Think this part of Catalunya is all high-rise hotels and badly behaved Brits? Think again – Costa Brava is the perfect destination for families, says long-time fan Eddi Fiegel
Can we do that, Mummy?’ asks my five year-old daughter Georgie, as we watch a bunch of Catalan castellers clamber on top of each other to form human towers. We’re in the small town of Sant Feliu de Guíxols, about two hours north along the coast from Barcelona, and a group of neatly turned out twenty-, thirty- and forty somethings in lime-green polo shirts, red cummerbunds and white trousers are forming a large, rugby-style huddle as others climb on to their shoulders. This is followed by another layer, until finally a small boy in a crash helmet – he can’t be a day over four – is hoisted to the very top, hand held high, waving to the crowd gathered below.
It’s a glorious day, with the kind of cornflower blue sky they do so well around these parts, and the crowd of laidback locals – a mix of teenagers in baseball caps and families with pushchairs or kids aloft on shoulders – watch enthralled, camera phones held high in the air to capture the moment.
My partner Henry and I have been coming to this stretch of the Costa Brava for years, partly to visit family and partly for my work, but mainly because it’s absolutely gorgeous. Costa Brava, I hear you query? Isn’t that another of those Spanish costas full of high-rise concrete jungles, egg and chips and Brits abroad behaving badly? Well, yes and no. There are indeed one or two resorts, just to the north of Barcelona where the Costa Brava begins, that have given rise to those clichés. But drive about an hour north towards the French border and what you’ll find instead are award-winning stretches of silky sand, bijou smugglers’ coves and a winding coastline laden with pines, which can give the Côte d’Azur a run for its money any day. All with nary a high rise in sight.
This is where well-heeled Barceloneses have their holiday villas, attracted by the spectacular beaches, lush wine-producing countryside and some of the best food in Spain. Not to mention moated medieval villages and enough turreted castles to keep any child with a princess or dragon fixation more than happy.
I first discovered the area when I lived in Barcelona some years ago, and was smitten almost immediately. As was my elder sister, who loved it so much she moved there. It’s been fantastic since Georgie was born too, as it’s fabulously family friendly, albeit in an understated way.
With the odd exception, this part of Catalunya doesn’t tend to do the all-inclusive, resort-type hotels you might find elsewhere around the Med. What the hotels here do have is a laidback, family-friendly vibe that goes a long way to keeping kids happy. The Hotel Terramar, all contemporary style, whitewashed walls and dreamy sea views, just a pebble’s throw from the beach at Llafranc, is a perfect example.
When we were there last, Georgie began an epic sulk at breakfast, of the kind that five-year-olds do so well. Within moments, a delightful young Penélope Cruz lookalike waitress sprang to the rescue, bearing a colouring-in place mat and mini-pack of crayons. Result: one perfectly pacified child.
Llafranc is one of the Costa Brava’s loveliest coastal towns, with a pine-laced bay, sandy beach and a genteel promenade lined with low-rise hotels and a string of good terrace restaurants. That afternoon, Georgie spent time on the beach, trying to run away from the tide as it chased her back to the shore, before frantically waving her arms at the waves, King Canute-style, imperiously attempting to order the sea back.
Georgie would have happily spent every day on the beach, but she has also come to love the Costa Brava’s green Empordà hinterland, just a few miles inland. At the super-family-friendly Sallés Hotel & Spa Mas Tapiolas, overlooking the Solius valley, we spent leisurely days walking in the surrounding countryside and enjoying the hotel itself. Aside from elegant, Provençal-style family rooms with private gardens overlooking the valley, the hotel has a great playroom, paddling pool and outdoor playground. And Georgie was over the moon to have her own mini-bathrobe and child-sized fluffy slippers for the indoor pool.
We’ve also spent days out exploring the Salvador Dalí trail (the surrealist maestro spent most of his later years here and there are three predictably bonkers museums dedicated to his work), visiting wineries and walking along the spectacular Camino de Ronda, which hugs the Costa Brava coastline. None of this is specifically child-orientated but the great thing about this area is that wherever you are, you’re rarely far from a good outdoor playground.
They even have them in restaurants. At Restaurant Mas Pau – an elegantly converted stone farmhouse on the edge of the medieval village of Palau Sator – Georgie was delighted to spend half an hour on the climbing frame and slide in the garden as we lingered over leisurely post-lunch coffees, watching her from our table. The food was great too. I had tucked into chicken chargrilled on coals with French-style thin-cut patatas fritas, while Henry enjoyed pig’s trotter with white beans and Georgie had her regular order of croquetas (chicken and ham in soft, buttery béchamel and crispy breadcrumb coating).
Many restaurants here offer kids’ menus, often with the aforementioned colouring-in place mats, but most of the time you don’t even need them. At Es Dofi on the horseshoe bay at Tamariu, a cosy waterfront restaurant with old-fashioned seafaring paintings and a small terrace, you’re so close to the beach that you can almost put your foot in the water. All while tucking into sizzling sardines, calamares or as we did, the deliciously moreish whitebait-like sonsos – crispy, fried sandeels, perfect for child-friendly finger food.
These are the holiday moments you dream about, but eventually it was time to head back to the airport in Barcelona. On the way we stopped off once more in Sant Feliu de Guíxols, where we’d seen the castellers. The palm-tree laden seafront promenade is also home to a small amusement park, complete with trampolines, a soft play area and children’s fairground rides. To the strains of Beyoncé and some low-key Europop, Georgie climbs into a mini-Waltzer in the shape of a giant teacup and instantly makes friends with three-year-old Montse, who’s being pushed by her grandma. ‘Can we do that, Mummy?’ she asks.
EasyJet flies to Barcelona from eight UK airports, including Luton, Liverpool and Newcastle, from £57 return; easyjet.com
Sixt has car hire from Barcelona airport from £20 per day; sixt.com
Family Rooms at Hotel Terramar from £110 per night with breakfast; hterramar.com
Family Rooms at Sallés Hotel & Spa Mas Tapiolas cost from £182 including breakfast; hotelmastapiolas.com