Proving tricky to cram everything on your wish list into your travel itinerary? Don’t worry – if you haven’t time to explore all of Europe, you’ll find more than you bargained for in Britain. Discover Italianate villages, award-winning vineyards and hidden beaches where the water’s inviting, the sand’s soft and you don’t have to get up at dawn to bag a sun lounger…
Italianate village Portmeirion opened way before the internet, but seems like it was tailor-made for Instagram. Its pastel-paintbox buildings climb up a cliff while riotously colourful flower gardens tumble down towards the sea. There’s a hotel on site which has hosted artists, royalty, politicians and tycoons; stay in the Peacock Suite, which the future King Edward VIII slept in in 1934.
Greece may have its fair share of ancient myths, but Britain is teeming with spectacular stories. The ultimate British legend, King Arthur, was said to have been conceived in Tintagel, a dramatic castle perched above Cornwall’s rugged north coast. Writers and artists have long been inspired by the location; equally inspiring – for gourmands – is nearby Padstow, home to a vast array of seafood eateries including Rick Stein’s flagship restaurant.
Iceland too off-radar? Head for Skomer, a hidden gem off the coast of west Wales that provides just as much adventure and plenty of wildlife-watching opportunities. During springtime, the island shimmers cobalt, thanks to an explosion of bluebells; this is when the puffins arrive, staying in their thousands until mid-July. There are also Manx shearwaters (birds best seen – or rather heard – at night) and Atlantic grey seals. Take the boat over for a day or stay in rustic barn accommodation.
If a fairy tale castle is on your hotlist and you’ve no time for Germany’s turreted towers, look no further than Scotland, where centuries of history stand proud. 13th century Eilean Donan sits majestically in the middle of an island at the point where three sea lochs meet; it was graced by none other than Bond, James Bond, when it featured in The World Is Not Enough.
It’s becoming increasingly well-known in the wine world that if you want a quality drop, you don’t necessarily need to head to Bordeaux in France; England’s wines are winning awards by the crate-load. Supplies are still fairly small, so head to a vineyard and snaffle some bottles to take home – after sampling, of course. At Tinwood Estate, in Sussex, you can take a vineyard tour and sleep over in a scenic lodge, while Biddenden is Kent’s oldest vineyard; it’s close to National Trust property Sissinghurst – visit both for a sumptuous day out.
Spain has the Tomatina, where a town basically gets pelted in tomatoes… the UK has cheese-rolling, where hundreds of adrenalin-hunters run down a hill with a 1:3 gradient (i.e. VERY steep) in pursuit of a giant wheel of Double Gloucester cheese. It happens on the last weekend of May in Gloucestershire, south-west England. Not involving food, but also attracting a special brand of thrill-seekers, Llanwrtyd Wells in mid Wales is home to an array of quirky summer events from the Man vs. Horse race to the World Bog Snorkelling Championships.
Britain’s summer sun has shone a light on the many beautiful beaches to be found in the country, and given that nowhere in Britain is more than two hours from the coast, it’s easy to seek relief when you need a dip. Dorset in the south of England has some of the most stunning beaches, including Lulworth Cove, which leads to super-photogenic Durdle Door.
No time for Provence? Less than an hour from central London and you’re at Mayfield Lavender Farm, in bloom from June, with the display peaking in July and August. It’s a veritable assault on the senses to stroll through fragrant rows of purple haze, then settle in the café for a lavender cream tea or swig of lavender cider.
Who needs Amsterdam’s canals when Edinburgh offers the Water of Leith? This leafy green corridor transforms Scotland’s capital into the countryside for a chilled out afternoon; hire bikes in the city centre and peddle alongside the river, with inviting pubs along the way and the fabulous Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art just a short diversion off the waterway.
If part of the allure of Europe is chugging from country to country by rail, experience just that in the UK: the stretch between Newcastle and Edinburgh is breath-taking, passing cliffs and the holy island of Lindisfarne, then cruising over super-scenic viaduct the Royal Border Bridge just before it enters Scotland. Bag a seat on the right-hand side of the train and fill your eyes with beauty.