According to a survey conducted by travel booking website, Travel Eye, Orlando is the world’s most popular holiday destination, closely followed by Sydney. Other hotspots making the top 10 include Venice, Cape Town and the Great Barrier Reef. A pretty diverse bunch you might be thinking but they do have one thing in common: water. From the shark-infested ocean off the bottom of Africa to the tranquil tropical sea off the north Queensland coast, whether we live by the water or not, its presence is a key consideration for holidaymakers. And that’s not entirely surprising when you think about it. From wild swimming to sailing, fishing and rafting, plenty of water equals plentiful activities.
But you don’t have to go as far as Australia or South Africa to get your fill of watery fun, and no, that doesn’t mean having to brave a downpour. Closer to home, the Swiss Tourist Board has designated 2012 the year of water and has chosen to focus on the country’s plethora of crystal clear lakes, rivers and waterfalls. Elsewhere, destinations such as the Norwegian Fjords continue to enchant, while at home, there’s plenty to choose from including Britain’s quirky traditional canal boats and record-breaking sea kayak trail. Whether it’s beautiful beaches or romantic natural pools, there’s an eco-friendly watery destination to suit you. Here’s our pick of the best.
Eco-luxury in Lucerne
Despite being landlocked, Switzerland is one of Europe’s wateriest destinations with 7,000 lakes and an astonishing 65,300 kilometres of rivers and streams. Much of this water comes from glaciers and, as a result, tends to be an unearthly shade of blue and crystal clear. While the country has no shortage of watery spots to choose from, one of the loveliest has to be Lucerne. Perched on the northern shore of Lake Lucerne, its mediaeval city centre straddles the River Reuss and offers plenty in the way of cultural sights and foodie treats. If you want to get a little closer to the wet stuff, the city’s old-fashioned paddle steamers celebrate their 175th birthday this year, and Lucerne is marking the occasion with a paddleboat flotilla in August. Whether or not you’re around for the party, paddle steamers ply the waters of Lake Lucerne every day during the summer, so you can hop on and enjoy the panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
Stay: Giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘weekend escape’ is the quirky Löwengraben Jail Hotel in the centre of Lucerne. A prison until 1998, the 150-year-old property has been revamped and offers a comfortable if slightly creepy sleeping experience. Bonus points for the aptly named Alcatraz Bar. For more information, see www.jailhotel.ch. Rooms start at £128 per night.
Getting there: From London, take the Eurostar to Paris, then head across town to the Gare du Lyon. There you can pick up an SBB train to Basel where you change for a final connection to Lucerne. See www.raileurope.co.uk for more information and prices.
Action and adventure in the Brecon Beacons
Wales might have a lot of water of the pluvial variety but the Brecon Beacons has more to offer than torrential rain and damp tents. Boasting more than 100 waterfalls, the Brecon Beacons National Park straddles the River Wye, and as a result, has plenty for canoeists, fishermen and wild swimmers to love. Away from the water, check out the network of trails that crisscross the rugged mountainous landscape or head to the literary town of Hay-on-Wye for urban pursuits in picturesque mediaeval surroundings.
Stay: Outdoors at Hay has a special package for weekenders that starts at £120 per person and includes accommodation and two days of water-based activities. See www.training-activities.co.uk for more information. If a package deal is too inflexible for you, or you want to stay longer, try the Mandinam Shepherd’s Hut near Llangadog. Combining eco-consciousness with serious style, it’s glamping but not as you know it. Prices start at £70 per night and for more information, see www.mandinam.co.uk.
Getting there: First Great Western operates regular daily services to Abergavenny in the heart of the Breacon Beacons via Swansea from London Paddington. See www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk for more information and prices.
Flooded forests in Estonia
Talinn might be famous for its stag fraternity but away from the bright lights and booze of the Estonian capital, nature reigns supreme. Particularly striking – and particularly wet – is the Soomaa National Park. Soomaa translates as ‘land of bogs’ and offers up 300 square kilometres of protected wetland to enjoy. Don’t expect to drive around though; Soomaa’s many rivers take the place of roads, while the canoe rather than the car is the mode of transport du jour. Home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, there’s plenty of wildlife to be seen including the beaver, elk, lynx, wolf and brown bear. Birdwatchers will be spoilt for choice.
Stay: Accommodation is limited to say the least at Soomaa, with much of what’s on offer taking the form of tents. Many of the campsites are also hard to find, which makes a package deal a good bet. Much Better Adventures offers a five-day self-guided trip from £90 per person, which includes camping and transport to and from the start and end points. See www.muchbetteradventures.com for more information.
Getting there: There's no need to fly to reach Estonia and there’s a huge range of flight-free options including by train and ferry via Copenhagen and Stockholm, or by Eurostar followed by connecting trains to Rostock and a ferry to Helsinki then on to Tallinn. See www.seat61.com for more information.
Sea kayaking in Scotland
With its multitude of tiny islands, hidden lochs and sandy coves, nowhere lends itself more to exploration by sea than Scotland’s west coast. Starting at the Isle of Gigha off the Kintyre Peninsula, the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail – Europe’s longest – takes in 500 kilometres of craggy coastline ending at the wonderfully named Summer Isles near Ullapool. Highlights include the stunning scenery around Loch Craignish and the chance to get close to the dolphins, eagles and seals that you’ll encounter along the way. Whisky fans will be pleased to note that there’s plenty of scope for distillery stops en route.
Stay: With everything from campsites to eco-luxe hotels lining the coast, you won’t be short of places to stay. While you can guide yourself, Wilderness Scotland offers ‘leave no trace’ trips along the southern part of the route, which include guides, B&B accommodation, packed lunches and, of course, the sea kayaks themselves. Prices start at £845 per person for five days. See www.wildernessscotland.com for more information.
Getting there: Virgin Trains operate daily services between London Euston and Glasgow, where you can change for the ScotRail route to Oban at the southern end of the trail. See www.nationalrail.co.uk for more information.
Canal boating in Bedfordshire
Thanks to the Victorians, the British Isles are crisscrossed by canals. Once the main mode of transport for raw materials, they were usurped by railways and fell into disuse. But the transport world’s loss is everyone else’s gain because canals – and the pretty narrow boats that ply their waters – are the perfect way to see the countryside. One of the longest is the Grand Union canal, which cuts a swathe through Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire and is lined with quaint pubs, glorious countryside and plenty of things to do. Start at Leighton Buzzard and work your way up towards Stoke Bruerne, taking in Woburn Abbey, the Cosgrove Aquaduct and, er, Milton Keynes on the way. At Stoke Bruerne you’ll find a fascinating old Canal Museum and an excellent pub before you turn around and head back to port.
Stay: Waterways Holidays offers a wide range of narrow boats, with some sleeping as many as 12 people. Each boat has a kitchen, comfortable beds and seating areas fore and aft. Prices start at approximately £900 per boat for a full week. See www.waterwaysholidays.com for more information.
Getting there: London Midland operates daily direct services to Leighton Buzzard from London Euston. See www.londonmidland.com for more information, timetables and fares.
Relax by the ‘largest swimming pool in the world’ in Spain
If you’re imagining a colossal water park, then think again because Murcia’s Mar Menor (little sea) is an all-natural affair. Described as ‘the largest swimming pool in the world’ by Hollywood actress, Esther Williams, the Mar Menor is a 70-kilometre long saltwater lagoon separated from the Mediterranean by a 22-kilometre sandbar called La Manga (the sleeve). Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon also boasts 30 sandy beaches and crystal clear waters unsullied by tides or currents. What’s more, at no more than one metre deep, it’s safe for families with small children. Whether you’re there with the kids or not, the surrounding Murcia region has plenty to love, including ancient villages to explore, wonderful locally grown produce and plentiful vineyards. If a beach break with a side order of wine tasting appeals, the Mar Menor has to be top of the list.
Stay: This being Spain, dedicated eco-options are limited but there are plenty of campsites around, although it’s worth bearing in mind that quality varies. If the thought of canvas and sticks leaves you cold, try a rental cottage such as Casas Rural Agapito’s in Torre Pacheco. Close to the Mar Menor, the two cottages offer plenty of space and a garden packed with date palms and lemon trees. For more information and prices, see www.casaruralagapitos.com.
Getting there: Getting to southern Spain without taking to the skies is surprisingly simple. Take the Eurostar to Paris, then hop onto the overnight Elipsos trainhotel to Madrid. From Madrid, it’s a short hop to Murcia. See www.raileurope.co.uk for more information and prices.
Explore the Norwegian Fjords
Fjords (long, narrow inlets) might not be unique to Norway but the Scandinavian country boasts some of the most spectacular. The west coast, particularly around Bergen and Stavanger, is the place to go for fjords, although Oslo also has one. The UNESCO listed Geirangerfjord is the best known and is flanked by towering rocky escarpments, dotted with waterfalls. Linked to Geirangerfjord is Sognefjord – the largest in Norway – which offers spectacular mountain scenery, crystal clear water and three of Norway’s famous mediaeval wooden stave churches.
Stay: Taber Holidays has a ‘Fjord Favourites’ itinerary, which takes in the fjord regions of Voss, Balestrand, Sognefjord and Nordfjord, and includes accommodation, activities and transport. Daily departures from 1st May to 30th September. Prices start at £1496 per person, based on two sharing. For more information, see www.taberhols.co.uk
Getting there: You’ll have to change trains a few times but getting to Norway without taking the plane is entirely possible. Take the Eurostar to Brussels, then hop on a ICE high speed train to Cologne, where you can pick up an overnight sleeper train to the Danish city of Odense. From Odense, pick up another train to the port of Hirtshals for a ferry to Kristiansand in Norway. From Kristiansand, it’s a short hop to Stavanger in fjord country. For more information and fares, go to www.raileurope.co.uk
Island hopping in the Scillies
For a taste of the tropics without leaving dear old Blighty, look no further than the Isles of Scilly. Located 28 miles off the southwest tip of Cornwall, the small archipelago is made up of 10 small islands and 45 islets, all of which benefit from a generously warm climate courtesy of the Gulf Stream. Of the islands, only five are inhabited, while the rest are home to a huge array of wildlife, both marine and land-based. The whole archipelago was designated an area of outstanding natural beauty in 1975 and as a result, is relatively untouched by developers. That’s not to say that wildlife watching is all the Scillies have to offer though. Along with golden sandy beaches, there’s a huge range of water sports to get stuck into, including surfing, kayaking and sailing. If it’s the latter you’re after, Bryher’s Bennett Boatyard lets you charter small boats from which you can explore the islets in style.
Stay: Perched on the clifftops overlooking Bryher’s Hell Bay, the Hell Bay Hotel combines sustainable luxury with spectacular sea views. Green initiatives include everything from composting paper and food waste to recycling water and making use of eco-friendly cleaning products. Rooms start at £135 per night. For more information, see www.hellbay.co.uk
Getting there: Take the Night Riviera sleeper train from London Paddington to Penzance, where you can pick up ferries to the Isles of Scilly. The ferry quay in Penzance is a 10-minute walk from the station. For more information, fares and timetables, see www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk
Bare all in Skagen
Scandinavians are notoriously sanguine about nudity and it should come as no surprise that Denmark’s prettiest beach also caters for the au naturel set. Skagen is a tiny picturesque peninsula that stretches out into the North Sea off the top of Jutland, and boasts mile after mile of squeaky clean golden sand. While you won’t have to look hard for a decent beach, the best is Skagen Nordstrand, close to Skagen town. Here you’ll find ultra clean water, wonderful sea views and fellow beach goers with a less-is-more approach to apparel. If you share the locals' penchant for flashing the flesh, visit in summer and be prepared for goosebumps – the North Sea is chilly year round. If not, 200 metres down the beach from the naturist section is the part for everyone else – swimsuits included.
Stay: Although the holiday cottage concept isn’t as developed as it is in Finland, the Danes love a good self-catering cottage and as a result, there’s plenty to choose from. Danish Holiday Homes has a wide range of cabins and cottages on offer, including a couple within walking distance of the beach. Typically, interiors tend towards the minimal, while the majority have been constructed from local timber. For more information and prices, see www.danishholidayhomes.com
Getting there: DFDS Seaways (www.dfdsseaways.co.uk) operates daily services to the Danish port of Ebsjerg from Harwich in Essex. From Ebsjerg you can pick up Express Bus 980 to Frederikshavn, and from there it’s a short train ride to Skagen. See www.ekspresbus.dk for more information, timetables and fares.
Walk the Fishermen’s Trail in Alentejo
One of the two trails making up the newly launched Rota Vicentina walking route, the 122 kilometre Fisherman’s Trail starts at Portugal’s most southwesterly point, the cliffs of Cape St Vincent in the Algarve, before finishing up at the sleepy fishing village of Porto Covo in Alentejo. A far cry from the heavily developed tourist hotspots of the south coast, expect deserted golden sand beaches, spectacular Atlantic views and plenty of wildlife. The Fisherman’s trail also runs close by the wonderful Ilha do Pessegueiro (island of the peach tree), a now deserted island fortress built in the 15th century. There’s also Roman ruins to explore and wonderful views of the coastline opposite.
Stay: Hotel Porto Covo is centrally located and close enough to the Fisherman’s Trail that walking to your hiking route is easy. What’s more, it boasts a decidedly green approach and was furnished using local, natural materials. Rooms are comfortable and inexpensive, with prices starting at £38 per person per night. For more information, see www.hotelportocovo.com
Get there: As with Spain, getting to Portugal by train requires a bit of planning but is entirely possible and offers plenty of scope for sightseeing. Take the Eurostar to Paris, then head to the Gare d’ Austerlitz for the overnight Elipsos trainhotel to Madrid. From there, pick up the Lusitania Trenhotel to Lisbon, where you can pick up a bus for the short two-hour journey to Porto Covo. See www.raileurope.co.uk for timetables and fares, and www.rede-expressos.pt for comprehensive information on buses.
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