Sunday, 25 October 2015

Fall colours in Vermont

Crimson, gold and green. It's time for lead peeping in New England. A US based skiing friend, Bernie Weichsel, sent these glorious images of Vermont.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Ski pistes - does length matter?

Controversy rumbles on over allegations that ski resorts exaggerate the combined length of their pistes. Research in Germany suggested some were claiming twice the distance in kilometres than was the case when measured by the author of the research. One big areain France admitted it added over 50% to take account of the fact that skiers make turns rather than hammering straight down the fall line. Now the French resort of Serre Chevalier says its area has been precisely measured with the results validated by KALIBLUE, an independent body specialising in land and aerial topography. It has ditched the notion of runs measured in kilometres in favour of publishing its total pisted area and that also including uphill lift tracks and off piste skiing accessible from lifts. It invites potential and existing visitors to use Google Earth, superimposing the whole area, then the pisted area on top of that ( Will you bother?  I think the whole issue is a storm in a Schnapps glass. 

Above Serre Chevalier
You need to know is whether runs, on average are short or long and the proportion of difficult, intermediate or easy descents. In more general terms you need to know that   there’s enough of skiing in Serre Chevalier and its surrounding area to keep most leisure skiers occupied for a week or more – and that in vast areas such as Paradiski (Les Arcs and La Plagne), Val d’Isère and Tignes, and the Trois  Vallées there’s probably more than you’ll need. As for those alleged exaggerations, I suppose it’s better if commercial organisations are brought to book for telling porkies, if only because it might discourage others. But, that said, does anybody really care? I doubt it. Life’s too short.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Heathrow launches car rental comparison service

Passengers flying to London Heathrow can now use a comparison site to see the best car rental deals available at the airport. The online comparison service has been developed in cooperation with Passengers log on to and enter their travel details. They are also able to book car hire at other UK and European locations.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Romania - five new UK air links planned

Cluj: orthodox cathedral
New flights from the UK to Romania seem to be flavour of the month. Blue Air will start flying from Glasgow to the capital, Bucharest, on December 17. It will operate two round trips a week, on Thursdays and Sundays. Next summer the Romanian carrier plans to fly to Bucharest from Birmingham, from Liverpool to Cluj, the principal city of Transylvania and from London - which airport is not yet clear - to Constanta. Meanwhile Wizz Air, which bills itself as central and eastern Europe's biggest airline has announced it will fly between Birmingham and Bucharest next year. From May 22 it will operate two round trips a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Swiss ski pass going for a song

Copyright « Villars Tourism, Switzerland 
Ski passes have become horrendously expensive in most resorts, so a new low season deal covering the Villars-Gryon-Les Diablarets area in Switzerland is particularly eye catching. For each night spent in participating hotels you get a day pass for 20 Swiss francs - of less than £14 at the current exchange rate. That's about half the usual adult price (CHF42) and the normal CHF38 for seniors. It's the latest in a string or promotions aimed at combatting the deterrent effect of Switzerland's high cost image. The deal s available from the resorts' opening until December 20, then January 4 - February 5 and March 7 until April 10.

Copyright « Villars Tourism, Switzerland 

Thursday, 8 October 2015

London - Moscow: airline suspends bookings

Russian airline Transaero, which flies from Gatwick to Moscow, has suspended ticket sales. The move is understood to stem from the failure of  a proposed takeover by Aeroflot. A statement t on its website says the carrier will continue to operate passenger services  on international and domestic routes until December 15. Travellers booked on flights departing after midnight on that date will get full refunds.  The crisis follows last weeks news that easyJet would suspend its Gatwick-Moscow service. Its last flights o n gthe route will depart on March 16. The airline described the move as “temporary” and said it would keep the potential reintroduction of the route under review. “The decision has been taken in response to the significant and sustained reduction in demand for travel between Moscow and London in recent months which has been driven by a number of factors, including the macro-political environment and the weakness of the Russian economy together with the tightening of the visa application process.”

France on foot - the joys and frustrations

Walking near Meyruies

For walkers, small town French tourist offices can be a precious source of information. Ask staff to recommend a route and invariably - often for a nominal sum, sometimes free - they will provide a leaflet with details of a suitable hike or a whole range of them.

If you catch them open, that is. They keep frustratingly bureaucratic hours. Hoping to make an early start you seek one out after breakfast, only to learn it doesn't open until 10am. Arriving somewhere in time for an afternoon walk you find they won't be back from their midday break until 3pm. On Sundays off beaten track they may not open at all.

At Mezieres-en-Brenne we sneaked under the wire. Staff could already smell lunch but we caught them minutes before they locked the door and they came up with a neatly laminated map. It was just as well, for the area was new to us. Our decision to detour there had been made on a whim. The sun was shining after a grey morning, we had bought a picnic of fresh goat's cheese from a farm and pork rillettes from a market stall and we didn't fancy wasting any more of the day driving.

The Parc Regional de La Brenne, is an hour or so south of Tours in the Loire Valley. We had driven there from Dover after a crossing with P&O Ferries from Dover, stopping for a couple of nights not far from Amboise on the Loire. You could go straight there in a day from Calais but you would need to catch an early ferry.

The park is a mozaic of glittering lakes, man made in the Middle Ages, widely used for fish farming and more recently recognised as an important wetland complex. Rich in birds, including egrets, bitterns and marsh harriers, it's tranquil, magical and a little mysterious.

Armed with the tourist office map we found the start of an itinerary which skirted the Etang de Piegu. We could have sat at its edge for hours, watching a distant heron and a huge flock of fitful lapwings, but dinner called, with a cassolette - a mixed haul from the lakes including crayfish and carp - back at the 17th century inn where we spent the night.

At Nasbinals, much further south in the Departement of Lozere we missed the boat. Lunch was already well advanced. If we waited for the tourist office to reopen there would be no time for a worthwhile afternoon walk. A different solution emerged, however. This is one of an apparently increasing number of towns erecting information boards showing the length of hikes and the their colour codes. Follow the markers with care and you can dispense with a map altogether.

Nasbinals lies on the causse, or plateau, of Aubrac. The plateau is high, sometimes windy, and cold enough in winter for skiing. In spring, garlanded, long horned cattle are driven up from the valleys, an annual transhumance ritual watched by thousands of sightseers. We picked an itinerary which took us around 3hrs 30mins and finished, intoxicated by sweeping views, in time to drive down to the Lot Valley where we had booked into an auberge in the attractive riverside town of Estaing,


Next morning we dropped into the tourist office in nearby Espalion and were provided with details of several walks, including on of 5hrs 30mins which took us on long climb back to the same causse on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. As we headed up we were passed by a steady trickle of modern day pilgrims heading down, going all or part of the way to Spain. The route started and ended in St. Chely d'Aubrac, the stones of whose narrow, medieval bridge have been worn by centuries of worshippers. It is worth standing there for a moment to consider them, carrying the scallop shell symbol of St. James, penitent or merely curious, anxious to register credit for a comfortable afterlife or perhaps even journeying as mercenaries, paid to make the trip on behalf of those seeking to buy their escape from the divine naughty step.

On the pilgrim route 

But on most walks we encountered hardly another soul. Thus it was above Meyrueis in the Cevennes, where where we followed an airy track along the limestone rampart of the Causse Mejean. Northward lay a grassy plateau grazed by sheep whose milk is used to make Roquefort and other blue cheeses. To the south the ground fell away to a valley, rising again as thickly wooded slopes. As we rested in a sort of rocky theatre box a hawk, targeting some unseen prey below the rocky lip, plunged only a few feet over our heads, wings swept back, like a heat seeking missile. Griffon vultures circled low, as if checking us out.

Near Meyrueis 

Meyrueis, is an atmospheric little town, with a photogenic sweep of old terraced houses, built at the eastern end of the spectacular Jonte gorge. It is a superb walking base – but that was not the only reason we stayed there longer than intended. Daniel Lagrange's cooking at the Hotel de Mont Aigoual was consistently stunning. On the first evening they brought me duck instead the dish I had ordered. It was a happy mistake. The duck breast, cooked a point, or medium rare, and accompanied by an intriguing little compote of pineapple and ginger, was tender and delicious. Whether it was a starter of snails or a main course of guinea fowl or lamb cooked for seven hours, the magnificent local cheeses, a trio of sorbets enlivened by slivers of citrus peel or the home made plum jam for breakfast, nothing disappointed.

Meyrueis (courtesy Tourist Office) 
The local Office de Tourisme provided another reason to linger, a whole folder full of walks, modestly priced and clearly described (in French, though fellow hikers said they had been offered the same in English) and designed as a series of separate leaflets). And for the record, it opened at 9am.

This article appeared originally in Scotland on Sunday

Friday, 2 October 2015

Planet gannet

The best place in the world to see gannets up close - see my article on the British Guild of Travel Writers website

Thursday, 1 October 2015

New budget US flights from Ireland planned

Low cost airline Norwegian is seeking to widen its fast expanding long haul network with the launch of direct flights from Cork, in the south of Ireland, to Boston. Starting in May it plans to operate four or five service a week from the city, which has a large population of Irish extraction.

The carrier already flies there from Gatwick - as well as New York, LA, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. It hopes the Cork flights will be operated by its Irish subsidiary Norwegian Air International (NAI) but the operation must first get the green light from the US authorities. Chief executive officer Bjorn Kjos says: "This is only the beginning of our plans for new routes in Ireland but our expansion relies on the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) finally approving Norwegian Air International’s application for a foreign carrier permit. Only DoT approval for NAI will unlock the door for these exciting new routes, creating more competition, more choice and better fares for business and leisure passengers on both sides of the Atlantic." Seasoned observers of the airline scene will continue to watch the airline's progress with fascination, particularly following the past failure of so many budget carriers to sustain long haul operations. The problem for such operators has been that as the flight distance increases, so do fuel and crew costs as a proportion of expenditure. Norwegian, which claims to be Europe's third latest low cost airline, says it intends to start flying from Cork to Barcelona at around the same time and to New York from 2017.

Regular visitors to these pages will be aware that Boston is a favourite of mine. See my article on the Freedom Trail - a marked route that enables tourists to explore it on foot.