Andalucia has harnessed its geographical strengths and benign climate to provide a great variety of active holidays, writes Mick Webb.
Once the domain of tourists who wanted to grill themselves lazily on the beach like prawns on a parrilla, Andalucia has now harnessed its geographical strengths and benign climate to provide a great variety of active holidays.
It's hardly a surprise, as Spain's most populous region is vast; its lengthy coastline washed by two oceans. It also has Europe's only desert, as well as mainland Spain's highest mountain, perennially snow-topped and with a well-developed ski centre: Sierra Nevada.
As far as the water is concerned, one of the world's windiest spots, the southernmost tip of Tarifa, is a gift for windsurfers and kiteboarders.
As the focus of tourism has switched from the coast to the interior, a new range of activities has emerged, the majority are perfect for the winter months.
In the wide range of protected natural areas - the best-known of which is the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Grazalema, near Ronda - a network of excellent walking trails has been created.
The south-western corner of Andalucia has also become one of Europe's foremost bird-watching spots, particularly in spring and autumn during the time of the great migrations.
Meanwhile paragliders can join the eagles high in the sky at places such as Bubion, on the southern side of the Sierra Nevada.
Whatever your interest, you should be able to find a company offering an appropriately specialised holiday. Walking is well served, as are activities based on two wheels or four-legs (horse-riding is a popular Andalucian way to see and enjoy the countryside).
A tapas-style approach to adventure, combining mountain-biking with activities such as horse riding and windsurfing, is available from Totally Sorted, based in Almunecar on the Costa Tropical. It offers a mixed activity week from £649 (NZ$1252) per person with bed and breakfast and includes transfers from Malaga airport.
Andalucia's climate is a great draw, but the weather patterns do vary across this large region. The city of Granada is chilly during the winter months, yet 40km away on the southern coast, shorts and T-shirts will be the order of the day.
A STROLL IN THE PARKS
If you're looking for a base for a few days' good walking, head for the hilly areas such as the AxarquIa, north-east of Malaga; the Alpujarras between Granada and the coast; or the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Grazalema. The latter is a walker's paradise, latticed by trails and noted for its spring flowers. Inntravel has a seven-night, self-guided holiday based at a hotel in Grazalema, including car hire, from £435 per person.
An area less walked but equally attractive is the Sierra de Aracena, near Seville. Finca el Moro is a chestnut-growing farm whose owners organise walking, riding and yoga weeks. A full-board walking week costs £517 per person, excluding flights.
Sherpa Expeditions has a self-guided Aracena walk, which includes luggage transportation, while a range of group walks in different parts of the region are available from Headwater, Ramblers Worldwide and also Exodus.
Andalucia is the starting point for two long-distance footpaths: the GR7 starts in Tarifa, before crossing some of the region's most beautiful landscapes on its way to Andorra, while the Via de la Plata - the southern pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela - sets out from Seville.
GET INTO THE SWING OF IT
One Andalucian activity where sand and water must be avoided is golf. The sport has accompanied the influx of retirees from northern Europe, creating vivid green oases in the parched summer landscape.
There are more than 60 golf courses in Andalucia, many of which are close to the gateway airport of Malaga, with the most well known being Valderrama at Sotogrande, north of Gibraltar.
However, treading the same fairways as the golfing greats here does not come cheap: green fees for non-members at Valderrama are €300 (NZ$478), paid in advance. Prices elsewhere are a lot lower.
At one of the up-and-coming resorts, such as El Rompido in Huelva province, bordering Portugal, a round among the orange trees will cost from €43 in low season if booked online.
All-inclusive golfing breaks and longer holidays are offered by several companies. Your Golf Travel has a three-night break at the four-star Almenara hotel in Sotogrande on a bed and breakfast basis, including three rounds of golf, from £145 per person (flights not included).
IN THE SADDLE
Saddle Skedaddle organises guided and self-guided cycle rides on conventional and mountain bikes. Its "Sierra to the Sea" is a gently-paced, guided holiday that takes you from Ronda down to Tarifa, via the scenic trails of the Alcornocales Natural Park. It costs £895 for accommodation and bike hire (£140), and also includes a post-ride massage. The next departure is 26 February.
Andalucian Cycling Experience is a local firm, based in Montecorto, near Ronda. It provides daily bike hire, training camps for the super-sporty, or family cycling weeks around Pueblos Blancos, starting from £630 per person.
If you prefer four legs to two wheels, Horseriding Spain based at Coin, in the hills behind Marbella, runs holidays year-round. The seven-night bargain winter break (with five days of riding) offers the promise of sunny excursions through orange and lemon groves and costs €595 per person, including seven nights bed and breakfast, and transfers from Malaga airport.
The varied landscape of Andalucia, much of which is wild and sparsely populated, harbours an extraordinary range of beasts - and above all, birds. Apart from colourful Mediterranean species, such as golden orioles, rollers, hoopoes and bee-eaters, the rarities to be searched out include red-flanked bluetail and Ruepells' vulture. Most dramatic, though, particularly at the times of the spring and autumn migrations, are the birds of prey, heading to or from the short sea crossing over the straits of Gibraltar in their hundreds of thousands. Below them in the water, in autumn, you can also spot whales and dolphins.
Andalucia has 24 protected natural parks, each with its own unique species, ranging from rain-free Cabo de Gata, with its snakes and lizards, to mountainous Cazorla, where the dramatic bearded vulture has been reintroduced.
The star of the show, though, is the Coto de Donana, at the mouth of the river Guadalquivir, which is the habitat of the beautiful and endangered lynx. Naturetrek runs a six-day "Realm of the Lynx" guided small-group trip to Donana for £995 per person, including flights from London to Seville and all food and accommodation. The next departure date is 15 March.
THE RIGHT KIND OF SNOW
As well as its sun-kissed coastline, Andalucia boasts one of Europe's highest ski resorts, and the two are only 50 km apart. The Sierra Nevada towers over the nearby city of Granada. On the north-western slopes of Mount Veleta (3398m) are approximately 100km of downhill ski runs, including nine black descents and a dedicated snowboard park.
The slopes can be busy with local skiers at weekends, but they are often quiet during the week (beware the busy half-term week at the end of February).
With the base resort of Pradollano at 2100m and the highest station at 3100m, there should be plentiful snow for a season, which extends from the end of November until as late as mid-May. The snow conditions during spring are particularly good.
The price of an adult lift pass for this season starts at €34 per day (more at weekends) or €242 for a week, while equipment hire from a company such as Intersport Rio Sport will set you back €19 per day or €69 per week.
The three-star Hotel Ziryab in Pradollano offers doubles with breakfast from €92.25.