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The perfect holiday gift is travel

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000


All right, your oldest son is graduating from college, and you want to buy him a special gift for Christmas. Resist the urge to fix him up with an even faster PC or the lastest VCR or a Direct TV package.

How about this as a graduation gift: a two-month, all-expenses-paid trip to the one place in the world your son has dreamed of visiting?

For Christmas 2000, I am buying my daughter, a Catholic and college freshman, a 14-day, all-expenses-paid junket to Vatican City. Although she has been to London with her high school orchestra, visiting Rome will be the trip of her life. She will not make the trip until the summer of 2001, but the sweet anticipation of possibly seeing the pope has her walking on clouds.

I am fortunate that I can afford this gift of travel.

Two years ago, Keith Bellows, editor in chief of National Geographic Traveler, sold me on travel as the ultimate Christmas gift. "I'm convinced that travel is the best gift you can give a loved one . . . or yourself," he wrote. "It is the gift that brought my brother on his 40th birthday to New York City, a place he'd never seen. It is the gift that draws me and my other siblings together in Montreal or Prince Edward Island. . . . It is the gift I give myself when I absolutely, positively need a shift in attitude. It is what permits us all to explore places that we once only imagined or never dared dream of visiting."

This past summer, I treated myself to trips to Poland, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. I never will forget my visits to Warsaw, Krakow, Bucharest, Dracula's Castle, Oskar Schindler's factory and the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Next year, I shall give myself trips to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Morocco. India was on my list, but I will save it for later.

My 2000 Christmas present to myself is a New Year's Eve trip to Manhattan to see the Times Square ball drop at midnight.

Like Bellows, I encourage more travel as Christmas gifts. The Nov./Dec. 2000 issue of National Geographic Traveler offers a treasure trove of travel gifts for different occasions.

Reunions, especially the family kind, are growing in popularity and sophistication. Indeed, they have grown beyond the days when sweaty old uncle Charlie and the cousins guzzled beer and burned hamburgers in the back yard. Today, according to Reunions magazine, people are putting together all-inclusive trips and resort packages as gifts for entire families. If your list of relatives is long, Reunions recommends letting a travel agent navigate you through the minefield of emotion and personal space. A good place to start is Fodor's Travel Publications (www.Fodors.com).

The honeymoon (first, second, third, fourth), offers another reason to give travel. Forget the toaster or that George Foreman contraption. Buy your parents a cruise to, say, Paris or a flight to Mexico City. Give it to them for Christmas and let them travel when they want to. I went online and found some great information. Look, for example, at www.4honeymoons.4anything.com and www.afterido.com.

Your sister has been married for five years. Why not give her a fifth-anniversary gift, a weekend in her favorite city? And one of the best venues is an inn, perhaps a quiet bed-and-breakfast. She and her husband will never forget your gift and will love you forever.

Innkeepers have flooded the web with good news. Start with www.innfinder.com. One of my favorite B&Bs is the Mango Inn in Lake Worth, Fla. You will be glad that you contacted the inn's proprietors, Erin and Bo Allen (www.mangoinn.com). They will spoil you rotten with creative breakfasts, uniquely appointed rooms and an ambiance that soothes the soul.

With a daughter in college, my turn has arrived to worry about spring break. Since my daughter is infected with wanderlust, I plan to study up on destinations beyond Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale. I will be looking for places where she can learn about other cultures and meet new nationalities.

For unique destinations, I suggest starting with Apple Vacations (applevacations.com) and Friendly Holidays (friendlyholidays.com).

One nice thing about travel gifts is that we do not need an official reason to give. Six years ago, I traded in frequent-flier miles to buy my 8th-grade homeroom teacher a four-day trip to Chicago. My excuse? She had read about Maxwell Street but had never been there. She returned from Chicago understanding why I had written three essays about one of the Windy City's most fabled thoroughfares.

If you want to use frequent-flier miles as a Christmas present, simply redeem your frequent-flier miles (consistent with airline rules, of course) for a gift airline ticket in a relative's or friend's name. Start by telephoning your airline's frequent-flier department to redeem or donate miles. And, by the way, do not forget about train travel. A cross-country tour on Amtrak would be just the ticket for rail devotees.

Here's wishing you and your loved ones happy holiday traveling.

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