La Manga: Surf, Siestas and Swimming w/ Sea Lions

Trip Start Dec 11, 2009
Trip End Jan 01, 2012

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Villa Cristal

Flag of Spain  , Murcia,
Monday, August 22, 2011

or The Anatomy of a Pendulum Arc: Riding the Upswing in La Manga

Forward : I remember some years ago, when I was in the midst of my messy divorce, one of my managers looked at me and said "Why is your life always so.....dramatic?"  I must admit I was puzzled at the time.  I mean, divorces are always fairly dramatic, aren't they? However, upon reflection I realized what was probably bothering him was not the drama, per se, but the nature of the drama.  Everyone's life includes pendulum swings from good to bad, what differs is the amplitude of the swing.  I guess I have lived a life with "wide" arcs, as it were.   I have had no clearer example of this than this summer, starting on July 1st when we reached the glorious beach in La Manga Spain, and ending on August 6th, when Seb got OUT of Hopital Bictre in Paris.  A lot happened in between those two dates, so this blog entry is only about our time in La Manga.  A upcoming one will detail the trauma of navigating hospitals in Paris.

Discovering La Manga Spain

I am fairly sure that most of you reading this have never heard of La Manga, Spain.  OK, there may be some rabid soccer fans who have heard of the La Manga Cup.  Or, if any of  you are soccer groupies, you might know it because it holds some fairly prestigious training camps for players. .  But, as I was in neither category, I was oblivious to its existence until  I came across it in one of my "we need to plan a kid vacation for two weeks, where the hell are we going to go" exercises in panic.   At that particular moment, I was taking a break from the hysteria of trying to find a beach house in the south of France for less than 3000 Euros per week.  As I was surfing, I happened to see an ad for a world music festival in Cartagena, Spain.   Intrigued, I looked it up, and was only mildly interested until I zoomed out on the map...that's when the topography got me.  There on the map was a large area of coaster water with a small band of islands separating it from the larger Mediterranean sea.  It looked nothing if not just like the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  As I most of the summers of my youth included a trip to the coast of North Carolina, it felt a little bit like home.  And, truth be told, that is the moment that I decided that we needed to go. ( Little did I know that this was to be the beginning of a pendulum upswing, which would reach its zenith by trip end)

Once I intuitively find something, I have to logically justify it...much like I used to do every day at work.   The justification here was fairly easy to find.  On paper, La Manga seemed to have something for everyone in our family.  For me, there was the aforementioned music festival, spas and a basic enjoyment of the quirkiness of the premise.  For Julien, they had a whole range of water sports, including  his current favorite "kite surfing".  For the boys, there were beaches, siestas, no school, lazy afternoons spent in front of the TV and staying up late.  The boys also ended up in zoo and amusement park nirvana, but I can't take credit for planning that one.  It was just a blissful happenstance.  To top all of this off, I found that we could rent an apartment just on the beach for only about 800 Euros for 2 weeks at Playa Paraiso (Thanks Juliet!)  

The only down side to all this was that it was fairly hard to get to La Manga from Paris.  The only direct flight ( in the middle of summer) cost the equivalent of a Disney cruise, and all other flights meant lengthy driving.  But I am of the "in for a penny, in for a pound" mentality, I agreed to be driver on a 6 hour road trip from Madrid.   This could have been hell with two kids under 6 but it wasn't ...for 2 reasons.  The first is that we didn't rush things.  We flew into Madrid at 5 pm, where we immediately checked into a hotel for the night.  Serendipity smiled on us as said hotel was near a mall with a McDonalds, the universal kid opiate.   After this, both boys were content to play quietly in our hotel room until bedtime.   The second reason for our fairly peaceful transit is that we travel with 2 portable DVD players, an ITouch, an Iphone, a Zune, car chargers for all of the above plus a 9 hour battery backup.   At this point, I can actually hear the head shaking from those who obsessively limit TV.  And for those folks, I have 3 words for you "pick you battles".    Stuck in a car with kids for 6 hours is not the time to get all moralistic and draconian, because your kids will be in hell and they will take you with them.   I rest my case.

Two last comments about the "in transit" part of our vacation.  Spain = great roads & bad cell phone coverage, so be prepared.

La Manga for Geeks: The Beach and the Topography

As we were within 20 miles or so of La Manga, I had one of those moments where I was irrationally glad we had chosen to drive.  You know when you are driving to the beach, with a open window, and you reach the point where you can smell the ocean for the first time?  Maybe it isn't the same for other people, but I get positive tingles when this happens.  I just seem to calm down and get more focused.  Plus, driving in to it allowed us to see the coastline of Mar Menor for a bit.

Factually , La Manga it is a seaside spit in the Region of Murcia, Spain. The strip of land in question is 22 km long and 100 meters wide and separates the Mediterranean Sea from the Mar Menor (Minor Sea) lagoon.  For those who like interesting factoids, Mar Menor is considered the largest saline "lake" in Europe.  For parents, who don't care about interesting factoids if it doesn't have a practical application, consider the following: if your "beach" is on a bay, it means really warm water, very few waves, a long slope and no drop offs.  This means you will be free from those  "my toddler is one wave away from being over his head" moments.    As a side note, all of this makes it Ma Menor much different from the aforementioned Outer Banks of North Carolina, which is called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" due to the strong waves, currents, drop offs and riptides.   Deviating even further from the side note, it makes me wonder about my parents  "Adams Family" -ish choice of family vacation spots...but I won't go there.    

The Monsters of Mar Menor

Once we reached our apartment, threw everything in a pile in the middle of the floor, grabbed the sand toys and headed out to the beach, we discovered a few more reasons to love this place: the sand, the space and the jellyfish (yes, I said jellyfish). 

The beach at Mar Menor is a long flat expanse of almost pink sand, and it is real sand.  As much as I have loved our visits to the south of France, and as beautiful as I found the beaches to be,  I can't quite get over the lack of sand.  I know it is cultural, but for me stones do not a beach make.  Plus, sand provides kids with hours of non injury producing entertainment.  They can build sand castles, destroy sand castles, bury each other and random name it. 

On the random strangers part, there was a surprising lack of a crowd on the beach during the weekdays.  There were people, of course, but not too close.  You could actually walk on the beach without tripping over oiled bodies.   Another bonus, for us at least, was that the majority of the folks on the beach were families. This mean that my kids had other kids to play with, and the fact that their playmates rarely spoke English did not seem to bother them.  They spouted out what little Spanish they had learned from Dora the Explorer and went on with their playing.   The family atmosphere also meant that  I didn't have to worry about people commenting on the "ring of shame" around my mid section.  Most of the females present had either had kids or were kids.  So there was a lot more tolerance of physical imperfections than you would find at, say, South Beach in Miami.   

The family atmosphere also prevailed when it came to hunting the local sea monsters.  By the second day on the beach, we all began to notice some strange "biting" sort of sensations while we were in the water.  It felt a little like a mosquito bite, but underwater.  Lucas, my ever perceptive 5 year old, began noticing tiny jellyfish in the water.  Nothing serious, and nothing that would make you get out, but tiny monsters none the less.  And tiny monsters MUST be captured.  Thus explaining all children running around in the water with fishing nets.  Lucas became "stalker of the great jellyfish"...constantly patrolling around us to make sure that we were not being subjected to unwanted jellyfish attention.  On one of our walks on the beach, I noticed that the section of beach in front of our apartments were actually netted.  On the other side of said nets were some fairly serious jellies...and in numbers that could best be described as "teeming".  I said a silent prayer of gratitude to the gods of tourism for those nets.  But overall, the jellyfish simply created an interesting diversion....except for on our last day at the beach.  For whatever reason, the ocean was packed with jellies that day.  So much so that capturing them became a community activity.  Parents, kids, grandmas, grandpas, uncles and aunts were all in the water using nets, bucket or even hands to pluck the jellyfish from the water and then bury them in the sand.  I am sure that there is some jellyfish protection advocacy group out there that would frown on this, but personally I think they fall into the "why don't we kill just them all" category, along with wasps, biting flies and the entire board of directors for most insurance companies.   Actually, skip that last one, for them death is too kind....and I prefer the jellies.

Experience Rating: 8/10

A Note on the Spanish Siesta

It is too easy to try to stick to your own schedules when you are traveling.  Sometimes this works, but often it doesn't.  Why?  Because the locals know better.  They have adapted their schedules to best suit their environments.  So, after an initial reluctance on my part, we settled into a daily ritual that fell into a very Spanish pattern.  Get up and have breakfast around 10 am.  Go to beach until around 2 pm.  Eat large lunch.  Go to sleep or chill in front of the TV until around 5 pm.  Head back out for activities at around 6 pm.  Eat dinner between 8 and 10 pm, then bed sometime after midnight.   Although I was initially annoyed by little kids running around our courtyard at midnight, I eventually came to enjoy this schedule.  I am more of a night person anyway, and in Spain the evening is the nicest part of the summer day.  The locals know this.  And something about forcing yourself to relax, if not nap, in the middle of the day keeps you from over extending and  getting all wired up over nothing.  Somehow things just aren't quite as all fired important if you know you will be sleeping in a couple of hours. 

A High Five for the Adrenaline Junkies: Kite Surfing in La Manga

With a beach available for the boys, next on our agenda was finding water sports for Julien.  He was directed to a company called "Mas Kite", who offered kite surfing lessons whenever the weather allowed.  This is the rub of being "spouse of kite surfer", they rarely know if, when and where said kite surfing will occur more than a few hours before the event.  This means that everyone else has to be fairly flexible in terms of schedule.  And this could have been really annoying for me if we had not had the presence of mind to bring along our nanny, Stella.  This meant that I had time to myself as well, so I was ok with the vagaries of the kite surfing lifestyle.

I will say that Julien really enjoyed his time doing this, and was pretty much kiting on his own by the third lesson.  Compared to lessons he took in the Outer Banks, the lessons were shorter but more numerous.  This meant that he didn't have time to get too tired or too sore...all good things if you have a mate waiting and you are on vacation.  By the end of our vacation, he had enjoyed it so much that he was beginning to make some side comments about returning in October.  As for me, while I didn't spend too much time watching, I was impressed with what I saw.  There were guys letting the kites pull them into the air, and all that sort of "show off" stuff.  Despite my instinctive eye rolling to such displays of male posturing, I must admit it was kind of cool to watch.  There were also quite a few women on the water learning...with varying levels of success.  Despite a reputation as being an "extreme" sport, it seems that it has evolved to a point where even someone like me might actually venture having a lesson or two, as was suggested to me by Julien's instructor.  And if they are willing to try teaching me, the smart ass "anti" surfer, then I must give them points for patience and courage.

Experience Rating : 9/10

Stalking the Celebrity Parent Lifestyle: Spas and Thermal Baths

While Julien was away doing his kite surfing thing, I decided to use my "down" time to explore some of the local shopping and spas.  In truth, I am not really a big spa person.  I can barely manage to work in a pedicure once per summer, so I am hardly an expert in this arena.  But what I am good at is figuring out the cool and unique things to do in a given locale.  And in La Manga, much has been made of the thermal baths and the mud treatments.  But after seeing a woman after one of these treatments, lumbering down the beach, splattered with mud, and looking way too much like an extra in "Encino Man", I decided I would stick with the thermal baths.  After checking out a few of the hotels in person, some very expensive, others very cheap, I decided to try  the Hotel Entremares.  Why?  Because they seemed the most family friendly.  They had kids programs running at various points around the hotel every time we entered.  They also had a super cool kids play area and multiple kid friendly pools.  The hotel also offers suites for families.  Why the hell would I care if a place is family friendly if I am just going there for a spa treatment?  I pondered this myself and decided that it was fairly simple.  I don't want to give my business to a place that would condescend to my kids or to other parents and  their kids.  So could I have gone to the snooty spa at THE La Manga Spa?  Sure, but I would have been surly and looking for reasons to rip them up.   So I stuck with my personal mantra of " stay with your own kind" and went to the kid friendly hotel spa.

The Hotel Entremares offers 30 minutes in their "Termas" or thermal bath for something like 20 Euros.  There was actually some deal that made it even cheaper and included time in the Jacuzzi as well, but for someone allergic to chlorine, that was a no go.   But Julien and I did the Termas together and it was really lovely.  Here's how it works.  There are four pools of salt water, with three of them being varying degrees of "warm" and one being "cool".  The point is to spend 9 minutes or so in the warm ones and then move over to the cold one for 1 minutes.  As masochistic as that might seem to be on paper, it was actually incredibly refreshing...and your muscles feel great afterward.  My guess is that the change in temperature helps to remove built up lactic acid from your muscle tissue, but that is just a guess.   Whatever it was, Julien and I were both very relaxed when we headed out to the reception area at the end of our first 30 minutes.  This is where we were exposed to a level of hospitality that I would normally only associate with celebrity parents.

Ana, the lady who checked us in, asked where we were from.  When she found out that I was American, she was really excited.  Apparently, they don't see a lot of American tourists in La Manga.  They don't even see many English speaking tourists.  So she was happy to have this opportunity to practice her English.  She also asked me if I would mind being videoed about my experiences there, as the hotel would like to have something on their website aimed at English speaking guests.  I was more than happy to do so because I was impressed with both their services and their attitude.  The link is here, in case you have any desire to see me looking foolish and batting my eyes a lot 

I think all this proves something that I have been suspecting for a long time.  It is better to vacation where you are NOT the nationality of the primary tourist group.  Because, if you are part of that group, you have to pay for the sins of all those who went before you.  We were anomalies in La Manga, and everyone was really sweet...unusually so.   I was expecting people to be nasty because I couldn't speak Spanish, but there was no problem there.  If I tried, even a little bit, they would bend over backward to long as it wasn't too close to siesta time ;).   At any rate, I went back to the spa for a pedicure and two more "termas" experiences.  We even paid for Stella to get one.   By the time we left, we had spent time chatting with quite a few people on staff, and I can say that I was thoroughly impressed.  Maybe this is what it feels like to be Brad or Angie....then again, probably not.  But we all ended up feeling awfully pampered!! 

Experience Rating: 8/10

Nirvana for Kids:  Terra Natura & Peke Park

On one of Stella's days off, we decided we should try to explore the surrounding areas a little bit.  On the bulletin board of our apartment, Juliet (the extremely nice owner) had left some brochures.  There was one for a zoo in Murcia that caught my eye.  It was called Terra Natura and  was roughly 45 minutes away but, as it looked mildly interesting, we decided to give it a try.  To be honest, I didn't have the highest expectations of this.  It was a fairly hot day, and I was imagining roasting at your typical zoo.  We all packed bathing suites as there was also a water park associated with it, but I figure that this would be useless for the chlorine challenged.   What we found when we got there came as close to being kid nirvana as we have ever experienced, outside of Disney. 

Animal Bliss at Terra Natura

Terra Natura has the unfortunate luck to have a "bad front door" as real estate people say.  The drive into the park area is fairly ugly, however, once inside the gates all that changes. 

One of the first things one notices is that Terra Natura is not a zoo.  It is set up more like a conservation park.  The "Terra" part of the park divided into 4 areas: Pangea, Asia, America, Europa.  The animals in each of these areas are in some semblance of their natural habitats.  We saw elephants, giraffes, hippos, all the usual animals and then some.  But what made this park different is the way it is designed.  Normally, I find zoos excruciatingly boring.  But here visitors observe the animals by walking along raised wooden pathways through the park.  Somehow this makes one feel more a part of the experience than simply observing it.   There is also lot of information about conservation, environmental enrichment, animal nutrition and medicine woven into the experience via signs, bulletins, etc.   We also appreciated that every 5 minutes or so, the paths would go through a small covered area.  Given the heat, this is a much needed break, so I didn't have to worry about the kids getting heat stroke.  The pathways themselves are also very well designed in that they provided the ability to see the animals with no chance of Sebastien scaling the walls and leaping on an unsuspecting victim below.   Yes, my two year old is THAT kid.  The one who will methodically test your baby proofing until he can find a weakness.  But I am happy to say that Terra Natura passed the "Seb test".   So all that was wonderful, but the kid Nirvana part was still to come.

When we first entered the park, we discovered that they offered a "sea lion encounter".   Lucas, our 5 year old (who takes his animal book to bed) was in HEAVEN just at the thought of this.  So we got tickets for the encounter and headed to it just after our visit to the conservation park.  After a brief discussion of sea lions in general and these animals in particular, we were lead to the pool to wait for the stars of the show.  This is where I was able to observe exactly how well these animals were treated.  As the sea lions were called out to the pool, they came and all three jumped into the pool and began swimming around us.   Then the A list star, a large male with serious prima donna tendencies, decided he had had enough of it for now.  So, he jumped out of the pool, knocked the fence down and went back to his "room".   The trainers just sort of shrugged and went on with things.  While he sulked, we were then all able to stroke one of the other sea lions, with the trainers instruction and help.  We were also given the opportunity to feed one.  At some point during all this, Mr. Celebrity decided to make his return....but it was his own choosing. He swam around us and did some nice jumps, which got him the applause that he felt was his due.   Through all this, the trainers seemed completely at ease and I never had any misgivings.  And Lucas...he was absolutely over the moon.  After this, we had to spend days looking up different kinds of sea lions, and what they eat, and where they infinitum.   Even Seb got to participate, in Daddy's arms, and to this day he says " I like sea lions".  So to those who constantly feel the need to go postal over this sort of activity, you should know that there are two more people on the planet with a love of sea lions thanks to this.  

We could have just gone home after this, and everyone would have been happy but ALL the boys wanted to go to the water park side, called "Aqua Natura".   This was a fairly decent water park with areas for all ages, and the boys could have spent longer there but Mom had to go.  But not before Lucas made another girlfriend. 

Experience Rating:  10/10


Peke Park:  Seb Gets Addicted to "The Store"

On the La Manga strip, there are a few points of kid nexus. But the daddy of all of these is a place called Peke Park.   We actually discovered Peke Park via one of the lesser points of kid nexus, and it was responsible for creating an interesting linguistic moment that has stayed with us since.  We needed to go to the store to pick up a few non perishable items, so we got the kids to the car by promising that afterward we would go to a small go kart place close to "our" apartment.   It was called, shockingly, "Go Karts".   The go kart place in question was right next to the highway and had not only go karts but also arcade games and several variations on bouncy houses.  Unfortunately,  it was also filthy and patrolled by a stern looking eastern European teenager who might well have been descended from the undead.  To make things worse, the place also turned out to be a health hazard, as Lucas had managed to get a needle stuck in his foot in their bounce house.   After this event we finished eating our obscenely over priced pizza and left, spending the next few hours worrying about tetanus.  However, we ended up with a different sort of problem.  The kids had loved the place, .and Seb now associated the phrase "going to the store" with rides and bounce houses.  So, we had to find both an alternative activity for them and an alternative phrase for going to the actual store.   The alternative for the go kart place was Peke Park. 

Peke Park is located on the La Manga "strip".  It has a carnival type of atmosphere, but without the transient feel.  When we first drove up to it, I was a bit skeptical, as it seemed to be squeezed between the two main thoroughfares.  However, everything was nicely fenced in and it was much bigger than it looked from the outside.  In truth, this place had things for pretty much every age group.  They had little coin rides and a train for the under two crowd.  There were small bouncy houses, trampolines, and play houses for the 3 to 4 year olds.   There were much larger bouncy house / slide combo's for ages 5 to 12.   They also had bumper boats and go karts for kids to go on with their parents.   Everywhere you looked there were little carnival games, like the ones where you ring the bell or shoot the water pistol.  Cleverly, they had you buy Peke coins to purchase your rides and such.  This distances you from your money and you've spent 40 Euros before you've even noticed.   But somehow I didn't mind.  As opposed to the "side of the road" go kart place, this place was clean and felt safe.  They even had moderately priced food. The people working there were friendly.   OK, so they didn't exhibit the same sort of frenetic happy pill hysteria that one can get at Disney in the U.S. but they were pleasant, and that was good enough.  The kids ADORED it.  After the fact, when I asked Lucas his favorite part, he said: "The best part was the Giant Chicken Bounce House".  Hmmm, I doubt that I will get the chance to write that phrase again in my natural life! 

After this, Peke Park became "the store" for Seb and we started having to say that we were going to the "magasin" when we wanted to get groceries. 

Experience Rating: 8/10  ( Kid rating was 10/10, adult rating 7/10)

The Zenith of the Arc

So my gamble on La Manga paid off big time.  When we left, the boys were none too happy, which is the mark of a good vacation.  I felt calm and rested.  Julien was in high spirits from his kite surfing experience.  In addition to all of the above, we also had some romantic couple time via softly lit restaurants / clubs (elZeta) and moonlight walks on the beach.  Overall, it was a wonderful vacation. 

Yep, this was at the zenith of the upswing of our 5 week pendulum but we didn't know it.   As it turns out we would need all this stored up energy and calm to get through the next 2 weeks, which included three hospitalizations, two emergency room visits, a broken leg and more than our fair share of frayed nerves.  

Stay tuned for that bit.
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