FAMILY TRAVEL; Q&A

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered

Q. My 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, has a passionate desire to go swimming with dolphins. We have found several holidays on which you can watch dolphins, but Sarah actually wants to be in the water with them. Is this possible, and if so, where?

Mrs Anna Herd,

Hull

A. Swimming with dolphins is becoming increasingly popular - either in the wild, or in research centres or theme parks. To do so, Sarah will have to be a competent swimmer. Some centres will not accept children under 12, so do check. You must also book in advance, as there are usually long waiting lists, and you can't just turn up and go.

I think I should mention that there has been considerable criticism and apprehension about using dolphins as "performers", either in the theme parks where they use dolphins to put on shows by doing tricks, or even in the wild where it is feared they might lose their natural instincts for foraging for food.

I have investigated several dolphin centres, and I was personally happy with Dolphins Plus in Key Largo which I visited en famille during a trip to Florida. The centre links research and rescue programmes with sick and wounded "wild" dolphins, and with those that are "tired" and bored from years in amusement parks. In addition they provide water therapy with dolphins for children with special needs.

Holidaymakers such as ourselves were given an hour's talk and study before a small group of swimmers were allowed into the water - there are only two sessions per day. We were warned not to reach out for the dolphins as it may make them feel threatened, but to let them approach us in their own time. No "tricks" were performed. Some participants had little reaction from the dolphins, but one child who had more or less given up was putting in some swimming practice and found he was in competition with one of them. (He lost.)

Everybody found it a moving experience and understood a great deal more about what makes these highly intelligent, inquisitive creatures tick.

We were told that within a few minutes of meeting you, they will tell whether you're male or female, and pass on a message to their mates using their superb sonar systems. They have been known to detect a woman's pregnancy before she herself was aware of it - in fact at Dolphins Plus pregnant women are not allowed to swim with them as the dolphins can become very curious.

The cost per session was pounds 50, by prior appointment only. Non-swimming observers have to to pay pounds 5. Dolphins Plus Inc can be contacted at PO Box 2728 Key Largo, Florida 33037, USA. The Dolphin Research Centre at Grassy Key, PO Box Dolphin Marathon Shores, Florida 33036, USA, also allows visitors to swim with dolphins.

You can get more information about both establishments from the Florida Keys and Key West Tourist Board (01564 794555).

UK operator Discover the World (01737 218801) offers a special Swimming with Dolphins holiday between May and September to Bimini in the Bahamas where the Flipper series originated. (It was also a hideout for stars such as Frank Sinatra and author Ernest Hemingway.) Experts will take you offshore each day for four hours or so to find out more about wild dolphins. Children are welcome provided they are good swimmers. The price for flights, hotel accommodation (no food) and boat trips is pounds 1,467 for adults, with a pounds 200 reduction for children under 12.

If you are prepared to make a long journey, the warm waters of New Zealand, particularly around the Bay of Islands attract pods of 600 dolphins; several firms there offer the experience of swimming with them in the wild. One of these, operated by Bay Island Heritage Tours, is run by Maoris from a 39-foot catamaran on which you are given a talk by a marine biologist, while another will explain the significance of dolphins in Maori mythology. Other locations for dolphin-spotting in New Zealand can be obtained from New Zealand Tourism (0839 300 900 - calls cost 50p per minute).

One of the better nature parks I have visited where you can swim with dolphins in captivity - Xel-ha near Tulum on Mexico's Mayan coast - is often included in tour operators' excursions. This is a 22-acre ecological park and natural aquarium of inlets and lagoons where you can swim among marine flora and fauna, snorkel above underwater ruined Mayan temples, as well as spending 45 minutes or so in the water with the dolphins. The experience costs pounds 30. There is another eco-park with dolphins at Xcaret near Playa del Carmen. Details from the Mexican Tourist Office (premium price calls on 0891 600 230).

Sunvil Holidays (0181-568 4499) can also organise swimming with dolphins days costing pounds 55 throughout the year on its holidays to the Azores where Atlantic bottlenose and Atlantic spotted and striped dolphins are regularly sighted off Pico Island. The firm can tailormake any kind of holiday in the Azores, and the dolphin experience can be combined with whale-watching holidays for around pounds 720 for nine days' B&B with a 10 per cent reduction for children under 12.

Finally, I recommend that you phone for a free copy of the AITO Holiday Directory which gives details of 160 small independent holiday companies, with a list of those offering special swimming dolphin trips. Their brochure line is 0181-607 9080.

Q. As Graecophiles we have already visited Corfu, Skiathos, Rhodes and Crete with our two children - now ten and eight. Can you suggest some family-friendly islands that are off the beaten track?

A.You won't get much further away from it all than the Dodecanese island of Halki, off Rhodes. You get there by taking a direct flight to Rhodes, then a 30-minute coach ride to the port of Kamiros Skala, then a 75-minute ferry to Halki's harbour of Emborio, from which you can walk to your accommodation, as the place is so tiny.

Apart from when the ferry boat comes in, the harbour is pedestrianised, so kids can roam around safely while parents relax over an ouzo in one of three Kafenions. There's no crime on the island and only about 200 residents who, like most Greeks, love kids.

Emborio is still a real Greek fishing village with no mass tourism - some of the elegant neo-classical houses have been converted for tourists' use.

Several tavernas sell simple meals, two bakers sell fresh bread and a "supermarket" can produce most things from yoghurt to local honey. The safe, gently-shelving Pandamos beach is a 10-minute walk over a small hill behind the town, the road continuing up to the deserted village of Chorio, and the ruins of a crusader castle. There are a few other small beaches around the island, and the water is exceptionally clear and unpolluted.

Hiring an apartment for two weeks (low season) costs pounds 350 for adults, with an pounds 80 reduction for each of your children. In high season the costs are pounds 465 per adult with a reduction of pounds 20 for each child, all including flights.

A larger and more varied island, Samos has some of the finest scenery in Greece, with pine forests, springs, mountain villages, long sandy beaches, vineyards producing the famous Samian wines and classical ruins (the mathematician Pythagoras was born and taught there).

If you're a family who likes walking, there are good trails linking the mountain villages. Or you can take a hydrofoil to suss out other islands such as Patmos, Ikaria or Fourni, or even visit the ruins of Ephesus on a day out to Turkey.

An apartment for four people for two weeks in Ormos, a picturesque, scruffy Greek fishing village with great sandy beaches nearby, costs pounds 385 for adults, with pounds 20-pounds 100 off for each of the kids. The transfer is an hour by coach from the airport.

Nearer home, the island of Spetses is one hour 50 minutes by hydrofoil from Piraeus. It has a cosmopolitan bustling town, also called Spetses, with a couple of cinemas and museums and a wide choice of bars, restaurants, tavernas and smart yachts. Wealthy Athenians spend weekends there in elegant white villas.

Outside the town, the island reverts to a fairly quiet traditional Greek island with small coves (mainly shingle or pebble beaches). An apartment at tranquil Anarghiri costs pounds 395-pounds 525 with reductions of pounds 20-pounds 100 for kids.

All these prices are from Greek specialist Laskarina Holidays (01629 824884). Other tour operators include: Manos Holidays (0171-216 8070); Argo Holidays (0171-331 7070); Greek Islands Club (0181-232 9780).

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