If April is the cruelest month, then surely February is the dreariest.
What better time to start dreaming of vacations -- even if you're going nowhere. If you're fantasizing about something unusual, a place far from the madding crowd, there are still worlds to explore on this ever-shrinking planet. All it takes are determination and dollars, often a great deal of both.
A sampling to waft you -- if not in body, in mind -- far from February:
Sailing evokes images of adventure and wealth, testing one's mettle against the elements one minute and pouring out martinis the next. The Tortola Yacht Charters, based in the relatively unknown but beautiful British Virgin Islands, can turn just about anyone into a captain courageous. A 49-footer with three double state rooms, a dinette, showers and, of course, a bar sounds like just the ticket: all for the in-season (December to mid-April) price of about $2,600 a week. Crew, provisions and air transportation to the BVI are extra naturally, but even Columbus found sailing an expensive proposition.
If you're the type who must be entertained constantly, the M.S. Mermoz will sail in September from Calais, France, on a 15-day Mediterranean "Music Festival at Sea." Such noted artists as pianists Emanuel Ax and Daniel Barenboim, violinist Shlomo Mintz, soprano Barbara Hendricks, tenor Jose Van Dam and others will perform on board. (And there's always shuffleboard.) For classical music fans this is the Super Bowl of cruises. Accommodations on the Mermoz run from about $2,700, up to the "box seats" of cabin luxury: a deluxe state room for just over $8,000.
Too tame? How about white-water rafting down the scenic Trisuli and Narayani rivers. Where are they? Nepal, of course. Himalayan River Exploration runs these jaunts which include meals, camping gear, rafts and life jackets for about $75 a day per person. From Katmandu. Getting to Nepal is up to you.
If water sports aren't your thing, and you just happen to be in Nepal anyway, you might want to latch on to one of Mountain Travel's many trekking expeditions of seven days to a month. (They recommend a minimum of two weeks; time flies when you're having fun.) See a festival in Manang, view the gorges of the Balephi Khola, or make an alpine climb in Khumbu with, the brochure proclaims, "an unrivaled team of sherpas." Oh, to be shepherded by a sherpa.
One vacation hotel with no pretense of competing with Holiday Inn is Tiger Tops, a jungle lodge in Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park. A short, 40-minute flight from Katmandu and you're ready to board your chartered elephant to take you through the jungle to the hotel. Free elephant parking is available to all guests. At Tiger Tops you can go on safari in search of tigers, go canoeing, take river picnics or fish for the masheer, something like a tarpon. Each Tiger Top suite is furnished with private showers and toilets, but, alas, no color TV.
"One of the most fascinating things about our stay at Tiger Tops," recalls Washington travel lover John Linehan, "was flushing out rhinos and other wild animals while we rode through elephant grass that was even higher than our elephants." He visited India and Nepal a year ago.
Or how about trout fishing in Kashmir? According to the Fish India folder, the trout average 1 1/4-1 1/2 pounds, but larger ones have been found. The Kashmir record, for all trivia fans, is a 14 1/2-pounder caught "on the famous Bringhi river in 1924." That's one sports record just begging to be broken.
Of course not everyone's heart is in central Asia, nor are we all hot-weather enthusiasts. One compelling cool trek is Lindblad Travel's husky-sledging in eastern Greenland. Says Lars Eric Lindblad, whose imagination for travel apparently is limited only by the earth's gravity, "The sight of over 200 dogs tearing across the ice of the greatest Greenland fjords, with icebergs towering over the sledges, is unforgettable."
Best yet, each vacationer is loaned a dog sledge and an Eskimo (not to be taken home as a souvenir).
Getting to the fjords sounds like an adventure in itself. Icelandic from New York to Reykjavik, then twin-engine Piper Navajos for a 2 1/2-hour flight across the Denmark strait to Kulusuk, and finally a quick 15-minute helicopter ride to Angmagssalik, where you spend a day at the Hotel Angmagssalik learning how to drive your dogsledge, and how to pronounce Angmagssalik. (The Icelanders say Ang-mag-sa-LIK, the Danes say Ang-mah-sa-LEECH, but what do the Greenlanders say?)
Hate to run into neighbors when you're off on vacation? No chance at the Hotel Angmagssalik, a satisfaction that may be worth the estimated $3,500 cost (plus roundtrip airfare to Iceland). But you'll have to make your booking soon. March and April are the only months dog-sledging trips are offered.
Cold-weather freaks also will want to look into Lindblad's 26-day "Exploring the Spectacular Arctic" or the longer, 30-day sail across the very top of Canada (one sailing only this year, Aug. 12). The M.S. Lindblad Explorer also sails regularly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Red, Mediterranean and North Seas, up the Amazon, and to both poles.
Bob Chambers, general manager of Van Slyke and Reeside Travel Associates on Wisconsin Avenue, sailed recently to the South Pole on one of Society Expeditions' cruises:
"We chilled our drinks with ice chipped from the icebergs. Imagine, ice cubes that were formed 3,000 years ago -- and the water is totally pure! But the thing I remember most was the silence . . . the silence and the beauty of Antarctica is something beyond imagination."
The more brochures you look at, the more intrigued you become: sailing 2,300 miles up the Amazon, a cruise to New Guinea, the D'Entrecasteaux archipelago, Madang and the Trobriand Islands; or West Irian, the islands east of Bali, Borobudur, Komodo Island . . .
If you have trouble making up your mind between discovering Djibouti or sailing the Sepik River, Society Expeditions' M.S. World Discoverer departs Port Moresby, New Guinea, in March for a 76-day cruise that will include both, plus many other ports of call, before ending in Cairo.
The cruise and land portions of this adventure cost $15,000 to about $32,000, depending on choice of cabin. Then too, there's the airfare to New Guinea and back. Unfortunately for budget-minded travelers, neither New York Air nor the Eastern shuttle has opened service yet between National Airport and Port Moresby.
One of the best pieces of recent travel news was the revival of the famed Orient Express. The Venice Simplon Co. purchased the original 1920s Pullman and Wagon-lits railroad cars, refurbished them to contemporary first-class standards, and now runs the train between London and Venice, passing through the heart of France, the Swiss Alps and northern Italy. In the old days, the Orient Express took tourists, spies and an occasional murder victim from Paris to Istanbul, but in these recessionary times even the CIA and KGB have taken to car pools, so the new Orient Express is for tourists only.
If hurtling across Europe in a railroad car seems prosaic, how about in a balloon? Enid Hudig, who flew on one of the Bombard Society's French Balloon Adventures, raves about the experience and delights in describing the 10-course luncheons.
"We spent from one to two hours aloft each day, from 3,000 feet up to just skimming the trees. Even the landings were exciting. Once we set down in some farmer's field and he ran out to chase us -- until we asked him to join us for dinner and champagne."
"An interesting way to make that trip," says travel manager Bob Chambers, "is to fly over on the Concorde at 1,300 miles an hour and then balloon across France at 5 miles an hour. What a contrast!"
And if even a balloon seems too fast, lease a barge from Continental Waterways and slowly, slowly journey along the rivers and canals of England or France. For about $1,000 you can spend 6 days on a barge hotel and cover a distance you could drive in a couple hours.
Besides Lowell Thomas and Tarzan, who makes such adventuresome treks?
"Usually it's the professional person, the doctor or dentist," says Society Expeditions vice president Philip Mathews.
"But we also get a good number of retired people. On our trips to the South Pole there's always a retired schoolteacher or librarian. But on these kinds of tours, the one common denominator is a deep longing to visit that particular place, the South Pole, the Amazon, whatever. That mutual bond makes the group very homogeneous. And the number of people who come back again is very high, about 70 percent."
Nevertheless, Anna Monat, president of Universal Travel on Connecticut Avenue, cautions that such trips are not for everyone.
"You've got to be both somewhat sophisticated and also quite flexible. Because of the distances involved, and the remoteness of the country, you have to be prepared for some inevitable changes in the itinerary. You cannot expect to see tigers every time you step out into the Indian jungle and sailing up the Amazon in little boats is not exactly a cruise on the QEII."
"But it's not as difficult as you might think to put together one of these trips," notes Chambers. "The arrangements for these types of tours are extremely reliable because only experienced operators are in charge. The charlatans fade away very fast."
Like other agents, Anna Monat is reluctant to reveal the names of clients. "Most of our business is through referrals, we don't get too many walk-ins. Some of our clients have been all over, even to China two or three times. Now if they want something different, I like the idea of going to Bhutan or Sikkim, they're so remote. And Tibet is interesting too. You have to go through China to get there."
And you'll be relieved to know that arrangements -- even for some of the most exotic trips -- can be completed within about 24 hours.