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When we moved to Australia in the middle of last year, we made a list of places we planned to visit and I recall that New Zealand was pencilled in for year six. A few months later and with our appetite whetted through conversations with new colleagues, New Zealand was promoted to become our first planned holiday destination in the southern hemisphere.
Needless to say the journey was a nice easy one for us and without the daunting prospect of 24 hours on a plane we decided that a two week break would be adequate. Just as well as this was all the time we could spare. As we started to firm up our itinerary we realised that there is rather a lot to New Zealand so we decided this trip would be all about the South Island. Many people approved of our decision, declaring that the South Island was the more beautiful and if you had to choose one island to visit, this would be the one. Of course if coming from the UK this is a more difficult decision to make as a second trip to see the other island is far less likely.
Driving New Zealand seems to be the way to go. The roads are in good condition and very easy, we prebooked a Sat Nav but there really is no need, usually we put in our destination and the instructions went along the lines of:
"Drive 100m, turn left, drive 135km, turn right, arriving at destination".
We didn't drive everywhere, to give us more time in each of the key places we decided to stay at, we took an internal flight at the half way point.
We were advised that February was a good time to travel to New Zealand and as it fitted with work schedules this is what we did. It was welcome relief from the Australian sun, probably about 10 or 15 degrees cooler and averaging perhaps 20C. We had some cloudy and wet days but not enough to interfere with any plans. The rain is more like UK drizzle than the heavy stuff we get in Sydney.
We flew into Queenstown from Sydney. An easy 2.5 hour hop on the plane for us, but things did not get off to a great start at the airport. I believe that capacity has increased with more discount flights arriving in Queenstown than previously and the small airport seemed to be struggling. After an hour in the immigration queue, we retrieved our bags which were by this time dumped on the floor in the middle of a hallway. Our relief at being on our way was short lived when we saw the huge queue at customs caused by the requirement for every bag to be screened on the way out.
Finally we got to our hire car and made the easy 8km drive to our hotel in the centre of Queenstown. I had allowed three nights here, having read that this was plenty. We disagree. We loved Queenstown and either I read the wrong reviews or it is seriously under rated. We could have easily stayed longer, in fact we did end up changing our plans and spending one more night here but I will come to that later.
The town was bigger than I expected with plenty of restaurants to choose from and enough shops to while away a couple of hours browsing. But the main reason people come to Queenstown is for the activities. It is an extremely popular resort for winter sports but there is plenty to do in summer too. On the afternoon we arrived we settled for a leisurely cruise around the lake, the following day we opted for the more exciting jet boat ride. Some of these depart from the lakeside area, for others you have to drive up to a departure point.
Another day we took the skyline gondola up the mountain. There are of course the views to enjoy at the top and a bungee jump is in operation up here too; we observed a couple of people have a go. More to our liking was the luge (a bit like go karting). A chair lift ride takes you up to the start point and then there are two tracks to take back down to the chairlift. The beginners track is longer and windier, the advanced track is shorter and steeper. We had three of four goes, then had some coffee and cake and wrote postcards in the pleasant cafe at the top.
After another gondola ride back down to the bottom, we had planned to go to the Kiwi birdhouse which is close by, however it was about $40 each and we thought this was a little excessive. In fact we found most activities pricey, especially with the current exchange rate and as we tend to think in £ still. We will definitely return to Queenstown and probably not in the too distant future.
Next stop was Te Anau. We picked it as it seemed to be the most appropriate base for excursions to the Milford and Doubtful sounds. It took several hours to drive there from Queenstown but was no chore and we took our time with plenty of stops on the way for photos of the stunning landscape.
Arriving in Te Anau in the afternoon we had no plans other than to wander around the town on our first day. It took all of about 30 minutes, there is not a lot to do at Te Anau. Our plans had included an excursion the next day, then a free day and then another excursion the day after that. We quickly decided to make our excursions on consecutive days and then head back to Queenstown early, we needed to come back for our flight to Christchurch anyway. We had read that it was advisable to book excursions in advance but fortunately we had no trouble changing our trips at the last minute.
The excursions we took from Te Anau were to Doubtful Sound one day and the Milford Sound the next. We drove ourselves up to the departure point at Milford Sound, but getting to the Doubtful Sound cruise departure point involved a minibus ride, a ferry ride and a coach ride, so it is better to do an all inclusive trip for this one.
We did Doubtful Sound the first day, we opted for a small boat cruise. There were about sixteen of us on board with two crew members and it was a fantastic day. Not only did we see this stunning scenery but we met some lovely people along the way. One of the strangest things about sailing along these peaceful, deep channels was that we saw no signs of life, we had thought there would be an abundance of birdlife but we saw none.
The next day we went to the Milford Sound. This time we were on a larger boat and the experience was less enjoyable, it was overcrowded and impersonal. Also to be honest, the scenery was very similar to that of the Doubtful Sound and with hindsight I would have done one or the other, not both. The Milford Sound trip is shorter, about 90 minutes and also easier to get to. The Doubtful Sound is a full and long day, with more travelling time and also a longer cruise time and I think this is the one I would recommend.
After returning to Queenstown, we spent one more night on the town and had a fabulous dinner at the Tatler's restaurant. The next day we took a short flight to Christchurch, picked up another hire car at the airport and drove straight to our next destination, Kaikoura.
We were based 16km north of Kaikoura, I had found some fabulous treehouse accommodation which deserves a review all of its own and will provide in due course. Arriving in the afternoon we decided to spend the day in our fabulous accommodation and around the swimming pool.
The two most popular activities in Kaikoura are whale watching tours and dolphin tours. These really should be booked in advance, I saw people that had turned up speculatively being turned away.
The whale watching boats were extremely modern and comfortable, they travel at high speed out to the open ocean and from site to site as they look for whales, it is necessary to sit inside for safety at this time. At the office departure point and at check in there were lots of warnings about sea sickness and although I had not been anxious beforehand I soon was. As we were about to go out onto our boat, another one returned and a couple staying with us at the tree houses told us that it was horrendous and nearly everybody had been seasick on their trip.
Fortunately, we were both absolutely fine and we only saw one person suffer. The trip is about 90 minutes and the crew are well equipped to track the whales, it still took some time for one to surface though. And in the end two did together. We watched them on the surface for a while and remained watching until they had both dived back into the deep and we had got our photos of the tail fin departing. As soon as the whales went a pod of dolphins approached our boat and swum alongside us for a while. Then it was back inside for the fast trip back to shore. There is a big TV screen and interesting and educational nature clips are shown for entertainment.
The following day we were booked on a swimming with dolphins trip. Again we were warned that there could be a risk of seasickness as we checked in and waited around. Finally our departure was called into the wet suit room to get kitted out and then we made our way to the briefing room. By this time the warnings were quite extreme, in fact we were told:
"if you normally suffer from sea sickness you are going to be sea sick and if you do not normally suffer from sea sickness you will very probably be seasick".
Five minutes later, a crew member who had just returned from an earlier trip came to tell us that the trip had been cancelled for safety reasons. I went through so much to get zipped up in that wetsuit too.
Cue the mad rush back to the counter to get rebooked or refunded. We had to opt for the refund as it was our last day in Kaikoura. We spent the rest of the morning wandering around the little town centre and then went back to the very expensive tree house to make the most of it!
As my usual tipple is a Marlborough Sauvignon, this was a must for us. We drove up from Kaikoura in the morning, another great drive along stunning coastline this time. As lunchtime approached we came upon the highly recognisable Montana Estate so stopped here for a beautiful lunch in their gardens and a quick wine tasting afterwards.
One of the main tows in this area is called Blenheim and I had imagined it would be very picturesque, in fact it was an incredibly ugly town and I was very glad that I had not chosen accommodation here. We had chosen a place called the Marlborough Vintners Hotel which was outside the town of Renwick and perfectly located for visiting the wineries. On arrival day we drove up to the Cloudy Bay beach and then we just drove around the wineries taking pictures of the wine doors, it was getting a bit too late for tastings you see.
Next day was pencilled in for a full day of tasting. We wanted to take our own car rather than go around in a big group and it worked out OK. As designated driver my husband spat most of his out and I did not consume that much either, I literally just tasted and then tipped away. We loved seeing some of our favourite brands like Cloudy Bay and Villa Maria. We stopped for lunch at the Cloudy Bay winery, it is not as well set up for lunch as some of the other places (limited menu, not much space) but it was the one for us and we enjoyed our salad and a small glass in the pretty gardens.
Christchurch was our final destination of the trip and we had booked our return flight from here. It was nice to be in a proper town after the quietness of some of our previous locations. But to be honest we did not find a whole lot to do and I came away thinking that it was unlikely I would make a repeat visit. We took the little tram ride on the first full morning, it takes 20 minutes to do one full circuit and the $17 fare seemed a bit much for what it was. It is possible we did not try hard enough to find things to do. We commented that the city looked to be in good shape after the earthquake in September (this is because the worse damage was in the outside town areas or was to the buildings' internal). Sadly forty eight hours after we left another earthquake struck leaving the city devastated.
New Zealand had never been a real must go to place for me and I am not sure I would have ever got round to it had I still been living in the UK. But we thoroughly enjoyed our time there, we will certainly be taking weekend breaks in Queenstown again and we look forward to exploring the north island another time.
If coming from the UK, then it would be well worth trying to get more than two weeks so that you can visit both islands. And although the roads are quiet, virtually empty in fact, my recommendation is not to underestimate the distances or try to pack too much in. If you are constrained by time then do your research and pick carefully. It is a beautiful country and I think few would be disappointed by what it has to offer.
This year really has been one of two halves. Looking back on things that happened earlier in the year and I actually have to stop and think was that this year or the one before. I swear I have just had to google "UK general election" for this very reason.
Jan - March ~~
At the beginning of the year and a lifetime ago I was contracting for one of the big financial services organisations in London. I was quite happy there and being paid well for a fairly unchallenging job, there were many times when I tried to convince myself that I should just settle into this routine, maybe even take a pay cut to get on the permanent payroll and have an easy 9 to 5 existence. But it isn't really me. Then a more interesting and demanding role came up in the company and the initial conversations went very well.
Hubby and I were in a real dilemma as we were granted permanent residency of Australia in December 2009 and had a decision to make. Did I accept a big job in the UK, which I would realistically need to commit at least a couple of years to, or did we take the plunge. Hubby was also very worried about his ability to find work in Australia as he is in a very niche occupation. The visa grant was both a blessing and a curse. Many times I wish we had not started the emigration process at all.
Also in this quarter, I managed to finalise the sale of my late father's house. It was good to get that off the plate. Still wrangling with the Inland Revenue; well not wrangling, I am more than happy to settle up with them whatever they want, if only they would answer their correspondence.
Apr - May ~~
I finished my contract in London at the beginning of April, the role I had been hoping to move into did not materialise and so I departed for good. My 40th birthday loomed in April and we had a trip to Australia planned, it is a requirement that you travel to Australia, even if you don't stay, to activate the visa and so we decided to combine it with birthday celebrations.
Unfortunately an Icelandic volcano scuppered those plans. I was in a taxi on the way to Heathrow when I learned that UK airspace was closed down. We spent the night in the Heathrow Sofitel and the next morning we decided that rather than hang around Heathrow wondering if the ash cloud might clear, we would rebook the trip for another time. We rebooked for the end of May but this left me with no plans for my 40th!
Two days later and I was whisked off to Cliveden House in Berkshire for my 40th. We arrived on a Sunday night and were upgraded as I believe my husband had explained the situation when he booked. That night we went on a champagne cruise along the river with another couple. Next day, my birthday, started with a superb breakfast, a 30 minute drive in a Rolls Royce and then pampering and spa before dinner.
May was a quiet month as I was off work. And with the holiday pending, I decided no point looking for work until we got back. We then went through the general election and the hung parliament and in the midst of it all, we decided we would test the Australian job market whilst we are over there. I managed to quickly line up some meetings with recruitment agents and I even got two job interviews. It was proving much harder for hubby though due to his niche occupation. In desperation I posted for help on a forum for migrants and we got a couple of leads. He followed one of them up and before long he too had an interview lined up.
We finally made it to Australia at the end of May and at the beginning of June we had our job interviews. Hubby was the first to know he had been successful. I had to go back for second interviews, which meant cancelling out trip to Perth and returning to Sydney. We were in the airport on our way back to the UK when we heard that I had the job too.
So now it really was decision time. We were still not absolutely sure if this was the right thing for us but we did our pros and cons list and it seemed to make sense. We also rationalised that we both had jobs, so if we were going to do this, when would there ever be a better time.
We spent the rest of June preparing. I had less than three weeks to pack up my life.
July - Oct ~~
I left the UK on the 6th July shortly after lunch. I had to leave hubby behind to oversee packing as I was being pressured to start work as soon as possible but we just could not get the packers in any sooner. A couple of days later on Saturday night at 8pm, hubby arrived.
I started work just a few days after landing in Australia, whilst hubby had a couple of weeks to acclimatise and to find us somewhere to live. After two weeks, he came up with a beach house in an area known as the Northern Beaches. We made the most of living in the Sydney serviced apartment for a couple more weeks, walking to and from the office was good but one of the main reasons we wanted to get out own place was because our cats were due out of quarantine. The two of us and the cats were in the house together by mid August.
In September our furniture finally arrived from the UK, I was getting very fed up of sleeping on an airbed and in fact during those last few weeks we had taken to first of all booking a hotel in Sydney for the Friday night and after that we booked the odd night during the week as well.
A bank holiday at the beginning of October was our first opportunity to have anything more than a weekend break. We both took an extra day to make it four days and drove to Mollymook on the south coast. It rained most of the time but it was nevertheless good to get away.
Work going well for both of us, I am running a team of 50 and have people based in Brisbane and Melbourne so I have managed to get away for a couple of days at a time. I managed to engineer one trip to Brisbane on a Friday so hubby came up to join me for the weekend.
Nov - Dec ~~
At the beginning of November, our beloved cat Billy disappeared. We hunted for him, called all the vets and put out flyers. I was told that maybe he had a paralysis tick, which would render him unable to make his way home. I read up on these paralysis ticks, nasty Australian things that kill hundreds of thousands of Australian animals every year.
The weekend after Billy went missing, I fell asleep on the sofa and woke up at 1am at which point I came to bed. It was a blessing that I had fallen asleep on the sofa as ten minutes after I woke up we realised that something was wrong with our other cat Edward. It was just a wobble in the back legs, but the classic sign of a paralysis tick which we had fortunately been reading up on. We immediately took him to the emergency vets where we were told we might lose him and that he was at "stage 3" ... stage 5 means dead. We could not believe that after everything we had been through to get the cats to Australia, that we might lose them both within the space of a week.
Fortunately Edward survived, although he was in the animal hospital for a week and I have never seen an animal as poorly, he could barely lift his head up even three days later. Sadly we never found Billy.
December was a busy month at work and we were both very much looking forward to having a few days off for Christmas. The weather was warming up nicely and we finally managed to progress from dipping a toe in the ocean into actually going for a swim. One day we dropped into the surf shop and kitted ourselves out with boogie boards, hubby has tried his out but I haven't braved it so far.
Christmas Day was glorious, we had breakfast and opened presents on the verandah and for lunch we decided we wouldn't roast the duck, rather we would barbecue it. It was a strange one though, Christmas in the sun is odd; the build up is odd and none of it feels quite right in 30 degrees. We think next year we might try to get back to the UK although we hope there will be a little less snow around than this year.
We are now coming up to six months here and are enjoying life. We have views of the Pacific Ocean from our living room, dining room and veranda and we can walk to the beach in less than ten minutes. We are working hard as people seem to in Sydney, but I enjoy my 40 minute bus ride to work and I still admire the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge as we approach the city.
We are hoping that 2011 might bring us some visitors and we would hope to see a bit more of Australia ourselves. Although six months in and we still can't quite decide where to start.
1) What did you do in 2010 that you have not done before?
I was going to say moved to another country, but remembered I have done that before. Soooo ... I have never cooked my Christmas dinner on a BBQ before.
2) Did anyone close to you give birth?
Not really close.
3) Did anyone close to you die?
Not this year.
4) What countries did you visit?
Just the one, Australia, made the trip over twice in fact.
5) What would you like to have in 2011 that you lacked in 2010?
A decent GBP:AUD exchange rate.
6) What dates will you remember from 2010?
16th April, this was the day we were due to fly to Australia for my 40th birthday celebration but we were stranded at Heathrow instead. 6th July was the day I left UK to start a new life in Australia.
7) Did you suffer illness or injury?
8) What was the best thing you bought?
A Magic Bullet. That is an all in one food blender, chopper, smoothie maker thing. You see them on home shopping channels.
9) Whose behaviour has merited celebration?
It hasn't been a celebration, but I have nothing but admiration for a friend of mine who has struggled with some difficult family issues over the last 12 months.
10) Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?
Well I am not depressed about it, but the behaviour of a younger member of my family has certainly appalled me.
11) Where did most of your money go?
I have spent a lot of money on flights to Australia this year and we have also had a lot of set up costs associated with the move, plus removal expenses etc.
12) What song will you remember from 2010?
If my life depended on it, I truly could not name a single one.
13) Compared to this time last year are you happier, fitter, more productive?
14) What do you wish you had done more of?
I should have written more dooyoo reviews about the places I have been to this year.
15) What do you wish you had done less of?
I have had too many take away meals since I moved to Australia, it started when we were in the serviced apartment those first few weeks and we got into a bad habit; it stops now.
16) What was your favourite TV programme?
My favourite TV program is House. I like Forensic Files too (something I get over here).
17) Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate last year?
18) What's been the best book of 2010?
I don't know that they are books of 2010 but I did read all the Twilight books this year and enjoyed those.
19) What did you want and get in 2010?
We both got new jobs in Australia.
20) Who was the best person you met?
I can't single anyone out, but I have been made very welcome at work and have a lovely team around me.
21) Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2010?
10 inch Australian huntsman spiders like to live in shoes.
The big holiday this year was to celebrate my 40th birthday and as we faced the long journey Down Under an early decision was made that we would travel in business class. I normally spend a long time researching the flight options and this was no exception.
I decided on Cathay Pacific for three main reasons. The first was that it seemed to be one of only a few airlines that guaranteed the complete 180 degrees flat bed on all legs of the journey; I have found a lot of business class products offer a "lie flat bed" which although offers lots of space it is at a really annoying 160 degree angle. I find it difficult to sleep on these seats and wanted something a little better for 22 hours of flying. The second reason was price, Cathay were competitively priced compared with other airlines offering the completely flat bed, e.g. British Airways. And finally I chose Cathay because they are part of the One World alliance and I wanted to collect the airmiles.
We were due to fly out on 16th April which was the day after the dust cloud problems started and so it is probably worth some comments on how we found Cathay during this crisis. Well firstly, they did not keep their website up to date. We were rather baffled that right up until two hours before we were due to depart our flight was shown as being on schedule despite the fact that UK airspace was closed. The previous day this had offered us some hope so it was a bit disappointing to find that they just were not keeping it up to date.
In the morning we were due to fly we called Cathay to discuss the options as we saw them of either rebooking or getting a refund. The customer services representative was very quick to tell us that there would be no compensation even though we had not asked for any. I was disappointed not to get a clear answer on the refund and I had to spout EU regulations (which I had been reading up on) at this point. I was then told I had to take it up with Trailfinders, who I booked with.
Eventually it was sorted and we finally made it out to Australia in May. Cathay operate from Terminal 3 in Heathrow, we were a bit early and there were no queues for either business or economy class so check in was completely stress free and we were soon on our way to the lounge for a late breakfast. Cathay has its own lounge at Heathrow and I would rate it as so-so. Not terribly big but wasn't very crowded either (and wasn't on my next trip either) and the food offerings in the morning comprised cereal and pastries. On the return leg we flew from Perth and had access to the Qantas lounge which was much better. I had high hopes for the lounge in Hong Kong, but the one near the gate of my next flight was pretty bad, perhaps the other one is the flagship lounge.
On this occasion, the flight boarded and left on time. However a month later when I made my permanent move to Australia, we sat on the tarmac for over two hours. At least I was quite comfortable in business class but I was very worried as I had a 90 minute connection and I certainly would not have appreciated this delay had I been sitting further back. I guess these things can happen though. The crew did not show any concern about my connecting flight, I suppose they are quite used to dealing with these things, however I was travelling alone (hubby came out a few days later) and I thought they could have at least pretended to be concerned about my situation, even if they were not. In the event I made it with about three minutes to spare.
The row configuration in the business section is 1-2-1, the seats are angled to the sides of the plane and are separated by fairly high solid dividing screens creating a little pod. Excellent privacy if you are travelling by yourself, but otherwise it means you do not even see your companion for the whole flight, unless you stand up and peer over the top of the dividing screen that is.
Even in the take-off and landing position the seats are very comfortable as they are slightly reclined and there is a footstool at the end of the "pod" which forms part of the bed when fully reclined. I spent quite a lot of time in the fully reclined position on my flights to Australia, the bed converts to fully flat at the push of a button and is wide enough and long enough for most people. There is also a bit of space at the top of the bed to place your book, water, glasses or whatever else you would like to keep handy.
The entertainment system is excellent, a large (15 inch I think) TV screen and there is a wide range of on-demand films and TV programs to choose from, I managed to catch several recently released films during my flights. The on demand entertainment system is also available in economy class, albeit with a smaller TV screen.
Full marks also for the dining experience. It is nice to get served a meal in courses and it is all done properly with a white linen tablecloth, individual salt and pepper pots and real cutlery. I made sure I skipped a couple of meals as on a straight through trip to Australia, you can get rather too many meals offered within a 28 hour period. The food is restaurant standard as is the wine, I would have preferred it if they had kept the wine flowing a bit more, a couple of glasses after the meal when I settled down to watch a film might have been nice, but in the end the repeated requests for top ups got a little embarrassing so I had to give it up. I suppose that is no bad thing as we all know alcohol and flights do not mix well.
Overall I would rate the experience very highly. It was perfect for my (belated) 40th birthday celebrations and just the right way to start my new life downunder on a one way ticket. I won't comment on the price of the flight as prices fluctuate considerably over the course of the year. But suffice to say, I thought we got value for money although certainly business class is never going to be a budget option.
Our flights to Australia were due to depart from Heathrow at around midday and so I decided to book a hotel for the night before in order to avoid travelling around the M25 during the morning rush hour. The Sofitel is the newest hotel at Heathrow but initially I hesitated to book as it is located at Terminal 5 whereas I was flying from Terminal 3. I have always liked the Gatwick Sofitel though and eventually decided that taking the Heathrow Express from T5 to T3 was just as easy and cheaper (i.e. free) than taking one of those airport hotel buses.
I booked on line through the hotel's own website. And as this was a trip to celebrate not only my 40th Birthday but also being granted Australian permanent residency, I pushed the boat out and opted for a more expensive club room. On the day, my husband was working so I travelled down in a taxi with both sets of luggage. It was during this taxi ride that I realised I might not be going anywhere as the "disruption" due to volcanic ash I had heard about that morning escalated into total UK air space closure. I crossed my fingers and hoped that by the time I was due to fly the problem would quite literally have blown over.
To the best of my knowledge, the Gatwick Sofitel can only be accessed by via the airport terminal and so I had prepared myself for trudging through Heathrow with both sets of luggage upon arrival. I was thus pleasantly surprised to find that the Heathrow Sofitel has its own entrance, separate to the airport terminal and my taxi driver was able to stop immediately outside and he was even able to leave the car and help me carry bags to reception.
There were about four members of staff manning the reception desks and I was attended to more or less straight away. I was pleased to be informed that as the hotel was full that night they were upgrading me to a junior suite. My room was on the ground floor, but there were some steps to negotiate so the receptionist arranged for the bags to be brought to the room and these arrived within about five minutes.
I was initially a little bit concerned to be in a room on the ground floor as I thought it could be noisy. However the route took me well away from the reception area, beyond the restaurant and lounge area and through key pass controlled double doors which kept out all but the handful of guests allocated rooms in this area.
The room was enormous; one half was taken up by a huge king size bed and the other half contained two sofas facing each other with a glass coffee table in between. The TV was wall mounted with a 40 inch screen. A good range of complimentary teas and coffees was provided but the minibar was locked. I was not particularly concerned as these things are so overpriced anyway. The decor was contemporary and everything felt spanking brand new. The bathroom was also very modern and stylish with separate shower cubicle and bath and premium range of toiletries.
There were two things I did not like about the room, firstly that it overlooked a car park and although it was not a very busy car park, I was on the ground floor and felt that I needed to keep the curtains closed to protect my privacy. I also did not like the huge mirrors which were on every wall of the room, I could not move or even sit still anywhere without staring at myself and I found that annoying after a while, although I am sure some people won't mind.
After a quick look around the room, I decided to find somewhere for lunch. As I had paid a premium for Club Millesime access I decided to see what was on offer over lunchtime. Well not much. Despite it being 1pm, the only food was packets of biscuits that hotels normally leave in rooms and the fridge containing drinks in was locked. There were no staff in the lounge or anywhere to be seen and so I departed empty handed. I then checked out the two eateries I had passed on the way to my room, but one was too formal and a bit too expensive for lunchtime and the other only offered pastries and cakes which wasn't what I was looking for. In the end, I went back to my room and ordered room service. My club sandwich and glass of wine arrived in about 20 minutes.
A couple of hours later I was glad to take a break from the rolling news coverage of volcanic ash and went to the spa for my pre-arranged appointments. I think I was hoping that the problem would have all blown over whilst I was in the spa, but as we all know that was not the case. Nevertheless I enjoyed a pedicure and another spa treatment for a reasonable cost. I believe that the hotel has a swimming pool and sauna, however I did not use them as I was still optimistic and did not want to put wet swimming costume into my suitcase ahead of a 24 hour flight.
My husband turned up at the hotel in the early evening and as we found the room comfortable and spacious we opted for a room service dinner. Again this arrived within about 20 minutes although there was a bit of a mix up with the wine as they decided to send an alternative to the one we chose but overall the standard of room service was good.
The next morning after a peaceful and comfortable night's sleep, we awoke to the certainty that our holiday was not going to happen, something we were mentally prepared for by this time. For breakfast we went to the Club Lounge for a rather insubstantial offering of mini Danish pastries and coffee, I was a bit annoyed with myself when I later realised that breakfast in the restaurant was included in our room rate. Check out was at midday.
The Sofitel is a beautiful hotel that would fare well in any city centre and is in my opinion a real cut above other airport hotels. Despite the disappointment over our cancelled holiday we enjoyed our stay and it would have got the holiday off to a good start. But the Club room was not worth the premium and whilst I don't think the hotel is overpriced for what it offers, we paid £230 for one night (a standard room is about £180) which is probably a fair bit more than people want to pay for a night at the airport.
Last month my husband celebrated his birthday and to his great delight (or perhaps mine), I procured tickets to the X-factor live show in the O2 arena in London. I have not been there before but as I did not want to either drive home or even worse utilise public transport afterwards, a hotel within walking distance was required. My research revealed just the one, The Holiday Inn Express.
I booked the hotel months in advance and the rate obtained was £150, or so I thought. As the day approached, I read the booking documents again and despite this being a confirmed booking that needed to be cancelled with notice, I realised that the rate was subject to change on the day! Perhaps this is normal for Holiday Inn Express establishments but I have never stayed in one before and I found this a highly unusual arrangement. Indeed I was quite alarmed as I thought that plenty of people attending the concert would have the same idea as me and hence push the price up. I realised I did not have much of a choice by this time though so we went along as planned.
We drove down from Hertfordshire on Saturday afternoon, it was a rather unpleasant drive once we arrived in London but the hotel was not difficult to find and had plenty of parking spaces available. Hotel guests pay £5 a day for parking.
Stepping inside and first impressions were favourable. The lobby area was bright, new-looking and the décor modern in shades of coffee, truffle and cream. There was a large seating and bar area which looked very comfortable, although I did not see anybody making use of it during our stay and neither did we.
There was nobody else waiting to check in when we arrived and after completing the formalities at reception desk we headed up to our allocated room. The public areas we passed through seemed to be well maintained and in good condition and I was so far impressed. As we walked down our corridor on the seventh floor, the spacing between doors indicated to me that the room was not going to be of palatial proportions and indeed it was not.
I must admit it was the smell and not the size of the room that first struck me upon opening the door though. Not a musty smell, more like poor drains. Not overpowering and we decided that opening the windows for a little while would deal with the issue. We had a good look around wondering if the smell was indicative of more serious maintenance and cleaning issues, but we found no evidence and so decided it was not worth making any kind of fuss about.
The room was pretty small and the furnishings extremely basic. The bed was low, too soft and not very large. The desk was made out of cheap wood and the TV an old fashioned 14 inch portable. The seating was a sofa bed, so for the budget conscious I assume it is ok for more than two people to occupy the room. The walls were quite thin and before we went out we did hear noise which was a little intrusive but thankfully when we retired for the evening my neighbours were quiet.
We managed to kill an hour or so, before walking down to the O2 arena, which was perhaps 20 minutes walking, although I didn't make a point of timing this accurately. After the show we wandered back and went straight up to the room.
I had quite an uncomfortable night, the bed was soft and I kept rolling into the middle as well. The duvet was flimsy and the pillows overstuffed with no discernable difference between the labelled hard and soft pillows. I was quite cold most of the night as the heating / air conditioning unit did not work too well on heat.
In the morning, I decided against breakfast and just had some coffee from the in-room supplies (don't think there were any biscuits), my husband decided to go down for something to eat. He came back unimpressed; the hot breakfast buffet only offered scrambled eggs and sausages, the cold buffet some cereal and yoghurts. At least it was included in the room rate.
This was not a hotel I wanted to spend any more time in than absolutely necessary, so there was no leisurely lie in for us. We were on our way by 8am. The hotel was clean, functional and certainly very handy for the O2 arena. The staff were pleasant, polite and friendly. But at £180, which was the amount I ended up being billed, it was ridiculously over-priced.
On the whole 2009 had less ups and downs and was a quieter year than 2008, but nevertheless here goes with my second foray into a year in view writing.
January - March~~
The year started on a positive note. I spent New Year's Eve at a murder mystery party that some friends hosted at their home. We had returned to the UK earlier in the year after a couple of years overseas and it was lovely to be back with real friends. Just after midnight I got a text message from my eldest sister announcing her engagement at the grand old age of 42.
Later in the month, I walked out of a job. It was a contracting role I had started just a month earlier but it was not as described, they did not even provide me with a desk in the London office. And we accountants like our desks. Instead they expected me to be on the road more or less every day. The last straw came when they reduced my daily rate claiming it had been a "mistake". I didn't go back. I was not sorry, I found the people full of their own self importance even though their business venture was doomed to failure in my opinion. And indeed it has since failed. As they had not even bothered to write a notice period clause into my contract I didn't offer to work one. Although I still felt very rebellious in not doing so for some reason.
A couple of weeks later, my husband and I set off for our big annual holiday to Tanzania and Zanzibar. I have always wanted to go on safari and the first day's game viewing is probably one of the most memorable and enjoyable days of my life.
In March my husband and I began to think about emigrating. It was my idea and I blame too much daytime TV and in particular the "Wanted Down under" show. My husband has always wanted to go to Australia so was very enthusiastic. We started gathering paperwork for our application.
Other paperwork I was tasked with was dealing with my father's estate after he passed away in November 2008.
April - June~~
It was around this time of year that my eldest sister decided to ex-communicate both myself and my other sister. Seems she was annoyed about being asked to share out some photographs she swiped from the family home a few days before my father died. I thought six months was more than enough time in which to share the pictures out and especially considering she was not lifting a finger to help with any other matters that needed to be dealt with. She just expected me and my other sister to do everything and indeed still does.
In April it was my birthday and my husband organised me a "surprise" trip to Venice. Although really I was not at all surprised, he is not very good with secrets. We pushed the boat out by staying in a gorgeous hotel and we both loved this city. It is undoubtedly my favourite European city now.
On the 1st May, the last of my paperwork came through and my husband and I lodged our Australian immigration application. We applied on-line and spent a few days working on the application to make sure we got everything right. Our expectation was that the process would take quite a while, up to two or three years in fact.
In May we decided to convert a 5m x 5m garage into a home cinema and home office. The work was finished in two weeks flat and the weekend afterwards was spent painting it from top to bottom. It was hard work but we were glad to get it out of the way and very pleased with the results. The next week we took delivery of all the equipment and the cinema chairs and had a grand opening night with my sister and brother-in-law. We decided it would be appropriate to screen Australia and tell them our visa application news.
July - September~~
Around summertime, I felt ready to go back to work but the job markets were tough and it was not an easy search. I probably became a little bit depressed around this time and was certainly a bit reclusive for a few months. The exception was August when I decided to host a dinner party for a few dooyoo-ers.
In September I decided to enrol on an Open University course and signed up to study Astronomy, for no other reason than I have always been interested in the subject. My husband bought me a telescope too, it was an early Christmas present, although we probably got one a little bit too advanced for our needs as we still can't work it that well.
Around this time, I was hearing that Australian visa applications were taking longer and longer but strangely I could speed mine up by taking an English language test. I travelled to Brighton to take the exam, uploaded the results to my on-line application and the very next day I was contacted by the department of immigration and told to go for medicals and police checks. This is the final stage in the immigration process.
Oh yes and I also got a new contracting job and went back to work in London.
October - December~~
The last few months have flown by, probably due to being back at work and I can barely remember what it was like to be off. It is good to be replenishing savings again. I love the job too, nice colleagues, nice environment and not particularly taxing hours to boot.
We also pulled together our police checks and went for medicals for the immigration application. I was quite worried about the medicals, although I don't know of any illness, I was sure something would pop up. The suspense was killing us for a few weeks, we wanted to book a holiday to Australia and had flights held but needed the visa in our hand before we could confirm.
Finally on the morning of 4th December, I woke up to an email telling me the visa was granted. We are Australian Permanent Residents. 2010 could e a big year for us.
*** What did you do in 2009 that you have not done before? ***
This is a terrible start but I don't think I did anything this year that I have no done before.
*** Did anyone close to you give birth? ***
*** Did anyone close to you die? ***
*** What countries did you visit? ***
Tanzania and Italy.
*** What would you like to have in 2010 that you lacked in 2009? ***
A bit more energy.
*** What dates will you remember from 2009? ***
4th December, the day my Australian immigration application was approved.
*** Did you suffer illness or injury? ***
*** What was the best thing you bought? ***
My home cinema seating. We converted an unused garage, hubby bought all the technology but I was in charge of chairs and they are fabulous.
*** Whose behaviour has merited celebration? ***
My husband. I have spent most of the year off work, largely through choice as I have had a very trying three years; losing both parents and putting up with a lot of work related problems. I am an equal contributor to the household purse normally, but he did not say a word about me going back to work before I was ready. Not once.
Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed? ***
Probably my eldest sister who decided to ex communicate both me and my other sister because I asked her to share some family photographs out. She swiped these from the house a few days before my father died in 2008 and has since sat around on her backside waiting for a cheque whilst my other sister and I have had to deal with everything concerning the estate; getting probate, selling house, clearing house, dealing with bills, the tax man, everything.
*** Where did most of your money go? ***
The biggest single chunk of money went on my garage conversion.
*** What did you get really excited about? ***
*** What song(s) will you remember from 2009? ***
Nothing in particular.
*** Compared to this time last year are you . . . happier, fitter, or more productive? ***
I am happier and more productive, but definitely not fitter. This is something I need to address in 2010.
*** What do you wish you had done more of? ***
I wish I had spent more time focussing on my health and fitness.
*** What do you wish you had done less of? ***
*** What was your favourite TV programme? ***
House is my favourite TV programme.
*** Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate last year? ***
*** What did you want and didn't get? ***
My husband was offered a job in California earlier in the year. We would have liked to go but I could not work on his visa so we had to knock the idea on the head. Now we have a visa to Australia instead.
*** What is your favourite film of the year? ***
Harry Potter. What else?
*** What did you do on your birthday and how old were you? ***
I was 39 and my husband took me to Venice for the weekend.
*** What political issue stirred you the most? ***
Too many to mention. The MP expenses scandal is quite memorable I suppose.
*** Who was the best person you met? ***
Not a single person, but I have met a lovely group of people at my new work place.
I recently started a new job and on my second day I was to be whisked off to meetings in exciting overseas destinations. Well Guernsey anyway. An overnight stay was involved but I did not get a say in the hotel as it was booked before I joined the company. I was told that the hotel they usually use, the really nice one that my colleague was booked into, had no room for me and even the second hotel they sometimes use had no rooms at the inn either. So Best Western it was for Cat.
I must admit I was not particularly excited at the prospect of a three star Best Western hotel, but as my taxi pulled up outside I thought it was quite a pleasant looking hotel and so I dared to hope it would not be as ghastly as I had been expecting. I also noted that it was very central to the main part of town and it was very handy for both the office I was visiting and the local eateries and watering holes for that evening.
I stepped inside to a small lobby area, there were two members of staff seated behind a tiny reception desk and I was quickly checked in. I had been allocated a room on the first floor and was pointed vaguely in the direction of the lift, which I decided to take as I had my case with me.
Exiting the lift, I was surprised to find the dining room, a function room and meeting rooms in front of me but no sign of any bedrooms. There was a sign on the wall which said "Bedrooms 101-107" but it was pointing to a dead end but for a broom cupboard. Thankfully there were three members of staff setting up the function room so I decided to ask them where I would find my bedroom. They didn't know. Further they were as puzzled as I was about the signage towards the dead end. Growing slightly impatient by this time, I cheerfully said not to worry I would go back to reception. Back downstairs I explained my predicament to the extremely po-faced receptionist, who clearly thought I was some kind of imbecile for not being able to find my room. I had to practically beg her to help me and eventually it was her colleague who summoned somebody to escort me to my room.
So I stepped back into the lift with my guide, exited at first floor, ignored the sign pointing to the bedrooms and walked in completely opposite direction, down some stairs, back up some other stairs, through the dining room, exit the building through the French doors, walked across an outside courtyard / bar area, under archway, down small alleyway and my room was the first on the right. Simples.
By this time I was very pleased to be getting to my room, although my hopes it might turn out to be quite a nice establishment were sinking fast as I unlocked a rather grotty bedroom door. With bated breathe I swung it open. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a huge bedroom with a king size bed in the middle and acres of space all around. I also had in the room a large dressing table equipped with a decent hairdryer and tea and coffee making facilities, a couple of chairs and a TV in the corner. The TV was probably the only modern touch in the room, however it was quite hard to watch whilst on the bed as it was at a funny angle and a bit too far away for its size in this large bedroom. The bathroom was of average size with shower over bath, functional but showing its age with a peach plastic suite, ceramic wall tiles and lino floor.
Overall I found the décor rather 1980's in style and tired but not quite at the tatty stage. It was clean and tidy though and on balance was perfectly acceptable for an overnight business stay, although definitely not somewhere I would have wanted to spend my wedding night.
After a night out with my new colleagues I returned to my room at a respectable hour and retired for the evening. I was glad it was raining as just outside my window there was a patio area which seemed like it might be a nice place for guests to have a few drinks and nibbles but not something I would want outside my bedroom window at night. I also observed that as there was no air conditioning in the summer one would have to toss up between boiling or sleeping with the windows open (and although I had gone up a flight of stairs the hotel is on a hill and this was effectively a ground floor bedroom). Fortunately it was not hot, there was nobody outside, the bed was comfortable and so I had an undisturbed sleep.
The next morning I just had time for breakfast before checking out. It was a very average affair comprising a selection of cereals, pastries and fruits with a made to order cooked breakfast.
The total bill including breakfast was prepaid by the company for me, however I am aware that the rate was £105 for the night which seemed quite reasonable.
A few years ago, I worked for a Swiss bank and it was necessary for me to make frequent business trips to Zurich and New York. Whenever I as in New York, I tried to get a room in the New York Palace Hotel and fortunately most of the time I was successful. So this is a hotel I have stayed at on many occasions. By and large, my experiences were similar each time; I always stayed in the same standard of room and I always received the same standard of service from the staff.
The New York Palace, or the Palace as I call it, it takes up the entire block between Madison and Park Avenues and 50th and 51st street, i.e. midtown Manhattan. I think this is a perfect location for any visitor as many of the highlights of New York are within easy walking distance. The Rockefeller Plaza is moments away and it is an easy walk to Broadway and Times Square too. When I managed to escape the office, I would sometimes take a stroll north up Madison or 5th Avenue, browsing the shops and it is then not much further to the Frick Collection (5th and 70th) or the Metropolitan Museum of Art (5th and 83rd). Alternatively one can easily head south to the Empire State Building (5th and 34th). I really only ever found I needed a taxi or public transport if I was going right down town.
I nearly always travelled to New York on a late afternoon or evening flight from London which meant arriving at the hotel at around 8pm local time give or take an hour or two. The main hotel entrance and lobby is breath taking, palatial and exquisitely decorated; the entrance is especially beautiful during the December holiday season.
Reception is invariably busy at this hotel but there are plenty of manned desks so never much of a wait, a relief to somebody still on European time. Staff are friendly, charming and would usually refer to my previous visits. Before my very first visit, somebody recommended I ask for a room with a view of St Patrick's Cathedral next door, the staff are more than happy to oblige and I managed to get a room with a view on more or less every visit and it is indeed a beautiful building and a fantastic view which I never tired of.
I always stayed in the lowest category of room, which is known as the deluxe room and deluxe it is. At 360 square feet these rooms are huge by New York standards and certainly much larger than I have found in other hotels during one of my many personal visits to New York. I often had a room with two large double beds although sometimes I would get a king. I had no particular preference as I was by myself anyway.
The décor is traditional; glossy mahogany furniture, heavy curtains and heavy expensive looking cushions scattered around, typically in shades of gold, red or green. The only modern touches in these rooms are the large flat screen TVs. The bathrooms do not let the side down either; above average in size, traditional, marble and with plenty of big white fluffy towels and robes and slippers provided.
As one would expect of a hotel of this calibre, the room has a full service during the day and a turndown and mini service with perfunctory chocolates on pillow in the evenings. I have always found the rooms to be spotlessly clean, I remember there was one occasion when I returned from the office to find my room not serviced, but this was my fault as I had accidentally left the privacy button on. One call to reception and somebody was there within minutes to rectify my mistake. This is so typical of the service in this hotel.
As I was in New York by myself whenever I stayed at the Palace, I would sometimes opt for a room service dinner. The in-room service is available 24 hours a day and there is a wide selection of meals available. I tended to go for salads or sandwiches and even these were served with a flourish; big trays, white linen, iced water, bread rolls and heavy silver cutlery. The price would soon add up though as even these basic meals I went for would be a good $30 and that is before service and delivery. Although I was on expenses, I always drew the line at having breakfast in the hotel, I once contemplated ordering a bowl of cornflakes and glass of orange juice but $35 was just silly money and I object to that on principle. With so many delis in New York it was easier and cheaper to grab something to eat on the walk to the office.
Other dining options include a formal restaurant called Gilt, which holds two Michelin stars and looks fantabulous, but sadly I have not tried it myself. I have visited Istana the lobby brasserie, although my most recent experience of this was last year when I was not actually staying at the hotel but wanted to show my husband my favourite NY hotel. Service really let the side down this time and we gave up and walked out in the end without ever getting to place an order, despite our repeated attempts. This is my only experience of bad service in the many times I have visited, but what a let down.
Overall, I look back to the era when I was a regular visitor to the New York Palace with great fondness. I have made several personal visits to New York since then and would have loved to have stayed here with my husband, but sadly the $700 - $800 price tag for a standard room is a little prohibitive. If you have the budget or are on company expenses, then I highly recommend it.
I am a relatively recent convert to dishwashers and had never had one until I moved overseas three years ago and found that one came with my rented house. Very quickly I realised that I would be unable to live without it and so a dishwasher was an essential purchase when I moved back to the UK and bought my own house last year.
The kitchen in the new house only had space for a slim line dishwasher and although we put in a new kitchen anyway a few months later, I decided that a slim line would be more than adequate for a family of two. My other main shopping criteria concerned the look; I wanted something in stainless steel as I dislike white kitchen appliances. This limited my options to a very small handful of dishwashers and in the end I decided on the SMEG as not only is it AAA rated (relating to Energy rating, Wash performance, Drying performance for those not in the know) but it also had a flat fronted and very sleek appearance. It matched the fridge and washing machine I had picked out too.
I ordered my appliance from Boots Kitchen Appliances, it was delivered a week later at a time that suited me and it was installed and ready to go in no time at all.
The dishwasher boasts of a ten place setting capacity but I struggle with this a little. The term "ten place setting" makes me think of the crockery and cutlery that would be used during a two or even three course meal for ten, something I have never hosted, but I cannot imagine being able to fit that number of pots into my dishwasher. Thus I find this a little misleading, although certainly there is room enough for ten plates, ten glasses, ten knives and ten forks if that is what they mean. Any cooking utensils, pots and pans or any dessert crockery would certainly have to go in the next load. In practice, we are a family of two and we generally need to put it on every couple of days.
The bottom shelf of the dishwasher contains two rows of plate racks, the front row also contains the cutlery basket. I have some very shallow pasta dishes but these will not fit comfortably into the plate racks because of the angle, it really only works for regular plates. The racks fold down so that the space could be used for pans or large serving dishes instead. The top shelf is ideal for glasses, cups and anything other than a plate really.
There are five program settings; I tend to use the "Auto" program although if I am washing pans I might turn this up to the "Ultra clean" program. I have also tried the "Eco" program which washes in a colder temperature and I have used the "Quick wash" which is for very light cleaning. There is no particular reason that I mainly use the Auto program, other than when you switch the machine on, it will default to the program it used most recently and this was the first one I selected. The other main program is "Soak", I have never used this.
The results tend to be much the same no matter which program I use, although I would not attempt to use the Quick wash on pans or such. The only thing I can think of that it struggles with is a non stick pan I make scrambled eggs in and occasionally I need to run dishes I have cooked with through twice, even if I have used the "Ultra Clean" program.
As well as these five main programs there are some additional options, for instance you can put the dishwasher on a timer delay. I have never done this and cannot envisage circumstances in which I would need to delay my dishwasher program starting. It is either ready to go on or it isn't as far as I am concerned. There is also a special button which you can use if your dishwasher tablet already contains rinsing agent and salt. Again I have never used this function; in fact as I live in an area of extremely hard water, I feel better knowing that I have salt in the dishwasher. The salt chamber is right at the bottom of the washer, it is easy to access for filling up, the advice is to do this every 20 washing cycles, however we have not been so vigilant and to no ill effects so far, touching wood..
I have been quite surprised at the length of the wash programs, with the exception of the quick wash, they all last about 1hr 45 minutes to 1 hr 55 minutes. This is about the same as my previous dishwasher but that was an oversize American one and I had expected this one to be much quicker. The quick wash is about 50 minutes. The length of wash left is digitally displayed on the front of the machine.
I have found the day to day maintenance to be quite low and very manageable. After we had the machine for some months I started to notice the pots were not coming out quite as clean as I would like, but a top up with salt and a quick clean around the bottom and the spray arms rectified the situation immediately. We now keep on top of this and generally find that it requires little effort to keep it in good working order. I also use the Finish Intensive dishwasher cleaner regularly (e.g. once every month) and I have found this to be extremely effective.
I don't think I would recommend a slim line dishwasher for any household with more than four people in and even four could be a push. SMEG appliances do not come cheap, I paid £450 for mine a year ago and this has come down a little bit, although the latest models can be over £600. It is my view that you are paying for a premium brand and a very stylish appliance which looks good in the kitchen, but I don't feel it does anything extra special. It does everything I would expect a dishwasher to do and nothing more and nothing less.
I had probably heard more bad things about Los Angeles than good so it was with some trepidation that we decided to spend the final three nights of our honeymoon in the city of angels. Furthermore, after having spent the rest of the trip being pampered and pandered to in some of the best five star hotels in the places we visited, this time we decided to try something a bit different.
The Grafton on Sunset is certainly not down-market; in fact it is a boutique four-star hotel. However the other hotels we stayed in on honeymoon were elegant, sophisticated and definitely very grown up, whereas this one came across as being younger, funkier and situated in a location known for its nightlife, Sunset Boulevard. In the end we decided this could be just the ending to the trip that we wanted.
I first identified the hotel through searches on expedia and octopus, however I then went to the hotel's own website and booked directly. It was slightly cheaper booking directly and the other advantage was that I could be very specific about the room I wanted. This was of importance to me as I had read some reviews of the hotel and a number of people had mentioned it being quite noisy in the street facing rooms or rooms overlooking the pool. By booking directly, I was able to select a non-street facing, non-pool overlooking corner room, the other advantage of the corner being that these rooms are a tad bigger.
The hotel is located in West Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. I found the location reasonably convenient. During the daytime we generally had to take a taxi to wherever we were planning to visit that day, this is not the kind of hotel that taxis queue outside but it was usually reasonably easy to find one nearby. In the evening, we thought the location was ideal and we loved strolling down the lively boulevard and having a whole host of bars and restaurants to choose from.
Check in was quick and easy, there was nobody else waiting or at the reception desk when we arrived and we were soon on our way to the exact room I had booked some months earlier. The most popular rooms in the hotel are the ones overlooking the pool and these have a door leading directly out to it, but this was not for me as I prefer peace and quiet once that door is closed.
Our first impressions were very good. The décor was modern and very hip. Not what I would want in my own home but we were impressed and it was in complete contrast to the traditional and fairly grand décor we had seen in all the other hotels we stayed in on honeymoon.
The chic styling continued through to the bedrooms. Nevertheless I thought that the walls, which were a kind of mucky lime green colour, made the room quite dark and I would have liked something a bit brighter and lighter. Other than this is was very attractively furnished but then I have always liked funky animal skin prints. The room was smaller than we had become accustomed to elsewhere on this trip, but it was far from being too small and we were certainly not falling over each other. The king size bed had a feather top mattress and was so comfortable that I subsequently made sure I had one of these when I bought my next bed at home.
The rooms are well equipped with technology, as well as a flat screen TV we had a DVD and CD player and even an I-Pod docking station. To be honest I could have done without the latter, as I was then worried that the people on either side of me would take advantage and play their music very loud; the hotel certainly struck me as one that would appeal to party animals, whereas I like to go to bed at a sensible hour.
The hotel has a restaurant and cocktail bar, we didn't eat here but we did tend to start our evening with a quick drink in the cocktail lounge before we hit the Sunset Strip. We noted that it attracted non-residents as well as residents and we found the service friendly and the prices reasonable. In-room service is available from 7am until about midnight, we used it for breakfast and we found this to be reasonably priced and the food was high quality. It was a great tart to every day.
The only issue we encountered during this stay was when it came to check out and we had an international flight to catch. We had been told there was no point booking a taxi and they would flag one for us when we needed it, but in the end it was bedlam in reception with lots of people wanting taxis at around the same time. Being somebody who likes to get to the airport early, this did nothing positive for my stress levels.
We paid $209 excluding taxes per night, this was a few years ago, but I have just checked and prices are pretty much unchanged, perhaps a little lower. The Grafton seemed more of a three star hotel than a four star to me, nevertheless it is a stunning, ultra chic property in a good location and I think this represents excellent value for money. I would like to stay here again were I to return to LA (which incidentally I loved, despite those original concerns). The one thing that might make me hesitate is that it seems to be marketed towards a younger, hipper clientele and I would be wary of checking in at the same time as a party crowd.
As far as I am concerned the trouble with most, if not all, water fountains is that they are mains powered. My cats' dining quarters were not situated in a convenient spot for plugging something in and so I have long put off making the switch to a fountain, although always keeping an eye out for that elusive battery powered model. But with the new addition to my feline family in October last year, I realised I could not hold off any longer.
I rarely saw my older cat, Billy, drinking from his bowl. We always kept his water fresh, but seemed he was either drinking on the quiet or finding his water somewhere else, puddles perhaps. Edward the Persian was another matter though. I have never seen a cat consume so much water, I was actually concerned enough to mention his drinking habits to a vet at one point but thankfully all is well with him. Yes, Edward drinks copious amounts of water, he does not go outside and I just felt terribly sorry for him drinking from a bowl particularly as he was prone to dropping biscuits in the water and his long fur would get wet through as it trailed into the bowl as he quenched his thirst.
Thus I resigned myself to getting a mains powered fountain and putting up with unsightly wires; my cats' needs ultimately being more important than my own desire for an aesthetically pleasing gadget. I decided to buy this particular fountain as it seemed completely up to the job and was half the price of most of the others in the pet shop.
The fountain comes in a few pieces and there are instructions for putting it together although it would be intuitive for most people; mine was ready to use within a few minutes of taking it out of the box. The filter holder and filter are placed inside the main compartment of the fountain (the white part in the picture), the blue ring is put in place on top of the unit and then it can be plugged in and filled up with water.
Although this is described as a small fountain, it holds two litres of water, which I thought was rather a lot. On the blue ring around the top there is a small hole, as you fill the fountain up it is important to watch for a small red dot to appear and when it does it means the fountain is full. The water bubbles up through the middle of the blue ring and then flows back around the edges of the circular unit.
It took me a little while to adjust to the sound of bubbling water, I kept thinking I had left a tap running or had a leak. I did not initially notice any whirring noises from the pump itself, however a few months on and this has become more noticeable, but not much different to the noise of a fridge and it does not bother me.
The filters need to be changed regularly and it is recommended every three weeks or so. When I went to change mine after three weeks, I found it was virtually spotless and I can easily double the supposed life of the filters. As I live in an area with extremely hard water, I always top it up with water I have filtered myself anyway and I hope this will prolong the life of the filter and the unit itself too.
Of course the only opinions that really matter are Billy's and Edwards. As I mentioned, Billy never really bothered much with drinking he water we have put out for him in bowls, but he absolutely LOVES the water fountain and did from the word go. I have never seen him drink so much water before.
Edward on the other hand was sceptical and quite scared of it at first and I was disappointed as I thought I might have to get the bowl out again. However I decided to give it time and the next day after seeing his big brother drinking he overcame his concerns and soon he was happily lapping it up too.
I am amazed at how much water they are drinking; I tend to top the water up every time I see the red dot has gone right down and I must pour in a litre of water every day. The problem of Edward's long fur getting wet all the time is solved too, as you can see from the picture the cats drink from the top of the unit which is about 7 inches off the floor so an adult cat can drink without bending over. He can't really drop biscuits in either and I am so delighted to see them both enjoying cool, fresh and clear water. I would highly recommend this product.
I bought my fountain for £20 although I have seen it retailing from £13 since then. A pack of three replacement filters is typically £4.
There have been various forums devoted to review writing over the years. I have signed up to one or two of them, but was late to the party and never active as it seemed these forums were past their heyday by the time I came along. So earlier this year, when I heard a new forum had started, dooyoo lovers, I decided to join up. This time I was one of the first members onboard and so I have seen its development over these first few months.
I suspect that the new forum was targeted towards the newer dooyoo membership as the Administration stated that they did not want to join any of the already existing forums claiming they were too cliquey. But I joined anyway as I felt sure a few old hands would be helpful to have around.
Things got off to a slow and uneventful start; a bit of daily chat amongst the members and occasionally I and other longer serving dooyoo-ers were able to help out with dooyoo related matters. A few months down the line and membership is up; but is it all going horribly wrong for (some) dooyoo lovers?
Practical matters first. It is easy to sign up to the forum, although the admin team now insist that people either use their dooyoo username or otherwise identify themselves. This is a new rule and applies retrospectively to existing members. It was announced as new policy with the explanation that it is to "avoid confusion".
Quite what kind of confusion could be caused by not knowing somebody's username on an independent website is unclear. Rarely do we need to know the identity of people on internet forums and I find it an odd rule particularly alongside Admin efforts to quite correctly point out that the forum is completely independent to dooyoo and does not exist to support dooyoo in anyway. If I were being cynical, I would speculate that the rule is not to avoid confusion at all but rather is a means of ensuring that people they do not like do not join or at the very least to ensure they can be given a suitably hostile reception. This is their prerogative I suppose.
Back to practical matters and the forum is divided into areas for Announcements, Dooyoo chat and Non-dooyoo chat. The latter are broken down into a few sensible sub divisions and the layout generally works for me. Most internet forums (other than invitation only ones) allow non members to read but not post. Dooyoo Lovers is unusual in this respect as non-members cannot read the threads. To all intents and purposes, this policy appears to be in place so that members of dooyoo can be freely discussed without their knowledge.
Admittedly there have been some members of Dooyoo Lovers who have tried hard to discourage this practice from the very start and finally no-naming does appear to be settling down as policy. This might have been a good Admin decision except that it is still quite alright to discuss specific reviews, which strikes me as almost the same as naming. The confusion over such policy stems from an Admin team that do not set out the boundaries or take the lead in this sensitive matter. Indeed a moderator recently started a whole new thread on (and titled after) a temporarily banned dooyoo member which soon evolved to include discussion of other dooyoo members, who may or may not have been banned and certainly did not know they were being discussed. This discussion was pulled down after vociferous objections from dooyoo guides and dooyoo stalwarts but worryingly only after careful consideration from the Admin team.
In the early days of my membership, I enjoyed getting to know a few more people from dooyoo but I sat back and generally did not provoke dooyoo related debates and preferred to simply help out with queries and advice as and when I could. As membership has increased, it naturally followed that debate on dooyoo matters has increased too. And I have observed that debate appears unwelcome on Dooyoo Lovers.
Now if you are looking for a forum to discuss the weather, your cat's appetite or fast food restaurants then Dooyoo Lovers could be the site for you. If you are looking for a forum to moan about not getting a crown or to crow and seek congratulations upon getting one, then you will probably fit right in. If you have nowhere else to go with your complaints about monthly competitions, dooyoo team sexism, dooyoo team racism, people that churn more than you, members that are newer than you, members that are longer serving than you, dooyoo guides, the dooyoo team and indeed if you dislike just about everything there is about dooyoo other than they will pay 50p for your chocolate bar review; then Dooyoo Lovers could be the place to be.
If you would like to discuss ideas to make dooyoo a better site for members and non-members, if you care about dooyoo's business success and longevity and have a genuine interest in writing useful reviews for real consumers and of course making a little money in the process, then you could be out of luck. Threads covering such topics seem few and far between on dooyoo lovers and those that do exist swiftly veer off topic or are pooh-poohed from the outset. For example a thread pointing out the dooyoo team's recent findings on what consumers want to read about (published on the community page) was dismissed out of hand as being dated and not scientifically proven.
In another recent thread some DL members discussed what other dooyoo members could possibly be "up to" when they read an older review. Foul play was hinted at. How another member could even come across an older review was speculated upon. The idea that the dooyoo member might have searched for a product and read the review to MAKE A PURCHASING DECISION was met with scepticism. That somebody might read a dooyoo review out of genuine interest and not because a return rate was owed had apparently not occurred to the contributors to this conversation. More than ever it struck me that there is a fundamental difference between the way some people see the dooyoo site and the way others do.
To some, dooyoo is a site which exists first and foremost to help consumers and to which we contribute in return for a small monetary award. To others, it is either an income stream or a writer's circle, consumers and consumer needs are largely irrelevant and members write for each other and read each other only to top up that 50p per review.
The moderation on DL seems non-existent in places and in my opinion is aggressive and biased in others. Threads do tend to go off topic and there is little effort to get them back on track. For example, a thread which started as a serious discussion on whether guides should be reading most of the reviews in their category soon turned into a discussion on various chain restaurants and continued as such for another four of five pages. Many DL members will admit that they like threads going off topic, in which case it is fair to say that the moderation is delivering on those needs, but it wouldn't suit everyone looking for a dooyoo forum. More recently the Admin have taken to hacking threads to pieces and reconstructing them as new threads which no longer make much sense.
Several members whose face does not fit, have commented that they keenly feel aggression and bias. What such people say is irrelevant; WHO posted and not WHAT they posted is increasingly the only thing that seems to matter on dooyoo lovers. These members would note that if you do not tend to think along the same lines as the Admin team or a core membership, then a hostile reaction to inputs could be expected. And woe betide any other misfit who tries to defend the maligned one; I did this once after numerous members took a pop at another in turn but it was me that was accused of "jumping on the bandwagon" and was told "nobody asked you to comment" and on the receiving end of several similar well reasoned arguments.
Of course these posts are perfectly acceptable to the Admin team and indeed a large portion are made by them, but a member whose face did not fit that posted "let it go already" was called rude and antagonistic. On another day somebody that suggested some members should accept dooyoo's business decisions and "move on" after reading pages of their moaning about dooyoo policy not to take reviews written in Welsh; was publically reprimanded by moderation. Another member that claimed it defied common sense to insist that consumers will typically research 40p chocolate bars before making a purchase was reprimanded for making personal insults and implying the moderator had no common sense.
One member has been thrown off the site for rudeness and insulting comments like these. Indeed the reactions towards some individuals are totally over the top, yet I have seen what I consider to be far more rudeness from others but these hostilities go unchecked.
As one of those first few members of DL, I thought I had a rapport and I have tried hard to privately reason with the Admin / Moderation on a few occasions as I have a genuine interest in a dooyoo forum and would like to see one succeed. I have unfortunately had to report several incidents as described above plus specific examples of direct personal attacks and even maliciously leaked personal details of some members. Despite a sinking feeling that I was banging my head against a brick wall, I have raised these issues privately on three or four occasions following specific incidents in the hope that I might make somebody see another point of view.
The response? Well apparently I should (QUOTE): "Go do your whinging on the guides forum like the rest of your lot that are stuck in the past and think you're better than everyone else, you really are pathetic and need to seriously grow up". Yes another objective, unbiased, well reasoned and intellectual argument from Dooyoo Lovers HQ.
Dooyoo Lovers is a misnomer as far as I am concerned because the members that will get on with this forum are the ones who are happy to chat mainly about non-dooyoo related matters or who care less about dooyoo and its community and are in it purely for the cheques. It is a forum that can and will work for some but as somebody who has devoted a great deal of time to dooyoo for the LOVE of it not the personal gain; it isn't working for me despite my best efforts. Like the previous reviewer, I finally asked for my membership to be terminated.
I decided to put my update at the beginning rather than the end as I feel it should be highlighted.
Last weekend we turned the heating on in the home cinema as it can get a bit cold in there and then we went back to the house to give it time to warm up. An hour later we returned to the home cinema to discover a room full of smoke, the electric heater itself had not caught fire, but the smoke was coming out of the socket in the wall. We were unable to switch the wall socket off as the button had melted and stopped the brurning by switching off the electricity at the mains. We thank our lucky stars that we went back in when we did and managed to stop this as goodness knows what would have happened had we not. We are also very glad that we never managed to work out how the timer on the heater worked so it never came on automatically.
As it was the bank holiday we did not try to contact the company immediately and did so a couple of days later. I was staggered by the response. Despite this extremely dangerous fault, I was told by the Customer Services Manager (the one I have discussed in the original review below) that somebody would call me back "within a couple of days". I replied that I thought it needed a more prompt response than this and thought this was a rather casual response to what I thought was a rather serious matter.
I was then subjected to a barrage of abuse about my bad attitude. Yes really, apparantly a customer who discovered burning electricals in their conversion has no right to feel aggrieved by such a casual response to their legitimate concern. I was told time and time again that this has never happened before and that they did safety testing, but I am still struggling to see how that is relevant as I certainly did not imagine the problem in my garage.
The customer services manager also wanted to spend a lot of time discussing my original review which he had seen and was clearly displeased with. I certainly got the impression that this was a major reason for his hostility.
After hanging up on me during our first call, because I swore at him when I said; "I am flabbergasted at your response, I have just told you that my garage nearly burnt down and it seems like you don't give a **** ", he called back and said that he would get an electrician around later today. Shame he could not have said that in the first place.
However he was still not finished, I was subjected to more ranting about my review again, incidentally he didn't like my Kuoni Wedding one either, told me that he really did not like me very much and he hoped that he would never have to speak to me again. Ditto said I.
I have had to downgrade my rating in view of the electrical issue but more so because of the abuse I was subjected to because I dared complain about it.
My previous home, one we rented in Bermuda, was much larger than the house we bought and moved into when we moved back to Blightly last summer. It took me a little bit of time to adjust mentally, but there were some things that no amount of adjusting was going to conquer, such as where on earth to put things. We found ourselves particularly short of space for our book collection which remained unpacked, then we had pictures and other objects of art with nowhere to go and we were without any space for an office.
On the other hand we did have a large double garage which was doing little other than storing boxes of books and other things we could not find room for in the house. Neither my husband nor I have any interest in carpentry, mechanics or anything else that some people use their garage for (nobody parks their car in there do they?) so it really was a waste of 30m2 of space. So we began to debate whether we should convert it to increase our functional living area.
Our garage is detached from the house but close by and a large square, each side being about 5.5 metres in length. We obviously did not require such a large home office but were very enthusiastic about creating our own home cinema after seeing some on various property programs. We decided to use half the garage for the home cinema and then divide the other half in two, retaining one section for storage and making the other area into the home office. With a rough idea of what we wanted, we started to look for companies to do the work.
We decided that it would make sense to get in a specialist company that would manage the whole project, rather than deal with different tradesmen and cobble it together ourselves. I am not saying that this is the best approach or otherwise, I didn't try it the other way, but this was just the way we decided to go. The Garage Conversion company was the first to pop up when we started to look around on the internet. I made online contact with a couple of companies and the Garage Conversion company were the quickest to get back to me (in fact the other did not) so I decided to make an appointment.
The Garage Conversion Company or GCC as I will call them from now, called to make an appointment. I was immediately ticked off that they suggested the decision-maker would be at home when they came to visit. By that I assume they meant my husband as what wife can possibly make decisions in this day and age. Anyway it suited us that we are both home, two people asking questions were always going to be better than one. A sales representative arranged to come around at 7pm one evening.
We found the sales rep to be very friendly and he answered all our questions to our satisfaction. His ball park estimate of the work was higher than we had thought, but then we are not builders and really had no idea what to expect. In fact I have to put my hand up and admit we were a little bit lackadaisical in that when we did go ahead we did not get more estimates. During the meeting we were able to make a couple of decisions, one of which was that we would keep the exterior looking just as it was, i.e. with double up and over garage doors, but only the one that went to the storage area would be functional, the other would become a false front as an interior wall would be on the other side. We thought this decision both saved money and also we were pleased not to draw attention to the changed use from a security aspect.
We were told a formal quote would be provided in the next day or two and indeed it was. We thought about it for about a month and although GCC called after a few weeks, we did not feel unduly pressured. In the end we decided to go ahead as we were told we could buy now and pay in full in one year's time. Unfortunately, as we had been out of the country, it turned out that we did not get the credit, but by the time we found this out, two days later, we had already set our heart on it so went ahead anyway.
Before the work started we had another visit from the sales rep to do the paperwork and we also made some changes to our plans as we realised that the seating for the home cinema would be a tight fit. We discussed at length that this room was to be a home cinema and that we wanted to get all the wiring in the walls during the build and not have them visible. At this point we were considering engaging a specialist Audio Visual company to source the goods and also assist with the positioning of speakers, cables etc. We were told this would not be a problem and to discuss with the surveyor.
A few days later, the surveyor arrived to go over plans a final time. I discussed the wiring that we wanted to be in the walls and which had already been discussed at length during the previous two home visits. I found the surveyor not open to getting involved with our home cinema wiring, claiming that he did not want his crew involved in laying wires in case they laid them in the wrong place or they damaged them later on during the build. He also refused to work with the specialist Audio Visual company that we had idenitified. The best he could offer was that we should ask them to leave cords in place that we would tie our cables to, pull them into the loft, run them across the loft and then attach to other cords which they would leave in place for us to then pull our cables into place. We were not very happy about this arrangement but as we had already paid a 25% deposit at this point didn't feel we had a choice.
Additionally I asked the surveyor to price up laying a wooden floor for me, I had a quote from elsewhere but getting it done as part of the build was more convenient and he was able to get the wood I liked and came in slightly below the quote I had from elsewhere.
Planning permission and building regulations~~~
Planning permission is legally the responsibility of the home owner, if it is required, the GCC will help obtain it for a fee. A change in legislation on 1st October 2008 means that most garage conversions do not require planning permission providing the work is internal and does not enlarge the size of the building. This can be verified on www.planningportal.gov.uk.
Exceptions are when the building is listed or if there have been specific restrictions placed on the property. We were keen to contact our council anyway, GCC went to the offices and confirmed that there were no development restrictions on our property. This was confirmed in writing, although they did say that we could only use the garage for incidental usage such as a home office or home cinema, but we could not create more living space, such as with an extra bedroom or reception room.
The conversion does require building regulation approval and it is part of GCC's responsibility to ensure that the building is in compliance. We were extremely dissatisfied with how this was handled by GCC. We had no idea what the process was or how long it was supposed to take, we were just told that we had to wait. Eventually and after very frequent phone calls on our part to the Head Office, it turned out that it had been overlooked after all. Two months after the job was completed we finally got our building regulations compliance certificate.
When our build was finished, we tried to clarify the building regulations situation immediately, but the company were vague and unhelpful. After a few days we managed to get it in writing that if regulations were not met then GCC would put it right at their cost. But as the weeks with no news or updates went on, we started to regret having paid the bill before receiving the building regulations certificate and given my time again, I would hold back some money as a bargaining chip.
Our build started on a Monday morning, the first thing that happened was the arrival of a skip which remained for the duration. Then a team of two builders / carpenters arrived and they were the key people who were on site every day. On the first day they ripped out the built in shelves and cabinets that were in the garage and put in place the wood on the floor which marked out the positioning of the dividing stud walls. I found the crew did not work exceptionally long days, but they seemed very efficient and I felt that there was sound progress every day. After a few days, the electrician came round and put in place cables for all the lighting, plug sockets, radiators, extractor fan. It was then back to more wall, floor and ceiling building.
I cannot remember what happened each and every day, but during the second week the external door and window were fitted, the plasterers plastered all the walls and ceilings, the internal door was fitted, the wooden floor was laid, loft was insulated and the electrician came back and fitted the switches, plug sockets, heaters, etc. I thought everything ran like clockwork, the right tradesperson turning up on just the day they were needed and I didn't need to do a thing. I also found all the chaps extremely pleasant and friendly. I could not be happier with this aspect of the build.
Unfortunately, in the middle of this we had to run those home cinema cables through the loft and there came the mishap. Firstly we did not find it that easy to pull cable through anyway, the conduits that were in place were a little too narrow for some of the cables we need to pull through. But we managed to get the subwoofer cable pulled up into the loft eventually, my husband doing the pulling from up there, he then moved across to the other end of the room where it needed to come out, but the roof is a very awkward place and he was walking on beams, he slightly lost balance at one point, held onto the upright beam and somehow it dislodged one of the ceiling panels which came away.
We were very upset about this, especially as the ceiling had already been plastered. We were very disappointed with GCC's attitude towards us. Firstly we called the surveyor, who we understood to be the project manager and told him what had happened. He immediately made us feel worse with his conclusions that people would have to come around the next day to assess the damage and decide what needed to be done. From his tone and words, we immediately assumed we were going to be hit with a huge additional bill. He also seemed to be critical that we had been in the loft, even though it was him who left us no choice as he would not let the team run the cables for us.
We also spoke to the sales rep who thus far had been pleasant in his dealings with us. Well no longer, he totally supported the surveyor, said he fully understood why he would be annoyed by us damaging the ceiling mid build and also started a rant at me about me accusing them of shoddy workmanship, which I had not, I explained exactly what happened as it happened.
Whilst he was extremely aggressive and rude to me, I am no shrinking violet and pointed out that; a) we had made it very clear from the start that we were using the space from a home cinema and would need cables running in the walls; b) that we had been told all along that this would not be a problem, c) that when it came to the crunch and despite workers being up in the loft space at frequent points during the build they were not allowed to put my cables down, a job that would have taken them less than five minutes and d) that my husband is unaccustomed to clambering along ceiling joints and frankly insisting that we had to do this ourselves was asking for trouble.
At the end of the calls, we abandoned our efforts to run the rest of the cables and went to the pub instead to drown our sorrows. We then decided to call my father in law, a retired builder and explained that a ceiling panel was falling down. And his response; "Well nail it back up!" Yes obvious really. If only GCC could have taken such a pragmatical view instead of making us feel that we had seriously hindered the entire project.
The next day, the ceiling was nailed back up within a few minutes although as it had already been plastered, it is not smooth and although we patched up with polyfilla and of course painted, it is still quite noticeable. We also asked the team to run the rest of the cables, which of course they were able to do in minutes. I do not understand why they were not allowed to do this in the first place. And I say allowed as I believe they would have been more than happy to do it, but I have reason to believe that they are told to do the bare minimum, exactly as per the spec and are in trouble if they do one single thing extra for the client. Obviously somebody does not realise what makes the difference for clients. I should point out at this point that GCC operates franchises and I cannot say whether this mentality comes from GCC or my particular franchise management.
Despite this little mishap, the job was finished on time and took two working weeks from beginning to end, including laying the wooden floor and skirting. We are very happy with the standard of work.
Unfortunately, again the "management" let the side down in my view at the end of the job. On the last Friday, the builder who had been there throughout came to me and asked would I be in a position to "sign off" the job. I was not really sure what he meant by that but assumed it meant that I would have a quick look around. He returned later, I get the impression after speaking to his management, and clarified that he actually wanted me to sign a document saying that we were completely happy with everything and pay the outstanding amounts. He seemed very uncomfortable to be dealing with this side of the business.
I said that I did not think there would be any issues at all, but would rather not sign off until my husband had the opportunity to look around. I thought this was very reasonable, but he returned again (after speaking to his management) and said that would not be possible! Interesting that they could not do the initial meeting without my husband being present but he was apparently not allowed to inspect the finished work before I make payment, which would be done by bank transfer not cheque.
So I called the sales rep and explained the situation and he agreed that it was reasonable for my husband to be able to look at the finished product and we did not have to hand over payment that day. Very kind. In actual fact, the electrician did not finish until 8pm, the skip had not been removed and we did not have the building regulation paperwork, so even if my husband had been home we would not have been in a position to pay up anyway.
The payment for the wooden floor was separate to the main conversion. I was asked to pay almost £1,000 in cash and when I said I did not keep that amount of cash, they offered to drive me to the cash point to get it. I have to say, I find trades people that drive clients to cash points rather dodgy. (Again, I do not think this was the builder's doing, I feel he was very uncomfortable and acting on instructions). I declined to be driven to a cash point explaining that I would not be able to take that amount of money out at once anyway and was told that in that case it would cost more (VAT). We pushed back on this, making clear that the price quoted already included VAT as far as we were concerned and they conceded.
The removal of the skip was a bit of an issue too. We needed it gone as we had furniture being delivered the next working day, which was a Tuesday as it was a bank holiday weekend. I checked several times during the day that it was going but it got closer and closer to 6pm and it remained there, we tried calling head office, sales rep and the project manager but got nowhere. I finally managed to track down the skip company myself and it was collected on the Saturday morning.
The next working day was Tuesday. Between us we must have had upwards of fifteen phone calls and messages, plus emails from the sales rep demanding to know where our payment was. We could not believe it as they didn't even finish until 8pm the previous working day. I felt it was not only unreasonable but outrageous bully boy tactics. Fortunately, I am a professional business woman and don't bully easily, but I can imagine it would be extremely intimidating for some. I half expected them to pay me a visit.
As far as we were concerned at this point, there was still the matter of building regulations outstanding. It took a few days for us to get an assurance that if the conversion did not comply that it would be put right at no further cost to us. Once we had this in writing we settled the final bill.
The handling of the financial matters at the end and not forgetting the loft mishap totally clouded our experience with this company. We made it clear that we were happy with the work and were not delaying payment, indeed it was paid within about a week of completion, once we had the clarification on building regulations. I feel this is quite reasonable on our part and the harassment which started one working day after the completion of the work was utterly unwarranted and unnecessary.
My product rating is lower than it would have been other than for this behaviour. Were it not for that, I can only say that I am utterly delighted with my new home office and home cinema. I think we perhaps paid a little more than we needed to, but we will get years of enjoyment out of our new space and we think it will be a huge selling point when we get to that stage in due course.
I love to cook and one household appliance I would be lost without is my Dualit hand blender. Dualit is a brand I trust and as I already have the kettle toaster and large food processor, I bought my hand blender on-line without seeing it in real life first. My items are actually in cream not the chrome shown in dooyoo's picture but it is the same in all other respects.
The handle is about nine or ten inches long and much heavier and larger than I had expected from the pictures. In fact I cannot even close my hand around it, but the curved ergonomic design nevertheless makes it comfortable to hold, the material it is in has a soft touch feel to it which helps to ensure that it can be gripped firmly and doesn't slip in use.
The speed setting range from a minimum 9,000 rpm to a maximum 16,000rpm and this is controlled by a dial on the top of the handle, it would be almost impossible to adjust this mid-blend, you would need to set and adjust it in-between spurts, unless you have very large hands I suppose. On the front of the handle there are two conveniently placed buttons to switch the blender on and to switch the Turbo blend on if extra oomph is required. I find a low speed setting more than adequate and rarely need the turbo as this blender is already a powerful 500 watts. Perhaps because I use a low speed, I am not unduly troubled by the noise of this blender, although of course there is no getting away from some noise. I am also fortunate to have conveniently placed plug sockets, the power cord is about 2 metres long and this is more than enough for me.
I find the blender blade attachment great for soup-making, I tend to blend in the pan I have used for cooking and can make short work of large vegetables such as potatoes, cauliflower or broccoli. As I am blending hot foods, I am grateful that I can get away with a low speed setting as I would be concerned about splashing hot liquids if I had need to turn this up.
Other attachments include the balloon whisk and the dual beaters and I use these regularly too for whisking eggs and dessert making mainly. I find all the attachments snap easily into place and off again. These two attachments are completely detachable from the main working parts of the blender and so can be popped into the dishwasher for easy cleaning. The rest of the blender, I clean by wiping over with a damp cloth, but as the blender is not prone to splashes to be honest it never really requires much.
The accessory I find particularly useful is the blending beaker, it is so much easier to use this than get out a huge food processor, which I can now reserve for when I need to process larger quantities of food. The blending beaker is ideal for making items like pesto, sauces or chopping small quantities of most food stuffs, I have found even tricky items like nuts are coarsely chopped in seconds. Again, the beaker and the blades are dishwasher safe for easy cleaning.
I ordered my blender directly from Dualit's own website as at the time it was the only place that had the cream model in stock. Prices start at around £60 from various high street retailers.
The Hilton Hotel Dartford is in a particularly insalubrious part of Kent, literally a few moments from the Dartford crossing toll booths. However it is ideally situated for the Bluewater shopping centre and as my husband and I were having an afternoon of shopping and then a late evening at the Bluewater cinema, we decided to book the hotel rather than face a tiring drive home to north Hertfordshire.
As we approached the hotel over the Dartford Bridge we were quite concerned about the proximity to the main roads but in fact as we got closer we decided it was probably set back far enough for traffic noise to be a non issue. The hotel has a reasonable appearance close up as you can see from the dooyoo picture, but it really is in an awful area. Still I doubt there are many people who will go on holiday to the Hilton Dartford Bridge, rather this is a hotel for a convenient stop over and as such I don't think the surroundings are too important.
As we pulled in, we were quite surprised to find that we needed to take a ticket to get into the car park. The fees were quite substantial, other than for residents for whom they are limited to £3 per stay. We could not see why anyone would come here if they were not a guest and we thought the fee to park for guests and non-guests was quite ridiculous for a hotel in this location.
The hotel lobby is quite large, there is a bar off to one side and there is plenty of comfortable seating around, most of it vacant when we arrived. It was 3.30pm by this time, nevertheless the receptionist told us she would have to check whether the room was ready as it was apparently still showing as "dirty" on her system. I thought she could have said "not ready" as opposed to "dirty" to be honest and in view of the time I wondered if they are quite so forgiving to guests that might be late checking out.
Fortunately the room was ready and we were directed to the lifts to make our own way up. We did not have high expectations, when I was younger Hilton was a by-word for hotel luxury in but I think those days are long gone and so my low expectations were more than satisfied with the light coloured decor as we made our way along the corridors to our room.
First impressions of the room were not too bad either. The decor was also mainly in light colours and gave a feeling of a bright and modern room, it was only after a proper look around that I noticed paper peeling from the walls and other slightly tatty effects. On the other hand, we did notice that the TV was a modern flat screen, but we neglected to try it out so I could not say if there was a good channel selection unfortunately.
The room otherwise contained a bed, sofa, dressing table and tea and coffee making facilities. The bed was not great, the headboard was a piece of wood attached to the wall but the rest of the bed was not actually attached to it and being a rather flimsy bed on wheels we found it parted company with the wall during the night and pillows ended up on the floor in-between. I also found the bed far too soft and lumpy for my liking. We found the room a bit too warm and there is no air-conditioning. The bathroom was small to medium in size and functional but rather dated. The floors and walls were covered in cheap looking white ceramic tiles and the grout was discoloured which made the room particularly the floor look dirty, although I don't think it really was.
After dumping our bags, we headed over to Bluewater for some shopping and the cinema. Upon returning to the hotel we decided to have a nightcap in the lobby bar. There were a few other people doing the same by this time, although generally the hotel felt very quiet. The wine was quite nice but £10 a glass was silly money in this type of establishment.
We had a peaceful night's sleep and left quite early the next morning after deciding to skip the £13 breakfast. The room cost £88 with another £3 for the privilege of parking there. I could have sworn I booked at £78 but unfortunately the email confirming the reservation does not include the rate. It was a very so-so kind of stay and I would say a hotel of a similar standard to the Premier Inn. Nothing to rave about and nothing in particular to moan about either.