Sail into summer

EasyJet passengers will soon be pouring into northern Spain's unspoilt Asturias region. Kristina Ferris beats them to it by taking a relaxing ferry ride to the spectacular enclave
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The Independent Travel

From the cottage's balcony, the view was a sea of green wooded hillsides. We saw buzzards circling high above in the afternoons, in the evening we heard owls, and at any time of day we could hear the distant chime of cow bells.

From the cottage's balcony, the view was a sea of green wooded hillsides. We saw buzzards circling high above in the afternoons, in the evening we heard owls, and at any time of day we could hear the distant chime of cow bells.

Travellers to Spain's north coast this summer will discover a distinctly un-Spanish land of limestone mountains and unspoilt beaches, forests, pastures, cows and cider. They will also meet locals who are friendly, even by Iberian standards. And thanks to rapidly intensifying competition, visitors should not need a small fortune to get there.

Since the 1960s most of Spain's southern and eastern coasts have been meticulously picked over by holiday companies and their clients. But the north-west remains barely touched. That could be about to change. This month, easyJet begins flying from London to Oviedo in Asturias, close to the north coast - adding to its service to Bilbao. And even the ferry companies, who have seen millions of customers take to the skies, are waging a shipping war to northern Spain.

Last April, a new £100m Brittany Ferries ship started sailing from Plymouth to Santander. With a total journey time of 19 hours, the Pont-Aven slices five hours off the previous benchmark.

And taking the ferry to Spain removes the increasingly stressful airport experience from the summer holiday. Instead of hanging around in departure lounges, children can splash around in the open-air swimming-pool. The Pont-Aven moves a ferry crossing closer to the cruise experience, with features such as cabins with balconies.

And when you reach the port of Santander, an hour west lies the beautiful region of Asturias. Our cottage was in the foothills of the serrated Picos de Europa mountain range. It was near the village of Nueva de Llanes and, to the children's pleasure, close to the beach of Cuevas del Mar.

The owners greeted us with a bottle of home-made cider, a drink found everywhere in the area. If you order it at a bar it is traditionally poured from head height. You can identify the most proficient bar staff: like acrobats with no safety net, they forego a bucket on the floor to catch the slops.

The emerald tones of Asturias are in stark contrast to the parched landscapes of southern Spain. And guess what: it rains a lot. We only had one day of downpours, though on several days it was overcast. Those days were pleasantly warm, though, which made them ideal for spending all day at the beach, because the sun wasn't too intense. However, it did mean that even the summits of the foothills were hidden, and the high peaks were hidden in the clouds.

The first morning we awoke to a blue sky, therefore, we headed into the Picos de Europa. My enthusiasm for the mountains failed to rub off on the children; they would rather have been at the beach. So I let them plan the route and promised a beach in the afternoon. A place called Poo in the mountains appealed to my seven-year-old son's sense of humour, and as luck would have it there was also a beach called Poo. So that was settled: two Poos in one day.

From Nueva we took the coast road east to the small town of Posada, and then headed inland to the village of Carreñas. A mile further on we rounded a bend in the road to find ourselves in the middle of a canyon; the light-green pastures at our feet were surrounded by dark green forested slopes and topped by bare limestone peaks on both right and left. These peaks framed some imposing crags a few miles further away, so curiously eroded that they looked like the turrets of a fairy-tale castle. They were the peaks of the central Picos de Europa, Los Urrieles, whose highest point is 8,668ft above sea level, nearly twice the height of Ben Nevis. A few yards on we saw the sign for Poo, which consisted of just a handful of houses. Blink and you'd miss it, but the journey was well worth it.

In the next village, Arenas de Cabrales, even the dogs were laid back: we saw one riding, apparently asleep, on the roof of a delivery van. We then headed south along the Cares valley. The river had cut a gorge between the peaks of El Cueton and Portudera. Huge chunks of limestone, like giant shark's teeth the size of houses, hung menacingly over the road.

At Poncebos we took the funicular railway (about €40/£28 for a family) through the hillside of Paré del Feju. Until the funicular was built four years ago, the only way to the village was by mule track. We could have taken that track back to Poncebos, but the beach beckoned, so we returned by train.

Within an hour we were eating lunch at one of the two beach bars at the very modest resort of Poo. The beach is on a narrow inlet, with a sandbar halfway between the beach and its mouth. At high tide the waves break on the bar, creating a pool of still water between there and the beach. This proved ideal for young children, while the older ones played further out. The inlet fanned out to a crescent-shaped sandy beach with trees behind and the mountains beyond.

You could spend two weeks just exploring the beaches of Asturias. They range from sheltered coves to wide strips of sand with massive breakers. Vega, just east of the bustling fishing port of Ribadesella, is popular with surfers. It also has pools of still water on the beach fed by a spring, which suits toddlers. For good measure, Vega had dinosaur fossils visible in its cliffs. And there is still room for families keen to discover a new Costa.

SURVIVAL TIPS

GETTING THERE

Brittany Ferries (08705 360 360; www.brittanyferries.com) sails twice a week from Plymouth to Santander. A peak-season return crossing for a car and a family of four, travelling out on, for example, 7 August and back on 15 August, including an outside cabin, is £778.

From Portsmouth, P&O Ferries (08705 20 20 20; www.poferries.com) sails twice a week to Bilbao. A similar deal costs £858.

You can fly on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Stansted to Oviedo and Bilbao. Return flights for four to Oviedo, going out on 6 August and coming back on 13 August, currently cost around £368. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) has a fare of £648.50 from Stansted to Santiago de Compostela.

GETTING AROUND

You can rent a car from Charterflight Centre (0845 045 0153; www.secure.charterflights.co.uk) at Oviedo airport for £199 a week. Or from Easycar (0906 33 33 33 33: www.easycar.com) for £159.

STAYING THERE

Brittany Ferries also offers accommodation in Asturias. The cottage Kristina Ferris and her family stayed in is still available from 7 to 14 August, for £511. The Hotel de la Reconquista (00 34 985 24 11 00; www.hoteldelareconquista.com) in Oviedo has double rooms from €225 (£161).

MORE INFORMATION

Spanish Tourist Office (09063 640630, calls charged at 60p per minute; www.tourspain.co.uk).

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