THE BEST RESORTS IN SPAIN

A Spanish seaside holiday does not have to be overpackaged and overcrowded. Jill Crawshaw selects some lesser-known places for freer spirits

It has the cheapest sunshine in the brochures and, to package holidaymakers, is often more familiar than Blackpool or Brighton. Its snob rating may be on a par with bingo halls and fish and chips, but the Spanish coast can still be one of the best holiday destinations in the world, if you know where to go ...

Calella de Palafrugell

Yes, the Costa Brava may have some of Europe's most grossly over-crowded resorts at its southern end, but don't write it off. There is also a rugged and indented stretch (the word brava was used by seafaring Catalans to mean "craggy") between Calella and Sa Riera that has been protected from mass tourism by the freaks of geography - the steep cliffs and corkscrew bends that are uneconomic for skyscraper hotels and a nightmare for tourist coaches.

Behind the coast, Catalonia is rich in treats - medieval hilltop villages such as Pals and Peratallada, the ceramic-producing town of La Bisbal and Dal's jokey Teatro-Museo at Figueras (the most visited museum in Spain after Madrid's Prado). All are easily accessible from the resorts.

Never to be confused with the characterless Calella de la Costa further south, Calella de Palafrugell is the ultimate fishing-village resort, with seven small sandy beaches, some of which you share with fishermen, and all protected by rocky outcrops from which small boys dare to jump and dive. At the back of the beach, with cars kept in their place, there's a jumble of pastel and whitewashed restaurants and bars, arcades and shops with a few small boutiques in the alleys behind. There are even a couple of small pleasant "package" hotels, with the rest of the accommodation in simple apartments and houses, modest in price.

There are a few low-key family attractions nearby - a small go-kart track and crazy golf, plus a waterpark at Playa D'Aro. Save Sundays for the town of Palafrugell three miles inland, when a large market fills the town centre.

The Travel Club of Upminster offers a half-board week at the Hotel Sant Roc from pounds 534-pounds 644 per person, an extra week costing from pounds 204-pounds 288. Return flights and transfer/car hire are included.

Llafranc

The panoramic coastal walk round the headland from Calella leads you on to an excellent wide crescent beach (which gets crowded in August) with a marina of swanky yachts at its northern end. Less obviously pretty and more like a chic little French Riviera resort than Calella or Tamariu, Llafranc attracts a smart Spanish and cosmopolitan crowd, who patronise its first-class but sometimes pricey restaurants, bars and hotels (Dal favoured Hotel Llafranc) on the tree-lined promenade.

Their teenage designer-labelled offspring mingle under the trees, eye the talent on the beach, and discuss where they'll meet up later. There are a couple of discos in Palafrugell and a jazz club on the road to it.

Spanish Harbour Holidays offers a week's b&b at the Hotel Llafranc from pounds 175-pounds 255 per person. Flights are extra and cost from pounds 130 return to Barcelona or Gerona. Car hire costs about pounds 125-pounds 200 per week.

Tamariu

For a simple beach holiday with young children, Tamariu would be my top choice, particularly if I could rent one of the fairly basic apartments overlooking the wide traffic-free seafront. Protected by headland, the small soft-sand beach shelves gently into shallow waters, safe enough for the unsteadiest of toddlers - the waters are equally inviting for divers, and the resort has its own diving shop.

Every now and then, the aroma of freshly baked bread leads you to the patisserie, and the thought of a vino blanco at a waterfront cafe (which will happily serve plates of chips for your children) may lure you from the beach, but Tamariu is for relaxation not action. The town is liveliest on Saturday evenings in July and August, when locals and visitors gather and often join in the Sardanas, the traditional Catalan folk dancing on the seafront.

Spanish Harbour Holidays offers La Dominech apartments on the seafront. An apartment sleeping four costs a total of between pounds 260 and pounds 650 a week, not including flights, but these and car hire can be arranged.

Aiguablava

There's a long-established love affair between Aiguablava and the middle- class British holidaymaker, not only because of its thoroughbred looks, but also because of the sprawling family-run hotel of the same name - which miraculously manages to combine high standards of service, food and surroundings with a genuine welcome for children.

Let me say immediately that the resort itself would not normally rank high on the family list; its glorious translucent blue waters are a scramble through the deep green pines and pink rocks to get down to from wherever you are staying, and you'll have to set off early to find a parking space if you take your car in high summer. So make a day of it, take a picnic or settle down for a long lazy lunch at the grilled-sardine and fish restaurants on the beach - it won't be such a hardship.

And if you want to find somewhere even smaller for your Costa Brava sojourn next year, get out your map and pinpoint Sa Riera, Sa Tuna or Aigua Gelida.

Spanish Harbour Holidays offers a week's full-board at the Hotel Aigua Blava from pounds 405 to pounds 535 per person. Flights and car hire are not included, but can be arranged - see Llafranc.

Cadaques

It's as well that trendy Cadaques is the most inaccessible resort on the coast, reached only by a long twisting road through cork oaks and bare hills, since in summer its visitors outnumber the locals by about 10 to one. Few of those who invade the picture-postcard whitewashed village, with its steep alleys and brightly painted fishing boats, do so for its beaches, which are small and pebbly; most are still lured by the magic of the late Salvador Dal who spent his own family holidays here, and lived out much of his later life around the corner in Port Lligat. Not surprisingly, Dal and his wealthy pilgrims, including Picasso, Walt Disney, even Mick Jagger, have created quite a cottage industry. The Perrott-Moore museum is probably the best of the museums - the collection, assembled by Dal's former secretary, includes fan mail from celebrity disciples.

If you want to pick up a modern masterpiece, browse round the dozen or so galleries and craft shops around the town, where everything, alas - boutiques, restaurants, jazz cafes (there's a lively night scene in the summer) - comes with an expensive price tag. Yes, it is the haunt of poseurs and phoneys, many of them from just across the border, but Cadaques definitely is worth the visit.

The small family hotels, hostels and pensions get heavily booked in July and August - get there early in the morning if you go on spec. There are regular bus services several times a day from Gerona (90 minutes) and Barcelona (150 minutes). For flights and car hire, see Llafranc.

Sitges

Costa Dorada

A sophisticated blend of holiday resort, historic old town and artists' colony, Sitges is best known for attracting a lively and cosmopolitan crowd, but there's plenty for everyone here.

Families flock to its golden beaches, which are brought to a full stop by the church and its headland. Excellent seafront restaurants lure day- trippers from Barcelona in their thousands, as does a host of jazz, tango and film festivals - any excuse will do - throughout the summer. Night- owls throng the numerous bars and clubs of the narrow Carrer 1er de Maig in the centre.

Culture? Bags of that too, starting with the Utrillos, El Grecos and Picassos in the Museo Cau Ferrat, the former studio of the 19th-century artist Santiago Rusinol, and ending of course with Barcelona, 30 minutes away by train.

For families, Port Aventura, one of Europe's more entertaining theme parks, is an hour away, also by train.

Mundi Color offers one week's b&b in Sitges from pounds 465 to pounds 551 per person, depending on the hotel and the season, two weeks from pounds 660 to pounds 699, including return flights.

Nerja

Costa del Sol

The nearest yet to a full-blown mass holiday resort, Nerja still maintains the precarious balance between the demands of tourism and those of the local community. Maybe it has avoided being swamped because its beaches are nothing special - reasonable in size but grey, pebbly and crowded. In truth, the shoreline here is better seen than experienced, preferably from the Balcn de Europa, the unusual clifftop palm-lined promenade where everyone meets everyone else sooner or later.

Those who discovered Nerja 10 years ago, on the run from the rest of the Costa del Sol, constantly grumble that the resort is ruined, but there's still an authentic Spanish feel away from the jumble of stalls and restaurants in its whitewashed winding back streets.

Two must-do trips out of town: to the Cuevas de Nerja, three miles away, with their paleolithic paintings and reputedly the world's largest stalactite; and five miles up north, to the little white village of Frigiliana where the Moors made another of their last stands.

Thomson Holidays offers various hotels and apartments in Nerja. A b&b week at the Plaza Cavana, a town-centre hotel with rooftop pool, costs from pounds 385 to pounds 469 per person, two weeks from pounds 549 to pounds 669, including return flights and transfers.

Tarifa

Costa de la Luz

Don Quixote would have had a field day tilting at the thousands of unromantic modern windmills (an EU experiment) that litter the hillside on the way into Tarifa - and give away the secret of the laid-back little town's new-found popularity among windsurfers; the variable winds that blow over the best beaches in Spain.

Yet nothing could be further in character from the glitz of the neighbouring Costa del Sol. The walled old town with its enchanting maze of streets looks far too dignified to be called anything as frivolous as a tourist resort - though it was the first Spanish city in AD711 to "welcome" the Moors from Africa. The magnificently preserved walls and ramparts date from 906AD, and it was in one of the towers that the Spanish commander, Guzmn El Bueno, besieged by the Moors in 1294, was told that his son's throat would be cut if he didn't surrender the town. Guides will show you with pride the window where Guzmn made his contemptuous reply - he threw down his dagger to the Moors.

Tarifa thrives on an independent clientele, who either stay in a choice of often quirky and well-restored 'hostals' in the old town, or if they're windsurfers, head for the campsites and small hotels strung out along the coast road between Tarifa and Punta Paloma. Big windsurfing competitions keep them very busy in July and August.

Return flights to Gibraltar cost from about pounds 165; then there are regular buses from La Linea to Algeciras, Jerez, Seville and even Malaga.

Sanlcar de Barrameda

The shellfish dishes that emerge from the bowels of Sanlcar's thronged waterfront eateries are works of art, but Spanish senoras and senoritas, in their elegant finery, tear apart the lobsters, crabs and other crustaceans with the ferocity of hungry raptors. Menus list chipirones, calamares and cangrejos with not a word in English - they reckon there's no need.

Sanlcar is as Spanish as the manzanilla, the distinctive sherry produced in the area and sold in the big bodegas around town. Astonishingly, the place is ignored by most British tour operators despite a splendid wide sandy beach which runs for miles along the banks of the river Guadalquivir.

This cracking little resort has an illustrious history - where excursion boats now make heavy weather of the current on trips to the Donana National Park across the estuary, galleons and caravels were once anchored abreast before they sailed on voyages of discovery. Columbus left for his third voyage to the Caribbean in 1498; Magellan left from there in 1519, never to return.

An old fishing quarter, busy market, the wine cellars and palaces provide interest in the town itself, and Sanlcar's festivals, including the horse races along the beach, are alone worth the journey.

For independent travellers only. There's a reasonable amount of moderately priced accommodation, and there are daily buses from Cadiz, Jerez and Seville. Return flights to Seville from the UK now cost about pounds 195, although nearer to the date of departure it should be possible to get cheaper flights.

TOUR OPERATORS

Individual Travellers Spain (tel: 08700 780187)

Inntravel

(tel: 01653 628811)

Magic of Spain

(tel: 0990 462442)

Mundi Color

(tel: 0171 828 6021)

Spanish Harbour Holidays (tel: 0117-986 0777)

Thomas Cook

(tel: 0870 5666222)

Thomson Holidays

(tel: 0990 502555)

Travel Club of Upminster

(tel: 01708 225000)

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