Tony Wheeler: Midsummer, and the living isn't always easy

Something to Declare

Midsummer, the longest day in the northern hemisphere's year, arrives this Thursday. The concept doesn't exist in the tropics. In places where the seasons are a choice between the wet and the wetter, midsummer doesn't happen, no matter how hot it gets. Close to the equator, the days and the nights are near equal year-round; winter or summer, the temperatures are the same. Midsummer is no big deal.

Nor, to be realistic about it, can you have midsummer if it isn't hot. In the southern hemisphere, "midsummer" (a few weeks either side of 21 December) is the only time to go to the Antarctic. I have stood on the deck of a ship heading down to the Antarctic Peninsula, enjoying an evening barbecue, a cold beer and a glass of good Argentine red at around that time. Yes, we wouldn't have been doing that if it wasn't midsummer. But was it really midsummer? No.

I've climbed Mount Fuji in Japan in high summer. The Fuji "climbing season" runs from 1 July to 31 August. During those climbing days Fuji is like rush hour on the Tube; the very busiest day on Everest, by comparison, is deserted. You're a wise man to climb Fuji, the Japanese suggest, but only a fool climbs it twice. You may be able to see Tokyo (not that far away and with real summertime temperatures) but is it midsummer at the top of Mount Fuji? Not really.

There are other high-latitude destinations where midsummer is the only time to go. The Faroe Islands for example. They're wonderful when you can be dining in a very swish restaurant in bright daylight at 11pm. The white nights in St Petersburg are also orientated around the summer season. Who'd want to visit that northern Russian city when it's frozen cold and the sun never rises?

At the other extreme – south rather than north – the Falkland Islands are another midsummer-only destination. In December-January, when the daylight lasts forever, it's a delight to be sitting near a beach close to midnight, watching penguins come ashore.

Realistically, however, my real midsummers have always been in places where it's hot in the summer. I lived in Paris for a year and you didn't need a thermometer to tell you it was midsummer – it was easy to see that the tourist numbers were at their highest and the French were all on holiday. Near our apartment was one of the most esteemed ice-cream outlets in the city. Come midsummer, when demand for a cold glace was at its peak and the queue of ice cream enthusiasts would have stretched around the block, they simply shut the doors and went en vacances.

For me, genuine midsummer appreciation requires sea and beach, or at least coastline, as well as the heat. The Greek Islands, assorted places in Italy, or along the Côte d'Azur in France have all done the job in the past. My memory of the perfect midsummer is always going to be Yugoslavia. Today it would be Croatia, but back when I was in my early twenties, you couldn't ask for a better midsummer than an Adriatic coast campsite where the emphasis seemed to be on wearing very little, if anything at all.


Tony Wheeler is co-founder of 'Lonely Planet' travel guides