Our balcony at the Hotel Elba looked over the pool and palm trees, to the sea beyond.
This racing game was a firm favourite with my kids (the green blur on the track is a car!).
Like most families with young children, we tend to book self-catering apartments when we go away. Much more flexible, with our own kitchen and fridge, so we can eat what we want, when we want, where we want; plus the extra space of a separate living room with sofa (essential for collapsing on with a glass of wine when the kids are in bed/depositing them on to chill when knackered after a day out), and an extra bedroom if possible, make for a more relaxed holiday.
However I know that staying in a hotel with full board can be also a delight when, like me, you’re not the world’s most enthusiastic cook, and tending a hot stove detracts from the “getting away from it all” element of a family holiday. Sometimes, worrying about kids making a mess while eating pasta, being overly energetic and enthusiastic, and noisy and potentially bothersome in public, is outweighed by not having to produce said meals. So when we were invited to stay in a hotel for two nights with all meals included, it didn’t take long to decide. I would rather sacrifice space and flexibility if it means I don’t have to cook for two days. End of story.
And so began our Dia de Andalucia puente (bank holiday) last weekend in Costa Ballena. This is a new beach resort on the Costa de la Luz, in Cadiz province, between the seaside towns of Rota (where the US Army base is) and Chipiona, both popular summer resorts for Sevillanos. The forecast (always check before going to the beach – sunhats? wellies? raincoats? thickest fleeces? wetsuits?) said sun/cloud and rain, so we knew some indoor time was inevitable. I was therefore delighted, not to mention relieved, to read that our hotel, the Elba Hotel Costa Ballena, had a Mini-club (like a softplay centre, or bolas as we call them) and a thalassotherapy spa where kids were allowed (at certain times). As long as you know there’s plenty of rainy day entertainment, you can relax.
Our junior suite was a good size, with a long terrace which had one area for table and chairs (outside the bedroom), and another larger section for sunloungers (outside the sitting room). Crucially, for small children, the wall was sensibly high, making it much more challenging (off-putting, ideally) for small people to climb. In fine weather, I can imagine you would open the sliding doors in both rooms, and let the warm air come in. The view was over the pool, which was pretty and free-form with a palm tree on an island, and the golf course – with a glimpse of the sea.
The bedroom had cheery citrus tones of lemon and lime. You can imagine how delightful it would be with the balcony door open and the summer breeze gently blowing.
The children’s beds were set up in the sitting room, which also had two armchairs, and sliding doors leading onto the balcony (which remained closed due to the unclement weather). The suite was well supplied with lamps – on the floor, tables, wall, and even great little bendy reading lights by our bedside. And the bath was a hydrotherapy one – underwater jet massage. Heaven.
At lunch on our first day, the buffet was a little depleted due to a large, unscheduled group of US servicemen and their families. We were also quite late (it’s from 2-3pm), a lesson we took on board for our future meals. As well as salad, dishes on offer included fried fish fillets, pork with mushrooms, pasta, and a spread of Spanish puddings. We left that first meal feeling somewhat underwhelmed - especially by the lack of local and seasonal produce: specifically seafood (Cadiz coast is famous for its prawns and other shellfish, as we found out recently at Carnaval) and fresh fruit (strawberries from neighbouring Huelva province), hoping that dinner would reinspire our confidence (it did).
The closest hotel to the beach: Playa Ballena
Surfers at Playa Ballena – not the easiest subject to photograph.
Although the weather was looking iffy, I insisted on checking out the nearest beach to the hotel, which was called Playa Ballena and was a short walk away. It was backed by grassy dunes with some pretty wild flowers, and the kids were delighted to be befriended by two dogs which happily ran around fetching sticks for them, while I realised that those black dots bobbing about on the waves were actually surfers. From that moment on, I concentrated on trying to get a decent photo of some surf action. Damn hard to catch on camera- blink and they’ve fallen over.
Boats in Rota harbour – which one’s got your name on it?
Then we headed off to the nearby fishing village of Rota, a typical combination of sprawling streets of new-build apartments, and a pretty historic centre. With the sky now a pure Andalucian azure, we walked along the jetty of the walled harbour in the sunshine, looking at the fish darting about in the clear blue water, checking out the boats moored in rows (“Which one would you choose?” is always a favourite game), and then had a runabout on the beach. The US warships are right opposite, and their massive grey bulks loom large on the horizon. After poking around on the sand, we went into the old town, where as luck would have it, there was a medieval market.
The Castillo La Luna in Rota provided the perfect medieval ambiente for the market.
This “chopsticks” game, part of the medieval fair in Rota, was a feat of co-ordination for both young and old!
The usual overpriced super-empanadas, cheese, meat, olive oil and handicrafts were complemented by some excellent games which were free to use - wooden, hand-to-eye coordination ones involving using sticks and loops of rope to catch things, and move things. All wonderfully traditional stuff - the original, manual version of now-ubiquitous video games. The board games, feats of dexterity, were placed in the street, in front of a medieval castle, now used as Rota’s ayuntamiento (town hall), which set the scene perfectly.
Arroz negro, rice with black squid ink, at dinner.
Colourful red pepper salads – part of the buffet spread.
Back at the ranch, having learned our lesson at lunchtime, we arrived as dinner was starting, and I was most relieved to find an impressive spread: arroz negro (rice with black squid ink); a decent salad bar (not an area where Spanish cuisine excels, in my experience); pasta with a choice of sauces; and a choice of fillets cooked to order: gallineta (a type of bream) and tuna, as well as chuletas (pork chops). My daughter loved the buñuelos de bacalao (battered cod balls), the closest to fishfingers, while my son chose a meat dish.
Puddings were the usual Spanish fare of creaminess topped with biscuits, or little sponge cakes. The sliced fresh fruit (melon, pineapple) and yoghurts were my choice, while Lola opted for ice-cream topped with sauce and sprinkles (all chocolate, of course).
After dinner the kids tried out the hydrotherapy (jacuzzi) bath in our room. Lots of bubbles, lots of shrieks of excitement, then boomba – flat-out asleep!
The cheese section of the breakfast buffet, with membrillo (quince paste) too – on the right.
The next day, breakfast was a magnificent spread: cold meat (chorizo, jamon iberico) and cheese; hot breakfast – tomatoes, sausages, bacon; eggs cooked to order, with ham, cheese, or peppers; cereal; pastries; fresh and dried fruits; and yoghurts. Plus, of course, the typical Andalucian breakfast: toast with olive oil and tomatoes and ham, or mantecado (pork lard).
The “bolas” – kids love throwing themselves about in a ball pit.
After a filling and tasty breakfast, we had some time to kill before the spa opened, so we visited the Mini-club, which was a small version of softplay, with a slide, ballpit, swing, and games such as (soft) darts, boules and coits. The games room also proved popular, with snooker, pinball, table tennis, table hockey, and the car-racing game, with steering wheels and pedals.
The salt-water thalasso pool is part of the “thermal circuit”, along with the hammam and sauna.
Then it was for the three of us time to test out the thalassotherapy pool – me and the kids. A delightful lady called Julia met us in the spa reception and explained to us about the sea-water pool with its various sprays and jets, the counter-current channel and the jacuzzi. My son, who is six, was happy to swim around on his own, trying out the various spots – sitting, lying, standing with water of varying force pummelling him; my daughter stayed with me. Sometimes we sat like kings, all three in a row, revelling in the deep relaxation and indulgence as our bodies were massaged into oblivion.
You could sit under the showers – narrow jets, like pin-points, wide horizontal ones, circular ones like mushrooms, or on seats and beds, where legs, feet and arms were also subject to the force of the sea water. We also tried the heated wooden beds, and the terma romana (Roman bath), which was pleasantly warm, but not the hamman (steam bath) or sauna, as I thought they’d be too hot, especially for my daughter who turns an enbecomign shade of beetroot-pink in extreme heat, like her mother.
Osborne is the best-known sherry bodega in El Puerto; its roadside bull signs have become a national symbol of Spain.
One of the many other local sherry producers.
Lunch featured salmorejo (a creamy tomato soup), one of my favourite Andalucian dishes, and then we set off for El Puerto de Santa Maria. This fishing port, on the Bay of Cadiz, is part of the “Sherry Triangle”, the three towns which produce the famous fortified wine currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Although we didn’t partake of fino or palo cortado, we passed the mighty bodegas where they’re produced (many are open for tours Monday to Saturday). After walking along the riverfront where the wind was bitingly cold, and soon retreated to the landward streets.
Castillo San Marcos in El Puerto, which dates back to Moorish times.
Heraldic symbols and lettering on the castle tower.
The main entrance of the castle, with a Moorish arch – a storybook door, fascinating for kids.
I loved the Castillo San Marcos, a magnificent structure with origins in Moorish times, around the 10th century, with heraldic friezes on its towers and an exquisite carved wooden door with Moorish horseshoe arch designs. My childish fascination with castles - their high walls, towers, gates, crenellations… so romantic, so fairytale-ish, so resonant of exciting adventures, brave knights and beautiful princesses - may be partly because my wedding took place in one: a Norman keep in Essex. Anyway, I had to rely on my imagination as we missed out on seeing the inside; you can visit from Tuesday (when it’s free) to Saturday.
El Puerto has many grand mansions with huge stone entrances and mighty wooden doors; we’ll be back to explore it further. Its a historical town for many reasons, including that one of Columbus’ three ships was named after the town. At one point, we snuck into a cafe to warm up, and found it sold Death by Chocolate and blackberry and apple tart. Time to fess up: it was Ben&Jerrys. Heavenly cakes – on Avenida Caela Aramburu.
Back at the hotel for our second, and final, dinner and night, the stand-out dishes were choco con patatas (a cuttlefish and potato stew) and a superb spinach bechamel (so nutritious!); fillets of salmon and mackerel were cooked to order, while the children loves the palitos de merluza (battered hake fingers) and, er, pizza – a surefire winner with kids.
Stained glass window in the hotel reception.
The next day, it was time to leave – noone wanted to, needless to say, and there were repeated requests to go back to the pool, and the Mini-Club, but with the rain tipping down we wanted to get the journey home as soon as possible – luckily the car park is underneath the hotel, so we didn’t get soaked loading up.
The hotel staff were obliging and friendly throughout our stay, from reception to dining room to spa, the room was comfortable, the food was tasty and plentiful, and the spa was a revelation. I can recommend the Elba Costa Ballena as a relaxing place for family holiday, with plenty of interesting places to visit nearby - and we didn’t even use the outdoor pools and bar, padel courts, gym, or golf course!
* Disclaimer: me and my family stayed as guests of the Elba Hotel Costa Ballena. However, as always, the opinions expressed are my own, and are not affected by this. It’s fairly obvious by the fact that I’m objective, anyway, isn’t it?