Friday, December 8, 2023

See Europe by train: five great family summer holidays with no flying

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Up and over the mountains to Italian lakes and cities

Heading to Italy overland from the UK suits those looking to relish the journey and give kids a once-in-a-lifetime geography lesson. The most spectacular route is on the Treno Gottardo, a revamped 19th-century railway line that skirts Lake Lucerne and creeps through snow-capped mountains in the Ticino valley between Basel and Locarno, Switzerland’s warmest town, on Lake Maggiore.

Just seven hours from London via Paris, Basel is doable in a day, though the Alsace town of Mulhouse, with its eye-popping street art and ornate central square, makes a good stopover. Once in Locarno, local Italian trains and ferries provide plenty of ways to explore the lakes. Sipping Aperol spritz or scoffing spaghetti on an Italian lakeshore feels worlds away from the UK. Those with more time can make the most of Italy’s great rail service, hopping down to Milan and even Verona or Venice. From Milan, the high-speed Frecciarossa service takes less than seven hours back to Paris.
Rail Europe recommends buying a one-month Interrail pass for this trip, which costs £260 for one adult (children under 11 travel free, there are supplements on Eurostar and some high-speed trains)

A slice of the good life in Normandy

The village of Bellême, Normandy.
Photograph: Patrick Forget/Alamy

Le Perche is a 250,000-acre national park in southern Normandy that is often overlooked by Brits heading south. Unlike much of northern France, Le Perche has retained its forests and wildlife thanks in part to its hilly terrain, and food producers are small-scale and often organic.

Long a popular getaway for Parisian families, Le Perche is also an easy hop by rail from the UK. Fun family activities include exploring Bellême forest by horse and cart with Bellême Attelages, meeting Percheron horses, donkeys and cattle at Courboyer manor house, and touring an organic cider factory and orchard at the Cidrerie Traditionnelle du Perche.

This summer, 13 artists will add art installations into the mix with the Orne Contemporary summer festival filling villages with sculptures and paintings. Country Lodge, with its wooden cabins (sleeps four from €165 a night), adventure playground and pool in a farmyard setting, is an excellent option for younger kids. The recently renovated Château du Gué aux Biches has B&B rooms and a brand-new gîte (sleeps six from €1,200 a week) in a private park near Bagnoles, and offers free transfers for those travelling by train.
Oui.sncf offers return train fares from London to Briouze via Paris from £125

Summer in the Alps

A cable car over Morzine in high summer.
A cable car over Morzine in high summer. Photograph: Alamy

Better known for winter breaks, Morzine in the Portes du Soleil area of the French Alps transforms into an active holiday mecca each summer. It is accessible by train, too, taking about eight hours from London with just two changes – in Paris and Annecy. Spring and summer are beautiful times to explore the mountains at a considerably lower cost than skiing.

Between mid-June and mid-September, there’s ample mountain biking and hiking on the winter ski pistes, and unlimited chairlift and gondola rides cost just €2 a day. Nearby, the Dranse River offers white-water rafting, and Lac de Montriond is an idyllic spot for paddleboarding and swimming. Sustainable chalet company AliKats has self-catering chalets of all sizes in and around Morzine, and a 10% discount for those travelling by train. Bijou chalet Petit Lumina (from £634 a week including rail discount) is central and sleeps four. La Bergerie is a family-run hotel with an outdoor pool and heaps of on-tap entertainment – under-12s stay free in their parents’ rooms (or family rooms start from £194 a night).
Train tickets from London to Cluses cost from £150 one-way

Wild camping by sleeper train, Highlands

Wild camping at the head of Loch Nevis.
Wild camping at the head of Loch Nevis. Photograph: shoults/Alamy

While wild camping fights for survival in England, it remains commonplace in Scotland’s remote glens and heather-clad highlands, guaranteeing a true adventure for older kids. For those a little nervous about packing the right gear and marching the whole family up into the hills, Anna Danby from Wild Roots Guiding is on hand. Her three-day guided wild camping and hiking trip (from £950 for a family of four, including food, drinks, accommodation, guiding and equipment) heads across Glen Nevis from Fort William to Corrour, two stations served by the Caledonian Sleeper service from London.

The sleeper itself is a major part of the adventure, with interconnecting cabins providing proper beds and privacy for families. Anna meets families at Fort William to talk through the route, sort gear (she can provide as much or as little as needed), and dole out homemade cakes.

From Fort William, the hike follows Glen Nevis south in the shadow of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak. Highlights include Nevis Gorge and the 120-metre plummeting waters of Steall waterfall and Steall Meadows. Walking deeper into the glen means few day trippers. Covering about five miles each day, families will have plenty of time for wild swims. After two nights of wild camping, Corrour Station House provides comfortable beds and locally sourced grub before the journey home.
Tickets on the Caledonian Sleeper start from £285 one-way for two adults and two children in interconnecting cabins

City and sea in the Netherlands

The beach at Bloemendaal aan Zee.
The beach at Bloemendaal aan Zee. Photograph: Alamy

Since 2020, Eurostar has run a twice-daily direct service from London to Amsterdam via Rotterdam, taking under four hours. Although best known for city breaks, the Netherlands also has long sandy beaches, perfect for families. From Amsterdam, it’s a 25-minute train ride to Bloemendaal aan Zee, a dune-backed beach dubbed the Dutch Ibiza.

Further up the coast, among car-free walking and cycling routes in the Zuid-Kennemerland national park, Camping de Lakens is a quieter spot for families, with pre-erected furnished tents (from €360 for three nights), fitness classes, watersports and an adventure playground.

From Rotterdam, it’s a short metro ride to Scheveningen, the country’s largest beach resort. Scheveningen Strand has a pier, a boardwalk with cafes spilling on to the sand, and a Legoland Discovery Centre.
Eurostar tickets from London to Amsterdam cost from £51 one-way in the summer

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