I am not good at vacations. They are almost always problematic for me and this one - hiking the Lighthouse Way on Spain's Galician Coast - is no different.
I'm traversing a headland glowing gold with blooming French broom and accented with patches of small purple flowers locally called Lover's Flowers. (Galicians believe that if you place one of these on someone without their noticing, they'll fall in love with you.) One hundred feet below, waves smash into snaggly cliffs. A mile or so out into the Atlantic Ocean, a sailboat moves quickly. If there were postcards of this off-the-beaten-path corner of Spain's northwest coast, they would be of this scene.
The problem is that by the time I'm walking through this lovely landscape, I'm mentally frustrated, physically crushed and have blisters that feel like they're the size of baseballs on each heel. Thirty minutes ago, which was almost seven hours and 20-plus miles after I started the day's hike, I might have shouted an impressive stream of obscenities while walking across an empty, one-mile stretch of sand dunes and beaches to keep myself from sitting down and crying.
Most trekkers take eight to 10 days to walk the 125-mile Lighthouse Way. Because my work schedule is tight and I've got extreme FOMO (fear of missing out), I am squeezing the whole trek into six.
Even with my compressed itinerary, my vision for this trip included hiking all morning, afternoon siestas and evenings spent journaling over dinners of fresh seafood.
The reality so far is a minimum of eight hours of daily walking, not a single siesta and terse nightly journal entries, during which grease stains from dinners of supermarket cheese and prosciutto (because I'm too beat to find a restaurant) ooze onto the pages along with lists of each day's high points and low points.
My problem with vacations isn't that I can't take them, but that I try to cram too much into them.
The Lighthouse Way, Camiño dos Faros in Galician, traverses a stretch of coast that British sailors in the 19th century dubbed the "Costa da Morte" (Coast of Death) because so many of their compatriots died in shipwrecks there. The route goes between Malpica and Fisterra, Spain.Along the way it is marked by haphazardly painted shamrock-green arrows (that often look just like blobs of paint) on trees or rocks.
A group of local friends started piecing the Camiño together in 2013, connecting fishermen's paths, farm tracks, beaches, livestock trails and the occasional back road. Their goal was to showcase the area's rugged beauty; they succeeded mightily. A typical day's scenery includes eucalyptus and pine forests dappled with light; wetlands; fields divided by dry stone walls; wildflowers; small waterfalls; beaches only accessible by foot; small peaks and sand dunes; sandy coves and headlands spilling down to the ocean.
While the Lighthouse Way's scenery and the hiking are wild, overnight accommodations are not. This is not a backpacking adventure during which you schlep an overstuffed pack and spend nights in a tent. Each day, the Lighthouse Way passes through several villages and towns. You can find your own Airbnb, hotel or inn and hire local taxis to transfer your luggage to the next village or sign up for a self-guided trek that includes all of the reservations and planning, along with GPS tracks and detailed printed topographical maps. I do the latter.
On Foot Holidays offers five-day (64 miles), seven-day (88 miles) and 10-day (125 miles) Lighthouse Way itineraries that include stays at inns and hotels, luggage transfers, a local contact in case of emergencies, GPS tracks and incredibly detailed maps and route descriptions. And when they have a hiker ask if they can cram the full 125 miles into six nights because, using Google Earth, that hiker can't find a single section of the trail they don't want to see, On Foot Holidays will arrange it - even if they recommend against it.
The route rigorously follows the coast and is sometimes so near the edge you can feel spray from waves crashing below. Its name comes from the 11 lighthouses it passes. These include the Nariga Point Lighthouse, which I pass on Day 1. Its base resembles the prow of a ship and is adorned with a sculpture by Galician artist Manolo Coia. Built in 1997, it is the most modern lighthouse on the Galician coast.
The afternoon of Day 3, I stop at the Cape Vilan Lighthouse, where you can ascend the 82-foot tower and read its history in a small museum. Its construction was inspired by the deaths of 172 (out of 175) crew members on the British ship HMS Serpent. In 1890, it ran into rocks at the nearby Punta do Boi because its sailors couldn't see the original Cape Vilan Lighthouse. When its construction was finished in 1896, it was Spain's first electric lighthouse. (Yes, this is the day I yelled obscenities into the wind on the empty beach.)
Few people have discovered this Camiño. In 2018, about 320,000 people hiked Spain's most popular one, the Camiño de Santiago. On the Lighthouse Way, I see more fishermen than fellow hikers. On the busiest day, I pass five other people.
As I leave Malpica on Day 1, a light drizzle falls. Within 10 minutes, the city and its briny-smelling commercial harbor have been replaced by an empty, rolling landscape. Within an hour I've passed the fountain of Saint Adrian, whose water locals believe will cure warts, and the Chapel of St. Adrian, which was originally built in the 16th century and restored in the 20th. (If you're looking for wart relief make sure you've got the right fountain; another in this area is known as the "fountain of the flu.")
Just past the chapel, which is not open when I pass it, tractors plough slopes high on the inland side. The lower slopes are abloom with Lover's Flower and French broom, a prickly, shrubby legume native to the Mediterranean.
In O Roncudo, a village in the shadow of a wind farm, farmers tend their fields with scythes. Descending a steep, yellow hillside on the village's far side, I hear two 20-something fishermen singing several minutes before I see them.
When I finally make it to my apartment in Corme, it takes me an hour to summon the energy to shower. This is one of the nights I don't manage to go out for dinner. My GPS watch puts the day's total mileage at 28, with about 5,000 vertical feet of climbing. (Had I gone with one of On Foot Holidays' usual itineraries, daily mileages and climbing would have been about half of this.)
I do rally to explore Laxe, Muxia and Lires, three of the cuter towns along the Camiño, but still undiscovered enough by tourists that ordering in English in restaurants is difficult. I learn the Spanish words for gooseneck barnacle and Galician octopus, though, and am set. The barnacles are a regional delicacy and what many of the fishermen I pass on the trail are harvesting from the steep cliffs the trail passes above. The local preparation of octopus is to slice it into discs, saute it in olive oil and top it with paprika. It's served on a wooden platter.
Six days after leaving Malpica, I arrive at the Cape Finisterre Lighthouse - the name literally means "land's end" - at 3:16 p.m. Having worked so hard to reach it, and having seen so few people along the way, I am disappointed by its crowds, souvenir kiosks, tour buses and selfie-sticks. I wait for a group of dudes in skinny jeans and man buns to finish a photo shoot in front of the lighthouse so I can snap a picture.
Except, as in many places popular with tourists, it's easy to escape the hubbub. One hundred feet down from the main overlook facing the Atlantic Ocean, which stretches unbroken to Newfoundland, the waves below are louder than the people above. I sit on a rock and eat a slice of orange cake that the owner of Casa Luz sent me off with that morning. A ladybug lands on my arm as a lizard scampers down an adjacent boulder. Water slapping against the hull of an unseen fishing boat sounds like gunfire.
Cake finished, I pull my journal out of my daypack and write about the man buns, the ladybug and lizard and the extreme orangey-ness of the orange cake. I close my eyes for several minutes and breathe so deep I feel my toes expand. Then I pack up, walk into the town of Fisterra, check in and take a siesta. When I wake up, I shower and walk to the harbor for dinner. Between slices of Galician octopus and sips of local white wine I write one sentence in my journal: "This was the best vacation ever!"
Is a vacation still problematic if you forget its problems so quickly?
If you go
Where to stay
1. Hotel Rua Villar
Rua do Vilar, 8-10, Santiago de Compostela
A friendly and cosy boutique hotel with a gorgeous stained glass skylight, dark wood furniture and some interior walls made of stone in the historic part of the city. Rooms, including breakfast, from about $158.
2. Casa Luz
Lires, No. 35, Cee
Owner Yolanda might welcome you to her colorful and cosy five room bed-and-breakfast - the house has been in her family for more than 200 years - with a slice of homemade cake or cookies and a cold beer. Rooms from about $51; reservations by phone only.
3. O Semaforo
Carretera del Faro, s/n, Fisterra
This five-room boutique hotel is next to the Cape Finisterre Lighthouse. Built in 1879, for decades it was adjacent to a foghorn that locals called the "cow of Fisterra." It was converted to a hotel in 1999 and remodelled in 2016. Rooms from about $168.
Where to eat
1. As Garzas
Porto Barizo, Barizo
The food is equal to the views at this Michelin-starred restaurant serving modern takes of traditional Galician food right on the Lighthouse Way. Open Tuesday through Sunday - 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. for lunch and 9 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday for dinner. Reservations only taken by phone. Seven-course tasting menu costs about $56; the 13-course one runs about $90.
2. Mar de Ardora
As Revoltas - carret. AC 429, Canduas
Reserve a table looking out at the estuary and Carballa Beach in this old, stone house turned into a restaurant Michelin awarded with a Bib Gourmand rating in 2019. The menu higbeghlights fresh-caught local seafood like octopus, monk fish, scorpion fish, shrimp and prawns and even gooseneck barnacles, a local delicacy carefully harvested from nearby ocean-whipped cliffs. Entrees from about $18.
3. Bar Playa Lires
Playa de Lires, S/N, Lires
Casual lunch and dinner spot near Lires Beach that offers typical tapas, local seafood and great sunset views. Open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Entrees from about $17.
4. O Semaforo Restaurant
Carretera del Faro, s/n, Fisterra
Upscale dining featuring locally caught seafood in a historic building. Entrees from about $30.
What to do
1. Hike Camiño dos Faros/Lighthouse Way
On Foot Holidays
Griffin House, Malthouse Lane, Salisbury, England
On Foot Holidays offers self-guided five, seven and 10-night itineraries of the Lighthouse Way that include baggage transfers each day, overnight lodging in two- and three-star properties, and some breakfasts. Also included are detailed, annotated topographic route maps and GPS files you can import onto your phone. A local English-speaking contact is available by phone to answer questions and help with any problems; this contact can also arrange for taxis if you want to cut a day short. This hike is best done mid-April through late June and September to October. The five-night itinerary starts at about $800, seven nights at about $960 and ten nights at about $1,194.
2. Nariga Point Lighthouse
Between As Garzas and Niñons Beach
The most modern lighthouse in Galicia was designed in an Art Deco style by Cesar Portela and built in 1997. Open daily. Free.
3. Praia de Soesto
Between Laxe and Camelle
The Lighthouse Way passes dozens of beautiful beaches. This wide, 3.4-mile beach has stone picnic tables and benches that offer good vantage points to watch surfers. Free.
4. Praia da Barreira
A three star (out of a possible three) swimming beach on the Lighthouse Way between Ponte do Porto and Muxia. Free.
5. Nosa Señora da Barca
Rua Virxe da Barca, 71, Muxia
A church was first built near this site in the 12th century. The present Catholic church dates to the 17th century and was most recently rebuilt in 2015 after it was struck by lightning on and caught fire on Christmas Day 2013. Some locals believe stones around this church boast curative and prophetic properties - there is the Kidney Stone, the Lovers Stone, and the Rudder Stone. Open daily. Free.
6. Cape Vilan Lighthouse
Rua Alcalde Fernandez, 54, Camarinas
The only lighthouse along the Camiño that will let you into its tower. About $3.
7. Cape Finisterre Lighthouse
In 1596, 25 of the more than 100 ships in King Philip II's Second Armada wrecked off the coast near here and 1,706 sailors died; it was the biggest single loss of ships and life in the history of the Costa de Morte. The lighthouse was built in 1853 as a navigation tool. Today it is a popular tourist spot with kiosks selling tchotchkes and views of the Atlantic stretching unbroken to the west. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Free.