Those dreaming of a genuine white Christmas (as opposed to the artificial snow variety) should head high into the hills, or at least to resorts with a nearby glacier if they want guaranteed skiing as well. There might be snow lower down, but it's not worth ski fanatics paying the heavy high-season premium that usually applies even to resorts that have a dismal snow record early in the season.
Alas, the highest of all, the purpose-built French ski resorts, are about as cosy at Christmas as Terminal Four of Heathrow Airport. For a real chocolate-box Christmas, Saas Fee, Wengen and especially Murren in Switzerland, Megeve and even modern Valmorel in France, and Alpbach, Kitzbuehl and Seefeld in Austria, win on traditional schmaltz, though the skiing possibilities are riskier.
High altitude Obergurgl in Austria has been a festive favourite ever since Swiss balloonist Auguste Piccard 'discovered' the village hidden in the isolated Otz Valley in 1931, when he dropped in by accident in his record-making hot air balloon. Obergurgl's skiing and that of its satellite Hochgurgl is best suited to beginners and intermediates. All the ingredients and atmosphere of a small village are there in plenty, plus some good hotel accommodation and a surprisingly lively nightlife.
A week in an average hotel, half board, from 19 December costs pounds 503. The following week, from 26 December, which includes the even livelier New Year celebrations, costs pounds 566. A week from the low season, starting 9 January, drops to pounds 389 (from most ski firms).
Singles specialist Solo's (tel: 081-202 0855) offers seasonal breaks for two age groups, 30-49 and 50-69, in a choice of locations at home and abroad. The company likes to balance sexes on its holidays, but can't guarantee to do so.
For the lower age group, four nights at The Belfry in North Warwickshire with free golf, tea dances and theatre visit will cost
pounds 399, while for the same price the over-fifties can enjoy their Christmas at the Highcliffe Hotel in Brighton. Foreign holidays include The Gambia, Tenerife, Rome and trekking in Nepal. A week in Sousse, Tunisia (for the over-fifties) costs pounds 635 from 19 December, and pounds 655 from 26 December.
A MOVEABLE FEAST
On 23 December, the Royal Scotsman luxury train sets off from London on a five-night tour. Stately homes visited include Highclere Castle, Newbury, home of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, the Queen's racing manager; Chawton House near Alton, the former home of Jane Austen; and Belvoir Castle, home of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland. On Christmas Eve guests are invited to a carol service and drinks at Avington Park, and on Christmas Day they can join morning worship at Winchester Cathedral. Accommodation on board the train is in state cabins. All meals, including a five-course Christmas lunch, wines and drinks, as well as excursions are included in the price of pounds 2,750 per person. Not surprisingly, the pounds 3,300 six-day New Year tour is centred on Scotland, with visits to Glamis Castle, Ballindalloch Castle and Stirling Castle. Further details and bookings from Abercrombie and Kent on 071-730 9600.
Volunteers bringing working clothes, good waterproofs, and enthusiasm and energy are needed for a variety of country tasks organised by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV).
Christmas and New Year projects include tree felling and planting, coppicing, hedge laying and scrub clearance. From 21-28 December, for example, volunteers at Hutton Cranswick in East Yorkshire will be planting hedges, with hundreds of over-wintering wading birds for company.
Accommodation is simple, clean and warm, with all meals provided. Whether Christmas Day will be just another working day, or a day off, depends on the mood of the leader and the group. On the same dates, another group of volunteers will be removing encroaching scrub on Snelsmore Common in west Berkshire, which contains the largest remaining tract of open heathland in the country. 'We will be spending Christmas in the comfort of a nearby countryside centre, where . . . you'll be able to escape the relatives in style]' promises BTCV.
The cost of these breaks varies - yes, volunteers do have to pay to work - according to the accommodation; the price for Hutton Cranswick is pounds 40. Travel costs are not included. Volunteers must also first become members of the BTCV, which costs pounds 6 for students/unemployed/retired, pounds 12 for an adult, pounds 17 for family members. For details of membership phone BTCV, tel: 0491 839766.
A LAPFUL OF SANTAS
Wasn't it Santa who used to visit us? Now, thanks to the ingenuity of the British tour operator, Santas and reindeer galore are waiting in Lapland for an annual invasion to jet in and visit them in situ.
Canterbury Travel (tel: 081- 206 0411) has really refined the business. Before going on their trips children write to Santa (care of the UK office) and yo- ho-ho, when they meet him in Lapland, he'll have their presents ready, unless, the firm cautions parents, 'the elves are swept off their feet by demand for a particular item'.
On the three-night holiday, guests look for Santa by skidoo, husky dogs and reindeer one day, continue the search on cross-country skis the next, and finally track him down on the fourth day. There's also a Lapp banquet with the local speciality: reindeer. The trip costs from pounds 800 full board. A one-day tour with skidoos and reindeer trip (not feast), and of course the meeting with Santa, costs from pounds 395. Both these holidays offer discounts for children.
For those who want to ski in Finland, with optional excursions to Santa, snowmobile safaris and ice fishing, Finnchalet (tel: 0764 670020) offers a seven-day self-catering holiday from pounds 495 per person.
Waymark Holidays (phone 0753 516477) organises skiing at Akaslompolo, inside the Arctic Circle, visits by Santa and reindeer; seven nights cost from pounds 665 with full board.
For the child who has everything, Goodwood Travel (tel: 0227 763336) offers Santa - reindeer, sleigh and all - in a hectic few hours. Return flight by Concorde, all for pounds 1,745. Flying Concorde one way and private jet the other, with a night's stay at the Hotel Pohjanhovi, a mass of entertainment - and Santa - costs pounds 1,395.
Unicorn Holidays (tel: 0582 834400) has selected a number of French chateaux that are situated within a comfortable drive of the Channel ports, where either Christmas or New Year can be celebrated in considerable style.
At the 'historic' Chateau de Fere (the historic bits are the ruins in the grounds) near Rheims, in the heart of the Champagne country, a three- night half-board stay - with all meals provided on Christmas Day - costs pounds 530 per person, including the return crossing on the ferry.
The Chateau Hotel Belle Isle near Pont Audemer in Normandy has a heated indoor swimming pool where guests can work off some of the excess eating on their three-night, half- board stay which costs pounds 435, travelling on the Dover-Calais route, or their four nights with travel on the Portsmouth-Le Havre service for pounds 570.
Because top French chefs prefer to leave the menu planning as late as possible once they've seen what foods are in prime condition, it is still too early to know what will be offered for Christmas Eve dinner, but it won't be the turkey and trimmings. Three-night New Year celebrations are also available from pounds 320.
Narrow boats with traditional wood-burning stoves for cosy winter nights offer an unusual Christmas break. And though they may look like their freight- carrying counterparts from the heyday of the 19th century, the old bargees would not recognise their fully equipped kitchens, central heating, running hot and cold water and colour television.
Blakes (0603 782911) is offering 2-10 berth drive-yourself narrowboats from pounds 499 for seven nights on the Llangollen and Four Counties Ring, which is often described as the most beautiful canal in Britain. Highlights include tunnels and aqueducts built by the engineering genius Thomas Telford.
While a possible disadvantage of narrowboats is that the skipper must brave the elements to steer the boat, all-enclosed cabin cruisers are the norm on the Norfolk Broads, the easiest waterway to navigate, since there are no locks, and the Broadland services and pubs are highly organised.
A two-berth cruiser with all mod cons costs pounds 296 a week; a boat sleeping 6-8 costs pounds 653.
WALKING IT OFF
The white villages of Andalucia are the base for Waymark's Christmas walking holidays in Spain. The walks are guided, about five to six miles each, through lovely rolling hills packed with Moorish history. Also available is a day excursion by train to Ronda, one of Spain's most fascinating towns.
The Hostal el Anon at Jimena de la Frontera, where guests stay on this 10-night holiday, is something of a feature in itself, having been converted from several old village houses, with no two rooms or even levels alike. The 10-night, half- board holiday departs on 23 December, and costs from pounds 545. Waymark, tel: 0753 516477.
For walking holidays in this country, HF Holidays bases them on their own properties, which range from the Highlands of Scotland to south-west Cornwall, with traditional celebrations at Christmas. A four- night 'Festive Walking' break starting on 23 December costs from pounds 230, a Special House Party (for older holidaymakers) from pounds 234, both full board. Phone HF Holidays 081- 905 9558; brochure requests (24 hours) 081-905 9388.
The Slovenian poet Frances Preseren described the little lakeside town of Bled as a 'silent mountain paradise'. On Christmas Eve the silent paradise echoes to the sound of traditional bell-ringing, and carols are sung by the local children's choir. As part of an unusual Christmas Eve organised by tour operators Abercrombie and Kent (tel: 071-730 9600) visitors stay at the Villa Bled, on the shores of the lake and once the summer residence of the Karageorgevich, the former Yugoslav royal dynasty.
The villa was rebuilt in the 1950s for President Tito; there he entertained Eden, Nasser and most of the leaders from both both sides of the Iron Curtain. It became a hotel in 1984, is now a member of the Relais and Chateaux group and with its architecture and design largely untouched since Tito's day, offers a pleasantly dated atmosphere with enormous bedrooms, broad corridors and acres of marble. There's access to a heated indoor pool, a golf course and skiing nearby. A two-night break with breakfast costs pounds 388; four nights pounds 496.
Flanesford Priory, near Ross- on-Wye in Herefordshire, was the last monastery founded in England, in 1340, paid for with ransom money for French prisoners. It has been converted to top-class self-catering accommodation - much favoured by French holidaymakers.
Close to the banks of the river, the Brecon Beacons and the Malvern hills, Flanesford is within walking distance of three pubs and a village shop - though some visitors try their hand at catching their own meals on the River Wye, for which a licence is required.
There is an assortment of accommodation, from a ground- floor studio sleeping two people ( pounds 348 for a week) to a three- storey house sleeping up to 12 ( pounds 642). The award-winning converted Cider Mill, sleeping up to eight people, still has a working cider press, with two double bedrooms (and four-poster beds) and even a whirlpool bath big enough for two people, and costs pounds 682 for the week.
All the accommodation has log fires - an initial basket of logs is supplied - colour television, fully equipped kitchens, washing machine and dryer, and a hamper of food on arrival. Details from Blakes Country Cottages on 0603 783221.
Guest lecturers and experts in art, history, architecture and monasticism are a feature of Swan Hellenic's Christmas Breaks, and the company will also arrange Midnight Mass, Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day lunch.
Translator, interpreter and London University lecturer
David Budgen will be accompanying an eight-day tour of Galilee and the Holy Land. Christmas Eve will be spent in Jerusalem, visiting the Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall and the Islamic Museum, before driving to Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity.
Christmas Day is spent at Tiberias, on the shores of Lake Galilee, and includes a visit to Tabgha, the traditional site of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the Mount of the Beatitudes where the Sermon of the Mount took place. The eight-day tour, which departs on 21 December, costs pounds 1,595.
A new Christmas destination, Krakow, in Poland, offers a glimpse of its wealth of medieval and Renaissance architecture, its historic churches and ancient castles. And as well as guiding his charges round this fascinating city, monastic and classical expert Dr Robert Anderson will also introduce them to the 'Black Madonna' in the Paulite Monastery at Czestochowa; at Wadowice, birthplace of Pope John Paul II, they'll have Christmas dinner, and they'll also visit the saltmines of Wieliczka, which have been a source of natural salt for over 5,000 years and were once described by an 18th century visitor as being as 'remarkable as the pyramids and more useful'. Highlight of the tour, which descends to 135 metres, is the chapel, where everything - including the altar, pulpit, a bas-relief based on Leonardo's Last Supper and even the chandeliers - is carved out of salt. The eight-day tour from 22-29 December costs pounds 895.
The tours to Galilee and to Krakow, as well as others to Bruges, Innsbruck, Rouen, Morocco and Algeria, are from Swan Hellenic at 77 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1PP, (tel 071-831 1515).
There'll be 750 lbs of Christmas pudding made on board the QE2 this December, at least 100 15lb turkeys dished up and 3,200 bottles of champagne served. The amount of tinfoil used would be enough to wrap up the QE2 17 times. Activity and entertainment are similarly lavish, ports of call the high spots of the Caribbean, and those who want a real sea voyage can add on the five-day Transatlantic crossing from Southampton to New York before the Christmas cruise begins.
Prices for the 12-night fly/cruise only from 21 December-2 January, flying from either London or Manchester to Fort Lauderdale and then by ship to Nassau, St Thomas, Barbados, Grenada, Venezuela, Curacao and St Martin, are from pounds 1,495- pounds 1,560. Phone Cunard on 071-491 3930.
P&O's Canberra is sticking to European and North African waters for her 13-night cruise from 22 December to 4 January, prices from pounds 1,090 upwards. Carols, a 'hilarious panto', quizzes, competitions and fireworks, a Junior Club for young children (yes, there's a visit from Santa), and another for teenagers, with Madeira, Tenerife, Agadir, Gibraltar and Grand Canary in between.
P&O are at 77 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1PP, tel: 071-831 1331.
An interesting and modestly priced programme from Scandinavian Seaways combines a mini cruise from Harwich to either Denmark, Sweden or Germany, with a chance to experience a Nordic Christmas in any of the countries.
The five-night break to Denmark, for example, with two nights on board ship, allows three nights in the Danish town of Horsens in an 18th-century manor house (now modernised), where, having been welcomed by a glass of glogg, guests will tackle a traditional Christmas Eve feast of roast duck, boiled and brown sugar potatoes and red cabbage. There are excursions and sightseeing for the rest of the three days ashore, before re-embarking on 28 December. The cost is pounds 336 for adults, pounds 224 for children (some meals are extra). Phone Scandinavian Seaways on 0255 241234.
A CAPITAL TIME
With the mainstay of the hotel industry, the business traveller, safely back home, London's hotels are offering special deals to attract Christmas guests with greatly reduced room rates, themed festive meals and other entertainments.
At the Cumberland Hotel (tel: 071-262 1234), at Marble Arch, children are accommodated free in their parents' room, which costs pounds 49.50 a night. The Gala Dinner has a Dracula theme and the West End theatres and shops are on the doorstep.
Le Meridien (tel: 071-734 8000), in Piccadilly, offers rooms for pounds 135 per night, and a special Gallic Reveillon de Noel dinner on Christmas Eve.
The Carnarvon Hotel (tel: 081-992 5399) in Ealing is offering Christmas with a 1920s swing, including a Great Gatsby Ball, with live jazz and 'festive fayre'. Accommodation with breakfast is pounds 125 per couple.
In the luxury range, the Four Seasons Hotel (until recently the Inn on the Park, tel: 071-499 0888) allows two people to stay for any three nights between 15 December and the 6 January on a special 'Christmas Stocking' package which includes Champagne, a city guide, English breakfast, afternoon tea and a gift. Visitors arriving by train or at Heathrow will be collected by chauffeured limousine. The cost of pounds 555 represents a 50 per cent saving on normal costs.
A comprehensive list of Christmas and New Year celebrations compiled by the London Tourist Board is available from Tourist Information Offices, as is 'Events in London - November 1993-January 1994'. This listing, which highlights events suitable for children, includes Gerry Cottles Christmas Circus at Wembley (tel: 081-900 2468), ballet performances, pantomines and the Teddy Bears Concert at the Barbican (tel: 071-638 8891) and many other events.
IN THE COUNTRY
A wide range of country hotels in the UK offers traditional breaks. At Bodysgallen Hall, for example, an old manor house in north Wales restored by Historic House Hotels, there's a Welsh flavour to the four-day breaks, with music from Welsh harps, a male-voice choir, local seafood and a Boxing Day picnic to take on a drive round the splendours of Snowdonia and the coast. The overall cost is pounds 500 (tel: 0492 584466)
Since Christmas has been celebrated at Ockenden Manor in Sussex from the 16th century, guests are invited to dress in Tudor costume to recreate the period atmosphere. Candlelit dinner and classical music are supplied in the panelled Elizabethan dining room, with midnight Mass at Cuckfield's Norman Church and a medieval Boxing Day supper with musicians playing medieval and Renaissance instruments ( pounds 349 for 3-night break, pounds 420 for accommodation in a four-poster bed, tel: 0444 416111).
There's plenty of action on offer at Ayrshire's Turnberry Hotel (tel: 0655 31000) during their luxury break - golf, tennis, fishing, shooting and riding are available. For a relaxed go-as-you-please Christmas prices start at pounds 72.50 per person per night, the high jinks reserved for the Hogmanay package lasting three nights at pounds 650, with a New Year's Eve gala dinner, New Year Day Golf Trophy, jazz brunch and Venetian masked ball. Guests might well be in need of the Turnberry Spa with aromatherapy, hydrotherapy and massage, a cardiovascular and muscular gymnasium, squash court and other fitness paraphernalia.
Not all country breaks are in the break-the-bank bracket. With the Youth Hostels Association, for example, a three- night break at the High Close Hostel in the Lake District costs just pounds 75 per adult, pounds 65 for under-18s. The Victorian house is above the Langdale Valley. Christmas meals are promised in front of the fire in the banqueting hall. Twenty YHA hostels are offering breaks for Christmas on a full-board basis, seven for the New Year. For vegetarians, two hostels, Youlgreave in Derbyshire and Holly How at Coniston, offer non- meat menus, while Ravenstor near Buxton offers both traditional and vegetarian menus. Tel: 0727 855215
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