A TRAVELLER'S CALENDAR DECEMBER

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The Independent Culture
As the traveller's year turns full circle, it's summer in the southern hemisphere; those sunseekers who can afford the high fares will flock to South Africa and Australia, while adventure-seekers and trekkers head for Africa and India. Package holiday companies offer turkey and tinsel - at a price - just about anywhere in the world for those who really want to get away, but there are other options in December.

By mid-month prices almost everywhere have rocketed, so those who want to do Christmas shopping in exciting centres should head early in the month for destinations like Manhattan, with its frenzy of roller-blading Santas, ice skating at Rockefeller Plaza, chestnut stalls and crowds lining the pavements just for a glimpse of the windows of FAO Schwartz. Best buys are toys, clothes, towels, sheets and crazy stocking fillers.

In Hong Kong in December, the stalls at Stanley Market overflow with leisurewear, silks and shoes; Nathan Road specialises in jade (or fishbone!), Chinese emporiums are stuffed with porcelain and antiques, and Kowloon's Harbour City and Tsim Tsa Tsui are treasure troves of videos, cameras and other electronic marvels. (Look out for the unfortunately named Red Junk logo as proof of authorised dealers, and get a free copy of the Hong Kong Tourist Board's Shopping Guide to Consumer Electronics (0171- 930 4775) to check frequencies and voltages.)

For seasonal flavour closer to home, Germany's Christmas markets specialise in hand-carved toys and tree decorations. The largest is in Stuttgart, but there are other daily markets in Nuremberg and Munich. The Christ- kindlmarkt village in Rothenburg offers 70,000 extraordinary items, from music boxes for pounds 19,000 to a three metre-long nutcracker for pounds 1,500. The town itself seems to be part of the fairytale, with its exuberant wrought- iron signs, cobbled alleys and steeply gabled roofs.

In Vienna, Christmas lasts the month, and preparations for the next year begin in January. The Austrian capital's Advent markets, a 700-year- old tradition, actually start at the end of November. If you only have the time or inclination for one of them, take the tram to the Rathaus (Town Hall) Square, where the trees are ablaze with hundreds of lanterns. More than 150 stalls are heaped with Christmas baubles and coloured candles, competing for trade with almost as many booths selling hot Gluhwein and punch, sausages, apple strudel and baked potatoes.

Inside the Town Hall, local choir schools belt out carols. To allow parents to go shopping, younger children join in Christmas craft workshops, decorating candles and cards, even cooking seasonal cakes under efficient and safe supervision. Carvings and crafts are also on sale at the Spittelberg and Freyung markets, and there are brass bands and stalls galore outside the Habsburg's elegant Schonbrunn Palace.

Traditional hand-carved wooden cribs are displayed in the crypt of St Peter's Church, or you can take a breather from the festivities at free organ recitals in St Michael's. New Year's Eve is the start of the Ball Season. On a two-kilometre New Year's Eve Trail, you can enjoy music and dancing in three of Vienna's Squares - the Waltz Festival on the Neuer Markt; evergreens from the Fifties and Sixties at Hoher Markt; soul, rap and rock at Platz am Hof. The climax of the year is the Imperial Ball at the Opera House - all white ties and long dresses - when revellers waltz their way into 1997. That's when the holiday calendar starts all over again.

BOOKING INFORMATION

Christmas shopping: return flights to New York pounds 190, Hong Kong pounds 483, Munich pounds 138, all STA (0171-361 6262 worldwide, 0171-361 6161 Europe).

Vienna: flights from pounds 149 return from STA Europe (number above). Moswin Tours (0116 271 9922) arranges inclusive trips to Vienna and its Christmas markets. The Austrian Tourist Office (0171-629 0461) has leaflets on Christmas and New Year in Vienna. The useful Vienna Card, costing AS180 (pounds 12), provides free travel on Vienna's network of undergrounds, trams and buses for 72 hours, with discounts at museums, some shops and restaurants.

FOOTNOTE: for independent travellers, we have quoted STA flights only. Campus Travel (0171-730 2101) and Trailfinders (0171-938 3366) have similarly wide selections. Prices for the latter end of 1996 have not yet been finalised. For charter flights and package holidays, we have given sample prices only; not necessarily the lowest. Check with travel agents to see what is available from other airlines and operators.

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