Like most British visitors, our first close-up of the Cantabrian coast is from a ferry. Santander shimmers before us as we glide into a protected bay – green-haired cliffs on one side, golden sands on the other. We're hugging the beach so closely we can almost snatch the helados from the sunbathers' hands.
Much more than a port town, the regional capital became a tourist hotspot back in the mid-1800s, with its winning combination of city culture and beautiful beaches. Later, Santander found favour with the Spanish royal family as their summer resort. The faded belle époque facades, a handful of museums and galleries, and an acclaimed annual arts festival keep it on the tourist trail.
Head out of the city, which lies almost midway along the 250km Cantabrian coast, and whichever direction you take, the motorway is quickly carving its way through a spectacular landscape. Emerald pastures, at times rolling right down to the sea, are reminiscent of rural Britain. But the imposing mountains of the Cordillera de Cantabrica and the Picos de Europa – so near you feel you can touch them – will leave you in no doubt about where you really are.
From the border with the Basque country in the east to San Vicente de la Barquera in the west, this is a coastline sculpted by the Cantabrian Sea – and by the rivers that flow down to create the estuaries and wetlands that characterise the region's shoreline. There are beaches galore, and of all types. Most resorts – San Vicente, Comillas, Castro Urdiales and, just inland, Santillana del Mar – have been fashionable expansions of ancient fishing ports in sheltered coves and estuaries, where the seafood and river pickings have been rich enough to sustain a living.
Today, the fruits of the sea – look out for the sought-after Cantabrian anchovies – are still the mainstay of the cuisine in the towns strung along the coast like a necklace of historic gems. But one thing you won't find here is an English menu. Fellow tourists will be mainly Spaniards, who come mostly in July (when it's driest) and August (when it rains less, but you can still expect three or four inches), so the season is short.
But what Brit ever let rain spoil their holiday? So when the heavens open on our third day, we take the same phlegmatic approach as our Spanish neighbours. For when it rains in Spain – even in the north – people are grateful: if the region's mountains didn't grab those Atlantic weather fronts and squeeze every last drop, "green Spain" just wouldn't be the same.
The Cantabrian coastline features more than 60 beaches, so you'll find there is always somewhere to flick out your towel. From sandy spits to cosy coves, town beaches to wild dunes, from lapping lagoons to naturist niches – one thing they all have in common is fine sand and clear water, with 12 flying the Blue Flag. Liencres beach, in the Dunas de Liencres Natural Park, lies just west of Santander. One of the most extensive dune systems on the north Spanish coast, it's an ideal destination for walkers. Action-seekers head for Salvé, at Laredo, the largest of Cantabria's seaside resorts. A Spanish watersports hotspot, in summer the curved 5km (3 miles) bay – backed by extensive development and nightlife to match – teems with surfers, jet-skiers, wind and kite-surfers. A little further east, Oriñón, sheltered by a horseshoe of steep cliffs, is a good choice for families – lagoons left by the receding tide allow hours of shallow splashing and crab catching.
A DAY OFF THE BEACH
There's more to charming Comillas than meets the eye. Its beaches are enticement enough, but beyond the seafront villas and portside bars hide a trio of architectural treasures. These are the legacy of the 19th-century Madrid and Barcelona aristocracy, whose summer patronage turned the seaside town into the region's second-most important tourist destination after Santander. Explore the cobbled streets and arcaded mansions of the old centre and follow signs up the hill for "El Capricho". An eccentric green and gold tiled curiosity with a minaret-like tower, this is Antoni Gaudi's only building this far north. Next door, the Palacio Sobrellano, by Gaudi's contemporary, Joan Martorell, is an ostentatious Modernista neo-Gothic mansion with a chapel that outdoes the parish church. Gaze across the valley towards the third gem in this cluster – the imposing Universidad de Pontificia, a mighty complex of buildings on the town's other hill, housing more examples of Catalan Modernist decoration.
Join the Madrileños who descend on San Vicente de la Barquera, the westernmost stop-off on the Cantabrian coast. A port as much as a resort, it has a postcard-worthy setting. Against the limestone backdrop of the Picos de Europa, the blush-coloured hilltop old town sweeps down to a double estuary and harbour, with gently bobbing boats, where the characterful bridges add charm. Noja, a modern addition to the resort roll-call, swells with summer tourists who come for its superb sandy stretches, Ris and Tregandin, the latter with its eerie rock pillars. Stroll to the old tidal watermills – Garvixos and Velasco – a typical local architectural feature. Last stop before the Basque Country, Castro Urdiales buzzes with Bilbaínos feasting on specialities such as baked sea bream dressed in garlic and cayenne. They care not that there's barely room to brandish a bat on Brazomar beach, for they can admire the posing couple out on the promontory – the Gothic Santa Maria church and medieval castle.
Cantabria's natural beauty is well preserved, with one third of its 5,289 square kilometres protected by parks or reserves. Easily accessible on foot from nearby Noja or Santoña, the Reserva Natural de las Marismas de Santoña y Noja is one of the most important wetlands on the Iberian Peninsula and one of the main natural spaces on this coast. Sheltering an important ecosystem and a variety of flora and fauna, the delicate network of marshes is a crucial stopover for birds migrating between northern Europe, southern Spain and North Africa. Stroll the meandering paths around the wetlands on the outskirts of Noja. Or make the climb from Santoña up Monte Bucierio, a coastal island connected by a sand spit. There is an energetic 10km circular walk around this rocky massif, which will take you through a forest of holm oak, hawthorn and laurel and along dramatic cliffs – the views of the marshlands spread out below are a stunning reward for your efforts.
How to get there
Simone Kane travelled on the new Portsmouth-to-Santander route with Brittany Ferries (0871 244 1400; brittanyferries.com), which offers return fares from £252 for a car and two passengers, including reclining seats. Seven nights at Camping Playa Joyel costs from £489 with Eurocamp (0844 406 0552; eurocamp.co.uk), arriving 31 August and staying in a two-bed mobile home sleeping seven.
Cantabria Tourism (turismodecantabria.com