Benidorm gets a bad press - often from people who've never even been. But take the time to visit this Costa Blanca classic and you could be pleasantly surprised...
A million Spanish and five hundred thousand Brits can’t be wrong, can they? That’s the number of tourists Benidorm receives, domestic and UK, each year. The vast majority are repeat visitors who come back time and again. But like most people I had never been tempted to holiday in this classic Spanish Costa resort. I’d heard about its boozy-Brits-abroad reputation, seen pictures of its high-rise hotels, and believed that its beach was man-made.
It certainly wasn’t my dream destination, but it was where I was to be sent on my very first travel feature assignment. I have to admit I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect but, of course, went with the open mind of an objective journalist. I was met at the airport by the director of tourism, Maria-Jose Montiel. It soon became apparent she loved her town - warts and all - and that she wasn’t going to give me the hard sell.
‘Things got off to a bad start,’ she admitted, ‘when a journalist reported that our beaches were man-made. But they aren’t. Look,’ she said, showing me a black-and-white picture of Benidorm in the 1950s, a fishing village bordered by agricultural land and with the most glorious beach. The two huge bays of sand – the Poniente and the Levante beaches - were clearly god-given and not an import.
But Benidorm’s less-than-enticing reputation has proved difficult to shift, even though in recent years successive mayors have ensured millions be spent on tasteful makeovers. As we drove to the resort from Alicante airport - which is serviced by budget flights from across the UK - we passed a landscape of mountains, before reaching the broad, palm-lined boulevards that announce Benidorm. They are studded with roundabouts of grand art installations depicting the elements of fire, earth, water and air, with mist, fountains and abstract twists of metal.
The hotels have had facelifts and refurbs, too, in recent years - and your three-star here can often match a four-star in other resorts. That doesn’t disguise the fact they started life looking like tower blocks, but even that madness had method in it, according to Maria Jose. ‘It was carefully planned so that nearly all hotels have a sea view, not just the front line properties.’
I was staying at the Hotel Benidorm Plaza (doubles from £70), which has a touch of Gaudi about it and is perfectly placed for exploring the resort and just a stone’s throw from the two beaches that are Benidorm’s heart and soul. They stretch for over 5km, divided by a rocky promontory. Levante beach is a hive of activity, busy with package holiday-makers, and Poniente is the laidback, peaceful alternative favoured by the Spanish.
That evening I turned left out of the hotel, as Maria Jose had instructed, and soon found myself wandering through the cobbled streets of the old town, past the boutiques of independent Barcelona designers, then through the crowds of Madrid city slickers down for the weekend. They were spilling out from the tapas bars around Calle de los Vinos, all crisp shirts and clean-shaven or short dresses and high heels. The smell of chorizo merged with a nostril,tingling haze of liberally-applied perfume and cologne.
I found Maria Jose in the wine bar she had recommended, La Ñ Tapas del Mundo. She asked the waiter to bring us whatever was being prepared at that moment in the kitchen. And he matched the dish of crisp salad with melting goats’ cheese with a local wine. This was repeated three times over to perfection. Whatever Benidorm’s reputation, I was certainly getting a taste of Spain.
Benidormenses, as the locals are known, are proud of their heritage and hold festivals throughout the year to celebrate, from the huge Moors and Christians carnival-style parade in October to the colourful Easter fiesta and the jamborees of Fallas and Hogueras, which herald the spring equinox and summer solstice. They’re all free to watch and the costumes, garlands of flowers and musical accompaniments are nothing short of spectacular. More free cultural events - from jazz to flamenco - abound at the outdoor arenas at the Parque de L’Aiguera and Malpas Beach.
The next day, I turned right out of my hotel instead of left and found quite a different scene - amusement arcades, greasy spoon cafes (selling fry-ups from £3) and pubs with pints of lager at just £1. It was like the seaside resorts of my childhood holidays: Blackpool, Southend and Yarmouth. The bars entice with comedians, impersonators, magicians, cabaret singers, school-disco nights and Seventies parties. Plus free entry and cheap booze.
Maria Jose, I think, hoped I wouldn’t find this area. ‘We Spanish call it "La Zona Giri", the English Quarter,’ she told me later. You could consider it a blot on the landscape, or what makes Benidorm so special - you can have a proper working-class knees up one night, for very little outlay, and submerge yourself in sophisticated Spanish nightlife the next.
If you want to be close to the British end of town, the Sol Melia Benidorm is a commendable four-star (doubles from £60). Or there’s the funky Hotel Belroy (doubles from £99 per night), which is also home to perhaps the best modern Spanish restaurant in town, Kataría Gastronómica.
Despite my initial reluctance to even visit, I have now become a big fan of Benidorm and often hop over for a cheap long weekend of sun. I’ve even visited the five theme parks, including Terra Mittica, with its white-knuckle rides, and Mundomar, with its dolphin shows. I’ve tried cable skiing just off the prom, lunched on divine paella at the beachfront La Cuina de Ponent, played golf at the undulating Don Cayo course in nearby Altea, and had many a pleasant hike in the mountains that form a horse-shoe around the town.
The Costa Blanca’s Benidorm: I tried it once and I loved it - maybe you will too...