Winning tip: Castle stay near Tarbert, Mull of Kintyre
When a friend suggested a weekend trip to Scotland as opposed to Rome or Bruges, I was sceptical. But as we journeyed through the country I was taken aback by the vast and ethereal landscapes. And at 19th-century Stonefield Castle, with sweeping turrets and elegant well-tended gardens, near the lovely fishing village of Tarbert, my Scottish love affair began. Delicious seafood from the neighbouring Loch Fyne and glasses of malbec consumed over scrabble in the library made the weekend even more magical. No need for a car: from Glasgow, take the number 926 bus from Buchanan bus station straight to the front door – a three-hour ride but very scenic.
• Doubles from £74 B&B, bespokehotels.com
Volcanic lake, Azores
I was lucky enough to visit the São Miguel (the largest island), Pico and Faial this summer and was blown away by the natural beauty, stunning food and excellent wine (a carafe of vinho verde is just €5). In particular, Lagoa do Fogo on São Miguel stands out as being one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I was surprised that the islands are still quiet and unspoilt by mass tourism.
Coastal bolthole, Normandy
On a recent trip to Étretat we found the most special maison d’hôtes, Castel de la Terrasse. Estelle, the owner, gave us warm welcome and showed us to our perfect chambre, French Line. Our view over the roof tops to the bay with its chalk needles and back across rolling hills was sublime. Everything was gorgeous, including our locally sourced organic breakfast, served in the ornate dining room by Bernadette. The location of the Castel is ideal for exploring the dramatic Côte d’Albatre, and the town, loved by impressionist artists Monet and Pissaro, and by le grand écrivan Guy de Maupassant, for its beauty.
• Doubles from €135 B&B, casteldelaterasse.com
Serenity at the summit, Norway
In September I walked the celebrated route to Pulpit Rock (after a ferry and bus from Stavanger). But on local advice, the next day I turned left after the zipline (from the same starting point as the Pulpit Rock walk), through trampled undergrowth and past a stop sign. Then the markings for the hike up 718-metre Moslifjellet show themselves. I found the quietness and proximity to wilderness a fantastic shock and was suddenly aware of all the unfamiliar wildlife around me. The summit provides spectacular views of the archipelago and fjords.
Stacking up the sights, Caithness
As the crow flies, the UK’s most northeasterly point of Duncansby Head, in Caithness, is closer to Oslo than London. A short walk south from the lighthouse car park reveals dramatic cliffs overlooking a group of jagged sea stacks. Stake out the aurora borealis in winter and look out for seal pups camouflaged on the shores below. The Stacks Bistro at John O’Groats, which bakes cakes and biscuits everyday, is a popular choice for warming up afterwards.
Top of the lake, Italy
It’s bliss at the top of Monte Stivo. A cold beer and a soup spiced with cumin welcomes hikers at Rifugio Prospero Marchetti. Most people drive half way up but we chose the hard route. Step one: leave your bikes with the friendly man at the convent at Bolognano. Step two: struggle through a few “marked” trails overgrown with chestnut trees. Step three: Resist the temptation to hug the Bernese dogs at Malga Zanga donkey sanctuary and push above the treeline. The reward is a wonderful refuge, not to mention sweeping views of Lake Garda, the dagger-like Piccole Dolomites, and the snow-dashed Brenta peaks.
Peach of a beach restaurant, Essex
An interesting find, on a weekend in Thorpe Bay was a shack on the pebble beach itself, going towards Southend. It is a restaurant called Billy Hundreds built on the beach. It has big windows so there are great views. Apparently the owner’s grandfather used to be a Billingsgate fish porter, his badge was Billy 100. It is very popular, has a limited amount of seating and tables are rather packed in, but we had an excellent lunch and a bottle of wine. The most expensive dish on the menu – mostly consisting of seafood – is rum-battered sea bass at £6.95.
Craters and cheese, Puy-de-Dôme, France
A friendly, shabby-chic village that impresses without forcing itself on you, Saint-Nectaire has a spa, grottos, a stained glass-windowed 12th-century church, waterfalls, trails and chateaux. Lac Chambon, in the crater of a volcano last active 8,000 years ago, is crystal clear and has sandy beaches; hills and snow-capped peaks reflected as volcanic statues. You can rent electric bikes to tackle them. All great. Theres also the semisoft Saint-Nectaire cheese. Beautiful. Try a fondue and make sure you take some chunks for a trek up the local peaks. We thought Le Cave du Terroir (on Route de Saillant, no website) meant “Terror Cave”, and almost didn’t pop in. Turns out it’s a fantastic artisan cheesemaker.
Forest fun on foot, Latvia
A short train ride from pretty Riga, Sigulda famous for its walking stick workshop (there are many quirky sculptures of walking sticks dotted around), the houses are out of a fairytale, and the area is dotted with castles standing out against the backdrop of forest. There’s a great walking trail out of the town and across a gushing river to woods, caves and abandoned buildings. You can ride across on a cable car, but save this as a treat for the end after a day’s hiking. There are great cycling trails too.
Arty rooms of Rapallo, near Genoa
This year we found the best B&B ever: Villa Devoto in the historic centre of Rapallo, Liguria. Between the railway station and the ferry stop to Portofino, this sumptuous building is adorned with internal and external frescoes and is protected by the Italian Fine Arts Society. The three huge, airy bedrooms are themed on poetry, painting and music. There’s a library and fitness room and a gated, quiet garden where we breakfasted, and frequently picnicked in the evenings on treats from the nearby deli.
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