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Entries about special assistance

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)

Cuiabá - São Paulo - Itatiaia

Up into the hills

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

We have our earliest start yet this morning, with the alarm on for 04:30. After a room picnic of some snacks we bought on the way here yesterday, we are picked up at 05:40 for the transfer to Cuiabá Airport.

When we arrive, we ask the first worker we see inside the door – who turns out to be someone who works for a company that shrink-wraps cases – about special assistance. After previous experiences of very few people speaking English in the airports here in Brazil, David shows him a piece of paper with “I need a wheelchair for my wife” written in Portuguese (courtesy of Google Translate). Expecting him to point us in the right direction, I am very surprised when he jumps into action, runs to the other side of the building to collect a wheelchair, and commandeers a fellow worker to push me to the check-in desk. Such amazing service, but to be honest, everywhere we have been, the service has been exemplary on this trip.

Waiting in the Special Assistance area to be collected for the flight.

The flight is just over two hours, which goes quickly by the time they have served a drink and some little snacks. Before we land in São Paulo, I am asked if I can walk down stairs (as there is no tunnel up to the plane here), and despite confirming that I am perfectly capable of managing stairs, a porter arrives in the provisions lift, to the door on the opposite side of the plane to the usual exit and takes us down to the ground in the industrial lift that doubles as a disabled carriage and food delivery port. Cool!

The luggage is there by the time we arrive at the carousel, and Ricardo, our new driver-guide, is just outside. He speaks excellent English, is very knowledgable, and we hit it off straight away.

For the first couple of hours, we travel along the most important road in Brazil: the connection between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It is a smooth, fast road, the best we've seen in Brazil so far.

We stop at a service station along the road, where we have to enter through a turnstile and collect a token in the process. We can order anything we like in the food court, and it is charged against this token. At the end of the meal, we then pay for everything at the tills on the way out. An interesting concept, but it seems to work.


We order a burger each, while Ricardo chooses from the buffet, where everything is charged by weight.

Itatiaia National Park
The smooth road ends at the entrance to the park. Our luck is in, the park is free to anyone over 60. The girl at the ticket office doesn't believe us, however, so we have to show our passports. I guess that is a compliment.

Welcoming Committee
The first thing we see when we enter the park is a couple of Brown Capuchin monkeys.


Ricardo claims that the top of the viewing area is a great place for observing different birds, so I struggle up the uneven stony steps. At least there is a handrail on one side to help me.

The view from the top is great, but the birds are hiding from us.



Going down the steps is much worse than going up, and by the time I get to the bottom, my knee is very sore.

The rough track – way worse than the Transpantaneira – climbs ever upwards through the forest, until we reach the hotel.

Hotel do Ypé
Built on the side of a hill, the hotel has a very steep and winding incline to reach the parking area and reception.


We asked Undiscovered Destinations to request a room on the level, and the message certainly got through, as we are staying in what is the closest room to the restaurant and reception.

The rooms are wooden swiss-chalet style, reminiscent of a European ski resort, and feature an open fire rather than AC.

Our room with the main building behind

Reception and the shady patio

Once we have checked in and taken the luggage to the room, Ricardo shows us the most important part of the hotel: the bird-watching balcony.


I settle down with my camera for the rest of the afternoon.


Female Ruby Crowned Tanager

Red Rumped Cacique

Violet Capped Woodnymph

Chestnut Bellied Euphonia

Short Crested Flycatcher

Mr & Mrs Blue Dacnis

The male is bright blue

While the female is green

Golden Chevroned Tanager

Golden Winged Cacique

Brazilian Tanager

Magpie Tanager

Green Headed Tanager

Juvenile Ruby Crowned Tanager

Black Goggled Tanager

Velvety Black Tyrant

Red Breasted Toucan

Dusky Legged Guan

White Throated Hummingbird

Planalto Hermit

Brazilian Ruby

I reluctantly tear myself away when the light gets too low to take photos.

David wanders around the grounds and photographs me from the upper level

We go up to the dining room early in order to use the internet (there is no wifi in the room) so that David can check out all his birthday messages.

This hotel is mostly used by large birding groups, and there is a table for twelve Americans next to ours. Their guide is going through what they have seen today, and there is a very loud and irritating woman who asks questions and makes inane comments on everything the guide says.

We are rather surprised to find one of their party sitting at our table (each table has the room number or name of the group on it. We have a table for four as Ricardo was hoping to join us). It later transpires that she has tested positive for Covid and has been banished from their table. She does eventually move on to the far end of their table, but I have no idea why anyone thought it was acceptable for her to sit with us!

Dinner is yet again buffet style, with very similar dishes to what we have been served previously. We eat and then retire to our room.

Goodnight from Itatiaia and thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip for us.


Posted by Grete Howard 22:50 Archived in Brazil Tagged monkey brazil lunch birding brasil national_park south_america buffet sao_paulo tanager flycatcher wheelchair guan hermit capuchin cuiabá ski_resort bird_watching hummingbird viewpoint itatiaia undiscovered_destinations coronavirus covid covid_19 special_assistance tyrant cacique service_station dirt_track hotel_do_ype steep_hill swiss_chalet euphonia dacnis Comments (0)

Cristalino - Alta Floresta - Cuiabá

Today is just a travel day

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

We have a leisurely start to the day, up at 06:30, breakfast at 07:30, and leave at 09:30. We are moving on today, to pastures new.

At breakfast David is served a birthday cake – it is one day early, but we are not complaining!


There is far too much cake for us to eat, and it won't travel well, so we suggest the staff eat the rest.


Gui points out a Scarlet Macaw in the trees above the lodge. It's the first bird we have spotted in or around the grounds since we got very excited about seeing the curassow on the day we arrived. The management does not approve of feeding the birds, which I totally respect, hence why they are not congregating around the lodge.


As part of our private tour, we travel half an hour from the lodge to the departure point in a boat with Gui, and our luggage while all the other passengers who are leaving today travel separately in another boat.

The welcoming committee at the end of the boat trip

From this point onwards we share a minibus with a delightful young couple from Chicago. She has an ear infection, so we stop at a pharmacy in Alta Floresta, the nearest big town and where the airport is.

Alta Floresta Airport
At the tiny airport in Alta Floresta, we yet again get special assistance, and seats 2A and B on the flight – the first three rows are reserved for people with disabilities, the elderly, pregnant women and anyone else who needs a little extra assistance for whatever reason.

The waiting room at Alta Floresta Airport

Cuiabá Airport
I know from previous experience when we came out to the Amazon that the walk from the plane to the terminal building is quite some distance along the runway apron, so I am grateful to have a wheelchair waiting for me, even if it means staying onboard until all the other passengers have disembarked.

By the time we get inside the building, the luggage and our driver is waiting for us.

Hotel Deville Cuiabá
The drive to the hotel is short, and check-in smooth, so by the time we have sorted ourselves out and want some dinner (we missed lunch as we were travelling, although we did get some small snacks on the plane), it is 17:45. We spotted a small restaurant on our way in, and I really hope they have pizza, as I have had a craving for one for a couple of days.

What I had forgotten, is how late the South Americans eat dinner – the restaurant doesn't open until 19:00. Groan. We wander over to the Sports Bar to have a drink meanwhile and discover that not only do they serve some small meals, but one of the handfuls of so items on the menu is pizza. Result!


We retire to the room as soon as we have finished the meal, as we have a very early start tomorrow morning.

Goodnight from Cuiabá, and thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip for us.


Posted by Grete Howard 21:53 Archived in Brazil Tagged flight airport cake brazil birthday brasil destinations amazon pizza south_america minibus wheelchair macaw cuiabá undiscovered special_assistance cristalino biirthday_cake boat_transfer alta_florest hotel_deville_prime Comments (0)

Araras - Alta Floresta - Cristalino

Transfer Day

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

We are leaving Araras at 07:30 this morning, but I am awake from 03:45. As soon as it is light, I do some last-minute bird watching.

Plumbeous Ibis

Chaco Chachalaca

Packed and ready to go

Our new-found German friends, Tina, Kristian, and their four children are moving on to the same lodge as us today, too, and we joke at breakfast about who will get to the airport first to put the towels down to reserve the seats.

We win.


Cuiabá Airport
We do have a couple of advantages, however, one being that we are on a private tour so that we can don't have to wait for other people, and not travel in a 12-seater minibus, which means we spend less time loading and unloading luggage as there is only us.

The other advantage is that Roberto arranges special assistance for me once we arrive at the airport, which includes priority check-in as well as boarding, and special seats on the plane (the first three rows are dedicated 'disabled' seats, with extra legroom)

The city of Cuiabá from the air

Alta Floresta
At the small airport (which only gets two flights a day, apparently) there are two vehicles waiting to take guests to Cristalino Lodge: a small truck for us and the luggage, and a minibus for all the others.

The first part of the road is on tarmac, but that soon turns into a gravel track, as we pass farms and logging stations. If we thought the Transpantaneira road was bad, that is nothing compared to this. We bounce all over the place each time the truck hits a pothole – which is often – and the driver seems to spend his time apologising. He doesn't speak much English but has a great sense of humour, and we laugh a lot on the one-hour journey.



At a gate across the road, he stops to poach some cashew fruits from a tree by the side of the road. He justifies it by explaining that the farm and land belong to Cristalino Lodge. Cashews always fascinate me the way the nut hangs at the bottom of the fruit.


The fruit itself is also very pleasant to eat, so we take a couple of them with us.


Boat Trip
When we arrive at the docking area (a fancy name for where the end of the road goes into the river), there is an army of helpers on hand to get the luggage from the truck into the waiting boats.


Here we meet our guide, Gui, for the first time. He is to be with us for the next four days.


The journey along the river to Cristalino Lodge takes around half an hour, and we do some bird watching along the way.


Amazon Kingfisher

Green Ibis

Swallow Wing Puffbird

Amazon Taricaya Turtle and Dyas Julia Butterflies

White Winged Swallows

Gui explains that the dark colour of the water comes from minerals washed out of the forest, and contains decomposing leaves and other vegetable matter. The good news is that the mosquitoes do not like this water, so they stay away.


Cristalino Lodge
This eco-lodge gets rave reviews on every site I have looked at on the internet, with National Geographic Traveller selecting it as one of the 25 best eco-lodges in the world; and another sire describing it as “the best lodge in the Brazilian Amazon for wildlife enthusiasts”. I have high hopes for this place!


The landing stage also features a sunbathing and swimming platform, with loungers and umbrellas (and apparently a cozy firepit in the evening).




To get to the lodge there are 30 wooden steps, but before that, I have to get out of the boat.


I try to step up onto the raised part at the front, but my knee will not let me. I attempt to swing my leg over the side and straight onto the boardwalk. I fail again. Finally, I sit down on the front, but I am still not able to get my legs up.
The aforementioned army of helpers step in and literally lift me up and out of the boat. I am impressed they manage it, but by this stage, I am feeling pretty stressed and panicky.

I manage the steps, and the trail through the jungle to the restaurant, which is up a few more wooden steps. The public areas of the hotel are all on a raised platform: the inside and outside dining areas, the bar, the lounge, the shop, toilets, conference room, and patio. It oozes luxury.









We are given a welcome drink, made from a fruit called cocoazu. I have not heard of it before, and I have to admit it is a little too bitter for me.


As we missed lunch while travelling (it is now mid-afternoon), they serve us a small wrap, some fruit salad, and a delicious cake.

Gui is very laid back and nothing seems to be a rush here. We saunter back down the wooden steps along the path from the restaurant to the crossroads of paths where we came up from the jetty.


As we turn into the jungle and the track that leads to our room, we come across Mr and Mrs Bare Faced Curassow, reinforcing my high expectations of seeing a lot of birds here.



Our Room
Having upgraded to a Junior Suite, we find that our room is almost the furthest away from the restaurant and the jetty. But at least it is private, set in its own clearing in the forest.



The inside is large, bright, and airy. There is an overhead fan, but no air conditioning.




The welcome pack contains two complimentary metal water bottles that can be refilled at the bar for free, a box of chocolate-covered Brazil nuts, and some postcards.

There is a separate dressing room, toilet, and shower, with an additional shower outside.




Once we have settled in, we try out the outdoor shower. To say it is refreshing would be a gross understatement – the water is absolutely freezing.


We joke that walking to the restaurant for dinner is about as far as it is to walk to our local Tesco supermarket. “Fancy Tesco for dinner this evening?”

As everything is cooked to order here at Cristalino, they brought us the menus when we arrived for us to choose what we would like to have for dinner this evening. After seven nights of buffet food, it is such a pleasant change to be served at the table.

We are greeted on arrival at the restaurant by the customer relations manager, Gabriel, who is very pleasant, very knowledgable, and has a great memory, but he does talk too much, lingering at the table while we are eating.

Sun-dried meat croquettes with pepper aioli and a hot sauce. Crunchy outside, with a soft centre. Very nice.

The main course is extremely slow to arrive, but when it finally turns up after around 40 minutes or so, it is worth the wait.

Grilled tenderloin medallion steak

The caramel nut pie is only just OK. It has a slightly unpleasant gritty texture and definitely needs more caramel!

With no AC, the room feels very hot as we go to bed, so I lay on top of the sheets without anything on and put the ceiling fan on full.

Goodnight from the Amazon. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip for us.


Posted by Grete Howard 18:44 Archived in Brazil Tagged postcards flight airport river jungle dinner brazil birding brasil luxury amazon turtle butterflies ibis steak kingfisher cuiabá boat_trip cashew bird_watching swallows eco_lodge undiscovered_destinations outdoor_shower water_bottles special_assistance araras curassow chachalaca alta_floresta puffbird cristalino cocoazu caramel_pie Comments (2)

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)

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