Sunday, 7 May 2017

What do those stars mean?


When I was a teenager, I remember my father commenting that he would only go away from home if he was going to stay somewhere that was as comfortable as home. The comment clearly made a lasting impression on me, but as a teenager, as much as I appreciated home, home comforts were not the be-all and end-all in my life. Over the years I have come to realise the wisdom of  my father's comment and now, at an age when I am older than my father was when he made the comment, I am fully in agreement with him.

Over the course of our recent trip to South Africa we experienced a variety of different types and standards of accommodation. Our aim when booking these long haul trips is for the type and standard of accommodation that we usually book when we visit anywhere nearer to home, such as within the UK or Europe. We managed to achieve this for some of the stops, on our recent trip, but not all. Interpreting accommodation websites is something of a minefield and for far flung destinations we are still learning how to get it right. Just what do those star ratings means? Who awards them? Can the hotel/B&B or whatever it likes to call itself put whatever it likes on its' website? which today they all  have.

So what exactly are we looking for when we book acommodation?  A convenient location  within walking distance of shops and restaurants as we usually eat out in the evening. The bedroom must be in a quiet part of the accommodation and be a good size as we shall be living out of a suitcase for the duration of these trips, which in the case of South Africa was three and a half weeks. A modern bathroom with complimentary toiletries. Husband can not live without WiFi. A comfortable bed with soft pillows. Most rooms have a TV, but we rarely watch it, although we may watch more TV abroad if we not able to take our tablet computers with us. Air conditioning. Curtains/blinds that cover the whole window. A good view from the window is not essential, but may be a bonus.

Things started well enough with a very good hotel in Cape Town. Good location, good sized bedroom with everything that you expect plus a good view. OK it was expensive, but that is Cape Town. It ticked all of our boxes and was perfection. We would stay there again if we return to Cape Town. From there things went downhill. At our next stop the travel agent had not booked the category of room that we had requested and the hotel was full. So there was no chance of changing rooms. We had asked for a traditional style room in the old part of the hotel. What we got was a room in the new part of the hotel, which was a poorly lit, minimalist design room with an open plan bathroom and floor to ceiling windows, which made us feel as if we were in a gold fish bowl, with people constantly walking by and able to peer in. You could hardly see your hand in front of your face in the bathroom area.The hotel itself was disappointing. Would it have been any better if we had got the room that we requested? I do not know.

For the next two nights we were in unknown territory. When husband received the vouchers for the trip he noticed that some of them were wrongly dated. The travel agent confidently said to leave it with him. Then it turned out that the accommodation had indeed been booked for the wrong dates. By now it was only a few weeks before we were due to travel and the accommodation that we had originally requested was fully booked. Last minute alternatives had to be found that were of a similar standard. For the first of these nights we were supposed to stay in a small upmarket hotel, but instead we were staying in an upmarket guest house. For the following night we should have stayed in a small hotel, but found ourselves in accommodation which termed itself a country lodge. Both of these last minute bookings were very comfortable and we may even stay in them again, if we return to South Africa and want to stay in that area, but neither were the sort of places that we would have thought to consider when we had booked the trip. So that was two lucky finds.

Our next stop was Wilderness, where again a mistake had been made with our booking, but this time our chosen hotel was available, although not the category of room that we had asked for. Here we got upgraded at no extra cost to ourselves, giving us a  room with a wonderful view of the Indian Ocean. The room was comfortable enough, but again we had an open plan bathroom, which I have to say we are not keen on. I know that we are married, but it is nice to have some privacy when going about our ablutions. At least the lighting was reasonable but who on earth thought up the arrangement of these mirrors.


I like to be able to see a body with a head on it - just to make sure that I am in still in one piece. Sadly we only had one night at Wilderness.

Our next three nights were over a weekend and were intended as a relaxing break by the beach, but the travel agent had again booked the wrong category of room, which did not help. What portrayed itself as a five star hotel was in fact a two star B&B (my categorisation) reminiscent of Fawlty Towers. Again we were on the ground floor with big picture windows looking onto a car park, which also allowed people to peer in. So another gold fish bowl room. We had to ask three or four times for a light bulb to be replaced, the window blinds did not fit, the air conditioning was poor, the WiFi was intermittent to non existent, the pillows were hard, the towels were thin and there were ants in the bathroom. And probably worst of all on our first evening the power went off three times in the space of 30 minutes leaving us sitting in the dark. We were glad to leave. If we had had the sea view room that I had asked for maybe we would have felt differently about the place.

Then it was on to Port Elizabeth, where we were booked into a Radisson Blu hotel - not the Ritz I know but safe. Again our bedroom had an open plan bathroom. By now we had sort of got used to them. They seem to be popular in South Africa. In Johannesburg we stayed in another Radisson Blu hotel. This time no open plan bathroom, but our bedroom opened off the main atrium and was noisier than I would have liked. Otherwise both of these were comfortable enough with all the facilities that we expected. Just not as nice as the hotel in Cape Town.

Finally we had awarded ourselves a few nights of rest and relaxation in Mauritius. By the time that I had ploughed through accommodation for all of those stops in South Africa, plus even more when you take in account the places that we considered but did not go to, I was suffering from accommodation fatigue. So we asked the travel agent where he would recommend that we stayed, really meaning whereabouts in the island - north, south, east or west? His reply was to stay at the five star Sugar Beach Hotel as they had an offer on. I had heard of this hotel and it was one of the ones that I was considering, but there was no obvious offer on their website. So I can only conclude that it was a travel agent's offer. Reading the hotel's website it looked to be idyllic with every possible convenience. However, under the soft focus photographs was a very tired hotel desperately in need of refurbishment. Our bedroom had been partly updated, but the bathroom was ancient. The  wash basin plug did not fit, as is so often the case, and it was not possible to have a shower without washing the bathroom floor as well. The air conditioning worked well and there were plenty of sockets, but the lighting was poor, the pillows were lumpy and with an outside temperature somewhere in the twenties at night, we had a duvet on the bed! The food was alright as long as you did not try to eat in the main buffet restaurant in the evening, which was awful. Most evenings we ate in the Italian restaurant, which was a much more pleasant experience with reasonable service and it did not cost us any extra. Otherwise despite having a lot of staff, the service was generally poor. The location on a white sandy beach  was fantastic. There were two swimming pools and plenty of sunbeds both on the beach and around the pools. Apart from the hotel being in need of refurbishment, the downsides for us were that there was an all inclusive option and we would definitely not have gone there if we had been aware of that as we try to avoid all inclusive hotels and the fact that there were a lot of young children there.What we learnt from this stay was that there are five star hotels and FIVE star hotels, which I think that we already knew, but after this experience it is something that we shall never forget.

So how do you work out the standard of accommodation that you are booking? You can spend all the time in the world researching things and still end up with a pig in a poke. The star ratings are a sort of guide. Previous guests' reviews depend on the expectations of the individual. I have read poor reviews of hotels that we consider to be good and good reviews of hotels that we consider to be poor. I would usually read them when doing my research, but I do not believe every thing that I read. My conclusion is that it is all a bit of a lottery and you will generally get what you pay for.

Then there is the issue of do you use a travel agent or do you book the accommodation yourself? Why had I spent all that time poring over accommodation websites if the travel agent is going to ignore what we ask him to book as was the case at some of our stops? And even worse was the accommodation which was booked for the wrong dates. We shall not be using him again. We reckon that we can do it more cheaply ourselves and can book exactly what we want via the Internet.

Monday, 10 April 2017

East from Cape Town

I had wanted to visit South Africa since seeing the film Cry Freedom many years ago. The scenery was spectacular and the colours, especially of the flowers, were so vibrant. At that time apartheid was in force in South Africa and it was also a long way from the UK. Now apartheid has gone and the world has become a smaller place.

We flew to Cape Town, where we had this magnificent view of Table Mountain and the V&A (Victoria & Alfred) Waterfront from our bedroom window.


For our first full day in Cape Town we had booked ourselves on a tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 of the 27 years that he was held prisoner. The whole tour takes about three and a half hours including the 6.9 kilometre ferry journey there and back. The island is inhabited - mainly by former prison warders. In addition to the prison there is a museum and a shop. We were taken around the island on an old coach before our tour of the prison by an ex-convict. The conditions in the prison were harsh and the diet poor. Here is Nelson Mandela's tiny cell.



Nelson Mandela's  presence is everywhere in South Africa. His image is all over the place and there are endless streets and squares etc. named after him.

While in Cape Town we took the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain from where there is an amazing  view over Cape Town and out to Robben Island, which unfortuneately is beyond the view of the photograph below.


After three days it was time to hire a car and leave Cape Town behind. Travelling east our next stop was Stellenbosch in the Cape Winelands. While here we did a Vine Hopper tour of some of the local vineyards.This is a similar concept to the hop on hop off buses and meant that we did not have to worry about drinking and driving or getting lost on strange roads. We visited three vineyards and could have done more if we had been really keen, but after you have tasted a few wines they all start to taste the same and it was a very hot day. We saw grapes on the vine just about ready to be harvested, vats, barrels and bottling lines and the stunning scenery of the Cape Winelands area.


From Stellenbosch we moved on to Swellendam, which was really just somewhere to stay for the night as we made our way further east, along the Garden route. The next morning we took a detour down to Mossel Bay, where we had lunch and got our first view of the Indian Ocean.



In the afternoon we drove inland to our next stop of Oudtshoorn, where again we only had one night - we could have done with more. My expectations for Oudtshoorn we pretty low and I was pleasantly surprised by the place. If we return to South Africa we shall go back. The next morning we were back in the car again and had not gone far when we were slowed down dramatically by hundreds of sheep being herded along the road. We just had to be patient!



That evening we had another one night stay. This time in Wilderness, where there is not much apart from a spectacular beach. From there we moved on to Plettenberg Bay where there is another expanse of beach washed by the Indian Ocean. Beaches are great to look at and I could watch the sea all day, but I would rather not get sand everywhere. So instead of sitting on the beach we went sight seeing. First to Bloukrans Bridge to see bungee jumping.


If you look very hard you can just see a line hanging from the centre of the bridge. I wasn't tempted to have a go. We then stopped off at Storms River Village for lunch, where we ate at the fascinating Marilyn's 60s Diner. The decor is 50s and 60s, with neon -rimmed signage, Elvis and Marilyn Munro memorabilia and vintage American cars and motor cycles. Suitably refuelled we set off for an afternoon in the Tsitsikamma Section of the Garden Route National Park aiming to see the dramatic Storms River Mouth where the river meets the Indian Ocean and it did not disappoint.


For our final day of sight seeing in the car we drove to Knysna, where the lagoon is quite a contrast to Storms River Mouth.


The following day we drove to Port Elizabeth to meet one of husband's friends and his wife, who have retired there. As the name suggests it is a port and industrialised by comparison with the other places that we had visited. I did not have my camera with me as I had not expected that there would be much worth photographing. However, I was wrong as we were taken to a small game reserve not far from where they live, where we saw zebras and giraffes along with other animals native to South Africa. Then we had a drive around Port Elizabeth, which is not a particularly memorable place followed by an excursion into a township called France. By now it was dusk and the light was starting to go. The street lights were few and far between. There were black people and children milling around in the road as well as dogs on the loose. We were three white people in a shiny white car and it was scary. Even though apartheid has gone the black people still live in their townships, the coloured people live together in their communities and the white South Africans live in their estates.

The next day we drove to Port Elizabeth airport, where we handed over the hire car then caught a flight to Johannesburg. We had two nights here, giving us one day for sight seeing. As we were not sure which areas were safe to go to and where the no-go areas were, we played safe and did a hop on hop off bus tour. Like any other big city Johannesburg has it impressive buildings


and the inevitable statue of Nelson Mandela in the square named after him.


Now we just had the final leg of our African journey to negotiate. Our flight from Johannesburg was at 9.40 am. Because of a protest which had closed the main road to the airport,we had to be collected at 6.30 am for what should have been a journey of about 25 minutes. Fortunately our taxi driver was well aware of the situation and took us via a different route, but he was still concerned that we might miss our flight. As it happened our journey took about 45 minutes. So we arrived in plenty of time. Again we were heading east. This time to the island of Mauritius for a few days of rest and relaxation before returning home.

Mauritius was the icing on the cake and was just what we needed after two and half weeks of sight seeing. The location was stunning - surrounded by palm trees, next to a white sandy beach caressed by warm turquoise sea. The weather was mainly sunny, hot and humid - although we did have some tropical storms. I had thought that the UK was the only country where people sunbathed in the rain, but umbrellas can protect you from both the sun and the rain.


We were both disappointed in the hotel. Despite having oodles of staff the service was often poor and the evening buffet in the main restaurant was just awful. We did not choose the hotel. It was the travel agent's suggestion and he will not be doing that again.

On our final morning we had breakfast, then packed. Husband always packs more quickly than me. He then amused himself by watching the hotel's gardening staff pruning the palm trees outside our room. No safety precautions - just a ladder up a tree.



I had intended to entitle this post From prison to paradise but after receiving a comment in Arabic on my previous post Another day in Paradise decided that maybe such a title was not a good idea.
 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Another day in Paradise

When we mentioned to friends at New Year that we were tagging a few days in Mauritius on to the end of our trip to South Africa, they commented that Mauritius was Paradise. With its' palm trees, white sandy beaches and warm turquoise sea it certainly fits the bill, but there is room for improvement.


We have one more day of rest and relaxation after today, before we fly back to the UK. Arriving back in Manchester at 7.00 am on Friday morning is going to be hard, but we are both looking forward to getting home after three and a half weeks away.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The road to Wilderness

After several days on the road driving through the Cape Winelands and the Garden Route we ended up at Wilderness, where we had this fantastic view of the Indian Ocean from our bedroom window.


This was for one night only before we moved onto somewhere with a much more mundane view. Since then we have moved on to Port Elizabeth and are now in Johannesburg where it is currently raining.


Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Coming in to land

As we approached our destination last Wednesday morning I had this magnificient view from the window by my seat. We were on the right side of the plane and this was the side with the view of Table Mountain. Cape Town was everything that I had expected it to be.


After unpacking and freshening up we went off to the Mount Nelson Hotel for afternoon tea. The next day we went to Robben Island, where we did a coach tour of the island followed by a tour of the prison by an ex convict and of course we saw Nelson Mandela's tiny cell. The following day we visited the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, which unfortunately was not at its best as it is late Summer/early Autumn here now. On our final day we took the cable car up Table Mountain and enjoyed the amazing view from there.

We have now moved on from Cape Town and are heading along the Garden Route.