"The trouble with telling a good story is that it invariably reminds the other fellow of a dull one"
Sid Ceasar, American comic actor

I wrote an advice column in the Sunday Times for six years, in which I answered reader questions on travel. Thanks to my own trips, my time working for the airlines and selling travel at Trailfinders, I've always genuinely enjoyed helping friends and readers get the most from their holidays.

So here are items of travel news - sometimes small, but still significant, with travel advice weaved into them. A little preparation before a trip helps you go a long way...

The Peninsula Hong Kong at 90...
posted by Richard Green on 14/02/2018

The hotel has a fleet of Rolls Royce's in its unique 'Peninsula Green'. Photo Peninsula Hotels

A bit of history: affectionately known as the ‘Pen’, The Peninsula is Hong Kong’s oldest and grandest hotel, and this year sees its 90th anniversary. The famous white-suited pageboy’s opened the doors to its first paying guests in 1928 - when immediately it attracted that most colonial of epithets, being hailed as the finest hotel east of Suez.

As well as the colonial upper crust - remember that Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997 - early guests included politicians, tycoons and movie stars, and it quickly became the local elite’s swagger sanctuary of choice.

The Pen in splendid isolation back in the 20s, when visitors made straight for Hong Kong Island rather than Kowloon 

Right from the beginning, the history of the Hong Kong and the Pen were intertwined. In the 20’s it was the Pen that hosted the colony’s most glitzy tea dances, in 1941 it lent a room for Hong Kong’s formal surrender to the Japanese, and in the 70’s a fleet of exclusive ‘Peninsula Green’ Roll’s Royce’s arrived to transfer guests to and from the airport in style. Then with pre-handover chutzpah, a 28-story extension was added in 1994.  

Afternoon tea in the lobby is a Hong Kong institution. Photos Peninsula Hotels

First impressions: The glass door closed behind me and shushed the city’s cacophony: I’d entered the lobby. I’m a sucker for pukka colonial and this was it. The vast hall contained cream stuccoed columns, lacquered tables and potted ferns, while the air buzzed with conversation and the comforting tinkle of teaspoons on china, and up on the balcony, an enthusiastic quartet were playing ‘Fly me to the Moon’. It felt sumptuous and utterly imperturbable - the sort of place where the band might play Stormy Weather in a raging typhoon.  

Away from the grand pedigree of the original building, the design of the new tower echoes the shapes and colours well, and houses a large Romanesque pool and sun terrace, along with a spa and gym, all immaculately maintained.  

The rooms are larger than I had expected – even a standard is almost 500 square feet. The décor is classic, but fresh feeling, in a blend of traditional European styles with Orient nods, like the table lamps and wall hangings. The million dollar view of the Hong Kong Skyline found me flopping-on-the-bed in delight as soon as the bellman withdrew. 

A suite complete with telescope, and a deluxe room. Photos Peninsula Hotels

How's the service? As well as the quirky ‘Shoe Box’, which enables staff to collect and deliver shoes and papers without opening the door, there are plenty of modern gizmo’s too - a DVD player, free ISDN ports, and bathroom TV, plus a bedside console that closes curtains, displays the outside temperature or activates the ‘do not disturb’ sign.

Amidst all of this richness and technology, I smiled broadly on noticing that sewing kit in the bathroom already had every needle pre-threaded. now I'm no stranger to hotel room fruit bowls, but as I had been upgraded to a suite, this one was a doozy - an explosion of unfamiliar colours and shapes that came with a booklet to explain its exotic contents.   

They say that the staff to guest ratio is a whopping 3:1, and while the service is unshowy, there’s always someone on hand when needed. They appear to take a genuine pride in their work, and a third of the Pen’s people have been employed for over ten years.

The Peninsula's pool. Photo Peninsula Hotels

Every exchange I had with the staff was a pleasure; from the effortless check-in, the pool attendant rushing over to assist with a wind-blown umbrella, and the urbane concierge who rose to my sense of humour uncannily. I’d spoken to him in the day in order to try for an impossible table that evening. He succeeded. I’d transformed myself into showroom condition as I headed out for the meal and I went over to thank him. His deliberate double take, and "my don't you scrub up well'  was flattering and funny. 

And at the end of my stay, the Pen glided me to the airport in a big green Rolls, where Bellman was waiting to escort me to the correct check-in desk. His 'oh hard luck sir' look when I explained I was departing in economy was a picture.  

Wining and dining: if you like good food in refined surroundings, then a trip to Hong Kong will probably include a plate full at the Pen. For French gourmet cuisine there’s Gaddi’s; for Chinese, Spring Moon; for Japanese, Imasa; for Mediterranean, The Verandah; and for Swiss, Chesa. Also there’s Afternoon Tea (180) in the Lobby, which is exquisitely presented.     

And then there’s Felix; at the top of the tower, this futuristic frolic by Philippe Stark is proof that the Pen is taking frivolity seriously too. The views are breathtaking, framed fantastically by the crisp ‘iceberg’ style of the interior. It’s a stylish yet fun Pacific Rim restaurant/bar/club, with some remarkable urinals in the world. Here gents can enjoy a panoramic pee, facing floor to ceiling glass overlooking the harbour. 

The Felix restaurant. Photo Peninsula Hotels

The only disappointment was the American Bar, where I was ushered prior to a meal at Felix. It's a raised platform to the right of the entrance with over-clever curves and submarine-on-silent-running gloom, and on the night I was there far too busy to be comfortable. It's true that there's no view in 'The Bar' off the lobby, but it's traditional and wood-panelled, and while it's not quite the case that Clark Gable invented the Screwdriver here, it is where in 1959 the Gone With the Wind actor asked Johnny Chung (still a member of staff to this day) for a cocktail made from Vodka and fresh orange juice. 

Despite all the high-rise contenders, the Pen retains its lustre. The service is slick, the details refined, and the new tower and technology have kept the Pen at the forefront. 

90th anniversary celebrations: event are still unfolding, but the Pen plans to reintroduce a couple of afternoon tea dances, on April 15th and September 16th. Combining afternoon tea with a live band and ballroom dancing was all the rage in the Pen's early days. 

After February's Saratov Airlines crash, are Russian carriers safe?
posted by Richard Green on 12/02/2018

Recovery underway at the crash site Argunovo, about 80 kilometres southeast of Moscow.

The short answer is yes, probably, providing that you stick to the larger airlines like Aeroflot or S7 Airlines. However, it that doesn't deminish the depressing deja vous of yet another Russian plane crash, especially as it comes after a record-breaking 2017 in which there wasn't a single fatal crash of a passenger jet airliner anywhere in the world.

I say 'yet another' because a few years back it seemed that crashes in Russia had become monotonously regular. The situation has improved in recent years, but the collective memory when it comes to air crashes is long, and Aeroflot suffered a spate of accidents in the 1990s.

This accident hapened on February 11th 2018 and involved Russia's Saratov Airlines. One of its Russian-built Antonov-148s had taken off from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport on an 2 1/2 hour scheduled flight to Orsk in Southern Russia, before it came down in wintry conditions shortly after take off, killing all 65 passengers and six crew onboard. 

The crashed aircraft on a previous flight; Saratov Airlines Antonov-148 registration RA-61704. Photo Saratov Airlines

Russia had a poor airline safety record, which wasn't helped by the country's often atrocious winter weather and a feeling that some of the smaller carriers have poor maintenance standards. The real bogeyman was the idea that Soviet-built aircraft were inherently less safe than western-built models.

Either way, the vast majority of airlines based in Russia now fly the latest western-built Airbuses and Boeings and have retired all of their Soviet-era kit. Even the small carrier involved in the latest crash is moving over to new Brazilian built Embraer's.  

An Aeroflot Airbus A320. Photo Aeroflot

Aeroflot has improved training, service and safety. And despite its chequered past - it suffered 127 crashes since 1953 - it has made enough strides forward for The Telegraph to run an article in 2016 entitled - 'Aeroflot: from world's deadliest airline to one of the safest in the sky'. A good resource is Airline Ratings, which gives expert safety ratings on over 400 airlines. Aeroflot scores a safety rating of 6/7, which is the same as Air France, Air India, Kenya Airways, and S7. Incidentally real shockers with a safety score of just 1/7 includes Air Koryo of North Korea, and Nepal Airlines. 

A lot has indeed changed, and in the soft standard sense, Aeroflot is now a four star carrier in the Skytrax ranking system. This places the carrier as equal to dozens of other four-star carriers like Aer Lingus, Air France, British Airways, Emirates and Qantas.

Snazzy new crew uniforms to match the snazzy new livery. Photo Aeroflot

I’ve survived using Aeroflot several times, as many millions of other passenegers have throughout its 95 year history. These days it's even in the Star Alliance global affiliation of carriers, yet if there is an easy choice between a lesser Russian airline and the likes of BA, Lufthansa or the local but safe S7 Airlines airlines (which is a member of the OneWorld Alliance), then I'd tend to go for them.

S7 Siberian Airlines. Photo Aero Icarus/Flickr

That deals with the airline, but what about the safety of the actual plane that you are booked to fly on? Well if it's a well known and reputable airline, you don’t really need to worry. However, for smaller airlines in Russia - and also Africa, South America and parts of Asia, it’s good to know a little about the type of plane that you are travelling on.

The code on your itinerary will help here – a B777 is a Boeing 777 for example and has a tremedously nerve-soothing safety record, whereas YK-42 is a Yakolev Yak, which doesn't.

You won’t know the exact aircraft due to operate the flight, but look at Air Fleets, type in the airline, and it lists the fleet, and you may be able to get a good idea. Click on a few registrations of the plane type that you could be flying on and you’ll see the age of those planes and its previous owners, if they are second hand.

Aeroflot Boeing 777 at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Airport in Kamchatka. Photo Aeroflot

Attitudes to risk vary, but I wouldn’t be flying on anything too old; say more than 20 years would make me feel a bit nervous. And as for the Boeing 737-200 registration ZS-IJJ operated by InterAir of South Africa, well it was delivered to Cameroon Airlines in 1972, forget it! 

There’s no rule for assessing a plane’s previous owners either, but if it was bought second hand from Lufthansa or British Airways let’s say, then it will have been looked after. It’s not so good if you see a plane’s been passed around many lesser-known African airlines, where maintenance standards may be questionable.

Look too at the EU list of airlines that are banned from entering European airspace on the grounds of safety. If you can, avoid flying any of these airlines http://ec.europa.eu/transport/modes/air/safety/air-ban/index_en.htm

One more thing...

This is going to sound ludicrous, but alas it’s horribly true. In March 1994, while captaining Aeroflot flight 593 from Moscow to Hong Kong, the pilot's two children were in the cockpit. The captain allowed his 16-year-old son to sit in the pilot’s seat, where he accidentally switched off the autopilot. The following loss of control led to a fatal nose dive and the plane ploughing into a Russian mountainside, killing all 63 passengers and 12 crew on board.

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