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Singapore Airlines – The Best of the Best?

Singapore_AirlinesSingapore is consistently voted the world’s best airline. So good is their ‘Top Gun’ service many people won’t fly with anyone else.  I was curious to experience this for myself, since everyone raves about them.  This is my completey biased and subjective account of my long haul flight from Paris to New Zealand (NB: this artice was written under the influence of jetlag).

Upon entering the departure lounge in Charles de Gaulle the first thing I noticed is that instead of having one door for passengers to embark onto the plane, they had three. Celebrities and business class passengers didn’t have to mingle with the plebs, except in the confines of the departure lounge. Boarding was reasonably efficient, apart from a small delay of about 15 minutes.

Inside the plane it was definitely more plush than some airlines I could mention. It felt spacious, the seats were generous and there seemed to be more leg room than normal. Not that this is usually a problem for me being 5 foot 2. An added bonus was two extra seats beside me so I could put the armrest up and stretch out if I wanted.

This comparative luxury consoled me for the extra hour we waited for the plane to actually leave the ground.  A slight ‘problem’ meant extra fuel needed to be added.  We weren’t told what the problem was in any detail but this is standard procedure for most airlines, never give out too much information! Safety did seem to be uppermost in the airlines mind however, and I liked the fact there was a video to watch rather than a bored stewardess standing in the aisle wearing a life-jacket pretending to blow a whistle.

The wide video screen consoles were fancier than I expected, and the choice of movies was so good I ended up watching about four or five.  The food selection was also great, with generous portions and my choice was always available (there’s nothing worse than desiring lamb stew only to be told it’s all gone).

Service-wise I was impressed with the professionalism of the stewardesses.  Since our flight was late quite a few passengers were getting antsy about missing connecting flights.  These fears were dealt with efficiently and compassionately, and passengers were reassured they would be getting to where they needed to go.

The first 12 hours passed relatively quickly for me, which was good as I’m usually fidgeting and getting impatient near the ‘five hours to go’ mark.  My only complaint would be the temperature of the cabin, it was freezing!  To the point of needing my coat on as well as a blanket.

After a layover in Changi Airport in the Ambassador Transit Hotel, where I got around 6 hours sleep, it was back onto another Singapore plane for 9 hours.  This is the leg I hate the most, you’re tired, fed up with airline food, sick of watching movies and other passengers are starting to irritate you.  Yet, I was reasonably comfortable and able to endure it serenely. The temperature of the cabin for this leg was perfect.

Overall the combination of friendly service, comfy seat, good food and entertainment system made this the best long haul flight I’ve experienced.  Would I fly Singapore Airlines again?  Yes, without hesitation. Plus my luggage also turned up in Auckland, which gives them extra bonus points.



Hidden Naxos

For many people a visit to the Greek island of Naxos will involve walking up and down the harbour strip, and finding the quickest route through the small town to their hotel. They might perhaps take a trip to a few beaches south of the main port but few will actually explore the rest of the island which is the largest in the Cyclades group at 429 km2.

Fortunately for those who like to do more than sit by the pool, there is a tour which takes you into the inner regions of Naxos and proves there’s more to this island than first meets the eye. The Hidden Naxos Tour is run by British ex-photo journalist Stuart Thorpe who has lived and worked on Naxos for over 25 years.  The tour basically involves being driven around the island for a day with seven other people, and Stuart behind the wheel giving you the low-down on what makes Naxos tick. And there’s not a lot about Naxos Stuart doesn’t know.

He tells us the tourist industry on Naxos is so firmly ensconced near the Chora (or main town) this means cheap land for sale everywhere else. On our journey he points out buildings in progress dotted around the landscape, well the concrete structures at least. The concrete can take some time to dry out before the house can be constructed and finally painted in the typical whitewash with blue trimmings. He says whitewash is the cheapest paint to use which is why there are so many white buildings in the Cyclades islands. Its use is also practical as it reflects the heat better than any other colour.

Although Naxos relies heavily on tourism in the summer months (at least 15-20% of its income) it is largely an agricultural island and is famous for its potatoes. Another industry, though one Stuart says is becoming more expensive to run, is that of marble importing. Naxos has entire mountains made of marble which get slowly chipped away as the marble is removed in blocks and ground down into sheets.

Stuart’s tour takes us right through the heart of the marble mountains and even stops off at a marble producing factory. Be warned though, if you’re expecting pamphlets and guided tours you’ll be disappointed. When we arrived there was just a machine grinding down a huge block of marble and lots of marble slabs everywhere. The workers were nowhere in sight. Stuart explained it was such a long process that they’d probably set the machine running and gone home for lunch.

As we discovered, when we also stopped at a traditional taverna a bit further on, lunch can be a time-consuming process. No ready made food for us, the potatoes were literally being peeled in front of our eyes. This did give us time, however, to try the locally made wine which was very drinkable, especially after the second or third glass.

Hospitality is the one thing you may not find in some of the cafes and restaurants in the tourist area of Naxos, but out of that sphere it’s alive and well on the rest of the island. Home grown potatoes, Greek salad, olives and fresh baked bread with locally made olive oil were set cheerfully before us by the owners of the restaurant and we were even able to try a bowl of the lentil soup the owner had made for his lunch.  As we were leaving, the wife pressed apples from their tree into our hands which was a nice touch.

There’s lots more to discover on the Hidden Naxos Tour but you’ll just have to find out for yourself once you go on it. I found cheap tickets to Naxos from Athens flying Olympic Airlines, and Athens is a major tourist destination so you should have no trouble finding cheap flights going there from any city in the UK or Europe.

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Ode to Edinburgh

New Zealand and Scotland are closely entertwined, and have been ever since the first Scottish settlers emigrated Down Under in the mid 1800’s.

Between 1853 and 1870 Scottish immigrants made up around 30% of New Zealand’s fledgling population, which was more than any of the other UK immigrants. Up to half of these were agricultural labourers from the highlands seeking cheap land for sale, and ultimately, a better way of life.

Bringing with them traditions, sports, poetry, recipes, music, and of course language, the Scottish settlers made an indelible impression on the New Zealand way of life.  Southlanders especially hark back to their Scottish roots, and still roll their ‘rrr’s’ and use words like ‘crib’ and ‘wee’.

Some of the Scottish immigrants were artisans and small traders who came from in and around Edinburgh. This is the place where many Kiwis feel a kinship to the Scots, especially those from its sister city of Dunedin. Dunedin is the South Island’s second largest city and its name, Dùn Èideann, is the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh.

As a New Zealander, visiting Edinburgh is always akin to a kind of pilgrimage, as I feel I come home to the source of part of my culture. Even though most Scots congregated in Southland, the rest were pretty much evenly spread throughout New Zealand. In Auckland I grew up eating porridge, scones and shortbread, spent hours of my childhood knitting and watched pipe bands parading down Queen Street whenever there was a special event. Perhaps this is why Edinburgh feels familiar to me, and why I chose to live here for a year when I was doing my two year overseas stint in the UK.

I was recently given the opportunity to do a two week house-sit in Edinburgh, so I jumped at the chance to visit my Scottish home away from home once again. If anything, this trip has solidified my attachment to Edinburgh even more. I’ve been: on a walking tour learning precious nuggets of history, up the 287 steps of Scott’s Monument taking in the 360 degree views, to the Writer’s Museum, the National Musuem, the Bank of Scotland Museum, an exhibition on Scottish film, reading about Edinburgh’s lost architectural heritage, appreciating bagpipers, eating shortbread, and getting drenched in the unpredictable weather.

I’ve been listening to that lilting burr on buses, trains, in streets, in shops and it reminds me of all the Scottish people who gave up homes, friends, loved ones to travel half-way round the world to a tiny, unformed country to start a new life.

But then some of Edinburgh’s best known writers left this fair city in search of adventure. Robert Louis Stevenson, he of Treasure Island fame, was born and bred in Edinburgh and ended up living in Samoa. He had a love/hate relationship with Edinburgh, its climate didn’t agree with him but when he was away he thought of it constantly.

He wrote in his book Travels With A Donkey in 1879 – “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move”.

I think this Scottish pioneering spirit has inextricably found its way into the Kiwi mindset. For many of us, as much as we love our homes, we also need to be constantly on the move, discovering, experiencing and enjoying life.  And if there’s one thing the Scots know how to do, it’s how to have a good time, whiskey or no whiskey!