Are there any places on earth where it is still possible to travel "off the beaten track"? Or has the entire world been conquered by guidebooks and other tourists?
The travel editor replies:
In attempting to answer your question, I only risk further damaging your chances of finding a place unsullied by publicity. Of course there is usually a good reason why certain places are shunned by tourists: namely, that they are extremely inhospitable (eg Afghanistan, Angola or Algeria, riven by war; or Antarctica, where you are rarely more than minutes from frostbite).
One of the very few unvisited areas of the world that is also quite interesting is Siberia, the vast area of Russia to the east of the Ural mountains, which is actually quite safe to travel round, provided that you can obtain the necessary permissions (not as hard as it used to be).
I would advise you to read Colin Thubron's book In Siberia for ideas as to a possible itinerary (Thubron says that he hardly recalled seeing a single tourist in four months of travel, a couple of years ago). The five-day river journey up the Yenisei river, from where the Trans-Siberian Railway meets the river to the Arctic Ocean, on a pretty straightforward Russian river cruiser, sounds very enticing.
Another country that hardly sees foreign tourists at present, and which is both interesting and generally safe, is Iraq, the birthplace of human civilisation. Again, your only problem will be obtaining a visa - a booking with some kind of tour group may be necessary, which may then spoil your illusion of being "off the beaten track". Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom, is also worth a look, considering that it enforces a strict quota on the number of tourists allowed in each year.
But if your only interest is to be in places unvisited by westerners, I should point out that a country such as China contains dozens of quite large cities (and hundreds or even thousands of smaller towns) that hardly see a westerner from one year to the next. I do not promise a pleasant experience.
We are planning a family reunion to celebrate a significant birthday in spring 2000 and would welcome the benefit of your advice and experience. Our family gathering will span three generations: nine adults and four grandchildren under the age of five. We are looking for a good, child- friendly hotel, preferably with a play area and garden for a long weekend of celebration. Family members will be flying in from California and Spain so a hotel no more than three hours' drive from Heathrow airport would be preferred.
Margaret A Mackay
Kate Calvert replies:
You don't say what budget you are working to, but as it is a celebration I assume that it isn't too tight. Reachable from the M4 is Woolley Grange (tel: 01225 864 705) not far from Bath, one of the best truly child-friendly hotels in the UK because it offers decent standards for parents as well as the highly popular children's den to give adults a break. They particularly pride themselves on their food and there is plenty of garden to run around in. A family room would be around pounds 165 (b&b), dinner pounds 34.50.
Eastwell Manor (tel: 01233 213 000), not far from Ashford in Kent, is set in 3,000 acres and offers new courtyard apartments with one, two and three-bedroomed accommodation for families. There are cots if required and a separate kitchen and dining area, though children can eat in the restaurant. Alternatively you could opt for room service. A babysitter can be arranged if you would like to leave the children to sleep while you have a smart evening meal. A health spa with pool is due to open in February. A three-day self-catering let in an apartment for four would cost pounds 500.
Calcot Manor, Tetbury in Gloucestershire (tel: 01666 890 391) offers 10 family suites in an old granary barn plus a play zone staffed by a nanny and stocked with Hasbro toys. There is a heated outdoor pool open from around May, plus tennis and bikes, and a nanny supervises high tea in the play zone. Baby listening is available in the evenings or babysitting can be arranged. A family suite is pounds 170 per night and dinner pounds 25 to pounds 30, or less in the pub-style restaurant.
Kate Calvert edits `Family Travel', the subscription-only publication for parents (tel: 0171-272 7441; net: www.family-travel.co.uk).
I've decided to take a six-month sabbatical from my job as a commercial property lawyer in London, to reconsider my life and career. I'd really like to explore India, but I'm worried, never having been anywhere similar. Is India overrun with unwashed westerners? How easy is it to find somewhere secluded where I can have some time to myself? What are the chances of getting debilitating stomach illnesses or malaria, and what can I do to avoid them?
The travel editor replies:
India certainly offers exoticism in abundance, and plenty of places to get away from it all. It shouldn't bother you that hundreds of other people have been flocking there to "find themselves" since the Beatles and before. India is vast enough, and different enough, to absorb them all. It's one of those places about which most of the cliches seem to be true. A lot of first-time visitors are depressed by the glaring poverty of many of its people, or upset by the growing modernisation and materialism of its vast cities. All these reactions have a degree of truth, but they are also incomplete, and sometimes wrong. There is a well-beaten track in India, especially between the main tourist destinations of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. Nevertheless, there is also ample scope for getting away from it all and ensconcing yourself somewhere cheap and beautiful for weeks at a time.
A good guidebook to India such as the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide contains invaluable travel and other information, and is worth taking with you. That said, the places included within these books' pages are not the only ones worth visiting in India. My suggestions would include the Karnataka coastline south of Goa, where there are still many beautiful coastal villages fronting palm-fringed beaches, and backpackers are well outnumbered by locals. The Parvati valley in Himachal Pradesh, much of which is accessible only by hiking, is studded with small villages clinging to the steep valley sides, where it is possible to rent a room with a local family and cook for oneself.
As to health matters: you should exercise caution about where you eat, and follow all the usual precautions (washing your hands before and after meals, eating only peeled fruit and bottled/boiled water, etc). Masta (Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad; tel: 0171-837 5540) will send an up-to-date list of necessary immunisations. It is also advisable to take a sterile medical kit containing transfusion equipment in case of emergency, available from travel clinics and branches of Boots. Generally speaking, stomach-bug risks can be minimised, but not eliminated. The worst most suffer is a few days' diarrhoea, inevitable when your body comes into contact with unfamiliar bacteria, even benign varieties. For all the potential hassle and risks, travelling in India is worth it, and an unforgettable experience.
Send your questions to: Travel Desk, `The Independent on Sunday', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, or e-mail: Sundaytravel@independent.co.uk