The i-escape blog / Lucy Richardson

By Lucy Richardson, Editor

We all know and love Tuscany and the Spanish Costas. But what about the places hidden in their shadows? Head to these secret destinations in Europe and you’ll find familiar charm somewhere completely new – plus fewer crowds, more affordable prices and some gorgeous places to stay.

Done the Greek islands? Try the Peloponnese

We’ve all watched Mamma Mia! and dreamed of a Greek getaway – those idyllic turquoise seas backed by pretty waterfronts and ancient hilltop villages. But who said you have to go to the islands for that? The Peloponnese peninsula packs a punch when it comes to beaches, natural wonders and history. It boasts a spectacular concentration of ancient sites, including Olympia, Epidaurus, and Mycenae, and its mountainous interior offers breathtaking hiking opportunities. Being entirely ringed by coast (the Peloponnese is technically an island), the beaches – particularly those in the south – are some of the best and least spoiled in the country.

Where to stay in the Peloponnese

  • The immaculate suites at Aria Estate (for 2-5) boast pristine interiors and spectacular sea views from their hilltop perch. Rooms from £132 per night. 
  • BanSala has cottages (for 2-3) with access to a big pool and two quiet sandy beaches. Cottages from £159 per night; over 14s only.

Done Tuscany? Try Le Marche

The impossibly romantic air of Tuscany might seem impossible to match, but look past its celebrity status and you’ll see that some of its greatest attributes spill across its borders. Le Marche, east of Tuscany, is Italy’s most up-and-coming travel destination. The green rolling hills synonymous with Tuscany are here too, but the crowds are not. In fact, you get higher hills (and mountains), more rugged scenery and better beaches – deserted bays can be found along the two protected areas of coast (the Conero and Monte San Bartolo). Throw in fabulous verdicchio wines and locally grown produce and you’ve the perfect recipe for a blissful Italian escape.

Where to stay in Le Marche

  • Borgo Farento‘s boho apartments (for 2-6) enjoy a glorious panorama of patchwork hills and are a great base from which to discover medieval villages and gorgeous beaches. Apartments from £138 per night.
  • If you’re a larger group (6-14 people), hole up in a plush villa at Le Marche Luxury Estate, where you get a huge pool, wellness facilities and tailor-made experiences. Villas from £554 per night.

Done the Algarve? Try the Alentejo Coast

The Algarve may be popular for its sandy beaches and glistening blue waters but it’s a prime spot for tourism, and this brings bumper crowds and high prices. Travel a little further north, crossing the border into the peaceful Alentejo region, and you’ll discover some of Portugal’s secret beach spots. Golden swathes of sand are often deserted, with sweeping bays carving out a wild and dramatic coastline, much of which is protected to preserve natural habitats. Rolling Atlantic waves attract surfers, and their laid-back nature is infectious. Expect chilled-out vibes, charming fishing towns (don’t miss Comporta), sprawling pine forests and beautiful, untouched landscapes.

Where to stay in Alentejo

  • For a splurge, retreat to Sublime Comporta, where swish lodges (many with private pools) are hidden among coastal pine forest. Rooms and villas from £194 per night.
  • For bird’s eye views, try Paraiso Escondido, a heavenly hilltop retreat with restful rooms and wooden bungalows on stilts. Rooms from £85 per night.

Done the Spanish Costas? Try Asturias

It’s easy to forget that Spain has two Atlantic coastlines – one in the north and one in the south. The sea here might be cooler but the beaches are sensational, and the landscapes more dramatic. So instead of flocking to the Mediterranean Costas, veer north to Asturias, where few foreign visitors tread. Thanks to its lush landscapes and verdant forests – guarded by the lunar-like peaks of the mighty Picos de Europa – this stretch of coast is known as the Costa Verde (so yes, it is technically a costa too). But Asturias’ beaches are near-deserted, and the sweeping, sandy bays are backed by rugged cliffs topped with panoramic walking trails – the Camino de Santiago passes through here. Topping it all off, the food in this region is delectable: line-caught fish, hearty stews and crumbly Cabrales cheeses, all washed down with pressed Asturian sidra (cider).

Where to stay in Asturias

  • The Bufones de Pria apartments (for 2-4) overlook one of Spain’s most spectacular natural wonders and are a short, riverside walk away from a sandy beach. Apartments from £121 per night.
  • If you want hotel facilities, Gran Hotel Brillante, which sits on the banks of an estuary in a quaint fishing village, has elegantly restored rooms and apartments plus a restaurant offering first-class food. Apartments from £74 per night.

Done Dalmatia? Try Istria

The Dalmatian Coast’s popularity has caused prices to soar and yachts to flock, so instead, look north to Istria, the heart-shaped peninsula in Croatia’s top corner. Its coast might not qualify as a hidden travel gem, but inland, tranquillity resonates. Here you’ll find peaceful, rolling landscapes rich in produce and specked with medieval hilltop villages. There’s a distinctly Italian feel to the region (it was under Italian control until 1947), its slopes cloaked in olive groves, truffles and vineyards, and its turquoise coastline glittering in the sunshine. Istria’s trump card is its variety: sip Merlot in the winelands, explore the Roman ruins in Pula, stroll the attractive streets of coastal Opatija and Lovran, or ascend the majestic peaks of the Velebit or Gorski Kotar ranges.

Where to stay in Istria

  • High on a hillside above the River Mirna valley, Istria Design Villa (sleeps 4-7) has a dreamy infinity pool and jaw-dropping panoramic views. Villa from £509 per night.
  • A plush coastal option is Ikador, a stylish waterside hotel with a spa and sweeping views over the Kvarner Gulf. Rooms from £258 per night.

Done the French Alps? Try the Slovenian Alps

Slovenia has to be one of Europe’s most underrated travel destinations. The eastern edge of the mighty Alps spills across the country’s northeast corner, creating a majestic landscape of rugged peaks, crystal-clear lakes and misty valleys. You’ll find remote lodges cast high on mountaintops, and from here, opportunities for outdoor pursuits are bountiful: fly-fishing, cycling, hiking, riding, rafting, canyoning. There are ski resorts too, all far more affordable than those in the French Alps. Down in the Soca Valley, the meadows are rich in wildflowers and there’s a string of quaint towns and villages to explore.

Where to stay in the Slovenian Alps

  • Staggering views can be witnessed at The Slovenian Mountain Hideaway, where four wooden chalets invite you to hole up with a partner and escape the world for a while. Chalets from £240 per night.
  • Sleep in a fun forest suite on stilts at Hisa Raduha and admire the spectacular mountain setting and stunning river views. Suites from £190 per night.