In the foothills of the Cantabrian Cordillera, somewhere between Santander and the baroque palaces of Comillas, we found Camping Huelguero, a neat little spot, fringed with flags and pine trees. As we drove through the site, wondering if those regimented rows really captured the true spirit of camping, we found a smaller hill right at its centre, deeply wooded with oak and eucalyptus, where a steep winding access road was marked out in chalk. We took this track upwards and there, nestled in clearings between the trees, were the tents and rolling walkways of Dreamsea Surf Camp.
It was perched there like a crusader encampment above enemy lines; all bamboo structures, white bell tents emerging from the vegetation, fluttering banners and downtempo beats.
We arrived in this serene oasis and promptly vomited the contents of our car out onto the decking, under the bemused gaze of a handful of surf-bums drinking daiquris at the bar. Bikes, surfboards, skateboards and yoga mats are piled up, wetsuits, backpacks, bags overflowing with laundry (we only left Plymouth two days ago – how is this possible?), electrical wires, a box of school books, half a bottle of Llaphroaig, a badminton set.
We were urged to chill. Just let the luggage sit there, someone will probably deal with it. Come and take a tour…
There was a central living area with a canteen, bar, chill-out zone and some kind of Swiss Family Robinson bamboo shower block. A teak yoga platform juts out over a gorge, then down a twisted path is an elemental dance floor, sunken in a hidden glade where tree roots tangled with lighting cables and lizards danced in the sunbeams. There was a skateboard ramp and a rack full of bikes and longboards and surfboards for you to help yourself to.
Our bell tents sat on a raised wood decking and they had carpets, beds made of authentic looking coffee pallets with proper linen and there was some kind of antique chest there under the yucca plant. For pampered city folk easing into a life under canvas, this seems like a pretty good start.
There was an ethno-organic-Bali-soulsurf kind of vibe that permeated Dreamsea. It was super chilled and a consequently a little chaotic. The showers didn’t have hot water; someone was going to get around to it but they’re probably off surfing right now. You wandered to the bar to order your sunset mojito to find that bartender, manager, and pretty much everyone really, had downed tools for an impromptu group session on the skate ramp and they’re really into it, and pulling some pretty gnarly moves, and it was probably better not to disturb them.
The camp was staffed by a tribe of young beautiful people with floppy hair and great tattoos, usually with a beer in hand. They loved to chat. It seemed to be a mandatory requirement that all personnel not only surf, but skate as well, and they were keen to prove their credentials on the ramp that is conveniently right by the bar. Arthur, with his new birthday skateboard barely out of his wrapper, was in total awe. Within three days he had been fully assimilated into the crew and was taking his turns on the ramp and being earnestly coached on how to throw a healside turn. Despite being a longboarder myself (read middle-aged sedate cruiser), this scene was seductive enough that I wanted in. I gave it a few goes and predictably I wiped out hard each time, and soon had cuts all over my feet and elbows. Everyone was so encouraging though, I wanted to nail a big move just to please them.
These were the Lost Boys and Wild Gals of Surf. Chasing the next big wave and some impossible dream, unable or unwilling to put down roots, talking animatedly about what adventures they might find next season (I have a friend in California! I hear the surf in Bali is going off! Head for Sri Lanka dude!). Always looking for something around the next corner: girls, boys, waves, enlightenment, but never having quite found it yet. I liked them a lot. Come and have a mojito! Let’s go and have a dance! Hey Steve, get the BMX onto the skate ramp! They inhabit a celebratory live-for-the-moment kind of world. I think that’s what we’re looking for too.
It became apparent there is a bit of a cult thing about Dreamsea. The Cantabrian location isn’t a one-off, there is a list of sites that reads like a roll call of the surfer heartlands – Bali, Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, Portugal. The staff drift between them, and the more avid guests challenge you for prior visits, before listing the four or five that they’ve stayed at, with their relative merits. We wondered if we were in a subtle indoctrination program. Perhaps we would wake up hungover one day in Bali with Dreamsea hoodies, a collection of tattoos and a rinsed-out bank account.
Victor, our surf instructor was from the Canary Islands. He had a moustache, zinc warpaint and melancholy eyes. His passion for surfing was huge and the kids absolutely loved him. We got a family coaching session on day one: drills and technical instruction on the beach then out together into the breakers where Victor pushed the kids into the smaller shore waves while shouting instructions at me and Menna as we surfed further out at the back.
“No Weeliam, in the bottom turn you must look for your line, then lead with the hands. Shoulder and hips will follow… It’s like salsa! You dance salsa right” Wrong Victor, I dance a kind of jerky techno.
“No Manna, two step pop-up only! Why your knees?”
Our days quickly settle into a pattern that looked something like this: wake, sunrise yoga session, breakfast. Arthur and Matilda do some reluctant school work in the central living area. Morning surf coaching. Picnic lunch on the beach. Afternoon surf coaching. Beach chill, visit local town, eat ice creams. Menna tries to make us all go for a run and sometimes we give in. Skate ramp. Ping pong. Cocktails. Dinner in the dining area. Party / salsa dancing / quiz / concert. Bed. Repeat.
It’s exhausting, but we all made good progress at surfing. The waves were big but mellow. I had my pop up totally re-engineered. The kids are very enthused and would do anything that Victor says. All of us feel our shoulder strength building: we can paddle for longer, catch bigger waves. Arthur is getting the parallels between surfing and skating, it is not long before he starts to put together some fairly slick looking turns on the skate ramp.
We talk to Victor about his tattoos and he weaves a life story around them.
“This one has the lion waving the Rasta flag. People all say it looks like the gay flag but it is not. And ok, so what, I still like it. It was done on a beach in Thailand. This one is the mermaid firstly because of the sea but also because of what she symbolises about love, you know, it never works out and it’s all like an illusion really. You think you’ve found the one but then something always goes wrong. It disappears.” Shrug. “These ones on my shins are High Tide, Low Tide, very common. This one here, ‘Be Everything You Can Be’, was from an advert, a big sign outside the house when I was staying all alone in Canada. It gave me big motivation…” He stops and sighs, something of that lonely Canadian winter flickers across his eyes. “So anyway, the tattoos are my history. Now let’s go surf!”
Matilda won Wave of the Week in a campwide prize ceremony. There was some confusion when she wasn’t there to receive it and we had to drag her out of bed at 11pm in her pyjamas. She was all sleepy and confused but very proud. So were we. So was Victor.