Sailing in Spain. People often ask me where is my favourite place to sail in Spain. It’s a difficult question to answer as the Spanish coastline is very long and varied. Having sailed most of it apart from the Northern Cantabrian coastline I am providing a generalisation of the land. Each area has something to offer and like everywhere is depends on the individuals expectations and willingness to explore. So starting in NW Spain I will try to provide an overview of what the coast is like sailing in an anticlockwise direction up to the French Mediterranean border.
North West Spain to Portuguese Algarve
Finisterre and the famous Spanish Rias are beautiful, as is the whole of Galicia, but being in North West Spain the weather does not always play ball and it can be wet and wild at times. We have spent some time here but it’s a place I would like to return to and explore in more depth. Considered one of the best places for seafood you just have to follow the locals lead on what’s best at that particular time of year, it’s rarely disappointing. Sailing South from the Rias the coast is long and a bit dull until reaching Lisbon where you can sail up the river and berth in the heart of the city. Sight seeing is a must and there are lots of references to the great Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama. On leaving the river and heading South the Portuguese Algarve can be reached once rounding Cape St. Vincent with its more sheltered waters providing respite from the Nortada wind and fetch, I know Portugal is a different Country but you have to sail through or around it to reach the rest of Spain hence it gets a mention. I find that culturally and as people the two Countries are very different. Once on the Algarve several top end marinas with good anchorages at Portimao, Ria Formosa and Tavira can be found. Having spent many years sailing in Spain, there is something special about eating freshly BBQ sardines on the beach, so simple yet memorable.
Algarve to Cabo de Gata
To begin with I must say that we love our current location in Ayamonte on the Costa de la Luz with its tidal challenges and anchoring possibilities so I may be a little biased here.
Sailing along Portuguese algarve to the East we come to our own area of Ayamonte and the Guadiana river which should be a must visit for any cruisers where a few days can easily be lost amongst the relaxed pace of life and active birdlife in the upper reaches. El Rompido is another one of my favourites although access is somewhat restricted due to a very shallow bar, but once inside it’s a very unique location surrounded by pine forests and natural park. Continuing East, Cadiz bay has to be another worthwhile stop over. Choose any of the bays marinas and there is a ferry link into the old town, make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes it’s going to be a lot of exploring, but there are plenty of places to sit, take a rest and watch the World go by.
I will be honest in that Gibraltar is not one of my favourite places but from a sailing point of view there is plenty of activity and good marinas where chandlery can be sourced and the views from the top of the Rock can be amazing so it’s worth a visit. Being in the Straits the wind typically blows East or West and can be strong so having fuelled up in Gib you can save the fuel for later in the trip with a favourable forecast. The coast along the Costa del Sol is typically beach, high rise and mountains in the background. With long open bays anchoring options are limited but marinas are plenty. Personally for me this is a coastline to travel along rather than spend time on.
Cabo de Gata to Costa Blanca and Balearic Islands
Nearing Cabo de Gata the bay of Almeria hosts a few marinas and it is possible to anchor again, Cabo de Gata is notoriously windy and can provide exhilarating sailing. The coast here is mountainous with large barren plains covered in plastic for grow houses. Tabernas is classed as the only Dessert in Europe and for any western movie fans, a day out to mini Hollywood is a recommended. For me it’s what’s on the other side of the Cabo that appeals, the coast now becomes cliff with secluded beaches, you have to choose your moments but anchoring for a short trip ashore is possible if you fancy a beach to yourself. The water clarity along this coast is amazing so snorkelling and swimming from the yacht is highly recommended. Now once in Cartagena another favourite of mine make sure you spend a few days here and explore this Historic city, again the coast is rugged before returning to sand again as you approach the Mar Menor. For divers the Cabo de Palos marine reserve is a good spot in which to explore below the water, but you can only do this as a guided dive. Now we used to live in this area so I have a different take on it to a visiting sailor. Despite all its high rise it is a unique location with good sea breezes yet still offers anchoring opportunities. There is a very active sailing community in Cartagena which has its own website for visiting sailors. San Javier airport is just across the water and home to the Aguilas the Spanish equivalent to the Red Arrows who regularly practice over the Mar Menor, sit back and enjoy the show. Close proximity to airports, makes sailing in Spain so much easier when time is at a premium.
Continuing along the Coast there are numerous villages and towns but the coast is not all that interesting until reaching Altea, Moraira and Denia. This also provides the shortest crossing to the gem in Spain’s sailing destination, the Balearic Islands for which I could write several paragraphs of text. They are beautiful but expensive and very busy during summer months, out of season the Islands can be a paradise for cruisers but during winter the storms can be fairly severe. The more Eastern Islands of Mallorca and Menorca are subject to the Costa Bravas Tramontana winds which howls off the Pyrenees mountains and during such time boats are best left in a sheltered harbour and exploring ashore is advisable. Of the Balearic group, Formentera and Menorca are my favourites but the others come close second and should be seen before venturing further into the Med.
Costa Blanca to French Border
Coming back to the mainland I would skip the long bay of Valencia (although the city is worth visiting), the reason I say I would skip the bay is that it’s huge and seems to take forever to get across. So better sailing can be had if leaving the Balearics and sailing directly towards Barcelona. Now Barcelona is expensive to visit and offers no anchoring possibilities until a bit further North. That said the place is quite rightly known for its architecture and places of interest, it’s vibrant and cultured but it’s not for me as I prefer smaller cities. Heading North again the coastline becomes stunning again with it’s small fishing villages, anchorages and bays. A great sailing area when the Tramontana is not blowing! Cala Joncolls still remains a firm favourite of mine and with Cadaques just around the corner you need to allow yourself a good few days around this area. Now for the infamous Cabo Creus, here it typically blows hard or even harder. although once around it the winds tend to remain strong but not quite so gusty, the last part of Spain up to the French border is attractive and worth exploring just keep an eye on the weather forecast.
So to answer the original question which is nearly impossible because Spain’s coastline is so varied and every section or Costa offers something very different, be it the lay of the land, the clarity of the water, tidal or non-tidal, the anchorages or lack of them in places, the quality of yacht services and the variety in local food dishes and drinks. Certainly it would be very different with more Islands and unfortunately does not have the scenery of some of its Mediterranean counterparts but overall Spain is a wonderful place to sail with reasonable winds and relatively sheltered water compared to some other parts of the World. So my advice is to explore as much of it as you can and make your own conclusions, it also provides an excellent starting point for trips further into the Med or North Africa. With so much variety unfortunately I just can’t give you my final answer.
With our upcoming winter adventure to the Canary Islands that may put a few more twists on the subject. One thing is for sure, the weather is certainly better than most other European Countries and it is possible to sail 90% of the year without turning the adventure into an endurance exercise.