The lost Costa

The weather may not always live up to the name, but for eating out, snorkelling and flamenco, the Costa Tropical is a treat, says Mick Webb
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The Independent Travel

Spain is very well off for Costas, from Brava ("wild") in the far north-east to the Luz ("light") in the south-west. But despite 30 years of travelling in Spain, I was unaware of the existence of the Costa Tropical ("tropical"). And since the tropic of Cancer is a good 1,000 miles south, I was dubious that this strip of shore, due south of Granada, could live up to its ambitious name in the winter gloom.

Spain is very well off for Costas, from Brava ("wild") in the far north-east to the Luz ("light") in the south-west. But despite 30 years of travelling in Spain, I was unaware of the existence of the Costa Tropical ("tropical"). And since the tropic of Cancer is a good 1,000 miles south, I was dubious that this strip of shore, due south of Granada, could live up to its ambitious name in the winter gloom.

I had rented a family apartment in La Herradura for half-term week. At least, I thought I had. But, during the obligatory two-hour delay at Gatwick, the family was less than impressed to discover that I had no actual address for our holiday home and no confirmation of the deal, just the agent's mobile phone number. "Don't worry", she had asserted, "it's nearly always on."

Fortunately, she was as good as her word. After an hour's terror-filled drive east along the racetrack which doubles as the coast road from Malaga airport, we were being shown round a handsome flat, high on the side of a headland, with its own miniature garden and a terrace with views over a shimmering, moonlit sea.

It was even better in the warm light of day. Our headland had a name: la Punta de la Mona. It marked one end of the bay of La Herradura – horseshoe-shaped, as its name promised, with a 2km-long beach fringed by a small town of low-rise, whitewashed buildings. Behind were the jagged ridges and peaks of the coastal mountains. Closer at hand, jet-black squirrels were playing in the pine trees.

Sure, there was the usual forest of cranes in action – an index of the construction work going on – but this stretch of coast is generally far less-developed and better protected than the rest of the Costa del Sol. And so it should be, with its cliffs and coves and rocky promontories and array of beaches: 25 of them within the municipality of la Herradura and neighbouring Almuñecar.

We started with la Playa de Cantarrijan, not because it happened to be designated "naturist" but because it was the most isolated. In the event, much to the children's relief (ok, mine too), it was only the hardiest of Scandinavians and true exhibitionists who were letting it all hang out, or rather wave about, in the strong onshore wind. Over the week, our own favourite became Los Berenguetes, next to a rather soulless upmarket development called Puerto de la Marina, but this small sheltered beach of greyish sand boasted rock-pools and the clearest water I've ever seen on a European coast.

We went snorkelling, though you didn't really need a mask to track the shoals of striped fish (rainbow wrasse) that are tame enough to eat bread from your hand. It could have been the Caribbean. Well, not quite. The water was freezing, with a chill factor that was exacerbated by the 25-degree sun. Forget naturism, pass the wetsuit, please.

More serious doubt about the accuracy of that "tropical" label surfaced after a couple of days. It was very windy and raining hard. "Un poco loco" (a bit mad) was how one local described the weather, so we ventured inland, risking the rented Punto on a winding, rutted track, which eventually led to an ecological park called Peña Escrita.

It was on the side of a mountain, a kind of vertical zoo with indigenous animals such as mountain goats and sheep roaming free while others like ostriches were enclosed. There were some vertiginous walks, and a restaurant, though most Spanish visitors seemed happy to picnic in designated areas about 10 yards from their parked cars.

Had it been a clear day, a picnicker told me, there would have been views across to Africa – but it wasn't and there weren't. You can also rent log cabins here, and the park's advertising brochure had a nice and, I presume, accidental misspelling: "special rates for log weekends." More interesting than the park, we thought, were the fruit farms that we passed on the way up: avocados, mangoes and guavas growing freely and happily on the sheltered sides of the valley. Best of all were the weird, knobbly chirimoyas or custard apples, which littered the track and soon filled the boot of the car. The more horrible they looked, the better they seemed to taste: like a fruit-flavoured custard made with creamy, condensed milk – a truly tropical ambrosia.

The bad (or mad) weather continued for another couple of days, taking the edge off the sundowner on the terrace and making towns and caves more attractive destinations than the beach. Luckily, we had a world-renowned cave just down the road at Nerja; the "Hall of the Ghosts" was particularly enjoyed. The nearby town of Almuñecar turned out to be a good mix of ancient and modern. It is dominated by the ruins of a Moorish castle with a medieval centre of steep streets, narrow passageways and tiny plazas, bright with whitewash and geraniums. Among the modern family attractions are the Loro Sexi bird park (entrance, appropriately, in the Calle Bikini), which is open all year round; and the AquaPark, which becomes a disco at night, though it's closed from the end of September.

The town's two beaches are attractively divided by a series of three huge rocks, one of them topped with a Moorish citadel; along the esplanade behind the beach of San Cristobal are the majority of the town's restaurants and tapas bars. The other place to eat is a little square – la Plaza Kelibia – entirely filled with tables served from the half-a-dozen tapas bars around the outside. Unlike most other Costa del Sol towns, this is not a haunt of British expats; in summer, the apartment blocks and hotels are alive with Spanish holidaymakers, though by this time of year it was pleasantly uncrowded and even possible to find a parking space.

Eating out was a real treat, whatever the weather. We'd start with breakfast in one of the seafront cafes: litres of Spanish coffee, bitter and (like the beach), vaguely gritty, along with great slabs of tostadas – toasted baguettes – either with the wimp's option of jam and butter or the aficionado's topping of oil, chopped tomatoes and garlic.

For long lunches or evening meals, there were the chiringuitos, or beach restaurants. These used to be flimsy structures, which rarely lasted more than the summer season. Now, however, they're substantial, sometimes luxurious, and open all year round. Our nearest chiringuito, in the shadow of la Punta de la Mona, served paellas and grilled sardines on the beach at weekend lunchtimes, and provided not only the best meal but also my most exciting holiday moment. As we tucked into a firm and flavoursome turbot, we were entertained by a troupe of local flamenco dancers, who, for a grand finale, chose partners from among the diners. Their exotically beautiful leader beckoned me forward with an imperious gesture, and according to my children, I went on to score nul points for artistic expression and even less for sophisticated cool.

The sun came back and we celebrated with a trip to the Alpujarra mountains. An endless series of hairpin bends takes you up from the capital, Orgiva, to Capileira, a classic, whitewashed village and highly recommended as a base for walking. We tried the four-hour walk to the electricity generating station; not the most alluring of prospects but in reality, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The path follows the Poqueira gorge, where the poplars were turning gold; there were flocks of wild mountain sheep and a praying mantis.

At the highest point, against the backdrop of towering Mount Mulhacén, we saw a golden eagle. The path was waymarked in a rather random Spanish fashion, which added to the fun, as did the beautiful stone threshing-floors, which dotted the route and had stood the test of time much better than the ruined farmhouses. Some of these solitary properties have been restored by northern Europeans – and, in fact, this particular neck of the woods has a reputation for being a hippy enclave: check out the market in Orgiva for ancient VW camper-vans and home-made jewellery.

On a cloudlessly blue day, you can see the attraction of a home abroad, as have thousands of others. On our last day, on the way to Malaga airport, we called in at the tiny hill-town of Competa, not far inland from Nerja. The perfectly formed central square boasted the regulation beautiful church but, ¡Qué horror!, where there should have been bars and restaurants there was nothing but estate agents, catering for the Brits, the Germans, the Dutch and the Danes. I was torn between a feeling of depressed disdain and a strong desire to step inside. But first, I'll sign up for a flamenco-dancing class.

Traveller's guide

Getting there: You can fly to Malaga from airports all over the UK, on charter, no-frills and full-service airlines. Mick Webb paid £200 return for a charter from Gatwick on JMC.

Car rental: All the big car hire companies offer competitive deals in southern Spain, including Avis (0870 606 0100, www.avis.com), Hertz (08705 90 60 90, www.hertz.com) and Holiday Autos (0870 400 0000, www.holidayautos.com). Mick Webb paid £95 for a week's rental with Hertz.

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