It's not hard to find a reason to venture away from the costas and seek out the treasures of Spain's most colourful province. But you need inside knowledge to discover the whitewashed village of Cartajima, a mountain jewel high up in the Alto Genal about 90 minutes' drive from Malaga.
Los Castaños is a beautiful small hotel with tastefully decorated rooms with balconies, a Moorish courtyard, well- stocked bar, restaurant and the most fantastic roof terrace offering spectacular views of the surrounding hills.
Owner Di Beach has made this hotel her life's work in progress, and her attention to detail and eagerness to help you enjoy your stay shine through.
Open all year round, there's a welcoming fireplace for chillier days. This is a place to relax or talk politics with your hosts over a glass of fino beside the trickling indoor fountain; a place to discuss art and Spanish history while planning your walk, or just play with the dog. It's the kind of place you leave having made friends with the owners. Homely yet chic, comfortable but opulent, it is hard to praise this place enough. The seven hillside villages of the Alto Genal are worth exploring - Di has put together a booklet on the attractions of the region.
Walking here is a delight, and strolling along goat tracks in the shade of chestnut trees - chestnut co-operatives form the basis of the local economy - should not be missed. I will never forget climbing a hill behind Cartajima and seeing the distant mountains of North Africa picked out by the setting sun.
There is a North African theme to the design, with hidden spaces, irregularly-shaped rooms and splashes of bright colour. The central staircase acts like a heavy metal lamp, sending shadows spinning around the walls.
Guest rooms are shady and luxurious, with individual balconies, blue-tiled bathrooms and gigantic wooden beds. On the roof, Beach has created a terrace where guests can sunbathe, look up to the towering limestone peaks and cool off in the plunge pool, as the village hums gently below them.
The only nightlife Cartajima has to offer is dinner at Balthazar's, the local hostelry where you can sit on a balmy terrace and sample an interesting parade of fried fish, fowl and vegetables washed down with Rioja. Beach also cooks for visitors, offering Californian-style cuisine with the best local ingredients. Tapas, which always feature the local acorn-fed ham and home cooked bread, can also be rustled up at odd times of the day.
News of the World
I arrived at Di Beach’s exquisite boutique hotel, Los Castaños, in the driving rain and gales reminiscent of Aviemore in winter, and was greeted by her partner, the lovely John Walker, a roaring log fire and glass of organic red wine. The stylish gem has the kind of attention to detail you only get in the best city boutique hotels. So you can have the best of both worlds, the remoteness and rustic joy with real luxury -right down to the fluffy towelling bathrobes and goose feather duvets on king size beds in the tastefully decorated bedrooms. From the roof terrace, the landscape opens up to a blaze of colour. They even leave watercolours and sketch pads in the bedrooms in case you are inspired by the view.
Di is a pioneering Brit, who has had a colourful life, travelling Africa as a 19 year old, sailing back home in a hand-built yacht, running a bed and breakfast in Torquay, working in the USA in IT, before settling in Spain. It was Di’s idea to set up Los Castaños, which she built from scratch. She cooks the kind of classy cuisine you would find in the best restaurants —a fusion of Mediterranean and Moroccan taste.