Exploring the world from the UK: local heroes

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Eilean Donan castle viewed from carr brae

If you think wanderlust can’t be sated on British soil, think again

Whether you’re craving the sight of a Maldivian beach, a Canal du Midi cruise or an African wildlife safari, Britain has its own appealing alternatives to satisfy your thirst for adventure.

Blissful beaches

Instead of the Maldives or Caribbean

Go to the Isles of Scilly

Scilly isles

Sun, turquoise sea and powdery sand... can it really be Britain? Fly into the Isles of Scilly – 140 specks, five of them inhabited, west of mainland Cornwall – and you’d be forgiven for wondering. The first sights one encounters are aquamarine, reef-happy seas and sugar-white beaches; factor in a unique subtropical climate and almost year-round sun, and the constant Caribbean comparisons seem entirely appropriate. The best isle for slumber is private, car-free Tresco, with its leafy lanes that are best explored by golf buggy or bicycle, and where long, picture-perfect seasides such as Pentle Bay are puzzlingly deserted. You won’t find all-inclusive resorts nor overwater villas, admittedly, but Tresco’s self-catering apartments are decidedly luxurious. Between beach days, go scuba-diving, sail off to spot seals, try your hand at paddle-boarding or visit the exceptional Abbey Garden to take in its 20,000 sub-tropical plant species. (tresco.co.uk). 

Alternatives: North Norfolk or the Isle of Harris.

Canal cruise 

Instead of the Canal du Midi

Go to the Kennet and Avon canal

Kennet and avon canal

Like southern France’s Midi, the Kennet and Avon specialises in sleepily gorgeous rural scenes. Linking navigable sections of the Kennet, Avon and Thames rivers, the canal does bisect some urban areas such as honey-stoned spa city Bath. In between, however, come the Wessex Downs, woodlands, chocolate-box Cotswold villages, aqueducts and arable fields. Waterside pubs are another constant, with none more memorable than Bathampton’s The George Inn, supposedly a former 13th-century monastery. As well as Bath, highlights along the snaking, 87-mile route are Bristol’s dramatic Avon Gorge and the huge white horses carved into Wiltshire’s chalk hills. The undulating, lock-laden section between Caen Hill and Hungerford is especially pretty (canalrivertrust.org.uk). No previous experience is needed to hire narrowboats from experts Black Prince, where tutorials are provided with boats. (black-prince.com). 

Alternatives: the Oxford or Caldon Canals. 

Wine touring 

Instead of Tuscany

Go to the Surrey Hills

Surrey hills vineyard

Over the past two decades, Southern England’s recent wine revolution has seen sparkling and still homegrown plonk scoop international awards or outdo prestigious rivals from France or Italy in blind-tasting tests. In 2019, five wineries joined together to form the Vineyards of the Surrey Hills group (surreyhillsvineyards.co.uk) – enabling touring itineraries to compare tipples, only 40-odd miles from London. The headline act is Denbies, a 627-acre behemoth best known for fizz (and its tour train). England’s inaugural vineyard hotel opened here in late 2019, its 17 rooms facing over the grapes and joined by a devotedly seasonal English restaurant. The remaining four wineries are smaller and more soulful: look out for family-run Albury’s wine-and-cheese pairing events and Greyfriars’ subterranean storage cave. 

Alternatives: Kent’s Wine Garden of England collective, or East Sussex. 

Epic road trip

Instead of California

Go to West Wales


Who needs the USA’s Route 1? The Wales Way is a series of three driving routes designed to showcase that same country’s best culture, natural wonders and landmarks. Particularly thrilling is The Coastal Way, which follows Cardigan Bay’s 180-mile length from the petite cathedral city of St Davids up to rugged Snowdonia. You can do it in two days, or spend a week exploring unhurriedly. The excellent Visit Wales website includes themed itinerary suggestions (visitwales.com). One plotted for foodies advocates stops at gin and cheesemakers. Heritage-lovers are directed towards narrow-gauge mountain railways or castles at Cardigan, Harlech and Criccieth, while dolphins await wildlife fans. The Wales Coast Path and secluded Gwaun Valley stand by for walkers, while photographers can capture holy Bardsey Island, sweeping Abersoch Beach or Portmeirion’s exotic mash-up of Italian Riviera, Oriental and Tudor architectural styles. 

Alternatives: Scotland’s North Coast 500, Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route. 


Instead of South Africa

Go to Central Scotland

Cairngorms wildlife

Comprising around a tenth of Scotland’s landmass, the Cairngorms National Park houses 25% of Britain’s threatened species. But what might you see? Amid high peaks, heathery moorland and lochside pine woods, the likeliest spots include red squirrels and pine martens. Encountered with more luck are red or roe deer and ospreys. Much more elusive are badgers, otters, mountain hares and wild cats. To stand a chance of those rarer sightings, you’ll need to devote time to the wilderness and hire a crack naturalist. Instinct (instinctguides.com) can tailor-make wildlife-focused breaks, while the Glenlivet estate conducts safaris in its own bouncy African-style 4x4 (glenlivetestate.co.uk). 

Alternatives: badgers in Cornwall, or captive lions and tigers at Kent’s Port Lympne Reserve. 


Instead of Greece

Go to Scotland's west coast

Scotlands west coast

Sure, you’ll need to swap tavernas for cosy pubs, and the seas might not be as warm, but Scottish island-hopping itineraries actually share many characteristics with their Greek counterparts – not least, glorious sandy beaches, walkable inland reaches and friendly hotel stays. They also promise whisky and wildlife – porpoises, dolphins and even whales are often seen on ferries – with far fewer crowds. And lower prices. Among four main options, the Inner Hebrides are easiest to explore. Linked by reliable CalMac car ferries (calmac.co.uk) – try to book months in advance – they offer pleasing variation and sublime scenery. Scottish travel website Watch Me See has itinerary suggestions including a two-week meander taking in Islay’s distilleries, little-populated Jura and beach-ridden Colonsay (watchmesee.com). 

Alternatives: the far-flung Outer Hebrides, Shetland Islands or the Orkney Islands. 

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