TRAVEL

Benidorm: still a classic

Is the aging, “tacky” seaside resort unfit for tourism? Ask again

Thousands of vacationers crammed into Benidorm’s Levante beach earlier this month
Thousands of vacationers crammed into Benidorm’s Levante beach earlier this monthMORELL / EFE

Benidorm. “Why would you want to go there when there are so many beautiful places in Spain to explore?” “No one goes to Benidorm anymore.” “That’s nothing but little Britain.” These were the reactions I received from friends and colleagues when I announced that I was going to spend an entire week in July with a large group of friends from the United States at what has become the most loathed or still-nostalgically loved beach resort on the Alicante coast.

Actually, Benidorm, for all its noted decadence, is much more than just a ghost of its old jet-set image from the 1970s. It is quite well-suited for a weekend escape... especially for lovers of seafood, pub crawls and sand. It does of course have its unsightly drawbacks such as the multitude of open-air shops — selling tacky souvenirs, beach toys and sand chairs — not to mention the world’s ugliest skyscraper, InTiempo, located at the edge of “Beniyork,” the name given to much of the newer part of town where out-of-place high rises reach out.

But despite the bad landscaping that surrounds it and a constant influx of outsiders, Benidorm is still a favorite destination for many Spaniards throughout the year. This once small village, used by fishermen early last century as their dock to head out into the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean, has its crowning jewel — the old town or casco viejo.

Sites and sounds. Among the clutter of mostly empty shops filled with cheap Chinese imports and the scores of pubs and outdoor cafés, it can be quite difficult to really find any of the few remaining historical sites in “old Benidorm.” The chief landmark is the blue-tiled double dome of Iglesia St. Jaime, located on the highest point in the town, Canfali hill. The style of this neo-classical Catholic church reflects the old architecture lost amid the modern-day concrete squeeze.

Built in the mid-1700s, the church is home to the Virgin of Sufragio, the patron saint of Benidorm. Canfali is also known as a lookout point. From the plaza, the best views of the Mediterranean between Levante and Poniente beaches can be had from the Balcón Mediterráneo, which can be reached from the Castle stairway, all of which was once part of the almost forgotten strategic Castillo Benidorm, occupied by Napoleón's troops in the early 19th century.

The existing walls of the original castle, which recently got a good scrub down by historic preservers, can be seen from here. At night, the plaza is filled with stalls where artisans sell their crafts and local musicians play for a donation of a few coins.

Fresh bites. Just down the street from Canfali and before hitting the always-packed Calle Alam Alcalde, one of the main pedestrian drags, La Cava Aragonesa, at Plaza de la Constitución, is rated as one of the top places for tapas “in all of Spain,” according to many internet reviews. And these reviewers are not exaggerating. The long glass counters in this perpetually crowded night venue display an array of exotic-looking snacks, making it very difficult to choose what you want to accompany your wine or beer. All-time favorites such as the smoked salmon and Russian salad on bread are available, but for a treat for the palate, try the bacalao al pil pil or the red shrimp.

Just around the corner, the partly covered and closed-off pedestrian alley of Calle José Martínez Oriola is a cloister of fresh-fish eateries where the aroma of grilled and baked shellfish fill the air among the crowded outdoor tables. For a typical nine-euro Spanish menú, complete with wine and dessert, the Mesón de Plaza Mayor, in the square of the same name, has some delicious and fresh daily offerings and friendly service.

The long march. The famous Levante beach seems more crowded on weekdays than on weekends with a seemingly endless malecón or seawalk, the Avenida de Alcoi, extending as far as the eye can see. Be careful! This wide street at times appears to be a closed-off pedestrian walkway but taxis and police vehicles regularly speed by. Less threatening is the large number of electric scooters running about. An important aid to the elderly or disabled tourist, the portable cruisers have become a popular form of transportation for families and young couples and can be rented at various locations. This beach front is by far the largest tourist attraction in Benidorm, with its dozens of open-air venues, ranging from soft-jazz mellow spots and loud American-mall style bars, with sing-along customers and live guitar jam sessions included, to places where exotic bikini dancers grind under a blazing afternoon sun. Fast food ranging from Subway and Burger King to Mom and Pop sandwich shops are also squeezed into this overcrowded coastal strip.

Night crawl. Endless scores of people, who seem to be walking in circles like zombies, frequent the central pedestrian strips every night, filing past the pizzerias, wine and gin bars, and small restaurants. The side streets glow with the neon signs of small pubs and clubs — straight and gay, they all mix well. At Levante beach, the scenery turns from a noisy family affair during the day to a boisterous all-night party with the hardiest of the hardcorers still on the prowl after 3am. Two great South Miami Beach-style clubs are Penélope Beach, with a fun 20- to 30-something crowd, and the more popular Moon Beach Club, which looks as if it was designed by Don Johnson himself.

The hangover. Of course, the English breakfast is the best fare here in Benidorm and there are many places to choose from. One of the best — that we fell in love with — was the small restaurant at the Hotel Babylon, Calle Alicant, where a 3.95-euro- “half” breakfast gets you eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, black pudding and toast on a very large platter. The full breakfast for 5.95 euros is just too much for one person to handle. People, especially shop, restaurant and bar owners, are marvelously friendly — they know their tourist diplomacy very well, especially during this devastating crisis. Like its older sister Torremolinos in Málaga, Benidorm remains one of the few beach pockets in Spain that still vibrates with energy from an earlier period. And, of course, this often overlooked resort is a place that — for good or bad — will never be forgotten.