TRAVEL / Way out, or out of this world: From truffle-hunting in Umbria to polar bear watching in Canada, Jill Crawshaw uncovers trips with a twist

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The Independent Culture
ALTERNATIVE LIVING

For those who find that conventional holidays offer little insight into the countries they visit, the Experiment in International Living brochure, Worldwide Homestays 94, will seem like a breath of fresh air. The Polynesian islands of Bora-Bora, Moorea and Tahiti are the latest destinations where the company can arrange for you to stay with local families and take part in the life of the community. Among the most popular countries are Japan and Italy. But for the best hospitality choose India or Ecuador; both are marvellously welcoming. Two weeks with an Indian family costs pounds 193; in Polynesia pounds 473 (travel extra).

Worldwide Homestays, tel: 0684 562577.

THE BEE'S KNEES

The holiday course for beginners and experts alike, based in the hamlet of Valcebollere in the Cerdagne mountains, reveals French methods of keeping bees and producing honey. The host and chef of the Auberge des Ecureils takes guests to mountain hives, to the museum of apiculture, to honey tastings, and serves meals using traditional Pyrenean recipes, including honey. The four-night all-inclusive trip in June costs pounds 199 self-drive, pounds 329 by air.

InnTravel also offers a series of riding and cycling tours or walks, guided or independent, that link rural inns, logis and farmhouses in France, Switzerland, Italy and Norway. A new walk in August, 'In the footsteps of Whymper' from Zinal to Zermatt, led by a mountain guide, follows the trail of the British mountaineer Edward Whymper. Participants need not be expert climbers, but they should be fit. Price pounds 549 including fares.

InnTravel, tel: 0439 71111.

BUDDHIST PILGRIMAGES

Off-the-beaten treks this year from Himalayan Kingdoms include Mount Kailaish Pilgrimage to circumambulate the Himalayas' holiest mountain. Buddhist pilgrims circle the mountain three or 13 times, prostrating themselves, believing that each passage helps the peace of the dead. Using the newly opened route for western Nepal, the Mount Kailash walk takes four days and is part of a 26-day trip which includes Kathmandu. Price pounds 3,150.

Another pilgrim route, which also takes in Nepal, visits two of Tibet's most famous Buddhist monasteries, Ganden and Samye, as well as the Potala, the palace of the Dalai Lamas. The price is pounds 2,685 for three weeks.

A less strenuous three-week Genghis Khan Trek in Outer Mongolia is timed to coincide with Mongolian National Day celebrations of wrestling, archery and racing at Karakorum, Genghis Khan's old capital. The pounds 2,250 trip also takes in Peking, Ulan Bator and a journey along part of the Trans Siberian Express. Flights included in all prices.

Himalayan Kingdoms, tel: 0272 237163.

HUNTING THE TRUFFLE

The eight holidaymakers on the first Great Truffle Hunt in Umbria last year found 32 of the incomparable delicacies. This has inspired the Alternative Travel Group to organise further hunts for connoisseurs. There are 5,000 species of fungi in Europe, of which 1,000 are edible; twenty, including the cep (Boletus edulis) and the common morel (Morchella esculenta), are prized for their gastronomic excellence. Great Mushroom Hunts take place in the hills and valleys of Montefeltro in Italy and in the Cevennes, France. Great Orchid Hunts take place in Sicily, in the Gargano Peninsula and in the National Park of Sibilline in Italy.

The connoisseur hunt costs about pounds 750 a week with all food, wine and accommodation included, but not fares.

Alternative Travel Group, tel: 0865 310399.

LLAMA TREKKING

The llamas carry baggage or children (you walk) round the Massif des Caroux in the south Cevennes. Led by their Colombian minder, they're gentle and sure-footed among forgotten tracks and wild mountain passes. Overnights are in farmhouses en route. The pounds 430 price includes all meals. For those who prefer to ride, there are seven-day donkey treks without a guide in the Haut Languedoc for pounds 270. (Rail, ferry or air fares can be booked but cost extra.) These and other unusual activity holidays and self-catering properties from:

La France des Villages, tel: 0449 737664.

MARATHONS AND MUD HOTELS

The annual six-day Marathon des Sables, 134 miles through the Sahara in April, is probably the world's toughest race. For those who are fit or certifiable, The Best of Morocco will organise entry for pounds 1,500, including the air fare.

For a less strenuous glimpse of the Sahara, the firm also organises a Mini Camel Trek for two days from Zagora, with an overnight stay in a Berber tent ( pounds 45) which can be taken as an addition to other Moroccan holidays.

A three-day High Atlas Trek, with mules to carry luggage and Berber village accommodation, costs from pounds 159- pounds 285 (excluding air fares). Other walking, horse-trekking and white-water rafting holidays are also organised by Moroccan specialists, as is a stay in a desert oasis auberge made of packed mud.

Best of Morocco, tel: 0380 828533.

POLAR BEAR WATCHING

There are lots of adventures in Arctic Experiences' 1994 programme. They include Hiking with Huskies in the Yukon ( pounds 1,797 for 12 days); Iceland Skidoo Safaris ( pounds 1,172 for eight days) and an in-depth 'mushing' course in Lapland for those who want to drive their own dog team ( pounds 1,350 for eight days). In Canada, an Ice Bear tour takes place in Churchill, Manitoba, one of the few places where the normally solitary polar bears can be seen in groups, watched from the comfort of a 'tundra buggy' ( pounds 1,566 for eight days). All prices include flights.

Arctic Experience, tel: 0737 362321.

REEFS AND RAINFORESTS

Probably the most exciting and adventurous country left to explore, Papua New Guinea is the latest destination to be featured by ecological specialists Reef and Rainbow Forest Tours. In this land of extremes - the terrain varies from 15,000ft mountains to vast swamps and savannahs, from tropical and alpine forests to active volcanoes and coral reefs - itineraries include canoeing to uninhabited islands, diving on the reefs, searching for tree kangaroos, high-altitude orchids and birds of paradise, and visiting tribespeople in their isolated villages. A 16-day tour costs pounds 1,786.

Other unusual destinations include Argentina, Belize, Costa Rica and Madagascar, where all the island's mammals, 225 of its 257 reptile species and 80 per cent of its plants are found nowhere else in the world. White-water rafting, whale watching, riding and other activities are included in the tours where possible.

Reef and Rainforest Tours, tel: 071-381 2204.

(Photographs omitted)

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