Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Airport Security

Now I like, it must be said, secure aeroplanes. The thought of being hijacked is an anathema to me, and to that end, I am happy to undergo airport screening.

To a point.
And it is this very level of screening that always bewilders me, and in particular, I would love it if the airport screeners actually seemed to be singing from the same page.

There is a subtle difference between airport security in Europe and in the USA; simply put, the security folks in the major European airports seem competent and professional, those in the USA seem to be the cheapest folks available; Canada, as always, lies somewhere in between.
It must be said that working for CATSA must be the most boring career imaginable; perhaps new recruits believe that they will be the ones to stop another airline massacre, but the odds of spotting anything more dramatic than an errant can of shaving cream or half a bottle of forgotten water are remote. Year after year, the prospect of this future must loom larger, and only those who make it to management or those of a particularly authoritative bent remain. And so turn-over is a problem, and one is confronted all too regularly with those keeners, actually believing that they are doing the world’s security a service.

So yesterday, having cleared security in Torshavn, Copenhagen and Amsterdam with no issue, I arrived back in Canada. And sure enough, the two newbies on duty at Pearson airport in Toronto became terrifically overexcited by a glimpse of something in my bag. It turned out that the objects of their fascination were glass bracelets; unable to distinguish between glass and liquids - and yes, I know that glass is technically a liquid, but this is not the point - even after feeling the items, I had to unwrap them and present them to the scanners.
Petty, futile and unutterably irritating;  the wrapping torn - yes I know that I am not supposed to have presents wrapped at security - mine, and eveyone behind me in the queue's time wasted; two young women on their first week on the job saving Air Canada from disaster and an incandescent Max.

I do get annoyed at the sheer stupidity of the system; do I feel any more secure now all travellers are harassed to bits? Of course not; if one wants to get nasty stuff on to aircraft it seems that disguising it as cocaine would do the trick; there seems to be no abatement in the movement of the stuff anywhere. Before September 11th one flew around the world with little interference and an infinitesimal chance of disaster; now we fly around the world with varying degrees of hassle and an infinitesimal chance of disaster. Relying on airport security to deter terrorists from smuggling weapons on board also requires one to believe that anyone trying to massacre hundreds of people by bringing down an airliner would draw the line at being arrested by a CATSA security agent.
Improbable.
And real progress, like programming these full-body scanners to detonate any explosives they actually detect seems like a distant dream. In the meantime, however, I would urge both the Canadian and particularly American security organisations to figure out how to retain their employees, and help them distinguish between petty harassment and professional security process.

At that point, the travelling public might take the process more genially.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Day Near Copenhagen

I’ll tell you what’s fun; using Faroese bank notes in Denmark. Which is, I hasten to add, perfectly legal, but apparantly uncommon.

The thing is this. Faroese weather has a reputation for being capricious, and unsure of the Vagar/Copenhagen flight I decided to spend an additional day in Copenhagen before heading back to Canada. Uninterested in spending the day in the city itself, frankly, I have pretty much had it with anodyne European cities, I booked a couple of nights in the resort town of Dragǿr, a rather lovely village nestled snuggly against the southern perimeter of the airport.

I rather like resort towns in the off season. They often show their true colours, relieved of thousands of tourists plunging into the sea, hustling for ice-creams, waving, laughing and generally having fun. No, the off season with its slightly bemused patina is the season for me.
And as a stopover option for those transiting Copenhagen airport, it is absolutely terrific.

The Dragǿr Badehotel is just fine. A modest three-star property that has clearly seen days of grandeur, does the job. The rooms are all smallish but clean and comfortable, and fitted with a most eccentric showering system that requires imagination and agility to extract the maximum benefit. It is currently being refurbished, a touch annoying for us, but given the count at breakfast this morning, four - including my colleague and I, it was probably a good time to have the artisans in.
The town is really lovely. Founded over seven hundred years ago during the Great Herring Years, the town has always traded and provided pilots and seafarers to the rich maritime heritage of the Baltic coast. Today Dragǿr still exudes history and prosperity in equal measures, and the old part of the town, and its unique environment, is simply a delight. The community is quite obviously a resort, with many summer homes and prosperous retirees balancing its permanent residents, yet there are few of the obvious trappings of many seaside towns. The community offers small and apparently local shops, museums (although they are closed in the off-season), galleries, restaurants and a wonderful environment to explore.

Its old quarter is simply lovely. The traditional yellow houses dot small twisting roads, back lanes and lovely open squares, and tell of a history that still connects the past with their present. The town has not become a caricature of itself, a fate so often befalling lovely coastal villages, and has retained an earthy charm. It is a fine place to wander, explore and wait for a plane.
It is quite clear to even an untrained observer that beer is a rather popular drink in this neighbourhood. Gallons of the stuff seem to be consumed with men and women sitting and enjoying buckets of the stuff for quite protracted period of time. This I know not because I stayed to watch, but when I returned to a cafe for a restorative after a walk in the somewhat bracing weather, time had stood still. Their earlier clientele remained in place, smiles fixed on their faces, and so I joined in.

And it was at this moment that I realised that Faroese banknotes are not regularly proffered at Dragǿr cafes, particularly by English speaking tourists in December. It caused consternation at first, it did strike me as a particularly good counterfeiting strategy, and finally merriment and the owner was summoned and confirmed that odd as it was, it was legal tender. This reaction was duplicated by a taxi driver, who was unlikely to have actually heard of the Faroe Islands as he grew up in Somalia, and finally by a delightful young lady who finally exchanged our last banknote for a couple of cappuccinos; admittedly, as we had finished the coffees by this point, she really had little option. We wondered later whether any of the recipients would join the fun, and palm them off as change to their regular customers, and how long they might whizz around the town before finally ending up in the bank, and back on an Atlantic Airways flight to Torshavn.
Dragǿr is lovely, and well worth considering as a Copenhagen stop-over town. Accessible from the airport by taxi ($30) or by a simple, twelve-minute bus ride ($5) it makes a fine alternative to the city centre. Hotels start at around $60 for a single room, and there is a variety of properties to choose from; all in all, a convivial, interesting and very convenient place to be.

Thorshavn, Faroe Islands

Suffice it to say that the Faroe Islands, wonderful in the summer and fall, have a charm throughout the winter, even when the weather may be at its more dramatic, and the days draw short. By December, the sun will rise above the horizon at about nine o’clock, and dip back down before half past three; and this burst of sunshine visible only at sea level, as behind the mountains, the sun will penetrate only briefly as it reaches its peak.

But despite this drawback, the islands are cosy, welcoming and endlessly fascinating.
In the course of a couple of days, it is possible to drive to most of the northern islands, connected as they are by an intricate system of tunnels and bridges. While the difference between the islands might appear academic at first glance, it is their very distinctions that make the country such a pleasure to explore.

The fourteen or so islands lie roughly northwest to south east, and rise to over 3,000’ although only a mile or so wide. The land plunges down into the sea, to unfathomable depths before rising up a few hundred yards further to create another magnificent, rocky and spectacular island. Nestled along the shoreline are the ancient communities clinging to the land, their past and future firmly determined by the sea. The islands are indeed ancient, and their language reminiscent to Old Norse. It is a language that nearly died in the late 1800s, and it is said that only the interest of Danish lexicographers sent to the islands to record the remaining fragments of language, spurred the islanders to a linguistic revival. Now the Faroese language, spoken by a maximum of 70,000 folks, is indeed thriving. 140 bookes were published in 2010/11 in the language, and its own literature is rich and growing.
The culture of the islands is strong, and obvious everywhere. Communities are proud and welcoming, the traditional Faroese sweaters and jackets are worn regularly and their old foods are common. Possibly too common for many as the appearance of puffins, dried salt-cod, whale blubber and mutton head-cheese on otherwise conventional buffets can be a surprise.

Having tried a piece of the cured whale blubber (which I had incorrectly identified as cod) and decided that it was not a flavour that I was likely to acquire, I was admonished for eating it incorrectly. Advised that the correct and delicious way to enjoy this delicacy was to compose a trifecta of dried salt-cod, speck (the harmless name they give to whale blubber) topped with a boiled potato. This combination was the only way to enjoy these delicacies, and as the Faroese did it this way, so should we all.
Popping it into my mouth and chewing was the gustatory equivalent of a right hook. There is a very good reason that the delicacy has not spread, and while the alarm on my face may have registered my true feelings, I managed to chew and swallow it, and rapidly poured a shot of local fire-water in to douse the experience.

This proved to be an error, as I had not realised quite how strongly the aquavit was flavoured with aniseed, and the ensemble thus created was memorable.
Fond memories, though, as it has to be said that the rest of the feast was wonderful, and the experience only went to reinforce how closely this wonderful country has kept its culture.

To drive through the islands is to gasp at the endless perfect scenery, to wonder at the picturesque communities, to marvel at the engineering that has built the infrastructure to keep the community together yet living in their traditional villages; it is a country of ever-changing weather, cloud formations that inspire and light that seems to make the country smile.
It is, perhaps, one of the most difficult countries in the world to imagine carving out a living among the high and craggy islands way out in the North Sea, but the Faroese do, and do with a smile that reflects their pride in maintaining their culture and pride.

For a visitor, the Faroe Islands offer peace and excitement, they foster tranquillity and curiosity, and thay always leave one eager to return.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Faroe Islands once more

I have to start by saying that I am not given to hyperbole. Understatement may not be my strongest suit, but I try to stay pretty close to the truth, and having said this, I need to explain a lifelong love of The Faroe Islands.

In about 1968 or 1969 National Geographic magazine published an article about The Faroes; I was mesmerised. As a pre-pubescent boy, National Geographic, as it landed on the doorstep was a must, as from time to time, naked female breasts, still a mystery and wonder to me, were displayed. This month, however, it was about remote communities, whale hunts, air-dried lamb, remarkable landscapes and the ancient turf-roof houses of Torshavn, the islands’ capital city. From that moment on, I was captivated by the islands, and, in fact, still am.

Tonight, I am in Gjogv; an utterly remarkable village in a picturesque valley to the north of the island of Eysturoy.  The hotel I am staying in, the Gjaargardur Guest House, is wonderful; perfectly appointed, friendly beyond need and absolutely lovely; the evening is perfect.
Snow dusts the mountains that converge here, and while the village is cosy and secure tonight, it was built in the days that cosy and secure were the only elements of life that counted as the village’s economy relied on men heading out to the wild North Atlantic to fish; perhaps they still should be, and Gjogv still is, and although its population has declined from about 80 to about 40, it still has the air of prosperity and a continuum that will attract folks back to it yet

I am here, in the islands, with our Chicago-based publicist with whom we have worked closely for fifteen years or more. It is my belief, and I  have to be honest, my commercial hope, that the Faroes will be the next “big” destination, and to this end, we are here for four days to enjoy ourselves; and astonish ourselves.
The islands are small, and with a community of only 50,000 one does not expect to find a symphony orchestra; yet here one is, and tonight its director, Paul Jakup Thomsen, spent an hour talking about the culture of the islands. That over 5,000 people regularly watch the symphony, yes, 10% of the population, is exceptional; that their number includes several European prize winners is remarkable, and that their repertoire includes among an orchestra’s standard, Leroy Anderson’s Typewriter Symphony and David Shaffer’s Sandpaper Symphony is astonishing; astonishing, perhaps only without an awareness of these islands.

It is an island where culture means much, and is displayed every day. When Paul asked his class of ten or so young women to sing us a song, they immediately did so; it was a lullaby, and judging from their snickers and grins, the lyrics may not have been entirely appropriate to sing to a 55 year old man, but the thought was there. And not only that, they sang beautifully and spontaneously, used to communal singing for many reasons, odd or conventional.

Lying half way between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands are inhospitable, gorgeous, stubborn and probably my favourite place in the world. Their livelihood comes from fishing, as well as a pretty eclectic mixture of businesses ranging from clothing design, computer software and tourism to the general support businesses that any community needs. They are unutterably gorgeous, noted by National Geographic as the most desirable tourist destination in the world. For those interested in scenery, hiking, birdlife, history, culture and finding the elusive “peace and quiet” so often sold by tourist destinations, the Faroes should be on the list.

So here we are. Surprised by a blizzard that howled through last night, and dusted the islands with white, we will wander from the north to the south and the east to the western extreme (the island of Nolsoy) and wonder about this rather unusual land for the next three days.
I am not sure why the National Geographic article so attracted me, but now, on my fifth visit to these islands, I know why I want to come back.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Queen Mary; Deck 1


Here’s a funny thing.


The medical centre on this ship is on Deck 1, the lowest platform of the vessel. It is a funny deck, being home to pallets of vegetables, bits of engine, mysterious boxes with funny labels, rooms named after “Kensington”, “Chelsea”, “Belgravia” and “Knightsbridge” - some of London’s most salubrious suburbs and the medical centre.

I know this only because I was exercising. Yes, I know. However, as part of my regime I spent some fifteen minutes on a treadmill, not normally a dangerous pastime. Excruciatingly boring, yes, but not inherently death-defying.

However, on board a ship that lurches gently in unpredictable parabolas, one finds one’s feet searching for land, and in extremis, finding one’s ankle tendons being left far behind, flapping in the proverbial wind. Hence my trip to the medical centre.

Now, what is really odd about it is that the elevator (or” lift” as it is called on this splendidly British ship) only goes to a couple of points Deck 1, neither accessible to the medical centre. No, to get medical help, one has to go to Deck 2 and walk down two flights of stairs. I hobbled down, clutching the railing in a somewhat melodramatic manner to emphasise my plight, wondering how someone with a serious injury would be able to access the doctor. Would they slide down? Are there special “buckets” in which the wounded are propelled to Deck 1? A system of weights and pulleys? Enquiring minds need to know.

However, the doctor was very good, the ankle duly bound and now a wheelchair to look forward to at the airports en route home. At least the immigration queue will be short.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Queen Mary 2; sailing across The Atlantic

Buffets on board ships are terrific places to observe eccentricity at play, and the Queen Mary is no exception.

Unleashed from the constraints of conventional food-pairing, buffet-grazers are free to tickle their taste buds as they fancy. One sees chicken curry sploshed on a plate alongside pizza and little pickled fish, roast beef garnished with macaroni cheese and any number of wonderfully personal combinations. It does make one question how the more common and pedestrian combinations, so beloved of the processed-food industry came into being; certainly not from the observation of folks in a buffet line when free to choose the combination that most appeals.

Eccentricity is actually in pretty short order here; at first glance it is a fairly homogeneous crowd, particularly at dinner where 80% of the men aboard wear evening dress. However, there are glimpses of individuality; a novelty bow-tie or two, a cummerbund discreetly sporting the crest of a secret society, or perhaps a football team. There are those who choose to dress like an old photographic negative, exchanging black suits for white, and white shirts for black; even the odd cuff-links, indicating a wearer with personality, and of course, one or two gentlemen discreetly sporting medals.

The medals are interesting and food for speculation. Are they indeed war heroes or wearing some bauble of Soviet-era industrial success picked up in a Moldovan market place? One hardly dares to ask.

Our 2,491 passengers are apparantly drawn from twenty-nine countries, including, a touch mysteriously, six Maltese; Brits far outnumber the rest, with 1,488 in their number, compared with singletons from Estonia, Hong Kong, Romania, Singapore and Swaziland. Does the Estonian make up a party of four with the three identified Finns? One never knows, but days at sea sharpen one’s curiosity.

The passengers are a mixed bunch too, with a myriad of reasons to be ploughing across the North Atlantic in November. There are many who simply “don’t fly”, and for whom the QM2 is the only way to regularly get to America for business, to see family or to simply sightsee. There are those here to celebrate anniversaries or, by the disconsolate looks of some couples at the bars, to try and repair relationships. There are those who are on board, it seems, to play bridge endlessly, some dance for hours and some simply read.

It is a great attraction of this ship that so many tastes are catered to. There are no assertively smiley folks trying to make you have more fun than you might want, and the shopping is limited. It is not a circus, more a country-house hotel than an all-inclusive, and a very pleasant way to while away a week.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Europe - November 2011

It is difficult to be in Europe for a couple of weeks and not realise that they are in the middle of an economic and political crises of stupendous proportions. That is, if one reads and believes the newspapers; real life, if there is such a thing, seems to be a little different.


It is not that times are harder than before; they appear to be so. Primark, London’s major discount store that sells goods faster than China can make them now, seems, by observation of shopping bags in Oxford Street, to be doing a very robust business. So do the rather more chic bags emanating from Aspreys, the more discreet tailors of Jermyn Street and London’s finer milliners.

It is something else that is missing, and it is difficult to put one’s finger on it with any precision.

Conversation is often of frightening times; of disappearing savings, of increased prices, of riots and even the spectacle of “economic collapse”. What exactly the world would look like in the event of any of these apocalypses, however, is unknown and terribly speculative. Does it mean a grinding decade or two of no growth, grumpy unions and increasingly pointed barbs at the older folks who have, quite understandably, got most of the wealth? Obtained wealth, it must be added, through dint of hard work, saving before spending and the absence of credit when they were in their twenties.

Now we have the spectacle of a United Kingdom that requires both increased savings and growing spending to stave off the crises.

But what, exactly is the crises? Rampant riots, bank accounts that implode, worthless pieces of paper held by Financial Institutions? Are we talking about thinking more about the price of the food that we buy, or having a go at the neighbour’s dog?

And lest Brits be too cheery about not being in the Eurozone, which they are not and probably fortunately for both the UK and the Eurozone, the economy appears to be tottering close to collapse triggered by rampant lending to an obviously uncreditworthy Greece and the legendary escapades of Italy’s Lotharian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Really, you could not have made this stuff up.

The Powerful Ones, notably the EU commissioners and Angela Merkel, the wannabe powerful ones, Nicolas Sarkozy and the IMF line up to wag their fingers at Greece and Italy. The Greek Bailout (which appears to me to be more of a bailout to the reckless banks who lent them all the money)will cost the diligent burghers of Bavaria and Prussia a great deal of money, The Italian Job, unfolding as I write this, will cost a whole lot more; and meanwhile, the voters are getting grumpy. It seems to be commonly agreed that a plebiscite of any kind would be unkind to the vision of European Togetherness; as soon as the Greeks decided to hold one, it only took a few days before the idea was firmly squashed and the prime minister disrobed.

God forbid that democracy comes to Europe, and that the voters are invited to actually make a decision.

In the meantime, bankers get enormous bonuses, senior civil servants getting salaries in excess of £150,000 are firing those making less than £15,000; offshore capital is piling up faster than leaves in the autumnal wind and folks are getting disillusioned and angry. With something, although exactly what is not quite certain.

It is my belief that the laissez faire model of capitalism is in its dying throes. Capitalism is, of course, only a form of Darwinism practiced among companies. As many regulations and ways of conducting commerce were thrown away in the 1980s, greed became rampant, and companies, as they should in the Darwinian world, simply became bigger. Financial institutions became evermore skilled and vacuuming up cash from the economy, and now, it appears, that “they” have indeed won. They have all of the money, and nobody, absolutely nobody has any idea how to get it back into circulation.

We read of company coffers stuffed with cash; of cash balances in the offshore centres bulging with some of the smaller islands sinking under the weight of the cash. And what are we to do? We will happily congratulate them at their brilliance at winning all of the toys; we will even give them bonuses for having reached the pinnacle of some challenge or other.

We have not “lost” money, as if blasted off into outer space. No, we have allowed a smaller and smaller number of corporate titanics to hoard all of the wealth, and placed absolutely no obligation on them to put it back to work.

That is the problem.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Faroe Islands; 0.2% of Faroese are Polish

Just when you think that you have these islands sussed, a headline such as this will appear, and abb another quirk into the fabric that these naugha-Viking islands weave.

The Faroe Islands are a touch odd; it is their very eccentricity that attracts and it is their sometimes quirky approach to life that mesmerises. Life is a blend of new; of course the islands boast contemporary communications, cutting-edge design and a wide selection of modern wines, but at the same time, one sees people dressed in traditional Faroese clothing; one sees fishing villages that still launch their boats in ways that are clearly evolutionary developments from the ancient days and not revolutionary.

Don’t get me wrong, these are no backward people. Their livelihoods depend on fishing (and the generosity and (one has to believe the wilful blindness) of the Danish taxpayers; and in each endeavour, they are quite resourceful and successful.

The Faroe Islands are not a part of the EU. They keep outside, as does Iceland, principally because of their fishing industry. They believe that opening their fishing grounds to the unprincipled plunderers of the southern fleets will cost them far more in both the long and short-terms than staying outside will do. And, I think that they have a point. The fishing industry protects the evolution of an ancient life-style, admittedly aided considerably by Danish largesse, but nonetheless, it is evident from the number of full laden semis that boarded the ferry I am on in Torshavn that their Viking sea-based heritage is alive and well.

I was in the islands for business. There is annually a trade show for those whose travel businesses work heavily with operators in The Faroes, Iceland and Greenland, and this year it was in Torshavn. Next year it will be in Reykjavik, and after that it will be Greenland’s turn to host the event. Rather sadly, they have, for their last couple of turns, held it in Copenhagen, which has always struck me as an odd nod to their colonial past. We live in hope, though, of 2013 being back in their wonderful, northern home.

It is a great event; a chance for new tour operators, guest houses, bus routes, restaurants, hotels and other vital components of the travel business to show off their new products; in turn, there are about eighty-five buyers from around the world (in addition to my participation, there were buyers from Australia, China, Japan and Russia in addition to their more traditional European markets) looking for new products to sell.

And we found a lot. There are some fabulous community groups in South Greenland offering new programs, a new combination coach program in Iceland that will offer independent travellers another choice in touring there, and some new air-routes around the region offering us wide new opportunities to design some terrific products for the 2012 season. Watch the website!

Air Greenland, Air Iceland, Icelandair, Atlantic Airways and the redoubtable Smyril Line all work closely with the travel trade, and their complex and interwoven route network opens up this area for exploration. There is accommodation to suite all budgets, and the friendly faces, welcoming smiles and marvellous stories of the Atlantic Islanders will all combine to make a perfect and memorable vacation.

Which brings me to Poles.

The current copy of Atlantic Airway’s flight magazine highlights a fascinating statistic. The Faroese population, according to this August organ, comprises 92.7% Faroese, 6% Danes, and 0.3% Greenlanders with only Norwegians and Poles getting a mention at 0.2% each before “other” who make up 0.6%.

Now, given that their population is about 48,000 people, this means that there are about 96 Poles; a small number to be sure, but measurable. Further evidence of this diaspora was to be seen at a dry-dock boatyard where the various boxes for differing selections of waste products were indicated in Faroese, English and Polish.

The Polo-Faroese migratory movement is not one of the world’s most studied, but it is a bit interesting.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Wonderful Faroe Islands

Well, I have been here for twenty-four hours, and that added to the collective wisdom garnered on three previous visits, I feel, bestows expert status.

I can assert with little doubt that the weather in the Faroe Islands is not their strongest suit. Today, it was a touch gloomy at first, then overcast and later in the day, for a few minutes, scattered clouds. The clouds were subsequently gathered together and tethered above Torshavn, where they now sit.

However, I couldn’t have enjoyed the day more.

If one is in the slightest doubt where one is, upon awakening in a strange hotel room, one glance at the breakfast buffet and the pride of place accorded the pickled fish will narrow it to Scandinavia in a hurry; a second glance, marvelling at the size of the bowl, and the supplementary “foods of the sea” will confirm it as The Faroes. I happen to like pickled fish, and with the time zones on my taste-buds side, I plundered the buffet and headed out into the drizzle.

I do like rain, actually, and the light morning mist that covered Torshavn simply added to the warm and cosy feel of the town. Emphatically painted wooden buildings with turf roofs abound in the city centre; glancing in through the windows one can see the most contemporary offices and feel a sense of wonder at the Faroese ability to merge a thousand years of history and convention with today’s electronic convenience. It is a feeling that reappears frequently as one wanders through this remarkable island group.

I decided to go and visit the island of Nólsoy, conveniently located twenty minutes by ferry from the thumping heart of Torshavn. I sailed over, and watching the island appearing from the mist wondered where everyone was. The ferry was delivering about thirty folks there but otherwise, the town had the look of a Norse Potemkin village; deserted. I decided that the four-hour wait until the next ferry home would stretch even my imagination, so I simply stayed on board and headed back. The next attempt at self-amusement was a bus to the fishing town of Vestmanna some forty kilometres away.

It was a fine bus ride, passing through more of these perfect toy-villages until we arrived at the end of the line, and with a little over two hours to pass until the return bus, I wandered into the throbbing heart of the community.

The throb actually turned out to be a rather powerful pair of engines running inside a building close to the harbour, and with that mystery solved, I wandered on. It was quiet, I have to say, but rather lovely. The clouds had lifted, the drizzle abated and I simply looked around. Lovely houses, secure in the knowledge that the community had been there for a thousand years or more, and village elders kept (presumably) a continuing eye on who married whom. Houses were lovely, although it has to be said that some were a touch shabby; I liked that, as it indicated a sort of realism that is absent from perfection, and continued to wander. Past the harbour, in and around the local supermarket (heavy on yoghurts and Cadbury’s chocolate, leeks from Belgium and an unusually large selection of liquorices), gazed into the local clothing store (now, in the post-tourist season offering a 60% pricing advantage) and a rather drab looking dance hall. I suppose that most dance halls look sad in the middle of the afternoon, but there you go.

Then lunch and the most perfect fish and chips that I have ever encountered. And believe me, I have encountered a few in my time.

There couldn’t really have been time for my cod to realise what had happened to it between the moment that it lurched toward the bait, was hauled into the boat, deposited, still flapping, on the dock - a dock that has a number of notices that prohibit dogs from sniffing around, but oddly, not cats - being hustled into the kitchen and via a fryer onto my plate. Six hours at most is my guess, and it tasted thus.

The perfection of really fresh fish, cooked with skill is remarkable; it was simply sublime.

And so I returned on the bus to Torshavn marvelling at my fortune of being here, on a group of magical islands adrift in the North Atlantic Ocean.

I love the Faroe Islands.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Driving through northern Michigan

It has been five months since I have been to Europe, for me a record. After the mad wanderings of the past few years, it has been good to stay home for a while, although I certainly miss Esperaza.

During the summer I have had the opportunity to go on a couple of interesting, more local trips, into both the Arctic and the near US states. It was really a pleasure to explore some of our neighbour’s territory, and last week found us driving home from Toronto to Winnipeg.

The drive is good; from Toronto we headed to Sarnia and into Michigan before heading north and driving the length and breadth of this interesting state. It is, for those who have not been there or studied its geography, deceptively large, and peculiarly shaped.

We stopped on our first night in Gaylord, a village touted to emulate a small Alpine village. Apart from the obvious lack of Alps, the descriptions were misleading; oddly -gabled buildings astride a normal, gas-station and big-box infested highway would have been more accurate. The hotel was fine, and as pasteurised as one might expect a Hilton to be, although their air-conditioning sounded like rush-hour on an aircraft carrier. Food in town was harder to find, and although we rocked on up to the “Big Buck”, with predictably gargantuan servings of various American specialities, we left thirsty.

They brewed their own beer; actually an admirable pastime and I have to say they do it well. However, their wine making leaves a lot to be desired. Astringent, weedy and, one has to say, tasting as if it had been made in Central Michigan, it was on sale at an eye-watering $9.50 for 4½ ounces. Now even in metric units, this is a price that would normally be paid for some nectar of the gods, and not this backwater naughawine.

However, suitably fortified we headed north and crossed the Mackinaw Bridge to the Upper Peninsula. We did choose the one day of the year that pedestrian traffic in permitted on the bridge, and consequently thousands of folks took advantage of this regulatory relaxation, and wandered toward us. Watching the walkers, of absolutely every shape and size, did lead to some unkind comments and some small wagers as to some individual’s potential of completing the five-mile walk alive.

It did add an hour to our journey, however, and thus our run across the northern section of the state was a touch more hurried than we might have liked.

This is the land that the economy seems to have left behind. Once clear of Mackinaw, the next two hundred or so miles of highway was littered with “For Sale” signs. Fully two-thirds of the motels and RV parks were for sale, and in many cases, it appeared to be a forlorn hope.

Where are the tourists? We supposed that now, rather than driving and stopping when tired at a motel showing a “vacancy” sign, folks simply got on their iPads, Pods or Phones, and heading straight for a brand name, booked a Best Western, Days Inn or similar, rushing by the independents, unable to reach the brand-obsessed on-line traveller. Cars are also better today, and the daily distances we cover are longer, allowing travellers to congregate in one of a few thriving centres rather than spreading the wealth more evenly throughout the state.

It is a sad state of affairs, and the economy of the “UP” was clearly hurting.

We stopped in Fargo, ND as well, principally to look at a building that we might invest in, but also because of the small towns in the upper mid-west, Fargo really stands out.

Its downtown is attractive, full of life and small businesses. This, principally due to the investment made by a local family who sold their software company to Microsoft for $1.3 billion or so; and let me tell you, that sort of money goes a long way in a smallish town. Of particular note is the lovely Hotel Donaldson, a terrific spot and worth a detour of anyone’s trip. That does assume, of course, that one is anywhere in the vicinity to begin with, which given Fargo’s location, is improbable.

And so to Brussels.

The last time I was here I had arrived on a Capitol Airways flight from New York, and given that Capitol went bankrupt in the 1980s, this was some time ago. As I look out of the window, I see planes from seven airlines, only three of which existed on my last visit. How things change. I am not here for long, heading in a couple of hours to Copenhagen on one of these new airlines (Brussels Airlines). I shall have time to scoot into town there for a beer with an old friend before the final flight of the journey to the magical Faroe Islands.

And more of the Faroes tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Travelling The Silly Season

The travel industry operates, as do many industries, on it own cycle, only barely related to the seasons changing outside our windows. For us, the summer is long gone, the Fall is over, and our winter planning in its final stages. Our thoughts turn to next summer, and to the development of new programs.

In some ways, travel is like every other business. We try to imagine what our clientele might want to do next year, seek out the components and “manufacture” a program to suit this idea. If we are correct and a lot of folks buy we do well, and if we miss the mark, of course, we do not do so well.

At this point, I am looking to further develop some European programs that will offer independent travellers a basic framework. We will design and offer itineraries that allow travellers to wander through Europe on slightly structured journeys, with the security of nightly accommodation but not the rigidity of a conventional tour program.

There are several up and coming regions that are interesting. North Americans are always a year or two after Europeans, so in a way it is easy to see what is on sale in the UK and then tweak it for our market a couple of years later!

This year we are seeing strong interest in The Caucuses, with travel to Georgia and Armenia in particular showing spectacular growth. I can also see a growing interest in the Balkans, and while Croatia has long led the field of tourist destinations in the region, there is a surge of interest in Montenegro.

This small country, tucked in between Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo is absolutely stunningly beautiful. From the high hiking routes in the heart of the country to the villages strung out along the Adriatic coast, Montenegro offers the exploratory tourist a glimpse of the pre-pasteurised past in a gorgeous and friendly environment.

I am looking at a program that starts in the capital, Podgorica, and heads to the coast before continuing south to Albania, and then to Italy, crossing the Adriatic by ferry. Once in Italy, one can simply head toward Rome to come home, or take the local trains to hug the southern coast as one meanders around the heel and sole of the country to Messina.

A trip that I am contemplating for myself this winter would then take me across Sicily and by ferry to Sardinia, Corsica and back to the French mainland at Toulon. Islands have always fascinated me, as have these sorts of overland journeys, and this rout, from Podgorica in Montenegro to Toulon in France would be a fine way to pass a few weeks!


The south of France is always popular, and we are sensing the growth of guided, outdoor programs in the Pyrenees. We have recently started working with two terrific companies, on the western Pyrenees offering superb guided hikes, staying in the chain of mountain refuges that dot the mountains, and in the Eastern Pyrenees another fine company whose programs combine the culinary and wine delights of the Languedoc with hiking and exploring the ancient Cather Castles. A terrific combination!

There are other regions too; northwest Spain, long neglected by many tourists is becoming popular, and I am heading there in April to travel by local train along the north coast. I have a feeling that it will be like riding to Toronto on the Metro, these are not long-distance railways, but the scenery, overnight stops and the privilege of catching a flake of a remote and fascinating culture.

We will see! Watch the website for these and other signature journeys, and spare a thought for poor me, sitting in my office, daydreaming and creating these programs rather than getting out and playing.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Arctic Circle

I am, it has to be said, fortunate in the amount that I am able to travel, and the extraordinary variation in destinations that I am able to visit.

In the past twelve months, I have been all over Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver, to Azerbaijan, Thailand, France (of course), the UK, Georgia and Australia, and now to Repulse Bay on the Arctic Circle.

For reasons that remain fuzzy, I purchased a hotel in Churchill last year, and my daughter and a friend have been managing it with great competence and enthusiasm this year. A week or so ago, I went up for a few days to see how all was getting on, and to reacquaint myself with several of our long-time suppliers and partners in Churchill.

It is a lovely place; nestled on the shores of Hudson Bay, it makes its living form a panoply of activities including tourism. The summer is astonishing; the colour of the tundra, access to a eighteenth century British fort, the thousands of Beluga whales in the river and the opportunity to enjoy the bright days with some fascinating folks.

So up I went, and had a terrific time. I even went on the best tour program that I have ever been on; it is a one-hour ride in a 1942 Turbo Beaver aircraft, overflying the Prince of Wales Fort, the belugas in the river and then, some fifteen miles from town, Cape Churchill with at least twenty, healthy-looking polar bears. The flight is brilliant, and to be recommended.

Having gone north, we decided to continue, and flew another 600 miles to Repulse Bay, a small Inuit community that straddles the Arctic Circle. Here, we knew that we were far, far north; even in early August the sun never really dimmed, and the community was alive with the signs of hunting and summer activity.

Repulse Bay is home to a huge population of Narwhal, in addition to Bowhead and Killer Whales; Belugas venture this far north, and the seal population is massive as well. It did make me smile to wonder, if it were possible to briefly drain the bay, just how many sea mammals would be lying on the bottom. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans do know this, of course, and estimate the local population of Narwhal to be in the region of 30,000, and they allow the community to take 72 for their own consumption. We went out simply to watch, and the sight of three narwhal leaping from the water with their long, ivory tusks flashing in the sunshine is truly extraordinary.

We visited an old Thule settlement, saw a myriad of tundra flowers, and everywhere we wandered in the village we were stopped by folks saying Hi, and wanting to know where we came from. Repulse Bay is a lovely place, and perhaps the most welcoming northern settlement that I have visited in a long time. They are obviously friendly to each other as well, as the evidential hickies were everywhere. I had, perhaps naively, thought that love-bites, as we knew them in London in the seventies, had disappeared as a teenage fashion accessory and social statement some decades ago.

It is different in the north. Folks drive ATVs and some trucks, clothing is different with many of the very many babies carried in highly practical shoulder pockets in coats. Freight is different; I was a touch surprised to see a shipment of Narwhal blubber being air-freighted south to Rankin Inlet to satisfy someone’s epicurean yearnings. Inbound goods seemed dominated by potato chips and soda cans. I was utterly flabbergasted to read that annually, the population of about 40,000 folks in Nunavut import 10,000,000 cans of soda. Yes, ten million cans of soda, each costing an eye-watering $3.69 in the local co-op. This, of course, represents an average of 250 cans per man, woman and child each year, and goes a long way to explain the almost complete absence of teeth.

It is an odd diet; on the one hand, the majority of their protein is hunted and as fresh a meat-supply as one could want; narwhales, seals, caribou and fish with the occasional fifty-two ton Bowhead whale to split among the community; their starch seems to come from potato chips and it all washed down with coke and ginger ale. We also saw some packets of frozen fish in the store’s refrigerator, which did seem a touch odd!

It is a destination, too , for those interested in Inuit carving. I love the delicate work, carved from the fluid coloured stone of the region, and have collected some fine pieces over the years. Repulse Bay had a lovely collection for sale, and wanting no more than to do my bit for the local economy, I did buy a couple.

All in all I loved Repulse, and am looking forward to coming back in the winter on our new snowmobile safari; we will travel with Inuit guides between Repulse Bay and the community of Kugaaruk, some 150 miles north, in the true High Arctic.

In the meantime, it is back in Winnipeg and next to Avon Minnesota to see one of my favourite musicians next week, Ray Bonneville!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

One night in Bangkok

Bangkok has a romantic sound to its name; evocative to the ear, and redolent with unfulfilled and partly out-of-focus images. It is a city that smiles, usually, offering the world a simplicity and an ambience; a welcome to weary travellers and a place to relax. So I stopped as I flew from France to Australia, taking advantage of the break to visit an old friend, a chap I have known for nearly thirty years, and a man who has been pretty successful in the travel business here.

Firstly, I have to say, that Bangkok is big; gone are any possible connections with “cities of the sleepy east” so beloved from Somerset Maugham novels of the 1930s; I say this not out of surprise because I have been to Bangkok many times, but not for possibly twenty years. And the change is astonishing.

It is, it has to be said, a triumph of concrete over civic planning; aficionados of concrete should come here immediately, and stare in wonder at the stuff on display. Highways, railways, houses, flats and factories jostle for every square inch available, and sprout in a bewildering prism of greys. Nature throughout the region surprises, and it is the ability of sturdy trees to grow in this hostile environment and sprout eccentrically between, around and even through the concrete. The cityscape is punctuated with the periodic gorgeous temple or some structure that dates back perhaps thirty years or more, but alas, they are few and far between.

Men of a certain age, and let’s be honest, it is about the age that I am at, walking alone in Bangkok are confidently assumed to be trawling for some sexually favour or other; a bewildering selection of offerings are proffered, and my stroll was not even close to the dens of iniquity that populate Patpong Road; I wouldn’t dare go there alone. It has to be said, though, that there are all too many septuagenarian men, usually with that sort of seedy, trousers-held-up-by-shabby-suspenders look, with a considerably younger Thai woman or girl in two that one finds in most cities.

I did, I have to say, settle for a rather demure but wonderful foot massage, and at $8 the hour in a most respectable establishment, was a bargain to be repeated soon; so within the hour, I did.

Food was a bit of a challenge; it is plentiful, of course, but not wishing to eat at the Shangri-La, I ventured out, finding all manner of fascinating stalls selling all manner of noodles and wildlife. Heaping, and rather gorgeous plates of scorpions with red chillies, scorpions with green chillies, other peculiar bugs, wonderful looking fish and chicken barbequing and an endless parade of soups, noodles and food beyond my immediate recognition. The problem was that I couldn’t figure out how it was “done”; in particular the soup, sold in delicious portions but in plastic bags that were then deftly tied to avoid spillage. Having no crockery or utensils of my own, I soldiered on, and found only one establishment that offered a menu; in pictures rather than English, but very good it was.

And so to the airport, and the gentle ministrations of a flight with Thai First Class to Sydney. Their lounge, where I am sitting now, is a masterpiece, and a splendid place to while away the time before the flight. I am entitled, apparently, to a complimentary one-hour massage and have every intention of enjoying that privilege before the last leg of the long journey from Europe to Australia.

Bangkok? Yes, absolutely worth a stop, but be sure to tie a string to the front door of your hotel before venturing too far; one bustling street of massages, made-to-measure tailors and soup sellers can look pretty similar to another after the first twenty or so.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

First Class Flights; the best use of frequent flyer points

First of all, I have to admit to being completely spoiled. Spoilt too, I suspect, but that is another story. I have been fortunate to be able to travel in First Class for several long-haul flights and despite the acerbic emails that I may get for these comments, I feel it a public service to offer a glimpse behind the curtain.

Firstly, no pun intended, it has to be accepted that there are people to whom money carries fewer responsibilities than the rest of us; there are also folks who travel from continent to continent on multimillion dollar business for whom peace and quiet trump the huge price of the ticket. It is, it has to be said, a step down from the private jets that whizz the truly rich and famous around the world, but it is a pretty nice way to fly.

First Class travel starts well; no congress with the mass of folks checking in for the myriad of long-haul flights; a discreet desk in the corner of the terminal, or in the case of Lufthansa in Frankfurt, a terminal of one’s own to complete the mundane formalities in a minute or two. Oddly, it is at that point that airlines seem to divide into two categories; those that are playing lip service to their most valuable clients, and those who actually value them.

United has possibly the best seats in First Class, but the worst customer interaction. Their staff are usually acceptable, but their menu, security by-pass systems and lounges all rank poorly. Lufthansa now (2015) have wonderful seats, and their ground facilities are extraordinary; Swiss seem to manage both. In a few weeks I will be able to add Thai to my comparison, and am looking forward to experiencing their renowned lounge in Bangkok.

For most, waiting a the airport is uncomfortable and dull; First Class passengers, on the other hand, are happy to check in a few hours early. In Frankfurt the Lufthansa lounge has a magnificent bar and a first-class restaurant within the facility, naturally with no bill in sight. On-site spa treatments, and when it is finally time to go, a private passport control and a late-model Porsche to whisk you to the waiting aircraft. In Bangkok, I gather, Thai First Class passengers are entitled to a complimentary one-hour massage in their spa, in addition to one of the finest restaurants in Bangkok available for their pleasure.

In Paris, it is said that that the operators of the Air France First Class lounge, a Michelin-starred place if ever there was one, are paid a flat €500 per passenger; one can only imagine the service that is on offer.

All this before one even boards the plane. Once on board, seats are huge and discreet. My personal favourite is actually Turkish Airlines who offer each passenger their own cabin that can be open to the masses or closed into a private cabin. Sadly they don’t fly to Winnipeg or Toulouse.

Once on board, service ranges from extraordinary, Johnnie Walker Blue is the Lufthansa house scotch, to the mundane; United’s catering does not match the promise of their wonderful seats, and in fact would be comparable to most airline's business class offerings. Swiss offer a splendid seven course meal with a selection of marvellous wines to compliment every course. And when consumption is complete and one’s eyes start to wane, the seats turn into beds.

Some, United’s are the best example, are simply magnificent, self-contained suites that offer comfort and privacy. Others, and Swiss is the best for this attention, place a mattress over one’s absolutely flat seat and a duvet above to complete a fine bed. And, of course they include pajamas.
So, refreshed, but not overly so, one arrives and can then head to a special arrivals lounge, complete with a shower and breakfast. At this point, one usually has to mix with business class passengers, but sated with the flight’s pampering, food and wine, compromises can be made.

All in all, it is a pretty nice way to travel.

Friday, February 11, 2011

London Again!

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I am, I really do recognise, extremely fortunate to live a life that can keep me in touch with folks in Europe as well as North America. I am well aware that but for a few very fortunate bounces of the ball my life could be significantly different. I am also aware that a couple of bad bounces will have my life spinning off on a completely different tangent.
For now, however, I live a rather pleasant life; made possible, I have to add, by my colleagues at home in Winnipeg who vacillate between wanting me there for “input” and wanting me gone for “peace”. We find a balance, and I am grateful for their forbearance; for their part, I think, they are grateful for my absence, but nevertheless, they are terrific, and allow me to take advantage of considerable freedom.
One of the benefits of regular travel is the ability to get to know restaurants; another in my case is to get to know a restaurant reviewer with whom I go exploring each time I get to London. This time we went to a small restaurant in Swiss Cottage, a well known area of inner North London. Well known, I think, because zillions of cars pass by every day; it is close to really nice places; close to some grubby but alive and fun places, but Swiss Cottage itself is pretty dire. 1970s communal apartments, land blocks raised for traffic extensions, dull little “villas” in a place that feels as if it is on a road to somewhere else.
However, The Chateaubriand was our target that night, and more disappointed we could not have been; it was, tired, disenfranchised, sad and really on its last legs. Not only was there no Chateaubriand, apparently too expensive for his crowd, there wasn’t even a steak.
Now I can understand not stocking a cut that costs £45 for two (although Joseph and I thought this reasonable) when you only sell four or five a year, which is what they apparently do. However, with such a name, it is not unreasonable to expect some meat; other than a Vienna Schnitzel. Never mind; the good news was that having finished dinner in a record seventy minutes, we headed to my New Favourite Pub Of All Time, the Holly Bush in Hampstead; it is truly special, convivial in a singular sort of way and old.
The Holly Bush is the sort of place that two or three times in its existence resisted modernisation. Firstly in the 1890s and then again, and with some fortitude, I think, in the 1970s. It remains a Victorian drinking place, with contemporary Aussie bar staff it has to be said. But then again, my Canadian daughter is in Australia serving alcohol to Australians at the moment, so the world is truly upside down.
Why do Australians head north to pour beer and Canadians head south? It is not exactly an exchange of skills; but then I digress. Beer is being poured equally enthusiastically everywhere.
But Tuesday night in the Holly Bush was marvellous. Why I have never been there before I can’t explain, but I hadn’t, and I will again. It is a marvellous place, full of the past conjured together perfectly with the refreshment requirements of the present. And no, we did not get over refreshed, simply content. And a gentle contentedness aligned with the company of a good friend, the evening passed. We only wondered why we didn’t meet there at seven instead of the barren wastes of Swiss Cottage.

Tbilisi; An Interesting Week

Tbilisi is always interesting, and my all-too-brief stay there last week once more conjured up some surprises and ideas. It always does, and suffice it to say that were I to decamp and move to Georgia, a thought that has crossed my mind more than once, I would collapse under the deluge of potential.

Georgia is, you see, a remarkable country. In many ways similar to many post-Soviet lands, it has a vibrancy and excitement that I have not seen in others. The exceptions, of course, are the Baltics, Poland and possibly the Czech Republic, but they have had the EU to assist and boost. No, Georgia has had less structural support; it has, of course, had significant financial support from both the US and from the EU, but nevertheless there is a fascinating evolution going on. Young Georgians, and by that I mean those under about thirty-five in mind or body are so competent and alive; they leave the young whippersnappers that Deloitte and other “Global Consultancies” send to Georgia to help them mend their ways and reach the future.

So the Big Idea now was to run charter flights to Tbilisi for three and four-day escapes. A great idea, and one that warmed the cockles of a tour operator’s heart; there is good accommodation in Tbilisi, sufficient rooms for this kind of operation and a local nightlife that would sell. The idea was mooted in December during my previous visit, and I and a couple of others have been doing a little sleuthing since then.

The key, of course, to a successful tour operation is to be able to buy each component for a significant discount; the hotel rooms must be reasonable and the cost of the aircraft acceptable. It is, whichever way you slice it, a significant risk to charter twenty flights on spec. An operation to Georgia must logically be operated by an airline with the rights to fly on the route, and also an aircraft available with the minimum of deadheading; operating an empty flight to come an pick up the passengers.

The first quote, from a Georgian carrier was for €32,000 per rotation, which seemed pricey to us. Following a series of meetings in London our second quote came from a rather obscure South African airline, of whom I had never heard before Monday. Their offer was US$19,500 per rotation, a significant discount to the original benchmark.

The third meeting was the best; I am yet to get a price, but am assured that it will arrive by Friday (tomorrow at this point).

And so it will come to pass; we will offer holidays in Tbilisi to the denizens of Baghdad; oddly, we now think that 50% of our market will be Iraqis, rather than a complete market of ex-patriots. The market remains to be seen, as do a number of other issues. Georgian visas for Iraqis for example, and the roughly $500,000 financial commitment, but the project seems very sound.

Interesting too, which is important; I have a fairly short attention span. Concentrated and sharp it may be, but it is short.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Creature of Habit

It is very easy to become a creature of habit; travelling as I do, I find myself almost searching for patterns, looking for flakes of continuity in an otherwise fairly random life. I am staying currently in the Courtyard Marriott in Tbilisi, my third visit, and other than the murder, I like the security and comfort of knowing and being known.

The murder was odd, though. A few days before I arrived, a young(ish) French IT specialist, only three days in the country, was brutally stabbed in room 412. I pass this room each time I head from my room to the elevator; they have tacked two elderly bed covers over the door, covering the police tape (I peeked behind them), which jar against the otherwise perfect symmetry of a hotel corridor. It makes one wonder about that night in January, hints of spurned lovers, on-line attractions and perhaps expectations that went beyond those spoken. I also wonder when they will clean the room, and who will, presumably unwittingly, be its next paying guest.

So full of these wonders, and my penchant for habit taking me to one of two local restaurants for lunch or dinner when alone, I have been in Tbilisi for three days now; successful ones I think, as the couple of major business ideas I am pursuing seem to be edging forward nicely. Nicely to the point that today I had nothing else to do and decided to head to Batumi, the rapidly-growing resort on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.

Twice weekly Airzena (the Georgian national airline) operate a schedule that allows one to head to the coast for seven hours, and still be back in Tbilisi in time for dinner. The fare, at $75 return, is terrific, so I headed to the airport armed with camera and notepad ready for a day at the seaside.

We boarded the plane on time and the 50 seat aircraft had about 30 passengers on board with two flight crew; used to United Airlines' spartan offering on the same aircraft, this seemed almost excessive. However, after about 30 minutes, they came around and announced that because of snow, rain and fog at the seaside, the flight would be delayed.

So I abandoned ship; as the aircraft was to continue from Batumi to Kiev and stop on its way back, the return to Tbilisi would be significantly late, and I have a dinner engagement; add to that, while beaches in snow and howling winds do have rather macabre attractions, being late for dinner trumped them. So back through security, a complicated refund process and fortunately one lone taxi around to take me back to town.

And now, I think to my favourite little haunt for a bowl of their marvellous mushroom soup while I ponder the afternoon.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tbilisi Airport

There really are few places whose daily peak is at about 0400; in fact, I can’t think of another off hand. However, Tbilisi airport is one of those, and it was my pleasure to have landed there this morning at that God Awful time.

Worth it, though, I have to say, as the drive into town was speedy, and really rather beautiful; slightly misty, and the wonderfully illuminated castles, old buildings and streets were a picture.

The airport, however, wasn’t. One of the perils of being a, shall we delicately say, second division destination is that airlines tend to determine when they get served. Major European airports, and even their minor strips, have landing restrictions that theoretically allow those who chose to purchase dwellings near an airport to sleep. This leaves aircraft sitting on the ground all night, unless they are able to squeeze in a round trip journey of nine hours or so to allow a plane to make some money at night.

As this timing requirement needs a landing strip about four hours away that is open in the middle of the night, the choices are fewer than one might imagine. Tbilisi is one; as are such attractive destinations as Yerevan, Yekaterinburg, Perm and so on.

I have left Tbilisi on the return journey, and although an 0430 departure fails to warm the cockles of this jaded traveller’s heart, it is a vast improvement on arriving at that time; getting to the hotel by 0530, asleep at 0600 and sort of awake by noon, clinging to the hope that one’s body will eventually synchronise with the day’s cycle of food smells.

It was a long journey; actually, I almost spent longer in airport lounges (13 hours) than actually flying (14 hours) due to the peculiar schedules, and a well-placed respect for the idiocy of a tight connection in Chicago.

In Munich at one point, I did find myself staring at the departure board wondering where I was actually going. All of the destinations looked pretty appealing, but it was only by reference to my boarding pass that I got myself back on track.

And here I am, back in the Georgian capital for a series of meetings that will hopefully nudge another couple of projects forward. On Wednesday I hope to fly up to Mestia on “my plane”; the aircraft that I worked on leasing to the Georgians is operating a service up to the mountains, and it would be fun to be able to go for a ride. We will see.

In the meantime it is time to again enjoy Tbilisi for a few days, and not think about airlines, airports, schedules or moving again for a few days.