Without wings: 11 no-fly adventures for 2020 and beyond

We seek out the best adventures on ground level, from riding the rails to hitting the open road.

By Tom Chesshyre
Published 7 Nov 2019, 06:00 GMT
Van with a view: the mountains of Steyr, Austria.

There are plenty of reasons to look beyond the skies. But where do you start?

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Go interrailing through Europe

Interrailing is no longer the preserve of youngsters ‘finding themselves’ — it’s an option for everyone. Europe’s rail network is particularly extensive, and getting there from our shores is a simple matter of catching a Eurostar train or a ferry.

Admittedly, there’s still some confusion about Interrail passes. This is because when they were first introduced in 1972 they were only available to those aged 21 or younger. Various slight changes to this age limit were brought in over the years — as well as the introduction of a special pass for those aged over 65 in 1979. It was only in 1998 that the Interrail pass was extended to all age groups, although the system is still slanted towards younger travellers, with discounts for those aged under 27.

Europe really is your oyster with an Interrail pass in your pocket, and for those who prefer not to slum it in standard class, first-class passes are also available.

Photograph by Getty Images

It’s possible to buy country-specific passes but the greatest pleasure is to be had by setting yourself free across the Continent with an Interrail Global Pass, which covers 31 European countries and 40,000 destinations. Europe really is your oyster with one of these in your pocket, and for those who prefer not to slum it in standard class, first-class passes are also available. Whichever class you travel in, bear in mind that to get to and from a coastal port you have just one inbound and one outbound journey within the British Isles, respectively.

It seems rather prescriptive to suggest a route given the beauty of the random nature of such trips. However, one excellent itinerary might, for example, take you from London to Calais, via Dover, and then onwards to Lille, with its Flemish-influenced architecture and bric-a-brac markets; Bruges, with its labyrinthine alleyways and dream-like canals; the beer gardens of Munich; Zagreb, Croatia’s pretty capital; the party atmosphere of Serbia’s Belgrade; the ancient Bulgarian city of Plovdiv; and onwards to Istanbul. Stay for a few days, then meander back, perhaps via Romania, Hungary, Austria, Italy and France. Or don’t. Just make up your own route.

How to do it
A month-long adult Global Pass, travelling in standard class, costs from €218 (£188). This price includes three days’ train travel. Discounts are available for youths ages (12-27), seniors and families.

Once awkward to plot, the European road trip is today easier than ever to navigate.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. Road trip your way around Europe

The phrase ‘road trip’ tends to conjure up images of America; of Route 66 and of Jack Kerouac tearing across the Midwest in search of soulful inspiration. The US invented mass-market motor vehicles and is so vast, with so many highways that the country simply seems made for this type of adventure.

By contrast, Europe seems encumbered by far too many tolls and traffic jams. The European road trip is traditionally something to be endured, with luggage piled up and maybe kids glued to cartoons in the back. Yet all of this is beginning to change and there are two possible reasons for the shift: widespread internet coverage and some very handy accommodation websites.

In the past, heading off on a long drive and not quite knowing where you were going next could land you in all sorts of bother. While America has long had roadside motels — ‘motor hotels’, built around parking lots, designed for those drifting about in cars — Europe doesn’t. But with hotel and apartment booking sites it’s possible to head off where you like and make choosing your next place to stay all part of the fun, even with kids on board.

There are plenty of options. For example, you could sail with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to the northern Spanish city of Santander, then explore the regions of Cantabria, Navarra and the Basque Country — before pushing on through the Pyrenees into Southern France, nipping into Italy and through the beautiful scenery of Lake Como and Lake Lugano. Head on into Switzerland before looping back to Calais for the ferry home. Alternatively, sail to Calais and make for the Baltic States via Germany and Poland, with the picturesque Estonian capital of Tallinn as your target.

How to do it
Book a ferry or Eurotunnel ticket and go. You need insurance and breakdown cover, as well a warning triangle, reflective jackets for all passengers and a breathalyser (these are compulsory in France). See the RAC website for information and a checklist. On the road see Hotels.comBooking.com and Airbnb.

Walking tours have boomed in popularity as specialist companies have sprung up offering trips of all kinds.

Photograph by Getty Images

3. Go walking in the Alps

The Alps have long held a fascination for the British, with the golden age of alpinism of the mid-19th century remaining alive in the minds of many. Edward Whymper’s ascent of the Matterhorn in Switzerland in 1865 is often seen as the period’s the symbolic pinnacle of achievement during that heady period and his book, Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69, brings to life the excitement of the era.

These days, however, it’s not just about reaching peaks; walking tours have boomed in popularity as specialist companies have sprung up offering trips pitched at ‘scramblers’ of all kinds. These mountain breaks often have an emphasis on wellbeing, with routes following signposted trails with hotels or mountain lodges at the end of each day. If carrying your own backpack sounds like too much hard work, luggage transfers are available.

Many marvellous hikes are to be had in the Austrian Lake District, the Italian Dolomites and around Mont Blanc in France. In Switzerland, the 130-mile route from the Eiger to the Matterhorn is perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring European journeys for those with at least moderate hiking ability. Beginning in the town of Meiringen, close to where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle imagined Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty locked in a fight by the Grand Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem, the trail leads onwards to Grindelwald by the Eiger, where hotels overlook the mountain’s notorious north face. It was to here that tourists flocked in the 19th century to watch daredevil climbers tackle the treacherous ascent.

From the shadow of the Eiger, paths spread out via Wengen, Mürren, Grieselp, Kanderstag, Leukerbad (a spa town), Salgesch (famous for its vineyards), Gruben to Zermatt, with Whymper’s Matterhorn rising majestically in the distance. Part of the brilliance of these late-spring and summer high-mountain walks is that winter ski lifts can whisk you to the most interesting sections (as they do at the Matterhorn). In Zermatt, a great little museum tells the history of the first ascent of the mountain, while in the town’s graveyard you can pay your respects to intrepid climbers who died pursuing the peaks.

How to do it
Inntravel has a 14-night self-guided Eiger to Matterhorn break from £2,595 per person, including half-board accommodation, some meals, luggage transfer and trains to and from London.

Eurostar trips offer plenty more options to satisfy voracious appetites for new city breaks.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Jump on the Eurostar

Love them or loathe them, budget airlines have changed everything. The ability to whisk ourselves away to interesting European cities for a pittance has transformed our notion of travel. Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizz Air have us flying to new destinations on a whim.

But you don’t have to take to the skies for this; there’s also Eurostar. Since May 1994, when the Channel Tunnel opened for business, Paris, Brussels, Lille, Bruges and Amsterdam have been the top destinations for train travellers, but there are plenty more options to satisfy our voracious appetite for new city breaks. How about Dijon? Or Antwerp? Or Luxembourg, Rotterdam, Marseilles, Tours, Frankfurt or Cologne?

Dijon, for example, in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region, has a rich history dating back to the Dukes of Burgundy, an attractive medieval centre, famous mustard, first-rate wines, picturesque lakes, fascinating museums and galleries packed with works by Cézanne, Monet and Rodin. What’s more, it’s five hours from St Pancras International, via a change to a TGV train in Paris.

Or why not tick off somewhere more obscure, like Luxembourg, with its delightful Old Town, combining medieval fortifications, ancient spires and dramatic cliffs plunging to a deep gorge. The capital of the Grand Duchy is a relaxing spot with lovely walks in the surrounding countryside, a 16th-century ducal palace and historic defensive tunnels to explore (Luxembourg’s nickname is the Gibraltar of the North due to its almost impregnable fortress-like setting). Day trips by train to Trier in Germany take you to Roman ruins and the Karl Marx House Museum, where the man who co-authored The Communist Manifesto was born in 1818. It’s an easy five hours and 15 minutes journey time from St Pancras International, via Paris.

Yet more Roman remains can be explored on weekends away in Cologne, with its brilliant Romano-Germanic Museum, stupendous cathedral, fine art galleries, national football museum and numerous lively beer halls in its Old Town — all just five hours and 10 minutes from London. 

How to do it
Oui.sncf has London St Pancras International-Dijon returns from around £140 and Luxembourg or Cologne returns from £160. Tickets to Rotterdam, Frankfurt, Marseilles, Tours and Antwerp are also available.

Spain's rail network casts a spider's web across the country, making getting around remarkably easy.

Photograph by Getty Images

5. Get to Spain on a train

In 1992, Spain’s first high-speed AVE line opened between Madrid and Seville. The network now casts a spider’s web across the country, calling at Cádiz, Málaga, Alicante, Barcelona, Girona, Léon and Zaragoza, among many other places. There’s also an excellent mini-network of lines in Galicia, in the north west, connecting the famous pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela with the handsome ports of Vigo and A Coruña. It’s now remarkably easy to get around Spain by train very quickly indeed — quite something, given how far behind the rest of Europe Spain’s trains had fallen by the end of the 1980s.

Add to this a fleet of Media Distancia (Medium Distance) trains that also scoot about at over 100 miles an hour, as well as slower regional trains, and it’s possible to reach intriguing corners of the country that you might not otherwise visit. One of the best lines for scenery is between Almería, with its golden beach and Moorish castle, and historic Granada. The train weaves between the spectacular, snow-tipped peaks of the Sierra Nevada after traversing the rugged wilderness of the semi-arid Tabernas Desert, which feels more African than European in places.

As an inspiring alternative, take the regional line from Cuenca, in central Spain, with its hilltop cathedral and ‘hanging houses’ overlooking a gorge, to Valencia, Spain’s third city, and enjoy a pleasant trundle through pine-clad hills and across marvellous viaducts. One of the highlights of this ride is the arrival at Valencia’s Estació railway station, with its gorgeous art nouveau ticket hall and palatial exterior. Completed in 1917, this must be one of the finest stations in Europe.

Train aficionados will also love the Renfe Feve narrow gauge railway across the north coast between the French border, San Sebastián, Bilbao, Santander, Oviedo and Ferrol. The trains here really do rattle along, crossing mountain ranges and hugging the coast. Along the way, it’s possible to spot pilgrims marching on their way to Santiago (another no-fly way of getting about, of course). Is Spain now Europe’s best country for trains? Very possibly.

How to do it
Trains from St Pancras International to Figueres in Spain, a good starting point for an adventure (and home to the excellent Dalí Theatre-Museum), start from around £94 one-way. Tickets in Spain can be bought from Trainline, Loco2, or direct from Renfe, Spain’s main train operator.

Eurostar’s ski train service from London to the French Alps takes just under nine hours.

Photograph by Getty Images

6. Swap the plane for the train on your next ski trip

Air travel and ski trips aren’t great bedfellows: flying with your own skis and boots can often tip you over the airline baggage allowance, and airports in Europe are often quite a long way from the slopes — after all, it’s not easy to build a runway amid the peaks. Trains, however, can snake into the valleys close to ski resort. Plus, given there’s usually no weight limit for luggage, transporting your own equipment tends to be far less hassle.

Eurostar’s ski train service from London St Pancras to the French Alps takes just under nine hours to reach its first international stop, Moûtiers-Salins. From here, it’s a short coach ride to the renowned Three Valleys ski resort, home to Courchevel, Meribel and Val Thorens. The train then carries on to Aime La Plagne, followed by Bourg-Saint-Maurice. From this final destination, it’s a 40-minute bus ride to Val d’Isère. Travellers can choose from the 09.45 departure on Saturdays or the overnight 19.45 departure on Fridays and Saturdays; similar times are available on the return journeys, which depart on Saturdays and Sundays.

How to do it
Eurostar offers returns on its ski train from £160. 

7. Board an eco-conscious voyage

In August, teenage Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic by yacht in order to attend the United Nations climate summit in New York. Thunberg, who chose to avoid air travel because of its contribution to carbon emissions, sailed aboard a yacht fitted with solar panels and underwater turbines. Her aim? A zero-carbon voyage.

This isn’t, of course, an option for everyone — but even if you don’t have access to an eco-yacht, it’s worth considering the new raft of more eco-conscious ships on the horizon.

Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten introduced a hybrid vessel, the MS Roald Amundsen earlier this year. It’s the world’s first battery-powered hybrid cruise ship and is set to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by sailing with electrical propulsion. Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot, meanwhile, will be the world’s first hybrid-powered luxury ice-breaker when it launches in 2021. The ship will be capable of plotting new polar courses with minimal environmental impact, including a number of adventures in partnership with National Geographic Expeditions.

How to do it
Ponant’s eight-day ‘From the English Shores to Ireland’ trip, which starts in London and ends in Dublin, starts from £2,208 per person.

Neist Point Lighthouse at sunset, Isle of Skye, Scotland.
Photograph by AWL Images

8. Follow the beaten track around Hadrian's Wall 

After a visit to Britain in AD 122, the Roman emperor Hadrian ordered his army to build a wall to keep out the ‘barbarians’. Six years later, with 3.7 million tonnes of stones having been hauled into place, his vision was complete, stretching 73 miles from Wallsend, near Newcastle, to Bowness-on-Solway. Today, it’s one of the marvels of the Roman Empire and makes for a perfect week-long walk.

The scale of the accomplishment is mind-blowing, and the sense of achievement gained from covering the length of the National Trail (84 miles in total, due to the path meandering from the wall at places) is magnificent. Although you might catch a helpful tailwind when travelling from west to east (Bowness to Wallsend), the most popular route is from Wallsend to Bowness, seeing the wall as a Roman legionnaire might have for the first time. The hilly section near the village of Once Brewed in Northumberland is perhaps the most spectacular of the trail, offering sweeping Pennine views.

How to do it
Visit the National Rail website. Also, check out Hadrian’s Wall Path: Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway by Henry Stedman & Daniel McCrohan (Trailblazer Publications), RRP £11.99.

9. Circumnavigate the UK or island-hop in Scotland

Holidaying at home needn’t mean staying firmly on UK soil. Why not take a cruise and see the country from a new perspective? There are plenty of options for circumnavigating the British Isles: some ships set off from Tilbury, journey northwards around Scotland and head back via the Irish Sea; others set sail in Liverpool and head southwards along the Channel, then up to the Shetland Islands, returning via Belfast. Some of the most indulgent organised cruises involve hopping between the islands of the Hebrides, stopping off at Oban, Islay and Jura to sample wee drams of Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Kilchoman whiskies. Alternatively, plan your own island-hopping adventure in Scotland by taking advantage of the many services run by CalMac Ferries.

How to do it
Royal Scottish offers a six-night ‘The Spirit of the Sea’ cruise from £2,739 per person. For independent journeys around Scotland, see the Caledonian MacBrayne website; for British Isles cruises, visit the Cruise & Maritime Voyages or Saga websites.

More information
The Kingdom by the Sea by Paul Theroux (Penguin Books), RRP £10.99; Coasting by Jonathan Raban (Eland Publishing), RRP £12.99.

The Orient Express — now known as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — is inextricably linked with the golden age of travel, captured by Agatha Christie.

Photograph by Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

10. Revisit the golden age of travel

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot has his work cut out solving a particularly unusual murder, but the real star of the novel is perhaps the sumptuous train itself. The Orient Express — now known as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — remains as opulent as it was when the book was published in 1934 and, as such, is inextricably linked with the era of travel captured by Christie. Original dining carriages feature crisp white linen, brass fittings, wooden marquetry, velvet curtains, stewards in peaked caps… it’s as though the whole place is frozen in time. This is train travel at its very best. Were he around today, George Nagelmackers, the Belgian behind the first of these trains in 1883, would surely be delighted.

How to do it
Planet Rail offers a trip from £2,950 per person, including one night on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, three nights in Venice and one night in Montreux, plus first-class travel between London and Venice, and transfers in Paris and Venice.

11. Retrace Britain's history along the Thames Path

A watery timeline of the nation’s past, the River Thames has seen it all. In fact, Churchill once described the river as ‘a golden thread of our nation’s history’.

Indeed, from invasions by Romans and Vikings to the signing of Magna Carta, a number of pivotal moments in Britain’s history have played out on or beside England’s longest river. Let the history guide you on a walk down the banks, perhaps choosing a section to cover over a long weekend or even attempting the whole lot. The river runs for 215 miles from its source in a meadow in Trewsbury Mead, Gloucestershire, and touches eight counties before emptying into the North Sea. The official Thames Path, meanwhile, is 184 miles, ending at the Thames Barrier. There are plenty of hostelries along the way to break the journey, some offering rooms or tent pitches. Start at the Thames Head Inn in Cirencester and, if going the whole way, finish your with a trek with a tipple at the Anchor & Hope near the barrier.

More information
Check National Rail's website. Also, try Thames Path: Thames Head to the Thames Barrier by Joel Newton (Trailblazer Publications), RRP £11.99.

Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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