Not only does the UK boast some of the world’s most beautiful scenery, it also has wildlife watching opportunities galore and a wealth of historical sites. So why then, is the country so frequently written off as the ‘cheap’ option or the ‘green’ one? It’s both of these things of course but whatever you’re looking for, Great Britain has more going for it than flight-free and low-cost travel. ‘The only way to educate people is to do it in the location,’ comments Matt Spence, CEO of UK eco-tourism specialists, Natural Retreats. ‘When people see [what the UK has to offer], they start to understand.’ After a stellar 2009, domestic tourism has fallen slightly according to statistics released by Visit Britain, with around 96.4 million overnight stays taken by Brits in the UK last year. That might sound like a lot but it still represents a fall, with more of us than ever heading abroad.
In part, this is down to the quest for value (one of CheapFlights CEO Hugo Burge’s top travel trends for 2012) – with the UK often regarded as overpriced – but it’s also the result of a lack of knowledge about Britain’s beauties. Who knew, for instance, that the Northern Lights could be seen in Britain, or that the seas off the top of Scotland offer some of the best whale watching experiences in the world? ‘Up in John O’ Groats you can see the one of world’s largest predators [the killer whale] from the beach,’ says Spence. ‘There’s seals and you can go scuba diving to look at shipwrecks. What we have here is a pristine wilderness area that people really need to see.’ John O’Groats is the location for Natural Retreats’ newest venture – the retrofitted and renovated John O’Groats Hotel - but it’s not the only British destination that looks set to become a must-visit this year. From Cornish beach huts to Cambrian mountain cabins, the UK has something for everyone, whether you’re travelling with children or looking for a romantic retreat. We’ve rounded up 10 hip hotspots that offer combine chic surroundings with an emerald green eco ethos – and they’re all a short train ride away. If this doesn’t get you thinking about a British break, nothing will.
Orchard Carriage, Somerset
Why it’s cool: One for locomotive enthusiasts and lovers of all things quirky alike; until the mid-1900s, the Orchard Carriage was exactly that – a train carriage on the local branch line. After being decommissioned, it was used as a storage container for the Village Hall in nearby Bruton before being rescued and restored to its former glory. Set in a pretty orchard on a biodynamic smallholding, it boasts sensational Somerset views, a comfy double bed and has its own wood-fired sauna. In the area you’ll find a wealth of walking opportunities, plenty of pretty villiages to explore and some wonderful old pubs. Try the Archangel in nearby Frome, which offers seasonal, locally sourced fare in a historic building – parts of which date as far back as the Domesday Book.
Green credentials: Owners Zoe and Jonno have kept fossil fuel use to a minimum by using a combination of solar power and a woodburning stove for heating and lighting. Outside, you’ll find a compost toilet and the aforementioned wood-fired sauna.
Find out more: www.canopyandstars.co.uk
Natural Retreats, John O’Groats
Why it’s cool: Surprisingly for a town that’s so well known, John O’Groats has little in the way of decent accommodation and even less going for it in the eco department. All that however, is going to change when Natural Retreats launches its newest property in June. In partnership with Heritage Great Britain, the eco holiday specialist is giving a green makeover to the historic John O’Groats hotel, with local materials and green construction techniques incorporated into the build. The most northerly town in the UK, John O’Groats boasts a wonderfully wild coastline, with plenty of seals, whales and dolphins to spot. If you go in winter, you might just get a glimpse of the awe-inspiring Aurora Borealis.
Green credentials: Like the rest of the Natural Retreats portfolio, the John O’Groats property will be run along eco-friendly lines. Locally sourced, sustainable materials and local craftsmen are being used to complete the refit.
Find out more: www.naturalretreats.co.uk
Why it’s cool: It might be famous for its golden sand and creamy milk but 2012 looks set to be the year that Jersey becomes known for more than cows and beaches. With a packed events calendar that ranges from the charming (Battle of Flowers) to the choral (Tennerfest), there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Other top picks include the convivial La Faîs'sie d’Cidre (Cider Festival) and the June in Bloom Floral Festival. Away from the festivities, spend some time enjoying the island’s balmy climate on one of its many sandy beaches or hire a bike and take a trip round the island using its ‘green lanes’, where cyclists have priority over car drivers. Also worth visiting is the magnificent Mont Orgueil Castle, which offers wonderful sea views and a network of towers and spiral staircases to explore.
Green credentials: Along with its network of green lanes, Jersey remains largely unspoilt and as a result is home to a wealth of rare flora and fauna, including a puffin colony on the Piemont Headland. Although eco accommodation options are limited – think camping – the island does have an Eco-Active scheme to encourage businesses to do more to protect the environment and biodiversity. The Radisson-Blu St Helier is signed up.
Find out more: www.jersey.com
The Hebridean Trail, Outer Hebrides
Why it’s cool: A new experience launched for summer 2012 by eco travel specialists, Wilderness Scotland, the Hebridean Trail is a seven-day mountain biking trip through the Outer Hebrides, with local guides, ferry transport and accommodation all thrown in. The seven islands that make up the Outer Hebrides remain relatively untouched, with stunning coastline and plentiful wildlife spotting opportunities on offer. Among the non-human residents are the golden eagle and the red deer, and you’ll also get the opportunity to get to grips with the islands’ unique, Gaelic-speaking culture.
Green credentials: Carbon emissions are kept to a minimum with all transportation done by bike or ferry. Wilderness Scotland are also willing to collect visitors from Inverness station – the nearest mainline station to the Hebrides – which means you can leave the car at home and rule out the plane entirely.
Find out more: www.wildernessscotland.com
Hell Bay, Bryher
Why it’s cool: Despite the apocalyptic name, nowhere could be further from hell than the Hell Bay hotel, located on the glorious Bryher island. One of the Scilly Islands, Bryher is home to thousands of seabirds and boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the UK, along with the world-famous Abbey clifftop gardens on the nearby Tresco. Perched on a clifftop with spectacular sea views is the Hell Bay Hotel, which boasts an impressive CSR policy, ultra chic rooms and a restaurant specialising in local fare. Art lovers will adore the plethora of locally made artwork, including pieces by Barbara Hepworth, while for wildlife fans, the hotel can arrange boat trips and diving excursions.
Green credentials: Hell Bay’s exhaustive stable of green initiatives, includes everything from composting food and paper waste to eco-friendly cleaning products. Use of plastics is kept to a minimum, while old glass is crushed and used as aggregate. The hotel also encourages water conservation and uses recycled rainwater as much as it can.
Find out more: www.hellbay.co.uk
The Culloden Estate and Spa, Belfast
Why it’s cool: With the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic just over two months away, all eyes are turning to Belfast where the doomed liner was built. The Titanic Belfast, a spectacular new museum and community arts centre designed with the shape of the ship’s funnel in mind, opens in spring, and will play host to a number of commemorative events, including the Titanic Light Show, from the 7th to 12th April, and the Titanic Proms on the 8th September. Away from the city, head to the Culloden Estate and Spa – a sympathetically restored manor house perched on Belfast Lough, five miles outside of the city centre. Not only is it within striking distance of Belfast’s nightlife and attractions, it’s a great base for exploring the surrounding emerald green countryside.
Green credentials: The Grade I listed house has been sympathetically restored using local materials and antique furniture, while the spa uses holistic naturals brand, ESPA.
Find out more: www.hastingshotels.com
The Potting Shed, Tweed Valley
Why it’s cool: If you’re the sort of person who escapes to the garden shed when the going gets tough at home, then the quirky Potting Shed in Scotland’s Tweed Valley could be exactly what you need. You won’t be sharing space with the owner’s tool collection though, as the former shed has been totally revamped, with an open-plan living space, a bright bedroom (complete with linen bedsheets) and wonderful views of the River Tweed, courtesy of floor-to-ceiling windows. Often overlooked in favour of the Highlands, the Tweed Valley has plenty for nature fans to get excited about, and there are plenty of biking and hiking trails to choose from. The pretty town of Melrose is within hiking distance of the Potting Shed, while a short bus trip will take you to the historic town of Bamburgh with its magnificent mediaeval castle and vast stretches of golden sandy beach. If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s also the chance to take a boat trip to Lindisfarne where you can take a closer look at the island's famous gospels and the ancient ruins of the abbey.
Green credentials: Heating at the Potting Shed comes courtesy of a wood-burning stove and an ultra efficient Everhot electric heat storage unit, which also provides power for the cooker. Organic Sedburgh toiletries are also provided.
Find out more: www.crabtreeandcrabtree.com
The Beach Hut, Cornwall
Why it’s cool: Forget visions of candy-striped beachside boxes; this beach hut is more of a cottage than a changing room. Built in 1920, the grey clapperboard cottage is set in the middle of a 52-acre property near Bude and boasts spectacular sea views plus doorstep access to a vast sandy surfing beach. Inside, the single room cottage has a king size double bed, a small kitchen area and stripped back décor, with a wood-burning stove taking pride of place. Perfect for surfers, the Beach Hut also works brilliantly for wildlife fans, with trips to view the endangered Basking shark available upon request. Miles of coastal paths offer ample cycling and walking opportunities, while the Eden Project is within striking distance.
Green credentials: A wood burning stove heats the property, and although logs are supplied, you can just as easily use driftwood foraged from the beach. A hamper packed with local goodies, including Cornish sea salt is provided.
Find out more: www.beachtomato.co.uk
Limewood, New Forest
Why it’s cool: If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at foraging, the New Forest with its diverse array of habitats and carefully preserved coppices is the place to start. Limewood, an eco-chic retreat deep in the heart of the forest, offers bespoke foraging trips with resident expert, Garry Eveleigh. Expect to find wild berries, nuts and fungi, all of which can then be turned into something spectacular by chef, Luke Holder, on your return. If the thought of a woodland pick your own session hasn’t whetted your appetite, then maybe the idea of cycling, hiking and riding through some of the best-preserved ancient woodland in England will. There’s plenty of unique fauna to see en route, including red deer, fallow deer, adders, lizards, badgers, foxes and of course, the New Forest pony.
Green credentials: The Regency house has been carefully restored, with the environment in mind, while the restaurant serves up locally sourced and foraged fare. The spa uses British organic brand, Bamford, and has its own ‘herbary’, where it grows herbs for use in treatments.
Find out more: www.limewoodhotel.co.uk
The Cabin, Cambrian Mountains
Why it’s cool: Located in a pretty wooded glade, the Cabin looks like a cross between an old-fashioned pavilion and an ultra luxe garden shed. What’s not retro, however, is the ridiculously chic Moroccan style interior, which wouldn’t look out of place in a Wallpaper spread. What’s more, with hydro powered amenities, local timber walls and wood-powered heating, it’s gorgeously green. Nant yr Onnen also has plenty for bird enthusiasts to love, with edkites, cuckoos, woodpeckers, nuthatches, buzzards, henharriers, goshawks and sparrowhawks all to be seen from the kitchen window. In the surrounding area, you’ll find the Upper Towy Valley, with its myriad walking and biking opportunities, the Dinas Nature Reserve and the spectacular Carreg Cennen castle, which sits on a rocky outcrop that commands stunning views of the nearby Black Mountain and Towy Valley.
Green credentials: The planet is a priority for owners, Fiona and Tim, who generate their own electricity using a micro hydro generator, and use their own sustainable timber in their wood burning stoves. The Cabin also has a compost toilet, while water comes direct from one of the springs on the property and is stored behind the owners’ cottage in an old milk tanker.
Find out more: www.canopyandstars.co.uk
Four of the best…eco-friendly February half term breaks
Whether you’re in the market for an organic French farm or a spot of skiing in the Scottish Cairngorms, there’s an eco-friendly half term break for you and your family
PHOTO GALLERY: Dartmoor National Park
Andrew Cooper’s latest tome offers a fascinating insight into the life of Britain’s best-known national park
Ten of the best... British volunteering holidays
Volunteering holidays aren't just for bored teenagers. As Christine Ottery found out, there are plenty of ways to see the UK and do your bit at the same time
Review: Cornish Tipi Holidays
With its crystal clear spring water lake, countless outdoor activities and acres of woodland to explore, Cornish Tipi Holidays is the ideal setting in which to get reacquainted with nature, says Tom Watts
Kicking back in a green Eden: a weekend in the Yorkshire Dales
From the sedum roof to the wood burning stove, Yorkshire Dales Natural Retreats combines eco-friendly innovations with serious luxury