Monthly Archives: July 2017

What’s it like to travel in the BA i360 Observation Tower?

Last year the Brighton Eye (akin to the London Eye) was replaced as a seafront landmark in Brighton by the British Airways i360, a 162-metre-tall vertical tower. It is located on the site of the derelict West Pier that was burned down by fire in 2003. You can still see the ruins of the pier straggling in the water just beyond.

Some have dubbed the observation pod the “donut” due to its shape, while others have been known to refer to it as something far cheekier (best left unquoted). However you call it, there is no doubt that this is a huge feat of engineering.

This is, afterall, the world’s tallest moving observation tower with an observation pod built around a central column. It is in fact a fully enclosed futuristic glass observation pod that gently lifts (the movement is hardly discernible) up to 200 people to a height of 138 metres.I couldn’t wait to have a go in it when it first opened but whenever I happened to visit Brighton, the i360 was closed on some technicality or other. The gremlins are long gone and I finally got to experience the BA “flight” last week.

Checking into the BA i360

Like any flight, you have to check in, collect your ticket and go through security – a sort of airport light version – a process that is guided by staff dressed in BA livery. Once passed security you get to sit on deck chairs as you watch the previous flight land. It’s quite extraordinary.

Inside the BA i360

Straddled by two BA staff, the doors slowly slide open and passengers are shown into a very spacious 360 degree observation deck. There are some banquettes for those that need to sit but most like to walk around and visually drink in the views over Brighton from various perspectives. As the pod rises the views inevitably become ever more expansive across the sea, both sides of the beach and way into the city and beyond over the Downs.

It is a serene experience with the odd chatter in the background unless, of course, you get on with groups of kids, so be sure to ask which flights are free from school outings.

Though the flight lasts around 20 minutes, it seems all over far too soon and I hardly had enough time to sip the champagne I liberated from the pod Sky Bar.

Airport delays in Europe

It may be the busiest time of the year, yet the EU have chosen this moment to enforce tighter border controls. As a result thousands of British holidaymakers are facing longer airport queues and delays with some even missing their flights homes, especially those travelling home from Spain.

Why is this happening?

Following the terror attacks in Paris and Belgium the EU has put in place new security measures on April 7. The rules require countries to carry out more stringent checks on travellers entering and leaving the Schengen area, a no frontiers” zone comprising most EU countries plus Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, but excluding UK and Ireland.

Up to now Brits have been able pass through passport control easily, sometimes being waved through by merely showing the passport. Now every passport needs to be compared against the “Schengen Information System” and also against Interpol’s list of stolen and lost travel documents.

Which airports are effected?

Airline lobby group, Airlines 4 Europe said passengers can expect the longest delays in popular tourist destinations where travellers enter or leave from outside the Schengen Area. The worse hit airports are likely to be:

  1. Palma, Majorca, Spain
  2. Malaga, Spain
  3. Paris (Orly), France
  4. Lyon, France
  5. Brussels, Belgium
  6. Lisbon, Portugal
  7. Milan (Malpensa and Bergamo), Italy

The organisation also warns of long queues at Madrid, Lisbon, Lyon, Paris-Orly, Milan and Brussels.

What are the new procedures when flying through the Schengen area?

Standard security procedures are still in place but the extra checks take place at the passport desks. Lack of resources is being blamed to cope with the demand created by the new rules – especially at peak times.

Blanco Beach Club review, Portimão, Algarve

The Algarve is loved by holiday makers for its light blue skies, amazing sun light (I swear it has its own shade) and its golden beaches. And tranquillity.

But now you can ditch the peace and quiet and pump up the volume at the Blanco Beach Club. This newcomer to the Portimão beach adds a new dimension to day life and indeed the al fresco night life with its house-party-within-a-beach-club scenario that Nathanial  the oh-so trendy head host says “will be the local answer to Ibiza”.

This is a top notch beach club looking fresh in its white-washed decor created by the elusive entrepreneur Maximillian White – hence the name Blanco. There’s a “guest” list and if you are on it (easily done; you pay the entry fee or hire a bed in advance) and you get to enter into another world armed with a defining wrist band.

There are security guards (bless them for being diligent) and a doorman-cum-bouncer. All necessary stuff in a place like this, but perhaps tone down the bouncer act a bit?

Inside, white leather round beds are dotted around the 20-metre blue-hued pool on attractive wood decking. There’s a bar at one end, sunken arcs of seating, the DJ’s stage and at the other end of the pool there are a few cabanas that have their own jacuzzis big enough for six people.

But these are expensive (1,500 euros for six people) to hire. The cheapest option is a bean bag on the sandy area which, after an entry fee, are free to use.

It is quite a beautiful scene to walk into and one that shines in the daylight. At night it is lit up in pinks and purples and looks good against the night sky.

There are plenty of easy-to-spot waiters as they are all dressed in white. They mill around and as the beds have a waiter service you never need to wait long to place an order for a cocktail. It’s a simple menu of sushi, pizza, salads and burgers, but tasty enough.

There’s large DJ stage churning out tunes all day and as the alcohol-fuelled hours slide away, flirting couples canoodle to the sway of the music while others take to the pool, cocktails in hand to frolic, refresh underneath a fountain or simply dance adding movement to the shimmer of the blue water.

Some spend the afternoon flaked out on the bed just snoozing under a white parasol and sunbathing. While others, perhaps they were hens and stag groups, stayed by their beds drinking, nattering and giggling.

As the sunsets and the moon rises, the ambiance changes. The parasols are tied down and the music heats up for the night party. Sometimes there are famous acts such as American rapper Ace Hood and Serge Devant strut their stuff to packed houses.

Kerala, India – is this really “God’s Own Country”?

“God’s own country” is a phrase which has been bandied around, used for locations from Yorkshire to Zimbabwe to New Zealand. But whereas in many of these locations it might be wishful thinking, in Kerala, an Indian province in the south of the country, it seems a perfectly reasonable description.

The Malabar Coast and lush backwaters certainly look like paradise, the population has the highest life expectancy and literacy rates in India, and the melting pot of different religions happily coexist. God, we can guess, would be very happy indeed.

Kochi International Airport, the gateway to Kerala, is the first airport in the world to be powered entirely by solar panels. This is quite a technological feat. The journey back in time, and to a simpler life, begins the moment you step outside the terminal building, however, as in the parking lot there are Hindustan Ambassadors (the iconic Indian car modelled on a Morris Oxford), auto-rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and even an occasional wandering cow! Traffic on the roads is just as eclectic. The buses have to swerve around bullock carts, and if there’s an elephant in the road then everything grinds to a halt.

Kochi was historically the port of Cochin, a city of international traders on the Arabian Sea. Spice merchants came here from Portugal in the early 16th century, and the Dutch and British came in their wake. It retains a cosmopolitan feel, with numerous different communities having left their mark.

The Cochin Jews trace their own history back to the time of King Solomon and have their own dialect of the local Malayalam language. There are only two dozen Jews that still live there but you can visit India’s oldest functioning synagogue in the trinket-lined Jew Street in the pretty Mattancherry neighborhood, dubbed “Jew Town”. There are also Syrian Catholic churches; and festivals such as Holi, Eid, and Christmas are all celebrated with great fervour.

The city wears its rich and eclectic cultural heritage lightly. I pay my respects at St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India, because it was here that Vasco da Gama — the man who first sailed the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope to reach India from Europe — was buried. His body was later taken back to Lisbon, but the cemetery is still divided between Portuguese and Dutch graves, a reminder of Kochi’s colonial past.

Perhaps the real beauty of Kerala is outside the cities. The Western Ghats, the north-south mountain range which runs through South India like a spine, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its biodiversity. There are 20 national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and forest reserves in Kerala alone, not to mention the swathes of jade green tea, coffee, and spice plantations.

Perched in the mountains near Munnar, the confluence of three rivers, is Ambady Estate, a mist filled valley of cardamon plantations and rainforest. It’s an exceptional site for wildlife spotting: there are macaque and barking deer, Malabar giant squirrel, and, at certain times of the year, millions of butterfly.

The treetops are alive with the twittering and singing of birds. Binoculars will help you see them up close, but even with the naked eye you can identify bulbul (forest songbird), barbet, whistling thrush, vernal hanging parrot, and sunbird. Thanks to the altitude, the air is moist and cool, making it the ideal environment for a hike through the Parvathy Hills or a wander around one of Munnar’s many tea estates.

True tea aficionados should make time to visit Munnar’s Tea Museum as well. It is on the Nalluthanni Estate and is run by Tata Tea. If you’ve ever wondered what makes black tea different to green tea, or how the tea gets from the plant to your cup, this is the place to find out. You can follow the entire manufacturing process, and the story is further elaborated upon with photographs and various bits of tea paraphernalia. Tea tasting, of course, is a must, and the local Keralan black tea is especially refreshing.

Kerala’s lushness, its ever present greenness, comes from the monsoon rains and the backwaters which crisscross the state, bringing their life-giving water. The most fertile agricultural land is, of course, along the riverbanks, and therefore so too are the majority of Kerala’s colourful villages.

The best way to see rural life up close, whether it is women planting in the paddy fields or washing their clothing on the riverbank, is to take a boat and sail through the backwaters of Alleppey and Kumarakom. Plenty of kettuvallam — traditional rice boats — have been converted into comfortable houseboats. They are made entirely of natural materials, from the wooden hull held together with coir ropes, to the curved thatched roof, shaped like the ribcage of a whale.

Kerala’s houseboats are remarkably spacious, and in some cases even luxurious. 100 feet in length, there is typically room onboard for three bedrooms, these days with en-suite bathrooms as well. A private chef will cook up mouthwatering meals from local produce for those onboard, dishes which are seasonal and fresh.

The boats move slowly, allowing plenty of time to watch the world go by, read, fish, or even have an Ayurvedic massage onboard. It’s a slow yet romantic way to travel, and you’ll see a very different side of Kerala than when you are travelling by road.

God may or may not have made Kerala. But if you’re searching for a taste of heaven on earth, a place where you can be as healthy and happy as can be, it is certainly a good place to start.