On Sunday, we left our guest house mid-morning to explore the nearby hidden beaches with our other host, the husband of the woman who had greeted us on our arrival. Our plan was to return after an hour or so, have lunch at our place, then go down to one of the coastal cities for the afternoon and maybe dinner. As so often happens in Portugal, however, that plan soon got thrown out the window of the owner’s rugged, beat up Land Rover, and we got caught up in what can only be termed An Adventure.

The day started normally enough, with breakfast and a very quick shower, as our guest house is quite cold and the hot water is limited. We then wandered up the street to meet our host and his ten year old son, who were to be our chauffeurs for the morning. We all jumped in their Rover and took off for beaches unknown.

Soon enough, we were bouncing down dirt tracks full of boulders and potholes, in search of the turnoff for this or that beach. The eager son kept urging his dad to go down the next turnoff, hit that big puddle, etc — and to all of our delight, the dad for the most part complied.

We did end up seeing some spectacular beaches. Many had caves tucked away in the cliffs, which of course the boys (of all ages) immediately had to go and investigate. There was crystal blue water rolling in steady waves towards the coast, and small rivers running down out of the mountains to meet the sea. We even spotted a small Portuguese Man of War jellyfish washed up in the shallows on the first beach we visited, which was very cool. And the best beach was the one we saw last: Redhead’s Point, so called because there was a huge red rock perched just off the beach, which created some of the best — and probably most dangerous — surfing conditions we’d seen all day.

However, the best part of our hidden beaches tour was that it showed us a side of this area we would never have seen otherwise. Not just the beaches, which were indeed hidden, tucked away down tracks and hills so steep that only the most rugged of four wheelers could reach them. (As well as a small Seat hatchback, which had somehow managed to make its way down to the first beach we visited. Clearly a rental car.)

We also saw people in a way we wouldn’t have otherwise, and were accepted by them in turn, due to the friendly nods of our local host and the fact that we very clearly were not in a rental car ourselves. So we got to see the secret surfer enclaves, populated only by those who were serious enough to fight their way down the roads in search of the best waves. We saw crab hunters on the rocks and divers shucking off camouflaged wetsuits — and unlike the day before, there was not a single hiking-booted, kitted out foreigner among them.

Between beaches, we careened up and down a single track road along the cliffs, occasionally splashing through huge puddles of mud with wild abandon, causing massive sheets of muddy water to wash up the sides of the Rover, its inhabitants all yelling with delight. We jolted to a stop at a vista point, a huge abandoned building perched right on top, with incredible views all around. Eying it speculatively, our host explained that the land was owned by four different groups, and no one could agree on what to do with it, so it stood there, abandoned. Only in Portugal would a prime piece of real estate by the ocean go undeveloped like that! We told him that he should turn it into a deluxe extension of their hotel, and while we all laughed, I could tell that really, he wouldn’t mind so much if that were to happen.

As we were hurtling down one stretch of dirt road, our host and his son had a debate regarding his mobile phone, which was conducted too quickly for me to catch. (He spoke English, but for the most part I urged them to speak Portuguese, since I understood most of it, and it was easier for everyone concerned.) Slightly later, when they were both out of the car, Gabe turned to me and explained that they had been making plans for us to come to lunch with their family, and asked if that was all right. By now to my amazement it was almost 1:30, so yes, lunch sounded like a fine idea. Not at all what we’d anticipated doing, but hey — run with it!

And so our surreal morning jolting around the off-road tracks of the southwestern Algarve turned into an even more surreal afternoon. We met our other host and their daughter at a small restaurant overlooking the ocean around the southern side of the point, which is much calmer than the wild and wooly western beaches we’d been visiting earlier in the day. Luckily that also meant it was less windy, and the day had by then warmed up enough for us to sit outside — although most of us kept our jackets on and simply added sunglasses.

When the waiter came, we ordered drinks and then plate after plate of fish and seafood. There was shrimp salad for me, spaghetti with clams for the boy, and for the main dish, an entire fish to split amongst the four adults, which the man actually showed us before grilling it up right in back of the hotel. He pointed out to me that you could tell it was fresh by the color of its gills (bright red) and the clarity of its beady black eye, which I immediately reeled back from, to the amusement of everyone at the table. It seems I can be a clown in any language.

All this was supplemented by two plates of local delicacies as appetizers: octopus salad, which I enjoyed, and barnacles, which our hosts had been praising as a local specialty. Turns out they look like nothing other than lizard legs, with scaly black skin coating a roughly finger-sized tube that ends in a large claw, outlined in bright red. They were really quite grotesque looking, but I was game to try one — and discovered that it just tasted like warm sea water.

The adults and kids all proceeded to down them at a massive rate, however, as did their two other friends who showed up a short while later. They in turn ordered oysters and more clam spaghetti, of which their four year old girl ate almost half a plate. We were both amazed by how much the kids enjoyed these strange seafoods, especially considering most of them only moved down here a few years ago. It’s one thing if you grow up with it, but to have acquired the taste for seafood so young is admirable!

So we sat by the ocean for the entire afternoon, eating incredible fish and seafood, drinking wine, and watching the kids scamper around. We talked in a fluid combination of Portuguese and English with our hosts and their friends, and then yet more friends when they showed up a while later. We finished off our meal with coffee, tea, and a couple of less scaly local specialties for dessert (a kind of sweet, sticky almond roll as well as a pie of something that looked like chocolate but was not).

A long, leisurely Sunday afternoon lunch with good wine and food, kids running around and friends casually showing up throughout — how much more fabulous and European can you get? It truly was an experience we could never have planned or even imagined, and all the more welcome for it.

We jokingly asked if they did this with all their guests, and they said no, we were the first. As we talked, it became clear why they had included us, as we had much in common with our new friends. They were all young, successful, transplanted Lisboans, who had left their city lives to run hotels down here in the countryside of the southwestern Algarve. So in a sense, they were all just as foreign here as we are, albeit from a slightly closer point of origin.

It was a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation, and by the end of our meal, we said goodbye to our lunch companions as if we were all old friends. They refused to let us pay, and as we were saying goodbye in the parking lot, our host threw Gabe the keys to the Rover and said we should just drive ourselves back to the hotel, as they needed to get home to let their dog out. And we’d only met the man that morning!

Everyone dispersed as quickly as the afternoon had been leisurely, and we were left there in the beat up old Land Rover, looking at each other in amazement. The borrowed car, the genuine warmth and generosity of these people, the surreal nature of the day, the incredibly good food, not to mention the alcohol and caffeine we’d consumed — it all conspired to leave us rather stunned.

We fired up the Rover and drove a little further along the coast, then watched the sun set over the ocean from a point we’d visited earlier in the day. We jounced home through the growing dark and flopped onto the couch, thoroughly exhausted and grinning from ear to ear. What a wonderful and thoroughly unexpected day — truly, An Adventure.

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