World cup of travel: Offside or underdog - unusual fixtures for dedicated away fans
Many of this last group of Fifa World Cup participants come with baggage – but some will entice those who like to stand out from the crowd
Chris Leadbeater is a full-time travel journalist who has written for The Independent since 2009. He specialises in the USA, South America and Europe, but has covered destinations as varied as Mozambique, New Zealand, Indonesia and Lebanon. Prior to becoming a travel journalist, he worked as a music writer and for men's magazines.
Saturday 28 December 2013
There are several countries among the World Cup qualifiers who – irrespective of football ability – do not seem obvious candidates for holiday exploration. But peer closely, and each has something to recommend it – and a tour operator who can create a suitable trip.
South Korea is a place of rich culture. On The Go Tours dispenses a 12-day "Spectacular South Korea" break (020 7371 1113; onthegotours.com), available on either a group or private basis, which ticks off key sights in Seoul, such as the Buddhist Jogyesa temple, the island Namhae, the south-easterly port of Busan (home to the eighth-century Bulguksa temple) and the peaks of Seoraksan National Park. Prices start at £2,499pp, without flights. Korean Air (0800 413 000; koreanair.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) compete between Heathrow and Seoul.
Tucked into the torso of Central America, Honduras is short on profile as a holiday zone, but boasts some of the best-preserved Mayan archaeological remains and fine beaches. Journey Latin America (020 3582 6305; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) serves up an 11-day "Highlights of Honduras" jaunt that visits the ruins of Copán – a Mayan citadel that was at its height between the fifth and ninth centuries and is as impressive as any site in Mexico – plus the Caribbean island of Roatán. From £2,714pp, with flights.
Bosnia and Herzegovina's first foray on to football's biggest stage will be another step away from the war that devoured it between 1992 and 1996. However, those who wish to delve into a dark yet important period in recent European history can do so with "The Mystery Explained" – an escorted break run by The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3411 0035; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk). Leaving Heathrow on 9 April, and based in Sarajevo for four nights, the trip will be led by Major General Andrew Cumming, who served with Nato in the Balkans in 1996. It will examine the collapse of Yugoslavia and will visit other cities ravaged in the conflict, such as Mostar. From £1,495pp, including flights.
Algeria is also an intriguing country for history buffs. It is home to some of the most important Roman ruins in North Africa: Timgad, a many-pillared jewel in the Aures Mountains, for example, and Djemila, with its giant amphitheatre. Both feature on the "Desert and History" tour sold by Responsible Travel (01273 823 700; responsibletravel.com) – as does the capital Algiers and the Mzab Valley in the top reaches of the Sahara. The next edition of this 12-day group jaunt starts on 19 January, from £1,955pp, excluding flights. BA flies from Gatwick to Algiers.
Of Africa's four other World Cup qualifiers, Ghana is the most accessible. Cox & Kings (0845 287 9926; coxandkings.co.uk) is launching a new itinerary for 2014 – "Colours of Ghana", an eight-night tour that absorbs the capital Accra (with its evocative fishing area Jamestown), the uncomfortable echoes of Cape Coast Castle (a 17th-century slave-trade stronghold overlooking the Atlantic) and the tropical rainforest of Kakum National Park. Prices from £2,745 as a group trip, or from £3,535 as a private holiday, including flights.
Ghana's neighbour to the west, Ivory Coast, is a trickier proposition – the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against "all but essential travel" to certain parts of the country. Nonetheless, Intrepid (0845 287 1190; intrepidtravel.com) is planning a 28-day "Freetown to Accra" group odyssey that will set off from Sierra Leone's capital on 23 December next year, dissecting Guinea and Ivory Coast en route to Ghana. The Ivory Coast leg takes in the curious enclave of Yamoussoukro – where the vast yet under-used Basilica of Our Lady of Peace is supposedly the planet's biggest church – and the former French colonial capital Grand-Bassam. The cost of £2,031pp does not include flights, but British Airways flies to Accra non-stop from Heathrow.
The FCO also has concerns about areas of Nigeria, although Undiscovered Destinations (0191 296 2674; undiscovered-destinations.com) insists that the country "has a far worse reputation than it deserves". It will lead a 14-day "Nigeria Discovery" group trip, starting on 6 December 2014, which will dash to the capital Lagos and spend time by the Niger River, one of the globe's great waterways. From £3,099pp, including flights to Lagos.
A destination for the adventurous, Cameroon can be reached on the 12-week "Accra to Cape Town" group trip due to set off from Ghana on 15 January via Oasis Overland (01963 363 400; oasisoverland.co.uk). With hard miles of off-road driving and camping, it will cut through eight other countries before it enters South Africa. The Cameroon section will feature the capital Yaoundé (known for such cultural hotspots as the Cameroon Art Museum), as well as the dramatic arc of Mile Six Beach, near Limbe. From £1,990pp, plus local payment of US$820 (£547), flights extra. BA and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) compete from Heathrow to Cape Town).
Most problematic of the World Cup qualifiers is Iran – the Foreign Office currently warns against "all but essential travel" to the country. What's more, during a demonstration on 29 November 2011 the British Embassy in Tehran was attacked and is now closed, which means you cannot benefit from consular services.
Should you decide to ignore all official advice, the Golden Eagle Danube Express (01462 441 400; danube-express.com), will embark on a 15-day "Jewels of Persia" train ride from Budapest (via Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey) on 14 October. The trip is not cheap – from £8,695pp, full board, not including flights – but it will allow glimpses of the "lost" Mongol city of Soltaniyeh, the epic archaeology of Persepolis and the capital Tehran. For the outbound flight, a wide range of carriers compete between UK airports and Budapest; coming back, Pegasus Airlines (0845 0848 980; flypgs.com) flies from Tehran to Stansted via Istanbul.
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