Is it safe to follow in the wake of Mitch and Georges?

INFORMATION DESK: YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY OUR PANEL OF TRAVEL EXPERTS

I would really like to go to the Caribbean for some winter sun, but every paper I pick up seems to be reporting details of stabbings, rapes and, most recently, hurricanes. Is it safe and can you tell me what damage has been done?

Patricia Dunstan

Tunbridge Wells

Jill Crawshaw replies: First, let us deal with the hurricanes, the most unpredictable events in the world - even the timing seems out of phase. I remember once in Jamaica being told: "June too soon, July standby, August come it must, September remember, October all over." Yet hurricane Mitch has been causing the most appalling devastation, and Georges cut a swathe through the eastern Caribbean, creating terrible carnage in half a dozen islands, while totally bypassing others.

The most popular island these days among British holidaymakers is the Dominican Republic, which was badly hit in the south and east of the island; hundreds were killed and many injured, with Juan Dolio the worst hit resort.

Tour operators have now transferred their bookings to resorts such as Puerto Plata, Sosua and Playa Dorada in the north of the island, which did not suffer any hurricane damage.

Apart from the horror of hurricanes, though, what sort of an island is the Dominican Republic? There have been some complaints about hygiene standards but it is in no way a dangerous island, with little violence, very few drug problems and a fascinating capital - Santo Domingo - and interior for those visitors who take the trouble to explore beyond the beach. You can get further information from the tourist board (tel: 0891 600 305; calls cost 50p per minute).

Cuba is another place you might like to look at; the hurricane did some damage to the middle of the island - tourists were moved from Holguin and Camaguey - but the main resort of Varadero and the fascinating capital, Havana, were untouched. Tourism in Cuba is back to normal and, although there have been occasional muggings in the back streets of Havana, I was there on my own earlier this year and I had no problems or even uneasy feelings whatsoever.

A tourism explosion is forecast for Cuba, so it might be as well to get there soon. Contact the Cuba tourist office (tel: 0171-240 6655).

Antigua - which seems to be in the path of every hurricane that blows, and was only just recovering from the hurricane that hit it in 1995 - was badly affected by hurricane Georges in the south and west of the island, but hotels are making supreme efforts to rebuild and restore for the peak Christmas season. Contact the Antigua tourist office (tel: 0171-486 7073).

Puerto Rico also suffered from the hurricane, but it is not a popular holiday destination among British visitors. There was more damage in St Kitts than Nevis, the latter, in my opinion, one of the most interesting tiny islands (Nelson was married there), with a mix of super-smart hotels and charming plantation houses converted into small hotels. It is a very safe, laid-back island. St Kitts and Nevis tourist board (tel: 0171-376 0881).

Among the untouched islands, Barbados is considered one of the friendliest and most politically stable, though a tourist was killed there recently. You should definitely take care if you find yourself in some areas of Bridgetown after dark.

Similar advice applies to Jamaica's capital, Kingston. Holiday reps warn against going off the beaten track, which was echoed by my resident friends. Montego Bay is the worst place I've experienced, not for violence, but for hassling. But Jamaica is definitely one of the most beautiful and interesting islands, with a lot more going for it than just sun and sand. Jamaica tourist board (tel: 0171-224 0505).

St Lucia, a very popular island among British holidaymakers, was unaffected by the hurricane. I've been made vaguely uneasy by rather hostile or sullen glances from time to time, but not experienced any danger. Visitors tend to stick to their all-inclusive complexes, though it is well worth hiring a car or bicycle in order to visit its rainforest and volcano. St Lucia Tourist Board (tel: 0171-431 3675).

If you are looking for a really hassle-free spot, consider some of the smaller islands. The Caymans are very safe, very British (there's even an M&S), very flat and without as much character as some, but superb for snorkelling and diving, and with some great beaches.

Grenada is totally delightful, with one of the prettiest capitals in the Caribbean, St George, also with excellent diving. Tobago is even sleepier. And I am particularly fond of eccentric little Bequia in the Grenadines, and Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands (but do not confuse the latter with St Thomas and St Croix, which are in the occasionally edgy American Virgin Islands).

Jill Crawshaw is a travel expert, writer and broadcaster.

Keep taking the tablets

I've heard quite a lot about typhoid and cholera epidemics in Central America following Hurricane Mitch. I thought these diseases were no longer a serious threat to public health. Can you explain what they are, and how effective the vaccinations are?

David O'Brien

Dunstable

Dr Larry Goodyer replies: Cholera and typhoid are still endemic in a number of developing countries, but become a particular problem when sanitation systems break down or are inadequate. A common scenario is overcrowded refugee camps, when outbreaks are often reported with quite high fatality rates. Another situation is after a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or flooding.

It is often children who suffer the most from these diseases, but poorly nourished and frail people would also be at risk. The fear of cholera in travellers is often greater than the seriousness of the condition in otherwise healthy individuals. It is quite unlikely to be caught, and often would be difficult to distinguish from a bout of traveller's diarrhoea.

Simple oral rehydration using electrolyte salt is the best treatment. The injectable vaccine is not now used, although work is progressing on developing a vaccine that can be taken by mouth. The best means of avoidance is sensible food and water hygiene measures.

Typhoid is quite a serious condition, damaging not only the gut but also other organs in the body if not treated with the right antibiotics. The typhoid vaccine is effective, available as both an oral and injectable form. Vaccination would routinely be offered for many destinations, and the modern injections cause far fewer unpleasant reactions than the old ones.

Occasionally there are reports of typhoid outbreaks in Mediterranean resort hotels, but this is rare enough not to warrant routine vaccination.

Dr Larry Goodyer is a lecturer in clinical pharmacy at King's College, London. Contact the Nomad Travel Health Helpline (tel: 0891 633414; calls cost 50p per minute).

Go hiking in the Dolomites or stroll through Tuscany

My family and I would like to take a walking holiday in Italy in October 1999. Do you know of organisations which operate such things?

K A King

Northants

The travel editor replies: There are a number of operators dealing in walking holidays in Italy.

Inntravel (tel: 01653 628811) organises walks of any length and specification. A one-week autumn holiday in Tuscany, including three days walking, staying overnight in Volterra, San Gimingnano, Colle Val D'Elsa and Siena, costs between pounds 698 and pounds 786 per person (some reductions for children under 12 years). The price includes return flights to Pisa, transfers, half- board accommodation staying in upmarket hotels, detailed maps and walking notes.

Waymark Holidays (tel: 01753 516477) has a variety of walking holidays in Italy, including some challenging routes in the Dolomites. However, if you are travelling with children, an equally picturesque area with easier walks is Lake Garda. One week costs pounds 390 per person (some reductions for children under 12 years), and includes return flights, half-board accommodation in two-star hotels and the expertise of a tour leader.

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