Beat the Crowds – 6 Perfect Pre-Summer Breaks in France

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Fine wine and dining, a rich culture and history and so much more!

If your thoughts are already turning to this year’s summer holidays, planning ahead is a great way of staving off the winter blues! As our nearest continental neighbour, France has so much to offer – and it’s not surprising that more than 17 million Brits head there each year, according to Foreign Office statistics. It’s incredibly easy to get to by plane, train or boat from the UK and travel there is very cost-effective. Indeed, France’s transport links are the envy of the world.

We love it for the sheer variety of its beautiful countryside and natural landscapes, incorporating three different coastlines and a number of mountain ranges – not to mention the extinct volcanoes of the Auvergne. Then there’s the fine wine, dining and a rich culture and history – seen in its very well-preserved heritage sites. France is a country that looks after its past very well, from chateaux and castles to ancient villages, Roman sites and more. France also has its rivers, lakes, plains and estuaries – making it essentially one way of seeing all of Europe in a single country!

Pre-summer is the perfect time to soak up the rich culture and spectacular scenery of France: there are fewer crowds, the climate is beautifully inviting and most people are still at work, allowing you all the time and space you need to relax and explore.  There are plenty of festivals and other events to enjoy, with many attractions offering longer opening hours in June. Local markets are full of early summer produce, pavement bars and cafes are doing a roaring trade, and there are gorgeous flowers in full bloom wherever you go.

That just leaves one question – where should you go in France at this most glorious time of year?

Here are a few suggestions…

Loire Valley

Chambord Chateau: one of the Loire

Chambord: one of the Loire’s grandest chateaux

The Loire Valley is essentially a fairy-tale land of Renaissance and medieval chateaux dotted along the path of the sweeping, majestic Loire River, as well as the lesser known Maine, Vienne and Indre waterways. Expect villages and towns that time forgot, and visit places like Chambord and Chenonceau – there’s a bit of magic around every corner! The former is perhaps the Loire’s grandest chateau, with its mass of chimneys, set in thick, extensive woodland.

There are great roads and other travel links in this part of the world, with bus and trains to each of the three main provinces of this region – Orléans (in the east), Anjou (towards the west) and Touraine in the centre.

Aix-en-Provence

The Old Town of Aix-en-Provence

The Old Town of Aix-en-Provence

Aix could be described as France at its most civilised! But despite its elite opera festival and elegant golden stone mansions and grand squares, it’s less haughty and more youthful than you might expect, with a student population of around 40,000, not to mention a buzzing café society.

What’s more, a direct Eurostar now serves the city, making it more accessible than ever. Make time to visit the beautiful urban gardens while you are in town as well – and the Burning Bush triptych by Nicolas Froment from the fifteenth century. This is one of southern France’s finest works of art, and can be seen in the St Sauveur cathedral in Aix.

The Vosges

The heavenly mountains of The Vosges

If hiking is your thing, make for the heavenly mountains of The Vosges in June. Expect pretty villages, lush forests and glacial lakes. Wine buffs will also love the vineyards. You also don’t have to be a super-fit walker to enjoy the superb natural environment of France’s third most wooded département, or its world-renowned thermal springs, lakes, fir forests, rivers and unspoiled flora.

The Normandy Coast

 

Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches

Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches

In the rush to reach other parts of the country, Normandy is all too often overlooked, but it has stunning coastal scenery while, further inland, there’s a beautiful, patchwork rural land. Upper Normandy in particular, just a short hop away, makes a perfect short break destination from the UK. Of course, there are also many historic attractions, including the beaches that saw the D-Day landings and the Bayeux tapestry. Equally, for those who love their cheese and cider, or indeed any other kind of quality food and drink, Normandy is heaven!

With a climate quite similar to that of the south of England, June is a very comfortable month to visit.

The Volcans d’Auvergne

The mountains

A diverse range of landscapes and cultural heritage

Like Scotland? Then you’ll adore this part of France. The Volcans d’Auvergne, the heart of France, is the biggest Parc Naturel Régional in the country, and Europe’s largest regional park as well as being one of the oldest. Full of rare plants and butterflies in the warmer months, it offers the chance to visit volcanoes, experience some incredible regional cuisine, and soak up a very diverse range of landscapes and cultural heritage.

Metz

Metz at night

This is the capital city of France’s Lorraine region, in the north east of the country here the Seille and Moselle rivers meet. It’s a real delight, with its stunning architecture and buildings the colour of honey, and lots of beautiful parks to visit – nearly 600 acres of parkland in all – making it one of France’s greenest cities.

All year round, you’ll find an extensive range of shows, concerts, exhibitions and sporting events to enjoy. Top sights not to be missed include the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a superb communal space, and the Saint-Etienne cathedral, one of Europe’s tallest Gothic buildings, boasting 6500 square metres of stained glass windows.

With so many very different places to visit in this superb country, France in June has so much to offer. So what’s stopping you from experiencing the many delights of France in magical early summer? Take a look at our current holiday accommodation in June.

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.

Cottage of the Week – The Great House, Dorset

The return of Broadchurch seems to be driving interest in holiday properties in Dorset at the moment, but when a property is as nice as The Great House we’re not surprised so many want to go there! This stunning Grade II listed house is only 250 yards from the seafront and has great availability from the end of Feb. Sleeps 8. More info on the cottages4you website.

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.

Cottage of the Week – Hen Wrych Hall Tower, Conwy

Happy New Year! We hope you had a fantastic Christmas and saw 2014 out in style. We’ve chosen one of our favourite featured properties as the first Cottage of the Week for 2015. Hen Wrych Hall Tower offers truly stunning accommodation where perfectly preserved features dovetail with contemporary comfort. So while you can relax and marvel at the majesty of your historic surroundings while you toast your toes by the open fire, you can also do so whilst watching a DVD and becoming the envy of your friends by sharing your status via Wi-Fi.

If you can drag yourself out of the heavily carved king-size four-poster bed and the additional comfort of your historic hideaway then you’ll find much to enjoy in the surrounding area, including a five minute walk to the beach, local pubs restaurants and shops just a mile away. Hen Wrych Hall Tower sleeps 2 and currently has great availability for 2015. Find out more and make it your next romantic getaway by visiting the property listing on cottages4you.

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.