Costa del Sol, Costa Brava, Costa Blanca - Spain has more famous coasts than one country's fair share. Their names conjure up images of long stretches of golden sand washed by an eternally blue Mediterranean.
Some names - Costa del Sol, especially - may also bring images of unchecked development, rows of cookie-cutter hotels broken only by English pubs and T-shirt shops, places with about as much Spanish character as Atlantic City.
How do you choose the right coast - or even know if the old stereotypes are still true? Follow us on a tour of these fabled costas, along more than a thousand sea-washed miles stretching from the French border northeast of Barcelona to the Portuguese line west of Seville.
Costa Brava, Spain's wild coast, has been a haven for artists and writers ever since a journalist gave it the name in 1909. This coast north of Barcelona celebrates its century of life in 2009-2010 with art exhibits, concerts, sports events and a touring route highlighting local artists including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Marc Chagall. At Figueres, Dalí's birthplace, the Dalí Museum is dedicated to the Spanish surrealist; and Cadaqués, still a haven for artists, hosts summer international painting and music festivals.
Tossa de Mar is the prettiest of the Costa Brava towns, its white houses lining narrow lanes inside 12th-century walls and towers. Secluded coves and long sand beaches line the shore nearby. Pals is another medieval village, with beautiful views from the 11th-century ruins of Sant Pere de Rodes monastery.
With less scenery and ambience but more long beaches, the Costa Daurada lies southwest of Barcelona. Only Sitges offers much diversion, as outrageous an enclave of art, architecture and wild festivals as it was when the Modernistas gathered there in the early 20th century. Closer to Valencia, the Costa del Azahar is verdant with orange groves, with good beaches around Castellón de la Plana. Peniscola is a fortified medieval town with a Knights Templar castle, standing alone almost surrounded by sea.
South of Valencia, the Costa Blanca stretches between two capes, around the city of Alicante. Dramatic caves break the cliffs around Javea, where there is a parador, an upscale government-owned hotel. Benidorm's swarms of international tourists assure that its nightlife will be the liveliest along this coast, with dozens of bars, pubs and clubs to choose from.
In the midst of all the fun-in-the-sun, it is surprising that Alicante manages to retain its authentically Spanish character, with an atmospheric old quarter. The same is true of the beaches near the city, such as Eliche, popular with Spanish families.
Best known of Spain's coasts, the Costa del Sol stretches from Málaga to Gibraltar. Perhaps it's not the most spectacular of the coasts, but it has Europe's highest number of guaranteed sunny days, assuring a steady stream of northern Europeans seeking winter warmth. It's international but, apart from a few marinas, hardly jet-set. This lively goodtime land of sunny beaches has plenty of amusements for kids and enough culture, class and character to make sure you know you're in Spain.
Whether you're looking for bullfights or golf, shopping or Picasso, you'll find it on the Costa del Sol. For authentic tapas bars, Old World charm and a taste of the Moorish influence, climb the winding streets of Marbella's old town, only a few blocks away but worlds apart from the beach. Marbella's not tarted up or artsy - for that go to chic little Porto Banus, built in the 1960s to welcome spectacular yachts. They and their suntanned owners can be admired from the promenade. Designer boutiques, upscale jewelers, smart nightlife and a decidedly moneyed air set it apart from neighboring fun spots. Like Porto Banus, Torremolinos is populated mostly by foreigners, but not such wealthy ones, and has its own lively flavor.
Determined to become one of Europe's Cities of Art, much-maligned Málaga has transformed itself in the past few years. Spain's second-most-important cruise port has replaced its traffic-clogged main shopping street with a sparkling pedestrian boulevard and filled it with sculpture, benches and cafés.
West of Gibraltar, the Andalucian coast is washed not by the Mediterranean but by the Atlantic Ocean. Near Gibraltar, around the Cape of Trafalgar, mountains rise sharply from the sea. At its tip, laid-back Tarifa is a magnet for windsurfers, and not far from it is a line of never-crowded beaches. In the steep hills behind them lie some of Andalucia's White Towns - the closest to the coast is Vejer de la Frontera.
The miles and miles of fine white sand from this rocky promontory to the Portuguese border are known as the Costa de la Luz, with an average of 300 days of sunshine each year. Developed later, the region heeded the lesson of the earlier resorts, opting for high-end and low-rise. The beaches, natural attractions and scenery are preserved, and the coast is a bit of a Spanish secret. Only around Rota and at Matalascañas Beach is there much foreign influence; elsewhere, the resort towns still offer an authentic local experience.
Mazagón, south of Huelva, is a peaceful resort with a beautiful beach backed by pines; and in Cádiz the beaches come right up to the city center - one is book-ended by a pair of defensive forts, Santa Catalina and San Sebastián. Although it's the region's major port, Cádiz seems more like a little provincial town, its charming streets lined by Moorish-looking white homes with wooden balconies.
Sanlucar de Barrameda and Jerez de la Frontera are best known for fine sherries, although both have other reasons to visit: Sanlucar for outstanding seafood restaurants and Jerez for flamenco and the magnificent Andalucian horses at the Royal School of Equestrian Art.