The great escape
Want to hide from the piped carols and partying? SARA WHEELER has some ideas
Sea, sun and solitude
If you’re spending December dreaming of summer getaways, the Minho region, tucked up alongside the Atlantic and the Spanish border, is heaven itself, with few tourists even in summer (I was there in July). The long beaches are superb and empty – a world away from the Algarve. I got an Airbnb with a pool in Acife, then moved inland to mountains and medieval hilltop villages. One of the pleasures of travelling in an increasingly homogenised Europe is the discovery of regions like Minho where supermarkets aren’t identical to those at home. Take a traditional Portuguese Sunday lunch in Viana do Castelo or by the river at Ponte de Lima, above, one of the oldest settlements in the country. lonelyplanet.com/portugal
Under the tamarind tree
I went to Sri Lanka for the first time in January, and was enchanted by this Ireland-sized island. Monsoon winds have wafted traders to Sri Lanka for millennia, and its ancient ports retain the easeful elements of the Orient. Dhow wings still rise from the water like fins and you can drink coffee under tamarind trees heavy with pods. At dusk, absorb the languor of the waterfront, where papery butterflies fret among the frangipani. Most of the ancient city sites, and many of the temples, are situated in the central highlands. To explore them I stayed near Pidurangala in a charming five-room guest-house called Back of Beyond, not a misleading name. Half my clay-floored bathroom was open-air. After I washed my smalls and hung them on a banyan branch, a monkey stole my knickers. srilanka.travel
Smoke your own bacon
To minimise festive shopping, why not learn how to do your own smoking and curing at Marsh Pig charcuterie in Claxton, Norfolk? At a day course costing £175, punters get to make and take home bacon, pancetta, biltong, beef jerky, sausages and salami. It’s great fun and you don’t need special kit at home to keep up the good work. marshpig.co.uk
Perfect for Norfolk jaunts, whether at Christmas or all-year-round, is the relaunched Hales Hall, a nine-acre Tudor pile, 13 miles south-east of Norwich, which is gorgeous beyond belief. The 178ft Grade I-listed brick barn is the oldest of its kind in the land, with 180 rare loophole windows. Henry VII’S attorneygeneral built the moated main house, which sleeps 25, and there’s further accommodation in a cottage and gatehouse. It’s great for a family party and you can either buy their catering or take your own. I loved it. haleshall.com
On the road
My eldest son just bought a return flight to LA with BA for under £400. You’d be lucky to get that price in Christmas week but why not go in January, rent a car and drive north on the fabled Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco? In my opinion, it’s one of the best slices of that monumental road. Drive hard till past Carmel, then linger at Monterey (take Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which is set there), Santa Cruz and Pescadero. On the coastal point of the latter I stayed at one of my favourite lodgings in the US – Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel. (Don’t worry, there are private rooms.) visittheusa.co.uk/trip/pacific-coasthighway-road-trip
Stay in a shed
I always love the annual Shed of the Year contest, so was pleased to find that one of this year’s shortlisted places, in my home town of Bristol, has become a B&B, aptly called Shed and Breakfast. Well-placed between Clifton Wood and the regenerated waterfront, this cute yellow cabin, above, sleeps two (in a large double bed), with a private entrance, kitchen and bathroom, from £70 a night. Get posh fish and chips at Salt & Malt at the new Cargo 2 development overlooking the harbourside at Wapping Wharf (yes, it’s in Bristol). In my Sixties childhood we could never have dreamed of such sophistication at the smelly docks.
Authentic Arts and Crafts
Emery Walker’s house in Hammersmith, west London, has just reopened after a major refurb and it’s an Arts and Crafts treasure. Sir Emery (1851-1933) was a typographer, printmaker, engraver, publisher and collector, and his tall, narrow home is bursting with treasures, including rare Islamic porcelain and manuscripts. Guided tours only, bookable in advance with a maximum of eight visitors, are available from March to November. It’s a perfect excuse to spend Christmas reading up on 19th-century decorative history. After your visit, be sure to take a stroll along the Thames towpath.
Fun for foodies
Lonely Planet recently named the
pintxos of San Sebastián, above, as the world’s best food experience. They’re essentially savoury canapés, though often cooked to order. Try the home-cured anchovies or crayfish ravioli at Bar Antonio on Calle Bergara. (antoniobar.com). One piece of advice: don’t call pintxos ‘tapas’ when you’re in San Sebastián. It’s a sensitive issue to Basques, who don’t like their cuisine to be perceived as modified Spanish dishes. They’ve only just calmed down over their struggle for independence, so you don’t want them worked up again. (I wish them well). The sweeping La Concha coast on the south side of the Bay of Biscay is rightly world-famous. The feast of the eponymous patron saint falls on 20th January and los donostiarras (residents of the city) go to town on celebrations. It’s a great experience, but avoid if you don’t like crowds.
Don’t laugh, snobsters. A single friend on a restricted budget enjoys regular bargains at Pontins. You don’t have to join in with communal activities so as my friend is a keen walker it suits her perfectly. Crucially, there are ‘adult only’ slots that don’t involve swinging. Fournight Turkey and Tinsel packages in December are still available at Pakefield Holiday Park near Lowestoft in Suffolk, above, for £79, half-board, with only £10 per night single occupancy supplement. Bed linen and towels aren’t included so take your own (though you can also buy them there), which is a great way to keep costs down. If you don’t fancy either tinsel or turkey (I don’t), there are even better deals at Pontins resorts in January and February, again without a kidlet in sight.
The sweeping Concha bay in San Sebastián, left, and Hales Hall in Norfolk, above