Travel Special: January to March

From the South American rainforest to Africa's highest peak - and from Britain's friendliest family breaks to the Mediterranean's best-kept summer-holiday secrets - our experts have travelled to the ends of the earth in search of great escapes for 2007. We present a year of inspiration. Dream on...
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The Independent Travel

January: Cairo

By John Walsh

A company called New7Wonders is canvassing world opinion as to which man-made sites should feature in an updated Seven Wonders of the World. Since six of the original seven were destroyed by earthquake, fire and war before the Middle Ages, there's a lot of vacancies; among the candidates are the Statue of Liberty, Taj Mahal, Parthenon, Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, Sydney Opera House ... But who are we kidding? Nothing could eclipse the Pyramids from their top place in our league table of awe. Beneath their vast inscrutability, mere walls and statues and opera houses look small potatoes.

To see them, though, before global warming turns north Africa into a huge frying-pan, you must travel to a capital city of 17m people that's a global wonder itself. You could spend 1,001 Arabian nights getting to know Cairo: it's an awesomely sprawling megalopolis, whose churches, mosques and madrasahs are themselves miracles of airy spaciousness, whose twinkly Nile-side grand hotels are light years removed from the ancient glories of Old Cairo, the venerable Islamic Quarter, the massive Muhammad Ali mosque and the impregnable Citadel.

Visitors start at the Maydan al-Tahrir, the vast central square, and are told to spend a day in the famous Egyptian Museum. Frankly, an hour should be enough - an hour wandering badly lit corridors, inspecting exhibits with no labels, counting the 1,001 variants of mummified remains. Tutankhamun's posthumous belongings (including his baby rattle!) are worth lingering over. Grab a refreshing Luxor lager on the roof terrace of the Nile Hilton and marvel at the chaotic variousness of the world's biggest city west of China. Cairo's modern architecture is square and brutal and looks like it was built in a tearing hurry, to accommodate the endlessly ramifying population. It's quite a contrast to venture into medieval Cairo and check out the madrasah of Sultan Hasan, probably the world's biggest mosque, whose floors are made of 27 varieties of marble, whose giant dome flings back at you the greatest echo I've ever heard and whose interior is crammed with 8,000 worshippers every Friday. Along with the Citadel, this is your must-see mosque - and the Rifa'i Mosque across the road, built as a spookily accurate companion-piece in the late 19th century.

Downtown, the posh nightlife is confined to the cheesy international hotels, but shrewd visitors head for the trendy island of al-Gazirah on which the Zamalik district is popular with moody locals. They'd kill to get into Abu el-Sid, a four-star restaurant with the look and feel of a speakeasy, where you eat stuffed pigeon with frik (local buckwheat) and everybody smokes like mad. The road connecting Zamalik to the mainland is 26 July Street, which is Cairo's Piccadilly.

When you feel like shopping, head for the Khan el-Khalili, a rip-roaring bazaar that dates from the 14th century, its stalls coiling round a rat-run of narrow streets near the mosque of Sayyidna al-Husayn. It's a babble of crazy noise, a whirling charivari of pots, jewellery, stuffed cats and goats, alabaster cat-gods, stone scarabs, fezzes and tambourines.

If you have an hour off, find the Khan el-Khalili Restaurant with its Café Naguib Mafouz, named after the Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate who died last year. The waiters glide up and down delivering hookah pipes to diners, like Lascars in a Conan Doyle opium den.

And so to the main event. Before venturing on to the Giza plain, find your bearings by driving 20kms to Saqqara. The city of Memphis was once the king's capital city. It's ruined now but the Memphis Garden boasts a fine statue of Rameses II and a beautiful alabaster sphinx. Saqqara is the nearby burial ground, or necropolis, and it stretches for miles, while the eye takes in scores of prototypical pyramids in ziggurat formations. There's a 50-mile plain of 90-odd pyramids between here and Giza. Some tourists recklessly elect to ride across the plain, and hire a camel to do so. Either they arrive crippled with arse-ache, or find themselves in the middle of nowhere, being threatened by their guide: cough up or I'll abandon you.

Walking on to the great plain - where the three pyramids of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus, the attendant Sphinx and the minor pyramids of the three queens seem to call silently to each other - is a jaw-dropping experience. You look at the great granite blocks from which a pharoah's resting-place was constructed and you cannot work out how anyone could have designed it - let alone designed the cunning chambers buried within it. All the hustlers in the world can't distract you from a brief frisson of communion with Egypt's ghostly kings.

I was lucky enough to stay at the Mena House Oberoi, built in 1869 right beside the Great Pyramid of Cheops, purely because Napoleon III wanted his wife Empress Eugenie to be able to see it on waking up. It's a sumptuous hotel, bought by the Oberoi chain in 1972; they tarted up the 96 palace rooms and gradually added 390 smaller ones, ranged around the Mena Garden. Only 21 rooms and 11 suites overlook the pyramids, and you feel blessed by fortune to be able to step on to the balcony at night with your slug of araq in your hand and half-see, half-feel the shadow of that great triangular wall, looming out of pre-history there before you, with its apex lost in cloud. Scott Dunn offer four nights at the Mena House Oberoi from £945 per person based on two sharing a Pyramid View Room for four nights on a b&b basis. Includes BA flights and private transfers. Scott Dunn: 020-8682 5040; www.scottdunn.com

February: Turks and Caicos

By Jamie Buckley

Were you to wander off into the sea - Reggie Perrin-style - just about anywhere in the Turks and Caicos Islands, it could be anything up to a half mile before your head was submerged, so shallow is the water in this corner of the Caribbean. Lying south of Miami and north of Haiti, this group of 40-odd islands benefits from more than 200 miles of soft white beaches. The finest of these surely is that of Grace Bay on the main tourist island of Providenciales. And the finest place to stay on this 12-mile stretch of dazzling, unpolluted sand is the Grace Bay Club.

I always find it hard to relax as soon as I get to my holiday destination, but arriving at the Grace Bay Club is a different experience: there is an air of calmness and civility. As we checked in we were offered cool drinks and even cooler towels. It was the kind of attention that we were to get used to over the next few days, thanks to the affable Andreas, the head of guest services.

Grace Bay Club's roots are undeniably Floridian - the level of service, the cuisine, the exquisite finish of all 56 of the suites in the main resort - but the local charm has rubbed off. Along the beach, there are signs of Provo's growing popularity, but as we walked off our jet lag in the dawn light the following day (when else would I be up at 5.30am, I ask you), I was just grateful to be staying at GBC and not at any of the resorts. Not that they are eyesores, it's just that GBC has been designed not to intrude on the senses. Soft plantings mark a barrier between the pool (complete with swim-up bar) and the dining areas, and the beach itself, where "cobana boys" sort out your sunbeds and supply you with more cool drinks and fresh towels.

And at no time do you feel you are being hassled on the beach; there isn't the constant buzz and splurt of jet skis or motor boats. The great thing about the Grace Bay Club is that it is not a resort that ties you up and squeezes every last buck out of you. They encourage you to take trips around the island to explore the pristine reef, or spend a day out on the seas, which we did with a charming old roué called Cap'n Tim Ainley in his 37ft catamaran, Beluga.

Sadly, we had to say goodbye to Tim and Andreas, as a date with Parrot Cay beckoned. We arrived at this private, 1,000-acre island courtesy of one of the resort's own motor launches. As we drew up to the jetty, our friendly Balinese "butler" Mika greeted us and ferried us by golf buggy to our beachfront villa ... I love the way that sounds. The beach on to which our villa fronted was a mile-long stretch, the waters providing an ample playground for sea-kayaking, sailing, windsurfing, etc. For those who prefer to take their pleasure poolside, Parrot Cay provides a 20-metre square number surrounded by darkwood loungers with cushions and vast white umbrellas.

Parrot Cay consistently features in the top 10 lists of luxury resorts around the world. It is by no means the chicest, schmooziest playground in the world, but that is the big draw. The mood here is relaxed and friendly (there's that word again!), the dress code is informal, and the atmosphere is one of serenity. To enhance this state of quietude, the Como Shambhala spa - newly extended and cantilevered over a small creek to encompass a whole suite of fabulous rooms - offers every kind of treatment going. The beauty of Parrot Cay is that you feel you are a million miles from anywhere, but you are never more than five minutes away from the spa. Or a club sandwich, for that matter. Days are easily lost at Parrot Cay, idling from beach to pool to spa to restaurant, and before we knew it, it was time to leave behind our private island and return to civilian life.

Seven nights from £1,755pp. Price is based on two sharing a junior suite at Grace Bay Club and a garden view room at Parrot Cay, daily breakfast, return British Airways World Traveller flights from Heathrow and transfers. For more information visit www.carrier.co.uk or call 0161-491 7620

March: Namibia

By Ed Caesar

Namibia's got game like Italy's got priests. It's just everywhere. No corner of this wild swathe of South-West Africa is exempt - it's on the side of the road, loitering outside your tent, stealing your car - and it is all magazine-cover pretty. Wonderful, one might think. But beware, tourist! This surfeit of fauna can, in extreme cases, lead to a contraction of Big Game Ennui.

For those unfamiliar with BGE, the symptoms are as follows: at the start of a safari, one takes to the game park in crisp linen and stops agog at every passing impala and kudu. One marvels at their nobility. One quotes Manley Hopkins. A week, and several thousand impala later, a troupe of rhino could gambol up to one's four-wheel drive playing "Knees up Mother Brown" on the xylophone and cause barely a twitch in one's binoculars.

The key to avoiding BGE is variety. Fortunately, for harangued writers with only a week to spare, Namibia's landscape - which veers between towering sand dunes, battered coast line, and mountainous savannah - plays host to animals of every persuasion. And, for our week in Africa's hottest destination, the girlfriend and I barrelled along Namibia's deserted roads in our rented Toyota Corolla, gawping in awe.

The pinnacle? Approaching a cheetah luxuriating over a warthog kill - on foot - at Okonjima's Africat Centre will live long in my memory, if only for the noise of the predator's jaws on the unfortunate porker. It was like listening to a cat being sucked through a sausage machine.

But how to discount two days of adrenaline safari at the Ongava Lodge, a private game reserve on the southern border of Etosha National Park? Not only did we track white rhino on foot, only to find ourselves being stared down and then charged by two tons of mother and daughter, but we saw five of the critically endangered black rhino at a waterhole. There are only around 3,000 black rhino left. To see these huge, violent creatures bustle each other over a midnight drink was worth the airfare alone.

Just as we thought Ongava had no more to offer - when we were cradling sundowners, standing on the sun-blanched savannah at dusk, reflecting on our rhino luck - four lions emerged out of the gloaming. They approached the Land Rover. We were not actually in the car. Gin and tonics, we agreed, should be finished in the Land Rover.

From the car, we saw the male lions approach, and then collapse in a somnolent heap, 20 yards away. They were exhausted from having food brought to them by their women all day. The two lionesses, though, prowled right to the door of the car, blood on their mouths. They were not interested in us - dinner had evidently just been taken - but when we left them, I could hear my heart beat.

But if one wants to see Namibia's pride and joy, one needs to find the desert-adapted elephant. This type of pachyderm - with its long, thin forelegs, and a camel-like capacity to travel for days without water - exists nowhere else in the world. And the best place to find them is from Wilderness Safari's Doro Nawas camp in Namibia's highlands.

We feared our good fortune had been exhausted, but, after a three-hour trundle along dry riverbeds looking at the relative moistness of elephant droppings, there he was. A bachelor bull plodded into the sunset, chewing on the grass to the side of the riverbed, and stretching those long legs to catch up with his herd. He was beautiful - he looked like a completely different animal to his savannah-dwelling cousin - and he was angry.

We left the bull, but it did not leave us. The week had been a mighty vaccination against BGE. Or, as Doctor Johnson almost said - when one is tired of Namibia, one is tired of wildlife.

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