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lamorna
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Member since: 30.06.2000

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      10.11.2005 15:03
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      A beautiful country

      I Looked Over Jordan and What Did I See..? I wrote my review about Jordan yesterday the 9th November. We returned back to the UK from Jordan one week ago. The news this morning, the 10th November, informing us of the suicide terrorist bombing in Amman has saddened me enormously but I decided to publish my experiences of a wonderful week in a beautiful country in spite of this. The 10.15 am five and a half hour flight from Gatwick to Aqaba in Jordan was smooth and the time passed quickly. I always get excited flying over deserts and even more so on this trip as we flew over the clear blue Red Sea and the resort of Aqaba, made a U-turn, approached the small airport from the sea landing at 3.30 pm. The immigration formalities were speedy and within half an hour our 'gang' of thirty Voyageurs Jules Verne travellers were seated in our coach with our Jordanian tour guide Omar giving us the basic details of what was happening next as we sped along the road to the Nabotaean rose-red city of Petra for a three night stay in the four star Crown Plaza Hotel; let the adventure of discovering Jordan begin. We were to travel through the highways and deserts of Jordan staying in Petra, Amman and Aqaba in four and five star hotels, including the Radisson SAS in Aqaba. Even as a young woman I was useless at roughing it so Morty and myself do need the promise of luxury, a comfy bed, a good meal, a bath and a beer at the end of hot and strenuous days spent sightseeing, walking and often bumpy coach rides to prepare ourselves for the following day's excitement and culture. Even though there had been an incident in August this year with some middle -eastern men renting a warehouse in Aqaba and firing missiles at some USA ships anchored in the Red Sea, missing their target and hitting the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat injuring an Israeli taxi-driver, we felt safe, although in retrospect I realise that we weren't. Unlike our 2004 visit to Egypt we had no armed guards escorting us in Jordan and no physical evidence of security at any of our hotels . Our guide told us how proud the Jordanians are of their King Abdullah, son of the late King Hussein and his British wife, who travels the world as a business man, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase to promote his country. Our first meal in Petra that evening was memorable. Although buffet-style, the Jordanian Mezzah of hummus, tahini, olives, salads, pitta, cracked wheat, aubergines, meatballs and soup was delicious. I soon realised that the Mezzah alone plus mouth watering Turkish style deserts of baklava, pancakes, halva, figs and sweet cinnamon scented rice puddings was my preferred choice so subsequently I omitted the hot dishes of lamb and chicken stews and shish kebabs. We had an early start the next morning, so after a refreshing sleep and breakfast of fresh figs, yoghurt and coffee; we began our full day exploring Petra. Forget fashion and style. Wear walking shoes, wear a hat, carry water and apply sun protection. The two mile walk along the narrow corridor between the high rocks is a downward slope. There are fine horses, camels, pony and traps and donkeys for hire waiting at the entrance to Petra to taxi the visitor down but the walk isn't overly taxing. Along the way view sculptures in the rocks, Greek inscriptions and admire the light and shadow as the sun beams through the darkness of the narrow walkway. Then pause and hold your breath as the corridor opens up and the brilliant sunshine illuminates the grand treasury building of Petra carved from the rose-hued rock in the 1st century BC. You'll recognise the Corinthian columns from scenes in the film 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'. You are in a special place. Continue walking along a further narrow passage past several tombs to see a Roman style theatre discovered as recently as 1975 by archaeologists with work still in progress. See Roman public baths, shops and monuments along the once colonnaded main street then make the steep climb to the monastery, worth the effort for the panoramic views of mountains and deserts. Although the climb was strenuous and in some places slippery on the well worn steps, donkeys were carrying twenty stone men up to the monastery - with the overweight men being held in place by young Jordanian males otherwise they would have fallen off the donkey. Shame they didn't let them! After one full day travelling and a full day at Petra we were exhausted so were delighted the have the next day free to relax by the hotel pool restoring ourselves for our evening walk to Petra by Night with only flickering candles to light our way. Night falls quickly so by 6.30 pm we were following the candle-lit route back to the treasury in Petra to hear Bedouin music and folklore followed by dinner in a restaurant in the heart of the rose-red city. The stars have never seemed so bright and numerous as we picked our way through the uneven terrain along the narrow corridor. I do wonder about future health and safety because two of our group fell over in the darkness, hurting themselves, and one man got blisters as he was wearing borrowed trainers. Buy your own trainers. Take a torch. By 8.30 pm we were eating a Bedouin meal in the open air and being entertained by music and dancing, relieved to discover we weren't walking back uphill with full stomachs and instead had a hair-raising drive back on unmade roads to the Plaza and a deep and satisfying sleep. The next morning we made a fond farewell to Petra, destination Amman, and driven along The Kings Highway, thus named since Biblical times, journeying through the Holy Land stopping to see Karak Castle built by the Crusaders in the 12th century to impose Christian rule on the Middle East after capturing Jerusalem in 1099. Karak Castle was rebuilt as a set based on the ruins as they are now for the film 'The Kingdom of Heaven'. We stood high up on the roof of castle keep offering us magnificent views of the deserts of Jordan and Israel. Such history! Time for a quick lunch at the castle then another stop en route to Mabada, the city of mosaics, to a 6th century Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land then on to the most revered site in Jordan, Mount Nebo; a peaceful and holy place with views standing on the highest point over the Dead Sea, Jordan, Bethlehem and Jerusalem with a memorial to the prophet Moses and the alleged site of his death and burial place. Once again, we had been travelling, sightseeing, walking and eating since breakfast in Petra and were pleased to arrive as night fell in Amman, the capital of Jordan, at the Amra Crown Plaza for a two night stay beginning with a shower, a beer, another great meal and another welcome and comfortable bed. No lie-in opportunity though, as we were up early again as to travel east from Amman to visit the eastern desert towards the Iraqi boarder, with Syria to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south and tour the Roman Desert Castles built as frontier posts for the eastern edge of their empire. A bit too close to the Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia borders for comfort but I simply put it out of my mind as we passed Jordanian trucks taking supplies to Iraq and Iraqi oil tankers delivering to Jordan, then onwards to the Roman Decapolis city of Jerash in the north for lunch and a tour. The ten Roman/Greek cities of the Decapolis, founded mainly by Alexander the Great around 323 BC, were models of urban planning for the whole Middle East. This Roman city has been beautifully preserved as it was buried in sand. We spent a happy three hours exploring the arches, gates, temples, colonnades and theatres seating over three thousand spectators. I'm still not sure why we sat in the auditorium watching the bagpipes played by Jordanian pipers performing traditional Scottish songs! Do you know? We were tired! Are you surprised? We were driven back to Amman in the early evening for our first 'proper' drink with another couple in the comfortable hotel bar, then to eat a light supper and have a very early night. The night life in Amman is exciting and varied with clubs and restaurants and excellent shopping facilities - if you have the energy. Do you know? Its day five and we haven't unpacked yet, just our washing gear and a daily rummage in our cases for clean T/shirts. So, a final breakfast in Amman then cases back on the coach for the last leg of discovering Jordan driving along the scenic Wadi Araba road to the Red Sea resort of Aqaba for two nights. But first, a half day tour of the sprawling city of Amman which has spread from the original seven hills to over twenty, urbanising valuable agricultural land in the process. We concentrated on the downtown area, the oldest part of the city, standing on ancient ruins of The Temple of Hercules dating back to AD161 and admiring the panoramic views of this ancient and bustling city. Leaving Amman we drove south to the Dead Sea for a swim and then lunch. We've been to the Dead Sea before on the Israeli side so knew what to expect. It was hot. It was still. It was spooky. Thankfully we were the only two in our group who didn't bathe in the Dead Sea that day. Omar, our guide, warned us there were sharp stones on the edges of the water but unfortunately almost everyone cut their feet quite severely on the stones and required attention. Others had stinging eyes and sore skin from the high salt and mineral content. They all said they were pleased to have bathed in the Dead Sea, but never again! We arrived in Aqaba just before nightfall. The rooms in the Radisson SAS were spacious and comfortable, with a balcony overlooking the hotel pool, the beach bar and directly over the private sandy beach and the deep blue waters of the Red Sea. Twelve years ago we had spent a few days in the Israeli resort of Eilat across the bay and seen the white buildings of Aqaba from there. Now I was overlooking Eilat and the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba from our Jordanian hotel balcony. At this stage I was getting tired of some of the group complaining about the repeated buffets and how they longed for a bowl of soup and a crusty roll. Or a pizza! One woman told us she only ever ate pasta and cheese and couldn't find any Middle Eastern foods to suit her. She looked like a huge bowl of cooked pasta and a lump of white fatty cheese so I had to bite my lip and hold my tongue and make no comment. Nevertheless, when a younger couple in the group invited us to join them for an evening meal of seafood specialities in the Aqaba Yatch Club we accepted. We were both missing our regular fish meals and our taste buds fancied a change. That evening we sat on the terrace of the Yatch Club overlooking the Red Sea and the classy yachts eating an Italian meal of Antipasto and Frito Misto, drinking very good Jordanian wines complete with fun company and all was well with the world. Aqaba is a perfect beach resort for those seeking sun, sea and sand, and water sports in the spring, autumn and winter with the airport a ten minute drive from the resort. Forget the summer months as it is far too hot and oppressive. Select the best hotel you can afford overlooking the beach, although Jordan isn't an expensive holiday destination and because of this week's sad events will become even cheaper. Aqaba is also a good base for optional excursions to visit the sort of cultural places of interest I've described so far in my review. I've seen one week in a five star beach hotel in Aqaba advertised for around £350 which is cheap for winter sun and without the strain of a long haul flight. But we hadn't finished discovering Jordan just yet. After a morning at leisure basking on the glorious beach and quietly reading we were to drive to Wadi Rum, one of the world's most colourful and unique landscapes of desert and mountain scenery, to watch the dramatic sunset followed by dinner in a Bedouin tent. Most of the scenes for the film 'Laurence of Arabia' were shot using these landscapes at Wadi Rum (We rented 'Laurence of Arabia' on our first weekend back home and sat picking out the landmarks of Wadi Rum as we spotted them) Considering nothing had happened to alarm me during our week in Jordan, including high mountain desert passes and overhanging hairpin bends in the coach, and driving near other Middle Eastern borders, this next adventure almost had me in tears. When I saw the line of ancient Toyota pick up trucks and was told we were to ride six in a truck in the open back I blanched. I blanched even more when I saw there were no seat belts, the windscreen was shattered with no clear vision and our driver must have been all of a twelve year old Jordanian boy-racer. What a hair-raising ride through the desert that was. I almost missed the famous rock formation of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as I hung on for dear life. Bumping, tossing us around in the back, barely avoiding rocks, almost tipping over sending us flying out and going faster and faster as the manic drivers raced each other to the safety of the mountain where we were to sit and watch the sunset; I admit to unashamedly screaming like a baby both on the way there and on the way back - but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. We had our final candlelit dinner in Jordan in a huge Bedouin tent in the desert complete with more musicians and bonfires as the desert gets very cold at night; a fitting end to a wonderful travel experience. We left Aqaba and Jordan the next afternoon at four o'clock and arrived back at Gatwick at ten o'clock the same night, tired, happy and full of the wonders we had seen. Buying gifts in Jordan was quite difficult. In most countries, such as China and Egypt, the local guides lead the visitor to shops encouraging them to spend money on things we don't really need to bring back home as gifts and mementos. This didn't happen in Jordan. We were there in Ramadan when all Muslims fast until sunset for one month. They must think we are strange always asking if we can stop for a mint tea or a coffee and what time are we stopping for lunch. The only places the visitor can drink alcohol is in the tourist hotel bars and the hotel room mini-bars. The Jordanian currency, the dinar, is the easiest ever to convert as one dinar equals about one pound sterling. English is widely spoken and we were made to feel welcome and treated with respect and warmth. We have been to Tunisia, Morocco, and Israel and twice to Egypt and now Jordan. I am sad to admit this may be the last time we visit the Middle East for a while and there is still so much of it to see and enjoy; hopefully in more peaceful times?

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        04.10.2005 12:31
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        The sense of history, culture, the art, the architecture and the people.

        We chose Krakow in Poland for our five day summer city break mainly because my Paternal Grandmother was Polish, and having visited Russia in 2003 to get closer to my Russian Grandfather's roots, I needed to in some way imagine what my Grandmother's life was like before she fled to Britain from Poland for safety; these emotions were all the more heightened for me because they were both Jewish and if they hadn't escaped they too could have been victims of 'Hitler's Final Solution' and I wouldn't be sitting here typing this story of my Krakow experiences. Krakow was once the royal capital city of Poland and was designated to be the European City of Culture in the year 2000 and it is easy to see why. The city universities carry the same status as Oxford and Cambridge and as soon as we arrived at our Hotel Wyspianski, after a two hour flight from London Gatwick and the short drive from the Pope John the Paul 11 Airport, by late afternoon and within a three minute stroll we were in the centre of the vast, magnificent, medieval Old Town market square, second only in size to St Mark's Square in Venice. The square is surrounded on all sides by cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as imposing merchant houses and palaces, so we sat under a sun umbrella of the nearest café and christened our safe arrival with flavoursome cold Polish beer, absorbing the surroundings and the grand variety of architectural styles of buildings, the flower sellers, musicians, mime artists and people meeting up under the central statue of Adam Mickiewiicz, Poland's premier romantic poet and philanderer. The tourist rated Hotel Wyspianski has a restaurant, and although we spied many enticing restaurants surrounding the square and in the cobbled side streets, travelling is tiring so we were ordering dinner in the hotel restaurant by seven o'clock. This first meal was memorable. Herring and soured cream and meat balls for first courses, then veal escalope and rabbit plus potatoes and onions fried in goose fat, plus two deserts and several drinks and we signed for a bill of twelve pounds for two of us. The Zloty is the Polish currency and we were unfamiliar with this, so we double checked the bill but this was the true cost. Next day, after a filling breakfast, including a wide range of International and Polish hot and cold buffet style dishes, we were ready for our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the satellite camp of Auschwitz. It was a bright, sunny August morning and the thirty two miles drive from Krakow through the surrounding countryside was very interesting. Particularly the way the Poles farm in small individually owned strips and even the smartest new build houses grew fruit and vegetables, and kept chickens and rabbits in their large front gardens rather than the landscaped yucca and gravelled minimalist gardens we favour in the UK. The moment we arrived at Birkenau and stepped down from the coach, an icy cold wind blew across the huge expanse of the grim looking camp with wooden sheds stretching as far as the eye could see. It was silent. I imagined a cold deserted winter day here and not the crowds and sunshine of the peak tourist period in August. The Final Solution at Birkenau was carried out at a fast pace by the SS with Jews transported by rail from all across Europe being killed in their thousands every day. As we walked across the railway line and over the unloading platform towards an incinerator an old Jewish man was shuffling towards us held up by two very young Jewish males; I imagine his Great-grandsons. The old man was in his nineties, small, bent double and dressed in white robes with the Israeli flag bordering them complete with white skull cap. I looked at his bowed head and the shape of his brow and the tears welled up in my eyes and my heart was overturning. My Jewish Father died four years ago in his mid-eighties and this old Jewish man could have been him. He was his double. I hadn't expected to cry. I knew the history of the Holocaust. I looked at the rest of our group, and realised that very young people were crying too as the English speaking Polish guide softly relayed the background information of the 'bathhouses,' corpse cellars and crematorium ovens; an industrial extermination factory; as I imagined for many of the younger visitors this may have been the first time they had heard the truth in as much detail. Auschwitz itself is two miles from Birkenau. The short journey on the coach to Auschwitz with our fellow travellers was spent in silence. Walking through the infamous gates of the extermination camp at Auschwitz sent chills down my spine. My lasting memory will be the floor to ceiling displays of hair shaved from the female prisoners, false limbs, spectacles, shoes and childrens' clothes. We had been out all day visiting the camps and when we arrived back in the Market Square in Krakow at 4.30pm we understood why there had been no lunch-break. Who could eat in that horrific environment in the knowledge that millions had died of starvation in Hitler's Final Solution? We sat in another café/bar appreciating our freedom and putting our lives into perspective as I sat sipping my Cherry Vodka, a perfect black coffee and a mammoth slice of sultana cheesecake as sweet and sour as my Polish Grandmother used to make, raising my glass of Vodka and silently thanked her for being so brave and giving me life. In the centre of the Market Square is the Gothic and Renaissance Cloth Hall, an elegant shopping arcade lined on both sides with wooden stalls, and a history that goes back to the 14th Century when it was a major trading centre with the East, trading silk and spices in exchange for lead, salt and textiles. The stalls sold mainly amber jewellery, leather goods, clothes and tourist memorabilia and had a charming atmosphere and I loved the happy smiling faces of the Krakow stall holders as they took loads of money from the hordes of visitors buying their goods. The Poles are embracing tourism - and so they should after years of repression. They appeared to be enjoying taking money from us with broad smiles and a happy attitude. Our rung out emotions needed to dwell on pleasanter things so the next day we started the morning walking the mainly pedestrianised city as it is surrounded by beautiful gardens with the ring-road placed beyond them; rather good urban planning; then to explore the Jewish Quarter stopping for lunch to eat a real kosher meal. We began our cultural experience at the famous Jagiellonian University of Krakow in the six hundred year old Collegium Maius where Poland's famous son Pope John Paul 11 studied. The Gothic courtyard houses the University Museum with memorabilia of famous students and tributes to the USA President Herbert Hoover who was responsible for aid and support to Poland after both World Wars. Then we hopped onto a double horse and carriage driven by a beautiful young Polish woman wearing the same coloured livery as her sleek and healthy steeds and we clip clopped along the cobbled streets to visit the old Jewish Quarter of Krakow, Kazimierz, where in 1941, up to 68,000 Jewish people were confined by the Nazis to ghettos before being transported to Auschwitz for 'resettlement' in other words - extermination. Stephen Spielberg chose Kazimierz as his location for the film Schindler's List. Kazimierz is run down and dilapidated as the area has been left as it was after the war as tribute to the horrors that took place there. Nevertheless, I had promised Morty a kosher meal like my Grandmother used to make, so we sat in the courtyard of the Ariel Jewish restaurant in the central square of the Kazimierz district and ate herring and sour cream, dumplings, potato latkes, chicken liver with egg, gefiltre fish, matzos and honey cake topped off with kosher beer. Food I happily remember from my childhood. We walked off our substantial lunch with a stroll back to the royal castle of Wawel, the residence of Polish kings for centuries. Wawel Castle is a magnificent Renaissance building with an arcaded courtyard and houses many museums illustrating Polish history and culture, including the Royal Apartments, the Armoury and Treasury. We enjoyed the underground tour of the remains of pre-Roman and Gothic walls under the foundations of the Castle and the Dragon's Den, a long cave that was once allegedly home to a child eating dragon. Just time to walk back to the Market Square to catch the hourly single trumpet fanfare from the tower of the 14th Century Gothic St Mary's Church, which historically warned the city of impending attacks, before my daily requirement of Cherry Vodka, coffee and cheesecake and a rest before dinner. Krakow has a comprehensive range of places to eat from the ubiquitous McDonalds to inexpensive and expensive national dishes and globally fashionable cuisines, such as Italian, French, Chinese and Japanese. Whatever your pocket and your palate eating in Krakow is fun with something to suit everyone with excellent service and all of a very high standard. You won't go hungry. After dinner there are many jazz clubs and blues bars to visit, all offering live music until the early hours of the morning. Our hotel was minutes away from the late night-life yet during our five night stay we were never disturbed by people turning out to go home at three in the morning as can happen in the UK and late night drinking. The Poles know how to drink. It wasn't unusual to see people of all ages and gender drinking a litre of Polish beer at 9.00am in the morning. Perhaps 'Binge-drinking' isn't in their vocabulary or culture? We were up early the next day for our trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mines, thirteen miles outside Krakow and Poland's oldest working salt mine and UNESCO World Culture Heritage site. The mine has ninety miles of galleries, chambers, tunnels and lakes all sculpted from salt, but we were only to walk for about three miles. But first we had to walk down eight hundred steps having been assured we would ascend via a lift! It was far more interesting than I thought it would be illustrating amazing engineering skills from over nine hundred ago. There is a chapel with alter, chandeliers and art all carved from the salt rock complete with a Polish military band 'Ooompahing' away and available for weddings. We were deep down in the mine for over two hours and I began to feel slightly claustrophobic and wanted to get to the surface. We began queuing for the lift. I had imagined something resembling a large cable car carrying a hundred people at a time as there were thousands of people following on from each other along the tunnels. We queued for a long time. The panic was rising in my throat. Was there something wrong? Suddenly, an official guide grabbed nine of us and we were shoved into a minute industrial miner's cage with no lights. I have never been as intimate with strangers before. Everyone screamed in shock as the tiny cage lifted off in total darkness, shooting to the surface in 45 seconds, then the cage door opened and we all stumbled blinking and disorientated into the reception area. An extremely pretty young Polish woman approached me and said sweetly 'I love your perfume. It smells so good. What is it please?' and I realised that for 45 seconds I had been physically closer to another female than ever before in my life. Our last day was spent visiting the numerous art galleries in Krakow; all are within easy walking distance of each other as it is a city to explore on foot and at leisure. Krakow has a temperate climate with hot summer days and frosty winter ones complete with a ski season from December to March on the Tatra Mountains, a two hour drive from Krakow. The rest of the year the Tatra Mountains offer hiking, bird watching, rock climbing, cycling and paragliding for the more energetic and activity minded. There are National Parks and castles all within easy reach of this stunning city. There are many cheap flights to Krakow offered on the Internet as well as a variety of accommodation for the independent traveller. So be it art, history, culture, academia, music, religion, activity or simply a Cherry Vodka, a coffee and a slice of cheesecake that you fancy, then Krakow has it all.

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        • hotelchocolat.com / Online Shop / 39 Readings / 28 Ratings
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          29.11.2004 15:04
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          • "I May Eat It All Before Christmas"

          The news item on the radio said that women who eat chocolate enjoy a more fulfilling sexual life and are more eager and ready for sex than their non-chocolate-eating sisters! So when the colour brochure arrived, tantalisingly slipped in-between the pages of my Sunday newspaper, I decided it was worth a second look. The 'Hotel Chocolat' Christmas Catalogue 2004 offering chocolates for you or someone else with free delivery anywhere in the UK certainly caught my attention. By the time I'd reached page nine of these thirty three pages with beautiful photographs offering all manner of feasts of chocolate I was enthralled by the selections being offered. I was smitten. Hotel Chocolat is 100% British owned and has been run by the original founders, Angus Thirwell and Peter Harris, for the last ten years. They have impressively made over three million successful chocolate deliveries during that time and I could sense there was one more order about to be completed. Although the brochure emphasised the Christmas Season there are plenty of delicious classic chocolates for the connoisseur - to be ordered, delivered and eaten for no reason at all. However - I had Christmas in mind so focussed on the seasonal specialities. Before I went any further I was interested in the ethical approach of Hotel Chocolat so visited their excellent website and was pleased to read that they are helping to rejuvenate old cocoa tree plantations in Ghana thus boosting farmers' incomes. They are improving the educational resources of the village schools and partnering health insurance schemes. They also declare they use nothing nasty in their chocolate like hydrogenated vegetable fats, using only fresh and wholesome ingredients. This was good enough for me and although I had the brochure I was more interested in navigating the online Hotel Chocolat and buying online. There were twenty six Christmas Specials listed on the drop-down products menu on the Hotel Chocolat homepage. The items were temptingly illustrated and the contents well described. Even down to telling the buyer if the contents were suitable for vegetarians, vegans or were gluten free. There are in total forty six chocolate products suitable for vegetarians, a few less for vegans and just one gluten free assortment of truffles. I ordered the huge cracker for the Boxing Day table. The cracker is really handsome and impressive in matt silver and white with ribbons to tug the cracker open- and inside are a variety of forty individually wrapped chocolates and a menu identifying those with or without alcohol and vegetarian suitability. There are twelve festive hats and don't forget the mottoes and jokes will you? I ordered the European style Christmas Stollen cake as an alternative to traditional Christmas cake. This has marzipan baked in the centre and we are a family of marzipan lovers. Then the irresistible fifteen inch long Grande Chocolate Log - melt in the mouth and rich in cocoa butter and studded with pistachios and hazelnuts; definitely one to slice and share together with friends and family along with coffee and cognac. Other Christmas selections offered a nine inch high milk chocolate and shapely Elke known as Santa's helper especially for the blokes; Marron glaces; Turkish Delight; Christmas chocolate hampers; Chocolate liqueurs; the Twelve days of Chocolate and traditional boxes of chocolate and much more. Then the Slabs caught my eye. They weigh half a kilo and form into thick slabs of molten chocolate. There was a selection of six varieties of these sinfully wicked slabs so I ordered the Swiss Milk and Hazelnuts and the Coffee Fusion. There is Ebony and Orange; Dark and Almonds; Milk and White Fusion and Milk and Dark Fusion with Cocoa Nibs. Ordering five items for the same address gave a £5.00 discount - and do remember dear readers, that this is free delivery. Varying discounts applied to two, three and four items with a 5% discount for six items of chocolate. If you really want next day delivery then expect to pay £3.50 but I still think that free delivery within three working days is a superb offer. When my order arrived there was an offer of 10% off everything if ordered online so that in itself saves the delivery charges. Registration was simple as was the ordering. All items were offered with a gift card if required and once my order was complete the order number was sitting in my Outlook Express in-box enabling me to track my goods online from the Hotel Chocolate website. Later, on the same day of ordering a further email arrived from Hotel Chocolat telling me my order was processed and on its delivery-way with Parcel Force. A further tracking number allowed me to follow the delivery process until it arrived on my doorstep. Again - excellently packaged in sexy black and silver with dinky gift cards and securely parcelled with all items as described both in the brochure and on the website as well as being delivered within the promised three working days. The Hot Chocolat website offers you the choices of shopping by Product- such as Chocograms, Gourmet, Chocolate Enrobed Fruit and Nuts; Occasion- including New Baby or even more seductive- by Self Indulgence; Person -such and Man, Woman, Office or Young Person. Hotel Chocolat is a very comprehensively designed and user friendly website offering the shopper an extremely wide range of superb chocolate goodies with very comprehensive navigation- you can't get lost. If I were to have a wish list for presents I wish somebody would send me a pack of 600g Classic Real Chocolate flakes made from 70% dark chocolate that melts luxuriously into hot milk for the best chocolate drink ever. Along with a selection of plain, cinnamon or Mocha chocolate flakes I would like a pack of twelve chocolate dippers. Praline or Deeply Dark chocolate balls on a sort of skewer that you dip into the hot chocolate drink and then suck the melting chocolate from the stick. How decadently divine does that sound to you all? For real dedicated chocolate lovers Hotel Chocolat run a Chocolate Tasting Club. The introductory offer is £9.95 and membership will give the chocolate taster access to regularly taste and comment on new top-notch chocolates exclusive to Hotel Chocolate. The introductory offer is a wonderful box of chocolates plus three servings of real drinking chocolate and lots of information about- guess what? Chocolate! This isn't offered as a gift because the aim is to get the buyer hooked - and it is a good hook! But what does the chocolate taste like? Well, I'm not supposed to know really because this whole order was for purely Christmas delicacies and gifts for others but - I had to do it! I needed to know how good the chocolate was to eat so I included in my order a Slab just for myself; a Slab of Ebony and Orange. It was huge but the chocolate is superb and I am now a dedicated Hotel Chocolate aficionado. I haven't mentioned the price yet have I? It is expensive. Paying more money for something top of the range for a special occasion is worth it though. 600g of easy melt chocolate flakes costs £12.96 and twelve chocolate dippers are £12.95. A one foot high cuddly Labrador with four chocolate bones is £25.95 - I know - but it is a novelty gift. Mulled wine dipped apples coated in hazelnuts and chocolate is £17.97. The thick chocolate slabs cost £14.95 each. The ultimate Christmas Hamper including champagne, chocolates, truffles and Turkish-Delight is £129.95 -Phew! If I were you I'd get on to the website and take up the invitation to the Chocolate Tasting Club and get that box of chocolates for £9.95 including free P & P. It's the lowest priced chocolate selection they do! In case you are tempted by my review the last ordering date for the free UK delivery is at 3.00pm on the 20th December. They say chocolate is better than sex - but now they say eating chocolate makes you feel sexier. My imagination is running away with me at the question-does half a kilo of real chocolate make a woman feel sexier than one cube of dairy milk?

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          • More +
            11.11.2004 22:40
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            • "Will I ever visit again?"

            Fourteen weary Jules Verne tourists climbed off the coach that had taken them from the city of Shanghai to the River Port of Zhenjang on the Yangtze to board their cruise ship the MV Victoria Rose and their eight night journey upstream along the Yangtze River in China ending at the river city of Chongqing. We shouldn't have been that weary. Six intriguing days and nights spent in Beijing and finally Shanghai had been fascinating. Our minds were full of the exciting images we'd seen. Our bodies were weary with the walking and climbing we'd done – but our weariness was more to do with a coach journey that should have taken three hours from Shanghai to the River Port. The fact that China is under construction meant that the motorway from Shanghai to the River Port was still being built as we drove on it, resulting in the journey taking nine hours. The road was so rough that we spent the entire time either hitting the roof of the coach with our heads or jarring our spines on the seats. All of us were dreaming of a relaxing cruise with the highlights being our visit to the new Three Gorges Dam site and to see the magnificence of The Three Gorges before the completion of the Dam in 2009 submerges The Three Gorges leaving just the peaks as islets above water. But how relaxing was this cruise going to be? The Yangtze River in China is the third longest river in the world after the Amazon and the Nile. The River Yangtze is over three and a half thousand miles long with more than seven hundred tributaries. We were to sail one thousand, three hundred and twenty miles of the Yangtze River over eight nights with frequent shore excursions. Ten percent of China's population live and work along its banks. Almost half the crops eaten by the Chinese are grown along the fertile banks of the River Yangtze including rice, wheat, cotton and maize. But the first impression of the River Yangtze at Zhenjang as we boarded the MV Victoria Rose at 10.30pm is industry, factories, rusting freight and cargo ships, ferries, cruise ships and the lasting memory of smog. The MV Victoria Rose was comfortable and spotlessly clean and a very welcoming sight after our long coach journey. The cabins were a reasonable size with very sleep inducing beds and adequate bathrooms –complete with a wet-room which I loathe – television, telephone and efficient air conditioning. I stress the importance of air conditioning in China in general and on the River Yangtze in particular. The temperature during these eight days at the end of September remained in the 80 degrees Fahrenheit range but the humidity soared from 50% to a suffocating 90%. Bottled water was supplied daily free of charge in our cabins and is essential to prevent dehydration. The MV Victoria Rose had a relaxing one-sitting only restaurant - another important factor for happy cruising – and a good bar that hosted gentle entertainment, lectures and demonstrations of kite flying, calligraphy, language lessons, Mah-jongg instruction, traditional painting and early morning Tai Chi shadow boxing with Dr Wu, all fronted by an on-board Cruise Director and his staff. It became apparent after only one day that the fourteen passengers from the UK, ranging in age from thirty two to seventy eight years old, were the only ones from the seventy others, exclusively Americans, which actually drank at the bar. After our time together in Beijing and Shanghai we became even more bonded as we met every evening in the bar for a pre-dinner drink and most certainly after dinner for our night-caps. Travelling in an organised tour group is bit pot luck as there is no escape from the others - but we all got along very well for the entire sixteen days. So much for the anticipated rest though. The MV Victoria Rose set sail from Zhenjang some time during the night and docked at Nanjing, o few miles upstream. But we didn't sleep for long as the buffet breakfast was being served at 6.45 am and we were to disembark on a shore excursion to visit a Mausoleum in Nanjing. The German Cruise Director was already getting on our nerves as he gleefully told us there were over four hundred steps up to the Mausoleum of Dr Sun Yat-Sen, the Father of Modern China who led the 1911 revolution and founded the Republic of China. After lunch we were to make a further visit to a Bazaar and then a Confucian Temple. The Cruise Director had a rather unfortunate manner. He didn't seem entirely suitable in his role as what was in essence in charge of Entertainments. On our arrival the night before after the fraught coach journey we had all wanted a drink at the bar and he'd refused to serve us after 11.00.pm because we had a busy day ahead. We were on holiday – not an army assault training course! After out post lunchtime visit to the Bazaar and the Confucian temple we set sail at 3.00pm to travel one hundred and thirty miles to the port of Gui Chi. Now and again the smog cleared on the River Yangtze- a few gaps appeared on the river banks, lessening the effect of industrial smoke belching out of the factories and coal mines that line so much of the sometimes obliterated river banks. The next day was even more threatening. By this time we were calling our Cruise Director Herr Flick! With great joy he told us that breakfast was at 5.15am as we had a full day shore excursion to the Yellow Mountain from Gui Chi and were scheduled to leave the boat at 6.00am. With even greater joy he told us there are many stairs and steep pathways to climb at the Yellow Mountain but walking sticks were available to buy at the bottom of the mountain. However, even Herr Flick couldn't spoil what was to be a wondrous day out. Yellow Mountain, or Mt. Huangshan, has been named by UNESCO as a world historical and cultural protection area. The day was clear and sunny with no fog. This made us especially fortunate as the seventy two peaks of the Yellow Mountain are enveloped by fog and clouds for three quarters of the year. The majestic peaks, crags and granite rock formations with pine tress growing from every crevice are the inspiration for much of the traditional Chinese landscape paintings with just wisps of mist feathering the summits and the Yellow Mountain is a place of pilgrimage for poets, writers and philosophers. To reach the top of the Yellow Mountain we boarded a cable car that held one hundred people and took almost fifteen minutes to ascend on what looked to me like a bit of string. We were all more confident when told it was Austrian technology and engineering that had designed and built the whole system. Looking down as the cable car smoothly soared upwards we passed over peaks and gorges and deep ravines, which was a breathtaking and scary experience but stunningly beautiful. We then followed a pathway downwards past the Cloud Gathering Pavilion and then to a mountain restaurant for lunch. This pathway was narrow and steep with nothing but an iron railing on the edge to prevent anybody falling through and into the terrifyingly sheer drop to the valleys and ravines below. At stages along these pathways there were thousands of padlocks on chains on the iron railings. Lovers declare their undying love for each other by locking the padlock onto the rail and throwing the key into the gorge, so expressively romantic? After a delicious Lazy Susan lunch in a restaurant perched high on the mountain we had to climb back up the very steep paths and steps to the cable car station for our descent. The afternoon sun was very hot and immediately after a large lunch we were uncomfortably out of breath but all considered ourselves very lucky to have seen the Yellow Mountain in these weather conditions, as visiting groups only a few days previously experienced high winds and rain and could see nothing of the intoxicating scenery. It was some relief to discover we had two days sailing upstream with no shore excursions but for one brief evening tour of the city and river port of Wuhan, and thankfully no early morning starts. This gave us the opportunity to discover more about our ship the MV Victoria Rose, perhaps read a book and learn a little more about Chinese culture and traditions from the Cruise Team. The ship had a large lobby/reception area complete with a shop selling jewellery such as Chinese jade and Chinese fresh water pearls, kites, silk clothes and accessories. Reception was manned twenty four hours a day and each of the three passenger decks had an attendant house keeping member of staff ready to meet any requirements. The ratios of staff to passenger appeared to be two-to-one and they were all attentive, charming and eager to improve their English at every opportunity by engaging in conversation with the guests. The Dynasty Restaurant served excellent hot and cold buffet style breakfasts at the respectable time of 8.00am with selections of food from traditional Western taste to Chinese style. Lunch was a hot buffet - again with choices to suit everyone. Dinner was waiter service as dish after dish of Chinese style foods arrived and was placed on the Lazy Susan - let the spinning begin! Early bird tea and coffee was served from 6.00am in the Yangtze Club and tea and cookies at 3.30pm every afternoon. I never made the early bird coffee and somehow I never made, or needed, the afternoon tea. Fortunately there is no dressing up on board. People were wearing the same casual clothes to dinner as they had worn to breakfast. The on-board laundry service was so reasonably priced that if I did this trip again I would only pack one set of clothes - wear the other set -and have each laundered on alternate days. I was disappointed that we couldn't walk right round the MV Victoria Rose outside decks as they were both too narrow and sealed off for access. Although all the cabins had large picture windows overlooking the outside of the ship the cabin doors opened into internal corridors. This made any length of time spent on board feel restrictive. There were two sundecks fore and aft and an observatory top deck. Two online computers, a hairdresser and beautician, a masseur, a library and a doctor were on board. The MV Victoria was non-smoking apart from the bar, in the lobby and the outside areas. The weather was warm enough to sit on the decks in spite of the persistent mist and fog. The Yangtze River was a deep yellowy-muddy colour, probably because of the tons of sewage and industrial waste that is dumped in it all the time as well as the enormous amounts of silt that are deposited in the flood season. Only three weeks prior to our visit unseasonably heavy torrential rainfalls had caused extensive flooding with the loss of many lives from people who lived in the villages along the banks of the river. As we sailed along some pleasure was gained from the intermittent breaks from riverside industrial plants and their smoking chimneys allowing us to see more clearly and enjoy the landscapes. Rice fields worked by manual labour with the help of water buffalo were scenes that I'd expected along this part of the Yangtze. The upstream current was very strong so it took us twenty seven hours to travel just 295 miles up the river to Wuhan for a brief two hour visit where we saw yet another Buddhist Temple and led into yet another shop selling yet more Chinese arts, silks, jade, pearls, kites, Mah-jongg sets, calligraphy tools. Although this was just day four on the River Yangtze it was day nine of our visit to China and we were simply 'jaded-out' by then and I didn't care if I never saw another artefact or indeed another Mausoleum or Buddha statue. I desperately needed to see nature and not man-made things. But this wasn't yet to be! The distance from Wuhan to our next stop, Yichang, was 440 miles. Yichang is most famous for the Gezhouba Dam. A massive civil engineering feat completed in 1988 which at the moment is China's largest hydroelectric power generator - until the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam, 25 miles further upstream, is completed in 2009. Now, most all of the Yangtze cruises begin at Yichang to sail upstream and visit the Three Gorges and the construction site of the new Dam ending at Chongqing or, vice -versa, begin at Chongqing and sail downstream via the Three Gorges and finish at Yichang. These trips last three or four days - half the length of our cruise. Considering we had been on board since Shanghai for five days and apart from the magic of the Yellow Mountain I did wonder about the value of these extra days on the MV Victoria Rose. We'd seen no birds, no fish, and no wild-life at all unlike all the other rivers we've sailed on, including the Volga and the Nile, and my lasting impression is of a polluted river, industrial waste, rusty boats and junks and everlasting smog. The MV Victoria Rose crew tried to excite us by telling us to keep a keen eye out for Finless Porpoises and Yangtze Dolphins but once we were told that our Captain had been sailing the River Yangtze for over thirty years and never seen any himself we gave up the search and put our binoculars away! When you're on a river boat it is very exciting going through the ship-locks on a river and the Gezhouba Dam was no exception. From the moment the back gates closed behind us it took about twenty minutes for the water to pump into the lock to reach the same level as the outside and for the front gates to open - but this was small fry compared to the Three Gorges Dam. The Three Gorges Dam has five ship-locks. Each lock can hold from five to nine ships. Our passage through each of these locks took a total of four hours. As well as flood prevention the new Dam will create a reservoir over 350 miles long. At the same time displacing almost two million people from their homes and their land but also providing electricity for 80% of the country! Many people are leaving the rural farming areas altogether and taking jobs in the fast expanding industrial areas in the cities. So how much of the Gorges would we see now that the drowning has begun? The Three Gorges Dam is built in the forty seven mile long Xiling Gorge which was once a dangerous part of the river to navigate because of the currents and the rapids, but not any longer because the water levels have risen as the Three Gorges Dam nears completion. We entered the twenty five mile long Wu Gorge - often described as the most sombre of the gorges because of the steep cliff walls bordering the winding river and the sunlight sometimes breaking in shafts through the splits in the rocks. Then onwards to Wushan where we were to board a small ferry and sail along the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze, and see the lesser gorges. I liked these lesser gorges best of all. The River Daning was clear and blue. We saw monkeys climbing trees, goats clambering up the rocks, plenty of green foliage and wildlife but were sad to realise that these lesser gorges will be submerged once the Three Gorges Dam creates the huge reservoir. Finally, the five mile long Qutang Gorge where the river narrowed to a matter of a few hundred feet with sheer precipices either side and then onwards to Fengdu 'The City of Ghosts' It looked like it too as it was shrouded in mist but we had a pleasant on-shore visit to the Snowy Jade Caves which were in fact an alternative Wookey Hole. Then our final day on the MV Victoria Rose; we were sailing the last one hundred and fifty miles to Chongqing and our ultimate destination on the Yangtze. As we approached the sub-tropical city of Chongqing I read that it is nicknamed the 'Furnace' or 'Fog City' and I could see why! We couldn't actually see it! Chongqing is one of the few Chinese cities that don't have millions of bicycle riders as it is so hilly, and humid and hot and industrial with towering skyscrapers and flyovers. Along the cliffs and the precipices that bank the Yangtze through all the Gorges as well as on large stretches of the Yangtze are huge signs in metres showing where the water will stand in 2009. This had a huge impact as we saw the houses, villages and even cities which will be underwater or demolished when the dam is finished. They say that the deep waters will allow ocean liners to sail all the way to the huge city of Chongqing from Shanghai making vital trade links to the western regions of China. They say that instead of reducing the beauty of the Gorges, tourists will be offered submarine trips down into their underwater depths thus increasing the revenue from visitors. They say that thousands of archeologically important sites will be drowned when the Dam is finished. Others argue that many cultural and historical relics are being moved to higher ground. Our two part visit to China has given us more insight into modern China and where it's going in the world. It is undergoing an industrial revolution. Be prepared to feel tired as there is so much to see and it is a vast country. It will be foggy on the Yangtze. September and October appear to be the driest seasons. During our holiday in China we saw no rain or winds at all. Thank goodness - with that and the fog? Drink plenty of the freely provided bottled water because the humidity is generally high. Consider the four day Yangtze cruise from Yichang to Chongqing as an alternative to the full Yangtze cruise of eight nights. But try to get to the Yellow Mountain for spiritual refreshment. And although the river boats are luxurious and very comfortable with excellent service and delicious food with plenty of on-board culture to stimulate the mind -the continual fog can get to you. But this wasn't the end of our China adventure with Voyagers Jules Verne and our intrepid little band of travellers. We were to see the threatened species, the Giant Pandas, eating four tons of bamboo a day in Chongqing Zoo but even better than that. We were to take an internal air plane flight on Air China to the beautiful city of Xian to visit the Terracotta Warriors - but that's another story.

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              20.10.2004 09:04
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              The Temple of Extreme Moisture In China the people say they will eat anything with four legs – except a chair and anything with two wings – except an airplane. Thus we were well prepared for our first evening in the capital of China, Beijing, as our local Chinese guide Jackie took fourteen exhausted UK Voyagers Jules Verne travellers through the open air street market in this remarkable city. Three hundred and sixty five days a year from 6.00 am until midnight and in all the extreme weathers these fast-food stalls line the street by the hundred preparing and cooking food for the hungry passers-by. But what food; Skewers crammed with plucked sparrows; skinned frogs; wriggling scorpions; silk worm cocoons and water rat; all ready to be stir fried and grilled, served and eaten on the go. Snake-burger anyone? Delicious steamed dumplings seemed to be normal fare on this bustling food street and we weren't really shocked at the skewers of scorpions – after all we eat prawns don't we? So what was our itinery for the sixteen night visit to China? Our holiday was booked with Voyagers Jules Verne and charmingly named 'The Original Yangtze Cruise' as eight nights of our sixteen were to be spent sailing up the vast Yangtze River to include the new Three Gorges Dam and the Three Gorges as they are now before the dam is completed in 2009 and drowns another eighty metres of the mountains that make this part of the Yangtze River so recognisable. The remaining eight nights were to be spent in five star hotels in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian with internal flights between Beijing and Shanghai and after our river cruise a flight from the river port of Chongqing in the Western provinces to Xian to visit the Terracotta Army and then flying back to Beijing for an overnight stay and then the ten hour return flight on China Airways to Heathrow. Five airplane journeys in sixteen days; A warning disclaimer at the end of our booking confirmation from our travel company Voyagers Jules Verne told us that this trip was strenuous and should not be undertaken by anybody with walking difficulties or health problems. Tired yet? First impressions of China were vivid and will remain with me always. Beijing has a population of over thirteen million people and covers a land area larger than Belgium, a very flat area indeed. It certainly is a city of the old and the new with cyclists braving the heavy traffic that clogs up the roads for most of the day, plus risking the fumes. China is under construction – bring a hard hat with you as essential travel wear. The people of Beijing are beautiful, both male and female. They are small boned, slim, high-cheek bones, clear complexions and sculptured features, beautifully dressed in 'Designer' clothes and always on the move. Our local guide told us that although China has a communist government everyone is a mini-capitalist holding down three jobs at a time. We visited a local park that was like an outside gymnasium. The majority of the people using the basic equipment were well past retirement age and were supple and able to manoeuvre their bodies into positions that a thirty year old would envy. Music played under the trees as elderly couples danced together. Groups of people practiced Tai Chi together, played ball-games, gambled, sang, played musical instruments and made the most of this free amenity provided by the government to keep a fit body and mind. I somehow couldn't imagine our retired population in the UK making use of walking machines, benches and even a cobbled path that people were walking around and around barefooted. Another significant impact was how polite and non-aggressive the huge city of Beijing felt. Usually in any big city there can be a feeling of threat and menace but we didn't experience this sensation at all in China. We felt completely safe. Another huge impact was that after the scruffy, dirty and worn out atmosphere of London Heathrow and the obvious discontentment of the people who have to work there, and then Beijing International Airport was indeed a sharp contrast. Spotlessly clean with polite smiling staff and a very modern, streamlined appearance putting Heathrow to shame at the first impression that it must surely give to our visiting tourists. Another lingering thought was the absence of wild birds and dogs and cats in Beijing as the only birds we saw were in cages and I pushed the thought of sparrows on a skewer being stir fried right out of my mind. I didn't want to know! Our group of seven couples with ages ranging from thirty two up to seventy eight got to know each other during dinner on our first night in the revolving restaurant at the top of the extremely comfortable five stars Xixuan Hotel in Beijing. Eating a delicious Chinese buffet meal and gazing over the dramatic skyline of tower scrapers and congested newly built road system choc-a-bloc with gleaming new cars we noticed the descending smog that began to obliterate the tops of the high rise hotels, apartments and office blocks. We wondered – was the smog a warning of things to come? Beijing has promised to clean up their pollution problem in preparation for the Olympics in 2008. This is a difficult task as people are buying cars by the dozen. The factories are being relocated to areas outside of the city so this should help. The traffic is a huge problem with all the new cars as the Chinese are consuming and manufacturing at a tremendous pace. A journey through the city at night would take twenty minutes but sometimes the same journey would take two hours during the day. We were told that during the Olympic fortnight people will be told not to use their cars to commute but use the train leaving the roads freed up for the tourists. Being part of a group has its pros and cons. The independent traveller would choose to stop mid-morning while sight-seeing for a coffee or glass of green tea but we knew from prior travel experiences that the host country and their tourist board wants the visitor to see as much of their country as possible. On the other hand, the independent traveller would need more than sixteen days to see everything that we saw – probably more of a gap-year? In one day alone in Beijing we visited the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square with lunch in a local restaurant en route; dinner at a local restaurant followed by an evening at a Beijing Opera performance; all this without returning to our hotel. Tiananmen Square is vaster than any news footage can reveal as it covers 98 acres and of course images of the student demonstration in 1989 flash before your eyes. I considered our group of fourteen were pretty intelligent people but we still found ourselves lined up and saying 'Cheese' for a group photo taken with an immense portrait of Chairman Mao as a backdrop. I blame jet-lag! The Forbidden City will be familiar to many as the setting for the excellent film 'The Last Emperor' The Forbidden City was out of bounds to ordinary people for over five hundred years as it was the home of the Ming Emperors. The last Emperor only left the city after the 1911 revolution but not till 1924 when this, the 24th emperor was expelled by military troops. Considering there are allegedly 9999 rooms all contained in 800 stunning buildings with yellow tiled roofs and surrounded by a moat and high walls it isn't surprising there was a revolution. Translation from Chinese to English was aptly named as 'Chinglish' by our guide as exotically named temples were translated as 'The Temple of Excessive Moisture' and 'The Hall of Preserved Elegance' The Summer Palace covers twelve square miles – three quarters of which is a man-made lake – but this was built by an Empress using money that was intended for a naval fleet –again – bring on the revolution? However, the landscaping was tranquil consisting of classic Chinese gardens featuring water, rocks, bridges, willows, bamboo, jasmine and traditional buildings showing the balanced Yin and Yang of nature. At this stage of our trip we had realised that whichever tourist wonder we visited there would be a souvenir shop at the end of it - or a silk factory, or a jade factory, or a pearl factory, or a Chinese traditional landscape painting shop, or a porcelain shop, or an enamel shop, or a silk carpet shop, or a Buddha factory, or a calligraphy shop, or a name-seal shop, or a Chinese tea shop, or a hand-painted snuff bottle shop, or a kite shop; it was endless. On the other hand bargaining with the Chinese was a fun business all undertaken with good nature and a result that pleased both the vendor and the buyer. We had been warned about the 'Hello People' that congregates around any recognised tourist site. 'Hello People' because they called out 'Hello', banged drums, whistled, clapped and shouted to attract attention to their merchandise. But, they were nowhere near as invasive as their equivalents in the Middle East, taking 'No' for an answer with fine humour, even after punching in an inflated price into their large hand-held calculators – let the haggling begin! A bit about eating out in Beijing and indeed all of China; we were already 'Lazy-Susanned' out! The dishes at both lunch and dinner kept coming one after another on to the spinning wheel, albeit totally delicious but impossible for our group to eat everything. We all felt guilty as we left the table with enough food remaining to feed another group – perhaps it did? A tureen of clear soup, a bowl of rice and a pot of green tea would arrive first, rapidly followed dishes of pork, ribs, chicken, prawns, beef, vegetables and sometimes a whole steamed fish on the bone (picked from a tank of live fish) Then watermelon and pomegranates; Spinning the Lazy Susan was an art form and for kack-handed people like me chopsticks made for awkward and sloppy eating. Although I did like only having small bowl rather than a large dinner plate as this prevented that mass pile up of food on a plate that is the inevitable end-result of a Chinese Take-Away at home. Oh! And don't drink the tap water. All the hotels supplied us with two fresh and unopened bottles of mineral water every day. Morty had to be my food taster in the more Western provinces to protect my mouth from being fire-bombed as they cook with red-hot chilli peppers or lip-numbing wild peppers as in a hot and sour soup. Sadly, whilst in Beijing I mistook a dish of fresh green vegetables as green beans instead of wild green peppers with attention grabbing consequences and an inability to speak for twenty minutes. Part of our evening city tour in Beijing was a visit to the Opera, a condensed version especially for tourists. Before we entered the Opera theatre we were able to watch the performers applying their make-up and costumes as they got into character. Chinese opera is unique. The facial make-up and costumes identify the characters as good or bad, evil, brave or honest. Everything is very vivid and colourful and the singers 'sing' in a shrieking falsetto and the music sounds like a band tuning up. But the dance and the acrobatics and sense of drama were enthralling made all the more amusing for the Chinglish sub-titles displayed on a screen either side of the stage. The opera visit lasted around one hour and we were all relieved to get back to our comfortable hotel lobby and listen to the excellent female pianist and base player playing tuneful Western classical music as we sipped a few glasses of cold Chinese white wine before bed. I gather there is some debate as to whether The Great Wall is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. It stretches for over three and a half thousand miles from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert. It was begun in the 5th Century BC built in small stretches then linked together at the end of the 3rd Century BC unifying the whole of China. As I climbed the steep worn steps on this hot day determined to reach the fourth tower on this minute restored section at Badaling Pass forty-four miles north of Beijing I thought about the forced labour of millions of people who were conscripted to build this wall as a defensive protection against the people of the North. This section of the Great Wall is the most crowded and surrounded by souvenir stalls run by the 'Hello People' and there are many restaurants. There are quieter places to visit the Wall where the traveller is able to climb in comparative solitude away from the tour groups. The views as I climbed higher up this restored section became more dramatic scanning a wild and rugged landscape with just the sight of the unrestored Wall disappearing into the distance. Our afternoon was a welcome contrast to The Great Wall and the throngs of people. The Ming Tombs were a relaxing experience. The third Ming Emperor Yongle chose the Shisanling Valley, twenty five miles north-west of Beijing, as the burial place for himself and eventually eleven of his successors. We strolled in the afternoon sunshine through huge marble gates that marked the beginning of The Sacred Way leading to the tombs. As we approached a triple arched gate we were all superstitious enough not to walk through the central arch as this was only used when an Emperor's body was brought through for internment. Rather than face more crowds our guide recommended we enjoyed the peace and tranquillity by following the half mile long Sacred Way route past the eleven unrestored and unopened tombs. Ah! Bliss! The beautiful formal Chinese gardens and huge statues of men and animals carved out of granite gave us a feeling of calm. The fully excavated tomb of Emperor Yongle took thirty thousand people six years to build. It is difficult not to appreciate these labours as I strolled through courtyards, marble terraces and palatial buildings all centred onto The Hall of Eminent Favours – one of the largest wooden buildings in China. As if this wasn't enough for one day our last night in Beijing was to enjoy a meal of Beijing (Peking) Duck in the Quanjude Restaurant, the largest duck restaurant in the World. This 'Duck Palace' has over forty dining rooms and can serve five thousand meals a day. Needless to say, the gang were a bit travel weary by this time and dissolved into laughter when the expert chef arrived at our table to carve our duck wearing a mask. Some bad taste SARS comments bounced around the group but I put this down to the bottles of very strong Chinese fruit wine that were spinning around the Lazy Susan. I have never been inside such a large and busy restaurant and as we left to return to our hotel at 9.00pm there were hundreds of people, mainly Chinese, queuing to have a meal. The afternoon of day five we were to fly from Beijing to Shanghai on an internal flight for the next stage of our holiday but on the way to the airport that morning there was one more stop en route to The Temple of Heaven where emperors held their religious ceremonies. But again we were 'Minged' out as we felt culturally drained and all agreed that we were looking forward to our overnight stay in Shanghai and then boarding our river boat, The Victoria Rose, at Yuhan for a relaxing eight night cruise up the River Yangtze. Oh how we were to recall those words 'relaxing' in the days to come! Visiting China is a totally 'foreign' experience and by day two I had forgotten what England was like. Beijing is a vibrant, warm and friendly city and I envy anybody who is planning to go there for the Olympics. They will have an amazing time. Perhaps all the new roads and building will be finished by then? The best time to go is September and October as it can rain with a fury during the summer months and is very cold in the winter. During our stay in Beijing in September/October the days were lovely with a steady mid-seventies temperature and most importantly a dry heat and no rain at all. We were to discover that in the Western provinces humidity can reach 95% - unimaginable - although it was true as we were to discover. Be warned if you are advised that a visit to China is strenuous because this is true. There is a lot of walking and many of the temples and monuments can have several hundred steps to reach them. One of our group members was suffering from the permanent effects of a mini-stroke and at times struggled to reach her goal. Because of the heavy building schedules some roads are still being constructed but being used at the same time. A two hour coach ride with spines being jarred and heads hitting the roof of the coach as we rode over the unfinished surface can be distressing for those with back problems! It was distressing for those with no back-problems. Credit cards are accepted in hotels and restaurants and most of the tourist shops - otherwise they will take any currency including their own Yuen. Tour prices for China vary enormously. This was our sixth holiday with Voyagers Jules Verne as they appear to be in the mid-price range and have always been completely reliable and efficient and always ensure their clients have comfortable and often luxurious accommodation, particularly on more strenuous touring holidays such as this. A Tour Manager is always supplied and they employ professional English speaking and knowledgeable local guides wherever required. The second part of our visit to China will focus on the Yangtze River Cruise, the Three Gorges and the new Dam, the Terracotta Warriors and our exciting trip in a cable car to the top of the Yellow Mountain; plus of course some personal observations – including the fog.

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                26.06.2004 21:54
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                The Croatians say that if you count the number of spots on a Dalmatian dog you will find that there are over two thousand of them ? as many spots as there are islands along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Our ship, the M/S Dalmacija, was to take us from the Port of Venice, across the Adriatic and then we were to cruise through the islands, isles and reefs of Dalmatia docking and disembarking at several historic towns and cities such as Split and Dubrovnik, with a brief visit to Corfu and Montenegro and then returning to Venice for a last spectacular evening viewing Venice by night in a motorboat. Are you excited ? because we certainly were? The M/S Dalmacija's main claim to fame was that it was used to film scenes for the film 'The Talented Mr Ripley' adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith and starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. It was clearly the oldest ship we had sailed on and had an air of faded grandeur about it, but it had a charming Croatian crew, a swimming pool, Lido bar, a Grand Salon and a very attractive restaurant and most importantly with just the one sitting as a two sitting restaurant is a nightmare to avoid on any cruise ship. Once shown to our cabin I instantly refused to sleep in a cabin with no windows or portholes (It felt like an underwater coffin) and we managed to organise an alternative cabin with two portholes then I was happy. I think Morty took me seriously when I told him there was no way there'd be any sex in this underwater tomb so we'd better get a better cabin than this for our eight day holiday. The 7.15 a.m. Astraeus airline flight from Gatwick to Brescia in Italy took less than two hours and then a two hour coach journey to the Port of Venice. Embarkation time for the M/S Dalmacija' was at 2.00p.m and we set sail at 4.00p.m - after a couple of glasses of wine in a Venetian waterside cafe ? our destination being the medieval town of Korcula situated on a peninsula jutting out into the A driatic. We were crossing the Adriatic at night and the arrival time at Korcula in Croatia on the South Dalmatian coast was at 10.00a.m and we didn't feel a thing. The overnight crossing was as a calm as a mill pond and we slept like babies. As we approached the dock in Korcula we were soon to realise that there is a photo opportunity in every inch of the Dalmatian coast as it is all simply beautiful. The sea is as calm and as blue as the brochures illustrate. The islands range from large inhabited ones with smart hotels and marinas to privately owned ones to those the size of small rocks, and many are for sale. Whatever their size they are all a delight to see. No wonder Croatia is attracting divers and yachters worldwide. It is a dream destination for all lovers of water-sports of any kind with dozens of Marinas both on the mainland and on the islands. The climate is Adriatic/Mediterranean allowing sea swimming from April to November and although our journey was in mid-June and the temperatures were high there was always a welcome cooling breeze on the coast from the gentle Adriatic Sea. Our previous experiences from river cruising has generally been that many city ports are a coach journey from the city centres but as we docked at Korcula we were to discover that every single port of call we were to make docked right on the town and city edge. A simple walk was all that was needed to enter the heart of things armed with a good guide book, comfortable footwear and a bottle of water. The old thick stoned walled town of Korcula dates from the 15th Century and is the birth-place of Marco Polo where his house still exists and can be visited. Once we'd walked round the small town and visited an obligatory museum and a church we sat in a shaded stone floored square and drank cold cheap beers at one euro a litre and gazed at the old stone buildings all as yet untouched by mass tourism and wondered how long this would remain untouched an d become like Spain and Greece? We waved goodbye to Korcula from our ship at 8.00a.m the next morning and began our journey along the coast to Dubrovnik recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site and fondly named The Jewel of the Adriatic. As lunchtime approached Dubrovnik came into view. I was curious as to what we would feel as Dubrovnik was under siege during the Homeland War and tourism was obviously destroyed. The siege lasted for seven months and the city inhabitants were trapped behind the medieval city walls. Electricity and communications were cut off and the people hid in their basements. More than five hundred historic buildings were destroyed and lives were lost ? and all this was as recently as 1998! Well, with UNESCO money they have rebuilt this beautiful Dalmatian city. Restoring all the buildings using original materials and the strangest sight are the roofs of all these medieval buildings. They were originally red tiles but over hundreds of years had been weathered to become a mixture of colours ranging from brown, green, terracotta and yellow but every single roof has been replaced with brand new terracotta tiles and this medieval walled city looked like an unreal fairyland. Once again there was no need for an organised tour as we simply walked into the city and after a brief wander around looking at Palaces and Cathedrals we decided to walk around the city's medieval walls. There is an entrance fee payable which goes towards maintaining these walls and a very steep climb to reach the top, but once there it was all worth the effort. The astonishing birds'-eye-view of the Adriatic and the overall view of the city of Dubrovnik set against the backdrop of mountains and sea told me that UNESCO has invested their money wisely in rebuilding this unique city. There are several shelled buildings left on display purposely to show the visitor the extent of the destruction ? but even seeing these ruins made it hard to believe tha t this was the place we had read so much about in our daily newspapers. The Croatians make delicious ice-cream so after again sitting in a shaded square and admiring the architecture we ambled back to our ship for dinner and our departure from Dubrovnik at 8.00p.m. Since March this year British Airways fly three times a week to Dubrovnik airport. I have earmarked this for a weekend break. The pavement restaurants, the hotels, the ambience and the scenery and culture make this an ideal place for a relaxing weekend break. So hey there, those romantics amongst you why not think about Dubrovnik as a welcome change from the usual European cities and book up before the prices go up ? because they will you know? At this stage I will mention shopping. It was apparent that in Dubrovnik, and as we discovered later on whilst visiting Split, the Croatians like designer clothes but if needed I can buy them in the UK so I was on the look out for something to buy that was peculiar to the region. The handmade jewellery was pretty, usually silver and Adriatic coral, as well as smart jewellery shops selling very beautifully crafted 14crt. Gold: I always buy an item of jewellery for myself as a reminder of my holiday so I was keeping a keen eye open. For those not interested in jewellery I would recommend buying an original painting from one of the many artists' galleries evident in every town and city that we visited. Apparently under Communism all the food produced in the country was organic by nature and this is very obviously so as everywhere there are local food markets with family producers setting up their stalls and displaying fruit, vegetables, hams and cheeses and flowers that were fresher and tastier than anything we can buy in the UK. The produce was glistening with freshness. Croatian wine is highly regarded but expensive due to high production costs (mostly produced in small family run vineyards) and I look forward to seeing Dalmatian win es in my local Wine Shop in the future when they perhaps streamline the production and are able to enter this competitive global market. Seafood is a speciality along the coast as well as the Italian influence on food whilst inland the meatier Hungarian and Austrian dishes are offered. The Croatians love outdoor Café and Bar living and the evening we had dinner onshore the waiter brought that day's fishing catch to our table on a huge plate and we chose the whole fish we wanted to eat for our dinner which arrived later grilled in olive oil and herbs complete with baskets of excellent bread and organic salads and vegetables. We started with a vast bowl of moules cooked in garlic and wine and a plate of smoked ham, cheese and tomatoes and finished with an excellent strudel. All the meals we ate were obviously very fresh ingredients and simply and perfectly cooked. Eating in Croatia is a pleasure. We set sail from Dubrovnik at 8.00pm - destination Corfu! I have never wanted to visit Corfu and now that I have been there I never want to go there again. We sailed through the night and again we felt nothing as the sea was so calm and we arrived in Corfu at 11.00am the next morning. The only thing I have to say about Corfu is that I hope Croatia take note of the effects that mass tourism has had on this very beautiful island and see it as a warning as to what can happen to such natural beauty when care isn't taken with environmental issues such as over-building and pollution. It made us appreciate Croatia even more than ever and we couldn't wait to set sail again at 7.00pm. However, our next port of call was to be Montenegro and the Bay of Kotor arriving at 10.30 am the next morning. And what an arrival it was. As the ship navigated its way through natural inlets dotted with islands and mountains riding straight out of the sea all the Church bells from all of the Churches on the mainland and the islands rang their bells in welcome as the M/S Dalmacija hooted its ship's horn in reply. The Bay of Kotor is recognised as the southernmost fjord in the world. We disembarked and took a trip into the mountains over treacherous hairpin bends stopping in a tiny village and lunching on cheeses and hams and visiting the Palace of the last King of Montenegro, King Nikola Petrovic, before returning to Kotor for a last look at this medieval jewel also protected by UNESCO. This won't be my last look because this will be my preferred town for a weekend visit once BA gets a scheduled route to the nearest airport. A comment here about churches and palaces: Croatia is the third country we have visited that's now free from Communist rule, the others being Russia and Hungary. In all three countries the tours and excursions want to drag the visitor round their churches and monasteries now that they have religious freedom. Once I have seen a painting of the Last Supper, the Virgin Mary and Child and walls of religious icons depicting rather dodgy looking saints ? then I've had enough. I prefer to find my culture by people watching, viewing the architecture, the local crafts and crafts and a well written local guide book than listening to interminable descriptions of invasions and saints and dead kings and queens. I understand how history is important but when at all possible we explore on our own rather than in a group. We were departing from Kotor at 7.30p.m: and another night cruising along the Adriatic anticipating our arrival at Split the following morning at 8.30a.m. Although this was our first time cruising on the sea, as we prefer river cruises, we have agreed that an ocean cruise will never be a choice for us. Hugging the coast like this means that land is always there on the horizon and the thought of spending endless days at sea with nothing else but water around us isn't a holiday option for us. Particularly as this would mean getting involved with other passengers for a social life and although we are sociable people the thought of being trapped on board for any length of time with strangers would make us feel trapped. Split is situated in Middle Dalmatia and is culturally and economically a very important city. It is a major port, university and industrial city. We had booked an organised coach tour to take us on an hour and a half journey from the old town of Split into the heart of Dalmatia and it was to last all day long. It needn't have taken all day as the highlight was to be a visit to the Krka Waterfalls in the Krka National Park but it would appear that the Croatian Tourist board insists that as many visitors see as much as possible of Croatian so our day long trip consisted of several detours into other towns to see yet more religious monuments. I can understand why they do this as they want every major town and city to have a bite of the tourist cake so we just had to suffer this, although we would have preferred going straight to the National Park and spend more time there. For good reason too: The park is a natural wonderland of gorges and waterfalls on the river Krka and our admission ticket included a motor boat ride across lakes and passing dozens of cascading waterfalls. The boat dropped us off at a walking point from which we took a half hour walk over man -made bridges passing over seventeen waterfalls cascading over seventeen natural barriers which took us back to our starting place. We then drove back to Split for a tour of the Old City the highlight being the 4th Century Roman Palace and a visit to the cellars. There was enough time for me to find a pair of filigree 14crt gold ear-rings that I bought as a memory of Croatia at a very reasonable price. The Croatian currency is the Kuna but, although not strictly legal as yet, everywhere accepted our euros and major credit cards were not a problem. Our ship sailed at 7.00p.m that evening and we docked the next morning at 8.00a.m: at Rovinj on the Istrian Peninsula. Rovinj is surrounded by over fifteen islands and islets and although a compact old town seems to be taking tourism very much in its stride. Jules Verne is said to have chosen Rovinj as a setting for some of the chapters in his novel 'Mathias Sandorf' A wander through the artists' street, a steep climb up to the main Church and then back to the main cobbled square for a first class Croatian coffee as it dawned on us that we would be leaving Croatia at 1.30p.m: for a six hour cruise crossing the Adriatic and back to Venice for 7.00p.m where this wonderful adventure had all begun just one week ago. There was one more treat in store for us. After docking in the Port of Venice and having dinner we were going on a three hour trip on a motor boat seeing Venice by night ? but that isn't Croatia is it? Croatia is a very beautiful country with plenty for the tourist to do: Water sports, inland canoeing and rafting, hiking and climbing in the mountains, beaches to relax on, uninhabited islands to visit, historic walled cities to explore. There are many festivals to celebrate the Croatian arts and culture through the year. The coastal resorts are ideal for children with many larger hotels having children's' clubs ? although if you want sandy beaches then do some research before you book as many beaches are rocky and swimming is done from pontoons. The Croatians want us as tourists and are very hospitable. The food is excellent, the beer is good, prices are reasonable, the Adriatic is clean and there aren't any McDonalds. So do you all think you would like to visit Croatia after reading my review?

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                  13.05.2004 14:39
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                  So for the second time in two months I am looking at a large framed portrait of Agatha Christie hanging in pride of place in the foyer of a luxurious hotel. The first time was in February 2004 in The Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, Egypt where Agatha Christie stayed while she wrote 'Death on the Nile'. The second time was in The Grand Hotel, Torquay in Devon ? I wonder? Did she write a mystery thriller called 'Death on the English Riviera'? The Grand Hotel in Torquay is an architecturally beautiful large Victorian and Art-Deco white painted building set in its own gardens framed with the ubiquitous Torbay palms and only 100 yds from Torquay railway station. The hotel is situated on the sea front in the popular seaside resort of Torquay with wonderful views of Torbay, also rightfully known as the English Riviera. We arrived at 1.00 pm. on a Sunday parking our car in the Grand Hotel's free residents' covered garages and walking into the impressive and welcoming reception area dispelled any misgivings we had about staying for two nights in this AA Four**** and Rosette awarded hotel. Why misgivings? Well, just think of boiled cabbage, swirly patterned carpets and a dreadful stuffy atmosphere and sense of faded glory that many English seaside resort hotels conjure up. We knew at once this was going to be a good experience. The first impression given to a guest arriving at The Grand Hotel is the view through the reception area through a lounge and into The Compass Bar. The huge picture windows on three sides of The Compass Bar gave us the sense we were on a luxury liner because of the stunning panoramic vista of the sea and the sky. Reception checked us in very efficiently and politely and because our room wouldn't be ready until 3.00 pm we were happy to hand our luggage over to the porter and have lunch in The Compass Bar. Hot fresh salmon fishcakes with real tartare sauce, salad and good bread plus an excellent chilled glass of house white wine whilst gazing out over the bay and the ornamental gardens and full size swimming pool put us in a superb frame of mind, especially me as the young waiters on duty that day were gorgeous Australians and I didn't know whether it was the wine or these handsome young men that were giving me the feel good factor. Our room was a double en-suite with bath and dressing area and situated on the side of the hotel. A sea view with a balcony on the front of the hotel would have been preferable but later in this review when I tell you what we paid for these two nights and what we got for our money I think you may agree this was a bargain break. But first there was a puzzle to solve. We had booked and paid online through Hotelnet and understood that The Grand was a Best Western Hotel, which indeed it is, but there was a guest feedback form on the dressing table in our room and one of the first questions asked was 'Were you aware that this hotel is part of the Richardson Group of hotels?' No I wasn't. I soon discovered that the Grand is one of five hotels owned by the Richardson Group and since being bought by them in 2001 has undergone extensive renovation resulting in the opulence and grandness that made such an impression on us as we entered for the first time. The Grand has 117 rooms, seven of which are Premier Suites, plus indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a multi-gym, hairdressers, beauty salons, jacuzzi, sauna, a peaceful library and excellent conference suites and yet with all these facilities the atmosphere was leisurely and intimate. T ;he Grand has a civil license for weddings and has various different sized suites to suit a wedding party group of twelve to three hundred and fifty people. The Grand offers twenty-four hour room service for food, light meals and drinks whilst dinner and breakfast is served in the Gainsborough restaurant. There was a kettle and tea and coffee but no mini-bar and although a mini-bar isn't important I would have liked a small refrigerator to keep bottled water in-as they do in most foreign hotels and then I suggest getting rid of the trouser press! Does anybody really use them? The room was clean illustrating a very competent house-keeping team; there were good smellies in the bathroom and a power shower as well as a bath ? thank goodness- and speakers in the bathroom just in case. We had booked for Dinner, Bed and Breakfast inclusive and guests are asked not to wear jeans and trainers to dinner which is fair enough, although this didn't mean dressing up in any way. The Gainsborough Restaurant has a coveted AA Rosette for the cuisine and we did think that as our dinner was included in the price there would be a limited choice. We were wrong yet again. We relaxed with an aperitif in The Compass Bar and as it reached 7.00 pm the lights went on in Torbay and lit up the sky for as far as we could see-very pretty and twinkley. The restaurant is large and beautifully designed and decorated and again the atmosphere was warm and inviting and not starchy and unwelcoming and hushed as in many superior older hotels. We were given two menus. One was the A La Carte and the other the Table d'Hote. The Table de Hote was priced at twenty pounds for three courses and this was included in our tariff. Individual dishes were available from the A la Carte with an added supplement to the Table d'& #72;ote but there was no need to look any further as the dishes offered on the inclusive menu were just what we wanted. There were fish dishes, lamb, pates, fowl with interesting and unusual first courses and tremendous desserts. All the food was exquisitely cooked and presented and tasted delicious. All the food is fresh and locally sourced and seasonal. The waiting staff were highly professional, efficient and polite and we couldn't believe that such wonderful meals were included in the price. If we could find cooking of such high quality locally then we would expect to pay at least thirty pounds per head. Breakfast was equally delightful. There was a well presented buffet for the usual cereals, juices yoghurts, fruits, croissants, cheeses and cold meats plus a well maintained hot buffet with everything from black pudding to scrambled eggs. We ordered fresh kippers (and they were fresh) and Finnan haddock from the menu and marvelled at the quality of our break in The Grand Hotel Torquay. So what did we pay? The double room, dinner bed and breakfast was £120.00 a night for two. Take into account the superb restaurant meal that was priced at £40.00 for two plus the comfort, cleanliness and the facilities then if you think about it-we have paid £60.00 in the recent past for a double room in a pub, and that's without dinner and such comfortable surroundings. However, I have just visited the Richardson Group's hotel website and late availability informs me that April midweek breaks are being offered for £49.00 per person and May breaks for £59.00 per person per day to include dinner, bed and breakfast also, for minimum of two night and excluding Bank Holidays. The Grand Hotel rates vary for low/mid and high season but we will certainly be booking a late availability break in the near future. Next time we will book directly via the Richardson Group/The Grand Hotel website as there is a Freephone number and by talking directly to reception we may well be able to negotiate a room with a sea view and a balcony. From, wherever the visitor is travelling The Grand, Torquay Devon is easy to reach. The train station is one minute away, the M5 is a pleasant dual carriageway drive away and Exeter and Plymouth airports are a thirty five minute drive and The Grand will arrange taxis from the airports. We consider we have found a wonderful hotel to spend those short breaks and intend to visit the other four hotels belonging to this group. They are at St Mawes, Fowey, Lake Windemere and Padstow and the real gem for those with plenty of pennies, a 90 ft Yatch that cruises the English coast, Jersey, France, Cowes, the Isles of Scilly and more for anything up to £16.500 per person! Agatha Christie certainly had taste and style.

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                    05.03.2004 21:09
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                    Half an hour after disembarking from the MS Prince Abbas after our week long cruise on Lake Nasser we were waiting with our luggage on the East Bank of the River Nile in Aswan as we watched the Pharoanic Barge make its way across the river from Elephantine Island to transport us back to our home for a further week-The Hotel Oberoi situated on this palm covered island in the middle of the Nile. Nothing had prepared us for the beauty we were about to experience. This stretch of the Nile between the city of Aswan, the Old Dam and the High Dam and Lake Nasser is scattered with islands. Ancient Aswan was originally sited on Elephantine Island as it could be easily defended against invaders from any direction. That ancient city has long disappeared and Elephantine Island can only be reached by the boats and feluccas that freely taxi visitors to and fro, day and night. The ancient city of Aswan was once the largest trading centre for Upper Egypt exchanging goods from equatorial Africa and the Mediterranean. Aswan lies on the first cataract of the Nile which acted as a natural insurmountable barrier for river traffic as the bubbling waterfalls, rocks and torrents were impossible for boats to navigate. South of Aswan goods had to be carried by caravan across the barren Nubian Desert. However, the building of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s changed everything. Damming the Nile and diverting the Nile flood waters into the artificial Lake Nasser has now established the pretty city of Aswan as the main river port for river cruises to Luxor and on the other side of the magnificent Aswan Dam, the dock for cruises over Lake Nasser. The Hotel Oberoi is the only hotel on the island set in beautiful gardens with swimming pools, poolside bars and restaurant and all the bedrooms with balconies trailing with hibiscus and panoramic views over the River Nile and Aswan. The most striking feature of the Hotel Oberoi is the twelve story tower that has a 360 degree view through h uge plate glass windows where visitors can sit and have a drink or a light meal. Our first view from the top of the tower of an Aswan sunset over the West Bank of the Nile was unforgettable as the sun sank, rapidly sliding behind the desert, while on the West Bank in the City of Aswan the lights twinkled on the Mosques. We mused as to how the name Elephantine Island came about? Looking south down the Nile from the tower we could see we were surrounded by large grey rocks and they all looked like elephants rising out of the water. Or was this romantic thinking on our part and the name Elephantine Island was because of the ancient trade in ivory from Upper Nubia-now modern Sudan? Perhaps the name is a bit of both eh? The intention was to purely relax, read and write and laze about by the pool in this very comfortable hotel and the gorgeous sunshine but there were far too many things to see in Aswan. However, the very nature of a cruise means the visitor is almost over protected from the cut and thrust of every day life in an Egyptian city as any excursions from the ship are done in a group and with the Egyptian Tour Manager. We were soon to discover how protected we had been. Woken by the call to the Mosque at dawn and then having strong coffee sitting on our balcony and watching the sun rise over Aswan, after a delicious breakfast we caught the Pharoanic Barge across the river to the Aswan Corniche along the banks of the Nile. We had only walked a few yards along the Corniche when the hassle began. It is intolerable. Caleche drivers, taxi drivers, self appointed unofficial tour guides, Felucca boatmen and children descended upon us as if from nowhere offering us rides, discounts and artefacts. I understand the poverty in Egypt and the need to take every opportunity to earn money from the tourist but this persistent pestering has the opposite effect on me. I just want them all to go away as I will spend my money as and when I want and certainly not a s a result of this relentless hassling. We decided to take a Caleche ride-horse and carriage- along the busy Corniche to the famous Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie stayed, to have coffee on their illustrious terraces overlooking the Nile. I insisted we chose a Caleche with the healthiest looking horse but after just a few yards I realised the horse was tired. My heart sank when the carriage driver cheerfully told us she had just had a baby. Fortunately, the Old Cataract Hotel was only a short distance away and after the usual haggling over what was originally an agreed fare, and then the driver asking for more money to feed the horse leaving me muttering that next time I'd buy my own oats, we were sitting on the terrace admiring the beauty of the Nile. Drawn to the water we chose to take a Felucca sail boat ride back to Elephantine Island and our hotel, stopping first at an archaeological area on the Island where excavation began in 1969 to uncover the ancient settlements. The fare was agreed with the Felucca boatman by the hour to include one hour's waiting time as we explored the archaeological area and visited the small Aswan Museum. It was so very exhilarating sailing along as the gentle breeze caught the white sails of the Felucca and we leisurely basked in the hot sunshine. The Nile was a hive of activity with boats of all shapes and sizes going about their daily business. Our boatman expertly used the wind to tack to and fro around the massive grey 'elephant' rocks that loomed out of the river like giant statues. Once again we were caught off our guard as we bought our entrance tickets. From nowhere an unofficial guide attached himself to us and wouldn't go away. We wanted to quietly walk around the excavations referring to our guide book when necessary and enjoying the peace and tranquillity as we imagined the Romans who had once lived here, imagining the Cemetery for the Sacred Rams where the blood stains co uld still be seen and gaze at the carvings in the Temple of Khnum. We were patient with him until he got rather excited about a carving of a Pharaoh sporting an enormous black penis. He then suggested his penis was bigger than the Pharaoh's and how did Morty's compare. That was it for me! Off with him! Nevertheless, he insisted on payment not only for his services but for his seven children. From this moment on we decided to make use of organised trips to see the rest of the delights Aswan has to offer. So! They are more expensive than doing it yourself, but at least on an organised tour with an official English speaking Egyptian guide you get the freedom to concentrate on what you wanted to see and not forever doing deals. We were a bit 'Templed-Out' by now, as anybody who has ever been to Egypt would understand, so we chose a visit by Felucca to Kitchener's Island, also known as the 'Island of Plants' to be guided by an expert of flora, fauna and wild-life and to follow this with a motor boat trip upstream to the now peaceful First Cataract and through a wild-life sanctuary. General Kitchener was the British Consul General in Egypt in 1910 and he created this luxuriously planted island. After seeing many dusty ancient ruins, the Nubian Desert and large expanses of lake this was a delightful contrast. Kitchener planted many varieties of plants here that grow in our own gardens in the UK so it was strange to see waist high Bizzy Lizzies and huge Lupins alongside lemon and date trees. The motor boat ride up through the First Cataract is awesome. Huge granite boulders that once caused the waters to roar over them in plumes of spray now stand exposed in the reduced waters of the Nile. The boat wove its way through these immense boulders and we saw herons, kingfishers, terns, kites and other abundant birdlife plus water buffalo and mules. It was eerily silent and the birds seemed to be putting on a show for us as they appeared to order as if by magic for our expert guide. The final part of this tour was to spend an hour in a genuine Nubian village on the West Bank. The people of the village opened their homes for us, showed us baby crocodiles in tanks, scorpions in jars and played with snakes. They also gave us mint tea and we bought two Egyptian cotton shirts for two pounds sterling each. The Nubians are a very elegant and good looking people with a quiet charm and I felt sad that many of the older Nubians in the village would have been forced to leave their homes in the 1960s when their villages were drowned by the forming of Lake Nasser. A must to see if ever the reader is in Aswan are the temples of Philae. The island that the temples of Philae originally stood on for three thousand years were partially flooded by the construction of the first Aswan Dam in 1902 and completely submerged by the building of the new High Dam. Consequently, the ruins were dismantled and rebuilt by UNESCO on another island one mile south of the Aswan Dam on the stretch of the Nile between the two dams. A short coach ride and we stood in the afternoon heat watching a scene of utter madness as hundreds of dilapidated old motor boats with engines that had seen better days fought for space at the quayside so they could moor up and let the many tour groups board to be taken to the Island Of Philae. By now we expected our appetite for ancient temples to have been sated but as the boat approached the temples we were very impressed with the magnificence of the obelisks and enjoyed a couple of hours quietly wandering around. Ready for our hotel room by now and a drink before dinner we still had one more visit to the granite quarry to see the unfinished obelisk. Mmmm! That's what I thought too as quarries do nothing for me so that Egyptian beer back at the hotel was calling me. A little more to tell here about Egyptian hospitality and the Hotel Oberoi in Aswan-throughout our stay b oth on the ship and in the hotel we were amused at the bed-towel art that greeted us every night when we retired to our room. The room service made exotic animals and birds from white towels using rose petals and hibiscus flowers as decoration and laid them on the bed. This was apart from the very grim crocodile on our cabin floor wearing dark glasses and a wide open mouth held in position by the television remote control. It is the custom on a cruise to put money in the envelopes provided for gratuities. The last night on the ship we were greeted by towel art of a man in the bed wearing Morty's jumper, dark glasses and holding the tipping envelopes in its hands. The hotel was a little more romantic as they created graceful swans and rose-strewn hearts to surprise us every night. We were also happy that there was no need to 'dress-up' on either the ship or the hotel for the evenings. We prefer the casual approach as we are on holiday and pressure of any kind is unwanted. Egyptian wine leaves much to be desired. The choice of red, white or rose is limited and some likened it to a chemical cleaner, but being a brave little soldier I soon adjusted my palate to the white wine and got rather fond of it. I've had worse in English pubs! The only beer available was a tinned variety of Fosters which was refreshing enough when required. There was a fridge in our room both on the boat and in the hotel so there is a choice to drink any duty-free in the room. The meals in our hotel were excellent. Buffet style but a continual stream of freshly cooked food was brought from the kitchens to the endless buffet tables. It was possible to eat European as well as more Egyptian style food and vegetarians were very well provided for. The vegetables were grown in the hotel gardens and I wanted to hug the pastry chef as the deserts were wonderful. There was a wide variety of good breads and I had cinnamon pancakes with honey and thick yoghurt with plump raisins for breakfast every morning as I never have that at home. Not to be deterred by the hassle from the Corniche we decided to take a Caleche ride through the Souk or market. Avoiding eye contact I chose a horse drawn Caleche and made sure the horse had some meat on it and didn't look old and worn out. Better luck this time, as we ripped along the promenade at a fair pace with a comparatively happy horse and the driver took us on a tour of Aswan. It is a small city and it was good to see schools, childrens' play parks, well maintained Mosques, Coptic Churches, local shops and the general hustle and bustle of every day life. The Souk in Aswan is recognised as being the best in Egypt with quite wide streets and a huge variety of goods on sale. Emboldened by the lack of hassling we paid our driver and walked the mile or so back through the Souk to get the full atmosphere of the shops and peddlers selling their goods. So many spices, materials, fruits, leather, meat, rugs and vegetables for sale and thankfully we were left alone and no more harangued than in a typical London street-market. Aswan is very proud of their new Nubia Museum opened in 1997, and rightly so. It is situated opposite the Old Cataract hotel and stands in its own vast gardens with water features, statues, palm trees and walkways. It is spread over several floors and displays very important objects from throughout Nubian history. As with many museums there is too much to take in on one visit alone so rather than get culture weariness we made two trips and wandered around at our leisure. I understand that the Cairo Museum is relocating and building a new museum to house its treasures. If it is half as wonderful as the Nubian Museum in Aswan then we are all in for a treat as that makes returning to Cairo a must in the future. There were so many other places to visit in Aswan and the surrounding areas but none of them are compulsory. You don't have to be active. There ar e some who would prefer to take advantage of the beautiful weather and stay by the pool to swim, drink, eat, sleep, visit the gym, have beauty treatments and massage and wallow in the luxury. During the week we did a bit of both and as we flew from Aswan International Airport on our return flight to Gatwick we both agreed that this, our second visit to Egypt, was probably our best holiday yet and certainly not our last to the Land of the Pharaohs.

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                      18.02.2004 20:24
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                      • "The Cost of Toilet Paper"

                      The Nubians call it 'The Nubian Sea' while the rest of Egypt named it Lake Nasser. Not surprising the Nubians call it that as in order to create the Lake in the 1960s the Nasser government penned up the Nile behind the High Dam and the dammed waters flooded the Nubian Desert area in Upper Egypt to create a 300 mile long inland sea. This meant that forty Nubian villages and towns and forty thousand Nubians had to be re-housed as their homes vanished beneath the rising waters. But it wasn't just the Nubian people who were in danger of being submerged -but many of the ancient Nubian monuments south of Aswan including the most famous and imposing 3000 year old temples and statues of Ramesees 11 at Abu Simbel. Once the High Dam was built, an amazing feat by Soviet engineers, the Nubian Desert began to slowly fill with Nile waters, an estimated time of six years, when the Egyptian government sent out a worldwide plea for help as the lake was forming faster than at first thought and it was evident that the Temple at Abu Simbel would be swallowed up by the rising waters. An international team of around three thousand construction engineers from all over the world under the backing from UNESCO laboured for almost five years to salvage these massive ancient temples and move them just sixty five metres up a cliff block by block and rebuild them aiming to make them appear as if they had never been disturbed. Fortunately this grand scheme raised the issue of other Nubian monuments in the desert that would clearly have been hidden by the ever rising waters of the artificial lake and so many more temples were moved to higher ground including New Kalabshka, The Kiosk of Qertassi, The Temple of Amada and many others. This w as a great sacrifice made by The Nubians, as by allowing Lake Nasser to drown there homes they were also in danger of losing their identity and their culture. They were all re-housed, mainly around the Aswan area, and the hydro-elec tric power provided by the High Dam has given all Egyptian citizens electricity and the future promise of irrigation in previously barren desert areas. So was this impressive feat of engineering, at an immense cost of US$40 million, really all worth it? We arrived at Aswan International airport in the late afternoon after a five and a half hour flight from London Gatwick and blinking in the heat and the sunshine boarded a coach for the half hour journey to embark on the 5***** MS Prince Abbas for our seven night trip 'Sailing Through The Desert' This title of this Jules Verne holiday captured our imagination as we marvelled at the thought that we would be sailing on Lake Nasser yet deep down under the calm waters were the remains of a Nubian culture even more ancient than that of the Egyptians. Deserts vary in formation and it was apparent almost at once that the Nubian Desert once consisted of high mountains because even before we set sail from Aswan there were many small islands in the area of water surrounding the moored Prince Abbas. We were to take three days cruising further South over the Lake, stopping at several ancient temples, before reaching Abu Simbel where we were to stay for two nights then on our return to Aswan we would visit more ancient monuments on the other side of the Lake. The gradual build up to the main event, our arrival at Abu Simbel, was in itself exciting. The scenery once we set sail was beautiful. The blue waters of Lake Nasser were set in sharp contrast to the surroundi ng mountainous desert on either shoreline. All the large and luxurious cabins had picture windows straight out to sea and we automatically woke early on the first morning to watch the breathtakingly exotic Egyptian sunrise over the mountains, the desert and the sea. The sun sets early and rapidly in Egypt, as we were sailing nearer and nearer to the Equator and the Sudanese border, so every evening at 5.30 pm we watched the sun luxuriously si nk behind the distant horizon before a shower, fresh clothes and early drink in the bar and then dinner in the restaurant on the lower deck with the lake lapping against the windows. There are only six boats cruising on Lake Nasser at any one time so we experienced a wonderful feeling of peace and tranquillity. The Prince Abbas is an extremely comfortable boat with an upper deck and plunge pool, charming Nubian and Egyptian staff, first-class food and cabins larger than many hotel rooms with excellent facilities. Most importantly, there is only one sitting for all mealtimes-this point matters enormously. There are no docks along the edges of Lake Nasser so The Prince Abbas would moor up to the nearest rock and we had to walk narrow gangplanks onto rather old motorboats that took us to the shoreline and a tour round a rescued Nubian monument, all steeped in legend and history and individually beautiful. I could feel a cowardice moment coming on as I walked the gangplank because I am scared of the sea but I was shamed into silence when I discovered that one of my fellow travellers had two hip and two knee operations and was leaping the plank with fearless abandon, although I did wonder if this is how she had broken all these bones in the first place. Security in Egypt is very evident in the machine gunned police that accompany all tourist groups, but most of the policeman looked about fo urteen and I did wonder what impact they would have in any form of terrorist attack. Emotions were high on our third day of sailing as we expectantly waited for our dramatic arrival at Abu Simbel at around midday. We knew the ship would draw in at the front of the Temples and as we gathered on the upper decks of the ship the loudspeakers sprang into life playing Vangelis and Abu Simbel came into view. The four colossal statues of Ramesees 11 guard the entrance to the temple and can be seen some distance from the shore as they appear to rise from the sand, each set on a pedestal and each sixty five feet high. As the ship neared these magnificent buildings it was impossible not to be moved by their sheer size, the fact they had originally been cut into the rock three thousand years ago and had been built in the middle of nowhere. It was also intriguing to recall that Abu Simbel had nearly become a legend as it had been almost entirely buried by sand for many centuries and was rediscovered by a Swiss historian in 1813. As we drew closer a second smaller temple came into view dedicated by the Pharaoh Ramesees to his beloved wife Nefertari. Our ship moored to the side of Abu Simbel and after an Egyptian barbeque lunch on deck with tahini, olives, good bread, kebabs, salads, fruit and exquisite pastries and desserts followed by Turkish coffee we were eager to disembark and explore the magic and the history of this imposing and remarkable ancient Nubian ruin. At this point I have to mention tourism, after all I am one but I never expected this. There is an airport at Abu Simbel and planes were arriving very frequently, full of visitors to Abu Simbel from various parts of Egypt including Aswan, Luxor and Cairo who would be staying overnight at one of Abu Simbel's two hotels. Even more frequently were coaches full of tourists from all over Egypt making a day trip. There were just two ships moored and we were fortunate enough to have a ticket that covered us for two days enabling us to disembark and visit the temples as many times as we wanted to. Consequently, our afternoon trip making the short walk over the desert to the ancient ruins was very crowded indeed. We were a group of twenty three and our Egyptian guide Wallid was exceptional at keeping us all together and explaining the history of the statues, the battles, the warring and the stories relayed in the carved scenes, some of them like giant comic strips, in the many chambers, but concentration could be difficult as there were many other groups of so many nationalities being guided round and a confusion of languages that we were already looking forward to returning alone at a quieter time. That same evening the group returned to the temple for a Sound and Light Show. We'd been to the Sound and Light Show at Luxor and were dreading more of the same, you know the sort of thing, a Richard Burton type of commentary and corny strains of Aida, but this show was magnificent. It was computer generated using the front of the temple and the four huge statues of Ramesees as the screen with moving actions and some classy music all the while telling the battle stories and achievements of this great Pharaoh and of his love for his beloved Queen Nefertari. We sat on padded stone seats with the sound of Lake Nasser behind us and I had to pinch myself to make sure this was really happening to me. At dawn the next morning Morty was up in a flash and off the boat racing his way to the temple to catch the sunrise taking some great photos. Even at that time of day he had to rush to beat the coach loads and avoid queuing at the admission and the inev itable security scan and search. Here's the romantic bit. Twice a year, on February 21st and October 21st the rays of the rising sun shine directly through the entrance doorway of the temple and illuminate the statues. Was the temple deliberately positioned for this to happen on these dates? Are these dates significant to Ramesees and maybe his birthday or the date of his accession? Or is this purely fanciful wishing? After two nights moored at Abu Simbel we set sail with the Captain giving us one more backwards look at the temples as he cruised round the small inlet. We stopped a couple of times more to see some ancient sites on our return journey to Aswan and settled into life aboard The Prince Abbas. Once back at Aswan we were to have our second adventure staying for one week on Elephantine Island situated in the middle of the River Nile in th e Hotel Oberoi to enjoy more Egyptian culture. A Few Egyptian Facts ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ It is suggested that the name Nubia is derived from an Egyptian word meaning Gold. Whatever the truth then if you go to Egypt look out for Nubian gold as it is 22crt. Also be careful where you buy it. None of the gold jewellery is priced as it is government controlled and is sold by weight. Only buy from authorised dealers as there are unscrupulous traders who sell gold plated as Nubian gold and you will be caught out. There is a baby born every thirty seconds in Egypt. The ratio of babies born is eight girls to every three boys! In tourist areas poorer families keep their children away from school and encourage them to ask tourists for pens so that they can go to school. In fact we were told not to give them pens as their families take them from them and sell them for money. Egypt is 80%  7;uslim and 20% Christian. It is reassuring to see the security effort being made in Egypt to ensure the safety of tourists. Egypt needs tourists and they treat them very well indeed. It is a beautiful country full of magical sights, warm and friendly people, excellent hospitality and value for money. Pay the most you can afford for your accommodation and live like a Pharaoh. Egypt isn't only for culture vultures as many people aren't interested in seeing history in the form of Abu Simbel and ancient ruins but think of their Red Sea resorts for diving, snorkelling and coral reefs. If you are searching for Winter Sun then just a five and a half hour flight can transport you from a cold and miserable UK January and February to weather better than the best of our own summer days in July and August. On my last trip to Egypt eleven years ago I was at Cairo airport and I had to buy two sheets of toilet paper from an Egyptian lady in the cloakrooms as there was no paper in the cubicles and at a cost of one English pound per sheet. O n our arrival at Aswan International airport on this holiday I needed the toilet and eleven years later nothing had changed-only this time it was a young man standing outside the Ladies cloakroom selling a wad of Bronco type paper for a pound?it was grand to be back and we will return yet again.

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                        04.01.2004 20:28
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                        • "Couldn't try all the Beers"

                        skip this first bit to be able to read the review with capital letters intact. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. We had booked our three night break in Bruges through the Sunday Times Leisure Direction. On paper this appeared to be a four day break to be taken in the period between Christmas and New Year but we failed to take too much notice of the travelling time involved in getting from West Dorset to Bruges. Our best option would have been to fly from Bristol to Brussels but we had set our hearts on journeying by Eurostar from Waterloo International to Brussels as a first time experience that had to be done at least once in a lifetime. Yes, Eurostar must be heaven to those who live in London and the South East and within easy access to Waterloo or Ashford in Kent but to fellow West Country travellers-beware. We left home by car at 8.00 am to catch the 9.00 am South-West Train direct to Waterloo London due to arrive at 11.30 am. This left us with one hour and ten minutes to simply cross the concourse and take our pre-booked seats on the Eurostar at 12.40 pm. Unfortunately our 9.00 am SW train broke down at Bournemouth. We waited while they divided a ten coach train into two five coach trains resulting in a crowded train with passengers standing and waving goodbye to any booked seats. Worse was to come when we were told we had no train driver. Well we did have a driver but he was on his way in a taxi. I needn't describe my internal panic as we watched the minutes tick by. The panic was exacerbated when I had a closer read of our travel documents. Not only did we have to be in the Eurostar departure lounge forty minutes before departure time but we also had to be on board the train twenty minutes before the departure time. It got worse when I saw that we had only been given a pre-paid ticket voucher instead of real Eurostar tickets and were to collect them from the ticket office at Waterloo International. I could already envisage the queues. Why pay for rail tickets six weeks in advance only to have to queue for them at the departure point? We arrived at Wa terloo with less than twenty minutes to spare to collect our tickets, pass through security and passport control and board the train. Morty sprang into action and kidnapped a man in a uniform and insisted that he jumped the massive ticket queue on our behalf. There are quick serve ticket machines where pre-paid for tickets can be collected by entering the voucher number along with the credit card details used to pay for the tickets. Oh yes? I did that and my card wasn't recognised. By now I am in a purple haze and fraught beyond belief. However, thanks to the kidnapped man in uniform we eventually boarded the Eurostar with seconds to spare. The next train was in two hours time with no guarantee we would get a seat. Once on the other side of the Channel we had to move our watches forward one hour to European time and arrived in Brussels at 4.00 pm. We were under the impression that the train journey from Brussels to Bruges was matter of minutes. Wrong on that one; up and down escalators with our luggage and a twenty minute wait on a cold platform then what must have been the slow train to Bruges arriving at 5.30 pm. A taxi to our hotel in the centre of Bruges and we were finally in our hotel room at 6.00 pm. Have you got that? A car, three trains and a taxi with a total travelling time of ten hours; it didn't take that long to get to Russia earlier in the year. Was it all going to be worth it? Fortunately it was. Our hotel, De Tuilerieen, was pure five-star luxury, situated overlooking the Dijver Canal complete with pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and solarium. It was 18th Century elegance with everything we expected from a hotel of this class. De Tuilerieen actually cost £160.00 a night for a double en-suite room with breakfast an extra £18.00 per person-Gulp! Our package was based on 'buy two and get the third night free including breakfast' and all return rail travel from Waterloo to Bruges for £450.00 for the two of us so this was indeed e xcellent value. The hotel was enchanting and extremely comfortable and warm and the nightmare journey soon faded from our minds. Bruges is the capital of the province of West Flanders and Belgium's most popular tourist destination. The old town of Bruges is almost an island encircled by canals and is dubbed 'The Venice of the North' In fact, my first impression of Bruges by night was that I may have got it wrong and the entire place was a Disney film set complete with Gothic spires, Bruges-red painted shutters, cobbled streets, gabled houses, horse drawn carriages, big city walls and the harmonious appearance of the architecture. All the charming buildings were covered with Christmas lights- not the flashing Christmas lights of the U.K-tacky, flashing, neon, mobile reindeers, sleighs and Father Christmas-but gossamer fine lights seeming to hang airily suspended on the roofs and walls of the picturesque buildings. The many bars, cafes and restaurants continually burned small red night lights by the thousand and as soon as one burnt out it was immediately replaced with a freshly lit burner. The attention to detail was impressive wherever we went. Our hotel was a few minutes walk from the Markt, Bruges' main square, so by 7.00 pm we were strolling looking for food and beer. After reading several menus we realised they were all pretty much the same offering moules, frites, eel, Flemish beef stew, trout, sole, lobster (Alive in a tank so choose your own) steaks and veal. We've never been to Northern Europe before and found things comparatively expensive. Perhaps this is because the rest of Europe appears to have a better standard of living than us with higher average incomes making things seem more expensive to us poor old Brits? We were very impressed by the service in all the busy restaurants we ate in over the three days. A table is found for you at once; a menu is produced; a drink is offered; smoking isn't an issue; the food is of a high quality; all the waiters, and they are mainly waiters as opposed to waitresses, are attentive, polite and speak English even when we tried a few Flemish phrases. On leaving any restaurant the door is opened for you with a friendly goodbye and a thank you. I would like to see more UK service industries take note of this courteousness. I sometimes think we don't have a clue how to cater! We also noticed how many Belgian families with young children ate out together at night. The young children obviously enjoyed eating out without resorting to running around the place and there were no specific menus for children (No chicken nuggets, burgers, and scampi) but they ate the same as their parents, in some cases being given empty plates in order to share. High chairs were produced by the waiters in seconds. It wasn't unusual to see three or four generations eating together in these Gothic inspired, red walled, chandeliered and candlelit restaurants and it seemed the norm to them. We were rather restrained on our first night in Bruges as the country produces over seven hundred different beers, many being served in their own special glasses. Restrained, because Morty only tried two different beers, a blonde and a dark; announcing them delicious and ruing the fact that he wouldn't have enough time to sample the remaining seven hundred and forty eight. Our hotel served breakfast until the civilised hour of 10.30 am. This gave Morty time use the complimentary white cotton towelling bath-robe and slippers and swim in the pool, have a Turkish bath and a Jacuzzi, returning to our room energised and ready for breakfast. This was a superb buffet including Belgian Pate, smoked fishes, brawn, hams, cheeses, eggs, cereal, quiches, fresh fruits, yoghurts, croissants, fruit breads, rye breads, juices, jams and oh so perfect coffee. We only tasted perfect coffee in Bruges and I wish I'd taken the time to discover the blend they favou r. The hotel supplied complimentary bicycles and umbrellas. The bicycle was tempting as Bruges is flat and we would have liked to have cycled along the canals and the cycle paths to Damme, the Flemish village that serves as the coastal port for Bruges. Bruges was once on the coast but the inlet silted up cutting the city off from the sea. So as it was raining the umbrellas won and we made this a morning for museums. There were three next door to the hotel. We only viewed one, the Groeninge Museum, containing some of the great works of the Flemish Primitives including Bosch's 'Last Judgement' with the blazing fires of hell. We missed the Brangwyn Museum showing The Arts and Crafts and founded by a Welshman and the Lace Museum as it was lunchtime and we felt the need for coffee and cognac sitting in the window of a traditional Bruges; bar and people-watching. The Bruges' canal cruises don't run in the winter months and are said to be the best way of viewing the city. Instead we took a horse and carriage ride. These pick up visitors in the Markt, the largest of several impressive squares, which by this time of the day was full of Christmas Market stalls selling everything from gloves to cheeses, hot spicy drinks to frites and mayo, and an ice-rink. This was a delightful half an hour spent clip-clopping our way around this compact city accompanied by an entertaining commentary from our driver. This tour really showed how intact these medieval buildings are. The main reason for this preservation is due to Bruges' five centuries of economic decline when there was never enough money to demolish and rebuild. Although the city became badly dilapidated once visitors 'discovered' Bruges in the 19th Century money was spent on renovation, repairs and rebuilding so the present day visitor benefits as at every turn there are scenes to delight the eye-like an outdoor museum. All the historic buildings in Bruges give the vi sitor an insight into the long and distinguished history of Bruges and the Golden Ages of trade with the Orient, Europe and the Middle East which peaked in the 14th Century. Bruges prospered with wealthy merchants and the first Stock Exchange in Europe was founded in Bruges as well as the first European railway line in 1835. There are many events and festivals through out the year in Bruges. Film festivals, flower festivals, jazz festivals, antique fairs and religious festivals as this is a predominantly Catholic country. Apart from the hundreds of restaurants and bars all along the cobbled streets there is an abundance of lace and tapestry shops, chocolate shops, diamond and gold shops, specialist beer shops punctuated with excellent delicatessens selling delectable pastries, fruit breads, cheeses and pates and a good smattering of antique shops. We were struck by the fact that although Bruges has a 'Beer Culture' there was no evidence of public drunkenness and the streets felt safe to walk at night with no fevered checking that personal valuables hadn't been pick-pocketed. We saw no litter and noted how well kept and well maintained everything was. The Belgians appear to be very house-proud people and like things to be orderly. The spoken and written language is Flemish which at times is remarkably similar to English. However, everyone we met spoke extremely good English, French and German. This small city is inundated with visitors from the UK and Europe all the year round and they clearly have the tourism industry honed to a fine art. Whether a day tripper or staying for a longer break the visitor is welcomed and treated with respect. Bruges is a romantic city. The romance can be experienced in the park and the lake of Minniewater or 'The Lake of Love.' The serene Lake of Love was once the inner harbour of Bruges before it was cut off from the sea. The canals and the lake are full of gracefully paired swans preenin g each other as well as herons, flying geese and gulls and it is hard to remember that this beautifully hushed area is in the heart of the city. If I were a young man and wanted to propose to my lady I would book a break in Bruges. I would drape her body in hand-made Bruges lace, feed her hand-made Belgian chocolates, choose a diamond together-all the while plucking up the courage to ask for her hand by sampling as many local beers as I could in case she refused me. But if I lived in the West Country I'd make sure I went by air.

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                          24.12.2003 15:58
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                          • "Life is too Short to Read Rubbish Like this"

                          skip this first bit to be able to read the review with capital letters intact. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. I seem to favour women authors. Taking advantage of the WH Smith offer of 'Buy two paperbacks-get the third free' I had selected two novels by two excellent writers, Patricia Cornwell and Margaret Atwood leaving me to choose one more book. I had seen the name of Martina Cole in the No: 1 bestselling lists and noted there were several of her novels lining the shelves. Not having read her before I selected her first ever bestseller 'Dangerous Lady' written ten years ago and now re-printed to celebrate her phenomenal success over the last decade. I'm sure Martina Cole is a very nice lady and I applaud her success as a best selling author but I have never read such drivel in my life. Well I have-I have read Catherine Cookson just the once; I have read Jackie Collins just the once; I have read Barbara Bradford Taylor just the once; Martina Cole? A very poor imitation of the pre-mentioned who in themselves are the top writers of their genre, and they are lightweight and bad enough as it is. The author, if I may call her that, begins with the difficult birth of a baby born into squalor and poverty in South London in the 1950s. How often have we read this introduction in the first chapter of a book? The baby girl is the first female to be born into a home with an alcoholic father, a strong mother and several older brothers. Excuse me while I yawn. The family live on their wits around the bomb sites of post war South London by stealing and violence and it is obvious from the start that a criminal dynasty is about to be revealed. The title 'Dangerous Lady' refers to this first born girl who along with her very unpleasant brothers, useless father and the matriarchal and hypocritical head of the family becomes the Queen of organised crime in London's gangland. The 563 pages of this torturously bad novel take us from the cockroach infested family home of the 1950s and the phenomenal rise to a life of wealth and riches right up to the 1990s. Everyone in this book is one dimensional and I cared about nobody in it. All the characters are shallow and stereotypical. The corrupt Roman Catholic priest who involves the family in raising money for the IRA; equally corrupt police officers on the pay-roll who turn a blind eye to the families evil crimes; we have vice, prostitution, gambling, drugs, a massive gold bullion robbery, badly written sex scenes, badly written violence; boring descriptions of the expensive designer clothes our 'heroine' is wearing and the sharp suits and outstanding good looks of her equally shallow brothers. I laughed out loud at the portrayal the author gives the reader when describing a gangland funeral. Oh look! The Krays and the Richardsons are there paying homage and so is Freddie Mills the boxer and his lover Michael Holliday. I was waiting for Barbara Windsor and Ronnie Knight to make an appearance. No mention of Dianna Dors? There are so many actual mistakes in the continuity of this book I can only imagine that the proof reader fell asleep on the job-and I can't blame them. One paragraph begins with the heroine 'putting the coffee on' and several sentences later her guest 'sips his tea' Another even more outrageous mistake is the heroine receiving a written invitation and flowers from 'Mickey' asking her out to dinner at the Savoy; in the next paragraph she is indeed having dinner at the Savoy but with a bloke called 'Willy' Appalling garbage! Throughout this book the 'Dangerous Lady' has an improbable love affair with a police officer; the matriarch of this unpleasant family happily lives on the proceeds of their life of crime whilst condemning them all as filthy, putrid villains (You are clearly correct there Mother); the bent coppers all get away with it; the brothers all murder each other; I wished they'd all cancelled each other out at the start of this book and not taken alm ost 600 pages. The author just about manages to write words of more than one syllable, but only just. I have no intention to attempt to read another book by Martina Cole unless somebody can tell me her writing abilities have improved. The only consolation I have is that I consider this book to have been the free one in the WH Smith offer as it hurts me to imagine I actually paid good money for this inexcusably badly written book. It was with unimagined relief I was able to turn to Margaret Atwood's 'Blind Assassin' in order to restore my faith in women writers.

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                          • Why (not) travel? / Discussion / 0 Readings / 30 Ratings
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                            11.12.2003 00:10
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                            • Scary!!!!!!

                            skip this first bit to be able to read the review with capital letters intact. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. Q: How many times a year do you travel? A: For the last two years it has been twice a year. There is so much to discover, so much to see; as the opportunities arise we will travel as many times as we can in a year. _______________________________ Q: For how long do you go away? A: We try to make it for at least ten days at a time as one week is never enough. It also depends on the travelling distance involved because the outward and homeward journey always takes a day each way from the holiday. ______________________________ Q: Do you stay in your home country or do you go abroad? A: Abroad. I am known for my cowardice so we have been to exciting destinations like Russia, Egypt, Israel, Hungary, Morocco and the USA purely because my bloke is more adventurous than I am. I know I would settle for the comfort zone of mainland Europe if it wasn't for him. I am such a scaredy kinda person. When we were children my parents had a big, black second-hand Austin Sheerline and we all knew it used to be a hearse. They always insisted on travelling down narrow lanes in it and I would spend the whole journey screaming out that we were going to die. I still scream out to Morty that we are going to die when we do things like hire mountain bikes to cycle through remote Egyptian villages or go anywhere off the beaten tracks. He simply says that he'll have to hit me if I don't stop screaming! _______________________________ Q: Do you organise your holidays yourself or do you go to a travel agency? A: I refuse to take any chances given our destinations. I insist on staying in the best we can afford. I have never been capable of roughing it in any form. Doing it yourself sounds OK for some but we prefer using a reputable travel agency. Q: Do you prepare your holidays in advance by reading guide books and studying maps? A: We get books from the library and read t he history of the country we are visiting as well as studying maps. Understanding other peoples' culture and customs is a very important part of our holiday. Some basic historical and cultural knowledge is an enormous advantage when visiting Muslim countries and countries that were once living with a Communist regime. Perhaps if more people travelled with an understanding of why and how other people think and believe in the way they do there could be more World harmony. Or maybe I'm being an idealist? _______________________________ Q: Do you travel alone/with family or friends/with an organised group? A. Just the two of us and we don't mind groups because we are pretty good at not getting too involved. When we visited Morocco we were a group of eight travelling over the Atlas Mountains in a mini-bus. We were all strangers at the start but had a rollicking good time by the end of the holiday. Once again, we travelled during the day but stayed in luxurious accommodations overnight. The same with Russia; I feel safer with a small group and an expert guide-after all I am a scaredy custard. ______________________________ Q: Do you prefer the sea / mountains / plains / cities as destinations? A: All of them; Plus deserts, rivers, canals and lakes. __________________________________ Q: Do you mainly relax or are you an active holidayer? A: Doing is important during the day but relaxing in the evening suits us. We like museums, palaces, scenery, art and walking so we are more than ready stop at night time and have a good meal and local wines and review our day. __________________________________ Q: If you go abroad do you learn at least some words of the foreign language? A: Just the basic words. Although I never managed to make myself understand at all using one word of Russian or Moroccan; can't get my tongue round them but I do try to. ___________________ ______________ Q: Are you interested in the cuisine of a foreign country? A: Certainly. Goose liver in Hungary, pigeon pie in Morocco, Russian pickled cucumber, caviar and pancakes washed down with Lemon Vodka, a dubious mixed grill in Egypt-I was convinced it was camel, goat and horse meat but it tasted good. I always read up on the local cuisine and make sure we eat something regional. _________________________________ Q: Which means of transportation do you prefer? A: Our last trip sailing through the Russian rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs opened our eyes to the enjoyment in cruising the waterways of any country. Road travel is tiring and the driver misses so much as they are busy concentrating on the route. We always fly to our chosen destination and enjoy it. Its all part of the holiday for us. The minibus journey through the Atlas Mountains was terrifying at times as we drove through high mountain passes on hair-pin bends and I could barely look out of the windows-but I had to because I needed to see the beautiful scenery. We hired a car in California but I have refused to ever hire a car abroad again. Driving one hundred miles to see the Petrified Forest and the Napa Valley was all very well but two hundred miles in a day? No thanks. _________________________________ Q: What kind of luggage do you take with you? Have you got problems packing? Do you tend to take too many / too few things with you? A: I am dreadful. My suitcase always has a 'Heavy' label lobbed onto it at the airport as a warning to anybody who has to lift it. I do try so hard not to take too much but it doesn't seem to work. We have those solid cases with wheels and extending handles and I'm sure they are heavy to begin with. I don't know how to pack in a minimalist kinda way. Morty thinks he can but he always runs out of clean clothes when we are away so I do a fair amount of gloating because I ne ver run out! _________________________________ Q: Do you send picture postcards to your family and friends? A: No we don't. However, this year my family had to sit through one hour and twenty minutes worth of digital camera film of our Russian holiday, plus around one hundred photographs. Do you think I should ask them if they would prefer a postcard?

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                              08.12.2003 16:57
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                              skip this first bit to be able to read the review with capital letters intact. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. < br> My love affair began in late 1991 when the good looking, pony-tailed, smooth voiced singer/songwriter and American tenor-saxophone player Curtis Stigers released his first album 'Curtis Stigers'. I was smitten. Jealous mutterings from my bloke suggesting he was a one-hit wonder were studiously ignored by me. Secretly I longed for Curtis Stigers to repeat the success of his first album, which fell into the Pop category, but I waited in vain. I made excuses for the lack of a second album in that he had written all the songs himself and they were obviously based on his own life experiences and were deep and meaningful. And anyway-isn't there something about a smoky and raspy saxophone player blowing down his horn? During the last twelve years several albums have followed and I have bought them all but none of them carried the magic of that first album. A music review on Curtis Stigers' new album 'You Inspire Me' gave the singer/jazzman five stars. Even more exciting were the reviews for his UK tour earlier in the year promoting the album. The critics were ecstatic over his life performances where he snarled, crooned and scat in ways comparable to Tony Bennet as well as playing the saxophone. The controversial point for many music lovers is that this whole album consists of cover versions. OK! I can hear many of you. Cover versions are never a patch on the original-but please wait. Curtis Stigers has re-emerged as a jazz singer. Consider a blend of Chet Baker, the trumpet playing jazz singer, and phrasing similar to our own Annie Ross along with Tony Bennet and even a touch of Mel Torme, and dare I say-even Frank. The Curtis Stigers' album 'You Inspire Me' is labelled an 'Enhanced CD'. I was unaware of the meaning of this until I played it on my computer and there are six wonderful minutes of video. This is mainly an interview and clips of live musical rehearsals and a photograph sess ion. This enhancement is cert ainly a bonus and thoroughly enjoyable. Stigers covers songs by Lennon, McCartney, Joe Jackson, John Sebastian, Dylan, Billy Joel, Ray Davies, Nick Lowe, Randy Newman, Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, Jules Styne, Merle Haggard and Max Barnes and I would hazard that all of these song writers would applaud Stigers' interpretations of their work. 'I Feel Fine' by Lennon and McCartney swings along in true jazz style and, as in all the tracks, accompanied by a tight group of jazz musicians playing piano, hammond organ, bass, electric slide guitar and trumpet with Stigers playing the tenor saxophone. 'Tired of Waiting for You' by Ray Davies is given the crooner approach featuring the piano played by Larry Golding building up to a very dramatic finish. 'Fools in Love' by Joe Jackson swings while 'Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind' by John Sebastian, the lead singer of the Loving Spoonful, has a honky-tonk rhythm with Stigers giving it a feeling of the blues with some soaring trumpet solos from John Sneider. 'I Fall in Love Too Easily' by Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne is jazz inspired with much of a Sinatra sliding vocal and a solid backing by the bass played by Ben Allison and the hammond organ. This is a way out and funky sound ending with the singer giving us a cool saxophone solo. 'She's Got a Way' by another of my favourite singer songwriters Billy Joel, also known as the Piano-Man, Stigers croons gently along and is smoothly backed by the piano and drums played by Matt Wilson. Again there's a growling saxophone solo just in case the listener has withdrawal symptoms. The title song 'You Inspire Me' by Nick Lowe is another jazz based interpretation and not my particular favourite on the album. I can imagine listening to this track in the background- a bit like lounge music. However' Love' by John Len non is beautifully done and 'Blue Sk ies' by Irving Berlin is as good as any version I've heard by more well known singers. Randy Newman's 'I'll Be Home' has a sense of soul about it and 'Crazy Moon' written by Haggard and Barnes is almost country style and not really my style at all. Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright' is hammond backed and made me think of 'A Lighter Shade of Pale' but thankfully the trumpet solo broke the tedium of the hammond and as in all the tracks Stigers vocals held it together as he goes from a gentle start then gives it some punch. This album 'You Inspire Me' sees Stigers as a jazz singer who should be recognised as a star. This is a challenging album for an artist who began his recording career as an international pop star and has returned to his first love of jazz. The man has a jazz soul and sings all these classy tracks with feeling and passion whilst transforming these well known songs into jazz inspired classics of his own. The title song seems to be double edged. Perhaps Stigers is telling the listener that he was himself inspired by these singer/songwriters/musicians that composed the originals. I'd like to think so.

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                              • BT / Telecommunications Service / 1 Reading / 19 Ratings
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                                02.12.2003 15:33
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                                • "Lack of support"

                                skip this first bit to be able to read the review with capital letters intact. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. a. < br> If you want to read an expert critique and very technical description of the BT Voyager 2000, complete with images and diagrams, then I suggest you visit http://www.adslguide.org.uk/hardware/reviews/2003/q3/bt-2000.asp first and then return here to read a complete layperson's experience of installing, configuring and running this wireless ADSL modem, the aim being to home network two computers in order to share broadband access, printers, files and folders. Considering the problems I encountered installing and setting up BT Broadband on my new computer using Windows XP I should in hindsight have left well alone, but my partner was so impressed with the speedy broadband connection and my new computer that he immediately bought himself a new computer as he wanted to join in the fun. We balanced the cost of a second phone line and the monthly fee for an ISP for his sole use against the monthly fee of £29.00 for a shared broadband connection using the one phone line and sharing was the obvious economic answer. My first move was to ask a local computer expert if he could home network the two computers to include the broadband connection. His first comment was how much he loathed the Windows XP operating system and the second was that he had never networked a broadband connection before but that he'd ask around. This hardly filled me with confidence-did I really want to let him near two brand new computers? I decided to go it alone. The BT brochure that came with my original broadband package had a paragraph describing the BT Voyager 2000 Home Network as the simple solution to home networking, particularly the wireless version. Wireless appealed to me as I fancy the idea of a laptop and wireless means that computers don't have to be in the same room as each other, as well as the fact that a few wires less trailing out of computers is always an attractive thought. I telephoned the supplied BT Freephone number and the very pleasa nt sales person assured me the installation was easy. I asked if I needed to uninstall my existing broadband and after she had asked a colleague I was told I didn't have to uninstall the previous connection, just disconnect the BT Voyager 100 USB ASDL modem from the computer and continue to install the BT Voyager 2000 software as instructed. The sales person gave me a specific helpline number to 'phone if I got into trouble. We'll see eh? The pack arrived with three CD-ROMS, one for each computer and I still don't know what the other one was for as it told me I didn't need to use it. There is a wireless base station and two external modems, the BT Voyager 1020, one for each computer. I would hardly call the base station wireless as it had to be connected by power plugs and a USB into my computer although the other computer didn't need to connect physically to this. I followed the instructions to the letter using the very detailed Voyager User Guide that came with the CD and appeared on the monitor. I'm afraid the next few hours were spent in a haze of confusion as no matter what I did I couldn't connect to the Internet as I had seemingly completely lost my broadband connection. I phoned the Helpline given to me by the BT Voyager sales person and was told this number was unobtainable and not in use. After uninstalling and installing several times I found my browser was working and I was in my BT Voyager homepage, although I couldn't go anywhere else on the WWW, which I had to configure! Look, I know what WEP means but what was I to choose? 128-bit or a 64-bit? I didn't know. There were sections on primary IP addresses and protocols and activating the firewall to low/medium/high. I admit to becoming click happy as I was panicking. I phoned the BT Voyager phone number that worked and they told me they couldn't help me with the installation as they only sold the stuff and gave me the defunct Helpline n umber again. I hung up. I lo cated another Helpline number at 50p a minute in the BT Voyager User guide and rang that. Was this success at last? A charming Scotsman took me back to the Voyager settings in my computer and talked me through a maze of ticked and unticked boxes and I gathered I was reconfiguring everything. However, at one stage he asked me if I had a paperclip handy! I affirmed and he told me to straighten it out and poke it into this little hole in the base station! I could hardly believe my ears! All this expensive equipment and he wanted me to poke about in a little hole. I told him I had no intention of doing this. We moved on. Whatever he told me to do I reckon a science degree would have been useful. He then took me to my BT Voyager Homepage and we configured all the WEP and firewall stuff together. He left me happily web enabled and gave me a reference number to quote if I needed future assistance. Oh no! Outlook Express won't work! I had written down all my account server and connection settings and they were entered correctly so why couldn't I connect? I phoned BT Openworld Help, my ISP, and was told in no uncertain terms that it wasn't their problem and what was Voyager anyway and to contact BT Broadband as they supplied my broadband and not them. I phoned BT Broadband Help. They were more accommodating but admitted they knew nothing about BT Voyager and I should go back to either the BT Voyager Helpline or BT Broadband Connection. I went back to BT Voyager Help at 50p a minute, quoted my reference number and got another charming Scotsman. I told him all was well with my web access but my Outlook Express wouldn't connect. He told me this was a case for my ISP! By this time I had been four hours trying to set this up. He could hear the upset and frustration in my voice. I gave him a cyberkiss when he told me to open Outlook Express and although he was only there to help with the Voyager he would talk me through my OE mail settings. I had to compl etely change most of the settings making them completely different from the original connection settings. While he was still on the phone my mailbox was receiving emails again and I was able to send and receive. I thanked him profusely and wasted no time in phoning my ISP back, BT Openworld, and informing them that it had in fact been their job surely to reconfigure my settings? They still didn't think so. I have had more problems since this BT Voyager 2000 Wireless installation. These have been to do with the Voyager Firewall blocking my access to some of my special online forums. A third phone call to the 50p a minute Helpline using my quoted reference number couldn't resolve this problem-not because the third charming Scotsman didn't know how to help me but I needed to know certain information about the forums I wanted unblocked in order to reconfigure the security and I wouldn't know a protocol from a bowl of popcorn. I am now physically and mentally scared of my Voyager Homepage and the horrendous configurations a layperson like me is supposed to know how to do to configure their Internet security. The User Guide supplied on the CD-ROMs is too jargon filled for me and frankly frightens the life out of me. Apart from the three charming Scotsmen who were so helpful in trying to get my BT Voyager 2000 functioning correctly, once again BT passed me from one phone number to another telling me in the process that my problem wasn't theirs. I am convinced that an expert would have no problems with the installation but I am not an expert and I clearly had problems. However, let's look on the positive side now dear reader. Are the two computers networked successfully? Yes they are. We now share an excellent wireless broadband connection (For the techies at 11.0 Mbps) and we can both use the connection at the same time via the Voyager 1020. In fact, the slave computer is better off than the ho st as they have the one USB neatly plu gged in whereas the host is connected to the base station meaning yet more wires. The connection is automatically made when either computer is switched on. We now share a printer and scanner and various files and folders. This ADSL line can be shared by up to ten computers within a range of 50m indoors and 250m outdoors which makes the possibility of me sitting on the patio with a laptop not such a distant dream. It certainly makes sense to share a broadband wireless connection in this way as splitting the cost of £29.00 between two users is economical. On a lighter note; by the time I gained my first access to my BT Voyager homepage I was going through the furious stage. I had to enter a password. I chose a string of expletives and symbols that made me go red in the face. Whilst on the phone to Scotsman number three he told me to enter my password. For a few dreadful moments I wondered if he could see it! At least I had the decency to blush!

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                                  26.11.2003 18:21
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                                  Advantages

                                  Disadvantages

                                  • None

                                  skip this first bit to be able to read the review with capital letters intact. The cabin on our Russian river cruise was described as 'Compact. I could tolerate this inconvenience apart from one glaring omission on the part of the cabin designer. The only mirror was in the shower room-wet room-toilet above the minute hand basin. There was a shaver socket but dire warnings about using a hair drier with this socket as this could possibly fuse the power in the whole ship. Consequently I was forced to blow dry my hair in the compact cabin using a small hand mirror balanced on a tiny shelf above the only available power plug. I couldn't see a thing and had to direct the drier by instinct. This proved to be disastrous as I held the drier far too close to my hair and I smelt burning follicles more than once. However, the damage was done. Ever since then, leaving my hair to dry naturally leaves it frizzy looking and curls going every which way and completely out of control. Blow drying has proved no better as my hair feels dry and brittle no matter how careful I was. No amount of intensive conditioners has improved the look or texture of my hair. I like to have the choice of two looks. One left naturally curly and bouncy and the other sleek and straight and neither worked. What was I to do? My past experiences as a professional hairdresser have left me very dubious about using any form of electric hair straighteners because of the direct contact with the hair. There were many instances of scorched and damaged hair. Nevertheless, I had read some glowing reports about the latest breed of steam enhanced ceramic plated hair straighteners but the cost of the most sought after brand seemed exorbitant. Lately, the online beauty forum I regularly read was full of praise for the latest BaByliss 'Straight & Shine' steam condi tioning straighte ner (With extra shot of steam) with ceramic coated non-stick plates to glide ultra-smoothly through the hair. Further information revealed that the BaByliss hair product was around £30.00,a far more reasonable price than the original brand I'd read about, and indeed I bought them for £29.00 in my high street Superdrug store. I've been through the mill with technology over the last few weeks and was immediately put off the BaByliss steam straighteners because the two closely written columns explaining how to use them looked quite formidable. As regaining any quality concerning my hair is less retrievable in case of an accident than installing a new technology into my computer I was very wary indeed. I read the instructions thoroughly as there are little felt-like wicks that have to be positioned correctly and the instructions were very explicit. My fears were allayed as the steam straighteners work very simply and efficiently. A small reservoir is filled with water and then the appliance is plugged in to the power. The ceramic plates heat up very quickly. The steam straighteners are light and comfortable to grip and control. Simply section off dry or just slightly damp hair and, beginning from the underneath back sections, just glide the straighteners along the shaft of the hair from the root to the tip section by section. Let the sections cool before disturbing again or re-doing. I work all over my hair from the back upwards using the smoothing comb attachment which guides the Straight & Shine through my hair by holding the section of hair taut. Once done then simply slide the smoothing comb off and slide on a second attachment called a Hi-Shine. This does what it says-it polishes the hair by smoothing the cuticle to ensure as much gloss and shine as possible. Cursed as I was with uncontrollable kinks and fly away ends the smooth and soft results are amazing. Not only does my hair look good but my hair feels good too. A full tank of wate r in the reservoir produces steam for about twenty five minutes. My hair is an all one length bob and thick. This Straight & Shine process takes about ten minutes and uses about half the water. My main concern was the direct contact of the heated ceramic plates onto the hair shaft and my memories of the past and resultant hair damage. It appears that the narrow ceramic plates don't clamp onto the hair as in some straightening appliances as they are non-stick but give the user maximum control to move the plates on and certainly aren't damaging my hair at all. An extra Shot of Steam can be applied to areas of the hair that need more than one straightening run through, although BaByliss warn the user not to be over zealous with this function as excessive Shots of Steam can cause hot water to be emitted. Mmm! Scalded scalp? No thank you. The Straight & Shine can be used without steam but I won't do that as I believe the steam is a very important factor in the conditioning process. My aim was for straight hair but by using the appliance as a brush it is possible to turn the hair under to achieve a curved bob as well as reversing the brush to attain bouncy flick-ups. I am trying to imagine using these on short layered hair and wonder if the heated plates would be rather close to the scalp in order to get a grip on the hair section and perhaps proving a little uncomfortable I shampoo and condition my hair two or three times a week. The BaByliss straight and shine effect looks well after a night's sleep and will happily go through two days without kinking up and misbehaving. Stroking my hands over my hair as I type this is a pleasure as it feels smooth, strong and weighty with no hint of frizz and dryness. There are times inbetween shampoos that an unwanted kink can appear. Don't worry. Fill the reservoir with water and straighten them out. The usual maintenance of this electrical ap pliance is required as in a steam iron. To prevent scaling in the reservoir use de-ionised water and they advise operating the appliance once in a while with vinegar and water to prevent the steam vents from scaling up and there is also a contactable Customer Care Line. The BaByliss 'Straight & Shine' steam conditioning straightener (With extra shot of steam) with ceramic coated non-stick plates is a superb product. They have certainly made my life a lot easier and happier with no apparent damage. Here's hoping that 'Bad Hair Days' remain a thing of the past and no more 'Compact' cabins for me!

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