Travel tales

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?

Taking puppets across the water from Sri Lanka to Haiti

Sri Lanka schoolchildren learn the art of puppetmaking

Back in 2005 when I was in Sri Lanka post the tsunami, I came across a chap called Stefan Birckmann who’d come up with a genius idea.

Stefan was staying in Ambalangoda, a town on the west coast that is home to Sri Lanka’s ancient artform of puppet making. Prior to the tsunami, the puppet makers had largely been dying out as craftsmen.

With locals more interested in Westernised forms of entertainment like TV, cinema and the internet, puppet makers were making a living just from selling their wares to tourists.

The tsunami brought further devastation to these people, wiping out their workshops as well as their homes – at least until Stefan came along.

He had the idea of getting sponsorship for the pupeteers, getting them to create new puppets and taking a show around schools and refugee camps.

With no other entertainment and no electricity, puppets came back into fashion and puppet making classes were held in some of the schools with the children encouraged to tell their tsunami stories via the puppets, so offering a form of therapy to boot. One girl said: ‘I can talk about it now, because it’s the puppet talking and not me.’

Stefan ended up taking the show around the country, moving on to refugee camps housing people left homeless on the east coast as a result of the final push in the civil war between the government and Tamil separatists.

Stefan’s now come up with the idea of taking the puppet show to Haiti. As he says: ‘It would be a gesture between cultures of islands and about showing solidarity with victims of a natural disaster. Because of the experience of five years ago, the Sri Lankans are able to understand the experience and are able to share the needs in grief and trauma.’

He’s planning to take five puppeteers and musicians from Sri Lanka to Haiti and get local artists like painters and carvers to help out with the show and sets.

What he is looking for is some kind of sponsorship money to help him achieve it. I can vouch for Stefan, he’s a kosher bloke and a good pal. If you can help him out, please do so by getting in touch with him by clicking here.

Holiday supper clubs and more gay breaks

For some reason, it suddenly feels as though the travel industry in London has come out of winter hibernation.

For the previous three weeks, there’s hardly been a dickie bird of a bash for poor travel writers to attend – bad form when you think how skint people are in January; the pesky travel companies and PRs should really know better.

This week, things have changed though and the thirsty hack could attend at least a couple of dos a night if they were that way inclined. If it’s not Australia Day, it’s a dinner at the London Eye or the latest from Visit England… next week is similar with another rash of invites popping up in journo inboxes.

Two of the most interesting this week come from two of the country’s biggest package operators and, aside from giving them the chance to schmooze writers, they actually have some news to announce.

Tonight is the turn of Virgin Holidays and their partnership with Hip Hotels. Apparently, they’ve done research with 2,000 holidaymakers and found that many people return from their hols all inspired by the local grub.

Necker Island - Lee Cowie had to work here, poor love

As a result, they’ve got Executive Chef of Morocco’s Kasbah Tamadot Lee Cowie to come up with a range of recipes from their hotels around the world, so people can host their own post-holiday supper club. Lee’s a former executive chef at Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island, so you’d hope he’d know what he’s doing.

To get the recipes and for other supper club tips, visit www.vhiphotels.co.uk

Meanwhile, tomorrow night Thomson come out of the closet as the first major tour operator to offer gay and lesbian friendly holidays. The Freedom Collection includes holidays where staff are trained specially to make gay people feel at home, properties that are gay exclusive and gay weddings for those wishing to become Mr & Mr or Mrs & Mrs.

www.thomson.co.uk/gay-holidays.html

Just one bottle and latest wi-fi

Nice to see that the blogosphere continues to exert pressure on hotel groups ridiculous insistence to keep charging people for wi-fi… London Hotel Insight has done a great round up of who’s doing what here. Well done to the site editor Rajul Chande for keeping up the pressure.

On another campaigning point, Tyson Benton, who used to work for Getty Images, has launched a site that gives a photographic record of his current trip through South America.

Aside from being full of amazing pics of his journey, Tyson is also promoting a serious issue – the overuse of plastic bottles that jam up landfill sites around the world. On his 18 month journey on the back of a 125cc motorcycle, he is using just one filter bottle manufactured by EcoUseable.

Well done Tyson.

You can check out his site here http://justonebottle.tumblr.com/

How to get lost cameras back

Aussie blogger and author Andrew McDonald claims to always leave a series of photos on his digital camera that give detailed instructions on what to do if the camera is lost and then found by a good Samaritan…

You can see the full list of pics on his blog post here There are 25 of them! You could obviously do it in less pictures, it would take up less of your camera memory for one thing… but then again, there’d be less chance of your blog post going viral!

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.