Most men I know who holiday in Portugal go for the golf. Quite a few ladies too. The Algarve boasts some of the lushest courses in the world. Sadly not all players are Rory McIlroy standard.
There is a lake here on the scenic links at Quinta do Lago where one thousand balls are fished out every week, most said to have been mishit by British enthusiasts.
The Algarve is cut off from the rest of Portugal by mountain ranges that block hard, dry winds blowing down from Spain, where ancient stone villages nestle in the foothills among almond, lemon and orange groves.
It’s bordered on its three other sides by rivers, lagoons, barrier islands and the dramatic Atlantic where rollers crash down on miles of empty sandy beaches. With three hundred days of guaranteed sunshine a year, it’s no surprise that it suits British families – if you will forgive the golfing pun – down to a tee.
But there is now a new, unlikely tourist attraction, so popular with UK holiday makers that they are requesting it ahead of more obvious leisure activities when they check into the gleaming five star Conrad resort hotel.
It might sound like a shaggy dog story, but swimming with Portuguese Water Dogs in the chilly seas off the coast rivals the range of hedonistic pastimes the Conrad offers: the sybaritic spa, the glamorous swimming pools and elegant restaurants where the pots are stirred by a Michelin-starred chef whose recipes have been requested by Michelle Obama.
But this curious canine activity is proving, well, top dog among today’s travellers. Portuguese Water Dogs have been bred for millenia to work with fishermen, diving with enthusiasm into the sea to herd fish into nets and retrieve lost tackle, and now British families have fallen in love with these old sea dogs. Especially the kids.
Atira and Quilha are the stars of the show. They are typical of the breed with Guinness black hair, so cutely curled in ringlets it looks as if they have just returned from a perm at the beauty parlour, webbed paws and a Guardsman busby of fur atop their domed heads.
One diamond-bright morning a gang of us jumped into a rigid inflatable and headed to a small island in the Ria Formoso lagoon – a lonely cape on a deserted, 20 mile long beach at the most southerly tip of Europe – to join them.
The dogs were eagerly straining at the leash to get into the ocean, and the idea was that we would follow them. Which is how I came to be standing in the shallows waiting for their owner Carlota Peralta to hurl their favourite rubber ball out to sea for us all to chase. The game was to see who could retrieve the ball and be first to bring it back to shore. What larks!
There was a great deal of splashing about in the breakers, hiding the ball under the waves as the aquatic pooches swam about like crazy, diving desperately to try find it, but predictably my front crawl couldn’t match their doggy paddle. They surged through the sea like hairy torpedoes.
“My dogs are happier in the water than on land,” said Carlota. “They would stay in the sea all day if I let them. Sometimes we take a boat out to deeper sea and all jump in together splashing about. It’s mad but great fun. You British like it.”
Well, yes we do. And it seems to confirm once again that us Brits love man’s best friend more than any other nation.
Carlota has nine other Portugese Water Dogs. Many have sired pups for British families who fell so in love with them that they wanted one of their own. She gives them all names which relate to the ocean: Atira (full name Atira-te-ao-mar) means ‘throw yourself to the sea’ in Portugese and Quilha ‘bow of the boat’.
It was the Romans who first put them into the water. They were invaluable crew on fishing boats, fearlessly jumping into the water to work or to rescue drowning sailors. But when technology replaced them the breed almost died out.
Today, they are one of the most popular pedigree breeds around. President Obama’s dog Bo (often affectionately titled the First Dog) is a Portuguese Water Dog, and it was this famous pet’s popularity that inspired the Conrad Algarve hotel to include them in their Stay Inspired 1/3/5 programme, a “bespoke, curated experience” tailored to an individual with, one, three or five hours of free time to kill.
These include off-road land safaris in battered Defender vehicles through the cork forests of the Serra de Caldeira mountains (fifty percent of the world’s cork is produced here), and family days clam picking on the mud flats of the Ria Formosa estuary, an echo of childhood playing in seaside rock pools with a shrimping net.
The Conrad, a convenient twenty minutes from Faro airport, nestles in the Quinta do Lago park, a three hundred acre, wooded and watery enclave where no fewer than six top class golf courses are sited. Many of them are dotted with the Moorish, white domed villas of celebrities adjoining lush greens, discreetly screened by Mediterranean umbrella pines.
You get the picture that the Conrad is out to impress on arrival, its arctic-white marble entrance situated at the end of a two hundred metre private boulevard flanked by Egyptian palms, and its central reservation of limpid pools and fountains illuminated after dark with flaming torches. Its a driveway more suited to herald the entrance of a conquering Caesar than a bucket and spade holiday. Ben Hur eat your heart out.
Yet despite all the high life on offer it’s ironic that a marine playtime with two boisterous dogs in frigid water pleases the senses probably more than all of the luxury delights available.
Atira and Quilha take a bow. Or should it be a bow, wow, wow!