The blaze of colour on Tarifa beach is amazing. It’s as if a multi-coloured quilt has been laid over the sea. The colours shift and swap places, dip down and reappear from nowhere. To the uninitiated, what is going on out there on the water must be nigh-on unfathomable. But to those in the know, this is the place in Europe for water-sports.
Welcome to kite-surfing’s mecca, Tarifa, on the southern tip of Spain. Known for a while now as one of the premier windsurfing spots in the world, in the last year Tarifa has seen an explosion of interest in kite-surfing. Water-sports adrenalin junkies have discovered that if you attach a large kite to a harness and jump on a mini-surfboard with footstraps, you can, well, fly. Kite-surfing adds the elegance of surfing to the speed of windsurfing, not to mention massive ‘hang-time.’ And the winds of Tarifa are a kite-surfer’s dream.
As I discovered on my first visit in 1999, wind is what defines the Andalucian town of Tarifa. Or rather, two winds, which batter it year-round: the levante, from the east, and the poniente, from the west. For years, the winds were a disincentive to tourist development on this, the Costa de la Luz (‘the Coast of Light’). Tarifa woke up with arrival of windsurfing, but retains a laid-back, hippy feel – the diametric opposite to the resorts on the nearby, all-too-jaded Costa del Sol. It is the summer equivalent to Chamonix, in France, Europe’s centre for extreme mountain sports: a place full of bronzed, healthy bodies, dreadlocks and surf-shops. And yet, for all the trendy accoutrements of the prevailing water-sports industry – which were in their infancy only four years ago - Tarifa has retained a traditional Spanish feel.
The town is perched on the southern tip of Spain, 30 minutes’ drive from Gibraltar. Opposite the dramatic Rif mountains rise from the sea on the coast of Morocco. Moorish influences are everywhere in Andalucia, and Tarifa has its own labyrinthine streets and ancient charm. There are crumbling Moorish walls and the Castillo de Guzman, a typically Spanish café culture, and bars, restaurants and clubs that stay open as late as you like.
As for the winds, in the summer there are many days (particularly in August) when they drop off to make for perfect kite-surfing conditions, with launching from the large protected bay of Las Dunas. The poniente blows in from the Atlantic and can bring waves, but makes for excellent conditions for beginners or those wanting to improve. The levante, a warmer, often slightly stronger wind, is more common in summer and creates flatter conditions, again perfect for beginners. Bear in mind, though, that just as the weather in the mountains around Chamonix can change within minutes, so too can a gentle force two quickly rise to a howling force seven in Tarifa. I found this out the hard way in 2000 when, on a second windsurfing visit, the wind whipped up so quickly that for a moment I wondered if I would be making an unscheduled visit to Morocco.
Fortunately, the sea around Tarifa is warm though a shortie wetsuit (covering upper body and thighs) is recommended. Kitesurfers should also beware the power of the kite. This is tremendous and though the sight of novices flying through the air over the golden sands of the Costa de la Luz, only to land in an ungainly heap, has a certain guilty appeal, it is a reminder of the need for lessons. Kite-surfing is an extreme sport, requiring a reasonable level of fitness and confidence in the water. A lot of time is spent looking up at the kite, which looks like it can lead to tender neck and shoulder muscles. Just how tender I aim to find out on my next visit in August. I’m told, though, that whatever I do I should never, ever grab hold of the kite-lines. This can be seriously damaging to your (not to mention other beach users’) health.
If you are more of a water-sports traditionalist, go windsurfing instead. Both the poniente and the levante often rise to a solid force four to five even on summer afternoons. With its flatter conditions, the levante is best for speed merchants, while the poniente gives bump and jump ‘airtime.’ You won’t find the huge waves of other European windsurfing hotspots, such as Fuertaventura in the Canaries, or Gincho on Portugal’s Atlantic coast, but for the consistency of its conditions Tarifa is hard to beat.
Heading west from Tarifa, towards Cadiz, there is also quality surf – minus the wind. Drive a few miles to any of Zahara de los Atunes, Conil de la Frontera or El Palmar, and you will find great, understated surf spots with summer swells that can reach 2-5ft. The sea is a little warmer on this stretch of the coast and all you’ll need is your board and board-shorts. There are none of the crowds of Cornwall, and even when one break does look a little busy there is so much space on the beaches that a five-minute walk will take you to another sandbar and another mellow beachbreak. It is a fantastic place for children to learn to surf – warm seas, endless sunshine, few crowds, easy waves. In the summer, that is. In winter, the Atlantic swells roll in at a size that only experienced surfers should tackle.
Leaving Tarifa, driving up the winding road over the hills, it’s worth stopping for the ‘mirador.’ You can see across the Straights of Gibraltar to the Rif Mountains, crystal clear on a summer’s day, glittering in the unique brightness of the Costa de la Luz. And beneath you, back on the beach in Tarifa, there is that strange patchwork quilt rippling in the sun. Somehow grey days in the UK just don’t compare.