Tales of a Travel Agent

As a travel agent I took part in some of the most anticipated times of my customer’s lives. They dreamed of going on holiday to a secluded beach, a romantic city, or a hell raising stag or hen weakened to see out their days as a single person. It’s a dream job – or so it’s perceived. What you also get are customers who return from holiday when things didn’t go as dreamingly as predicted.

There are all kinds of customers, customers with no money who know they will end up with something cheap and cheerful, there are also the ones who truly do have enough money to travel round the world in luxury, and then, there are the ones who feel the need to elevate themselves on just a meager budget. They enjoy nothing better than to turn their friends green with envy at their long haul holiday in the sun, what they don’t divulge however, is that they went with a charter airline to a three star all inclusive hotel where they didn’t dare venture outside the complex for two weeks. One such lady took a holiday to the Caribbean with the company that started the travel revolution.

She travelled to Barbados in September, the hurricane season, and although she had been advised about the possible weather conditions, it did rain rather more than she had expected. However, that was not the cause of the compliant letter on her return. The letter arrived in a padded envelope; perhaps she had included a gift of appreciation? No, in fact, it included a pair of socks, blue socks.

The socks were part of the ‘amenity pack’ issued by the airline on her return flight home – you know the ones, they have earplugs, eye mask, wet wipe, and socks. In all my time travelling I’ve only ever seen a handful of people actually use these socks, the one size fits all philosophy doesn’t seem to ‘fit’. But, this lady had used every single amenity she could get her hands on; after all, she’d paid for it. The subject of her complaint wasn’t that the socks had cut off her circulation causing her feet to go blue; no, it was that because her feet were hot and sweaty, the colour had come out of the socks and had stained her feet. She had included the socks so they could be sent away to a laboratory for testing.

She felt that some compensation was in order because of the stress having blue feet had caused her. There were two reasons for the distress, firstly, on her return she had to visit the chiropodist which was terribly embarrassing with blue feet. Secondly, she had to buy a new pair of shoes, because despite scrubbing and using bleach, she had been unable to remove the blue dye from here feet, and the colour simply didn’t go with her pink strappy sandals.

You see, the life of a travel agent is not as glamorous as you think, apart from a shoe shop assistant, who else comes into contact with worn sweaty socks? That wasn’t in the job description.

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One hundred and one reasons to visit Rwanda – Part I

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In 1994, Rwanda suffered a horrific genocide, Hutu’s and Tutsi’s clashed, and almost one million people were slaughtered in just one hundred days. But despite the past, the people of Rwanda work together with hope and understanding, to make sure an event like this never takes place again.

This understanding and forgiveness is a credit to those who are left behind, and a fitting testament to their cause is the Kigali Memorial Centre, where the bodies of over 250,000 victims are now buried. But, this is not just a burial site, this is a place to learn from the past and bring hope to future generations.

Set on a hillside, surrounded by gardens full of beautiful roses, the Kigali Memorial Centre glistens. The atmosphere is quiet and peaceful, a sense of well being and tranquillity fills the air, and even the chatter of visiting children seems appropriate. Inside, the feeling remains, but a sense of sadness and reality takes hold. The bright sunshine is replaced by three exhibition rooms where spotlights create an atmosphere. Detailed, touching but truthful information highlights key stages in the genocide; the road leading up to the events, the 100 days of the genocide, and the aftermath. This is the first floor, which also houses a photo memorial, a picture gallery filled with photos of the victims from happy times. Times of special family occasions – weddings, birthdays, family get togethers, and proud portraits in best clothes. These pictures, and a collection of clothing, brings home that these people were real people, human beings just like everybody else.

The second floor is also a place for reflection; it is the children’s memorial. Here, along with images of children, their school rooms and pictures of their family lives, fourteen windows each tell the story of one child – their favourite sport, food, drink, best friend, and finally, their cause of death…following this part of the exhibit a balcony overlooks the gardens to allow for a moment of reflection.

Francine Murengezi Ingabire
Age: 12 years
Favourite sport: Swimming
Favourite food: Eggs and chips
Favourite drink: Milk and Fanta tropical
Best friend: Her elder sister Claudette
Cause of death: Hacked by machete

In April 2012, Francine would have celebrated her 30th Birthday, maybe she would have been a doctor or a mother. But today, in her own way, she is a teacher, teaching others that ethnic cleansing is not acceptable.

There is much much more to this memorial and its gardens, and this is not the only one of its kind in Rwanda, there are others. They all tell a story which will hopefully help to demonstrate some unforgettable lessons to the world. To some, this may seem like a reason not to visit Rwanda, but this centre helps local people and visitors to understand what makes the Rwandan people what they are – strong, forgiving and caring. This is an exceptionally compelling reason to visit their beautiful country.

http://www.kigalimemorialcentre.org/old/index.html

WOW Milan

Fashion capital and home of some of the coolest people on the planet, Milan is one of those destinations which makes say ‘wow’. There are lots of reasons for this, the incredible designer shops, the architecture, if you’re a woman – the men, and if you’re a man – the women. Everyone is so beautiful, so well dressed, and so very aloof.

Ferrari in Piazza Duomo, Milan.

This is the city which most Italians aspire to be in, even the ones who say it’s too cold, rainy, or busy. This is where the money is made, and it shows. Fine dining, gorgeous cars, and excellent nightlife means that only the most successful can really live here, but as a visitor, you can take a peak and maybe dream about enjoying the lifestyle here.

The Architecture

One of my favourite buildings, and as a visitor one of the places you may pass through, is the magnificent Art Deco/Liberty style Milano Centro railway station. This beautiful old building has arches and high ceilings, and is complimented with modern additions of glass and steel; a truly beautiful station, although not originally designed this way. Today’s grand appearance is thanks to the dictator Mussolini who wanted to show off the power of his fascist regime.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is another building with the wow factor. Formed by two glass vaulted arcades supported by steel, this building dates back to 1865. Its glass domes and double vaulted arches are as exquisite today, as they were when they were built. When you visit, just underneath the dome, there is an additional wow to look out for – people spinning on their heels. Why would such elegant people been seen doing this? When you spin on the bull you will ward off evil.

Milan Duomo

Right next to the galleria is perhaps the most magnificent building in the city, Milan Cathedral, or the Duomo. One of the city’s landmarks, the gothic and baroque cathedral took nearly six centuries to complete, and is the worlds largest cathedral. Napoleon was crowned here, but the highlight is on the roof, from atop the forest of pinnacles and statues the views stretch as far as the snow covered Alps.

The Fashion

Shoes; Via Montenapoleone in Milano

If you’re like me, Piazza San Babila and Via Montenapoleone are places for window shopping only. This is the centre of Milan, the centre of the fashion district – high class and the home of the worlds most famous fashion houses. Exquisite shoes, jewellery, accessories are all on display, its where the rich and famous shop and where tourists wielding copies of the famous names stand and dream about the real thing. If the prices of Gucci, Prada, or Dolce & Gabbana are just a little too much over your budget, quality products bearing the Made in Italy mark make excellent souvenirs.

The Other Side

Italiano: Milano. La "Conca Fallata = Sba...

 There is another side of Milan, missed by many tourists, but a little more down to
earth than the showy architecture and fashion houses, the area of Navigli. The Navigli are a system of interconnected canals in an area far removed from the bright lights of the centre. This is where you can experience rustic Milan, and one of the best places to enjoy an alfresco evening meal by the water’s edge.

The all new Splendour of the Seas

With five new dining experiences, 124 new balcony staterooms, 10 bars and lounges, the new and improved Splendour of the Seas is really living up to her name.

Wendy Liscia, freelance travel writer, was amongst some of the first English speaking guests on board when the ship set sail from Santos in Brazil during her immersion season.

I boarded Splendour when she was three weeks into her new season, following her five week makeover at the Navantia Shipyard in Cadiz. The $50 million spend was well worth it, thick carpets, squeaky clean bathrooms and exquisite sofas in the brand new R Bar; the Centrum’s chic new cocktail bar, were all evident. Unfortunately, the new ipads had not been installed, but the technology behind the interactive information screens gave a taste of what would be in store for other guests.

The large screen Digital Wayfinders, situated on the public decks, help with orientation indicating current deck location, directions on how to get to the restaurants, bars and entertainment venues; but they were especially useful in locating the nearest restrooms. In a choice of languages, these screens also offer details of the day’s activities via the cruise compass. An excellent idea.

Dining is always an important part of any cruise holiday, and for me, this was the best dining I had experienced on any Royal Caribbean ship. The Windjammer, often criticized for buffet style luke warm food, was excellent, but what impressed me the most was the hygiene. In my experience, there may be hand sanitizer stations, but many guests don’t use them. On Splendour the staff are there to see that guest DO use them. A huge plus.

The excellent food and service in the Windjammer continued in the King & I dining room. My Time dining on this cruise is a bonus for guests who prefer to eat around 8pm, unlike the Brazilians and Europeans who consider 10pm ideal. My only regret was that there wasn’t enough time to try out all the speciality restaurants; however, the new healthy eating Park Café had some excellent salads, stuffed breads and biscuits. The Dog House, somewhere I tried to avoid until the penultimate day, was superb; these hotdogs from around the world were tasty, meaty and totally unexpected.

All of the ships staterooms have received a makeover including the installation of brand new bathrooms. The addition of a whole new deck of balcony cabins on deck 6 also means that more guests can enjoy breakfast on their patio.

It is clear that the Centrum is an area where a large amount of the budget has been spent. Comfy chairs and sofas in red velvet and gold hug the small dance floor and the upper levels. The R Bar, with its Italian marble counter, is where the ’mixologist’ creates cocktails from around the globe, whilst entertainers perform at great heights in well choreographed shows.

Many US and European customers feel reluctant to try a cruise where the majority of the other guests are non English speaking, but this experience, in my opinion, was an excellent way to experience a ‘taste’ of South America with the locals.

Quick facts:

What’s New?

  • 124 new balcony staterooms on deck 6
  • All staterooms have been refurbished to include new carpets, bathrooms, and flat screen TV’s.
  • New Touch Screen information points help you see where you are, where the facilities are located and what’s on.
  • ipads in every stateroom
  • New poolside big screen on Deck 10
  • Brand new gym equipment – including a rowing machine.
  • Park Café – serving make your own salads, healthy choices and snacks
  • Dog House – mouth watering hotdogs from around the world.
  • Café Latté-tudes
  • Izumi Asian-fusion cuisine, featuring a la carte sushi selections
  • A la carte dining in the Viking Crown Lounge
  • Chef’s Table – An intimate dining experience
  • R Bar in the Centrum – A combination of ‘60’s style and chic comfort
  • Ariel entertainment

Old favourites:

  • New to Splendour but not Royal Caribbean – Choppes Grill
  • The Vitality Spa
  • Fitness classes from kick boxing to Pilates
  • Solarium
  • Theatre
  • Casino
  • Rock-climbing wall
  • Upper-deck jogging track
  • 18-hole miniature golf course

For Club Members:

  • Concierge club
  • Diamond Lounge

For Families:

  • Royal Babies® and Royal Tots® programming featuring specially designed Fisher Price activities
  • Expanded teen-only hangout areas
  • Family-friendly activities including games, contests, enrichment classes and lectures

Better left unsaid

Review sites are a godsend when it comes to choosing the right accommodation, but now one of the most highly respected sites has being accused of featuring reviews that have been paid for, its hard to know who to trust.

Recently back from Rio, we chose a comfortable B&B based largely on the rating from one such site. Ranked 3rd in Rio, it was not too expensive compared to other places, and its position in Santa Teresa made it quite appealing.

Santa Teresa - Rio de Janeiro

Recent reviews declared the property “Absolutely outstanding, it was the highlight of our trip”, another said “A warm, welcoming, spotless B & B with a great view”, and the other reviews stated that owners were wonderfully helpful, and so on and so on. It sounded perfect.

When we arrived we were greeted by a lovely man who didn’t speak English, but insisted on telling us in considerable detail how everything worked – in Portuguese. He even helped us up one flight of stairs with our suitcase. Unfortunately, he broke the handle, so we decided to take it up the other three flights ourselves. He showed us to our room, still telling us everything we needed to know, and then Bill the owner showed up. Apparently he’d been waiting for us to arrive. We’re not entirely sure where, after all, we’d come in through the front door and passed through the living room, the only way in, or perhaps there was a secret entrance. He continued with the ‘orientation’ and suggested somewhere nearby we might like to try for a meal tonight.

On our way out we met Bill’s wife, Sue, who totally disagreed with Bill’s recommendation for a meal saying it was a horrible place and she didn’t know why he’d told us to go there – perhaps because he hated us? She said we’d be better off in the centre of Santa Teresa. Advice was given on where we might to consider, and that because the hill was so steep we’d need to get a taxi back, unless we wanted thighs like elephants. Already having elephant thighs, I disregarded that comment.

English: Rio de Janeiro slum (right) on hill, ...

Next morning, after tripping up twice on several pieces of loose parquet flooring, we went for breakfast and a word with Bill about a few small things.

  1. In a city like Rio where you are told not to wear jewellery, carry lots of cash etc etc, was it a problem that our patio doors, which opened onto a communal patio, didn’t lock? Bill: Oh no, it wasn’t a problem, and besides they were only aluminium keys which kept breaking.

2. We can’t seem to use the safe in our room. Bill: No, I lost the key.

3. The patio is lovely, but is there any chance of having two chairs which we can actually sit in, rather than ones which are ripped and have screws sticking out? Bill: Unfortunately not. The new ones had been stuck at the port for 5 months. The ones we had were the best ones, but as they’d been out in all weathers they were rotten.

Oh well…

We tried out a couple of Bob’s recommendations, then after spending an arm and a leg on local restaurants, we decided to try lunch in Downtown. We stuffed ourselves on an ‘all you can eat buffet’ for less than the price of a starter at any of Bob’s recommendations. That night, still full to bursting, we picked up a bottle of wine and a few nibbles from a local store and decided to have a picnic by the pool. After enjoying a glorious evening with a sunset over the city, we went inside to make use of the communal laptop and check our emails. Bill arrives and interrogates us as to what we had been doing, and where we were going tonight. We said nowhere; we’d eaten out at lunchtime and were staying in tonight. “You’re on holiday for Christ’s sake”, was the response we got; Basil Faulty springs to mind.

After that, we decided to try and give Bill the slip as much as possible. Maybe we’d upset him when we ‘snuck in’ on arrival, who knows?

It’s time to leave, Bill’s on his laptop. Our two heavy cases are at the top of the stairs. The taxi arrives. Bill carries on working, is he going to help carry the cases? No.

The moral of this story – its not always the good and the bad reviews you need to consider, some people feel that some things are ‘better left unsaid’.

Just Back – from a great discovery (for Telegraph Travel)

With the washing piled high and the unused emergency sewing kit still to put away, I know the holiday’s over.

The planning and hopes, the time we spent together getting dusty, muddy, and wet is over, and now we are left with just our thoughts and some wonderful photos to remind us of the really good time we had together.

We’re just back from Namibia. It was just like being young again. We did crazy things, things we shouldn’t have, and best of all we spent time laughing. That’s what life used to be like, fun, free, and time spent doing things you wanted to do, even if it wasn’t what everyone else expected.

We’ve never been compliant, and no doubt at 5am when we were still in our tent and everyone else was heading out on safari, they thought we were missing the best experiences, but we weren’t. We had our own experiences, and we still managed to see that illusive leopard right near the camp. The others had missed her because she wasn’t there earlier, she knew it would be quiet now; the tourists were long gone. We saw the incredible sight of thousands of seals at Cape Cross, we saw the dunes at Sossusvlei, and we did all those other ‘must do’ things, but in our own kind of way.  We also got to do one of the best and most unexpected things; we got to talk to Connie.

Connie runs a restaurant at Klien Aub, the middle of nowhere, and for 27 days she hadn’t seen another soul. She opens at 8, and closes at 5 every day. She waits for people to call, normally she bakes cookies, but for a few weeks she hasn’t bothered because nobody comes, but today is different. Today she still looks a million dollars in her lilac two piece and perfectly combed hair, but today she also makes coffee for her ‘special guests’. We sit and talk, we talk to her, we talk to her cat, and we read the postcards and letters that’s she’s received from all over the world from previous customers she’s made coffee for. They say what a wonderful hostess she is, include pictures of themselves with her, and say they’ll see her next time.  She’s so proud.

Travel is all about exploration and discovery and one of the best places to discover is yourself, that’s what we did on our trip to Namibia. As well as discovering a diverse country with wildlife and desert, we discovered ourselves again, and what a wonderful discovery it was. And, when I look back tomorrow, and in the future, what I’ll always remember is that it’s the little unexpected things that make you smile.

La Bella Vita

La Bella Vita – is what you will find here in Abruzzo.  This is the ‘real’ Italy. Beautiful hilltop villages, unspoilt seaside resorts, wonderful food and wine and some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.

Whichever season you choose to visit there is always something new to see and do. During the spring the National parks are filled with wild flowers and the weather is mild, the summer brings high temperatures down at the coast but if you prefer cooler temperatures head for the mountains where you can stroll or hike through magnificent scenery and discover natural waterfalls and pools to cool your aching feet.  Autumn is a spectacular time to visit because the area is full of forests and the colors are a photographers dream.  Winter sports are also very popular here.  Unlike the larger resorts in the Alps you will rarely find queues for the ski lifts so you can enjoy more time on the piste, the resorts here are among only a few where you can ski and have views of the coast on the way down.

If you are a lover of food and wine you will not be disappointed.  Montepulciano D’Abruzzo is produced here along with many other varieties.  Many of the wineries are small family run affairs but none the less produce delicious inexpensive wines, they are always happy to offer guided tours with some tasting afterwards of course.  Pasta and meat lovers will also be in heaven.  Lamb graze on mountain herbs so produce tender, sweet and ready seasoned meat; pasta is always homemade and exquisite.

One of the most memorable parts of your holiday however will be the people.  They are extremely proud that people choose to visit the area, so the welcome here is one of warmth and kindness.  Even if you only speak the very basics of Italian you could spend hours talking together with the help of your hands.

If you love peace, tranquility and good company you will be coming back here again and again.