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Barcelona and beyond: Best beaches and bays

By George Webster for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Participants in this year's Barcelona World Yacht Race are approaching the finish line
  • The Catalan capital and neighboring region is culturally vibrant
  • Ivory sand beaches, gourmet seafood and exquisite architecture await yachtsmen

(CNN) -- Facing out onto the Mediterranean Sea, with its privileged location on the eastern edge of the Iberian peninsula, Barcelona is Spain's cultural capital -- as well as home to one of Europe's largest ports.

And it's here, at the historic "Puerto de Barcelona," that the 10 two-person teams who remain in this year's grueling Barcelona World Race are soon to complete their three-month sailing voyage around the globe.

With the spring equinox having sent the equatorial sun high into the sky, the race frontrunners can look forward to soon unwinding in Barcelona's mix of psychedelic Gaudi buildings, colorful parks and Catalan carnival spirit.

In honor of the 25,000-nautical-mile race -- now in its second year -- and with the help of senior Lonely Planet author and Spain aficionado Stuart Butler, we've compiled a sailor's guide to this ultra-cosmopolitan port city.

Port Olympic marina

Those lucky enough to be sailing into the Catalan capital will most likely arrive at the state-of-the-art Port Olympic marina. Located between the fashionable beaches of Barceloneta and Icaria, the marina development and its associated cafes, restaurants and leisure facilities were built when Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympic Games.

The area around Palafrugell and Begur contains a string of pocket-sized coves with minty blue waters...
--Stuart Butler
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The landmark sculpture at the entrance to the marina area is superstar architect Frank Gehry's giant copper Peix (Fish) -- a fitting symbol for a region that is renowned for its seafood delights.

"Prior to the '92 Olympics this part of Barcelona was fairly neglected and run-down," explains Butler. "But ever since it has been undergoing a steady gentrification and is considered the best place in Barcelona to eat seafood."

The Costa Brava

With its ivory sand beaches stretching north of Barcelona to the French border, the Costa Brava's cosmetic appeal has inevitably led to numerous strips of over-developed touristy resorts.

However, according Butler, there is still plenty of hidden charm for the determined sailor.

"The area around Palafrugell and Begur contains a string of pocket-sized coves with minty blue waters and a very low-key, and often quite exclusive, tourist industry," he said. "Although yachting facilities are fairly limited, this area is exceptionally popular with sailors who like to moor up off the quiet coves."

For one of the "most exceptionally beautiful beaches in Spain," the Lonely Planet author recommends Aiguablava. With just a single luxury hotel and limited space for car parking, it's "an ideal spot to drop anchor and enjoy the peace."

Illes Medes

If you want to see what goes on under the waves rather than just above them, the coastline of the Costa Brava contains some of the best diving in the western Mediterranean.

"The focus of attention is on the Illes Medes, a protected group of seven islets just offshore from the ho-hum resort town of L'estartit," says Butler. "Some 1,300 different species of plants and animals have been seen in the waters around here, including conger eels, moray eels, rays and giant groupers -- some of which might even feed from your hand."

Bay of Roses

Further north, and almost within shouting distance of the French border, is the Bay of Roses and the beautiful white-washed town of Cadaqués.

Butler has some good news for thrill-seeking sailors: "Due to an unusual local microclimate caused by the Pyrenees tumbling into the Mediterranean here, the winds are almost always strong and the sailing much more exhilarating than further south."

Cadaqués was the adopted home of eccentric artist Salvador Dali, and as such, "the town retains something of a bohemian and artistic feel," says Butler.

The region is littered with small, intimate coves -- the majority of which can only be reached by foot or boat. One such cove is home to El Bulli -- the three-Michelin-star restaurant run by Catalan super chef Ferran Adria -- voted the world's best restaurant a record five times.

Unfortunately, reveals Butler, if you want to eat there then you've missed the boat, as "the restaurant will be closing its doors for good at the end of July this year and all tables up to that day were booked up in a single day."

But not to worry. Barcelona is a bon vivant's dream, and with over 10,000 restaurants, it's the only region outside France to have been given the prestigious distinction of "Gourmande city" by French food authority Le Guide des Gourmands. So, sailors, paellas all round!