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Saturday 30 November 2019

Winter - Let's Embrace it with a Skiing Holiday - Frozen Pigtails and a Hole in the Leg

Dear Readers,

Up to now we have been examining the virtues of Winter sun.  However, today, as we head inevitably towards the depths of Winter, it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.  There are some people who can’t wait for the Winter to come:  namely your Hapless Blogger and her father (think the father from Miranda, and you’re pretty much there, and really, since the mother bears an uncanny resemblance to Miranda’s mother/Margot from the Good Life, that must make your Hapless Blogger, Miranda…hummm – sorry, a bit of a British joke for our readers from other climes).  En famille, we love a skiing holiday, so today, dear Readers, I am going to talk to you about ours, our adventures, and give you some recommendations for family-friendly places to stay.

It all began with the travel agent.  Now, back in the day, as we have discussed frequently before, one used to have to make a trip to the travel agents.  We are firmly back in the mid-nineties…in fact I can tell you exactly when, because war was about to break out in Iraq, so your Helpless Blogger’s father, who is nervous about life in general, was extra worried about us flying from Gatwick to Salzburg…am pretty sure no Iraqi war missiles were particularly interested in a plane-load of middle-class, corduroy-wearing intermediate skiers on their way to their annual, steady-paced holiday and gluwein hangover…However off to the travel agent they went, and a package holiday was duly booked with Inghams (still exists) to the exotic climes of Filzmoos in Austria.

Now, only one small hurdle to get over before we went:  teaching your Hapless Blogger (who in her defence was quite small at the time), to ski.  Now, remember we are mid-nineties.  The quality and availability of “dry-ski slopes” has increased and improved by now.  In fact you can learn to ski on “real” snow at the most impressive slopes nowadays such as the “Chill Factore” in Manchester or indeed, if you’re happening by the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, you can visit the World’s longest…but I digress.  Back then there was no fake “snow” it was just a kind of honeycombed doormat which when you fell over, which of course you do a lot when you’re learning to ski, gets suck in your bottom like doormatty cacti…

Another slight problem was that your Helpless Blogger wasn’t the skinniest of kids, but I suppose, ultimately, that helped with the falling over.  I distinctly remember one of these indoor beauties where I did in fact learn to ski after a fashion…there was a really weird lift that dragged you up, then room to turn twice and you were at the bottom…being a child fond of my food, the thing I remember most was toasted cheese sandwiches and KitKats….oh yes, and a hole in my leg.  I think as a child, one tends to accept things, or certainly I did.  Clearly someone had done my ski boot up too tightly, which must have hurt at the time, and after a few hours of lessons and free practice, it was time for the aforementioned toasted cheese sandwich.  My mother took my boots off and exclaimed at the hole in my leg where some plastic from the boot had dug in so much that there was just a massive, well, hole.  It was pretty painful if I remember rightly, but I still ate my toasted cheese sandwich…After that, my own boots (pink) were purchased.

Enough preamble already, time for the holiday.  As I said, Inghams were our tour operator of choice, and off we went, true package holiday style.  At the airport we were met by the Inghams reps and shown where to check in etc.  The other side, we boarded a coach and off we set, through the mountains of Austria.  We’re going to concentrate on Austria as I know what it’s like and it’s the setting for the ensuing hilarity.  However, of course, one can equally look at France, Switzerland, Andorra, Italy, Germany…the list is endless.  For us, today, it’s Austria.  Here we arrived in our destination village of Filzmoos and thence to our destination hotel of the Hanneshof.  Now, due to the obscenely early start, and this was a theme for most of our holidays en famille, Jolly Hockeysticks was ill.  She took to her bed, and Daddy and I went out exploring and searching for skiis and boots…

Readers, to say that this was chocolate-box perfect would be to do it a disservice.  I have checked on the webcam, and it is pretty much unchanged to this day, so I can send you with confidence.  Honestly it is so pretty.  If you really didn’t want Austria, then a comparable village would be Grindelwald in Switzerland.  However, honestly, it is just beautiful.  Boots, skiis and sticks duely hired, I remember we stopped off in a konditorei called Backerei Sieberer which is still there (have checked).  It does those impossibly beautiful cakes and slices of gateau and the most impressive hot chocolates.

Now to talk about the hotel Hanneshof.  Honestly Readers, having gone to some pretty impressive hotels in my time all around the world, I have never come across such a wonderful hotel as the Hanneshof.  It is legendary in my family and we went back year on year for many, many years.  The hotel Hanneshof is the most welcoming, most warm, family run hotel you could dream of.  Posh?  Not particularly, very comfortable with a lovely swimming pool (they upgraded it, as it did have a black bottom which I found rather off-putting as a child) and cosy bar area.  But it wasn’t that.  It was the atmosphere which made it.  At that stage, not much English was spoken and I hadn’t started to learn German yet, so there was a lot of sign language which went on.  Also, thanks to the fact that it was a traditional package holiday, we had reps and a welcome meeting!  Such fun! 

Something else about the Hanneshof which again, I have never found anything comparable:  the breakfasts.  The biggest buffet with really weird additions such as the left overs from last night’s pudding.  Brilliant if you’re a slightly overweight child whose mother doesn’t allow you puddings at home for pudding, let alone for breakfast.  On a sugar high, we headed for the slopes.  Seriously, though, the food at the Hanneshof is amazing.  Something I didn’t appreciate until later life is how very knackering skiing is, and in reality, there is no way I would have wanted to self-cater and waste time at a supermarket when you’ve paid to be out on the slopes.  So I would strongly suggest you went for half board and took their evening buffet, too.  Such fun with excellent food (we’ve never had sauerkraut like it) and entertainment (very low key but added to the atmosphere).  As an aside, everyone had their own allocated table, and as we were a party of three, we noticed there was a fourth person allocated to our table.  We assumed they were either a mix up or a ghost as we didn’t see them for several days.  Then, up turned Malcolm in his carpet slippers.  What a chap.  We had a great laugh, and he joined in our games of travel monopoly (we often had spectators for this as it seems some of the other guests had never seen travel monopoly before) or pass-the-pigs, another favourite, with gusto.  My parents are still in touch with him to this day, and from what I remember, we coincided future holidays such good company was he.

We also had hilarious trips planned for us by the reps, such as bowling…I think I still hold the record for the slowest bowling in history but no one really cared…there was even schnapps for the children.

Out onto the slopes.  Now I am going to jump through time a bit here:  as I said, we kept going for many years, so fast forward about 10 or so, and I don’t know about you, or if you indeed ski, but I found that there is no point in being precious about it:  one only goes skiing for one or two weeks a year, so naturally, especially as you get older, lessons are very important.  I decided once I was older, that I needed to learn to ski all over again (interestingly enough after a break of a few years after we’d decided to go to a different resort and I got suck on a mountain and Jolly Hockeysticks and I had to walk down…we don’t mention this in our family…).  By this time Jolly Hockeysticks had retired herself from skiing on account of, well, basically not wanting to, and resenting my father for spending money on skiing holidays when she hated the cold and was wondering why she wasn’t in Barbados…but that’s an issue for her psychiatrist, not me.  So I embarked on lessons.  It was a particularly blizzardy kind of day, and one of our favourite lunch spots was the Happy Filzmoos, another hotel right at the bottom of the main nursery slopes.  Happily it’s still there.  We’d agreed to meet at lunchtime, and in I walked, doing that sort of “funky chicken” walk that you have to do in your ski boots, with my goggles still attached to my face.  I had done my hair in pig-tails either side of my head, and basically the goggles had welded themselves to my hair with ice.  Jolly Hockeysticks, having none of it, and with the look of the devil in her eyes, ripped my goggles off my face, taking large chunks of hair with her…

The point is, lessons, in my opinion are essential.  As an adult, even if you knew how to ski as a child, you have to learn all over again because as a child you are fearless.  Once an adult, you have a healthy respect for broken bones and sheer drops.  However, this didn’t stop me.  I think, and I don’t know if you’ll agree with me, dear Readers, if you’re going skiing in Europe, not just Austria, unlike the likes of America and Canada, where the slopes are more man-made, you cannot guarantee that every slope is exclusively blue or exclusively red as they are natural.  Filzmoos is what one would class as an intermediate resort.  Certainly not a beginner’s resort but probably not enough for a really extreme skier either.  It’s great for your average Joe, as you can do some really great touring skiing too.  The exciting thing with Filzmoos slopes are that they are completely natural and hold all sorts of little excitements round every corner, such as fail to stop at the top of the next slope?  Enter a mogul field, lovely.  Or, skid on a patch of ice, hurdle over an adjacent slope, fly between people ascending the next slope on a drag lift, shoot over the next slope Bridget Jones style, and end up in a forest.  That may or may not have happened…Daddy said it looked pretty impressive.  He also says my skiing is like my driving:  too fast and slightly out of control…

Let’s face it, a skiing holiday may not be for everyone.  Certainly not Jolly Hockeysticks, but it is for some.  If you love your skiing, love touring over to other villages which you can do really easily.  If you love picture postcard perfect views, great food and a wonderful atmosphere, then look no further.

I tried to book through Inghams just to give you an idea of costs today, but the Hotel Hanneshof is fully booked through them!  So I went to Booking.com and had a look and for a double room with balcony, breakfast and dinner for 7 nights 8-15 Feb which is a perfect time to go, it’ll cost £1,258 for 2 people.  Flights are about £123 each.  So it’s not out of the way, and guess what, dear Readers, you’ll have a wonderful time!  Just watch out for black mogul fields if you’re not looking for them…

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Winter Sun Doesn't Have To Be Expensive

Dear Readers,

Here we are again, and to continue our series on winter sun, we thought we’d bring you some ideas that, unlike Barbados, don’t break the bank.

The Canary Islands have long been a destination renowned for sunshine all year round…Once supremely exotic, the Canaries have suffered what one might call the “Magaluf” effect of late.  Today we’re going to investigate, dear Readers, whether this is really the case, or indeed, like the “Magaluf” effect, has it just tarred the whole place with the same brush but indeed the reality is very different?

First, as usual, we like to have a few statistics and background (mainly because your Hapless Blogger is a bit of a nerd…).  You find the Spanish archipelago 62 miles West of Morocco in the Atlantic.  They are made up, from biggest to smallest, of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and Le Hierro.  They have an amazing diversity of landscape, from deserts, to woods to sandy beaches.

Tenerife, being the biggest, attracts 5 million tourists per year, all coming for the whale-watching, walking and nightlife.  Tenerife also houses one of the biggest volcanos in the World.  Mount Teide measures 3,718m and is the highest peak in Spain.  It is also one of the most visited national parks in the World.  The biggest city, Las Palmas, is found in Gran Canaria which itself enjoys some of the best weather out of all the islands.  It is often referred to as a “continent in miniature” due to the diverse nature of its landscape.  Lanzarote boasts 300 volcanic cones and has a much more desert-like appearance.

Historically, interestingly enough, the Canaries were considered much like Barbados and the Caribbean, certainly amongst the upper-middle classes, as an excellent spot for recuperation from illness for the self-same reasons:  the climate and the healthy, refreshing sea breezes.  Tourism began in the 1880s, with 350 Brits arriving in 1885 and 5000 by 1890 arriving in Tenerife alone.  After the World Wars, tourism grew once more, and as we have discussed in previous Blog posts, the cost of flying dropped significantly.  Package holidays and the now troubled Thomas Cook opened the market for affordable winter sun for all.

This is the background, but we’re bored of history and statistics, Hapless Blogger, I hear you cry, we want to get going!  Well, dear Readers, in typical style, I am going to give you personal experiences, warts and all…no topless moped-riding this time though…

Now, when I was young, and that was a very long time ago, “the Canaries” were hugely exotic.  As most people went about as far as France and Spain, certainly in my circle, or occasionally the rich people down the road went to Disneyworld in Florida, the Canaries were far-flung and mysterious.

Fast forward to my early twenties and a boyfriend of mine insisted we went to Lanzarote…which by this time had, again, certainly in my circle, gained the nickname “Grotty Lanzarote”…Maybe I am a snob, but the thought of going there in March did not set my world on fire.  I distinctly remember him booking it in a travel agents in the high street (pre-internet of any particular use, so, dear Readers, as I am sure some of you remember, it was either the travel agent or teletext!) and I also distinctly remember not believing him that it would be hot.  On arrival, with a drunk boyfriend in tow (why do some people play “how-many-beers-can-I drink-on-the-plane”?) it was raining.  This is what I expected.  We got onto the coach (yup, one of those “I hope this isn’t my hotel, ah, thank God it’s theirs” jobbies) and headed to Puerto Del Carmen.  Hoorah. 

Fortunately, on getting up the next morning, the sun was shining and I was proven totally wrong.  I couldn’t get over the weather, it was amazing.  The accommodation I don’t really remember, except the window in the loo smashed, missing me by millimetres…Puerto Del Carmen itself?  Well, dear Readers, your Helpless Blogger at that time was very sheltered.  I had been looking forward to trying some tapas as this was my first time in Spain.  Long story short, I found nowhere to even try it…but I could have fish, chips and “real Heinz beans” to my heart’s content.  Now, I don’t want to do it a disservice, and I did enjoy the weather, but I think the words “never” and “again” may have been spoken out loud…But that might have partly been down to the company.  I have been told that Costa Teguise is delightful…

Many years later, and I found myself with the opportunity to visit Gran Canaria.  Well, what a difference an island and perhaps more importantly, the company makes.  Readers, if you’ll permit me to be slightly philosophical for a moment:  putting the hypothesis out there:  does it really matter where you go, as long as you have good company?  Or the other way round, you could be in the most beautiful place in the world, but if you don’t enjoy the company you’re in, could it potentially be ruined for you so that you don’t give the place a fair trial?  Potentially, yes.

I insist, anyone wishing for winter sun and doesn’t want to or can’t afford to go all the way to the Caribbean, needs to go to Gran Canaria.  Interestedly, when the trip was planned, I looked on the weather app on the phone, and it said 19 degrees and some sunshine.  Undeterred, as I was looking forward to the break, I thought well never mind, it’s warmer than the UK.  Having got chatting to ironically a Professor of marine biology at the University of Las Palmas (20,000 students no less) he explained to me that yes, Las Palmas and the North of the island has that sort of weather, but the South is protected and much, much warmer.  Indeed, he was right (of course he was) and as we got into our hire car (no queue for the hire car at the airport which was amazing!) we watched the temperature, even at 8 o’clock at night, rise so by the time we got to our accommodation, it was 24 degrees! 

I am jumping ahead, however, and I wanted to make a couple of points beforehand.  Our journey caused us to fly into Bilbao in Northern Spain and thence to Gran Canaria.  I don’t know if you’ve been to Bilbao, but it is just lovely.  Not that I saw much of it, but I studied it from the aeroplane on arrival and departure and it is so pretty.  Very lush and green and mountainous.  Another epiphany was had at Bilbao airport as we had a few hours to kill.  My generous travel companion usefully had a pass for the VIP lounge.  He had spoken about this to me before on several occasions, but I guess it never really sank in as I don’t usually have time to kill at airports.  However, dear Readers, welcome to a totally new way to travel.  You have to have an Amex card or something similar I think, but it is out of this world.  Almost all airports in the world have a VIP lounge (who knew?!) and you just show your card and are billed £15 each on your next credit card bill, and in you go.  It doesn’t matter if it’s Bilbao or Dubai, you always pay the same. 

Oh, Readers, what a place.  There is a comfortable lounge with nice seating, or bar type seating and staff to help you.  There is a buffet and fridges packed full with every possible drink you could imagine.  There are spirits, wine, sparkling wine, beer, sushi, sandwiches, hot food the list is endless.  It is a very, very civilised and chilled way to pass a couple of hours and I am very thankful to my travel companion for giving me the opportunity.

Now, at the risk of making myself look stupid, and as a lesson to you, so that you don’t do it:  when you travel from the UK to Bilbao, you obviously go forwards an hour.  Therefore getting on the flight from Bilbao to Gran Canaria, the flight time read 4pm – 6pm.  Oh, brill, we thought, 2 hours and we’ll be there.  Now, as the clock approached 6pm we looked at each other:  “why aren’t we landing?”  My travel companion was a very, very nervous flier, so he was hurtling headlong into a tailspin of over-thought to how we were all going to die…I did make the valid point, I thought, that no one else seemed in the least bit worried, but that wasn’t helping Nervous Nigel…This is when I had the bright idea of asking the person sitting next to me which happened to be the aforementioned University Professor, who kindly also furnished me with the information that the Canaries are on the same time as the UK, ergo we were landing at 6pm Canarian time which would have been 7pm Bilbao time.  Panic over.

I have mentioned the increasing warmth as we drove from Las Palmas South towards Maspalomas and thus to Amardores.  We were staying at the spectacular Gloria Palace Amadores Thalasso & Hotel.  What a place.  It was ENORMOUS!!  I could already see the differences certainly from my memory of Lanzarote:  Gran Canaria is much more diverse with impressive cliffs and all these hotels seemingly built into them.  Lanzarote is much flatter and a more lunar landscape.  But Gloria, as I affectionately called her, was a stunner.  Palatial.  So huge was it that you parked in an underground carpark and walked through the impressive entrance, lined with shops in case you’d forgotten your bikini or suntan lotion, to the reception desks.  As we were all-inclusive, we were issued with the famous bands, and, as the receptionist generously wished us “welcome home”.  A peculiar choice of phrase for a British person to hear, but endearing all the same…I think perhaps their trainer had typed the wrong phrase into Google translate…

 On getting to the room, it was enormous with a stunning and unobstructed view of the sea, with a lovely balcony and all the trimmings you’d expect.  Having changed (starting to swelter) and gone down for dinner, having never been all-inclusive before, it was an odd experience:  you just wander up to the bar and ask for a drink which they give you…weird!  The buffet, dear Readers, is quite an experience.  You have various dining options during the day, with the pool bars available to you, as well as the buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It is ENORMOUS because clearly the hotel is so enormous you need a titanic-sized buffet and corresponding dining room to accommodate everyone.  As with buffets that need to cater for a lot of people, there was an enormous selection and one had to wander round it for at least an hour deciding what to eat, finally plumping for the weirdest combination of food you have ever seen on one plate (or is that just me?).

The following day dawned bright and very hot, and after another visit to the buffet for breakfast and sitting outside in the morning sun to eat it, it was a visit to Mogan and the famous mercadillos or markets.  Readers, young or old I challenge you not to be enchanted.  Not really being a flower person, or a market person come to that, even I enjoyed it.  The markets were authentic and beautiful and the flowers, the bougainvillea and all the rest (see, still not a flower person) were one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.  Mogan is a pretty little fishing port with a fish market still very much in use, but now of course, there are the hundreds of little, authentic, bars and restaurants, the famous market stalls everywhere and the cutest little houses I have ever seen.  It, in total, is a sight to behold and definitely not one to miss.

I won’t walk you through everything we did, but I would recommend you went to Maspalomes and onto the front to Café Del Mar.  The location is out of this world…What a meal and what a show.  Again, not really a “show” or “entertainment” type person, this was such high quality and so entertaining, that I recommend to all.  Maspalomas is really pretty as well, not at all what I expected.  Very upmarket.

Back to the hotel and the weather:  both were fabulous and just lying by the infinity pool (one of two) was a tonic to the soul.  All inclusive, quite frankly, dear Readers, is a revelation.  How cool is it to wander over to the bar and just get a drink.  I have researched the cost, and certainly if you’re going to spend a few days by the pool, all-inclusive is definitely great value. 

Other places to go?  Definitely visit the restaurant Guantanamo’s…again, what an experience!  It looks like a shack from the outside and certainly not the Ritz.  Inside, it’s all old-fashioned Canarian restaurant (kind of the exact opposite of Café del Mar) but the first thing that strikes you is how busy it is, and as we all know, dear Readers, this is a very, very good sign.  The food is excellent and the lamb shoulder and chateaubriand are worthy of a special mention.  Then, there is the coffee ceremony:  I have never seen anything like it!  The waiter comes to your table with various kitchen items including a portable gas hob and what looks like a Bunsen burner…he then sets light to some glasses and fills them with coffee and various liquors and sets light to them again, then adds whipped cream to them, and once they are placed in front of you, holds a lit cup up high and pours from afar lit alcohol into the coffee.  Sounds weird but it is quite spectacular to watch, and I am reliably informed that it is 4000 calories a glass…

The final place we visited was the Maroa Beach Club in the Anfi complex just a couple of miles East from our hotel.  If you haven’t heard of Anfi, Google it.  It is spectacular and, I’m sorry Gloria, put Gloria to shame.  It’s not even a village, it’s a town unto itself!  The beach club is lovely, and great fun.  If you haven’t been to a beach club, you should, although you should probably practice lounging beforehand.  They are very chilled places, with great food and drink and too easy to drink too much and fall asleep on a day bed (not this time but there is an outside chance this may have happened to your Hapless Blogger in the past…)…Head there for sundowners as the beautiful weather and stunning surroundings make you forget the daily grind and the fact that it is snowing back in the UK!

 For a quick idea of prices, if you wanted to go to Gloria all-inclusive next month (December being peak time, don’t forget) for 4 days Thurs-Mon for 2 people it’ll cost 858 Euros plus direct flights from Gatwick to Las Palmas for £97 each…If you wanted to stay at Anfi, you’d need to buy a timeshare there.

 Conclusion?  I should probably give Lanzarote a fairer trial, but young or old, Gran Canaria is fabulous.  Back to our hypothesis about it’s not where you go it’s who you go with, and I have to say, hand on heart, that I had a better time in the Canaries than I did in Barbados, but that’s all down to the company.