With miles of pristine coastline, staggering mountain ranges and swathes of wildlife-filled countryside, the UK is ripe for exploring by car. Here are the very best road trips for a winter staycation.
There’s something enduringly romantic about a road trip, right? Miles of winding country roads to explore; your favourite songs on the stereo; picture-perfect views whizzing by the window (just nobody mention the hundreds of empty sweet wrappers stashed into the glove box). And this year, exploring by car has become a mainstay on the minibreak circuit – unsurprising, given it is a private, flexible and self-contained way to see the country.
Car hire companies are stepping up to the mark too, with brilliant brands such as THE OUT – who offer Range Rover and Land Rover hire at the touch of a button via their app – and flexible companies, such as Zipcar, making it easy to pick up a car from pretty much anywhere. The result is that the Great British road trip is in demand like never before.
Thankfully, there’s a lot to see in Blighty, from luxury country house hotels to hidden beaches and ancient monuments that simply drip with history. The only decision you have to make is where to start.
As always, be sure to check government advice before travelling and adhere to local lockdown rules.
The foodie one
Eat your way from Yorkshire to Scotland (recommended time frame: five days)
Britain is a foodie island. The wealth of natural produce and superb work of artisans, farmers and chefs across the nation make it a place best explored by filling your stomach. Gourmands should consider making the trip between two big-hitting Relais & Chateaux properties – Grantley Hall in north Yorkshire and Glenapp Castle in Scotland’s Ayrshire – this winter, for a celebration of the very best local ingredients and a chance to dig into some of the finest dining experiences in the UK.
You’ll start at Grantley Hall – a restored Grade II-listed Palladian mansion tucked into the (very drivable) rolling dales of north Yorkshire. The grand country house hotel is home to one of the UK’s leading fine dining restaurants, Shaun Rankin at Grantley Hall, where the refined 10-course tasting menu – which features comfort food dishes such as venison loin and bread with dripping and beef tea – changes seasonally. Yorkshire born-chef Rankin and his team have a strict policy of only using the best meat, seafood and cheese, from hand-selected suppliers within a 30-mile radius. There’s also an extensive kitchen garden, with vegetables picked and delivered to the kitchen quicker than you can say ‘edible flower’, and ingredients are foraged from the local fields, hedgerows and woodlands, too.
Once you’ve had your fill of Yorkshire – be sure to take a day trip to Yorkshire Sculpture Park before you leave – continue northwards, hugging the west coast of Scotland in all its glittering-loch glory. On the four-and-a-half-hour drive, you’ll wind past craggy eyries and mountains that loom like giants, passing through tiny fishing villages and patchwork farmland, all the way to the baronial Glenapp Castle, set in the sprawling Ayrshire countryside.
Part of the Luxury Scotland portfolio, the hotel prides itself on using homemade and local produce. The chefs select the very best meats and cheeses from the surrounding local farms in Ayrshire and all fish and shellfish is line-caught, or hand-dived off Scotland’s west coast. Game also comes from local estates across Ayrshire and, just like Grantley Hall, the castle’s 110 acres of gardens and woodlands provide the chefs with a bounty of ingredients to play with. That’s not to mention the fruit grown in the Victorian Glasshouse, the vegetables tugged from the soil in the Walled Garden and the honey produced by the castle’s very own Buckfast bees. Full yet?
Stay at Grantley Hall from £385 per night (relaischateaux.com) with the Taste of Home menu at Shaun Rankin at Grantley Hall from £110 per person. Stay at Glenapp Castle from £415 per night B&B, with dinner from £75 per person (glenappcastle.com)
The nature-lover’s one
A crawl along the north Norfolk coast (recommended time frame: 2-3 days)
It may not be hugely long (only about 45 miles) but the coastline of north Norfolk varies hugely, shifting from stretches of butter-gold beaches to salt marshes and shingle, pebbled coves and slick mud flats. A drive along the A149 takes you past all of these incarnations, with plenty to stop off and see along the way.
Timetable-wise, it’s best to wing it in these parts, a strict driving schedule will hinder you from experiencing the natural delights of Norfolk that can pop up out of nowhere: the sight of a beach speckled with seashells and coils left behind by lugworms; tiny birds rising from the dunes; treacle-like mud decorated with animal prints. It’s not a long drive along the coast but you’ll want to take your time exploring pretty villages, flint cottages and locals’ favourite pubs, where the grins are just as welcoming as the crackling fire in the corner.
There are some must-visits, however, such as the Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve – filled with salt and freshwater marshes, pine woodland and reedbeds, which attract migrant wildfowl and nesting birds in spring and summer; or Morston and Blakeney harbours, where you can take a break from the driving and head out by boat to visit the rambunctious seal colony nearby. A trip to Holkham Bay – one of the most dramatic beaches in the UK – will certainly blow away the cobwebs (that chill you’ll feel is the North Sea wind barreling towards the shore), while the nearby Holkham Estate offers up the dream staycation accommodation, from its historical self-catering lodges (which are secluded and dog-friendly, surrounded by 25,000-acres of pretty, stag-filled countryside), to the classic Victoria Inn, the perfect base from which to head out on wildlife treks, strolls on the beach and tractor trailer tours.
The wellness one
A jaunt from London to The Lakes (recommended time frame: four days)
This year has been ‘an experience’, let’s just say. So it’s no surprise more of us than ever are prioritising wellness when it comes to our cherished minibreaks. And with rolling emerald landscapes, plenty of munros to bag, and that sort of drizzle-smattered charm that comes with the bucolic UK countryside, the Lake District is the perfect place to switch off from the world, discard your phone and generally practise a little self-care.
If you’re coming up from the south, it’s a 4-5 hour drive to get to the land of the lakes, so to break things up, The Falcon in Northamptonshire and the beautiful new Buxton Crescent spa hotel in The Peak District are great places to stop off for the night (the bonus being that the Peak District is a truly beautiful place to drive through). For those driving south from the top of the country, there are some great little spots on the border, including many lovely self-catering cottages sold through Crabtree & Crabtree.
Once here, though, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to wellness-friendly hotel options, including Another Place, The Lake with its magnificent pool and easy access to all manner of water sports; Storrs Hall with its airy new lakeside suites (including hot tubs) and the cosy, chalet-style Brimstone. But the real big-hitter when it comes to UK spa breaks is Gilpin - a pretty little hideaway, surrounded by rolling Cumbrian hills (and near to the glistening Lake Windermere). The hotel’s new private Spa Suites are the perfectly tranquil spot for hiding away when things get gloomy outside. Each comes with its own peaceful walled garden, a private hot tub, steam room, sauna and a separate treatment room, equipped with infrared lounge beds and super high-tech massage chairs – meaning you can indulge in DIY spa treatments without interacting with anyone else.
From £295 per night; thegilpin.co.uk
The wild one
A trip around Scotland’s remote Hebrides (recommended time-frame: seven days)
In UK terms, even the start point of this road trip is pretty remote – the staggeringly beautiful Isle of Skye, where the landscape broods like a moody teenager and huge golden eagles soar above wind-beaten cliffs. The second largest of Scotland’s islands, 50-mile-long Skye – which takes its name from the old Norse sky-a, meaning ‘cloud island’ – is connected to the mainland by bridge, making it very easy to reach by car (if you’re willing to put in the miles to get there, that is). And this is truly a place that’s worth the schlep; a lacework of velvety moors, pristine lochs and mountains so otherworldly they formed the backdrop for the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s BFG. There are plenty of pretty spots in which to stay, including foodie favourite The Three Chimneys on the shores of Loch Dunvegan and a wealth of self-catering properties with truly beautiful views (I’d highly recommend Ardcana in Lower Breakish for its from-the-bed vistas of the moon rising over the mountains).
But really this is just the beginning of the journey, as a car ferry from Uig takes you across to the Isle of Harris, part of the Outer Hebrides. The 1hr 40-minute sail takes you past scattered islets, soaring sea birds and (if you’re lucky) pods of dolphins to dock at the small port of Tarbert. Once there, the Isle of Harris is yours to explore, with relatively few visitors, untrammelled pathways and long, winding roads that are speckled with sheep and mobile shops selling everything from butties to seafood.
Take a trip along the Golden Road, which runs along the east coast of the island, and you’ll feel as if you’re driving on the moon, while days spent at stunning Luskentyre beach – considered one of the best in the world – often come with sightings of sea eagles, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and lazy seals lolling about in the shallows. It takes several hours to circumnavigate Harris and Lewis (the two islands are joined) by car, but what’s on offer make it worth it – from cliffs clustered with monochromatic puffins, to vast white-sand beaches that look like they’ve been plucked straight from the Caribbean. That’s not to mention the eye-popping double rainbows that sometimes emerge here on the (many) sunny-yet-rainy days. The finest place to stay is undoubtedly The Sheep Station, a luxuriously cosy pair of self-catering rental houses overlooking the unspoiled and oft-deserted Scarista beach on the west coast. ‘House One’ is the perfect place to step back from the high-octane pace of life for a bit, with a super-king bed, chic marble bathroom and chef’s kitchen fitted out with Smeg appliances (and with a welcome bottle of Bollinger nestling in the fridge). A wood-burning stove in the lounge makes things warm and toasty when the cold evenings roll in, while huge windows offer views of the pounding Atlantic Ocean or, every once in a while, the shimmering northern lights as they stretch across the winter skies. Heaven.
A stay at The Sheep Station costs from £900 for three nights; thesheepstation.co.uk
The beachy one
Exploring Dorset’s Jurassic coastline (recommended time frame: long weekend)
There’s nothing better than escaping the city, especially when you swap sky-high towers for golden beaches in Devon and Dorset. Jumping in a car from central London, the four-hour drive takes you past Stone Henge and almost straight down to the south coast. Kick start your seaside trip with a visit to Dukes Inn, Sidmouth. The boutique hotel makes for the perfect sea view layover right in the centre of town. Don’t forget to reserve a table for dinner at the hotel restaurant because the food comes highly recommended; ham hock terrine, lamb shanks and freshly-caught fish. Pottering around Sidmouth is a brilliant way to stretch your legs after clocking up nearly 200 miles. Don’t miss out on a visit to the local cheese shop, The Cheese Board, and for a drink with a view hike up the hill to Sidmouth Harbour Hotel and take a seat at the bar.
When you’re ready to move on, take the coastal road eight miles east to Beer where there’s a gorgeous beach filled with tiny huts selling cold drinks, hot chips and the possibility of dolphin spotting in the cove. Wiggling your way further east, it’s possible to stop and have chips at every seaside town: each has their own award-winning chippy and a beach with views to boot. But don’t forget to plot in a visit to Chesil Beach, the 18-mile shingle beach made more famous by Ian McEwan in 2007.
While you’re down that way, stop off on the Isle of Portland for a couple of nights in pure bliss at Clifftops, part of the Pennsylvania Castle Estate. The unique development of five luxury lodges is hewn out of the Portland stone cliffs. Inside and out they smack of Grand Designs beauty, with unparalleled views of sunset and sunrise from every angle of the apartment (request Ope if you can).
From here, the last stop on your way home is via Dorset’s most famous sight: Durdle Door. Thanks to its popularity, it’s often incredibly busy and (pre-warning) you have to trek down a pretty steep path to see the incredible views, and a serious set of steps to hit the beach. Trust us when we say, going down is the easy bit. But all very much worth it with glistening, clear water at all times of year, it really is a sight to behold.
You can walk from Durdle Door to nearby Lulworth Cove for lunch, but again a pre-warning: it’s very busy. You’re better off grabbing a bag of chips, parking yourself on a grassy verge and soaking up the raw beauty of your surroundings before hopping back in the car to start the long drive home.