Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Airline compensation loophole narrowed

Airlines will have to prove technical problems were totally unforeseen if they are to cite them as an excuse for wriggling out of paying compensation for last minute cancellations.

Until now they have sometimes claimed such problems qualify as "extraordinary circumstances", which would exempt them from coughing up under EU regulations.

This loophole has been closed - partially at least - by the European Court of Justice. While it recognises that some technical difficulties may be totally beyond an airline's control - such as when a manufacturer discovers a fault which demands the grounding of aircraft - the court has ruled they will need to prove it.

Its judgement reads: "The onus is on the party seeking to rely on them to establish that, even if it had deployed all its resources in terms of staff or equipment and the financial means at its disposal, it would clearly not have been able – unless it had made intolerable sacrifices in the light of the capacities of its undertaking at the relevant time – to prevent the extraordinary circumstances with which it was confronted from leading to the cancellation of the flight.

"The fact that an air carrier has complied with the minimum rules on maintenance of an aircraft cannot in itself suffice to establish that that carrier has taken all reasonable measures so that it is relieved of its obligation to pay compensation."

The decision follows a case brought against the Italian airline, Alitalia. It was brought originally by a passenger who was informed five minutes before departure that a flight booked from Vienna to Brindisi had been cancelled.

The passenger and her family arrived nearly 4hrs late. The airline refused to pay €250 Euros compensation and €10 for phone calls.

The judgement says the cancellation resulted from a complex engine defect which had been discovered the day before during a check. Alitalia had been informed of the defect during the night before the flight. The repair of the aircraft necessitated the dispatch of spare parts and engineers.

It says the resolution of a technical problems caused by failure to maintain an aircraft must therefore be regarded as inherent in the normal exercise of an air carrier’s activity. Consequently, technical problems which come to light during maintenance or on account of failure to carry out such maintenance do not constitute, in themselves, "extraordinary circumstances".

European Union rules cover all flights from EU airports and those to Europe from elsewhere provided the airline is EU based and the passenger has not received any compensation in a third country. Compensation is due unless the carrier informs the passenger of cancellation two weeks or more before departure - or offers an alternative flight that does not delay the traveller more than 2 or 4 hours (depending on whether cancellation is notified within 7 or 14 days of departure).

The amount of compensation ranges from €250 to €600, depending on the length of the flight.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Welcome to Britain

A disturbing vignette in the baggage hall at Gatwick Airport. An elderly Albanian couple, he clutching a traditional stringed instrument, she in peasant garb, are wandering bewildered.

British tourists try to help but the Albanians speak no English. A mixture of signs and words in other languages makes it clear they have failed to locate their luggage.

A British traveller approaches two customs officers, standing doing nothing, to ask whether there has been a flight from Albania and what the couple might do. I do not hear their exact reply but it's clearly not very helpful. The British traveller returns, incandescent at their attitude. Then one strolls across and tells her: "If you're so interested they can collect their bags at Carousel Six".

But while a British Airways service from Tirana has arrived recently, the luggage from that flight has long gone and its carousel number is no longer indicated on the information display.

Eventually the Albanians, via the BA inquiry desk, are reunited with their suitcase and are met by a friend.

A resolution which owes nothing, it seems, to Her Majesty's customs men.

Cursed are the currency exchangers

The £ was worth 1.13 Euros when I flew from Gatwick earlier this week. Yet in the North Terminal the best rate I could see was 1.05.

It seems iniquitous, when British travellers to the Eurozone are having to cope with an effective price increase of at least 40% since this time last year*, that currency exchange companies should be coining 7% on the difference between the official and tourist rates alone.

"Usurious" was how a friend described them today. Maybe they should share the pain a little.

I thumbed my nose at them - figuratively speaking that is - and went to an ATM when I arrived in the Austrian Alps.

That was probably a mistake, since by today the official rate had dropped to 1.07. But somehow, despite cutting off the thumbed nose to spite my face, it left me with a satisfying sense of revenge.

*Sterling has fallen against the Euro by 25 - 30% but looked at the other way round that means a 15 Euro dish of the day for example, which worked out at a touch over £10 a year ago, is now almost £15 - a rise of nearly 50%.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Pay as you go lounge at LA airport

Time to kill at Los Angeles airport? A pay for use business lounge has opened just before you get to the passenger security check on the international terminal's mezzanine level.

An admission of $25 (sadly now the best part of £20) gets you three hours, complimentary snacks and drinks and - if you need it - use of a business centre with wireless Internet access, faxing, photocopying and printing.

The lounge is open to passengers aged 21 and older regardless of which airline they are booked on.

New ski lift links Whistler and Blackcomb

Canada's Whistler makes a giant leap today with the opening of its spectacular new Peak to Peak gondola lift.

The lift links Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, noth far from Vancouver in British Columbia, which offer some of the finest skiing in North America. It enables skiers and snowboarders seamless access to 8,171 acres of terrain. It travels 4.4 kilometres in 11 minutes between Whistler’s Roundhouse Lodge and Blackcomb's Rendezvous Lodge.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

High Speed Trains to the Vendee

The Vendée will be only 3hrs 15mins from Paris when French Railways opens a new high speed line there on Sunday.

Daily TGVs (Trains a Grande Vitesse)will run from the capital to Les Sables d'Olonne on the Atlantic coast via La Roche sur Yonne at 10am (11am in summer) and 5.50pm. Services in the opposite direction will depart on Monday - Saturday at 5:43am and 3.42pm In summer they will leave at 10.43pm and 3.15 (4.15pm in high season) in the summer. Sunday trains to Paris will depart at 6.10pm.

Les Sables d'Olonne, north of La Rochelle, is not only a beach resort and port with plenty of fish restaurants but is also a jumping off place for the Isles of Yeu and Noirmoutier - and the canals of the Marais Poitevin.

The link has cost €105 million, including a €20.4 million contribution from the Conseil Général de Vendée (the departmental government)and has taken three years to build.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Colorado's Telluride expands

Telluride's ski terrain is already among the most interesting and varied in North America. From next week it should become even more exciting.

On Wednesday the Colorado resort is scheduled to open a a new four seat chairlift serving Revelation Bowl, an area of mainly advanced and expert terrain - but also incorporating a pisted run for cruising - above the tree line on the back side of Gold Hill.

Telluride has received over 17 inches of fresh powder in the past two days.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Package holidays best value as £ slides

Yesterday's further slide in the £ against the US dollar prompts a renewed reminder. As I wrote in this month's Ski & Board magazine, if ever there was a winter to book your holiday through a tour operator, this is it.

The advice applies to all holidays but to ski and snowboard trips especially, because besides paying for hotels through operators it is also possible to buy lift passes, rental packages and lessons.

Most package operators bought some or all of their US currency requirement on the forward market, when the £ was worth close to $2. Yesterday it had slipped to around $1.45.

This means that unless sterling rebounds, the price of lift passes, lessons, ski rental and any other extras on offer from operators are likely to be around 25% lower than in the resort.

Some operators who hedged only part of currency dollar needs – typically they buy 60% - 70% forward – may yet come under pressure to impose currency surcharges on customers who have already booked. However, rough calculations suggest that with operators in any case obliged to absorb unforeseen costs up to 2% of the basic package price, widespread currency surcharges are unlikely. And any which are levied should not be too painful.

All that assumes that the £ does not slips significantly further, however. It looks weaker than it should be to me. and in the current climate, nothing can be taken for granted.

Sterling falls - will more Brits holiday at home?

It's a predictable, knee jerk reaction by my media colleagues. Sterling slides, recession bites, more Brits holiday at home. It doesn't work that way.

Holidays in Britain can be excellent value but they are rarely significantly cheaper than elsewhere.

A break in France last weekend reinforced this view. Dinner with wine, bed and breakfast at hotels in Boulogne and nearby Wimereux, cost a total of approximately £400. We drank aperitifs at both. On the second night - we were celebrating my wife's birthday - the bill also covered two "coupes" of champagne at £10 each and glasses of a sweet Gascon wine with dessert.

Though I am not, strictly, comparing like with like, a similar break at our favourite country house hotel in the UK would have set us back at least £60 - £70 more. Almost enough to cover the ferry fare.

In the shops, wine prices were clearly less attractive than at this time last year but still compared well even with the recent deals offered by UK supermarkets.

Even in the US, with the dollar soaring, most hotel and restaurant costs still compare favourably with those here. In Maine, a year ago, we were eating whole lobsters and sharing bottles of New Zealand sauvignon (for some reason NZ wines were in the ascendency) for around £35 or less, all in. Not once did the bill for two top £40. Even after a 25% deterioration in sterling's exchange value, the bill wouldn't come to more that about £45.

General nervousness about the economy and employment prospects are certain to affect travel spending next year.

But I believe the weakness of the £ is more likely to push travellers towards more modest holidays next year than to persuade them to substitute home for abroad.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Fearsome and featherbedded - a Canadian ski Odyssey

The craggy looking skier who rode the lift with us to Eagle's Eye was concerned that we should not bite off more than we could chew.
“First time in Kicking Horse? Take the long easy trail to the bottom, take a look at the other runs on the way and see what you feel comfortable skiing. This is a pretty steep terrain.”
We nodded politely, thinking that we didn't really need telling. My wife and I have been around the skiing block more times than we care to remember and, in any case, we were aware of Canadian resort's macho reputation.
But his advice was far from redundant. Some ski areas turn out to be less challenging than their piste maps suggest. Not Kicking Horse. Though there are alternative routes which by pass its most daunting slopes its average pitch is among the steepest you will encounter. Several times, as we completed runs classified blue for intermediate, we shook our heads in wonder that they were not marked with a single black diamond, signifying advanced.
Mastering them does wonders for the confidence. Witness one visitor from Edinburgh who confessed that when she first approached the mountain she was as timid as a gazelle. A week into her holiday she was skiing with all that animal's grace and the courage of a lioness too.
This will be only the eighth season since the modest ski hill which served the small British Columbia railway town of Golden was transformed by the opening of a huge new gondola lift. The vertical drop from summit to village is now 4,133 feet (1,260 metres), the biggest in Canada after the twin mountains of Blackcomb and Whistler.
It follows that the base area is relatively unexploited, with only a handful of places to stay and eat. These include the Highland Lodge, opened by a Scot and his American partner, which incorporates a pub cum restaurant with an impressive range of single malts. You might be tempted to drive down to Golden, whose economy is based mainly on timber and the trans-Canada railway. It's a bit of a one horse town, though it is worth dropping into the shop which advertises second hand sports gear as “pre loved”.

We had begun this two week tour of four resorts with a complete contrast. The Alberta town of Banff is lively, full of bars and eateries, and attracts significant numbers of British tourists. The huge and wonderful Banff Springs Hotel alone has more restaurants than Kicking Horse and probably accommodates more guests. And while it has plenty of tricky challenges, the terrain at Sunshine Village, its principal local ski area, is generally kinder on unseasoned legs.
The original hotel was built to attract sightseers to the Canadian Pacific Railway. It quickly attracted the rich and famous. A memorable publicity shot from the 1930s shows Ginger Rogers, perched on a fallen tree sketching a Blackfoot Indian chief in full headdress.
You can spend a diverting hour or so just wandering its labyrinthine corridors, admiring massive buffalo heads on its walls, the gleaming brass tube system for delivering mail between floors, the stone pillared Mount Stephen banqueting hall with its suit of mock armour where you could imagine some tormented prince spending his days hammering out Rachmaninov - and wonder how many Hollywood stars and heads of state had done the same. You can spend your evenings without ever leaving it, eating anything from sushi to Schnitzel.
It's not too easy to getaway to the slopes in the morning, either. Only the truly obsessed skier would rush the immense breakfast buffet. Mount Norquay is the closest ski area to town but Sunshine, which is about a 20 minute drive and has a reputation for good snow conditions, is more extensive. You could also stay in Banff and ski at Lake Louise, which is 40 minutes west along the Bow River Valley and is bigger and better still. but we were booked to stay at the Chateau there.
Like the Banff Springs, Chateau Lake Louise was built for Canadian Pacific. In summer the lake by which it stands, with its reflection of the glacier beyond, is one of North America's most photographed scenes. The Louise in question was Queen Victoria's daughter. The nearby skiing is magnificent, particularly in the high bowls after an overnight storm, with terrain suited to all abilities. Test your agility in the boulder strewn Rock Garden, cruise on lovely wide, fast runs such as Larch.
And after a hard day it is worth summoning up the energy to go snowshoeing in the forest after dark - preferably by moonlight – with a resident guide who points out animal tracks in the snow.
Our final stop was Marmot Basin, across the glacier flanked Icefields Parkway. Though its slopes are best avoided on Saturdays, when hordes pour in from Edmonton, the nearest major city, it is among the most remote and stunning areas anywhere. The first impression is that trails are frustratingly short, but closer acquaintance reveals that this is not such a drawback, even for accomplished skiers and snowboarders, as there are lovely routes through the trees.
But even if conditions are less than perfect it would be compensation to stay at the isolated Jasper Park Lodge, again a short drive away. The complex is spread out along a lake. In the mornings we passed elk, browsing on the grass outside our room as we made our way to breakfast.

Though it has changed much since, it made a huge impression on that pioneering skier Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who put up there between the wars. His 1925 entry in guest book recounted how respective residents of New York and Pittsburgh arrived at the Pearly Gates, to be told by St. Peter: "I am sure you will like it" the other that "it will be a great change for you". Finally came a man from Jasper Park Lodge, "I am afraid" said St. Peter, "that you will be disappointed."
(This itinerary was organised by Edinburgh-based Ski Independence - 0845 3103030/www.ski-i.com)

Thursday, 27 November 2008

New ferry to Dieppe

A new cross-Channel car ferry service is to open in early February between Dover and Dieppe.

It will be operated on weekdays by LD Lines, which also plans to launch Dover-Boulogne services from July 1 next year.

Crossing time on the Seven Sisters, which has capacity for 52 freight vehicles, 300 cars and up to 600 passengers, will be 4hrs 15mins. Sailings to France will depart at 6pm, arriving at 11.15pm*. The ships will depart from Dieppe at 12.30pm, arriving in Dover at 3.45pm*.

There will be an introductory fare of £35 one way for a car and two passengers.

LD Lines also operates the Newhaven-Dieppe, Transmanche Ferries service with up to three return sailings a day and a crossing time of 4hrs.

The company has also just doubled capacity and sailing frequency on its Portsmouth – Le Havre, adding a day sailing and night sailing from each port and operates a weekend passenger and freight service between Rosslare in Ireland and Le Havre.

*Local times.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Air duty - Goverment gets it wrong

In matters of travel Governments frequently get it wrong. Alistair Darling's announcement that air passenger duty is to be retained and increased is no exception.

The increases duty to be paid by economy short hall travellers - up £1 next November and £2 in late 2010 - are too small to be a deterrent.

They also look grossly unfair compared with the swingeing increases to be imposed on those in premium economy on very long flights, including those Australia and New Zealand. They will pay £15 more next year and a further £25 extra from the following November.

That might just prove a deterrent, especially for couples. It is also, surely, a much bigger rise as a proportion of the fare than that faced by passengers flying economy in Europe.

It will hit small businesses whose staff use premium economy to cut the cost of what they see as essential business trips. And it will penalise leisure travellers prepared to pay extra for a little more leg room. Remember: we are not talking about full blown business class and flat beds here.

The abandonment of an earlier plan to switch to a tax on flights rather than individual passengers is disappointing from a green standpoint. While I remain sceptical that reductions in air travel an make a huge difference to global warming any cut is worthwhile. So it seems odd that the Government is scrapping proposals which might have encouraged fuel saving for one which will have no discernible impact on gratuitous, short haul flying and which will, at the same time, hammer developing long haul destinations which need the money tourists bring.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Beware the amateur review

I came across the following reader's review today, on a well established web site, of Cote in Wimbledon, a relatively new local restaurant which has impressed me greatly: "Great food, a nice atmosphere, but the most truly French thing about this place is rude service".

Here we go again, I groaned. It was not just that I had found the service there to be perfectly in order - more that the post yet again highlighted that tired old anti-French prejudice which seems to run and run whatever the reality.

How is it that in countless visits to that country during more than four decades, I have rarely if ever encountered this legendary rudeness?

Indeed, while the British have improved in recent years, service in French restaurants - never regarded there as a demeaning job - has been consistently better.

Reading the post was no different, I suppose, to listening to a man in the pub. But it was a reminder nonetheless of the downside of Internet chatter and the need to take on line amateur reviews with a large pinch of salt.

Friday, 17 October 2008

French hotel pick - the Loire

"Looks a bit close to the motorway", warned my wife, inspecting the map as we drove south from Chartres - and she was right. The Auberge de la Brenne at Neulle-le-Lierre was indeed only a stone's thrown from the autoroute which links Paris with the Loire Valley.

But in early evening, as we checked in we could hear only the faint rush of traffic, and from inside, nothing.

Our rooms, in a large, renovated village house 50 metres or so from the building which houses the restaurant (part of a former railway station), were adequately spacious and charming. Bathrooms had modern showers which you didn't need to squeeze into. Our relatives from New England, who were unfamiliar with provincial France, and for whom this was a first taste, were impressed. "Don't be fooled", we advised. "Not all the rooms you stay in will be this elegant."

Maybe not all the food, either. Dinner was excellent. The choice of starters on the 31 euro three course menu we chose were a wonderful tart of delicate pastry with sun dried tomatoes, onion compote and local goat cheese or a terrine of rabbit in a sauvignon jelly. Mains included a dish of the day of confit de porc cooked a second time in a jus. Among the puddings was a sable with light apricot cream and home made yogurt with raspberries.

As we breakfasted on croissants, fresh baguette and home made preserves - including green tomato jam - we mentioned we would have stayed another night if Tuesday hadn't been their day off. No problem, said the owner. If you don't mind eating what I decided to cook, you can. He produced a similarly balanced three courses, including a delicious main of guinea fowl.

If you go via Rouen and Chartes. the Auberge de la Brenne is a good 5hr drive from Calais. To get there in time for diner you need to take a crossing departing from Dover at around 9am.

The hotel is well placed for visits to Amboise, on the Loire, and that most stunning of chateaux, Chenonceaux. where it is possible to make a gentle walking circuit. This takes you beneath the much photographed arched galleries of the chateau which span the River Cher. You can find details currently on the web site of Sigma Press, which publishes Judy Smith's guide Holiday Walks in the Loire Valley

A double room with breakfast and a three course dinner for two ranges between approximately £112  and £140 at the current exchange rate. Drinks extra.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

India's restaurant hygiene drive

India's Food Safety and Standards Agency is to publish a directory of 1000 eateries whose hygiene is a defence - if not proof - against the debilitating effects of "Delhi belly".

The move comes ahead of the Commonwealth Games in two years' time, and is aimed at ensuring athletes do not miss out on medals while confined to their bathrooms.

It reminds me of the extreme precautions taken by past tourists, including the perhaps apocryphal story of one American who, on being presented with a cocktail in a bar, inquired: "but did they boil the ice cubes?"

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

How to get stranded passengers home

When addressing the issue of scheduled airline passenger protection it is necessary to separate two questions: how to ensure travellers are reimbursed for flights paid for but not taken; and how to get them home if they are already abroad when an airline collapses.

A reader, noting the advantages of scheduled airline insurance in a comment below, prompts me to deal with this distinction. Taking out insurance is one way to make sure you do not lose your fare payments if the carrier fails before you depart. Paying by credit card - provided the amount it over £100 - is another.

The repatriation issue is much trickier. I believe it must be tackled by bringing scheduled passenger into the ATOL protection system which covers package holidaymakers. This, of course, would not provide advance warning that an airline was running into trouble, though the Civil Aviation Authority, which operates it, has a good record of minimising damage to holidaymakers. That is to say it usually ensures that operators do not fail with the maximum number of customers abroad.

But by paying a mere £1 per flight into a recently established fund which protects tour operator customers, scheduled passengers would be assured of getting home without facing unexpected bills for one way fares. They could either return on aircraft chartered especially or on other carriers, which would be able to recoup costs from the fund.

In the aftermath of very big failures, which require immensely complex rescue airlifts, passengers might not get back exactly when they had planned, or even to the right airports. But this would be an enormous improvement on the present situation, in which repatriation of scheduled passengers depends largely on their ability to shell out for a one way ticket and recover the payment from an insurer - or on the availability of seats on other carriers at arbitrarily fixed single fares.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Shifting sands - a hike in North Jutland

To battle against a fresh gale on one of North Jutland's seemingly endless, shining beaches is to feel the raw force of nature. Gusts this strong, says Villy Hansen, can shift up to three tonnes of sand in 24 hours.

On such days there is reason to be thankful for a nip of one of Villy's home made specials, wild herbs or flowers steeped in vodka, sometimes boosted by the addition of a little extra, flavourless liquor, and sweetened with acacia honey.

Each morning he brings a different bottle, fishing it out of his back pack after we have walked for an hour or so. The first is made with bog myrtle leaves. Next it's bell heather, then Burnet rose hips. We come to think of it as a sort of alcoholic elevenses.

Villy joins us each day to explain the ecology of this curious landscape. Preconceptions of flat and featureless Danish farmland are quickly dispelled. There may be no imposing hills and tumbling streams but there is drama enough in the immense skies and the restless sea which continues to shape and extend the country's northernmost spit at Grenen, where Skagerrak and Kattegat meet, and The waves clash like warriors in close combat.

It is the wind whipped sand which provides the chief fascination: not Blake's single grain in which to see the world – though Villy carries a magnifying glass with which to identify the minerals each represents - but billions of them, which have changed people's lives.

On the first morning we walk through a forest of conifers, planted in the late 19th century to stem the march of dunes and emerge at a curious farmhouse, sole survivor of its kind, with a windmill built into its roof. Once there were dozens of them but excessive use of the land, partly for sheep grazing, allowed the sand to invade. Some families struggled on. One, over eleven generations and on 14 separate occasions, were forced either to slow the progress of the dunes with spades or shift heir home, lock stock and barrel.

At Raabje the little church, built without a tower perhaps to avoid the attention of for fear of seaborne marauders, remains. But the village of 100 or so residents which provided its community, once obliged by law to attend services, is long gone. The stones that built it came from Lubeck, in northern Germany, by sea and then via a system of lakes and rivers since drained. Fish was exported in the opposite direction. In the churchyard is the grave of one Carl Andersen, a local poet who heard one day that his namesake Hans Christian was travelling up the coast. Carl set out in the hope of meeting his hero - but the innkeeper decided he was too undistinguished to be allowed in.

More recently the dunes have been planted with marram grass which, besides halting their progress, makes it easier for the hiker to climb them. They constitute an unexpectedly wild landscape. Cranes have returned to breed on marshy ground around small lagoons, where they may be safe from foxes. Oystercatchers fly up and circle noisily at our approach, warning us from their nests. Red deer browse in the bushes. If you are lucky, you might see a golden eagle.

One evening Villy takes us out in search of nightjars. He hopes they will come close to catch the bugs which plague us but though we hear their calls, like the puttering of mopeds, we see only their dark shapes, flitting briefly between branches. But it is worth being out after dinner to glory in the long light that attracted a school of painters around the start of the last century, whose works are to be seen at the nearby Skagen Museum.

It also provides the opportunity to climb the Raabje Mile free of the company of sightseers who can park their cars at its foot. The Raabje Mile, high point of what Villy calls the Danish desert, is a dune which has been left, for research, in its unhindered state. Eventually, if still unchecked, it will continue eastwards until it cuts one of the main roads and the railway line linking Skagen with the south.

Countless wrecked ships have been washed up on these shores. We find a section of wooden hull, of indeterminate age. Villy shows us spoons from one vessel which foundered some time in the 1900s.

We hike for three days, covering in total between 30 and 40 miles. To make a week of it we spend a night each in the lively university city of Arhus, with its pavement cafes and lovely cathedral, and Aalborg, whose tourist office provides an excellent guide booklet conducting the visitor
on foot around its sites of historical and architectural interest. The rest of the time we spend in Skagen, a busy port and hugely popular resort, walking out to Grenen past huge Second World War German bunkers, some subsiding but largely still intact, whose vanished guns were aimed an preventing enemy access to the Baltic.

Just before ending our walk there we climb the tower which is the only part of the extraordinary Tilsandedekirke still visible. The rest was buried after worshippers, towards the end of the 18th century, wearied of digging their way in and sought royal permission to close the church.

We dine royally on superb fish soup and lemon sole at the Skagen Fish Restaurant – where sand is spread on the floor - and return to the museum, to see how art reflects reality. That special light, bouncing between sea and sky, is unmistakeable. It glows on the faces of Michael Ancher's rugged fishermen, softly bathes PS Kroyer's wife Marie, as she stands at the water's edge. We can now vouch for their inspiration. We, have seen it first hand.

This article originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday's Spectrum magazine

Air passenger protection - time to catch the wind of change

Airlines continue to face severe difficulties. Even though oil prices have dropped the advantages are being offset by the weakness of sterling against the US dollar and the looming downturn in major world economies.

In the past I have advised readers to pay by credit card or to seek out scheduled airline failure insurance - SAFI as it is known in the travel business - which ensures you get your money back if a carier goes bust. That remains my advice.

But travellers do not always pay by credit card. And it is ever clearer that SAFI, which is at best a double edged sword, is not a satisfactory long term solution, either.

Just as banks are now likely - whatever the Government decrees - to become more cautious about lending to those they regards as in any way risky, providers of such insurance are unlikely to offer it to passengers booking with potentially shaky airlines.

The withdrawal of cover can clearly exacerbate problems for the airline involved, possibly even driving it under when there might have been a chance of bailing it out. The travel industry grapevine is such that news of a withdrawal spreads rapidly. And while travel agents may be cautious of steering customers away from the relevant airline, they are certainly less likely to recommend it.

So we go back with the need to include scheduled airlines in the protection system already afforded to package holidaymakers. The recent XL impressed on the Government the complications which arise when a company carries both protected and unprotected passengers.

Othe companies may step in to help with the rescue of customers already abroad, as firms such as Thomas Cook, TUI and First Choice did after XL capsized. But they do not want to subject their reps in resorts and at airports to the risk of verbal - or perhaps physical - assault by angry unprotected passengers who feel they are being treated as second class citizens.

This would be less of a headache if most of those unprotected understood and accepted the risks they were taking, but research has shown that a huge proportion do not.

The two class system has to go. The notion that in an age of unfettered competition, scheduled passengers should sort out their own protection, is surely discredited.

The astonishing results of the banking crisis suggest that the wind has veered against the untempered free market. Governments have been forced to think what was, only months ago, unthinkable. The US administration has introduced measures which would have been seen in much of that country as extreme socialism.

By extension, political minds may by more persuadable. Ensuring scheduled airline passengers are not left stranded or out of pocket may be a minor consideration against the backdrop of global financial meltdown. But if not now, when?

Saturday, 13 September 2008

XL - will the Government please now act to protect scheduled passengers?

After the demise of XL, will the Government reconsider its decision not to extend the £1 finanancial protection levy to passengers booking scheduled airline flights? Don't hold your breath.

When the post mortem is complete the records will show that many XL passengers lost money not just because they had to fork out extra for replacement flights home but because those still due to travel on the airline were in unprotected by the ATOL (air travel organiser's licence) scheme which covers package holidaymakers.

So while the latter, while their holiday plans will be disrupted, will get their money back while the latter - unless they paid by credit card - will be left out of pocket.

The Government should ignore the objections of major airlines which argue that their customers should not have to effectly subsidise travellers who book with weaker, competing carriers.

How many times must it be demonstrated to Ministers that consumers do not understand a protection scheme which does not cover all travellers. Surely, with the prospect that more travel operators will go under before the current economic storm blows over, they finally accept that action needs to be taken.

Meanwhile the European Commission is understood to be looking again at the possibility of an EU wide protection scheme. It cannot come soon enough.

Finally, a thought on the way the XL affair was handled. It is naive to suggest that, because bankers and the Civil Aviation Authority were aware that company was in trouble some time before it went into administration, they should have pulled the plug in August, say, rather than September.

If XL had capsized a month earlier, at the peak of the school summer holidays, even more holidaymakers - many of them families - would have been hit Repatriation of those already abroad would have been more difficult with less spare aircraft capacity and the cost of the bail out would have been signiciantly higher.

Since Court Line, then the UK's biggest tour firm, collapsed in August 1974, remarkably few package tour operators - or their associated airlines - have failed in the summer peak. That should stand as a tribute to the expertise of those who monitor the health of the industry.

Nor is there much point complaining that XL was taking bookings until the last moment before it collapsed. Not at least unless it can be shown that its directors knew, earlier and unquestionably, that there was no hope of saving the company. In that case, issue of moral responsibility would arise. However, if here was any hope, to have stopped accepting new business would have been corporate suicide

This is not to deny sympathy to passengers who have suffered. Rather it is to point out that if they had been spared disruption and financial loss, others would have suffered - whenever the plug had been pulled.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Ryanair incident prompts communication question

First impressions are that the Ryanair decompression scare over France was handled precisely according to the book. But the incident raise questions which need addressing.

The first consideration when pressure is lost aboard an aircraft at altitude must be to preserve the crew's abililty to function and descend to an altitude at which passengers can breathe normally.

Terrifying though the incident may have been, pilots and cabin crew can hardly reassure passengers when donning and wearing their own oxygen masks.

But apart from the question why decompression occurred the incident prompts me to wonder whether there is some other way to for flight deck or cabin crew to communicate with and calm travellers in such circumstances.

Passengers are already warned of such eventualities in the pre take off safety briefing.

How about a pre recorded message on in flight entertainment screens - which cabin crew could flash up with one touch of a button?

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Eating out: who gets your tip?

The heads of two large restaurant groups have warned privately that the Government's decision that tips should no longer count towards the minimum wage may force them to take a greater proportion of the service charge as an "administration fee".

While it is well documented that some restaurateurs already divert tips as revenue, such threats, reported today by the Financial Times, are nonetheless outrageous.

A tip should be given to reward service, not as a makeweight for inadequate pay and certainly not to enhance restaurant balance sheets.

Perhaps diners - not least those visiting from other European countries such as France, where tips may be welcome but are not generaly expected - should make a habit of inquiring where their service charge is going.

If they fail to elicit a convincing answer they will be justified in withholding it.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Pelion paradise

Water arrives as a matter of routine in most Greek restaurants but at the Kritsa taverna, in the Pelion village of Portaria, it came straight from a mountain spring. It gushes from a parapet a few feet across the square, beneath the spreading branches of a plane tree. The waiter strolls across and fills a jug. It is fresh, cold and delicious.

On the verdant slopes of Mount Pelion there are dozens such springs. For hikers they are an unexpected bonus, if only to cool the sweaty brow and it is to walk that we have come to this peninsula, roughly halfway down the east cost of northern mainland Greece, mythological haunt of centaurs, whose deciduous forests, some claim, provided the timber for Jason's ship, the Argo. Rather than booking through a specialist tour operator we have elected to work out our own routes.

If the greenness of Pelion comes as a surprise to those who picture Greece more readily as baked earth and stubby scrub, so will its many marked hiking trails. For centuries this has been perhaps the most densely populated of Greek mountain regions, and its many villages are linked by a network of ancient mule tracks. Where they peter out, or alternative itineraries are necessary, daubs of paint point mark the way.

As you might expect in a place where local people, until very recently at least, would have been amazed that anyone would walk up mountains for pleasure, finding some footpaths is nevertheless a challenge. We have bought a detailed hiking map from Stamford's in London but there is at least one path which appears not to be marked on it, its blue paint splashes luring us inexorably down when we should be toiling up.

The mule tracks are straightforward enough, however. It seems a privilege to walk on their hoof polished cobbles. One, in particular. Impresses. It leads steeply up from the drowsing seaside hamlet of Damouchari, where Mamma Mia was filmed, reaching a road just below the larger village of Tsagaradha. Climbing it, for an averagely fit walker, takes an hour or so. As we labour upwards I wonder how many centuries it has been there, and how long it took to hack it out of the sheer cliff face.

It is mid May and even after a week we have not become blasé at the profusion of wild flowers. The purple vetch, loud with bees and reminiscent of bluebells in Britain, are astonishing. There are great tangled thickets of dog rose. Pink and yellow cistus, from whose stalks came an oil which was used, it is believed, to produce myrrh, grow low along the footpath edges. The scent of broom is thick as perfume at a Saturday dance.

From the modest ski centre at Chania – no St. Moritz this – we climb to join an undulating path which runs westward, along a ridge. There are two ways of joining it, one of which proves so slow and slippery with leaf mould that we turn back and waste an hour looking for the other. The first, aborted effort leads us past a small circle of rocks which suggests a defensive point, or maybe a hideaway, for guerillas resisting the Germans or, when the occupying forces left, fighting in the civil war. Eventually we find our way through beech forest to a magical greensward clearing on a summit. The mountain, though I have no idea why, is called Golgotha. As in so many of Europe's remoter forests there are wild boar in these woods, but we do not encounter any, either here or on taverna menus.

Another route starts in the steep alleys of Makrinitsa, a car free tourist honeypot, from whose square the white port of Volos is laid out as if across a stage seen from a high balcony. In the village there are mules laden with panniers. At first we think they are there as a gimmick, to provide rides for sightseers. Then we realise they are carting gravel for builders where motor vehicles cannot go. The climb is accompanied by monastery bells. A chance detour on the descent demonstrates, though the map does not make it plain, that minor dirt roads can be as pleasant to walk on as footpaths.

The sea is visible from most paths; either the Aegean or the Paghasitikos Gulf in the crook of peninsula's finger. On the Aegean side we discard boots and backpacks to swim from beaches on which, outside the summer peak, there is only a handful of other people.

Back on the trail, trees and shrubs are noisy with the song of thrush, blackbird and chaffinch. Here and there an emerald lizard darts or a tortoise lumbers across our path, one stopping to inspect a motorway of ants before heaving itself into the undergrowth.

The Archontiko Naoumidi in Portaria, chosen at random, made a comfortable base. Archikontos are restored, traditionally built mansions, which have proliferated over the past two decades.

This one comprises two main houses, one of them built by an Egyptian family in the late 19th century. It has a lovely garden, in which to sit and read, and an outdoor pool. Indoors we keep noticing detail: the flower painted alcoves, intricate plasterwork and etched glass windows. Breakfast, sometimes a buffet and sometimes, if there were few guests, served at our table, is an astonishing array of dishes, from simple bread or yoghurt with honey to omelettes, toasted cheese and ham sandwiches and sweet pancakes.

Picnic lunches are usually spanakopita or tiropita (spinach or cheese pie) and sticky baklava from the bakery and - for this was the season and they were heavy on the trees – a bag of cherries.

There are more than a half dozen places to eat in the village but the choice of where to eat in the evenings was gradually narrowed, not just by the the cooking but the house wine. At around £3 a half litre this is can still be a bargain in Greece but the quality, even between neighbouring restaurants, often varies wildly. At one taverna, for example, which we tried and then shunned, the red tasted strongly of elderflower.

At the Kritsa, where the spetzofai - a casserole of sausage, tomatoes and sweet peppers - was excellent, the house red was above average. The house water, however, was exceptional.

How: We flew with British Airways from London to Thessaloniki (www. ba.com). The drive from Thessaloniki to Portaria via Volos by rental car took around 3hrs. The Archontiko Naoumidis (www.naoumidishotel.gr), which has a heated outdoor pool (May - September) charges around £45 - £60  for b&b depending on season. We used the Anavasi hiking map 6.21 to Central Pelion (£7.50 from Stanfords).

Friday, 4 July 2008

Travel insurance headaches

Alright - I should have practised what I frequently preach. I should have been more careful when reading the details of my year round insurance policy.

But when the front page of your schedule says the policy covers trips up to 45 days and includes wintersports, most people, I suggest, would make the same mistake. Which was to overlook a line, deeper in the original document sent when I took out the policy in 2006, which said I could ski for only a total of 21 days in a year.

This is Saga. which refuses to extend that maximum even on payment of an additional premium. Three weeks may be enough for most people - it might even be enough for me - but it seems arbitrary and unnecessary.

Besides, what does 21 days mean? For example: last winter I travelled for 16 days to Canada but skied for 12 full days and two half days. Does that mean I used up 13 days of my allowance - or 16 days. And how would the limit affect two friends of mine who, preferring long lunches to long runs, probably actually ski for about half the time I do?

And suppose, for the sake of argument, I book two 14 day trips. If I am seriously injured on the first, I am unlikely to proceed with the second in any case (though I would probably have difficulty claiming for cancellation of the second if it was a package holiday). But what if. for the first trip, being in Europe, I rely on my E1-11 card? Does that render my Saga policy invalid for injuries incurred on the second trip? In any case - though heaven forfend that customers should be disingenuous in their dealings with insurers - how could the number of days a skier had spend on the slopes ever be proved?

Incidentally, my policy also says I am covered for mountain or fell walking only up to 2000 metres. Why? People using Zimmer frames can go higher than that using Alpine cable cars.

Why can't insurance companies provide cover uncluttered by such absurdities and irritations. My favourite gripe involves a previous policy, taken out through American Express, which covered me to fly in helicopters and to ski off piste - but not to go heliskiing. How daft was that?

Don't even get me started on the cost and difficulty of buying cover as we get older. When will insurers catch up with the trend among older travellers to stay fitter and take much more active holidays than they once did. I ditched my annual Amex policy because it would no longer cover me to visit the US, never mind go skiing there.

I understand the need for actuarial decisions based on risk. But it is surely time those who make such decisions applied a little more common sense.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Take cover against airline failures

Booking a scheduled flight departing in the next few months? Pay by credit card, even if the airline demands a premium - or try to buy travel insurance which includes cover against carriers going bust.

Usually, scheduled airline failure insurance, which is available from some airlines and travel agents, is only available as part of a general travel insurance policy.

Remember, if the fare is over £100 you will get a refund is you use a credit card but not if you pay by debit card.

Why the warning? Rocketing oil prices. which have forced up jet fuel costs, are putting carriers under severe pressure. Disruption to travel plans is the least travellers can expect. Major airlines have begun axing routes which are loss making or marginal to their balance sheets.

Some industry experts believe current oil prices are the result partly of speculation by investors shifting from equities to commodities. One said yesterday that he believed the natural price per barrel was around $80 - around $50 below its level today.

Meanwhile, however, it will be surprising if there are no further causalties among the weaker airlines.

(See: And another one bites the dust, below)

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Car hire firms - you are the weakest link

Car hire remains the weakest link in the travel chain. Rental companies, it may be argued, have even more ways than airlines to alienate customers.

As we negotiated the tedious process of picking up a car at Thessaloniki aiport, in northern Greece, a French woman, at the desk of another company nearby,was arguing furiously about her booking. Apparently it had been changed - though she had not been notified - from kilometre inclusive to a per kilometre charge.

I say apparently because I had one ear on her conversation and one on the response of the man at Hertz, who was telling me the document I had given him was not a receipt and that they needed evidence I had paid in advance.

The car had been booked in London, on line, and the document was a cut and paste version of the receipt I had been emailed. In any case, I said, the booking would surely be in the system. His colleague found it. The car was due back at 10am, eight days later, she said. But my flight was at 2.35pm and I had booked to return the car at 12.30pm. The would, she said "extend" the return time until noon.

Would I like to pay up front for a full tank of petrol and return the car empty. I accept, though I wonder why rental firms can't simply top up when you take the car back and charge the going price for fuel. "There's always something left in the tank", says a woman tourist behind me. "It's just another way to make a bit more money."

She and her friend are complaining about a threatened charge for "a tiny scratch", even though there significantly greater damage, there when they collected the vehicle, which the company had not bothered to fix.

You might argue that this is the result of competition, the equivalent of airlines charging for checked bags, pre assigned seats etc. In my view, even if optional additional insurance is offered, rental companies should absorb the cost of very minor damage. Their current approach leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

I would not be writing this if my Thessaloniki expereince was isolated. Over many years of renting I have built up a dismal catalogue of such gripes.

Arriving in Calgary to collect a 4x4 I was told I had been assigned a much cheaper front wheel drive saloon. You will get me a 4X4, I retorted to my wife's embarassment, if you have to go out and steal one. They quickly discovered they had one after all, but it had not been washed. Fine, we were anxious to get away.

When we returned it we were told we might be charged for some tiny starburst marks, invisible to the naked eye, on the windscreen. We resisted, noting that the vehicle was so filthy when we drove off that we could not have known they were there even if we could have seen them. No charge was imposed.

In Namibia we suffered a spectacular blow out near the grteat dunes of Sossusvlei. The nearest garage did not have tyres suitable for our rented VW Polo. We could have hired an extra spare when we picked up the car, but the garage which supplied them was closed by the time our flight arrived. So we had no option but to drive some 80 miles to one which did. We later discovered that. although the Polo was a widely used hire car in Namibia, few garages stocked the relevent spare tyres.

When we returned to Windhoek an Avis inspector told us that the new tyre we had bought (at a cost of around £80) was not a brand used by the company - and we would have to pay for another. We refused. Avis staff gave in.

Collecting a car in Salzburg we were obliged to pay a supplement because the desk was not normally staffed on a Saturday.

I could cite other problems in other places, but by now you've got the picture. Rental companies beed to take a long hard look at the kind of service they provide - and sharpen up their acts.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Beware the Mating Hippo

The hippopotamus, if disturbed while mating, is not a happy bunny. Sugar almost learned the hard way, surprising a pair in the act while fishing from his mokoro in Botswana's Okavango Delta. One reared up in front of him, the other bore down from behind.
For a horrible moment or two he thought his time had come but he managed to manoeuvre his canoe into the thick, long grass and the hippos quickly lost interest. Had one gone for him, it could have bitten him in two as easily as if he were a swizzle stick.

He tells me this story as we glide across the inland delta in the brilliant light of early morning. It taught him, he says, to steer clear of the deeper channels, where hippos are more likely to be concealed. They copulate, give birth and nurse their young under water. We have to cross several such channels, however. So I ask him, when is the mating season? “Now”, he replies.

We are on our way to one of the many islands formed as the flood which begins as torrential rain on Angola's Benguela Plateau ends its journey months as a shimmering network of rivers and lagoons in the Kalahari Desert, where most of it evaporates. This year's water levels are among the highest in 25 years.

Sugar is our guide's Anglicised name, English being Botswana's official language. In Tswana is it Sukiri. He has been polling mokoros since he was seven, balancing at the rear like a gondolier. Traditionally, mokoros are dug outs, made using the whole trunk of a tree such as the mopane. But such trees can take 200 years to reach sufficient maturity and the government has been trying to discourage deforestation – so this one is fibreglass.

The delta is a place of intense beauty. Lilies dot its placid surface. Their pads support the chestnut and white African jacana which stalks delicately on feet which evolution has stretched to spread their weight, appearing to walk on water. Hence its alternative name – the Jesus bird. The eye is caught suddenly by a tiny malachite kingfisher, with scarlet bills and flashing blue plumage. Crocodiles slide furtively from view at our approach. Hippos, observed from a respectful distance, feed noisily, on great bundles of grass.

Sunset is a sudden fire, quickly extinguished. We watch it from the waterside bar at Eagle Island before being escorted back to our “tent” by a staff member, in case a dangerous animal has slipped into the camp. Tent is a loose description. It is an en suite thatched hut with a bed under a mosquito net, his and hers wash basins, air conditioning, a phone and a wooden balcony with loungers. This is not for those who feel camping should involve an element of hardship.
The camp is one of three in Botswana run by Belmond Safaris. To reach them we fly overnight to Johannesburg, spending a day there and a night at their sister hotel, the tranquil and luxurious Westcliff, flying north next morning to the small delta gateway town of Maun and completing the journey by light aircraft.

First stop is Elephant Camp, which is outside the delta on the enigmatic Savute Channel, which fills with water every 25m - 30 years or so. It is about due but during our visit it is dust dry and the herds of huge elephants which give the camp its name gather at artificial waterholes.

On an afternoon game drive a keen eyed fellow traveller spots lion tracks and after a long search our guide spots a big male, lazing beneath a bush about 50 metres away. But male lions are the animal equivalents of couch potatoes and this one is true to form. We wait silently for maybe ten minutes in fading light before he deigns to raise his great head, allowing us a proper sighting.

A short flight takes us to Khwai River Lodge, a camp on the edge of the delta. Sitting by the pool there with binoculars alone makes the stay worthwhile. A purple heron waits motionless for the flicker of fish. Red lechwe (antelopes) graze on the flood plain and the inevitable hippos lumber and snort through the long grass just a few metres away.

Excursions with a guide known as KG and his dreadlocked trainee assistant Bob – after Marley, that is – prove even more rewarding. Towards dusk we find our first leopard, a female. slinking cooperatively close in the undergrowth with a cub. She seems totally unfazed by our presence or the clicking of cameras.

Early next morning drive across a rackety wooden causeway into the Moremi Game Reserve, where we sight wild dogs stalking impala. “One of those impala is going to be someone's breakfast”, says KG, but they are too fleet of foot. They show the dogs, their black and white rump M markings – which guides call “bush McDonalds” - and go leaping off among the trees and scrub. The dogs turn their attention to a group of lechwe but are frustrated again as their intended prey splash into a small lagoon and stay there, defying their reluctant pursuers to brave the crocodiles.

Days in camp begin at 6am, with coffee and biscuits delivered to our tent. Then it's a light breakfast at 6.30, of porridge, perhaps or the universal African staple, mealie meal, a game drive and a huge late morning brunch. Mornings are very chilly but by now it is hot and there are three hours or so to relax or swim before afternoon tea and another drive. 

Drinks after dark are served around a fire of mopane wood, which is so hard and heavy it will burn all night. Dinners, under a blaze of stars, are memorable. Besides delicious dishes such as sweet potato soup and Cape Malay chicken curry, we choose warthog stew a

Before each evening drive, evoking shades of colonialism, we are asked to order sundowners. One evening , as we stand by the vehicle watching two hippos scrapping in the river, KG pours an American lady companion an enormous beaker of white wine.
“Now”, he tells her, “you will see pinky elephants”.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in Scotland on Sunday's Spectrum Magazine

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Primrose Paths - a walk on the Surrey - West Sussex border

It was, said one of my walking companions lyrically, as though someone had strewn them in the path of a wedding couple. Never, in many years of walking in Britain, have I seen so many primroses.

So many were there close to the Surrey-Sussex border last weekend that you could almost overlook the little diggings which suggested some throughtless strollers - not serious walkers, surely - had helped themselves to enhance their gardens.

Less unexpected among the trees was a miasma of bluebells, floating before the eyes, and a sprinkling of wood anemones, like spring snow.

And in the boggy places, of which there were many, were clouds of lady's smock, sometimes called cuckoo flower, though there was no sound of the bird with whose first annual call gave it that name. Lady's smock was once used as a guard against scurvy. It contains some 15 times as much vitamin C as the average lemon.

We walked along soggy bridle paths flanked by low Anglo-Saxon dykes, raised as territory boundaries, indicating the historic importance of timber and game. Unseen woodpeckers drilled nests. A yellowhammer flitted briefly between branches.

The Alfold village pub we were aiming for, though shown on a relatively recent OS map, was boarded up and wire fenced off - a reminder that this British institution is under as much threat as the cuckoo. But there was another, a short walk further, and we blessed the advent of all day opening over long anticipated pints in its quiet, sun filled garden.

Before finishing out route across damp meadows, we looked in at the church of St Nicholas, its 11th century font carved with long shafted Maltese crosses. The staple that fastened its lid  reflected a 14th century edict that fonts should be locked to prevent holy water being stolen for magical purposes.

In the churchyard is the grave of a French glassmaker. Glassmaking hereabouts was brought by the Huguenots and died out in the early 17th century. They say that you can still find shards in nearby Sydney Wood, and traces of a small factory. We couldn't, but the mere thought such industry, half a millennium ago, intensified the delight of the day and reminded us, if we needed reminding, that when it comes to country walking there are few finer or more interesting countries than England.

Would airports break up add capacity?

Would cracking BAA's monopoly ownership of London's three biggest airports encourage the faster addition of runway and terminal capacity? The final conclusions of the Competition Commission will be fascinating.

I have already argued (see earlier posting) that such a move would be largly futile in terms of stimulating new routes or airline start ups. The Commission, however, is investigating whether separate ownership of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted would increase the pace of expansion. It wants to know the extent to BAA's plans to get one job out of the way before embarking on another might be slowing that pace.

If single ownership is indeed applying a brake a break up could clearly provide more capacity, which in turn might improve the passenger experience in terminals and maybe - eventually and for a short period until the extra capacity is absorbed - reduce fares.

But it would not alter the fact that Heathrow is the honeypot for major airlines. It would surely not bring expansion there any earlier, especially given the vehemence with which the green lobby is opposing the proposal that a third main runway should be built there.

The most likely result of a break up would be earlier availability of more elbow room and peak time departure and arrival slots at Gatwick and Stansted.

The Commission may decide that's justification enough - but it is hardly likely to create a revolution in customer choice and service.

And anyone harbouring a vague feeling that somehow monopoly was the blame for the recent Terminal 5 debacle at Heathrow must surely realise that a break up would hardly be guarantee against a similar calamities at London's other two airports.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Rocket and Fizz

Restaurant pretensions in North America continue to amuse. Spotted on a menu in British Columbia was a suggestion of wine to accompany the salad: Pol Roger Champagne at 120 Canadian dollars (around £60). It evoked the distant memory of a Thanksgiving Dinner at a restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona. "Iced fork for your salad?" asked the waiter.