Simon Calder column

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Tony, Cherie, the three kids and the mother-in-law spent pounds 16,000 flying Pearl Class to the Seychelles. But New Brits buy their winter sun much more wisely than the Blair family.

Pearl Class? Pah. While the Prime Minister insists on travelling on holiday in the rarefied elitism of Air Seychelles' business cabin, his people are perfectly content with Britain's charter airlines. I shall avoid any allusion to pearls preceding swine, too, since standards on package holiday flights are excellent - everyone gets a good deal. The only differential among us New Brits returning from New Year in The Gambia was how painfully slowly our luggage would appear.

My suitcase finally crawled along the conveyor at Gatwick in the early hours of yesterday morning. But none of us really minded the usual old baggage of a delayed charter flight and surreal announcements about "operational difficulties", because we knew we were enjoying the extraordinary bargain that is the British winter sun holiday.

Look at the picture of the Seychelles on the right. The Gambia in January is like that, only without the cloudy bits. "Midwinter" in West Africa's smallest state wafts over you so sensuously that you feel barely tickled by a deliciously warm, dry 25C (compare that with the sweaty Seychelles, now in the middle of the rainy season).

Perhaps because of its greater appeal, the Gambian beach is considerably more crowded, with bathers greeted by a genial jostle of bantering locals - for whom we represent a significant marketing opportunity. After a day or two they get to know you and your habits (a freshly squeezed orange juice now, a fistful of straight-from-the-tree bananas later) and drift off to tackle the fresh consignment of tourists from Copenhagen, still jet-lagged after the long haul from the near-Arctic to the Tropics.

It would never do, of course, to ask what the Scandinavians paid for their package holidays, but you can bet a papaya to a peanut that it was a darn sight more than the pounds 425 quoted in the First Choice brochure for an eight-night holiday, with flights, bed, breakfast and a couple of parties - Christmas and New Year - thrown in. Most New Brits paid rather less than that; my travel agent offered me a 10 per cent discount, which even with a questionably priced and compulsory insurance deal attached brought the cost down to the pounds 400 mark. And, inevitably, the chap sitting next to me on the flight out had held out until the last minute and paid 50 quid less. Jolly good luck to him, too, since late-bookers comprise an essential component of an industry that seeks to maximise value by making the most of resources.

A bit like the government, then. Next year's winter sun brochures are already on the shelves. With a bit of careful planning the Blair clan, plus the entire cabinet (and assorted wayward offspring in need of gentle rehabilitation), can spend a Christmas vacation in the Tropics and still have change out of pounds 16,000. Diving for pearls or jiving for joy - Club Tropicana has it all.

The place where I stayed wasn't actually called Club Tropicana. It was the two-star Badala Park Hotel, planted a respectful distance from its four-star brethren on the beach. The accommodation was winningly wonky in the manner of many student flats - doors that didn't quite agree with frames, craftsmen that didn't quite agree with each other about the best way to stop the bathroom door handle falling off with every clasp. Only the churlish would complain, though, because like most things in The Gambia the place muddles along in an often distracted but always jolly manner.

Improvisational verve means that exactly the same fabric is used for bedroom curtains, tablecloths and, honestly, bedsheets. While you admire such Fawlty-esque touches, remember that you are paying just pounds 50 a night for pride of place in the January sun. Included in this figure is 5,000 miles of air travel, enlivened by very decent meals (possibly up to Pearl Class standards, Tony) and inflight entertainment. Transfers to and from the airport are covered, together with the services of a resilient rep who doesn't flinch when the thousandth new arrival asks about malaria while munching through mince pies and sherry at the welcome meeting.

By your third hearty breakfast you are yearning for rather more exotic fare (and you suddenly notice, with a wince, that that fabric lines the breadbasket, too). Real African life is a 12 pence communal taxi ride away in Serekunda, Gambia's largest town, where the heat rises and the hustle falls. Wintertime, and the living is easy. Your pounds 400 holiday even includes a pounds 20 donation to that nice Gordon Brown in the form of Air Passenger Duty.

Sterling is so strong, and Britain's travel industry so efficient, that even the Chancellor's recent doubling of the UK's exit tax has failed to halt our winter migration. The really clever folk, though, are hovering like the vultures that circled above the cliffs on New Year's Day; the bargains begin this week, and reward anyone willing and able to travel before half-term in February. You can find some ideas in today's Independent Saturday Magazine, or just enter the price war fray now raging in the High Street. Late yesterday afternoon Britain's biggest travel agency Lunn Poly (0990 811111) offered me a week on Mexico's Pacific Coast, departing 13 January, for pounds 380. Winter is such a pearl of a buyer's market that the world truly is your, er, oyster.

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