Good vibrations in San Sebastian with tea by the beach over the border

There’s something magical about San Sebastian. I always loved the curve of the beach and the light, but now we’ve found a wonderful place for tea or coffee, making this my favourite city in Spain by far.

When I lived in this part of Spain over 30 years ago, San Sebastian – or Donostia in the local lingo – was always the refuge I sought for rest and recreation. There’s a great vibe to the place, which I remembered on our recent visit the moment we stepped off the bus from Pamplona.

It’s lively, cosmopolitan, with a real mix of people and a fair sprinkling of tourists, even in March.

Bay of Biscay from hotel Itxasoa in San Sebastian

We got lucky with our hotel, choosing a simple but extremely friendly pension on the edge of the old town, with a balcony looking out over the Bay of Biscay.

Mind you, the landlady had extraordinary tales of the winter storms that hit this part of Europe’s coast as badly as the UK, as she told of waves crashing over the walls and flooding the ground floor of this building in a foot of water. She and her guests were marooned on the 2nd floor waiting for the tide to go out.

La Concha beach in San Sebastian

I do have fond memories of the tides on San Sebastian’s shell-shaped beach ‘La Concha’. On hot summer’s days the beach fills to capacity by mid morning, but this beach has a very shallow slope to it, meaning that when the tide does turn it tends to rush in, catching many a summer bather out if they left their clothes on the sand.

Low tide on San Sebastian beach

Much as I love San Sebastian, we actually had our worst – and our best – experiences over coffee and tea. Sadly, it’s often the case that the more you have a guaranteed customer base, with lots of passers-by who may never return as regulars, service standards can tend to dip (we’ve seen it in many a UK resort or tourist hot-spot), and sure enough in one coffee shop we found, where the coffee was actually very good quality, the service came with a grimace rather than a smile and we felt far from welcome or inclined to go back.

We don’t name names in the Fancy a Cuppa? blog if we don’t like a place for whatever reason – we prefer to focus on the places we do like to recommend. But I’m afraid we also had a mediocre tea experience in San Sebastian, where a tea room had a nice menu of loose leaf teas served in beautiful tea pots and cups (as is becoming more and more common in Spain it seems), but when we tasted the brew, it was luke warm and virtually undrinkable for the black tea we had ordered.

So after two very average experiences, we were delighted to find what turned out to be our favourite coffee shop on this trip: Koh Tao in the calle Bengoetxea.

Koh Tao cafe in San Sebastian

This place had everything we love about having coffee or tea out. A really warm welcome, with an eclectic mix of customers, good quality coffee and tea, and some real personality in the background to the café.

Coffee and pastry at Koh Tao café in San Sebastian

Basically two of the team who opened this café up a couple of years ago had just visited the island of Koh Tao in Thailand and loved it so much that they wanted to bring back a piece of the place to San Sebastian. In fact this is not an Asian coffee shop or tea room and there’s little to remind you of Koh Tao in the place, but it’s all thought through and the creative owners transposed a photo they took of a young Thai boy onto the wall of their café, so his white profile stands out against the brick walls above you as you sip your cuppa.

Inside Koh Tao café in San Sebastian

The furniture is all second hand and a complete mish-mash, but feels like home, with surely a chair for everyone, from the wooden stools through the arm chairs to the wicker tall-backed throne upstairs.

Upstairs in Koh Tao cafe San Sebastian

We loved this place and if we lived in San Sebastian, we’d be there every day. As it was, we went three times in our 48 hours in town and did see some of the same faces each time, so it clearly also has loyal fans locally too. It’s definitely our top tip for coffee in Sebastian, and for tea too!

When I first lived in Spain, I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish, so would go for day trips occasionally over the border to Hendaye in France. You can still catch the little local train from San Sebastian to Hendaya (Hendaye in French), so we thought we’d have another ride down memory lane and cross the border…

Hendaye beach

Hendaye’s beach is quite extraordinary. It must extend for at least 5 amazing miles of sand and surf (not many waves for the surfers on the day we were there though), and is breathtaking in a way I have only really seen before in Australia.

I really can’t believe there aren’t more British tourists here, especially with the lovely tea room we found in Hendaye.

Jardin des Thés in Hendaye, France

Yes, the Jardin des Thés sits just a few hundred yards from the beach and has a fantastic selection of loose leaf teas, which would put many a tea room in Britain to shame.

Tea at the Jardin des Thés tea room in Hendaye

Fantastic quality, great variety of teas on the menu and a really enthusiastic owner, Evelyne, who sat and chatted with us for a good while about her love of tea and the type of people who come to her tea room in this corner of France.

Jardin des Thés tea room in Hendaye

In fact, the tea room in Hendaye was so good that, if you’re a serious tea lover and visiting San Sebastian, I’d say: get yourself on that train over to Hendaye and get yourself a brew. They close for lunch though, in the Spanish tradition, and we stayed just beyond their closing time at 12.30, though Evelyne is obviously flexible enough, as she allowed someone else to come in for a quick cuppa even as we left…

 

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