Travel: Information Desk: Your questions answered by our panel of experts

Are you ready to take the cross-country challenge?

My partner and I would very much like to try cross-country skiing. We have no experience of this and would be grateful for any advice.

Alison Eckersley-Wright

Leicester

The Travel Editor replies: If you have a lot of downhill skiing experience and are fairly fit, you should be able to pick up cross-country quite quickly. Getting used to the different bindings and technique can be tricky at first, but your general balance and skiing savvy should stand you in good stead. Many winter resorts have machine-prepared tracks that trundle around the valley floors, or head right off into the forests and hills, far away from the madding crowds of the downhill pistes.

There are a few companies in the UK offering good cross-country skiing packages. Waymark (tel: 01753 516477) has a variety of packages in the Alps and Norway between Christmas and April. Each ski group is categorised by ability and there are usually 10 skiers to one guide. They have a package in southern Norway (which has guaranteed snow), with one week's three- star, full-board accommodation, flights, transfers, equipment hire, classes and guides for pounds 575 per person. Headwater (tel: 01606 813333) also offers cross-country skiing holidays in the Alps and Norway.

For a combination of gentle cross-country skiing, rural locations, fine food and charming hotels, relatively upmarket Inntravel (tel: 01653 628811) offers some excellent tailor-made packages.

There are many cross-country ski centres in Canada. Frontier Ski (tel: 0181-776 8709) does tours to Banff and Lake Louise, from pounds 700 per week including return flights, car hire and accommodation, plus about C$50 per day for guide and equipment.

For general information, call the Ski Club of Great Britain (tel: 0181- 410 2000).

Cross the Atlantic by boat in the off-season

We realise that the QE2 is the only passenger ship which makes regular transatlantic crossings from this country to New York, but though we fancy the idea of a voyage, we would like to sail to (or from) some place sunnier than New York, and make a bit of a holiday of it.

Julia Dickson

Wilmslow, Cheshire

Jill Crawshaw replies: There are several ways of making the transatlantic journey apart from with the QE2, and it's certainly more exciting setting off on a crossing rather than a conventional cruise.

A number of traditional cruise lines feature transatlantic crossings which are in fact repositioning voyages - that is, moving the ships that cruise in the Mediterranean during summer westwards to the Caribbean or South America for the winter season. They then travel back eastwards from there in the spring in order to resume their summer Mediterranean cruising programmes. The price usually includes a one-way airline ticket.

These ships take anything from six to 10 days to make the crossing, and they tend to include the Canary Islands, and either a Moroccan port or Madeira as ports of call, as well as several days' cruising around the Caribbean.

As an example, on a 17-night transatlantic cruise with Costa Cruises (tel: 0171-323 3333) this year, you fly from London to join the Costa Victoria in Genoa on 26 November, calling at Gibraltar, Casablanca and Tenerife before tackling the five-day transatlantic crossing to Antigua, Tortola in the British Virgins, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, flying home from Florida's Fort Lauderdale. The whole journey costs from about pounds 1,605 to pounds 2,260, depending on the type of cabin you opt for.

Airtours (tel: 08701 577775) offers 19- and 21-night one-off transatlantic voyages leaving the Caribbean mainly in April, sailing from either Aruba, Barbados, St Maarten or Puerto Plata via a clutch of Caribbean islands.

The ship then takes six days to cross the pond, before calling either at the island of Madeira or at the Spanish port of Malaga, and Gibraltar, en route for disembarkation in Palma on the island of Majorca. Flights are included in the cost, which is from pounds 1,500 upwards.

Perhaps the most exciting and adventurous voyage of them all is on Star Clipper, the magnificent four-masted clipper ship, a modern and luxury version of the old tea clippers. It has 26,000 square feet of sail, and acres of burnished brass fittings, and gleaming mahogany decks. The captain gives lessons in seamanship, and with only 170 passengers on board, a real camaraderie develops between passengers and crew.

On the eastbound voyage, starting on 24 April, Star Clipper leaves Antigua in the Caribbean, arriving in Puerta Delgada, Madeira, on 8 May, then calling at Malaga, Formentera, Palma, Menorca, St Tropez and Cannes. You are free to take 14-, 21- or 28-night segments of the voyage, with prices starting at pounds 780 excluding flights, which can be arranged. This ship returns from Cannes to Antigua via the Canary Islands on 2 October. Call Fred Olsen Travel (tel: 01473 292229).

An entirely different way to cross the Atlantic is to join a cargo boat on which there will probably be a maximum of a dozen passengers and no organised entertainment, but nevertheless a fascinating itinerary.

Yes, there are still banana boats sailing regularly to the Caribbean, Belize, Guyana and Surinam - a round trip takes approximately 28-35 days, costing around pounds 2,000, with many other lines also sailing to South and Central America. If you fancy a cargo ship voyage, get a list from specialist agent Strand Voyages (tel: 0171-836 6363). For other transatlantic crossings it's worth contacting a special cruise agent such as Paul Mundy (tel: 0171-734 4404).

Keep taking the tablets in Zimbabwe

What is the best form of malaria drugs to take in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands? All the advice I have had so far is contradictory. Also, how endemic is bilharzia to the region?

Ian Clark

by e-mail

Larry Goodyer replies: The confusion is probably due to the various levels of risk in different parts of the country. In urban Harare, Bulawayo or Mutare, there is little risk of malaria and no tablets are needed. In rural areas below 1,200m, particularly from November to June, the anti-malarial tablets chloroquine should be taken weekly and proguanil daily, starting a week before departure and continuing for another week on return. For trips to Victoria Falls or the Zambezi valley, where malaria could be a risk throughout the year, the best protection is mefloquine (Larium).

Some people have reported disturbing side effects, such as anxiety and nightmares, with mefloquine even after they stopped taking the tablets. Expert opinion is that in some areas the risk of malaria is greater than the risk of side effects. It is worth taking Larium only during visits longer than a week, otherwise the chloroquine and proguanil will suffice. The Larium should be taken once a week starting three weeks before departure to leave time to switch drugs if necessary. No tablet gives complete protection so avoid insect bites too.

In answer to your second question, I am afraid that the parasitic worm which causes bilharzia appears to be endemic throughout Zimbabwe, so avoid bathing in or contact with fresh water.

Dr Larry Goodyer is a lecturer in clinical pharmacy at King's College, London. Contact the Nomad Travel Health Helpline (tel: 0891 633414; calls cost 50p per minute).

Jill Crawshaw is a travel expert, writer and broadcaster.

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