"I hope they don't forget to shut the doors", my dad joked as we drove onto the huge ferry that would take us from Plymouth to Santander. I rolled my eyes, thinking nothing changes – he used to make this same joke every single time we travelled by ferry to France for our summer holidays when I was growing up.
Fifteen years on, this would be the first time I'd ever got the ferry to Spain and the first holiday I'd ever taken with just my daughter and parents. With our ages spanning 60 years, I knew it might be a challenge to keep everyone happy. I also knew Northern Spain in the autumn doesn't mean guaranteed sunshine, so long days sunbathing on the beach would be unlikely.
Luckily, we were starting the trip in a fairly leisurely way, with none of the stress over baggage weights and liquids in our hand luggage that you get on plane journeys. Our 21 hour crossing was on board the Pont-Aven, Brittany Ferries' flagship boat, boasting 10 decks housing restaurants, bars, shops and even a swimming pool.
We ate in the fancy restaurant with waiters and menus and - despite most of the other guests being in their sixties - I felt completely welcome with my three-year-old in tow. Even when she had a mini tantrum and refused to eat her spaghetti bolognaise.
We arrived at the Spanish port of Santander the following morning well rested, much to my surprise. Sharing a four-berth cabin with my parents and daughter, I'd expected a sleepless night trying to block out my dad's snoring while persuading an over-excited three-year-old to stop talking.
Amazingly, neither of these things happened, as the gentle motion of the boat lulled us all into a long, deep sleep. The one bout of seasickness my daughter suffered was quickly forgotten about once she spotted some dolphins swimming by the boat, making it a pretty successful journey overall.
Cantabria is the place where the Spanish go on holiday. Nestled along the northern coast of Spain, between Asturias and The Basque Country, it's a region of lush greenery and dramatic mountains, peaking over vast sandy beaches.
In the summer this part of Spain is a cooler, less frantic place to visit than your Costa del Sols and your Costa Bravas, with British themed pubs and fry-ups nowhere to be seen. In the autumn, the pace shifts down another gear, as many of the seaside resorts revert back to "normal life" when the season ends. This means you won't find strips of bars and restaurants waiting to serve you, but you will find a relaxed, laid back atmosphere without having to do battle with other tourists to experience the scenery.
We stayed in the expanding resort of Noja, an easy 45 minute drive east of Santander. My daughter loved the soft golden sand (whatever the weather), I loved the chance to sip wine looking at the mountains and sea, and my parents loved the opportunity to browse the local market and take "bracing" walks along the coast on the gustier afternoons.
Our town house had parking for two cars and shared a pool with nine other apartments, but we had it to ourselves on the couple of occasions we used it. The house itself was bright and airy, with lots of polished marble and a roomy veranda.
As the destination for a multi-generational family holiday, it was spot on. My only word of warning is that if you want a guarantee of pure, unadulterated heat at this time of year, you'd be better off heading further south.
With the weather less than perfect on our first day in Noja, we decided to head out of the resort and see what else Cantabria had to offer. Although my three-year-old would be happy exploring the beach in driving rain, it's not really my idea of perfection.
So we piled in the car and headed off to the Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabarceno – a huge wildlife park set in a former open-cut mine. The orange rocks and deep valleys are home to elephants, lions, giraffes and zebras, and all manner of other exotic species. There's something surreal about seeing the animals loping about far beyond you, or (in the case of the goats) just wandering past like you're part of the scenery.
You can take your own food to eat in the picnic areas, but we opted for the ice cold beer and freshly made pizzas in the park restaurant. It's the kind of place that works well for a group of different ages, as there's not too much walking involved. Plus, there's enough to see and talk about so no one gets bored - another win on the grandparents / kids scoreboard.
After day one, the sun came out and we spent the rest of the trip just lolling around Noja, browsing the local market, spending far too much time at the supermarket (I love a Spanish supermarket) and eating paella in the local restaurant.
Had we been there longer we may have ventured back to Santander or nearby Bilbao for a day trip, or braved the famous Fuente De Cable Car ride over the Picos Mountains. But for a three day break with a three-year-old and grandparents, we were happy to make the most of the entertainment on our doorstep. After all, it's hard to beat an empty beach, whether you're aged three or 63.
Prices start from £1204 for a week's stay at Apartamentos Quinto Sueño Torre Cristina in Noja with Brittany Ferries. This price includes property rental and return ferry crossings on selected sailings to Spain, for a standard car, 2 people and a cabin each way.
Entry to the Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabarceno costs €24 for an adult and €8,40 for a child aged between six to 12 in high season (between 1st April to 30th September). During the rest of the year admission is €17 for adults and €11 for children (discounts available for group bookings).
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