The heart and (Costa del) Sol of a beach resort

Cambridge, Mass.-based writers David Lyon and Patricia Harris explored the Costa del Sol recently to see if one of EuropeÆs first beach resorts was faded or ready to attract todayÆs sophisticated sun seekers. Their evaluation follows:

COSTA DEL SOL, Spain -- Two days after Easter we found ourselves feasting on mixed fried fish and tiny clams in the small fishing village at the west end of Torremolinos. Every table at the restaurant was full, the sky was cloudless and waves lapped on the brown, sand beach literally steps away. It was everything we had feared weÆd miss. We always envisioned SpainÆs most established beach resort as a forest of concrete towers with a low-rent ambience -- a redneck Riviera, if you will. Two weeks of research here showed us how wrong we were.

What is the Costa del Sol?

An aqueduct in the village of Ronda, Spain. Definitions of the Costa del Sol vary, but for practical purposes it consists of a 53-mile stretch of SpainÆs Mediterranean coast starting from Malaga and stretching south to Estepona. What is not in dispute is the areaÆs natural charms: 325 sunny days a year and a dramatic landscape where mountains tower just inland from the sea.

Other areas of the southern Spanish coast may have more extensive dunes, whiter sand or bigger surf, but the Costa del Sol has 50 miles of clean swimming beaches with an average water temperature of 64 degrees. According to Diana Serop of the regional tourism authority, the Costa del SolÆs chief competition is domestic: the Balearic and Canary islands and, to a lesser extent, the Costa Brava between Barcelona and the French border.

Torrie, I adore ye

Driving into Torremolinos, the Malaga suburb that launched mass-market tourism in the Costa del Sol in the 1950s, is disconcerting. Most approach roads funnel into congested, poorly signed streets where buildings were thrown up in great haste 30 to 40 years ago. But the strand near the beach is another world. It may be lined with apartment buildings and often vast hotels, but we found parking easier than in Boston, and once we left the car, we could (and did) walk everywhere on the new 4.7-mile uninterrupted pedestrian promenade by the ocean.

Except for beachside restaurants and chiringuitos (snack bars that verge on restaurants), all the large-scale construction lies at least 100 feet from the edge of the beaches. The density in Torremolinos fails to dim the appeal of the beach and the promenade. In fact, Torremolinos retains much of the basic pattern we observed throughout the Costa del Sol: a delightful beach flanked by a fishing fleet on one end and a yacht marina on the other, the core of an old town (casco antiguo) and a less appealing, modern commercial center.

The key to enjoying Torrie, as Torremolinos is called here, is to settle in near the beach, walk to the old quarter and avoid the rest of town until you have to go to the airport.

A Needed Face-Lift

Faced with an aging infrastructure, the Costa del Sol has made dramatic efforts in the last two years to remain an appealing beach destination. Upgrades all along the Costa del Sol are proceeding. A bypass road was built in 1992 to ease beachside traffic congestion and a new high-speed expressway between Estepona and Malaga should be finished in June.

New construction continues, but itÆs largely low-profile townhouses and resort hotels. Many older properties are being completely renovated or gutted to create new resorts out of old ones. ôLetÆs face it, some places were getting a little tired after 40 years,ö said Serop. ôEven the newer places feel the pressure to upgrade continuously to be able to compete.ö

Move over, mass market

Nowhere are the changes Serop refers to more evident than in Marbella, which has turned the region into a jet-set destination. As we drove into town, we were cut off by a Bentley, a Rolls-Royce, a BMW and a sleek Rover sedan. Along the Costa del Sol, only Marbella could support a car rental agency like Sheik Motors, with its fleet of $100,000-plus vehicles available by the day, week or season. The pedestrian casco antiguo sports a bevy of fine jewelers and haute couture shops, and the marinaÆs 400 slips are packed with yachts.

Twice a day the west side of town echoes with the amplified call to prayer from the shining white mosque built by Saudi ArabiaÆs King Fahd. (Many of MarbellaÆs estates belong to gulf oil millionaires.) MarbellaÆs style consists of subtropical garden estates containing low-rise communities of bungalows and townhouses.

The properties that originally launched Marbella as a mass market destination -- Marbella Club and Los Monteros -- have entirely reinvented themselves. Marbella Club finished renovations in late March. At that point, Los Monteros was still gutted; stacks of gleaming marble slabs sat awaiting installation. New Monteros owner Le Meridien is investing $1.5 million in Los Monteros, which is scheduled to reopen July 1.

Even the once-threadbare Andalucia Palace, which houses the Marbella Casino, is looking regal again. In mid-April, Puente Romano, which has set the luxury standard for Marbella for the last decade, finished renovating all sections built before 1997. WeÆve been told that celebrities like Tom Cruise and Sean Connery favor Puente Romano for its tennis club, but these luxury properties are also high-end options in many tour packages.

The retreat of choice

Our favorite town on the Costa del Sol, Estepona, lies at the other end from Torremolinos. Graceful and low-rise, with the coastÆs largest fishing fleet, Estepona evokes the Costa del Sol before the tourism boom. Despite a flurry of new construction near the yacht marina, the town stands back 100 yards or more from its broad, uncrowded beach. The old townÆs small restaurants set their tables beneath orange trees on squares arranged around bubbling fountains.

Until the luxurious Las Dunas resort opened in 1997 on the eastern edge of town, Estepona was mostly a haven for self-directed travelers willing to settle for more modest accommodations than those described above. (A Kempinksi resort is scheduled to open near Las Dunas in July. See article, Page E.) Estepona, too, has a long paseo by a fine brown-sand beach, a lively entertainment and dining scene around its marina and an underground parking complex that solves the most vexing problem at every beachfront.

We also discovered EsteponaÆs climatic appeal: Prevailing breezes make it the most temperate spot on the Costa del Sol -- cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter. Its western location makes it a good base for day-trips to Gibraltar, Morocco or into the mountains to see the ancient, white, clifftop town of Ronda.

Something for everyone

The new Costa del Sol confounded our expectations. Spruced up and ready for a new generation of tourism, the region offers three distinct approaches to Spanish surf and sun: high-density resorts and bustling beaches on its east end, a flashier and more luxurious middle belt centered on Marbella, and a more contemplative western segment anchored by Estepona.

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