What really happens on a European coach tour when the travellers are a few decades older than the Contiki generation? Ewan McDonald tried to find out.

"It might help," said Bruce, "if you sat on it."

He pointed at the large suitcase they'd agreed to share before they left Auckland, teetering on the hotel bed, gasping at the suggestion it should accommodate clothes, toiletries, presents for the grandchildren, as well as three or four bottles that Bruce didn't think he'd seen in Glengarry at Herne Bay.

Martha sighed.

"It might have helped," she muttered from the far side of the hairdryer, "if you and Brian hadn't gone down to the Boulevard of Cider last night. Or," she wrestled with a less than compliant wave above her right ear, "carried on to the Avenue of Gin."


"There's not an Avenue of Gin."

Bruce enjoyed a moment of triumph as he pulled the zip around the case, and just as quickly decided he wouldn't let Martha know that it had come off in his hand.

"You have to seize these moments," he told his wife.

"Will we ever come to Oviedo again?"

In the next room Brenda looked at her watch. The tour director's schedule, posted in the lobby last night, said they had to put their bags outside the door at 7.30am, go down to breakfast, and be ready to leave at 8.30.

It was 7.25, she was showered, dressed and more than ready for the coach trip to Santiago de Compostela. This would be a highlight of the trip; when Father Brian had blessed her journey before they had left Pt Chevalier, he had given her a little pendant to wear to the city that marked the end of the medieval pilgrims' trek.

Although a coach tour from Madrid didn't strictly count as a pilgrimage along El Camino, she would still be standing on holy ground, watching those who had walked over the Pyrenees and across Spain arrive at the cathedral, packs on their backs, Leki sticks in hands, the traditional badge of a scallop shell on their beanies.

Even if - she sighed at the memory - most of her understanding of the fabled path had come from the Saturday evening before they'd left home when she, Martha, Bruce and Mike had watched a video of Martin Sheen stumbling along The Way.

Hikers on El Camino - the pilgrims' road to Santiago de Compostela. Photo / Ewan McDonald
Hikers on El Camino - the pilgrims' road to Santiago de Compostela. Photo / Ewan McDonald

Mike stirred. Looked at Brenda from the far side of a hangover.

"Did you know Woody Allen made Vicky Cristina Barcelona in this hotel? I never thought I'd stay in the same hotel where someone made an Oscar-winning movie."

"You better get in the shower," said Brenda. As she closed the padlock on the suitcase, she smiled as she realised, I never thought I'd find myself in a beautiful, medieval Spanish city like Oviedo.

If you asked them, as their children had and their friends would, where the idea had come from, none of the four could have told you.

Three of the four had been at primary school together. Or was it two of the three? They had gone their separate ways, not unlike the threads of Brenda's needleworked cushions, until one or three marriages, several grandchildren, a civil union and a couple of unfortunate forays into the property market had found them, across a garden fence and wheeling out the bins from each other.

At a barbecue on World Cup Final night all four had realised they had significant birthdays or even more significant anniversaries on the horizon. Three chardonnays to the wind, someone had suggested they should mark the milestones together. Somewhere ... different. Adventurous. Exciting.

Everyone's idea of adventurous, let alone exciting, far be it different, had diverged.

Rotorua, the Gold Coast. Marrakech. A cruise.

Somehow they had found common ground and that was Spain. And, rather than hire a car and freestyle from white village to Barcelona, Martha had trawled the internet and found a luxury, guided coach tour.

Bruce had been less than sure.

"I've always organised our trips in the past," he reminded Martha.

"Go where we please. Find a little inn when the sun goes down. Find a family restaurant in the square around 10. Or 11."

Martha retreated into her memories of Bruce's organisation. Being met at Madrid's airport by a driver compared with stomping through the maze of Paris' terminal, trying to find the station and then mastering the art of French railway ticketing.

Leaving the bags with a porter rather than hauling them five storeys up to an attic room.

Being taken to a restaurant by a Spanish-speaking guide versus getting lost in the back canals of Venice looking for that place where Lonely Planet reckoned all the locals ate seafood.

She decided on diplomacy as the best form of marital harmony.

"And you did it very well indeed, my love. But since your hernia op, it's probably better that you didn't have to wheel the bags around Madrid. Or San Sebastian. Or any of those cobblestone streets."

"I think I'm a little bit in love with Toni," Brenda confessed to Mike across the white cheese and fresh fruit and dates and grapes and three salamis in the breakfast room of the hotel that had once been the courtyard of a 17th-century prince's palace.

"I never thought I could drink black coffee at breakfast," Mike pounced on a crusty roll.

He took a moment to digest what his wife had said.

"You mean the tour director? Why?"

"He knows so much about each town we're coming to, and when the shops are open, and all the history and the art. And what I should buy there, for the kids or the grandkids. We really don't have to think about a thing, it's all done for us. And then there was that really helpful speech when we first arrived in Madrid, about money belts and passports and when you need them and why we really don't have to worry about all that stuff about pickpockets so long as we use commonsense."

Mike needed to change the subject. He had a feeling Brenda was going to bring up that incident where he'd mislaid his passport in the hotel room and had insisted the Guardia Civil be called to investigate the theft, or that the concierge report it to the nearest New Zealand Ambassador, wherever he or she might be. Before Mike found it in the zip pocket of his toilet bag.

"The bus driver reminds me of someone," said Martha as they waited for the lift. Bruce had never known his wife to take an interest in football but he had seen enough to recognise ...

"Cristiano Ronaldo," he said.

"They're both Portuguese."

He realised he was being churlish, and that was not the way to end a remarkable holiday to mark a special event. Or several.

And the four of them might want to go somewhere else sometime, maybe Africa, maybe Russia, maybe a cooking or a wine tour.

Or ... he'd been pleasantly surprised to find he'd quite liked his time away with Mike. Maybe the four of them ...

"So tell me," said Brenda, squishing into the seat, stowing her daypack overhead, and swivelling around to chat to Bruce and Martha, "is this bus trip anything like the Contiki trip that you two did 30 years ago when you first got together?"

"No," said Bruce, emphatically.

"No," said Martha, wistfully. They reclined into their seats and memories until Martha thought she should get out of there, right now.

"That was then and this is ... um, now."

"What's the difference?" asked Mike, whose ability to cut to the chase without strolling through the subtext was unparalleled.

Bruce and Martha looked at one another and decided there were places they did not need to go to, even with the security of 30 years of marriage, and one evening in a campground just outside Bratislava was one of them.

"Well," havered Martha, "it's not a bus. It's a coach. You know, with air-conditioning. And big wide seats."

"Like business class in a plane," offered Bruce, helpfully.

"And they plan the day so that there are tea breaks and lunch breaks and shopping breaks and ..."

"Prostate still playing you up?" asked Mike, considerately.

"Hernia," Bruce confided.

"Just glad I don't have to lug the suitcases up to the room. All organised for us."

"It's not like a cruise," offered Brenda.

"Europe's such a big place, you come on a cruise ship. You're stuck in the port cities. You wouldn't have the chance to get off the boat and on to a coach and hundreds of miles inland to somewhere like Madrid. You'd miss the chance to see the Prego."

"And," added Bruce, "You have to get off the boat at 8am and back at six or so, so you don't eat on the boat, and you don't stay in the cities and walk around them, or get the chance to look at the museums and the markets and the restaurants. Or the bars."

Martha looked at Brenda, only to find Brenda was looking at her. They could have mentioned the Boulevard of Cider. But that was last night. This was today.

Santiago de Compostela was just up the coast and through the mountains. Brenda reached inside her T-shirt to find the little charm that Father Brian had given her before she left Auckland.

It was shaped like a scallop shell.

The Holy Trinity, high in the Picos de Europa mountains. Photo / Ewan McDonald
The Holy Trinity, high in the Picos de Europa mountains. Photo / Ewan McDonald


Getting there:

' guests enjoy smaller groups with a maximum of 40 passengers, an experienced tour director, and stay in premium hotels. They travel on luxury coaches with business-class legroom and comfort.

Insight's 11-day Northern Spain escorted regional tour is priced from $3625 each, twin-share (land only) and also takes in Madrid, Santiago de Compostela, Ovieda and San Sebastian. Highlights in Barcelona include a local guided tour of the city taking in Gaudi's Sagrada Familia church. Price includes airport transfers, luxury coach transport with extended leg-room, scenic or centrally-located premium hotels, sightseeing, breakfast daily and some dinners.

Save up to 10 per cent each for bookings and payments in full before January 15, 2014. Departures available April to October. Contact your travel agent or see the website.

Singapore Airlines flies to Barcelona five times a week via Singapore, departing from Auckland and Christchurch.

Ewan McDonald travelled to Spain courtesy of Insight Vacations and Singapore Airlines.