Bamboo!The by-now-weary voice of a boat crew member alerted us — just a little too late — to the prickly peril lurking on the banks of the slow-moving River Segura. Weary arms paddled away in a belated effort to turn, stop, go back — anything but end up impaled (well, all right, poked and scratched) on those pointy tormentors. But the effort was useless. The result inevitable.
Our heavily-laden inflatable drifted into the dense mass of bamboo poking out from the riverbank like the spines of a Triffid-like hedgehog to the accompaniment of assorted squeals, cries and groans. Only the prospect of a nice, cold beer and a bite to eat kept us going along this picturesque part of the Valley of Ricote.
Then the guys from Aventuras Turisticas in the tiny riverside town of Blanca, Murcia, loomed into view, coolboxes in hand, and our aches and pains were forgotten.
After that, we were ready for rapids, rocks, a ride down a weir — even the locals poking good-natured fun at the hopeless tourists.
It was fun, great fun, but after more than four hours of paddling, no one on board the good ship Press Trip needed any convincing that bamboo is the fastest-growing plant of Earth — or that a hot shower, a change of clothes and a fine lunch were a good idea.
Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting sipping wine and showing each other our battle scars in the neoclassical dining room at Hotel Conde de la Vallesa, former residence of the Count Trenor and now a simple, stylish and thoroughly Spanish hotel with just under 20 double rooms having been recently restored to its former 19th century glory.
The food and wine were every bit as good as the décor, and a quick flick through the tariff list confirmed that this rural hostelry offers good value for money, with the asking price for a double room and breakfast at 85-95 euros, depending on the season.
What it lacks in five-star fripperies it more than makes up for with a generous helping of authentic Murcian atmosphere — and if you are an Action Man or Woman, then the Conde de la Vallesa is an ideal base to stretch your legs as the surrounding area offers holidaymakers the chance to try walking, biking and horse riding as well as rafting or canoeing.
Not that any kind of further strenuous activity was in our minds as we walked through the spacious, sun-dappled gardens of this beautiful old residence and said our goodbyes to the little village of Blanca.
Our own hotel, the five-star InterContinental Mar Menor Golf Resort and Spa, could not have been more different.
Fifty-seven deluxe rooms and seven suites, three restaurants, four bars, a spa with seven treatment rooms, indoor and outdoor pool, nine-hole golf course (part of the Nicklaus Golf Trail)… the list goes on.
The going weekend rate for a relatively modest double room here is anything from 150 euros to 380 euros in early summer, and although you get quite a lot of bang for your buck there are a few niggles like the fact that the Wi-Fi is an add-on cost.
On the plus side, the bathrooms (always an acid test) are excellent, with lots of Moorish design influences like the tiles and pierced wooden screen allowing you to watch TV while luxuriating in the roomy hydro bath, and a really well thought-out range of showers gels, lotions and his-and-hers basics kits, which in this case included razor, toothbrush, comb and so on.
Just the job for weekend trippers who want to travel light.
The little cards left on the pillow bidding you a peaceful night’s sleep or giving you a heads-up on the next day’s weather — cloudy, max 19C, min 11C — were another nice touch that help to add a human face to what might otherwise feel like another nice but fairly anonymous international hotel.
The food is another selling point judging by the fabulous meal we enjoyed on our first night at the top-end Nomad — one of the four places here where guests can eat —and a glimpse of Bling bottled water at 50 euros a pop gave us something to talk about afterwards.
Another plus is the InterContinental’s undeniably chic Espa, where a couple of us whiled away two or three hours on a windy Sunday morning.
The swan’s neck fountain helped to envigorate this slightly hungover individual while a combo of steam room, sauna and waterfall showers — you can choose between warm jungle rain or bracing Nordic downpour, complete with atmospheric scents — prepared this out-of-shape 40-something’s body for a relaxing hour-long message.
The subtle aroma of essential oils was still in the air as we savoured the taste of herby teas in the spa centre’s calm relaxation rooms.
A sensual highlight of the weekend, to be sure, but not the most memorable experience.
That came the previous evening on our way to dinner in old Murcia.
Nothing can prepare you for the wow factor that awaits as you round a street corner and come face to face with the fabulous baroque façade of Murcia’s cathedral.
Even in early April, it was warm enough at night to wander from square to square, to relish the pleasure of being outdoors with locals of all ages and savour the warm, welcoming atmosphere of this historic city.
Going out for tapas is a real tradition here — and a great way to sample the local cuisine served up by the wealth of bars and restaurants that are dotted throughout the network of tidy but time-worn streets.
We tried one of the best, Restaurant Hispano, nestling in the old quarter and clearly a favourite among the locals who come back time and time again to enjoy traditional dishes in a comfy, rustic atmosphere.
They seem to enjoy the company as much as the food and drink. According to our friendly and informative local guide, Ana, lively conversation with family and friends is all part of the culture. Highly recommended at any time of the day or year, it seems, and we did our best to keep up.
In fact, our group was the last to leave this friendly little restaurant — and regretted the fact that the hotel was a a good 30-40 minutes drive away rather than stumbling distance.