The Murcia region offers a tantalising choice of landscapes and sights, ranging from the chill-out beaches and captivating coves of the Costa Cálida to the medieval magic of its towns. The ancient port of Cartagena has a magnificent array of Roman and Carthaginian ruins, while Murcia is a buzzy regional capital with pleasant parks and a cracking eating scene. Earthquake-damaged Lorca has bounced right back and its lovely old town is looking superb again. To appreciate fully the unspoiled hinterland, you will need your own wheels.
Officially twinned with Miami, Murcia is the antithesis of the city of vice; it’s a sizeable but laid-back provincial capital with a handful of interesting sights and a pleasant, strollable centre. Like Valencia, it is famous for its huerta, a surrounding zone of market gardens dating back to Moorish times, which supply the city’s restaurants with excellent fresh produce and drive a thriving tapas scene. It makes a top spot to visit for a couple of days.
The Sierra Espuña, a 40-minute drive southwest of Murcia towards Lorca, is an island of pine forest rising high into the sky above an ocean of heat and dust down below. Sitting just north of the N340, the natural park that protects this fragile and beautiful environment has more than 250 sq km of unspoilt highlands covered with trails and is popular with walkers, climbers, cyclists and mountain-bikers. Limestone formations tower above the sprawling forests. In the northwest of the park are many pozos de la nieve (ice houses) where, until the arrival of industrial refrigeration, snow was compressed into ice, then taken to nearby towns in summer.
The Mar Menor is a 170-sq-km saltwater lagoon whose warm waters are excellent for water sports, including jet-skiing, kitesurfing, kayaking and waterskiing. From the southern side juts La Manga, a narrow 22km peninsula stretched between lagoon and sea, overdeveloped with close-packed high-rise holiday accommodation.
Cabo de Palos, at the peninsula’s southern limit, is much nicer, with a picturesque small harbour surrounded by low-rise restaurants and holiday apartments. The waters around the tiny, protected Islas Hormigas are great for diving; the harbour is lined with dive shops.
At the lagoon’s northern end, Lo Pagán is a mellow, low-rise resort with a long promenade, pleasant beach, and plenty of bars and restaurants. Get locals to show you where to go for natural mud treatments.
Just east lie the Salinas de San Pedro (salt pans), where you can follow a well-signposted path of just over 4km, passing several lagoons favoured by flamingos.