Independent Families: 'Are the Himalayas too challenging?'

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Q. I am considering taking my daughter trekking in Sikkim at Christmas or October half-term. She is an active eight-year-old, who was unfazed by a trip to Kerala three years ago. Is this sort of trip possible through specialist tour operators and would you recommend any particular routes when in the region?
J Morrison, via e-mail

A Companies specialising in trekking holidays are realising the growing appeal that such trips have to families and now create hikes specifically designed to keep children as engaged as their parents, with fairly fast-moving itineraries, and a good mix of walking, sightseeing and child-friendly distractions. This also means that destinations across the subcontinent have been made more accessible to less-intrepid travellers. One such region is Sikkim, India's second-smallest state, which sits in the Himalayas hemmed in by Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and the Indian region of West Bengal. The hilly terrain ranges from 280m to 8,585m in altitude (the latter being the summit of Kanchenjunga, third-highest mountain in the world).

Embracing glaciers, lakes and mountain peaks, it offers varying levels of hiking trails. Bear in mind that difficulty increases with altitude, particularly for children. It is recommended that they climb no higher than 3,500m. Higher mountain walks aren't suitable for families with children under 14 and some trekking companies won't accommodate under-14s on their trips. However, there is scope in the Himalaya for trekking while not venturing anywhere near this high, in regions such Sikkim and over the border in Nepal.

An ancient Buddhist kingdom that was an independent state until 1975, Sikkim is one of India's smallest and most-visited states. Travellers come in search of its remoteness and magnificent scenery, and it's a good introduction to Himalayan hiking. It has warm weather and dense forests in the south and fresher temperatures as the altitude rises in the north. The monsoon hits the region between early June and September, with snowfall from November, making spring and late autumn to early winter the best times to visit. An October half-term holiday is, therefore, a viable option.

Just over the western border, Nepal remains a popular destination for mountain trekking, not least because it is the home of Everest. Because it is such an established trekking destination, there are a wealth of routes available and with the range of geography the activities are varied, with the option of river-borne ones.

While Sikkim is fairly stable, Nepal has long suffered from political strife between the government and Maoist rebel groups. The situation has stabilised since April, but the Foreign Office says incidences of Maoist guerillas extorting money from trekkers and climbers continue to occur on main trekking routes.

For the latest official advice, call 0845 850 2829 or visit www.fco.gov.uk.

Reports warn of the possibilities of rallies and demonstrations in the weeks preceding the elections in November. Foreign visitors are advised to stay away from large gatherings and remain vigilant at all times. Nevertheless, plenty of tour operators will accommodate families in the region. One such company is The Himalayan Adventure Company (0845 094 0273; www.thehimalayanadventurecompany.com). Among its itineraries are walks suitable for children over six years old.

One of its family-friendly trips is the 11-day "Sublime Sikkim" group tour. The tour has a relaxed approach, with gentle walks (around three hours a day) and transfers between points of interest. There are visits to zoos and ancient monasteries while mountain views are woven between journeys. The tour begins in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, with two days of introductory walks around the city visiting ancient palaces and temples.

By day four, after crossing into India, you travel to Darjeeling. Here, children will be in their element as the tour visits a zoo and the Happy Valley Tea Estate. In the afternoon, a scenic ride on the "toy train" takes you to Ghoom, through splendid scenery.

Following an early morning walk, day five is seen in watching the sunrise over the mountains on Tiger Hill, before the drive into Sikkim. In Sikkim, the group visits monasteries including the Sanga Choeling Monastery. The tour ends in Kathmandu for the flight back to London the next day.

Prices start at £1,495 per adult, with a discount for children dependent on age. The price includes 10 nights' hotel accommodation, transfers, most meals and transportation. Flights are not included; the main approach from the UK is on Qatar Airways (0870 770 4215; www.qatarairways.com) from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester via Doha to Kathmandu. The remaining departures are 14, 21 and 28 October. Since international flights are not included, you'll need to depart for Nepal at least a day before the group meets up in Kathmandu.

Similar itineraries are offered by Himalayan Kingdoms (01453 844400; www.himalayan kingdoms.com), which organises family treks in the region. There is a family trip in Nepal departing in December. The 14-day trip involves four days of trekking in a maximum group size of 20. Accommodation varies from four-star hotels to lakeside lodges, mountain top camping and a two-night stay in a jungle lodge inside the Chitwan National Park. The tour grade is classed as easy and the altitude peaks at 1,429m.

The first stop is Kathmandu, the base for a two-day pre-trek briefing. On day four, Christmas Day, the group flies to Pokhara for the start of the trek to Kalikasthan.

Along the way, the trek takes in terraced fields, Hindu shrines, gentle hills and camping at the top of Kalikasthan ridge, with spectacular mountain views of the Annapurnas.

You also visit Syaglung and navigate the jungle in Chisa Pani, before arriving at Rupa Tal Lake. After that, there's rafting on the Trisuli River before catching a 4x4 to the Chitwan Jungle Lodge. Here, two days are set aside for elephant safaris, or to search for the Royal Bengal Tiger, before returning to Kathmandu to fly home.

The trip departs on 21 December, returning on 3 January 2008 and prices start at £1,850 per adult and £1,350 for under-12s. This includes return flights on Qatar Airways or Gulf Air, transfers, most meals, accommodation and all sightseeing. There is no minimum age restriction, although Himalayan Kingdoms does not recommend this trip for under-threes. Again, sherpa porters or ponies can be organised for younger children.

British passport-holders need a visa to visit India and Nepal. Indian visas must be arranged prior to travel through the High Commission of India in London (020-7836 8484; www.hcilondon.net); in addition, you must apply for a permit for Sikkim. Nepalese visas can be purchased before travel or on arrival in Kathmandu airport, details can be obtained from the Nepalese Embassy (020-7229 1594; www.nepembassy.org.uk).



Send your queries to The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or email crusoe@independent.co.uk

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