Posted by: Sarah Lee | February 4, 2010

Photoblog: No Binter way to travel the Canaries

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Had a fun, even if slightly exhausting day today, travelling from Tenerife to Gran Canaria to interview timeshare developers. It’s said travel is less about the destination but how you get there and today was proof that there’s some truth in that.  Yesterday staff at my Tenerife hotel teased me when I said I was flying Binter Canarias to Gran Canaria, and given that I’m not the best flyer (bit of an occupational hazzard for a travel journo) and Binter fly twin-turbos (always imagine the propellers will stop turning) I was a little perturbed. However my friend @myTenerifeinfo had prepped me about Binter’s cool little service so I knew not to panic… too much…

What follows is an ode to Binter Canarias – the perfect way to island hop the Canaries for those for whom time is too tight for the ferry.

Forget all this boarding  40 minutes before take off nonsense. In fact forget the 20 minutes shown on these boarding cards – we boarded in five minutes and  still arrived in time.  And yes, there are no seat  numbers specified. That’s  because this 78-seater  hasn’t got seat numbers. But, with around 30 passengers  on each of my flights there was no low-cost-style bun-fight for seats. Makes you wonder why we fight for seats in the first place. It’s not like there’s not going to be enough – even Ryanair still allows for that!

All aboard for Binter 8152 to Gran Canaria

Soon the propellers were whirring and we were taxing to the runway.

Modern cabins

Onboard the bright, modern cabin of the ATR-72 is better than a few charter airlines I’ve flown with, complete with leather seating. The crew would have a challenge on full flights. They only serve a chocoletta (something akin to a Blue Ribband wafer for UK readers), a glass of water and boiled sweet to help you equalise your ears on landing. But Gran Canaria is a very short hop from Tenerife – about 15 minutes flying time so even these hospitable efforts are impressive given the time.

Gran Canaria comes into view

Within the bite of a chocoletta Gran Canaria’s mountains are visible from benethe light puffs of cloud.

Binter Canarias' planes on the runway

Granted, Binter Canarias is so tiny you do find yourself shoved way out at a distant gate, but there are benefits to it being such a small operation. As it’s largely domestic you cut out passport control (didn’t show my passport beyond check-in) and any luggage hits the carousels quickly.

Gran Canaria was lovely but having spent just six-and-a-half-hours on the island I can’t really regale many of it’s highlights. Soon it was time to take my return flight to Tenerife.

The cabin on the return trip seemed even more comfortable, modern and fresh.

More of Gran Canaria’s mountains poke through the cloud. But they can’t compete with Tenerife’s Mount Teide – now snow-capped, the highest mountain in Spain.

Mount Teide, Tenerife, from Binter Canarias flight

Still as Binter proves, you don’t have to be big to be beautiful.

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | February 2, 2010

Epic news for solo cruisers

Norwegian Epic promises big things for solo travellers

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Last week Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) announced that it will be bringing it’s newest ship Norwegian Epic to the UK for Summer 2011 sailings around the Mediterranean. The ship is set to  deliver a host of new features when it launches later this year.

The company is hoping it’s most innovative of ships will appeal to everyone – not just the families that are usually to be found on an NCL cruise. In a big move for the industry they are developing studio-style staterooms for solo travellers and with no single supplement. The rooms will be priced from £599 on Caribbean itineraries.

Trendy studios for solo travellers

NCL CEO Kevin Sheehan said:  “We are breaking the mold of traditional cruising by offering a stateroom designed and priced specifically for solo travellers, making cruising a more attractive travel option.”

The Studios, a private key-card access complex, will consist of 128 staterooms and a Studio Lounge over two decks. Each Studio stateroom with approximately 100-sq-ft living space will have contemporary design a full-size bed and separate areas for the bathroom, sink and shower.  Guests in the Studios also have private access to the exclusive Studio Lounge where they can have a coffee or a drink in the evening.  With many of the Studio staterooms connecting, there is also the opportunity for friends to travel together while giving each their space.

Although the Studios sound great the key-card access and Studio lounge make you wonder if NCL is trying to keep the single people contained in one place – away from all those nice families. Then again most single travellers would likely state this is exactly what they want.

I wonder if NCL’s efforts have the power to change the face of crusing, making a younger, bolder crowd take to the seas. Either way let’s hope other companies are persuaded to take up this flexible approach to cruising and travel in general so people are not punished for travelling solo.

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | January 29, 2010

Five five-star riddles

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So here I am staying in a lovely five star hotel in Tenerife for the BGTW‘s AGM. Take a look at La Plantacion del Sur – it really is very nice. Now before you sit in awe at a slightly spoilt travel journalist spouting about the hardships of staying at a five star hotel, let me say now – this is not a moan. And these things are by no means restricted to this hotel, they’re merely five observations of strange features of five star hotels found the world over:

Get switched on at a five star hotel

  1. My room has 23 light switches. Why!? That’s more light switches than I have in my whole house. There really is no need, and many of us spent a long time trying to turn off all the lights before bed on the first night. One switch by the bed that turns off every light in the room will do nicely. 23 is neither big, nor clever.
  2. Double rooms with single beds: What is this all about!? You book a double room to share a bed with your loved one only to find you have two beds pushed closely together. Though you may think you can just push them together completely it’s never going to work if you have to battle with two sets of tucked in sheets and the fear that one of you will inevitably fall down the gap in the dead of night.
  3. No in-room wifi: Ok so major props to this hotel as it has free internet throughout (wired in-room and wifi in public areas), but surely in-room wifi is par for the course in a quality hotel these days.
  4. A nice cuppa: Forget making your own drinks. Tea and coffee making facilities are often hard to find in-room. The hotel I’m staying in only provides them in their suites. Come on, we’re British – we need tea!
  5. Telephones in toilets: this is a sign of a true luxury hotel. But, short of any Elvis-styled emergencies, I really can’t see myself using the phone while on the throne. Never. Ever.

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | January 28, 2010

Perfect property partners

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This week I’m in Tenerife, a mecca for shared ownership (timeshare and fractional) in Europe. The island has a long history in shared ownership holidays but this type of accommodation is growing in popularity worldwide.

Before travelling to Tenerife I attended a lunch at Mosimann’s in London hosted by The Hideaways Club, an international luxury investment club, at which they launched a partnership with Banyan Tree Private Collection.

The partnership sees Banyan Tree, one of the world’s finest hospitality brands join forces with The Hideaways Club to offer clients an expanded portfolio of luxury holiday properties.

One of my fellow diners at the lunch asked me if, given that the two brands were large enough concerns on their own, this was a slightly desperate act in a down economy, perhaps on the part of one company or the other, or both.
But I see it differently. I think the two companies are perfect partners because each needs what the other has.

The Hideaways Club is an upscale offering, in a largely upscale market, featuring 25 (and rising) fractional-styled properties worldwide. What it lacks is the big brand name.

Banyan Tree however is renowned for its quality hotels, but little known of the collection of nine stylish properties in its destination club. As relative newcomers to the fractional industry The Hideaways Club benefits from Banyan Tree’s brand recognition, while Banyan Tree grows its property portfolio by more than 250%.

If I was an owner with either of these clubs I’d have seen the worth of my property investment grow exponentially in what is a pretty bold move by the two companies.

This type of cross-branding is happening elsewhere in shared ownership and hospitality as well as with other lifestyle brands. With the global economy still floundering this is good for business, while for the consumer it surely means more choice and a chance to join the dots between your favourite travel and lifestyle brands.

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | January 28, 2010

Cool destinations for itchy feet

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It happens every year. Travel sections, magazines and websites give you their run-down of the places you must visit now.

In fact you don’t even have to wait for the end/start of the year to see these types of stories floating around – from why Siberia is suddenly the hottest place this side of the Arctic to 10 places to party/find solitude, explore/beach bum it, volunteer/live like a celeb etc, etc, etc.

It’s become such a hackneyed area that some writers have greeted recent listings with a healthy dose of cynicism – check out Grumpy Traveller’s brilliant take on this year’s ‘unmissable’ travel destinations here.

I’m a big fan of Globe Trekker the TV show that’s all about real travel to real destinations. So I was a little concerned that the Globe Trekker Year Book would contain a string of recommendations to see and do the same old things that everyone recommends year on year.

A little book full of travel ideas

But their take on the world’s big events for 2010 doesn’t disappoint.  If the world has suddenly become too small for you you’ll find a wealth of inspiration there. Added to that the pocket-sized book also features a number of tasty recipes from the Planet Food show like Thai Tom Yum Soup and Mexican Vanilla and Lime Flan.

Some of my favourite travel recommendations, which I’m going to try to fit in this year are:

  • Songkran (Thai New Year) in Chiang Mai.
  • Wilderness trekking in Alaska.
  • The Cali Festival in Colombia – a huge annual salsa event.
  • Canoeing the Rio Grande through Texas.
  • And one day, just one day, I’ll get over to the Wife Carrying Championships in Finland.

It’s the one book assured to give me itchy feet this year as it packs a load of suggestions for £5.99. Check it out here

What are your hot destinations for the year? Do you plan to take in any unmissible events?

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | January 27, 2010

101 ways with bananas

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Ok get your minds out of the gutter straight away – this is a travel blog!
This week the greatest number of British travel journalists ever in one place has amassed in the Canary Island of Tenerife.

This is the first time I’ve attended the annual meeting of the British Guild of Travel Writers (BGTW) and though it serves as a time to address some important business, it’s also a chance for our hosts in Tenerife to show us what the island has to offer. Given that over 100 travel journalists are here you can expect lots of blogs, pics, tweets and general online chatter about the meeting and the island in the next few days.

We started our trip with a fascinating dinner at a banana plantation. Arriving to drinks among rows of slightly dark and forboding banana trees we were treated to canapes, many of which were made from variations on bananas.

Feel like a banana?

I don’t mind the odd banana but I really had no idea there were so many ways you could eat/cook them. Our menu tonight included Iberico ham and banana parcels, cheese salad with banana vinaigrette and pumpkin seeds (particularly delicious) and pork shoulder with banana and red mojo sauce.

It was a lovely meal and amazingly I didn’t once feel sick of bananas!

Dinner was accompanied by fantastic music from a string quartet, which added a certain glamour to the factory like feel of the plantation’s sorting/packaging area. This glamour was shattered, for me at least, when I had to use the toilet. Being confronted by a block of chemical loos was a sharp contrast to the waiter service and orchestral tones of the strings section – but then it was a plantation high on a hillside, what could you expect?

Unfortunately this is where a luxury travel writer comes unstuck. Unused to roughing it I struggled with the chemical cubicle, couldn’t get the lock to work, so feared the door would spring open at any moment, leaving me exposed for all the world to see. Then as I was struggling to pump the foot pedal  to get enough water through to the tap to wash my hands I found myself laughing inanely at my efforts and literally feeling like a banana!

It’s at this point that I realised the budget travellers in the BGTW really had something over me – they can deal with absolutely any travel adversity.

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | January 12, 2010

Have free wifi? Sell it

Free wifi at the Orla Copacabana Hotel

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As I started this post I was convinced of one thing – though travellers want free wifi in hotels, hoteliers themselves don’t see any value in it. I have started a twitter list detailing hotels that offer free wifi and it has grown some, but one major problem is that hotels don’t always promote their service even on their own website.

I wondered did hoteliers really under value the benefits of providing free wifi to such an extent that some don’t even highlight it?

But just as I was typing this I had an email from Juan Lema, director of two hotels in Rio saying that Orla Copacabana Hotel and Premier Copacabana Hotel have provided guests with free wifi for nearly ten years.

“We believe this is, and has become, an essential service. Like hot water.” said Juan. “Hotels still see internet access as a source of revenue, and it is, but we consider wifi so important it can’t be an optional service anymore. It’s like having a TV or a private bath in your room – you don’t charge guests for that.”

I think this is a very encouraging sign – if more hotels promote the service they’re offering it will make it easier for us to choose one that offers free wifi. If we vote with our feet (or wallets) it will force the issue and make more hotels provide wifi as they do other basic amenities.

Around the world the campaign for free wifi is gaining pace. It started in the blogosphere (a good round-up of the coverage can be found on London Hotels Insight) but now politicians and newspapers are joining the call – check out these pieces from Adam Kirby at Hotels Magazine and the Washington Post, which also offers ideas for how hoteliers can make wifi networks work for them.

The provision of free wifi is becoming a hot issue and a decision maker in people’s travel choices, so if you’re a hotelier offering free wifi tell your guests about it – post it on your website, detail it on your Facebook page. If you’re on twitter, put it in your profile page/biog and message me @sarahleetravels and I’ll add you to the free wifi twitter list.

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | January 11, 2010

Making luxury holidays work for you

Broaden your horizons - luxury travel means smarter travel in 2010. La Herencia Suites, Mexico

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I’ve made no secret of the fact that I like luxury accommodation when travelling. Let’s be clear, it’s a holiday not hard time, so I opt for quality accommodation. In this I know I’m by no means alone – the luxury travel market has grown exponentially in recent years and there are more and more magazines, websites and tour companies dedicated to elegant escapes.

But the hardships of the last two years have naturally had a knock on effect and even those with executive incomes have reassessed their travel arrangements. A few weeks ago I blogged on a predicted travel trend for 2010 – austerity chic – cutting back on luxury breaks to avoid ostentation in our travel.  As stated, I think instead of travelling cheaper in a bid to satisfy any social concerns this is a time to travel smarter.

Depending on what you are looking for, there are various travel options available, but one of the major growth areas set for 2010 is shared ownership.

As global property markets have crashed so too has the housing market in many of the world’s second home hotspots. Yet shared ownership property – timeshare and fractional has weathered the financial storm. Timeshare has had a checkered history across Europe. It’s not a product that appeals to everyone. But for the right person, who buys at the resort that’s right for them it can offer a lifetime of luxury holidays at the price you paid ten (or even more) years ago. Timeshare has been popular in North America for years with big names in luxury hotels like Fairmont, Four Seasons and Marriott opening countless resorts there and in other parts of the world.

Three bedroom suite at La Herencia. Click image for more photos

Few people actually know what a fractional is, but all this is set to change. With 10,000 units coming on sale across Europe and the Middle East, 2010 is set to be the year of the fractional. A fractional does have some common ground with timeshare. It’s shared ownership of property at a luxurious or exclusive development for periods of anything up to three months. These properties can be found the world over but the more exclusive the better – so look for them in Lake Tahoe, Aspen, London, Paris, Venice and more.

Fractional properties are not cheap (although some are very reasonable) but they offer fantastic quality, luxury fixtures and fittings, incredible locations and extras such as 24/7 concierge services, private jet and yacht use, exchange programmes that can take you around the world, and many the investment aspect people look for in second homes.

Luxury fittings and close-up views of London's Tower Bridge, Ultimate Escapes, London

As I specialise in writing about shared ownership, I have stayed in some timeshare and fractional properties and can vouch for the quality of the accommodation. If you’re looking for an investment in a holiday ownership property check out industry regulator the Resort Development Organisation for independent advice via the following sites: gotimeshare.org and gofractional.org.

As for which resort to buy at, well that’s down to the individual but here is just a small selection of the great ones going on sale this year that I have either visited myself or have grabbed awards or interest within the industry:

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | December 11, 2009

‘Staycationers’ stay away

"Grab your bags, we're not staying here"

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According to the managing director of Butlins the big 2009 staycation (the term for taking a UK holiday) revolution never materialised: http://bit.ly/87bRAX

Earlier this year I was wondering about this much talked about phenomena and concluded back in the summer that staycations, like nano-breaks and other ridiculous sounding ‘new’ ways to beat the recession and still take a holiday, were made up notions. The stuff of travel company marketing teams who felt that by developing a new trend travellers would book in their droves.

Whenever I travelled this year, and as a travel journo I do quite a lot of travelling, the airports were pretty busy. I’m not saying the industry hasn’t felt the effects of the economic meltdown – 2009 has been a struggle for many travel companies. But people are so used to foreign holidays now they don’t want to give them up.

Instead they’ve changed the way they travel – staying in cheaper accommodation, going for 10 instead of 14 nights and some have bought shared holiday ownership (timeshare and fractional) too. Butlins itself has seen a lot of interest in its fractional at it’s Minehead resort, something I wrote about here in the summer. And though there seemed to be a slight increase in the numbers of people taking a UK holiday this year, the only people who really enjoyed a staycation were the marketers that earned a packet devising the ridiculous term.

In the words of a 90s boy band call it what you want. But realise that today most of us are fitted with an acute hype filter. For me, made up marketing terms are a total turn off. I’d rather be sold a destination or a hotel on its enviable attractions than as a ‘new way to travel’.

My hope for 2010 is that travel companies get back to selling holidays on their merits instead of hype.

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Posted by: Sarah Lee | December 4, 2009

Find a free wifi hotel

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Two weeks ago I posted in support of a growing campaign to see more hotels offer free wifi to guests – you can read that post here. To help people locate a hotel offering guests this basic-level service I started a twitter list.

The list is growing and there are a few brands on it, from the exclusive to the budget conscious, offering free wifi across their chain of hotels. Red Carnation, Best Western, Days Inn and City Inn, for example, deserve particular recognition. Some other chains on the list just offer free wifi in certain of their hotels – so best to check before booking.

The list has some limitations – it only covers hotels with a twitter profile that I’ve discovered so far, but I hope it will become much more comprehensive so please tweet me @sarahleetravels if you know of any or work at a hotel and want to be added.

The biggest problem I’ve found in compiling the list was one highlighted by another free wifi campaigner @eurapart who said: “Bizarre – hotels on Twitter should be more aware of the need for free wifi yet it’s the ones not on Twitter that offer it”.

It is perhaps one of the strangest scenarios. Any hotel worth its social media salt should recognise the value of a tweet, status update or blog post. I’m not even the most prolific of social networkers, but take a look at my own online activities – I have 1,800 or more followers on twitter, a blog, a Facebook profile, Friendfeed, Linkedin, Tripadvisor, Flickr, Ecademy and YouTube accounts . I like good service and tend to give praise where it’s due. So if I like your hotel I’d like to get straight online and tell the world about it on one of the aforementioned formats. I won’t do it if I have to pay extortionate rates for wifi. Simple.

As an example: earlier this week I went for afternoon tea at a London hotel, beforehand we had a really good glass of mulled wine in one of its bars and were quite taken with the surroundings, so I attempted to tweet about it. Wifi cost £14 for 24 hours use. So I took a rain check.

So if you’re a hotel engaging with guests via social media (and really, you ought to be!) you should be backing this up by offering free wifi.

Wifi shouldn’t be an exclusive extra because you’re staying at a five-star or boutique hotel nor should you be exploited because you’re on a budget. Wifi has become a modern-day necessity so hotels should include it in their pricing structure and stop charging guests inflated rates.

For more on the whole topic check out London Hotel Insight’s posts – the latest one directed at Travelodge and Premier Travel Inn is here.

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