Beyond Benidorm: Exploring the other side of Costa Blanca

There’s more to this sunny Spanish coastline than high-rises, territorial towels and British bars. Alison Wood hikes in national parks, snorkels in sea-caves and explores the White Coast’s finest medieval villages

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Johnny Vegas and Joan Collins are back with more drama from the Solana resort in ITV’s hit comedy Benidorm (9pm Fridays on ITV), but this 120-mile stretch of Mediterranean coastline in Spain’s Alicante province is less about value package deals and fish and chips than you might think.

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A short drive from Benidorm sit medieval villages teetering on cliff-edges, the arrow-slot streets of Jávea, plus tapas, castles and uncrowded beaches….

Beaches

Although the main resorts can get crowded in the Costa Blanca, a lot of the coastline is wild and rugged, with gorgeous little coves accessed only by foot. If you have kids; check out the terrain before you head off. Our excursion to Granadella, one of the top 10 beaches in the guidebook, was cut short by the fact it was stony, and as any child will tell you; pebbles are neither good for consumption or making sand-castles!

That said, there are advantages to having different types of beach. When we wanted a quick snorkel without getting sandy, we set-up camp on the sandstone plateaus of Jávea – often in the evening when it was cooler. The boulders on Les Rotes, near Denia, provided shade for a sleeping baby, and made great rockpools, which were teeming with fish, and perfect for little kids to splash in.
Snorkelling

Adults will enjoy a thrilling hike down a ravine in Montgó National Park, a wild craggy mountain inhabited since Neolithic times. We planned to snorkel in a cove at the bottom, but imagine our surprise when the path suddenly ran out, 30ft above sea-level. In its place was a thin rope hammered into the cliff-edge. Reaching Cova Tallada was quite a challenge (which most people do by kayak or edging along the cliffs from Denia), but well worth it – the sea life was the best we’d ever seen in the Mediterranean.
The mountains

It’s tempting to spend every day by the beach, but the coast is only a small part of the Costa Blanca’s charm. When the midday sun was unbearable, we’d collapse into our air-conditioned car and drive inland. The area around Jávea quickly becomes rural, and visitors can drive for miles along terraced hillsides and orchards without seeing another car.

At Fonts del Algar there’s a scenic staircase of waterfalls and plunge-pools, where we swam and picnicked in the shade. Just down the road is Dino Land, which is as close as you can get to Jurassic Park – it simultaneously delighted and terrorised our sons as life-size dinosaurs munched on grass and roared at passers-by.

Ten miles away is Guadalest, a precipitous medieval village with a castle and church and one of Spain’s top attractions. Perched on top of a steep cliff, it reminded me of Eyrie in Games of Thrones. Fortunately, there’s no Moon Door or evil queen, but there was a rather meagre wall separating us from the 1,000 foot drop to the turquoise lake below.
Areas of natural beauty

The Spanish are, quite rightly, proud of their outdoor attractions, and publish excellent maps of hiking trails, drives and scenic viewpoints. The wooded ridge of Montgó National Park provides panoramic views of cities Denia and Jávea, and there are several lay-bys to leave your car in and visit a monastery, lighthouse or a row of 11 windmills and cylindrical houses dating back to the 14th century.

Cap de la Nau is a rugged cape, dotted with coves you can only access by boat, and Penyal d’Ifac is another near-vertical outcrop, this time bursting out of the sea at Calpe. You can reach the summit through a tunnel cut into the rock, or don your climbing gear and choose one of several ascents.


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Towns and villages

Walking around the older, ornate towns of the Costa Blanca may give you a stiff neck. We were enchanted, yet baffled by the umbrellas, which hung high above the streets of Gandia (try explaining an art installation to a 3-year-old), while we were mesmerised by the range of architectural styles, from the lavish Baroque apartments of Palau Ducal to the 11th Century Muslim castle of Denia. Old town Jávea was magnificent too – especially the archaeology museum, where the cave paintings, amphoras and ceramics were as impressive as the Old Palace House that displayed them.

Our final destination was Alicante, and it cast a spell on us all that nothing could break – not even a screaming baby. Despite a long day spent walking the ramparts, our boys refused to sleep. Lulled neither by a walk along the marble promenade, nor the choral music outside the Cathedral of San Nicholas, we gave up and went for tapas in the old town. It was the electric cacophony of buskers, church bells and paella-eating crowds that finally got them to sleep.

Region

Costa Blanca, Spain

Airports

Alicante or Valencia. Jávea is just over an hour’s drive from both cities.

TV and films shot here

Benidorm, Place in the Sun

Local food

Alicante is famous for its rice dishes. Arroz negro is black, as it’s cooked in squid ink, and arroz a banda is similar to paella, and made with different kinds of fish. Caldero and Olla are rich stews, the latter cooked in an earthenware pot, particularly in the mountain regions. Orxata is a slightly odd, but sweet-tasting drink of ground-tiger nuts. Those with a sweet tooth should also try the local honey and nut nougat, called Turón. It’s delicious!

Where to stay

We did a summer home-exchange in Jávea with a family from Valencia. The town (known in Valencian as Xàbia) has three distinct areas – the modern beach promenade called the Arenal, the cosmopolitan harbourside, and the medieval old town, where you can get lost within 50m of the main square. It‘s a lovely base for lazy, car-free days on the beach, as well as epic drives to the mountains and beyond. For a larger resort, try Denia to the north, or for quieter and quainter, there’s Moraira to the south. They all have sandy beaches with wooden boardwalks for buggies and wheelchairs.

Getting there

Radio Times arranged the holiday independently through the Home Exchange website. Return flights are available to Valencia with Easyjet for less than £100.


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