It’s no mystery that I’m passionate about Andalucía. I sometimes I feel like an unofficial ambassador to be honest, such is my enthusiasm for southern Spain, its nature, cuisine, history, and people. So, when I was invited to contribute to the SUR in English Summer’s Here magazine, I knew I wanted to write about one of my favourite parts of the south - the Costa de la Luz.
This sparkling Atlantic coast of light, that runs all the way from Huelva’s Río Guadiana down to the evocative port town of Tarifa on Cadiz’s spectacular coast is home to many of Spain’s best beaches. That’s why the Costa de la Luz is my go-to place to chill and unwind. A place of wild nature, virgin beaches and a laid-back surfer vibe that makes me feel younger and freer.
So here I want to share a few secrets of this Atlantic shoreline that runs along Cadiz province, so you too can create unforgettable holiday memories.
If you don’t have a car you’ll need to rent one to explore this windswept yet magical coast. The seaside roads meander through laidback villages and small tuna fishing ports. Water sport aficionados love the area, as the wind is channelled by the proximity of the African and European continents, making it perfect for kite surfing. Look out across the water from Tarifa towards Morocco and the horizon is often cluttered with colourful kites of surfers who leap up into the air. Unsurprisingly it’s been christened ‘Cadizfornia’, a hip, cool yet open and friendly place for lovers of the outdoors. Maybe choose a vintage campervan or rugged 4x4 for your Coast of Light road trip. After all, you’ll be immersed in splendid isolation among remote nature, from dense Atlantic and Mediterranean pine forests, to sweeping beaches of massive slow-moving dunes and crashing waves.
My first piece of advice is to take your time, allow for diversions, stops and unexpected discoveries. This is the wild west of Andalucia. Don’t expect the typical Spanish coastal sprawl; no, this is a special place where you can change the pace of your holiday. So, take it easy. Browse the surf shacks near Tarifa; enjoy a cold beer on the weatherworn deck of a beach bar; climb the sweeping sand dunes and be intoxicated by the freshness of the pine and sea-scented air.
I’m going to let you into a secret - Los Caños de Meca. This small beach community is a favourite with Spaniards. Once you pass the Strait of Gibraltar and reach the Atlantic coast of Andalucía, you will not want to leave.
So, if you’re looking for an authentic place to stay, then Hotel Madreselva is it. In summer, the village of Los Caños de Meca pulsates with life, a vibrant community of locals and visitors who are drawn to the ocean and beaches. Madreselva will be your calming oasis.
The hotel is an intimate place. Built in a hacienda style, the comfortable rooms are found around a central, scented courtyard patio filled with Mediterranean and sub-tropical plants. Each guest room has a small private furnished terrace, and a simple en suite bathroom with shower and tub, and amenities made with organic citrus essential oils.
Although you’ll probably head straight to the beaches just across the street, there is also a private pool in a walled patio if you want to find a more private place to sunbathe.
When it comes to beaches you can take you pick; family, nudist, gay - it’s an open and inclusive culture in Los Caños de Meca - capturing the timeless appeal of an Andalusian summer.
Hotel Madreselva is managed by the friendly people who created La Casa de La Califa, on the central plaza of the charming, nearby hilltop town of Vejer de la Frontera. You’ll be made to feel welcome and at home.
If you’re enjoying a road trip along the coast, you’ll appreciate the free, off-road hotel parking too; and if you love the sundowners at the local beach terrace bars, don’t worry if you get back late, as there’s 24-hour reception.
Cadiz province has emerged as a culinary destination, thanks to the exceptional quality of local produce from the sea and land. Although far from being the richest part of Andalucía, this region has a wealth of fish, seafood, beef, and produce - and wines of course, including Vinos de Jerez, or sherry, as they are better known. Enjoy a chilled Manzanilla sherry wine with a tapa of fresh Atlantic prawns and believe me, your notion of sherry will be changed for ever.
Little wonder the Costa de la Luz has been the secret of success for chefs here. Aponiente, in El Puerto de Santa María, is Ángel León’s remarkable three-Michelin-star restaurant which showcases his unique Cuisine of the Sea.
Also, in nearby Jerez de la Frontera, Juan Luis Fernández, or JuanLu, has created his Lú, Cocina y Alma restaurant which has been recognised with a Michelin star, for his creative fusion of French and Andalusian cuisine.
More than any ingredient, it is probably the wild red tuna of the Costa de la Luz that defines the gastronomy here. Caught during the almadraba season, using sustainable techniques that date back to the Phoenicians, these magnificent animals inspire remarkably creative dishes. The port town of Barbate is where most the of tuna are landed and it is here one finds El Campero restaurant. Depending on your mood, and your budget, you can choose to dine on an exquisite tasting menu in the formal dining room, or head to the bar and try some of the creative tapas of the day.
This is where I shall share another secret with you. For something completely new, then head to Chiclana de la Frontera. This unpretentious, historic seaside town over looks magnificent beaches. It’s home to one of the coast’s newest restaurants, El Cuartel del Mar, boasting a spectacular setting beside an ancient lookout tower, on the vast Playa de la Barrosa.
Here hip urban style converges with the simplicity and authenticity of the Costa del la Luz. It’s the most unforgettable place to eat. Design, art, music, and cuisine collide to create a modern interpretation of the Cadiz beach lifestyle. A once-abandoned Civil Guard HQ has been reimagined as a super-stylish ocean view restaurant where Chef Manuel Berganza and his colleague Chef Mikel Badiola bring renowned international expertise and creativity to Andalucía’s Atlantic shores.
To make the most of the setting, I recommend starting your meal with a cocktail in the patio. Mixologist Luca Anastasio creates original and beautiful drinks - many of which can be prepared as low alcohol drinks if you want something light and refreshing.
At El Cuartel del Mar, the ocean is of course the inspiration, and the local produce the protagonists in the restaurant’s menu. Expect exquisite fish and seafood, including the local wild red tuna, wonderful rice dishes with local white shrimps and also the scarlet Atlantic carabineros prawns. Cadiz also has excellent fruit and vegetables like plump tomatoes and artichokes which feature in many dishes. Try the tasty ‘tortillitas de camarones’ (shrimp fritters) for a quick snack as you read the menu, or a place of gourmet cured ham. If you are not tempted by the fish, then there are the finest beef steaks from Scotland and Spain, prepared on the wood-burning grill.
The curated wine list inevitably includes vinos de Jerez. Let the wine waiter guide you to discover some superb, dry white sherries that perfectly complement the dishes. If you love discovering new things, then try one of the local Chiclana wines.
It’s not just the beaches and the food that will make you fall in love with this corner of Spain. Here are protected natural parks of pine forest and mountains too. It’s a joy to explore. For a real insider perspective, my secret is to hike with a local guide. Carlos Miburn has established Explore La Tierra, a private tour and hiking company. A speciality is nature hikes; Carlos shares insights into the rich biodiversity of the region. As you walk trails that hug the coast and explore the woodlands, you learn the secrets of the Mediterranean and Atlantic pine forests, including the edible and medicinal plants that can be found and their traditional uses. What’s more, you’ll enjoy an unforgettable time out in the great outdoors.
So, here’s to you discovering some of your very own secrets of the Costa de la Luz - a place of authenticity; fab beaches; genuine hospitality; splendid cuisine; and calming nature.