TRAVEL : THE GREAT CHRISTMAS ESCAPE

If the thought of the festive season fills you with dread, there's still time to book a break. Jill Crawshaw finds some of the best places to celebrate - or hide - whether you want to track big game in Botswana or unearth jewels in Mallorca or
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WELLY AND WINNIE BREAKS

If mucking about in your wellies in wetlands and woodlands, digging footpaths, clearing bogs, or drystone walling sounds like a better bet than Christmas at home, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) has a number of outdoor projects demanding plenty of both attention and volunteers. An ancient woodland in Wiltshire needs coppicing to encourage the return of birds, butterflies and flora, and with Avebury down the road, you're near enough to the spirits of times gone by.

You can work among the stags and deer in Richmond Park creating a nature trail and footpaths for people with special needs, or help to save the habitat of our most famous bear - Winnie the Pooh - over New Year at Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, which, as well as being the inspiration for AA Milne's books, is also the home of many other endangered creatures.

Meals and accommodation are provided on BTCV's Natural Breaks, but volunteers are expected to make their own way there, and contribute between pounds 33 and pounds 60 a week.

British Trust For Conservation Volunteers 01491 824602

FESTIVE FOLLIES

On its own rocky islet off Alderney and cut off from the mainland at high tide, Fort Clonque was once part of the fortifications against the French. The Charity Landmark Trust, is seeking 11 holidaymakers who can afford a total of pounds 1,447 for the week. Accommodation is simple but not spartan, and there's a large dining room for communal feasting.

It's almost as remote on Lundy Island where the Trust offers several properties for rent, though there is a shop and a tavern where there's usually a Christmas celebration. Government House can take up to six people for pounds 605 a week. Big and Little St John's are a pair of single-storey cottages added to an existing barn, The Trust admits that they're not handsome, but they're sheltered and have great views. Sleeping three and two respectively, they cost pounds 337 and pounds 260 for the week.

The Landmark Trust 01628 825925. The Trust's handbook costs pounds 8.50 refundable against bookings

ACTIVE BREAKS

Couch potatoes who feel like a change should send for a list of Acorn Activities' Christmas and New Year breaks that are based around Herefordshire and the Welsh borders.

TV and turkey are replaced by rafting, gorge walking, abseiling and climbing on its 23 to 26 December break at Builth Wells, though participants will be entitled to a full-scale Christmas lunch and comfortable accommodation at the Penserrig Gardens Hotel. The price is pounds 250.

A slightly less energetic version is based at the Castle Pool Hotel in Hereford, with a possible visit to a carol service, a meander along the River Wye, a murder-mystery evening, laser clay-pigeon shoot, quad-bike riding and pony trekking - mercifully fortified by a champagne reception on Christmas Eve, hot mince pies and mulled wine, and a Christmas lunch. The inclusive cost is pounds 375.

Acorn Activities 01432 830083

TEN-MILE HIGH CLUB

Britain's most expensive Christmas feast is at twice the speed of sound and 50,000ft high - on a Concorde Supersonic Christmas lunch - for pounds 545. In fact there's a bit of cheating. The flight is too short for the banquet so half of it is served on the ground. But you do get a Concorde Supersonic Certificate.

Goodwood Travel 01227 763336

RENT A HOSTEL

On the Youth Hostel Association's Rent-a-Hostel scheme, families can take over entire youth hostels, coming and going as they please, and staying in some unique, often historic, buildings.

In rural Leicestershire, Copt Oak hostel can sleep up to 20 in this former village school house, recently modernised with full heating as well as a wood-burner, and a well-equipped kitchen. The total cost for the four- night break is pounds 420. Further north in County Durham, Baldersdale is a converted farmhouse surrounded by the countryside of Bernard Castle. It can take 46 persons, some in nine-bedded dormitories, but the price is less than pounds 10 per person for four nights, pounds 430 in all.

For those who prefer to keep away from the kitchen stove and sink, the YHA also offers three nights full-board festive breaks in 16 country locations, including the Lake District and north Wales, and several city hostels. A stay at Gradbach Mill in the Derbyshire Peak District costs pounds 89 per adult, pounds 69 for under-18s. Three nights full board at the Manchester Hostel (pounds 69 for adults, pounds 59 for under 18s), includes a tour of Manchester United Football Club, and discounts to other attractions.

Copt Oak, Leicestershire (YHA) 01722 337494; Baldersdale, Co Durham (YHA) 01629 825850; YHA Festive Breaks 01727 845047

ROOM AT THE INN

In Britain there are more and more rooms at the inn as hotels of all shapes and sizes jump on the festive bandwagon; country breaks and capital breaks, traditional breaks and themed breaks (eating your turkey and mince pies in Twenties dress at a Roaring Twenties party in Warwickshire; a murder-mystery evening in Belgravia; a Highland Fling in Ceilidh in Irvine; Victorian Parlour Games in Yorkshire). The common denominator is that prices at Christmas and New Year will soar. In mitigation, Dukes Hotel in London's St James suggests that on its three-night Christmas at the Races breaks, which include transport to Kempton Park in time for the 12.30 George VI Stakes, you might win back the pounds 550 you've forked out for its Christmas Special, which includes champagne, racing lunch and gala dinner.

In the capital, Claridge's Christmas extras on its four-day programme are discreet - Christmas concerts, a chauffeur-driven car on Christmas Eve to help with last-minute shopping, all at a mere pounds 160 per person per night, or pounds 225 in a single room. The Ritz ends its 90th birthday celebrations with a three-night Christmas finale for pounds 650.

Country Christmas celebrations come laden with mulled wine and visits to the local hunt, handbell ringers, falconry displays and Midnight Mass at the local village church. The Forte Group offers three different types of Christmas Break; the Traditional Christmas with carol singers and pantomime; Family Christmas with visits from Santa and children's activities; and the Peace and Quiet version where you do what you want. The three-night breaks cost from around pounds 200.

If you want to retreat deep into the country, then Congham Hall in Norfolk (three days for pounds 450) is handy for breezy coastal walks, wildlife reserves and visits to stately homes, and the Sandringham Estate, where the royals have their Christmas celebrations, is nearby.

Dedicated royal watchers, however, can do even better at Heritage House, the mock-Tudor semi in Wembley, where landlady Margaret Tyler, owner of 4,000 items of royal memorabilia and 1,400 books, plus a model of the Queen you can practice curtsying to, lays on a right royal Christmas. It's pounds 150 each for four days (half-price for children), with turkey off royal platters, royal videos, listening to the Queen's speech, of course, and afternoon tea with the family - royal cut outs.

After Christmas, perhaps the only New Year package you'll be able to stomach is at Champney's, the health resort in Tring, Hertfordshire, where stays include a fitness assessment, a healthy- eating programme, massages, a choice of over 100 revitalising spa treatments and 40 activities ranging from Hydro Fitness in the pool to Tai Chi. The cost is pounds 360 for two nights.

Hotels: Dukes Hotel 0171 491 4840; Claridge's Hotel 0171 629 8860; The Ritz 0171 493 8181; Congham Hall 01485 600250; Heritage House 0181 904 2452; Champney's 01442 863351. Hotel groups with Festive Breaks: Best Western 0181 541 5767; Forte Leisure Breaks 0345 700 350; Grand Heritage Hotels 0171 376 1777; Highlife Breaks 0800 700 400; Pride of Britain 01264 736604; Queens Moat House Hotels 0645 10 20 30; Rainbow Holidays 01904 643355; Small Luxury Hotels of the World 01372 361873; Superbreak 01904 679999; Thistle Hotels 0800 332244

PACKAGED CHRISTMAS

Popular package destinations to the Caribbean, Goa, Egypt and the Canaries are heavily booked for Christmas, but many tour operators report a fair choice of availability for those prepared to travel a week or so before Christmas, returning to the UK before the New Year.

Thomson Holidays, Britain's largest travel company, can offer two weeks from 14 December to the old Portuguese colony of Goa, where Christmas is a quaint mix of processions, fireworks and church services. The price of pounds 819 covers flights and bed and breakfast at the pleasant Dona Sylvia Hotel on the beach at Cavalossim, a small jolly resort south of busy Colva.

The cheapest guaranteed sizzling-sun destination is The Gambia, where 14-nights' half-board, leaving on 13 December costs pounds 664. Low-key sightseeing attractions include Banjul's market, an Abuko Nature Reserve trip, and the slave-trading post on Fort James Island, where Alex Haley claimed to have discovered his "Roots".

A two-week Kenya trip, leaving 15 December, which includes a three-night safari to Shimba Hills and Tsavo East and West costs pounds 1,315 half board.

Thomson Holidays 0990 502 399

SINGLES ONLY

If you're single and aged 30 to 69, singles specialist Solo's has a choice of more than 25 Christmas holidays, ranging from traditional UK hotel breaks with all the trimmings to Caribbean cruises.

For those looking for something a bit different, a seven-night Arctic Circle adventure in Lapland includes toboggan-racing, skiing, a snow-mobile rally, a reindeer ride, and possibly a husky safari. Departing 20 December, the price of pounds 1,165 covers flights and half-board accommodation.

Solo's 0181 951 2800

FARMHOUSE FESTIVITIES

Working farm and gasthof Christmas breaks in Carinthia in southern Austria, aimed at holidaymakers looking for an uncommercialised winter holiday, are on offer from specialist operator Austrian Pursuits. They're within reach of the winter sports facilities and thermal spa bathing of Bad Kleinkirchkeim nearby. A week's self-catering break at the 500-year-old Leebhof farmhouse is priced at pounds 150 per person, based on five sharing, inclusive of ferry fares for car and passengers.

In Tuscany, a restored 300-year-old farmhouse offers a more luxurious break for 12 people who'll pay a total of pounds 1,595 for the property, furnished with English and Italian antiques. The farm, Vaggio Saverno is close to Florence and Siena, and is available from villa specialist Tuscany Now. Flights and car hire are not included in the prices, but these can be arranged through the company.

Austrian Pursuits 01763 852646

Tuscany Now 0171 272 5469

THEMED NOEL

Three-night Christmas breaks at Paris Disneyland with Cresta Holidays cost pounds 305 per adult and pounds 83 for three to 11-year-olds (who share a room with their parents), the price including ferry fares for car and passengers, room-only accommodation and theme-park passes. Non-stop fun and frolics once you're there, with dinners every night.

At the Jolly Holiday Show in Times Square, in front of the Disney Hotel New York, characters sing and dance as you tuck into a three-course meal, for which tickets cost from pounds 57 per adult, pounds 28 per child. Streets of New York, a live Big Band Show costs pounds 62 and pounds 28 respectively.

Cresta Holidays 0161 926 9999

CROSSING THE CHANNEL

Gastronomic celebratory meals on Christmas Eve are promised by Inntravel on its three-night breaks to family-run auberges just across the Channel. A three-night break to La Ranconniere from 24 December, at a 15th-century manor farmhouse outside the hamlet of Crepon, 25 miles from Caen, costs pounds 222 half board. At a 300-year-old Norman inn, the Auberge du Val au Cesne, a few miles from the market town of Yvetot in Upper Normandy, the price is pounds 209. Just a few miles from Calais, a break at the Chateau des Tourelles, in the Picardy Hamlet of Le Wast, costs pounds 207. All prices include three- nights half-board accommodation with Christmas meal, and ferry crossing.

Inntravel 01653 628862

PAPAL CHRISTMAS

Well, almost. Festivities begin in Rome when crib and nativity scenes are set up in St Peter's Square two weeks before midnight mass in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. There are special celebrations in all the churches, and the Pope gives his traditional Christmas blessing to the multitudes on Christmas Day from the balcony of St Peter's.

Italian specialists Citalia offers an inclusive four-night bed and breakfast, break leaving 23 December, staying at the three-star San Remo hotel for pounds 312. Crystal Holidays offers two nights for pounds 319 to pounds 409, the price dropping to pounds 259 in time to catch the January sales.

Citalia 0181 686 5533

Crystal Holidays 0181 390 5554

THE TSAR'S BALL

Concorde and caviar galore on Goodwood Travel's New Year extravaganza to St Petersburg where you whirl in 1997 at the Tsar's Ball at the Palace, with a gala dinner accompanied by chamber and symphony orchestras, performances from the St Petersburg opera and Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Theatre. The price of pounds 2,495 includes flights by Concorde, three-nights at the Grand Hotel Europe, the Tsar's Ball and a visit to the Hermitage.

Goodwood Travel 01227 763366

CULTURAL CHRISTMAS

You get large dollops of culture with your Christmas dinner on Swan Hellenic's Christmas Escapes, with professors and other experts accompanying each tour and visits to museums and monasteries, galleries and palaces, concerts and cathedrals, all packing the itinerary.

Paintings and architecture are the highlights of the six-night Bruges visit from 21 to 27 December, which costs pounds 1,095, fully inclusive. There's a chance to attend Christmas Service at Bruges Cathedral on Christmas Day, and an excursion to Antwerp on Boxing Day.

On the most exotic Christmas offering, a five-night trip to Marrakesh (pounds l,295), you have Christmas lunch in the Atlas Mountains some 8,000 feet above sea level, spending Boxing Day visiting the little fishing port of Essaouira.

Most festive of all the European capitals, Vienna's celebrations last throughout December with its traditional 700-year-old Advent markets, the most glittering at Town Hall Square. Hand-carved wooden cribs are on display in St Peter's Church and there are free organ recitals in St Michael's. Swan Hellenic whisks holidaymakers from the markets to museums, from Rococo palaces to Gothic cathedrals, and from monasteries in the Vienna Woods to strudels in coffee houses. The week's tour costs pounds 1,495 inclusive.

Austrian National Tourist Office 0171 629 0461

Swan Hellenic Tours 0171 800 2200

MUSIC BREAKS

Travel for the Arts includes tickets for performances at the opera or ballet on its four- and five-day Christmas and New Year breaks.

On a four-day Joyeux Noel in Paris (pounds 625), you travel to the French capital by Eurostar, get tickets for the Nutcracker on Christmas Eve at Paris's old opera house, the Palais Garnier. You can eat a gastronomic dinner, have the chance to see the Houston Grand Opera on tour with Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the Opera Bastille, and visit a private art collection.

In Europe's 1996 cultural capital Copenhagen, the five-day (pounds 695) trip includes tickets for Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurmberg, and the ballet Hamlet at the Royal Theatre, plus a Christmas Day buffet, a tour of Denmark's castles, and a private backstage visit to the Royal Theatre.

To start the New Year, the firm is also offering a New Year's Eve performance of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, which is followed by a celebratory dinner in Lyon. On New Year's Day you can go on the Beaujolais trail with wine tastings at a private estate, and lunch at the Hameau du Vin. The four-day tour costs pounds 695.

Prices include flights, tickets, special meals, sightseeing and hotels.

Travel For The Arts 0171 483 4466

ART BREAKS

Art and architectural specialist Martin Randall Travel still has places for Christmas and New Year on its continental city breaks. Seven days in Prague, the city of 100 spires, seven hills, 17 bridges, four towns, 138 beers and an architectural dream with its density of buildings from Romanesque to Art Deco, costs pounds 1,240.

The only Polish city preserved from wartime destruction, Krakow, due to be European City of Culture in the year 2000, is also on the Martin Randall Christmas list. The week-long tour costs pounds 1,090 and includes visits to the painted wooden churches at Debno, Christmas lunch at a mountain inn in the resort of Zakopane, and two nights in painstakingly rebuilt Warsaw.

Classical archaeology is on the menu at New Year - an Argolid and Ancient Athens tour (pounds l,090 for a week) takes in Agamemnon's capital of Mycenae, Epidauros, Nemea and Argos, with New Year's Day in Athens.

All prices are fully inclusive and lecturers accompany the all tours.

Martin Randall Travel 0181 742 3355

HEADING OFF

Youth and independent specialist STA Travel can come up with far off flights for those who want to take off on their own. Some of the exotic spots include: Beijing for pounds 575 during December; Alaska for pounds 541 until 17 December, and pounds 771 from 18 to 31 December; Honolulu pounds 662 from 15 December; Estonia from pounds 252 until April 1997; and Marrakesh from pounds 271 (pounds 250 for students and under the age of 26). If you can spend a month away, you can jet to Rio de Janeiro from pounds 399, departing before 30 November or between 6 January and 15 March.

You can get even better bargains on departures between Christmas and New Year when return flights to New York, where you can join the New Year midnight run round Central Park, cost from pounds 199; Amsterdam pounds 82 - head for the fireworks in Haarlem; and to Hong Kong for pounds 474 for the last time that this vibrant city will see in the New Year as a British colony.

If you prefer traditional Hogmanay and you're a student or under 26, you can hit Scotland from Gatwick to Glasgow or from Stansted to Edinburgh for pounds 60 return.

STA Travel Europe 0171 361 6161

STA Travel Worldwide 0171 361 6262

For similar worldwide fares: Campus Travel 0171 730 2101; Trailfinders 0171 938 3366

THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON

Sherpa Expeditions has room on its expedition on 16 December to Uganda's Ruwenzori mountains. Not much chance of boredom on the 18-night trek - it includes an ascent of the three highest peaks in the range, a trek through forests of Afro Alpine plants, a trip to a chimpanzee sanctuary, a boat ride down the Kazinga Channel to view hippo, buffalo and elephant, plus game drives in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, home to the unique climbing lions of Uganda which shin up trees to escape the heat and dust of the plains. The cost of the trek is pounds 1,755 which covers flights, two- man tent and mountain-hut accommodation, most meals and porter support.

Sherpa Expeditions 0181 577 2717

CHRISTMAS IN A CANOE

Almost inaccessible except by canoe or light aircraft, it would be difficult to find a more isolated Christmas than in Botswana's watery wilderness, the Okavango Delta, the geographical freak in the heart of the Kalahari Desert. You spend Christmas Day in a dugout mokoro (the local canoe) exploring the Delta's labyrinth of channels and papyrus in search of the rare sitatunga, an aquatic antelope that appears to walk on water, as well as elephants, zebras, giraffes and hundreds of species of bird. The tour which also includes Namibia's huge Etosha Natural Park, former bushmen haunts and the old German colonial resort of Swakopmund costs pounds 1,765 for return flights, and camping with all meals.

Travelbag Adventures 01420 541007

MILD TURKEY

On Explore Worldwide's two-week Winter Turkey tour, you should enjoy mild weather, but without the tourist hordes of summer. After a couple of days in Istanbul plundering the bazaar for presents (alabaster, leather, silver and kilims are the best buys), you visit the rock and mineral formations of Pamukkale before heading south to the coast at Fethiye. Rambles to ancient ruins, time on deserted beaches, visits to small harbour towns and a boat trip to the sunken cities at Kekova fill the next 10 days. Leaving on 16 December, the escorted tour costs pounds 550 including flights and bed and breakfast at hotels.

Explore Worldwide 01252 319448

WHITE CHRISTMAS

Heading for the Himalayas over Christmas, Guerba Expeditions offers a 17-day trek beginning on 22 December, which visits Kathmandu, Namche Bazaar, the glaciers of Gokyo Valley and the monastery at Thyangboche. No, the expedition doesn't tackle Everest, but there are constant views of it plus the other 8,000-metre peaks Llotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu. The trek costs pounds 990 inclusive of internal flights, accommodation and some meals. Flights between the UK and Nepal, which can be arranged, cost from pounds 969 return.

Guerba Expeditions 01373 826611

PERUVIAN STUFFING

Journey Latin America has room on its South American tours. Peru for 24 days starting on 13 December costs pounds 1,439; 24 days in Brazil from 20 December is pounds 1,778; 15 days in Venezuela costs pounds 1,337 and a 24-day Brazil and Peru tour, departing 21 December, is pounds 2,995. All programmes include flights, the services of a tour leader and surface transport, some provide hotel accommodation.

Journey Latin America 0181 747 8315

UNDISCOVERED CARIBBEAN

While Caribbean prices and crowds rocket at Christmas, the peak time, the reefs and cays of Central America share the same climate and seas, but in unspoilt tranquillity.

Mayan ruins, rainforests, a variety of eco- systems and the largest reef for the best diving in the western hemisphere are added attractions in Belize, the eccentric former British colony, where the tiny cays have all the laid-back charm of Key West before Hemingway got there.

Costa Rica has more natural history, wildlife and bio-diversity than any country of its size, while Honduras is just arriving on the tourist map for adventurous travellers.

The ecological tour specialists, Reef and Rainforest Tours, can arrange individual tailor- made tours or escorted itineraries for about pounds 1,250 for two weeks, not including international air fares (which can also be arranged).

Reef and Rainforest Tours 01803 866965

HELP! WORKING CHRISTMAS

Conservation charity Earthwatch needs volunteers to work alongside experts on its worldwide environmental projects. From 13-29 December, for example, it needs helpers to unearth tools, coins and jewellery in a Copper Age religious sanctuary used from 2500BC to AD300, at Son Mas in northern Mallorca, where teams have so far discovered translucent blue Phoenician beads, 3,000 year-old fire pits, Roman coins and prized "Beaker" pottery dating back to 2500BC. Volun-teers spend Christmas with the project scientist and his family, staying in their house amid lemon and olive groves. The cost is pounds 990, which includes all accommodation and food, but not flights.

Earthwatch 01865 311 600

RIDE IN THE NEW YEAR

You can see the New Year in on horseback on Inntravel's riding holiday in Andalucia, leaving 28 December. Riders stay at the Finca Los Romeros riding centre on the Costa de la Luz, the unknown Spanish coast with empty white beaches, and pine forests to ride through, and nature reserves to visit. On the horses day off, there's a trip to the Royal Equestrian School at the sherry capital of Jerez de la Frontera.

A week's full-board with flights, free wine, New Year's Eve party and five-days riding costs pounds 846.

Inntravel 01653 628862

THAI BREAKS

Start your New Year resolutions early at Thailand's Chiva-Som health spa, where the chef has created a lavish six-course New Year's Eve banquet totalling a mere 800 calories. Thai and Swedish massage, health and beauty consultations and demonstrations of batik, pottery and Thai dance are also on the menu of Asia's only dedicated health spa, alongside the beach at the resort of Hua Hin. Five nights of pampering, inclusive of flights costs pounds 1,299 with a supplement of pounds 125 per person if travelling between 10 and 25 December.

Silverbird Travel 0181 875 9090

! All companies in this guide predicted availability at the time of going to press

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