The Spanish ports of Santander and Bilbao are gateways to a far less developed Spain and much more authentically 'Spanish' experiences than you'll find on the Costas fronting the Mediterranean. Families will find masses of things to do on, and just inland from, the coast.
On the outdoor activity menu there's surfing, canyoning, mountain biking, sailing and horse-riding as well as golf for older family members. It's a great region for introducing children to the delights of gourmet dining, too, especially in San Sebastian, famous for its Michelin-starred gastronomy but also a fun place to introduce the kids to tapas, known here as pintxos.
The port of Santander is a city on the sea, 'between the blue and the green', as the local tourist office proclaims. In the 19th century it was the destination of choice for aristocrats escaping the oppressive summer heat of Madrid. It has sandy beaches that would be the envy of many purely 'resort' destinations plus gardens, a cathedral and an interesting old town, while the mountains are just a short drive away.
Santander is perfectly poised for a holiday than marries the sea and the mountains. Cantabria’s beaches, including the sandy crescent of Langre, east of Santander, and the pretty seaside village of Santillana del Mar have plenty of family appeal.
Among the best day trips are trips the Altamira caves where you can see the prehistoric wall paintings, and south to Burgos for its Museum of Human Evolution and the archaeological site of Atapuerca. There are plenty of opportunities to inject a measure of education into the holiday, too. At Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum, an overwhelming, magnificent work of art in its own right, the collections are not only exciting but there are special workshops for children and dedicated evenings for teenagers.
The old industrial city of Bilbao, with its tight warren of medieval streets, quirky shops and fun places to eat, is also well stocked with museums. The Museo de Bellas Artes galery is devoted to old masters, including Goya and El Greco. There's also a Basque museum, housed in a retired Jesuit cloister, and a Maritime Museum. Bilbao is also a superb gateway for families who want to travel on into the high hills of the Basque country, taking the motorway to Pamplona, or east to San Sebastian and maybe nipping across to the French resort of Biarritz or the smaller, charming St Jean de Luz.
The menu for accommodation is long and broad, from historic paradores and self-catering rural casas to campsites. The latter, with a choice of mobile homes or log cabins, inland or on the coast, usually clustered around a large pool and often with activities arranged for children during the school holidays, are extremely affordable.
Getting there: Brittany Ferries operates three direct routes to to Santander from Portsmouth and Plymouth and to Bilbao from Portsmouth. LD Lines sails between Poole and Santander and Gijón.
Price: Sample fare for a car plus two adults and two children with Brittany Ferries: Portsmouth/Plymouth–Santander £958 (£1,128 with cabin), Portsmouth–Bilbao £1,128, including four-berth cabin).