Travel tales

At least we'll be safe in Yemen

Beach on Socotra Island, Yemen

If you’ve been put off holidaying in traditional hotspots like Thailand, Greece, Turkey and Israel this summer by varying bouts of civil unrest, perhaps you are looking for somewhere new.

How about Yemen, tucked at the bottom of the Arabian peninsula? There’s tonnes of history, it’s hot, there’s sand (lots of it) plus the Arabian Sea in which to cool off. They’re also taking the safety of tourists very seriously according to a release from the ministry of tourism that brags of 125 new high tech tourist vehicles that have been acquired.

Apparently, “These vehicles, which have been distributed around the country, have been fitted with tracking systems which allow personnel from a remote location to monitor the car’s movements and location. In the advent of a kidnapping, drivers of the vehicle can simply press a button which will notify the monitoring centre of the event, at which point they will take over control of the vehicle’s movements or disable it altogether.”

And if that doesn’t make you feel safe nothing will..

Seriously, there’s a host of tour ops now offering packages, if you do fancy a trip and to find out more, try the following

Live Travel
Nomadic Thoughts
Pioneer Expeditions
Silk Road and Beyond
Steppes Travel
Undiscovered Destinations
Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel

Wizarding World of Harry Potter to open today – first pics

In a few hours time, Virgin Holidays customers will be the first people into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventures in Orlando – the rest of the not-so-wizarding world gets in from June 18.
Lookswise, the new park is pretty spectacular – see some of the pics below – but sizewise, it could see some people queueing for a quite a while to get into star attractions like Olivander’s Wand Shop where, through some cute acting and clever animatronics, your wand may choose you (before you then pay $25 for it).
Some people are bound to be disappointed by the signature ride Harry Potter & The Forbidden Journey, not only will some larger people be unable to ride it, there is a form of ritual humiliation for them outside. They have to sit in a tester ride seat in full public view: get a green light and you are good to go, get a red one and you’re off…
The snow-capped houses and shops of Hogsmeade village
Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts Express
Hogwarts Castle home of the signature ride - unlucky if you're overweight
Souvenir wand, it picks you for $25

Exclusive: first pic of cast members at Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Robbie Coltrane, Matthew Lewis, Emma Watson, and Oliver and James Phelps

This morning, Harry Potter film stars Robbie Coltrane, Matthew Lewis, Emma Watson, and Oliver and James Phelps began their sneak peek tour of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter by entering Hogsmeade. The group was invited to Universal Orlando Resort for a first-look at the immersive environment, and will spend the day visiting many of the iconic locations made famous in the popular Harry Potter series. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort grand opens on June 18.

A first look at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

You can't come in. Okay, well some of you can

I’m currently over in Orlando for Virgin Holidays 25th birthday celebrations and managed, along with a couple of other journalists, to get a sneak preview of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The ‘theme park within a theme park’ at Universal’s Islands of Adventure opens next week to special Virgin Holidays preview customers with a grand opening on June 18.

On the tour, I got to see Hogmeade village which comes complete with a host of shops from the JK Rowling books and the films such as Gladrags Wizard’s Wear, Dervish & Banges and Olivander’s wand shop, where with some cute acting from the shopkeeper and some special effects, your wand chooses you. Of course, you then have to shell out $24.99 to take one home.

We also got to go into The Three Broomsticks inn where we tried Butterbeer, non alcoholic and like a frothy caramely ice-cream float, pumkin juice and Hog’s Head Brew – an ale brewed in Scotland.

There are three rides in the park, two rollercoasters (Flight of the Hipogriff and Duelling Dragons) and Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey which is set in a scale replica of Hogwarts school. The first two are open and we got to ride them, the latter is in the final stages of testing.

The park’s attention to detail is amazing and fans of the series will be magic-ed straight into sets that could be in the film.

While there, I got to talk to the park’s supervising art director Alan Gilmore, who was seconded from the films to help create the park.

All aboard the Hogwarts Express

For my full review of Wizarding World of Harry Potter, see Saturday’s Daily Express travel section, but Alan’s thoughts on the park are below…

On JK Rowling’s thoughts on the park:

Everything you see has passed through JK Rowling, luckily because I work with the film team in London, we already had a large degree of acceptance with her. I’ve been working in the UK industry for 15 years and I’ve worked with Stuart Craig who created the films. We’ve taken the films and brought them to life.

If we had to come up with a new storyline, she had to write that for us and approve it. We also had to check everything with her when it came to the placing of the buildings. The Three Broomsticks is in Hogsmeade but here we have Honeydukes next door and that is in Diagon Alley in London in the films. We had to bring the two together and she had to approve that.

On building the park:

I’ve worked on the films for 10 years but still watched them again and again and took notes. The team I worked with in London designed this three years ago. We built models after studying the site and worked with Universal to work out what stories they wanted to tell. We fleshed out all the spaces: they wanted a restaurant, they wanted a bar, they wanted a space for owls and a shop to sell Quidditch gear… whatever they asked for, we made it happen and made spaces for all the elements.
We already knew about Hogsmead, it’s a very strong part of the storyline so we made it a proper town with much more detail then ever before, even for the films. We obviously had to have Hogwarts too, so we had two main spaces, Hogsmead and Hogwarts. The big challenge was to bring them together. We used a lot of film techniques like forced perspective, special film colours and pulled it together.

It’s a strange composition. By the books, Hogsmead should be in the valleys of Scotland, Hogwarts should be several miles away but here they are very close.


Hogwarts Castle - made from concrete!

On the bit he’s most satisfied with

Hogwarts. It looks amazing, I love the Three Broomsticks too. Theme parks aren’t done this way. Theme parks aren’t grungey and dark and dingey, they are shiney and clean. This was a whole new departure to create something that looked so aged. We used concrete – everything is made of concrete. It’s sprayed on the walls by a technique called shotcrete and then we used trowels to shape it all. We had to train the guys out here in Orlando to do this. They had never done it before. We then had the special effects painters from the films come in and paint it all, water runs, soot… we had to think back to Victorian times and create something that looked similar.

On The Three Broomsticks:

The idea of the Three Broomsticks is that it is an inn where wizards come and stay, so we have fake walkways and bridges above us that lead to ‘bedrooms’ that obviously don’t exist. We also have special effects here that cast shadows on the walls, there are elves, owls, cups and brooms that appear randomly. It’s done so it looks like the sun is creating them. They appear everywhere in the Three Broomsticks and there are 25 different ones.

On the amount of detail in the park:

Everything you see around you is from the films. The pictures on the wall are from the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, we don’t have a Leaky Cauldron pub here but we do have the Hog’s Head pub. Unlike the films, where people only catch a glimpse of things, people are able to study everything here, which means it needs much more detail to make it all work. This has also been designed for however many million people are going to come through here in the next 15 or 20 years – it has to last.

Would he film here:

This is camera ready. I don’t think either myself or Stuart Craig would have any hesitation with filming a scene here. There are a few things I would change – the Exit signs would have to go. I tried to fight some of those things to try and keep it all as authentic as possible. The fire officers here in Orlando said we had to have a sprinkler system, so we’ve made it a feature, the pipes around the walls are like an old British hospital with the pipes on the outside. Electricity is another one… we have tried to hide it as much as possible by theming things so they look realistic… the lights for instance look like flickering candles.

On completing the park:

It took three years to complete but only 18 months to construct. Universal didn’t say ‘no’ to anything I asked for. They have agreed to do things that have never been done before. The level of finish is like nothing seen anywhere else in any other theme park, even the guys down the road [Disney] don’t go this far. Theme parks are normally about the rides, not about the architecture. They are normally about getting you in and out, this gives people more time in the park and on the rides.

I came here on my own, with my bags and said: ‘Let’s build a theme park.’ We’ve used people from far and wide, they’ve been trained with new skills and everyone is loving it. They’ve never aged things in America… everything is new here, it’s a new country.

Guest post: A note from the front of a Chinese orphanage

Around six months ago, I received an email from Susan Baller-Shepard. Susan has an adopted Chinese daughter and was planning to embark on a trip to volunteer in a Beijing orphanage. I asked her to send me a guest post of her experience and she agreed. True to her word, she responded with a suggested entry and some pictures that arrived in my inbox this week. True to mine, I publish it here, in full and unedited:

This is not your usual vacation

Have you ever taken a vacation or holiday to “get away from it all,” and returned to work, still feeling like you never did get away? This is one holiday where you will not only get out of Dodge, but you’ll arrive home with more than just dirty laundry, photos, and souvenirs.

Chances are, you will change on this trip, or something within you will shift, or like the Grinch your heart will grow three sizes, or something. Meaning, you will not return home the same person.

I just had the time of my life spending a week in and around Beijing, volunteering in orphanages. Sure, I am an adoptive mom, with a beautiful daughter from Yangjiang, but half of our group were people who thought helping out in orphanages would make for a meaningful trip.

Along with time spent in various orphanages, there is time for sightseeing and getting to see a country that is changing at the speed of light. We took a cycle rickshaw into a hutong for lunch made by a hutong resident. We visited the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, the Lama and Confucious Temples, along with the Bell Tower, the Dirt Market, and the Great Wall.

The program I went on works with non-profit orphan care providers in the BORN (Beijing Orphan Resource Network) collaborative. These include such providers as Children’s Hope International, Philip Hayden Foundation, Hope Foster Home, and others, with volunteer experiences specifically tailored to a person or group’s travel plans. You can volunteer for a day, a week, or a month. They adjust to individuals and/or groups or families, and can work with school groups or civic groups as well.

At my computer, I find myself scrolling through my Beijing photos. I look at the faces of the children we met, played with, took on walks, laughed with, fed. It’s not everyone’s dream vacation, but it is one that you will not soon forget. This is a great way to get away from home, to focus on the needs of someone besides yourself for a week, and to enjoy a place that is both ancient and modern. It’s unforgettable. I’d go back again in a heartbeat.

“They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom. “—Confucius, The Confucian Analects

“If a man takes no thought about what is distant, he will find sorrow near at hand.”—Confucius, The Confucian Analects Our Chinese Daughter’s Foundation “Volunteer China” Program

Spare us the pain of ash-gate

This week I did a piece for the travel section of The Sun on people’s rights if they have been stranded abroad by the fallout of ash from Iceland’s volcanic eruption (you can read it here if you want). One of the things that struck me while writing was the speed in which the travel industry, and particularly the large tour operators, have responded to the crisis.

Thomson, for instance were claiming yesterday that everyone would have been repatriated by last night and even Ryanair (though more on them later) have got all their passengers to their destinations.

There have of course been a couple of companies that have tried to take advantage of the situation. Michael O’Leary at Ryanair’s bluster earlier this week that he would take it to court if he was to pay for accommodation for those stranded was short lived (one hopes he made the decision himself but one suspects he was slapped down by the authorities) and travellers would be wise to boycott insurance companies that refuse to pay out. But other than that, as with the XL crisis, some pretty amazing things have happened.

While I have every sympathy for people who were about to go on holiday and ended up stuck in Blighty, I’m starting to loose patience some of those stuck abroad, though.

Clearly some people, such as those stranded in Bangkok airport as explosions take place a couple of miles away, are having a hard time, but there are others that need to get off the phone to BBC news and get back to the pool. Tour operators are spending thousands of pounds keeping them in hotels, food and drink while they are ‘stranded’ in some luxury resort plus they have the perfect excuse to phone into work and blag a couple of extra days holiday.

There was one woe-is-me chap this morning being interviewed on TV who has been on honeymoon in St Lucia for two weeks and has to now stay until May 6 until Virgin Holidays can get him home. ‘There’s so much misinformation,’ he whittered on, making me want to put my foot through the TV.

Mate, you’re on honeymoon, you’re in St Lucia, you’ve managed to get an extra two weeks holiday at someone else’s expense, you’re every whim and need is being catered for and you’re complaining you can’t come home? Put down the phone, pick up the pina colada and give me a break.

Redesigning the boarding pass

American designer and frequent flyer Tyler N Thompson was on a flight last year and took to dissecting his boarding pass. One of the problems he saw, and I tend to agree, is that much of the information on a boarding pass not only looks unattractive but is also hopeless for highlighting stand out information you need to know before flying.

He decided to have a pop at redesigning the pass, began to blog about it and loads more people have added their twopenneth. You can even download an Adobe Illustrator template if you want to have a go yourself.

See some of the – often brilliant – results at his website here