TRAVEL; The great escape begins

For winter sunshine, bargain fares, or ways to avoid Christmas, Jill Crawshaw selects some low-season breaks
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The Independent Culture
AFFORDABLE FLIGHTS

November, the first half of December and January are the best months of the year for flight bargains, with new discounts appearing daily. Air Fares offers some excellent deals throughout the world, travelling mainly by the charter airline Britannia. Return fares to the Canaries cost pounds 125 to Tenerife, and pounds 119 to Lanzarote and the very quiet Fuerteventura. Other sunny bargains are Israel pounds 169; Egypt (Luxor) pounds 205; and The Gambia pounds 229.

Flights to Orlando in Florida for pounds 245 include self-drive car hire (but not collision damage waiver insurance - an extra pounds 13 per day). There are pre-Christmas flights to Jamaica for pounds 225; Barbados pounds 253; St Lucia pounds 275 and Dominican Republic pounds 299. All prices are for Gatwick departures; add pounds l0-pounds 20 for Manchester.

Some of the cheapest fares ever to Australia and New Zealand will be departing mid-November. Austravel, who specialialise in Australasia, also use Britannia charters (25 hours plus for Australia, 30 hours and more for New Zealand), and passengers may stay away for up to eight weeks. From Gatwick to Perth costs pounds 339 return; from Gatwick or Manchester to Adelaide or Melbourne pounds 449 return.

Using scheduled Royal Brunei Air-lines, Jetset offer return flights from Heathrow to Darwin and Perth for pounds 611 during November and pounds 744 in early December.

STA Worldwide, specialists in travel for students and young people, also have a range of low-cost flights available to passengers of all ages; a round-the-world trip that's available in November and December (but excluding Christmas) costs pounds 854 (pounds 748 for students and under 26s) from London to Dubai-Singapore-Brunei-Brisbane, then surface to Sydney, and resumed flight to Los Angeles-Dallas-New York-London.

Air Fares 0171-707 9000; Austravel 0171-734 7755; Jetset 0161 9530920; STA Worldwide 0171-361 6262

INTRIGUING INTERLUDE

For travellers who would like to experience something new, Jasmin Tours' Iran Express is an eight-day tour visiting Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan. The price is pounds 799 b&b, including visas and airport charges. You are also given a complimentary headscarf, and guidance on conforming to the country's Islamic social and dress codes.

Jasmin Tours 01628 531121

PYRAMID SELLING

It is doubtful that there will ever be better bargain packages than those heading eastwards this winter using charter flights; they're also well worth considering for independent travellers who want principally to take the flights and use the hotel just as a base for exploring. Thomson Fara- way Shores offers some of the best.

In Luxor, Egypt, the temperature is much more pleasant in winter than in summer and it rarely rains. A week's b&b staying in the modern, air- conditioned Novotel costs from pounds 249-pounds 296, or pounds 305-pounds 349 for four nights in the hotel (b&b) and a three-night Nile cruise with full board.

Thomson Faraway Shores

0171-707 9000

CEYLON, FAREWELL

Sri Lanka is another top deal with Thomson Faraway Shores this winter: a week's half board in November costs pounds 425 and in December pounds 459; even better are two weeks at pounds 469 and pounds 609 respectively. The accommodation is at the small but friendly Hotel Hibiscus (they even put flowers on your pillow) on the somewhat narrow Kalutara Beach. It's a cheap and ideal base from which to explore Sri Lanka's fascinating interior of crumbling temples and fortresses, national parks, the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya and the ancient capital Kandy. Sri Lanka is small enough to organise such sightseeing independently, though Thomson's offer a week's tour plus a week on the beach for pounds 669-pounds 709. For beach addicts there's lots of sand at the Tangerine Beach Hotel (pounds 569 for a week's b&b.) while a week at the only five star hotel, the Triton Beach, costs pounds 789 (also b&b).

But the best bargains of the whole year are just before Christmas, when operators may offer holidays of five, 12 or 19 nights so as to avoid Christmas Day flights. In Kenya, for example, a 19-night half board holiday from 3-21 December at the excellent Diani Beach costs pounds 605, about the same as three nights in a top London hotel.

Thomson Faraway Shores

0171-707 9000

JUST GOA FOR IT

Goa has less sightseeing potential than Sri Lanka, but it has been extremely popular for the past three years because of its superb beaches and direct flights to Dabolim, which enable travellers to avoid the frequent nightmares of Delhi Airport. Goa is ideal India for beginners - an India with less hassle, less heat and less poverty. One week with Thom-son Faraway Shores at the simple Marinha Dorada Hotel near Calan-gute and Baga costs pounds 375- pounds 455 b&b.

Thomson Faraway Shores

0171-707 9000

DHOW DO THEY DO THAT?

The international charity Earth-watch, which runs environmental and cultural projects around the world, is looking for volunteers (who pay for the privilege) to research the mysteries of the Arab dhow in Oman this winter. Arabs have been building dhows for 4,000 years, but boat builders with the knowledge to construct them - they're sewn together, using neither nails nor screws - are dwindling. Volunteers will help record their vanishing skills for posterity. The pounds 995 cost covers food and board for two weeks in early and late December, but excludes flights.

Other Earthwatch winter projects include the excavation of a Bronze Age settlement in northern Thailand, research into pre-colonial commerce along the Kenyan coast, and studying the floral temple decorations and offerings in Bali.

Earthwatch 01865 311600

HOW TO AVOID CHRISTMAS

For the apparently increasing number of holidaymakers who are anxious to get as far from Christmas as possible, a number of treks and expeditions guarantee no turkey or tinsel.

With Sherpa Expeditions you could be on your way to the Moun-tains of the Moon. The 19-day trip to Uganda, leaving on 11 December, includes hippo-viewing, chimpanzee-watching, and serious trekking through forests of giant Afro-alpine plants towards the mountain range, as well as ascents of Mounts Speke, Margherita and Baker.

December 25 is spent in Queen Elizabeth National Park with a chance of spotting tree-climbing lions (the ground is so dusty they take to the branches), The cost is pounds 1,555 which includes return flights, four nights hotel with breakfast, the remainder camping, with all meals.

Other holidaymakers will spend Christmas Day on top of Sumatra's Mount Sibayak, still known to spit out fumes, on Explore Worldwide's 15-day tour learning about the diverse tribal cultures of Sumatra, visiting the Toba Batak tribe on Samosir Island, and local clans around Lake Maninaiau. Departing on 17 December, the trip costs pounds 1,179, covering flights and mainly b&b hotel accommodation,

Finally, on a 24-day tour of Nepal, also from Explore Worldwide, whitewater rafting and rhino- and tiger-watching are on the agenda. The price of pounds 1,645 includes flights and a combination of hotel and camping accommodation, with some meals.

Sherpa Expeditions 0181-577 2717; Explore Worldwide 01252 319448

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