Q&A: All aboard the paddy-field express

Your travel questions answered


Q.My partner is spending a few months working on an engineering project in The Philippines, and I am planning to join him out there over Christmas and New Year, with my sons Morris and Lawrence who are 16 and 14. We would all like to go on an adventurous (but safe!) expedition for a few days, and then find somewhere "cool to chill out" as the boys would say. Any suggestions?
Gillian Darke, Leicester

Q.My partner is spending a few months working on an engineering project in The Philippines, and I am planning to join him out there over Christmas and New Year, with my sons Morris and Lawrence who are 16 and 14. We would all like to go on an adventurous (but safe!) expedition for a few days, and then find somewhere "cool to chill out" as the boys would say. Any suggestions? Gillian Darke, Leicester

A.Yes. If you are serious about wanting an adventure you should consider a five-day trip through the mountains of North Luzon, taking in the amazing Banaue rice terraces. You are going at the best time of year for this, and travel companies such as Marsman (00 632 893 2984; e-mail: mttcavb@epic.net) have regular departures in small groups, travelling by minibus.

You leave Manila in a squadron of honking trucks and gaudy "jeepneys", the ubiquitous vehicles - half jeeps, half minibuses - festooned with fairy lights, garlands and statues of wild horses or the Virgin Mary. Soon you are rumbling across a dusty wasteland in the shadow of Mount Pinatubo, the volcano that erupted so catastrophically a decade ago.

Next, you strike out across muddy, flat expanses of paddies ploughed by water buffalo, before hitting the mountains and climbing steeply to Baguio. Life here is concentrated round the central market: the trading hub for tribespeople, such as the Bontocs who tattoo their hands and wear headbands made of snakes' vertebrae. At Bontoc villages, deeper in the mountains, you will notice circles of stones in village centres where the ritual Atos - gatherings of tribal elders - are held and decisions made, often in defiance of official authority.

You will probably visit Sagada, famous for its so-called "hanging coffins". Here, you walk through an eerie landscape of stone pillars pitted with caves and ledges where generations of corpses have been placed in every nook and cranny. Little piles of bones and rotting wood look down from every direction.

It is a relief to get back into the minibus and continue from Bontoc country, over a bone-jarring pass to the Ifugao region, a land of lime-coloured crests and spurs terraced into myriad, jumbled patches of paddy. Some are just a few feet wide, hewn in contouring rows out of almost sheer mountain sides. Nobody knows quite why the ancestors of the Ifugao people settled here. What is known is that, 2,000 years ago, these terraces were built with bare hands. Water, essential for rice cultivation, was diverted from nearby streams and waterfalls to cascade through the terraces like a giant fountain. Steps, walls and borders were built with stones that remain in place today. Planting starts in January, so you might just catch the beginning of this.

There is a comfortable, if faded, hotel there, which is welcome before the long, tiring road journey back to Manila. The cost with Marsman is US$500 per person (around £350) including meals and four nights accommodation.

After this, it really will be time to chill out. There are a few swanky beach resorts in the Philippines, such as El Nido on Palawan and Mactan Island on Cebu. However, the place to take Morris and Lawrence for fun and nightlife is Boracay.

A coral atoll just five miles long, it is reached via the airport on neighbouring Panay. With clear waters, powder sand and coconut fronds, it evokes all the tropical island clichés. You skim across to Boracay aboard an outrigger canoe and wade ashore. Formerly a backpacker hangout, the island now has accommodation of every standard, but virtually no cars - just motor tricycle taxis and various forms of two-wheeled transport.

There is a three-mile hemline of dazzling sand along the west coast, flanked by resorts, huts, shops, and eateries. If you or your boys dive, there are plenty of PADI-qualified instructors at numerous dive and snorkelling centres. All kinds of other watersports are offered. The truly anti-social can zip about on whining wet bikes.

Then, after dark, there are discos and beach parties galore. After their gruelling trip round north Luzon, it shouldn't be hard to justify a spot of hedonism.

Again, Marsman can book accommodation and flights from Manila. If you want to book a package from the UK, you could try Asian Journeys ( www.asianjourneys.com; 01604 234401) or Magic of the Orient (01293 537700; www.magic-of-the-orient.com).

Q.We are thinking of driving through France some time shortly into the New Year, and spending a few days exploring the Camargue with our twin daughters, who will be 11 by then, and our nine-year-old son. We have visited the Camargue briefly in the Autumn, and understand that the place has a special allure in winter. The girls are both keen on riding, but the main object is for us all is to enjoy the surrounding nature. We would appreciate any tips you can give us, especially how we can go about finding some self-catering accommodation.

Heather and Steve Alcock, via e-mail

A.You are certainly right about the raw beauty of the Camargue off-season. The strong, pure light and clarity of a fine winter's day is quite unlike anywhere else in Europe. The region is the delta of the Rhÿne, which divides in two north of Arles and splinters into a triangle of grassland, marches, salt flats and lagoons. Much of the area is a nature reserve where more than 300 species of birds find refuge.

You don't have to be a twitcher, though, to be captivated by the flamingoes. Although some migrate southwards in winter, thousands remain on the Camargue all year round. I once took my own youngsters out into the Etang de Vaccarÿs reserve where we walked for miles along the top of a dyke, breathing the salty air and seeing how close we could get to the huge flocks of flamingoes. At one point, we got to within just a few yards of them before they rose up whirring their wings in a kaleidoscope of red, white and pink. It was something I'm sure we will all remember for a long time.

You will also find plenty of opportunities for the girls to ride. The Camargue is home to an indigenous breed of striking white horses. It is on these that the cowboys known as gardiens round up herds of black bulls which roam freely across the region's flat, unfenced pastures. However, there are also numerous stables where you can simply turn up for a hack.

As far as accommodation is concerned, VFB Holidays (www.vfbholidays.co.uk; 01242 240310) has several self-catering properties around the Camargue. For example, a three-bedroom farmhouse in the village of Mouriÿs costs £630 for a week. The price includes the channel crossing for a family, plus car. There is riding available from stables in the village.

For further ideas on accommodation, you might want to look at The Individual Travellers "Vacances en Campagne" programme (www.indiv-travellers.com; 08700 771771) and Brittany Ferries' "Gite Holidays in France" brochure (08705 143537, www.brittanyferries.com).

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