Winter at the Beach

Irresistible! Desayuno (breakfast) beside the beach for 1.75 euro ($2.25). Simple, tasty and a must whenever I’m in Spain: fresh orange juice, strong coffee, and a tostada—a toasted roll drizzled with olive oil and tomato pulp.

I never imagined breakfasting outdoors in December. Not in Europe. Then again, I’ve never visited the Murcia region before.

I could definitely over-winter here. Mid-December, and midday temperatures continue to hit 68F – 70F. Roses are still in bloom; oranges hang from the trees. The temperature falls after sunset, but daytimes are hot enough for wearing shorts, bronzing on the beaches and even swimming if you’re really brave.
Today I’m in Los Alcazares—a seaside town that once had everyone from Phoenician traders to the Romans and the Moors come calling. It’s on the Mar Menor, a silvery-blue lagoon sheltered from the Mediterranean by the skinny La Manga isthmus.

With a Moorish courtyard and the town’s old thermal baths behind, La Encarnacion’s sunny terrace along Paseo de Concha looked the perfect breakfast stop. Skirting the harbor and the dark golden sands, the Paseo is the town’s promenade. In the distance, I can see almost the entire 18-mile length of the isthmus.

Europe’s sunshine doesn’t disappear in winter. It’s hiding away in southern Spain. Largely unknown to foreign travelers, Murcia slots between the regions of Andalucia and Valencia. Strung with beaches, its 156-mile coastline is called the Costa Calida—the warm coast. Summers can be blistering, but winters are really mild.

It’s easy to find winter lets along this coast. 200 euro ($260) seems the average for studio apartments, and two-bedroom bungalows are around 450 euro ($580) monthly. Plus, you can eat out so inexpensively. A three-course lunch—the menu del dia—is $11 to $13 in most places, and includes wine.

After a lunch like that, all I need is tapas in the evening—and tapas bars with interesting snacks are plentiful. Here, many “snacks” are more like meals. Some tapas only cost $2 or $3, but it’s hard to resist the fish. Last night I had a huge plate of chipirones (fried baby squids) for $8. A bottle of fabulous Rioja wine cost me $12…but if I had a home to eat in, I could have got the same wine for just over $5 in the supermarket

With a backdrop of sierras, Puerto de Mazarron is another likeable Murcian seaside town.

It has a couple of tower blocks, but there’s nothing resembling the nasty concrete forest of high-rises that mar other parts of Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

Like Los Alcazares, Puerto de Mazarron doesn’t die in winter—it’s a living, breathing, working town of around 15,000 residents. Some northern Europeans live here, but you can’t mistake you’re in Spain. Including the environs, the number jumps to around 35,000 people so there’s a good choice of supermarkets, shops and a covered market as well as traditional bars and restaurants. The handsome seaport city of Cartagena is only a 30-minute drive or bus ride.

Beaches stretch for miles either side of Puerto de Mazarron. Go east and you eventually hit La Azohía village, a hangout of scuba divers and shoreline fishermen (and women). To the west, Bolnuevo is where the wind has sculpted the rocks into bizarre shapes.

During summer, some of Mazarron’s 30 or so beaches become “themed” areas with a range of free sports and relaxation options. Playa Isla offers book loans and quietness; Playa del Puerto sets up disabled bathing facilities. Volleyballers and soccer players head to Playa Bolnuevo, while Playa Castellar turns into kiddie heaven with monitored activities and play facilities. There’s beach for everybody—even nudists are included.

Editor’s note: Whatever you’re looking for in Europe, Steenie has the answers. When you meet her at the Ultimate Event 2012, you can pick her brains on any European destination that interests you—though the focus of Euro-presentations will be Italy and Spain.