The Complete Guide To Active Spain

There's more to Spain than the bars and beaches of the Costa del Sol and the Balearics. Harriet O'Brien explores the Iberian Peninsula and finds a wealth of activities to get the pulse racing, from walking tours in Andalucia to kite-surfing on the Atlantic coast
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The Independent Travel

ACTIVE SPAIN - THAT'LL BE GOLF AND WATER SPORTS, RIGHT?

ACTIVE SPAIN - THAT'LL BE GOLF AND WATER SPORTS, RIGHT?

Well, not exclusively. Stretching across 500,000 sq km, this great chunk of the Iberian Peninsula has opportunities for outdoor activities and adventures almost as varied as its landscape. The country boasts the green wilds of Galicia; the ancient forests of Asturias; the remote plains, hills and valleys of unspoilt Extremadura; and of course the waters of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The most dramatic scenery comprises the mountain ranges of the Pyrenees and the Sierra Cantabrica (including the rugged Picos de Europa) in the north and the Sierra Nevada in Andalucia to the south.

CAN I CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN?

Perhaps not all of them: there are some serious rock faces and peaks here. The highest Pyrenean mountain is Aneto, at 3,404m,but this is pipped by Mulhacen in the Sierra Nevada, which hits 3,478m. So unless you're an experienced mountaineer or rock climber it's best to seek expert guidance. Specialists such as Highpoint (01768 486 731; www.mountainguides.co.uk) and Compass West (01736 871 447; www.compasswest.co.uk) offer rock climbing courses in Spain.

Several adventure holiday companies offer fairly demanding guided mountain treks. They include Explore Worldwide (01252 760 025; www.exploreworldwide.com), Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk) and KE Adventure (01768 773966; www.keadventure.com). The latter has a new, six-night trip this year to the Sierra Nevada, with four days' trekking to take in glacial lakes, sinuous ridges and ascents up Picon de Jerez, La Buitrera (the "Vulture's Nest") and Mulhacen. Three nights are spent under canvas. Backpacking is kept to a minimum: guests help to carry equipment and two days' food, with a supply stop en route. The August departure costs £595 per person including transfers in Spain, three nights' accommodation in hotels, meals on trek, the use of camping equipment and guide fees. Travellers are expected to arrange flights separately; the most convenient gateway is Malaga, served from airports all over the UK.

CAN'T I JUST TAKE A LONG WALK?

Several of Spain's national parks encompass swathes of its mountainous regions and provide marked hiking trails. Some of these include the gran recorrido (or GR) long-distance paths, which in theory have been devised so that backpackers can sleep at village B&Bs or refugios (trekkers' hostels). The GR routes are based on the grande randonnée principles, long established in France, but south of the border they are not so assiduously marked. Indeed, The Independent's travel editor says he routinely gets lost while trying to follow the GR11 along the Pyrenees.

SOUNDS A BIT DAUNTING

Many gentler parts of Spain can be explored on foot - the pueblos blancos (white villages) of Andalucia, the vineyards of Rioja or the hills of the island of Mallorca, for example. There are plenty of sybaritic options for doing so. Several specialist walking firms offer the comfort of hotels and the convenience of luggage transport by either road or animal. Among them is Walk Europe (01572 821 330; www.walkeurope.com), which has devised three eight-day itineraries of 90km each. One, through rural Extremadura, includes a walk from Caceres to the 14th-century walled town of Cuidad Rodrigo, accompanied by pack animals. The early autumn price of £1,440 per person includes return flights from London to Madrid, transfers and accommodation in farmhouse inns, manor house hotels and one of the country's historic paradors.

Headwater (01606 720 099; www.headwater.com), meanwhile, provides cycling and walking holidays in Catalonia, the Picos de Europa, Mallorca and the beautiful Canary Island of La Gomera. New for 2004 is a gentle trip for individual travellers, who hike through a much-neglected corner of Alpujarras in Andalucia. Much of the eight-day trail is along caminos reales - ancient pathways still used for mule traffic that pass through a landscape characterised by olive groves, vineyards and lavender-coated hills. Accommodation is in family-run hotels, where two-night stays are arranged to allow for rest between energetic walks. Departures take place from September to November and the price, between £899 and £748 per person, includes flights from Gatwick to Malaga, transfers and half-board accommodation.

Aragon, Catalonia, Rioja and the Canary Islands are included in the walking holidays offered by ATG Oxford (01865 315 612; www.atg-oxford.co.uk). But perhaps best of all is the company's trip along the famous Camino de Santiago. This is the ancient pilgrimage trail to the shrine of St James, patron saint of Spain, in Galicia's granite city of Santiago de Compostela. The entire path winds some 900km from France to Santiago, with a number of sublime and historic churches and monuments en route. To take in as much as possible of this epic trail, ATG's 15-day trip in September is both on foot and by road, with accommodation in a mix of luxury hotels and atmospheric inns. Accommodation, transport, meals and guidance are included in the price of £2,997. Flights are extra - the company recommends flying to Bilbao and back from Santiago.

ARE THERE DANGEROUS BEASTS EN ROUTE?

Brown bears, boars and wolves hide out in some of Spain's forests and mountains, but you'd be lucky (or not) to see them. Generally, Spain's wildlife is fairly benign - and glorious. In coastal and rural areas, Spain is rich in birds, from storks, hoopoes and bee-eaters to waders, waterfowl and eagles.

Between February and June, Naturetek (01962 733 051; www.naturetrek.co.uk) organises butterfly and birdwatching trips in the Pyrenees, the Picos de Europa and Extremadura. Wildwings (01179 658 333; www.wildwings.co.uk) regularly arranges holidays in three good destinations for birds: Extremadura in early spring; the Pyrenees later in spring; and Andalucia in September. The latter trip, based at a small and quiet hotel near the coastal town of Tarifa, is especially popular. The holiday, suitable for both experienced bird-watchers and beginners, offers the sight of great raptors - booted eagles, honey buzzards, Montagu's harriers and the like - riding the thermals on their migratory route to Africa. Visitors are taken on day trips to bird hot spots. The 2005 price, from £1,100 for a week, includes flights to and from Malaga, transfers, half-board accommodation and ornithological guidance. For more details of Spain's birds, and related trips to the central and southern parts of the country, go to www.spainbirds.com.

WHAT ABOUT A BIT MORE DASH AND ACTION?

The back roads of northern Spain are increasingly dotted with Lycra-clad visitors during the spring, late summer and autumn. Cycling holidays have become particularly popular in this region - and many travel companies now cater for this market. Inntravel (01653 629 000; www.inntravel.co.uk), for instance, offers an eight-day, independent travellers' trip around Catalonia during September and October. Visitors cycle on quiet lanes across the Emporda Plain, passing through olive groves, farmland and bird-filled wetlands while their luggage is transported to the small inns and hotels where they are booked for the night. Flights to and from Barcelona, B&B accommodation, maps and use of bikes are included in the price of £788.

Also in Catalonia, Explore Worldwide (01252 760 025; www.exploreworldwide.com) takes small groups on an eight-day biking trip from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean. The route is through the dramatic Volcano Parque Natural to the ancient walled city of Girona and on to the old port of San Feliu de Guixols. The cost, from £575 in October, covers flights to Barcelona, rail transport, bike hire, B&B accommodation in small hotels and hostels, and guidance. Land-only prices are available for those who arrange their own flights.

HOW CAN I GET RIGHT OFF THE BEATEN TRACK?

Follow the cowboys - literally. In addition to its landscape, Spain's riding traditions make many parts of the country especially suitable for horseback holidays. The specialist operator Ride Worldwide (01837 82544; www.rideworldwide.co.uk) offers trips in the Gredos mountains west of Madrid, and in the wilder reaches of Extremadura. An eight-day holiday in Extremadura takes you across red-soil plains and through moorland valleys, following cattle tracks made by the annual movement of herds being driven from winter to summer grazing land. Trips in October and November cost from £1,095, including all riding, a week's accommodation in haciendas and country manor houses, and all meals with wine. Flights are arranged separately; the most convenient gateway is Madrid.

Other equestrian experts include In The Saddle (01299 272 997; www.inthesaddle.com). The company provides holidays where day rides are made from a hotel, and also trail trips acrossthe Sierra Nevada, Alpujarras and Contraviesa mountain ranges. The autumn Contraviesa Ride, for example, costs from £905 inclusive of all riding, accommodation in village inns, meals and transfers. Flights to Malaga are extra.

WHAT ABOUT THOSE WATER SPORTS?

The Mediterranean resorts along the Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca and Costa Brava offer practically every seaside activity imaginable. Divers tend to make for the marine reserve around the Iles Medes near Girona in Catalonia and the sparkling Cap Creus further north. Trendy Tarifa, on the most southerly tip of mainland Spain, is a haven for windsurfers - international championships and world fly-surfing competitions are regularly held here. Meanwhile, north coast beaches around Mundaka and Zarautz (between Bilbao and San Sebastian) are gaining credibility as surfing destinations.

Minorcan windsurfing and dinghy sailing holidays (with tuition) are organised by Minorca Sailing (020-8948 2106; www.minorcasailing.co.uk). Neilson (0870 333 3356; www.neilson.co.uk) offers similar breaks at Mar Menor, an inland saltwater lagoon near Alicante. A seven-night holiday here, inclusive of apartment accommodation, flights from Gatwick or Manchester and all sailing, windsurfing, cycling and tuition, costs £709 in high season, £455 in low season, based on two sharing. Courses on kite-surfing are also available.

WHERE CAN I BE ULTRA-ACTIVE?

If you've got a vast amount of energy to burn - or a hyperactive teenager to tire out - an adventure package will probably be the answer. Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk), for example, has an eight-day Picos Adventure offering canyoning, caving, canoeing, gorge walking, rock climbing, and quad- and mountain-biking amid the dramatic scenery of the Picos de Europa. Groups of no more than 16 people stay in a small, family-run hotel in the village of Arenas de Cabrales, close to the high Picos. Accommodation, land transport, most sports, picnic lunches and most evening meals are included in the price of around £510, but flights to Bilbao are extra. At the time of going to press, there was still some availability for trips starting tomorrow, and on 26 September.

Meanwhile, snorkelling, diving, waterskiing, mountain-biking, sea-kayaking and dinghy-sailing are available on the week-long Ultimate Adventure trip from Tall Stories (01932 252 002; www.tallstories.co.uk). The holiday is based at the two-star Santa Anna hotel in the lively L'Estartit in Catalonia, and there are different price structures for three- or five-sport trips. Accommodation, transport and most meals are included. Prices start at £515 for three sports and £585 for five sports. Ryanair flies to nearby Girona (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). The holiday runs until mid September, with availability from the end of August.

AND GOLF?

Spain is being carpeted with golf courses, but the most accessible are in the Costa del Sol, at La Manga further east, and in Catalonia. Dozens of mainstream and specialist operators offer golf holidays. On the Costa del Sol, the specialist Prosolgolf (00 34 686 292 313; www.prosolgolf.com) is a family company run by British expatriates.

La Manga, near Murcia, has three 18-hole championship courses, 1,800 villas and apartments and 20 restaurants. Golf holiday details can be obtained from La Manga Spain Golfing Holidays (0800 093 2792; www.lamangaspain.co.uk), while the UK School of Golf (0845 062 5577; www.ukschoolofgolf.com) specialises in holidays to Catalonia. As well as offering learners' packages, the company recently launched combined golf and city breaks in Barcelona from £341 with flights, car hire, three nights' accommodation and three rounds of golf.

HOW ABOUT WINTER SPORTS?

Spain struggles to be recognised as a serious ski destination, perhaps because tiny Andorra (and its duty-free prices) attracts so many people. The most popular skiing and snowboarding is in the eastern Pyrenees. Skiing is also possible in the Gredos mountains and the Sierra de Gaudarrama near Madrid. In addition, the Sierra Nevada offers resort facilities above Granada.

Of the relatively few British tour operators offering ski trips in Spain, Thomson (0870 606 1470; www.thomson-ski.co.uk) has a ski and snowboard package to the Sierra Nevada resort from £419 per person, including flights from Gatwick to Malaga (Manchester departures are also possible), transfers and a week's half board at the Melia Sol y Nieve hotel.

In the Pyrenees, Pura Aventura (0845 225 5058; www.pura-aventura.com) introduced a new winter sports break in the 2003/2004 season. After flying on Ryanair from Stansted to Pau, you pick up a hire car and drive the 90 minutes to the Teena valley. The lifts and pistes of Formigal are a few kilometres away. The price of £345 covers car rental, three nights in the elegant El Privilegio hotel with breakfast, a full day's skiing, half a day's snow-shoeing and another half day cross-country skiing.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Contact the Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk).

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