The Best of Spain.
Spain. I’d heard so much about it but had never been. We did the usual research then plotted our journey and crossed our fingers that we’d chosen the right destinations for the right amount of time… and that they would all be suitable for small children.
1 night, 2 full days
Accommodation: Petit Palace Lealtad Plaza, which was a 20 min drive from the airport and within walking distance to the old town. Parque de El Retiro was less than five minutes away – it has a playground which was perfect for the kids to let off a bit of steam but we also loved walking around Crystal Palace and watching the rowers on the lake.
Food: Mercado San Miguel – can’t recommend this highly enough! You can walk around these indoor markets with a glass of cava in your hand, sampling olives, croquettes and anchovies – any type of tapas that takes your fancy. With kids, we got in, got out – but you could easily spend an hour or two here. We also wanted to leave a bit of room for churros! We chose the very old and very famous Chocolateria San Gines for our fix – which also ended up being very busy so we ordered another serving... just to keep it that way.
Sights: Plaza Mayor is a great spot to people watch and teach the kids a bit about Spanish history – this square was central for trade, bull fighting, coronations and the Spanish Inquisition. Keep walking through the old town to Casa Botin – the world’s oldest restaurant, which has been running since 1725.
Accommodation: Shine Albayzin in the old town right on the edge of the Alhambra.
We loved this hotel and its location but getting there was the hairiest drive we’ve ever done - even with a motorbike escort ahead of us. The streets in the old town are ridiculously narrow and we had to do an Austin Powers-style 17-point turn, just to go left at a t-intersection.
Food: Minotauro had great food that came in well under budget. If you want to dine with a view though, keep walking up the cliff towards Mirador San Nicholas, where you can gaze in awe at the Alhambra in all its glory across the valley. The mosque at the top offers a similar view for free – and it’s quiet and peaceful. You can sit amongst the pomegranate trees and take it all in.
Sights: The Alhambra. We went early to avoid the crowds and the heat – it’s a steep climb up but my 5 year old managed without too much of a fuss and it’s absolutely beautiful.
San Jose, Andalusia
3 nights: San Jose Hotel MC
Sights: Cabo de Gata –Nijar is a protected national park, surrounded by huge mountains. The beaches here were full of Spanish people, not tourists and the place oozed authenticity from the moment we got there. Not everyone spoke English and everything in town shut down for siesta, including most of the restaurants. The local beach was great but we also loved the surf beach in the national park, Playa San Genovese. This is a place where arid desert meets beach – complete with the red soil and cacti. You can float in the water, gazing back onto the coastline, the mountains of the Sierra Nevada on the horizon.
Food: Paseo Maritimo – casual beachside restaurant with lots of grilled seafood. There’s also an amazing gelato shop at the town square, just off the beach – with gluten-free cones!
We stopped here on our way to Gibraltar – and were so glad we did. La Fontinella beach is lined with beachside sand-in-your-toe type restaurants. We stuffed ourselves with sardines and sol straight from the open barbeques then waddled just ten metres to the water for a cool-off. We loved it here and would have stayed longer if we could.
This was an impromptu stop and a very memorable one. Here, the airport runway isn’t only used for taking off and landing, it’s also used by cars and pedestrians, who have to cross the runway to get in and out of Gibraltar - so if there’s a lot of plane traffic, there’s also a lot of road traffic! But it’s worth the wait. We caught a cable car up to the ‘top of the Rock’ where you’re rewarded with million-dollar views - you can see the tip of Africa from here. But far more exciting for the kids, was the monkeys. About 300 Barbary macaques live on Gibraltar and legend has it, that as long as they stay here, the territory will remain under British rule. For almost 80 years, the monkeys were managed by the British Army, who kept a record of each monkey and even announced births in the local newspaper. Apparently, any ill or injured monkeys were taken to the same hospital as enlisted service personnel.
2 nights: Senator Cadiz Spa Hotel
This is a place we’ll come back to. Its beaches are the closest we’ve come to Australian beaches in Europe – the water is clear and clean, the sand is white and the views of the old town and ancient Moorish castle are next-level. There is a fabulous seafood market here and once the sun sets and the temperatures cool down, the quiet, narrow streets are no more - transformed by crowds bustling from shops to restaurants. An absolute favourite.
Food: We ate sardines, swordfish and pimientos on a beach in the sand, still in our togs.
Drank: Pedro Ximinez - sweet dessert wine made from local grapes.
3 nights: Itaca Sevilla
We were a bit worried about spending ‘too much time’ here, given there were no beaches for the kids. But this is an absolute gem of a place... with fabulous food to match.
Food: Favourite restaurants were El Rinconcello and La Bodega
Sights: I’m all for ‘getting lost in the streets’ of a place but the old town of Seville is a maze. I got lost too many times to count and it wasn’t always fun. The kids loved climbing to the top of La giralda’s bell tower and seeing Christopher Columbus’s tomb. Any sore legs were bribed away afterwards with a horse and cart ride around the rest of Santa Cruz and other parts of the city.
We booked our tickets for the Real Alcázar online and went early, when the queue was at its smallest – and what a fabulous place it is. The oldest royal palace still in use in Europe is also one of the most beautiful but to be honest, with two kids in tow, we didn’t have enough time to truly appreciate all the finery. Possibly the most striking thing about this place, apart from its beauty, is the evolution of its architecture throughout history. The gardens were a welcome retreat for the kids to run around in and for us to sit back and take it all in.
1 week: Roc Portonova en Mallorca (self-contained apartment)
I arrived in Majorca with the kids, on my own, as my hubby was needed in the UK for work. And, I have to say, it was absolutely doable (and enjoyable) as a single parent. Not all places are. But I made it easy for myself and chose a hotel right on the water, at a beach where there were enough restaurants and shops to get by, without being totally overridden with tourists. The sunshine, walks and beaches were just what the kids needed and it was all very easy to jump on a boat and see the Balearic coastline from the water. There was a bus stop around the corner from our hotel, so on a rainy day, we headed into Palma, where we were wowed by all the shops, restaurants and delights of a big city.
Sights: We hired a car for a couple of days and went off the beaten path to find some magical beaches further north and caves to explore. Drach Caves is an absolute must. This is a subterranean world of stalactites and stalagmites, turquoise water and magical lighting effects. At Lake Martel, one of the largest underground lakes in the world, you are treated to a classical concert –where a string quartet arrives by boat then disappears into the silent darkness. Bring some snacks for the kids so that they last the distance!
2 nights: Cale en Porter
Great spot for a quick getaway. The beach is beautiful and you can have secret little swimming coves all to yourself. We stayed on the cliff which meant a bit of a hike for a swim but we loved the views. Further along the coast were some of my favourite beaches in the whole wide world, well... after Noosa and Cylinder (of course). Top of the list was Cala Mitjana, a national park, accessible only by foot or boat; followed closely behind by Platja de Binigaus and Santo Tomas. A lot of Minorca’s beaches cap visitor numbers – so I’d advise getting there very early if you’re driving or be prepared to walk in on-foot. Another must-do in Minorca, is a sunset drink at Cova d’en Xoroi – the photos speak for themselves.
One week, homeaway.
When we first told friends we were going to Spain, they thought we were crazy not to visit the north coast. And now, I tend to agree. San Sebastian has become one of my favourite Spanish getaways. It’s one of those places that has a bit of everything – food, history, architecture, shops and beaches… all with the added bonus of being a hop, skip and a jump away from the French border (and its surf beach, Biarritz). San Sebastian has a very compact old town, which makes it easy to navigate on foot and there are some fabulous walks around the two headlands. We spent our mornings sight-seeing, our afternoons relaxing on the beach and our nights eating pintxos and shopping.
Food: If your budget allows it, I’d recommend a pintxo hunting tour – essentially, it’s a dinner crawl through the old town, sampling small Spanish delicacies but having a local guide helps match the best of Basque flavours with loads of culinary knowledge and the odd beverage. We loved txakoli, a dry, fizzy, almost salty white wine poured from up high - about a metre from your glass.
Best pintxos: La Cuchara de San Telmo. The octopus was best ever!
Best walk: Up the headland of Monte Urgull to the Sacred Heart statue, El Sagrado Corazon, the 12m-high custodian of the city. The amazing views are worth the short hike and you can reward yourself at the bottom with lunch at Bokado.
Best day trips: Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz – beautiful French towns with gorgeous beaches; Hondarribia – a small picturesque town on the French/Spanish border; Getaria as well as Gorliz, Plentzia and Bilbao (Guggenheim is jaw-dropping!)