A mountainous rock juts into the Mediterranean on Spain’s Costa Blanca, or white coast. Called Peñon de Ifach, it rises 1000 feet out of the sea, and I was determined to hike it. Last spring my husband, Peter, and I stayed at a friend’s lovely vacation villa in nearby Benissa. From the balcony, we had an amazing view of the Ifach, and I knew from the moment I saw it, I wanted to climb to the top.
I’m not exactly a mountaineer, but I’d heard the hike wasn’t too tough, so together with Peter and my brother and his wife, who had joined us from Sweden, we headed to the rock one warm April morning. After parking, we began following a fairly steep paved pathway that zigzagged about a third of the way up the rock. We worked up a sweat, but I was feeling pretty confident.
Then a tunnel appeared with a rocky path leading up into darkness. We saw people emerging from the tunnel, slipping and sliding on the loose rocks, and they looked worn out. Uh-oh. The tunnel wasn’t too long, maybe 60 feet, and we got through it OK by holding on to a thick rope mounted to the tunnel wall.
On the other side, everything changed, and the hike suddenly got scary. In places we navigated very narrow paths with only a rope to hold onto. A sudden slip could be fatal—no kidding. But the views were stunning as we climbed higher and higher, and I really wanted to make it to the summit.
Seagulls were everywhere on the rock, flying and nesting. A sign warned us at the trail entrance to keep away from the gulls as they could be aggressive. At one point Peter went off the trail to take photos and came too close to a nest of baby seagulls. Before we knew what was happening, the father and mother seagulls started dive-bombing Peter’s head. It was like a Hitchcock movie right before our eyes.
Peter tried to cover his head, and to this day we don’t know if a bird beak got him or he banged his arms against his sunglasses. All I know is when the birds finally flew away, Peter had blood running down his face. He was fine and said with a grin, “Did you get it on video?”
But I wasn’t fine. With the heat, the strenuous climb, the slippery rocks everywhere—and now mean seagulls, I was ready to turn around. We did make it a bit further to a beautiful overlook with a panoramic view of the sea, but we didn’t make it to the summit. On the way back down every time we walked by a seagull’s nest, I held my breath.
In spite of the seagull mishap, our hike up Peñon de Ifach was a highlight of our visit to Spain last year. Fortunately, the other activities we enjoyed were much less strenuous. In fact, Spain is super laid back. Add in the country’s amazing culture, nature, history, and weather, and you have a perfect international destination.
Then there’s the food. We couldn’t wait to take my brother, Dick, and his wife, Nilla, to a cute little tavern Peter and I discovered during our last visit to Costa Blanca. Casa El Peon de Piños sits high up in the mountains and serves authentic, affordable fare: paella, grilled meats, tasty tapas, and crusty bread with views for miles. We sat on the sunny café under umbrellas and lingered over a lovely lunch, enjoying wine and great conversation. It’s one of my favorite things to do, especially in such a delicious setting.
We found another fabulous restaurant in Valencia, where we went for an overnight visit. After getting settled in our cute 2-bedroom apartment at Valencia Flats, we inquired where to eat lunch. The receptionist directed us next door, adding the restaurant gives a discount to hotel guests. La Zarzamora was a cozy tavern with a patio out back overlooking a quiet courtyard. Our waiter was a hoot, super friendly, and advised us on the restaurant’s specialties. I tried a tasty dish with seafood and noodles that tasted like paella minus the rice. We also sampled fresh fried fish with heads and tails still intact—fish eyeball anyone? Portions were huge, and we shared tasty bites with one another. We loved this place so much we ate there twice.
Peter and I had visited Valencia once before and enjoyed sharing our favorite sites with Dick and Nilla: the central market, historic buildings and churches, and colorful squares, perfect for people watching. A highlight was renting bikes and riding along Turia Gardens, one of the largest urban parks in Spain, which stretches about 12 miles through the heart of the city.
While in Valencia, we visited the headquarters of Lladro, which manufacturers fine porcelain figures. Our tour guide, Ana, led us through the factory where she explained the process of creating Lladro’s beautiful, fragile works of art. We watched two women painstakingly assembling pieces: one a mother and child, the other a surfer. More than 1000 employees work at the factory.
Painting the faces is a very important step, Ana explained, since the painters have to recreate the expression that the sculptor intended. “Here they need a lot of attention to detail and a steady hand,” Most of their workforce is women, Ana said: “They are more skillful.” I was tempted to buy a piece, but besides being very pricey, the figures are also very breakable, and in my house with two dogs and a clumsy husband (sorry, Peter), it wouldn’t stand a chance.
TEMPLE OF HEALTH
Beaches are the main draw on the Costa Brava, and we found a cozy beach near Benissa in a small town called Moraira. Even though it wasn’t high season, plenty of people were on the beach, enjoying the sunny spring weather as the Mediterranean sparkled in the background. Peter and I had forgotten to bring our bathing suits, so we sat on a terrace and drank frothy Mahou beers and watched everyone enjoying the beach.
Further down the coast near Benidorm, Peter and I visited an exclusive spa called SHA Wellness Clinic—just the two of us. Their brochure announces, “Welcome to your new life” and invites you to enjoy a transformative experience at this “temple of health and well being.” Peter and I only stayed one night, but most guests come for a week or longer. It’s easy to see why.
SHA opened its doors in 2009, founded by Alfredo Bataller Parietti, a real estate developer who cured himself of a decades-long illness by following a macrobiotic diet. So impressed was Mr. Parietti with his improved health, he opened SHA Wellness Clinic so others could experience their own life-changing journey to good health. Staffed with more than 250 professionals, SHA offers customized programs in anti-aging, weight loss, smoking cessation, fitness, sleep recovery, detox, anti-stress, and others. Guests can also receive medical care, aesthetic beauty treatments, acupuncture—even dental care.
Accommodations at SHA Wellness Clinic are luxurious: spacious suites—most with large terraces overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The azure blue sky and turquoise infinity pools contrast with the resort’s color scheme—shades of beige and white that symbolize purity and health.
As we entered the lobby, water cascaded down a nearby stone wall, a peaceful greeting. Check in was prompt, and after being escorted to our room, Peter and I grabbed our bathing suits and headed to the indoor hydrotherapy circuit, where we experienced a refreshing variety of jetted pools, saunas, and steam baths of varying temperatures. Up next: lunch in Shamadi, SHA’s signature restaurant.
Nutrition is a core component of SHA’s wellness philosophy, and meals adhere to the healing principles of macrobiotics, based on ancient Japanese wisdom. The food differed from what Peter and I usually eat—millet burger, anyone?—but we loved the elegant presentations and emphasis on fresh produce and whole grains. Later we learned more about macrobiotics at a cooking class, where we made berry kanten, using agar flakes, and pears stewed in ginger and hazelnut sauce. Delicious!
Finally, it was time for a sampling of SHA’s therapeutic treatments. After 20 minutes at the oxygen bar—a unique experience that cleared my head, I found my way to the treatment area where my underwater massage awaited. Using a jetted showerhead, the therapist performed massage strokes while I relaxed in a large tub of water. It was amazing. A traditional massage with fragrant oils followed, and I felt completely rejuvenated.
Besides healthful spa treatments, education is an important component of the SHA experience. In addition to the cooking class, Peter and I also attended a talk about acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. Afterwards we took a sunset walk to the nearby beach town of Albir, followed by a healthy dinner at Shamadi. In the morning before checking out, we completed the hydrotherapy circuit again and savored a tasty macrobiotic breakfast. After just one day here, my tummy was noticeably flatter, and I could feel a renewed sense of energy. It’s a pricey getaway, but SHA will leave you transformed.
Too soon our time on the Costa Blanca was ending. We spent the last couple of days lounging by the pool at our vacation villa, owned by friends of ours, and eating simple meals, many cooked on the outdoor grill. Evenings we’d watch a rainbow of colors cascade down from the sky onto the sea as the sun set and twilight spread across the land. But even after night fell, I could still see the Ifach looming up out of the water, calling my name. One day I will return and try once again to make it to the top. I’ll be extra careful around the seagulls.
Where to Stay
Benissa - Casa Typee: www.spain-holiday.com/17604
Valencia - Valenciaflats Ciudad de las Ciencias: www.valenciaflats.com
Albir - SHA Wellness Clinic: www.shawellnessclinic.com/en
Where To Eat
Benissa - Casa El Peon de Piños: 34-629-655-035
Valencia - La Zarzamora: 34-96-373-6044
Albir - Shamadi: www.shawellnessclinic.com/en/shamadi-restaurant/