Sun sea and sand... off the beaten track

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TUCKED away between Alicante and Malaga, the region of Murcia is off the beaten track, a Spanish gem untouched by mass tourism.

Beautiful beaches, calm emerald seas, historic towns, lively tapas bars and 315 days of sunshine a year make this one of the most delightful spots in South East Spain.

The driving force behind Murcia’s economy has traditionally been agriculture but there are now signs of development after the regional government committed to converting the tourist sector into one of the pillars of the region’s economy.

Extensive road works have been built offering high-speed links to the rest of Spain, modern hotels, sports facilities and golf courses are proudly advertised while plans for a second airport are underway.

But the charm of the area have not been lost to hordes of holidaying Brits making it a highly recommended destination. Locals are particularly proud of the area’s 252 km coastline divided between two seas, the Mar Menor and the Mediterranean, where holiday-makers can enjoy long sandy beaches and secluded coves with crystal-clear waters. Staying, as we were in the four star Galua Hotel which occupies a beautiful spot in La Manga, a narrow spit of land which separates Mar Menor and the Mediterranean, we were treated to stunning views of both seas.

We were also idealy located to take advantage of the wealth of water sports available in the calm shallow waters of the protected Mar Menor – Europe’s largest salt water lagoon.

Unfortunately, our morning of water-based activity was postponed due to the school being oversubscribed, but a quick call to ‘Hanko’ at the local scuba diving club meant we were able to squeeze into our wet suits and take a look underwater.

And the waters of the salty lagoon not only offer a haven for tropical fish they also contain high concentrations of minerals which are used by locals as curative waters for conditions such as skin disorders and arthritis.

Many of Murcia’s riches can also be traced back to its waters.

There’s a wide selection of succulent seafood, such as lobster caught in Mar Menor and rice dishes such as arroz caldero – rice cooked in fish stock.

If that’s not enough there’s also one of the most interesting tapas selections in the whole of Spain. The locals know how to enjoy their food.

On our table, at Restaurant El Pez Rojo in Cartagena a city steeped in rich historical heritage and one of the more populated towns in the region of Murcia starters of olives, tuna, artichoke, tomato and peppers were spread before us.

A traditional appetiser and a tasty one is Mojete Murciano, a typical salad from Murcia made with tinned tomatoes meant for dipping bread in, it is a great alternative to Gazpacho– cold soup to you and me – another popular dish in the area.

These mouth-watering pre cursors are followed by an unbelievable selection of fish and I find myself in heaven as I’m faced with seabass stuffed with prawns, anchovies, calamari and gold fish – not the type you win at the fair.

Cartagena is located on the coast, an ideal location for our lunch and a naval base which has been strategically important for centuries as a sea port and ship yard.

The rich Carthaginian heritage extends from the shore to the city centre which is dominated by the Town Hall, a gem of modernist architecture dating from the early 20th century. The Old Cathedral is the oldest place of worship in Cartagena and stands on the remains of a Roman Theatre which although was discovered in 1987 dates from the first century AD.

Cartagena certainly deserves its place on the Spanish map, offering as much from a town, if not more than its popular neighbours Alicante and Malaga.

The streets are lined with designer stores and boutiques including Mango, French Connection and Calvin Klein as well as restaurants, tapas bars and patisseries.

During our trip we had the privilege of visiting a selection of stunning towns, all hidden in the shadow of the more well-known tourist hot spots. Mazarrón lies just south of Cartagena; set in a wide bay that opens up into the Mediterranean, it has two important urban centres – the port and the town capital.

Since its origin, the name of Mazarrón has been linked to the mining wealth of its mountain ranges, which are rich in lead, zinc, silver and iron.

Once the wealth of the mines had been exhausted, Mazarrón developed an important tourist industry and at the same time promoted its seafaring and fishing tradition.

It is also famous for its beaches, perhaps the most famous is the wind eroded rocks of Bolnuevo which lie opposite the Bolnuevo beach, where the elements have managed to create unique sculptures in the cliffs.

The region of Murcia has something to offer everyone, fine dining, water sports, true Spanish culture and sunshine all year round. While it continues to remain a hidden gem on the Spanish map, it is developing, so make the most of it while you can.

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