Epilogue

Nearly eight months to the day after I contacted Lufthansa to request a refund of the ticket for my sabbatical in Australia, they finally managed to actually pay back the money that they owed me to my credit card.

I have to admit that I was not expecting ever to see the money I paid for that ticket again. Of course, I’m not complaining that I finally got the money back. But if I were Lufthansa, I think I’d be somewhat alarmed by the fact that their customers don’t even trust them enough anymore to refund money that rightfully belongs to them.

IATA, the airlines and airports have put a lot of time and effort in recent weeks into demonstrating that the risk of infection with the COVID19 virus aboard an airliner is minimal. And I’m willing to believe that’s probably even true. Some people are indeed reluctant to fly for health reasons. Others are likely very frustrated by the uncertainty of planning a trip due to the seemingly constantly chaning travel restrictions and entry requirements from one country to another. But I suspect that a large proporition of former customers are simply no longer willing to trust the airlines with their money. And frankly, I don’t blame them.

So instead of trying to prove to customers just how effective a HEPA filter on an aircraft can be, perhaps now would be a better time for airlines to show that they can be reliable and dependable partners that actually do put the customer first for a change.

Air France Platinum Service: Credit where Credit’s due

A few weeks ago, Air France sent me an email advising me that a booking I had pending with them had been cancelled as the result of the COVID19 pandemic. And then I promptly forgot about the booking.

At 10h30 this morning, I figured I needed to get myself and my reservations/cancellations sorted out. So I logged into my Air France account and requested a full refund of my ticket using the corresponding form in the PNR.

Just after 14h00 this afternoon, so the same day, I received two emails from Air France. One was an automated message confirming that the refund had been processed. The other was a message from an employee of the Air France Platinum hotline with more information about the refund process. My interaction with Air France was swift, efficient and very polite.

Thanks a lot Air France!

***

On 18 March 2020 I called Lufthansa to cancel a First Class ticket. It took me one hour of trying unsuccessfully to actually get on the line to Lufthansa, and then another hour before an agent could attend to me. Since then, I have called Luthansa three more times in this matter. The first time, I was told the refund was being processed as we speak, and I should expect to receive the money within days. Which evidently turned out to be a blatant lie. The second time I called, the agent told me she was “not trained well enough” to be able to tell be what the situation with the ticket was – but promised to call back the next day. Which never happened either, surprisingly. The third time I called, I had a really great guy on the phone – simply because I think he was the first employee of Lufthansa’s so far who was honest. Alas, he honestly could not tell me if and when I might get a refund… five months later I’m still none the wiser.

KLM Cityhopper, Embraer 190 – Economy Class: Amsterdam to Basel

Introduction

I spend two whole days in the Netherlands. And I must say, the change of scenery did me good. Back home the monotony of working from home seems to make my days just fly by. Which isn’t bad either, but it leaves you with a sense of everything being rushed, even when it’s not.

In Amsterdam I stayed at the CitizenM South, which I think is in a great location. It’s close to the the railway and metro station at Amsterdam Zuid and the tram line number 5, which takes you all the way into the city centre, stops just outside the hotel.

The staff at the hotel were really great, and did a brilliant job of trying to put visitors at ease and make them feel comfortable. Occupancy was only at 10%.

Amsterdam was very quiet and subdued. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it looking so calm and deserted. Of course, it probably didn’t help that the weather was atrocious during my visit…

Getting to the Airport

Trains between Amsterdam Zuid and Schiphol airport run frequently. The journey takes six minutes. The use of face masks is mandatory on public transport in the Netherlands right now.

The central plaza at Schiphol airport is very quiet. The place is usually crawling with clueless tourists trying to figure out how to purchase a ticket and which train to take. But not any more.

Only very few shops are open. It’s difficult to say though, if the closed ones are just opening later because of the reduced number of visitors to the airport, or if they are closed indefinitely.

Check-in

Check-in is surprisingly busy. The queue for security is quite long, and there is no longer a dedicated lane for SkyPriority passengers. Although I’m not sure if this may be due to the obvious construction that is going on.

I think the security check experience at Amsterdam really highlights the catch 22 the airlines and airports are facing right now: I would say most people in the queue were wearing face masks, but otherwise ignored the round markings on the floor indicating a distance of 1.5 metres. And in a way, I don’t blame them. Most of them looked like holiday makers that were probably relieved to finally get out and about and excited to travel again.

But that’s not the point and not so important. Ultimately, everyone must choose for themself if they want to play their part in bringing the situation under control or not. But Amsterdam, like many other hubs in Frankfurt, London or Paris, was built soley for the one purpose of operating a high performance hub, with many flights feeding a lot of passenger into their long haul networks. But right now, that seems rather difficult to reconcile with social distancing measures. First, because the airlines are all operating on a reduced schedule. This means that layovers at the transfer airports tend to be quite a bit longer than usual – which is precicely what the authorities are trying to prevent: a lot of people in a confined space for any length of time. And second, because Amsterdam Schiphol is probably already too small if the authorities were serious about properly implementing all the recommended social distanting measures – despite the diminshed network and the lower passenger volumes. As long as passenger numbers are down, the issue is manageable. But at airports arond the globe, the moment will come where the crowds will be too big to be kept under control.

The KLM Crown Lounge

The Crown lounge is open. It’s changed a lot since my last visit. The back part, which used to overlook the check-in area, is gone. Instead, the lounge has expanded sideways and now also covers an area which, I believe, was previously occupied by the Swissport lounge.

There is no longer a buffet in the lounge, and instead passengers have to queue at the bar to place their orders with one of the lounge attendants. Within the lounge, most people keep their masks on, perhaps only removing them to have a drink. As far as I can tell, there is hardly and food on offer.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight is from B02, which is a bus gate. Passengers are more or less evenly distributed across the two busses. The load is roughly 70 passengers.

The gate agents are very meticulous and stop anybody who tries to pass the gate without a mask. There’s a school class of mainly hormonal teenage boys. So as you can imagine, the gate agents have their work cut out before the last bus is finally allowed to leave for the aircraft…

The Cabin

There are two rows of Business Class, but only two seats on row 1 are occupied. I am on 3F, the first Economy Plus row. The whole row behind me is empty and there’s only one other passenger on 3A. So we’re good.

There’s a bit of a delay because of a technical issue that needs looking into, and for a moment I dread that next the pilot will have to inform us that we’ve missed out slots But then I chuckle to myself as it dawns on me that, very likely, it’ll be a few years before Amsterdam is restricted for slots again…

Eventually, we taxi out with a delay of about 15 minutes. As we turn on to the runway, I catch a glimpe of the new A pier, which is gradually nearing completion. Although I think it will still be a while before it is in it’s final configuration. Right now, there is still a categing facility between the A and the B pier, which will have to go sooner or later.

The Meal

The service is more or less the same as on the outbound: a small box with a cheese sandwich, a cookie and a tub of water. In addition, the crew distribute an information sheet by the Swiss federal government as well as a contact form for every passenger to complete in case anybody on the flight develops symptoms later on. The forms are collected by the ground agent upon disembarking.

Arrival

The flight time is one hour, most of which I Spend looking out the window. I’ve missed the view from the wing so, so much…

The weather in Basel is much better than in Amsterdam. We make our approach from the south, which means we come in right over the swimming pool where I usually do my laps. Which is convenient, because the place looks deserted from above. So I guess that answers what I’ll be doing this afternoon…

We land, and literally ten minutes later I’m already sitting in the bus on my way home.

Conclusion

So, this brings to a close my report on the new normal of air travel. I think it is likely that it will be at least another five to six years before the airline industry fully makes a recovery. Until then, I fear a lot of jobs will be lost and many airlines will pass on into history as yet another casualty of the pandemic. Especially the coming winter will not be easy.

For the airlines that survive though, I think it is important right now that they work on their reputation management. For the time being, people may not be travelling because of the uncertainties of travelling abroad. But sooner or later, the restrictions will ease. When that happens, it would serve the airlines well to have regained the trust and confidence of their customers, many of which have been rather badly treated by the airlines in recent months.

I appreciate that refunding all the unsued tickets all at once would probably have more or less grounded all airlines within days. Fair enough. But this voucher business the airlines are currently offering instead of a proper refund is, for the most part, a scam. Treating your customers badly has never been a good idea. Treating them like idiots only adds insult to injury.

KLM Cityhopper, Embraer 190 – Economy Class: Basel to Amsterdam

Introduction

125 days ago, I returned to Basel from giving a course in Luxembourg. The week after, I was scheduled to make one last trip to Luxembourg before heading off to Australia on sabbatical for six months. While in Australia, I should have made a side trip to Bangkok, and then another to Ulan Baatar via Singapore and Hong Kong. But then the world shut down – slowly, gradually and irrevocably.

And my world slowed to a pleasant, leisurely pace. I was fully expecting to miss the flying. I was also fully expecting to well and truly get on everybody’s nerves once the withdrawal symptoms kicked in. If the effort it took to get me off the pacifier when I was four years old was anything to go by, I was convinced this was not going to be pretty…

But 125 days later, my watch has left a pale mark on my bronzed wrist from all the cycling and swimming I’ve managed to do. My PhD is on track and in the peaceful tranquility of my own home I have been so much more productive than I ever could have been in an office full of people.

And now today, I am taking my first flight. I’m curious to see how much aviation has changed in just 125 days.

Getting to the airport

I leave my flat at 10:25 to catch the bus line 50 to the airport. The 10:33 service runs nonstop to the airport, although I’m not quite sure what the point is, because it’s not really any faster than the regular service.

Since Monday, 06 July 2020 it is a mandatory requirement to wear face masks on all public transport in Switzerland. So today is the first time I’m using public transport and therefore, also the first time I’ve had to use a face mask. I don’t want to argue about the merits or disadvantages of wearing one of these things. But… first, I think my face is too big for a standard issue face mask. If I pull it up to properly cover my nose, then my chin keeps slipping out the bottom and the mask rides up to uncover my mouth. If I pull it down, my nose is uncovered… And second, the mask is a bit of a nuisance if, like me, you have varifocals, because it pushes the glasses higher up on your nose. And as a result, you end up looking into the distance through that part of the lens which is actually intended for short distances. And my breath is making the glasses fog up too. So basically, in the sum of all things I kind of feel like something out of Gorillas in the Mist… but cross-eyed.

Sixteen minutes later we arrive at the departures level of the airport, and the other four passengers and I disembark.

There’s a sign at the entrance to the terminal, advising passengers that wearing a face mask is mandatory inside.

Check-in

I’ve checked in online. As a Platinum member with Air France KLM I can select any seat on the aircraft free of charge. Originally I was seated on row 7, which was the first row in the Economy Class cabin. A few days before departure though, KLM does the inventory for its flights, which means that they usually open up seats further up front once the final position of the cabin divider is decided. And so I move forward to row 2 at check-in.

Check-in is eerily quiet. It looks as though everyone just left abruptly and forgot to switch off the lights.

Airside

I don’t think I’ve ever been through security at Basel airport this quickly. There are hardly any passengers, and even with just the one line open, the staff still have plenty of time to check every passengers very carefully and still manage to have a enough time to chatter and gossip.

I think I always understood that magnitude of recent events and their impact on the aviation industry. But today is the first time I have the opportunity to witness the devastation up close. It’s really quite upsetting.

The beautiful Swissport lounge is closed.

Boarding

The only place with signs of life is gate 1, from where the flight to Amsterdam will be departing. I count a total of 77 passengers, which isn’t a bad seat load factor for an Embraer 190 with a capacity of about 90 seats. Although having said that, KLM is currently operating just the one flight to Basel, where previously they had four.

Boarding is by seat rows from the back of the plane and takes a lot longer to ensure there are no queues in the air bridge or in the cabin. KLM strictly enforces the use of face masks on its flights, and it is stated at the time of booking and in the confirmation e-mail that passengers without a mask will not be admitted to the flight.

The Crew

There are two cabin crew, one female and one male. I think it’s quite obvious they’re making an effort to appear as though this flight is business as usual, and I think they deserve a lot of credit for trying to do a good job in seriously adverse conditions. But I’m not sure it’s working. Because the atmosphere on board is subdued. Passengers are wary and tense, as though they’d much rather be somewhere else.

The Cabin

There is one row of Business Class on today’s flight, and the forward toilet is reserved for the crew only. All passengers are required to use the toilet in the rear of the aircraft.

The Meal

The flight time is one hour. As this is a lunchtime service, every passenger in Economy is given a small box with a packaged half of a cheese sandwich, a biscuit and some water. In addition to that, there is a separate drinks service from the trolley.

While I applaud KLM for their effort to maintain a standard level of service in these strange times, I think on such a short flight they might as well do away with the service for the time being. Either that, or they should provide disinfectant wipes to passengers. From what I can tell, not that many passengers actually touch the food.

I stash mine away to eat when I get to the hotel.

Arrival

We land in Amsterdam on time. There’s definitely a lot more traffic here than there was in Basel, but it’s still a far cry from what it used to be like not so long ago. What’s more, there are aircraft parked everywhere. And obviously they’re there for long term storage. It’s really quite sad to see.

At least since my last visit the construction of the new A pier at Amsterdam has progressed quite a lot, although I still don’t quite get what the final layout of the building will be.

Our flight pulls up to a stand at the B pier. The weather in Amsterdam is atrocious. It’s raining and much cooler than Basel.

There aren’t many passengers in the terminal, and most of the shops appear to be closed. Half the luggage belts in the arrivals hall are turned off permanently.

Conclusion

I must say, this flight today has been quite an eye opener. As I previously mentioned, I was already aware of the disastrous consequences the events of the last few months have had on the airline industry. But seeing the devastation up close from the passenger’s perspective is sobering and really quite depressing.

It is difficult to assess the current situation without coming across as being overly pessimistic. But right now, things are really not looking very good for the airline industry – despite the significant rescue packages some of them have received from their governments and the slow resumption of flights. It is common wisdom in the industry that the airlines earn most of their money during the peak summer months. What they don’t manage to earn during that period, they will not be able to recover in the slower winter season.

Air Malta – Boeing B 720B

Introduction

I am aware of the fact that for many people, the isolation that comes with social distancing is distressing and may be the cause of concern and anxiety; and by no means to I want to diminish or disregard the struggle of anyone finding it difficult to cope in the face of this unprecedented situation.

For me though, the pandemic has also had its good sides. It has certainly allowed me to slow down considerably, especially given how much travelling I was doing before the outbreak. And when I feel the need to escape the physical confines of the current situation, my happy place are the memories of the many places I have been fortunate enough to visit over the years. And of course, those memories tend to come with a very heavy dosage of airplanes and airports.

This blog post is not so much of a trip report. I’d rather avoid calling it a trip down memory lane too because that is just lame… But rather, when I went through the photos I am posting here, I kept wondering to myself ‘man, how on earth did they manage back then…?’. I like to think that in many years to come, people will look back on 2020 and think the same; and then come to the realisation that while perhaps nothing is still the same, at least it has changed for the better.

So, it’s 1987, 33 years ago. I’m a slightly awkward thirteen year-old adolescent. My face, or rather my upper lip, is covered in a dark, downy fluff which I’d like to get rid of. But rumour has it among the other boys at school that if I take my dad’s shaver to get rid of the stuff, it’ll only come back stronger, until eventually I’ll have it all over my face and will have to get rid of it on a daily basis – unless of course, I want to end up looking like captain caveman…

Buying a ticket

In 1987 the world wide web is still three years away. As such, tickets have to be purchased with a travel agent or directly with the airline by phone or by visiting one of their airport or town offices.

But at least for your efforts the airlines have the decency to provide you with a ticket wallet for your travel documents.

The airline ticket is something that exists independently of the flight booking or PNR. The ticket has a document number and a ticket number. The first three numbers are the airline designator. So in this case, 643 marks an Air Malta document. The airline ticket is a booklet with a maximum of four coupons, the passenger receipt and the audit coupon.

And yes, back in 1987 a hand-written ticket is actually quite normal, as long as the validator in the top right corner is visible. Bascally, every coupon in the ticket had a sheet of red carbon paper at the back, so what is written on the first page is printed on all subsequent pages too.

In Economy Class there are only few different booking classes, such as the APEX, PEX, SUPERPEX and Full fare. The main difference between the PEX fares and the full fare is that the fomer have a restricted validity period, for example one month from the date of original departure.

Check-in

In the absence of computers or a check-in system, in Malta at least, check-in is done completely manually. Which means that first the station prints a passenger list with all the names. Then a twin desk of counters opens for check-in, with two agents sharing large sheets of papers with small stickers on them with seat numbers. To issue the boarding pass, the check-in agent first peels off the sticker and stamps it to an empty boarding pass. Then they write down the seat assignment on the passenger list. Check-in closes when there are no stickers left or all the names have been ticked off…

The Boeing B 720

When the Maltese government decided to set up its own airline, it soon realised there was no expertise on the island to do so. Initially, the tender to support the government in setting up an airline was supposed to go to Pan Am. But then at the last moment Pakistan International Airline made a bid that was simply too good to refuse – because it also included three used Boeing B 720s. At the time, the offer faced a lot of opposition in Malta, because it was obvious that the aircraft PIA was offering Air Malta were already quite old. Even so, the Maltese government went ahead and in April of 1974, Air Malta set up operation. Later on, they would purchase two more of the type from Western Airlines to operate a total of five aircraft. The Boeing B 720 remained with Air Malta until 1989, when they were replaced with a fleet of six factory new Boeing B 737-200s.

I more or less grew up with the Boeing B 720. We lived in St. George’s bay, which is quite near the airport in Malta. The P&W JT3D-1 turbofan engines were outrageously loud by today’s standard and made a very distinct noise that sounded a lot like a whistle. As such, they were rather hard to miss.

I always enjoyed the B 720 because it felt very solid, as though it was built to last. But as a child you don’t realise or understand that nothing lasts for ever. When I was young I was always keen to try out new aircraft when we travelled as a family. When Air Malta started taking delivery of the B 737s, I would always hope there would be an aircraft change and that we’d get one of those instead of the rickety old 720s. But today I must say, I really miss the aircraft.

Catering

Back in those days, catering was not one of Air Malta’s fortes, and quite frankly they could have done without asking your for beef or chicken, because most of the time it was impossible to identify what was on the tray in front of you anyway. I haven’t got any photos of Air Malta meals from back then, but I did find some interesting ‘accessories’ in my archives.

Conclusion

Air Malta is now 46 years old, like me. After the Boeing B 720 and the B 737-200 the company went on to operate the B 737-300, -400 and -700, the B 727-100 and -200, the BAe ATP, the Avro RJ70, the Airbus A 310-200, and a few wet-leased types. Right now, the company is in the process of replacing its A 320 fleet with the A 320NEO. It remains to be seen how Air Malta will weather the storm, especially given that tourism is Malta’s bread and butter and the airline’s main role is to deliver fresh tourists to the island.

The BAe ATP and the Airbus A 310 are the only two types operated by Air Malta that I never flew on with the airline. The B 737s were always fine. The Avro RJ70 was dreaful and so cramped it really was nothing short of a human rights violation. But the Boeing B 720B will always be the best of the lot. Probably not just beause it dates back to an era when airlines simply saw now need to have to pack in the tourist and could therefore afford to give passengers at least some comfort – even in Economy Class. But I also think I will always be very fond of the B 720B because I associate it with summer holidays at the beach in Malta.

Kruisheren Hotel

The building housing the monastery of the Crutched Friars of the Order of the Holy Cross in the beautiful city of Maastricht is one of only very few buildings in the Netherlands build in the Gothic tradition that remains intact in its entirety.

In 2003 what used to be the monastery was sold to a hotel group and turned into the Kruiserenhotel, which is also a member of the Design Hotels. The hotel lies in a central location just off the main square of the town and about twenty minutes walk from the main railway station.

Once you are inside the hotel, there is a large outdoor courtyard that is closed off on all sides and is very serene and quiet. Generally speaking, there is something very grand and imposing about the place that constantly has you feeling you really should be whispering.

The hotels’s public area with the resturant and bar are probably the most spectacular features of the hotel. In the bar, the decor is kept in plush, extravagant dark red velvet that clashes dramatically with the austere lines of the gothic architecture.

The restaurant sits on top of the bar and here the decor is kept simple, presumably so as not to distract from the spectacular ceiling that gives an impression of infinity in the abesence of any other visual references to gauge the height. Which is probably the effect they were already aiming for when it was still a church.

There are sixty rooms in the hotel. The decor is something you may like or you may not. The contrast is certainly interesting between the bright decorations and the vaulted gothic ceilings in the building. A lot of the hotel’s design is dictated by the fact that when work started to turn the building into a hotel, they were not permitted to alter the structure. As such, anything that was added had to be inserted to the existing buildings.

All in all, the rooms at the Kruisheren are fairly small, after all the rooms were built for modesty and not opulence. But the hotel is comfortable, and even if you’re not staying, it’s definitely worth a visit.

The food at the hotel is very good and dining in a church is an interesting experience. They have a tasting menu which is extensive and probably safe even for the pickiest eater, because they will adapt the menus to suit your preferences.

SAS, Economy Class – Boeing B 737-600: Stockholm Arlanda to Zürich

This post isn’t so much of a trip report as it is a commentary. The Boeing B 737 is the most successful jet airliner in aviation history, with a total of more than 10’500 aircraft of the type built. It is currently in its fourth generation with the ill-fated B737 Max, the future of which does not look too bright in the wake of the two fatal accidents more than two years ago.

The B 737 was originally built to operate from small airports with limited infrastructure. This meant that the aircraft’s layout required it not to be too high off the ground for better access for the service vehicles and for the possibility to incorporate a set of retractable passenger stairs.

The result was an aircraft with a short, stuby appearance. It is most easily recognisable by the fact that the engines had to be mounted directly under the wing in order to maintain enough clearance to the ground and thus to avoid them becoming contaminated by ingesting debris lying on the ground.

Over the years, the B 737’s fuselage has been stretched a number of times. The wing has also been modified, together with new avionics and more powerful engines. The original B 737-100 was only 29 metres long. Today, the longest version of the type is the B 737-900 at 42 metres.

The B 737-600 is a bit of a squirt, at just 31 metres length. It is also the least successful model of the B 737 series, with only 69 aircraft ever built. Of those 69 aircraft, only about half remain in active service in 2020. Part of the -600’s problem was that it was simply too heavy for the number of passengers it was able to carry, which might also explain why it is the only version of the B 737 for which the manufacturer did not offer the option to have winglets, which would only serve to make the aircraft even more overweight.

SAS was the first and, at one time, the largest operator of the B 737-600, with a fleet of 30 units that were ordered mainly for domestic operations in Sweden. Their intention had been to replace part of their fleet of old DC-9s and MD-80s with the -600. The Scandinavian airline decommissioned its last B 737-600 in 2019.

The much more elegant MD-80 that the B 737-600 ought to have replaced…

For the passenger though, the -600 had a lot to offer in terms of comfort, because the cabin of the B 737 in general is much wider than that of other hundred seaters currently in the market, such as the Embraer 195 or the A 220. At least on the -600 there were hardly ever any issues finding a place to store your hand luggage in the overhead bin. As such, it made for a rather pleasant ride on the sector such as Stockholm to Zürich, which has a flight time of slightly more than two hours.

On the face of it, the benefits of having a standard model aircraft for a specific type of mission and then offering it in different models in varying sizes makes a lot of senses, especially in terms of crew training, planning flexibility and maintenance. And for the larger of the B 737 types, that obviously seems to have worked rather well. But the -600 also shows that at the bottom end of the scale, there comes a point where the benefits from having cockpit commonality and sharing parts with other types can no longer make up for the fact that you are, at the end of the day, carrying around with you a lot of dead weight that directly translates in the amount of kerosene you have to upload. That was pretty much the also experience Airbus made with its mini Airbus A 318, of which only 80 were built.

Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens and Primrose Hill

As you exit Oxford Circus Station and step into the street, there are four ways you can go. Heading west will take you up Oxford Street to Marble Arch, while heading east will take you down the other half of Oxford Street to Tottenham Court Road. You can also turn into Regent Street and head south, past Liberty’s, Hamley’s and the entrance to Carnaby Street towards Picadilly Circus.

Or else, you could just head up north in the direction of the BBC building. Keep on going until eventually you will stumble upon a very small enclosed park, which is known as the crescent and which houses, among other things, the entrance to Regent’s Park tube station. Keep heading north. Cross the road and you will find yourself at the entrance to the much larger Regent’s Park.

Queen Mary’s Rose Garden is located in the middle of Regent’s Park. The entrance is quite unspectacular, but if you go there when the flowers are in bloom, the delicate scent of the roses is quite dazzling the moment you step into the garden. Inside the garden it’s easy to forget that you’re actually still in London, one of the busiest cities in Europe. It’s peaceful and quiet and there are plenty of benches to sit and take in the sights and the smells of your surroundings.

Eventually, if you keep heading north you will arrive at the entrance to London Zoo and the exit from the park. Exit Regent’s Park and then turn east to walk along the canal, until eventually you will emerge in Camden Town near the old Camden Lock.

By this time, you may be feeling hungry. As some of you may know, I have a bit of a thing about Indian food. And fortunately for me, there is a Masala Zone in Camden that also opens for lunch. Without fail, I always have the Grand Thali…

On Camden High Street keep heading in a northwesterly direction towards Chalk Farm tube station. Turn left into a narrow lane that will eventually take you up on a foot bridge across the railway lines. Cross the bridge and keep walking until eventually you reach another vast green area – and that is Primrose Hill.

Primrose Hill is not a natural formation. The mound is man-made and was created when the engineers of London started excavating to build the tube. The rubble they dug out of the ground was eventually dumped in the same place and eventually created the hill.

From up top you have a brilliant view of the London sky line. In the summer is a nice spot to just sit and watch the city.

Al-Maha Resort Dubai

Introduction

The Al-Maha Resort is situated around half-way between the city of Dubai and the town of Al-Ain, which is actually in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. On clear days you can see as far as the Hajjar Mountains that separate the United Arab Emirates from the Sultanate of Oman.

Originally, the hotel belonged to the Emirates Airlines group, but has since been sold to Marriott Hotels.

Al-Maha is the Arab word for an oryx antilope, of which you’re likely to see quite a few during your stay. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you may catch one of the braver animals venturing right up to the edge of your pool for a drink in the early morning.

The Rooms

The hotel only has free standing villas, most of which have their own private pool and vary mostly in terms of size and the number of quests they can accommodate.

The interior of the villas is very Lawrence of Arabia, if oyu know what I mean, but they’re comfortable enough. The villas also have an easel, canvas and paints – in case you feel inspired to express your creativity during your stay. And I must admit, the light on the desert during the twilight hours really is quite spectacular to watch.

The Private Pool

So, as I already mentioned, most villas come with their own private pool. There is also a larger, common pool. But during my stay I don’t think I ever saw anybody in the larger pool.

The layout of the individual villas offers a lot of privacy. There is the main deck right by the steps leading into the pool. And then there is a separate sun deck off to the right.

Activities

I suppose if you wanted to, you could drive in to Dubai from the Al-Maha for some shopping or sightseeing. The journey by car without traffic is probably around 45 minutes. But in Dubai there is always traffic, and a lot of it.

The hotel does offer a good range of outdoor activities, which usually are scheduled for the early morning or in the evening, when the sun is not so fierce. You can go dune surfing, visit the falconry station or take a camel ride into the desert in the evenings for a sundowner.

Conclusion

I very much enjoyed my stay at the Al-Maha, mainly because I just loved the size of that private pool and because the venue of the hotel really is in a nice spot. There is something quite poetic about the desert. Other than that though, while the villa was comfortable, the style was not so much my cup of tea. Although I should say that the fittings and furnishings of the villa was very nice.

The Chedi on Ghubrah Beach

Introduction

The Chedi Muscat is one of my favourite resorts. It’s just a very nicely finished and very well managed hotel. The moment you set foot inside the beautiful lobby, you just know you’re going to enjoy your stay.

I have no idea who the interior designer of the hotel is, but they definitely took good care to incorporate local architecture in the layout of the grounds and the individual buildings. As such, The Chedi is laid out in a style that is clearly reminiscent of the Al-Hambra in Spain. There is the main building with the lobby, restaurants and the standard rooms. But then there are the garden villas, the spa and the lounge, which are set amid neatly trimmed lawns and connected with each other by a system of elegant fountains and ponds.

The Service

The service at the Chedi is impeccable and very attentive. When you arrive, the first thing that happens is that you are seated and brought a wonderful rose scented cold towel and a glass of iced lemon water with mint. Everything is explained in detail, and the staff will point out things that may be of interest to you along the way as they show you to your room or villa.

There are many comfortable seating options outside where you can just lounge or have a drink. However, you have to keep in mind that this is Oman and the heat and humidity can be very high in the summer months. So sitting outside may not be the best idea, unless you’re visiting in winter. Even in the evenings, the temperature rarely dips below thirty degrees.

The Rooms

The rooms are richly appointed and very well maintained. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to capture all the fine details on photo. I usually stay in one of the garden villas, which have their own small patio and, in some cases, overlook one of the many ponds.

The villas are very private, and even when you’re sitting outside, you rarely every see any of the other guests.

I can highly recommend breakfast out on the patio, if you’re staying in a villa. But again, with the heat it’s probably best to have an early breakfast before the temperature and the humidity become too stifling.

The Beach

If you’re going for a classic beach front vacation, The Chedi may not be what you’re looking for. The hotel has its own private section along Ghubrah Beach, and while it’s clean, it’s also not spectacularly beautiful. Furthermore, there are a few things to keep in mind when you’re at the beach in Oman: it gets so hot that it’s basically impossible to walk in the sand barefoot. You will literally burn your feet.

And don’t expect any respite once you enter the water, because the sea is warm too. You have to swim out quite far for the temperature of the water to cool down and refresh you. But unless you’re a good swimmer and used to swimming in the open sea, I really wouldn’t venture too far out.

The Pools

The Chedi has three pools. One is for adults only and is close to the main building. Then there is a second pool down by the beach, and eventually the long pool in the most recently added part of the hotel. My favourite is definitely the beach side pool, because there’s usually a nice breeze going there and it offers enough shade to avoid the worst of the sun. And the pool restaurant is very good too!

The Location

Muscat is the name of a fairly large, sprawling area along the coast of Oman. As such, The Chedi is in Muscat but it’s still on the outskirts of the actual city. If you’re just visiting for a resort vacation and aren’t planning on going anywhere anyway, then that’s fine. But if you’re intending to see the sights, you’ll probably need a car or a driver. However, this is not necessarily a drawback specific to The Chedi, it’s an issue you’ll face which every hotel you stay at in the area.

The royal palace, the souk and the Corniche along the harbour are all located in Mutrah, which is about twenty minutes by car from the hotel. If you are going to rent a car in Oman, the good thing is that the petrol is dirt cheap. The driving is an experience.

Conclusion

The Chedi is a lovely hotel. It’s quiet, calm and very relaxing. It offers a lot of privacy to its guests and the grounds are extensive enough to make it easy to avoid having to interact with the other guests if you don’t feel like it.

The staff are exceptionally nice and genuinely friendly. Whether it’s in the lobby, by the pool or in the restaurant, they always have time for a friendly chat and ask you how your day has been.