Travels with a Gourmet

a food lover's travels, memorable meals, culinary trials and gastronomic experiences

Each time I’ve asked Marbella oldtimers and long-time residents where the best beaches are, the town of Tarifa on the Costa de La Luz unanimously comes up. After constantly hearing about the white sand, the clear blue waters and the laidback hippy atmosphere, we decided on the spur of the moment to spend one night there and find out what everyone was talking about. We made a booking at La Sacristia, a ten-room inn located in the old town of Tarifa which was recommended by both Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Cache.

The drive to Tarifa is a quick hour on the highway passing La Linea (near Gibraltar) and Algeciras. Tarifa is the southernmost city in Europe and made famous by the strong winds that has made this a premier surfing and kite-sailing place. Diving in the Mediterranean and dolphin-watching in the Straight of Gibraltar are some of the other activities offered there along with the ferry-ride away to Tangier. The winding road to Tarifa is flanked by low green hills and a breathtaking view of the sea, the Spanish territory of Ceuta and the Moroccan coast.

We arrived in town a little bit after two and made a couple of wrong turns made difficult by the one-lane cobble stoned streets and the lack of signage directing us to the hotel. We finally reached La Sacristia where we arrived dragging our weekend bags through the small alley where the hotel is located. First impressions of the decor were good – the bar area was cozy and the furnishing simple but stylish. We stood around a bit trying to find the reception desk and finally approached the bar to ask where the check-in counter was and they said “right here. Strange that they no one greeted us as soon as we arrived.

When we made the reservation the day before, we were told that the hotel was fully booked but that they had two rooms available nearby. Although there are only ten rooms in the hotel, they apparently have ten other rooms scattered throughout the old town and all within walking distance. We were accompanied to our rooms nearby which was a five-minute walk away. The entrance from the street were large green shutters onto a large foyer. There was a locked glass door that opened onto a homey winter garden. We made our way to the second floor where to right was a bright hallway which we thought would lead to our rooms but the house is actually lived in by the sister of La Sacristia‘s owner so these areas were off-limits. Our rooms were through a wooden door on the left of the landing.

Our rooms were sparsely furnished and pension-like and for 135 Euros a night (breakfast included), they were a letdown. To be fair, the room was clean and the trompe l’oeil canvases a nice touch but the bathrooms were tiny and badly-lit plus the exhaust fans were filthy. The cardboard-thin doors and walls and the old-style windows made any noise coming from either the street or inside the house reverberate in our rooms. We were never warned that the rooms outside the hotel would be any different from the ones at the hotel. After seeing the lovely photos from the website and reading about how the two designer owners put their personal touch to the place, our expectations were obviously high.

We decided to have some lunch at a tapas place recommended by the reception which was just down the road. We couldn’t find the place and didn’t realize that we had passed it already since it was dark and boarded up – so much for recommendations. We set off in search of the Alameda, the main pedestrian street, where there were several restaurants as well.

Tired and hungry, we sat at the first cafe we saw at the bottom end near the port. The place was packed and seemed a good indication that the food might be good. We all ordered tortilla Espanola (Spanish-style potato and onion omelet) and salads. The portions were large but the omelets were bland to say the least. Not a very promising start to the weekend.

After lunch, we decided to stay in the courtyard downstairs to read the papers then have a siesta before dinner. At around 7 p.m., we started to get ready and our son had a shower first followed by myself. By the time my husband had his turn in the shower, the hot water had run out.

This time, we were determined to find a decent restaurant and after walking up and down the Alameda looking at the menus posted outside, we decided to eat at Lola Mora – a quaint-looking place at the top end of the main pedestrian street. Our 5-year old son had a pizza, my husband had a hamburger and I shared a seafood paella with the nanny. The food was decent but nothing to write home about.

Unsure of whether we were just unlucky with our choices or whether Tarifa was overrated, we headed back to the hotel for an early night determined to find something to explain Tarifa’s reputation. Since it was a warm evening, we had to leave the windows open which was a big mistake. The noises from the street were unbearable. It almost felt like we were camping on the sidewalk because the voices from the street were so loud. Just when we were about to drift off to sleep, another voice would wake us up and we ended up tossing and turning all night. The only one who slept soundly was our son.

Bright and early today, we packed our bags and headed back to La Sacristia to have breakfast. There was a small table laid with fresh orange juice, slices of ham and cheese, warm bread rolls, yogurts, cereals and some fresh fruit. We had the whole lounge to ourselves since everyone must have still been asleep after partying outside our bedroom window all night. The staff were around but were busy having breakfast themselves and left us on our own. We checked out soon after and drove out of Tarifa towards the N-340 in the direction of Cadiz.

We passed several small beach hotels and kept on until we reached Playa de Valdevaqueros and good thing we stopped here because it was only then that we realized what all the fuss was about. This section of the beach is designated for swimmers only and so there were no surfers around. The wide expanse of soft, white sand and the clear blue sea was a surprise after the rocky coastline of Marbella. The beach was deserted and looked very much like the windswept beaches on Cape Cod and Nantucket. There were a few fishermen, a few dog walkers, a lone biker and us although it was still early in the day. I imagine that in July and August the beach wouldn’t be so private but it would still be pretty. We spent an hour just sitting on the sand watching the waves while our son made sandcastles and collected seashells happy to have found something to like about Tarifa after all.

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