A far cry from the crowded sun-soaked costas of the south, Northern Spain is one of the country’s most underrated regions. You might not get wall-to-wall sunshine (it’s known as the ‘Costa Verde’ for good reason), but what you will find are miles of sandy beaches, elegant seaside towns, dramatic peaks and fantastic seafood. With excellent transport networks and some stylish places to stay, the northern provinces of Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque country make a great place for a road trip from the UK.
Plenty of low-cost airlines serve the region for a fly-drive trip, but in keeping with our theme of the month ‘Great Journeys’, we’d recommend taking the ferry. Just 20 hours from the UK across the Bay of Biscay, not only do you get to take your own car (and as much luggage as you can cram in), but there’s a good chance of spotting pods of dolphins from your porthole – a very civilized start to your holiday.
Arriving in Santander, it’s just a 75-minute drive west to the lively fishing town of Ribadesella where Casa La Calma is a relaxing base. With just 5 B&B rooms and a focus on wellbeing, it offers everything from personalised yoga to meditation and massage. Spend the morning checking out the unusual inland beach of Playa de Gulpiyuri or fascinating prehistoric rock art in the Cueva de Tito Bustillo (book well ahead) before chilling out in the garden with a glass of artisan sidra (cider) – a local speciality.
After exploring the coast, head inland to El Gran Sueno, a chic mountain retreat with an eco-emphasis and superb home-cooked organic meals. If you enjoy walking, you’ll be in seventh heaven with circular routes from your doorstep and the breathtaking Picos de Europa mountains just a short drive away. Don’t miss visiting the beautiful lakes of Covadonga or kayaking down the tranquil River Sella from Cangas de Onis.
The next leg of your trip, to the Basque metropolis of Bilbao, is a beautiful 3-hour drive with jagged mountains on one side and blue sea on the other. Break the journey at San Vincente de la Barquera, with its long causeway and picturesque harbour buzzing with seafood restaurants, or stop off for a stroll in the honey-coloured medieval town of Santillana del Mar.
Bilbao’s artsy Miro Hotel couldn’t be better placed for soaking up the city’s culture – just a stone’s throw from both the Museum of Fine Arts and Frank Gehry’s titanium Guggenheim Museum. The hotel was conceived by fashion designer Antonio Miró and the 50 boutique rooms are sleek and minimalist in style with black Markina marble and a big-name photography collection.
Leave the city behind, as you journey further into the Basque Country, a region known for its strong cultural identity and celebrated cuisine. A beautiful base in Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve is Urune Hotela with huge views over the rolling green hills and verdant valleys beyond. The 8 elegant bedrooms in this chic farmhouse are an absolute steal (from £80), radiating calm with their simplicity.
The last stop on this road trip is the sophisticated seaside resort of San Sebastian, known for its gorgeous golden city beach and surprising number of Michelin stars. The old quarter is the place to sample superb but affordable cuisine, with its characterful streets crammed with pintxos (tapas) bars. Once a much-loved cinema, Astoria7 is now the coolest hotel in town, with a stylish movie theme throughout, a groovy bar and a different movie star in every bedroom.
Sadly this is the end of the journey and it takes just over an hour to drive back to Bilbao (or 2 hours to Santander) for your ferry home. Standing on deck, be sure to raise a glass of Rioja to a fantastic road trip around Northern Spain.