Travel: Benidorm, Spain

Leaning over the balcony of my 16th-floor room, I'm surrounded by high-rise buildings, the noise of the busy city below little more than a muted buzz.

No, I'm not in Manhattan or Hong Kong, I'm in Benidorm - home of the TV comedy series about Brits abroad, the 'concrete jungle' where I've heard it's easier to get a roast dinner than a Spanish paella.

Around 1.7 million of us visit Benidorm each year and the number is rising. Its smart hoteliers cannily extended the summer season into November this year, and they expect many winter visitors to stay for a month or more.

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It isn't difficult to see why. Benidorm has worked so hard to dump the 'bacon and butties' image that it has been suggested as a UNESCO World Heritage site - and there is so much to see in the surrounding province of Alicante.

We began our visit leaving the high-rise blocks behind to walk down tiny, winding streets and through crowded courtyards in the old town where Spanish holidaymakers crowd into tapas bars to gossip before eating late.The spit in the old town, once the site of a castle but now more of a viewing point, juts out into the sea separating the Levante (sunrise) and Poniente (sunset) beaches, both huge stretches of golden sand.

The new wave-inspired promenade on the Poniente end is testament to how Benidorm is changing - welcoming the discerning holidaymaker as well as those who just want the sun. A thing of architectural beauty, it shows how far this city has come since tourism began to transform this stretch of the coast in the 1960s.

Today's visitors needn't settle for high-rise, either. Of Benidorm's three five-star hotels, two are extensive complexes lying outside the city, while the newly-opened Villa Venecia, a deceptive boutique hotel right next to the spit, overlooks the sea.

Here you work out in the gym looking down on the waves, dine on unbelievably fresh seafood, or relax in its bijou hot tub and bar, feeling a million miles away from the late-night rabble-rousers.

Other changes are there to see - maybe hidden under the surface but there all the same. The Hotel Levante Club, where we stayed, recently became all-inclusive, unusual in a city centre hotel. It's also adults-only, a great escape for those of us who can do without being soaked by a dive-bomb as we laze alongside the pool.

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Families have the choice of four theme parks nearby - Terra Mitica, Aqualandia, Mundomar and Terra Natura are all popular with children and probably give parents a relatively easy day out.

Adults travelling by themselves will get more enjoyment out of Alicante, a splendidly Spanish city which is largely untouched by mass tourism. It's just a 40-minute drive away.

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So easily ignored by thousands of tourists who fly in and get whisked off to resorts, this city is a treat. With two beaches, one slightly out of town, impressive museums, art galleries, great restaurants and bars, and boutiques to keep shopaholics happy for hours, I was spoilt for choice.

Our guided walk took us to the city's historic castle perched high on the hill above. A five-minute walk through an underground tunnel and a quick lift ride to the top gave us panoramic views across the whole area. Beautifully maintained, this ancient building can't fail to impress.

For an alternative to the city life, you should leave Benidorm in the opposite direction and head up the coast towards smaller seaside towns. Suddenly, you could be anywhere in Spain, feeling a million miles away from Britain.

Playa d'Albir is a charming town with its own small-scale hustle and bustle. It has hotels but none of the urban pressures that some dislike about Benidorm.

The Hotel Playa d'Albir's boutique-style bedrooms lend a touch of class, while the buffet restaurant is by far the best I've ever tried, with great service and the biggest range of fresh fish and seafood. The beautiful desserts, all made in-house, are heaven.

Albir is also an appropriate setting for the SHA Wellness Clinic - an angelic white hotel resting on the hill above the town. With a focus on macrobiotic diets and healthy living, it lures celebrities who need to relax. Everything here may be good for you, but it's also classy, beautiful, and incredibly calm.

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When we dined, Real Madrid star and former Spanish football captain Raul was at the next table. Apparently he's one of many famous faces among the regulars.

Further along the coast, beyond the town of Altea, you come eventually to Denia - to me the Spanish answer to the south of France. Here you can look longingly at the yachts moored in the harbours, then browse the shops in the tree-lined avenues before dining in gourmet restaurants.

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In winter, the locals here are almost outnumbered by Brits who nestle down for long stays in the surrounding hillsides. There are some stunning views locally - the marina of Estaciones Nauticas is a great place to see how the other half live, with trips aboard its motor boats, catamarans and sailing boats at a price mere mortals can afford.

We enjoyed a jaunt along the coast on board a renovated wooden sailing boat, all to ourselves with just the wind through the sails to lull us to sleep.

After all this relaxation, a six-course tasting lunch at El Raset restaurant more than prepared us for a tour of this beautiful town. Denia stands in the shadow of the imposing Montgo mountain, with some views unchanged for decades.

In Denia's old town, huge regeneration work is under way, with new restaurants and bars springing up along its tiny streets. An 11th century castle, used by both the Moors and Christians when they ruled the town, is well worth the stumble up steep cobbles.

On gloomy days ahead, happy memories of the Costa Blanca will come flooding back.