The climate is mild and mellow and so is the character of the land and its people. Spring, with its profusion of wildflowers, comes very early. Summers are long; winters are short. The Atlantic that laps the southern shore of this most south-westerly corner of Europe is nearly always calm. The air is free of pollution and light breezes prevent even the hottest midsummer days from becoming oppressive. The Algarvian lifestyle is easy-going, fatalistic and unfettered by concern for time. The predominant influences in this unique and remarkably beautiful region are as much Mediterranean as Atlantic, and as much North African as Southern European.

The Algarve is a compact, well-defined and historically ancient province, quite distinct from the rest of Portugal. It is a south-facing amphitheatre not quite 160km long by about 50km at its widest. The coastal belt where most Algarvian live is fringed with sand-spit islands, lagoons, drifted dunes, spectacular headlands, cosy coves and vast open beaches. From the coast the land slopes gently up through vineyards, orchards of oranges and lemons, almonds and avocados, to ranges of rolling hills which separate it from the wide-open plains of the neighbouring Portuguese province of Alentejo. The placid Guadiana River forms the border with the Spanish province of Andalusia.

The character of the people of the Algarve has been shaped by successive waves of traders, invaders and occupiers. From the Mediterranean in the first millennium before Christ, when Portugal was inhabited by Celtiberian tribes, came Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans. From the north with the decline of the Roman Empire came Suevi, Vandals and Visigoths. Much more significantly, from the south in the 8th century came the Islamic Moors, whose civilised rule lasted for more than 500 years until the Christian re-conquest and the incorporation of the Algarve into the independent Portuguese nation whose borders have not changed since the mid-13th century.

The Algarve was the cradle of the 15th-century Age of Discoveries. It was here that Henry the Navigator planned and directed the epoch-making voyages that culminated in Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama discovering the sea route from Europe to the Far East, and Cabral crossing the South Atlantic to Brazil. The names of other great seafarers, from Columbus to Nelson, will forever haunt the craggy headlands of Sagres and Cape St. Vincent.

One of the most appealing aspects of life in the Algarve is that it seems to be locked in a paradoxical time warp. As international airlines strain to shuttle visitors in and out of Faro airport according to strict schedules, Algarveans feel no compulsion to be punctual, no reason to rush. Nothing is more important than conversation with friends over small cups of coffee. Some of Europe's most sophisticated residential and holiday developments with their manicured golf courses and first-class restaurants are viewed without envy by ordinary folks who like to sit outside the front doors of their humble townhouses grilling sardines on mini makeshift barbecues. A motorway slices through countryside where farming methods have not fundamentally changed since medieval times. Tourism has made the Algarve remarkably cosmopolitan, yet traditional customs and ancestral ways of doing things prevail.

The Algarve's healthy climate, pure air and mostly pollution-free environment are nicely complemented by wholesome, locally-caught and home-grown food. In particular, there is a wonderfully wide range of seafood, including all sorts of clams, prawns and lobster, and delicious fresh fish such as swordfish, tuna, sea bass and sea bream. Eating out in restaurants is all the more delightful because Portuguese wines are so good and so reasonably priced.

Clarity of light and brilliance of colour are startling features of the Algarve. The coastline is made up of various shades of gold set in a translucent turquoise sea. The vast vault of sky is usually vivid blue. Town and village houses as well as country cottages are dazzlingly whitewashed. The cork oaks, olive and carob trees in the foothills and serras are evergreens. Bougainvillea and begonias in gardens, jacaranda and judas trees in town squares, roadside mimosa, oleander in the ravines and great swaths of almond blossom and cistus rock roses all over the countryside provide riotous colour at different times of the year. No wonder that writers have long likened the Algarve to the "Garden of Eden" and "the land of promise."