We thought that paradise could only be discovered on secluded islands in exotic, far-flung regions like the South Pacific where languid days drift by amid turquoise water and tropical palm trees wave in the breeze.
Imagine how ecstatic we were to discover a tranquil oasis closer to home.
Calblanque Regional Park is located just a few kilometres from the La Manga strip which lies between the azure blue Mediterranean Sea and Mar Menor’s therapeutic Salt Lake.
Heart Melting Haven
The wild remote landscape of the Calblanque Regional Park transported us into a carefree world of birdsong, golden sands and saltwater marches stretching as far as the eye can see.
Appointed a protected nature reserve in 1987, this is responsible tourism at its best. The ultimate destination for surfers, swimmers and hikers, the park teems with wildlife - flamingos, sea herons and waders.
Sheltered coves along the park’s 26 kilometres of sandy beaches enhance the solitude. For the first time since my childhood, I skinny dipped in its crystal waters, luxuriating in the freedom that such an indulgence can bring.
Be prepared for a half hour walk from the car park - and bring plenty of water and a picnic if you plan on staying all day. This is an escape where time literally stands still.
Just 14 kilometres up the coast was our destination, La Manga del Mar Menor, an extensive resort and residential area located between the Mediterranean Ocean Sea and Mar Menor, Europe's biggest salt water lagoon.
We thought nothing could come close to matching the experience at Calblanque as we approached the iconic strip singing along to the local radio in streaming sunshine.
How wrong could we be!
If first impressions count, then ours were nothing short of amazing.
From the balcony of our panoramic room at the Galúa hotel, the deep blue Mediterranean Ocean surrounded us on three sides.
The soporific lapping waves and breath-taking views invoked a sense of wellbeing and relaxation which the four-star hotel aims to provide for all its valued guests.
Named by Trivago as one of the 10 best hotels on the Spanish coast, Galúa has the best online reputation for excellent value. At the forefront of the area’s development, it was the first hotel to be built on La Manga 50 years ago and continues to undergo extensive modernisation.
Spacious, light, and relaxing, we immediately felt at home. We loved the facilities including the spacious infinity pool overlooking the sea. The expansive terrace, also with gorgeous sea views, was perfect for our daily exercises.
Such a conducive environment is conducive to relaxation, wining, and dining without moving from the hotel and the beach - which is easily accessed from the pool.
As tempting as it would have been to sink even deeper into a sun bed, we made tracks to explore the nearby historical and modern attractions.
Cultural Treasures: Cartagena
Just 35 kilometres away is the magnificent port and city of Cartagena. Boasting a rich history, its most famous ancestor is Carthaginian general and statesman Hannibal, lauded as one of the greatest military commanders ever.
The glamorous city and elegant marina are delightful to stroll around. Our highlight was absorbing the incredible restoration of the 6,000-seater Roman Theatre which was only unearthed in 1987 as part of it had been covered for centuries by a Cathedral.
The museum is also a must - and returning to see an evening performance amid beautiful sunsets has been added to our extensive and ever-growing bucket list.
Coastal Jewel: Costa Calida
The 21 kilometre La Manga del Mar Menor strip is part of the alluring 250-kilometre Costa Calida (warm coast). Blessed with sunshine 320 days a year, it spans the Costa Blanca to the North and the Costa Almeria in the south.
Picture postcard coastal resorts we loved visiting include Los Alcázares with its blue flag beaches and Cabo de Palos, popular for water sports and diving.
Driving around the La Manga del Mar Menor strip rewarded us with breathtaking sea views around every corner.
A ‘must’ is driving across the Venetian style Puente de la Risa - The Bridge of Laughter - so called because its steep slope creates the sensation of going downhill on a fairground rollercoaster.
If you’re wondering if it lives up to its name, yes, it does evoke gales of glee!
Swimming in the Mediterranean is sensational – as is a dip in the Mar Menor whose restorative ingredients include a high percentage of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and fluoride.
The perfect way to unwind after a day’s sightseeing is a pre-booked visit to Galúa’s swish Wellness Centre where we luxuriated in the jacuzzi and sauna for a 45-minute session.
A series of treatments include appealing manicures, pedicures, facials, massages. Thoroughly refreshed after his Hindu traditional Indian massage, Steve was ready for dinner and the evening ahead!
Feeding Mind and Body
Servigroup - which operates 18 hotels across eight Mediterranean resorts and has scooped over 500 awards since its inception in the early 60s – adopts a holistic approach to tourism and guests’ wellbeing is a priority.
The group’s commitment to delivering consistent high standards of customer service is apparent among all the team whose upbeat and cheerful manner is infectious. Their attentiveness and attention to detail is to be applauded.
Wining and dining highlights comprise reasonably priced cocktails, wines, and spirits. We devoured delicious breakfast, lunch, and evening buffets which dish up a feast of colourful salads, fish, meat, and tapas. Everything was fresh, not to mention the yummy deserts including the traditional crema caramela!
As a fish aficionado I was in seventh heaven with a choice which included hake wands, cod croquets and seafood paella – the diet definitely starts manana!
“We are proud of being like an extended family to our guests, some of whom first came to stay as young couples and return as grandparents with their own families,” explains Hotel Manager Susana Reus who has worked here for almost a decade.
“Our long-standing team do their absolute best to make our guests’ stay feel like home-from-home. We enjoy visits from all age groups, providing entertainment for adults and a Children’s Club with non-stop activities during the season. Many companies also enjoy our business centre for meetings amid the inspirational views.”
A warm welcome awaits all guests. British holidaymakers can fly to Murcia Airport - which has increased the volume of flights from the UK - from seven regional airports with Ryanair. The journey from the airport to La Manga de Mar Menor takes around 45 minutes.
The bewitching hour of sunset with the promise of a sun-kissed, carefree day ahead never ceases to evoke a frisson of delight.
Walking barefoot along the tranquil beach and absorbing the smells and sounds from the local chiringuito beach bar at dusk, was divine.
Spoilt for choice of locations to capture the changing hues and colours, we witnessed spectacular transformations from dusk to dark across both the Mediterranean and Mar Menor.
Our environment was also conducive to a great night’s sleep to the accompaniment of splashing waves.
Sadly, all good things must end. On our day of departure, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast and wistfully and silently packed our bags.
The million-dollar question - would we return to the strip and the Galúa Hotel?
Absolutely - in a heartbeat - which was exactly what we did.
All set to thank the fantastic staff for their hospitality and hit the road, we made it no further than the reception when we spontaneously decided to book in as paying guests for the next two days.
Unpacking at breakneck speed, our extended stay exceeded our expectations. When we finally left, we were recharged, revitalised and the most relaxed we had felt in a long time.
For information about Servigroup and its Mediterranean hotels and locations including the Galúa, visit here
Calblanque Regional Park
Ryan Air flies to Murcia Airport from seven regional UK airports
This article, commissioned for the Yorkshire Times/ Lancashire Times/ Cumbria Times has been updated.