Monday, August 24, 2015

Yellowknife, NWT - Canada's Perfect Capital.

I have always had a soft spot for Yellowknife, and can unequivocally say that it is my favourite of the fourteen provincial, territorial and federal capitals. For what it is worth, Edmonton is my least favourite, but nobody asked, and I don’t want to dwell on the Bad Times.

Yellowknife, quite simply, is fun; it takes itself so seriously that it borders on becoming a parody of itself, and in that enthusiasm embraces visitors and observers into the unique perspective of life that is offered by diamonds, government and tourism.

I first travelled there in the early 1980s. At that time Northwest Territorial Airways operated an elderly Lockheed Electra, a most comfortable 86-passenger propeller plane that offered a semi-circular lounge area in its tail, on a three-hour flight from Winnipeg to Yellowknife. I was fortunate to ride on this line several times, and came to love the frontier town that the Territorial capital then was.

The price of gold was marked hourly by chalk in the smoky coffee shop of the Discovery Inn, this information seemingly critical to the minute-by-minute temperament of the locals. Tourism, of course, was barely on the horizon in those days, but there were great folks around who wanted to see how they could join this burgeoning industry.

One Yellowknife airport!
And they most certainly succeeded! Yellowknife now hosts as many as 75,000 visitors each year, a number that exceeds its population. Many (some 22,000) come for the Northern Lights, as Yellowknife is one of, if not the preeminent locations to witness this extraordinary display. In particular, the Japanese visit in huge numbers, 10,000 at the last count, and this has spawned a fascinating parallel economy of fine sushi and other Japanese niceties to sooth these visitors’ yearnings for home.

But is it not all about lights, of course, given that the city bathes in sunlight for several months each year. It is, above all, I decided, all about aviation.  The city is alive with aircraft from the conventional jets that connect the city with the south to a vast miscellany of buzzy little creatures that whizz miners, tourists, campers and sightseers around the astonishing surroundings. Lakes and trees, Canada’s staple landscape, dominate; however, the connectivity by air, the isolated cabins, the dramatic lodges and fertile hunting grounds bring the bush to the city and the city to the bush. It is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

One of the many houseboats in the bay
The Old Town is the cultural heartbeat of Yellowknife; the original houses, some restored professionally, some with only love and a smile and some untouched for decades, reflect the powerful sense of triumph and the future that the original prospectors imbued. It is a place to get lost, and there is a superb audio-app that every visitor should obtain that quickly draws you back to the thirties and forties, and the real core of Yellowknife’s soul.

 Yellowknife's Old Town

From the city, when one just has to get away, there are lodges and camps, but none finer then Blachford Lake, a long-term work-in-progress facility about forty minutes away by air. This lodge defies description; it is comfortable and has managed to incorporate the souls of every visitor and staff member rover the thirty-five years it has been in operation. It offers accommodation and food, of course, but more importantly a milieu that can best be described as its own ecosystem.

I love Blachford. The facilities are by no means luxurious, but extend the security of a family with the celebration of friends in the most unlikely setting. There are educational courses and weddings, small think-tank meetings and romantic weekends, fishing escapes and aurora watching and dog sledding and ambience; above all, the northern ambience. Visitors come for many reasons, but all leave with the same images woven together to form their own memories.

Blachford Lodge
And if one has to point out that if it is good enough for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, given their choice of evey lodge in Canada, well, I would agree that is is more than good enough for me. 

We were there for dinner, and as our six-seat Beaver waited patiently, we certainly didnt' want to leave too fast. The atmosphere of the Lodge is unique; anover used word, perhaps, but this truly was. It is not a "Wilderness Lodge", and does not fit neatly into any single classification, but this, of course, is the core of Blachford's attractions. It is simply a Lodge in the Wilderness offering its guests an extraordinary opportunty to feel free, comfortable and to completely relax, secure in teh knowledge that the remarkable staff are ready to explain, show, identify and talk about anything and everything that happens and lives in these vast woods. 

Back in the city, and seeking food, we were surprised at the varation that is available; certainly a result of both local demand and the thousands of hungry tourists that come by each year. Terrific restaurants abound, and Bullock’s Bistro, the Dancing Moose and Sushi North deserve a special mention; there are brilliant museums and exhibitions; the town’s hiking trails, particularly Frame Lake are fabulous, and in the winter, and I am sure that I will get back again to report, a whole new world of opportunity opens up.

Yellowknife is an active place, and for those willing to get out and enjoy, the rewards are endless.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Canadian Prairies; Driving the Yellowhead Highway to Yellowknife

How remiss and idle I have been.

I have, in accordance with the Way of Life, been wandering this summer, and notably through Canada. Having left Newfoundland and its unusual dancing, whizzed around the Cabot Trail, and I must say left that iconic drive completely underwhelmed, it was time to head west, and drive to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories

Now the drive from Winnipeg to Yellowknife, some 3,000 kms of deeply predictably highway, can appear to be monotonous. This would be and unfortunate and slightly unkind observation as my friend, the CBC notable Laurie Hoogstraten pointed out. “Meditative is the word you are looking for, Max”, she intoned, “not dull at all”.

The meditative Prairies

She may have a point. The landscapes between here and there is not Alpine; it does, however offer some broad and extraordinary landscapes coloured by the changing sky, the crops and the periodic, brightly coloured farm building. Yellows, Blues, reds and the heavy and dominating black skies of a Prairie storm were all about, and with the wide open plains, visible in a 360° arc that completely encased our car.

The Yellowhead Highway is the main artery to the northwest, and it was on this wonderfully named road that we spent some 1,500 kms passing through the rolling fields of western Manitoba, the agricultural heartland of Saskatchewan (“easy to draw, hard to spell”), and the transitioning landscapes of Alberta.

Farm implements for sale in such numbers; massive, insect-like machines with purposes city-dwellers could only presume lined the side of the highways as we passed through the Prairie farming towns. Endless fields of brightly coloured canola, herds of sunflowers and the rising tide of wheat that would eventually be taken in the early fall. All of this agriculture was quite overwhelming, and visually delightful.

While at first glance, the road was long, straight and scarcely undulating, it was impossible not to feel the overwhelming sense of community that imbues life on the sharp end of production. It is, after all, these men and women living their lives in a thousand  Dog Rivers that feed us all. Trains, three kilometres long, as they passed by one at a level crossing, gave ample time to ponder their cargoes, destinations and the extraordinary process by which seed, water and sun can create billions of tons of produce to be shipped to every corner of the earth.

And once free, and ready to move on, we reached Saskatoon, the slightly quirky and rather pretty city that houses the University of Saskatchewan and straddles the South Saskatchewan River in the centre of the prairie. It is a welcome break, although it was raining so much its charms were mostly washed away, but there are several very good restaurants in town, and the opportunity was taken to celebrate my cousin Jude’s Marker Birthday in some style.

She, my cousin, was it must be said, quite overwhelmed with the available space of the prairie, the relative emptiness of the roads, the sheer quantity of farmland, the mysterious stick-insect-machines that seemed to be so popular, the proliferation of pick-up trucks, the rather unappealing urban-planning represented to us as we drove, grain elevators, and Corner Gas (to which we inevitably introduced her).

 And so the first day passed; the second (1,074kms to Peace River) was not notably different other than the irritating road works, punctuating the meditation, presented by Edmonton clearly trying to sharpen itself up. We turned north; the first real junction of the journey and a good opportunity to test the car’s steering mechanism, and slowly but surely, in the sort of progression that is only visible to those in a car, or perhaps a train, the landscape changed, and on the third day, (945kms - Peace River to Fort Providence) we passed the border into the Northwest Territories, and as we burst across the 60th parallel, so did the sunshine and our introduction to the north was complete as the park rangers immediately offered us a cup of coffee.

The Sunny (and crowded) border

Coffee is the fuel of the north; barely an hour goes by without someone “putting on another pot”, “topping one up”, “reaching for an empty cup” and bemoaning the black liquid’s viscosity. “A bit thick, this coffee” is a common refrain, but there it is, the primary food group of Canada’s territories.

Fort Providence, a community that lies along the Mighty Mackenzie, and until recently was where all land traffic in the summer had to cross by ferry, is compact, slightly buggy, friendly and a fine place to stay overnight before the final 350kms on to Yellowknife.

The Mackenzie River at Fort Providence

 I am, as many well know, an immigrant from the United Kingdom; London is my Home Town and the transition from Britain to Canada interesting. There are, it seems two English people living in Fort Prov (as it is so charmingly diminutised); appearing in the community one day, and declaring that it offered all that was unavailable in Great Britain, they moved. I didn’t meet them, but would love to find out more. Perhaps it was the curious drinking requirements:

The imposing regulations of Ft. Providence

The Last Leg into Yellowknife
And so to Yellowknife, the buzzy, sunny, captivating capital of the Northwest Territories, formerly the North Western Territory (1859), then the North-West Territories (1871) and finally, in a moment of grammatical defiance, the hyphen was dropped in 1912 and the Northwest Territories became the territory that it is not today.

Having been split into two parts in 1999, the eastern Arctic became the Nunavut Territory, and presumably tired of the etymological disturbances of the past centuries, and being underwhelmed by the new names offered as an alternative (“Denedeh”, an Athabaskan word meaning “Our Land” was a strong contender, as was the choice to rename the territory “Bob” according to polls at the time), the title of The Northwest Territories stuck, and the NWT it remains.

A very fine place, and only 3,020 kms from my house in Winnipeg.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Newfoundland Outports and the Coxey Woxey Dixie Bird

I can’t say that I was familiar with the Coxey WoxeyDixie Bird before I reached François (pronounced, of course, “Frans-Way”), but it was one of the rather interesting cultural identifications of this fascinating village.

Newfoundland Outports”. The concept itself conjures up inclement weather, tough communities clinging to barren rock carving a difficult living from the heaving oceans; they are ancient, by North American standards, and protect the hardy stock of Irish and Dorset fishermen who arrived in the eighteenth century, bringing fishing skills, music and a deep rooted sense of community to the rugged shores of southern Newfoundland.

Francois, Newfoundland

The outports are not that easy to reach. A ferry that very closely resembles a small trawler, connects François to the Big Smoke of Burgeo and the provincial road network daily, (except Thursdays (and the first, second, fourth and fifth Tuesdays of each month)), and Hermitage to the East on Thursdays. A ticket for the six-hour run to Burgeo costs a mighty $8.25 for the ride to the outports, and seems to be to be a bargain. The vessel, the M/V Marine Voyager seems to be a sturdy little boat of some 238 tons; operated by the Puddister Trading Company of St. John’s, it zooms along the coast at a top speed of 10.5 knots, propelled by 746 kilowatts of diesel-generated power.

An alternative way to visit is on board one of the Expedition Cruise vessels that make rare stops, and this is how I ended up deep in François Bay visiting the community of eighty souls on the remote southern coast of Newfoundland.

A cursory glance at the headstones in the windswept graveyard show a preponderance of Durnforths and Fudges; I asked our delightful guide, Austin Fudge, about feuds, and the difficulties of a Hatfield & McCoy sort of scenario.

“No,” he said, “we get on fine. Nothing like that, except maybe in the spring time when a couple of the women over there”, he said with an indicative flick of his head, “seem to compete. With something; I don’t really know what”. Not a hotbed of revolution, then, but not a completely healthy community.

Its charming veneer of brightly coloured houses, steep cliffs and a boardwalk system to links the community together looks a little idyllic. Idylls however, tend to be in the minds of the beholders, and the population that has been in steady decline now lies at a precipitous level. Thirteen children are in the school, but it is unlikely that they will remain in the community; when they go, and the older folks die, the community will go with it. “Another ten to fifteen years” was the opinion of Sean Cadigan, a most affable and knowledgeable historian who travelled with us, “and the community will fade away”

Lobsters seem to be the mainstay of the economy here; not to the level of the last decades of the nineteenth century when the Fudge family managed a canning factory from 1870 to 1900, but lucrative enough for the moment. Only time will tell, but remote communities everywhere are feeling the inexorable squeeze of globalisation, and the concentration of government services in fewer locations.

The community is a fine place to visit. Scenically it is gorgeous, and the community spirit for which The Rock is so well known, is alive and well. Spending a day enjoying one of the several hikes around and above the community, enjoying some cogitating time by the harbour, casting a line with a local guide and simply chatting to everyone in town is rewarding. And when the sun dips behind the cliffs, and the community gathers in the hall, be ready to dance … rocking the night away with one-man-band Darren Durnford is a fine experience. 

Starting his set with a fine rendition of Dire Srait’s Walk of Life, Darren continued with a fine mixture of the bouncy, the obligatory local repertoire and the highlight for the crowd of gambolling natives and visitors, The Coxey Woxey Dixie Bird; guaranteed to draw one into the fray, and a palpable relief from the more conventional Chicken Dance, the music-man entertained and danced us into the night before returning by zodiac through the fjord-like cliffs to our ship anchored just off the coast.

The Akademik Ioffee at Francois

Outports are unique. They are fascinating, accessible and will not be there for ever; absorbed by our ever-homogenising world, their complicated simplicity should be treasured. For those fortunate enough to visit, either independently on the equally-fascinating Newfoundland ferry system, or on an expedition cruise, it will be an experience not easily forgotten, and a new prism through which to view our own hurtling lives.

 Thanks, François!

MaxGlobetrotter's new prism of life - The Coxey Woxey Dixie Bird

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Expedition Cruising; a great way to explore!

You see a lot more at sea.

Much of it water, of course, and depending on the itinerary that you pick, be sure to request a cabin that will offer the greatest sight of land, but all in all, travelling by sea is a very great privilege. It is slow, it is intimate and above all, it offers the sense of distance and achievement that aeroplanes most decidedly do not.

The Akademik Ioffee
Ships can allow exploration; they allow, assuming that they are the correct vessels, the opportunity to get up close and personal with coastlines, remote communities, small islands and many geographical wonders that would otherwise remain unseen. Ships, and I am not talking here about the massive casino-type cruisers, are poking their noses in everywhere; from a myriad of fascinating routes through Antarctica, and the uninhabited islands of South Georgia and South Orkney to the deep fjords of the Arctic coast and the wilderness and glacial gravitas of the Greenland coast.

Quite simply, small ships are nosey, and their passengers seem to share this feature. There is absolutely no reason on earth to travel to most of the destinations of the One Ocean portfolio, but clearly there is a demand for this kind of experience. Stopping for an afternoon in a remote Newfoundland outport, or enjoying the authoritative odour of several thousand indifferent walruses and sea lions may not appear on every bucket-list, but for a growing number of travellers seeking experiences and not simply the security of sneeze-shield protected dining.

Launching the Zodiacs for a trip to shore
The sea offers a different sense of timing, and indeed time. Stubbornly sticking to “ship time”, and ignoring the conventions of other time zones through which we passed, was only mildly disconcerting. It was peculiar to have one’s iPhone (for it is the 21st century, and we are addicts) tell a different story to the ship’s schedules, and for all that it matters, we could have chosen an entirely random notation of time and stuck stubbornly to that particular fiction. Tim also passes differently; the speed of passage ensures that minor incidents receive deliberation, comment and reflection. The hour of happiness, heralded by the announcement of the daily cocktail is a powerful marker, as are the suns daily appearance and disappearance. Meals, taken at roughly logical intervals punctuate the day, and lead all on board to quickly fall into a delightfully timeless existence.

Another day, another port, another idea and another new lesson learned. Who know that the smoking of fish or the oxidisation of the earth’s mantle, conveniently sticking out through the planet’s crust in GrosMorne, or the lyrical syntax of Newfoundland’s musical heritage could be so captivating? Not I. Let alone the historical weaving that has bound the Great War, sealing accidents and the connection to Mussolini in Canada’s most easterly province into a single rich fabric; knowledge is a fine thing, and the “colour commentators” on board the ship are absolutely first class.

Off to explore!

And above all, perhaps, these expeditionary itineraries offer the opportunity to explore and visit a collection of quite fascinating destinations within a relatively short period of time. Unencumbered by the frippery of casinos, high-end boutiques, combat Mariachi bands and the tiresome ephemera of the glossier end of the cruising spectrum, these vessels simply do their job.

They introduce interested people to interesting places.  

Surging through the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sable Island: remote and very mysterious

One either wants to go to Sable Island or one has probably never heard of it. Of all of the remote markings with which cartographers embellish their maps, few have the appeal of remote islands and within the family of remote islands, Sable stands head and shoulders above the rest.

The first view of Sable Island
Why, it is difficult to comprehend, but its reputation, its mystery and its isolation all merge to create a fascination that is only hastned as one steams toward this peculiar sand bar.

Sable lies some 150 kilometres to the south of Louisbourg on the Cape Breton Island coast. It is a brief “new moon” of land some forty kilometres long and about one kilometre wide. It is a land of shifting sands, high winds, howling weather and an improbable attraction. It is home to some three to four-hundred wild horses, a population that is unmanaged, which is to say it is left alone. They live and die with the brutality of isolation, and their development and unique characteristics are their attraction;  stocky and short with coats that thicken dramatically during the winter, they resemble Spanish horses and reflect their tough island habitat.

Sable Island's horses
They are, it must be said, quite startling, and to the casual observer of horses, as I would consider myself, beautiful in the strength of their personality. They survive in a most inclement environment, and enchant visitors. They live only because of the fresh water on Sable; it is a sand island that is saturated by the sea water and in the small indentations in the centre, fresh water accumulates, and lies on top of the saline water to form fresh water lakes.

These lakes support not only the island’s wildlife, but an extraordinary variety of flora.

Recent surveys show 179 species of flora living on this spit of land. Vivid blue Iris, amber and white orchids, rose hips, pink grasses, cranberries and wild strawberries were only a few of the astonishing variety that lie in the proximity of the lakes.

They are protected; before landing, we cleansed our footwear, picked at our outer clothing for hitch-hiking seeds, and had to declare ourselves “bio-protective” before landing. The needless introduction of foreign plant life is to be avoided at all costs. Access to Sable Island is not straightforward; one can fly or arrive by boat and in either case, the trip has to be approved in advance.

The Akademik Ioffe, chartered by the Canadian-based operator One Ocean Expeditions, set sail from Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in the early evening for the overnight journey south to Sable. Only about a third of attempted journeys succeed, and although the weather was calm as we left, it can change in a heartbeat.

I made it !
The island lies at the confluence of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current, and this unique vantage offers explanations for most of the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies that swirl about it. Flotsam on the south shore, carried north by the Gulf Stream include tropical wood and coconuts, while the refuse that accumulates on the northern shore is usually of a tougher ilk, like fishing tackle and driftwood from capsized trawlers. The colliding patterns of these two currents form wild and confusing drift patterns around the island, and go some way to explaining why there are the wrecks of over 350 ships on this tiny speck of land.

Landing is by zodiac, and after running up on to the beach and clambering ashore, one is faced with the enormity of the achievement; hardly anyone gets to this small land, and to be one of the few fortunate to be able to land is a very special privilege. The novelty wears off quickly, however, and once the wrestling with ship’s waterproof clothing is over and the hike begins, the power of sand to suck anything and everything into its orbit becomes apparent.

Trudging up to and over the dunes is hard work, and at the beginning, not entirely rewarding; however, after about forty minutes, at the top of Bald Dune a view opens up that stretches the eyeballs and one’s mind. The almost endless dune, whipped by the southern Gulf current on one side, and the Labrador, calmed by the southerly winds, lapping at the northern, inside beach of the crescent; in front are the ponds and when the sun escapes momentarily from the clouds, the rays reflect the most inspiring palette of colour. The wild flowers in vivid blues, reds and whites lay against the deep green tufts of grass and the Sable horses munching away completed this unique perspective.

Hiking on the dunes.
It was a gentle trundle down the dune, more horses, wild strawberries, gasps of amazement and the collective astonishment that we were engaged in one of Canada’s most mysterious and rewarding locations.

One Ocean Expeditions, the Squamish-based expedition cruise operator brought us here; their fabulous East Coast itinerary, of which there will be more in my subsequent blogs, includes Sable along with half a dozen other iconic destinations. Their operation is slick; we were on and off Sable with no mishap, roughly one hundred people of varying capabilities, including a ninety-two year old Cape Breton Islander, Harvey, who had wanted to visit the island all of his life. One Ocean’s zodiacs were ideal, the staff reassuring, despite the fact that none had visited before, and Jonathan Sheppard, the island manager, a most cordial, interesting and welcoming host.

Sable is not a simple destination; it takes work, planning and a great deal of fortune. Southerly winds are the island’s visitors’ friends, and last Wednesday they were blowing our way.

Friday, July 3, 2015

MaxGlobetrotter's Ten Favourite Countries - Numbers 1 to 3

Publishing lists seems to be the craze right now, and indeed the new owner of The Great Canadian Travel Company, the redoubtable Ian Kalinowsky, has asked me to pen my top ten “new destinations for 2016”, which in due course I shall.

However, for now I am going simply to answer one of the most common questions that I am posed, “Which is your favourite  place in the world?”.

It is not a simple question, and there really are no straightforward answers, and so I am picking my Top Ten, and, in no particular order, am posting them on a daily basis on my new Facebook page, a page that I would strongly urge you to visit and “like”!! I am also marching blindly into the world of Twitter, and taking this most peculiar communication more seriously; I don’t quite get it yet, but am advised that with perseverance, its logic structure and  will become apparent.

We shall see.

In the meantime, however, I have given a great deal of thought to my favourite destinations, and felt the need to lead the pack with Portugal, and more specifically, the slice of the country that lies from Lisbon south to, but not including the Algarve, and inland to the Spanish border.

Portinho d'Arrabida
It is a land that holds many, many memories. I was introduced to travel when I was young, and from the time that I was seven-years old my parents rented an apartment for the month of August. I learned Portuguese, although my accent and vocabulary was limited to the in-shore fishermen with whom I passed many happy daysgutting fish. My particular linguistic skills, of which I was 
inordinately proud, had shortcomings that only became apparent at a Christmas gathering of my (then) girlfriend’s family; they were senior Portuguese diplomats, and surprised to hear the frothy vernacular of the sea in their rather particular salons.

I have continued to travel to Portugal, and love this special area of coastline, the Costa Azul, the plains of Alentejo, the plaintiff sounds of Fado music from its heart in Lisbon. The region has been good to me, and I am sure that I will continue to visit for as long as I am able.

My second choice is Suriname. I have been fortunate to visit four times in the past couple of years and each time gain a deeper admiration for the people of this fine country. For visitors, Suriname offers the frisson of excitement that travelling to “new “destinations brings; it has exquisite birdlife, and the expanse of the Amazon rain forest can only make Costa Rica weep.

There arejungle lodges (fly-in only) that offer the flora and fauna of the jungle on an “up close and personal” basis, and there are any number of simple resorts along the Suriname River. There are communities whose lifestyles have changed little in the three hundred years since their ancestors ran from slavery and founded the Maroon villages, and there welcome is genuine and open. For those who love to fish, the rivers are full of fine sport, and for those whose outdoor pursuits are more gentle, the butterflies that dart into and out of the canopy in true visions of colour.

Amazing Butterflies! 

Rural Suriname

And then there is the capital, Paramaribo; built apparently from the leftover bits of Amsterdam in the mid nineteenth century, it houses wonderful period houses, fine public buildings, and then tumbles into the contemporary suburbs of any growing city. Nationalities and religions coincide with mosques adjacent to synagogues and all celebrating each other’s’ High Days and holidays.  The river is magnificent, as are all of the massive waterways of The Guyanas, and to sit in the evening at the marvellous Baka Foto restaurant lying within the walls of Fort Zeelandia, built in the 1650s by the Dutch.

What a fine country Suriname is!

And so is Uruguay; not a hot destination among travellers to South America, it is really a very fine place to visit. I have been there several times, and love the balance between the cosmopolitan nature of Punta del Este, one of the world’s preeminent beach destinations, and the rather rakish nature of Montevideo; the steamy colonial towns of the western regions and the frontier nature of the inland communities of Trienta e Tres and Tacuarembo are dusty, unvisited and quite delightful.

It is also the home of Corned Beef, that disgraceful staple of English school food in the 1960s, and the massive and now fortunately dilapidated factory at Fray Bentos is a testament to just how much of the stuff was made. The office, closed in the late 1970s remains as it was on that final day, looks for all the world like a relic of the Victorian era, it is hard to imagine it at work only forty years ago.

There are lovely ranches, horse riding tours, music, street markets, wine and fine food; there are good roads, a sixteenth century town, the massive Rio de la Plata, and for any travellers venturing south to Argentina, I would urge a few days in Uruguay be added to the journey. It is a terrific place, and will not disappoint.

And so these are the first three; seven more to come, and frankly I have yet to determine just who will make the list. There are destinations that I visited decades ago whose charms and idiosyncrasies have stayed with me, and there are countries that I have visited only in the past year or two that have enchanted me.

We will indeed see. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Travel and The Sharing Economy

I just made my first booking through Airbnb; it is for a fine looking apartment in London, and the process was, for a techno-phobe such as me, relatively painless.

I had problems “verifying” myself - don’t you just love the vocabulary of the internet - but much to my delight this proved to be an issue with the Airbnb “app” and not an intellectual failing on my part. The host, or at least the property’s manager Jan (in Belgium) was great, and the booking made. Next time I will be quicker.

And more importantly, we have a fabulous-lookingapartment in Central London confirmed for four nights at a most reasonable price (for London) and the pictures, which have been judged by impartial reviewers to be accurate, look wonderful. C$360 per night for a family of four (when we are travelling), in a fine apartment in a central location seems pretty good to me.

I shall report.

I am unlikely to use Uber to get to the apartment, and because London is my home town, I may not engage a local guide through Tours byLocals, but one never knows. Travel has become much more intimate with these astonishing services, and in many ways, considerably simpler.

But my goodness, how they have upset the status quo.

And this, I find both amusing and a touch bewildering. Amusing because for most of my life, and those of many others, we have been taught not to waste; “waste not, want not” I was told (repeatedly). Do not waste food, not time, not emotion nor anything else within our control. And now we have the ability to share our unused capacity in a variety of genres, we are facing a wide and vociferous throng telling us that to share is wrong, dangerous and very economically short-sighted.

Well, I am not sure about this. I see the regulatoryissues of Airbnb being quite important, but not beyond the capacity of people to rectify through new lease arrangements, insurance modifications and potentially the broadening or retargeting of tourist taxes. 

Uber face the wrath of a variety of established businesses, principally those who have paid significant amounts of money for taxi licences; these licences are expensive, and in some cases inflated by the fusion of the taxi-licence price and a concomitantly lucrative immigration business. In either case, purchasers of these licences should, perhaps, have been aware of what was happening in The Ether, after all, I am sure that many cab drivers have used Airbnb and other on-line sites themselves, and should have positioned themselves accordingly.

We live in a brutal era that has seen entire industries become obsolete and eliminated within very short time frames; we, wearing our “consumer” hats have driven the change that has negatively affected us when we don our “employee” hats.

It is a rough world trying to balance each side of the equation. However, the equation still exists, and new opportunities to “sell” surplus services are bursting onto the scene each week. They offer  guides, rooms, electricians, plumbers, photographers, guides and virtually every other field of endeavour that one might need.

The regulation of Citizen Professionals will be interesting and for some time, a work in progress. The fact that the regulators around the world deal with the very services that they themselves find so appealing, will surely have an impact on the final outcome of these rules.

Uber, Airbnb, Tours by Locals are here to stay, and are an integral part of a travel program. They are tools that travellers and travel-professional alike should be embracing, and incorporating into itineraries. The danger comes, of course, when some of the more intimate on-line companies become absorbed into the behemoths of the internet world.

I think that many would be surprised to know which brands belong to the Expedia and Trip Advisor “families”. Successful on-line companies get purchased; this is life, and as more become part of the three or four major global drivers, the independence that we now have will be rapidly eroded.

That is the price, and that will be the cost. However, for now, make hay while the sun is shining, and just don’t give them more personal information than you have to!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The changing Geography of Aviation.

I remember being in Dubai in the mid-eighties, and being introduced to the new airline, Emirates, that was just being launched. I was there to seek some business with DNATA, the national travel company, and all the talk was of the development of this upstart.

It was difficult to believe, on the one hand, because we were sitting in a dusty, hot and very isolated emirate, and the Dubai of 2015 was still thirty years and several trillion dollars away, but enthusiasm was not in short supply.

“The key”, I was told, “is our location; in the middle of everything”. My conversationalists this day were Tim Clark and MauriceFlanagan, two of the most significant men in the global aviation industry; they were fun, interesting and most engaging, and probably still are; I thought of staying, and throwing my hand in with this idea, but as with most of us and the opportunities that come our way, I packed up and went home instead.

They were, of course, quite correct, and now we see the global travel industry in the throes of a major shift. Who will win, what victory will look like and when it may be proclaimed are all fuzzy, but we can say for certain that the industry in ten years will be a very, very different beast.

Airline geography is a function of population diffusion and migration, of the ability of aircraft to fly immense distances and of political and financial sway.

There is no doubt that modern aircraft with the ability to fly for sixteen to eighteen hours have made the most difference; they have placed the Gulf States in the global centre of the aviation world. Most centres on the planet can be connected with a single transfer; Europe to Australia, South America to Asia, Africa to anywhere.

And herein lies the rub; the major Middle East carriers, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad have had the money to invest, and invest, they have. They offer brand new aircraft, superb in-flight service and regular and punctual service. They serve the world’s diasporas with ever-larger aircraft moving hundreds of thousands of families home to SE Asia, the sub-Continent and Africa, while offering the high-yield business travellers a level of service that is rarely equalled by their Western counterparts.

The US carriers, in particular, no strangers themselves to the benefits of duopolies and cartel-like behaviour, cry “foul”. Their route strategies, so dependent on trans-Atlantic flights connecting to “partners” for onward travel are being usurped by airlines overflying Europe for the final local disbursement to be made from their Gulf hubs; considerably more efficient for their passengers, but a commercial stake-in-the-heart for those promoting the transfer hubs of Europe.

So we see a storm brewing; Canada refuses additional traffic opportunities for Emirates so the government of the UAE closes a Canadian military camp in Dubai; The US Three (United, Delta and American) cry foul at the perceived advantages that the Middle East Three may have with subsidised fuel; the Middle Eastern trio respond with stories of the American governments’ own anti-competitive instincts (just ask Norwegian about their welcome to America). And so it goes on … but to what end?

American carriers have old aircraft (by and large), indifferent crews and poor ground services; they suffer from immense legacy costs from both union contracts, pension obligations and bloated management that are not a part of the Middle Eastern carriers’ obligations. This may or may not be fair, but most certainly adds significantly to the cost of their tickets. They are losing passengers, but instead of whining, perhaps they should seek to control costs rather than chip away and monetising every perceived benefit their passengers might enjoy. Perhaps they should offer better service, and perhaps they should simply stop being so damned adversarial to their customers.

And perhaps all six of these behemoth airlines should be watching Istanbul.

Under, perhaps, the cover of darkness, or perhaps because nobody ever took Turkey as seriously as they should, in a wide variety of arenas, both economic and political, Turkish Airlines has grown into one of the world’s most powerful airlines.

They already fly to more countries than any other carrier (105), and with their hub in Istanbul within range of so many second and third-tier cities of their smaller A319 fleet, their growth is only just beginning. Transiting in Istanbul is an extraordinary experience; so many aircraft, so many destinations and so many people; their expansion plans are ambitious and their government an integral part of this future.

When is governmental investment in infrastructure a “vital key to economic growth” and when is it a “subsidy”?

It all depends on who is asking.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why airlines dislike (most) of their clients.

Mark my words, airlines and their clients are rarely in the same boat.

The aviation industry has always been peculiar, and it is, indeed, a very difficult one to regularly make a profit. It is said that the cumulative financial results of the world’s international airlines from the end of the Second World War is a nett loss. Currently this may be changing as the US carriers finally make money, and serious piles of the stuff, but if history is any guide to the future this will change.

Change happens for many reasons, but today’s attitudes of airlines and their staff really takes the cake. Forge the sycophantic “Thanks for your business, we know you have a choice” message one hears upon landing, they know that in general, there is no choice. Depending on where you live, there is a single dominant carrier with pricing of a level of predation that would make a bald-eagle blush.

Most city pairs can be flown by one of the three major carriers; the determinant factor is, however, the number of flights available. Yes, one can travel from Minneapolis to New York with Delta, American or United, but only Delta offers a non-stop service, and prices it accordingly. The others will offer various levels of discount depending on the day of the week, how individual flights are selling at any given moment and a variety of other factors that feed the pricing algorithms that they all operate. 

This is, of course, fair enough, but not inclined to make the public believe that the airlines care about them one iota; and on non competitive routes (Winnipeg/Minneapolis), fares are simply disgraceful, and cynical in the extreme.

And then they get you; having found a reasonable fare, now there is the fight over baggage, flyer points, boarding sequence, refreshments and so on. The airlines spin doctors like to tell us that this is all a wonderful utopia designed solely for our “choice”, but the sad truth is rather different.

Airlines seem to be the only business whose heavily advertised product is deliberately made so dreadful that we will pay anything not to have to use it as described.

Unless one is one of a carriers’ most favoured clients, and here we are looking at only the top 20th percentile, one can be expected to face a cynical barrier of auto-responses and disinterest in response to any and every irregularity. Dealing with impossible call centres in distant lands solves no problems; hiding behind veils of inaccessibility allowing such gems as “The computer says no” to become the stock answer, and the pretence of the fusion of Alliances to help travellers mask a rapidly growing corporate contempt for their customers.

Airlines are behaving like governments; disinterested and too big to fail.

But why? I believe that they are simply too big. Senior executives, and even most middle managers, have never bought a plane ticket in their lives, and have absolutely no idea what the customer interface with an airline is all about. They have “Interline Desks” and travel free; other airline staff help them because they all know and participate in the same game.

I don’t begrudge them the pass benefits at all, but I do wonder how it is that an entire industry has evolved that is run by people with absolutely no practical knowledge of the customer/industry relationship. Senior folks in the grocery industry have often purchased milk themselves, or go to a Home Hardware store; they know what expectations of service are. Airline executives have simply no idea whatsoever.

They have no concept of the lunacy of the ticket restrictions when trying to piece together a complex vacation, or the difficulty in corralling three friends or family together to plan a trip. And when they do, suddenly they offer a “lock in the fare” option for (only) another $75! They simply don’t understand the vast range of motivations for purchasing their product.

And herein lies the glimmer of hope. Pride, as we know, goes before a fall; sadly, falls don’t always follow pride, but we can’t have everything.

Airline profits are slim on a percentage basis, and one that returns 3 - 4% is considered quite spectacular. This implies, of course, that 97% of their income is spent operating the business, and this leaves a dangerous group of passengers who are basically ignored. For many, travel is completely discretionary, and the choice of airlines is too. For those living at gateways, those with choice, market share of the local dominants is being slowly eroded by the newcomers. Witness the extraordinary vitriol being spouted by the normally diplomatic CEOs of Delta and United over the growth of the Middle Easter Three: Emirates, Qatar and Etihad.

They know that they are losing, and spitting blood over “subsidies” is a poor substitute for raising their service to a point that people will actually want to purchase their tickets.

And while we are on the subject of subsidies, US Government requirements for thousands of employees, contractors and others to travel on a US carrier, and pay vast fares for the privilege generate billions of dollars of revenue for the airlines in a hidden subsidy.

The contract for the US Mail is another major source of subsidy; original awarded to Pan Am to allow it to operate the first long-haul routes to South America and Africa, this tool has long been a well-used part of the government’s arsenal of support.

It is time that airlines realised that their passengers doubled as human beings, and would react positively to good service off the plane. Air Canada’s service on board is exemplary, but it does not mirror the off-line support offered by their baggage folks, airport staff, sales staff and most certainly the reservation desks. If carriers are to secure their now-found financial stability, ensuring clients’ loyalty by delivering an attractive service from beginning to end rather than by forcing loyalty through geography and nicely designed web tools would be a good move.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Here we go again! A new airline in Canada

As if the Canadian skies weren’t crazy enough, we now have a brand new airline (well, actually a small but established airline (Flair Airlines) with a new and marginally catchy name “NewLeaf Travel Company”) starting in Winnipeg.

The lessons of Greyhound, JetsGo and Canada 3000 are learned, says their new CEO, and they are ready to do for the travelling public what no other carrier has successfully done before. Challenge the might of Air Canada and WestJet, and the depth of their pockets.

And money is only the starting point; Air Canada is a public company with a soaring stock price; WestJet's shareholders include the Ontario Pension fund. Neither like competition; they don’t even like each other, although they do use each other to fly their crews around, and start-ups are a menace. They might take business, and this needs to be stopped at all costs.

We will see predatory pricing; we will see additional shots of the travellers’ cocaine, Frequent Flyer Points, and we will see some pretty demanding advertising. We will also, soon enough, hear the cry of the stranded passenger seeking somebody’s assistance to bring them home in the event that NewLeaf Travel fails to deliver.

I would love to see new, low cost carriers survive; however, they regularly do so only in highly populated environments with an average flight-length of about one hour. Charter flights are, of course, a different matter, firstly because the risk is shared with the tour operator, but stand-alone scheduled airs service is not for the faint of heart. It is a high-risk and basically low-yield business.

It is very difficult to wean regular flyers from their preferred carrier/alliance, and the passengers who are driven completely by cost are about as fickle as any market can be; they will be off to an alternative as soon as a piece of bait is tossed their way, and will only look to pay as little as possible. Adding car rentals and hotels is a nice idea, but it took EasyJet and Ryanair, the doyens of this genre of airline,  many years and much investment capital to do so.

And they didn’t start their business life in Winnipeg. We may be a singularly cheap city, but we still remain a long, long way from anywhere. The key to a successful low-cost operation, apart from the obvious lack of legacy costs, pensions, ultra-highly paid executives and so on, is the ability to fly often; with an average on a one-hour flight, one can offer twice as many rotations as one can with an average flight of two hours in the air. This makes a huge difference.

When WestJet first started, they operated on the Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Kelowna routes; all short and all popular. They started a Calgary / Winnipeg route, but soon abandoned it, realising that it took five hours to get the aircraft from Calgary to Winnipeg and back, during which time they could have flown three or even four legs in their familiar environment.

We will, of course, happily allow ourselves to be seduced again; but remember Zoom, Astro (yes, who remember their four months of scheduled service to Winnipeg), Nationair, Roots Air and of course Royal, the reincarnation of JetsGo.

I do wish NewLeaf success; I just don’t want the travel community, and the community at large to have to pick up the pieces.