Costa Brava Diving

Natural beauty still trumps resort blight at L’Estartit, Catalonia’s utopia for divers

On first glance, L’Estartit seems like any other Costa Brava resort – an impossibly wide stretch of golden sand abutting a sapphire sea; dusky grey-green hills rising up just a few miles inland, and smack between the two, row after uninspiring row of blocky all-inclusive holiday resorts, English pubs and Chinese buffets. Like many resort towns on this stretch of the Mediterranean, L’Estartit has suffered the ugly backwash of uncontrolled holiday development. However, unlike some of its more notorious neighbours to the South, L’Estartit offers quite a few enticements for even the most die-hard anti-resortista.
Nature is L’Estartit’s biggest draw. The coast in this area is called ‘Montgri’ after the mountains here. It is rugged and wild and dotted with dozens of beaches and coves. The main beach in town is Platja Gran – a one kilometre stretch of sand that is both the area’s best-equipped and its most popular. For more secluded spots, slap on your hiking shoes, hop on a bike or get in the car. Closest to town, the nearly deserted Platja de la Pletera runs along the Baix Empordà Wetlands, a protected natural reserve. Further out, don’t miss Cala Pedrosa, a stunning cove surrounded on three sides by pine-covered hills. Footpaths along the coast lead to many of the more secluded coves and beaches. Visit the tourist office for maps and details.
The most spectacular natural feature in L’Estartit is the Illes Medes, a tiny archipelago of islands just off the coast. This protected collection of rocky islands is home to some 1,000 species of marine life and a glorious kaleidoscope of sea flora. Millennia of turbulent sea crashing against the soft limestone of the islands has also resulted in a cathedral of underwater caves. One of the most spectacular is Dofi, a huge cavern overseen by a bronze statue of a dolphin. The islands draw divers worldwide and several diving centers operate out of L’Estartit, including Calypso Diving International, run by English expats Peter and Jacqueline Lane, and Ocean Sub, which also specializes in underwater photography. Both are PADI certified to take you from beginner to advanced diver. The less adventurous can get a glimpse of this underwater treasure with a ride on a glass-bottomed boat. There are several operators on the Passeig Marítim.
Heading just inland brings you to Torroella de Montgri, L’Estartit’s sleepy sister. Though the two towns are governed as one, Torroella has more in common with a traditional Catalán town than a Costa resort. It boasts a 14th century Gothic church, a Renaissance monastery with a Tuscan-style cloister and, above the town, nestled in the foothills of the Montgri massif – the Castell Montgri, a Romanesque-Gothic castle dating to the 13th century. Visit the town on a Monday for its lively open-air market. Beyond the town, the foothills are riddled with excellent biking and hiking trails. Again, check the tourist office for maps and a list of local bike rentals.

Eating Out

As throughout the Costa Brava, seafood is plentiful. Look out for anxoves de l’Escala (anchovies from the nearby town of l’Escala), a culinary delight sought throughout Spain. In winter, try calçots (a mild green onion) grilled over an open fire and served with romesco – a chunky sauce made of red pepper, garlic, hazelnuts and olive oil. There are good seafood restaurants all along the Passeig Marítim promenade, but one place worth seeking out is the nautically-themed La Gaviota (€25 per person), which serves traditional Catalán recipes alongside stunning seaside views. Throughout the area behind Platja Gran are dozens of Irish bars, English pubs, sandwich shops and pizzerias. For Spanish tapas bars, head to the end of the promenade and the area just across from the harbour. For a very romantic taste of Catalán tradition, go to the nearby town of San Marti d’ Empúries and Mesón del Conde (€30 per person). In an old stone-walled villa, upscale Catalán fare is served around a massive fireplace.

Sleeping Over

L’Estartit has a wealth of accommodations, but none quite as atmospheric as Hotel Moli Del Mig located on the road to Torroella de Montgri. This sexy little inn is built within a 15th century flour mill and boasts sleek styling, luxury linens, and every perk you could want from plasma televisions to high-end toiletries (g186/double). The restaurant is one of the best in the region; for €32 add half-board for a gourmet six-course meal complemented by excellent regional wines. The hotel is owned by Ciclo Turisme of Girona and bikers are catered to with bike rentals, maps and guided tours. Back by the beach, Hotel Les Illes (€80/double) takes diving as seriously as it does accommodation. Rooms are classic and simple, but for serious divers the amenities are the real draw – courses, guides, maps, and equipment are all on offer. The modest Hotel Santa Anna (€75/double) has big resort ambitions. It is complete with classically-styled rooms, a beachside pool, and children’s activities. If you plan on making a week or two of it, there are dozens of holiday house renters in the region. Do a quick web search or try Estartit Family Holidays, a group of villas run by a friendly British family.

Around and About

Just 13 kilometres north of L’Estartit lie the spectacular ruins of the ancient town of Empúries, founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC as a lively port and market town. Some 400 years later, the Romans arrived and established a military settlement

next to the town. The Roman outpost grew until it overtook the original Greek town. It was eventually abandoned by the 3rd century AD. In 1908, archaeological excavations were begun that continue to this day, uncovering both Roman and Greek heritage. Wandering in the vast site—through a maze of rooms, over intricate mosaic floorings, past soaring columns—is a delightful alternative to the sun and sand sameness of Costa Brava. Entrance to Empúries is through the Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya.

Getting There

L’Estartit is located on the AP-7/E-15 coastal road which runs along the Costa Brava. It is 150 kilometres from Barcelona and just 50 from Girona. There are dozens of inexpensive flights into both cities daily, at which point you should consider renting a car for maximum mobility. If not, the area is served by two bus companies, SARFA from Barcelona and AMPSA from Girona. Via train, the only option is RENFE’s very slow Barcelona-France train which stops in Flaçà, 16 kilometers from L’Estartit. The speedier trains only get as close as Girona and Figueres.

 Fact File

L’Estartit Tourism Office, Pg. Marítim s/n, tel: 97 275 1910

Calypso Diving International, tel: 97 275 1488

Ocean Sub Estartit, c/Salines 23, tel: 607 436 077,

Hotel Moli Del Mig, Cami Moli del Mig s/n, (Torroella de Montgri), tel. 97 275 5396

Hotel Les Illes, c/Illes 55, tel: 97 275 1239

Hotel Santa Anna, c/Port 46, tel: 97 275 1326

Estartit Family Holidays, [email protected],

La Gaviota, Pg. Marítim 92, tel: 97 277 0728, closed Monday

Meson del Conde, Pl. Major 4, (San Marti d’ Empúries),

tel. 97 277 0306, closed Monday evening and Tuesday

Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya, tel. 97 277 0208

SARFA?, tel. 90 230 0262

AMPSA?, tel. 97 275 8233

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