For another world, follow the guide to God's own islands

Simon Calder with an ocean-to-ocean tour of places that take their names from the Christian calendar. It's heavenly ...
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The Independent Travel
In a rare display of wit, perhaps, Captain James Cook named the sparkling archipelago off the coast of Queensland the Whitsunday Islands; the joke was that he in fact discovered them on Whit Monday, 1770. By then the captain was struggling for inspirational place names, as witnessed in the choice of Flat Island, Broad Sound and Long Island, just south along the Queensland shoreline.

When the explorer or geographer needs help with place names, Christian festivals can help a great deal. The founders of Epiphany, South Dakota, must have praised God for allowing them to settle on 6 January, while exactly 17 months ago I spent a happy eve of the Nativity at the Christmas Pass Hotel in Zimbabwe, hearing how the pass was first traversed by Europeans one 25 December.

From Lent (Holland) to Trinity Peninsula (Antarctica) via Jesus Island (Quebec), Christianity can take you on a mission around the world. North America is excellent territory for uplifting nomenclature: Heart's Delight and Heart's Content, both in Newfoundland, four Valentines in the US, and a good scattering of Paradises.

All that is missing is Heaven. But for a true idyll - defined in my dictionary as "a scene of happy innocence or rustic simplicity" - you should plan a calendar of island-hopping around the following enchanted lands.

Easter Island

Drop the Isle of Wight into the middle of the South Pacific, and this is what you get: the world's most remote inhabited island. Captain Cook drifted in on the Humboldt Current in 1774, possibly following the course adopted by the first settlers from South America; some, though, maintain that Asiatic explorers discovered the island. Whoever they were, their achievements were extraordinary. The hillsides are decked with hundreds of Maoi, cartoon-like stone figures. They were sculpted from volcanic rock and then moved many miles to their assigned positions.

Today, the 2,000 incumbents are officially Chilean citizens, even though Santiago de Chile is more than 2,000 miles east. You can fly there from Britain using British Airways as far as Madrid, then Lan Chile via Santiago; South American Experience (0171-976 5511) has a return fare of pounds 890.

Ascension Island

Every now and again, the jobs pages of the BBC's journal Ariel are enlivened by the best job in the corporation: manager of the World Service transmitter on Ascension Island, a tropical splodge six miles across, between Brazil and Africa.

The index of "rustic simplicity" or "happy innocence" began to decline when Nasa established a tracking station here. Since the Falklands War, the rocky terrain has resounded to the roar of an RAF TriStar four times each week; Ascension is a mere refuelling stop between Brize Norton and Mount Pleasant air force bases.

The traditional approach, of course, is by sea. Every few months RMS St Helena calls in, on her way between Cardiff and the even more remote island of Tristan da Cunha. Curnow Shipping in Cornwall (01326 563434) sells a return ticket for pounds 1,850; depending on schedules, you could be obliged to spend six weeks in the diminutive "capital" of Ascension, Georgetown.

Christmas Island (Pacific Ocean)

This is probably the first and last time that I shall describe the shape of any country as resembling an adjustable wrench, but a look at the map will show that to be the case for the festive island known locally as Kiritimati - pronounced Kirissmass, honestly.

The settlement of London faces another called Paris across the lagoon formed by the jaws of the said spanner, while the largest town - perched where the calibrator would be - is perversely called Poland.

This is part of the far-from-grand empire of Kirabati, and the time on Christmas Island is 10 hours and many decades behind that in Britain. To experience this idyll, fly in to the airfield that unhappily adjoins the Bay of Wrecks. You need to fix up this connecting flight from Tarawa, the closest that the discount agent Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322) can get you for a fare of pounds 1,443 for travel from London on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Island (Indian Ocean)

The same agency will get you from London to here for only pounds 1,402 on Christmas Day, with a change of planes in Perth. Did this speck of land, discovered by one Captain Mynars on 25 December 1643, put the "X" in Xmas? Possibly not, but your luggage tag will show the code XCH.

Although the nearest mainland is Java, 200 miles away, Christmas Island is officially part of Australia, 1,000 miles distant. The population comprises those who extract phosphate from the island, and their support staff. But as tourism makes its relentless way to the farthest-flung corners of the globe, a hotel development is now under way.

In theory, you could fly from Christmas (Indian Ocean) to Christmas (Pacific Ocean) across the International Date Line in successive days, and enjoy two Christmases in Christmas. But you'd have to be crackers.

Additional research by Patricia Morse

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