Northern Lights, Whale watching and other unexpected days out in the UK

If you think that Whale watching is only for New Zealanders, spotting the Northern Lights means a flight to Alaska and a visit to Father Christmas in Lapland means, well, going to Lapland, then think again. Great Britain offers some absolutely amazing, once in a lifetime experiences, and you don't even need to leave the country to do them. In fact in some cases, not even your car. Read on to find out what I found out about some quite brilliant things to do on your next staycation, right here in the UK.

Go to a drive-in Cinema

Nope, you haven't landed back in the 1950's or stumbled onto the set of before you slam on the megamix and start doing the full "born to hand jive" routine, pull yourself together and get a proper look at your surroundings. Yes, it's good old north London. In a time of global pandemic (and even when not), you can relive the magic of the great American outdoor movie theatre - all from the comfort of your own car.

The whole thing is brilliantly Covid-friendly: you'll only be breathing all over your own car-buddies (lucky them, make sure you've sucked a mint before you do the Frozen sing-a-long) and the soundtrack from the film is broadcast cleverly through your car radio while you watch on the giant screen at the front. Order the drinks 'n' snacks via the website and they will be delivered to your vehicle by a suitably attired (and by this I mean 1950's) attendant. And these guys go one better....they've twinned up with Zipcar, so if you don't own your own car, you can hire one. It might not be a Ford de Luxe convertible but it does the job. Brilliant stuff.


Visit Lapland

"The best pre-Christmas day out ever!" Sir Elton John.

"Be ready to have the most magical, magnificent and Elftastic day of your life!" The Elf Travel Master.

After reading those two accolades, nothing should be holding you back from getting on this Lapland journey asap and hurtling into the magic of Christmas....without having to actually leave the Home Counties (Ascot in Berkshire to be precise). Want to know how? Well, I've had a Zoom with the Elf Travel Master, and he's pretty cagey on the details (due to Father Christmas privacy issues) but I do know you need an Elf passport to travel through the portal to Lapland. According to him, when you go through the portal and down the Elvish tunnels, a four hour immersive experience awaits, involving Father C, reindeer, huskies and lots of snow. You'll have to discover the rest.....


Go skiing

You might be surprised to know that you can ski - and very well too - in the UK. There are a few excellent options in Scotland - Glencoe, Glenshee, Lecht and the Nevis Range, but for the surest snowfall, head to the Cairngorm mountain in the Highlands. Aviemore -situated within the Cairngorms National Park - is an excellent place to stay, with good proximity to the slopes. This area has been a snow-sports destination for over 50 years and remains very popular for snowboarders and skiers alike. Weather dependant, the ski season runs from December to April and there are 11 lifts, a funicular railway to get you to the top of the mountain should you wish, and ski/snowboard lessons for all abilities. You might not need entry level french to order your vin chaud, but the views are magnificent, the skiing is great and you can still get a fondue.


See the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis if you've got your science hat on) are a natural wonder that occurs when particles from the sun become trapped in the Earth's magnetic field. The result is a theatrical performance of dancing coloured lights that has fascinated us humans for thousands of years, and we travel to all sorts far flung places for the chance to see a glimpse. Well, stop right there. Northern Scotland is on the same latitude as parts of Norway and Alaska, which means you are in with a very good chance of seeing this lightshow right here in the UK, without breaking the bank.

The best places to see the Aurora Borealis are the Isle of Skye, The Shetland Islands, Orkney, Lochinver, Aviemore or the Gallway Forest Park. If the lights are really strong, you might even be able to glimpse them in Edinburgh up at the viewpoint of Arthurs Seat. And for the best chance of seeing them you'll need to be visiting in the winter months- December to February - so the nights are dark (and cold!) and your chances of viewing this amazing spectacle will increase.


Whale watching

I don't know if I've been living in a hole for the past few years but I've reached a decent age and never realised that you can see whales from the coast of Great Britain. And not just one whale who's taken a wrong turn at the North Pole; different types of whales, whole pods of whales, whales living in various coastal locations.

Orca's (Killer whales) - with their recognisable black and white markings - are found living up in the northern parts of Scotland near Orkney and the Shetland Islands. The locals know the pods well (some of the whales have names) and you can take a boat out to go and see these wonderful creatures. Minke whales and very occasionally a humpback can also be spotted off the coast of Scotland.

There are boat trips too from English waters: Whitby in Yorkshire, the Welsh coast and south-west Cornwall all have sea-faris to whale watch. Although a spotting might be relatively rare, it's all in the fun of the search, and with dolphins, seals and other marine life to see, it won't be a wasted journey!


Walk a Llama

All hail the Incas of Machu Picchu. When they domesticated llamas 4000 years ago, these animals were so vital to the wellbeing of the tribe, hunting them was forbidden. In fact, llama-herders held elevated positions in the Inca society because preservation of llamas was so important to the tribe. Priests used them in religious ceremonies (not the bloody kind). You have to wonder: do llamas have deep, mystical powers?

Whether they do or they don't, the UK has gone a bit llama crazy of late; I've no idea why, but I fully embrace it. And nowadays, you don't have to stagger the 26 miles of the Inca trail to hike alongside these doe-eyed, therapeutic creatures - you can actually take them for a walk right here, at various farms around the UK. It's rather a magical experience. Once you get over the teeth.


Raft down Grade 5 rapids

This is not for the fainthearted. You may guffaw heartily that you've rafted down the mighty Zambezi on your Gap Yah and nothing scares you, but this actually might. Scotlands River Orchy has some of the most demanding white water rapids in the UK, including careering down two Grade 5 waterfalls - one with a drop of 6 metres. Eek.

This is a pure adrenaline-fuelled whitewater rafting experience down an alpine style river that twists and turns through ten miles of wild water. All the rapids here are listed between grade 3-5. If you think that Grade 1 is "moving water" and 6 is "near impossible and involves risk to life," then you've got a rough idea. Do it if you dare.......



Visit a Chocolate factory

Chanel your inner Willy Wonka and immerse yourself in a world of chocolate. Cadburys - one of the worlds largest confectionary manufacturers - run this huge theme park which allows visitors to learn about how chocolate was first discovered, how it is made and of course, taste lots of it too! Chocolatiers demonstrate some traditional methods of tempering and melting chocolate, you can get a close up look at some of the machinery, (like the one used to make creme eggs), and see how the chocolate is packaged and shipped. For an extra treat, book on the Chocolatier experience and learn some quite serious techniques of chocolate making, including moulding your own chocolate shoe. Warning: don't eat breakfast before you go!


Kayak with Dolphins

We all love dolphins. These smiling, intelligent mammals seem determined to have fun in life; playing in the water, inquisitively investigating new things and seemingly looking out for one another. Ever since watching Flipper as a child, I've had an urge to rush to the waters edge, cackle hysterically into the water (aka make dolphin noises) and throw fish to a pod of friendly porpoises. It's probably a good thing for everyone involved this never happened. Advice these days is not to feed wild dolphins, not interfere with their routines and observe from a distance as much as possible.

One great way to get closer to dolphins with very low impact is to canoe alongside them. Several spots along the coast of the UK offer kayaking sea tours to see them, and it's a real treat. Some of the best places are Cardigan Bay in Wales, South west Cornwall, Moray Firth in Scotland, the east Yorkshire coast and Norfolk. In fact, we are completely surrounded by them on all sides - hurray! I might start making dolphin cackling noises again.


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