As someone who has only learned to surf in the past eight months, I’m not the person to go to for advice about technical skill or the precise curve of a good wave. However, I’ve taken in a thing or two during my time in the Algarve region of Portugal, in which I packed up my bright yellow board, snug wetsuit, and towel an average of three times a week for two months.
Disappointment and setbacks – not being able to catch a wave, getting washing-machined in an unexpectedly big one, struggling to paddle out behind the break, or day after day of flat or unforgiving conditions – is part of the deal with surfing, and I know that this can be off-putting for beginners, especially if you’re a little fearful already like me. But if you get a good day and a consistent run of progress, it’s one of the best feelings in the world. That is why I here share my favourite beaches for those without much experience, in the hopes that these gentler swathes of sand and sea will produce positive experiences with surfing.
I’ve based this list on my own experiences of the beaches in question, so although I covered a fair amount of the south-western Algarve, I don’t doubt that there are others I’m unaware of that aren’t on the list (for example, Sagres is a surfing haven where I actually had my first ever surf lesson, but I didn’t visit there this time). Some of these beaches I visited only a few times, others much more. It goes without saying, too, that a nice day at these beaches is also highly dependent on the quality of the surf, wind, and swell conditions that day (check Magic Seaweed).
Nonetheless, these are the beaches that, for me, produced the most consistent and happy days out there on the waves.
1. Praia da Salema
Best spot: the area in front of the steps (see photo above)
Avoid: rocks at the west end of the beach
Salema is a tiny little seaside village on the south coast, between Lagos and Sagres. It is a nice sandy beach sheltered by yellow limestone cliffs dating back to the Early Cretaceous period, and as such one of the best things about this beach is the 125-million-year-old dinosaur footprints which are clearly visible on one of the rocks.
I was a nervous surfer when I first went to Salema, drawn by the sight of its evenly-breaking small waves whose little peaks I could easily summit. One of the nicest things about Salema, too, is the gentle gradient of the sand as it slopes down through the water – no sudden pits to disrupt the path of the waves or lose your footing in, if you like to stay within touching range. There tends to be almost no current, too, which makes for a breezy paddle out.
The west end of the beach is a bit rocky, so for the sake of you and your board, avoid that area.
2. Praia do Zavial
Best spot: depends on your level, but the beach has many nice spots. The area to the right (west) as you walk down to the beach is rocky and produces consistently nice-shaped (although steep) waves, if your level is a little more advanced.
Avoid: the far east end of the beach seems to be a bit more choppy and current-y.
One of the most popular beaches in the Algarve, Zavial was always populated with beginners when I went there. Not only is it attractively remote, requiring a drive down a winding path through deserted countryside, but it offers consistent, smallish waves which break all the way along the beach. I had some good days here, and the beach itself is beautiful with some sheltered spots for avoiding the wind.
3. Meia Praia, Lagos
Best spot: by the pier/mole near the town
Avoid: the middle of the beach. Waves are less predictable and less sheltered there
As swells and surges come in from the Atlantic, they are sheltered by the mole which marks the long entrance to Lagos harbour. This makes for an ideal spot for surfing. I had many good days here on Lagos’ stunning, huge (4.5km) beach. On a big day, the seas can be roiling and exciting. I found that as I progressed, this became my favourite spot because the waves were bigger but quite gentle. No washing-machining here.
4. Praia da Luz
Best spot: anywhere along the west end of the beach (closest to the village)
Avoid: Rocha Negra at the east end of the beach, if you’re not more advanced
This beach was one I went to frequently. The waves can break a bit too close to the shore, but it can be lovely on a day with good conditions. Praia da Luz is a sleepy little village and the beach is a gorgeous sweep below impressive cliffs, overshadowed by an extinct volcano which you can still climb easily via a path to get an amazing view. The geological formations are probably the most interesting I saw in the Algarve, with striped layers of soft sediment contrasting with Swiss cheeselike flat rock at the western end.
The Rocha Negra area at the end of the beach produces probably the nicest reef break in the area (see photos below), attested to by the many advanced surfers who went there some days. But this area is for more confident surfers, as it has very sharp rocks that jut up close to the surface, tearing up boards and fins (and potentially your feet and body). I cut my feet and hands quite badly here. As you’ll see, though, on a gentle day when I had it to myself, it was safe to surf as long as I very cautiously avoided the rocks beneath by dismounting in a bellyflop.
5. Praia de Porto de Mós
Best spot: by the rocks at the west end of the beach or in front of the car park
Avoid: spot in front of the restaurant (can be quite strong currents)
Just a little way round the coast from Praia da Luz, Praia de Porto de Mós is a gorgeous soft sandy beach with a nice little restaurant overlooking it where you can have a beer and some seafood. There’s also a lovely cliff walk between it and Praia da Luz that, after an initial ascent, is pretty easy going, takes about an hour, and gives lovely views of the ocean.
As you can see in the picture above, there are distinct stripes of rock beneath the west end of the beach, producing good waves that break far out on a day with good conditions. (They don’t tend to be sharp or stick out of the water, so it’s safe as long as you’re careful.) This isn’t the only good spot, though, and you see lots of surfers out directly in front of the car park as well.
I’d say that because the current is stronger here, this beach was more challenging for me. It’s good for practising your paddling, though, and although it’s a popular spot, there’s enough space for surfers to spread out and as a beginner, you can always pick a quieter spot elsewhere on the beach.
6. Praia da Rocha
Best spot: by the pier/mole
Located in the nice town of Portimão east of Lagos, Praia da Rocha was a really good destination for me as I progressed from practising standing up on the white water to actually paddling behind the break and catching waves for myself. I found that the spot by the mole produced consistent waves and offered protection from the bigger ones.
Tip: It took me a long while to comprehend the difference between surfing by allowing my board to be caught by the white water and the more deliberate surfing that can only be done from behind the break, much as that seems obvious now. You can feel safer in the white water, even though there’s more splash – you’re within paddling distance of the shore, and you can still touch the sandy bottom. Yet it’s paradoxically a much more pleasant experience to get behind the break, so that you can sit up on your board, relax a bit, and try to catch a wave before it breaks. Learning to paddle out behind the break was one of my most significant (and proudest) milestones.
7. Bordeira’s beach [more advanced]
The west coast of Portugal is famously wild, with huge waves sometimes even on ‘smaller’ days, much colder water, and ruffled white crests produced by winds that have travelled thousands of miles across the Atlantic. Safe to say I did not surf much in this region, but I did stare in awe as others braved the rough waters.
On this beach in particular (which is massive, with incredible sand dunes), I challenged myself to paddle out and catch some big-ish but gentle waves that were rolling in. It was exhilarating, but not for the faint-hearted. However, beginners can definitely take advantage of the powerful white water that laps at the shore.