A trip to Northern Spain in September is never going to mean unadulterated guaranteed sunshine. This is what we learned when we travelled to Noja in Cantabria last week with Brittany Ferries. Despite the mixed weather though, we still managed to relish every second of the break.
It’s the first time I’ve been away with just my parents and daughter, so it was a bit of a test to see a) how well we all got on (very well, as it turns out) and b) if there were enough things to do to keep all ages happy (there were).
We stayed in a beautifully light and airy town house in Noja, an expanding seaside resort about 45 minutes west of Santander. You can find out more about the place itself in this post from earlier in the week.
Noja is a relaxed kind of place, popular with Spanish holidaymakers wanting to escape the fierce heat and hordes of foreign tourists further south during the summer. For that reason, it’s a brilliant spot to submerse yourself in “real” Spanish life. We loved spending time browsing the market (in the square on a Wednesday morning) and soaking up the atmosphere of a local restaurant overlooking one of the beaches.
To be honest, just mooching around Noja and enjoying each other’s company kept us happily entertained for a full morning. That afternoon, we headed to our nearest beach a ten minute walk away, to run off some steam and build some sandcastles. You don’t need blazing sunshine to enjoy the huge expanse of golden sand that Noja offers. In fact, at this time of year you get most of the beach to yourself, which is rather lovely really.
Noja is perfectly situated to explore other parts of Cantabria. A region of lush green, dramatic mountains and stunning beaches, there’s lots to see. Driving in this area is easy too, because signs are clear and directions straight-forward. We travelled back towards Santander along the A8 motorway which connects all the regions on the northern coast of Spain.
A scenic hour’s drive east of Noja we found the Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabarceno – a huge wildlife park nestled amongst the orange rocks and green valleys of an old open-cut mine.
It boasts elephants and lions, giraffes and camels, zebras – and many other exotic and exciting species. The sheer size of the park means the animals can wander about without being confined to small cages or “goldfish” type spectator bowls. Our first glimpse of the elephants had Frog whooping for joy. It was almost surreal seeing them gracefully loping about far below us, deep in the valley.
Entry to the park costs €21.00 for an adult in high season (or €18.00 for a group and €13.00 for children aged 6-12) between 1st April to 30th September. During the rest of the year admission is priced at €15.00. I think that’s a pretty reasonable amount to pay for a memorable day out and is certainly competitive compared with similar types of places Britain.
There are plenty of picnic areas around the park, along with a pretty fancy restaurant, a bar for more relaxed eating (burgers, pizzas, chips etc) and a self-service cafe. We plumped for pizza and chips in the bar area, washed down with a cold Spanish beer. When you’re on holiday it’s rude not to, after all.
If you’re after a more adrenaline-fuelled day out, then around 3 hours drive from Noja you’ll find the famous Fuente De Cable Car. Described as the “jewel in Cantabria’s crown” the cable car crosses a section of the Picos mountains, the mountain range that joins Cantabria on the east and Asturias on the west. We didn’t get this far as it’s quite a long trek to make just for the day when you have a three year old in tow, but if we go back to the region I’d love to schedule in a night stop near the cable car site, so we can go up in it. It looks like one of those activities you don’t forget in a hurry.
If we had stayed longer we would also have taken day trips over to Santander to explore the city. As it happens, we caught glimpses of it on the drive off the ferry. As it’s such an easy, direct drive from Noja, it’s definitely worth a visit if you can fit it in. Further east, around an hour from Noja, there’s another city I’d like to visit. Bilbao is in the Basque Country and is home to the famous Guggenheim art gallery – it’s worth a look for the impressive space age design of the building alone!
Finally, a huge part of any trip abroad for us is always sampling the local food. We tried local cheeses, paella, fresh fish and countless huge, vibrant vegetables. I have a separate post planned about this element of the trip, mainly because I want to relive it all over again. Sorry about that.
Have you been to this part of Spain? What did you do when you were there?
Thank you to Brittany Ferries for providing us with our travel and accommodation for the purpose of this review. And thank you to the Cantabria Tourist Board who provided us with a family ticket to visit the Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabarceno for the day. All opinions remain my own, as ever.