Well, it was October and Winter was supposedly coming, so we'd better find a place to hide. In hindsight, there was no real sign of winter until mid December or so, and when it came it was only brief and not all that cold (compared to living aboard in England). Until then, we actually could've kept sailing for most of the time, just ducking out the occasional gale in a marina somewhere. But we also had work to do on the boat, which is best done with access to power, water and suppliers, so we needed to find a place.
We chose Albufeira for this. We'd stopped in every place we could get the boat into in the Algarve during our earlier explorations, and part of that was to scout for the ideal place to spend winter in. So why did we pick this place? Let's see!
Coming down the west coast and rounding the cape of Sao Vicente, the first place you inevitably encounter is Lagos. As already mentioned in previous articles, we suffered a bit of a culture shock there. Not to our liking at all, too many pale white/lobster red tourists slouching around in too many sports bars getting pissed at all hours of the day and making a ruckus. The place is well positioned though, with easy access to the town, very close Pingo Doce supermarket and Lidl in walking distance. The marina had a bit of a retirement home flair, including a pharmacy and we even saw an elderly gentleman shambling along the pontoons on a hospital issue walking stick. Winter prices were rather high too at €3484 for six months (incl. 5% RYA discount), and the drawbridge that opened on radio request could be a bit annoying for going in and out. Recommended for old English people.
The next hop was Portimao. The marina is a fair bit out of town, with not much nearby, only a tiny shop with snacks. You need a bicycle to get into town (which we have, although some guy "complimenting" me on mine made me worry a bit about theft), else it's a bit of a walk past an empty piece of land. The town was okay, although had a lot of car traffic when we cycled around, which wasn't so nice. At the far side of town is a huge Jumbo supermarket and Lidl. The winter stay would've cost us €2103 (also incl. 5% discount). There was a boatyard discount, although the boatyard wasn't at the marina, but further up the river. Portimao also has an anchorage just outside the marina, so using that and only ducking in for a berth during bad weather may be possible. Recommended for catamarans, because they do not charge extra for your wide beam.
Further eastwards came Albufeira. This was a strange marina dug out of a piece of former farmland, and with a canyon-like approach channel blasted through a cliff. They advertise being "the most sheltered marina in the country", which is probably true. There's a bunch of tourist bars and restaurants around, a small Spar minimarket with mostly rip-off prices but affordable fresh baked goods, and a Meu not far from that. Everything else is in walking distance up a small cliff, including an Intermarché with normal prices (unless you buy the import goods instead of local). The town has a poor reputation as the capital of cheap mass tourism, and I wouldn't want to stay here in the summer months, but winter is an entirely different story. Prices were the best by far at only €1720 for our 12.2m long boat (with 15% RYA/CA discount, or 10% for Noonsite users) - half as much as in Lagos! Recommended for
cheap bastards budget cruisers like us.
The final marina in the western Algarve is Vilamoura. It's big, expensive and surrounded by hotels, restaurants and golf courses. We liked it even less than Lagos. You couldn't get from the pontoon to the showers without being harassed by multiple restaurant greeters, who tried to get you to sit down at a table despite flip-flops, shower bag and having a towel slung over the shoulder. The town is... not a town. It's an "unincorporated area". The real town, Quarteira, is a long walk further east. One good thing, there is a small chandlery at the marina and a very helpful sailmaker. Prices were also high at €3228 for six months (no discount). Recommended for golfers and space aliens.
Further east, the tourism area of the Algarve ends, but not the options for wintering. There's the Ria Formosa, the big lagoon outside Faro, with a large anchorage at Culatra island. This is however quite remote and did not look like much shelter from winter gales. In fact several small Tornados molested nearby Faro this winter, a dredger capsized and a nightly police boat chase ended with a dead fisherman. Great anchorage in summer though!
On the Rio Guadiana, there are more options. We really liked the town of Vila Real de Santo Antonio, despite being a bit of a mouthful. Marina near the center of town, good access to shopping (even a Russian food specialty shop), the cute and well-stocked "Corvo" supermarket and Lidl in walking distance. Unfortunately, the marina is not nearly as great. Built into the river, it suffers from strong currents, the facilities are an often shared joke amongst cruisers and so is the attitude of the staff. A shame, as the town was lovely and did not suffer from mass tourism like the western Algarve.
Ayamonte had a much friendlier marina, a well stocked chandlery and good access to town, but it was on the Spanish side, where staying for six months may have got us into trouble with their tax legislation, which was not an issue on the Portuguese side due to different rules.
Finally, some people go further upriver and spend the winter at anchor there, often in the Alcoutim/Sanlucar area. This ought be well out of reach of any coastal weather, although the river has its own challenges, and may become a raging torrent when the drought season ends and several months worth of rain come down in a few days. It's also quite isolated, with few supplies, and most important for us, no boatyard for our planned haulout.
So we picked Albufeira, for we thought the marina was most suitable for a winter stay, and because we're watching the money and their offer was by far the best. We had a long list of jobs to do, including a haulout. We booked a two week boatyard stay well ahead too, as the yard was small and only had 3 cradles for sailboats.
The weather was great for most of the time, except for some torrential rain when the drought season ended, and the occasional gale blowing through, which you often noticed very little of behind the cliffs. In sustained easterlies, some swell would enter the marina, but this was bearable on our berth. However, the berths for larger boats (>15m or so) are nearer the entrance and looked very uncomfortable at times, so we can't recommend the place for bigger boats. Marina staff were very friendly and helpful and the boatyard manager and travelift crew were excellent too.
Provisioning was no problem, with nearby Spar, Meu (recently re-opened), Intermarché and Lidl, Aldi, Pingo Doce and Continente a longer walk away. We usually did a supply run every two weeks where we walked to Lidl, stocked up on food and took an Uber ride back to the marina with our bags full of shopping, which was around €4-5. There's plenty of places to extract money from tourists, although most shut down from November to March. Chinese shops with all sorts of cheap stuff are in many places. There's a good Ferreteria just up the cliff by the primary school, which sells a lot of hardware, including stainless (A2 only) nuts and bolts as well as some small boating and fishing gear. The marina has a small mechanic/chandlery shop run by a helpful Englishman. With us finally having a (temporary) shipping address again, we ordered many parts online and even found someone to ship us the right Volvo coolant from the UK.
In Albufeira we also found a great dentist, who relieved me of the tooth I broke along the west coast in exchange for a surprisingly modest bill. I also learnt not to go to pharmacies in tourist areas, because their bill was a rather immodest €14 for a small bottle of medicinal mouthwash that I later found for €4 online.
Tourism died down rapidly towards the end of October, with some small surges around new years and easter. Access to Faro airport was good, taking around one hour by Greenbus shuttle and costing €7.50 per person and direction. There's also a Transrapido bus into Faro town center for €4.70 a ride. Faro is well worth it for some sightseeing. It's now early April, the sun is back and so are the first signs of mass tourism. Restaurants that were shut for winter have re-opened or are in the final stages of refurbishing.
There was a small community of liveaboards in Albufeira, some here for winter, others for a longer stay or using their boats as holiday apartments. A lot of German and English boats and the odd Belgian and Swedish flag.