Travel

Five-star pet peeves

For this post, I’ve teamed up with travel writing colleague, Jill Starley-Grainger  to come up with our pet peeves about luxury hotels. Jill has come up with eight of the offerings, myself with two and the whole post has to be read over our two websites (well, we have to drive traffic you know).

Whether you’ve saved up for that luxury trip of a lifetime or you wouldn’t dream of bedding down in anything less than a five-star, these hotel hassles can make your holiday more irritating.

Breakfast (by JSG)
If I’m paying through the nose to stay in your hotel, the least you can do is provide breakfast at a reasonable price, if not free. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been presented with the breakfast bill (the price is rarely displayed as it’s often a vast help-yourself buffet with additional hot-food menu), only to discover that the croissant and coffee I had have cost as much as the GDP of some small African countries. (PS If you’re going to charge through the nose for the buffet, at least allow a reasonably priced non-buffet menu for those with small appetites.)
Climate control (By JSG)
I now know to pack my flannel PJs if I’m going to a balmy tropical island, and my flimsiest nightdress if I’m going skiing. Just because it’s hot outside doesn’t mean I want it to feel like a freezer inside, and vice versa. What’s more, the air conditioning and heating controls often do not respond to any commands, other than on or off, and sometimes, not even that. Brrrr…
Villa / resort guide (by JSG)
How do I work the television? What are the channels? Where do I find the spare blankets? How do I turn off the fucking outside lights you’ve put on with my turn-down service and that shine through my window all night? How do I use that ridiculously expensive espresso machine in my room? Where is the shop that sells deodorant? How do I find the spa? Etc, etc. Just give me a map of the resort, a manual to the villa or room, and some idea of what’s on offer throughout, including all the restaurant and spa menus (with prices!).
Toiletries (By JSG)
Conditioner, people, conditioner! I know very few women who do not use conditioner regularly, if not every time they wash their hair, and a heck of a lot of men use it daily, too. But how many five-star hotels provide it? I can think of only two, and of those, only one provided good conditioner. And also, what’s with the crappy little plastic bottles? Big refillable ones with pumps to easily extract the product are far preferred. OK, some people want to take home their little plastic toiletries, but chances are, those of us in five-stars have a million of these throw-away two-use freebies already and would just prefer nice products in nice refillable bottles. For take-home, sell large versions in your shop!
Weight-sensitive mini bars (by WoJ)
Why is it that posh hotels cannot be satisfied with getting you to break the bank to stay there but seemingly have to find each and every way to screw as much cash out of you as possible? (See our entries on wifi and breakfast.) But of all the low-down, dirty tricks they can pull to squeeze that last cent out of you, the weight-sensitive mini bar – where you get charged when you lift the product up, even if you replace it in the fridge – has to be the worst.  Let’s say I’m prepared to pay the ludicrous price for the privilege of serving myself the smallest measure of spirit known to mankind (should I tip myself I wonder?), why can I not pick up a bottle, read the label and see if I fancy it or not without being charged? How does this system work any better than having the maid simply see if a bottle of booze has gone the next morning? Its only use is to annoy the hell out of guests. Way to go when trying to attract repeat visitors, hoteliers.

For our other five peeves, see Jill’s site:  http://uktraveleditor.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/top-10-five-star-hotel-pet-peeves

Follow Jill on Twitter:  www.twitter.com/UKtraveleditor

Getting the pin trading point at Walt Disney World

I wasn’t going to post anything more on my Disney travels of last week, but then changed my mind at some point early this morning when I found myself on ebay bidding for a couple of pins to complete a Disney set.

James looks for the illusive Figment pin

If you have no idea what I’m talking it about, it’s Disney Pin Trading – one of the more obscure, to us Brits at least, things that happen at the Disney Parks.

The enamel pins – there are more than 60,000 different designs featuring Disney characters, icons, attractions and themeparks – can be bought from outlets in the parks and are worn, by most people, on a lanyard around their necks. While in the parks, people either buy more from the outlets or trade with other willing pin holders.

There’s a whole etiquette to trading to the point where you can get a pamphlet to tell you how it’s done. Key points include:

  • Refrain from touching another person’s pins or lanyard, ask to see the pin so they can bring the pin into closer view
  • Other guests do not have to trade with you, but cast members (or staff as we call them) do… unless they are wearing a blue lanyard, in which case they will only trade with visitors less than ten years old
  • Guests must trade with Cast Members, one pin at a time
  • Guests can make up to 2 pin trades per cast member per day
  • The pin that is traded to the cast member cannot be a duplicate of any pin they already have on their lanyard
  • Pins with a Hidden Mickey (a small Mickey symbol in one corner) are more limited edition and deemed more desireable
  • No money can change hands on Disney property in exchange for a pin (unless at one of the outlets of course).

Some people have become pin addicts… collecting thousands of them over the years, jealously guarding their sets at home and only taking their ‘swaps’ into the park.

At the start of our trip, we were given a dozen pins and a lanyard by Julie Young, who has the excellent job of being in charge of pin development – she was met with muted thanks and sceptical looks by myself and fellow journalists at the time.

Fast forward 24 hours and with pins around neck to humour our hosts, we entered our first Disney park. Within a few minutes, I saw someone who had a pin from one of my sets and made my first trade and by the end of the day, all 12 of us were collecting different sets.

By day two, we were pin hunting in packs: ‘If you look out for my cut out princesses, I’ll get your pirate Mickeys’ and by the end of the week, we were stopping any cast member with a lanyard and asking them to have a look at their pins.

But on our last night, we came across a proper pin queen – think an East End pearly but covered in small shiny metal Disney characters instead of buttons. She had two books of ‘swaps’ in front of her on a small table and was furtively looking around for people to trade with.

Personally, I’d been looking for a set of pins featuring a character called Figment. He’s a purple dragon, not from any of the Disney films but the official mascot of Epcot. Each pin in the set depicts an emotion: angry, happy, confused… but Figment’s expression is the same on all of them.

... you will be

Betsy, the trader woman, had one of the ones I was missing and I nervously approached her for a trade. ‘Can I have your Figment Surprised?’ I asked her nervously as she cast a cursory glance up and down my lanyard.

‘Sorry you’ve nothing I want,’ she replied coldly before turning to someone else to do another trade and me to travel home with an incomplete set. A fact that left me scouting ebay at 7am this morning – Julie will be proud of the monster she created.

Guest blog: Crap things seen while travelling no.8. Little Englanders abroad

Many thanks for today’s Crap Things guest blog to the lovely Catherine Mack of www.ethicaltraveller.co.uk and co-editor of www.greentraveller.co.uk

I hope they paid for those blankets

I had been in Kenya for three days, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to write about The Travel Foundation’s work with the Maasai. During 2007, Maasai village elders had come together with The Foundation to put a stop to the exploitation which had been going on for decades, whereby money was being charged to tourists to visit their villages, but the driver guides who drove the visitors there, passed none of it on to the villagers themselves. The only money the Maasai made was from selling a few bits of beadwork here and there.

One year after The Travel Foundation started to help the Maasai gain confidence to take on the driver guides, and the many tourist lodges which had been turning a blind eye to the unethical practice, tourism was starting to become an important source of income for the Maasai at last. I was honoured to be invited to their ‘AGM’, with five villages, men women and children, gathered together under an acacia tree in the middle of the bush, to celebrate what they had achieved.

The total amounted to $43,000 from tours alone, an 800 per cent increase in just a year. The applause and cheers must have been heard all the way to the Serengeti. The men held hands and smiled proudly and the women translated to their excited children. Already, Enkereri village had extended its school, paying two teachers’ salaries.

That evening I returned to my lodge, Olonana, which had been very proactive in supporting the new change in practice. Some of the visitors were less on the ball, however. I was joined at the bar by an elderly English couple.

They, like most guests, gathered round to compare notes on the day’s game sightings. “See anything good today then?” was the man’s opening gambit. When I explained that I had spent the day with the Maasai, I could see that I wasn’t going to get very far, as he interrupted quickly, “Uggh, we tried that last year, didn’t we dear?” he directed at his silent wife. “Aren’t their lives disgusting? And such greedy people. One of them lent my wife a blanket to keep warm when we did ‘the tour’. They’ll try anything to get your money.”

I begged to differ, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He waved his hand dismissing any further discussion, walking away with a smile, shouting: “All I can say is, it is God’s blessing to be born an Englishman.”

Choose your battles, I thought, as I went out for air and a much needed nicotine fix. Looking up the hill, I could just about see the lights from the nearby Maasai village fires.  The people who lived just up that hill had travelled such great distances and have such dignified wisdom, I thought. And yet, so many of their visitors have a much longer way to go until they gain even half of their knowledge and civility.

For more information on the work of The Travel Foundation, still ongoing in Kenya,  see www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk

Blasting off with one of the Jonas brothers

James and the Big CheeseSo I finally got to meet the Big Cheese yesterday when we had a character breakfast in our hotel, the Contemporary Resort and Mickey finally turned up. We’d seen most of the other major Disney characters over the week but had failed to spot Mickey… I was beginning to think he must have been in Paris or Anaheim for the week.

Our morning session, saw us head to we Walt Disney World’s Wilderness Lodge and the associated Fort Wilderness campground resort to try some horse trail riding.

Not many people know that much of the Disney property in Orlando is built on what was once swampland. Dirt from the excavations that created the lakes was used to landfill other areas for the parks and resorts to be built. And as a result, most of the other land here is preserved so, contrary to what you might think, it’s all quite green.

The Wilderness Lodge and campground are probably the resorts that are closest to nature… aside from the hotel itself, there are log cabins in the surrounding woods and miles of nature trails to explore.

I’ve done quite a bit of trail riding on my travels and it all seems to follow a template. The experience is aimed at the lowest common denominator, it’s pretty sedate and the horses are so well trained, you don’t even have to pull on the reins to direct them, they just follow the leader.

The experience here failed to break the template and, while I appreciate the need to appeal to all ages and abilities, even I, with my limited horse riding ability, found it a little too tame. That Orlando is in the middle of a very unseasonal cold snap didn’t help.

Things warmed up in the afternoon with a visit to the futuristically styled Epcot (the park gets its name from Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, if you were wondering).

Despite being a bit of a Walt Disney World veteran and Epcot being the biggest park, I’ve only been in it once and never done any of the major rides there, so it was something I’d been looking forward to, especially as I’d had the Mission: SPACE ride recommended to me.

The ride is a G-force simulator that gives the illusion of a rocket lifting off and flying to Mars. Four of you get into the same capsule and each has a mission ‘role’ that is supposed aid in getting the ship to its destination (it’s not complicated, you just have the odd button to press).

The ride’s actually a large centrifuge that spins at high speed and is used in real astronaut training to simulate the G forces that come into play on a real rocket launch. When the spinning begins and by keeping your eye on the screen ahead, you get the impression of blast-off acceleration, even feeling your face go all wobbly with the G forces.

Without giving too much away about the rest of the story, it’s a truly awesome ride that had me weaving out on slightly wobbly legs, although the sick bags that are in the capsule were, thankfully, not needed.

Soarin’ at Epcot is another great ride. Riders in cabs are hoisted into the middle of an iMax style screen and a film full of flight scenes is shown. The cab sways either way to give the illusion of flying… You can see a little of it here.

The night ended with a party for a campaign Disney is doing here in the US but not elsewhere. People who volunteer for a day somewhere get a free park ticket and an associated charity single, Make a Wave, has also been launched that features Camp Rock Stars Joe Jonas and Demi Lovato.

The teen heartthrobs that are allegedly dating if you believe the tabs here turned up to perform the song in front of a host of kids already on the program. You can see a clip of them singing below just before Epcot’s quite brilliant closing IllumiNations fireworks display (also below) started.

Launch of traverati.com

Travel writers Catherine Quinn, Kieran Meeke and myself have just launched a new editorial website, traverati.com.

I won’t go into too much detail here, but check the site out and let us know what you think www.traverati.com

The official party line:

New Launch: www.traverati.com featuring The 360 Traveller magazine

Showcasing the best of travel writing, blogging and fact files on the web, www.traverati.com launches this week. The site includes The Traverati blogging network with opinion from leading travel writers and regular guest slots.

Two of the best rides and what's new at Disney World

Yesterday we got the chance to try out a couple of the non-theme park activities here at Walt Disney World and so we had a morning of massages at the Grand Floridian Resort’s spa followed by a very competitive game of mini golf at Fantasia Gardens before heading for Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the afternoon.

Studios has to be my favourite of all the Disney parks here in Orlando. Not only is much of the content a little more adult but it’s also home to two of the best rides, Tower of Terror and the Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster.

If you don’t know much about either, Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster is an Aerosmith themed coaster that kicks off with a straight where you go from 0 to 60 mph in around two seconds before hitting a couple of loop the loops while tunes like Dude Looks Like a Lady blare out.

Tower of Terror is based on an old episode of the Twilight Zone and features an elevator ride that freefalls 13 stories in one go… this video is from our ride. It’s a little dark but the screams will probably tell you how good it is.

In the evening we attended a press conference about what’s new for Disney for 2010, 11 and 12… while there’s no new big ride on the agenda like Universal’s Harry Potter which is set to launch this year, there’s still quite a bit happening.

Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland is undergoing a three-year expansion project that will begin this year. The expansion will see the addition of a new Fantasyland Forest where all the Disney Princesses (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid) will all have their own sections. The classic Dumbo’s Flying Circus will also be getting a makeover.

On the seas the big news is there will be more cruises from Europe, with Disney Magic taking on a five-month itinerary that includes sailings from Dover and the company’s first North European Cruises.

We also got to see a video of Aquaduct, the water slide that will be on Disney’s new ship Disney Dream when it launches early next year. The slide is stupendous, heading out off the ship and having riders sliding along in a glass tube over the sea below. It looks awesome.

Finally, Disney’s is re-branding the ESPN World of Sports Complex… now we don’t get to hear much about this in the UK, as apparently, not that many people book it. In fact, I’ve been to Disney World Orlando half a dozen times and never really heard of it.

It’s a massive sports complex with tonnes of playing fields – apparently one American Football team comes here for warm weather training – and there are all kinds of events and tournaments going on.

One of the coolest things to happen in the re-launch is if you play in a kids tournament by day, highlights of the matches will be edited into sports news broadcasts that are played on screens around the complex later that day… if I was still harbouring my schoolboy England dreams (it’s not too late for that call Mr Capello), I would have loved it.

Forget worldofjames, say hello to Matthew Ironbird

Why are Pirates called Pirates? Because they arrrrrgh

Kellie applies the slap

Forget Worldofjames.com, for he is no more… welcome in his place, ooh arrrrrgh me hearties, Matthew Ironbird. For I have been turned into a Pirate ready to pillage by the good folk here at Disney…

Despite the steady drizzle that rained on Orlando yesterday, (yes, it does rain here too at time), we still managed to pack a lot into our afternoon in the Magic Kingdom park, largely as there  are enough attractions indoors to keep you occupied.

Almost all the rides are covered for one thing: Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin and the inimitable  Small World. If any ride will indoctrinate you to Disney, it’s Small World. I don’t know anyone who has ever come out of the ride without the song ingrained on their consciousness.

And then of course, there are the shows such as Mickey’s Philarmagic where 3D glasses help bring Mickey, Donald and some of Disney’s best loved film leads like Alladin to life.

With my new shipmates

Best of all though, and appealing to my slightly darker side, was the Pirate League in the park’s Adventureland where you can buy a series of pirate makeover packages – First Mate, Empress and Captain’s – which start from around 50 bucks without a full pirate costume and 125 with.

First you spin the ship’s wheel that rolls a pair of dice to select your new pirate name, then comes the makeover with a choice of six different face painting designs. Next, you’re kitted out with a sword and ear ring and – once an oath is sworn to Captain Jack Sparrow – ou get your personalised pirate certificate.

Somewhat predictably, I chose the ‘ghost pirate’ look which seems to include the most make up – hey if you’re going to do it, do it, right. Right? – and a pirate wench named Kellie went to work, recounting all sorts of pirate tales as she went. Did you know pirates started to wear ear rings as a form of acupuncture? Me either.

Once our group were all made up, off we went back into the park, starting our first ride as a new pirate band on… Pirates of the Caribbean, of course.

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.

Ever lost something on a plane? (and did you get it back?)

Quite a while ago, when I was travelling what seemed almost every weekend, I was in the middle of one of those mad sets of trips travel writers tend to do at some point.

My memory is sketchy as to the actual series of events – the jetlag, not too much booze in business class – but over four weeks I did something like:

Ten days in Texas; one back in the UK; three days in Perth with a day layover either side in Dubai; two days in the UK; three days in Atlantic City for the Miss America Pageant (that, I admit was a boozy trip); a day in the UK; two days in Rome; three days in Boston…

On the first leg of my flight to Perth, I left the plane, went through Dubai’s passport control, picked up my case and then remembered I had left my suit carrier onboard. Now given an Emirates cabin crew had taken the carrier off me, attached my boarding pass to it and put it in their wardrobe, you’d think it was their responsibility to give it back… but I accept, my suit, my fault…

What followed was a three-hour palaver as I sat nervously waiting for about three different members of staff to try and retrieve it… all who failed. Thankfully, it ended up coming by taxi to the hotel much later that evening.

(Lost) Property of Mr KS Meeke (seat 3c)

Why do I bring this up? Well because my good pal and colleague Kieran Meeke left his glasses on a plane on Monday and has just had a frustrating week ringing lost property at Heathrow every few hours to see if they turned up, but naturally no one EVER answers the phone (TFL Lost Property is just as bad by the way). Way to go Heathrow, you can stick up new Terminals and try and build extra runways, but you can’t get someone to answer the phone.

Kieran was flying business class with a leading airline and you’d think that when someone leaves something in a business class seat it can’t be that hard for someone at the airline to locate the owner…

After all, for the duration of the flight, you have been fawned over by the crew: yes Sir, no Sir, can we wipe your bum Sir? And most of the time they address you as Mister Blah (I have never been called Mister Ellis anywhere but on a plane).

Then of course there’s the passenger list. ‘Who was in 3C? Ah, so and so… the chap who’s bum I wiped.’ So surely it can’t be THAT difficult to make sure an object returns to its owner.

Or is it a case of when the person’s off the flight and the dollars have been banked, any semblance of service has to stop? Perhaps airlines have an unwritten rule about it.

Imagine – I know for you that know him, it’s a stretch 😉 – that Kieran had been heading to some high powered conference where he couldn’t read his speech as the glasses were lost.

He’s had to give up now, shelling out another small fortune for a new pair, but really, what’s the point of airline service and lost property departments if neither are any good to you when you really need them?