TRAVEL / Getting down to rock bottom: You may be seriously strapped for cash but you can still take a break, says Jill Crawshaw

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The Independent Culture
A NEW STONE AGE

It's back to basics with a vengeance staying in a 'stone tent' in one of the camping barns scattered round the Peak National Park that have been converted from redundant farm buildings into overnight shelters for walkers and cyclists. The barns belong to the local farmers. The basics are a wooden sleeping platform, cooking area, table, benches, WC and tap. No frills such as lighting or heating, but the cost is only pounds 2.25-pounds 2.75 per person per night.

Details from Information Offices in the park or by phone from Peak National Park Centre, tel: 0433 620373.

TIME TO FLY A KITE?

The low-key title of the little booklet Time to Learn offers hidden gems - 3,125 learning and study holidays that take place throughout the country, from accordion-playing in Stirling to 'zero balancing' (an alternative health course) in Cornwall. Other ideas include 'trombomania', UFOs, and kite flying and making, as well as hundreds of art, photography, craft, sporting, language, writing and drama breaks.

Some of the breaks are held at colleges during vacations, others at residential centres. They attract an unusually high proportion of unaccompanied holidaymakers fired by similar interests. Prices start for as little as pounds 70 for a weekend of expert tuition, including accommodation and meals. The average is about pounds 90.

Time to Learn, price pounds 4.25, is available from booksellers, or post free from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), 19b de Montfort Street, Leicester LE1 7GE, tel: 0533 551451.

CONSERVING ENERGY

The National Trust's new Working Holidays brochure lists 460 ideas, costing between pounds 35 and pounds 95 a week, or pounds 15 for a weekend including board and lodging. The tasks for which they need help are mainly outdoor conservation projects. On a series of international projects in the UK, the trust is looking for British volunteers with knowledge of the relevant language or country to work alongside Japanese, Italian, Russians and French volunteers.

There are also new opportunities for older volunteers - energetic over-fifties can tackle woodland conservation in Devon, coastal conservation in Northumberland or coppicing in Kent. The trust's first 'Work and Walk' project in Yorkshire ( pounds 125), also aimed at older volunteers, combines outdoor conservation work and guided walks along the coastline with guest-house accommodation.

Brochure from the National Trust Working Holidays, PO Box 538, Melksham, Wilts SN2 8SU (tel: 0225 790290). Enclose an A4 SAE, with two second-class stamps.

LITTLE GEMS

Hidden among the tonnage of brochures from our largest tour operator, Thomson Holidays, is a modest volume, Small and Friendly, featuring hotels that may lack pools and bars but 'where you'll be greeted by name, not room number'. The hotels are often family-run, the decor is in homely, local style; they offer simple comforts and service, some in popular resorts in Spain, Greece, Italy and even Turkey, some on the beach, others in some secluded location with few amenities nearby.

A week in Tossa de Mar on the Costa Brava in May, the best month there, at the Hotel La Palmera (b & b in a room with 2 or 3 beds, with shower and WC) costs pounds 149; 2 weeks in June pounds 238, 11 nights in July pounds 260, including flights of course. In Puerto de Andraitx, a sophisticated little fishing village in south west Majorca, a week's b & b at the Hostal Moderna costs from pounds 187- pounds 270. Brochure from travel agents.

FREE RANGE

If Old Macdonald had his farm today, he'd probably have more than animals to commemorate in song - he'd have paying guests to share his farmhouse and table, because, as many a young Macdonald has discovered, tourists can be more profitable than turnips.

For the visitor, farm accommodation can offer excellent value for money, whether the farm is used as a base for touring or for a more intimate glimpse into a rural way of life. They even attract a following among businessmen tired of hotels that are short on welcome and long on bills.

Stay on a Farm lists 1,100 such rural retreats from sheep farms in Cumbria and Yorkshire to dairy, fruit and arable farms in Kent and the Cotswolds. The range of accommodation includes self-catering cottages and caravans, all properties having been inspected and graded by national tourist boards.

For those who like mooching around in wellies, it's as well to ensure that the farm is a 'working' one, not just a guest house with a couple of chickens and ducks round the back. But getting involved in farm work and mucking out is limited - these days farming is a highly mechanised business.

Prices? A working dairy and sheep farm near Salcombe in Devon, where guests are welcome to enjoy the farm's activities and eat traditional farmhouse cooking, with home-produced clotted cream and huge breakfasts, costs pounds 17 a night b & b, evening meal pounds 8.25. Guests can help feed the pigs, chicken, goats and ponies, and watch cows being milked at a Dorset farmhouse where there's self-catering accommodation available for 4-6 people in a two-bedroomed cottage (pounds 200-pounds 400 a week).

Stay on a Farm (Charles Letts, pounds 5.95) is available from bookshops or by post (pounds 7.50) direct from the Farm Holiday Bureau UK,

National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh, Kenilworth, Warwickshire CV8 2LZ.

ALL SHIPSHAPE

Mini-cruises to Esjberg, Gothenburg or Hamburg from Harwich or Newcastle consist of two nights in a cabin with private facilities and breakfast on a Scandinavian Seaways ship, with sightseeing tours included in the price.

Esjberg is a sophisticated little Danish shopping centre with a particularly interesting Maritime Museum. A trip to Denmark's oldest town, Riba, where many of the small, timber-framed houses lining the narrow winding streets date back to the Middle Ages, is also included. The tour of Hamburg contrasts the infamous Reeperbahn with the chic mansions built around the city's lakes. The Swedish mini-cruise includes a tour of Gothenburg, one of the many cities that tend to be described as the 'Venice of the North', although there is a more obvious Dutch influence in the canals that criss-cross the city.

Mini-cruise prices start from pounds 59-pounds 85 per person until 29 March, rising to pounds 89-pounds 115 during July and August, then pounds 69-pounds 95 for the rest or the year. Though the ships are basically car ferries, there's plenty to do on board, with bars, live entertainment, a cinema, a Pirate Club for children to join and a choice of eating from a la carte to the traditional all-embracing smorgasbord (pounds 12-pounds 14). Scandinavian Seaways, tel: 0255 241234.

CHANNEL CHOICES

As competition between ferry operators and Le Shuttle hots up, holidaymakers can expect imaginative ideas and keen prices on cross-channel breaks, particularly in the off season.

Until April, for example, Brittany Ferries are offering Gites d'Interlude stays of two to four nights for pounds 51 per person in Brittany, Normandy and the Loire, which includes return ferry crossing for car and passengers. On short golfing breaks, seven courses within easy reach of Caen, St Malo, Cherbourg and Roscoff offer a day's golf (fees paid) with overnight accommodation on board ship, for pounds 69.

On a one-night break sailing from Portsmouth to St Malo, holidaymakers stay in a converted 11th-century castle, the three-star Hotel Vieux Chateau, in the cathedral town of Bricquebec, returning the following afternoon from Cherbourg to Poole. The price is from pounds 48 per person to the end of March, rising to pounds 78 in August, including the car, based on two people travelling together. From Brittany Ferries, tel: 0705 751708.

Apartment holidays in Bruges, Amsterdam and Paris, offered by Stena Sealink, provide an excuse to plunder the shops and street markets of these three cities. Sample price: pounds 134-pounds 155 for three nights in the heart of Amsterdam, including the ferry fares. From Stena Sealink, tel: 0233 647033.

Le Shuttle Holiday Breaks 94 brochure also contains gite and themed breaks and tours, as well as exclusive 'auberge' holidays. Le Shuttle Holidays, tel: 0303 271717.

WORLDS APART

Stafford Whiteaker's new expanded Good Retreat Guide includes Spain (as well as the UK, Ireland and France), where monasteries are opening their doors to guests. The guide explains clearly what a retreat is, the difference between Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, New Age and yoga centres, and lists themed retreats which focus on nature, painting, walking, music or meditation for those who may shy away from the more religious kind. Those that welcome children are also included for the first time.

Among the 300 listed are the Roman Catholic Priory of Our Lady of Peace at Turvey Abbey in Bedfordshire; the spiritual and non-denominational Hinton Retreat in Wimborne, Dorset; and the Eagle's Wing Centre for Contemporary Shamanism in Camden, London, which concentrates on North American Indian spirituality. Many retreats do not have a fixed charge but ask for donations, but for those that do, charges are modest: from pounds 5-pounds 12 per night in Spain, pounds 15-pounds 30 in Britain. The revised Good Retreat Guide (pounds 11.99 Rider Books) will be on sale in March. Tel: 0279 427203.-

(Photographs omitted)

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