The 50 Best; BARGAIN BREAKS FOR TARDY TRAVELLERS

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The Independent Culture
Hell's bells. Summer's here and the time is right for going on holiday. The only trouble is, you haven't booked one, and it's too late for browsing in glossy brochures. Instead, why not let Rhiannon Batten take the strain on your behalf? The fact is, summer's here and the time is right for a last-minute holiday bargain...

NB: all details were checked at the time of going to press, but dates and prices are liable to change. Costs given include taxes where appropriate. Rhiannon Batten compiled this week's 50 Best with the help of Senior Travel Editor Simon Calder and Gita Kothari

1

FRENCH ALPS

Leave on 31 July or 7 August, and you could take yourself off on a 14- night break to the Pierre and Vacances holiday village at Avioraz. This high-altitude resort, close to Evian and Annecy, overlooks the Morzine Valley. Facilities include a heated outdoor pool, a golf course, riding, archery and children's clubs.

How much: pounds 630 for a party of five (a reasonable pounds 126 each), including return ferry or Eurotunnel crossings and studio accommodation. Seven-night holidays are also possible.

How to book: call EuroVillages (01606 787776).

2

TALLINN, ESTONIA

The most beautiful of the Baltic capitals, Tallinn is in the process of marking a decade since Communism began to collapse. Why not join the celebrations with a city-break package? Between now and 15 September, you can fly there direct from Gatwick on Estonian Air, and spend three nights, on a bed and breakfast basis, at Hotel Dzingel in the city centre.

How much: pounds 285 per person, based on two people sharing, including flights, transfers and accommodation.

How to book: call Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711).

3

THAILAND

If, like Alex Garland's protagonist in The Beach, you're dreaming of the perfect strand, head out to Krabi, on the west coast of Thailand. Spend seven nights at the Andaman Holiday Resort, and then get home in time to brag to all your friends when the film comes out. Alternatively, make your own way to Bangkok, then book a seat on Thai Airways' new direct flight from there to Krabi.

How much: the package costs from pounds 520.

How to book: call the Far East Travel Centre (0171-414 8844; www.fetc.co.uk), or Thai Airways (0171-491 7953).

4

CYCLING IN FRANCE

Get back to nature and pedal your way through France to enjoy the farming festivals, or Foires a l'Ancienne, that take place each year throughout the countryside. Festivities typically include craft demonstrations, local- produce markets, and a fair amount of folk dancing. There are a few empty saddles left on a Cycling for Softies trip that coincides with the festival at Menigoute, in the Venise Verte region, on 3 August.

How much: a seven-night holiday in Venise Verte costs around pounds 915, including return flights, transfers, half-board and bike hire. How to book: call Cycling for Softies (0161-248 8282).

5

NORFOLK

There's more to Norfolk than the Broads - take time out to explore the rest of the eastern English landscape with a week squishing through marshes, pottering around villages, strolling along beaches or boating out from Blakeney in search of seals. Then retreat to your serviced country home - or to the local pub. The Great Escape Holiday Company still has various properties to rent, including Tystie Cottage, in Salthouse, which sleeps four and lies within walking distance of the beach.

How much: pounds 440 a week in July for the above cottage, including bedlinen.

How to book: call the Great Escape Holiday Company (01485 518717).

6

MALTA

Cheap summer fares to Malta are part of the island's strategy to become a hip destination, though it will take a cataclysmic cultural shift before clubbers choose this over Ibiza. Anyone with an aversion to the British capital can relax; flights leave from 10 regional airports.

How much: budget return fares (you must stay for seven or 14 nights) start at pounds 177 for adults and pounds 151 for children, leaving from Gatwick or Heathrow between 22 Jul and 27 Aug.

How to book: call Malta Direct Travel (0181-785 3233).

7

SPAIN

The battleground for cheap flights this season is Spain, where Go is piling in with new flights from Stansted to Alicante, Ibiza and Madrid. Summer in the city need not be too debilitating, since altitude means Madrid remains relatively cool. Ibiza is expecting a hotter summer in the clubs than ever, while Alicante flights beam you down to Benidorm.

How much: Madrid is likely to see the fiercest fares war, with last-minute flights as low as pounds 100.

How to book: call Go (0845 60 54321), easyJet (0870 6000 000) or Debonair (0541 500300).

8

ST LUCIA

If you suddenly feel the urge to get romantic with your beloved, but haven't got a holiday plan fixed up, don't panic. There's still time to hit the Caribbean - stroll hand in hand along sandy beaches, toast your beloved with a rum punch or two, and watch the sun slip below the palm- fringed horizon. Or leave your partner behind and take off on your own for a Caribbean adventure.

How much: between 15 Aug and 30 Nov, seven nights at the all-inclusive Sandals St Lucia cost pounds 1,340 per person (pounds 100 less than the brochure price), including direct flights with Virgin Atlantic.

How to book: call Thomas Cook (01733 418450).

9

NEW ZEALAND GLACIERS

Escape down under for a week-long escorted tour of New Zealand's glaciers. Bridge the World's six-night trip takes in Mount Cook National Park, Queenstown, Christchurch, Te Anau, a cruise to see dolphins and seals and a trip on the TranzAlpine Express. And, if you book before 31 August, you get two free nights in Christchurch and a complimentary whale-watching cruise.

How much: pounds 528 per person, including local transport and accommodation but not flights from the UK (an extra pounds 529).

How to book: call Bridge the World (0171-734 7447).

10

EDINBURGH

If you buy a first-class return ticket by phone two days in advance, or in person before 6pm on the day before you want to travel, you can journey in luxury and at very low cost between any of the GNER-served stations. One of the best bargains is to Edinburgh, and, since the fares are available until 30 September, you've got just enough time to put in an appearance at this year's Festival (5 Aug to 4 Sept).

How much: pounds 69 for a first-class return from London to Edinburgh (pounds 156 cheaper than usual).

How to book: call 08457 225225 or contact station ticket offices directly. Festival info on 0131-473 2000. 11

BUSABOUT

If you're on a budget, this is a great way to see Europe. You travel around Europe on a luxury air-conditioned bus for a certain length of time, jumping off along the way wherever, and for however long, you wish. The company can also book hostel accommodation, and covers 60 destinations in Europe as well as add-on links to regions such as the Greek islands and Morocco.

How much: from pounds 167 for a Northern Exposure pass (a jaunt through Amsterdam, Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen); but, if you book before 31 July, you can get a one-month pass for the price of three weeks, or a week's free accommodation in Paris if you buy a two-month pass.

How to book: call Busabout (0171-950 1661; www.busabout.com).

12

EUROSTAR IN STYLE

Whiz through the tunnel in the lap of luxury. As Europeans head south for the summer hols, Eurostar has been trying to figure out how to fill their first-class seats. Details of exactly how they intend to do this are not yet clear, but expect some savage price cuts if you can book a week or so in advance; look out for the ads. Paris's charms are well known, but what about Brussels, Europe's jolliest capital city, or Lille, now a lot less forlorn since Eurostar began calling.

How much: classy offers to be confirmed; or simply slum it with the normal adult fare (pounds 79 return) and travel between London-Paris, London-Brussels or London-Lille, taking two children (aged 4 to 15) with you for free.

How to book: call Eurostar (0990 186186).

13

AUSTRALIA

Usually, the low season for flights to Australia ends at the beginning of July, but this year, bargains can still be had even now. The main cities of Australia are least appealing in the depths of winter, but the dry season in the Northern Territory is well underway, making this the optimum time to visit the capital, Darwin, and Kakadu National Park. That way you get a combination of an end-of-the-world port and sublime scenery, together with the legacy of Aboriginal influence in faded rock paintings.

How much: on airlines like Royal Brunei, you can pick up fares of around pounds 600 return through discount agents.

How to book: try Bridge the World (0171-911 0900) or visit: www.cheapflights.co.uk

14

ARCHAEOLOGY

Hands-on types should dig out their trowels and book a place on an Earthwatch Iron Age Hill Fort week in September. Each session offers an opportunity for volunteers (experienced archaeologists or not) to get to grips with the latest equipment, and help compile the first comprehensive survey of the Bury Walls hill fort. Two miles east of Lee Brockenhurst, north of Shrewsbury, in Shropshire, the weeks will also include lectures and visits to other sites, including Wroxeter Roman City.

How much: pounds 350 (pounds 295 for members), including food and accommodation at Much Wenlock.

How to book: call Valda Ulden at Earthwatch (01865 311600).

15

WALES

The Farm Holiday Bureau is a collection of 1,000 UK farmers who offer serviced and self-catering accommodation on working farms. Each year, the Bureau produces the Stay on a Farm guide, featuring both self-catering and B&B options. Most of the properties are fully booked over the summer, but there are still some vacancies, such as a one-bedroom five-star cottage in Llanberis, Snowdonia, available for the week starting 28 August.

How much: pounds 300 for the Llanberis cottage.

How to book: call the Farm Holiday Bureau (01203 696909; www.webscape.co.uk/farmaccom), or, for the Llanberis farm, visit: www.business.virgin.net/jane.pierce/index.html/

16

CRUISING THE MED

Cruising has become one of the most popular ways to travel, and, although it's not everyone's glass of vino, the benefits are myriad. On the 11- night Mediterranean Shipping Cruises meander that leaves Genoa on 29 July, for example, you get to visit Naples, Santorini, Volos, Istanbul, Kusadasi, Piraeus and Capri without any of the hassles of shifting luggage or grappling with inter-town transport.

How much: pounds 649 per person (pounds 747 less than the original price) including return flights from Heathrow or Stansted, all taxes and all on-board meals and entertainment.

How to book: call Mediterranean Shipping Cruises (0171-637 2525).

17

MANCHESTER

If you book a weekend break with Countrywide Holidays, make sure you pack your walking boots. Their self-guided trips give you the option of exploring various walking routes covering Manchester's literary past, its canals, rivers and waterways or nearby attractions like the Manchester United ground and the Coronation Street studios (above). Hotel accommodation and breakfast are included, along with a Weekend Wayfarer ticket that gives you free local transport.

How much: three-night packages from pounds 199 per person at the Crowne Plaza hotel.

How to book: call Countrywide Holidays (01942 241432).

18

TIERRA DEL FUEGO, CHILE

The world's southernmost ski resort has just opened near the tip of Chile, handily at a time when fares to the continent have tumbled. Whether you want to ski, pick up a penguin or hike around the glaciers in the nearby Torres del Paine National Park, call South American Experience to book your seat on a cheap flight. And then go shopping for some very warm clothes.

How much: during July and August, return fares with British Airways to Santiago in Chile cost pounds 610.

How to book: call South America Experience (0171-830 0011).

19

DIVING IN THE RED SEA

Sharm El Sheikh in the Red Sea is an ideal place to take the plunge. It's got excellent diving and great nightlife, and is only a few hours' flight away from Britain. Explorers Tours currently has two special deals for divers. If you're already qualified, you can enjoy five days diving, with two dives per day, or you can spend the time on a learn-to-dive programme.

How much: pounds 375 for qualified divers or pounds 399 for the PADI open-water course. Both include flights from Gatwick, transfers, B&B accommodation (hotel for divers, dormitory for learners) and equipment.

How to book: call Explorers Tours (01753 681999).

20

BUTLINS

The quintessential family holiday is still going strong at Butlins, especially at their newly refurbished Family Entertainment Resorts in Minehead, Bognor Regis and Skegness. Last-minute breaks are available at the resorts throughout the summer, each with a vast range of events and activities - from arts-and-crafts lubs to indoor sub-tropical waterworlds - to keep children entertained.

How much: a typical last-minute package for a family of four staying four nights on a half-board basis in a studio room at Skegness costs pounds 338 (one child goes free, making this pounds 67 cheaper than the brochure price) on 26 July.

How to book: call Butlins (0870 242 1999).

21

ITALY

If you want to get behind the wheel and discover the joys of the not-so-open road, then you could book one of Lupus Travel's one-week fly-drive holidays to Italy. For a taste of La Dolce Vita, choose from picturesque journeys staring in Rome, Bologna, Milan, Pisa and Venice, then motor off into the sunset.

How much: pounds 183 per person for a week in Jul or Aug, based on four people sharing. The price includes flights from various UK airports and an Avis group "B" car, with unlimited mileage, CDW and all local taxes and insurance.

How to book: call Lupus Travel (0800 018 0043).

22

AMSTERDAM

The best way to party in Europe's coolest capital is to book return train and ferry travel between London (or Cambridge) and Amsterdam, and put the pounds 30 you've saved by not travelling on Eurostar towards a night in a five-star hotel there. With most people heading out of the cities at this time of year, it's a great time for finding cheap hotel deals.

How much: a three-day Apex return fare from London to Amsterdam costs pounds 49; a night's B&B at a five-star hotel is around pounds 59 per person.

How to book: for travel, call Stena Line (0990 455455); for accommodation, The Hotel Directory (0181-770 0123). 23

CANADA

The nearest big North American city to Britain is Halifax, Nova Scotia, where a huge new exhibit named Pier 21 opened this month. Halifax was the place where many of the European immigrants to Canada arrived this century and were processed; it has been turned into a tribute to the tapestry of Canadian society.

How much: Air Canada has return fares of pounds 612.30 until 10 September (if you stay for one week and book four weeks in advance). Icelandair also has some seats left for pounds 577.30.

How to book: if Air Canada (0990 247226) is on strike, as appeared likely at the time of going to press, then travel on Icelandair (0345 581111) from Heathrow or Glasgow via Reykjavik.

24

SPANISH FLAMENCO

Make it a sizzling summer by booking onto the Flamenco summer school that's taking place in Jerez between 7 and 18 August. The course includes classes for all levels of experience and talent (including complete beginners) and each one is led by well-known Spanish dance teachers, and accompanied by local guitarists and singers. Free or cheap outings, shows or parties are held every evening to get you into the Latin spirit, and there is plenty of spare time for sightseeing - and drinking the local tipple - around this pretty southern town.

How much: from pounds 399, including flights from Heathrow to Seville, transfers, two- or four-star accommodation and the basic Flamenco course.

How to book: call La Escuela de Baile (0181-968 6782).

25

IRELAND FLORA AND FAUNA

If summer is the time to go searching for four-leaf clover, Ireland is a good place to start. Waymark Holidays is organising a one-week trip around the countryside of the Burren, a limestone landscape in the north of County Clare, in the company of an Irish naturalist. After days spent admiring the dramatic coastal scenery and examining the outlying Celtic remains, you can retreat to the town of Lisdoonvarna for evenings of traditional local music. You'll have to get packing, though - the trip starts on 24 July.

How much: pounds 575 including flights and seven nights' half-board accommodation at the Carrigan Hotel.

How to book: call Waymark Holidays (01753 516477).

26

GREECE

Retreat to a beach, explore ancient sites, feast al fresco in picturesque villages: whatever your taste, Greece has something to suit. Why not start with an Olympic Airways flight from Heathrow to Thessaloniki? The second Greek city shares little in common with the noise and crowds of the capital; it is beautifully located on a broad bay, with a good spread of antiquities and some excellent places to eat and to stay. And, with few of the Inter- Rail crowds of Athens, accommodation is easy to find.

How to book: call Trailfinders (0171-937 5400).

How much: pounds 211 return, a special fare that's available between now and 31 August if you stay for a Saturday night.

27

VIENNA

If you're a music-lover, now is the time to visit Vienna. Take time to explore one of Europe's most elegant cities, before nipping over to nearby Baden Baden for the annual Operetta Festival (26 Jun-12 Sept). This year marks the centenary of Johann Strauss's death, and there are various special concerts and events planned. If you need even more of an excuse to go, the Radisson SAS Palais Hotel in the centre of Vienna is currently offering a Weekend Breakaway package.

How much: pounds 94.50 per person per night, including breakfast. There is also a further 25 per cent reduction for families if you book two rooms.

How to book: call Radisson SAS (0800 374411; www.radisson.com).

28

MALAYSIA

For the ultimate luxury break, there's still time to treat yourself to a week's holiday in Malaysia - with a package that includes two nights at the Ritz Carlton in Kuala Lumpur, five nights at the Pangkor Laut Resort, and private limousine and boat transfer from Kuala Lumpur to the resort. Accommodation on the privately owned island is in the Coral Bay Forest Villa, "rustic" air-conditioned cottages that have sleek bamboo and wood interiors and a tropical forest for a back garden.

How much: pounds 450 per person before 15 December. The price doesn't include flights (likely to be another pounds 500 or so), but does include one free night at Pangkor Laut and half-board accommodation (room only on the free night).

How to book: call Euro Contacts (01628 771171).

29

TENNIS

If Wimbledon has inspired you, a five-day tennis course near Hereford could be the perfect summer break. Based at Bowens Country House Hotel, each day's programme includes two hours of group lessons, half an hour of individual tuition and plenty of time to practise. And, on the final afternoon, there will be an informal competition, followed by dinner and presentations. Courses take place on July 25-30 and on August 1-6, 8-13 and 15-20.

How much: pounds 350, including four days' tuition and five days full-board accommodation as well as use of the hotel's private tennis court.

How to book: call Acorn Activities (01432 830083).

30

LONDON

You can't beat the capital as a holiday destination, and, if you haven't got time to take a long break, it's the ideal place to spend a fun weekend. Make the most of the special rate currently available at the Park Lane Hotel, and book a couple of tickets to an evening concert by the lakeside at Kenwood House, the English Heritage property on Hampstead Heath. Concerts run until 28 August.

How much: Park Lane Hotel pounds 129 per person per night (40 per cent off the usual rates); concert tickets pounds 11.50-pounds 18.

How to book: call the Park Lane Hotel (0800 353535); for Kenwood, call Ticketmaster (0171-413 1443 or: www.ticketmaster.co.uk).

31

SPAIN

Book a week's self-catering accommodation at the Acor Aparthotel in Ibiza, and spend a holiday dancing the nights away. Alternatively, follow gentler Spanish pursuits with an all-inclusive holiday at the Heidelberg Hotel on the Costa Brava. Both these special offers are available between 26 August and 24 October through Sunset Holidays, and you can fly out from 15 UK airports.

How much: the package to Ibiza costs pounds 99, and a stay at the Heidelberg Hotel costs pounds 219.

How to book: call Sunset Holidays (0181-218 3300).

32

NEW YORK

Most people don't think of going to New York in the middle of summer. It's hot, it's crowded, everyone's on holiday... all conducive to a great atmosphere! At this time of year, you get to see the city in its underwear and make the most of some phenomenal seasonal travel bargains.

How much: return flights from Heathrow on American Airlines are being sold through the new Microsoft travel website, expedia.co.uk, for pounds 331 return for travel in August - an extraordinarily low fare for a quality airline at this time of year.

How to book: on www.expedia.co.uk, but act fast: at this price, availability is going to be a real problem.

33

TURKEY

Leave Britain's beaches behind, and take your buckets and spades to Turkey instead. For some real Turkish delight, you could take an 11-night tour of the country, stopping in Istanbul, Pamukkale, Cappadocia, Gallipoli and Dalyan. The tours, which run from now until September, also include a trip to the submerged city of Kekova and a break in ancient Antalya.

How much: pounds 350 per person, including transport and B&B but not flights from the UK.

How to book: call Intrepid Turkey (0181-742 8612).

34

MUSTIQUE

The benefit of going to the exclusive Caribbean island of Mustique in July and August is that many of the rich and famous residents are off in St Tropez and other summer playgrounds. Their vacant villas can be rented out, giving you the chance to enjoy the luxury lifestyle for a while. There are several properties to choose from (all with a cook and maid or gardener, some with a vehicle), and, if you split the cost between a group of friends it can be surprisingly reasonable.

How much: It's 30 per cent cheaper from now until 15 November; two- to seven-bedroom villas cost around pounds 2,000 to pounds 14,000 for a week. Flights extra.

How to book: call Mustique Villa Rentals (01628 583517). 35

SHEFFIELD

The new National Centre for Popular Music is a kind of hi-tech nightclub- cum-museum contained in four stainless-steel drums, where you can learn about ambionic surround-sound, or try mixing your own record. Blending hands-on exhibits with films and song snippets, it's a great destination for any holidaying pop picker - and the great thing about the place is that it's very close to the city's train station, enabling you to take advantage of this summer's stunning rail deals.

How much: adults pounds 7.25, children pounds 4.50; get there by Midland Main Line - four people can travel from London to Sheffield for a total of pounds 49 return.

How to book: call National Centre for Popular Music (0114-296 2626); Midland Main Line (0345 125678).

36

TURKEY

For a holiday where just about everything is taken care of, try the Turkish package that Club Med is offering later this summer. Stay either in Kemer, on the Mediterranean coast near Antalya, which is more adult- orientated; or in Kusadasi, south of Ismir, which has a wide range of watersports, plus child facilities. If you book for the fortnight beginning 20 September, the second week works out at half price. The deal includes return flights, transfers, full board, wine with meals, most sports (with tuition if necessary) and holiday insurance. You have to book before 25 July.

How much: pounds 484 per person.

How to book: call Club Med (0171-581 1161).

37

MUNICH

If you fancy seeing the eclipse on foreign turf, why not fly to Munich? Southern Germany is right in the path of 11 August's solar eclipse - it's due to pass over the city at around midday, perfect timing for those who want to toast its glory with the first Bier of the day. You could either make your way to the city on one of Go's three daily flights from London Stansted, or book a short-break package with the German Travel Centre.

How much: flights with Go start at pounds 80 return, while breaks cost from pounds 165, including flights and two nights' four-star accommodation.

How to book: call Go (0845 605 4321; www.go-fly.com) or the German Travel Centre (0181-429 2900).

38

CUBA

Become a Latin lovely for a fortnight by escaping to the Cuban sunshine and polishing up your samba. Travel operator Captivating Cuba is currently offering four-star packages to two Cuban destinations: one just outside Santiago, in the southeast of the country; and the other on Cayo Coco, a resort just off the northern coast. Both trips include flights, transfers, accommodation, all food and drink, and a whole range of activities - including dance lessons.

How much: pounds 834 per person.

How to book: call Captivating Cuba (0181-891 2222).

39

HIMALAYAN TREK

If you book now, you've got just about enough time to get fit for a Himalayan trek to the kingdom of Mustang. The trip begins on 15 September in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, from where you fly up to Jonsom and set off on a 20-day hike to Mustang, famous for its hundreds of cliff dwellings. On the way, you spend two days in Lo Manthang, with its four Buddhist temples and royal palace, and at the "cubist" village of Tramar.

How much: pounds 2,575 per person, including guide, flights, hotel accommodation with breakfast or full-board camping on the trek.

How to book: call Himalayan Kingdoms (0117-923 7163).

40

THE LAKE DISTRICT

The Lakes and Furness Day Ranger ticket is a public-transport success story. It's valid on trains, boats and buses in Cumbria. It will take you from Lancaster to Windermere and onward to Sellafield through breathtaking Cumbrian mountains and coastal scenery, and includes travel on the Windermere Steam Packet ships that ferry visitors across England's largest lake.

How much: pounds 8.90 for adults, pounds 4.40 for children, pounds 5.90 for concessions, pounds 16.65 for families.

How to book: tickets must be purchased on the trains - call Northwestern Trains (0161-228 4696) for more information, or contact the Cumbria Tourist Board (015394 44444).

41

RHODES

The largest of the Greek islands combines the beauty of postcard-style white-painted villages with all the (relative) excitement of the bustling capital, Rhodes Town. If this sounds like your kind of holiday, contact First Direct as soon as possible and book a seat on the flight that leaves the UK on 24 July bound for Rhodes.

How much: if you're not too fussy about where you stay, take a chance and pay pounds 355 for flights, transfers and a week's unnamed accommodation in the resort of Ixia; or pay pounds 30 more for a week at the Karpathios Studios in Pefkos.

How to book: call First Choice Direct (0990 122122) to book the above; for other last-minute offers, visit: www.teletext.com

42

JERUSALEM

If you're quick, you can visit the most symbolic of millennial cities on a three-night city break to Jerusalem. Get lost in the market maze, marvel at the Dome of the Rock, contemplate the Western Wall and the vast Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Organised by Peltours, bed-and-breakfast accommodation is at the Jerusalem Tower Hotel, ideally situated for exploring the historic and atmospheric town. Decide quickly though - the offer ends 31 July.

How much: a three-night break costs pounds 319, including accommodation and return flights from Gatwick, but there are various other special offers available from the same company, including a seven night trip for pounds 415.

How to book: call Peltours (0181-343 0590).

43

SAN FRANCISCO & HAWAII

Discover different faces of America with this two-centre adventure. Tune in to your bohemian side with a wander around San Francisco's old hippy district, Haight-Ashbury, or take a boat out to Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge, before hopping on to Hawaii to indulge in some serious R'n'R - and a chance to practice your hula - in Honolulu.

How much: around pounds 1,120 if you book before the end of July, including return flights from Heathrow and 10 nights' accommodation (three nights at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown, San Francisco, seven nights at the Outrigger Village Hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii).

How to book: call Tradewinds (0870 751 0004).

44

GIBRALTAR WHALE-WATCHING

Think of Gibraltar, and you'll probably see images of a great big rock and monkeys - but probably not dolphins or whales. On these three-night breaks to this tiny territory, you get to go on three morning trips on a hulking great 30ft catamaran. On trips in May, June, July and September, sightings are virtually assured. In the evenings you head back to land to stay in the village of Calleta.

How much: pounds 359 in July or pounds 381 in August and September. The price includes flights from Gatwick with GB Airways, twin-room hotel accommodation and the three boat excursions.

How to book: call Discover the World (01737 218800).

45

CALEDONIAN CANAL

There are still some summer places left aboard the good ship Fingal of Caledonia, a converted Belgian barge that plies the Great Glen between Fort William and Inverness. The trick is that the vessel doubles as a floating activities centre, which means you can hike, bike or windsurf your way across northern Scotland, whilst being sure of a comfortable bed en route.

How much: pounds 428 all in (includes use of all activity equipment and instruction where needed) for the week commencing 31 July.

How to book: call Fingal of Caledonia (01397 772167).

46

ITALY

For sheer glamour, treat yourself to a short break at the luxury hotel Palazzo della Fonte, about an hour's drive from Rome. Situated in the small spa town of Fiuggi, the hotel has both outdoor and indoor pools, a spa and gym, and wonderful views. If you need even more persuasion, from now until 31 August you can stay five nights here for the price of four (a saving of pounds 82 per person).

How much: from pounds 935 per person, including flights, transfers and five nights' B&B.

How to book: for this and other summer offers, call Elegant Resorts (01244 897777).

47

DUBLIN

With Ryanair's one-way air fares to Dublin starting at pounds 19.99, you can afford to fly to one of Britain's trendiest cities, and treat yourself to a decadent weekend at one of its classiest hotels. The Merrion, which opened in 1997, is an architectural fusion of four listed townhouses that includes two bars, a two-Michelin-star restaurant, plus a swimming pool, gym and spa.

How much: between now and 31 August, the Merrion has a special summer rate of IRpounds 90 (pounds 74) per person per night, including full Irish breakfast.

How to book: call Ryanair (0870 333 1250; www.ryanair.ie) and the Merrion (00 353 1 603 0600).

48

SOUTH AFRICA

It may be winter in South Africa, but it's still just about as warm as the English summer, and easily accessible due to some respectable flight fares. Snap up the current special offer (available until 15 August) on Turkish Airlines from Heathrow to Capetown (via Istanbul); worth a trip whatever the weather. Rugby fans can catch plenty of matches as a warm- up to the forthcoming World Cup, while the less sporting can simply take in the views of one of the most breathtakingly located cities on earth.

How much: pounds 361 return.

How to book: call Trailfinders (0171-938 3939).

49

COOKING IN OZ

Rumour has it that there's more to Australian cuisine than prawns on the barbie, so why not combine cookery lessons with a sightseeing break? Between now and 30 November, Hamilton Holidays is offering two-week, two- centre trips to Hamilton Island, off the coast of Queensland (where you can try everything from cooking and fishing to whale-watching and sailing), and Cairns - ideal for surfing, scuba diving or just plain beach-bumming.

How much: pounds 1,099, including flights, a half-day cruise, seven nights' B&B in Cairns, seven nights' room only accommodation on Hamilton Island. Cookery classes cost an extra pounds 60, including lunch and wine for two. How to book: call Bridge the World (0171-734 7447).

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YOUTH-HOSTELLING

If you like your adventure cheap and cheerful, then the Youth Hostel Association properties make ideal bases for all ages; join in the hiking, cycling and canoeing activities at Ambleside, or catch some culture at the popular Stratford-upon-Avon hostel. And don't worry about sharing a dorm; many hostels have family rooms.

How much: you need to be a YHA member to stay, but you can join when you arrive (annual fee pounds 11 adults, pounds 5.50 children, pounds 22 families, pounds 11 single- parent families). Nightly rates vary, from pounds 6.10 for adults, pounds 4.20 for children, pounds 18 for a family room.

How to book: call the YHA (01727 855215; www.yha.org.uk); booking advisable in summer.

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