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Getting lost in nature is a luxury within easy reach throughout most of Britain. With fifteen National Parks scattered the length and breadth of the island, these unique sites are a wonderful destination in which to unwind in a sustainable way. What’s more, they cover 36.4% of Britain’s land area, so you won’t run out of things to explore! Here’s a run-down of three of our favourites.
Dartmoor National Park is a jewel situated in Devon, in south-west England, with open moorlands in which to experience the immensity of nature, where the morning dew, combined with the eerie mist that ascends at first light, create memorable scenes. What’s more, thanks to its open access policy, you can walk through the country for miles in Dartmoor without having to keep to the established routes. Here are some route ideas to suit all levels.
To experience Dartmoor’s magnificent hills, valleys and rivers in all their splendour, seeing the park from the sky in a hot-air balloon is a great option. The service starts out from Okehampton (you can book here), and, if you do decide to go, be sure to see the castle ruins. If you’re more comfortable on land, why not explore the wild side of the park on horseback? Riding on Dartmoor and Adventure Clydesdale offer horsey experiences that include two-hour rides and weekend breaks.
Dartmoor’s wild ponies are one of the park’s symbols. You will often come across them in Bellever Forest, where you’ll also discover the Tors. These rocky outcrops (often made of granite) crown the hills of Dartmoor and dot the landscape, with the most iconic being Brent Tor.
One accommodation option that is not everyone’s cup of tea but that is worth exploring is wild camping. It is permitted in most areas of the park and all you have to do is to take your own tent and camp where you want, provided you respect the basic rules – particularly the main one, which is to leave no trace. If you like camping but prefer a campsite, here is a list of several options.
Are you one of those people who likes to end the day in the bathtub with a glass of champagne? No problem. The stately Bovey Castle, a five-star hotel with a spa and almost one century of history, is the place for you. The complex, which has sixty rooms in the main building and more than twenty lodges with three rooms, is ideal for groups and perfect for those who are looking for privacy and want to spoil themselves. The Ring of Bells Inn, a traditional pub and B&B, is a comfortable alternative option that lies somewhere between the two!
Close to the park, there are some villages that are well worth a visit, especially to see the wonderful cottages with thatched roofs that are so typical of the region. Some charming rural nooks include the villages of Widdecombe-in-the-Moor, Ashburton, Tavistock and Bovey Tracey.
One store that will allow you to discover the wealth of local artisan tradition is the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, in Bovey Tracey. Here, you’ll find unique objects created by hand by local craftsmen, ranging from carpets to pottery, jewellery and rugs. Less than 20 kilometres away is the Riverford Field Kitchen farmhouse restaurant, a national icon of agricultural sustainability and ecology.
Lakes, arctic mountains and trails… when it comes to open spaces, no other National Park can compete with the Cairngorms, which, at 4,528 sq. km., is the largest in Britain.
One of the best areas to discover in this vast park is Badenoch, a historical region home to traditional distilleries, Highland forts and a few surprises, such as the remnants of an ancient Caledonian pine forest. If you want a simpler route, the Craigellachie National Nature Reserve is worth exploring, with its birch forests and clearings. It’s also next to Aviemore, an excellent base from which to explore the area.
The rural Rowan Tree Hotel has views of Lake Alvie and a menu that features local produce. It’s also easy to get to from the Cairngorm Mountains, the winter sports paradise (keep in mind that if you’re aiming to climb the Munros, 228 mountains with altitudes over 914 metres, then this is a unique opportunity to begin. There are 55 within the park, which is home to five of the six highest mountains in Scotland). The Cairngorm Hotel in the town centre is another good option.
To enjoy a special meal, try The Cross in Kingussie and order its tasting menu. This restaurant and hotel are located inside an old 19th-century water mill that was formerly used to make the best-known Scottish fabric, tweed.
After an active day outdoors, what could be a better way to warm up than to visit the Dalwhinnie distillery, which produces local Single Malt whisky, one of the great Scottish contributions to global culinary art. Or, if you prefer, you could visit the Cairngorm brewery where they make artisan beer, maintaining the traditional recipes of the region and incorporating new ones.
The days have much to offer, but the nights are quite spectacular if you’re not feeling sleepy: the regions of Glenlivet and Tomintoul are the best places to see the magical colours of the Scottish sky and its starry nights.
Adventure is the best word to define all that Snowdonia National Park has to offer. This is the largest park in Wales, with a surface area of 2,176 sq. km. that extends throughout most of the northern part of the country. Its scenery changes in tone, but it always has those lush greens that are typical of places with heavy rainfalls, plus a palette of browner, more ochre tones, while its crystal-clear lakes, gorges and impressive mountains invite us to appreciate the charm of nature in all its rugged glory.
One of the most popular activities in the park is trying to climb Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, with an altitude of 1,085 metres. The easiest route to do this starts from Llanberis and the climb takes about six hours at a moderate pace. If you feel up to trying a more demanding route, or exploring other activities such as rock climbing, it’s always a good idea to consult the Snowdon Mountain Guides, who provide guide services and courses for visitors to suit all levels. Another option for learning more about competitive rock climbing is the Rock Climbing Company, which offers full-day and half-day courses for all levels and ages, and provides all the necessary gear.
If you are more of a fan of mountain biking, then this is the place for you. In the centre of the park, Coed-y-Brenin forest is one of the top destinations for this sport. The visitors’ centre - where there are rental options - is the starting point of eight biking routes suitable for beginners and up to very advanced levels.
One of the best accommodation options, particularly if you are travelling with friends, is to rent one of the charming rural cottages that abound in the region. After an adventure-filled day, there is nothing better than sinking into a soft sofa in front of a roaring fire. The National Trust has an excellent list of options and you can find alternatives that vary considerably in terms of locations and prices. If you prefer a hotel, Penmaenuchaf Hall, located in the southern area of the park, has vintage charm and a Victorian spirit.
At lunchtime, a visit to the Peak Restaurant in Llanberis is a must. The chef, Angela Dwyer, uses local produce in a masterful way to create dishes with a global spirit such as native lamb with redcurrant juice and bean purée. One good option for traditional Welsh food is Betws-y-Coed bistro. Located in the town of the same name, its delightful stone cottages make it one of the prettiest in the area.
When it comes to buying local produce, one good spot is the Blas ar Fwyd deli, which offers a wide range of items including picnic hampers, which are filled to the brim with local treats to enjoy during your time in the great outdoors (and not a sandwich in sight!).