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52 of the best flight-free weekend escapes

Turning to rails, roads and waterways for transport doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a short getaway. From wild island escapes in Wales to eco adventures in Copenhagen, we bring you 52 of the best weekend escapes — all without getting on an airplane.

Published 19 Apr 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 28 Apr 2021, 11:42 BST
Forgoing flights doesn't mean your options are limited to the UK: with a little patience and ...

Forgoing flights doesn't mean your options are limited to the UK. National Geographic Traveller has compiled 52 of the finest no-fly weekend escapes, from communing with seabirds on a remote Pembrokeshire island and road-tripping down Ireland’s dramatic Copper Coast to riding the trails through the Swiss Alps.

Photograph by Getty Images / National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Long weekends away punch well above their weight. In terms of memories-per-minute, they offer great value, and with the right inspiration, you can pack an unforgettable adventure into just a handful of precious days. This year, interest in flight-free trips is rising as many travellers recalibrate their approach to travel after an imposed hiatus. But turning to rails, roads and waterways for transport doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a short getaway, nor does forgoing flights mean your options are limited to the UK: with a little patience and planning, it’s perfectly possible to venture further afield. From Suffolk to Spain, here are 52 of the best getaways.

Puffins on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales.

Photograph by Getty Images

WILDLIFE WEEKENDS

1. Communing with puffins on Skomer island

Wales
On the beautiful Pembrokeshire island of Skomer, a bird reserve since 1959, puffins begin arriving in early April. At first, they come and go, gathering the confidence to settle in earnest. Then, come August, once the breeding season is over, the last few depart. During the busy summer months in between, day-tripping visitors scud across from the mainland in open-decked boats (a journey of about 10 minutes) to see them. If you book an overnight stay at the island field station of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, you can commune with puffins from dawn to dusk — long after the day-trippers depart.

2. Birdwatching in the Dordogne

France
High-speed trains can zip you from London to the woodlands and wetlands of southwest France in under six hours. Visit in early spring, and you’ll see birds galore, including firecrests, kingfishers and owls. wildlifeworldwide.com

3. Lynx-watching in the Doñana National Park

Spain
See how Spain has been restoring the habitat of the Iberian lynx, a critically endangered apex predator, as part of a Europe-wide effort to re-wild crucial landscapes. naturetrek.co.uk

4. Horse-riding on the beach in Suffolk

England
What could be more invigorating than a gallop across East Anglia’s gleaming sands at low tide? Evenings are spent in a Victorian B&B. equestrian-escapes.com

5. Dolphin-watching on the ferry to Corsica

France
The waters around Corsica form the marine-protected Pelagos Sanctuary, which harbours thousands of dolphins and whales — so there’s every chance you’ll see some as you motor across. corsica-ferries.co.uk

A Victorian bandstand in Brighton, a city offering top vegan fare and avant-garde art. 

Photograph by Getty Images

UNUSUAL CITY ESCAPES

6. Following Brussels’ Comic Book and Street Art routes

Belgium
Astérix and Obélix, Tintin and the Smurfs: they’re all honoured with colourful murals in Brussels, the self-declared world capital of comic book art. More than 50 buildings in the city centre are decorated with visual one-liners, adding quirky humour to the urban environment. The Parcours BD (Comic Book Route) has been growing steadily since the 1990s, with new works appearing from time to time. Digital maps make them easy to find. On your wanderings, keep an eye open for street art. The city’s most famous names include Bonom, who paints bizarre prehistoric creatures, typographic artist Denis Meyers and the iconoclastic Defo 84. Like the Parcours BD, the Parcours Street Art has an official map, with an image of a spray can marking each spot. 

7. Nipping across to Dublin for the perfect pint of Guinness

Ireland
Guinness is brewed all over the world, but St James’s Gate Brewery is its true home. With the Dublin Swift ferry from Holyhead taking a little over two hours, you can be there in a trice. After touring the brewery, enjoy views of the city with your perfectly poured pint.

8. Biking, boating and ballooning in Bristol

England
Ride the Avon Cycleway, try dinghy-sailing in the Floating Harbour, go for a ferry trip under the Clifton Suspension Bridge or explore The Matthew, a replica of a Tudor ship. You can even float over the city in a hot air balloon.

9. Fashion and frescoes in Milan

Italy
Blessed with splendid ecclesiastical art such as the frescoes in the Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, there’s far more to Milan than swish boutiques. But for shoppers, they’ll guarantee a weekend of bliss.

10. A wild weekend in alternative Brighton

England
Brighton is a city where difference is celebrated. Enjoy top vegan fare, avant-garde art in May and June, as part of the Artists Open Houses festival, and sip cocktails with drag queens in bars where anything goes.

A cyclist in Oosterend, north Holland, passes Het Noorden windmill, built in 1878.

Photograph by Getty Images

ULTIMATE CYCLING ADVENTURES

11. Biking the North Sea Cycle Route

The Netherlands
Arriving by ferry, you’ll be perfectly placed for a ride along EuroVelo 12 (EV12), one of 17 long-distance routes developed by the European Cyclists’ Federation as part of a project to connect and unite the continent. As well as the Netherlands, this 4,400-mile route passes through Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, France and the UK. There’s plenty to see along the Dutch sections of EV12, which bypass the cities for areas of sublime coastal wilderness. If you pedal northeast along the Waddenzee route, you’ll be surrounded by dunes, tidal flats and wetlands. Alternatively, head southwest along the Nordzee route, exploring Oosterschelde National Park, the largest in the country. Check Vrienden op de Fiets (Friends on Bikes), a homestay network for cyclists and walkers, and Fietsers Welkom! (Cyclists Welcome!) for bike-friendly stays. hollandbiketours.com

12. Pedalling around Sark

Channel Islands
There’s always a happy atmosphere on the ferries setting out from Portsmouth and Poole towards Guernsey. Everyone on board knows what’s in store: pretty coves, cliff paths, country lanes and cream teas galore. The journey to Sark requires an extra boat ride and, as the locals are fond of saying, a step back in time. On this tiny island, with its horse-drawn carriages and huge, starry skies, cars are banned. You could explore on foot, but cycling takes you further, following peaceful tracks lined with wildflowers. With no vehicles to worry about, it’s also wonderfully family-friendly.

13. Cycling the Great Trossachs Path

Scotland
Covering much of the western part of the Southern highlands, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is a gorgeous swathe of hills, glens and woodlands, centred on Loch Lomond. Head for the hills on the Caledonian Sleeper from London, and unload your bike at Dunblane for the easy, early-morning ride to Callander, a charming town of Victorian buildings. From here, the glorious, 30-mile Great Trossachs Path sweeps west, winding past bluebell woods and waterfalls en route to the RSPB’s Inversnaid Nature Reserve right on the bank of Loch Lomond. scotlandsgreattrails.com

14. Joining the Tour de France circus

France
Just like the competitors’ bikes, the Tour de France is a well-oiled machine. Before the race arrives in each town, a cavalcade of vehicles rolls in to set up barriers, signage and all the other paraphernalia. This is just the advance party; the cyclists themselves roll in pursued by a fleet of motorbikes, media vehicles, VIP cars and mechanics. Whether you follow the sport like a hawk or are there just for the spectacle, you can’t help but be swept up by the excitement of it all. Wherever you choose to watch the race, you’ll find balconies packed with flag-wavers and bars crammed with enthusiasts, toasting the latest thrilling stage.

15. Electric biking in the Tuscan hills

Italy
You may be keen to work up an appetite — in a region as gastronomically blessed as rural Tuscany, that’s perfectly rational — but that doesn’t mean you have to work up a sweat. Jump on an electric bike, and you can explore remote landscapes that the walkers and day-tripping Fiat 500s can’t reach, without ending the day collapsed in a heap. You could book a fully supported tour, or go it alone, opting for somewhere elegant in Florence or Pisa, or delving into Tuscany’s thriving agriturismo network. Working farms offer comfortable beds, stunning views and hearty home cooking, fuelling you up for the adventures to come. cycling-for-softies.co.uk

16. Cycling in Transylvania

Romania
The foothills of the Carpathians are charming to explore on two wheels. Bike via villages, oak woods and orchid meadows while your luggage is transported for you. theslowcyclist.co.uk

Hikers tackle Scotland’s West Highland Way, a 96-mile route running from Milngavie to Fort William.

Photograph by Getty Images

PILGRIMAGES & HIKING PATHS 


17. Tackling Snowdonia’s 14 Peaks

Wales
So you’ve heard of Snowdon — the highest mountain in Wales, at 3,560ft — but did you know Snowdonia is home to more than a dozen peaks over 3,000ft? Scaling the lot within 24 hours may sound like madness, but that’s exactly what participants in the 14 Peaks Challenge set out to do. For a less daunting adventure, book a five-day 14 Peaks hiking trip. A mountaineering guide will lead you along rugged paths and, come evening, you can soothe tired feet in a comfortable hotel in Betws-y-Coed. adventuretoursuk.com

18. Hiking along the West Highland Way

Scotland
Walking this superb 96-mile route from Milngavie to Fort William normally takes around eight days, although it can be done in five if you set a cracking pace. Alternatively, you could tackle just a short section of the West Highland Way. Heading from south to north, with the southwesterlies at your back, is the best way to enjoy the Highland scenery.

19. Completing the Camino de Santiago

Spain
Whether you’re a pilgrim or are simply drawn to the physical challenge, walking the Camino de Santiago can be a life-changing experience.

20. Walking the Ulster Way to Glenarm 

Northern Ireland
The ferry from Liverpool to Belfast takes visitors close to a scenic stretch of this long-distance walking trail, leading north to Glenarm. If it’s just the two of you, you can rent a miniature castle, The Barbican, for the night. walkni.com  irishlandmark.com 

21. Exploring Cumbria’s Hidden Coast

England
The new 40-mile Hidden Coast trail in Cumbria connects Millom and Whitehaven via the Duddon Estuary, Silecroft and Ravenglass. Along the way is arts trail, Deep Time.

22. Coastal walks and Celtic heritage on the Llŷn Peninsula

Wales
You’ll be following in the footsteps of pilgrims as you head towards Bardsey, the isle of 20,000 saints, at the peninsula’s tip in northwest Wales.

The Bernina Express runs through Graubünden, east Switzerland. 

Photograph by Getty Images

CLASSIC RAILWAY JOURNEYS


23. Winding through the Alps on the Bernina Express

Switzerland
What makes a great rail journey so memorable? The feeling that you’re venturing into areas unseen by road vehicles; the grand views of passing scenery; and, depending on the train, modern comforts such as free wi-fi and a roving mini-bar. It’s for all the above reasons that the Bernina Express is immensely popular. Despite the name, it doesn’t offer a speedy means of getting from A to B (specifically, from Chur, in Graubünden, to Tirano, in Lombardy), but it’s a spectacularly picturesque way to spend a few hours. With gorgeous views of Alpine scenery at every turn, and panoramic windows to frame them, the gentle pace is supremely welcome. tailormaderail.com

24. Taking The West Highland Line into the highlands

Scotland
Passing mountains and moors, the Glasgow-Mallaig stretch of this railway is among the most scenic rail journeys in the world. To enjoy its splendour in style, you can board the Caledonian Sleeper from London Euston to Fort William, then take an onward local service towards Mallaig. Alternatively, book a cabin in the ‘palace on wheels’ that is the Belmond Royal Scotsman, or hop aboard The Jacobite, a pre-war steam train that chuffs its way from Fort William to Mallaig each day during summer. Exciting though it is to be on board, there will be times when you wish you were on a hilltop watching the train sweep by. One such moment comes as your train crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct, just like the Hogwarts Express did in the Harry Potter films.

25. Riding a steam train through the Harz Mountains

Germany
A trip that combines hurtling along a modern German autobahn with pootling through pristine, forested mountains on a steam train? It’s the closest you’ll ever get to time travel. Just under 500 miles from Calais — a distance you could drive in a couple of days, stopping off in cities like Antwerp and Düsseldorf — the Brocken Line from Wernigerode is a steam buff’s dream. Part of the Harz Narrow-Gauge Railway, it spirals its way up the Brocken, north Germany’s highest peak, at 3,747ft. Enthusiasts can learn more about the historic trainline at the workshop next to Wernigerode-Westerntor station, and even take a short course to become an honorary driver. Special experiences are being offered throughout 2021, including a moonlight dining tour, scenic sunset rides and even whisky tastings, held in the saloon carriage, from €149 (£127) per person.

26. Arriving in Venice by sleeper train

Italy
After rolling into the Venezia Santa Lucia station in the milky light of morning, you’ll never want to arrive in Venice any other way. This sleek, modernist station, designed in the 1930s, is on the Grand Canal, just half an hour on foot from St Mark’s Square. Outside the terminal, you’re greeted by vaporetti water-buses and gondolas. As Mark Smith, the man behind trail travel website The Man in Seat 61 puts it, “Savour that moment. It’s arguably the most impressive arrival experience in Europe.” Europe’s much-vaunted night train boom hit the buffers during the Covid-19 pandemic, but is set to surge once more. Modern sleeper compartments can be booked on a private basis, providing a hygienic, eco-friendly and time-efficient means of city-hopping. For Venice, make your way to Munich, then board the excellent Nightjet train for the overnight leg.

27. Zooming to Casablanca by train

Morocco 
Launched in 2018, Al Boraq is Africa’s first bullet train. Travel to Tangier by train and ferry, then continue on — in a flash — to the fascinating Moroccan cities of Rabat and Casablanca.

A gondola makes its way down the Grand Canal in Venice.

Photograph by Getty Images

CULTURAL GETAWAYS

28. Releasing your inner artist on a Devon painting retreat

England
“Creativity takes courage” insist the tutors at Brambles, north of Plymouth, quoting French painter Henri Matisse. If you haven’t dabbed at an easel since your primary school days, it can be daunting to pick up a brush — but, with gentle encouragement amid inspiring surroundings, who knows what you’ll achieve. bramblesartretreat.com

29. Listening to live music at the Festival d’Avignon

France
Few festival venues are as atmospheric as Avignon’s Palais des Papes, which hosts monumental performances each summer. Fringe events at Festival d'Avignon featuring hundreds of independent orchestras, bands and theatre companies run alongside the main programme. 

30. Sampling the Edinburgh Fringe

Scotland
From big-name comedians to little-known poets, there’s endless variety at the legendary annual arts and culture festival, tentatively slated for 6-30 August 2021.

31. Discovering renaissance art in Den Bosch

The Netherlands
Travelling by Eurostar to the Low Countries is an excellent move. Skip busy Amsterdam and Bruges and make a detour to Den Bosch instead, a lovely cathedral city where artist Hieronymus Bosch was born.

The Durrow Viaduct is part of the Waterford Greenway, a 29-mile off-road cycling and walking trail along a former railway line in Ireland’s County Waterford.

Photograph by Getty Images

GREAT ROAD TRIPS

32. Exploring the Copper Coast on wheels

Ireland 
Road tripping in Ireland is a pleasure. But tempting though it may be to plan a mighty drive all the way to the honeypots of Cork and Kerry, concentrate instead on County Waterford’s ruggedly beautiful Copper Coast, a stress-free 55 miles south east from Rosslare seaport. It stretches for 25 miles from the cheerful seaside resort of Tramore to Dungarvan’s pleasant harbour. Named after the copper mines that flourished here in the 19th century, the Copper Coast is now satisfyingly rural. At its heart, between Kilfarrasy and Stradbally, is one of the world’s smallest UNESCO Global Geoparks. Essentially an open-air geological museum, its time-worn rocks bear witness to undersea eruptions, ancient deserts and ice ages. On a half-day or full-day guided tour, you can delve into its unique geology, archaeology and biodiversity, peering at cliffs to estimate their age and unfolding handfuls of seaweed to discover the marine life within.

33. Driving in the Alps on the Stelvio Pass

Italy
The Stelvio Pass, linking Lombardy to South Tyrol, is a thrilling place to prove your prowess behind the wheel: at 9,045ft above sea level, it’s the highest paved mountain road in the world.

34. Touring the lanes of Wicklow in a gypsy caravan

Ireland
Rent a traditional caravan, complete with horse, in rural County Wicklow. After a full briefing, off you’ll clop for a blissfully relaxing break. clissmannhorsecaravans.com

Savoury bites and Cava are on the menu in Barcelona’s xampanyerias (Cava bars).

Photograph by Getty Images

CULINARY SHORT BREAKS

35. Enjoying modern art and pinxtos in Bilbao

Spain
Step off the Portsmouth-to-Bilbao ferry and you can be at the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao within half an hour. From above, it’s shaped like an orchid; from the ground, it’s a gigantic tumble of silvery surf — and since its completion in the 1990s, it has elevated Bilbao beyond all recognition. Its restaurant, Nerua, headed by local chef Josean Alija, is one of the world’s best. To sample the earthier flavours of Bilbao, look no further than a pintxo bar. Like a meal in a (generous) mouthful, pintxos are small chunks of bread topped with thirst-inducing delicacies such as anchovies, bacalao (salt-cured cod), cured meat, olives and cheese, pierced with a cocktail stick. Everyone helps themselves, counting up the sticks at the end in order to pay.

36. Sampling Slow Food in Piedmont

Italy
Conceived amid the UNESCO-listed vineyards of northwest Italy, the Slow Food movement emerged in the 1980s and continues to thrive. Today, its aficionados are gastro-activists who campaign for agricultural biodiversity, support sustainable producers, catalogue endangered traditional ingredients and highlight the delicate relationship between food production and climate change. For a weekend of indulgence, visit the Piedmontese towns of Bra and Alba to gorge on local cheese, beef, white truffles and red wine — all sustainably produced, beautifully presented and naturally delicious. Osteria del Boccondivino, in Bra, and La Piola, in Alba, are excellent places to start.

37. Learn about wild food while foraging in the Alps

France
Some of the best food experiences engage all the senses, tracing the story of each ingredient right back to the moment it was picked. An alpine foraging adventure takes this notion to fabulous extremes: you’ll be sniffing the earth that wild mushrooms, leaves and berries grow in, feeling their natural textures and admiring their colours before tasting their flavours. There will be discoveries along the way — argousier (sea buckthorn) juice, génépi (wormwood) liqueur, fleur de mélèze (larch flower) jam and salads made from dandelions and wild spinach, for example. Begin your trip with a relaxing train ride to the south of France, then venture into the southern Alps with a botanical expert. Once you’ve filled your baskets, it’s back to base for cooking workshops with local chefs. undiscoveredmountains.com

38. Dining on gourmet cuisine in Galway

Ireland
Make your way to Ireland’s west coast to explore the colourful city of Galway — a great place to eat out. Try Michelin-starred Aniar, where chef Jp McMahon works wonders with foraged and locally sourced ingredients, such as sea beet and brill. One of Aniar’s alumni, Enda McEvoy, now has his own ultra-local restaurant, Loam, which won the Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland Sustainability Award 2020.

39. Sipping your way around the Champagne region

France
The wine estates of Reims and Épernay are just 185 miles southeast of Calais. On a tailor-made Champagne break, your hosts will take care of everything, including tastings, meals and rooms in a chateau. grapeescapes.net

40. Tapas and Cava in Barcelona

Spain
At Barcelona’s xampanyerias (Cava bars) expect ceilings hung with cured meat and counters stocked with nibbles such as cheese, ham and morcilla sausage.

Tresco Abbey Garden, Isles Of Scilly.

Photograph by Getty Images

INTO THE GREAT OUTDOORS
 

41. Kayaking for a cleaner planet in Copenhagen

Denmark
Travelling all the way to Copenhagen for a long weekend is a pretty serious undertaking if you’ve decided not to fly. But if you’ll be joining a Green Kayak trip, flight-free is the logical way to arrive. This upbeat environmental organisation arranges group paddles on urban waterways. Open to anyone, their trips are free to join, on the one condition that you pick up any rubbish you encounter and publicise the initiative on social media. Kayaking Copenhagen’s historic canals is good exercise under any circumstances, and joining a cheerful example of activism-in-action adds an extra gloss to the experience. And if you catch the bug, there are partner projects in various countries, including Germany, Ireland, Sweden and Norway, too.

42. Finding hidden coves in Finistère

France
With distinctive traditions and beautiful, tucked-away beaches, Brittany has a far-flung feel, even though it’s just across the Channel. You could take the ferry from Plymouth or Portsmouth to Roscoff or Saint-Malo, or cross to Calais and continue by car or train.

43. Seafood and sandcastles in Scilly

England
With more than 1,750 hours of sunshine each year, a weekend in the balmy Isles of Scilly is a great way to boost your vitamin D levels. Take the sleeper train from Paddington to Penzance, then the Scillonian ferry to St Mary’s and you’re there.

44. Getting away from it all on the island of Sylt

Germany
Sylt (pronounced ‘zoolt’) in northern Germany has immaculate white sands. Its fresh North Sea breezes are considered a tonic, but when it’s time to seek shelter, you can bag a hooded windbreak chair called a strandkorb (‘beach basket’).

45. Learning to surf in Caswell Bay

Wales
The Gower Peninsula is the heartland of Welsh surfing. Conditions can be challenging enough to test an expert, but there are beginner-friendly breaks, too. Gower’s friendly tutors will show you the ropes. gowersurfing.com

46. Sea kayaking along the Dalmatian coast

Croatia
The coast around the Croatian city of Dubrovnik is strewn with beautiful islands. Kayaking offers a great way to tour them, exploring arches, inlets and caves as you go.

Kayakers paddle past Dubrovnik’s city walls and the rocky coastline, Croatia.

Photograph by Getty Images

SET SAIL

47. Voyaging on a tall ship

Scotland
There’s nothing like a healthy blast of sea air to blow away the cobwebs. Throw in a little team building, some yoga and plenty of wholesome food and you have a formula for a thoroughly healing few days. That’s the thinking behind this four-night sailing holiday off Scotland’s breezy west coast, cruising the Irish Sea on a traditional gaff-rigged boat. Total beginners are welcome: you’ll learn all about handling your vessel, which is named, enigmatically, Maybe. Working as a team, you’ll soon be steering, setting sails, reefing, tying knots and singing shanties with aplomb. maybe-sailing.com

48. Island-hopping in the Stockholm archipelago

Sweden
The Swedish capital lies in the midst of a garden of islets. They’re surrounded by blue water, scented with whispering pines and dotted with footpaths.

49. Crossing the North Sea to the wilds of Seyðisfjörður

Iceland
It takes a couple of days to travel by land and sea to Copenhagen, the starting point for Smyril Line’s ferries to the Faroe Islands and Seyðisfjörður, in eastern Iceland.

50. Exploring Norway’s fjord coast

Norway
Journey by ferry and train to Bergen for a dazzling coastal adventure, enjoying North Sea beaches, colourful fishing communities and traces of Viking culture.

51. Gliding along in an electric narrowboat

Wales
River boating is utterly serene and the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, over-arched with bridges and trees, is the perfect place to try it. castlenarrowboats.co.uk

The Flightless Traveller (2020). 

Photograph by Quercus

52. Taking a ferry to the Canaries

Spain
It takes under 36 hours for the overnight ferry to cruise from Huelva to Tenerife or Gran Canaria — a relaxing way to reach these sun-drenched Atlantic islands.

Journalist Emma Gregg is the author of The Flightless Traveller (2020). Querus, RRP: £22.

Published in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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