HIKE through a cool green mountain forest in the morning, savour mango mojitos and mariscos under palm trees on the beach for lunch, then lose yourself in a maze of flower-strewn streets where tapas temptations are served under arcades of orange blossom.
Welcome to Estepona, the unrivalled Garden of the Costa del Sol. An enviable oasis of greenery blossoming between the concrete jungles of neighbouring resorts, Estepona’s picturesque charm is in full flower right now.
And in the face of Andalucia’s tourist boom, its potpourri of attractions have never been riper for the plucking.
Sandwiched between the Sierra Bermeja and the Mediterranean sea, its surf and turf offer encompasses everything from diving and horse riding to wildlife safaris, flamenco, a modern museum of ancient burial chambers and a nocturnal vibe that will make you feel very much alive.
Estepona’s casco antiguo (old town) with its kaleidoscopic potted flowers is love at first sight … and scent.
The entire town has been florally rejuvenated over the last five years, with tens of thousands of pots to be planted this year alone!
“It was a wonderful idea,” explains one local agent. “Around 100 streets have been renovated over the last five years.
“The buildings have been restored while plant pots have been added to each one so that now they burst with the colour of the flowers.
“It’s really revived the old town.” The four-kilometre Paseo Maritimo is another sparkling jewel in Estepona’s floral crown.
Stop for a breather at one of the stylish wooden chiringuitos along the beachfront serving up rainbow salads, cocktails and freshly-caught sardines chargrilling on spits from freshly-painted old rowing boats making good use of their retirement.
The sizzling aroma wafts the whole length of Estepona’s 21km shoreline, Estepona’s mountain, basking in a purple haze in the background, offers other foodie and floral delights.
Towering 1,508 metres into the sky, Sierra Bermeja’s dense green woodlands feel like a different continent. You could be in a south American jungle.
Get on your bike or hike along one of the dozens of walking and cycling trails or drive up the winding road to appreciate the sheer, jawdropping size of the mountain.
Biodiverse and the only place to find rust red peridotita rocks and pinsapo Spanish firs together, a huge community campaign is underway to turn it into a national park.
You’ll wonder why this is still an undiscovered secret side to Estepona as you tuck into a slice of cake and a glass of sweet Malaga wine in the atmospheric mountain top refugio, lit only by gas lamps!
Back in the chocolate box plazas of the old town, a further feast of cultural delights wait to stimulate all the senses.
With 50-odd murals, dozens of poetry wall plaques inscribed with inspirational verses and a trail of modern and classical sculptures, local and national artists have created delightful surprises at every street’s twist and turn.
There’s a walking route dedicated to them and you can pick up a free trail guide from the tourist office in Plaza de las Flores to make sure you see them all.
“The murals are yet another great source of pride for Estepona, also commissioned by our current mayor,” explained a local tourist guide. “With a great mural contest planned for July, we hope to introduce 10 more simultaneously.
With a bubbling fountain and an arc of orange trees, it is easy to see why this idyllic spot and neighbouring Plaza Dr. Arce is so popular with visitors who stop here for a tinto de verano refresher or delicious homemade ice cream from La Italiana.
But the real treasure hunt starts when you venture up one of the adjoining labyrinthine streets, where other secluded squares wait to seduce passers by.
More gems can be found in the town centre, where an impressive number of hip boutiques and artisan shops stretch off in every direction from the main shopping drags of Calle Terraza and Calle Real.
In the winding streets, not unlike The Lanes in Brighton, you’ll find everything from the latest fashions and leather shoes to spice shops, delicatessens and decor stores.
Atmospheric any time of year, bank holidays turn up the local colour to full volume. Stand in awe inhaling the incenseheavy air as pointy-hooded nazarenos navigate huge golden thrones through the town’s tight passageways during the solemn Semana Santa processions.
Join the throngs who parade a giant sardine through town during Carnaval and follow the procession of prancing Andalucian horses during May’s romeria.
Dive for sweets thrown off floats by the Three Kings in January and bring your best fancy dress hat to wear in the Plaza de Reloj while attempting the ‘12 grapes challenge’ – swallow one at every chime of the church bell – that heralds every Spanish New Year.
Aside from its packed fiesta calendar, Estepona promotes its Andalucian charm with a weekly programme of unmissable events.
Brush up on your bartering skills at the grand Wednesday mercadillo or the smaller Sunday farmer’s market in Plaza ABC where stalls groan under the weight of fresh produce.
The more tourist-orientated Sunday port market is a honey pot for bargain-seekers, who come in their droves to snap up designer goods such as sunglasses and wallets.
A pleasant half-hour walk along the seafront from the centre, it’s a mecca for early birds and night owls. Sailing, diving, paddle and kite surfing are just some of the nautical activities on offer for watersports sorts.
Or join the yacht set and rent a boat for a day for a completely different view of the coast. If all that sea air has given you an appetite, you can weigh anchor and eat right on the waterfront.
With 40 restaurants and bars serving up an ethnic variety of dishes you can take your tastebuds on a round-world cruise. Chinese, Thai, Indian, Italian, Irish, Belgian and American are among the ports of call on offer.
Or dine out on seafood fresh off the boats at Escollera, a local favourite that’s always packed to the gunnels.
The port party scene cranks up at 8pm, when revellers descend on Reinaldo’s bar to take advantage of its renowned happy hour. Reggaeton, rock and pop soundtracks fill the air and in typical Spanish stay-out-allnight style, the fiesta doesn’t stop until the sun comes up.
These days the port has a lot more competition from the town centre where a glut of high quality eateries and character bars have set out their stalls with artisan tapas temptations.
Head to Calle Real for lip-smacking good multicultural fare or venture up one of the winding side streets to unearth other foodie gems.
If you’re planning to indulge in the excellent range of local wines and sherries, Estepona will put you up in style.
Rest your head at the wonderfully atmospheric Hotel Boutique Vera Cruz which has breathed fresh life into a historic building, now beautifully restored; wake up to the sparkling sea views from beachfront hotels Mediterraneo and Buenavista; or splurge on a night of luxury at the five- star Kempinski Bahia or four-star H10 Estepona Palace. Both are equipped with hedonistic spas and pools where a whole weekend could easily be whiled away without leaving the resorts at all.
For self-catering and budget options, the family-friendly neighbourhood of Benavista on Estepona’s eastern edge has an abundance of apartments, hotels, shops, bars and restaurants.
As well as having its own beach and children’s play area, the laid back zone is the perfect base for taking advantage of Estepona’s biggest attractions.
Kids and adults alike will go wild for Selwo Aventura in nearby Cancelada, a safari park without bars where visitors can get up close to giraffes, rhinos and elephants in jeeps.
Or saddle up for a course in Andalucian dressage at one of the biggest equestrian centres in Spain. The Escuela de Arte Ecuestre Costa del Sol nurtures all levels of riders, from experts to absolute beginners.
Just 10 minutes away from the town centre by car or bus, Benavista is another melting pot of multicultural cuisine, with some top-rated Indian and contemporary Spanish restaurants.
You can work off the calories at one of Benavista’s gentlysloping golf courses, a great compliment to the manicured fairways on the western side of the town.
Yes, even the grass looks greener in this fertile Costa del Sol garden where everyone is welcome. No other resort has found a better way to say it with flowers.