Still planning to do the 'same old same old' at home this Christmas? Why not gather the family together somewhere special by booking a cosy character cottage in the UK to celebrate the season of goodwill, or ring in the New Year. Alternatively, if not with the extended family, get together with special friends for a few days or a whole week for a relaxing seasonal self-catering holiday in a warm and toasty holiday home.
One of the great things about staying in a holiday cottage compared to a hotel is that you have far more space in which to live, as well as enjoying more freedom in what you do and when. No being tied to specific meal times, or having to share everything but your bedroom with strangers.
So, what should you consider when seeking a suitable cottage in which to unwrap the presents this Christmas? Here are a few tips to help you plan the perfect seasonal self-catering holiday.
Finding your holiday cottage.
There are some absolutely idyllic UK holiday cottages available all year round - you'll find quite a few of them on My Favourite Holiday Cottages. While these may be beyond your budget in the height of summer, lower winter rates, even at Christmas and New Year, will ensure you get more for your money.
Think about where in the UK you'd like to go, whether by county, or geographic location such as the Lake District, Norfolk Broads or your favourite National Park. Then consider the type of winter cottage holiday you have in mind – by the sea, with a pool, hot tub, pet-friendly, remote etc. Tick the relevant search boxes and hey presto, there's your long list to consider.
While you'll find plenty of places to visit and activities to do during your stay, bear in mind that you may be spending more time indoors than on a summer holiday. So, worry less about the garden. Instead, ensure there are plenty of indoor rooms and facilities such as Wi-Fi, a decent TV, X-box or even an amazing view from its reception rooms allowing all the family to happily while away the hours on a stormy day.
Who sleeps where?
Once you know who is coming, make a note of bedroom requirements. While kids are usually delighted to muck in together, most adults will need a double bed and, ideally, an en suite bathroom. Some of the larger cottages will provide a floor plan on their websites. If not, draw a basic box-diagram based on the number and type of rooms and pencil in the names of your party to ensure they will all fit. By the way, the rule is that the person making the booking arrangements gets first dibs on the best bedroom. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise (unless they offer to pay for everything)!
What will you do?
A West Somerset Railway Santa Express at Crowcombe Station
Well, apart from opening presents, eating, drinking and playing games, you'll probably want to go out and burn off a few of those extra calories.
It's winter, so some of the usual family attractions may be closed, but,
Pack your wellies and enjoy wild winter walks – over hills, moorland or along wild seashores, and appreciate the stark beauty of the British winter landscape, while burning off the Christmas calories. Then retreat to a suitable pub for delicious plates of local fare and pile them all back on again.
If arriving a few days before Christmas, check service times at local churches for special services such as Midnight Mass or the traditional Christmas morning Communion.
It's worth arriving a day or two before Christmas Eve, not only to help with settling in and the shopping but to find time to visit Santa and let him know you've arrived. Find a cottage close to a steam railway offering 'Santa Specials' for example. For Christmas holidays in West Somerset and Exmoor, try the West Somerset Railway Santa Express that runs for 23 miles from Minehead to Bishops Lydeard.
While you're at it, book tickets for a local pantomime at a nearby theatre. Don't wait until you arrive: You'll need to book these in advance as they are understandably popular!
It's worth considering cottages on complexes, such as farm cottages, which usually offer a range of leisure facilities. These indoor heated pools, games rooms, saunas and other exercise-inducing activities to allow you to maintain a healthy calorie offset ratio. Cottage complexes also give you the choice of finding one large cottage for 'multiple family occupation' (to use the jargon phrase), or a group of small cottages to allow families to be together during the day, but in their own cottages at night. If you're opting for the latter, try and ensure that at least one property has sufficient space for you all to gather around one table for Christmas dinner, unless you're planning on eating out. You'd be surprised at how many local restaurants open for lunch on Christmas Day, although you'll probably need to book in advance. Ask your cottage owner for local suggestions.
Back at your cottage with wind-burned faces, there's nothing nicer than to gather around an open fire armed with a fork or two toasting bread and marshmallows. The great thing about holiday cottages is that their kitchens are usually equipped with just about every type of implement you'll need to enjoy a good winter feast. You're also not tied to restaurant opening hours either, so you can sit down to dinner at a time of your own choosing.
Keep an eye out for local events – there's usually something suitably Christmassy going on such as traditional Christmas markets, Christmas tree festivals and choral concerts. If you're staying on the coast, find a Boxing Day swim in the sea when dozens of rufty-tufty types of all genders and ages throw themselves into icy waters in aid of a good cause. Join them if you dare, or just enjoy the screams.
Holiday Cottages appeal to pet owners. It's not unknown for guests to turn up with their cats and even rabbits, but usually, a 'pet-friendly cottage' is one that welcomes dogs. If you're planning on bringing something more exotic, then just ask the owner before you book. But, let's assume that, for now, we are talking about dogs. For once you won't have to stow your beloved pooch away in a kennel when going on holiday.
There are many pet-friendly holiday cottages to be found in every corner of the UK. Check terms and conditions, as some will ask you to keep your pets on the ground floor or away from bedrooms. Some may even have outdoor kennels. Do make sure you take some extra towels to wipe down your dog after a day scampering across muddy fields. It's not really on to use a spare lovingly laundered bath towel provided by the cottage owner and intended for human use only. If you're really concerned, pack a throw or two to place over sofas and armchairs for extra protection – and don't forget the feeding bowls.
Most cottages will provide a Christmas tree and decorations. If you're arriving with young children, why not ask the owner if the decorations can be left by the tree for the kids to decorate when you arrive. Owners can be very helpful. Some will even tell you which local walks will allow you to forage for holly and ivy to bring home to add a further seasonal touch to your cottage.
And what about the food?
Given the range of cooking facilities to be found in a holiday cottage kitchen, you should be able to plan and prepare just about any Christmas menu you desire. What's more, you don't have to buy and bring the food with you. Owners will tell you which supermarket offers a pre-order delivery service, as well as contact details for local delicatesssens, butchers, bakers and even Farmers' markets.
Ordering the Christmas turkey (or duck, pheasant or goose) should not be a problem. If Googling local butchers doesn't get you anywhere (unlikely), your friendly owner will usually be happy to recommend a few suppliers. Larger properties will even have contact details for local caterers happy to supply pre-prepared menus or also turn up and do the whole thing themselves. All you'll have to do is empty the dishwasher.
When to book your cottage
People start booking holiday cottages, especially the larger properties, for Christmas and New Year well in advance. Still, it is not too late in October or November to find somewhere wonderful. Unless you are leaving it to the last minute to book, most cottages will require a minimum of 5-night bookings. So, don't assume it will be a straightforward matter of finding somewhere for 3 nights.
Finally, wherever you go this Christmas, don't forget to tell the children to leave a forwarding address for Santa before you leave for your Christmas holiday!