Friday, 2 November 2007

Eating out in London and Paris

A day trip to Paris this week allowed time for a lingering lunch at Alain Ducasse's Michelin starred Benoit. The restaurant itself - a solid, traditional French brasserie - the main course of pork, caramelised apple, garlic and black pudding and a wondrous selection of tarts for pudding were all magnificent. The set menu price of 38 Euros was on the high side but not excessive.

But inevitably it prompted renewed comparisons with London's top restaurants - and provided evidence that the days when the French capital won the contest hand down have long gone. Most recent evidence was an excellent lunch at the Royal Festival Hall's Skylon restaurant, with a view over the Thames thrown in.

My lifelong love affair with Paris began in the 1960s with daily runny Camembert and red wine at an outside table somewhere off the Champs Elysees and the discovery - at the wonderful and venerable Brasserie Balzar on the Left Bank's Rue des Ecoles - that in France it was possible to order entrecote a point and not be served shoe leather.

It's still difficult to get runny Camembert in Britain, and there are still plenty of indifferent restaurants. But in London, at least, we have made an enormous leap - and it is worth a occcasional outing to Paris to remind ourselves just how far we have come.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Is the ski season changing?

Is global warming affecting the ski season? Evidence suggests that, so far at least, it has made little or no impact.
Last winter's miserable start in Europe prompted a predictable spate of unsubstantiated impressions and domesday predictions. The snow was arriving later than it used to. This was the beginning of the end for low resorts.

This was an opportune time to take a close look at the Ski Club's historical data in an effort to discover whether there were any clear indications that climate change was reducing snow cover. My conclusion was that unless last season's early drought represented some kind of tipping point, it was an isolated blip.

I looked average snow depths since 1993-4 at three stages of the season - the third weeks of December, January and March. The analysis covered a representative selection of over two dozen European and North American resorts. T

If there were any truth in the perception that the season was starting later, then logic dictates that early snow depth on the lower slopes would have fallen. But taking those slopes in isolation only a handful of resorts reported a reduction of more than one centimetre for the past four seasons, compared with average for the whole 14 year period. And remember that last December in many resorts was an unmitigated disaster.

To see whether there had been any overall, progressive reduction of snow cover I looked at the averages for three periods. The periods were 1993/4 – 1997/8, 1998/9 – 2002/3 and 2003/4 – 2006/7.

In the December week only five resorts had reported consecutive reductions for the three periods on both upper and lower slopes. They were mostly in the French Tarentaise and included Val d'Isere, Les Arcs and Meribel. Even so, one cannot conclude that those resorts are the first victims of climate change. They suffered starts just as dismal as last winter's in the 1993/4 – 1997/8 and 1998/9 – 2002/3 periods – and just one heavy early snowfall in the past four seasons would have improved the average for those winter's dramatically.

Two – Mayrhofen and Zell am See - showed a progressive increase, while Bormio, Selva Val Gardena, Zermatt, Avoriaz and Aspen all reported better average cover over the past four seasons than in the five Decembers starting in 1993/4.

A comparison of figures for the January week produced a similarly unclear picture, with no obvious general decline in snow cover and only in a handful of resorts were average depths significantly lower in the third week of March.

Confused? To see how inconclusive the evidence is, look at the following figures * for Kitzbuhel, Sauze d'Oulx, Val d'Isere and St. Moritz.


Third week December
Third week January
Third week March
Average depth upper/lower slopes in the past 14 seasons



1993/4 – 1997/8
1998/9 – 2002/3
2003/4 – 2006/7

Sauze d'Oulx:

Average depth upper/lower slopes in the past 14 seasons

1993/4 – 1997/8
1998/9 – 2002/3
2003/4 – 2006/7

Val d'Isere

Average depth upper/lower slopes in the past 14 seasons



1993/4 – 1997/8
1998/9 – 2002/3
2003/4 – 2006/7

St. Moritz

Average depth upper/lower slopes in the past 14 seasons



1993/4 – 1997/8
1998/9 – 2002/3
2003/4 – 2006/7

Finally, two observations: first, even those cynics who harbour suspicions about the veracity of snow reports could hardly accuse resorts of doctoring trends.

And second: none of this is intended to deny overwhelming evidence of global warming or to suggests that it will not start to show up in future analyses. It is just to demonstrate the absurdity of many knee jerk reactions to last season's poor early conditions. Skiers deserve a more thoughtful approach.

*Depths are in centimetres and have been rounded up or down to avoid percentage points

This article appeared recently in Ski & Board magazine

Monday, 8 October 2007


The word "just" - invariably used when advertising prices - was devalued long ago. But today I spotted a gem on BMI's web site. Entering January dates for a round trip in premium economy cabin to Chicago I was offered a fare of £648.20. Upgrade to business flexible, it suggested, for "just" £4803. Might as well then.

Thursday, 4 October 2007


While the UK's principal airport operator BAA is scarcely deserving of sympathy over its response to last year's sudden security panic, it has become the target for much misplaced critcism.

Today's Guardian, for example, carries a leader claiming that security queues have "often" stretched out of the terminal almost as far as the car park. Anyone who uses BAA's airports regularly will recognise that as gross exagerration. Far from being a frequent occurrence it has happened rarely.

The same editorial suggests BAA profits from such delays because travellers spend more in airport shops. Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that tax and duty free shops are beyond the security checks in question, how do you go shopping while waiting in a security queue? And while it is true that tighter security necessitates earlier check in, that requirement is hardly exclusive to BAA or even UK airports.

The currrent barrage directed at the company has been prompted mainly by Heathrow, an airport laid out for an earlier era, whose successive managements have struggled to keep pace with demand. The fact that it is Spanish owned makes not one iota of difference to the quality of service. Much the same criticisms were hurled at its UK owners.

Sometimes those critics, concerned that airports are nationally important - and the first encounter many visitors have when they come here - seem to teeter on the brink of pushing for renationalisation. Yet if that were to become a realistic proposition they would surely throw up their hands in horror. Heaven forbid, you can almost hear them cry. That being their likely reaction, surely they should accept the realities of private ownership.

One of those realities is that splitting up BAA's near monopoly in London might bring a sprinkling of cosmetic enhancements but would not produce major improvements. True competition is possible only when there is adequate capacity - and capacity is currently inadequate. The prospect of such competition is made more distant by the fact that the dominant carrier, BA, will always need to concentrate most of its services at one airport. And unless someone resurrects the idea of an all new airport, off shore in the Thames Estuary maybe, that airport will always be Heathrow.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

September in Maine - best for hiking

September can be a fine month to go hiking in New England. The summer crowds are back in their offices. The foliage has yet to blaze red and gold, attracting an autumn wave of sightseers.

And Acadia National Park, on the coast of Maine, offers some of the best walking in the region. In Vermont and New Hampshire, where I had hiked previously, you mostly climb through forest to a vantage point overlooking more forest. In Acadia the trees give up where their roots can no longer tap sustenance one the pink granite, affording magnificent views of lakes and ocean.

Acadia occupies much of Mount Desert Island, whose harbours sheltered warring British and French ships in the late eighteenth century.

Its highest summit, Cadillac Mountain, is named after a self ennobled French aristocrat who laid claim to half the island and later founded Detroit, lending his name and part of his coat of arms to the eponymous car. Though only 1520ft it is the second highest peak - after Corcovado in Brazil - on the estern shores of th entire American continent. A rack and pinnion railway once ran to the top. But we were put off climbing it by the road which allows visitors to drive up.

Instead we scaled a string of other minor mountains: Pemetic, the North Bubble and three - Parkman, Gilmore and Sargent in one exhausting day.

The walking was varied and alway interesting, sometimes among bilberry bushes, often across lattices of pine roots groping out across the rock in the search for moisture.
Most of the more difficult routes involved some modest scrambling with use of the hands, though it must be stressed there was nothing a reasonably agile 65 year old couldn't handle with ease.

The temperature rose to a humid 85 degrees as we toiled up Mount Acadia, finishing on Man O'War trail which was named for a a brook from which British naval crews took fresh water. At Echo Lake the temptation to plunge in was too much to resist. The water was deliciously cool but far from icy.

Not so the Atlantic at beautiful Sand Beach, where my resolve to swim again was broken as the waves hot though level.

We based ourselves on the edge of Bar Harbor at the aptly named Wonder View Inn & Suites. There had been no need to book ahead. Spacious, airy rooms had balconies and picture windows allowing views of the sun setting and rising over the ocean. At the present, highly favourable exchange rate for European travellers, our rooms cost roughly £70 a night.

Dinner hardly broke the bank, either. A whole boiled lobster with melted butter could be had for around £12.50. Some excellent New Zealand Sauvignons have appeared on wine lists since our previous trip, priced at about the same again. Evening meals, often with shared desserts since they are so often too big for one, never cost more than £35 - £40 for two.

But perhaps the most pleasant interlude in an altogether excellent week was post-hike drinks at the Tan Turtle Tavern in North East Harbour. There, too hungry to wait for dinner without nibbles, we ordered oerhaps the most delicious steamed clams we had ever tasted. For Acadia, read Arcadia.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Bags of Complication

The increasing tendency for no frills airlines to charge for all hold baggage is making it even more dificult to compare prices with established airlines which do not.

Latest to announce it will charge is easyJet. The move affects passengers booking flights departing from October 1. This replaces a previous policy where the first hold bag was free but subsequent bags were charged at £5 per item.

The airline says it will charge £2 for each items of luggage checked in - but passengers booking on line may be left somewhat confused. When I looked the section on baggage policy made no mentions of the fact that it will cost £5 a bag if you pay at the airport. The page also says you are allowed up to 8 bags within the maxmum weight limit. When I made a test booking the relevant page informed me I was restricted to one per person and showed a charge of £4. You should not that £4 is the charge for the outward and return journeys combined. And the software ASSUMES you will be taking one bag per person. There's a little drop down box which enables you to increase the number of bags - and pay on line accordingly.

easyJet does not impose a weight restriction on hand luggage - allowing one piece measuring up to 55cm x 40cm x 20cm.

It's announcement provided an amusing and typical example of the way airlines - probably even without realising thy are doing it - obfuscate such changes. The headline on its web site news release was: "easyJet simplifies baggage procedures".

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Walking in the Cradle of the Wind

Ideally we would have caught the steam train up the Dee Valley from Llangollen but it left a half hour later, so we opted for the diesel.

Time seemed precious. It was a rare, fine morning in this dismal British summer of rain and floods, and we were anxious to make the most of it by starting our walk early,

Besides, the diesel was fun, too, the aging springs of its carriage seats evoking memories of rail journeys taken as children - even if we did have to imagine the hiss of steam and smell of haycocks when the train drew up, as in Adelstrop, at Berwyn Halt and other small stations with bare platforms, where "no one left and no one came" on the short tourist line to Carrog.

And as we climbed from the village, whose houses were shifted higher in the 17th century as the river undermined their foundations, we could watch the steam train chugging into view far below, like a 00 gauge model, much as when the railway first reached Carrog in 1860.

We were to hike back to Llangollen, heaved as usual with visitors on a sunny Sunday, but for most of the 10 miles we covered we saw only two other hikers. There was no gentle introduction. Above Carrog the path rose relentlessly at the edge of a forest of oak, ash, sycamore and chestnut, horse and sweet.

Then we joined an old drove road, heading north east under blue skies and occasional dark clouds which brought a sudden chill, down to briefly touch a minor road. Then it was on past Tan-y-foel, to flank Llantysilio mountain. Behind us the mountains of Snowdonia bulked soft grey on the horizon. Along the path we picked early bilberries, as yet a little too tart and in need of ripening. Is there a fruit with more different names? In these parts they are called whinberries, whin being a word for heather.

Heather and yellow gorse made vivid splashes on Moel y Gamelin, where a lone fell runner toiled towards the summit. We contoured around it and went swinging joyfully down an intoxicating track with the shining green Dee Valley spread out beneath us.

Welsh place names usually reflect location and geography, sometimes prosaically as in Tan-y-Foel (beneath the bare mountain), sometimes lyrically as in Crud-y-Gwynt (cradle of the wind) - a house we passed on our descent.

At Llantysilio we were diverted by the church, whose chancel is roofed with arched medieval beams, where a brass plaque commemorates the times Robert Browning worshipped there, while staying nearby as a guest of Lady Martin, the celebrated former Victorian actress, Helena Faucit.

On past picnickers at Horsehoe Falls, the great curved weir built by Thomas Telford to supply the Shropshire Union canal with water. Then the canal barges carried slate. Now, still drawn by horses on this stretch, they carry tourists. We passed one on the towpath, passed too the Eisteddfod grounds where, not long before. Jose Carreras had sung arias, past a horse drawn tourist barge, back to crowded Llangollen and a pint of bitter by the raging river at the Corn Mill.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Cabin crew - mouths to manual

"We will shortly be arriving INTO London". Where did this ugly grammar - which I now hear often on flights - come from? Probably from the US, along with the awful "can I get?" (instead of may I have?), park or listen UP (the up is superfluous)and TRAIN station. For pity's sake In the UK it's always a train station unless it's a bus station

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Senseless Security

"Gesture security" has been the target of newspaper comment and correspondence in the wake of last week's terrorism scares. Sometimes, it seems, security officials waste time and energy checking travellers who are least likely to pose a threat.

We encountered a prime example as we returned from France recently. Our car broke down at the entrance to the Calais ferry port. We pushed it through passport control and waited for the AA. Condemned to wait for several hours we not only need to stretch our legs but also to walk to a toilet.

But a UK immigration officer - there to supervise passport checks - the demanded we should stay in the car because of "heightened security". Fortunately one of her colleagues adopted a more flexible approach.

Daft responses such as this surely weaken the credibility of those who genuinely need to impose restrictions.

Insurance woes

I must confess that my year round travel insurance policy is provided by Saga. I have just been hit with a premium increase on renewal of approximately 50%.

Why? I have just passed an age threshold. A significant part of the increase was triggered when I reached 65 in June.

I query it. I don't recall being told anything about such thresholds when I shifted my insurance to Saga a year ago. It's correct, they say. An actuarial decision.

Trouble is, actuarial decisions don't take account of individuals. You don't get any rebate if you are fit. I moved to Saga because my previous policy, through American Express, would no longer cover me year round to travel to the US. I would have been obliged to buy more expensive single trip policies.

Saga's rules are not quite as age unfriendly as that - after all it is a company designed to cater for mature customers - and unless they change dramatically they will cover me to ski until I can no longer bend down and do my boots up.

But it seems unfair. So far as I know I am as fit and healthy as I was on the last day of my 64th year - and no more of a risk. It's just one of many insurance frustrations encountered over the years.

Older people are staying fitter longer and travelling more adventurously than ever. The travel industry needs them. Isn't it about time some insurer offered them a less discriminatory deal?

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Image of France - Valleraugue, Cevennes

Posted by Picasa

No rush to give up flying

Thirteen per cent of Britons say they have given up flying because of concerns about global warming, according to a report in today's Guardian which quotes an ICM poll. And it said 34% and 31% respectively had cut back on short and long haul air travel.

Although the report suggested 13% was surprisingly low it is so staggeringly high as to be wildly misleading.

If it were an accurate reflection of consumer behaviour, airlines would be dropping like flies. Latest figures from the Association of European Airlines show passenger numbers from January – April increased by 4.6% per cent. My guess is that ICM's 13% rarely fly in any case in which case their absence would have relatively little impact on overall passenger figures.

The report did not quantify the likely effect of the claimed reductions in flying. How many flights are you cutting out. One a year or one every now and then?

Whatever the detailed explanations, the same poll shows a higher proportion of think taxes on air travel should be reduced than that which believes they should rise.

This suggests that the green lobby's sustained assault on the consciences of air travellers has failed to have any meaningful effect on consumers who may feel flying makes a fairly small contribution to CO2 emissions and that that abandoning plans for a weekend break in Prague won't do a lot to save the planet.

If so they have a point. I calculate that if all flying from the UK were to cease tomorrow the increase in CO2 emissions from China alone would wipe out the benefit in just six weeks.

No sane observer would deny that the world must to cut carbon emissions – but we need a more sensible debate than that currently surrounding travel. Silly comparisons with guilt about smoking and daft gestures such as flying in economy rather than business (because cutting business class would enable airlines to fit more seats) or finding means to travel to Australia do nothing to stimulate such debate.

Let's look at the pluses of tourism - its contributions to international understanding and its ability to bring quick benefits to poor communities – and weight those against the damage caused by carbon production which remains a fraction of that from road transport.

And while I'm on this theme the constant stream of stories and features from the Guardian, rapping its readers over the knuckles for flying, might be more convincing were if it didn't carry an equally constant stream of advertisements by low cost airlines.


Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Air Duty Fiasco

What a pickle the British Government has got itself into over air passenger duty paid by travellers flying from UK airports.

HM Customs and Revenue, which administer the charges, has launched a consultation on the way they are levied.

One suggestion is that the higher level of charges should kick in when seat pitch - usually defined as the measurement between a point on one seat and the same point on the one in front – exceeds a certain distance.

Currently the lower level - £10 or £20 for short or long haul passengers respectively – applies simply to “the lowest class of travel”. Passengers in all other cabins pay double.

This has created a ludicrous anomaly: customers of business class only airlines, who have acres of space, pay the lower charge, while those flying in premium economy – often leisure travellers seeking a little extra leg room – pay the larger amount. And the higher rate even applies to package holiday customers booking premium seats on charters.

But HM Customs and Revenue notes that basing the charges on seat pitch might create difficulties where an airline offers business class quality of service in a seat whose pitch defines it in the lower class.

It is the wording of the regulation that has caused the problems. Why not re-write it, applying the higher charge to “business and first class tickets”? Premium economy passengers should pay the lower price. And in case of any disputes – or tricky ploys by airlines to evade the charges – why not back that up by relating them to the class as shown on the ticket.

That this mess should necessitate a lengthy consultation is another result of the woolly thinking on APD which has raised consumer and airline industry hackles (see my earlier blog). With a little more care and attention, present difficulties could and should have been avoided.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Heli-hiking in the Bugaboos

It might seem a bit soft, calling a taxi to go to lunch halfway through a day’s hiking. But in the Bugaboos you earn the ride and every single calorie consumed at the end of it. Besides, without it we would have missed out on the finest hamburgers imaginable.

The taxi was a Bell 212 helicopter. Lunch was a barbecue on a high plateau where we were asked not to stray from a marked area of rock, so as not to tread on delicate Alpine vegetation. And we were the A team, the toughest hikers at the lodge, ready for anything guide Dave Cochrane chucked at us.

There was Nancy, a theatre nurse from Denver, Bob, a root canal dentist from San Francisco, and his wife Kate, Justin and Anna, who were the youngest, and Sylvia, who had come with her partner Frank and her remarkable parents. Milo was 75 and had undergone by pass surgery, Aiga was 73 and had a year old, artificial hip. They had just celebrated their Golden Wedding and they bounded up the mountain like a pair of chamois. You don’t get more remarkable than that.

We had been thrown together on three day heli-hiking trip to the Bugaboos, part of the Purcell chain, which runs close to the Rocky Mountains in western Canada. The lodge where we met was itself some 15 – 20 miles from the nearest surfaced road. Heli-hiking involves flying from there to an even remoter point in that vast wilderness and walking until it is time to be picked up again. The point is that it gets you to routes, mostly close to or above the tree line, to which it would take half a day’s hike or more to reach on foot.

The organisers were Canadian Mountain Holidays, based in Banff, whose founders built the lodge in the 1960s as a base for heli-skiing and there was something of the ski holiday about our first hours there. Boots, walking poles, jackets, backpacks and rain ponchos were provided for those who had not brought them. Everyone had sent off a form before leaving home, assessing their fitness levels, so guests were split immediately into groups. But the guides spent that afternoon making their own assessments – and reshuffling the groups accordingly.

I set off along Chalice Creek with my first set of companions in steady rain. Dave, also the lodge manager, set a stiff pace uphill. Before long Larry from Texas, who said he’d been on anti-biotics for a month, was admitting he had bitten off more then he could chew. No problem. Dave took him to a point where he could team up with other walkers and catch an early flight back.

The rest of us continued up an increasingly steep slope, grateful that Dave was kicking footsteps in the loose slate, to reach a ridge so narrow it seemed impossible that the helicopter could land there. By now we were becoming accustomed to the routine. On with the wooly hat to protect against the chilly down draught, hang on to back packs to ensure they’re not blown away, crouch beneath the rotor blades, jump aboard and buckle seat belts. It becomes almost military.

There is need for discipline in the mornings, too. Since the lodge is only about 5200 feet above sea level you are not kept awake by the rapid heartbeat which comes with high altitude, so you may remain in deep slumber when they ring the ship’s bell on the lawn at 7.15am. Breakfast, maybe French toast, bacon and maple syrup or Eggs Benedict, is at 8am and the first flight leaves promptly an hour later. Nobody wants to be held up by laggards.

Day two brought an unbroken hike including climbs totaling some 2500 feet. We flew up Bachelor Creek to start walking near a lake called Dead Elk, which tips into a tumbling brook. A little fresh snow had fallen overnight. Though it was still early September we needed fleeces, warm jackets, ski hats and gloves until the sun and uphill gradients took away the chill.

Grizzly bears live in these parts, but they stay away from walking groups. Starting downhill we encountered a hole dug by one, in pursuit of a ground squirrel. “Bears like them because they provide a lot of fat for the winter”, says Bryan, our guide for the day. “Sometimes they dig holes as big as Volkswagens trying to get at them”.

While a few patches of Indian Paintbrush remained to provide splashes of red against the wet green grass, and a few pale orange blooms lingered on Arctic Willows shrubs, most flowers had long gone to seed, but there were mushrooms everywhere: puffballs, boletus edulis (cepes) and others, which would demand skilled identification before being thrown into the pan.

Back at the lodge there was time for a beer before dinner. It has been a demanding day involving some 2500 feet of uphill slog – but demanding is not obligatory. Others, having taken easier options, are back before us. There is no shame in returning at lunchtime to spend the afternoon with a book, or relaxing in the roof top hot tub.

Next morning brought the first unclouded view of the Hound’s Tooth, the aptly named rock outcrop framed by the lodge’s windows. “The world’s largest cuspid”, Bob the dentist called it.. Though the sun had yet to emerge from the wings it cast spotlights the colour of mango sorbet on the glaciers in which it appeared be rooted.

“It’s going to be a dynamite day”, said Dave at breakfast, adding that what he had planned for us was “more than hiking”. When we looked up at the ridge he had in mind we saw immediately what he meant.

The helicopter had dropped us on a ledge opposite the fluted, snow encrusted wall of the Hawser Spires. Steve the pilot did a little circuit against this backdrop before departing, so that the group could take a few photos of the helicopter. Above us soared Cross Fish, a peak named after a brand of tinned fish and so named because the first climbers to reach the top left a can up there.

We took all morning to climb the steep ridge, scrambling over huge granite boulders, taking care not to dislodge stones which might hit the hiker below. Hoary marmots peered at us from rock perches. Over the saddle we tramped through new snow to a flat place where Steve landed to take us to lunch. As we ate ravenously, chipmunks scavenged for crumbs. Were the burgers really that good? Who knows? They came with such a lavish trimming of taste enhancing scenery that our taste buds might easily have been deceived.

Then it was back in to helicopter and off to the Vowell Glacier, which should give pause for thought to anyone who doubts the threat of global warming, for it has shrunk significantly since last year’s fierce summer. How much is hard to say but its surface has dropped by at least six feet, and maybe more. Dave gives us a brief glaciology lesson, explaining how boulders called “travellers” break loose from the lateral moraine – the scooped out valley walls – and are carried by the flow and have wound up as “erratics”, isolated far away during ice ages. Behind us, as we walk down the glacier, we hear the thump of one such traveller as it begins its journey.

There was one last taxi ride, to the start of a pleasant stroll along a narrow ridge between two summits. The views were magnificent. Flushed with enthusiasm, a couple of us suggested walking all the way back down to the lodge. Dave warned we might find the going tedious. We accepted his advice and joined him in flying home. That might seem soft, too - but why risk spoiling a perfect day with even the slightest note of anti climax?


Canadian Mountain Holidays operates a variety of packages including those based at the Bugaboo Lodge. You will need to spend at least one night in Banff before joining the trip. I stayed at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

Saturday, 13 January 2007


The decision by some airlines to claim Gordon Brown's increase in air passenger duty from passengers who paid fares before it was announced is another example of the risks of do it yourself holiday booking. However they feel about the airlines' action - and some consumers will think it outrageous - those affected would have been largely protected if they had booked packages.
Under the Package Travel Regulations, tour operators must absorb unforeseen costs such as this up to 2% of the holiday price and are not permitted to add extra charges qithin 30 days of departure. That means that in most cases, the operator must bear the cost, not the customer. Inevitably the increase will work its way through to consumers in future package prices but at least they will not be put upon in the same manner as scheduled travellers. That said, it is mighty unfair to put tour operators at such a disadvantage vis a vis scheduled carriers. Of course the whole issue would not have arisen had not the Government, in its desperate haste to appear green, imposed such an ill thought out measure.
This is yet another example of the way successive Governments, left, right or centre, have failed dismally to appreciate the needs of the travel industry and its customers.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Aspen - star quality skiing needn't break the bank

Conversations in the Silver Queen lift cabins are a good way to get the flavour of Aspen. One morning a woman who had taught skiing there recounted how a lady from one of America's wealthier families had booked private lessons with her for two – or was it three - months? The client started in late morning, took a couple of runs, broke for lunch and made maybe one more descent before heading home. Adult private lessons in Aspen - at the time of writing - would have cost from around £270 a day. “I don't even think she really liked skiing, said our fellow traveller.

You might get wind of celebrities. A visitor from Australia reported a sighting of Peter Fonda. It was almost reassuring since although though the Colorado resort is full or part time home to a minor constellation of famous figures, among them Kevin Costner and Jack Nicholson, you are very unlikely to spot them. I came close once, mind, when I joined a powder skiing tour. If I had booked to go 24 hours earlier I would have spent the day hitting the slopes with Martina Navratilova.

A resident told us how he had bought a house there 27 years earlier, for $27,000. “Now I've been offered $2 million for it”. Property is so expensive that locals have one of those question and answer jokes: “What do you call a millionaire in Aspen? Homeless”.

In how many other ski towns would you find a shop specialising in celebrity memorabilia? In its window was a cheque signed by Marilyn Monroe, in a frame which also contained a photo of her, for $7500. Or an antique shop whose owner whose passion is the history of skiing? There you might buy a pair of wooden skis, made of hickory, or perhaps ash, in the 1930s, or a jacket in camouflage white, as worn during the Second World War by the US army's 10th Mountain Division.

There are plenty of other shops in which to stretch the credit card account, ot least at Amen Wardy a cornucopia of sometimes exotic home adornments where I spotted leather table place mats with a bear motif at an appetite dulling $200 each but bought only a few, wonderfully elaborate pop up greetings cards at $7 apiece.

But while there is no sense recommending Aspen to those on tight budgets, a holiday need not be more expensive than in other top US resorts. For one thing there are plenty of bars and restaurants offering reasonable prices. The Red Onion is one. It opened in 1892, when skiing was just a way to get around the Roaring Fork Valley in winter and the town's silver mines were still producing ore worth $9.3 million a year. Its back bar may have been restored but still bears features from that period. Its cooking is a mix of standard American and Mexican and you do not need to spend more than £40 with drinks. Another budget option is Little Annie's, one of those marvels of American service where there appears to be no hope of getting a table and suddenly there is, and little chance, when you do, of catching a waitress's eye but you can - and the food arrives in short order.

Jimmy's, which is invariably packed - don't chance without a reservation - costs a little more. But  the steaks are famous and the crab cakes ($17 as a starter, $36 as a main) are magnificent. 

You do not need to belong to the private jet owning class to afford accommodation (yes, we also rode on a lift with met a couple who did, a retired lawyer and his wife, who flew in from California). There is a wide range. We, however, decided to splash out a bit extra for the convenience and slick luxury of the Sky Hotel. After a hard day on Ajax mountain you can ski to within a few metres of it. All you need to do is cross a quiet road and leave your skis on a rack for night storage. The temptation then might be to nip to your room, slip into swim wear and a leopard or tiger skin patterned robe and ease tired muscles in the outdoor pool or hot tub. Alternatively you might loosen your boots by the water's edge, order a beer or cocktail, and flop on a sofa by a blazing brazier as the sun gives way to evening chill.

The Sky, to use that wearying cliché, is a “hip” hotel.  After dark its bar has become one of Aspen's smart places to be. But with all that come all the elements of a well run hotel. Breakfast is terrific, with heaps of fruit on the buffet and a chef on hand to make omelettes. 

Besides Ajax, served from town by the Silver Queen gondola lift, the ski pass covers Buttermilk, which is generally used by early learners, Aspen Highlands and Snowmass. They're all linked by a super efficient free bus service. Together, they offer a choice to match most major resorts.

Ajax is fairly compact, with a range of options from gentle undemanding trails to tough bumps. Highlands is often the least crowded, perhaps because visitors get the idea that its terrain is more daunting. That it can be, particularly if you drop off the edge of Broadway down double black diamond (expert) runs such as Kessler's and Garmisch, or ride a snowcat and then hike up the rim of Highland Bowl to ski its expanse of steep, treeless snow. But it also has plenty of fine terrain for good intermediates and one of North America's best mountain restaurants, Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, where you could put paid to serious post lunch skiing with dishes such as elk ragout with crisp “napkin” dumplings, lingonberries and crème fraiche.

Snowmass alone has arguably the world's best slopes for most occasional leisure skiers. Some of its runs are wide as the Mississippi and are generally longer than most in the US. There is expert skiing here, too, but mostly it ranges from intermediate cruising - so delightful you may lose all sense of direction - to relatively easy black runs for the more advanced. Snowmass also has a notable mountain restaurant, Gwyn's, though we gravitated towards the Cafe Suzanne, with its excellent burgers.

The overriding impression left by all four areas is that you get quality for the dollar.
After Snowmass staff had racked our skis on the bus service back to Aspen a senior member boarded to tell passengers: “I hope you've had a great day and come back to ski with us again”. It goes without saying but it was a nice touch – and somehow typical.