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How to tour the south of France by charabanc

Can you please advise me of any coach operators who run trips to include Avignon, Arles, Orange, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Cote d'Azur, with stopovers on route. Ideally these tours would start in the UK.

B R Gray

Derby

The Travel Editor replies: Cosmos Coach Tours (tel: 0161-480 5799) has a Grand Tour of France from pounds 499. This 13-day trip takes in Rouen, Normandy, Bayeux, Mont-St-Michel, Cognac, Bordeaux, Lourdes, Carcassonne, Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Grasse, Beaune, Burgundy and Paris. The price includes all coach travel from the UK (crossings with Eurostar), two and three- star accommodation with breakfast and six dinners.

AT Travel (tel: 01236 422600) has a number of coach tours to France including the 12-day French Riviera holiday passing through Lille, Reims, and Troyes spending one night in the fortified city of Besancon before moving on to Menton on the French Riviera for seven nights with excursions to Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo. The tour returns to the UK through Aix, Lyon and Burgundy, spending a night in Beaune. The tour costs from pounds 542 per person and includes all travel, dinner and bed and breakfast throughout.

Arblaster & Clarke (tel: 01730 893344) specialises in wine tours and has a variety of coach holidays departing from the UK to France (eastern Loire, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, Beaujolais), however, the tour that covers the areas in question flies into Toulouse before picking up a coach to Peyriac travelling on to Avignon. This five-night tour includes all transport, three- and four-star accommodation, excursions (including those to wineries), guide, and seven meals with wine. The price, per person, is pounds 1,399.

Is the Dominican Republic clean and safe?

We are keen to visit the Dominican Republic which we've heard is cheap and interesting, but we've also had a number of reports that it is unsafe and unhygienic. We can only find all-inclusive hotel holidays - are there any others?

Simone Friedman

London N8

Jill Crawshaw replies: This question of safety, poor standards of hygiene and hurricane damage in the Dominican Republic comes up constantly; although there have been some problems in that area, I can scotch a few myths.

On the subject of safety and violence, some holidaymakers claim they have been fearful of leaving their holiday complexes unless on official excursions; this is total nonsense - the country has less of a drugs problem than some of the Caribbean Islands, and it is certainly safe enough to move around independently.

In the tourist resorts you will certainly be hassled by vendors - don't flash valuables around, behave sensibly and be careful. That's about it.

The tourist infrastructure (tourist-speak for drains) developed too quickly in the country over the past 10 years, as one travel company after the other jumped on the bandwagon of cheap Caribbean sunshine. Standards dropped, resulting in some outbreaks of food-poisoning last year. These hit the headlines and almost halved the numbers of holiday-makers from Britain.

The island authorities have now improved their inspection and supervision, and operators such as Thomson run a so-called "Crystal Programme" to teach hygiene and safety in the hotels they use.

The hurricane damage at the end of last August was restricted to the south, with the resort of Juan Dolio most affected; damage has largely been repaired. The north coast, which has most of the resorts, was untouched.

You are right, however, when you say that most packaged accommodation is all-inclusive, which usually means a succession of ubiquitous boring buffets. My suggestion is that you take the cheapest all-inclusive you can find - a week at Sosa for instance will cost pounds 635, two weeks pounds 809 - and use the hotel only as a base. You can then enjoy tasty fresh-cooked food pretty cheaply in restaurants, for about pounds 10-pounds 12 for a blow-out, with meat (fresh or smoked), seafood (make sure it is freshly cooked), superb fresh vegetables and fruit. And if you're not worried about your weight, order a lechosa - a milk shake made with papaya. Forget the hotel meals, make sure that drinking water is bottled, and be adventurous - what about some tripe or pigs' trotters? Public transport is much cheaper than organised excursions, with excellent long-distance, air-conditioned express bus services for example from Puerto Plata to Santa Domingo costing only about pounds 26 for the 100-mile-or-so round trip.

There are flight-only deals to the Dominican Republic, though tour operators, anxious to sell their packages, rarely put them in their brochures. Britannia, for example, have charters leaving Gatwick in mid-July for a 14-day flight- only deal for pounds 199, rising to pounds 249 a week later.

Combing the brochures, I've found one adventure itinerary that offers something a bit different in Thomson's Go Wet - Go Wild programme; a four- day package which includes white-water rafting, mountain biking, canoeing and horse riding, combined with 11 days all-inclusive at the Paradise Beach Club in Playa Dorada. This costs pounds 1,019, but is only available for over 16s who can swim. A top-up on travel insurance is necessary.

Unijet, Cosmos and First Choice also have programmes to the Dominican Republic - and yes, I fear they are almost exclusively all-inclusive. So why not enquire about last-minute flight-only deals? If you can leave your booking to the 11th hour, there could be some good bargains this summer.

Jill Crawshaw is a travel expert, writer and broadcaster.

Swimming in Africa: beware of bugs in the water

I am travelling to Africa this year and would love to do a lot of trekking as well as swimming in freshwater lakes and rivers. Can you tell me about the risks of waterborne diseases such as bilharzia and leptospirosis. Are there any preventative measures I can take?

N R Burton

Essex

Dr Larry Goodyer replies: Fresh water swimming in Africa can be hazardous due to bilharzia (schistosomiasis) and I generally recommended that if possible it should be avoided.

Bilharzia does cause a great deal of debility in Africa and is due to a small flatworm whose eggs are excreted in the urine of affected people. These will hatch in the water and find their way into certain fresh water snails, where they develop into little organisms called cercariae, just visible to the naked eye. They have the ability to penetrate the skin of bathers, felt as a swimmers' itch, and the worm will develop in the bladder or gut where they will lay their eggs. This tends to cause chronic internal bleeding, eventually leading to anaemia.

Although effective treatment is available, it is often too expensive for the local community. There are a few tips to try to reduce the risk including wiping down with a towel directly after bathing, swimming in faster-flowing water and keeping clear of reeds where the snails may lie. However, these measures are by no means a guarantee against infection. If exposure has been particularly intense it may be worth having a blood test on return.

The leptosporosis (Weil's disease) that you mentioned is a potential risk if swimming in any fresh water in the world. Particularly serious outbreaks sometimes occur when there has been flooding. It is passed in the urine of wild animals such as rats and the disease can be quite serious, with fatality in about one per cent of cases. It can be treated with antibiotics.

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 60p a minute).

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Have you got a question or problem? Whether you want to know the best place to go for a holiday or have a legal or medical concern, our panel of travel experts will be able to help. We regret we can only respond to published letters.

Write to: the Travel Editor, Independent on Sunday, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Fax: 0171-293 2043. E-mail to: sundaytravel@ independent.co.uk

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