My train rattled into the station on a bright afternoon. As the cars screeched and sighed to a halt, their contents — a small group of happy and hot tourists including me — spilled onto the platform, fanning themselves with maps and pages torn from magazines.
Gripping our suitcases and stretching our legs, we made our way to the small taxi stand outside the small train station, where two German couples and a small Spanish family raced to occupy the three idling cabs. As they sped off, the rest of us turned to discover that there was nothing around but three abandoned lots and a now-abandoned train station. The sun beat down. A donkey pulling a wooden cart slowly clip-clopped by. We all looked at each other and shrugged, forming the new international sign for, “I hope there are more than three taxis in this little town.”
Thankfully there were, and twenty minutes later I was gliding into Lagos, windows down, Fado music blaring. The first thing you notice about Lagos — a tiny fishing village turned surf and tourism destination in Algarve, the southern region of Portugal — is the smell of salt air, and as I filled my lungs with its tangy fragrance, my cab driver gave me a brief tour of the village.
We drove up the main road and passed the marina (“Very good food,” my driver said, pointing at the fish market. “Very cheap.”), whizzing by the small square at the center of town where a guitar player was sitting, strumming in the sun. As the road sloped upward, snaking around the village, the Atlantic opened up to our left. Deep turquoise ocean stretched to the horizon and I glimpsed the ancient rock formations Algarve is famous for rising from the water like craggy, majestic monsters storming the cliffs. I sucked in a deep breath of anticipation. This was going to be fun.
I was staying in a bed and breakfast at the back of town, a little up the hill, and as I said goodbye to my driver and dragged my suitcase down a cobblestone street, the door to a clean white house opened. A tanned woman with long, glossy hair and a wide, warm smile stepped out and shouted a clear, English, “Hello!”
Guest House Enseada is a B&B run by two British expats, Chris and Ellie, who started coming to Portugal on surf trips several years ago and eventually realized they didn’t want to leave. Their guest house is gorgeous — four pristine, beautifully-designed rooms that are modern and comfortable, with a quiet, plant-covered patio in the back where you can eat your fresh breakfast in the morning or lounge with a drink in the evening.
I immediately felt like I was staying with my really cool surfer friends who happen to have a fantastic house.
As Ellie showed me around Guest House Enseada she told me stories about surfing expeditions and her favorite, less-populated beaches on the coast. Later I met Chris, his piercing blue eyes crinkling at the edges as he warmly welcomed me and asked about my travels. I immediately felt like I was staying with my really cool surfer friends who happen to have a fantastic house.
Once I had settled into my room, I changed into my bathing suit and pulled on a pair of breezy beach pants, setting out to explore Lagos. Following Ellie’s recommendation, I wandered over to The Garden, a relaxed outdoor restaurant staffed by expats with cozy clusters of tables and chairs set in a lush … garden. (It’s appropriately named.) I stole a small table under a tree, and butterflies wobbled through the air as I ate a salad the size of my head in the shade. Feeling refreshed, I started my walk up the hill to the beach, passed by Jeeps stacked with surf boards, tan limbs dangling from open windows.
Because of the spectacular cliffs and caves along the coast, Lagos is dotted with several beaches of varying size and degree of difficulty in reaching. Some you can arrive on quickly after a few short steps, others involve descending an incredibly long, winding staircase that may or may not be dissolved in parts. Ellie had recommended a beach that seemed perfect for me — less populated than some of the nearer beaches, but not so difficult to reach that I’d need a sherpa to get back up to the main road.
Deep turquoise ocean stretched to the horizon and I glimpsed the ancient rock formations Algarve is famous for rising from the water like craggy, majestic monsters storming the cliffs.
I descended the wide wooden stairs, twisting along the rock, and finally arrived on a deep semi-circle of sand surrounded by cliffs on three sides, open to the ocean. After setting down my towel and shedding my cover-up, I plunged into the brisk, salty water. The gritty blue charged up and down my legs, and turned to see the little sandy cove behind me. The beach was littered with sea shells, and after a while I stepped back from the water to pick through them, holding each one up in the sun, examining for the best color, the most interesting iridescent pattern. The afternoon light was starting to fade, but I lay on the sand, warm and surrounded by my shells, until the last rays of sun were chased from the beach.
The next day I saw the rest of Lagos’ beaches and famous coves by boat. There are a number of outlets offering cheap tours of the coastline, and I went down to the marina, bought a ticket, and was wearing a life jacket in less than 30 minutes. I ate fish tacos at The Green Room, a lively Mexican restaurant run by a band of expat surfers led by the formidably friendly Lisa. I wandered through Lagos’ tile-lined streets, pausing to pet a lounging dog, or duck into a shop brimming with Portuguese textiles. I stopped at the fish market, watching locals haggle for dinner, and dodged slow-trundling Jeeps coming back from the morning surf.
I felt like I’d found a secret, like I’d stumbled into the type of place people tell stories about when they’re older. “Remember when we were young and worked in that bar in Lagos…?” This sunny, lazy little melting pot set in one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world, was relaxed, and friendly, and fun. I wanted to stay forever.
Have you discovered a secret place like Lagos? Where?
Images via Jessica Doehle