Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN A RECENT novel, the Spanish writer Jose Sarmago imagined that the entire Iberian peninsula snapped off at the neck and drifted into the open sea. If this should happen, the Asturias, on their far north coast, might be the most homesick of all, but also the most resilient.

The Asturias once included Galicia and Leon, but today would wish to do neither. They now form an autonomous region with its own language, Babel: 4,079 square miles of mountain and plain lapped by the Cantabrian sea.

The Asturias' geography has been their history. During the Moorish invasions AD711, the Visigoth Christian king of Spain was killed, and the armies of the Viceroy of the Caliph of Damascus overran most of the country. The last Visigoths held out behind the Cantabrian mountains, through which there were, at the best of times, few passes - and in winter, none.

The Asturias region comprises a coastal plain - a 25-mile strip of the Costa Verde, the Green Coast - and the Cantabrian mountains behind. It is divided into east and west by the Cabo de Penas, which juts out into the Cantabrian Sea north-west of Gijon. To the east it ends at San Vincentre de la Barquera, but a better place for a first stop is Llanes.

En Llanes naci/Ay, madre/Morir no quiero/Si en Llanes naci/Naci en el cielo. I was born in Llanes/Ah, mother/I don't want to die/If I was born in Llanes/I've already been born in heaven. This verse might be appropriated by many towns in Spain, but Llanes is much loved by its inhabitants, who agree it has all you could want - a brilliant sea, linked to the heart of the town by a canal, wild flowers, a few wisps of cloud in the high sheep walks, ancient ruined senorial mansion, and placid fields of maize stretching towards soaring mountains. Within easy reach are 30 or more beaches, some almost too small to count, all with silvery sand.

Salmoreda is only 20 metres long. Cobijero has a natural stone bridge created by wind and sea, and the information office suggests you go there, not for the bathing, but for contemplation. At Cuevas del Mar at low tide, watery caves are reveal-ed, and you can swim out past the azure reflections and look back to see the mountains against the sky. The bar here is not much more than a hut, but it has an immense orchard with tables under the apple trees.

The town itself, with its bars and cinemas, is alegre, yet as businesslike as it has been since the 12th century, and it may be on the verge of being caught out by its own virtues. People have had 800 years or so to notice it, but they seem to have done so only very recently, when the number of visitors - mostly Spanish, from the south - has increased almost to the point of gridlock.

On 16 August, however, traffic is banned from the centre of Llanes and the streets winding up to the beautiful church of Sta Maria in the plaza de Christo Rey. The streets bristle with banners or standards made of woven straw; they are deck-ed out with flowers and loaves. This is the festival of San Roque, the plague saint to whom most towns in medieval Europe had reason to be grateful. After many miracles of healing he caught the infection and was rescued from his cave by a dog, which wasn't really his , but which his image-makers have appropriated.

For San Roque, everyone is in costume, in the vestido dominqueiro, Sunday best, made in wool and linen and donned to be admired. Every variation has its meaning, but almost universal are the men's white shirts and the women's short jackets, braided with black on brown and sometimes decorated in thick cutwork with a pattern of oak leaves.

In the little squares on the way up to the Sta Maria there are chingres, or cider places, where sharp cider is poured from a height to get some sparkle into it. The drummers and bagpipers halt there to play dance tunes, while babies sleep on, unperturbed. Under their gleaming nylon coverlets they too are in costume. One of them, on my visit, sported a tiny brown bowler hat, the old costume of the mountain cowherds.

At Nueva, a small market town seven kilometres to the west, I joined another celebration. Whereas at Llanes everything was in the hands of immensely enthusiastic but semi-official organisations of Asturian folklore, the arrastre at Nueva was got up by the local smallholders. Arrastre means dragging, and this was a sporting version of necessary farm work, clearing the summer pastures of stones. There were no seats, but a cider tent belonging to the bank had been pitched in the corner of a field. The wild-looking little horses, who had been stuffing themselves on maize all day and were frantically whinnying at each other across the audience of drinkers, were to compete in drawing large blocks of concrete, fastened to traces, like old garden rollers. Eachin turn started off gallantly, confident in his ragged strength, but stopped, breathless, halfway up the field. The onlookers were sympathetic - "Let him rest, let him recover!" - but time as well as speed counted for the prize.

If , however, the region's geography is its history, it is also its very particular climate. It began to rain, and English rain hardly prepares you for a drenching in the Asturias. As always, there were "infallible" signs. The locals look to the mountains and declare: Nube en el Cuera, tres dias espera - if there are clouds on the Cueras you can expect three days of rain. Yet the rain seems to come from nowhere. Sometimes the silver-edged thunderheads build up, sometimes the whole sky gleams and darkens; sometimes a handful of rain catches you like a slap in the face.

At the market at Nueva the next Friday, the fishmonger was preparing the striped tunny that had just come into season, when torrents began to batter down out of a clear sky. The half-drowned customers would not give up, as the fishmonger and his sons strove to load their wares back into their truck, spilling baby eels and spider crabs, which set off on a perilous journey through Nueva's clear-running gutters.

The rain is, of course, the reason for the Costa Verde's emerald grass and splendid trees (although blue gum is beginning to replace the sweet chestnuts on the foothills). When we got back to our rented farmhouse near Nueva, we could pick our own blackberries, apples and pears in the heurta, but there were also figs, oranges and lemons and bushes of fragrant pink datura. By day, cow-bells tinkled from the pastures. At night, cicadas sang. "Ours is a micro-climate," the refuse collector told me one morning with great pride. "There is nothing quite like this in Galicia."

If you are going to explore the mountains, to spot wild flowers, birds and small mammals (not brown bears; there are said to be only 60 left), you will need expert advice about the Picos d'Europa. Fishing licences for the trout streams, and maps, can be had from the Feder-ation Asturiana de Montanismo in Oviedo. The Picos, which have been described as "corkscrews of rock and snow", rise to 8,500 feet. To get a sense of them, it is well worth driving inland through Potes and Espinama to Fuente De, which is open only from April to October, and is not a village but the lower station of the cable car. There you will have perhaps an hour's wait, which you can spend outside the restaurant, eating potato omelettes and gazing at the stupendous mountain views, or sitting in a field of wild flowers. Then the teleferico will bear you up 800 metres of ferocious cliff to the Balcon del Cable, where you won't, I hope, when you get out into the saw-toothed wind, find you have forgotten to bring your second pullover.

After the Picos you need oruja, schnapps made with grape skins. You can also try pigs' trotters with turnip leaves, patatas bravas (potatoes roasted with garlic), pollack with three sauces and lemon, fabada, the Asturians' mighty bean stew, or one of their numerous cheeses, none for export. The fabada, however, al-though delicious, is controversial. Haricot beans and tomatoes have no part in it, since both were introduced after the Conquista. Dried broad beans, pork belly, chorizo, onions, garlic, yes, but what else? Quite recently the celebrated cook, Rosa Moran, from the restaurant Casa Moran in Puentenuevo, has revealed a new ingredient - a combination, she says, of tradition and long practice: the pantruque. This has parsley in it, and bacon, and it is a round mass. But I know no more than that, and I can only recommend serious visitors to Eastern Asturias to enquire at the Casa Moran.

! Getting there: Brittany Ferries' (0705 827701) Portsmouth-Santander service takes 30 hours. Two people with car and cabin pay £434 return. P&O European Ferries' (0304 203388) Portsmouth-Bilbao service takes 34 hours: two people plus car and cabin, £441return. Iberia (0171-830 0011) flies to Santander via Madrid for £180 return. Staying there: The Spanish Tourist Office, 57-58

St James Street, London SW1A 1LD (0171-499 0901) will provide lists of accommodation.

MOUNTAIN EXCITEMENT ACTIVITY WEEKS Holidaymakers can try a whole range of mountain pursuits - abseiling, canoe-ing, caving, orienteering, mountain biking, climbing - under expert supervision, on the YHA's multi-activity weeks or weekends based at its Activity Centres in Edale in the Peak District and Llangollen in Snowdonia. There are special breaks for the 12-15 age group, or the over-30s. A week's break combining orienteering, walking and canoeing costs £255 including all meals and member-ship of the YHA worth £9. A week's mountain walking costs £199.

YHA: 01727 845047

PEAK EXPERIENCE Trekking up and around Everest has become quite unremarkable, but with 20 years' experience in Himalayan holidays, Sherpa Expeditions offers a variety of different mountain routes graded to all ages and abilities. The Kanchenjunga trek, areally off-the-beaten-track experience, visits the partially restricted region round the Arun Valley before reaching the base of the world's third-highest peak, and also offers spectacular views of the "top four" - Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kanchenjunga. The trip costs £1,879, inclusive of flights, hotels in Kathmandu, camping while trekking, and all meals, vehicles and porter support.

Sherpa Expeditions: 0181-577 2717

HEIDI HI! Self-catering holidays in traditional Swiss Alpine farmhouses in the Goms Valley, just under the Rhone glacier, offer a chance to join in the daily working life of small farming communities in the mountains for those who will appreciate the rhythm of rural life. This is good walking, too - the mountain passes of Nufenen and Furka, and the Aletsch and Rhone glaciers are within reach. The cost of the Chalet Enzian, sleeping eight, next to the local cheese and milk shop in the hamlet of Gluringen, is £223-£271 a week each for a minimum of two adults, with £32 per week for each extra adult. Children under 14 stay free. The price includes ferry fares for car and passengers.

Inntravel: 01653 628862

UNDER THE VOLCANO This holiday, based on Sicily and the Aeolian Islands, entails climbing three living volcanoes - Vulcano, 1,230 feet; Stromboli, 3,038 feet; and Etna, 11,121 feet - with time for relaxation and touring in between. You fly to Catania on the Sicilian mainland, spend one night under canvas on the crater rim of Stromboli, which constantly rumbles and bel-ches out fumes, while the climbing of Etna is achieved partly in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, partly on foot past ice caves and craters. Half board at hotels, and all meals during climbs are provided. Prices from £599.

Explore Worldwide: 01252 319448

WALK ON THE WILD SIDE A wild and less visited mountain range in the south of France, the Cevennes lie between the Pyrenees and the Alps. This seven-day walking holiday is an introduction to a variety of scenery: rural farmland, oak and beech forests and lonely limestone plateaux intersected by deep gorges. Accommodation is on sites for seven nights, and in the refuge for one night. The price is from £470 including flights and accommodation, plus £120 for meals. There is vehicle support and experienced escort. A longer t rek, with 10 days' walking and five days' light back-packing, the Pindos Peaks and Villages holiday covers the more inaccessible part of Northern Greece in one of Europe's least-known areas.

Accommodation is two nights in hotels, 10 in tavernas and two in mountain huts, from £560 per person, plus £105 meal package. Groups are of eight to 16

people, flights to Corfu.

Exodus Travel: 0181-673 0859

MAGICAL CORSICA For many holidaymakers, Corsica's magical, mountainous interior far outstrips its coast - like many islanders, the Corsicans are mountain people, preferring to retreat into strongholds away from pirate raiders - so its ancient settlementsare usually inland. The forests of pine and chestnut, the mountain streams and pools, provide a lovely setting for walking trips and exploration. Simply Corsica organises them for independent holidaymakers, based in mountain inns. One of these, the simple, stone-built coaching inn and local meeting place, the Hotel de la Poste at Aullene, is still run by the Benedetti family who built it in the last century. The firm will organise a guide for walks or drives in the area, and the Benedetti's son , Felix, will deliver or collect guests on their walks, which can vary from a stroll around the farms to admire 500-year-old chestnut trees, to a challenging hike up Mount Incudine (2,136 metres). Cost £476-£547 a week, half board, and including flights and carhire.

Simply Corsica: 0181-747 3580

HOLIDAY HIGH POINTS Among an awesome choice of 20,000 holiday homes for rent all over Europe, Interhome has a fascinating range of mountain properties for independent travellers. Chalets at the foot of the Kaiser mountains in Austria sleep up to six; a house for eight near Gstaad has a heated pool and a tennis court. There are brochures for Greece, Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Great Britain, plus some interesting retreats in Eastern Europe. There's a chalet sleeping 12 in Niedzwiedz in the Gorcach Mountains in Poland; apartments and houses sleeping up to four near one of the lofty Krkonose mountains in the Czech Republic. Prices from £54 for an apartment in Poland, to £4,000 for a chateau with pool. Special prices and bookings on ferry and LeShuttle can be arranged for those staying at least five nights.

Interhome: 0181-891 1294

HUT SPOTS A worldwide network of mountain huts and refuges welcomes walkers, in some cases with meals and overnight accommodation, probably in mixed dormitories. Waymark Holidays offer mountain hut tours, graded according to the effort and ability demanded: a 14-n ight grade-three walk (about six hours' walking a day) in Romania's Transylvanian Alps costs £675, with Bran, legendary haunt of Count Dracula, on the itinerary. A slightly more difficult (grade-four) walk along the paths and mule tracks in the White Mou ntains of Crete also costs £675. An exotic but easier grade-two journey in the Andes takes in the vast wilderness of Patagonia and Chile's Tierra del Fuego, £2,295. Flights and most meals are included.

Waymark: 01753 516477

CAMP IN THE ROCKIES If I wanted a holiday in the USA, away from the summer fleshpots, I would choose to meander through the Rockies, seeking out the great open spaces with never another car in sight, national parks of outstanding beauty, and those small rural townships with their churches proudly advertised on hoardings. Colorado is marvellous, so is Montana. The lesser-known Dakotas have their share of interest - great canyons and sylvan lakes - as do the Custer National Park, with its high buffalo herd, and the Badlands, a moonscape of barren nothingness. Then you're in the backcloth of a Hollywood Western, all corrals with doors marked "wranglers", and posters advertising rodeos. When you ride into towns such as Keystone or Deadwood, you expect to find Potato Creek Johnny offering a peek at his gold nugget for a few cents. I would choose to travel in one of those luxury motorhomes, which are rather better fitted than many British hotels, and pull into a campsite, playing at being a pioneer. American campsites (in most national parks and forests) are a revelation, spacious and well equipped. A motorhome package with 25ft camper sleeping five costs £368-£612 a week. The 31ft de luxe version, sleeping six, costs £448-£664 per week. Flights can also be arranged.

Funway: 0181-466 0222

ON THE BEACH BALEARIC BLISS The finest sandy beaches in the Mediterranean are on the sandy spit of Levant and Illetas, on the little Balearic island of Formentera, an hour by ferry from Ibiza. They can be reached only by boat or by cycle along tracks among the dunes. Quite unlike the other Balearics, Formentera is mainly wild, with a curiously haunting, flat landscape of lagoons, saltpans, drystone walls and an endearingly scruffy capital, San Francisco Xavier.

Most visitors book accommodation when they arrive at the little port of la Sabinea. Individual Travellers Spain has cottages for four, priced at £774-£1,330 per week, travel not included.

Individual Travellers Spain: 01798 869485

FANTASY ISLAND Frazer Island, off the east coast of Australia near Brisbane, is the world's largest sand island, nearly 75 miles long and nine miles wide. It has abundant wildlife, lakes, streams and rain forests; it attracts the young and adventurous who take the bus from Brisbane to Hervey Bay and hire four-wheel-drive vehicles for a couple of days' camping. Life can be primitive, as no soaps or other substances are allowed to pollute the environment.

Flights to Brisbane with Japan Airlines cost from £572, or £550 with Olympic to Sydney. These may be booked from long-haul specialists Trailfinders, who also organise treks, boat trips to the Barrier Reef and accommodation.

Trailfinders: 0171-938 3366

TO THE NORTH Northumbria boasts superb beaches all the way up to the Scottish border. If the waves pounding the huge sweeps of sand are daunting, the coastal scenery is magnificent, with a clutch of castles to explore: Bamburgh dominates for miles; Dunstanburgh's gho stly ruins rise out of the sea mist.

You can take bouncy fishing boats to view seals, nesting puffins, and most of the wheeling, screaming seabird population of the Farne Island. At low tide you can drive across a causeway to Lindisfarne Abbey, you can tramp over lonely moors, scramble along Hadrian's Wall or go pony-trekking.

For self-caterers, the National Trust has three charming but very simple properties, a farm cottage, a coastguard's and a lighthouse cottage, sleeping four to seven, for £125-£456 a week.

National Trust Holiday Cottages: 01225 791199

GUESTS ON GOA Guesthouses make a welcome and cheap alternative to the impersonal hotels that are beginning to form a concrete fringe along Goa's lovely beaches. Inspirations offers 15 of them, all simple, clean, with private shower and loo, most of them within 15 minutes' walk of the beach.

The Coqueiral Holiday Home Guest House, with its colonial Portuguese architecture, is a typical example: a stroll through its shady gardens, and you're on Candolim beach. There are restaurants serving prawns and fish in coconuts, and meals from under £3 within a few minutes' walk. Prices are from £389 a week, £429 for two weeks b&b, including flights.

Inspirations: 01293 822244

SMALL AND INFORMAL A collection of beach holidays in Thomson's "Small and Friendly" brochure will appeal to seasoned independent travellers who are happy to share their holiday hotels with locals, and to make their own entertainment. They offer over 100 small, family-run p roperties, with prices from £149 a week at Tossa in Spain, flights included. New resorts this year: Mojacar and Sitges in Spain, Arilas on Corfu, Elounda on Crete, Kephallos on Kos, and Praiano and Maiori in Italy.

The family who own and run the thoroughly traditional Miramar on the seafront of Majorca's Puerto Pollensa (£257-£351 a week b&b) used to put up British families on their way to and from India, when the flying boats landed in the bay.

Thomson Holidays: 0171-707 9000

DANISH DELIGHTS The breezy beaches at Denmark's northern extremity, where the Baltic meets the North Sea, are magnificent. They are so vast that there is ample room for cars to drive along them, cyclists to pedal for miles right at the water's edge, and sport enthusiasts to mark out tennis courts and football pitches.

North Jutland attracts painters who come for the quality of light, writers seeking tranquillity, and families in pursuit of the open air, seaside life.

Most British holidaymakers bring their own cars, arriving on packages that neatly combine the sea crossing from Harwich to Esbjerg with accommodation at a choice of small self-catering villages, farms or country chalets. An eight-night holiday with two nights on the ship costs £160-£340 per person, fare for car and passengers included.

Scandinavian Seaways: 01255 241 234

RETURN TO CROATIA Sand is in short supply on the Istrian beaches of Croatia - bathing is from a mix of pebbles, shingle, rocks and pontoons, but there must be few who would not welcome the return to resorts in former Yugoslavia, always so popular with British holidaymakers.

Inspirations, the first major tour operator to launch a programme to Croatia, includes eight resorts - Porec and Pula, Rabac and Rovinj, Vrsar, Novigrad, Opatija and Lovran.

Accommodation, in a range of hotels from one to four stars, and in self-catering apartments, is cheap: a very basic modern apartment in Pula costs £169-£299 per person for one week, £194-£354 for two weeks, including air fares. Naturist camps are popularand are offered in Vrsar and Rovinj.

Inspirations: 01293 822244

UNDISCOVERED ALGARVE The Algarve has some of the best beaches in Europe, but they are increasingly crowded. Around Burgau, six miles west of Lagos, however, they are often deserted, even in midsummer, and the place still has the traditional fishing village atmosphere, with c obbled streets, sardines sizzling on outdoor barbecues, and pots of trailing geraniums.

The Travel Club of Upminster's new Vistamar apartments can sleep four people and are built around their own swimming pool and bar. The village has a number of restaurants and bars, a sports centre with tennis and squash court, and is an excellent base for bird watching. One week costs from £274 per person, two weeks from £358.

Travel Club of Upminster: 01708 225 000

CRETE SIMPLICITY Every year I expect to hear that a road has been built into the little fishing village of Loutro, hidden away in its sheltered bay on Crete's southern coast, but happily there are still no cars, no nightlife, no organised tourism and it can still only be reached by a 20-minute boat journey or longish cliff walk.

The beach is shingle, but the waters, the rocky coves and bays nearby, to which you can paddle by hired canoe, are everything that Greece used to be.

Simply Crete's accommodation is in the Blue House, a traditional family house at the water's edge, modestly furnished but with wooden balconies overlooking the bay. The cost of £377-£439 for a week, £413-£504 for two weeks, includes flights, accommodation (room only, twin sharing) and boat transfer.

Simply Crete: 0181-994 4462

GILLI GETAWAY Travellers make for Indonesia's Gilli Islands to escape the hassle from increasing development in Lombok. The islands lay claim to the best beaches, snorkelling and scuba diving this side of the Barrier Reef. You live in the style of Robinson Crusoe, with no electricity, in bamboo huts at the water's edge (£5, with some meals).

Flights to Bali cost from £507, from where ferries and hydrofoils leave for Lombok. The boat charters from Lombok to the Gilli Isles costs about £8.

STA Worldwide: 0171-937 9962

HEALTH AND BEAUTY BREAKS There are hundreds of health and fitness packages, spas, thermal and thalassotherapy centres in specialist Erna Low's Spas Worldwide brochure. They range from the relatively inexpensive thermal mud spas of Hungary and other central and eastern European countries, to the high-gloss health centres of the French Riviera and Florida. Details of spas in Japan, Mexico, Turkey and Iceland are also included.

A half-board package to Trencianske Teplice in Slovakia, which includes thermal baths, massages, underwater massage, electrotherapy and acupuncture, costs £322, with air travel costing about £265.

At Safety Harbour in Florida, an eight-day fitness plan with medical screening, unlimited excercise classes, hydrotherapy and mud baths, plus tennis and golf, costs from £1,802, with air fares another £350.

Erna Low Consultants: 0171- 584 2841

DIPPING WITH THE DOLPHINS Swimming with these inquisitive, playful creatures is, say devotees, one of the most stimulating therapeutic experiences. Many dolphins are gregarious and attach themselves to a human playmate, diving and gliding for hours.

Discover the World's holiday meets the dolphins off the coast of the Bahamas, where the water is warm and clear, ideal for snorkelling and underwater photography. Spotted, bottlenose and rough-nosed dolphins, as well as endless species of fish, and short-finned and sperm whales, swim off these shores.

Accommodation is on board a 70ft schooner, with zodiac inflatables for trips ashore. These eight-day trips cost from £1,529 including flight from London. A two-day appetiser "dolphin watch" from a 50ft catamaran off Gibraltar, with accommodation and flights, costs £313.

Discover the World: 016977 48361

RELAXING, REVITALISING The aim of the Skyros Institute operation to the island of Skyros in the Sporades is to send you home relaxed and revitalised in mind, body and spirit.

There are two branches - at the seaside centre at Atsitsa guests choose courses from a variety of activities, including yoga, dance, windsurfing, t'ai chi and massage, with time for sunbathing and relaxing. Accommodation is in bamboo huts among the pines.

Skyros Village Community concentrates on courses in personal development and relationships, guided by an international team of therapists. Guests live in rooms in the village.

Prices £400-£700 per two weeks, including course fees, accommodation and food, but not travel.

Skyros Institute: 0171-267 4424

SPORTING CHANCE At St Lucia's Le Sport Hotel, the spa facilities with massage, sauna, Turkish baths and other health and beauty and rejuvenation treatments are all included in the cost of the holiday, as well as all meals and wine (the food is described as cuisine legere). The hotel and beach are in a secluded bay on the Cap Estate near Rodney Bay. Cost £1,174 a week all-inclusive, with discounted offers plus a free child place on some longer holidays.

Kuoni: 01306 7402222

IN RETREAT Across Europe, 300 retreats open their doors to guests seeking peaceful surroundings and a brief sanctuary from the modern world. They include Christian monasteries, abbeys and convents, Buddhist temples and a New Age centre for contemporary Shamanism.

Some retreats concentrate on prayer and meditation; others combine spiritual guidance with a physical activity such as yoga, music and dance, icon painting or gardening.

The retreats, with descriptions and prices, are listed in the Good Retreat Guide, by Stafford Whiteaker. Most are in Britain, but there are useful sections on Ireland, France and Spain. The revised Good Retreat Guide (Rider Books) costs £11.99.

EBU Press: 01279 427203

SALT OF THE EARTH The Dead Sea is at the lowest point on earth and has the most mineral-rich, saltiest water in the world. To float in it is an eery sensation - it's also stress-relieving and healthy. Black Dead Sea mud has been famous for centuries for its cosmetic and medicinal properties. Hotels on the shores offer a great variety of medical treatment, health, beauty care and anti-stress packages.

There is some great sightseeing nearby, including the Fortress of Masada, the Red Sea, Sinai and even Jerusalem.

Red Sea Holidays offer several hotel packages: a week's half-board at the Lot Hotel, for example, costs £470-£790 including flights. Health and beauty treatments based on individual requirements are extra.

Red Sea Holidays: 0181-892 7606

NATURAL BREAK Good for the soul and good for the countryside: holidays organised by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) afford opportunities for willing helpers to tackle environmental projects all over the UK. Tasks listed in their "Natural Breaks" brochure include coppicing in Nottinghamshire, hedgerow management in Wiltshire, and restoring derelict mine engine houses in Cornwall. Groups of volunteers (minimum age 16) live quite basically in camps, field centres, even village halls, and everyone mucks in. A contribution for board and lodging of £28 a week, £12 a weekend, is expected.

BTCV: 01491 839766

GOING WALKABOUT Get-away-from-it-all walking by day, with creature comforts every night, is the philsophy behind Headwater Holidays' "Great Walks of Europe" programme. There's a choice of independent or guided walks with an English-speaking guide: gentleor challenging routes, all planned to be as far as possible from mass tourism. These are not hair-shirt trips, however: there is no need to carry large rucksacks as luggage is transported from place to place, and good eating is a priority.

As a sample price, a 10-night half-board holiday, walking along the route Napoleon took through the French Alps, costs £388, based on 4-5 people travelling in a self-drive car and including ferry fares, luggage transport, maps and walking plans; £589 by air or Eurostar.

Headwater Holidays: 01606 48699

HIMALAYAN HEAVEN There's a sense of peace and tranquillity among the Himalayan communities that can influence western visitors for life. To preserve its way of life, however, the monarchy of Bhutan restricts numbers of tourists entering its profoundly traditional and religious society. Worldwide Journeys organise several treks there, visiting hidden villages of the semi-nomadic families. A two-week trek, including flights, costs from £2,665.

The firm also run treks to Ladakh (£1,665), with visits to Buddhist monasteries. On another Ladakh tour with Alastair Sawdays Journeys, in conjunction with the Ladakh self-help project, visitors stay in local houses,visit monasteries and have meditation sessions with the monks.

Worldwide Journeys: 0171-381 8638.

Alastair Sawdays Journeys: 0117 9299921

HOT PURSUIT The variety of India's cooking is highlighted on Cox & Kings' new 16-day "Culinary Feast" tour, which begins in Delhi, where the Mughals developed the cuisine. The tour moves on to Lucknow, whose Avadh rulers liked their food rich and nutritious, and spe nt fortunes in the preparation of their dishes.

In Calcutta, holidaymakers sample Bengali cooking before travelling to Hyderabad, where over 40 types of byriani are available. Visits to spice markets, cookery demonstrations and sightseeing are all part of the tour, which ends with three days on the beach at Goa. Price from £2,495 for half-board, including flights.

Cox & Kings: 0171-873 5000