"It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is 'soporific'"
Beatrix Potter, English writer and conservationist
CITIES

It's hard to top the fun of exploring a new city. Whether they are famous or infamous, full of tourists or never really seen any, the pleasure of finding interesting sites, good places to eat, and tracking down the nightlife is one of my most favourite in travel.

Even in well-known city break cities it pays huge dividends to veer from the beaten track to find places that more authentically reflect the texture of a city. And perhaps even better for me, is the joy of dropping into cities that I'd barely, if at all heard of before visiting...







UNUSUAL HOTELS
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A few aircraft are having their own second lives - as bars, restaurants, hotels, and even a tree-top villa...
posted by Richard Green on 25/01/2017
 

Jumbo Hostel, Stockholm 

At Stockholm's Arlanda airport there's a Boeing 747 equipped with flatbeds; and whether you're in first, business or economy class, you get a bed and it'll cost you from $70. The catch is that you don't go anywhere - or even leave the ground.

It's called the Jumbo Hostel and the old jet is parked up just outside the perimeter fence of the airport's taxiways. As a stopover, it's a lot of fun, and it's even practical if you arrive late or depart early on a flight to or from Stockholm.

The Jumbo Hostel Lounge is in the former first class nose section of the old 747

The experience is delightfully tongue-in-cheek. I climbed the steps and entered the fuselage to be greeted with a "Welcome aboard" from a smiling girl in cabin crew uniform. After check-in I was told - 'complete with hand gestures' - that there were "Two toilets at the front of the cabin, and six at the rear..."

There are 29 rooms - some dorms and some private doubles/triples, the latter with a double bed and a single bunk above. All are small and span about five windows - original oval aircraft style ones of course - plus there are eight full-sized shower cubicles at the back of the plane.


Sleeping in a grounded plane fuselage is surreal, and after years of flying my brain was tricked into some strange double takes.

Looking out of my windows at the snowy airport and passing planes, I kept thinking we were about to taxi for example. And while the noises of nearby take-offs and landings were well muffled, sounds from inside seemed amplified. A hair dryer firing up at 5am next door had me fumbling for the brace position.

Several of the staff are ex-cabin crew, among them Rod, who took me on a little tour of the plane. "This Jumbo was delivered to Singapore Airlines in 1976 and flew with Cathay and Pan Am, amongst others," he said enthusiastically.

In the nose section of the plane he showed me the reception/lounge area, now with a fitting 70's style logo, bright orange seats and small candle lit tables. We climbed the spiral staircase into the upper deck bubble of the plane where a lounge uses old business class seats.

Forward of that is the cockpit suite, with some of the old instrument panels intact and great views of the airport.

Next morning in the lounge, my breakfast was brought on a plastic tray just as though I was on a flight - a witty touch with cellophane covering small plastic bowls of fruit and yoghurt.

“We get the food from the same catering company that the airlines use,” said the hostess/ hotel receptionist/comedienne. Of course these days you can lie flat in business class on many airlines, but they'll cost you a heck of a lot more. And they're not nearly as much fun.

Taking the sleeping in an old plane idea to extremes, even the engines are converted into cabins

Get to the Jumbo Hostel on the free transfer bus 'ALFA' that connects the terminals (5am till midnight, every 15 minutes and a journey time of five minutes). See Jumbo Hotel

                                                                                        ***
A few more plane crazy venues...

Hotel Costa Verde, Costa Rica

On the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the tiny Miguel Antonio National Park is famous for its beaches, sloths and monkeys. But near the park entrance is a fuselage that juts from the forest on a 50ft pedestal - a 1965 vintage Boeing 727 that once flew for Columbian flag carrier, Avianca. It's now a two-bedroom suite, with bizarre teak fittings, kitchenette and an over-wing terrace with ocean views. See Costa Verde

The Costa Verde Treehouse, where one Avianca Boeing 727 went to die. Photo Costa Verde 

Wings & Waves, USA

Not your average waterpark, Oregon's Wings & Waves just happens to have an Evergreen Airways Boeing 747 planted on its roof. And not only that, but the aircraft has been incorporated into the experience with the addition of a couple of waterslides twisting into the pool below from its fuselage. See Wings & Waves

Two waterslide tubes swirl down from the jumbo jet and into the pool below. Photo Wings& Waves

Next door are the two giant hangars that make up the Evergreen Museum, the star attraction of which is the original Howard Hughes Flying Boat H-4, or Spruce Goose as it is usually known - a gigantic eight-engined wooden flying machine that flew just the once, 70 years ago. Other aircraft on display include the B-17 Flying Fortress, SR-71 Blackbird, and a Titan II Missile.

Hotel Suites, Netherlands

Drive by the aerodrome at Teuge in eastern Netherlands and you'll spot a gleaming old propeller plane. The cockpit is much as it was when built in 1960, but everything else inside this smartly restored Ilyushin-18 is unrecognisable from the days when Erich Honecker, former leader of the German Democratic Republic, and his cronies, used it as state transport. The single Airplane Suite has luxurious white decor, three flat-screen TV's, kitchenette, Jacuzzi and sauna. See Hotel Suites

The spruced up exec-jet style interior of Honecker's old Ilyushin. Photo Hotel Suites

Keramas Aero Park, Indonesia

Twenty kilometres east of Bali's capital, Denpasar, is the Keramas Aero Park, centred around a plane on a plinth. It's a 33-ton ex Lion Air aircraft that's been converted into the 'Inflight restaurant and bar', serving Indonesian favourites, plus Chicken Chasseur and BBQ spare ribs, for 125,000 Indonesian Rupees (£7). The Ground Bar splays out over the lawn and is popular with locals. See Keramas Aero Park

The Ground Bar and Restaurant, with a repainted ex Lion Air 737 looming aobove it. Photos Keramas Aero Park 

Aircraft Cafe, Ethiopia

Ten miles northwest of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in the small settlement of Buraya, is an old 737-200 that has been turned into a cafe. It's a pretty relaxed affair and does a good turn serving the fiery local honey-wine called Tej. Some of the honey comes from a bee colony that has spontaneously chosen to set up a hive in part of the rear galley.

Oddly, this particular plane never actually flew for Ethiopian Airways. It was in fact delivered to Saudi Arabian Airlines in 1972, before being bought by Djibouti based Silver Air in 2005.

Lily Airways, China

Two hours flying time west of Shanghai is the the capital of Hubei Province, Wuhan - a city of 10 miilion people. Inspired by Stockholm's Jumbo Hostel, the new owner spent 5.2 million US Dollars on a bancrupt Batavia Air Boeing 737 that was unservicable and parked up at Jakarta Airport. He chopped into several large sections and transported it by ship and road to Wuhan.

Diners 'board' the restaurant by means of a real airport glass jetty, and are then served by waiting staff who have been selected along similar criteris to real cabin crew - in the sense of looks, height and deportment. 

   

The Lily Airways restaurant, complete with boarding jetty 

Runway34, Glattbrugg, Switzerland

You can't dine on board, but instead in a hangar with a 1957 Ilyushin Il-14 inside. It was flown from Moscow Zhukovsky Airport to Zurich in 2005. Runway 34

DC-6 Diner, Coventry, UK

This DC-6 was built in 1958 and was used by the Civil Air Transport of Taiwan, and after passing through several airlines over its working life, was retired in 2006, and made its last flight from Deenethorpe Airfield to Coventry, sporting Air Atlantique colours. See DC-6 Diner

Ristoaereo, Rome, Italy

Ristroaero is a Convair Metropolitan 440 built in San Diego in 1957. The aircraft was first acquired by Alitalia and was subsequently used by Italian presidents Giovanni Gronchi and Giuseppe Saragat. The restaurant serves a Mediterranean menu of al carte and 4-5 course set menus. Ristoaereo

Air Restaurant, Czech Republic 

The Air Restaurant is an old TU-104 aircraft, which was made in 1950 in the former Soviet Union. Ústí nad Labem is 90 kilometres north of Prague. Air Restaurant

The Air Restaurant Tu-104 exterior and interior. Photos Air Restaurant

Woodlyn Park, New Zealand 

A couple of miles from New Zealand's Waitomo Caves is Woodlyn Park. Hosting cultural shows and quirky (but basic) accommodation, you can choose between a 1918 railway carriage, 'Hobbit Underground Motel', WWII patrol boat and a 1950s Bristol Freighter. The plane served in the Vietnam War, but now has a cockpit and a tail section self-catering unit, each sleeping a family of four. See Woodlyn Park

 

Woodlyn Park's Bristol Freighter cum caravanette. Photo Woodlyn Park 

Rumba Nautica, Ecuador

I stumbled across this forgottten fuselage in Coca, Ecuador. It sits at the confluence of the Coca and Napo Rivers in the far west of the Amazon rainforest. I was heading down to a river transfer to the lovely Sacha Lodge for a dose of rainforest and wildlife, when I spotted this abandoned plane near to the town's main river jetty. The aircraft is a F28 Fokker Fellowship - it flew with local carrier Icaro Airlines until overshoting the runway in 2008. It ran as the 'Nautical Party' nightlub for a time, but these days it has closed and sits stranded on a pontoon.   

The Rumba Nautica F-28 beached in Coca. Photo My Bathroom Wall


WILDLIFE WATCHING
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Madagascar is marvellous, but its timid and ragtag looking lemurs weren't quite the star turn I'd expected...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Kicking back at the Irhana Bush Camp. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I saw my first lemurs in the Amber Mountain National Park. There were maybe ten in the troop, swaying on branches right in front of me. But it wasn't the thrill I'd expected after travelling 9,000km to the impossibly exotic-sounding island of Madagascar.

They looked like toys made from leftovers and they're as timid as squirrels. Yes they can peel fruit quickly, but they're not as entertaining as Orangutans, as exciting as Chimpanzees, or as humbling as Mountain Gorillas.

Madagascar's star turn is its lemurs, but as with Disney's now-famous animation, perhaps both have obscured an island that has drifted from our consciousness like it drifted from the African continent some 165 million years ago.

Its sprawling capital is Antananarivo - an edgy crumbling city of two million people. Few locals looked African, and my guide Laliana explained that most Malagasys are descended from Indonesians who sailed across the Indian Ocean hundreds of years ago, and so the Malagasy language is in the Malayo-Polynesian group.

Madagascar got its independence from France, but in the north it was the Portuguese who arrived first, way back in 1543. I took a two-hour turboprop flight to Antsiranana, which is still known locally as Diego Suarez after the explorer (or more commonly, just 'Diego'). It's a ramshackle town with stout colonial buildings, a lighthouse, a tuna-canning factory, tremendous energy and more than a little charm.

Most tourists stay along the giant bay for the kite surfing, but I was driven 25 kilometers south to Joffreville; a colonial era outpost of houses on a hillside by the Amber Mountains National Park.

Strolling the cobbled main street - actually the only street - I heard sweet singing floating from a church, and was greeted with "Bonjour Monsieur" by lads returning from the fields. In a shack selling eggs, tomatoes and beer, I was asked to dance by an elderly lady. I fear my efforts not to offend made the royal tour gyrations of Prince Charles look hip.

The homely Lichi Lodge. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The five-room Lichi Tree Hotel tops the town and is owned and run by a pony-tailed Frenchman called Herve. A former NGO worker, he told me over home-cooked beef stew that it was built in 1902 as a summer residence for the colonial governor, Marshall Joffre. Herve lives on site and opened his dream project in 2008, with lush gardens, lots of local carvings in the rooms and a Moroccan themed lounge/bar area off the dining room.

It's only four kilometers to the national park's entrance, but the dirt road is in a shocking state. I saw one cattle cart being helped by villagers to escape the worst crater, and even our Land Cruiser was strained.

On the humid rainforest walk, leaves drip-drip-dropped with moisture and the air smelt of wet soil. My naturalist guide Philippe showed me an adult Stump-tailed chameleon the size of a kidney bean, the astonishingly effective camouflage of a leaf-tailed gecko, and a downy Madagascar Scops Owl asleep in a tree.

He told me that locals threaten their misbehaving children with nighttime kidnapping by lemurs, and that the ones I had seen were Sanford Browns. He also explained that Lemurs lived across Africa; then monkeys evolved with bigger brains and powerful bodies and wiped them out - except on Madagascar, which sailed (slowly) into the safety of the Indian Ocean to preserve many unique species.

"Eighty percent of Madagascar's flora and fauna are endemic," said Philippe, who then told me all about his wildlife documentary filming with Martin Clunes, ("a very good man, very kind, very generous").

A Renault negotiating the N6 'highway'. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The National Road N6 sounds reassuringly M1-like, but it's not. It took three hours to cover 120 kilometers to the Ankarana Special Reserve, as the road hasn't been repaired since it was first laid in 1999, except for villagers who fix the worst potholes with loose stones and beg passing drivers. The going rate is 500 Ariary - about a penny. 

Closer to the reserve the scenery grew dryer; with sweeping plains and brooding hills that resemble South Africa's Highveld grasslands. We turned off onto a dirt track and passed palm-thatched villages where everyone waved enthusiastically and children yelled "Bonjour Vazaâ" (hello white).

Arriving at the delightfully chilled Iharana Bush Camp was a treat. It's a rambling wood-built lodge beneath a fat thatch, scattered with carvings and large cushions. It looks across a lake to 200-meter high cliffs, rock walls that blaze in fiery oranges and reds at sunset. Best enjoyed with an icy bottle of THB beer.

Next morning we drove to the 'tsingy cliffs' a high ridge of stone pinnacles that were once coral formations on a prehistoric seabed. Guide Arthur took me into a gash in at the base of the rock.

He was perfectly insouciant; wearing a T-shirt with FBI on the front, translated as 'Fabulous Bachelor Inside' on the back, and a flimsy head torch - frankly I was nervous. No garishly illuminated stalactites, no classical music or gift shop. In fact there was no lighting or pathway at all, and nobody else. Just me, Arthur, two pathetically underpowered torches and eight kilometres of interconnected darkness.

I wound my torch frantically and babbled, following along the sandy floor, gingerly squeezing through clefts, inching along ledges and clambering over boulders. We found stalagmites and stalactites, rock ceilings 35 meters above us, and cooking pot shards from tribes that hid here during times of fighting 200 years ago.

When Arthur said it was too difficult to go back the way we'd come, I stopped babbling and tensed further.

Thirty exhilarating minutes later we emerged into a canyon where orange-whiskered Crowned Lemurs were performing arboreal acrobatics. Seeing them unexpectedly, they seemed more suited to their otherworldly home.

Hell I even liked them for a moment.

The whole lemur themed adventure was real and raw, like everything in Madagascar. There are decent small hotels enough for touring, but out in the countryside it's visceral and at times difficult, but it makes for cracking frontier-feeling experiences.

***

04 Despite the grinding poverty in much of the country, Madagascar feels a safe place to travel through, providing you keep your wits about you. Travelling with a tour operator will ensure a level of quality in your local guide and accommodation.
24 If you chose wisely there are some super places to stay in the country, but I can't overemphasise the shockingly poor infrastructure. It pays to be patient and flexible in Madagascar, and not to cram too much into one trip. Road journeys are long and bone-crunching, with the exception of the more heavily touristed routes closer to the capital. 
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I travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours and Kenya Airways. Other UK-based tour operators to try include Cox & Kings, Cazenove+Loyd Wild Frontiers, and Intrepid Travel.

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The main gateway airport to the country is the Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo. Air Madagascar flies to Guanzhou, Johannesburg, Marseille and Paris. Other options include Air France to Paris, Air Seychelles to Mahe, Air Mauritius to Mauritius, Comores Aviation to Moroni and Anjouan, Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa, Corsair to Paris and Saint-Denis de la Reunion, Kenya Airways to Nairobi, and Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. Air Madagascar also flies domestically to 10 destinations, including Nosy Be.

30 Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.

DESTINATIONS
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A son et lumiere is no way to illuminate the past
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

I've always thought that expectation is a key factor in travel? I can stroll down a side street in Vilnius and discover a weird statue of Frank Zappa in a car park and be thrilled by the serendipity, yet if something has a tremendous reputation that proceeds it, then I'm often on standby for a gigantic squib.

The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, a Texan dude ranch, and any 'son et lumiere' anywhere, has left me decidedly disappointed...

Lighting some significant structure with garish beams and accompanying this with a booming soundtrack and trite narration, has always struck me as pointless. The majesty of the Pyramids at Giza is temporarily vandalised each evening just after sunset so that tourists can be packed into an open air viewing area and marvel at one of the world's wonders lit up lurid green and bright pink. 

The Son et Lumiere at the Pyramids - multi coloured madnesst. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The concept was the brainchild of Frenchman Paul Robert-Houdin, who hosted the first son et lumiere at the Chateau de Chambord in France, in 1952. The one at the Pyramids dates from 1961, and still attracts a sizeable audience nightly.

The Sphinx glowing orange; it's riddle emphatically unthreatened. Photos My Bathroom Wall

To the bashing of symbols and the hamming of an overly pathetic narrator, the great pyramids and sphinx are lit in green, blue and red, with unhelpful graphics and slides sometime appearing on the side of the face of the sphinx of the side of a wall. It all drives me potty quite frankly.

The real sunset is spectacular lighting enough; peaceful, natural and profound. Photos My Bathroom Wall

The best part of the 'show' is the naturally gorgeous sunset that sends the sky orange and purple as the pyramids themselves recede poignantly into the growing darkness. Yet at this point the queue to buy fizzy drink and snacks, to chat and update social media accounts seems to take centre stage rather than the great sandstone monoliths themselves. Then darkness falls, the crowd falls silent, and the spotlit piffle begins.

See Sound and Light, which also hosts son et lumier shows at the ancient Egyptian sites of Karnak, Philae, Edfu and Abu Simbel.

Where are other Son et Lumiere shows? There are a good few in France, some in the USA, and one at Masada in Israel.

Yet the strangest I ever saw is the one in Fez, Morocco. Instead of selecting one particular building to inflict the sound and light onto, the whole city is illuminated from a nearby hill. The huge spotlighting looks like something from the second world war, and there's a feeling of half a populace caught in the glare. It's truly appalling, and apart from learning nothing about the city, the most magnificent mediaeval city in the world looks ludicrous with a searchlight pointed into its face at close range.

 


TRAVEL PIONEERS
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A calamitous haircut in Freetown, Sierra Leone...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Not every holiday can or should be an adventure, but I do like building little micro-adventures into even an all-inclusive stay. One sure-fire way of meeting locals and of having a cheap and safe little dip into a foreign culture is to have a haircut on holiday.

I've done this ever since I can remember. Such an ordinary chore back home can often be turned into something enjoyable, insightful, or at the very least just downright cheap...

Though one haircut in Freetown, Sierra Leone, went horribly wrong...

A makeshift barbers on the steps of a derelict building in Freetown. Photo Richard Green

I visited in order to write a travel story on the fact that the country is long since at peace and is a friendly and fascinating and poised to welcome tourists again. And contrary to many other West African nations that bear the scars of the slave trade - usually in their string of coastal European built forts - Sierra Leone was founded for freed slaves to be repatriated to live a new life in. Hence the name of the capital city is Freetown, and the small archway by the shore isn't a door looking out to unimaginable suffering, but one looking inland through which newly freed slaves passed on their way to starting a new life in Africa.

The street buzz is terrific, as are the colours and cacophony, and the city feels extremely safe. Certainly on my visit I found that it felt every bit as welcoming and safe as Ghana, Senegal or The Gambia, Freetown felt on a smaller scale than Accra, had more character than Dakar, and a hell of a lot more too it than Banjul.

So having a little down time in Freetown I wandered towards this derelict old building that someone had told me was the former main building of the Fourah Bay College, the oldest university in West Africa. It was now a skeleton with a few small stalls around it, and a makeshift barbers at the top of the grand entrance steps.

The former Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827, and going strong today at a newer hilltop campus. Photo Richard Green

Paradoxically I don't actually enjoy having a haircut, which may be why I have my hair cut when travelling, as a distraction from the humdrum nature of it. It was certainly a little odd sitting at the top of the steps under a tarpaulin and attended to by this bare chested local lad.

The likely lad barber who said "My brother has the same hair as you". Photo Richard Green

The poor chap was quite nervous and it didn't take long for me to realise that something was awry. He lined up the scissors with my head carefully and then with a Jacques Tati tennis lunge, made a diagonal hack that sent hair falling down my face. Then he did it again, but on the other side of my head, and then made a bizarre parry to my right fringe.

Detecting that I was becoming nervous myself, he assured me that "my brother has just the same hair as you", and then using my indecision as cover he made a few more hacks at my hair. Even after a rather English and uncertain suggestion that he could stop now, he was still at it. The determination on his face imploring me wait just a little longer, when presumably he thought he could turn the situation around.

Beaten and a little deflated, he gave me up as a bad job. But we had a laugh over it, I paid him his 5,000 Sierra Leonian Leones (about 50p) and we shook hands.

A haircut about to go very wrong. Photo Richard Green

I then walked into a more conventional street and found a more conventional hairdresser. It was a little pink and loud for my taste, but it was a little emergency after all.

Before I said a word, the local woman stood behind me and forced her comb through the tufts on my head and shrieked hilariously - "What have you done to your hair?" She pulled at tufts with her fingers, saying "Why is your hair shorter here and at the front than it is here and at the back?" Her colleagues giggled as they passed behind me and much mirth was derived by the shambles on my scalp, but all in a very good natured way.

Mountain Cut, an immensely characterful street leading down to the sea in Freetown. Photo Richard Green

Her emergency repairs worked, and though I paid about five times the amount I'd coughed up to the bare chested bloke, I could at least feel a little more comfortable about walking the streets.

 A side of the road barber's that I didn't get chance to try. Photo Richard Green


EUROPEAN CAPITALS OF CULTURE
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Umeå 2014; a small far northern Swedish town rich in Sami heritage and quirky culture
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Umeå waterfront. Photo Guillaume de Basly/imagebank.sweden.se

A woman in national costume plopped three lumps of cheese into my coffee and when I asked the reindeer herder his name, he chanted like a Native American for thirty seconds and then said, “but people call me Jorgen”.

I knew I was somewhere strange.

In fact I had landed in one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2014; a small city of 100,000 people 400 miles north of Stockholm called Umeå. Unheard of outside Sweden, it’s an odd choice for a cultural capital.

The opening ceremony was carried off regardless of this, with a barmy extravaganza on the frozen River Ume. Thousands of locals huddled to see reindeers on ice, illuminated quadcopters performing acrobatics, and heard big-noise Sami singers from Finland, Iceland, and Sweden.

The Sami, by the way, are traditional reindeer herders and Europe’s only indigenous people. They live around Umeå and right across the far north of Scandinavia - a tough and much maligned group who from my short experience in their ancestral homelands bear the fragility of their way of life against the marauding southerners with dignity and warmth. 

Anyway, known as the ‘City of Birches’, Umeå has grid-patterned tree-lined streets, planted after a massive fire in 1888. They make up a rebuilt town of uninspiring architecture, except for the pretty church and old prison that survived the fire.

The ladies and gentlemen of the press mirrored in the Bildmuseet. Photo My Bathroom Wall

And then there’s the Bildmuseet a new cube structure just along the waterfront. Inside was a swing in a huge box lined with mirrors by Thilo Frank, a snakeskin mask made by surrealist femme fatal Leonora Fini, and a local Sami artist asking through photography, ‘Can sorrow be inherited?’

Next door I toured one of the world’s leading design academies, part of Umeå University. There were cool desks and workshops, concept model cars and furniture, and an inflated rubber dingy in the corner of one room - marooned purely to ponder in.

Umeå in winter. Photos Guillaume de Basly/imagebank.sweden.se

Importantly though, I needed to find somewhere cheaper than £8 for a small glass of larger where I'd been walloped in the wallet the night before. So asked the students for cheap eats recommendations and was soon sitting in a chalet style restaurant called Dorsken (dorsken.se). Here £8 bagged me a hearty Smörgåsbord of meatballs, poached salmon, salads, cakes, and coffee - phew.

That night was the opening of Guitars, The Museum - a shop, restaurant and music venue with a top floor display of 500 electric guitars amassed by the secretive Åhdén twins. There were no crazy rock and roll stories though, just a name and date on each instrument. “We are interested in the guitars, not in who played them”, said either Samuel or Michael, awkwardly.

Next day I visited the Västerbottens museum. It has boats, reproduced rock paintings, mournful photographs of the Sami’s disappearing way of life, and racks of skis. All the skis looked remarkably similar, even though they dated from 1835 to the 1980’s. Antiques impressive enough for me, till I saw the showcased 5,200 year-old-example.

As for that coffee and singing…

Well, at the Sami cultural Institute there was a talk on Sami way of life, which ended with a warning. “Go visit the reindeer herder outside,” said the host, “but roads and dams are destroying his grazing land and if you ask him about it, he may cry”.  

A moving presentation on the Sami the way of life at their cultural centre. Photo My Bathroom Wall

On the way a Sami woman in a richly embroidered tunic offered me coffee and dried reindeer meat, and ‘one lump or two’ in these parts really does refer to cheese. It’s called ‘coffee-cheese’ apparently, and is a new Sami tradition.

Jorgen the reindeer herder didn’t cry, but I nearly did. With snow falling and his animals and two kids behind him, he ‘yoiked’ his name (which is what the chanting of a name or place or emotion is called), and then yoiked his love for his father too.

His guttural evocations are my strongest memories from Umeå – a cultural capital without any hop-on-a-plane must-sees, but with some unexpected rewards.  

Jorgen's reindeer in their pen. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Where to eat: Socialize Socialize is a red wooden restaurant by the river, with a cosy cellar room, outdoor decking, and a menu of river fish, reindeer, smoked elk and even bear. The big and bold Rex Bar & Grill Rex Bar & Grill fills the old town hall with a trendy restaurant, bar, and nightclub - local treats include Whitefish Roe Toast, Smoked Arctic Char and Reindeer. Or Droskan is the place for a great value smorgasbord of meatballs, poached salmon, salads and deserts. It’s a couple of minutes stroll from the Bildmuseet, offering an all-you-can-eat lunch in ski chalet like surrounds for £8pp.

Where to stay: the 185-room Comfort Hotel Winn Comfort Hotel Winn is a smart new design-style place. Or the new Stora Hotellet is decorated in nautical themed noir.

puzzle

Umeå is remote, small and costly to get to, so Umeå isn't going to be a city break destination anytime soon. However, if you are interested in seeing somewhere very different, or in learning more about Sami culture, then it's a good place to start.

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Umeå Airport is five kilometers from the city centre, and handles just over a million passengers in 2016. Flights to and from Stockholm take an hour and are operated by BRA Braathens Regional Airlines, Norwegian, and SAS. There are direct flight to Helsinki too, with Finnair. Alternatively, Ryanair flies from Stansted to Skellefteå (a 90 minute drive from Umea). 

weather

The humid equatorial climate here means temperatures change little across the year - and average around 30°C. There is hardly any rainfal between May and December, which are the best months to visit. The rainy season here is a proper one, with over 120mm of rainfall in each of the wet season months.

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see Umea's stint as host city, 2014, and Visit Umea

My Bathroom Wall homepage photo Lola Akinmade Åkerström/imagebank.sweden.se


FLYING NEED TO KNOWS
   2418 views   
Before bagsying the best seat on a plane, you need to know which one it is, right?
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

For those of us not in scattered rose petal class, choosing a good seat - even in economy - can make for a far better flight

Find a good seat on a plane and you'll enjoy a quiet, smooth flight, with extra legroom, and a view of the Himalayas; a bad one and you'll be buffeted, half deafened, hemmed in on both sides, and next to a smelly loo unable to recline your seat.

Getting a good seat used to be all about smiling sweetly at the check in staff and hoping for the best. Now technology has put the choice in our hands, albeit at a price, leaving us to check in online or pick our seats at self-service machines.

So, it's important to know the difference between a good seat and a bad one, and which of the good ones is going to suit you best. Here are some general rules...

For more legroom.
Seats at the emergency exits have extra legroom, because they are further from the seat in front to assist a speedy evacuation. On larger planes, it can mean there is no seat in front, just a yawning gap to stretch out in. if you prefer easy access to your carry on luggage, note that in emergency exit seats, everything must be stowed in the overhead luggage racks for take off or landing. And some emergency exit seats don't recline (for example on an Airbus A320, the first of the two over-wing emergency exit seats).

For toddlers.
Most of us avoid the smells and commotion of the toilet and galley areas, but if you are travelling with a toddler, you'll benefit from a nearby loo, and the extra attention from the crew stationed in the galley.

Diagram showing some of the movement types that a plane will experience in flight

For avoiding turbulence.
The centre of gravity on a plane is just behind the front of the wing. Sit near it and you'll cut down the amount of movement during turbulence. The further from the 'centre' you move, and particularly to the rear of it, the bigger the up and down movements, called pitch (though not to be confused with 'seat pitch', which is a measure of roominess between seats), and the side to side movements, called yaws. Even during smooth flights, people susceptible to travel sickness are better off towards the 'centre' of the fuselage.

For nobody in front.
Larger aircraft have bulkheads, which are internal walls used to strengthen the fuselage. The row of seats immediately behind a bulkhead have a few extra inches of legroom. Also, there is no seat in front that can be reclined. Beware though, bulkheads mean bassinet positions too, which are where wall-mounted cots and screaming babies are usually located. And there's no floor storage, so bags have to be put in the overhead luggage racks for take off and landing.

For a quiet flight.
Jet engines push the noise out behind them, which makes the seats at the rear of the fuselage much noisier than those at the front. However, it's the reverse in a propeller plane, where the noise comes from the actual propeller blades cutting through the air. The blades are in front of the wing, so that the forward seats are nosier. Before advances in soundproofing, this explains why business class was often located at the back of prop planes.

For a view.
It's very annoying to book a window seat, and then find that you are sat by a blank wall. Often, there isn't a window at the row level with the front of the engines - where the fan blades rotate inside a jet engine, or the propellers on a propeller engine. For extra safety, engines can contain a snapped off fan blade inside the engine itself, but many aircraft types still have no windows here, to allow for reinforcing of the outer shell of the fuselage.

For not seeing business.
On smaller planes and short haul flights, the divider between economy and business can be a simple curtain across the back of the seats. There's nothing worse than sitting in this row and glimpsing the better service, or smelling the hot food from the cabin in front.

Airline Website will often have detailed seat maps of their aircraft, if not before, then certainly at the point where you check in. For good information seating plans and seats, see www.seatguru.com and www.seatexpert.com.

 


DESTINATIONS
   5172 views   
A Ferrari that does 0-60mph in two seconds using the catapult from an aircraft carrier. Riding the world's fastest roller coaster
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

The Formula Rossa roller coaster: and an aerial shot of the Ferrari World building, the world's largest indoor theme park

The Formula Rossa, at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, is the world’s fastest rollercoaster. It does 0-60mph in less than two seconds, uses the type of hydraulic winch that flings jets off aircraft carriers, and hurtles round the track at 150mph. All of which is fine, and very impressive, apart from one thing. I’m sitting in it. And I’m beginning to see red.

Everything here is red. The rollercoaster is red, the outside of this outlandish building — a giant space-age scarab next to the Abu Dhabi F1 circuit, and the size of seven football pitches — is red. The staff are dressed in red, the maps, showing the 20 rides (including three other coasters), are red. There’s even red on the ticket I wish I hadn’t bought. And it’s the colour of most of the 30 real Ferraris on display, sparkling like polished stones on rakishly angled plinths.

This is not me. I’m not the guy who does rollercoasters. I haven’t been on one since an ill-fated fling at Alton Towers many years ago left me trembly-lipped and traumatised. But when my (former) friends back on the Travel desk heard that I was going to be close to the world’s fastest rollercoaster, they seemed unusually enthusiastic that I should experience it. And so now there’s a squidgy foam-clad bar across my waist and people are looking at me sympathetically. I’ve surrendered my house keys. They say it’s so they don’t fly off on a bend and poke someone’s eye out in Cairo.

The seat rockets forward. My ribcage pushes backwards, emptying my lungs like a deflated whoopee cushion The seat surges — rockets — forward. My ribcage pushes backwards, emptying my lungs like a deflated whoopee cushion, and in five seconds — with no helmet or shoulder harness, sitting upright without an enclosing canopy — I’m travelling at more than twice the legal speed limit on the M1. And my face is rippling. At the end of the launch track, before my brain and body know what hit them, the carriages careen upwards: 170ft above the desert floor.

The backwards G-forces are joined by downward ones until there really is no whoopee left in me. I’m about to die in a stupid Ferrari-coloured shooting star across the blue Emirati sky. My stomach punches into my mouth like a surfacing rescue pod from a submarine, and I begin to swear.

I curse the first nauseating turn, which arcs just 5ft above the ground, I yell over the next long hump, the next dip, the next full-tilt curve, and on and on. At last there is another colour here as I turn the air blue. It is unrelenting — my language and the ride. There is no loop-the-loop, no watery flume, no made-you-jump ghost-train tunnel. It’s pure adrenaline, pure speed. And then, less than two minutes after it started, the carriages decelerate back to the starting position.

The end of the ride; and the beginning of the stupid grin. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I shake hands with young Amal sitting next to me — once stranger, now blood brother. And then, for the next few days, I wonder if the stupid grin on my face will ever go away.

I travelled as a guest of Etihad Airways. For more information on the theme park, see Ferrari World Abu Dhabi


DESTINATIONS
   5610 views   
The most brilliant day out from Dubai; the oasis city of Al Ain...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Drive east from Dubai or Abu Dhabi to the fabled oasis town of Al-Ain and their tangle of motorways swiftly gives way to flat featureless desert. But there was no movie style mirage of shimmering palms to greet me – as far from being a one camel town, this is a city of 600,000 people in the oil rich Gulf. So instead my first impressions were of numerous kitsch roundabouts with outlandish centre pieces - a giant coffee pot fountain, preening ibis and giraffe statues, and even a pop up waterfall.

Yet moments after parking I’d stepped back in time and was strolling through the ancient oasis with palm fronds swishing and birds chirping overhead, and the soothing sound of running water. In the dappled shade of the palm grove were mud built irrigation toughs known as falaj - a local technique that dates back three millennia.

Al-Ain’s 3,000 acres of date palms felt a world away from the UAE’s coastal bling, and my next stop was an impossibly cute fort. It looked more sand castle than military fortress, but unlike the pastiche heritage of Dubai or Abu Dhabi - where a large Beau Geste like facade is likely to be the entrance to a shopping mall - here it’s the real deal.

It's not a mall or the entrance to a golf course, it's a real 126 year old desert fort

It’s called the Al Jahili Fort and was built in 1891, with high mud brick crenellated walls and a four-story circular tower in one corner. Two immaculately dressed Emiratis’s greeted me as though I were expected. I explained that I had just called in as I saw a small sign saying museum, and with some ceremony, they asked me to follow a white- robed man.

I was led to a sitting area with plush red seats and fierce air conditioning, and presently the man returned to pour me a traditional Arab coffee and offer me a plate of succulent dates. 

The museum was free, the hospitality priceless, and inside its corridors I discovered a collection of Wilfred Thesiger photographs. I’ve long been fascinated by the great explorers, and here were wonderful black and white photos of the great British explorer and his Arab friends. He’s still known locally a Mubarak bin London after his crossing of Arabia’s Empty Quarter in the 1940’s.

Local children at the National Museum

By chance a figure emerged from a doorway across the sun blasted courtyard and being nosey, I discovered that it was the National Museum. It’s hard to know just how long it will maintain its current form, but for now it’s an endearing old-style museum with glass cabinets and typed labels. The oasis settlement was a crossroads for the caravan routes between the Gulf States and Oman, and here you’ll find old weapons, jewellery, pottery and coins.

At the other end of the spectrum is the snazzy new Qasr Al Muwaiji Qasral Muwaiji museum, opened in November that showcases the birthplace of Sheikh Khalifa (current ruler of the UAE) using transparent floors and raised walkways. Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum is another corking former home museum; this time dedicated to the revered Sheikh Zayed who founded the UAE.  

Surprisingly for such a harsh and remote environment, Hili Archaeological Park, seven miles north of the city are wellhead strongholds and tombs dating back some 5,000 years. On the main tomb I saw delicate carvings of humans and Oryx.

Cute camels yes, but the camel souk isn't for the faint-hearted; it's a noisy smell meat market too

Local wildlife is on view at the Camel Souk, which is unromantically parked behind the Bawadi Mall, and the Al Ain Zoo, big on conservation, is the place to view the beautiful Arabian Oryx – actually in the world’s largest man made safari park. The new Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre is here too – a state of the art building with superb displays and a space age auditorium.

Unlikely as it seems, I found a fabulous mountain road out here in the middle of nowhere. A local gave me exquisite directions to a petrol station – perhaps echoing the need for precise directions to wells in days gone by – and recommended I should drive up Jebel Hafeet.

The ludicrously high spec road to the top of Jabel Hafeet

Jebel is the local word for mountain, and although its craggy 4,050ft bulk is right on the outskirts of Al-Ain, it was lost to me in the heat haze until he pointed it out.

I soon found myself in Top Gear heaven on a three-lane highway switchbacking its way to the summit. At the top I parked up, grabbed a soft drink from a stall and marvelled at the sprawling town surrounded by fiery desert that is Al-Ain.  

One more thing...

Temperatures reach a frazzling forty plus degrees in summer – and even the high twenties in mid winter – so I'd suggest doing as the locals do and savour the cool of sunset. You could stroll to a café or a picnic in a park, but my favourite option is the superb mountainside terrace of the Mercure Grand, about a mile from the summit of Jebel Hafeet.

Nightime view of the Jebal Hafeet road snaking down the side of the mountain

***

Getting there: the vast majority of tourists heading to Al Ain simply drive there from Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

Further information: see the Al Ain section of the Visit Abu Dhabi Website.


UNUSUAL HOTELS
   5507 views   
A former radar station protecting the Panama Canal - now The Canopy Tower hotel, Panama
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Formerly a radar station used to protect the Panama Canal, the tower was converted into a hotel in 1995

Once a remote radar station that was built to guard the Panama Canal, the Canopy Tower is now a spectacular hotel conversion, just 30 minutes drive north of the capital, but surrounded by the pristine rainforest of the Soberania National Park.

First impressions are that the structure is a bit more rudimentary close up than the dreamy aerial shots make it look - so the ground floor reception is quite Spartan, with exposed pipes and girders, a few posters, plus unsurprisingly there isn't a lift.

The dining room is comfy and cosy, with 360 degree views of the jungle canopy

Each of the 12 room are very simply furnished, but they all have large windows overlooking the jungle, and no sooner had my backpack landed on the bed, I was suddenly overtaken by the total thrill of being in such an unusual place.

The dining area cum library is gloriously cluttered and has a wooden floor and 360-degree views above the canopy. The feeling is intimate and cosy - certainly nothing flash, and strewn with red and yellow striped fold-out director's chairs - but the simplicity is more than compensated for in the tremendous atmosphere, corking location, and the knowledgeable and friendly staff.

Toucans and three-toed sloths can be easily spotted from the rooms, the dining area, and the roof terrace

There is free coffee and juices throughout the day, an honesty bar, and hearty buffets at meals times. When I stayed the food was under the guidance of the owner's sister, who's a Panamanian celebrity chef. The salads were very inventive, the chicken in pesto and garlic super, and the Tiramisu - though unconventional in its consistency, was about the best I have ever had.

Tea and biscuits are served at dawn on the large roof terrace by the geodesic dome. The thick mist and was surprisingly chilly so early in the morning, but it burned off gradually to reveal terrific views out over the rolling hills of the national park.

I was probably the only person there who wasn't into bird watching and armed with binoculars and birding books, but even with little patience and no binocs, I saw parrots, toucans and monkeys, and the super surreal sight of ship superstructures cleaving the jungle as they glided along the canal.

Superstructures cleave through the jungle a couple of miles distant, and the simple decor of the rooms

A group of senior citizen twitchers from Houston persuaded me to go on the night drive, which I had imagined would be a tad on the dull and pointless side, but thanks to the affable expertise of Carlos the local guide, who literally charmed an owl down from the trees with his calls and was full of interesting information, I was very glad to have made the effort.

The highlight for me though was seeing four sloths hanging in the trees as though someone had thrown wet brown blanket over the branches.

puzzle

Fitting the Canopy Tower into a holiday: any trip to Panama should include a visit to the canal - either a quick call at the Milaflores Locks 13 kilometres northeast of Panama City, or a ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic  on the 1855-built Panama Canal Railway. But the Canopy Tower is a super way of combining a relaxing hotel with some wildlife watching, and the sight of large ships seemingly gliding through the jungle.  

31

Getting there: despite being located in the Soberania National Park, the hotel is only about a 90-minute drive from the centre of Panama City, or an hour from Panama City's Tocumen Airport. 

weather

When to visit the Canopy Tower: January-March is the high season, owing to lots of sun, little rain. March-May is the Spring migration, ideal for spotting warblers, raptors, and lots of fresh plumage. The rainy season is May-August is the rainy season, with heavy showers most afternoons, and reduced price room rates. Then September-early November sees the impressive 'fall migration' with hundreds of thousands of raptors overflying the tower on their way south.  

35

More info: see the hotel's site at Canopy Tower, and for more on Panama in general there's Visit Panama

30

Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.


BARS AND PUBS
   4950 views   
A beer garden that's stranded at high tide, the place where the Mayflower set sail from, and the world's smallest bar. London's best waterside pubs...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Sunset on the terrace of the White Cross in Richmond. Photo My Bathroom Wall

There is nothing better on a Summer's day to seek out of of London's many river and canal side pubs and bars. There are dozens of them, all grand for watching life on the water and for enjoying its cooling atmosphere. Here are five corkers...

The White Swan: a magnificent village pub in Twickenham overlooking Eel Pie Island and the grounds of Ham House. It's delightfully bucolic, brimming with bonhomie, and has the cutest garden terrace and grassy slipway at the front - ideal for summer lounging by the Thames. The terrace is surrounded by water at high tides - only for an hour or so - and a marooned sup is part of the summer fun. The clientele are a friendly bunch of dog walkers, rugby and rowing types - though it turns raucous on Twickenham match days and at the July pub-run raft race. www.thewhiteswanlondon.com

 

The Mayflower: pick a nook and prepare to be seduced by London's cosiest riverside drinking den. The flickering of antique lanterns gives the perfect glow and high-backed alcove seating makes chatting to strangers deliciously unavoidable. The pub is tucked away behind the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, by the wharf where the Mayflower ship set sail from in 1620, en route to Plymouth and the Americas. Its authentic patina has been augmented with blocks & tackle, splays of candlesticks and other assorted nauticalia, while the overwater terrace is a plum summer drinking spot and has a heated marque over it in winter. www.mayflowerpub.co.uk

 

The Palm Tree: this rollicking East End boozer is right by the Regent's Canal and surrounded by the Mile End Park. Step back in time and marvel at the bygone fittings; pleated red curtains above the horseshoe shaped bar, an ancient cash register that still goes "kerching", and an East End Fives dart board - peculiar looking with just 12 segments. Punters include students from the nearby Queen Mary University and plenty of East End characters. Foremost of whom are Valerie and Alf: they've run the place since 1977, dispensing exquisitely timed quips and good humour. There's live jazz and crooning for knees ups and sing-alongs at the weekends.

 

The Crate: opened in 2012 in a former factory by the Lea Navigation and Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the Crate is a rambunctious hipster hangout. Hackney Wick has the largest number of art studios in Europe and the clientele are suitably à la mode, here for the outstanding brewed-on-site beers, seven flavours of stone-baked pizza, and the superb cultural craic. Inside is trendy too, with exposed breeze block walls, light fittings of bare bulbs in bedsprings, and unisex toilets. Outside, the large area of trestle tables heaves in summer, facing the canal boats and graffiti art. www.cratebrewery.com

 

The Dove: well-heeled locals and lucky passer's by stop here for the Fuller's ales and good food served across three small rooms and a handsome conservatory. There's a barrel of history and quirk on offer too, with walls smothered in photographs of old London. Enter the unmarked door to the right - and outside - of the main entrance and you'll squeeze into the smallest bar in the world - just 4ft by 8ft. The music sheet on the wall in the main bar is Rule Britannia, written in 1720 by Dove regular James Thomson. Other tipplers of note have included Charles II and Nell Gwynn, Alec Guinness and Dylan Thomas, James May and Bill Bailey. The beer's local too, and you can see the chimney at Fullers Brewery from the two-tier terrace. www.dovehammersmith.co.uk


JOURNEYS
   5110 views   
All aboard the Trans Siberian Express - for trees, clean windows, talk of a moustache ban, and more trees...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

A long distance train journey is an easy way to lift a simple city break trip into altogether more rewarding. Often cheap and comfortable, a long train ride shows off the sweep of a region's scenery. Onboard life has a rhythm to it; talking to locals, to other travellers, finding the buffet, and washing.

An Indian train journey is hard to beat for its atmosphere, but there are great options in throughout  Europe, the Caucases, South East Asia and beyond. And then there is the buttock and brain-numbing, yet brilliant experience of the Trans Siberian Express.

St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, and the compartment of a 'local' train from Moscow to Perm. Photos My Bathroom Wall

Flickering past the train window are birch trees and patches of spring snow. And this ever-changing yet never changing scenery has become the surprising highlight of my time on the Trans Siberian Express. It’s slow travel at its best, where the chief thrill is the journey itself: the cosy carriages, on board camaraderie, and the constant edging forward across the vastness of Russia.  

The whole trip from Moscow to Beijing is a journey of 4,736 miles, which takes six days on an ‘ordinary’ through train, or 16 days on the Tsar’s Gold tourist train, which makes sightseeing stops along the way.

This German-run ‘cruising on wheels’ experience is for people who don’t fancy tackling the language barrier on regular Russian trains, or don’t have the £9,600 one-way fare for the most luxurious train on the route.

I boarded the Tsar’s Gold train in Yekaterinburg, just east of the Ural Mountains, for a three-night ride to Irkutsk, not really knowing what to expect.  

Cities soon give way to ramshackled wooden villages, and trees. Photo My Bathroom Wall

We chugged out of the city and passing the tiny kitchen at the end of the carriage, I entered the toasty dining car and began meeting the jolly group of about 20 English speakers. Most passengers on the train are German, but the ‘English’ group on this trip were Brits, Danes, Dutch, Italians, Americans, and a Spaniard. We were together for meals and tours.

It was nice to warm through, eat a hearty meal of fish salad, cabbage soup, and ‘beef in Russian Monastic Manner’, and move on from the gloomy spots that I’d visited before boarding in Yekaterinburg. In 1918, Tsar Nikolas and his family were shot, mutilated, and then dumped down a well there.

I learnt that it wasn’t just the imperial family who’s enforced journey eastwards was doomed, when after dinner, Larissa, the guide for us English speakers gave her evening talk on Siberia.

“It’s been a place of exile for 300 years, with perhaps 21 million inmates passing through the gulags in total”, said sparky Larissa. The majority of people were sent east during Stalin’s time, when he expanded the isolated prison camps. “Even on the trains” said Larissa, “There were gun emplacements on the top of the carriages and hooks underneath to kill anyone trying to escape”.  

I wouldn’t fancy anyone’s chances in this wilderness. Between the cities there was barely a sign of life; save for a meagre hut or two close by the train tracks every few hours.

Typical Siberian homestead, silver birch forests, and sunrise east of Novosibirsk. Photos My Bathroom Wall

I’d imagined that the size of towns would grow smaller and cuter as the train trundled further into Siberia, but Novosibirsk, the first stop after Yekaterinburg and 2,000 miles east of Moscow, was big and bombastic. Soviet era buildings here included the country’s largest opera house and a prominent Lenin statue flanked by five heroic workers.   

The imposing train station at Novosibirsk, 3,385 kilometres east of Moscow. Photo My Bathroom Wall

At Krasnoyarsk, while other passengers were having a city tour, I asked train manager Hans for a peek in all the carriages. Squeezing past a large man with a small vacuum cleaner, I entered the Classic category of cabin - a basic compartment with two bench seats that convert to four bunks, with shared toilets at either end of the carriage. It costs about £4,000 one-way per person.

“All of our classes include the same meals, and sightseeing”, said Hans, as we moved briskly down the corridor. The windows of the Nostalgia cabin, with one shower shared between two cabins, were being cleaned inside and out – “so our guests can always take good photographs”, he explained. At the front of the train were swish modern Bolshoi Class compartments with double beds and an en suit toilet and shower.

Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake, Siberia. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I caught up with the group walking towards the city with local guide Irena. Siberia may conjure an empty freezing wasteland to us, but almost 25 million people live here, in an area about the size of China.

Down by the river promenade, the spring sun was enlivening everyone’s spirits.  Sitting on the open deck of a large pleasure boat I fell into a backslapping beer-fuelled chat with some young Russian lads about football and pop music.

On my last night aboard the train I returned to my compartment tipsy from a robust vodka tasting evening with Larissa and the group. I fell asleep wondering if she had really said that Tsar Peter the Great had made dancing and moustaches compulsory?

We joked as the train approached Irkutsk – “yes Peter the Great really did that” beamed Larissa. Then after my 100-hour stint on the train, I popped back to the compartment for a last stare into the birch forests.

The monotony had become magical, the carriages homely, and several of the group were now friends. What a cracking experience, and what a wrench to leave for my six-hour flight back to Moscow.

***

I travelled as a guest of The Russia Experience

Some practical advice...

There are several Trans Siberian Express train services. They run along a series of tracks that that were started in 1891 and instigated by the Tsar Nicolas, who wanted to connect his imperial capital in Moscow with his eastern port of Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. Over the years branch lines were built to connect Russia’s far east to Mongolia and China - Moscow to Beijing via Russia’s east is called the Trans Manchurian Route, and dipping south sooner through Ulan Baatar is the Trans Mongolian route.

Which route to take? Well for me there’s a strong pull from the historic and original 6,000-mile route from Moscow to Vladivostok, but aside from its location at the end of the line, Vladivostok has little going for it in a tourist sense.

However, the most popular tourist routes by far are from Moscow to Beijing, which allows you to visit another of the world’s great imperial capitals. A whole week on a train is a bit much for anyone, and on the trip above I only travelled east as far as Irkutsk. The scenery to is monotonous east from Moscow, but it perks up considerably - so I'm told - on the Beijing route  through the Gobi Desert, but still you'll be cooped in a small cabin with few creature comforts, and dreadful coffee.

Most people make a couple of stopovers; in Irkutsk for Lake Baikal, and Ulan Bataar for the Terelj National Park.

What type of train? This question sort of answers itself once you see the price of the private trains. They are run to a very high standard, with sightseeing at each stop, all meals and a good guide to passenger ratio, but you are looking at about £11,000pp, without flights at either end. 

On the other hand, a trip on the regular train starts from about £1,300pp, with two nights accommodation in Moscow, three in Irkutsk and three in Ulaanbaatar.

Tour operators offering the posh Trans Siberian private trains include Regent Holidays and Steppes Travel. For the option of the ordinary 'local' trains, or the private tourist trains, there's the Russia Experience or On The Go Tours.

You won’t have to take instant coffee, powdered milk, and a mug – well advised on the regular passenger trains  – if you splash out on the Golden Eagle or Tsar’s Gold luxury tourist trains of course. They run just a few times per year, but offer comfortable 2-berth cabins (some even en suit) and off train sightseeing, air conditioning, and smart bar and restaurant cars.


CULTURAL QUIRK
   1188 views   
Cycloramas - virtual reality 19th century style...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Viewers arrive up the stairs and right into the thick of the famous 1812 battle. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Walking into the centre of a huge painting that is wrapped around the walls of a cylindrical and purpose-built building is still a pretty impressive experience. But it's hard to imagine the impact it must have had back in the 18th and 19th Centuries; a time before virtual reality, TV's or even the cinema. 

Bear with me, but the term 'panorama' was coined by the English painter Robert Barker (1739-1806) for his paintings of Edinburgh that were exhibited inside a large cylinder and called 'The Panorama'. The effect attracted such good crowds that the next year, in 1793, Barker constructed the world's first purpose-built panorama building on London's Leicester Square. 

The immersive experience, which grew to incorporate key diorama features of real items and scnery in the painting's foreground, were a smash hit in the UK and across Europe, and soon most large cities had a completely circular display building called a cyclorama. 

Built in 1962, the circular building that houses the Battle of Borodino Cyclorama. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The latter half of the 18th century saw the concept wain in popularity, but there are still a couple of handfulls of cycloramas arond the world, and I recently visited the one in Moscow, called The Museum-Panorama The Battle of Borodino

Detail of the fighting, with a manned trench in the background of the foreground. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Set back a little from the multi-lane Kutuzovsky Prospect and a few minutes walk from the Triumphal Arch (built from the original design in 1968 thanks to Stalin's dismantling of the original) and the World War II commemorative Victory Park.

A panorama of the panorama. Photo My Bathroom Wall

As luck would have it I arrived at the cyclorama on the 6th of June, which as the day that Hitler declared war on Russia in 1941, meant that the entry fee of 250 Rubles was waived for everyone. The museum that flanks the building is interesting - cue quite a few oil paintings of bedraggled men and horses - but I walked up the central staircase and up into the extraordinary sight of the Russian and French armies knocking the six bels out of each other. 

Spectator watches on as Kutuzov's cabin and command centre burns.Photo My Bathroom Wall

It's a shame that that the conceipt of a daiaroma looks so hackneyed these days, but then we are bombarded almost constantly with televiual stimulation now. But trying to look afresh, the playing with perspective, and with what is painted and what is modelled, makes for an effective blurring of boundaries. In their heydays the thrill of the panorama would have been boosted with lighting effects - to illustrate day and night, noises off to convey the roar of cannon and the moaning of men.

Knocked out canon position. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The Battle of Borodino was faught between the armies of Russia and France on the 7th of September 1812 at Borodino - a village sitting on the banks of the Moskva River some 128 kilometers west of Moscow. The panorama was completed in 1912 to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle, by Franz Alexeevich Roubaud (1856-1928), and measures 15mx115m. 

Portrait of Kutuzov and a family writing desk. Photo My Bathroom Wall

puzzle Moscow is underrated as a city break destination, largely because of the hassle and expense of getting a visa, plus owing to the relative distance from much of western Europe. The visa cost does make it tempting to visit St Petersburg in the same trip, or even to tour the famous Golden Ring of ancient Russian cities to the northeast of Moscow. 
31 Moscow has several airports, the largest of which are Sheremetyevo Airport, which is 29 kilometres northwest of Moscow, and handled 31m passengers in 2015, and Domodedovo, which is 42 kilometres southeast of the city and handled 30m passengers in 2015. There are flights to Moscow from all across Europe, plus from Asia, Africa and the Americas. See Aeroflot, S7 Airlines.  
weather The best time to visit Moscow is probably in the Spring, when temperatures reach the 50s and 60s, the sun shines for much of the days, and hotel prices are manageable. Summer are great too, with late evenings and warm temperatures - though it can get hot and gritty at times, plus very busy with tourists, and there is a spike in hotel prices. Winter has its special atmosphere in the city, but it can get extremely cold. 
35 For details see the Battle of Borodino, which is on Kutuzovsky Prospect roughly midway between the Park Pobedy and Kutuzovskaya metro stations. I travelled to Moscow as a guest of Political Tours, which specialises in running politically focussed tours in a number of the world's more contentious regions. Or try the Russia Experience or Cox & Kings. See the Russian National Tourist Office

***

Cycloramas are an endangered species. Other remaining examples include...

AustraliaFletcher's Mutiny Cyclorama, Norfolk Island

AustriaDas Tirol Panorama, Innsbruck

BelgiumBattle of Waterloo, Waterloo

CanadaCyclorama of JerusalemSte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Québec 

Egypt6th of October War Panorama, Heliopolis, Cairo 

HungaryArrival of the HungariansÓpusztaszer National Heritage Park, Ópusztaszer

NetherlandsPanorama Mesdag, The Haag

North Korea: Battle of Daejon, Pyong Yang

PolandRaclawiceWrocław 

Russia: The Battle of Stalingrad, Volgagrad, Russia; and The Siege of Sevastopol, Sevastopol, Crimea

USAThe Battle of Gettysberg, Gettysburg, Pensilvania; Panorama of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles, Met Museum, New York, Behalt Amish, Millersburg, Ohio;  Atlanta Cyclorama - reopens in the Autumn of 2018, Atlanta; Bunker Hill, Boston; and Laysan Island Cyclorama, Iowa City 

For more information on Cycloramas see the Panorama Council


FLYING NOSTALGIA
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Fifteen hundred 747's took to the skies; now time is being called on the much loved Jumbo Jet...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

The original 747 is unveiled to the staff. Photo Boeing

Hardly a week goes by these days without another airline announcing the final flight of the last Boeing 747 'Jumbo Jet' in its fleet. Most recently it is United Airlines, which has said its 747's will be withdrawn from service by the end of the year, which follows airlines like Air France, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Qantas, who have already retired theirs.

The last Boeing 747-400 to be in service with Qantas was donated to the Historic Aircraft Restoration Society that plans to put it on public display at the HQ at Albion Park, NSW. That particular aircraft grabbed headlines on its delivery flight too, when back in 1989 it set a world record for the longest flight of a commercial jet – a nonstop slog between London and Sydney of twenty hours and nine minutes.

And in a flying life fairly typical of the jumbo - which was designed to carry more passengers further than any plane of its day - it had carried 4,094,568 passengers and flown the equivalent of 110 return trips to the moon.

When the world's first 'wide-bodied' aircraft entered service in 1970 the jumbo was wider, longer and flew further than any other passenger plane. But despite the manufacture of improved new models over the years, Cathay Pacific, JAL, Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand, and many others, have already said fond farewells to their last jumbo jets. The final flights themselves have been accompanied by champagne send-offs, onboard TV crews and moist-eyed plane spotters clinging to perimeter fences.


Nobody notices when other aircraft types bow out. There was something different about the jumbo jet. Even people who wouldn't know an Airbus from a double-decker bus knew when they were on a Boeing 747.

Chances are most of us can remember our first flight in one. Mine was crossing from London to Los Angeles when I was five years old, clutching a plastic red suitcase that my grandmother had packed with toys. The Pan Am jumbo's nose looked whale-like as it nudged towards the departure gate at Heathrow. The in-flight films were marvellous, even though the ceiling-mounted screens were tiny and at neck-cricking angles. When looking forward or back from my seat, the plane seemed to go on forever.



Much of the impact came from its size - the 747s were so much bigger than the Boeing 727s or DC-8s before them. Board a 727 and you'd walk down a jetty into a cramped fuselage with a single aisle and three seats either side. But jumbos were so high off the ground that old-style jetties inclined upwards to the doors, and entering the cabin revealed not one, but two aisles -- and the seats numbered an astonishing 10 across. Just glimpsing the spiral staircase at the front felt like being on a sci-fi film set.

Boeing mock-up of early 747 interior

The staircase led to the upper deck bubble - perhaps aviation's most iconic shape, and an inexplicably reassuring one, too. The upper deck wasn't designed for aesthetic reasons, though. The plan was to move the pilot and his instruments out of the way to make room for cargo. A hinged nose section would mean bulkier freight could be front-loaded straight into the main deck. But Pan Am, the first buyer, had its eyes firmly on transporting passengers and pressured Boeing to extend the bubble for use as a lounge.

Most lounges were up in the bubble, but some were at the front, and others even at the rear for economy passengers. Wherever they were, the lounges and bars that flourished in the early 70s were invariably psychedelic in decor. Qantas' Captain's Club lounge had antique-map tabletops and nautical woodwork; Air India's version looked like a scene from Dr Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band movie; and American Airlines even had a piano bar complete with a Wurlitzer for sing-alongs. Yes, really.

Then came the 1973 oil shock, which gave the bean counters the upper hand. They stopped the fun and frivolity and swept away the lounges to make way for more revenue-earning seats.

Wherever you were sitting though, the jumbos were big and safe and smooth through the air. This partly explains how Boeing wound up selling 1,500 of the 65-ton giants. They tweaked them over the years, of course: the 747-SP was shortened by 47 feet to enable it to fly further, the 'Combi' had seats in the front half and cargo at the back, and a special short-haul option was developed for Japanese domestic flights that crammed in 560 seats. Most successful and numerous, though, were the stretched upper-deck versions where the bubble elongated as far as the wing - the 747-300 and the 747-400 as flown formerly by Ansett and still by Qantas.

A BA 747 on final approach into the very downtown Mexico City Airport

The latest and last version was the Boeing 747-8, but only a few dozen aircraft have been sold and the trend is clear. Day by day there are fewer jumbos signing our skies. Qantas, BA, United, Delta and others are retiring them in favour of twin-engine planes and the 'Super Jumbo' Airbus A380 are both cheaper to run per passenger.

The Heavy Metal bang Iron Maiden have a private 747 dubbed Ed Force One

No need to rush for a hankie just yet, though, as jumbos will be flying for a couple of decades to come. But the next time you see the famous bubble, you might give a nod to a trustworthy flying machine that's transported us around the world for more than 45 years.

There are currently about 30 airlines still flying the 747, so it will be a while yet before they disappear from our skies

 


LIVERY OF THE MONTH
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Icelandair's phantasmagorical Aurora Borealis livery
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Icelandair celebrates its 80th anniversary this year and has long punched above its weight in terms of the creativity of its product, marketing and route network. It's added an innovative themed livery onto one of its Boeing 757 aircraft too, with this striking Northern Lights inspired fuselage.

The Aurora Borealis has become big business in recent years, and seeing the spectral phenomenon is on most people's travelling wish list.

The theme appears in the cabin too, where lighting represents the swirling green and blue hues of the Aurora Borealis

How can Icelandair work for you?

Getting to Iceland: unsurprisingly Icelandair has more flights to Iceland than any other airline. It flies from seven UK airports to the capital city of Reykjavik - including Aberdeen, Birmingham, Glasgow, London Heathrow and Stansted, and Manchester - with Belfast starting on the 1st of June. Other European destinations include Barcelona, Paris and Milan, and there are also nonstop flights from Reykjavik to 18 cites in the US and Canada - Boston, New York and Toronto among them - and the two new North American cities for 2017 are Philadelphia (from May 30th) and Tampa (from September 7th).

Crossing the Atlantic: the airline's route network harnesses the country's geographic position in mid Atlantic; and with Reykjavik a 3-4 hour flight from London, Paris or Copenhagen, and a five hour flight from New York, Boston or Washington, the carrier targets passengers crossing the Atlantic from Europe to the USA and vs. vs. In fact Icelandair flies to 44 cities in 16 countries, which is quite something considering that the total population of Iceland is just 330,000. Icelandair fares from the UK to the US and Canada start from £369 return.

Free stopovers: with many airlines it can cost more to make a stopover on the way to your destination, but for many decades now Icelandair won't charge any extra air fare for stopping over for a few days in Iceland either on the way to the US, on the way back, or both, regardless of how cheap the fare you've paid. For some stopover suggestions see Icelandair stopovers

Pro's: using Icelandair across the Atlantic means you can get to destinations that don't have nonstop flights otherwise - like Anchorage, Halifax and Portland heading west, or Bergen, Hamburg and Trondheim travelling east. Plus if you live in Aberdeen, Belfast or Glasgow say, it makes good sense to shorten the journey time and fly via Reykjavik rather than add mileage by flying south to change planes in London.

Crews are helpful and efficient, Reykjavik airport is a pretty stress free place to change planes, and the airline has 16 shiny new Boeing 737 Max's on order. All Icelandair aircraft are fitted with touch screen seat-back in flight entertainment (IFE) screens.

& Cons: for anyone paying discounted economy fares, the airline feels like a low cost carrier these days, especially now that food and drink has to be paid for by economy class passengers - even on the seven hour Reykjavik-Anchorage sector. Economy Comfort and Economy Comfort Special fares do include a free meal, but are pricier. The company had grand plans to renew its fleet until the global financial crisis of 2008 delayed things rather. So the fleet of Boeing 757 aircraft are narrow-body, with a configuration of three-aisle-three and a seat pitch of 32-33 inches, and are getting rather old in the tooth - the oldest aircraft was delivered to Icelandair in 1998. The company also has three Boeing 767-300ER wide body aircraft.

The frequent flyer club: the Saga Club is a good option if you plan to be flying with Icelandair a lot, otherwise its current lack of an affiliated credit card, and few partner airlines, make the scheme of limited use for the general traveller. However you can earn and spend points on Alaska Airlines and Finnair.

Good to know: the airport is 50 kilometres from the capital at Keflavik. It's as near to being cute as an airport can get - with lots of wood in the decor, small and walkable, and lots of natural light. Changing planes here is usually a breeze. The airport express bus service is hourly and costs from ISK 3,900 return. See Keflavik Airport and Airport Express.

A few facts: Icelandair can trace its roots back to 1937, when a forerunner airline based in Akureyri started flight operations with a seaplane. Another forerunner of Icelandair was called Loftleiðir, which became known as 'the hippie airline', thanks to it carrying budget conscious backpacking Americans to Europe throughout the 1970's. There are currently 30 aircraft in the Icelandair fleet, with an average age of 21.2 years.

For further information see Icelandair Aurora livery, Icelandair, and Visit Iceland. And for Icelandair's latest glacier-inspired livery there's My Bathroom Wall


AIRPORT HOTELS
   7270 views   
At a good airport hotel, staying your first (or last) night at the airport can feel like an extension to your holiday...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

The small beach in front of the Hulhule Resort Hotel

The water is turquoise, the sand a brilliant white, and as I splash back towards the beach a yellow and black striped angelfish darts from my shadow. This isn't a remote atoll resort in the Maldives, but a hotel metres away from the runway at the country's international airport. How I wish all airport hotels could be like this.

Most people holidaying in the Maldives fly into Male and whiz off in speedboats or seaplanes to conquer jetlag at their resort.

I however decided to recuperate first. So after a comically short 800-metre 'transfer' in the hotel's shuttle van, I step into the lobby of the Hulhule Island Resort.

Unlike most airport hotels, which tend towards glass and steel cubes, this one packs individuality and a welcome that actually makes you want to stay. The panoramic glass wall facing the sea and has wooden frames, ceiling fans rotate leisurely, and cheery staff wearing hibiscus patterned 'uniforms' offer me fruit punch and a cold towel.

The Hulhule lobby is airy and comfy, and not at all corporate in feel

Moments later I enter a deluxe sea-facing room and throw open the balcony door. On the pocket-sized beach, an Asian honeymoon couple are in selfie stick heaven. To the left small passenger ferries shuffle in and out of the airport's little harbour, and straight ahead on an island of its own is Male, the Maldivian capital.

The 10-hour flight and five-hour time difference have befuddled me enough to nap with the balcony door wide open - not normally clever at an airport hotel. But it isn't jets that eventually disturb my slumber - I can barely hear them - instead it's the horn of a motor launch arriving to collect more honeymooners no doubt.

Awake again and hungry, I find the fourth-floor sunset deck, where people are smoking shisha pipes and enjoying terrific views across to the dusky twinkle of Male. It's 'Thai Night' in the adjacent restaurant and I pile my plate with authentic tasting curries.

The Hulhule sundeck overlooks the main airport ferry jetties, and the capital city of Male

The waiter with the Amir Khan smile notices my surprise at the buzz of the place and offers, “Male is a dry island sir, no alcohol. But on this island we can sell alcohol. You should visit our Champs Bar -- people come on the ferries as it is the best place in town”.

Airport hotel bars generally deliver The Girl from Ipanema on loop, disinterested bar staff and stale peanuts. But at Champs Bar, Bryan Ferry’s Avalon is wafting over the busy sea-facing terrace. An attentive barman called Raju (from Kathmandu) brings over a pint of draught Carlsberg and a half football sized bowl of popcorn.

Much of what happened after that is a blur, but it was 1:30am when I finally hit the sack.

Next morning, I discover that this hotel has a free shuttle boat to Male, a lobby spa for short treatments between flights, a proper detached spa pavilion and a very decent gym. Plus there are tennis courts, a putting green and an endearingly retro pool bar and grill with yellow mosaic-sided stools and thatch roofs.

The delightfully retro Hulhule pool bar

When I bump into the longstanding General Manager, Utkarsh Faujdar from Delhi, I ask about the soundproofing. "Our 136 rooms are this quiet because they all face from the runway towards the sea," he says, "and we use metallic door surrounds and sea."

"But this is what makes me most proud," he says, pointing to a wall covered in certificates; "We've won the World Travel Awards best airport resort three times, including 2014."

A week later and I'm back in Male with a few hours to kill before the London flight. I return to the Hulhule Resort Hotel, and sit by the pool bar chugging a draft Tiger beer.

Never have I been quite so reluctant to leave an airport hotel.

For more information, see Hulhule Island Resort, Male International Airport, and Visit Maldives

***

Other excellent hotels within a stone's throw of a terminal...

Regal Airport Hotel, Hong Kong; is connected to the terminal by an enclosed footbridge. About a quarter of its 1,000 rooms face a runway with views as good as the soundproofing. See Regal Hotel

 

Hotel Novotel, Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport has 612 rooms and is linked with the terminal by an underground walkway. It has five restaurants and bars, a VOUS Spa and an outdoor pool worthy of a resort. See Novotel Bangkok Airport

 

Hilton Airport Hotel, Munich; the 15,000-square-foot lobby is a stunner, with palm trees and a bar serving great local beers; there’s a swim up bar in the indoor pool too. See Hilton Munich Airport

 

Dubai International Hotel is a great fly and flop between flights option. There’s no need to clear customs or collect bags, as the 350 smart rooms are airside in terminals 1 and 3. There’s a gym and small pool. See Dubai International Hotels


FAVOURITE HOTELS
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Ceiling fans, verandas, tea in the afternoon and G&T's allways. The world's best colonial era hotels...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Green Hotel, Mysore, India

This lovely hotel was built in the 1920s as the Chittaranjan Palace on the outskirts of the city for the maharaja of Mysore's three daughters. It later became a film studio and is now it's a ravishingly cute small hotel, with 31 quirkily decorated rooms and all profits going to local charities.

The lawns and plantins at the Green Hotel. Photo Green Hotel

It's the perfect place to relax and play a board game - perhaps by the croquet lawn, sitting under a ceiling fan on the ivy-clad veranda, or in a nook by stained-glass windows. The little restaurant in the garden does superb south Indian specialities too, from about £2. They key to a really successful stay here is to make sure and book yourself into the original building for its pukka patina. See Green Hotel

Pasanggrahan Royal Guest House: Phillipsburg, St Martin

The small Caribbean island of St Martin is one of the world's nicest anomalies: a happy holiday island shared by two countries. Half is French and half is Dutch, and each has a slice of the excellent beaches and superb restaurants, though the Dutch side sees more than its fair share of development.

The modest entrance to the oldest hotel on the island, the Pasanggrahan Royal Guest House. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Yet tucked away under some shady trees off the main street in the Dutch part's little capital of Phillipsburg, is the delightful Pasanggrahan Royal Guest House. It was built in 1905 as the residence of the Dutch governor, and has used the 'Royal' moniker since Queen Beatrix stayed here on her Caribbean tour. 'Pasanggrahan' means 'guest house' in Indonesian.

The cute antique-filled lounge area. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The main street of Phillipsburg is Front Street; a narrow road busy with cruise passengers. There are some pretty plasterboard houses, but mainly it's duty free shops and bars. It's easy to miss the Passanggharan as it's set back from the road and veiled by trees.

Climb the wooden steps, cross the veranda, and the lounge room cum lobby is a cool space open to the street on one side and the beach on the other. There's no cliché row of clocks telling the time in Tokyo or Washington here. But as the tropical torpor is infectious, who cares? The cosy room has wishbone-backed chairs, antique dressers, and a delightfully incongruous painting of Queen Beatrix, in all her formal finery.

The shaded beach-facing side of the hotel. Photo My Bathroom Wall

On the beach side, wooden tables spill onto the sand under a veranda, shaded by almond trees. This is where breakfast is served, as well as excellent seafood specials in the evenings.

Janet opens the tiny bar at 6pm, and from then 'til late is on hand for a hearty chuckle. It's smaller than a one-car garage, with bright red and white cushioned stools, but it opens onto the sea facing veranda and the hotel's shaded beech restaurant. Now that's my kind of mini bar. It's named after the once devoted regular, Sydney Greenstreet - the portly actor who played Senior Ferrari in Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon's 'The Fat Man', who came here to cavort with his coterie in the 1940's.

The cosy old bijou bar. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Most rooms are in a side wing, renovated after the hurricane Luis hit the island in 1995. They are large, with four-poster beds, air con, and a good-sized balcony overlooking the beach. Hibiscus flowers grow across the trellis. Most atmospheric by far though, is the Queen's suit above the main house, with wooden floors, and antique furniture.

The suite and veranda used by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Photo My Bathroom Wall

See Passanggrahan Royal Guest House

Foreign Correspondants' Club, Phmon Penh, Cambodia

The art deco-style residence of the former French governor has been reinvented as a boutique hotel-cum-hip nightspot. The mansion's makeover includes 31 cutting-edge rooms - the beige and cream calm that you'd expect - plus bold contemporary art, a spa and a beautiful black-tiled swimming pool perfect for dusting off after a day at Angkor's temples.

The best colonial bar in town always has a good craic. Photo Foreign Correspondant's Club

Whether you stay here or not, you have to drop by in the evening, when the large pond is lit by candles and the ceiling fans are at full tilt. You can grab a steak, play on the black billiard table, watch the sky darken over a cocktail, or salute the many skittering geckos with a cold bottle of Angkor beer. See the FCC Phmon Penh

The Windsor, Cairo

When the chaos and cacophony of Cairo get too much, it's time to head back to the Windsor Hotel for a nightcap in it's famous 'Barrel Bar', where the chairs are crafted from old beer barrels and the walls hang with sepia prints and peeling paintings of Old Cairo.

If you approach the Windsor by walking along the busy Sharia Alfi Bey street, you might be disappointed. The ground floor is now a mess of falafel shops and travel agents, and its five stories of dark brickwork above them don't give much away either. But arrive from via the wonderful little Arab Street that runs parallel to it, with men smoking shesha pipes and playing round-the-clock backgammon, and the entrance is surrounded by potted plants and is very inviting.

The Windsor Hotel's entrance and famous Barrel Bar. Photo Windsor Hotel

The building originally housed a Turkish bath for Royal Cairenes, which was requisitioned as an officers club by the British. After that it was remodelled as an annex hotel to the legendary Shepherds Hotel, which was gutted by rioters in the 1952 anti colonial uprising.

The smoke-faded décor of the lobby is perked up by randomly placed Spider Plants, a peg and hole telephone exchange, and an antique cage lift. Curious dot the corridors, like a sewing machine and drinks cabinet, as well as some once-stylish airline posters from the 1960's. The rooms are large, with a hotchpotch of antique furniture, etchings depicting far-flung scenes of empire, like the Delhi Durbar of 1911, and heavily worn, though clean bathrooms.

The gloriously fusty Barrel Bar. Photo Windsor Hotel

The only thing you can't be sure of is whether the brutishly beautiful cage lift will ever stop flush with a floor, and just how long it'll take before the hot water feeds through antique plumbing. Everything else, from the perfect boiled egg at breakfast, to the super friendly staff, is a given. Michael Palin stayed here and featured the Windsor's eccentricities on his 'Around the World in 80 days'. See Windsor Hotel

Emerson & Green, Zanzibar

Wandering care free down the narrow alleyways of the Zanzibari capital, Stone Town, is the highlight of any stay on the island. It may be just a few miles off the coast of Africa, but thanks to a long history as an Arab trading post, the town's atmosphere is pure Arabian Nights. You'll be delightfully lost in its maze of streets before you can say Ali Baba.

The rooftop cilling area and restaurant are hard to leave. Photo Emerson on Hurumzi

Any local will help you back to the the Emerson on Hurumzi (formerly the Emerson & Green) though, which paradoxically stands out from the surrounding plain-walled buildings, once you are close enough that is. This impressive peach-coloured mansion was formerly known as Hurumzi House, and was once the residence of Tharia Thopan, a kingpin in the Swahili Empire. It's still the second tallest building in town, runner up only to the Sultan's grand ceremonial palace, fitted with the island's first electric light bulbs and known as the House of Wonders. In the 1880's Hurumzi House was used by the British colonisers as a place to pay off Arab traders to sell their slaves, and since 1991, it's been the much-loved project of Messrs Emerson & Green.

Lattice-worked wood screens line the small reception, which leads off to the Kidude Café, with its chessboard floor tiles and Arab lanterns. There are impossibly narrow and steep stairs leading up to the 10 romantically decked out rooms, all with four poster beds and stone baths. Each has it's own quirk, so choosing the one you'd prefer can be difficult. Do you fancy the Keep Suite's private rooftop turret, the North Room's large bath that's part open to the night's sky, or the Pavilion Suite's intimate veranda?

Whichever room you take, breakfast up in the Tower Top restaurant is a special treat, with floor seating on cushions and rugs, and great views out over the red rooftops onto the ocean. It's the most popular sundowner spot in town, so be sure to book for evening meals. See Emeron on Hurumzi

Old Cataract, Egypt

On the banks of the Nile, south of Aswan, where big, grey boulders emerge from the water and give Elephantine Island its name, is the Old Cataract Hotel. Built in 1899, it immediately became a post cruise haven for all well-heeled travellers to Egypt. Agatha Christie was a guest on numerous occasions, writing her Death on the Nile whodunit here and setting several key scenes in and around the hotel.

Then - as now - the summer temperatures soared into the 100s, and Aswan remains famous for its energy-sapping bustle, but inside the jealously guarded Cataract you can find an oasis of shade and sophistication. It was slobbing by the pool here that I first tried an ice cold glass of Karkadeh - the rosehip infusion popular in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.

Night time at the pool in front of the Sofital Old Cataract. Photo Sofitel

The Moorish dining hall is fantastically atmospheric, and the sunset views over the Nile are unbeatable, either while smoking a shesha or sipping a cocktail. The hotel reopened after a controversial renovation in 2011 and has lost its historic patina. The terraces are undoubtedly stunning, but the decor and design - though impressive - as about as far from the faded charm of the hotel's earlier incarnation as you could imagine. See Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan

One more thing...spare a thought for the wonderful Baron Hotel, Aleppo, Syria

When I visited a little before the current conflict, there was no better spot - after climbing the ramparts of Aleppo's magnificent citadel and strolling through its covered souk - for a recuperative G&T than the bar of the Baron Hotel.

An ancient BOAC poster gracing the staircase of the Baron Hotel, Aleppo. Photo Flickr/Claudio Borgognoni

The Baron was built in 1911 by the current owner's grandfather, partly for Orient-Express passengers, who at that time would have been pushing on to Baghdad by train.

The old settees sag from the seats of Charles Lindbergh, Yuri Gagarin, Charles de Gaulle, Theodore Roosevelt and many more. Gamal Abdel Nasser gave a speech here in 1958, and King Faisal even proclaimed Syrian independence from a balcony. And I know it sounds like a bit like the old faithful 'oldest pub in England' boast - as I've drank in at last three of them, but it almost goes without saying that the most ubiquitous of literary guests, Agatha Christie, started penning Murder on the Orient Express here too.

But it's Lawrence of Arabia, with his casual attitude towards settling a tab, who gets pole position in the roll call of fame: his unpaid drinks bill was framed above the bar.

The historic bar of the Baron Hotel, where TE Lawrence last left witout paying. Photo Flickr/Claudio Borgognoni

The hotel had clanky plumbing and creaky corridors, but was an absolute treat. Of course it's no longer open, and it seems to have been lightly damage on the roof from incoming shellfire, but it does at least appear to be still standing.

Shuttered windows and antique fittings come as standard in the rooms of the Baron, Aleppo. Photo Flickr/Pietro Ferreira

There are no placques or fancy suites named after them, but the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk stayed in Room 201, King Faisal I of Iraq and Syria stayed in Room 215, Agatha Christie was in 2013, and the room that I stayed in when I was last there, 202, was used by Lawrence. 


UNUSUAL HOTELS
   5871 views   
See what happened when the Missoni brand took on designing a hotel, in Kuwait City...
posted by Richard Green on 24/01/2017
 

Missoni room and doorman's Missoni dishdasha. Photos My Bathroom Wall

The multi-coloured stripes like those on my bathroom face cloth scream Missoni - and I met Rosita Missoni at the opening of her then new hotel in Kuwait City back in 2011.

The Italian fashion house and family business is famous for putting vibrant stripes into women's wear from the 1960s onwards, and have now branched out into homeware too.

The Kuwait City hotel was a blast of colour in the middle of a sandstone coloured town. And as you can see from the photos, the stripe theme was lavished on every aspect of the property, from the pool to the room furnishings, and even the specially designed dishdasha's with a difference worn by the doormen.

The 187m tall Kuwait Towers, symbol of Kuwait, built in 1979 as a series of water towers. Photos My Bathroom Wall

In truth Kuwait City is quite a challenging destination, not least because of the scorching desert summers, when temperatures regularly hover in the high 40s, but also - quite an important this one for me - the entire country is dry with alcohol completely forbidden.

But the hotel did its best to overcome such matters with its stripy decor, extensive list of superb mocktails, excellently attentive staff, and airport transfers in Maserati's - which included what the General Manager called their 'Maserati moment' when the driver would warn the newly arrived guest and then shove the accelerator to the floor for about as big an adrenaline rush as there is in Kuwait.

Those with an aversion to stripes, need not book. Even the base of the pool is stripy. Photos My Bathroom Wall

That said, the people are wonderfully gracious and hospitable, and apart from the iconic water towers that you can catch the lift up, there are some good art galleries, fine Bedouin style restaurants, a wonderful handicraft shop called Sadu House, the grisly House of National Works Museum that uses dioramas to illustrate Kuwait's suffering during the first Gulf war (1990-91) weirdest museum to a war I have ever seen, and a quite bonkers private home called the House of Mirrors. A visit to the later involves an ultra personal tour of all the rooms from the house owner Lidia, including one where the lights are switched off and you and your host throw luminous plastic boomerangs at a Velcro black cloth wall. 

Mirror mirror on the wall..and on the door and on the ceiling. Photos My Bathroom Wall

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Further information: The Missoni Hotel has many of the original features and decor, but is now the Symphony Style HotelSee Visit Kuwait 

31

Getting there: Kuwait International Airport is 15 kilometres south of Kuwait City and handled 11 million passengers in 2015. Kuwait Airways destinations include Bangkok, Doha, Dubai, London Heathrow, Manila, Mumbai, New York, Paris, Rome and Tehran. Kuwait-based low cost carrier Jazeera Airways  flies to Alexandria, Beirut, Cairo, Dubai, Istanbul, Luxor, Sharm el Sheikh and others. Other useful routes include Athens with Aegean Airlines, London Heathrow with British Airways, Dubai with FlyDubai, and Istanbul with Pegasus Airlines. 

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Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.

One more thing...

Actually Missoni's first hotel venture was opening a hotel in Edinburgh in 2009. It featured all the trademark multi coloured decor, and stripy kilts for the doormen. Unfortunately both the Kuwait and the Edinburgh ventures no longer have the participation of the Missoni brand, so those two cities have - in my opinion - just grown ever so slightly less colourful.

The Missoni Hotel in Edinburgh, with distinctive kilts for the doormen and bold colours throughout

 


TRAVEL QUIRK
   7956 views   
Riding a moped down the Enola Gay's runway, and six other deserted airports to discover...
posted by Richard Green on 20/01/2017
 

Aerial shots of Tinian Island; wartime runways on the left, and overgrown today on the right

It was once the largest air base in the world, but these days the tiny Western Pacific island of Tinian has one just one well-maintained runway, but many partly overgrown ones. The sleepy Micronesian island is home to just 3,000 people, but it's criss-crossed by runways in the same way Manhattan Island is crossed by streets.

Though most of the old tarmac strips have been reclaimed by the jungle, the 18 kilometres of taxiways and nine runways are still very visible, and whizzing along them on a scooter I can't recommend highly enough for a bonkers day out.

Atomic bomb pit no.1, by moped; aerial shot of runway and admin building. Photos My Bathroom Wall

I felt particularly Lilliputian on the moped and a little brushed by lunacy too, as I was holidaying on a nearby island of beaches and resort hotels, and only flew to Tinian on a whim to search for the spot where history's most famous bomber had its most infamous bomb winched into its belly.


I'd ridden along three runways before spotting a square clump of vegetation and a wooden sign with yellow writing saying - 'Atomic Bomb Pit No 1'. It was at this spot that on the 5th of August 1945 a B-29 Superfortress called 'Enola Gay' - named after the pilot's mother - was loaded with a bomb called 'Little Boy', and took off bound for Hiroshima.

The two atomic bomb pits, and exploring the runways with mopeds. Photos My Bathroom Wall

The next day another aircraft carried another heinous bomb and dropped it onto the city of Nagasaki, six days later the Japanese surrendered and the war officially ended on the 2nd of September 1945.

Controversially, the US armed forces have cleared a couple of the disused runway in recent years and have conducted military exercises there.

The 'Enola Gay', a B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima

Getting there: Tinian is a member of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas - a 101 km² island lying 215 kilometres north of Guam and just nine kilometres southwest of neighbouring Saipan. The only flights serving the grandiosely names Tinian International Airport are scheduled light aircraft to and from Saipan operated by Star Marianas Air See Tinian International Airport

One more thing: I always thought that the plane that dropped the bomb was called after the pilot's girlfriend, but in fact he gave it his mother's name. Enola Gay Tibbets was born on the 29th of September 1890 in Carroll County, Iowa, and died on the 23rd of July 1966. Her son eventually became General Paul Warfield Tibbets Jr. and died on the 1st of November 2007 - his ashes were scattered over the English Channel, which he had flown over on many bombing raids during the war.

***
 
There are many abandoned airfields in the world some of them left to rot, others given new leases of life. As unlikely as it may seem, they make for surprising side-trips. Here are six of the best.
 
Templehof, Berlin:
Opened in 1923, Templehof was the first airport to be served by an underground railway, and is where the forerunner of Lufthansa - known as Deutsche Luft Hansa - was founded in 1926. The terminal was redesigned in the 1930's to be more suitable as the gateway airport to the Nazi project of 'Germania'.

Built in the shape of an eagle in flight, the airport had many innovative features, but owing to the outbreak of World War II it was never fully completed. After the war, the airport was the linchpin in the 1948-9 Berlin Airlift, when allied aircraft broke Stalin's blockade of the city with a Herculean effort - using almost 700 aircraft to ferry in almost 400,000tons of supplies.

It's located just 7.5 kilometres from the city centre and became a handy alternative to the newer airports that were situation much further out of town. I flew in a couple of times with Lufthansa, who operated flights from the similarly bijou and central London City Airport. Templehof closed n 2008 and is now Berlin's largest and most anarchistic open space - its two preserved runways taken over by joggers, skaters, kite-flyers and birders who come to glimpse the rare goshawks. See Templehof Airport
 

The Berlin Airlift, baggage hall, public park, and Junkers Ju-52 at Templehof Airport
 
Ellinikon Airport, Athens, Greece:

Opened in 1938 just four miles south of the Parthenon, Ellinikon was the country's main airport until it shut up shop in 2001 to make way for the 2004 Olympic Games. Part of the runways and terminal survive, and three Olympic Airways jets sit forlornly by a fence, but all traces will vanish with an 11-billion dollar development about to start on the site. It will include a tower, aquarium, parks and apartment blocks, and according to the developer's delightfully unaware CEO - will put Greece on the global tourist destination map'.

Disused buildings at the old Ellinikon Airport, with Olympic Airways aircraft on the apron

Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong:
Kai Tak was the nemesis of nervous flyers from 1925 until the last passenger buttocks unclenched when it closed in 1998. Final approach at Kai Tak involved a last minute 47 degree right turn to avoid a mountainside, a skim over tower blocks and straightening up around 140 feet from the start of the runway. So famous were these dramatic swoops - especially during crosswinds - that you'll still find DVD compilations in Hong Kong street markets. The airport buildings are long gone and in 2013 the new Kai Tak Cruise Terminal opened on part of the old runway.

A Cathay Pacific 747-400 cleaves the dense Kowloon housing on approach to Kai Tak Airport

Croydon Airport, London:
This south London aerodrome waved off Bert Hinkler on his pioneering solo flight to Darwin in 1928, and regular Imperial Airways/Qantas services to Brisbane from 1934, via Brindisi, Basra, Batavia, and many more. Today the surviving building - the first purpose built airport terminal in the world and the first control tower in the world, opened in 1928, is an office block. However a De Havilland Heron on stilts outside the entrance heralds something of the building's history.

The busy A23 crosses a grassy area here, across what was the main runway. The terminal building is run as a charity, is open to visitors on the first Sunday of the month, when knowledgeable volunteers are on hand to explain entertaining facts about the place and to show you the collection of memorabilia in the old control tower.

Incidentally, the De Havilland was the type of plane that made the last flight out when Croydon closed in 1959. See the Croydon Airport Society.

Croydon Aerodrome saw the world's first purpose built control tower and terminal

Nicosia International Airport, Cyprus:
Since the Turkish invasion of north Cyprus in 1974, the capital's airport has been marooned in a UN protected no-man's land, with a crumbling Cyprus Airways Trident aircraft lending to the scene of decay. To see the airport these days you'll have to sweet-talk someone wearing a blue helmet. I did just this a few years back, and ended up being taken in a UN white jeep to see the rusting baggage trolleys and rows of black seats in the deserted departure gates, now thick in dust and bird droppings.

A Cyprus Airways BAC Trident still on the Tarmac at the now UN monitored Nicosia Airport

W.H. Bramble Airport, Montserrat:
Quiet since the 17th century, the Soufriere Hills Volcano nevertheless blew its top on the 25th of July 1997, spewing five million cubic metres of lava that destroyed the island's capital and airport. Until a new airport opened in 2005, access to Montserrat was by boat or helicopter. Speaking of which, Caribbean Helicopters runs sightseeing fights from Antigua that include flying past the control tower and down the runway - a third of its length buried in volcanic ash. Caribbean Helicopters

The runway and control tower of W H Bramble airport partly submerged by volcanic ash


WORST HOTELS
   7418 views   
The Grand Hotel, Pristina; bed-bugs from District 9 and a back lot too scary for skateboarders...
posted by Richard Green on 12/01/2017
 

The Grand Hotel Pristina and one of its dingy corridors. Photos My Bathroom Wall

Chris Patten said that the Grand Hotel in Pristina was the worst hotel in the world — “unbelievably grim”, he called it. The Lonely Planet includes it “so that you don’t get lured into staying”, and the In Your Pocket guide wound up its review with: “We suggest demolition.” Can any hotel really be that bad?

To find out I booked a £60 room and flew to the Kosovan capital to find out. The 1999 war and the current limbo status of Kosovo — a country barely a third of the world recognises — has left Pristina brutalised. At the centre of the concrete cityscape is the 13-storey Grand Hotel, a 369-room monstrosity built in 1978 to accommodate Tito’s communist cadres.

My room in the Grand Hotel Pristina. Photos My Bathroom Wall

I’d read that Kosovo had lovely valleys, the old town of Prizren and the Gracanica monastery, but I couldn’t see these from my fifth-floor window. I parted the fusty red drapes and torn net curtain to peer out, and saw what must once have been a shopping mall attached to the hotel. It was now derelict — too scary even for the skateboarders. Where the scree of debris ended, dozens of snow-white UN vehicles were corralled into a car park by barbed wire.

I couldn’t actually see any bugs, but I was certainly kept awake by them, the welts on my back multiplying through the night A brief inspection of the room revealed a threadbare green carpet and rotting bathtub — with no plug and barely tepid water. When the time came, I climbed into bed nervously, a TripAdvisor comment echoing through my mind. And it wasn’t added by Mollycoddled of Michigan, either, but by a local, who said: “Two of us had to get medical treatment because of bugs in the mattresses.” By dawn, I felt like I’d done a few rounds with the aliens from District 9.

A room with a view of urban blight and UN vehicles. Photos My Bathroom Wall

Then the drilling started. I gave up on sleep and went for an early breakfast. There were three chandeliers (one lit), 100 empty tables and two grumpy staff members.

One, a lady sitting at a central table as if adjudicating an exam, stabbed her pen into a ledger to get my attention. I gave my room number and a flourish of her heavily braceleted wrist told me to move on.

The buffet was boiled eggs, cheese slices, tomatoes and coffee that tasted of mouldy Mars bar. The two staff both watched me fumble with the coffee machine, but didn’t offer help. I soon decided to leave, inadvertently scraping my chair leg when I got up.

The ledger lady shot me an Exocet stare, and her male colleague marched to the door. He got there just ahead of me and, with his arms tightly folded and feet planted bouncerly apart, barred my way. I froze. He was genuinely scary. What could I have done wrong?

He looked down at me sternly, like an interrupted genie. “Haff nice day,” he said, then he moved sideways, just enough to let me pass. He’d been on a customer service course, apparently. I don’t think he’d quite got the point.

***

So, yes, the Grand was indeed grim — so much so that (bedbugs aside) it was almost entertaining. The strong rumour was that if you wanted to sample its authentically crumbling post-communist glory, you’d better move fast, as it seemed that an international chain was about to snap it up and make it an efficient, yet no doubt bland, place to stay. But a cursory glance at any recent social media comments reveals that the Grand Hotel is still just as poor as it ever was. 

puzzle

Fitting Pristina into a holiday: for the curious traveller, the capital of Europe's newest country makes for a fun city break, but it's not such an easy place on the eye, and you may find the almost total lack of tourists a bit eerie. Kosovo itself is a small country, and so the Rugova Valley, the handsome Ottoman era cultural capital of Prizren, the old town of Gjakova or the Four Paws Bear Sanctuary.

31

Getting there: Pristina Airport last year handled 1.7 million passengers and is 15 kilometres southwest of the city. Useful connections include flights to London with Wizz and Germania, Ljubljana with Adria Airways, Vienna with Austrian Airlines, Basel and Geneva with EasyJet, and Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. Trains are few and slow, but busses run to Skopje and Tirana.

weather

When to visit: Kosovo is a landlocked and relatively mountainous country. The best time to visit is June_September, when days can be warm to hot and there's the least rain and most sunshine. In winter temperatures can fall to -30°C.

35

More info: the country is astonishingly youthful - with 70% of the population aged under 35. Plus it is safe and cheap, with simple local meals available for about €2 and a bottle of beer for €1. The tourism industry is underdeveloped, so there are few online resources. UK based tour operators include Regent Holidays Regent Holidays and Responsible Travel. Local outfit Be in Kosovo can help with tours and guides etc. 

30

Visa and safety: always check your government's travel advice before booking, and ensure that your travel insurance is valid in this part of the country. See the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.

 


SEAPLANES
   7325 views   
Seaplanes are safe, scenic and super fun; here's why, and where to fly them...
posted by Richard Green on 08/01/2017
 

There is nothing quite like flying in a seaplane; the taxi to the 'runway' feels rather strange, then the engines roar and the aircraft launches into the sky and flies over coral reef and cays, before you land with a peculiar abruptness. And as seaplanes can land on any large stretch of water, it means that you can reach some of the world's most remote beach resorts without a bone-shaking car journey, rough ferry crossing, or both.

SEAPLANE HISTORY
The first seaplane flight was in 1912, but they had their golden age in the years before the Second World War, when large flying boats skimmed passengers over the oceans in some luxury. They were a way of travelling long distances before decent runways and airports had been built, and in those days it took 30 stops and 3 weeks to fly from the UK to Australia.

The big flying boats are long gone of course, but small seaplanes are still in use - most often for short scenic transfers to upmarket beach or lakeside resorts.

I first tried a seaplane from Long Beach to Catalina Island, 22 miles off the Californian coast. The plane was an antique Grumman Goose and I was about six years old, but I still remember the flight and the fun splash-landing. Seaplanes of Los Angeles offer trips to Catalina today using an only slightly more modern Helio Courier seaplane.

For anyone curious to learn more about what is was like to fly long distances in the old luxury flying boats, Beyond the Blue Horizon (Alexander Frater; Picador) is a tremendously entertaining account of the Imperial Airways flying boat route from the UK to Australia.

ARE SEAPLANES SAFE?
Well, yes: Structurally, they're basically every-day aircraft fitted with large canoe-shaped floats where wheels would normally be. Plus, a seaplane pilot looking for an emergency landing spot when flying over water is spoilt for choice, as the entire ocean is a potential runway.

The taxi to the 'runway' is a tad surreal, take off is a splashy roar, and level flight is the same as on any light aircraft. Landing is unexpectedly abrupt - rather like a duck landing on a pond, as seaplanes need little distance to stop.

Seaplanes are great for sightseeing and photos since the have over-slung wings (and so unobstructed views from the windows) plus as they are propeller planes, they fly low and slow. The best seats are at the front by the way, as take offs and landings spray water from the floats onto the middle and rear windows.
 

 

WHERE IN THE WORLD CAN I TRANSFER BY SEAPLANE?

Maldives: the largest seaplane operator in the world is Transmeldevian, which has 44 seaplanes and connects the international airport at Male to some 60 scattered resort hotels.
 
 
Sri Lanka: Cinnamon Air runs scheduled seaplane flights from the Waters Edge Hotel in Colombo to the inland tourist hotspots of Sigiriya and Kandy, and the beach resorts of Batticola, Bentota, Koggala and Trincomalee.
 

 
Vietnam: Hai Au Seaplanes has flights from Hanoi to the popular tourist haven of Halong Bay.
 


Croatia: European Coastal Airlines fly to 17 destinations in Croatia, including Dubrovnik, Korcola, Hvar, Rijeka and Split, plus Ancona and Pescara in Italy.
 


Philippines: Air Juan connects Manila Harbour with Boracay, Coron, Puerto Galera and Subic.
 


Greece: Hellenic Seaplanes has yet to get airborne, despite a couple of years ago floating plans to connect 100 locations throughout Greece. 

WHAT TO READ
   4742 views   
Travel reading...suggestions by destination good reads to evoke a place, time or personality
posted by Richard Green on 04/01/2017
 

A selection of holiday reading. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Here are some books that make great reading; especially if read in their appropriate destinations...

Afghanistan: The Road to Oxiana; Robert Byron (1937) - a erudite and irreverent and highly amusing journey through the Middle East, Iran and Pakistan, en route to Afghanistan; 

Albania: Enver Hoxha: The Iron Fist of Albania, Blendi Fevziu (2016);

Antarctica: I may be some time, Francis Spufford, (1996), Polar regions

Arabia: Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger, (1959), Arabia, Sultan in Oman; Jan Morris, (1957), The Arabian Knights, Anonymous and translated by Richard Francis Burton; Lawrence of Arabia, Alistair McLean; Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E Lawrence (1922), for the Levant; The Kingdom, Robert Lacey (1982); A Line in the Sand, James Barr (2012); Among the Believers, an Islamic Journey, V.S. Naipaul (1981); Desert Queen, the Extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell, Janet Wallach (2004);

Australia: Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes (1986) history of convict Australia; Digger: Max Anderson (2004) is a highly entertaining account of gold prospecting in a titchy Australian mining settlement;

The Caucasus: Ali and Nino, Kurban Said (1937) is a love story set amidst some swirling cross-cultural complications of Azerbaijan just after the First World War; 

Specs on books. Photo This is Insomnia

China: Before the Deluge; Deidre Chetham (2002), life along the Yangtze before the completion of the Three Gorges Dam; News from Tartary, Peter Fleming (1936) traces a seven month and 3,500 miles long journey from what was then Peking to Shrinigar in Kashmir; Hong Kong, Epilogue to an Empire, Jan Morris (1988) is an evocative and romantic account of Britain's history in Hong Kong;  

Ecuador:

The Galapagos Affair, John Treherne (2002) is the compelling true story of a group of disgruntled German settlers who decided in the early 1930's to make a break for the uninhabited Galapagos island of Floriana. What happened next defies belief, as their search for an island idyl soon turned into a nightmare.

Railroad in the Sky, Elizabeth Harman Brainard (2003) is a corking - if detailed and a long-winded - look at how the most difficult railways in the world was built. It's a fascinating window into the politics of the day, the engineering challenges faced, the setbacks, and the dire working conditions. 

Plundering Paradise, Michael D'Orso (2009) is a brutally un-Disney take on the islands, looking at the destruction caused by humans and their uncontrollable appetite for fishing, tourism, and development. A poor choice for romantics, but essential reading if you are curious about the pressures at play on the islands.

Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut (1994) is a typically bizarre take on the human condition, with the archipelago featuring as little more than a vague location for Vonnegut's consideration of the evolution of the human brain. If you know and love Vonnegut this is a winner, but if not then I'd say that this isn't perhaps the best novel to start with.

Egypt: A Thousand Miles up the Nile, Amelia B Edwards (1877); The White Nile, Alan Moorehead (1960) (The Blue Nile, 1962); Alexandria, a History and a Guide, E.M. Forster (1922) is still a solid companion to uncovering the somewhat overlooked treasures of Alexandria; Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie (1937); The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957-1960);

Ethiopia: The Barefoot Emperor, Philip Marsden (2007), Ethiopian history;

France: A Sentimental Journey, Lawrence Sterne (1768) France and Italy;

Germany: The Swan King, Ludwig II of Bavaria, Christopher McIntosh (1982);

India: A Passage to India, E.M. Forster (1924) remains one of the greatest explorations of the mistrust and misdemeanours during the British Raj; Indian Journals, Allen Ginsberg (1970); Staying On, Paul Scott (1977); The Hill of Devi, E.M. Forster (1953) is a richly textured account of Forster's stint as private secretary to the Maharaja of a then minor Indian state; Plain Tales from the Hills, Rudyard Kipling (1888); Hindoo Holiday, J.R Ackerley (1932) is a witty look at life accompanying the Maharaja of Chhokrapur in the 1920s; The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy; The Mulberry Empire, Philip Hensher (2002); India: a Wounded Civilisation, V.S. Naipaul (1977); No Full Stops in India, Mark Tully (1991);

Islands: Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe (1719) was inspired by the real life castaway Scot Alexander Selkirk who was marooned on Juan Fernandez, 360 miles west of Chile, and serves as an allegory for coping with loneliness and hardship. 

Italy: Venice, Jan Morris (1960); Italian Neighbours, Tim Parks (1992); The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958);

Kenya: Out of Africa, Karen Blixen, (1937), Kenya, West with the Night: Beryl Markham, (1942), Kenya

Latin America:

General: The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (1995) tells of the formative journey through Latin America on a Norton motorbike in 1952 (the film adaptation was released in 2004);

Lebanon: Pity the Nation, Robert Fisk (1990), History of the Lebanese war; Holidays in Hell, P.J. O’Rourke (1988), chapters on Lebanon, Philippines etc;

A selection of holiday reading. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Mexico: So far from God, Patrick Marnham, 1985, Mexico; Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947); The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Carlos Castenada (1968);

Montenegro: Blood Revenge: the Enactment and Management of Conflict in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies, Christopher Boehm (1986);

North Africa

Morocco:

Desert Divers, Sven Lindqvist (1990) visits the Sahara to re-tell colonial atrocities and examin the motives of some early western Orientalist writers, through a study of the people who clean out desert wells.

The Travels of Ibn Battutah, Ibn Battuta (14th century). Perhaps the greatest traveller the world has ever seen, this remarkable man left his home town of Tangier aged 20, and made journeys covering 75,000 miles (and the equivilent of 44 of today's countries), before returning to his native land and passing away at around seventy years old.  

The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles (1949) is a great evocation of the Moroccan desert and the moral and discombobulation of an an American couple who set out to travel in it (the 1990 film is a good accompaniment to visiting the Moroccan Sahara too).

Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956, Gavin Maxwell (1966). Here the Ring of Bright Water author describes a local rich familie's hold over their part of the Atlas Mountains.

Panama: The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, David McCullouch (1977);

The Pacific Islands: A Pattern of Islands; Arthur Grimble (1952), Kiribati and Pacific Islands, Tales of the South Pacific, James A. Mitchener; Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl; Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead; South Sea Tales, Robert Louis Stevenson; Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, and other stories, Albert Wendt (1974) is a good introduction to this Samoan writer's work;

Russia: In Siberia, Colin Thubron (1999); Ekaterinburg, the Last Days of the Romanovs, Helen Rappaport (2008) is the chilling account of the Romanovs' final fourteen days ahead of being assassinated on July 17th 1918; The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia; and Moscow Calling, Memoirs of a Foriegn Correspondant, both by Angus Roxburgh; The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967).

South Africa: Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton (1986), Apartheid South Africa; Washing of the Spears, Donald Morris (1965), History of the Anglo-Zulu Wars;

Southern Africa: The Lost World of the Kalahari, Laurens van der Post (1958);

South East Asia

Cambodia: Pol Pot, The History of a Nightmare, Philip Short (2004);

Malaysia: An Outcast of the Islands, Joseph Conrad (1896) tells the fascinating but rather bleak tale of a man's descent after being exiled to a small Malay island; 

Thailand: The Beach, Alex Garland (1996), Backpacking in Thailand;

Train Travel: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (1934);

Turkey: Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macaulay (1956) North-eastern Turkey; Istanbul, The Imperial City, John Freely (1996);

UK: The English: A Field Guide, Matt Rudd (2014); Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome (1889);

Ukraine: Borderland – A journey through the history of Ukraine, Anna Reid (2000); Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov (1996);

USA: Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown (1970) Native American history, Selling Your Father's Bones, Brian Schofield (2011); Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck (1962) sees Steinbeck driving to rediscover his native USA with a camper van and a large poodle; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson (1971); The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925);

West Africa: Travels in West Africa, Mary Kinglake (1897) is an eccentric account of a lone woman's walk into the heart of the Congo; The Viceroy of Ouidah, Bruce Chatwin (1980); Wanderings in West Africa, Richard Burton (1863); Travels in the Interior of Africa, Mungo Park (1799).

General: Longitude, Dava Sobel (1998) is a tremendous telling of the search for the solution to the 'longitude problem'; Uganda’s Kitikiro in England, Ham Mukasa (1998); Within Wicker's World, an Autobiography, Alan Whicker (1982) and Alan Whicker, Journey of a Lifetime (2009); Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, (1981)


SOVIET ERA FLYING MACHINES
   6629 views   
The Soviets made 40,000 'Flying Tanks' during WWII; the aircraft was never pretty, but it did the job...
posted by Richard Green on 04/01/2017
 

The Sturmovik was a remarkable aircraft, and more of them were made than any other aircraft - somewhere between 36,000 and 42,000 depending on the way you count them. It sure ain't no Spitfire in the looks department, but it did the job. Known in the west, if it was known at all, as the 'Flying Tank' or the 'Hunchback' it was made of wood and metal - including thick steel plate around the cockpit for protection - and was brutally simple to make, to repair, and in between became legendary for the amount of punishment it could take before being forced to crash.

I find its chunky functionality utterly engaging, and like so many Soviet creations, what it lacked in finesse it more than made up for in being solid and practical. It didn't do anything particularly well, and certainly nothing with flair - it just flew low and slow, was cheap to build and easy to repair, and there were so many of them churned out that it tipped the balance in the Soviet's favour.

Stalin appreciated the Ilyushin-2 a lot, when production fell at one factory factory, he sent a cable to the manager, saying of the aircraft - "They are as essential to the Red Army as air and bread. I demand more machines. This is my final warning!"

Considering how many of these machines were made, there are surprisingly few surviving examples, maybe only a dozen or so. Here is a piece that ran recently on the BBC's Website about a Sturmovik found in a Lake near to St Petersberg and now being restored in the USA - Bringing the Soviet Union's Flying Tank back to life

One of the very few Sturmovik's in the west is housed in a small museum that only just fits around it, in the far northern Norwegian border town of Kirkenes.

The town feels decidedly remote, despite the Russian border being very close and the large Russian city of Murmansk being 140 miles to the east. And because of it's extreme latitude, stand in Kirkenes and you are actually east of Istanbul and almost as easterly as Cairo.

It's a sleepy place and in contrast to so many Norwegian coastal towns, not a pretty jumble of twee wooden structures, but in fact a somewhat ugly and characterless place where the small main square is surrounded by nondescript concrete buildings.

The reason for this is that fierce and prolonged battled raged here during the Second World War - at a time when the Nazi's were confronting the Soviets across the roof of Europe. The Soviets churned out their ground attack Sturmoviks in huge numbers and threw them at the dug in Germans.

Walking to the Borderlands Museum, Kirkenes. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The aircraft on display here crash landed in the adjascent Lake Førstevatn after being shot down in the war, and was restored by the city of Murmansk and gifted to the people of Kirkenes. It's by far the largest exhibit in the otherwise somewhat homely Borderland Museum - and a pleasant 20 minute walk from the centre of town.

The aircraft was hit in the engine by German anti-aircraft fire after it had attacked the Elvenes Bridge. The rear gunner bailed out and the pilot landed in the lake and survived. 

The Ilyushin IL-2 on display at the Borderlands Museum, Kirkenes. Photo Matti Paavola

There are few attractions in Kirkenes, but walking distance from the town is the Snow Hotel. Barents Safari Tours runs trips out into the Barents Sea in search of King Crab.

For more information see Visit Kirkenes

***

Other places to see a Sturmovik...

Belgrade, Serbia: the Aeronautical Museum at Belgrade's Nicola Tesla Airport is a couple of hundred metres walk from the main terminal, and a very good place to visit if you happen to arrive at the airport with spare time on your hands, or if your flight is delayed.

 

Monino, Moscow, Russia: the country's Central Museum of the Air Force is 45 kilometers to the east of Moscow, at the Monino airfield, and opposite the now closed Gagarin Air Force Academy. This is Russia's largest collection of aircraft on display - it was founded in 1958, but not opened to the public til 2000, and includes a TU-144 'Concordski', the largest helicopter ever built (Mil V-12), numerous Migs and Sukois, and a Sturmovik. 

The impressive collection at the Central Air Force Museum. Photo Andrey Khachatryan/Livejournal

 

Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Moscow, Russia: opened in 1995, the museum follows in the tradition of Soviet war memorials. The main building is centred on the Hall of Glory, which is a vast church-like space housing a large bronze 'Soldier of Victory' and with walls featuring the names of the 11,800 recipients of the Hero of the Soviet Union. 

Outside and to the left is a large open air park containing military equipment from WWII, including motor torpedo boats, a gigantic railways carriage mounted gun, and more than a dozen aircraft, including a Sturmovik. 

The Sturmovik at the outdoor section of Moscow's Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Photo My Bathroom Wall

 

Samara, Russia: this large southern Russian city stands on the River Volga, and has it's Sturmovik mounted on a pedestal in the middle of a traffic island. The aircraft was manufactured here in 1942 and was shot down over Karelia a year later.

 

Novorossiysk, Russia: at this large Black Sea port and Hero City, honoured for the city's defence against the German and Romanian armies in 1943, is a Sturmovik. Alas the pedestal is hideously ugly and the paint scheme of dubious accuracy, but it is one of the city's many wartime memorials. 

 

 

Prague, Czech Republic: Out at Kbely, eight kilometers north-east of the city, is the Prague Aviation Museum, with over 100 aircraft on display, including an Ilyushin 2 in a themes WWII hangar.

 

Warsaw, Poland: The Polish Army Museum was founded in 1920 and is surprisingly central, located by a main road not far from the Vistula River. 


 
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  5020 views. First published 27/03/2017
 
City Break Tirana, the cheap, quirky and rewarding capital of Albania...
  7172 views. First published 22/03/2017
 
Once a gateway to India, now ghost ruins reachable only by driving through water...
  6070 views. First published 21/03/2017
 
All's fair in love and war they say. Tyneham, the English village destroyed by friendly fire...
  3144 views. First published 16/02/2017
 
Rise above the chaos and polution of Bangkok's streets, on the Skytrain...
  4644 views. First published 16/02/2017
 
Umeå 2014; a small far northern Swedish town rich in Sami heritage and quirky culture
  6016 views. First published 24/01/2017
 
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