ARE WE STILL CHASING THE SUN LIKE LEMMINGS?
Yes. Even if the sun has moved from friend to foe over the last 20 years, the idea of a shade-filled holiday doesn't really appeal. Despite the growth of "green" tourism in countries such as Spain and Italy, it's still the sun-drenched beach that decorates the cover of holiday brochures. Maybe we don't spend quite so much time barbecuing ourselves, and expect a lot more seaside activities (kite-surfing, paragliding, banana-boating, jet-skiing, snorkelling etc) but they're not the same under a grey sky.
No surprise then that this Christmas, two million people flew away from the UK to spend the festive season abroad, and the majority were searching for a sunny experience. The Canary Islands and the US were the top destinations but Egypt, Turkey and Morocco were also well up on the heat list. And if you take the figures for the winter months from November to March, the numbers approach 10 million.
WHERE IS THE SUN NOW?
It's not likely to be shining on the UK. Over the next couple of months our more southerly European neighbours will be enjoying twice as much sunshine as us. You can expect an average six hours of sunshine a day, for instance, on the south coast of Spain, in the Balearics and over much of Portugal. However, this is no guarantee of warm cloudless days: Cyprus enjoys particularly good winter temperatures but this is also the period of its heaviest rainfalls.
In the more distant Caribbean destinations, though, the hurricane season is well and truly over, and there is the promise of 10 hours or more of daily sunshine, with temperatures in the comfortable mid-20s and a lack of the humidity which bedevils summer visits. And after the Christmas and new year holiday, prices have slumped. Book online with Virgin Holidays ( www.virginholidays.co.uk), for example, and you pay just £743 for a week at the Turtle Beach resort in Tobago, including flights from Gatwick and room-only accommodation. The dry season has just begun, which means that between now and May you can expect clear, sunny skies.
For a shorter flight, minimal jet lag (one hour behind GMT) and similar quantities of warm sunshine, the latest destination to be reckoned with is Cape Verde. This former Portuguese colony is an archipelago off the western coast of Africa. Of the 10 main islands, Sal is best for beaches, hotels and water activities, while Santiago is more mountainous and more local in character. This is a country where poverty and lack of resources have led to two-thirds of the population emigrating. In the 21st century, the development of its tourist industry has meant that its sunny days and virgin white beaches can now be enjoyed by sun-seekers after a flight of six hours or less from the UK. Direct flights from Gatwick and Manchester started two months ago. There's the bonus of only two hours' time difference, hence no jet lag.
The Cape Verde Experience (0845 330 2071; www.capeverdeexperience.com/travel), has a one-week package from Manchester, departing 18 January, for £654 including a two-star hotel with breakfast on Sal.
WHERE CAN I FIND MAXIMUM DAYLIGHT?
A thrilling way, though not the warmest one, to immerse yourself in the winter sun is with a trip to Antarctica, which, apart from scoring highly in the where-I-went-for-my-holidays stakes, is as free of national flags as it is of visitors. The endless days give plenty of time to enjoy the pristine colours of sea, snow and sky, to watch icebergs drifting, sea lions basking and penguins performing their comedy routines.
Cruises start from Ushuaia at the southernmost point of Argentina, and the final departures for the southern summer are likely to take place in the next month - with very little availability. With Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk), for example, the earliest opportunity is for departures a year from now, with a price of £5,325 including flights from the UK and full-board accommodation on the 12-night journey.
During January, southern Chile can deliver a staggering 17 hours of sunlight, which can be enjoyed during an adventurous guided tour down this very long and varied country, starting in the rain-free Atacama desert, taking in the beautiful Lake District and ending in the Patagonia region. Prices from the Adventure Company (0845 450 5316; www.adventurecompany.co.uk) start at £2,099 for a 17-day trip, including flights from Heathrow via Madrid on LAN, local transport and accommodation with breakfast, but with an additional payment of US$250 (£135) to be made locally.
If you are not constrained by work or school timetables, February and March can be a very good time to visit some of the places that become too hot, too crowded or too expensive (if not all three) during the traditional British summer holiday period. Florida, for instance, where the "snowbirds" from the northern US and Canada will soon be returning to their normal lives, leaving good deals to be had for accommodation and car hire.
February is also a month when India's most funky destination, Goa, is free of the monsoon and when its customary scorching heat has diminished. Having moved on from its hippie past, Goa now has well-established resorts - Baga and Calangute, as well as the backpacker-friendly Anjuna, famed for its trance-music raves. As an alternative to the beaches, there are colonial buildings left by the Portuguese to admire, the jungle to visit, and the possibility of a trip down the Mandovi river on a converted rice-boat.
Thomson's January sale (through 0870 165 0079, local branches or www.thomson.co.uk) offers some extremely good deals; if any places are left for Tuesday's departure from Gatwick to Goa, and you can get an Indian visa in person on Monday, two of you can travel for a week in the Royal Goan Beach Club for £336, room only.
ANYWHERE IN EUROPE?
From the Spring Equinox on 21 March, sunseekers should turn their attention to the northern hemisphere. As summer beckons, the sunny frontiers move closer to home. The Pyrenean region of the Cerdagne is a very individual place: a high plateau, split between France and Spain ringed by 3,000m peaks and reckoned to be the sunniest place in France; it's no accident that the Four Solaire, France's experimental solar oven with its forest of mirrors to reflect the rays, was built here.
The most entertaining way to reach the Cerdagne is from Perpignan on le Petit Train Jaune - the little yellow train - and then to walk up into the mountains where the colours of the flowers in the Eyne valley, in particular, will be at their freshest. You can fly to Perpignan from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) or from Manchester on Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com). Alternatively, Inntravel (01653 617 949; www.inntravel.co.uk) organises a 10-night "Grand Cerdagne" walking holiday through the region between June and September, for £753 or less including hotel accommodation with all meals (lunch is a picnic), but not travel to the region.
To enjoy summer's longest summer days, it's necessary to go north to the land of the midnight sun. Apart from the fact that it's never a bad idea to be in a Scandinavian * * country for the raucous celebrations of midsummer's day, this is the time to explore landscapes that are more familiar under a healthy covering of snow. Geilo in western Norway is a fine base from which to explore the Hardvanger plateau on well-marked paths offering walks of varying degrees of difficulty. Halfway between Oslo and Bergen, Geilo can be reached by train from either place, the journey (of less than four hours) being a delight in its own right. You can fly to either city from Stansted on Norwegian (00 47 21 49 00 15; www.norwegian.no).
THE WORLD'S SUNNIEST PLACE?
The eastern Sahara Desert, receiving an average of 4,300 hours of sunshine a year - 11 hours, 47 minutes a day. But very close behind in the sunshine league is the city of Yuma in Arizona. Yuma, whose summer temperatures have been known to reach a searing 50C, is a fast-growing city on the banks of the Colorado river. In the 1850s, Yuma was the major river-crossing for Californian gold-seekers. It is not a great 21st-century tourist destination in its own right: its main historic site is the 19th-century building that originally housed the Territorial Prison, now a museum. Yuma does, however, attract a large migrant population of retirees in their motor-homes during its mild winters, and the nearby Algodones Dunes draw tens of thousands of visitors every year to enjoy a spot of desert camping. There are also trips by riverboat down the Colorado river and the opportunity of birdspotting in the Imperial Wildlife Refuge. You might include a visit to Yuma in a tour of the state of Arizona, where the main focus of your interest would probably be the Grand Canyon. The best gateway airport is Phoenix, which is also extremely hot and sunny during the summer; only British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) flies there non-stop from the UK, with daily flights from Heathrow. You'll find Yuma 180 miles away by road in a south-easterly direction.
Closer to home, Europe's only true desert can manage a mere 3,000 hours of sunshine, which is not to be sneezed at (eight hours, 13 minutes a day on average). Andalucia's Tabernas Desert is about 30 miles north of Almeria; it became famous, or at least familiar, in the Sixties and Seventies as a location for the filming of spaghetti westerns. The film sets have survived and now comprise an entertaining tourist attraction, where you can swagger through the bat-wing doors of a saloon, spit a drinks order out of the corner of your mouth and imagine the plangent Morricone soundtrack.
Mini-Hollywood, the best-known set, was built for Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and also used for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Magnificent Seven among around 100 other films. A mile or two from Tabernas is the similar, but smaller, Texas-Hollywood, while Western Leone is the third one in the area, just off the A92 motorway. The best view of the desert itself is from the mountaintop observatory, at Calar Alto, near the village of Gergal. Also well worth a visit is the whitewashed and flower-bedecked town of Nijar, one of Andalucia's prettiest, which is renowned for its hand-woven rugs and blankets, as well as the colourful ceramics which are made here.
You'll find Nijar north-east of Almeria off the N344 road. Nijar and San Jose tourist office: 00 34 950 380 299, 9am-2pm from Monday to Friday. You can fly to Almeria on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), easyJet (0871 244 2366; www.easyJet.com) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com).
WHAT ABOUT THE REAL SUN-WORSHIPPERS?
All ancient cultures have their sun gods and myths to make sense of the difference between day and night and the changes from season to season. The South American Incas believed themselves to be direct descendants of the sun, and the annual festival which they held in honour of the sun god was the most elaborate and important in their calendar. Called Inti Raymi, it took place on the winter solstice when the sun was furthest away, in order to lure him back. For the last 60 years, the ceremony has been recreated in Peru in the spectacular Inca amphitheatre of Saxsayhuaman, above the city of Cuzco, high in the Andes. It has become one of South America's most popular festivals, with hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Cuzco to enjoy the celebration, which is filled with music, colour and dance. It does, however, do without the human sacrifices, the fasting and I presume the sexual abstinence which were essential ingredients of the original event.
It's possible to combine a visit to Inti Raymi with the famous four-day trek along the Inca trail to the beautiful and intriguing ruins of Machu Picchu. One of its most important monuments is Intihuatana, "the hitching post of the sun". This sundial-like shrine had an astronomical and religious function, helping the Incas to plot seasonal changes and movements of the stars. Machu Picchu is a very rare example of an Intihuatana as these sacred stones were systematically destroyed by the Spanish conquerors.
Bales Worldwide (0845 057 1819; www.balesworldwide.com) offers a 17-day tour that includes Inti Raymi (on 24 June) and a visit to Machu Picchu; from £2,950 including flights from the UK, accommodation and most meals.
HOW ABOUT THE UK?
The sunniest parts of the United Kingdom are along the south coast of England, partly due to the latitude, but also because convective (cumulus cloud) forms over land rather than sea. Eastbourne, Bournemouth, Bognor Regis and the Isle of Wight, all on the south coast, vie for the "sunniest spot" in Britain. Over the course of a year, all of these places manage annual average figures of around 1,750 hours of sunshine (four hours, 48 minutes a day). Compare that with 1,200 hours in northern Scotland, and the 1,500 or so hours that Ireland normally gets each year. The most chic family hotel in the sunniest resorts is probably the Shoreline Hotel in Bognor Regis, part of the Butlins complex (0870 242 1999; www.butlinsonline.co.uk).
THE DARK SIDE OF THE EARTH
Eclipses come in different guises: partial annular and total. According to Chinese mythology, the partial solar eclipse was caused by the dog of heaven biting off a piece of the sun; during an eclipse it was a tradition in China to bang pots and pans to scare the "dog" away. China will be one of the countries where the next total eclipse will be visible, the others being Canada, Greenland, Alaska, Siberia and Mongolia. The date to plan for is 1 August 2008; Explorers Tours (01276 406877; www.explorers.co.uk) is well ahead in planning holidays to the line of totality.
The last total eclipse of the sun that was visible from Britain took place in 1999 and the next one will not be until 2081. Watching a total eclipse is a piece of natural drama of rare beauty and excitement. The sudden loss of light, the chill feeling and the silence of the birds is particularly striking. As the moon completely covers the sun, the razor-thin solar crescent breaks up into a chain of beads which gradually wink out and which are called Baily's Beads. When the last one disappears, totality has started.
The most noticeable feature during totality, which only lasts a few minutes, is the solar corona, the outer atmosphere of the sun that is only visible to the naked eye during a total eclipse. It consists of pearly-white streamers radiating outwards. They also allow scientists a rare opportunity to study the sun's corona. One of the unexplained curiosities of the corona is that it is at least 100 times hotter than the rest of the sun, but how it comes to be so hot and where the energy comes from is still a mystery.