OUT OF THE BLUE

THE RAINFOREST-CLAD SOLOMONS ARE ISLANDS OF RARE, AFFECTING BEAUTY WHER E THE WELCOME IS AS WARM AS THE DEEP CORAL SEA
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FOR THE third time, the six-seater aeroplane climbed thousands of feet above the Marovo lagoon, a vast enclosed coral sea on the east coast of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands, then swooped to just a few hundred feet before pulling sharply out of the dive. Down below, the lagoon's shining blue waters, white-sanded shallows and rainforest-clad islands beckoned with a surreal beauty, compensation perhaps for a growing anxiety among the passengers: the hydraulics had failed to do their job, and t he right wheel of the twin-engined Islander was hanging limply off the wing.

Third time lucky. The wheel swung forward and locked into place with a reassuring clunk. Then, coming in to land at Batuna's narrow runway, an unexpected wind abrubtly threw the plane tens of feet up, down and from side to side. Narrowly missing the treetops, we pulled sharply up and carried on across the island to the next stop.

As we soared above the greenery I mused on the folly that had brought me to these far-flung islands. It was a desire born of an English winter for a tropical South Seas paradise where air and sea are always warm, succulent sun-drenched fruits drip off the trees, time is slow and everyone smiles.

On the waterfront at Munda, 50 yards from the massive wartime airfield where we had finally landed, I found a hotel, the Agnes Lodge, complete with dive shop. Before long I was booked in for a scuba- diving course in the world's warmest sea and, I was assured, among its finest coral reefs.

Unfortunately, there was no room to wear glasses under my facemask so the patrolling sharks, pristine coral gardens, hundreds of species of iridescent fish, and encrusted wrecks of wartime ships were all a bit of a blur. But the experience was thoroughlyworthwhile, if only for the bliss of free-breathing underwater, weightless, gazing up from the depths to blue shafts of refracted sunlight.

As for the unaccustomed pleasures of the hotel bar - alcoholic drink being widely unavailable elsewhere in the Solomons - these soon began to pall. After the warmth and spontaneous friendship I had experienced while travelling through the islands, the beery bonhomie of expatriate, diving hedonists struck a curiously hollow note.

James was my first friend in the Solomons: a medical student with an extraordinary ability to recreate the ambience of a Doors or Eric Clapton concert just by humming and drumming his fingers on a table. We started talking on the boat to Malaita from thedusty capital, Honiara, and he ended up inviting me to stay in his village on the eastern side of the island.

It was a hard journey. First we stood for six back-wrenching hours in the truck across the island's mountainous rainforest interior, successively drenched by rain and burnt by the tropical sun. Then we spent as long again trudging along gravel riverbeds,climbing over hills and balancing our way along slippery poles stretched across crocodile-infested mangrove swamps. We reached James's village towards the end of the day: a line of several dozen palm-frond houses facing a clear blue coral lagoon. Children played on the white sand beach, the blackness of their skin setting off their smiling teeth, shining eyes and long, wispy blond hair.

The next day was spent in idyllic idleness. I chatted with James's relatives, shared their food, and later borrowed a fisherman's dugout canoe for a paddle around the lagoon and out to where the ocean waves were breaking over the reef. Heaven, the Talking Heads sang, is a place where nothing ever happens. This might have been that place, except for one thing: the niggling question of how I was to leave. Not, I sincerely hoped, the way I'd come.

Early in the morning a large, shining metal motor-canoe appeared on the beach. Out of it stepped a Seventh Day Adventist para-dental team, travelling from village to village pulling out rotten teeth and lecturing on the hazards of sugar and white flour.

When they offered me what might be the only ride out for a month or more, I reluctantly said goodbye to James and his family and joined the two retired Australian dentists for what became a five-day journey back to civilisation. As we pulled away from the jetty I saw stormclouds rising like mushrooms over the ocean, and we were soon soaked by a thunderous downpour and lashings of warm seawater.

After the cosmopolitan pleasures of Munda, Seghe was a distinctly small affair - a hundred or so houses scattered around another wartime runway. This was one of the places from which to explore the Marovo lagoon. I was lucky enough to meet Peter, the sonof a village chief, who as a keen environmentalist was working to preserve his tribe's forests. He wanted to visit northern Marovo where furious villagers had a few days before burnt bulldozers belonging to Malaysian loggers. Why didn't I come too?

Within a few hours it was all arranged: we would use his father's canoe and borrow an outboard motor from a friend. I would buy the petrol and Peter would be navigator, guide and general fixer. He could not go for two days, but in the meantime I could make myself at home and do as little as I liked. Solomon Islanders are world experts at doing nothing, and here was my chance to learn how.

The Marovo lagoon is more beautiful than spectacular. What makes it extraordinary is its sheer extent, reflecting the vastness of the sky; the constantly shifting landscape of thousands of coral islands against a backdrop of steep rain- forest mountains;the giddying clarity of the glass-flat water; and brief glimpses of its hidden life, like the rippling blackness of a giant stingray in the depths, or a shimmering shoal of flying fish skimming the surface for a hundred yards or more.

When we finally set off, it took us about four hours to reach our destination: a 10-acre scar of bare earth on the edge of the lagoon, piled with thousands of logs and reverberating to the roar of a dozen or more skidders and bulldozers - truly a vision of hell in the midst of paradise. We went on to the village that owns the forest and met its tribal leaders. They did not know who had burnt the bulldozers, they said. But they had all had enough of seeing the forest destroyed, ancestral graves damaged and streams running with mud. If the loggers did not get out soon, anything could happen.

Peter's investigations complete, we travelled long into the night to the far south of the lagoon, our passage lit only by the stars and the millions of beads of phosphorescent light that trailed us in the water. Somehow, Peter managed to divine his way across the reefs to his uncle and aunt's lagoon-side house, where we were fed and given beds for the night. Early the next morning, we carried on to nearby Telina island, where Peter's relatives would look after me for a few days until the steamship came by on its weekly round back to Honiara. Waving goodbye to Peter from the jetty, I was struck by an unexpected sadness. He was a friend I would miss.

!Getting there: STA (0171 937 9962) has flights to Honiara via Brisbane for £945 return. Solomon Airways (01959 540737) has a range of flight passes for getting around the islands. These have to be bought outside the South Pacific.

ISLAND TREASURES JEWEL OF THE INDIAN OCEAN Back on the holiday beat, after a decade of civil strife, is Marco Polo's favourite island. Sri Lanka has all the usual attractions of a tropical island - good hotels, coral reefs, white sand, palm-fringed beaches, and much more. Inland, there are glimpses of the variety and fascination of the Indian sub-continent. Its size is one of Sri Lanka's greatest advantages: only 270 miles long and 14 miles wide, it offers just the right amount to see and do in a fortnight. Kuoni offers week-long beach holidays, £500-£600, sometimes with seven additional nights' free accommodation (without meals). A two-week beach holiday plus seven-night tour of the interior costs about £590-£850, but it is also easy enough to plan a tour independently.

Kuoni Worldwide: 01306 740500

MAJORCA REVISITED Still probably the best all-round holiday island in the Mediterranean, and frequently underrated by holidaymakers who have never set foot on it, Majorca has a tremendous variety of resorts - mountain eyries such as Deya or Banalbufar, family centres such as Fuerto Pollensa, harbour towns and fishing villages. Puerto Andraitx is as picturesque as any such village on the Cote d'Azur, while the Majorcan capital, Palma, is sophisticated. And now that the tourist authorities are well into their clean-up act, even pop spots such as Magaluf are being abandoned by the hooligan tendency in favour of families.

Top hotels - the Formentor, La Residencia, and the Es Moli - are packaged (pretty expensively), but away from high season it is possible to take a charter flight without a package attached, and to find reasonable beach or village accommodation on arrival.

One week at the Hotel Formentor, with half board, flights and self-drive car, £631-£1,031. Unicorn Holidays: 01582 834400

One week at the Puerto Azul Hotel, Puerto Pollensa, half board, £249-£443. Thomson Holidays: 0171-707 9000

Hotel and finca (farm and manor houses) accommodation from £20 a night. Central Hotel Reservations: 010 3471 430674

FISHING IN THE DEEP Four-day stays on the Lofoten islands, way above the Arctic Circle, in a fisherman's cottage, are combined with three nights on one of the Norwegian coastal steamers that deliver goods, post and people to 34 little ports between Bergen and the far north on a 2,500-mile journey. The cottages are at Mortsund, a working fishing port, rowing boats are included in the rental, and deep-sea fishing and other visits are a part of the excursion programme to show visitors a way of life remote from their own. This 12-day holiday with two nights in Oslo at the start, and two in Bergen at the end, costs £925, including flights.

Scantours: 0171-839 2927

MARVELS OF MADAGASCAR The island of Madagascar broke away from continental Africa about 65 million years ago, isolating its flora and fauna so that much of its wildlife is unique. All its mammals (the best known are the tree-dwelling lemurs, of which 23 species remain), 225 o f its 257 reptile species, and 80 per cent of its plants are found nowhere else in the world. Great favourites with visitors are the amazing chameleons with independently swivelling eyes which, the locals believe, are keeping watchon the past and the fu ture.

The ecological specialists Reef and Rainforest offer a variety of tours for individuals or as part of a tour with wildlife experts. A 17-day trip with Hilary Bradt, author of a guidebook to Madagascar, explores the area away from the usual tourist beat and costs £I,700 (most meals, accommodation but no flights).

For independent travellers or those wishing to join a tour, STA has flights to Antananarivo for £668 return, until July.

Reef and Rainforest Tours: 01803 866965

STA Travel Worldwide: 0171-937 9962

CUBA LIBRE A succession of time-warps, from old Spanish colonial heritage, through the Graham Greene era of fat cigars and heady rum, to socialist revolution, all spiced with Caribbean rhythm and culture, make Cuba a fascinating island. Most holidaymakers come for low prices and for the excellent beaches at Varadero, Playes del Este or Guardalavaca (Columbus, who first landed there, declared he had never seen a more beautiful place), though the island no longer offers the luxury or jetset glamour found in most Caribbean honeypots. Just as interesting as its beaches, however, are its old towns - the capital, Havana, the museum city of Trinidad (a Unesco world heritage town) and Santiago. Cuba's historical assets, its fading colonial facades, hidde n alleyways and intimate patios are often crumbling and overgrown but hauntingly beautiful. Although the main mass-package operators no longer sell cheap holidays and flights to Cuba, Regent Holidays can give information and make arrangements for flights , hotel bookings and tours. Its special economy deal, of flights and accommodation with Cubana Airlines, costs £325 return, plus £25 a head per day for accommodation and meals. Return flights cost only £425.

I am also intrigued by a two-week cycling and mountain bike tour organised by Blazing Saddles, that "combines the rhythm of the saddle and the unstoppable Salsa Beat", while taking in the Bay of Pigs, Castro's guerilla hideout, as well as the old historic sights. The price is £625 excluding fares.

Regent Holidays: 0117-921 1711; STA: 0171-937 9962; Blazing Saddles: 0171-624 7190

CARIBBEAN GEM Everyone has a favourite Caribbean island. Mine is Nevis, the 36-square-mile dot that Columbus sighted and named Nuestra Senora de las Nievas, before sailing on. All the usual Caribbean ingredients are there - palm-fringed white beaches andturquoise seas, the lush vegetation and lavish rum punches, plus numerous traces of a fairly rakish past which make it more interesting to explore than many of its neighbours. Tourists have been visiting since the !8th century, and the haunting ruins ofthe old Bath Hotel, built in 1778, can still be seen. Horatio Nelson married a local widow here in some haste in 1799, and their marriage certificate is displayed in St John's Figtree Anglican Church, built in 1860. Alexander Hamilton, George Wa shington's first secretary of the Treasury, was born here in 1778 - the site now turned into a museum. Heavy cannon and overgrown ruins, relics left by the British, Spanish, Dutch and French who coveted the island's strategic position, litter the coast.

Favourite Hotels? The tiny, historic Nisbet Plantation, prices from £1,265 for a week, half board; the new Four Seasons (bristling with activities), from £1,130 but no meals, both including air fares.

Elegant Resorts: 01244 329671

ISLE OF SPICES Zanzibar, the Isle of Spices, is one of Abercrombie & Kent's new island destinations, usually combined with a wildlife safari holiday in Kenya or Tanzania. In the sometimes dusty and ramshackle capital, Zanzibar Town, the most exotic spot to stay is the Stone Town, the old Arab quarter, a place of narrow alleys and overhanging balconies, where market stalls offer silver jewellery, copper pots and carved teak chests. Two small hotels there have been converted from original Zanzibar houses,the Dhow Palace and Tembo House on the waterfront.

Other highlights incude a spice tour (best at harvest time), the Jozani Forest, last habitat of the rare red Collobus monkey, the fishing village at Nungwi, and the Mangapwani slave caves where the dreadful trade continued after it had been declared illegal. Two weeks, including a week's safari, from £1,599 (most meals). For independent travellers, return flights cost from £519 from STA.

Abercrombie & Kent: 0171-730 7795; STA: 0171-937 9962

GREEK DELIGHTS Unusual properties on off-the-beaten-track Greek islands, ranging from studios, town houses and country cottages to castles, are a feature of the small, family-run Greek Islands Club. And on each island, activities such as olive harvesting, walking and learning about the local cuisine can be arranged. On Corfu, Petros House is in a beautiful hamlet of old Venetian houses, with panoramic views; it has been carefully renovated by its owner to combine modern comfort with traditional styles, and costs £396 for each of six people per week, including air fare. For those seeking character rather than luxury, the Gothic-style castle on Skopelos has no electricity, though there are gas and oil lamps, a gas-powered fridge and cooler, and it affords stupendous views from its battlements. The castle's secluded location will delight lovers of peace and quiet. Price £512 each for a week, for four people, including fares.

Greek Islands Club: 01932 220477

WHALES TO WINE-MAKING The tour operator Island Holidays offers a range of special-interest holidays in its collection of islands. There is a week's tour exploring the heritage, scenery and birdlife of the Faroes; another looking at the natural history ofShetland or Orkney; whale watching in the Inner Hebrides; birdwatching in Cuba; grape harvesting (and even treading ) in the Azores; study of traditional crafts in Crete; and painting in Madeira. Expert tutors accompany small groups. Prices are fully inclusive; a week's tutored painting in Madeira costs £780.

Island Holidays: 01764 670107

Look and learn

The specialist company Ace offers a wide range of study tours for those who want to holiday in earnest.

How about a seven-day trip to the Danish island of Bornholm, midway between Sweden and Germany, plus an extra night in Copenhagen? Bornholm, with its granite cliffs, wide beaches, runic stones, and its fortified Romanesque church with towers to help to fight off invaders, is a microcosm of Scandinavia. The capital, Ronne, even has a museum with a large collection of locally made grandfather clocks.

Accommodation is in the small town of Svaneke - where the water tower was designed by the architect of the Sydney Opera House - on a half-board basis, and the tour costs £855 including flights.

The future of the English country home is studied under the direction of Francis Cheetham on a tour based at the Hotel Nelson in Norwich. At Holkham Hall, visitors will examine the place of the country house as part of an estate, while at Langley Park near Loddon, which has been converted to a school, the topic will be the changing role of some of the properties.

The cost of this three-day tour is £195, including half-board hotel accommodation, all entrances and services of lecturer.

There is a wide choice of study tours, both in this country and abroad.

Ace: 0223 835055

Thailand by ox cart

The culture and traditions of indigenous hill tribes in Northern Thailand are the subject of the anthropologist John Davies's tours, which aim to bring visitors close to the people and the countryside. The aim is to talk to the people, not to gawp at them. Mr Davies takes groups of eight guests to visit families, to learn how batik is made, to have tea with a witch doctor and to travel by ox cart over the mountains. Tourists stay in a simple, traditionally styled guest house in Lisv.

The two-day Chiang Mai Safari costs £175, the Spirit of Northern Thailand tour £290, both departing from Chiang Mai. These tours can be combined with other beach and city holidays in Thailand.

Asia World: 01932 820050

Discover Andalucia

This has been declared The Year of Granada - the Andalucian Legacy, and the city is investing £22 million to promote cultural tourism in Granada and other provinces within Andalucia. Ten extensive exhibitions on the Moorish influence on the region are planned, to run between April and July. Twelve commemorative routes are planned, enabling the traveller to retrace the steps of the Moors and Arabs who left their marks centuries ago.

The route of Leon el Africano, from Almeria to Granada, is one of the oldest of the Moors, and takes in the Marquesado de Canete and Guadix, two of the strongholds which were eventually surrendered to the Catholica monarchs during the reconquest. The route of the Ibn Al Jatib, from Murcia to Granada, was created in 1347 by the Arab vizier and writer, and takes in Lorca, Velez Rubio, Albox, Baza and Guadix, all of which boast mportant Arab monuments.

Spanish National Tourist Office: 0171-499 0901

Glories of Persia

Swan Hellenic's Art, Treasure and Natural History Tours programme offers visitors to Iran a dazzling architectural itinerary, from the tomb of the great Cyrus at Pasargadae, to the ruins of the sculptured palace built by Darius and Xerxes and burnt by Alexander the Great.

Nearby, cut into the cliff at Naqshi-i-Rustam, are the tombs of Persian kings who dominated western Asia for 3,000 years. The 16-day tour costs £2,295.

Other new long-haul destinations include Burma and Ghana, natural history tours to Uganda, and a bird-watching tour to Sri Lanka.

Nearer home, a new eight-day Auvergne tour includes visits to Lyon, Le-Puy-En Velay, Clermont Ferrand and Riom, a judicial centre built in black volcanic rock £1,175). Tours are almost fully inclusive, and parties are accompanied by an escort and expert guest lecturer.

Swan Hellenic: 0171-800 2300

Medici magnificence

The art tours from Marin Randall Travel include a seven-day exploration of the major Medici villas and gardens in Tuscany, accompanied by specialist lecturer Dr Anabel Thomas. Accommodation is at the four-star Paggeria Medicca, a 17th-century building, once part of the adjacent Medici Villa Artimino. Dates are from 28 September to 4 October, and the tour costs £985 with flights, £845 without.

In Holland, Caroline Knight leads a five-day exploration of lesser-known country houses and gardens, from base at the four-star Berghotel on the outskirts of Amersfoort. The price for the five-day holiday is £675 with flights, £595 without.

Martin Randall Travel: 0181-742 3355

Who'll take Manhattan?

Several special holidays celebrate the National Trust's Centenary Year: a 13-night historic Hudson Valley and Manhattan Island tour features some of the great houses from the Federalist period to the early 20th century which line the river. There is a guided museum visit each day in New York (£2,095).

Another 13-night US tour visits the Confederate States (£1,950), while a 10-day visit to Barbados (£2,220) features Trust properties and gardens including those associated with the designer Oliver Messel, the tropical horticulturist Iris Bannochie, and Barbados's first premier, Sir Grantley Adams.

All prices include flights, hotel accommodation and some meals.

National Trust in association with Page & Moy: 0116 252 4400

Brush up your Greek

There can be no lovelier place to learn the language, culture and all things Greek than on the Dodecanese island of Symi, where formal lessons will be combined with visits to the monastery, to a church service or a traditional taverna to watch food beingprepared. Lessons are in small informal groups, with native Greek speakers.

Symi, with its picturesque harbour, its numerous little chapels and shrines, and its old capital, Chorio, perched above the hillside, is also an ideal base for painting holidays - these are offered, too, with expert tuition, by Corfu a la Carte, run by an Anglo-Greek family specialising in villa holidays in traditional surroundings.

Accommodation is in the town in apartments for two or more, and the week's holiday, including flights, costs £379. A two-week painting holiday with b&b in a hotel costs £750.

Corfu a la carte: 01635 202202

Museum pieces

British Museum Tours offers 30 guided historical and museum tours, including Romans in Northern Britain (seven days, £765), Ancient Cities of China (16 days, £2,390), and Islamic Spain (10 days, £1,295).

Its nine-day (seven-night) New York & Boston Museums and Art Galleries tour includes visits to the Frick, the Guggenheim, the Cooper-Hewitt and Metropolitan museums and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, the Fogg and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Cambridge. The price is £1,055 including scheduled flights from the UK, hotels (accommodation, only), internal travel and the expertise of lecturer Hilary Williams.

British Museum Tours: 0171-323 8895

The art of Catalonia

Twentieth-century art is the main focus of the eight-day trip, Art Treasures of Barcelona, Gerona and Figueras, organised by Filoxenia, escorted by the art historian Adrian Sumner, taking in, as you would expect, plenty of Gaudi, Picasso and Dali, and some rather nice places en route - Cadaques and Port Lligat (which Dali thought the most beautiful place on earth), the Emporda coast and La Bisbal. The cost with half board and flights is £991.

As well as other art, architecture and painting tours, largely to Greece and Cyprus, Filoxenia organise nature and botony holidays in Macedonia and Northern Greecea, led by Dr John Akeroyd, which venture off the beaten track as far as the Prespa Lakes onthe borders of Greece, Albania and the former Yugoslavia. The area is now a national park with a formidable list of breeding birds. The week's tour, half board, costs £898.

Filoxenia: 01422 375999

Plants of paradise

A variety of cultural and special interest holidays are offered by Specialtours for the National Art Collection Fund. Some - such as The Great Houses of Derbyshire, and the Buxton Festival - are in the UK, while others range from Bermuda to Poland, Bulgaria and Turkey.

A combination of a mild climate, volcanic soil and dramatic landscapes are the ideal ingredients for creating great gardens - hence "Madeira: A Garden Paradise," a seven-night holiday. The party stays at the Savoy Hotel, and visits the Botanical Gardens,the magnificent 19th-century Quinta do Palheiro garden, and many more. Among the plants in bloom will be hibiscus, camellias, azaleas, passion flowers, mimosa, tamarisk, arum lilies and orchids.

The cost of this tour is £896, including flights, accommodation and most meals.

Special tours: 0171-730 2297

INCREDIBLE JOURNEYS INDIA ON HORSEBACK "Riding through Princely India" is the title of Cox & Kings' new 15-day journey following the tracks of Rajput warriors and Mughal princes of the 16th century for whom riding was a way of life. The journey starts onthe fringes of the desert at Jodhpur, and continues through the Aravilli Hills to Vdaipur, with rides of about 12-24 miles a day, allowing time for stops to view wildlife or to visit hill forts, Jain temples and tribal villages. The accommodation is mostly in tents and farmhouses, some is at old palaces, though there are two nights at possibly the world's most beautifully sited hotel, the Lake Palace, at the end of the journey. The price of £2,595 mainly includes full board, and flights.

Cox & Kings: 0171-873 5000

SIBERIA IN STYLE It's still the greatest rail journey in the world - boarding the Trans Siberia in Moscow, leaving Europe and crossing the continent of Asia, to arrive in Beijing a week later. After a night in a Moscow hotel and a tour of the city, you board the train just before midnight for its 4,916-mile journey. The price for the overnight in Moscow, sightseeing and coach transfer to the train, a berth in a two-berth first-class sleeper, with all meals on the Russian section is from £430-£445. On the Chi nese section meals cost about £10 a day. Regent Holidays organises flights to Moscow (around £165 single) and from Beijing (£300), and can arrange the whole journey.

Regent Holidays: 0117-921 1711

TAKE THE HIGH ROAD On a cold morning in 1746, two armies faced one another on Drummossie Moor. The larger wore red coats and was well drilled and armed; the smaller was cold, tired and hungry, its kilted swordsmen wearing blue bonnets and white rosettes.The Battle of Culloden lasted less than an hour and ended the Jacobite cause. Prince Charles Edward Stuart was forced to flee Scotland for ever. To mark the 250th anniversary of the third Jacobite rebellion, Holts is organising a special five-day journey to Scotland with talks by military historians, whisky-tasting and visits to Cawdor Castle, Glen Shiel, Eilean Donan Castle, Fort William, Fort George and the Queen's Own Highlanders' Museum. The cost is £395, mainly half board.

Holts Tours: 01304 612248

DREAM TICKET Best travel deals of the year: round-the-world tickets costing, in many cases, less than scheduled return fares within Europe. STA Travel, specialist in independent travel (not just for students and young people), has some exciting routings.Until the en d of April, for example, by air from London to Delhi, by surface travel to Katmandu, then by air to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Los Angeles and back to London, costs £702, rising by about £60 in May. Travel from Delhi to Katmandu is not provided, but by train and bus costs about £20. With 100 offices worldwide, STA can give advice on internal transport, accommodation and tours.

STA Worldwide: 0171-937 9962. Free Travel Guide: 0171-397 1221

BLACK SAND, SOLID ICE On Arctic Experience's Jeep Safaris you drive yourself to areas of Iceland inaccessible to conventional transport. The jeeps cross rivers, follow mountain tracks and skirt ice caps and volcanoes. Places en route include the vast, uninhabited region north of Iceland's largest ice mass, Vatnajotull, where there are black sand deserts, sweeping glaciers and massive lava flows. The firm warns that there will be long days in the four-wheel-drive Jeeps, and facilities in remote spots arefew. Accommodation is tented or in guesthouses. The seven and 14-day holidays cost £757-£1,559, including flights.

Arctic Experience: 01737 218801

SILK ROAD TO SAMARKAND The Silk Road is one of Europe's oldest caravan routes, and a new tour follows stretches of it on a 12-day journey in Uzbekistan, stopping at halts made rich and powerful by the caravans that used to pass through. Travelling by coach and plane, groups vi sit the walled city of Khiva and the valley of the Tien Shan Mountains in Tajikstan. Also on the route: Tashkent; Bokhara, with its huge 12th-century Katyan Minaret, probably the tallest building in the world when it was built in 1127 AD; Samarkand, the old capital of Tamerlane's empire; his tomb and summer palace at Shakharisabz. The trip costs £1,169 including flights to and from Tashkent, b&b and travel.

Explore: 01252 344161

INVITING VIETNAM With its spectacular scenery and history, Vietnam, the crossroads of the Chinese, Indian and Khmer civilisations, is one of the more exciting destinations to have opened its doors to tourism recently. Several companies now offer short tours from Bangkok, or combine Vietnam with other Far Eastern destinations. Air France flies to Vietnam via Paris for a nine-night Visage of Vietnam tour that can introduce visitors to the country's highlights - the cities of Saigon and Hanoi, the old imperial city of Hue, the 3,000 islets of the Bay of Halong, and the traditional hill villages of the White Thai region. Nine nights are not enough for this poignant country, but it's a start. The cost of £1,595 includes flights from the UK, full board and accommodation.

Air France Holidays: 0181 742 3377

LEGEND OF THE INCAS The journey to Machu Picchu is an unforgettable one that could last for weeks. For those who are short of time, the new 10-night Garza tour of Peru, from Journey Latin America, highlights Lake Titicaca; the floating home of the Uros Indians where the islands - and even the post office - are made of reeds; and a trip to Pisaq in the sacred valley of the Incas. There's a stay in the Inca capital of Cuzco, before the incredible four-hour train journey to Machu Picchu, the legendary citythat is one of the tourist wonders of the world. Prices per person, with two sharing, are from £1,308, including return flights from the UK and hotel accommodation. For an additional £519 you can extend the tour by five days to see the mysterious Nazca lines - huge, man-made geometrical and animal shapes, dating back to 800 AD, only visible from the air.

Journey Latin America: 0181-747 8315

BACK TO BEIRUT On their Middle East journey, the long-haul specialist Bales is among the operators returning to the city reopening its doors to tourism and rebuilding at incredible speed as its troubles abate.There are some other fascinating cities and tours, ancient a nd modern, on the 12-day escorted journey that includes Byblos, said to the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world and still enclosed by ramparts dating from 3000 BC when it was the principal trading port in the area; the Phoenician cities of Ty re and Sidon; the ruins of Baalbeck, the Syrian capital Damascus, and the Assyrian caravan town of Palmyra. The trip costs £1,695, half board.

Bales: 01306 885923

WINETRAILS "We walk quietly, at a pace to relax by, not a pace to race by. Time to chat with the workers in the vineyards, to listen to the nightingale, visit a small church, taste a few wines and buy a fresh baguette for lunch." Thus Winetrails describes its journeys in the principal wine-growing areas of Europe, Australia and South Africa, accompanied by an expert in the wines of the region. Walks are generally between two and five hours, with accommodation in small inns, country lodges, chambres d'hotes, villas and private houses. A seven-day tour of the Loire Valley, with flights, accommodation and all meals, costs from £850. Other tailor-made tours, for a minimum of two persons, cost from £320 per person for three nights.

Winetrails: 01306 712111

HAUNTING LANDSCAPES FORESTS OF FINLAND Scandinavian Seaways are introducing Finland for the first time in their Motoring Holidays brochure. The programme includes three holiday centres, hotel-based touring, and camping, with all accommodation set in forests and lakes of the south. At the Keur usselke holiday village, in an area of oustanding beauty with 400 lakes and a chance to fly fish, modern holiday homes sleeping from two to six include sauna, sun lounge and kitchen, and cost from £351 for 16 nights, two nights on board the ship.

Scandinavian Seaways: 091-293 6262 (Newcastle); 0255 240240 (Harwich)

CATALAN COUNTRY The prettiest part along the whole of Spain's Mediterranean coast is the deeply indented stretch between Bag-ur and Palafrug-ell, backed by vineyards, cornfields, pine-clad slopes and medieval hill villages. Here Vintage Travel offers a selection of mainly secluded country houses, all with private pools. Near the picturesque resort of Calella de la Palafrugell, a typical home, the Mas Massoni, set among 20 acres of pinewoods, is a classic 14th-century farmhouse with vaulted ceilings, an oil press , antique furniture. Sleeping six to 10, the property costs £495-£1,395 a week; travel is not included but can be arranged.

Vintage Spain Ltd: 01954 261431

VINEYARDS AND CASTLES New from Inntravel, vignerons' stone cottages in Corbieres, the region of rolling vineyards, castles and medi-eval villages that rises to the rugged Pyrenees, only half an hour from the Mediterranean. Inntravel has laid on excursions, included in the price: a half-day walk in the mountains with a local guide, a motoring trip to explore the region's strange vegetation. A traditional meal at a village inn is also included in the price of £259-£423, which covers accommodation and ferry fares for week for a minimum of two adults.

Inntravel: 01653 628862.

A SUMMER BIRDCAGE There are 220 cottages for hire in the countryside of England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the National Trust's Centenary Year. New this year is the Birdcage, a quaint five-sided 200-year-old building, three storeys high, in the tiny fishing village of Fort Isaac, Cornwall. Sleeping two, the cottage costs £141-£272 a week.

National Trust: 01225 7911323

DOVE TOWER IN THE VENETO Deep in the heart of the Veneto, La Forestiera apartments in a restored building form part of the wine estate owned by Count Serego Alighieri, a descendant of Dante. One apartment, La Colombara, the dove tower, which sleeps two, is reached by a trapdoor staircase, but like the more conventional flat, it is well furnished. In the autumn, guests can take part in the grape picking. Price £446-£621, including flights and car hire.

Magic of Italy: 0181-748 7575

HEART OF HUNGARY Explore Worldwide has a nine-night holiday that strikes into the little-known rural heart of Hungary, with visits to the Puszta, the plains where the Csikos cowboys guard herds of wild horses, to the county town of Debrecen, to Bukk National Park, the world famous wine-producing districts of Tokaj and Eger, and the Carpathian Mountains, now developing ski facilities. Travel is by minibus, canoe and on foot, with nights in hotels and in village houses. Prices from £4!9 including flights.

Explore Worldwide: 01252 319448

LES PETITS PAYS Tour company La France des Villages offers holidays in those parts of the hidden French countryside with quite distinct identities. Aimed at independent self-drive travellers, the firm includes self-catering holidays in bastides in Gascony, farmhouses in the Tarn, gipsy caravans in the Lot, and hotel barges in Burgundy. New for 1995 are Mas, the Catalan farmhouses and 300-year-old village houses, as well as activity holidays in the Pays Basques or Catalan Pyrenees, plus manor houses, parts of chateaux, and boating in the Fench fenland, the Marais Poitevin in Poitou Charente. A canoeing holiday on the Venise Verte, the forgotten !2th-century waterways, with tents, maps and cross-channel travel for car and passengers, costs £271-£295 for a w eek.

La France des Villages: 01449 737664

TRANQUIL TURKEY Simply Turkey's own village, Ocakkoy, lies below the Cragus mountains with the ruins of a Seljuk castle on its northern edge, and one of the most beautiful beaches in Turkey at Olu Deniz, seven mi!es away. Here the firm rents out old stone houses, simply but comfortably restored. Turkish families are still in residence. There is a pool. Scuba diving, gulet (traditional Turkish boats) trips. Cottages and villas on a self-catering basis, including flights, cost £350-£450 a week per person,£404-£587 for t wo weeks.

Simply Turkey: 0181-747 1011.

GALICIAN PAZOS Pazos are typical small manor houses in the lush countryside of Spain's north-wesern province, Galicia. Some are converted into country retreats, usually family run. A country base from which to explore Santiago de Compostella, one of Europe's most encha nting small cities, the Pazo Casa Grande de Cornide is a mansion with pool, art collection and lovely garden. Magic of Spain offers it at £379-£485 for a three-night stay, including flights and hire car, with the option of adding other pazos or parador s tays.

Magic of Spain: 0181-748 7575

ESCAPISTS' IRELAND Stone cottages, thatched farmhouses, converted stables and lodges dotted over Ireland's beguiling countryside provide holidays for escapists, with access to some of the finest fishing, riding and waterways in Europe. Shamrock Cottages'collection is around such scenic spots as rugged Connemara in the Wicklow mountains, or on the islands of Inishnee and Mason. From a thatched cottage in Galway's Inverin, you can ride, take boat trips to Aran Island,walk along the cliffs of Moher or explore the strange rock formations and exotic plants of the Burren. This cottage, sleeping six, costs £212-£372 a week. Ferry crossings can also be booked.

Shamrock Cottages: 01823 660126

LISTINGS COMPILED BY JILL CRAWSHAW

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