How far would you go for a first taste of sun in 2014?
From beach breaks to exotic family holidays, Sarah Baxter selects the best in Europe and beyond
Sarah Baxter is part-time Associate Editor of Wanderlust travel magazine and a part-time freelance travel journalist and editor. She has written many features for The Independent, as well as for other newspapers, magazines, blogs and books. She loves exploring the great outdoors, and when she's not thinking travel, she's likely lacing up for a run instead.
Saturday 01 March 2014
Southern Europe is starting to heat up, so short-haul beach breaks are a possibility. But for guaranteed sunshine – and to mix in wildlife, temples and extra bragging rights – go further afield.
The Yucatán peninsula is marvellous in March – highs of around 30C, the New Year crowds have left and hurricane season is still months away. The boutique hotel specialist, i-escape, is offering seven-night stays at Hotel Esencia on the Mayan Riviera throughout March and April for £1,004 per person, excluding flights (i-escape.com). Set on a perfect powder beach, the Escencia is wave-lapped luxury. Its 29 cool-white rooms have private terraces, where pastries appear each morning; other perks include your own Havaiana flip-flops, morning yoga, a spa and thatched palapas for two on the beach. Thomson (0871 231 4787; flights.thomson.co.uk) has return flights from Gatwick to Cancún from £677 in March.
For a short-haul sun boost, try Mallorca – by mid-April, the temperatures are hitting 20C, with nine hours of sunshine a day. In addition, you'll be in time to witness the celebrations of Spain's holiest week, Semana Santa (11-20 April). The clifftop Jumeirah Port Soller (jumeirah.com) is an excellent perch. All rooms have a terrace or balcony looking over the sea or at the Tramuntana Mountains; pathways through the gardens lead to the fishing town of Port de Sóller. Destinology (01204 823589; destinology.co.uk) is offering a four-night March stay from £599pp, including flights.
Indian Ocean idyll
For guaranteed warmth, try Mauritius. The main cyclone period (January and February) is over, and the late-summer weather is nice and hot, averaging 30C. Western & Oriental (020 7666 1234; westernoriental.com) offers a week at the five-star Residence Mauritius from £1,675pp, including flights, for departures in March and April. This colonial-styled hotel sits on one of the island's best beaches, perfect for windsurfing, snorkelling, kayaking or lolling. Rooms come with shutters, wood-and-marble bathrooms and your own butler.
Quick! Make a dash for Italy's Amalfi Coast. This popular spot is a little bit less so in April, right at the start of the season – so you can see its classic clifftops, daubed with wildflowers, before the masses arrive. The classy, antique-filled Le Sirenuse, the grande dame of pretty Positano, re-opens its doors for the season on 24 March. To get you in the spring spirit, the hotel offers flower tours of its jasmine and frangipani-draped grounds and lessons in making limoncello from the region's abundant lemons. La dolce vita indeed. Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com) offers three-night spring stays from £1,048pp, including flights.
Borneo's wild beaches
Combine the seaside and wildlife on a tailormade two-centre trip to Borneo with Audley's Hidden Beaches (01993 838250; hiddenbeaches.co.uk; 13 nights from £2,088pp including flights). The wild South-east Asian island is ideal in March and April when it's largely dry and sunny. Make the most of conditions at the Shangri La Rasa Ria Resort, a good base for exploring Mount Kinabalu and visiting the orang-utans, before retreating to Gaya Island. This resort, which is set in a marine park, is an ideal spot for jungle walks, sub-aquatic exploration with marine biologists, or just relaxing by the beach or pool.
Spring is super for wandering around city sights without getting hot and bothered, yet it's warm enough for park picnics and pavement cafés.
Paris in springtime
Ah, a wonderful cliché: but the French capital truly is splendid in spring. It's quieter, cooler and growing greener; alfresco tables demand your presence, and a blockbuster exhibition, "Paris 1900 la Ville Spectacle" will examine the City of Light during the Belle Epoque at the Petit Palais (2 April -17 August; 00 33 1 53 43 40 00; petitpalais.paris.fr; €11). And why not stay opposite a famous icon? Homestay specialist OneFineStay's Rue Gaston de Saint-Paul apartment is over the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, which marks its 125th anniversary this year. Le Tour is visible from its balcony (020 3582 2351; onefinestay.com; from €507 per night).
Germany by train
Eurostar now sells through-tickets to six German cities – Aachen, Cologne, Frankfurt, Munich, Dusseldorf and Bonn – valid from London St Pancras for any connecting Deutsche Bahn train at Brussels or Paris on the day of your chosen Eurostar departure (08432 186 186; eurostar.com). You can reach Frankfurt from £79.50 one way, where the Dippemess spring folk festival takes place on Ratsweg from 11 April to 3 May, with fairground rides and food stalls (frankfurt-tourismus.de). In Munich (reached from £97.50 one way), the Bavarian State Opera stages its Ballet Festival from 4-13 April (00 49 89 21 85 01; bayerische.staatsoper.de).
Western Europe's cheapest capital is arguably one of the most interesting. Lisbon has myriad small pleasures: rickety yellow trams, the tumbling Alfama district, port tasting and late-night revelry in the lively Bairro Alto, and espresso at just 60¢ a shot. Sunvil (020 8568 4499; sunvil.co.uk) can arrange tailormade breaks; three nights at the Hotel Heritage Lisboa Plaza cost from £507pp, with flights. Or combine three cities: fly into Porto, train it to medieval Coimbra, then on to Lisbon (seven nights from £627pp including flights).
Tokyo in bloom
Spring is spectacular in Japan, where cherry trees explode into full-bloom and there are high-spirited hanami (blossom parties). InsideJapan's eight-night Neon and Temples trip combines Tokyo and Kyoto, for two bites of the cherry (0117 370 9751; insidejapantours.com; £2,380pp with flights). Join celebrating salarymen in Tokyo's Ueno Park or view Miyako Odori (geisha blossom dances) in Kyoto; and there's the Studio Ghibli animation studios and a stay in a traditional ryokan.
The Latvian capital, as joint European Capital of Culture for 2014, is in celebratory mood. Go now to catch the Windstream Festival (20 March-20 April), a profusion of concerts in halls and churches across the city. However, Riga is always rewarding. Amble through the Old Town, admire Europe's largest collection of Art Nouveau architecture, join locals haggling in the Central Market and pack a picnic for Bastejkalns Park. Regent Holidays (020 7666 1244; regent-holidays.co.uk) has three-night break from £305pp, with flights.
Use Easter to take the children somewhere exotic: prices are hiked for this holiday, but it's still cheaper than the summer break. Or head to Europe – Easter (20 April) is late this year, so the Continent will be warming up nicely.
Get more from Morocco
Cultured and child-friendly, the new Fellah Hotel, just outside Marrakech, makes an excellent Easter base. Come April, with temperatures pushing 25C, it's warm enough to splash in the outdoor pool, which has views towards the Atlas Mountains. But better still are the activities: children can help on the hotel's farm by milking the cows and herding goats; there are classes in soap-making, pastry baking and there's children's yoga. The over-12s can take writing workshops, DJ classes and boxing lessons. Book via Smith & Family (0845 313 9007; smithandfamily.co.uk) to get a free donkey-and-cart tour. Deluxe rooms, which accommodate a cot and child bed, start at £180 per night, room only.
A Greek play
New for Easter 2014 is Activities Abroad's Meteora Family Adventure (01670 789991; activitiesabroad.com). It's geared towards all ages having fun together in the natural playground of central Greece. On a seven-night stay, you'll hike amid wildflowers, canoe Lake Plastira, mountain-bike, rock climb, canyoneer and learn a little about Ancient Greek mythology. The trip departs on 11 April and costs from £1,045pp, including flights, as well as some meals, all activities, equipment and guides.
Cycle around Spain
Burn off a few Easter eggs on Headwater's six-night self-guided Contrasts of Catalunya Cycling trip (0845 154 5250; headwater.com) which costs from £1,037 per adult and £779 for under-12s, excluding flights. This ride is gentle enough for the whole family, sticking to almost traffic-free roads to explore the rolling countryside of northern Spain. Armed with quality bikes and detailed route notes, you'll pedal past pretty hamlets, spring blossom, sandy bays and fishing villages. Each night, an upmarket hotel (all with pools, usually close to the beach) awaits you, and there are two nights in a castle.
Last of the lights
Catch the tail-end of the Nasa-predicted peak of Northern Lights activity in Iceland. March tends to be one of the best months for aurora-viewing; plus, the weather is getting warmer and the days longer, ideal for exploring Iceland's waterfalls and weird landscapes. The Hrisateigur Residence, offered by family-rental specialist Kid & Coe (001 212 905 6065; kidandcoe.com), is a beautiful base in Reykjavík's family-friendly Laugardalur neighbourhood, walkable from a geothermal play pool as well as the city centre and beach. This 100-year-old four-bed Icelandic house has had a bright modern makeover too, and comes with lots of toys and an open fire. Rental starts at $368 (£230) per night. Flights not included.
Kick back in Kerala
For an exotic Easter, head for the Backwaters of Kerala with Families Worldwide (01962 737560; familiesworldwide.co.uk; departures 5 and 12 April). The 12-day trip costs from £1,729 per adult, £1,629 per child, including flights. Temperatures here are rising but the brood can keep cool by floating along palm-fringed channels on a rice barge, exploring Periyar National Park looking for elephants, then retreating to the leafy hill station of Munnar. Learn to cook a curry and throw some Keralan martial-art moves too.
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