Found in the far southwestern edge of Murcia, close to the boundary with Almeria, the coastal resort of Águilas is fairly remote but well worth the car hire journey from Alicante. It's a town with lively culture, spectacular heritage and 25 kilometres of sunny coastline offering no fewer than four Blue Flag beaches.
Sights to check out
It's hard to miss the imposing outline of the Castle of St John, which stands at the summit of a promontory looking out to sea. There had long been some sort of coastal defence at this spot before a large fortress was constructed on the site in the mid-1700s. Given Águilas' setting, the town had been vulnerable to pirate attacks originating from North Africa, and the castle is complemented by a string of old watchtowers along the coast, such as the Torre de Cop, built in the 1500s.
The castle's exhibits are only in Spanish, but the best reason to visit this attraction is to climb up to the canon-armed battlements, where the views over the town, harbour and Mediterranean are sublime.
Be sure to stroll the alleys of the old town, where there are little old churches and a fine array of welcoming tapas bars and seafood restaurants to call in on.
If you'd like to get some insight into the city's maritime heritage and the marine life found just off the coast here, then the Centro de Interpretacion del Mar is a compact but very modern attraction boasting an aquarium and converted trawler, all situated a few steps from the waterfront. And naturally, if you want to see this wildlife in its own habitat, there's a diving centre operating out of the town's marina with courses and trips for all-comers.
Fair to say that few towns in mainland Spain celebrate the coming of Lent in quite the way that Águilas does. The carnival here has attained national tourism status and goes all the way back to the reign of King Carlos III in the 1700s. Every August the town elects the four main characters for the following year's carnival - La Musa, who represents the festive spirit of the carnival; Doña Cuaresma, who embodies the austerity and abstinence of Lent; Don Carnal, a reincarnation of the Roman god, Janus, and La Mussona, a kind of half-man, half-beast signifying the duality of all humans.
For two weeks in February these characters are ever-present in parades, impromptu dances and concerts. One of the most colourful is the night of the first Monday, when everyone takes to the street in disguises and fancy dress. Finally, after a fortnight of celebration, Don Carnal, having been defeated in battle by Doña Cuaresma, is cremated (not literally!) and the beginning of Lent is ushered in with fireworks.
Finally, Águilas' fabulous beaches are perhaps the town's biggest draw. And for good reason; the coastline here is delightful, with golden sandy bays punctuated by huge, striking outcrops of craggy rock with sheer cliffs. You'll have access to four Blue Flag beaches without even having to leave the town. From east to west, Playa de las Delicias is a narrow curve of flaxen sand, bookended by a headland and the town's marina. Next is Playa de Levante, which has particularly calm waters as the bay is closed off on the western side by a long breakwater. Separating these two beaches from those on the other side of the town is the huge headland that is home to the Castle of St John.
Playa de la Colonia, is next up, and is seen by many as the pick of the bunch. The views of the castle are superb, and there's an inviting sweep of soft sand next to calm, shallow waters, all edged by palm trees. Playa de Poniente is the last urban beach, found on the waterfront of the newest part of the town. It's long, and well-equipped with facilities, and offers visitors the best chance of finding a space to themselves.
You can get to Águilas within two hours of the Drivalia car rental depot at Alicante Airport (ALC).