AIRPORT CHAOS; SCHIPOL AND A CHANGE IN THE WEATHER…..

Flying high- or sometimes not....

Flying high- or sometimes not….

By their very nature, international airports are intended to be rapid transit centres. Passengers leave and arrive in a constant, ongoing flow. The entire set up is designed to facilitate this two directional flow as fluidly as possible.

In general, the system works. But what happens when something goes horribly wrong? What happens when that whole, free flowing machine snarls up and shudders to a halt?

I had the dubious honour of discovering that the other week, when my overnight flight from Atlanta made landfall in an Amsterdam so smothered in thick fog that it was even hard to make out the wingtip of our plane as it crept along the runway.

Along with many others, my flight back to Newcastle had been cancelled. Faces already strained by the reality of a long haul, overnight flight now dropped visibly as a conga line of cancellations rolled down the departure screens. A long, low collective groan seemed to rise out of nowhere.

Inevitably, a long, long line of refugees began to snake towards the transfers desk. And each minute, it grew longer. We were clearly in for an extended wait.

Six and a half hours later, I finally made it to the front of the checking line. By now, Schipol was suffused in brilliant sunshine, but numerous backlogs had built up. I was not able to get a flight to Newcastle that day.

Instead, I managed to bag the last seat on a flight to Durham Tees Valley. I asked specifically if my baggage- which the staff confirmed had arrived in Amsterdam- would definitely be transferred to the Teeside flight. I was assured that it would be.

Needless to say it wasn’t, but that’s getting ahead of the curve.

How did Schipol deal with those vast, snaking lines on that November day?

Within an hour, airport staff were distributing bottled water, sandwiches and other snacks right along the lines. These were pretty constant, and kept on coming. Needless to say, they were very welcome.

Obviously, there was nowhere to sit during this process and, inevitably, six hours’ constant standing shredded the nerves of many to snapping point. But really, what else could the airport staff do? Nothing as far as I could see.

I’m not sure if any of the quintet of girls behind those recheck desks got so much as a tea break over those frantic, messy hours. They were shouted at and yelled at by people for a situation that they had done nothing to create. They endured tears, tantrums, downright threats and outright pleading. I cannot even begin to imagine the stress levels that they must have been under.

The point is that they did not want to be in this awful situation any more than we did. Yet they seemed to remain constantly polite and attentive to each hassled client, as successive tales of woe unwound.

It took them maybe ten minutes in the end to sort out my problem once I got to the desk. I was offered a food and drink voucher (Ten Euros) without having to ask for it and yes, I was dealt with politely and fairly. But then, I wasn’t ranting and  screaming at anyone.

I finally got home some twelve hours late, minus my luggage. Despite the assurances at Amsterdam, I was half resigned to this being the case (or not the case, so to speak) in any event. As is customary, I left my home details at the airport for them to send the luggage on to me, fully expecting it to take at least a day or two,

Imagine my surprise, then, when my luggage was delivered to my front door within an hour of my finally getting home. A truly emotional reunion, and one totally unexpected. Kudos to KLM for turning it round so quickly.

Make no mistake, this was by no means a ‘fun’ experience. But no one can make weather and, for the most part, both Schipol and KLM did the best that they could in a situation that everyone must dread. They showed concern, compassion and care, as well as sporadic bouts of obvious confusion as news updates failed to filter quickly through from the bosses to the staff in the trenches.

That’s it, really.

THREE EPIC DAYS- A MINI TRIP ON THE BIG SHIP…..

Three days on the Norwegian Epic… It went by at a rate of knots that made the Normandie look like a non starter in the speed stakes. Day by day, here’s how it panned out.

DAY ONE:

Up above the Pyrenees

Up above the Pyrenees

It’s an unfeasibly early 4.15am check in at Newcastle Airport for the BA shuttle down to Heathrow Terminal Five. A simple airside change of gate, and I’m on the haul out to Barcelona. Managed to blag an exit row seat, with about four foot of glorious legroom in front of me. Love the views of the cloud capped Pyrenees drifting by below as I pick at some nibbles and a vitally refreshing OJ. Wheels down on time, through the airport quite quickly. Meet the rest of our media group, and then we’re off on our way to board the Norwegian Epic.

The sheer size of the Epic is still something to marvel at, even after three years. The huge width of the ship permits an enormous amount of interior space to create fabulous, diverse sets of vaulting public rooms. Quick bite of fish and chips at O’Sheehan’s Bar and Grill, and I’m back in the zone. Lifeboat drill is held inside, and then it’s pre dinner drinks with what proved to be a lovely media group. We’re outside on the aft terraces outside Spice H20 as this enormous, sea going cathedral swaggers out of sunny, beautiful Barcelona; destination Naples.

The Manhattan Room

The Manhattan Room

Dinner in the gorgeous, retro Manhattan Room, with its wall of glass windows overlooking the stern. There’s a live band playing old Motown, and Ike and Tina Turner stuff. It’s got the look- and feel- of a thirties style New York supper club, and I love it. Great food, service and music. After dinner, i call it a night at about ten. Been awake for more than twenty four hours by this stage. My head crashes onto the pillow, and I’m out even before the light clicks off.

DAY TWO:

Pool deck on the Norwegian

Pool deck on the Norwegian

At sea. A good night’s sleep, a decent breakfast, and all is well with the world. Warm sun feels good on my skin. The Norwegian Epic is full- there’s more than 4200 passengers on board- but the flow of the ship makes it seem like so many less. The upper decks are a giddy whirl of water slides, pools, hot tubs and tiki bars. There’s even a kiddie’s Nickelodeon area. Rows of sun loungers, fast food outlets and a slew of sunning space. It feels like a cross between Waikiki Beach and the French Riviera. Designed to make you feel good. It works.

Pathetic attempt to grab a healthy lunch at the Garden Cafe buffet is sideswiped by irresistible striploin steak only marginally smaller than the ship. Lord forgive me, I could not walk past those nice little slices of chocolate cake. Epic fail.

Happy Feet. In a Norwegian sty-lee

Happy Feet. In a Norwegian sty-lee

Penance is a bottle of chilled champagne, savoured in one of the ridiculously big padded chairs. There’s an avenue of these, in between the forward pool area and the outdoor shops just behind me. A sweet, warm breeze drifts down this alleyway, Carries the music from the live band playing up front; bits of Bob Marley and some Stevie Wonder go with the champagne flow. People saunter past in both directions. Eventually come to the realisation that the bottle is emptier than Paris Hilton’s head. Doh.

I manage to grab an hour out on my balcony. Nice, large space, and a quick coffee from the in room coffee maker to go, Love the sound of the ship’s mass, moving through the sea and throwing up quite a wash. We really are powering along now.

This man has never starred in a blue movie. Fact.

This man has never starred in a blue movie. Fact.

No words can really describe the amazing, early evening performance from the Blue Man Group. But here’s a few, anyway; toilet rolls, crunchy nut corn flakes, lasers, hammers, and plumbing used as drums. Oh, and a bit of escapology. Lots of blue paint. Dazed? You will be. Keep up at the back….

Dinner in Le Bistro is sumptuous. Onion soup, amazingly tender and succulent surf and turf, and creme brulee all washed down with a warm, rich Malbec. Great food and service, and even better company. Disco? Rude not to, really. Wonder idly who will be the first to try and climb on the life size horses at the entrance. There’s bowling lanes in there, too. The whole thing looks like a Moroccan harem, with big divans, recessed sofa areas, and oversized pimp chairs; very a la P. Diddy. Some good tunes, too. Vintage Michael Jackson, some Chic- forever cool- and a packed room to boot. The cuba libres are like the medicine of the gods. Best use sparingly. Long day tomorrow. But it’s fun. Bed at three. Doh….

DAY THREE:  Up at a ridiculously early hour to grab a quick breakfast in the Garden Cafe. The Norwegian Epic is edging into the Bay of Naples. The sun is rising from behind Mount Vesuvius; the old brute seems to be glowering at us from across the water, but even it’s squat, scary stance can’t detract from the sheer beauty and serenity of the moment.

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise

We’re already snuggled up against the dock of the Stazzione Maritima by this time. I trudge off the ship, half awake, to be met by the human dynamo that is Wanda. Wanda is our tour guide; a Joan of Arc dressed by Gucci. Short in stature, but my God, her energy levels are something Duracell can only dream of. Wanda woman is taking us to Vesuvius. I begin to pity the scarred, scary looking old gargoyle. Vesuvius, that is.

We hike up to the summit of the mountain itself, some 4200 feet above the city of Naples. It’s a steep, onerous trudge across rolling tracts of black volcanic sand. I’m thrown by the sight of flourishing vineyards standing near jagged tracts of vast, mis shapen lava accumulations. We walk past cloud level, and the sun disappears. Seconds later, it comes back. Seeing into the crater is like looking down the jaws of a tiger shark. We’re too insignificant for Vesuvius to care. It knows how to deal with our kind; just ask the still cowed shades of Pompeii, right down the hill.

We yell into the crater for effect. Vesuvius responds with thirty centuries of silent, stony contempt. Euphoric to have got to the top and enjoyed the staggering views over the bay, but happy to follow the indefatigable Wanda back to the bus. I sag into my seat on the blissfully air conditioned coach like some puppet with its strings cut. But Wanda has more in store for us. Yup, it’s an afternoon in Pompeii.

The silent streets of Pompeii

The silent streets of Pompeii

Any attempt at Frankie Howerd jokes fall flat when confronted with the reality of Pompeii. This is a sixty six hectare, shattered corpse of a city, and it died screaming. Twenty thousand denizens and hedonists went down with Pompeii; it’s like a cross between a first century Las Vegas and the Titanic. You can still see the rutted truck marks left by Roman chariots more than twenty centuries ago.

Lower floors of houses and shops, immolated for centuries under seven metres of pumice, ash and hot lava, jut upwards in the afternoon sun like ranks of serried, jagged molars. Pompeii is immense, upsetting, tragic and deeply, deeply spooky. The sheer scale of its destruction is a lesson that we have neither the gall or gumption to comprehend. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but I’m glad to head back to the air conditioned serenity of the Norwegian Epic.

It’s been quite the day. Sadly, alas, it’s also arrivederci to the wonder that is Wanda. Ciao Bella, grazia!

Back on board, showered and changed. It’s five o’clock, and that can only mean one thing; Margarita. The first one goes down quicker than a hooker’s drawers at the start of Fleet Week. But oh boy, what an adrenaline charge. There’s live music on deck, and the soft, warm air is beginning to subtly change. So, too, has my mood; the ghosts of Pompeii were refused entry at the gangway. As the second, sweet margarita kisses my throat, the Norwegian Epic is threading her way out into the bay. Over it all, Vesuvius looms and watches. And waits. Our last night at sea begins with a killer watermelon martini at Shakers Cocktail Bar. Then we’re all kitted up with fur capes and gloves, for a session in the Svedka Ice Bar. Surreal does not begin to cover it.

The Empire Strikes Back?

The Empire Strikes Back?

Everything inside here is literally made of ice, save for the fur rugs on the ice benches. And, of course, the bartenders. We have luminescent, bright blue coloured cocktails in glasses made of ice. In our garb, we look like a cross between a coven of defrocked nuns and those jawas from The Empire Strikes Back. Fun it is. Yes.

Dinner tonight is in Teppanyaki. This Japanese themed restaurant is as much drama and theatre as fine dining, and proves to be anything but teppan-yucky. We sit in wary anticipation as our kimono wearing, bandana bedecked chef unleashes a blizzard of brilliantly sharpened knife blades on succulent cuts of beef and seafood; and all at a speed that makes Bruce Lee look about as agile as Bruce Forsyth. The guy is a whirling dervish, and each requested dish is cooked up to sizzling, finely sliced perfection in front of you.

Scared? Moi? Hell, no. I climbed and conquered Vesuvius, pal. I am Spartacus. Even if I felt more like Albert Steptoe’s older brother when I got back on board. It’s a fantastic, thrilling piece of food as theatre. We’re all pretty much beat after our epic adventures of the day. And, as it’s now eleven o’clock and we have to be up at six to leave, that can only mean one thing.

Flashing blades in Teppanyaki......

Flashing blades in Teppanyaki……

That’s right. Sing it with me. D-I-S-C-O…… Two and a half improbable hours of cuba libres, and an inevitable, graceless gallump around the dance floor to Mambo No. 5, and finally, sayonara, sweetheart. It’s 1.30 in the morning. Hangovers? Pah. Spartacus never bitched about hangovers, did he?

DAY FOUR:

We’re docked in the port of Civitavecchia, waiting for the shuttle to take us to Rome’s Fiumicino airport. The coffee helps me little. I feel like an undertaker with the hangover from hell. Maybe I should try gargling with embalming fluid. I mean, look what it did for Engelbert Humpaduck, or whatever the hell he’s called.

The coach rattles through the wondrous, rustic countryside of Lazio as sunrise kisses the cornfields. There’s an interminable wait at Fiumicino itself. Our flight takes off twenty minutes late, but swoops down into a grey, somber looking Heathrow on time. I fall asleep on the shuttle up to Newcastle.

Looking back, I’m awed and amazed at how much good stuff we shoe horned into three short days. I met some truly amazing people indeed, and sampled everything from the fiery miasma of Mount Vesuvius to our chilly little tinctures in the Ice Bar.

Jumbotron movie screen on the Norwegian Epic

Jumbotron movie screen on the Norwegian Epic

The Norwegian Epic herself was big, both in size and the scale of the welcome on board. Even the above account is not a complete narrative of everything that we got through. And, for those of you pondering that sixty-four million dollar question…. The answer is: yes. Somebody did manage to climb up on that ruddy great horse just outside of the disco. And no, it wasn’t me. I get vertigo sitting on the edge of a kerb. Horses for courses? Sure. But when it comes to climbing up on to something that big, Spartacus I am not. No. Not ever.

EASY ON EASYJET?

ImageEasyjet is one of those Marmite kind of brands, Love or hate it, there seems to be no middle ground.

Horror stories take flight every day about the various unholy joys of flying orange. To read some of them, the entire operation is only one step removed from the Inquisition as a form of extreme European torture.

Those who believe that have obviously never experienced the unique horror that is the Eurovision Song Contest. But I digress…..

My own experiences of Easyjet have always been generally positive. At least, thus far. But, having not flown them for a year or two, it seemed that an upcoming short break would provide an opportunity to check back in with an airline that has given the so called ‘prestige’ industry carriers no end of sleepless nights.

And little wonder.

I live near Newcastle, so any trip to, say, Nice or Barcelona usually would involve two flights, transiting either through London Heathrow or Amsterdam Schipol, with all the attendant, time consuming hassle that entails. Average trip time is anywhere upwards of five hours as a rule, transfers included.

By contrast, I can hop on an Easyjet flight that will take me there, non stop, in half that time, and at usually well less than half the price. It seems like a no brainer.

Ah, I hear you cry. What about all those hidden extra charges? Luggage, speedy boarding, no meals, airport taxes. The part of the iceberg hidden just below the sunny surface. Very fair points.

So, let’s look at them, one by one.

Most of the extra taxes, such as APD (Air Passenger Duty) were introduced by a certain Gordon Brown, and then catapulted skywards by a series of his undead successors. Nothing to do with any airline, I’m afraid. Easyjet included.

Luggage is more of an issue, but the website clearly defines the charges. In the end, it is up to you how much or little you think that you can get away with taking. If the cost is too much, then a scheduled carrier might just work out as a better deal for a family.

Food. You can buy on board all Easyjet flights, but I think that the catering on board is generally quite expensive. For example, a small can of Magner’s Cider is an eye watering four euros. But is food and drink really a deal breaker for you on a two hour flight?

I flew out of Newcastle to Malaga, and back from Barcelona a few days later. Both flights left and arrived on time. They were completely painless experiences, even verging on the pleasant because of some excellent, attentive staff on the flight back.

With only hand luggage to worry about, I breezed through check in at both Newcastle and Barcelona. Easyjet now gives all passengers assigned seats. so the advantages of buying speedy boarding are really up in the air. A waste of money as far as I’m concerned.

For those of you who are Easyjet virgins, speedy boarding is a process where you get to board any flight ahead of the main body of passengers. The idea was, obviously, that you would get first crack to get the best seats. At least it was, back in the days when boarding an Easyjet flight was a free for all, one not far removed from a rugby scrum at times. The per person supplement was around £10 per flight. Assigned seating ended this unseemly rush for the plane once and for all time.

That said, it’s worth noting that I was a single traveller. A young family with kids, for instance, might still find speedy boarding a worthwhile extra.

The flights in both directions were on Airbus A320’s. There were no issues with hand luggage fitting into the over head lockers; the leg room was more than adequate for me, but be aware that I stand only at a towering five foot six inches in height.

Seating is three across, in two rows for the whole length of the plane. Seats are upholstered in slate gray, and I find them more than comfortable enough for a short flight.

Hard sell? Hardly. Food and drink announced of course, and two such runs were made during each of my flights. There was one push for sales of in flight goodies, and another towards the end for scratch cards. And that was it.

Service was cheerful, friendly and courteous, But the airline falls down by not offering UK landing cards any more on flights coming inbound from Europe. This used to be standard, and now no longer seems to be. Hardly a deal breaker, but something that the airline should re-think as a matter of common convenience.

Both flights boarded and debarked via outside stairways. And, after the shocking, frigid British winter, the sheer joy of stepping out into twenty-three degrees of magical Malaga sunshine is impossible to overstate. Mind you, arriving back in Newcastle it had the opposite effect. It was like being stabbed with a thousand needles.

Easyjet is, indeed, cheap and cheerful. But it is not tacky, nor is it without a certain cheeky charm. It does not pretend to be something that it is not, unlike some of its would be competitors. And, as long as they keep giving me the convenience of routes that I like, and the level of service and surroundings that I budget for, then I will be quite happy to go right on using them. Easyjet is a generally sound choice at the right price.

SUMMER TIME IN BEAUTIFUL DURHAM

ImageThis photo essay is aimed primarily- though not exclusively- at our American friends. Because I know that, while many of you enjoy the sights of London, York and Edinburgh, you are often actually missing out on the most beautiful city in the entire country. Allow me to introduce you to Durham, the jewel in the crown of North East England.Image

ImageYou can see here that the city enjoys a stunning, quite sensational stance. It curves neatly around a bend in the River Wear. The river banks on both sides are a beautiful, languid stroll on a warm summer day, or even as an appetite sharpener before your evening meal.Image

ImageWhat you are looking at here is the amazing Norman cathedral and castle. Construction began back in 1086. Both are so perfectly preserved that they have World Heritage Site status from UNESCO. Viewed from the compact, largely car free city centre, these two magnificent buildings loom over the winding, cobbled streets like a pair of incredible exclamation marks.Image

ImageHere’s one of the famous statues in the central Market Square, a popular venue for street theatre in summer months. In the photo below is the Shakespeare, a real old, rustic confection of a Durham pub that dates back to the 1100’s, as do many of the customers at first glance. Inevitably, it’s supposed to be haunted. Truth be told, it would be a pretty inviting spot to while away those endless, after life days…Image
The picture below shows the partly Romanesque facade of the Cathedral. As well as being blessed with such stunning architecture, Durham is also the third oldest university city in the entire United Kingdom.ImageImageHere below is the keep of the great Norman castle. Durham was run as virtually an autonomous province- albeit with royal assent- by its own Prince Bishops for many a century. Centuries of Viking raids from across the North Sea left these Bishops with a deep sense of paranoia. The city itself lies not so very far from the sea at all.ImageImageImageImage

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ImageHere we are back on the river. This is the main artery of this amazing, compact gem. The city bustles and hums with activity all year, but it’s an open secret among locals that it is at it’s absolute best in the long summer nights. A whole warren of quirky, sometimes crazy winding lanes gives Durham a character and a curiosity value worth a few days of anyone’s life. And, with no shortage of outdoor eating and drinking venues, you can slake your thirst just as satisfyingly as you can your sense of adventure.Image

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ImageThis is one of the main cobbled streets that winds through the centre of Durham. This bit is perfect for a spot of platinum chip people watching over an espresso, or a glass of wine, The next picture is the vaulting, elegant railway bridge that carries the main East Coast rail line from London right through to Edinburgh and beyond.Image

Easiest way to reach here if you’re an international traveller? Newcastle airport is not far away, and is served by direct British Airways flights from London Heathrow, several times a day. Flight time is less than an hour. East Coast trains also run several services a day to Durham from London King’s Cross. The typical journey time is around three hours.

Hotel wise, the new Radisson has an excellent, river front location, but I personally prefer the more old world style Marriott. On a budget? There’s a quite spiffy looking Premier Inn near the Radisson. You’ll also find that there is no shortage of guest houses and B and B’s.