Parador Paradise in Spain

Stay in one of these government-run luxury Spanish hotels, which can be modern resorts or converted monasteries, castles and fortresses.

My family travels to Europe every summer for vacation, but in planning last year’s European adventure, there was some dissension among the ranks. “Why is every vacation a history lesson?” asked my oldest son. “Why can’t we be like other families and just go to the beach?” added my daughter.

Maybe our family—my husband and I, our sons (ages 18, 16 and 15), and daughter (11)—did need some beach time. But why just go to the beach when you can immerse yourself in another culture?

I knew just the place. My grandfather had retired to a villa near Málaga, Spain when I was a child. I had many happy memories of swimming in the Mediterranean, exploring the sites of Moorish culture and visiting sleepy fishing villages. Thus, I booked a stay at the Parador Málaga Golf (Autoria Malaga Algesidas Salida Coin, tel. +34 952-38-12-55) for our family’s Málaga vacation to explore Spain’s Andalucia region.

As we drove down the long private drive lined with palm trees, we came upon a group of low-rise hacienda buildings just steps from the Mediterranean Sea. The private beach was dotted with thatched-roof cabanas. The parador’s golf course beckoned the men in the family.

Spanish Paradors

Paradors (paradores, in Spanish) are a diverse collection of more than 90 luxury hotels run by the Spanish government. Spain’s parador system was created in the 1920s to promote tourism in the provinces and preserve the country’s historical buildings.

As a quasi-government/public enterprise, parador hotels enjoy privileged locations throughout Spain—along the coast, in historical hill towns and in countryside retreat settings. The paradors of Spain are often located in culturally important buildings such as monasteries, castles and fortresses, but some—like Málaga Golf—have a more contemporary design.

The vast majority of our fellow guests were Spanish families. Well-traveled Europeans have long known about the charms of paradors, and there were some British and German guests too, but surprisingly we were the only American family.

You won’t find Spanish paradors in Spain’s big metropolitan areas like Madrid or Barcelona. We found that staying at a parador is a great way to have a more intimate Spanish-travel experience and well worth the small detour.

Parador Málaga Golf

The Málaga parador stay was also affordable. We paid €115 per room (about $160), which is reasonable considering that we were staying at a Mediterranean beach resort in August. Current rates start at €103 (about $145). The maximum room occupancy at Málaga Golf was three people. I opted for three rooms, because when vacationing en famille, my husband and I need some time without our kids!

Each room had a balcony with a seating area and views of the Mediterranean, the pool and the gardens. Our rooms were European beach chic—modern dark wood furniture, high-end white linens and a plasma television. The travertine marble-fitted bathroom was stocked with lots of pampering “smellies.”

Dining on regional cuisine is a big part of the parador experience. On the terrace, we enjoyed the prix-fixe lunch (€32 each; about $45) with fish soup and roast lamb with almonds, followed by exquisite desserts and fruit. For my appreciative husband and me, each course was expertly paired with a local wine.

Every afternoon my kids had their beach time. For families with American sensibilities, know that going topless is commonplace in Spain. I tried my very best to be nonchalant about the scenery. Every day my two youngest sons went for a run along the beach, “training for cross-country,” they said. My boys logged quite a few miles!

Day Trips: Gardens, Fortresses and Caves

The Alhambra

Of course, I couldn’t just let my family stay at the beach every day. A visit to the Alhambra, an hour’s drive to the north, was the highlight of our trip. Here we explored the medieval Islamic complex and its preserved palaces, gardens and fortresses.

The gardens of the Generalife, or Summer Palace, are stunning. Surrounded by a series of perfectly manicured cypress hedges, my daughter said, “It’s like The Secret Garden.” The reflecting pools, fountains and flowers made a great backdrop for family photos. My kids have never seen a tower that they didn't want to climb. From the turret of the Alcazaba (fortress), there were wonderful views of the city of Granada below and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance.

The Alhambra is the most visited site in Spain and access is capacity controlled, so it’s essential to buy admission tickets ahead of time. Tickets are timed for either a morning or afternoon visit (€12; about $17). Make reservations and pay for your tickets at Bring your locator number and credit card to the self-serve ticket kiosk at the Alhambra entrance and the machine will print your tickets.

Nerja Caves

A day trip to the Nerja Caves promised active fun for my brood. About a 30-minute drive from Málaga, this series of naturally formed limestone caverns are the largest in Europe and date to 5 million years ago. No spelunking experience is required—access is easy by stairs and concrete paths. Although the caves are dark and dank, lighting highlights the stalagmites, stalactites and other fanciful outcroppings.

Málaga Living

Málaga is a charming Spanish city which also has a lively nightlife. The old town area near the cathedral is a pedestrian-only thoroughfare that is perfect for wandering.

Málaga Dining

Tapas are small dishes of appetizers that are a great dinner option for kids that like to graze. At Klick Wine (10 Calle Sanchez Pastor) we ordered 15 different tapas, among them Manchego cheese and Iberian ham, a smoked salmon blini and even fried goat-cheese balls.

The Spanish fishing villages of my youth still exist. Near the parador, a half dozen “Chiringuitos,” or beach restaurants, line the seaside promenade. At Restaurante Playa los Alamos (Paseo Maritimo los Alamos, tel.+34-952-05-11-22) my husband and I had Fritura Malaguena, an assortment of fried fish with bones, tails and eyes—a catch of the day. And for my not-so-adventurous kids? They got orders of fried calamari all around.

Destinations: Málaga, Spain

Themes: Beach Vacations, Family Travel, Luxury Travel