A QUIET supper in downtown Benidorm? Not exactly. El ambiente estaba electrizado, as they say round here (“the atmosphere is electric”). When Spain and Portugal are slugging it out in a penalty shoot-out it’s hard to hail a waiter for a refill of the excellent local red.
Spain winPretty soon, though, they’ll be cracking open the victory cava and, Viva Espana, we’ll feel glad we didn’t hole up in some pub called The Gallowgate or The Nelson with all the other Brits licking their Euro 2012 wounds. It’s fiesta time in the Ducado and we’re all amigos now.
Already, I’m paying lip service to the myth that most of Benidorm is one big Union Jack-draped ghetto – a vulgar beach Babylon of high rises and full Englishs that is forever Harlow or Heckmondwike.
The stereotypes are joyously confirmed in the hit ITV series named after the resort, which attracts 1.5 million a year from our shores. I’d never seen the show (I have now), on the grounds of “I know what I like”, but it’s always in the background as I step off the plane at Alicante.
Why, the first place that’s pointed out as we complete our 45km transfer is the Sol Pelicanos Hotel, location for the Solana in the series. There’s no obvious sign of Steve Pemberton and the cast/crew but the shops and bars all around are definitely not catering for the locals.
That’s just surface, though. The Ducado serves excellent Spanish food to whoever wants to eat it – and it’s not alone. OK, for research purposes, I did finish a long night dancing badly in the Tropical Sport Bar to video karaoke. Alas, it felt more like the end of a very staid family wedding than a louche fling. Just call me a gooseberry. I could have attended one of the notorious shows featuring a pensioner stripper called Sticky Vicky and her ping pong balls, but that would have been gross.
The Tropical sort of summed up the safe option that is Benidorm – a resort that’s accessible and affordable, with the most perfect climate in Spain and glorious, clean Blue Flag beaches but no surprises, no need to shed all the little comforts of home. But it can be so much more if you seek it out.
Take those beaches. There are two main ones separated by the jutting promontory of the Old Town (with a cute but crowded little strand of its own). The Levante is much the busier with a host of activities. The Cable Ski (http://www.surf.to/cableski) where you water ski without a boat looks a particular adrenalin rush. Sunscreen and sweat writ large, the Levante’s alternative to bagging poolside at your all-inclusive.
The Poniente beach might be a different world. Designer Carlos Ferrater has created a dramatic new seafront promenade that imitates the swirl of the sea. There’s more space to reach the actual waves here. Step back off the boardwalk and there are some terrific seafood restaurants and tapas bars catering for the well-heeled Madrilenos and the like who keep an apartment here to enjoy the annual 300 days of sunshine.
Paella at Barranco PlayaWe chose the Barranco Playa and feasted on paella, the proper vibrant seafood deal washed down with an equally vibrant Alicante white and watched the world go by. Surprisingly little motor traffic helped.
Down this end it’s more low-rise than elsewhere in a resort with Manhattan aspirations, but around the corner is the tallest hotel in Europe, the 52-floor Gran Bali. We took the most scenic of its 18 lifts to the roof and were rewarded with spectacular views across to Benidorm Rock and behind to the 1,400m Puig Campana mountain.
Legend links the two. In ancient times the gentle but fearsome looking giant Roldán was forced to live in isolation with his flocks. He found love with a woman without fear and they lived together until illness struck her. He was told she would die when the sun set behind the mountain. To delay this he demolished a chunk and threw it through the air into the sea, forming a small island. Still night came and she died. Roldán took her body to the island, so that it could be her final resting place. Desolated, he lay in the sea by her and drowned by her side.
There was no sign of Roldán when we later took the Aquascope submarine ride from the island (or L’Illa), but lots of marine life. Taking beer and tapas at the island’s cafe, there was a good view of Puig Campana with its distinctive missing chunk. Return ticket for the combined 15-minute ferry ride and a similar time underwater costs 14 euros for an adult, 11 euros for a junior.
You can pay four times as much for another of the resort’s must-dos – a show at the Benidorm Palace. For that you get the full menu with wine and a three-hour cabaret show in a 1,600 seater venue voted Europe’s best theatre-style nightclub, beating even the Moulin Rouge.
Scene of Danny La Rue’s final performance, it is celebrating its 35th anniversary with a new show, Surreal, inspired by Spanish masters Dali and Bunel. If that sounds a mite highbrow, don’t worry! Carmen, Rat Pack and Thirties glamour all got paid homage. It was lots of jolly fun but by the early hours overstayed its welcome for this particular rock fan.
For dining recommendations without musical accompaniment see the Fact File below.
We stayed in the well-run (hard-pressed lifts apart) 4* Hotel Melia Benidorm, a 10-minute walk from Levante. It’s typical of the resort’s top-end family hotels, but there are boutique options (see below) and, the five-star resort, the Barcelo Asia Gardens, set in serene mountainside gardens 15 minutes away. Asian-themed with appropriate cuisine and a Thai spa, it has just become part of Leading Hotels of the World and is priced accordingly.
If that sounds too sybaritic, it is handy for some great walking trails in the Sierra Helada and Benidorm’s theme parks, which cluster outside the town. Terra Mitica is the pick. This huge park is based on Mediterranean culture and history, from Egypt to Greece, and has lots of activities and white-knuckle rides.
Aqualandia is one of Europe’s largest water parks, with Mundomar marine and animal park next door.
I’m not a lover of rollercoasters or sea lion shows, so I was just happy to wanter around Benidorm’s Old Town. In truth nothing remains of the old fishing village founded in 1325. The ambitions of the town’s mayor during the Franco era to create the modern resort swept much away. But I liked the street of Basque pinchos joints and the view from the belvedere. Alas, San Jaime, the 18th century parish church, was closed for siesta time when I got there.
In a special chapel inside lies a small sculpture found, the story goes, in a boat adrift at sea. This is the Virgin of Saint Suffrage, patron saint of Benidorm. The annual Patron’s Festival starts the second week of November, lasts five fun-filled days and features the re-enactment of the discovery.
Such beloved traditions are celebrated in a series events throughout the calendar. A Spanish heart beats under the surface of big, brash Benidorm.
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