The car economy seems to have become an acceptable topic of conversation among people of pre-retirement age in recent times, having so far been reserved for visits from in-laws. Gasoline prices are soaring; the rising cost of owning a car, financially and environmentally; and now, the scarcity and consequent inaccessibility of rental cars in Europe.
Another media panic, I thought – until my husband and I were going to book one for our holiday in Galicia in July, and we were offered £1300 for a Kia Picanto box for a fortnight. As we researched, it became clear that for the first time in 15 years, we were going to have to take public transport instead. Secretly (because saying anything out loud would sound like Edina Monsoon: “Anyone can use public transport, honey.” Saffy: “I know. That’s the point.”), I I was seized with cold horror.
I like cars ! The rental car has always been as essential a part of our family vacations as flights and accommodation. I love the freedom it gives you to explore, to dig up secrets – the unparalleled joy of rounding a bend and a dazzling blue bay opening up before you, above and below.
If I’m honest, there are downsides. The stress of navigating unfamiliar roads, the problem of parking, the carbon footprint, the tricky Spanish driving fines. Sitting in traffic jams in Formentera in scorching heat outside an overflowing parking lot, while a happy family cycled past. In Mallorca, getting towed into parking on the wrong side of the street on a Wednesday. The £100 fine on the spot for not stopping at a dotted line in Ibiza.
Perhaps not having a car provides its own sense of freedom – a sort of footless freedom. Pack light and tread lightly, play it by ear, stay for another drink as the sun sets. Watch new landscapes glide through a train window or board a boat bound for protected, car-free shores.
And going without a car doesn’t mean resorting to high-rise vacation packages with the hordes. The key is to search between the obvious honeypots and overly touristy hotspots, and find a little under-the-radar spot that’s easy to reach and has everything you need for a beach vacation: viz. , a fantastic beach or two within walking or biking distance, a handful of restaurants and bars where the locals drink and a lovely place to stay. So here are 20 attractive destinations that do the trick for quirky beach breaks in Europe – no car needed.
Island of Groix
In this most British corner of France, the beaches have echoes of Cornwall – deep bays surrounded by rocky pools and headlands of green and heather. Except that here, about 200 miles due south, the weather is a little better – the Ile de Groix even has its own microclimate. It’s a laid back, timeless little island that’s perfectly cycleable with kids. Grands-Sables is the poster child for Groix, a convex arc of fine white sand – but there are many more, including Sables-Rouges with pinot rouge and, a climb on the rocks, the hidden corner of Poulziorec.
How to do: Train from London St Pancras to Lorient (7h; thetrainline.com), ferry to Groix (45 min; 0820 056156; compagnie-oceane.fr).
Stay: The three-star hotel Ty Mad Groix has 24 rooms, three apartments, a sequestered swimming pool and a restaurant terrace with nautical atmospheres. Doubles from £69 (00 33 02978 68019; tymad.com). Families might be better off renting a house (00 33 04774 99999; gites.fr).