Green for Go to the Other Costa; Spain's Lush Northern Coast Offers a Spectacular Crowd-Free Alternative to the Frenetic Resorts of the South, Says Frank Barrett

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Byline: Frank Barrett

Spain reigns supreme as the most popular holiday destination for the British. Most of us who have been there think we know the country.

But, in truth, we probably know only its Mediterranean holiday coast - the costas with their concrete hotel strips, clubs, bars and cafes that serve all-day, full English breakfasts.

Northern Spain - Green Spain, as it is known - is a completely different proposition.

Arriving with Brittany Ferries as you sail into Santander, your first glimpse of mountains suggests something dramatic. The range that dominates Northern Spain, the amazing Picos de Europa, has some of the tallest peaks in Europe and even in summer the highest are dusted with snow.

Their wildness has ensured that many of the remote mountain valleys remain the preserve of extraordinary wildlife. Bears and wolves are said to still roam here, while eagles circle above slumbering valleys. As you approach the port of Santander you sail past the main beach area of the town and you'll be amazed to see this is a traditional, British-style resort with 19th Century hotels and apartments that reflect its privileged history.

With Madrid broiling in summer heat (the Spanish capital freezes in winter and bakes in summer), the affluent and the aristocratic have always escaped the city for the north coast, choosing resorts such as Santander and San Sebastian - a short drive along the coast towards the French border - to 'chill' in high season. And while there is little on the costas that seems typically Spanish, in northern Spain you will be overwhelmed by local life, whether it's the distinctive cuisine, its art (nearby Bilbao boasts the fabulous Guggenheim museum) or its array of charming holiday places.

Santander is just a 24-hour ferry ride from the UK but in many ways it's a world apart for holidaymakers. The fine old port provides a gateway to rich pleasures.

Nearby at Altamira, for instance, you will discover ancient cave paintings as fabulous as those at the more famous Lascaux in France; there are stunning cathedrals (Leon's, for example, is a true Gothic masterpiece); and wonderful old towns packed with great places to shop, fine restaurants and splendid hotels (check out the justly famous Spanish paradors, buildings of historic or architectural interest that have been converted into delightful accommodation).

If you are arriving in Santander with your car, you'll quickly discover that northern Spain is perfect for a driving holiday.

Thanks to a substantial European-funded highways programme, there are fast roads that can take you rapidly east or west from Santander.

This leaves the smaller roads, particularly those leading up into the mountains or on the coast, as a rich source of pleasure for those in search of unforgettable scenery. Here, away from the beaten track, you will discover 'Real Spain'.

This is a place that prides itself on its agriculture and delicious local produce offering a cuisine with its own style of fantastic fish and scrumptious bean stews. …