The Travel Issue: Costa Brava in May

Question: where do Europe's most stylish people spend their summer holidays? Elsewhere in this issue you'll find plenty of good suggestions, but when you stop to think, there is really only one answer. It goes like this: which is Europe's most stylish city? Easy, it's Barcelona, of course – everyone knows that. Next: so where do the smartest, most stylish people in Barcelona go when they want to get away?

The answer, you may be surprised to hear, is the Costa Brava – but lest those words conjure visions of package-holiday hell, let us add that we're not talking about any old bit of the Costa Brava, and certainly not that southern sprawl that seems to stretch unbroken from Las Ramblas to the mega-resort of Lloret de Mar. No, we are heading further north, 100km or so from the city, towards the Cap de Begur and beyond, to the area called Baix Emporda, where the terrain gets wilder, and the Costa Brava lives up to its literal meaning of "rugged coast".

Here, rocky headlands break up the beaches, and the road twists and turns through forests of sweet-smelling pine and cork – which clear suddenly to reveal cliff-top views to crystalline coves accessible only by boat, or on foot along the Cami de Ronda, the ancient coastal path that picks its way between the granite crags and turquoise bays. Before long, the concrete Costa of popular memory seems very distant indeed.

And when the road zigzags down to the shore, you emerge blinking from the woods to discover one of Catalonia's great holiday secrets – the hauntingly gorgeous fishing villages of Sa Tuna and, our favourite, Tamariu, with its picture-perfect seafront and glorious crescent of sandy beach. Here, the actual fishermen have long since sold up, and you're more likely to find well-heeled families from Barcelona and Girona parking their 4x4s outside tastefully restored shacks and hillside villas, or taking the air along the tidy prom lined with chic cafés and buzzing restaurants. It's all very relaxed and low-key – you'll search in vain for nightclubs or big-name designer boutiques – but rest assured, this is stealth-wealth, Spanish-style.

We rented the very pretty Villa Chez Nous, a few hundred metres from the beach. With its lush, flower-filled garden and private, gated pool, it made the ideal base for a young family to explore the area – and despite the temptation not to move a muscle, we soon found plenty to do. We made our own tracks along the Cami de Ronda to snorkel in secluded coves; we wandered the botanical gardens at Cap Roig, home to a famous jazz festival; we browsed the market in bustling Palamos and bought cheap pottery in the local capital of La Bisbal; we took a boat to explore the Medes islands, Spain's top marine reserve, and even ventured as far as the brilliantly bonkers Dali Museum in Figueres.

We couldn't (of course!) get a table at El Bulli, Ferran Adria's famous restaurant at Cala Montjol, a little further up the coast, but were left in no doubt that the locals take eating very seriously indeed. At one meal in Sant Feliu de Guixols, we sampled 14 kinds of seafood – from fried baby squid and thin slices of salt cod to the Catalan classics arroz negre, "black rice" coloured with cuttlefish ink, and suquet, the local answer to bouillabaisse. And that was just for lunch.

But despite all these diversions, the impression that sticks is of how unspoiled this corner of Catalonia remains. Baix Emporda may be one of the priciest places in Spain to buy property – but it has miraculously escaped the attention of the northern-European hordes who flock to the coast between Blanes and Tossa de Mar. Perhaps it's the spectacular landscape. Perhaps the locals just want to keep it secret. Who knows? But one day Baix Emporda may even give the Costa Brava a good name.

PCI Holidays (0845 130 1440; http://www.pci-holidays.com/) offers a wide choice of villas and apartments in Tamariu and the surrounding seaside resorts. A 7-night stay at Villa Chez Nous costs £514 in May, rising to £1,700 in August. A number of low-cost airlines fly into Girona (40 minutes' drive away), including Ryanair

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