The Unspoiled Island of Culatra, Portugal

“So what’s up next on the list?” Sheenagh asks as we’re rocked gently side to side.

Even though it’s a calm day out on the water, I can hardly hear her over the ferry engine. The contours of the marshy landscape grow blurry as we pick up speed, and the farther we get from the Portuguese mainland, the more the small town of Olhão, our point of departure, becomes dwarfed by mountain ridges on the horizon.

Sheenagh lives in Edinburgh and has a contagious laugh and an equally infectious excitement for travel. Sitting next to her is Johanna, a tourism student from Hamburg with a bubbly personality who’s chosen to take her very first solo trip to Portugal and Spain.

“I’m not sure,” I say with a chuckle. “I have a few smaller trips in Europe planned, but I’d like to go someplace far away as well.”

Like most hostel friends, our conversations are dominated by travel stories, dream trips, and lists of countries we’ve visited. But we also talk about our families, careers, and personal aspirations. We’ve known each other for less than twelve hours, yet we’ve already found out that we have this much in common – a love for Portuguese custard tarts, olives, and wine. And now, here we are on a ferry to what feels like the edge of the world.

It was only through one of the hostel workers back in Faro that we found out about the island of Culatra in the Eastern Algarve. Over a group dinner of quiche, leek soup, and chocolate mousse the previous evening, our discussion inevitably turned to things to do in the region.

“If you’re really looking to get an authentic feel for the Algarve, take the train to Olhão tomorrow morning,” one of the hostel volunteers, Petra, said. “From there, you get can on a ferry to one of the nearby islands.”

Sheenagh and Johanna happened to be sitting next to me at the table, and all three of us sat up at the same time. We had made a bit of small talk before the meal and wanted to do something together the next day. After hearing about the islands, we were sold. Next stop: Olhão and Culatra.

The sleepy streets of Olhão in the Eastern Algarve

Back on the ferry, we slowly come to a halt and the engine dies down to a gentle putter. Outside the boat, I can hear the captain tying the rope to the dock.

As Sheenagh, Johanna, and I get off the ferry, we realize that foreigners must be something of a novelty to the inhabitants of Culatra. Don’t get me wrong – everyone is friendly here. But we can feel the curious and even perplexed glances meeting us on shore.

A restaurant patron looks up from his newspaper, two children playing on a tractor point in our direction, and an elderly woman who has just been given a bag of groceries from one of the fellow ferry passengers (there are no supermarkets on Culatra) tilts her head slightly to the left. We realize we might be the stuff of neighborhood gossip, but that doesn’t keep us from exploring this small and unassuming place.

The main street of Culatra isn’t even a street – it’s a sandy path between the houses that is barely wide enough for a tractor. There are no cars here on the island, and it doesn’t feel like there ever will be.

“Do you still have everything?” I ask Johanna, who’s holding onto a grocery bag from Olhão.

“Yep,” she says, patting the plastic bag. “It’s all here.”

We’ve decided to make the most of this warm and sunny day in late February by having a picnic on the beach. We’ve got fresh pineapple and strawberries, a cheese sampler, white wine (in a juice box, mind you, but hey – we’re not picky), hummus, and a baguette. In other words, we’re good to go.

“All we need now is to find the beach,” Sheenagh adds.

“Praia,” I say, pointing to the sign next to us. “I’m pretty sure that means beach.”

We turn right on a corner and continue down another sandy sidewalk. The houses become more and more spaced out, and after passing a small school playground and a Red Cross unit, we’re suddenly at the edge of the town, standing in front of a stretch of sand dunes. We can hear the faint cries of seagulls from just behind the dunes, and we know it can’t be much longer now. In fact, the “praia” is just another fifteen minutes’ walk away.

It’s funny how quickly the afternoon goes by on the beach. The rest of Culatra seems to be halted by time. There’s no rush or chaos in the town just a short walk away. No place to be or urgent things to take care of. But here on the beach, a beach that Sheenagh, Johanna, and I have all to ourselves, time goes by faster than I’d like.

Before leaving, I go for a walk and collect a few seashells, a mix of grays and light browns and oranges that are now part of my table centerpiece here in Frankfurt.

A few days later, I’ll go walking along the coast again, this time along the grottos and unique rock formations near Lagos in the Western Algarve. I’ll think back to Culatra and ask myself which part of Southern Portugal – the East or the West – I liked the most. But I won’t be able to make up my mind. Contrary to Lagos, Culatra isn’t surrounded by turquoise blue water or hidden coves. But still, it’s peaceful. It’s unspoiled. It’s paradise.

*Please note: The names of people in this post have been changed.

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