Top Iberian Beach Hideaways
By Rick Steves
Any European destination famous as a "last undiscovered tourist frontier" no longer is. The beaches of your dreams survive, but their names have been changed to protect their innocence. Trade Torremolinos for Nerja. Skip Lagos and savour Salema. These places mix maximum natural and cultural charms with minimum condos and concrete.
Salema, on Portugal's Sunny South Coast
Once-upon-a-time Salema is the last of the fairy-tale Algarve. Tucked away on Portugal's southwestern tip, it's an easy 15-mile bus ride from the closest train station in Lagos.
Salema has a split personality: part whitewashed old town and part tourist haunt. The parking lot that separates the black shawls from the jogging shorts becomes a morning market with the horn-tooting arrival of the trucks: a fruit and veggies mobile, a rolling meat and cheese shop, and the clothing van. Tractors pull in the fishing boats, two-year-olds toddle in the waves, topless women read German fashion mags, and old men really do mend the nets. Tourists laze in the sun while locals grab the shade.
Sun-drenched Salema is my kind of beach resort: four restaurants specializing in fresh fish and vinho verde (green wine), three hotels, lots of quartos (private rooms for rent), and an inviting beach. It's being quietly discovered by British, German, and Back Door connoisseurs of lethargy.
Costa del Sol, Spain's South Coast
The Costa del Sol's most famous beaches are bikini-strangled and Nivea-creamed. In peak season, the region is so bad it's interesting. To northern Europeans, the sun is a drug, and this is their needle. Anything resembling a quaint fishing village has been smothered in concrete. Oblivious to the pollution, ridiculous prices, and traffic jams, tourists lie on the beach like game hens on skewers cooking, rolling, and sweating under their sun.
Instead of laughing with Ronald McDonald at the car-jammed resorts, unroll your beach towel at Nerja. Somehow Nerja, while cashing in on the fun-in-the-sun culture, has kept much of its quiet, Old World charm. It has good beaches, stay-awhile tapas bars, and a rich frosting of pastry shops. The evening paseo, the Spanish ritual of strolling and people-watching, packs the streets. Holding hands or ice cream cones, everyone meanders toward Nerja's Balcony of Europe, a people-friendly terrace overlooking the Mediterranean.