Travel: How to get the best out of Malaga: Adios to the stuffed donkeys: With the 'highway of death' bypassed, Malaga's older charm is being exposed. David Hewson goes exploring

THESE days Malaga boasts a spanking new white marble airport, all people-movers and duty-frees as befits one of the Mediterranean's busiest destinations. Thirty years ago there was just a little airstrip and the terminal was a handsome villa.

The coastline around Malaga exemplifies package tourism. Charter flights offer cheap seats all year round and car hire is readily available and inexpensive. But the Costa del Sol's real attraction is its proximity to some of the greatest sights in Spain. A new motorway system puts Seville, Granada and Cordoba within a few hours' drive. Beyond these familiar tourist haunts are mountain villages and old towns that have been quite ignored by the stuffed donkey revolution on the coast.

If you must have the buzz of the city, stay in Malaga, a colourful, bustling town that the Spanish regard as one of the country's most fashionable.

Unspoilt coast: That's easy. There isn't any. There is precious little shoreline uncovered by bricks and mortar for miles either side of Malaga. The international resorts run to the west towards Gibraltar. Most parts are unremarkable. Marbella still has a fine old quarter and is distinctly more upmarket than the rest. The original fishing village of Torremolinos, the Carihuela, is surprisingly interesting, with a reasonable beach and some excellent self-catering accommodation. East, in Granada province, the best bet is the little, mostly Spanish resort of Almunecar, one of the oldest towns in Andalucia. It is unpretentious, well-situated for investigating the mountains of the Alpujarras, and some of the nearby coastline is still much as nature intended.

Malaga itself used to be a distinct black spot, largely because the main N340 'highway of death' ran straight through it. The motorway bypass has worked wonders, revealing a charming old quarter and a city bursting with life, much of it late-night. There are plenty of sights, too, and the excellent local shops, much cheaper than those on the tourist coast, make it a good place for a weekend break. The Arab and Roman relics in the old quarter are being restored and there are excellent walks to the Gibralfaro castle overlooking the city. Picasso was born in Malaga. His house is now a small museum, and several original works can be seen in the city gallery.

The fashionable barrio around the cathedral is a handsome spot for elegant cafes, tapas and people-watching. Do not miss the main central market in Atarazanas. The displays of local food and fish are astonishing; the ornate stone facade is the original entrance to the Arab dockyards. The daytime play area is La Malagueta, to the east, with a good, if busy, beach and scores of interesting tapas bars and restaurants behind.

In the rural inland to the east of Malaga lie the little mountain villages of the Alpujarras, where Gerald Brenan lived and wrote. There is a touch of arty rural tourism about the area, but it is still worth a visit, though do not expect too much of the hotels and restaurants. The drive from Motril, through the mountains, to Granada is superb - you can easily hop off into the main Alpujarras towns of Lanjaron and Orgiva.

Much less well known to the north is Antequera and the mountain region of Torcal. Antequera is pre-tourism Spain, with limited hotel and restaurant facilities but some wonderful old streets and monuments. It is also amazingly cheap - 150 pesetas (85p) for a beer and a plate of tapas, compared with twice that in Malaga. Torcal is a small, rather lunar, mountain range with good views of the coast as far as Malaga. Two handsome old towns on the way to Granada, Loja and Archidona, are also worth a trip if you plan to visit the Alhambra.

Places to avoid: The eastern half of Torremolinos, near to Malaga, is characterless and grubby. Beware the geographical definition of Marbella - tour companies often apply this to motel-style developments that may be up to 15 miles from town, on the boring coastal strip. The little beach resorts just east of Malaga are very Spanish, nothing much to look at and hardly conducive to a good night's sleep, but fine if you are an insomniac in search of genuine local life. Nerja, farther east, was once a handsome little coastal town but has now been thoroughly ruined by the worst excesses of the tourist boom; drive straight on to Almunecar.

Accommodation: A decent hotel room in Spain will cost at least pounds 30 a night for two, but if you are staying for a week ask for a reduction. Hotel space is limited in Malaga and invariably full for events such as Holy Week and the August Feria. Parador de Gibralfaro, Apdo de Correos 274 (010 34 52 221902). State-run parador with only 12 rooms on the summit of the Gibralfaro hill. Lovely views, excellent local restaurant, but advance booking is essential. From pounds 50. Hotel Los Naranjos, Paseo de Sancha 35 (010 34 52 224317, fax 225975). Very comfortable small hotel in the residential eastern district, a 10-minute walk from the city centre. Some traffic noise in rooms at the front. From pounds 40. El Nogal, Juan Sebastian Elcano 62 (010 34 52 295558). Simple hostel accommodation in the east of town, from pounds 20. In the Carihuela, the Tropicana (010 34 52 386600, fax 380568), is a comfortable, privately run hotel with rooms from pounds 35 per night. In Almunecar, try the little Goya hostel, from around pounds 25, near the seafront (010 34 52 630550).

Self-catering accommodation can be excellent and good value, from as little as pounds 100 a week for a studio apartment, particularly if you take the risk and book it on the spot. Talk to local travel or estate agents when you arrive. If you must book in advance, ask the advice of the Costa del Sol Tourist office in Malaga (010 34 52 228 8354, fax 228 6042).

Transport: Trains from Malaga can take you down the coast to Fuengirola or north, to Cordoba and on to Seville. Buses also link Granada and Cadiz with central Malaga. A car is essential if you want to explore the countryside. Shop around the small ads for a good pre-booked deal. Car hire touts are always at the airport, but some of the cars are distinctly old. Local car hire rates vary with demand. If you arrive without a car, the cheapest place to hire one is in the tourist haunts of Torremolinos - pounds 80 to pounds 120 a week should get you a standard Seat Panda.

Getting there: Shopping around will sometimes get you last-minute air tickets to Malaga for as little as pounds 50, though you will probably travel at an unearthly hour. . Viva, a subsidiary of Iberia (071-437 5622), runs a daily scheduled service from Gatwick with prices starting at pounds 159. Avro (061-489 2989), Unijet (0444 458 181) and Falcon (061 745 7000) also offer flights.

Money: It is easy to change

sterling almost anywhere, and British credit cards and cash cards can also be used to get money out of most Spanish cash machines.

Information: I still receive fan mail about my book Granada and Eastern Andalucia (Merehurst, 1990), and since it is now out of print I can recommend it with an unsullied conscience. It is readily available through public libraries, however.

Alternatively, load up with all the tourist bumph you can find from the Spanish Tourist Office, 57-58 St James's Street, London SW1A 1LD (071-499 0901).

(Photograph omitted)