It's a staple storyline from hundreds of Hollywood movies: our hero(ine) leaves their small hometown and has many adventures and romantic trysts in the wider world before the epiphany that the boy/girl next door back home was the love of their life all along. That's a rather convoluted analogy for the way we feel about Europe right now; we've spent years flying to the ends of the Earth when the true love of our travel lives was right there under our noses.
If there's one silver lining (there has to be one, surely) to this whole coronavirus crisis then it will be a new-found, or re-found, love of Europe. For me it's very much the latter - it's always been about Europe. I've just totted up the numbers, and I've visited 33 of the 51 current countries, and that's not even using my old trick of splitting out the UK! My overall conclusion? Apologies for the double negative, but there really aren't many experiences you can't have somewhere in Europe. Skiing? Tick. Safari? Tick. World class diving? Tick. Culture? Tick, A*, move straight to a master's degree. In short, Europe is the continent that's got the lot, it's right on our doorstep and it's absolutely no hardship at all that - for now - it will be the focus of our wanderlust. Here are my highlights.
The Best Places to Visit in Europe for Skiing
The obvious answer would be the Alps, but where exactly within the range depends on what you're looking for. Families with learner age children in tow should head to the likes of Lech in Austria for the finest facilities and ski schools. 'Bon skiveurs' - for whom the lunch is as important as the skiing - could do a lot worse than Zermatt in Switzerland. For skiing on a serious scale, the Three Valleys in France together constitute the largest connected ski area in the world. And then there are Italy's Dolomites (technically part of the Alps) which are ideal for ski touring, staying overnight in rifugios (ski refuges) that serve - in true Italian style - exceptional food. Away from the Alps, and to up the braggability rating, head to Sweden where Åre feels more like a North American ski resort, and Riksgransen is the world's most northern ski resort, where you can ski under the midnight sun in May. To call these places cool doesn't come close.
The Best Places to Visit in Europe for Beaches
Greece has one of the longest coastlines in the world, mainly made up of gorgeous beach-rimmed islands. Take your pick from the islands of the Aegean or the Ionian and if you walk towards the sea the chances are you'll arrive at a beautiful beach. Elsewhere, Sardinia's beaches are sensational, especially those in the Maddalena Islands between the island and Corsica; take a boat out for the day and explore - you could easily think you were in the Caribbean.
The Best Places to Visit in Europe for Culture
Where to start? Where to end, for that matter. The holy trinity of Rome, Paris and Istanbul are quite simply must-visits, and might be quieter than ever again at the moment. Elsewhere, the Scandinavian capitals of Stockholm and Copenhagen are elegant distillations of all that makes these such civilised countries and Madrid, Barcelona and Lisbon vie for cultural supremacy in the Iberian Peninsula. In Andalucia, the many beautiful examples of Moorish design (in Seville, Cordoba and Granada in particular) add a whole other aesthetic again. And Europe's captivating cultures extend far beyond its cities. In Romania's Transylvania you can experiences a rural way of life seemingly unchanged in centuries, while the Sami people are still semi-nomadic across the borders of Sweden, Norway and Finland in Lapland.
The Best Places to Visit in Europe for Adventure
Segueing beautifully, mushing your own team of huskies dog-sledding through snowy forests in Swedish Lapland is, for me, the wintry dream, alongside snowshoeing and spotting the remarkable phenomenon of the northern lights. The aurora borealis are also visible in other northern European countries, such as Norway where you can kayak or trek through staggering fjordland scenery, and Iceland, an outdoor adventure playground of a country that's best explored on snowmobile glacier tours or monster truck road trips across the lunar-like volcanic landscapes. For a more sedate and non-motorised journey, enjoy riding safaris through the wetlands of Spain's Donana National Park or France's Camargue. Final inclusion would be kayaking the crystalline waters of Croatia's Elaphiti Islands, mooring up on deserted beaches for a swim and eating delicious fresh fish from local tavernas.
The Best Places to Visit in Europe for Wildlife
Probably the biggest misconception of all is that Europe is devoid of big beasts. We beg to differ. Norway's Svalbard archipelago, deep in the Arctic Circle, is one of the finest places in the world for seeing polar bears in the wild, while Transylvania again is home to bears, wolves and lynx. Bears also roam in the dramatic Picos de Europa mountains in northern Spain, and as with all of the above, we work with the finest guides to greatly enhance and sightings of Europe's big game. All of this before you even get into the smaller critters and countless bird species.
The Best Places to Visit in Europe for Diving
On the subject of big game, many of Europe's mightiest creatures are actually beneath the waves. Head to the Portuguese Islands of the Azores in the Atlantic and in the right seasons you can dive with manta rays and blue, fin, humpback and sperm whales, as well as five species of dolphins. Back in the Mediterranean, Gozo is the place to learn to dive, with exceptional visibility and wrecks, albeit no big fish. Make sure to spend a day or two on neighbouring Malta, where the capital Valetta would easily warrant a spot in the culture list above.
That concludes this whistle-stop tour of my favourite continent, and just writing this has got me wanting to get there again one day soon. The imminent announcement of air bridges and travel corridors will open up Europe to flights, but we'd also urge you to consider our train trips in Europe using the Eurostar, or a retro-style road trip in Europe using the excellent Eurotunnel car trains. Time to start planning!