A traveller doesn't have to wander very far from the Mediterranean to discover that rural Spain is quite a different cup of gazpacho from the South.
Grand style: The terrace of Hostal dos Reis Catolicos in Santiago de Compostela looking over the Plaza do Obradoiro
Northern Spain, the swathe of country that hugs the Bay of Biscay to the north and stretches from the Pyrenees in the east to the wild Atlantic coast in the west, is almost a separate country in its own right (a point regularly made by the locals). This is a place rich in wonderful scenery.
The Picos de Europa, the huge mountain range that follows the coast, is an extraordinary nature reserve, home to bears, wolves and eagles. This is also a region rich in history: it was here that the campaign to oust the Moorish invaders began at the Battle of Covadonga.
And Pamplona is the setting for the famous annual running of the bulls during the San Fermin summer festival. There are also fantastic traditional summer resorts such as San Sebastian and wonderful cultural attractions such as the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. What makes Northern Spain especially attractive for British holidaymakers is that it can be reached by a direct car ferry service from Portsmouth or Plymouth.
An overnight sailing on a ship that has all the comforts of a cruise liner allows you to take your car and explore the region for yourself. For the perfect holiday, stay in style and comfort at one of Northern Spain's many paradors, the renowned chain of hotels located in buildings of historic or architectural importance.
This is my choice of the best paradors of Northern Spain:
Santiago de Compostela, Galicia
The five-star Hostal dos Reis Católicos was originally a pilgrims' hospice built in 1499 by order of Ferdinand and Isabella (the Catholic monarchs) to house the pilgrims who made the journey on foot to visit the cathedral that houses what they believe to be the tomb of Saint James.
The hostal is generally considered to be the oldest hotel in the world and is one of the best-known of the paradors. It is handsomely located overlooking the Plaza do Obradoiro, and right next to the famous Romanesque cathedral with its Baroque façade in the heart of the old town.
Fuente Dé, Picos de Europa
For a genuine get-away-from-itall break, it's hard to beat a stay at this excellent modern hotel in the heart of wonderfully unspoilt mountain country. The parador is surrounded by meadows, wooded slopes and soaring, rocky peaks, and is located at the foot of the cable car leading up to the magnificent Áliva viewpoint.
As well as enjoying the energetic activities associated with the mountains – including hiking and mountain biking– visitors to the Parador de Fuente Dé will also find it an ideal base for exploring the picturesque villages and ancient monasteries of the region.
Superb: The four-star Parador de Cangas de Onís in Asturias was once a medieval monastery
Santillana del Mar, Cantabria
The Parador de Santillana Gil Blas is located in an ancestral home dating back to the 17th Century. The hotel is in the main square of Santillana del Mar, one of the most attractive and well-preserved old villages in Spain – and a short drive from Santander.
This parador makes an ideal base for exploring the Cantabrian coast, the magnificent mountains of the Picos de Europa, and the world-famous Altamira Caves, with their prehistoric cave paintings.
León, Castilla y León
The Hostal San Marcos, the Parador de Leon, is housed in a fabulous 16th Century monastery and as a five-star hotel, it ranks as one of Europe's most extraordinary places to stay. Leon is a fine old city boasting several extraordinary Renaissance buildings.
Visitors can still view the remains of the Roman and medieval walls, and other notable monuments include the Gothic cathedral, the Palacio de los Guzmanes (seat of the provincial parliament), and the Casa de Botines, an early example of the work of the extraordinary architect Antoni Gaudí.
Local dishes available at the parador's restaurant include cocido maragato (stew made with chickpeas, pork, beef and vegetables, accompanied by thin noodles in broth), ancas de rana (frog's legs) and cecina (dry-cured beef from the region).
The Parador de Ribadeo is a Galician mansion overlooking the serene Ribadeo estuary. This four-star hotel is the perfect base for anyone keen on activities such as fishing, boating and golf – the nearest course is two miles away – while for those who like to relax, the famous Cathedrals Beach is seven miles away.
Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Rioja
The Parador de Santo Domingo Bernardo de Fresneda is a three-star hotel in a 16th Century convent in Spain's famous wine country, south of Bilbao. It is on the old pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela and within easy reach of San Sebastian.
A fine four-star hotel in the heart of the Rioja wine-producing region, this parador occupies a splendid Renaissance palace that looks out across the beautiful plains of Álava. Napoleon stayed here in 1813 on the eve of the Battle of Vitoria (the name of the city Vitoria indicates that Napoleon lost the battle to the Duke of Wellington and the French foothold in Spain was ended).
Regal meal : The stunning cellar dining room at the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos
Hondarribia, Basque Country
The four-star parador occupies a 10th Century castle originally built by King Sancho II of Navarre. The Basque town of Hondarribia (known as Fuenterrabia in Spanish) is on a peninsula close to the border with France, between San Sebastian and Biarritz. Behind the thick walls of the castle itself is the magnificent interior of the parador, with its fine courtyard, beamed ceilings and arches, and its arrays of cannon, lances and armour.
The four-star Parador Pontevedra is housed in a gorgeous Renaissance palace in the lovely old Galician port (it was in the shipyards of Pontevedra that Columbus's Santa Maria was built). The parador's palace dates from the 16th Century, just after Columbus's time, and was a residence of the Counts of Maceda. In summer one can eat outside on the patio, and at all times of year the restaurant provides local seafood dishes such as pulpo feira (octopus cooked with olive oil, paprika and salt), or mouthwatering desserts such as filloas (the delicious local crepes).
Cangas de Onís, Asturias
The superb four-star Parador de Cangas was once the medieval monastery of San Pedro de Villanueva. It is on the banks of the River Sella at the foot of the Picos de Europa, between Oviedo and Santander and a mile outside the little town of Cangas. Activities available nearby include walking, fishing, riding, canoeing and mountain biking. Asturian dishes on offer in the restaurant include el pote asturiano (a local broth), fabada (a stew made with beans and meats) and local cheeses such as cabrales and beyo, all washed down with the regional speciality – cider.
Brittany Ferries (0871 244 1400, brittanyferries.com) offers ferry services from Portsmouth and Plymouth to Santander and from Portsmouth to Bilbao. Return fares start at £184pp based on an en suite cabin in both directions for two people travelling with a car.