The complete guide to; cultural holidays

Ever fancied cutting a dash at the local salsa night, or dazzling your friends with your fluent Italian? Ever wanted to know more about Ancient Greek civilisation but been put off by the thought of stuffy evening classes in a draughty town hall? Well, there are now plenty of holidays on offer which combine stimulating activity with exotic locations. So go on: improve yourself. Cultivate your cultural side as well as your tan. By Pascale de Lacoudraye Harter

BUT THEY'RE REALLY EXPENSIVE, AREN'T THEY?

Of course, it depends partly on whether you would like your French tuition to take place in a students' dormitory or in a chateau with tennis courts and sailing at the weekends. Learning holidays can sound expensive at first, but you have to remember what you get for the money. Often, for not much more than the price of a course at your local adult education centre, you'll be getting the same number of hours of tuition with an exotic setting, meals and accommodation thrown in, making it real value for money. And don't forget what the experts say: that learning is far more effective when you are happy and relaxed.

DO I HAVE TO HAVE PRIOR EXPERIENCE?

Just make sure you ask before you book. The majority of tour operators offering holidays where you learn to do things - painting, dancing, speaking French etc - stress that their classes cater for all levels, from absolute beginners to advanced. On the other hand, some photography holidays certainly expect you to provide your own equipment. Where holidays comprise visits and lectures on a theme, tour operators point out that these are not intended for experts but cater for beginners through to advanced intermediates. Most of them claim that a genuine interest is all that is necessary to enjoy the holiday.

ISN'T THIS KIND OF HOLIDAY FOR WORTHY OLD FOGIES?

Certainly not. These days you can learn to do more or less anything on holiday, from fruit carving in Thailand to salsa in Cuba.

How about the Dance Holiday Company (0171-499 5232), for example, which offers tuition in flamenco, salsa, tango and jive in different Spanish cities for very reasonable prices (eg pounds 375 for a week B&B in Granada, including 10 hours dancing, but not flights)?

Another youth-oriented activity is language learning. Foreign embassies can often provide a list of nationally approved language schools abroad. Note that you usually have to make your own travel arrangements.

A specialist company, Caledonia Languages Abroad (0131-621 7721), offers courses in most European countries, Central and South America, Russia, Japan and China. You can even combine language and dance. Students can spend 14 days of cultural immersion, taking dance classes as well as language ones, and stay with a host family half-board for pounds 485 (flight not included) in Cuba. Another company which offers language courses is EF International Languages (0171-878 3550).

SO IT'S ALL PLAIN LIVING, THEN?

Actually, on the art or opera tours, accommodation does not tend to dip below three-star or equivalent, and often characterful family-run guest houses or villas are chosen by the operators to make the experience more authentic. Sometimes there will be a selection available, from which guests are free to choose.

On some holidays the accommodation is a prominent feature, such as the Anglo Dutch (0181-289 2808) painting tour which takes you sailing through the Netherlands on a barge, or Asekela Painting Holidays (01483 480092), where accommodation is on a lake-side boat. But it is always worth checking whether you will have to share rooms, whether a single-room option is available, and at what cost.

On the active-learning front things can be fairly basic, with lots of language holidays (for example) taking place in universities while school is out for summer. In places such as China you won't expect luxury - but with rooms at just pounds 2 per day through Caledonian Languages, I'm sure you won't complain. This really depends on your priorities: remember that on learning holidays which often have group activities in the evening, you are unlikely to spend much time in your room.

Where food is provided canteen-style, it is worth exercising a little caution; if full board is an option, it is probably best to wait and see what everyone else does. After all, you don't want to be the only one trailing down to the canteen morning and evening just because you paid for it.

WHAT IF I WANT A NICE HOLIDAY, BUT WITH SOMETHING TO EASE MY MIDDLE- CLASS CONSCIENCE WHILE I AM AT IT?

No problem. Several mainstream tour operators are now running a sideline in learning holidays - Simply Travel (0181-995 8277), for example, which offers painting and (a few) photography holidays at various locations round the Mediterranean.

Alternatively, there are companies which specialise in all types of learning holidays, such as Skyros (0171-284 3065), which has two centres on the beautiful Greek island of the same name, and one in Thailand. It offers over 200 courses, ranging from the more commonplace such as mosaic-making, music, sculpting and pottery, to the truly unusual, such as the aforementioned fruit carving. They also run a vast number of creative writing classes, taught by renowned authors including Sue Townsend. A two-week creative writing course costs from pounds 545, based on two to three people sharing, which includes tuition fees and full board but not include travel to and from Greece. For a pounds 90 supplement, guests can be collected at Athens, spend one night in a hotel there and be escorted for the 200 miles to Skyros.

THIS ALL SOUNDS TOO TOUCHY-FEELY TO BE SERIOUS LEARNING.

If you want something a bit heavier, you won't be short of options. Everything mentioned below represents the tip of a very large iceberg.

On the subject of painting, Moswin's (0116-271 9922) runs a package in Germany where you actually go to school: the Khan-Leonhard Art School in the heart of the Black Forest. Guests are free to choose from a variety of levels of accommodation, but seven nights B&B in a guest house with a single room and a four-day art course costs pounds 650, including return flights to Basel.

Meanwhile, the British Museum Traveller (0171-323 8895/ 1234) runs archaeological and art-history trips under the guidance of acknowledged history and art experts in all the main holiday countries, as well as less usual ones such as Libya or Ethiopia. Clients on these tours tend to be wealthy and relatively mature (prices often approach pounds 2,000 for 10-day trips).

Travel for the Arts (0171-483 4466) can put together itineraries for individual travellers to see classic performances of (mainly) opera in the top venues of Europe and North America. A three-night package in Berlin, for example, with admission to a top opera, costs about pounds 450 including flights and accommodation. A company called Filoxenia (01422 375 999) specialises in Greece, running tours on everything relating to Greek culture, ranging from the Peloponnesian railway to archaeological trips. Its classical tour on Mycenaean civilisation, for example, costs pounds 579 for one week, half board in three-star accommodation, based on two sharing, and includes expert-led excursions and informal discussions. More general historical tours centring on Crete are available from Smart Holidays (01789 267 887).

Further afield, Andrew Brock Travel (01572 821330), specialist in the Indian subcontinent, runs a trip entitled "Textiles of Orissa, Gujarat and Bengal". This 18-day expert-led tour costs pounds 2,475 per person, based on two sharing, which includes flights, half-board accommodation and the services of local guides.

If it is military history which gets your pulse racing, then Holts Tours (01304 612248) cover everything from Ypres to the Anglo-Boer War, which has its centenary this year. Their Boer War trip in South Africa lasts 10 days and tours the historical battlefields with full board, three-star accommodation at pounds 2,539, including flights with British Airways, all museum entrances and guest speakers.

SOUNDS MORE LIKE HARD WORK THAN A PROPER HOLIDAY.

Well, it can be. Tours which focus on architecture or other aspects of the arts tend to be organised with the aficionado in mind, cramming in as much as possible so that the schedule can be quite tiring. If hanging out by the hotel swimming pool appeals more than traipsing around museums, then an educational holiday might not be for you. Then again, the majority of companies believe you should take things at your own pace and opting out of a day's activities won't ruin your reputation.

There are trips, however, where this just won't be possible: for example, when your tour group leaves one hotel after breakfast and spends the night in a different location after a day's sightseeing on the way. A tour which has as many destinations as days can be exhausting, and means that you have no choice but to take part in everything in order to keep up with the group. Andrew Brock Travel, for example, warns that guests on the "Textiles of Orissa, Gujarat and Bengal" should be "flexible and tolerant". At Skyros, visitors are encouraged to do half an hour's work duty in the mornings with the idea of promoting a sense of community. This can be fun and a good opportunity to get to know more people on the holiday, but if group spud-peeling triggers off bad memories of Brownies this might not be for you.

Certain activities require more active participation than others. Teachers of language courses particularly like full attendance as they proceed at quite a pace and missing a class can mean you holding the rest of the group back. It is best to ascertain how much freedom you will have with the individual tour operators. If you think that a whole week of class might not be for you, it is worth leafing through a guidebook before you go to see what else there is to do in the area. A lot of these holidays are set in beautiful beach resorts where alternative activities, such as lazing in the sun, should not be hard to come by.

CAN I TAKE MY PARTNER IF THEY HATE PAINTING/ POTTERY ETC?

In the case of a guided group tour where you are moving from one place to the next, this is obviously going to be difficult. But where the holidays are based in one place and there are alternative things to do, there is no reason why an educational holiday for you should mean staying at home for the rest of the family. A lot of tour operators encourage guests to come with "non- participants", and offer the package minus the tuition or activities at a reduced fee. Skyros, for example, has a simple plan, by which non- participating partners (who go to the beach while their other half attends morning classes) pay 30 per cent less for the holiday. Again, it is wise to check with individual operators.

DO I HAVE TO GO FAR?

No, the majority of these holidays are on our European doorstep, with a large number in Greece. Alternatively, if you would like to stay even closer to home, HF (0181-905 9558) offers just about everything from ballroom dancing and digital photography to English opera and Thomas Hardy. You can also learn the art of creating cartoons over four nights full board in the Derbyshire Dales at pounds 189 for a single room.

CAN I GO ON MY OWN?

Learning holidays are probably the best bet for the lone traveller, because they offer perfect circumstances for those who want to go on holiday alone but don't want to spend the whole time by themselves. The downside is that the feeling of always being in a group can get a bit too much and finding time to enjoy a spot of solitude could be a challenge, especially if you are sharing a room. And, of course, every trip has its obligatory bore who will harangue the teacher, have a bigoted opinion on everything and play on your conscience until you invite him to join your table after which he will follow you around for the rest of the holiday. But such is life.

l Holts Tours (01304 612248) does a trip through the Wild West around the battlefields of the Apache, the Navajo and Billy the Kid. Accommodation is usually in three-star hotels but could be in tents if the battlefield trail leads you far from the beaten track. Prices for 2000 are not yet fixed but will include nine nights' accommodation, flights and all meals as well as a tour guide.

l Tapestry holidays (0181 235 7777) offers a tour of 14th century architecture in the volcanic landscape of Cappadocia in Turkey. At pounds 770 for five nights' B&B in one of the hotels carved out of the volcanic rock, the price includes flight, transfers, lectures and lunch on touring days.

l Andrew Brock Travel (01572 821 330) runs a tour of the Great Hindu Temple Builders for pounds 2,498 which includes flights into Delhi and out of Madras and 13 nights' half-board accommodation.

l La Escuela de Baile (0181 968 6782) organises dancing holidays in Spain. 10 nights in a local guest house in Jerez de la Frontera, Andalucia, including flights and daily flamenco classes (but not meals) cost pounds 350.

l Skyros (brochure line: 0171 284 306) run a course on Byzantine Art where participants make their own wooden triptychs and prepare the paint before they begin. You can also indulge in a little Skyrian embroidery, working with local weavers and embroiders. The trip costs pounds 545 for two weeks with accommodation and full board. Flights and transfers not included.

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