Andalucía's local hangout: Costa de la Luz

Ever been to Madrid in July and wondered, 'Where are all the locals?' They're right here, on the Costa de la Luz. And they know something you don't.

Sandwiched between the popular Algarve (in Portugal) and the Spanish Costa de Sol, the Costa de la Luz is little appreciated by foreign tourists. Drive here in summer, though, and you’ll find the roads busy with Spanish holidaymakers, their cars packed with bedding and supplies for their annual decamp to the coast.

However - and here's the secret - make the trip in September and you’ll find warm weather and just a handful of summer stragglers to share beach space with.

Most people come this way to visit Tarifa, a laid back surf town with a glorious sandy beach popular with kite surfers. But head farther along the coast past giant wind turbines and barren fields (filled with sunflowers in the summer months) and you’ll reach Zahara de los Atunes, a small, white, wind-battered town named after its former incarnation as a tuna-fishing hub. Zahara’s soft, white beaches are the perfect spot for a day of doing not very much.

There are still enough people here in September to stop you feeling you’re in a ghost town. Stop here for an ice cream and stroll on the beach, or stay until late evening, when the town’s tiny seafood restaurants start to fill up.

Walk west through Zahara and you’ll reach Atlanterra, a new development of Spanish holiday homes on an otherwise barren stretch of coast. In recent years Atlanterra has acquired a good selection of chiringuitos (open air beach cafes) serving excellent arroz con almejas (rice with clams) and sardines grilled on makeshift barbecues.

In summer the chringuitos fill up around 2pm and stay busy with families conversing over huge pans of rice until about 4pm. Towards the end of the season these start to shut up shop, but at least a couple will stay open afterwards. On a windy day they're the perfect place from which to watch the waves crash on to the beach. At night the promenade is populated by pop-up bars playing chilled-out tunes to an unpretentious crowd. Pull up a white leather chair, order a gin and tonic and enjoy the murmer of Spanish voices as the sun comes up.

There are two things you should know before you go.

First, the Costa de la Luz operates on 'slow time'. Get your meal plans wrong and you risk being the only person out. Expect to spend hours over a late lunch, often followed by a siesta to store energy for dinner - which is busiest from around 10pm until midnight. While the bars are open for pre- and post-dinner drinks, they don’t get properly busy until at least 1am and then stay open until dawn – or until the last person leaves.

Second, the wind here is unpredictable. One day you might have a gentle breeze, the next you could find yourself pummelled by whipped-up sand. If it all gets too much, seel refuge in the shops and bars of Cádiz - an hour's drive from Zahara.

Further information

Looking for recommendations on how to spend a week relaxing in Andalucía? The Thorn Tree forum has your answer. Also check out Lonely Planet's latest guidebook to Andalucía.