Nov 112010
Ryanair Boeing 737-800 EI-DHF
Image by wicho via Flickr

Cheap flights aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. If you’ve flown with a budget airline recently you’ll know what I mean.

Hidden costs for everything soon push the price way above the quoted rate. Airport taxes and charges, baggage charges, surreptitious insurance opt-ins, credit card charges that somehow apply “per passenger” even though you’re only making ONE transaction… the list goes on and on.

I could write an exhaustive post on it all… but it’s pretty much encapsulated in this video.. which I’m sure you’ll find much more entertaining:

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Jul 232008

Published in the WOW! supplement of the Evening Echo

For the umpteenth time this trip I found myself wishing I’d bought a GPS navigation system before leaving Cork. No more wrong turns, no more uncertainty, no more doubt, no more trying to decipher ineligible foreign road-signs through rainy windscreens. As it was we’d taken the wrong turn onto the motorway from Tours and were heading for Paris instead of Le Mans.

This wouldn’t have been quite so bad if we’d realised our mistake straight away. But Murphy’s Law works just as well in France, so we naturally realised our error just after passing the last convenient exit to reach the right road. Forty minutes later another exit hove into view. We were miles out, but, loath to retrace our steps on the motorway we set off cross-country.

Here a GPS would have come in really handy, rapidly calculating a new route to get us to our destination as quickly as possible. But of course, if we’d had a GPS we never would have gone wrong in the first place. Seven hours later an exhausted Jones party rolled into Cherbourg.

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Jul 212008

Published in the WOW! supplement of the Evening Echo

One of the iMax cinemas at Futuroscope (Photo from Wikipedia) Do you ever curse the day the internet was invented?

The other day I found myself doing just that: damning the US paranoia of Soviet supremacy that led to the birth of DARPA… which spawned ARPANet, which in turn led to a global computer network that evolved into the internet we know and love (mostly) today.

The reason for my discontent? I was standing in a queue outside Futuroscope, waiting patiently to pay for the privilege of experiencing my idea of hell on earth. Why? Because the children had seen the website before we left home and thought it looked “cool”. When, by sheer coincidence, we ended up staying in accommodation nearby, that was it, my fate was sealed.

For those of you unfamiliar with Futuroscope, it is a theme park in central France, not far from Poitier, which boasts myriad attractions based largely around 3D immersive cinematography. That is to say that, unlike most other theme parks I’ve been to, most of the rides here are not actually rides at all. It tends to go something like this. you sit down in a seat and watch a film playing on a very big screen. Sometimes the seats throw you around in time with the on-screen action, sometimes you have to wear silly goggles, but basically it’s cinema… and generally bad cinema at that.

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Jul 032008

Published in the WOW! supplement of the Evening Echo

Château d'Ussé, in Rigny-UsséCamping is one of those things that seems a lot more fun when you’re planning it than when you’re actually doing it. We were heading to France for my sister-in-law’s wedding, and as we’d be away anyway, we decided to turn it into a family holiday. A few days at a high-spec French camp site (NB. High spec campsite – not a high-spec website) seemed like an ideal way to start the trip.

And so it proved: the days were great… plenty to see and do, and loads of things to keep the kids occupied. It was the nights that were the problem. We have one of those big family dome-tent contraptions – one bedroom for the kids, one for Mum and Dad and a central “living” space. Again, great on paper, but more challenging in practice.

Trying to get the three children into their sleeping bags, settled and off to sleep on the first night was little short of torture. The initial excited chatter soon descended into heated debate about territory, and things went steadily downhill from there. You must have been able to hear them on the other side of the camp site… a fact made worse by the fact we were surrounded by older couples in camper vans who were keen to get an early night. It was gone midnight when, at our wits end, we finally got them settled.

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Jul 202007
Published in the WOW! supplement of the Evening Echo 18/07/2007

I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of regret as we drove over the Pyrenees. Our passage from Spain into France marked the beginning of the end of our lengthy sojourn on the continent. We were finally on our way home.

Despite a soggy first few days in France the road trip with the children had proved a remarkable success. We’d packed plenty into our trip, and after the initial spell of inclement weather we’d had our fair share of sunshine. The kids had enjoyed themselves immensely, and when the children are happy, by extension so are Mum and Dad.

We were looking forward to a relaxing few days in France before getting the ferry back from Cherbourg to Rosslare. Little did we know that we’d never make the boat.

It happened all of a sudden. One minute we were travelling along the road towards a town called Mont de Marsan, the next the driver’s side wheels touched the grass verge and everything went haywire. My wife, who was driving, swerved back onto the road, but overcompensated. The car veered into the oncoming carriageway, right into the path of a truck. I remember grabbing the wheel and swerving us back onto our own side of the road, then we lost control.

The car skidded first one way, then the other before careening off a twelve foot bank into the ditch below. At times like this the adrenalin kicks in: your brain goes into overdrive and the world around you slows to a crawl. Your senses become heightened and you notice everything in minute detail – sights, sounds, smells, touch… everything.

In the passenger seat I was busy noticing the undergrowth rushing slowly towards the windscreen. I braced myself for impact, and then we hit with a sickening crunch. I watched with detached interest as the front of the car folded in on itself, like a cereal box being crushed for recycling. My mind was on three things: the children. I was willing the car to stop so that I could look after them. It finally came to rest and the world lurched back to normal speed.

The car at the garage where it was towed after the accident

I quickly checked myself over. Everything appeared to be where it should be, and I wasn’t in any immediate pain. A glance at my wife told me that she was conscious, and was busy unbuckling her seatbelt. I followed her lead, pushed open the door and went to check on the girls.

In the back seat the three-year-old was crying in her car seat – which was a good sign. She was fine. One of the twins, who was sitting next to her, was fine too, apart from a few abrasion marks from her seatbelt. Then I saw my other daughter in the back row, her head slumped against the window, blood trickling from her nose. Between her closed eyes a rapidly growing bulge was turning a violent purple-blue colour. My heart lurched, and for a moment I feared the worst – but when I spoke to her she opened her eyes, was able to talk to me and could move her arms, legs, fingers and toes.

After one night in a French hospital she was discharged with nothing more serious than a slight fracture to her left elbow. Our insurance company flew us home a few days later, leaving the remains of the car in France.

It had been a horrific end to what had been an otherwise fantastic trip – but it could have been so much worse. We’re just glad to be home with everyone in one piece.

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Jun 282007
Published in the WOW! supplement of the Evening Echo 27/06/2007

La Beule is a long established seaside resort on the Atlantic coast of France. It has an incredibly long beach (9 km somebody told me – I took their word for it) lined with multi-storey apartment blocks and hotels with the odd casino thrown in for good measure. Like most anything that sits on the edge of the Atlantic for any length of time, these buildings looked shabby and in need of maintenance.

It reminded me of the North Wales seaside towns of my youth – perhaps a little more affluent. What reminded me of North Wales even more was the weather. It was raining, billowing black clouds rolling in behind massive breakers. The rain didn’t stop the kite surfers though, they were leaping about in the surf with abandon, carried on massive jumps by the gale force winds.

Between squalls we perched on a bench on the seafront sharing out the bounty we’d picked up a little earlier at the supermarket. Bread, pâté, cheese, salami and sundry other things the French are rightly famous for. It was wonderful fare, I have to say, and the children were in good spirits despite the inclement weather.

It had been raining since we’d arrived in France two days earlier, and after a couple of soggy nights camping we were waiting to meet my wife’s sister and her family. They live in Tours, about two and a half hours drive inland up the Loire valley, and have a holiday home in La Beule. It doesn’t take long for camping in the rain to dampen your spirits, and I for one was looking forward to sleeping in a proper bed again.

Waiting isn’t something the children are fond of at the best of times. In the rain it can be pure torture, and in the rain abroad after a long drive and two nights of camping it’s even worse. I finally relented and put a DVD on the laptop for them. For a while peace reigned while we suffered through the world’s worst ever animated version of Cinderella. It had come free with one of the Sunday papers, and I’d thrown it in the bag “for emergency use only”. This was an emergency.
The following day dawned bright and blustery. It was a massive improvement on the day before, and after some good French food, ample quantities of wine and a good night’s sleep in a real bed, was reflected by my mood. The girls were all happy too, which helps, and were playing with their French cousins.

It’s amazing how children can find ways to communicate that transcend language. As adults we skirt nervously around the issue – too afraid of making fools of ourselves to order a coffee or ask directions. Children just get on with it and communicate – they don’t understand the words, but there seems to be a built in ability to accept and comprehend that we lose as we grow up.

I’m hopeless at it. French I mean. Probably because I have my wife to fall back on. In France, and later in the trip when we reach Spain, I’ll definitely be letting her do all the talking. She’s better at it than me, even in English – she has more practice – and when it comes to other languages she wins hands down.

I guess it’s lazy – but then, I’m on holiday. At least that’s what I keep telling myself as I sit behind the wheel peering doggedly through the windscreen as the wipers struggle to shift the volume of water that’s pelting it. In the back the kids are starting to fight again. Not to worry, it’s almost time to find another camp site. Then we get to put the tent up in the pouring rain again. Yippee!

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Jun 282007
Published in the WOW! supplement of the Evening Echo 20/06/2007

I could have sworn the light was green.

Whether it was the way the sunlight was glinting off the traffic-lights, or just an odd reflection on the lens of my sunglasses, I took off while the light was still red. The garda on the motorbike who was approaching from the other direction was not amused.

I pulled the car over and got out. Naturally I was very apologetic for my error. I explained that I’d been convinced the green arrow was illuminated, and that it was one of those freakish tricks of the light that happen occasionally.
Stony faced, the garda asked to see my license. As I fished around in the glove compartment for it I saw him give our car the once over. It was packed to the rafters with stuff. Three little faces peered out from among our mountain of belongings, wondering what the Garda was talking to their Daddy about.

We were passing through Waterford, on the way to Rosslare to catch the ferry to Cherbourg on the first leg of our camping trip to France and Spain. This wasn’t a particularly auspicious start, and we were already behind schedule.
The garda scanned my license with a critical eye. It still had our old Douglas address on it. We moved more than four years ago now, but somehow changing the address on your license is one of those things you just never get around to doing. That worked in my favour now.

The garda must have been stationed in Douglas at some point, or had some other Douglas connections, because he told me to watch the lights a bit more closely in future, and said that as I lived in Douglas I could go on my way. I couldn’t believe my luck.

Crisis averted, we set off again, and made the ferry terminal with minutes to spare. After a short wait we rolled aboard. Travelling by ferry was nothing new to the girls – we do it relatively frequently when we visit my family in Wales. What was different about this time was that we’d be sleeping on board.

When we got to to our cabin I was pleasantly surprised. I’d been expecting a cramped, uncomfortable box. Instead there were four reasonably sized bunks, with more than enough space for all of us to move around comfortably. There was a functional en-suite with toilet, washbasin and shower, and, best of all, there was a window letting in plenty of light. The décor was a bit dated, but it was spotlessly clean, and more than adequate for our needs.

Facilities on the boat itself were limited – we’d opted to travel with Celtic Link, which is primarily freight company, but that also takes passengers. The usual children’s play area and shops were absent, but the lounge was comfortable, and we had plenty of colouring books and activities with us to keep the munchkins occupied. As a backup I’d also brought along a selection of children’s DVDs to play on the laptop.

All of our meals were included in the price of the ferry too – dinner on the evening of departure, and breakfast and lunch the following day. The food, like the cabin, was much better than I expected it to be, and there was plenty of it. There was also free tea, coffee and water available for the duration of the voyage, and a bar selling drinks at normal prices, as opposed to the inflated rates you’d expect to pay on a ferry.

The verdict from the children was unanimous: this was “the best ferry ever”. Based on our crossing I’d have say that I’m inclined to agree with them.

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