Discover the heart of Wales on St Dwynwen’s Day – the Welsh St Valentine

You may not have heard of St Dwynwen, but Sunday 25th January is St Dwynwen’s Day, and all over Wales the Welsh patron saint of lovers is celebrated. The story is one of romantic celtic legend dating back to the 5th century. Dwynwen was the prettiest of the Welsh king of Powys’ daughters – all twenty four of them! She fell in love with a man called Maelon, but as she was already promised to another, could not marry him. She prayed to god to help forget him and an angel granted her wishes by giving her a magic potion. To show her thanks Dynwen devoted her life to god and helping other lovers.

This Valentine’s Day, take inspiration from Dynwen and look to Wales for a truly romantic break. With wild and beautiful scenery; stunning walks, and fine food, it’s the ideal destination to cosy up in front of a roaring fire at the end of the day.

Follow in the footsteps of Dwynwen to Anglesey

Holy Island, near Holyhead, Anglesey,

Holy Island, near Holyhead, Anglesey,

To continue the story, Dwynwen spent the rest of her life on Llanddyn Island in Anglesey. The remains of the church she set up are still there and have long been a place of pilgrimage. Legend has it the church well can predict the strength of your relationship so star crossed lovers be warned! Llanddyn is not quite an island and is easily reached from the Newborough Warren National Nature Reserve.

Walking through pine forest, sand dunes and across soft white sand make this a dream destination. Soaking up sublime views across the water to the Llŷn Peninsular and spotting the once endangered red squirrels in the forest make this relatively secret spot extra special. Don’t leave Anglesey without exploring further – the pretty town and castle at Beaumaris are not to be missed.

Find a dune of your own in the Gower

Rhossili Bay, Gower

Rhossili Bay, Gower

If pristine white sandy beaches are your thing, the Gower is the destination for you. The first place in Wales to be designated an area of outstanding natural beauty; it has accolades and admirers aplenty. TV programmes such as Huw Edwards’ BBC production ‘The History of Wales’ have featured the varied coastal habitats and birdlife. There are numerous blue flag beaches and in 2013 the magnificent 3 mile sweep of sand at Rhossili Bay was named Europe’s third best beach.

The Gower offers natural beauty and space by the bucket load so it will just be the two of you. Discover miles of footpaths and cycle routes, over 80 ancient monuments and some of the best surf in Wales. And at the end of the day you just need to look up to enjoy the famous Gower dark starry skies. Sigh.

Go off Grid in the Wye Valley

Chepstow Castle on the River Wye

Beautiful scenery on the River Wye

Now if you and your loved one really want to get away from it all – and that means away from mobile reception – the Wye Valley in Mid Wales is the place to go. The area has been charming writers and artists for centuries with the poet William Wordsworth and the artist JMW Turner particular fans.

These days the Wye Valley remains as unspoilt and enchanting as ever. The Lower Wye Valley has been an AONB for 40 years and the whole length of the river Wye is the first in Britain to be designated a site of special scientific interest. If you do want some distraction from each other’s company, this region is also a fantastic destination for an active break. Hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, canoeing and kayaking and horse riding are all on offer here.

Discover the different sides to Snowdonia

Sunrise on Snowdonia

Snowdonia National Park features the largest mountain in England and Wales and some of the best hiking and ruggedly romantic outdoor scenery in the UK. But it’s not all about high craggy peaks because it also boasts some of the best coastline in Wales, the stunning Llŷn Peninsula. This crooked finger of land is unmistakeable on a map and exceptional for its coves, headlands, beaches and bays. The villages of Abersoch, Llanbedrog and Nefyn are especially charming.

Once you’ve bagged the mountain (and taking the train does count), don’t miss Portmeirion a truly remarkable romantic location. This quirky private village is like a slice of the Mediterranean, all the more beguiling for its juxtaposition against this magnificent Welsh region.

Find a romantic ruin like Carew Castle

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Carew Castle

From abandoned abbeys to crumbling castles, Wales really has this one covered! Wales is the castle capital of Europe with some of the world’s finest castles and inspiring landmarks. There are over 600 of them beautifully illustrating Welsh history from roman times to the rich landowners’ follies of the 19th century.

Magnificent Carew Castle is well matched to its stunning waterside location in beautiful Pembrokeshire. The castle’s history spans 2000 years and the site incorporates an impressive 11th century Celtic cross and the only restored Tidal Mill in Wales. Carew is close to one of Wales’ prettiest and cosiest seaside towns Tenby. So after immersing yourselves in history and legend, you can come back to present day with a fish supper for two or an ice cream on the sands.

5 Fun New Year’s Resolutions – and how to keep them

New year 2015

Why are New Year’s resolutions so difficult to keep? Every year we start off with such good intentions, but somehow it doesn’t quite seem to work. The simple answer is that most people simply carry on their lives as normal. They either expect their resolutions to keep themselves, or they forget they made them in the first place.

In fact, the key to keeping your New Year’s resolutions is to get out and do something. Explore your world, enjoy the countryside, remind yourself of why you made those resolutions in the first place, and put yourself in the ideal environment to achieve your goals.

Here, we take five common New Year’s resolutions – travel more, get fit, learn a language, relax more and spend more time with the family – and find out where to go and what to do to make these aspirations a reality.

1. Travel more

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First off, forget expensive, faraway destinations and those stressful hours trapped in the departures lounge. There are plenty of unexplored gems right here in the UK, just waiting to be discovered.

In fact, for breathtaking mountain scenery, an intriguing local language and and even a dormant volcano, you need only go as far as north Wales and the beautiful Snowdonia National Park. If you want to avoid the crowds of Snowdon itself, explore the rich natural and cultural treats of the rest of the park, including the ancient castles and more recent Welsh folk history to be found around Dolgeallau.

2. Get fit

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The bad news is that spending money on a gym membership you’ll hardly ever use will not get you fit. Amazingly, millions of pounds are still wasted in this way every year in the UK. The good news, however, is that a sure-fire way of making exercise work is to make sure you enjoy it. Instead of a sweaty, crowded gym, get yourself fit out amongst some of the outstanding natural beauty that Britain has to offer.

The Forest of Dean, just north of the River Severn and close to the Welsh border, is the perfect location for a fitness break. There’s a simply incredible number of activities available in this spectacular location, including cycling, caving, climbing and canoeing. There’s even diving at one of the UK’s newest inland dive sites. Plus, of course, there’s the simple pleasure of walking and hiking around one of England’s surviving ancient woodlands. You’ll be so captivated by the amazing scenery, you won’t even realise how fit you’re getting!

3. Learn a language

Le Mont Saint Michel
They say the best way to learn a new language is not in the classroom, but to immerse yourself in the culture. With a self catering break in the gorgeous countryside of France or Italy, you can escape the stifling cocoon of hotels, cities and resorts, and mingle with the locals. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can pick up the basics in a supermarket or cafe. Plus, by visiting a stunningly beautiful location, you’ll give yourself even more motivation to persevere with the language.

An ideal place to start your learning is the stunning Armorica Regional Natural Park in Brittany. From the mountains to the sea, you’ll discover some incredible wildlife and breathtaking views. Here, you can forget the old French stereotypes: the local Bretons are very friendly, and fortunately they’re rather used to helping Brits struggling with the language!

4. Relax more

Bamburgh Castle and seat

To truly achieve relaxation, you need to give your body the most peaceful stimuli: creature comforts, natural beauty, and calm, quiet surroundings. Likewise, there are a few things you need to avoid at all costs, such as long-haul flights, stressful airports and lost luggage.

How about a holiday let with a hot tub, surrounded by the rugged beauty of Northumberland? In this most northerly part of England, you can really get away from the crowds, with miles of stunning coastline and woodland to enjoy.

5. Spend more time with the family

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Spending more time with the family does not mean staying at home in front of the telly! Jobs, housework and the distractions of normal life mean that getting away is the best option for renewing those family bonds. Getting everyone from the kids to the grandparents in one place is a great idea, and there’s no easier way to do so than by renting a large holiday cottage.

There’s no better choice than the Peak District, Britain’s first national park. If you’ve got family members spread far and wide, its location right in the heart of Britain, nestled just between Manchester and Sheffield, will ensure it’s easy to get to for everyone. With so much to see and do throughout its 500 square miles, there’ll be something to keep the whole family entertained, before you all come together for some real family bonding.

We hope this has given you some inspiration for how you can keep your New Year’s resolutions this year, whilst at the same time exploring some of the wonderful countryside right on your doorstep.

Alternative Ways to Welcome 2015

However you choose to celebrate the end of the year and the arrival of 2015, one thing we all have in common is the desire to celebrate with gusto and have a good ol’ knees’ up.

Everyone knows about THE party in Edinburgh to celebrate Hogmanay, and they know about it for a reason: it’s one of the best New Year’s Eve parties in the world (we think so anyway). Standing alongside Big Ben in London as the clock strikes midnight and the revelers whoop and cheer along to a spectacular fireworks display is also pretty hard to beat.

But if you fancy a New Year’s Eve with a difference then take a look at some of our suggestions for an alternative New Year’s Eve extravaganza.

Witness the Allendale Tar Barle in Northumberland…

Hadrians Wall panorama

Enjoy the heritage of Hadrian’s Wall country

The village of Allendale in Northumberland is tucked away in the beautiful countryside of the Allen Valley and Hadrian’s Wall country. Normally a sleepy village built around a large main square encompassed by old buildings and a number of inviting pubs. Late on New Year’s Eve you wouldn’t recognise it as the same village. Enjoy a lovely meal in one of the pubs with a pint of real ale and warm up beside a cosy log fire before venturing outside to watch the famous Allendale Tar Barle Ceremony.

It dates back to the Dark Ages but this Pagan tradition has never been forgotten. Join locals and visitors alike as the village comes alive. At 11.30pm the guisers (local men in costume and painted faces) carry barrels of tar and paraffin into the square where they’re lit. The flaming barrels are then heaved onto their heads and they march through the village – at least they’ll be nice and toasty! The procession culminates at midnight with the barrels being flung onto a huge bonfire swiftly ensued by singing, dancing and merriment. It’s a spectacle not to be missed.

Be the first to get your foot in the door…

Continuing with tradition the first footers then leave Allendale’s square to call on local residents. The tradition of ‘first footing’ is an age-old English tradition, but not so well known these days. At midnight residents try to be the first person to call on a friend’s door and offer them a gift. Much to the delight of the village’s female residents, traditionally handsome men are preferred to carry out the custom! Entering through the front door is said to bring good luck for the following year and then they must leave through the back door. Give it a try this New Year – who wouldn’t want a little good luck for 2015?

Enjoy New Year in Newquay…

Worship the winter sun in Cornwall

Cornwall is often thought of as a summer holiday destination with its family attractions and fabulous beaches. On New Year’s Eve, Newquay’s central square is transformed into a carnival of colour and fancy dress. The more outrageous the costume the better.  Count down to midnight surrounded by locals and visitors from all over the country, you’re guaranteed a great end to 2014 – and some amazing coastal views to boot!

Have a flaming good time in Scotland…

Things heat up in the Shetland Isles

Enjoy street parties, fireworks, music and a New Year’s Eve you’ll never forget in Scotland’s capital. Edinburgh has long been famous for its Hogmanay celebrations, but for something different, check out these other Scottish destinations for New Year’s Eve ….

Crowds of people the world-over flock to Stonehaven on Hogmanay. Nestling just south of Aberdeen, close to Dunnotar Castle in the north east of Scotland, the Fireball Festival is a tradition that has been kept alive for over 100 years at least. Stand well back at midnight and savour the buzz of the atmosphere. Bad spirits are banished as fireballs are flung around the heads of locals who parade through the streets so the New Year’s good spirits can enter.  It’s a sight that has to be seen to be believed.

If you can’t make it to Stonehaven for Hogmanay then take a couple of weeks to recover from your New Year revelries and then venture further north to the Shetland Islands . On the last Tuesday of January every year Shetlanders and tourists alike celebrate the Viking fire festival of ‘Up Helly Aa’; a mesmerising parade of Vikings advance through Lerwick town centre culminating in torching a Viking longboat – which a chosen few have spent all year building!

Celebrate Norse traditions in the North East…

Revelers heading to Newcastle this New Year will find themselves surrounded by myth and legend in Gateshead’s Norse-themed Winter Carnival. Wrap up warm to witness one of the biggest events in the country. Thor, as well as elves, wolves and other beasts prowl the streets to the beat of the Spark drummer’s rhythms. Enjoy a carnival atmosphere at Monument before following the parade along the street to Newcastle Civic Centre for a spectacular, musical fireworks finale.

Warm and cosy on New Year’s Eve…

Pavilion Gardens: Perfect for a winter walk

If standing outside for hours in the depths of mid-Winter doesn’t get you in the celebratory mood, then how about at night at the opera instead? The Edwardian Opera House in Buxton is a glorious building in the heart of the town, next to the beautiful Pavilion Gardens. Enjoy a 3-course pre-theatre dinner in the Pavilion Octagon before taking a short stroll to the theatre. The British Philharmonic Concert Orchestra will fill the room with all your favourites from TV, ballet and musicals to name a few, rising to a grand crescendo of a midnight sing-along where the whole audience is encouraged to join in.

Whatever you do this New Year, tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for the sake of Auld Lang Syne.

Cottage of the Week – Felin Hedd, Tregaron, nr. Aberystwyth

Felin Hedd, ref. 0N3

We now feature over 700 properties in our Green Scheme – including our lovely new Cottage of the Week.

To join our Green Scheme a property must be energy efficient, offer effective water and waste management and provide guests with plenty of information on shopping local and making the most of attractions in the area (so there’s no need to drive!). Felin Hedd ticks all those boxes and more. The fact that it’s also part of our Luxury and Baby and Toddler collection, offers a hot tub, pool table and comes fully decorated for a festive break is just the icing on a very nice cake!

Felin Hedd sleeps 8 and 2 pets. Find more info and make a booking on the property’s listing on cottages4you.

THE WONDER OF WINTER – Our First Entries

A few early entries to our Wonder of Winter photo competition, featuring walks in the snow, frosty landscapes, four-legged friends, cosy cottages and more. In fact, there’s already more than enough to make even the most hardiest ‘winterphobe’ feel a little festive!

Now the temperature’s dropped and snow has started to visit our shores it’s the perfect time to capture your very own ‘Wonder of Winter’. Visit our Facebook, Twitter or Google+ pages to enter your photo and you could win a £100 Amazon voucher. (Terms and Conditions).

Festive Escapes: Five Ways to Enjoy an Alternative Xmas

Let’s be honest – Christmas isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. It’s the most stressful, expensive, noisy time of the year, and it’s cold, too. While there are some people who love nothing more than carol singing, gift giving and wearing festive jumpers – for the rest of us, getting into the Christmas spirit means opening up a bottle of gin.

If you’re already dreading the manic shopping, the office parties and the tense family dinners, you are not alone. Thousands of Brits head for sunnier climes over the Christmas break, choosing to shun tradition and do Christmas their way. But you don’t need to spend a small fortune and travel hundreds of miles just to escape the hustle and hype of the run up to December 25th. Instead, why not give yourself a little breather by taking a couple of days to just chill out and enjoy the holiday season your way.

1. Retreat to the country

St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides: a scenic Xmas escape

It’s not that people don’t celebrate Christmas in the countryside – it’s just that you don’t have to deal with the glaring lights and tacky store window displays when you leave the city centre. Find somewhere nice and remote that’s well away from the lights of the city, and treat yourself to a bit of good old fashioned peace and quiet.

To guarantee tranquillity, choose an area which boasts dark skies, for instance the South Downs or the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. In the far north of Scotland, you can even see the Northern Lights at this time of year.

At night, you can sit outside your rural cottage and drink in the silence while you gaze up at the stars and contemplate the vast emptiness of space and time. Not a sleigh bell or reindeer in sight.

2. Hit the water

Lose yourself in the Lakes

When you really need to get away from it all, there’s no better cure than a night or two at sea. If you can sail, hire a yacht or a boat and head out to sea until you can no longer see the twinkling of the Christmas lights along the coast.

If you can’t sail, simply enjoy the tranquillity of the water from the comfort of the shores. Find a nice big lake or a quiet bay – the sort of place where you can’t see an end to the horizon. That’s better, isn’t it? Treat yourself to a nice fish supper and your seaside retreat is complete.

3. Just stay in

Enjoy a holiday hideaway

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. If you hate Christmas, and Christmas seems to be everywhere, just stay inside. No one’s forcing you to put on the Christmas telly, and you don’t have to have mince pies with every meal. Your house, your rules.

Except sometimes it isn’t quite that simple – whether it’s the bulb-tastic display on the house across the street glaring through your bedroom window and keeping you up at night; or the festive fervour of your flatmates or family – sometimes you need to take a break in a home away from home. Hire a holiday cottage or house so you can simply bed in, veg out and luxuriate in your indoor haven.

4. Catch up on your culture

Soak up some culture

While everyone else is off at the school nativity or carol singing in the town square, you could be off getting some real culture in your life. It’s the start of the Hollywood award season, so all the best movies of the year are being released at the moment. Treat yourself to a double bill at the local cinema; for extra Scrooge points, choose a horror flick or a psychological thriller.

Or you could spend the long dark evenings getting stuck into a good book – Wolf Hall should see you through December, and it’s a decidedly non-festive read.

There isn’t much on at the theatre at this time of year – aside from the local panto of course – but you could catch an experimental student production at a local college or uni as the end of term approaches. Oh yes you could.

5. Reach new heights

Put some perspective on Christmas

Take a tip from the Grinch: he moved to a cave on top of a mountain just to get away from the Christmas obsessed residents of Whoville.

There is nothing better than a mountaintop when you just need to be alone. The climb up is reassuringly tough, the air is clean and fresh, and the view from the top puts everything into perspective. Where better to indulge in a picnic, take in your surroundings and scream into the wind? Go on, scream away – it’s just you and the mountain – anything goes. You can even belt out a few verses of your favourite/least-hated Christmas carol if you like… we won’t tell.

Find a host of holiday hideaways with cottages4you