Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Weekend in Newfoundland: A New Found Land

This really is a brilliant place. A rock, stuck out in the inclement North Atlantic is hardly a perfect canvas upon which to create a society, but in the traditions of the region, Canada’s most easterly province is a winner. The North Atlantic is home to Celts and Vikings, lost fisherfolk and shipwrecked flotsam from around the world, and they all add up to make the North Atlantic absolutely fascinating.

They are lands that defy development, but they exist and certainly in terms of their societies, they thrive. It is not a mystery either why they have become such attractive tourist destinations. From the Shetland and Faroe Islands of the North Sea to Iceland and to this oddly-named island of Newfoundland, the north Atlantic is beguiling.

It isn’t easy to get round, really; from Reykjavik, I had to fly through Boston, Halifax, Gander (yes, the direct flight was full) to St. John’s, and now here I am. A free Sunday in the middle of an extensive business trip, tinged as it has been with personal sadness, I am glad to be here. I rented a car, and spent the day driving the Irish Loop from St. John’s to Trepassey and back to the big city.

St. John's' remarkable harbour 
It is lovely, if the more distant suburbs of St. John’s are a little scruffy, and all too willing to hoist the ugly, day-glo lettered advertising signs; although I have to admit that signs to lure passing drivers to stop for Cod Cheeks and Salt Fish Tongues mad an amusing change from the usual roadside supply of BC Fruit.

It’s a great place. Place names are funny: the twin communities of Black Head and Bald Head, Mistaken Point, Butter Pot and Witless Bay were just a few that made me smile. The places themselves are lovely; secure communities, rugged shorelines, old stone churches, colourful buildings and tons of laundry flapping in the wind. Honestly, I haven’t seen so much outside laundry for years. Wood piled delicately, and in the most intricate shaped piles, and above all, today at least, a gorgeous blue sky, shining light on every nook and cranny.

It was lovely. The round-trip drive is about 300 kms, a manageable day’s expedition. In summer there are plenty of stops for coffee, lunch or relief, but on this Sunday in the winter, their owners are presumably watching the final day of the Olympics or sunning themselves in Florida. At any rate, they aren’t at home. It didn’t really matter, as I was more interested in looking than eating, and in any case, by one’s self, it is easier to simply see what is around the next corner.

One of my favourite things about Canada is the CBC, and although it is hard to pick favourites, The Vinyl Cafe is a terrific show. And so, driving around the Avalon peninsular, I listened to Stuart MacLean’s unique blend of music, storytelling and Canadiana. Canada, he described today is an archipelago; a vast area of isolated cultural islands. I like this description, and just as he described himself, I realised that I am an island-hopper, and love it! I am so fortunate to have visited every province and territory, and the capital cities of each, and really am in a position to pour tribute on St. John’s, my favourite city in the country.

It was in this spirit of exploration that I determined to visit Cape Race. It seemed logical, somewhere I had never been, an odd promontory, perhaps some shipwrecks to ogle, however, although I had probably realised the drawback some fifty yards after leaving the hard-top road, I didn’t acknowledge the obvious for a couple of miles.

The Trusty Yarris
And this is that a Toyota Yarris does not qualify as an off-road vehicle. Actually, it doesn’t really like to go over a speed bump, but the prospect of visiting a remote Cape clearly didn’t appeal to my car, so reluctantly we turned around. It was a pity, because I like these sorts of geographical extremes, but today, I wasn’t to visit a new one.

I did, however, gently persuade the Yarris up to the top of Signal Hill; this peak, overlooking the narrow entrance to St. John’s dramatic harbour is terrific. The whole city is visible, and the harbour's importance is clear at a glance.

And so the evening came, and I returned to my hotel to ponder the evening. There really isn’t a place that I know with so much choice for dining and entertainment. I was early last night, but with jet-lag now behind me, I am going to seek some live music and lose myself in the maelstrom of thoughts that are jostling for position and acknowledgement in my head.
St. John's Colourful Houses are delightful

Friday, February 26, 2010

Reykjavik Snow

You probably wouldn’t know it, but Iceland has had the most clement winter for years. While Europe has been overwhelmed by snow, rain and generally heavy winter weather, and North America confounded by massive snowfalls and cold, mid-continent temperatures, Iceland has been basking under a warm and comforting winter. A lost tribe of Global Warmers among the cooling gloom.

But this visit, a couple of days in January to finish off some new business opportunities, brought a heavy snowfall and cold temperatures; probably a winter day that the rest of the world would feel normal for this rocky, North Atlantic outcrop, but this winter, unusual.

I arrived in Keflavik on a flight from London and picked up my vehicle; fortunately an SUV. By the time I had reached the city, the snow had started, and although I could park quickly enough, I wasn’t sure about finding my car again. I like Reykjavik, particularly the old town, and in the snow, it looks truly cosy, and very romantic.

Again the Hotel Fron, as friendly as last time, but quite full of winter sports enthusiasts, and a couple of bewildered Australians, and soon, my friend Shonni came to pick me up.

Shonni manages a travel business in Reykjavik, and is the agent for the Smyril Line, a fascinating shipping company that plies the waters between Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark; as a former fisherman, used to the vagaries of the Sea of Murmansk in the winter, he is scornful of my doubts regarding the sanity of winter passengers on the MV Norunna. We are together, however, to talk about travel to Canada for Icelanders this summer, now that there is a direct flight between Winnipeg and Iceland and of Icelandic life in general.

For some, the economic tsunami endured over the past year or so has been good; for most it has been dreadful. Good for those with export businesses, poor for everyone else. The anger is intense; anger toward the small cabal of business people, perhaps as few as thirty, who engineered this collapse by undermining every moral and ethical principle that our business world is built upon. Now I know that the use of the words “ethical”, “moral” and “business” in the same sentence will cause merriment, if not a wholesale search for aisles to roll in, but one must always believe in “the system” as having an undercurrent of principle that mirrors its broader society; otherwise we would all face the same meltdown that Iceland has undergone, and the rest of us so narrowly avoided.

The second target of his anger is the government, both elected and appointed officials who so willingly turned a blind eye. Or in the most generous possible explanations, complete and utter incompetence. It is a tragedy; Icelanders, the most confident, friendly, accommodating and generous people it has been my privilege to know, did not deserve this pain.

But back to the flight. Iceland Express will fly twice weekly this summer, and we are looking forward to an exciting time selling both ends of the flight. It is all systems go now, and we have an allocation of 20 seats on each plane to sell, so off we go! Iceland is great; scenic, wild, sophisticated, pastoral, dramatic and photogenic, and an absolute must for travellers’ agendas. Independent touring by car with accommodation in comfortable guest-houses, escorted bus tours, exciting city breaks or some of the world’s most challenging outdoor activities, Iceland has it all.

So come! 2010 is the year to visit the Vikings!

The snow was over by the time I left, although there was a pretty nasty squall as I refilled the car’s tank at the airport. And this is an odd situation; the only gas station within range of the airport only takes credit cards with the chip & PIN technology. For North Americans, this can come as a rude wake-up call; so please, credit card companies, bring the US and Canada into the 21st century and give us chips with all cards, and not just a select few.

I was sorry to leave this afternoon, but I am now heading to Boston for a meeting this evening and tomorrow to St. John’s in Newfoundland and finally Halifax before getting home to Winnipeg on March 4th. I am looking forward to visiting Newfoundland again, as I have always had a soft spot for the province; probably Canada’s most gorgeous region. Perhaps Saturday night at some small, noisy bar on Water Street will prove to be fun! I will be sure to let you know.

And for those who follow this blog, and have been kind enough to ask, my father died this morning; peacefully.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

London's Transport and Some Food

It is really odd to have spent a week utilising London’s transport system, tube bus and even the odd taxi, and to see it graded Europe’s fourth worst system!

I really like it. Admittedly I grew up with it, and have been riding around from an early age, family legend has it that aged four, I returned home from school on the bus (as one did in those days), and seeking adventure, rode on until it reached the end of the route some forty minutes later. Having satisfied my curiosity, I rode the bus back home and could not quite understand my mother’s borderline-hysterical demeanour. But I digress.

The tube system is great and simple enough to navigate if one can count and distinguish colour. It is also instructive to look at names of distant parts of this enormous city that one never gets to, and wonder what on earth might be going on in Tooting, Ickenham, Ongar or Penge; mysteries indeed.

The system is now made simpler and more economical by the Oyster card; long the staple of Londoners, it is now gaining favour among tourists. It is simply a swipe0card that carries a value that you purchase from the system; economical, and offering individual fares well below their single-purchase price, the card also cleverly caps out at a value that you would have spent on a daily ticket. All in all a brilliant and simple invention, and one in which all visitors to London should invest.

Among the visits to my ailing father, and temporarily immobile uncle, I managed to both work and play. The work was interesting as it always can be meeting colleagues working in the same industry but in different countries, and perhaps profitable, but the fun was better.

London, I have to say, offers more economical dining than Winnipeg. This most curious fact is a function of both the exchange rates and the extraordinary rise in dining costs in the Prairies, but nevertheless, for those terrified of London’s restaurant bills I can only say “Fear ye not”.

Now, it isn’t Buenos Aires, but a substantial and amply lubricated dinner for two that would regularly set one back $120 or so in Winnipeg can be found easily in London for a C note. I visited two notable places last week, and so I shall not them.

The first is Ravel’s Bistro near Belsize Park in north London; I like the place, and it suits my temperament I think. It is small, cosy and offers a wide range of starters for £4.95 and main courses priced at £9.95; my companion that night was a friend who is a rather observant and humorous restaurant critic (I am not sure I should have done this to a small restaurant that I like, but there you are), and I look forward to his comments.

The second is really odd; the Cilantro Cafe lies on Piccadilly next door to Fortnum and Masons (where I bought some tea as one does) and opposite the National Gallery where I had just whizzed through a fabulous exhibition of Van Gogh art (as one also does from time to time). Now the really interesting thing about the cafe other then the decor, location and surprisingly economical menu were the locations of the chain’s other locations; Cairo, Alexandria, Sharm el Sheik, Jeddah and Amman. I am not sure quite why I found this amusing, but I did. And judging by the food and enthusiasm of the joint, it deserves all the success that it can muster.

And all this linked by the ubiquitous tube and terrific bus service.

I like London; and now really is the time to visit. It is always fun, perpetually in season and ready and willing to welcome visitors.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My Dad

I have been wondering for a while how to approach this subject. I like to write, as you probably realise, as I am on the road; I like to observe, and I enjoy the freedom that” the road” offers; I like to watch people, to engage strangers and to watch the world unfold.

I find almost everything interesting, from the suburban development in Baku to the new harvest in sleepy, rural Languedoc. My attention span is short, irritatingly so, for some. It is an issue for which some acquaintances, but few friends, have suggested a pharmaceutical remedy. Some chance; take a pill and morph into some kind of statistical normalcy? Thank you, no, I shall take my place among the observers, the eccentrics and those who rally against the WalMartisation of life.

One does, however, wonder from time to time, where this potentially irritating trait comes from; and the answer is, of course, my Dad.

He is a good chap, my Dad, and one of the best friends I have ever had, but now, The End Is Nigh.

Diagnosed with Lymphoma in March last, he told no one for six months. He didn’t want pity, he said, and in any case, he wanted to complete his peculiar study of South African bus fleets. At 85, he happily wandered to Cape Town, George and Port Elizabeth a couple of times each year to record the excruciating detail of bus chassis registration numbers, and the minutiae of the composition of fleets in the major local and national bus companies.

It is, one has to agree, an odd hobby. However, playing in the antipodean traffic pleased him, and to my astonishment, pleased others. Perhaps less useful than charting the human genome, his peculiar hobby filled in a gap; a gap. I have to admit that many passed and considered of little importance.

But his publications say otherwise; four booklets, proudly published by the PSV Circle, an august body of similarly-inclined individuals, are testament to his work. And for a hobby embarked upon in his late seventies to stave off potential boredom, it was wonderful; and epitomised him.

So on Saturday morning, when the phone rang suspiciously early, and my niece, the fantastic Fiona, told me that the nursing home indicated that next Saturday’s football results would hold little interest to him, I got on a plane. For the fourth time since he was given two to four weeks in November, I have to add; there is a little of the tooth that we all had when we were seven or so, that stubbornly held in place.

And so I am en route to London to see him, to bury him or simply to hold his hand and sit with him; and if I have to do that, I will bore him with tales of our trip to Uruguay.

When he was about eighty, I sent him a ticket to join me in Buenos Aires. From there we crossed to Colonia in Uruguay, rented a car and went to explore. What a great week! Rental cars that leaked gas, isolated estancias surprised but delighted to have us show up on their doorstep (Dad had found a brochure in the Uruguayan embassy in London, and off we went unannounced), wandering through the time-warp of the Fray Bentos corned-beef factory, wineries, gaucho-hitchhikers, laughs and more fun than we could have imagined.

My only regret is that he wanted to do it again, but this time travelling to India, and in particular to Dhera Dun; partly reliving seventy-year-old memories, but more, I think, to reinforce a thread that formed an integral part of the fabric that was, and at this moment is, My Dad. I think that we would have had fun travelling to India.

He has, in more than one person’s opinion, been a (bad word), but to those who were fortunate to steel themselves to his rather obvious opinions, and meet the real Andrew Johnson, met an overly generous and ever-curious man; a role model who I am so proud to have had.

We have no unfinished business. He is, or possibly was, my friend, and to my family’s periodic but emphatic Roll Of The Eyes, a role model.

So, off I go, and the next week or so will be a voyage of uncertainty. My friend Jim, whose mother passed away recently, and like I, had a relationship tempered by the tyranny of distance, spoke of the practical issues that death throws up; “it isn’t something one ever gets good at”, he said, “fortunately”.

We will see.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Airline Points can be Pointless

For those who have contacted me to wonder why I have been silent for a while, I thank you; it is reassuring to find out that there are actually readers out there in the blogosphere; the simple answer is a combination of actually having to work hard at my own desk, becoming preoccupied and a touch lazy, and being unable to think of some interesting subjects.

The last bit is disingenuous because there is always something interesting to write about in the travel biz, and today I shall vent a little about points.

Frequent flyer points are the crack-cocaine of the travel world. Collectors can border on the obsessive, and it is not unheard of for travellers to request routes with one or two additional connections to allow them to get more segments toward some elite level. Some time ago, we had a couple buy tickets from Winnipeg to London with intermediate stops in Thunder Bay, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, thus earning 12 segments on a return journey; odd, but true.

The serious side of the World of Points is that they are a rapidly inflating currency; elementary economics reminds us that an increase in the base money supply without a corresponding increase in available product will inevitably cause price-inflation; and guess what? The airlines point-making-machines have been left running, and now with every credit card, gas store and restaurant offering points, the pressure on redemption is becoming rough.

Aeroplan are considering increasing the redemption requirement by 20%, and rest assured that they will do so. If you have Aeroplan points, and are planning a trip, book it now; even if you are not sure of the dates, by making a reservation, you are locking in the number of points required, and the dates maybe changed for a nominal fee of $90.

The points debate is also enlightened by the addition of new carriers in the various alliances. Continental Airlines recently joined the Star Alliance, and their redemption rate for travel to Europe was 80, 100 and 120K for economy, business or first class travel respectively. Air Canada’s is 65, 80 and 100, so one can imagine that Continental Airline’s favourite clients would be tempted to abscond to a program that offers faster redemption with an identical accrual rate!

Other carriers, under the cunning guise of offering you, the Valued Client, “more choice” have now introduced seasons, where for an outlay of only three times the points that you previously needed, you can fly at convenient vacation times. I am not sure who does burn up their stash of points at those stratospheric rates, but I am sure that some do.

Partly because if you don’t, they will evaporate.

I have collected American Airlines points slowly but surely; a BA flight here, a leg on Aer Lingus there; they don’t’ really fly anywhere near me, but when I need to travel on a route that does not offer a hit of my preferred drug (Aeroplan and Delta’s Sky Miles), I go for the One World carrier. Over time, I had accumulated 31,067 miles, and was planning to cash them in on a flight from London to Moscow with British Airways. Too late; with absolutely no direct warning, my account’s “inactivity” had led to them cancel all of my scrip, leaving me with a balance of zero.

So beware; use your Aeroplan points before the redemption rate inflates, and keep an eye on the expiry date! The airlines’ computers do.