For many people a walking holiday is a great way to break the routine, get some exercise, fresh air and contact with the environment. However, there are two main disadvantages to walking holidays in the UK. Firstly, the climate is unreliable, even during the summer months; waterproofs are an obligatory accessory for walking holidays anywhere from Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands. Secondly, finding peace and quiet in the congested British countryside can be a challenge; during holidays National Parks are sometimes busier than city centres.
The alternative is to look for walking holiday destinations abroad, especially for anyone planning a winter walking break. There are now a wide variety of potential destinations but Spain is still the most popular for three reasons: climate, price and quality. With over 60 million visitors annually tourism is Spains principal industry, the climate is the principal attraction but the Spanish now have an expertise in tourism that is hard to match. Prices are still lower than in the UK for a comparable quality of accommodation and meals and the importance of tourism to the economy that quality standards are taken very seriously.
There is now an increasing awareness of the other possibilities Spain has to offer: the quality of the landscape and in particular the pristine mountainous interior that has been almost completely ignored by both visitors and tourist authorities alike.
In many respects the focus of mass tourism of the coastal destinations has protected the interior from inappropriate development, a process perpetuated by the current economic crisis.
So if you are considering a walking holiday in Spain where do you start? In 1995 Bob Stansfield prefaced his guide Mountain Walks on the Costa Blanca (Cicerone Press) with the observation that â€œ Las Marinas has the potential to rival Mallorca as a winter walking venueâ€. Walking holidays in Mallorca has become a well-established business but the mountains behind the Costa Blanca are empty, except on the weekends when local residents venture out to enjoy their exceptional countryside.
So where is this area? The hinterland of the Costa Blanca is also known as Las Marinas and includes the sierras, valleys and small farming villages of the Marina Alta the Marina Baja districts. It is defined as the triangle of mountainous land with Oliva in the north, Javea the east and La Villajoyosa in the south. It is made up of a series of six valleys: the Laguard Valley, the Ebo Valley, the Pop Valley, the Seto Valley, the TÃ¡rbena Valley and the Guadalest Valley that are separated by the mountain ranges of Aitana, Serrella, AixortÃ¡, Alfaro and the Bernia.
What the locals and a few British walkers know is that Las Marinas has spectacular walking trails; a combination of mountain tracks, farm lanes and old Mozarabic paths that have traditionally linked the small villages of the interior. They pass between rugged limestone peaks whose lower slopes are covered with almond and olive trees, through high valleys with cherry and apricots and down to the orange, tangerine and nispero (loquat) orchards of the coastal plain. From September to May this virtually undiscovered part of mainland Spain offers some of the best winter walking in Europe with sunny skies and comfortable daytime temperatures between 13ÂºC and 18ÂºC. The beauty of the landscape and variety of the walks has impressed those walkers who have discovered the area and have found it to be an alternative to better-known winter walking areas like Mallorca, the Canaries or Andalusia.
Las Marinas as a walking destination has traditionally suffered four principal drawbacks: the lack of up to date maps, the poor, inconsistent or nonexistent way marking of trails, the lack of public transport to and from the walking areas and the lack of accommodation outside the major resorts. To some extent all of these drawbacks still exist today, but to a lesser or greater extent can be overcome.
Las Marinas does not have a comprehensive selection of maps or trail-guides for planning walking routes. The newer maps are much better but do not provide coverage of the whole area and in some cases replicate the mistakes on older maps, which are barely adequate and often many years out of date. Trail guides suffer from the problem that they are trying to describe something which neither appears on the maps or is way marked on the ground, basing your walking holiday on the idiosyncrasies of local trail guides and unreliable maps is a recipe for becoming frustrated if not getting well and truly lost. More recently GPS technology has leapfrogged ahead and the new generation of Smartphones and handheld GPS navigators means that reliance on out of date maps and guides is no longer a problem. Websites, such as WikiLoc.com or Walking-holiday-in-Spain.com, provide GPS routes that have been uploaded by other walkers and that can be downloaded directly onto the users device providing all the relevant walking information such as the start and finish points, walking time, distances, ascents, descents, restaurants, accommodation and points of interest on the route.
Getting to and from the walking areas can be achieved in one of three ways: hiring a car, hiring a taxi or using a local walking holiday company. Taxis are a relatively expensive way of getting to and from the walks and you need to speak the language to communicate and arrange the drop-off and pick-up after you have finished. An alternative solution is to rent a car locally; the high demand for hire cars during the summer means there is a large fleet available during the autumn, winter and spring at competitive rates. The main difficulty with hiring a car is navigating unfamiliar roads, signposting in Spain is inconsistent and getting to the start of the walks may be more difficult and take longer than anticipated. Another solution is to use a local walking company, they will either transfer you to and from the walks or arrange an Inn-to-Inn walking holiday where you walk from village to village and they transfer your baggage for you.
For many British walkers the Costa Blanca is associated with mass tourism, Benidorm and its down market image of the seventies. In reality Benidorm and the coastal resorts in general have all moved up-market and towns like Denia, Calpe, Javea, Altea and La Villajoyosa all provide a range of accommodation with access to the coastal attractions. However, the most interesting development over the last decade is the availability of hotels and casa rurals in small villages in the heart of the Las Marinas walking area. These offer walking holiday accommodation in traditional rural surroundings, local cuisine and a chance for visitors to experience real Spain rather than the more international and anonymous coastal resorts. Improved standards over the last decade mean that English is spoken in the majority of rural establishments.
There are several ways to arrange a winter walking break in Las Marinas. Firstly independent travel is easier than ever, the Internet offers a huge range of travel and accommodation options and the advent GPS navigation provides a reliable way of finding and staying on the right trail. Secondly, walkers who prefer a higher level of service with local knowledge of the walks, the area, accommodation, meals and transportation then using a local walking company makes sense. Inn to Inn walking holidays are also a good solution as all the details are taken care of leaving visitors to enjoy the countryside at their own pace and in the company they choose. Finally, there are various tour operators who offer all-in walking holidays. Flights, board and lodging in the coastal resorts and walks are all included in the package.
Whichever method is chosen, Las Marinas offers an attractive destination for winter walking holidays. The climate, exceptional countryside and traditional Spanish culture provide walkers with a great way to get a break from the British winter at affordable prices.
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