My brother-in-law was the first one to tell me about Sitges. He'd been there with his boyfriend and thought my wife and I would like it. I must admit I was a bit surprised; all I knew was that it was a gay resort near Barcelona and was famous for its nightlife. My wife, Sophie, was pregnant and we both needed a holiday but we were hardly in the mood for raucous nightlife - gay or straight. Surely this was the last place we should be going?
We were wrong. We went for a week and had a great time. It was easy to get there - only 16 miles from Barcelona airport. It was remarkably attractive - lots of historic buildings, from Renaissance to art nouveau. The beach was damn near perfect - a broad sweep of vanilla sand, sheltered by a ring of green rolling hills (the Garraf massif) - and yet somehow Sitges hadn't been overwhelmed by tourism. It still felt like a working town.
The gay bars are confined to a few streets but their presence energised the community; they made Sitges come alive in a way that felt friendly and upbeat. There were no sunburnt lads in "Ingerlund" shirts, no broken glass or vomit in the streets. We felt invigorated yet relaxed, free from the stag-night atmosphere of so many Anglo-Iberian resorts. I realised Sitges was to Barcelona what Brighton is to London: a mini metropolis by the seaside, cosmopolitan yet homely. It was the resort we'd been looking for. When we returned, two years later, our son, Edward, was a toddler. He was awake at dawn and asleep by sunset. We usually got up just as the hardcore clubbers were coming home, and shuffled off to bed just when everyone else was going out. Yet being so out of step felt rather nice. During those silent sunlit mornings it often felt like we had the seafront to ourselves.
After our daughter, Thea, was born, we came for a third time and, as with all the best holiday spots, Sitges became a constant backdrop to our family life. We've been back several times in the past decade as nowhere else quite hits the spot.
So what is it that makes Sitges so seductive? Its history for one thing. For several centuries its young men went to the new world (especially Cuba) to seek their fortunes, and returned home to build ornate houses to show off the money they had made. Already established by the beginning of the 20th century, Sitges was never swamped with high-rise hotels like the poorer fishing villages further south. Under the Franco dictatorship it became a discreet refuge for artists and free-thinkers.
To this day it retains a cultured ambience out of keeping with its compact size. The robust baroque church is the focal point for flamboyant processions. Several grand old houses have been converted into galleries and museums. Barcelona is less than an hour away by bus or train; Tarragona is even closer. Though it's a Unesco world heritage site, on account of its splendid Roman ruins, it's remarkably free from tourist traffic. And besides, ticking off the sights isn't the point of Sitges. It's mainly just a place for doing nothing.
During some of these long, lazy afternoons I've given the matter of why Sitges is such a good family holiday destination some thought and these are the key factors. . . You can get there in a few hours, but it feels really foreign. It shares some of Barcelona's big-city vibe, but it still feels like a place apart. It's large enough to sustain a life of its own but is close to proper countryside. Its architecture is eye-catching but it's not a culture-vulture destination. A lot of its visitors are Catalans - daytrippers and weekenders from Barca and beyond - and since most shops cater for locals you won't be ripped off. A lot of visitors rent apartments, buy their groceries in the local shops and eat in local restaurants, rather than hiding away beside private pools.
Sure, it's still a holiday resort, but it has local culture of its own. Is there anywhere else that matches up? Maybe, but I've yet to find it.
Where to eat
Sitges' seafront restaurants aren't all tourist traps but you're inevitably paying a premium for the sea view, rather than the food. Wedged between the railway and the ring road, La Masia (+34 938 941076, lamasiasitges.es) doesn't look like much from the outside but inside is a tranquil courtyard where you can sample classic Catalan cuisine. Hearty and unfussy, the three-course menu costs euros 31. Try the garlic soup, salt cod, and Catalan custard.
Where to stay
In a quiet residential street, the four-star Hotel Antemare (+34 938 947000, antemare.com, doubles from euros 70 B&B. Ask about reductions for kids under 12) is in a great location: a decent distance from the bars and nightclubs but only a 10-minute walk from the town centre and two minutes from the beach. The rooms are perfunctory but the restaurant, bar and pool are all extremely pleasant. .
How to get there
There are plenty of direct flights to Barcelona, with airlines such as BA (ba.com) and easyJet (easyjet.com), flying from several UK airports, but the best way we found is with Swiss (swiss.com). You have to change in Geneva, which adds more than an hour to the flight time, but if you're travelling in the school holidays, it's a way of sidestepping the end-of-term stampede. Prices jump about, and you may find a better deal elsewhere but, remarkably, when we took this route it was actually one of the cheapest options, and our connections ran like clockwork.
From Barcelona airport, you can travel by train (renfe.com) or MonBus (monbus.cat) coach to Sitges. The coach costs euros 4 each way, the train euros 4.10. You have to change trains in El Prat de Llobregat, but the whole journey takes about 40 minutes.
PHOTOGRAPH: POLA DAMONTE/GETTY IMAGES
Toledo, Castilla-La Mancha
With its rich artistic heritage, Toledo is a magnet for middle-aged culture vultures, but the historic alleys of the old town also make it an enchanting place to stroll with children.
Consuegra, Castilla-La Mancha
It feels like the middle of nowhere (and that's a big part of its appeal) but this desolate, dramatic town is just a short drive from Toledo. Stop off to show the kids the famous old windmills, one of the most iconic sights in Spain.
San Vicente de la Barquera, Cantabria
Spain's north coast has escaped the worst effects of seaside tourism, and in high summer the climate is much nicer than on the Med. This attractive fishing port is one of several good spots along this windy shoreline, with fine fish restaurants and sandy beaches nearby.
Santiago Calatrava's City of Arts & Sciences complex is most famous for its architecture, but the museums it houses are child-friendly - particularly the excellent Museo de las Ciencias (science museum).
Hondarribia, Basque Country
To escape the crowds of San Sebastian, head to this lively little town by the French border, for colourful nightlife, a good local beach and a fine parador in an ancient castle (parador.es). WC
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Cool for Catalans . . . the Sitges seafront