By Stephen Bugno

Fishing boats in Varkala, India

Fishing boats in Varkala, India

Although they’re situated on four different continents, these five beach towns are hard to beat for the low-budget independent traveler.

What makes a great beach? I’m thinking small towns or villages, low-budget guesthouses or bungalows on or near the beach, good local food, relaxed vibes, and great sand and water in a striking natural setting.

These are places you could end up staying a week without realizing it. And your conscious will be clean because your dollars are going into the local economy and you can have a good time without excessive hedonism.

Tarabin, Sinai, Egypt

Just north of Nuweiba on the Sinai Peninsula is a strip of cafes and guesthouses called Tarabin. I stayed at Soft Beach because it was recommended to me. This place is hard to beat: little bungalows close to the sand for $3 per night, calm water for wading into the Red Sea, and a hut where meals are served any time of day.  These are not Arabs running the hospitality businesses in Tarabin, but rather the Bedouin. They have relaxed views in general, will serve beer, and traditionally cater mostly towards the influx of young Israelis on holiday. But it’s not crowded. Since the 2004 bombings here, many of the small businesses on this crescent-shaped beach have been squeezed as dry as the craggy, arid mountains that loom behind.

A nearby alternative:  Although it’s chock-a-block full of backpackers, Dahab is still hard to beat for outstanding diving, snorkeling, budget accommodation, eating establishments, and basic traveler needs. Check it out just to compare, as long as you’re in the mood to rub shoulders with your fellow foreign travelers.

Soft Beach in Tarabin, Egypt

Soft Beach in Tarabin, Egypt

Varkala, India

This is a beautiful cliff-top village in Kerala, on the southwest coast of India. Papanasam Beach is actually the place you want, three miles from the Varkala train station. It’s also a Hindu place of pilgrimage as well, so you can witness devotees paying homage to the site where they’ve been coming since the 12th century. The guesthouses, small hotels, and cafes spread thinly along a trail at the top of the precipice overlooking the crashing Indian Ocean. Restaurants display the days catch for passers-by and will cook the fish up anyway you like. The further north you walk, the beach is less congested with tourists and more local fishermen hang out. Their thatched boats sit up on the beach.

A nearby alternative: At Kovalam, an hour and a half to the south, there are a few top-notch beaches; but the area has been criticized recently for being overcrowded and over-developed.

Castara, Tobago

Castara is a chilled-out fishing village with a few guesthouses and cafes. The beach is set under a jungle-clad mountain. The cool thing about Castara is that it’s a real fishing village which would subsist without tourism. The snorkeling is fine, the beach is even finer, and there are no touts to bother you. Once a week, a local bar has a live steel-pan band, dinner, dancing, and all you can drink rum punch.

A nearby alternative: A few miles north is Englishman’s bay, a sweet day-use beach with no permanent facilities. Check out Charlottesville, even further north, for a bigger town, more beaches and guesthouses.

Sagres, Portugal

Sagres is a nondescript small town on the far southwest corner of Portugal. However, it’s got four outstanding beaches practically surrounding the town. I bumped into a few German surfers living out of their Volkswagon van for the week and plenty of other Europeans that moved to the area for the outstanding weather, beautiful cliffs, and economy that makes Portugal the cheapest destination in western Europe. Check out the sheltered, south-facing Praia de Mareta for bathing, Praia do Martinhal for windsurfing, the wild Praia do Tonel for surfing, and Praia de Belixe for a stunning setting under cliffs.

An alternative: About an hour and a half to the east, Tavira is a river-side town, a ten-minute ferry ride away from the Ilha de Tavira—an island with a 14km stretch of dune-backed beaches without a hotel in sight.

Ko Samet, Thailand

Ko Samet is a small, quiet island with beautiful white sand beaches. Not renowned for its parties (as with other Thai beach resorts), it is an extremely relaxed place to chill out for a while. Most of Ko Samet is part of Khao Laem Ya and Mu Ko Samet National Park. One of its advantages is being situated within easy reach of Bangkok. I didn’t have the means to reach the beaches of southern Thailand, but this is a great alternative to those. Spend your days eating pineapple or papaya in the sun and wading into the shallow blue-green water for a dip to cool off.

Stephen Bugno has been traveling and teaching English abroad for the better part of ten years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He edits the Gomad Nomad Travel Mag.