Want to see Europe up close and personal? Throw on your sneakers, get some exercise and check out some hidden gems in Scotland and France this year. Here are just a few walking tours and hikes worth checking out...
2014 has been designated Homecoming Scotland Year, so expect lots of crowds and events in all of the major cities. English Lakeland Ramblers is offering some walking tours to get visitors away from the throngs and off the beaten paths in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands.
The company recently launched two distinct itineraries: “Scotland’s Western Highlands and the Isle of Skye” and “Scotland: Isle of Skye and the Outer Hebrides.” Some of the highlights will include the craggy lava formations of Quiraing on Skye (one of them is called The Kilt --see how long it takes you to spot it); Inverewe Gardens near Gairloch (where palm trees have been growing for over a hundred years); the Standing Stones of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis (a wind-blown Stonehenge); and a ferryboat cruise from Skye to the Outer Hebrides.
The tours include visits to two of Scotland’s hidden-gem castles – Dunvegan on Skye and Eilean Donan in Loch Duich. (We hear some clans might have their own homecomings at these castles—Dunvegan with Clan McLeod and Eilean Donan with Clan Macrae.)
The tour includes 29 to 35 miles of walks in seven days, with an occasional hike to 1,000 feet. Guests stay in local hotels along the way and unwind at local bars (that, we hear, have some of the country's best single malts). Good to know: Guests' luggage is sent on to each hotel in advance, so no need to worry about dragging heavy bags along the walks.
Departures begin in May and are limited to 16 guests.
On Foot Holidays, meanwhile, is offering three journeys in France this year:
Cotes du Rhone (Gigondas and the foothills of Mont Ventoux) is a seven-night journey with walks of four to seven hours each day. Guests can visit medieval Venasque; the cobbled-stone alleys of Crestet; the castle of Vaison; and the pretty villages of Mazan, Le Barroux, and Gigondas. They can explore olive and cherry tree groves as well as vineyards. (We hear many of the wines served along the way are from local vineyards.)
Chamonix and the French Alps (Le Pays du Mont Blanc) is a seven-night self-guided hike at the foot of Mont Blanc. This one can be challenging (no light strolling here), but those willing to climb will get some top-notch views. In summer, the Alpine meadows are flower-decked and the Aiguille de Midi cable car offers dramatic vistas over glaciers and snowfields. Good to know: There are some options for taking it slightly easier, such as a gentle stroll along the oratories and chapels of the “Route du Baroque.”
Bonus for foodies: As a reward for the strenuous hiking, guests on this tour get to stay with three celebrated local cooks.
Alpes Maritime (From the Alps to the Mediterranean) is a seven- night self-guided walk that goes from La Brigue on the France/Italy border down the Roya Valley to Menton on the Riviera. The medieval village of La Brigue offers the chance to explore historic alleyways and old townhouses, or walkers can visit the ancient towns of Breil and Sospel and stay in the mountain-top village of Ste. Agnes with its views across to the Mediterranean.
The cuisine on this route is very southern-France and includes Nicoise Stew, mushrooms with goat cheese and aioli Provencale. There's also a touch of Italy-in-France with bresaola and cacciatore.
For more information, visit www.onfootholidays.co.uk.