For a self-catering holiday with a difference, head for the Arctic this summer. Four-night stays in "rorbu", the rust-coloured fishermen's cottages built on stilts over the water in the Lofoten Islands, deep within the Arctic Circle, are part of an interesting Norwegian package available from Inntravel.
The cottages, which are ideal for birdwatching, boating and fishing, are clustered around the fishing hamlet of Nortsund on Vestvagoy Island. Holidaymakers can combine their stay with three nights on a coastal steamer, one of the working mail and passenger boats that steam up through the fjords from Bergen, from pounds 699-pounds 849 including all flights. Or they can spend a night on the steamer, four in the cottage and two in Tromso, the Arctic capital, from pounds 7l8-pounds 750 including flights.
Inntravel 01653 628811
THE POLISH 'ROCKIES'
A few years ago, Western visitors began to flock to the former Eastern bloc countries of Hungary and the Czech Republic. Now they are beginning to discover the charms of Poland, too, realising that it isn't just an industrial wasteland.
Poland is a country with vast areas of forest, lakeland and National Parks hosting a range of wild animals, many of them more akin to North America than to Europe - moose, beaver, bison and golden eagle. In addition to the capital, Warsaw, cities such as culture-packed Krakow, Poznan (regarded as Poland's musical capital) and Zakopane (the centre of its highland folklore) are all on the tourist beat.
Few self-catering properties as yet have swimming pools, microwaves and de luxe mod cons. As in French holiday villages, "sleeps four" may mean two having to cope on converted sofas in the living room. Europe's largest self-catering firm, the Swiss- owned Interhome, has a new Polish programme featuring 80 holiday homes in 58 resorts, from Niechorze on the north coast to Zakopane in the south, with a variety of apartments in and around Warsaw and Krakow.
A country house near the village of Konina Polanki in the Gorce Massif, 20 miles north of the Tatra mountains, with views over the Gorczanski National Park, costs pounds 207-pounds 269 a week, and can sleep up to four holidaymakers.
A company called Silesian Villas offers simply furnished summer houses and chalets around Zakopane, Poland's main tourist resort, costing pounds l80 a week for two, and apartments in Warsaw and Krakow, the City of Culture in the year 2000. A flat on the top of one of the few buildings to survive the Second World War, and a two-minute walk from Warsaw Old Town, costs pounds 195 a week for two people, pounds 2l5 for three, and can also be rented for three or four days at pounds 36 a day.
Interhome 018l 891 1294; Silesian Villas 0181 806 3755
BRAC IS BACK
There is a much welcomed return on the holiday map for Croatia's dramatic coastline and islands. Phoenix Holidays offers self-catering holidays in small, simply furnished modern apartments at modest prices. Pick of the locations is the pine-clad island of Brac, which has one of the few really golden beaches (the Golden Horn) in the country at Bol, as well as a Dominican monastery housing a Tintoretto painting, and a Renaissance Palace displaying modern Croatian art.
The almost compulsory trips fron Brac include Dubrovnik, the lovely walled medieval city now being restored, reached by hydrofoil, and Diocletian's Palace at Split. The Bol apartments, sleeping three to four people, cost from pounds 239-pounds 302 per week, pounds 288-pounds 396 for two weeks, including flights.
Phoenix Holidays 0181 563 0022
Icelandic families like to get back to nature for a few weeks each year, but not without their creature comforts. The summerhouses and cottages which can be rented for the first time this year through Arctic Experience, are well equipped with electricity, hot and cold running water and modern appliances.
All the accommodation listed by the company is located near National Parks, glaciers and lake shores, with outdoor activities such as fishing, riding, river rafting and guided walking and snowscooter tours available as part of the package. Golf fanatics have the advantage of being able to play for 24 hours a day during the months of the midnight sun (June and July).
The cottages, which can sleep six to eight people, cost pounds 250-pounds 550 a week, and can be hired on a daily basis in winter. Return travel and car hire are also bookable as part of the package.
Arctic Experience 01737 218800
GTES IN SPAIN
Vintage Spain has imported the French gite concept to Catalonia, offering a number of inland farmhouses or masies, in regions where few tourists have yet to tread. The 14th-century Mas Orpi is an old bodega in the heart of the Penedes wine- producing area. It's only 15 miles from the popular resort of Sitges (with its famous Cau Ferrat museum, housing a bizarre collection of turn- of-the-century art) but you are unlikely to pick up a single foreign accent on a stroll through Vilafranca, the leading wine market town. Mas Orpi's weekly rent is pounds 285-pounds 795, and the house can accommodate 10.
South of Tarragona, the village of Horta de Sant Joan would have remained totally unknown outside Catalonia had it not been for the fact that Pablo Picasso lived there briefly (its medieval arcaded main square contains a Picasso museum). The dramatic, craggy terrain is superb rambling country, and the gites - sleeping up to nine people - cost pounds 245-pounds 625 per week. Car hire and flights can also be arranged through the company.
Vintage Spain 01954 261431
These traditional country manors, offered for thefirst time by CV Travel, are attractive hideaways for peace seekers, nature lovers and keen walkers. The Quinta das Colmeias, for example, is less than three miles from the Levadas - the old watercourses and their adjoining paths which extend for 1,200 miles over the island. The house, which can sleep six to eight people, has a small swimming pool, a croquet lawn and leafy gardens with the abundant flora that grows like weeds on Madeira. But be warned - a car is absolutely essential for exploring the rest of the island. Based on a party of eight people sharing, a week in a Madeira quinta costs pounds 350- pounds 375 each including flights.
CV Travel 0171 581 0851
SPAIN'S STONY HEART
Wild, stark Extramadura - the underpopulated south-west Spanish province of high sierras, cork oak and chestnut forest - rarely featured in holiday brochures in the past. This year it is one of the new destinations offered by The Individual Traveller, which has a selection of country houses available in Spain and Portugal. Near Navaconcejo, for example, a granite stone mill house for eight people costs pounds l,438 for two weeks, including car hire (or ferry fares, if holidaymakers take their own car).
Adjacent to Extramadura, Planicies (which means Plains) is the Portuguese equivalent of Extramadura. The region is characterised by vast open spaces, farms, folklore, hilltop forts and walled towns. On the outskirts of Estremoz, just 30 miles from historic Evora, a traditional little white cottage which is part of an old Manor House comfortably sleeps two to three people. A week there costs between pounds 7l6 and pounds l,2l2, inclusive of car hire.
The Individual Traveller, Spain and Portugal 01798 869416
HOMAGE TO CATALONIA
The hidden bays and medieval hilltop retreats of Catalonia's northern coast and hinterland are often by-passed by holidaymakers hurtling past towards the far less picturesque costas further south. Spanish Harbour Holidays specialise in the area, love it, and have found individual houses, flats and farms near the coast that you won't find in the main package brochures.
The Villa Masada, for example, is a rambling old rustic stone house, all beams and arches, which sleeps seven or eight and costs pounds l,550 a week for the property. It's in Torrent, north of the splendid old village of Pals, where the old church towers above the surrounding countryside and a number of excellent restaurants serve traditional Catalonian dishes.
Ten seconds from the sandy beach at Tamariu, a favourite resort with Spanish families, the old village house of La Dominech has been converted into three apartments each sleeping four people, at pounds 285 per week.
You won't find nightclubs or bars on every corner in Tamariu. There's one small disco - and there's local Sardanas (the Catalonian folk dance) on the seafront in summer. For a family beach holiday, this coast is hard to beat.
Spanish Harbour Holidays 0117 986 9777
VFB Holidays, the long established French specialists who first adapted gite holidays to suit finnicky British tastes (the provision of flush loos, modern plumbing, kettles, kitchens stuffed with equipment and decent sized double beds), have introduced retreats to lesser known areas to tempt holidaymakers to visit much beleaguered France.
A thatched Norman barn, dating from 1750, situated three miles from the village of Serguigny, guarantees rural tranquillity for a couple who want to potter round the Seine Valley, Rouen and the Pays d'Auge. A self-drive week in early July would cost pounds 516 for two people.
A 200-year-old local stone farmhouse on three floors, amidst the fields and pine-clad hills of Beaujolais country is peacefully situated a kilometre from the village of St Forgeux, but near enough to Lyons for gastronomic forays. The cottage can take 4 people, but costs pounds 389-pounds 679 for two, plus pounds l5 extra for each adult. VFB's prices include insurance and the ferry crossings.
VFB 01242 240340
CALL OF THE CARMARGUE
Three miles from Arles, the holiday village operated by EuroVillages is a reasonably priced launchpad for exploring the Camargue - that haunting wilderness of lagoons, flamingoes, black bulls and wild white horses. The beaches and sleepy little town of Les Saintes- Maries de la Mer, where gypsies from all over Europe congregated last week (24- 25 May) to honour their ancestor Sarah, is 25 miles away. Avignon, Nimes and Montpellier are within reach for a day's outing.
As in most French holiday villages, accommodation is simple rather than luxurious (apartments usually have two couch beds in the living area), but there are eight swimming pools, 27 tennis courts (free!), pitch and- putt facilities, archery, volleyball, an activity club for the four- to 12-year-olds on the 50-acre site, and a stable of 40 horses. Riding lessons are available for beginners. A two-week holiday in mid-June for a party of four costs pounds 575, or pounds 96l at the end of August; these prices includeg ferry fares for both car and passengers.
Eurovillages 01606 734400
Tennis, mini golf, swimming, walking trips, lessons in local crafts, and programmes of activities to suit all ages are laid on for families at the self-catering Village des Alberes in the Midi region of southern France, offered by activity specialist Headwater Holidays. The village is two miles from the sandy beaches of Argeles, and well placed for trips over the Spanish border to visit Gerona, Cadaques and Figueras.
Prices start from pounds l67 per person for self-drive (ferry inclusive) travel, and seven nights accommodation in an apartment sleeping up to six people. Children under the age of 18 go free on these self-drive holidays. Prices, inclusive of air travel, start at pounds 319 for adults, pounds l49 for children under the age of 12.
Headwater Holidays 01606 48699
CAMPING IT UP
Italian camping makes a change from the French version, though standards can vary. In their first programme of Italian holidays, Country Camping in Italy, an offshoot of French Country Camping has selected small, largely family run sites in Valle D'Aosta, Liguria, Lake Garda, the Dolomites, Umbria and Tuscany. One particularly rural example is Il Collacio at Castel Vecchio di Preci in deepest Umbria, with a panoramic view of its lush rolling hills. The site surrounds a traditionally built farmhouse which produces its own hams and salamis, honey and cheese, on the doorstep of the Monti Sibillini National Park; horseback trekking, mountain biking, canoeing and trout fishing are all available nearby.
Prices for a 14-night holiday start at pounds 245 (for two adults and up to four children), rising to pounds 850 in high season. Ferry fares for car and passengers are included. Hotels or camps en route and travel by motorail can also be arranged.
Country Camping in Italy 01923 261311
IN TURNER'S ITALIAN FOOTSTEPS
There are plenty of unusual self-catering offers in Italy this summer, including one with artistic associations. Turner is believed to have set up his easel and painted his View of Orvieto in the gardens of villa Paggio Arrigo, where Vacanze in Italia offers a first-floor apartment sleeping up to six people for pounds l,036-pounds l,206 for two weeks, including car hire. For the first time this year, the firm also offers a selection of small canalside apartments in Venice, some in a recently restored, small 17th- century palazzo. An apartment for two people costs pounds l,324-pounds 1,460 for two weeks.
Vacanze in Italia 01798 869426
With the exchange rate very much in their favour at the moment, even more Brits will be heading for Chiantishire this summer, where tour operators are offering some mouthwatering self-catering properties.
If you prefer a place owned by old Tuscan families rather than a British expat, there are historic converted houses and 18th-century shooting lodges on the Mansi-Bernadini estate in Lucca. They are suitable for eight to 12 people, who can explore the estate's wine cellars and olive oil production facilities. Prices from Italian Chapters are pounds l,440-pounds 3,900 per property.
Tuscany Now offers a range of villas, houses and apartments all have their own swimming pools and range from a medieval castle for 18 people at pounds 4,860 a week, to a farmhouse apartment near Vinci (Leonardo's birthplace), 25 miles from Florence, sleeping up to four. Prices for that range from pounds 250 to pounds 7l0 a week.
Two other companies, Simply Tuscany and Casa Mia Italia, also offer a wide selection of old farmhouses and country villas in both Tuscany and Umbria.
Italian Chapters 0171 722 9560, Tuscany Now 0171 272 5469, Simply Tuscany 0181 995 8277, Casa Mia Italia 0039 744 404643
ON THE WATERFRONT
Carefully renovated waterfront houses offered by Greek Islands Club at colourful little Fiscardo, one of the few villages to have survived unscathed the 1953 earthquake on the Greek island of Cephalonia, overlook the harbour, a Venetian castle and lighthouse, and the birthplace of the legendary Odysseus, the island of Ithaca.
A private boat to explore the beaches nearby can be hired and moored in front of your verandah. Smaller apartments can accommodate two, larger up to eight. Prices are from pounds 507-pounds l00 per person for two weeks, including flights.
Greek Islands Club 01932 220416
Specialising largely in the Dodecanese Islands, and keen supporters of environmental tourism, Laskarina Holidays offer original offbeat destinations and properties, though accommodation may be fairly rudimentary.
In the spectacular old capital of Symi, Chorio, perched on high over one of the most picturesque harbours in the Mediterranean, the Villa Hanni apartments are conversions of a former ruined XVII Byzantine century tower built around a courtyard, with a tiny garden of orange and lemon trees. There are local shops, a bakery and a Kafenion here, but the village is still largely untouched by tourism, A single holidaymaker can book a studio apartment for pounds 389-pounds 579 for two weeks, The garden apartment for two costs pounds 439-pounds 609 each,
On the island of Leros, and even more remote, the Villa Blefonti, two apartments with chapel are for reading, relaxing, and eating al fresco meals. Since there's little else on this part of the island except a resident herd of goats, a tiny beach and a taverna which becomes the local bouzouki club on Saturday nights in summer a car is advisable. Price for each of four pounds 339-pounds 449 for two weeks. Flights included in all prices.
Laskarina Holidays 01629 822203
Self-catering in Turkey is usually limited to anonymous apartments in beach-side complexes, but Simply Turkey have tracked down a number of more individual properties which they list as "Houses of Character". These include two restored and antique-filled village houses, in the once deserted but now thriving rural village of Sirince Evleri (once a Greek village), only 15 minutes drive from Ephesus, which costs from pounds 495-pounds 599 for each of four for two weeks, prices including flights and car hire.
The Villa Esi near Mumcular, half an hour from Bodrum, surrounded by pine forests, tobacco fields and olive groves, is one of the few luxury villas in Turkey with its own pool, and can be rented by a party of 10 for pounds 445-pounds 535 each for two weeks, or for six from pounds 595-pounds 725 each, including with flights and car hire.
Simply Turkey 0181 747 1011
Collectors' items for rent fron New England Country Homes include illustrator Norman Rockwell's former studio in West Arlington where he worked for 11 years, with 500 of his works displayed in the Norman Rockwell exhibition nearby. Like most American properties, the house is well furnished, with a tennis court, and 5 acre grounds shared with the owners and guests of the local inn. Prices are from pounds 633 for each of six.
The Red School House near Stockbridge has been restored to its original l9th century design, and overlooks the village green and orchards, where deer scrump apples in autumn - the price is pounds 603 a fortnight for each of seven.
The House on Lake Raponda is on its own little island and sandy beach, a landing stage, canoe and sailing boat. Sleeping six, it costs pounds 678 per person per fortnight. All prices include flights, car hire, insurance and hotel stopover in Boston.
New England Country Homes 01328 856660
A mecca for action-mad families, South Carolina's Hilton Head Island has golf courses, biking trails, sailing, windsurfing, paragliding, horseback rides through old oak and pine forests, and 12 miles of white sand beaches. Castaways offer houses and villas, all lavishly equipped American style, at Sea Pine's Plantation, with reduced green fees and preferred tee-times on its three golf courses plus a busy children's activity programme.
Perhaps the biggest bonus, Hilton Head is on the doorstep of Gone with the Wind cities of Savannah and Charleston, epitomising the deep south with their cobbled streets and colonial mansions.
A two week holiday for a family of two adults and two children under 12 in a two bed, two berth house costs pounds 3,266 for 2 weeks, flights included. Car hire an extra pounds 280.
Castaways 01737 812255
Any golfer who wins the lottery might like to know about the Oropesa Country House in Spanish Castille which could sleep up to 16 of his cronies and which has its own nine-hole golf course - as well as riding stable, pool, walled garden with chapel and cloister, and collection of 17th and 18th century paintings. Among the staff; resident cook, butler, greenkeeper and his assistant. A week's rental to cover all this (and the buggies of course) is pounds l7,000.
CV Travel 0171 581 0851
"They're the sort of place Ab Fab would have killed for," says International Chapters about two properties they offer among the palm groves of Marrakesh, 20 minutes from the city.
The houses, Nakhil and Quardaia, sleep eight and 12 respectively. Built in traditional style, with arched and domed interiors, the villas have heated pools and tennis courts, all meals and wine are provided by the resident staff (unless you get the urge to do your own cooking), and it is possible to have an English nanny, house-manager, a masseur of course, and a guide, as well as a minibus and driver included in the price of pounds 9,600 per week for the smaller, pounds l3,125 for the larger.
International Chapters 0171 722 9560 !