Estepona could be the antidote to Spain's coastal tourist-magnets. Meera Dattani finds relaxed, top-end charm on the Costa del Sol
Located in its own microclimate with 325 days of sunshine, Estepona - the Malaga coastline's westernmost resort - has successfully combined tourism with tastefulness on the Costa del Sol.
Backed by the Sierra Bermeja mountains, and 50 miles from Malaga, Estepona is far from popular Costa spots such as Torremolinos and Benalmádena - one reason why it has retained its authentic Spanish town feel.
By choosing to develop upscale apartments and five-star hotels such as the Kempinski, Las Dunas and the Crowne Plaza, Estepona has generally attracted a wealthier clientele, and local property companies are still developing luxury apartments, many overlooking golf courses.
But golfers are not the only happy folk in this region. The resort has 13 miles of coastline and three Blue Flag beaches, including the coves of Playa del Cristo, the town's La Rada beach and the well-known Costa Natura nudist beach in nearby Arroyo Vaquero.
Spa hotels attract those looking to wind down, while boutique hotels and apartments cater for luxury travellers. The mountains offer numerous walking trails.
Estepona's old town is a white-washed affair with cobbled streets, a historic clock tower and the flower-filled Plaza de los Flores. West of town is the Blue Flag marina and its lively Sunday market.
Lesser-known spots in the area include the Roman sulphur baths of Manilva village and the Sierra Bermeja mountain trail from Estepona to the highest peak, Los Reales, at 1,500 metres.
Shoppers will find exclusive stores and an infinity pool at Estepona's beachside Laguna Village complex, while a 15-minute drive away is the shopping haven of Puerto Banus with its yacht-strewn marina (one of 38 in Andalusia).
Next door is Marbella, the 'capital' of the Costa del Sol, with its luxury hotels, high-end restaurants and colourful old town, while foodies will be at home in the Moorish mountain village Benahávis, known locally as the 'dining room of the Costa del Sol'.
Where to stay
Where? Between Marbella and Estepona, 48 miles from Malaga airport
Why? The Spanish hacienda-style Las Dunas is southern Spain's only boutique hotel in which all 88 rooms are suites. Its Serenity Spa has a hammam and treatments use the top-end St Barth and Kanebo product ranges. The hotel's exclusive car rental service offers Mercedes, Porsches and even a Ferrari.
Book it: Junior Garden Suites cost from €470 per night in low season, to €720 in high season. Presidential and Royal Suites start from €4,000. All rates include champagne breakfast.
Tel: +34 952 809400
Where? On Estepona beach, 1.5 miles west of the marina
Why? All 204 rooms and suites have sea views in this five-star beachfront hotel. It also houses the Thalasso Spa, which offers more than 60 treatments and specialises in seawater and seaweed-based treatments. Check out the thermal springs, heated pools, Igloo ice room and the cooler sauna-style Laconium.
Book it: Luxury double rooms cost €175 per night during low season and €295 in high season. The Presidential Suite costs €600 and €1,080 respectively. Rates include buffet breakfast.
Tel: +34 952 809 200
Where? On the New Golden Mile between Estepona and Marbella, 500 metres from the beach
Why? The four-star Selenza has Andalusia's largest thalossotherapy centre and is one of the few to only use fresh, untreated seawater.
There are 35 treatment cabins, a multi-sensory 'Siesta bath' and the Contrast Area in the seawater circuit has a pediluvium (foot bath), hammam, aromatic bath and ice fountain.
Book it: A standard twin/double costs from €95-€304, superior rooms €160 and junior suites €180. Prices include buffet breakfast and one thermal circuit session per person.
Tel: +34 952 899 499
What to do
At Selwo Aventura, Estepona's wildlife park, 2,000 animals roam its 100 hectares in a semi-free state in specially designed natural habitats, easily explored on foot or in all-terrain vehicles. There's even accommodation in its two 'villages', Watu and Massai.
Equally adventurous is the Bahia Water Park in Algeciras with its slides, flumes and water chutes.
Alternatively, the old mountain railway to Ronda provides spectacular views not visible by car and takes in tiny villages with Victorian stations, waterfalls, cork forests and lakes.
Ronda itself is a dramatically located Moorish village, famous for its El Tajo gorge spanned by the 18th-century bridge. Other villages worth visiting are Istán and Ojén.
Heading south, surfers' haven Tarifa offers year-round whale and dolphin-watching. The Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals runs daily excursions.
Gibraltar is also a wildlife hotspot. Most famous for the Barbary apes, Europe's only wild and free-living primates, the upper rock also attracts rare birds and, in spring and autumn, migrating birds, eagles, buzzards and vultures.
The Alameda public gardens house an educational wildlife park, rehabilitating illegally captured wild animals.
Hotel check: Kempinski Hotel, Bahia Estepona
The Kempinski offers high-spec, five-star bliss with its Zen-like spa, lush tropical gardens, three pools and direct beach access. The 147 refurbished rooms and suites each have private balcony, flat-screen TV, wi-fi and marble bathroom.
There's a variation on look-and-feel in the maritime-themed Suite del Mar, while the lavish Imperial Suite comes with outdoor whirlpool bath, putting green, butler, luxury car and private rooftop bar.
Back at ground level, the Eminence Med Spa has 18 treatment rooms including a Rasul Arabian Bath, and parents will appreciate the year-round Kempinini Kids' Club.
Gastronomical highlights include El Mirador's Sunday jazz brunch and chef Jordi Bataller's renowned Alminar restaurant - 70% of ingredients come from the hotel's organic vegetable garden.
Book it: A standard room costs €450 per night, a deluxe €500. Price includes buffet breakfast. Tel: +34 952 809 5008
Thomas Cook offers seven nights' bed and breakfast at the five-star Gran Hotel Elba Estepona and Thalasso Spa from £701 per person including flights, from Gatwick on July 12. Tel: 0871 230 23998
Carrier has a 'six- nights-for-the-price- of-seven' package at the Kempinski Hotel Bahia Estepona from £1,080 per person for bookings made before February 28. Price includes breakfast, private transfers, deluxe room upgrade and return British Airways flights from Gatwick. Tel: 0161 491 7650
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