I felt slightly out of place while flying from Dublin to Alicante. I was one of the few passengers not sporting a pair of bunny ears and sloganed t-shirt. The flight had a festive feel with a 30th birthday party, three stags and three hen parties on board. Their antics were amusing to me, but I had sympathy for the flight attendants, who looked like their patience was being tried.
Most of the passengers were heading to Benidorm, Spain's Mecca of cheap package holidays. But I headed just 20km north, to the sleepier resort of Calpe, which is situated in-between Alicante and Valencia on the Costa Blanca. This coastline is one of Europe's most heavily visited. Every summer tourists flock there for its good beaches, nearly-guaranteed sun and vibrant social life.
Even though Calpe is so close to Benidorm, it markets itself very differently. Calpe has more upmarket resorts and most of its hotels have four or five stars. The town's skyline is dominated by Peñón de Ifach, a giant limestone outcrop emerging from the sea and linked to the shore by rock debris. It divides the town with two large bays sprawled either side of it. To the south is Playa Arenal, with the old town backing it, and to the north is Playa Levante, the more recently developed tourist area.
Playa Levante has a fine stretch of golden sand and a promenade dotted with restaurants, ice-cream parlours and shops. I stayed in the four-star Hotel de Ifach, which is a few minutes' walk from the beach. Its comfortable, clean, spacious rooms and good leisure facilities make it ideal for families.
There is no shortage of water-based activities; paddle boards, kayaks, snorkels and windsurfs are all available for hire. The Real Club Nautico de Calpe offers great activities for all levels. Experienced sailors can rent a sailing boat and groups of at least two people can hire a skippered boat for just €15 per hour. I took to the sea in a small sailing boat called a Tom 28. The wind was light and we had a leisurely sail around the Peñón de Ifach, which put in perspective the sheer size of this magnificent rock.
Also situated in Club Nautico de Calpe is the Italian-owned dive company Dive & Dive. This part of Costa Blanca is known for its flourishing marine life due to the currents from the deeper sea and the outflow of organic material from the rivers. I dived the site at the base of the Peñón de Ifach called Los Arcos. The name comes from the large boulders that have fallen from the rock, forming a stunning maze of arches. Many of the rocks are encrusted with sponges and anemones and tucked in the crevices were octopus and moray eels. Schools of sea bream, wrasse and damselfish are easy to spot.
Considering that I'd sailed around the Peñón de Ifach and explored the waters at its base, I almost felt obliged to walk to the top. It takes under two hours round trip to reach its 332-metre peak. It's a protected area with a well-trodden but strenuous trail. After walking through the dark tunnel the seaward side snakes around gentle slopes before a steeper section towards the top. The expansive view at its peak is stunning and takes in the Calpe, Benidorm and their boarding mountains.
A day trip to the mountains is a must when staying in Calpe. After driving just a few minutes out of town the high-rise concrete hotels give way to lush valleys of orange and lemon groves.
There are plenty of marked walking treks for the active and the Middle Ages hillside town of Castell de Guadalest is worth spending a few hours in. This small, attractive tourist village stands on the top of a rocky pinnacle which was built during the Moors' occupation of Spain. Its quaint square has alfresco eateries and the narrow cobbled streets have an unusually large number of museums. Worth a visit is the Museo Antonio Marco, where its proprietor has made a fantastic selection of Spanish architectural scale models and doll houses.
Close by is the Algar Waterfall. Here the Algar River flows downwards and transforms into waterfalls and pools, which are used for swimming. Its banks are well-maintained and there are swimming areas with diving boards and lifeguards on duty during the summer.
On my way back from the mountains to Calpe curiosity got the better of me and I took a detour via Benidorm. I wanted to see why it's one of Spain's most maligned resorts. Yes, it is full of high rise buildings, loud sunburnt visitors and loud tacky bars, but I was surprised to find it has maintained some of its dignity. Several of its streets have a distinctly Spanish feel and I came across one decorated in flowers for a traditional celebration of children's communions.
Other areas had a common sight in Spanish localities; older men and women spending hours sitting on street benches and chatting about the events of the day. It's a place that is too easy to be snobbish about but not that bad. Dare I say that I quite liked it?
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