Think of Spain and the Orange Blossom Coast probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But the Costa del Azahar, north of Valencia, is an unspoiled region cloaked in citrus and fig orchards with shallow, family-friendly beaches and strict building codes designed to regulate development.
Also off the beaten track is the Costa de la Luz, where long stretches of golden sand are empty apart from a year-round community of windsurfers. Then there’s the Costa do Marisco, or Shellfish Coast, part of the much larger Costa Verde, which has the best beaches in Spain. Or beat the crowds by exploring the Costa Cálida, the Costa Tropical or the desert-like Costa de Almeria, which lures northern Europeans with the warmest and driest winters in mainland Europe.
But for a combination of fun in the sun and unrivalled nightlife, the Big Three lead the way.
The Costa Brava welcomed its first package holidaymakers in 1954 and, while resorts such as Lloret de Mar cater for mass tourism, there are plenty of secluded coves and exclusive boltholes to discover. The Rugged Coast, to use its English name, is ideally situated for day trips. Girona, with its medieval architecture and walled Old Quarter, is an hour north and Barcelona is an hour south. You can drive to the photogenic southern French city of Perpignan in no time or shop until you drop in the designer outlet village of La Roca.
James Bond once lived on the Costa del Sol. Well, strictly speaking, Sean Connery used to own a villa outside Marbella. You can still go celebrity spotting in nearby Puerto Banús or soak up Andalusian culture with excursions to the Moorish city of Granada and flamboyant, flamenco-loving Seville. The sun continues to shine during the winter months but if you tire of tanning, why not spend the morning skiing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains before golfing in the afternoon? And if you can’t tear yourself away from the Costa del Sol, consider buying a place. Prices have yet to recover from the 2008 recession and there are some very good deals around.
For many tourists, the Costa Blanca is Benidorm and Benidorm is Spain. Europe’s most popular holiday town is passed from generation to generation like a family heirloom. Those pensioners dozing in deck chairs first came with young families in the 1960s – now their grandchildren bring families of their own. The uber-resort holds a special place in European sun seekers’ hearts and it came as no surprise when the city applied for World Heritage status in 2015.
The costas are experiencing a tourism boom as wary European travellers shun Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey due to the ongoing terrorist threat. Hosting five million visitors a year pushes carrying capacities to breaking point but environmentalists believe that high-density vertical resorts such as Benidorm are best equipped to manage the energy, waste and water needs with the least ecological impact.
Benidorm a template of sustainability; who would have guessed?
One of the ironies of those pioneering package holidays to the Costa Brava is that they were all-inclusive. Prices included flights, accommodation, food and as much local wine as the traveller could guzzle. Fast forward to today and the tour operator-driven practice of offering all meals and alcoholic drinks for a single price is having a devastating effect on bars and restaurants.
According to ethical travel lobby group Tourism Concern, “local businesses, such as restaurants, shops, taxi drivers and small guest houses, all lose out to the all-inclusive model as guests are deterred from leaving the hotel grounds”. And with only a fraction of total tourist expenditure finding its way into the regional economy, Spanish holiday towns are feeling the pinch.
Lloret de Mar may be the busiest resort on the Costa Brava but that didn’t stop four cash-strapped hotels from illegally tapping into the mains electricity supply recently. Upon discovery, the hotels were promptly closed and authorities acted quickly to rehouse guests. This backfired, however, when they realised that the alternative accommodation was illegally connected as well.
Sensational “Costa del Crime” gangster stories appear in the press every so often but, unless you’re planning to smuggle drugs from Africa to southern Spain, you should be OK. Actually being drugged is a different matter though. Puerto Banús, on the Costa del Sol, is not the exclusive hangout it once was. These days the marina is more likely to be in the news for drink spiking incidents than celebrity sightings. Thieves slip powerful tranquillisers into tourists’ drinks then steal cash, mobile phones and pin numbers. At least when James Bond drugs his victims, it’s only so he can find out where the villain’s hideaway is.
Down the list of costa concerns (unless you’re a victim) are shark attacks. In July, a man needed stitches after being bitten on the hand while swimming at Elche, on the Costa Blanca, and in August, Fuengirola Beach, on the Costa del Sol, was closed for five hours while patrol boats searched for a Spanish version of Jaws.
The lower profile costas have their problems, too. Sure, property prices can be temptingly low due to a Spanish construction boom (and bust) but proceed with care. And if no one buys into those stylish but empty apartment complexes, then no management fees are paid. Without that regular revenue, water in communal swimming pools soon turns brown; golf courses fall into neglect, gardens become overgrown and buildings aren’t maintained. On the Costa de Almeria, thousands of foreigners were duped into buying properties built by dodgy developers who didn’t have planning permission. Many of the illegal villas are scheduled for demolition although a battle to have the homes officially recognised continues.
Still, there’s always the Costa Verde, in northwest Spain. Relaxed, uncommercialised with postcard-perfect beaches and seafood to die for. Problem is, verde means “green” and green means lots of rain.
In September, huge fires near Javea, on the Costa Blanca, forced the evacuation of thousands, including expats and holidaymakers. Emergency services claim the fires were started deliberately. According to some media sources, they were the result of an anti-tourist backlash.