Island #1 – Ilha da Culatra

Ilha da Culatra is a long and thin island populated by fishermen just off the South coast of Portugal’s Algarve.  On a sunny day it has a bright and sparkling quality to the light reflecting off the sea that is unforgettable.  Its South-facing coast is made up of stunning, white sandy beaches edged by crystal clear sea. Its North coast is home to fishing boats in tiny harbours and their fishermen owners. No cars, just boats and the occasional quad bike and tractor break the peace and quiet of this gem of an island. Take the ferry or a water taxi from Olhão, eat fish, drink beer, walk the dunes, sit on the beach, bask in the sun and stare out to sea, watch birds, breathe….

The long story

Situated just off Portugal’s Algarve coast, Ilha da Culatra forms part of the group of the Ria Formosa islands – a group of sand islands close to the coast and easily accessible by boat from the towns of Olhão or Faro.

Regular and inexpensive ferries run from Olhão – tickets and timetables from the ticket office on the quayside – or you can treat yourself to a water taxi as we did and be whisked off to Culatra in style in about 15 minutes (€25).

Ilha da Culatra is 6 kms long and between 100ms and 900 ms wide. Originally an island of fisherfolk, now increasingly popular with tourists, Culatra’s sea coast is made up of stunning, pristine, white sandy beaches and crystal clear water; its north-facing coast is home to little harbours, tiny villages, fishing boats and their owners.

Unlike the other islands, Culatra has a relatively large year round population of approx. 1,000 inhabitants and has its own school, social centre, church and other community infrastructure.  There are no cars on Culatra.  To get around you need a boat, a quad bike, a tractor or you can walk (as we did) along the well-maintained wooden boardwalk pathways that can be found all over the island.

What to do on Culatra

Take the early morning ferry to Culatra, have coffee with the fishermen, walk the boardwalks to the South side of the island, observe the birdlife, discover pristine, white sandy beaches, swim in crystal clear water, walk West along the beach to the lighthouse at Farol, feast on fish or squid or sip a beer at one of the beach bars, wander around the little ‘streets’ admiring the charming, tiny fishermen’s houses and beautiful plants and flowers, take the ferry back to Olhão from the pier at Farol.

What we did

I was accompanied on my first island adventure by my brilliant friend, Vikky, who flew to Portugal for less than 24 hours to be with me on my birthday.  As it was winter and the ferry timetable was fairly limited and our time was short, we decided to give the 7 am ferry a miss and treated ourselves to a water taxi from Olhão to Culatra. It was an amazing sunny day in January so, after taking some photos of the harbour, we walked the boardwalks across the dunes to the south side, sat on the beach and enjoyed the wonderful light and peace of a sunny day in winter. Apart from some seagulls, we were the only people there! Beautiful! We walked along the stunning and empty beach to Farol where we found the only place open and sat in the sun drinking hot chocolate and eating delicious ‘pasteis de nata’ Portuguese custard tarts.

We were early for the ferry back from Farol so we flipped a coin and decided to try and walk back to Culatra.  To cut a very long story short, we under-estimated the distances massively, the ferry sailed past us and we then discovered that our path back to Culatra was blocked by a huge and uncrossable marshy pathway! With Vikky up to her ankles in mud and in danger of missing a plane (but still smiling), we walked back to a large but unidentified pier in a deserted little town and called the water taxi driver who had taken us there in the morning (who luckily had given me his card!). I described in my best Portuguese that we were at a large pier halfway between Culatra and Farol and needed rescuing.  He worked out where we were (Hângares as it turns out) and sent his friend in a water taxi to rescue us!  We made it back to Olhão in the nick of time and Vikky caught her plane home! Luckily there was a brilliant phone signal on Culatra.

Culatra is a very special island. I loved its ‘real’ feeling – people actually live, work and go to school here. The houses and bars looked as though they are lived in and used by real people and not just summer visitors. The lighthouse gives the island a very individual personality. I look forward to coming back in the summer to see what it’s like then.

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