A TRAVELLER'S CALENDAR

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The Independent Culture
It's midsummer in Australia; in the Caribbean, clear blue skies, crystal waters and winnowing sea breezes mark the arrival of high season. Whatever the time of year, there's a destination somewhere that is at its best; and a handful to avoid. But how do you know in which months the monsoon rains lash the palms of southern India; or when the olive groves of Mani in Greece are a tapestry of flowers? Does your holiday fall when Vermont's trees are ablaze with autumn colour, or when the streets of Venice come alive to the sound of carnival? In these pages, we offer a month-by-month guide to the seasons, events, and price incentives that make up the holiday year. If you can only snatch a week in October, between the boss's family bun-fight in the Dordogne and a colleague's pencilled- in paternity leave, we tell you where to go. Writers, including Blake Morrison and Helen Fielding, recount their own experiences at particular times of year. Whether your special dream is a deserted island, a dusty safari or shopping in Manhattan, all you will need is time, money, and this guide.

A TRAVELLER'S CALENDAR

JANUARY

Our month-by-month guide to the world's hot spots begins in

Britain's bleak midwinter, when the Caribbean and Africa beckon

WITH winter well entrenched in Britain, the lure of southern climes is strong in January. The West Indies, East Africa or the Indian Ocean islands enjoy certain sun at a time when some Far East destinations are fickle and the Mediter-ranean simply sulky. It is also the month for ski bargains, between the Christmas rush and the half-term holiday, with the snow lying deep and crisp in most Alpine resorts.

January means peak season and clear blue skies in the Caribbean, where the larger islands and smart hotels are playing host to the wealthy crowd - a reason, perhaps, to escape to lesser-known and more laid-back haunts such as the boat-building island of Bequia, with its jumble of little hotels and bars along the waterfront, or undeveloped Canouan and Mayreau, and even dozier Carriacou.

Would-be Robinson Crusoes - albeit with a little more money - can head for Young Island, linked by an African Queen-style ferry to strange, brooding St Vincent, or venture to the 113-acre Petit St Vincent, where there's just one hotel of 23 scattered cottages. If you hoist a red flag on your cottage bamboo pole it means "Leave us alone"; another signifies emergencies such as: "We are running out of rum".

Then there are the American and British Virgin Islands, the former glittering and often flash, the latter (you guessed) slow-paced and about as slick as a cricket match on a village green. Interestingly, most Americans prefer the British version, while most British holidaymakers have yet to visit either. Virgin Gorda is most British - about eight square miles of fields with placid cows, a marina where yachties head on Saturday nights, plus a few relaxed hotels.

For cheaper and really sizzling sunshine, the Gambia - back on the holiday map after a spell of political unrest - is hotter and dryer than even the Caribbean or Kenya, with 90F daily average temperatures. Low humidity and Atlantic breezes keep its 30 miles of sandy beaches comfortable. Though low on sophistication and sightseeing, the Gambia's bush and river trips offer a colourful antidote to its packaged beach/hotel culture.

From January through to the April rains, animals seeking waterholes provide magical viewing on safaris, which range from bush walking expeditions in the wilds of Zimbabwe to three-day minibus treks in the Tsavo and Amboseli National Parks in Kenya. To add a touch of sea and sand to their winter sun, visitors often include a visit to the island of Lamu just off Kenya's east coast. Once a centre for rich dhow traders and beloved of Sixties hippies, Lamu is still a time-warp of Arabic-Swahili culture.

Back in Europe, when the schools go back it's bargain time for budget skiing - though cold, dark days and morning ice can shorten your hours on the pistes. This does, however, lengthen the apres ski and the long nights of fun and frolics.

Exchange rates have sent costs soaring in Austria, France and Switzerland, but tax-free Andorra can provide cheap and cheerful skiing for beginners and families at Arinsal and Soldeu, with more challenging runs in the modern Pas de la Casa. It's a similar duty-free story in lively Livigno in Italy, though skiers face a four-hour coach drive from the airport.

The nightlife and apres ski are somewhat quieter in Bulgaria, where the old, established Borovetz and newer Pamporovo are the main ski resorts. Now is the time to go; you can expect all ski prices to rise steeply in February.

BOOKING INFORMATION

Caribbean: inclusive holidays to smaller islands from Elegant Resorts (01244 897999), Carib- tours (0171-581 3517) and Kuoni (01306 742222). Sample price: seven nights full-board Canouan pounds 1,220; 14 nights Virgin Island-hopping (some meals included) approximately pounds 1,500 from Kuoni.

Gambia: flights-only return fare pounds 249 throughout January; one-week b&b package from pounds 300 per person, both from The Gambia Experience (01703 730888).

Kenya: one-week safari, plus one-week beach package from pounds 839 half-board from Thomson Holidays (0171-707 9000).

Skiing: self-catering in Andorra, seven nights pounds 180 from Panorama Holidays (01273 206531); a week half-board in Borovetz, Bulgaria pounds 230 from Crystal Holidays (0181-399 5144); a week self-catering in Livigno, Italy, approximately pounds 198 from Thomson (0171-707 9000).

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