I WAS sitting in the sunshine, squinting at the Mediterranean and wondering if I would be brave enough to take a dip.
I had the beach to myself, save from some dogs splashing their owners along the seafront and athletic locals playing beach volleyball in their swimwear. It was exactly 19 degrees – in March – and I wore a bikini.
In short, I was in heaven. Or Estepona, if you want to be more precise .
A small town in the Malaga province with 21km of beaches, Estepona is an ancient fishing village that combines a charming old town with wonderful sea views looking out towards Gibraltar – and on a clear day, the north of Africa.
Something of a hidden gem on the Costa del Sol, Estepona blessedly avoids the top lists of Spain’s most popular holiday destinations. As a result, it has maintained authentic charm and unchanged beauty along with the Spanish beach culture essentials and tapas-bar obsession of its more popular siblings farther up along the coast.
I’ll admit I felt slightly smug watching my fellow travellers disembark off the bus to head towards partytowns Marbella and Puerto Banus. I knew something they didn’t – that just a few kilometres south of the garish glitz of Marbella, there’s a place with an undisturbed coastline, with low, square buildings painted in pristine white, and flowers blooming in the doorways.
Southern Spain’s best kept secret is nothing if not enchanting, particularly out of season. As I rolled my suitcase through Estepona’s centre, in search of my hotel I felt like Dorothy on her first trip to Oz. The flowers tumbling from dotted green plantpots were almost fluorescent, there were no clouds in the skies, no swarms of tourists on the beach. It wasn’t yet Spring but the whole town was in bloom, jasmine and bougainvillaea fell down immaculate white walls and the trees were filled with oranges.
I arrived at noon at The Old Town Hotel, on Calle Caridad, a pristine adults only boutique hotel set in a restored townhouse on one of Estepona’s prettiest streets. Located in the heart of the old town, it opened in 2021 after husband and wife duo Simone and Giusy undertook massive renovations on the once crumbling manor.
Their hard word certainly paid off. The entire building has been thoughtfully redesigned with original details, from the Spanish-style geometric tiles to the wooden beams and stunning art handpicked by the couple.
Modern furnishings, enormous showers, bright white cotton sheets, Nespresso machines and cava in the mini bar all dial up the luxury feel while the plastic free toiletries ease my traveller guilt at forgetting a toothbrush.
Estepona’s warm climate and mountain-view setting lend itself well to rooftop terraces and the Old Town Hotel has one of the best. I began my trip by taking in the stunning views before settling down for a sun-drenched siesta.
After an afternoon reading on the terrace I retreated to the beach. With close to 300 sunny days a year in Estepona, it’s hard to ignore the miles of golden sands. Despite donning my bikini I eventually decided it was not quite swimming weather and settled instead on listening to the crash of the waves as I tucked into an alfresco lunch in the sunshine at El Pescador. As I washed down cloudy Gambas Pil Pil with ice-cold Albarino I asked myself why I’d spent all those years dashing off along the Costa del Sol, when its best bits were right here all along.
I also found time for a dinner, once again accompanied by bone-dry, white wine, at Bodeguita del Chato. Run by beloved local wine connoisseur Pedro, along with his wife and daughter, the family serves up some of the best tapas in town. I grabbed the only vacant seat at the buzzing bar, balancing on a stool and watched as my tapas was prepared right in front of me. Pedro’s wife arranged freshly cut manchego cheeses on crispy bread and generously heaped tomatoes sauce on top of silky ravioli. Naturally, I ordered both, and devoured the gooey manchego in almost one single greedy bite.
Sitting at the bar it was easy to chat to staff and locals alike and soon I was barrelling through glasses of wine and ordering more dishes – including a boa bun with juicy fillet steak and tangy hoisin sauce – with the sort of abandon that always seizes me on the first night of any trip to Spain.
My evening continued with a stroll around the old town, walking beyond the bell tower and up to the hilltop church, stopping only to take in the poetry enscribed on the white wash walls.
Unsurprisingly, the next morning started languidly, with a slow wander along the newly refurbished seafront promenade. The pedestrian pathway is quintessentially Spanish, set alongside towering palm trees and drenched in sunshine. Toddlers in sun hats waddle along hand in hand with their parents, locals chat over gins at the chiringuitos, joggers pound the promenade cheerfully and couples stroll along the sands.
I decided to wake up my weary muscles with a cycle along the coast and set off after a delicious breakfast buffet at the hotel. Fuelled by fresh orange juice and tostada con tomate, I cycled happily along the sunny waterfront snapping pictures of the fishermen on the beaches to my right and marvelling at the height of the mountains just to my left.
The cycle home to the hotel was easy, the path keeping me away from the traffic that was making its way up to the town’s main road. Back in the old town, I decided it was time to taste some more of Spain’s traditional produce. At Darcy’s on Calle San Antonio I was invited to try the full range of hard and soft, heavy and light cheese, and told that Andalucia’s typical variety comes from goat’s milk.
There was more food to discover next door and I spent a happy hour discussing wine and local produce with the lovely German owner of restaurant-cum-art gallery Huber. My next visit to Estepona, I decided, will be a longer one. There’s simply too many restaurants and bars to enjoy in the old town alone.
On my bus back to Malaga I was reunited with those Marbella weekenders. They had obviously had one hell of a party, but I couldn’t help feeling they had missed out on something. To them, Estepona was just another spit of land on Spain’s southern coast. To me, it is a contender for my second home. After all, one you reach paradise, why would you want to leave?