Wednesday 7 December 2022

No cheers


It isn’t easy being an industrial spy. Only five minutes on the job and already I had been collared by a determined young assistant with a steely smile. "We would rather you didn’t write anything down, ma’am," she murmured as she took me discreetly by the elbow and drew me away from the evening gowns.

"But I’m a travel writer," I said, waving my dog-eared notebook at her. "I’m just recording a few observations. Surely you don’t think I’m a fashion spy?" And I pointed at the food stains down the front of my Ezibuy cardigan.

"You’d be surprised," she said grimly, letting me go.

That was how - way back in 2004 - I started a story about a visit to LA, doing something other than the usual Disneyland/Walk of Fame/Hollywood sign. I was reminded of it by reading about poor Kirstie Alley, whose death was reported yesterday. That was because, as I was taking my notes, as above, in the super-expensive Fred Segal shop, I saw Kirstie with her daughter - as I rudely described it in the story - "comfortably blocking an aisle in the children's department".

Accompanied by our own daughters, we did of course actually do all of the above clichés, but added on things like Universal Studios, the Melrose Trading Post, a farmer's market, the Queen Mary, the Page Museum, and many challengingly huge servings of food. We were there at around this time of year, so there was lots of Christmas fun added to it all - it was really good.

And the stall-holders themselves were just as colourful: not only multi-cultural, but laid-back and alternative, there as much for the vibes as the chance to sell some stuff. One dread-locked black guy drawled to a shiny-headed man in leathers he’d almost walked past, "Hey, man, you looked like you, but I didn’t know if you were still you ’cos, you know, you change all the time…" Perhaps that wasn’t just incense in the air.

Cheers also added an essential element to our first visit to Boston a couple of years later, when of course we went to take the obligatory photo of the exterior that was so familiar to us from the series. There were some unusual extras on that trip, too - like getting there by train from NYC, staying in a private terraced guesthouse with a composting toilet and an indoor cat, and following the Freedom Trail round the city. We did that again, properly, a few years later, with a red-uniformed guide who looked like Liam Neeson, slumming it.

Anyway, RIP, Kirstie. Thanks for all the laughs.

Monday 5 December 2022

Fire and ice

In an ideal world, this title would introduce an entry about viewing Fagradalsfjall, that spectacular volcano in Iceland, which is still erupting, since August. I would love to be there, seeing it in person, as it adds extra drama to Iceland's already spectacular scenery.

But no, it's Mauna Loa on Hawaii's Big Island that has been - despite competition from Tonga and Java - most dominant in recent news. Though it too has so far been more of an attraction than an inconvenience, it's now beginning to threaten the main road that rings the island. That would mean a long and tedious detour all the way around the other side, so no doubt the locals are crossing their fingers right now. Which is, of course, all you can do, with volcanoes.

When we were there, on an Uncruise er, cruise, in 2016, the mountain was actually covered in snow - in December! (Yes, I know Hawaii's north of the equator, but it's still a Pacific island and, well, December is summer in the Pacific...) Otherwise, though, it was an unremarkable hump on the horizon. All the big action was taking place further along at Kilauea, where we went on a lava-viewing outing on a boat that still astonishes me we were allowed to do - that skipper was incredibly laid-back, given all the fire and steam we were so close to.

We do do volcanoes here in Enzed, of course. A series of eruptions created Lake Taupo 300,000 years ago, the Oruanui eruption 70,000 years ago still the biggest the world has known - so it does make us a little nervous, when there are earthquakes there, as there have been recently, even causing a small tsunami along the shore.

It's not as if we needed reminding of that sort of thing. Netflix is about to release a documentary about the Whakaari/White Island eruption disaster which is going to bring that awful event back into the limelight again. Thanks, Leo.

Saturday 3 December 2022

No need to pike on Viking

My last overseas trip, way, way back in early 2020, was to LA for a big announcement by Viking about their expansion into exploration ships, to offer cruises in both the Arctic and Antarctic. It was a very professional and generous presentation, chairman Tor Hagen was personable and likeable, and I doubt there was even one spoilt and fussy travel journalist there who wasn’t won over, and itching for a freebie on the Polaris or Octantis. Now, though? Maybe less so.

It’s truly horrible, to imagine what it was like to be that poor woman, hunkered down in her comfortable cabin on the Viking Polaris, grimly enduring the notorious Drake Passage crossing. Perhaps she was trying to distract herself by remembering all the glories of Antarctica she had just seen, or by thinking of all the skite-points she was currently accumulating - and then a wave crashed through her window, showering her in jagged glass shards, and that was that. Awful.

Regular 😃 readers will recall that I have done that Antarctica cruise, with Silversea. Whenever I'm asked what my best trip has been as a travel writer, I always nominate that one, despite enviably strong competition. There's simply no beating Antarctica's spectacular and super-special scenery and wildlife, the cruise itself (sorry, Viking) was Silversea-gorgeous - and, topping off 18 days of fabulousness, on our crossing back to Ushaia, after universally increasing nervousness amongst all the passengers guests, we were blessed with the wonderful gift of Drake Lake. 

Incidentally, this is my third post, I think, about Viking line disasters - one per cruise type. There was the collision of a river cruiser with a sight-seeing boat on the Danube, an engine failure in the North Sea, and now this. It's just maths, though - it's one of the bigger cruise lines in the world, with two explorer vessels, ten ocean cruisers and around 80 river cruisers. Don't be put off.


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