Mixing Pilates with food & culture on a Costa Calida Spanish Holiday

Emma Douglas reviews this relaxed holiday in the sun-soaked Murcia region and enjoys the mix of Pilates and yoga with Spanish lessons, cultural sight seeing and leisurely regional meals

Charismatic tour guide and Spanish teacher Antonio gives a warm welcome at the airport and we’re soon driving through mountainous landscapes and aromatic plantations of orange and lemon trees. Awaiting us on arrival in Puerto Mazarron is Fran Brown, Pilates instructor and founder of Costa Calida Holidays, whose positive energy and enthusiasm are immediately inspiring. I am here for an active holiday that would guarantees daily fitness sessions, but without compulsory activities or restrictive regimes. As I discover, none of the group is seeking an ‘extreme’ or ‘immersive’ experience. My boutique apartment is set back from the beach on a peaceful residential road. Someone has thoughtfully supplied grocery ‘essentials’, including no less than four bottles of wine. If these are the essentials, I can’t help wondering what the non-essentials are!

Costa Calida Holidays offers an intriguing package. At first glance, the leisurely lunches and touristic visits – including to a liquor factory with tasting session – appear more ‘anti-retreat’ than ‘retreat’. Indeed, if I wanted to rise at dawn and refuel on detox juices, I might need to rethink. Luckily, I don’t. And after my first glass of post-Pilates wine, I still don’t. The group is a delightfully sociable and engaging bunch from a range of professions, including high-end cosmetics, local government and even professional dressage. There is a fairly even split of men and women, most of whom range in age between early 50s and early 60s, and the group includes couples, a pair of female friends and a solo traveller. All have at least a basic level of Pilates or yoga. After heading to Puerto Mazarron’s Sunday market to stock up on fruits and other produce, we settle into a long lunch at a restaurant on the main promenade, overlooking the marina. The marina is the social hub of the town and an excellent spot for people watching. Four courses later, I welcome the walk home along the beachfront, where I join locals, expats and tourists in soaking up the early summer sunshine.

‘Fran’s positive energy and enthusiasm are immediately inspiring and her particular Pilates expertise lies in adapting routines to accommodate injuries or limitations’

Our daily Pilates and yoga classes take place from 9am each morning in the neighbouring village of Isla Plana at a beautiful yoga shala with views straight out to sea and the sound of breaking waves below. Fran’s Pilates classes focus on the foundations of an effective practice. Regardless of our level (I practice regularly at home, but without the benefit of a regular teacher), we spend time engaging core muscles, improving balance and correcting posture. Fran’s particular expertise lies in adapting routines to accommodate injuries or limitations, but she increases the challenge each day and always has tougher variations up her sleeve. Everyone goes at their own pace and tries to ignore the scrutiny of Dotty, the resident dog, who claims her own mat from which to supervise other downward facing dogs.

Yoga with teacher Lisa Gibbs is challenging and rewarding in different ways. I’ve practised yoga before, but feel beginners would be comfortable in her class. Her workshops and ashtanga-based flow routines ensure students feel a gradual improvement in flexibility; her aim is not to make the class ‘bendy bananas’. She too is skilled at tailoring poses to suit individual capabilities. There is the occasional ‘kerplunk’ as a balancing pose finally gets the better of someone (well, me) but everyone maintains focus until the ten minute savasana in which we meditate – or have a surreptitious snooze – to conclude the session.

I settle into a daily pattern of morning Pilates and yoga classes, after which it’s a stroll or drive to our al fresco restaurant or picnic lunch spot, and then on to the afternoon excursion. Late afternoon and early evenings bring some welcome down-time which I use to walk, run or read on the beach as the temperature is cooling, before rejoining the group for an evening glass of wine and tapas in a local bar. It’s all optional – I could equally have brought a friend with me and gone out alone with her each night.

Meals on this relaxing break are enjoyed at a leisurely pace. My favourite lunch venue of the week is a rustic beach restaurant in Puntas del Calnegre, which is packed with locals enjoying generous slices of frittata, succulent squid and delicious cured tuna and fresh tomatoes. Each day Antonio leads an informal ‘holiday Spanish’ lesson during which we learn key phrases to see us through the week. The Spanglish slips back in as we order rounds of the marvellous liqueur-based coffee ‘Asiatico’, but Antonio and the restaurant staff are so forgiving that it seems not to matter.

Our guided excursions reveal the regional legacy of Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine and Moorish civilisations, but my highlight is our visit to the iconic Guns of Mazarron, built into a mountainside to protect Cartegena during the Spanish Civil War. As we marvel at their scale – each measures 56 feet, weighs 88 tonnes and has a 20 mile shooting range – someone proposes a Pilates photo opportunity. Fran and I rise to the challenge and clamber up to perform some precarious downward dogs. It goes swimmingly until the offshore winds transform my dress into a parachute and nearly reveal a whole new display to the unsuspecting group and visiting public. Not wishing to perpetuate the reputation of Brits behaving badly in Spain, especially atop an iconic monument, I execute a swift descent to continue the fascinating tour.

On the last day, I welcome the escapism of a massage and acupressure treatment with local therapist Carlos Eleno. He comes highly rated, in particular by those in our group with a (pre-existing) strain or injury. The treatment is both healing and indulgent and, for me, the perfect way to end the week.

Departing Costa Calida, I’m grateful to have strengthened the foundations of my Pilates and yoga practice. With Fran’s instructions for correcting my posture ringing in my ears, I find I am walking taller, keeping my shoulders down and engaging my core. This ‘anti-retreat retreat’ has felt relaxed, yet delivered a balance of activity, cuisine and cultural exploration, with the opportunity simply to relax in the sun. Over a farewell meal of traditional paella, the group toasts what feels like a winning formula. With that done, we turn to the serious discussion of where to find coffee ‘Asiatico’ back in the UK.