Alicante - Off the beaten track
Altea is separated from Benidorm only by the Sierra Helada, but it might as well be on another planet. The whitewashed old buildings, pearched on a hilltop overlooking the sea, retain their charm. The town is still largely unspoiled - systematic gentrification excepted - with no big hotels; only the narrow cobblestone streets and small town squares, or plazas, of a traditional town of old Valencia. Altea's beaches are mostly made of pebbles, which are pleasant enough to walk and lie on, and the lack of white sands have - so far - saved the town from the developers and the tourist hordes. Of course, they could always ship some in...
Benidorm is not exactly off the beaten track, but, paradoxically, it's becoming so popular that more and more people are choosing not to go there. A sprawling resort city, 40km (25 mi) north of Alicante, Benidorm is a kind of super-disco package-tour concrete high-rise party town, drawing in over five million visitors annually. It offers 130 hotels and more than 5000 apartment spaces, over 600 restaurants and cafes, hundreds more bars and clubs, and only 5km (3mi) of beach to hold multitudes of soon-to-be-badly-sunburnt Northern European tourists. Benidorm's clubs are enormous, with a house and techno scene that almost rivals Ibiza's. There's also a 'Mediterranean' theme fun park, Terra Mitica (Mystery Land); Aquilandia, Europe's largest water fun park; and Mundomar, an animal theme park with, among other things, parrots, dolphins and sea lions.
The oasis-like town of Elx, only 20km (13 mi) from Alicante, contains many beautiful parks and gardens, and is surrounded by palm groves, the most extensive in Europe, with over 200,000 trees. Elx is also famous for staging, in August every year and in October and November every two years, a medieval Christian drama, the Misteri d'Elx. This two-act lyric drama, acted out by local people, tells the story of the death of the Virgin Mary and her reception into heaven. Even the drama's rehearsals are a major event; after the last dress rehearsal the town celebrates with the Nit de Alba, a spectacular fireworks display reaching a pyrotechnic crescendo with one great fiery palm tree in the sky.
A visit to the fishing port of Santa Pola, 18km (11 mi) south of Alicante, comes as a welcome contrast to the more party-focused towns in the region. There are concrete hotels here, but you'll find the beaches are less congested. Spread yourself on the white sands of the central Gran Playa, Playa Lissa west of the harbour, or Playa de Lavante to the east. Santa Pola also has some fine churches and museums, and, like most towns on the Costa Blanca, its own festivals - including a local version of the Muslims and Christians Festival, with a procession, fireworks and a ceremonial reenactment, with scimitars, of the Moorish invasion from the sea.
Like many places in the area around Alicante, this city is known by two names: Jávea, in Spanish, and Xàbia, in the local Valenciano dialect. Like Altea, Xàbia has resisted becoming too much of a concrete tourist playground; it's off the main railway line and too far south for most travellers - which for others is an excellent reason to come here. Xabia has a gentle, laid-back old town district, a port and some secluded white sand beaches around El Arenal.