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A family reunion in Portugal’s Algarve: thriving amid daunting logistics, multigenerational travel

We sat in a pool of light at a long wooden table in Restaurante Escondidinho, the stars alive above us in the vast Atlantic darkness. A young wannabe Cristiano Ronaldo practised his moves on the narrow street as his mom sat with some friends at the next table, their animated Portuguese sounding like Spanish spoken by Russians. They worked their way through a mountain of fresh mussels.

“It’s all about the seafood,” we’d been told. A glance at the short menu confirmed it.

“We have to try the barnacles!” I announced, but Katy was skeptical. “Really? Well, you order them, you eat them,” she said, repeating the dictum we’d proclaimed down the years as we’d travelled with our kids.

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Typical coastal cliffs at The End of The World in Sagres, Portugal.

David Gillett

And here we were again, travelling with our kids … who weren’t kids any longer. And not travelling so much as coming together, adult to adult.

The logistics, for a family holiday, were daunting: co-ordinating schedules for six people from four provinces, and convening in a place none of us knew, the most southwesterly point in Europe, Portugal’s western Algarve. As we hammered out dates and work schedules on WhatsApp, we found ourselves asking the same question in different ways: Could we go back again to those days of cozy family travel, those bright times of discovery and the simple joys that we’d loved so much with our young kids, eating exotic food, seeing new places through their eyes? Reuniting again now and sharing a small house with that same group would be an experiment, the outcome of which we might well regret.

We’d always placed a priority on travel – “the best education” and all that. Journeys through the Maritimes and months off school for treks through the British Isles gave our kids an early taste for the open road.

Those had been the best of times (childlike wonder) and worst of times (early bedtimes and car seats), and those formative journeys were impressed on everyone. But that was back then. This, a dozen years on and a lifetime of graduations, university exchanges and solo trips later, was now. They had all become world travellers, independent, multilingual and experienced.

Novelist J.B. Priestley once said: “Human relationships don’t belong to engineering and chess, which offer problems that can be perfectly solved. Human relationships grow, like trees.” For us, this trip would turn out to be one of those growth times.

Growth and learning. If you are contemplating a reunion of the twentysomethings in your life, here are a few things we learned that might help keep the peace and pave the way for a superb family trip.

A view of the beach at Beliche.

David Gillett

Find neutral territory

Choose a location that, ideally, none of you knows well: This short-circuits that situation where someone is the know-it-all tour guide. We were looking for a place that felt exotic, but was close enough that getting there didn’t eat up too much time.

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We settled on the Algarve, the southernmost region of Portugal, a country none of us knew. In the 1960s, the Algarve was transformed into a Riviera West of sorts, its central coast between Faro and Lagos now a vibrant hotspot lined with resorts, villas and condos. But we chose the region’s wild western point, a place more rugged, undeveloped and off the beaten track, a further hour’s drive from Faro’s international airport on southern Portugal’s excellent, but largely empty, highway network.

It’s a place for surfers (appealing to 20-year-old Sam) and laid-back vibe (appealing to all of us). Jean-Louis Fuentuen, who runs SUP Sagres and takes groups similar to us on stand-up paddle-boarding adventures, was a typical resident. The Frenchman was visiting the western Algarve beaches for surfing years ago, when he came under its spell and stayed. Teaching surfing and renting boards keeps gas in his Land Rover and, come winter, the Moroccan surf is less than a day’s drive and one short ferry ride away.

A variety of other transplants populate pristine, uncrowded beaches such as Beliche, a hidden gem for surfers. A popular place for Germans on gap years, its ad-hoc parking lot was crammed with an assortment of tricked-out surf-mobiles: repurposed hand-painted army trucks and old delivery vans piled high with surfboards, plastered with stickers and bursting with sun-bleached hair. One reclusive hippie has lived for seven years in a seaside cave.

The nightlife of Faro was only an hour away and Lisbon, the historic, picturesque capital, not much farther up the west coast. But little Sagres, for our purposes, had it all: which is to say it had not too much of any of that. It had secluded beaches, wild cliff walks, a good grocery store, fresh seafood and lots of cafés, but we found that we didn’t miss the kind of urban exploration we’d done other times.

The four adult children bodysurfing off the main beach in Sagres. Photographed using GoPro.

Sam Gillett

Don’t plan the trip of a lifetime

We soon learned that this would not be a trip of a lifetime in a bucket-list, Lonely Planet Top 10 kind of way, but it would be one of life’s more memorable trips.

Everyone in our group had done their fair share of travelling and 10 days in an Algarve town would never match the excitement of climbing in the Alps, haunting the cafés of Paris or the pubs of Dublin. But each of us in our own way started to discover the subtle qualities of a time spent doing very little and doing it well. Slow evenings cooking fish over our backyard grill, long days exploring the cliffs and beaches around Sagres, a small surf town built around the famous 16th-century fortaleza (fort), high above the crashing Atlantic surf. Reading, sketching and slowing down became prime activities. Conversations, woven into the quiet rhythm of life, stretched out over several days.

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Located on the edge of town just inside the boundary of a national park, our house (self-arranged through VRBO) was a traditional old Portuguese place with white walls and red roof, all tile and shutters: breezy with cross-drafts, simple, and roomy enough for six adults. Friendly dogs visited at random, checking us out, wagging their tails in approval and sleeping on our sunny front step. Life is different by the seashore. Clocks mean little and days are run by the tides, wind and sun.

For two parents well-practised in the nerve-racking arts of handling multiple passports, arranging all the details and finding toy shops at the last minute, we soon discovered the importance of letting go of control. Our daughter, Molly-Claire, reminded us: “Remember: It’s all about independence.” Interpretation: “We’re all adults now.” And adults with skills and strengths. The surfers found the best beaches, the foodies did the shopping and cooking. The restaurant committee chose places to eat. The musician even found a chamber-choir concert in the atmospheric Nossa Senhora da Graca, a Spartan chapel inside the fort. And of course, the superb driving playlist was curated by the music-savvy and didn’t involve listening to my one U2 CD played ad nauseam.

Signing on our oldest son as a second driver even took much of that task (a final stronghold) out of my control. Waking up after a long nighttime drive, I asked him how we’d made such good time. “Easy,” he replied, “Buck-forty the whole way.” Relinquishing control sometimes also means just keeping your eyes shut and hanging on.

Don’t trash those old traditions

Things that were fun when we travelled as a young family still proved entertaining: Filling a journal with cartoons and quotes of the day, assigning trip-specific nicknames, buying gelato just because. Katy still lit candles and arranged wildflowers, turning our rental house into a home. I still opened my wallet too often and further dispersed the dwindling inheritance. Some things never change, nor do they need to.

Cold drinks after a hike generated that same old excitement, but the variety of liquids definitely went up a notch – locally produced vinho verde was cheaper than bottled water. We didn’t need to hold hands, but did, when we went stargazing on the 200-foot sea cliffs by the famous lighthouse at Cabo de Sao Vicente (called by Greek mariners “the End of the Earth”), but we could still call it a “dark walk,” revelling in the mystery of night that can still grip us. We found there was yet a lot of childlike wonder in all of us.

Eating at A Sereia, a fishermen's canteen at the fish auction.

Sam Gillett

Eat together. Eat often. Eat barnacles

We took the independence thing only so far: time apart to read, to surf, to explore the coves below the cliffs. But eating was communal, the best time to really connect. Granted, we’d been working on this aspect of travel for a long time and we’d avoided the dreaded food battleground when our kids were little by travelling with only a few rules: You order, you eat (those barnacles); try something you’ve never tried before (barnacles again); and be ready to share (maybe not the barnacles). All three of these things are very easy to do in the Algarve, where it really is all about the seafood.

Sardinhas assadas is a humble, inexpensive and popular staple, usually grilled and served with boiled potatoes and salad. Bearing no resemblance to the tiny tinned things on shelves in Canada, these sardines are plump, fresh and delicious. With the help of wikiHow, Harry learned to clean and grill them and then there was no turning back.

We ate on the harbour at A Sereia, a fishermen’s canteen that is part of the small complex where fresh fish are auctioned every afternoon. Large windows overlook the auction floor and the forklift drivers pop up for a Sagres beer and some ameijoas na cataplana (fresh cockles) on breaks. Menu? See that small fishing boat just off the shore? Whatever they’re catching is the menu. It will be good no matter what it is.

At the highly recommended Retiro do Pescador Restaurante (where a cow, complete with cowbell, walked by during appetizers), the day’s catch is on prominent display and the friendly waiter will discuss the fish choice with you before taking it to the grill. We shared a huge red bream that was unlike any fish I’d ever eaten: meaty and full of delicate flavour.

Our final meal of the trip was at Three Little Birds, a quirky restaurant opened by German transplants. It had a Venice Beach vibe (pool tables, xeriscaping and packing crates), but tasted all Algarve. Trendy, cool, busy, with fresh fish and burgers to die for. Finishing with a cappuccino and pastéis de nata, the local custard tart, put a cap on a great day.

A great 10 days really, where we learned to dial down the expectation gauge and embrace our inner child most often around a big table, late at night, over great food. In that quiet bottom corner of Portugal, we learned that, no, you can’t go back. Those childhood adventures would not be recreated. Instead, we discovered a different dynamic, and found something even richer.

And the barnacles? They arrived at our table on a long platter, fresh from the sea and dripping with lime-green seaweed. Katy described them as “troll toenails, but not as nice.” I kind of liked them. And of course, I’d ordered them, so I had to eat them.

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