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Updated November 29, 2020
(Published April 15, 2019)
If you’re looking to escape the tourist trail, the Costa del Sol might not seem an obvious choice. But, despite the fact that this has long been one of Britain’s favourite parts of Spain, inland from the clamouring Costa itself, there’s a hidden hinterland heaving with hazy sierras, cork forests, orchards filled with almond blossom and spectacular gorges.
You’ll also find Moorish towns, unspoilt villages with exceptional tapas, wonderful walking trails and lakes and beaches, with barely a Brit in sight.
The best places, though, are off the beaten track, so you’ll want to hire a car from Malaga airport and turn your Costa del Sol holiday into a mini road trip. Here's where to put on your hit list.
If your idea of beach heaven is a secret seaside away from the heaving resorts, then look no further than the lake at Bermejales, just an hour-and-a-half’s drive northwest of the coastal resort of Motril.
Okay, it’s not technically seaside – it’s lakeside – but with its teal-coloured, bath-warm waters and views of the Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama Sierras hazy in the distance, this is a very blissful place for a family day out.
We’re not talking about a poky little lake, either. Surrounded by cypress and pine woods, this vast man-made reservoir is nearly twice as big as New York’s Central Park, but there’s none of the Big Apple’s hustle and bustle. On the contrary: with no cars or motorbikes allowed around the lake, it’s a great place for lazing away the day sunbathing or picnicking. There’s plenty to keep the kids happy too, with water slides on the edge of the lake and kayaks to rent.
The hilltop town of Ronda has long been entrenched on the ex-pats’ map but if you like the sound of Moorish architecture, breathtaking scenery and fabulous food, the small town of Alhama de Granada is the place to go.
About an hour’s drive north of the coastal resort of Nerja, this lovely old town sits on the edge of the spectacular Tajo Gorge to one side and the olive, almond and wheat-filled Sierras de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama National Park on the other. Admire the views over the gorge at La Seguiriya as you tuck into roast pork with sherry, raisins and noodles.
If you’re feeling active, there are wonderful walking trails though the gorge, or if you fancy a cooling retreat from the heat, you could head for the nearby ancient baths after which the town was named. The Romans first discovered the therapeutic properties of the thermal waters here and the spa baths are still going strong. Book your tickets a day ahead.
Andalusia – and this part of the Costa del Sol in particular, may be brimming with pueblos blancos (whitewashed villages) but if you don’t want to elbow your way past hordes of tourists, head for the lesser-known villages peppered around Ronda.
Cortes de la Frontera, on the edge of the Sierra de Grazalema and Alcornocales National Parks, is one of the prettiest. Here you’ll find several impressive churches with gilt-laden, Baroque interiors or you can just amble through the town’s narrow streets and admire the views down to the Guadiaro Valley below.
The cork forests and lush countryside on the edge of the village are stunning for walking, and there’s even a ruined 13th-century defence tower in which the kids can play hide and seek. Or try Arriate – about an hour’s drive east, on the other side of Ronda – which is another lovely village where you’ll find some of the best tapas bars in the region.
Tucked away on a backstreet in Arriate, the family-run Taberna Manolo (21, Calle Jose Montes) may not look that much from the outside, but don’t be put off. Once inside you’ll find a wonderfully cosy little bar with candlelit tables and the superbly cooked day’s specials chalked up on blackboards.
Tuck into gastronomic local specialities such as melt-in-the-mouth oxtail croquetas, deliciously salty and sweet aubergines with honey or fried cod, and eels with quail’s egg.
If you do want to head to a proper beach and take advantage of the fabulous Costa del Sol sunshine, there are, amazingly enough, still one or two stretches which are relatively unknown.
At the far eastern end of the Costa del Sol, you’ll find El Cañuelo. It’s one of a series of bijoux coves at the base of the Maro cliffs, with stunningly clean, clear water and only a few local villagers and the odd nudist for company.
The gravelly sand may not be the silkiest around, but the beach is brilliant for snorkelling and scuba diving. It’s also slightly off the beaten track, as you might expect. Despite being less than ten miles east of Nerja, you’ll need to park your car on the N340 main road by the clifftop, then either walk or take the small local bus down the track to the beach.
About two hours' drive inland from Malaga, you’ll find a whitewashed village with a difference. In the summer of 2011, Sony Pictures asked the tiny hamlet of Júzcar if they minded having the entire place painted blue as a publicity stunt to launch their film version of The Smurfs.
The residents agreed, and eventually decided to leave the place blue. Every building, from private houses to the Town Hall, church and cemetery are still a vivid Smurf blue, and kids love the outsize murals on many of the walls. The village is also great for food – try the local mushroom specialities at Hotel Bandolero, which is perfect for lunch and also has a kids playground.
Tucked away down a backstreet in Malaga’s old town lies one of the best cocktail bars on the Costa del Sol. But, as Michael Caine would say, not a lot of people know that. The small, contemporary Chloe Bar (Calle Correo Viejo, 9) is a favourite with in-the-know locals who come here for the expertly prepared, and well-priced cocktails.
On top of an extensive cocktail menu, the other thing the bar is famous for is its epic selection of gins, from British classics such as Bombay Sapphire, Beefeater and Hendricks, and Spanish standards like Larios, to a dizzying array of French, German, American and other international brands. They also do good tapas.
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