The Internet is packed with holiday and travel sites. It's enough to tempt you off the Web and out into the real world for a week or two
COMPUTERS should come equipped not only with a mouse, but one of those long spoons designed for supping with the Devil, a dispenser of large pinches of salt and a barge pole. They are essential if you are to spend any time online - unless, that is, you are researching one of the few topics on which the Internet is famously reliable, authorative and bang up-to-date. For example: if you need news on the latest sighting of Elvis or help in learning the Klingon language - or want to know where to go on your hols. So if you haven't already decided to waste August re-decorating the back bedroom and find you can't get Cliff's Summer Holiday out of your head - tum-tum-tumtee on a tumte tumte-tum - your first destination has to be the World Wide Web.
You'll find travel companies, airlines and hoteliers are online and desperate to attract your attention. Even the humblest holiday providers know that the Internet offers them the one opportunity they have to compete on an equal footing with the big boys. Boarding house landladies who once only needed to know how to make a lumpy bed and a greasy breakfast now put as much effort into making their home pages state-of-the-art. The result is an awesome range of attractive sites that will put you in mind of good times as surely as a tantalising whiff of sun lotion.
But the Net also contains another invaluable source of information. Like the Ancient Mariner, everyone who has ever been on a holiday - whether it's a pilgrimage to the lonely summits of Bhutan or a day-trip to Skegness - feels the same compelling urge to show off the slides and recount every sun-kissed second. Millions of them choose to do so on their own home pages or sites that are dedicated to Travelers' (note the spelling) Tales.
If you want a warts-and-all description of any holiday destination, spend a little time with a search engine and you are almost certain to find some intrepid holiday-maker has already been there. You simply scroll through the screens of purple prose, taking a careful note of the little taverna that serves the definitive dolmades and the auberge with bed-bugs. Tan Wee Cheng's Mad Rush Through Turkey, Manfred Pfluegl's Four Countries in a Weekend, Rich Geib's Europe on a Eurorail Pass and a Prayer - it all makes compulsive reading. And if you want the professional travel writer's views, you'll find them waxing lyrical on websites hosted by Conde Nast, The National Geographic, The Lonely Planet and a host of other prestigious publishers. If you don't really fancy a week in Iceland, once you've read Gudmunder Helgasan on the subject, you will be gagging to know the take-off time of the next available flight.
Of course the big airlines publish their timetables as do railway companies throughout the world. You can download maps, city plans and endless data on mean annual rainfall, rates of exchange, cost of a first-class stamp, the level of pollution on the beaches, and anything else the pernickity traveller might care to know. The news agencies will give you the lowdown on the world's trouble spots or where air traffic controllers are about to strike. Those of a morbid disposition will find plenty of sites devoted to the cancerous effects of the sun, the dangers of mosquito bites, dengue fever and the leishmaniasis parasite - a charming little bug which won't ever worry you, unless you make the mistake of reading up about it.
If you haven't accepted yet that when you're abroad, the best way to make yourself understood is to shout, you'll want to mug up on the language. It does not matter what corner of the globe you visit, the Internet can help you to communicate with the locals - unless, that is, you end up in Glasgow. It offers comprehensive distance learning courses, dictionaries and a wide selection of foreign newspapers.
IF ALL you need is a phrase book, it's worth visiting the remarkable Travlang site where you can pick up a smattering of more than 60 languages from Albanian to Zulu. You can even hear the phrases being spoken - that is if you are prepared to wait for the sound files to download. You also need the necessary software to unscramble them. This, too, can be downloaded from the Internet, but to understand how you have to be fluent in Geespeak - a language that makes Albanian and Zulu seem positively easy.
If you want to practise your new skills with native speakers, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) enables you to hold conversations - albeit of the typed variety - in real time with real foreigners. In fact, the Net is a godsend for armchair travellers. Travel books and television programmes might offer information but not the excitement of setting off into the unknown, the thrill of arriving at some remote site, or the joy of seeing a jpeg (computer-formatted) picture slowly materialise on screen.
There is nothing that you cannot accomplish. Let your mouse be a friendly dromedary and journey south of Agadir to watch the dawn rise over the Sahara; be back in Paris in time for coffee and croissants at Hotel de Crillon; some window shopping on Fifth Avenue; the Lai Ching Heen in Hong Kong for lunch; a leisurely laze in the Sydney sun; the Taj Mahal by moonlight I all this without ever having to think of passports, tickets, visas, your overdraft, striking traffic controllers, military coups or the leishmaniasis parasite.
When you find yourself thinking along these lines, you know it really is time to unplug your computer, don your anorak, plaster yourself in Sun Factor 15, tum-tum-tumtee on a tumte tumte-tum, and set off to discover if the world is nearly as exciting as its wide web. If you're absolutely adamant that you are going to redecorate the back bedroom instead, don't start until you've visited Louis Finegan's DIY page.
Electronic postcards to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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