Before the term slow travel started trending, Portugal‘s Alentejo region, about 80 miles southeast of Lisbon, was already the unintentional poster child of the phenomenon. Historically, Portuguese vacationers have looked to the area’s rolling vineyards, cork farms, and seemingly endless coastline for low-key summer holidays. It was a place where time—and the locals, as the joke goes—moved slowly. But eventually, the rest of the world figured out that Alentejo’s charming hamlets and sparsely populated beaches made for understatedly fabulous getaways. First, there was the picturesque coastal town of Comporta, which global surf and sun seekers began descending upon a decade ago. Today, rolling rice fields and azure waters surround sleek hotels, modernist villas, and restaurants from big-name chefs, while the pilgrims have moved on to Melides, Comporta’s still-unassuming neighbor to the south.
You come to this little village, sandwiched between the wild hills of Serra de Grândola and the crashing waves of the Atlantic, for the nature—specifically the beaches, like the wide, golden-sanded Praia de Melides, which is blissfully free of packed clubs and isn’t yet overrun with bars. In town, social life revolves around the mom-and-pop restaurants lining the main cobblestone square, like O Melidense, where garlicky bowls of clams tossed with parsley and crispy-fried whole sardines are served alongside tart tomato rice. It’s easy to imagine you’ve stumbled on the last undiscovered stretch of coast in all of Southern Europe.
In fact, the area isn’t so undiscovered. In recent years, notables like designer Philippe Starck and architect Vincent Van Duysen have fallen hard for Melides’s untamed beauty and distinct tranquility, bought homes here, and become locals. The quiet influx of high-profile residents is largely the doing of Portuguese real estate developer Miguel Carvalho, who, in 2019, opened a residential complex and creative community called Melides Art; at its center, head-turning sculptures by Marnie Weber and Robert Melee sit surrounded by pines. In order to raise the town’s profile gently, Carvalho, who has “someday” plans to open a hotel here, also hosts intimate dinners and invitation-only concerts where up-and-coming musicians perform around outdoor firepits.
The latest evidence of Melides’s transformation is the arrival this summer of Pa.te.os, a collection of concrete rental villas on a 200-acre estate 10 minutes from the ocean. Set among cork, pine, and olive trees, Portuguese architect Manuel Aires Mateus‘s angular, minimalist houses promise to deliver on the Alentejo daydream of doing very little in a very pretty setting. Next year, fashion designer Christian Louboutin‘s long-rumored Hotel Vermelho will finally open in the heart of the village with an on-site restaurant that promises to be the region’s next dining destination. Spatia, a low-slung, family-friendly hotel in Comporta, will expand to Melides in 2023 with a new hotel outpost and a separate beach club on Praia do Pinheirinho, followed by Umay Melides, a resort surrounded by olive groves, a year later. These developments will surely change the kind of place Melides is, but for now, change is happening just slowly enough for it to feel authentically Alentejo.
This article appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.