Must-see cities: London

Yeoman at the Tower of London
Yeoman of the Guard at the Tower of London

Everybody has their favourite big-city destination. If you ask around, the same handful of names will come up, with a few variations depending on that person’s individual interests.

I’ve always been an advocate of going off the beaten path, but there are a few cities that should be on everybody’s itinerary.

So, I have a little list that I’ll be sharing with you, one by one,  over the next few weeks and months.

I’d be happy to hear your additions/ subtractions and the reasons why. Comment below or send me an email.

London, England. This is the first major city I visited outside of my native Australia, and it’s the one I love the best. For me, London offers the best of all worlds — it is simultaneously old and new, its history and culture are palpable but it’s as modern as tomorrow.

My first stop way back when was the British Museum, and no trip feels complete unless I spend an hour or two there, revisiting such icons as the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon friezes (controversial as they are; if you want to see them, that’s where you have to go) and the Egyptian gallery, or checking out what’s new.

Of course, there are dozens of other world-renowned galleries and museums in the British capital. From the Tate Modern to the National Portrait Gallery, there is something for every taste in art.

A visit to the Tower of London is a must. Who doesn’t want to say that they measured themselves up against Henry VIII’s suit of armour, saw the spot where two of his wives — Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard — lost her heads, or enviously gazed at the crown jewels? It’s gruesome and glorious all at once. Oh, and don’t call your guide a Beefeater. He, or she, is a Yeoman of the Guard.

After that, to reassure yourself that London isn’t entirely locked in the past, take a trip to see the 306-metre-high Shard. And, if you don’t hate heights (as I do), go for a spin on the London Eye to get the best view of the Houses of Parliament and other famous London sights (weather permitting).

The West End is the place to go to see some of the world’s best theatre, from the experimental to the traditional to the highly commercial. Cheap tickets can be obtained in Leicester Square, which is well worth exploring on its own.

What else? There’s too much to mention: St Paul’s cathedral; Madame Tussauds (cheesy but fun, and near Baker Street, where you can search fruitlessly for Sherlock Holmes’s fictional abode); Covent Garden; Hyde Park and the shops of Mayfair; any of the great railway stations (Paddington is my favourite); Buckingham Palace (a bit of a let down in my books, as it’s just a very big house with a very famous resident); the Roman wall; and the pubs and clubs and restaurants (some of which are excellent despite England’s poor culinary reputation).

And take the time to just walk and soak it all in. The grand architecture, the denizens of the City, and the sights, sounds and smells of the London Underground (bearing in mind that the Tube map is representative only and does not align with above-ground geography).

As the great man of letters, Samuel Johnson, said back in 1777: “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

A matter of timing

Should I go to sea?
Should I go to sea?

When is the best time to book your next holiday? Actually, that’s a trick question, because there is no “best time” to book a holiday.

It depends on where you are going and when. And it often comes down to luck.

I’ve been noodling around online over the past few days trying to find something to do in March. Yes, I know that’s only next month, but the same problems arise whether you’re booking for next week or two years hence.

For reasons that are not really important, I have a flight to Munich booked for March 10 and a return flight from Munich booked on March 19. As yet, there is nothing in between, not even a hotel booking.

I am thinking — and this will not come as a big surprise to anybody who knows me — of taking a cruise. There’s only really one that suits is a seven-day return trip from Savona, which is relatively accessible by plane, train and automobile from Munich.

The problem is that the itinerary is very similar to a cruise I took a year ago. The difference would be the ship, which I haven’t been on before. So that’s one dilemma: do I want to go or not?

The second dilemma is, if I do decide to go, do I book now or wait?

The risk with waiting, of course, is that the cruise might sell out altogether, or the cheap cabins will all be gone and I’ll be forced to pay more than I am comfortable with.

The risk of booking now is that something better might come along closer to the date, and that if I book now, I’ll have to pay now. Also, price may drop, and I could get a better deal with a last-minute booking.

In any case, isn’t the money better off in my bank account than in the cruise line’s. So, for the time being, I’ll wait.

My advantage, of course, is that I am booking for myself and I am flexible about what I do. If you are booking for more people — say a family holiday — and your holidays are fixed, or your heart is set on a particular trip at a particular time, then the best advice is to book as early as you can, and be prepared to pay a little more for the sake of securing exactly what you want.

Who’s up for a cruise?

Cruising
Cruising is not for everyone, but the passenger list is surprisingly diverse

When I speak or write about cruising, some people roll their eyes. Their minds automatically trip to that stereotype that says cruises are for boring old people.

It’s a shame, because while it’s true that the demographic on many ships is 50-plus — and some companies specialise in catering to that age group — there are plenty of young people setting sail.

A day ago, I received a Facebook message from a guy in his 20s who had always gone on family cruise holidays and wanted some advice about taking his first sol adventure. He didn’t know, for example, that some ships offer singles studios with a special meet-up lounge for their unattached guests.

I have relatives in their 30s who go cruising, a former colleague in his early 40s takes his family cruising regularly, and a friend in his 50s has recently caught the bug.

On board ships, I’ve met train drivers (a group of them who work on the London Underground), IT workers, teachers and lawyers. People from all walks of life.

These are people from all sorts of backgrounds on board boats. Some like the convenience of having only to pack and unpack once and not worry too much about the itinerary. Others like the thrill of being in a different port, often a different country, every other day. Some just love the onboard lifestyle: the bars, restaurants, casino, theatre, gym, spa, pool and so on.

For many people, it’s the affordability of a cruise — especially those that are all-inclusive — that’s the decisive factor.

For me, as a solo traveller, it’s a way to explore parts of the world I’ve never been to, or that I already love, and to have a balance between doing my own thing and meeting other people.

On some cruises, I’ve kept pretty much to myself, on others I’ve been “adopted” by couples or small groups and joined in with their activities — from trivia contests to pub crawls (all safely supervised by crew members).

I always talk to the bar and service staff, as well as fellow passengers, and I almost always end up with at least one more social-media friend after every trip.

I’ll admit that cruising may not be everybody’s thing, but I’d urge people to check it out a bit more thoroughly before dismissing it outright as a holiday option,

A traveller’s tale

A swan in Nuremberg

Picture this: you’re standing in a queue at the “bag drop” location in the airport. You know, the one that used to be called the check-in counter, but we’re all expected to check in online nowadays, so we can just drop our bags and go.

The only problem is that it takes longer to drop your bag and go than it used to take to check in, because there are fewer people to serve you, and most of the people in front of you haven’t actually checked in online, have some bizarre amount or type of luggage, or are just plain stupid.

So you’re looking at your watch and anticipating, with dread, the even longer queue at security and, if it’s an international flight, immigration.

By the time your turn comes at the bag drop, you’re angry. But you can’t appear angry because, if you do, your seat will be reassigned to the one next to the toilets and opposite the unaccompanied child passengers.

You are pleasant through gritted teeth, and you get through all procedures with enough time to steal a snack or a drink before boarding.

Despite the best efforts of the airline staff in setting out a boarding procedure, the scrum to get on to the plane resembles something from Dante’s Inferno. For a moment, you wish you were in hell; it couldn’t be worse.

And then you’re on the plane, and you find your seat. You are the only person in your row so far, and you pray to whichever deity you believe in that the other seats are vacant. Assuming this will not be the case, you start looking around to see if there are other vacancies nearby. As every traveller knows, once the “boarding complete” announcement is made, it’s open season on the empty rows.

But this flight is full to the brim, and there is no room to manoevre. You smile nervously as the last passenger — the one assigned to sit next to you — boards.

You size them up, and wonder whether they will be a talkative bore, a person with no sense of personal space, malodorous or a combination of all three.

It’s a red-eye flight, so you have the perfect way out. You pretend to sleep, even though you can’t.

When you arrive at your destination, you are tired and cranky. But you have to be polite to a whole new bunch of people, many of whom may not speak your language.

You cope with passport control, baggage collection, customs and even a taxi driver who, although you can’t prove a thing, you know is taking you the long way.

You’re shattered, but at last you are at your hotel.  But the very pleasant receptionist tells you that you’re too early and your room won’t be ready for another four hours.

That’s when you dump your bags and go for a stroll. You see, hear, eat and smell things you’ve never seen, heard, tasted or smelt before, and you suddenly remember why you travel. The negativity floats away, and you’re already planning the next trip.

Review: Costa Fortuna

Costa Fortuna, Dubai, Muscat Khasab, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Jan 15-22, 2016

Costa Fortuna
Costa Fortuna

I’ve already written about the full experience in my cruise diary, so here are the headlines, which may be of help to potential future passengers:

Boarding in Dubai: It was seamless for me. I just rocked up to the terminal, asked directions, had my main luggage taken from me, went to the counter, and was on the ship within five minutes. Others who had packaged deals and arrived on flights from Europe said things got a little chaotic for them, presumably because large numbers arrived at once.

Cabin: A well-maintained balcony/ ocean view cabin on deck 7. No complaints except that the shower couldn’t be locked into position and the nozzle kept sliding down the fixture. The steward was very pleasant and efficient.

Ship: The Fortuna had a makeover during a spell in dry dock in December, being prepared for the Chinese market. It sails  east in April and will be based in Asia for the foreseeable future. The refurb means fewer bars and more gambling facilities, including a high-rollers’ room, which is not yet finished.

Service: Everyone onboard was pleasant, including the English-speaking hostess, who even recognised me from a previous cruise onboard the Costa Fascinosa in the Mediterranean last year. Bar and wait staff were efficient and cheerful, with few exceptions.

Food: Standard Costa fare, meaning everything is Italian style. I enjoyed most of the meals in the restaurant at night; the only problem I had was when I had breakfast in one of the restaurants and I twice had to send back my “full monty” English breakfast because they gave me scrambled eggs rather than fried. Not a big problem. It would be nice to see some eggs and bacon in the breakfast buffet, but it was strictly continental style — cold meats, but a good range of them, cheese and pastries. The afternoon snacks are a great Costa touch, and I’m told the cakes were lovely.

Passengers: A mix of people from Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and the UK. I didn’t encounter any Americans and I saw only a few Arab couples, suggesting most people had taken package tours from Europe. There were two couples from northern England at my dinner table, and they were very nice people. The conversation was diverting, taking me a whole world away from my normal zone. I also met some Belgians at the bar one night, and had a few laughs with them.

The itinerary: I’ve done this cruise before, and it’s a good sample of the Gulf. MSC, Aida and Royal Caribbean make similar stops. It would be interesting, but presumably not possible to include Bahrain and Qatar in a cruise itinerary. As it is, many newcomers to the region are struck by the difference between Dubai and Muscat (and, indeed, between Dubai and Abu Dhabi). I didn’t take any of these excursion because this is familiar territory to me, although the feedback I heard from those who did was generally positive. The desert safari seemed to be a popular choice, and manypeople loved the shopping and pace of Dubai.

Entertainment: As a former theatre critic, I have high standards in this department. I genuinely enjoyed several of the shows, and it seems a bit nit-picky to compare them to professional land-based performances — especially when the actors and dancers are required to work hard and be very flexible in terms of range. Highlights included an acrobatic performance with a Romeo and Juliet theme, and an exceptional tenor. Because of the many languages spoken on board, there was no comedy or talk-based performances (such as, say, a stage hypnotist). There were a number of duos and small groups playing around the ship, and their efforts were widely appreciated. It seems that many Italians like to dance, and watching them is a treat in itself.

Disembarkation: Again, it was smooth for me. After attending a half-hour lecture on how to do it, I discovered that I could just pack my bags and get off the ship at a time of my choosing on Friday, which is what I did.

Price: I got a bargain, and so did many of the tour-package passengers I spoke to. Rolling in the internet (expensive, as always on ships), the daily 9-euro service charge and a few bits and pieces, I spent about US$1,200 all up. For accommodation at at least a four-star level, all drinks (including great Illy coffee, soft drinks, draught beer, wine by the glass and spirit mixers)  and the cruise itself, that’sway less than just a hotel room in Dubai would cost.

Would I do it again? Yes. But not straight away. The next cruise will probably be in Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

Cruise diary

A now-completed blog of my cruise on the Costa Fortuna sailing from and to Port Rashid, Dubai via Muscat, Khasab and Abu Dhabi. New posts at the top.

Costa Fortuna

 

Friday, Jan 22: Back to Abu Dhabi by taxi. The final bill includes 9 euro a day service charge, plus about 75 euro for six hours of wifi onboard. Luckily, because I live in the UAE, I was able to use my own data package, otherwise internet charges would have been higher.

That’s all for now, but in the next few days, I’ll write a short, proper review of the cruise. Stay tuned!

Thursday, Jan 21: In Dubai, with all the options it offers. Again, it’s a story to be told elsewhere.

What I will say now, though, is that the Costa folk did a great job. I spoke to a lot of people onboard, and they all had a good time. As I’ve said before, cruise holidays are not for everybody, but when you see — as I did — people from all sorts or backgrounds smiling most of the time, then something is right.

Wednesday, Jan 20: Abu Dhabi. A quiet day gearing up for my off-itinerary treat: an Australia Day fucntion hosted by the Australian embassy. More on that later.

Abu Dhabi Port Zayed
Abu Dhabi Port Zayed

Tuesday, Jan 19 (evening): Tonight’s show, Kings and Queens of Pop and Rock, was everything I expected/ feared it would be. Well-executed by just a bunch of songs by Queen, Abba, Michael Jackson et al, which have their proper places in the bars and other venues. The designers made clever use of porjections, as in other productions, but made we wonder whether there was any consideration of sight lines. A huge metal construction stage right would have retricted the view for many people on that side of the theatre. The singers and dancers did their best — and they are very good. I’d just prefer something with a plot and some heart. I guess that’s tricky when you’re dealing with a multi-lingual audience. It’s easier just to crank out some hits …

I spent the rest of the night in the piano bar, which is remarkable for its lack of a piano. It is being reconfigured into a VIP gambling venue for the Chinese marke. The bar tender, Alfred, hared a few stories and I met some nice folk from the UK and Brussels.

Tuesday, Jan 19: The ship has dropped anchor off Khasab, in a pocket of Oman that is surrounded by the UAE and the ocean. Tenders (small boats that are also used as lifecraft) are taking people in for dhow (traditonal boat) tours, but I won’t be among them.

For me, it’s a day to relax, even though I have no excuse for doing so. Time is flying, though. We have a disembarkation procedures meeting this afternoon.

Monday, Jan 18 (evening): The company — two retired couples from northern England — and the service in the Ristorante Michaelangelo remains very good. The food is quite good, too, although I think I chose the wrong entree — a sausage risotto that was big on gluggy rice and small on sausage and taste. My first dessert of the cruise — a yoghurt cake — was excellent.

One of my dining companions confessed a sligth addiction to the cakes served in the buffet of an afternoon. “We don’t normally eat cakes, but these are delicious,” she told me. A quick check of my waistline suggests I should stay away.

It’s dress-ups night and there was a function with the crew, which allowed me to have a quick conversation with the English-speaking hostess, Stephanie, who I met on a previous cruise. “Why havn’t I seen youy?” she asked. “Because,” I replied, “I’ve had nothing to complain about.”

Tonight’s show, Sapori D’Italia, a collage of Italian culture through song and dance, was great. The highlght for me, and many others, was Nessun Dorma, sung with passion and fine technique by tenor Carlo Ruggiero. The design and choreography were slick, clever and cliched in good measure, and Duo Sky, who performed Romeo and Juliet last night, made a welcome return.

And there was a towel animal (something with big ears, reclining on a mat) and chocolates waiting in my room.

Monday, Jan 18: A very late start. I woke briefly for breakfast and then went back to bed, napping until set-sail time about 1pm. Coffee, lunch and some catch-up online.

Muscat
Muscat

Sunday, Jan 17: I went ashore for a brief walk around Muscat, which I’ve visited before and will write soon about separately.

The evening’s entertainment was Romeo and Juliet as interpreted by two immensely talented athletest whi blended a small amount of ballet with a big dose of acrobatics.

A wonderful production let down only by a very cheap set. The rendering of the balcony was less than high-school musical standard. A little more investment in props and sets would have served the talented artists better.

I finished off the night chatting to the lawyers I’d met over breakfast and people-watching at the White Party, which seems to be a compulsory feature of all Costa and NCL cruises, visitng the late-night venues, and checking out the service standards at the various bars.

muscat

Sunday, Jan 17 (morning): I wake up in Muscat, but I’ve been there before, so there’s not rush to explore, especially as we’ll be here until tomorrow afternoon. Breakfast in the restaurant was a bit disorganised. On the plus size, I met some English lawyers and we had a nice conversation; downside, I had to send my order back twice because they gave me scrambled eggs instead of fried.

Costa Fortuna bar
Costa Fortuna bar

Saturday, Jan 16: I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring and having a nap, before dinner, where I was sat with two English couples. We all got along rather well, which bodes well for the rest of the week given that the dinner seating is allocated and can only be changed once — which I’ve already done because they had me on the late sitting. We had a wide-ranging discussion including why it was that, unlike other cruises we’d all been on, Costa did not insist that passengers use the hand sanitisers. I guess a dose of noravirus (which I would not wish on anyone) will change that.

I’d seen most of the evening show, H2O, before, but the variation this time was a star turn for a guy who blows bubbles. Yes, really. Although it begins as a poor man’s Lion King (with the costumes clearly demonstrating how bad that show could have looked with a lesser designer), it evolves into a pleasant exploration of the theme of water through popular song, ranging from The Drunken Sailor to I Am Sailing, via (for some unexplained reason) the William Tell Overture and Surfin’ Safari. The vocalists and dancers are pretty good.

Saturday, Jan 16 (morning): Over my espresso — the Illy coffee expertly prepared is one of the best features of Costa cruises — one of the crew explained the changes to the ship since it left dry dock in December. When the Dubai season ends in April, the Costa Fortuna is heading to China, and it has had some modifications to suit that market.

The card rooms are gone, replaced with counters selling luxury items, and the piano bar is becoming a VIP/high-rollers’ room as an adjunct to the casino. There’s also talk of a karaoke room. The dragon is new, but a display of ships from the Costa fleet on the ceiling and several model ships that were on display around the vessel have gone.

My informant says the Fortuna will be in China for the foreseeable future, because the cruise market there is buoyant and they sell out well ahead on almost every sailing.

After breakfast, a continental affair in the buffet (although I could have chosen al la carte in the restaurant), I changed my dinner booking from the 9pm sitting to the 6.45pm one. Nine o’clock is too late for tea, as my Dad used to call it.

Costa's coffee is Illy
Costa’s coffee is Illy

Friday, Jan 15: The taxi ride from Abu Dhabi to Port Rashid in Abu Dhabi took about two hours; at least 30 minutes of it in heavy traffic once we left the motorway. I was worried when the driver asked me if I had a GPS feature on my phone, but it was lucky I did as it helped us get around the tangle of Dubai traffic — until the very end, when it wanted to take us well beyond the cruise terminal (which is not well sign posted, although Port Rashid itself is.)

Boarding was very easy. I just walked up to the counter and was onboard within minutes. Apparently the ship boards over 24 hours, from Friday afternoon until Saturday morning, to suit the arrival of those on international flights, mostly from Europe. The first thing I heard was a band singing Volare — one of the staples of Italian cruises. I knew I was in the right place.

I salied on the Costa Fortuna, on this same itinerary, two years ago. but it seemed different this time — more open in places, and with some familiar features missing. Also, there’s a big drag on the ceiling in the atrium that I’m sure wasn’t there before.

My balcony cabin is, or at least seems, larger than the inside stateroom I had last time. It certainly feels more open, because of the large glasss window and door out on to the verandah. The view isn’t so good now, but it should be once we get to sea.

I ate at the Critofo Colombo buffet. I sampled a few dishs, and the salmon was particularly tasty. Then I went looking for the piano bar, which isn’t there any more, so I settled in the main room under the dragon and had a beer before bed time.

Costa continental breakfast
Costa continental breakfast

The trouble with travel

The Sphinx, Cairo
Great Sphinx, Cairo.

 

Back in the 1970s, a couple I know drove across Afghanistan as part of an overland-as-far-as-possible journey from England to Australia. It’s a journey that is virtually impossible these days due to decades of fighting in that region.

In 1989, during the “troubles”, I spent a week staying in Belfast and driving around Northern Ireland — including past the site where, just a day earlier, a bomb planted in a parked car had killed a man and his granddaughter on their way to school.

A few years ago, I sailed along the Nile from Luxor to Aswan and back, taking in the Valley of the Kings, Karnak, Abu Simbel and other ancient wonders, with an optional side-trip to see the pyramids and sphinx at Giza. It’s a journey I highly recommend, but many people remain reluctant to take it because of several incidents including the 1997 massacre of 62 people, mostly tourists.

As I write this, I’ve been reading about an attack in Sultanahmet Square, a major Istanbul tourist attraction that I visited last year. Ten people are confirmed dead so far. It follows two incidents in Tunisia in 2015 — at a museum and on a beach — and the attacks on Paris in November.

Clearly, tourism can be a dangerous business, especially when there are extremist groups, and twist individuals, who want to maximum their headline appeal by putting international visitors in their crosshairs.

But everything we do in life is a calculated risk. So, if we want to travel, we need to approach it sensibly.

Afghanistan remains off my itinerary, along with a few other global hot spots (Syria and parts of Iraq among them). But I will almost certainly go to Turkey again, because there’s much more I want to see there, and I have no doubt that I’ll be in Paris once more.

There are some things we can do to mitigate the risks, but that can mean missing out — especially if the advice you get is to avoid popular attractions. If you want to see the Eiffel Tower, who am I to tell you it’s dangerous to do so?

I’m not saying that we should throw caution to the wind, but we should keep in mind the reason we travel. And — caution: cliche ahead — if you change the way you live too much for fear of the terrorists, then they have already won.

Emptying the bucket

Minsk
Minsk

 

The term “bucket list” gives me the creeps. Not because it references death — in that it’s used to describe the places we want to go before we die — but because it’s so limiting.

Of course, I understand the idea of drawing up a list of places you want to visit before you shake off your mortal coil, but to me, the perfect travel itinerary should include places you’ve never even thought about.

While I’ve had a ball ticking off the wonders of the world and must-see attractions, ranging from Disneyland to the Treasury at Petra, I’ve had an equally good, or even better, time visiting countries and attractions that were never even on my radar.

The best example I can think of is Belarus. Ten years ago, I’d have given it no thought at all. But then I met someone online, and that led to an invitation to visit, and suddenly I was entranced by Minsk (and by my new friend, but that’s another story).

I discovered the charms of Glasgow, and Scotland in general, because a friend suggested that I might be able to find work there. And a free trip to Manila, which came via a colleague, has made me eager to see more of the Philippines, which did not previously figure highly on my wish list.

My point is that circumstance can often throw up something new, and you most certainly should grasp it when you can. You may always have Paris, but you may never get the chance to see Svetlagorsk again.

Forget the bucket list, go where the four winds take you.

 

 

First-class foolery

Flying high

I came across an article that appears to confirm at least one of my theories about securing upgrades on airlines.

Apparenlty, many frequent flyers behave like bratstreating airline staff or other passengers with contempt.

It quotes Christopher Elliott, a travel journalist and founder of the travel site elliott.org, as saying: “There is a class of entitled travelers that don’t just believe that they deserve to be treated better than the rest of us; they believe that they are better than the rest of us.”

Elliot relates a story about an elite frequent flyer member who demanded that another passenger be bumped so his friend could takes the seat.

It seems there’s not a lot the crew can do about it. Elliot notes: “One flight attendant said to me, ‘I fully expect my airline to tell me to shine the shoes of these elites.’ ”

As I’ve noted before, I’ve been upgraded a lot lately. I’m still trying to understand why – and, yes, I do think my social-media and blogging activity helps – but I believe one of the main reasons is that I am always polite, respectful, undemanding and grateful for the service I get.

As we were told as children, it’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.