On our trip from the Alicante airport to our apartment of the many stairs and no elevator, our nice landlord pointed out a sleek orange catamaran docked in the marina. “That’s the Kon Tiki,” she said, “the ferry to Tabarca Island. It’s a good day trip. The island is very interesting.”
Interesting islands always, well, interest us, so Mary and I walked down to the waterfront early one morning and we plunked down 20 euros each for roundtrip tickets, along with a couple dozen other tourists who are also fans of interesting islands.
It was a splendid morning for the eight-mile cruise … calm seas, and just enough cloud cover to tame the intense Mediterranean rays. The hour-long trip hugs the coast, taking us past enclaves of highrise condos that dot the Spanish coastline. Most are owned by foreigners who live here part-time during the summer months before returning to their homes in the UK, Scandinavia, and Russia. These are hedonistic party communities during the tanning season and ghost towns during the off-season.
The exception is the small city of Santa Pola, about five miles from Tabarca Island. It’s still a working fishing community, but like all cities on the Med, tourism is a significant economic force and the fisherman tolerate the visitors because they eat a lot of fish.
By the time we could see Santa Pola we could also see what we guessed was Tabarca Island sitting like a shallow plate on the sea. No wonder since Roman times its been known as Isla Plana (the flat island). It’s been inhabited since the mid-1700s when the Spanish King Carlos III, concerned about Turkish pirates along the coastline near Alicante, decided to build a military garrison as an early warning system for pirates alont the coast. He moved Italian prisoners to the island, now called Tabarca, and built modest houses and an impressive church along three short streets surrounded by stone walls. There were grand plans to add a palace and other structures, but the King ran out of money for the project. The garrison grew into a fishing village, with a population of over 500 at its peak. It’s now a protected marine sanctuary and home to about fifty year-around residents who cater to tourists like us.
As our boat neared the shoreline, we could see remnants of the fortifications and the church. Oddly, the rows of two-story houses looked out of sync with the ancient structures, resembling bland condo developments of the 1960s. It was a little after noon when we made our way up to the village. The little cove was quite charming with small fishing boats anchored just offshore and smaller rowboats baking in the sun along the shoreline.
It was near lunchtime. So we made our way quickly to the one restaurant that had decent reviews on TripAdvisor, to book a table before it was filled. Along the way, our glimpses of the town didn’t impress us much. We finally arrived atthe restaurant, not a creature was stirring. It was closed. On to Plan B. Only this time we didn’t have one. Most other eateries had low TripAdvisor scores with reviews warning of ripoffs, tourist traps, and price gouging.
So we slowly walked through the streets looking for a place to grab a bite and pass the time until our boat returned to Alicante at 4:30. It took us less than 30 minutes to explore the village streets. Most of the shops were closed for the season so there wasn’t much to see or buy.
The streets ended in an area of tide pools where the snorkeling was supposed to be some of the best in this part of the Med. But the view paled and blurred as we were assailed with the vilest, eye-watering, stench we have ever encountered. We looked over at a small house where a brave trio of public servants was pumping out sewage waste toward what looked like the community treatment plant. We gagged out way through the old gate to the shoreline where other tourists were shooting selfies and wiping away methane gas tears.
In the distance, we spotted what looked like a ferry coming toward us from Santa Pola. We both had the same idea. We didn’t want to spend four more hours on this island. We didn’t want to eat there. Or shop there. We wanted to leave.
We dashed to the dock, determined to board the ferry, regardless of its cost or destination. Within a half-hour, we were on that boat along with one other couple headed for Santa Pola and our next adventure.
You never know where Plan B will take you. But in our case, it rewarded us with a travel gem involving food and camaraderie. Watch this space.