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Adventures

More than Ancient Relics: Athens and Nafplion

Would you like a weekend with ancient relics? That isn’t something I would normally jump at the chase to do, but this was something rather different. Despite having travelled extensively around Europe, Greece is somewhere I have spent very little time, yet is one of the most historical and well visited short haul destinations.

Thanks to Kirker Holidays, I was able to experience what both Athens and the Eastern Peloponnese has to offer, and let me tell you, it’s a lot!

The first taste of the history of Greece came a lunchtime, with a short break alongside the Corinthian Canal, the narrow channel linking the Aegean Sea and the Gulf of Corinth, at just 4 miles in length. And, yes, they even do bungee jumping from the bridge!

At just a couple of hours away from Athens, the first night would be spent in the ancient city of Nafplion. With narrow cobbled streets lined by wonderful tavernas and interesting independent shops, the former Venetian town is an ideal place to spend a few days.

The hotel for the night, the Amprytriton boutique in nature and style right on the seafront and just a couple of minutes walk from the centre of town. Its sister hotel the Nafplio Palace sitting above, together with cutting edge designed rooms and suites, with a TV at every turn!

On the route back to Athens there were a couple of important stops. The first the archaeological site of Ancient Mycenae. On top of a hill, entered through the ‘Lion’s Gate’, you can see the beehive tombs of warriors and a fortified citadel. There is also a small museum too see some of the artefacts recovered from the site.

Continuing on the road to Athens, the next stop was the theatre of Epidurus, known for its excellent acoustics, and is still used for concerts today, initiated by the singer Maria Callas.

It is always a pleasure to stay in what I call ‘Grande Dame’ hotels. That really was the case in Athens, at the internationally renowned Grande Bretagne, right opposite the Government building in the centre of the city. My room, perfectly appointed, perfectly situated and wonderfully serviced. The view from the rooftop restaurant stunning.

Yes, it really is a must to see all the sites of Athens. Sadly, I didn’t really have the time to see everything, but a morning at the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, and the excellent new Acropolis museum was a good entry point. Great views all around the city despite the rain!

Ending the story, included short visits to the new Opera House located near the harbour, and a short stop for lunch in the harbour. A later stop at Lake Vouliagmeni, which is said to have healing properties, before the main event – the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio.

Really, Greece is so much more than ancient relics, but the food, the people and the connection they have to their past. It really is enlightening and heartening that there is still such a close bond between the past and future, and they work in harmony.

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Adventures Luxury Holidays

The Venice before Christmas

This trip to Venice was somewhat unplanned. I say unplanned as it booked via an extremely advantageous airfare with British Airways at relatively late notice for me. Advantageous I hear you say, that’s a bit of a strange word to use, but having recently flown on the last ever 737 flight from Gatwick I was on the lookout for somewhere to go, although maybe not as quickly as I was expecting. Just as it would happen, British Airways launched a quite amazing flash sale – £150pp return in Club Europe to a number of destinations in Europe from Gatwick.

There were quite a number of destinations to choose from including: Seville, Malta, Nice, Marrakech, Verona – but I seemed to have an attraction to Venice. So that was booked, upon the fare rules which meant a two night stay – coming back on Christmas Eve Eve (Which I now believe is a day!).

So, the train it was down to Gatwick – which worked well, leaving at an amazingly early time in the morning for the departure time at noon. It would mean that I could spend a little bit of time in the Terraces lounge, which is closing in January for the last time. Things will be changing at the North Terminal for British Airways passengers in 2016.

The flight was slightly delayed, although not until we actually boarded the aircraft. We actually boarded at the same time as the Captain, who was very jovial! It was an Air Traffic delay because of the French, so we left stand on time and taxied out, holding outside the new extension to the South Terminal for about 45 minutes.

The hotel I had chosen was the Carnival Palace, and it was convenient that it was on the Water Bus route into the city, but not much more. It was so far out that I actually got lost on Tuesday and for anyone who knows me knows that I rarely get lost!

That even I went out for a walk in the city, which amazingly for December was quite warm despite the fog which had descended over Venice. It at least gave me time to get my bearings.

A full day on Tuesday meant a visit to the Mainland and the ‘town’ of Mestre. I wanted to see what their Christmas Market was like, but I left disappointed back to the train station. The rest of the day was spent walking around the cobbled streets of Venice. I even found a restaurant I liked the look of, but boy could I find it later – NO!

Wednesday meant a return back to Marco Polo Airport, and this time I took the bus from Piazzale Roma. At €8 it is half the price of the Water Bus, and was actually quicker overall, stopping right outside the door rather than trooping across the car park.

The fog was still not good though, sitting in the lounge with a fantastic panoramic view over the apron it would have been great on a clear day – alas, not today and in fact I think it was getting worse, not better. British Airways once again were impeccable, and a great way of rounding off the short stay in Venice… Now ready for the next one!!

Categories
Adventures

24 hours in Brussels

I have been doing a lot of short trips recently. I went to Turin for the day in order to take the last ever British Airways 737 scheduled flight, a couple of days in Holland to visit the Delft pottery museum and the usual trip in February to Barcelona for Formula One Winter Testing.

Again, the trip to Brussels was for a special occasion, this time to see French tenor Amaury Vassili perform in the Belgian capital, on a leg of a mainly French tour promoting his former album, a collection of songs by French-Israeli singer Mike Brant.

The one thing I didn’t take into account when planning the trip was the significance of Armistice Day in Belgium.  In the UK, we just hold a two minute silence while we go about our normal day jobs, but in Belgium nearly everything was closed, in the centre of the city anyway.

Still, the centre of the city I believe is an undiscovered gem, often overlooked by the widely visited Bruges – a little further to the north and a short train journey from Belgian capital.

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You can still see all the sights though, including the famous central square:

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It was the evening though, that I really went to the city for, staying at the Hilton Brussels Grand Place, close to the Central Train Station in Brussels, and also near the concert venue – the Cirque Royal. It is certainly worth staying there given the very convenient location, and the proximity to many restuarants and the centre of the old town. However, since it has been taken over by Hilton from the Meridien group, it will need a bit of TLC, with old age showing though in parts despite the impressive lobby.

The concert was excellent though, even if my age group was in a minority. It is great to combine experiances you woudn’t have at home when travelling, and that includes going to events which are not in your native language.

A couple of previews from the concert including Amaury singing Queen’s hit song ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’:

Don’t forget about Brussels, whether you are flying or going to Europe on the Eurostar, it really is an interesting city worth a little of your time. Yes, it might not be as beautiful as Bruges, or have the lure of Paris, but it makes for a different short break.

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Adventures Luxury Holidays

Surprise and Delight

For someone who only ever seems to talk about travel and the aviation industry, you would wonder what role entertainment would have in our world. Well, actually there is a lot – after all they are still selling a product, just the same as a travel agent, tour operator, hotel, airline or cruise company. It’s about how you grow and nurture your ‘fans’ which will ultimately feed your success.

I have been a ‘fan’ of Delta Goodrem for nearly 13 years, December 2002 to be exact when I saw Born To Try performed on Neighbours for the first time. It was so refreshing at the time to see such an authentic song written and performed, that it was hard not to fall in love with it.

The album of which it came from – Innocent Eyes, was a game changer in Australia, Delta’s homeland. It held position for half the year on the album chart, and had an unprecedented five number one singles form it, making the album one of the highest sold ever in the country. The UK didn’t quite reach that level, but we did have a string on singles within the top ten.

The next album, Mistaken Identity was brought over to the UK once again, and charts her recovery from cancer, a difficult subject to put into a whole album and never had the acclaim the first album did, apart from a duet with partner to be, Brian McFadden. The relationship, which lasted seven years nailed her leave from the UK, and the last performance here was in 2005.

During that time I followed what she was up to, and although I near met her a couple of times in both London and New York, was never able to one thing or another. Shortly afterwards she retreated to the Australian market, also living in LA with her songwriting partner Vince Pizzinga.

Two further albums were released in Australia, and neither did as well as Innocent Eyes. They moved in a slightly different sound, chasing a more electronic and dance inspired theme.

This summer saw the release of a brand new single, Wings, which was written after going on tour with Ricky Martin in Australia. Written with the help of Australian ‘hit makers’ DNA, it was her first number one in Australia in nearly ten years.

So there we are, up to the current day and you might be thinking where is the element of surprise and delight? Well…

It was just ten days ago that I heard Delta could be coming back to the UK. I didn’t know in what capacity, but as she is going to be doing Cats in Australia it would make sense that she would at least come over and see Andrew Lloyd-Webber who wrote the musical… To be honest, I think most of us ‘fans’ who had been there since the beginning had given up hope of any UK performance, so a visit here was certainly a surprise.

Last weekend, it was announced she would be playing G-A-Y in London on Saturday night. The first gig in the UK since 2005, although a rather low key entrance back into the UK scene.

As she arrived, more news trickled out about what was happening over the week, including ‘something’ which would happen on Thursday. Sunday turned into Monday, and it was announced there would be a ‘secret show’ in London and you had to enter for a place via Twitter – talk about ‘delighting’ those remaining loyal UK fans.

Needless to say I got a ticket, and needless to say from the Terms and Conditions that it would be an intimate affair with just 50 pairs up for grabs. When the venue came down you really had to make a double take – it was an art gallery on the Fulham Road, not really what would expect!

Making sure I was there in good time, and with help from people who I met online – I was at the front of the queue. That meant I was at the front in this tiny room. She came on stage at just about 8, and started with a medley of songs not even released in the UK.

Well, that didn’t stop the crowd though who were clearly all fans to start with, and many like me who had been there from the very beginning. Even with songs which weren’t released here everyone was singing every word. The connection was there, even if it was just her with her guitarist Dolce and a drummer.

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Then came some old hits including Born to Try, Innocent Eyes, Not Me Not I and Lost Without You off the Innocent Eyes album, along with new songs You and You Alone and the single Wings.

As a fan you couldn’t have hoped for anything more, an acoustic set in an intimate setting as the return to the UK.

To top the evening off, she came back after the set and met every single one of us, chatting as if you were a long lost friend. We had the opportunity to have photos taken and anything we wanted signed. To be given that amount of time is unprecedented. I later found out that she put the show on herself for the fans – there you go, knowing how to surprise and delight your closest fans to make then even more loyal.

Think about that in business, what can you do to surprise and delight your clients to make them even more loyal to your brand. You might not have had ten years away, but there is always something you can do which is not just discounts or promotions to bring an emotional connection to your core base of customers.

I would have never have believed you last weekend if you said that I would be going to an small show and meeting Delta within a matter of days. So, do something different and memorable to capture those who might fly away…

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Adventures Airlines

Farewell to BA’s Baby Boeing

Maybe it is me getting sentimental in my old age, but this week has been emotional, British Airways flew the 737-400 commercially for the last time.

It might not mean anything to most people, to most a plane is just a plane and it gets you from a to b, but there is more to it than just that.

British Airways has been flying the 737 or the ‘Baby Boeing’ since the late 70’s to replace the HS Tridents. Firstly with the 737-200’s which were used in Manchester, Birmingham and Heathrow, before being moved down to Gatwick.

In the early 90’s British Airways received their next batch of 737’s, this time the 737-400 series, now known as the ‘classic’. More fuel efficient and accommodating 149 passengers, they were put on flagship routes from London’s Heathrow Airport.

When the 737-200’s were ready to retire at Gatwick in the early 2000’s, the 737-400’s were moved down to Gatwick to be replaced with newer Airbus models at Heathrow.

When I was young, I remember these aircraft flying alongside Concorde and I still consider both aircraft types the most elegant ever flown, even if they were not the most practical. Spending a lot of time at airports in my youth, it really holds a special place in my heart.

Knowing that, I wanted to make sure I could experience flying on it one last time. I combined two things I wanted to do for a while, and booked a trip to Amsterdam – flying with easyJet from Luton on the outbound, and British Airways on the 737-400 on the return into Gatwick. With many in the fleet leaving or already departed, I knew that it wasn’t 100% certain to be on it, although luckily I was.

Even though these aircraft are 22 years old, from the inside you would never know. Yes, some of the overhead panelling is a little dated and the overhead lockers a little smaller than one is used to, but really you would never know the difference.

So back from Delft and Rotterdam, British Airways then quietly announced that the final flight would be from Turin on the 30th September. Yes, that’s my day off! Book it tonko!

I decided to make a day out of it, flying down on the Irish harp from Stansted in the morning, although many on the flight had decided to go there and back on the same plane – something I have never attempted. Yet again, I knew things were not set in stone and it could change, but thankfully it didn’t.

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Images via Satoa Handing, Turin

Having secured seat 6D, I knew that they were going to be the convertible business class seats you used to find on British Airways. Flying in economy you knew that you would get the 34 inch seat pitch, where can you say that in European short haul flying now.

Before departing the crew made an announcement over the PA system. The Captain, Christine Scott introduced herself and explained it would be the final commercial flight for the aircraft type and in fact her commercial flying career after serving 19 years on the 737-400. Alongside her was First Officer Gill Tunley, who is due to move to the 747-400 next month. In the cabin, it would also be Cabin Manager Karen’s final flight on a short haul aircraft.

It was a really enjoyable flight, and what a great atmosphere. Even getting a rapturous round of applause as we landed on the tarmac at Gatwick.

With the aircraft type now out of use for British Airways, you could take what you like off the aircraft – and yes I took two safety cards. Not only that, but you could visit Christine and Gill on the flight deck (See Image!). I thought it would be a great idea for Christine to sign my safety card, I’m going to get it framed now, while Gill took the photos. She also mentioned that she would be taking up gliding in her retirement. I also had a brief word with Karen, who did a great job serving those in business class!

The next day Captain Scott flew the final aircraft (G-DOCX) to its retirement home in the Californian Desert, Victorville – often known as the aircraft boneyard. Flying with it’s sister ship G-DOCW they flew in tandem the whole way with stops in Reykjavik and Goose Bay in Canada, where they had a crew rest stop. Friday, flying on to Chicago Rockford and onwards to Victorville, arriving at around 11pm BST.

So there we have an end of an era and while I know that the industry moves to bigger and better things, it just doesn’t have the same character instead inflicting tighter legroom for all with generic seats and fixtures.

Thank you to Christine, Gill, Karen and the rest of the crew for making it a truly special day.

You can listen to the ATC at Gatwick Approach here:

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Adventures

Iceland – Something for a Winter Weekend

Ever since easyJet launched the new Luton to Reykjavik service, I have been looking forward to my little pre-Christmas jaunt to Iceland.  Thanks to easyJet flying up to four times a week (Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday) travelling to Iceland has never been cheaper, and I wanted to see the main winter attraction – the Northern Lights.

Arriving at 11am from Luton on a cold Tuesday morning, I arrived into Keflavik Airport on a clear winter’s day.  The transfers to town are extremely well organised, there are two main excursion and transfer companies, Iceland Excursions and Reykjavik Excursions. For my little trip I used Reykjavik Excursions, and they have the benefit of having free wifi on board all their coaches.  They also have two levels of transfers to and from the airport, the standard which only takes you as far as their coach station near Reykjavik Domestic Airport, and an upgraded version which drops you off at your hotel.

Arriving at the hotel, The Icelandair Hotel Marina, which is brand new and in the up and coming Marina district of the city, it couldn’t give you any more of a welcome to Scandinavia. It has a quirky modern design, and a bar which would rival those of the most desirable in the centre of town, it really is the trendy hangout location.

Having the afternoon to myself, I decided to have a look around the city. It reminds me of a large ski resort, lots of small independent shops interspersed with some really nice restaurants.  The weather can be really cold, hence why walking & skating on the local lake seems to be a favourite pastime.  Although I was out for a good 4 hours, I was really surprised at how late it got dark, at least gone 4pm, which is what we are used to in the UK at this time of year.

That evening I went straight for the main event, the Northern Lights.  Again I went for the cheaper bus option with Reykjavik excursions, and with the tours they pick you up from the hotel as standard. To my surprise there were actually 5 coaches going, mostly filled with Japanese students! At 9pm the coaches left, and we headed inland. It took about an hour to get to our final destination, somewhere near the rift valley and the old parliament. It only took about half an hour in sub-zero temperatures, but the Northern Lights did come out – not at their brightest, but at least I did see them. Due to the travelling time I didn’t get back to the hotel until gone 1.30 am, so you really do need to plan your trip carefully.

The next morning, really early I departed on the Golden Circle tour. With Reykjavik Excursions they have the added bonus of travelling to a Tomato factory, where they use the geo-thermal heat to grow tomatoes all year round. The next stop was Gullfoss and the amazing waterfall, and then on the nearby Geysers, one of the iconic stops on a visit to Iceland. Due to the time of the year everything was really icy, so although the tour was supposed to finish at 4.30, it was nearer 6pm actually arriving at the hotel due to the coach having to put show chains on for quite a bit of the journey.

Going to Iceland in winter is something that I could really, really recommend, and it will surprise you. Out of anywhere I have been in the world, I could say that it is the most unique and interesting place you could ever imagine.