Posted by: Sarah Lee | January 2, 2011

LiveShareTravel launches with timeshare and fractional news

LiveShareTravel is a new website launched by me, Sarah Lee, to share timeshare and fractional news, features and inspiration, as well as the latest in travel and lifestyle.

It sees writers staying in hotels and resort properties sharing up-to-the-minute updates on LiveShareTravel and, a variety of social networks. You’ll find LiveShareTravel on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Flickr, Audioboo, Stumbleupon, FriendFeed, Digg… oh you name it, we’re probably there!

Timeshare and fractional aren’t for everyone. Indeed, most people think it’s not for them, because timeshare in particular has had such a bad reputation. But there is a lot of misinformation and a general lack of knowledge about this form of travel. But for every bad story, there’s hundreds of happy owners.

So why don’t you head on over to LiveShareTravel and take a look at the timeshare and fractional resorts and lifestyle on offer before making a decision.

LiveShareTravel is a timeshare and fractional magazine

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | April 23, 2010

Sarah Lee travels… has done just that

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | March 11, 2010

Steady as she goes – a cruise ship conveyancing

Celebrity Equinox at Meyer Werft shipyard, click image for more photos on Flickr

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There’s a fair few cruising posts on this blog this week, but with Celebrity Eclipse winding its way down the River Ems right now I couldn’t resist mentioning it here. Last year I went on the same journey (known in the cruise world as a conveyance) on Eclipse’s sister ship Celebrity Equinox. It’s another one of those unusual experiences your press card gains you access to in the world of travel, but I’m going to give you the lowdown here.

Meyer Werft is 42kms from the sea

The 122,000-tonne ship was built at Meyer Werft, in Papenburg, a small town in northern Germany. Celebrity’s Solstice-class ships are the largest to have been built at Meyer Werft (which incidentally also built Norwegian Jade which I sailed on last week) and so the journey out to sea is at once spectacular and slightly hair-raising. You see, Papenburg is actually 42 kilometres inland.

Winding its way backwards along the River Ems was a huge operation for a massive cruise ship, at times floating just six inches above the riverbed and four metres from the riverbank and the sides of bridges. It makes for some fantastic pictures (as many floating around online and on twitter of Celebrity Eclipse will also attest to). Being on board you kind of miss out on that spectacle. But you do have other experiences.

A skip near the pool

Furniture under wraps

As are the carpets

At this stage the ship is still very much in a state of undress. It’s sea-worthy but it’s a bit like when you have the builders in at home – all the carpets are covered in plastic sheeting, there’s dust to clear up and lots of finishing touches to be applied. I loved seeing a cruise ship – usually all glitzy and glamourous – without its make-up on, and to know that I was among the first to try anything onboard (use the shower, sleep in the bed, eat at the restaurant, etc).

Grab your hard hat

We were given a guided tour by Celebrity president and CEO Dan Hanrahan – this could have been a PR-spinning exercise, but instead we saw a man who seemed to genuinely love his company’s product talking candidly about why they took certain decisions in its design and joking about the fact that they were not officially taking delivery of the $800m ship from Meyer Werft before it had safely navigated its way down the river to Emshaven, a town by the sea in Holland (if it hit the riverbank before then, it wouldn’t matter!).

But there was no chance of that – Meyer Werft have a terrifically expert captain that knows just how to navigate the tight bends of the river and negotiate its every ebb and flow. Though we were set to depart at 5pm we didn’t leave until 1am as we were told the tide had to be just right.

Another extraordinary aspect was that during the day a crowd of people had huddled around the shipyard. Hundreds were there in camper vans and tents to see this amazing spectacle and cheer the ship off as she left Meyer Werft, showing just how important an event this was for the local community and those who had travelled from wider afield.

As Celebrity Equinox, pulled gently by a tug, edged her way through the tight lock in front of the shipyard there were huge cheers from the assembled crowd and anthemic music (the likes of Chariots of Fire and Jean Michel Jarre) bellowed from the ship as all of us aboard hung over the side to see us make it through the gap and wave to the gathered crowd.

People lined up their camper vans waiting for the ship's departure

As we went to bed that night we could still hear the occasional cheer or toot of a car horn as the ship drew alongside people gathered to toast Equinox’s arrival and we knew two things: we were lucky to have had an incredibly unique experience, and in the morning we had to make sure we were fully dressed before opening the curtains – there was bound to be a crowd on the riverbank looking right back at us. To see more pictures of the ship and the conveyance take a look at my flickr set.

Crowds gathered to see the ship squeeze through another tight gap

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | March 9, 2010

NCL Jade’s magic carpets

One of NCL's fabulous carpets, Garden Cafe

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I grant you – this is a pretty unusual post. Some might even say bonkers. But I just had to share the joy that is Norwegian Cruise Lines’ interior decor.

On a recent cruise aboard NCL Jade I couldn’t help but take photos of the many wild and exuberantly patterned carpets throughout the ship. So grab your sunglasses and join me on a tour of this psychadelic magic – you can even click the images to enlarge them.

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | March 8, 2010

NCL Jade – a whistle-stop tour

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Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) ship Norwegian Jade is currently running itineraries from Barcelona to Morocco and the Canaries. I’ve just come back from a trip aboard Jade, check out my fleeting tour of its main public areas (Blue Lagoon restaurant, the atrium/lobby, pool area – complete with performer Pablo Rodriguez, and pool bar) here.

My full review will be in a magazine near you soon, but here’s a little overview:

  • 13 dining options including some great speciality restaurants and as NCL’s ships offer ‘freestyle cruising’ you don’t have to dress for dinner if you don’t want to.
  • A spa with a host of treatments. Most of these are pricey – $119 for a 50 minute Swedish massage was one of the cheapest by far (yes, that’s about £79!). But a day pass to use the spa facilities is a mere $20.
  • There’s a fantastic range of activities, especially on sea days. Some of it was a bit cheesy (like the discotastic 70s line dance class), but there’s so much to choose from you’re bound to find something that’s up your street. One of my favourites was the art auction (with free champagne!).
  • The ship’s villas and suites are stunning and have their own garden/pool area and sundeck. They’re quite reasonably priced compared to similar staterooms on other cruise lines – from just under £5,700 for the nine-day cruise.

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | March 6, 2010

Ten sites for great travel deals

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When I first started this blog I vowed to bring you some great travel deals and I realised recently it’s something sorely lacking on the site currently. As I’m sucker for a bargain I felt it only right to address this.

Just so you know I’m a hard-working deal finder. I have probably put in an equivalent amount of time to tracking down cut price hotels and finding ways to reduce flight costs by trying different airlines/airports/flight times as I have lying on the beach when I finally get to my destination. And it’s paid off. I regularly save a few hundred pounds on a trip and cut a whopping £2,800 off a holiday for two to South Africa and Zambia compared to prices quoted at a high street travel agent. This with absolutely no scrimping on hotel quality.

As with most things, you have to shop around for the best travel deals, in part because the site that offered you a great price on a hotel in New York last year isn’t necessarily going to come up trumps on the same trip again. Also it’s very dependent on where you’re going – some sites are specialist in certain destinations.

My favourite websites for sourcing flights are:

Kayak – great for long-haul destinations, with a clear price comparison calendar showing the cheapest options around your travel date.

Skyscanner – excellent for short-haul, but if you want to research certain low-cost airlines like Easyjet and Ryanair you will still have to go to their site for the best prices.

Cheapflights – a good price guide and there are some bargains to be had but the system is a little restrictive and a lot of the best prices are with travel agents you have to phone, by which time I’ve found the price has changed. If I’m searching online I generally want to complete the purchase online too for convenience.

Finding great deals in hotels can be a more complex matter and if anything requires legwork, and is likely to pay dividends, it’s this. What you’ll find is that different websites are better on different destinations and though one site is great this month, go back in five months time (even for the same destination) and they might not have the best prices.

Here are some of my favourites:

Travelrepublic has some great hotel rates for European destinations. It also lists customers’ hotel reviews, and has a good filtering system for homing in your chosen star rating, board basis, facilities and price range. Hottest rate: £734 for two weeks in a five-star in Antalya, Turkey, in July 2009.

Booking.com Can have some very competitive prices for on hotels in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, parts of Africa and the US. It also has customer reviews and lists single rooms, but beware, sometimes when you spot a low price it can be for single occupancy of a double room, so be careful when you’re booking if you’re actually looking for a double.

Alpharooms is good for European hotels in particular, but also covers destinations in other parts of the world along with Tripadvisor reviews.

Asiarooms was at one time my favourite sites for hotels in Asia and beyond. Then it was taken over by TUI and some of the prices were less favourable. However it still comes up with some gems, like the five-star Sofitel Silom in Bangkok for £69.50 a night, so it’s worth a look.

Travelzoo produces a list which everyone who’s ever had itchy feet should sign up to. The top 20 deals weekly email update is a random collection of the best online offers – perfect for a spontaneous weekend getaway. Just be sure to check out the offers quickly as they are usually as hot and selling fast.

Destination specific sites are great – literally Google ‘Paris hotels’ for example and see what comes up outside of the usual suspects. Here’s a couple of examples

Sawadee is another great site for Thai hotels in particular and includes hotels from all over the country.

0800Paris Hotels has some fantastic prices right now on hotels in the city.

Wherever you plan to visit the most important thing is that you shop around – try the traditional agent sites (Thomson, Thomas Cook, Virgin Holidays etc), the well-known online travel providers (Expedia, Ebookers, Opodo), check out the smaller providers, and search for sites related to your destination. Also feel free to share your best deals/favourite travel booking sites here.

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | March 5, 2010

Anti-social hotels

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After a late flight into Gatwick airport this week I had a room booked for me at a Travelodge.I’m not a huge fan of Travelodge hotels – the last one I stayed in on Birmingham’s Broad Street was dirty, had a fist-sized hole in the wall of my room and towels my friend described as having the luxurious texture of Weetabix. But I’m convinced city centre hotels (full of hen/stag groups) are often worse than the same brand elsewhere and the company I travelled with were kind enough to put me up given the lateness of the flight.

Anti-social hotels can make for a dog's life | Dreamstime.com

When my taxi dropped me off just before 1am all I wanted was to catch some z’s. So I was a little distressed when the first thing the receptionist said was “I have to apologise in advance…”The hotel had a stack of ‘operational problems’ he said, putting a number of rooms out of action and they were relocating eight guests to the nearby Holiday Inn. I figured this was a bit of an upgrade.

When I asked what was wrong with the rooms he again quoted ‘operational problems’ but added that one of them smelled of dogs. I was a little confused but then remembered Travelodge allow people to stay with their pets. This was a novel idea when introduced, but given the fact that they were having to pay another hotel to relocate guests because of doggy-smells it seemed a policy with its downsides.

Still, they were pretty good, got me a drink while I waited for a taxi to the Holiday Inn, which they paid for. However as I waited, the Holiday Inn which had already taken five of Travelodge’s waifs and strays, telephoned to say they only had smoking rooms left. It was late. It didn’t smell of dogs, or have ‘operational problems’. I could care less.

But on entering my room at the Holiday Inn the smell of stale tobacco was pretty strong. In fact I fell asleep thinking how rancid it was, think I must have dreamed about it and woke wondering how it could still smell so bad!!

The whole thing made me wonder – why do hotels allow guests to engage in such anti-social activities? I thought I was fairly cool with the smoking thing, but the smell was so bad I’d never take a smoking room again, and as for dogs, well the whole idea has now put me well and truly off Travelodge again.

Anyone know of any other anti-social hotel antics?

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | February 20, 2010

Nice hotel, no cigar

Modern design in the Marriott Grosvenor Square's lobby

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This week this blog was added to hotel recommendation site Gekko’s list of favourite travel blogs. This is already an esteemed list highlighting some of  my favourites such as 501 Places, Europe a la Carte and Traveldudes so it’s an honour to be featured there.

Gekko is a new site which takes details of your favourite places to stay then uses your preferences to recommend a hotel you might like in another city. It got me thinking about what we look for in hotels and it just so happened that the whole thing coincided with my stay this week at the Marriott Grosvenor Square, London.

At around £200 a night room-only this Mayfair-based five-star promises much, and as I’d never stayed at a Marriott before I was looking forward to it. The hotel is a mix of traditional refinement and modern design and features Maze Grill, a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. But I found it rather unremarkable.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first: the hotel’s five-star – it’s none too shabby – the public areas in particular are quite stylish. The rooms have comfy king/queen size beds, 32″ flatscreen TVs, iHome docking clock radios (wanted to take mine home, but it’s still safely ensconced in the room!), while the hotel has two restaurants, lots of conference facilities and a well-stocked gym – a great find in any hotel.

Rooms at the Marriott are comfortable, but is it the sort of place you'd recommend?

But where the hotel fails is in just being too blah. There is very little to distinguish it and make you glad you’d invested your £200 in the Marriott brand – it’s like every other identikit city centre hotel.
Another factor that disturbs me is this: if I’m forking out £200 a night for a room I really don’t then expect to pay £5 an hour, or £15 a day, for wifi! Please Mr Marriott read my previous posts on the value of free wifi in hotels, cut this fee and join the cause. You can recoup the money by cutting turn-down service and the two chocolates you left by my bed each night.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad hotel. But is it the sort of place I’d recommend? For a place to rest your head for the night, yes, but I’m sure there are more interesting stays in central London at this price and less.

The trouble is that today, we look for more from hotels. Be it a one-star or five, we like it to have a bit of character or interest. In fact on my recent visit to Tenerife I saw just how important destination hotels have become, with hotels with the wow-factor like Gran Melia Palacio de Isora, inspiring guests to stay in-house longer with incredible design and little luxuries.

Interestingly I was staying at the Marriott Grosvenor Square for Fractional Summit – the annual meeting of minds in the fractional industry. In fact Marriott’s luxurious 47 Park Street is rightly one of the leading lights in the fractional industry. Another fractional that I’ve stayed at in London, Ultimate Escapes at Butler’s Wharf offers luxury fittings, a home-from-home feel and a grand view. It’s the sort of thing I’ll be looking for in my next stay in the city.

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | February 17, 2010

Photoblog: Weathering the storm in Tenerife

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It’s been a strange start to the year across much of the western world with freak weather conditions resulting in the coldest winter in years in the US and parts of Europe. The Canary Islands meanwhile have experienced wild storms in the past couple of weeks. Be it El Niño or just extreme winter weather, Canary Islanders used to eternal spring, have rightly been in a bit of a tailspin and it’s even affected the carnival.

Photos here are from my recent trip to Tenerife and show the effects the tropical-style rainstorms and crashing Atlantic waves had on the tiny town of Las Galletas.

Atlantic breakers give Las Galleta’s sea defences a run for their money.

While on previous days the Atlantic was uncharacteristically calm, there’s little need for warning that this is not a day for swimming off the town’s long strip of beach.

Chinks of sunshine on the coast are a total contrast to the heavy cloud hanging over the mountains, while buildings on the harbour are battered by the waves.

Though the odd wave coasts over a 20-foot wall next to the harbour the town’s fishermen remain unshaken.

Angry tides also had an impact on the natural environment. Turfing the shingle beach onto the promenade and this sea cucumber also.

The cucumber lay there hardly moving, easily mistakable for a small rock, waiting for the next wave to carry him back out to sea. Luckily the creature was soon rescued by a young girl – clearly much braver than I was.

Huge amounts of shingle were dumped on the promenade and even through to the path behind its parade of restaurants.

Massive build up of pebbles on the promenade left seafront businesses unable to open their doors until the clear up operation was complete.

Las Galletas’ pretty harbour in brighter weather, but it wasn’t long before the storms started again. Guess it’s not just the UK affected by unpredictable weather.

Posted by: Sarah Lee | February 10, 2010

Tasty Tenerife – a new foodie heaven?

Grisin sticks with Iberian Stile Ham

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A few years ago I went to Los Gigantes in Tenerife and if I’m honest I wasn’t that enamoured with it. For me it lacked a certain “Canarianess”. I know it’s a tourist resort and that Tenerife is in the main a mass-market destination (more on this in another post), but one thing that bothered me was that I was on a Spanish island and there was hardly a hint of Spanish food about.

You could get a wide variety of foods at Los Gigantes’ restaurants serving ‘international menus’ – generally covering things like Cordon Bleu and Lasagna, and granted, I had a fantastic meal at one of the restaurants there. But the problem was authentic Spanish/Canarian fodder was in short supply.

I was therefore delighted on my recent visit to discover island delicacies and Michelin-starred chefs intent on putting the island on the culinary map.

My first experience of real Canarian food was on a visit to a banana plantation with the British Guild of Travel Writers which I posted on here. This use of bananas in savoury as well as sweet dishes showed the island had plenty of fresh ideas to appeal to foodies.

The following day we were treated to what I consider the best meal of my trip (and there were many good ones!). Lunch at La Plantacion del Sur hotel, in Adeje, was prepared by it’s two-starred Michelin chef.

Cheese cookies complete with edible flowers

We started with tapas – grisin sticks with Iberian Stile Ham, unusual but tasty cheese cookies (I believe these were fried slices of cheese, similar to cheese saganaki found in Greece) served with pastry puffs and edible flowers, and some of the most juicy and delicious shrimps fried with garlic – a particular favourite on my table.

Hot on the heels of the starters was a fish course of cod in onion sauce with leek and ginger, my least favourite part of the meal, but I’m not a big cod fan. Still, like all the courses served at the lunch, it was beautifully presented.

Canarian Nouvelle Cuisine - Cod in Onion Sauce with Leek and Ginger

The fish was followed by beef tenderloins with almogrote cheese – a rather salty but delicious cheese paste from Tenerife’s neighbouring island of La Gomera. This was served with papas ‘bonitas’ with red and green mojo – tiny purple Canarian potatoes with a green coriander-based sauce and a spicier red chilli-based sauce.

All of this was served with an array of fine Tenerifian wines. Yes, Tenerife produces award-winning wines from vineyards dotted across the island. We had a crisp white with the starters and fish, and naturally, red with the main. Many of Tenerife’s reds are full-bodied and toasty due to the volcanic soil on the island.

Dessert was an exotic sounding trio – Bienmesabe, Prince Albert and Quesillo. Up to now I can’t really tell you what they were or which was which of the three tasty nuggets on my plate but they were to die for. A chocolate mousse dome with a crunchy filling, a caramel-like cheesy slice (guessing that’s the Quesillo!) and a rich chocolate ice-cream served with pansies – yes, you can eat those too!

Bienmesabe, Prince Albert and Quesillo

The only problem with the dessert was that we had to leave half of it behind as we were running late for an afternoon tour. I’m still mourning the loss of this delectable pudding!

Still, the rest of the trip had more scrumptious treats in store. In the following days I had everything from traditional hearty meals with things like gofio – toasted cornmeal and revuelto de morcilla – scrambled egg with a sweetened black pudding (sounds icky and I’m not normally a fan of black pudding but it was out-of-this-world-good) at Santa Cruz’s renowned La Hierbita, chicken, fish and ham croquettes and roasted piglet (be warned complete with a wee trotter) at Meson Castellano in Los Cristianos, and tapas including mixed chorizo in honey and chilli at the dinky Pink Parrot Cafe in Las Galletas (more info on this fab little find here).

I discovered Tenerife is an island rich in incredible local food so get away from the resort restaurants and, most importantly, bring your appetite.

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