Jeannine Williamson takes a look at how the Costa Blanca has blossomed
Big, brash and bawdy – or at least that was Benidorm’s reputation. A destination that developed from the first sun, sand and sangria packages in the 1950s, the British love affair with the Costa Blanca – the ‘white coast’ halfway along Spain’s eastern shoreline – continues today.
With good weather, a wide choice of flights, varied accommodation, reasonable prices and more than 60 miles of sandy beaches, it has lost none of its original appeal, and about 40% of visitors are Brits. And while many of the small fishing villages that spawned the tourism boom are unrecognisable today – most noticeably Benidorm – clients can also discover a very different side to the Costa Blanca.
Rural villas, five-star hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, golf courses and spas are all within easy reach of the airline gateway Alicante. An increase in purse-friendly all-inclusive hotels has also prompted some operators to return to the region.
Patricia Birmingham, Shearings Europe and worldwide holidays manager, says: "The increasing popularity of all-inclusive holidays led Shearings to revive its programme to Benidorm in 2010."
It’s still easy to find all-day British breakfasts and chips with everything, but with about 400 restaurants Benidorm has something to cater for all tastes, and not just as far as food is concerned.
According to client surveys carried out by operators, Benidorm has some of the best three-star hotels in the Med, and they continue to be a great option for families. Thomson sells one of the most famous of them all, Sol Pelicanos/Ocas – the backdrop for the ITV comedy series Benidorm.
But the last decade has also provided the resort with top-end accommodation and attractions, something that may come as a surprise to first-time clients or repeat visitors who haven’t been back for a few years.
A 10-minute drive from the 5,000 sunbeds that line Levante beach in the height of the season brings visitors to a clutch of luxury properties. The Barcelo Asia Gardens & Thai Spa is a tranquil eastern-inspired retreat with top-notch dining. Melia Hotels International has added the nearby Villaitana resort (main picture), consisting of a four and a five-star hotel, to its portfolio. With 25 separate buildings creating the feel of a Mediterranean Village, there are 455 rooms alongside a church, a main square, 12 restaurants and bars, tennis courts, a spa and two 18-hole golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus.
"Benidorm has been a favourite holiday destination for almost 50 years, since holidaymakers first started to arrive, but do people really know what’s on offer – or do they think they know?," says Yolanda Pickett, director of Visit Benidorm. "Benidorm keeps updating itself. We have more four and five-star hotels, and most hotels have been refurbished, so we can be proud of the quality and value for money they provide.
"The newly-built promenade, a spectacular design imitating the waves of the sea, has won numerous awards and we have five theme parks. How many resorts can boast that amount? There are plenty of walking and cycling routes nearby, including the protected nature park of Serra Gelada, and in the Old Town, visitors can try the tapas route and the gastronomy on offer."
A wide range of excursions are available from Benidorm. Culture vultures will be interested in the city of Elche, with its Moorish architecture, while families will want to take the plunge at the Aqualandia water park. Commissionable excursions sold by Attraction World include the spectacular Vegas-style variety show that’s on nightly at the Benidorm Palace, the Terra Mitica theme park, one of the largest in Spain, which takes visitors on a thrilling ride around five ancient civilisations, and a Segway tour through Benidorm’s famous sights and hidden corners.
Away from the big resorts there’s a contrasting side to the Costa Blanca with medieval towns, Moorish villages, orange and olive groves and uncrowded beaches. Suited to couples looking for a quieter holiday and mature clients in search of sun and culture, properties lean towards smaller four-star hotels and villas sold through operators including First Choice and Thomson, and specialists such as Villas4You, which is due to launch to the trade in the next month.
Set against a backdrop of mountains the southern coastline has wide beaches flanked by palm trees with rugged cliffs and hidden coves further north.
Places to stay include the port city of Denia, overlooked by an 11th-century castle, where clients can take a ferry to Ibiza and Majorca. Javea is a small historic town free from high-rise buildings and Moraira is an old fishing town, which has also been sympathetically developed.
David Aledo, promotions executive from the Valencia Region Tourist Board, which covers the Costa Blanca, says: "The Costa Blanca has an ever increasing offer of luxury holidays and visitors can pamper themselves in spas, enjoy exclusive accommodation in old palatial houses or charming country retreats, dinner in Michelin-starred restaurants and shopping in the best boutiques. El Poblet, in Denia, is the only restaurant in the region with two Michelin stars."
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