The secret Med: the best holidays to book in under-the-radar locations

·15 min read
We examine these delightful alternatives – the Mediterranean beyond the tried and trampled
We examine these delightful alternatives – the Mediterranean beyond the tried and trampled

"Now hang on just a moment there. I think we need to take a minute to think about this. What you fail to appreciate is that the Mediterranean is a very large sea. There’s about 970,000 square miles of it, all told. There are 21 different countries either on the edge of it, or in it. It has sustained a huge range of civilisations over the course of the centuries. So inevitably, it’s a brilliant place for a holiday. What did you say your job was again? International Professor of Mediterranean Studies? Okey-dokey. Well in my experience…”

All right – that’s quite enough of the Man-splaining/Med-splaining pun. You get the idea. In all seriousness, though, Europe’s greatest body of water – the quasi-ocean which both separates it from and connects it to Asia and Africa – is a brilliant place for a holiday. We all know this. But then, we don’t necessarily see the full picture, with many of us returning to the same familiar spots year after year.

Yet for every busy Costa there is a less-appreciated segment of the Spanish coast. For every over-touristed Amalfi, there is a quieter Calabria; for every much-visited Mykonos, a calmer Karpathos. For every fly-and-flop break, there are more intriguing ways to take in Turkey or Cyprus. Here, we examine these delightful alternatives – the Mediterranean beyond the tried and trampled, if you will.

Of course, the key word is going to need a little Med-splaining of its own. For the purposes of simplicity, here, “Mediterranean” covers all the various sea-within-a-sea fragments of the wider whole – the Aegean and the Ionian, the Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic. And for even further simplicity in these complicated times, we’ve focussed on the European pieces of the Mediterranean jigsaw. So if you are dreaming of a holiday on one of its shimmering shores – either later in 2021, or in a calmer post-Covid summer – and you want a good retort to the next person that tries to Medsplain at you, these 20 options should provide plenty of ammunition beyond the obvious.

Spain

Be a city-breaker in Tarragona (not Barcelona)

Catalonia is forever defined by its swaggering capital. Yet for those seeking a less popular base than Barcelona, there is much to be said for slipping 60 miles south-west along its shoreline, to a city which has just as much history, but nothing like the crowd numbers. Tarragona – once the Roman settlement of Tarraco – wears its ancient heritage openly in its Unesco-listed amphitheatre, but does not forget the sea on its curved Playa El Miracle.

How to do it: A seven-night stay at the five-star H10 Imperial Tarraco, flying from Heathrow on August 22, costs from £918 per person, through Expedia (020 3788 0445; expedia.co.uk). For more inspiration, read our complete guide to the best hotels in Catalonia.

A sailboat in Peniscola - Juan Hernandez /Getty Images 
A sailboat in Peniscola - Juan Hernandez /Getty Images

Bathe yourself in Orange Blossom (not Sun)

The Costas are among the most beloved destinations for British tourists, but some slices of the Spanish shore are better known than others. On name alone, the Costa del Azahar (Orange Blossom Coast) sings to the soul and the senses. It also offers tangible joys too, such as the resort towns of Peniscola and Benicassim and the city of Castellon de la Plana, with its grand 15th century cathedral. Valencia, with its incredible fine food scene, sits just outside the region, but is no less enticing.

How to do it: Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com) offers an eight-day Valencia and the Orange Blossom Coast self-drive tour, from £1,148 per person, including flights. For more inspiration, read our complete guide to the best hotels in Valencia.

Be an island escape-artist on Formentera (not Ibiza)

The smallest of the four main Balearic Islands has generally played second fiddle (or second DJ set, to be more accurate) to its neighbour Ibiza, but Formentera is starting to emerge as a destination in its own right. Its development will continue next month with the opening of Casa Pacha Formentera – a hotel off-shoot of the Spanish nightclub group that will bring 14 rooms and a dozing-on-daybeds vibe to Platja Es Arenals, on the long southern shore.

How to do it: A week’s stay for two adults – checking into a sea-view room on August 14 – starts at €3,144 (£2,720) including breakfast but not flights (0034 971 317 411; casapacha.com). Read our complete guide to the best hotels in Formentera.

white boxy building on beach looking out over blue sea
white boxy building on beach looking out over blue sea
France

Admire the shoreline from Cassis (not Nice)

The charms of the Cote D’Azur need no selling, but France’s southern seafront offers something a little more invigorating than elegant indolence. Not least around Cassis, where the Calanques – spectacular limestone inlets, cut into a part of the shoreline so wild that no coast road tames it – have been a national park since 2012. Here you can enjoy daily hikes in the knowledge that you can relax afterwards in said lovely resort town.

How to do it: Macs Adventure (0141 319 4601; macsadventure.com) offers a seven-day Provence: Mountains to Mediterranean walking break from £920pp, excluding flights. A complete guide to the best hotels on the Cote D’Azur, as recommended by our experts.

view of med from rocky inlets - Getty Images/Aurora Open 
view of med from rocky inlets - Getty Images/Aurora Open

Find a fabulous France in Menton (not Saint-Tropez)

With Cannes, Nice and Saint-Tropez all agleam in the sunlight, the Cote D’Azur is awash with celebrated hotspots for chic weeks. But this gilded coastline still has its secrets too, and Menton is one of them. It dissembles on the very edge of the Gallic realm, three miles west of the Italian border, and has delights galore – from the twin sands of Plage du Casino and Place du Borrigo to the restaurants around Place aux Herbes in the Old Town.

How to do it: A week’s stay at boutique B&B Sous L’Olivier, flying from Manchester (to Nice) on August 14, costs from £658pp, with Last Minute (0871 277 1070; lastminute.com).

Err on the chic side in Corsica (not Cannes)

If you want the swagger of France at its most glam, but don’t wish to pay Riviera prices, you could swerve south to the great Gallic island of the Mediterranean – where the south-east corner of Corsica has an increasingly fashionable air. Not least in the attractive port-resort of Porto-Vecchio. Here, designer stores wink within the walls of the 16th century Genoese citadel, yachts line the marina, and wonderful villas beckon all around the bay.

How to do it: Just outside Porto-Vecchio, the three-bedroom Casa Julia costs from £3,675 per week in August (excluding flights) with Simpson Travel (020 3918 2491; simpsontravel.com). Read our guide to the best hotels in Corsica for more ideas on where to stay.

aerial view of beach and water - Getty Images/iStockphoto 
aerial view of beach and water - Getty Images/iStockphoto
Italy

Find a beautiful south in Calabria (not Puglia)

Puglia has been hailed as an under-appreciated encapsulation of rustic Italy for a while now – long enough, in fact, that the “heel” of the Italian “boot” is entirely appreciated. The same cannot be said of the “tip” of the shoe. Calabria deals in all the touchstones of the Italian south – sleepy villages, small farms, sun-baked scenery, dramatic rocky coast, the occasional attractive city (like Catanzaro, the capital) – but without the chorus of approval.

How to do it: A week at the Villagio Baia d’Ercole in Santa Maria di Ricardi) leaving Stansted on August 24, costs from £860 per person with Inghams (01483 938 113; inghams.co.uk).

castle on outcrop above the sea next to colourful houses - Peter Adams/Getty Images 
castle on outcrop above the sea next to colourful houses - Peter Adams/Getty Images

Set sail for the Aeolian Islands (not Amalfi)

If you are seeking that Italian alliance of craggy shore and brooding volcanic presence, you can find it without adding to the crowds on the Amalfi Coast. There are seven main Aeolian Islands, dotted in the sea above Sicily – of which Stromboli is the most shameless in its lava-marinated moodiness, regularly offering puffs of smoke from its summit crater.

How to do it: Responsible Travel (01273 823 700; responsibletravel.com) serves up an eight-day Sicily and Aeolian Islands Small Ship Cruise which sets careful foot on Stromboli, as well as its friends Lipari, Vulcano, Salina and Panarea. From £1,479ppd, excluding flights.

aerial shot of boats and people on beach - Vincenzo Lombardo/Getty Images
aerial shot of boats and people on beach - Vincenzo Lombardo/Getty Images
Greece

Wander wild trails on Karpathos (not Crete)

Greece has between 1,000 and 6,000 islands – depending on how you measure its various outcrops in the Ionian and Aegean – so there is plenty of scope for avoiding the popular and the busy. Karpathos is a case in point. It sits directly between two tourism behemoths, Crete and Rhodes, but has little of the profile of either. This is to the benefit of those who want to hike its quiet trails, or swim in its Regional Marine Park (Northern Karpathos).

How to do it: A week at Avra Studios, on the west coast at Frangolimnionas Beach, flying from Gatwick on September 4, starts at £1,302pp with Sunvil (020 87584758; sunvil.co.uk).

bay of water with a few blue and white houses - Getty Images
bay of water with a few blue and white houses - Getty Images

Slip into the Greek summer on Alonnisos (not Skiathos)

This fragment of the Northern Sporades is even further from the obvious (though not so far that you cannot reach it) – Alonnisos is the silent sibling of Skiathos and Skopelos, keeping itself to itself, to the east of both. Largely agricultural – its slopes covered with almond trees, olive groves and vineyards – it is that classic version of a Greek island where life decelerates to the most enjoyable, unhurried of speeds. Ideally on a taverna terrace, in the afternoon sun.

How to do it: A week at the four-star Marpunta Resort, leaving Gatwick for Skiathos on August 18, starts at £1,124pp with Olympic Holidays (020 8492 6868; olympicholidays.com).

blue green water and trees in an empty bay - Getty Images/iStockphoto 
blue green water and trees in an empty bay - Getty Images/iStockphoto
Albania

Saranda (not Syvota)

Epirus, the north-westernmost corner of the Greek mainland, has begun to attract tourists in the last decade. You could hardly describe it – or the hotels of Syvota – as oversubscribed, but if you want to go even further afield while admiring the same Ionian coastline, you could try the country next door. The phrase “Albanian Riviera'' has long provoked sneers, but Saranda has glorious beaches – and is just a hop from the Roman ruins of Butrint.

How to do it: Regent Holidays (01174 532 263; regent-holidays.co.uk) offers an eight-day Southern Albania Adventure from £1,530pp, including return flights to Corfu.

port with boats and flowers - Getty Images/iStockphoto 
port with boats and flowers - Getty Images/iStockphoto
Malta

Find your Maltese moment by scuba-diving (not sun-worshipping)

It is better known for its clement weather, soft sands (including the aptly-named Golden Bay, on its west coast at Mellieha) and beach-break affordability, but Malta is also one of the Mediterranean’s best destinations for diving. Its calm waters, reefs and caves (not least the “Blue Hole” sinkhole) and various wrecks (such as an RAF Bristol Blenheim bomber downed by Italian fire in 1941) provide myriad reasons for sub-aqua exploration.

How to do it: Dive Worldwide (01962 302 087; diveworldwide.com) offers an 11-day Malta & Gozo Wrecks & Caves break from £1,095pp, including flights and accommodation. For inspiration on where to stay, see our pick of the best hotels in Malta.

group of divers under red boat - Dive Worldwide Malta
group of divers under red boat - Dive Worldwide Malta
Cyprus

Absorb the Cyprus of cycle trails (not suntans)

Like Malta, the Mediterranean’s third largest island (and largest island nation) sometimes suffers a lack of appreciation of its wider talents – reduced in general perception to a strip of beach hotels and a few Ayia Napa nightclubs. In fact, Cyprus is remarkable in both history and geography, with ancient ruins filling its furrows, and the Troodos Mountains giving it a spine.

How to do it: Love Velo (020 7157 1519; lovevelo.co.uk) sells a seven-night Discover Southern Cyprus cycling trip that revels in this setting, pedalling to the Neolithic ruins of Khirokitia, and then past the vineyards laid out above Limassol. From £695pp, excluding flights. Discover the best hotels in Cyprus with our complete guide.

church amid greenery of mountain, plus fog
church amid greenery of mountain, plus fog

Go North on this enormous island (not South)

Cyprus’s separation into two parts is still a controversial issue, 47 years after the Turkish invasion which saw the upper third of the island ring-fenced behind the fortified “Green Line”. Even now, only Turkey recognises the “Republic of Northern Cyprus”. But for all this, the north is a beautiful area of the country. To avoid it due to politics is self-defeating.

How to do it: Titan Travel (0808 250 0751; titantravel.co.uk) has 12 departures of its Northern Cyprus: History in the Present group tour slated for later this year. This eight-day trip visits Kyrenia, Famagusta and the divided capital Nicosia. From £1049pp, including flights.

Getty Images  - Getty Images 
Getty Images - Getty Images
Turkey

Choose family action-and-adventure (not fly-and-flop)

With its ready supply of resorts around Bodrum and Marmaris, Turkey is a reliable – and frequently inexpensive – option for unhurried beach breaks. But it might also be a cause for the sort of holiday which lets children burn off their energy. Exodus Travels runs a regular eight-day Family Lycian Activity Week, designed for families with youngsters aged nine to 16. This traces the shoreline from Dalaman to Kas via sessions of sea-kayaking, hiking, paragliding, abseiling, and canyoneering between the walls of Saklikent Gorge.

How to do it: From £1,399pp, including flights (020 87723936; exodus.co.uk).

Appreciate the Lycian coast by boat (not beach)

The same Turquoise Coast can also be enjoyed in detail – rather than from a lone sun-lounger – via the proverbial slow boat. Peter Sommer Travels runs gulet cruises in these warm waters, including a 15-day sailing, nominally between Gocek and Fethiye. The cruise repeatedly drops anchor to flit inland to places such as the Greco-Roman site of Arykanda, and its amphitheatre; Patara, the onetime fulcrum of Roman Lycia; and Antalya, the modern capital of the region, with its many restaurants.

How to do it: From £4,295pp, excluding flights (01600 888 220; petersommer.com). Departs September 11-25.

Gulet boats at sunset in the village of Cirali along the Lycian coast - Getty Images/iStockphoto 
Gulet boats at sunset in the village of Cirali along the Lycian coast - Getty Images/iStockphoto
Croatia

Book a villa sojourn in Istria (not Dalmatia)

While Dubrovnik and its environs are one of the great tourism success stories of the 21st century, the Dalmatian Coast can be busy at the height of summer. But the same influx impulse does not seem to apply as readily to Istria, the north-westerly Croatian peninsula which dangles down below Italy. Here you’ll find a haze of pretty towns (like Porec and Rovinj), gentle beaches (see the sheltered lagoon at Umag), truffle farms, vineyards and general rustic tranquility.

How to do it: Scott Williams (01749 812 721; scottwilliams.co.uk) offers a range of luxury villas in the region. The two-bedroom Villa Moro, near Prascan, costs from €1,150 (£995) per week. For more ideas on where to stay, see our guide to the best hotels in Istria.

red rooftops and church spire overlooking water -  Getty Images
red rooftops and church spire overlooking water - Getty Images
Slovenia

Book a villa soujourn in Istria (not Dalmatia)

To say that Istria hangs down below Italy is to fail to mention the little sliver of meat in that particular international sandwich – Slovenia, and its 29 miles of coast at the top end of the Adriatic. It is here that you find the twin jewels of Piran, a miniature Dubrovnik, where orange rooftops interlock on a narrow peninsula, and the Cathedral of St George crowns its hilltop; and Portoroz, a lively resort town with hotels and restaurants galore.

How to do it: A week at the four-star Hotel Histrion in Portoroz, flying from Luton on August 22, costs from £981pp with Balkan Holidays (020 7543 5555; balkanholidays.co.uk).

rooftops overlooking sea with church in prominent view - Getty Images/EyeEm
rooftops overlooking sea with church in prominent view - Getty Images/EyeEm
Cruises

Chart the "four seas" (not just one)

As already stated, you might easily define the Mediterranean as a cluster of seas rather than one body of water. This being the case, why not take in a few of them in a single holiday? The 14-night sailing P&O Cruises has planned for late September is just such a chance. It will see Azura set off from Valletta, and chart the Tyrrhenian, Adriatic and Ionian Seas, as well as the wider Med – with stops at Corsica, and in Civitavecchia, Naples, Trieste, Split and Kotor.

How to do it: Fares for the 14-night cruise aboard the Azura (ref: A120) start at £1,449pp, including flights (0344 338 8003; pocruises.com). Departs September 30-October 14.

Explore the waters of the East (not the West)​

A voyage in the Mediterranean does not have to set off from Barcelona or Athens. In fact, it doesn’t have to depart from a Mediterranean harbour at all. Silversea will steer its ship Silver Whisper out of Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba on March 30 2022. . The ship will then sail through current headline-maker the Suez Canal (freighter blockages permitting), and on into more familiar waters for dates with Israel (Jerusalem and Nazareth, via Ashdod) and Turkey (Ephesus, via Kusadasi). Of course, Athens raises its head in the end, as the final destination.

How to do it: Fares from £8,010pp, excluding flights (0844 2510837; silversea.com).