Spain's south Atlantic coast, mile upon mile of awesome, untamed sandy beaches as memorable as any in southern Europe …
La Costa de la Luz gets its name from its bright, sparkling light - which dazzles off whitewashed walls, enhances the golden hue of sand dunes and reflects joyously from the deep blue and silver sea. This is Spain's Atlantic coast, extending from Tarifa in the south up towards Portugal, mile upon mile of awesome, untamed sandy beaches as memorable as any in southern Europe.
There is sun and sand galore, but there are also cliffs and coves, salt mashes, swamps and estuaries. It’s a region which includes the amazing wetlands of the Parque Nacional de Doñana, as well as two of only three towns who are allowed to call their wine “sherry”, Sanlucar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa María (the other one is Jerez).
Inland you will find wild sierras, fertile countryside, pastures of fighting bulls, world renowned vineyards and hidden villages where time passes slowly by.
But first and foremost the Costa de la Luz is about its vast, beautiful beaches; the deep blue ocean rolls in to fine golden sand, sand dunes and pine forests rising up behind.
Swept by the Atlantic winds that once filled Columbus's sails, it's a remarkable part of Spain, one of the coolest beach destinations in Europe, with surfing, hip hangouts and a laid-back attitude. Playa de Los Lances, ten minutes from Tarifa, was declared one of the world's top ten beaches for partying in 2008 by the Guardian newspaper.
It is also uncompromisingly Hispanic. The vast majority of holidaymakers are Spaniards: in July and August, families emigrate en-mass from Madrid and Sevilla to their seaside apartments and villas here, and students hole up in the campsites behind the beaches.
Little English is spoken, British tourists are far and few between, and there are no tacky "English pubs" or fish & chip shops.
Instead, the resorts towns and villages here are packed with tapas bars and restaurants offering fantastic seafood; rather than pints of lager, the tipples of choice are cold glasses of fino (dry sherry) and tinto de verano (chilled Rioja and lemonade, served with ice). Everyone stays up until late; dinner is never before 10pm and lunch not earlier than 3pm.
The trappings of mass tourism are few and far between. There is an obvious reason why this coast hasn't gone the way of other costas, and that is the wind. The giant white turbines of vast wind farms dominate the hillsides above Tarifa and the sunflower-dotted plains behind the resort of Zahara de los Atunes. Tarifa itself is a major draw for wind-surfers and kite-surfers.
It's not windy all the time, just when the Levante blows from the east. But when this is really blowing on the beach - and you should expect it to do so for at least a few days over a fortnight's stay - it feels as if you're being sandblasted!
For visitors who are not interested in water sports, this is an obvious drawback. Time then to abandon the beach and travel inland, because as soon as one is a few miles from the coast the severity of the wind quickly drops away.
And it's not difficult to find plenty to do, with the rolling countryside of the Alcornocales National Park on your doorstep, several other fabulous natural parks close by too, not to mention the magnificent mountain terrain further inland around Ronda and Grazalema. Moorish frontier towns such as Arcos and Jimena are also well worth a visit.
The most interesting part of the coast for some is from Sanlucar to Cádiz, where the towns have sherry houses to visit and old quarters to explore; the southern end, around Tarifa, has a more hip, youthful international scene.
Conil de la Frontera is a whitewashed town (although it must be said that it is expanding rapidly), which sits behind several superb beaches, each of them vast, with perfect fine sand shelving gently in the water. If you want somewhere smaller and more low-key, choose El Palmar, just south of Conil.
Both Conil and El Palmar benefit from their proximity to Véjer de la Frontera. Fifteen minutes drive inland, this stunning old pueblo blanco perched on a sheer escarpment has, in recent years, become quite trendy with several boutique hotels, upmarket restaurants and arty shops appearing in its labyrinth of echoing alleys.
The beach at Los Caños de Meca curves inland from the Cabo de Trafalgar, where Nelson defeated Napoleon just over 200 years ago. Things have chilled out a little since then and it is now better known for its laid-back, hippy ambience.
The beach here was chosen as one of Guardian Travel's Top 10 beaches in Europe (August 2008). There are salt marshes at Barbate and spectacular cliffs at La Breña (both within a Natural Park) and yet another spectacularly wide sandy beach at Zahara de los Atunes. At Bolonia cove there are Roman ruins.
Tarifa, on the southernmost point of Spain looks directly across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco. Africa is so close you feel that you can almost touch it! With its small-town, friendly atmosphere and buzzing night time social scene, it is popular with windsurfers and kitesurfers who come here from all over the world.
For birdwatchers it is a jewel, being on the main migration route between the two continents. If that's not your thing, maybe a bit of whale and dolphin watching instead?
The capital of the province, Cádiz itself, still evokes the romance and mystery of centuries of trade (some legal, some not so) between Europe and Africa. On its unique site - perched on a narrow spit of land hemmed in by the sea - it has a wealth of attractive vistas and well-preserved historical landmarks.
The older part of Cádiz (the Casco Antiguo) is characterised by narrow, winding streets connecting into magnificent squares, bordered from the sea by ancient city walls. A city of intrigue and history, at the same time it's also very friendly - the people of Cádiz are famed throughout Spain for their hospitality and good nature.
La Costa de la Luz is a glorious coastline, truly unique and absolutely marvellous. One of only a handful of shorelines left in the world where beaches are still backed by sand dunes rather than by tower block hotels.
Towns & Villages
Cádiz, built on a narrow spit of land completely surrounded by the sea, is probably Europe's oldest city. One which continues to evoke the romance, intrigue and mystery of centuries of trade (some legal, some not so) between Europe, Africa and the Americas …
Unique for lots of reasons, Tarifa is an amalgam of incredible nature, windsurfing, mystery and legend, a place of incredible light, sun and sea, wind and wonders. On the southernmost point of Spain, Morocco is just 14 kilometres away across the Straits of Gibraltar …
This classic and really pretty white village perches dramatically on a hilltop, high above a steep river gorge 10 km inland from the sea. A magical place to explore, its cobbled streets meandering through a charming jumble of secret corners, hidden patios and delightful houses …