Travel: Independent travellers start here

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A wintry circuit around Britain can take you to the ends of the earth. This is the season of the travel and holiday exhibition, with events across the country in the next few weeks.

Simon Calder will be travelling the world in London's Docklands

next weekend.

How do you choose your holiday? That was the elementary, essential question put to punters earlier this month by the cable station Travel Channel.

The responses covered the whole range that we fortunate late-20th-century folk can enjoy: press advertisements, travel agents, tour operators' brochures, Teletext and the Internet. Predictable enough, until the very last woman, who said drily, "I look at the atlas."

Whether you stick pins in it blindfold, or gaze at it for hours trying to choose between the seductive curl of Mexico's Yucatan, Italy's toe- punt of poor Sicily or the mad geometry of Sulawesi, east of Java, a representation of the world is the best place to start. But a good next step is to set your compass for the nearest travel exhibition. Between now and March, these will be staged at a number of British cities (see panel, right, for details).

My virtual globetrotting will begin next weekend at the Independent Travellers' World (ITW) event at the London Arena in Docklands. When Thomas Cook invented the package holiday in 1851, an inevitable corollary was the independent traveller - the person who refuses to comply with the mass-market mould of the tour operator, who believes that life is certainly more interesting and probably less expensive if you make your own way around the world. Since ITW began in Bristol in 1993, the travel fair has grown steadily, but has retained its seductive simplicity: one-stop shopping for the independent traveller.

Suppose your pin lands on Australia (and, let's face it, the country presents a big enough target for the blindfold voyager). Students and under-26s can check out cheap air fares with Campus Travel and STA, while we fogies see what deals Austravel and Bridge the World have to offer. Plenty of tour companies are on hand purveying trips within Australia of various degrees of (dis)organisation, while Backpackers Resorts of Australia competes with YHA Australia for the pleasure of your overnight company, and camping outfitters try to sell the delights of canvas.

Yes, but is it safe? The Foreign Office sets up its stall seven miles east of Whitehall to advise on hazards within Australia and at stopovers en route, while you'll be able to get medical advice from Masta and an instant second opinion from the Nomad Medical Centre.

Tourist boards from Finland to New Zealand via Japan will tempt you with stopover possibilities, but for less partisan inspiration you should attend some of the feet-itching talks given by people who've been there, done that and have the chronic parasitic infestations to prove it (though this last property applies to none of the following writers).

William Dalrymple will be tracing his latest journey in the shadow of Byzantium, while Annie Caulfield tells of a different kind of Middle Eastern love affair. Guidebook guru Tony Wheeler (see story, right) takes Antarctica out of travel's freezer compartment; and at the Working Abroad seminar you can quiz Susan Griffith about the prospects for finding gainful employment among the penguins.

And that's just the people who have also written for the travel pages of The Independent. If you want to try to join them, you could attend the travel writing seminars on Saturday or Sunday. On the former is Hilary Bradt, publisher of guidebooks and a great adventurer (as well as an occasional Independent contributor).

Once or twice a year, she also leads group adventure tours to Africa and South America. Her theory of how to conduct these trips is wonderfully simple: "Convince everyone think they're having an adventure, while making absolutely sure that they're not." I think I'm going to have an adventure next weekend.

Adventurers planning to explore Docklands next weekend will find a 48- hour guide to the district in next Saturday's Time Off section of `The Independent'.

For your chance to win one of three Independent holidays, courtesy of Independent Travellers World, see page 8 of today's Independent.

Gateways to the world

London Arena, 30 January-1 February: Independent Travellers' World, Friday 12 noon-7pm (pounds 3); Saturday 10am-6pm (pounds 5); Sunday 10am-5pm (pounds 5). The coupon below qualifies Independent readers for a discount. Call 0171- 341 6691.

Bristol Watershed, 7-8 February: Independent Travellers' World. Saturday 10am-6pm; Sunday 10am-5pm. Entry pounds 3. Call 0171-341 6691.

Birmingham NEC,13-15 February: Holiday and Travel Show '98; 10am-6pm daily. Adults pounds 6, under-15s free; a pre-booked ticket on 0121-767 4774 saves pounds 2.

Glasgow SEC, 13-15 February: Holiday and Travel Show '98; 10am-6pm Friday and Saturday, 10am-5pm Sunday; adults pounds 5, concessions pounds 3, family ticket (two adults, three children) pounds 15. Call 0115-967 9379.

Manchester GMex, 21-22 February: Independent Travellers' World, Saturday 10am-6pm, Sunday 10am-5pm. Admission pounds 3. Call 0171-341 6691.

London Olympia, 26 February-1 March: Destinations '98; 10am-6pm daily; pounds 3.50 if booked before 20 February on 0171-244 0950l, pounds 5 on the door.