Ten weekends in Europe's great outdoors
A cyclist rides along the cliffs towards Bonifacio in Corsica, France. (Sally Dillon/Getty Images)
This article is the first in a series featuring destinations and activities perfect for a quick getaway. From cuisine to culture to the great outdoors, discover ideas that will help you make the most of your weekend.
After a long week at the office, nothing quite beats an adventure in the open air. Mountainside, beachside and countryside sites offer a quick travel fix whatever your preferred pace. Grab your hiking boots, cowboy hat, paddle or binoculars and get your blood pumping on a short break.
Climbing in France
As the snows melt in the French Alps, a network of via ferratas (climbing routes) opens up. By means of steel cables and iron brackets anchored into rock faces, climbers reach a high-altitude world that would otherwise be seen only by hardened alpinists. If you can get over the tingly feeling in the soles of your feet as you contemplate the smooth stone precipice before you, rest assured that it’s actually safer than most Alpine sports, and lets you see the peaks and forested valleys of the Savoie region from angles not possible from the ski slopes. Simply Savoie runs weekends between May and October, in which experienced mountaineer Mark Tennent helps newcomers to pluck up the courage to tackle the mountain heights (£365; accommodation included).
Sea-kayaking around Malta
Less than 30 miles from end to end, Malta is an archipelago in miniature whose crinkled coastline fits in as much Mediterranean blue as possible in this, the smallest EU member state. Sea-kayaks are the most versatile means of exploring the shores of the main island (also called Malta), its smaller partner Gozo and baby Comino, which sits in between. Sea Kayak Malta arranges tours that take in caves, sea arches and an uninhabited island where St Paul is said to have been shipwrecked, with stops for swimming, snorkelling and a picnic lunch (full day £50).
Hotel Juliani is a rare boutique hotel in a seafront townhouse on Malta’s main island (from £65).
Canal-boating Scotland’s lochs
The Great Glen is one of the most eye-catching features on a map of Scotland – a 70-mile ruler-straight slash through the landscape from Inverness to Fort William, occupying an ancient fault line. Four lochs (Ness, Oich, Lochy and Linnhe) run along this line. Back in the 1800s, the great engineer Thomas Telford decided to finish what nature began 400 million years previously, and worked to connect the lochs to provide a practical sea-to-sea route. The Caledonian Canal was the result, and today it provides an experience quite different to chugging along most of Britain’s waterways. Despite triumphs of engineering such as the eight-lock flight at Neptune’s Staircase, most of the route takes you along natural bodies of water. And what bodies! The sight of ruined Urquhart Castle on the wild banks of Loch Ness is likely to be a high point of your trip (from £345 for three nights on a four-berth Caley Cruisers boat).
Cinematic walking in Spain
Travelling to the badlands of Arizona or Wyoming is a tad ambitious even for a long weekend, but there is a corner of Europe with impeccable cinematic credentials as a stand-in for the Wild West. The desert of Tabernas, in the southeastern Spanish province of Almería, was the location for classic spaghetti westerns, including the 1960s Dollars Trilogy. Spanish Highs runs guided treks through this barren region – either day walks, or overnight trips with camping or a local hotel stay (from £50 per person per day, plus £25 for accommodation – or tents provided free; spanishhighs.co.uk). Visits to old film sets ensure that Ennio Morricone’s spine-tingling score to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly becomes the soundtrack to your walks.
Hotel Catedral is a restored 19th-century house close to Almería’s cathedral (from £50).
Lazing on the beach in Sardinia
The second-largest island in the Mediterranean is blessed with more than 1,000 miles of coast, and sandy beaches that invite nothing more strenuous than bouts of paddling interspersed with lots of basking. While the Costa Smeralda in the northeast gets the celebrity attention, the mile-long stretch of sand at Chia at the opposite end of Sardinia is a jaw-dropper of a beach without the mark-up. The beach is sheltered by sand dunes overgrown with juniper bushes, and at one point runs between the sea and a saltwater lagoon that is often home to flocks of flamingos.