Virgin Trains’ Rail & Sail tickets to Ireland are one of Britain’s best-kept travel secrets. It’s possible to buy a ticket from a local station to Dublin for £46 or less each way, with train and ferry all on one ticket. The train takes the scenic north Wales coast to Holyhead (sit on the right hand side for the sea views), passing under the imposing battlements of Conwy Castle. The crossing to Dublin takes 3¼ hours. Stay at Kelly’s hotel (doubles from €74 B&B) if you want to be in the (noisy) centre of the action (it’s above Hogan’s bar) or at Ariel House (doubles from €110 B&B), 2km from the city centre, for peace and quiet (unless there’s a big rugby or football match on – it’s next to the national stadium).
Eurostar plans to start direct trains from London to Amsterdam Centraal next year, reducing the journey time to 3hr 55min. In the meantime, it’s easy to reach the Netherlands by train with a change in Brussels, in around 4hr 40min from £99 return booking with Eurostar or b-europe.com. P&O Ferries sails overnight from Hull to Rotterdam (returns for two adults from about £200 with no vehicle), while DFDS Seaways sails overnight from Newcastle to Ijmuiden near Amsterdam (returns for 2 adults from about £90, no vehicle). From East Anglia, Stena Line (returns from about €90, no vehicle) and Abellio Greater Anglia offers Dutchflyer Rail and Sail tickets from London (returns from £110) or any Great Anglia station to any Dutch station via Harwich-Hoek van Holland. The overnight crossing with en suite cabins means you can leave London, Ipswich or Cambridge in the evening, and reach Amsterdam Centraal at 10.55am. The city’s 2017-18 Light festival runs from 30 November-21 January. Hotel V Frederiksplein is central and stylish with doubles from €104 B&B.
A direct Eurostar train links London, Ebbsfleet and Ashford with Marne La Vallée for Disneyland, which is right outside the station. But there’s now another resort just six kilometres away, Villages Nature Paris. This promises family activities in five “immersive worlds” including Aqualagon with a geothermally heated water park and outdoor lagoon and BelleVie Farm, which provides organic produce for the resort’s restaurant. Eurostar from £76 return from London St Pancras, though as with all international rail journeys, you should book well in advance to get a good price.
Normandy has plenty to offer holidaymakers, with beautiful towns and countryside, the Bayeux tapestry, D-Day beaches and excellent seafood and cider. Brittany Ferries sails from Portsmouth to Cherbourg and Caen and with your own car you can follow the 40km Route du Cidre around the apple orchards of the Pay d’Auge, tasting the cider, calvados or pommeau at various distilleries and cider makers along the way and, in autumn, joining in festivities such as the Fête du Cidre in the pretty village of Beuvron-en-Auge, near Caen. This winter Brittany Ferries is offering a four-day return for car and two passengers from £130 return. For blustery autumn walks by the sea, stay at Banc de Oiseaux, a chic chambre d’hôte on the long Merville Franceville beach bancdesoiseaux.com.
France’s second city is just over five hours away from London by Eurostar (from £110 return), with one change in Lille (in summer there are direct trains from London to Lyon several times a week). Lyon has become a popular short break destination, and even in winter its light festival, Fête des Lumières (7-10 December) draws millions of people. Book into Nos Chambres en Ville, housed in an 18th century silk factory, with rooms from €90 B&B (rising to €120-€130 during the light festival).
The daily Thello sleeper train will whisk you overnight from Paris to Venice for as little as €35 in a couchette or from €95 with a bed in a two-bed sleeper. Few train arrivals can beat rumbling across the causeway over the lagoon into central Venice, pulling into Santa Lucia station on the banks of the Grand Canal. The Rialto Bridge is just 15 minutes’ walk from the station, St Mark’s Square a 25-minute walk. B&B Sandra is that rare thing in Venice – central and affordable (from €110 B&B). Book London-Paris on Eurostar and the Thello at loco2.com.
If you book even a week or two in advance, Czech Railways offers Brussels-Prague tickets for an unbelievable €22 each way – the trick is to click “more options” and specify “via Cheb”. By adding a London-Brussels Eurostar ticket from £58 return, it’s just about possible to travel all the way from London to Prague in a day, although an overnight stop in Brussels avoids an early start and a tight connection. Once in Prague, how about a three capitals tour? Prague to Budapest takes just under seven hours by two-hourly EuroCity train starting at €20 (also at cd.cz); and Budapest to Vienna takes 2¾ hours by fast Railjet train starting at €13 booked with Hungarian Railways. The Seat 61 website has more details on these trips.
Salzburg’s Unesco-listed old town is a delight, as is its imposing citadel, the Hohensalzburg fortress, which towers over the River Salzach, with the mountains as dramatic backdrop. Salzburg is the birthplace of Mozart and equally famous, some would say more so, as the setting for The Sound of Music – both the real events involving the Von Trapp family and the Hollywood version on which they were based. It’s also the pretty setting for one of Europe’s oldest Christmas markets. But the city isn’t just about tradition. Check out local synth-pop band Please Madame if they’re in town, jazz club Jazzit and some controversial architecture – you can read more tips in our insider’s guide to Salzburg. Deutsche Bahn offers through tickets from London to Salzburg from only €59.90 one-way, if booked well in advance. (This includes Eurostar and can be cheaper than the Eurostar to Brussels as it’s managed by DB.) Travel from London to Salzburg in a single day or break up the journey with a stopover in Cologne or Munich. Stay at Hotel and Villa Auersperg, a boutique hotel with a garden and rooftop spa (doubles from €129, lifestylehotels.net).
San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque) on the north coast of Spain has been a favourite with Brits for a century – not for nothing is the town’s most venerable seafront hotel the Londres y de Inglaterra. It’s easy to reach without flying: just take Eurostar from London to Paris and a TGV from Paris to Hendaye on the French-Spanish border from as little as €25 each way with loco2.com. When the new Tours-Bordeaux high-speed line opened in July this year, it cut an hour off the journey to Hendaye from Paris, reducing it to a remarkable 4¾ hours. From Hendaye, narrow-gauge metro trains run to San Sebastián-Donostia Amara station every half hour in 37 minutes for €2.35. Buy the onward ticket to San Sebastián when you get to Hendaye. Check into Hotel Niza (doubles from €79), owned by the family of one of San Sebastián’s favourite sons, sculptor Eduardo Chillida.
High-speed trains in France and Spain mean that it’s now possible to leave London in the morning and reach Tangier the evening of the following day, without setting foot on a plane and with a comfortable hotel for the night in between. Take Eurostar and TGV to Barcelona, stay overnight, then take a Spanish high-speed train to Algeciras, the city across the strait from Gibraltar. It will arrive in time for the transfer bus to Tarifa and the last ferry of the day to Tangier, a town currently undergoing a major revival. Stay at atmospheric La Tangerina (doubles from €50 B&B) in the town’s hilltop kasbah with roof terrace with views to Spain. The journey costs from £149 each way. From Tangier, trains run south to Casablanca, Fez and Marrakech; Tangier to Marrakech will set you back all of £26 or so even in first class. See more details at seat61.com.
• Mark Smith is the founder of seat61.com