“By the end…it was clear that Spain’s spiritual and cultural isolation was at an end, overwhelmed by the great alien invasion from the North of money and freedoms. Spain became the most visited tourist country in the World, and slowly, as the foreigners poured in, its identity was submerged, its life-style altered more in a single decade than in the previous century.” – Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea‘.
In 1976 I travelled to Europe for the very first time to Sorrento in Italy with my dad who obligingly stepped in at the last moment following a bit of romantic trouble when just before departure my girlfriend went off with the head reporter from the local newspaper (Rugby Advertiser). Very soon after that we patched things up and in October the following year I went to Spain with my (now) fiancée, Linda.
We could have gone practically anywhere we liked, so long as it was within our restricted budget of course, but we choose to go to Benidorm on the Costa Blanca for two whole weeks and we selected the Don Juan hotel on Calle Gerona, just behind the Levante beach because Linda had been there some time before with her parents and had liked it.
Benidorm is one of the most popular tourist locations in Europe, today six million people go there each year on holiday but in 1977 it was even more popular and that year attracted the most holidaymakers ever and over twelve million people poured into the city. That peak in numbers has never been matched since and it is unlikely that it ever will be.
In the early 1960s my grandparents visited Benidorm several times in the Freddy Laker days of package holidays and came home with exotic stories and suitcases full of unusual souvenirs, flamenco dancing girls, matador dolls and velour covered bulls that decorated their living room and collected dust for the next twenty years or so.
The name Costa Blanca was allegedly conceived as a promotional name by British European Airways when it first launched its air service between London and Valencia in 1957 at the start of the package holiday boom. At that time the cost of the fare was £38.80p which may not sound a lot now but to put that into some sort of perspective in 1960 my dad took a job at a salary of £815 a year so that fare would have been about two and a half weeks wages! The average UK weekly wage today is £450 so on that basis a flight to Spain at British European Airline prices would now be £1,100. Thank goodness then for Ryanair because I flew to Seville last year for just £30 return which represents just about three hours work today in comparison with what of been about a hundred hours in 1960.
It was a very foggy morning the day we flew from Luton Airport in Bedfordshire (made famous by Lorraine Chase in the 1970s Campari television adverts) on Monarch Airlines which was in the days before low cost airlines when flying still felt exclusive and glamorous. The pilots were all ex RAF and called Toby or Edward and the air hostesses were tall and elegant, wore smart uniforms and looked like catwalk models. The seats were comfortable with generous leg space and there was a free meal thrown in. These were in the days before terrorist threats so children used to get to go and visit the captain and crew in the cockpit and for adults there was a drinks trolley at below UK prices (today a cup of tea on Ryanair costs £3) and a genuine duty free service for spirits, tobacco and perfume.
As an experience flying has mostly deteriorated in quality since 1976 except in one important area where there has been massive improvement. In 1976 passengers that smoked were still allowed to light up a cigarette on board which meant that because of the way aeroplanes recirculate air in the cabin everyone else had to as well. To be fair they did all have to sit at the back of the aircraft, a bit like Dante’s Inferno, and puff away together but after a couple of hours there was a horrible acrid odour of stale tobacco and the entire cabin smelt like an unemptied ash tray.
Actually it wasn’t just cigarettes but pipes and cigars as well and even the cigarette smokers complained about this. Pipes and cigars were banned in 1979 but a ban on cigarettes had to wait for another ten years. As there has been no smoking now on planes for twenty years I am always curious why arm rests still have ash trays in them because the only purpose they serve now is a place for ignorant people to stick their discarded chewing gum.
The flight lasted a little over two hours and then we landed at Alicante airport about sixty kilometres from Benidorm and as this was in a time before Spain’s modern motorway network the coach took the old coast road north through a string of small towns and villages. Just past Villajoyosa on the coast and the one thousand four hundred metre high Puig Campana Mountain to the west we snatched our first glimpses of Benidorm out of the right hand side windows of the coach and we could see a ribbon of golden sand arched like a Saracen’s sword at the fringe of the magnificent bay and behind it a strip of concrete skyscrapers towering into the blue sky above.
Once in Benidorm we went through the tedious process of dropping people off at their hotels and as the Don Juan was at the far end of the eastern Levante beach we had to wait quite a while to arrive there. Forty years or so later the Don Juan isn’t there anymore and I might be mistaken here but it might now be the refurbished Diplomatic Hotel. It has a bigger swimming pool area and is dwarfed now by giant skyscrapers but it certainly looks similar and it is just about the right location.
If I am correct it is only a kilometre or so from the Hotel Los Pelicarnos on the Calle Girona, which is famous for being the setting of the TV comedy show, Benidorm.
The Don Juan was a typical 1970s Spanish seaside resort hotel with a cavernous reception and public area, a dining room that was little more than a school canteen and an entertainment room for evening activity. The hotel was a six storey concrete and chrome building and we had a room on the front about half way to the top with a good view out to sea. In the 1970s rooms could only be described as functional because these were the days before mini-bars, TVs, internet wifi access and complimentary cosmetics in the bathroom but it was nice enough and it was going to be our home for two weeks.
Later that day we had our first evening meal at the Don Juan and it has to be said that this was by no stretch of the imagination a gourmet experience. The menu was limited and consisted mostly of the sort of food that British holidaymakers, unfamiliar with Spanish cuisine, would have insisted upon in 1977 – beef burgers or chicken, chips and overcooked vegetables with everything, and for sweet it was crème caramel or ice cream and it was the same choice for the whole of the fortnight. One thing was certain – it was unlikely that we would be introduced to traditional Spanish food on this holiday.
To be fair however anything ethnic may have come as shock because like most English people I wasn’t ready for tortilla and gazpacho and although I am now rather partial to tapas and paella I had certainly never been introduced to these Iberian gastronomic delights in 1977.
If the twelve million visitors to Benidorm came in equal numbers each week, which of course they didn’t, then there would have been nearly a quarter of a million visitors to entertain every night and after dinner we walked to the old town, which even in October was bursting at the seams with visitors wandering around the bars getting lashed and the shops buying things they didn’t really need. In 1977 most of Spain was still shaking off the restrictions of the old Franco regime, in June there had been the first elections to the national Parliament since 1936, but Benidorm was way ahead of the rest of the country.
It was loud, brash and noisy and so was the hotel when we returned later on. There was entertainment on the ground floor and even though we were at least four floors up the noise from the disco could be heard all the way up to our room. The booming of the bass guitar and the nagging beat of the drums kept us awake and so did the loud German couple sitting on the balcony of the room next door who were having a conversation with someone in Hamburg without a telephone!
Sleeping has never really been a problem for me and I eventually managed to drop off but sometime in the early hours of the morning I woke up and found Linda on the balcony tired and sobbing and desperately in need of sleep. I think that it was at this point that I wondered just how we were going to survive fourteen nights in Benidorm!
Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…
Other posts about Benidorm:
Benidorm, Plan General de Ordinacion
Benidorm, The War of the Bikini
Benidorm 1977 – First impressions and the Hotel Don Juan
Benidorm 1977- Beaches, the Old Town and Peacock Island
Benidorm 1977 – Food Poisoning and Guadalest
Thanks to http://www.realbenidorm.net/ for the use of the postcard image
Hi Stayed in the Don Juan in 1979, and had a friend who was staying in Los Pelicanos, it was a very long walk from the Don Juan to Pelicanos, when we returned 3 years ago we did the walk. The Don Juan is now the Diplomatic, a servigroup hotel.
Thanks for the information!
Wow. Thank you for this. I’m not sure what made me want to look up the Don Juan in Benidorm other than my 40 year old memories of staying there. I was 6 yrs old but can remember so much about it.
We were paid to stay an extra week as Cosmos had overbooked the return flight.
Thanks again for this glimpse of the past
That was a stroke of luck!
I stayed in the Don Juan in 1979. Easter time. It was a typical Benidorm hotel, pretty much totally forgettable. I vaguely recall the tea at breakfast being undrinkable and served from a massive urn which must have had coffee in it previously because it was coffee-flavoured. Everything else I’ve forgotten although I did snog a girl called Debbie in the lift. I’ve got some pictures somewhere (of the hotel, I mean). Those were the days. I was 17.
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that was my first holiday abroad to the don juan august 1977 i was 17 ha i had never been anywhere as hot i remember the food in the hotel was veal and crem caramel lol had a brill time thou going back to benidorm for a few days later on in the year im going to have a walk up the dipolmatic and the pelicanos wher i stopped in 82
Thanks for adding your memories to the post!
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I agree flying as an experience has gone downhill; something to be avoided if at all possible. And, they might have banned cigarettes, but obnoxious people are still allowed onboard as are screaming and unruly kids and now, “service animals”.
I can manage a flight near to children but a dog would freak me out. I haven’t come across this yet in UK and Europe!
I guess there were always obnoxious people, you just didn’t have to sit so close!
Brought back memories to me, although mine were much earlier. Our first trip to Benidorm was in the late fifties and to get there we had to fly to Valencia, then a coach to Benidorm with a lunch/comfort stop in Gandia. We stayed at the Avenida (which is still there) and another year the Planesia up on the top. Happy days. Benidorm can be all things to all people, it suffers from a reputation it doesn’t deserve.
My sister lives near Alicante. Visiting one time I said I would like to go Benidorm. She said her husband would never go to Benidorm. It turned out he had never ever been so we persuaded him and he was amazed at just how nice it is. Just goes to show!
It’s amazing how quickly you get used to a smoke-free environment. It’s horrific looking back – planes, pubs, staff-rooms, all stinking. I think my first ever flight was with Monarch, but to Greece rather than Spain. I’ve never been to Benidorm.
And who is the handsome young blade at the end of the post? 😉 The hairstyle and shirt are SO very 70s.
It was so normal we didn’t even notice it. Yes, that is me, clearing my lungs on the balcony after an hour or so in the bar!
I laughed at your description of the airplanenflight and Dante’s Inferno. Also that you had a photo! I’m old enough to recall being a nurse and smoking allowed in hospitals. Can you imagine?
Astonishing. Amazing what we used to find acceptable only a short time ago!
First holiday abroad Jan 73
England and Wales don’t count as abroad do they ? from Scotland : > )
I was 7. Never been back but heading out there in FEB with my big brother to watch Celtic in Valencia .Thought i would get all nostalgic and look for the Don Juan. Copied your photos and sent to him and my two sisters.
We are all well traveled but you cant forget the first time on a plane as you say Freddie Laker and tour of cockpit.
Our tat of choice was huge rubbers(erasers) and decorative knives for me and my brother. Can you imagine getting 7 and 9 year old knives now
think they were “letter openers”.
Also did a google map trip to beach and saw Palm trees which i swear were
same ones we buried my dad under the sand . He survived and still with us
so I will need to show him this stuff.
Superb and thanks for the memories
Thanks for adding your contribution to the story!
I remember going to the Don Juan in 1977. We had been to Lloret the year before and had decided to go upmarket to Benidorm. We travelled with one of the cheap travel companies of the day, Intasun or Cosmos, and they had overbooked us so we spent the first few nights in another hotel before being moved to the DJ. We were 4 lads and all I remember is the Big Ben Tavern and being coached out to one of the legendary bbqs out of town. We just drank lager and behaved badly. I now go to Benidorm with my wife and stay at the excellent Don Pancho. We hire a car and go hiking in the beautiful mountains just inland, eat in lovely Ventas in the hills; fortunately I have learnt to behave myself and no longer let the UK down! Having read your blog we went to the Diplomatic and the chap on reception confirmed that it was the DJ back in the seventies and he had worked there since 1976! Hopefully be didn’t recognise me! ATB.
That is a great set of memories, thanks for adding them to my post.
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Clearly you both survived. Well you did anyway. Another chapter soon?
I have written other posts about Benidorm. Linda is alive and well and lives near Birmingham. We remain good friends.
That sounds as if it might be an achievement in the circumstances!
I went to Benidorm with my parents in 1970 and stayed in a hotel with a dolphin on the side which was away from the main drag. I’ve never been back to Benidorm.
Maybe it was this one…
It was indeed
Some of these older posts of yours take me back, too. The only annual salary I can remember is my first, in 1960 – £340. When I commuted from Newark to Kings Cross I still smoked a pipe. Sometimes I would make my way to the smoking carriage, open the door, and decide I didn’t want a pipe that much.
I remember that my first job in 1975 gave me a net pay packet of about £120 per month.
My grandparents lived in London and I can recall passengers smoking on buses and the Underground.
I’ve never been and am now very thankful for that fact! I have been to Valencia though and really enjoyed it.
Well, that was Benidorm in 1977. I have been back quite recently and find it a much changed place.
Valencia is a favourite of mine.
Re-reading this stirred another memory in me. Our first Spanish visit was to Sitges (by train) booked from a A3 black and white brochure of Thos. Cook. I can’t remember the year but it was early fifties. Franco’s Spain would not accept same-room booking at that time so as my husband and I were not married then,we were allocated single rooms but not only this, the hotel put us in adjoining rooms with a large prickly hedge between the balconies so that for us to access the other’s room we had to go downstairs in the lift, cross the lobby and take the another lift up, thus ensuring that the staff knew our movements. We often wondered if the secret police (who were active at that time) kept a record.
I recognise this post! Rereading the comments I’m amazed how many memories it has stirred – Benidorm obviously made a big impression on people.
I just think it is a great story about how it came to be.
Nothing to do with Benidorm, but there was time when patients in hospitals who smoked were supplied with ashtrays.
When expecting my eldest child I was in hospital for four months, I was given an ashtray and my husband brought me bottles of sherry so I could have a late night tipple to go with my sleeping tablet!
I stopped smoking forty-four years ago after a friend told me that my children smelled almost as bad as me!
When I was 18 I worked in a pub. Mum would wait up for me and as soon as I got home would demand that I take off all of my clothes and they went straight into a wash.
Haha. A bit like my son Joss during this covid spike, he comes here straight from school on a Friday evening, first thing he does is head to his bathroom, showers and puts his clothes in the wash!
Poor Linda. I understand. I have a very low tolerance for noise and almost always travel with a white-noise maker. At Burning Man, I carry two very loud battery operated fans. Whatever it takes. –Curt
I always avoid big hotels that advertise entertainment. We stayed at a pub recently where there were complimentary ear plugs – always a bad sign!
Yes, yes… I could see where the complimentary ear plugs would be a bit worrisome…
Wow! so many memories flooding back from the late 70s. We stayed at the hotel Tropicana Gardens. I remember eating at the Robin Hood cafe and watching VHS videos of the latest blockbuster movies. Also remember going to the Granada night club, which was the main cabaret club before the Benidorm palace came along.
Thanks for adding your memories to the post.
I go back a bit further than most contributors…I set up base in Benidormin in 1972. I parked my VW camper that I bought 2nd hand in Madrid, fixed it up and parked at Los Olivos campsite near the Rincon de Loix. I worked at Giles’ Bar in the evenings and during the day at Benicar on the waterfront. (Having returned last year, that building is the only remaining untouched by the Benidorm updates. The Torrubia family owned that building and, being among the wealthiest in Benidorm, no need to sell-out!. Among other places they own the Don Pancho Hotel)
This thread started with comment about the Don Juan Hotel. I became friendly with THE “Don Juan”. Juan Millan owned the hotel and we often played golf together at Don Cayo, that opened Altea in 1974. I never traveled without my clubs being an aspiring (failing) American professional.
I clearly recall, after 45 years, walking up #9, approaching the green, about to complete the annual Xmas event where a bar was set up behind each green and for every shot of cognac consumed; a stroke was taken from your score, I met “Don Juan” coming toward we, who won the competition with 9 hole score of “9”, saying to me: “Gary, you are best mother f*cking golfer out here but I am the best mother f*cking drinker.”
Incredible memories from 1972-1978
Long live BENIDORM….I miss you!
Thanks for adding your memories Gary
Very nice to see photos from that time again.
I was there in 1983 and had met a Scottish girl there. Her name was Karin. she was from Cambuslang, Glasgow. As of time of writing this was 39 years ago. I was there with a group of friends on vacation. I will never forget that time.
Thanks for adding your memories.