Based in Olhão, Boat for a Day takes nature and beach lovers on tailored tours of Portugal’s most astonishing natural park
The Ria Formosa, with its rich fauna and flora, is undoubtedly the country’s most stunning natural landmark. Stretching along 60km of the Algarve coast, from the Ancão Peninsula to Manta Rota, and covering some 11,000 hectares, it is made up of a lagoon system, a string of sandy islands and two peninsulas that are home to countless species of fish, crustaceans, birds and mammals. It is an incredible natural habitat that everyone should explore at least once.
There are many ways to discover the Ria Formosa and its islands. You can take a ferry from Faro or Olhão, rent a canoe, or sign up for tours advertised on the docks. But none will give you a more genuine experience than a tailored tour.
André Phillips, a young graphic designer and part-time skipper, understands that in order for an experience to be unique, you have to let visitors take the helm, or so to speak. Born in Faro, just a couple of kilometres from the Ria Formosa, he has a special connection to this aquatic sanctuary, which he believes should be explored instinctively.
His father, Fred Phillips, is one of the founders of Atelier do Sul, one of the Algarve’s most reputed design studios, with whom André has worked since he can remember. The two share a passion for work and for the Ria Formosa. “My dad has been coming here [Culatra Island] for 25 years. He always stays in the same house,” explains André as he navigates the lagoon’s channels. “At first, we would spend two weeks here with the family every September. Now, he also stays for the whole month of June. He just loves it. And I come on the weekend.”
Weekends that he mostly spends on his boat. “I have always had one. This is my seventh or eighth boat,” he admits. And it is this love of being on the water and the enjoyment he gets from taking family and friends out on his speedboat that led him to create his new business.
Quite the opposite of tourist boats that shuttle you along the coast, Boat for a Day is a private charter company designed to take nature and beach lovers island-hopping in a laid-back atmosphere, with a captain who knows the Ria Formosa like the back of his hand.
André’s company, which does exactly what it says on the tin, offers full-day and half-day charters for up to 12 people on two boats. “The charter includes a skipper and fuel, and we can be as flexible as you like; the boat will be yours for the duration of your booking,” he explains. Food and drinks can be provided onboard. However, for a genuine experience, André recommends having lunch at one of the restaurants on the islands of Farol, Culatra or Armona.
Because there is so much to see and do, the best plan is to island hop between the five islands and two peninsulas that protect the lagoon: Ancão Peninsula, nicknamed Ilha de Faro or Praia de Faro by locals; Barreta, also known as Ilha Deserta; Culatra Island, home to the Santa Maria lighthouse; Armona Island; Tavira Island; Cabanas Island; and the Cacela Peninsula.
Guests may not be at the helm of the boat, for safety reasons, but they certainly are in charge. André limits himself to giving tips and pointers on the best places to explore, which activities to try, and making it all happen. He knows the best spots for catching a glimpse of every species and gets a great kick out of taking visitors to long white sandy beaches with turquoise water that look and feel like the Caribbean.
The tailored tours start in the charming town of Olhão, “where you’ll board a private boat and set off on your adventure”, exclaims André. “You’ll have the opportunity to swim in the crystal-clear waters and explore hidden beaches that are only accessible by boat, and head out to a sandbank to find some razor clams”, an activity which is most fruitful when the tide rolls out, revealing the little key-holes the clams hide in.
Speaking of seafood, the Ria Formosa is well known for its delicious oysters. The canals are lined with beds on which these bivalves grow, next to which André can organise a tasting of freshly harvested oysters.
As an ‘extra’, he can also take guests out to sea to find a pod of dolphins. “It’s an incredible experience. They swim along the boat; you can get close enough to touch them. And sometimes also see sea turtles.”
If you take things literally and charter a boat for a day, André will take you to one of his favourites restaurants on Culatra Island, a place he has known for many years and where the must-have snacks include squid, clams, fish eggs, peixe-aranha (weever) and tuna steak, washed down with a cold beer or chilled white wine.
Culatra is the only island in the Ria Formosa inhabited year-round. Its vibrant fishing port is jampacked with colourful fishing boats, and its small village, made up of rustic houses and fishing huts, has an old-world charm.
After lunch, André suggests a tour of Ilha do Farol (Lighthouse Island), as it is known locally, which is actually located on Culatra Island. Although the names suggest they are separate islands, they are two parts of the same 6km-long island, with exceptionally white sandy beaches and translucent waters.
This island has a special meaning for André; his maternal grandfather helped rebuild its imposing white and red lighthouse some years back, an essential landmark for sailors and fishermen.
On the other side of the island’s cluster of holiday cottages lies a narrow stretch of sand with a wooden beach bar on stilts. This is the perfect spot to get some shade on hot summer days and take it all in. Sadly, the bar closes at 5pm. But all is not lost. A sunset drink can be enjoyed at Cais Aqui, by the ferry terminal, before heading back to the mainland, as the Ria Formosa’s islands fall (almost) silent.
By Alexandra Stilwell