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9th June 2000 at 01:00
Hannibal may have crossed the Alps on an elephant, but Arnold Evans has travelled the world with his mouse. And it only took an afternoon.

Along time ago, when Michael Palin was still a young man in the Monty Python team, he reported that the Danish explorer Knud Svenson had attempted - very unsuccessfully - to cross Spitzbergen on a halibut, cross the globe on a rabbit and cross the Andes by frog. That was long before the digital revolution. Nowadays, he wouldn't waste his time on such an unreliable menagerie. He'd know the most dependable mode of transport is a mouse. Just a few judicious clicks and it can take you to the remotest corners of the world.

I've spent the afternoon globe trotting. Or, to be strictly accurate, visiting the websites of a few modern Marco Polos who are doing so on my behalf. Along with their mosquito nets and emergency rations, they remembered to pack laptops, modems and digital cameras. So every evening, they process the day's events as HTML files and update their websites for the benefit of those of us who are too busy, too infirm, too broke or too timid to venture too far from our VDUs.

Before sitting down to write this I took a quick trip along the Appalachian Way in a '78 Buick; explored the coastline of the Galapagos Islands, accompanied by a flotilla of surprised sea lions; pony trekked in the foothills of the Himalayas; and paddled a home-made kayak down an African river I'd never even heard of before.

Although virtual travel might not be quite as exciting as the real thing, it is undoubtedly safer. In fact, I have returned from my afternoon's adventures unscathed, except for a slight twinge of repetitive strain injury - and chronic attacks of envy every time I think of all of those travellers smugly digitising their delight at being footloose and fancy free.

Ever since the Internet came into being, a monstrous regiment of Cassandras has prophesied that it will create a generation of apathetic stay-at-homes who will turn their backs on reality in favour of the second-best thrills of cyberspace. It's an easy case to make - I should know, I've made it often enough in these columns - but the more time I spend online, the more convinced I am that it isn't true. In fact, the World Wide Web is nothing more than a gargantuan advertisement for what's on offer in the real world. Even the most dysfunctional geek who spends an hour or two browsing through the countless travellers' tales available on the Internet will feel a compelling urge to press the Off button, don his anorak and sally forth (maybe as resolutely as Knud Svenson) in search of faraway places with strange sounding names.

Of course, any holiday, whether it's an away-day or a year's sabbatical should start at the Internet's unique compendium of information on every conceivable destination. Wherever you decide to visit, you'll be able to find digitised brochures, gazetteers, maps, street plans, photographs, live-cam broadcasts and endless data on the mean annual rainfall, rates of exchange, cost of a first class stamp and anything else which the most pedantic tourist could possibly want to know. But most important, you will be able to read the invaluable testimony of people who have already been there and have no ulterior motive to tell you anything other than the truth.

If you want to travel independently, you'll find sites detailing endless hotel rooms and apartments that are available throughout the world and others which book the flights that could take you to them. The Internet also hosts a definitive set of train and ferry timetables which, unlike their printed counterparts, are far more likely to be bang up to date.

If you want to book a package holiday, several competing dotcoms are desperate for your custom. They all offer a similar kind of service: you specify a range of acceptable destinations and departure dates and - hey presto! - a search engine finds what you will be assured is the very best bargain currently on offer. But before keying in your credit card details, you'd be well advised to check to see if there's a better deal in the local travel agent's window or on ye olde teletext.

These traditional providers can probably still compete in providing standard packages to popular resorts. But if you want something a bit out of the ordinary the Internet is indispensable. If you are old, gay, disabled, phobic, a pet owner, a teetotaller, a Morris dancer or belong to any minority group, you will, with perseverance, find the holiday of a lifetime somewhere on the Web.

And if all you really want to do is travel to Spitzbergen by halibut, then make sure you take your digital camera and laptop so that the rest of us can enjoy your adventures, too.

Bon voyage.

To find cheap flights and packages try:

http:www.expedia.msn.co.uk

http:www.deckchair.com

http:www.travelselect.com

http:www.lastminute.com

Launch pads to useful holiday sites:

http:www.itsnet.co.uktime-zonehome.htm

http:www.travel-library.com

http:www.roughguides.com

For maps try:

http:www.maps.com

http:www.streetmap.co.uk

Check the weather at:

http:www.virgin.nettravelweather

Health risks and other worries:

http:www.fco.gov.uktravel

http:www.cdc.govtravel

Somewhere to publish your holiday snaps? Try:

http:www.photopoint.com

Send your e-postcards to arnold.evans@talk21.com


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