When Less is More: Playa Sonabia

Sonabia meadow walk and beach views.

“One learns first of all in beach living the art of shedding; how little one can get along with, not how much.” — Anne Morrow Lindburgh

Early in the morning on Day Four of a 17-day road trip through parts of Spain, England, Germany, and France, we left Bilbao. We needed to be in Santander late that afternoon to catch the overnight ferry to Plymouth but had most of the day to kill along the way. We decided to meander along the scenic, coastal routes as the northern coast of Spain is beautiful in a different kind of way from the Mediterranean where we live. The Atlantic coast is wilder and more rugged than the clear tranquility of the Mediterranean, and the skies are often cloudy and threaten storms off in the distance. There is something about how high mountains slope down to meet the ocean that has always spoken to me, and the mountain forests are dense with the types of big, old and lush trees that remind me of my home state of Virginia.

We headed west, snaking along the Atlantic coast to Sonabia, a little beach town in Basque Country. My husband has a knack for sussing out interesting, out of the way spots, and he had read about Playa Sonabia as one of the hidden gems in northern Spain. It turned out to be a little one-horse hippie town, the beach area itself consisting of a narrow gravel road marked with a sign in five languages reading “Respect the Environment.” As it was, Sonabia wasn’t so much a hidden gem as a diamond in the rough.

Respecting the Environment in five languages.

The road culminated in a dusty, yet tidy little parking lot, filled with camper vans and little unpretentious cars. Beach laundry hung from car widows and roof racks, and at this mid-morning hour a few people were sitting around their vehicles in camp chairs drinking coffee and waking up to the day. There was room for perhaps 30 vehicles. Across from the lot was a somewhat shabby but inviting beach bar/cafe, which reminded me of what I used to see in out-of-the-way places on out islands in The Bahamas. The proprietress was setting up the outdoor seating area, wiping tables and opening umbrellas. As she languidly moved from table to table, a van with a panadería sign painted on the side crunched up the gravel drive and a man hopped out and slid open the side panel door. He poked around a bit in the back before grabbing two baskets of large freshly baked breads and rolls in paper bags, delivering the day’s orders. I could smell the still-warm freshness from where I was standing. In Spain, even in the humbler establishments, the bread is almost always excellent. He handed the bags to the woman, they exchanged a few pleasantries, and he jumped back in the vehicle to finish his bread-delivery rounds bumping over the gravel along the way.

Beach cafe, still closed for the morning.
Fresh bread delivery courtesy of the local pánaderia.

The beach and the town are surrounded by mountains on three sides that look like a scene from The Sound of Music. The other side features a barren rocky point that could be somewhere in Maine or Nova Scotia. We walked along a meadow trail by the coast of striated rocks in varying colors, a geologist’s dream.

Meadows meeting mountains.

The meadowland vegetation was rich and lush. Gorgeous wildflowers were everywhere: cornflowers, lavender, clover, and Queen Anne’s Lace, including a pink varietal that I’d not seen before. Wild blackberry bushes and fig trees lined the sides, slowly reclaiming the low stone terraced fences, the sole remnant of a former farm. A gentle ocean breeze rustled through the sea oats. The five-language sign admonition must work; there wasn’t a speck of trash.

Meadow trail, mountain view

We hiked out to the end of the point, which required scrambling down and back out of several crevasses. Some were deep enough to contain crabs and barnacles waiting for the return of high tide. Beyond the series of shattered slabs was a long grassy hill. Lizards in varying sizes and colors ran through the grass and rocks, where few people or predators venture. We walked close to an hour without seeing another human. All we heard was the wind.

Rock scramble en route to sea view.
Hiking to the water. These rocky cliffs sit about 25 feet and higher above the ocean.

The actual swimming beach, Playa Sonabia, is on the other side of the point. We walked back almost to our car then took the narrow, sandy path that curved around downhill to the beach. At the trail’s end was another sign, cheerfully thanking beachgoers for taking care of this little patch of the earth.

Ama a tu madre

Reaching the end of the trail we were rewarded with a dramatic view: An extremely long tide line–easily a couple of hundred meters of sand–led down to the water. Playa Sonabia is horseshoe-shaped cove flanked by steep mountains, mostly verdant, until about two-thirds of the way up, when the tree line on the ocean face gives way to sheer vertical rock. When we arrived, the tide was out almost as far as possible, but, judging from how far up the wet sand was, the tidal difference was likely significant. It was almost 11:00 in the morning; a time when most beaches in the summer season are already crowded. But here there were relatively few people, maybe 25 total, and mostly nude. Maybe that explained the overall lack of beach accoutrements we normally see shore-goers toting on their walks from car to sand. Aside from a few umbrellas and towels, there was a distinct lack of coolers, floats, and the like.

Playa de Sonabia

Three women, wearing nothing but bikinis and with one small backpack among them passed us coming down the narrow, sandy path. Each carried a little cone-shaped net on a stick that looked like a butterfly net. In broken English they explained they were looking for tiny shrimp called camaróns, small but tasty. Sensing our initial confusion and our limited Spanish, one of the women, after learning we were American (rare around these parts), thought for a second, then with a big smile said, “Like for jambalya!” Knowing as they did the tides and the water temperature, it was apparently an ideal day for a catch. But they needed to get going. The window of time for camaron-catching was narrow. Nets–and nothing else–in hand, they strode across the wide expanse of sand.

Headed out on a camarón hunt.


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