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Jolly hols: Posh Spain or dreamy Dales?

Friday 19 June 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, just back from four days in posh Spain, ponders on the holiday decisions that millions of Brits will make this summer: vibrant, noisy and expensive Spain or the peace and quiet of the Yorkshire Dales

A SURVEY published last weekend by the cut-price hotel chain Travel Lodge showed a big reduction in the number of Briton’s taking holidays abroad: down from 33% last year to 27% this summer. That’s a drop that will present a boost to the UK travel industry running to hundreds of millions of pounds.

The biggest beneficiaries of this boom, said the survey, will be – joint tops – Cornwall and the Lake District and close runners up the Yorkshire Dales and the Scottish Highlands, where visitors will get value for money from their sterling instead of being bled dry by the Euro, which itself is vastly over-valued if certain fiscal pundits are to be believed (if, of course, anyone believes such so-called “experts” any more).


The best of beaches...


Or the delights of the Dales?

Now to my wife and I, already living in the Dales and spending many weekends in the South Lakes where I go fishing, this represents a certain challenge. With my allotment and my wife’s flowers to nurture, we cannot go away for long in the summer and usually take our main holiday by flying long-haul somewhere hot in January.

But with foreign holiday companies offering bargains galore thanks to the shrinking market, we saw an ad. which caught the eye: a four night break in one of the most sophisticated towns in Spain, Santander, plus a night on board each away on the voyage from Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries.

Now we have being passing through this lovely, highly sophisticated Northern Spanish town since the 1970s, when we took our children camping in France and Spain, and believe that it has the finest beaches in Europe. We knew, too, that it had top class hotels and – a foodie favourite which goes back all that time – dozens of small tapas bars.

We have also grown a deep dislike of most English airports except Leeds-Bradford, particularly those which cater for the mass package-tour industry, which tend to be inefficient, dirty, extortionately expensive, and – even in the early hours of the morning - crammed with drunken yobbos who you dread might end up on the same plane as you.

So beguiled by the short luxury cruise, off went. Once we got aboard the Pont-Aven ferry, our holiday began in earnest. The food is out of this world, the staff courteous and stylish, and the cabins comfortable. For the quality involved, the prices are reasonable – but there are no bargains.

Nor were there in Santander, with its sweeping beaches, ancient royal palace and casino, and, of course, the elegant HQ of the Santander Bank, an institution run by astute bankers which has just bought the bankrupt Bradford and Bingley and other huge chunks of Britain’s financial world.

The city has changed fantastically since we first passed through all those years ago, with modern architecture that makes Britain’ best look cheap and shabby, spotlessly clean of litter and not a drunken yobbo on the streets even at midnight.

But the prices! A small beer and a glass of wine came at anything between £5 and £8. We found ourselves spending between £50 and £80 a day on food, none of that in the best restaurants. Even the Spanish complain all the time – and they are paid in Euros!

But that’s the best bit or our short holiday covered. The worst was, inevitably, here in England. The six-hour nightmare the drive to Plymouth on jam-packed motorways (in pouring rain and wind from Birmingham on the way back) the two nights spent in hotels where there weren’t enough pillows and only one tea-bag per head, and prices in motorway service areas which were higher than those in Spain for food that was indescribably worse.

But the cruellest debacle of all was the total lack of facilities for foot passengers at the Portsmouth ferry terminal. You have to drag your luggage across busy roads for perhaps a quarter of a mile. You are taken to the boat by crowded, unventilated buses. And on disembarkation, you have to roll that luggage down an endless series of ramps from Deck Six of the ship which stands as high as a small skyscraper.

Can you compare sparkling modern architecture to the mellowed stone of a Dales village?

And that says a lot. A go-ahead French company has spent hundreds of millions on a truly magnificent ship. The Portsmouth Harbour authorities can’t even be bothered to build a terminal with adequate facilities for her passengers – but they charged us £70 for a week’s parking! When it comes to national pride, the UK’s transport system comes a very poor third after France and Spain.

So the question I must ask now is: was I a total idiot to leave the Yorkshire Dales, England’s joint second favourite holiday spot, for sophisticated Spain. Here, my wife and I could have dined out on simply good pub food for a week on what we were paying for a day in Spain.

We wouldn’t have had marvellous beaches, of course, but the water was freezing cold anyway. Can you compare sparkling modern architecture to the mellowed stone of a Dales village? Can a luxurious hotel compete with a 200-year-old Dales inn? Does an ice-cold Spanish lager beat a pint of Masham brewed bitter as you lean on a weathered oak bar and talk to the locals about lamp prices.

Best of all, what can compare with sitting dreaming on the mossy peak of a Dales hillside, looking down on the dale below as the cry of a curlew carries on the wind? Tha’s nowt to touch it, as the locals would say. Until science comes up with some way of beaming us, Scotty-like, to Santander missing out either airport or ferry terminal, our future summer hols will be spent at home!

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