Romantically obscured by a misty haze, the coastline looked gorgeous. The rocky outcrops could have been mistaken for a desert island floating somewhere in the Atlantic; the beaches, free from sun-lounger congestion and plump reddening bellies, looked expansive and spotlessly clean; and the high-rise hotels, a distant metropolis of pencil-like blocks, could easily have been mistaken for the glittering cityscape of Dubai... It didn´t feel like we were just a stone´s throw from Spain´s largest – and perhaps most infamous – holiday resort.
However, driving past Benidorm at close quarters was enough to quash any glamorous comparisons. Boasting the most high-rise buildings per capita, the majority monotonously drab and dated, it is a sizeable eyesore on the coastline: certainly more seaside-council-estate than skyscraper-capital. Seen in winter, it has a slightly apocalyptic feel, as if the town has been ravaged by some kind of zombie takeover and left deserted. Even so, this desolate resort somehow survives: the region seems to oscillate between retirement-ville and package-holiday hell. The warm winters and easy living make it a year-round haven for retired expats, while sun, sand and cheesy entertainments (decidedly more steak-and-ale-pie than tapas) make it a hotspot for sun-seeking holidaymakers. As such, it has weathered Spain’s economic gloom thus far. But how long can it hang on?
Fortunately for the Costa Blanca, another genre of tourism seems to have taken hold. The Altea Hills, less than an hours drive from the coastline, are mecca for climbers, walkers and adventure enthusiasts. I recently spent a fair amount of time suspended some 20m high in the heart of these hills. Clipped to the rock with a caribiner and a loop of webbing, I was able to enjoy panoramic views of the landscape. As I had no means (or inclination) to go anywhere until I had the ok from the climbers above, due to the paraphernalia that goes with organising 120m worth of rope, I ended up dangling for an hour or more. Though my legs were soon tingling from lack of sensation, it was a small sacrifice for fresh mountain air and December sunshine. Gazing across swathes of pine forests and craggy cliffs that stretched as far as the eye could see, it felt like I was a million miles from big, brash and brawdy Benidorm.
Though many dismiss the region as bland and built-up, there are pockets that have escaped the package holiday explosion: after a few days of mountain-based action followed by BBQs back at the villa (all served with fresh veg and scarily cheap cava from a local supermarket), I couldn’t have felt further from the characterless hotel multiplexes.
I suppose the flip-side is that, even when you do find those small havens of natural beauty, if ever you venture into town, you will have more chance of finding a Burger King or full-English than an authentic tapas bar.