Jeannine Williamson leaves behind the ‘chips with everything’ crowd and discovers Benidorm is cleaning up its act
What springs to mind when you think of Benidorm? Chances are that chips, sunburn, bacon and eggs, English bars, a few more chips and maybe the ITV comedy that exploited the stereotypical image of the Costa Blanca resort will feature somewhere in the list.
There's no doubt Benidorm has thousands of admiring fans. It's the number one Spanish destination for Brits seeking sun and sand, attracting 1.5 million a year, and seven out of every 10 visitors return.
But it might come as a surprise to know that its image is being transformed rapidly.
French academic Philippe Duhamel has even suggested Benidorm should become a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the architectural heritage created by its high-rise hotels.
The tourist board is looking to attract more first-time visitors, including golfers and spa seekers. The opening of two five-star hotels has provided the resort with top-end accommodation for the first time, and golf courses and theme parks have expanded the attractions offering.
Even the famous beach is being given a makeover with a sophisticated curving wave-like wall, designed by a Barcelona architect, which will be unveiled this summer.
There are now some more upmarket alternatives to Benidorm's classic offer, so maybe it's time to see the resort in a new light and sell it to a broader range of clients.
Benidorm has some of the best three-star hotels in the Mediterranean according to client surveys carried out by tour operators. One of them, Rio Park, came out top over 800 others.
Meanwhile, Sol Pelicanos Ocas is famous for being used as the location for the Benidorm ITV series. In addition to these classic favourites, there are some cool new bedfellows.
The four-star Agir recently underwent a renovation and is now a sleek, contemporary gem with minimalist Scandinavian-style features.
A 10-minute drive from the beach takes visitors to Benidorm's two five-star properties. The Villaitana has two 18-hole golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus and a recently opened spa. The Barcelo Asia Gardens, opened last summer, is a tranquil eastern-inspired spa retreat with world-class dining.
Eating and drinking
With 389 restaurants (at the last count), 266 cafes, 482 bars and 156 disco pubs, there's never any danger of going thirsty in Benidorm.
It's still easy enough to find chips with everything and all-day British breakfasts in the eateries that line Levante beach and surrounding streets, but there are an increasing number of traditional Spanish tapas bars and chic gourmet restaurants.
Kataria Gastronomica, at the corner of Avda del Mediterraneo and Avda del Europa, stands out for both its futuristic silver interior and its cuisine. At around £32 a head, including wine, appetisers and four imaginative courses, there's not a mushy pea in sight.
As night falls the neon signs light up and the first of many pints are pulled in the many English pubs and bars with names such as the Queen Vic, Beer Barrel and Pheasant Plucker.
But for those who want to paint the town red and enjoy some Spanish culture, the nightly variety show at Benidorm Palace is a real crowd-pleaser and attracts all nationalities and age groups.
The slickly choreographed performance packs in everything from flamenco to tango, acrobatics and a dizzying skating act. Even the touch of nudity, confined to a couple of the feather-clad showgirls, is all in the best possible taste.
The show includes a meal and wine for £40, with free entry for youngsters under 10.
For those who want to stick with classic Benidorm entertainment, Morgan's Tavern - which doubled as the Neptune Bar in ITV's Benidorm - features nightly entertainment including British tribute bands.
Until recently, Benidorm's main attractions centred around the four miles of beaches in Levante, with its 5,000 sunbeds, and its marginally quieter twin, Poniente.
Groomed each evening, the beaches offer safe swimming and water sports with excellent free facilities for the elderly and disabled, who can be wheeled into the sea on special buggies.
Nowadays there's plenty of fun in the sun inland, with four theme parks opening in as many years. Terra Mitica, one of Spain's biggest theme parks, is based around Mediterranean culture, providing youngsters with a subliminal history lesson as they take in the rides and live shows.
There are plenty of creature comforts at nearby Terra Natura, showcasing animals from Central America, India and the Mediterranean, and the marine park Mundomar, which have both been designed with both visitors and animals in mind.
Thomson offers seven nights' half-board in May at the Sol Pelicanos Ocas from £415 per person. The price is based on two sharing a double room and includes flights and transfers. Tel: 0871 230 25558
For clients who like to keep a watch the pennies, Superbreak has seven nights at the four-star Mediterraneo Benidorm in a twin or double room on an all-inclusive basis from £326 per person in May. Tel: 0871 221 28288
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