“More bread, Madame?” At the slightest incline of my head the waiter deposits another warm, crusty roll on the side plate, along with a pat of saltiest French butter, before spinning off to another table.
Minutes later the first course is delivered – a tomato salad (the better class that includes yellow and green varieties in amongst the more expected red), the fruits’ sweet flesh balanced by sharp balsamic vinegar. It’s followed up by grilled squid and potatoes immersed in a rich, red wine and tomato sauce, and a crema catalana, the vanilla perfectly tempered by the acidic tang of orange peel.
For a moment, I forget where I am – which is decidedly not a restaurant deep in the heart of the Basque country – and then I glance up to see a woman take a few unsteady side steps. She hasn’t been at the wine (well, as far as I’m aware); just temporarily wrong-footed by the rolling waves on which we sail.
I’m onboard the Brittany Ferries service that runs from Portsmouth to Santander on Spain’s north coast, and I could not be more pleasantly surprised. Going to Spain right now is, for a start, much lighter on restrictions than elsewhere in the world. No need to test to get in if you’re double-vaxxed – all that’s required is a pre-travel declaration form which, let me assure you, is a lot simpler to fill in than the UK’s needlessly complex version. Admittedly, a few of my fellow travellers – who were more “rich in years” than I – seemed to be struggling with it a little when I turned up at the port on Thursday evening. But the Brittany Ferries desk staff, by now well versed in helping octogenarians master their paperwork, were incredibly accommodating, helping several people through the process again online.
Meanwhile, Spain currently has the lowest Covid rates in the EU, according to numbers released by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), meaning a trip there feels reassuringly “safe”.
It’s now been around two years since I got on a plane, after taking the Flight-Free UK pledge in 2020 and 2021. And, in that time, my travel experiences have varied enormously in terms of how straightforward and enjoyable they’ve been compared to flying. But checking in within a matter of minutes, relaxing in the waiting area while continuing my work for the day, passing through security in the blink of an eye and being ushered onto a shuttle bus taking my fellow foot passengers and I directly onto the ferry, was a winsomely smooth process. As you can usually count the number of foot passengers on two hands for any given ferry service, it means, unlike at the airport, you never spend any length of time waiting in queues jostling with increasingly irate travellers.
Once onboard the good ship Galicia, I feel even happier in my decision to make the journey by sea. It’s one of the brand’s newest vessels, having been added to the fleet in 2020 – and my, she’s a beauty. As well as Spanish-themed touches, spacious lounges, plentiful seating on deck, a modern bar, onboard shop and two restaurants, the ship has tech to help ensure greener sailings. The hull has been crafted to reduce drag and improve efficiency; closed-loop scrubbers remove the vast majority of sulphur dioxide and soot from exhaust fumes; and anti-fouling paint and ultrasonic transducers reduce marine growth that can slow a ship and increase its fuel consumption.
It’s lucky that I find myself in such spacious, luxe surroundings, because I’ll be spending just under 33 hours at sea, including two nights in a comfy cabin. All tickets include the aforementioned three-course meal – with a variety of menu options to choose from – plus a continental breakfast buffet, which, as Brittany Ferries is a French company, features properly buttery, huge pains au chocolat. The French vibes run deep, despite the fact this service goes nowhere near our Gallic neighbours. In fact, I can’t help but admire the stubborn commitment to this stance – every onboard announcement is made three times, with French always taking precedence, followed by English and Spanish (as far as I can ascertain, there is not a single French passenger onboard). Staff also greet you exclusively in French – “Bonsoir, Madame!” – and this, too, adds a distinct layer of chicness to proceedings despite being nonsensical.
I sleep like a baby in my en-suite, wood-panelled cabin – clean and modern, it felt like nothing so much as a travelling hotel room – thanks to the deep growling of the ship’s engines, as soporific as a lullaby. I’ve never been able to drop off on planes; somehow the noise and specific vibrational frequency of aircraft have thwarted every attempt, even on long-haul passages to Singapore and red-eyes to the US. But put me on the water – in my own adorable little room – and I’m golden.
The following day, I retire to the Commodore C-Club lounge, an exclusive onboard space for those who’ve stumped up a bit of extra dollar. It’s worth it – not just for the extra-comfy chairs set along floor-to-ceiling windows through which to admire the seascape in panoramic, but for the constant supply of free snacks, hot and cold drinks and wine service. With a large glass of red in one hand and a plate of antipasti in the other (and a mound of pastel macarons waiting in the wings), that evening I hit play on a pre-downloaded film on my laptop, contented deep in my bones. I look around at my fellow travellers, beaming at the pure, civilised pleasure of it all, and find similar expressions on their faces. No one was ramming their chair backwards into my face as if it was their God-given right to recline a few inches; I was not being served a microwaved box of mush as my evening meal while being elbowed by my seatmate; I wasn’t having to get up every time someone sitting near me needed to use the loo.
After my sensational three-course dinner, I climb into bed for my second night aboard Galicia. Again, I sleep so deeply, cocooned in the comfort of my pitch-black cabin, it’s like being in a sensory deprivation tank. Next morning, I take my café au lait out on deck to sleepily watch the sun rise as we make our stately approach into Santander. The fresh morning light dancing on the waves makes this coastal city look like an open invitation – one I cannot wait to accept.
Disembarkation is just as easy as embarkation was; I stroll from deck to port, breeze through passport control and security in five minutes flat and am instantly walking along the city’s wide, expansive promenade, stunned by the striking Renzo Piano-designed Centro Botin, an arts centre wrought in gently curved metal and glass trapezoids. There’s no dawdling in slow-moving queues for the passport e-gates; no faffing around waiting endlessly for bags to appear on the luggage carousel.
Ahead of me awaits five days of walking through the raw, rugged beauty of northern Spain. But I’m starting to believe the old adage more and more: it’s about the journey, not the destination. And what a heck of a journey it was. Next time you’re heading to Spain, consider going the long way round – I promise it won’t disappoint.
Brittany Ferries offers Portsmouth-Santander sailings from £271 for two adults travelling as foot passengers with a four-berth, inside, en-suite cabin. Access to the Commodore C-Club lounge is complimentary for those staying in a Commodore class cabin; there are also a limited number of places available for other passengers to enjoy the private lounge for a fee of £35 per person.