Saturday, 19 April 2014

Paris Marathon 2014 - stepping back into the light

Now is as good a time as any to reconnect with you on the sandwagon. I ran my first marathon on April 6. It was the Paris Marathon and I've been mulling over how to report it ever since. 

The race started and finished in sight of the Arc de Triomphe. In between I covered 26.2 miles of cobbles, ran along the River Seine, up, down and through eerie traffic underpasses, saluted the Eiffel Tower and saw the Pyramid at the Louvre for the first time. African drumming bands stood out among the entertainment laid on by the race organisers. They were upbeat, positive and full of life. 

Fire fighters cheered and supporters waved flags, pom poms, hand-painted banners and danced. Wigs, hot pants, rock bands and dog walkers featured. Elsewhere unimpressed faces looking blankly out of restaurants at the stream of heavy joggers in the latter stages of the route. 

The Arc de Triumphe gives me goosebumps. Always has and still does. Thick-set and overwhelming in comparison to delicate Parisian wrought iron that dances over balconies and up lampposts. Lining up for the marathon on the Champs Elysees, the marble Arc dwarfed me and did not bid me bonne chance

Fighting through the wall at mile 25 and rounding the bend out of the Bois de Boulogne to tackle the final yards, there was the Arc. It was aloof and said: 'you're just passing through'. 5 hours and 2 minutes later.

Crowds lined the final stages. There was genuine passion in the shouts of allez. Maybe it was fatigue, but the French language never sounded as foreign as it did in those final few minutes. Cobbles, an unknown towering monument and the Arc up ahead, beyond a packed finishers' enclosure. It was over and without fanfare or fuss I collected my medal. Months of training in the making and revelations about running. Success! One 10 euro beer and a metro ride home to our backpacker hostel close to Canal St Martin. 

Next year I'll finish faster and the Arc with applaud.


Room: Peace & Love Hostel for a comfortable bed, no frills, good value hospitality and access to the kitchen at 6 am to make porridge, peanut butter on baguette and black coffee.  

Food & Drink: Chez Papa (Metro: Louis Blanc), champagne at Chez Prune (Canal St Martin), Point Ephemere, Pasta party at PastaPapa (Metro: OpĂ©ra) and more. 

Flights: BA and Air France from London Heathrow.

Sightseeing: Shakespeare and Company book store and various landmarks for 26.2 miles around Paris including Notre Dame, Lourve, Bastille, Place de La Concorde and Eiffel Tower.  

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Thursday, 31 May 2012

A chance to take stock during travels in South East Asia

It's just 8.30am on registration day at the International Dhamma Hermitage of Wat Suan Mokkh, in Chaiya, Thailand, and I've already cheated the system and myself. Several camping / yoga mats were piled up in the dorm's kit room, so I snaffled one. The mere chance that one of the wafer-thin cushions could lead to a more luxurious snooze on the concrete cell bed brought out my rebellious side. In my opinion a good night's sleep has to be conducive to attaining a higher state of consciousness.  I'll still be trying the wooden pillow for size, no fear.

Mat-nabbing wasn't a great start to the strict 10-day Buddhist meditation retreat I'd just signed up for, where the rules of engagement forbid speaking, sunbathing, jogging, hanging around by the dorm of the opposite sex, wearing see-through clothes, smoking, drinking alcohol, taking a bath in your swimsuit and soaking in the hot springs for more than ten minutes. My chores for the duration of the retreat will be laying the candles beside the reflection pool, and learning a regimented approach to everything, including washing my breakfast bowl in a string of wash basins, in strict order of succession.

I wound up at the Hermitage of Wat Suan Mokkh after a thought-provoking stay on the island of Koh Lanta led me to seek out a yoga class or maybe a meditation introduction elsewhere in Thailand. My compass was set for Koh Phanang, where I planned to mix soul-searching with scuba diving and some Full Moon Party decadence.

Danielle (28) from New Orleans was seated on the transfer bus from Koh Lanta and we exchanged the normal information - how long have you stayed on Koh Lanta? Where are you headed now? A hazy plan for Koh Phanang from me, but a Buddhist meditation retreat for her. And the seed was sown.

 Female living quarters Hermitage Wat Suan Mokkh, Thailand
Ten minutes later, Swedish Annette (52), climbed in with a dive bag and a yoga mat and the glow of disciplined, meditative living.(Turns out that this is her third year at Wat Suan and she runs a meditation retreat on Koh Lanta, where she has lived for seven years.)

My next move in Thailand was a fated one, but I let the idea of the retreat settle inside for the next two hours as we took the car ferry back to the mainland and I nodded off en route to Surat Thani. As our bus pulled up I asked Annette if the retreat was pre-booked or drop in. Just drop in. Registration was tomorrow and anyone interested could spend the night for free at Wat Suan Mokkh temple across the road from the retreat centre.
Meditation hall, at Hermitage Wat Suan Mokkh, Thailand

Was there yoga?, I asked. For sure the reply. It costs 2,000 baht including two meals a day.

Koh Phanang was put on hold for another time and I headed off with Danielle and Annette towards days of silence in an unknown setting. When the retreat comes to an end, or I break loose in the meantime, I'll explain all.

Right now the schedule dictates that I eat at 12.30 and await a greeting from the abbot at 4pm sat in my chosen space in the sandy meditation hall.



wish me luck.

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Sunday, 5 February 2012

Bali scuba trip - I've that sinking feeling about this dream travel plan

MY wonderfully well-crafted dream of floating below the swooping wing of a manta ray was certainly curtailed today... even though I've a credit card gagging to shoulder the booking.

This trip, which would have kicked off in Bali in the first week of April, has been brewing for around two or three weeks, fueled by a couple of like-minded scuba diving friends (who have booked flight tickets), a boyfriend who's understandably tempted to turn 30 years old sipping a Bintang on the other side of the world, and my summer-baby's need to get the hell out of England until at least early June.

Just a month, perhaps two away. Some time to temple-tiptoe and practice yoga posing on my tod, followed by jaw-dropping dives with my scuba buddies - that's all I've ever wanted. Manta Point, perhaps the Gilis and Komodo National Park, a wreck or two, just one sunfish, several sharks and ten turtles.

But I've a hunch this one just ain't going to be...

Which is the first time I've let travel reality slap me down. I've never been rich (far, far from it) but I'm the queen of the travel 'f**k it', with the 'f**k it and fly' magazine column drafted. Pay it off later. Live life while you can. See the world not sense....

But this trip, this one would ruin me. Curled in a ball on the sofa as it snowed outside in suburban Peterborough today, I broke the news to my fella and to myself. It aint happening....unless, unless something.

Singapore Airlines have amazing return flights from London into Denpasar up in lights, from April onwards. £545-ish if you're interested in living this dream for me and clinking beers with my dive buddies.

They're they are...

It was an amazing idea, and the reason I ditched my travel publishing job to be a freelancer was the freedom to flit off. If only...if only I hadn't spent so much time and money training myself as a proper Journalist (all shorthandy and legally sound) there'd be money in the bank to live the dream... but that's my terrible reality, and a million hearts must surely bleed.

Back to pitching travel feature ideas and crossing my fingers those seats are still available once a miracle has happened.

Or, should I just be F**king it all as usual?

Bali beach shot by michis0806

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Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Plastic problems in Cyprus highlighted by Thomas Cook

HUNDREDS of plastic water bottles have been used to create a thought-provoking eco-sculpture that stands proudly at Thomas Cook's offices in Peterborough.

The statue is of a meditative man and is a replica of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker, created in 1902 and now on display in Paris.

Made from plastic mineral water bottles, rather than cast in bronze, his job is to make Thomas Cook’s 2,000 staff in Bretton and its overseas suppliers think how they can reduce the mountains of plastic waste holidays can cause.

Jo Baddeley, sustainable destinations manager for Thomas Cook, called the new recruit unique and really strange.

She said: “I was absolutely delighted to see him there, because not only will people who work at Thomas Cook see him there, but visitors too.

“People don’t know what it is when they walk in, so he’s drawing quite a lot of attention and it’s going to generate quite a lot of interest and queries.

“The whole idea of building him out of the plastic bottles was to represent a project we were running in the first place, so far away in Cyprus, but then seeing him come to life and have his little legacy going in our own offices was like going full circle.”

Daniel Broadley (42), a figurative artist from Wiltshire, used 1,100 factory reject bottles for the transparent interpretation.

Called “Message in 1,100 bottles”, the seven-foot thinker represents the quantity of plastic bottles being binned every day by just one hotel used by Thomas Cook in Cyprus. The artist moulded the bottles around an internal metal skeleton, before securing everything with industrial double-sided tape and plastic ties.

Daniel said: “It was an interesting idea and a worthwhile cause, because the hotels in question don’t have any recycling facilities.

“It was something I was very interested in doing and it was a great opportunity.”

The hotel that inspired Thomas Cook’s new receptionist now serves more of its water in refillable cups not bottles – a success that the sculpture was commissioned to celebrate.

In June this year, Thomas Cook committed £8,000, and joined forces with The Travel Foundation to help Cypriot hotels think twice before dolling out plastics.

Sue Hurdle, chief executive of The Travel Foundation said: “The sculpture will now serve as a very visual reminder to all Thomas Cook staff and visitors about the small things that can be done to make holidays more sustainable.

“Not only do such initiatives reduce dependence on finite resources and lessen the impact of tourism, but they save businesses money, so it’s a win-win situation.”

DRINKING water bottles sent to landfill sites can take between 20 and a thousand years to degrade.

When they are thrown into our oceans marine mammals and seabirds feed on them, mistaking photo-degraded particles for fish and plankton.

An estimated 50,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre floats through our seas, much of which has gathered in The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

This mass of plastic debris is thought to be twice the size of France and swirls through an area once known as the doldrums.
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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Spanish high-speed trains help RENFE scoop travel award

Independent travellers in Spain and Portugal have benefited from improved services across the Iberian Peninsula, something celebrated by the international tourism community yesterday.

RENFE, the Spanish public rail network won a World Travel Market Global Award at London's Excel, which company president, Teofilo Serrano Beltran collected from WTM Chairman Fiona Jeffery.

Fiona said: "The linking up of the Iberian Peninsula through efficient rail links has led to innumerable benefits for both those living in the region and holidaymakers choosing to visit."

Travel problems in Spain were fixed by RENFE, whose services now connect the Portuguese ports of Lisbon, Leixoes and Sines with Spain. RENFE's new high-speed trains have also slashed journey times between cities and increased attention to accessibility has benefited travellers with disabilities. The improved trains have done their bit for the environment, with CO2 emissions recorded at seven times less than aircraft.

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Monday, 7 November 2011

"Gamification" coming to a holiday near you

Exploring the architectural glories of Renaissance Florence via the third-person animated pixels of the game Assassin's Creed II is surprisingly gratifying, I admit.

For example, sliding down the terracotta curves of Brunelleschi's vast dome atop Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral had crossed my mind in reality (and was quickly crossed out). But as an immortal game-player I've jumped from bell towers, swam across the River Arno and slid down that cathedral dome at full pelt, falling off the side of building and landed in a hay cart miles below.

Control pad travel, aboard the PlayStation plane, has certain advantages over real life travel. And the same can be said, it seems, for selling holidays.

Travel companies are latching onto the idea that 18-34-year-old holidaymakers (and the oldies too) are susceptible to the power of the video game, announced the World Travel Market Global Trends Report 2011 today.

Professional and press gathered at Excel, London, heard how "gamification - the integration of gaming dynamics into non-gaming environments - will spread from the entertainment sector to the travel industry."

Travel boffins Euromonitor concluded from recent studies that, "Gamification is the latest battleground in online travel, combining key aspects of loyalty and social networking.
"Together with traditional marketing, gaming will help travel companies to increase brand awareness, in hope of becoming the next viral sensation."

Hopefully, the gamification on offer in years to come will be a bit more exciting than the 'share your photos' attempts in 2010 by the Australian Tourism Board and Lufthansa.

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Monday, 10 October 2011

Stay in Tune for a London city break costing 2p per night

TUNE HOTELS will mark the arrival of their second London hotel tomorrow by giving away rooms for twopence.

So even if you only have those two pennies to rub together, you can spend them on a break in the big smoke, sampling the latest offering from the 'limited service hotel' chain that is branching out from Malaysia and Indonesia.

City breakers can snap up the 1,000 cheap nights at the new Tune Hotel Liverpool Street, located in Folgate Street, from 8am tomorrow until Friday October 14.

Availability of the 2p rooms will be staggered across the special booking period to allow as many different people to benefit as possible.

Bargain hunters will, however, have to live up to their names on this occasion and ferret around a bit, because these cheap dates will be hidden across a long booking period, ranging January 4 to May 27 2012.

As annoying as this might be, hints and tips will be circulated on Tune Hotels’ Facebook and Twitter pages, offering clues as to which dates still have 2p rooms available.

Set to open on January 4 2012, this new 183 en-suite roomed hotel is handy for the City of London, Spitalfields and Shoreditch and aims to offer "great value, great savings". Which in reality means clean, low-cost rooms furnished with high-quality beds, power showers, air conditioning and 24 hour security. Guests pay extra for any facilities and services they use.

Tune Hotels said: "Sometimes, all you really need from a hotel is a hot shower and a good night's rest. That's why, our limited service hotels offer beds at very affordable prices by getting rid of costly full service extras (pools, spas, saunas, room service or the like) that you just don't need and shouldn't have to pay for."

To be in with a chance visit their website at 8am tomorrow and get searching.

If you miss the 2p rooms, a launch offer of 25% discount is available between January 4 and March 31 2012. Enter the following discount code HBPR11JLS on the Tune Hotels’ website, before October 31.

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Thursday, 23 June 2011

Warning posters issued to stamp out fish feeding and shark attacks in Sharm el Sheikh

Beach hotels and scuba schools, popular with thousands of British holidaymakers, in Sharm El Sheikh are being urged to support a new campaign to help lower the risk of more shark attacks in the Red Sea.
Egypt’s Chamber of Diving and Watersports (CDWS) has printed posters in English, as well Arabic, Russian and Italian, to explain why the practice of fish feeding should be stamped out.

Some tour guides are known to throw food from their boats as bait, to attract greater numbers of tropical fish towards their guests, during scuba and snorkeling trips.

CDWS want this to stop and believes fish feeding causes behavioural changes in not only tropical fish, but also in the local shark population.

A spokesman for CDWS said the campaign aims to raise visitors’ awareness towards marine conservation issues and will discourage fish feeding in Ras Mohammed National Park and Sharm El Sheikh.

“Feeding the fish harms their biological functions and their ability to hunt for food.

“It leads to changes in the behaviour of fish and the related coral reef community,” say the bright yellow posters.

The CDWS has distributed the warnings to every beach hotel, excursion boat, live-aboard company and jetty in Sharm El Sheikh.

Last summer the resort’s beaches were closed to tourists and water sports were banned after several divers were attacked by sharks.

Oceanic white-tip reef sharks were blamed, but this was never confirmed.

Ryan Mowett, a dive master at Stoney Cove in Leicestershire, who dives regularly in the Red Sea, told me earlier this year that he thought feeding practices in Egyptian resorts were worrying.

He said: "If it had turned out that oceanic white tips carried out those attacks, it may mean their feeding practices are undergoing radical changes, and that is a concern."

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Friday, 8 April 2011

First Choice go All-Inclusive only, but is paying upfront the "devil's work"?

Booking your holiday will get slightly easier next summer when First Choice starts selling nothing but all-inclusive packages.

That’s flights, transfers, accommodation, three meals per day and your fill of local drinks for a one-off fee.

First Choice will be the only mainstream travel company dedicated to the all-inclusive, which they claim knocks about £500 off a family’s total holiday spend.

Whether the saving rings true or not, the move simplifies things for holidaymakers and travel agents – First Choice will be first choice for value for money all-in holidays.

Their Summer 2012 brochure will sell all-inclusive packages to 33 destinations, in three bands of affordability: silver for premium properties; orange for great value village-style resorts and jade for standard.

Well over half of First Choice holidays are already all-inclusive and demand for them has been on the rise for the last five years.

First Choice said: “All-inclusive holidays enable people to enjoy the best of both worlds – a unique feeling of indulgence combined with practical control over their holiday spending.”

When asked how hoteliers who don’t already offer all-inclusive felt about the move they said: “Those that don’t are particularly excited at the prospect.
“We will be working closely with them and offering them all the support they need to convert.

“A small number of properties will not be able to convert and where possible these will continue to be offered under other TUI brands such as Thomson and Skytours.”

Simon Calder, travel editor for The Independent, told the BBC that: "All-inclusives are the devil's work.

“They dampen the appetite to explore – because as soon as you step beyond the walls the meter starts running and you're incurring extra costs. Therefore you're not getting the range of experiences you would find if you simply used the hotel for sleeping in, and explored the options in the area."

Obviously all-inclusive holidays aren’t for everyone. Discovering the fantastic shops, bars and restaurants that line local piazzas, high streets and harbours is a major reason many of us go away at all.

However, all-inclusives can offer the most relaxing weeks of your life.

There's no need to penny pinch, and cool drinks, snacks and meals are, at most, a flip-flopped wander away from the poolside. That’s why frazzled families, honeymooners and workaholics snap them up in droves.

The change at First Choice might be a sign that the all-inclusive is gobbling up customers who used to while away their evenings in local tavernas. Time will tell.

It is, however, a sensible consolidation and re-branding exercise that puts the all-inclusive eggs of parent company Thomson in one well-established basket.

Are all-inclusive deals the devil’s work or the most sensible way to stay on budget as you relax?

Photo by rachelcoyne

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Spot the landmark, win KLM flights to 20 Secret Cities

SERIAL CITY BREAKERS and armchair urban explorers can win KLM flights, just by identifying the location of a mystery landmark.

But it's not as easy as it sounds, and that's what makes this travel contest particularly addictive.

Every day at 4 pm (GMT) until April 24 the Dutch airline will tweet (from @KLM) a link to photos of mystery landmarks. Then you have to recognise the landmark and plot its Secret City location on an integrated Google map.

The day's winner is the person whose little red flag is plotted closest to the landmark.

What can you win?
A pair of return flight tickets to one of 5 secret cities featured each week. You choose from the 5 cities.

Last week's winner chose Santa Monica from Cape Town, Santa Monica, Prague, Singapore and Goteborg.

He tweeted: "Guess I'm a bit overexcited now, but c'mon…I WON! And look how happy he looks about it.

Here's more
Don't expect to see the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa just yet. So far these photos have been tricky to identify, even for self-proclaimed city experts. me. I've edited city guidebooks and travelled around to see, climb and photograph urban architecture, everywhere from Cairo to the bell towers (or as historians tell us, penis extensions) built by the wealthy during the Italian Renaissance.

But, I sucked at yesterday's mystery landmark. My guess (and I'm too ashamed to tell you what it was) turned out to be 2710 km from the correct location!

Now I'm determined to guess today's Secret City correctly. Roll on 4 pm.

How to win
Most importantly follow KLM on Twitter @KLM.

When @KLM Tweet at 4 pm the race begins. Hit the link to the Secret City page. Identify the landmark. Plant your red flag on the Google map where you think the building is.

The beauty of Google maps being that you can zoom in until your flag sits directly on top on the landmark (assuming you've guessed the correct location).

To move the flag click elsewhere on the map - no dragging necessary.

Make sure you guess all 5 cities every week, from Monday to Friday. The person closest to the landmarks everyday of the week will win.

What if more than one person guesses correctly all week?
Then the winner will be the person who planted their flags the fastest.

Phone a friend
Or in this case Tweet a friend to help you guess the secret city, by clicking the Tweet button below the photo.

How to be disqualified
By entering from multiple Twitter accounts.

Happy guessing city breakers. I'll be trying again at 4pm today!

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