Winter break: short flights, sandy beaches and sunshine

As temperatures in the UK continue to drop (and Christmas planning gets FRANTIC), it’s easy to dream of a winter break to sunnier shores… Make that dream a reality, using journalist and travel writer Emma Sheppard’s guide to short haul winter sun destinations…

It’s all about taking a winter break. Whether you fancy a (very) last minute, pre-Christmas get away or a new year’s trip, here are some short-haul suggestions that are easy to navigate with the family and shouldn’t break the bank.

Fuerteventura (see main image)
If your opinion of the Canaries has been blighted by distant memories of teenage debauchery, try one of the quieter islands with the family. On Fuerteventura, you’ll find some of the best beaches, guaranteed year-round sunshine, and plenty of landscape untouched by high-rise resorts.

What to do
There are 90 miles of sand on the island, so you’re never far away from a beach. Those on the east coast are safe for swimming (Sotavento, Barlovento and Costa Calma are considered some of the best).

Corralejo, the island’s largest resort, is also popular with paddling families and make sure you visit the sand dunes at the Parque Natural de Corralejo. Older children (and their accompanying ‘big kids’) might be interested in trying kite and windsurfing on the wilder west coast – Cofete beach, which is situated in a nature reserve, is a good choice.

When you’ve had enough of the beach, there’s the Acua Water Park near Corralejo, and the Oasis Park zoo in the south has reptile, sea lion and birds of prey shows, plus a dedicated petting farm for younger children.

Slightly further afield, the Isla de Lobos (wolf island) is a 15-minute glass-bottom boat ride from Corralejo (7,50€ per adult, 4€ per child), and a pleasant half or whole-day excursion.

Where to stay
Barcelo Castillo Beach Resort in Caleta de Fuste is right on Castillo Beach. The villas are well set up for self-catering with fully equipped kitchens (with a fridge and microwave), and a private terrace or balcony. There’s a kids’ club and six swimming pools (three for adults, three for children), as well as a spa and gym. Rooms are from £48 a night in December.

Further south in Costa Calma, the H10 Tindaya hotel gets excellent reviews. It has direct beach access (be warned, there is a charge for using the sunbeds here) and there’s a good variety of buffet options for those staying on an all-inclusive basis.

For children, there’s a daily programme of activities, a mini golf course, two swimming pools and a disco in the evenings. Prices are from £73 per night for half board (daily breakfast and dinner) in December.

How to get there
EasyJet run a regular service from London Gatwick to Fuerteventura from £70 return in December. Ryanair also fly there from London Stansted and Iberia and Vueling fly there via Barcelona or Madrid (good for adding on a night somewhere else, but not so good for getting home quickly).


 

Winter break: short flights, sandy beaches and sunshine - theearlyhour.com

Madeira
Off the northwest coast of Africa, the Portuguese island of Madeira can experience highs of 21°C in November and December. Its wildflowers, dramatic cliffs, waterfalls and wine have been attracting tourists for centuries.

What to do
If you like hiking, there’s lots of exploring to be done here, from the world’s largest laurel forest – a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site – to the volcanic peaks waiting to be climbed.

You’ll undoubtedly find yourself in Funchal – explore the colourful fruit and veg market in the old town and swing by Blandy’s Wine Lodge, which runs a very reasonable wine tour and tasting (from 3,30€ per person).

Children will love the Monte Cable Car that travels up to the Botanical Gardens, and the 589-metre-high Cabo Girão Skywalk, a glass platform overlooking the sea.

Madeira is also one of the best countries in the world to spot dolphins and whales year round (although May-October are the best months) – expect to pay 40€ per adult for a day trip with Madeira Wind Birds.

While there are beaches on this volcanic island, they’re mostly pebbly. For a stretch of pristine white sand, nearby Porto Santo island has a five-mile beach where you can dive down into a shipwreck, or go golfing. Take the ferry from Funchal (two and a half hours, costing 29€ per adult each way).

Where to stay
Funchal has the highest concentration of resorts. The Melia Madeira Mare Resort & Spa is a new resort near the sea with large rooms, a huge outdoor pool and is in a good location to explore the island. Rooms are from £65 per night.

For somewhere a bit more remote, try the Quinta Do Furao Hotel in Santana on the north coast. This cliff-side hotel has stunning views, highly-rated food and an impressive wine cellar. Expect to pay around £100 per room, but even if you don’t stay here, make sure you visit for lunch.

Of course, you may be more comfortable in your own villa, particularly with young children. Look at sites such as Owner’s Direct, Airbnb, or Houstrip for some great options.

How to get there
Return flights to Madeira are from £80 per person in early December and take around three and a half hours with EasyJet. Monarch, Norwegian Aur and British Airways also run a regular service and you may need to combine carriers to get the best fare. I use Skyscanner’s whole-month view if I’m flexible about when to travel.


Winter break: short flights, sandy beaches and sunshine - theearlyhour.com

Essouira
Once a 3-hour drive from Marrakesh or Agadir, the UNESCO-listed town of Essouira is now easily accessible after EasyJet launched direct flights from Luton in May this year.

What to do
The trade winds mean this is a popular spot for wind and kitesurfing, and there’s a rich café culture to explore. Make sure you visit the fish market, where you can handpick your lunch and get it cooked by local ‘grill guys’. The souk is a wonderful place to find treasures and (unusually for Morocco) is easy to navigate thanks to its organised grid formation.

The historical ramparts (10 dirham entrance fee) are one of the few remnants of Portuguese rule here and are worth a visit and a photo. Games of Thrones fans may recognise it as part of the series was filmed here.

Other popular culture references can be found at the nearby beach of the tiny town of Sidi Kaouki. This was used in a scene for the second Sex and the City movie. A 30-minute drive away from here is Les Domaines du Val d’Argan, southern Morocco’s only vineyard.

Where to stay
A lot of the larger resorts are outside Essouira itself, although somewhere like the Ryad Watier is a good option for those wanting to stay within the Medina. It’s a beautifully traditional riad with rooms from £69 per night, but there is no pool.

Off the beaten track, and a 15-minute drive from Essouira, is the charming Domaine de l’Arganeraie. The villas are nicely spaced out, the pool is a good size and there are tortoises and a donkey wandering the pretty gardens. There is also a cooking class for those who want to learn more about Moroccan cuisine. It’s good value at £45 a night for a room (including breakfast).

For a larger resort, the Sofitel Essaouira Mogador Golf and Spa is 10 minutes’ drive from the city walls, with a free shuttle service provided by the hotel each hour. There is a large pool, a golf course beyond the dunes and a nice spa. Rooms are from £87 per night, room only.

How to get there
You can fly direct to Essouira from London Luton from £47 return with EasyJet. It’s a four and a half hour flight. Alternatively, if you also want to visit Marrakesh, fly there from London Gatwick and drive to Essouira. The journey will take just under three hours and you can expect a taxi to cost around £40 one way. This may suit those who are not as flexible about when to go – EasyJet only flies to Essouira on a Saturday and Tuesday.


 

Winter break: short flights, sandy beaches and sunshine - theearlyhour.com

Cyprus
Ancient history, turquoise waters and a blend of cultures like no other, Cyprus is a good idea at any time of the year. The north is cooler (winter temperatures usually hit 16°C), but the south easily reaches 20°C in November.

Decades of British rule have left their mark – cars drive on the left, there are red post boxes and the odd Marks & Spencer dotted around – but it’s not too hard to find the real Cyprian experience, especially out of season.

What to do
In the south, the island’s Troodos Massif mountain range is perfect for hiking, mountain biking and exploring the beautiful wooden churches that are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Depending on snowfall, it is even possible to ski on Mount Olympus (usually January-March).

If you’re not yet ready to say goodbye to sunbathing, the beaches of Protaras, Agia Napa and Coral Bay in the south are your best bet. In the west, vineyards cover the landscape – try Domaine Vlassides, the Vasa Winery (also home to a wine museum), and Lambouri. Over on the east coast, near Larnarka, the brave of heart should make time to scuba-dive on the wreck of the Zenobia (thought to be one of the top 10 wreck dives in the world).

Legend has it that Paphos is the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite, and it has been awarded the title of the European Capital of Culture for 2017. The old town is worth a wander but it is in the newer part of the city (near the harbour) that the Paphos Archaeological Park lies. Here you’ll find the mosaic floors of four Roman villas, the Tombs of the Kings, the Saranta Kolones (forty columns), and ruins of an early Christian Basilica (entrance is 4,50€ per person).

Hiring a car to explore the island is recommended, not least because you’ll get to dip your toe into the Turkish north. The Akamas Peninsula in the northwest is widely regarded as an area of great beauty and is popular with walkers and outdoorsy types, now the British no longer use it as a firing range.

In the summer, sea turtles lay their eggs on the beaches here and there are boat trips that run from Paphos if you’d rather approach from the sea. Other attractions in the north include Girne in Kyrenia, a picturesque port town, and Nicosia, the island’s capital that is divided into Greek and Turkish districts.

Where to stay
Many beach resorts are closed during the winter season, but there are still a number of options worth considering.

Almyra Hotel is designed around families and is described by Condé Nast Traveller as a “heavenly gem”. There are five restaurants, three pools, including a big one for children, a crèche, tennis courts, a spa and an 18-hole golf course four miles away. Prices start at £85 per night (including breakfast) in the winter season.

Zening Resorts is a wellness beach and yoga retreat in Latchi on the west coast that began welcoming children in 2015. It’s a beautiful property with a healthy restaurant, spa and yoga classes on offer. Rooms are from £46 a night (including breakfast).

Away from the beach, the Paradisos Hills hotel is in the village of Lysos (11 miles west of Paphos). Thanks to its elevated position, you can expect stunning views of the surrounding mountains and ocean in every direction. It’s a family run place with only 15 rooms and the staff are very friendly. Rooms are from £58 per night (including breakfast).

Getting there
Ryanair and EasyJet both fly direct to Paphos – expect to pay around £100 per person return. The flight takes approximately four and a half hours. Be warned, it is tricky to fly into north Cyprus, and out of the south (and vice versa), so avoid that as much as possible, even if it suits your itinerary.

Read more from Emma Sheppard on her blog

Do you have any other ideas for a short haul winter break? We’d love to hear in the comment section below…

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