Sophie Gackowski

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Often found in a tiny seaside town on the east coast of Scotland, Sophie usually gets itchy feet and books a flight to the first place she fancies. She’s found out the hard way that cheap flights and accommodation don’t mean cheap living costs (she’s eaten her weight in veggie sushi in Oslo), that you can’t always trust recommendations of serene beauty and tranquility (dancing on flaming bars in Olu Deniz), and that flying with a hangover is not something she wants to do again (watch out for Dutch jenever – seriously). She’s also mad about dolls’ house miniatures – but we try to make her keep that out of the blog.

Sophie Gackowski

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It’s often surprising how many beaches disallow dogs – especially when you believe your pooch to be the best behaved of his ilk. My basset hound is, I’m sad to say, no such companion (begging, stealing, slobbering – yeah, she’s got bad behaviour pretty much covered), but she’s still this woman’s best friend, and I love my time at the shore with her. 

It’s often surprising how many beaches disallow dogs – especially when you believe your pooch to be the best behaved of his ilk. My basset hound is, I’m sad to say, no such companion (begging, stealing, slobbering – yeah, she’s got bad behaviour pretty much covered), but she’s still this woman’s best friend, and I love my time at the shore with her. 

Llandudno, North Wales: it’s a far cry from the bustle of the city, instead spoilt for shores, unchanged for a century, and filled with little cafés where you can while a morning, afternoon – heck you could spend a whole day just breathing in that tasty sea air. But know that this Victorian seaside town isn’t your standard ‘Victorian’ seaside town.

If there’s only one thing I could say about Amsterdam’s King’s Day, it’s that it is very, very orange. Thankfully, I’ve more than enough room to introduce you to this delightful Dutch event, formerly known as Queen’s Day because, well, they celebrated a Queen back then. Known as Koningsdag (formerly Koninginnedag) it’s essentially the capital’s main carnivalesque event, today held every April for one rip-roaring day, which sees around 1, 750, 0000 people attend. Yep, that's pretty crowded –made up of Amsterdam’s population, plus the one million or so visitors. But if you’re up for a party, come and join in the fun – the spring weather and joy-filled atmosphere mean it’s more than worth making the short one-hour flight across.

Between the 13 and 14 August, you wouldn’t guess Piazza Armerina was a sleepy sort of place; one chiefly known for its Roman mosaics, which are – it must be said – incredible examples of Roman mosaics (more on that later). No, the Villa Romana del Casale, which houses these ancient artworks, is thrusted firmly from its pedestal as the most-loved attraction in the area, replaced – unabashedly – with a celebration centuries old. Recalling the capture of Piazza Armerina from the Saracens (Boo! Hiss!) by Conte Ruggero in the 11th century, costume-clad locals, parades and re-enactments of the victory’s most important moments come to the fore.

See what I just did there? Yeah, sorry about that. It has flowers, it’s a festival – it’s a festival of flowers. What more do you need to know? Ah, ok. Probably a bit more than that. Well, Sicily Flower Festival isn’t actually just one festival – towns across the whole of the island hold these events during May and June. But the most famous? L’infiorata di Noto, which roughly translates to, well, bedecking the town of Noto with flowers. It is, in short, one of the country’s most beautiful sights to behold – so it’s little wonder tourists from afar as the UK travel here just to witness it.

Type ‘Sicily Carnival’ into a search engine and you’ll find websites about Acireale, a coastal town in Catania, which sits at the foot of Mount Etna. Why? Because when carnival season rolls round, it’s the island’s most famous destination – and not only for locals, but tourists around the world. While this northeastern town is usually known for its basilicas and cathedrals, art and paintings, it is regarded as host to Italy’s most amazing celebration in spring, complete with float-filled parades and costume-clad partygoers. And it’s been going since the 16th century.

It’s hard to write an article on Europe’s best National Parks. Not due to lack of inspiration, of course – there are 359 to choose from. And that’s the difficulty, really: a whole lot of beauty, and just one article to fit it into.
Here, we take a look at five of Europe’s best, but also diverse, National Parks – covering bleak moors and mineral-rich lakes, cliff-clinging towns and Caribbean-like islands, finishing it all off with lava-laden landscapes. Feeling inspired? Read on.

Ok, so you might not jump for joy when you wake to raindrops on the window, but let’s face it – June’s as good a month as any to book a break at home. The schools have broken up in Scotland (the holidays usually begin around 25 June), and the weather is, well, more pleasant than usual. It can get as high as 22°C in the furthest reaches of southern England, topping off in Scotland at a moderate 17°C. There’ll only be six hours of sunshine per day, but hey – you can’t expect anything too great from our wet and windy isles right?

With Scottish kids breaking from school in June, and children elsewhere finishing up around 23 July, this is when summer holidays really start to hot up. But while many will be jetting off to sunny Spain or the south of France, there’s plenty here at home to keep you – and your little ones – happy. We’ve got beaches, historic sites, National Parks and village life. Holiday cottage in the UK anyone? Yes please.

August: it can top 23°C at this time of year, and when the sun is out and shining on our faces, winter’s nothing but a distant memory. The kids don’t go back to school until the end of the month (or around 18 August for Scotland), and events and festivals celebrate the warm weather across our isles. And let’s face facts: most of us turn bright red in the heat of southern France or Spain, and Egypt and the Canaries? We won’t even go there. So why not enjoy the understated beauty of a British summer, with a holiday here instead?

In April, you need to head south – and the further the better. The Mediterranean is just that bit nicer than it was in March, but you’re best to venture down to Cyprus, Turkey, and the southern reaches of Italy and Spain. You won’t get scorching temperatures topping 30°C, but let’s face it – who wants to look like a lobster this spring?

Sitting around the table on the terrace as the sun sets; drinking deep, dark reds produced just miles away; watching the kids play in your orange grove – these aren’t just ideas dreamed up by travel writers (though admittedly I did just utter them – but bear with me). Italian holidays offer a slice of La Dolce Vita – and a few slices of pizza, besides – alongside treasures of natural, historical, gastronomical and cultural importance. And let’s face it – that’s a whole lot of importance.

What could possibly be better than combining music, partying and sightseeing? Well, that’s exactly what music festival holidays offer: a fantastic balance between seeing your favourite bands, discovering new ones, and enjoying the sights and sounds of another country. Whether you’re into Rock, Pop, Drum and Bass or Jazz, there are hundreds of fantastic music festivals around the world; all you need to do is decide whether to opt for a small, locally run event showing the very best in lesser-known artists, or go all-out by attending one of the world’s largest and best-known music experiences.

Call your brothers and sisters. Round up your aunties and uncles. Ok, so we won’t compel to to get in touch with estranged relatives, but with large Spanish villas, you’ll have plenty of space to spare – but there are more reasons to book a big rental than just having room to breathe. With a private pool you won’t need to worry about bagging sunbeds; with an onsite vineyard you can relax with a glass of home-grown; with a sandy shore just steps from the door, you can split up and pursue different interests – in truth, booking large villas in Spain makes any holiday that bit more special.

Family retreats to the countryside; group getaways to vineyards; holidaying with friends on the glittering waters of the French Riviera – whatever you've been conjuring up for that next dream break away, large holiday homes in France ensure your time is all the more special. Large apartments in Paris and ancient chateaux in Bologne are just two tasters of the offerings available at HomeAway; with over 40,000 rentals to choose from when you're holidaying with eight people or more, the options in France are extensive.

There will be times when you need to find a four-bedroom farmhouse – pronto. Ok, so you might not have that many children to fill it, if any, but what if it’s your turn to organise an extended-family getaway or reunion; take the helm of a team-building weekend for work? Whatever the event, renting a large self-catering property in the UK can provide a great setting for breaks away: board games by the fire; dinners in the communal kitchen; days spent sunning yourselves in the garden – going large on a getaway has its benefits.

I may be a travel writer, but I’ve a little hobby on the side – a very little hobby. Collecting and making dolls’ house miniatures can’t be described as social. It’s not the sort of thing you’ll get a clap on the back for at the pub. I’m more likely to be found crying into a minuscule glass of wine after those tiny green peas have rolled off my Willow-patterned plate. Again. But with a bit of time and an eye for fine detail (with the patience of an ultra-patient saint thrown in), it’s become one of the most rewarding and inspiring things I’ve ever done.

Planning a beach holiday in North Cornwall? You should be – this is serious surfing country (though it’s safe to say sunbathers, scuba divers and watersports fans won’t go unsatisfied, either!). More rugged than South Cornwall, its sweeping bays of warm, golden sand stretch for 40 miles from Perranporth to Bude, offering great Atlantic rollers backed by fantastic cliff-sides – in truth, there’s possibly no better spot in Britain to hop upon your board and tackle those waves. Bright, turquoise seascapes and grassy cliff faces await those who’d rather enjoy coastal walks along the Camel Trail, or take day trips to sites like Tintagel Castle.

South Cornwall is a land of pretty villages and peaceful harbours; an area known for its seafood restaurants and quirky attractions. Its beautiful bays (like Lantic Bay, pictured left), and subtropical gardens are nowhere near as rugged as the landscapes of the North – but that’s the point. it’s a sheltered landscape with gentle waters, home to little towns like Polperro – of smuggling fame – and sites like the Eden Project and Lost Gardens of Heligan. With a holiday cottage in South Cornwall you’re just minutes away from the incredible South West Coast Path, too, offering peaceful strolls and difficult hikes for walkers of all ages and abilities.

What is Holy Week, or Settimana Santa? Well, it’s essentially the days before Easter – but without as many chocolate eggs and fluffy bunnies on the shelves (though they’re not totally absent!). As its name implies, Holy Week is a sacred occasion, concerned with the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. Held between Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) and Holy Saturday, it is celebrated throughout the world, with some of the most beautiful events, characterised by solemn processions, taking place in and around Naples.

Whether you’ve had the best year yet or eagerly anticipate the next, there’s something about a New Year break that makes the occasion bigger, better; more exciting. For me at least, the temptation to discover somewhere new can prove overwhelming as the year ends—after all, New Year’s Eve celebrations differ hugely from country to country, and getting away from the norm is a great way to clear off those cobwebs. The question is: where will you start afresh this year?

I only say Giffoni Film Festival is Europe’s largest and not the world’s, because it has inspired – over its 40-year history – a number of similar events globally, which have grown to incredible proportions. The US hosts the Giffoni Hollywood Film Festival, and Argentina, Australia, India, Korea and China have all followed suit in hosting an amazing film frenzy that’s not only aimed at, but judged by, kids.

Are you a man who likes a Margherita? That’s strictly mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and extra-virgin olive oil by the way (complaints to so-called ‘Italian’ takeaways expected). Or are you more of a four-cheese kind of girl (because there’s no such thing too much cheese, whatever your husband tells you). As for me, I’m all about slices of prosciutto and scatterings of parmesan, perhaps with a bit of rocket thrown in for good measure. However you like to top off your thin-and-crispy, if you’re a fan of pizza, you’re in for a treat at Pizzafest.

When those everyday stresses start to get that bit too much, it’s time to treat yourself to a luxury break away. Spa retreats are one of the best ways to reenergise and refresh yourself, offering a host of health, fitness and detox regimes, either on site of the property, or nearby. Whether you’re looking to lose post-Christmas weight, cleanse the mind, body and soul, or fancy a fortnight of pure, uninterrupted relaxation, HomeAway has a huge range of spa retreats for you to choose from.

When it comes to boarding, there’s no denying France takes the top spot. It has the most extreme and largest areas available in the Alps (and thankfully for thrill-seekers, a more laid-back attitude than Britain towards health and safety); but if you’re a newbie, it boasts some of the best schools in the world. 

As a student myself, I know how hard it can be to enjoy a holiday on a budget: after living on tins of beans for months, that break away can seem pretty far flung. 

The Amalfi Coast is undoubtedly one of Italy’s most beautiful areas, and although stunning year-round, it’s particularly spectacular come Summer.

Ok, so ‘glamping’ may not be a term you’ve ever heard of before, but it’s the next big thing in Britain. In fact, it’s already proven popular in many destinations, with glamping sites found in France, the USA and the Caribbean. 

While lazing on the beach for a week is sure to rid you of everyday stresses, sometimes it’s a great alternative to plan a cultural holiday in Europe. This is a continent of amazing sites and cities, from historical castles and palaces in Holland, to magnificent museums and incredible galleries in the UK.

Cucumber-laden and smothered in mud: oh, the lengths we go to for the purposes of relaxation. But when it comes to hen parties and weekends away, nothing comes close to the indulgence of days spent at a spa. 

Once the New Year celebrations are over and you start to feel those glasses of bubbly, why not take a relaxing break to rejuvenate? 

Whether you want to swim and sunbathe without experiencing the hassle of sand-filled shoes, or have a penchant for sailing, windsurfing or snorkelling in fresh water, lakeside holidays are a fantastic alternative to beach breaks.

With beautiful landscapes dotted with quaint, country villages, and historic attractions amidst incredible walking trails, the UK's a fantastic destination for romantic weekends away.

It goes without saying that there are certain spots simply planted on everyone’s gaydar: San Francisco, Brighton, Berlin. But what of lesser-known, queer-friendly holiday spots? 

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