Rabu, 12 Juni 2013

Is Virgin Upper Class Upper Class?

I have taken to flying Virgin quite a lot recently and when I do I usually book in advance (for price) into the Upper Class cabin. This is mainly because I go to the Caribbean quite frequently and Virgin take off earlier and are far more prompt than BA on this particular route. This is important to me as I am usually catching a connection which BA often miss necessitating an unwelcome night-stop in Barbados. I cannot understand why BA keeps making such a gaffe but I digress.

My early booking got me a pretty good Upper Class fare and I sat back anticipating the holiday to come. I was particularly enthusiastic as Virgin were introducing their new executive seating on the route and I was looking forward to seeing how they could make an excellent product even better. Despite taking a little time getting used to their 'wishbone' shaped seating plan I found the service combined with seat comfort unbeatable compared with their competitors.

Virgin on the ground are very slick. There was no queue at Upper Class check-in and very little at the fast flowing economy desks. The staff were polite, efficient and very welcoming. We even avoided the scrum at security via the priority lane and, apart from joining the growing numbers of people trying to walk while replacing belts, shoes, loose change etc etc we were air-side very quickly.

We visited their lounge which was a little disappointing. OK, it is light and airy, and the staff were nice but sadly their famed breakfast was cold and it was rather noisy with excited visitors. You also need to be ready to be called early as they are determined to get the flight off on time, or early in our case. They used to use their jumbos on this route but now they mainly operate Airbus 340s with their newest seat configurations and in-flight service.

As I said earlier, how can you improve on the already excelent? Well, I am afraid you can't. sadly this was not an improvement but more a step backwards. This might sound mean minded but I have been flying once/twice a week for the last 40 years so I should know what I am talking about. The joy of virgin was the impression and reality of space and this new cabin did not look like that. I think someone looked at the last set-up and wondered how they could squeeze more seats into the same space. There were rank after rank of tightly joined seats with tiny foot-rest/visitor stools, no arm rest on one side and a much narrower feel. You cannot really sit alongside anyone and, if you tried you would have to choose a different centre seat row to your window seat to get close. as the seating is now staggered across the cabin.

The seat still folds over to become a mattress at nights but the fit is narrow and you need extra pillows to stop your head being lower than the rest of you. Your feet have to perch on the little stools and the narrow aisle means that people knock into them when you are trying to sleep.

The in-flight entertainment is still unbeatable and the tray tables are still big but they are monsters to drag out un-aided and spring back into your mi-drift if you are not careful. The ability to use your phone is a bonus to some and a curse to others. It made a change to hear folks brag to surprised relatives that they are 'on the plane' rather than 'on the train'!

Was the cabin full? Yes it was. Did they all pay the fare? No they didn't. Like BA Virgin operate an upgrade policy where they overfill economy and upgrade the surplus into Premium Economy and Upper classes. It can be rather annoying to those that booked and paid for the comfort, ambiance and space. Upgraded folk are often not the best behaved and it also means that cabin resource like food and drink take longer getting to you. It is irritating if you are in the part of the cabin that gets served last and your food choice gets sold out before it reaches you. I have to admit to double standards here.

I used to constantly battle to get upgrades but now I am there by right I get very tetchy when seeing some of the folk that get 'moved forward'. My mood is not improved when I hear that Virgin and a few others may auction off upgrade seats on departure. Brilliant! Now I can pay a lot of money to book a better seat only to witness some kind of financial competition among other passengers to join me. And this is all because they either overbook the back end of their flights or want to make a quick buck on departure. Not happy with that!

So what did I think of the flights? Both were perfect on timing to the point of arriving early. I saw the BA flight come in later afterwards and their passengers missed the connecting services. The staff was nice and the food was fully acceptable by airline standards. The tea and coffee was either stewed or tepid but you always get there. The new seats? A disappointment and a step back. I doubt if they would get away with them unscathed on a business route.

Kamis, 06 Juni 2013

Booking.Com - A Cautionary Tale

Having been in the travel industry very many years and reached pretty much the top of the tree I thought I of all people would not get caught out by anyone. Sadly I was wrong. In the hopes that I might spare someone (i.e. possibly you) some anguish/annoyance I thought I would share my experience with you. After all over 20,000 people have read this blog so I might be able to help one of you!

The 'issue' is one of online bookings.

I wanted to book a surprise 3 day break in my wife's favourite childhood holiday venue of Scarborough for her birthday. Easy I thought. I simply got on Google and found Bookings.Com. The website was the usual friendly and easy display so I booked The Mount in Scarborough and sat back waiting to enjoy the break. Sadly something came up and we had to cancel so back on the site I went and carefully cancelled the booking as I noticed that otherwise fees would apply.

That was that really until I got a message saying my card would be charged £180 for failure to cancel. Not correct I wailed and emailed Bookings.com and told them so. Ah, they said. Send us proof of cancellation. O.K. I thought, I will go back into my sent/recieved messages to see if there is anything referring to my cancellation, but there wasn't. I became a bit indignant. Polite but indignant. Look, I said, I used to run the biggest hotel booking company in the UK. not only did your system not cancel when asked to but there is also no record of the cancellation in my mailboxes.

I pointed this out in a subsequent email (friendly and slightly less indignant) but was told that the manager 'Craig' had basically pronounced 'No proof then no refund'.

So the lesson to be learned is yes, by all means book and cancel online BUT make sure you get and keep immediate proof you have done so. Bookings.com must have assumed I was either 'trying it on' or they could get away with it. As for me? I will still book/cancel online but use an online agency that believes in my integrity as much as I do! That counts Bookings.com out then!

Jumat, 03 Mei 2013

Business Lunches and Dinners - Consolidated Blogs

I wrote down these true experiences quite a long time ago. Having just found them again I thought I would put them all together and remind you of what to beware of when eating with business 'friends'!

Doggy and Chips anyone?

It is great when someone else is paying. You go to restaurants that you would never dream of frequenting if you were picking up the tab and they make a very welcome change to the local KFC. I have enjoyed many such lavish and sometimes damn unusual evenings out as my waistline and two visits to casualty will testify.

The most exquisite and possibly risky places I have ever dined in were in China including Hong Kong. The further you get out of the main centres of mass tourism the greater you test your taste buds and the more you discover just how squeamish you are.

On one visit to Hong Kong our local hosts decided to show us the ‘real China’ so they loaded us onto a coach and we headed off to the then border with the mainland. The thinking was to take in the sights and enjoy lunch in a well known restaurant where Chinese tourists went. It seemed a fine idea at the time and I think our hosts were prematurely congratulating themselves for thinking of it.

Unfortunately I nearly brought the whole thing to an end before it started. We arrived at one of the most dangerous looking borders I have ever seen. There were barracks around it and razor wire everywhere. Worst of all it was full of small fanatical looking soldiers who looked as though they would like nothing better than to shoot someone. We were told not to ‘do anything sudden’ and sit quietly at an outside table in the baking sun whilst our documents were checked. We were being chaperoned by two armed guards who looked like a pair of pit bulls straining at their leashes. ‘Make my day Punk’ they seemed to be thinking.

It was at this point my lighter exploded in the sun sending shards of plastic everywhere. I had bought it for next to nothing in the street outside my hotel and the combination of the sun’s rays and cheap components were all too much for it. I found myself the centre of attention. Guns were pointed and I had to lie on the floor with the rest of my bemused lunch companions while being screamed at in Chinese.

It took a while but eventually my explanation was accepted and off we went into the New Territories to find our ethnic restaurant. We eventually arrived after a hot and gruelling journey and got behind a huge queue of local tourists. Why anyone would queue to get in that hell hole I do not know. It seemed to be made of concrete squares and contained home made tables and a range of 24 different types of chairs (we counted them).

Our hosts soon discovered their big mistake. Being local there was no menu translation and no pictures of the dishes to decipher. There was nothing to tell us what we were eating so we ordered the ‘feast’ set meal. This arrived on 10 different types and colours of serving plates (we counted them) and their contents looked like the reject pieces from an abattoir.

The silence was palpable as we all sat there with our chopsticks staring at bits of beak, feet, possibly eyes and fins. The waiters extolled the virtues of each dish (in Chinese) and started ladling the choicest bits on our plates. It was bad for most of us but worse for our German colleague who was trying to explain she was vegan and American asking if it contained gluten. I do not think either got a conclusive answer.

The time had come to eat. By now we had become the centre of attention in the place. Other tables stopped to watch and even the chef had come out of the kitchen to see us enjoy his ‘feast’. I was first with a chicken foot and it was truly disgusting. Others started picking at their plates as it soon became clear that an international incident would be created if we refused to eat. It soon became a relay race to the toilet as one by one we bolted off gurgling like cats bringing up fur balls.

Somehow we managed to eat enough off our plates to make at least an appearance of having dined. We attacked the water and rice wine and started on a large bowl of rice that had mysteriously arrived unordered. Unfortunately the rice heralded the final dish which was the chef’s particular special that he prepared just for us. It was a stew. Well it had some kind of fatty liquid and there were lumps of meat in it.

The meat looked like a kind of pork belly. There was a strip of meat with a layer of fat covered with black crackling type skin. Unfortunately some of the skin still had a few hairs sticking out of them and it proved not to be at all crispy. With the chefs eyes boring into us we decided that the only way to deal with this was to swallow chunks whole. We were even quite organised and allowed the women to go first and swallow the smaller bits. Somehow we managed.

The chef was pleased to bits and shook all our hands. A Chinese lady from another table came over and asked in halted English whether we enjoyed Doll. ‘Doll’ we queried? ‘Yes Doll’ she replied. “You know, Woof Woof” she mimed. "Oh my God she meant dog not doll" said our vegan as the fur ball imitations started all over again.

We fled to the coach and many of us could not look a dog in the face for weeks!

Helga's Fishy Friend.

You would have thought they might have learnt wouldn’t you? Having nearly poisoned us on dog they nearly went one stage further. Our German Vegan lady was already talking about needing counselling after one ethnic meal but the second one definitely made her mind up. If you have no idea what our culinary ‘Chinese doggy’ experience was see part 1.

Our hosts in Hong Kong were still keen to show us just how nice a truly local Chinese meal could be. To do this they remained determined not to take us to a tourist restaurant but one that well off locals might go to. This time they promised no doggy treats (and I am not talking biscuits here) but a fish feast instead. What could go wrong? Hmm I thought as shark fins and jelly fish flashed through my mind. ‘Don’t worry’ they assured us as only fresh fish and shellfish would be used in a pre-ordered set feast.

We arrived at a fantastic place. The whole of the large restaurant had a giant aquarium built into the wall which was teeming with beautiful coloured fish and even sea horses. Absolutely magical especially when lit up with various shades of discreet lighting. Everybody felt good, except for our German Vegan lady who somebody had unkindly nicknamed Helga the Hungry Hun. Again she did not know what the hell she could or could not eat.

Language was a problem again but it did not matter so much as the meal had been carefully chosen to suit western palates and we had a fantastic corner table right by the biggest part of the aquarium. The only uncomfortable feeling we had was when we were eating our main fish course we could imagine fish in the tank saying ‘oh my God that’s my friend Cyril on that plate!

Much to the consternation of the management ‘Helga’ was only eating plain boiled rice. ‘I will not get caught out again’ she vowed. Also she had made a new friend. It was the most gorgeous fish in the tank and it would not leave her alone. She would tap the glass and the fish would do all sorts of somersaults and headstands while staring at her intently with wide eyes. He became her friend and the table mascot. We even gave him the name Herman. Herman was one cool fish and Helga became besotted.

The waiter came over with the wine and Helga could not resist trying to find out more about Herman. She pointed him out and asked what kind of fish he was, how big he would grow, how old is he etc. It was obvious something was lost in translation because the waiter replied saying that it was an unusual request but he would speak to the manager.

I realised something very wrong when behind Helga’s back I saw a large net descend into the pool and scoop out Herman. ‘Oh no’ I thought, ‘please not Herman’. But it was too late and yes, it was Herman. He arrived with a flourish on a plate, in a bed of rice and with bit of garnish sticking out if his gills. He was no more and he was placed by the manager, with great ceremony, in front of Helga. She screamed as Herman lay there with his now blank eyes staring reproachfully at her.

‘What is wrong’ the manager asked as Helga fled to the taxi rank. ‘We did our best’ he continued. ‘We do not normally cook our aquarium fish for guests but the VIP lady asked so we made an exception’. He went off shaking his head and muttering in an inscrutable way about ungrateful foreigners while we asked for a bag to put Herman in.

We eventually left as our hosts were keen to placate Helga and a few of us weaved our way to the waterfront outside the Grand Hyatt hotel. We buried Herman at sea and got some very strange looks in the process. The bag was weighted with two ‘stolen’ items of cutlery and we slid him into the deep off a KFC carton we found on the way. One sentimental colleague imitated the playing of ‘the last post’. We filmed it all in the hope that it might give Helga ‘closure’. But it didn’t.

What Shall We Do With The Drunken...Prawn?

I am not sure what it is about me and prawns. Apart from eating them what have I done to the little pink crustaceans that have merited me being chastised badly at least twice at business lunches and dinners?

Like the time I invited a somewhat eccentric but sensitive older lady to yet another gourmet restaurant in Hong Kong. It was in a major international hotel so I assumed we would be safe from any culinary shocks as this lady was too important and far too straight laced to endure any food carnage.

I will always remember her as she looked and dressed just like Greta Gabo in her latter years as she swept into the cocktail bar like royalty with a friends Pekinese dog in her arms. I rarely pray these days but I asked God to please make sure they did not take the dog away and cook it. I could just imagine it delivered to the table on a large decorated platter boned and skinned.

I could have cooked it myself. The damn thing kept on baring its teeth at me and sniffing my ankles. ‘Bite and you are history’ I thought to myself. Thankfully it did not as my guest then went on at great length explaining how she passionately loathed any cruelty to all creatures however big or small. She explained how she once stood on a spider and cried as she gave it a decent burial afterwards. ‘Barking mad’ I thought as I smiled sweetly. Apparently the dog was there because her friend never took it out of her apartment and she was liberating it for the evening.

Apart from constantly sniffing at me like I was rancid the dog played no real part in the rest of the evening except for the occasional yap and a couple of unpleasant suspicious smells. In fact from the moment we started dinner until nearly the end everything went well. The lady loosened up and the Peke went to sleep next to my ankles. The waiters were attentive and made a great fuss of us which was nice. The maitre d’hôtel even came over and offered us their special signature dish of ‘drunken prawns’ which we accepted.

They arrived with a large bowl which they half filled with rice wine and various pretty leaves, herbs and flowers. They then snuffed out our table candles and turned the lights down. By this stage we were puzzled. Finally the chef arrived with a large handful of live prawns which he dropped in the decorated bowl with a great flourish.

We watched in shock as the prawns swam around ingesting pure alcohol rather than sea water. At the optimum moment when the prawns must have been both drunken and probably dead they set fire to the lot and it flared up like a torch. It was mesmerising to see the prawns seemingly leaping about as the inferno raged.

All the other tables clapped, the flames were extinguished and the now cooked drunken prawns were served. They were delicious and I ate them all but I am not sure this was the reaction my guest was expecting from me. She left very soon after dragging her complaining ‘loan dog’ with her and I never got one iota of her business. Apparently she told someone I was ‘barbarous’.

Another prawn catastrophe happened when I went with a group of people to a seafood restaurant in Ostend in Belgium. I still maintain it was an unhappy coincidence and not my fault but the lady in question does not accept this. I will let you be the judge.

We were given a bowl of prawns and were enjoying shelling and eating them. The place was packed with people doing the same. We were all in high spirits after a particularly rigorous sales campaign and the drink and prawns were going down famously. That was until I cracked a joke just as my colleague Jenny was in the process of swallowing a prawn. She let out a snort and the prawn got totally stuck in the back of her nasal passage.

Now Jenny has/had a very pretty pointed nose covered in freckles and this soon became the centre of attention for the whole restaurant. ‘Snort’ went Jenny again. ‘Breathe in deeply’ some shouted. ‘Blow’ shouted others and very shortly and to yells of encouragement the offending prawn started to peak out of her left nostril. We were all rapt and I broke the silence by picking up a seafood utensil and offering to pick it out. Not a welcome suggestion.

Finally, to cheers and applause from at least 50 people Jenny snorted more and the prawn emerged far enough for her to get her fingers around it. To be fair she showed a lot of dignity as she slowly and daintily drew it out as though it was a perfectly normal thing and placed it on the side of her plate. She maintained she could smell garlic mayonnaise for the following fortnight.

It was clearly not my fault but you try telling Jenny that.

Jolly Japes around the Campfire.

We were posted to Northern Zambia when I was about 30 years old. I felt I was pretty mature in those days but after reminding myself of a few business dinners I went to I have changed my mind. I must have been damn naïve as this little tale of drugs, politics and lust will tell.

It was a strange kind of job. I was District Sales Manager for a UK airline and my job was to persuade the mainly expatriate international population to fly to and from Europe on my airline rather than Zambia Airways. Not a difficult task in those days so I spent most of my time sponsoring events and entertaining. This made me very popular and there was not a local club or establishment where I was not an honorary member. The dinner invitations flooded in.

The first client dinner of note was at a nearby ‘ranch’. ‘You are not going there are you’ a staff member said,’ it has one hell of a reputation?’ I smugly told her I was more than capable of looking after myself. She rolled her eyes in a way that said ‘they won’t be told’ and returned to her counter. The host was supposedly a bit of an eccentric who people said had spent too long living in the bush but that just added spice to my interest.

We had not been there long and knew we were meeting a lot of new faces so Judith got dressed to kill and I dragged out my very best suit (UK winter thickness) and off we went. We followed the directions we had been given and ended up in the middle of nowhere driving down a pot holed track that threw Judith around the car like a ping pong ball ruining her hairstyle and creasing her cocktail dress in the process.

The ‘ranch’ was in a clearing. From a distance it looked like a shack. Close up it looked like a big shack. Outside was our host waiting to greet us. I started getting concerned when I saw he was wearing beads, a string vest and some very ancient dirty shorts. Should I have worn my pin stripe I thought? Should I kill Michael now or later’ thought Judith as she climbed out in her heels?

After we all had a jolly good laugh at our expense we were led behind the large house/shack to a wild area laughingly called their garden where we were introduced as ‘The British Ambassador and his lady’ to the giggling guests who were all wearing what seemed to be gardening clothes. Where is you feathered hat one wag called out. Must read dress codes on invitations I thought to myself as I am sure this one must have said ‘dress like a tramp and then roll in mud’.

The party was a wild one. A huge fire was lit in the middle of the garden and the drink flowed freely. We borrowed clothes from our host, started to relax and I felt great. We sat around the embers of the fire and watched the ‘ethnic’ food being fried and flame grilled on big racks and in huge frying pans. The food and air was filled with exotic herbs that were thrown on the fire and I did not even mind when I found some animal’s ear on my plate. Judith was munching through the kind of gristle that would normally make her sick.

Towards the end of the meal we all took a break to enable the last special dish to be prepared. Well actually I thought the host said ‘caught’ and prepared but assumed I heard wrong. A vast bucket full of beer floating in ice arrived and I was in seventh heaven as I languished on my back at peace with the world. I had even found my tie and tied it like a bandana around my forehead as a statement on how ‘cool’ I felt.

Then the ‘Zambian Peanuts’ arrived to be fried. Apparently they were only available for a few weeks every year and were seen as a great delicacy. They looked just like dry roasted peanuts as the frying pans were filled and more scented herbs were added to the blaze. They sizzled and jumped in the pan and the most delightful aroma of groundnuts permeated the already sweet smell of wood smoke.

They were incredibly tasty with a hard nutty tasting exterior with a surprising soft and liquid centre. Even when I spotted a few insect wings in mine it did not bother me. Down it all went with the beer and I felt that all my birthdays had come at once. We left at dawn and I do not know to this day how we got home. I was missing a shoe and Judith’s handbag was minus all her expensive UK make-up but hey we had a fantastic time.

The next morning (actually afternoon) when I staggered into the office I noticed my ticket agent was sniggering to herself. ‘Did you have a good time?’ she asked. “Brilliant” I replied. “You like drugs do you” she asked sweetly? I looked blankly at her until she explained why I had been feeling so very wonderful. The ‘herbs’ was Dagga which is a local name for marijuana and they had been chucking bales of it on the fire all night. It grows like weeds all over Zambia. I had been stoned out of my mind without knowing it for the first and last time in my life.

She went on to explain the ‘peanuts’. They were a special kind of giant flying ant that only sprouts wing for a few days each year. The host had two bright lights which these things flew into and stunned themselves on. They were quickly picked up, had there wings torn off, the body dusted in ground nut powder then chucked probably still alive in the frying pan. The soft centres were parts of the inside that had not been full cooked.

My stomach turned. I will never be so naïve again I thought, until the next time. My next blogs will be about those two ‘next times’ when politics and someone’s lust have a bearing on my stupidity!

A Sexy Snack?

Over the years I have come to a conclusion that there is a definite link between food and sex. OK, the alcohol served along with the food makes a major contribution but the ambiance brought about by close proximity, relaxation, liberated discussion and sharing taste sensations with each other aids in the dropping of inhibitions.

Maybe sharing a hot curry and lots of lager is an exception but the act of say feeding each other oysters and champagne is clearly a good illustration of this phenomena. All those who have seen that old ‘bawdy romp’ of a film Tom Jones can bear witness to the old oysters and booze syndrome. However, don’t try the same effect with Guinness as it plays havoc on the stomach at the most inopportune moments which is a real passion killer.

So what has this to do with business travel dinners? A great deal in my experience. Despite being relatively naïve with regard to what goes on around me at dinners and banquets I have seen and experienced much that could turn me into a successful blackmailer if I had carried a camera and tape recorder with me. Maybe I could hire a small person with a camcorder to sit under the tables of the high and mighty and record the goings on under tablecloth.

Under table groping is rife at many major business dinners which may explain why most banquet table fronts have a cloth that extends to the floor. The omission of such ‘modesty cloth’ can provide much hilarity as I discovered one night in an Italian restaurant in Edinburgh. We had taken over the whole place and the tables were laid out in a large square. Our then very high profile leader was sat in the place of honour and beside him, by chance I am sure, was our most eligible and eager lady sales representative.

It all kicked off by the middle of the antipasto. Unfortunately they were not aware that everybody the other end of the square could see every move. It started with warm patting of knees that progressed to thighs and I leave the rest to your imagination. By then my end of the table was spellbound. What was fascinating was that their faces and upper bodies showed no sign of the wild activity below, except that they were eating one handed.

The show ended when they noticed me grabbing a passing colleague and saying ‘hey look at that’ whilst pointing an indiscrete finger. Well I was young at the time and had yet to learn about discretion. After an icy stare in my direction that would have frozen hell all ‘down below’ activity ceased. The big chief left for his room soon after and, strangely, the whole experience must have brought on a headache in our young lady as she left soon after. In the same direction!

I have been on the receiving end of such overtures twice both directly and indirectly and neither was enjoyable in the least. Once in a banqueting suite in a Dubai hotel when a dinner guest’s wife started grappling me under the cloth. I think she was doing it more for fun (like a cat playing with a mouse) than intent but when you are sitting next to a husband that has no idea what is going on and is in the middle of discussing his business travel needs it isn’t easy. Also you could end up in jail for less in Dubai.
Fortunately she stopped before being discovered although she did give me a broad laughing wink as she departed hand-in-hand with her clearly doting husband.

My indirect experience was even more unpleasant in that it involved my then partner not me. My boss decided to take all his sales team to dinner as thanks for a great result that year. It was Christmas and everyone was looking forward to a big celebration made more enjoyable as spouses and partners were invited too. It was a Chinese feast where everybody could share dishes although I did not realise that my boss considered my partner to be ‘dishy’. He cut a strange figure. He arrived dressed in a Caftan (it was not fancy dress) and with a newly trimmed goatee beard. All this topped with a paper hat three sizes too small and a leer that would make a maiden scream.

He plonked himself down between the two of us and entered what he thought was a subtle and suave conversation about ‘sharing’ experience other than food. Alarm bells rang in my head but, he was my boss, I liked my job and hey, he was only joking, wasn’t he? The answer to that question was almost immediate when he shrieked and leaped backwards, made his excuses and left.

‘What the hell happened’ I asked of my partner. He squeezed and pinched me under the table she demurred. ‘Oh no’ I replied ‘but why did he yell’? ‘’ I pinched him back’ she explained, ‘very, very, hard and he will have great difficult explaining that bruise to his wife’. Not a woman to be crossed I mused as my eyes started to water at the thought. Not a man to continue going out with she must have been thinking as she dumped me soon after.
Politics and dinner can be an indigestible combination, especially in some African countries. Even more so if there is a virtual state of emergency in place. It was like this during my last year in Zambia caused by poverty, disappointment and insurgency in that order. Rightly or wrongly many of the people felt let down by what they received after’ In

Senin, 28 Januari 2013

The Maldives - A Tale of Four Islands

In my first report I tried to give you general detail about holidaying in The Maldives. I told you I had been 6 times visiting 4 islands and how I planned to write a consolidated report my experiences with them. Well here it is!

Rather than reproduce the individual Tripadvisor critiques I wrote soon after each journey I am going to write afresh with the benefit of hindsight but the risk that possibly some detail might be historic. So please bear with me as I wade through my rapidly dwindling memory banks.

Hilton Rangali/ Conrad Rangali

We stayed there three times in rapid succession. It was our first experience of the Maldives and, like with most people they not only take your breath away with their beauty but also beguiled one into returning. We stayed on the following dates:

10th – 24th April 2005 25th August – 09th SEP 2005 20th April –
4th May 2006

All of these dates are outside the peak ‘dry’ season yet we only saw rain on the second stay and that was mainly at night. In saying that it got quite windy at the end of August which, whilst cooling the air, made the waters a little choppy. When it is both windy and choppy some people in the water villas were disturbed by some movement in their structure. To be honest, we liked it!

You will see I have given two names in my heading. The reason is that Hilton had the management contract when we first went there but their parent company decided to upgrade the resort to their more expensive ‘Conrad’ status around this period. We ended up not going again because we felt they increased their prices just that little bit too much when turning it into a Conrad.

We were there during the period of transformation and was given the opportunity of watching how they did it. The resort consists of two islands that are linked together by a narrow bridge. In the middle of the bridge they built a seaplane pontoon and a small reception/departure lounge. This handles all the transfers and replaced the original disembarkation point on the beach of the smaller island. In fact when we first arrived the bigger island was empty and being converted.

We could see the main island conversion was taking place rapidly. A large workforce consisting of hired foreign workers were putting together villas at a rapid pace. Restaurants, reception areas and a pool were springing up and we could see that ultimately it would have a big impact on the resort. They constructed their underwater restaurant and we were thrilled to join them eating the inaugural dinner under the lagoon’s turquoise waters. We were even given a little pearl to mark the occasion!

The palm trees arrived next. I was like many people who thought that properties were built between trees but it is the opposite out there. Most of these palm trees come from other islands. They are dug up by bulldozers, root ball and all, and then ferried elsewhere to be replanted. It was strange seeing it for the first time as palm trees appeared to be floating across the beach and then replanted.

Eventually the work finished and the new part of the resort opened. Most of the beach villas looked splendid. A lot had outdoor bathrooms which, whilst romantic, did not feel terribly practical. The baths were huge and, on occasions, filled with flower petals but it was still damn hot outside, you could hear you neighbours and the few mosquitos around just loved the easy meal! Apart from teething problems most of the guests staying in these villas had a wonderful time. If you stay in these villas now try to avoid being put in one on the lagoon side as the beach in that area is small at the best of times and tides.

The guest ‘balance’ changed with the construction of these villas and particularly the pool. Families with young children started arriving as did small groups and honeymooners. We kind of liked our barefoot paradise to be quiet and initially that was how it remained and we got completely spoiled. As visits progressed the resort did too as noisy kids played in the pool and couples groped each other on daybeds in the bar area. The resort eventually almost split in two where the ‘mature adults’ kept to the small island and the fun loving families stayed on their bigger one.

By the time our third visit came the split became three-way. Conrad as it was now called had built a new string of spa water villas at the end of the big island. I think this was built mainly to capture the East Asia market who take honeymoons of just a few days and enjoy spa breaks. A dedicated restaurant and spa was opened at the beginning of the pier selling small quantities of excellent food at a pretty high price. Again, aimed at those healthy dieters among us. The majority of these spa dwellers stayed put in their sector of the island.

So that is the history of this resort as I know it. What about our experiences during our three holidays? It was wonderful….with future forebodings.
Rangali Small Island is beautiful in every way. There was no pool (there is now) but who needs one when you have a vast crystal clear wave- less lagoon in front of you. It was all water villas and people tended to use their private sun decks. This meant the beaches were practically empty apart from staff bringing you drinks and cleaning your sun glasses! We were actually hugely surprised if we saw any other guests on ‘our beach’.

The restaurant and bar (Vilu) were superb One could flop into deep and comfortable settees overlooking the lagoon and eat by candlelight on the decking. The staff were kind and the food good. It was heaven. We made some good friends with the people we met including the waiters who we got to know quite well. The barmen were good and mixed great drinks. Unfortunately one had his contract terminated when he drank some alcohol and drove a buggy straight through a glass wall in reception!

You could walk around the small island in under 15 minutes and we did frequently. It was most odd because there were no really noticeable corners yet you suddenly found yourself where you started. There are pontoons off the island in at least four places to the various water villas which I understand have now been fully renovated.
We had villa 331 and it was perfect for us. It was not overlooked; it had a Jacuzzi and its own little clump of coral full of fish directly in front of it. They are all made of wood with grass thatch roofs. Each has its own bedroom, bathroom and outside decking.

There are three main types which are standard, superior and deluxe and they are all good. We preferred the superior villas because they are well positioned and had their own Jacuzzi sunk into the decking. The deluxe villas are bigger but are all in a line fairly close to each other. The only water villas I personally would avoid are at the end of the island towards the bridge as there is a current around them that can be quite strong.

There is also a Sunset Villa which is quite spectacular with its huge space, plunge pool, rotating circular bed and glass lounge floor. It also contains a kitchen area where staff can prepare your meals. We were moved into it for a few days as they tend to offer it if new guests arriving and there are no water villas available for a few days. I think they considered it better to upgrade existing guests for the end of their holiday than downgrade new arrivals. Perhaps one could mention one’s willingness to go there if necessary?

The Spa villas on Main Island are another place you may be offered. Again we were offered this on one of our stays. They are huge and absolutely beautiful inside. They were having teething troubles when we moved in with the plumbing and dangerous slippery decking but I am sure that this has been fixed by now. We ourselves were not too keen as they were rather isolated from anywhere serving my kind of food portions! Also the beds had hardwood surrounds that I kept on crunching my legs on and there was not enough curtains in the sleeping area.

Rangali is wonderful for swimming purposes but there is one little snag for small island dwellers. The house reef is the other side of the main island. They have all the other services you would expect from a high range resort like a Japanese restaurant intriguingly sunken in the sand, a Sunset Grill in a beautiful overwater setting, two good bars, underwater restaurant (quite unique) and a thriving dive centre.

Now, if it is so perfect (and it was) why have we stopped going there? The price hike is the main thing. This company has really pushed their prices up, and arguably beyond, an acceptable limit. At the same time they have diluted its exclusivity and made it crowded in comparison. We look at it as a dream island that we remember very fondly. We worry about risking these memories going again and paying a premium to do it. It worries me too that an island that was number one in the Tripadvisor ranking has dropped to number 31 today.
Perhaps one day?

Mirihi Resort

24th July – 06th August 2010

How on earth do we compete with our Rangali experiences? Especially when the Maldives is well into the ‘rainy’ season. We decided to look for a small island away from it all in the same southern atoll where I had heard there was a chance of better weather. We studied Tripadvisor reports and found Mirihi. It seemed to fit the bill in so many ways but did not seem to have any UK tour operators using it. We ended up booking direct although now it has ascended to number 2 in the Tripadvisor ratings it is easier to book a package even in the UK.

Our first impression was how tiny it was. How do you get both guests and staff on such a tiny island? It really is that small. Probably the smallest we have been on. It probably takes as little as 5 minutes to walk around it. Our reception was great. The seaplane taxied up to a pier from the shore and there was the new GM with two very attractive young German ladies (guest relations) to meet us and arrange bag transportation.

We walked towards the shore and the first thing you came across was something that looked like a graveyard. There were all these posts and crosses standing next to the tree line and we began to wonder if previous guests had been buried there. On closer inspection at a later date it turned out that these were in fact monuments to those that had reaffirmed their love for each other on the island before flying home. Not at all ‘British’ we thought which just about described the place.

The island was owned by A Maldivian lady who was not really keen on making any changes and these ‘monuments’ had been implanted in prime beach sun lounger positions for years. Nobody seemed brave enough to move them! This was our overlying impression of our whole stay. A brilliant resort built mainly for the diving market and not very focused on the British or beach comfort.

You enter the resort through a sanded reception area which was a few comfy seats, one desk and little else. One then walks through a lounge/boutique shop area where there is also a PC for guest use (it used to cost a small fee) and on to a crescent shaped bar with sheltered indoor and outdoor seating. Beyond that was the main buffet restaurant and then through to the sand paths that lead to the villas and a very busy and thriving dive shop.

This place is always pretty full but looks mainly deserted except for meal and dive times. The vast majority come from mainland Europe (particularly Germany) and there are regular frequent organised dives during the day and even into the night. It is the perfect place to learn to dive and is located close to some of the best diving and whale shark viewing location in the atoll. The reef around it is also abundant with all kinds of marine life and the resort itself feels very eco-friendly.

I labour on the benefits of the diving as somewhere along the line that is where the amenities seem to have stopped. The small beaches are pristine but they had no permanent sun umbrellas. The only sun beds were made of brittle plastic and positioned only for the few beach villa dwellers. Very strange!

When we told the management we did not want to dive but would rather sit on the beach they could not have been kinder in fixing us up, but we had to ask. We ended up with chairs, mattresses and an umbrella stacked in reception that they ran out with every time we went on the beach which although nice, became rather embarrassing after a while.

There were also infrequent rain showers that necessitated frequent removal where a permanent grass rondavel shaped permanent structure would have made so much sense. What made it more weird was that we were again sat next to the ‘graveyard’!
I think the resort had at least two staff looking after every guest. The guests stayed in either a small line of beach villas that were always occupied by regular visitors and a dozen or so water villas. These water villas were mainly built in a tight circle at one end of the island and were comparatively small but well laid out. Positioning is important and you need to weigh up whether you want sun, sunsets, shallow or deep water. There was another small line of water villas but we did not think they were as attractive and at least one was badly overlooked.

There is also an extremely delightful but highly under-utilised special restaurant off the flying boat pier. They host sunset drinks there and the water is illuminated to display the many fish that swim around it. The restaurant was superb when we were there but rather like the rest of the island we were the only ones there to enjoy it.
The island staff soon became our friends and you could not help liking and appreciating them.

They have/had a long term GM there who left just before we arrived but came back a few months after we left. We got to know a highly motivated interim GM who listened closely to all my comments and suggestions. I only hope his attempts to implement them did not lead to his hasty departure not long after us. They also had an Australian ‘Executive Chef’ called Tim and he was a fantastic cook and all round great guy.

The bar staff were also great but heavily under-utilised. As most people are divers they are somewhat restricted in what they can drink and when they can eat. We had many pleasant but rather lonely evenings sat in the bar talking to the staff or stroking ‘Tiger’ their then VIP permanent cat resident. Tiger is unfortunately no longer with us but at least he lived on that island for over 20 years which is one hell of a holiday!

Mirihi is a wonderful small ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island that would be perfect for honeymooners who also happen to be divers. It could be a lot more and maybe it is now. Mind you I only hope that it maintains its special charm. I am sure it does as it has risen from obscurity to the top ten resorts according to Tripadvisor.

We were supposed to be there for 16 days but after 10 I phoned the Lily Beach resort and we transferred there. Why? At that time we found temporarily camping during the day and totally quiet evenings a bit of a drag after our previously hectic lifestyle.
Lily Beach was very different as I will report next!

Lily Beach

06th August – 12th August 2010

Lily Beach sent a boat over to pick us up. It all went very smoothly and surprising quickly. One minute we were clambering on board the large powerboat and seemingly whisked over to Lily Beach in a matter of 20 minutes. I was a little puzzled as I had been told it would probably take an hour yet there we were after 20 minutes $386 lighter but hey, this is the Maldives!

As I reported at the time Lily Beach is a bit unusual as it seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. It was clearly a beautiful resort that seemed to be packaged as one yet had a huge range of different guests. It is billed as a 5 star all inclusive but how can you have an all-inclusive that is 5 star? Do people who stay in a 5 star resort eat buffet meals in crowded restaurants drinking lower cost wine and sitting next to a rowdy table of eastern Europeans? But then you go back to your water villa and walk into incredible opulence. How does that work because it happens a lot at Lily Beach.

The island is a kind of oval in shape. At one end are the water villas along a huge double looped boardwalk that goes out quite a distance. In my opinion the best villas to choose for safe and enjoyable swimming/snorkelling are the ones on the spa side. The spa is at the beginning of the boardwalk on the right as you look at the villas. I am afraid I never went there being idle and past redemption!

Before you get to the spa there is one of the alternative restaurants which is popular at lunchtime and right next to the infinity pool. There are sun loungers all around it but these tend to get grabbed by folk pretty early which is another thing not very 5 star. The beach there extends all down that side of the island and is very beautiful albeit open for beach activities and water sports. Bordering this shore are the villas. I never went in one but was told that they were pleasant but not quite as good as the water villas.

Eventually you get to the other end of the island where they have another bar/restaurant called Vibes which is also next to a second pool. They occasionally stage entertainment in this area. Walking from one end to the other takes quite a long time (especially in the heat) and they lay on an intermittent buggy service to ferry people around. Allow plenty of time as this service sometimes waits for a number of people to ask.

Walking back along the lagoon side of the island there are another group of villas. They do not have a beach as such but enjoy direct access to the sea. Beyond them you get to the main structure which is the largest I have seen in the Maldives. There is a huge open- sided reception area full of benches and chairs that house new arrivals and departures while they wait. Beyond that is the main bar, and library/games room. Behind that is a truly vast buffet dining area and further on the dive centre.

If you keep on walking past that you will come to their ‘fine dining’ restaurant which is built over the lagoon. There are inside and outdoor tables and the latter become very busy in season. Most people staying at the resort get one dinner there per holiday so, if you do, book as soon as you arrive. We didn’t and they could not fit us in the rest of our stay. Not very 5 star. Carry on from the restaurant and you end up back at the water villa pier.

So what do we have? Two standards of villa, two pools, a huge restaurant and a beach along one side. But that is not all. Twenty or so feet from the villas and beach is the most wonderful house reef. Very few people seem to swim along the deep exterior of this reef but if they did they would marvel at the myriad of different fishes large and small.

I mentioned the huge restaurant area. Most nights it is set up using a main theme i.e. Chinese, Indian etc. and the buffet and service stations groan under the weight of food from those areas. You still get more generic stuff on some counters and there is a three or four choice table d’hote menu as well. You can order bottles of pretty decent wine too under the all-inclusive tariff. Water, other drinks etc. are also included.
The biggest shock we had were the people staying at this resort. They were not what we expected which sounds awfully pompous but true. Maybe it was the massive difference between a tiny Mirihi and a large multicultural, all inclusive resort like Lily Beach. The first few day got me seething as noisy gangs of people shouted to each other and men in Speedo swimming costumes sat in the pool restaurant. I muttered darkly as Japanese guests snagged their pedalos on the coral outside our water villa and had to be rescued. I had become a snob.

Reflecting on it now I would most certainly go back again. You see you still have your own water villa refuge and the rest can be very entertaining. On reflection it was enormous fun watching the antics in the bar at night. People were drinking huge quantities of premium spirits free of charge whilst pocketing handfuls of cigarette. One man never learnt how to sit down on the seats and catapulted over the back every single evening. The plant behind him died after six days of being squashed. Great fun and I left feeling most of the resort were 5 star but many of its guests were not!

Now what about these water villas? They were wonderful. They were very spacious, had a bedroom with large seating area, a fabulous air conditioned bathroom and fantastic outside decking with shallow plunge pool and steps into the sea. The fridge was stocked with soft drink, crisps and wine and nothing much was left out anywhere. They can get a bit wild when the wind blows hard but, as I said, we liked that. My only worry was the toilet. It had a glass side and floor. How nice you might think until you have a Korean couple in a sea kayak paddling underneath you!

In summary I would say that Lily Beach has something in common with Conrad Rangali. They both do not seem to know what market they want and how they are going to satisfy them. Perhaps Conrad might charge more in the hopes of getting the ‘right’ clientele. Lily is by no means cheap but slightly less prohibitive cost-wise. No doubt neither need worry to much as so many people want the Maldives experience.

Next to come…Cocoa Island…Tripadvisor’s number 1

Cocoa Island

22nd November – 6th December 2010

This was our most recent trip to the Maldives and probably the most luxurious of all. Not quite as expensive as Conrad but so much better in many respects. Maybe we just prefer smaller island and this one is definitely in that category.

This was the only island where we transferred to it by high speed launch and we enjoyed the journey thoroughly. Most of the transfer seems to be in calm water travelling between islands and getting the chance to see everything going on around you. The launch flies through the water and, as I said earlier, the flying fish and dolphins sometimes join you.

When you get to Cocoa Island it is like walking onto a superbly comfortable and sophisticated Robinson Crusoe film set. Superb. The GM welcomes and sees off every guest and you are given a very comprehensive briefing on the resort and a quick tour of the facilities. Unlike say Lily Beach we never saw any more than four other couples at any time including meals. Wonderful for some honeymooning couples but a little quiet for other folk.

The main area has an infinity pool and wrapped around that is the restaurant and bar and that is just about it. The boat dock and reception is down one sandy path and the spa including another indoor giant Jacuzzi pool further along. Next to the Spa reception is a relaxation/reading area with a large supply of books to satisfy the most avid reader.

Again, you can walk around the island in 10 minutes and on this one the staff quarters stretch to the edge of the lagoon. Despite how close they live to each other they seemed a very contented crowd which is usually a sign of good management. As usual the staff here were charming and very keen to talk in order to improve their language skills.

The island is surrounded by a sand beach. The flattest sandiest area is where they have put their water villas and this area is vast and good for swimming. Lots of little sharks and rays and we even saw a small marlin leaping out of the water 30 yards from our deck in the deeper water. Like a lot of the island the sands are constantly shifting and they have a little pumping barge in the large lagoon that pumps sand across the island to a place where it is currently needed. This did not disturb us or anyone else I saw.

The water villas have been very well planned and many of them are in the shape of a Dhoni which is the name of the local fishing boats. They are extremely comfortable and well maintained. We spoilt ourselves and chose a ‘loft suite’ which had a lounge, upstairs bedroom hall, bathroom and upstairs toilet. We had a very large sun deck with high quality beds and, best of all, separate decking and stairs to the water leading from the bathroom. There was also an outside shower here which was perfect when you came out of the water.

Inside the lounge there is plenty of seating plus a table to eat any in-villa dinners. We assumed this were where many guests ate because we never saw them. At least in-room you could get more standard (and cheaper) meals. Food actually became a bit of an issue with us. It was perfectly cooked but most was too rich and too spicy for my wife’s taste. 14 days of fusion ‘fine dining’ was too much and we began to hanker for simpler stuff!

Diving from this island is supposed to be very good indeed and there are plenty of places to go. Cocoa is relatively close to other islands which you can see in the distance including the one reserved as for the Maldives prison. I have heard people speak negatively about this but I frankly cannot imagine anyone escaping and heading for a resort. They certainly will not try tunneling out!

Before signing out I must tell you more about the beach . There is a great area around the pool and bar with large straw umbrellas fixed in the sand accompanied by large comfortable sun beds. They were so comfortable that we inadvertently walked past an isolated one to find a honeymoon couple looking like they were about to consummate their marriage!

Further along the beach, past the water villas are some even more isolated sun shades and beds. Here you can enjoy the sunshine and sunsets without having anyone anywhere near you. Next to this area is a sand spit that at low tide stretches out almost half a mile out to sea. A grat walk but make sure you beat the tide coming back.

The welcome and service here was excellent. If I had to criticise I would sometimes say they were over-cautious not to disturb you to the point where you had to ask for things you expected like drinks etc. They were also sometimes so keen to get their cocktails right that they were warm by the time they got to you!

Out of all our stays this island was probably the most perfect (bar the food) although I still do miss the magic of our first love Rangali. Maybe I will throw caution to the wind and try it again. Who knows but, if we do, I will be sure to tell you about it!

The Mechanics of Business Travel - Part 3

What is a ‘fixed’ ticket price? Well actually there is no such thing as the cost of a particular ticket usually varies greatly throughout its life. You see a ticket is like any other commodity in that its value gets smaller as its likelihood of sale diminishes. In the case of an air ticket the value hits zero as soon as that aircraft takes off with an empty seat on it. An airline flight seat is more perishable than a bunch of ripe bananas.

It has taken a while but airlines have now recognised this having competed and mainly lost to no frills companies that work on the ‘stack them high and sell them cheap’ business model. Now you have the most conservative of the major airlines of the world discounting their prices to produce full flights. Everyone is working on the same concept which is to sell their seats at the maximum price they possibly can but shift them nonetheless.

I challenge anyone to run a straw poll on price paid on any airline flight and I can almost guarantee that they would all be different. Much depends on the popularity of the service as the ‘rush hour’ peak aircraft will always be able to charge a premium for the exclusivity of what they have. If you are flying to Paris on business on a Monday morning there is no point in arriving early afternoon so you, like everyone else in that situation, pays extra to go early and do a full day’s work.

So how do airlines work out their fares? Firstly they look at the trends. They see how that flight did previously going back a considerable distance. They calculated who paid what and when. They identify when they booked and how often people then cancelled. Then they look at how full the aircraft was and what prices people paid who occupied those seats. They learn from this information and build a pricing plan.
The vast majority of airlines invest in ‘yield management’ as a way of optimising seat usage and making money.

I would say the price of a seat in a particular cabin on an airline can change over 50 times from first being put on the market up to departure time. Get it right and you have a full aircraft and no wastage. Get it wrong too often and you go out of business or need a government bail out!

Everyone knows that only individual private travelers and tourist book and pay early so the prices initially start low. Closer to departure date you get the more thrifty business traveler and those that need to go more suddenly so the price goes up. Three to four days out you have the business traveler. They need flexibility and they have to go so they get hit with the highest fares. The day before, if there are any seats left, they are discounted for the last minute traveler who is looking for cheap deals and can risk being turned away.

This is the sort of basic model that is used today. Within that there are prices for groups booked together, ships crews, tour operators and numerous others. Success or otherwise is measured by filling that last seat however they can, and at the best price for the airline. Most planes are overbooked by airlines as they even gamble on how many folk will turn up on the day. This is especially true when an airline operates different classes as they feel safer overbooking economy seats if they can upgrade any surplus into business class. This happens a lot.

Another method of selling large volumes of seats is through consolidators and wholesalers. These people have a lot of customers and they buy seats at low net prices from airlines for resale to their own market. Airlines get less but they have outsourced the responsibility of selling them to a third party.

How do you get the best ticket price? The only way is to book when others do not. Either early or risk a last minute attempt. It is like a game of chess really, except your competitors employ ‘grand masters’ to play their pieces!