LOCHRANZA, Isle of Arran
They call this island, “Scotland in miniature.”
But there’s nothing miniature about the fells that swoop up from the rocky wave-swept beaches.
The tramps — from one hour to several days, from a flat stroll to a steep 700 metres — quickly burn off any extra calories you might have picked up from the surprisingly good food (or award-winning single malt Scotch whisky) produced on this island, an hour’s ferry ride off Scotland’s west coast.
The thousands of sheep and deer outnumber the locals — and even the visitors. Purple rhododendron bushes grow wild; bracken and heather cover the hills, along with the occasional pine plantations. The air is sweet, the people friendly.
But let me take you back to the beginning of my value-added version of what the Lonely Planet Guide, Great Britain, calls, “Hooray for Highlights” — a mostly bed-and-breakfast trip I took over four weeks but which you could do in three or even two weeks.
I used both Lonely Planet and www.tripadviser.com to choose what turned out to be some of the best B&Bs in Britain.
“This is an unashamed tour of Britain’s top tourist attractions,” says the Lonely Planet Guide. “Some can get crowded but it’s for a reason: they’re stunningly scenic or rich in history.”
LONDON: Most flights from Canada land close to the capital. I strayed from the B&B path by returning to the Fielding Hotel (www.the-fielding-hotel.co.uk) because of its ideal location in Covent Garden.
At $170 a night (with your own bathroom but without breakfast) it’s reasonably priced for central London, although some of the doorways are so narrow you have to enter sideways.
The biggest advantage is being able to walk to almost all of the city’s most interesting attractions — from the Strand to Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace to the shops of Piccadilly to Hyde Park. Also, most of the live theatres are around Covent Garden and nearby Leicester Square.
Minutes from the hotel you find a tube (subway) station, a wide variety of restaurants (including the Pret a Manger chain with fresh, tasty and often organic meals) plus Marks and Spencer, the department store with an upscale prepared food section.
Travel tips: For London’s buses and underground, buy an Oyster card for both swipe convenience and cheaper fares. If you decide to rent a car, consider getting one at or near your airport rather than in London. I dealt with M T Carbox (firstname.lastname@example.org), the agency for Practical Car and Van in Windsor, which is close to Heathrow.
POUNDSTOCK: “Would you like to have dinner here?” asked Gill Faiers, and considering her Bangors House Organic Farm B&B (email@example.com) has won so many accolades (including Lonely Planet’s Our Choice and several national awards), my answer had to be yes.
Much of the food comes from Gill and Neil’s own farm; most of the rest is organic from the surrounding area. All is delicious.
Located near Bude on Cornwall’s north coast with its rugged beaches and not far from the Devon border, this is an ideal base from which to explore England’s southwest corner.
Nearby Clovelly (population 452) is privately owned. But it’s worth paying about $10 (lower prices for children and seniors) to walk down the village’s very steep cobbled street, flanked by 19th-century cottages with slate roofs, to the quay far below.
The Eden Project takes you into the future as it focuses on the environment, reproducing various microclimates in giant biomes — futuristic white domes. The ruins of Tintagel Castle take you into the past of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
OXFORD: “Love to have you visit us again,” came the welcome from Stefan Gwynne-Jones at The Tilbury Lodge B&B (firstname.lastname@example.org), where I’d stayed two years ago. (Most of the B&Bs in this article charge $100 or less a person a night.)
Special touches in bedroom and bathroom, lovely big garden, easy parking and/or nearby bus service and recommendations about the best places to eat in town — it was good to be back.
Abundant student energy and impressive colleges — including the Harry Potter dining room location — make Oxford a lively place.
I found the hop-on, hop-off topless buses a good way to get to know a new city. And hang on to your ticket: often you can get a discount on double-deckers run by the same company in other cities.
KENDAL: I chose this slightly less touristy town because of both its central location and variety of other attractions, from the Quaker Tapestry to good restaurants to the Kendal Castle ruins with their “what life was like then” story boards.
I stayed at the Beech House B&B (email@example.com) on the edge of the town centre.
Kendal is a great base to explore one of the most picturesque parts of England, with rugged hills and mountains up to Scafell Pike at 978 metres, plus the large and small natural lakes that give the area its name — all yours to explore on foot or with your camera from the often very narrow roads.
EDINBURGH: I’ll never forget Gerald Della-Porta’s warm and welcoming smile as I arrived at Gerald’s Place (www.geraldsplace.com) with its two B&B rooms — and consistently top rating on tripadviser.com for all the TLC (tender loving care) Gerald bestows on visitors. Book well ahead.
Walk the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to Holyroodhouse Palace — also definitely worth a visit (unless a member of the British Royal Family is in residence, in which case visitors are not allowed).
Walk in adjacent Holyrood Park and if you are energetic, hike to 250-metre-high Arthur’s Seat.
LOCHRANZA: This was the wilderness highlight of the trip (see the start of this article) and also another culinary delight as Jeannie Boyd often cooks dinner at Apple Lodge B&B (www.a1tourism.com/uk/applelodge2.html).
It’s worth paying the few extra dollars to take the ferry to Arran from Ardrossan, to shorten the drive from Edinburgh or Glasgow.
YORK: No visit to England is complete without a visit to the minster here — the largest medieval cathedral in the country and one of the most beautiful Gothic buildings in the world.
I stayed at Wood Farm (firstname.lastname@example.org), a 120-hectare working farm with beef cattle and grain crops in Shipton, and used park-and-ride to get to and from the city.
Attractions in the area include the picturesque market town of Helmsley, the often-bleak North York Moors National Park and on the coast, Whitby (where Dracula was written in 1897), which I chose to visit over the more popular, larger and more seaside kitschy Scarborough.
CAMBRIDGE: The “other” famous university town is more spread out than Oxford, and has a different but equally attractive feel. Again, student energy keeps the place lively, especially around graduation time in June.
Punting on the River Cam by the weeping willows or sharing an urban field with cows — there’s plenty of nature to go along with the academia.
Once again I stayed in the nearby countryside, at Knapwell Wood Farm (email@example.com) and used park-and-ride.
From Cambridge I drove back to Windsor (getting stuck in another “longest parking lot” in England as I had several times before on various motorways), dropped off the car and took an airporter to Heathrow.
Of all my visits to the UK I found this itinerary the best. If you have more time, you could add Wales and possibly Ireland on the journey north.
Travel writer Mike Grenby teaches journalism at Bond University, on Australia’s Gold Coast – firstname.lastname@example.org