Archive for the ‘Hotels’ Category

Travelling during a pandemic

Hopefully most readers are not travelling at the moment. Staying put is safer and, frankly, much less stressful. I am a frequent traveller to Europe for family reasons and have experienced most things – delayed trains and planes due to failed infrastructure, sick or unregistered passengers and luggage, unruly passengers, theft of my possessions, dodgy hotels, the lot. And then there is Brexit – my passport no longer seems to get me through eGates in Germany (we’ll see if that is a one-off or permanent) and, of course, as a non-EU citizen, I can only be a country for 90 days in every 180 and am barred from working.

Now before I get ripped to shreds on my hypocrisy flying as I do but also constantly banging on about climate change, let me state the following. Travelling is for family reasons, and whilst 15 years’ ago when I first established family connections in Germany, my ignorance – despite friends warning me about my carbon footprint – meant that flying was a viable option. Clearly things have changed, but my family has not. I need to travel to be with them. During the pandemic, I have been travelling less for three reasons. First, it is quite difficult; second, it is dangerous and inappropriate (lockdowns are lockdowns after all); third, I have the privileged of being able to work from home. With regard to flying, I am an advocate of a frequent-flier levy – the more one flies, the more you pay. And exponentially. That would hit me hard financially, and rightly so. I am also hopeful now of structural changes that will enable me to travel more often – or always – by train. The pandemic has demonstrated that we can work remotely. I am healthier and less stressed because of it. We will see how committed employers are to the permanent change in the future. I am hopeful, but not convinced. There is also talk of a new Trans-Europe Express to help people to move across Europe without planes.

What follows is an account of my experience to help others. Having travelled for many years, there are many like me who have family on the continent.

View from Hilton hotel, Hatton CrossI passed through Heathrow airport on Sunday evening (14 February). I travelled with British Airways – currently offering 2 flights per week Munich – London. Originally I was scheduled to come back the previous day with easyJet, but that plane was cancelled, with the next scheduled option being sometime in March. On 18 January, the British Government imposed a requirement of a negative Covid test on all arrivals. That was fine, but an extra task to fulfil prior to travelling. Travelling on a Sunday meant that I took the test on the previous Thursday giving enough time for the result to be notified assuming that weekend lab work is not likely. Sunday was, hence, the last day of validity for the test. If the plane did not go on Sunday, I’d have to take another test (€130). 

The plane arrived at its stand an hour before departure. The plane was fully boarded (busy but not full) at the scheduled departure time, 1745. But we were 45 minutes late pushing back from the stand due to an administrative error at the gate. Munich Airport would not allow the plane to go until everything was in order. Fair enough, I suppose. After being pushed back we waited motionless for about 10 minutes before the pilot announced that the plane had been damaged in the pushback. Engineers were called. 2 hours later, authorisation was given to fly.

I do not live anywhere near Heathrow Airport, and it being Sunday, the UK railway network enjoyed its usual scattering of engineering works, including on my routes home. If I was able to catch the last train/bus home, I expected to be back about 0300 – not a great prospect. But UK borders are never straightforward, and particularly with the need to demonstrate a negative Covid test and a valid passenger locator form (which includes payment of £210 for two Variant tests to be delivered to one’s home 2 and 5 days after arrival). Even though the arrivals are few, the border area was full and a long queue that snaked its way back and forth was created. Familiar image. Mingle, mingle, mingle.

The eGates were open as additional security staff were checking the documentation. My passport was rejected by the eGates and IHotel breakfast had to stand in another queue to be approved by a border official – there was only one on duty. In total, I was about 1 hour getting across the border. I decided to take a hotel rather than attempt the journey home. I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel at Hatton Cross (close to the Tube Station). Hotel prices are half of what one would normally pay, so that was not too onerous, though still a cost. The view (above left) was a shade dystopian, however. But I recommend the hotel if readers are ever in the same position. I bought breakfast – one retrieves it from the kitchen and consume it in one’s room. It was fine (right).

On Monday (15 February 2021) I was able to travel to the South Coast of England. The Tube and overland trains were largely quiet. I am now observing an obligatory 10 days’ quarantine. I stocked up on non-perishables before I departed, so I have most of what I need for the duration. Safe travels.

Posh hotels

We’ve been revisiting the television recently. We’ve done the ten episodes of The Great British Sewing Bee. I finally got round to watching the extraordinary story of the Shah of Iran’s extravagant and delusional party in the desert back in 1971. But the other night we fancied something extremely light and un-challenging. So we went for the BBC’s Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby featuring Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps. Unfortunately, this was challenging. I am writing this now because the impact is still festering.

presentersThe concept of the programme is that two presenters go to posh hotels all around the world and muck-in, as it were, whilst giving the hotel a priceless chunk of advertising. The presenters (left) are Monica Galetti – a real-life chef, and Giles Coren – a sometimes controversial columnist with, by his own admission, an opinion “on just about everything”. This mucking-in, or as the publicity for the series has it, “rolling up their sleeves” is excruciating. Coren, in this episode, trying to learn towel flapping in a sauna is a case in point.

I tried to book a room at the hotel. The off-peak prices were about 3000 Euros for a couple of nights for two. But for that you get fed twice a day, access to a spa and a series of temperate pools inside and outside, accessible all year round, libraries and a bookshop (that is a nice touch), lounges and generously-sized rooms with views. Stunning views. It is also unique in that it is a music venue. Some of the world’s most eminent classical musicians play there (and have done so since 1959) on a “stay and play” basis. So the owner, Dietmar Mueller-Elmau, when asked what is the core theme of the hotel, he took them to the music room. It is extraordinary. Oh, and the G7 met there in 2015.

Summary – culture and well-being. At a price. What is my gripe, then?

Notwithstanding the extraordinary publicity granted a private business on a public broadcaster, and the format of the programme – mucking-in – there is an elephant in the room. It is probably true of all in the series and not exclusive to Schloss Elmau. And that elephant is sustainability.

At no point was there any discussion about the carbon footprint of this place. I cannot begin to imagine just how much carbon it generates from heating, the spa, the kitchens and, of course, getting people there. Whilst there is a train 7km away, I doubt it is the primary mode for visitors, especially in the winter. We had a look at the menus for the five restaurants. It all looked rather meaty. Just adding, of course, to the carbon footprint. Now bearing in mind the hotel had a devastating fire in 2005 and was largely rebuilt to meet the vision of Mueller-Elmau, one might have thought that there was a potential sustainability story to be told. Maybe there was, and the BBC just edited it out. I sense the producers and editors just loved Muller-Elmau’s declaration of delight when the hotel burned down and the opportunity it presented. I have no idea to what standard of sustainability the hotel was rebuilt.

That leads to the BBC and any other broad or narrow caster. Sustainability needs to be central to the theme of these programmes. OK, I can be a voyeuristic as the next person on how the “other half” lives, but at least put a carbon price on it. Or maybe the next series is about hotels that are sustainable, have been built or rebuilt to be sustainable – carbon neutral. Maybe it is time to promote them. Or if Schloss Elmau is sustainable, tell that story. Amazing hotels, I fear, come at a price much higher than what comes out of my bank account to visit.

Photo: BBC

Tandem Tour 2014 – Ghent to Lommel

Ghent_LommelI have often heard the mantra that providing that one wears the right clothes, the weather should not matter. Those who say this either have a budget beyond mine and are supplied by NASA or they never really experience a full day of heavy rain on a bicycle. We exposed ourselves to a full seven hours of riding in increasingly heavy rain in order to reach the small town of Boom, 110 kms east of Ghent.

This is river and canal riding at its best. The river is the Schelde and it becomes increasingly imposing and navigable. The Schelde does not actually flow through the centre of the city, but the cycle route joins it at St Amandsberg. There is a fantastic moment riding along where one has one of those, “do you see what I see?” moments (right). It is an old Sabena airliner that has come to rest in a factory yard.

DSCF0673There are two occasions on this stretch when the path takes riders over the river by ferry. Our experience in Germany is that ferries just, as-and-when, cross the river between set hours in the day. This is not so in Belgium, at least on the Schelde. Seemingly, they run a half-hour service. But more importantly, they can be requested. On two occasions, the ferryman, saw us waving (it was raining after all) and immediately collected us. The ferries are passenger ferries only. And they seem to run between places that are not exactly centres of population. They are also free (though the ferrymen were delighted to receive a good tip). What’s more, one finds the ferries bunched in pairs – situated perhaps a couple of kilometres apart. Essentially, they are operated by one man.

DSCF0687So we crossed the river at Mariekerke (left) having been unable to work out how to get the ferry across to nearby Sint Amands. Mariekerke is nothing more than a village, but it did have a welcome Gasthaus where we could get some hot food and warm up a shade. In fact, it was fantastic. It was a Monday afternoon and the place was hosting an afternoon lunch for a group of elder burgers. They were having a ball. And cared not a jot for us.

The second crossing was a little more complicated. The Schelde is joined by the Rupel, adjacent to both is a busy canal (Zeekanal) with a series of locks. Finding a closed gate that was crossable took us a little while. And then came the ferry. We flagged it down, it came, we went across. At the other side the path to the left goes to Schelle (and Antwerp) and right to Boom. Boom was our preferred end point for the day. And we found the only hotel in town.

Another full day of rain was forecast, so we decided to stay on for a second day and take the train to Antwerp. Wise, in many respects. Architecturally it is magnificent, and the magnificence starts with the railway station that is more like a church than a railway terminal (right)DSCF0697. There is a hierarchy of lines – the intercity trains depart from the ground level; regional trains for floor -1; and the trains to Boom from -2!

Antwerp is the home town of Peter Paul Rubens, the celebrated 16 Century artist. His paintings are everywhere, not least in the churches dotted around the city. His house, where he retreated DSCF0709after his prolific and highly lucrative years with his bride who was considerably younger than him, can easily be found. I’m not sure why we did not visit, especially being so wet. Instead we wandered around and visited the old town and waterfront (left).

It was back on the bicycle to Lommel the next day. The sun was shining and the rest day had been welcome. Bearing in mind our final destination was Aachen, the logic of going to Lommel was not strong other than it being the recommended route. The route continued with the river and canal theme (right). DSCF0714

We were taken to the vibrant little town called Lier. I have never seen such a cluster of bars in such a small place before. I trust Saturday night is lively. In the sunshine of the day, however, it is relaxing and the coffee is supplied to order. The town has a few curious pieces of architecture. A DSCF0717very striking clock (the Zimmer Tower, left) watches out over the bars, and an enormous central square seems to be looking for an event.

From Lier – where we arrived in late morning – it is canal towpath. Long, straight and quiet. The next port-of-call was Turnhout. The route does not actually pass through the town, but we took refuge in a popular waterside café to refresh, determined to ride late to reach Lommel.DSCF0720

The Kanaal Dessel-Schoten heads for the NE corner of Belgium and  over Lommel which hosts a Centerparc and offers two other camping options.

We crossed the canal onto the N746 route hoping to find either a campsite or a modest hotel. On that route we found neither. Once into the centre it all got very confusing as the town was hosting a funfair, so it was very difficult to orientate ourselves. In the end we had to ask and got directed to a hotel heading out west. Details can be found here.

DSCF0724Refreshed after a shower, we opted for a close-by restaurant. A Tapas. And what a Tapas it was. The menu seemed expensive, but the system goes like this. One chooses a main course and the restaurant supplies a series of tapas that complement the main course. It was magnificent. A father and son operation with authenticity (father is Spannish). The chef brought one of the courses to us. We finally had a picture outside the restaurant as we left. Well recommended.

Tandem Tour 2014: where we stayed

The August summer of 2014 was, to say the least, wet. It was also cold. I have to admit that these factors made us think carefully about camping. So, here, chronologically, is where we stayed: (I’m constructing this as I publish the pages describing the tour more generally).

 DSCF0577 Farthingloe B&B. Inexpensive. Run by a couple who are friendly and very accommodating. Some of the rooms have shared bathrooms. Former base for Channel Tunnel engineers. Bed very comfortable. Free Wifi. Breakfast is ideal for cyclists – they aim to provide as much fuel as is needed, even for vegetarians. The Guest House is at worst 30 minutes away from the ferry terminal. No dedicated cycle parking.
 Espace Loisirs is a chain of campsites. This one is located in Zuydcoote close to the Belgian border. It is on the upper-end of camping charges for cyclists, in this case, 24 Euros. The camping area is small relative to the mobile homes and situated well back from the entrance. It has a washing machine and dryer (uses tokens available from reception). It has a bar (where you might find the receptionist if arriving after 1900). The showers are mixed and cost extra. There are no toilet seats.  DSCF0583
 DSCF0612  Youth Hostel, Brugges (Baron Razzetelaan, southern approach to the city). Private rooms or dorms. Breakfast included. Approximately 25 Euros per person for a room. Wifi in common room.
 Camping Blaarmeersen, Ghent. Very big site. Reception open until 2100. Possible to hire a wooden hut. Space for tents generous. Does not drain very well in very wet weather. Washing machine, dryer and spinner. Bar/restaurant. Does not serve breakfast until 1000. Closes at 2200. Close to a motorway, so a little noisy. Easy access to the City on half-hourly bus. Around 25 Euros per night for cycles. Showers included in the price.  DSCF0672
 DSCF0713  Hotel Domus, Boom. It is the only hotel in town. Former nunnery. It is fantastic, but not cheap. Big room. Bath, shower, washbasin, toilet. Breakfast included in atmospheric breakfast room at the rear. Free Wifi. Secure cycle parking. Easy access to Antwerp using train.
Hotel Lommelhof is a delightfully unmodernised 70s hotel. 90 Euros gets a double room and breakfast. The reception closes at 2000; but there is a key drop facility for late arrivals. So, phone ahead if you want to stay here and will arrive late.There is secure parking for bicycles. Free wifi.  DSCF0725
  Amrâth Hotel Du Casque, Maastricht. We kept the price down by not taking breakfast. Room right at the top had a fantastic view over Vrijhof Square. And despite the food festival, soundproofing kept it quiet. Really nice art decor hotel.Small garage (see picture, grey door on right) where it is possible to store bicycles reasonably securely.

Free wifi.

Worst UK hotels – in defence of Travelodge

TravelodgeWhich? – the UK consumer watchdog – recently published its findings from research into the best and worst hotels in the UK. To view the whole report, one has to be a subscriber to Which?, but the newspapers happily reported the findings.

So, the best are: Q hotels 78%; Radisson Blu Edwardian 77%; Premier Inn 76%; Sofitel 74%; DoubleTree by Hilton 71%; Park Plaza 71%.

The worst are: Britannia Hotels 36%; Travelodge 50%; Ramada 51%; PH Hotels 51%; De Vere Village 51%; Shearings Hotels 52%

Two chains that I use the most are last and next-to-last consecutively. Let me have a go at defence. First, Britannia. I’ve stayed in two, one in Manchester and one in Canary Wharf in London. Both have been on a weekend deal and hence cheap relative to their grading and location. I would recommend both. They were clean, well equipped and quirky (a bit illogical and frayed around the edges). Corporate, but not so.

My experience of Travelodge is broader. I’ve stayed in more Travelodge hotels than I can count. I’ve had mixed experiences, too. One evening there was a ram-raid on a nearby cash machine. We all cowered behind the safety of the Travelodge door. On another, a drugs raid. On one occasion there has been some residual hair in the bath. I’ve been moved at short notice from one hotel to another. And to query the enforced transfer, one has to call a premium telephone number!  But equally I have had some of the happiest times with my partner in Travelodge hotel rooms after being reunited in nearby airport arrival halls.

Here are some reasons why I persist with Travelodge.

  • They are consistently inexpensive. They are the cost leaders in the hotel world. They have only just – reluctantly – provided soap in rooms. And not very good soap at that. But if what you want is a bed – a good one in fact – a shower that invariably works in a fashion, then it is extraordinary value for money.
  • They are ubiquitous. I prefer the roadside hotels to the city ones, but I’ve stayed in both. Airports are also Travelodge natural habitat.
  • The staff are invariably friendly, if not particularly competent. I’ve had some rewarding conversations with Travelodge staff over the years.
  • They have 24 hour reception. I usually come very late, but I am reassured that I can get into the hotel and to my room.
  • And on the few occasions when there is no room – double-booked, water leak, police raid, or whatever – they will get you in somewhere else. That may be a 5-Star hotel down the road.
  • One can use the room as a comfortable campsite, which we recently did in Ipswich instead of pitching a tent at the Latitude music festival. We even moved in some of our own furniture to compensate for the annoying policy of one chair per double room. But that is cost-leadership for you.

And yes, where breakfast is provided, it is awful. So do as we do, bring your own.

At the other end of the scale is Premier Inn, another budget chain. The debates I have seen engage in facile comparison. If Premier Inn can do it, then so should Travelodge. Actually, Premier Inn is one of my least favourite hotel chains. And why? I’ve thought about this. Actually, notwithstanding that Premier Inn is not as cheap as Travelodge, it markets itself as a budget hotel trying not to one. I find it disingenuous. Equally, I do not think that Britannia Hotels try to be luxury.

Travelodge is an easy target. Travelodge has done for the hotel business what the low-cost airlines did for travel at 11,000 metres. Travelodge has democratised domestic hotel use. Most people can afford to stay. And as long as one does not expect more than is offered, the experience will not be a let down.

Hotel decoration

PI logoWhen in Brussels, we stayed in the relatively new Park Inn adjacent to Midi station. It was a very comfortable hotel; a bizarre relationship to breakfast – in bed or not at all. But we found better alternatives to a hotel breakfast in the city.

Design always intrigues me. Park Inn apparently is a brand (above left). Those colours under the Park_innword ‘park’ are critical. So much so that a design/decor firm sold the idea of incorporating them into the internal decor of each room. The result is a sticker that goes up the wall like a London Tube map and then blooms on the ceiling. I can assure you this is disconcerting when one first wakes up.

Hotel room design

All hotels have their peculiarities. the Concorde Hotel in Montparnasse, Paris, particularly so. I have no overall complaints, but the bathroom washbasin was unnecessarily unfit for purpose. First of all it was small even though the bathroom itself was large (so, no need to make it small). The smallness was made all the worse by the mixer tap that hung over it denying access to the water to only the smallest of receptacles. Moreover, there was no plug. This made shaving difficult necessitating an excessive use of water.

My question is simple. What informed the design of this most basic of bathroom features? Why is it so wrong?