The Complete Guide To: Endless summer

Leaden skies and dark winter nights, no thank you. There's a brighter side of life all year round. Harriet O'Brien follows the sun and discovers a great spot for every month of the year
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The Independent Travel

THE LAST OF THE SUMMER?

With a new school year about to start and the leaves beginning to change colour, there's already more than a hint of autumn in the air. But fret not: if you keep moving, you can enjoy summer all year round, or you can at least dip in and out of it whenever you feel like it.

First, head to southern Europe, where September offers pleasantly warm temperatures, great sunshine - and far fewer visitors than a few weeks before. Almeria, for example, is Spain's sunniest, driest and emptiest province. The big attractions here are the deserted beaches and the striking, semi-desert landscape where you feel you might have wandered across to North Africa by mistake. The Cabo de Gata peninsula is particularly dramatic, with its dunes, volcanic outcrops, cliffs and wetlands. Contemplating strenuous activity here during July and August is enough to induce heatstroke, but this is ideal walking country for late summer. From 17 September Inntravel (01653 617906; www.inntravel.co.uk) offers independent one-week walking holidays in Almeria, with B&B accommodation in fishing villages dotted along the coast. During September and October the trip costs from £848 per person (based on two sharing a room) including return Gatwick-Almeria flights, transfers, accommodation, most meals, luggage transfers and walking maps and notes.

September is also the perfect time to visit Crete. It feels as though the island breathes a sigh of relief after waving goodbye to most of its visitors;the sandy beaches, ancient sites, rugged interior and hills coated with wild flowers are now relatively empty. GB Airways flies twice a week from Gatwick to Heraklion on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), and plenty of packages are available. Sunvil (020-8568 4499; www.sunvil.co.uk) has attractive prices for a week at the well-appointed Afrodite Apartments near Kalives on the north- west coast: departures on 13 September are

£442 per person; on 20 September £435. The cost includes flights from Gatwick (or Manchester with a £25 supplement); accommodation and transfers.

WHERE CAN I ENJOY AN INDIAN SUMMER?

Make for America, which is where the expression was coined roughly three centuries ago. There are various explanations of the origins of this term for sunny, warm weather in autumn. One of the more plausible is that such fine conditions often prevailed in the western territories of the North American Indians rather than on the colonised eastern seaboard. Another is that this reflects the period when the people of the First Nations traditionally harvested their crops. Etymology aside, California will almost certainly bring you sunshine during September and October. The Vacations Group (01582 469662; www.vacationsgroup.co.uk) offers a number of fly-drive holidays in the golden state, of which the southern California option is the sunniest. The two-week trip costs from £1,295 each, including British Airways flights from London Heathrow to Los Angeles, car rental and five nights at the Anabella Hotel there, three nights just north of the border in San Diego, three nights at Lake La Quinta near Palm Springs and three nights on the coast at Santa Barbara.

You may, of course, prefer an Indian summer on the Indian subcontinent. With the monsoon over but visitor numbers relatively low, Rajasthan is a near-ideal destination in October. Trans Indus (020-8566 2729; www.transindus.co.uk) has a 17-day tour departing on 1, 15 or 21 October and taking in the murals of Mandawa to the forts of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Jaipur and - in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh - the Moghul magnificence of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. The trip costs £1,654 per person including flights to Delhi, all transfers and all accommodation with breakfast.

AND FURTHER SOUTH?

If you want guaranteed heat, go to the equator where, in a manner of speaking, it's always summer. Straddling this steamy line, tiny Ecuador is a vibrant jewel of a country with Amazonian jungle, tropical beaches and colonial architecture. Tim Best Travel (020-7591 0300); www.timbesttravel.com) has a 12-day trip taking in the central coastline from the trendy beaches in Monanita to Isla de la Plata with its extraordinary red and blue-footed birds. In October the holiday costs from £1,958 each, which includes flights to Quito and onward domestic air travel; accommodation with breakfast; private guide, driver and vehicle for eight days; and entrance fee to the Machalilla National Park, of which the amazing wildlife island is part.

Meanwhile, package holidays to South-east Asia continue to be excellent value: ebookers (0870 814 6024; www.ebookers.com) has a particularly attractive package to Malaysia, hovering just above the equator. Two weeks in Penang, an island that has everything from beaches to great shopping and nightlife, costs from £555 per person. The price applies from 6 September until 29 November and includes flights from Heathrow and accommodation (no meals) at the Ferringhi beach resort on the north coast of the island.

WHERE CAN I FIND EARLY SUMMER IN NOVEMBER?

Go south and west for the start of Australia's summer. This is one of the best times to visit the Margaret River area of Western Australia with its rolling countryside, abundant vineyards, great beaches, and seemingly endless choice of outdoor activities from walking to surfing, sailing and kayaking. See pages 12 and 13 for our recommendations for Perth, which receives more sunshine a year than any other Australian state capital. Fares to Perth on a wide range of airlines are cheap until the end of November; check with long-haul discount specialists for the best deals. Carrier (01625 547000; www.carrier.co.uk) has a 10-night fly-drive holiday that takes in many highlights of the region: after Perth, the gracious harbour of Albany; Denmark and the wonderful Chimes Spa Retreat; Pemberton and the magnificent karri forest nearby; and of course the wineries of Margaret River itself, where you stay at elegant Cape Lodge set in its own vineyard. The holiday costs from £1,999 per person, based on two people travelling together during November. It includes return flights from London to Perth, all accommodation (in luxury B&Bs and hotels) and car hire.

CAN I CELEBRATE THE SUMMER SOLSTICE IN DECEMBER?

Summer and winter solstice are terms that technically refer to the Northern Hemisphere, since they were coined there. Basically, they denote the dates on which the sun is at its most extreme points north and south of the equator, hence the longest and shortest days of the year. The Northern Hemisphere's winter solstice on 21 December is when the sun is furthest south and daylight hours are shortest in Europe. Correspondingly, this is when daylight is longest in the Southern Hemisphere. So it could be the optimum date for a holiday in, for example, South America. Unfortunately, however, the period also coincides with the peak Christmas season when travel is particularly expensive.

Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk), for example, offers an attractive 11-night package to Brazil on which you enjoy the bright lights and beaches of Rio de Janeiro followed by five days on the stunning, tropical island of Ilha Grande. For a holiday from 18-29 December the cost is from £1,722 per person inclusive of flights to Rio, hotel accommodation with breakfast and all road and ferry transfers. For travel just a few weeks earlier in mid- to late-November, the same itinerary from the same company costs one-third less, from £1,163 per person.

THE BEST PLACE TO BE AT THE START OF 2006?

For natural drama, it's hard to beat New Zealand in January, which is when the country is looking at its best. Taking in some of the most jaw-dropping scenery, Bridge & Wickers (020-7483 6555; www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk) has an 18-day self-drive tour that gives a good flavour of the extraordinary diversity of these lush and lovely islands. The itinerary includes the Coromandel Peninsula, with its deep-green valleys and quiet beaches; the ancient forest of the Urewera National Park; Tongariro National Park, one of the settings for Lord of the Rings; magnificent Fox Glacier; and mountain-fringed Lake Matheson. Along the way there is also time to go kayaking, hiking, mountain biking and more. The price per person is from £1,728 excluding flights for departures between November and March, covering 17 nights accommodation (most with breakfast); some meals; 15 days' car hire; inter-island ferry; boat transfers at Marlborough Sound and a day's activity tour.

Flights to and from New Zealand just after the New Year are likely to cost around £1,050 return from Heathrow to Auckland with Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnewzealand.co.uk).

WHEN DOES OUR OWN SUMMER START?

Take your pick from a number of options. British Summer Time runs from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October, so next year that's 26 March to 29 October. This, however, relates to daylight saving (and all that fiddling around with clocks) rather than the span of a more summery climate - clearly, during much of the period it's more than a little chilly.

Astrologically, summer in the Northern Hemisphere starts with the summer solstice on 21 June and ends at the autumn equinox (on 22 September this year). Traditionally in Britain May Day, on the first of the month, marked the start of summer, which then ran until Lammas, the festival of the first wheat crop around 1 August.

On a more pragmatic level, many in the UK travel industry say that the season now begins with the first of the summer charter flights, usually within a week or two of 1 May, though the holiday period does not really take off until the second Bank Holiday weekend in May, which is when volumes of people start to go away.

This is very much the pattern for the European villa specialists Ilios Travel (08700 600 607; www.iliostravel.com). Its holiday season for Turkey, for example, begins at the end of April when many of the direct flights to Adnan, Bodrum and other destinations start. A week at Blue Jasmine villa at Yalikavak on the Bodrum peninsula, for example, costs from £545 per person for April departures, based on full occupation of four and inclusive of flights and transfers. The price throughout May, when the weather starts to become pleasantly warm, is just £20 more at £565 per person.

FOR ENDLESS SUNSHINE?

Between mid-May and August, head for the far north of Europe and the land of the midnight sun. The Arctic Circle marks the most southerly points where, on the summer solstice, the sun never sets. In practice, anywhere from Shetland northwards experiences almost continuous daylight around midsummer's day. In Scandinavia, in particular, midsummer is celebrated with great bonfire parties and the consumption of much beer and schnapps, the age-old custom originating from pagan times and a worship of the sun.

The best way to take in the 24-hour daylight, as well as the stunning scenery in this part of the world, is on a cruise up the rugged coast of Norway. Yet the Norwegian Coastal Voyage, or Hurtigruten, is no ordinary cruise line. It was established in 1893 as a ferry company, transporting post, fish and local passengers along the coast between Bergen and Kirkenes on the border with Russia. Only more recently has it developed as a cruise "product" with good food, neat little cabins and generous seating areas.

The ships stop frequently at small, picturesque towns and isolated villages where you can hop off for a walk or even visit a local museum. The entire round trip takes 12 days but you can opt for shorter passages. Norwegian Coastal Voyage (020-8846 2666; www.norwegiancoastalvoyage.com) organises a range of packages, complete with flights from the UK. Between 8 May and 24 July next year, for example, a six-day voyage north from Bergen to Kirkenes costs £1,294 per person. This covers flights to and from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen, full-board ship accommodation, one night's B&B in Oslo, and transfers. The price includes a 10 per cent early booking discount for holidays arranged before the end of October.

THE ULTIMATE SUMMER ADVENTURE?

Iceland offers amazing evidence of nature, with geysers, icecaps, lava fields, volcanic craters, waterfalls and glacier-fed rivers. From mid-May to late July the sun barely dips below the horizon, so there is scope for exploration day and night. Next summer, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) will start flying from Gatwick to Reykjavik, adding to the competition from Icelandair (0870 787 4020; www.icelandair.co.uk) - flying there from Heathrow and Glasgow - and Iceland Express ( www.icelandexpress.com) from Stansted.

Discover the World (01737 218800; www.discover-the-world.co.uk) has a two-week Around Iceland holiday next summer. On this self-drive trip, you travel full circle around the island's peripheral highway with excursions to sensational sights, such as the mighty Dettifoss. This is Europe's most powerful waterfall, which often sports a double rainbow in the spray above the canyon. You will also see more waterfalls at Gulfoss, as well as the Great Geysir (after which all geysers are named) nearby.

From the capital, Reykjavik, you explore the Snaefellsnes peninsula with its volcano snowcapped even in summer and its coastline teeming with sea birds. Moving on, you visit craters and volcanic lakes, go snowmobiling on the Jokulsarlon glacier and take in Iceland's ancient parliament at Thingvellir before returning to Reykjavik.

Prices for the holiday start at £1,174 per person (based on two sharing a room), with departures from June to September. The cost includes return flights on Icelandair from Heathrow to Reykjavik; hire of a vehicle; and accommodation with breakfast.

THE SUNNIEST PLACE ON EARTH

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the most sun-filled spot in the world is Yuma in the American state of Arizona.

This small city is said to bask in 4,055 hours of sunshine a year - which averages at 11 hours, six minutes a day. (At its latitude, the theoretical maximum is 12 hours, 12 minutes.)

Yuma is located in the desert beside the Colorado River, 180 miles south-west of Phoenix and 180 miles east of San Diego - both of which are unusually sunny, too.

Yuma was a significant port town in the 1850s and has undertaken a project to restore many of its historic buildings downtown.

You can take desert and river tours from here, visit a 19th-century prison where many of Arizona's most dangerous criminals were once held, and seek out the abundant bird life in the surrounding area. In fact, Yuma is also a popular place for "snowbirds", the colloquial term for retired winter visitors, who arrive here in their motor homes (RVs) and stay for a month or two. But in all other respects Yuma is not prominent on the tourist map. The best way to visit, therefore, is on a fly-drive holiday when you can take in other destinations as well.

During April, the North American specialist Ron Morgan Travel (01743 231 080), for example, offers a Pueblos and Canyons two-week self-drive tour of Arizona and its neighbouring states. Beginning and ending in Phoenix, the holiday costs from £1,100 per person for flights, car hire and 13 nights. The itinerary includes Monument Valley National Park and Grand Canyon National Park - and Yuma can also be added to the mix at £48 per person per night at the Clarion Suites hotel.

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