A drive from Scotland to Portugal (& back!)
c. 2500 Miles through 5 countries.
Children’s Ages: 7 and 3.
Why would we drive to Portugal from Scotland? Because flying usually involves delays, really bad food. and lost or damaged luggage. So we nearly always drive nowadays. It’s cheaper. It’s less stressful. The luggage allowance is better. Plus you can shout at your kids as loudly as you want without anyone calling social services.
So the grandparents had booked a villa down in Portugal and a meandering road trip like this enabled us to visit to long lost relatives and old friends across the UK (and France). In other words there is free accommodation to be had which always makes 50 hours in a car worth it…
Scottish Borders – Lancaster (140 miles, approx 2 hrs 30 mins)
From the Scottish Borders, it’s 430+ miles to the south coast English ports. So we picked the kids up from school, and headed south down the M6 motorway for just a couple of hours. This northern end of the M6 is the pleasant end with light traffic and attractive open views of Dumfriesshire and Cumbrian countryside. We stopped overnight at Lancaster House Hotel just two minutes off the motorway. This 4 Star hotel is excellent, with a spa and a decent restaurant. More importantly, they also provide kids packs at dinner and their kids club is called Sam’s Club, which pleased our son, Sam, no end.
Lancaster – Portsmouth (280 miles, approx 5 hrs)
This is never the most fun leg of our regular long drive south and, as always, around Manchester and Liverpool, as the congestion builds up and the views evaporate, we start wondering why we aren’t flying to our destination. (Then we remember the nightmare of the Venice Airport check in queues last year when we vowed never to go on another bloody plane ever again!) Next stop: Holiday Inn Portsmouth, where we had booked an over-priced room on an industrial estate where they charge £18 extra for wi-fi. (How do these companies get away with this?) We took the kids down to the pool with a tiny roped off section for kids but other guests just glared and shook their heads as our kids let off steam. This hotel is for suits only and definitely not family-friendly.
So far? not the most fun 1 1/2 day Road Trip ever. Looking forward to a driverless car future for sure. But our family absolutely adores ferries and we were were looking forward to the ferry trip, a mini-cruise, which often signifies the start of our holiday for the kids.
Portsmouth to Santander (24 hrs Ferry Trip)
Although we travel across the Channel twice yearly and thoroughly enjoy overnight ferries, this lengthier 24 hour trip to Santander convinced us that we were unlikely ever to become cruise ship passengers in the future.
We have absolutely no complaints about the ferry itself or Brittany Ferries. There is a little swimming pool (although the weather, waves and occupancy levels precluded our trying it out) and there are plenty of on board activities such as games rooms and play areas, it was just we got a wee bit bored on board. The bars are nice, the restaurant was good quality. It was just that we did everything on offer for the whole ‘cruise experience’ and that was that. Really, our youngest most enjoyed going up to the dog deck to see the dogs being walked. (They weren’t even our dogs).
At dinner, Grandpa suggested to the waiter that the ship was travelling too close in to shore, in fact much closer in than 40 years ago when he used to drive ships through these parts. Inexplicably, the waiter appeared reluctant to forward the proffered advice to the captain of the ferry.
On leaving the ship at Santander the following morning, we were delighted to discover how much cheaper diesel is in Spain than in the UK.
Santander to Salamanca (250 miles, approx 5 hours)
We didn’t take the shortest route and stopped for lunch but on the roads are fantastic and the mountain views are stunning. Salamanca itself, especially the Old Quarter is magnificent. We stayed at 4* Parador Salamanca with a delightful view of the spectacular cathedral and the old quarter.
Much more exciting for our son however was that Inter Milan juniors were also staying here.
Our evening meal was superb and the waiting staff were excellent and so friendly to the kids. However, the grandparents bought the kids a huge ice cream after dinner at 9.00 PM knowing that we were altogether in one family room and obviously still had another long drive tomorrow… the end result was much tossing, turning, whinging, shoving, kicking, screaming. So I slept in the bath. I remained in a very bad mood for much of the following day.
Anyway, Parador Salamanca is a modern, comfortable hotel, with swimming pool which was great to cool down in having spent the day driving. Excellent for touring and Salamanca is well worth a stopover.
Salamanca to Estremoz, Portugal. (220 miles (approx 4 hours)
This leg of the road trip turned out to be beautiful. Again we didn’t travel directly but chose the roads we felt would offer us the best flavour of southern Portugal.
Top Tip #1 when driving to Portugal: Ensure you fill up with fuel on the Spanish side of the border. I had wondered why there were so many petrol stations grouped so close together as we approached the border. *slaps head* 2 miles later.
Top Tip #2 when driving to Portugal: Portugal Motorways are Toll Motorways.
We crossed the border close to the small village of CIudad Rodrigo and then thoroughly enjoyed the meandering drive through olive trees, cork, and oak trees, through the open and arid plains. The fortified settlement of Estremoz, looms into view quite dramatically.
We stayed at Pousada Castelo de Estremoz, A special historical building hidden down narrow street, with a beautiful antique-laden interior, and a grand medieval restaurant that we had to ourselves, which although was pricey, was lovely.
Our children adored this place. It has a small enclosed, delightful pool hidden away at the back where they could splash about while we ordered drinks from the bar.
We had a really enjoyable stay even with the combination of small children and antiques in rather regal surroundings. It’s excellent value for money too especially compared to modern UK hotel chains like Holiday Inn.
[See article: our Family Accommodation Hall of Fame].
We briefly stopped at a viewing point (find photo) before heading south towards Faro.
10 Days in Algarve
The Algarve is a wonderful playground for families which we have visited four times. See the main article: Algarve for Families. Here you can find things to do for families and some great beaches.
(One place we didn’t take the kids: a hidden gem that I cycled to regularly, is the remains of a Roman spa baths in Estoi, just north of Faro. It’s well preserved and completely accessible so you can sit in the 2000 year old changing rooms, slide your flip flops under your bench exactly where the Romans did and imagine plunging in to the mosaic lined pools. With very few visitors its a must visit for history lovers).
After 10 fun-filled days of family entertainment we set out once again to torture the kids with our car.
Our friends (and theirs) were holidaying near Bordeaux (about 830 miles away). An opportunity for cheap accommodation that we couldn’t pass up.
Estoi to Salamanca (400 miles approx. 6 hours)
This leg of the drive, although quite featureless turned out to be rather lovely. Some might feel the vast near-desert plain, like something out of a Clint Eastward spaghetti western, (which were filmed in Spain) is a little monotonous but we loved it. Also a new motorway was being built in parallel to the road, we travelled along and watching huge bridges effortlessly spanning the cavernous valleys beneath was so impressive. These natural valleys contained oh-so tempting ribbons of azure and turquoise far below but there never seemed to be any canoes or other watersports down there.
At Salamanca we stayed at the same Parador as on our southbound leg, and again we went for a wander around the atmospheric Old Quarter before heading back up the hill to the Parador.
Salamanca to Arcachon (430 miles approx 8 hours)
This was another one of those drives where we wondered wtf we were doing… the leg was much too long and not very interesting, via Valladolid all the way to San Sebastian at border and then up to Arcachon on the coast just south west of Bordeaux. Seeing the vast Pyrenees in the distance though was incredible, if fleeting. If we weren’t meeting friends on this day, who assured us that they had beer and wine open and ready, we would probably have killed each other.
Our friends had booked adjoining rooms for us all in a house in the small town of Le Teich a few minutes drive from the Dune Du Pilat at Arcachon. It’s a basic b&b but with a very friendly welcome and very homely and comfortable. Although it turned out to be right next to a TGV train track. Which was unexpected.
The kids loved it however and were able to run about in a private garden, feed horses and there was only a short walk to a local pizzeria which served fantastic food. and more beer. lots more much needed beer.
The tallest sand dune in Europe is spectacular and draws a million people a year to the area. 110 metres high, its shifting sands have devoured trees and roads for decades. With toddler or baby, it is quite a hike up and down the sand mountain to get to the sea but still worth making the effort. Older kids will adore what is sure to be the largest beach they have played on. Keep a watchful eye out for low flying paragliders who really aren’t all experts. We all enjoyed a picnic on the vast dune and the kids loved simply barreling down, again and again, down the sandy slope into the Atlantic.
This next leg of the road trip was more memorable because this author had never needed a wee so badly before or since. I was already desperate before we got stuck in a motorway traffic jam near Angouleme. When finally escaping the motorway, we dived into a shopping mall and I sprinted through its entire length towards the signed toilets which could not have been any further away from the main entrance. Sorry for over sharing but this memory still makes my eyes water.
Arcachon to Barbezieres (140 miles approx 3 hrs)
Having met up with friends at Arcachon, we spent another couple of nights down there before we all headed further north in convoy to meet up with another crowd of friends staying here in Charente, at this amazing villa: Maison Marchand .
We stayed here a couple more days before heading home.
[See main article: Charente for Families]
Barbezieres to Abbeville (380 miles, approx 6 hrs)
The plan was to stay in Calais and catch Le Shuttle train first thing in the morning. But our friends booked a Formule 1 @ Abbeville about an hour away from the tunnel. It’s not the best hotel in the world, situated on an industrial estate but its cheap and you know what you are getting: shared toilets and showers etc. But the rooms all smelled of cigarette smoke and it wasn’t just ours that did, because they only allow 3 people per room which meant we needed 3 rooms between the 2 families of 4 and all the rooms stank of cigarette smoke. That night, I managed to lock myself in the bathroom for 20 minutes too. It wasn’t a great end to a long day’s drive.
Although someone else had it worse. There was a Welsh lady yelling her heart out at the sole member of staff, a bewildered, uncomprehending 20 year old French boy manning the reception desk. “This is the worst service I have ever known! The very worst!” At 35 Euros for a family of 4 I’m not quite sure what she was expecting…
Abbeville to Calais to Bishopsbourne to Cheltenham (300 miles, approx 6 hrs)
On the other side of the tunnel, we enjoyed a delightful lunch with relatives in Bishopsbourne, Kent then later headed up to friends at Cheltenham. Really, there is no length we won’t travel to for a free lunch and/or discounted accommodation.
Cheltenham – Scottish Borders (300 miles, approx 5 hours)
Homeward Leg. No drama. Epic relief. Family decision made that we are never, ever doing something so time consuming, so exhausting, so diesel thirsty ever again. Never.
and see: our Epic Family Road Trip 2016 here.