By Rick Steves
Any place famous as a "last undiscovered tourist frontier" no longer is. The Algarve, on Portugal's south coast, disappoints many who come looking for fun on undeveloped beaches. But the savvy traveler can still find places where colorful boats share the beach with a colony of sun-worshipers. The Algarve of your dreams survives — just barely. Find it in Salema.
Tucked away where a dirt road hits the beach between Lagos and Cape Sagres on Portugal's southwestern tip, Salema is an easy 15-mile bus ride or hitch from the closest train station in Lagos. Don't let the ladies hawking quartos (rooms) in Lagos waylay you into staying in their city by telling you Salema is full.
A while back when I led tours I arrived in Salema at 7:00 p.m. with a tour group of nine people and saw no quartos signs anywhere. I asked some locals, "Quarto?" Eyes perked, heads nodded, and I got ten beds in three homes at $20 per person. Our rooms were simple, with showers, springy beds, and glorious views of pure paradise. Friendly local smiles assured us that this was the place to be.
Salema has a split personality. Half is a whitewashed old town of scruffy dogs, wide-eyed kids, and fishermen who've seen it all. The other half was built for tourists. The parking lot that separates the jogging shorts from the black shawls becomes a morning market with the horn-tooting arrival of flat-bed trucks selling clothing, fruit, veggies, and fish.
The two worlds pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence. Tourists laze in the sun while locals grab the shade. Tractors pull in and push out the fishing boats, two-year-olds toddle in the waves, topless women read German fashion mags, and old men really do mend the nets.
Salema is still a fishing village. While the fishermen's hut no longer hosts a fish auction, it provides shade for the old-timers arm-wrestling octopi out of their traps. The pottery jars stacked everywhere are traps. These are tied about 15 feet apart in long lines and dropped offshore. Octopi, looking for a cozy place to set an ambush, climb inside — making their final mistake. Unwritten tradition allocates different chunks of undersea territory to each Salema family.
Fishing is important, but Salema's tourist-based economy sits on a foundation of sand. Locals hope and pray that their sandy beach returns after being washed away each winter.
In Portugal, restaurateurs are allowed to build a temporary summer-only beachside restaurant if they provide swimmers with a lifeguard and run a green/yellow/red warning flag system. The Atlântico Restaurant, which dominates Salema's beach, takes its responsibility seriously — providing lifeguards, flags...and good fresh seafood through the summer.
Travelers in need of activity can hire a local guide for a two-hour boat cruise along the coast, with possible swimming stops at desolate beaches along the way. Or, for the best secluded beach in the region, take a 15-minute drive to Praia do Castelejo, just north of Cape Sagres.
But Salema's sleepy beauty kidnaps my momentum and I go nowhere. Grab a table at a beachside restaurant for dinner. Nearby, a dark, withered granny shells almonds with a railroad spike, and dogs roam the beach like they own it. As the sun sets, a man catches short fish with a long pole. Behind him is Cape Sagres — the edge of the world 500 years ago. As far as the gang sipping port and piling olive pits in the beachside bar is concerned, it still is.