It's time for another summer fix of Andalucia, our favourite fiesta- and flamenco-filled chunk of Spain. This most southerly region may be defined by Madrid as an autonomous community, but it can rival many countries in size and in the diversity of its landscapes.
Malaga airport is the holiday hub of Andalucia, in the centre of the swathe of development which fringes and often disfigures the Costa del Sol. Malaga is a city renewed: façades have been cleaned up, streets pedestrianised and its latest cultural big-hitter, the Thyssen Museum (00 34 902 303 131; carmenthyssenmalaga. com; 10am-8pm daily except Monday), is celebrating its first birthday with a great exhibition of landscape art. High spirits will accompany the city's boisterous music-filled Feria, which runs from 13 to 20 August (malagaturismo.com).
Among Andalucia's fertile plains and rugged, forested highlands you'll find continental Spain's highest mountain, Mulhacén (3,478m), and Europe's only desert, near Almería. Despite being Spain's most populous region with more than eight million residents, Andalucia also has the country's highest proportion of protected areas. Then there's the feature that kick-started the Andalucian tourist boom back in the 1960s: 800km of coastline, much of it sandy beach.
The attractive old town of Marbella and the upmarket marina of Puerto Banús are exceptions to the apartment blocks and hotels which characterise the resorts of Torremolinos, Fuengirola and Estepona. A package from Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) including a week's half-board at the beachside Sol Aloha Puerto Hotel in Torremolinos costs from £577 per person, flying from Gatwick on 15 July and including transfers. A week's half board at Marbella's Los Monteros Hotel with easyJet Holidays (0843 104 1000; easyjet.com) leaving Gatwick on 17 July costs £739 (excluding transfers from Málaga airport).
There are less crowded resorts on the Costa de la Luz, the Costa Tropical and Costa de Almería. If you prefer to avoid the beach, look towards the hillside villages of the Alpujarras or the Serranía de Ronda (Gaucín, for instance) where there are holiday homes, often foreign-owned, for rent. Try Owners Direct (020-8827 1998; ownersdirect.co.uk).
The Moorish occupation left its mark on the food, the language and – above all – the architecture. The star turns are the Alcázar fortress in Seville, Granada's Alhambra palace and the Mezquita – Córdoba's former mosque. But there is a host of fortresses and castles built during the 250 years when the frontier between Christian and Moorish Spain was in a state of constant flux.
An interesting way to get a flavour of the whole region is on the Al-Andalus luxury train, which is back this year after a lengthy upgrade. Six days (five nights) in a Belle Epoque carriage, starting from Seville, costs from €2,500 per person, including all food and drink, and guided visits to attractions. UK bookings are managed by Spanish Rail Services (020-3137 4464; spanish-rail.co.uk).
Spain's economic woes have put a brake on many local developments, but Seville's Metropol Parasol, which opened last year, has added a modern attraction to the historic sights of the city. A wooden structure inspired by the shapes of the orange trees that line the city streets, it snakes across the Plaza de la Encarnación, combining the functions of market hall, transport interchange and architectural museum as well as serving as an aerial walkway.
Meanwhile, Seville's most revered luxury hotel, the Alfonso XIII (00 34 954 917 000; hotel-alfonsoxiii-seville.com), has just reopened after extensive refurbishment. Its rates for a double room, excluding breakfast, start at €276.
The climate of Andalucia is a great draw, but the weather patterns vary across the very large region. The warmest place, where you're most likely to catch some of the region's much-vaunted 300 days of sunshine, is Almería. The most sought-after summer commodity, though, tends to be shade and cool – which Grazalema, near Ronda, is most likely to provide.
Seville, comfortably the region's largest city, has in its Alcázar a medley of palace, fort and gardens combining Islamic and Christian architecture (00 34 954 502 323; bit.ly/SevAlca; daily 9.30am-7pm; €8.50). Nearby is the cathedral, pictured, the largest gothic building in the world.
Granada is dominated by the fabulous Alhambra (00 34 93 4923 750; alhambradegranada.org; 8.30am-8pm and 10pm-11.30pm; €13). The hill-top Moorish palace has delicately decorated chambers and courtyards with intricate fountains.
The third great Moorish monument is Córdoba's matchless Mezquita, a huge mosque, with a Christian cathedral, built after the Reconquest, at its heart (00 34 985 225 226; mezquitade cordoba.org; 10am-6pm daily (Sun 9-10.30am and 2-6pm; €8). Just as impressive is Ronda, whose old town is perched on a dramatic crag, and Jerez de la Frontera, which has substantial Moorish monuments in its Alcazaba and Arabic baths, as well as a lively flamenco scene.
Coasts with the most
Andalucia's most attractive beaches belong to the Costa de la Luz, where long, wide swathes of fine sand stretch up the Atlantic coast from Cape Trafalgar to the border with Portugal. Villages such as El Palmar – which thrive in the summer and are virtually deserted in winter – are favoured by surfers and adventurous swimmers. Stay at Hostal Casa Francisco, Playa de El Palmar; high-season B&B doubles are €90 (00 34 956 232 249; casafranciscoeldesiempre.com).
Learn to surf with El Palmar Surf on the corner of Avenida de la Playa and Carril de Guerrero; a set of five small-group sessions costs €125 (00 34 956 232 137; elpalmarsurf.com).
Closer to Portugal, 40km west of Huelva, La Antilla is a small, engaging resort with a promenade lined with palms behind its family friendly blue-flag beach. Stay at the four-star Puerto Antilla in nearby Islantilla. High-season doubles with breakfast for three nights start at €418 (00 34 959 625 100; puertoantilla.com).
Then there's the Costa Tropical, as Granada province has named its coastline. Here, La Herradura is an unremarkable holiday town on a most beautiful bay, but a short walk east is La Calaiza, a cove where the water is clear enough for diving and snorkelling. The Dive Shack at Paseo de Andrés Segovia, La Herradura, offers a "Discover Scuba Diving" taster package, including two dives, for €75 per person (00 34 627 775 441; herradurascubadiving.com).
Sailing, wind- and kite-surfing are all on offer in Andalucia, but aficionados of the latter two should head for breezy Tarifa – continental Europe's most southerly point. Stay at Hotel Hurricane (00 34 956 684 919; hotelhurricane.com), a few kilometres west of town on Carretera Nacional 340 (doubles from €87 including breakfast). The best surfing is towards Cadiz at Caños de Meca and El Palmar.
Alternatively, you can try an activity where sand and water are to be avoided. Golf is huge in Andalucia, with more than 60 vivid green oases in the parched landscape. Your Golf Travel (0800 043 6644; your golftravel.com) has a three-night break at the Almenara hotel in Sotogrande, including B&B and three rounds of golf, for £139 per person (flights not included); from 1 November.
At some emerging resorts such as El Rompido in Huelva, bordering Portugal, a round among the orange trees during the summer costs €100, less if booked online.
Eating and drinking
Fish and seafood are, of course, the essentials of a good Andalucian meal. Pescaito frito, mixed fried fish, is a good staple. Inland Andalucia is also noted for its hams and sausages. Chorizo from villages in the Serranía de Ronda such as Benaojá* and Ibérico ham from Jabugo in Huelva province are highly prized.
This part of Spain is where tapas are reckoned to have originated. Certainly Seville's claim to be the tapas capital is indisputable, with about 4,000 bars to sample. For a post-Alcázar treat, the Bodega Santa Cruz at Rodrigo Caro 1 (00 34 954 213 246) with its distinctive columns, is a welcome oasis, providing dishes such as the excellent spinach with chickpeas for €3.
At the other end of the gastronomic range, ultra-chic Skina in Marbella's old town (00 34 952 765 277; restauranteskina.com) offers a modern twist on traditional Andalucian ingredients; the tasting menu or three-course menu is €79.
Annie B's Spanish Kitchen in Vejer de la Frontera (00 34 620 560 649; anniebspain.com) runs four-night short-break courses in Spanish cookery from €680 per person in hotel accommodation with breakfast, two dinners (with wine) and three lunches. Flights extra.
The major wineries of Jerez all run guided tours. Alternatively, you could try the menú maridaje at the Gallo Azul restaurant, where traditional dishes with a modern twist are paired with sherries (00 34 956 326 148; elgalloazul.es; closed Sun; €40).
Close to nature
During spring and autumn, migrating birds of prey cross the straits of Gibraltar in their thousands. A particularly good and accessible place to see them is from the Mirador de Estrecho on the N340 between Tarifa and Algeciras. The straits are also home to whales, dolphins and orcas. Turmares in Tarifa offers daily two-hour whale-watching boat trips for around €30 per person (00 34 956 680 741; turmares.com)
Andalucia has 24 protected natural parks: see andalucia.com for the best overview in English. They range from rain-free Cabo de Gata, with its snakes and lizards, to mountainous Cazorla, where the dramatic bearded vulture has been re-introduced. The star of the show, though, is the Coto de Doñana, at the mouth of the river Guadalquivir, the habitat of the beautiful and endangered lynx. Access to the park and bird hides is via the reception centre at Acebuche (00 34 959 43 96 29; andalucia.com) near the resort of Matalascañas. You can also book guided tours here.
For walking holidays, outside the hot months of July and August, the Parque Natural de Grazalema, near Ronda, enjoys a network of excellent walking trails. Inntravel (01653 617 002; inntravel.co.uk) has a week's self-guided holiday based at a hotel in Grazalema, including car hire but not flights, from £435 per person. A range of group walks in different parts of the region is on offer from Headwater (0845 869 8287; headwater.com), Ramblers (01707 331133; ramblersholidays.co.uk) and Exodus (0845 287 7536; exodus.co.uk)
Getting there and around
Malaga has far more flights than all the other Andalucian airports put together. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), Thomson (0871 231 4787; thomson.com) and Monarch (08719 40 50 40; flymonarch.com) fly from a wide range of airports, while British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Gatwick and London City.
Almería airport, serving the eastern end of Andalucia (from Birmingham, East Midlands, Gatwick and Manchester) while the western part of the region is served by no fewer than four airports – two of them outside Spanish territory. Choose from Gibraltar, Jerez de la Frontera, Seville and Faro in Portugal.
The high- speed AVE rail service links Madrid with Córdoba and Malaga and, via a separate line, with Seville. It's also worth considering rail travel for inter-city journeys in the region. See renfe.com, or call 00 34 902 240 202.