When you have children, it’s very tempting to stick to the same family-friendly holiday destination each year. There’s something reassuring, when you’re parting with lots of hard earned money, to return to the same child-friendly destination which you know will keep the whole family happy. However, if you’ve decided you’d like to try somewhere new, in this post I’ve put together some destinations which are a little more off the beaten path. I spent many years as a travel agent researching interesting and off the beaten track holidays in Europe for families.
If you’ve had some great family holidays in the Algarve in Portugal or perhaps you always return to the child-friendly beaches of Corfu, I hope some of these alternative ideas for a family holiday off the beaten track will appeal to you. So many destinations in Europe suffer from over-tourism and yet there are plenty of other holiday ideas for families close by which work just as well. And of course, many off the beaten track holiday destinations are cheaper than their more well known counterparts.
Italy off the beaten track: tried Puglia? Try Calabria
Best for: young families or explorers
You can’t go too wrong taking a family holiday in Italy but some regions work better for beach holidays than others. You’d have to head over to Sardinia to rival Puglia’s fantastic coastline of sandy beaches but if you’re keen to explore a less visited and good value region of Italy, I’d recommend the toe of Italy’s boot, Calabria.
I have great memories, as a student, of spending hours snorkelling off the beaches in Calabria. The coastline is rockier than Puglia’s (but still with plenty of sand) so there’s more going on beneath the waves. You can take day trips to the Aeolian Islands and if your family are active and you’re looking to combine beach with hiking, the Pollino National Park is impressive (just don’t go there in the height of summer, it’s hot).
Calabria is still quite an impoverished, predominantly agricultural region and you won’t find the same number of charming towns that draws tourists to Puglia. However, stay close to the pretty seaside towns of Tropea or Scilla and the beaches of Capo Vaticano and you’ll be glad that there’s no need to stray too far, you’ll have everything you need right there.
I’m intrigued by the accommodation reviewed by the Guardian recently, at Eco Belmonte Albergo Diffuso. It looks like an interesting project. Alternatively, if you’re keen to be closer to a beach (and you’re happy to pay a bit more), the Costa Azzura or La Conchiglia should both offer an authentic Italian holiday experience.
Calabria is tricky to get to from the UK (just Ryanair at the moment from Stansted) but think of that as part of the appeal. Fly indirectly via Rome or Milan and you won’t add on too much time to your journey.
Portugal ‘s coastal natural park: tried the Algarve? Try the Costa Vicentina
Best for: surfers and kids who don’t mind getting knocked down by waves
The Alentejo coastline is seriously beautiful and the protected Costa Vicentina natural park is particularly special. Beaches backed cliffs, forests, wildflowers; pick your preferred natural backdrop and you’ll find it on Portugal’s southern Atlantic coast. We visited the region for a wedding when our older son was a year old. I can’t remember the names of all the beaches we visited or the wonderful restaurants we ate in (my first year of motherhood has left some sizeable gaps in my memory), I just know that I want to return.
As this is the Atlantic coast, the beaches are perfect for surfers and body boarders, but there are a number of more sheltered beaches too. We had a lovely meal overlooking Odeceixe beach which has a river running down to the sea, perfect for toddlers.
There are strict building restrictions in the national park so you won’t find beachfront properties here, however, there are some fantastic places to stay within a short drive of the coast which offer great character and hospitality. The Casas Brancas website is pretty comprehensive and includes Monte da Vilarinha which I briefly visited, it looked heavenly.
The Alentejo coast can be reached from either Faro or Lisbon airports. The former is closer (1 hour 45 minutes) but you’ll have a more rewarding drive from the latter (2 hours 45 minutes).
Greece off the beaten track: tried the Ionian Islands? Try the Small Cyclades
Best for: island hopping adventurers
If you’re lamenting the over-development of your favourite Greek island, you’ll be reassured to know that Greece has enough islands to ensure holidaymakers don’t run out of “undiscovered destinations” any time soon.
I wrote about the Cyclades group of islands in a previous post on holidaying with teens but the Small Cyclades in particular will appeal to families with children of any age looking for a relaxing beach holiday off the beaten track. Just bear in mind that there’s a 4 hour flight followed by one or more ferries to contend with.
To get to the Small Cyclades you can fly to either Athens, Santorini or Mykonos and then take a ferry. Some of the islands, such as Koufonissi, have little more than a harbour and a scattering of houses but if you’re after that quintessential Greek Island holiday, the Cyclades are hard to beat. The main mode of transport is your feet or perhaps a donkey. And most roads (or rather tracks) lead to a beach. I’ve earmarked Amorgos for a future trip.
The proximity of the big-name Cycladic isles means that families with differing ideas of what constitutes a holiday should find something to keep everyone happy. Selfie-stickers and Instagrammers will love Santorini, party animals can go wild in Mykonos and beach lovers who like a few more people to mingle with should find Naxos to their liking.
There are tour operators who have always specialised in the lesser known Greek islands who can recommend suitable accommodation in the Cyclades, Sunvil have a good range and can help with ferry bookings.
Secret Spain: tried the Costa Brava? Try Galicia in Spain’s north west
Best for: lovers of seafood and dramatic coastlines (and pilgrims)
We had a lovely family holiday on the Costa Brava in May several years ago, but it’s heaving with visitors in August. By contrast, Spain’s remote north west coast sees far fewer tourists and yet it has just as many (if not more) stunning beaches. It’s perfect for an off the beaten track family holiday. Cooler and greener than much of Spain, Galicia boasts an impressively rugged coastline including the archway-studded Playa de los Catedrales.
There are beaches for all tastes in Galicia: from protected stretches of sand for toddlers to the exposed Atlantic coast for surfers. Most countries have a place which they like to refer to as their “Caribbean” and in Galicia it’s the tiny islands of Cies and Ons. Just writing this makes me want to go there.
It’s worth taking a few day trips away from Galicia’s beaches; as the third largest pilgramage site, Santiago de Compostela needs no introduction but further south you’ll also find delights such as the medieval harbour town of Baiona and the estuary town of Pontevedra. They’re great for wandering and even better for feasting on the excellent and good value seafood for which the region is renowned.
Self catering in Galicia is noticeably cheaper than eastern and southern Spain. Casas Cantabricas covers the whole of the north west and features some very reasonably priced places to stay. Vintage Travel specialises in Galicia and offers quality villas with pools, some within walking distance of a beach.
Galicia is accessible from various London airports with Ryanair and Vueling while across the border in Portugal, Porto can be reached from a number of regional UK airports.
Holidays in the UK off the beaten track: tried mainland Cornwall? Try the Isles of Scilly
Best for: a good old fashioned seaside holiday
Hardly a secret this one, but it still surprises me that so few Brits have visited the Isles of Scilly. No doubt the pricey flights (relative to the distance) or the journey along the traffic-packed roads of south west England come summertime play a part in discouraging visitors. However, those who make the journey to the Scillies discover an unspoilt archipelago of peaceful harbours and stunning beaches and a more relaxed way of life.
We’ve decided to visit the Isles of Scilly this summer, combined with a stay in Cornwall. The ferry is reasonably priced and it won’t feel like such a trek if we’re already in Cornwall. There’s a good range of accommodation from basic camping to contemporary hotels with everything in between. The islands’ tourist board is a good place to start. Just make sure you book early, a lot of the properties are reserved for regular visitors so what’s left over gets snapped up pretty quickly.
I’m looking forward to having no distractions from my main task of beach-going. Unlike Cornwall, there’s little to do on the Isles of Scilly except enjoy the scenery: boat trips to uninhabited islands, endless beaches, clear blue seas. And I’m sure the weather will be perfect…
Do you have any recommendations for off the beaten track holidays in Europe for families? Let me know in the comments below.
Some of the images in this post are courtesy of Pixabay.
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