Andalucia's first national park features spectacular limestone cliffs and gorges such as the Garganta Verde, where a griffon vulture colony is framed by 400m rock walls. Mesmerising cave systems stretch 4km into the earth. High rainfall promotes staggering lushness, with over 1,300 plant species. Walkers can explore forests of rare Spanish fir or scale peaks like the 1,654m El Torreó.
Caves are wonderful places to stay in Andalucia, kitted out in charming rustic style amid gorgeous natural surroundings, providing cool shade in summer and warmth in winter – Castillejar's caves are close to lush river valleys, lakes and hiking/biking trails. Or go for a yurt, with contrasting locations: mountain hideaways, by a river, or in a wild national park.
Sherry is Andalucia's liquid expression – gorgeous, distinctive and infused with rich history. Visit charming bodegas (sherry producers) in the production 'triangle' defined by Jerez, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto, and discover the magic of the ancient solera blending system. Marry chilled fino or manzanilla with seafood, or luxuriate after dinner with the smooth burnt raisin notes of Pedro Ximenez.
Almond blossoms are the star of Andalucia's technicolour spring flourish, sprinkling a glorious haze of ethereal pink blossom throughout the region in February and March. Two of the best spots are Las Alpujarras and the Parque Natural Sierra María-Los Vélez. But valleys and hillsides in many places present a bright carpet of wildflowers that lights up the Andalucian spring.
The southern cities of Seville, Granada and Cordoba are strangely timeless, transporting visitors back to the Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus. The Alcazar, Alhambra and Mezquita may be amazing monuments, but “modern” life is just as magical – streets so narrow you can reach out and touch both walls, tiny doorways, exquisitely patterned tiles and the eerie sound of flamenco quivering through an open window.
Iberia's highest peak – the 3,478m Mulhacen – is just one of a host of 3000m+ mountains here, complemented by the terraced slopes of Las Alpujarras, fashioned by 8th century Berbers. A renowned walking mecca, it's also dotted with small fincas and organic farmstays for those looking for a truly rural retreat. Nature lovers can explore the eponymous National Park. Observatories dot the range, drawn by spectacular starry skies.
Get close to the timeless rhythms of traditional Andalucian rural life with a farmstay in a clutch of bucolic locations – and with varying levels of luxury! You decide if you fancy being hosted at places like an organic riverside B&B in the gorgeous Sierra de Grazalema or self-catering in the splendid mountain scenery of Las Alpujarras.
Europe's driest spot still boasts over 1,000 plant and animal species – a starkly beautiful slice of Almeria dotted with whitewashed pueblos amid cacti-strewn plains and rugged hills that stood in for the Wild West in the 'Spaghetti Westerns'. Check out old gold mining memories around Rodalquilar – or bag a wide sandy beach all to yourself.
Andalucia's coast is a little less tarnished by cheap package tourism bunkers than some others in Spain, but it has its share. Torremolinos is perhaps the worst example – a once humble fishing village turned into a shrine to horrendous overdevelopment, swamping any hint of Spanishness with 'full English breakfasts', Happy Hour piss-ups and Sky sports. And with an abundance of dirt cheap all-inclusives, how much foreign cash actually stays in this region is questionable.
Spain may be synonymous with “summer holiday” but it’s actually our least favourite time to visit Andalucia. It’s too hot and humid to walk or cycle comfortably, the beaches are at their busiest and prices rise. Come instead for the spring wildflowers, the warm light of Almeria in December, or the evocative scent of orange blossom in April. Delicious.
While Marbella retains some reminders of its 500 year history, neighbouring Puerto Banus is a soulless modern shrine to mega yachts, malls flogging Dior and Chanel, and Ferrari showrooms. A giant bronze rhinoceros by Salvador Dali is its classiest thing. A new marina, La Bajadilla, promises further excess – a 400m euro Qatari-funded spot to park giant cruise liners.
Europe's driest region is a lousy place to put 120 water-hungry golf courses (too costly for 99% of locals to play on). Sure, a few pioneering Andalucian courses now irrigate with recycled water, use special grasses that stay green on very little moisture, and actively encourage native flora and fauna their green swathe. But that still leaves over 100 that don't.