The All-inclusive Trap

Searching for winter sun, an escape from the dreary, grey drizzle or the bitter winds of this UK winter means travelling long-haul. The options are: far east [Thailand etc], Africa [tried, tested and now not tempted] or Caribbean. We’ve sampled a few islands in the West Indies now, with pleasing results, Barbados and Antigua having proved particularly lovely destinations. Mexico, last year’s experiment boasted beautiful weather but was less fun in that there were few options outside of the hotel.
And here’s the difficulty. In choosing a Caribbean or most other long-haul destination you are stuck in the inevitable groove of ‘all-inclusive’ deal, as after intensive research we have found it to be cheaper than either flying and booking hotels separately or B&B. An all-inclusive deal is likely to mean a vast, corporate hotel sprawling on a coastal strip and boasting several restaurants, bars, pools, terraces, a spa, a gym, shops, ‘entertainment’, beach with loungers and umbrellas and the ubiquitous ‘buffet’.
Hotels like these are betting on the hunch that most guests prefer to stay within the confines of the hotel complex and couldn’t give a cow’s udder about setting foot outside the gate to meander in the environs and hobnob with the locals. And it is true for many, who like to get up, sling their beach towels on their preferred loungers, wander into breakfast, order a cocktail and slump then slump on their sun bed until a member of staff bearing a tray offers more refreshment. There’ll be a further stint of slumping followed by lunch…
For some with a more active schedule in mind there might be a short session of aquarobics or pool volleyball-but then it’s back to the more serious business of slumping, punctuated by propping up one of the many bars.
We can manage a day or so of this, given sunny weather and a beach walk. But after a while some ennui creeps in. This is when we need to get out.
On our recent trip to Cuba the few days in Havana was perfect. We had breakfast in the hotel, we were within walking distance of the delights of the city and had the remains of our days free, at liberty to explore. Once we’d moved to the beach hotel, however there was a short stretch of beach to walk and everything else required a taxi or a bus ride-both of which we did. In one direction lay a sterile and uninspiring marina; in the other the town yielded more sightseeing and entertainment and it was there that we avoided incarceration.
One of the reasons for avoiding cruises is the enforced imprisonment aboard a floating, all-inclusive hotel, with nothing to do but eat and drink.
Our next expedition, already in the planning stages will be very different, involving an extensive road trip by camper van. On our journey we’ll stay where we want for as long as we want, moving on when we’ve had enough of a place and opting to explore by foot or bicycle. What a pity we can’t take the van to winter sun destinations!


		
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Close Encounters with American Tourists

I wrote about our meagre experience of Mexico in last week’s post, explaining that there were no negatives in that small, tourist-friendly slice of the country.

Mexico, however has a troubled relationship with its next door neighbour, the USA and more so than ever since The Donald made his debut as premier in America. Americans are unhappy that Mexicans enter their country.

Americans, on the other hand seem more than happy to visit Mexico. The narrow strip between the lagoon and the ocean at Cancun that is crammed with hotels housing tourists is full-to-bursting with Americans, weekenders. Before departure I’d thought that our chosen hotel was vast-that is until we arrived and saw the array of gargantuan tourist inns stretching along the beach in both directions.

Nevertheless our own, seemingly modest accommodation boasted five or six restaurants, seven or eight swimming pools, numerous bars and terraces and the inevitable beach front with thatched sun shades over sun loungers.

My feelings about the American tourists are, I’m afraid ambivalent. On the one hand they are open, friendly and gregarious. ‘Wheer ya fraaam?’ they shriek from their sun loungers as you stroll past on your way to the beach, inviting us to respond with far-fetched replies. On the other hand their conversations are loud and designed for all to hear. In the lobby bar they become garrulous with increasing amounts of alcohol. They demand high standards from the hotel staff, which benefits everyone but their consumption is a spectacle to behold.

Here is the flaw in the all-inclusive deal; the temptation is to over-consume. We rein in, eating only twice each day, taking only what we will eat. A glance around the dining rooms reveals how much is wasted, piled on to plates to be discarded by the waiting staff, meanwhile the girths of so many tell the tale of their many-caloried intake.

Then there is the on-going sun lounger dilemma. On the first day we wander down from brunch in an innocent bid to find a patch of shade to enjoy a quiet read-but each and every place is reserved by a body or a beach towel. We retreat to a shady area of tables by the ‘Sushi bar’. Next day we are up early, like the Third Little Pig beating the wolf, dashing down to the beach to bag our own small patch. If you can’t beat them, join them. At seven o’clock the number of unreserved sun loungers is already depleted but Husband returns triumphant, having draped the beach towels and anchored them.

‘Please refrain’ says the hotel information, ‘from the practice of placing articles on sunbeds in order to reserve them. Security personnel have been instructed to remove items left longer than two hours’.

We scan the beach for signs of the sun lounger police but spot nobody-neither in uniform nor disguised in beach wear. Nobody is going to mess with the Americans, wall or no wall-nor will they be turning their backs on the not inconsiderable sums they bring in revenue!

Now there’s a cheaper option than a wall, Donald-just buy Mexico and be done with it…

A Restaurant Digest

Once upon a time in a previous life I dreamed of luxuries. These luxuries included such things as unaccompanied expeditions to shoe shops and/or clothes shops, attending the cinema and the theatre, stopping for coffee in cafés, having holidays, spending nights in hotels, visiting salons and, above all, eating out. [This was a life in which any journey must be prepared for by making sandwiches to eat in a lay-by].

In subsequent lives of course I have done all of these luxurious things. The clothes shopping is commonplace as is the coffee stopping. A salon visit is a regular part of life. Hotel stays are occasionally taken.

Despite all this, dining in a good restaurant remains the Holy Grail of luxuries to me.

I’ve posted my feelings about the fare in fast food chains before [Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken]. Macdonalds does at the least provide free internet and their coffee is acceptable, but their dining experience has to be one of the most impoverished and unsatisfying that exists.

Restaurant meals are about more than the food. Plastic trays with pouches of nasty, salty, fatty little chip sticks and polystyrene boxes containing polystyrene buns sandwiching rubbery, chewy little circles of something grey and burger-ish, the remains of which are to be taken by the consumer and dumped in a bin themselves; to view this activity in a place designed for ‘eating’ presents a vision of Hell. And yet Macdonalds is crammed with customers every day-in Gothenburg, where we stopped to get internet and a coffee, the place was thrusting with hordes of punters of every nationality-those who prefer this ghastly encounter to eating a sandwich on a park bench.

Some of the most enjoyable meals you can have are in modest, unknown, unadvertised cafes, cooked by untrained heros of the culinary world; like the meals we’ve eaten in Portugal, where you are plied with gorgeous nibbly things like olives and dips to sustain you while you peruse the menu and then a big box of fish is brought to the table for you to select your fancy. It will be simply cooked and presented with home-made chips, a salad and some bread.

Or a beach café in Thailand which serves up Tempura vegetables as a starter and the freshest, most appetising vegetables and seafood you can imagine, besides producing an addictive mango smoothie from nothing more than mango and ice.

So don’t serve me anything in a poly-box, or on a shovel, or on a dirty piece of wood or in a tangle of barbed wire [all of these methods of serving meals are being used as I write-including pork loin chops in a urinal]. Give me a plain, clean china plate and simple, beautifully cooked food served in a friendly, un-smarmy, unobtrusive way. OK?

The B&B Rant

A lot of people swear by B&Bs for their holiday accommodation needs. B&Bs, guest houses, chambers d’hotes-whatever you like to call them-differ from hotels in a variety of ways, but personally I would prefer to eat my own hair than stay in them.
The reasons fans of B&Bs give for loving them are varied, but rely on the principle of the ‘personal touch’. They say things like ‘such nice people’, ‘just like family’, ‘home from home’ and it is just this that provokes me to shudder at the idea of staying in one. This judgement does not come from hearsay, reportage or conversation but from real, empirical research. In other words, my experiences of said places have been entirely negative.
I don’t want to stay in someone’s home. I can manage [just about] to stay with close family members for up to two nights, perhaps but even then I find it hard to manage.
I don’t want to sleep in an overheated, tiny, stuffy room crammed with family photos, ornaments, souvenirs of Brixham, lace doilies and knick-knacks. I don’t want to be suffocated by an enormous cloud of puffy duvet.
We are not the earliest of risers. I want a lovely, exclusive en suite [for night time needs, if nothing else] and at least two cups of tea before I face anyone [Husband excluded of course]. I may want to slob about pre-ablution watching News 24.
When I do surface, I don’t really want to eat anything until at least late morning, and then I am not able to cope with ‘full English’ [in other words: cereal followed by bacon, sausage, egg, baked beans, fried bread, tomato, mushrooms, black pudding, toast and marmalade].
Most of all though I don’t wish to sit at the breakfast table and make small talk with the ‘friendly, welcoming’ host or hostess. I don’t want their life story, learn what their grandchildren are studying at university or where they have been for their holidays.
If all this makes me sound humbug I don’t care. Give me a plain, simple, anonymous hotel. It doesn’t need a stupendous view, an infinity pool, a Michelin starred restaurant or four posters [although they can be fun…]. I want to be able to use a breakfast buffet-preferably up until eleven or so. I want tea and coffee making facilities [biscuits are always a bonus]. I want a TV I can watch from the bed. I want a firm, clean, comfortable bed with options for temperature control [ie covers to put on or remove]. I want a clean, efficient en suite with a shower that doesn’t need a degree in engineering to operate. Ideally, some beautiful toiletries are provided. I’d really like a late night bar where I can grab a last glass of wine before I turn in. I’d like INTERNET [included in the price!]. I’d like pleasant, non intrusive service.
I don’t mind that it is part of a ‘chain’ and every room is the same. It needn’t have an Alpine or Namibian Desert view.
Otherwise-give me a comfortable, efficient camper van, which does have ensuite, tea & coffee making, glass of wine and TV-and I don’t need to talk to anyone [Husband excluded]…

It’s an educational odyssey-honest!

                September. For many of us Northern Hemisphereites who are beyond the ties of dependent children or parents or day jobs this is the perfect time for slipping away to extend our summers. This year, especially, as the magic of the first warm, dry summer for seven years bursts in a wet bubble we have made our escape, along with a whole convoy of other wrinklies, besides one or two couples with pre-school children, capitalising on the cheaper prices, the quieter roads and the emptier resorts.

                Despite having undertaken a substantial amount of meandering in foreign territories for lengthy periods since I retired from the nine-to-five I still receive a barrage of remarks and expostulations regarding what I like to call ‘trips’. I describe them as trips for this very reason, since to call them ‘holidays’ would imbue them with an impression of hedonistic opulence and wanton enjoyment and this is not the idea I want to convey at all. I prefer to be conveying the appearance of undertaking some kind of research or undergoing an educational experience; activities more worthy and valuable than mere enjoyment. One of last night’s FB remarks referred to my ‘life of luxury’-and may or may not have been ‘tongue in cheek’.

                Luxury is a subjective quality. When applied to holidays-or even trips, it means different things to different people. For some, the epitome of a luxury holiday is to be pampered in an exquisite hotel offering complimentary champagne on arrival, chocolates, fruit and flowers and plump pillows. For many it is to be carted away on a floating gin palace, stuffed full of food whilst dressed in a designer outfit and disgorged at intervals for a hasty snapshot of a famous city-[as in ‘if it’s Saturday it must be Rome’]. For anyone in a demanding and stressful job, luxury can be slobbing around in bed on a Sunday morning in front of the TV with a cup of tea.

                I have friends for whom the ideal break is two weeks, twice each year in the same apartment on the Costa del Sol, lying on the same sun-beds, visiting the same bar. It is relaxing, they explain, that nothing has changed, that there is nothing to do. This is easy to understand.

                For me, the concept of luxury is also a simple matter. It is freedom. You wander where you want, for as long as you want. When you tire of somewhere or it rains you move on. If there is a lot to do, or the weather is wonderful you stay. It isn’t always simple. You have to research, you have to plan, you have to drive, shop, set up, pack up; but you are free to do exactly what you want. And that, reader, is my idea of a luxurious trip. What’s yours?

Elvis and the Egyptian Odyssey

                In the 1970s I undertook some independent, backpacker type travel to Egypt. This meant heaving round a large rucksack and using local transport, in the main, although when you are young this kind of travel seems adventurous rather than daunting. The trip involved flights to Athens, ferry from Piraeus to Alexandria [two days on a vehicle ferry, nights on deck in a sleeping bag], finding a hotel on arrival, moving on by bus to Cairo, finding a hotel, travelling to Luxor down along the Nile on a sleeper train and on to Aswan by minibus; five weeks in all. It was my first sojourn outside of Europe.

                Arriving to the port of Alexandria was a culture shock, since I had not expected Africa’s north coast to feel so alien, so exotic or unnerving. After a long, slow entry through early morning mist to the quayside past skeletal wrecks of long sunken vessels we docked, to be met by a teeming array of jostling, robed porters, hawkers and tourist fleecers. Alighting from the ferry there followed a brief, unseemly struggle to retain control of my rucksack but apart from this there was little to cause alarm or suspicion during the entirety of the trip.

                Everyone we met was eager to help, and not necessarily for remuneration. An enquiry re whereabouts of hotels would be met by offers to accompany us, carry luggage etc. On bus journeys, where the vehicle would resemble a termite nest we would invariably stand, but seated passengers would take items we were carrying on their laps. Conversations were struck wherever we went, with the local population keen to find out about us. There was no suspicion, threat or mistrust.

                The festival of Ramadan took place towards the end of our stay. We’d returned to Alexandria with a few days free to visit the beach and relax. Waiting for a bus to take us back from the beach to the town a couple in a car stopped and offered us a lift. “Did we know”, they asked us, “that Elvis Presley died today?”

                They were keen to chat, needing to pass the time until they could break their fast and eat. I fell ill with food poisoning two days before we left for Piraeous and was compelled to run the gauntlet of the doorless holes in the ground that amounted to the ferry terminal ‘facilities’. Despite this I retained memories of Egypt as a fascinating, beautiful country; packed with history, enigma and mystique.

                I have made one more visit to Egypt since that time-to the tourist Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, for one week-and one week too many!

                I feel no more desire to return to Egypt now than to stick my hand into a hornets’ nest. Nor do I wish to visit any troubled Moslem countries. In the forty or so years that have passed since that innocent piece of travel those parts of the world have changed, become edgy, uneasy places at best-war torn hell holes at worst. Are we ever to move on from historic grievances, bury hatchets and let the by’s be gone? Or are we to be forever the ‘infidel’ and they, forever the ‘heathen’, locked into a spiral of hate and mistrust?

                Of one thing, however, there can be no doubt. I will always know what year it was that Elvis died…it was 1977.

Soup or Poisson?

                So, then- the French. Vive la difference!-as they say. It is traditional, and commonplace for us Brits to display animosity, dislike and general displeasure to them…as it is for them to be contemptuous, dismissive and generally out of sorts with us. This is how it has been since time immemorial; since tiny, posturing Bonaparte and noble, one-eyed Nelson, since Agincourt, since the German Nazis were allowed in to run riot all over the place.

                We think them arrogant, uncouth and sexually immoral. They think us cold, frigid and unappealing. They think their cuisine superior. We think they are up themselves. Does all this hold true? Or are these attitudes as outdated as a beret and a string of onions? Myself I think they are mostly far of the mark but that there are vestiges of truth in some of them.

                Take the arrogance thing. Those who visit France regularly are familiar with the fact that one should try to speak the language when communicating verbally, rather than shouting ever more loudly in one’s own lingo. This is perfectly reasonable, however there has been an odd occasion when my own [imperfect but adequate] French has been rejected. A couple of years ago we entered a bar for the purposes of a post-meal glass of wine. If there is one phrase I have become accomplished at it is ‘verre de vin rouge’. The young man taking the order made a clear point of refusing to understand, whilst sporting a practised sneer. On the other hand we are almost always welcomed, greeted, helped and smiled at.

                France is vast. The country is littered with plots of land for sale and crumbling, vacant dwellings calling out for some TLC. ‘Homes Under the Hammer’ could have a bonanza in France, but no one here cares, because there is no shortage of land. Being such a big country has also caused it to become very travel-friendly. The French, amongst all Europeans, are the greatest lovers of ‘camping cars’. They are everywhere. Towns and villages are happy to provide free ‘aires’ where you can park up for the night-all provided by local businesses, often with toilets, water and waste facilities-sometimes with electricity. There are hundreds of small, cheap, clean, comfortable, ‘chain’ type hotels-not luxurious, but fine for overnight stops.

                And they are rightly proud of their villages, too. They are neat and tidy, litter-free, and planted with wonderful floral displays. Despite this the streets and pavements are often encrusted with dog excrement, somewhat tarnishing the overall effect. They are completely besotted by their dogs, and nowhere else have I seen so many pooches being variously carried-in bags, bike baskets, cycle trailers or baby prams, as if they’ve somehow lost the use of their paws.

                Women’s sensibilities are not expected to be offended by the sight of men’s backs as they urinate, so lavatorial facilities tend to be shared.

                The boulangerie is heaven in a shop-and best avoided for anyone wishing to retain a waistline.

                Wine is cheap as water.

                There is much more…but the sun is shining, it actually feels warm, and I sense a bike ride coming on. A bientot!