Penguin flight

Penguins are my favourite animals, and I would like to combine a holiday with seeing one or more species in the wild. Are there any tours that go to the Antarctic especially to see penguins? Or even better, a tour with several stops to see different species? What would be the best time to go, and when would it be cheapest?

Silja Muller

Dublin, Ireland

The Travel Editor replies: The best time to visit the Antarctic in order to go penguin-watching is during the Antarctic spring, from December to February, when baby penguins are hatching, feeding, growing (at a rapid pace) and waddling around. The easiest places to get to are the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsular, less than two days' sailing from South America. Sailing from Australia and New Zealand you may have to endure weeks on the rough seas of the Southern Ocean.

Antarctica is still very difficult to reach and organised tours are not cheap but, when all costs are considered, are generally less expensive and certainly far easier than independent travel. Guerba Expeditions (tel: 01373 826611) offers tours to the Antarctic. Its 11-night Antarctic Encounter seems to be the best option for penguin lovers, making frequent shore excursions encountering such species as the Marconi, Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguin, along with seals and various seabirds. There are daily explorations on inflatable vessels through icebergs and penguin rookeries. The tour costs from pounds 2,400 per person and includes cabin accommodation, all meals, expert guides and transfers. Flights are from an additional pounds 700.

Discover the World (tel: 01737 218800) has a 13-day Antarctica and Falklands tour during which you will encounter three species of penguin breeding in close proximity (Rockhopper, Gentoo and Magellanic), along with Albatross, Upland Geese and various seabirds. There are many frequent excursions in Antarctica, South Shetlands and the Falklands. The tour price is from pounds 4,000 per person and includes all meals, cabin accommodation, transfers, expert guides and flights from the UK.

Of course, you don't have to go as far as the Antarctic to spot penguins. They also dwell further north in areas touched by cold sea currents originating in Antarctica, namely off the coasts of southern Australia and New Zealand, certain Galapagos islands which lie on the Equator, islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, and the jackass penguin lives off the coast of South Africa. And be prepared for the smell - apparently penguin colonies have quite a distinctive odour.

Up in the air

I am a frequent flyer, travelling on average once every month. I have heard that frequent flyers are exposed to high levels of radiation. What are the health risks and is there any way of reducing them?

Francine Horrocks

Swansea

Dr Richard Dawood replies: Exposure to cosmic radiation at normal flying altitudes is more than 100 times greater than at ground level, and frequent fliers can indeed build up a significant dose. The radiation exposure for a return trip from London to New York is roughly equivalent to the exposure from a single chest X-ray (0.1 millisievert); a return flight to Los Angeles would clock up 0.16 mSv. Because Concorde flies at higher altitudes, the radiation exposure might be expected to be even higher, but this is balanced by a shorter flying time, so radiation exposure is in fact much reduced.

Calculations on the extent of harm associated with radiation exposure are generally based on the effects of much larger doses - such as at Hiroshima. It is extremely difficult to know if calculations based on high-dose exposure give a true indication of the likely harm from lower doses. For example, while high doses can kill cells, low doses may be more likely to cause mutations. It is also difficult to document the effects, and to know whether subtle changes such as differences in intelligence or minor developmental defects can truly be attributed to such exposure rather than to nature.

Should all this make you change your travel plans? Probably not - even staying at home has its risks, and mile for mile, air travel is still by far the safest means of transport. The one exception to this is during early pregnancy, when unnecessary long-haul air travel should probably be avoided.

Dr Dawood is the editor of `Travellers' Health: How To Stay Healthy Abroad' (OUP) and medical director of the Fleet Street Travel Clinic (tel: 0171 353 5678).

Windy weather

Could you just clarify for me please, is there a hurricane season with regard to the Caribbean region and is September/October a traditionally good time to go to any of the Caribbean countries? In particular, my attention is focused on the British Virgin Islands this September.

Paul Graveson

via e-mail

The Travel Editor replies: Yes, the late summer/early autumn is hurricane season, with most activity occuring in August and September - but the chances of a hurricane occurring in the Caribbean are not much higher than on the east coast of US. You would be extremely unlucky to take a direct hit in the island where you happened to be staying at the time.

In fact, September can be a good time to visit the Caribbean, because fares and hotel prices are lower, it is less busy and the chances of getting a last-minute package are greater than in the popular winter months (when people come to escape from northern winters) or summer (when children are off school). September avoids the European/American summer holiday season as well as the local peak season. The only thing to be careful about is that many hotels close down for repairs in preparation for the winter - so it's best to enquire at your travel agent for more details. You can get more detailed information on the British Virgin Islands from their tourist office (tel: 0171-240 4259).

B&B in London

Where can I find a list of bed and breakfast accommodation in central London? A good web address would be excellent. I am looking for fair quality accommodation at very reasonable rates during the Rugby World Cup period. There are just too many web addresses to search through and everything I seem to find is not appropriate.

Stuart Wepener

Free State, South Africa

The Travel Editor replies: The London Tourist Board (tel: 0171 932 2000) has a website which lists all tourist board recommended accommodation by type, area and price. Visit it at www.londontown.com

The tourist board does not offer an on-line booking service although some b&bs have e-mails listed, through which you can make a reservation. It also publishes Where To Stay And What To Do (Book Production Consultants, pounds 4.99), which is more or less a hard copy of the information on the website.

The London-based listings magazine Time Out has an online service at www. timeout.co.uk which offers a candid run-down of London's b&bs. This guide lists well-located, basic accommodation appealing primarily to backpackers. It also publishes a guide to London priced at pounds 9.99.

The English Tourist Office (tel: 0181-846 9000) publishes a guide to countrywide accommodation called Where To Stay In England 1999 B&B (English Tourist Board, pounds 8.99). It also has a useful website: www.visitbritain.com

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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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