Would love to hear your experiences and recommendations.. particularly interested in toddler friendly beaches and accomodation (self catering ideally), planning for a trip next July/August 2008.. Thanks!
Don't do it. The ferry crossing was a nightmare when we went and we didn't have kids then. Nothing to do, no space, crap food. They advertise it as a mini-cruise but it's nothing like a cruise.
We also had an overnight stay in Bilbao on the way home and wouldn't recommend it either. Didn't find it tourist-friendly at all but if that's what you like maybe its for you. Apart from the Guggenheim there was nothing much happening and we went July.
Haven't been to Santander but crossed from Portsmouth to St Malo many times with Brittany ferries and found the experience wonderful and the food great. Have a little one in tow for the first time this year and would have done the Santander crossing but the timing didn't fit in with the villa rental. Instead we are crossing to St Malo again and driving through France. We have stayed in villas in Moliets at Club Royal Aquitaine many times - highly recommended.
I've been in the ferry from Plymouth to Santander several times, both with and without kids and it's great. Shame it's so expensive and we normally fly these days (Easyjet to Asturias or Ryanair to Santander) but next year I'm definitely planning a ferry trip. I'd recommend Santander over Bilbao because the ferry to Bilbao involves two nights rather than one - it takes much longer than to Santander for some reason. I think you get to the ferry in Plymouth around 4pm, by the time you find your room and go round to see the play area, magician, etc, it's already dinner time and then bed time. Then you wake up, have a leisurely breakfast and you've arrived! It's definitely the sanest way to travel with little kids. As for accommodation - I happen to have a company renting holiday cottages in the Asturias area, about 1 hour from Santander. Some lovely farms, great for little kids, and fantastic beaches all throughout that area. www.bluegreenspain.com