The complete guide to: Best of 2008

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From biking the Balkans to cultural immersion in India, the new year offers plenty of options to travel the world in rewarding and sensitive ways, says Frank Partridge


What will be the keen traveller's new year resolution?

The new year dawns within three weeks of the climate-change conference in Bali, when the world rounded on the US and others over the reduction of carbon emissions. While some politicians may have been slow to get the message, travellers and tour operators have beaten them to it. More of us are looking at travel as a way of giving something back to our holiday destination, rather than merely taking something out of it. This is the year when unnecessary short-haul flights, and holidays that harm the environment rather than harmonise with it, will play on our consciences. Responsible tourism and ethical travel will become de rigueur. Having said that, many of the options here involve flying and opinions differ about the value of the "carbon-offset" schemes; Reduce My Footprint (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel) has been endorsed by both Abta and the Association of Independent Tour Operators.

The opening of London St Pancras International and the new high-speed rail link to the Continent will persuade more of us to consider alternatives to short-haul flights. Speed appeals, too: the railway timetable has been rewritten with the advent of 186mph journeys through Kent: it's now quicker to go by train from St Pancras to Lille (79 minutes) than to Loughborough, and Paris and London are only 2 hours 15 minutes apart by rail. Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) has return fares to Lille from 55, and Paris from 59. Bookings began this week for the summer-only Saturday service to Avignon (12 July to 6 September), with fares from 99 return.

The final destinations of the Eurostar trains are merely the beginnings of longer journeys by rail. The short-break specialist Kirker Holidays (020-7593 2288; www.kirkerholidays.com) is offering rail holidays to France, combining Paris with the south. Until 31 March, a week in Paris and Cannes costs from 926 per person (based on two sharing), including first-class rail travel, private transfers between stations and hotels, three nights' B&B in Paris, four nights' B&B in Cannes, a carnet of 10 Paris Mtro tickets and a Seine river cruise. In addition, there are many options for onward travel from Brussels Midi station.

Somewhere more exotic?

Off you go to Heathrow. Numerous companies organise trekking tours in the Himalayan foothills of India, but none does it quite like the multi award-winning Village Ways (01223 750 049; www.villageways.com). Its "Good Company" programme brings together like-minded groups of six to 10 people to immerse themselves in the cultural and social customs of the remote villages of the Kumaon region, south of the Tibetan border. These communities were dying out through depopulation, but tourism has brought them back to life. The walking parties have the opportunity of helping the inhabitants to work in the fields, tending to their buffalo or goats, or preparing traditional dishes in the kitchen as well as trekking through some of the most awesome scenery on the planet. Groups depart in February, March and April; prices start at 798 (based on two sharing), which includes full-board accommodation and overnight rail transfers from Delhi on the Ranikhet Express.

Nearer home, Spain is steadily opening up its rural backwaters to cyclists and walkers. At some point in the last 50 years, the country must have appointed the equivalent of Britain's Dr Beeching, because the less-populated provinces are criss-crossed with disused railway tracks, now being imaginatively restored as Vias Verdes (www.viasverdes.com/programme.htm). In 2008, Inntravel (01653 617 906; www.inntravel.co.uk), an activity-holiday specialist, will steer its clients along four undemanding routes, far from motorised traffic. A week's cycling among the lakes and volcanoes of the little-known Garrotxa, in northern Catalonia, costs from 585 per person (sharing), including seven nights' B&B and four dinners in traditional hotels, and luggage transportation from one hotel to the next. Travel to Spain is not included, but can be arranged by Inntravel, by rail or air.

On the Croatian island of Cres, you can combine a holiday in a warm and beautiful place with helping to save the endangered Eurasian griffon vulture and preserve a vulnerable forest. Eco Centre Caput Insulae (00 385 51 621 877; www.supovi.hr) has seven ecological trails created by Goran Susic, who founded the project 14 years ago to preserve the island's biodiversity and natural heritage. You can get to Cres via a bus or ferry from Rijeka (served by Croatia Airlines from Heathrow and easyJet from Luton) or Pula (Ryanair from Stansted).



What's new for ramblers?

Among the new offerings from the specialist operator Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (01707 331 133; www.ramblersholidays.co.uk) is an easy-paced week on the Italian island of Elba, where Napoleon spent his first period of exile. Prices start at 596: Napoleon, one presumes, got to stay there for nothing. The company's UK arm, Ramblers Countrywide Holidays (01707 386 800; www.ramblerscountrywide.co.uk) has new walking tours in the Trossachs of Perthshire, Snowdonia, Cornwall and the Lake District. A week's hike of the 55-mile St Cuthbert's Way, stretching from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumberland, including half-board accommodation, picnic lunches, transfers and the services of a tour guide, costs 639.



I'd like to learn something new on holiday next year

Join the club. Themed, special-interest holidays are gaining ground at the expense of "fly and flop" breaks. Andante Travels (01722 713 800; >www.andantetravels.co.uk) has a dozen new tours lined up, including a seven-day escorted rail journey in May through the Dordogne region of France to view its wealth of prehistoric paintings, engravings and bas-reliefs. With rail travel, accommodation, most meals, field notes and a guide-lecturer included, it costs 1,580 per person.

VFB Holidays (01452 716 838; www.vfbholidays.co.uk) specialises in wine, gastronomic and art cruises. A three-night "Impressionist cruise" to Paris in March, following in the artists' footsteps in the city, costs from 259 per person sharing half-board accommodation in a cabin, plus entry to selected museums and return travel by Eurostar.

Something for the family?

Turkey's Lycian Coast has made its name for its leisurely, luxurious gulet cruises. One of the leading operators in this field, Exclusive Escapes (020-8605 3500; www.exclusiveescapes.co.uk), is hoping to tempt some of its clients to be a bit more adventurous. It is offering new sea-kayaking adventures of two to four days along a stretch of deserted coastline. Camping each night on a deserted wild beach, participants will paddle through the Kekova region, where an ancient sunken city can be viewed just below the water. Two-day sea-kayaking safaris with an overnight wild camp start at 230 per person, which can be added to the basic package of seven nights half-board in a beachfront boutique hotel, including return flights to Dalaman from Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester, transfers and a gulet cruise, from 700 per person sharing.

Here at home, you know that a sea-change is affecting traditional holidays when the likes of Coastal Cottages of Pembrokeshire (01437 772 760; www.coastalcottages.co.uk) starts to offer white-knuckle challenges with Activity Wales (01437 766 888; www.activitywales.com), including coastal abseiling and jet-boat trips as part of the package. The company has more than 500 properties on its books, from cosy cottages to large houses.



Emerging European destinations?

Serbia and Bosnia are making rapid strides in attracting tourists. For the first time, some of their traditional winter resorts are being featured as summer destinations for walkers, mountaineers and cyclists. Holiday Options (0844 477 0452; www.holidayoptions.co.uk) is now offering Kapaonik in Serbia, and Jahorina and Bjelasnica in Bosnia all year round, with itineraries that can be tailor-made to include excursions or longer stays in the two capitals, Belgrade and Sarajevo. Three nights in Belgrade and four nights in Kapaonik, including flights from Heathrow and car hire, costs from 878 per person, sharing, and similar two-centre holidays to Bosnia, flying from Gatwick, start at 795.

Done the Greek Islands? The northern part of the Greek mainland is stunningly beautiful, relatively easy to reach, and little touched by tourism. One of the highlights is the Meteora: five medieval castles perched on eroded rock pinnacles. Sunvil (020-8758 4758; www.sunvil.co.uk) is launching a seven-night fly-drive trip to the region from 780 per person, sharing, including flights, car hire and B&B.

Across in Italy, the rising star of city-break destinations is Naples long regarded as an ugly duckling, suitable only as a landing base for Vesuvius, Capri and Positano, but known by the cognoscenti as one of the finest cities on the Mediterranean. Many of its historic buildings have been restored, new hotels are appearing, and exploring its streets and sensational restaurants is more comfortable than it used to be. Real Holidays (020-7359 3938; www.realholidays.co.uk) will get you there from Gatwick and arrange four nights' B&B in a double room at Hotel Micalo, which comprises the middle floor of a 17th-century palazzo, from 385.

And further afield?

The days of free access to Angkor Wat, one of the world's great religious sites, could be coming to an end. The Cambodian authorities have roped off the upper level because of the weight of tourists, and further restrictions are expected. With prices rising as well, 2008 is the year to see this amazing 12th-century temple complex . The adventure travel company Explore (0844 499 0901; www.explore.co.uk) is organising 11-day guided tours in February, March, July and November, including flights from Heathrow, transfers, accommodation, and side-trips to lesser-known temples. Prices start at 1,735 per person, includes the cost of carbon offsetting the flight. From January, Explore the first major tour operator to take this step will donate a proportion of all clients' fares to green projects that reduce global CO2 emissions. The initial beneficiaries will be a renewable-energy scheme in Pune, India, and a forest-regeneration programme in Uganda.



No-frills action?

The expansion of the low-cost carriers continues unabated; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) takes over GB Airways at the end of March, acquiring 15 Airbuses and 34 routes for just over 100m. All GB Airways' existing routes from Gatwick have been guaranteed for the time being, but easyJet will remove destinations from the network if they fail to pay their way. The acquisition means easyJet will own a quarter of the flight slots in and out of Gatwick. Its no-frills rival Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) is starting flights from Bristol in May to Bziers, Bergerac and Pau in southern France, Poznan in Poland, and the Latvian capital, Riga. In May, Air Berlin (0871 5000 737; www.airberlin.com), the third European low-cost force, starts long-haul links from Dsseldorf to both Beijing and Shanghai, with connections from Stansted.



And at the other end of the scale luxury rail?

It won't quite be the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express, but the Danube Express (01462 441 400; www.danube-express.com) takes to the rails in May with a claim to be "the first luxury hotel train in Central Europe". Starting its journey in Budapest, the train will cover a number of different routes, with lengthy stops at major cities. One eight-day tour visits Prague, Krakow and Berlin; another works its way from Hungary through Croatia to Vienna. The air-conditioned sleeping cars have sofas, power showers and WCs, and the restaurant and lounge cars will aim to reproduce the standards of a top-notch hotel as you speed from one historic city to another. A six-day trip from Budapest, taking in Lake Balaton, Vienna, the Semmering Pass and Graz, costs from 1,600 per person, sharing, including three nights' half-board in Budapest, two nights' full board on the train, sightseeing tours and return flights.

For those who prefer to get off the beaten railtrack, Ffestiniog Travel (01766 512 400; www.festtravel.co.uk) specialises in rail tours to remote regions, often on lines unused by other passenger services. An example of this "wilderness train travel" is a 17-day autumn tour to Canada, visiting northern Quebec and Ontario, via a 367-mile mountain mine railway and the Polar Bear Express. It costs 2,615 per person, sharing, including return flights from London, transfers, 15 nights' accommodation, some meals and excursions.



I prefer travelling on water

Luxury cruising is showing every sign of making a comeback. Half a dozen cruise ships are scheduled to be launched (or re-launched) around the world in 2008. Britain's contribution will be the refurbished 350-berth cruise ship Minerva, which returns to active service in May under the flag of Swan Hellenic. Styled as a country house at sea, Minerva will sail in style to many exotic parts of the world, including Antarctica one of the highlights of the 2008 programme. Its 55-day Grand Voyage to the world's most inhospitable continent leaves Alexandria in October, and ends up at Buenos Aires in December. Fares, which start from 9,405, include the outward flight to Egypt and the homeward leg from Argentina. Reservations: 01444 462 180; www.swanhellenic.com.



Anything new for the backpacker?

If they get as far as Australia, they might be tempted by a new and funky way to get around. A fleet of former postal vans have been repainted in Sixties flower-power style, and the interiors cleverly fitted out with a double-bed, fridge, gas cooker and sink. Hippie Campers (00 617 3265 9200; www.hippiecamper.com) can be hired in Brisbane and Cairns, and start at a very reasonable A$68 (29) per day.

Something in the air

If you plan to fly in or out of Heathrow on British Airways in the summer, there is a good chance that you will experience Terminal 5. The glassy new landmark is due to open at 5am on Thursday, 27 March. Unusually for major British civil construction projects of recent memory, the building was handed over for testing by volunteer "passengers" ahead of schedule and within its 4.3bn budget. The new terminal and its satellite buildings occupy a site bigger than Hyde Park. Motorists will take a new spur off the M25 to access its 4,000-space car park; passengers arriving by rail, underground or coach will alight at a gigantic glass atrium, then may be whisked around the terminal via Personal Rapid Transit (pictured above).

The plan is to improve the doleful experience of passing through the existing terminals. BA expects that nine out of 10 of its flights will use the new Terminal 5, for which it has exclusive rights. On arrival, passengers will be directed to separate areas for short and long-haul, where they'll find more check-in desks and easier passage through security than at present. Returning, they can expect more customs points and speedier transportation of baggage. The Richard Rogers-designed building is light, airy and welcoming, with floors made of stone, not carpet; leather chairs instead of plastic ones; the largest suite of executive lounges in the world, upmarket shops such as Prada and Tiffany, and a Gordon Ramsay restaurant.

While waiting for their baggage, arriving passengers will be able to photograph themselves on their mobile phones, and send the image to a giant TV screen with a message for their family and friends. After a 24-hour flight from Sydney, the results might disappoint.

As soon as T5 opens, an almighty shuffle of airlines will begin and the building work will move to the rest of the airport. Much of it is to be redesigned in a programme that won't be completed until 2012, the year of the London Olympics.

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