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Ask T&L: Northern Lights, Choice Chocolate

Northern lights...Chocolates...Kids in the rain forest...A month in France



q. When is the best time to catch the northern lights?I'd like to see them while I'm in Europe. -- L.R., Taos, N. Mex.
a. The eerily beautiful aurora borealis is most easily seen in the northern regions of the globe where there is clear weather and little ambient light. Throughout Scandinavia, prime viewing season is from mid-December to mid-January, although you may want to think twice about taking your vacation in 24-hour darkness. In Iceland and Greenland, October through March is the best time to see the lights; the most spectacular displays typically occur around midnight. Don't be surprised if the heavenly show is accompanied by strange crackling sounds -- this unexplained phenomenon is quite common.

q. My brother is a chocoholic, and I'd like to have some world-class chocolates sent to him. Where can I call?-- M.B., St. Louis, Mo.
a. Your brother is sure to be overwhelmed by a box from Wittamer, Belgium's finest chocolatier. The flagship store in Brussels (12 Place du Grand Sablon; 32-2/512-3742) mails its cream-filled truffles all over the world. If the language barrier throws you, take heart: some of Europe's most esteemed chocolate-makers have outposts in New York and will ship anywhere. Try France's La Maison du Chocolat (1018 Madison Ave.; 212/744-7117) for incredibly beautiful hand-made, cream-filled chocolates. Or Teuscher Chocolates of Switzerland (25 E. 61st St.; 212/751-8482) for rich dark-chocolate truffles. We're partial to See's Chocolates from California (800/347-7337). The company was started by grandmotherly Mrs. See and her family in 1921; its peanut clusters are divine.

q. Our children, ages 7 and 10, are eager to visit a rain forest. Is Costa Rica a good destination for a family?-- P.K., Omaha, Nebr.
a. Costa Rica's 42,000-acre Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the adjacent Children's Eternal Rain Forest -- purchased with donations from kids around the world -- are the perfect choice. Monteverde, in the Tilarán Mountains of northwestern Costa Rica, shelters more than 2,000 plant species (including 350 varieties of orchids), 400 kinds of birds, and 100 types of mammals. You can hike, ride horses, and visit a butterfly garden, a hummingbird gallery, and a serpentarium. The Monteverde Lodge (506/257-0766, fax 506/222-0333) charges $110 per person a day, including all meals. Children 10 and younger stay free if sharing a room with parents; their meals are half-price. At the nearby El Sapo Dorado Hotel (506/645-5010, fax 506/645-5180), a suite for a family of four starts at $96, exclusive of meals.

q. My dream has finally come true -- I have a month to spend this summer wandering through the French countryside. How do I start planning a walking or biking trip?-- E.C., New Haven, Conn.
a. British author Tim Hughes's excellent Cycling in France, distributed in this country by Trafalgar Square ($24.95), is a great place to begin. Hughes covers the country, plotting routes from steep mountain passes in the Alps to gentle olive-grove-edged roads in Provence. The book gives advice on the best local maps and cycling organizations, and includes a glossary of French cycling terms, handy should you happen to break a rayon (spoke). Next month, look for France on Foot (Attis Press, $24.95) by Bruce LeFavour, who describes the 110,000 miles of footpaths that make up France's national trail system. LeFavour includes recommendations for comfortable lodgings and the best meals. Keep in mind that the French Government Tourist Office has a wealth of maps and brochures available; its "France-on-Call" hot line (202/659-7779) can answer questions and send you the most up-to-date information. You can also explore France by region and look up special interests (cooking, family, gardens) on the tourist office's Web site at www.francetourism.com.

E-mail your questions, or mail them to: Ask T&L, 1120 Avenue of the Americas, 10th floor, New York, NY 10036. We regret that questions can be answered only in the column.

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