All aboard for taste of authentic Spain

This long fine sandy beach is at Noja on Spain's Cantabrian coast.

This long fine sandy beach is at Noja on Spain's Cantabrian coast.

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STEVE REID and his family discovered brilliant beaches and rugged mountains on a holiday in northern Spain.

After a 24-hour voyage, brilliant beaches and rugged mountains were waiting to be explored as soon as we stepped off the ship.

In northern Spain, you’re unlikely to hear another English voice for days at a time.

If you want to lose yourself and live the real Spanish life, then this is for you.

For parents with small children, flights at strange hours of the morning and night are a concern.

We fancied a trip to Spain with our two children aged four and two. But travelling to the Iberian peninsula by plane proved problematic.

We couldn’t find flights at suitable times. But the solution was right here on our doorstep.

Brittany Ferries operates up to four services a week from Portsmouth to Spain. The one we used sailed to Bilbao at a very convenient 5pm on Friday evening.

The holiday began as we settled into the comfortable four-berth cabin on board the Cap Finistere, where the bunk beds were a big hit with my daughter.

Even though the sailing was fully booked, there was plenty of space to move around on the ship.

With seating areas for families with children, family movies and live entertainment in the rear bar, filling our time aboard was not a problem.

An enclosed children’s playground on the top deck helped burn off excess energy.

Our destination was the Suaces Apartments in Noja, an hour’s drive west of Bilbao.

Situated 100 yards from Playa Riz, one of the town’s two beaches, the rooms were simple but comfortable.

The galley kitchen between the lounge and two bedrooms was basic with a sink, two electric hobs and a microwave. However, I was not planning to cook much.

The weather in this part of Spain is less consistent than the south.

You’re likely to get the odd day of rain. We we lucky and most days were sunny.

A sandy beach was a wonderful playground and the sea temperature surprisingly warm. Playa Riz is flanked by rocky outcrops which are ripe for exploration at low tide. There are areas to swim, surf and snorkel.

We divided our swimming time between the beach and pools in neighbouring campsite Playa Joyel.

We were warned a small fee may be charged, but the helpful staff in reception let us use them for free.

Bathing caps must be worn in many pools in Spain, so bring your own or risk looking like a comedy Australian lifeguard as I did.

Our plan to eat out ran into trouble early on.

The Spanish custom of eating later in the evening saw restaurants opening as late as 9pm, way past the kids’ bedtime.

So we switched to the fully self-catering model, which proved a great success. There were a number of supermarkets nearby which were easy to use.

Our children got their meals on time and we didn’t have the stress of our limited Spanish vocabulary running out at the first words uttered by waiters.

Culturally, there is much to see. Santander, just 40 minutes away, has a maritime centre with a large aquarium.

Bilbao was a real surprise. Streets were buzzing with life as people promenaded along the spacious riverside boulevards between the Guggenhiem Museum and the Casco Viejo or old town.

As we boarded the Cap Finistere for the journey home, we were already planning our next visit.

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