WHY GET AWAY RIGHT NOW?
Tomorrow is the autumnal equinox, which means the further north you go, the shorter the days. Conversely, the closer you get to the Equator – and, beyond that, the South Pole – the more daylight you can enjoy. Six months from now, the equation flips. But until 21 March 2009, make the most of these escape routes.
An excellent place to start is the all-year resort of Cefalu (average January daily high, 20C), on the Mediterranean's largest island – Sicily. It sits on the coast between Palermo and Messina, within an enclosed bay sided by a long, curved sandy beach and is dominated by a large windswept outcrop that hangs over the town. The twin towers of the Norman cathedral peer out over the tightly-packed streets and laundry-draped houses. If the sun is less than brilliant, there are plenty of worthwhile day-trips. Options include the Greek temples at Agrigento, the spectacular mosaics at the Imperial Roman villa at Piazza Armerina and Mount Etna.
Fly to Palermo from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), or from Gatwick on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www. easyJet.com). Take the train from Palermo airport to Palermo Centrale railway station; another hour brings you to Cefalu itself.
Several million British expatriates are likely to be hibernating in southern Spain, but there are a number of seaside resorts where Spaniards are likely to be in the majority. Conil (average January daily high, 18C), for instance, on the south-western coast, near the border with Portugal, is a fishing village which has made the most of its long sandy beaches and the charms of its old town. In fact, the whole of the Costa de la Luz – the stretch of shore between Gibraltar and the Portuguese frontier – is relatively free of the ravages of international tourism, starting with the extraordinary city of Cádiz (average January daily high, 18C), almost surrounded by sea, and extending along to Sanlúcar de Barrameda – renowned for its dry sherry and fish restaurants.
Travelling east along the south coast, you'll find an authentic local flavour to the Costa Tropical (in Granada province). Its manageably-sized seaside towns like Salobreña and Almuñécar are ideal winter hideaways with their small hotels, wide esplanades for the essential evening paseo and hundreds of beachside restaurants (chiringuitos). Expedia.co.uk is offering a week in early January at the Hotel Suites Albayzin del Mar in Almuñécar from £427 per person, including accommodation with breakfast and return Iberia flights from Heathrow to Granada via Madrid.
A CITY OFF THE MAP
The old Spanish naval base of Cartagena (average January daily high, 16C) has been reinvigorated and is happily now easy to reach thanks to lots of flights to "Murcia". The quote marks are because, despite the name, the airport is much closer to the port than to Murcia itself, which is a long way inland.
Over the last few years Cartagena has blossomed into an enticing, atmospheric city. The Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Rafael Moneo, has been brought in to work wonders with the dazzling new centre, and the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia Maritima opened this summer on Paseo de Alfonso XII.
Cartagena also has a rich history. The city was founded 2,300 years ago when Hasdrubal and his Carthaginian army marched into the Iberian settlement of Mastia. For a superb view, take a walk up through the Parque Torres to the Castillo de la Concepción, a 14th-century castle with views overlooking the city and its bay. Further signs of its history are evident in the excavations of the Muralla Bizantina or Byzantine Wall (Tuesday-Saturday, free), which was built in the 6th century by the Romans.
Cartagena had links with Spain's colonies and the Cuban connection is still evident: it has strong resonances of Havana. Hotel Los Habaneros is a good city-centre base (00 34 968 50 52 50; www.hotelhabaneros.com), while for dinner La Mejillonera at 4 Calle Mayor (00 34 968 52 1179) is a noisy, basic tapas bar with furiously fast service and a nautical theme. Cartagena's main tourist office is at Puertas de San José (00 34 968 506 483; www.cartagena.es).
Alternatively, you could head for the original Carthage (average January daily high, 20C) in present-day Tunisia. The centre of the Carthaginian empire was razed to the ground in 146BC by the Romans, who were in turn chased out by the Vandals – but not before they had constructed villas, an amphitheatre and baths, and created a reputation of such decadence that St Augustine felt obliged to single out the new town's citizens for criticism.
Many of the country's Roman artefacts and mosaics are have been collected for exhibiting in the Bardo Museum (00 216 71 513 650; www.di.com.tn/museebardo) in the eastern suburbs of Tunis, on Metro line 4; open daily except Monday, 9.30am-4.30pm; admission 6 dinars (£2.50).
The rest of Tunisia is well worth exploring. South from the fertile coastal plains (this was once the bread-basket of Rome), the country's interior is characterised by olive tree-lined fields that wouldn't look out of place in Tuscany, the remote Dorsale mountain range and four different types of desert, creating numerous possibilities for adventurous trips.
Three UK holiday companies with an established presence in Tunisia are Panorama Holidays (08707 595595; www.panoramaholidays.co.uk), Wigmore Holidays (020-7836 4999; www.aspectsoftunisia.co.uk) and Cadogan Holidays (0845 615 4390; www.cadoganholidays.com).
SUN, SAND AND SEA?
Head east and south for the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt (average January daily high, 21C), where you can choose from the glitzy allure of Sharm El Sheikh or the laid-back charm of Dahab. Either way, you can expect clear blue skies and u o deliciously warm sea – with superb snorkelling, even from the shore, or, better, diving. The clear waters and vibrant coral reefs of the Red Sea burst with fish of every shape and size. Many diving centres are linked to hotels where you can hire all your kit such as wetsuits, snorkel masks and fins. All skill levels are catered for, from taster sessions, to PADI-accredited learn-to-dive courses and more advanced open water courses.
Despite the demise of the Sinai specialist XL Airways, there are plenty of flights with the likes of easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) and Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com). You can obtain an entry visa on arrival at the airport.
Look no further than Mumbai (average January daily high, 28C), a great place to base yourself for a couple of weeks – or months – in winter. India's commercial hub is remarkably visitor-friendly and beautifully located around a curve of beach.
Reaching Mumbai has become far easier in the past couple of years, thanks to the Indian government's relaxation of restrictions on the number of flights to and from the UK. You can fly non-stop from London Heathrow on Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; www.jetairways.com) or Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com).
Sunset on Chowpatty Beach is an essential Mumbai experience. From this broad expanse of sand you can appreciate the spectacular setting and scale of Mumbai's ambitious architecture. Join the Indian passeggiata for a sense of circus, with vendors selling anything from balloons to bhelpuri. Outside the city there is plenty to keep your interest, with high-speed (for India) trains down the coast to Goa and Kerala.
SOME ISLAND LIFE?
Aim for Penang (average January daily high, 32C), the spice isle off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia – a winter escape with beaches, colour and culture. The so-called "Pearl of the Orient" was Britain's first Far Eastern trading post in 1786, and the imprint of colonialism mingles with a strong Chinese tradition – especially in the beguiling capital, Georgetown.
The place to stay is the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (00 604 222 2000; www.e-o-hotel.com), where a room costs MYR1,000 per night (£161) including breakfast. The main beach strip is Batu Ferringhi on the north side of the island, which is beautiful but unfortunately always busy.
Or, for beachy hedonism on an even slimmer budget you can cross the border to the north into Thailand – and make your way to Koh Samui (average January daily high, 31C). Blockbuster book and film The Beach was set on a mythical island just a couple of hops away, but for many travellers Koh Samui is as close to Shangri-La as makes no difference: warm water washing beaches where every grain of sand seems manufactured to a perfect specification.
Inland the countryside is clad in aggressively verdant vegetation, which comes to life as day fades into night. Koh Samui has the bonuses of pizzas, massages and internet access (not recommended all at once), allowing you to irritate pals at home by e-mailing them about your indulgences. A dozen airlines can fly you to Bangkok for £600 return or less. Bangkok Airways (01293 596 626; www.bangkokair.com) flies on to Koh Samui.
Go west to the Caribbean – which in a month or two should be free of the tropical storms that have torn through parts of the region. Try Tobago (average January daily high, 31C), little sister to Trinidad and, thankfully, still relatively untouched by developers. The island is home to picture postcard-perfect beaches, pristine coral reefs and an abundance of flora and fauna – as well as the oldest protected rainforest in the western hemisphere.
For a romantic retreat, try the Blue Haven Hotel (001 868 660 7400; www.bluehavenhotel.com); it sits quietly in Bacolet Bay, a 10-minute walk outside the capital, Scarborough. It has 55 immaculate rooms, including 10 suites, on a site that was originally an outpost of Fort King George. Daily rates for superior doubles start at US$238 (£132), including a lavish breakfast buffet.
FLYING DOWN TO RIO?
Good idea, especially with British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) introducing non-stop flights from Heathrow once the winter schedules begin at the end of October. The beautiful beachside city (average January daily high, 29C) is certainly worth a few days' stay (watch out for The Independent Traveller's video podcast of 48 Hours in Rio), but the rest of South America's largest country is well worth exploring.
Espirito Santo, astride the 40-degree west line of latitude in north-east Brazil, is a small province that possesses some of South America's finest and most unspoilt beaches. However, the interior is most rewarding: steep hills and lush valleys have made it difficult for development, so leaving large unspoiled tracts of Atlantic forest. Through the specialist operator Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk), you can fly to the state capital Vitoria in November for £703 return.
AUSTRALIA – BUT DIFFERENT?
Flights Down Under are packed at present, filled with Brits fleeing the winter to enjoy the southern summer in Sydney, the Gold Coast and the Great Barrier Reef. But for an entirely different – and more authentic – Australian encounter, experience some Aboriginal life first hand. You can visit one of their communities, for example in Queensland or Western Australia, but those in the Northern Territory are probably the most rewarding: practically half of the area is owned by indigenous people, and the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve takes up much of the eastern "Top End".
A good place to start is Manyallaluk (average January daily high, 32C), 35km east of the main road between Katherine and Mataranka, south east of the city of Darwin.
Manyallaluk is particularly unusual in that it runs tours of its own town which can be booked on 00 61 8 8975 4727. You get to spend the whole day with the local people, drinking billy tea, cooking bush food, learning about plants, fire lighting, didgeridoo playing and taking a stab at spear throwing. And unlike most Aboriginal communities, you don't need to get a permit to visit.
You can reach Darwin by flying to Singapore on one of a range of airlines, and transferring to JetStar – a Qantas subsidiary – for the hop to the Northern Territory.
Look no further than Queenstown (average January daily high, 20C), exactly halfway between the Equator and the South Pole, on New Zealand's South Island. The nation's finest minds have spent a great deal of time devoting themselves to devising ever more imaginative ways to rearrange your internal organs while scaring you witless at the same time.
As a warm up, take a jetboat trip with someone else at the controls; you can watch the lakes-and-mountains scenery unravel at 80km/h. Other activities on offer include tandem hang-gliding and heli-biking. But one experience stands out: Queenstown is where the commercial bungy-jump was born.
The "flagship" bungy ride is run by A J Hackett (00 64 3442 4007; www.bungy.co.nz) from a platform suspended above a deep river gorge.
This is the highest and scariest bungy jump in New Zealand. Three seconds after leaving the platform you are travelling head first towards the centre of the earth faster than the speed limit on a British motorway. Life's not complete, as they say, till your heart skips a beat. The jump costs NZ$165 (£63). A hop and a skip to Queenstown is available on Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnz.co.nz) via Los Angeles or Hong Kong and Auckland for a price of around £1,130.
Additional research by Marian Amos, Margaret Campbell, Ruth Elkins, James Hill, Charlotte Hindle, Alice Lascelles and Mick Webb and Theodora Manassieva
Wild, weird, wonderful
By James Palmer
Zanzibar's exotic name will draw many winter escapees to these islands off the east coast of Africa – a heady mix of coral beaches, weird wildlife, spicy history and voodoo. Many will be happy to spend all their time on the main island, Zanzibar (average January daily high, 32C) itself. But it is worth exploring the second island, Pemba, for tranquillity, reef diving and gentle bullfighting. Stay, if you can, at Fundu Lagoon (00 255 76 35 92 820; www.fundulagoon.com) where all-inclusive doubles are priced from US$610 (£349). There are 14 rooms, consisting of designer tents hung from thatched roofs on wooden decks, each set into the hillside. Pemba is great for divers and snorkellers, who get the chance to explore the reef of Misali island from Fundu's watersports centre.
The hotel can arrange trips into Chake Chake, and on odd occasions to the north-east of the island, to Wingwi, where you may witness one of Zanzibar's quirkiest traditions: Iberian-style bullfighting. This is a hangover from Portuguese rule during the 16th century. No bulls are killed, instead – in a humane twist – they are praised by the fighters.