Friday, 31 July 2015

London Hotel celebrates half century

London's Royal Garden Hotel is 50 years. The party starts tomorrow. Makes you feel antique. A year after it opened, give or take a few hours, I was in a crowd of several thousand ecstatic people cheering the Boys of 66, England's victorious World Cup squad, as they emerged on to the entrance canopy in Kensington. Players and manager had gone to the hotel for a banquet attended by Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Then it was on to the Grove Tavern in Knightsbridge for a joyous night of celebration. All over London - and into the small hours - car horns were echoing the rhythmic clapping of the 93,000 Wembley crowd. I hope they have a happy birthday at the Royal Garden but for some of us it will be the occasion for a certain wistfulness.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Milan expo - hotels rates up but bargains still around

Crocodile burger anyone? Milan’s hoteliers are reaping the benefit of Expo. The average daily rate in June was up by 29.5% -compared with the same month last summer. That said it’s still only €177.63 (around £125), which is pretty reasonable for a major city and suggests that there are some bargains to be had alongside the five star extravagances. The figures come from industry researchers STR Global. Hotels in the city filled just under 11% more rooms. Overall, hotel prices in Italy rose by 12.3% on average, suggesting Expo is also having a beneficial knock on effect in the rest of the country. Expo’s theme is feeding the planet sustainably – ensuring enough healthy food for everyone. But that doesn’t mean it’s all o faced and lecturing. Over 140 countries are represented on the huge site (more than 1m square metres) to the north west of the city centre – and there promise to be plenty of opportunities to taste the food they produce in the many pavilions and restaurants. The crocodile meat hamburger is on offer in the Zimbabwe pavilion. More conventional burgers – and lobster rolls – are often available from the US food truck. And also outside on the site’s walkways there are Belgian fries and mayonnaise, Neapolitan shrimp, Parisian crêpes, Moroccan tagine

Friday, 24 July 2015

Travel costs: US up, Canada (mostly) down

The cost of holidays in America has risen sharply this year. For starters the £ is currently worth about 8% less against the $. And new research shows hotel prices have jumped in many cities. They were up by 5% overall in June, compared with the same month last summer. And some destinations saw rises of over 10%. The figures, from research specialists STR, show average daily rates in Seattle rose by 16.3%, Philadelphia by 15.7% and Boston by 10.2%. Among the exceptions was New York, where the rise was a barely perceptible 0.8%. Hotel rates are dictated by a combination of demand and availability. The recovery of the US economy has clearly stimulated leisure and business travel. The number of new hotel rooms being added in New York has been rising at a ate above the US average. Hotels filled 2% more rooms. The story is markedly different north of the border, where average daily rates are up around 6% year on year overall but the £ is about 7% stronger against the dollar. However there’s a sharp difference between hotel performance between provinces. If you’re a frequent visitor to British Columbia, for example, you may notice a real price increase over last summer, even when sterling’s strength has been taken into account.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Favourite hotels: French bliss by the river

                                      Number 10 in an occasional series on special hotels
It would be easy to drive straight past the Auberge de la Rivière in Velluire.  Uniess you’re already aware that the chef has earned a Bib Gourmand in the red Michelin Guide – or are sufficiently curious to pull up and peer over the parapet of the bridge as you traverse this unassuming Vendée village – there’s nothing to suggest the hotel is anything out of the ordinary.  Don’t be put off. Turn off the main road and follows the signs down to the riverside where the charm of the Auberge becomes instantly apparent.  It’s the kind of hotel you are more likely to find in the depths of the French countryside than anywhere else in Europe: walls cloaked in Virginia creeper; a sparkling little reception area; early arrivers enjoying drinks under parasols, by the sluggish Vendée River. 

If you’re going in summer, try to book a ground floor room looking out on the riverbank. You have direct access to a small patio area outside, with table and chairs – and if you feel energetic enough you may borrow the hotel dinghy, which is moored a new feet away.

There’s plenty to see on the doorstep. We spend two hot July days exploring the canals of the nearby Marais Poitevin and the Abbeys whose medieval monks first drained and managed this fascinating area of marshland.

Abbey St Vincent at Nieul-sur-l'Autise
In the evenings we  freshen up in the smartly renovated bathroom, with its rain and hand held shower heads, and relax outside our room, using the free wi fi before heading for dinner at the water’s edge. And what a dinner: chef Fabrice Riefolo, who runs the Auberge with his partner Lucie, offers prix fixe menus from €30 to €58.

On two evenings we take the middle way and plump for the €40 “Menu Sensation”. And sensation it certainly is (which is why we chose it twice). A little mise en bouche of gazpacho with a crisp pastry stick, a starter of crayfish, crab, mascarpone herbs and spiced courgettes, sandre (pike-perch) with mogettes – beans which are regional speciality -  slow cooked veal with a port reduction, accompanied by parmesan crumble, carrots cooked in garam masala, a hot and cold strawberry creation with a little chocolate for dessert – and even a tiny, pistachio topped crème brûlee as and encore. As we dine, geese and a lone swan glide serenely to and fro noon the placid water. An excellent buffet breakfast may also be taken on he riverbank in fine weather. It’s not often I have been so captivated by a hotel.

Dinner b&b at the Auberge costs around £150 for two, including a dinner of the kind described above but before accounting for drinks. 

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Travel insurance - daft exclusions

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office has come in for some flak over its decision to recommend that Britons should not travel to Tunisia unless their trips are essential. The waters have been muddied by a misunderstanding of the nature of this advice. One culprit was Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who spoke of British tourists not being "allowed" go travel to the country. Today a much esteemed travel writing colleague refers to the FCO's "diktat". Let's be clear: Britons are at liberty to travel to Tunisia independently - but it's unlikely they will be covered by standard travel insurance policies. Package tour operators won't take you because neither you nor they will be covered in the event of another attack. The issue came to mind after I took part in a debate last night between UK representatives and travel writers on the broad topic of how we should write about countries hit by terrorism, political and economic unrest, disease or natural disasters. I checked my policy. It says simply that no claims will be met if they result from travel in defiance of such advice. That means if I suffer some problem which has nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism - such as sprained ankle or a lost camera - they won't cough up. I'm not recommending you should travel to Tunisia but, given some people may feel that the Tunisians deserve their support i these trying times, it's patently wrong that if they do want to go, they should be deterred by such a ridiculous, blanket exclusion. Why not simply offer cover that excludes claims resulting from terrorist activity? That would be far too easy for an insurance industry which - in my direct experience alone - has set so many daft conditions on its policies that I've almost lost count of them.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Peak value in the Alps

The Austrian Alps in summer remain great value. Here's testimony from the Hotel Gotthard in the smart resort of Lech (see my review). It's offering a five night special deal, bookable until September 4, from €333 per person. That's €74 per couple less than usual. It includes an excellent buffet breakfast, the loan of a  backpack and poles, guided hiking and use of the hotel spa. The only condition is that you have to arrive on a Sunday. At the current exchange rate the deal works out at approximately £480 per couple. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Air fares to Greece slashed

Those Greek price cuts I forecast last week have begun with a vengeance with budget airline Ryanair announcing it is cutting fares to and from the country by 30%. The deals will be available for booking until Friday (July 27)  for travel between now and the end of October. The move comes with Eurozone leaders agreeing a third bailout today - though it still has be agreed by the Athens parliament - and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker saying "there will not be a Grexit". If the Greek parliament accepts tough demands for reforms, including measures to streamline pennons and increase tax revenue, confidence may return to to tourism market. Bookings from the UK are currently estimated too be lagging some 25% below their level this time last summer. What remains unknown as I write is when Greek banks, which have been closed for a fortnight, will re-open. Tourists are still able to withdraw cash from ATMs, but it may take a little longer before bruised traders, such as restaurant owners, are all confident enough to accept plastic without first requesting payment in cash. Meanwhile Ryanair says it offered to drop fares to zero on its domestic routes within Greece, provided there was a reciprocal axing of developments and airport charges. But it claims the Greek Government vetoed the offer. It has, however, reduced those fares to €4.99 or the next two weeks. It should be borne in mind, of course, that we're talking fares here. Ryanair hasn't mentioned cutting the price of extras such as baggage fees. 

Airline scraps next summer's Tunisia flights and holidays too

Low cost airline and tour operator Jet2 has decided not to operate to Tunisia in summer 2016, besides axing its programme there for the rest of this year. The decision by and Jet2holidays heaps more misery on the country's beleaguered tourism industry following the recent Sousse terrorist attack. It serves as evidence that the process of restoring confidence will be lengthy, even if the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office relaxes its advice that British travellers should avoid Tunisia unless their journeys are essential. Airline passengers will receive refunds. Package holiday customers can switch to other destinations without paying a fee. In a statement the company said: "We have been proactively calling all our holiday passengers to discuss their options with them. In the light of tho cancellation we have added more flights and holidays to our popular destinations to ensure we are offering the best possible choice of holidays."

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Greece: expect late summer bargains

Expect late summer Greek holiday price cuts - but keep you eyes on the ball. Travel industry intelligence suggests few cancellations by people who had booked trips there before the crisis came to a head. But one tour operator specialising in holidays says bookings are now coming in at only about 25% of the usual rate for tunis time of year. They are likely to pick up only if the crisis is resolved, even temporarily, and banks are able to function normally again. If that happens, watch for discounted deals in September and October. If it doesn't, who knows what will happen next? But one thing is for sure: even if a new version of the drachma is reintroduced, initially in parallel with the euro, it's your hard currency local businesses will want. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Namibia - better roads than Britain's?

Were my ears deceiving me or did I hear George Osborne claim, in his Budget speech, that even Namibia has a better road network than Britain? As one former Wimbledon champion and present pundit might have put it, he cannot be serious. Namibia's roads may be among the best in Africa but only about 20% -measured in kilometres - are hard surfaced. Most are gravel or earth. Let me tell you a story about them. I've driven there only once, but on a dirt road near the much photographed Sossusvlei dunes in a rented VW Polo my wife and I experienced a blow out of epic proportions. There was no tyre left and I was lucky to find the wheel cover, which had rolled off at speed, in a ditch some way back down the road. We had to drive some 80 kilometres to a garage which sold suitable tyres, with everything tightly crossed in the hope that another wouldn't fail - leaving us stranded. Because of a pressing schedule we had been unable to hire a second spare, which is a very good idea if you'e touring there. When we returned the car at Windhoek airport the rental company said we had fitted a non standard tyre and would have to pay for another one. I refused, adamantly. What else were we supposed to do? Call them and get them to drive out from Windhoek - several hours away - with a replacement? Besides, our strict itinerary demanded we move on to hike and camp in the desert before heading north to Swakopmund and the Etosha National Park game reserve. We heard no more about it - and to be fair it was far from the only instance I've experienced of poor service by car hire companies - but it left a sour taste. Namibia has better roads than Britain? Don't make me laugh Mr. Osborne.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Greece: holiday cash insurance upped

As Greek banks remain closed and in danger of running out of funds and British tourists are urged to take fistfuls of euros, a UK company has arranged sharp increases in the amount of cash covered by its travel insurance policies. Holiday Extras, which also offers access to airport parking and lounges, has worked out complimentary upgrades with underwriters Allianz and White Horse. Depending on the level of cover they've bought the amounts insured for all existing customers and new clients travelling before September 1 will rise from £300 to £500 per person, £250 to £400 or £200 to £350. 

Must see in France - the mighty Abbaye St Pierre

The ruined 11th century Abbey of St. Pierre at Maillezais in the French Vendee rises beyond a bed of vivid lavender, planted where the cloister once stood. Its monks created a system of canals which turned the surrounding marshes into agricultural land. Rabelais sought refuge there during the Wars of Religion. Much of its fabric was sold after the French Revolution but its elegant remains - its nave roof was 55 metres above the ground - were saved when it was classified as a historic monument in 1923. If you're travelling in the region - do not miss the chance to see it.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Scandalously slow passport checks at Calais port.

Leave a little extra time to check in for the ferry at Calais. With travellers already frustrated by strikes, UK border control officials seem intent on rubbing salt into their wounds. Confronted with a relatively short queue of perhaps 25 vehicles yesterday we waited for fully 45 minutes to get through the passport check. As a result, though we had arrived in plenty of time, we missed the boat we had intended to catch. Like all travellers I recognise the need to ensure the security of out borders but how can it take almost two minutes per vehicle? If the delay were that long at Heathrow there would surely be serious protests. And this wasn't even the summer peak. What will happen then? Remember this was just a passport check and not a search for immigrants trying to slip through the net.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Potatoes and asparagus - for pudding?

In France, invariably something new.  Whoever heard of potates and asparagus as a dessert? It's on offer at the Hotel les Prateaux, in Noirmoutier en Ile. Local bonotte potatoes which, in the manner of Jersey Royals, are much prized by cooks across France, and the asparagus are each whipped into a kind of mousse and served with grapefruit anf dark chocolate. To tell the truth I wouldn't have idenntified the vegetables in a blind tasting but  the overall impact made it worth overcoming my initial scepticism. The island of Nomoutier, once linked to the  mainlad bya causeway which was submerged at high tide but now connected by a bridge. is off the coast of the Vendee region. The hotel is a few minutes from the sea which, with temperatures this week soaring into the high 30s, is almost as warm as the Mediterranean. It.s too hot to walk so a little vigorous swimming is esential  if you are to make it past teh main course and cheese to that extraordinary pud.