The shadow on the sundial marks a sultry 2pm. Aside from birdsong and the waft of piped music the Spanish love so much, the only sound is the gentle tinkle of the fountain in the village square. And the occasional roar of a roller coaster.
This is no ordinary village square of course, but Plaza Catalunya at Hotel PortAventura, near Salou. Owners La Caixa have tried to impart a genuine Mediterranean ambience, but when you're competing with the screams coming from the theme park next door, it's no surprise the devil sometimes gets lost in the details.
Can you come here for a genuine Spanish holiday as well as white-knuckle thrills? Or are you just being taken for a ride? Sixteen agents and I were about to find out.
Our fam - organised by PortAventura with Holiday Brokers and Holiday Taxis - started with a fiendishly difficult trail around the park. This meant sampling a few roller coasters - not easy after the welcome night drinks - ticking off strictly timed checkpoints, answering questions about the rides and taking pictures as we went.
Did we learn anything? Oh yes. Was it fun? That depends on your definition of the word. If being shot out of a Chinese pagoda at 100mph before ascending the eight loops of the Dragon Khan is your idea of fun, then certainly, we did.
Even more terrifying is the twisting bolt of blue that is the Furious Baco, which accelerates faster than a Formula 1 car. Once was enough for me.
Hotel PortAventura is one of three on-site properties, to be joined this July by the Golden River. There's also the Mexican-themed Hotel El Paso, the Caribbean flavoured Hotel Caribe, plus a water park and beach club.
We stayed at the PortAventura, which has decent, if rather plain rooms, five restaurants, a pool, gym and direct access to the theme park. The other properties are a little smarter, though curiously, all are graded four-star. That's the sort of detail you only pick up on by visiting a place; something anyone questioning the value of fam trips might want to keep in mind.
And what of Salou? Ten years ago it was a bit of a backwater, with neither the extent of somewhere like Benidorm, nor the style or exclusivity of Sitges or Marbella. That's changed now, with a smart crop of new hotels and restaurants, plus a wonderfully clean and well-equipped beach. Yes, there are still plenty of dodgy nightclubs and English pubs (and our group took in a quite a few of them), but you could happily send a family here for a week, tying in a few nights at one of the PortAventura hotels.
Will you find the real Spain? Perhaps not. But you will find plenty of rides and lots of people enjoying themselves. And anyway, too much reality isn't good for you. Forget your quest for the genuine article and go with the flow - it's more fun.
- More on European theme parks: Dinah Hatch on new rides for summer 2009
How to book it: Dynamic packaging
Book flights to Barcelona or Reus and combine with a Holiday Taxis private transfer from £35 per person one-way from Barcelona (about an hour) or £8 per person from Reus (about 20 minutes). (01444 257 041, holidaytaxis.com)
Keith Prowse Attraction Tickets offer savings on all PortAventura tickets until the end of June. Four-day passes are down from £75 to £57 for adults and from £57 to £29 for kids. (02890 232425, keithprowse.com/agents)
Holiday Brokers sells all the park's accommodation; seven nights' bed and breakfast at the Hotel PortAventura leads in at £600 per adult and £300 per child this June, including 15% agent commission. The PortAventura hotels are generally more expensive than those in Salou, but the price includes a daily Express Max ticket, allowing the bearer to skip the queue on the big rides - essential on busy days - plus access to the water park and beach club. (0844 482 0090, holidaybrokers.co.uk)
"It's been a really good trip. This is my first educational and colleagues told me there's always lots of looking around hotels. We haven't really done that, and it's been a lot of fun. I have learned a lot - especially about the park and Salou. I didn't know the resort before but I could definitely sell it now."
Jessica Judges, Bookable Holidays, Reading, Berkshire
"It's been really good to see what the customer would see - now I know what their options are in Salou. I didn't know about the Express Tickets and that's definitely something I would want if I were booking the holiday. I didn't know much about Salou before I came, so that was good to see; especially the beach."
Lindsay Wythe, sunshine.co.uk, Fleet, Hampshire
"Clients always ask if you've been to the hotel so it really helps to get out here. The standard of this one is really good, it's definitely a four-star and a bit better than I was expecting. We've had a good time so far and I've learned a lot about PortAventura - the rides, the hotels and getting around the park."
John Legg, Medinland, Chingford, Essex
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