Whatever the weather, if you walk around the harbour or the walled city of Faro you will be invited on a boat trip. There are three companies with different policies. We tried two, and for nature and a peaceful afternoon almost alone (outside summer), Animaris would always be our choice. The second, Islands4You, offers a different experience of brief stays on three islands and a lunch break on the fourth: worthwhile if that is for you.
There are three boats operated by Animaris, a ferry that doubles as nature-viewing craft sometimes, a smaller boat for slow, close-up viewing, and a speedboat for the return or if you want to reach Deserta in a hurry. Although separately timetabled they don’t all run out of season, and as they are priced differently you need to check.
Our first trip was clear enough: the slow boat out and a choice of return time at a single price. We opted for mid-afternoon return and wished we’d allowed longer. Hence the second trip, meant to be by ferry but instead by speedboat: 10 euros instead of 5. At least we were on the ferry to come back.
The small boat takes 8 or 10 comfortably, and was full. Pedro conducted us aboard and took us out into the lagoon before stopping to explain why the eco-system was in existence and is declared a National Nature Reserve. The waterways pass mainly between mud banks formed by tidal action along the Atlantic coast; in the shallower channels sand is dredged and forms a different series of banks. They are all islands at low tide and are mostly submerged by rising tides. Birds are attracted to them to feed, and men visit for bait, clams and a species of crab that can be captured but only for one extra-large claw that will grow back once the crab is released.
Slowly cruising out we were shown grey heron, little egret and some of the numerous whimbrel of the area. Pedro stopped suddenly as a flock of spoonbill came over from (presumably) Morocco and headed for the marshes just inshore. The clam hunters were hard at their back-breaking work. Pedro explained that they only found small ones, selling them on cheaply to be progressed to edible size (and price) on farms. The industrial side of Faro was not ignored: there is a small shipyard and of course people fish commercially in the Atlantic. The port of Olhao was a few kilometres along the coast, with the inhabited island of Culatra offshore, with its restaurants, primary school and fishing fleet, as well as holiday homes for the weathy.
Half an hour or so brought us to the landing stage of Barreta, nicknamed Deserta as nobody lives there. It is a steep climb but people are helpful to those who find it hard. Boardwalks allow a circuit of the island and a crossing to the restaurant, Estamine. This seems to be a franchise of Animaris: meals are expensive but a delicious and reasonable selection of snacks is available. In summer the snack bar that shares the building is open. There is also the only WC on the island.
The problem with eating at Estamine is that it leaves less time than needed for a full exploration, hence our second visit. Our chicken or pork sandwiches with salad were very tasty, the wine was good and the coffee excellent. For our second, longer day on the island we ate tuna carpaccio, outstanding among the several food experiences of our holiday.
Gulls are the main residents of the Atlantic side of Deserta. There are two kinds, yellow-legged and Audouin. The aromatic maquis that grows inland there is home to many smaller birds, and we were charmed by two or three pairs of Sardinian warbler.
Along the lagoon-side were curlew, more whimbrel, sanderling and plover.
Inanimate objects provide interest too: the beach towards the most southerly point of Portugal offers an amazing choice of shells.
It was too short a time – our fault of course – so setting our minds on a return visit we joined the speedboat back. A ten-minute journey was suddenly interrupted as Pedro spotted a razor bill, not forgetting to check that I had taken its photo. A memorable end to a wonderful trip.