Regent Seven Seas Mediterranean cruise: Explore Spain's Albufera waterland in Valencia

The chilled-out captain of our little wooden boat, who is sporting a check shirt, chinos, straw trilby and a bountiful white beard Father Christmas would be proud of, nudges us away from the tiny jetty and out into the serene murky waters of Albufera.

"It's like the Everglades," says a fellow passenger, as we drift past banks and islets carpeted in vegetation, as silent herons and crying gulls criss-cross the milky blue sky. Yet unlike the Everglades, you don't need to worry about alligators (and indeed an adorably cute family of ducks and ducklings glide past us, seemingly without a care in the world).

Tucked a kilometre inland from the Mediterranean Sea, Albufera is Spain's largest lake and one of its most ecologically important wetlands, a magnet for both resident and migrating birdlife, with Eurasian teals, red-crested pochards and great egrets among the exotic species to delight twitchers.

Motoring languidly along, the faint hum of our boat's engine drowned out by bird tweets and squawks, and the captain's gentle Spanish commentary (translated by Milagros, our English-speaking guide), it feels as if we're deep in the countryside, especially when we pull over to browse inside a barraca (a traditional thatched-roof cottage-cum-folk museum adorned with pretty tiles, fishing equipment, rifles and saintly Catholic statues). Looming in the distance, though, almost mirage-like, is the high-rise modern skyline of Valencia.

Spain's third biggest city, it's the first port of call on our cruise around the Mediterranean on the Regent Seven Seas Explorer – a vessel that is quite a contrast to the one we're navigating Albufera on. Trademarked as "the most luxurious ship ever built", it's characterised by its ravishing decor and high-end all-inclusive features, with "free" guided shore excursions among its many perks.

Of the 10 tours offered today, we chose the one we fancied would best showcase Valencia's urban and rural charms. We'd started with a "panoramic" coach ride that took us inland from the crane-speckled port to the historic centre, which was founded as Valentia by the Romans in 138BC and boasts some of the most photogenic, sun-kissed architecture on the Mediterranean. Much of the labyrinthine old core, including the chunky city gates and Gothic cathedral, date from the Middle Ages, when Valencia grew rich off the silk industry.

We pass other palm-tree-fringed plazas and avenues, lined with palatial banks and opulent municipal buildings, that flourished during another golden age – Valencia's 19th-century orange trade boom. Perhaps the most dazzling of all, however, is the City of Arts and Sciences, an awe-inspiring €1 billion ($1.5 billion) cluster of cultural centres, music venues, museums and wildlife attractions eclectically designed by the contemporary Valencian architect, Santiago Calatrava. They're scattered around Jardin del Turia, a gorgeous landscaped park that stretches nine kilometres along a former river bed.

Milagros tells us the Turia River was diverted south of the city after a disastrous flood overwhelmed the centre in 1957, and we cross the "new" river, and several other little streams and canals, on our way to and from Albufera. Resembling the Arabic "al-buhayra" – the small sea – Albufera evokes a time, about 1000 years ago, when the Moors of North Africa ruled swaths of southern Spain.

Milagros says the lake was even bigger then, but land was subsequently reclaimed to grow fruit, vegetables and rice – the key ingredients for paella, a classic peasant dish that originates here and is traditionally made with meaty ingredients like chicken, rabbit and snails rather than shellfish.

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Valencians and tourists alike come to enjoy paella – and other local favourites, such as freshly caught eel – at the rustic family-run eateries of El Palmar, the sleepy lake-side village where we begin, and end, our boat trip. Unfortunately, we don't have time to linger for lunch, but we're not too despondent: lobster and champagne await us back on our cruise ship.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/spain

visitvalencia.com

CRUISE

The Regent Seven Seas Explorer visits Valencia on several of its Mediterranean cruises, including a seven-night Barcelona to Lisbon cruise, departing on May 15, 2018. It's priced from about $A7140 a person. The ship will be cruising in Europe until November 2017. After switching to the Caribbean for the northern winter, it returns to Europe in March. See rssc.com/ships

Steve McKenna was a guest of Regent Seven Seas Explorer.

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