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I spent most of yesterday travelling, which was interesting and frustrating. It took six hours to get from my hotel in Singapore to the one one in Batu Feringgi in Penang, Malaysia, and of that time only 75 minutes were spent in an airplane. I was at Changi airport (Singapore) way earlier than I needed to be; the flight was completely straightforward; and it then took over two hours to get to the next hotel. Lots of traffic.

I explored Batu Feringgi a bit last night, which basically meant a stroll up and down the main strip. Maybe I was just tired, but it didn’t impress – it seemed very ramshackle. The main feature is a ‘night market’ of hawkers’ stalls all along the road which you have to walk through – they occupy the pavement – and to be honest there’s nothing there that remotely interests me. Then there are the restaurants, most of which seem to be cavernous corrugated iron structures, with random tables and chairs set out inside. Most disconcertingly of all, of course, are the menus full of food that I don’t understand. So I ate at the hotel – it was buffet night – and later walked back up the street and had a glass of wine in a bar I found.

Today I decided to have a lazy day. I got up late and hit the poolside at a bit after 10 o’clock, and didn’t move from it until nearly 5 o’clock. It was a wonderful lazy time, with regular deliveries of ice-cold water. In fact it’s probably the laziest day I’ve had for a long time. At five o’clock I did a bit more exploring and located an ATM in a more developed part of town, and also walked up the beach. On the way back I found a beach bar and enjoyed a glass of white wine. Now I’m back at the hotel about to prepare for dinner and probably more alcohol. It’s a hard life.

On the afternoon of my third day in Singapore I visited Gardens in the Bay. This is a sort of ‘hi-tech eco paradise’ – or at least, that’s how it’s intended.If you know the Eden Project in Cornwall you’ll get the idea, but with added technology.

Update: here’s the text! Gardens by the Bay consists of three broad areas. First there are acres of ‘walk around’ areas, laid out in gardens. For example, there’s the Chinese garden, the Malay garden, and so on. There are also large areas of open grassland. In fact this area is pretty much like a botanic gardens, and is also free to enter. The second area are the two domes – the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest, and they’re not free. These are both enclosed and controlled environments. The Flower Dome contains flowers and other plants from the several Mediterranean climatic environments around the world – California, South Africa, Chile, and of course from around the Med itself. This is interesting enough, but (unless you’re a plant enthusiast) not exactly spectacular. It’s saved, however, by the presence of additional ‘exhibition’ displays, and when I was here they had displays of cherry blossoms. These were very popular, with queues of people being photographed beside and among the blossoms. I took some images of this blossom myself – examples below.

Then there’s the Cloud Forest dome. This is an artificial reconstruction (and explanation) of the way vegetation on a mountain is stratified by the climate that is present at a given altitude. So particular species of plant will only exist on the mountain within a fairly narrow range – no lower than a certain height, and no higher than a certain other height. For this example they’ve picked plants that thrive in the ‘cloud zone’ – temperate climate (in fact blissfully cool) and with plentiful moisture, mainly from the clouds that form around the mountain at the relevant altitude.

In the case of the Flower Dome you just walk around the floor of the dome, but it’s a bit different for the Cloud Forest dome. There’s an artificial mountain, some tens of metres high, with plants growing all the way up it. I gather that in fact these plants are zoned – that the climate isn’t constant throughout the dome – but I didn’t really spot any great difference. But having marvelled from the ground at it all, you then get to ascend by lift to the fifth or 6th floor, from where you walk down. Some of these walks, as you can see from the images below, extend out from the ‘mountain’ by many yards. Presumably so you can appreciate the thing in all its glory, I expect – certainly not just to give the visitors a thrill! Basically you gradually descend round and round the mountain, sometimes passing through it, sometimes on a walkway out in the air, until you reach the bottom.

But that’s not all! I said that it replicates moist conditions. So how can they do that in an enclosed dome in equatorial Singapore? Well, every couple of hours or thereabouts they ‘mist’ the mountain – hundreds of tiny vents issue a fine spray or mist of water which moisturises the plants. Of course it looks spectacular (again, see a couple of the images below) but I’m sure that’s just a happy accident.

 

First, in the Cloud Forest and Flower domes:

The next spectacular area of the Gardens is the Supertree Grove, together with the associated Skyway (there’s an extra charge for this). The Supertrees themselves are between 25 and 50 metres high, and actually perform engineering functions for the park – e.g. as air exhaust outlets for the cooled conservatories. They’re each mode up of a concrete core; a steel frame exoskeleton; and onto that are fixed millions of plants. The Skyway is a 138 metre walk between two of the medium-height trees.

I enjoyed the afternoon I spent there. To be honest, I think that unless you were interested in horticulture or botany much of the open gardens might be a bit ‘blah’. But the two conservatories are amazing, especially the Cloud Forest, and the Supertree Grove is just one of those ridiculous things that’s actually wonderful.

I gather that at night they illuminate the Supertrees…. maybe next visit.

I spent this morning exploring Little India, the area near to my hotel. It’s a much more traditional area than most in Singapore; it features mainly low-rise buildings, with traditional shops spilling out onto the pavement (or rather, the pavements almost run through the fronts of the shops). As its name suggests it’s a predominantly Indian area of Singapore – Indians, or Singaporeans of Indian origin, make up about 10% of Singapore’s population. (The overwhelming majority are of Chinese descent – almost 75% of the population.) The walk was hot but interesting.

I visited a Buddhist temple, inside which is a 50 feet high statue of the Buddha, made of concrete and weighing, it was suggested, about 300 tons. It was built in situ in the 1930s, inside the already-constructed temple. I spoke to the attendant/guide and we had an interesting conversation. This resulted in the strangest thing (or most unexpected) that I’ve heard in a long time. I told him where I came from and he replied saying that he really liked English TV; and then he mentioned ‘Allo ‘Allo as a particular favourite…..

In the afternoon I visited the Gardens by the Bay, but that deserves a post of its own.

Bridges over Singapore river

I seem to be falling behind myself in terms of posting here. It’s now the end of today and I haven’t done yesterday’s post yet.

Yesterday morning I slept late (surprise) and didn’t wake up until 9 o’clock. So what with shower, breakfast, etc, it was quite late before I set out for the day’s plans. I decided to visit the National Museum. This tells the story of Singapore from the earliest known records or artifacts up to the present.You’ll not be too surprised to learn that it’s the history of the last half-century which takes pride of place, and why shouldn’t it? While Singapore was prosperous and busy in 1963 (the year it gained independence from Britain and entered the Federation of Malaysia), it wasn’t at that time a first-world city with extremely strong positions in shipping and finance, whereas today it is. So well done Singapore, and the museum tells the story of the struggle for independence and how it achieved  with it fairly and without rancour. I learned a lot especially from the “How we built” special exhibition which details how Singapore was rebuilt and expanded from the 1970s onwards; a process that hasn’t stopped yet.

After that I explored the Singapore River area, and that was visually interesting and attractive.

This post is a report on my first few hours or so in Singapore.

After getting to the hotel yesterday I showered and changed, and then went shopping. I wanted to get a few things and I’d identified that there was a mall (City Mall) just over the road. it was also alongside a Singapore Metro (MRT) station, which (once I’d got a ticket) would allow me to go in search of a sim for the phone – I must have my data! The mall was good; quite busy, especially on the lower-ground floor where there was a small supermarket and other ‘practical’ shops, and I was able to get what I wanted.

Next was the MRT ticket. I bought a three-day tourist pass for S$30, which includes $10 for the pass itself and which I can get back by returning it at any MRT station when I leave. I can also extend it if I need to, which I will.

Then I used this to got to another mall at Bugis where there was a Singtel shop (Singtel being one of the cell phone networks here). I had to wait a while here but eventually bought a HiTourist! sim for S$15, which will last for 5 days and which gives me 4Gb of data (plus an allowance for local and international calls. That has worked OK since then, although it did seem to take a few hours for it to recognise the sim this morning.

After the shopping I went back to the hotel and walked through the ‘Little India’ district – as its name suggests this is an almost exclusively Indian area complete with temples and of course the ever-present restaurants. There’s actually a large covered area, almost a market, full of food stalls, but I couldn’t make myself try one of them – they were quite busy and looked a bit intimidating, especially as I was very tired. But not too far away I allowed myself to be persuaded into the Khansara tandoori restaurant where I had a vegetarian meal – vegetable samosas, gobi masala, a plain naan, and a mug of Tiger beer all for around S$20. The gobi masala was excellent but the vegetable samosas were a little different from what I’m used to. They were about twice the size and also much more spicy. Never mind, I cooled my scalded palate with naan and Tiger.

Then later I went out on the MRT again and down to one of the waterfront areas, Marina Bay. I wanted to have a night-time look at the Marina Bay Sands building but found that there was a weird ‘light sculpture’ event happening on the The Float, a large pontoon in Marina Bay. There were a lot people looking at the exhibit but not too many people paying their money to go and look at it from inside.

Then it was back to the hotel where I collapsed into bed not long after 10pm. I was awake for a while just before 5am but got back to sleep, and the next thing I knew it was 9 o’clock in the morning.

This will have to be a short post about a very long experience – flying to Singapore from Manchester. I’ll even leave out all the packing angst that occurred, as that’s not actually part of the trip. So you must imagine me all ready to go at just before 8:30 Monday morning.

The trip over the Manchester took 90 minutes or a bit longer – this latter mainly cause by the car park I’d booked a place in not being named as described in their email to me. But I found it, and was going through baggage drop at just about 10:30 for a 13:10 flight, and the usual hanging-about-at-the-airport ensued.

The flight from Manchester to Dubai was with Emirates, in an Airbus A380, and I have to say this was very comfortable. Partly because I had a (pre-payed) good seat, but also because I think those A380 economy seats are comfortable. Anyway, 7 hours later I was landing at Dubai at just after midnight local time to transfer to another Emirates flight and with a changeover time of just over two hours. Dubai International was very busy even at that time, but I gather that because of time differences, departure times from airports all over the world, and flying times, that airport is very busy all hours of the day – indeed, late night may even be the busiest time as that’s when daytime flights from Europe arrive.

No problem making the connection and then I was onto an Emirates Boeing 777 for the flight to Singapore. This too was about 7 hours but nowhere nearly so comfortable. Partly this was because I think the seats in the Boeing were just less comfortable, but also because I ended up with the largest woman in the world sat next to me.

So then I arrived at Singapore at late lunchtime on Tuesday. By the time I got to my hotel I’d been travelling for nearly 24 hours since leaving home.

Asia here I come!

So tomorrow I’m off on my holiday to Asia – five nights in Singapore, three nights in Penang, Malaysia, and a couple of nights in Dubai on the way home. Hopefully I’ll be able to post while I’m away, so look out for the posts.

….is what the chap said to me at my hotel yesterday evening.

I’ve been staying at a capsule hotel – “hub by Premier Inn” – very near to St James Park tube station in Westminster. The rooms in these hotels – there are several in London – are very small but very well-featured. They have all the required elements – bed, bathroom, TV, air-con/heating, a bit of storage space – but all very modern and very high tech, and are extremely compact.

So I returned to the hotel after a meal out, walked in, and the lights came on automatically, exactly as they should have. Rather unexpectedly they went off again about 30 seconds later, leaving me in complete darkness. I found my way back to the door and opened it, and the lights came back on. Then the cycle repeated itself.

I did some experimenting with what was happening but eventually gave up and reported the problem, and a few minutes later a very helpful and polite chap arrived to ask me what was wrong. I demonstrated the problem which elicited the response “that’s not supposed to happen….. never seen that before, in fact!”. Then he said the unforgettable words – “I’ll need to reboot the room”. He opened a small panel and hit the Reset button, at which point everything in the room just shut down. Up to that moment I hadn’t realised just how hi-tech the room actually was – lots of systems all under customer control via a control panel on the bed head (or via an app on your smartphone). There are five different settings for the lights, for example. But right then all the systems were all off. There was silence (and darkness, of course). Then bit by bit the room rebooted and the systems came back up.

Sadly, the reboot didn’t resolve the issue – 30 seconds later we were in darkness again. At that point the problem had to go to Tier 2 support, and unfortunately they weren’t available in the evening; and as a result I got a new room in which I had an excellent night’s sleep.

Apart from the problems with the lights in the original room, this was an excellent stay. I haven’t mentioned the lounge by reception. There are no tea/coffee making facilities in the room; instead, there’s a ‘hot drinks’ point in the lounge where tea and coffee are available (from a coffee machine/hot-water dispensers) 24/7. The lounge is also where the continental breakfast is available – simple cereal, sour-dough bread, croissants, muffins, butter, preserves and a toaster, and also where they put out the same sort of things as a simple buffet in the evening. The evening buffet seems to be free, but breakfast was £4. You can also get drinks – they have wine and spirits available, but you have to get one of the staff members there to serve you.

All in all, this was a much better experience than my Airbnb in London experience last year, even with the lighting problem. I shall probably use something like this again.

 

I did a couple of posts on my cruise blog about the collapse of All Leisure Group, which took with it two cruise lines, Swan Hellenic and Voyages of Discovery. As part of the general discussion around what happened I read a post from an Australian passenger who had not only lost their planned holiday but also their money – they reported that their travel insurance didn’t cover the bankruptcy or or failure of their travel provider.

My first response on reading this was to wonder “who takes out travel insurance that doesn’t cover this risk?”, but then I realised that I wasn’t actually sure whether mine did or not. So I checked, and discovered that it didn’t. Furthermore I now understand that this is usual – that liquidation or bankruptcy of a holiday provider, e.g. an airline, travel company, hotel, etc, would not normally be covered by travel insurance. So how do customers protect themselves, I asked, and the answer was “through ABTA or ATOL, or your credit card”. I’ve done some research into the protection provided by these measures, and here are my layman’s findings. (Note this is not intended as ‘Advice’; it’s just a record of what I think the position is. Readers interested in this topic should satisfy themselves.)

The main routes by which UK customers can protect their payments seem to be four-fold: ABTA; Atol; “Section 75”; and specific insolvency insurance (yes, in fact it does exist). I’ll take these one at a time.

1. ABTA: ABTA of course stands for “(The) Association of British Travel Agents”, and what I’m talking about here is the ABTA scheme of financial protection. Here’s a quote from their website:

If you buy a land or sea-based package holiday (such as coach, rail or cruise) from an ABTA Member your monies will be protected by the ABTA scheme of financial protection. This means that if your travel company fails and your holiday can no longer go ahead you will be entitled to a refund if you are yet to travel and hotel costs and transport home if you are abroad.

There are a few things to note in that paragraph: First, the protection scheme only applies to land or sea-based holidays; i.e. a land holiday in the UK, or a cruise that starts and concludes at a UK port. Anything involving air travel is excluded, although it may be covered by the Atol scheme (see below). Secondly, the scheme applies to ‘packages’ only. Please see this page on the gov.uk website for the definition of “a package”, but simply put a package will consist of more than one component booked at the same time through the same provider.  Thirdly, it only applies to holidays booked through an ABTA travel agent, so anything you book directly with a provider is not protected. In fact even a ‘single component’ holiday – a hotel stay, for example – may not automatically be covered by the ABTA scheme even if you book it through an ABTA travel agent because it wouldn’t be a package. Just to complicate matters, the travel agent may have additional protection that would cover that case, so it’s a good idea to check what your TA provides.

2. Atol: this stands for “Air Travel Organiser’s Licence”, and it’s a Government-run scheme operated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). It requires any air travel operator to protect a customer’s payments for their package holiday that includes flights and accommodation. The customer will receive an Atol Certificate at the time of booking, and they should keep this – they’ll need it if they need to make a claim under this scheme. (If you don’t receive an Atol certificate when you book then that’s a good indication that your booking is not Atol-protected – see below.)

There are plenty of situations where the Atol scheme will not apply, even for a holiday that includes air travel. The biggest of these is any scheduled flight booked direct with the airline (or, I think, through an air flight booking agent e.g. Opodo). Next is any separate hotel booking made direct (or through an intermediary that’s only selling the accommodation, e.g. booking.com) – again, not covered. Thirdly, even if your holiday is Atol-protected, it only provides financial protection in the event of a travel provider bankruptcy – it does not offer assistance in the event of other problems on your holiday e.g. illness or injury. Finally, although some airlines sell complete holidays that include flights and accommodation, it may not be covered by the Atol scheme. The customer should check with the airline before booking.

3. “Section 75” protection. This refers to Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, and here’s the current (Jan 2017) text of Section 75 sub-section1:

If the debtor under a debtor-creditor-supplier agreement falling within section 12(b) or (c) has, in relation to a transaction financed by the agreement, any claim against the supplier in respect of a misrepresentation or breach of contract, he shall have a like claim against the creditor, who, with the supplier, shall accordingly be jointly and severally liable to the debtor.

 What this means is that if the customer (the ‘debtor’ above) pays for a good or a service with a credit card, and the supplier of that good or service fails to provide it (i.e. there is a breach of contract between the supplier and customer), then the credit card company (the ‘creditor’ above) is as liable to the debtor as is the supplier. Basically, you can recover your costs from the credit card company.

There are some caveats. First, the amount of money involved has be at least £100 and no more than £30,000. Secondly, this protection only applies to credit card payments; payments by cash, cheque, or debit card are not covered. (However payments by debit cards, charge cards, and payment cards may be covered by ‘chargeback’ schemes. Ultimately these schemes seem to be backed by the major card suppliers, i.e. Visa, MasterCard and American Express, but are operated by the card issuer – typically, a bank – and you should approach them for advice.)

4. Insurance specifically aimed at protecting customers from travel providers’ insolvency. There is at least  one company offering this – protectmyholiday.com . I can’t find any reviews of them, although I have found links to them from various advisory sites so it looks as if their reputation is good. But readers must determine their own opinion.

Looking at their website, they state that their policy covers:

….the insolvency before or after departure of any travel arrangements booked in the United Kingdom, Channel Islands, Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland, not forming part of an inclusive holiday and not bonded or insured elsewhere

Note the “..not forming part of an inclusive holiday and not insured elsewhere” section at the end. From that I take it that any holiday that would be covered under ABTA or Atol would be excluded from the coverage of this policy, even if you took it out!

 

So that’s the position as far as I can understand it. Please note once again that nothing in this post should be taken as “advice”; it’s for information only, and comes with a big health warning which is that it’s simply an expression of my understanding of the situation. You should always do your own research.

Not far from where we live is a National Trust property, the Longshaw Estate. It was originally (19th century) a shooting lodge for the Dukes of Rutland and was part of a very large estate on the SW side of Sheffield. During WWI Longshaw Lodge became a military convalescent hospital, and after that war it returned to the owners for a short while. In 1927 the Duke sold the estate and the Lodge to Sheffield, who used this part of the estate as a water collection area. Then concern was expressed about possible housing development plans on the area, and various charitable groups raised the money to buy the estate from Sheffield. This happened in 1931, and it was then handed to the National Trust. It’s only a few miles from us but for some reason we’d never visited it until the Trust upgraded the carpark in the first half of last year. Since then we’ve started visiting.

The estate is basically an expanse of Peak District moorland, with way-marked paths of various lengths. One part of it runs down to a stream – a classic babbling brook – which descends quickly over stones and rocks. In summer the banks of this are a very popular weekend family picnic spot. Then the stream descends more steeply into Padley Gorge, which ends at Grindleford station on the Hope Valley line. From there a walk takes you steeply back up onto the moors and eventually back to Longshaw Lodge, the tea room, and the car park.

We’ve now visited it a number of times – there’s one particular hour-long walk that’s just right for a cold, crisp winter morning. So here are some photos from this area, some from the higher, moorland area and some from Padley Gorge.