Spain’s Best-Kept Secret

Sandwiched between the Basque Country and the province of Asturias on Spain’s Atlantic Coast, Cantabria is a small province by Spanish standards, and a secret the Spanish keep to themselves.

These mountains are called the Picos de Europa (the Peaks of Europe) as it’s said that their snowy tops were the first land Spanish sailors saw when returning from the Americas. You’ll find some of the world’s deepest caves here, amazing hiking trails, ancient villages and laidback and open locals. On the fertile coastal strip you can explore preserved medieval towns and walk in lush woodlands.

This is Celtic Spain—think Ireland or England’s West Country with better food at better prices. The locals drink as much cider as they do wine. You won’t find the highrises of the southern costas. The coast is unspoiled, and the towns and villages haven’t been overwhelmed by development.

Well-to-do Spaniards vacation here, and have done since the 19th century. In fact, the provincial capital, Santander, reminds me of Biarritz in the south of France (only a two-and-half hour drive away). Famous as a getaway for royalty and celebrities I’ve never really enjoyed Biarritz. I much prefer Santander, which also has immaculate urban beaches, a grand casino and elegant old buildings. And it’s got less airs and graces, it’s cheaper, and the beaches are nicer.

At the main Sardinero beach you can have a coffee in Balnearo de la Concha with its big glass windows and sweeping vistas. Then take a stroll beneath palms and pine trees while all the time in view of the emerald-green ocean.

Farther toward the center sycamores, honeysuckle, rose bushes and ferns climb the slope from golden-sand beaches to the main promenade. Bird song mingles with the crash of waves. Each beach is numbered, 1a, 2a and so on, and each has outdoor showers and a good café nearby.

Sardinero and the other urban beaches stretch to the west of the center. To the east of the center is the port with a grittier vibe and the best restaurants in town. You’ll eat delicious fresh-off-the-boat seafood for less than $12. (Try Los Penucas. I had steamed lomo de merluza (fillet of hake) in a tomato sauce with fried potatoes washed down with a Galician Alburino—a light, aromatic wine.)

The airport is 15 minutes away from the city and flights connect with Madrid, Barcelona and some other European cities. There’s also a car ferry to England. Transport around the city is easy to use and inexpensive and there’s also a bike rental scheme.

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