Thursday, 20 June 2013

Mustique Travel and Holiday Report - Part 4 Cotton House

The Cotton House Hotel is a special place. Why? It is not that easy to explain but I will have a try. Descriptions such a relaxed and informal come to mind but equally so does elegant and luxury which is weird as the first two rarely link seamlessly with the the last! Maybe because it only has 17 rooms, but on the other hand they are in a huge acreage which has a big and beautiful spa. Like all hotels it has a pool and beach….but where have all the people gone. I hope you are getting my drift.

The rooms vary greatly. The entry level are called ‘cottages’ and are pretty enough for anyone. The next up are the Grenadine Suites which are in a block of four with the ground level rooms having plunge pools. We stayed once on the first floor and, whilst modern and gorgeous made me jealous of not having the pool below our balcony. None of the rooms have a sea view and look over the extensive manicured grounds instead.

The sea view rooms are in the Coutenout House. There are 5 rooms here and they are all different in design and layout. We have stayed in three. They are all on one level and all have decking and plunge pools except for one. This is the Tower Room which is, as you may imagine, in a little tower above the other four. This room has a fabulous view, its own veranda overlooking the beach and is very private. Great for honeymooners!

 Out of the other rooms we have two favourites.  The Orchid Room is tucked to one side and is very peaceful. It has a separate lounge (unlike the others) and a very attractive glass ceilinged bathroom. Star watching whilst soaking is a great experience. This room is well sound insulated from the others, has a nice little pool and great for skinny dipping if you had the desire to do so! The bed is FANTASTIC. The best I have ever slept in.

Finally we stayed in the Sunset Room. Probably named after the superb views of the beach and the sunsets you get out there. It has a big deck and pool which is stuck out towards the bay which stops it being overlooked whilst allowing any sea breezes to blow through. We loved it there even though there is a hatch from bathroom to bedroom so you can see the view from the loo. Unfortunately the same works in reverse and can result in your partner yelling at you!

Finally there are some duplex suites which are large, spacious and usually two storied. They too have plunge pools and also have two bedrooms which make them good for children. They are lovely but we still prefer the Coutenout rooms. At the top of a little hill next to reception they have a 2 bedroom villa. This is pretty good realty because it is private and secluded yet you can enjoy all the services and amenities the hotel has to offer whilst living a villa lifestyle. Nope, still Coutenout for us!

The hotel has its own little beach. On it they have top quality wooden sun loungers with a towel covered mattress and sun umbrellas. There is a beach attendant/drink getter a few paces onto the grass. On the grass they have lounge settees sheltered under the trees so you can flop out and read or sleep if you want. On one side of the beach is a pier and water sports centre which has got just about anything you can imagine and also runs diving trips. Snorkel stuff and sail boats are free to guests.

At the other end of the beach is a bar/cafĂ© and it is here they serve lunch. It is not that cheap but the food is usually pretty good and the portions huge. Very often we shared one meal between us but, if you didn’t then be prepared to spend around US$65 (including a drink) between the two of you. The staff are lovely and the sea breeze cooling. Like most places in the Caribbean you do get the occasional bird showing too much interest in your food so they lend you little water pistols to discourage them! P.s. a thrill for me was I could get a pizza without cheese there!

 It is usually shut in the evenings which is a bit of a shame although they try to hold their barbecue night there when the can. This meal is not to be missed but don’t get mad when they weigh your choice of meat in front of you as it is not to charge you extra for a big lobster. Or, like I had, Lobster, Prawn, Steak and Lamb! My own interpretation of ‘Surf and Turf’.

Dinners are served in their ‘fine dining’ Veranda  restaurant that circles around the Great House where reception and the main bar and lounge is. As you can imagine this is not cheap but most hotel rates you get do include breakfast and dinner. Some people  complain about the variety of the food as the printed menu rarely changes but what I think they forget is the the chefs are willing to adapt any dish to your own taste. Bearing in mind there is always at least four different kinds of meat as well a two fish that isn't at all bad.

Then you have two other sources of food. The ‘all day dining’ menu in your room has kiddies and adult food like spaghetti Bolognese, BLT  and fish fingers which is good eating on your  patio under the stars. Also they have a good Tapas menu in the lounge/bar. Unfortunately I only found out about it on our last day as the menu is behind the cocktail list which I never looked at. So is it Michelin standard? Of course it isn't. Is it good Caribbean standard? Yes I think it is.

What about the rest of the hotel? As you can gather I think the pool, beach and spa areas are great. The grounds are extensive and contain plenty of relaxation and exercise areas from running trails (did not use) and tennis (what on holiday?!). Everything is well groomed and maintained although there was a very short spell when power and water was lost.

 We loved it all but it appeals perhaps to only certain types of holidaymaker. I think you have to be comfortable enough with your partner to spend time in each other’s company. The island is ‘laid back’ and not that  regular a haunt of celebrities, chavs and royals. We met nice people but, apart from Basil’s or Lisa’s bar there were not many places to go and have a wild time. However, if you want beauty, relaxation, peace and laid back enjoyment we find it unbeatable.

And these other local holidaymakers seemed to be enjoying their honeymoon to the Cotton House too!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Mustique travel and holiday report – Part 3 The Island
It really is a very pretty island with a number of amazing unspoiled, often empty beaches to enjoy. The best thing to do is jump into your ‘Mule’ and explore in order to get your bearings and then plan your stay.

Probably the best place to find is Macaroni Beach . This beach is everything most people want. It has pure white sand, it is clean and the water is crystal clear. It has waves but nothing to be too afraid of as the currents are usually very benign. All along this small beach are tropical trees for shade and under these are all sorts of amenities from volleyball courts to picnic spots. The latter can be booked in advance and you can even order a picnic and have it delivered to your chosen spot. Nobody tries to pinch your place or your belongings. Remarkable in the modern Caribbean!

There are other equally beautiful beaches. Lagoon beach is terrific although it can get a bit sea weedy in some seasons. Some of the other beaches on the Atlantic side are pretty wild yet beautiful and swimming is not recommended here. All of these are within 10 minutes from where you are staying. Snorkeling is good by Caribbean standards and one of the better places is just off the Cotton House Hotel beach. You can get a great lunch there too which will set you back around US$60/70 for two with a drink.

The island is a great place for activities particularly on and under the sea. There is a dive centre too on Cotton House beach with great tuition and a strong safety ethic. You can rent all kinds of snorkeling and diving gear from them as well as catamarans, sailboats and windsurfers. Next to the tiny airport is the sports area where they play cricket and base their Equestrian centre. The island is great for riding and trekking with lots of paths and fitness trails for those that enjoy that sort of thing. Some people complain that there is not much to do but I don’t get that.

OK, so what about the social side? This just might be an area where some folk enjoy perhaps more than they think Mustique can offer, and they may be right. There are only four places most people will find for a drink. They are The Cotton House, The Firefly, the famous Basil’s Bar and a new place called Lisa’s overlooking the harbour.

 You have to know where you are going to find Lisa’s.  You go to Lovell's Village where most of the workers live and it is almost immediately on the left as you go in. I have heard Lisa and her husband are a great and hospitable couple and the bar is open to both locals from the village and guests from anywhere. You can just turn up, get cheaper drinks, enjoy the view and eat great local cuisine.

The Firefly is a very small but chic hotel with 5 rooms (I think) and a very nice bar and restaurant area. We did not go this time because we heard mixed reports about the food and what it cost. Words like over-priced and sub-standard were used by one couple we spoke to. In saying that it was just one or two opinions and it reminds me of the term ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’. Some people think it a fabulous place. It is built on the side of a steep slope the other side of the bay to Lisa’s and the rooms are very pretty and chic.

Right down in the port/yacht harbour you will find Basil’s. It is built on its own pier sticking out into the bay and is quite an experience. We went there most nights for a sun downer or two, or three and enjoyed the relaxed ambiance of this unique setting. They have a ‘jump up’ night on Wednesdays and often feature Jazz on Sunday lunch time. Sometimes it can get quite wild (in a fun sense) especially if something is being celebrated at the time. I have heard people who didn't like it say they were glad they went on one of these nights. As for me? I got myself introduced to a cocktail called T Punch which looked pretty harmless but.....

The last place I want to talk about is The Cotton House which is the only larger (17 rooms!) hotel on the island. This is where we stayed and we loved it. Would you? I don’t know. Some people expecting a ‘Chav Fest’ of glamour, celebrities and parties might have been disappointed. We found it a masterpiece of what I call ‘relaxed luxury’ or ‘understated elegance’. I will tell you about it in my next update.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Mustique Travel and Holiday Report - Part 2 Staying in Villas

Mustique is mainly an island full of villas which are mostly for rent. These vary from super luxury homes built for people like Tommy Hilfiger and Mick Jagger to smaller but equally beautiful homes mainly used for holiday lets.

As you would expect prices vary enormously but this is what to expect to pay per week if you rent one. We looked at the 2/3 bedroom villas like Bali Hi, Moana and Greystone Cottage. All have pools and come with staff to look after them and the guests. These usually comprise of 3 people to cook, garden and serve. The cost per week to rent these homes are from US$6500, US$7000 and US$8,000 respectively. This includes staff cost although be prepared to pay a tip of approximately 5% of villa rental.

As far as transportation is concerned the villas come with their own included transport and to get from Bridgetown, Barbados to Mustique about US$525 each. And the time to go? Well any time really but I like it particularly in November as everything is very green and the rain is not a major problem. October half term might also be a good choice. I do not have anything to do with the Mustique Company but if you wanted to have more of a look then type in

I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive about renting a villa with staff in the Caribbean. I mean what do you do with them? Do they hang around comparing you with the last guests? In fact that is why I personally chose the Cotton House Hotel. A bit daft of me really because the staff are around as much (or as little) as you want them to be.

 The food in the villas cooked by the chef is mainly superb but if you want something like beans on toast then say so and do it yourself if you want. It is after all laid out for you and nobody else! You can order stocks of food in advance or shop at a well equipped local store. And security? I know nowhere safer in the Caribbean or Wiltshire UK where I live! A blessed haven in this troubled world although nothing can be guaranteed anywhere.

Transport is always a bit of a worry especially in the Caribbean. Sure, on most islands you can hire a car, and what are the roads like? Are they full of mad drivers in big lorries and what if you get lost or run out of petrol/gas? On this island you drive ‘mules’. No, not the hairy four legged kind. These are what can be best described as heavy duty golf carts with attitude. They are huge fun to drive but not really lethal like a large car or lorry. The ‘roads’ are mainly tarmacked  with regular speed bumps and I have never seen anyone hit anyone ever. You need a visitors license but they can get these for you.

One thing you have to be careful about is………tortoises. Yes tortoises. In fact if you have a phobia about tortoises don’t go. The place is full of them and they even have an interesting statue of two having a good time on a road junction. Mating season seems to be June and it can be disconcerting to lie on your sunbed and hear low level grunting and shell clanking in the background! You get a few cats and dogs as well but most of them belong to someone and those that don’t are trapped and neutered to prevent breeding without disrupting mouse catching!

 That was the nearest I got to a celebrity when out there. I saw Sandy Gaul (newscaster) and Brian Ferry (singer) but the highlight was ‘Mick Jagger’s dog’ or so I was told. Anyway, none bothered us and you can be given water pistols to discourage birds that show an interest in your pizza! A great new hobby I will try at home.

Woops, there I go digressing again. Just to sum up the villas they include:
                Airport pick-up and transfer to villa
                Household staff
                Use of (6) floodlit tennis courts
                Managing Director’s Cocktail party
                One (1) vehicle
                Laundry service
                Fitness Trail

There are all sorts of other events and activities going on all the time and everyone was very helpful. You will enjoy!

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Mustique travel and holiday report – First episode

How much can you say about a small supposedly exclusive island in the Caribbean? An island that is mainly remembered by people old enough to recall Princess Margaret’s hedonistic lifestyle out there or young enough to read about Prince William and Kate’s recent holiday. The island is Mustique and frankly there is a lot to say about it as I am beginning to discover.

As some of you will know I go into quite a lot of detail in my reports so that I can try and provide answers to everyone’s questions. So please skip past the bits that do not interest you and I hope that either way you reach the end more knowledgeable than when you started.

The island is north of Tobago and 160 kms west of Barbados. To get to it you should fly to Barbados and take the 40 minute small aircraft hop. This short flight on the Grenadine Air alliance (SVG)  is so easy  to fix and can be done by your agent, yourself online or via the place in Mustique you are staying. Sometimes the latter can be cheaper. UK flight connection timings are excellent especially if you catch the earlier Virgin flight although BA is a shorter, slightly more risky possibility.

The airport in Mustique is ‘cute’ in every sense of the world. The airport building is made of wood and covered in flags. The people working there can be stern looking but that is because they take pride in the job they do and want to be sure they do it properly. One bit of advice is to keep a close eye on your bags, especially things like carry-on trolley bags that may be loaded in the small aircraft hold for convenience. Ours were not taken off in Mustique and went on to St Vincent. We got it back at 8.00 a.m. next morning but just make sure what goes on also gets off to avoid anxiety.

So who goes to Mustique? Well very few actually except for residents and villa owners which is a shame considering its beauty and what it has to offer. The island is run by The Mustique Company who build and maintain the villas as well as serve the villa owners. The villa owners are a mixture between very rich people, title and land rich but short of cash people and ordinary folk who buy the villas, rent them out and then use them themselves from time to time. The local folk are primarily from St Vincent, neighbouring Bequia and adjoining islands and from that you will know how kind and welcoming they are.
From a tourist perspective you get mainly British and a reasonable share of Americans, Canadians and European. When we were there they were holding a large wedding where a Swiss banker was marrying a British girl and there was about every nationality under the sun staying in the villas and the two hotels. We had a great time talking to them but never felt crowded or out of place. Mustique does that to you if you are prepared to completely relax and chill out. You always get a few visitors who dress up to the nines, plaster on the make-up,  pose around the place and then wonder why so few others are doing it.
Then of course you get the yachters.  There are regular mini flotillas of boats from mega-yachts to small catamarans that cruise around the island and anchor overnight to enjoy the experience of the famous/notorious Basils Bar and take on provisions. The anchorage is very pretty with crystal clear water although it can get a little bumpy if the winds blow strong. More of Basils in a minute.
Who do I think would enjoy Mustique? That is mainly up to you but here are one or two things I like about it:
*The people are so very nice. In the main they are happy to share their island and are welcoming. That is everyone not just the locals.
*There are no beach vendors whatsoever. The beaches are kept clean above the tideline and are some of the best in the world.
*The main hotel (Cotton House) is a world leading what I would call ‘relaxed’ luxury hotel. More on it shortly. The second much smaller hotel (Firefly) is cheaper, still chic and excellent too.
*The place is safe and secure. It is well patrolled and ‘The Company’ knows of everyone who is on the island. It is very comforting that there is very, very little chance of any pilfering or assault. We often did not lock our room or our buggy. Never had or heard of any problem.
*It is small but big enough to spend plenty of time exploring. You can easily get lost if you relax too much but just keep driving and you will end up where you started!
I think Mustique is ideal for expanding their current market which is older couples, honeymooners, families (villas and hotel) and stressed old ex-businessmen like me! I t is also really great for people who usually go to places such as The Maldives. In the Maldives most islands have one resort and little else. In Mustique you get the resort and other places to go. Where are these other places?
They are:
The Cotton House Hotel
The Firefly Hotel
Basil’s and Lisa’s Bars
The Island and its beaches.
In my next blog very shortly I will talk about these and more about how the island works.

Is Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Upper Class?

I have taken to flying Virgin quite a lot recently and when I do I usually book in advance (for price) into the Upper Class cabin. This is mainly because I go to the Caribbean quite frequently and Virgin take off earlier and are far more prompt than BA on this particular route. This is important to me as I am usually catching a connection which BA often miss necessitating an unwelcome night-stop in Barbados. I cannot understand why BA keeps making such a gaffe but I digress.

My early booking got me a pretty good Upper Class fare and I sat back anticipating the holiday to come. I was particularly enthusiastic as Virgin were introducing their new executive seating on the route and I was looking forward to seeing how they could make an excellent product even better. Despite taking a little time getting used to their 'wishbone' shaped seating plan I found the service combined with seat comfort unbeatable compared with their competitors.

Virgin on the ground are very slick. There was no queue at Upper Class check-in and very little at the fast flowing economy desks. The staff were polite, efficient and very welcoming. We even avoided the scrum at security via the priority lane and, apart from joining the growing numbers of people trying to walk while replacing belts, shoes, loose change etc etc we were air-side very quickly.

We visited their lounge which was a little disappointing. OK, it is light and airy, and the staff were nice but sadly their famed breakfast was cold and it was rather noisy with excited visitors. You also need to be ready to be called early as they are determined to get the flight off on time, or early in our case. They used to use their jumbos on this route but now they mainly operate Airbuses with their newest seat configurations and in-flight service.

As I said earlier, how can you improve on the already excelent? Well, I am afraid you can't. sadly this was not an improvement but more a step backwards. This might sound mean minded but I have been flying once/twice a week for the last 40 years so I should know what I am talking about. The joy of virgin was the impression and reality of space and this new cabin did not look like that. I think someone looked at the last set-up and wondered how they could squeeze more seats into the same space. There were rank after rank of tightly joined seats with tiny foot-rest/visitor stools, no arm rest on one side and a much narrower feel. You cannot really sit alongside anyone and, if you tried you would have to choose a different centre seat row to your window seat to get close. as the seating is now staggered across the cabin.

The seat still folds over to become a mattress at nights but the fit is narrow and you need extra pillows to stop your head being lower than the rest of you. Your feet have to perch on the little stools and the narrow aisle means that people knock into them when you are trying to sleep.

The in-flight entertainment is still unbeatable and the tray tables are still big but they are monsters to drag out un-aided and spring back into your mi-drift if you are not careful. The ability to use your phone is a bonus to some and a curse to others. It made a change to hear folks brag to surprised relatives that they are 'on the plane' rather than 'on the train'!

Was the cabin full? Yes it was. Did they all pay the fare? No they didn't. Like BA Virgin operate an upgrade policy where they overfill economy and upgrade the surplus into Premium Economy and Upper classes. It can be rather annoying to those that booked and paid for the comfort, ambiance and space. Upgraded folk are often not the best behaved and it also means that cabin resource like food and drink take longer getting to you. It is irritating if you are in the part of the cabin that gets served last and your food choice gets sold out before it reaches you. I have to admit to double standards here.

I used to constantly battle to get upgrades but now I am there by right I get very tetchy when seeing some of the folk that get 'moved forward'. My mood is not improved when I hear that Virgin and a few others may auction off upgrade seats on departure. Brilliant! Now I can pay a lot of money to book a better seat only to witness some kind of financial competition among other passengers to join me. And this is all because they either overbook the back end of their flights or want to make a quick buck on departure. Not happy with that!

So what did I think of the flights? Both were perfect on timing to the point of arriving early. I saw the BA flight come in later afterwards and their passengers missed the connecting services. The staff was nice and the food was fully acceptable by airline standards. The tea and coffee was either stewed or tepid but you always get there. The new seats? A disappointment and a step back. I doubt if they would get away with them unscathed on a major business route.

Is it 'Upper Class'?     NO.

Thursday, 6 June 2013 - A Cautionary Tale

Having been in the travel industry very many years and reached pretty much the top of the tree I thought I of all people would not get caught out by anyone. Sadly I was wrong. In the hopes that I might spare someone (i.e. possibly you) some anguish/annoyance I thought I would share my experience with you. After all over 20,000 people have read this blog so I might be able to help one of you!

The 'issue' is one of online bookings.

I wanted to book a surprise 3 day break in my wife's favourite childhood holiday venue of Scarborough for her birthday. Easy I thought. I simply got on Google and found Bookings.Com. The website was the usual friendly and easy display so I booked The Mount in Scarborough and sat back waiting to enjoy the break. Sadly something came up and we had to cancel so back on the site I went and carefully cancelled the booking as I noticed that otherwise fees would apply.

That was that really until I got a message saying my card would be charged £180 for failure to cancel. Not correct I wailed and emailed and told them so. Ah, they said. Send us proof of cancellation. O.K. I thought, I will go back into my sent/recieved messages to see if there is anything referring to my cancellation, but there wasn't. I became a bit indignant. Polite but indignant. Look, I said, I used to run the biggest hotel booking company in the UK. not only did your system not cancel when asked to but there is also no record of the cancellation in my mailboxes.

I pointed this out in a subsequent email (friendly and slightly less indignant) but was told that the manager 'Craig' had basically pronounced 'No proof then no refund'.

So the lesson to be learned is yes, by all means book and cancel online BUT make sure you get and keep immediate proof you have done so. must have assumed I was either 'trying it on' or they could get away with it. As for me? I will still book/cancel online but use an online agency that believes in my integrity as much as I do! That counts out then!