When the nights draw in, the Costa Brava may not seem the obvious place for a break, but believe me it still has an awful lot to offer
Ever since I realised that the Costa Brava is much more than a series of high rise hotels, I have set out to discover its year-round charms. I love to go there in summer to swim in its hidden coves, but a short break out of season can be just as rewarding. The only trouble I have is in choosing which of my two favourite Catalonian hotels to stay in.
Open all year
There's nothing more depressing than a seaside resort that has closed down for the winter. Even if you find a hotel, it is often surrounded by boarded up bars and restaurants. That is why I love to stay at the Parador de Aiguablava (Platja Aiguablava, Begur; 00 34 972622162). This beautiful, modern hotel is not only open year round, but it is a place where you would be happy to spend the whole day, come rain or shine. The interior spaces are so elegant. A large central fireplace in the bar area would cheer the coldest of winter days, and you can get light meals here as an alternative to the main restaurant. Every bedroom is designed with a balcony and sea view. On an earlier visit we could watch the sun rise over the open sea. This time our room faced west towards Fornells Harbour, with the sea washing against the rocks below us. Standard rooms start at 148 euro, plus 17 euro for breakfast. Parador de Aiguablava offer excellent special deals for young and old, but be sure to book early, as they are not always available.
We chose to visit in early November, hoping to catch a last swim in the clear emerald waters. Alas, although the sun still shone, recent winds had cooled the sea, and we had to resort to the hotel's sauna. There were compensations however. In June we struggled to explore the tiny coves, almost overcome by the heat. Now we could spend hours following the coastal path (cami de ronda) around pine covered cliffs, dropping down into sandy coves, tiny fishing ports, or larger bays like those of Tamariu, Llafranc and Calella di Palafrugell.
I recommend a drive to El Far de San Sebastian, a lighthouse near Llafranc, for stunning views over the whole area.
The red cliffs of Cap Roig, famous for their botanical gardens, are an impressive sight. We chose to approach the gardens via the cami de ronda, setting off from Calella. They were first planted in 1927 by a Russian colonel and his English wife and are a labour of love in a glorious coastal setting. Entry costs six euro, but I guarantee you won't begrudge it. In early November we saw bougainvilleas flowering in pinks and reds, contrasting with the tall orange flowers of "lion's tail". I can imagine how splendid the gardens will look in spring and summer, and hope to return. A music festival is held here in summer, and sculptures are on display all year round.
Jardins de Cap Roig, Calella de Palafrugell; 0034972614582; wwwcaproig.cat
In Calella, restaurant staff were setting out tables in the sun. A number of restaurants here offer fresh fish, and a sea view. We particularly like Restaurant Tony's, where you can almost wiggle your toes in the sand, and the food is simple but expertly cooked.
Restaurant Tony's, C. de Les Voltes, 917210 Calella de Palafrugell; 0034 972 614 127.
Not far inland you can discover pretty villages built of reddish golden stone. Monells has an impressive arcade around a cobbled square. At Peratallada there is a medieval castle. We ate very well here at L'Arc Vell (Placa Castell, Peratallada; 0034 972634080). Many restaurants in Spain offer an all inclusive menu. We enjoyed a three course meal, including paella, a fine cava, coffee and mineral water for 25 euro each - excellent value and quality for a tourist location.
The town of La Bisbal is a cornucopia of bric-a-brac shops and outlets for local, brightly coloured ceramics. If, like me, you fall in love with a giant bowl, it can always be shipped.
An alternative winter choice
My second favourite spot on the Costa Brava is Cadaques. Made famous by the surrealist painter Dali, this town has a year round buzz that I really love.
Hotel Rocamar (Dr Baromeus, Cadaques; 0034 97258150) stands on a headland above the town. It is the kind of family owned hotel that refuses to lose its individual identity, and I love it. It has a truly Spanish feel. Its highly polished terracotta floors reflect the hotel's antique furniture, leather sofas and ceramics. What's more, even if it is too cold for tennis or the outdoor pool, the heated indoor pool and two saunas are freely available.
Make sure you opt for a sea view room (from 109 Euro, including breakfast). It is magical to sit on the balcony on a mild winter night, and watch the stars coming out over the murmuring ocean.
A large part of the fun of Cadaques comes from enjoying the cafés, bars and restaurants around the bay, and in the small cobbled streets behind.
We always eat at Casa Nun (Placa Port Dixos, Cadaques; 0034972258856) which offers a wide choice and a good set menu at 17 euro including a bottle of excellent house wine. If it is warm, try and get a table outside overlooking the bay.
And of course, no visit would be complete without visiting the home of Dali and his muse Gala just around the headland in Portlligat. This very special museum is open all year round. Entry is 10 euro. Advance booking is essential - we were once turned away. Tel: 0034 972251015
So how do I resolve my hotel dilemma? Obviously next time I shall just have to spend a couple of days at each.