Worlds away and on your doorstep

You don't have to fly abroad or spend a fortune to have an adventure, revitalise your soul or warm winter-weary limbs.

Moving more than a few feet away from the radiator at this time of year, let alone leaving the house, can be daunting. But if the alternative is to stay snuggled up in front of the TV you'll only be bombarded by endless depressing adverts for exotic holidays in the sun. The escape is to use your imagination: much closer to home than Barbados there are plenty of short UK breaks to see you through until summer. With prices at off-season lows you could book yourself a series of weekends, spaced out like oases in the cold desert of winter. Cast off gloom: relax and be pampered, try out a new sport, develop a new skill or visit some of the sights.

WEIRD AND WONDERFUL

With your New Year's resolutions still fresh, why not view life from an alternative perspective, or even opt for a stint of self-improvement? Book into a weekend yoga retreat and come away with a sunnier outlook. The course promises to enhance your physical, mental and spiritual well- being, so pounds 110 seems a small price to pay, particularly when full board at Ickwell Bury, a country house in Bedfordshire, is included (31 January to 2 February).

Breaks that offer peace, quiet and a spiritual spring clean are increasingly popular. You could try a meditation weekend with the Tibetan Buddhist community at Dobroyd Castle, Lancashire, in the heart of Pennine walking country, or choose a retreat at Loyola Hall in Prescot, where visitors can investigate their "inner process".

Alternatively, retreat from reality and test your sleuthing skills at the same time. At the Swan Hotel in Wells you can solve a gangster crime (28 February-2 March), courtesy of the Whodunnit Company. Or, for pounds 195 per person, join the scene of Acorn Activities' first murder mystery weekend of 1997 (21-23 March), at the Longmynd Hotel in Church Stretton, Shropshire.

Those who really want to get off the beaten track in search of the unusual could do worse than a weekend visit to Wales. Overlooking the Snowdonia National Park near Machynlleth in mid-Wales is the Centre for Alternative Technology, situated in an old quarry. Exhibits include demonstrations of wind power, organic gardening and solar energy and an exhibition on what it's like inside a mole-hole. In Machynlleth itself, you'll find Celtica, a research centre for Celtic studies with a bizarre audio-visual exhibition. For local accommodation, try the Penhelig Arms in Aberdovey, a short drive away.

CITY BREAKS

With a visit to a city, you can ensure that you are never too far from the great indoors. There are many tourist attractions that have opened recently, and in a city, the choice of shops, restaurants and places to stay provide plenty of distraction. To avoid city stress, pace yourself and be as selective as you can so you don't get overwhelmed.

You no longer need to be a deep-sea diver to walk along the sea floor and watch sharks and rays swimming above you. This amazing experience is now available in Birmingham at the National Sea Life Centre, where a transparent tube takes you through a carefully recreated seascape. This is the highlight of the new, state-of-the-art centre opened last June and designed by Sir Norman Foster. Children get a scratch-card trail to follow, taking them through the marine and freshwater displays and making the trip educational as well as fun.

If your viewing tastes are less Jacques Cousteau and more Coronation Street, why not visit Granada Studios Tour in Manchester? Make a weekend of it by staying at the Granada-owned, four-star Victoria and Albert hotel. A luxury weekend break gives you free entry to the tour, and costs pounds 45 per person per night, with children under 16 staying free. If you are in Manchester on 9 February, watch out for the Chinese New Year celebrations.

Another option is to celebrate the reprieve from financial ruin of newly knighted Alan Ayckbourn's theatre in Scarborough, which opened last April. A two-day stay on the edge of the North York Moors at the Wrea Head Hotel with dinner and tickets to the theatre costs from pounds 105 midweek through English Rose Hotels.

SPORT AND ADVENTURE

Fresh air and exercise are guaranteed to improve both your circulation and your sense of well-being. Don't wait for Wimbledon week to start practising your tennis this year. By that time lessons with your local pro will be booked up and the tennis courts full of aspiring Henmans. But, with some intensive work on your strokes at Windmill Hill Place in East Sussex, you'll be ready to take on all comers. Weekend accommodation, meals and coaching cost from pounds 140, with pounds 30 discount for early booking. A five-day, mid-week break costs from pounds 170. A trip to Wimbledon's Lawn Tennis Museum will also inspire any budding players in the family. As well as memorabilia, photos and videos of tennis stars, you see the show courts.

For the more adventurous, an off-road, mountain-biking break will blow the cobwebs away. Compass Holidays offers bike hire, equipment and three nights' bed and breakfast at a Cheltenham hotel for pounds 125, with discounts for children under 12. The routes, which give you the chance to explore the Cotswold countryside at close quarters, vary from six to 21 miles. Encouragingly for those who are out of condition, they always let you know the shortcuts, while for the fit, the itineraries are challenging. Either way, the exercise gives you a warm glow of satisfaction and makes you sleep like a baby.

If you are inspired by Richard Branson's recent exploits, you can always take to the air. Adventure Balloons will take you up in a hot-air balloon for pounds 115 per person, starting in March. You can choose from rural flights or float over historic Oxford or London's East End. While you do need to wait for good weather conditions, the only level of fitness you require is enough agility to climb into the basket. Most air sports require strong nerves, but if you can muster the necessary courage, then gliding, parachuting, skydiving and hang-gliding are offered through Acorn Activities.

WINDING DOWN

If all this adventure sounds too hectic, then why not forgo your own hearth for someone else's? A neutral location can be more relaxing than staying with friends because you can abandon your best behaviour. If you really want to, you can laze around all day by the fire. The Landmark Trust owns and rents out unusual historic properties scattered across the UK. Choose from more than 160, including such romantic options as an apartment at Hampton Court, a lighthouse on Lundy, an Elizabethan farmhouse in Norfolk, or a castle in Kintyre.

While the need to recover from the over-indulgence of Christmas may be strong, the discipline of a health farm probably doesn't sound like fun to everyone. How about compromising with a Highlife break, then? All the facilities and none of the pressure. A two-night stay at the four- star Mollington Banastre Hotel in Chester costs pounds 195 per person, and includes half-board and use of the hotel's swimming pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and sunbeds, as well as a massage and facial.

For those badly in need of a rest from their children, the Cybar in Brighton could be the solution. On Saturdays they run a Kid's Club for 8-12-year- olds at the Surfers @ Paradise cyber cafe on Bond Street. For pounds 5 per head, children get access to the latest computer games, tuition on the Internet and refreshments. The grown-ups, meanwhile, get the chance to explore the many delights of Brighton unencumbered.

There is another haven for the harassed parent in Bradford-on-Avon - the Woolley Grange hotel. A Jacobean manor, it is geared to give children a good time while offering grown-ups sophisticated service and gourmet meals. The hotel supplies reliable baby sitting and nannies and supervised children's meals. The Chapmans, who own the hotel, also run The Old Bell in Malmesbury on similar lines.

CONTACTS

Weird and wonderful

Ickwell Bury (01767 627271); Dobroyd Castle (01706 812247); Loyola Hall (0151 426 4137); Whodunnit Company (01363 774467); Acorn Activities (01432 830083); Centre for Alternative Technology (01654 702400); Celtica (01654 702702); Penhelig Arms (01654 767215).

City breaks

National Sea Life Centre (0121 633 4700); Victoria & Albert hotel (0161 832 1188); Wrea Head hotel (01723 378211).

Sport and adventure

Windmill Hill Place (01323 832552); Lawn Tennis Museum (0181 946 6131); Compass Holidays (01242 250642); Adventure Balloons (01252 844222); Acorn Activities (01432 830083).

Winding down

Landmark Trust (01628 825925); Mollington Banastre Hotel (0800 700400); Surfers @ Paradise (01273 684184); Woolley Grange hotel (01225 864705); The Old Bell (01666 822344).

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