Big skies: kites flying on Old Hunstanton beach in Norfolk. Photograph: Alamy
Take me there: The Wash, Norfolk
Why go? Away from the tourist honeypots of north Norfolk, this unsung stretch of coastline makes for an atmospheric winter escape, with big skies, blustery walks and thousands of wading birds wintering on the mudflats and salt marshes.
What to do Explore the cobbled lanes and Georgian merchants’ houses of genteel King’s Lynn, taking the ferry across the Great Ouse to see the historic quayside from the water. Try windsurfing at Hunstanton Beach (hunstantonwatersports.com). Get up early to witness thousands of pink-footed geese taking to the skies at Snettisham RSPB reserve (dawn guided walks with breakfast run twice-weekly until 8 January, rspb.org.uk).
Where to eat The Rose and Crown in Snettisham is a lovely old inn with an open fire, which prides itself on using Norfolk produce, such as Brancaster mussels and crab, fish from King’s Lynn, and local venison (roseandcrownsnettisham.co.uk). For a beachfront fry-up or a hot chocolate, the Old Boathouse café in Old Hunstanton is the place to go (50 Sea Lane)
Where to stay The Bank House is a boutique hotel in a Georgian townhouse on the quayside in King’s Lynn, with 11 smart bedrooms, a bar and brasserie (from £100, thebankhouse.co.uk). For stylish seaside self-catering, check out Bramley – a sleek, 1970s architect-designed bungalow in Old Hunstanton (sleeps four, from £590 per week, norfolkhideaways.co.uk).
Insider tip The RSPB’s Steve Rowland recommends the floodlit wild swan feeds at the Welney Wetland Centre (wwt.org.uk): “You watch from a heated observatory and it’s special to see these huge birds appearing out of the evening gloom.”
Local heroes: quirky tourist tours for curious travellers
If you’re looking for an alternative to the traditional open-top bus tour of London you could do worse than join a walking tour of the city’s public loos.
Billed as a tour for “the practical tourist with a sense of humour and an interest in hygiene”, the three-hour excursion, guided by American theatre graduate Rachel Erickson, covers the history of the toilet from pre-Roman to the present day, with tips for locating free public conveniences and plenty of gossip along the way. It’s one of a raft of quirky experiences now bookable on vayable.com, a website that matches tourists with savvy locals in some 500 cities.
A report released earlier this month showed that so-called “peer-to-peer” transactions are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the travel industry. Success stories such as airbnb.co.uk and car-share site blablacar.com are moving into the mainstream and giving traditional hoteliers and car-hire companies a run for their money. Vayable recently stepped up its service a gear by introducing a complete trip-planning service. Instead of trawling the web, users hook up with a local insider (vetted by the website) who fine-tunes their itinerary, taking a cut of any bookings made – essentially performing the role of a travel agent but with a 21st-century twist.
Realising that they can’t beat them, traditional travel industry players are now joining forces with these shiny start-ups. British Airways recently signed a deal with Vayable to feature some of its content on its mobile app. Expect more such collaborations in the pipeline.
For winter warmth, try… Malta
Maria Giovanna Guest House, Gozo
This is a delightful family-run guesthouse a short walk from the beach at Marsalforn on Malta’s tiny sister island of Gozo. The simple rooms have plenty of character, with iron bedsteads and antique furniture. A communal kitchen, dining area and lavish breakfast (don’t miss the homemade cakes) are included. The owners are happy to lend beach towels, snorkels, sun hats, books and maps. From £46 (00 356 2155 3630)
Hotel Juliani, St Julian’s
This contemporary boutique hotel offers a fresh alternative to some of Malta’s fustier accommodation. Rooms are bright, with crisp white linen and walls, splashes of turquoise, and some have balconies overlooking the Bay of Spinola. The restaurant, specialising in Asian cuisine and sushi, is hugely popular and the rooftop pool provides an escape from the bustle of St Julian’s. From €70 (hoteljuliani.com)
Valletta Suites, Valletta
From the rich damask curtains to the offbeat artwork, this trio of self-catering suites, in the historic heart of Valletta, has been kitted out with real flair and attention to detail. Each of the self-contained apartments has its own style but all share a sense of quirky opulence with luxurious bedlinens, goose-down pillows, antiques, exposed beams and thick stone walls. From €99 (vallettasuites.com)
The Xara Palace, Mdina
Housed within the stone walls of a 17th century palazzo, this is the only hotel in the fortified hilltop city of Mdina. Guests get to wander the atmospheric streets of the medieval bastion after the day-trippers have left. Rooms ooze old-fashioned elegance and the terrace of the fine-dining restaurant, set on top of the old fortress walls, offers great views of the island. From €180 (xarapalace.com.mt)