TRAVEL GUIDE: Andalucia
Every cloud has a silver lining. The ashen one may have dispersed only to be replaced over Spain by a cloak of economic gloom.
And through it can be glimpsed rays of hope for the tourist-trade heartbeat of the Costas — lately a cardiac case, brought on by worldwide recession and crippling exchange rates.
Now suddenly Spain is affordable again.
The pound is commanding its' best rate against the euro in two years. Prices are coming down and great holiday deals abound.
There's even talk of bringing back the peseta. Spain needs the pound in your pocket more than ever and that means its a buyers' market again. Dinner for two with wine for €30 or less, two-for-one meal deals and bargains galore in the best shops.
On our own favourite Costa del Sol, it's as if they've hoisted a giant placard into the sky above Malaga's newly extended airport: ‘We've built it, so please come.'
The airlines have seen it and responded with the cheapest summer fares in years. Combine those with slashed prices for villa and apartment hire, and the Costa del Sol is geared for a big comeback.
Other destinations may be more exotic or trendy, in this year, out the next — but the good old Costa has stood the test of time. Yes, you can bask by the pool or on the beach all day and drink San Miguel by night. But nowhere offers more diversity within two-and-a-half flying hours from Belfast. For me, going 22 years to the coast, Spain in a bubble is the backstreets of Los Boliches, tucked between the haven of Torreblanca and the bright lights of Fuengirola.
Proper old Andalucian shops, bars and restaurants, the most superb being El Bravo, run by a Victor Meldrew lookalike but you'll never have any complaints. Or, reverting to type, watching Premiership football at Legends Bar in Bonanza Square in Benalmadena, stopping off on the way home at the Aberdeen Chinese on Palm Tree Avenue.
For lunch, follow the smell of charcoal burning to the ‘Chiringuitos’, the beachfront restaurants serving up the freshest of fish and seafood dishes, and tuck into a plate of ‘espetos’ (skewered sardines cooked over an open fire) or ‘pescaíto frito’ (fried fish), two of the most characteristic culinary delights on the Costa del Sol.
Life really is a beach here, stretching 160km from the Malaga side of the airport at La Axarquía — home to the romantic cliffs and coves of Maro — through the unspoilt beaches of Nerja, Torrox, Torre del Mar and Rincón de la Victoria to the popular tourist areas of Torremolinos, Benalmadena, Fuengirola, Mijas costa, Marbella and Estepona.
The fashion trail starts there too, at Calle Larios, the commercial heart of Malaga, and ending at the luxurious brand-name boutiques of Marbella. For the kids, there's an assortment of aquatic parks, fun parks and themed parks to rival Disney.
Take your pick from the Selwo wildlife and seaworld, Benalmadena cable car, the adjacent Tivoli fun park and Friday market, Fuengirola Zoo, the Crocodile Park, Torremolinos Aquapark, or the Ascari Formula One resort near Ronda.
The more leisurely minded can saunter the promenade, stretching from Torremolinos to Benalmadena, passing by the magnificent marina, while for those who enjoy a good walk spoiled there are no fewer than 70 golf courses.
The Costa del Sol never sleeps even when the sun has gone down, with discos, beach clubs, casinos, and open air terraces inviting you to party the night away — 24 hour Square in Benalmadena does exactly what it says.