The best national parks of Europe
Cíes Islands National Park, Spain
Dangling off the edge of Galicia’s Atlantic coast, this trio of islands is as near as Europe gets to the wondrous beaches and sapphire seas of the tropics – locals call the beach of Rodas ‘Galicia’s Caribbean beach’. Once a favourite haunt of pirates, it is now frequented by weekend trippers who take the 40-minute ferry journey from Baiona. The pocket-sized archipelago mixes its jaw-to-the-floor beaches and crystalline lagoons with rugged cliffscapes and rocky lookouts, and is habituated by hundreds of yellow-footed gulls. All three islands – Illa de Monteagudo, Illa do Faro and the southern Illa do San Martiño – are traffic free, emphasising the ‘edge of the world’ feel. Together they form a breakwater protecting coastal city Vigo from the Atlantic’s rage. The islands are accessible from April to early September, with accommodation available at Camping Illas Cíes.
Make it happen:
Iberia flies from Madrid to Vigo (from £78; iberia.com). Buses leave up to five times daily from Madrid for Vigo (from £31; vigobus.com). Or take an overnight sleeper train (from £45; renfe.com). Boats to the islands from Vigo take 45 minutes (£14; mardeons.com). For park information, visit reddeparquesnacionales.mma.es.
Lauterbrunnen Valley National Park, Switzerland
There’s a fair bit of competition for the title of the most attractive spot in the Alps, but in any beauty contest Lauterbrunnen Valley must come out near the top. It’s impossibly pretty, the snow-speckled glacier-carved crags towering over crazily-angled green fields dotted with pines and gingerbread cottage chalets. Some 72 waterfalls descend these sheer walls, the most impressive being Staubbach Falls. Such is its beauty, Goethe and Lord Byron were moved to pen poems upon viewing its cascading waters. Trummelbach Falls, meanwhile, is a corkscrewing mass of 10 glacial waterfalls that rush through the mountain. It is the only glacial waterfall in Europe that is accessible from inside a mountain, and onlookers are sometimes pelted with stones as up to 20,000 litres of water a second pass by. Lauterbrunnen town itself is regularly packed with hikers and climbers, and is a good base from which to explore the area.
Make it happen:
Hourly trains depart from Interlaken Ost for Lauterbrunnen and regular buses from the train station take you to the falls. Interlaken is connected by train to all of Switzerland’s major cities, including Zurich (from £45) and Geneva (from £46; mct.sbb.ch/mct). l For more information, check the tourist office website (myjungfrau.ch).
Snæfellsnes National Park, Iceland
Jules Verne used Snæfellsjökull, the 700,000-year-old volcano at the heart of the peninsula, as his doorway into the middle of the planet in A Journey to the Centre of the Earth; indeed, mystics have long flocked to the region and attempted to harness its natural power. Such quests seem almost reasonable when looking out across the lush fjords, arcing golden beaches, glistening, ice-capped volcanic peaks and crooked lava flows that make up the diverse and fascinating landscape of the 62 mile-long peninsula. One of the best places to experience the country’s dramatic majesty in micro form – which has earned it the nickname ‘Iceland in miniature’ – the area is also the setting for many of the Sagas of Icelanders, the literary histories of Iceland’s early settlers of the 10th and 11th centuries. Sleepy harbour town Stykkishólmur is the biggest in the peninsula, the shore clustered with classically Scandinavian painted warehouses and homes.
Make it happen:
Buses from Reykjavík to harbour town Stykkishólmur run at least twice daily from mid-June to the end of August and take 21/2 hours (from £4; nat.is)