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Gadget of the Week

National Time Trails

Map fanatics will delight in English Heritage's new series of maps, which has just been launched as part of its 1999 tourist initiative. The 45 nationwide "Discover Your Heritage" Time Trails are designed to encourage people to explore their local history, and range from a two-mile Romancing the Thames walk in west London to a hundred-mile Fire! Fire! Blasts, Burns and Bangs trail around the East Midlands. For a free national map - outlining all 45 trails - or a more detailed regional map, call the Time Trails Hotline on 0171-973 3399, visit www.english-heritage.; or ask at any English Heritage property.

Journey to the Source

No 5: The Panama Hat

Tropical travellers in search of the ultimate accessory would do well to put Ecuador on their itinerary - it's home to the panama hat (pictured).

Although this classic piece of straw-woven headgear can be purchased in Panama and was apparently made famous by Ferdinand de Lesseps (who attempted, unsuccessfully, to build the Panama Canal while protecting his balding head with a locally made hat), in fact the panama has little to do with that country and much more to do with Ecuador.

Long associated with American gangsters (the wide-brimmed variety is still often referred to as the El Capone), according to the Insight Guide to Ecuador (pounds 16.99, APA), fine straw hats were woven in Ecuador long before the conquistadores arrived, but became fashionable in Europe by the late 19th century and reached a peak in the late 1940s.

These days, the panama is still a classic item of clothing, if not entirely fashionable. If you want to see how they're made, head for Montecristi. This peaceful town, close to Ecuador's south-western coast, has been home to hat-making for the last 150 years.

Hats are strung together here from the fronds of a South American plant, Carludovica palmata. The best superfino hats are made from the thinnest, lightest straw. It is woven together so tightly that it can take up to three months to complete a single hat - by which time, when turned upside down, it should be able to hold water without leaking and fold neatly into a pocket without creasing or crumpling.

The stalks of the Carludovica palmata plants can grow up to about six metres tall, topped by a sheath of delicate leaves, but the hats themselves are made from the fronds inside the stalks, each about a metre long. These are collected, dried, boiled in water for an hour and then dried out in the sun for a day.

When the fronds are ready, the hats are woven into shape by local women and children and sent - untrimmed - by the middlemen to the relevant factory to be trimmed, bleached, hand-ironed and pounded into shape by the exporter.

Many visitors to Ecuador stop off in Montecristi to buy themselves a panama hat from the local weavers - or any of the other woven items on sale in the town - and try to get themselves a bargain.

Originally founded as an inland refuge from pirates, these days the town has a worn air about it, its streets decorated with rows of crumbling colonial houses and a beautiful church. Eloy Alfaro, who was president of Ecuador at the turn of the century, was born in Montecristi, and his house is now open to the public.

Unsurprisingly, the town is a good place to get a favourite old hat repaired or, indeed, to buy a brand new one.

Alternatively, head further north and seek out some suitable summer headwear in Becal, a small town about 85km south of Merida in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.

This is the other prime panama hat production site, according to the new AA Mexico Explorer guide (pounds 14.99). A locally made hat, constructed from the wonderfully named jipijapa palm leaf, will cost from around 100 Mexican pesos (just pounds 6.25, thanks to the dwindling Mexican currency).

So, why is the panama hat not called the Ecuador hat or the Mexico hat? Here are two explanations; the first is that, when the country started exporting hats, nobody knew where Ecuador was. Since Panama was in the news at that time, it was decided to name them panama hats; the second story is that it was a mistake made by some 19th-century gold-miners who forgot where they bought their functional and funky hats from.

Whatever the story, if you feel your summer wardrobe is in need of a panama, you have two choices. You can either make your way to Bates the Hatter (0171-734 2722) on Jermyn Street and pick up a panama for upwards of pounds 52, or you could head off in search of some winter sun on a flight to Mexico. If you fly off before 25 March, you can take advantage of Continental's special offer fare of pounds 428 (from South American Experience, 0171-976 5511) from Gatwick to Merida. But, if you were hoping to bring back some hats to pay for your ticket,be warned that you'd have to make room in your suitcase for at least 60 hats.