I AM not sure yet whether I am in flipflop heaven or flipflop hell. I know I am in a highrise concrete jungle. Twelve floors up, my eyes cast over a panorama of tower block hotels, azure blue swimming pools, neatly crafted green space… and I hear the occasional piercing noise of an ambulance siren cutting through the hum of traffic.
From the glass-fronted balcony of our room at the Sandos Monaco Beach Hotel and Spa, I can just make out the sea, a ten-minute stroll away, if that. Our first morning, and we head downstairs to the lobby and out the sliding front doors to the attractive pedestrian walkway.
Down by the beach, the wide promenade opens to left and right. We turn right and make for the Old Town. Blue parasols line the sand like ranks of sentries, shielding bodies from the sun, some bronzed, many reddened and over-cooked.
As we swerve the pedestrians and pushchairs and electric bikes and tandem scooters, sea-front bars trade music warfare, ZZ Top from one, Rod Stewart from another. Too loud, annoyingly so. It does not seem to bother the early punters though, downing pints of ale in British-themed pubs. Having a laugh, waiting for the next rugby or soccer match to run on the giant screen, or for the giant paella to be ready for consumption. Plenty for everyone.
We walk up a side street, stop by Roy’s Bar for a Coke Zero, and people watch. A petite Spanish teenager in t-shirt and orange shorts is touting for business for a nightclub, but not having much luck, approaching people of a certain age who will be in bed by the time the doors open. Leave that to the hen and stag parties. As we arrived late into the evening, four inebriated girls staggered towards us, mumbling incomprehensible words in thick Scottish accents, laughingly hilariously. Big, buxom girls out for a good time, and clearly enjoying the moment. Good luck to them.
Hotel check-in, and I am tagged. Not around the foot. The receptionist places a lilac band around my wrist. I feel like I have just been booked into A&E. Apparently, this shows the bar staff that I am ‘all inclusive’. I am to wear it for the duration of my stay. She then proceeds to show us where we should drop our bags, to enable us to make haste to the bar, which closes at midnight. Ten minutes to grab a gin and tonic. As an Engish couple abroad, this would seem the norm. Holiday in Benidorm, and drink till the shutters come down.
The last time my wife Diane and I were here was over thirty years ago, with friends. I remember diving into the swimming pool at the nearby Hotel Poseidon. It was February. I recall breaking through a thin layer of ice. Young, fit and extremely foolish. A friend of mine did exactly the same thing in Thailand a few years ago and died of a heart attack. A former world champion in martial arts. No discrimination. You never know when that light is going to extinguish forever.
Mid-afternoon, and the thunder, lighting and rain strike with a vengeance. We retreat to our room and sit on the balcony, watching couples with brollies scurrying along the streets far below. There is plenty of choice at dinner, but the soup is luke warm, the main courses average. Diane has the chicken, I try the mackerel. My fruit salad saves the day. We pop into the lounge for a coffee and brandy, and fail miserably at a music quiz. The main entertainment is a man spinning plates and juggling footballs. I am getting old and cynical.
Time to walk along the neon-lit promenade, where holidaymakers are strolling, many singing and dancing in the bars. They know how to party. Later I sit on the balcony, nightcap in hand, and note the full moon and high fluffy clouds, pretty as a picture. We hope for a better tomorrow.
And it comes. We throw back the curtains to reveal a strong sun bursting with life, light dancing off the swimming pools. Beach morning, I think. Sunbeds and parasol. E4,50 per sunbed and the same for a parasol. There is plenty of room on this vast Blue Flag beach with its clean sand and clear waters. Men in mirrored shades with Kindles and daily papers to hand steel glances at the occasional topless female strolling by.
A couple of hours later and we are back on the promenade, back amongst the throng. I cannot recall ever having seen so many tattoos adorning bodies. There is laughter from the bars, full to the brim with punters. It is too easy to get sucked into the habit when you only have a short time away from home. Let’s get pissed, dance the night away, throw up, and do it all over again.
Here, you can do it on the cheap, with so many establishments vying for trade. One Euro for a pint of lager. Nearly every hoarding announces special price drinks, so a 12-hour session should about do it. We pass a shop selling t-shirts. The latest Barcelona strip with the name ‘Mezzi’ written on it catches my eye. Grandson Luke, five-years-old, is a fan, so that will do nicely. One top and shorts for E25,00. One present in the bag.
Lunchtime over, and there is not a cloud in the sky. The temperature is registering 25degC, but it feels so much hotter. I stroll to the water’s edge and let the delicate waves lap around my ankles. Chilly at first, the water warms as my feet sink into the wet sand. I curl my toes and feel the grains moving beneath me. I edge further out to sea and am quickly battered by large waves cascading over my shoulders. I roll over and float, and am surprised at how warm the sea is. Fifty yards out, I see parasols in a flap as a sudden wind bowls across the front. A lilo barrels over the sand. Making a fast getaway. People prop themselves on their elbows and watch the owner run after it. Too lazy to help.
Luke warm vegetable soup for dinner, followed by veal goulash, which is tasty. We follow this with a stroll back along the promenade to Roy’s Bar, where a coffee, brandy and cake is a mere E1,50. Dog walkers are out in force, as are the electric scooters, many parked in front of the bars. Young families are pushing prams. A little night air to encourage baby to sleep. I do not require much rocking tonight.
The following morning is once again warm but overcast, so we head away from the beach, stroll past the Town Hall and through the attractive Parque de l’Alguera to the Romanesque-style Julio Iglesias auditorium.
Tonight, the Benidorm Palace is booked for dinner and entertainment of a more pleasing sort. Cabaret evenings feature flamenco and feathers, so it should be good. And it is. The place is packed, and reminds me of the 1970s when we would go to the Fiesta Club in Sheffield to see some of the world’s best soul groups, whilst eating chicken in a basket at tables with red-shaded lamps. On the menu is Mediterranean cream soup, Norwegian smoked salmon, fillet steak, apple surprise and vanilla ice-cream.
Out for a stroll the following morning, we happen upon a street rammed with bars, nightclubs and strip joints. Cocooned in the middle of the New Town. The smell of stale ale in the air. A water tender is close by, a man hosing down the street of last night’s shots, cigarette butts and vomit, fresh and dandy for another night’s revelry. This is ‘Sticky Vicky’ territory, whoever she is. You can only imagine. The tacky side of Benidorm.
This is where my apology comes in, because I had the preconception that the town was all like this, the Aia Napa of northern Spain. From what I have seen, I could not have been more wrong. Yes, you have your hen and stag parties, and groups of forty or fifty somethings here for a good time, but that happens in so many cities across the world today. In Benidorm, they seem to be confined to certain areas, perhaps not deliberately so, but it works. If you know where they are, you can easily avoid them, and instead opt to join the dog walkers and pram pushers and electric scooter brigade, and holidaymakers here for sun and sangria and just having a pleasant time without the intention of getting totally wrecked every night.
Our final night in Benidorm, and we decide to eat at the India Gate, voted as the best Indian in town, and the only Indian-owned Indian restaurant in Benidorm. Did you get that? It is located on Calle Gerona, locally known as ‘Food Street’. The menu has a special offer of E39,00 per couple, which most diners seem to opt for. Diane has a starter of onion bhaji, followed by chicken pasanda. I choose the hot wings, and a lamb karai. You also get a choice of rice and naan bread, plus a bottle of wine (or two pints of lager!, all of which are excellent.
I have concluded that there is no room for sitting on the fence. You either love Benidorm, or hate the place. Interestingly, Spanish holidaymakers outnumber British tourists throughout the year, and appear to congregate on the same beach, mostly away from the ‘English this’ and ‘English that’ bars and cafés, as if we cannot do without home comforts for one week. They are exactly the places that I personally try to avoid.
Mind you, many that we did avoid were heaving with holidaymakers, so I would seem to be in the minority. Oh well, aloof and condescending I may be, but that is public school for you. Will I return? I ask myself. Yes. So there you have it.
- All images © Essential Journeys/Michael Cowton