Family Travel: How to chase the winter sun Q&A

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered

Q.We have had two excellent family summer holidays in Tenerife, and are thinking of going back to the Canaries for some winter sun. Our teenage son and daughter are big on windsurfing and other watersports. My husband and I enjoy exploring by car and hiking in the mountains. Can you give us some advice on the relative merits of the different islands, particularly the lesser-known ones, and some ideas for villas or good quality self-catering?

K & PJ Lammerton,

Ipswich

A.First, a word of caution. While the Canaries do offer the nearest reliable winter sun to northern Europe, their climate is decidedly untropical. Typically, the weather from November to March is like a summer on England's South coast - the occasional cool or rainy day between warm, sunny periods. Swimming in the sea is fine for those who like it bracing.

You will also find the winter atmosphere in the Canaries very different from the summer. Nightlife in the big resorts is far more muted. The young people in the bars and discos are mostly upwards of 20; many of them are couples with pre-school children. The teen scene just doesn't get off the ground.

However, if your children are really keen on windsurfing, you should consider Fuerteventura (which means "strong wind" in Spanish). Year round, you see hundreds of brightly-coloured sails zipping to and fro off the resorts of Corralejo and Gandia. Fuerteventura also has some of the best beaches in the Canaries, with huge expanses of fine golden sand and undulating dunes. However, the island is rather barren and, of course, windy. Sovereign (08705 768373) has villas at Corralejo, sleeping four, from pounds 419 per person including flights and car hire.

The other desert-like island is Lanzarote but this is much more developed than Fuerteventura, with busy tourist resorts at Arrecife and Puerto del Carmen (the latter being my favourite because it has more of a heart to it). If you don't mind black sand, the beach is good too with plenty of water sports available.

As far as exploring is concerned, Lanzarote has a dramatic hinterland of lava fields in the Timanfaya National Park, and a live volcano.

Meon Villas (01730 230370) has a selection of villas and cottages with pools in and around Puerto del Carmen. A two-bedroom cottage in January and February costs from pounds 363 per person, including flights and car hire.

However, what both Fuerteventura and Lanzarote lack, is the lush, green mountain scenery that attracts walkers, particularly in winter. For this, you need to go over to the western Canaries. You know Tenerife already, of course, but in winter it is that much more spectacular, with the heights of mountain Teide glistening with snow. Many walkers and tranquillity- seekers head for remote La Gomera or La Palma. However, here the beaches and watersports are very limited, so it clearly would not meet your children's needs.

Which leaves Gran Canaria. Circular and bang in the middle of the archipelago, this island combines the best of both worlds - some fabulous beaches and raw terrain like the eastern islands but coupled with a beautiful lush interior of mountain trails, wild flowers and stunning scenery (reminiscent of Tenerife and the western islands).

Most of Gran Canaria's tourist accommodation is concentrated on the south coast, in a long, sprawling resort encompassing, from east to west, San Austin, Playa de Ingles and the more exclusive Maspalomas where there are massive sand dunes ending at a headland. JMC Holidays (0870 6075085) has two-bedroom apartments in Maspalomas from pounds 231 per person based on four sharing, including flights and transfers.

Q.My nine-year-old twins are doing a school geography project on limestone caves. They are too young for caving. Can you suggest some caverns and grottoes which can be visited by the public?

Anna Campion,

Gloucester

A.Yes. The tourism industry calls these features "showcaves" (as opposed to "sportscaves", which are for potholers with all the gear). Some of these rather trivialise the natural phenomena by adding noisy "entertainments", such as spooky waxworks and tacky shops and visitor centres. This is the case in the various, otherwise spectacular, caves in the Cheddar Gorge (01934 742343), which can easily be visited on a day-trip from Gloucester. More educational is the tour of nearby Wookey Hole (01749 672243), about two miles from Wells in Somerset.

The guides include a detailed explanation of how the great limestone cave came about, in a tour that cleverly weaves education and entertainment together. The only sad thing about Wookey Hole is that Alexander Pope, the poet, plundered many of the finest stalactites and stalagmites, in the 18th century. However, this is all part of the fascinating story of these caves.

The Derbyshire Peak District is another prime area for caves, with several close together which would provide your children with all the research material they need. Peak Cavern (01433 620285) is one of the largest underground chambers in Britain. There are more vast, cathedral-sized chambers in Blue John Cavern (01433 620638) where for centuries Blue John (a yellow ornamental stone, what else?) has been mined. Poole Cavern (01298 26978), just outside Buxton, delves 1,000 feet into a hillside and has hundreds of pristine stalagmites and crystal formation.

The other area worth considering is the Yorkshire Dales. White Scar Caves (01524 241244) at Ingleton is Britain's longest showcave. You walk nearly a mile into the hillside, past an underground waterfall, to a massive ice-age cavern where there are hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites. Or visit the tunnels and caverns at Ingleborough Caves, Clapham (01524 251242).

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