Destinations

Speeding on the water at Walt Disney World

I’m here at Walt Disney World in Orlando for the park’s annual resort showcase… basically, Disney brings a host of journalists from different publications and shows them what’s on offer here and what’s coming up for the coming year.

And I have to say, on the first day yesterday, they pulled out all the stops for a fabulous first day.

Meeting a new friend

First up in the morning was a gut busting character breakfast at The Grand Floridian Resort – Disney’s poshest hotel here in Orlando. Characters who came round to see us tucking into the buffet breakfast included Tigger, an amazingly good Mary Poppins, Alice (of Wonderland fame) and Belle from Beauty and The Beast.

And if you ever want to see a group of British journalists transgress to five-year-olds (maybe make that three, most of us act like five year-olds anyway), introduce them to a group of Disney characters… The flashbulbs were bursting quicker than if Jordan revealed she was a John Terry conquest.

There was a similar reaction post breakfast to the Sea Raycers – mini self-driven speed boats that you cna use to zoom up and down Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake – two of the lakes that are in the resort and on which some of the key hotels are based.

The Sea Raycers look quite innocuous when you first see them but they cruise along at about 25mph and hitting the wake of another boat going from side on makes your vessel bounce up and down like crazy – as buzzy a feeling as any of the rollercoasters in the parks.

The afternoon was a little more subdued with a trip to Animal Kingdom – one of Walt Disney World’s six parks. Here we piled on to a Kilimanjaro Safaris vehicle – a jeep that, Africa-style takes you through surprisingly realistic mock savanah, to see the park’s wild animals that include lion, giraffe, elephant, black and white rhino and more antelope than you can shake a camera at. Finally, we headed for a last adrenalin boost with a rollercoaster.

A mountain to climb in Animal Kingdom

Expedition Everest has to be one of my favourite ‘coasters in the park… Without wishing to spoil the surprise, it’s a pretty fast and hairy ride that’s such fun we decided to do it all again before being dragged kicking and screaming (OK, we were really asked politely) back to our hotel, the Contemporary Resort, to get ready for a posh dinner at the Citricos restaurant back at the Floridian

Food is something I’m hoping to look in a post toward the end of the week – Disney claim to have a host of top restaurants these days rather than just the fast food joints the parks used to offer. I’m looking forward to seeing how they fare, especially as today we’re meeting American celebrity chef Cat Cara’s Kouzzina restaurant on Disney’s BoardWalk.

My South Africa top ten

So with a few days back in the country, I’ve decided to warm myself up with warm thoughts of our three week trip to South Africa and produce my holiday Top Ten, in no particular order.

Hoerikwaggo Trail, Table Mountain National ParkHiking the Hoerikwaggo
Three days and nights hiking from Table Mountain, through the national park and culminating on Noordhoek Beach. We covered more than 60km and stayed in tented accommdation along the way, hiring the services of Frank Dwyer of Slackpacker SA (www.slackpackersa.co.za) to have a cold beer in the fridge and some meat on the braai for when we arrived. The trail is built on an ancient Khoi path and, when completed later this year, you’ll be able to hike from the Point right into Cape Town – a five night, six day hike of more than 100km.
www.sanparks.org/parks/table_mountain/ht/

Robben Island, Cape Town
It’s hard to talk to South Africans without race and Apartheid coming up somewhere along the line. Problems still exist – with some whites now claiming discrimination – but things seem to be getting better. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandella and other political prisoners were incarcerated for so long, proves a moving portrait of the years of shame.
www.robben-island.org.za

The Vinehopper, Stellenbosch

Someone knows what they're talking about

While South African attitudes to drinking and driving are pretty lax compared to the UK we preferred to avoid the temptation by jumping on the Vine Hopper in the Stellenbosch wine region. There are two routes that run on alternate days that each take in six wineries; you get picked up at 10am, dropped off at 5pm and the cost is 150 rand (about £12). Tastings in each winery (you get to try between four and nine wines) cost no more than 20 rand (£1.40) and by the end of the day you are as the proverbial newt.
www.vinehopper.co.za

Umlani Bushcamp, Timbavati Reserve, Greater Kruger
I’ve been on some special game drives, but none like those offered by the Umlani Lodge in the Timbavati Reserve of the Greater Kruger Area. We got to see rare white lion cubs, leopard cubs, baby elephants and wild dogs on a kill – all discovered by our wonderful ranger, believe it or not called Elvis. The lodge itself is as close as you will get to sleeping out in the bush and if that is not enough, they’ll take you out to a treehouse at night to sleep among the animals by a watering hole.
www.umlani.com

Shark Diving, Gansbaai
Some people claim that sticking a load of tourists in a cage and putting them in the water where Great Whites hang out upsets the ecosystem and encourages more shark attacks in South African waters. Operators claim they keep the poachers away. Whatever the merits, being in the water as a 2.6m Great White glides by is a thrilling experience.
www.whiteshark-diving.com

New Year’s Eve, Ballito
Durban may have a fabulous beach but the surrounding areas are pretty grim. Head north to the suburbs of Umhlanga Rocks and Ballito and it’s much prettier and there’s more fun stuff to do. Ballito plays host to South Africa’s biggest NYE party when more than 10,000 people gather in the street for an outdoor rave. Don’t bother getting dressed up – the code is flip flops, shorts and no T-shirt (the latter for boys only of course).
www.ballito.co.za

Who's the Grand Daddy?

Grand Daddy Hotel Trailer Park, Long Street, Cape Town
The Grand Daddy is one of Cape Town’s premier boutique hotels but don’t expect to find a swimming pool on the roof – instead, the hotel has lifted seven 1950s Airstream trailers to provide the world’s only hotel trailer park. Each trailer has been designed by a different local artist; they’re a little cramped but a real experience. The cocktails in the hotel bar, Daddy Cool, are pretty special too.
www.granddaddy.co.za

Kaizer Chiefs, Johannesburg
Catching a match by South Africa’s most popular team will transport you to a footballing atmosphere unmatched elsewhere in the world. The ‘Amakhosi’ support is the most vocal in the country and the stadium buzzes to the angry wasp noise of vuvuzela horns.
www.kaizerchiefs.com

Table Bay Hotel, Victoria & Albert Waterfront, Cape Town
Cape Town’s re-developed Waterfront area may be a little touristy but its also home to some of the city’s top hotels like the Cape Grace and the One & Only. Our pick though was the Table Bay – a big old Colonial-style place run by Sun International.
www.suninternational.com

Premier Classe Train
For years people have rattled on about the super luxury Blue Train that cover the Cape Town to Jo’Burg route overnight. All well and good but the price is around £500 per person. For less than half the price, you can travel Premier Classe – another sleeper which may not be quite as luxe as the Blue Train but is more than adequate. Food is included in the price and you can even have a massage in the onboard spa room.
www.premierclasse.co.za

South Africa is super for sport

Since we’ve been here, we’ve managed to get to two very different but equally compelling sporting events in South Africa.

Two days before Christmas, we managed to get a couple of tickets to see one of the country’s best supported football teams, the Kaizer Chiefs take on AmaZulu in the South African league.

Chiefs fans dance round the stadium at half time

As a Leeds fan, I’ve a particular soft spot for the Chiefs: they’re the club from which we signed one of my sporting heroes, Lucas Radebe – a fact that also inspired the bastardised name of the Leeds band Kaiser Chiefs.

The match had been postponed from the previous week due to bad weather and happened to be re-arranged for the one night we were in Johannesburg, where the Chief’s Soweto home is – but the match was played 30 miles down the road in Pretoria as their stadium is being revamped for the World Cup.

Getting the tickets was pretty easy thanks to the fantastic computicket.co.za website – you buy them online and pop to a local affiliate mobile phone store where they print them off for you. The price? A huge 20 rand (about £1.60 each).

Despite the huge Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria only being a third full, the atmosphere was electric. The lower stands (its free seating when you get in) were a riot of yellow and black shirts and scarves and the crowds throbbed to the cacophony of vuvuzela horns that create a huge buzzing worthy of a million angry bees. When the World Cup comes around, visiting teams will have to get used to the deafening sound pretty quickly and it could give South Africa a huge advantage.

If you think the Premiership is fast, football in South Africa is played at five times the speed. It’s chaotic but skilful and the game was end to end in the early stages before the Chiefs took total control thanks to a stupendous 20 yard volley from forward Nkosinathi Nhleko.

Early in the second half though, keeper Itumeleng Khune – a young lad who will star for South Africa in the summer – showed his suspect temperament by rabbit punching one of the AmaZulu strikers and getting a red card. Luckily the subsequent penalty was blasted into row Z and the Amakhosi, as they are known, managed to hold on for the win that took them third in the league.

England take a strangle hold on the second Test

While on the computicket site, I’d decided to try my hand for tickets for day four of the second cricket Test between South Africa and England at Durban’s Kingsmead stadium and was astounded to find thousands of tickets were available – so we snapped up two for the grand price of 600rand each (£5).

It’s a ridiculously small amount to pay for international sport – especially when you think Test tickets in England are like gold dust.

We’re just back from the match where we saw England take total control thanks to a century from Ian Bell and then some superb bowling from Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann. Bar it raining all day tomorrow, England should take a 1-0 lead in the series with one to play…

While the match on the field was electric, sadly the only atmosphere in the stands came from England’s Barmy Army.

I’m yet to find out why the match seemed to provoke such disinterest in the South African public but it does seem a little strange that a football team playing in a stadium an hour’s drive away in midweek can pull in a 20k plus crowd while the number two cricket team in the world plays in front of empty stands…

Food, glorious South African food

We finally find a restaurant with a menu

One of the joys about being here in South Africa is that in two weeks we have yet to have a bad meal and some of them have been truly superlative. Even Frank Dwyer of Slackpackers South Africa (www.slackpackersa.co.za), who catered for our three-day hike of the Hoerikwaggo Trail, had amazing freshly cooked dishes ready for us each night we arrived in camp.

Whatsmore, the pound to rand rate and the fact wine is locally produced mean it’s also dirt cheap for Brits; the most we’ve paid for three courses and a bottle of plonk has been £70 but, more often than not, it’s been about £45 a meal.

Three restaurants stand out though…

My personal favourite was Codfather (www.thecodfather.co.za) in Cape Town’s Camps Bay suburb. Forget the cheesy name, views are over the Atlantic and the food is incredible. There are no menus, just freshly caught fish and shellfish you choose from a cold counter and they simply grill it and serve it. Always ask for the price before ordering though, as it’s by weight, the shellfish can sting you, but the simple fish is amazingly cheap – I paid little over £3 for three grilled sardines as a starter.

Another restaurant with no menu – Headquarters (www.hqrestaurant.co.za) in Heritage Square in Cape Town – was also excellent. Here there’s one thing on the menu, sirloin steak that has been wet-aged for a month. All you have to do is choose your wine and how you like the steak cooked. A salad starter followed by a huge plate of steak and chips was £14 a head, add a nice bottle of wine and we paid £38 for a meal for two.

Our most expensive meal, but also one of the best, came in the wine-making region of Stellenbosch, less that 40 minutes drive from Cape Town. Here the countryside is all rolling hills covered in vines and at Terroir, on the Kleine Zalse (www.kleinezalze.com) estate, we had G&TS, an amazing three-course meal and a bottle of their wine for less than £90. We sat on the terrace overlooking the manicured gardens as the sun dropped on the horizon. And for the life of me, I couldn’t work out why so many South Africans end up leaving the country.

Eco great white diving… is it a myth?

Who's the bastard in the boat?See this boat in this first picture… they are bastards. But more to come on why.

Yesterday we had an early early start to Gansbaai, about 100km down the coast from Cape Town. Due to a number of ecological factors, mainly an island where seals bread which is one of their favourite foods, it’s known as the Great White Shark capital of the world and the passage between the seal island and an adjacent one is called Shark Alley.

Sometime in the early 90s, when great white hunting was banned here, the hunters turned conservationists overnight and turned their hand to offering tourist trips to see these magnificent creatures that got such a bad rap from the Jaws films. What started out as a niche industry with maybe 20 cage diving trips a week now sees eight licensed operators offering two or three dives a day with up to 30 people on each dive.

Calling it a dive is a bit of a misnomer. The cage is strapped to the side of the boat and when a shark comes, five people in wetsuits and masks climb in with no snorkels or scuba gear and simply dunk their heads underwater holding their breath for as long as possible to see the shark.

Some people here claim the industry disturbs the eco system as the sharks get used to people and truth be told there have been a couple of extra shark attacks over the past years in the waters here. The operators claim the sharks are just passing through, they seldom see the same one for more than a couple of days and that they are now so heavily regulated – no feeding is allowed –  they have no affect at all.

Despite all this and mindful of the argument, we decided to go with the one most people seem to think is the most eco – though that could possibly be because of their name – White Shark Ecoventures.

For the first hour or so, 25 of us lounged around the boat, literally waiting for something to happen. The only thing the company could do to attract the sharks was mash up some oily fish in water and throw it into the water to create a pungent lure and drop a couple of huge fish heads on a rope  in that would then be pulled away when a shark came to attack.

When one shark did finally come by, we had to wait ten minutes until ‘she was calm’ and then a first lot were allowed in the water. Laura and I didn’t need asking twice before we were in the cage and managed about three or four dunks as she passed serenely by. The next lot of five then replaced us and had a couple of dunks before the third lot got in the water and waited for about half an hour before she passed again. The fourth and fifth lots didn’t even get to see her as she soon buggered off.

I’m really glad I got to see her under the water – she was incredible and serene as she glided past – and I do feel  bad for the other guys who missed out. But that other boat at the top of the page was using less ‘eco’ methods to lure sharks to their boat. They had some help from local fishermen who seemed to be unaware of the fact they were not supposed to throw food in so close to the cage boat and they were also using a fake seal as a lure which had the sharks around their boat thrashing like mad.

I’m sure we got the more eco trip – but I can’t help but feel just a tad jealous the people on the other boat got a more prolonged and more active sighting.


Race still an issue in South Africa

Dumisani Mwandal in Robben Island's notorious B Block

Yesterday, the winds dropped enough for us to take the tour of Robben Island – the offshore prison that was home to South Africa’s political dissenters, including its most famous resident Nelson Mandella, during the apartheid years.

The tour of the prison itself was mainly conducted by Dumisani Mwandal, a former inmate who was held on Robben Island for six years of a 30 year sentence before being freed in the early 90s. It’s a moving experience – I doubt I’ve ever been on a tour where people hang on every word of the guide – and an absolute must if you are visiting Cape Town.

On of the amazing things about being here is seeing how people, including Dumisani and our tour guide Saleigh, can now be so light hearted when it comes to talking about the old regime yet it’s obvious that while they can now look back and smile, there is still deep hurt at how non-whites were treated.

On the streets, things are seemingly better in the post independence years yet there is still inequality. You can only marvel at the size of the shanty towns on the way in from the airport and Saleigh, a former teacher in the townships, told us how he turned to tourism when he could no longer handle class sizes of 70 kids.

Also, on my morning runs, I see people pouring into work in the posh Waterfront area – almost exclusively cars are driven by whites with taxis and buses the exception. And at night, in the restaurants we frequent, the clientele is also mainly white while the servers are black.

The good news is that things are changing, albeit slowly. At least those people are in work and you would hope that, as conditions in the townships improve as more and more running water, sanitation and electricity is available, people will eventually be able to move out and give their children a better education.

The World Cup is also providing a catalyst of hope for people who are determined to show that South Africa is not the crime ridden hole that some people have as an image.

Saleigh did strike one note of caution however. He said: ‘In the Mandella presidency, it was a case of politicians looking at what they could do for the country, the ANC heirarchy now looks at what the country can do for them.’

It would be a crying shame if this beautiful country that has done so much to prove the yoke of history can be removed slipped into the ways of some of its neighbours where politicians get fatter as conditions for the people deteriorate.

Hola from Cape Town and some words on customer service

Well, the new Mrs Ellis and I have just arrived in Cape Town and checked in at the very grand Table Bay Hotel after a somewhat testing flight…

Not because Virgin Atlantic are not good at what they do but because Laura seems to have picked up the 24 hour bug that is going around and spent about six hours of the flight in the loo being sick.

Her absence gave me the chance to have a think about the cost cutting Virgin Atlantic is undergoing and how that affects the travel experience but to also compare their crew with those on our EasyJet flights to the wedding last week (see my previous post here).

While the two obviously differ in terms of what they offer in terms of service, they are both cutting costs and cabin crew on both airlines are still the customer facing side of the business

From Virgin’s perspective, the onboard masseuse seems to long be a thing of the past, but I never used them anyway so it has absolutely no affect on my flight experience

You also no longer get a printed menu in Upper Class, rather the dishes are announced over the PA and then you choose when the cabin crew takes your order.

On previous flights, everyone I saw read the menu always asked the crew to ‘remind them what was on offer’ when they came to order anyway so again, not a great loss.

The type of food on offer has also been ‘downgraded’ – think sausage and mash rather than steak – but the quality is still pretty high.

It’s the kind of cost cutting that would seem prudent at a time like this. Downgrade slightly and make up for it with superior customer service. And its’ where the crew on our South Africa flight really made the difference; they could not do enough for Laura to try and make her more comfortable and likewise the rest of the passengers around us.

It was all such a far cry from the grumps on EasyJet last week where there idea of cost cutting is to halve the size of the onboard Snack Pack but charge the same price and where customer service came with a snarl rather than a smile.

Who's the mug in Barcelona?

Following the recent news that TripAdvisor users voted Barcelona as the pickpocketing capital of the world, it was inevitable that someone would get mugged at Abta’s Travel Convention this week. What I didn’t expect was for it to be me…

A preferred mode of transport for Barcelona thieves
A preferred mode of transport for Barcelona thieves

The first piece of advice I normally shell out when writing a ‘how to be safe in a city’ piece is ‘don’t walk around with your mobile phone showing,’ the second is ‘stick to busy main streets and avoid dark alleys’. The third should now be ‘follow your own advice’ – because last night my iPhone was snatched from my hand by a passing cyclist.

Abta had recommended that delegates who wanted to socialise after last night’s opening party should head to Born, an area famous for having more than a dozen bars all within a couple of hundred yards of each other. And so it was that myself and a handful of other journalists, who eschewed the shenanigans in favour of a superlative meal at Barcelona’s brand spanking new W Hotel, found ourselves in a bar in called Mix waiting for the rest of the Convention to catch up.

Around midnight I stepped outside to make a couple of calls: one to home and the other to Jamie Wortley of tour operator On The Beach, who was trying to find us but was having a hard time doing so. As I was trying to give him visual clues to point him in the right direction, a chap swooped by on a Bicing bike that you can rent on any street corner in Barca and swiped the phone mid-conversation.

Why did it happen? Well I was walking down Comerc Street, the main drag through Born, it was busy but not too crowded and there was an army of Abta’s local volunteers around, conspicuous by their bright red waistcoats. It felt safe and comfortable but clearly wasn’t and I let my guard down a little.

Begrudgingly, I have to give the chap his due: it was a well-practiced and perfectly executed crime. He’d obviously been loitering just behind me as I walked, waiting for a time when I was more relaxed and there were less people immediately around me. The snatch itself was flawless, hardly disturbing a hair on my head despite his bombing past me.

I tried to give chase shouting to some of the volunteers but, despite a semi-decent lunge from one of them, he managed to get away. Ten minutes later a police patrol car turned up but the officers were at best nonplussed at yet another mugging in the city. Their best piece of advice? ‘Don’t go to the local police station, it’s in a bad area and too dangerous to get to,’ I was told as he seemingly forget he was driving the very means that could get me there safely.

Instead I had to turn up early two hours early this morning for my flight home to do the paperwork at the airport’s Mossos D’Esquadra – the Catalan police force – headquarters

I’ve always felt there’s something bizarre about reporting a crime ­– the police seem to have an uncanny knack of making you feel as though you’re the criminal and it’s a feeling that multiplies when you are trying to make yourself understood but don’t speak much of the language.

Officer 14098 and I got there eventually via some schoolboy Spanish and English, along with a smattering of my acting and his hand waving. The report though has him mixing my places of birth and abode and my mobile number on the form is actually that of my passport. Hopefully the insurance company will take it into account – but that conversation could be my next mugging given the amount of get out clauses policies tend to have.

Good news for Sri Lanka – but with some caution…

Hear no, speak no, see no... Sri Lankan children pass judgement on a better future
Hear no, speak no, see no... Sri Lankan children pass judgement on a better future

This week saw two welcome pieces of news about Sri Lanka: the government has announced that it is to pour 700 million rupees (about £4m) into a new push on tourism, while here in the UK, the Foreign Office has relaxed its travel advice to the country.

Combined with the end of the bloody 30 year civil war between government forces and the Tamil tigers earlier this year, you’d think the time has finally come for the country to fulfill it’s potential as a prime destination for tourists. Yet history shows that any such thoughts have to be treated with caution.

As some of you will know, I spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami; sent there to report on the disaster, I was horrified by just how catastrophic it was. It’s only when you can walk 2 or 3km inland and still find flattened houses and rotting corpses that you realise the hopelessness of trying to find the words to describe the absolute devastation to people back home.

Yet, I was touched by the warmth of a people who could shed their cloak of grief long enough to throw out a welcome fit for kings for anyone who offered to help. I lost count of the times we were invited for dinner in the ruins of a flattened house, shaded only by tarpaulin, and our hosts would insist on not eating a mouthful until we were sated.

I was also mesmerised by a country so beautiful, you could exhaust every travel cliché you wished: gorgeous beaches, lush jungles, high tipped mountains, ancient civilisations…

In those ancient times, Sri Lanka was known as Serendip and it’s where the word serendipity comes from. Finding myself there was certainly a dictionary definition case of  ‘the discovery of something fortunate when looking for something unrelated’. I went looking for news stories and found unimaginable compassion, great wisdom (in others, not so much myself, I hasten to add) and a spiritual home.

One of the frustrating things about Sri Lanka though is that it always seems to be a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ when it comes to getting tourism back on track. Whether the endless to and fro of the civil war, the tsunami, the current recession or the incessant government red tape (it’s little wonder the tourist board PR account is passed around like a poisoned chalice among London’s best agencies), there is always something that seems to stymie the country’s progess.

Whatsmore, many people I know in the country are not convinced the Tamil threat has come to an end. The government may now have finally regained control over the whole island but it was attained at great loss to Tamil civilians. It would be of little surprise if a new generation of martyrs was not created in the government ‘victory’. The death of minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, a good friend of the independent volunteer movement I worked with through 2005, and 14 others in a suicide bombing at the start of a marathon race last year is enough to prove that it only takes one person to create mayhem.

And yet others are convinced the war is over. My friend and colleague Juliet Coombe who now lives in Sri Lanka says: ‘This time I really believe it’s a done deal and people will be able to earn a decent wage, and not just $50 a month and finally have some choices.’

I can only hope that she is right and this is not another case of the calm before yet  another storm. Because Sri Lanka and her people finally deserve something better.

Have you recently come back from Sri Lanka? Would you consider going? What are your thoughts on the country? Let me know by commenting below