Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Travels in Moldova, TransDniester and Ukraine

I have been most remiss; I have, as you will know, not written a piece for some time, and have been rightly chided by some regular readers for this absence.

I have, however, been busy; my last piece was of two very fine restaurants in Bologna and Tbilisi, and there it all ended. But my wanderings have not.

A Ukrainian Railway Station
I spent time travelling through Moldova, the northeast corner of Romania and the southwest tip of Ukraine on a magnificent voyage of discovery, and leaving with a burning desire to return and explore in much more detail. The former Soviet countries of Europe, and perhaps Central Asia although I have yet to visit this part of the world, offer visitors a fine and unpasteurised look at the region. They are not yet subsumed by western brands, life is both simpler and more complex and the people warm and friendly.

The railway carriages in which we trundled around are elderly, in part, but add to the atmosphere of the region, and are a most interesting experience.

Travelling around this region was a great deal of fun, and we also included a side trip to the rather peculiar and unrecognised "breakaway republic" of TransDniester. This was, curiously my second visit to this eccentric country, and I well recall a conversation during the last where I had asked a local inhabitant what she wished for her "country" to become. "Well", she said with a shine in her eyes, " I would love us to become just like Kaliningrad".

I had never heard the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad being held up as the highest national aspiration, but it was, and I was keen to return to this tiny oddity and see if time had edged forward at least an inch. And, my goodness, it had.

The gateway to Tirasopol, and the inevitable "selfie with a tank"

Previously it had been backward, slow and musty; today, in comparison to neighbouring Moldova, it was shiny and sparkling, the beneficiary of billions of Russian Roubles. The tanks were still in sight along the main drag, and a massive statue of Lenin still stood guard over the "parliament" building, and there are still shiny banks, a testament not to the locals' wealth but to the torrent of funny money that flows through this financially myopic neighbourhood. It was a great place to see.

Our Living room in Chisinau
The mailboxes in the apartment
Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, is an odd place. Not very beautiful, and not terribly engaging, it is, however, rather Soviet, and for those who are curious about this very distinct period of Western history, it is a fine place to be.

My cousin and I rented a very pleasant, Soviet-era apartment through Airbnb, and loved what was for us, the retro feel. Delighted that this was only a temporary entertainment, and not a lifestyle, we used it as a base from which we went on day trips to see other parts of the country. It is an interesting place; Soroca in the north is the home of the "King of the Gypsies, and some extraordinary buildings being constructed by gypsies throughout Europe as a place for them to retire; truly bizarre, and proof that entire towns can be built from chintz and baubles.

Gypsy mansions in Soroca, Moldova. 

Continuing from the sublime to the ridiculous, or perhaps it was the other way around, we headed to Iasi in Romania, and thence to Chernivtsi in the Ukraine about which I shall write another piece.

I have also been broadcasting weekly on CBC Manitoba; from far and near. Sadly, my primary host, Terry MacLeod  retired two weeks ago, and here is a copy of the final show. I will continue the Saturday morning spots, but it will be different. 

Neither life nor geography ever stands still.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Bologna and Tbilisi; Two very fine restaurants

I do realise that I have a very fortunate life, and my ability to wander and experience the world is one that I don’t take for granted.

There is, for those who wonder, a downside. My friend Cameron once said that I was “hyper-stimulated”, and thus unable to settle to routines any more, and constantly craving excitement. New colours, unseen mountains, interesting people and simply the need to see what is around the next corner. This is, of course, true, and while not exactly a curse, it does have its negative moments. However, in the quest for new and exciting places and experiences, I have found many wonderful places and people; and restaurants.

I have, in the past three days, been to two of the most wonderful restaurants it has been my privilege to experience. And I say this from many decades of hard trying; I have eaten at fine restaurants on each continent; I have had Michelin meals, eye popping fish and chips, spectacular Icelandic lobster and some of the finest meat that South America can provide. I have also had scorpions, sheep’s eye balls and the pride and joy of some lascivious horse, but those meals fade quickly.

This week’s two prizes are Barbarestan in Tbilisi and Trattoria di via Serra in Bologna.

Now both cities are renowned for food, Bologna possibly more simply due to its location, but for foodies seeking new and exciting tastes, Tbilisi offers some dramatic dining.

Neither are Michelin starred, and neither are expensive; neither are fancy and nor are they conceited. They are both family run, in Bologna by Flavio and Tommaso and in Tbilisi by the massive Kurasbediani family with their ten children. They both offer an exquisite balance between bewitching flavours and a completely unpretentious atmosphere. This self-assurance is the key to their success.
Georgian food is exciting; it is a riot of flavour and colour that both delights and amazes. Barbarestan takes this to a new level by fusing the unexpected together. 

Polyphonic singing at Barbarestan

Their use of traditional herbs is masterful, and in fact, the entire menu is drawn from a cookbook written in the 19th century by a Georgian duchess (Barbara Jorjadze if you must know) found in the Tbilisi flea market; these are recipes unknown to the contemporary kitchen, and most certainly unfamiliar to the modern palate. Balanced with their substantial offering of Georgian wines, their encyclopaedic knowledge of Georgian customs and music and the polyphonic singing that can accompany some mealtimes, this family has got it right.

And so to Bologna I flew; two years ago I had written that the Trattoria di via Serra was “worth stopping over in Europe simply to eat there”. I wanted to see if this was true.

The menu at Trattoria di via Serra

Flavio was, as usual, at the door, letting diners in only after they had rung a bell. One can dine pretty well only by reservation, and the small location is usually full. Its popularity comes, I think, from its attention to detail and the presentation of local, countryside food. Once again, the dishes are not fancy, but drawn from the inspirations of fresh produce artfully combined. Tommaso is a wizard in the kitchen; his skills are evident with every mouthful. His ability to draw the strength of flavour from such simple combinations of ingredients is an inspiration.

Meatballs are not, in fact, a terribly attractive dining options; however, Tommaso's wizardry in combining the apparently basic ingredients is awe inspiring, and takes this simple dish to dizzy heights. 

Two such different restaurants in two such different cities. Their similarities, however, are at the root of their success and attraction. Both run by families, one small and one large, but the intimacy offered by the close collaboration of the owners is evident in their food. The cuisine is simple, artful, thoughtful and utterly delicious.

This is fine dining, and not “Fine Dining”.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Soviet Legacy in Georgia Tour - 2017

The Soviet Legacy Tour

Sixty-five years of occupation by the Soviet Union has left an indelible impact on Georgia. A fantasy economic system, archaic infrastructure and deeply peculiar and repressive social systems are now being erased, but their legacy lives on.

This unique tour program aims to introduce visitors to some of the more obvious of these legacies; bizarre cable cars, crumbling factories, Soviet-era health resorts and more. It is a fascinating glimpse into the near past, and a reflection of an economic and political system that leaves many scratching their heads. Join us to look back at this fascinating period of 20th century history.

October 8:  Arrival in Tbilisi, and transfer to Betsy's Hotel Arrival times in the Georgian capital may appear slightly eccentric, with many flights arriving between 0200 and 0300. Your rooms will be available from the afternoon of September 23rd, and you will be met and transferred to the hotel regardless of the arrival time.

October 9: Following breakfast we will explore the historic part of Tbilisi; we will walk in the old part of the town visiting the bath house area, Narikala castle and Maidan Square. Later we will visit the Tbilisi Metro for a ride towards Soviet part of Georgian capital where we will visit buildings built in late 1960’s and 70 ‘s as massive residential blocks. After lunch we will head to the National Museum of History which includes an exhibition of Soviet Occupation dedicated to the victims of Soviet regime. Dinner will be at the Funicular restaurant built in 1930’s

Souvenirs at the Museum
October 10:  This morning we will drive to Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The centerpiece of the town is the Stalin Museum; here you will see the house where he was born, the train carriage he used during the WWII and the massive museum building where a variety of memorabilia are kept. 

After the museum continue trip towards Chiatura, an industrial town in west Georgia. Important due to heavy manganese production, Chiatura has been heavily industrialized. The fascinating cable car system has not been touched since 1954. Brave ones in the group will be able to enjoy a ride in one of the metal cable cars.  We will continue towards Kutaisi and stay overnight at the restored soviet naval officers’ spa at Tskaltubo.

The Cable Cars of Chiatura
October 11: After breakfast we will tour the Tskaltubo resort. Founded in 1925 the town was one of the very first resorts built in the Soviet era. Numerous hotels and sanatoriums were built during first half of the 20th century, and they became one of the most popular elements of Soviet Health Tourism among all levels of Soviet society. Some of the buildings have been abandoned after 1990’s but they still have amazing charm. We will visit couple of these former sanatoriums before returning to Tskaltubo for our overnight stop.

October 12: In the morning we will head towards South Georgia; after short drive and couple of stops, we will arrive in Borjomi, another famous resort. Borjomi is a charming town that sits on the green slopes of Lesser Caucasus, with 65 % of its territory covered by forest. The main attraction of the town is its thermal waters. Ancestors of present Georgians knew the positive qualities of these springs and used it for medicinal purposes. The waters became popular for Russian Empire in late 19th century, and the government began building palaces, parks, public gardens and hotels to accommodate incoming tourists and patients. Renowned figures such as Anton Chekhov, Pyotr Tchaikovsky as well as members of the royal Russian family were among the common visitors of the springs. We will be able to taste these waters and enjoy a stroll in the garden. We will stay overnight here at the Borjomi Palace Hotel.

 Borjomi; the park and some old children's "attractions"!

Iago and Marina
October 13:  This morning we will drive back towards Tbilisi. Along the road visit Uplistsikhea spectacular ancient cave town dating from the first half of the 1st millennium BC. The famous “Fortress of God” is first mentioned in the chronicles of the 1st century A.D. Carved into the rocky plateau you will find huge echoing halls, long meandering corridor-streets, chambers for pagan worship, water supply system, secret tunnel, market and the remains of Georgia’s oldest theatre, complete with auditorium, stage and orchestra pit. Later drive to village Chardakhi where you will meet the local vintner Iago Bitarishvili. We will visit the cellar, taste his rare Chinuri wines and enjoy a delicious lunch cooked by the family.  After short drive we are back in Tbilisi. 

October 14: We will spend whole day in Tbilisi today, and visit the Car Museum, with a small but fascinating collection of old Soviet cars. Lunch will be at a local restaurant and later we will visit the flea market, where many old and fascinating items of the Soviet period are sold by a myriad of street vendors. In the evening we will enjoy a farewell dinner at a the Azarpesha restaurant, and enjoy Georgia’s unique polyphonic singing.

October 15: Departure from Tbilisi.

The Price: US$ 2,145 per person (Single supplement: US$ 495)

The price includes:

The Group: This tour will be marketed worldwide and will have participants from several countries and will be conducted exclusively in English. We will restrict participation to a maximum of sixteen people so early booking is highly recommended.

Terms:  A non-refundable deposit of $750 is required to confirm your place on the tour. The balance will be due no later than 45 days prior to departure. Once paid, all monies will be non-refundable, and we highly recommend that you purchase travel insurance to cover any potential issues that might otherwise cause you to lose money.

For reservations please contact Tamara Natenadze at: tamara@travellivingroots.com

The Georgian Classic Tour: Food, Wine and Culture - September, 2017

Georgian wine tours are really becoming popular, and our 2016 program is only on Day Three but so much fun is being had that we have confirmed our dates for 2017. Our tours will be limited to eighteen people, nine couples; early booking is essential. This will be the fifth time that we have offered this program, and we look forward to introducing you to the fascinating and surprising country of Georgia this September. Recognised by National Geographic as one of the tours that one must take in a lifetime, we are pretty proud of the itinerary.

Our groups are small and our aim is to take you away from the major tourist destinations to meet and experience the unique culture of this wonderful country located in the heart of The Caucasus. 

September 25:  Arrival in Tbilisi, and transfer to our accommodation confirmed for three nights at the Betsy's Hotel Arrival times in the Georgian capital may appear slightly eccentric, with many flights arriving between 0200 and 0300. Your rooms will be available from the afternoon of September 10th, and you will be met and transferred to the hotel regardless of the arrival time.

Vino Underground
September 26:  There will be an optional walking tour at 10.00 am for those who are up and ready that will explore the quirky center of Old Tbilisi; we will see the city from each side of the River and have an introduction to the remarkable stories of the early days of this strategically important town. Lunch will be at 1.00 pm, and later in the afternoon we shall wander over to the iconic wine bar, Vino Underground for our first introduction to the glories of Georgian wine.

September 27:  The morning will be free to rest and adjust to the time zone, or explore the surrounding areas on your own. In the afternoon we will head out to Tbilisi to explore the Old Capital of Mtskheta and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. This cathedral, founded in 1010, is one of the most sacred places in the country and is a fine introduction to the importance of the Georgian Orthodox church in the Georgian soul.

September 28:  Today we will leave the capital behind and head west. First to the unremarkable town of Gori, made famous only because of its native son, Stalin. We shall visit the extraordinary, and rather chilling museum to his life before continuing over the Likhi mountains to Kutaisi and finally to Tskutalbo, our overnight stop. This resort was built in the 1970s as a resort exclusively for high-ranking Soviet Naval offices, and is makes a delightful and unique place to stay.

September 29:  Today we climb the mountains. After a coffee stop in Zugdidi, we will drive up the Svaneti Valley to Mestia. This region is special, even by Georgian standards! The communities that populate this valley are distinct and historically fiercely independent. We will see some dramatic scenery, gorgeous mountains and villages that have been here since the dawn of time. Finally, we will reach Mestia, the regional capital and now a center for hiking, skiing and a variety of other mountain-based activities.

September 30:  Ushguli is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it is extremely remote and life here is redolent of the middle ages. It has a collection of dramatic medieval towers, and lying as it does at 2,300m, it is the highest populated community in Europe. We will have time to explore the village in some detail, and if the weather is clear, have a dramatic view of Georgia’s highest mountain, Shkhara which towers some 5,100m over the landscape.
Ushguli - High in the Great Caucasus

October 01:  Today we head back down the mountain to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, and an important provincial capital. It is blessed with a two UNESCO sites, and we will visit one, the Gelati Monastery, built in the early 1100s by King David. It is not only an architectural masterpiece, but also an important center of learning for centuries, and one of the first schools in the region.

October 02:  Today is a “Driving Day”; we shall start the morning in the local market before driving east. We will stop for lunch at Iago’s Winery, a charming family wine producer in the Kartli region. Iago’s wine is remarkable, and his was the first winery in the country to receive a bio-certificate for his vineyard and production. Skirting Tbilisi, we will enjoy the three-hour drive toward the Azeri border, and our next stop, this time for three nights, at Sighnaghi,

October 03:  There are many opportunities for sightseeing in this quirky town; we will spend time in the morning exploring the town itself before driving a few kilometers away to visit the 9th century monastery of Bodbe. It now functions as a nunnery, and is one of the major pilgrimage sites in Georgia.

Following a short rest, we will have our dinner, a traditional Georgian Supra, at PheasantsTears. This restaurant and winery is one of the most vibrant in the country, and an exciting place to meet some of the finest Georgian wine, cuisine and be introduced to the unique polyphonic music.

October 04:  We will spend today exploring the region of Kakheti; we will see the main town of Telavi, and later visit the unusual and quite remarkable winery of Alaverdi. Here, wine has been made by the monks continuously since the year 1011, and they have got it right! We will enjoy a tasting here before returning to our hotel in Sighnaghi for our final evening in the Georgian countryside. Dinner will be at a local restaurant.

October 05:  We will drive back to Tbilisi today and have time in the afternoon for some independent sightseeing before our farewell dinner at Azarpesha, a unique cultural restaurant in the center of Tbilisi’s Old City.

October 06:  Your departure from Georgia. Once again your flight may have an early departure time, but your room will be available to rest in prior to your airport transfer. Please note that for those joining our Soviet Legacy tour, this will begin on September 23, giving you a day to relax and enjoy Tbilisi on your own. 

The Price:           US$ 2.970 per person (single supplement: $650)

This includes:             
  • Airport transfers
  • 4 nights in Tbilisi at Betsy's Hotel
  • 3 nights in Sighnaghi at the Hotel Kabadoni
  • 1 night in Tskaltubo
  • 2 nights in Mestia and the Hotel Tetnuldi
  • 1 night at the Hotel Begrati in Kutaisi
  • Daily breakfast, lunch and 10 dinners
  • Five wine tastings and two folkloric performances
  • All entrance fees and excursions as detailed on the itinerary
  • Transportation by coach throughout, with 4WD vehicles for the day excursion to Ushguli
  • Fully escorted by MaxGlobetrotter with a local guide from Living Roots

The price excludes the following:  
  • Items not specifically mentioned in the itinerary
  • Items of a personal nature

The Group: This tour will be marketed worldwide and will have participants from several countries and will be conducted exclusively in English. We will restrict participation to a maximum of eighteen people so early booking is highly recommended.

Terms:  A non-refundable deposit of $750 is required to confirm your place on the tour. The balance will be due no later than 45 days prior to departure. Once paid, all monies will be non-refundable, and we highly recommend that you purchase travel insurance to cover any potential issues that might otherwise cause you to lose money.

For reservations please contact Tamara Natenadze at: tamara@travellivingroots.com

The Alaverdi Monastery

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Airbnb; When it goes wrong, it can be made right.

I wrote a piece a couple of days ago that raised some issues about AirBnb, and how to deal with situations that go bad.

Well, firstly, I should say that their help team, having "reached out" to me, did make the situation better, but did leave a couple of issues hanging.

They offered some compensation, which was fine and agreeable, but actually, I hadn't asked for any; I was really asking about what one should do when there is an issue, and there is no wi-fi network with which to communicate, and no local phone numbers. This remains unanswered.

I questioned the write-ups that are posted, and noted that many hosts, not being in the travel business, do not really understand the difference between low and high seasons, wet and dry seasons, and advising their clients of these potential issues. Or having the obvious pricing differential that the industry itself embraces.

No matter; as I said before, Airbnb is a fine organisation. Reading between the lines, getting advice on the actual destination if you are not sure (does it get cold and damp in central Reunion in August?), reading the reviews and writing honest and straightforward reviews yourself.

I like Airbnb and am soon heading to the Gulf and West Africa, and will be using them again. Next time, however, I shall probably do a little more critical reading.

Caveat Emptor!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Airbnb - Great when it works

Here’s the thing; when one looks for commercial accommodation listings, there are a few universal truths that we all know:

1)      The cheapest hotels buy the most expensive photographers
2)      Small rooms are photographed with fish-eye lenses
3)      They don’t exaggerate about “the bones”

If a room is small, its dimensions are given in terribly small writing, and euphemisms like “cozy, snug and homey” are used with abandon. The furnishings, sometimes brought in for the occasion, are pretty and very well matched, and exaggerated to maximum that the owner's imagination can conjour.

When one arrives, the room's decoration may be very different, and indeed rather frayed and the finery somehow downgraded, but the room's size is still "cozy, snug or homey". 

Seduced by the pictures of the accommodations outside, and ignoring the minor detail that one does not actually sleep outside nor enjoy the outside perspective while asleep we are lulled into a false reverie.

On Airbnb, this is different. People with no linkage to the commercial world are let loose to describe their own properties, properties that they apparently love unconditionally.

And so this week, I have stayed in two properties in La Réunion; one perfect, the other imperfect. One warm, friendly and comfortable, the second with the ambiance of an empty hill-top youth hostel in the dead of winter. It was cold, damp and mouldy.

Option "A" and Option "B"

But try and talk to Airbnb about it! Ha …. They have no way to penetrate their technological defences.

Fair enough, but having checked out after one night of a three-night stay, I would have like to be soothed by someone who facilitated the arrangement.

Instead, I have again learned about Buyer Beware; and this is the heart of the matter.

We believe what is written; reviews are great, but with only four or so they are hardly representative; and written in languages that one might not speak and translated by that paragon of twisted speech, Google Translate, they are really difficult to trust.

So buy with an open mind; realise that if you wander into a swamp you have paid for it, and there is nobody to cry to. Equally, should you wander into a palace, and I have stayed in some fabulous Airbnb properties, it was by chance.

The sharing economy is a great idea; it does, however, rely on reviews, and lots of them. You can’t only have the gushers and whiners responding; you need every participant to understand that the key to the success of this amazing opportunity is participation.

But don't get me wring; I love Airbnb, and will use them again and again. They do, however, need a little customer service. By all means, head for Airbnb, Uber, Couch Surfing and any one of these brilliant concepts, but remember; the success of the sharing economy hinges on you writing a review.

And guess what? Just saying that is was “OK” or “Average” is very important. Not everything is brilliant or awful; most of us are average – which is what average means. And knowing this before taking a leap into the unknown is very reassuring.

The good one.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Réunion Island; What an amazing find !

"Why are you going to La Réunion?", I heard a lot. Well, firstly because it is an amazingly interesting place; Réunion is isolated, volcanic, wildly curious, gorgeous and completely counter to any concept of an-island-in-the-Indian-Ocean. And secondly because it is an astonishingly interesting destination.

This, of course, was a little odd because one’s first impressions are not terribly positive. There are nearly one million people living on the island; yes, that is a one plus six zeros. It covers an area of only 970 square miles (and no, I don’t know how many multiples of a football field or Rhode Island that is – although it is actually (thanks to Wikipedia) four times larger than Rhode Island) …. And there I lose it.

Arriving at the local/international airport one is overwhelmed with life; life is everywhere, and the immediate impression is not of a peaceful, Indian Ocean hideaway, but of being back in France. And, as in France, there are a lot of cars. A very large number of cars, all wanting to be where you want to be at roughly the same moment in time. Few driven well, but few dented terribly badly. It didn't bode well, and it was a holiday Monday.

Traffic, however, gave way to fine roads which in turn gave way to some delightful beaches which in their turn gave way to a degree of tranquility that a fifteen kilometer drive rarely provides.

But the island is odd; imagine, if you will, the slow-motion image we have all seen of a drop dropping into a placid liquid; La Réunion looks a bit like the resulting splash. It is an island that has been torn apart by violent volcanic activity, cut up by agricultural interests, laid low by urbanization with only rudimentary planning in its early stages but left with a most delightful landscape.

The island is roughly circular, and if one feels so inclined, and the traffic permitted, could be driven in about three hours. The population lives mostly within a kilometre or two of the north and west coasts, and driving through the collection of heavily-populated communities (mostly named after Saints – Denis, Paul, Gilles (?), Benoit, Leu and so on) one could easily imagine one was dealing with the Toulouse périphérique on a normal evening rush-hour.

Interestingly, my rudimentary search for Saint Gilles' inclusion in these pious ranks led me not to a noted mystic and miracle worker, but only to an apparently convivial suburb of Brussels. I must be missing something.

Reunion's variant beaches with explanation

However, I digress. I flew to Réunion on a whim; I hadn’t been here, I wanted to go somewhere interesting and the Indian Ocean beckoned. Air France, it must be said, offers some very attractive fares from North America to St, Denis, all allowing a stopover in France, so price-of-access is not really an issue. I had no expectations; didn’t bother to buy a guide book, couldn’t find much on-line and wasn’t really concerned – I knew that I could arrive and figure it out.

And I arrived; in the rain. Waited for the car rental to be sorted and headed off to the Airbnb booking that I had made; almost at random, I have to say, but not completely – it was in St Pierre, noted as a drier part of the island.

Stopping briefly at one of the two swimming area of Réunion – basically, the two areas that have been protected from sharks – and looking at the gorgeous beach with the attendant gorgouesnesses that beaches attract was a great start. Sharks are a growing problem, I found, and thus surfing and swimming were becoming less popular. With wind in the sails, I headed south.

Finding Airbnb properties can be challenging; addresses are locally understood, but rarely visible to passers-by; such was mine, but after getting within fifty metres of the house, I was defeated and called the owner. Who could see me … and I checked in. I like Airbnb, and Réunion offers a very wide selection of properties, in addition to the more conventional types of accommodation.

And so to explore.

The island is extraordinary; every inch a different landscape or climate; a new history or geography, and the first order of action was to visit the Piton de la Fournaise, the active volcano that dominates the southeast corner of the island.

With lava flows from various eruptions, chillingly contemporary, it is brilliant; lava from black to mouldy green, thick forest, deep blue sea and the jarring red umbrellas of the souvenir sales folks, this is a great attraction; it is also on the way to the Anse de Cascades (or from if one is travelling the other way), another brilliant attraction.

Basically, the cliffs appear to be made, or at least engineered, in the manner of a Swiss cheese, and the water collected and channeled through its diaspora of rivers, streams and channels spurts out of the cliff face in a most interesting and amusing manner. 

Reunion is unusual, it seemed, and I immediately liked it for that quirk of both geography and expectation. Almost everything about is was slightly eccentric.

Its volcanoes are odd; they are, apparently “active” or “dormant”; the distinction is not really one that is applicable to our personal time scales. When they preen, they destroy; when they are “dormant”, they are photogenic. They are as gentle as their next eruption; which could be shortly. Or not - that is the thing about volcanoes.

The volcano of southeast Réunion is active; very much so. The volcanoes of the three “Circuits” in the centre of the country are dormant. They are, however, only ten miles apart.

Réunion is wonderful; I have been here for three days, and am captivated. I want to explore every inch of the island and will attempt and report exactly that.

Tiggers like Réunion.

Friday, June 3, 2016

St. Helena; a remarkable island in remarkable trouble

St. Helena may not be the most recognised country in the world, but the predicament in which it now finds itself is quite extraordinary, and deserving of thought.

Approaching the Island
It is isolated, and this simple fact is the cause of the islanders’ current sense of complete isolation, even abandonment. It is so far into the Atlantic Ocean, and so far from any other land that until last month when an airport was finally opened it was accessible only with a regular schedule of the Royal Mail ship, the RMS St. Helena. This vessel served both St. Helena, and Ascension Island on a complex itinerary that offered the Saints, as the islanders are called, approximately fourteen sailings off the island each year.

I was fortunate enough to have visited St. Helena with three friends in 2014, and loved every minute of the six-day voyage. Many of our fellow passengers were working on the airport construction project, an extraordinary engineering feat, and one that promised to open the island to the outside world and generate the beginnings of a tourist-based economy.

The RMS St. Helena in Cape Town
We did, however, feel a little perplexed; the generosity of governments is not well known, and to spend well over £250 million on a tourism development project for an island of 4,000 people did seem a touch munificent. “Could it”, we wondered, “have anything to do with the American’s rather robust presence on Ascension Island?”

Jamestown, the island's major centre

Ascension is a volcanic pile of rock with no indigenous population, and its attraction is purely based on its strategic location. The US military built “Wideawake Airfield” there, and although it lies on British soil and is the home of the RAF Ascension base, the Americans are, as is their wont, getting increasingly edgy about who goes there.

St. Helena's defences
This is important because civilian traffic between the UK and the Falkland Islands (remember that war?) use Ascension as a refueling base, and passengers are now subject to an American veto. There is a substantial GCHQ base there, the British equivalent of the American NSA, and civilians working for the BBC, Cable & Wireless and the meteorological services. None of whom the Americans really want anywhere near there airbase.

Well then; thoughts that Washington might become increasingly finicky about visitors to this British island and gradually move to an administrative “occupation”, such as that in Diego Garcia, led us to ponder a simple question. “Were the British, under the guise of an extremely big-hearted approach to tourism and the four thousand islanders, actually shifting their mid-Atlantic base south to St. Helena? Would a new GCHQ base flourish there, and would this become the UK’s and Europe’s new watching base in the South Atlantic?”

Who knows? Well, some obviously do, but we don’t. Six days on a ship in the South Atlantic will do this sort of thing to even reasonable chaps’ minds however, and we had a wonderful time whiling away the six days afloat pondering. 

And also marveling at the engineering masterpiece the airport was.

Everything had to fit through this archway
Imagine, if you will, building an airport on a remote island; the first caveat was that there was no dock suitable for landing any serious equipment, and this necessary facility had to be built from pieces that would fit through the eighteenth century archway on the Jamestown waterfront.
A 450 metre mountain peak had to be chopped up and moved to fill in a 450 metre gully in order to create level space for a runway, and all from original pieces of machinery that could fit through a hole in the wall that was about 15 x 20’ in size. Remarkable.

The problem today, however, is that this astonishing airport doesn’t work. The turbulence and wind shear is so great that it appears to be too dangerous to fly to the airport with any payload at all. There have been two aircraft land, one a Bombardier Challenger jet, and the other an Airbus on a proving flight. In both cases, the pilots reported dramatic and dangerous turbulence, and did not want to fly there again.

Consider the danger; the island is so remote that its alternate airport is Windhoek, 2,000 kilometres away, and aircraft flying to St. Helena will have to carry sufficient fuel for this possible diversion; this means that they will always land “heavy”, and the dangers of an incident on the runway are difficult to comprehend. There would be no way for emergency medevac flights to attend and there is no hospital on the island; such an incident could prove to be extremely grave. Commercial aviation always carries potential dangers, but those specific to St. Helena mean that the airport must be unquestionably and categorically sound.

And it is not. This report by Lord Ashcroft well describes the issues at the airport and is important to read.

The local shops are running low
And what of the islanders? So convinced of the airport’s reliability and the weekly flights that would connect them to the African mainland, the ship has sailed away into the sunset (well, actually north to the UK) to be decommissioned and is three weeks from the island. They are running short of food, there is no plan for the ship to return, although obviously it must do so, and no aircraft in sight.

Local residents who have invested heavily in the tourism boom are facing ruin and the game of finger-pointing is starting. One, the delightful Hazel Wilmot, proprietor of the charming Consulate Hotel and a fellow passenger on the RMS, has invested £2 million in her property. Now, with no guests, no way to get on or off the island and no evident solution for the next few months, her future looks bleak.

It is a delightful island, and with its issues of approach and departure still so testing, it is no wonder that the British used St. Helena to assure Napoleon’s exile

Longwood - Napoleon's final home on St. Helena