Sun, sea, sangria - and a sandblast

Spain's Costa de la Luz is wild and windswept - and the British are falling in love with it, says Kate Simon

It's a blustery day on the Costa de la Luz. So what's new? The Poniente is blowing from the west. Or perhaps it's the Levante from the south-east? For centuries, both winds have buffeted this wild stretch of Spain's southern Atlantic coast, which sweeps east from the Portuguese border, through the sherry fields around the Rio Guadalquivir, past Cadiz to the walled town of Tarifa on the very tip of Iberia. And today is no exception: a suntan often comes with a complimentary sandblast in these parts.

It's a blustery day on the Costa de la Luz. So what's new? The Poniente is blowing from the west. Or perhaps it's the Levante from the south-east? For centuries, both winds have buffeted this wild stretch of Spain's southern Atlantic coast, which sweeps east from the Portuguese border, through the sherry fields around the Rio Guadalquivir, past Cadiz to the walled town of Tarifa on the very tip of Iberia. And today is no exception: a suntan often comes with a complimentary sandblast in these parts.

I am sitting on the beach at Zahora with Simone Kane, a British journalist who moved to the area six months ago with her family. She is telling me about La Luz, an English-language travel and lifestyle magazine which she has launched in the Cadiz region, that aims to appeal to British visitors and residents and multi-lingual Spaniards. It's going down well, she says, but then Andalusia is ripe for such a project.

For the British middle classes are coming. According to the Spanish Tourist Office, the number of holidaymakers flying into Jerez from the UK jumped from around 1,000 to more than 15,000 between 2003 and 2004. And accommodation bookings reveal that for the first time British visitor numbers have surpassed those pioneers of virgin holiday territory, the Germans.

Peter Linnane, who owns Andaluz Homes estate agency in Medina Sidonia, concurs that British interest in the area is growing. "There have always been sales to Spaniards and Germans in this area," he says. "But the British seemed to stop at Gibraltar, like there was an iron wall. Yet, in the past 18 months they have broken through and are buying property on the Costa de la Luz in their hundreds."

He attributes the boom in property sales to Britons partly to the increase in Ryanair flights from the UK to Jerez. But the main appeal of the Costa de la Luz is apparent: it is the antithesis of its famous neighbour to the east, the Costa del Sol, home of that Spanish seaside staple, the full English breakfast. The Costa de la Luz offers an authentic experience of Spanish life, played out in the breathtaking setting of traditional pueblos blancos (white towns), with their Moorish and Spanish colonial architecture, and dune-lined beaches where grazing cattle rather than high-rise hotels provide a common backdrop. It's more Cornwall than Costas.

Back in Zahora, there are few people on the beach today. The world-class windsurfers who frequent these seas have headed south-east towards Tarifa in search of a more favourable breeze. This beach is typical of the Costa de la Luz: a glorious swath of golden sand set against a hinterland of scrubby dunes where gaudy succulents with showy cerise petals peep out at the sun through long hairy grass and clumps of spiky cacti threaten to tangle wayward kites. On the whim of the winds, the sea here might be flat calm or rolled up in great frothing spools that crash on to the sands. And when the sun is high, the brilliant white light, from which the coast takes its name, is almost blinding. The beaches already have their fans. Seven along this coast were recently voted as being among Spain's top 10 by the European clientele of the accommodation website Rentalia.com. Four nominees lie close to our pitch today: La Barrosa, Calas de Poniente, Zahara de los Atunes and Bolonia. The lack of development means it is possible to take in several beaches at once. Walk south east from Conil de la Frontera to Los Caños de Meca and your progress will be impeded only by the tower at El Palmar and a rocky outcrop bearing the Trafalgar lighthouse, at the eastern end of Zahora, off which the famous battle took place almost 200 years ago. Climb up above the umbrella pines and over the vast dunes at Punta Paloma and a sweep of uninterrupted sand will take you all the way to Tarifa.

Inland, the local towns have yet to drown in the clutter of tourism and fishing remains an important source of income. Fishing has been key to this coast's fortunes since Roman times, when Baelo Claudia was the centre of the empire's fish-salting industry and became famous for a sauce called garum, the tomato ketchup of its day. (The site's well-preserved remains can be seen at Bolonia's beach for free if you take along your passport.) Today, just follow your nose to Zahara, Barbate and Conil, out of which harbours the boats go on the almadraba, a Moorish word used to describe the twice-yearly netting of the tuna rojo which pass by the coast in spring and summer on the way to and from the Mediterranean.

What isn't sent to market can be enjoyed in the seafront bars. The tuna's rich, sweet neck is a delicacy and lightly fried white fish is a speciality of the Cadiz region. But more pleasant surroundings for an al fresco meal can be found in the nearby hilltop town of Vejer, one of the frontier settlements that marked the border between Arab and Christian-occupied Spain.

This classic pueblos blanco doesn't feature in the government's official trail, which is restricted to a network of 22 white towns in the Sierra de Cadiz, but it was declared a national monument in 1978. Like its counterpart, Medina Sidonia, just visible across the valley to the north, the labyrinth of cobbled streets in its Arab quarters are not yet choked with tourists admiring the Moorish whitewashed houses and flower-filled patios.

The town's popularity over the centuries, due to its strategic position above the Rio Barbate and near the sea, provides a historic trail around town, with its four Moorish gateways, 15th-century castle built on a former alcazaba, and ancient Jewish quarter. And on a clear day, from the southern balcon, you can see Morocco's Rif mountains across the Strait of Gibraltar. One of the town's most attractive sights is the early 20th-century Plaza de España, with its colourful ceramic fountain with four spouting frogs. Currently, it doubles as a traffic island and begs pedestrianisation. Such changes can only be a matter of time.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Ryanair (0871-246 0000; www.ryanair.com) offers return flights to Jerez from Stansted from £62 in June. Carrental.com (0845-225 0845; www.carrental.com) offers seven days' car hire from £103 in June.

Where to stay

Hotel La Casa del Califa (00 34 956 44 77 30; www.vejer.com/califa) in Vejer offers b&b in a double from €98 (£66) per night in June, based on two sharing.

Casa Cinco ( www.hotelcasacinco.com) in Vejer offers b&b in a double from €102 (£68) per night in June, based on two sharing and a minimum two-night stay.

Where to eat

El Jardin del Califa, at the Califa hotel (see above) serves Mediterranean and North African cuisine. Restaurante La Juderia, on Callejon de la Monjas (00 34 956 44 76 57) serves fish. Good beach restaurants include La Chanca at El Palmar and Los Caracoles at Bolonia.

What to do

Naturalsur ( www.naturalsur.com) offers a different activity every day of the week, from horseriding to kayaking, with experienced and licensed guides, from €18 (£12) to €36 (£24) per person.

How to get more information

The next issue of La Luz will be available on 1 June from local tourist offices or by emailing laluzmag@mac.com. Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.spain.info). The website www.vejer.com provides an interesting and informative guide to the area.

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