Feature: The Splendors of Spain

Roman-era ruins, soft sand beaches and more draw all types to the Iberian Peninsula’s east coast.

By Erin Florio | Photography by Ben Roberts

Spain is a treasure trove of riches. Its knockout culinary scene has a reputation for kicking off global trends, and its 3,084-mile coastline is laced with sugary sand beaches. You’ll find pockets worth digging your heels into throughout the country, but focusing on the east coast is a smart way to experience it all: In monument-filled Tarragona you can ogle Roman-era temples; down south, the seaside city of Málaga has simple seafood stews and an emerging Michelin-star-studded dining scene; the Costa Blanca lures sunbathers to its Instagrammable azure waters; while a quick boat trip across those same waters has revelers partying until dawn on Ibiza. Here are four ways to experience this piece of paradise.

Tarragona

For Culture Buffs

Start things off at the southern end of Catalonia in historic Tarragona, where UNESCO-protected ruins from the town’s life as the Roman Empire–era city Tárraco rub shoulders with medieval institutes. Most ruins are found in the pretty, pedestrian-friendly Old Town, elevated above the modern city and anchored by the magnificent 12th-century Cathedral of Tarragona (Plaça Pla de la Seu; 011-34-977-22-69-35). Although the view of its Romanesque and Gothic facade from the main street is impressive, head inside to see works in its chapels by 15th-century masters such as Lluís Borrassà. South of the cathedral you’ll hit Passeig Arquelògic (Ave. Catalunya; 011-34-977-24-57-96; tarragonaturisme.cat), a walkway that surrounds the Roman-era city walls. It’s a nice way to glimpse an array of architectural styles from throughout the centuries (keep an eye out for the cannons from the 1700s, visible through the gateways). At the wall’s east side, you can walk down Via Bryant toward the sea to admire the cradle-shaped amphitheater (Parc de l’Anfiteatre; 011-34-977-24-25-79; tarragona.cat), which could hold 15,000 spectators. The view from the seats out across the ocean two millennia ago would have been the same that you have when you visit. For one of the more memorable sites, venture 10 miles north of the city on the N24 to Pont del Diable (Tarragona, AP-7; 011-34-977-34-20-69; pontdeldiabletarragona.com), an 85-foot-high aqueduct built during Augustus’ rule.

Ibiza

For Nightlife Seekers

About 80 miles off the coast of Catalonia, Ibiza has been the hottest island in the Balearic archipelago since Mick and the Stones arrived on its then-under-the-radar craggy coastline in the ’60s. Today it draws urban bohemians trading the bustle of the continent for quiet, stylish retreats on the island’s bucolic north shore, while beach bars and an epic club scene have made the east and west coasts a playground for the international party set. Kick things off on one of the 35 cushioned daybeds overlooking tranquil Sol d’en Serra bay at Amante Beach Club (Cala Sol d’en Serra, Cala Llonga; 011-34-971-19-61-76; amanteibiza.com; daybeds, from $40*). The bartender will keep your glass of tinto de verano filled while the ambient house beats give you a taste of the night ahead. The staff can call you a cab to get you to the legendary sunset bar Café del Mar (27 Calle Vara de Rey; cocktails for two, $30) in time to claim a table and a margarita before you join the crowd to watch the blazing sun slowly melt into the sea (and yes, that applause at the end is customary). From there it’s a 20-minute cab ride east to Lío (1 Passeig Joan Carles I, Puerto Deportivo Marina; 011-34-971-31-00-22; lioibiza.com; dinner for two, $100), a dinner club and cabaret where you may catch Jamiroquai or Seal onstage while the stylish set sips Dom Pérignon and dances barefoot. Doors close at 1 a.m., so you can follow the crowd down the road to club Pacha (Ave. 8 d’Agost; 011-34-722-65-64-74; pacha.com), where David Guetta and Bob Sinclair spin house and techno until well after the sun comes back up. Need R&R the next day? Drive inland through the cactus-swept plains to Ca Na Xica (Carr. de Sant Miquel km 10; 011-34-971-33-44-09; canaxica.com; dinner for two, $75), which reopened last year with a new restaurant and a cypress-lined swimming canal.

Costa Blanca

For Beach Lovers

Four hours by train from Tarragona, Spain’s most popular resort destination has a near-perfect climate (it gets only about an inch of rain each month) and 120 miles of pristine coastline. The capital, Alicante, has wide sandy beaches, top-notch nightlife and proximity to pretty coves and swimming holes up the coast. If one too many mojitos the night before on lively Calle Castaños makes you too late to the central Playa del Postiguet to claim space on the sand among the Germans and Brits, catch the half-hourly tram to the palm fringed Playa de Muchavista (Campello). The beach runs for four miles and has a boardwalk that’s popular for a caña (small beer) once the sunbathing hours are over. Consider getting back to town early: Alicante kicks off afternoon cocktail hour at 3:30, and NIC (22 Calle Castaños; 011-34-965-21-63-20; nicalicante.com; cocktails for two, $15) serves killer tapas and fills up fast. The next morning, consider a day trip up to the tranquil beach La Granadella, in Jávea, just a few hundred feet long and shrouded by an Aleppo pine forest. Its clear, deep waters and ocean bed lined with sea grass make it a great place to spot octopus while snorkeling. For a culture hit on the way back to town, stop at Altea, a tiny whitewashed village.

Málaga

For Foodies

From Barcelona to San Sebastián, many cities claim to be the center of Spanish cuisine. But Málaga, the coastal resort village in southern Andalusia, is having its own foodie moment. Last September the modern Mercado Merced (4 Calle Merced; 011-34-952-60-88-21; mercadomerced.com) opened up on the historic plaza of the same name. You can munch traditional gazpachuelo Malagueño (seafood soup) from some of its 17 food stalls, but the real treat is the sherry poured at the outpost of Antigua Casa de Guardia, Málaga’s oldest bar. And don’t worry about overindulging; you can walk off that extra tortilla at the Picasso Museum (8 Calle San Agustín; 011-34-952-12-76-00; museopicassomalaga.org; admission, $10), just a five-minute stroll south. After admiring the works of Málaga’s most famous son, sample the tastes of its most celebrated chef, at Café de Paris (Calle Vélez-Málaga; 011-34-952-22-50-43; rcafedeparis.com; dinner for two, $120). Chef José Carlos García earned his chops cooking alongside Michel Bras before taking over his family’s joint, in 2001, and transforming it à la his Michelin-inflected training (think shrimp carpaccio and suckling pig with cardamom). Café de Paris got a Michelin star the following year. But if you want to see where Málaga’s food scene is really headed, book one of the six tables at García’s newer outpost JCG (Plaza de la Capilla; 011-34-952-00-35-08; restaurantejcg.com; dinner for two, $150), on the revamped Málaga port. Here local ingredients are fused with Asian influences to create dishes such as battered prawns with kimchi. García and many chefs here source ingredients such as clams and carne each morning at Málaga’s lively 19th-century Mercado Central de Atarazanas (10 Calle Atarazanas; 011-34-951-92-60-10)—as memorable as this slice of Spain itself.

The Essentials

Getting There

Major carriers, such as Iberia, American Airlines and British Airways, run daily direct flights into Madrid and Barcelona from New York and Miami and offer connecting flights from Chicago, L.A. and other U.S. cities. In Spain, regional carriers including Iberia Express offer flights several times a day between Málaga, Madrid and Alicante. Barcelona is the most convenient port for Tarragona.

Getting Around

Train

Spain’s excellent, efficient national rail system, Renfe (renfe.com), as well as the continent’s Trainline (thetrainline-europe.com) offer departures throughout the day connecting Tarragona, Alicante and Málaga, with trips starting around $19.

Car

Europcar (europcar.com; daily rentals, from $30) has pickup and drop-off locations in every major Spanish town.

Ferry

Ferries to Ibiza depart 10 times a week from Barcelona and Valencia on Balearia (011-34-902-16-01-80; balearia.com; round-trip passage, from $80). You can bring your car for an extra fee.

STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts in Spain include:
Crown Resorts at Club Marbella 2404
The outdoor pool is the crowd-pleaser at this resort, whose central location makes it a great base for day trips. Calle Monte Paraíso, Málaga
Sunset Beach Club 1469
Right on the water’s edge, with lots of on-site amenities, including a supermarket, beauty salon and kids’ club. 5 Avenida del Sol, Málaga
Crown Resorts at Club Calahonda 1878
The modern pool complex and spa draw repeat guests. Pueblo Jarales, Málaga
Grand Palladium Palace Ibiza Resort & Spa DB10
A beachfront resort with freshwater pools. Calle Playa d’en Bossa, Sant Jordi de Ses Salines
RCI® Tip
Can’t decide which cities in Spain to visit? With RCI® Travel Guided Vacations**, experienced travel guides can help you plan every detail of your tour, including lodging and ground transportation between locations. For more information, go to RCITravelGuidedVacations.com.
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI Affiliated Resorts:
Ca Na Xica
This 20-room boutique property in Ibiza’s center has a popular restaurant. Carr. de Sant Miquel km 10, Ibiza; canaxica.com; doubles from $315 a night, three-night minimum
Molina Lario
Breezy, spacious rooms and a rooftop pool close to the city and port. 20 Calle Molina Lario, Málaga; hotelmolinalario.com; doubles from $155 a night 
Hotel SB Ciutat de Tarragona
Simple rooms (some with Old City views), steps from Tarragona’s ruins. 5 Plaça de la Imperial Tàrraco, Tarragona; hotelciutatdetarragona.com; doubles from $83 a night
Sercotel Suites del Mar
Panoramic city views and sea-facing terraces make this a Postiguet Beach gem. 3 Plaza Puerto del Mar, Alicante; hotelspaportamaris.com; doubles from $150 a night 
  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • **RCI Travel Guided Vacations is administered by International Cruise & Excursion Gallery, Inc. d/b/a/ Our Vacation Center and/or ICE, a Delaware Corporation, with its principal place of business at 15501 N. Dial Blvd., Scottsdale, Arizona under contract with RCI, LLC. RCI disclaims all responsibility in connection with any third-party travel services.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Fall 2016