4 mins

14 big trips for when you're short on annual leave

From bear watching weekends to 24 hours in Rome. UK-based travellers can pack maximum adventure into a day off, weekend or bank holiday break with these intrepid short break ideas

Bratislava Castle at sunset (Shutterstock: see credit below)

If you've only got 24 hours...

1. Do a day-trip by plane
We love slow travel. But does that mean the very time-poor can’t have an adventure too? Last year BA launched special hand-luggage only day-trip fares to cities such as Dublin (from £39 each way) and Rome (£38); you’d get about six hours in the Italian capital before having to jet back home again – and you can eat a lot of gelato in six hours…

Piazza Navona, Rome (Shutterstock)
Piazza Navona, Rome (Shutterstock)

But why not up the ante, and pay a day visit to Finnish Lapland? No time is wasted: hop onto a snowmobile as soon as you touch down, stop for lunch by a frozen lake, switch to a husky sled for an exhilarating mush over sparkly wilderness, then trek out in the woods on snowshoes before snowmobiling back to the airport under – possibly – aurora-swirled skies. Phew!

Need to know: Transun’s Arctic Explorer day-trip from the UK to Finland costs from £539.
Or try… Do a day-trip to the Isles of Scilly – flights to St Mary’s run from Land’s End (15mins) and Newquay (30mins). Or take an Aurora Flight, a 3/4hr airborne excursion to, hopefully, glimpse the northern lights from the plane window.

2. Take on a trekking challenge
You don’t need a long time to walk an impressively long distance, or to take in impressive sites. For example, there are about 26 miles between Avebury and Stonehenge – a magnificent marathon linking two to the UK’s most important landmarks, doable in a long day (with a bit of training). En route lie white horses, long barrows, rivers, canals, plains and crop circles; at either end, the mysteries of the stones await.

Stone Henge (Shutterstock)
Stone Henge (Shutterstock)

But you don’t have to walk in Wiltshire – the UK is uniquely blessed with waymarked trails that can provide a satisfying adventure. The Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA) is a good place to dig for inspiration; it lists all manner of trails, as well as hosting frequent ‘Challenge’ events, held countrywide and measuring between 20 miles (32km) and 100 miles (161km).

Need to know: See the LDWA website for more information.
Or try… The 45km (28m) Millennium Way, based on the island’s ancient Royal Way, crosses the entire Isle of Man. Or – for pretty villages, estuary views or simply the name alone – try the 32km (20m) Wanderlust Way, which wends through the Lincolnshire Wolds.

3. Spot an alternative Big Five
Wildlife-watching need not be limited to exotic locales. You want the Galápagos in 24 hours (well, sort of)? Try Lundy Island, off the Devon coast – the UK’s answer to the Ecuadorian archipelago. The MS Oldenburg sails there from either Bideford or Ilfracombe; the crossing takes two hours each way, and allows about four hours to explore the island.

Atlantic Puffins on Lundy Island (Shutterstock)
Atlantic Puffins on Lundy Island (Shutterstock)

It’s a day-trip that can enable the keen-eyed to tick-off an alternative Big Five. Number one: puffins – ‘lundy’ is Norse for puffin, and the comical birds nest here in great numbers from April to July. Two: the island has a resident population of around 180 Atlantic grey seals, which can be seen hauled on the rocks or – if you jump in with a snorkel – frolicking underwater. Three: dolphins (including bottlenose, common and Risso’s) are commonly viewed from the boat. Four: basking sharks, the world’s secondlargest fish, swim by from May to August. And five: look for sika, pretty spotted deer native to Japan but introduced here in the 1920s, which seem to love Lundy life.

Need to know: Boats usually leave the mainland at 10am and arrives back at 6pm.
Or try… A Cairngorms safari, to find red deer, pine marten, red squirrel, golden eagle and osprey. Or Exmoor, to tick off ponies, red deer, otter, badger and peregrine falcon.

If you've only got 2 days...

4. Circumnavigate an island
There’s a wonderful satisfaction in walking around an entire island. Take Guernsey, handily ‘just’ 61km in circumference, doable in an active weekend – though, if you’re keen, there’s an annual charity walk that does the lot in a day.

Fermain Bay, Guernsey (Shutterstock)
Fermain Bay, Guernsey (Shutterstock)

Tracing the edge of this wedge-shaped Channel Isle isn’t just a for-the-sake-of-it trudge – the scenery here is varied and spectacular. The south coast offers Cornish-style drama, with high cliffs dropping down to quiet coves and squiggling out to rugged headlands. The north is a far gentler proposition, a sweep of huge, soft, sandy beaches. Both are liberally sprinkled with 18th-century Martello towers, Nazi bunkers and excellent chippies.

If you start in capital St Peter Port, in the east, you could make it round to the westerly safari and tipi tents of Wild Guernsey Wildcamping for the night.

Need to know: Walking routes can be downloaded from visitguernsey.com.
Or try… Hiking around Holy Island – Anglesey’s western add-on is about 48km in circumference, and boasts some of the best bits of the Anglesey Coastal Path.

5. Cycle a multi-day trail

Plot your own Tour de Weekend! And give it a real sense of journey to up the satisfaction levels. For instance, if you hit the Devon Coast-to-Coast national cycle trail you can cross a county and connect seas in two days. The trail runs for 160km between Atlantic-side Ilfracombe and Plymouth, on the English Channel; better, around 115km of it is traffic-free.

Ponies in Dartmoor National Park (Shutterstock)
Ponies in Dartmoor National Park (Shutterstock)

The route largely follows former railway lines that have been transformed into cycle path, but retain reminders of their former purpose, crossing Victorian viaducts and bridges and zipping through tunnels. On the way there are views over north Devon’s wide estuaries, lush river valleys and untamed Dartmoor. As the national park permits wild camping, you could pitch your tent here to break the trip.

Alternatively, try halfway-ish Okehampton, which has a bike-friendly hostel set in a converted railway goods shed, or Lydford, where the characterful Castle Inn has been serving wayfarers since the 16th century.

Need to know: The UK’s National Cycle Network marks its 20th anniversary in 2015, and now covers more than 22,500km. For further route ideas, see sustrans.org.uk.
Or try… The Lôn Cambria runs for 182km from Aberystwyth across mid-Wales, tackling valley trails, towpaths and a Roman mountain road. Or cycle right out of the capital on the 160km Thames Valley trail, which links London and Oxford, passing through Windsor – so you can wave at Wanderlust HQ!

6. Work over your weekend
This doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. But getting stuck into something worthwhile, with like-minded souls, will be more invigorating than two days on the beach.

Learning to scythe (Shutterstock)
Learning to scythe (Shutterstock)

You could try a National Trust Working Holiday – NT short breaks last from two nights; you usually get bunkhouse accommodation, all meals and a large dollop of fresh air and camaraderie for about £85. There are options all over, from clearing ponds at Erdigg, near Wrexham (12-14 June), to learning the art of scything on Maidenhead and Cookham Commons (14-16 Aug).

Need to know: See nationaltrust.org.uk.
Or try... Spend the weekend with the Waterway Recovery Group, helping to restore canals across the country.

7. Take a mini cruise
It’s possible to squeeze a high-seas voyage into a weekend, cramming all the fun of ocean life – the salty breeze, the distant horizon, the arrival into ports anew – into just two days. We like the sound of a two-night Whale & Dolphin Cruise, between Portsmouth and Santander.

Dolphin swimming in Brittany, France (Shutterstock)
Dolphin swimming in Brittany, France (Shutterstock)

It sets off from the UK on selected dates in July, August and September at around 5.30pm on a Tuesday, returning at 4.30pm on a Thursday. The voyages will be accompanied by marine naturalists who’ll give wildlife lectures and offer spotting advice as the boat ploughs through the Bay of Biscay.

During the summer the bay attracts a range of species – 31 different types of whale and dolphin have been recorded here, as well as numerous seabirds. There’s also time for an evening of exploring and tapas-ing in Santander too, before you hop back on board.

Need to know: Brittany Ferries’ two-night Whale & Dolphin Cruise costs from £170pp.
Or try… Sail from Newcastle or Hull to Amsterdam, Rotterdam or Bruges, with Direct Ferries: you'll have two nights in a cabin and a full day to roam a hip and/or historic European city.

If you've only got 3 days...

8. Cycle between countries
Add scale to your cycling by plotting a multi-country route. For example, the 400km Avenue Verte is one of the world’s most iconic cycles, linking two of the world’s greatest capitals. This route between London and Paris starts at the Eye and finishes at Notre Dame, having negotiated the North Downs, South Downs, English Channel (crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe) and the rolling châteaux-dotted plains of northern France; the cycling is on a mix of quiet country roads, old railway paths and riverside trails.

Cycling in France (Shutterstock)
Cycling in France (Shutterstock)

It is doable in three days, leaving plenty of time to celebrate with a vin rouge and a sightseeing wander around Paris before catching the train or plane home.

Need to know: For maps and information, see francevelotourisme.com.
Or try... Cycling the 274km circumference of Lake Constance, ticking off three countries (Austria, Switzerland, Germany) on two wheels in three or four days.

9. Take the most exotic city break
Make your break feel bigger by picking the most culture-shock spot you can. Our choice if you're travelling from the UK? Fès. The ancient spaghetti-streeted Moroccan city has the perfect closeness/exoticness ratio.

Souk in Fes, Morocco (Shutterstock)
Souk in Fes, Morocco (Shutterstock)

A visit here feels truly other – the timeless maze-like medina, the haunting azan call to prayer, the donkey carts, tea-sellers and long flowing jellabiyas – yet it’s only a three-hour flight from northern Europe. Few places can transport you so far so fast.

Stay in the heart of the medina for the deepest cultural immersion – either at a riad hotel or a lovingly renovated traditional house; then, book a cooking class, visit a hammam and take an artisanal tour, to meet the weavers, tanners and copper-workers that make the city tick.

Need to know: Ryanair flies Stansted-Fès from around £30 one way. From southern Spain, a ferry crossing to Tangier takes from 35mins; Tangier-Fès takes 4.5hrs by train.
Or try... Reykjavík, Iceland – the four-ish hour flight seems to land you on another planet.

If you've only got 4 days...

10. See multiple cities

Why take a city break when you could take a cities break? Combining multiple destinations into one trip will make your long weekend feel all the longer. A good option is combining the close-together capitals of Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. Fly to Vienna for elegant cafés, grand schlosses and music everywhere.

St. Charles's Church in Vienna, Austria (Shutterstock)
St. Charles's Church in Vienna, Austria (Shutterstock)

Once you’ve had your fill of Sachertorte, catch a nippy catamaran along the Danube to Bratislava (75mins) to see its castle and staré mesto (old town). Finally, switch to the train (2hrs 45mins), to finish in Budapest, for fin-de-siècle architecture, trolley-bus rides and a dip in the thermal baths before a night at perhaps the world’s cheapest yet most magnificent opera.

Need to know: DDSG Blue Danube hydrofoils link Vienna to Bratislava and Vienna to Budapest (6hrs); there are currently no boats connecting Bratislava and Budapest.
Or try... Combine Finland and Estonia by ferry – the Helsinki-Tallinn crossing takes only 2hrs.

11. Bag a big peak

Feel literally on top of the world over your weekend. At 4,167m, Mt Toubkal is the highest peak in North Africa – but you could jet off on a Friday, bag the summit and be back at your desk the following Tuesday, having haggled and tagine-ed your way around marvellous Marrakech too.

Toubkal National Park, High Atlas, Morocco (Shutterstock)
Toubkal National Park, High Atlas, Morocco (Shutterstock)

With direct flights taking just 3.5 hours, and the Atlas Mountains soaring just outside Marrakech, getting to the trailhead at Imlil is easy; a straightforward, if steep, rocky and testing trail, winds from there to the Neltner Refuge (3,207m) and thence to the top.

Your trekking days will be long (add an extra day if you’re not quite so strapped for time) but the rewards – views of Berber villages, rich-green valleys and the heights of the High Atlas – are well worth the effort.

Need to know: Exodus, Explore and KE Adventure all offer Toubkal weekends; trips cost around £270 excluding flights.
Or try... Make an ascent of 2,499m Rysy in the Polish High Tatra, doable in four days from Krakow. Or tick off Vesuvius and Etna in one trip – fly into Naples and out of Catania, using the train to get between them.

12. Paddle a wild waterway
It’s possible for travellers to get that Davy Crockett feeling in just a few days. The Great Glen Canoe Trail became Scotland’s first official paddlers’ route in 2010; it’s a 100km adventure linking Inverness and Fort William – and thus the country’s east and west coasts – by water, via Loch Lochy, Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Dochfour, each connected to the other by the Caledonian Canal.

Loch Lochy, Lochaber (Shutterstock)
Loch Lochy, Lochaber (Shutterstock)

It can be navigated in three or four days, a wet and wonderful long weekend, gliding past castles, over aqueducts and amid a whole lot of Highlands splendour. You might even spot a monster...

Need to know: It’s generally easier to paddle west to east, due to prevailing winds. See greatglencanoetrail.info.
Or try... The 3.5-day, 46km Tower to Tower Lough Erne Canoe Trail in Northern Ireland, which spans the lengths of the Upper and Lower loughs, passing historic manors, holy islands and Enniskillen.

If you've only got 5 days...

13. Take a break with bears

Direct flights between Heathrow and Chengdu make it possible to spend time with pandas – in China – without using much of your holiday allowance. Take off from London on Thursday night, land in the Far East on Friday morning and plunge straight into the sightseeing: take a trip out to Leshan, a boat trip to the Grand Buddha – the 71m high statue carved into the cliff face – and pay a visit to the 1,700-year-old historic town of Huanglongxi.

Panda bear, Chengdu (Shutterstock)
Panda bear, Chengdu (Shutterstock)

The next day is time for the main event: meet those adorable and endangered bundles of fluff at Chengdu’s panda Research Base – see the little ’uns being fed and the older ones rolling about in the bamboo. Got another day? Spend it eating your way through a mountain of spicy Sichuanese specialities and falling for Chengdu’s teahouse culture.

Need to know: Wendy Wu Tours offers a five-day Panda Weekend, using indirect Etihad flights. BA flies non-stop (11hrs).
Or try... Bear-watching in the heart of Finland with Explore – stay in a wilderness lodge, swim in forest lakes, cleanse in a Finnish sauna, and spot bears and wolverines from an isolated hide.

14. Tick your bucket list
‘I haven’t got time’ isn’t an excuse: if you really want to do something, there is a way – even if you only have a few days. So, how about spotting the Big Five in a long weekend?

In what must be the ultimate trip for the time-poor wildlife obsessive, you can squeeze a Masai Mara safari into a short break. With direct flights to Nairobi from northern Europe taking around nine hours, and an onward hop to the Mara just 45 minutes, you can be on your first game drive within a day of leaving the office.

Safari in Masai Mara (Shutterstock)
Safari in Masai Mara (Shutterstock)

Spend two more full days exploring the park, heading out on safari, scanning for wildlife, perhaps floating up in a hot air balloon and toasting each day’s splendour with a sundowner. A truly wild weekend.

Need to know:
Travel August-October to coincide with the Great Migration.
Or try... Meeting mountain gorillas on a short break to compact Rwanda or Uganda, doable in five days.

Main image: Bratislava Castle at sunset (Shutterstock)

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