Santiago de Compostela - At first he was just a dot in the distance, a blue-and-white blob creeping up the monster hill against the brilliant Galician sky. A few minutes later he joined us: having gained about 457mof altitude, our son Daniel, nine, had completed our holiday’s toughest climb – and stayed on his bike throughout. Ice-cold drinks in a shady restaurant garden lay just around the corner. We all needed them badly.
We were two days into a ride along the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrims’ path to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west corner of Spain: myself, Daniel, his brother Jacob, 14, and my wife, Carolyn.
Luckily, none of us saw The Way, the film, starring Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez, about this journey – or we might not have gone.
The Camino of the Hollywood movie passes through bare, wintry countryside, almost devoid of people or habitation, in generally grim weather. But the path we followed was a summery plunge deep into rural Spain.
It was a landscape of fertile, craggy hills, shadowy forests and welcoming stone-built villages, dotted with Romanesque churches. There were rivers to paddle in, and trackside glades for picnics.
Sheen’s character trudged the Camino toting an enormous rucksack, and spent his nights surrounded by snoring fellow pilgrims in Spartan hostel dorms.
However, we were looking not for ascetic enlightenment but a comfortable, if challenging, family holiday.
Travel company Camino Ways booked our accommodation in advance, arranged for the bikes to be delivered to our point of departure – the Roman town of Sarria – and for our luggage to be picked up each morning and taken to the next destination.
But if our Camino was fairly tame, there is something uniquely satisfying about making such a journey with children entirely under one’s own steam.
When we reached the last hilltop and gazed upon Santiago’s baroque towers for the first time, we felt a surge of achievement.
Hiking or riding the Camino is a sociable experience, and almost every nationality is amply represented along the way except, it seemed, Britons.
Having driven from home through France to spend more than three weeks in northern Spain, we noticed our compatriots’ absence everywhere we went.
This is hard to understand. The Atlantic provinces that we visited, Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria, don’t tend to get the wilting heat of the Mediterranean costas: if poolside tanning is your thing, they may not be ideal. But these provinces do have pristine Atlantic beaches, jagged peaks, and an almost limitless range of activities – as well as plenty of sunshine, with temperatures in the mid-to-high 20s.
Having left the Camino behind, we headed for a villa in Sames, a village in the foothills of the Picos de Europa.
Reaching an altitude of more than 2 438m, these are northern Spain’s biggest mountains, a world of towering white rocks, vast panoramas, and lush meadows – summer grazing for the sheep and cows whose milk goes to make an exquisite blue cheese, queso de cabrales.
The mountains we had expected. More of a surprise were the area’s thriving medieval towns.
The nearest one, Cangas de Onis, was once the capital of Christian Spain, after the Visigothic king Pelayo defeated the Moors at nearby Covadonga in 722 – the beginning of the reconquista.
Cangas has a famous ancient bridge across the river Sella, enticing food and gift shops, and several outstanding restaurants.
The Sella is famous for its annual canoe race. We rented kayaks and followed its course down a series of rapids in a magnificent gorge to a pick-up point just outside the seaside resort of Ribadesella.
Here – and indeed, everywhere we went in this region – it was hard to believe that Spain was in the depths of a recession. The bars and pavement cafés were bursting, and parking hard to find.
In Ribadesella, the cave of Tito Bustillo contains some of the finest prehistoric paintings in Europe – they are up to 22 000 years old. But be warned: visitor numbers are strictly limited, and to stand a chance of getting in, you need to book online weeks in advance.
The coast of northern Spain often resembles a more rugged version of Cornwall, and it, too, is a surfers’ paradise – though the water, thankfully, is several degrees warmer.
The area of Cantabria, where we spent our final week, has many surfing schools, and although the older members of our party never quite mastered the difficult art of standing up on the waves, this certainly wasn’t the fault of the teacher we engaged at the village of Ajo.
This time, we stayed at a hotel – La Casa del Puente near Ramales – in yet another area of heart-stopping beauty, the Collados del Ason natural park. A colonial-style mansion, the Casa was built by a man who made his fortune in 19th century Argentina.
Lovingly restored by the family who now own it, it is an exceptional place, with airy rooms, comfortable beds, outstanding staff and a restaurant with a set menu that changes daily, offering a choice of four dishes for each of three courses for E15 (R218) with wine.
If the Cantabrian mountains are a little lower than the Picos, they are equally spectacular, with giant cliffs, deep, green valleys and mighty waterfalls.
We took a drive further inland and went white-water rafting on the upper reaches of the Ebro, Spain’s greatest river.
With guides, arranged through the Ramales tourist office, we took an easy but sensational caving trip in the system known as Coventosa, Cave of the Winds – a labyrinth of giant galleries with the biggest stalactites and stalagmites I have seen.
We packed a lot into our three weeks.
As we headed for home on the motorway we were tanned and healthy: thoroughly unwound.
Family holidays don’t come much better than this. – Daily Mail