Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Tenerife: drama and luxury

Near the summit of Mt Teide

Sea level to 11,627 feet in not much longer than one hour by road and cable car can be a pretty heady experience, especially if exertion makes you quickly short of breath. The trip up Tenerife’s Mount Teide must be one of the world’s most dramatic changes in altitude. Dramatic is also the word for the views from the path just below the top (the actual summit is over 500 feet higher), which are particularly recommended at sunrise. I’ve just been privileged to be up there at sunset, the mauve brown caldera of Las Canada below in the foreground, white, high rise holiday accommodation in the far distance, La Gomera off shore, beyond a stretch of ocean obscured by clouds jostling like sheep crowded in a pen.  The sun dipped, leaving a red gash across the horizon. It was, to use that overworked adjective in its true context, awesome. Details of sunset trips here.

Dusk in Mount Teide National Park
You can get away with trainers or reasonably stout leather shoes on the 15 – 20 minute walk from cable car station to the look out point – but I would recommend taking proper walking shoes or even boots. The volcanic rock is uncomfortable and uneven underfoot.  While it wasn’t very cold last week, remember temperatures drop sharply with height, so though you may have been relaxing in warm sunshine by the pool, after dark it can easily fall below freezing point up there. And take slow strides. A colleague – who wasn’t walking quickly – experienced dizziness in a short time.

Though it’s certainly not to be attempted without some prior heart-lung exercise - hiking up would represent a more graduated way of adjusting to the reduction in oxygen. From the starting point between the cable car bottom station and the Minas de San Jose it takes around 4hrs 30mins  - though obviously it’s best to allow longer (you need to get a permit well in advance if you’re up to the final slog to the summit).  I cannot speak from experience. Though I’ve hiked on Tenerife and can vouch for the excellence and variety of walks there, I haven’t got around to Mount Teide. Best consult the experts Andrea and Jack Montgomery, whose newly published book, Walk This Way Tenerife, is a comprehensive guide to more than 30 of the island’s best routes. Can’t wait to road test it. 

It's worth noting that terrorism attack in Egypt and, though probably to a lesser extent in winter, Tunisia, have put extra pressure on accommodation in the Canary Islands. Occupancy rates are currently very high. Do not leave it until the last minute to book 

Gran Hotel Bahia del Duque

Frequent visitors to this website will be aware that sedentary holidays aren’t my thing. But whether you just want to veg or use it as a base for walking, you can’t but be impressed by the Gran Hotel Bahia del Duque on the Costa Adeje. You need a GPS to find your way around it, mind. Its lay out is geographically challenging. Its tree shaded gardens cascade down to the promenade with pools and eateries (there are eight) at different levels. Though it is close to the popular Playa de las Americas it is decidedly upmarket, with a spa and free wi fi. Lovely rooms have balconies, his and hers wash basins, big showers – mine also had a bath and digital scales. With 351 rooms and suites this is a sizeable complex, yet you do not feel the presence of so many fellow guests. There are tennis and squash courts, billiards and a gym. A gate, opened from the outside by your room key, leads to the promenade and beach. The breakfast buffet (ok – the coffee isn’t great) is magnificent and there’s a short order cook to produce an omelette, for example. But it’s sometimes the smallest detail that signals quality. Filling a bowl with fresh fruit I noticed they had even peeled the kiwi fruit. Classy.

Tour operators offering holidays at Bahia del Duque include Thomson and Classic Collection

Images of Mount Teide are courtesy of Tenerife Tourism

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Supersonic anniversary

Now and then something reminds me how long I’ve been in the travel writing business. On Thursday (January 21) 40 years will have passed since the world’s first commercial, supersonic flights took off from London and Paris.

Concorde G-BOAA is readied for her first commercial flight
It was a day of high excitement. Millions would have given their eye teeth to have been my shoes as I set off for Heathrow that morning, for I had a seat on British Airways’ inaugural Concorde service Heathrow to Bahrain.

Amid all the patriotic tub thumping I still harboured lurking misgivings about the development of what some saw as a supersonic white elephant. While reporting on its progress I had developed huge admiration for the technicians and test pilots who had brought the project this far, but I retained serious doubts about its viability.  The Americans had scrapped their rival SST programme, not least because objections to the sonic boom made it doubtful such a jet would be able to operate coast to coast across the US. The Soviet Union persisted with the TU-144 for a while, but it never competed on international routes. Concorde was still not allowed to fly to New York. This was a day, however, when all such thoughts were banished. To introduce a negative note would have been churlish.

The yellowing clippings of news stories and travel articles I’ve written over four decades and more would be enough to wallpaper the house. They cover pivotal events from the collapse of Court Line, which led to a huge tightening of financial protection for holidaymakers, to the launch of packages to Florida and short breaks to Soviet Moscow, and the advent of low cost airlines. None was more memorable than those few, adrenalin fueled hours.

Securing a seat had been tricky. I then worked for the London Evening standard, reporting on travel and aviation. The newspaper’s final edition was due to go to press within minutes of our planned arrival in the Gulf. Any delay might scupper the coverage. The print unions weren’t renowned for their flexibility. We could fly through the sound barrier but the ability to email a story in flight was still far in the future. We still used typewriters. Pages were set up with hot metal. It was agreed that the front page should be left open. BA agreed to take the risk. It held open phone lines to London from Bahrain airport, so that I  - and my opposite number from the Evening News - could dictate copy instantly on landing. One remaining problem: the Duke of Kent would be on board, so we needed official permission to breach protocol and sprint off the aircraft before him.

After a crowded champagne reception at Heathrow we took off simultaneously with the Air France Concorde, which was heading to Rio de Janeiro. The two take offs were shown simultaneously on split screen television. There was more bubbly on board – Dom Perignon 1969  - caviare and lobster canap├ęs, duck breast or fillet steak for lunch, with strawberries for afters. Havana cigars were on offer.

We went supersonic just beyond Venice and hit Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) somewhere near the southern Italian port of Brindisi. As usual there was only the slightest sensation of acceleration. As a late colleague was fond of writing: “There was scarcely a ripple on my exquisite glass of champagne”. Sadly I did not witness one of the high profile passengers, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll rapping on one of the bulkhead Mach meters to revive it after it refused to acknowledge these historic moments. But for the most part the flight of just over 4hrs passed in a whirlwind of squeezing past TV cameramen in the narrow aisle to conduct interviews and frantically scrawling my story, mostly in longhand, so it would be ready to dictate to a copy taker the moment I disembarked.

As the door opened I trotted down the red carpet to the telephone. The Bahraini guard of honour, expecting the Duke, moved to present arms. Whether they actually went through with it I can’t say - and I was in too much of hurry to notice. But why spoil a good story. The copytaker in London was waiting at the end of the line. Copy dictated, job done, front page splash on the news stands within the hour. Phew.

The flaw in a travel journalist’s existence is that such highs are transient. In September the following year I was on a somewhat less glamourous inaugural – queuing through the night at Gatwick with passengers and other news reporters for Freddie Laker’s first low fare, walk-on Skytrain service to New York. To get the first hand consumer experience, that was.

The two male passengers on the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow when I returned from Bahrain would not have been the least surprised to see a Laker Airways label there. But as their eyes lit upon the prestigious Concorde tag I distinctly heard one say, albeit with a hint of jealousy in his voice: “must be crew”.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Huge jump in cheap flights

The inexorable rise of the low cost airline goes on with barely a pause for breath. Ryanair and easyJet together now attract 34% of the total number of international passengers carried by the world's ten largest international airlines. In the US, Southwest Airlines is the biggest carrier of domestic passengers. Since Christmas there has been yet more expansion of long haul budget operations, a trend that I have questioned at in an earlier posting. The Canadian carrier Westjet has announced it will continue operating its services from Gatwick Calgary and Toronto through the winter. Previously it was expected they would be suspended at the end of summer this year. The Calgary decision is good news for skiers. It will cut the cost of travel to resorts including Lake Louise, Banff and Kicking Horse. It would be even better news for snow seekers if the airline also extended its forthcoming Vancouver route through the winter months

Old Ironsides: USS Constitution in Boston dockyard. Get thee from Bristol
Meanwhile Icelandic airline WOW, which has been building a long haul network based on connections via its Reykjavik hub, will launch links between Bristol and Boston, Washington, Toronto and Montreal later this year. A combination of very competitive fares and the continuing, relative buying power of the £ in Canada should help boost demand for travel there, at least in the short term. As to the long term sustainable of the low cost, long haul surge, much will depend on the price of oil - and therefore aviation fuel - which remains very low. Prices have dropped some 70% in the past 18 months. And nest winter Thomas Cook Airlines is to provide British Airways with some competition on the London - Cape Town route. It will operate three round trips a week on the route from Gatwick with return fares in economy and premium class seats from £699 and £949 respectively.

Veiling - new flights from Luton

Budget carriers also continue to expand on short haul routes. For example - the following list is not intended to be comprehensive - the Spanish airline Vueling is set to start flying from Luton, with summer schedule services to Barcelona and Amsterdam. It will also start flying from Edinburgh to Rome, Paris and Alicante later this year. And it plans to start service to Alicante from Manchester and Birmingham. Romania's Blue Air will also launch flights from Luton, flying three times a week to Cyprus from late April. easyJet will launch new services to ten European destinations fro, UK airports. They include Bristol to Bilbao, Zakinthos and the Isle of Man, Newcastle to Rhodes and Corfu, Manchester to Kefalonia and Southend to einorca. It will also fly to Split, in Croatia, from Luton, Newcastle and Manchester. Ryanair is to server Newquay in Cornwall again and will fly from Belfast - starting in March with services to Gatwick. The central and eastern European airline Wizz will fly twice a week from Birmingham to the Polish city of Wroclaw - one of this year's European Capitals of Culture, starting in March. And Monarch will add Tel Aviv from Manchester April, Lisbon from Gatwick and Manchester in May and from Birmingham, in June, when it will also start operating from that airport to Madrid.