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SEA ESCAPES ON EUROPE'S SOUTHWESTERN TIP

The rugged beaches of Portugal's southwestern coast lure visitors with their wild beauty and freshly caught bounty from the sea.

The wind picked up after we left the last trees behind, and the narrow road stretched out over the misty, scrub-covered plateau toward the end of Europe.

At Sagres, the road stops at the walls of Henry the Navigator's fortress. Beyond, the land runs out and the continent drops 150 feet into the roaring Atlantic. After this there is nothing but ocean until New York.

Europe's southwestern tip is a place of stark beauty, prone to sudden fogs and blustery sea breezes. Jutting into the sea, the twin headlands of Sagres and Cape St. Vincent were places of mystery and awe to ancient Romans and early Christians.

For Prince Henry the Navigator, this finger of land pointing into uncharted waters was the obvious place to site the school for explorers that kicked off Europe's Age of Discoveries 500 years ago.

History buffs can visit the clifftop chapel where Henry once prayed, walk the walls of a fortress sacked by Sir Francis Drake or look out over waters where Lord Nelson battled the Spanish fleet. Birdwatchers come to watch waves of migrators round this monumental corner of land en route between Europe and Africa.

But most visitors come not for buildings or birds, but beaches.

The 60-mile coastline running along the far west of Portugal's Algarve region offers some of the continent's best bathing spots with an amazing variety of beaches, from the translucent shallows of the Ria de Alvor lagoon to the thunderous surf of west coast strands Bordeira and Arrifana.

European vacationers have been flocking to the Algarve since the 1970s, and mass tourism has turned much of the region's central strip into a jumble of towering hotels, pizzerias and Irish pubs.

Thankfully, the gentle, warm-water coast nearer the Spanish border and the more rugged west so far have escaped overdevelopment and look increasingly attractive to Americans trying to stretch their exchange-weak dollars.

The Ria de Alvor is a mild start to the Algarve's wild west. This blue lagoon is edged on the east by the town of Alvor, once a quaint fishing village, now a bustling tourist center that has some great restaurants along waterfront where freshly caught bream, bass and cuttlefish sizzle on vast quayside barbecues.

Visiting bathers share this protected estuary with yachtsmen, seabirds and old men in plaid shirts and rolled-up pants hunting shellfish at low tide. The open sea is short walk over the dunes to Meia Praia, a 4-mile crescent of white sand curving toward the city of Lagos.

Deserted apart from a few nudists at its eastern end, Meia Praia becomes a boisterous family beach near the town where locals take a rowboat ferry across the narrow Bensafrim river to reach the sands.

Lagos, the port where Portuguese explorers set out for their first voyages down the coast of Africa, still has something of a swashbuckling air with its rivermouth fortress and medieval walls holding a warren of narrow streets that fill in summer nights with a youthful, bar-hopping crowd that uses the city as a base camp for surfing trips.

There's also culture in Lagos' art galleries and open air concerts beneath the city walls. The church of Santo Antonio is lined with intricate wood carvings coated in gold leaf plundered from Brazil. On a grimmer note, a 15th century building near the river is believed to be the site of Europe's first African slave market.

Running south from Lagos is the Costa d'Oiro, the golden coast, a string of sandy coves tucked among crumbling sandstone cliffs leading the saltwater caves and weird rock formations at the Ponta da Piedade headland - the ideal place for romantic sunsets.

All this coastline naturally brings other attractions. It's no surprise the Portuguese eat more fish than any other Europeans. At the restored market hall in Lagos, the array of fresh seafood is dazzling, from tiny sardines and baby squid to the great snakelike silver scabbard fish or torpedo-sized tuna.

Farther west, the coast gets progressively wilder. The beach at Martinhal just before Sagres rises to a mountainous sand dune and is exposed to powerful southwesterlies that make it a challenging favorite for windsurfers. For those willing to climb down steps cut into the cliffs, Praia do Beliche is a wide triangle of pale sand sheltered from the wind by the twin capes of Sagres and St. Vincent.

Although most of the beaches have lifeguards in the summer, care is needed when the surf's up. Four tourists drowned in October, swept away by currents on Tonel beach at Sagres.

North of Sagres, the coast has some of Europe's best surfing. The rugged, wind-swept landscape seems a world away from the gentle waters and groves of almond and citrus of the central Algarve. The beaches here are remote and undeveloped, but are great for riding waves, or simply getting away from the crowds to soak up the sun and the sound of the surf.

IF YOU GO

Seaside Portugal

Getting there: Lagos is 55 miles from Faro airport along the Via do Infante highway. The Portuguese capital Lisbon is 190 miles from Lagos by highway. The train journey from Faro airport to Lagos is slow but picturesque, and Portuguese railways have recently upgraded the rail link from Lisbon to the Algarve, which takes about four hours. Lagos is the end of the line.

Accommodations: There's a wide range of accommodations in Lagos from rented rooms to luxury hotels. Rates vary greatly from the winter to the high summer season. In Lagos, the MarinaClub is a cool "aparthotel" in the modern marina complex, studio for two $122-$263, www.marinaclub.pt. The Tivoli is a solid bet with a beach club on Meia Praia, doubles $98-$245, www.tivolihotels.com. The Casa da Moura is an old-town boutique hotel recalling the area's Moorish past, rooms from $100, www.casadamoura.com. In Sagres, the Pousada do Infante offers reliable comfort and a great location, doubles from $175-$365, www.pousadas ofportugal.com.

Dining: The western Algarve is full of restaurants serving the freshest fish. Here are a few favorites: Sao Roque with great views over Lagos and Meia Praia; A Ribeira on the quayside in Alvor; Adega Vila Lisa in the village of Mexilhoeira Grande; A Tasca in Sagres; Cafe Correia or Eira do Mel in Vila do Bispo; A Lareira in Alzujur or O Sitio do Rio on the beach at Carrapateira.

Online:Portugal tourism agency, www.visitportugal.com; airports, www.ana.pt; rail company, www.cp.pt.

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