06/18/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Salema -- My Favorite Stretch of Portugal's Algarve

For several years, I've been wanting to return to the Algarve (southern Portugal), my favorite stretch of Iberian coastline. I'm generally in Iberia in April, when the beach towns are pretty dead, so I don't bother. Being here in June this year makes a huge difference -- it's lively, warm, and a great place to relax (as I wind up an intense two-month trip). And even after all this time, my favorite Algarve town remains Salema.

Salema, the Back Door jewel of the Algarve, comes with a delightful sandy beach overlooked by characteristic restaurants and the tranquil strum of a steady surf.

The economic hard times seem to be hitting both Spain and Portugal very hard. I can see the sadness in the eyes of the people. A "tough times future" seems to be the diagnosis, and there's no promising cure. The character of the idyllic fishing towns (like Salema) is changing. Fewer people are fishing, and government policies (regulation and taxation) have tightened up, causing the little widows to not bother renting their rooms. Gourmet restaurants and boutique accommodations are appearing in spite of the tough times, as fishing towns are becoming the playgrounds of the gated communities and golf clubs of the jet-setting international crowd, who stay on the hilltops a bit inland. Still, the children of the old fisherman -- at least, the ones who don't go to the big city in search of economic promise -- continue to cook up the fish and man the weather-beaten fort. And Salema remains a delightful stop on any Iberian itinerary.

Paulo at Restaurant O Lourenco in Salema, Portugal, knows his fish. Either he bought it himself at the fish auction in the next town, or he actually caught it himself. After lunch, he took me into the locker for a peek at dinner.

In beach resorts across the Mediterranean, competition is stiff. The fish is fresh, the vegetables are crunchy, and in the case of Portugal...the wine is green.

When I first came to Salema, in the late 1970s, I was driving a minibus of tourists. We'd park at the base of Salema's "street of the fishermen" (Rua Pescador) and find rooms (quartos) in private homes for a few bucks each. Now the fishermen do more sitting and gazing at the sea than fishing (the business is done in bigger fish markets nearby, in Sagres and Lagos). The women have been terrorized out of running their small businesses by stricter (and necessary, as Southern Europe learns to pay its taxes) government regulations. There are fewer old-school, shoestring-budget backpackers to keep them in business anyway. Still, while it feels different, the street looks exactly the same.

My friend John, from England, has run Pension Mare for three decades. I've been sending my readers there just about from the start, and we are like a team. I love his place. He lives in Bath and flew down to hang out with me as I updated my chapter on Salema. He was a great resource as I put the pieces of this town's social puzzle together. This same weekend, John sold Pension Mare. The new owner promises to run it the same for my readers... but it's a bit of a sad event for me.