Friday, 28 December 2012

EasyJet switches to assigned seating

In a move I welcome wholeheartedly, easyjet has abandoned its first come first served seating policy (speedy boarding aside) and now assigns seats automatically to passengers who decline paying an addiditional fee to choose their own.

You can now buy the first and exit rows for £12 per passenger, rows 2 -6 for £8 per passenger and £3 for any other. Speedy boarding will now be reserved only for passengers buying £12 or £8 seats.

This is an entirely reasonable and dare I say it - professional move from an airline that has steadily grown up in stature since the appointment of Carolyn McCall as Chief Executive, a lady I know very well from her days at The Guardian senior management.

Whilst Ryan Air continues to forge its own path clearly intent on providing a service (which it does very well in my opinion) without a hint of customer service  (which it shouldn't in my opinion), easyjet has quietly raised its game considerably in the budget flight market.

At last we can kiss goodbye to that dreadful easyjet gate experience, where some passengers almost camped out in an effort to be at the front of the line, and speedyboarding got you on the bus first!

Full marks easyjet, for doing something for the passengers for once.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Samsonite Cosmolite. Can suitcases get any better?

First they told me it was almost bullet proof. Apparently it's made from Curve technology, which is used to make bullet proof vests. Then they told me it could withstand over 25 continuous drops from a great height, and temperatures of minus 12. Not wishing I’d have to endure any of those situations, I was much more interested that the Samsonite Cosmolite was one of the lightest hard cases on earth.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
With baggage weight even more critical in these days of budget airlines’ rules and regs, getting a case that doesn’t take up half your allowance before it’s even had anything put in it is pretty handy.
This is though, a case that’s in the premier league as far as baggage hierarchy and price is concerned, but you do get a lot of case for your money.
There’s four wheels for a start, so you get the option of wheeling it alongside you, or dragging it if the terrain is dodgy. The collapsible long handle is very robust, I mean how many times have you had to pull up your case by its long handle to see it break in front of your eyes? There are two more handles, one on the side and the other on the end so you’re covered whichever way up you want to be. There’s a combination lock built in to the chassis, and the muscular zip looks strong enough to contain your clothes and the kitchen sink if needs be.

Inside is a tale of two halves, on one side a zipped net ensures all your stuff stays packed away neatly, and at the same time protecting the other half from any potentially dirty objects. The other is left bare save for a small pouch for toiletries and a sturdy strap to keep everything in its place.
To complete the package, the case comes in a range of sizes and particularly striking colours, easy enough to pick out on the baggage carousel from miles away.

 If you’re looking for a hard case that will stand up to the rigours of travel for a long time, then the Samsonite Cosmolite ticks all the boxes for me and in the long term would certainly return your investment. Just remember though, extra durability is a balancing act between the potential additional space you won’t have for jamming in those last minute extras.

 Samsonite Cosmolite Spinner £340





Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Valencia. Time to come out of Barcelona's shadow.

I was in Valencia last week and the city caught me completely by surprise! Not only does it have a charming old town dating back to the Roman and Ottoman periods, there's some stunning modern architecture, the City of Arts and Sciences is extraordinary and in particular Oceanographic, where I was a dolphin trainer for a morning!
It seems the economic downturn has meant many of the fashionable restaurants there are promoting very affordable menus, so visitors from the UK can reap some very tasty meals at rock bottom prices.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

New Year’s Eve in Madrid. Cava, Grapes and a Mexican Wave.

It was 9pm on New Year’s Eve in Madrid’s old town and I was really starting to panic.

Like all best laid plans, ours fell apart almost as soon as we arrived in the city, the upshot was we had no restaurant reservation for the busiest night of the year.


“Told you to confirm it” my wife said knowingly, as she casually looked down the list of available Panini’s at a bar about to close up for the night. She often had this irritating habit of declaring her superior intellect in hindsight moments such as these. An intellect, that for once, I was determined to prove fallible. It’s at times like this though, when you think you’re done for, that you realise things can’t get any worse, so you might as well make the most of it. Somehow using that logic, the thought of standing for hours in the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s traditional New Year’s Eve gathering place, with a plastic cup of warm Cava (the Spanish version of champagne), a stale ham and cheese Panini and the requisite traditional twelve grapes in hand, didn’t seem all that bad a deal. Then again, the thought of a night full of hindsight intellect was more than I could bear, so I said “I just need more time”. “You’ve got 10 minutes” she said “then I’m grabbing a sandwich and heading for the square”. And so I fled, deeper into the old town’s warren of side streets on a mission of redemption.

And so it came to pass, that through sheer chance, I fell upon Senor Fonsela in the foyer of his Restaurante Riazor  There he was, standing guard by his makeshift till taking money hand over fist from a queue of diners forming an orderly line outside his restaurant. Quite clearly this was a man who’s done it and worn the shirt many many times previously, but an opportunity for me to redeem myself nevertheless.

“60 Euros each” he told me. “Everything included”. Under the circumstances, regardless of the quality of the food, it was an opportunity for a triumphant victory over female hindsight, so I grabbed it with both hands. Well, to be more accurate, he actually grabbed my 120 Euros with both hands while I smugly went off to collect my wife who by now had commandeered a tiny corner in the Puerto Del Sol behind what seemed to be nearly a million people.

“I had to beg for this spot” she told me as I triumphantly walked up to her “this table had better be real”. Returning to Restaurante Riazor  my wife now in tow, my sense of impending doom returned. Had I completely lost it? I’d handed over 120 Euros to someone without getting a single bite, let alone a guarantee that he really did have a table free in the restaurant, or that the restaurant was even his in the first place!

Hastily forming plans B,C and D in my head as we approached, I was thankfully greeted like a long lost friend  and shown inside a restaurant packed to the rafters with locals who were already well on the way to their own New Year celebrations.  We had a window table ready-laden with party paraphernalia, a small bottle of Cava, red and white wine and a packet of 12 grapes each. The grapes are an essential part of Spanish New year celebrations more of which I will tell in a bit.
Sunrise on New Year's Day in Madrid (c) Andy Mossack

Our fully laden table had calmed my beating heart and looking over at my wife, who by now was wearing a pointed paper hat and blowing a curly horn at a child on an adjacent table she had clearly banished all thoughts of making my life a living hell.

What followed was nothing short of a miracle. No less than seven courses were laid in front of us, a veritable feast by any stretch of the imagination and it was all joyously wonderful. I think at that moment I was the happiest man in the world. Here I was with the woman I loved (who by now had begun her second bottle of red and was simultaneously wearing two party hats) surrounded by local Madrid citizens who seemed to have accepted us as their temporary family. It was an extraordinary coming together of perfect strangers celebrating a great evening together as the clock ticked towards midnight. As the wine continued to flow, I suddenly felt compelled to do something to further enhance my local bonding and, given the amount of alcohol I had already consumed, a Mexican wave around the restaurant seemed, at that moment anyway, perfectly reasonable . My wife’s two hats had slipped down either side of her cheeks, but even she was up for it. So I stood up, threw my hands in the air and shouted out “Ole!”  Time stood still then as a multitude of Spanish faces turned to us in bewildered astonishment. “try again” she slurred from somewhere below my chair, so I gave it another go. “Ole!” I cried and a gentleman on the table next to us who was clearly no stranger to The Bernabeu caught on and did the same and in minutes we had a fully fledged Mexican wave swirling around the room replete with Ole’s at every turn. It was a moment that will live forever in my mind, English and Spanish in perfect harmony!

Midnight approached and for those in the know of things Spanish, grapes on New Year’s Eve are de rigueur so to speak. It is a tradition handed down over the centuries that requires dexterity, aplomb and perfect timing, none of which I have in any abundance. The trick is to ensure that with each chime of the clock at midnight, you pop a grape into your mouth. You have to time each grape insertion with a chime, to ensure you have a healthy and sweet year ahead. As the hour grew near, the large wall mounted TV was switched on and there under the clock at the Puerta del Sol were the milling throng that no so long ago could have included us wedged into our little corner.

Suddenly, it was midnight and the grand clock chimes rang out and I was ready with my grapes and a glass of Carva. I popped in a grape and took a slurp suddenly realising that these grapes had pips in them. I never eat grapes with pips. This was a whole new grape, chime, slurp combo that now included spit out pip before next grape enters mouth. Needless to say, my first experience of Spanish New year grape tradition did not go as planned and I was still popping in grapes and spitting out pips well into 2011.

We said fond farewells to all our new found family and pretty soon we left the warm embrace of Restaurante Riazor to join the throngs in Madrid’s busy centre to party the rest of the night away.

Madrid really does come out to play on New Year’s Eve after all, for many there it is a full week’s holiday leading up to Three Kings Day on January 6th or Fiesta de los tres Reyes Mages, as the Spanish call it. It is as important as Christmas if not more so, particularly for kids because that’s when they get their presents!

For us though it would be for another time, although I suspect Senor Fonsela is already cunningly planning his menu and readying his till for another family bash....


Mielcke & Hurtigkarl. Copenhagen's best restaurant.

Maybe it was the summer evening stroll through Copenhagen's beautiful Frederiksberg Park, or perhaps the proud peacock welcoming me the way peacocks do, all feathers and indignation. Either way, when I finally arrived at Mielcke & Hurtigkarl's magnificent 18th century pavilion, hidden away in the midst of the park's royal gardens, I was bowled over, which is always a great way to start a meal.
Mielcke & Hurtigkarl is something of a local secret in Copenhagen after all, this is a city not short of gastronomic choices with the world famous NOMA heading up a serious list of worthy contenders. However, it seems Mielcke & Hurtigkarl have chosen to shun all this Michelin fuelled hysteria in favour of building a reputation through recommendation,  the quality of the fare easily comparable to its more flamboyant neighbours.

Both Jakob Mielcke and Jan Hurtigkart are Danish chefs who have trodden the long path of global gastronomic education before coming home to Copenhagen and performing their own brand of culinary wizardry within a setting that is too perfect for words. The gardens of Copenhagen's Royal Horticultural Society all around, the delightfully airy interior lorded over by an explosion of crystals in the ceiling that catch and reflect every bit of light thrown at them and audible sounds of nature; it's like eating in an interior garden. Even the toilets make an entertaining diversion,  the toilet bowls art pieces in their own right.
I decided to try the seven course tasting menu; designed to "make my taste buds dance." And dance they certainly did. Eschewing the uber trendy "New Nordic" cuisine for something much more worldly, mixed with freshly foraged items direct from the forest, this was a menu that embraced the most unusual ingredients into an amalgam of flavours.  From the somewhat surprising combination of appetizers containing in one example, fresh seaweed that tasted every bit as good as your favourite herb and some insanely edible flowers I was served outside at a table on the delightful patio terrace, to the all round magnificence of mackerel with elderberry, carrot with coffee and sea buckthorn and cottage cheese with rosehip.  This was a culinary journey of some note and more than hint of humour. How about a dish entitled Forest Floor? A Beech leaf sorbet made with fresh beech leaves, chocolate mixed with birch bark oil and decorated with purple woodruff flowers.  Almost it seems, defying conventional cookery.

There is a another very good reason for putting Mielcke & Hurtigkarl on your culinary radar and that is the price. €85 for the tasting menu combined with €85 for seven accompanying wines is excellent value at this level in anyone's book.

This is outstanding food without all the hype. Miss it at your peril.


Virgin’s Premium Economy Class makes ordinary life a lot less ordinary.

I’ve always harboured a secret sense of loathing toward business and first passengers, although I’d never admit it in public. Their smug looks when they get to check in on that red carpet attended to by handpicked airline staff ready with a waiting smile and fresh flowers to ease them through check in is frankly almost too much to bear. They get private lounge access of course, but we don’t get to see that bit thank goodness, just their backs as they whisk through security using their special fast track passes while we wait in line with the hoards getting ordered to remove our belts and shoes like we’re about to begin a prison sentence. The smugness returns in the departure lounge of course when they get to board first, and then we have to do the walk of shame filing past them on our way towards the back as they serenely down their chilled glasses of bubbly as we fight over hand luggage bin space.

There is however a chance of salvation; an affordable opportunity to at least touch the hem of heaven and take a tentative step onto that first rung of travel smugness. Thankfully, with Virgin’s Premium Economy, we mortals get the chance to savour just a little bit of that high life for a reasonable extra cost.

We get a separate check in for a start. Slight smugness points there. And then we get to board first with the big boys too. Loads of smugness points here, because no one else knows which class you’re in until you get on board. The wider, softer seats are very comfy and whilst they may not be flat bed seats, (although they are as wide as many business class seats on other airlines). the extra leg room and spring loaded foot rests allow you some real stretching room. Now comes the good part. While everyone else shuffles past, you get to sip that envious pre take off drink, and that rattles up bucket loads of smugness points in my book, whilst eating a quality meal off a china dinner service with stainless steel cutlery makes all the difference in the world.

Of course after an eleven hour flight you just want to get off and on with your life and fortunately Premium Economy passengers get to get off first with those big boys again and you can enjoy that final bit of smugness when you collect your luggage  from the Upper and Premium only carousel. Oh the joy.

I’m a fan of Virgin’s Premium Economy.  It’s an excellent choice on so many levels, letting you enjoy many of the trimmings of business travel without it really hurting your pocket too much.  Now if only we could get a private lounge.........

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Iceland. An Elvin queen with attitude.

Looking out from Reykjavik (c) Andy Mossack
Iceland sits atop the world like an Elvin queen; her stunning beauty there for all to see, but  beware of the deadly temper awaiting underneath that veneer, boiling away below the surface, bursting out fire and brimstone if her day’s not turning out too good. Fortunately for me she was in a good mood for my visit, although you might call the occasional biting gale-force wind a teasing taste of what lies in wait if she gets is a seriously bad mood.
There are more examples of the deadly power lying below your feet outside of the capital Reykjavik, up in the scarred volcanic landscape of the Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir is revered by Icelanders through its roots as the site of the first Icelandic general assembly from 900 ad to the late 1700’s.

This was also once place of might destruction, where nature fought a mighty battle; the great rift right at the junction of the the north Atlantic and  Eurasian plates. The scars of battle are all around; mighty volcanoes, glaciers, craggy lava fields, boiling hot geysers, the huge waves of water that once flooded the land here tossed huge boulders around like pebbles. The park is exceptional; the rift valley still moving apart at a rate of two centimetres a year is a wondrous place where depending on the time of day and how the light catches it, can cast a different facade each time you visit.
Geyser (c) Andy Mossack

Geyser on the other hand is something more regulated. Here the steam coming out of the holes in the earth’s crust give the area a mysterious shroud not unlike a smoky battleground, the murky shapes of people appearing out of the mist an eerie sight. But here, every few minutes, old Geyser shoots up boiling water some 100 feet or so, the way it’s been doing so for millennia. And Iceland is still changing. Each seismic shift or new volcanic eruption breaches new steam holes in the landscape, the hot water in such abundance it’s harnessed to heat the homes of most of the population. They call it geothermal heating but I call it hot water on tap for your house at rates so cheap its almost a giveaway.
The geothermal water is best experienced first hand at The Blue Lagoon, a vast lake of the hot stuff in the foothills of the lava fields in-between Reykjavik and the international airport at Keflavik. Here you can bathe in six million litres of geothermal seawater and spread white Silica mud over your body to give yourself a smooth complexion and energise and exfoliate your skin. Part hotel and part spa, the Blue Lagoon is a must see but I’d advise you to take along your own towel and robe to avoid paying a fee to rent some.

 Icelandic horses are really beautiful creatures. Short and stocky with gorgeous long hairy manes, these beasts, directly descended from the Viking originals, are built for working. They are immensely strong and lightening quick. Unlike other horses who walk, trot and gallop, these guys have a fourth gear called a flying pace which is a perfect description. I took a memorable two hour Icelandic horseback tour with Ishestar Riding which caters for experienced riders and more importantly will provide first timers with a memorable couple of hours walk and trot around the stunning frozen lava fields.

Of course, one of the main attractions of Iceland is the opportunity to experience the mysterious Northern Lights, one of the magical natural wonders of the night sky in the polar regions of the world. February is considered to be one of the best times to see them here, but remember a clear night is a must and even then, you’re never guaranteed to see them. Nature can be so cruel! Iceland Excursions run nightly tours and they will ferry you around the countryside seeking out the best places to try and see those elusive lights. Fortunately, if you don’t manage to get a glimpse, you can rebook for another night at no extra charge.

 For more information on Iceland


Panama. It's tropical heaven without the crowds

Early morning and the ceaseless activity on the canal continues as it's done every hour of every day for the last 50 years. A huge ship inches its way along the lock, no more than a few inches to spare on either side. Just like a giant version of the river locks we've all tried at one time or another. Time is money here and there's no shortage of customers going one way or the other, with over 14,000 ships passing through last year, each one paying a sizeable sum into Panama's now very deep pockets. It's a highly profitable business and once the canal expansion is completed, it will be even busier.
Inching through the Panama Canal (c) Andy Mossack

For such a small country, an isthmus wedged between the Atlantic/Caribbean  on one side and the Pacific on the other, Panama has a lot to say for itself. After all, without the use of its extraordinary canal, we'd have to pay a lot more and wait a lot longer for our goods. But Panama has been a strategically vital port ever since the 1500s when the Spanish conquistadors used it to transport most of their plunder back home.

Any trip you take to Panama must include a visit to the canal, and the Miraflores Lock in particular, which has a large visitor centre and a spectacular viewing gallery. It's come a long way since construction began in the late 1800's when over 22,000 workers perished, mostly from mosquito borne malaria. These days, the man made islands and waterways created from all that digging are a haven for birding and wildlife and you'll get a great day out watching ships and taking walks in the surrounding rainforest.

The beauty of Portobelo (c) Andy Mossack

But it's not just about the canal. Panama may be on the thin side but it's packed with diversity wherever you go. Think about it; it was once part of Costa Rica (cue instant images of swaying palms and beaches) and where else can you go and visit two huge oceans just 50 miles apart. The Pacific coast, is lined with mangrove  forest and impressive beaches (many belonging to  the 1,000 islands that sit off the coast), and it's the commercial centre of the country with the high rises of Panama City, the national capital, over here too  However, there's more rainfall on the Caribbean side, better looking beaches and higher temperatures, but far less infrastructure, so don't expect fast roads and busy towns.

The country is dripping with history? Portobelo on the Caribbean side may look like a sleepy coastal town these days, but after Columbus discovered the bay in 1502  it grew to become one of the most important ports in the world, literally teeming with Spanish galleons laden with gold. Amazingly, the Spanish 17th and 18th century fortifications are still there, albeit in a state of neglect in many sections, not surprising when you consider you're free to walk all over them and there is very little money available for much needed restoration. Portobelo comes alive once a year when thousands make a pilgrimage every October 21 to the 17th century  Iglesia de San Félipe church for the Festival de Cristo Negro (Festival of the Black Christ).

Joining Portobelo under UNESCO protection is Fuerte San Lorenzo, a stunning 16th century ruined fort  high up on a cliff overlooking the mouth of Chagres River as it flows into the Caribbean. None other than messers Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake trod these very stones as the fort was Panama's main defence from pirate attacks.

And what about the wonderful cobbled streets and crumbling edifices of Casco Viejo, the fine old town close to Panama City  which took on the mantle of the capital city when Henry Morgan destroyed the original in 1671. It's gradually getting restored now and taking a stroll around the ancient streets, you can begin to see how magnificent some of those old building really were.  

Panama is much more than a canal. It will surprise you, I guarantee it.
Panama Tourism

Nashville. The Heart of America's Music Triangle

I'm sitting at a grand old Steinway in RCA's Studio B on Music Row. As it happens, it's the very piano Elvis tinkered on when he was working out arrangements for his band.  Debbie, something of a Nashville treasure in her own right, is telling me a true story about one of his sessions. “It was late, and everyone was getting tired but Elvis wanted to do one more song. He got the lights turned right down low, went up to the mike, closed his eyes and started singing.”   As she’s telling me this, she turns those same lights down, presses a button and Elvis sounds like he’s right next to me singing Lonesome Tonight.
This is one of those goose bump moments.

They say there’s music in the very walls of RCA studio B, which I wouldn’t doubt for a minute when you consider over 1,000 number one hits were recorded right here. Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Jim Reeves The Everly Brothers and Elvis head up a very impressive list of artists. Anyone with the slightest hint of music in their veins will feel a stirring of emotion here, but this is what Nashville does to you.  Everywhere you go and everyone you meet has a story to tell. Session legend Joe Chambers for example, soon to open The Musicians Hall of Fame, his own museum dedicated to the many talented session players who delivered the music behind the hits, has a belly full of them. "Let's face it " he says "if you found out Jimi Hendrix never played on his hits, you'll sure want to know who did!" Joe's seemingly endless supply of amazing tales has me mesmerised over our lunch together and then, as we part, he throws out another; "That corner of Wedgewood and 8th right by the lights? Roy Orbison lived in a small apartment there and wrote Pretty Woman when he looked out the window and saw a girl walking past."

And then with a wave he's gone.

I come for a peek at another new museum soon to open. Johnny Cash is naturally a legend in Nashville, but surprisingly, there's been no official museum since Johnny and June's home in Hendersonville, The House of Cash, closed back in 1999. I'm amazed and delighted to find his brother Tommy waiting to show me around. Due to open November 2012, this new museum in a vintage red brick building in downtown will contain many artefacts donated by the Cash family members and through the efforts of legendary memorabilia collector Bill Miller. Just the facade and gift shop is finished but it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how this 18,000 square foot of space will be used. As we walk around, Tommy tells me how as Johnny's younger brother, he got to hang out with musical legends;  "Elvis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, they were all friends with Johnny and we all used to go out together. Elvis gave me a red and black jacket which I cherished, but lost it after I got drafted."

Not far from here, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum beckons.40,000 square feet chronicling everything from the roots of country to today's cross over stars. It's latest exhibit is exploring the Bakersfield Sound; where artists such as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens pioneered a honky tonk Californian twist on the more traditional Nashville music. I even have time to wander round a small exhibit on Patsy Kline, and listen to a recording of just her singing with everything else stripped out. Pure and magical.

No trip to Nashville would be complete without a night at the Grand Ole Opry, the world's longest running radio show. Touring around backstage I bump into Billy Ray Cyrus arriving for his headline spot; proof the Opry is still a show that pulls in the big guns. Then again, attending the Country Music Awards and watching Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris and Richard Thompson wasn't too shabby either.

Spending time in Nashville has been a fascinating journey through musical history. It's a place that's constantly reinventing itself yet still fiercely celebrates its glorious heritage. For me though, it was back to Elvis' old piano for another quick tinkle.

Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau

 Andy's professional web site




Saturday, 27 October 2012

Cruising the Baltic with Regent Seven Seas Voyager. Can you really leave your wallet at home?

So I'm standing outside my room, dressed in a fluffy white robe, a glass of red in one hand and a canapé in the other, making small talk with the immaculately dressed couple from the suite next door. Spotting an American accent, I casually ask  "Where are you from then?" to which they reply, " Oh, central London, we live next door to Harrods. Are you familiar with it?" This was the moment I decided the fluffy robe was probably not my best look and mentally cursing for even thinking about wearing it, but then again this was the famous Regent  'block party' a whirlwind doorstep tour by Captain John Mcneill to share an informal toast with his loyal subjects as we mingle together in the corridors in whatever mode of attire we desire.

Regent Seven Seas cruises are all classed as "six star", an all-inclusive, all suite luxury experience where everything is included; all drinks, meals in any of the restaurants, unlimited excursions, all staff gratuities, 24 hour room service and even flights and transfers to your ship. Regent claims it's possible to cruise and leave your wallet at home and as I love a challenge, I'm on a mission to see just how true that claim might be.

The Baltic is an extraordinary sea bounded by Russia, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania and Poland (and on this ten day cruise you get to visit all of them except Poland and Lithuania) and five capitals - Copenhagen, Stockholm, Riga, Tallinn and Helsinki. Add Saint Petersburg to the mix and you're in for a pretty diverse cruising experience.

The Seven Seas Voyager dominates Copenhagen's port skyline as I arrive at the terminal having spent a couple of nights in Denmark's delightful capital. The retail therapy of Stroget,(perhaps the longest pedestrian shopping street in the world), the medieval cobblestones and canals of Christianshavn, the Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Liebeskind, the architect behind New York's new World Trade Centre site and the gastronomic delights of the city's 13 Michelin rated restaurants including NOMA, voted best restaurant in the world three years running.

But now Voyager beckons; her 12 decks looking remarkably clear considering most of her 700 passengers and 450 crew are already aboard. My bags disappear as if by magic, whisked away with a whispered promise of unification in my suite. "it's just luggage sir, not for you to worry about anymore". So I don't, I move on, check in and get my next surprise; my suite has been switched to Penthouse level. No standard 350 metre suite with balcony, king size bed and marble bathroom for me, I've got a butler on tap, an IPad to play with, an espresso machine and Hermes accessories on top of the standard L'Occitane fare, not to mention priority status for booking the two specialist restaurants on board and all the excursions and an hour's free satellite internet access.

This is all going rather well then.

Still basking in the glow of my newfound Penthouse status and just because I can I celebrate with two lunches from the three venues on offer. A spectacular 3 course buffet in Voyager's Italian restaurant La Veranda (which doubles as an excellent fine dining bistro in the evening) and another nibble or two by the poolside buffet  just for the hell of it. While we're on the subject of food, Voyager has five restaurants to choose from, Compass Rose, the main dining room; the aforementioned La Veranda and pool side bistros and two intimate fine dining venues, Prime 7 and Signatures which are reservation only  due to their limited seating. That said, there is a bountiful choice of fish and vegetarian options at all the venues and a seemingly endless free supply of fine wines, cocktails and spirits to wash it all  down with. Fully certified kosher and glatt kosher menus including wines can be provided to any passenger on request before you travel.

 I work off my two lunches by exploring the ship's twelve decks on foot, although there are plenty of lifts to silently whisk you up and down. Just one level above the pool and Jacuzzis I find the golf nets and jogging track; down a few levels, the impressively two tiered Constellation Theatre where  the nightly shows take place; the Canyon Ranch Spa and fitness centre where you can top up your wellness have a facial and indulge in daily group fitness activities; the Horizon Lounge, perfect for an afternoon tea or a late night cocktail; the Observation Lounge with its floor to ceiling wrap around windows, just the place for some romantic star gazing and decks 4 and 5 at the very heart of Voyager, the casino, the nightclub, the boutique shopping and internet, and main reception where all the on shore guided excursions are booked. Back in my suite, I browse through them, picking out a Jewish heritage tour of Riga as a potential highlight and with a quick call I'm booked in. As it happens I'm keen to see the sights, but if I didn't fancy leaving the ship, I could immerse myself in a full programme of organised activities or just lay on a lounger and soak up the sun.

Each evening the ship sets sail and waking up in a new country every day I find myself quickly settling into a routine mainly based around eating; it's hard not to as the service and the quality of the food is so impressive. An excursion around the delightful medieval Gotland port of Visby in Sweden is marred by my nagging urge not to miss lunch. I make it back. Just. Then a planned afternoon enjoying the quaint German beach resort of Warnemunde was abandoned once I realised it would interfere with an afternoon tea extravaganza involving 35 different types of cheesecake. Even my butler Mark insists on bringing champagne and canapés for me to snack on my balcony in the early evening before dinner. He is quite something. Silently adjusting my in room amenities in line with my particular trends. Noticing for example I only drink still water, he dispensed with the fizzy; seeing I enjoy espresso he brings additional sachets of coffee. Intuitive service doesn't get any better than this.

.A  tour of the galleys with Executive Head Chef Jonathan Smid reveals the sheer scale of the food operation on a cruise. "I have a team of 85 chefs and it's all about logistics" he reveals" we go through over 4,000 bottles of wine and 12,000 eggs a week and 500 pounds of fish and 475 steaks a day. There's no finer thing for me than getting off at each port and visiting the local markets to buy fresh produce; in fact this morning  I just bought 20 kilos of Pelmeni mushroom dumplings." My stomach begins to rumble once again.

I share a dinner table one night with Roger and Suzanne from north west London, seasoned cruisers also enjoying the Regent all inclusive experience for the first time. "The biggest difference for us is the lack of crowds in the restaurants" says Roger "No queues or sittings for dinner, no pushing and shoving at the buffets, just relaxed and sophisticated dining"

Learning a lesson from my recent Block Party experience, I dress casually elegant and join some of my fellow passengers for an evening down in the Horizon Lounge listening to a highly talented Filipino trio sing the Great American Songbook, a feat of wonderment in itself. I sit alongside Larry, a gentleman from Texas and like all Texans he is a very big man indeed (I get a flash in my head of Chef Jonathan's daily steak total suddenly seeming a little understated). Big Larry has been on all three of Regent's luxury 6 star fleet and assures me "Yes sir, they are a fine bunch of boats".

So is this really a cruise that includes everything? So far, I have wined and dined myself into a stupor, been on five excursions and had my butler at my beck and call without shelling out a bean. Yes, there are one or two chinks in the Regent 'all inclusive' armour. Spa treatments are chargeable extras, as are external calls and satellite internet fees and the more extravagant excursions such as a guided day trip to Berlin or a high speed train tour to Moscow. These are optional extras though and not really counted as part of the all in deal.

However, when the taxi took me to the airport for my free flight home, I was convinced this would be it, the chance to pay the fare myself. Instead, with a dismissive wave, the driver tells me "It's Ok sir, Regent's taken care of it."

All-inclusive cruises in the Baltic/Northern Europe with Regent in 2013 start from £3,499 per person (based on two people sharing an H category deluxe balcony suite).  A 10-night cruise between Stockholm and Copenhagen in 2013 starts from £4,869 per person.  Fares include: return flights and transfers (Business Class flights for bookings in Penthouse Suites and above), free and unlimited shore excursions, all fine dining, beverages and gratuities and 1 night pre-cruise hotel stay.

Reservations: 02380 682280.


Friday, 31 August 2012

New Orleans takes another hurricane pounding

I visited New Orleans last July for the very first time, and loved every minute of it. The characters, the music, the history, the food, all combine to provide a very unique experience. There is still a lot of recovery work outside of The French Quarter that is being undertaken from the devastation of Katrina, so I was deeply saddened to hear of the city getting hit once again,  7 years on to the day.
Fortunately this time around the new defences stood firm although once again, thos people in outlying districts face more harships and repairs.

There is an amazing spirit and resolve in New Orleans and it is heartening to see Hollywood stars who hail from the area  putting a lot of finance and time into helping it recover. Too all my new friends over there, let's hope this latest set back doesn't make too much of a dent in the recovery process.

I left my heart in Sedona

I was in Sedona, Arizona last week and although it may well be overdeveloped and perhaps a little too touristy for my liking, it is without doubt a beautiful part of the world. The iron infused mountains are simply stunning and I was fortunate to see them close up from a helicopter. Not any old chopper, I might add, but one with no door panels - just me and fresh air on both sides! it was quite simply one of the most breathtaking things I have experienced and should be a must do on anyone's checklist for a trip to Sedona.
There is still a new age hippie thing going on there in spite of its wealthy residents, and I have to admit, there is something very spiritual about those glorious red rocks. May the vortex be with you.

Friday, 24 February 2012

5 Live interview Costa Concordia

Following on from my News 24 appearance I got a call from 5 Live to do an interview following the Concordia disaster. It's funny how suddenly travel writers become experts in cruise ship construction, fleet history and cruise liner procedures!
Having said that, I knew somehow my experiences on numerous ship bridges getting instruction on ship handling and manouvers would come in handy one day.
I'm pretty certain I was one of the first journalists to come out and say it sadly had to be human error.
You can listen to my interview on my website

BBC News 24

Had an early morning call on the golf course from the BBC to appear on the midday bulletin, so as the round wasn't going too well it was a good excuse to leave.
Rushed home for a quick shower and change and waited for the car to take me to the studios. When I arrived there was no time to dally, it was straight into make up, a quick drink of water and I was on.

The story was about Britain's £30million investment marketing GB around the world inviting friends and family to visit us during our Olympic and Royal Jubilee year.

It always amazes me how quick people criticise any initiative that costs money. Yes it is a lot of money, but let's face it, firstly how many opportunities do you get to put your country in front of the world wide audience the Olympics will provide?  And second, we have a royal family, and we should celebrate that fact. The Diamond Jubilee is landmark event, so just for once let's enjoy this year and stop moaning about the cost.

It was certainly good to put my point across on national television. Kind of cathartic.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Betting is becoming all too easy

It seems in these days of economic hardship, as if getting hold of cash was difficult enough, we are being bombarded with opportunites to lose it just as quickly. How can it be justified to allow betting companies to invade seemingly every waking moment of our lives with an opportunity to place a bet on anything.
Smart phones are obviously an easy route in, but the format has become increasingly sophisticated. In game betting is common place, for example you can pick up the phone just before a free kick or corner is taken in a live football match and bet on whether a goal will be scored, or who will score next. Many of these betting companies will even give you some cash just to get you started.
Is it really wise tempting people who very often cannot afford it into getting into debt on the small chance they might win something?
I think it has all got out of hand and something needs to be done now. It is almost as bad as cigarettes so why not ban ads for betting in the same we have for smoking.

The great parking rip off. Councils should be ashamed of themselves.

I was close to losing it this week and all because of parking charges . Is there no end to the wicked things those devious town hall suits conjur up? I'd like to point out that I am a pillar of the community, and wherever possible abide by the local laws like every good citizen should. However, when I come across a plan that is designed purely and simply to generate funds in a devious way, then quite frankly my gloves must come off.
The council in all its wisdom, sees fit to set local parking charges at tariffs that ensure you will never have the correct change with you. And just to make matters worse still, the ticket machine will not supply change of course. So what do you do? You end up throwing away cash and printing out a ticket for a lot more than you need to because you can't leave your car to get change in a shop as someone is bound to ticket your car for not having a parking ticket!
In this day and age getting a machine to provide change would be a simple adjustment however that would mean the council would be out of pocket wouldn't it?

I would really love to know just how much money it makes from funds accrued in this way. Shame on you Enfield you should know better.