Travel: Sun, sand ... and seas of greens

For Costa del Sol read Costa del Golf, as Mick Webb discovers.
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The Independent Culture
Most guidebooks to the much-maligned coastline west of Malaga advise you to travel a few miles inland and upwards into the coastal mountains, to enjoy spectacular views over Gibraltar and, on a clear day, to the far-off hills of Morocco. This I did and, after a death-defying scramble up a goat track to the lofty ruins of Montemayor Castle, I can report that the vista is all that it's cracked up to be. But more striking than the looming mass of the Rock, or even the bluish distant hills, were the vivid patches of emerald green and brilliant yellow decorating the rugged, brown and grey Andalusian landscape. Golf courses. About 30 of them within easy, ahem, driving distance of Marbella.

In fact the village of Benahavis, where I was staying, boasts that it is at the very heart of the "Costa del Golf", which is appropriate when you realise that the only sand worth lying around on is to be found not on the dirty, grey beaches but in the alluringly tropical bunkers. It does, though, seem perverse that a game so dependent on well- watered grass should have taken root in a climate where water is rationed during the summer months, and where the riverbeds are already dry in early May.

I wondered what the Moorish King Havis would have thought if he could look down from his castle today, borrowing my binoculars to get a good look at the golf courses and the high-rise blocks along the coast. His people, after all, were the irrigators of arid Spain, conservers of water, and the great architects of Andalusia. Well, who knows? The Costa del Sol isn't the place to lament historical change, or to waste your time searching for authenticity and tradition. I'd suggest it's best to think of the Moors as Spain's long-stay tourists of the past millennium.

You can't, of course, have golf without money. Marbella and surroundings have become Spain's most expensive resort, with a clutch of truly luxurious and architecturally understated five-star hotels, which you can find (and possibly even afford to stay in) along the avenue going west out of the town. One of them, El Puente Romano, is built around a real Roman bridge.

Equally pleasant on the eye, and nearly as bad for the wallet, is Marbella's old town: clean, white, flower-bedecked, with narrow streets filled with smart boutiques, galleries and eateries. Down by the sea, though, the promenade runs alongside tatty Sixties blocks, reminders of cheap and cheerful holidays. No such problems just along the coast in Puerto Banus, which is a purpose-built playground for the ultra-cool jet-ski set. But the wealthiest, most glamorous visitors are heard of rather than seen. Hidden behind smoked glass or high walls up in the hills are the Goldsmiths, the family of King Khaled of Saudi Arabia, and many others attracted by the climate and the warm welcome of Marbella's maverick mayor - and some, no doubt, by Spain's benevolent extradition laws.

My own favourite town is San Pedro de Alcantara, which had the bad luck to be built a couple of miles from the beach, and separated from it by the N340, a teeming race-track which is the Costa's main traffic artery. This has probably been the saviour of this unassuming town, whose tourist information office is so hard to find that it might well win an award for negative PR. But when you've searched it out, behind the church, it's a welcoming place with black-and-white home-made leaflets on San Pedro's Roman remains, and lots of glossy brochures about golf.

The town's main street has been pedestrianised, and you can sit out in the middle of the street and eat dishes of pretty well everything the sea provides. Assuming the same kind of price/quantity ratio as in Marbella, I badly mismanaged the delicate business of how much to order, and the family remained at the table for some hours, immobilised by tons of squid, sardines and paella, until even the Spanish diners had left and the chairs were being stacked around us.

San Pedro's best shop is its British bookshop, down near the junction with the N340, a reminder of the large expatriate community that inhabits the Costa - about half-a-million in all, a good proportion from the UK. Foreign occupation is not just confined to the coast. Inland, towns such as Gaucin are getting on for 50 per cent British-owned, and if you venture beyond the spectacular but excursion-ridden Ronda, on the edge of Benaojan (a village renowned for the quality of its chorizo), you'll find a hotel called Molino del Santo where you'll discover a happy mingling of cultures; the menu features Andalusian dishes for the discerning British tourist, international cuisine for the more adventurous Spanish diner, and an afternoon tea with sticky English chocolate cakes that everyone seems to enjoy.

Another of the uplifting Western trends to have come to Spain is concern for the environment. While I was there, Marbella hosted a four-day conference devoted to the study and protection of the lesser kestrel. And it may come as a surprise that in the region of Andalusia, once notorious for its chaotic and catastrophic building development, 17 per cent of the countryside is now protected. There is plenty to protect. Without straying far from the village of Benahavis we saw bee-eaters and hoopoes, orchids and rock-roses, and were terrified by several varieties of snake. And then there was the eerie, pulsing call that we heard every night of our stay in Benahavis - it may have been a scops owl or, according to a guidebook, it may have been a midwife toad. Frankly, does it matter? Sitting on the balcony, with a glass of fino sherry, listening to that sound was an otherworldly experience.

The writer is producer of the BBC's 'Get By in Spanish'.

Getting there: Mick Webb paid pounds 130 for a Gatwick-Malaga return on Britannia Airways. For scheduled flights, British Airways flies from Gatwick, Iberia from Heathrow and Monarch from Luton.

More information: Spanish National Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (0171-486 8077).