Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Comedy of Errors

Some of you will know that me and my husband are travel obsessed. It is a running joke that we go on so many holidays, for us it is our main 'hobby' if you like. We usually take around 5 trips a year, one major and the rest smaller city breaks and so on. You may wonder how we manage this (if I had a pound for every time someone asked) as we are not in fact rolling in it. The answer is simple - we do not participate in the most expensive and time consuming hobby of all (kids) and whenever and wherever we travel we cut the costs enormously by doing it all ourselves, easy really.

When people begin to scroll through pictures of their offspring on their phones I am tempted to scroll through my pictures of our holidays in response. Equally they would probably be as interested in pictures of my lie ins....maybe I should start taking pictures of my lie ins for the next time this happens...."yes, this time I did not get out of bed until 2PM, can you believe it!?" Anyway...

Last year was a bumper and expensive one even for us, mainly because of the locations we have visited....these were...

Australia (April) - Mackay Reef in fetching raincoats...

Italy (June) - Milan Duomo


Antigua (Sept) - my view for the day

We also went to Tallinn for a long weekend in November. Only 4 holidays last year but Australia was a 3-week affair.

Anyway, Antigua was a particularly blog-worthy holiday and I have been meaning to finish and post this for a while. The holiday was a success overerall - but it seemed to be jinxed. This is what happened...

(I had noticed on the news in the week leading up to our holiday that a tropical storm called Maria was making her way across the caribbean but she was not expected to cause any issues.)

Tropical Storm Maria - Sept 2011

Friday night and we set off down to Gatwick as we had a fairly early flight on the Saturday morning so had booked into 'Gatwick Travelodge' (the inverted commas will become clear shortly). We had a fairly good run of it and didn't hit any traffic until the M25 - I very nearly said out loud how lucky this was but decided against it.

As we approached Crawley I used my phone sat nav to locate the Gatwick Travelodge and sure enough it guided me straight in. This Travelodge had the weirdest car park, partly underneath the building and with every space seemingly designed to cause maximum stress when parking. It was also very busy and the only spaces left had a random pillar on one side or the other. I successfully backed into a space and ensured I could exit the car before realising all the luggage was in the boot and the husband was looking at me like I was a bit stupid as this was now against the wall. After a 3 hour drive I could not be bothered to repark and he subsequently carefully carried the luggage over the cars so we could go and check in.

At the desk we had the usual surname palava; "we have a booking in the name of Ogilvie"...."OgLIVie?"... "no, Ogilvie"...."Oliver??"...."no, Ogilvie"....and so on. But then the recption lady pointed out that we were 'not on the list'. It transpired that Gatwick in fact has two Travelodges, Gatwick Travlodge and the duplicitously named Gatwick CENTRAL Travlodge.

Turns out we were booked into Gatwick Central which is about a mile away from the Gatwick branch and is the least Travelodge-esque Travelodge I have ever experienced. It seems they have bought an old, dated and rather chintzy hotel (we thought maybe a Great Western or something) and are in the process of doing it up. At the moment 2 of the 5 floors are closed for refurbishing whilst the rooms that are usable (on the 2nd floor at least) are the dated, tired, old rooms from the previous hotel.

Once we had reclocated to the correct hotel and checked in we ate some dinner in the weird, old-man's-pub feeling restaurant attached (guess this will also be refurbed at some point) and then at about 9.30ish bought some drinks and headed up to the room. Where the TV refused to work. No signal at all. I was tired and a bit peeved by now but trotted off down the huge labyrinth of corridors back to reception (this is a HUGE hotel by travelodge standards) and they immediately offered us another room, gave me a key for the new one and off I went back upstairs to move everything.

I got back to our room to find Stu sat on the bed looking utterly mortified. He had just that minute had a cheery text off Virgin stating 'Dear Customer, your flight tomorrow has been cancelled and will now depart at 9.30am Sunday 11th'. Maria had caused this. In a rather subdued manner we re-camped to the new room a few doors down and then set about trying to get ANYBODY to answer the phone. Virgin put us on hold and left us there for an hour, doing circuits of elevator music. Travelbag (who we had booked through) simply told us the offices were closed. The car park people and Travelex the same.

In the end we had to just try and go to sleep knowing the flight was cancelled and that we would have to sort it out in the morning.

Next morning saw the pair of us, phones clamped to ears, from about 6am onwards. First we were told to get over to the Virgin desk at Gatwick, then we were told to stay where we were, then we were told that our flight had, in fact, just departed (at that point I very nearly exploded with anxiety and rage)....meanwhile the car park people told us that if we did not arrive at the car park on that day the booking would be cancelled and we would have to pay again.....and so it went on....

Eventually we managed to speak to a person with a brain (you would be amazed at how many numbskulls we had to go through to get to this stage) who confirmed that we did indeed need to speak to the Virgin crew at Gatwick who would book us into the Hilton (swank!) and give us food vouchers. 

Great stuff - we duly reported at the Virgin desk and actually all Virgin staff were excellent and efficient (you get what you pay for I guess) and they gave us all the info we needed and sent us on our way. Next stop was moving the car to the car park we had booked so as not to lose the booking, this left us in the weird situation of walking across the airport compound from the long stay car park to the Hilton South Terminal.

I deduced very quickly that airports are not designed with pedestrians in mind. No pavements and soggy verges made a short walk a bit of a nightmare with luggage but eventually we arrived at the Hilton. Where there was a pretty long queue of Virgin passengers waiting to check in.

At the desk we began the name game again, "Ogilvie", "OGlivie!?", "No, O G I L V I E", "Oligarchy?!" and then, yet again "You are not on the list". I was beginning to suspect that we were being filmed for some sort of hidden camera show at this point and was glancing furtively at the smartly attired Hilton bellboys trying to figure out which of them was harbouring the ghost of Jeremy Beadle.

In the end the bemused Front Desk man handed us the list to check ourselves and guess what? We were not on it. Cue an infuriated husband on the phone back to Virgin at Gatwick, a long conversation on our phone between them and the check in staff and FINALLY a room key.

Things went a bit smoother for the next few minutes, we checked in to a gorgeous room with a view of the runway but triple glazing to minimise the sound and started planning what we would do with our unexpected bonus day at Gatwick. It was only 11.30am and we had a full day and night ahead of us to fill, the possibilities were endless. Sort of.

At this point it dawned on us that the private transfer we had booked for Antigua was going to need to be changed so we got back on the phone to Travelbag. We had a very circular conversation with a member of their team who refused to believe that the flight had been cancelled because nobody from Virgin had told them so. Eventually they accepted that we were not lying and promised to rearrange the transfer for us and reconfirm the accomodation and they would re-email us the details with the dates changed.

Fine, we thought, lets hit Crawley town and have some holiday hi-jinks (roughly translated as 'spend £16 on a 5 mile taxi ride to a multiplex cinema and watch The Inbetweeners Movie').

Coming out of the film a few hours later we checked emails on our phones and, quelle surprise, had received nothing from our friend at Travelbag. A number of phone calls followed and after much chasing we finally got the confirmation we needed.

Back to the Hilton and a lovely all inclusive buffet plus a bottle of wine and an early night; the great thing about this hotel is that it is literally linked by a tunnel directly into the terminal (South) so you do not even have to go outside to get to the gate of a morning, great if you have an early flight (but no doubt much more pricey than the Travelodge).

So, the flight to Antigua was uneventful, save for the cling-on bore - every package holiday seems to have one - who was seated behind us going on and on at an unfortunate couple seated in the row next to him. After loads of Ryanair flights (and Airasia who are the longhaul version) in the last few years I have to say it felt like utter indulgence to fly with Virgin Atlantic, free drinks, spot on service, meals and snacks included, nice big seat pitches, etc etc. Bliss.

On landing in Antigua it was raining. The tropical storm which had caused us to be 24 hours late arriving was still moving through. I am not being flippant here, we could have been in Barmouth for the way the sky looked as we were driven out of the airport (the rearranged transfer had at least turned up!). Barmouth with palm trees. The sea was a steely grey.

Anyway, we arrived at our hotel and were immediately shown the Caribbean way of dealing with anything. Relaxed does not even come close to explaining the entire attitude of all the staff. Guess what? If you think Ogilvie is a difficult name to pronounce in the UK it is utterly baffling and hysterically funny to Antiguans. Needless to say we made our way to the room and I was a little apprehensive about it given the holiday so far - it was a ground floor room but opened on to a lovely patio area with a view of the sea. I was happy.

What I hadn't factored in was the proximity of this room to reception. During the day this was not a problem, but believe me, we felt like we were joining in the karaoke (we were not - hell on earth) because it was so loud in our room of an evening. Every evening. If I never hear 'Is This The Way to Amarillo?' again it will be too soon.

One of the reasons we were in our room in the evenings rather than in the bar was that we were on a budget and staying on a room only basis in, effectively, an all inclusive resort. This does not bother us, all inclusive is not an option we ever usually take because we prefer to eat at local restaurants and not be confined to the resort. Accordingly we had been into St John's and paid about 50p a bottle for a load of beer which was in our fridge - much more appealing that paying around £3 a bottle in the hotel bar and having to endure the company of the essex crowd (plus Neil - the loner cling on).

Now, this Essex crowd were hideous. Maybe one of the downfalls of flying out of Gatwick on a package holiday is that this is going to be your standard group of travel companions. Most of them middle aged, perma-tanned, gold jewellery embellished couples. Every day we would watch them proceed down to the beach and claim their sunbeds for the day and then frazzle themselves (the rain thankfully cleared by our second day) whilst shrieking at each other and making repeated trips to the bar for thimble size glasses of beer. We kept ourselves to ourselves and bought our own beers and were quite happy reading and relaxing and occasionally having a swim in the perfect clear waters.

Every day at some point it would become clear which of the many middle aged couples Neil had identified as his target for the day. It was mildly amusing to watch him boring them senseless with the same tale of why he was on his own (wife ran off with salesman - can't think why) and literally shadowing them for the rest of the day. The poor guy is clearly quite lonely, we were just glad he left us alone because we were not wearing all inclusive wristbands (this was the conclusion we drew, it may have been just that we are very good at avoiding eye contact).

So, I should have pointed out that on our first morning in the resort we had a meeting with the rep from the local travel company (working on behalf of Virgin) who told us all about the various tours which we had no intention of taking (we are quite happy to explore on our own) and also about a Virgin service where you can pay to have your suitcases collected from the hotel first thing on the day you leave and checked in for you, thus meaning you can just make your way straight to the gate on arrival at the airport. This sounded like a great idea and we handed over the cash (about £50) to do this. Given the stress and misshaps on the way out this seemed like a great idea.

This initial meeting with our rep had not filled me too full of confidence. She had a gigantic handbag full of random bits of paper (which she dropped twice in the space of half an hour) and seemed only half aware of what was going on. This was going to come back to haunt us, I thought to myself.

Sure enough, check out day arrived, I was relieved to see that Neil was not among those guests checking out after one week, he was clearly staying on for another week of haranguing other holidaymakers. We duly took our cases to the foyer to hand them over to Virgin staff who were on time and quickly checking in peoples bags as planned.

Once again we had a 'You are not on the list' moment. This was after the usual 'O-g-i-l-v-i-e' exchange. I was mortified. And we were rather angry as the rep had our money and had not actually booked the service with Virgin but had disappeared with it instead.

I was proper ready to explode with rage at this point. From start to finish this had been a holiday of utter administrative nightmare. Thankfully Virgin stepped in and agreed to check our bags in on trust that the money really was with the rep (we thankfully had a hand written receipt for this). They then said they would track the rep down themselves to recover it and checked in our bags.

By the time we got to the airport I was hoping for some kind of miracle reversal of fortunes and we did get a slight one - the flight home was literally half empty and we each bagged a whole middle row of seats on which to stretch out and watch films.

Given that in a few weeks time we are travelling long haul with my parents for the first time - and staying at one of the Gatwick Travelodges again (NOTE TO SELF - ESTABLISH WHICH ONE!) I figured it was time to finally publish this blog and I may work on a few other holiday tales between now and then too. I am hoping, for the sake of all of our sanitys that we have no such issues on the flights between (wait for it) London and Sydney (via Ho Chi Minh and an 8 hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur) or coming back from Singapore to London (via KL again and then Hanoi and then Frankfurt). I may be asking too much.

Of course I will also be hoping we do not get singled out by a Neil because whilst I am adept at ignoring potential irritants my nicotine starved Mum and Step-dad may actually rip his head off and stick it up his backside. Then again that may prove to be quite amusing on a long haul flight - we shall see. Anyway folks, more travel related blogs to follow so watch this space! 

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Greatest Show on Earth

A funny thing happened on Friday 27th July, 2012. At the grand old age of 33 and with a visa in hand to move to the other side of the world I finally realised that I am INCREDIBLY proud to be British. Why? Well, this....

If you saw it then you probably have a sense of what I am talking about, the sheer lunacy and brilliance of the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics could only be British. Danny Boyle did us proud - and I never expected any less as a member of 'Generation Trainspotting'.

Back in 1996 Danny Boyle managed to make a film which was fascinating, funny, gritty and bleak all at the same time. He told us to Choose Life. The soundtrack encapsulated everything that was 'cool' about Cool Britannia at the time without being in-your-face mainstream trendy, it spoke for a generation who felt frustrated with the lack of opportunities presented to them by post-recession Britain and the social problems which were abundant alongside this.

The feelings back then were similar to those we have in 'austerity Britain' today. In fact the situation right now is actually probably worse in terms of unemployment, cost of living and anti-social behaviour. So how nice is it to cut loose for three hours celebrating all the things that MAKE us British in a warm, humerous, powerful and positive way?

I can tell you that I had no idea how affected I would be by Danny Boyle's masterpiece. I knew his involvement and trademark quirky, clever style would mean I would probably enjoy it. But I never thought it would bring me to tears and get me into such an utter frenzy of excitement that my husband would have to tell me to calm down and stop TWEETING IN CAPITAL LETTERS. I kid you not.

For me the highlights were the political narrative - the suffragettes, nods to the striking miners and the industrial revolution, the abundently clear affection for our National Health Service and the stunning representation of our considerably magnificent cultural canon of music, literature and the arts which - when viewed all together in this manner - were breathtaking in their glory.

We might have whinged for years now about what this games will cost us, how inconvenienced we might be by hosting it and the shambles of security and ticketing farces. But that's just the British way. Not for us the Chinese style of communist blanket praise and terrifyingly perfect and synchronised celebration, nor the American ability to big up our abilities and truly believe in our greatness. No, our style is far more self deprecating and tongue in cheek - and I think on Friday 27th July I realised that this is who I am and the stone I am cut from.

As it happened the transport ran smoothly, the security worked because we crisis managed by bringing in the forces (much kudos to those men and women) and people managed to get tickets at the last minute - not that many venues seemed empty (although it was not perfect I am sure). We actually did a damn good job when the pressure was on. Well done us.

The two weeks that followed the opening ceremony were equally emotional and for the first time in my adult life I totally engaged with the Games, cried with Chris Hoy and Rebecca Addlington, nearly burst with pride for Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah and felt like for those 15 days the UK was THE place to be, showing the world what we are made of and why we deserved to host the Olympics at such a pivotal moment on the world stage.

There were so many positives from London 2012 that I temporarily forgot that we are in a double dip recession, the Tory fools are in government, the riots of last year are not that long ago and the cost of living is getting to the point of ridiculousness. And I don't know about you but it felt nice to temporarily put that out of my mind and bask in the successes of our athletes - a group of people who put dole dossers, tax dodging fat cats, slimy, double dealing politicians and 'reality tv' celebrities to shame. THAT is what hard work can get you.

Personally I felt the closing ceremony was rather a let down (and not a patch on Danny Boyle's Opener - I feel he will be currently ensuring everyone knows he did not do the closing ceremony). It was unhinged - but not in a quirky amusing way, the music was good but not as good as the last time, someone underestimated how long it would take the athletes to get out (amazing considering we had already done this once at the opening ceremony) and hence we had the same set of tracks on repeat to fill time. Somebody thought Russell Brand on top of a bus singing I am the Walrus was a good idea....honestly....

But aside from the weird as fudge closing ceremony London 2012 turned me from an Olympics sceptic into a proud as punch brit - look what we can do whilst the whole world is in turmoil - and we can smile and laugh while we do it.

Maybe it is because I am conscious that my days on this Island are numbered before a big old move to Australia - but I do believe that at least now, thanks to the Olympics and in a massive way to Mr Boyle, I know what it is to be British.