Spain on holiday: a day at the beach in San José, Almería

Morning

It’s peak holiday week, 28C on the coast of Almería, but I am one of only six people on the beach. Why? Because I am unfashionably – freakishly – early. The small resort of San José, the most accessible of the Cabo de Gata bays, is packed, but in Spain rising early to grab a spot, communing with nature and enjoying the relative balminess isn’t a thing. So, while hotels and apartments are stuffed to the gills, at 9am the town is still quiet: the bucket-and-spade kiosk shuttered, sparrows pecking below the swings, tomatoes still being grated for the breakfast tostadas at the beachfront Vittoria cafe, and zero action at the churreria truck.

Aside from three women neck deep in water, my fellow early-birders are non-natives: Alain, crossing the calm bay in a slow crawl, is French, and Maria Carmen, her deckchair facing east, is an Argentinian spending the summer with her niece who works in town. “She drops me off at 8am and picks me up at midday. It’s ideal. The beach, at this time is beautiful, charming. Later on, it’s too much.”

Or certainly different. While Cabo is off-the-beaten track in winter, in peak summer Spanish city-dwellers flock here to embrace the idea of traditional family seaside fun on a packed beaches. The easy, child-centric sociability of a Spanish crowd, the noise, happiness and total annihilation of personal space is, weirdly, hard not to love.

“Some foreigners come to read a book or look at an iPad, and shush their kids,” says Maria from Zaragoza, baffled. “They’re crazy!”

By mid-morning, turquoise, yellow and green beach umbrellas stretch from end to end, and the shoreline paseo begins: fit posers, paunchy men in Speedos, kids, women of all ages in bikinis, or topless, all striding by with loose-limbed barefoot grace. A vendor passes selling sarongs, leather wristbands, CDs, and boxes of Y-fronts. Tourists assemble at wooden kiosks offering paddleboarding, boat tours and kayaking. Happy Kayak’s affable instructor Enol shows a group how to paddle and stay afloat and, soon after, a vermilion flotilla wobbles along an avenue of buoys to the caves and crystalline snorkelling spots that the rocky coastline is famed for.

All this I observe from my shady tumbona, one half of 40 pairs of loungers set under straw parasols, and at €5 a day an excellent investment – no matter they are so closely packed I can read my neighbour’s Rumore gossip magazine and have to duck when his wife bends over to adjust her towel.

Most beach-lovers drag their own furniture across the smouldering sand. Natalia from Barcelona and her 17 friends and family have a solid bench-table-umbrella combo flanked by tent camp and industrial-size cold boxes. “We’ve brought everything, including too much food: tuna, tortilla, bread, oil, my aunt’s pasta salad,” she says. “But”, she adds, laughing, “also lots of fit men to carry it.”

Similar encampments line the shore, eight deep, and all groups are huge. Edging around a sandcastle, I meet Pepe from Córdoba and his family of 15. “No, wait … 17, no! 20!”. They are here for 15 days to, he says, escape the heat. According to the local radio station, which is broadcasting live from the beach, it’s 34C here. The air could be straight from a hairdryer – not that anyone cares.

Afternoon

I appear to have dozed through a 2.30pm lunch bell. The beach is empty, at least of people. Inflatable ducks, pink flamingos and unicorns stare out to sea beside piles of stuff left for later. The crowd has fanned out across the many restaurants for good-value arroces marineros and parrilladas de pescado (assorted rice and seafood dishes). Though I imagine the owners of the wood-trimmed sailing boat parked outside the marina are in the swankier 4 Nudos next to harbour master’s office.

After a heat-numbed hiatus, when long shadows are cast by the cliffs below the Hotel Doña Pakyta, there is a less-frenetic second shift of paddling and snorkelling and searching for sea urchins amid the rocks. In Plaza Génova, old friends of many summers play dominos at the 3a Edad San José bar.

The lifeguard dangling his legs from his lofty lookout checks his watch and climbs down at 8pm. The day’s main action was a whistle toot for a swimmer-in-boat-lane infraction.

Evening

People turn away from the sea and use the sand; teenagers play football on it, overshooting the goal because girls are watching. Four men play volleyball, two have babies in pushchairs with them, parked under the palms. And boys who met on the beach – Pablo, Luis, Jose Andres and Luca – are vaulting and somersaulting off a half-buried buoy like a seasoned circus act in the dusk. “It’s easy,” says Luis, demonstrating the double corkscrew. “The challenge is psychological.”

As night falls, there is a mixture of foot traffic in town: dripping wet kids brandishing fishing nets heading in, and families heading out: men in polo shirts, women in espadrilles and jewels, children in stiff cotton. There’s shopping until 11pm or so for flip-flops and snorkels, and along the lamplit seafront promenade more browsing at artisan stalls of jewellery and leather stuff as people make their way for diner, in search of fresh John Dory, salmonete (red mullet) or gallineta (gurnard). Or perhaps, just for a change, a Mexican. And at midnight, the action in the packed Plaza Génova reaches a crescendo as children go wild on the bouncy castle amid bright lights and loud music, and queues form for ice-cream at Il Gelato.

Beyond the shadows of the palms, the beach is dark and quiet but not empty. There’s a family at the shoreline; children are swimming and a boy is juggling glow balls. This busy place really couldn’t feel more peaceful.

Hostal Puerto Genovés has doubles from €60 B&B, MC San José halves its rates at the end of August, offering doubles from €85 B&B

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips

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