Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Travellers' Curse

This was not meant to be a miserable post, and I hope that it isn’t, but I was minded to ponder my wanderings after rereading an aphorism in a blog that I follow. It is wildly known as the Travellers' Curse, and appears in many variants, and this is but one.

“The more places you see, the more things you see that appeal to you, but no one place has them all. In fact, each place has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love; it drives you, even subconsciously, to keep looking, for a place not that’s perfect (we all know there’s no Shangri-La), but just for a place that’s “just right for you.” But the curse is that the more you experience, the odds of finding “just right” get smaller, not larger. So you keep looking even more, but the more that you see, the harder it gets”. 

This is Part A

I love to travel, and have noticed that as an addiction, travel follows the traditional paths of most compulsions, requiring ever more adventure, ever more frequency and ever more “interesting” places to be.


It is the yellow one 

The case in point is the rather tranquil, if not traditionally beautiful, village of Esperaza in the Languedoc region of the south of France. It is not the most glamorous place that I have visited, but it is a destination that captivates me.

Now, the dining room 


In 2007, I bought an old butcher’s shop in the main street of this unprepossessing town on a complete and utter whim. In fact, it was seen at 11.00am, purchased by 1.00pm and by 4.00pm that afternoon we were flying back to Canada; why we did this most reckless thing I have absolutely no idea, but I am delighted that we did.

For some reason, Esperaza ticks more of my boxes than most places; it is lovely, quiet (apart from the periodic concerts in the main square), and nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees ninety minutes from the sea. It is in an area steeped in mythology, Rennes le Chateau is visible from my “office” as I type this, and the belief system of the Cathars still holds many adherents, as do a multitude of unorthodox spiritual beliefs.

It is an area of spectacular walks, remote castles, a river that is ideal for rafting and kayaking, opportunities for horseback riding, medieval markets and beyond all, some quite delightful and fascinating people.

And, because people and relationships are the most important facet of any destination and any journey they form Part B of the Travellers' Curse.

The more you travel, the more numerous and profoundly varied the relationships you will have. However, the more people you meet, the more diffused your time is with any of them, and as you cannot travel with them all all of the time, it becomes harder to develop deep relationships. Yet as one keeps traveling and meeting amazing people, it feels fulfilling; eventually, of course, you miss them all, although many have all but forgotten who you are!
Then you make up for it by staying put somewhere long enough to develop roots and cultivate stronger relationships, but these people will never know what you know or see what you’ve seen, and you will always feel a tinge of separation, and you will want to tell your stories just a little bit more often than they will want to hear them.
Another road trip seems to be the only answer”

Now, I don’t want this to sound melancholy, and I am not sitting here wringing my hands, but it is an interesting phenomenon, and one that frequent travellers know well. It has to be said, however, that few get to the point of permanent vagabonding, and most of us have real roots to which to return.


 


 But I digress; the spectrum of people in Esperaza is astonishing, and offers a warm and varied posse to join. Part of the reason is the simple variety; as we make friends at home there is more often a common denominator of education, work or children. None of these criteria come to play as you meet other wanderers in later life, and the spectrum of friends can be quite delightful.

And, as one can see from the images of folks trying to seek solace in passing companionship, travelling can be a lonely affair.

Above all, this curious confluence of people, beauty, access (Barcelona is only three hours away, and the redoubtable Ryanair can whisk one to London from the airport forty-five minutes away on a daily basis), activity and the important fact that they make a very nice drop of wine in these parts, combine to have made us stop and buy a toe-hold without a second thought.

I do look forward to returning to Winnipeg, but am grateful for the friends that I have in Esperaza, London, Tbilisi and so many others scattered around this fascinating world of ours.


Xinalic, Azerbaijan - hospitality and friendship are everywhere


And certainly, without Facebook, keeping in touch would be very difficult indeed!

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Great British Coast

The Great British coastline is a most unusual and interesting place.

It is long; 11,073 miles, with a “wiggliness” factor, more properly known as the Hausdorff Dimension of 1.25. This is wiggly indeed, and by comparison, the Australian coast measures 1.17, and the South African coastline a baby-smooth 1.02.

I am not sure who spends their life calculating the relative wiggliness of coastlines, but some do, and we are grateful for their efforts.

It is a coast that offers power stations, towering cliffs, retirement homes, smuggler’s inns, jagged rocks, smooth sand and genteel hotels; it offer walkers a variety of paths for everyone from the fittest to those in self-propelled chairs, and above all, offers a glimpse into the very soul of British Life.

Islands are different, and although it is easy to forget that the United Kingdom is an island (or collection of islands), when stuck in London, or on the Motorway driving to The North, it is a fact that nowhere in the kingdom is more than 70 miles from the sea, and most places are considerably closer than that; sea air is in the lungs of the country, and a day-at-the-seaside an inalienable right.

The towns that dot the south coast, which is pretty well one conurbation from Dover to Southampton, are of  varying character and charm; one have no charm, but it does vary. Towns vary in prosperity, upkeep, beach quality, accommodation and access to London. They vary wildly in the amenities offered to passing travellers, and the crowds in the various cafes and bars along the coast well exemplify the very precise market from which they draw their admirers.

And it is a timeless land; one in which bathing huts (or Chalets) are rented for generations, and within their twenty square feet have seen hundreds of family gatherings, events and picnics; they are decorated, some spectacularly, some diligently; some have a split level door at the front in the manner of a stable, with often their two senior residents sitting, warmly dressed, gazing out over the sea for hours at a time.

British people really do play on the beach in fouls weather; their patch slightly protected by a wind -break, their heads protected by knotted handkerchiefs, and a determination to enjoy their day-at-the-seaside despite all that the elements can throw at them. In sunny weather crowds flock to the coastal towns and wander, swim, gaze, fall in love and eat Fresh Fish; they visit strange museums, collections of lifeboats, shops of the 1950s, fishermen, shipwrecks and flower makers abound along the length of the coast as each small town tries to find its defining key, and one that will unlock the wondrous wealth of the Tourist Trade.

Accommodation, ranging from small bed & breakfasts, (“Well young Julie left for university, so we bought a new wardrobe for her room, and you can get a lovely view of the sea if you hang out of the window, just at the right angle….. no, not like that, dear …”) to a myriad of Guesthouses, principally bed & breakfasts in much larger homes, and hotels of every star and stripe.

The fine hotels of Bournemouth, Brighton and other such upmarket towns jostle with the small one-star properties, those of wire coat-hangers, tea stains, and electrically charged nylon bed covers, for space in the accommodation guides, and while there is always an element of “Buyer Beware” at any level of the accommodation spectrum, there will be somewhere to suit every taste.

The British coast is quite lovely, and my recent glimpse of it at Gravesend and Hastings has made me want to explore more.

I will head to visit the starkly beautiful north-east with their hard fishing towns and deeply rooted communities who face the North Sea in all of its moods; I will visit the Cornish and Devon coastline, and find a lovely snug hotel for a base to take some walks along the unique westerly cliffs and beaches; I shall head to the west of Wales, and explore some of the remote villages of the remote LlynPeninsular, and of course, the wild and dramatic Scottish coastlines of the west north and east.

I can’t wait to get started!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Irregular Operations: UA 972 / September 17

We have all been on flights where things go wrong; in fact, given the complexity of aircraft and their scheduling issues and the millions of passengers that travel each day, it is a wonder that things go wrong on a more regular basis.

But last night they did, and boy did the Air Traveller Gods send their thunderbolts down upon us.

I was flying on a United Airlines run from Chicago to Brussels with an onward connection to Toulouse; I was flying in First Class on an Aeroplan reward ticket. I had one meeting in Toulouse, and was then booked to fly to London on the 18th at 0850 on a separate British Airways ticket
.
Two hours after departing Chicago, a child was taken ill on the plane, and we diverted to Bangor, Maine to get the poor little tyke to hospital; this was unscheduled, but happens from time to time. We then departed from Bangor to fly the remaining six hours to the Belgian capital, and all was well. I fell asleep and dreamed of constructing tourist accommodation units in Georgia, a project that seemed to take on the most peculiar for as dream-projects are apt to do.

However, waking up some hours later I saw that the flight map had become corrupted or we were heading back to Chicago, which we were. A fault with the rudder, sufficiently serious to prevent a trans-oceanic flight, but not serious enough to prevent us turning around, was blamed, and that was that until we landed at O’Hare airport exactly twelve hours after we had departed.

And this is where it all started to tumble.

United Customer Service was absolutely and utterly dreadful; they sent a team of unqualified people to handle the rerouting requirements of 280 feisty and not unanimously jolly passengers. I was fortunate and reached the front of the line immediately and was presented with new boarding passes and curiously, a hotel voucher for a cheap hotel that lies $50 by taxi away from the airport.
   
I told the service agent that because of the delay, I no longer needed to travel to Toulouse, and could they simply put me on one of their three non-stops to London that day.

They could not because:
  •   I had a ticket to Toulouse and not London
  •    It was “free”
  •    It was Air Canada and they couldn't touch it
  •    The agent hadn't done any ticketing for over a year
  •    She was actually a gate agent in charge of an 0630 departure, and would be “written up” if her   dawdling in the customer service centre caused her to delay that flight.


I reminded them that:

  •  Although I had a ticket to Toulouse, they had failed to deliver me there and some give and      take would be appropriate.
  •    It would cost them less to only send me to London
  •  The ticket was not “free”; it was paid for in a currency to which they subscribe, and earned    by doing a substantial amount of business with their “partners”
  •    Air Canada and they were all part of a happy family called Star Alliance and she could, by a  magical process called “fimming” reissue these coupons
  •    Not much had changed in the world of ticketing in the past year, and if she had to get a flight     out at 0630, why was she behind this counter at all?


She then left, giving the file to a delightful but terribly soft spoken agent, and as the volume audibly increased as the remaining passengers were beginning to get a bit peaky.
  • She now pointed out that:
  •  There was no First Class space, and
  •  Even if there was, I could not get it because award tickets had to be booked in a particular “bucket” of seats of which there were none.
  •  Would $7 worth of meal vouchers suffice, and she could get a closer hotel.
  •   And finally, how did I know what a FIM was?

I retorted that:
  • I could see on my handy United Airlines App that there was a seat in First Class at 1825 if she looked closely and that
  • I fully realised that award tickets were booked in a particular “bucket”, but so was everybody else’s, and these were not available either. So I would be most agreeable if she would simply rebook me in First and I would be on my way.
  • $7 would hardly quench my thirst, but if that was it, I would be prepared to overlook this slight.
  • and finally, FIMs are my trump card.
http://flightaware.com/live/flight/N204UA/history/20140917/0225Z/KBGR/KORD
Her defence was now tumbling and she pointed out that
  •  It would be impossible to reroute my bags which were already tagged to London

I pointed out that
  • A month or so previously my bags had been tagged to London, but that they went to Hong Kong instead, so I really didn't have much faith in their systems anyhow; and in any case, I would go downstairs once that issued my new boarding pass and talk to the baggage folks myself.
  • I was still holding the seat to London that I had slyly booked as a precaution.


She now reissued my ticket, in First Class to London as requested, I went downstairs and arranged with a delightful baggage agent for mine to be “intercepted” and “redirected” to London. I am not holding my breath, but will report its whereabouts tomorrow.

However, I spent over half an hour at the counter, and getting what I had first requested after thirty wasted minutes of some corporate defence strategy. I have no idea how the remaining passengers got on, but I was told that the line-up was still in place five hours later.

Why oh why, United Airlines, do you send out such incompetent folks; they are all delightful, but only one that I could see, a gentleman reissuing tickets and dispatching passengers with a smile and click of his keyboard onto other carriers with no issue.

We are entitled to decent treatment from competent staff; we are not, after spending twelve hours encapsulated in a faulty Boeing 777 ready to be nickel and dimed to death on straight forward reroutes. Reissuing agents need to know the tools that that they have, and your corporate structure should not rely on the savings made by incorrectly applying guidelines (not rules) to already deeply inconvenienced passengers. 

What possible savings do you make sending passengers to a $66 room in Glenvale (wherever that is) by spending $100 on taxis?


Mechanical issues are inevitable; how you rise to the occasion is an entirely different matter, and on the morning of September 17th, you failed dismally. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

New Orleans, LA

Why on earth I was surprised to have liked New Orleans so much I really don't know. Perhaps it comes from becoming jaded by the homogenisation of North American cities, a phenomenon that is both rapid and sad, or the fact that I have travelled so much in the past year, nothing was ready to surprise me.

But surprise me it did, and I just loved it. It is the sort of place that I would like to rent an apartment for a couple of months one time and see how much of the goodwill, music, love and strength of the Crescent City that I can.

And strength is probably the most vital component. Behind every façade of every local working with tourists, driving, cleaning, serving or simply being there is a story of rebirth, and a struggle with building new lives after the devastating hurricane Katrina. Hurricane damage is now a tourist attraction, at least in wards that have not politely told the government to advise gawking sightseers to "Go Away"; probably in some fruitier vernacular.

It is a tale of broken promises, profiteering banks and builders, of a nine-year struggle between those who had and those who needed; nearly a decade of living in difficult, hot and struggling neighbourhoods by day and looking perky by night for the conventioneers and tourists whose money has been so important in the commercial regeneration of New Orleans.

And I take my hat off to all of the people who make New Orleans the hospitable, imaginative, creative, delightful, loose, friendly, musical delight that the city is.

If you haven't been there yet., go, and double what you would normally tip!

New Orleans is far more French than I had thought; while I was aware of the history (I thought) of the region, I was completely overwhelmed by the Cabildo State Museum; it was worth several hours of exploration to come to a grip with the intricacies of Louisiana's history. Suffice it to say that this history involved a great deal of perseverance, eating, singing, fortune, deception and much pillage; it is a history of peoples working together to create some sort of life in the inhospitable south lands before either penicillin or air-conditioning. And what a culture they formed; one of celebration of many different ancestries, evident in the food, the art, the buildings and of course, the music.

Today the French influence is obvious in the look and feel of the city, the decor and the patois, and the feel of this distinct culture is New Orleans' trump card. To travel here is to feel that one has actually visited a new and exciting destination, and one that is worthy of exploration.

Music seeps through every paving stone in the city, and it is fine! Classical, traditional jazz, contemporary jazz and virtually every genre one might want is in the air, and everyone is welcomed with open arms (and a hint that tipping is not an alien habit).

The massive and delightful New Orleans City Park houses, among other terrific features the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden exhibiting a wonderful collection of contemporary pieces; adjacent to the Museum of Art, the collection is a must for any visitor to the city.

There are terrific local tours of every possible interest! From Plantation Tours to exploration of the local Voodoo scene, there is always somebody with a smile ready to explain yet another local eccentricity. And it is worth taking them all, I think, but to do so, I will need a couple of months, and that will be next year, I hope.

New Orleans is a city that lets you know in no uncertain terms that she is unique, fascinating and to be respected and enjoyed; not a city whose affections should be toyed with lightly.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Away from the blog!

I apologise to all who have written to me and asked why my page has been silent - I am, however, delighted that so many seem to want to read more!

The answer is simple. Since returning from St. Helena, I have been preoccupied with the sale of my company and the transition that these changes involve.

After thirty-five years, I have decided that it is time to have new blood take over the reins of The Great Canadian Travel Company, and let me devote my time to developing new programs, finding new destinations and creating more travel opportunities. So August has been filled with paperwork, briefings, strategic planning and other such cutting-edge pursuits.

And now the initial stage is over, I am coming up seeking air and will start to write again.

I have also started a new consultancy with two very good and quite brilliant friends, Ia Tabagari from Tbilisi, Georgia and Cameron Taylor who lives in Forres, Scotland. We have worked together in the past, and are now looking to develop and work on tourism development projects that will best use the skills that we offer. There are new destinations seeking to grow and develop their tourism profiles, and by working with these destinations and companies we are sure that we will be able to assist them to maintain long-term sustainability and the product integrity that is so vital to community-based tourism.

I will also be looking at the conversion potential of shipping containers to tourism accommodation, and will likely start on some property that I have in Sighnaghi, Eastern Georgia.

No time to be idle! There are many interesting programs out there to be developed and I will have a long association with The Great Canadian Travel Company, a business that has become an integral part of my life and my personality.

So thanks for the emails (max@ttjtourism.com is the new one) and watch this space!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

St. Helena - The Future

Here is where I engage is some crystal-ball gazing, allow myself to snatch snippets of conversation that float aimlessly through the air, reinterpret other conversations and simply draw conclusions from my long, dull and probably erroneous history. In all, my comments may be considered flippant, may prove to be well off the mark, but there again, what else can one expect from a subjective report from a brief visit to St. Helena?

It is clear that the island community of St. Helena is neither going to be abandoned nor allowed to relentlessly decline. It is, after all, home to some 4,000 souls whose lives are dedicated to the island, and in combination with the British citizenship that allows some period of work in the United Kingdom, fosters an economy of sorts and an identity that is strong.

It is, however, in need of significant realignment.

Potentially, there is a major problem from a housing imbalance driven by the economic growth; the local economy, and quite possibly the relative productivity that reinforces salaries of only £4,000 per annum, will not be able to stand up to an onslaught of incomers’ and expatriate’s salaries in the competition for housing.

Quite simply, and this pressure already starting, the likelihood is that two parallel economies will evolve, and it is the responsibility of the local council and DFID to put in place structures that will allow these two groups to co-exist. Without protection, relative prosperity will diverge fast and the delicate social and economic balance so vital for the success of an island community will break down.

There is, of course, a very obvious example, and that isfrom Guernsey; this island of global-bankers living side by side with local tradespeople works in significant part because they have a system of property ownership divided into “local” and “open”; This system allows property to be available in both the global market and for local residents. St. Helena must surely be looking at this issue, and the sooner that structures are put in place the easier the transition to an “airport economy” will be.

I really can’t believe that anybody really thinks that the UK government is spending hundreds of millions of pounds in order to foster visitor numbers. While it is abundantly clear that air service will allow the increase of tourism to a significant degree, the project has to be underpinned by knowledge of or and expectation of military involvement. Remote regions throughout the world have relied on military budgets, the only really massive streams of money that are spent on irrational infrastructure (see Adak), and I don’t see St. Helena being any different.

As Ascension appears to come further under the spell of the American’s, or one or two of their more esoteric departments, and head closer to the isolation now enjoyed by Diego Garcia, it is plausible that the UK government is looking to St. Helena to be a base for the GCHQ interests in the South Atlantic. They would at least bring a really zippy internet connection.

It would, in my opinion, be an interesting future. With a number of well-paying jobs focused on eavesdropping, an airbase from which Britain’s, and most likely Europe’s interests in the mineral and strategic virtues of the South Atlantic may be pursued, St. Helena may be reliably well-placed for the future.

With such a base in place, and air service assured, a tourist industry can well develop. Military operations are considerably more discreet than in the past, and it is likely that a small and highly technical group will create no blight on the landscape of this indescribably beautiful island.

Tourists will love St. Helena; my previous posts have indicated a few of the highlights that I see, but with air access, the number of visitors will increase substantially. The local industry will keep working to synchronise their operational and marketing plans, new opportunities will be identified and filled, the accommodation sector will be rationalised and expanded and other businesses that live symbiotically with tourism will emerge.

At the same time, an air route’s opportunity to export fresh produce will surely be the catalyst required to develop a series of “St. Helena Branded” speciality cheeses, soaps, fragrances, fruits, flowers and many other products that require speedy and reliable access to market.

These are frothy times, indeed.

Life will change, but with planning and local input life will evolve; the two groups involved in the island’s future will need to come to some agreements fast on protecting the dual-income nature of St. Helena, at least for a period of twenty-five to thirty years to allow local residents to catch up, and prevent the spoils of a five-hundred year cultural evolution being sold to the highest bidder.

The island is wonderful; I want to return and spend at least a month learning more about St. Helena, and perhaps filling some minor role in assisting the evolution of the tourism industry. One way or another, I hope to be a part of this magical island’s exciting future.



Sunday, July 20, 2014

St. Helena: the Deep Dark Interior

Creeping through the thick cloud-forest, wishing that I had brought a machete, wiping the rain from my eyes and the perspiration from my face, I was wondering how I had got into this mess. The flora was lush, the tree canopies high and with multiple shades of green; the birds noisy, and wind blowing through the myriad of leaves completing the overwhelming presence of the forest. We were deep into a jungle, periodic glimpses through the vegetation showed hills covered by flax, a thick and useless crop now that the ecologically-inclined planet has moved to plastic. It was getting dark, and only the cynical laughter of the mynah birds penetrated the encroaching darkness.

The St. Helenian Cloud Forest on its side


Of course, by simply turning round and walking a hundred yards back down the riverbank, we reached a bridge and our 4WD Toyota ready to drive us back along the road to town, a town that was on the coast, and about 2 kilometres as the crow (or a mynah bird) would fly. But this is the extraordinary contradiction of St. Helena.

It is an island with a diameter of approximately eight kilometres and the widest point. Cutting across the island, one moves from arid desert to lush pastoral land to heavier flora to cloud forest and back along this same spectrum until one reaches the arid coastline once more.

The Arid Coast and the Lake District
 
The Gentle Inland

I have absolutely no idea how this happens, but can only surmise that it is a function of the island’s  volcanic heritage, its consequential rugged (and unutterably gorgeous) topography and the mystical powers of wind/sun/rain on this isolated piece of land. Whatever the cause, St. Helena offers a wider variety of landscapes within a small region than one could dream possible.

A Malay Rubber Plant; try putting this next to the one 
in your house to encourage it a little.


One drives through Arizona, and turns a corner into the English Lake District, complete with period houses that would make Jane Austen sigh contentedly.  Continue around the next corner and pass quickly through the Rwandan highlands to Southern France, and finally, on the last kilometre drive down a Faroese Valley to the Arizona coastline. At least, it would be how an Arizonan coast might look if it were not landlocked.

The island is really a paradise for walkers, and there are about twenty different, well-mapped and adequately signed walking paths; from “difficult” challenges, walking along the spine of land linking two major peaks with one foot on each slope, to “easy” walks through the gentle, pastoral countryside there are outings to suit all.

A weird and wonderful grove of hardwood trees


It is a strange countryside in many ways because although there are animals, and the normal atmosphere of the “countryside”, there is little activity. Although there are cows, all milk is imported; there are goats, and have been since the Portuguese introduced them in the 1500s, but not an ounce of chevre; there are fields, but limited vegetables. This lack of agricultural activity is changing slowly, and new efforts are evident. The lack of production is variously explained by “EU regulations”, “UK Government disinterest”, “difficult land to work” and so on; there will be, as always, a grain of truth in each of these problems, but one would think that a remote, apparently fertile and hungry land would have come up with more activity; hopefully they will.

One would, at an amateur glance, feel that there is opportunity to rework some of the flax fields and find a suitable eco-market for the twine produced, and that some cottage industries producing local cheeses and fruit would be successful. The coffee from the island, a direct descendant of the Yemeni beans introduced in 1715, and utterly delicious, should command high prices from the world’s coffee aficionados. There must be more to the tale, but one would imagine that in addition to the tourists that the new airport will accommodate, there is room for exporting some high-value products from St. Helena, and the development of a strong brand to represent St. Helenian products.

An embryonic dairy industry


It is an exciting destination in many ways, and the potential for cottage industry evolution is wonderful to see. One can look to the Orkney Islands to see how a remote community can build a global identity for their locally produced jewelry to see a path from now to then; opportunities are there, and the great positive is that they are available to all without heavy investment requirements.


Building the brand of St. Helena for tourism development is important; by simultaneously developing the brand to accommodate the products that will now find a market from this unique and mysterious destination is even more important.

Friday, July 18, 2014

St. Helena - An Astonishing Island

Travelling for eight days for a four-day business trip, and then spending eight days wending my way home does seem peculiar in this day and age; as I write this, ensconced in a comfortable seat on a Lufthansa flight from Munich to Montreal connected to the world by wi-fi, I marvel that I started my journey home on Friday last week, and it is once again Friday. It is the sort of journey that one thought was consigned to the mists of time, but here it is. And travel in this manner is simply wonderful.

Dinner on board - a tough life; and cabin A 26

It’s funny really; stepping back into some mythical time in the past doesn't feel that odd when one does it. St. Helena has been described as living in the 1950s, and to a point that is true, it also lives in the 1850s and when the mood strikes, the island lives firmly in the 21st century. Much the same can be said, of course, about many remote villages throughout the world, but the really odd thing about St. Helena is the absence of an airport.

It is an absence that is changing as the engineers and constructors from the able South African firm Basil Read construct an airstrip on the island. It is, one of their engineers marvelled, a project unlike any other. They had to start by building a wharf to bring their equipment in, they needed to build a road, import absolutely everything, scrape the top of a hill and use the aggregate to fill in a massive ravine, and then put down an airport. It will be open in 2016, and assuming that an airline actually wants to start scheduled service, and this is by no means a certainty, tourists will start to flood in; that, at least, is the concept.

To attract visitors, the island needs to get tour operators on side, as the world of travel is a highly competitive one, and this was the underlying reason for my presence on the island together with Erik Brown of Halcyon Travel and my old friend Clive Stacey from the London-based travel company, Discover the World. We travelled with Janet Shankland, the St. Helena tourist representative in the UK, and visited every nook and cranny, many guesthouses and hotels, and were left with the main question of why this jewel has been left undisturbed by tourists for so long.

The Famous Four - Erik, Janet, Max and Clive

No good comes from dwelling on the past, but suffice it to say that we all are enthusiastic about the possibilities of travel to the island, and in particular before the airport arrives. The boat trip, which can be truncated on occasion by flying to Ascension Island and shaving a couple of days sailing time from the Cape Town run, is utterly marvellous, and a perfect introduction to this quirky destination.

St. Helena is the ideal destination for generalists; it has history, architecture, Wyre Birds, hiking programs, flora to astonish, SCUBA diving or snorkelling, deep sea fishing and a plentiful supply of souvenirs and South African wine. It offers accommodation to satisfy every taste from delightful guesthouses, such as the Town House where we stayed, to accommodation in perfectly restored 18th century properties. Food is a bit of an issue, but there are restaurants, if one books, and predictably a Chinese that is open regularly. As more tourists arrive, however, this will most certainly change. Self-catering accommodation is also possible, an option that includes the delights of joining the locals for shopping on Vegetable Thursdays.

Passing the time is not an issue at all; the main centre, Jamestown, is a delightful Georgian village, stretched out along a two-mile valley. The harbour dominates one end, of course, along with the major public buildings, The Castle where Important Work is done, the court and library, the police office and HM’s Prison.

The Court House - appropriately defended


 It is also the starting point for those who want to climb the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder.


Jacobs Ladder on its side (no idea how to turn images around)

This feature of the islands is interesting; built to allow soldiers garrisoned at the top of the hill, guarding the harbour, access to the fleshpots of Jamestown, the stairs (a solid 11’ each one) are a challenge to many. Clive among them, of course, who whizzed up them upon arrival and complained about his leg muscles for the next few days; I, realising that the nearest hospital was in Cape Town, refrained from showing off, and will try and learn Photoshop instead.

Continuing up Main Street, one is struck by the marvellous patina that the buildings exhibited; Georgian, lovely, solid and aged, they live in the continuum of life that stretches back to the days when 1300 ships each year called by for provisions. Jamestown has worn well, and its pubs (both a touch seedy, and I mean that in the most respectful way), and both entertaining function well, there are restaurants, grocery stores and all of the shops that a real High Street should have but few do. There are no chains, no clutch of estate agencies and no pretension; it is a lovely place.

The Market - 1860

The island does support, or at least maintain, a remarkable number of churches. Fortuitously connected to the incumbent Bishop, a cleric who curiously had known and rather liked my deeply un-clerical father and uncles for some thirty years, we were invited to dinner. Richard Fenwick, and his delightful wife Jane, are exactly what one would imagine of the Bishop of St. Helena and Ascension; a remote and really only geographically connected part of the Synod of South Africa, the parish counts over fourteen churches on the island, a couple more in Ascension and cares for the welfare of a people facing extreme change, and looks to the church for a degree of stability.

The Bishop - Richard Fenwick in fine form, and Janet, Richard and I after dinner

Dinner was wonderful; their house a lovely 18th century property, properly decorated with pictures, books and music, and redolent with conversation. Richard himself is a fine organist, and played for us as we enjoyed his cathedral; Jane is a very talented harpist, and an enduring memory of the trip will be sitting with Richard after dinner discussing the ways of the world, my ancestors’ drinking habits, London in the 1970s, and listening to Jane giving Clive his first harp lesson in the living room. Simply delightful, and a quintessential reflection of island life

But Jamestown is simply one small part of the island of St. Helena, and we left in the morning to explore more of this remote and unknown land.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Nautical, but Nice; twelve days on the RMS St. Helena

"The RMS" as she is fondly known,  is an odd ship; built in 1990, it was probably old fashioned before she was launched, and she remains the lifeline for the remote and rather wonderful island of St. Helena, with periodic service to the island of Ascension that lies some 700 miles to the north.

The voyage to the island from Cape Town takes six days, and far from being monotonous, she offers a wide variety of activities ranging from people watching to the gymnasium to the movie offerings and of course the food.

The people are the most interesting; built to accommodate a maximum of 155 passengers in three basic categories of cabins, with twin, four and six-berth units available, she rarely carries more than about one hundred. There are Saints heading home for a vacation, business travellers heading out to work on one element of the island’s infrastructure or another, government officials and some tourists. The ship is fairly small, at 6.500 tons, but sufficient to weather the unpredictable seas of the South Atlantic, and deliver her passengers and the 3,000 tons of freight she carries reliably and safely.

The ship is redolent of a time-gone-by. Of course, this is mostly because nobody travels on a five-day journey by ship anymore to reach a destination; we fly, although this is currently an impossibility for St. Helena as they have no airport. One is being built at the moment, and it is planned to be ready in 2016, and many hopes and fears are riding on the inevitable changes that it will bring to the islands economy and social fabric.



 
The ship offers deck quoits, shuffleboard, domino tournaments, beef tea and frog racing; there are bridge games and visits to the bridge, there are movies, a library and the simple pleasure of watching the water for whales and the occasional massive sea turtle. Conversations are started and drift off into the afternoon, to be picked up once more over an evening sundowner; all very civilised.


There is a wi-fi service, although of such a miserable balance between cost and speed, it is barely worth acknowledging; however, there is much to be said for a week without Facebook and email.

Time ticks along; our cabins are small and simple, almost monastic. The public areas are pleasant and not over-crenellated, the decks hint of summer jollity in the winter shadows, and the water spills amusingly out of the swimming pool as we bump our way south to Cape Town. It is a strange community, currently of 75 passengers and 59 crew bobbing 4,500 metres above a plethora of googly-eyed sea-creatures and a thousand miles from land, yet dressing for dinner and a cocktail with the captain. It is really rather pleasant.

Passage on the ship is not inexpensive, but more than reasonable when one considers the route. A berth in a small two-berth cabin (with shared facilities) will start at about £475 each way. Larger cabins with en suite facilities will run about £1,000 and the largest cabins about £1,500. Considering that this brings passage to St. Helena, a delightful island of which more will be written later, and six days/five nights on board the RMS with fine food throughout, it is really a very good deal indeed.



It is the end of an era; the ship will be decommissioned after the airport starts operation, and for the island, its visitors and above all its residents, this change is a little frightening. One should travel to the island now, and enjoy the privilege of being one of the last people to travel to a remote country by ship.




Monday, July 7, 2014

The RMS St. Helena and arrival on The Island

Five days ago I boarded the RMS St. Helena at a distant and apparently little-used dock in Cape Town, and today I am sitting in a guesthouse in Jamestown, the Georgian capital of the remote island of St. Helena.

One could tell that the dock was little used by its casual approach to security imposed by a number of cold looking chaps huddled round looking like discarded chess pieces. However, we set sail with no worry, and gradually pulled away from the Cape toward the remote rock in the Atlantic Ocean called St. Helena.

 

It was journey back in time, and one remembers the delights of deck games, quizzes, tombola, frog races, beef tea, convivial bars and well stocked libraries, all punctuated by regular and rather pleasant meals.

Certainly, the feeling yet again of clambering through a looking glass into a parallel universe was reinforced by our activities. It was curious to imagine the peculiarity of 100 passengers (minus the chap who was travelling in the hospital) and 50 crews dressing up for the Captain’s Cocktail party while floating on the ocean surface some five kilometres above the bottom in a 6,000 ton boat.  The entire journey was redolent of an era when everyone travelled by sea, and indeed there were sufficient government “officials” off to St. Helena to administer, audit and generally keep order to keep this image at front of mind.

It was a marvellous journey; the ship is not a cruise vessel, it is a passenger ship. It is comfortable, cosy, friendly and well able to accommodate travellers seeking a rather different experience. The sea was mild, with only one bouncy evening, the sky endless, the water infinite and the expectations as we drew toward this remote island were palpable.

Best known, if known at all, St. Helena was the destination that the English decided to send Napoleon to die. He had caused the English no end of trouble, and had form as an escapee from exile having managed to squirrel his way from Elba. Believing that his new exile would be in North America, one can only imagine his surprise at disembarking in Jamestown, an island that is reputed to be the most isolated inhabited land on earth.


Jamestown, St. Helena
Approaching the St. Helenian coast



To prevent his further escape, 2,500 soldiers were despatched to guard him, and four warships continuously circled the 50 mile circumference of the island, two in each direction. Guards were posted in a circle around Longwood, his rather dreary house, at 50 metres, but at night they were drawn in to stand at the house itself to prevent an Empirical Departure.

They were successful, Napoleon duly died and was buried in the manner of a Russian doll inside five layered coffins; they were of  mahogany, lead, more mahogany, tin and finally an inner protective wrap of a more mundane wood. Designed carefully to prevent movement, in 1840 by order of the French government, he was exhumed with difficulty and removed to Paris where he has lain in state ever since.

There are other interesting things to do; it is an island that has a rather lovely Georgian façade, and a genuine feel of life decades ago. It is an ecological delight, with rare birds, wildlife, fauna all among some quite extraordinary scenery. It is a place of wonders, least of all why on earth it is still here, and how it will actually adjust to tourism on a greater scale once the airport opens in 2016.

The only way off
Jamestown, St. Helena

I

The journey to St. Helena has just begun.