9 September, 2017
A diary of our recent trip to Santander.
The clock in the kitchen moved remorselessly on. “Come on, girls!” I shouted up to my children, who were busily shoving clothes into their suitcases; it seemed as though they had been doing that forever: “If you don’t hurry, we’ll miss the sailing!” We were going surfing in Northern Spain, and getting the ferry from Portsmouth (an hour West from where we lived, near Brighton) to Santander. We had plenty of time to spare, really, but I don’t do ‘late’ very well; I much prefer arriving good and early, rather than rushing somewhere just-in-time.
I needn’t have worried. Despite a bit of traffic around Chichester, we got to Portsmouth a couple of hours before the ship was due to make the crossing. We checked in and began waiting in our allotted queue. Before leaving home, I had found myself worrying about the six boxes of eggs I had stored in the fridge, so I hard boiled the lot with the intention of having a good few on the ferry. Realising that was somewhat ambitious, I joked with the girls that we should sell some to our fellow sufferers waiting in their cars: “Hard boiled eggs for sale!” I cried, just loud enough for my children to hear, but not with enough volume to totally embarrass them, unfortunately. Nonetheless: “Be quiet, daddy!” pleaded Kyra, giggling.
After what seemed an interminable wait, we were ushered through to, er, another queue. More waiting. You could feel people becoming restless; heads started poking out of car windows, and the guy in the driver’s seat in front of us kept peering at his watch. Finally, we were told to start our engine and make our way onto the boat. Once onboard, the girls grabbed their day packs from the boot of the car, and we went and found our cabin. While we toured the ship (noting the times of the films showing in the cinema and the location of the onboard swimming pool), an announcement informed us that, in the interests of security, we would not be allowed back down to the car: “Oh! No eggs for breakfast, girls!” Kyra and Tara looked relieved, but I was momentarily nonplussed. “Ah well, there’s nothing I can do about that now,” I reconciled, wondering whether I could make do with croissants instead. Then we went up on deck and watched Portsmouth and the Isle of White disappear into the distance. Afterwards, we made our way downstairs for something to eat. Our evening ended with a showing of ‘Wonder Women’.
The next morning, the ship had made its way onto the Bay of Biscay. I made friends with a French father and son who were crossing back and forth on the boat, wildlife watching. We played a game of watch and wait, made pleasant by the sea breeze and the ocean spreading out around us. They identified Gannets, the occasional Arctic Skua and Shearwaters scything across the ocean waves. Then a spout in the distance raised the excitement level: “Probably a Fin Whale,” the son told me. More waiting, then, suddenly, our patience was rewarded by a pod of Striped Dolphins dancing in the ship’s wave. Soon after, the Captain announced that a Fin Whale was just ahead and moving Starboard. It turned out that not many on the ship knew their nautical terminology, so half rushed right, half left - thankfully I chose correctly and witnessed the whale’s fin, serpentine like, break the ocean’s surface. Awesome. Then, just a few miles out of Santander, we were handsomely rewarded for those hours of waiting patiently on deck. Suddenly, just like their Striped cousins had done earlier, some Common Dolphins decided to give us a race, jumping and pirouetting while doing so, presumably, just to show off (because they could). The children and I were delighted!
The boat docked, and we had to do some more waiting as we sat in our cars before being unloaded onshore. Then we were ushered from queue to queue before making our way through customs and, with the help of Google Maps, we found our way to our Airbnb lodgings, in what appeared to be quite a rough area of Santander. Then I remembered being told by Hames, on a similar trip a year before, that the Spanish build upwards - perhaps the flats towering around us were not quite the indicator of poverty that they would have been in the UK. Indeed, the occasional upmarket shop seemed to signify that this was a better district of Santander than it first appeared. Thankfully, our host, Begona, made us feel very welcome, and she was delighted when, later, I got out my guitar, and the girls joined me in an impromptu rendition of the Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. It was a fun evening - my initial concerns about the area had vanished by the time my dreams arrived.
Begona laid out a fabulous breakfast, then tried to help us plan our day. However, we had been to Santander before and knew what we wanted to do - spend the day on Playa del Camello (Camel Beach), which was just to the east of the El Sardinero, Santander’s main beach. Playa del Camello is a lovely cove that features some great swimming and plenty of rocks for the girls to explore and find shells. Indeed, they found plenty. We did the same the next day, too - the only difference was, this time, Tara forgot her swimming costume. Now, Santander sits on the cold Atlantic, and I knew my daughter would only dip her head in the water for a few seconds. Not more. Even so, over a lunch of Calamari and Patatas Bravas (squid and fried potato in a tomato sauce), I realised I needed to make the twenty minutes or so walk back to Begona’s and fetch the offending swimsuit. Otherwise, Tara would feel left out. Hence, I sent the girls back to the beach and trudged back up the hill. An hour so later, Tara was suitably dressed for the beach, and I wasn’t offended when, true to form, she inched into the sea, hunched up her shoulders, hugged herself with a shiver, and then decided that the water was far too cold.
On Saturday morning, we left Begona’s and went down to the car so that we could make our way to Star Surf Camp, situated just north of Oyambre beach, between Saint Vincent and Comillas and about an hour west of Santander. Kyra scrunched up her face: “Something smells, daddy.” Oops - I’d forgotten the eggs! I had left them in the baking hot footwell of the passenger seat, and consequently, the car stunk to high heaven. Marvellous (not). Straight into the bin, unfortunately - so much for not wasting the bloody things! Worse, was that, for the rest of the holiday, Kyra took great delight in telling people, at every opportunity, about the farce of Daddy and the Eggs. Grrrr.
Rather than racing to Oyambre, I tucked us in behind a lorry so that I could relax - after all, I was driving on the wrong side of the road! When we arrived, around midday, we were greeted immediately by some friendly faces (we had been to Star Surf Camp the year before). However, they weren’t quite ready for us, so we grabbed our bodyboards and a frisbee and headed down to the beach. After a few hours of fun on the pristine sands of the beautiful bay, we headed back up to the camp and settled into our tipi, which would be home for the next nine days.
After coffee and breakfast, we headed back down to the beach for our first surfing lesson of the holiday. The warm up was a game of, ‘Fishee! Fishee! Come enter my sea! Sharkee! Sharkee! You can’t catch me!’ I took the considered approach of waiting until everyone else had made their move before dashing through the shark infested beach. Consequently, I won the game. Yay! Me, competitive? Afterwards, once everyone had practised popping up onto their boards, we jumped into the water. Kyra made her way out to the bigger stuff out back. Tara stayed near the beach, on the smaller stuff. I held my ground in between my daughters, right in the whitewater, so I could keep an eye on them both and catch plenty of waves (I needed the practice). I even managed to stand up once or twice, albeit a little slowly, which meant the board had all but stopped by the time I made it on to my feet - an achievement, but, I presume, not quite as thrilling as surfing the shoulder of a green wave - one day, perhaps. Meanwhile, Tara was steaming along - every time I looked over she was on a wave and heading to the beach. Kyra, however, was perhaps out a bit far, not catching much, and was unimpressed when I told her that. Thankfully, a little while later, one of the instructors told her that, too - as soon as she moved in with me, she began catching tons of waves, too.
Every evening, an hour so before dinner, there was a yoga class - a gorgeous way to slow down and end a day spent in the sea. Often, mid-asana, I’d hear buzzards over the next field, circling slowly and patiently, waiting for dinner to make a fatal mistake. Thankfully, we didn’t have to catch our food; instead, it was served promptly at eight, and afterwards, the camp provided entertainment. Sunday was Film Night, and the brilliant ‘Catching Mavericks’ got projected onto a big screen. Monday was Acoustic Jam; I got things started by playing ‘Fix You’. Followed by ‘Wonderwall’. By the time I’d got to the end of ‘Mad World’, I had been muscled aside by the Italian Connection and their rendition of the ‘Macarena’ (and other assorted tracks). One of their crew was a fabulous guitarist (way better than me), so I didn’t mind. Tuesday was Wine and Cheese night. Wednesday, we all ventured into Comillas to a fish restaurant. I chose a shared shellfish plateau for the girls and me since I wanted to eat something local and push the boundaries of what we’d normally have at home. However, in hindsight, perhaps shellfish, shrimps and crabs were pushing things a bit far because Kyra and Tara hardly ate anything. I can’t blame them - I also found munching on things with heads a bit tricky, but soldiered through and ended up eating far too much, giving myself mild indigestion. It could have been worse, but thankfully, Alex, a Swedish guy who proved knowledgeable on feasting on Crustaceans and had been advising us as to how to eat our meal, helped me out. That obviously titivated his taste buds, since afterwards, he walked over to the fish tanks and chose himself a Blue Crab. Tara named it ‘Bob’; consequently, Alex’s ‘Bob and Chips’ has gone down in camp legend. Thursday was the Ping Pong Tournament, which I won, impressing my daughters no end. Yay again! Friday night was the Farewell Party, made lively, once more, by the Italian Mob and more renditions of the Macarena and other Balearic classics. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, so instead of sitting out on the sidelines, I learned some of the moves and formed part of their dance troupe. I enjoyed myself, but I’m uncertain whether my teenage daughter has recovered from the embarrassment.
When not surfing, an Austrian guy called Dominik and I spent many an hour jamming in the ‘Sun Lounge’. I’d brought along a book of ‘Acoustic Classics’, and I reckon we played our way through most of the songs contained therein (at least the ones either one or both of us knew). At the end of the holiday, I gave him the book, inscribed with the plea to ‘Keep Playing!’ I’m confident he will and use the book well, so I was glad to give it. Besides, when he turns to ‘Mad World’, no matter where he is, I’m pretty sure it’ll project him back to some happy memories of Oyambre Beach and our lovely week or so in Spain.
The next few days of surfing continued in the same vein - Tara out front, Kyra out back, me playing piggy in the middle. Consequently, Tara progressed tons as she surfed just about every wave that came in, no matter how small. She was even performing tricks - the Buddha, the Model, Hang Five, amongst others! Kyra’s progress was much slower, since she had to wait much longer for a decent wave on which to surf, and she often missed her chance. Despite catching many more waves than Kyra, my progress was equally slow, mainly because I’m old and fat. By midweek, a big Atlantic swell had entered the bay. The second day of that swell was brilliant - 6-foot, smooth waves with long, predictable periods in between. Our surfing improved tons that day.
By Sunday, the swell had blown itself out. That gave us an opportunity to get out the standup paddleboards (SUPs). Just as Kyra came in (after spending a half hour or so out on the water), people on the beach started whistling and pointing out to sea.; a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins had entered the bay. Everyone stopped what they were doing to watch and cheer - it was an incredible sight. Paul, one of the Star Surf Camp’s Surf Instructors, shouted over to me to jump on the SUP and go out into the bay. I hesitated, thinking the dolphins had already passed through, but then decided to take a chance and, kneeling on the SUP, I made my way out to sea. I’d been paddling a while, and the swell was getting quite big - I’d gone out a bit further than intended, and not being the most proficient of paddlers, I was getting a little jumpy. But I decided to compose myself and wait to see if there would be a reappearance of the dolphins. My patience was rewarded, just five minutes later, when one of those majestic beasts jumped right out of the water, not more than fifty metres in front of me. Wow! I raised my paddle in jubilant triumph and was still grinning from ear to ear when I made it back onto the beach. “You owe me a $25 supplement,” smiled Paul.
On Monday, we began our journey home. I used the same tactic as when driving to Oyambre and jumped in behind a lorry so that I could have a relaxed trip back to Santander. After checking into the ferry terminal, we ventured out into town, found a pavement cafe, and ordered Pulpo and Patatas Bravas (octopus). The food was gorgeous and the waiter, ever-so-slightly reserved when we first sat, warmed to us once we made an effort to speak a bit of Spanish. We spent a lovely hour or so there.
Then it was back to waiting in a queue to be loaded onto the ferry. Then another queue to go through customs. And another queue just because they could make us wait in another queue. Or something like that. Someone clearly had enough and kept tooting their horn. I’m glad I wasn’t quite so impatient. I did, however, consider wandering over and asking: “why?” but I didn’t feel like entering their world; instead, I took the moral high ground and merely pitied them from afar.
Once onboard, things got a bit choppy; Kyra, in particular, wasn’t enjoying the boat pitching about, so I got her up on deck and on the port side of the ship, where the wind was blowing hard, taking her mind off feeling sick. Again, once on the Bay of Biscay, we saw lots of Gannets and Shearwaters, and we witnessed a flying fish dashing out of the way of the bow wave late afternoon, but we had to wait until dusk until we spotted our first spouting whale.
After a bite to eat, Kyra was struggling with sea sickness, so she retreated to the cabin; that was in the centre of the boat and moving slightly less than the rest. Tara and I waited upstairs to watch the cabaret act, where we became the Magician’s Assistants - I had to hide some cards down my knickers, and Tara became the ‘Keeper of the box’, which, at the end of the act, became home to one of the audience’s wedding rings. Afterwards, we went to see how Kyra was doing. Thankfully, she was just about keeping her stomach down, but I gave her some sick bags, just in case. After drifting off, I woke up at three-ish, to the boat being tossed around. I normally get a bit sea sick, but strangely, I found myself enjoying it this time - I just hoped Kyra didn’t wake up and realise just how rough things had got. Luckily enough, she didn’t rouse, and by the time the girls woke in the morning, we were off the Bay of Biscay and into much calmer waters. Kyra still didn’t feel great, though, so I quickly got her up on deck, and sometime later, she was rewarded for her fortitude when a pod of Common Dolphins raced perpendicular to the boat and under the speeding hull - they were travelling ever-so-quickly! What a sight! A ChiffChaff also arrived on deck. She must’ve been on her way to warmer climates down south: “Don’t stop too long, my angel - we’re heading in the wrong direction!” I told her.
The Isle of White came quickly into view, then Portsmouth and its new Aircraft Carrier of Death. Then we were waiting, once again, for the crew to offload us. Then waiting to go through customs. Then waiting to join the M275 and onto Brighton, and home.
Usually, I love returning to Brighton - it’s a glorious part of the world. But it had been such a fabulous holiday, and I’m beginning to fall in love with the Spanish region of Cantabria, so I was slightly sad when I finally closed my front door and sat down to rest. I can’t wait until I see that part of the world again. Or perhaps I can. Because if I learned anything on this trip, then it’s ‘patience is a virtue’; rather than ‘I can’t wait’, the sentiment should be that I’m looking forward to renewing my vigil and waiting patiently, whale spotting, on the Bay of Biscay.