Q&A: Flamingoes, parakeets and a gift horse

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Q. We have won a free week at an all-inclusive resort at Playa Dorada in the Dominican Republic, and will be heading there with our children, Matthew and Marina (12 and 11), in April or possibly July. Neither the destination, nor a resort of this kind (it reputedly has 1,000 rooms), is the sort of holiday we would have chosen, but we are not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth. What are the prospects of exploring or taking part in some adventurous activities with the children? We might be able to extend our stay and fly back a few days later.

Q. We have won a free week at an all-inclusive resort at Playa Dorada in the Dominican Republic, and will be heading there with our children, Matthew and Marina (12 and 11), in April or possibly July. Neither the destination, nor a resort of this kind (it reputedly has 1,000 rooms), is the sort of holiday we would have chosen, but we are not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth. What are the prospects of exploring or taking part in some adventurous activities with the children? We might be able to extend our stay and fly back a few days later.

Andrew and Lucy Fodase, Crewe

A. Congratulations! There's no need to worry about being trapped in a resort. Your prospects, for both adventure and exploring, are excellent. The Dominican Republic has some of the highest mountains in the Caribbean as well as rainforests, rivers, waterfalls and a desert lake. The country has a Latin American feel, despite its position in the West Indies.

If you have a few extra days, I suggest you try one of two possible approaches. Either contact a local tour agency, such as Cocotours (001 809 586 1311; e-mail: steve@cocotours.com); or Omni Tours (001 809 541 0637; e-mail omni.tours@codetel.net.do) which can pre-book transport, activities and accommodation for you. Or hire a car yourselves and book accommodation through the Tourist Board (020-7242 7778; www.dominicana.co.do) or at www.domrep_hotels.co.do. Avis (0870 6060100; www.avis.com) charges from £138 per week for car hire.

Make sure you include the mountains of the Central Cordillera in your itinerary. From the sugary sands of Playa Dorada, the roads twist steeply, snaking through brilliant-green hills covered in banana and pineapple plantations. Beyond Santiago, the country's second city, the air freshens and a broad plain of tobacco fields opens out. The upper reaches are pine-clad, and these mountains are known as the "Dominican Alps".

The village of Jarabacoa is the place for adventure. There are a few small, run-down hotels here, or you can stay at the Ranch Baiguate Adventure Centre and let Marina and Matthew choose from white-water rafting, canyoning, mountain-biking, quad-running - you name it. You can also hike through forests, looking out for the indigenous long-snouted Solenodon rodents, to the thunderous Salto Jimenoa waterfall.

From Jarabacoa, you can also make a day trip to the remote Contanza valley. The climate in this region is almost temperate and you find peach orchards and strawberry beds, although the green parakeets are reminders that you are in the tropics.

Contanza itself is a ramshackle little farming town. However, amid the alleys of beaten earth and the clapboard huts, you encounter the occasional Shinto shrine of incense pots and strands of paper dangling like kite-tails from wooden prayer railings.

This bizarre sight is because of the presence of a surviving Japanese community. After the Second World War, Rafael Trujillo enticed 200 impoverished Japanese peasants - and their farming know-how - to this valley.

If you have more time still, I would recommend driving out west into the parched, baking desert to the 42km-long Lago Enriquillo lake. Tall, spiky cacti wave their tails in the air and sandblasted rocks rise in weird, golden shapes. A sharper contrast with the steamy green dankness of the Cordillera Central is hard to imagine.

The lake shimmers with thousands of flamingoes, and you might even spot crocodiles. Round the shores you will see huge, three-horned "rhinoceros iguanas" (they are not dangerous, though they look it). You will certainly come away feeling that you have travelled much further than just to a beach resort.

Q. I have been on very successful holidays to Egypt and to South India with my daughters, now 13 and 9. We have had a good dose of history and culture, followed by some relaxation by the sea. Our next destination is Sri Lanka. The prices for tailor-made itineraries seem fairly reasonable. Have we made a wise choice? And can you make some suggestions as to where we should go before we join friends at a beach hotel near Galle?

Jim Aspey,Ipswich

A. If you have enjoyed Egypt and South India, Sri Lanka should be wonderful. I once went on a marvellous family holiday in Sri Lanka with my own children. But a word first about safety. The Foreign Office (www.fco.gov.uk) strongly advises against venturing to the north or east of the country. You should also avoid Colombo, the capital, where there have been several recent acts of terrorism. All responsible tour operators follow this advice, and tend to stick to the largely trouble-free main tourist areas.

Start with the "cultural triangle" of the archaeological sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. These great, ruined metropolises leave most visitors lost in admiration. Little imagination is needed to jump the 800 years to the glittering city of Polonnaruwa, for example, and to appreciate the infinite patience and artistry in the four gigantic statues of the Buddha carved into a massive slab of granite.

But it is not just the ruins that make the cultural triangle so exciting. Out for a short walk in the forest near Sigiriya, we met some children fishing in a pool. After we had been watching a while, they had a quick whispered conference, then presented our two children with plastic nets and invited them to join in the fun.

Kandy, the lakeside religious and cultural centre of the country, is also worth a stop. Visit the Temple of the Tooth, where what is believed to be one of the Buddha's eye-teeth lies encased in gold. It is worth getting up at dawn for the daily ceremony where worshippers gather here to a background of hypnotic drumming, trumpet-blowing and mantra-chanting.

A 10-day trip to Sri Lanka should cost about £1,100 per adult and £700 per child with Western & Oriental (020 7313 6611), including flights, B&B accommodation and a car with driver/guide. Other similar deals are offered by Cox and Kings (01233 211401, www.coxandkings.co.uk), Hayes and Jarvis (0870 8989890, www.hayes-jarvis.com) and Somak Holidays (020 8423 3000, www.somak.co.uk).

For more information contact the Sri Lanka Tourist Board (020 7930 2627, www.lanka.net/ctb).

Send your family travel questions to S F Robinson, The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall,London E14 9RSOr crusoe@independent.co.uk

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