Snorkels or shops? Australia has it all

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered
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The Independent Travel

Q. We have an active son aged 16 and a shopaholic daughter aged 14, and have rashly suggested to them that we might go to Australia in summer 2002. We're thinking of three weeks, and would like to see the Great Barrier Reef, Ayers Rock, Sydney and Melbourne. Any suggestions for activities would be welcome, particularly those that won't break the bank.

Chris Hartley, via e-mail

A. Even during the northern summer, which corresponds with winter south of the Equator, Australia is an excellent family holiday destination. Also, prices tend to be cheaper outside the most popular (and expensive) period to visit the Northern Hemisphere's winter. Bear in mind, though, that temperatures will vary considerably from region to region during Australia's winter. Cairns in Queensland, and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, should be above 20C during the day, while further south, temperatures in Sydney and Melbourne will be more likely to be hovering around 15C.

The Great Barrier Reef is ideal for an active 16-year-old boy, and the best way to see the reef is, of course, to dive. Around Cairns there are lots of companies offering "learn to dive" courses. Introductory open-water courses leading to PADI certification usually last for four days. Alternatively, try a single introductory dive. Down Under Dive (00 61 7 4052 8300; www.downunderdive.com.au), for example, offers a day trip with an introductory dive for A$130 (£47) or a budget four-day open water course for A$280 (£100). After the latter, you should qualify for the Open Water Gold Card, an internationally recognised diver's licence. The minimum age is 14.

Other activities out on the reef include sailing, snorkelling and sea kayaking. There is also fun to be had inland. R'n'R White Water Rafting (00 61 7 4041 2272; www.rnrrafting.com) offers a full day's rafting on the Tully River, near Cairns, from A$145 (£53) per person. More cheaply, you can go mountain biking, trekking or horse-riding in Cape Tribulation, a stunning area 150km north of Cairns, where reef meets rainforest.

In the "Red Centre" of Australia, the world-famous Uluru (the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock) is of deep cultural significance to the local Anangu Aboriginal people. A good place to learn why is by visiting the award-winning Cultural Centre (00 61 8 956 3138). It opens 7am-5.30pm daily during winter, and admission is free. The most popular trail around Uluru is the base walk, which takes about five hours. In Alice Springs itself, your daughter will enjoy browsing around the many Aboriginal art shops lining its streets.

Moving on to Sydney, the Bridge Climb, which takes you over the arch of the harbour bridge, is open to anyone over 12. Booking in advance is advisable as it is very popular (00 61 2 8274 7777; www.bridgeclimb.com). Prices start from A$125 (£45) per adult and A$100 (£36) per child aged between 12 and 16. Sydney is the best place to shop in Australia. In the heart of the city you will find everything from the designer boutiques of Castlereagh Street and Elizabeth Street to the hip fashions in the Queen Victoria Building on George Street. For second-hand book and record stores and quirky gifts, visit Newtown, or the Glebe district which has a great market on Saturday, as does the trendy area of Paddington.

The best thing that Melbourne has going for it is the Yarra River. Cycle through the city's green riverside parks and enjoy eating al fresco at outdoor cafés and restaurants. Melbourne is also a great place to shop until you drop. Many of the grand department stores stock typically Australian products; look out for woollen garments, bush gear, handcrafted jewellery (particularly opals), woodwork design and ceramics. The exclusive shops along Toorak Road offer the latest designer labels, while young, independent designers have outlets on Chapel Street. Shoppers with more bohemian tastes should head for Brunswick Street in Fitzroy for clothes, gifts and books.

To put all these elements together, and get good value for money, a tailor-made-tour may be your best option. Quest Travel (0870 442 3514, www.quest travel.com) created a sample itinerary for your family for three weeks in August for £1,892 per person for flights departing after 14 August, with an extra £138 per person for departures between 1 July and 14 August. This includes return flights on Qantas/British Airways, all accommodation, five-day Sydney travel passes and some activities and excursions. Other Australia specialists include Tailor Made Travel (01386 712050; www.tailor-made.co.uk), Travelbag (0870 737 7781; www.travelbag.co.uk) and Austravel (020-7734 7755; www.austravel.com).

The Australian Tourist Commission's overpriced phone line, costing 60p a minute, is 09068 633235; alternatively, visit www.australia.com.

Q. We would like to take our children to the Caribbean during February half-term and were wondering if a) it will be very expensive and b) there will still be availability? We would rather stay in a hotel than a villa. Can you point us in the right direction?

C Barnes, Newcastle

A. Following 11 September, fewer Americans are flying abroad. This means that those Caribbean hotels and resorts usually dependent on the US market have some spare capacity, and are offering discounts to entice more European customers through their doors. In addition, the February half-term holiday is now within most holiday companies' late-booking period. This means that, unusually for this time of year, there are still some good deals to be had.

The Caribbean is well served by airlines with scheduled flights – British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, BWIA West Indies Airways and Air Jamaica all fly direct – but charter flights cost less, and often fly to destinations not featured by scheduled transatlantic carriers, such as the Dominican Republic. Some of the larger operators, such as Airtours (0800 028 4936; www.airtours.co.uk), Cosmos (0870 908 4299; www.cosmos-holidays.co.uk) and First Choice (0161 745 7000; www.first choice.co.uk) still have some good deals.

Cosmos, for example, is offering seven nights in the family-friendly all-inclusive three-star Dorado Club Resort in the Dominican Republic for a family of four departing from London Gatwick on 11 February for £479 per person and £379 per child under 12.

British Airways Holidays (0870 442 3815; www.britishairways.com) has cut the price of a seven-night stay at the two-star Rex Turtle Beach Hotel in Tobago to £769 per adult (£299 per child) for departures between 25 January and 20 March. This price includes return scheduled flights from Gatwick, accommodation and transfers, but no meals.

If you're prepared to spend a little more, companies operating towards the luxury end of the market are also offering good discounts. For the February half-term, Kuoni (01306 747002; www.kuoni.co.uk) has an all-inclusive trip to St Lucia from £979 per person (child price of £219 for one child under 12 sharing with two adults). Departing between 26 January-28 February, it includes seven nights full-board at the three-star Rainbow Hotel, plus car hire.

Barefoot Traveller (020-8741 4319, www.barefoot-traveller.com) also has some good deals. On the spice island of Grenada, seven nights staying at the Rex Grenadian hotel, which has its own children's club, costs from £1,136 per adult and £410 per child, based on four sharing a room, and includes flights, transfers and all-inclusive accommodation.

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