The plan is to be first in line as dawn breaks. But sloth (and setting my alarm for the wrong day) gets the better of me and it’s not until 7.45am that I drag myself out of bed, throw on some shorts and a noisy shirt more suited to Hawaii than the Costa del Sol, and head for the battlefield.
But I’ve forgotten my armour — in the form of a rolled-up towel and heavy hardback book. Without those, I won’t stand a chance. So, it’s back to my room and then quick march for what I assume will be a bruising sortie.
There’s no time to lose, but, even so, I’m still in position nearly an hour before the gates to the pools open — the sangria from the night before (a litre of the stuff for £5 in a bar down the road) making its presence felt in a pernicious but predictable way.
The rules of engagement are unclear at this point — because a huge sign states clearly: ‘It is forbidden to reserve sunbeds.’ Either rules are going to be broken, or this particular rule is like the traffic lights in Naples — a suggestion rather than an order.
I imagine at this very moment similar scenes are being played out all across sweltering Europe, where simmering tensions have raised the temperature further due to what’s been dubbed ‘sunbed wars’.
Success: Mark and one of the coveted sunloungers at the Costa hotel where Brit holidaymakers have been queuing two hours for a spot
There have been reports of beach bandits at the Costa Blanca resort of Torrevieja, near Benidorm, spreading out their towels on the beach as early as 5.30am — and then not appearing until several hours later, much to the chagrin of a local councillor. ‘By-laws mean police have the power to act when items are left on the beach in this way and it leads to conflict between beachgoers,’ he announced.
Here at the four-star Estival Torrequebrada, in Benalmadena, there was pandemonium last weekend when the gates to the pools, where the sunbeds await, did not open until 10am.
‘It was a stampede,’ says Jessica Russell, from Hertfordshire, on holiday with her husband Chris, a property developer, and their three children aged 16, 14 and ten. ‘People were barging past a woman in a wheelchair. It was horrible.’
But, on Tuesday, the hotel announced that the gates would open an hour earlier in the hope of avoiding such scenes. And it has worked — to a degree. The queue to grab a sunbed around the two pools where children are allowed is less than 50 yards long on Thursday morning. Mrs Russell is second in line — and chuffed about it. Her plan is to head to the far corner nearest the seafront where there are five, four-poster cabana-style sunbeds under swaying palm trees. They even come with blinds. She wants to bag them all.
‘The problem is that the Spanish man in front of me has the exact same idea. I would call it a friendly rivalry,’ says Mrs Russell. We will see about that.
Meanwhile, Tony Rogers, 43, from Birmingham, is first in line for the adults-only area — and, despite my tardy start, I’m not far behind him.
‘I’m here with my mum and her partner,’ says Mr Rogers. ‘Mum has got a bad leg, so I want to find her a nice sunbed for the day while I head off somewhere.’
I get the impression that although these various pincer movements are stressful, they are also a highlight of the day. A pre-breakfast adrenaline rush that adds a competitive edge to an otherwise lackadaisical day.
Ready to do battle: Armed with book and towel, Mark prepares to claim his place
A challenge at which the British normally excel, especially when, as in the case here, there are few Germans about — not that, perish the thought, we want to indulge in national stereotypes.
Part of the reason for this early-morning scrummage is because the hotel does not have any sun loungers on the beach — for the simple reason that there is no dedicated beach.
The twin-towered, 14-storey hotel, with a casino and spa in the middle, stands imperiously on a rock face. All the tanning, all the shrieks from excited children as they drop into the water from twisty flumes, all the teenagers on the prowl for a holiday snog, and all the myriad activities (aqua gym at noon, water volleyball at 5pm etc), happen around four pools.
So it’s location, location, location on the sunbed front. Hayley Morris, 49, from the West Midlands, is here with her husband Jim, who introduces himself as a ‘continuous improvement manager’ for a floor company, and their two boys.
She suffers from transverse myelitis, a neurological condition which means she is paralysed in her right leg and uses a wheelchair. ‘On Sunday morning it was like the opening day of the New Year sales at Selfridges,’ says Mrs Morris.
‘As soon as the gates opened it was carnage — but things have calmed down now and, so far, I’ve always managed to get the spot I want near the pool, the toilets and the bar.’
In other words, to her and her husband’s delight, there seems to have been ‘continuous improvement’ since the implementation of new opening times.
But, similar to how Bob Dylan sang ‘you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’, you don’t have to be a statistician to work out that in a hotel with 385 rooms — of which at least 350 are likely to be double occupancy — you’ll require around 700 sunbeds to keep everyone happy. There are only 600 here.
The heat is on: Guests at the Estival hotel in Benalmadena, queue for their place in the sun
‘It’s a difficult situation,’ concedes the hotel’s assistant manager, Miguel Angel Sanchez. ‘By law, we have to fence off and close the pool areas when there are no lifeguards on duty and at night. So there is bound to be a slight rush in the morning — but as you can see the queues are orderly.’
They are orderly. Respectful and admirably jovial, too, thanks in part — and let’s take a bow given that we’ve not much else to celebrate — to the majority of those in the queue being British. ‘Show us a queue and we’ll join it,’ as Mrs Russell puts it.
‘Which way are you heading?’ I ask head-of-the-queue Mr Rogers, with a minute to go before the off.
‘Not sure,’ he says, clearly reluctant to divulge his strategy. ‘You?’
I’m going for the grassy area down the end because I’m an evening-light man and I’ve been following the sun’s movement, but I know that four women from the Wirral hope to be in that very spot.
I had engaged those four friendly women in conversation the day before when I made a recce after arriving at the hotel at lunchtime — and particularly admired their towel clips in the shape of flip-flops which, in the case of Lindsay Hayes, holds in place her pink, fluorescent Gucci towel.
‘We like it here because we’ve got a couple of umbrellas. We’re having a brilliant time,’ says Mrs Hayes.
‘There’s nothing wrong with queuing in a situation like this. It’s part and parcel of a holiday.’
She might be right. Every moment is precious on a peak-time break in August, so you want to be in prime position. And let’s be clear: there’s no social divide about queuing. After all, elderly, well-heeled members of the MCC line up in their egg and bacon ties outside Lord’s cricket ground from 5am to grab a seat in the pavilion, especially when the Aussies are in town.
It’s a similar story at Wimbledon, with tennis fans camping out to buy tickets — just as some people waited in line for hours before the recent Bruce Springsteen concert in Hyde Park in the hope of being up front and personal with The Boss. I know that because I was one of them.
The problem comes when people try to hog their sunbed for the whole day. That’s why Hotel Estival has introduced a 45-minute rule. It works like this — in theory: you bag your sunbed and put a towel, book or some other item on it. Then you can disappear for breakfast or lunch or go anywhere you like but must be back within 45 minutes.
Indeed, a member of staff from time to time places a laminated note on unoccupied sunbeds which reads: ‘Please do not leave the towels on the sunbeds for more than 45 minutes without your presence, otherwise the towels will be removed.’
But there’s no evidence to suggest that this threat is enforced any more stringently than fighting petty crime is taken seriously by the police back home in the UK.
It’s now almost 9.30am and those of us who joined the queues before breakfast have been rewarded.
Mrs Russell has reserved a couple of four-poster cabanas (although the Spanish man managed to grab three adjoining ones); Mrs Morris is near the pool, bar and loos, and Mr Rogers has sorted out a prized spot for his mother. Me? I’ve secured a sunbed next to the women from the Wirral and will be well-placed for sunset refreshments.
It feels immensely satisfying, especially when a few late-comers breeze in and realise that this has been a game of musical sunbeds — but without the music.
I dare say that one day, great minds will work out why the British are prepared to go to such lengths. It’s one of life’s imponderables.
For now, we might as well borrow a crowning principle that served our late Queen Elizabeth II well — even though, admittedly, Her Majesty never had to stand in line to bag a sunbed at a sprawling Costa del Sol hotel.
But good advice all the same. ‘Never complain, never explain.’