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Low prices, no crowds – why Britain is best in ‘bleak’ season

travel winter holidays uk off-peak
Often dismissed as the “off” season, if you are willing to look at things a little differently, you will find that winter can be very much “on” - Getty

What’s the old adage? There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing? Broadening “bad weather” to encompass winter in general, I would add – and the wrong attitude. Because it strikes me that what is most wrong with winter in the UK is the way it is framed – the way it is dismissed as the “off” season. Because if you are willing to look at things a little differently, you will find that winter can be very much “on”.

Take long, dark, gloomy nights, for instance. See them instead as a canvas for spectacular stargazing. Horribly short days? More like dramatic sunrises with lie-ins – after 8am in December! Stark landscapes and leafless trees? All the better for spotting wildlife, not to mention a welcoming environment for migrating birds. Unreliable weather? That’s simply the potential for storm-watching, bracing strolls or feeling the magnified joy of a surprisingly crisp, blue-sky day.

Unpopular also equals great value. If you are prepared to visit that smart hotel or cute cottage in January rather than July, you might well nab it for half the price. This is especially true in places that are over-loved in warmer months, such as Cornwall, Norfolk and the Isle of Skye – places where if you haven’t booked your summer bolthole by the previous November, you are probably already too late.

Even better, in winter these locations are delightfully crowd-free. Their winding roads are unclogged, their sights queueless, their rated restaurants much easier to book.

There are downsides, of course. It is undeniably colder, though low temperatures do have pleasingly hygge-ish side effects – notably the chance to embrace rosy cheeks, woolly jumpers and roaring fires. More annoying, perhaps, is that some things just close. January seems to be the top choice for hotel refurbishments, and many tours and attractions hibernate until Easter or at least the February half-term (be sure to do some pre-trip research).

But don’t let that put you off. Because many tourist spots are magical to visit out of season. The bliss of standing alone on a breathtaking Cornish clifftop is worth a blast of chilly sea air. Not having to give way to six coachloads of people as you ramble around a Cumbrian lake makes that ramble all the more enriching, especially if the surrounding fells are dusted with snow.

There is so much unexpected beauty to be found in winter – as you’ll see below – and so many outright bargains, too. Just don’t forget the right coat.


North Norfolk

Visit North Norfolk in winter and you’ll hit the jackpot. (And we don’t mean the amusement-arcade sort – though you can do that in Hunstanton and Cromer, if you like.) No, you’ll avoid summer’s crowds, but arguably still see it at its best. Because off-season in North Norfolk means the long, golden beaches are empty and the coast-path walks are extra invigorating (the coast-hopper bus continues, too; sanderscoaches.com). It means spotting seal pups and masses of migrating birds. And it means spectacular big skies, including dark, clear nights when you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye.

What to do

Blakeney Point is home to England’s largest seal colony, where 3,000 pups are born annually, November-January. Board a boat to see the spectacle up close (£25 adult/£15 child; 01263 740505; beansboattrips.co.uk). Also, with a bounty of nature reserves, North Norfolk is brilliant for birding, especially in winter when – among other species – pink-footed geese arrive in their tens of thousands. See them roosting at dawn and dusk at RSPB Snettisham (free; rspb.org.uk).

north norfolk holidays wildlife winter pink-footed geese
North Norfolk is brilliant in winter when pink-footed geese arrive in their tens of thousands - Getty

Or look for large gaggles in the fields flanking Lady Anne’s Drive, which links glorious Holkham Park (open year-round) and immense Holkham Beach, a contender for the country’s finest. Holkham Hall is closed for regular admissions, though magical candlelit tours run on select December dates (£32/£16; 01328 713111; holkham.co.uk).

For an expert and intimate expedition, join wildlife cameraman Martin Hayward Smith in his classic Land Rover (from £110pp; 01328 820660; northnorfolksafaris.co.uk). Alternatively, hop aboard Selkie, a Stiffkey Cockle sailing dinghy, to explore the area’s creeks and coast; trips could include sailing instruction, cold-water swims or pottering through the saltmarsh to Cley Windmill (£210 for two hours, for up to four; staynextthesea.co.uk).

Where to stay

Stay at Sarah’s, a stylish Georgian townhouse apartment on Holt’s charming High Street (from £350 for two nights; 07817 307551; stayatsarahs.org). Or try the Control Tower, a former RAF lookout turned vegetarian B&B with 1940s touches (from £125pn B&B; 01328 821574; controltowerstays.com). The Little Stables, between Cromer and Blickling Hall, is a dog-friendly couple’s bolthole, with a pub nearby (from £120pn; thelittlestables.co.uk).

georgian townhouse stay at sarah's where to stay norfolk holidays
Sarah’s is a stylish Georgian townhouse apartment on Holt’s charming High Street

Plan the perfect holiday in Norfolk with our guide.


Cornwall

Back in the day, Cornwall would have shut up shop at the end of summer. But not so much now. The county is part of the Experience project, a sustainable tourism initiative that’s aiming to boost visitor numbers between October and March and reduce the impact of overtourism in this most overloved of counties. Expect to find it windswept, magnificent, uncongested and largely open for business.

What to do

As part of Experience, a raft of adventures has been created. You could take an e-bike ride around Mount’s Bay (from £50pp per day; 07394 981083; ebikecornwall.com) or explore Gwelen, an arts trail featuring 85 sculptures along a section of the South West Coast Path, with an accompanying podcast too (free; 01736 363715; newlynartgallery.co.uk). Or scour the shores with a marine biologist on a Night Rock Pool Safari to see what creeps about after dark (£26pp; 07857 127376; therockpoolproject.co.uk).

gwelen arts train cornwall holidays winter
Explore the Gwelen arts trail, a sculpture route and podcast along a section of the South West Coast Path - Mike Newman

Winter is a good time to get in the water, too, especially for surfing and kitesurfing. Book a break at the hip Watergate Bay hotel, which has a swimming club, a boardwalk onto the beach and a partnership with Wavehunters, which offers surfing lessons for all abilities (from £250 B&B; surfing lessons from £45pp; 01637 860543; watergatebay.co.uk).

Where to stay

Penzance remains vibrant year-round, and the Chapel House makes a fine winter base here – most rooms have woodburning stoves, and hot-water bottles are available on request (from £200 B&B; chapelhousepz.co.uk).

If you want to bring the whole family, consider Scandi-inspired Sky House, in St Agnes – its enormous windows and hot tub are perfect for making the most of its Dark Sky status location; also, January prices are half those of peak summer (sleeps seven; from £1,565 per week; 01872 218139; cornishgems.com).

chapel house hotels cornwall
Chapel House makes a fine winter base in Penzance

Walkers might prefer the Mullion Cove hotel, with a Lizard Point location ideal for winter sunsets, storm-watching and bracing hikes, and a good collections of maps you can borrow. Stay two nights between November and March and you get a third night half price (from £135 B&B; 01326 240328; ­mullion-cove.co.uk).

Also worth noting, in winter it’s easier to bag a table at one of Rick Stein’s restaurants. Available January-March is the Ramble & Recharge package, including a two-night stay in Padstow, walking notes and one lunch and one dinner at the chef’s flagship eateries (from £548 for two; 01841 532700; rickstein.com).

Plan the perfect holiday in Cornwall with our guide.


Pembrokeshire

Whipped by Atlantic waves and salty breezes, Wales’s south-west corner provides the perfect winter refresher. Its idyllic beaches – Barafundle, Whitesands, Marloes – will be emptier in low season, as will the Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail, which wraps around the region’s entire coast. Its cute cottages will be cheaper, too – for example, luxe bolthole-for-two Awel Deg, on Abergwaun’s charming harbour, costs £389 for a long weekend in January compared with £742 in August (01239 727029; underthethatch.co.uk).

What to do

You could do worse than simply walking bits of that coast path. Although services are reduced October-May, coastal buses do run, facilitating car-free linear walks and loops – try the lovely 4.5-miler from St Davids, via Porth Clais and St Non’s Well (nationaltrail.co.uk; visitpembrokeshire.com).

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The Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail, which wraps around the region’s entire coast - VISIT PEMBROKSHIRE

To get intimate with the waves, join the Real Adventure Company, which offers surfing, kayaking and coasteering along the cliffs in all seasons for private groups (from £45pp; 07421 831462; therealadventurecompany.com).

Or join Preseli Venture’s Winter Adventure Weekend, a mix of land and water exploits from its eco-lodge base (two nights’ full-board £215pp; set dates; 01348 837709; preseliventure.co.uk).

For something a little less energetic, Coastal Foraging’s trips will take you on a search around the shores of Tenby – winter is especially rich for pepper dulse (known among chefs as the “truffle of the sea”) and shellfish. Join a Classic Course to sustainably gather wild delicacies and cook the spoils (from £85pp; 07989 143868; coastalforaging.co.uk).

And if it’s unbearably chilly, head for the Melin Tregwynt woollen mill, which has been producing blankets since the 17th century. Watch the mill in action and buy something cosy from the shop, both open year-round (01348 891288; melintregwynt.co.uk).

travel wales pembrokeshire winter breaks
Wales’s increasingly popular south-west corner provides the perfect winter refresher - VISIT PEMBROKSHIRE

Where to stay

“Camp” whatever the weather at the Little Retreat. This woodland-tucked glamping resort by the Cleddau Estuary has luxury eco-domes with wood-fired hot tubs. Stargazing experiences can be booked, too (sleeps four; two nights from £320; 07973 373833; littleretreats.co.uk).

Award-winning Penally Abbey, perched on a hill near Tenby, has delightfully designed rooms and a top-notch, candle-lit restaurant (from £190 B&B; 01834 843033; penally-abbey.com).

Or cosy up in two-bedroom Trehilyn Isaf, on wild Strumble Head, one of the Georgian farm cottages here lovingly restored by Griff Rhys Jones (three nights from £389; 01239 727029; underthethatch.co.uk).

Plan the perfect holiday in Pembrokeshire with our guide.


Lake District

The Lake District is just not designed to host its legions of fans. Its roads are too windy, its honeypot villages too tucked away, its signature trails too narrow and vulnerable. But winter, at last, sees the national park empty out, even though the attractions are manifold: frost-crispy fields, mist whirling over frozen lakes, snow carpeting the fell tops, Herdwick sheep sporting their fluffiest fleeces, pubs stoking their open fires.

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Winter sees the national park empty out, even though the attractions are manifold - Dave Willis/VISIT CUMBRIA

Indeed, this is probably your best bet for an English white Christmas or cheeky slalom – the Lake District Ski Club on Raise, near Helvellyn, runs a button lift in winter, provided there’s enough snow (£20 per day; ldscsnowski.co.uk).

What to do

This is the Lakes – it’s practically mandatory to go for a walk. And there are plenty of options for iffy days: a simple walk from Keswick to Castlerigg Stone Circle; sheltered strolls in Grizedale Forest; a low-level wander up Gowbarrow via Aira Force, which is especially impressive after rain.

If you want to walk with others, book a winter break at Ramble Worldwide’s Hassness Country House. Idyllically sited on the shores of Buttermere, it’s a beautiful base for guided hikes (three nights from £449pp half-board; 01707 537286; ramblersholidays.co.uk). Those seeking a greater challenge could join a Winter Skills course on Helvellyn with the national park’s Fell Top Assessors (£125pp; select dates; lakedistrictweatherline.co.uk).

To get into the lakes themselves, join one of Suzanna Swims’ Winter Skills Workshops. Local expert Suzanna teaches waterbabies how to swim confidently in cold water. The emphasis is on safety, fun, enjoying the views and sharing a hot brew afterwards (£125pp; suzannaswims.co.uk).

Where to stay

You can channel snug-country-pub vibes at the 17th-century Hare & Hounds Inn at Bowland Bridge, near Windermere, which has comfy rooms with views of the fells (from £160 B&B; 015395 55549; ­hareandhoundslakes.com).

Or perhaps you’d prefer to snuggle up in your own Lakeland bolthole? Quirky Dovecoat Cottage, in Grasmere, has a woodburner, roll-top bath and cosy Hobbit-like appeal (sleeps two; from £419 per week; 01244 356655; sykescottages.co.uk).

another place hotel cumbria lake district where to stay
Head to Another Place where you can stay in the handsome Georgian house or in heated shepherds’ huts - Lewis Harrison-Pinder

Alternatively, you could head to Another Place, on the shores of Ullswater, where you can stay in the handsome Georgian house or in heated shepherds’ huts, swim in the indoor pool or take a dip in the lake (book cold-water sessions, from £40pp). A two-night half-board Escape to the Lake winter break is also available (two-night package from £544 for two; 01768 486442; another.place).

Plan the perfect holiday in the Lake District in our guide.


Isle of Skye

The second most popular Scottish tourist spot after Edinburgh, Skye is cursed by its own rugged good looks. Which is why you should go in winter, when it’s just as gorgeous – possibly more so – but the hordes (and midges) aren’t around. Sunrises and sunsets are particularly good, and can be watched at iconic sites such as the Quiraing without the crowds. For the best night skies, head to the Waternish peninsula, where there isn’t a single street light. Who knows, you might even see the northern lights…

isle of skye winter holidays scotland
Skye is cursed by its own rugged good looks which is why you should go in winter, when it’s just as gorgeous as any other time of year - Getty

What to do

Many businesses shut for winter, including boat operators, but you can still catch a ferry to wee Raasay (25 minutes; calmac.co.uk), walk to deserted Hallaig, ruined Brochel Castle and flat-topped Dun Caan hill, and finish with a tipple at the Raasay Distillery.

There’s plenty to do back on Skye, too. Skye Wildlife’s island tours run year-round and might reveal seals, deer and otters (which are more easily spotted with fewer people around) as well as golden and sea eagles starting their displays (£68/£50 adult/child; 07972 260249; skyewildlife.com).

Challenge-seekers could tackle the formidable Cuillin range. Sky Adventure runs guided winter walking and climbing days on the snowy ridges (£200 for one, £30 per additional person; 07785 962391; skyeadventure.com).

If you don’t want to drive yourself around on slippy winter roads, Real Scottish Journeys can organise private winter bus tours from Portree. These are flexible, working around weather conditions, but visit highlights such as Lealt Falls and the Old Man of Storr, with storytelling en route (from £80pp; 01470 532428; realscottishjourneys.com).

Old Man Of Storr
The Old Man Of Storr is a highlight of a trip to Skye in any season

If it’s truly dreich, then there’s cockle-warming comfort to be found at whisky distilleries such as Talisker (malts.com) and Torabhaig (torabhaig.com), and at the Stein (thesteininn.co.uk), the island’s oldest inn.

Where to stay

Monkstadt 1745 sits on the Trotternish peninsula, by the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie came ashore. It has classy rooms and cottages (from £260 for two nights self-catering; 01470 542407; ­monkstadt1745.com).

For your own architect-designed bolthole, check out Waterside Skye, which offers three jaw-dropping retreats. The Shorehouse (sleeps four), on Broadford Bay, is virtually all windows, ideal for watching storms roll in and seabirds fly by (from £390 for two nights; 07794 253683; watersideskye.co.uk).

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Stay at Kinloch Lodge which is offering special anniversary packages

Or book in at waterside Kinloch Lodge, which is like a home from home – if your home happens to be utterly gorgeous, with an top-class chef. Guests staying two nights from November to the end of February can add on a third night’s stay for free, including dinner and full Scottish breakfast (from £460 B&B; 01471 833333; kinloch-lodge.co.uk).

Discover more of Britain’s wildest winter experiences here.