Tabarca, Spain: The Pirate’s Island

If anyone mentions ‘pirates’ to me it immediately piques my interest. So when a travel-writer friend suggested that I might like to visit the pirate island of Tabarca off the Costa Blanca in Spain, I was more than interested.

approaching Tabarca by boat

Making our way to Tabarca

Tabarca History

The tiny islet once known as Illa de Sant Pau (Saint Paul’s Island) is believed to be where St. Paul disembarked. Up to the end of the 18th century, it was an island where Barbary pirates found refuge and it was also used  as a base for their raids on the Levantine coast. The islet is just 1,750 m (5,741 ft) long and only 300 m (984 ft) across, and it is completely flat. Moreover, it was declared a Marine Reserve in 1986, the first one in Spain, with boats running from Alicante, Torrevieja and Santa Pola. It’s a short, pleasant cruise, with  some of the boats having glass bottoms so you can view the reefs and sea life.

Parts of the old walled city in Tabarca

Parts of the old walled city

Tabarca is the smallest inhabited island in Spain. Until 1741 the islet was part of the Republic of Genoa and later conquered by the Bey of Tunis. From 1760, Tabarca was ordered fortified and repopulated by Charles III of Spain. Some shipwrecked Genoese sailors settled there and the islet was renamed Nova Tabarca (New Tabarca). My two travel writer friends and I wandered around the old town and explored the shoreline and ruins.

Old town gate in Tabarca

Old town gate

The island was once fortified with walls, bulwarks, warehouses, a governor’s house, and a barracks. The gateways are still there as are the Governor’s House (now a hotel) and the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul which was built in 1770. Later the garrison was removed and by the end of the 19th century the islet was populated with about 1,000 people, mainly fishermen. Today the population is around fifty, although during the tourist season there are up to 4,000 people a day who arrive as visitors.

Lunch on Tabarca

After exploring all the sights around town, we stopped by a restaurant for lunch, attracted by the ‘pirate’ who welcomed us inside. The terrace of the Nou Collonet overlooks the sea making it an ideal location for enjoying a delicious lunch. The menu included traditional Spanish cuisine salads, meats, chicken and seafoods . I chose caldereta de langostas, a delicious dish of lobster stew complimented by a glass of Campo Viejo Rioja wine.

enjoying caldereta de langasta on Tabarca island

Caldereta de langasta

Tabarca has several good restaurants and bars as well as hotels for overnight accommodations. One hotel you might enjoy is Hotel Boutique Isla de Trabarca.

Tabarca Marine Reserve

After lunch my friends and I hiked across the desolate grassy expanse to the garrison ruins and the old lighthouse at the tip of the islet. The island was formed by volcanic activity and is largely barren with a few cacti and scrubby bushes growing amidst the limestone debris.

The barren shoreline of Tabarca

The barren shoreline

Tabarca is a protected marine reserve for seabirds and various marine fauna. The sea around the rocky shoreline is crystal clear and perfect for snorkeling. The marine reserve, Reserva marina de la Isla de Tabarca, is designated a Zone of Special Protection for Birds by the EU. It is the last place in the Spanish Mediterranean where the endangered Mediterranean monk seal was bred before becoming extinct in the 1960s. In order to protect the marine area from fishing, an artificial reef was laid near the island. There is now a variety of marine fauna in the clear, unpolluted waters, including sea bass, grouper, conger eels and giltheads.

boat to tabarca

Boat to Tabarca

If you’re visiting the Costa Blanca, I’d recommend a visit to Tabarca as well. We spent a most interesting day there as we wandered around the old square and strolled the narrow streets of the old town. We visited the little museum and enjoyed exploring the ruins. And the scenic boat trip there was pleasantly relaxing.

Written by and photos by W. Ruth Kozak for

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  1. Csilla says

    Hi Terri, very nice post about Tabarca island. I was there also 8 years ago, tiny island, excellent one day trip . I went there from Torrevieja. Good luck, and all the best. Csilla

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