Go Back   > >
 
Thread Tools Search this Thread
Old Jan 13, 17, 10:41 am   #1
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
Europe, South to North: Maspalomas, Gran Canaria to Longyearbyen/Pyramiden, Svalbard


Like last year, the core of my travels this summer was a bucket list item – and also like last year, I couldn’t resist overcomplicating things… This report actually covers two trips, in that I returned to the office between them. But a joint report gives me a bit more of an excuse for taking so long to write it all down, and as a combined itinerary, this project represents both the furthest north and south that I’ve ever been.

I achieved these extremes without ever leaving Europe, thanks to a pair of far-flung islands. Gran Canaria is Spanish, but if you head east you make landfall in Africa’s Western Sahara. The high arctic island of Svalbard, is governed by Norway, but others made their mark here too, most notably Russia.

Be it climatically or culturally, these destinations would already feel worlds apart. But the nature of the visits differentiated them too. I had been considering – with varying degrees of seriousness – a trip to Svalbard for most of a decade. Once I decided this would be the year, I designed endless permutations of the schedule and routing, with potential bookends in Norway, Finland or both. I would be travelling alone, looking for adventures to fill my time and mostly dependent on organised tours to do so. As usual, the whole trip would be made possible by cashing in a chunk of various loyalty programme balances.

Conversely, I would be visiting the Canaries with my now-fiancée, which introduces some constraints to the ‘getting there’ part (but makes the rest much simpler). She prefers not to fly, and so we needed somewhere with direct service, which would be straightforward except we would be starting in Holland and ending in the UK. Throw in a desire for plenty of sunshine and a coastline, and Gran Canaria – never previously on my radar – emerged as an ideal candidate. The rest of the trip fell into place within a couple of evenings – our plan was to do as little as possible once we got there, and we were happy to trust the wisdom of crowds by selecting a promising-looking independent hotel via Trip Advisor.

So: one solo trip, one duet; one cold, one hot; one planned meticulously, one built on a whim. But both Europe, both islands, and both highly enjoyable!

Each would also be indirect from the UK. As mentioned, my partner and I would be visiting the Netherlands first; and in order to get to and from Svalbard, I would be passing through mainland Norway. Although I had visited Oslo back in February – another factor that nudged me towards the arctic - I built in an extra day for summer sightseeing there too. Here, then, is the final routing:


and here’s what I’ll therefore be covering in this report!






Be warned, there’s over 18,000 words here! If you’d prefer a less technical treatment (with more photos) there’s extended versions of some of the destination / activity highlights over on my blog (mods, I hope this dual coverage is ok!):



Finally, if you’re just in it for the pretty pictures, there’s a couple hundred collated in this flickr collection.

Last edited by TheFlyingDoctor; Jan 21, 17 at 5:33 am Reason: All done!
TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 13, 17, 10:54 am   #2
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
Planning

I always find people's decision-making for a trip interesting, especially if there's a miles and points angle to be considered. Plus I like to know how much something costs so I can decide if it should be filed on the "maybe one day" or "not unless I win the lottery" wish list! But if a picture-less couple of thousand words about planning rather than travelling doesn't sound like your cup of tea, the action starts in the next post.


Svalbard has been on my travel to-do list for a long time. This year the stars seemed to align to make it happen somewhat affordably. I’d built up a stockpile of club Carlson points through last year’s travel and credit card churn; the Radisson Blu Polar was an appealing way to burn them. A good year for my employer meant I had a bonus which I could offset against unpaid leave -I always prefer more travel time to more money, and make use of this scheme to some extent each year, but there are still bills to pay! The only missing piece of the puzzle was flights – until Oneworld member Finnair announced Svalbard’s airport Longyearbyen as a new destination from Helsinki. With my main programme being the BA Executive Club, I could either fund the flying through avios, or, since HEL is a shorthaul plus route attracting double tier points, put together an interesting status run to a city I’d been keen to sample anyway.

However, the timings were tricky, with just 3 flights week for eight weeks across July / August. These came with unpleasant arrival / departure hours - most LYR services seem to be a way to squeeze an extra rotation out of an airframe that would otherwise be attracting airport fees. My club Carlson balance would only cover two nights at the Radisson, and whilst I could justify paying for a third or fourth it would be a waste for that to be used for only a few hours post- or pre-flight.

It soon became clear that I’d have to build a big loop, using another carrier from mainland Norway then come home via Helsinki. Given the schedules and my hotel budget, the best option was Norwegian’s OSL-LYR service on a Wednesday evening, then onwards to HEL using Finnair the following Sunday. With a 2:45 – AM – departure time, I would rely on the confusion of the midnight sun to treat this as a very late Saturday flight and thus only need three nights at the Radisson.

Just to make things even more complicated – but save a pair of flights to/from the UK – I had originally planned to position myself to Oslo from Madrid following a work trip to Santander at the start of July. Surprisingly there were no problems getting award availability for the desired nights in Longyearbyen – but everything in Helsinki looked sold out or marked up three-fold compared to later in the month. A quick check of the special events calendar at work revealed that a major medical conference was taking place, so not being able to compete with pharmaceutical budgets, I accepted I’d have to split the trip. (Ultimately this worked in my favour as the Santander trip fell through!)

Rolling forward a week would hit one of just 2 days in July when there was no award availability at the RBP so, with prices and availability also back to normality in Helsinki, I settled on a mid-July itinerary. With this established, I set about the dance of bookings - with so few options in the arctic, I didn’t want to be stuck holding a hotel or flight only to have the other fell through. So I worked through in order of cancellability.

Club Carlson award nights are fully cancellable, so they went in first: 70,000 points each, versus an asking price of 1990 NOK. At the time of booking, that was just under £165; thanks to Brexit, that jumped to £185, so something like £2.60 per thousand points. There are plenty of ways to get a better figure than that, but I often find such valuations a poor reflection of reality. Yes, I might find a £200 hotel night to use them against instead, but if there’s a perfectly acceptable room for £70 elsewhere in the same town, I can’t consider that a true saving. Conversely, wherever I went in Longyearbyen was going to be hard on the wallet, so I’m happy enough with this return. A quick look at availability after booking confirmed I’d got the last rooms on points (the cash price point also jumped up), so perhaps waiting until four months before check-in had been pushing my luck.

Then it was over to Norwegian to book a flight to get me to that room. This was perfectly good value: £95 for their mid-range ticket type, which includes hold bag, seat selection (I definitely wanted a window for arctic views!) and wifi. Although I’d flown extensively with Norwegian back when I lived in Scotland, that was before they launched a loyalty programme. So I signed up for that on the off chance it becomes relevant; seems to be 2% cashback in place of mileage-based approach, and then the ability to select status perks for each six flights you take. I like the gamification angle of letting you choose your progression, although I doubt I’ll ever trigger a choice…

With a 16:25 departure from OSL it’d be dull to sit around an airport hotel but I didn’t want to chance a same day connection. So I decide to fly to Oslo relatively early on the Tuesday, do something touristy with that afternoon / the following morning, and then head over to the airport at my leisure. Paying cash, the best rate was the Radisson Blu Scandinavia at £71 (the part points, part cash rate was dire). I’d stayed there quite happily earlier in the year, but I couldn’t resist adding to my collection of Oslo Club Carlson properties by paying an extra £17 for the Radisson Blu Plaza instead. As usual, I needed an excuse to justify this; settling on the argument that its particularly central location would be more convenient for my compressed itinerary.

With a 4 hour cooling off period on the Norwegian booking, it was back to Radisson to commit to that cash night. It turned out that I needn’t have worried as it was also fully flexible. Moreover, it would include breakfast - a notable omission from the description for the award nights, but I was hoping gold status would resolve that.

Finally (for the Svalbard portion of the trip), I needed my departure flight, so it was Finnair’s turn. For this I’d already settled on cash rather than avios, having discovered a quirk of their ticketing. Whilst the LYR-HEL leg booked as a one-way priced up at 3506NOK, a LYR-HEL-LHR routing gets treated as an open-jaw return for 3192 NOK, even with a three night stopover in Helsinki! I also knew that the 5pm service to Heathrow would be an A321, and that the super-legroom seats on row 22 were still available on my chosen date, albeit for a price. To be precise, it’s 227NOK for one of those, versus 114 for a variety of standard seats, but I’ve found that if you resist the urge to translate to your home currency, it’s easier to cope with such fees. Claiming another window seat for LYR-HEL was a much more reasonable 57NOK, and I got stung for an extra 50NOK credit card fee. But hey, it all lined up nicely, right?

~

Quote:
31 March 2016

Unfortunately we have to cancel our flights to Svalbard, Norway, scheduled for summer 2016. The cancellation is due to unexpected issues related to getting the necessary route permit.
We inform customers of flight cancellations by sending them text messages. We ask you to kindly check from Manage booking that we have your current contact information, so that the text messages can reach you.
Due to the cancellation you can get a full refund of your ticket or we can try to find you alternative flights. As rerouting possibilities are very limited you may as well choose to travel to Finnish Lapland or Oslo or Bergen in Norway. You can cancel or change your ticket by contacting our customer service or your travel agency. If you have bought your ticket from Finnair, you can apply for a refund of a cancelled flight here. We also serve our customers on Twitter @FinnairHelps and on Finnair Facebook pages.
We're sorry for the inconvenience the cancellation causes you!
Barely a week later the above missive found its way to my inbox, throwing my well-laid plans into disarray (I believe Burns had something to say on this topic). The suggested alternative destinations would be of no use since I was already committed to being on Svalbard, so I would need to be rebooked onto another carrier. Since the entire season of flights had been scrubbed, I figured there would soon be many others in a similar position to me, and scrabbling for the same limited spaces both on flights and in hotels. As such, I decided to get the jump on them and immediately make my own alternative arrangements, before simply putting in a request for a refund from Finnair.

Clearly, I would be backtracking to Norway. Instead of my very-early Sunday departure to Helsinki, I could fly back early morning to Oslo with Norwegian. However, I would definitely need another hotel night for Saturday in that case. As the Monday departure is an evening one, it seemed better to get two more days in Svalbard for the price of two nights’ hotel bill, rather than no extra sightseeing time for the price of one. Just to make that harder, Sunday night was completely sold out at the Radisson… fortunately some searching revealed space at the Svalbard Hotell and Lodge. Booking.com would put me in a ‘large double or twin’ which bumped up the square footage but more importantly meant I’d be in the main building, where breakfast is located. (Crossing the street for breakfast may sound minor, but with arctic temperatures and the local custom of removing your footwear at the entrance to buildings, would be a notable downside to the standard rooms). This was somewhat cheaper than the Radisson – 1690NOK, which I pre-paid and thus locked in at a pre-Brexit rate that was nearly 10% better than what I received in July.

Since I would now be arriving at OSL five minutes into Tuesday, I wanted an airport hotel to maximise sleep before heading back to London at a more sociable hour. With a few Club Carlson points still left over, I could part-pay with points at either the Radisson (£82 and 20K points vs £109) or the Park Inn (£71 and 10K points vs £95). Despite the lack of breakfast, I opt for the latter to try and exercise a modicum of restraint with regards to my hotel bill, given those unexpected extra nights in Svalbard. As it happens, these rates are freely cancellable (unlike a pure cash advance rate), so when Club Carlson launched a sale later in the year I swapped it out for a £77 cash rate (valuing 10K points at rather more than £6).

I was also in need of a flight home from Oslo – fortunately, I hadn’t yet decided how I was getting there in the first place, so could book a straightforward return. OSL has become a popular station for the tier point-running subset of the BA board, at least to position themselves for attractive ex-EU fares (including the ‘Viking’ mistake pricing). Through their discussions I learnt that the ex-BMI midhaul A321 was being sent there (and various other shorthaul locations) for the summer schedule. Whilst Club Europe is typically identical seating to Euro Traveller – the legroom eroded by densification – on these birds there’s a fixed 23 seat J cabin with a flatbed product! That meant I could try BA’s other narrow body business configuration, with the chance at a solo seat – but at Club Europe rather than Club World prices.

Taking this option for the outbound service just didn’t make sense – an 8am departure means an early start for me and thus minimal use of the lounge. The return A321 service – the second of the day - was ideally timed; between the airport lounge and on-board brunch I would be able make up for that lack of breakfast at the Park Inn.

The public price for M out, C back was £84+£199 = £283. I could get that down to £194 with hotline; since it features a leg in club I can spend up to 11,250 avios to save £75. This 0.66p per avios is lower than what most people look for, but I have plenty of them and access to staff travel, so it’s an acceptable rate of return (especially given earnings of 2 avios per £ on my obsolete BMI credit card). But then I noticed both legs are available as redemptions. That priced up at £42.50 + 19,250 avios – since I’m a lowly BAEC blue there’s only a loss of 1103 avios earning since hotline would book into G/I class, so net it’s £151.5 saving for 20353 avios – 0.74p each. Since I won’t be anywhere close to status, the loss of 45 tier points is inconsequential. Deal.

I also stump up £22 to guarantee one of the last two solo seats on the inbound, picking the further forward 6F instead of 8F in the final row, in the hope that it gives me a choice of meal. For the outbound (in economy) there are no exit row seats available and £15 to select from the remaining assortment doesn’t seem worth it, so I decide to take my chances at check-in instead.

From some improbable routings via Spain or Finland to a straightforward out and back via Oslo, my arctic adventure (mark 2) was now finally set to go! But what about Spain? Originally I had planned to be in Santander for a conference, and although I couldn't secure funding to attend, my partner and I had been excited about the opportunity, and considered going anyway. But since it would now be a leisure rather than work trip, we weren't restricted to Santander (or Spain for that matter, although we stuck with it). We could also adjust the timings to suit, so we decided to tie together several plans: visiting family in Holland; making a start on wedding preparations by scouting out venues; and when that got too stressful, jetting off to somewhere sunny for a relaxing break together. That meant we needed a destination with (non-stop, since Alaina is our environmental conscience) connections to both the Netherlands and the U.K.

Transavia is a Dutch carrier owned by Air France-KLM, with a main base at Amsterdam Schiphol and a fleet of 737-700 and (primarily) -800s. Despite nearly 50 years of operation – albeit only half of that under KLM - I couldn’t find any mention of them here on the trip report forum. Perhaps that’s because of their low-cost nature – service is all-economy, with up to 189 pax packed onto a -800 and the usual model of low lead-in prices driven up by ancillaries, including charging for any refreshment desired even for this near-five hour flight.

Bookings come in one of three flavours – Basic, Plus, and Max - with per-leg pricing so we wouldn’t get stung for only wanting the outbound instead of a return. Basic is very much so: an assigned seat and 10kg of hand luggage to stash above it. Adding €35 for plus bundles in 20kg of hold luggage, a choice of ‘standard’ seat, changes up to 14 days before departure for just fare difference (on basic there’s a €50 fee) and 250 flying blue miles. Max allows your hand luggage allowance to be split across a main bag and accessory; ups the hold luggage to 30kg; drops the change-without-fee time limit to 2 hours before departure; doubles the flying blue miles; adds priority boarding; and allows selection from any seat. However, it’s €50 more than plus, which with only the extra leg room seats and speedy boarding of interest doesn’t add up for me. I was therefore pleased on proceeding with a plus booking to find that seat selection could be upgraded to anywhere in the cabin for another €6, and used that to grab what looked like an over wing exit row. Final bill: €160 each.

To get home we’d be dipping once again into the avios stash; BA don’t offer this route, but Iberia Express do, although they only had space in business. That meant a rather steep 20,000 avios each, although the taxes were a rather more agreeable £9 and there were no extra fees for seat selection so I dropped us into the front row.

Those booked, all that was left was to find somewhere to stay– for this we played it safe and went by Trip Advisor’s guidance. When we discovered the (then) top property, Gold by Marina, was on heavy discount through booking.com, we saw no need to search further (Other than to confirm that their slightly confusing name of "Gold Playa del Ingles - Only Adults" corresponded to the same place). Located in Maspalomas, whilst not directly on the waterfront it ticked the "close to the coast" checkbox and the combination of two pools and no children should offer plenty of opportunity for relaxing on site too. Six nights in a standard room - which includes a small kitchen area - would run us €649. But for another €80 we could both guarantee a high level room with balcony offering sea views and get breakfast bundled in, which seemed well worth the extra. Sold!

~
So, between three destinations, four airlines, five hotels and six flights I had my summer travel sorted... In retrospect, the Finnair kerfuffle was for the best. I’m sure I’ll pick up a few nights in Helsinki at some stage, but when am I likely to pass through Longyearbyen again? By extending this visit I was able to fit in an excursion I had previously written off as too much of a time commitment. Through that I was able to push even further north by boat, to the Russian settlement of Pyramiden – which turned out to be a definite highlight of my trip to Svalbard. Whilst I always like to have a plan, I’m always happy to reconfigure them- and as Gran Canaria turned out to show, spontaneity is no bad thing either.
TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 13, 17, 10:57 am   #3
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
London to The Netherlands


Eurostar
Dep London St Pancras International 08:55 8th June 2016 (local time)
Arr Brussels-Midi/Zuid 12:05 8th June 2016 (local time)
Seat: 26 Carriage: 3 (Standard Class)

Thalys
Dep Brussels-Midi/Zuid 12:52 8th June 2016 (local time)
Arr Rotterdam CS 14:02 8th June 2016 (local time)
Seat: 26 Carriage: 3 (Comfort 2)


Several thousand words in, surely we’re in a position to get going on this trip… Well, we would be, if only I were in the Netherlands rather than the UK. As Alaina is Dutch, this is a conundrum I often have to solve, and (through her encouragement initially), I've grown to prefer the train as the solution. Typically the plane will win out on price, but since I either have to cross London for LCY-RTM or deal with two giant hubs worth of stress for LHR-AMS I’ll happily go by rail if the fare is close. In this case, despite booking less than a month in advance the asking price was a modest £49.50 – and Alaina had enough frequent traveller credit to knock £20 off of that.

Since there’s nothing exciting about a commuter train from Slough (3 carriage stopping service, no hope of a seat with luggage in tow), let’s start in a bit more style at Kings Cross St Pancras station, the UK terminus for Eurostar services. Sometime next year these should be running all the way from here to Amsterdam, which will also mean direct service to my usual destination, Rotterdam. Better still, it’ll (by electrical necessity) be operated with the shiny new e320 fleet. But for today they’ll only get me as far as Brussels, and I'll be travelling on the older e300 stock.

Having arrived at the station entirely too early, I head up to platform level where I can get a look at examples of both. With the Euro 2016 soccer tournament kicking off later in the week in France there was a photo op taking place with a goal set up on the platform in front of a pair of trains. Or there would be, if they hadn't already managed to lose their ball on the tracks... Instead they had to settle for a lot of flag waving.






Unable to determine if I’m looking at world-famous players or just sportier members of train crew, I head back down to ground level just as security is opening for my train (70 minutes before departure, underlining just how unnecessary my early arrival was). Despite both (UK) exit and (Schengen) entry checks, it’s a matter of minutes to get through to the waiting area.

Having finally stumped up for Amex platinum, I now have access to the business premier lounge, otherwise reserved for passengers of that class or carte Blanche holders (well beyond my reach; I don’t even have a proper carte classique account, just ‘guest’ status through an Amex-related loophole). Clearly being a novice, I manage to miss both the bag storage and stairs to the main section, settling at first in the lower level waiting area. I partially realise the error of my ways when passengers for an earlier service make their way down to board. Heading upstairs (suitcase still in tow, sigh) I’m much more impressed – a decent array of newspapers and magazines, continental breakfast, chilled bottle water to go, Wi-Fi, printers, and... table football? Plus of course comfier seating, fancier bathrooms and far fewer people.







Definitely a pleasant way to pass the time (and a good argument for keeping the card next year), so I wasn't overly concerned when the announcement came at 8:30 that our inbound was delayed. Since all it had to do was turn up (rather than be repaired) we were able to start boarding at our intended 08:55 departure time, and as trains have a lot more doors than planes we only set off ten minutes late.

As mentioned, this is the old product, which I've reviewed before - so here's some recycled images since the carriage was a bit too full for photographs this time:





Fortunately I had a seat pair to myself at boarding, and when no one joined me in Ebbsfleet I could spread out since from there it's nonstop to Brussels!

To be honest there’s little to report on – standard class doesn't get you any food save what you brought on yourself (in my case, looted lounge pastries), and a chunk of the journey is through a tunnel and thus rather lacking in scenery. But until you head under the channel your data connection will work, and an ipad loaded with catch-up TV kept me entertained for the rest, alongside a skim through the Eurostar magazine. Apart from collecting another five minutes of delay, it all just works, and I comfortably traded the UK for France, then France for Belgium.

We reach Brussels at 12:20 (local time), leaving half an hour for my connection. My most recent visit was shortly after the terrorist attacks, and whilst the security presence is lower than then, there's still a trio of army trucks outside. But there are no additional checks for the Thalys, so I have time to battle my twin enemies – humidity and the French language – and grab some lunch before boarding.





On board the aircon slowly makes its presence felt, but that advertised Wi-Fi does not (supposedly it's now available free of charge even in comfort 2, but you have to register and that was stuck in an infinite loop). It’s another busy service, and I have a seatmate as a result, but it's still more space than you'd get on a short haul flight. As such, the kilometres easily roll past and soon enough we’re pulling in to Rotterdam Centraal.

TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 13, 17, 11:12 am   #4
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
The Netherlands

Back in February Alaina asked me to marry her, and of course I agreed! Although we’d identified an ideal date, we hadn’t narrowed down the location beyond choosing the Netherlands rather than the UK. We had scheduled a few days to try and correct that; she’d been in Holland since the weekend, and now that I’d arrived, we could take a look at some of the options she’d identified.

Fortunately, this turned out to be straightforward – a venue we visited on the second morning of searching immediately grabbed both of us. We initially worried that was too fast a decision, but as we continued to look at alternatives nowhere else felt as compelling. So by the next day we had agreed that was the one for us!

That means you will be spared any more tales of wedding planning, and instead get to join me for a spot of sightseeing. Throughout 2015 and 2016 the cultural event “Rotterdam celebrates the city” has been marking its 75 year recovery from the devastation of the second world war. The reconstruction has created a progressive city with an impressive architectural landscape. One of the first buildings to be completed was the Groothandelsgebouw (literally big trade building, more precisely wholesale building / offices); whilst beside it sits one of the most recent, Rotterdam Centraal Station.

As part of the event a 180 step scaffold staircase, "De Trap", was set up, leading from the station square to the top of GHG (the original concept called for a giant escalator!). It was only in place for a few weeks, but fortunately my visit overlapped with the last few days (well, fortunately for me- Alaina had already trekked up the steps twice with friends before I arrived and insisted on a third viewing). Architecture can make or break a city for me, but Rotterdam has become a firm favourite and it was good to get a unique perspective on it:


In the interests of space, you can find the rest in this flickr gallery. If this looks nothing like the Holland of your imagination, rest assured we also spent plenty of time wandering in the district of Delfshaven – where you can fulfil your windmill and canal quota (as well as find good food):


Last edited by TheFlyingDoctor; Jan 13, 17 at 3:46 pm
TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 13, 17, 3:54 pm   #5
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
The Netherlands to Gran Canaria

(apologies – I only have gopro shots from this portion!)


HV6521, 11th June 2016
Dep: AMS Amsterdam Schiphol 14:15 (local time)
Arr: LPA Gran Canaria Las Palmas 17:55 (local time)
Flight length: 1980 miles, 4 hours 40 minutes
Operated by: Transavia (Boeing 737-800, PHHZJ)
Seat: 17B (economy extra leg room)
Trivia: Only my third international flight to neither start nor end in the UK (previously: OSLCPH, JFKYVR)

We scored a lift to Schiphol, albeit at the price of arriving three hours before departure… That turned into a plus rather than a minus when we ran into some friends at the check-in line, jumping us a few spaces since they were also queuing for Transavia’s communal desks (and our flight was just about open for bag drop). Nonetheless, check in takes us twenty minutes to clear, then security was another ten – a mixed bag, with verbal instructions only given in Dutch, but the use of body scanners allowing me to keep my belt and shoes on.

Finally airside, the group of us hit Starbucks for a variety of beverages and cakes but struggled to find comfortable seating, both there and roaming the terminal. So once caffeine and sugar cravings had been satisfied and our friends departed for their (rather earlier) flight, we decided to sample the lounge options.

Obviously our Transavia tickets counted for nothing, but priority pass gave us a couple of options, both from Aspire. We opted for the nearer one (26), which was nothing special in terms of space, decor or catering. The savoury offering was limited to a soup, some salad / olives, bread rolls, and cheese. However, the drinks selection was more extensive and they did have stroopwaffels, which goes a long way in my book. Their Wi-Fi was stuck in an endless authentication loop but Schiphol will give you four hours of basic or an hour of premium for free, so I stuck with that. Overall nothing exceptional, but it ticked the crucial box of a quiet, comfortable spot away from the crowds to fill the rest of our time until boarding. Given that we paid nothing to get to the airport, the cost of guesting my partner in and having the peace of mind of being airside yet not dealing with the terminal seems worthwhile.


Aspire Lounge 26



That was confirmed when we made our way over to the gate, to find a sea of people forming only an approximation of a queue for the single lane. The call to gate had gone out at 13:35 but boarding didn’t actually kick off until 20 minutes after that- fortunately we had taken our time getting there having stocked up on food en route.


Boarding crowds

On board, I noticed first the abundance of green and then the position of the emergency exits – not on our supposed ‘extra leg room’ row 17, but the two before it. Fortunately examining the window spacing revealed our seats to be the best of both worlds – we indeed had (some) extra space, but could also make use of the under seat storage since it wouldn't be blocking an exit. Looking at how tight the rest of the rows were, I'm definitely glad we paid the extra, considering these would be home for nearly five hours:



Extra leg room


Standard pitch


Push back was at 14:22, but then it was the typical long drive around Dutch countryside before lining up for our take-off roll. We eventually took to the skies at 14:35, some twenty minutes off schedule.

From then we were mostly left to our own devices – there’s no food or drink service unless you opt for something from the buy on board menu, so apart from a pass through the cabin offering luxury items and cigarettes there was little sight of the crew. There were some interesting views out the window for the first couple of hours, but by 5pm we were leaving the coast of Portugal – and thus mainland Europe – behind us. Fortunately my impulse purchase of The Martian from the airport book store turned out to be an excellent choice, so I ploughed through 200 pages of that before descent started at 18:10. The sun-drenched Gran Canarian landscape that we were presented with on approach looked completely alien – not all of it attractive due to some industrial zones, but definitely interesting. And hot.


On the ground at LPA

Transavia passengers turn out to be of the "applaud a landing" variety, although that was less distressing than the chap in the aisle seat next to me, who stuck his hands down his trousers for a good rummage before disembarking. Anyway. We were in the terminal by 17:45 (rolling back an hour in accordance with local time), ten minutes ahead of schedule despite the late departure. It was another twenty minutes before we were reunited with our luggage, and ten more to extract ourselves from the seemingly far too large terminal complex and reach the bus stop. But that just meant 18:15 boarding for an 18:20 bus, and we were never going to be able to make the preceding 17:50, so no complaints. €8.10 each for a ticket, and off to what would be our world for the next six days – Maspalomas.


Bus to Maspalomas

TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 13, 17, 3:57 pm   #6
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
Gold by Marina


Room Type: Double Room with Balcony and Sea View
Nights: 6

Having only opened in 2014, this property has nonetheless propelled itself to the top of TripAdvisor’s listings. Our goal was to relax and unwind as much as possible, and given that (airport transfers aside) we never ventured more than a few kilometres from the hotel, I think we can safely say it delivered.


We immediately loved the styling – the corridors are open air, as is the central courtyard, creating an expanse of cool, open space. Coupled with the predominantly white theme, this provided plenty of respite from the often relentless heat. As, of course, did the pools – the blue of the water is picked up as colour splashes in the minimal décor too.





Main Pool


Cabana Pool

The rooms were just as thoughtfully designed, maximising light and airflow. The building is L-shaped, with the (open) walkways arranged on the outer edge and rooms running through the full width. From floor 4 upwards you get a balcony at the far side from the entrance, and thus each end of the room has both natural light and fresh air. We lucked out and got the 9th, top, floor, with views out across the famous dunes to the sea from the balcony and inland from the corridor – handy for sunset!



View from Balcony


View from corridor

When you first enter the room you find yourself in a kitchen area; these are often not fit for anything more than coffee and snacks, but this was genuinely well equipped and viable for self-catering. With a supermarket just next door, we were able to save the cost/effort of venturing further afield for dinner and instead cooked for ourselves a couple of nights. Drinking water in Gran Canaria is safe but, having been reclaimed by desalination of sea water, not particularly tasty. Despite being an island bottled water is remarkably cheap when purchased in bulk, so having a fridge to keep a stockpile of it chilled was great.


Kitchen space

From there it’s a left turn to the sink area (partially open to the room), then a door leading to the rest of the bathroom. The shower takes up the bulk of the space and consequently was one of the largest I’ve ever seen, with both rainfall and regular heads. The main space of the room is first the sleeping area, then a couch and dining table. The far wall is entirely glass, with a sliding door to the balcony.



Main space from hallway


Reverse angle


Balconies


(some of the) shower – too big to fit in frame!



Anyone could probably make a reasonable success of this hotel, but staff can make or break a travel experience, and Gold’s are great – incredibly helpful, and seemingly always cheerful. It’s a small enough crew that you start to recognise each other quickly; no task seemed to be too much hassle, and you always got a friendly greeting when passing by reception. When we arrived overheated from dragging luggage, they welcomed us with wine and chilled water – despite having already placed a bottle of red and some sweets in the room. When we did decide to go out for a meal, they both arranged the taxi for us, and recommended somewhere that seemed genuinely popular with locals rather than a tourist-trap looking for a steady stream of hotel referrals. They even have an app for booking various tours, or to let you get in touch with the front desk at any time.


Finally, the food was just right – we had six breakfasts, three lunches, and two evening meals on site and whilst there was nothing super sophisticated, it was tasty, generously portioned and reasonably priced. Most impressive was the wide array of breakfast buffet options, and service from 8-12 meant there was no need to rush out of bed. Or, as we preferred, you can explore early in the morning then return for a decent brunch once the temperature cranks up.


Some of the breakfast options

Despite all this, it never seemed crowded: often we were the only people using the pool, hot-tub, or courtyard seating; and it was rarely a challenge to find a pair of empty sun loungers. Plus with no under-18s allowed, it was impressively peaceful even when there were other guests about. I’m not sure why it was so quiet – clearly as an adults only property visiting outside the school holidays shouldn’t have been relevant, but I’m not sure when the peak season for the Canaries is. Perhaps it’s simply too new a property. Anyway; anyone who wasn’t here was missing out!
TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 13, 17, 4:01 pm   #7
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
Maspalomas


As mentioned, we never strayed too far from the hotel: partly because we were enjoying it so much; and partly because the main attraction in the area is practically on the doorstep. It’s a few minutes walk to the edge of the dunes, mostly bypassing the more commercial stretch of coastline.


Our first excursion taught us a healthy respect for the sands. It’s generally advised to keep away entirely in the early afternoon, as they’ll be too hot underfoot. But even at 11am we found it challenging – with both the shore and the coastpath in sight, it’s easy to mistake a short detour for a quick one. In reality, with the sands shifting under your feet plus the constant ascent and descent of the undulating dunes, you need to make sure you’re adequately prepared with viable footwear, some water and a hat. Or at least this genetic Scotsman does…

We quickly learnt to shift our visits to the edges of the day, with an early start being best as the heat can linger well into the evening. Heading down to watch the sunset one morning was a particular treat!









Maspalomas at sunrise


Similarly, we hired bikes from the hotel to make an 8am start for a cycle to the Maspalomas lighthouse. Although only about 5k from the hotel as the crow flies, we put in closer to 9 each way with a mostly inland – and surprisingly hilly – route. But there was a good amount of scenery at each end, and even the on-road portion turned out to be pleasant. Gran Canarian drivers seem to be very considerate of cyclists, leaving plenty of space or simply hanging back when there’s little room to pass; plus the road surfaces were good. Although I was dealing with being on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and only had a hire bike, it felt easier than my usual commute! Although the pace was rather more leisurely, taking most of an hour each way.


Route to the lighthouse


Towards the lighthouse


Hire bike and dried out (unsure whether deliberate or drought!) river


The lighthouse

(As usual, I have far more photos than there is space to easily share here. There’s a carousel of highlights on my blog, or you can jump straight to the flickr gallery.)
TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 13, 17, 5:42 pm   #8
Four Seasons 5+ BadgeSPG 5+ Badge
  
Join Date: Mar 2006
Location: Germany
Programs: Some
Posts: 5,275
Thanks! Very white
offerendum is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 14, 17, 3:04 am   #9
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
Gran Canaria to London



IB3604, 17th June 2016
Dep: LPA Gran Canaria Las Palmas 11:25 (local time)
Arr: LHR London Heathrow Terminal 5 15:45 (local time)
Flight length: 1801 miles, 4 hours 20 minutes
Operated by: Iberia Express (Airbus A320)
Seat: 1A (business bulkhead)
Trivia: My partner’s first business class flight

Bussing back to the airport, we realised we’d made a hash of it on arrival, both paying more than we needed to, and walking far further than necessary after bailing out too early. So Gold is more conveniently located than we thought: it’s sub 10 minutes to the correct bus stop, even with luggage; and the fare is €7 for the two of us.

Fortunately we left plenty of padding as the bus left ahead of schedule, delivering us to LPA in half an hour. It took another ten minutes to reach the Iberia desks – I still don’t understand why this airport is so huge – where most of the queues were at least half a dozen deep. Fortunately there was a business desk that quickly dealt with a family and then us.

It took 7 minutes to clear the security proceedings, then it was the inevitable snaking gauntlet of duty free offerings before emerging into the terminal proper. Two left turns and a set of stairs gets you away from the main crowds and up to a rooftop terrace and the Sala Galdos lounge. Iberia used to operate their own lounge here, but now share this airport-run facility with everyone else. As such, the staff weren’t completely convinced by our U-class redemption tickets, but they got the beep of approval from the computer so all was well (plus the lounge accepts priority pass anyway).






A variety of seating areas in Sala Galdos

Inside, the lounge is light and airy, with mercifully strong air conditioning. The back half feels a bit sparse, but the seats are comfy and you get plenty of space as a result. Apart from some warm Spanish omelette, the food was restricted to light snacks, but the drinks range (soft and hard) was more impressive, and a fridge of chilled bottled water was appreciated. In the bathroom you could pick up amenity kits with travel essentials such as miniature toothpaste and brush. WiFi was free and very fast, although there weren’t many people around to use it.





Refreshments

The main highlight – for this geek, anyway – was that the lounge also had its own open air terrace, allowing for views of all the activity on the apron and runway. However, with temperatures already soaring I had to limit my time out of the protective bubble of air conditioning to when a take-off was about to occur!



Terrace


A preview of next month’s carrier


An hour and a half later we made our way to the boarding gate, to find ourselves at the back of a deep queue for a single passport point. Fortunately we notice a call (in Spanish) for passengers with priority boarding and get to awkwardly jump the line.

We had front row seats, but we’d not have had far to walk regardless – there were just three rows of business class today, with 8 passengers in total. Although booked onto an IB code when redeeming through BA, this was actually an Iberia Express service rather than mainline. Since I didn’t catch the tail number I can’t tell if the plane was fairly new or just recently refurbed, but it was configured with the newer slimline seating and the cabin looked clean and smart. As is usually the case for European shorthaul, the main benefit seating-wise of business over economy is the blocked middle seat. But we identified another advantage here – whilst the entire plane has 5V USB power at each seat, we also had 110V European sockets to keep devices topped up in flight. There was also plenty of legroom in row 1, with a whole window space before the bulkhead.



Iberia Express business seating

We didn’t have everyone aboard until 11:30, when the airbridge was detached and an extra pillow handed out to each of us in business. The safety briefing was delivered with a heavy accent and rapid pace, alternating each line between Spanish and English. If you weren’t a native speaker of one or the other I imagine you’d struggle to get much from it. Still, there was plenty of time to seek clarification: at 11:38 the flight deck announced that although they were ready to go, we had to be held at stand for at least ten more minutes due to ‘a regulation’.

True to their word, we pushed back at 11:48, and quarter of an hour later had punched our way into the clouds. At half 12 we were offered a choice of pasta or sandwiches; we opted for the latter, which arrived half an hour later alongside a choice of warm bread from a basket.


Iberia Express business class lunch

It might seem strange to describe a meal as tasty when you can’t actually identify what the taste was, but nonetheless that’s the situation I find myself in! Both pasta (whatever its mystery filling) and sauce were cooked well and offered flavour rather than the blandness that can often occur on an airplane. It was a decent portion size even ignoring the salad (as is my right on holiday), and receiving both a chocolate cake and a piece of chocolate does no harm either. Staff were very attentive, clearing away the trays as soon as they spotted we were finished.

Other than that, there is as usual little to report other than the route – around 13:20 we first made sight of Europe, with a somewhat turbulent approach along the coast. But after that it settled down into smooth flying, with beautiful views of Portugal and Spain below. Despite the departure daily we were only 4 minutes late into London, touching down at 15:49 – although it took another 20 minutes to reach a stand! Having been dropped off at Terminal B, we decided to stretch our legs and took the underground walkway instead of the shuttle to the main T5 building. That took ten minutes or so, but is far less busy than anywhere else in Heathrow:


Immigration was tedious as usual, taking 15 minutes even with the e-passport gates. Not that it really mattered as it took another ten minutes for bags to emerge from reclaim – as usual priority baggage means very little here.

Still, an almost entirely stress-free process from door to door, so I’d say the extra avios for business were worth it (not that redeeming for economy was an option). Whilst there are flashier ways to burn 40,000 avios, with access to staff fares I value them fairly low these days. As such, I would peg that many as comparable to what we paid in cash for the AMS-LPA leg in economy, which was definitely less comfortable.
TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 15, 17, 3:08 pm   #10
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
London to Oslo


BA764, 12th July 2016
Dep: LHR London Heathrow Terminal 5 10:25 (local time)
Arr: OSL Oslo Gaerdermoen 13:40 (local time)
Flight length: 750 miles, 2 hours 15 minutes
Operated by: British Airways (Airbus A319-131,G-EUPK)
Seat: 6A (Euro Traveller)
Trivia: This made OSL my most visited airport outside of the UK

We pick up the thread barely a month later – but what a month it was for the UK, as the Brexit vote threw everything into turmoil. Political manoeuvring went into overdrive, the markets went into nosedive, and England (in particular) became a much less enjoyable place to be an immigrant. The morning I set off for Heathrow, we had at least established who our new prime minister would be, but there was very little sense of how the rest of it would shake out.

First order of business at Heathrow – collecting some appropriate currency – was an illustration in point. The rate I’d got back in February was fully 15% better, although at least ordering online saved me £11 (for around £150 of kronor) compared to the walk-up rate.

As a lowly blue travelling with hold luggage and having put this leg in economy, I had my pick of four equally lengthy bag drop queues. Stretching past one turn of the tensa barrier maze and halfway to the next one, it took fifteen minutes to reach a desk. Fortunately north security was a much swifter experience, with most of the five minutes occupied with lacing myself out of and in to my (hopefully) Arctic-proof walking boots.

The BA lounge monopoly at T5 has finally been broken by the arrival of the Aspire Lounge and Spa – it was here the last time I passed through, but back then I didn’t have priority pass. It’s a very small setup – generally, not just compared to the vast galleries complexes - with seating on the outer edge of an L-shaped walkway wrapping around the spa, bar and food. But hey, free is free, and I do manage to get a seat - with a view of some planes, Wi-Fi, a trio of UK/European/USB charging points, and rather more peace and quiet than the main terminal. Hot breakfast offerings seemed reasonable at first glance, although the eggs turned out to be terrible and I couldn’t find a glass of water! Would I use it again? Sure. Would I pay for it, or leave early specifically to get more time here? No. Still, with 15 tier points to my name this year I suspect I’ll be here often enough…







Aspire Lounge, Heathrow Terminal 5


I reach the gate at 9:57, just as they’re calling golds for boarding (so, being at the very bottom of the status totem pole, I take a seat). Gate A8 is pretty small, but for a Tuesday morning A319 service to Oslo it seemed sufficient – by coincidence my previous Heathrow departure, to Edinburgh, was served from the same gate and it clearly wasn’t enough space for that.

Sadly, it took 15 minutes from joining the queue to reaching the jet bridge – ten of them spent immediately behind the passengers being processed. Or not being processed, as it seems they were part of a group of 12, for which the hold bag assignments had been mangled by FLY. Besides the need to reconcile ownership, some of them were assigned so many that the system was now looking for extra baggage fees to be levied. Unhelpfully, part of the group – specifically, the guy with all the bag drop receipts – was already on board. Even less helpfully, the group had split across both boarding lanes so now neither agent could / would deal with anyone else. A FLY specialist was on hand to unravel it all, but still not an impressive first encounter with the system for me!

Fortunately no one else in my row had made it through ahead of me, so there was no need for acrobatics to reach my window seat, 6A. With five rows of Club Europe, this was the first Euro Traveller seat – once upon a time this was a useful thing to snag, as it guaranteed an empty middle space and usually meant decent legroom. Post densification, it’s no different to the others, but I still grab it out of habit – and it seemed better than the aisle seat way down the back of the bus I’d found myself assigned during online check-in.



BA shorthaul seating


Legroom (row 6)

Doors closed at 10:25 –our scheduled departure time - but we were advised there was quite a bit of congestion and to expect 20 minutes of queueing for a take-off slot. Ten minutes elapsed before we pushed back, and sure enough we went for a drive around seemingly the entire Heathrow complex before lining up for launch a smidge before 11.


Somewhere over the UK

Food turned up promptly, presumably because we were the front row of economy, but the size of this band 3 brunch offering is just embarrassing. It was well presented, and having not read the packaging I was pleasantly surprised by the salt-caramel filling of the ‘muffin’, which was genuinely good, just more cupcake in scale. The roll – cold chicken and bacon – tasted ok, but it’s all of two mouthfuls. At the time BA’s plans to roll out buy on board for shorthaul had not been officially announced; this is due for early 2017, and based on this miserly offering can’t come too soon (although I’d have preferred it if they kept drinks free, even though I personally don’t take anything more exciting that water).




BA shorthaul economy brunch


At 11:50 the pilot took to the mic to advise us that we were at 39 thousand feet and he had put the foot down, flying at maximum safe speed to try to make up for the endless Heathrow taxi. The estimate was for arrival at 13:45 local i.e. just under the hour, which would put us only a few minutes behind schedule. They were also optimistic about the weather.

In the even we actually arrived in Oslo even faster than predicted, touching down at 13:39 local; appreciated as by now I was finding the slimline seat rather uncomfortable. As always, Norwegian scenery unrolling beneath us was beautiful, but that weather forecast seemed less convincing as we made a bumpy descent through gathering storm clouds.


Somewhere over Norway

The seatbelt sign popped off at 13:47 and I’d cleared immigration a little over ten minutes later, most of that due to hiking across the airport rather than queuing or any questioning.

My bag had apparently made slower progress from the plane, taking another 25 minutes to appear on the belt, with the tag ripped off and zips partially open.

I have to explain the concept of queuing at the ticket machine for the trains but these are a doddle to use – they even give advice on the appropriate platform and time remaining until the next suitable departure for your destination. I’ve opted for the local service rather than the faster – but painfully expensive – Flytoget express, but I’ve made a good connection and although busy the train delivers me to Oslo Centrum according to schedule and still with plenty of the afternoon left to explore.
TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 15, 17, 3:11 pm   #11
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
Radisson Blu Plaza Oslo

Room Type: Standard guest room
Upgraded to: Business class room
Nights: 1
Club Carlson points earnt: 3032 (Room, Food and Beverage Points 2245 + Gold 35% bonus 787)

I’d got in touch with the Radisson concierge a few days before setting off to enquire about late checkout; this is a ‘by request’ perk of gold status, but given my flight timings would be particularly useful and they were happy to confirm it for me. I can never bring myself to actively request upgrades given their ‘when available’ rather than guaranteed nature, but on check-in I was pleased to find they'd gifted me one of those too. Front desk staff were very friendly, so we chatted for a while about my Svalbard plans before I headed up to the room.

And I do mean up. The Radisson is Oslo’s tallest building – in fact, only one other in the whole of Norway reaches higher - and the business rooms are on the top 6 floors, with mine located on the 29th. In principle, you could spend the majority of your stay at such heights – the bar, restaurant, gym and even a swimming pool occupy even loftier floors.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's take a look at the room:


Radisson Blu Plaza Business room


Reverse angle


Bathroom

Plenty of space with both a pair of armchairs at a coffee table and a proper work desk; the bathroom is also decently sized. These business rooms have a couple of other upgrades that aren’t much use to me – a Nespresso machine and a free film from the pay per view selection. The bed was the usual Norwegian oddity – king size mattress, but single duvets. I don’t know if they set it up this way because I’m a solo occupant or if they offer this to couples too. The aircon seemed a bit underwhelming, but despite the height I could bring the temperature down to preferable levels by opening the window instead!

I couldn't resist trying out the gym in the sky; given the taper of the building there's very little space for each level so the facilities are confusing arranged with access from a pair of stairwells with different reach. The gym equipment is on floor 37 at the very top: there’s not much of it, but you’ll get one hell of a view from the cross trainer. On floor 35 is the pool; again a win for novelty factor rather than practicality, as it’s barely two lanes wide.

Fortunately I got a few lengths in before a family turned up to splash around. Down another level you’ll find the changing rooms; these have huge windows, but I guess no one is going to be looking in. The saunas are located in the changing area, so are segregated by gender.



Radisson Blu Plaza Oslo gym


View across the oslofjord


The highest swimming pool in Norway (I assume)

Down a level again and you’ll find the sky bar and 34 restaurant, although during my stay only the former was open (with the option of a steeply-priced dinner buffet down on level 2 instead). I took a quick look to check out the views, including a bounce to ground and back in the express elevator that runs up the side of the building. But my room was just as good, for the geeky reason of being able to watch the comings and goings at the station.



Sky bar


34 Restaurant (closed)


View from room

For those rather more dedicated to their exercise regime the hotel also organises a weekly 7km guided run, departing each Wednesday at 6:45. In the morning. I was there on the right day, but tragically I’d brought hiking boots rather than running shoes so made a more leisurely start to proceedings. Breakfast was a complete scrum at 9:30, and I had to resort to overflow seating in the ballroom. There was a big area set out with buffet items, but on closer examination there’s a lot of repetition, and I don’t actually find much I fancy!



Lobby bar


Stairs to ballroom level

On my previous trip to Oslo I stayed at Radisson’s other property in the city, the Blu Scandinavia. Part of the reason for trying the Blu Plaza this time was to determine which is better, but as always, the answer is: it depends. That earlier trip was a for a full weekend, but for this sub-30 hour bounce I think the Plaza is the right choice given its more central location and better connections to both the metro and the airport trains. It’s also got better public areas, and the room was larger and better equipped (although I don’t know how a standard room would compare). However, for all the architectural impressiveness of the Plaza’s gym, the Scandinavia has a better pool; and it definitely wins for breakfast as they offered a superb spread (although similarly crowded). For a longer stay, I think it would get the nod, especially if the Plaza is charging significantly more.
TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 15, 17, 3:15 pm   #12
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
Oslo

I took my first ever flight at the age of 21, and Oslo was the destination – well, approximately, due to Ryanair’s love of secondary airports. In the dozen years since I’ve made several more trips to Norway, most recently at the start of this year.

I visited the previous Holmenkollen ski jump tower on both that first holiday, and again just before it was demolished in 2008. However, a trip to the top of the new one has proven elusive. I tried back in February, but it turned out I had timed my weekend in Oslo to coincide with the Holmenkolllen ski festival, so the museum was closed (and my planned peaceful hike through snowy woodland overrun with drunken Scandinavians). Not that it would have mattered, as fog would have put paid to the view anyway:


The weather would conspire against me once again this time. When I first arrived it was T-shirt conditions in the centre of town; quite the contrast to my experience in February!



Oslo harbour in February…


... versus July

However, storms had been forecast (despite optimism from the BA pilots), and sure enough Oslo took a drenching that evening – I was very thankful for my arctic wardrobe when searching for dinner. These seemed to have cleared by morning, but Holmenkollen sits 470 metres above sea level and 10km from the city centre, so tends to have its own climate (that February fog only came into play half way up the metro line). So it was perhaps foolish of me to have left the relatively sunny harbour and make the ride up – sure enough, I found the tower was closed due to high winds, and got caught in another downpour for my troubles. Next time, perhaps...

Besides, it’s good to form new traditions. There’s been plenty of development in Oslo since my first visit, and the opera house has become a new favourite of mine. It’s a glorious piece of architecture, somewhere between ice berg and space ship. Alongside the free-floating sculpture she lies out in the harbour, it also rewards repeat viewings as the seasons change:




February



July

Although I wouldn’t consider myself anything other than a tourist here, Oslo is one of those cities that I’ve visited enough to be able to handle stress-free. I know my way around a few favoured spots, and that’s very helpful for fleeting visits like this one. I don’t think I could make accommodation, food, sightseeing and transport arrangements for a 30 hour turnaround with such ease in an unfamiliar city. For instance, the Oestbanehallen at the central station is a welcome addition to my local knowledge from the previous trip; and was the obvious choice for a late lunch stop today before heading over to the airport.

(There are a handful more photos from this visit on flickr here or a larger collection from the previous one here)
TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 16, 17, 2:34 pm   #13
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
Oslo to Longyearbyen


DY396, 13th July 2016
Dep: OSL Oslo Gaerdermoen 17:25 (local time)
Arr: LYR Svalbard Longyearbyen 20:25 (local time)
Flight length: 1255 miles, 3 hours
Operated by: Norwegian Air Shuttle (Boeing 737-800, LN-NGZ)
Seat: 9A (Economy)
Trivia: LYR is the world’s northernmost airport with scheduled passenger service

I take a busy train to an even busier Oslo airport, but having arrived a minute after check-in opens I suspect I have the luxury of time. First order of business is bag drop, and on Norwegian this is strictly a self-service experience unless you're disabled, a solo child or travelling with a pet. Apart from a BA trial at Gatwick years ago – when there were more staff helping with the self-service machine than at a regular desk - I've never done this, so of course I mess up immediately. Queuing for the actual bag drop station is a waste of five minutes as it turns out you have to first print the tags at a check in kiosk – which I had breezed past on arrival since I had checked in online. So I backtrack, make my best guess at where all the stickers go, then nervously dispatch my bag into the airport machinery without the involvement of any competent humans. Admittedly, without this incompetent human in the loop the process would have been much faster – even with errors, I was done in ten minutes which beats the Heathrow experience. So I imagine this will soon become the way of the world, just as with supermarkets.

Security has plenty of humans, so that's twenty minutes despite an advertised estimate of five; at least my chunky boots are allowed through on my feet and don't trigger an alarm. Longyearbyen is an oddity stacked on an oddity: non-EU member Norway is in Schengen (the reverse of the UK, which is in the EU but not Schengen) but Svalbard is not, so this domestic flight would be leaving from an international gate. That turned out to be an F gate, so between the hike and the queue for passport control another ten minutes ticked by.

There’s only a single shop at the F pier (where half a litre of water will run you 30NOK), but there is a pleasant enough seating area above the gates and you can grab two hours of free wifi. Norwegian advise me of a gate change by text message, which actually arrived promptly enough to be useful – although since we only swapped from F19 to F18 I’d probably have figured it out on my own eventually. By now there's no sign of the earlier thunder storm, which has either cleared away or only ever played out on higher ground. In fact, once I decamp to F18 it's positively humid, despite only a moderate 18C temperature outside. Quite a crowd has formed by 16:50, presumably as our plane (the youthful LN-NGZ) is at the stand, although it's quarter of an hour before they actually call for boarding.

That seems quite prompt, but in fact we just got herded into an even warmer jet bridge for nearly twenty minutes. There I listened to another passenger lament that whilst he had made the flight, his luggage hadn't – and thus he was entirely without arctic–appropriate clothing. I hoped again that I had tagged my own case correctly rather than somehow rerouting it to London.



I think I can see my luggage out there!

I took my seat just two minutes before scheduled departure, with plenty more still waiting to board behind me – conveniently including the occupants of seats 9B and C, thus avoiding the awkward window seat shuffle dance.




Seating and legroom on Norwegian short haul 737

Pushback at 17:38, and by 17:50 we’re aloft! The estimate from the flight deck is for two hours and forty minutes of flying; they also let us know it’s a positively balmy 7C at our destination.


The domestic menu is in effect; the most substantial offering being sandwiches (turkey and cheese or a vegetarian option). There’s a reminder that Norwegian law prevents the consumption of your own alcohol supplies on-board, but conveniently the airline can sell you some of theirs… I’m after a different treat, however, as the smell of the one hot option begins to permeate the cabin. Waffle time!


This probably doesn’t look that amazing (not least because I haven’t added the jam), but you don’t sell the sausage, you sell the sizzle, and (as future instalments will confirm) this was very much my kind of thing. Sadly I had polished it off by 18:40, and thus by 19:05 – not even half way – I’m a bit bored. There is free Wi-Fi, but for now it’s too slow to even post the obligatory “I’m on a plane!” to social media. However, the moving map and speed/height info are generated locally so I am able to keep an eye on those in the hope of upcoming scenery.

Roll forward an hour or so to 20:15 and we get the 20 minutes to go announcement and start our approach. I’ve never seen the crew since the food run so I still have my rubbish, and they make no attempt to collect it now either.


But never mind the practicalities. They’ve got me to the arctic for under £100, and the glacier-worn landscape unfolding outside the window is the star of the show. We’re approaching the airport (at the west of town) from east, along the course of a valley, so I’m on the correct side for a first glimpse of Longyearbyen. It’s…. well, it’s ugly. Function dictates form for the most part here, and the whole place looks like it could be rapidly dismantled if need be. Fortunately the geology redeems it – dramatic valley walls sweeping back to a glacier at the back of town (and once I got to explore on foot, the town quickly grew on me).



Turn and terminal




Taxi to terminal



LYR


Disembarking

We bump down at 20:35, and 15 minutes later are staring down our first polar bear – the only security for the bag claim, which is landside. Outside is the next polar bear related photo opportunity: a hazard sign reminding you of the real thing, and just how far from home you are…



Airport security, Longyearbyen


North of most places


Bus to town

There’s a bus service that loops past the various hotels and lodgings – actually two, taking complementary routes, so it takes a while to process everyone onto the right one and to get them paid up. Cash is clearly best (75 NOK for a single, or 120 for what I presume is an indefinitely open return), although a card may work. What won’t work is brandishing a piece of paper that you claim entitles you to an inclusive airport transfer as part of your tour experience… the no-nonsense driver was having none of this, so we were deadlocked for a while until another passenger headed to the same hotel offered to pay on behalf of the paper-wielder. By 21:15 we were finally off, making the short trip to the Radisson via the docks, where we set down a clearly far more exciting individual who was retrieved by a waiting RIB to be spirited across the fjord to who knows where.


TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 17, 17, 1:25 pm   #14
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
Radisson Blu Polar


Room Type: Standard room
Nights: 4
Club Carlson points earnt: 17,987 (Room Points 9620; Gold 35% Bonus 3367; Stay for 50K bonus 5000)
Club Carlson points burnt: 140,000 (2 redemption nights)


Lobby and restaurant

I arrive at the hotel at 21:35, but of course so does everyone else. Most of them don’t seem aware of the local custom of surrendering your shoes when you enter a property, so by the time I’ve done that there’s quite a few people ahead of me in the queue. I hope they at least paid attention to this rule:


The Radisson Blu branding is franchised; the hotel is run as part of Spitsbergen Travel, itself part of the Norwegian ferry company Hurtigruten. They seem to have considerable influence in Svalbard – the group consists of several accommodation options but also coordinates many of the excursions and activities available (I’d booked all my trips through them too), plus of course runs cruises from the mainland.

As a result, you don’t get Club Carlson status benefits here – so no room upgrade, late checkout, or points for / discount on food and beverage spend. On the other hand, you can still earn and redeem points here, breakfast is always included (despite being absent from the description for redemption nights), and you can pick up a 10% discount card valid for all the restaurants attached to the properties in the group. Visit all six and you can collect a free gift – although this would be impossible for me as Restaurant Nansen, the Radisson’s more formal dining option, was not open during my stay.
So, a standard room for me, in the main building – this was once a wing of the American hotel at the 1994 winter Olympics in Lillehammer, before being transported to Svalbard. The rooms have recently been refurbished, and each now features a different arctic explorer on the door (with a huge map on the reverse).







Standard Room, Radisson Blu Polar

I liked the theming of the room, too, and although it’s not huge, it didn’t feel cramped either, with space for both an armchair and a work desk. The second layer of curtains are up to the task of blocking the midnight sun when you want to sleep; the rest of the time there’s plenty of light although the view is predominantly of the turning circle. You do get an external thermometer too, although the scale is a bit optimistic for the local weather...


The bathroom was a bit more basic (especially compared to Oslo)- fixtures and fittings looked plastic-y, it seemed to have its own climate a few degrees below the room, and the shower had only limited enthusiasm. Fortunately what water it did produce was decently hot – important after some of the more adventurous activities you might be returning from.





Bathroom

Breakfast was very impressive, both for the spread on offer, and the setting. The dining area is the heart of the property, and was built here to a design inspired by the mountain range it offers views of, rather than being another transplanted piece. A shame I was only here in the mornings – I did take a look at the dinner buffet, but being mostly unfamiliar seafood for a wallet-busting 410NOK, I ate elsewhere instead. A couple of times I only ventured as far as the other option on-site, Barentz pub & spiseri. Their regular menu is perfectly competent, but the trick seems to be to go for their daily specials- on of those was the best meal I had on Svalbard.



Dining hall at breakfast


Less than half of the food range available!

All tour activities – and the airport bus - seem happy to collect you from whichever hotel you’re staying at, so in that regard they’re all equally conveniently located. But the Radisson seems to be the most centrally situated, which I appreciated when exploring on foot – in one direction you have the end of the main pedestrian street, and in the other it’s a short walk to the museum / university and down to the shoreline. Oh, and it has hot tubs – but I wasn’t brave enough to try them.



Dining hall from outside


Main entrance

(I’ll break the strict chronology for a bit to more easily discuss my activities in and around Longyearbyen over the next two posts. You can also find extended standalone versions of these accounts on my blog, from which they’re derived. Then I’ll return to the correct order of events for the remaining hotels and flights.)
TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old Jan 17, 17, 1:29 pm   #15
Original Poster
  
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
Posts: 326
Longyearbyen, Svalbard


Quote:
Imagine there’s a storm blowing up. You have minimum vision. The temperature has fallen below minus 25 C. The nearest civilisation is tens of kilometres away, and you are surrounded by glaciers and frozen fjords. Somewhere close a polar bear roams. In a situation like this you must be capable of fending for yourself.
So begins the safety warning at the museum in Longyearbyen, on the subject of venturing beyond the settlement. It goes on to explain how, if confronted by a bear, you should be sufficiently proficient with a high-powered rifle to be able to take your time and aim for the heart or lung region to ensure a kill. Prerequisites for a camping trip are trip-wire flare systems, a pack of dogs, or a willingness to sit polar bear guard throughout the night. Which could be four months long. It therefore seems particularly unfair that this is a place where it’s forbidden to die.

Whilst I would be sheltered from most of these difficulties by virtue of visiting in summer, I still relied entirely upon organised excursions to ensure I had a guide / guard. As mentioned, Spitsbergen travel can book you onto trips with a wide range of companies, and I had put together a programme earlier in the year (thus dodging the worst of Brexit with regards to the exchange rate). However, no activity I took part in was oversubscribed, and with enjoyment of many being weather dependent it might be worth waiting until you’re local to decide what you’ll be up to that day (although watch out for trips that only take place once or twice a week).

~

My decade-long motivation for visiting – and thus ‘must do’ item having arrived – was the Svalbard International Seed Vault. Popularly known as the ‘doomsday vault’, this complex acts a back-up facility for the world’s gene banks. Those play a vital role in maintaining crop diversity – often the only samples of many variants exist only in the banks, as just the most profitable strains tend to persist in agriculture. Of course, conditions can shift, in which case those dormant options in the banks may become vital. SISV acts an insurance policy in case anything should happen to the banks themselves. Deep in the arctic mountainside its samples are mutiply-protected; the cold ensures their safety even if the power system fails; there is no seismic activity here; and war or other human-driven hazards seem unlikely. It opened in 2008, and the first withdrawal was made last year, prompted by the Aleppo seed bank being relocated to Beirut on account of the conflict in Syria.



Ascending Blomsterdalshøgda

It is not possible to tour the inside – by design, almost nobody goes in – which made my desire to visit sound even stranger to anyone I’ve tried to explain it to. Visits are therefore normally tied to other activities, and I’d decided to build up the suspense for mine on the ‘seed to summit’ hike. This started with an assault on Blomsterdalshøgda, a 300m peak looming over the airport, with guidance from one of the university researchers. By this stage of the trip Longyearbyen was firmly gripped by fog, so we didn’t reach the very top; but nonetheless our chosen picnic spot was high in the clouds!



The Seed vault

~

Even more strenuous (although tame by arctic explorer standards) was a 7km paddle across the icy waters of the Adventfjord. Due to uneven numbers and being a solo traveller, I had my own kayak – not only did that mean no one to share the work with, but apparently these are much easier to roll than a double! Fortunately they were able to find me one with a pedal-operated rudder, and our crossing to Hiorthhamn was essentially a straight line. Whilst it was undeniably a workout, I felt comfortably in control after ten minutes or so – helped by the extreme calm of the fjord. Setting off at 7pm, the plan was to catch the midnight sun; but the weather was clearly going to prevent that. Instead, we were treated to a surreal experience as the fog rolled in and swallowed our view of the far shore. When I turned away from my half dozen companions, there was barely any distinguishing between the glass-like water and the leaden sky.



Kayaking across the fjord


~

A rather easier way to get about is with a pack of dogs, and the one road out of town leads to the kennels. With no snow on the ground, they switch to wheeled carts rather than sleds. Given the remarkable double-digit temperatures, it was hard going for the dogs – their optimal temperature is a brisk -18C – but it was still clear that they love to run, and have plenty of power in reserve. In moments when they spotted something that interested them more than the route – such as a rival dog pack, or a chance at a splash through a lake – it became clear that I wasn’t really in charge, and that use of the brakes depends largely on the dogs’ agreement. By this point the fog had swapped for rain, so there was a bit more of a view, but given the expense I think this is probably best saved for winter conditions for the full experience. Then again, I’d probably have regretted travelling all this way and not giving it a try… Plus you get to play with the latest batch of puppies (16 when I visited!), and to warm up afterwards there’s a round of my favourite – waffles!



Dog-karting


Puppies at the Greendog yard


~

As the activity photos suggest, a lot of my time on Svalbard had less than ideal weather for sightseeing - although I make no complaint about the remarkably mild temperatures! However the sun did break through on occasion, and I was happy to grab photos whatever the conditions. So in addition to those I’ve scattered through this report you can find some more in this flickr gallery, if you’re interested.



University and Museum

When not out on adventures, I enjoyed exploring Longyearbyen – although not exactly pretty, this arctic outpost is certainly interesting architecturally, and the scenery supplies more than its fair share of good views. In contrast with the harsh conditions beyond, the town itself is comfortably well-equipped, almost implausibly so for somewhere with a population of less than 2500. Besides the airport and hotels already mentioned, it features shops, numerous restaurants, a chocolatier, a university, full medical facilities, a couple of museums and even a tiny art gallery.



Main street, Longyearbyen

These familiar comforts lead to paradoxical contrasts with the realities of arctic living. Sitting with an open sandwich and a cup of coffee in the effortlessly modern café attached to the cultural centre, you could imagine yourself anywhere in Norway. But pick up a copy of the local newsletter, "Top of the world" and the cover story is on a woman who was buried in her home by an avalanche, and only survived by pounding out a call for help on a kitchen appliance until her hands bled. If that’s too much to contemplate, how about "Top 5 things to do"? Well, this particular list comes with the caveats "on a budget, without a gun". Clearly I am far from home…
TheFlyingDoctor is offline   Reply With Quote
Thread Tools Search this Thread
Search this Thread:

Advanced Search

Thread Tools
Search Thread
Go to Top
Forum Jump
Contact Us - FlyerTalk - Archive - Top