There sure is stuff closer, Alex. Don't get me wrong, Scotland is definitely worth seeing. But while Europe's largest city is chock-a-bock with countless cultural, urbane attractions, travel just two hours in any direction and you'll find some outstanding (and much less crowded) recreational areas. From stellar surf beaches in the southwest to wooded mountain biking trails in the northwest, adventures are scattered across the English countryside. But don't discount the heart of London, as there are plenty of things to do throughout this 2,000-year old city. You just have to know where to look.
Paddle through the dawnand underneath the Tower Bridge
First, outside city limits: Just two hours southwest of London sits the Cornwall Peninsula, where the surfing is prime and the mood is mellow. Surfers from Britain flock here to take lessons, compete in professional competitions, and catch wave after wave on almost 40 beaches stretched along the shoreline. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on three sides, Cornwall is separated from the rest of Britain by the River Tamar. While this stretch of oceanfront property might feel like an isolated island, it's also home to the world's two largest biodomes, the Eden Project. With the largest at over 15,500 square feet, they are Cornwall's top tourist attraction and draw over 1.25 million visitors each year. This seaside getaway is also home base to the British Surfing Association (BSA) and Newquay Bay. Located on the central north Cornish coast, Newquay is Britain's most desirable coastal destination. Because of quality waves consistently pounding the shores, Newquay has been aptly dubbed Britain's Surfing Capital, and in early May, you can catch pro surfers carving up the waves at Fistral Beach during the annual English Surfing Championships each May (fistralsurfcam.com). But if you're interested in getting into the water, then sign up for a lesson with National Surfing Centre (nationalsurfingcentre.com), one of Newquay's leading surf schools. They've been around for 20 years and offer everything from private lessons to week-long courses for all levels starting at just $60. For nearby accommodations, stay at the four-star Headland Hotel (headlandhotel.co.uk) overlooking popular Fistral Beach starting at $250 a night.
If you'd rather head for the hills, go to England's northwest corner. Fifteen-square-mile Grizedale Forest Park (forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-5k2b6b) is two hours and a world away from London, nestled in the country's Lake District, a quaint landscape pocketed with villages that once inspired poet William Wordsworth and Peter Rabbit's creator, Beatrix Potter. Although widely known as a family-friendly destination, Grizedale's mountain biking trails suit even the most experienced riders. The North Face Trail was opened in March 2006 by former national UK mountain biking champion Sue Thomas, built to accommodate the growing popularity of mountain biking in Britain. The trail includes nine sections of singletrack on a ten-mile circuit that carve over the park's rolling hills. While beginning off-roaders will find user-friendly sections, there are also extreme ascents and roaring downhills that'll keep advanced cyclists grinning, along with five additional bike trails ranging from two to 14 miles; maps are available at the visitors centre. Rent a bike from Grizedale Mountain Bikes, also located at the visitors centre, where you'll find top brand names including Kona and Gary Fischer. Prices range from $40 to $60 for a full-day rental. For nearby accommodations, consider the Grizedale Lodge Bed and Breakfast (grizedale-lodge.com), a cozy English Cottage with views of the park and in-house dining. Rates start at just $95.
But if your schedule doesn't allow you to escape the city confines, consider exploring the Thames River. At 215 miles, it's England's longest river and runs right through central London, passing by famous sites such as St. Paul's Cathedral and the London Eye. A perfect vantage point for a city tour, the river's slow and flat current lends itself to beginning paddlers. The Westminster Boating Base (westminsterboatingbase.org) offers lessons on the basic strokes required to maneuver a kayak or canoe. No appointments are necessary, and lessons are offered on Monday evenings. All you need to bring is a change of clothes, a towel, and some soft-soled shoes. They'll take care of the rest and lessons are just $20. Once you've learned the basics (or if you've already got the skills dialed in), hook up with Thames River Adventures (thamesriveradventures.co.uk) for an early-morning tour under London's famous Tower Bridge. Sunrise Tour #1 is two hours long and $140 per person. They provide all your equipment and a personal guide.
-Amy A. Clark