Hinterland HAVENS

20 Jul

Discovering the idyllic charms of Spain

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THERE ARE few more pleasant places to live than on the Costa del Sol, but sometimes you just want to get away from it all for a long weekend. Our trip away on this occasion takes us to Puerto de Santa María, just past Cádiz capital city, with various stopovers along the Tarifa coast.

Once essentially the preserve of wind-surfers, alternative lifestylers and harried Costa del Sol residents seeking a break beside long white-sandy beaches and azure ocean waters, Tarifa has become so popular in recent years that summer reservations at many of the hotels have to be made months in advance.

A comfortable one and a half hour drive from Marbella, Tarifa is the gateway from Spain to Morocco (a 30-minute fast-ferry ride to Tangier) – its old town charm mixed with laidback surfer cool.

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On this latest break, we enjoyed a superb and well-priced lunch (including salmon and mango salad, and a copper pot brimming with arroz marinero, a seafood rice dish) at the La Pescadería restaurant in Paseo de la Alameda (the large plaza beside the main road down to the port).

After lunch it was time to move on to the hotel. In previous years, on our annual Tarifa getaways, we had stayed at 100% Fun. Rather than “Fun” they should probably have named it 100% Chill-out or 100% Relax. There might be fun behind the closed doors of the hotel rooms, discreetly set out amidst stunningly lush trees and gardens, but this is more a place to relax around the pool or on the restaurant terrace. It is the ultimate chill-out haven on a stretch of coastline that put the capital C in Chill-out – at least until a few years ago when the hordes “discovered” Tarifa.

In recent years we have chosen other hotels, partly because 100% Fun is on the wrong side of the road and also because, when the right winds blow, the otherwise inviting beach across the road is packed with hundreds of kite-surfers. But the hotel is ideal for couples wanting a little intimacy and tranquillity.

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On this occasion we decided to stay at Arte Vida Hotel, not far along the main road from Tarifa town. The advantage here, apart from its equally laidback ambience (some say it’s the wind; others, one of the area’s popular consumer products), is that it is – literally (in the accurate sense of the word) – right on the beach. There is a restaurant and a beach bar which attracts other beach-goers, a young, trendy crowd; and guests have their own lounge area overlooking the beach and public area.

Just avoid Sundays. Families tend to have long, languid lunches on this day and, understandably, their children become bored. Allowed to “express” themselves freely while their parents move on to the second bottle of postprandial pacharán, they are prone to creating noisy mayhem in places they shouldn’t be: i.e. the guests’ “private” lounge area.

There are numerous other hotel options in this area, including the adjacent Dos Mares and, a little further along the road, the Hurricane.

When a friend heard I was putting this article together, she exclaimed excitedly, “Oh, but you have to mention horse-riding.” Now, horse-riding is not to everyone’s taste: present company included. On my last, and rare, time out on a horse both of us (the horse and me) became so frustrated at the soporific pace of the excursion – trotting gently through the Mijas hinterland with a guided group – that we clicked our heels (if that’s what one does on a horse) and galloped ahead towards the finishing line. When our group finally caught up with us we were scolded (or I was scolded – the horse escaped reprimand) that this was unacceptable, especially for a beginner. I haven’t been back on a horse since.

But I digress. My friend was right: for those who do enjoy horse-riding, or would like to try it, the Hurricane has its own stables and you can take horses out for rides into the sierras or, in winter, trot along the deserted shoreline all the way to Bolonia. If this coincides with sunset, it is an even more memorable experience.

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Moving down the coast, the children are another breed altogether. Zahara de los Atunes is a favourite holiday destination for the PP sophisticates from Madrid and northern Spain: that is, politicians, leading members and fellow travellers of the conservative Partido Popular party.

This is authentic PP Territory, with the children in matching sailor outfits and patterned pinafores, the men with their jumper sleeves wrapped around their necks, and the women dressed to the nines – and that’s just to go to the beach!

Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. It is true that there is an under-current of schmaltzy chic in the town during the holiday season (even though the locals probably grumble that it’s more like misplaced superiority), but it offers an excellent choice of restaurants, cool lounge bars and clubs for the younger crowd in the evenings (those not still wearing matching sailor outfits and patterned pinafores)… and the Gran Sol hotel. Located right on the beach in the midst of the town, the hotel – on our last visit a couple of years ago – was showing signs of decline from its former era of splendour (and, rather annoyingly, a fire alarm was left to ring most of one of the nights we were there) but the setting is exceptional.

For a slightly more up-market stay away from the madding crowd, the Antonio Hoteles have a four-star establishment about two kilometres out of town on the beach, with a frontline restaurant offering several varieties of the speciality atun de almadraba (tuna).

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Picture postcard golf at Novo Sancti Petri

Next it is on to Sancti Petri, a rapidly developing area just before Cádiz capital city which has numerous top-class hotels and golf courses. Atlantee Golf, an association created with the objective of boosting golf promotion in Cádiz province, brings together 11 courses in a radius of one hour by car, including the first course designed by Severiano Ballesteros in Andalucía, Novo Sancti Petri, a candidate to host the 1997 Ryder Cup, which eventually went to Valderrama.

And finally to Puerto de Santa María, where the stunning Duques de Medinaceli Hotel is not only steeped in history but also an oasis of splendour in the otherwise fairly nondescript town of Puerto de Santa María (though the outlaying suburbs, stretching up to the Bay of Cádiz and Atlantic coastline, include some pleasantly sedate boulevards with elegant villas).

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Duques de Medinaceli Hotel

The town was linked to the Dukes of Medinaceli royal house from 1310 to 1729, with the first Duke, Luis de la Cerda (also first Count of the Great Port of Santa María), a key liaison between Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Monarchs as he planned his “voyage of discovery” to the Americas.

It’s not difficult to imagine the Duke, Columbus and perhaps even Queen Isabel I and King Felipe V strolling through the hotel’s immaculate botanical gardens (today, including some trees hundreds of years old) chatting about the adventurer’s plans.

The oldest part of the hotel itself dates back to the end of the 17th century, while the rest of the building was constructed 100 years later. It was home to several aristocratic families over the centuries, and at one stage was part of the Terry Wine Cellar complex.

The hotel comprises 28 exquisite suites and rooms, elegantly decorated and furnished, while the overall ambience is enhanced by a collection of fine art, rugs and tapestries – including a huge portrait of Queen Isabel II in the Reina Isabel restaurant.

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Duques de Medinaceli Hotel

Puerto de Santa María has – over the years – been famous for its seafood restaurants, though a general decline in the fishing industry has clearly affected the town. Not to worry, however: if most of the town was quiet during our most recent visit (admittedly a Sunday) a stay at the Duques de Medinaceli would not be completely fulfilling without at least one meal in the superb Reina Isabel (also open to non-hotel guests). As befitting a five-star establishment, the service is impeccable and the menu varied and an intriguing mix of traditional and nouveau cuisine.

As the briefest of getaways (just one night) there was little time for sight-seeing, but Jerez is just 12 kilometres away – and also an alternative route for those choosing to return to the Coast inland, with a small detour to the Roman ruins of Medina-Sidonia, and on to Los Barrios and Algeciras, or even via Ronda.


100% Fun

Arte Vida

Gran Sol

Antonio Hoteles

Duques de Medinaceli

La Pescadería restaurant

Atlantee golf association

Novo Sancti Petri Golf Club

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Duques de Medinaceli Hotel


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