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Introducing the Grand South East Asia Tour

View South East Asia Grand Tour 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This trip comes with the longest and most painful gestation period in the history of Howards’ Travels. Initially conceived in 2019 for travel in 2020, the year that saw unprecedented restrictions on travel as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Postponed to 2021, we found that some of the destinations had still not opened up after their lockdowns, so once again the trip was deferred for another year. 2022 was to be the year it all happened, but conditions were still far from ideal to try and put together such a complicated multi-destination trip, so the planning was once more shelved for another year.

Fast forward to 2023, and we have a delivery date of 6th September. Today. Gulp.

Here is a bit of a background story: I wanted to go to Sulawesi in Indonesia, whereas David's destination of choice was the Philippines. We decided to combine the two, to save on the long and expensive flights to the Far East and keep our carbon footprint as low as possible while still enjoying travel. The idea then snowballed, as one by one more places were added to the itinerary, until we ended up with an eight-week trip covering eight countries.

This is the outline:

3 nights in Doha
2 nights in Singapore
14 nights touring Sulawesi (Indonesia)
3 nights Bali
7 nights touring East Timor
2 nights Bali
17 nights touring the Philippines
2 nights in Brunei
2 nights in Kuala Lumpur
2 nights in Kuwait


We have never partaken in such a long and complicated journey. While we are very used to our trips being full-on, this takes it all to the next level, and I have to admit that I am a little nervous about it all – as well as incredibly excited, of course.

The planning has been a bit of a nightmare, as although we have used an agent for the bulk of the bookings, with 17 flights, 31 hotels, and eight different entry regulations (and currencies), there are still so many things to sort out and keep track of. It's not until I try to create a folder with all the paperwork in chronological order, that I realise quite how much work it has been for our agent (Undiscovered Destinations) and their local teams. I am in awe. There is no way I would have been able to put together such a complicated itinerary on my own.

We always like to take some cash when we travel, but with eight different currencies, it becomes quite a pile of bank notes!

We start the journey with a stop at our favourite service station on the way to Heathrow: Greggs at Reading.

It's a Howard tradition to stop on the way to the airport for one of Greggs' legendary sausage rolls

I am also rather partial to their caramel custard doughnuts

Today we are not going to the airport, however, but staying overnight nearby, as we have an early flight tomorrow morning.

Premier Inn, Bath Road, Heathrow

We enjoy a drink in the room while we chill before dinner. I love their signature purple light.


The bathroom features an unusual shower, out of the 50+ Premier Inns we’ve stayed in over the years, this is a first.


Thyme Bar and Grill

We pop down to the hotel restaurant, which is off the light and airy atrium, for dinner. Both David’s mixed grill and my katsu curry are very enjoyable.

Katsu curry

This may be David's last cider for eight weeks.

We chat for a while with the couple at the next table, who show great interest in our upcoming trip.

It's always nice to finish a meal with a cappuccino, and Costa does a particularly nice one

Back to the room, and it is time for bed. We have an early start tomorrow. The bed is very high, and on wheels that move much too easily on the floor, making it rather dangerous. Each time I sit down on the edge of the bed, it moves a few inches away. If I am struggling at 6’1”, I can only imagine the difficulties a short person would have. Surely it wouldn't take much to put some caster cups or something on it.



Posted by Grete Howard 14:43 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged planning heathrow doughnut cider cash currencies cappuccino pandemic trip_planning donut undiscovered_destinations premier_inn covid covid_19 grand_south_east_asia_trip greggs spending_money sausage_roll greggs_sausage_roll thyme_bar_and_grill katsu_curry bed_on_wheels Comments (3)

Cruise Day 9, disembark, then Longyearbyen - Oslo - home

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Having totally crashed out last night, and not even stirred in the night, I wake up at 06:58 (two minutes before the alarm goes off) in a mad panic thinking I can't breathe and that I am drowning in mucus, followed by more panic as I can't sit up in bed (because of the upper bunk above me).

Following my morning ablutions, and getting dressed and made up, I feel some better. I take some cold and flu medicine and sit outside the overly hot cabin, but don't feel like surfacing for breakfast, partly because I am not hungry, and partly because I do not want to subject my fellow passengers to my sniffling, coughing, and nose-blowing this morning. I am never at my best first thing anyway, and having a cold does nothing to improve my early morning grumpiness.

Leiv comes by, and after asking me why I am not at breakfast, he apologises for giving me his cold and soon comes back with a hot drink containing lemon and honey. I return to bed for the rest of the morning, missing Vide's presentation on Svalbard.



After lunch (a very nice chilli), I return yet again to the cabin, for more sleep, and later, after the crew has retrieved our bags for us, we do some packing.

Today is our last full day on the ship, and no landings or zodiac excursions are planned. I hate hanging around. We arrive back in Longyearbyen and dock mid-afternoon. I would be quite happy to leave the ship right now and book into a hotel on land, but the accommodation here on the ship is paid for, and hotels on Svalbard are horrendously expensive. So we stay for the last night. Vide has gone back to his wife for the evening, as he is off on another ten-night trip tomorrow. As he says: “King-sized bed or small bunk? Hard choice!”

Longyearbyen Harbour

Last Supper

Our last dinner on the ship consists of a herring salad on dark bread to start. Many, many years ago, I was very sick after eating herring, and haven't touched it since, so I am feeling a little nervous about this, but eat it all the same. It tastes better than I remember.


The main course is roast pork with mushroom sauce, and (hopefully) my last boiled potatoes for a while.


For dessert, we are served a panacotta topped with cloudberries. I love cloudberries!


The captain comes in to say thanks to the crew and passengers, and in return, I give thanks to the Captain, crew, and guides on behalf of the passengers.

I believe most of the passengers are staying up for a 'leaving party', while David and I go to bed nursing our miserable head colds.

Disembarkation Day

I wake up at 06:15, having had a wretched night coughing, and spending a lot of time sitting on my little foldable stool in the cabin with the door wide open as the small enclosed space was unbearably hot.

We finish the packing, and Gunnar very kindly helps us up the steep steps with our luggage; as well as going off to the quayside to get a trolley. This morning it all feels like a sad anticlimax, with passengers and guides just milling about waiting to disembark. There is no formal goodbye, although Jeanette cries as she waves us off from the deck of the ship.

There is a huge cruise ship docked nearby, and we are very grateful that ours was a tiny ship, despite the obvious discomfort (bunk beds being the main drawback).


Radisson Blu Polar Hotel

As all the taxis here in Longyearbyen seem to be extra large people carriers, we are able to share a cab with Deepak and José, who are both staying in the same hotel as us.

We are able to check into our room as soon as we arrive (for a fee, of course), where we dump our bags, open the window fully (after fiddling with the window lock), and collapse into a wonderfully comfortable bed with no upper berth. Heaven.

The afternoon is spent repacking, showering, buying gifts, enjoying a can of cider in the room, and checking in online.

Baggage tags

The hotel (as well as two other places in town) has a machine where you can check your bags in and get your luggage tags printed, saving time at the airport. What a great idea!


Nansen Restaurant

This evening we are treating ourselves to a meal in Longyearbyen's best restaurant (according to a local poll). The restaurant is part of the Radisson Blu hotel, and as with so many other establishments in town, is owned by Hurtigruten (a famous Norwegian shipping line).


I start with the lobster tail, which is served with a shellfish sauce with flavours of lemongrass, chilli and galangal. The meat is quite hard to get out of the shell, even with a dedicated lobster fork, but it is very tasty once I manage to liberate it, and the sauce has a slight spicy kick to it.


David chooses the Svalbard cod, which is baked with leek ash, vichyssoise foam and fried leek.


We both select the same main course: reindeer tenderloin, smoked cream cheese, sunchoke, mushrooms and a red wine sauce. The meat is very tender, and the portion is thankfully not too big.


For dessert, David has the chocolate parfait with coffee cream and whisky caramel. It is tasty but very dense.


I, on the other hand, opt for the pavlova, a meringue with fennel white chocolate cream and sea buckthorn. A lovely combination of tart and sweet, but the dish is a little on the cold side for my liking (presumably straight out of the fridge – I don't really like any food very cold, I even put ice cream in the microwave at home)


As we are getting up very early tomorrow morning, we go to bed almost immediately after dinner. On our way through reception, we notice a sign stating that the water in all of Longyearbyen is not drinkable at the moment. Thankfully we have a couple of bottles that we already filled on the ship, so that will do us for overnight.

Sunday 6th August

I have been awake from 01:30, so am seriously sleep-deprived. It is probably a combination of eating too late (or rather trying to sleep too early), a full tummy after the lovely meal last night, and maybe the 'excitement' of going home the next day. Who knows.

Last night we booked a packed breakfast, as we are leaving before they start serving in the hotel this morning. I am sad to miss the all-you-can-eat smoked salmon at the buffet, and a triple-decker sandwich of ham, cheese and salad does not in any way make up for it.

A young German girl at the hotel asks if she can share our taxi to the airport, and tells us that the airline also didn't deliver her luggage in the three days she has been here. Shame on you, SAS.

Longyearbyen Airport

We are a little too early for the check-in desks to be open this morning, so hang around chatting to Deepak, Jeanette and Svein, who are all travelling on the same flight as us. When the check-in counters open, everything is still self-service here: we put the luggage on the scales ourselves, and use a scanner to read the baggage tags we printed off yesterday. That's it.

Stuffed polar bears are everywhere in Longyearbyen, even at the airport

I am really suffering from pain in my sacroiliac joint this morning, and even struggle to lift my legs onto the footrests of the wheelchair.

The crew arrive at the gate but are unable to open the door onto the tarmac. Eventually, someone with a key arrives and lets them out, but they have the same problem trying to get onto the plane too.

The water fountains still have signs on them apropos the non-potable drinking water at the moment. In addition, there is an announcement in the waiting area: “I would just like to inform you people that we won't be serving any food on this flight, so if you are already starving, I suggest you go and buy something”. Great. We have paid for SAS Plus seats, which include in-flight meals. We buy a bottle of water, but neither of us is at all hungry, so we don't bother buying any snacks.

When it is finally time to board, my wheelchair pusher is nowhere to be seen. As the plane is just outside the glass doors, I don't bother to wait for him, but make my own way to the aircraft.

As we taxi across the runway, every bump and pothole on the surface sends shooting pains through my back, despite a triple dose of painkillers. Not only that, but my cold has gone to my sinuses, which feel like they are about to explode as soon as we take off. This is turning out to be one of my worst flights for a very long time.

I am so glad that I did not take any notice of the earlier announcement, as passengers in the SAS Plus section are given a free choice from the snacks menu: muffins, crispbread, cashew nuts or chocolate bars, or a combination of any or all of them. The captain explains that they have recently changed catering suppliers, and are having a few teething problems.

The pressure in my sinuses eases a little once we have become airborne, so I am able to catch up on some sleep. The pain starts up again as soon as we begin our descent, however.

Oslo Gardemoen Airport

As we arrive at the domestic terminal and our onward flight is from the international terminal, the air stewardess tells me there is a private car waiting to take me across. When she says “private car”, it is just that: there is a non-marked Mercedes at the bottom of the steps, and we are driven around the apron to the correct area, then taken up what looks like goods lifts with automatic doors, and through security and X-ray.

Coming through this way confuses the police at immigration (while Norway is part of the Schengen Area, Svalbard is not, which means anyone travelling to these Norwegian islands is treated as international passengers). He asks how long we are staying, and I reply: “Oh, about three hours”, which confuses him even more. The porter then explains the situation, and that we are just transitting through Gardemoen. Shortly afterwards, we go through the same procedure to get out of Norway again.

At the Gate


The onward plane is late arriving, and the crew are trying for a quick turnaround. Everyone is ushered to leave the holding area, and then one by one they are checked back in again against their passport and boarding cards. Everyone except me, David and a couple of other Special Assistance passengers, that is. Just like at Longyearbyen, the crew arrive before the doors are opened so that they too have to queue to board the plane.

As well as arriving late, the flight has an unusual amount of passengers requiring wheelchair assistance, and while there had been some good planning in place, with a number of wheelchairs stacked at the end of the ramp, there is a shortage of porters to push, so it is very slow progress to get all the passengers off.

As soon as the doors are opened, 'my' porter wheels me down to the plane and is promptly told off as the crew are not ready to receive passengers yet.

This flight is uneventful, and thankfully they are well stocked with food – we receive the same meal as on the way over, which suits me down to the ground, as it is delicious!

Great views of London as we come in to land at Heathrow



I have never seen Heathrow this quiet, in all the years I have been coming through here (at least 200 times). Where there would normally be a long line snaking around roped-off areas at immigration, there is not one person queuing, just a handful of people at the counters waiting to be let into the country. The official who we see is extremely friendly and chatty, with a great sense of humour, which is also very unusual. I guess the fact that it is so quiet takes any pressure off what must be a very stressful job so they can have time to joke with passengers.

There are a few more people at the luggage carousel, but it is certainly not crowded. The luggage seems to be very slow to arrive, but I guess we were through immigration quicker than normal.

The luggage carousel

At customs, a very sexy black guy with long dreadlocks is just putting on plastic gloves as he starts his shift. My comment “Ooh, those gloves look scary” brings out a gorgeous smile and a belly laugh. If only travelling through Heathrow would be this easy every time.

I spoke too soon. There is a huge crowd waiting for the lifts to the car park. Not every one of the eight lifts opens its doors when they arrive at our floor, nor can many people fit into them when they do. Walking up the stairs with four large items of luggage and four pieces of hand luggage (not to mention me in a wheelchair), is not an option. After nearly ten minutes, we are still not even at the front of the queue, so the lovely young porter (female) who is pushing my wheelchair suggests we go to the other side of the lifts (the car park side, as opposed to the terminal side). Sure enough, the doors open here every time the lift stops, and we have no problem getting in. How ridiculous.

This signals the end of our adventure in Svalbard, and at this point I would just like to share the map displayed on the notice board on the ship, showing the route we took, what sightings we had, and where. If you are at all tempted by a wildlife trip to Svalbard, I cannot recommend Arctic Wildlife Tours enough.


Also, David has made an excellent 5-minute video of the highlights of the trip, which you see here:

If the video fails, you can copy and paste this URL into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrARgxLfRug

If that doesn't work either, the link is here.

Footnote: The cold I have been suffering from for the last few days, turns out to be Covis-19. Thankfully it causes no great drama beyond the symptoms of a head cold.

See you next time. x

Posted by Grete Howard 16:39 Archived in Svalbard Tagged oslo london home airport cruise packing norway bears cruise_ship polar svalbard longyearbyen heathrow immigration arctic cider wheelchair adventure_travel spitsbergen heathrow_airport last_supper radisson head_cold packed_breakfast gardemoen coronavirus covid19 covid special_assistance disembarkation radisson_blu radisson_blu_polar origo adventure_cruise ms_origo spitzbergen arctic_wildlife_tours nansen_restaurant baggage_tags lobster_tail longyearbyen_airport sinus_infection sacroliliac oslo_airport car_park Comments (5)

Bristol - Heathrow - Oslo - Longyearbyen

The start of another trip

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.


Back in February, I was browsing through Facebook while on a ferry back from France, when I came across an advert for a photography cruise to Svalbard. By the end of the day, I had booked it. This has to be one of my most exciting – and expensive – impulse buys. Follow my blog to read all about it.

Sunday 23rd July 2023

Home - Heathrow

I am desperately trying not to sleep in the car on the way up to Heathrow, as we are planning on a very early night tonight, ready for the flight tomorrow morning.

Premier Inn

We are delighted when we discover that we have two large beds in the room. Usually, their twin rooms are one proper double bed, plus one converted sofa bed – the latter being rather uncomfortable, Here we have a proper bed each.


Another good thing about the room is that it has air conditioning, something that is not the norm in Premier Inns.

Thyme Restaurant
We have time for a quick freshen-up and change before going for dinner at 17:45. There are a number of children in the restaurant, which is only to be expected this early in the evening, but I am delighted to find that they are all very well behaved, and no trouble at all. It is uncomfortably hot in the restaurant, however, which is disappointing after the lovely air-conditioned rooms

While David has his usual steak and ale pie, I choose the hoisin noodles with three added jumbo prawns. What a disappointment. The sauce is very thin and pretty tasteless, and the prawns are overcooked and tough.



The dessert of tiramisu is not much better, with very little taste of coffee, and instead of sponge fingers, they have used chocolate cake.

After dinner we go straight to bed at 19:45. My idea earlier of not sleeping in the car on the way here worked, as I go straight into a deep sleep. I wake at 22:15, however, and am too excited to be able to go back to sleep for the rest of the night.

At some stage in the night, I receive a text message from SAS explaining that the flight is full, and they are allowing passengers to check in their carry-on free of charge. No thanks, I have packed everything I need in the hand luggage in case the main bags do not arrive, such as thermal underwear and a spare set of clothing, plus, of course, the camera gear and medical stuff that has to be with us at all times. I hope there will not be any problems at check-in tomorrow.


Monday 24th July 2023

After just 2.5 hours of sleep last night, I feel pretty tired this morning. We arrive at the car park at 04:30 for our meet-and-greet parking, where someone is waiting to take our car away (who will then bring it back to the same place when we arrive home after the trip).

Special Assistance

I use the usual call button to summons someone to collect me in a wheelchair from the car park. No reply. I try again. Still no reply. David tries the telephone number on the help sign. He receives a recorded message stating that “The office is now closed”. No mention of what time the office does open and what to do meanwhile. I guess you are not supposed to be disabled at this time in the morning.


I walk from the car park to the check-in, which thankfully I am able to do. There is, however, absolute chaos here, with lots of people standing around, waiting. I ascertain that there are two long queues next to each other, one for checking in to United Airlines, and the other for people waiting to print their own bag tags. We join the latter, but it moves at a snail's pace, and no one seems to really know what is going on. The self-service bag-drop machines are not just for our flight, but for several different airlines, adding to the chaos. The lady in front of us is flying to Delhi in seven hours' time, and doesn't understand the instructions on the machine. There also doesn't seem to be a clear queueing system, with one long line snaking around the corner, but then, right at the bit where the self-check-in machines are, people are jumping the queue by entering from two other sides. Once we've finally managed to print and attach our tags, we join another line for the actual bag drop. We are travelling in the SAS Plus cabin today, and the sign at the head of our queue quite clearly states that it is for such passengers only, but others still join. Several get turned away once they get to the counter, but there is no-one to supervise the queues. Total shambles. By the time we reach the counter, we have queued for over 40 minutes. One of the reasons I book special assistance, is because I cannot stand for long periods of time. Today proves just that, as, by the time I reach the Special Assistance area (which is open by now, obviously 05:00 is the time from which you are allowed to be disabled), my back is extremely painful.

Halfway there in the queue

Thankfully no one mentions anything about checking in hand luggage, in fact, they don't even look at the carry-on bags, so I worried about nothing. As a photographer, the weight of the cabin bags is always a concern – I am wearing one of my cameras around my neck to lighten the load in the bags. I have also packed four lenses in the checked-in luggage, and Big Bertha (my 600mm lens), has her own hard case, of course. We have to take her to the Oversized Luggage counter in order to check her in.

In the Special Assistance Area, waiting to be pushed around

Once I have been put in a wheelchair and allocated a pusher, we are off to immigration and security. Here there are self-service machines again, where you just scan your boarding cards, but the turnstiles are too narrow for wheelchairs, so we have to wait to be manually checked. This is another slow queue. At security I temporarily abandon the wheelchair and walk through, setting off the X-ray machine. The scanner also detects something, so I am manually searched. The security guard insists I should have taken my concealed money belt off and put it through the scanner – which is odd as I have passed through Heathrow over a hundred times before and never once been asked to remove the belt from under my clothing. This is one of the many things I hate about flying – everything is always such a palaver, and just as you think you know what you're doing, they change the rules.

From there I am pushed through to the Airside Special Assistance Area. That is one disadvantage of booking a wheelchair, the waiting area is often far away from any food outlets - they don't seem to realise that disabled people may want to eat too. David goes off to get a sandwich and a drink for me.

As we are waiting for the next stage, a smart-looking middle-aged black man arrives in a wheelchair with a pusher, apparently having been separated from his family. The staff ask him time and time again if he can walk, and tell him to get out of the chair. It is pretty obvious after the first question that he is at best non-verbal – his face is completely emotionless and he makes no effort to move. Eventually, his family arrives and explain that he cannot walk, nor talk.

The assistant who comes to collect me has zero personality, and my attempts at communication fall on stony ground. I am parked inside the gate while we wait for the crew to arrive. Another chap soon joins us, a big guy with full sleeve tattoos that extend onto his hands, as well as on his neck. He also has several large piercings, but he certainly has way more personality than the chap who wheeled me here, and we soon start chatting. When I tell him we are going to Svalbard, his face lights up – not only does he know where it is, he knows all about the Treaty and visa-free entry. He is the first person we have met who has shown any knowledge about Svalbard, which just proves, yet again, that you should not judge a book by its cover.

SAS Plus Flight from London Heathrow To Oslo Gardemoen

The plane fills up fairly quickly, the doors are closed, and we are ready to go when the captain comes on the tannoy to announce that we will be delayed for push-off as a result of a faulty tow-tug, so we are waiting for a new one to arrive. The delay is only just about five minutes, before we are on our way.

We are in seats 2E and F, and are surrounded by a big group of pretty rough and raucous Welshmen who are off to Norway fishing. A couple of them have real potty-mouths, which feels very disrespectful as there are children across the aisle. They are also very loud, and twice the steward has to ask them to be quiet during the announcements. Despite their noisiness, and the fact that the chap in front of me leans forward when he talks to his mates, then throws himself back in the seat afterwards, crushing my knee each time, I spend most of the flight dozing, waking only for the breakfast. The meal service consists of a piping hot bread roll, ice cold and rock hard butter, strawberry jam, a thin slice of Norvegia cheese, a whole baby Camembert, yogurt with muesli, and an apple, elderflower, and ginger juice (which David thinks is delicious, me less so).

Having received the text earlier today to warn that the flight is full, I am delighted to find that the only free seat is next to us, so David can move over to give us both a little bit of extra room. The plane is thankfully not as cramped as some, with adequate space for my legs – until the person in front throws himself back, of course.


Where the tunnel meets the plane, a nice young man (with plenty of personality) meets me with a wheelchair. At the top of the ramp, we are stuck, as the end of the tunnel is closed off by a locked door, and the lift is out of action. After a few minutes, the foot passengers are told to use the escalator on the right rather than the ramp on which they are queuing. More chaos. We go in the lift, which is now suddenly operational, but is so small there is no room for David, who meets us at the top. From there, we go down a long, narrow corridor before we reach Immigration. A number of ropes create a snaking line, which we bypass to use the Special Assistance counter... which is closed. The wheelchair assistant moves me to the front of the 'normal' queue, and is almost immediately told off by a jobsworth who is overseeing the area, claiming that some people have waited for two hours! With only three counters open, and each person asked a number of questions about why and where they are visiting, as well as being asked to show their return ticket and itinerary of their trip, I can understand why it is taking so long. With a Norwegian passport, I sail through, and David doesn't take much longer, although he does get a stamp in his passport.


Despite the Svalbard archipelago belonging to Norway, even Norwegians need to show their passport when travelling to the islands. That's because Norway is part of the European Schengen area, while the Svalbard archipelago is not. We are technically just transiting through Norway proper. A strange concept.

From there, we go straight to the gate for the next flight, with plenty of time to spare, in fact, the passengers for the previous flight (to Edinburgh) are still there, which initially confuses me a little.

SAS Plus flight from Oslo Gardemoen to Longyerbyen

When it is our turn to board, the girl at the check-in comes over to ask if I can walk. Apparently, she has phoned for assistance for me, but no one has arrived, and she needs to start the boarding if they are to have time to check passports. Just as I get to the desk, a lady from assistance arrives, but without a wheelchair. I decide it is much easier for me to walk down the ramp to the plane than it is for her to fetch a chair.

We are in row 4 this time, E&F, and while the flight is not completely full, the seat next to us is not the empty one, unfortunately. One good thing is that I am right above the luggage loading chute, so from my seat, I can see the bags going onboard. It is with great relief that I spot all four of our cases. The SAS app on my phone also gives me the opportunity to track where our checked-in luggage is, so I have been able to follow it along from London to here, and know that it has been scanned at Gardemoen.


David's bag on the left, Big Bertha on the right

The captain announces that we will be delayed, albeit only a few minutes, as we are waiting for the last few items of luggage from a connecting flight to be loaded.

The children in the seat behind me are super-excited about flying and delightedly exclaim 'Look daddy, we are reversing' and squeal with excitement when we take off. Unfortunately, the same kids are this excited throughout the flight, which seems to involve a lot of kicking the back of my seat.

In-flight meal
This has to be the most exotic in-flight meal I've ever had, and is absolutely delicious.


Again I sleep on and off, but wake up as we approach Svalbard, with some amazing views of Spitzbergen from the plane.

Svalbard has ove 2,100 glaciers



Longyearbyen Airport

As I am about to disembark, I am informed by the air stewardess that there is not a wheelchair available as they are all in use (the airport only has one or two). I can walk anyway, so it is not a problem. Access from the plane is via steps, which have a stairlift attached. I can't remember ever seeing that before – usually, they take disabled passengers up in the lift used to stock food on the plane, through the door opposite the passenger entrance.

The wheelchair meets me halfway across the tarmac, and I decide to make use of it, just in case there is a long wait for luggage. As it turns out, it is not really necessary, but she is a delightful girl and very helpful.


Longyearbyen is a long way from pretty much everywhere

Svalbard is nearer the North Pole than Oslo



As there are no taxis at the rank, we get on the bus instead, which is almost full, so I grab the back seat while David puts the bags in the storage compartment underneath. When his vehicle is full, the driver comes on board to sell tickets – this system seems to work really well, as he is able to assist with loading the luggage too. The bus stops at every hotel along the way – ours is the third stop.


Radisson Blu Polar Hotel

A lot of people get off here. We struggle a bit with our three rolling bags, Big Bertha, a backpack, two messenger bags, and a small camera bag between the two of us, so end up right at the back of the queue for checking in.

Radisson Blu entrance

Reception area at the back on the right

Retro furniture in the lobby

A stuffed polar bear in reception, shot in 1992 due to illness

Thankfully our room is on the same level as the reception, and not too far down the corridor, so reasonably easy to drag all the luggage. The room consists of two single beds pushed together, with individual bedding. Yay! I have never understood the concept of a double quilt, in most relationships there is usually one person who ends up uncovered during the night because the other one is hogging the covers. I am that hogger, so David is the one who ends up exposed and cold, but thankfully, with a single quilt each, this will not be a problem tonight.


David goes off for a recce to see what is around while I try to find out where I put things in my bag. He comes back with cider, crisps (my favourite from my childhood), and chocolate.


In Norway, the sale of alcohol is regulated by the government, and is only available in shops known as Vinmonopolet (directly translated: wine monopoly). The shops are plain (ie no advertising on the outside to suggest what they sell), as is the packaging the bottles come in. What you might call a brown-paper-bag-jobbie. As my friend John pointed out, brown paper bags are also good for people who hyperventilate – which is often what happens when you see the price of alcohol in Norway. Alcohol is even further restricted here on Svalbard, with permanent residents having a monthly quota and having to have their ration card stamped each time they buy some; and visitors, such as David, having to show proof of an onward ticket before being allowed to buy alcohol.

Image of a Svalbard ration card from the internet


We enjoy a couple of ciders from Vinmonopolet before going down to Barentz Gastropub which is part of the hotel. There is a buzzing atmosphere when we arrive, with lots of people coming and going. With the good weather and mild temperature, the outdoor seating area is popular (and full). It seems to be a favoured meeting place for youngsters of all nationalities. With Svalbard being a visa-free destination, it attracts people from all over the world - it is said that there are people from 53 different countries living and working here. I am guessing (from overhearing parts of conversations) that these kids work on cruise ships. Not only is Svalbard a popular cruise destination, but this hotel (as well as a couple of others here in Longyearbyen) is also owned by Hurtigruten ( a large Norwegian cruise company).


The bar stocks a selection of ciders, and while David thinks any other flavour than apple is a sacrilege, I am rather partial to the flavoured ciders, and order a Rekordelig mango and raspberry.


The menu focusses mainly on burgers and pizzas (maybe a reflection of its mainly younger clientele?), as well as a couple of specials each day. We both choose reindeer stew. It comes served with creamed potatoes and lingonberries, and is absolutely delicious. Sorry, Rudolph.

Those little red things are NOT baby red noses, but lingonberries

There are stuffed bears everywhere in this town

After another drink, we retire to the room for an early night. It's been a long and tiring day, we've been up since 03:15, and while travel isn't physically tiring as such, I find the queueing, security checks, and general airport bureaucracy wearing.

Posted by Grete Howard 10:33 Archived in Svalbard Tagged oslo flight airport dinner alcohol sas passport luggage svalbard longyearbyen heathrow cider wheelchair polar_bear hurtigruten airport_security radisson big_bertha premier_inn check_in gardemoen special_assistance thyme_restaurant passport_control bag_drop sas_plus palaver disabled_passenger in_flight_meal passport_stamp disembarkation flybussen radisson_blu radisson_blu_polar_hotel stuffed_polar_bear twin_bewds paprika_crisps rekorderlig vinmonopol ration_card reindeer_stew lingonberries airport_bureaucracy Comments (4)

Bristol - London Heathrow - Buenos Aires

...and we're off!

View High Altitude Landscapes Tour - Bolivia, Chile & Argentina 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

When we booked this trip, we were unaware of the fact that today is the Coronation of King Charles III. Quite how it will affect our travel plans – if at all – is uncertain. The strike by 1,400 security staff at Heathrow, however, may make much more of an impact on the smooth running of our day. Ironically, it is only Terminal 5 that is affected – which means British Airways, and us.


With all that, we leave extra early for the journey up to Heathrow, which is just as well, as according to the overhead gantry signs, there has been an accident, and the slip road to the M25 is closed. We come off the motorway at the previous exit, which – according to the Sat Nav – only adds an additional 7 minutes to the journey.


Heathrow Airport

While David sorts out for the Valet Parking company to pick our car up from the Short Term Car Park, I ring for a wheelchair to pick me up from there rather than walk into the terminal myself. Although my knee is much better than it was, that, and my arthritis means I struggle to walk long distances, and even more so, stand still for extended periods of time. Heathrow being such a huge airport means that the schlep to the gate can be as much as a mile at times, and if Terminal 5 is going to be as busy as the media suggests, with long, slow queues, I would really struggle.

The wheelchair and driver arrive, and he pushes me to an area dedicated to Special Assistance Check In. There is no queue whatsoever, and we arrive directly at the desk. Still feeling a little paranoid after the drawn-our palaver with booking the spare seat, I mention it to the agent as we check in. She confirms it is all OK and the middle seat has indeed been reserved for us. Phew. We’d already printed our boarding cards before leaving home, so it is just a case of dropping off the luggage, and we are on our way.


The wheelchair driver pushes me into a Special Assistance Holding Area, from which we carefully conduct a daring escape to the nearby Pilots Bar and Kitchen for lunch and a pre-flight drink. David chooses a chicken and chorizo pizza, while I select a decadent smoked salmon tartine.


We make it back to the Holding Area in plenty of time before we are reported missing.

At the allotted time, a small army of pushers (wheelchairs, not drugs) arrives to take passengers to the flight. I am allocated a small slip of a girl who really struggles to navigate some of the inclines with my heavy frame in the chair.

Flight BA 145

As soon as I sit down in seat 23K, I am eternally grateful that we persevered with booking that middle seat (see the story here), as my legroom is partially blocked by a metal box.


As soon as we are airborne, the lady in front of me reclines her seat – which she is perfectly entitled to, of course, but it does further restrict my legroom. She struggles to be able to raise it again when the food arrives – it takes three of us: the air stewardess and the passenger pulling on the seat and pressing the button, with me pushing from behind. Finally, it goes back to an upright position. The person in the row in front of David doesn’t even bother to try.


The dinner consists of two choices: beef or vegetarian. I choose vegetarian, which is a delicious mushroom stroganoff with rice. It seems that I chose well, as David says that his beef dish is dull and tasteless. I give him my apple crumble to compensate. We both make the mistake of thinking the small reddish dish is some sort of cake or fruit mixture, but it turns out to be a beetroot salad. Oops.

From then on I sleep on and off – I can’t say I am all that comfortable, but I guess it is better than being squeezed in as I would have been without the spare seat. At least I can keep shifting position. I take painkillers for my aching back, and feel a little better.


Shortly before landing, we are served a “traditional British Breakfast” of sorts.


I have to give kudos to British Airways for using much more eco-friendly wooden (bamboo?) cutlery than the usual plastic you get on other airlines.


Without warning, David’s phone goes crazy, emitting a piercing high pitch tone, and it looks like it is trying to reset itself to factory settings. Oh dear, I hope he doesn’t lose all the information he has on there, that would be a bit of a disaster.

As we near the South American coast, the sun starts to rise, casting a gentle light on the wing of the plane.


I am intrigued and rather taken with the automated window blind – at the touch of this button (situated below the window), the glass takes on a darker shade. For a gadget lover like myself, this is a new toy!


The rest of the flight is uninteresting, and I am disappointed to see the number of passengers who do not raise their seat-backs for landing, and that the crew checking the cabin as the captain starts his descent, do not – or choose not to – notice.

Buenos Aires Ezeiza Airport

There is a very nice man waiting for me at the gate with a wheelchair to take me to the taxi rank, where we catch a cab to a hotel near Aeroparque, the other, smaller airport in the city, where we have a connecting flight later this evening, to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia.

Hotel Intersur Recoleta

At the hotel, there is a bit of a queue to check in, with just one person behind the desk. The room, when we get to it, is very nice, but it does seem to be a bit of a rip-off at £130 for a day room for just a few hours. Our flight from London arrived here at 08:20, and our next departure is not until 00:30, leaving us with a 16-hour layover, hence why we chose to book a day room.


Our first task when we get settled in, is to check in for this evening’s flight with Aerolinas Argentinas. Before leaving the UK, we selected seats 21 C and D on this flight, but when we go to check in, we find we have been moved to 3 C and D as a result of requesting Special Assistance (they keep the first row after business class for people who are disabled, old, pregnant or just need a little extra help).

The £130 for the room does include breakfast (I would bloody well hope so), so we make sure we get our money’s worth before trying to catch up on some sleep.

Our plan was to sleep for a while, then get a decent dinner before making our way to the airport. What we forgot to take into consideration, is that Argentinians eat dinner very late, and the restaurant doesn’t even open until 19:00. When we arrived at the hotel, we asked them to arrange a transfer to the airport, and they suggested 19:30, leaving us plenty of time, as there is an important football match on here in Buenos Aires tonight, and the stadium is located between the hotel and the airport.

With the restaurant closed, we head to the hotel café, where we are told that it is not just that the restaurant doesn’t open until later, the kitchen is in fact closed until 19:00. They can, however, make us a cheese and ham sandwich. I guess that will have to do.


And very nice it is too.

After having to vacate the room at 18:00 (making the £130 cost of the day room even less appealing), we spend the next 1½ hours hanging around in the lobby of the hotel, where we can hear the aforementioned football fans quite clearly.


There is a mezzanine floor above the lobby, with the most amazing chandelier spanning two floors.



The taxi arrives, and the driver is listening to the match on the radio. It is all going well for his team, Boca Juniors, until 3 seconds into extra time when Plate River scores, giving them a 1-0 lead. I have never heard a grown man wail to such an extent, alternating between banging the steering wheel and throwing his arms in the air with loud and pained exclamations of “nooooooo” and “¿por que”. The man is inconsolable! It would be funny if it wasn’t for the fact that he obviously takes football extremely seriously. I guess this is not the time to say “It’s only a game”?

The taxi pulls up outside the Departures, and I ask the parking attendant where I can find a wheelchair. She kindly phones ahead and soon a young man turns up with my carriage. He pushes me to the Special Assistance check-in, although technically there is no need to ‘jump the queue’ in that way, as there is not a single person in line for any of the counters.

From there we continue to the usual holding area, where I am given a choice: would I prefer to wait in the small, dull, holding area, or, if I prefer, they can push me to the bar, and pick me up from there at 21:30 for boarding. You can see from the photos below which option I go for!


Two glasses of Malbec later, I walk the short distance back to the Holding Area, where, as promised, I am picked up at the allocated time and wheeled throw immigration and security (very smooth and hassle-free) to the gate to wait for boarding.



David looks a trifle fed up at this stage

When boarding commences, the wheelchair driver takes me off in the completely opposite direction to the gate. I try to protest, but he appears not to speak any English, and my Spanish is nowhere near good enough. We take the lift down to the ground floor, and exit the building, making our way across the tarmac towards the waiting plane.

Despite stating that I am able to walk stairs and only need assistance to and from the gate, I am being taken up to the plane in the catering lift. What fun!


The only problem is, we arrive at the rear of the plane, and our seats are at the front. The steward phones through to the crew at the front entrance, who stops any more passengers boarding, so that we can make our way down the aisle to our seats in row 4. This row is reserved for disabled passengers and those who require special assistance (pregnant ladies, the elderly and infirm). I wish all airlines would do this – take note British Airways! There is plenty of legroom here, as it is the first row after business class.


As the air stewardess is making the announcements for take-off, a kid nearby is playing a noisy game on his phone, someone else is talking loudly on their mobile, and a third phone rings. So much for switching off your devices!

It’s a relatively short flight (three hours and five minutes), and we receive a surprisingly fresh crustless cheese and ham sandwich during that time, as well as a drink and a cereal bar.

We encounter some serious turbulence, making for an ‘interesting’ and bumpy ride.

Look out for our arrival in Bolivia in the next installment.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for making this dream come true.


Posted by Grete Howard 20:47 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged taxi flight airport sunrise breakfast phone argentina security buenos_aires accident south_america luggage heathrow mobile boca_juniors mobile_phone wheelchair strike malbec british_airways coronation turbulence undiscovered_destinations legroom check_in cell_phone special_assistance comfort_seat king_charles_iii king_charles_coronation terminal_5 boaring_card window_blindezeiza ezeiza_airport aeroparque aerolinas_argentinas intersur_recoleta football_match seat_pitch Comments (3)

Bristol - London - Riyadh

The start of another adventure

View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.


As often happens with our trips, as soon as we mention where we are going – this time Saudi Arabia – we find the other person's eyes widening, their whole face turning into a huge question mark, and their mouth uttering “Really? Why? Is that safe?”

Sigh. Why should it not be safe?

Too many people seem to rely on the gutter press to form their opinions of a country, and confuse political headlines with everyday life for citizens and visitors.

As for why we want to go, it all started with an article in the travel magazine Wanderlust about the historical site Al Ula. I was captivated by the photographs and intrigued by the little-known historical sights. Two days later I phoned up Undiscovered Destinations to book a private trip for just the two of us to KSA, following the same itinerary as their group tour.


Saudi Arabia only opened its doors to regular tourists in 2019 (up until then, visas were generally just issued to religious visitors and workers), with their long-term plan to be in the top ten tourist destinations in the world by 2030.

Obtaining a tourist visa was remarkably quick in a smooth and easy online process. David's visa landed in the email inbox before we had even finished applying for mine, which arrived a few minutes later. That has to be some sort of record! I have since been told that the approval system is mostly carried out via automated bots that look for certain 'correct' answers, and then a team of workers are available to give the final authorisation. It is not a cheap service, however, at £123 each.


Are they ready for an influx of large numbers of foreign visitors? Do they have enough to offer curious travellers? Follow my blog to read about my experiences and opinions.

Thursday 13th October 2022

With an early start tomorrow morning, we figure we are better off staying in a hotel near the airport, rather than leaving home at some unearthly hour of the morning, so we travel up to Premier Inn this afternoon. We like Premier Inns, they are clean, reliable and reasonably priced. We have stayed at this particular one before, so we know what to expect.

After checking in, to what we discover is a large family room with one double and two single beds, we wander down to the restaurant for a drink before dinner, enjoying our last drop of alcohol for the next two weeks (KSA is a dry country).

One of the other things we like about Premier Inns is that they nearly always have a restaurant or pub attached, which – like the hotels – are usually very dependable. Premier Inns are part of the Whitbread Group and have a variety of different restaurant brands too. Here at Bath Road, there is an enormous atrium, part of which houses the Thyme restaurant. Their restaurants are usually as dependable as their hotels, and while it is not the sort of place I would go for a celebratory meal, it is certainly good enough for an overnight stay. Although indoors, the atrium gives the restaurant a nice open and airy feel to it. We are able to sit 'outside' in the atrium part, which is nice. The menu features classic British pub food, and I choose grilled salmon with chips, whereas David has grilled chicken with vegetables. We share the chips and vegetables.

Friday 14th October 2022

After an interrupted sleep, I drag myself out of bed at 5:30. We are too early to take advantage of the legendary Premier Inn breakfast, so drive directly to Terminal four at Heathrow. In the period between our flight tickets being issued and us travelling, Saudia Airlines moved their operations from Terminal 2 to Terminal 4, something that the ticket agents omitted to inform us of. Thankfully we do check these things, although there was conflicting information available online too. In the end, I relied on the Heathrow phone app, and David got his information from the Saudia app.

Valet Parking
We nearly always book valet parking these days, where a driver from the parking company meets us at the short-term car park, collects our car and keys from us, and takes the car off-site for parking while we are away. They then deliver the car to the same place ready for us to get in and drive off on our return. It is so much nicer than having to take a shared bus from a long-term off-airport car park to the airport and the reverse when arriving back. To us it is worth the extra cost.

Special Assistance
Because of a knee injury which has plagued me all through the summer, I booked a wheelchair through Saudia Airlines and headed directly to the Special Assistance counter before check-in at the terminal, conveniently situated just inside the door. While I am capable of walking short distances, I am unable to stand for any period of time, and walking longer distances causes me a lot of pain.

The special assistance kiosk is full of wheelchairs, but no other waiting passengers. There are two members of staff there, and I approach the lady at the counter, explaining that I have booked a chair. She asks which airline we are travelling with and whether we have checked in yet (which we have not). “You need to check in first and come back here” she explains. I point out to her that if I had been able to walk all the way down to the other end of the concourse to the check-in desk and back again, I wouldn't have needed to book a wheelchair. She sighs and reluctantly asks her colleague to push me down to the Saudia desk.

Once she has brought me back to the Special Assistance holding area again, she suggests it would be better for David to push me from there on. This is unfortunately typical of the lack of service we have found at Heathrow for less-able customers.

Unsurprisingly for such an early start, there is no queue at security, but they are really quite thorough this morning (fresh on shift, I am guessing), and ask me to take my camera out of the bag, something that I can't remember being asked at Heathrow before. David gets the full treatment, having to remove his shoes and walk through the scanner a couple of extra times, as well as being patted down by hand and with swabs.

Having left the hotel too early to take advantage of their excellent breakfast, we head to the Prince of Wales pub in the terminal. I'd checked out the options before leaving home and found that the pub had more options and better prices for breakfast than the other restaurant here.

One of the reasons I chose the Prince of Wales for this morning's meal, is that the menu features my favourite breakfast dish – Eggs Royale: toasted English muffin with smoked salmon, poached egg and Hollandaise sauce. David, predictably, has the full English breakfast.


Unfortunately, as is often the case, expectation and reality don't quite match this morning; and I am rather disappointed in the ridiculously meagre amount of salmon. With its lacklustre presentation, the dish does not warrant the £9.35 price tag.


Saudia Airlines
One of the benefits of travelling in a wheelchair is that you do get to board the aircraft before the other passengers. We have aisle and middle seats in the centre section of their 3-3-3 configuration. Thankfully the plane is not full this morning, which means we are able to spread out and have the whole row of three seats to ourselves, making for a much more comfortable flight.

Soon after the crew start the meal service, we experience turbulence, and they have to stop serving and take the trolleys back to the galley for safety reasons. This happens several times in a row, and some passengers are getting impatient, aggressively pressing the call button and demanding their food NOW! The interrupted service also creates some confusion as to who has already been served their main meals; resulting in the ice cream dessert being separately distributed while some people are still eating their main meal, and for others (like David), it arrives before he has even received his other tray.

I have to say the ice cream is a very welcome addition to the menu, however, and it is one of my favourite brands, too.


Once the meal service is over, I manage to grab some semi-decent sleep before we land in Riyadh after a 5.5-hour flight.

King Khalid International Airport
A wheelchair is waiting for me as we exit the plane, and I am taken through corridors and tunnels of the modern airport, which bears no resemblance to the scruffy underbelly of Heathrow that I was previously taken through on arrival there. Here the walls are covered in colourful tiles and everything is looking gleaming, clean and pretty.

Our visas are obviously already on the system, as we are not asked for the paper copies we have printed out. We are, however, required to submit fingerprints, but the scanner for this is seriously unreliable. After several unsuccessful attempts, the official gives me some hand sanitiser to use and tells me to try again. Eventually, it accepts my fingerprint, and my passport is stamped. I'm in!

Immediately after passport control, our hand luggage goes through an X-ray before we get to the luggage carousel. I can see David's case on the belt, and the porter who has been pushing the wheelchair with me in it, runs off to retrieve it before David is even through passport control! Mine arrives very much later, as one of the very last pieces of luggage to come off the plane. I guess someone's bag has to be the last.

As we exit through the very unobtrusive customs hall, I can see a smart young man in a dark suit and immaculate white shirt carrying a placard with our name on it. Such a reassuring sight when you arrive in a foreign country. He goes off to collect the car – a massive 6-seater SUV (GMC Yukon XL) - and pulls up right outside the exit door to pick us up. The car is so high that I struggle to get in, but is very comfortable. The driver, who introduces himself as Bacha, moves the front passenger seat forward so that I have plenty of legroom in the back. The car is spacious, clean, and very comfortable.

During our journey from the airport to the hotel, George, the local agent that Undiscovered Destinations use here in KSA, rings to welcome us to the country and to inform us that we will be picked up at 16:00 tomorrow for our booked excursion.

My first impressions of Riyadh are a city of bright lights, fabulous modern architecture, wide avenues, and definitely not a walking city! We see very few pedestrians about anywhere, just a few people milling around by the market.

Hotel Centro
As Bacha pulls up outside this posh-looking modern hotel with its inviting facade, I wonder if there has been a change of plan. Our original documents had us down to stay here, but the latest version of our itinerary suggests that we are booked into the Gloria Inn instead.

The friendly and chatty receptionist confirms my suspicions, as he can find no record of our booking. Bacha insists that this is where we are staying, and shows us the instructions he has received on his phone, which quite clearly state Hotel Centro. While he phones George, I look up the confirmation I received from Undiscovered Destinations. Bacha returns and explains that it was an 'office mistake', and that we are indeed staying at Gloria Inn. Oh good, we all agree now. Hopefully, Gloria Inn will be aware of us too. With a cheery “maybe next time” to the helpful receptionist, we leave Centro Hotel and get back in the car while Bacha googles how to get to Gloria Inn from here. “Just another 20 minutes” he informs us as we head off into the bright lights of Riyadh again.

Gloria Inn
After the more upmarket Centro Hotel, Gloria Inn looks a little shabby. Several of the bulbs in the name sign on the front of the hotel are missing, and the side entrance looks disappointingly uninviting.

The welcome more than makes up for it, though, with the receptionist greeting us from behind a huge smile, and our room key ready and waiting on the desk. Phew, that's a relief!

After the usual formalities including showing our passports and visas, we say goodbye to Bacha as the porter takes our luggage – and us – to our room. The initial anticlimax I felt when we arrived here, is soon replaced with delight: the room is huge, with a nice seating area and a large double bed.


Room Service
When we checked in, the receptionist explained that the hotel restaurant is only open for breakfast, but we can order dinner from a room service menu to be delivered to the room, which is what we do.


The porter arrives with a large tray of food, and a credit card machine for us to pay for it. We both have spicy chicken sandwiches with chips and a Diet Coke. While the chicken is anything but spicy, it has a crispy coating and the bread roll is fresh.


Just after we've finished the meal, the room phone rings. The person the other end introduces himself as Ali, explaining that he will be our guide for the duration of our stay here in Riyadh. He suggests that 16:00 is way too late to leave from the city tomorrow, so he will pick us up at 13:00 instead. That sounds a much better plan to me.

After a long and tiring day, we sneak into bed early to get some rest for an exciting day tomorrow. Welcome to Saudi Arabia, and THANK YOU to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip for us.


Posted by Grete Howard 21:51 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged airport breakfast security visa heathrow ice_cream immigration arrival wheelchair customs riyadh middle_east saudi_arabia ksa undiscovered_destinations visa_application premier_inn valet_parking tourist_visa saudia special_assistance room_service whitbread thyme_restaurant eggs_royale saudia_airlines king_khalid_international_airpo hotel_centro gloria_inn Comments (5)

São Paulo - London - Home

The long journey home

View Pantanal and Amazon 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

No alarm this morning as we are not leaving until lunchtime – Yay! The breakfast buffet has some very nice dishes, including a chocolate mousse! Yum.

After completing the packing, we wander down to reception, and sit in the bar, waiting for the restaurant to open, when our transfer driver turns up one hour and ten minutes early. The porter hasn't even had the time to bring our luggage down yet! It makes no difference to us, we can spend some extra time in the LATAM VIP Lounge instead of paying for lunch here in the hotel.

The driver goes well beyond his duty and rushes around trying to find us a wheelchair when we arrive at the airport. We tip him well. The porter, Gulmar, is very talkative, but neither of us speaks the other one's language. I can make out that his claim to fame is that he once pushed Pelé around in a wheelchair.

This lounge is considerably nicer than the BA lounge in Heathrow, so we make ourselves comfortable, grab a few snacks and a drink from the bar and wait.


Is it ever OK to place your feet on the table where people might want to put their food and drinks? Not in my book, for sure!


The toilets are like nothing I have ever seen before. They are not cubicles, they are proper rooms, with a floor-to-ceiling door. Each stall is sterilised between every use, with a paper ribbon across the toilet seat and the toilet paper folded to a point at the end to indicate it has been cleaned. One wall has a marble shelf with a basin set in it, and mirrors above. The opposite wall has floor-to-ceiling mirrors. It's like a “House of Mirrors” at a fairground, and I can see dozens of me at the same time. Should I want to, that is.


British Airways Business Class

Gulmar returns and takes me straight to the gate, where I am first to board. Barry, the purser greets me by name and shows me to my seat without me having to show my ticket. As we are getting settled, Barry returns: “Mrs Howard, when we are airborne, would you like me to bring you an aperitif before dinner?” “Will you be dining with us this evening?” “What would you like for your main course?” “Would you like still or sparkling water with that?” “And how about some wine...”

Cranberry Blush cocktail: vodka, orange, cranberry, and ginger ale


The Quinoa Tabbouleh starter with feta cheese, roasted aubergine, and pesto sauce is surprisingly creamy and very good.

The fabulous Tenderloin of beef has a sundried tomato and herb crust and is served with a bacon demi-glace, potato au gratin, roasted tomato, sautéed mushrooms, and spinach.

There are three different types of bread that are baked together, although the butter is disappointingly hard.

The passion fruit and mango mousse with a chocolate brownie is delicious, and the cheese is lovely.

As a result of waiting for connecting passengers, we are 40 minutes late leaving.


I struggle to sleep as my knee seems to hurt whichever position I am in, so I play “Who wants to be a Millionaire on the games console, over and over again until I finally win the $1,000,000. If only it was real money!

Breakfast is pretty awful – the bacon is so tough I can't cut it, the eggs are stewed, and the so-called sausage is totally tasteless. I eat the yogurt and pastries. When I mention it to 'my friend' Barry, he agrees that it does not look as good as it normally does.

Coming in to land at Heathrow, we fly over the centre of London – I always enjoy this approach route.


Once we have landed, I am told to wait in my seat until everyone has got off. Oh, the difference between how they treat Special Assistance passengers in the UK to Brazil!

I am eventually pushed in a wheelchair to the end of the corridor, where we are squashed into a sardine-like vehicle at least two inches shorter than my legs. My knees are pushed right up against a glass partition, and we have to wait until the driver has collected three other passengers.

We travel in the underbelly of Heathrow, a part of the airport I have never seen before and have no wish to experience again. Long, bleak tunnels, devoid of life, like something out of a horror movie.

The vehicle takes us through passport control, where the mother and daughter behind in the truck are questioned at length about the fact that they have both Italian and Argentine passports.

When we arrive at the luggage carousels, I am unceremoniously dropped at the Special Assistance holding area with the words: “you might prefer to walk from here if you can as there are a dozen or more people in front of you waiting for a wheelchair”.

Welcome to Britain!

Posted by Grete Howard 11:33 Archived in Brazil Tagged vip south_america sao_paulo heathrow marriott ba wheelchair cocktail british_airways business_class undiscovered_destinations special_assistance latam vip_lounge posh_toilets Comments (0)

Bristol - Heathrow - BA Club Class Flight

Brazil here we come! After two cancellations, our much-anticipated Brazil adventure is finally here.

View Pantanal and Amazon 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.


To cut a long story short, back in early 2020, we booked a trip to Brazil in September that year, to replace a much more complicated multi-country tour of South East Asia, which was deemed too complicated to pull off during the Pandemic. Of course, Covid didn't disappear as hoped, so the Brazil trip was cancelled.

In 2021, Brazil was closed to foreign visitors as a result of the pandemic, so again the trip was cancelled – or rather postponed.

This year (2022), with vaccines and boosters in place, things seemed so much more positive, so we re-resuscitated the plans to visit Brazil. Follow along with us to see how this panned out.

April 2022
So far so good. The only snag is that we need to show negative Covid tests on entry to Brazil. That shouldn't be too much of a problem.

May 2022
The negative test requirement has now been lifted, so that is one less thing to worry about.

We do, however, have to show our proof of vaccination. British Airways suggest that we use an app called Verifly, where we can upload our certificates and it should link directly to the BA site. I love it! So easy! I do, however, pack a paper copy, just in case.


June 11th 2022
Checking the British Airways website, it transpires that our flight leaves from Terminal Three, not Terminal Five as stated on our tickets.

No problem, we'll just amend our parking arrangements. Purple Parking claim that it is a busy period, and they need extra payment to move it to T3. £180. That is not so much of a problem, the original cost was £163. No, they want an EXTRA £180, in ADDITION TO the amount already paid. Sod that!

We look at our options. We could continue to park at T5 and take the 20-minute underground train from T5 to T3, although that doesn't seem like much fun when we have tried to minimise hassle by booking the 'meet and greet' service.

Looking around online, we find some alternative arrangements, using a company called Airside Meet and Greet. And they are cheaper than the original company, at £146

Shame on you Purple Parking! We have used them a number of times previously, and have mostly received good service. To their credit, they did refund the T5 parking.

Checking out the review for Airside Meet and Greet on Trust Pilot (AFTER booking, not the wisest move, but we were so excited to find something at a good price) we discover a host of bad reviews. Oh dear. Oh well, time will tell.

24th June 2022 Bristol - Heathrow

During our trip to Scotland last month, I injured myself while trekking through the forest at midnight on my way back from a pine marten hide, tearing a ligament in my left knee, and damaging the ligament in the other too. This has resulted in me struggling to walk – or rather hobble – using a stick for support.

We look for wheelchair assistance on the long walk from the car park to the correct area at the airport, but find nothing. The lady at the Special Assistance Check In Desk, tries to phone for wheelchair assistance, but no-one answers the phone. She keeps trying periodically as she checks us in.

After much typing and frowning, she tells me that my Norwegian passport has flagged up the need for a visa to visit Brazil. Groan. Having checked the Brazilian Embassy website earlier this morning, I know this to be untrue. Eventually, and reluctantly, she takes my word for it and checks us in.

After one last attempt at contacting the wheelchair special assistance counter, she suggests we walk to the desk upstairs. It's another long walk and my knee is really struggling now. The queue at the desk snakes around the corner and down the wall, so we decide to head for the Fast Track security line.

Another long queue. After 45 minutes (if that is FAST track, I dread to think what the regular security queue is like!), we finally reach the conveyor belts. The American girl in front of me has been so busy chatting, that she hasn't even put her liquids in a clear plastic bag at this stage, and holds up the queue as she scrambles through her hand luggage to find various bottles and potions to go in the one bag provided. Groan. Has the pandemic caused people to completely forget airport etiquette?

We head for the Special Assistance counter, where there is another long queue, of course. They suggest I walk up to the BA Lounge. Another long walk. I work out that I have probably walked the best part of a mile by now, and doesn't my knee know it!

The girl on the desk at the lounge sorts out a wheelchair to be delivered for me. Finally!

BA Club Class Lounge
Not having been abroad for the last two years (something that has not happened since we married in 1977), we decided to treat ourselves to Business Class on the transatlantic flights, which means we have the use of BA's Club Lounge at Heathrow.

My first impression is a little disappointing, with the dining area resembling more of a school canteen than a VIP lounge. We have some snacks and a couple of drinks while waiting for the wheelchair to turn up.






Special Assistance
Finally, a very nice young man arrives with a wheelchair for me and pushes me to a waiting buggy which takes me to the gate, where I am left to find my own way down to the plane.

In the buggy

Thankfully I am able to bypass the long queue at the gate for priority boarding.

British Airways Club World
The arrival on board the plane makes up for the lack of service at the airport: they couldn't be more welcoming and service-minded as I am shown to my seat and my luggage stowed for me.


The seats are nice and wide, very comfortable and the way they are positioned, offer great privacy.

From the BA website


As soon as we are seated, we are offered a glass of champagne.


Apart from when eating and drinking, masks are compulsory on board the plane; it is dependent on the rules at the destination, and Brazil still has a mask mandate on flights.


As soon as we are airborne, the steward approaches me and asks: “Mrs Howard, would you like a drink from the bar this evening?” What a difference from the service in economy – I could get used to this!

Bacardi and Coke served in proper cut glass, with complimentary nuts

It is so nice to be able to remove the mask to drink, that I have another Bacardi and Coke for that very reason! We have become quite used to being mask-free in the UK, and I feel rather claustrophobic wearing one.

Once again the steward arrives asking what I would like to order for dinner. It's a difficult choice, with the options being Braised beef cheeks, sweetcorn gnocchi and vegetables, or chicken, leek, and mushroom pie. I opt for the pie.


Starter of roasted cauliflower with red pepper dip and chimmichurri. The dish is very tasty, but I do not like my food icy cold straight out of the fridge, which this is.

The pie is absolutely delicious (David tells me the beef cheeks were wonderful too), and the trio of different breads baked together makes a great accompaniment (despite the rock-hard butter). Chocolate mousse and a cheese board containing Mature Cheddar, Red Leicester, and a fig relish complete the meal. I love the way the food is brought to you on individual trays complete with white cloth and proper metal cutlery.

The lights are dimmed and we settle down to sleep. While obviously not as good as a proper bed, the flat-bed seats sure beat the (non) comfort of economy class.


Posted by Grete Howard 09:41 Archived in Brazil Tagged flight heathrow wheelchair business_class special_assistance ba_club_world clubworld turn_left storn_ligament Comments (2)

Arusha - Dar es Salaam - London - Bristol

Heading home

View Baby Boomers - Tanzania 2020 on Grete Howard's travel map.

With a free morning before our flight home, we were hoping for some decent bird watching in the grounds on Kia Lodge. There are, however, surprisingly and disappointingly, few birdies this morning.

House Sparrow


Some sort of butterfly or moth - I have been unable to identify it

Dwarf Yellow Headed Gecko

The Fork Tailed Drongo makes it the 158th trip tick (number of different species we've seen on this trip), of which 19 are lifers (new species to us).

Some of our lifers from the trip

We spend some time chatting to a Dutch lady by the swimming pool, chilling in the room, and having lunch, before it is time to leave. The transfer to the airport is by open sided safari vehicle!

We fly via Dar es Salaam, and have a great view of Tanzania's former capital from the air.


Soon the sun is going down and we sit back to sleep our way to Doha and onward to London Heathrow.



The only thing I worry about when we get to Heathrow, is that Big Bertha (my Canon 600mm lens, which, because of its size, I had to check into the hold) arrives in one piece. She does, and all is well in the Howard Household yet again. Now all I have to do is to edit the 55,000 photos I took. Footnote: it took me six months to finish!

Big Bertha in her solid housing.

The safari has been amazing from start to finish, with super accommodation, fantastic company, and some great bird and animal sightings. Thank you again Tillya and Halima of Calabash Adventures, and of course, the wonderful Malisa, without whom the trip would not have been what it was. Love you guys ♥


Posted by Grete Howard 14:54 Archived in Tanzania Tagged sunset flight airport tanzania birding butterfly gecko sparrow heathrow millipede drongo dar_es_salaam big_bertha calabash_adventures kilimanjaro_airport kia_lodge Comments (1)

Bristol - Arusha

Heading back to our beloved Tanzania

View Baby Boomers - Tanzania 2020 on Grete Howard's travel map.

For a number of years we have talked about visiting Tanzania during the 'Baby Season', ie. the time of year when the wildebeest and zebra return to their place of birth to to continue the circle of life with a new generation of babies.

Today we set out on the journey to make this happen.

Packing light is not an option when you are a photographer, and we are also taking a number of gifts for our Tanzanian 'family' this time. With my 600mm f/4 lens, known as Big Bertha, travelling in its own flight case, we are dangerously near the 60kg checked in luggage limit for the two of us.


Big Bertha has to be sent as Oversized Luggage, as does the soft bag with gifts, and we reluctantly wave them goodbye at the special desk at Heathrow, and watch them being wheeled off into the belly of the airport. “Take good care of my baby now!”



Once we are rid of the checked in luggage, we proceed through immigration and go to The Commission pub to grab something to eat.

Salmon with curried cauliflower

Fish finger toasted sandwich

Rekorderlig Strawberry and Lime

I didn't quite manage Dry January, it's another three hours to go. Cheers!

Qatar Airways

Thankfully the plane for the first leg of the journey (London to Doha) is not full, and we are able to spread out a little with three seats for the two of us.


There is a screaming child behind us, constantly screeching, crying and whining. While David finds it super-annoying, after years of working in a nightclub I can mostly tune out unwanted noise. I put my cervical collar on and drift off to sleep.



The city looks quite spectacular as we approach the landing, all lit up in the early morning. I try to take some photos through the aircraft window, but fail miserably.

To reach the terminal building, we have a long bus journey following a slow luggage truck around the aiport apron. One we get inside, we are a little dismayed to find our connecting flight to Tanzania is not showing on the Departures Board.


We follow everyone else downstairs to the departures hall anyway, where an official scans our boarding cards and tells us the gate number. It is a long way to reach the other terminal, and involves a train journey. It seems everyone in the entire airport are right here right now, and I find it a little uncomfortable when there is a massive crush for the down escalator.


Like we did on the first flight, we have plenty of space on the aircraft for the next leg too, with two seats each. By the time we take off from Doha, it is daylight, and we have a great view of the city below.


The flight is reasonably uneventful, and although I do manage to grab some sleep, it is very disturbed sleep as a result of taking Lariam this morning (antimalarial prophylaxis which causes dreadful nightmares), restless legs and the overwhelmingly bad BO wafting from the seat in front.


Approaching Kilimanjaro Airport, we initially fly over the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which looks surprisingly dry, with clearly defined animal paths. Later we see cultivated areas, with green patterned fields; followed by the urban areas of Arusha. I cannot believe how much more sprawling the city has become since the fist time we visited in 2007.

Kilimanjaro Airport

After landing at Kilimanjaro, the international airport servicing Arusha and the northern safari circuit, we have to wait ages for the aircraft steps to arrive. The flight goes on to Dar es Salaam, and a number of passengers are continuing rather than de-planing here. A very inconsiderate such lady passenger decides that re-arranging her luggage is much more important than letting the other travellers off the plane, and spends ages blocking the aisle. Eventually she reluctantly steps aside, while still leaving her trolley bag in the gangway for us to step over. Some people should not be allowed to fly!


Before we are allowed into the terminal building, we all have to line up outside and disinfect our hands.

There is a long queue for Visa on Arrival, and as we walk directly up to the immigration counter we are extremely grateful that we applied for ours before we left home.

Both Malisa (our driver-guide) and Tillya (the owner of Calabash Adventures, the company who arranged our safari) are there to greet us with enormous hugs! It feels like coming home to family!

Soon after we leave the airport, Malisa stops to get a small treat out of the car fridge for David – a Savanna Cider, David's favourite!


Gran Melia Hotel

We see the rear side of the hotel from a distance, and comment on how lovely the balconies look. Expecting to be driving to the other side of Arusha to check in to the A1 hotel (a modern but somewhat soul-less establishment), we are delighted to be staying here instead. Despite being a large hotel, the Gran Melia is extremely nice and a completely different class to the A1. We are greeted with the customary welcome drink before checking in to our room.


It is good to see that they are well ahead of the eco-game, using bamboo straws in their drinks





Our balcony looks out over the front of the building, and we love the plants on the roofs below, making the outlook softer, adding insulation and creating more of a green space!


We have a couple of hours before we are meeting Tillya and his wife Halima for dinner, so we take a walk around the resort.

The central atrium

Giant chess set on the patio

The lobby

The lounge

Sculpture at the entrance

The front entrance, providing a covered drop-off point for guests

Love the old car!

Ponds with mosquito-eating fish along the covered walkway from the drop-off point to the reception and lobby

The grounds are more akin to a botanical garden, with the large free-form swimming pool blending in with a natural lake and waterfalls, all connected by walkways and bridges.










Having known Tillya for 13 years, and also communicated with his wife on several occasions via email, it is great to finally meet Halima in person.


The hotel buffet is very nice, especially the dessert section, and we have a lovely evening catching up on news, hearing about Tillya's future plans and discussing politics and current affairs.

Tender beef kebabs, fried yam, a local green vegetable similar to spinach, taro crisps, chicken kebabs, prawns with sesame seeds and a spicy sauce, plus a bowl of delicious dhal

Some of the selection from the dessert buffet. Shhh, don't tell anyone, but I went back for seconds. With so many different dishes to choose from, it would be rude not to!

And so the first day (and second, technically, as we left the UK yesterday) of our latest trip comes to and end; and after 32 hours of travelling, it is a relief to get into bed.

Thank you Calabash for arranging yet another safari for us.


Posted by Grete Howard 07:51 Archived in Tanzania Tagged safari tanzania heathrow cider doha arusha big_bertha calabash_adventures ngorongoro_conservation_area kilimanjaro_airport qatar_airways savanna_cider the_commission_pub oversized_luggage malisa gran_melia_hotel psanone_supermarket tillya halima dessert_buffet Comments (5)

Bristol - London - Lisbon

A painful start

-50 °C
View São Tomé and Príncipe 2018 - the Lost Islands in the Centre of the World on Grete Howard's travel map.

“Where are you going?” I laugh at the question, not because it is stupid or even funny, but in anticipation of the reaction when I tell them “São Tomé & Principe” (pronounced something like sang tomere ee prisp, with the emphasis on the last syllable). As usual I receive a blank stare in response. “Where's that?”

It is a reaction we are familiar with, however, as we do tend to favour the path less trodden over the mass-tourism destinations, and have travelled to a good few 'unknown' places over the years. São Tomé & Principe is no exception.

A former Portuguese colony, the island nation of São Tomé and Principe can pretty much be described as being situated in the centre of the world: the closest landmass to the point where the Equator and the Meridian meet, some 200 km off the west African coast.


As with most of these virtually unknown and little visited destinations, São Tomé is not an easy place to get to. We start our journey at Heathrow for a short flight to Lisbon.

Check in

As seems to be the norm these days, we are asked to print our own luggage tags using the automated machines at the airport. I explain to the chap directing the flow of passengers that we have tickets all the way to São Tomé, but would like to collect our bags in Lisbon as we are staying overnight there. “Go and see the man on the Help Desk”.

'Help Desk' is somewhat of a misnomer: as we approach the elderly gentleman barely looks up while spitting out a brusque “You need to check in on that machine”. I try to explain “We were told to come here...” Without enquiring why, or even letting me finish the sentence, he barks: “Check in there” while pointing at the nearest machine (which incidentally is out of order). Once again I start to explain and am interrupted, but eventually he has to concede and takes our passports without another word.

By this time Mr Officious is obviously stressed at the thought of having to do some work, and types away furiously on his keyboard. I have to repeat our destination several times. He flicks through every page in my passport before asking about visas. I show him my e-visa which I thankfully applied for after checking various websites and getting completely conflicting information (even the agents in STP did not know the definitive answer, the Foreign Office website said we didn't need one, whereas the Bradt travel guide said to ignore the FO site as they were out of date and to obtain a visa prior to travel). I guess that is one of the hazards of having a Norwegian passport, not many people from Norway travel to São Tomé via London. Now extremely flustered, Mr Officious stares at the piece of paper, which is mostly in Portuguese, trying to make out the dates. He then struggles to read the flight detail on the screen and I eventually have to lean across and point to the dates and assure him that “yes, we are only travelling for a week, and yes, the dates on the visa correspond with the dates of our travel”. Still not convinced, he goes off to check with the girl on the check-in desk. More furious typing ensues when he gets back, followed by an even more frazzled look. We go over the dates again.


Next our transit in Accra is questioned (he pronounces it “ack-rah”, with the emphasis on the 'ahh' at the end, making it sound more like 'Prague' as he mostly mutters under his breath by now). “Where is your visa?” Groan. We are only there for 45 minutes, I doubt if we will even be allowed to leave the plane. He looks at the flight details on the screen again and states “It's OK, you are only in transit”.

Finally satisfied that we are fit for travel, he prints our baggage tags. Or tries to. The printer jams and he has to start all over again from the beginning. On his forehead little beads of sweat are appearing. “Chug chug chug” says the machine, then silence. With shaking hands, and his face a dark shade of crimson, he pulls out the jammed labels and tears them up. His breathing is so laboured I fear he is going to have a heart attack. “Go to the desk” he grunts, pointing to the young girl who answered his questions earlier. With great relief, both for us and him, we leave Mr Personalityless behind and make our way to the baggage drop-off desk.

Smiling sweetly, she takes our bags, checks us in, gives us our baggage tags and boarding cards and wishes us a pleasant flight. If only everything in life could be as easy as that!

Apart from being pulled aside at Security and given a pat down and swabbed for explosives, the rest of our airport experience is uneventful.

Fish and chips at the airport

Milkshake served in a miniature milk bottle

Heathrow - Lisbon

The TAP Portugal flight leaves 1½ hour late, and is thankfully not full as the legroom is minimal and comfort non-existent. We have arranged for the owner of the apartment where we are staying tonight to pick us up from the aiport in Lisbon, which she duly does. A delightful girl, with excellent English, she drives us the short distance to an unassuming, dull-looking block of flats.

Lisbon Woods House

On the second floor, the apartment is small but delightful, and has everything we need for this very short stay. As we are required to be back at the airport in six hours' time, we go straight to bed, leg one of the journey completed.



Posted by Grete Howard 03:57 Archived in Portugal Tagged flight visa lisbon heathrow tap air_portugal sao_tome check_in Comments (3)

Bristol - London - Istanbul - Muscat

Let the adventure begin

View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.


Sunday 11th February 2018

Premier Inn, Heathrow

Our second attempt at travelling to Oman (being hospitalised with pneumonia saw us cancelling this same trip last year) starts with an overnight stay in a Premier Inn at Heathrow. We do enjoy getting our holidays off to a leisurely start, especially when we have an early morning flight the following day.

At the Thyme restaurant, we enjoy a nice dinner, a few drinks and in my case, a bit of eye candy in the form of the cute Spanish waiter, Pedro.

Grete: “I am enjoying the view”
David: “You are old enough to be his grandmother”

Oh well, a girl can dream...


A nice fruity cider

David prefers the regular apple flavour

Firecracker noodles with chicken - delicious

David's chicken escalope with sweet potato fries

David looks lovingly at his liqueur coffee

Monday 12th February 2018

For some reason I never sleep well the first night away on any trip, and this one is no exception.

FlyDrive Meet and Greet

The car is covered in frost as we make our way from the hotel to the terminal building at Heathrow. We have booked a Valet Parking service, but struggle to find the right entrance to the parking area. As we pull off the main road, there are three gates leading to the car park, but only the one barrier on the far right leads to the floor we need to be on, something we realise too late. After the expensive mistake (£4 charge to get out after driving around the 2nd and 3rd floor realising we are in the wrong place), we drive around the block twice before finally locating the right entrance. Third time lucky.

The car parking people were supposed to have called us half an hour before our expected arrival time, but they didn't; and when we try to phone them, the line just goes dead. To add insult to injury, when we do finally find the attendants on the 4th floor, they have no record of our booking. This does not bode well.

Heathrow Terminal 2

We leave the car with them and check in for our flight, then head for some breakfast.

While taking my order, the chatty young waiter asks if I want to add some “beans, bacon, massage..”?

“Massage? Ooh, yes please!”

“Sausage madam, sausage”

Oh dear, you can't take me anywhere.

Scrambled egg and smoked salmon. Not a sausage (or massage) in sight

London - Istanbul

The plane carrying us on the second leg of our journey from Heathrow to Istanbul appears to have been built for midgets, as I don't even have room to put my legs straight, they have to go either side of the backrest in front.


Istanbul Airport

At the Security check in Istanbul, the guard asks me where I am going.
“Where is that?”
“You are going to Oman? On holiday?”

Istanbul airport consists of long, seemingly endless, corridors, with no information boards to indicate which gate we should be heading for to catch our connecting flight. We finally reach the food court, and as we have plenty of time here (we deliberately caught an earlier flight from London as we have missed connections a few times in the past), we grab a bite to eat and drink at the amusingly named Tickerdaze Restaurant.



Chicken fajita at the front, David's mixed fajita at the back. Very nice they are too

Istanbul - Muscat

We strike lucky on the flight from Istanbul to Oman, snagging a complete row to ourselves, meaning we can spread out with a spare seat in the middle. There is also a bit more legroom on this plane, making for a much more enjoyable flight.


Muscat Airport

First we join a long queue to purchase our visa, then for immigration. At least the line is shorter than the one for the 'pre-arranged visas', which consists mainly of migrant workers, predominantly from the Indian subcontinent. Apparently, 800,000 of the 4 million inhabitants in Oman are Indians, something that has influenced the Omani culture (especially food) much more than I realised. More about that in future blog entries.

Surprisingly, there are no questions about "how long", "where", "why" etc. when we get to the immigration counter; we sail straight through to the baggage reclaim area where our luggage is already waiting for us. It is all very civilised, and once we're through the X-ray, our driver is waiting to take us to our hotel in Muscat.

Al Falaj Hotel, Muscat

The hotel is expecting us and once we've completed the form and they've copied our passports, the porter shows us to our room. It is now 03:30, but as we are both wide awake, we break open the Duty Free rum and raid the minibar for Coke and Pringles.


Welcome to Oman.

Apologies for the poor quality photographs, all taken with my mobile phone.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:58 Archived in Oman Tagged flights oman heathrow muscat duty_free london_heathrow undiscovered_destinations turkish_airways premier_inn istanbul_airport flydrive valet_parking al_falaj_hotel captain_morgan Comments (2)

Bristol - London - Dubai - Dar es Salaam

First leg of the journey

30 °C
View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

Where do I begin? I know a lot of you have been anxiously looking forward to reading all about the challenges we faced on our trip to the Comoros, and I shall try my best to make sure this blog lives up to expectations.

So, stay tuned and follow along as we make our way to – and to a certain extent around – Comoros, also known as Cloud Coup Coup Land (explanations of this moniker to follow in the next instalment).


Flight changes
Our (potential) problems start a few weeks before we lave home, when we receive the email below from Precisionair. All our flight tickets are booked through Budgetair, using Emirates from London to Dar es Salaam via Dubai, and onwards to Moroni (Comoros) on Precisionair.

"Dear Sir/Madam
Kindly be informed that your flight from DAR to HAH on 17th Aug is cancelled and you will depart with ATC departing at 08:00hrs same day. Kindly be at the airport 2hrs before departure time with your precision airline document."

As this really does not cause us a problem, I print the email ready to show at the check-in desk at the time and file according.

Fast forward to five days before departure, when we receive a phone call from Budgetair, our flight agent, offering us a refund on the flight from Dar es Salaam to Moroni which is cancelled. It seems Precisionair didn’t inform Budgetair that they rebooked us on the Air Tanzania flight. I explain the situation and forward them the above email and all is well: they are happy and we are happy.

Five minutes later they ring back. The timing has changed. The 08:00 Air Tanzania flight is now leaving at 06:00. I have to admit that I am impressed with the service from Budgetair, they do seem to be diligent and on the ball. Little do I know…

Check in on line
48 hours to go, and it is time to check in on line for our main Emirates flight. When inputting our details returns an “Unable to process your request” message, I open an on-line chat to find out what is happening. A very nice lady called Yasmin informs me that it is because we have two different airlines on the same booking but reassures me that the flight is confirmed and that we have seat numbers allocated. I am happy with that.

The next day (the day before departure) we receive a confirmation email from Emirates with all the above information as per my conversation with Yasmin, although it seems Precisionair haven’t informed Emirates of the cancellation and re-booking of their flight either, as we are still shown on today's itinerary from Emirates as being on the (non-existing) Precisionair flight from Dar es Salaam to Moroni, not the Air Tanzania one that we have been re-booked on.

I am still not concerned, I am sure it will all be fine when we get to the check in desk in Dar es Salaam. Then we notice the details for the return journey.


According to the Emirates itinerary, we are now departing Comoros one day earlier on an Ethiopian Air flight. Where on earth did that come from? Having to travel a day early puts all sorts of spanners in the works: it means we will not just lose a day in Comoros, but we will have to rearrange the flight coming back to the main island from the smaller island for a day earlier; and we'll have to get a hotel, transfer and visa in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in order to catch our Emirates flights the following day.

Panicking ever so slightly, I contact Budgetair, first by email and later by phone to try and find out what is going on. The guy on the other end of the phone (most likely in an Indian call centre) does not appear to understand my problem, and he “will get back to me within 48 hours”. Doh! After explaining the situation for the fifth time, I can feel my irritation rising: 48 hours will be too late, we leave in less that 24! He tries to pass me off and says I should contact Precisionair or Emirates, but I strongly remind him that my contract is with Budgetair and stress the importance of this. Eventually he reluctantly promises to get back to me as soon as he can. I certainly won’t be holding my breath.

Surprisingly enough, we do not hear from Budgetair before we have to leave for the airport the following day.

Check in at Heathrow
We start our journey at Heathrow Airport, where we encounter our next challenge at the check-in desk. We have a single ticket all the way through to Comoros, but are breaking the journey for 19 hours in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania (it was the cheapest flight option and we are cheapskates), and the airline representative (or rather the system) wants to check our luggage all the way. Normally this is also what we would want, but as we have an overnight stop in Dar es Salaam, we would very much like to have access to our clothes and toiletries. The guy totally agrees with us, and eventually manages to get his supervisor to override the system.

Another spanner in the works, this one deflected, however.

Whenever we have a long-haul flight, especially an overnight one such as this one today, we like to have a decent meal at the airport before we board so that we can sleep through food service on the plane.


At Planet Restaurant I have Prawn and Chilli Pasta, which at first looks a little disappointing: I can only see a grand total of three prawns. There are, however, several more crustaceans lurking underneath the surface. As they do. The fresh pasta is nicely al dente, and the chilli carries a bit of a kick. David enjoys his fish and chips too, with a crispy coating and flaky fish.


David’s only disappointment is that they have no ‘proper’ cider, only berry.

Naturally, the next stop then has to be the bar for David to get his fix. As we are only drinking, not dining, we are not permitted to sit down at a table, but have to perch on uncomfortable, high bar stools, so we don’t linger.


Heathrow – Dubai – Dar es Salaam
The flights from London Heathrow to Dar es Salaam via Dubai go smoothly (we both sleep a lot of the time), but not totally without incident, as David manages to pour a cup of hot coffee all over his beige trousers. The crew helpfully provides him with a number of face cloths to mop it all up.

Ready for an adventure

Tanzania coastline from the air

Dar es Salaam
The Arrivals Hall at Tanzania’s biggest airport is absolute chaos. The so-called queue for immigration is just one massive throng of people, with no-one knowing what to do or where to go and several flights having arrived at the same time. Passengers with connecting flights struggle to get anywhere near the Transfer desk for the crowds, and there are no signs to advise visitors that there should be one queue for people who already have visas (us) and another for those wishing to obtain visa-on-arrival.

Eventually, after a lot of pushing, shoving and shuffling for nearly an hour in the stifling heat, we get through Passport Control to be faced with the next shambles: the luggage 'carousel'. Five deep with passengers and trolleys, we can’t get anywhere near the conveyor belt. We both hop around on tiptoe to try and spot our cases for a while, then decide to go and check the pile of luggage at the end of the belt. Sure enough, there, right in the middle of a huge mound of bags, is our luggage. With much back-straining, David manages to rescue our cases and we make it out of the terminal building, fighting our way through the traffic jam of luggage trolleys, prams with kids, cling-wrapped boxes, abandoned suitcases and people milling aimlessly around.

Although it is nice to be out in the fresh air, the temperature is no cooler. Having pre-booked an airport transfer with an included city tour on the way to the hotel, we look for someone holding a sign with our name on it. Nothing. We hang around for a while, fighting off the hoards of taxi touts and tour guides. Still nothing.

Checking tomorrow’s flights
While we wait we might as well take the opportunity to visit the Precisionair counter to check on tomorrow’s flight. I hand over the email we received from them and the girl looks at it without a word. With a dismissive wave of the hand, she points to the Air Tanzania counter and states: “Check with them”. Not surprisingly I get the same response (in reverse) from the girl at the Air Tanzania counter. At my insistence, she reluctantly saunters over to the Precisionair counter with the email and comes back stating word for word what is on the email: “Be at the airport 2hrs before departure time with your Precision Airline document.” I enquire if the tickets are definitely confirmed and am brushed off with a “Yes, yes”.

As there really isn’t much else we can do at this stage, we go and change some money and wait for our transfer. And wait. 45 minutes later and having been unable to contact the transfer company, we take a taxi directly to the hotel.

Dar es Salaam street market

Safari inspired street sculpture

The traffic through Dar es Salaam is horrendous. A new overpass is being constructed, and the police are directing the traffic. We sit in a queue, not moving an inch, for nearly 20 minutes while we watch the traffic crossing the junction from left to right and right to left. When will the police let our long line of waiting cars go? Eventually we move on.

We are so pleased to finally get to the hotel that David accidentally pays the driver in Pounds rather than US Dollars. Nice tip for the driver!

Golden Tulip Dar es Salaam City Centre
The hotel doesn’t look very welcoming from the outside. The entrance is down a dodgy looking side street and the armed security guard outside doesn’t exactly make me feel any better. The steps leading up from the road are very steep, making it difficult to haul the cases up. Eventually a porter arrives and takes over. That is better.

Reception is on the 20th floor and we travel up in a fabulous glass-sided outside lift, with great views of the city below.


On checking in, we are delighted to find that not only are they expecting us, we have been upgraded to a suite!



We have a comfortable living room, bedroom, the usual shower and toilet and a separate large double corner bath with Jacuzzi!




On the 19th floor, we also have stunning views of the city as the sun is going down and the Muezzin calls the faithful to prayer at the local Mosque.


Night Photography
After a quick shower and change (thank goodness we have our luggage!), we head for an outside seating area on the 20th floor to take some shots of Dar es Salaam at dusk.




David, always the joker, thinks it is funny to point out the cladding following the Grenfell Tower disaster.



Not wishing to explore the dodgy-looking neighbourhood, we opt for dinner in the hotel at a restaurant named “Fire” which promises to serve “hot, tasty cuisine”.

What they don’t have, however, is alcohol. This is a dry hotel.

I order a Swahili style Miskaki chicken kebab that is advertised to come with a ‘spicy tamarind sauce’. I ask to have it extra spicy.

David chooses a Red Hot Pepper Beef Fillet, medium-rare.

After some time the waiter appears, full of apologies: the kitchen has cooked David’s steak well done. Can he bring it anyway?

When the food arrives, I am pretty sure they have mixed up the sauces, as David’s steak (or rather small pieces of fillet) comes with a dark, rich, sweet sticky sauce, very much reminiscent of tamarind, whereas my sauce is red and weak without any ‘fire’ at all. I am too tired to even be bothered to question it.

My somewhat insipid chicken

David's well done steak

After dinner we slope off to bed very early. Not only did we travel all through the night last night, we are also getting up very early tomorrow morning. With high hopes of tomorrow being a much better day, we drift into a nice deep sleep.


Posted by Grete Howard 00:11 Archived in Tanzania Tagged travel flight adventure tanzania trip dubai uae flights united_arab_emirates heathrow emirates suite problems dar_es_salaam upgrade comoros air_tanzania golden_tulip spanner cloud_coup_coup_land budgetair Comments (9)

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