ANTWERP; BELGIUM’S TRUE GEM

ImageAntwerp lies some sixty miles inland, along the broad sweep of the River Scheldt as it leaves the North Sea. Capital of the Flanders region of Belgium, the population of around half a million makes it the most densely populated city in the country, though the actual capital- Brussels- is physically larger. The seaport is still one of the largest on the shores of mainland Europe even now.

ImageYou need to know how good the waffles are here. Belgians elevate eating and drinking to the level of an art form, one well on a par with any of the cake rich creations by Rubens that still adorn the walls of his amazing, Italian themed palazzo. And you do need to go and see that, right after you’ve finished your waffles. To take in both the Rubens House and it’s magnificent collection of classical milestones, you should allow at least a good couple of hours.

ImageTake your waffles and coffee in one of the many cafes that line the edges of the stupendous Grote Markt, or Main Square. It’s a vast, gilt and gingerbread kind of Gothic homage; all the vast, glided confections here date from the medieval age, when Antwerp was one of the principal trading cities of Europe. There are also huge ornamental fountains here, awash with ornate, sodden statuary. They dominate the middle of the Grote Markt, a space that has quite as magnificent a scale and stance as St. Mark’s square in Venice. The attention to detail here is every bit as full blown, the opulence as rich and decadent as the local chocolate. Of which, more later.

ImageThe beauty of Belgian waffles is that they go with just about anything; strawberries, honey, whipped cream, or- my personal favourite- warm, melted chocolate. Many rate Belgian chocolate as the best in the world, and not without damned good reason. Try them with a wickedly rich cappuccino, and you truly are sampling the breakfast of champions. Or brunch…

ImageMeanwhile, the square itself is alive with a veritable sea of humanity. Horse drawn, double decked coaches clop lethargically across the cobbled streets. Trams in shades of bubonic yellow slither like warp driven snails, packed to bursting with shoppers, schoolkids and office workers, starting their daily routine. If time allows while you’re here, try one of the delicious, locally made dark beers. Anything with even a hint of strawberry is usually unbeatable.

ImageThe Flanders region especially prides itself on it’s gourmet heritage. Some of the coffee houses are incredible feasts for the eye; huge, vaulting, belle epoque hangovers with stupendous chandeliers, and an attention to detail in the fittings and fixtures that would not disgrace the Sistine Chapel.

In Belgium, even the beers have their own sommeliers; true aficionados who can tell you exactly which of their incredible cheeses match their most esoteric micro brews of beer to gastronomic perfection. This is a heritage that is passed down through generations, and one that the locals take great pride in.

Belgium gave the world such great fictional heroes as Herge’s Tin Tin, whose fabled exploits are commemorated on some pretty nifty wall murals in the city centre, as well as Agatha Christie’s dapper detective, Hercule Poirot. Much of the street architecture here is early art nouveau, with orderly rows of houses flanked by avenues of stately plane trees. A lot of commuters here use pedal bikes; you’ll see them almost everywhere in the centre of the city.

Antwerp was the sugar capital of Europe in the Middle Ages, importing vast mountains of the stuff from Portugal, among others. Perhaps that goes a long way towards explaining the residual sweet tooth so common to all the locals here. The amount of chocolate shops in Antwerp is truly ostentatious, and obviously designed to ensnare the weak willed. How many can you actually walk past without succumbing to your inner Willy Wonka? OK… my record is two…..

ImageAll things considered, Antwerp is a beautiful, overblown temple to indulgence; a perfect setting for the temptations that roll out here day in and out. Even a few hours here will lighten your mood, if not your waistline. And, whoever said that you can’t have your cake and eat it had obviously never visited Antwerp. 

I promise you; you can in Belgium’s good natured capital of gluttony and gratification.

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MANHATTAN BEACH; THE SWEET SPOT IN LOS ANGELES

CNV00002If you only have a day or a night to pass while transiting through LA, you could do a lot worse than making the detour to the small city of Manhattan Beach. Though it is located just two miles from the airport, and only a mile or so from Hermosa, you’ll feel as though you’ve somehow stepped back half a century in time.

CNV00004For this is the part of Los Angeles that inspired Brian Wilson and Mike Love to write all those perennial classics for the Beach Boys; Surfin’ USA, Help Me Rhonda, All Summer Long, and all the rest of those peerless tunes. Here, the sparkling white Pacific surf still rolls and drums the broad, honey coloured dream of a beach, a full four hundred feet wide and more than two miles in length.

The surfers are still there; together with the summer volleyball tournaments. In the centre, a stout wooden pier juts fearlessly out into the ocean, with an eclectic, octagonal shaped aquarium cafe located at the very end.

There are roller bladers, strolling lovers, and little old ladies that walk improbable, yapping dogs that bay frantically at the bare chested, flame haired men whose attachment to jogging is less painful than their devotion to purple spandex. All human life is here, and then some.

CNV00005The main drag leading down to the beach is lined with clap board houses, wreathed in multi hued clouds of hibiscus, oleander and jasmine. Gaunt, spindly palm trees stand black against the reddening hues of twilight. A long boardwalk promenade meanders along towards nearby Hermosa Beach.

CNV00008The main thoroughfares are lined with bars, cafes and restaurants, each with a surplus of outdoor seating that has spilled out onto the sidewalks like a class ten roller. There are ditzy little arts, crafts and herbal remedy shops, and more than a few car dealerships. Amazingly, there is not a skyscraper within view anywhere; only the sight of a plane clawing at the sky as it lifts off from nearby LAX even hints at the presence of the vast, seething metropolis just beyond.

CNV00009The whole vibe is more than a little bit like a fantasy bubble in the middle of a vast, chaotic empire; a sort of Brigadoon by the sea, if you will. But the whole area has a kind of subtle, hypnotic charm that gathers you in, and then draws you back again.

Highlight? For me personally, sitting at a waterfront bar and drinking Zinfandel- preferably Beringer- as the sun sags like a slow moving dream into the blush tinted embrace of the rolling Pacific. This is my touchstone- that magical moment when I know beyond doubt that I have returned. And it’s a moment, and a feeling, every bit is warm and full bodied as that same benevolent sun. Wonderful stuff.CNV00012

AAH-RU-BA- THE DUTCH ANTILLES POLISHED LITTLE GEM

Main street, Oranjestad

Main street, Oranjestad

One of the most seductively styled and enduring of all the Caribbean islands, Aruba actually sits less than twenty miles from the northern coastline of South America. Aruba is part of the ‘ABC’ group of islands in the Netherlands Antilles- the other two are Bonaire and Curacao- and today, it retains more than just memories of its Dutch colonial days.

The capital of Oranjestad (literally ‘Orange Town’) is where most of the cruise ships dock. It’s a funky, breezy little brew of fussy, overly ornate shops, restaurants and buzzing waterfront bars, many of them with upper level balconies that offer stunning vistas out over the sparkling Caribbean itself. For some reason, Aruba seems big on casinos and, indeed, gambling in general.

Still more bars crouch along the edges of the languid, sun splashed waterfront, with umbrella shaded tables within strolling distance of fleets of idle, immaculate yachts bobbing at their moorings. The more eclectic establishments might boast life size pirate mannequins haunting the waterfront, or the odd cow, grazing contentedly on the roof. No, I don’t know why, either.

Aruba is also well known for being one of the Caribbean’s premier petrol refineries. The German navy certainly knew. Back in 1942, a surfaced German U-Boat attempted to shell the refineries here, but without much success.

Eagle Beach

Eagle Beach

Unlike many of the Caribbean islands, Aruba has a dry climate. It also lies outside of the main summer time hurricane belt. As a result, it’s temperature is pretty constant year round. If you ever needed an excuse to enjoy a day at the beach, you now have it. Those on the south west coast are more sheltered from wind and waves than on the other shores.

Fortunately, you’ll find the likes of Eagle Beach are fully set up for some serious hedonism, Dutch style. Hammocks slung between palm trees resemble nothing so much as a series of slow, languid smiles, framed against the dreamy blue expanse of the ocean. Thatched huts and thrilling jet ski rides, para gliders and pina coladas compete for your custom and attention.

And if all that showing off is exhausting, just smile, slouch back into a hammock, and grab an ice cold, aptly patriotic Dutch Heineken. After all, this is Holland in the Caribbean.

Waterfront bar, Oranjestad

Waterfront bar, Oranjestad

Not that you need an excuse, mind you. But the symmetry is kind of sweet….

HELSINKI’S LUTHERAN CATHEDRAL

CNV00130I have a confession to make; I don’t normally ‘do’ cathedrals as a rule. It’s not that I don’t gaze in awe at the amazing architecture- I do- but, I tend to find that after a week or twelve days of cruising round the almost indigestible glut of cake rich, classical architecture that dominates the shorelines of both Scandinavia and the Mediterranean, a kind of glassy eyed stupor always seems to come at me with a cosh.

For want of a better phrase, I call it ‘cathedral fatigue’, although the same phrase can just as easily be ascribed to the plethora of castles, towers, turrets, keeps, spires and campaniles that are the stuff of legend. History is a rich, endless banquet of such treasures, but sometimes, just sitting down and having a coffee and a croissant at some pavement cafe is every bit  as rewarding in its own way.

CNV00129But Helsinki cathedral has always really got to me. I think it’s one of the most simple and yet beautifully expressive examples of cool, neo- classical construction anywhere in Europe. It has grace, poise and beautiful proportions and- perhaps most importantly- a matchless location in the heart of Helsinki’s showpiece Senate Square.

The fact that both square and cathedral were designed by the same architect doubtless comes into play here. A German, Carl Engel, was responsible for construction that started in 1830, and concluded in 1852. Engel himself died in 1840. This makes the building much younger than most of the Gothic confections that flowered around most of mainland Europe.

CNV00127Like many buildings in Scandinavia, it is topped by a green copper dome, surrounded by four smaller domes. The cathedral was built out in the shape of a Greek cross, with each side featuring a cool, classical colonnade. Some say the entire concept is modelled on the monumental St. Isaac’s cathedral in Saint Petersburg. As Finland was a Russian vassal state at that time, this would make some common sense.

Later, post-Engel additions included the pair of free standing bell towers, but the original, harmonious exterior was enhanced rather than compromised by these. The cathedral today attracts an estimated 350,000 sightseers each year, and is still very much an active place of worship. The simple, clean interiors can seat up to 1,300 worshippers at a time.

Also worth knowing is that the brooding, typically gloomy crypt is now used primarily as a cafe. On second thoughts, maybe I’ll pass on that coffee and croissants….

LOUIS GOES SAMBA- LOUIS AURA TO SOUTH AMERICA FOR THE WINTER

Indoor promenade

Indoor promenade

In a move that has surprised many in the cruise industry, Louis Cruises has announced that it’s 1968-built Orient Queen, formerly the pioneering NCL Starward, will go on charter to South America this year. Itineraries have yet to be made public.

Like her Cuba bound fleet mate, Louis Cristal, the Orient Queen usually goes into warm lay up over the winter after her season of cruises around the Greek islands. The new South American charter marks the first winter deployment of the ship for several years. She will be renamed Louis Aura to coincide with it.

The renamed ship will be a welcome contrast to the mega ships of Costa and MSC which traditionally dominate the winter South America trade. At just under 16,000 tons, she has eight decks, with a lower capacity of 820 passengers accommodated in some 355 staterooms, and served by a crew of 337.

That smaller size should allow the Louis Aura to provide a diverse range of itineraries to smaller ports. The downside for some might be the fact that the ship has no balcony cabins. Insides in particular are quite small, with little storage space but, as the ship is quite informal, dressing up is not a big thing, and packing fairly lightly is the order of the day.

Sitting area of one of two penthouses

Sitting area of one of two penthouses

Louis Aura offers passengers a main dining room that operates in two sittings for dinner, plus an aft facing outdoor buffet that serves breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea. Most of the public rooms are set along the length of one deck, from the forward facing show room to a couple of lounges, and the main restaurant at the stern. This has a lovely wall of glass windows looking out over the ship’s wake.

The Mermaid Restaurant

The Mermaid Restaurant

Side view of the solarium

Side view of the solarium

Main pool area

Main pool area

There are shopping facilities, plus hairdressing and styling services. Uniquely, she also features a windowless, two level casino, wrought out of the space that was once the original cinema. There is also a quartet of small elevators.

Solarium seating area

Solarium seating area

There are two pools, one partly covered by a triple-tiered, glass enclosed solarium that doubles up as a late night music venue and disco. An upper deck, Balinese themed spa has an indoor Jacuzzi, available at a small charge.

Pool area at night

Pool area at night

On the European cruises, cabin breakfast is available for a small surcharge. Whether the dining options might be tweaked to suit the tastes of a much more late night, predominantly Latin crowd remains to be seen.

The Louis Aura is scheduled to finish up her current series of Greek Island cruises the second week in November. No one has yet announced whether the transatlantic crossing from Athens to South America will be carrying passengers, but it would certainly make for a fascinating proposition.

Small ship means ease of access to smaller places

Small ship means ease of access to smaller places

Aft deck of the Orient Queen

Aft deck of the Orient Queen

This is definitely one to keep an eye on. I enjoyed a short cruise out of Limassol on the ship last year (see previous blogs), and I think she might be a feisty little contender for the South American trade. Stay tuned for itinerary updates as they become available.

GETTING TO KNOW GEORGE TOWN; THE PEARL OF PENANG

CNV00001Cruising in the waters of the Far East is far out in comparison to anywhere else you might have been. The entire region is such a vast melting pot of different creeds, religions and races that any attempt to pigeon hole it is bound to end in failure. The best thing to do is just go with an open mind, and absorb what you can.

I did a cruise out there just before Christmas, with Voyages to Antiquity aboard their stylish little Aegean Odyssey (see previous blogs). Each of the ports was a show stopper in its own right, but it was quite nice to go back to Penang after an absence of a few years.

CNV00010The capital of George Town was established by a British trader, Francis Light, back in 1786. The most obvious relic of what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 2008) is the squat, grey walled fastness of Fort Cornwallis, with its brooding battlements and ancient cannon still jutting out to sea.

Much of the architecture of the public buildings still has a very old English feel. The Queen Victoria clock tower in the city centre, the railway station and the many grand, overly fussed hotels give parts of George Town the look and feel of a perfectly manicured Victorian theme park. But you don’t have to look far to find some jarring contrasts.

CNV00025A series of spindly, hugely overcrowded jetties loom out into the waters of the harbour. Here, many of the local Chinese and Malay natives live, work and socialise together. Wooden boardwalks tack off at crazy angles, while small Buddhist shrines appear almost everywhere, and the scent of incense floods the humid air at certain times of the day. Here, children are educated, fed, clothed and bathed on a series of rickety piers, festooned with old tyres and capped with thatched roofs. Shops thrive, tourists come to visit. Markets abound, full of fresh local produce that attracts locals and lotus eaters alike. It’s a mad, slightly claustrophobic cacophony of sight, smell and sound, and one not easily forgotten, either.

CNV00033Wander a little further north, and you enter a neighbourhood of buildings blackened by decades of smoke from traffic exhausts and local fires.Colonnaded archways provide shade for baskets overflowing with fresh fruit, sweets and spices. Tuk tuks splutter along the woefully ill tended roads; pavements here are almost non existent, and real care needs to be taken when walking here. But the sights and sounds are fascinating; a sharp, piquant counterpoint to all the chocolate box cuteness of downtown.

CNV00034This part of town is gritty rather than gilded, but this is how people work and live every day. Stacks of bottled water wrapped in bubble plastic stand outside shop doorways, while men in boiler suits inside make shift garages try to kick start antiquated cars one last time. Roadside cafes made up of rickety, grimy tables and plastic chairs are filled to overflowing, while the local peanut stalls do a roaring trade.

CNV00038There’s the cry of a baby and a supine, uncaring cat, curled up in the shade as the early afternoon heat homes in like a laser beam. Lines chock full of washing hang limp between the shutters of gaping, blackened windows. There are shrines in vibrant, electric shades and idle, barely ruffled street awnings that yawn above hopelessly pitted pavements. Motor scooters appear like angry, maddened swarms of mosquitoes. Again, there’s the aroma of incense, hanging in the air like fine perfume.

CNV00040CNV00045It’s an eclectic, engaging slice of life but, after a while, it becomes strangely uniform, even when enlivened here and there by huge, screaming red swathes of signage in Chinese that adds a  surreal splash of colour to those gaunt, grimy walls and buildings. But after a while, enough is enough.

CNV00056Being a creature of habit, I wander slowly back to the more gentrified part of town. As I walk into the air conditioned opulence of the waterfront bar on the Queen Elizabeth II pier, I do feel pangs of guilt. It is unlikely that many of the locals can afford the prices here. But compared to home, it is still amazingly cheap. The views are outstanding, the beer cold, and the air conditioning is truly a godsend.

And, after all, I’m a traveller. And this is just how I happen to roll.

JUST GRAND FOR A DAY- GRAND TURK ISLAND

CNV00051Grand Turk is part of the small archipelago known as the Turks and Caicos islands. Seen from above, they would resemble nothing so much as a few slivers of emerald green, with outlines etched in clear white, somehow incredibly afloat in a sea of turquoise. And, in fact, their main claim to fame for many years was space related.

CNV00042John Glenn came down in his Mercury capsule in the waters just off the coast here back in 1962, and there are also some who claim Grand Turk as the original spot where Columbus actually set foot on the shores of the new world for the first time. Adventurous though he was, the Spanish explorer has travelled far more miles in fiction than ever he-or John Glenn for that matter- ever did in fact.

These days, Grand Turk is the biggest island in the group; a colossus fully seven square miles in total. The gin clear waters are a magnet for divers from all over the world, while simple, stunning beaches along the road near Grace Bay are among the best- and least busy- anywhere in the entire Caribbean.

CNV00045The small capital of Cockburn Town has a population of less than four thousand, and has many pretty, palm shaded colonial style buildings along the main road, with picket fences and roosters strutting nonchalantly in the mid day heat. A lot of the buildings here are very reminiscent of the style of architecture found on Bermuda, a thousand miles to the north. All things considered, it’s a sweet, rustic little smorgasbord a million miles slower in tempo than the islands to the south.

CNV00041A few years ago, Carnival built a facility here to dock two large cruise ships, and also created an adjacent themed village and relaxation area for the passengers. Among other things, it includes the world’s biggest branch of Jimmy Buffett’s famed ‘Margaritaville’ franchise. There are pools, palms, and wooden rocking chairs in a riot of brightly coloured shades, as well as the inevitable logo merchandise outlets. There’s also a small, beautiful sweep of beach that fronts it. The whole complex is set up for serious, indolent fun, and it’s an absolute knock out.

CNV00052And yet I found myself wandering after a while. Up towards Cockburn Town. The crowds did not make it this far. It was like entering a parallel universe.

CNV00054Small, brightly coloured fishing boats lay upturned on the smallest slivers of fine, flesh coloured sand. Small. rickety bars, half hidden behind walls of blooming poinsetta, loomed out over the beautiful waters, with just the ghost of a breeze tickling the cold beads running down the neck of my first beer. My footprints were the only ones on the sand. It was quiet, serene, and utterly spellbinding. And, of course, it is unlikely to stay that way.

So I sat on the edge of this sweet little space for a while, dangling my legs off the pier, and trying to imagine John Glenn’s exalted descent from the heavens as he splashed into these self same waters. I don’t know what the Iguana crouched just across the way from me was thinking.

CNV00053Obviously not the sociable kind. But hey, it’s all good. And Lord, it surely was. What a great day just to be alive, and to be thankful for the fact.

THE VERY FINE ART OF TRAVEL-PAINTING YOUR OWN MASTERPIECE

ImageTravel. What is it to you? A means to an end? Maybe a necessary headache as part of a job or lifestyle? Maybe it’s just a lifestyle choice, in and of itself.

The point is that travel can be many things to many different people. For most, it will be thrilling, rewarding and life affirming. For a few, it might sometimes feel like having your teeth pulled out with pliers, while being subjected to a Justin Bieber mega mix, playing on a loop. Ouch.

For me, travel can be defined as the pursuit of elegance, sometimes raised to the level of an art form. And travel really is an art; sometimes it can be as disjointed and unsettling as a Picasso; as cake rich as a Rubens, or as deep and finely nuanced as a Rembrandt. We all fill in our own canvas. We colour it and add detail according to our moods, whims and ways. But we all create our own, unique pastiche, and that is part of what defines us as people. How we interact with what is beyond the horizon, outside the box, is a big pointer to just how we evolve- or not- as fully rounded human beings.

In the Fifties, Cunard used to claim that ‘getting there is half the fun’. I’d say it’s often a lot more than half. It’s not so much where you go, as how you arrive there.

Consider this; at New York’s JFK airport, a plane takes off or lands every minute or so of the day. Except for the pilot and the traffic controller, nobody bats an eyelid at the sight. But when the QE2 used to make her show stopping entries into New York harbour, heads turned and jaws dropped by the dozens as she made her stately, theatrical procession up to her west side pier. There, she would lie in state, until the time came for her to head off again. Either way, it was a thrilling experience, with the greatest city in the world forming a matchless backdrop to the world’s most famous and magnificent globe trotter. They made for quite a combination.

Similarly, planes buzz in and out of Venice’s Marco Polo airport like droves of demented wasps, to scant acknowledgement. But when the Orient Express rolls across the causeway from Mestre, on the last mile or so into Santa Lucia, the people stop, stare, and stare some more.  And, more to the point, they wish they were on that train. The damned thing is like a movie star on wheels. Quite literally, thanks to the work of Agatha Christie.

And the experience of sailing into Manhattan- or, indeed, Venice- is by far one of the most precious returns on the price of any ticket. These are life altering memories that stay with you long after the actual journey has ended. When all is said and done, you cannot hang a price tag on real style.

Enough from me. What do YOU think?

PLANE TIRED? JETTING OUT TO FRENCH POLYNESIA

CNV00140French Polynesia- Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora and the rest- is almost heartbreaking in its deep, rich sense of peace and beauty. And a major reason for all of those factors is in its sheer, splendid sense of isolation. Those beautiful little islands sit way out in the Pacific, like a string of emeralds flung at random across a sparkling blue carpet.

And that isolation is also its greatest problem as far as European tourism goes. For our American friends, the journey is a minimum of eight hours’ flying time from Los Angeles. From Australia and New Zealand, Tahiti is a not too bone numbing five hour haul. Oh, but from Europe…..

All told, we are talking about a mind boggling journey of around twenty four hours. And that is a huge part of the reason why I put off going for so long; the notion of being stuck in economy for most of that time was more than I could contemplate.

Yet, when push came to shove, the journey out and back turned out to be much better than I expected.

I flew to Paris via Heathrow the night before my long haul(s), and stayed at a passable airport hotel that offered pretty much what it said in the online description, which was fine. I slept well enough, and that was all I was expecting.

CNV00033Next day found me checking in at Charles De Gaulle for my Air Tahiti Nui flight. First, there would be the twelve hour leg out to Los Angeles, where we would debark for a charm free, two hour customs and immigration session. That done, we would get back on the same plane (which by that time had been completely cleaned, and re-crewed with fresh staff) and begin the final, eight hour slog out to Papeete.

Air Tahiti Nui flies big, beautiful A340 aircraft on it’s flagship route. The economy cabin is decked out in shades of pale blue, with seats arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration, and a seat recline of thirty one inches. This was fine for my five foot six inch frame but- as ever- those taller should be aware of the pitch. The airline also offers business and first class cabins, but I never got to sample those.

The food was extraordinarily good; equal to business class on some flights I’ve flown. A menu was presented beforehand, and a first drinks run made once the plane was airborne. There was plenty to eat, and the meal came with a good choice of wines. While I did not take any of the spirits on offer, I noticed that these- again complimentary- were free poured from full sized bottles, as opposed to the plastic miniatures so prevalent on many of today’s legacy carriers.

Air Tahiti Nui also offered small, 200 ml bottles of sparkling wine throughout the flight that were so welcome. Once the main meal had been served and a second drinks run offered, the charming and very attentive service staff then set up carts in the crossways on a help yourself basis. Among the offerings were sandwiches, ice cream, and an open bar.

CNV00079Each seat back had an on demand video system, though the selection, while passable, was nothing like as extensive as offered on transatlantic carriers. It was, however, completely changed during our layover in Los Angeles. As I had packed a couple of new books to read, the in flight entertainment was never going to be a deal breaker.

The seats were quite comfortable and, to my utter amazement, I got a good few hours’ sleep crossing the Atlantic. And, while customs in LA was at best a charm lite experience, it did at least allow for a welcome stretch of the legs. This transit area is more than a bit grim, and totally bereft of any shopping, except for a rudimentary snack bar.

The shorter, eight hour haul out to Papeete also passed before I really had time to take it in. Again, a combination of good food, wine, reading and fitful snoozing wafted me across the Pacific and, to my pleasant discovery, towards a late night landing in a fabulously sultry Tahiti.

After my marvellous cruise on the Paul Gauguin, the same journey began again, save in reverse. I would apply the same general comments as above to that return journey. But I’d also note the following points, too.

The inclusion of ‘little things’ like printed menus and the constant availability of galley snacks made a big difference when all came to all. Sometimes, the smallest detail can elevate the mundane experience to something far more pleasant and bearable.

CNV00093I managed to grab an aisle seat on my flights out and back, on one of the twin seats. So there was not so much disturbance from people constantly wanting to be in and out of the seat next to me. Result; more relaxed and happy me.

For passengers from Europe, French Polynesia is a full eleven hours behind GMT. Try and get a good night’s rest on arrival. The odds are that your body clock will be shot to bits for the first day or so after you arrive.

It is only fair to mention that check in for your return flight at Papeete’s 1960’s hangover of an airport looks like a bit of a train wreck. The lines are long and, as there are sometimes two big flights leaving at the same time, the whole check in process seems interminable. Also- for those that have mobility issues- be aware that both boarding and de-planing in Tahiti is carried out via steps brought up to the plane on the tarmac. There are no air bridges here, and little in the way of shopping and restaurant facilities. That said, the decor is pure 1960’s; the interior of the airport here could well have been Gerry Anderson’s inspiration for Tracey Island, home base of his famous Thunderbirds.

My forebodings about making such a long journey were completely wrong; a product of my own over active imagination. If offered the same trip in a few weeks, I would go at the drop of  a hat. The islands of French Polynesia really are worth the journey. Having done it once, my suspicion is that you will want to return.

And, of course, if money is no object, you can really splash out, and go business class, or even first. Lovely.

AIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW- WAS FLYING EVER GLAMOROUS?

ImageSo, what do we think? Does flying still retain a patina- even a gossamer thin one- of the perceived glamour of old? Or was that very perception as easily applied as the make up on the actresses that played the cabin crew of the recently aborted Pan Am series, bruited to be a slice of Mad Men in the air? Well, here’s my take, for what its worth.

Of course, flying is a hell of a lot more comfortable if you happen to find yourself ensconced at the front of the plane. But even for those uber privileged souls, the departure and arrival experience of modern airports is no magic carpet ride. In the last thirty years, the hassles inherent in the airport ground experience have done much to dilute any residual magic quality that air travel may have once had. But how magical was that, exactly?

It’s sobering to recall that even the legendary Concorde had a seat pitch of only thirty eight inches- around the same as on Premium Economy on today’s BA. Of course the food and service were in a very different league, but- as any purveyor or retailer of luxury will tell you- it’s all about the amount of personal space.

True luxury air travel was often associated with the great, pre war Empire Flying Boats, with their bar, restaurant, and bunk beds for passengers. How well those passengers could sleep as these propeller driven beasts almost shook themselves to bits as they tried to maintain schedule is a good question. Add natural turbulence to that mixture, and you can see where the ‘bone shaker’ nickname came from.

That said, the experience of taking off, and indeed landing on water, must have been quite magical. And those same lugubrious, lumbering birds had huge portholes from which to admire the view; one very different at such very low altitudes to those we get today.

The airship was a very different creature. The first ever, round the world flight by any aircraft was made by the legendary Graf Zeppelin as far back as 1929. She was the first craft ever to fly over- and photograph- the frozen land masses of Siberia. During her stellar career, the ‘Graf’ quite literally flew all over the world, from South America to the North Pole.  In America especially, she was accorded almost matinee star status.

In 1930, the R100 made a hugely successful maiden flight, from Cardington to Montreal and back. Only the grisly funeral pyres of the R101 and, later, the Hindenburg prevented a pre war rush to the skies by the travelling public. The airship was too early, and way too unlucky.

But the comfort levels on the Hindenburg, in particular, were equal to any ocean liner of the day, except for the small, Pullman sized cabins. The Hindenburg had a sealed smoking room, a bar complete with a grand piano, and a separate restaurant, as well as viewing galleries on both sides, lined with steamer chairs. For the fourteen months that she was in service, the great silver airship really did bring style, glamour and luxury to air travel. It never came back.

The dawn of the Jet Age brought air travel to the masses, and today we take it for granted. As a television series, Pan Am offered an insight into a supposedly more refined era, complete with silver service and immaculately made martinis at 36,000 feet. It all looked very glamorous indeed.

My experience of the real Pan Am was not quite like that……

I flew back from New York with them in 1986, when the airline was already flying on fumes, and just two years before the horror of the Lockerbie disaster. It was, as they say, quite the ride.

An irate, very loud- and very drunken- European gentleman was denied boarding, and hustled away from the gate by a pair of knuckle dragging, cro-magnon predecessors of the TSA, The seats had virtually no recline- and this was a Boeing 747.

The stewardesses were completely uninterested in their passengers. The meal consisted of something called meat, coated in a simmering brown gloop that had almost coagulated. The bread roll was hard enough to take out a pocket battleship at ten miles if thrown properly.

The coffee had the consistency- and the colour- of Bunker C diesel oil, and may indeed very well have been. And, while I don’t expect a lot from being in ‘cattle class’, was it asking too much to have crackers that could actually be eaten without a fight? I suspect that the Siegfried Line was easier to crack.

In conclusion, I don’t think flying has any real patina of glamour. But we live in a world where glamour as a whole is in short supply; a world where the ascendancy of hype over style has reached almost stratospheric levels. So why expect more from air travel?

Forty years ago, we had the Supremes and the Temptations. Now it’s One Direction and Cheryl Cole. The defence rests. Though not in any real comfort.