Costa de la Luz: It’s Spain but not as we know it

This region has everything for a great summer sun holiday, without the cacophony of tourist voices

Many years ago when my dad was working in Spain, Mum and I went on a road trip to explore the undiscovered Costa Brava. After a fun time getting picturesquely lost, we decided it was time for coffee and a pee. In an era before satnavs and Google Maps took all the adventure out of ill-planned car journeys, we quickly realised we would have preferred things to have been a little more — how should I put it? — discovered.

Going off the beaten track is all very well if you’re prepped to rough it, but there is a sweet spot between overrun with hotel blocks, and the kind of coffee shops you half expect a local version of Clint Eastwood to walk into, amid mutterings of “We don’t like strangers in these parts”. Anyway, discovery was on my mind when I went with Travel Department to explore the Costa de la Luz.

Just under an hour from Faro, this stretch of the Atlantic Andalucian coast is popular with Spanish and Portuguese holidaymakers but is relatively unvisited by their Irish and English counterparts. This gives you a lovely sense of being somewhere different, yet still able to cater to all the things you’d like on a relaxing sunshine vacation. Cafes? Yes. Beach bars? Yes — they’re known as “chiringuitos” round here. Pretty shops selling trinkets and baubles? Absolutely. But you’re not surrounded by a cacophony of voices that would be all too familiar at home.

It is beautiful, too, and Travel Department is adept at giving you just enough guiding and non-obligatory excursions to let you feel you’ve got under the skin of a region. There is also plenty of relaxing time to do as much or as little as you choose. In my case this involved lots of jumping into the refreshing sea, followed by deliciously cooling beers, made all the tastier by the view of postcard-perfect multicoloured beach huts. How is it that environment affects how things taste? I’m sure there are deep-thinking theses on the subject, but suffice to say, this is a spot where the rosé is gorgeous, beer slips down smoothly and salty snacks serve to give you a thirst for more.


We’re staying in Islantilla (your Costa de la Luz base will depend on departure dates), a resort so popular with Spanish holidaymakers that its population goes from a sleepy 1,600 off season to more than 100,000 in high summer. We are visiting at my favourite between-season time, where you have that pleasant sense of things waking up (or winding down), and nothing is too thronged for comfort.

Islantilla was a small fishing village, and apart from two ill-advised blocks built in the 1970s, it’s all charmingly low-rise, including our hotel, the Puerto Antilla Grand, where the swimming pools are lovely. They are set in gorgeous gardens, with plenty of entertainment for kids. Poolside bingo is bilingual — a mixed blessing, as it makes it go on twice as long.

The buffets at breakfast and dinner are the stuff of foodie fantasies. Tapas, seafood bites, paellas, grilled fish and tasty lamb are laid out for our delectation. The more adventurous can try razor clam and things that look a little like eel, while at the other end of the gastronomic spectrum, they’ll whip you up a pizza. You can spot first-nighters easily, as they end up with everything on their plates. I know, I did. You can skip the savouries entirely for gooey cake and a chocolate fountain.

Beyond the gardens, the beach is gorgeous and golden, stretching round distant corners in both directions. It is fronted by a promenade that takes you past a pretty church, the Parroquia Nuestra Senora del Carmen, decorated with seahorses and anchors instead of saints and gargoyles. Wafts of jasmine hang on the warm air, mingling with tortilla and fried seafood bites as you pass yet another enticing bar.

We take a day trip to follow in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus, and I muse on the idea of discovery again. The explorer departed these shores in 1492, looking for an alternative route to Asia. Instead he inadvertently “found” the New World. The facts that the New World was already pretty familiar to its original occupants, and that its “discovery” didn’t go that well for them nags throughout the tour.

The Rábida Monastery, where Columbus whiled away time networking for support in his epic quest, is a pretty spot. It has deliciously cool cloisters, a beautiful chapel and, in the first foyer, some oddly Soviet-realist and vaguely homoerotic frescoes, painted in the 1930s by Daniel Vázquez Díaz. This is the only part of the monastery where you’re not allowed to take photographs, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because they’d really prefer not to be associated with the paintings. Everything else is gorgeous.

In another room, lined with flags from the Americas, ornate boxes of earth sit open. They were presented by various ambassadors. Looking at their contents and wondering at the variety — from sand and clay to volcanic rock and stones, to fertile looking soil — it is beguiling to think of a time when the adventure of epic discovery could be had by learning to sail. Nowadays you’d need to become an astronaut. Failing that, fortunately, we can still travel in a more low-key way, as curious holidaymakers.

From here, it’s down to the Muelle de las Carabelas, a museum where replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria from Columbus’s first voyage are anchored in a small pool. You can clamber over them, and they are surprisingly tiny.

Seville in a day

It would be a crying shame to go to this part of the world without visiting Seville. Elegant, extraordinary and enormous, you couldn’t hope to take it all in a day, but we do our best. We pass the Antigua Fabrica de Tabacos, the factory where the fictional Carmen made cigarettes in Bizet’s opera. It looks like a palace, and today is part of the University of Seville.

We stop at the Parque de María Luisa, where trees drop with an abundance of oranges. We’re told they use them for biofuel, which makes sense to me, as I loathe marmalade. In March the city smells of orange blossom and, in a non-delicious twist, the most aromatic are the most bitter in taste.

The sprawling Plaza de Espana is within the park. The huge architectural mash-up was built for the Ibero American Exposition of 1929, with renaissance revival, Spanish and baroque influences. Little boats ply the ornamental waterway, and horses are lined up to take you on a carriage ride. Intended to wow, it leaves me a little cold. The Alcázar, on the other hand, is astonishing. It was built in the 1300s by Castilian Christians in what is known as the Mudejar style. Mudejar architecture, a mixture of Jewish, Muslim and Christian inflections, abounds in these parts, offering the idea that occasionally, and wonderfully, cultures can thrive alongside one another, cross-enriching and influencing to everyone’s benefit.

These happy states of affairs seldom seem to last, as dynastic impulses and other power grabs come into play, amplifying differences in cultures and belief, and generally ruining everything in bloodthirsty ways. The beauty here, and elsewhere on our visit, is overlaid by the legacies of the Spanish Inquisition, established in 1478 by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and intensified in 1492, the same year they funded Columbus in his journeys. Hundreds of thousands were persecuted in the process. The “Catholic” part of their royal title was bestowed by the pope in recognition of their efforts.

Still, it’s easy to lay thoughts of history’s darker periods aside, wandering in such splendour. Perhaps that’s why autocratic rulers aim for extravagance and decoration? Or maybe it’s just because they can. The gardens of the Alcázar are also very beautiful, including welcomingly shady spots, and rare plants. The site has been used as a set for both Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones.

Travel Department specialise in group trips, and it’s nice to compare notes over tapas and a cool sangria, swapping photographs and lining up snippets of information gleaned from our guides. Tours are set up so you don’t feel rushed, or like you have to join in if you don’t fancy it. But there is so much to see and do in this intriguing part of Spain that you might want to go back a second time, simply to check out all the things yet to be discovered.

Getting there

Gemma was a guest of Travel Department. The Costa de la Luz & Seville trip includes seven nights half-board accommodation, flights, transfers and guided excursions, taking in Seville, Nebia, Huelva and La Rábida. Departing August, September and October 2022, from €819pps;

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture