Passport: Costa del Sol

For a long, long time, Spain’s gorgeous Costa del Sol, or “Sun Coast,” was very, very quiet. Except for that business of the Spanish Reconquista pushing out the Moors in the late 1400s, this near-perfect locale changed little for more than a thousand years, its utterly tranquil Mediterranean coastline peppered only with tiny fishing villages, and nary a gay bar to be found.

Then came the 1950s, and the secret of the Costa del Sol got out to the world, in a big, big way. The mid-Andalusian coastline began to lure Northern European types, weary of their long, dark winters and eager to bask in the region’s ever-present sunshine. First came the super-rich and famous (think Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Laurence Olivier), after Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg opened the aristocratic Marbella Club in 1954. The demi-rich and B celebs followed, and gradually the masses—as is their wont—caught wind of the fun and sun, subsequently descending in droves. Through it all, the gays came too, establishing their beachhead at Torremolinos in the 1960s and 70s.

Unfortunately, the switch from sleepy-fishing-village-dotted seashore to frolicksome touristic playground proved too rapid for the area to bear seamlessly. Unsavory types like on-the-lam Brits, the Russian mob, and Arab arms traffickers crept in, earning the region the unwelcome nickname Costa del Crime in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Unsavory Marbella politicians meanwhile took advantage of the instability, pushing through scores of corrupt construction projects before being stopped and ultimately jailed.

Now, however, with a clean political slate and hot on the heels of a highly publicized summer 2010 visit to the area by Michelle Obama, the Costa del Sol is back with a vengeance. A new generation of hip tourists, a large faction of them gay, are now discovering the 300-plus days of sun, the warm Mediterranean beaches, the bargain-to-luxury shopping, the excellent spas, the delectable food, the rich history, the effervescent culture, and yes, those scrumptious southern Spanish men of the delightful Costa del Sol.

By far, most international visits to the Costa del Sol start in Málaga, and more specifically at its Pablo Ruiz Picasso International Airport. Low-cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet have turned this into Spain’s fourth busiest airfield, with scores of carriers now serving over 60 countries. The airport’s newly opened third terminal is expected to accommodate the growing number of travelers in the coming years. Thanks to an extension of Spain’s high-speed AVE train line in 2007, it’s now also possible to get from Madrid to Málaga by rail in just about two and a half hours.

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Passport: Costa del Sol