Spain is known for its costas, the sandy strands that attract thousands of visitors seeking sun and sangria every year. But most people tend to head to the big hitters: the Costa del Sol, the Costa Brava and the Costa Blanca.
But of course these are just the bright and brazen names that have made it into international acclaim. Spain, with its more than 3000 miles of coastline, has plenty more shimmering sands, costas that perhaps you’ve never even heard of, and that the Spanish have managed to keep (largely) to themselves. At least until now.
One of Spain’s unsung beachy stretches is the Costa del Azahar, or Orange Blossom Coast. It’s quiet, for now, but from September Ryanair will be flying in from London Stansted and Bristol to the costa’s once-white-elephant airport of Castellon. It was opened in 2011 at a cost of €150 million but has been flightless, save a handful of private planes, ever since.
So just what have the Costa del Azahar’s mainly Spanish visitors been keeping to themselves all this time?
Blissful beach hopping
On the Orange Blossom Coast you can beach hop all the way from Castellon to Vinaros, 50 miles north. Find a crowd in Benicassim? Simply head on north to Oropesa. Packed out in Benicarlo? Peniscola is just a few minutes’ drive away.
Peniscola is top pick for families, with water so shallow even the shortest of adults won’t be up to their knees until they’re a good 20m from shore. You’ll find sandcastles, buried padres and families playing bat and ball along the sands of Playa Norte here. Playa Sur can be slightly quieter, but this isn’t the place for chilling.
Playa del Pebret, in the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Irta is perfect for an escape. Relax among the dunes here and spot sea lilies in the ever-moving sands.
Vinaros also tends to be quieter, and is the best place for a beer with your toes embedded in the golden grains – it has a handful of bars right on the seafront (it’s common along this part of the coast for the road to divide the bars from the sands).
Don’t leave without checking out Playa de las Fuentes in Alcossebre, where freshwater springs bubble up through the sand and will swallow human limbs whole if you step into their ribbons of quicksand. Don’t worry, you’ll see them before they seize you.
Bold claims: the best seafood in Spain
Vinaros has a lofty reputation: it’s argued they have the best langoustines in Spain. This seems like a bold claim until you order lunch at Restaurante Bergantin, where plump, juicy langoustines are served up whole and grilled (a la plancha) with slices of lemon, as well as in any number of paella-style rice dishes. Try the rossejat con espardenyes, which comes with a Mediterranean sea cucumber that melts into the rice, and don’t leave without posing next to the giant langoustine in the square behind the bull ring.
More creative seafood dishes are found on the menu of Casa Jaime in Peniscola, where beach and castle views accompany lunches served on the terrace and as much of the produce as possible is local. The chef here is an ex-fisherman and so he knows his stuff, cooking up galera (mantis shrimp) in croquettes and carpaccio of red prawns with three types of local olive oil.
For cheaper prices and only a slight diminishment in quality head to Benicarlo, where the strip of portside terraces serve up succulent squid, grilled razor clams and fideoa, a paella-type dish made with noodles instead of rice.
Castles in the sand
Forts and castles tend to enjoy lofty positions, but the one in Peniscola affords more beautiful views than most: down over the sandy isthmus that attaches the fortified old town to the coast.
It also offers shady respite from hot summer days, its sturdy stone walls dividing church from great hall, stables from courtyard. Continue up onto the roof where smooth marble stretches off towards brilliant blue sea or sky in all directions.
Look out to sea and see if you can spot the volcanic Columbretes Islands, a semi circle of inhabited islets some 30 miles offshore. As you make your way back to beach level, stroll through the lush castle gardens and your nose will tell you why this coast deserves its name.