Christmas: where to get away from it all

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The Independent Travel
Santa stands tall. Seven feet high, the jolly red giant towers over a scrum of children playing around his outsize boots. Even in countries where Christianity is very much a minority sport, travellers find it hard to avoid Christmas festivities. Perhaps St Nicholas should be called Farther Christmas.

This particular figure of festive fun presently resides on a street corner in the firmly Hindu city of Jaipur, but these days his likeness pops up all over the place. St Nicholas could challenge St Christopher for the role of patron saint of travel. He is grinning hirsutely at me right now from the side of a coffee mug I won in an apple-ducking game at a Christmas party thrown by Buddhists in Thailand two years ago. The carols on that occasion were sung with enormous enthusiasm, but they need to hone their game skills or they'll find tourists grabbing all the prizes.

Like it or lump it, Christmas drives the travel business into a frenzy as we desperately strive to be moveable for the feast. Even an airline called Scrooge Airways or Air Humbug would fill all its seats in the third week of December. Travel operators take full advantage of our Yuletide yearning to be reunited with - or located as far away as possible from - our nearest and dearest. The more frantically you phone around travel agents in search of a flight, the more fares which you would dismiss as extortionate during the rest of the year acquire an aura of moderation. The same phenomenon benefits less fashionable airlines; Aeroflot becomes an attractive prospect when the Russian airline is the only way to reach Lapland or Lima.

Travelling on Christmas Day itself can enhance your humour. While many short-haul flights are cancelled, long-range ones operate as normal. Peak season ends at midnight on 24 December, and for the ensuing week fares are reasonable and availability good. Fly west to stretch the day: a trip to Tinseltown, California will extend your Christmas to 32 hours.

If your funds do not stretch to flying, you will find hitch-hiking easier on 25 December than any other day of the year. This is just as well, because almost all public transport in Britain closes down for the day. Even Eurostar is shutting up shop, with the last departure from Waterloo through the Channel Tunnel to Paris at 7.23pm on Christmas Eve and the first train back at 8.13am on Boxing Day. If you fancy a cut-price Christmas cruise, then the best option is the Poole to Sandbanks ferry in Dorset, operating 8am-6pm on 25 December.

You may, of course, be joining the pre-Christmas rush in order to find somewhere that is unlikely to be troubled by ruddy-nosed reindeer. Scrooge would be happiest in a country that is Islamic, or Marxist, or both. Libya would be ideal. Cuba used to be a sound second best, but the reforms introduced this year by Fidel Castro (in an outfit of revolutionary red, he'd make a passable Santa himself) mean kitsch Nativity scenes are on sale for the first time since the President abolished Christmas 30 years ago. The Orthodox nations of Ukraine or Russia could offer an unorthodox way to dodge the festivities: Christmas is not celebrated until early January, by which time you can have returned to the land of DIY warehouse sales.

If Turkey, Goose Bay (Canada) or plain old Brussels are off the menu this December, apply plan B. Buy your travel-related gifts from the selection below, get in a couple of old Judith Chalmers videos and the Independent Christmas travel quiz (to be published on 23 December), and make a New Year's resolution to book ahead for '96. Or dig deep into your stocking for some crisp and even pounds 10 notes, and start chasing some of the many happy returns at the bottom of Santa's flight case.

Long haul

Controlling your Christmas spending may be easier in an all-inclusive resort, and the long-haul specialist Tropical Places (01342 825123) has secured some space in Kenya - departing from Gatwick on 17 December and returning in time for New Year's Eve. The price of 13 nights at the Turtle Bay Beach Hotel in Watamu is pounds 919.

To spend Christmas with one in five of the world's population, Bridge the World (0171-911 0900) has availability on 16 and 20 December on BA's non-stop flights to Beijing. The price is a festively fair pounds 420 return including tax. The same fare applies to Taipei.

Christmas is largely ignored in Japan, but a number of Buddhist "temple markets" take place around Tokyo in December, with crafts, antiques and junk on sale. The Japanese National Tourist Organisation in London (0171- 734 9638) can provide full details of venues, and events such as the spectacle in Katsutagake on 10 December, when 200 naked youths will plunge into the Nagara River for purification.

Europe

The P&O flagship Oriana is celebrating her first Christmas with a cruise departing Southampton on 22 December, and reaching Madeira in time for the New Year's Eve firework display. If you want to find out if Santa does funnels as well as chimneys, be warned that the vessel is fully booked, but P&O (0171-800 2222) is taking names on the waiting list. To make certain you reach Madeira, an alternative is a 12-night holiday departing 22 December with Cadogan (01703 332661), for pounds 579 including flights from Gatwick.

For the first time this year, shops in Amsterdam are opening on Sundays in the run-up to Christmas. Amsterdam Travel Service (01992 456056) has packages to the city from a range of UK airports.

Finlandia (0171-409 7334) is offering one-night breaks to Lapland for pounds 529 on 2, 9 and 22 December including husky and reindeer driving and a snowmobile trip. If you wish to lodge a post-Christmas complaint with Santa, a three-night New Year holiday in Lapland costs pounds 699, departing 30 December.

Wallace Arnold (0113-263 6456) has some availability on its full-board coach holidays in Europe. Five-day trips departing on 23 December are available to Paris and the Champagne region (pounds 299), Calais (pounds 279) or the Belgian town of Turnhout (pounds 279).

If the thought of the Christmas party season is as daunting as the event itself, then take cheer that the year of the preposterously cheap package tour is not over yet. First Choice (0161-745 7000) has packages from Gatwick to Spain or Malta on 12 December, costing pounds 99 for a week.

Britain

"Stuff the Turkey" is the title of a week's walking holiday in the Peak District organised by Old Furnace Walking Holidays (01538 703331) starting on 23 December. "We're aiming the holiday mainly at single people, and want to show that going for a long walk and having a pub lunch is a perfectly good way to spend Christmas Day. We aim to make it a seven-day party", says John Higgins, the Walk Leader. The cost of pounds 275 includes accommodation in guest houses, guided walks and minibus transport.

Dukes Hotel in St James's, central London (0171-491 4840) has a charabanc outing to the Boxing Day race meeting at Kempton Park as part of its three- night luxury break, price pounds 550. At the Leicestershire country house hotel of Stapleford Park (01572 787522), you can sample riding, falconry or clay-pigeon shooting on 26 December. The three-day holiday costs from pounds 602 per person.

The YHA of England and Wales is offering Christmas holidays at 17 youth hostels. Three days in Matlock, Derbyshire costs pounds 89 for an adult and pounds 69 for under-18s. Bakewell is pounds 4 cheaper per person, and includes a Boxing Day picnic at Chatsworth House; call the regional office on 01629 825850. Embsay steam railway near Skipton, North Yorkshire (01756 794727) is one of several private railways that are running "Santa Special" trips before and during the holiday.

The Christmas in Britain programme from Shearings (01942 824824) offers holidays at resorts such as Fishguard (five days, pounds 253) and cities like Durham (five days, pounds 304). The Queen's Speech is a central feature of these holidays. Humanist Holidays (01242 239175) organises holidays for agnostics and atheists. December places are full, but Easter bookings can be made in the New Year.

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