Prize holiday - Brittany Ferries
I’ve never had the luxury of a cruise, not once, that’s something for the future. So I’m sure a few of you will find my praise of Brittany Ferries fairly lavish at times. You’ll have no doubt experienced far greater creature comforts which is only to be expected on bigger, more salubrious (and more pricey) ships. We had a terrific holiday though and the fact it was largely free can only add to the feeling of satisfaction.
The first thing we needed BF to accommodate was leaving from one port, Plymouth, and arriving back at another, Portsmouth. We live in the North East of England and by the time we’d veered off the motorway to explore Taunton, the journey to Devon was close to 400 miles. Throw in a day-long crossing in each direction and clearly it’s advantageous to make a stay in Cantabria as long as possible, work permitting. So we added a couple of nights in the Parador (Limpias) and changed the itinerary slightly.
The journey south was uneventful, the traffic was fairly light and there were no major road works or accidents. And as I’ve mentioned, we broke the journey in Taunton and had ample time to get to the ferry port next day. We were allowed to board a full three hours before the boat sailed which was a real bonus for us. BF had given us an outside four berth cabin (for just my wife and myself) with tea-making facilities and a TV so we were able to while away the remaining time in port in relative comfort. We thought the en-suite facilities were also of a very good standard. We don’t expect a Las Vegas style corner bath and twin vanity units on a ‘mere ferry’ but the sink was large, the shower piping hot and well pressured and the whole area exceptionally clean and bright.
Talking of ‘bright’, one of my pet hates when travelling is the ‘subdued’ lighting in hotels. For subdued, read POOR. I struggle to read in low light as I’m sure many people do. So the wide array of bulbs in our cabin was very welcome. It was possible to go from extremely bright and focused to low and private; there were plenty of options which I’m sure the majority of people appreciate on a long crossing. We all have different ways to pass the hours.
The eating options onboard are diverse. You can pay a considerable amount of money for fine dining in the restaurants (about £75 – £85 for a couple with wine) to a very reasonable amount in the self-service cafes (£30 got us two large cartons of onion soup, two portions of cheese pasta, a couple of ample desserts and a coke and apple juice as a sit down meal. Plus two rounds of sandwiches and a tuna salad to take away for the journey home – quite a tray of eats for the money I can tell you !). We tried both during the outward and return journeys, neither of which proved much hardship because BF had included a generous meal allowance. We especially liked the buffet style evening meal on the Port Aven, absolutely delicious and we both put away THREE desserts. I know, I know, we can resist everything except temptation. At the other end of the scale we had a cafe breakfast on the Finistere which cost £15 for two English breakfasts with orange / apple juice and medium sized (to us, large) hot drinks.
Luckily, with this gluttony, the crossings were both fairly benign. We heard some horror stories from fellow passengers of cancellations, re-routings and extremely ill land lubbers. Bear in mind we were travelling in March, a time that still has potential for inclement weather. One tip I would give travellers, and I’m sure regular travellers on cruise ships would concur, is to try and get a cabin a fair distance from the engines. We were quite close to them on the outward journey and they disturbed my wife’s sleep. It isn’t just the low rumbling, it’s the vibration. I must be slightly strange because I found the whole thing rather hypnotic and relaxing. Not everyone will share my sentiments and the return trip was much quieter even though the ship was smaller.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the internet was available throughout both legs of the journey, slow though it was . Clearly time is one thing you have plenty of slow boating it to Spain and unless you are using the ‘net for business, patience will get you to where you want to be eventually. It’s only accessible in certain parts of the ships, not in the cabins, but who wants to spend hour after hour surfing the net behind closed doors. There’s plenty of seats with great views that are much better suited.
We arrived bang on time and disembarking was smooth and efficient. Within 40 minutes we were in our hotel in Limpias, Cantabria. The route is enjoyable taking in snow capped mountains with the occasional glimpse of a beach. I found the Spanish roads extremely easy to navigate, the only irritation being the locals’ reluctance to allow cars to merge onto the Motorway when approaching from slip roads. They seem to expect you to come to a complete stop rather than make it easy for you by moving into the middle lane. Strange but you adapt to it.
The Parador Limpias is old fashioned but very comfortable. Large rooms with the aforementioned twin sinks, marble and excellent baths. It had a huge staircase leading from an expansive lounge area with a very impressive two storey stained glass window to the fore. The room windows were floor-to ceiling and of a modern, upvc bay design. This concept gets a lot of criticism because it doesn’t fit in with the original character of the hotel. The bedrooms are in a more recently built extension. However, for me, it comes down to the quality of light again. And I’d prefer a bright interior and mismatched exterior to the reverse.
One thing I couldn’t understand was why they’d grown numerous large conifers at the perimeter of the garden. They’d effectively blocked off a view of lush green mountains with snow flecked peaks for the sake of some very run-of-the-mill trees. Oak tree and the likes I could sympathise with, but conifers, and not very attractive ones at that ? A mystery. I could only presume they were there for the reverse of what I was thinking, to screen off the hotel and the incongruous mismatched buildings.
We only had breakfast at the hotel which was superb when it was laid out buffet style, and disappointing when it was plated up and brought to your table. We couldn’t criticise the management for this, there were only two rooms occupied at the hotel three of the five nights we were there. You can’t expect them to waste a huge amount of food laying on a spectacular spread. So they did their best but the language barrier was extreme, the Cantabrians just don’t speak English so it was difficult to get what you wanted. That’s as much our fault as theirs. But the staff were always friendly and did their best, especially at reception where they obviously had a lot of time to assist us. We were given excellent instructions as to how to get to Bilbao by bus and rail and ultimately we decided to park up the car for a day and use public transport; the timetables printed off by the hotel were spot on as were the fares.
Bilbao we loved, a great city to walk in with an attractive, wide river, great backdrop and some very photogenic buildings. Not least of which of course is the Guggenheim. I had very mixed feelings about the Guggenheim however, I think the building itself is magnificent, including the bridge outside which merges into it. But you’ve seen the best bits FROM OUTSIDE. The three most impressive artworks, for me, are the immense floral dog (BRILLIANT), the spider and the column of shiny metallic baubles.
Inside there’s a very unique exhibition on the ground floor of huge steel plates that you walk through and get disorientated and fooled by. Sometimes they’re a kind of maze, occasionally they’d have you walking at a peculiar angle, other times you get a spooky echo. You’re aware you might be a tiny mouse, observed by unseen scientists. I thought they were different, fun and entertaining.
Some of the other exhibitions, like a collection of items on the floor that you could swop your own with (electric kettles, soft toys, spectacles) just didn’t do it for me. Ever changing was the concept, ever pointless was my reaction to it. And Yoko Ono I always thought extremely bizarre. Her ideas go above my head and I moved quickly on without struggling to understand her messages. I’m a complete prole and I know it. The Guggenheim won’t break the bank though, a tenner for an hour and a half’s entertainment and the inside of the building is still pretty nifty, just nothing as jaw dropping as the exterior.
The other main town in the area, and of course the other Spanish port that Brittany Ferries dock at, is Santander. Like Bilbao it’s just big enough to have most things you’ll want, but not too large that you can’t take it in in a day. Think large town in England rather than populous city. We liked the set-up that you can check your car in very early on your departure date and come-and-go as you please with your pass key. And the view from the quayside is attractive enough to enjoy a picnic here.
It was more the countryside and beaches though that we wanted from Cantabria and we weren’t disappointed. The sands of Laredo midway, between Bilbao and Santander, are gorgeous. A huge horseshoe of clean, golden, soft sand that apparently never gets overcrowded even when there are 100,000 people in the resort. When we were there it was nearer 50 lucky souls. The harbour is a good mix of pleasure craft and working boats and three fairly long piers jut out to sea making a very long walk a must.
There’s another quite different resort reasonably nearby. Castro Urdiales has a medieval town centre and a couple of interesting buildings way up at its highest point which afford marvellous views of the charming harbour. The beaches are much smaller than at Laredo, it’s more about little rocky outcrops pounded by waves. And the thoroughfares likewise are often narrow cobbled arteries that don’t lend themselves to cars. But there’s plenty to see and do and the promenade is picturesque.
About a two hour drive from Limpias are the Picos De Europa, the highest mountains in the area. Coincidentally there’s another Parador here, ideally located, that we considered staying a couple of days at. It has a cable car nearby that takes you up 2,000 feet in a matter of minutes thus saving a lot of legwork. Unfortunately the view from the top is often ruined by fog at this time of year and consequently we decided to play safe and keep to the more Eastern part of Cantabria.
The mountains are smaller here, slightly higher than the Lakes District but a wee bit more diminutive than say Ben Nevis. Nevertheless we drove among some spectacular scenery and I was lucky enough to view one of my best ever waterfalls. These natural wonders are a real favourite of mine and are a must-do on this type of holiday. We’ve been fortunate as I’ve mentioned before to see some magnificent falls in Hawaii, Iceland and elsewhere.
We walked to the source of the Ason River and the water tumbled from directly above us through the mouth of a cave. It’s far from the biggest or most popular fall in Spain, never mind the world. But it’s always good to be able to get so close to a fall, especially when there are no other tourists around and you can linger. Indeed we managed to view the cascade from many different vantage points along the road which parallels the Ason, something we wouldn’t have had a chance of doing in the high summer. The driver inevitably loses out on these types of holidays and it was a welcome change to be able to stop repeatedly and take in a multitude of changing angles. Of the granite peaks as well as the numerous streams flowing down the mountains. Such beauty, majesty and tranquillity, how could you fail to appreciate it.
I was told Spain is Europe’s second most mountainous country. Now while I appreciate you can make statistics say what you want and one man’s mountain is another fella’s molehill, I was certainly surprised just how many peaks top 6,000, 7,000 and even 8,000 feet. There is certainly more to this peninsula than the beaches of the Costas.
All in all a thoroughly enjoyable break and I can’t thank Brittany Ferries enough. At no point did they try to penny pinch on the prize holiday. Outside cabins on both journeys, the one on the Pont Aven particularly good. A generous meal allowance that on the return journey we struggled to use. And a good quality 4* hotel in an attractive area.
We filled the car with so-called premium quality Don Simon wine which cost about £1.30 a litre and brought back other bargain priced goodies. This subsidised the petrol which meant we hardly needed to dip into our own pockets over and above what you’d normally spend on day-to-day living. Without wishing to sound like a total skinflint, you can’t ask for more than a smashing break at next to no expense. A huge thanks to all concerned.
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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.