Outside of the bonkers Avenida de Mallorca, with its blazing neon signs, smoke-filled superclubs and hordes of tourists looking for a big night on the lash, Benidorm is all about pristine beaches, intimate tapas bars and gob-smacking natural scenery. The city has water sports galore, including cable-skiing (essentially water-skiing but the powerboat is replaced by a pulley-driven cable), paragliding and scuba diving. And while you definitely won’t find discarded sangria bottles, there’s more lurking beneath the Benidorm waves than most realise – as I was to find out.
Looking upwards and seeing almost ten metres of water above your head is terrifying but also oddly serene. The softness of the sea floor and the encompassing expanse of blue – occasionally gilded in silver as a school of fish meander past – somehow inspires calm, even though every fibre of your being wants to thrash upwards for the surface. There’s barracuda, lobsters and the occasional moray eel – the latter adding a frisson of fear to your underwater jaunt thanks to its seriously big teeth.
And the frisson becomes intense when you realise you have completely exhausted yourself by kicking through the ocean too quickly – something my British instructor, Rick was keen to avoid. ‘That’s why we look like this!’ he had joked earlier, as he patted his large tattooed stomach. For reasons I can’t remember, I had ignored his words of wisdom and powered off into the underwater wilderness like a petulant child. Suddenly, I was out of breath and literally out of my depth. Huge bursts of bubbles flashed before my mask, and my shoulders heaved frantically up and down as if I was engaged in some strange underwater dance. But Rick had seen it all before. He pointed at his eyes and then at mine, fixing me with a gaze that said simultaneously, ‘Don’t panic. Breathe. You’ll be fine,’ and ‘You silly boy’.
Danger averted and back on terra firma, it was time to see more of what Benidorm has to offer – and I’m not talking vodka bars or tattoo parlours either. Just 20 minutes’ drive from the chaos that is Avenida de Mallorca – the side of Benidorm regularly spotted on Holiday A&E – is one of the most tranquil spots in Europe. The embalse de amadorio – or Amadorio Reservoir – is a gorgeous enormity of aquamarine that no one in the world seems to know about, except for our tour guide Marc. Our jeep bounded and bounced its way down to the water, and with no-one else in sight, we jumped in for a splash in what turned out to be our own 100-hectare private pool.
Not far from the reservoir is another of the region’s best-kept secrets: the Chiringuitos de Torres; a classic beach bar near Villajoyosa. Again, only 15 minutes from the centre of town, it’s little more than a glorified shed with a beer tap but serves drinks and food right on the beach. Getting down the rutted track that leads to it is a bit of a challenge, although you don’t need to make a meal of it as Marc did when he ignored the queuing traffic and went off-road.
As we zipped back into town, and dusty beach path became tarmac highway, and road-side beach shack turned into suburban villa, then sprawling five-star golf resort, then looming multi-storey hotel, I thought about the history of the region. As most of us forget, the reason Benidorm was turned into a forest of tower blocks in the 70s and 80s is because it’s a beautiful part of the world and tourists want to come here. Costa Blanca isn’t a euphemism for ‘cheap hotels and booze’: it’s Spanish for ‘White Coast’ – as is made obvious by the spun sugar sand of the shoreline – but it has been lost in translation.
Interestingly, the resort is hugely popular with local tourists and the Spanish part of town has its own nightlife, which is a much more relaxed and intimate affair. The city has the best of both cultures and both eras: the frenetic ‘British’ nightclubs that made the city in the 70s, and the cosy tavernas serving mojitos and flamenco as per modern Spanish life. While many of us tend to look for intimacy and tradition while travelling, it never hurts to try something different. For those who want to dip a toe into the classic Benidorm experience but without braving the likes of the Loch Ness Fun Pub, the Benidorm Palace show offers retro laughs.
A lot less gaudy than the name implies, the venue hosts a dance and cabaret act with dinner and drinks. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a showtunes kind of guy, but even I could appreciate the energy of the event – and it’s not just singing and dancing: there are laser displays and football freestylers. And if you do find yourself wandering Avenida de Mallorca and getting lured in to clubs promising free shots, just treat it like getting stuck underwater while you’re scuba diving: breathe and relax – and you’ll enjoy it.
Simon stayed at the Melia Sol Costablanca on Levante Beachfront. The 185-room hotel offers doubles on B&B basis in July from £123 per night (min 3 nights stay during high season) See melia.com for more information and to book. Monarch operates year round flights to Alicante from London Gatwick from £47.99 one way with allocated seating on check-in. On-board meals are available to pre-purchase at monarch.co.uk. See visitbenidorm.es and facebook.com/visitbenidorm for more information.