WATERSPORTS? ISN'T ANDALUCIA BETTER KNOWN FOR ITS BEACH-LIFE?
It is, but with two-and-a-half million people living along its 800km of sun-bleached coastline, and many millions of visitors every year with money to spend, water-sports of all kinds are hugely popular. There are more than 40 marinas solely for pleasure craft, with many more planned: every tourist office has details of sailing clubs and their hire charges, whether you want an ocean-going ketch for a week, a basic skills course, or a humble dinghy for an afternoon's messing about.
Broadly speaking, the Atlantic coast is low and sandy; the Mediterranean is more rugged, with lots of cliffs and small coves. Where the two meet, around the Straits of Gibraltar, there are prodigious year-round winds, and only experienced yachtsmen should sail any distance off shore.
WHERE ARE YOU MOST LIKELY TO HEAR THE WORDS, "SURF'S UP"?
The stretch of Atlantic coast north of Cadiz has a fine reputation for big waves, especially in December and January. We're talking specialists here, zipped up to the nines in wetsuits. For more pampered members of the human race, there can be exhilarating waves in summer, too, but less often. South of Cadiz, Playa el Parmar has a glorious beach and a suitably laid-back atmosphere for cool dudes with boards. But you won't go far wrong if you head for Playa los Lances, the famously windswept 11km stretch of sand and water immediately north of Tarifa, the most southerly town in Europe, and the spiritual capital of European windsurfing.
Because the wind is high and almost guaranteed, illustrated by the tens of thousands of wind-turbines whirring ceaselessly in the hills overlooking the coast - an eyesore or an ecological necessity, depending on your point of view. In the narrow Straits of Gibraltar, where the Atlantic currents force their way through to the torpid Mediterranean, there are two distinct winds which canny surfers recognise and greet like old friends. The colder, less gusty poniente blows from the ocean; the warmer levante comes from the land and frequently reaches force eight or nine. Just before one gives way to the other (every fortnight, on average, but one can hold sway over the other for weeks on end) the air becomes absolutely still for four hours, the sea resembles a mill-pond, and the surfers stare into space for the afternoon.
Tarifa the town is an engaging place, with forbidding Moorish walls and battlements, a labyrinthine old town, and the enticing prospect of being only 35 minutes from Africa. The street that leads you to the centre, Avenida de Andalucia, could have featured in a Beach Boys song, with its sail shops, board stores and surf bars playing hypnotic videos from morning to night - and beyond, because the groove doesn't get going till 1am.
SO WHERE DO THE SURFERS DO THEIR STUFF?
The agreeably bohemian Hurricane Hotel (00 34 956 684 919; www.hotelhurricane.com) on the main road north of Tarifa, is a famous windsurfing hang-out. The Club Mistral chain (00 34 956 689 098) has a concession at the beach, supplying every piece of gear you'll need to speed across the water. The safe "Zona de Windsurfing" is clearly marked with buoys. A day's hire of equipment costs €52 (£36.50); the same as a two-hour lesson with an instructor. In the last year, there have been signs that the relatively new sport of kitesurfing is overtaking windsurfing in popularity - possibly because the equipment is easier to move from beach to beach. The shortage of qualified instructors is reflected in Club Mistral's charge for a two-hour lesson: at €78 (£54.50) it's 50 per cent more than windsurfing.
DO KITESURFERS HAVE A SEPARATE SCENE?
It's coming to that. Soon the two codes won't be speaking to each other, like snowboarders and skiers on the wintry slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Kitesurfing is - literally - taking off to such a degree that you'll see the colourful kites soaring over the waves at every popular resort, but there are two beaches, 10km to 15km north of Tarifa, that have been colonised by the kities: Dos Mares ("two seas") and Punta Vaqueros. The latter is smaller, but rated more highly, and there is a profusion of hire shops and instructors offering their services in the nearby village of Valdevaqueros. A surfer explained to me why beginners should try to time their lessons to coincide with the poniente, but his technical jargon blew entirely over my head. Valdevaqueros attracts professional kitesurfers from all over the world at all times of the year. Between November and March wetsuits are essential: those summer-balmy winds can turn nasty in the depths of winter. If you're new to the sport and looking for equipment, lessons or advice, the first kite specialist to set up shop in Tarifa - called simply KiteSurfing (Grupo Tingintera 2-A; 00 34 956 681 668; www.kitesurfingtarifa.com) - remains the market leader.
WHAT ABOUT UNDERWATER ACTIVITIES?
The Straits of Gibraltar, which contain a rich diversity of marine life, including several species of whale and dolphin, have imaginatively been designated as an underwater natural park, ensuring that tourist activities both on and in the water don't threaten the fragile eco-system. The Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals (00 34 956 627 008; www.firmm.org) organises tourist excursions out of Tarifa in which some of those on board are actively engaged in scientific research. Whale Watch Espana (00 34 956 627 013) runs similar tours every day, with less science. Book at least one day in advance for a trip that costs around €22 (£15) per head. Sightings of dolphins and pilot whales are commonplace all year round, but on days when they fail to make an appearance, please don't - like the American tourist who recently missed the Loch Ness monster - ask for your money back.
Off Andalucia's east coast, the waters fringing the Cabo de Gata Natural Park, east of Almeria, are exceptionally clear and ideal for scuba diving.
ANYTHING GOING ON AWAY FROM THE COAST?
Seville - the inland capital of a dry province - may seem an unlikely place for watery activities, but the magnificent Guadalquivir, which means "big, wide river", has been dredged and re-routed to maintain the city's historical link with the sea, fully 100km away. Cruise and cargo ships of up to 15,000 tonnes can reach Seville's harbour, and the city has made more of its river since it celebrated Expo 92 by building no fewer than five new bridges across it. Hiring a canoe or kayak and paddling along the western edge of the city centre is a great way of tempering the fierce summer heat, while enjoying some of the city's landmarks, such as the Moorish Torre del Oro on one bank and the attractive frontages of the lively Triana district on the other. TNT (00 34 954 281 382; www.tntaventura.com) hires out two-person craft for two hours at a time, at a cost of €20 (£14). Lifejackets are supplied and must be worn. For the less energetic, passenger cruisers leave every half an hour (between 11am-10pm) from the same quay, which is directly across the road from the Torre del Oro. Standard hour-long excursions cost €12 (£8.40), while day trips into the delta and the wildlife-rich Doñana National Park start at €27 (£19): you leave by cruiser at 9am and return by bus in the evening.
The province of Granada is almost as dry as Seville, but the man-made El Negratin reservoir, north-east of the provincial capital, is the largest body of water in Southern Spain. Here, both sailing, kayaking and windsurfing are popular. The lake is notable for its vivid red canyons and the translucent water.
Exploring the coastal path near the Cape Trafalgar lighthouse, on a lonely, elevated promontory with wonderful views in every direction, I came upon a man stooping over a strange device, mounted on a tripod, pointing out to sea, with a microphone at one end and a digital display at the other. "We're measuring noise levels along the coast," he said, gesturing towards the empty horizon. I thought he was having me on. The only noises to be heard were coming from the gulls, the waves and the wind.
Admittedly, a hang-glider swooped overhead while we talked, abruptly affecting the meter reading. And we could safely assume that the beautiful beaches stretching away to the south - Los Canos de Meca, Bolonia, Punta Vaquero - would be filled to bursting point at the weekend, but this unexpected encounter with a government scientist taught me two things. Firstly, that Andalucia is determined not to let its still-unspoilt Atlantic coast suffer the same over-development that's afflicted parts of the Costa del Sol; secondly, that even in the high season it's not very hard to avoid the hordes.
All the way south along the Costa de la Luz, from Cadiz to Tarifa, one beach merges into another. Between the resorts, there are countless out-of-the-way places that the majority of visitors never see. The trick in locating a virgin stretch of beach is to obtain a decent map and lean heavily on local knowledge. The reward for those who prefer peace to posing is a private strip of white sand that might not bear the imprint of a stranger's footprint from dawn to dusk. One such is Punta Camarinal, south of the Roman ruins at Bolonia - not marked on all maps, tricky to reach, and hence quiet and unspoilt.
Once you "turn the corner" at Tarifa and the Mediterranean takes over, the beaches of the Costa del Sol are inferior in quality, but they're so popular that finding a hidden beach is an impossibility. Only when you reach the relatively undeveloped region of Almeria in the east is seaside solitude feasible again.
Almeria's Cabo de Gata natural park has dozens of stunning horse-shoe beaches, coves and dunes - with one or two of them being reserved for naturists. When I asked which, a local guide put me right: "Outside July and August," he said, "all our beaches are for naturists, because if you're prepared to come this far, you can have them to yourself."
As in life, so in Andalucia - the biggest pearls await those who go the extra mile.Reuse content