Long Haul Flying – it ain’t what it used to be!

I remember (now, THAT”S an old person’s saying!) when flying was quite a luxurious experience – smaller planes, more individual attention, Business Class was pretty good, First Class was superb. And I know because we used to be able to upgrade to Business Class with air points (just try that THESE days), and were once then upgraded to First Class. A memorable experience.

As the years have gone by, and we have flown to Europe 23 times, First Class has mostly disappeared to be replaced by Business Class (probably the like First Class, but how would I know), then there’s Premium Economy, which doesn’t look that much better than Economy and to my mind wouldn’t be worth all that extra money (only on observation from walking through to cattle class at the back of the plane) and finally Economy, which is not too bad a way to travel (if one hadn’t experienced the bliss of Business or First Class in other years!) So my first words of advice – NEVER fly First Class or Business if you can’t afford to keep doing it for the rest of your life!

Our favourite airlines have been Emirates or Singapore Air, and earlier on Air NZ until flying through the USA became just too horrendous, so Cathay Pacific seemed worth a try (to say nothing of the great price offered if you booked 9 months in advance). We’ve flown them before, but this time we definitely noticed that they were downgrading. Firstly, no little amenities bag!  Ouch!  I was counting on the little toothbrush & toothpaste kit. I already had an eyemask courtesy of Emirates, and the socks I never use anyway, having been converted to pressure socks, but I do remember when we used to get little tubes of hydration gel, maybe some moisturising cream – sigh.

I guess we don’t really need attractive printed menus, but the plainly typed sheet of paper was to be shared between two people – well, not a problem, we were a couple. It did say on the menu “tea or coffee” but I certainly wasn’t offered any, maybe we had to specially ask. So at breakfast I did ask, and then requested a refill, which came in a paper cup. I have to say, the food was the best I have ever had on an airline, even if we did have to eat with plastic cutlery, and there was never any salt or pepper supplied.  The Movenpick icecream was delicious!

Interestingly, the drinks came with the food trolley, so I and the ever-loving asked for a gin and tonic – yum. But that seemed to be it, no wine offered with dinner – again, maybe we had to ask specially.  What was really difficult was waiting a couple of hours after we boarded at Hong Kong before we were offered a cold drink. We felt really dehydrated and again, I guess we could have asked but being the considerate travellers that we are (!) we thought the cabin crew might be rather busy!

Now for the seating : the A350 was OK, large screens, and an innovative double layered tray system with a higher drink holder so you didn’t bump it in the night; the 777 actually seemed to have a greater seat recline (though I could be mistaken as I found it difficult to even get the A350 seat to recline at all). But my problem was that I really like it when we can go on line & choose our seats well in advance – oh no, sorry, you bought the cheap rate tickets, no choice allowed! And they had our money for all that time! Then we like to choose an aisle and a window seat, hoping that the middle seat won’t be taken ( well, it worked on Emirates & it was great!). But Cathay won’t even ALLOW you to book separate seats like that. And being in the middle, which I usually am, is not easy!  Especially if there’s a large man in the aisle seat with nowhere to stretch his legs except in your space, and nowhere to put his arms except on your arm rest. And I really can’t blame the guy, what else can he do? I’ve got really good at shrinking myself & sitting motionless for many hours! Lucky I don’t need any toilet breaks!

This might sound as if I really hate flying.  I really don’t, and I know it’s the only way to get where we need to get to in the shortest time. But I do like to feel a little pampered on a long haul flight – so Emirates & Singapore Air, offer some nice cheap flights for next year & I’ll see if you’re still as good as I remember!

Europe 2017 Here We Come!

Ready to go!

So time to leave the cold and head for the heat. And what heat! We hear it’s up to 40 degrees celsius, so bring it on!

I’m trying to “pack light” this year (not that I ever really “pack large”) so have managed to get 3 1/2 months worth of clothes into my cabin-size luggage, which I’ll put in the hold. It weighs 11 kgs – not bad! It’s one of those hard shell light bags, but it’s another story with the cabin luggage. I have a small bag on wheels but empty, it weighs over 3 kgs, so not much leeway there. And I have to say, my ever-loving will be putting my liquids into his hold luggage! Well, one can’t travel without hair product, skin product, contact lenses … !!

First stop Charles de Gaulle Airport, pick up our lease car (yes, CAR, no van this year) and head for Auvers-sur-Oise, town of the Impressionists. The village where Van Gogh spent the last 70 days of his life also had residents Manet, Cezanne, Renoir and Camille Pissaro. What a feast of art history!

And then to Chartres – for the Illuminations! Saw them last year and they were stupendous! However, on reflection, after 36 hours travelling, including a day of sightseeing, the Illuminations might have to wait until the next night!  I think bed will call …

So that’s the start of our European Odyssey. Stay with me and we’ll discover the sights together.

Travelling in Germany – some observations

August in Germany

August in Germany

So it’s not touring France, but yes, we’re in Germany now. The countryside is beautiful, fields looking colourful with crops being harvested, large patches of forest, tractors with trailers of grain driving through the main streets of the villages & small towns – a bucolic scene. But travelling here is not that easy!

Frantically harvesting

Frantically harvesting

We like to keep off the autobahns if possible – too many large trucks, cars travelling at impossible speeds, you have to travel at up to 150 kms per hour just to keep up & to keep out of the way of the trucks.  Needless to say, there are no speed limits on most of the autobahns!  But travelling off them is not easy, there are so many road works, especially in holiday time, so detours (“Umleitung” – when we travelled here with our children 36 years ago, we were very surprised to see so many towns called Umleitung!) are everywhere. The GPS often can’t cope – if you don’t have “Traffic” loaded – so a road map is also a necessity, & you need to know that “U1″ or 2 or 3 or whichever number applies to your detour is actually your designated route. It can add quite a bit of time to your journey.  On the other hand, there are very frequent traffic jams (“Stau”) on the autobahns, sometimes 20 kms long & lasting for hours. The “Traffic” programme breaks into your radio transmission & also your cd player, with information about which autobahns have traffic jams, how long they will last, how far the traffic is backed up … but you need to understand German!  We like to use the eco route option on the GPS, or even more often, the no motorway option – can take longer but is definitely more interesting.

We also like to stay away from the big cities, so some of the problems we encounter are probably because of this choice.

# Many small hotels and bed & breakfasts don’t answer their phone during the day, and don’t have answerphones.

# Signage to tourist sites are often contradictory or non-existent

# Bars/cafes where one can get a coffee en route are very difficult to find. (We travelled from Frankfurt to a town near Hanover on a Saturday just after midday and found NOWHERE to have a lunch or even a coffee, short of going into the heart of the town where we may have found something.) No little roadside cafes, though sometimes there is an Imbiss, a sort of bar in a shed or caravan. Bottled water & pretzels for lunch!

# Cigarette vending machines everywhere – no wonder so many of the young people smoke.

Sad sight in every town

Sad sight in every town

# And the very worst thing for us was that many places don’t take credit cards – unless they are German. So you have to travel with a wad of euros with you all the time. Many tourist sites will only take cash, including the famous castles on the Rhine. Also cafes, restaurants, and worst of all, doctors, chemists, and hospitals. We had the experience of one of us being in hospital for 3 days, money up front was required, in cash, per day! Even with a French bank account, in euros, we couldn’t use our card.

# Food – schnitzel, schnitzel, schnitzel! Chips, sausages, potatoes baked in foil (pretty nice, actually!), & lashings of whipped cream on desserts, even when you ask for no cream. The accompanying salads are usually chopped lettuce, grated carrot, sliced onions, tomato, cucumber, and salad cream. Pizzas everywhere, good ones. However, if you go to a nice restaurant the food is very good, wine can be expensive, but beer is cheaper & very good (so I’m told by one who knows!) There’s good non-alcoholic beer too, often more on the drinks menu than regular beer. Best place to eat? With friends!

So Germany is a place of contrasts.  If you stick to the regular tourist sites, cities,

and good restaurants you probably won’t have problems.  If you’re more adventurous & want to experience real German life, be prepared to cope with all of the above.  It can be fun!

Bordeaux – Cite du Vin (City of Wine)

Bordeaux – what a beautiful city!  Sadly only a weekend there – but we will be back!

We discovered a wonderful Bed & Breakfast only a short tram ride from the old centre, the Villa St Genes, only 2 very large bedrooms  with modern bathrooms … and a swimming pool!  Absolute bliss in temperatures of 37 degrees Celsius. We didn’t really want to leave the pool but tourism called, so we boarded the modern tram & set off to see the sights.

The old town was pretty crowded, but still worth a wander around the small streets and a reserved meal at Le Petit Commerce – luckily we booked as people were being turned away all the time.  We chose the restaurant because it had very good seafood, and we weren’t disappointed.  The wine was pretty good too! A great place for people-watching!

We finished the evening with a stroll back to the Place de la Grande Theatre where we enjoyed the country music of busker Chris Paulson – even bought a CD!  What did surprise us was the overwhelming police presence – gendarmes as well as police municipale, walking, in vans & cars, and on motorbikes. They were pretty laid-back though, as were the general populace, and we never felt threatened by either group.

After a delicious breakfast poolside we set off again for a morning in town before we took our client to the railway station for her to catch the TGV to Charles de Gaulle Airport and her flight home to NZ.  Again there were very high temperatures, not conducive to enthusiastic sightseeing!  But the Miroir de l’Eau (Mirror of Water) was delightful.  We had visited it the night before, a flat area in front of the magnificent Bourse building with small water jets creating a mirror-like expanse where both children & adults walked & ran & cooled off.  At night it had reflected the Bourse, a stunning view.  On either side stretch colourful gardens where people relaxed on the benches.  However, small squares with inviting tables in the shade called us out of the sun to drink beer & wine & listen to more music!

 

We took our client to the station – Gare St Jean – what chaos!  It is being totally renewed, in fact I think there were renovation works being done here years ago when we took clients to catch a train. A word to the wise : leave plenty of time to catch your train, the platforms are difficult to find & the timetables are chaotic!

 

An interesting evening awaited us! It was the night of the European Football Final being played in Paris and all the restaurants & bars semed to have large television screens and tables & chairs out on the streets.  We decided not to book a meal but to take our chances on a restaurant. Not a good idea!  When we went to catch the tram it was so crowded it seemed as if people were falling out the doors!  Change to Plan B – we walked!  Followed the tram route & the crowds until we were nearly at Place de la Victoire, 2 stops away, & found a wonderful modern bright restaurant, Le Bistro Regent, with NO TV! Therefore it was very quiet, we were almost the only customers. For 12.50 Euros each (incredible price) we had the best steak we’ve had so far in France, a bowl of fresh green salad, & a bowl of shoestring fries (hadn’t seen THEM since we were in NZ!). Great service – well, I suppose they were delighted to have customers!

 

Afterwards we strolled around the square watching the people at the bars who were trying to watch the match on pretty small TV screens, then decided to head home on the tram before the match finished.  Had to resurrect Plan B – the trams had stopped running due to a fault in the system.  So a long walk back to the B&B, leaving us feeling we had walked off our dinner at least!

 

The next morning we left the city, but vowed to return for a longer stay, maybe in cooler weather to discover what else Bordeaux has to offer.

Miroir de l'Eau reflecting the Bourse

Miroir de l’Eau reflecting the Bourse

Miroir de l'Eau

Miroir de l’Eau

Fish restaurant in the Old Town

Fish restaurant in the Old Town

Busker in La Place de la Grande Theatre

Busker in La Place de la Grande Theatre

Water, water everywhere!

IMG_20160604_225756 IMG_20160604_224715 IMG_20160604_224808 IMG_20160604_103610Unlike most other times we have arrived in Europe, this time we were met with cold temperatures (down to 11 degrees centigrade), grey skies and rain.  LOTS of rain! Cold and wet on our one day in Amsterdam, sometimes showery in North Germany, the water levels were rising when we got to the Rhine, and finally, flooding in France. A once-in-a-century flood in Paris, apparently, causing the evacuation of works of art from the cellars of the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay. We had to travel into Paris to pick up some luggage and it was complicated by the closure of some Metro stations due to flooding, thereby necessitating a 45 minute bus journey & return, & infrequent & crowded RER trains, due to a rail strike.

 

When we eventually took to the road at 4.00 p.m., what chaos!  Roads closed, detours … and water EVERYWHERE.  We had decided on a town further south, but realised we probably wouldn’t be able to reach it, so looked for accommodation en route. All booked out, because of the flooding, either by evacuees or by travellers with the same idea. I remembered an hotel we had stayed at years ago in Montargis, our original destination, so phoned & booked ourselves in. Then, venturing on some roads that were partially closed, we finally reached sanctuary at 8.30 p.m., 2 & 1/2 hours later than usual. Relief, followed by a good meal and lots of red wine – of course!

But it was so bad for the poor people affected by the flooding.  Here are some photos taken en route, also a flooded street in Montargis. And everywhere there were piles of debris, goods ruined by the water & waiting to be collected.  Crops were also ruined – hope they have insurance cover. Though a local told me that the Government, because it is a local disaster, will top up peoples’ claims to the level decided by the government – sometimes months later, of course.  It’s the same all over the world.

 

Cruising the Baltic – life on board

It was with some excitement & a little trepidation that we arrived at the quay to board the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Star. The cruise was going to all the places we wanted to visit … but we weren’t too sure about travelling with more than 2000 other travellers! Check in was very easy, having already done it on line, we left our luggage to be delivered to our stateroom and made our way to the Versailles Restaurant, one of the many free restaurants on board, for a pleasant lunch in front of the floor to ceiling windows.  Most people go to a buffet restaurant on embarcation, but I had read that it was much nicer & less crowded to dine at Versailles, with good service. And then to our cabin/stateroom, plenty of room, good storage, sliding glass doors to the balcony – what more could one wish for? Met our delightful steward, who looked after us impeccably during the voyage, & entertained us by leaving a different bed mate on our bed each night when he turned down the covers & pulled the curtains! He also made sure we had enough cofee capsules for our coffee machine, so we could have good coffee with which to start the day. I have to say the coffee on board was abysmal!  We could go to the coffee bar in the Grand Atrium & pay extra for a triple shot coffee – but even that wasn’t great. Not good for we coffeeholics!

We should have realised (but didn’t) that the ship wasn’t Norwegian at all, though the captain was Swedish – it was American, with lots of Filippino & Indonesian crew – our cabin steward was Jamaican. But it was mainly in the restaurants we noticed the difference – the menus were totally American, with appetizers (our entrees), entrees (our mains) & desserts – & American coffee!

As it was May we didn’t take advantage of the pool area or the lounge areas on deck, sadly. We did try several of the restaurants, both free & ones we had to pay a little extra for (I had booked some of these on line before we arrived). Our favourites were the French Le Bistro & the Italian La Cucina, with excellent food & perfect service.  We also breakfasted mostly at Versailles, in fact we didn’t really go to any self-service restaurants except for one morning (which experience sent us right back to Versailles!) We went to some of the evening shows which were very professional.

As it was Mother’s Day when we boarded our son had organised for chocolate-coated strawberries to be delivered to the cabin – fantastic idea!  But they never arrived, so a few days later he had to ask if I had received them as I hadn’t mentioned them. I contacted the Service Desk – no apology but they arrived 5 minutes later!

We could even manage to get our exercise on board!  Didn’t go to the gym, but 4 times around the walking track was just over a mile. There was a small basketball court & 2 golf practice nets, & maybe other equipment which we didn’t see. We picked up a couple of books from the library, & I was tempted to go to the Sudoku competition (didn’t give in to the urge) though we went to the Trivia competition – what a farce. One lot of questions about American songs, first finished won, we decided it was just a ploy to get people to the bar to buy drinks!

We deposited $US300.00 at the Service desk to cover any incidental costs, including a $US50.00 each for internet access. It cost me about $US2.50 each time just to get connected, but at the end of the voyage we still had credit – which we could only spend on board! No giving that cash back! So off to Duty Free to spend. The day we disembarked I decided to get the photo which was taken at boarding, went to the Service desk to pay & was told we still had more credit! So if I hadn’t decided on a photo we would have lost out. Not a great feeling.

The worst thing was not the fault of the cruise line, but our group all contracted influenza – despite having had flu shots before leaving, and taking immunity boosters as well. People coughing & spluttering all over the ship.  There were hand sanitisers everywhere – at the elevator doors, inside & outside the restaurants, & scattered around the ship – but although we used them we didn’t notice a lot of others doing the same. I met a man who became so ill he was in intensive care on board at a cost of $US10,000.00 per day! And it cost $US140.00 to visit the doctor. Luckily we had our own antibiotics, but it took a loooong time to recover.

So, good & bad experiences. would we cruise again? The jury’s still out!

Our stateroom

Our stateroom

IMG_20160528_124328

Stardust Theatre

Stardust Theatre

Our bedmate!

Our bedmate!

From the glass elevator looking down on the Grand Atrium

From the glass elevator looking down on the Grand Atrium

Copenhagen – wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen

NNZ lamb in the market

NZ lamb in the market

NZ lamb in the market

Yes, it really was! We cleared customs at the airport with ease, bought the train tickets to the Central Railway Station (with the help of one of a band of volunteers who were there to assist travellers) & 3 stations later there we were. Finding the Scandic Weber Hotel was a little more difficult, as we walked from the station with all our luggage & the signage was not fantastic, but we arrived a few minutes later – to find our room was not ready! Free coffees offered and a pleasant sit in the courtyard – not a problem.

Dinner at a traditional Danish restaurant – expensive, & interesting that we were not able to just order an entree (after all the airline food, we really didn’t want a big meal), we had to order a main.

Glorious weather the next day, and a great day altogether. A walk around the nearby lake after breakfast, checking out the swans on their nests and the magpies which are so different to those in New Zealand. Then a meet up with our friends and a stroll into town to the pedestrian zone. The whole town was buzzing, people everywhere, music, hustlers – fantastic atmosphere. We had booked for a free walking tour of the city, so met our guide, Benjamin the Canadian, under the statue of Bishop Absolan on Horseback. Ben was so enthusiastic and gave us great insights into the life & times of King Christian IV. Apparently when Christian gained his majority and took on the royal role, he threw a 3 day party and had one of the town fountains running with wine! He loved women – it’s said he sired 19 offspring! We finished by walking through the Botanic Gardens and ending at the Food Market. Wonderful stalls filled with amazing food – including New Zealand lamb at 175 Danish Krone per 1/2 kg (about $NZ37.00) And what struck us most? Bicycles, bicycles, bicycles!!

Dinner was at a restaurant on the bank of the small lake we had walked around this morning. Unfortunately the indoors part was closed for a private function , so we sat outdoors – wrapped in rugs! We did have the advantage of a beautiful sunset, though!

And so ended our time in Copenhagen – we were bewitched!

En route with Emirates

So we have a huge amount of flying today! From Palmerston North to Auckland, Auckland to Melbourne, Melbourne to Dubai, Dubai to Copenhagen. About 25 hours in the air, and all the ground time. We must really want to travel! I must say, flying Emirates is an extremely good experience. From the check in (which is so easy because 48 hours before I received an email telling me that internet check in was open and it was so easy to follow the simple instructions. Check in done! No hold ups going through security, very efficient loading of passengers, and very helpful crew.

Off on our travels again!

Off on our travels again!

Melbourne was a different story! Inefficient, unhelpful, so last century. We disembarked & headed for transit – to find the entry door was locked! After quite a wait, one of the passengers used the service telephone to call the staff. More waiting, until at last, when the passenger was calling for a second time, the staff arrived. No apologies, just “Melbourne is a big airport, you know!” Through security – again – even though we had just walked off the plane, then into the transit area. Well, I CAN say it is not as bad as the barn of a room in which we used to be locked in Los Angeles, but it surely lacks a certain esprit. And then we come to the boarding procedure. I should have been alerted when I heard the ground staff discussing whether they were going to load by zones or not. Yes? No? Oh, all right then, yes. But was there a broadcast message to that effect? Oh no, just staff walking around holding signs & calling out “Zone C” “Only people seated in Zone C” – for goodness sake!

Actually a relief to get back on board and encounter another smiling efficient crew! A long leg this time, with plenty of time to sleep. Yes, I DO sleep – with a little help. And it’s truly worth it. Next stop Dubai, that glitzy beautiful airport with a great transit area. Even though it’s filled with people, restaurants, shops etc, it never seems too crowded, and is very quiet. The rest room facilities are spotlessly clean and although there were queues, it only entailed a few minutes wait. There are 3 Emirates Terminals, luckily we were using Terminal 1 which was also our arrival terminal. Other times we have had to change terminals, which can be a little confusing, especially if you have to take the inter-terminal train, but there is always a smiling person ready to help. Once the lovely man even accompanied us to the next terminal! Totally unnecessary, but a good advertisement for the airport.EmiratesA380

Apart from these good experiences, there are a couple of other reasons we like to travel with Emirates : 1) the seats are slightly bigger (I’m speaking of Economy, of course! Can’t advise you on Business Class!) with more leg room and a good seat recline 2) free wifi! Which means I can write this blog while flying over the Caspian Sea!
The screens are large touch screens, and there is a huge amount of information about the flight, complete with plane cams, as well as all the entertainment available. I feel really spoilt!

So that’s my take on long haul flying. When I first started flying to Europe, back in the early 1980s when we took our children away for 4 months, I was TERRIFIED of flying. My poor husband & family! But now, having flown long haul 22 times, well, it’s just like catching the bus! Except for the PACKING, of course. Oh, the packing … I do think we’ve got it down to a fine art, but 5 months is a loooong time. So a case each of approximately 17 kgs, a cabin bag of 7 kgs, a laptop bag & a small daypack. Not too bad, do you think? Time will tell …

Counting Down!

Five days to take off! Oh my goodness! How do I pack for 5 months? And with the same small case (though maybe 18 kgs instead of 17 kgs!)
First stop Copenhagen, with a couple of days to visit that beautiful city before boarding the Norwegian Star en route to Saint Petersburg. We’ve organised a private guided tour for 5 of us for 2 days there, it sounds really interesting. Also stops at Warnemunde, Tallin, Helsinki, and jumping ship at Stockholm. Flying to Norway in time for National Day and 5 days to spend on the beautiful Sognefjord before heading back to Amsterdam to pick up our van. And that’s just the start! Still a long time until the first tour, Stays in Germany & France first.

So I’ll keep you posted! Watch this space (as they say).

Time is running out!

Well, here we are, 2016 has arrived and our tours are ready to go!

champagne[1]

The bookings for our first tour, starting on June 18th and travelling through Champagne, the Loire Valley, and into the Perigord, will close late March, still places left, hurry up & book.

Welcome champagne in Epernay!We will be there at the villa near Lascaux Caves for a week – time to visit the chateaus involved in the Hundred Years War, the wonderful gardens, the pre-historic sites of Cro-Magnon man, the colourful markets, Josephine Baker’s fairy tale castle, the medieval town of Sarlat, with it’s honey-coloured stone buildings, or even take a canoe trip down the lazy Dordogne River. It is one of the most beautiful areas of France, which is why we visit nearly every year.

Canoeing on the Dordogne RiverOur second and third tours, starting August 20th and September 3rd, still have places available and there is still time to decide to join us.  We will be travelling through Normandy and Brittany, staying in some amazing places – a converted abbey, a B&B in the heart of Chartres, and a wonderful villa near Giverny, with an indoor swimming pool!  A visit to Versailles en route to Chartres, should start the tour off well for you!  Mont St Michel, that magic island, St Malo, the walled town destroyed in WWII and totally rebuilt, the Bayeux Tapestry, of course the Landing Beaches and the amazing artificial Mulberry Harbour, and lesser known places such as the family home of Christian Dior, perched on a cliff.  While at the Villa a visit to Giverny, Monet’s home & garden, is a must, as is a visit to the Cathedral town of Rouen.  So much to do!

Our tours are very competitively priced, as everything is included – all meals, land transport while on tour, all entry fees – even a mid-morning coffee! So have a look at our site www.touringfrance.biz and contact us straight away!

michel[1] beursaudiere[1]