Active family adventures in the UK
“Everyone knows you can get great sea kayaking in places like Croatia. We know: we’ve been there and done it ourselves. But in our opinion, the kayaking is just as good, if not better, down here in Devon. And we think during 2020 a lot of British people realised the same.” David Hughes, from our partner Sea Kayaking Vacations, can speak with authority. Husband and wife team David and Susie, both qualified instructors and guides, have dipped their paddles everywhere from Greece to the Outer Hebrides, and even Nova Scotia. If anyone’s got the credentials to rate Devon as up there with the best, it’s them.
One of the few positive impacts of the 2020/21 pandemic was that many people discovered, or rediscovered, the pleasures of vacationing in their own countries. Many have started to question the point of loading the whole family onto expensive (and polluting) flights for the annual summer getaway, when there’s so much potential within a few hours by car or by train.
Creating family memories doesn’t depend on the amount of sunshine in the day, or getting as far away from home as possible. They come naturally from spending time together, having fun and being active. And that can happen just as easily up the road as it can in a Costa Brava beach resort.
Our UK family activity vacations explore the great British countryside, from the cliffs and sea caves of South Devon to the ghylls and fells of the Lake District, the marine wildlife of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides to the valleys, castles and wild coast of Pembrokeshire National Park in Wales. Activities led by expert instructors keep you on the go from morning ‘til evening, with everything right on your doorstep, while plans can easily be rearranged according to the vagaries of the weather.
Family sea kayaking in Devon“What makes Devon so fantastic for sea kayaking is our varied coastline,” says David Hughes. “We have a big sheltered bay in Torbay that is ideal for novices when the wind is right. We have the River Dart, a tidal estuary rich in wildlife. And for the more adventurous we have the rugged coast in South Hams with caves and headlands to explore. Unlike many other places, in Devon there is always somewhere to go whatever the conditions.”
David and Susie (who is also a professional artist creating woven linen textiles from flax that the couple grow themselves) welcome families to their renovated farmhouse and barn set in a 15th-century orchard, just a short distance from the coast and the River Dart. There are headlands, beaches, remote inlets and caves in these parts that can only be discovered from the water, and the couple are only too happy to show their guests around. And while this is a popular vacation spot, it’s still a lot quieter than Cornwall or other parts of the coast in peak season.
Here, you can jump into your kayaks every morning (sit-in kayaks are used, as they’re more manoeuvrable and keep you drier) and head out to explore, with on-the-move coaching if you’re interested. There’s a full safety briefing before every departure on winds and tides, and what to do in the event of a capsize. If you want to learn how to perform an Eskimo roll, David will be pleased to teach you.
A typical family activity vacation will feature two full days of kayaking, with more available on request. Routes can be adapted to your family’s abilities and energy but generally take a leisurely approach – the better to appreciate the scenery. Think a couple of hours in the morning with breaks here and there, a picnic lunch on the beach and a swim, then another couple of hours in the afternoon. Then in the evenings you can return to your cosy, comfortable house to relax and prepare dinner.
As for activities when you’re not in the water, South Devon does itself proud. There are several fantastic beaches within a short drive, including Broadsands (ideal for younger kids), Mothecombe, Gara Rock and Man Sands. There are surf schools, National Trust properties, hikes on nearby Dartmoor National Park, and who wouldn’t love fishing for crabs off the quay at Stoke Gabriel?
You can also hire kayaks on several beaches if you want to explore on your own, although these are usually sit-on kayaks where you’ll probably want wetsuits as you tend to fall in more. Which – let’s be honest – is probably half the fun.
“My favourite time to take people out is the early mornings if you can get the kids up and going in time,” says David. “It’s quieter and there’s a fair bit of wildlife about. We see lots of seals and seabirds here, porpoises and very occasionally dolphins. We’ve even had humpback whales around Torbay and Dartmouth.”
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Family activity vacations in WalesPembrokeshire Coast National Park rivals South Devon for natural beauty, but with more of an outward bound-y feel to its family activity vacations. It’s home to an ecolodge rated five stars by Visit Wales that helps parents and kids get wild in the water.
“It’s all very rugged here,” says Sophie Hurst, from our partner Preseli Venture. “Other places, while still beautiful, are more built up. But the Pembrokeshire coast is protected, not only by the national park but also because it’s owned by the National Trust. Part of their remit is to provide access, so this area is perfect for sustainable recreation.”
Family activity vacations here are a great way to dip your toes (and then your whole bodies) into a range of adventurous water-based pursuits under the guidance of professional instructors. You can pack in the action with AM and PM sessions of sea kayaking, coasteering and surfing, or have a rest day to explore the lovely Abermarle Valley. There’s a safe-for-swimming beach a short walk through the bluebell woods from your lodge accommodation, and land out the back where the team will often fire up the barbecue at sunset.
Sophie emphasises the importance of organised fun here. “We all want to take the kids away, but we can’t necessarily provide the excitement they crave on their vacations. And this way, everyone can join in together in a non-stressful way. The entertainment is all here waiting for you. And it’s healthy!”
This is the kind of place where kids make friends on the morning of day one, and by the end of the week are swapping email addresses and planning to meet up again the following year. Delicious home-cooked meals are provided throughout, using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible.
“Homemade soups for lunch always go down well after you’ve been in the sea,” affirms Sophie. “In the evening meals, the meat comes from the local butcher, and we get as much UK fruit and veg as we can from our supplier in Fishguard. You might have leek and tarragon pie with Pembrokeshire potatoes one night, and Welsh sausages the next. The bar is always brimful of Pembrokeshire beer and Welsh gin and whisky too. When the weather’s warm we eat in the courtyard, and when it’s cooler everyone comes together in the lounge area to socialise and cosy up around the wood-burning stove.”
As with any family activity vacation, you want the space to add in downtime when you want, and that’s perfectly possible on the Pembrokeshire Coast. There are castles to visit just inland, an Iron Age hill fort, the oldest working woollen mill in Wales a short walk away, and cromlech – Neolithic burial chambers – in the area. So kids can also bolster their history lessons while on vacation... perhaps something to keep as a surprise until you arrive.
Family activity vacations in the Lake District
In the Lake District, you’re in the safe hands of our partners Activities Abroad, who organise adventures around the beautiful Borrowdale Valley and Derwentwater. A stay here might involve a little rock climbing (indoor walls are used in wet weather) or a ravine scramble when water levels are right. Later, you might take to canoes for an afternoon paddling on the lake, and those with the nerve can tackle a via ferrata in Honister Slate Mine – similar to a high ropes course, except you’re using ladders and cables bolted into the rock.
“Parents tell us their highlights include watching their children take on a challenge that is completely out of their comfort zone and, with the support and supervision of the local guides, totally smashing it!” says Amy Hope, from Activities Abroad. More relaxed days might comprise archery lessons, learning how to assemble a raft, and orienteering on the fells.
Lake District family activity vacations usually run between April and October when you can expect decent weather, with a minimum age of eight for most activities. You’ll stay in a center on the outskirts of Keswick with other families who will join you on each activity, so that friends are easily made. And as with all of these trips, minimal transport is needed each day, so you can quite easily come by train if you live in the UK.
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