September 25, 2020: Elche to Calp
I woke up in the city of Murcia after a spectacular day there and drove north back towards Alicante. 30 minutes later, I reached the city of Elche, Spain’s 20th largest city.
Elche is known for being the city of palm trees- it has over 250,000 of them. The trees were originally planted by the Moors (Muslims) during the 7th-10th centuries. The palm grove is the only one of its kind in Europe and is one of the largest in the world. In 2000, the palm grove was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Palm trees are all over Elche, but there are two places that are considered the best places to see the trees. One is a private garden called Hor del Cura. For the 5 Euro entry fee, you are transported into a tropical palm-tree filled world. This is one of the prettiest gardens I have ever seen. They even have cacti from the Americas.
The centerpiece of the garden is the Imperial Palm, a 7-stemmed palm tree that is reported to be 170 years old. I have never seen anything like it and was unaware that trees could even look like this.
The second-best spot to see the palm trees is at the public garden, which is free.
The trees make an incredible vibe seen nowhere else in Spain. It reminded me a lot of the main garden in Algiers.
Continuing north, I drove past Alicante (and a few other destinations I will visit later on) to reach Cap de la Nau. This large cape east of Alicante is easily identifiable on a map of Spain.
The coast here consists of sea cliffs that extend 100 meters or so up. From the lighthouse, you can actually see the island of Ibiza, 65 kilometers away.
Just a few steps from the lighthouse is a restaurant with spectacular cliff-top dining. The food was actually pretty good but it didn’t matter because of the view was dynamite!
A few friends recommended I visit some of the nearby “calas” or coves. One of the more popular calas is Cala La Granadella. Due to COVID, this cala was not that crowded and I was able to find parking with relative ease. I went for a beautiful swim in the perfect water.
Next, I drove south to Calpe (or Calp in the Valencian language). Calp is a popular beach town that was recommended by my friend Said (who I traveled with to Valencia). He and his family spends their Augusts in Calp. The town had two sections: an old town where I was staying and a new town full of high rises on the beach. Behind the new town is a humongous 300 meter/1,000 ft tall rock. The rock dwarfs the town. Because of the rock, I got strong Honolulu vibes here in Calp.
The old town was pretty sleepy but was nice. The only tourist attraction there is a tiny archaeology museum. It’s nice to stroll if you’re staying in Calp, but there are far better old cities to visit.
The sun was low in the sky when I finally walked over to the new town. There were hundreds of people strolling along the beach in the perfect weather. We all watched as the sun dramatically set over the ocean. Wow!
I then got dinner at a Punjabi restaurant. While I have had great food on this trip, I was excited to try something other than Spanish food. The service was top-notch, making this one of the best meals of the trip.
Calp seemed like the perfect vacation town. It had the big city beach vibe but is actually small and is near beautiful scenery.
September 26, 2020: Altea, Benidorm, Alicante
I woke up early and reluctantly headed out of Calp. I really liked this town.
About 45 minutes south is the town of Altea. Altea also has a new and old town. Interestingly, all the buildings in both towns were white. The new town was far less developed than Calp. The old town is a narrow maze of alleys. I really loved strolling around the old town.
Twenty minutes west of Altea is…Benidorm. Benidorm is one of the most famous vacation spots in all of Europe but relatively unknown by the rest of the world.
Benidorm is best known for having an absurd number of skyscrapers. In fact, it has more skyscrapers than any city in Spain and has the most skyscrapers per capita of any city. Of the 20 tallest buildings in Spain, 10 are in Benidorm. Despite this, somehow only 58,000 people live in Benidorm.
In the 1950’s, Benidorm was a sleepy town, but the town council had a crazy idea: mass tourism. They partnered with tour companies such as Thomas Cook to fly in tourists from Northern Europe and put them up on the beach as part of packaged tours. The industry exploded and so did the construction. The construction boom never stopped. Some of the tallest buildings in Benidorm were built just a few years ago.
Benidorm is not a huge cultural hub and is not very Spanish. Since 45% of its visitors come from the UK, you are normally more likely to hear English spoken on the street than Spanish. There are more pubs serving fish & chips than tapas bars.
Part of Benidorm’s success is its ability to cater to the entire price spectrum from classy high rise penthouses to super cheap hostel bunks. Despite that, Benidorm has the reputation for being a trashy destination- most likely because it has so many British tourists. While Americans think Brits are classy, in Europe they have quite the opposite reputation: as the rowdiest drunkest tourists around. And in Benidorm, they are at their worst…drinking all night into the morning and then lounging on the beach all day. Ask any Brit you know and odds are they got trashed in Benidorm or know someone who has.
But this wasn’t a normal year and instead Benidorm was full of locals taking advantage of the insane hotel deals meant to keep the industry afloat.
When walking around Benidorm, I kept thinking that I was in the Florida of Europe. The high rises on the beach reminded me of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. The number of older tourists in power chair scooters reminded me of Boca Raton. The trashiness of the people reminded me of Panama City Beach. To top it all off, I saw an American BBQ restaurant adorned with a Confederate Flag – meant to symbolize the General Lee from Dukes of Hazard.
Hidden amongst the skyscrapers sits the old town, which actually has some cute sections. The undisputed highlight of the old town is the Balcon de Mediterraneo (Balcony of the Mediterranean)- a platform extending into the sea with superb views of both of Benidorm’s beaches. The view is just delightful.
Also in the old town is a string of tapas bars. The quality is a far stretch from anything else I’ve had on the trip – especially Murcia city- but nonetheless it is real Spanish food and has a fun environment.
Finally, I headed to Alicante, the Costa Blanca’s largest city. This was where my journey began 3 days ago. I returned my rental car to the train station since the rest of my journey would be done on foot and public transit.
The town center of Alicante is pristine and full of life. Many, but certainly not all, of the stores here are catering to tourists. The city center is known as “The Tapas Zone” in my Lonely Planet book due to the sheer number of restaurants.
Alicante doesn’t have a beach in the town center. Instead, it has a harbor. But the waterfront boardwalk was still quite a bustling spot. They used a brilliant marble, which makes it one of, if not the, top boardwalks in all of Spain. Other top contenders are Sitges, Marbella, and Cadaques.
Unlike the other towns I visited further north, Alicante is a real city and has cultural amenities and history. The first stop was the modern art museum. Not only was the art interesting and local, but it had air conditioning which I really appreciated since it was quite hot outside (28 degrees C).
From there, I climbed up a massive hill to reach the Castillo Santa Barbara. The fortress, which towers over the city, was originally built by the Moors when Alicante was a Muslim city (hint: almost everything in central/southern Spain that starts with the letter A was probably founded by the Moors).
The castle itself was kind of disappointing. Yes, the views are INCREDIBLE, but there isn’t much else besides a couple rooms. You still have to do it, but don’t come expecting to get a history lesson.
If you want to learn about the history of Alicante, there is no better place than the Archaeology Museum. Having been to my fair share of archeology museums (I studied archaeology in college), I can say with confidence that the Alicante archaeology museum is the best in Spain and one of the best in the world (also they follow me on Instagram!). They cover 5 different periods: prehistory, Iberian, Roman, Moorish, and Castillian and the presentation of the artifacts is absolutely incredible. I cannot recommend this place highly enough.
It was now 5pm and all the museums were closed. I had seen everything I had set out to see. The original plan was to stay in a hostel, but I was lucky enough to have a group of IESE friends in town: Riya and Anita from my weekend in Pamplona plus Mayank, Praynka, Rohit and Aashish. They had extra space in their AirBNB, which was just a quick tram ride away.
Somehow they booked a place right on the beach! We swam in the ocean and had a BBQ which lasted until early the next morning.
September 27, 2020: Recovery
As I correctly predicted, we didn’t rally until just about noon.
At that point, we decided to get lunch. We found a Thai restaurant that turned out to be spectacular.
Five of the six in the group had a car and started to head back to Barcelona. Aashish booked the same train back at 5pm so we had a couple hours to kill.
We took the tram into the town center and walked up to the castle again.
Then we walked to the train station.
After 4 days in the Costa Blanca and Murcia, I am convinced that this is a spectacular destination, although not typically what people think of Europe. In fact, I went all 4 days without stepping foot into a single church. The beach towns are beautiful and varied. The beaches themselves are spectacular with perfect sand. There is also enough local culture and natural sights to keep things interesting.
While not my style, I could see couples or families enjoying the Costa Blanca for an entire week without getting bored.
If I had more time, I would have explored the interior which has caves and waterfalls as well as the town of Denia.