The Insider’s Guide to the Costa del Sol

Close to the main hotspots but far from the madding crowd, here are some of Malaga’s best kept secrets, well worth a visit on the next tripto Spain’s sunshine coast

The Wine Museum (Museo del Vino), Ojen, Marbella

You’ll need a car to reach Ojen. It was made famous by a local liqueur and Julio Iglesias has a home here. It’s heaven for nature lovers, set in the mountains just above Marbella and is definitely worth a detour, not just for a taste of some fine Spanish wines, but for a feel for the quieter side of Marbella, where birdsong and the whizz of mopeds are the soundtrack in spring and summer.

This is Malaga’s “spiritual” home, but it’s not just wines that are on display or for tasting. Resident guide Antonio will tell you it’s Ojen’s own special Eau-de-Vie (a concoction of aniseed and aromatic herbs that packs quite a punch) that originally put the Ojen on the worldwide map.

In 1840 a man called Pedro Morales started distilling the special liqueur but he kept the recipe a secret. Soon, visitors were asking for a “copita de Ojen” in bars around Spain and it was exported all over the world.

Picasso probbly enjoyed a swig or two – he immortalised a bottle of the anisette liqueur in his work “Bodegon Espanol”. But after being passed down from father to eldest son over four generations, one father died suddenly before he had the chance to pass the formula on, so the recipe remains a mystery.

Also worth visiting: The local 16th-century church with its square minaret-style Mudejar tower; the Caves of Ojen; the Los Chorros fountain; and Juanar Palace, a very old hunting lodge (game is still shot here) that is now a hotel and restaurant, set in the hiker’s and rider’s paradise in the Sierra Blanca mountains.

For opening times and wine-tasting information, call 0034 952 881 453. Museo del Vino Malaga, Antigua Destileria de Ojen, Calle Carrera 39, Ojen near Marbella 29610

La Mairena, Elviria

This UNESCO protected area where eagles soar above the eucalyptus and pine trees is, astoundingly, just a few kilometres from bustling Marbella town. It’s one of the area’s real gems and although the ten minute drive is all uphill, with its twists and turns, when you reach “the top” you can stop and admire the breathtaking views across to Africa. There’s a simple but stylish bar at the top of the hills – the terrace is decorated with sculptures by a famous artist that are on display, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more spectacular place to enjoy tapas and a few drinks under Marbella’s early evening sky.

Marbella’s Michelin star – El Lago Restaurant at Greenlife Golf

This is of Marbella’s best kept kitchen secrets. El Lago is a five minute drive downhill from La Mairena and the food is so good chefs from all over Spain have come to eat here since it opened a few years ago. Firmly on the Michelin radar, it’s a favourite with local residents “in the know”

www.restauranteellago.com/en/

El Lago’s charming and super-talented head chef Diego del Rio is a Slow Food fan, serving up creative, flavoursome food that changeswith the seasons. Diego is a master matchmaker of flavours – his soups are sensational, such as his signature chilled pine nut and garlic soup with membrillo, or rich mushroom soup flavoured with licorice and hazlenuts. Main dishes include game, fish and meat, such as fresh turbot with nectarine and thyme sauce – what’s more, every dish seems to reflect his love of locally-produced food.

Food is served inside or on the al fresco terrace overlooking the fountains and greens of Greenlife Golf, accompanied by the humming of the Spanish honeybees and the scent of evening jasmine.

The Enlightenment Stupa, Buddhist Centre, Benalmadena

Look up as you’re driving along the motorway (autopista) just before you reach the Benalmadena/Arroyo turn off in the direction of Malaga, and you’ll see the Buddhist Stupa, glinting in the sun. No it’s not a mirage, it’s the Enlightenment Stupa (the highest in Europe at 33 metres) which opened in October 2003 much to the curiosity of the locals, just outside the small hillside village of Benalmadena Pueblo.

The spot is stunning. Overlooking the Med to both east and west, it’s one of the best places for an eagle eye view of the twinkling Costa del Sol coastline at night – the site was specifically chosen by Buddhist master Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche who visited Spain for the first time in 1990. Inspired by Andalucia, Master Rinpoche built a Buddhist Meditation Centre at Karma Guen (about 50 kilometres from Malaga) in 1994 prior to establishing other projects. Rinpoche became a Spanish resident in 1995 and toured the country, teaching. The Englightenment Stupa was his last project and has become one of the modern landmarks of the Costa del Sol.

Open daily (except Mondays) it is free to visit and there is a small café and shop, selling Buddhist items, books, CDs and jewellery. The centre also runs regular meditation evenings and classes. For more information visit http://www.stupabenalmadena.org/en/introduction_en.html

CABOPINO MARINA, Cabopino

A whisker away from Calahonda, Cabopino is a pint-sized yacht harbour – it may be small, but it’s big on charm and it’s a good spot to bring children, with its shallow, clear water and safe sandy beaches. There are a few “chiringuitos” right on the sand which rent out sunloungers – ideal if you’re spending the day in a horizontal position under the sun.

The pretty marina has a surprisingly wide variety of eating options, from pizzas to tapas to contemporary cuisine. There are a few shops and beauty salons but the main draw is the beach, yachts and restaurants along the waterfront.

Cabopino is open for breakfast (Spanish as well as hearty English ones), lunch, sunset cocktails and dinner. Don’t forget the camera…not only is Cabopino picturesque but you might see a few famous faces – Boris Becker and the Beckhams – who locals say have been spotted here. www.cabopino.net

ALCAIDESA, near Sotogrande

Ask a local in Fuengirola if they’ve heard of Alcaidesa and chances are you’ll get a blank stare. At the opposite end of the Costa del Sol to Malaga, it’s by far one of the coast’s prettiest spots, with its uncrowded beach (the exception being peak summer) and excellent golf.

While the well-known championship course Valderrama is close by, Alcaidesa’s links course is easier, breezier and in many ways more relaxed. Once you’ve pitched and putted your way around you can dissect your round over a drink at the golf club bar and marvel at the dramatic view of “The Rock” just along the coast. (With scenery like that, nobody seems to mind how good or disastrous the round was). Unlike Fuengirola, Calahonda and Marbella, there’s honestly not much choice when it comes to “chiringuitos” except for a boutique hotel above the beach called Quercus and La Vista on the beach…but that’s part of its natural charm. Pick up some Manchego and a baguette along the way at one of the Hipercor supermarket stores open all week in summer, and make a Spanish picnic of it.

Probably better known to Gibraltarians, Alcaidesa is technically in Spain although it’s just minutes from The Rock. If you’re staying anywhere near Marbella it’s a scenic Sunday afternoon drive – just head west towards Sotogrande and follow the signs. http://www.golfalcaidesa.es/

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