It’s exotic yet only a three-hour flight away, the beaches are long, and the living is easy – just try not to tell anyone else about Tarifa
Watching the sparrows weaving in and out of the long fronds of hanging vines, in front of the open-air pool and the steps in the rocks that lead down to the beach at the Hotel Hurricane, it was almost impossible to imagine that we were just down the coast from tacky holiday heaven on the Costa del Sol.
In the mornings, the mist obscures the Kif Mountains of Morocco, but by the time the famous Levante wind blows it away, you can see the jagged triangles of burnt umber 14km away across the straits of Gibraltar. And in the afternoon, lazy strolls round the old town uncover jewellery shops selling Berber treats, French-inspired interiors shops, tapas bars and outdoor cafés where mint tea shares the menu with sangria. It doesn’t feel like Spain. It feels like a hidden hippy enclave, where Arabic, French, Spanish and English mingle in the warm air. Bring a book, watercolours or a great camera and watch as your stress melts away.
The small town of Tarifa, at the southernmost tip of Spain, is one of the country’s best kept secrets. For years it was known more for problems with immigrants from Morocco trying to swim into the EU across the dangerous straits, but that negative coverage has all served as a bit of a diversion from its multicultural, bohemian hideaway potential. To experience it at its best, go between September and June; July and August finds the town teeming with sun-seekers and the sea boiling with kite surfers.
Lazy days apart, there’s plenty for kids and active adults to do: not least learning to kite surf. The town is known for its wind, and its sandy beaches, which have made it the European hotspot for kite surfing. Hotel Dos Mares (00 34 956 684 035; www.dosmareshotel.com) has a kite surf school about halfway along the beach from the town. Training sessions start at €90 for two hours. If you’re more into turf than surf, the hotel also has stables and you can go riding along the sand on an Andalucían horse and live out your best soft-focus 80s film fantasies. And the beach slopes gently into the sea, so it’s good for swimming too.
Taking the ferry to Tangier in Morocco makes a good day trip, too. The FRS ferry (00 34 956 681 830; www.frs.es), takes 35 minutes and costs €37 each way, which you’ll easily save back on your shopping. Once there, hit the kasbah and haggle your heart out for carpets, lamps and jewellery to take home, and relax with a cup of sweet mint tea.
Cocktail bars pulse with neon lights in the summer, but outside the season, there’s plenty to choose from food-wise. Fresh fish is on the menu everywhere, and the old town has plenty of small tapas bars with local specials to try. La Pescadería (00 34 956 627 078), on Paseo de la Alameda, has a reputation for serving the best seafood in town, as well as tapas. Or, for Moroccan-inspired food, try Souk (00 34 956 627 065), in the new town at Calle Mar Tirreno 46, for great value tagines and pigeon pastries.
Where to stay
Hotel Hurricane, a short taxi ride along the beach from the town, is a Moorish-style boutique hotel, with a private path to the beach, a secluded swimming pool surrounded by subtropical gardens, hibiscus and bougainvillea, and simple rooms with white linen and dark wood furniture.
The shabby chic La Sacristia, a 300-year-old Moorish tavern in the old town’s narrow streets, is decorated with silk lanterns, driftwood and Moroccan ironwork.
Tarifa is equidistant from Málaga and Gibraltar airports; easyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies to both. Taxis from the airport to Tarifa cost €25-€50. Alternatively, Avis (0844 581 0147; www.avis.co.uk) has branches at both Gibraltar and Málaga airports.
Four-day surf and saddle breaks in Tarifa can be arranged with The Riding Company (020 7917 9880; www.theridingcompany.com).