I’m sitting on the terrace of the Luxor restaurant, in the shadow of the Acropolis and Europe’s longest wooden roller coaster, when the waitress uncorks an excellent bottle of Spanish wine and sets a gourmet selection of starters on the immaculately laid table. Where am I? One of the last places you’d guess would be a theme park in Benidorm.
It’s surprising enough to discover such a good restaurant in a place where burgers usually come with the territory, but even more so in the resort that is so stereotypically down-market. The meal at Terra Mitica illustrated a very different side to Benidorm.
The town’s tourist board has set its sights on attracting first-time visitors and those who have been once and never returned. Two Jack Nicklaus designed golf courses have opened, along with a string of upmarket restaurants and the new Barcelo Asia Gardens, Benidorm’s second five-star hotel.
Checking into the Asia Gardens it’s tempting to linger in the lobby, with its large champagne bar. Further exploration of the 312-room hotel reveals a tranquil haven of winding paths, lush tropical gardens, four restaurants and seven pools. The Balinese-style rooms are comfortable and airy, with sliding doors to create an open-plan bathroom and bedroom. The spa, staffed by Thai therapists, boasts generous sized treatment rooms with outdoor gazebos.
It would be easy to stay put, but I wanted to immerse myself in the full Benidorm experience. With its lack of grand Spanish squares and historic architecture it’s never going to win any beauty contests, but it’s still possible to find traces of the city’s roots. The first afternoon I strolled up through the small old town to the Mirador del Castillo lookout point, meeting place of Levante, Poniente and Malpas beaches.
It’s warm enough to swim year round and with 5,000 sunbeds on Levante alone there’s about room on the manicured 6km of sands for everyone, including the fashionable Madrilenos who head down from the Spanish capital at weekends, young families basking in Blue Flag waters and the elderly and disabled who benefit from top-notch free facilities including beach shelters and buggies.
Once we’d worked up an appetite watching a beach aerobics session, we crossed the road and headed for La Cuina de Ponen for some shade and delicious Valencian speciality dishes. This stretch of the prom has had a makeover and by summer will be pedestrianised, like Levante, with a curving wave-like beach wall designed by a Barcelona architect.
Benidorm has 2,000 shops and, tacky souvenirs aside, there are unexpected gems such as Myriam boutique in Calle Ruzafa, selling gorgeous clothes by Spanish designers.
There’s also a new breed of restaurants. Kataria Gastronomica on Avda del Mediteranneo stands out for its futuristic silver interior and its cuisine. At £32 a head with wine, four courses, preceded by plump olives and tempting breads, was outstanding.
Clubs and bars, of course, stay open until the small hours but we wanted to keep a clear head to check out the theme parks. A lot of thought has gone into the planning of Terra Natura, based on Central American, Indian and Mediterranean themes and home to 1,500 animals, and Aqualand, where synchronised swimmers add an extra splash to the daily dolphin shows.
Terra Mitica, one of the biggest parks in Spain, combines rides with a child-pleasing cultural tour around Egypt, Greece, Rome, Iberia and the islands. The rattling Magnus Colussus big dipper is an adrenaline pumping high spot but all the white-knuckle rides have miniature sidekicks for youngsters.
So while it remains the number one destination for British holidaymakers seeking sun and sand, Benidorm’s image is rapidly being transformed.
Monarch (0871 225 3884, www.monarch.co.uk) has flights to Alicante from £77 return. The five-star Barcelo Asia Gardens Hotel & Thai Spa (00 34 966 818400; www.asiagardens.es) from £110 B&B. More information: www.benidorm.org