The Algarve in southern Portugal is a mecca for tourists who flock to its beautiful sunkissed beaches. With lush green rolling hills, buckets of sunshine, stunning scenery and pretty towns it’s not hard to see why so many people love it. So in May 2016 I decided to spend a week there.

Accommodation

I stayed in a wheelchair accessible apartment just outside of Lagos, which is owned by a British couple called Hazel and Bryn. They organise holidays for disabled people, and live on site so that they can help with anything the guests need. The ground floor of the villa contains three separate wheelchair accessible apartments (one is two bedrooms, one is three bedrooms, and the other is a studio lounge/bedroom). The one that I stayed in had two bedrooms, a spacious lounge, kitchen area and games room.

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2 bedroom apartment lounge

There was a large range of equipment available at no extra cost such as mobile hoists, profile beds, and shower chairs for example. Also a wheelchair accessible courtesy vehicle was provided which we used to travel around the Algarve driven by my carer.

We also had access to an outdoor swimming pool which had a hoist, although I didn’t get to use it as the weather was a bit too unpredictable. I didn’t fancy being stuck in a swimming pool when it was raining!

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View from the top floor of the villa

So the accommodation was excellent as it was fully accessible with spacious rooms and bathrooms. Plus we had all the equipment that we needed at no extra cost, as well as a courtesy vehicle for exploring. What else could we want!

Activities

The activities I did were somewhat dictated by the weather, as it rained pretty much every day at some point.

The weather forecast for the week indicated that there would be thunderstorms every day! However, thankfully although there was some rain at some point every day, there was also a decent amount of sunshine. So I managed to do all the following activities without getting too wet.

Dolphin Watching

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There are loads of companies offering boat trips to see dolphins, kayaking into the sea caves or fishing. I went with a company called Days of Adventure which had a large wheelchair accessible boat that took us on a 1 and ½ hour voyage into the Atlantic to see dolphins. The staff were really friendly and explained that we had a 90% chance of seeing them, not guaranteed but thankfully we did indeed see them. I thought it was brilliant to see them jumping out of the water in their natural habitat. This is the best way to see dolphins and whales in the wild, not in places like SeaWorld. It cost €120 for three people which is quite reasonable and in my opinion definitely worth it. Although be warned they don’t have an accessible toilet on board, so you may have to hold it in!

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Exploring Lagos

Lagos is an old town full of bright white walled buildings with terracotta tiled roofs – a style typical of the Algarve. It has over 2000 years of history, beautiful beaches, and many interesting bars and hotels, which makes it one of the most visited towns in the Algarve.

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Portuguese pavement

In terms of wheelchair access Lagos is pretty good. Like most towns in the Algarve the pavements and narrow streets are paved with “Portuguese pavement”, which consists of small pieces of flat stone arranged together in a mosaic style. It makes for a fairly smooth ride in a wheelchair which I liked. It’s much better than the usual cobblestones you usually get in old towns. The most cobbled bit of Lagos was around the Marina which I found a bit bumpy going over. It’s a nice area because they have loads of boats and yachts in the harbour, with cafes and shops nearby.

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Street musicians often play in the central square

Quite a lot of the shops and restaurants have ramps to get in if there is not level access. In fact one cafe we struggled to get through the automatic doors as they were too narrow. So the waiter literally pulled the doors off so we could get in easier! But there are quite a lot of bars in the city centre that seemed to have steps at the door.

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The town is on a hill though so some of the streets can get a bit steep which might make it difficult in a manual chair, but most of it, including the town centre, is on the level.

Lagos has many sites of historical interest as it was the starting point for the Portuguese Discoveries voyages, where Portuguese explorers set out to look for new territories. Slaves were brought back from these voyages and sold in the slave market in Lagos which is now a museum. There is also another museum with local historical finds, old churches and a science centre, so there is a variety of things to see.

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Zoomarine

Zoomarine is a zoo/waterpark/sea life centre type place, which is a half an hour drive from Lagos near Albufeira. There is a lot to see there and they recommend spending two days to see everything, although I only did one. They have swimming pools with a wave machine and an artificial beach where you can relax on a sun lounger. They have dolphins and sea lions that do a show, and also birds of prey. Plus there is an aquarium and 4D cinema, although the film wasn’t on for as long as I was expecting.

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Dolphin show

I enjoyed zoomarine but didn’t have time to see everything so if you can I would

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Zoomarine beach

recommend going for two days. The sun came out for the day as well which always makes things better. I wasn’t able to go in any of the swimming pools as they didn’t seem to have
a hoist, so unless you can transfer yourself you might miss out a bit there. But everything else is accessible to wheelchair users, and is definitely worth visiting.

The Beaches

The reason that most people go to the Algarve is for its beaches, and happily many of them are wheelchair accessible. Portugal has been running an initiative called “Accessible Beaches – beaches for all” since 2009. Under this initiative accessible beaches must have ramps to the beach, wooden walkways, accessible toilets, accessible cafes. In the summer months beach wheelchairs are available to hire so that wheelchair users can easily be wheeled over the sand and into the sea. I visited 2 beaches: Meia Praia and Praia da Alvor.

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Meia Praia

At Meia Praia access to the beach was down a narrow paved path, but it was easy to go off the edge and get stuck in the sand. It required two people to push my chair up and down the path. There may have been easier paths elsewhere on the beach that we weren’t aware of though. Once I got down to the beach I just sat there and watched the sea, because there were no other paths so I couldn’t go anywhere else. But, I enjoyed just sitting there watching the waves and relaxing in the sunshine. Although I did have a go on a beach chair (owned by Hazel and Bryn) which was fun.

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Me on a beach chair

 

Praia da Alvor however was a different story. This beach has extensive wooden walkways running the entire length of it, with side ramps going down to the beach itself making access easy. On the actual beach there was a boardwalk that runs over the sand so we could roll along it quite easily. Apart from a section where the boardwalk was missing and I had to be pushed over the sand by my two carers, which was NOT an easy task!

I was impressed by the number of accessible beaches in the Algarve, although I only got to visit two of them. Portugal seems to be really making an effort to improve disabled access to its beaches, and seems to be doing a better job of it than the UK. I would like to go back there in June as I’m told that this is when some of the beaches hire out beach chairs, and put out additional walkways. It seems that the beaches would be even more accessible in the “beach season”. Although I’m not sure if it will be a bit too hot for me then.

The disappointing thing is that the number one Algarve attraction on trip advisor, the Ponte De Piedade beach, is not wheelchair accessible. This is a shame because by all accounts it is spectacular. But unfortunately you have to go down a little wooden path to get there and it’s just not suitable for wheelchairs.

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Meia Praia with Lagos in the background

Lagos zoo

Lagos zoo is a pretty good decent sized zoo with a good number of animals. There are no lions, tigers or elephants. But that doesn’t matter as it’s still enjoyable to watch the meerkats or monkeys playing. Access wise I can’t fault it either. It’s definitely worth a visit. Plus right next door is a good restaurant which is owned by the same guy that owns the zoo.

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Sagres

Perched on the top of a windswept cliff and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the south-western tip of Portugal is the Fortaleza de Sagres, a fort dating back to the 16th century. From here there are stunning views of the cliffs all along the coast and awesome waves can be seen crashing against the bases of the cliffs. The place has a sort of barren and open feel to it.

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Outside the fort and in the entrance there are lots of cobbles to be negotiated, but inside it is much easier. I was pleased to find a long smooth path going all the way around the edge of the cliff inside the fort. This gave me a very pleasant stroll around the fort and allowed me to admire the spectacular scenery all around me. I could have happily stayed there for hours just watching the waves crashing against the rocks. If you visit the Algarve make sure you come here and experience the raw beauty of the Portuguese landscape, you won’t regret it.

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The verdict

The Algarve is a beautiful and very accessible place to go on holiday. The scenery is spectacular, the people are very friendly and I get the sense that they genuinely do try to make the area as accessible to wheelchair users as they can. The attractions I’ve written about here are only the ones I visited but there are many more to see. So if you get the chance to visit the Algarve it is definitely worth going.

I would absolutely recommend staying with Hazel and Bryn in their adapted apartments, as they have pretty much all the equipment you need, including an adapted vehicle, and it’s all accessible. Plus Hazel is extremely helpful with booking activities or recommending places to eat which makes things a lot easier.

Here is their website if you’re interested: http://www.abletoholiday.co.

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