An alphabet of travel. Edited by Simon Calder
Antarctica When you sail south from Hobart, Tasmania, you have 1,000 miles of empty sea ahead of you before reaching Antarctica, the most desolate continent on Earth. Ten of us went on the Spirit of Sydney, a retired, round-the- world racing yacht which is available for charter to the more adventurous. The landfall is at Commonwealth Bay, where world-record wind speeds in excess of 200mph have been recorded, a fine place you might think for a sailing holiday. Our aim was to sail there, land if possible, and sail back via the Magnetic South Pole, an imaginary entity which roams the seas off the coast of Antarctica as unpredictably as the albatrosses that live there. It can only be located by satellite navigation; compasses just don't work.

We left before the yacht was ready. Holes appeared in the soft aluminium of the hull, eaten by electrolytic corrosion, so the boat would fill with water. Even I, who have climbed Everest, was unprepared for the savagery of the sea. Unimpeded by land, waves roll around the world in the roaring Forties and the furious Fifties, built up by winds of hurricane speeds and Antarctic temperatures.

We felt sea-sick nearly all the time, standing watches of four hours on, eight hours off. Then the mainsail ripped when half a ton of ice froze onto it. All the fresh water in the tanks froze. We could only each manage to steer for an hour at a time during the night. You'd be hornpiping on the deck-plates to avoid frostbite and dodging the waves that surged over the cabin top. One night, a wave stole the life-raft without anyone realising.

As we reached the latitude of the Screaming Sixties, so much ice accumulated on the decks that we were fearful of the yacht capsizing and had to hack it off with axes. And there was no solace to be found below deck. In my bunk, a bookshelf 18 inches wide, I tried to sleep, not believing the violence of the sea. A swoop of the bows, a susurration of water, heard through the hull plates, and slam! we hit a wave and slam! again. I was hitting the ceiling of my bunk so hard that, for the first time in my life, I sustained an injury in bed.

Cooking in the Southern Ocean is acrobatic. One juggles with pans in front of a wildly gambolling gas cooker. But our gas ran out and a spirit stove was pressed into service, so dangerous that it had to be refuelled on deck. A crew-member was doing this one day when a five-ton green wave landed on her back and the stove nearly went over the side. It never worked the same again.

But after two weeks we saw the white dome of Antarctica rising out of an iceberg-studded sea, the fishy reek of penguin rookeries greeting us on a steady off-shore wind. The first attempt to land was abortive: the anchor dragged and we had to squeeze out of the bay between a grounded berg and a vicious reef. Only the white face of the skipper suggested what might have been: 1,000 miles of empty ocean back to Australia and no life-raft.

The next attempt was more successful; the anchor held the ground and we were able to walk on the continent of Antarctica in brilliant sunshine and a fresh gale of wind.We sat next to penguins as they jumped into an icy sea, and skirted around Weddel seals lying on the ice like bloated carcasses. We saw the tiny hut where the yacht's owner and his wife had spent a year ("I cried a lot," she said drily). And then, after just eight hours, it was time to leave. A sailing boat is a fragile thing, and the skipper was nervous. Somehow I didn't mind; on a climbing trip you might spend 12 weeks climbing and 10 minutes on a summit, and this frozen shore felt like the summit of the planet.

Then a silly accident nearly caught me. As we weighed anchor, a huge lump of ice came up out of the sea frozen to the chain. As I leaned over the rail, hacking at the block, two things happened at once. The ice broke in half and my axe got stuck in it. As I shot over the rail, I remember thinking that this was a fatuous mistake to make. Fortunately, someone grabbed my leg and I came back aboard.

We sailed for two sunny days, through icebergs anchored in a calm blue sea like a home fleet of Dreadnoughts. And we found the Magnetic South Pole at three o'clock one morning. It seemed a patch of ocean much like the other 3,000 miles we eventually sailed. But above our heads there was an extraordinary sight. Slanting through the clear night sky were shafts of green light. They started about 20 miles up; you could see the thickness of the atmosphere. It was the Southern Lights. Later, they joined and shimmered from horizon to horizon like a vast, green silk curtain hanging down from space, furling and rippling silently.

And the best bit? I'll never forget the time we were hit by the last 65-knot gale. Violent storm force 11, it would have said on Radio 4. I was steering, the mainsail had just ripped for the second time, and we were careering down the backs of 45-foot breakers - an 18-ton yacht jumping out of a third-floor office-block. But this moment was so exhilarating, yet slow motion, like a car accident. The danger sharpens your senses to a degree never experienced in normal life. There are easier ways to get to Antarctica, but none that make you so grateful to be alive. Graham Hoyland

Trips to Antarctica are operated between November and March, for a price of pounds 2,150-pounds 4,490, through The Cruise People (0171-723 2450). These all operate from Ushiaia in Tierra del Fuego. The air fare from the UK is included.

Burnt Norton

T S Eliot hated the countryside. Cows frightened him, and he was much happier in the "gloomy hills of London". So it seems surprising that his most famous poem commemorates places out of the city. Burnt Norton was the first of Eliot's Four Quartets to be written and published. Only later was it incorporated into the whole.

The inspirations for the poem were a Cotswold garden near Chipping Campden where Eliot stayed in 1934 with Emily Hale, an American teacher. He had corresponded with her, and now she was seen as a possible second wife, after his first wife Vivienne went mad.

Burnt Norton is close to two other famous gardens, Hidcote and Kiftesgate, but it is not in their class. The name derives from the final fling of its lunatic 18th-century owner, Sir William Keyt, who, having dissipated his fortune on wine and women, set fire to the house and charcoaled himself as well. The old farmhouse left standing was improved at the turn of this century. The images of the garden from the poem is of roses, yews and concrete pools. But, if you expect a rose garden of the quality of Sissinghurst, then you will be severely disappointed. There is a small, formal rose garden and rose walk of hybrid-teas leading down to two concrete pools, one rectangular and a smaller, semi-circular one. Exploring further there is a another pool, circular, surrounded by yew trees with two small gravestones, which commemorate two gun-dogs, and leading away there is an ancient yew walk.

The house is currently deserted, as it was when Eliot visited, and the clock-tower chimes out to no one in particular. What has changed from Eliot's day is the lack of silence. Wherever one goes in the country, silence is never absolute, nor natural. There is always the background hum of traffic, and Burnt Norton is no different. Edward Abelson

Burnt Norton is off the B4081 between Mickleton and Chipping Campden. The gardens are open to the public twice a year as part of the National Gardens Scheme


This New Year began like no other for a generation in the "city of broad shoulders". Chicago finds itself diminished. In 1996, the Committee for Tall Buildings (yes, there is such a body) decreed that the Sears Tower is no longer the highest habitable structure on the planet. So the street corner just north of the Chicago River, where you used to be able to gaze at three of the world's five tallest buildings, looks a degree scruffier. The Petronas tower in Kuala Lumpur has stolen the sheen from the acres of reflecting glass that bounce images of cityscapes back and forth.

Yet, though the civic ego is bruised, Chicago remains the ultimate US city. The spirit of America does not reside in the middle of Manhattan, nor amid a tangle of Californian freeways, but on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Here, the discipline of architecture blossoms into heroism. Innovation is in the city's genes: a 10-storey, steel-skeleton building became the world's first skyscraper in 1885, while a century ago, Frank Lloyd Wright made his home in the suburb of Oak Park.

Amidst this architectural indulgence reside three million muddled souls, confused by the sheer ethnic diversity of Chicago: more Poles than anywhere outside Warsaw, Irish and Italian communities the size of small cities, plus Jews, blacks, Lithuanians, Koreans and Hispanics. Visit Chicago and meet the world. SC

The writer paid pounds 354 for a return flight from Heathrow on United Airlines (0181-990 9900). There are also non-stop flights to Chicago from Birmingham and Manchester on American Airlines (0345 789789), with plans for a service from Glasgow in July

Darjeeling It was barely bigger than this full stop. Everest, all 29,000 feet of it, was nothing but a white speck on the grandest of horizons. Excited lowlanders, swaddled against the chill of high altitude, gasped with glee as the rising sun ignited the Himalayas.

"You can see three of the world's five highest mountains from here," promised a guide. I followed the well-wrapped arm and its be-gloved index finger. There they were: Kanchenjunga, muscling in on the foreground; Makalu, and diminutive Everest. Even though the summit of Tiger Hill, where we were huddled, is a mere 8,000 feet, it looks out on a 200-mile stretch of the world's greatest mountain range.

Then I boarded the world's smallest train to go back to town for breakfast.

The "Toy Train" looks like a purple-faced Thomas, puffing 50 miles from Siliguri in the valley to mile-high Darjeeling, and huffing from the weight of three elderly carriages. One Indian Railways employee has the unusual job of perching on the front, sprinkling sand on the ancient rails to add traction for the locomotive.

The eight-mile, four-rupee chuff to town deposits you next to a map painted on a spare wall. There are lots of these spread around Darjeeling, beneath slogans such as "come as a guest, go as a friend". All of them are afflicted by large-scale cartographical errors.

No matter. Darjeeling is the result of an attempt to affix a British market town to a green crumple in the Himalayan foothills, and the three- dimensional terrain does not lend itself to routine navigation. Instead, you delve among old villas and rummage through tea plantations, where there are pickers with the same lean, weary wrinkles of the terrain.

The best place to taste the bitter fruits of their toil is at Didi's Tea Shop, where the hierarchy of the tea tribe is laid out on the shelves with decreasing price: Golden Supremo, Supremo, Broken Orange Pekoe, Family Mix; then, horror of horrors, teabags. "Only for the British," explains Didi. SC

The closest international airport to Darjeeling is Calcutta. Air India flies there from Heathrow via Bombay or Delhi. Through a discount agent such as Welcome Travel (0171-439 3627), it will cost pounds 500, including tax, until the end of March. The train from Calcutta runs overnight to Siliguri (fare around pounds 3 for a second-class sleeper). On a good day, the Toy Train takes four hours


Never mind festivals and tartan tattoos - these are the frills of Edinburgh. Scotland's capital presents its own drama. This, above all, is a place of panoramic views and bold skylines whose true theatre may be seen from a host of windy vantage points.

Top of the list is that dour and dominant landmark, the castle. Make your way up the Royal Mile, the medieval spine of the city, turn your back on the gloomy fortress at the pinnacle, and gaze northwards over the walls of the Esplanade, across the neatly clipped Princes Street Gardens, to the Georgian elegance of the New Town beyond. At the east end of Princes Street below, is that much embellished Victorian tribute to Sir Walter Scott - the Scott Monument. Puff your way up the 287 steps here, and you are rewarded with a great panorama - southwards, the turrets and towers of the Old Town; eastwards, the sublime skyline on Calton Hill. Up among the Doric columns on the hill itself, you get that most famous, and much photographed, view over Princes Street and across to the castle perched on its craggy rock. The widest and windiest presentation of Edinburgh, though, is from Arthur's Seat. Scrabble up this steep hill in Holyrood Park and the entire city lies dramatically at your feet. Harriet O'Brien

Edinburgh tourist information: 0131-557 1700


Any town that possesses two railway stations in these post-privatisation days must, you suppose, be a place of substance. Indeed, for 200 years, this prim little town in the instep of Cornwall was the most important merchant base in Britain.

Falmouth was chosen as a mail packet station in 1688, when the first transatlantic courier service began. The attraction was obvious. Falmouth has a huge natural harbour, and is perfectly placed close to the ocean. In the age of sail, the prevailing westerlies blowing down the Channel made it sensible to locate the mail port as far west as possible. It became the clearing house for communications between England and the rest of the world, a role that has passed in the satellite era to Goonhilly, a few miles inland.

The local newspaper is the Falmouth Packet, named after the packet ships which were the forerunners to DHL. The transatlantic route followed Columbus's fairly closely, sailing first to La Coruna in Spain, then Lisbon and the Agores. The steam age made other ports more viable, and Falmouth sank into decline in the mid-1850s, when Liverpool and Southampton gained ascendancy. The railway arrived at Falmouth in 1863, and ended at Docks station.

Yet the port was already becoming a backwater. Sometimes a stray cruise ship calls in, if the weather in the Scillies prevents docking there; otherwise, the main maritime activity comprises the funny little ferry that bobs across the harbour to St Mawes. So the focus has moved to the Town station. Alight here, for a splendid panorama of the whole vast basin of the natural harbour. SC

Falmouth Docks and Falmouth Town are 16 and 13 minutes respectively from Truro station, which is on the Great Western main line


Ghana is quite possibly the closest the Western visitor will ever get to the real Africa in reasonable safety. Colonialists went there in search of gold and found slaves. All along the coast are castles, 29 in all, where millions were incarcerated before being shipped off. The dank dungeons are a grim reminder of our own dubious past, but the castles themselves are rather splendid, especially the sprawling and Gormenghastian castle of St George at Elmina. The most spectacular, sadly, is out of bounds. Known simply as The Castle, it is the seat of Jerry Rawlings's government in the charming capital of Accra, whose buildings are painted white, pink, blue or yellow.

For true native splendour, you need to go to Kumasi, the cultural capital, where the Ashanti king, the Asantehene, has his court. The Ashanti are the richest tribe in Africa, thanks to Ghana's gold, and have preserved their traditions and elaborate ceremonies more fully than any other. One of the very few tribal kings left in Africa, the Asantehene recently celebrated 25 years in power. He appears in public every six weeks, riding in a palanquin with his crown and gold regalia. The bracelets he wears are so heavy that he has to have a page-boy to support each arm.

Ghana is near the Equator and is hot and sunny practically all year round. The food is the best in West Africa: Fufu, pounded yam and kenkei, or steamed, fermented corn dumplings, are among the staples, together with hot curries of goat, groundnuts, snapper fish or "bushmeat", a kind of small deer. Lesley Downer

The Africa Travel Centre (0171-387 1211) is offering a fare of pounds 598 for a high-season London-Rome-Accra return flight on Alitalia. Low-season fares are around pounds 90 cheaper


Two years ago, I was standing in front of a decaying 17th-century merchant house in Havana's Plaza Vieja. I pressed the shutter release of my camera and the building collapsed. No one was hurt, which was a small miracle as the balconies of other buildings in this, the oldest city square in the Americas, were crowded with women and children passing the time of day.

Victor Marin, the architect in charge of urban restoration in Havana (above and above right), was with me. He explained that the combination of 30-degree heat, intense humidity and what had turned into a vicious tropical rainstorm was lethal. That, and a chronic lack of maintenance. Tropical cities are always crumbling: humidity, insects, storms, sea, lack of cash. What makes Havana so very different from its Caribbean cousins is the fact that it is built on the scale and ambition of an imperial European capital. It has a population of something like 2.2m and buildings and arcaded boulevards that match those of Naples, Lisbon and Buenos Aires.

It was, of course, an immensely wealthy city up until Castro's revolution; or, at least, it was home to enormous wealth based on the insatiable greed of international corporations and playboys exploiting an urban underclass and illiterate peasantry. Today, the one-time homes of the rich are decaying tenements, stuffed with people who survive, for the most part, on a diet of rice and beans. The fraying mansions are filled with wheezing Soviet refrigerators, pigs (for the pot), fetish images of Santeria saints, and poster portraits of Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara, the Cuban revolution's Three Musketeers.

Still, if the houses are on their last timber legs, the shutters are thrown open all year, salsa plays from battered DDR stereos, and gangs of Chinese bicycles lean against gap-toothed verandahs. The city parties on.

I suppose that's the most endearing feature of Havana. For all the much- publicised poverty, and for all the rise in child prostitution and camera- toting tourism, the Cuban capital remains an astonishingly open-hearted and swinging city. Perhaps this is true of any city where life is lived on the street - or verandah - but the fact that the people here party with so little money and so few consumer goods is still remarkable.

Partying is a way of life in Cuba and, although the old revolutionary slogan, socialismo o muerte, is still emblazoned across road bridges and public monuments, the island is rapidly becoming what Colors magazine has described as a "tropical fun park". The Museum of the Revolution (here you will see Granma, the motor launch that ferried Castro's 82 guerillas from Mexico to Cuba in 1956) stands as a reminder of the heroic days of the revolution, but much of the centre of the capital now nurtures the fantasies of visitors. So tourists drink where Papa drank, at La Bodeguita del Medio, and are waited on in the grandest style at the exquisitely restored Hotel Nacional; or they can negotiate with the gleaming hookers in the atmospherically unrestored bar of the Habana Libre, formerly the Hilton and subsequently Castro's headquarters.

The centre of town is exquisite. The setting of the city is as dramatic as Cape Town's or Naples', and the general lack of crime and police presence is particularly reassuring.

Off the tourist track, an almost complete lack of public transport means that the bicycle is ubiquitous, which, combined with a sweltering climate and lack of food, ensures that the citizens of Havana are thin and wiry. Long walks will take you to the extraordinary Escuele Superior de Arte in Cubanacan (Sixties architecture at its most innovative and organic), shows at the Karl Marx Theatre beside the sea, a visit to the Museum of the Ministry of the Interior, and to lush parks and small boatyards where lithe young men push small fishing boats into the warm, choppy seas and talk of whether or not they might one day sail on past the patrol boats and on to Miami.

On such walks, you will meet a new wave of street markets, legal for the past two years, selling fresh farm produce, and suburban bars where the brash, young capitalists hang out with the prettiest young girls and load up with the latest CDs and computer games. The sight of these sharks is a sharp reminder that Havana appears to be on its way back to being what it was in the Fifties, a sultry pleasure beach. Miami Cubans are waiting like vultures for Castro to step down or die, so hurry before it becomes a satellite of Miami. Jonathan Glancey

Jonathan Glancey's next trip to Havana is booked for February with Voyage Jules Verne (0171- 723 5066). He is paying pounds 415 including tax for a package including a charter flight from Gatwick and a week's accommodation


You can buy tea towels printed with these famous lines by W B Yeats, but they are no less moving for that:

I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree

And a small cabin build there of clay and wattles made

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee

And live alone in the bee-loud glade

The lake isle of Inishfree (as it is pronounced and now spelt), or Cat Island as it is known locally, is a tiny mop of trees and shrubs anchored in Lough Gill, the lovely lake whose waters lap with low sounds against shores bordered by pine and silver birch, and by harebells and wild garlic as spring gives way to summer. Bees hum here on warm days, and summer evenings are full of linnets' wings. Row a boat across to this uninhabited islet from the landing stage (at the end of a signposted lane that winds down from the R287), and picnic here when the day-tripping coach parties doing "Yeats Country" have left for the evening. Inishfree is more an idea in the poet's imagination than a holiday destination; a haunting dot on the map of Galway, it is a place of great hopes and of yearning. Jonathan Glancey

Inishfree on Lough Gill is reached via a lane off the R287 from Sligo to Dromahair,Co Galway, Ireland


You can rave all night in Ibiza in a foam-filled club, wearing your zaniest Lycra or even not very much at all: no one will be shocked - they've seen it all before. But you don't have to. Away from the heaving nightlife of San Antonio, the second-largest Balearic island is green with pines, groves of almonds and olive trees, while its beaches, hidden from the coast road, are well worth discovering.

Enclosed by 16th-century walls, the cobbled streets of Ibiza Town (Eivissa) lead through the old district to the cathedral, from where you can survey an island still trying to live down its reputation as the "bad boy" of the Balearics.

But the cognoscenti, even those on pounds 99 Thomson packages, will be idling away in the northernmost cove of Portinatx, and wondering - in an unconcerned sort of way - what all the fuss is about. Philippa Czernin

Numerous tour operators sell holidays in Ibiza, including Airtours (01706 260000), First Choice (0161-745 7000) and Thomson (0990 329300)


Bornholm is a far-flung annexe of demonstrably democratic Denmark, a Baltic island of white sand beaches, cycle paths and forest walks through beech, pine, oak and hemlock. Its handsome fishing villages, with their half-timbered houses and smell of smoked herring, were very nearly caught behind the Red side of the Iron Curtain in 1945. It was occupied by the Germans in 1940 and, at the end of the war, the commandant refused to surrender to the Soviets, whose bombers subsequently launched a brutal attack on the seaside towns of Ronne and Nexo. The Soviets invaded and, until March 1946, Stalin gave every impression of holding on to this delightful summer retreat. Visit the island's four magnificent, circular Romanesque churches; swim from the safety of the vast beach at Dueodde; and sail to the satellite island of Christianso, a fortress island which was bombarded by the Royal Navy in 1808 and now sports a population of 140, mainly artists and fishermen descended from Frederick IV's soldiery. This is Europe at its least known, yet most pure and civilised. JG

Bornholm is 125 miles and seven hours by ferry (quicker by hydrofoil, minutes by plane) from Copenhagen, and closer to Germany, Sweden and Poland than Denmark; it can be reached by ferry from all three


There are two alternative holiday retreats, the Atsitsa Centre, where you learn t'ai chi and sleep in a bamboo hut, and the Skyros Centre, which teaches painting, creative writing and tantric sexuality (whatever that is). To the rest of us, Skyros is the dusty and remote Greek island where Rupert Brooke ("If I should die, think only this of me ...") is buried and a place of romantic pilgrimage. Otherwise, I do not know why any of us should bother to come here; it is hardly the most beautiful Greek island, and Brooke's soul is surely in Tahiti, where he lived the life of gilded youth. Skyros is now dominated by a Nato naval base (which travel writers, including Jeffrey Archer, who owns the old vicarage at Grantchester where Brooke once lived, seem not to see when they pass this way), and the path up which Brooke's coffin was borne is partly inaccessible until higher up the climb. A plain, marble stone in a silent olive grove marks the grave.

There are 1,425 Greek islands to choose from (120 or so linked by ferry), so Brooke might have chosen one more beautiful. Yet the loneliness of Skyros only adds to the legend of a poet who wrote The Soldier but was brought down by a mosquito bite rather than the hail of Turkish bullets his colleagues met. JG

Skyros Holistic Holidays (0171-267 4424) organises trips to the retreats


If you order fish in either of the two over-priced restaurants on Torcello, the number of excited cats suddenly appearing makes you suspect that the island's feline population exceeds its human one. In the 14th century, Torcello was home to 20,000 people, but its canals silted up, malaria did the rest, and now there are less than 100.

So why go there? The answer is for the historic church of Santa Fosca and for Venice's first cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta, which are virtually all that remain of the island's former glory. Their meditative atmosphere, Byzantine mosaics and curious stone shutters hanging on stone hinges are a delight. You have to take John Ruskin's word for it that the view from the campanile is "one of the most notable scenes in the wide world" as it's now too shaky to climb. PC

You can reach Torcello on vaporetto number 12 from Venice's Fondamente Nuove - and take a picnic

Great Blasket

Looking like a hump-backed whale fighting the furious Atlantic tide off the Kerry coast, Great Blasket was once an isle of saints and, for many centuries, a wind-beaten home to generations of fisher folk. But by 1953, the last cottage was abandoned on this far western outpost of European civilisation. Today, one brave family has returned, and others may yet follow. We know about life on the island, in its heyday, for the island produced no fewer than three inspired writers. There was Tomas O'Crohan (The Islandman), Maurice O'Sullivan (Twenty years a growing) and, best known outside Ireland, Peig Sayers (Peig). Reading these books as you sit by Great Blasket's muscular shore, you learn of breakfasting on gulls' eggs and suppers of puffin cooked in a pot. It is tempting to stay until the winter winds whip up, and then one will yearn for the boat back to Dunquin and the lyrical bars of the Kerry peninsula. JG

Great Blasket, two miles off the coast of Kerry, is reached in fair weather by boat from Dunquin


Stromboli is perhaps best known as the title of the Italian neo-realist film made in 1948 by Roberto Rossellini and starring his lover Ingrid Bergman. But it is a real, live volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the south-west coast of Italy. More recently, it has featured in Nani Moretto's wistful Dear Diary. Its main draw is its irregularly beating heart, a 3,308-ft volcano (five hours walk to the rim and back). Traditionally, this is where Vulcan, son of Jupiter and god of fire, had his forge. Visitors camping overnight experience an astonishing natural fireworks display as sparks like comets shoot up from Vulcan's hammer and lava flows down to the black beach below. In June, seven German tourists were injured after being showered by stones during a tumultuous 12-second eruption; in October, Nicole Kidman nearly came a cropper when she decided to climb to the top of the volcano in slip-on shoes and found them not quite the right footwear to get her down again.

For the grand and lazy visitor, Stromboli boasts La Sciara, a big, antique- laden hotel with a swimming pool. Ristorante La Lena is the best place to eat. Stromboli also features the most surreal adaptation of the universal Italian piazza: where else can you down an expresso in the shadow of a live volcano? JG

A bus from Catania airport in Sicily runs to Milazzo, from where a hydrofoil departs to Stromboli


Corsica's population balloons from a quarter to three-quarters of a million between July and September. This is hardly surprising. It remains one of the great European escapes, a ravinous island, half-French, half-Italian in language and character, and half-covered in a dense yet sensual undergrowth (maquis or macchia) formed of myrtle, briar, mastic, broom, lemon, marjoram and rosemary. It is also punctuated by no fewer than 20 mountains over 6,000-ft (left). Its beaches are beautiful, its inns famous for their quaintness and hospitality, its food delicious. Equally, its narrow, serpentine roads are alarming (not in themselves, but because of the way Corsicans drive ), and bombs do go off from time to time as the FLNA (the Corsican liberation front) reminds visitors that it is still seeking independence from France.

The in-fighting here has never been less than astonishing: lethal family feuds have famously lasted for centuries, though today's guerillas battle the Mafia more than the police or military. Corsica's most famous fighter was Napoleon Bonaparte, and the banished Emperor continues to haunt the island in the guise of baubles and gewgaws found on souvenir stalls and in the names of restaurants, hotels and bars up and down the island. The most idyllic way to see this high-rise, adrenaline-fuelled island is to sail around its rugged coast, anchoring in bays for the night; if this is beyond your means, a cheap ticket will take you on one of the great little railway adventures of the world, a 150 mile roller-coaster ride by sea and mountains from Calvi or Bastia in the north to Ajaccio, the island's capital, in the south. JG

The French Government Tourist Office (0891 244 123) can advise on boats and flights to Corsica


Sheppey is the mud, sand and shingle island on the Thames estuary where Terry Major-Ball, the prime-minister's elder brother, spent his honeymoon in 1960. It is separated from Kent by the River Swale and connected to it by the Kingsway Bridge which rises to let tall ships pass through at high tide. Sheppey has four holy wells with pagan powers which are drawing an increasing number of people seeking cures for all sorts of ills. The four wells are sited within the bounds of Britain's oldest nunnery in the village of Minster. Otherwise, Sheppey boasts batty residential beach- huts and prisons galore - Swaleside, Elmley and Standford Hill. It is also where nudists last year found an unexploded First World War bomb - on Shellness beach, where, apart from Ongar Underground station (now closed), Britain's only colony of wild scorpions lurks. It is an isle of wide-boys and car thieves, including the former police sergeant charged with masterminding a stolen car racket for three years, while officially on sick leave. Away from police, thieves, dredgers and scrap yards, Sheppey remains one of the most abundant bird sanctuaries in Britain: between dodgy goings-on, you will find peewits and widgeon, herons, grebe and curlew, shelduck, dunlin, ringed plover, grey plover, redshank and even the marsh harrier. Something good can come, even from Sheppey. JG

Sheppey is reached by frequent trains from London's Charing Cross to Kent


Gareth Davis, producer/presenter of the cult cable TV show, Travel Live, becomes uncharacteristically serious when you ask about the toughest destination he covers on his phone-in programme. "Callers feel more strongly about Jamaica than anywhere else in the Caribbean," he says. "People complain a bit about hassle in the Dominican Republic and Barbados, but in Jamaica there's a distinct feeling that one step beyond the hassle lies a real sense of threat."

This is true. In most places in the world, if you want to catch a local bus, you can look forward to generous assistance. But, fresh off the plane at Montego Bay, a jostle of Jamaicans persuaded me that this might not be a good idea.

On the surface, the maths are simple. Survival equals dollars. Tourists equal dollars. So survival equals tourists.

Yet to grumble about such recurrent invitations is like moaning about the mists surrounding the Blue Mountains or all that troublesome sand on those beaches. In many ways, Jamaica is seriously wealthy. No other small island has given the modern world such rich a music as reggae. Yet on the same speck of territory, Noel Coward was able to find tranquillity in the hilltop estate of Firefly. The house there, like Ian Fleming's old home at Goldeneye and the Strawberry Hill hotel in the Blue Mountains, is owned by one man: Bob Marley's discoverer, Chris Blackwell. And Blackwell's reinvestment in Jamaica is proof in part that the island is safer than it was. Simon Calder

You can fly to Kingston or Montego Bay on Air Jamaica or British Airways. Bridge the World (0171-911 0900) has a fare of pounds 509 including tax on BA to either city


Kota Kinabalu is a pleasantly ramshackle, tropical city on the island of Borneo, at the furthest extreme of the Malaysian Federation, whose name was only conferred in 1963; before, it was called Jesselton.

Something more exotic was needed for a port that leans out into the South China Sea, with a sprinkling of offshore desert islands direct from central casting. So the citizens looked for inspiration to Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South-east Asia, roughly two-and-a-half miles high, which geologists say is getting taller by 5mm per year. Most of the trail is an exceedingly long staircase and you ascend through the entire repertoire of flora.

"Easy" and "safe" are misleading descriptions of the two-day hike. You stay in a mountain hut at 3,000m and start the final ascent at 2am. Thrills before dawn include swinging yourself around a precipitous boulder while you cling to a single rope, and scrambling with frozen feet and hands across an unforgiving slab of granite. But you will not be alone: a hundred people a day climb to the top, so the summit at dawn may be the most densely populated point in Asia. Worth it, though. Peeking through the crowds and clouds, your reward is a glimpse of a good portion of Borneo and the obedient islands that dangle from her skirts.

Spills permitting, you will make it back by lunchtime. So how, you might ask, could a team of mountaineers from the British Army become abjectly lost a couple of winters back? Because they took the fearsome north approach, and got well stuck in Low's Gully. Not advisable. SC

Fly to Kota Kinabalu in about 15 hours from Heathrow, with a single stop in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. If you intend to ascend Mount Kinabalu, you must obtain a permit from the National Park office in Kota Kinabalu and sign up with a guide. The total cost, including accommodation, is around pounds 50

Lac Rose

The Paris-Dakar rally doesn't quite go the distance: the most arduous motor race on earth has its chequered flag by a lake that is more pink than any champagne rose.

Dakar, Senegal's capital, is the most civilised city in West Africa, and its most cherished day out is to the shore of Lac Retba - or Lac Rose, as a bright spark re-named it. A concentration of minerals makes it far saltier than the Atlantic ocean that washes the coast just across the dunes and imbues it with the fleshiest of skin tones.

On a map, it looks unremarkable: a mile long and half as wide. Perfect, as a landing strip for sea planes. Since Dakar is the last city in Africa for anyone heading to South America, this was the function it served for a time during the Thirties.

When a runway was built for land-based aircraft, Lac Rose reverted to its normal calm. Then the collective need for a good day out for les gentils clients of a couple of Club Med resorts meant that a tourist trail was blazed straight to the shore. Now people float effortlessly in the chemical soup, while local traders hawk their garish souvenirs. SC

Lac Rose is 20 miles east of Dakar. Fly to the capital via Paris, or take a charter flight from Britain to Banjul in Gambia, followed by a six-hour overland journey.


It's said that Melbourne would have the world's best opera house if only they could accommodate its wonderful acoustics and spacious seating inside Sydney's grander-looking opera house. It's impossible to mention Australia's number two city without comparing it to the number one, and Melbourne seems condemned to exist in the shadows of Sydney. But is it a bad thing to escape the tourist crowds, or to have an airport which can offer you a landing slot when your flight turns up?

Forty years ago, filming Nevil Shute's post-nuclear disaster fable, On the Beach, Ava Gardner commented that if they wanted to make a film about the end of the world, they couldn't have found a better place to do it than Melbourne. Things have changed. It has become one of the world's great cities for eating. In the city centre, there's a compact but highly authentic Chinatown. There is the Victoria Street enclave known as Little Saigon, where the best places all have double-barrelled names like Tho Tho or Thy Thy. And you can catch the sun at the restaurant-packed South Gate Centre on the riverbank, or try counter-cultural St Kilda.

And if you'd rather cook for yourself, there are barbecues within a stone's throw of the city centre on the grassy banks of the Yarra. You can hire boats and row down the river, stopping for tea and scones at Fairfield Park, an elegant boathouse.

Melbourne is Australia's sports city. The Australian Grand Prix, around Albert Park Lake, starts the Formula One season.There is the Australian Tennis Open, where Jim Courier, sprinted off the court, across the road, and threw himself into the Yarra at the moment of triumph. The Melbourne Cricket Ground can squeeze in 100,000 people, and every single space will be needed for the Australian Rules football final in September. But even this mania is eclipsed by the Melbourne Cup on the first Tuesday in November, when the whole country comes to a halt.

Rising in the east outside the city are the lush, green Dandenong Ranges. Follow the bay westward and you'll come to genteel Queenscliff; track eastward and you'll end up in affluent Portsea and Sorrento. A car ferry shuttles between the two resorts. Continue westward and you'll soon be on the Great Ocean Road, one of the world's most spectacular coastal highways. Or head north to Melbourne's ski resorts. But not too far north: you don't want to end up in Sydney. Tony Wheeler

Competition on flights to Melbourne is intense. Charters from Austravel (0171-734 7755) are available from Gatwick and Manchester; in February, the company is quoting a fare of pounds 609 including tax

Nusa Tenggara

Among the islands of Indonesia, Bali and Java receive most tourist publicity. Perhaps the relative inaccessibility of Nusa Tenggara, and the fact that the Dutch colonialists concentrated on Sumatra, Java and the spice islands of Maluku, account for the lesser popularity of this group of islands to the east of the country; but they are worth the effort.

Nusa Tenggara ("South-east Islands") is made up of three provinces: West Nusa Tenggara consists of Lombok and Sumbawa; East NT largely comprises Flores, Sumba and Timor; and then there is East Timor with its capital at Dilli.

To single out one island, Flores, rugged, spectacular and subject to earthquakes, is distinguished by the volcano of Keli Mutu, which has three lakes set deep in its craters, each of a different colour, ranging from olive green through bright blue to deep red. But there are also lush valleys, waterfalls, small fishing ports, hot springs and, uniquely, the Komodo dragon.

Lack of exposure to tourism has ensured the people of Nusa Tenggara have stayed innocent. Indonesia is one of the last great holiday places, let's hope that continues. Marcel Knobil

Fly to Bali (around pounds 600) and then take an internal flight (Air Merpati, within pounds 100)


In Oporto, a map is more hazard than help. Two dimensions are scarcely adequate to convey the aplomb with which the city's streets evade the horizontal; they duck and dart around the unexpected contours of a city that seems wonderfully out of place and out of time.

A scattering of wide arches will help you across the huge gouge caused by the Douro river. Peering down into the valley is a bit like squinting at the fortified wines shelf in an off-licence: familiar logos indicate port lodges belonging to institutions that sound like solicitors: Sandeman, Taylor and Warre.

Some visitors make it their business to do the rounds of the lodges, sipping as much free strong drink as propriety permits. Then they repair to the restaurants on the north bank of the Douro, where they are only dimly aware of the alarmingly high prices for ordinary fish dishes.

The cognoscenti, meanwhile, are strutting around the lanes that spiral out from Praca Liberdade. You can survey the ancient ironwork bequeathed by the British, and wander through the city market to Trinidade station. From this wonderful terminus, you can board a train upriver to visit the estates where the first principles of port are established. Or you could just slip into the Port Wine Institute, see if the chilled white variety is agreeable - and try to decipher your way home from the map. SC

Until 27 February, TAP Air Portugal (0171-828 0262) has a "companion" fare for two people travelling together for pounds 135.80 per person, including tax.


Jouvenceaux Sauze d'Oulx, Italy

First, some notes on pronunciation. The ski resort of Sauze d'Oulx (below) is in Italy, so do not be fooled into giving it a French accent: the Italians call it "Sow-zer douss" or "Sew-zay do". Or, since they aren't really sure, they sometimes resort to the old Italian name, Ulzio. I don't know what the locals call it, because they speak a Piedmont dialect.

Second, some interesting background. The area's marketing manager calls Sauze d'Oulx "the fiefdom of British skiers" as British package tourists occupy 90 per cent of the beds there during the season, and the resort has learned to cater to their needs. It has much in common with Torremolinos. True, it lacks the time-share touts and the funny hats; but there are enough discos, karaoke machines and bars selling beer by the pint to make it a unique Alpine experience.

Third, a surprising fact. Despite Sauze d'Oulx's reputation for being hyperactive night and day! (and, at rush-hours, the main ski-lift intersection can be as hectic as Oxford Circus), it does have one serene, deserted and delightful piste, which lets intermediate skiers - and even confident beginners - get off the beaten track without actually leaving it.

It takes guts to admit that a favourite ski run is the route from the top of Sauze d'Oulx's slopes down to its satellite resort, Jouvenceaux. There is nothing remotely heroic about it: no jump turns, no crevasses, no need to take a guide - it goes to extremes only in its moderation. It starts at 2,500m in the snow bowl above the tree-line, and, as it enters the trees, it slides off to the south, away from the main drag down to Sauze d' Oulx. It drops over a steepish ridge (a moment of excitement there) and into a wide avenue enclosed by trees. This first part of the run is pleasant enough; but it's when the piste splits that it gets really good.

What's so good about it is that you never know where you are going. If there are any signposts, I've missed them; there are none of those wide- open crests from which you can plot the next quarter of an hour's skiing; and you can't see the ski-lift because it's tucked away in the woods. After the fork, the piste narrows down to a forest track, which cuts diagonally along a wooded slope, across a ridge, and down through an abandoned hamlet. Here, unusually, you do often see other skiers, either studying their piste maps closely or just wondering where they took a wrong turning.

Perhaps the hamlet, called Tachier, isn't abandoned: the little chapel is still in good nick (unlike most of the barns), and two hand-painted wooden signs claim that Eros is serving drinks at his bar. The bar is always there, but never Eros; and even the barns that still have roofs don't have animals inside (I checked that, too).

Here, skiers who find archaeology a turn-off can do just that: there's a track to the right that will take them, very slowly, back to the bottom of the Sportinia chair-lift at Sauze d'Oulx. Those who stay with it follow the piste across a snowfield towards a massive view of the Frejus valley, drop back into the trees, and swoop across a series of dips to the final ridge above Jouvenceaux. The drop off that ridge delivers you right to the front gate of the La Fontaine restaurant.

Jouvenceaux, at 1,380m, is no picture postcard. It's almost a mirror image of Sauze d'Oulx - it's got the architecture of Torremolinos, but without the lifestyle. It is so quiet that you feel you should introduce yourself to the other skiers on the big, south-facing sun terrace at La Fontaine; and so quiet that as (all being well) you catch some sun after lunch, you will just hear the hum of the nearby chair-lift that is going to take you back up the mountain. You will never have to queue for it because hardly anybody skis down the Jouvenceaux piste.

It may be that Sauze d'Oulx doesn't sound like your kind of resort. No problem: you don't have to stay there. Since it is one of the resorts linked in the "Milky Way" ski area, you can stay at another one (say, Montgenevre in France, or Sestriere in Italy) and just ski to Sauze d'Oulx for the day.

And it may even be that you don't find the Jouvenceaux piste as wonderful as I do. Again no problem: there are another 117 pistes in the Milky Way. Stephen Wood Stephen Wood is The Independent's skiing columnist


Cairngorm, Scotland

The Ml is not inherently a great run, but it was great for me: I won a lot of races on it, from local junior events to my first British senior championship in 1980. Despite the name, it's not exactly motorway skiing - it's too short and too narrow. It used to zig-zag between snow fences, and we had to set slalom courses around them; since then, the snow fences have been straightened, and it now has its own poma lift on which racers get priority. It's about 700m long, with a vertical drop of 250m, and you can get almost a full-length Giant Slalom course on it. The only thing that sets it apart from most Scottish ski runs is that it maybe has less moguls, which is why a GS is possible on it. It's not steep in World Cup terms, but there is a medium-steep bit in the middle. When I went back, however, as the local skier made good, it turned out to be not as steep as I remembered: in those days I hadn't seen the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbuhel.

Martin Bell is the most successful British skier in men's Olympic events

Kitzsteinhorn Glacier

Kaprun, Austria

I've been to the Kitzsteinhorn Glacier in Austria for the last three summers. It's always good, but last May we got fresh snow - very rare at that time of year - and beautiful weather. We were doing photographs for White Lines magazine, taking off from a 70ft cliff, flying across a piste and landing on a slope on the other side. It was great. But it doesn't matter much where you go: it's good snow, good weather and, having good friends with you, that makes for a perfect day's snowboarding.

Neil McNab (left) is the Overall British Snowboarding Champion 1993-6 Les Vallons de la Meije

La Grave, France

What is so good about this run is that it just goes on and on, from the steepish, glacial Grand Mur right down into the valley. It starts at 3,200m and ends at 1,400m, and it's all off-piste. And the scenery is breathtaking. There are lots of good off-piste runs which are more remote; but you just step right out of the bubble onto this one. In the right conditions - when you've caught the first bubble up, after a fresh fall of snow - you just feel as if you own the mountain.

Caroline Stuart-Taylor is the managing director, Ski Club of Great Britain Fiescher Glacier

Grindelwald, Switzerland

We took the railway that goes up through the north face of the Eiger and the Monch mountain to the Jungfraujoch, at 3,450m. From there, we had a leisurely ski down the longest glacier in Europe, the Aletsch, followed by a two-hour climb. And then we had an extraordinary run - and quite a dangerous one - right through the Fiescher Glacier. Halfway down, an avalanche hurtled past us, like a very noisy frozen waterfall. But the most nerve-racking bit was actually crossing the glacier, which has knife- edge ridges with a crevasse on either side - you can't fall to the left or the right. At the top of the run, we had perfect powder, and running down to the little village at the bottom, Fieschertal, we had perfect spring conditions. So in this amazing, 2,100m vertical, we got both the orgasmic skiing experiences that everybody seeks.

Arnie Wilson is the author of `Tears in the Snow' (for which he skied every day of the year, all around the world, in 1994) The Door

Whakapapa, New Zealand

Whakapapa was my local resort when I lived in New Zealand. I was brought up in Taupo, about an hour away, and I started skiing The Door when I was 15. It's right at the top of the resort: you climb up to a row of peaks called The Pinnacles, and the further you go along them, the steeper the drop. You drop through The Door about six feet into a couloir - you have to do jump turns at first - which then opens out as it runs down about 250 metres to a powder field in the resort itself. We don't usually get deep powder in New Zealand; but I remember once when it was knee-deep. That was a great day for the skiing staff, because the snowfall had blocked the roads into the resort, and we had the slopes to ourselves.

Rob Hecklin is a ski instructor/boot-fitter/ski equipment manager Schilthorn/Kanonenrohr,

Murren, Switzerland

I would choose the run from the Schilthorn down to Murren. It starts with a steep mogul slope - not too steep, but challenging. Then there's a gentle cruise that brings you to a heart-stopping view of the Jungfrau, the Monch and the Eiger. Further down is a tricky narrow ledge called the Kanonenrohr: it's only about two ski-lengths wide, with a rock face on the right and nets on the left to catch you if you don't make the turns. Finally, you potter down to the village of Murren, which is one of the quaintest resorts in the Alps. Overall, it has a vertical drop of about 1,500m. It's a very special run, in a very special place, on a very special mountain.

Chris Gill is the author of `Where to Ski'

Our six ski experts were talking to Stephen Wood

Quebec City

As with the province, so with the city: watch your language. Quebec City (above) is the civic heart of Canada's tetchy province, and capital of probably the only place in North America- and the French-speaking world - where you cannot read English-language advertisements for beer and burgers.

It would be a shame if such linguistic rigidity deterred you. One of the most stirring sights anywhere in the world is the graceful eruption from the Plains of Abraham of North America's only walled city. "Steep streets and frowning gateways," declared Dickens (in English) after he had visited the community that clings to a volcanic plug high above the St Lawrence River.

Quebec City is best at dawn - the first slivers of light sparkling from the turrets of the Chateau Frontenac, a mock- medieval folly, the mist dissolving over the rooftops. An energetically three-dimensional tangle of streets is draped haphazardly over the slopes. Every corner reveals a rewarding detail of architectural extravagance or a pleasing new perspective.

Beyond the old city, you soon discover Quebec's self-conceit. While Canada's other provinces have local legislatures, Quebec has a National Assembly - admittedly, a fine building. If you wish to visit Canada's only officially bi-lingual province, go ahead. But note that it is neighbouring New Brunswick, not Quebec. Simon Calder

From Montreal, the trip to Quebec City takes about four hours by bus or train. The tourist office is Destination Quebec: 59 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5JH (0171-233 8011). The brochure request line is 0171-930 9742

Rio de Janeiro

The place that is the heart, soul and intestines of Brazil is ready for you - but are you ready for it? In the gestation from virgin territory to death-by-tourism, South America has hardly started. Yet it is flavour of this year among the cognoscenti, the predominantly young and independent anxious to see the splendour of Graham Greene's "continent of exiles" in relative isolation from other tourists. But get the feel for Latin life before you cross the fuzzy line that is the Rio de Janeiro city limits.

Ronnie Biggs wishes autograph-seekers "my kind of luck", and his good fortune in living in his adopted city is immense. Rio de Janeiro (below and right), is draped across a jagged edge of the Brazilian coast. The drama of the location is matched by the perfection of the beaches and amplified by the exuberance of its 10 million citizens - not all of them as lucky as the former Great Train Robber.

The dark side is never far away. The rich, whose ostentation is matched by their style, cruise along the beachfronts of Ipanema and Copacabana. Meanwhile, thousands are confined to the squalor of the favelas - shanties clinging to the hillsides - and scratch or thieve a living as best they can.

Since every entrail of this most organic of cities is on public display, it is perhaps inevitable that the latest tourist attraction is to tour the favelas. Seen Sugarloaf and climbed Corcovado? Get down and out with the poor and hungry. SC

Plenty of discount agents sell tickets from the UK to Rio for around pounds 500-pounds 600 return. Favela tours are organised by, among others, Marcello Armstrong (00 55 21 322 2727, or his mobile 989 0074).


In this, one of Tuscany's most unassuming little towns, it is unlikely that you'll have to jostle for space with other visitors in the dusty charm of the narrow streets and small squares. Yet the elegant Museo Civico of Sansepolcro quietly houses that masterpiece of suspended drama and eerie stillness, Piero della Francesca's Resurrection. And there are more hidden treasures: Piero's (somewhat damaged) fresco of San Guiliano and his hauntingly serene altarpiece, the Misericordia Polytych, the artist's earliest remaining work, which dates from about 1445.

Once you have explored Sansepolcro's other understated attractions - particularly the 11th-century Duomo and the pretty Gothic church of San Francesco - the outlying area has plenty more to offer. On the trail of more Piero della Francesca riches, head a few miles due south to the tiny village of Monterchi, where the striking fresco of the very visibly pregnant, Madonna del Parto, has been removed from the chapel, painstakingly restored, and housed in a beautifully lit gallery. Then make for Aghiari, just outside Sansepolcro. This is an unassuming medieval town, nothing more - and certainly nothing less - where the warren of winding lanes remains untouched by supermarkets or even souvenir stalls. Harriet O'Brien

The railway station at Sansepolcro is on the mainline from Florence. The Italian Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254)


Dublin, you can understand. Glasgow, Madrid, Athens - all cities of distinction. But Thessaloniki? The mayor, Konstantinos Kosmopoulos, describes it as "the neuralgic spot where the European North and Mediterranean South, as well as the Western technology and the Eastern magic, find their ideal balance." I just call it neuralgia.

Imagine a terraced city rising from the calm Thermaic Gulf towards the scraggy Mount Hortiatus. Deposited (the most polite description) upon each step, you find the most ungainly detritus of a modern European city: bleak apartment blocks, brutal shopping districts and high-octane highways.

Greece's second city is only four days into the year when it officially becomes European Capital of Culture. Anyone flying south for cultural nourishment from its predecessor, Copenhagen, may feel like giving up.

Do not give up lightly, though. First, visit the most significant site in Thessaloniki: a merchant's house whose stout foundations are buried in the 19th century. Admission is free, but can only be effected by yelling above into the entry phone. A tall, dark figure will emerge from the house. Watch for his quick glance over your shoulder to check you are alone. If he is satisfied, an accomplice hidden in the house will open the metal gate just enough for you to squeeze through - where someone in uniform marches up to frisk you and rummage through your bag.

Inside, heavy old household effects are dotted around a succession of rooms that become grander as you rise through each floor. The East is evident everywhere, and gives a final scarlet flourish in the chamber of honour, where a great leader's possessions and personality are proudly displayed.

Temporarily, you have stepped outside Greece. The building you are assessing happens to be the Turkish Consulate. It is also crucial to modern Turkey: the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal - later known as Ataturk.

The present residents, though, will not thank you for dwelling on the shrine to the man who resuscitated the "sick man of Europe". The Greek flags decorating the balconies remind the besieged diplomats that the Turkish frontier has since retreated 200 miles east.

In 1917, a fire destroyed much of Thessaloniki and prepared the ground for the present monstrosities. An earthquake 19 years ago finished off much of the surviving antiquity. Perhaps it was the shared memories of such calamities that persuaded San Francisco to sign up as Thessaloniki's twin city.

The heart of the city looks initially like yet another building site, but, peer over the barrier, and you see the elaborate brickwork of an ancient agora (marketplace). Then, concealed by a swirl of traffic, you stumble upon the Aya Sofia whose squat, intricate structure mimics the church that shares its name in Istanbul.

In two days' time, the church will be busy with worshippers celebrating Epiphany. A few days later, high above the modern city, the Turkish minority will mark the start of Ramadan. And, gradually, Europe will arrive at the gates of this city of small kindnesses and big ideas. Simon Calder

British Airways and Olympic Airways fly daily from Heathrow to Thessaloniki. Amathus Holidays (0171-636 9873) is selling three-night breaks in Thessaloniki.


"Whoosh." Another car screeched past my outstretched thumb on the lonely highway that staggers north from Santa Rosa towards the coast. Santa Rosa itself should be on the books of every Hollywood location scout. The ensemble of dusty church, dusty cowboys and dusty highway would look even more authentic in 70mm than in real life, when the angry morning sun bears down on those foolish enough to be out of the shade.

The rule that Mexico is one of the most hospitable nations on earth is demonstrated five minutes later when a newish Volkswagen (they still make them here) dozes to a halt.

"Whoosh-mal?" enquires the driver. Si.

Where else would you be heading in this unpronouncable world other than Uxmal (right), which is greater than Dzibilnocac, Dzibilchatun and even Xpujii? These places are not Scrabble hands; they speak of the latest, greatest Mesoamerican civilisation. The Maya developed a culture and a language that has endured the ravages of conquistadores and centuries of oppression from their descendants. The Yucatan peninsula, where Mayan society survives, is dense with the startling structures imposed upon an unyielding terrain. But the upsurge of tourism to Mexico, fuelled by a weak peso and cheap charters, has had an unhappy effect on the prime Mayan temple site. On some days, it is almost as tricky to find an empty foothold on the climb up the pyramid climb as a space on the beach at Cancun.

Uxmal does not have the scale of Chichenitza, but neither is it a Mayan theme park on the circuit of Cancun holidaymakers. Compressed into a few acres, you find a pyramid whose ascent is scarier than an encounter with the most erratic Mexican motorist; a pre-Catholic convent; and an archaic civic centre that looks more impressive than anything in Santa Rosa, while retaining a scale that is intensely human. SC

The closest airport to Uxmal is Merida, accessible from Britain with a change of planes in Miami or Houston. Or you can fly direct to Cancun, 250 miles east, on charters from several UK airports

Venice Beach

Malibu beach is the private preserve of the rich and famous; Long Beach has more to do with heavy engineering than with hanging loose; but Venice Beach is a free-for-all - the ocean is accessible and the living is easy. This mixture of practical economics and hedonism has made it a favourite since the summer of love.

A trip to Venice is a licence to join the parade of all that is weird and wonderful about LA. Anything goes here, and on Ocean Front Walk at Venice you can watch it going.

Hang out in one of the cafes along the beach front (sip beer at On the Waterfront or a cocktail at Shutters on the Beach) and see the beautiful people (nipped, tucked, and very possibly implanted) mixing with leather- clad heavies, earth-friendly hippies and cutting-edge fitness freaks. Roller-blading, and its more sedate precursor, roller-skating, started here. Now the high rollers focus on "attitude". Rent blades (and as much protective padding as you need) at Patrick's Venice Rollerworks on Westminster Avenue and skate along the beach. Or you can hire a bike (try Rental on the Beach) if the moms blading past you at high-speed, with their three- wheeled sports prams, put you off your stride.

Impromptu shows on the sidewalk are part of the scene. Don't miss the men-women, too, flexing and preening at Muscle Beach. You will be sold herbal remedies, body-piercing, t-shirts and beach paraphernalia at every turn. But be warned, the only sharks you are likely to find at Venice will be on the beach, not in the water. Philippa Czernin

Flights to Los Angeles: prices from about pounds 320, including tax, are available on United, American, BA and Virgin. Choose from around 8 flights daily. Book nearer departure date (try operators such as Trailfinders 0171-937 5400 or Quest Worldwide 0181-546 6000) to take advantage of special deals

Wenceslas Square

Wenceslas Square (Vclavske Nmest) is not the oldest nor most beautiful part of Prague, nor is it really a square. It's more of a long boulevard, blocked off by the National Museum at its top end. But it's still a "must see" on any tour of the city. And, even if you don't plan to linger, you'll find yourself passing through frequently.

This expansive oblong is a central place to meet, with good shops and cafes, but it has also been a traditional place of protest and it resonates with history. Wreaths and candles in front of the equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas, patron saint of Bohemia, form an unofficial shrine to the victims of communism, and it was from a balcony in the Square that Vaclav Havel addressed the crowds in the days of the Velvet Revolution of November 1989.

As you wander the shops and cafes, keep your eyes peeled for the arcades that lead to bars, clubs, theatres and cinemas. If you wonder why Prague locals seem to get to places before you, these arcades, which cut through blocks and are a feature of the city, could provide the answer. PC

Cheapest flights to Prague are with Czech airline CSA from Stansted, Heathrow or Manchester (0171-255 1898), pounds 166 including tax. Major Travel (0171-485 7017) also has flights for pounds 166, weekdays on British Midland. Travelling by coach is still the cheapest option; through Kingscourt Express (0181-673 7500), this is pounds 95 return.


Emperor Qinshihuang, lauded as the unifier of China's warring states in 222 BC, built his capital near present-day Xian, thereby bequeathing one of the world's prime tourist sites to a relatively impoverished region. About 20 miles east of the city, the emperor was buried with an army of thousands of life-sized terracotta soldiers and horses (below left), who now find themselves outnumbered by the foreign tourists.

There is more to Xian, however. For any package tourist following the well-trodden path through Peking, Shanghai and Guilin, the city of Xian provides the only glimpse of ordinary provincial life. The air hangs heavy as a result of the five million tonnes a year of coal consumed by factories and domestic heating stoves but, compared with a decade ago, the city centre has been transformed into a network of lively shopping streets and restaurants. A walk around the inside of the old city wall reveals the more modest ambitions of the peasants who have flooded into Xian, as to all other Chinese cities, in search of casual work. By the East Gate, a hundred or so rural labourers sit by the kerb most afternoons, clutching wooden signs advertising their manual skills. Teresa Poole

Xian, the capital of Shaanxi province, can be reached by train and by air from all of China's big cities. Organised day tours are probably the easiest way to visit the terracotta warriors

Yangtze River

The Tang dynasty writer, Li Bai, wrote lyrical verses about the mighty waters of China's greatest river. However, the current prime minister, Li Peng, is possessed by a very different vision. Earlier this year, he penned his own ode to the Three Gorges Dam, the country's biggest, and most controversial, construction project:

"Beneath the towering Kunlun mountains

The endless Yangtze flows to the East

Gazing at the vast fields and rivers of Sichuan

We find outstanding people everywhere

Just like stars twinkling in space."

The vast dam construction site means that a river journey down the Yangtze (right) can now cater for the very diverse sightseeing tastes of any travel party. Travelling from Chongqing city, the view from the deck is of thousands of enterprises, villages and towns which will be submerged in 2003, when the damming of the river will create a reservoir equivalent in area to Singapore. An estimated 1.3 million Chinese must be relocated by then. It is on the second day of the journey that one surges through the steep- sided Qutang Gorge, following by Wuxia Gorge and Xiling Gorge, scenery which is doomed by the scale of the dam.

Emerging from Xiling, one approaches Sandouling, where 18,000 labourers are toiling on the site. By the end of 1997, the waters will be diverted into a new channel to allow work to start on the permanent dam wall. As one Chinese official says: "You wouldn't expect to see another concrete pouring project as big as this in 50 years."Teresa Poole It takes three days to travel downstream from Chongqing to Wuhan, and from there one can either continue by river to Shanghai, take the train, or opt for the airport


To find out why Emerson Skeens should have left a successful career in New York City to run a hotel in one of the world's more crumbling corners, you should ask a psychologist. Mr Skeens himself will do nicely, since that is the trade he forsook when he swapped Manhattan for the Spice Island.

He still occupies a skyscraper, mind. In Stone Town, the island's capital, Emerson's House is the top hotel both attitudinally and altitudinally. You climb an interminable staircase to the roof, past rooms straight out of Hollywood via the Orient. At the top, a warm breeze brushes you on to the roof garden, where a quartet of bright brass implements conspire to produce tea.

As you gaze over the decrepit House of Wonders - venue for the shortest war on record, a 37-minute affair a century ago - Mr Skeens will explain how he became besotted with Zanzibar on a holiday seven years ago. One reason is a conspiracy of cultures more intense than anything you can find in New York city: African and Arab, Persian and Indian created a community of commerce, before the Portuguese and British took their turns at the Empire game. Another is an assumption which would be arrogant were it not accurate: that no other island can offer the same concoction of land, sea and society. Exploring Zanzibar is like turning the pages of an insistently good book, where each character is richly developed and every setting exquisitely portrayed. Brochure copywriters have it so easy here: you can barely move for friendly faces, beautiful beaches and lovely landscapes.

Half-hour wars apart, the island at the end of the alphabet imbues in its visitors a serenity that you find hard to shake off. You don't have to be sane to travel here. But it helps. Simon Calder

British Airways flies from Gatwick to Dar Es Salaam several times each week. Discount agents can sell tickets for around pounds 400 return. You will need a Tanzanian visa, obtainable in advance from the High Commission at 43 Hertford Street, London W1Y 8DB (0171-499 8951)