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On my first morning I walked around Haji Lane in the Kampong Glam area of the city. I have in fact visited this area before, but it turned out that my hotel was literally at one of the lane. It’s an older area of the city in which the buildings are conserved/preserved, although in the case of Haji Lane it looks it’s just the exteriors that are original – and even then, a lot of the ground floor frontages have been modernised. What’s in these old buildings are a range of small designer stores, refreshment bars, and general moments shops. A unifying feature is that each shop has been painted as dramatically and colourfully as possible; the whole Lane is a swirl of colour. I was happy to wander up and down for a while before heading further into the city.

Then it was on to the Shoppes (horrible word…) at Marina Bay. This is an upmarket shopping mall associated with the Marina Bay Sands hotel. It’s just a mall, really – the usual over-priced stuff (when did buying and carrying a truly expensive, branded bag become a defining item of consumption?) but the mall itself has one interesting element – there’s a canal inside it…. See the image below!

Emirates A380 being prepared at Manchester

I mentioned in the previous post that I flew with Emirates again, and the main reason I gave was that I preferred to break the journey. That’s not the only reason, to be honest. Over the four trips I’ve made to Asia I’ve found the Emirates experience to be good, and value for money. I know from various YouTube videos I’ve watched that there are other Middle East and Asian airlines that match them – Singapore Airlines would certainly be in that list, as probably would Thai, Qatar and Oman airlines. (I’ve heard it suggested that Etihad, who fly to Abu Dhabi, aren’t quite as good these days, following their multi-billion dollar losses in the last few years.) I’ve been happy to stick with Emirates: since I know it’s good, and it gives me the routing I prefer, why change?

But it’s probably worth outlining the reasons why Emirates appeals to me:

  • first, it offers excellent value for money. Although I booked this last flight through a travel agent (Trailfinders) I could equally easily have done so online, and examining options as I write, I see that, as expected, I could get a return economy ticket from Manchester to Singapore for just over £500 for dates in March next year. That would include 25kgs of hold baggage plus 7kgs of cabin baggage, plus all the onboard facilities. For an extra £200 (i.e. £700+ in total) I could buy an economy ticket with more options: this would include complimentary seat selection (standard seats only, not extra legroom) which would be worth £80, more points for the loyalty club, and cheaper options to change the flight arrangements or get a refund. This compares with over £1000 for a shorter economy return flight from Manchester to Memphis in the USA, on much older and smaller aircraft;
  • secondly, the onboard services are excellent. Each flight I’ve done has included two free meals (one full, hot meal, and one snack) with metal cutlery!, free drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and one of the best in-flight entertainment system in the air that gives a selection of hundreds of films and TV programmes. I’ve included images of a meal tray from 2017, and a menu card from my most recent flight, below;
  • the aircraft they use are modern and well-equipped. The flights between Manchester and Dubai are in an Airbus A380, and Emirates have equipped them with comfortable seats and pretty good legroom. OK, I’m not tall so maybe it’s easy for me, but they’re a huge step up from Ryanair or Easyjet. Above all the A380s are very quiet. (The Boeing 777s that they use between Dubai and Asia aren’t quite as quiet, but the seats and entertainment options are every bit as good.)

Any 7 or 8 hour flight is going to be a bit of a trial at times. I’m sure that travelling in First or even Business class would make it so much more bearable, but Emirates do a pretty good job even in economy. I’m a happy customer.

Parked Thomas Cook jets at Manchester on 23 September 2019

it’s a very long journey to Singapore. I have a choice of flights from Manchester: I can fly direct with Singapore Airlines, or I can go via Dubai with Emirates. My preference is the latter – although this makes the total journey time longer (two flights of just over seven hours each plus three hours at Dubai International airport) I’m not sure I could manage an 11 or 12 hour flight in an economy seat, no matter how good the aircraft or airline. So I made my usual choice, and was due to fly out of Manchester on 23 September at about half-past two on an Emirates A380. That would arrive at Dubai at just after midnight, the onward flight would leave at 3am, arriving at Singapore Changi airport around mid-afternoon on the 24th. I’m pleased to say that everything was pretty much on time, and the flights, while long, were up to Emirates’ usual high standard.

As an aside, the 23rd was the day Thomas Cook collapsed. It was sad to see their jets parked up and not moving. A few were still arriving, but most were stuck at the remote airport. I also heard from an airport worker that I got chatting to that an Air Malaysia A380 had already arrived at Manchester to participate in the repatriation exercise.

On previous trips I’d had Trailfinders arrange a private car to take me into the city to my hotel, but this time I decided that as I knew my way around I would make do it myself. I’d researched and found that there was a shuttle bus system that would drop arriving passengers at various hotels for just 9 Singapore Dollars (S$9) per person, and I decided to use that. I had cash –  I’d already bought S$300 back in the UK because I knew there would be some early purchases that I would need to make. I also picked up a local sim for my phone while I was at the airport. A 7-day sim with M1, which would give me 100Gb of data plus 20 minutes of international phone calls, cost me S$12. Given that the exchange rate is about S$1.6 to £1, these prices were about £6 for the shuttle bus and £8.50 for the sim. A final purchase, made after I got to my hotel, was a Tourist Pass for the Singapore MRT, the underground system. That was S$30 for unlimited travel for 3 days, but S$10 of that was for the actual piece of plastic, which I could reclaim by handing it in when it expired.

I was staying at the ‘ParkRoyal on Beach’ hotel. ParkRoyal Hotels (part of the Pan Pacific group) have three hotels in Singapore. I’d previously stayed at the ParkRoyal on Kitchener, which is in the Little India district and is a solid 4* hotel; this one (… on Beach) is rated at 4+*, while their final hotel, ParkRoyal on Pickering, is rated 5* (and has prices to match). The hotel was fine – very comfortable room, very effective air-conditioning, and good breakfasts. I didn’t take any other meals in the hotel as it turned out that the ‘+’ in their rating element perhaps referred to their fancy restaurant. Nothing on their menu really appealed, and the prices definitely didn’t.

So by about half-past four local time I was there and all set. Raring to go? – not after those flights; in fact I worked out that if I included the journey from Sheffield to the airport (which Val very kindly drove me), I had been travelling for about 24 hours, with not a lot of sleep. But I find that on the journey out I can keep going – probably it’s just the adrenalin. (The journey home is a lot less energising, of course.) So I went out and exercised my MRT pass, found my way down to Marina Bay, walked around, had a quick burger in a food court, and eventually made my way back to the hotel and my bed later in the evening. I woke up once in the early hours but to my surprise was able to get back to sleep, and finally woke up at about 8 o’clock the following morning for my first full day.

Back to Singapore

marina_bay_sands The iconic Singapore image: the Marina Bay Sands hotel and the Art Science museum

I’ve visited Singapore a couple of times in the last few years, and there’s something about the place that I really like. Perhaps it’s that it is a well-ordered society; or maybe it’s the amazing architecture; or the history; or just the fact of being in a place and a society that has a reasonable claim to have been the most successful in the world over the last 50 years.

My previous visits were in the late winter, March 2017 and February 2018. This year (2019) I went to Bangkok at that time, and we already have a big trip to the USA arranged for April next year, so there wouldn’t be time to do an Asian trip before that. So in July I booked myself a short break in Singapore for the end of September.

I had just five full days there, plus the late afternoon and evening of my arrival day and a very few hours on the morning I flew out. That turned out to be long enough to do everything I wanted on this trip. I decided that mainly I would go to places that I hadn’t visited before, so I gave the Gardens by the Bay and the National Museum a miss. Instead I went to other places, perhaps a bit more unusual. That said, I did find my steps leading towards Marina Bay on quite a few occasions – these days it is the heart of Singapore city.

I did have one big worry both before and during the trip. This summer I have been plagued by outbreaks of Achilles tendinitis in my right ankle/heel. Not only is this painful, it’s extremely disabling; basically, during a flare-up I can’t walk any distance at all. In fact it’s a struggle just to get around the house, let alone any further. So I was worried that I might not be able to go, or that I would get there and then find myself immobilised. In the event I was OK. Perhaps it was the exercises that I have been doing more religiously than in the past couple of years or so (I have had this problem before, most recently in 2010), or perhaps I was lucky and the next flare-up is just around the corner. Either way, I got there, had the holiday and did a lot of walking around, and then got home without problems.

Anyway, it was a good trip; I visited a number of interesting places; and I took what seem to me to be some good photos. I’ll do detailed posts over the next few days.

Actually, it’s not quite that bad. I’ve booked a trip to Singapore for late September, returning on 1 October. Today I realised that my annual multi-trip travel insurance policy expires on 30 September. Not a problem, I thought – just extend it by a day. Except that can’t be done…

There seemed to be just two options. The first is to take out a single-trip policy for the whole of that trip. However, that will overlap with the existing annual policy for all but the final day of the trip and it’s annoying to pay for insurance twice (actually, paying for insurance is annoying, period). The quoted cost for that single-trip policy is £115, which means that, given that I will be covered by the annual policy for everything except the last day, in effect I would be paying £115 for just one day’s insurance!

The other option, of course, is to buy another annual policy, to start on 1 October, which would give me seamless cover throughout the trip. It would cost maybe £250 or a bit less, which although more is potentially a better deal depending on how much travelling I do during the policy’s life. I wasn’t planning on doing that renewal this autumn, however – until I booked this trip to Singapore, I had nothing planned until April, and I had been thinking that I would leave buying the insurance until then. However, having spoken to a few people at insurance companies this afternoon, I now think that buying it now might not be such a bad idea after all. This autumn I am still in my 60s, whereas by next April I will be in my 70s; and I have a feeling that the ‘age on day 1’ of a new policy has an impact on the price. Ah well – I shall remind myself that the glass is half-full, look on the bright side, and feel pleased that I’m in the position to travel at all!

Tobermory

We’ve been back from this trip for over a month so there’s been time for us to reach a balanced conclusion. So here goes.

The first thing to say is that we enjoyed the tour – just not perhaps as much as last year’s. But on days 2 and 3 we had some really memorable experiences. I’ll remember the visit to Iona on day 2 for a very long time, and also the visit to Calgary on day 3. The stroll around Tobermory in the afternoon of day 3 was also very enjoyable. We were ready for a bit of serious downtime by then and that afternoon gave it to us.

However, we can’t help thinking that a lot of the pleasure was due to the excellent weather. If it had been grey we wouldn’t have enjoyed the time on the white sand beaches on Iona and Calgary anything like as much, or the forest walk at Calgary Art & Nature, or the relaxed stroll around Tobermory; and if it had been raining (not entirely unknown in the west of Scotland…) we might not have done those things at all. If that had been the case, what else would we have done? There weren’t many alternatives.

There was a lot of time in the mini-coach, and in many regards the places we drove through – western Lochaber, south Mull, north Mull, and finally the Kilmartin area – were actually very similar. Very beautiful, but by the fourth day we had seen enough. There wasn’t the range of locations to visit that we found on the Arran trip, on which we went from modern technology (the wind farm!) to a stately home, to the memorial for, and locations related to, Scotland’s national poet, Rabbie Burns – all on just the first day! I suppose the truth is that Arran, being in the Clyde estuary, is much closer to central Scotland and there is simply more stuff, both on the island and when getting to & back from. Mull is further away, and once you get as far as Loch Lomond, you’re entering areas that are sparsely populated and therefore have less in them – apart from the landscape, that is.

So as I said above, we certainly enjoyed it; but we also recognise that we were very lucky with the weather, and that good fortune allowed us to visit and enjoy places in ways that wouldn’t have been possible had the weather been otherwise.

Will we do more Rabbies tours? Well, we’re not sure, but possibly. What is coming into our minds is the idea of basing ourselves in Edinburgh for a period, and perhaps doing a couple of Rabbies’ day tours. They seem to be location-packed. Another alternative is to do Rabbies tours that aren’t in Scotland – Rabbies have expanded into England, and there are a couple of itineraries from Manchester into Wales that look interesting. We’ll see. In any case, I don’t think we’ll be doing anything next year – we already have a full calendar for 2020, what with a trip to the USA and a couple of cruise already booked.

The Sound of Mull and the mountains of the Western Highlands

We spent pretty much the whole of the final day travelling back to Edinburgh. After the magic of the previous two days on Mull and Iona, this was a disappointing day, if truth be told. Lots of time in the mini-coach again, and this time the scenery wasn’t quite so beautiful. We also took a diversion that, on reflection, wasn’t ideal. Once we got off the ferry at Oban we were offered a choice – a direct drive back to Edinburgh with a break in Oban first, or a detour around part of the Kintyre peninsula, south to Kilmartin, then turning northwards at Lochgilphead and up through Inverary and back onto the expected route at Tarbet, on Loch Lomond. The consensus on the coach was that the Kilmartin diversion sounded good so that was the way we went.

I suppose, looking back on it, that in fact the scenery was beautiful, and once again the weather was good. But this was the fourth day of long drives in the mini-coach, and I think this was one too many remote highland scenic drives. In fact, I can’t remember much about it at all, to be truthful. Was there a strange ‘standing stone’ monument that we stopped at? Or was that another day? I can’t even remember where we stopped for lunch. Even looking at the time-stamps on my images from that day doesn’t help – I’ve got a load from the ferry to Oban at around 10:30, and another load at 3:30pm at Tarbet pier on Loch Lomond, but nothing in between.  So I have no real memories of that drive at all – it obviously made a big impression on me.

We got to Tarbet in the mid afternoon and spent about 30 minutes there, before heading back to Edinburgh. I think we avoided Glasgow – well, it was late afternoon on a Friday – and eventually joined the M9 at Stirling for the drive into Edinburgh, and we got back to Edinburgh bus station at around 7pm. Then it was back to the hotel where I recall that we ate in our room – room service – and subsequently went down to the bar for a couple of glasses of wine. And that was the end of the tour.

We travelled back to Sheffield on the train the following day, but we had time for a bit of a walk and a coffee before we checked out of the hotel. As you can see from one of the images below, Val decided to think she was on a beach – after all, there were deck chairs and the sun was shining!

In the next (and final) post from this trip I’ll give my thoughts about this tour and compare it with last year’s, to Arran.

Calgary Beach

On the third day of the tour we spent the morning journeying around the north end of Mull visiting Dervaig and Calgary, before returning to Tobermory for an afternoon of free time in the village. This was another good day with a couple of stops during the morning, and once again the weather was very kind – not especially warm, but clear skies.

As on the day before, the morning was spent driving along single-track roads around the north of Mull; and as before the scenery was spectacular. Our first stop was to see some standing stones at Kilmore, just above the small settlement of Dervaig where we spent about 15 minutes. Then it was on to Dervaig village where we looked at Kilmore Church. The main points of interest here seem to be the stained glass windows which date from 1910. One of these has apparently caused some controversy. It shows a figure presumed to be Jesus (he has a halo and a cross) hand-in-hand with an obviously pregnant woman (halo-less) who, thanks to the text below the image, is presumed to be Mary Magdalene. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of this window – either I missed the significance of it, or perhaps it I just couldn’t get a good-enough shot of it. But I have an image (below) of another of the windows.

Then it was on to the highlights of the morning, Calgary. There’s no settlement here except for one or two houses, but there is a magnificent white-sand beach, and, just inland, an arts centre: Calgary Art in Nature. There’s also a cafe associated with it, thankfully….

We spent well over an hour in the area, what with a cup of tea, doing a woodland walk, and wandering along the beach. The tea (and, IIRC, a piece of cake) was excellent, but even better were the next two activities. One of the arts centre’s main features is a woodland walk, along which are placed various carvings, sculptures, playful buildings and other landscape features. It’s all quite extraordinary and very beautiful – or at least it was that day, with the sun shining. We did part of the walk and loved it. Then it was down to the beach, which has to be one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been on. Some of the time we strolled along it and some of the time we just stood there and took in the sand, the sea, the sky and the surrounding landscape. It was very peaceful and relaxing.

And after that it was back into the mini-coach for the drive back to Tobermory for our free afternoon. I’ve written about Tobermory in a previous post.

White sand beach on Iona

On day 2 of the tour (the first of two full days on Mull) we travelled around the south of the island during the morning and at lunchtime crossed over to Iona. The weather had improved, by mid-morning the sun was shining, and it only got better from then on.

Most of the morning was spent on the mini-coach (again). We must have stopped somewhere for mid-morning coffee but I don’t recall where. Certainly the drive was spectacular and beautiful but it was also long. Looking at maps now, I see that from Tobermory in the NE of Mull to Fionnphort Terminal in the SW of the island is 56 miles, and it was mainly along single-track roads. I think it was almost two hours to Fionnphort.

Once there, things picked up. We had a short break while we waited for the small ferry over to Iona. That journey takes maybe 10 minutes or so – certainly very quick – and by not long after midday we were on Iona. The visit there turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole tour.

We decided to look for lunch at a cafe we’d been told about “beyond Iona Nunnery”, so off we went. First we found the nunnery. It’s a ruin, but well-preserved, and you can walk around its grounds. On the day we were there, with the sun shining and just a low wind, it was very peaceful, quiet and pleasant, though I’ll guess that in other conditions it would be different. Just beyond the nunnery we found the cafe, the Heritage Garden Cafe, but before lunch we went a few steps further to the Iona Heritage Centre. This is a small museum – just one room, I think – and quite traditional, with cases containing old press clippings about events on Iona from many years ago, plus artefacts and objects. I think we were the only people there. Then it was back to the cafe next door for lunch. We ate it outside in the garden, enjoying the sun.

The big attraction on Iona is the Abbey, but we’d already decided that we weren’t very interested in it (heresy, I know). We’d heard about some beaches at the northern end of Iona – white sand, we were told – so we set off along the road towards them. We were a little disconcerted when we were nearly run over – the point being that there are practically no cars or other vehicles on Iona and only half-a-mile of road! There’s no vehicle access either – the regular ferry is foot passengers only. So we had got used (along with everyone else on the island) to walking down the middle of the road, when this Range Rover hove into view and we had to move smartly to get out of its way. Then five minutes later it came back and we had to repeat the trick….

We walked all the way to the end of the road where it became first a track and then a footpath leading us across short-cropped turf. Then over a short rise and we were onto the sand. At first the actual beach was hidden by dunes and hillocks, but we walked on and eventually it was revealed. I think it’s one of the best beaches I’ve ever seen – fine, white sand, with dramatic black rock outcrops, and amazing views across to Mull. In the foreground was another small island, Eileen Annraidh (Storm Island), which also seemed to have a dramatic white beach. As far as looks go it could have been the Caribbean, I thought. We spent about an hour on the beach; Val sat and read while I wandered around and took pictures.

Eventually it was time to leave, so we walked back. By this time it was getting cooler and the wind had got up, so it was good to find an indoors cafe by the jetty with picture windows and good views back to Mull and the ferry. Also helpful was the fact that we could watch for the ferry from there! Then it was back onto Mull and the long drive to Tobermory.

That evening we had a meal down by the harbour at the Tobermory Hotel. I’m pretty certain that we had fish, and it was good, albeit there was a bit of comedy. The waiter didn’t seem to be altogether with it; for example, when I asked for the bill he queried “for this table?…” Err, yes, I thought – I’m not paying for everyone in the restaurant! Then it was time for the walk along the harbour before the struggle up the hill to the B&B. We made it eventually.

Wobbly iPhone panorama of Tobermory harbour

We spent all three nights of this year’s tour in Tobermory, staying at a B&B in the village. We also had a free afternoon there (on day 3) which we spent exploring the village, so overall we got to know the public face of Tobermory pretty well. It’s not a huge place – the population is about 1000 – but it’s the main town on Mull (the only place that could be called anything like a ‘town’, in fact) so it has more service than you would normally expect in a place of that size. There’s a bank, for instance, and there are at least two cash machines, one at the bank and the other at the supermarket. (And both of them are free!)

It’s arranged in a classic horse-shoe harbour which faces out onto the Sound of Mull. In the past there were fishing boats and it was the main port for the island, but since the advent of modern ferries, new docks have been built which reduce the sailing time. The main ferry route, from Oban on the mainland, now terminates at Craignure which is about 15 miles away from Tobermory and therefore 15 miles closer to Oban. In fact, the distance from Oban to Craignure is less than half the distance to Tobermory, so Tobermory no longer has its ferry connections. Nonetheless it’s a popular leisure sailing destination, and some smaller cruise ships anchor off-shore and tender passengers into the village.

Round the harbour are the expected collection of pubs, hotels, gift shops, and sea food restaurants. Lots of the latter, and the hotel restaurants tend to specialise in fish dishes as well. There is a lonely-looking Indian restaurant on the front, and a steak house/grill restaurant tucked away just off the main street. Of course there are a number of gift shops, but also some practical shops serving the local community – there’s a co-op, for example. Off at one end of the harbour is a small distillery.

However, the main thing to know about Tobermory is that it’s practically vertical….. The harbour road and the premises along it seem to sit on a narrow shelf just in front of the sea. Behind that the land shoots up steeply, with a succession of further roads parallel to the harbour front but successively higher up the very steep hill, and connecting them to the harbour from are one or two narrow steep roads, and a couple of very steep footpaths. It’s always a worrying sign when you see a long handrail along the side of a footpath! Of course, our B&B (which was very good, btw) was right at the top of the town. After the first night’s struggle up the path immediately after we finished our meal (frequent stops to catch breath were needed), we decided that for future occasions we needed to work up to tackling the hill, so on the following two nights we walked along the harbour and back before attempting the ascent.

To be truthful, there’s not a lot in Tobermory. It’s certainly very pretty, and (as you can see from the images above and below) we were lucky with the weather during our afternoon free time there, so we were happy to wander along the harbour and back and explore. But by the end of the afternoon we felt that we’d seen everything. In poorer weather we wouldn’t have been able to do even that much of course, and in that case the choices come down to tea shops, bars or restaurants.

So I felt that Tobermory is a great destination for an afternoon – OK, a day if you add things such as a visit to the distillery – but even then you really need good weather. And that’s the one thing that really can’t be guaranteed in west Scotland.