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TOURS & CRUISES

Times Staff Writer

EUROPE: A whirl of holiday markets in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic

Pack your mittens and introduce yourself to Father Christmas this fall at Old World holiday markets in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The markets, Christkindlesmarkt, are a holiday tradition dating to the Middle Ages. They feature merchandise such as ornaments, toys, music boxes and glassware. Add to that a dusting of snow, the scent of roasting chestnuts and the taste of mulled wine.

“It’s the way Europeans get in the spirit of the holiday,” said German native Gerhard Meng, who is leading three tours this fall. “It’s noncommercial, just local craftsmen.” Christmas markets are held throughout Europe beginning at the end of November, turning town squares and narrow lanes into gathering places for natives and tourists alike. Some markets are small and run for just a few days; others, like the huge Munich and Nuremberg fairs in Germany, run through Christmas Eve.

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Tours to the fairs are available from several travel agencies.

Meng’s tours, ranging from eight to 10 days, depart on Nov. 29, Dec. 7 and Dec. 16 and visit various market cities, including Munich, Heidelberg and Seiffen, Germany; Salzburg and Scharding, Austria; and Prague, Czech Republic. The Dec. 16 tour will be in Europe on Christmas.

Cost: From $1,685 per person, double occupancy, including accommodations, bus transportation, city tours by local guides, most meals, taxes and service charges. Round-trip air fare from Los Angeles is not included.

Contact: Portland, Ore.-based Gerhard’s Odysseys; (800) 966-2402.

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Caribbean: Bike and cruise your way through the islands

You can ship out for the Caribbean Islands--and enjoy a healthy dose of cycling in port--on a bike-and-cruise tour planned from Jan. 26 to Feb. 2.

The cruise, aboard the Norwegian Sky, sails from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and visits St. Lucia, Barbados, Dominica, St. Kitts and St. Thomas. Days are spent biking, with time allotted for beachside picnics, snorkeling and swimming. Nights are spent aboard ship, sailing from port to port.

“While other cruise-ship passengers visit downtown areas, we cycle,” said Linda Thompson, who has been organizing the tours since 1989.

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Cost: From $1,044 per person, including seven nights on the ship, meals, evening entertainment, bike tour and port taxes. Optional bicycle rental is $100. Round-trip air fare from Los Angeles to Puerto Rico is not included.

Contact: Gresham, Ore.-based Bike and Cruise Tours; (503) 667-4053, www.bikeandcruise.com. Other bike and cruise tours visit Hawaii and Alaska.

Mexico: Small delights at shrimp festival on the Baja shore

Explore the Baja fishing village of San Felipe on a two-night tour that coincides with the city’s annual Shrimp Festival. The celebration marks the beginning of fishing season in the popular Gulf of California village.

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The tour, which departs San Diego on Nov. 1, travels down Baja’s Pacific Coast to Ensenada, then crosses the peninsula to San Felipe, 120 miles south of the U.S. border. The return is through Mexicali.

“The Shrimp Festival is very much a hometown affair,” said Barbara Littlemore of Baja California Tours. “They have a street fair, shrimp dishes, strolling mariachis.”

Cost: $279 per person, double occupancy, including round-trip bus transportation from San Diego, accommodations at the Costa Azul Hotel, bilingual guide, four meals and shrimp festival activities.

Contact: La Jolla-based Baja California Tours Inc.; (800) 336-5454, www.bajaspecials.com.

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Canada: Animal watch in the world’s polar bear capital

Get up close and personal with polar bears on an Arctic tundra tour that visits the far-flung outpost of Churchill, on the shore of Hudson Bay.

Churchill, which has dubbed itself the Polar Bear Capital of the World, is Canada’s most northern seaport. It is in the middle of the polar bear migration route, and the animals are seen frequently from mid-October to early November as they gather to await the freezing of Hudson Bay ice so they can begin their annual seal hunt. Six-day tours will depart on Oct. 25, Nov. 2 and Nov. 12. The tour begins in Winnipeg, with a three-hour flight north to Churchill. Two days are spent searching for bears in tundra buggies -- six-wheel-drive vehicles used for regional travel. Another day is spent on a walking tour to the edge of the boreal forest.

Cost: $1,725 per person, double occupancy, including air fare from Winnipeg to Churchill, some meals, accommodations, transportation, guides and activities. Round-trip air fare from LAX to Winnipeg is not included.

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Contact: Vancouver-based Tours of Exploration; (800) 690-7887, www.toursexplore.com.

Italy: Sample Venice’s culture and cuisine at Christmastime

Celebrate Christmas in Venice this year on a 10-day tour organized by two Southern California art professors. The annual trip focuses on the art, architecture, history, culture and cuisine of the floating city.

The trip will be led by Joe Hannibal of Cal Poly Pomona and Luisa Cohrs of Rio Hondo College, Whittier. It will include visits to the Accademia and Correr Museum, the Ducal Palace, the Frari and the Guggenheim Museum.

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Cost: $3,595 per person, double occupancy, including round-trip air fare from LAX to Venice, accommodations, breakfast, some dinners, transfers, admissions and guides.

Contact: Cal Poly Pomona Art Department, (909) 869-3512, or University Educational Travel, (800) 525-0525, www.uet .com.

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The Times is not responsible for changes in prices, dates or itineraries. These should be confirmed with travel agents, cruise lines or tour operators.

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