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The best hidden holiday gems you can reach car-free

Taking the ferry gives you the freedom to explore somewhere new, to bring what you want with you, including your camping equipment or that extra pair of shoes and often a choice of scheduled departures so you can decide a time that most suits you. For everyone who doesn’t own a car or who doesn’t want to drive on holiday, ferry travel also gives access to some off-the-beaten-track experiences that are easily accessible by public transport, foot or bicycle.

Check the operators’ websites as many ferry companies offer combined rail-sail and coach-sail tickets that will take you all the way from your local train or bus station to the destination ferry terminal.

Recent research has shown that the optimum time to go in search of the road less travelled is 1 hour 28 mins. With this in mind, we have put together our top hidden gems within 90 mins or less of the arrival port.

Off-the-beaten track experiences to enjoy without a car

France

Rouen – more than just the Gros Horloge

Rouen’s half-timbered houses

At just an hour away from Dieppe and Le Havre by train, this often overlooked city on the River Seine is most famous for the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. A cross next to the Church of Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc de Rouen marks the spot where she was burnt at the stake. Rouen has some of the best-preserved medieval half-timbered houses in the world, a soaring gothic cathedral and a thriving food scene, with Norman cheeses, calvados and cider a must-try. One of the most surprising attractions is the Aître Saint-Maclou – a medieval plague cemetery where the buildings of the courtyard commemorate the devastation of the Black Death through the wooden beams carved with skulls, bones, swords and sleeping faces of the dead.

Sail to Dieppe from Newhaven with DFDS or Le Havre from Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries.

Calais Beach

Calais has a wonderful long sandy beach which is easily accessible by public transport from the port. The seafront has been completely renovated in recent years and not only are there some great restaurants and cafes but there is also a skatepark and the Calais Dragon which parades the promenade and interacts with the visitors!

Sail as a foot passenger with P&O Ferries. Fri-Sun and bank holidays there is a shuttle bus service from the port to the train station from where you can walk to the beach in 25 mins. Sail with your bicycle with DFDS and cycle to the beach within 20 mins.

Ireland

Howth Cliff Top Walk, Dublin

Howth Head, Baily Lighthouse, Credit: Cesar Dive / Failte Ireland

Escape the hustle and bustle of the city centre and discover a different side to Dublin. Take the DART train from Dublin to Howth and in just 40 mins you’ll be breathing in the fresh sea air and exploring some of Dublin’s most spectacular coastline. The Cliff Path Loop starts at Howth station and goes along the cliff top path for 6km with views of the small island, Ireland’s Eye, and imposing lighthouses. You can extend the walk with a visit to the secluded Hidden Tiny Beach nestled in the cliffs.

Irish Ferries and Stena Line sail from Holyhead to Dublin. Crossings can be combined with Rail Sail tickets with Avanti West Coast. Isle of Man Steam Packet Company sail from Douglas to Dublin in high season.

The Isle of Man – the hidden gem in the Irish Sea

Wallaby at Ballaugh Curraghs, Credit Visit Isle of Man

Located in the Irish Sea between England, Ireland and Scotland this hidden gem is just 33 miles long and 13 miles wide, great for exploring by public transport. As a crown dependency it is not part of the UK and has its own government and laws. You don’t need a passport to visit though, and you can bring your dog without needing additional documentation and health checks.

If you avoid the world-famous motorcycle events– The TT and the Southern 100s – then you will find a relaxed, quite island filled with glens, mountains, woodland and coastal paths to explore.

Unbeknownst to many people is that the Isle of Man has a population of red-necked wallabies, which escaped from the wildlife park in the 1960s and started their own colony. There are now over 560 wallabies living in the north of the island, some of which may be spotted in the Curragh Nature Reserves (1h10 on the bus from Douglas).

Isle of Man Steam Packet Company sails from Heysham to Douglas and from Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin to Douglas in high season.

Isle of Wight

Enjoy tea with monks

Quarr Abbey, Credit: Visit Isle of Wight

Quarr Abbey is home to a small community of Benedictine monks who welcome visitors to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of their gardens and grounds. Relax in this quiet oasis with a light lunch, freshly prepared from their homegrown organic produce or a delicious cream tea accompanied with Abbey jam. There is also a Farm Shop and a Visitors Centre, for those who want to find out more about the Abbey and the daily life of the monks.

Walk to Quarr Abbey from Fishbourne (20 mins) or get the bus from Ryde (25 mins) or from Cowes (45 mins). Hovertravel and Wightlink sail to Ryde and Fishbourne or Ryde Pier respectively and Red Funnel sails from Southampton to Cowes.

Isles of Scilly

Bronze-age burial sites with stunning sea views

Bant’s Carn, Credit: Visit Isles of Scilly

Although more famous for idyllic beaches than historical monuments, the Isles of Scilly actually have an impressive range of pre-historical sites – all within walking distance of Hugh Town on St Mary’s! The closest prehistoric site to Hugh Town is the bronze-age standing stone (menhir) next to Harry’s Walls.  Further to the north you can visit Bant’s Carn burial chamber, one of the finest examples of an entrance grave, and Halangy Down ancient village, which features the remains of nearly a dozen interconnecting stone houses and a cemetery. Innisidgen has two entrance graves, the upper one with spectacular views over to St Martin’s and Porth Hellick Down features the remains of a bronze-age cemetery with six grave mounds.

Sail to St Mary’s from Penzance with Isles of Scilly Travel. All sites are within a 45 min walk of Hugh Town.

Jersey

Seafaris to Les Écréhous

Les Écréhous Credit Visit Jersey

Les Écréhous are a small group of islands 6 miles off the coast of Jersey which has been designated a wetland of international importance. Boat tours leave from St Catharine’s in Jersey and cruise around the reef to spot wildlife including seals, dolphins and a variety of sea birds. At low tide sandbanks and rock pools emerge from the sea, ripe for exploring and at high tide you can see the isolation of the island’s fisherman’s huts.

Sail to Jersey with Condor Ferries from Portsmouth or Poole. St Catharine’s is 35mins by bus from St Helier.

London

East London countryside at Mudchute Park & Farm

Just cross the foot tunnel from Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs and you’ll find one of London’s truly hidden gems. Away from the crowds of Greenwich Park you can visit Mudchute Park & Farm. Home to a huge diversity of plants and wildlife, as well as domestic livestock and  Pets Corner. The park’s 32 acres represent a wide range of habitats including wetlands, woodlands and meadows. Book an animal experience to meet the sheep flock or the goat herd and in the late spring and summer you may even be lucky enough to meet the new arrivals. Mudchute Farm is a community charity, it is free to visit but donations are welcome.

Mudchute Farm is a 15 min walk from Greenwich Pier. Arrive at Greenwich Pier with Uber Boat by Thames Clippers.

The Netherlands

Explore the courtyard garden city of Leiden

Swerve the tourist meccas of Amsterdam and Rotterdam and take the train to the university city of Leiden. This small city has its own charm and is perfect to be explored on foot. The well-preserved 17th century historic centre has old Dutch-style houses along cobbled streets with relaxed cafes next to pretty canals and it is also known for its many courtyard gardens. Take the Courtyard Garden walking route to discover these hidden havens in the heart of the city.  While walking around keep an eye out for the hand-painting poems that decorate many walls of Leiden, you’ll see many familiar names including Shakespeare, W B Yates and Pablo Neruda.

Leiden was the birth place and home of Great Dutch Master Rembrandt, who learned his trade in what is now the Young Rembrandt Studio. The Latin School, where he studied, is also worth a visit.

Trains to Leiden take 1h30 from Hook of Holland, 1h45 from Europoort Rotterdam and 1h05 from IJmuiden. Sail with DFDS to IJmuiden, P&O Ferries to Rotterdam or Stena Line to Hook of Holland.

Scotland

Puck’s Glen & Benmore Botanic Garden

Credit VisitScotland / Kenny Lam

Take the ferry across the Firth of Clyde to the Cowal Peninsula for a day exploring the magical forests and glens of Argyll. The Black Gates trail in Benmore takes in the full tour of the forest, between some impressively tall conifers and up the mountainside which give sweeping views of Glen Massan and the River Eachaig. The walk continues to the dramatic rocky gorge at Puck’s Glen, along the river and its cascading waterfalls. Don’t miss the Benmore Botanic Gardens with its collection of plants from the Himalayas, China, Japan and North and South America.

Buses between Dunoon and Inveraray stop at Benmore Botanic Gardens and take around 15-25 mins. Caledonian MacBrayne sail from Gourock to Dunoon.

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