A penchant for global travel does not have to be accompanied by a gnawing sense of guilt and promises to offset your carbon footprint. Melanie O’Shea shares six favourites – where the journey is as inspired as the destination
The Luberon, France
Spread over 230sqm beneath the chalky tip of Mont Ventoux, the Luberon Natural Park is sensorial Provence at its pinnacle. The air is heady here with lavender, the fields iridescent with their staggering violet-coloured lines. Swifts dart noisily over pétanque pitches full of seasoned competitors and on through the cobbled alleyways of the enticing hilltop villages. The area’s rosé terroirs produce the palest, most divine varieties in the world, and cherries fall from the bowed branches at first touch, leaving stained fingertips and little wonder that this is a gastronomic outpost for some of France’s best chefs. Base yourself in Bonnieux – try the wonderful Hotel Capelongue – and be sure to book a table at Le Fournil, an in-the-know institution for on-point French cuisine. Visit the lavender festival in Sault; wander the ochre gorges of Roussillon; cruise the cobbles of Gordes, Goult and Lacoste (following in the fashionable footsteps of Pierre Cardin), before shopping for spices, soaps and antiquities in the markets of Isle sur la Sorgue.
How? By train – Eurostar to Paris, then a TGV to Avignon (2hrs 40mins). A hire car will see you to Bonnieux in under an hour.
Cantabria is Spain’s wild, soulful and free-spirited territory, with miles of sandy beaches, consistent surf-breaks, dramatic cliffs and caves all dramatically bordered by the ever-present backdrop of the Picos mountains. Named after their unusually steep rocky peaks, the ancient Atlantic mountain ecosystem of the Picos de Europa National Park is home to oak and beech forests, brown bears, Iberian wolves, Cantabrian chamois and Egyptian eagles; an absolute haven for those in need of some wild hiking time. There are 30 self-guided walking routes across the 12-mile mountain range, making it worth staying in one of the atmospheric wooden refugios, so you can hike straight from the door and soak up the breathtaking views. Follow this with an exploration of the stunning Cantabrian coast. Hotel Casa del Marqués in Santillana del Mar is an evocative 15th-century casona and an ideal setting to make your base. Don’t miss the fabulous seafood at El Cazurro on Playa La Arnia in Liencres, a cliff-top walk at Ruiloba followed by haute cuisine at El Remedio, or sunset cocktails at El Castillo de Los Locos in Suances. If you want to walk off the indulgence, the Camino de Santiago runs straight through the area.
How? By boat – Brittany Ferries runs cleaner, gas-powered ferries between Portsmouth and Santander twice a week.
Nothing can prepare you for the beauty of the Isles of Scilly. They may only be 28 miles off the coast of mainland Britain, but they feel utterly unique, otherworldly, breathtakingly beautiful and the definition of an idyllic island retreat. Each of the five inhabited islands has its own character – ferries dock in the largest of them, St Mary’s, with endless smaller boats heading out hourly to the outlying islands. For a slice of island luxury, stay at Hell Bay Hotel on Bryher and hire a speed boat from Hut 62 for days of island hopping and exploring. Be sure to visit Tresco, to wander the dunes and leave soft footprints on the pristine white sandy beaches, eat at the Ruin Beach Café, drink at The New Inn and wander the renowned Tresco Abbey Gardens. Hop across to St Martin’s for a swim alongside the friendly local wildlife with Seal Snorkelling Adventures, or a tasting tour of St Martin’s Vineyard, followed by wonderful seafood at the Cloudesley Shovell Restaurant and a local brew with a view at the quirkily eclectic Seven Stones Inn.
How? By boat – the Scillonian runs daily from Penzance, an evocative night-train ride away from Paddington.
The chic Parisians’ holiday destination of choice, this small picture-perfect island off La Rochelle on the west coast of France is an absolute haven for sailing, cycling and gastronomy. Ditch the car, hire a bike from YooToo or a horse from Centre Equestre de Ré and explore the pine forests, vineyard trails and miles of sandy beaches. For whitewashed calm, stay at Villa Clarisse in Saint-Martin or, to be in the centre of people-watching heaven, Hôtel de Toiras. Be sure to eat the freshest of fresh oysters directly from the cabanes of the producers dotted along the shoreline bike-path – Ré Ostréa and L’Escale du Marais are both incredible. Wander the food markets of La Flotte to fill your bike basket with a picnic, then pedal west for some of the emptiest white-sand beaches imaginable (Plage de la Conche des Baleines and Plage de Trousse Chemise – two hushed local tip-offs). Sunset cocktails or ice buckets of chilled rosé are at their very best from the wine cellar at George’s, a restaurant where the heaven-sent food competes for attention with the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and sublime harbour vista.
How? By boat and road – take the ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo, then a four-hour drive.
Set off an awe-inspiring road trip with a wild Celtic soul. With its brooding mountains gently encircling pristine sandy beaches, vertiginous waterfalls tumbling into translucent lakes and the omnipresent Atlantic swell pounding its majestic cliffs, the remote beauty of Ireland’s County Kerry is matched only by the craic of the locals’ welcome. The Ring of Kerry is a circuitous 110-mile road around the Iveragh Peninsula, with show-stealing views around every bend and some unbeatable road-trip highlights. Stay at Sheen Falls Lodge for a taste of indulgent luxury, or Parknasilla for its stunning location right on Kenmare Bay. Start and end your journey in Kenmare town with breakfast at Maison Gourmet bakery and fantastic evening folk sessions at Crowley’s. Stop off at Derrynane, arguably the most beautiful beach in Europe. Hop on a boat-trip out to the Skellig Islands for some dolphin spotting or to walk in the footsteps of the Star Wars cast. Visit Dingle for its fabulous fish eateries (regulars rave about The Chart House); marvel at the Torc Waterfall and the lakes in Killarney National Park and perch on Moll’s Gap for views of Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohill, in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks.
How? By boat and road – take the ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare, then a three-and-a-half-hour drive.
Opt for a beautiful, moving and historic bastion of a break. Exploring war memorabilia may not be your idea of a dream holiday, but a day spent walking the Normandy beaches, visiting the huge cemeteries and absorbing the history in the museums (the D-Day Museum at Utah Beach is a prime example) is an educational, humbling and deeply moving experience. But there is a lot more to this area than its poignant past. Base yourself in St Malo, an impressive small city whose medieval ramparts offer an extraordinary view along the stunning coastline. Le Grand Bé is a design hotel just off the beach; for more authentic French charm, try L’Ascott. Once the domain of explorers (Jacques Cartier discovered Canada from here) and royally appointed pirates known as Corsairs, St Malo is now a haven of cobbled streets, pavement cafés and fabulous beaches. Gorge on seafood and local ciders, enjoy the sea-pool at Plage de Bon Secours or discover Plage du Nicet for a more remote, secluded swim. Mont Saint-Michel is a wonderful day trip away, as is the fascinating town of Bayeux, with its huge cathedral and eponymous tapestry.
How? By boat – take the ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo.
From discovering secret surf spots in the Yucatán, getting under the skin of Tel Aviv, or sniffing out the best pastries in Paris, join the fastest growing community of in-the-know travellers sharing firsthand experiences of the greatest places on earth, delivered straight to your inbox every week.