Golfing in Murcia, Spain
With my golf bag slung over one shoulder and my other arm clutching golf shoes, the lift buttons were tricky to reach. Thankfully, another hotel guest who got in behind me spared my contortions, asking which floor I wanted and pressing the button. Recognising the voice, I looked round and suddenly realised who my lift partner was - just managing to avoid blurting out something stupid, like "aren't you Glenn Hoddle?"
It was just after Hoddle's tenure as England football manager some 10 years ago and we were at La Manga Club, in Spain's Murcia region. But star-spotting is nothing new there. For more than 35 years, the sprawling leisure complex has not only been a byword for holidaying Brits, but has also been a magnet for celebrities. Many have bought luxury villas alongside its golf courses.
A frequent La Manga visitor, I have previously spotted actress Patsy Palmer - Bianca from Eastenders - sunning herself poolside and seen former F1 world champion Nigel Mansell, a villa owner, setting off in a golf buggy for a leisurely round. Other regulars include David Coulthard, Kenny Dalglish, Sir Cliff Richard and Alan Hansen.
Home from home
The home-from-home feel is hardly surprising; it was owned and run by British institution P&O for a quarter of a century until late 2004. To many, LaManga was and is Murcia, and vice versa.
But La Manga no longer has a monopoly. Murcia's golf facilities have expanded rapidly in recent years. Now Spain's fastest-growing golf destination, it has 17 courses with more under construction or planned.
Newcomers have dramatically enhanced Murcia's golf resort scene.They include the 27- hole Mosa Trajectum resort and resort operator Polaris World, which has linked with golf legend Jack Nicklaus to create the Nicklaus Golf Trail - a circuit currently comprising four courses and which will eventually boast nine.Other Murcia courses have designs by the likes of Dave Thomas and Spain's own Seve Ballesteros.
All of which is bringing more golfing visitors to this south-eastern corner of Spain, tucked between the provinces of Alicante and Almeria. Most courses are along the coastal strip, known as the Costa Calida. Visitors arrive via Alicante or Murcia's tiny San Javier airport, just 20 minutes from La Manga. The sleepy little airport I recall from early visits now bursts at the seams at peak times.
Return to La Manga
A recent return to La Manga gave me the chance to see it for the first time since it came under Spanish ownership, and since the hacienda-style former Hyatt Regency hotel became the independently-operated La Manga Club Principe Felipe earlier this year.
I was heartened to see the resort was little changed from my last visit, a decade ago; if anything, it was better. The hotels rooms were better appointed than I remembered, and new facilities had been added. Among them an impressive spa overlooking the vast resort, from where you can truly appreciate La Manga Club's scale.
Three times the size of Monaco, it encompasses three 18-hole golf courses, a golf academy, an 18-hole Par 47 pitch and putt course, 28 tennis courts, football centre with eight pitches, two cricket pitches, rugby and Gaelic football facilities, a Junior Club and junior sports academies, several villa complexes all with their own pools, over 20 bars and restaurants, shops, banks, a pharmacy and even its own petrol station.A private beach in a rocky cove overlooked by a restaurant is accessed by a road blasted through the towering sea cliffs.
Top football clubs use its extensive training facilities and many sports stars take part in charity golf tournaments.
La Manga's three courses are both a joy and a challenge. Easy resort golf it isn't.
Originally designed in 1971 and remodelled in 1992 by Arnold Palmer, the championship South Course features wide, palmfringed fairways and water hazards on 15 of the 18 holes, including some new ones added in a multi-million renovation that I discovered, quite literally, on my recent visit.
The more aesthetically-pleasing but shorter North Course is partly laid out on higher elevations, with challenges provided by palm trees, lakes and barrancas - natural storm gullies also found on its siblings - and large greens with wicked slopes.
The West Course is the prettiest, snaking through a more rural setting of hills and pine trees, to finish with a towering 18th tee giving grandstand views of La Manga and the Med. With numerous blind shots, it demands target golf precision.
Nicklaus Golf Trail
Created by Polaris World with golf legend Jack Nicklaus, the Nicklaus Golf Trail is a unique circuit of courses bearing the stamp of the Golden Bear. Of the four courses already open, three are 18-hole layouts. Two more courses are under construction and work will soon start on the other three.
The trail courses open so far are: La Torre Best Golf: a short 18-hole, par 68 course with wide fairways, suitable for intermediate or high handicappers.
El Valle Best Golf: a desert-style, 18-hole, par 71 course featuring lakes, waterfalls and clusters of bunkers set amid rocks and abundant native vegetation.
Hacienda Riquelme Best Golf: this larger than average 18-hole, par 72 course enjoys a Mediterranean setting surrounded by olive trees with several large lakes.
Mar Menor Best Golf: a nine-hole course currently being extended to 18 holes, its wide fairways and large bunkers are ideal for beginners and learners.
Trail courses still to open include: the 18-hole, par 72 Las Terrazas de La Torre, a desert-style course with dunes encasing greens; the Condado de Alhama, a signature course designed by Jack Nicklaus himself with sharp elevations; and the Bear's Best I and II 18-hole duo, with differing styles reminiscent of Florida and the Arizonadesert but both featuring replica holes from some of the 240 Nicklaus Design courses.
Polaris World offers extensive self-catering accommodation as well as two five-star InterContinental hotels, overlooking the Mar Menor and La Torre courses.
Three nine-hole layouts (Stone, Olive and Pine) giving three 18-hole combinations are on offer at Mosa Trajectum Golf - Murcia. Each nine is different in character. The resort also has a nine-hole, par 3 Challenge Course. Mosa Trajectum claims to be Spain's first completely-ecological golf course, with a drainage system which collects all rain and waste water and diverts it to the resort's own purification plant.
Of Murcia's other courses, Dave Thomas designed Roda Golf Course, part of the De Vere Hotels-managed Roda Golf and Beach Resort where a hotel opens in 2010, the semi private Altorreal set on hills above Murcia city, and Hacienda del Alamo. Surrounded by citrus, olive and almond groves, a second course is planned there.
Wildlife is a key feature of Seve Ballesteros designed Peraleja, which opened in 2007. More than 60% of the resort's 780-acre area is protected, with resident bird species including Bonelli eagles, red kites and eagle owls. A five star hotel and spa opens soon.
Future openings feature several big-name golf designers.Among them are: two Greg Norman designed courses at the 3Molinos Golf Resort; the JoseMaria Olazabal-designed Corvera Golf & Country Club course opening in 2010, which will become the winter HQ and overseas base for the PGAs of Europe; and Novo Carthago, a resort alongside the Mar Menor featuring two Robert Trent Jones Jr courses.
One thing is certain; I won't leave it another 10 years before I go back to Murcia.
Murcia GOLF facts
For information about Murcia and its golf courses, visit the Murcia Tourist Board website, www.murciaturistica.es/PORTAL/
Murcia's semi-arid, sub-tropical climate is ideal for golf year-round, with an average temperature of 21ºC and more than 300 sunny days a year.
Many flights by charter airlines, scheduled airlines and low-cost carriers go to Murcia's San Javier airport and nearby Alicante. Monarch (www.monarch.co.uk) serves both, with flights to Alicante from airports including Gatwick and Luton, and flights to Murcia from Gatwick and other regional airports. Fares start from £46.50 one-way (£76.99 return) to Alicante and £52.99 (£88.50) to Murcia.
Tour operators offering Murcia golf packages include Your Golf Travel (0800 043, 6644, www.yourgolftravel.com). La Manga prices start at £295 per person for three nights' bed and breakfast at the Hotel La Manga Club Principe Felipe, with three rounds of golf, or £229 on the same basis at the Las Lomas Village apartments or townhouses.Three nights' self-catering at Polaris World with three rounds of golf on the Nicklaus Golf Trail cost from £130 per person. Prices exclude flights.
- La Manga Club www.lamangaclub.com
- Nicklaus Golf Trail www.nicklausgolftrail.es
- Mosa Trajectum Golf - Murcia www.thekey.es
- Peraleja Golf www.peralejagolf.com
- Roda Golf & Beach Resort www.rodagolf.com
- Hacienda del Alamo www.clubdegolfhda.com
- Altorreal Golf www.golfaltorreal.es
- Hotel La Manga Club Principe Felipe www.lamangaclub.com
- Hotel Intercontinental Mar Menor Golf Resort
- Hotel InterContinental La Torre Golf Resort Murcia
All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you visit Murcia for a golfing break.