TRAVEL: Breaking free with a twist

Relax, have a cigar. In Cuba. Or fly to Colditz, or peruse ancient paintings in a Spanish cave. Jill Crawshaw offers her choice of holidays with a bite
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The Independent Culture
ROLLING UP IN HAVANA

For its new box of cigar tours, Cricketer Holidays goes, ap-propriately enough, to the home of the Havana cigar, reputedly the best in the world. The week-long tours visit the centre of Cuban tob-acco production at San Juan y Martinez and highlight planting, drying and fermentation. Harvesting finishes in the middle of March, but the tobacco is still in the thatch- ed drying huts around the area. There's a trip to cigar factories in Havana (where they'll no doubt tell you they once rolled them on virgins' thighs), and a chance to sample various cigars at a dinner. Accom-modation in Havana is at the Hotel Nacional, said to have been built by Al Capone, infamous as a cigar smoker as well as everything else.

Cricketer Holidays, Special Places 01892 664242

BUNK BEDS AND BIG BIPLANES

Moswin Tours offers what is surely the planespotter's dream holiday. The three-night "Real Flight Adven-ture" starts with a flight to Hamburg, followed by an onward flight on an Antonov AN-2, the world's largest bi- plane, to a deserted airfield in the Harz mountains. There you stay in bunk beds in the pilots' barracks. You find your own way to an ancient castle for a meal, and assess the acting talents of your group by performing a piece from Goethe's Faust. The next day, after another low-level flight, you board a narrow gauge railway which just happens to break down. It just so happens you have a compass and chart enabling you to make your way back to the airfield for a barbecue. The third day is almost for wimps: watching skydivers, gliders and kite flyers, before Champagne on the Antonov flight to Berlin, a night there and home. The price of pounds 875 includes transport, accommodation and most meals.

Moswin Tours also offers a "Stage-coach through Bavaria" - a trip by 19th-century mail coach, with accommodation in historic inns and visits to royal castles en route. Six days cost pounds 985, including flights and b&b. A "Colditz Experience" by air and coach via Leipzig and Berlin, costs pounds 379 for three days, while a new "Dreams under White Sails" holiday on board the windjammer Mary-Anne takes you round the ports and islands of the Baltic, including a visit to Denmark. The price is pounds 815, which covers flights and full board afloat.

Moswin Tours 0116 271 9922

OPENING OMAN

The Middle East in its various aspects is the focus for Jasmin Tours. Muscat (Masqat), the capital of Oman, is the latest addition. Opened up to tourism only recently, Oman is still a deeply conservative country, although it has changed radically during the past 25 years. Muscat, which consists of a medieval port which boasts traces of Portuguese influence and clean, modern outskirts, reflects these contrasts. From the city it's an easy drive into the mountains to the great fort at Nazwa. Three nights b&b costs pounds 575, including flights.

Beirut, rising from the ashes of the long civil war, costs pounds 455 for four nights. The charming little port of Biblos (Jbail), the world's oldest continuously inhabited town, is a relaxing antidote just an hour away, and the awe-inspiring Baalbek, with its massive temples and ruins, is an almost obligatory 21-hour trip, now that the Bekaa Valley is safe for tourists.

Damascus, the capital of Syria, costs pounds 441 for three nights b&b; Amman is pounds 399; Cairo pounds 317. In the Gulf you can stay six nights for pounds 642 in Abu Dhabi, but Dubai, at pounds 512 for three nights, is more interesting: the creeks, souks, desert trips and camel races are real highlights. Despite recent upheavals, tourists are keen to visit Sana'a in the Yemen, only now emerging from a 16th-century way of life. Three nights b&b in a Yemeni guesthouse in the heart of old Sana'a costs pounds 525, including flights.

Jasmin Tours 01628 531121

HOPS, CHOCS AND CANALS

There are 300 or so different brands of beer on sale in Bruges, where Jan de Bryyne of the Beer Academy gives tutored tastings, explaining the importance of beer in Belgian culture on Arblaster and Clarke's new "Bruges and Special Beers" four-day trip at Easter. As well as breweries, guests visit chocolate shops - another Belgian obsession. If you don't like beer or chocolate, there are always old masters and 100 miles of canals overhung with willows. The three-night trip costs pounds 375 half board, by coach and ferry.

While Irish cuisine has yet to establish itself beside French or Italian, Arblaster & Clarke promises delights on its gourmet jaunt in west Cork. The food is based on fresh produce, and includes full Irish breakfasts with Clonakilty black pudding, a wild salmon smokery, a herb garden and a lunch at Longueville House - which has Ireland's only vineyard. The three-night tour with most meals costs pounds 425, self-drive.

Arblaster & Clarke 01730 893344

KINGS AND CLOISTERS

With much of its coast undeveloped and a little-known interior, Sardinia, the Med's second largest island, is often bypassed by tour operators, although it boasts some of the best beaches in Italy, excellent horse trekking and some 7,000 nuraghi - 3,500-year-old fortified towers.

Voyages Ilena offers an attractive collection of converted farmhouses, cottages, village apartments and characterful hotels on Sardinia. Three of the most eccentric hotels can be linked on a week's tour of the island, or combined with beach destinations; the Hotel San Francesco in the heart of Alghero has been created from the cathedral cloisters to help pay for the preservation of the rest of the building. The Hotel Villa Las Tronas, which sits on its own headland a few minutes from Alghero's ramparts, was the holiday home of the kings of Italy until the 1940s, its interior an eclectic mix of antiques and Art Deco. La Pineta is a simple country hotel serving Sardin-ian specialities in Pattada, a typical hilltop village that's home to craftsmen who hand-forge traditional shepherd's knives, and welcome visitors to their workshops.

A week's holiday using all three hotels and including flights, car hire, insurance and some meals, costs between pounds 600 and pounds 735.

Voyages Ilena 0171 924 4440

TREASURES OF THE CAVES

The Altamira caves on the northern coast of Spain, with their breathtaking Ice Age paintings and engravings, have long been closed to the public, but Andante Travels has managed to include them in all its Cave Painting holidays to this region.

The Altamira caves are just outside Santillana del Mar, an exquisite village caught in a medieval timewarp and now preserved as a national monument. The Cantabrian hills are riddled with caves, and many of them are adorned with ancient paintings. A week's tour, accompanied by archaeology expert Andrew Lawson, includes Las Monedas and El Cast-illo at Puente Viesgo, the Tito Bust-illo caves with their horse and reindeer frieze, and caves in the cliffs at El Pindal. The cost, pounds 790, covers flights, six nights full board, entry fees and even tips.

For the reasonably fit, Andante's new week-long tour (pounds 950) delves deep into the rugged caves of the Pyrenees. Based on the market town of St Girons, south-west of Toulouse, it also offers Romanesque churches and lakeside picnics to keep holidaymakers busy above ground.

Andante Travels 01980 610555

WHALES IN THE MIDNIGHT SUN

Husavik, a fishing village on the spectacular north coast of Iceland, plays host in June this year to the Midnight Sun Whale Festival, with discussions, lectures by experts and whale spotting expeditions aboard a traditional Icelandic fishing vessel. Enthusiasts can hope to see humpback and minke whales, white-beaked dolphins, harbour porpoises, seals, puffins and large numbers of other wildfowl and sea-birds. Discover the World includes a trip to the volcanic formations of Lake Myvatn in the price: pounds 699 for four days with flights and some meals.

In warmer climes, a "Whales, Sails and Trails" expedition goes island- hopping round the lesser known Canary islands of Gomera, Hierro and La Palma, on a two-week voyage aboard the 105-year-old square rigger, Anna Kristina. Reasonable swimmers can join the gentle, 15ft pilot whales in the waters off Tenerife. One week with flights and all meals at sea costs pounds 888, two weeks pounds 1,445.

Discover the World 01737 218800

FROM YOGHURT TO YOGA

Several travel firms have added an extra dimension to their traditional beach holidays by including programmes of activities or special interest. These are particularly suited to single holidaymakers, or those who want to do more than lie and fry.

The Anglo-Greek Corfu a la Carte, which also features Paxos, Symi and Skiathos in a programme that is largely self-catering, is offering a week's holiday on Paxos, with tuition in yoga and various forms of therapy, on two dates in May. It costs pounds 379 for a single person, pounds 299 for a partner not on the course, plus pounds 50 extra for a second week on the island.

Also in May: "Learn Greek in Greece" on the picturesque little island of Symi. A week-long course costs pounds 379. Lessons are by native speakers, and there are visits to the monastery and traditional tavernas, all designed to introduce participants to the Greek way of life. "Discovering Old Corfu", a series of walks based on the village of Aghios Stephanos led by Hilary Paipeti, author of the Corfu Book of Walks, reveals a very different island from the bouzouki and chips version favoured by some of the package operators further south. The price is pounds 325 per week. All these Corfu a la Carte holidays include flights, self-catering accommodation and activities.

Spring flowers, painting, walking and archaeology form the bulk of the Simply Travel Group's special interest holidays in Corsica, Italy, Greece and Turkey. There are vegetarian cookery weeks in April and October held in an old country house above Lake Trasimeno in Umbria. Cookery classes are in the morning under the tutelage of the owners, Alberto and Malu Musacchio. The price of pounds 595 from Simply Tuscany and Umbria covers flights, car hire and half board.

Many maintain that Turkish cuisine is one of the finest in the world. Simply Turkey's approach on its Turkish Cuisine holiday is a lighthearted one, with visits behind the scenes at one of Olu Deniz's top restaurants, trips to local markets, bread- and yoghurt-making in village houses, and cookery demonstrations at the home base - the village of Ocakkoy, 15 minutes drive from the harbour town of Fethiye. A week's b&b in April, costs pounds 545 including flights, two weeks in June pounds 645, and there are no single supplements.

Corfu a la Carte 01635 202202; Simply Travel Group 0181 747 1011

A TOUCH OF ORIENTALISM

New Exodus Discovery Holidays are aimed at travellers who are looking for the off-beat, but have only limited time to spare. "Ali Pasha's Empire" tour links north-western Greece and Albania; these areas were once the fiefdom of the pasha known as the "Lion of Janina" who ruled the region until 1820. The regions share some historical and cultural traditions, but modern lifestyles are very different, although the Albanians, after their long isolation, are friendly and hospitable. The 15-day tour costs pounds 795-pounds 840, including flights and accommodation, and some meals.

"The Kingdom of the Berbers", which lasts eight days and costs pounds 530, strikes deep into the Atlas Mountains as far as the desert and the Todra Gorge. There's a stop at a kasbah village en route, near the fortress of Telouet, the former palace of the infamous El Glaoui family, Berber chieftains who ruled the area in the first half of this century by pillage, rape and extortion.

"The Land of the Great Khans" journey takes 17 days to explore the steppes, mountains and the Gobi desert, from where the Mongol hordes launched their conquests. Accommodation is in tents or simple hotels, and the going can be rough. The tours costs pounds 1,590 for flights, accommodation and most meals.

Exodus Discovery Holidays 0181 675 5550

ARMIES AND ABBEYS

A regiment of new holiday ideas for '96 from Holt's, specialists in historical tours and especially battlefields. "1066" examines some of the myths surrounding the Norman Conquest, with visits to relevant sites in France and England: Caen, Bayeux, Senlac in Normandy, and finally Waltham Abbey in Sussex to hear the true story of Harold's death. The four-day tour by coach costs pounds 429 half board.

"Joan of Arc" puts the case for the Maid of Orleans, on a week's tour of France which includes Chinon, Char-tres, Tour, Loches and the village of Pulligny, believed by some to be the burial place of Joan. The seven- day tour by coach, including accommodation and some meals, costs pounds 698.

Holt's is also offering a 15-day study of the defence of Hong Kong and the Japanese invasion in 1941, as well as a full itinerary in China, for pounds 2,995 including flight and full board.

Holt's Tours 01304 612248

DIRECTORY

The 1996 AITO Directory of Real Holidays has a useful section, "Really Unusual Holidays", ranging from truffle-hunting to a weekend at the North Pole. The directory lists the 150 independent specialist tour operators who form The Association of Independent Tour Operators and are all financially bonded; it is free from: AITO 0181 607 9080 8

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