the raised walkways, explaining about the island’s rare plants and bird life. There were once holiday homes here, and so there are ornamental plants introduced by previous inhabitants, as well as the natural vegetation, but the houses were removed in order to protect the landscape. The seawater lapping the white-sand edges of the island was startlingly blue, and as we walked on the wooden slats at the water’s edge, Jack exclaimed, “Look at the fish!” There were shoal upon shoal of mullet, glinting silver, just beyond our feet.
Wild thyme, rosemary and oregano scented the air, a profusion of herbs, interwoven across the sandy landscape. Other than the restaurant, the only other structures were three ramshackle wooden shacks, the home of the island’s sole remaining resident, a fisherman who must relish his own company.
We ended our walk at the restaurant, rounding off a perfect afternoon, feasting on its signature prawns, the fat juicy clams that we had seen being gathered on the banks of the lagoon, and succulent, freshly-caught sea bass sourced from local fishermen. Although it was off-season, the sun was brilliant, almost blindingly bright. With windows on all sides the restaurant is wrapped by sky and sea views. Afterwards we walked across more boardwalks to the island’s four miles (7km) of white-sand beach. It was thick with shells, and we found one the size of a baseball mitt.
Back at Fairways, the boys were particularly thrilled by its sumptuous breakfasts, poolside, and in the evening its magnificent skewers, fresh fish, and lamb chops. Another boon for these tired parents was that you could order takeaway from the clubhouse if not in the mood for eating out. We swam in the heated outdoor pool after dark, its mood lighting changing from pink to red to blue, under the clear, starlit sky, and ironed out our creases at the spa, bubbling hot tub and saunas.
Late on the afternoon of our last day, my husband and I wandered back down to the Ria Formosa, where we had been kayaking a few days before. The light was different at this time of day, and the water now reflected a sky that blurred from deep blue to peaches and cream. The tide had ebbed out and the perfect flatness of the water now surrounded molehill islands. A fish suddenly leapt high out of the water, then disappeared back beneath the silvery surface.
We crossed the wooden walkway, and to our surprise found a gathering of people at its end, facing out along the empty, golden-sand beach. There was not a building in sight. Everyone was looking out to sea, all gathered here to watch the early evening show: the sunset. The great burning ball of the sun sank imperceptibly lower, and orange light splashed on the steel-blue surf. It was fire-bright, and we were mesmerised by the hypnotic repetitive wash of the waves. It was one of those rare moments when time appeared to slow down before our eyes (our eldest also has the ability to do this when getting ready for school).
As a family introduction to the outdoors, Fairways was a treat, and we were returning home with a new impetus, to be less olive, and more Olympian: let’s see how that goes. But even more precious, perhaps, was this chance to slow down, and watch the sun sink into the sea.
The chidlren’s verdict
“I loved the hotel, because it had a swimming pool, two in fact: a small one at our apartment and a very big one at the clubhouse. I ran with Helen by my side and a person I did not know. I did 8km, but I could not do any more. I enjoyed playing tennis. I also liked the rooms, which were nice. We had a Jacuzzi, and a bag of oranges every day. I liked the TV, which was massive, and there were three sofas which had three cushions on each.”
Jack, aged 11
“I liked the canoeing best – and looking at the beautiful river and bank as we were gliding along. I also loved doing stand-up paddleboarding because I really enjoy water sports. While I did like the resort, I also really enjoyed walking around it and seeing the natural beauty of the Algarve. On the trip I also got to experience Portuguese wildlife, as I saw a small raccoon on one of my walks and also got to hold a praying mantis. The resort was also very nice and we got to experience a variety of Portuguese food and their oranges.”
Gabriel, aged 13