As the high rise holiday apartment developments thin out west of Benalmádena, the coastal woodlands gradually increase so that, to the east of Marbella, the more expensive and up-market holiday developments are nestled amongst shady copses of dark-green leaved trees.
We stopped at Marbella simply to make the crossing to Morocco shorter. The passage from Benalmádena was a mere three hours and we arrived in Marbella in the early afternoon, in plenty of time to hit the beach and then to explore the town after supper.
We almost didn’t get a berth at the marina, arriving as we did at the start of a weekend regatta. But they squeezed us in for a whopping €28. I was tempted to say ‘no thanks’, rather than hand that much money over.
The beach was a stone’s throw from the marina and we quickly changed into our swimsuits and, for once, all four of us spent the afternoon on the beach. Much of the beach was taken up with rows of umbrella-shaded sun loungers. Like all resorts, daily rental of these sun loungers costs €4 or more and so, like all resorts we have been to, the sun loungers are mostly empty (although we’ve never been to these places in high season) while the holiday-makers lie on their towels on the beach. The narrow strip of beach between the sun loungers and the sea was, therefore, crowded with people not willing to pay for unnecessary sun loungers.
We were surprised at how few people were in the water. It was a hot afternoon, the beach was crowded, yet the water was mostly empty. Was there something wrong? We hesitantly dipped our toes in and soon Julian and I were out of our depth, swimming in the warm water, while the girls played chest deep in water on a soft sand-covered sea bed. I came in a little closer to shore and Lily repeatedly swam between me and the shore.
After dinner aboard Carina, Katie drew our attention to a group of girls dancing nearby wearing white flamenco dresses and waving handkerchiefs and we raced off the boat to find out what was going on. What luck! We had stumbled upon the opening ceremony of the Fifth Marbella International Folklore Festival. There were participants from a rather random selection of countries, all dressed in national costumes – Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Easter Island, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela and Scotland – as well as multiple Spanish groups.
After some long speeches by the event organisers and a parade of all the participants across the stage, the Easter Islanders kicked the festival off with two lively songs and dances. They were followed by Germany and Russia, both of whom faced technical glitches with the recorded music that accompanied their dances. By the time the lone Scottish bagpiper took the stage, the audience was busy eating the free tapas that were going around, and no-one paid him any attention. He looked uncannily like my friend Gavin, and when he walked past after his performance, Julian complemented him on his piping. We were more than a little surprised when he spoke in Spanish-accented English!
We wandered through Marbella, past a series of sculptures by Salvador Dali and into the old part of the town with its stone mosaic pavements, orange tree-lined squares and a phenomenal number of shoe shops. We ended the night in a small square, listening to a great live band performing songs from the 1960s and 70s. Lily danced with abandon and Katie complained that it was all too noisy!
Julian and I were up early next morning and underway before 8am, our engine shattering the stillness of the early morning Mediterranean. The mountains rose sharp and majestic behind Marbella and its neighbouring towns and a few fishing boats plied the waters in the distance. Our destination, Marina Smir in Morocco, lay 50 miles away, on the other side of one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. The west wind was forecast to increase through the day and, after a couple of hours of motoring, we cut the engine and sailed, albeit a few degrees off course.
By noon we were seeing commercial vessels travelling east to west towards the outbound traffic separation scheme in the Strait of Gibraltar. With so many large vessels heading in our general direction, extra vigilance was called for. But we made it through the shipping lanes – the northern lane heading west and the southern lane heading east – with little trouble, only needing to briefly alter course once.
The west wind whipped through the Strait and we sailed close hauled, leaning hard to port, making for a tiring and, at times, uncomfortable sail. The girls got frustrated when their Play Mobil camper van and assorted Play Mobile people and accessories refused to stay on the saloon table, even with the non-slip table mat in place, and kept sliding down on top of the girls where they sat.
We hoped the wind, which gusted at times to 24 knots, would subside once we reached the other side of the Strait, but the current and wind now pushed us thirty degrees off course and though we were averaging five knots over ground, we weren’t getting much closer to our destination. In the end, we took in the genoa and motored the final ten miles, battling against wind and current and spray breaking over the bow and cockpit hood, to Marina Smir on the eastern side of the Tanger Peninsula. The Rif Mountains rose rugged and multi-layered to the south, and the entire length of the peninsula was banded by a golden strip of sandy beach.
We had left Spain behind for the time being and were about to enter Morocco.