Staying in Olhão you find yourself constantly drawn to the islands opposite, the lighthouse in particular seems to call you day and night. And this is a call you do not want to resist as the islands are Olhão’s gems – Armona, Culatra and Farol . The islands are at the western end of the Rio Formosa and are perfect for those who want to hike, birdwatch, sit in a cafe, fish or simply sit and watch the sea. Armona is 9 kilometres in length, and from 0.1 to 1 km wide , and Culatra is 6 kilometres in length and 0.1 to 0.9 km width, with no roads or vehicles, but interlaced with wooden walkways. Farol is at the western end and looks across to Deserta Island.
They all are just a short trip by ferry (or water taxi). Out of season there are only about 4 ferries per day, but at the height of summer there can be around 12. Armona is 10minutes away, and Culatra and Farol are 30 and 45 minutes respectively. The ferry times can be found at the kiosk in Olhão, and make sure you note the return times as we have yet to find a poster displayed in either Culatra or Farol. The trip across is lovely (albeit cold on outside decks in winter months – locals are sensible and huddle together inside) and at low tide there is plenty of bird watching as you leave Olhão’s waterfront.
Kevin Gould was spot on 5 years ago when he shared with Guardian readers the art of idling in east Algarve. Although I prefer to stay on the ferry to Farol and then walk back alongside the Atlantic on the beach to Culatra. It takes us about an hour as we are always stopping to look at the view, and once close to Culatra we tend to stay off the boardwalks and meander amongst the dunes to the estuary and watch the birds. You can only though do this at low tide as otherwise you might find yourself cut off! There are residents living on their boats in the estuary, and so occasionally you might be joined by a dog.
Walking along the beach really is a delight, as it can be empty, which means you have about 5km of beach all to yourself. The wind coming off the Atlantic can be strong at times, but it makes for a wonderful hike and you certainly get rid of any cobwebs!
Culatra has a larger year round resident population than Farol, and the cafes/restaurants in Farol I think are only open in mid to high season. Most of the small houses in Farol are holiday homes, so the Ilhas will have a very different feel in height of summer. if you are fortunate enough to be in Culatra when the fisherman are sorting their nets then it just wonderful watching the gulls.
There are no roads on Culatra, and the only vehicles are tractors which are mostly around the harbour. The roads are either compacted sand, boardwalks or in a couple of places concrete paths. It makes is very safe for children, and a real break for the rest of us.
The lighthouse in Farol is on Cabo de Santa Maria, the southernmost point of Portugal. From here you can walk out onto the breakwater, the main entrance from the Atlantic to Ria Formosa and the docks in Faro.