Spain – Almeria, ‘Desert Retreat’, Independent Boutique Hotels
Stargaze; swim in the clear waters of the Alboran Sea; or simply immerse yourself in the meditative peace of Cabo de Gata; the hidden corner of Andalucía.
The wheels of my 4×4 kick up dust as we head off road in the arid landscape; yet I soon see something that makes be halt. Just a few metres ahead, gingerly crossing the country track is a chameleon; the slow moving lizard is heading towards the sword-shaped agave plants that stand like loyal sentries either side of the road. We’re in the parched, yet beautiful Andalusian province of Almeria, the ‘wild east’ of Spain.
Although probably better known as the home of the ‘spaghetti westerns’, those classic 1960s European produced frontier movies from directors such as Sergio Leone, this eastern part of Almeria is also home to Europe’s only desert and the extraordinary Cabo de Gata Natural Park.
This coastal-hugging nature park is a sanctuary for interesting wildlife and rare flora. It has long been the destination of choice for the discerning traveller, with its compelling combination of a bohemian and hippy lifestyle together with boutique hotels and rural lodges offering barefoot elegant accommodation.
The climate here is unique in Europe; the air is dry, and the skies clear for most of the year. Thanks to its volcanic past, the geology of the area is inimitable too; with extraordinary coastal rock formations, as well as mountains and islets formed from once molten lava. The sea is truly crystal clear, with bays are intensely blue. Even in autumn when the rest of Europe has umbrellas to hand, here the warm air embraces you, whilst the salty sea caresses your skin.
Yet, this peaceful and fascinating region remains relatively undiscovered – a natural park of desert scrub, succulents and cacti. Low-rise, distinctive flat roofed cortijos, homes and small scale hotels echo the simple architecture of past centuries, reminiscent of northern Africa and parts the desert south west of the United States.
Here water was historically the source of wealth and many properties still have their historic ‘pozos’; working water wells covered with a distinctive white washed plaster dome.
Having negotiated the slow moving lizard, we arrive at our destination; a remote rural retreat nestling amongst towering flowering agave and gently rolling hills.
Almeria’s Cabo de Gata is a place for a genuine holiday break; the perfect place to get away from the demands of modern life. Even now parts of this striking and dry landscape escape the reach of 3G mobile coverage, so no excurse is needed to disconnect; the topology of the land and its remoteness oblige you to switch off.
The secret of maximising the benefits of a break here is to find a peaceful retreat, and ours is the enticingly named ‘La Almendra y El Gitano’ (the almond and the gypsy). It is a paired-back, rural haven, offering informal, friendly and relaxed accommodation. Close to the charming coastal village of Agua Amarga, this rustic ‘casa rural’ is in a secluded valley, within a few kilometres of two beautiful coastal coves.
Angel the owner explains the property is dedicated to the ‘Culto al Silencio’ – a place where tranquillity is revered. The spacious, understated suites over look the rolling countryside, and feature a large private terrace, with steps down to a swimming pool hidden amongst palms. After a busy time, this is alluringly tranquil.
Dining well in Andalucía can sometimes be a lottery; mass tourism has eroded some local culinary specialities. Yet here in coastal Almeria, the seafood and local dishes are prepared as they have always been, and they are sensation.
Amalia is front of house at ‘La Almendra y el Gitano ‘and she commands the kind of local knowledge that would put any 5 star hotel concierge to shame. Within minutes we’re equipped to choose from a huge choice of local eateries.
Agua Amarga attracts an interesting mix of both bohemians and upscale visitors. The fishing hamlet overlooks an azure cove, surrounded by striking cliffs and offers everything from Michelin quality gourmet fine dining to beach bars. We opted for ‘La Palmera’ chiringuito, that offers fish so fresh, it’s probably not even made it to market; it’s gone straight from the boat to the kitchen. I opted for sole on the grill, with slices of aubergine and some lemon; wonderful delicate, sublime flavours. Eating fresh from the sea is a privilege and an experience to be savoured.
The waters just off the coast form a marine park, so not only is it a source of natural, uncontaminated food, it can also be a playground for the restless. There’s kayaking, sailing, diving and snorkelling. Whilst on land there’s bike rental with plenty of signed routes for cycling and hiking.
Yet a long lunch means that an afternoon of hiking is ignored in preference for time spent in the refreshing pool at ‘La Almendra’, shaded by mature carob trees.
As the sun sets, soak up the view, open a bottle of wine and wait for the darkness – then look up. The sky is full of stars! A few minutes gazing towards the heavens will surely restore perspective and fill you with a sense of calm.
At the end of a perfect day the peace and tranquillity of this desert retreat envelopes you and restful sleep comes easily.
Almeria with its empty coves, relaxed ‘casa rural’ accommodation and serene landscapes remains a genuine escape for the demands of the 24/7 connected world.
COPYRIGHT ANDREW FORBES