The economics of driving seem to have recently become an acceptable topic of conversation among pre-retirees, previously reserved for in-law visits. Gasoline Prices Spiral; the rising cost of owning a car, financially and environmentally; and now the scarcity and consequent unaffordability of car hire in Europe.
Another media panic, I thought – until my husband and I booked one for our holiday in Galicia in July, charging £1,300 for a two-week Tinpot Kia Picanto. As we searched, we realized that for the first time in 15 years we had to take public transport instead. Secretly (because saying it all out loud would sound like Edina Monsoon: “Anybody can use public transport, darling.” Saffy: “I know. That’s the point.”) I was gripped with cold horror.
I love cars! Renting a car has always been part of a family vacation, just like flights and accommodation. I love the freedom it gives to discover mysteries – the unparalleled joy of rounding a curve and seeing a bay of brilliant blue opening before you, above and below.
If I’m honest there are downsides. The stress of navigating unfamiliar roads, the parking problem, the carbon footprint, the tricky Spanish fines. Stuck in Formentera in the scorching heat sitting in front of a crowded car park as a happy family roll by on bikes. In Mallorca you get towed away on Wednesday because you parked on the wrong side of the street. The local £100 fine for not stopping at a dotted line in Ibiza.
Perhaps not having a car offers a very special feeling of freedom – a kind of unbound freedom. Pack light and kick light, play it by ear, stay for another drink when the sun goes down. Watch new landscapes slip past a train window or hop aboard a boat bound for sheltered, traffic-free shores.
And car-free doesn’t mean having to move with the hordes to high-rise vacation packages. The key is to look between the obvious honey pots and overcrowded hotspots and find a small, under-the-radar spot that’s easy to get to and has everything you need for a beach vacation: namely, a fantastic beach or two within walking or walking distance within walking distance are bike distance, a handful of restaurants and bars where the locals drink, and a charming place to stay. So here are 20 attractive destinations suitable for fancy beach vacations in Europe – no car required.
Ile de Groix
In this most British corner of France, the beaches are reminiscent of Cornwall – deep bays surrounded by rock pools and green and heather-clad headlands. Except here, about 200 miles further south, the weather is slightly better – the Ile de Groix even has its own microclimate. It’s a laid-back, timeless little island perfect for cycling with kids. Grands-Sables is Groix’s flagship, a convex arc of fine white sand – but there are numerous others including the Pinot-Blush Sables-Rouges and, if you scramble down the rocks, the hidden corner of Poulziorec.
How it goes: Train from London St Pancras to Lorient (7 hrs; thetrainline.com), ferry to Groix (45 mins; 0820 056156; compagnie-oceane.fr).
Stay: The three-star Hôtel Ty Mad Groix has 24 rooms, three apartments, a separate pool and a restaurant terrace with a maritime atmosphere. Doubles from £69 (00 33 02978 68019; tymad.com). Families might be better off renting a house (00 33 04774 99999; gites.fr).