Two hours up the coast from Barcelona, Spaniards suck prawns and sip rosé at the seaside. Tourist-turned-local Katie Button tells us how to vacation on the Costa Brava.
ROSES, Spain – I promised my mother-in-law, Pepa, that her son Felix would return home to Spain every year after I kidnapped him to live with me in the United States and open two restaurants together. Roses is Felix's hometown, and now that we have a daughter who is almost two years old, it is even more important that we go back every year to enjoy the end of summer and introduce our daughter to the amazing culture, cuisine, and lifestyle of her father's homeland — Roses, Catalonia, and all of Spain.
Roses is an amazing fishing village about two hours north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava. People go for the Mediterranean cuisine and the beautiful calas, little coves of hidden beaches and natural wildlife. It is conveniently located near Cadaques and Figures where art buffs can learn about the life of Salvador Dalí. This area has a lot of wineries and was home to elBulli, the restaurant where Felix and I both worked.
LAY OF THE LAND
Everything is located down by the water, where restaurants and little shops line the streets. On the road out of Roses, on the drive north to Cap de Creus, there is a large national park for hiking, mountain biking, and driving along the sheer cliffs, taking in gorgeous views of the entire area. I like to hop from village to village, experiencing the unique culture of the area while stopping at the vineyards along the way to taste wines from the Empordà region.
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING
Eat the seafood that comes only from this region of the world, prepared simply by some of the best restaurants I have ever experienced. Suck the heads of local gambas (prawns). The gamba de Roses, or gamba de Palamós, is one of the best — it's a nice sized prawn about the distance from the tip of your pinky to the tip of your thumb. It is a mind-blowing delicacy, even though there's no delicate way to describe it. (I am still in search of the best way to explain to Americans how to enjoy these prawns without turning beet red from embarrassment. You just have to embrace it.)
WHAT I KNEW ON THE LAST DAY I WISH I HAD KNOWN ON THE FIRST
This past summer we rented a little motorboat and took it out for the day. We loaded a cooler up with a bottle of sweet vermouth and a six pack of Estrella Damm Inedit, berberechos (canned cockles), potato chips, and anchovy-stuffed olives, then set out to explore the little calas of the area. We tied our boat up to one of the buoys scattered around and went for a swim, and explored the area by foot before taking the boat back at the end of the day.
WHAT TO DO
A historical fishing village perched on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. It's about a twenty-minute drive on a windy, narrow road from Roses, but it is wonderfully picturesque. Fans of his work can tour Salvador Dalí's house and begin to understand the inspiration behind his Surrealism.
Another chance to contemplate the man's art in Figueres, about twenty minutes outside of Roses.
A wonderful winery with wines and restaurants and a beautiful historical castle to tour. Who wouldn't enjoy cava inside a castle?
Cap de Creus
This is one of the most northeastern points in Catalonia. The northern wind is legendary. Tramontana can be so strong that it has its own name and can sweep you off the ground. Stop here for the cool café where you can grab a beer or a coffee.
L'Hort d'en Minguets
This little bar has a lot of history for my husband and I. He and his brother owned it years ago, just after they graduated from high school. It was the after-hours hang out for the staff of elBulli, so that's how he became friends with owners Ferran and Albert Adria and eventually ended up working for them. It continued to be the spot for elBulli staff all the way up until the restaurant closed. It was always my favorite spot to hang out with friends and grab a beer after work.
Xiringuito Toks on the Beach
This place, run by Felix's brother, Kiko, is only open during the summer. Right in the middle of the beach in the center of Roses, they play live music after dinner on weekends (best enjoyed over a mojito).
My favorite beach in the area for its crystal clear water and sand instead of the pebbles found on most of the other tiny calas. It's protected from the wind, so the weather always seems to be a little nicer than anywhere else in Roses, but perhaps that's just because I'm usually sitting with my feet in the sand, enjoying a glass of rosé at one of the beachfront restaurants. Almadraba is my piece of heaven, and also where Felix grew up swimming on a daily basis. If only we were all so lucky!
Roses is only 45 minutes from this large city, another reason why Roses is the perfect destination. Girona is a much bigger city with some incredible history. Its old quarter is truly breathtaking. Be sure to take a day trip.
Hike the Cami de Rhoda
The trail starts in Roses and travels between nearby beaches. The road ends at Cala Montjoi, but the footpath continues all the way to Cadaques, a great place to pick up the trail and see an area where cars can't go.
WHAT TO DO WITH KIDS
All the beaches are stocked with kid-friendly rental equipment, like paddle boards, kayaks, and patins (little boats with a fun slide attached). I went snorkeling as a little girl and absolutely loved it. If the kids get sick of the beach, AquaBrava is a fun water park in Roses.
WHERE TO STAY
Santa Llucia Apartments
These little no-frills apartments are right on the beach. The on-site restaurant offers takeout. Nothing beats sipping a cup of coffee on the terrace, watching the sun come up over the Mediterranean.
Hotel Vista Bella
A beautiful luxury hotel. The rooms are all suites, the service is impeccable, and the main restaurant earned a Michelin star. The hotel's smaller, more casual restaurant is located on a secluded beach.
Almadraba Park Hotel
A really nice hotel right next to the Almadraba beach, and a good, full-service alternative to the Santa Llucia Apartments with a pool and beautiful spa.
Vacation rentals are also a good bet in this town — and a nice way for a whole family to feel like they're living local.
WHERE TO EAT
A Cadaques restaurant run by three former elBulli chefs. The food is inventive yet approachable. Knowledgable servers guide patrons through the menu, ensuring they have the best personal experience.
Carrer de Sant Sebastià, 56
Amazing seafood. It's a tiny spot that is open only when there's fresh fish to be had. They don't have a written menu; rather, they recite everything they have in the kitchen that day. Don't be fooled by the simplicity of the preparation: Every single bite is an experience. Rafa himself cooks all the food, and Rosa manages the front of the house. The two of them make a great team.
Plaça Sant Pere, 7
A great, casual tapas place. A classic dish is the ensaladilla rusa, but I also love the fried artichokes and stuffed piquillo peppers.
Carrer de Mossèn Carles Feliu, 23
Another high-end seafood restaurant. It's similar in concept to Rafa's, but the menu is longer and they have a Josper charcoal oven, which means they can make some incredibly tender whole fish with a lightly smoked flavor.
A restaurant right on my favorite beach, Almadraba. Their fideau, like paella but made with short, thick noodles, pairs exceptionally well with a bottle of rosé and a post-lunch dip in the Mediterranean.
This spot specializes in one thing: rotisserie chicken. Order a half chicken, french fries, and a famous house salad. I've been known to use my fingers for the chicken and fries and dunk them in obscene amounts of mayonnaise.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
How to Get There
The closest airport is in Girona, but there are no international flights that run in and out of that airport. I typically fly into Barcelona and then rent a car. It's about a two-hour drive from the Barcelona airport. It's easier to get around with a car, anyway. It's a 50-minute ride to Figueres on the high-speed train, the AVE, and then a twenty-minute cab or rental ride to Roses. I've contemplated taking the train and then renting a scooter to get around (easier parking at the beach), but I have yet to try it.
When to Go
Summer is the busiest season, but my favorite time to go is the last week of August and the first week of September. Tourist season is calming down with everyone going back to school and work, and the sun has been warming the Mediterranean all summer, so the water is delightful.
Gratuity is not required, but anything up to ten percent would be a nice gesture for a particularly great experience. No need to leave more than that.
What to Pack
A bathing suit and some comfortable walking shoes. You won't need much else. Roses is casual, just bring clothes for hiking and swimming and something to walk around town in, and don't worry about getting too dressy. If you plan to check out lots of the smaller beaches, bring a pair of swimming shoes to protect your feet from the pebbles.
For Your Bedside Table
The Light at the Edge of the World, starring Kirk Douglas and based on Jules Verne's The Lighthouse at the End of the World, was filmed here. They actually built a lighthouse for the movie and there has been talk recently about taking it down, but the local community loves it so much that they don't want to let it go.