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Review of Nile Horseback Safaris

“Oli otya!”

My greeting, freshly learned, typically resulted in a surprised face, followed by a torrent of incomprehensible words in Luganda, the language of Uganda. The villagers that responded could have been saying anything. It was as if I was participating in a kind of verbal line dance in which everyone knew the steps except me. I trusted they were repeating the familiar pattern of “hello, how are you?” that I’d been led to expect.

“Cale!” I replied, I’m fine.

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Fortunately, passing astride a horse at a slow but steady pace, by the time I’d uttered the final response I was some way down the trail and thus unlikely to be troubled by a continuation of the conversation. Francis, my guide, was effusive in his praise, commenting on the accuracy of my pronunciation, though obviously not on the extent of my vocabulary. As he’d been the one who’d taught me earlier that morning, I echoed the compliment.

A couple of hours earlier, I’d made the short journey out of Jinja, a pleasant town famed for being at the source of the Nile. English explorer and army officer John Hanning Speke had made his way here in 1863, searching for the beginning of the world’s longest river. Noting a spring that rose from an outlet of Lake Victoria, he staked a claim, sending a telegram that said simply:

“The Nile is settled.”

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The claim was disputed, however, largely due to a lack of corroborating evidence and competing egos. Speke died in 1864, receiving posthumous recognition for his discovery in the latter part of the 1870s after Henry Stanley mounted his own expedition and proved Speke had been right all along. Things are considerably easier in the 21st century, with a memorial to Speke in the grounds of the Living Waters Resort and a blue and white marker located prominently (though inconveniently) in the middle of the river. Disputes over the source of the Nile continue, however, with many differing theories as to which bit of water lies furthest from the Nile Delta over four thousand miles to the north. The very visible spring bubbling up at the outlet from the lake at Jinja adds credibility to this particular claim.

Kitted out for my own, much more modest expedition in helmet and half chaps, I’d set off on a horseback trek. A series of mounting blocks at different heights made it easy to mount JD, a sturdy horse with a calm temperament that boss TJ had selected for me. The path we took soon led us through the village of Naminya. A succession of little children tottered about in the dust, their older siblings busy in the classroom. As we approached, they waved enthusiastically.

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“How are you?” they trilled, giggling with delight at my response, “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”

“I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine! I’m fine!!!” The singsong chorus was one that would become familiar wherever I went.

The sound of their voices faded to a whisper as the horses continued further along the dirt track. Such small children had much more freedom here. Passing bodas aside, there was little to trouble their safety. In any case, these motorcycle taxis hooted a warning as they passed and even at this tender age, the tots knew to stand back. We continued on, the horses’ hooves kicking up the compacted terracotta earth which passed for a road. The same mud held together by thin branches and topped with rusting sheets of corrugated iron provided rudimentary shelters. Those who could afford it upgraded to brick built dwellings, the uneven blocks fired in crudely constructed kilns that belched acrid smoke.

We passed the village well. Two women chatted idly as they pumped water into faded yellow plastic cans. Effortlessly, they swung the weighty loads onto their heads and strode off in the direction of home. They made it look deceptively easy. A man passed us, carrying a sizeable bunch of green plantains, the staple of the Ugandan dish matooke. What we call a bunch is merely a hand; this was a stalk crammed with the fruit and weighed a ton.

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Soon afterwards, we encountered a woman in a fuchsia pink blouse and skirt making light work of an equally heavy sack on her head, and, more unusually, a lighter bag in her hand. Along the track, three sheep tugged at the ropes that tethered them in a yard shaded by banana trees. Next to them was a roughly constructed wood and rusted iron shelter that in no small measure resembled a bucking bronco.

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The ride took us through plantations and lush countryside. Francis turned and said:

“Julia, if you’d like to pick up the pace tell me and we can trot.”

In the warm sun, though, I was content to walk, the lazy rhythm far too relaxing to interrupt. Out of practice – it had been a year since I was in the saddle – I wriggled uncomfortably in the saddle. The tightly zipped chaps gripped my chunky calves and numbed my feet. JD plodded on, patiently accepting the fidgety novice on his back without complaint. Every so often, I freed a foot from the stirrup and rotated my ankle. Francis continued to lead the way at a steady, manageable pace, glancing over his shoulder at regular intervals to make sure I was OK. I was. Even when his horse spooked a little at some cows beside the road, JD was reassuringly composed.

We looped round, passing verdant fields planted with crops. I was getting stiff, my body unused to the saddle. Ready to return, my interest suddenly piqued as the Nile came into view and all aches and stiffness was forgotten. Across the grass, in a gap between the trees, a glimpse of blue appeared. Francis led us to a clearing, from which the sliver opened up into a broad swathe of water.

“Would you like me to take a photo, Julia?” he asked.

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I nodded, and manoeuvred the horse with some difficulty so that I faced the camera yet avoided coming a cropper down the steep river bank. Photo session concluded, we headed off along the trail following the river bank. So high above the river, one slip would send me tumbling down to the water, crashing through bushes and trees on the way. Once again I was relieved that JD’s calm disposition meant I could trust him not to stumble, leaving me free to enjoy the view from the saddle. Soon, the gate to the property came into view and it was time to dismount.

About Nile Horseback Safaris

Nile Horseback Safaris is an established riding business well run by TJ, an Aussie expat, and his Kiwi partner. A number of rides are offered, the most popular being the 1.5 and 2 hour rides that combine village trails with river views. These suit most riders as the pace is relatively gentle, but complete novices may prefer the one hour ride. Longer safaris are available for more experienced riders.

It’s a very professional set up and one which receives consistently positive reviews. Horses are well looked after, safety is paramount and helmets are provided. To ensure that the horses are as comfortable as their riders, a strict weight limit is enforced – check the website for details if like me, you are on the heavy side. The mounting blocks make it easy to get on and off the horses and TJ’s policy of sending out two guides with each group – one leading and one at the rear – ensures that if a rider was experiencing any difficulties, assistance could be given promptly.

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I’d like to thank TJ for providing a complimentary ride but would hasten to point out that all views expressed are my own. I was very impressed, both with the set up and the scenery, and would happily recommend Nile Horseback Safaris to anyone looking for an alternative way of viewing the Nile and Ugandan countryside. This is slow travel at its best.


Expanding my FlagMate collection

In 2018 I became involved with Storyteller and was impressed by their FlagMate product. Founder Bhav Patel set up Storyteller for three reasons: to create high quality travel accessories, to inspire travellers and most important of all, to support projects around the world aimed at helping to fund education programmes for underprivileged kids. This is what you need to know about this worthy project:

https://juliahammond.blog/2018/03/26/will-you-be-adding-flagmate-to-your-backpack/

Bhav kindly sent me a sample, and I chose three flags for my new keyring: Austria, Iceland and Peru. All three countries have a particular significance for me. I began a lifetime of travels visiting Austria at just 9 months old, married my husband in Iceland and fell in love with Peru and its ever-so-slightly loco people right from my first trip in 1995.

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Now Bhav has sent me a gift of three new flags and I chose Australia, Cuba and the United States. Each, of course, has a story. Although, it was tricky whittling it down as so many of the places I’ve visited over the years have given me such fond memories.

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Australia

Of all the countries I could ever see myself living in, it would be Australia (or maybe its neighbour New Zealand!) Though I’ve visited only once, Oz has been part of my daily life, on weekdays at least, since 1986. Guessed why yet? I’m an unashamed fan of Neighbours and though I acknowledge it’s not the most intellectual of viewing experiences, I’ve been following the adventures of Ramsay Street’s residents since I was a sixth-former. I visited the set in 2005 alongside some of the country’s other tourist destinations – Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Kakadu, Katherine Gorge, Port Douglas and Uluru. One day I shall go back – not least because the Neighbours tour has been improved to include an opportunity to meet the actors and a visit to the Lassiters Complex sets.

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Doing the Neighbours Tour, 2005

Cuba

I visited Cuba in January 2018 after a fifteen year absence. Sometimes, when you return to a place, it’s changed immeasurably. Fortunately, though things had altered, I found that they had improved the traveller experience. It is now possible, in an especially convoluted Cuban way, to access the internet, provided you aren’t too bothered about queuing for scratchcards and then perching on a street kerb or park bench. The food is also much improved and I enjoyed some delicious meals in the privately run paladares, even managing to secure a coveted table at La Guarida. Tour highlights included finding out about Trinidad’s sugar industry. I also teamed up with Havana SuperTours for one of the most fascinating tours I’ve ever taken, with the enthusiastic Michael leading me into the seedy world of Mob-era Havana.

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View over the Valle de los Ingenios, near Trinidad

USA

Some travellers look down on the USA as being too tame, others cite political reasons for not wishing to visit at this time. I disagree on both counts. My husband proposed to me at New York’s Top of the Rock and we honeymooned in Utah and Vegas. But what sets this country apart for me is sheer variety. New Orleans, like NYC, is a favourite city; post Katrina it rebuilt and regrouped. Beyond the cities, the scenery’s next level. Many of America’s national parks are breathtaking, particularly Acadia and Glacier. I also found a personal connection via the many tiny villages that bear my name. One day, I’ll find the time to finish writing “Hammond, Me“. Research trips have taken me to the Bronx, where I visited Abijah Hammond’s mansion, built with the proceeds of real estate deals in Greeenwich Village, and also to Wisconsin, where each September the bonkers “Running with the Llamas” festivities take place.

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Running with the Llamas, Hammond WI

Where would you choose for your FlagMate flags? Why not take a look at Bhav’s site and tempt yourself?


East vs west: routes to New Zealand compared

I’m just back from my latest trip to New Zealand and this time took a different route, flying west from London to Los Angeles and then on to Auckland instead of the easterly route I followed before which took me via Singapore. Both flights were on a Boeing 777 but how do the routes compare and which do I recommend?

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West: via Los Angeles

I was tempted by an excellent Black Friday deal offered by Air New Zealand. By signing up to email alerts with Secret Flying (you might remember their tip off saw me travel business class from London to New York for under £350), I learned of a special offer. Fifty flights were on offer for just £399, which is exceptional value for a trip that takes 26 hours in the air westbound and 24 coming back. I went online and uploaded my details to the Air New Zealand site in preparation for the offer to go live, saving valuable minutes and ensuring I was one of the lucky recipients.

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In practice, one of the downsides to travelling in this direction is of course having to go through the US immigration process. An ESTA is required for UK passport holders even if they are only in transit; this costs about £10 but is valid for up to 2 years. I’ve just renewed mine and incidentally, it’s a more detailed form than before. On the outbound leg, passengers transiting on NZ1 were fast-tracked to some empty kiosks and desks which saved a fair bit of time on the regular queues. This wasn’t the case on the inbound leg, NZ2, when we were all directed to the main queue, adding about fifteen minutes to the process.

Though it isn’t necessary to fill out a customs form or clear customs, there’s still the requirement to queue through security. This took about fifteen minutes on both legs. NZ1 and NZ2 use the same plane for both legs, with suitcases remaining in the hold. Passengers must alight and take all hand luggage with them while the plane is cleaned and restocked. Some passengers only fly one of the legs. I found that the London to LA (and vice versa) part of the flight was considerably less full than the LA to Auckland segment.

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I had hoped to be seated in a Skycouch row. Air New Zealand’s trio seats on either side of the plane are fitted with pull out, sturdy padded footrests which can be converted into a couch. You have to pay extra for this and not all reports are good, with some travellers saying it’s hard for a couple to get comfortable enough to sleep. For a comprehensive review of Skycouch, why not take a look at this excellent review from etrip.tips?

http://etrip.tips/air-nz-skycouch-flying-cuddle-class-to-san-francisco/

As a solo traveller, to be able to guarantee the use of one of these would have signifcantly increased my fare. On the inbound LA to London leg, the Skycouch adjacent to my centre section aisle seat was vacant. Cabin crew did not permit me to use it, however. Instead they moved a mother and baby there which is fair enough as they were more in need of the space than me. However, this kindness resulted in the family being split on opposite sides of the aircraft. Throughout the flight they came and went, knocking my seat and making sleep difficult for me. The baby slept soundly like, well, a baby.

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The outbound leg was quicker than scheduled, taking 10 hours 30 minutes from London to LA, followed by a layover of 2 hours 5 minutes and then an onward flight of around 12 hours 30 minutes. Auckland Airport was very busy when we touched down around 5.15am and I wasn’t on the bus out of the airport until well after 7am. However, I was fortunate that my hotel room was available and after showering, enjoyed a pleasant day’s sightseeing without the need for a nap. Julia 1 Jetlag 0. Now I’m home, I can report to have been very tired for a few days but not very jetlagged as I was going to bed and waking at normal times.

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Verdict

Though transiting the USA wasn’t an issue and there was no danger of missing the second leg of the journey as it used the same aircraft, the short layover wasn’t enough to stretch my legs properly, take a shower or have a sleep in a proper bed. The food and entertainment were both above average, yet over such a long time in the air I found the time dragged, particularly on the second half of the journey. Also, so many seats required additional payment (for extra legroom, priority boarding or of course the Skycouch option) it meant that the availablity of my preferred aisle seat was very limited. I checked in online immediately the systems opened but even so, only three aisle seats were showing as available and no window seats.

East: via Singapore

I’d call this the classic route for Brits travelling to Australia or New Zealand. Asian stopovers are a popular choice, and especially Singapore as Changi Airport has such a stellar reputation. I used Singapore Airlines in 2013 and wasn’t disappointed.

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Outbound, I opted for an 8.30pm departure with Singapore Airlines, an overnight flight which reached Singapore at 4.30pm the following day. As my second leg flight didn’t depart until after 9pm, there was plenty of time to enjoy an unhurried dinner, a shower in the airport hotel and a stroll around the airport’s orchid garden. I could have visited Changi’s cinema to catch a movie, but figured there’d be plenty of opportunity for that on the flight itself.

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The inbound flight departed Auckland at 12 noon, arriving in the Asian hub at about 7pm. I chose to extend the layover to facilitate a night in a nearby hotel. My second leg thrrefore left Singapore at 9am the following day, reaching London by about 3.30pm that afternoon. This didn’t come at any extra cost, and the chance to stretch out in a full length bed with decent bed linen was very much appreciated. I came back to the airport the following morning considerably more refreshed than I did arriving from LAX.

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On both legs, I was easily able to secure my preferred aisle seat and would have been able to get a window seat if I’d have wished. Meals were good and the inflight entertainment system as good as you’d expect from an airline which regularly secures high approval ratings from travellers.

Where this option falls short, however, is the increased risk of jet lag affecting the first few days of your holiday. Some people swear by a stopover to give them time to adjust. Personally I think that just means you need to put your body clock through two changes in just a few days which isn’t ideal. However, it’s a good way of seeing a bit of Asia if you haven’t visited before. As well as Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are conveniently located. Hubbing through Dubai is possible but the two legs are pretty uneven and it is hard to psyche yourself up for that second leg from Dubai to the Antipodes as you’ve barely covered a third of your total journey time at that point.

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Verdict

I found the overnight layover with a hotel stay made the Singapore option considerably less arduous. The lengthy outbound layover was also helpful. I’d done something similar with Malaysian Airlines to Sydney, hubbing through KL. That time, however, the jetlag was fierce and I remember stumbling around Sydney as if drunk on the first day before crashing and sleeping it off. I’ve read that for every hour’s difference in the time zones travelled, your body needs a day to recover. In practice, if you keep hydrated and try to sleep on the plane it can be considerably less than that. Arriving in Auckland from Singapore, I expected the jetlag to kick in, but in fact enjoyed a pleasant day pottering about Ponsonby before heading off to bed about 8pm.

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So would I choose east or west next time?

Price would be a deciding factor but unless I got an especially good deal I’d pay a little extra to fly eastbound and a bit more on top to be able to have a night’s sleep en route. As I get older, I really need the rest, though as a twenty something, getting to NZ as fast as possible would rank higher in the list of priorities. I was lucky not to have to suffer a middle seat with Air New Zealand so I’d look for an airline which permitted seat allocations at the time of booking, something which is increasingly being phased out as airlines seek to raise income. What I would say is that the US immigration and security procedures and staff which tend to put a lot of travellers off transiting via an American airport really shouldn’t. I’ve noticed in the last few years that staff attitudes have improved immensely and the norm is now a polite and friendly welcome.

Have you flown from London to Australia or New Zealand? Did you do it in one go? Which route gets your vote?


Heading to Nassau? Don’t miss this excellent food tour!

Ask anyone who’s visited the Bahamas what is the food that epitomises the islands and chances are, they’re going to say conch. Pronounced ‘conk’ this ubiquitous marine mollusc is served in all manner of ways, the most popular being deep fried fritters with just the right amount of spice to give them a kick. There’s also delicious cracked conch, which can best be described as the Bahamian version of fish and chips. Every restaurant has it on the menu, so finding it is easy. Knowing which serves the best is a whole lot harder, however.

I believe there’s no better way to get to know the heart and soul of a country than through its stomach. Though the enduring image of the Bahamas is of glistening turquoise waters surrounding necklaces of cays, there’s a lot to be said for getting out of the water and into Nassau’s historic downtown district. But the capital’s streets are packed with eateries and it’s hard to know where to start. I figure it’s always best to enlist the help of a local when it comes to food. I’d been tipped off by Cecilia fom Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours that in Nassau, I should get in touch with Tru Bahamian Food Tours.

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Alanna Rogers set up the company in 2012, describing herself as a passionate foodie whose own travels inspired her to showcase the cuisine of her own country. The Bites of Nassau food tour is popular with cruise ship passengers looking for a memorable experience when their ship’s in dock, as well as with those who are staying on the island. It even attracts locals, which in my opinion is another measure of how good it is. Something like 5000 people take the tour each year, and the company is going from strength to strength.

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My husband and I took the tour this March as part of a week-long holiday in the Bahamas. From our base at Cable Beach it was an easy ride into Nassau. Guide and operations manager Murray was easy to find on the steps of the cathedral, built in 1841 as the first official place of worship in the country. Our small group strolled around the corner to Market Street for a look at the pastel pink Balcony House. The oldest wooden structure in the city, it hosted Ian Fleming when he came to the Bahamas when Thunderball was filmed in 1965.

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Across the street was Bahamian Cookin’. Murray warned us that this would be the largest of our tasting plates, and it was here we had our introduction to the Bahamian staples: conch fritters, fall off the bone chicken, baked mac and cheese and of course peas and rice. I hate peas. But peas here are beans, fortunately, and this was so tasty I confess to stealing some of my husband’s while his attention was distracted. On the way out, we had a refreshing glass of switcha, a kind of Bahamian limeade. Apparently, spellings of switcha vary considerably so if you’re reading this and spelling it differently, I’d love to know how you write it.

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Next up we got to meet one of Nassau’s most colourful characters. In the Towne Hotel, we were served a potent Planter’s Punch while enjoying the company of Max, who’s the hotel’s resident blue macaw. The artwork in the hotel was fabulously diverse and a big talking point as we sipped our rum cocktails.  The chatter continued as we reached Graycliff.

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Now a hotel, it was built in 1700 by privateer John Howard Graysmith.  An inn from 1844, it was also once the private home of wealthy Canadian Izaak Killam and later Lord Dudley. The latter played host to the likes of Edward and Mrs Simpson, Churchill and Lord Mountbatten. It’s also seen Al Capone, the Beatles, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

We learned that some of the bottles of wine in its cellar would cost the average tourist a year’s wages. Passing on that, instead we got to try some of the chocolates in the on-site factory. The first, labelled “white chocolate twice as hot as goat pepper” was a truly Marmite experience – some of us (me included!) spat it out half-eaten while others would have been delighted to eat the whole tray. That’s half the fun of taking a food tour, of course, to experiment with flavours you wouldn’t otherwise have tried.

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Nearby is Government House. Our Queen is Head of State in the Bahamas but of course her representative the Governor General takes care of things for her and these are his digs. The building actually stands on the highest point of downtown Nassau affording a fabulous view of the cruise ships in dock. We walked down a flight of steps – not those steps – to visit Biggity in Bay Street. Amanda’s creative take on pigeon pea hummus, rosemary and thyme infused olive oil, and garlic Johnny cake crostini was a big hit with everyone, as was the bush tea we washed it down with.

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Murray explained that Bahamians consider bush medicine important. A nod to the country’s African heritage, native spices, leaves, flowers and tree bark are artfully combined to cure all manner of ills. Apparently it’s also quite common to consume a medicinal tot of rum to avoid having to visit the doctor. I’ve bookmarked this interesting blog from the Tru Bahamian Food Tours website just in case I feel under the weather:
https://www.trubahamianfoodtours.com/tru-bahamian-must-eats/bush-teas/.

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Our penultimate stop was at Athena Cafe. Many of the Greek community in Nassau can trace ancestors who came to participate in the trade of sea sponges back in the 19th century. They stayed on, blending typical Greek dishes with local ingredients – we had a tasty chowder. Rounding off the tour was a sweet treat from the Tortuga Rum Cake Company. The group enjoyed rum cake with walnuts but as I’m not a fan, my rum cake came nut-free with pineapple instead. It was delicious.

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Tru Bahamian Food Tours promote Bahamian cuisine as “the islands’ most unexplored cultural treasure”. After a few hours in Murray’s company, I think they’ve got that just about right. What sets this tour apart from other food tours is the emphasis it places on history, culture and the pivotal role of immigrants to the Bahamas. When asked what they enjoyed best about the tour, most people commended the contextual information that Murray had provided.

However, compared to other food tours I’ve taken there were fewer opportunities to chat to fellow participants about the food, which has in the past been an enjoyable way of processing what I’ve learnt. Also, towards the end, the tour felt a little rushed; several of the other tours I’ve done have been around five hours long. By lengthening the tour from its current three hours, both these points could be addressed. I guess when something’s good, you don’t want it to end.

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But those are minor criticisms of what’s an excellent tour. If you’re planning to visit Nassau any time soon, and if you want to understand what makes the country tick, this is a must for your itinerary. But take my advice: arrange the tour at the start of your trip. Once you’ve tasted what’s on offer, you’re going to want to go back for more.

The lowdown

You can find out more about Tru Bahamian Food Tours on their website and social media feeds – the links are at the foot of this post. The excellent Bites of Nassau tour is a great way to experience the islands’ capital Nassau. It runs several times a day from Monday to Saturday and lasts about 3 hours; you can book online. The company has also just launched a Sunday cocktail tour, which should prove to be just as popular as the original Bites tour. If you’re feeling really inspired, they can also arrange cooking classes giving you the skills to recreate the dishes you’ve enjoyed once you get home.

The Bites of Nassau costs $69 per person. My husband and I enjoyed the tour free of charge in exchange for promoting the tour via this blog.  The photos which illustrate my blog are a mixture of mine and those supplied by Tru Bahamian Food Tours, but the opinions are entirely my own.

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https://www.trubahamianfoodtours.com/
Facebook/trubahamianfoodtours
Twitter: @trubahamianfood
Instagram: @trubahamianfoodtours


Will you be adding FlagMate to your backpack?

Adverts can be a little irritating at times, but every once in a while one comes along that begs to be investigated.  Last week, a feature on FlagMate popped up on my Facebook timeline.  I was intrigued and contacted the man behind the idea, fellow Brit Bhavesh Patel, to find out a bit more about his company, Storyteller, and the concept of FlagMate.

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Let’s face it, buying ourselves something that’s going to help someone else makes us feel good about our purchase.  Storyteller offers the chance to do just that.  Bhav told me that the company was founded around three main principles: to create high quality travel accessories, to inspire people to travel and to share some of its profits funding educational programmes in less privileged areas of the world.

At this early stage, Storyteller supports four charities – The Barefoot College (which currently operates in 93 countries), UNICEF Next Gen, London (worldwide), Global Citizen (worldwide) and The Hope Foundation (which is based in Kolkata, India).  You see, education’s a top priority when it comes to giving those born into poverty a leg up.  As a former teacher, I’m of course biased, but the more I travel, the more it’s obvious – adult illiteracy is still a huge constraint on progress in many parts of the world.  Bhav agrees and told me about his experience in places like India and Peru:

“It was a repeat cycle – children could not obtain a quality education, and in time became illiterate adults. I wanted to make a change and so made a conscious decision to use Storyteller as a platform to help fund and run educational workshops in partnership with charities who shared my vision.”

Storyteller itself is not a charity, but one of a number of new start ups who are proving that getting a balance between profit and philanthropy can be beneficial to all those involved.  It raises capital for causes it considers worthy by selling products aimed at the buoyant traveller market.  FlagMate, part of Storyteller’s initial range, appeals to those keen on collectibles.

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Years ago, when I first got the travel bug, I painstakingly sewed fabric patches onto my rucksack as a reminder of each of the countries I’d been to.  Many, many pricked and sore fingers later, I had a bag covered in flags.  People would stop and chat about the places they represented and my experiences there.  It was a good icebreaker and often led to further conversation – and those meaningful interactions with people we meet on the road are, of course, why many of us travel.

FlagMate goes one better: faux leather, hand-painted flags which can be personalised and then attached to a keyring or clip for your bag.  It’s a great souvenir of your last trip, but also, it’s a good talking point on your next one.  Think of the flags, and the words you choose to engrave them with, as prompts for you to tell a story to someone you meet as you explore the world.

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Right now, Storyteller is coming to the end of its Crowdfunding campaign, but there’s still time to support the cause if you so wish.  You can find out more on their website:

https://www.storytellertravel.co.uk/.

Alternatively, why not visit their IndieGoGo page to find out how your purchase can help get this start-up off the ground.  Find it here:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/storyteller-flagmate-the-ultimate-travel-accessory-accessories/

Disclaimer

While I have no financial interest in Storyteller as a company, I am looking forward to receiving a FlagMate sample later this year in exchange for writing about the product.  Keep an eye on this blog to find out what I think of it, which countries I’ll choose to wear on my keyring and why they make the cut.


Book review: Europe by Rail

I was thrilled when an opportunity arose to review the latest edition of Europe by Rail in exchange for a complimentary copy.  This guide, now in its fifteenth incarnation, is to print what the Man in Seat 61’s website is to the internet – the definitive guide.  But with so much information freely available on the internet, should you buy this book at all?

Europe by Rail

A task of epic proportions

Covering all the railways of all the European countries in a book light enough to carry onto a train is a huge undertaking.  As a consequence this book acts as an overview.  While it’s definitive, it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive.  The guide is designed to be used together with the European Rail Timetable – or in these times of data roaming, in conjunction with the websites of national rail providers in the countries it covers.  The authors, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, have updated the guide once more, expanding coverage of the Baltics and the Balkans, as well as providing current information about rail travel across the continent.  Schedules change frequently, and I was sad to learn that the excellent CityNightLine service which I enjoyed in 2015 ceased operations between Munich and Berlin last year.

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CityNightLine

An inspiring guide

The authors wanted to take the guide in a different direction and as such, set out to inspire as well as inform.  So although there are factual sections in the guide, its greatest strength is in the persuasiveness of the descriptions that comprise the bulk of its pages.  Underpinning this erudite prose is a fundamental belief that train journeys are fun and, most crucial of all, to be savoured.  While acknowledging the important role Europe’s high speed trains have to play, Gardner and Kries put the case for slow travel, yet never come across as preachy.  If you need to zip across the continent in a hurry, then so be it, but for those with more time, there are routes to be savoured on local stopping trains, with tempting sidetracks built in as well.

Regio train crossing Landwasser Viaduct

Crossing the Landwasser Viaduct in Switzerland

Punctuating the narrative are frank insights into the realities of each trip: “It’s an easy run south to Barcelona.  The railway enters the Catalan city through its unexciting northern suburbs and terminates in the subterranean gloom at the Estació de Sants.”  Nuggets of advice are also in abundance, such as this on Italy’s fabulous Cinque Terre: “A long sequence of tunnels means that you’ll see little of the area from the train, but take time to stop and explore.  Vernazza is a good base; it’s the prettiest of the villages.”  Gardner and Kries have put the hours in and travelled these routes, which makes them authoritative as well as engaging.

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The Cinque Terre

What could be improved?

Numbers rather than names refer to each of the fifty routes covered by the guide once you get past each one’s title.  Though this system takes a bit of getting used to, many of them cross international borders so it’s hard to see how they could be referred to in any other way.  It doesn’t help, however, that some of the subtitles within each section, specifically those of the major cities en route, are in the same sized font, making it confusing as to whether you’ve reached the end of a route or not.  It takes a bit of time to get your head around, but once you’ve got into a rhythm, you won’t be bothered by it.

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Spain’s high speed AVE

Each route features a map.  The presentation is simple, with a table attached that shows the journey time, frequency and cross-reference for the European Rail Timetable.  While I could see that the authors were aiming for clarity, I thought it was a shame that these maps couldn’t have been illustrated to showcase some of the key attractions along the way.  This would have added to the temptation to jump on a train and follow in their footsteps.  I’m guessing publishing constraints required the photographs to be grouped in their own section, as is the way with most guidebooks, but it’s again a pity that these couldn’t have been integrated with the text.  Instead, I wanted to skim over them, impatient to get to the routes themselves.

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Sintra station’s exquisite ticket office

There’s a lot of page turning, back and forth, which breaks into reveries and brings the reader back to reality.  I appreciate that logic dictates a section entitled “Before you leave” should be placed at the beginning of a guide, but perhaps the parts detailing rail passes, ticket classes and the like would have been just as at home in an appendix.  These are minor criticisms, more a measure of how keen I was to get stuck in than any fault with the guide.

The verdict: would I buy this guide?

For anyone planning to embark on a rail holiday in Europe, this guide is an invaluable companion.  Even if you’ve travelled extensively by rail across the continent, things change regularly and it’s an easy way to bring yourself up to date.  Don’t wait until you leave to buy it.  The suggestions for stopovers and detours will help with your planning and you’ll have information at your fingertips about rail passes, supplements, connections and the like.  If you’re like me, it won’t help you make a decision, as there are so many tempting routes from which to choose, but it will give you hours of pleasure as you take a virtual journey on some of Europe’s most scenic tracks.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to go back to that chapter on Arctic Norway…


Review of Thomas Cook Airlines

I’m no stranger to low cost flying, but it’s been a long time since I’ve flown with an airline which made its name catering for package tourists. So what’s it like to fly Thomas Cook Airlines?

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Timing

I chose to fly to Cape Verde, and at the time of booking, I was flexible about which of its nine inhabited islands I would fly to.  The only direct flights from London were with Tui (formerly Thomson) and Thomas Cook Airlines.  I could have flown with scheduled airlines but it would have meant an indirect flight, such as with TAP via Lisbon.  The flight times were convenient too, with an 8.05am outbound option and a 2.45pm inbound flight.  Flying on a Wednesday worked for me, though to get a daily flight option I’d have needed to fly indirect.  From LGW Thomas Cook Airlines fly in winter; in summer the only flights offered depart from Manchester.  But with November temperatures in the late twenties, the islands are a good choice for a winter break, if a little windy.

Additional costs

Though the base fare was reasonable – and even more so now November is almost over – the airline’s pricing model worked on getting its passengers to pay for add-ons.  Some of these prices were pretty steep.  £10 for each sector secured you a hot meal, a suitcase was £25 each way and allocated seating cost from £13 per leg.  I opted just to take a suitcase, given that the carry-on dimensions (55cm x 40cm x 20cm) and, especially, weight limits (6kg) weren’t sufficiently generous for a week-long holiday.  This would be higher on the all-inclusive Economy Plus tariff but the price difference was significant, making it poor value for money.  I didn’t choose the seat allocation and was randomly allocated a middle seat in each direction.  A polite request with the check-in staff got this changed to an aisle seat both ways, but of course this can’t be guaranteed.

On-board service and comfort

The Sal flight operated on an Airbus 321.  Legroom was 28″, 2″ less than on a Ryanair short haul flight.  On this six-hour mid-haul flight, that’s cramped, and I was glad of the aisle seat to be able to get up and stretch my legs frequently without disturbing other passengers.  Service on board was excellent, the cabin crew without exception polite and professional.  Ground staff also conducted themselves well.  Many travellers were on package holidays and thus met by a member of the Thomas Cook team, but as I had booked a flight-only option I had no interaction in this respect.

Other information

There’s an entry visa requirement for UK travellers headed to Cape Verde and this currently can be purchased for €25 on arrival.  So long as Advanced Passenger Information (API) is completed via the Thomas Cook website 7 days or more in advance, this is paid for by the airline even if you are on a flight-only booking.  There’s no need to queue at the visa desk on arrival, saving you time when you get there.

The verdict

Would I travel with Thomas Cook Airlines again?  I was impressed by their punctuality and professionalism.  However, the lack of flexibility in their schedule and the steep cost of extras means this wouldn’t be an airline I’d consider travelling with again, unless like this route, all the scheduled options were indirect flights.