Author Archives: worldofjames

How to be a Disney princess

disney princess

What ingredients do you need be a princess?

“A pretty frock, a prince… and some Crocs, pink ones, not green ones, OK? Oh, and a tiara… from a toy shop.”

Kelly, who works for Walt Disney World in Orlando, might be regretting asking our super-excited twins Martha and Gracie.

At nearly five, the pair are Disney experts and can spot an Aurora from an Ariel from far, far away – so we’ve brought them to the place of their dreams before they head to school in September and term-time fines kick in.

Being twins, they normally vie for attention, chatting excitedly, but they’re both in wide-eyed awe as we dash around the Magic Kingdom park, autograph books in hand, for an ever-increasing list of royal appointments.

Cinderella, Belle and Rapunzel come and go leaving the girls in wonder … but nothing has them more excited than meeting another pair of special sisters. They approach Anna and Elsa from Frozen with their heads down until Anna speaks to them – and then they rush over for cuddles, kisses and so much excited princess chat that we could do with a Sleeping Beauty-style kip after just watching them.

Walt Disney World is vast – with four theme parks, two water parks, dozens of Disney hotels and acres of pristine land. When we’d first booked our holiday, we’d been a bit worried that they might have still been on the young side for a visit. But seeing them all starry eyed, we knew we made the right decision.

Here for a week, we’ve got time to do a park a day, and still have time to get in a relaxing day at one of the water parks, have a day by the hotel pool and cram in a bit of shopping too.

At Hollywood Studios, they get to meet two more of their heroes Jake (of Neverlands Pirates) fame, and Princess Sofia, hold the real-life glass-slipper from the latest Cinderella move, and hook up with Anna and Elsa again in the Singalong a Frozen show which has us all blasting out the hits and ends with a magical flurry of fake snow in the theatre.

But it’s not all about meeting Princesses – our two might like the pretty frocks, but they’re also terrible speed junkies and have us on every height-appropriate rollercoaster and ride they can, from the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Magic Kingdom to the Toy Story shooting ride at Hollywood Studios.

Animal Kingdom, the safari-themed park brings another change of pace with a jeep trip around a savannah where we get to spot lions, cheetahs, elephants and rhinos.

Our hotel, the nearby and excellent Animal Kingdom Lodge, has similar views from the balcony – minus the carnivores. And staying in a Disney hotel allows us to take advantage of special perks such as free transport between parks and Magic Hours access that lets us beat the queues by getting early entrance.

Having done Disney before, my wife Laura and I are happy to let the girls take the lead on things they want to see, and I certainly don’t miss being the official family photographer (ie not in most of the pictures) and having to lug a big camera bag around thanks to the MagicBand/PhotoPass combo.

The MagicBand is a relatively new bracelet device that stores all your information on it, from getting into your room to park tickets and even debit card details, so I can just scan the band and enter a pin to pay for anything at Disney.

Best of all it doubles as an ID bracelet for kids – lose them and their band can be scanned to help you be reunited – and you can also use it with the PhotoPass system.

Whenever you see a Disney photographer in the park – usually at the classic picture locations like in front of Cinderella’s castle or with character interactions – you get a snap taken, the photographer scans your band and the images are uploaded direct to a personal web page in minutes.

Visitors from elsewhere pay $199 for the service, but this year it’s thrown in as a freebie to anyone who buys tickets in the UK – great value as you can download as many pictures as you want.

Our down day at Typhoon Lagoon gives us to the chance to recharge and catch some sun. There’s a lagoon-style wave pool, slides galore and a lazy river – and after trying most of them out, we hire a private cabana that lets Laura and I catch some rays on sunloungers while the girls build castles in the sand.

At home, we’re normally strict-ish on bed times, but as we’re on holiday we hit the parks late on a couple of days to allow us to stay up later and watch the fabulous evening fireworks at shows such as IllumiNations at the Epcot park.

At one, we get a Disney caricature artist to sketch the girls, turning their likenesses into those of Disney princesses.

The sketches are excellent – even if he could just have drawn the same girl twice if he wanted – but it means the words of the song and just Let It Go. We’re barely at the airport before they already have us planning next year’s return visit.

This article first appeared in The Sun

Tykes and trikes

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WE pull up outside a bungalow in the pretty North Yorkshire hamlet of Rylstone. “This is the home of Miss July,” we’re told. “She sometimes comes out to say hello.” We wait, but Lynda Logan doesn’t appear. It’s the same when we pass Miss October’s house — Tricia Stewart’s also a bit camera-shy, it seems.

You might not recognise the names but they’re two of the UK’s most famous pin-ups since Kathy Lloyd and Sam Fox were gracing Page 3.

They’re part of the original Calendar Girls — the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute members whose story went on to become a hit film starring Helen Mirren, above, and Julie Walters, and raising almost £4million for Cancer Research.

The interest in their exploits is still so high a Gary Barlow musical about them is to open down the road in Leeds this November.

Barlow, right, was up here at the end of March to premiere the show at a village hall in nearby Burnsall, so we poke our head through the door. There’s a sign for weekly yoga classes but not a whiff of the Take That frontman.

The major stars of our trip are the Dales countryside — all babbling brooks, raging rivers, rolling hills and deep valleys — and the low-slung boom trike we take a tour on.

It has an engine to match many cars and has been customised to take two passen-gers at the back. Our driver is Jason Richards, a burly middle-aged biker who jettisoned a career in IT to set up Yorkshire Trike Tours with his wife Judith, a former teacher.

They started ferrying people around the 680 square miles of the Yorkshire Dales National Park before expanding into tours, including last year’s Tour de France route and a three-day James Herriot Safari.

The Calendar Girls Revival Tour is their latest offering, taking in the women’s houses and the iconic Dales locations used in the film.

We set off on it from our weekend home of the gorgeous Devonshire Arms hotel in Bolton Abbey. Part of the Duke of Devonshire’s estate, there are wellies and waders hanging in the entrance, antique-stuffed rooms and roaring fires.

It’s the kind of place you can take the dog, put on a tweed jacket and pretend you’re a bona fide country squire for the weekend.

When Jason twists the throttle for us to set off, the trike purrs into action and the attraction of using one on a tour becomes clear. It feels as safe as a car but with unrestricted views.

Stops include Kettlewell Garage, where Helen Mirren (Chris) gets the calendar idea in the film; Ilkley Moor, where the movie starts and ends; and the bridge where Chris’s son Jem is caught smoking oregano instead of marijuana — prompting the line, “The only thing that would be dangerous in is a quiche!”

Jason provides commentary via speakers in the helmets and the trike draws so many admiring glances we start to think we might be the biggest celebs in the town.

The tour ends back at the Devonshire Arms, where staff member Wendy was lucky enough to be one of the 100 people at the musical’s premiere. She says it’s going to be as good as the film — but won’t say if Gary Barlow stayed in our room.

So we take solace in the hotel’s magnificent afternoon tea of sandwiches, scones and mini rhubarb crumble and custard. Unlike Chris’s award-winning Victoria sponge in the film, these definitely weren’t picked up at M&S.

This article first appeared in The Sun

Sri Lankan serendipity

 Sigiriya

ANCIENT Arabian travellers knew the island of Sri Lanka, shaped like a teardrop falling from the southern tip of India, as Serendip. It is the origin of the word serendipity, the chance finding of something good or beautiful.

It is an apt name because, whether you come here by choice or accident, there is every chance that you will leave finding that you have discovered so much more than you expected.

For many people, Sri Lanka is a tropical haven. A series of gorgeous Bounty-advert beaches and exclusive hotels, where the chance to fly and flop, luxuriate in Ayurvedic treatments and sample amazing local cuisine (the freshest fish and spicy curries feature highly), is enough.

But explore further and you will find an island redolent with ancient legends, where advanced civilisations once ruled from magnificent palaces and where a verdant interior contains plains, hills and wildlife.

For a beach holiday, most base themselves on the idyllic sands of the west coast that stretch from the city of Negombo, just north of the capital, Colombo, to the fortress city of Galle, a four-hour drive south. From anywhere on the west coast, the island’s principle sights can be discovered easily on a round trip — and the journey is comfortable enough, whether by train or car, thanks to decent roads and short distances.

Heading north from the coast, the first stops should be the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The former, from which Sri Lanka was ruled for 1,300 years until the 10th century, plays a significant role as one of the world’s major Buddhist shrines. According to legend, a cutting from Buddha’s fig tree was brought here in the 3rd century and flourished — and palaces, monasteries, lakes and monuments spread out from it.

Anuradhapura’s glory came to an end in 993. Abandoned when the country fell to Chola invaders, it was overtaken by the jungle and lay undisturbed for many years until the glorious ruins were uncovered and opened to the public.

Nearby Polonnaruwa became the country’s first city when King Vijayabahu I defeated the Chola in 1070. It was the country’s capital for only 200 years but is as impressive as Anuradhapura and is home to magnificent Buddhist statues. While the two former capitals have some breathtaking architecture, there is breathtaking natural beauty at Sigirya.

The vast, clay-red rock that rises from the plains of Central Province remains one of Sri Lanka’s most potent symbols. The rock was fashioned into the shape of a lion when an ancient city was placed at its summit in the 5th century and became the country’s capital for a short time.

The ruined city is not as well preserved as other ancient capitals, but the trek up is worth the visit. Surrounded by landscaped gardens, the walk takes 90 minutes and offers the opportunity to marvel at frescoes of lascivious ladies in a cave half-way up.

The views from the top are stupendous and it is possible to pick out a number of other sights. Dambulla is a cave-temple with more amazing frescoes and 150 incredible statues of Buddha; Matale Spice Garden is where you can learn all about the herbs used extensively in Sri Lankan cooking, and the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is a conservation centre for the mighty beasts.

If the heat and culture overload have started to take their toll, the next stop is the perfect place to catch breath — and have a nice cuppa. Nuwara Eliya is a city high in Sri Lanka’s hill country. Once a cooling bolthole for British colonialists, it is also home to the country’s tea industry.

You can potter from one boutique hotel to another through magnificent hills and deep valleys. Women still pluck tea by hand, and many smallholdings and manufacturers offer tasting sessions — look out for white tea, originally grown for a Chinese emperor. Said to the most expensive in the world, even today it is supposedly still harvested by virgins in order to retain its purity.

A final stop should be Yala National Park, home to more than 200 species of birds as well as elephants, water buffalo and sloth bears. Here you will have the best chance ever to see leopards, thanks to it having one of the world’s highest population densities of the big cat. How’s that for serendipity?

This article first appeared in The Times

Behind the scenes: Cabin crew training

Thomson Airways Flight Training for Press

THE aircraft cabin fills up with smoke and through the haze I can see the faint glow of a fire. Though there is searing heat and I can feel myself choking on the fumes. I calmly take down the huge white smoke mask from its compartment and pull it over my head.

Pete, my fellow cabin crew member, puts his hand on my shoulder so we do not get separated and we make our way through the wreckage, ensuring that all seats are empty and all passengers have been evacuated. When we reach the fire, I take an extinguisher and douse the flames before we head out the door.

What we find is no remote desert island as seen on the TV show Lost, but it’s an equally desolate surround. We’re in a hangar near Crawley, West Sussex, that, given its proximity to Gatwick, is home to some of the biggest names in both holidays and aviation.

We are being put through our paces by Thomson Airways staff on a cabin crew training day, but things are a little more complicated than just switching on a microwave, flogging duty free or asking people whether they prefer tea or coffee. Trolley-dollying this most certainly isn’t.

“The chances are you are never going to use any of this,” says Captain Stuart Gruber, Thomson Airways Head of Flight Operations, Technical & Training, who has never had a major scare in 20 years. “That doesn’t mean you never will.”

Training the company’s 2,850 cabin crew is rigorous and intense. Over the morning, my respect for their work grows massively. The in-flight safety video is done by six-year-olds, so it should have been child’s play but I find myself a mess of limbs and straps.

Things get better, though. My firefighting skills are praised when we take on real flames (the ones in the plane itself were fake and the smoke from dry ice), I become a dab hand at disarming doors and a whizz on slide evacuations which, predictably, are a lot of fun.

For the final part of our day we make the short journey over to Boeing’s nearby training facilities, a wrap-around screen making it look for all the world as though we are on the runway at Gatwick.

Former Red Arrow and Training Captain Tim Couston shows us the main controls and how conditions can be changed. With one flick of a switch it becomes dark and I can see the constellations. With another I can’t see more than 10 feet as thick fog descends.

I take the controls from him and it seems easy at first, until we hit extreme turbulence, hail, rain and thunder. We’re soon banking for the grass verge at an alarming angle.

Captain Couston then takes charge, straightens us and with just a couple of bumps and a loud bang, gets us home safely.

I breathe a sigh of relief. For one dreadful moment I thought I’d have to put on the smoke mask again.

This article first appeared in the Daily Express

Fighter training in Arizona

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“CAN you see him on the horizon?” comes the question crackling through my headset.

Sure enough, 1,000ft away to my left and skimming over the Superstition Mountains is Black Hawk, a rogue fighter pilot. I shift the control and as I pull back sharply the G-force kicks in and I feel myself sinking into my seat with two or three times my bodyweight pressing down on me.

“Squeeze your leg muscles, it will stop you blacking out,” comes the command from my co-pilot Paul “BJ” Ransbury.

Ahead of me Black Hawk pulls out of his climb and I swoop until he is in my sights before squeezing the trigger. A direct hit.

He doesn’t plunge to the ground though. Instead he lives to fight another day. For we are not running sorties over Tripoli but dog-fighting over the desert in Scottsdale, Arizona, with Fighter Combat International, which offers visitors the chance to fly the world’s most advanced aerobatic plane, the Extra 300L, in mock battles.

You don’t need prior experience: you take to the air with an instructor (all former Top Guns) and, aside from take-off, landing and some initial exercises, you’re in control for large chunks of the flight. Tom Cruise eat your heart out.

I’ve come to Arizona looking for the kind of activities that may keep Prince Harry out of mischief while here. Stationed at Gila Bend, a town with a population of fewer than 2,000, it’s hard to imagine he won’t take advantage of The Valley, which is how the area around state capital Phoenix and neighbouring Scottsdale is known, just 20 miles away.

The rest of the state also has lots to offer, which is why my next mission is a four-hour trip north to the Grand Canyon. It’s a delicious drive worthy of a road movie: the landscape opening up under huge skies and the arid desert giving way to lush pine forest.

Flagstaff, a quirky town in the San Francisco Peaks, is a great pit-stop. Temperatures here are some 20C cooler than the stifling 38C I left behind. Spurs and Stetsons are replaced by heavy plaid shirts and hiking boots. Macy’s on Beaver Street serves excellent coffee and homemade cakes for mid-trip sustenance.

By the time I get to the Canyon it’s past lunchtime so I wolf down a salad at the El Tovar Hotel’s restaurant before hiking the Bright Angel Trail into the jaws of one of the Seven Natural Wonders Of The World.

I’ve flown into the Canyon by helicopter before but hiking offers a  new perspective. Its huge red walls, striated with multicoloured layers of rock, reverberate with heat the lower I get, and California condors use 9ft wingspans to lazily ride the thermals.

Bright Angel descends more than six miles to the Colorado River but I’m pressed for time and cover a quarter of its length. It still takes 90 minutes and it’s not hard to see why 250 people need rescuing every year.

My accommodation in Arizona is in two contrasting hotels. Downtown Scottsdale’s Hotel Valley Ho was a favourite bolthole of the Hollywood glitterati in the Fifties (Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner were married there) before losing some of its sparkle. An $80million refit has seen it restored to its former glory with period furniture and fabulous styling.

Equally fabulous is the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North. Rooms are in low-rise casitas decorated with handmade Native American art. Many overlook the jagged Pinnacle Peak as well as the Sonoran Desert that covers much of the state.

It’s in this desert that I find myself the next day with Desert Wolf Tours. Owned by loveably eccentric Zev Nadler, the tours allow you to romp between ancient forts, ghost towns and the banks of the Agua Fria River in self-driven Tomcars, all-terrain vehicles built for the Israeli military.

If this doesn’t appeal to the Prince, Scottsdale’s nightlife will. There are restaurants such as The Mission which offers up a modern take on Mexican fare and The Herb Box providing fresh food from local farms. Bars litter the canalside waterfront with the speakeasy-style Mabel’s on Main a popular spot.

I’d recommend the Buffalo Chip Saloon in nearby Cave Creek. Packed to the rafters it’s the kind of place that plays both country and western; where a sign in the toilet reads: “Cowboy Up Or Stay At Home Yuppie.”

Twice a week in the backyard patrons gather round the rodeo ring for bull-riding. Friday is pro-night but on Wednesdays all can have a go, supposedly on more docile animals.

I’m just about to sign up when the first rider comes out of the blocks. He’s off his steed in seconds and gets a couple of hooves in the chest for good measure.

It’s then that I recall the advice of my fighter instructor BJ when I told him I might chance my  hand: “You’re much safer in the air with us than up in the air at the hands of a bull.” It seems like advice worth taking.

This article first appeared in the Daily Express

Moscow on the cheap

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There are many myths about Moscow. Krasnaya plosh-chad, for instance, has been mistranslated and should really be called Beautiful Square rather than Red. No blood was ever shed here under the watchful walls of the Kremlin — honestly, comrade.

But one myth that is about to be smashed is that Moscow is one of the world’s most expensive cities. And for visitors to the Russian capital, things have just become a little cheaper: easyJet started flights from Gatwick on Monday and its sister company, easyJet Holidays, is offering two-night B&B stays at hotels from as little as £137pp, including flights. But can you really visit Moscow without having the roubles of Roman Abramovich?

“You need the advice of a local. There are many places you can go where
you get to see real people and pay real 
prices,” Airat Bagaut
dinov, the owner of
Moscow Free Tour 
(moscowfreetour.
com) tells me as we
 tour the city.

Over
the next two hours,
 Airat takes our
 group on a free trail 
around some of the
 city’s key sites. We gaze 
over Red Square to St Basil’s
 Cathedral as we’re told the his
tory of the Kremlin while straining to peek over its high walls to see the seat of Russian power, and gasp at the beautiful colonaded façade of the Bolshoi Theatre.

The GUM department store, which backs on to Red Square, is only for window-shopping. Its three arched lanes covered with a glass roof were once the scene of food queues where people would wait for hours for a single loaf. Now they are home to the likes of Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton. A cup of coffee in a café on the third floor costs an eye-watering £8.

The only disappointment on our tour is that we do not get to see the world’s most fa- mous mummy: Lenin’s tomb is currently closed to the public while it is refurbished.

Russian customer service, perfunctory but dour, still has some way to go, but Airat and his team are in a different class. They enthusiastically work the free tours for tips and offer more detailed tours at a price — and I sign up for a tour of the Kremlin the next day. Key to their success is the patter: they have a wealth of interesting stories about the city and offer hip — and cheap — recommendations as you walk and talk.

It’s to one of these that I head next: the sprawling Red October complex overlooking the Moskva River. Once a chocolate factory, it is now a haven for artists, graphic designers and software companies — a little like a mini Soho. I spend an hour or so browsing art before realising it’s past lunch-time and I have spent the un-tsar-like sum of 28 roubles (55p). So far, so austere.

I decide to try and blow some of my budget by visiting the bar of the Strelka Institute of Architecture, Design and New Media, which is at the heart of Red October. But even that is a challenge. With a cool, urban feel that wouldn’t be out of place in New York’s Lower East side, it is staffed by slinky-hipped staff in skinny jeans and chambray shirts. While I tuck into a three-course set lunch — salmon with sea buckthorn, roast chicken on

creamed barley and Russian honey cake — for £8 — my fellow diners beaver away on shiny new MacBooks.

Later I explore Kitay-gorod and Chistye Prudy Metro stations. If Red October is Mos- cow’s Soho, these side-by-side areas are its Brick Lane and Hoxton. Bars are packed with hipsters and I spend most of the evening at DeFAQto. A live band plays East European new jazz and the beer is £5.50 a pint.

The Metro becomes my best friend thanks to the ease with which I can get around. I spend the next morning visiting some of the stations: Stalin vowed the Metro would be a “palace for the people” and many are bedecked with chandeliers, marbled walls and murals depicting Russian military glory.

Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square) is the must-see thanks to the beautiful brass statues that line the platform. There are dozens of other cheap sights. I while away an hour outdoors in Gorky Park, pop into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and explore the sprawling Izmaylova flea market. It has enough bric-a-brac to fill a year of car-boot sales, from watches featuring Lenin’s waving hand, to the obligatory Russian army hats. Later, I head back for the Kremlin tour, this time with my guide, Dmitry. We pass surly guards and a laborious security process to see Putin’s Presidential Residence (actually his office; he never sleeps there) and the Cathedral of the Dormition, which is home to a stunning icon of St George that dates back to the 11th century.

There’s also an indicator of where today’s New Russian largesse may come from in the form of the world’s largest cannon ( that has never been fired) and the largest bell (that has never been rung). Why did they build them? The reply comes with a smile: “Because we could.”

I complete my stay in the Petrovich restaurant in Chistye Prudy. It’s another blast from the Soviet past, its walls packed with propaganda posters and political cartoons of the day. It’s the kind of place to sling back Stoli vodka and tuck into seld pod shuby (er, herring in a fur coat), a colourful mix of fish, beets and carrots. As the night wears on, locals get up and start to sway to the in- house band. Po-faced Russians having fun? Bang goes another Moscow myth.

This article first appeared in The Times

 

 

 

Into the Lion’s Den: St George’s Park

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TEN of us are standing in a circle of cones being instructed in pass-and-move techniques by FA-registered coach Tony MacCallum on a football pitch that’s a replica of Wembley.

There are no scarves being waved, no baying crowd, no stands even — but the camber of the pitch and the grass (top quality turf interwoven with artificial Desso fibres) are exact matches of the national stadium.

Desso pitches cost around 750k to lay down and this one is where the likes of Stephen Gerrard and Frank Lampard will be training when they get together from now on.

The pitch is one of 12 at St George’s Park, the English FA’s new centre of excellence amid 330 acres of gorgeous protected parkland just outside Burton-on-Trent.

Ten years in the planning, FA bigwigs visited footballing centres around the world for inspiration — then spent £100million building it over the past two years. It’s an impressive place packed with all kinds of hi-tech sports science kit.

You can ride on a bike in an altitude chamber that simulates training at the top of Snowdonia, or run on a giant treadmill under- water. There are machines and measuring tools that will tell you everything from your lean muscle mass to your “metabolic” age and what you’ve had for breakfast.

There is even a full-size indoor pitch.

But while it will be the home of England’s national squad and host FA coaching qualifications sessions, it may be another 20 years or so before we start our own production line of mini Messis.

Until then, it has got to pay for itself — which is one of the reasons there are two Hilton hotels on the site where the public can stay, tour the facilities, take part in coaching experience sessions — or have a massage in the super spa.

All around there’s memorabilia, signed shirts, limited edition prints of England’s great moments — but at no point does it look tacky. It’s all done very tastefully.

There’s a bar — called the Crossbar — and a restaurant called, er, The Restaurant.

I tried to stick to a protein-only diet with a 16oz T-bone steak — then ruined all the good work with a calorie-laden creme brulee.

It’s not all about the football either. WAGs can check in for a treatment at the hotel spa where, in the absence of Mrs Ellis, I tried the £75 Energy Fountain.

As my therapist Sarah gives me a scalp massage, I begin to drift off, dreaming of me in an England shirt at Wembley.

Jack Charlton plays the ball out from the back, Alan Ball picks it up and puts in a cross, Teddy Sheringham chests it into my path and I…wake up to find myself back at our training session, just as one of other coaches passes the ball to me.

It bounces awkwardly off my shin and trickles slowly over the line.

I’ve only gone and scored at Wembley. I wonder if any of the staff have Roy Hodgson’s number!

This article first appeared in The Sun

Up at the O2

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IT has played host to some of the biggest names in entertainment — now there’s a new way to enjoy London’s O2 dome.

Multi-million-pound experience Up At The O2 allows visitors to walk over the TOP of the former Millennium Dome. I was part of a group given a sneak preview before it opened on Thursday.

It is the brainchild of Alistair Wood of the O2’s parent company AEG. He wanted to create an iconic new experience for London and he told me: “The best views of London are from the top of the London Eye. “But it can be a bit of a dry experience. We wanted to do something more immersive, where people could really get involved.”

The climb starts at “Basecamp” by the side of the main entrance. We were kitted out in jumpsuits and briefed on what to expect — including how to connect our harnesses to the safety wire so we didn’t emulate Pierce Brosnan as Bond in The World Is Not Enough and tumble head over heels down the dome’s sides.

Gary Day, an experienced mountaineer, was our guide as we began ascending a narrow walkway designed by the same architects responsible for the dome. Suspended from the yellow pillars that support the O2 and made of a similar tent-like material, it gives the illusion you are walking on the roof. Bounced As we bounced along, it became clear the steepest and trickiest part is the first 50 or so metres of the 350m (1,150ft) walkway.

Here the gradient is around 30 degrees but the minimum age allowed is ten and the maximum weight 21st so it’s fine for most people with a decent level of fitness. With the dome’s roof almost close enough to touch, not even a vertigo sufferer should worry.

What Up At The O2 lacks in thrills and spills it makes up for with amazing views. Surrounded by the Thames on three sides, more and more came into view as we climbed, from the Olympic Park in Stratford just across the river to glimpses of London Bridge and the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. At the summit, there’s a viewing platform and visitors can wander around to take pictures.

With plans for open-air cinema screenings, “pop-up” restaurant nights, rooftop weddings and even a zip wire to make a speedy descent, there’s more to come. It’s another new chapter for the Dome, which opened as the Millennium Experience, to a mixed reaction, on New Year’s Eve 2000.

But since becoming the O2 arena five years ago, it has become one of the most successful entertainment venues in the world — by night. Wood says: “One of our challenges has been to get the same number of people here in the day.” With Up At The O2 that might just begin to happen.

JAMES ELLIS

The two-hour Up At The O2 experience costs £22 and is open year-round, weather permitting. See theo2.co.uk/upattheo2.

First hotel group joins the free wi-fi campaign

Best Western has set up its own free wi-fi campaign in an effort to get other hotel groups to offer online access to guests.

The company claims that by offering free internet access it will boost British business – and I’m not entirely convinced by that rationale. Someone will have to pay for it somewhere along the line and in this case it is the hotels themselves – I’ve always argued that it’s not just the cost of internet access at hotels that riles but the nickel and diming of customers that I find really annoying. When I’ve paid a couple of hundred quid for a hotel room, I don’t see why I should have to pay another £20 or £30 just to get online.

They don’t charge for the gym, use of the pool or shampoo and soap, these are all accepted rolle-in charges where available – so why charge to get online?

Nonetheless, it’s about time someone in the hotel industry came out and started shouting about it… so well done Best Western. Perhaps now, some of the other hotel groups will join in? IGH? Hilton? Are you there?

Full press release from Best Western below:

FREE INTERNET COULD SAVE BUSINESS HOTEL GUESTS OVER £1.4BILLION A YEAR

BRITAIN’S biggest independent group of hotels has launched a national campaign encouraging free Internet for everyone, after revealing it could save British businesses a massive £1.4billion a year in charges.

Best Western offers free Internet to all guests staying at any of over 270 hotels across Great Britain – saving them more than £28million annually and now wants others to do exactly the same to help the British economy.

After studying the latest figures released by acclaimed industry market research organisation BDRC, Best Western believes that if all major hotel groups offered free Internet it could save businesses an incredible £1,431,000,000 in the UK every year.

The astonishing figure is based on BDRC statistics which show there were 106 million room nights for business travellers in the UK during 2010, with an average hotel Internet charge of £13.50 per visit.

The average frequent business customer stays away at UK hotels 11 times per year. According to the same BDRC statistics, meaning an average saving to each business person of £197.89 per year.

Now Best Western have launched an online campaign to add further weight to their cause (www.bestwestern.co.uk/freeInternet) where they are inviting others to sign up in support of free Internet for everyone.

Tim Wade, Head of Marketing at Best Western, said: “At Best Western we already offer free Internet as standard for all our guests. Based on the average cost of £13.50 for per-visit use of hotel Internet during hotels stays, we calculate we are saving each guest almost £200 and overall our guests are saving a substantial £28 million every year.

“Imagine if this was standard across the entire UK hotel industry. It would add up to a huge saving for businesses that routinely have to pay anything up to £18 every time one of their executives stays at hotel and needs to access the Internet for work.

“Not only would free Internet encourage more hotel overnight stays thus boosting the hotel industry in the UK, but it will also save businesses a phenomenal £1.4 billion every year.

“We are hugely committed to this. We are hoping our lead, and the success we have seen by introducing free Internet across our entire portfolio of hotels, can be replicated in hotel groups up and down the nation. It would be a massive boost for the hospitality industry and for UK business in general.”

What’s more with over 4,200 Best Western hotels worldwide all offering free Internet keeping in touch will no longer have a sting in the tail.

Tim Sander, Research Director at BDRC Continental and editing author of the annual British Hotel Guest Survey added; “’The importance of the Internet offering in hotels has surged in recent years. For business travellers it has developed into a hygiene factor with guests stating that the provision of the Internet is important when choosing a hotel.

‘But how much is the consumer prepared to pay for Internet? £5 seems to be a threshold in the business market at the moment but even at this price point the odds of buying or not are fairly balanced which implies that they would prefer to get it for free. Hotels still try to squeeze revenue for the Internet out of guests but this could have some very damaging consequences, as for around half of all business travellers free Internet is more important than staying with their 1st choice brand, assuming location and cost factors are satisfied. It appears to be an opinion changing product attribute and clearly gives a competitive edge. That some brands have actually retracted their free Internet recently and started charging for it seems crazy.’

Best Western is Britain’s largest group of independently owned hotels. Each of its 270 hotels are packed with personality from castles to manor houses ranging from the top of Scotland to the bottom of Cornwall.

For more information and to sign the petition please visit www.bestwestern.co.uk/freeInternet and find us on Facebook and Twitter at http://www.facebook.com/#!/BestWesternGB and @bestwesternGB