50 BARGAIN WAYS TO BREAK FOR FREEDOM

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If you stayed at home for Christmas and the New Year, congratulations: you have missed the crowds and profiteering, and can now take advantage of some of the best travel bargains ever. Here, Caroline Murphy tracks down 50 of the best-value deals over the next few months, from a luxury Antarctic cruise to a weekend in sunny Stoke-on-Trent

10 BEST BEACH BARGAINS

10 BEST SNOW BARGAINS

10 BEST ADVENTURE BARGAINS

10 BEST CITY BARGAINS

10 BEST BRITISH BARGAINS

THE EXPERTS

l Simon Calder is travel editor of The Independent, the only national newspaper that refuses free trips. He also reports for BBC2's Travel Show (Thur 8pm).

l Cathy Packe is a freelance author and broadcaster who writes regularly on winter sports.

l Victoria Pybus is editor of Adventure Holidays, published by Vacation Work, and a writer on activity holidays.

l Harriet O'Brien is a senior commissioning editor for The Independent and a past Travel Writer of the Year for a story she wrote on St Ives.

1

BONDI BEACH, AUSTRALIA

Make the big change to Bondi Beach for small change. It is likely that the airfares on offer in 1999 will prove to be the best you will ever see Down Under. For example, two people can travel on the fast track from Heathrow via Tokyo to Sydney for pounds 365 each. "There is a bus direct from Sydney airport to Bondi," says Simon, "so with a following wind you could reach the surf in under 24 hours from London."

Who's going? Platinum Travel (0171-937 5122) has one departure on the above deal; out on 31 Jan, back on 26 Feb.

2

KEYSTONE, USA

The resort of Keystone is only a two-hour drive from Denver airport, which is much more accessible this year since British Airways started direct scheduled flights from London. "Less frenetic than the more popular Colorado resorts of Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge, it also has a good variety of skiing," says Cathy, "particularly when you get into the Outback."

Who's going? Ski Independence (0990 550 5555); One week in Jan, based on two sharing, from pounds 719 (all-inclusive).

3

CONSERVATION WORK IN ICELAND

Victoria recommends trying your hand at conservation work, building footpaths in Skaftafell National Park, Iceland. "Hard work, but a good deal, as accommodation and food are provided when Iceland is notoriously expensive. It also takes you to places that tourists wouldn't normally see."

Who's going? British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, 36 St Mary's St, Wallingford, Oxon (01491 839766); pounds 470 (all-inclusive).

4

VALENCIA, SPAIN

Holy Week and its religious precursors are most eloquently observed in Spain, but the star event is before Easter. Valencia stages Europe's best firework display in March, at the end of the week of Las Fallas (Fire Festival), 12-19 Mar. "You can't find a room within 20 miles," says Simon, "but this is not a problem so long as you can emulate the up-all-night stamina of the locals."

Who's going? BA (0345 222111) from Gatwick, pounds 119 return if booked by 27 Jan. Spanish Tourist Office (0171-486 8077).

BARRA

"One of the most far-flung corners of Scotland is now relatively easily accessible from London - at a bargain price," says Harriet. The Barra deal works like this: for pounds 299 you fly from London to Glasgow (or take the ScotRail sleeper, first class), then to Barra (landing on the beach), spend two nights on the island, return by Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Oban, and unwind to Glasgow on the West Highland Line. "Best of all, the EU subsidises it," she adds.

Who's going? Scotia Travel (0141-305 5050).

6

CUBA

Everyone else is going there - you should, too, before the world's political map changes forever. And 1999 is the year when the travel big boys move in: BA and Thomson are setting up in Havana and Varadero (the main beach resort) respectively. The best beaches, though, are on the warm, calm Caribbean shores of south-eastern Cuba, beyond Santiago. "You could do worse than down a daiquiri in the town of the same name, close to where Fidel's revolutionary stirrings took place," suggests Simon.

Who's going? Specialist agents such as South American Experience (0171- 976 5511); Madrid and Havana for pounds 484 return.

7

VAL D'ISERE, FRANCE

The most popular French resort for Brits, Val d'Isere can offer a wonderful variety of slopes to skiers of every level, as well as some challenging off-piste skiing. "The apres-ski is just as varied," says Cathy. "This is a resort which demands stamina if you want to get the most out of it."

Who's going? Almost everyone, but the cheapest deal is undeniably with Usit Campus (0171-730 3402): a long weekend for pounds 99 incl coach from London and accommodation.

8

RAFTING IN TURKEY

"After a challenging whitewater journey on the spectacular Coruh river in northeast Turkey, try the altogether different challenge of bargaining in Istanbul's grand bazaar," recommends Victoria. Experience two sides of Turkey on the week-long "Wild Turkey" holiday, for which there are five departures in May. Who's going? Adrift, Collingbourne House, 140-142 Wandsworth High St, London SW18 (0181-874 4969); pounds 875, plus a local payment of $170 to cover food, drink, and river and camping permits.

9

TALLINN, ESTONIA

While Russia collapses, its Baltic neighbours are enjoying the best of times. Street-sign makers have replaced "Lenin" with "Freedom" and "Marx" with "Friendship", and Estonia is now ready for visitors. The capital has pastel-shaded houses and winding lanes, topped by the spires of rejuvenated churches. "It's so lovely." recalls Simon, "that you even stop noticing the drunken Finns on duty-free binges."

Who's going? Regent Holidays of Bristol (0117-921 1711) offers a three- night break in Tallinn for a mere pounds 199, incl twin room and flights.

10

GRASMERE

Wordsworth's home, Dove Cottage, takes advantage of the coachload lull in January and February to host some literary events. From 23 to 25 Jan, a Weekend Book Fair takes place; from 8 to 13 Feb, the Wordsworth Winter School is in session. And at any time of the winter, Harriet recommends a visit to "find out how appallingly miserly the great bard was".

Who's going? Grasmere tourist information centre (015394 35245; Sat & Sun 10am-3.30pm). A Virgin Value ticket (0345 222333) from Euston to Oxenholme costs pounds 25 return; from there, Grasmere is a 15min local train ride and a 32-min bus journey away.

11

EILAT, ISRAEL

Tourism chiefs in Israel at the end of 1998 watched aghast as the Foreign Office kept changing its travel advice, during and after the airstrikes against Iraq. Hundreds of holidaymakers were flown home from the Red Sea resort of Eilat. Simon advises the crafty bargain-seeker to keep an eye on the FO advice (0171-238 4503), "but aim for a beach break at the much- underrated city of Tel Aviv - and its historic neighbour, Jaffa".

Who's going? Pullman Holidays (0171-630 5111) has six flights a week from Gatwick to Tel Aviv, and can organise holidays such as an all-inclusive week at the Centre Hotel, Tel Aviv, for pounds 330.

12

BAREGES, FRANCE

The small spa of Bareges, in the Pyrenees, is the gateway to around 75 miles of pistes, which spread acress the Col du Tourmalet over to La Mongie. "Access to the area is by funicular from the top of the main - and only - street in the village," says Cathy. There are several reasonable hotels and restaurants, as well as a cinema and thermal baths.

Who's going? Ryanair (0541 569569) flies to Carcassonne, from which Bareges is a pleasant drive through the mountains. Book before 25 Mar to catch its offer of two flights for the price of one: a mere pounds 80 for return flights for two.

13

HOT-AIR BALLOONING

"For a great buzz closer to home, try your hand at ballooning," suggests Victoria. Choose from over 200 UK take-off sites for an hour's flight. Worth it for the traditional after-flight champagne toast and commemorative certificates alone. Balloons carry 8-16 passengers, but you must be over 4ft 6ins.

Who's going? A member of the CAA, Virgin Balloon Flights Ltd, Unit 1, Stafford Park 12, Telford, Shropshire (01952 200141), offer trips year round for pounds 135 per person.

14

SCHENGEN, LUXEMBOURG

The place to visit, if you are a good European, is Schengen, in the far south of the country (this being Luxembourg, the far south is not very far away at all). The significance of Schengen is that it is the village where France, Germany and Luxembourg all meet. "It gave its name to the Schengen Accord, which led to the removal of frontier controls between most of the EU nations," explains Simon. "Yet this charming riverside settlement hasn't been overrun with tourists - despite being a lovely corner of Europe."

Who's going? You can get to Luxembourg in six hours from Waterloo, with a single change from Eurostar at Brussels Midi station, for pounds 112 with Rail Europe (0990 848848).

15

PLAS TAN Y BWLCH

For what Harriet considers "the most winning combination of good company and great scenery that I know of in Wales", you need to catch a train. Not any old train, but a steam-hauled local on the Ffestiniog Mountain Railway. This will deposit you at Plas Tan y Bwlch, a country house built in 1748, and now the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre. Owned by Gwynedd County Council, this runs courses for anyone interested in the countryside. But, if space permits, less studious visitors are welcomed for overnight stays.

Who's going? Plas Tan y Bwlch (01766 590324; e-mail plastanybwlch@compuserve.com); B&B from pounds 22 per night, dinner plus B&B from pounds 34.

16

FLORIDA

"It was Sir Freddie Laker who opened up the Sunshine State for British holidaymakers," recalls Simon, "and, in doing so, single-handedly created a summer travel industry for Florida - which previously had been the hot and humid preserve of mad dogs, until some Englishmen came along." But February remains prime time to bathe on Miami Beach.

Who's going? The market leader is Virgin Holidays (01293 617181); Feb deals include a fortnight's Miami fly-drive (pounds 249 per adult), or a fortnight in an Orlando hotel for pounds 359 per adult.

17

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND

An improvement in the exchange rate makes Switzerland a better prospect this year, and easyJet's pounds 98 return flight to Zurich means that a trip to Davos, a couple of hours away, doesn't need to break the bank. "Davos is an odd sort of town, straggling down a couple of very long streets, but there is nothing odd about the mountains," says Cathy. The resort has some beautiful hotels - try the Schatzalp, once a sanitorium, halfway up the mountain.

Who's going? easyJet (0870 600 0000) will get you to Zurich for under pounds 100 return.

18

BARGE CRUISE ON THE CALEDONIAN CANAL

Enjoy a break in the Great Glen from the comfort of a 12-berth Belgian barge, Fingal of Caledonia. "The barge provides the perfect base, whatever activity you are after: rambling, mountain biking, skiing," says Victoria. "Or simply relax, take in the breathtaking views, and enjoy being fed, watered and entertained by the enthusiastic crew."

Who's going? Caledonian Discovery, The Slipway, Corpach, Fort William (01397 772167); from pounds 13.50 for one night's B&B.

19

STOCKHOLM

The Scandinavian capitals have been placed firmly on the city-break map thanks to new cheap flights. "The loveliest of them is Stockholm, sprinkled across a puzzle of islands," says Simon. "Though it's no longer the European Capital of Culture, it remains as cultured as ever." Thanks to a collapsing krona, the Swedish capital is also affordable when you get there.

Who's going? A BA (0345 222111) return flight costs around pounds 176. Book before 25 Mar for Ryanair's (0541 569569) unbeatable offer of two flights for the price of one: pounds 80 for two returns, though these serve an airport 60 miles out. .

20

DEVON

The Landmark Trust lets an intriguing selection of properties from follies to fortresses. During the winter, there is less demand and more flexibility. Especially recommended is Peter's Tower, a clocktower on the Exe estuary (though be warned that the bed is directly beneath the bell, which is silent only between midnight and 7am).

Who's going? The Landmark Trust (01628 825925); a three-night break over a weekend costs pounds 190, while four nights midweek costs pounds 141.

21

SRI LANKA

"Sometimes, the closer you get to paradise, the more troubled it looks," says Simon. Sri Lanka, the jewel of the Indian Ocean, is still suffering from the internecine strife that has wracked the country since the Eighties. Yet, for those who are prepared to take a chance, the island's west coast is a fair approximation to one long strip of palm-fringed sand - interrupted by the good-natured old colonial capital, Colombo.

Who's going? Somak (0181-423 3000); from pounds 709 for a fortnight, all inclusive.

22

MONTE BALDO, ITALY

"Although it is now beginning to lose its price advantage, good exchange rates over recent years have made Italy a popular destination for British tourists, with the result that many of the resorts have become overrun," explains Cathy. If you are prepared to go it alone, she recommends Monte Baldo, the mountain up behind the village of Malcesine on Lake Garda. This village is one of the most beautiful spots on the lake, and the vista from the area above it, accessible from the lakeside by cablecar, is spectacular.

Who's going? Go (0845 60 54321) has flights to Venice for pounds 80; from here, take the train to Verona and on to the lake.

23

OUT IN AFRICA

"A great all-round, easy-going African adventure crammed with highlights," says Victoria. Journey from Cape Town to Harare by vehicle, foot and pony, visiting a number of game reserves and National Parks en route. To relax, sample the white sands of the Indian Ocean beaches, and snorkel among the reefs off Mozambique.

Who's going? Dragoman Adventures, 28 Camp Green, Debenham, Suffolk (01728 861133); Apr & May, pounds 930 for four-and-half weeks, plus $270 for local kitty.

24

QUEBEC CITY

More French than anywhere else on the North American mainland, Quebec City is a charming and confusing entity. An ancient settlement in North American terms, it is perched on a cliff above the St Lawrence River. Cottages tumble down the hillside in random ragged ribbons, a street plan thoroughly at odds with the rest of the continent. "The atmosphere is faux Parisian," says Simon, "and the food is divine."

Who's going? BA (0345 222111) has a World Offer flight to Montreal for about pounds 249 before 19 Mar; from there Quebec City is a four-hour bus ride or half-hour flight.

25

SCILLY ISLES

Spring arrives earlier in the small islands off Land's End. You can go over from Cornwall for the day, but a longer break is recommended to enjoy the warmth of the locals and the Gulf Stream. A two-hour voyage from Penzance on Scillonian III takes you to Britain's approximation to a tropical paradise. "Get there well ahead of the crowds who will arrive on 11 August for the last total eclipse of the 20th century," advises Harriet.

Who's going? Isles of Scilly tourist information centre (01720 422536); B&B from pounds 20 per person, per night. The trip aboard Scillonian III costs pounds 62 low season, pounds 72 high season.

26

RIO DE JANEIRO

"Ten years ago, the first package holidays from Britain to Brazil were supposed to be revolutionising our winter holiday habits," says Simon. "But the concept of a charter to Copacabana or an all-inclusive to Ipanema never really caught on." So only the aficionados are able to enjoy the best city beaches of anywhere in the world. For maximum intensity (and risk) visit during Carnival, this year from 13-16 Feb.

Who's going? BA, Varig and Transbrasil will take you non-stop to Rio, but the cheap trick could be to go via Newark on Continental - slow, but sure to save you a fortune. Trailfinders (0171-938 3939) is offering fares for pounds 457 via the US.

27

MOUNT PARNASSOS, GREECE

Although most people only think of going to Greece in summer, it has its own ski resort on the slopes of Mount Parnassos, above Delphi, and an easy day-trip from Athens. "The slopes may not be the finest you have ever seen," Cathy admits, "but, on the other hand, from the finest slopes you can't see Mount Olympus or the Aegean, and the lifts aren't named after Greek gods."

Who's going? easyJet (from Luton, for around pounds 100 return to Athens).

28

IN THE SADDLE IN SOUTHERN PORTUGAL

If you are a regular rider, Victoria suggests you try a specialist trail- riding holiday in Portugal's Alentejo province, above the Algarve. "The area is a national park, very wild and under-populated. It is illegal to build on that coast, so you can ride all along the cliff-tops and unspoilt beaches. I've been twice," she adds.

Who's going? Caminhos Do Alentejo (CDA), enquiries to Longmere International, 64 Shirley Road, Croydon (0181-654 2424); year round, pounds 375-pounds 975 (excl flights).

29

OPORTO

Expo '98 in Lisbon eclipsed Portugal's second city, Oporto, so 1999 should be the year to discover this ungainly yet good-natured conurbation. The British influence is obvious in the collection of overstated Victorian architecture which totters unsteadily above the dramatic Douro gorge. "Superimposed on this entertaining clutter is the curiously wayward energy of Portugal, turning an austere market hall into a frenzy of commerce," says Simon. The more reserved south side of the river is devoted to the port houses.

Who's going? Travel before 19 Mar to capitalise on BA's (0345 222111) World Offer price of pounds 153.80 from Gatwick.

30

SWANSEA

"Ugly, lovely town crawling, sprawling, slummed, unplanned, jerry-villa'd, and smug-suburbed by the side of a long and splendid curving shore" - and that's from a man who called it home: Dylan Thomas. In recent years, Swansea has regained something of its former nobility, and its proximity to the lovely Gower Peninsula makes it worth leaving the M4 for. "There are some tolerable pubs, too," adds Harriet, "for those who wish assiduously to enjoy the Thomas experience."

Who's going? Swansea tourist information centre (01792 468321); prices from pounds 19 for a single room with shower and coffee-making facilities.

31

GAMBIA

On the map, the Gambia is a long, thin country jabbing in to the middle of Senegal, bearing the river Gambia. You would not expect much of a beach - but the reality is a fine slab of sand onto which the Atlantic breaks. Simon suggests you don't go expecting a hassle-free holiday: "but if your main aim is cheap sun as close as you can to Gatwick, it could be for you."

Who's going? All the usual suspects go there, but the leading specialist is the Gambia Experience (01703 730888), which has stood by the country through its difficulties during the past few years. It offers a fortnight's B&B and return flights from pounds 426 per person.

32

AVIEMORE

You cannot be serious! You can, actually, if you catch one of the all- too-few days when Scotland's leading ski resort is enjoying decent snow. "For Londoners," says Cathy, "the great attraction is the overnight sleeper from Euston direct to Aviemore, which actually gives you time for a good day on the slopes plus a chance for a glass or two before catching the same train home."

Who's going? ScotRail (0345 550033); book a week in advance for the cheapest fare (pounds 99 return).

33

KATHMANDU

The real journey is a psychological one. Find yourself during a gently paced 21-day trek from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp, suitable even for "softies". The emphasis is on promoting a sense of well-being and an ecological awareness in the trekker. "A challenge," admits Victoria, "but not so energetic that you can't take in the wonderful scenery."

Who's going? Palanquin Travels Ltd, 7 Priory Road, Wells, Somerset (01749 671310); departs Kathmandu from 28 Mar onwards, from pounds 1,145 (excl flight).

34

VENICE

Fares to the city of the Bridge of Sighs are enough to make you gasp. This January, the two Stansted-based no-frills airlines are slugging it out with absurdly low prices, providing a prosaic reason to visit this most poetic of cities. "Venice in January is usually possessed of an intense emptiness," says Simon, "but I'm not sure it'll be so quiet this year."

Who's going? Go (0845 605 4321) and Ryanair (0541 569569) from Stansted to Marco Polo and Treviso airports respectively. You shouldn't have to pay more than pounds 80 return, except to travel on Fri and Sun.

35

NORWICH

Now that Steve Coogan's creation I'm Alan Partridge is getting a much- deserved repeat airing on BBC1 (Sun), his home town - and the location of his prime 4.30am-7am slot on the local radio station - is deservedly back on the map. "The closest thing to the Partridge pied a terre at the Linton Travel Tavern is the Stakis airport hotel. Alan probably wouldn't be too concerned at the distance from the medieval city centre, which boasts a greater concentration of ancient churches than anywhere else in western Europe," says Simon. The hotel has a romantic bargain, offering two nights' dinner, bed and breakfast for two people for pounds 119.

Who's going? Stakis central reservations (0990 909090).

36

KRABI, THAILAND

The collapse in Asian economies means a country that formerly presented a safe, affordable and exciting introduction to Asia is now even better value. "The crowds on the beautiful beach at Krabi demonstrate Thailand's appeal," says Simon. "But it's worth putting up with a bit of company for the sheer serenity that southern Thailand still manages to purvey."

Who's going? Through the discount agent Flightbookers (0171-757 2000), Alitalia offers a fare of pounds 350 return for travel via Milan, or pounds 449 non- stop on Eva Air. From Bangkok, a domestic flight to Phuket (from pounds 77 return) will drop you a pleasant boat ride (or less pleasant bus ride) from Krabi.

37

SOFIA, BULGARIA

Bulgaria's capital is the best placed of any in Europe for skiing; within 30 minutes you can leave the centre of this now bustling city and be almost alone on the slopes of the sombre mountain that overlooks it. "Don't expect great sophistication," advises Cathy, "but you can't beat the convenience and value."

Who's going? Balkan Bulgarian (0171-637 7637) flies from Heathrow for pounds 254 at the end of Jan.

38

WAKEBOARDING, CORNWALL

"With the current trend for `board'-related sports, learn to wakeboard for a cutting-edge thrill," recommends Victoria. Wakeboarding involves riding in the wake of a motor-boat, a cross between waterskiing and surf- boarding. You can sample this, and other watersports, in Cornwall.

Who's going? Outdoor Adventure, Atlantic Court, Widemouth Bay, nr Bude, Cornwall (01288 361312); from pounds 155 for a weekend's activities, full board.

39

LOS ANGELES

The City of Angels is now firmly on the short-break list, thanks to silly fares. New arrivals are plunged into a turmoil of activity, which will make you feel you've spent the weekend on a movie set - in a way, you have. "The key to a stress-free short break in LA," says Simon, "is to forget all you've heard about needing a car and instead use the efficient public-transport system."

Who's going? The best deals are likely to be on Air New Zealand's (0181- 741 2299) daily departure from Heathrow. Expect to pay around pounds 250 return through discount agents.

40

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON

Six million tourists can't be wrong. Shakespeare's birthplace is at its best early on in the year, and the ideal way to see the town is on a package organised by the Royal Shakespeare Company. For as little as pounds 60.50, you get a hotel, tickets for the current performance, and a meal in the theatre's excellent restaurant. "The cast can be found in the Dirty Duck straight after the show, currently The Winter's Tale. Somehow, they manage to get there before the audience," laughs Harriet.

Who's going? Royal Shakespeare Company (01789 296655).

41

SOUTH AFRICA

Durban is often overlooked by visitors to South Africa, yet, in its own way, it is as vibrant as Cape Town - and with some excellent beaches within very easy reach. "You can enjoy the Indian Ocean by day, and some excellent Indian food by night," says Simon.

Who's going? This winter sees the silliest fares ever to South Africa. For example, STA Travel (0171-361 6262) has a return flight to Durban on BA for pounds 486, though you could probably travel more cheaply by finding a cut-price deal to Johannesburg.

42

POIANA BRASOV, ROMANIA

The Romanian resort of Poiana Brasov is almost within skiing distance of Castle Bran, fanciful home of the bloodsucking Count Dracula. Even when Ceausescu was in power, Brits interested in a bargain were discovering Romania. "I first travelled there in the dark days of 1985," recalls Cathy, "and managed to get arrested for spying. Nevertheless, it was a great adventure."

Who's going? Romanian Tourist Office (0171-224 3692); seven nights, half- board will cost about pounds 280 (incl flights) in Feb, but only pounds 265 in Mar.

43

CYCLING IN CROATIA

"This is a good way to see the newly popular Croatia and get a feel for the new Eastern Europe," says Victoria. Check out Croatia's spring flowers by cycling along a wide selection of coastal and National Park routes. You'll be located in an award-winning hotel near the ancient city of Porec, with its Byzantine Basilica. Half-board, buffet meals and swimming pool are included in the price. Places are very limited, so book now.

Who's going? John and Greta Lumbers, 50 Jopling Way, Hauxton, Cambs (01223 872327); approx pounds 360.

44

SYDNEY

You might as well go all the way, before the combination of the Millennium and the Olympics next year increases crowds and prices. "You are unlikely to see the combination of absurdly low fares and a weak Australian dollar for very much longer," advises Simon. The gay and lesbian Mardi Gras begins on 1 Feb, with the closing party on 27 Feb.

Who's going? Almost every airline; the lowest fares are likely to be via Japan, or on charters from Gatwick. Pay no more than pounds 500 return.

45

STOKE-ON-TRENT

Valiantly re-inventing itself, the capital of the Potteries has opened a new visitors' centre at the Etruria Industrial Museum - a steam-powered bone and flint mill, that gives a different side of the area from the usual well-worn Wedgewood trail. "There's also a Mark II Spitfire at the Potteries Museum, because the plane was designed by a local chap," says Harriet.

Who's going? Stoke tourist information centre (01782 236000); Etruria Industrial Museum (01782 233144; Wed-Sun 10am-4pm) is free.

46

COLOMBIA

Simon has no qualms about suggesting a second bite at South America - "the beaches here are among the best, and most unspoilt, in the world. My favourite in this much-misunderstood country is Santa Marta, an unashamed seaside resort which is as close as Colombia gets to Blackpool (and it's quite close enough)." Read Charles Nicholl's The Fruit Palace, which is partly set there, as you laze on the sand.

Who's going? The national airline, Avianca (0990 767747), flies from London to Bogota, with easy connections to Santa Marta. Special offer in Jan: fly anywhere in Colombia for pounds 442 return.

47

ANTARCTICA

Midwinter here is, of course, midsummer in the southernmost continent - but there is still plenty of snow around. For a comfortable view of the last resort, take a cruise from the southern tip of South America. "Even in the harshest of environments, you can still enjoy much conviviality," says Cathy. You can also take in a visit to the Falklands.

Who's going? Journey Latin America (0181-747 8315) has some late availability on US or Russian ships; from pounds 2,663 (excl transatlantic flights) for the shortest 10-night, fully catered cruise, based on a twin cabin with shared facilities.

48

THE DARIEN GAP, COLOMBIA/PANAMA

"The ultimate adventure is one you won't find in the brochures. That's because it's too dangerous at present to contemplate," says Victoria. This is the crossing of the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, miles of thick jungle populated by intriguing ethnic groups plus, unfortunately, guerrillas and drug smugglers.

Who's going? Nobody with any sense. Read about it instead in Backpacking in Central America (Bradt Publications).

49

BILBAO, SPAIN

The capital of Spain's Basque region provides a fine example of how imagination can revolutionise a city's image. The Guggenheim opened 14 months ago, and is, according to Simon, "an heroic shambles in titanium that seizes the visitor's attention and won't let go". Besides the stunning new museum, the city has all the attributes of a fine Spanish city, from tapas to tilework.

Who's going? Kirker Holidays (0171-231 3333), with tickets for the Guggenheim included in every booking; three nights, based on two people sharing a room, costs pounds 379 per person, incl flights.

50

BELFAST

"The best way to remove the preconceptions and prejudices that cloud all our views of Northern Ireland is to take a break in the province's largest city," says Harriet. In winter, the much-bombed but freshly refurbished Europa Hotel offers special "Weekend Breakaway" deals, two nights B&B and one dinner, that cost pounds 99 per person. Don't miss the regular pub crawl around the city.

Who's going? Europa Hotel (01232 327000); Northern Ireland Tourist Board (01232 231221).

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