Three things you don’t know about Iceland

Having just spent a few days Iceland, I have reaffirmed the fantastic advantage of travelling to a country to open your mind. With no more than 24 hours on Iceland’s sunny (if cold) shores, I discovered three things I didn’t imagine about Iceland. Arriving just after midnight into Reykjavik, I was welcomed by a setting sun (see below the nightscape at 1am). And yes, Iceland is home to the famous mid-summer white nights. But, you knew that.

Iceland sunset

A whale of a time

The first thing I discovered about Iceland was that they serve whale. Since I had never eaten whale, it had not occurred to me that the whale dish would be a meat dish. How naive! Would you have thought it so? Here it is:

Iceland dish

Had I not told you, would have thought this image was whale meat? I might add that it was very tasty. If you are interested, here’s a fine address to check out in Reykjavik: 3 Frakkar — which means Three French (a propos!) or Three Coats in Icelandic.

Icelandic naming device

Secondly, unique to Iceland, no child carries the father’s last name. They don’t even carry the mother’s last name. In fact, children carry a last name composed of: Continue reading

Uber beautiful – is Uber creating value? I tend to believe so

Uber logo squareLast night, my Uber driver, Mohammed (from Somalia), was an absolute delight. As much as one can argue about some of the less salacious tactics of Uber, the underlying principle of Uber creates an environment for truly different experiences. I wrote about the same type of feeling when transacting on Craigslist. Wherever I bought or sold using Craigslist, the community experience was delightful.

Mohammed referred to us (Uber passengers) as beautiful people. While we’ll take the compliment, it was more interesting to hear how Mohammed, who has been an Uber driver for 8 months, described the relationship he has with Uber and his passengers. And he described the gulf between the way he felt treated by other limousine services for which he’d driven for 5 years prior and with Uber.

Since Uber takes care of us, we take care of the passengers. Uber gets that!”

It’s a case in point where employee engagement is critical in terms of customer experience.

Driver – passenger

As for the relationship with the passengers, Mohammed went on:

Perhaps, it’s because of the rating system, but I keep on meeting beautiful people.

uber beautiful two arrowsI suspect that there is also an element an early-adopter community of people who are on and using Uber. Having used Uber in five countries (out of the 58 where Uber now operates) and in over ten cities, I can say that I have had a consistently good experience. In some cities, where the taxi service is rather poor (e.g. Paris), Uber provides a radically superior service. In a city like London, where the Black Cab is exceptionally good, the premium service comes with premium conditions: in the street pickup, inside space (bigger), taxi lanes (faster) and the Knowledge (less reliance on a map).

The driver experience

As Mohammed noted above, he feels Uber treats him well. This is surely not true all around the world for Uber drivers. However, in most cities, Uber drivers talk about short waiting times and a generally good revenue. Another driver I had recently was a convert from being a bus driver. He spoke about his journey from bus driver to Uber driver and, to his great satisfaction, he is earning 3x more and working 1/2 less. Plus he knows London rather well. Another element I hear regularly cited is the benefit for drivers in not having to chase down payment… The automatic payment system avoids those times when a passenger will jump without paying or finagle on price. From a passenger standpoint, we are winners too (unless you’re among those who prefer not to pay!).

Overall, it is my belief that Uber is extending and expanding the market for personal transportation. As such it is, in all likelihood, helping de-emphasize the need for car ownership. In the big scheme of things, this is a bonus for the environment. Thanks to the suave Uber app, the user experience is superb (although the initial pin accuracy could still be improved). The communication fluidity between driver and passenger is easy and effective, doing much to create a favorably charged relationship. On top of the payment facilities, the option of identifying and rewarding great driver experiences (6th Star) reinforces the desire to go beyond the call of duty. If there remain legal questions, some questionable business tactics (against Lyft, etc) and issues with driver selection and insurance, overall, I believe Uber is creating value.

What’s been your experience with Uber (and Lyft etc)? Are you a fan or do you believe Uber is not for you?

EasyJet Customer Experience – A failure waiting to happen

As companies continue to inch (literally) ever closer toward greater and greater productivity, I can say that I was only mildly amused when the EasyJet flight attendant on a recent flight cajoled us into listening to the pre-flight safety announcements. As with most of us who travel a lot, we consider these announcements over the loud-speaker as an obligatory nuisance. On this particular EasyJet flight, I decided to put down what I was reading to listen. One specific part of the instructions caught my attention. Not that I am against productivity gains; nor am I against an airline wishing my safety. However, someone needs to revisit and update what must be a rather old script.

In case of emergency landing, take the customary “brace” position, by bending over, placing your head between your legs and tucking your arms around your thighs.

Not being of the circus contortionist variety, I can say that I am just about able to put my chest on my thighs, nothing more. Getting the head to tuck down neatly is a bit of a stretch. And, I am fortunate not to have a pot belly.

Brace for it

Here are the instructions as printed on the plastified sheet in front of each seat (in this case for an Airbus A319/320). Continue reading

Recycled newspapers – Bobo fantasy or true eco-tourism?

On our recent family holidays to Kerala, India, I was struck how several hotels used recycled newspapers. Specifically, I found recycled newspapers being used as bags (for example, for shoes), sanitary bags, envelopes and garbage inserts. The bags were carefully constructed and came with string handles. I can’t evaluate whether these items were playing to the Bobo fantasy* of being ecologically friendly or truly represent a way of saving the planet. In any event, I thought they were effective in their function and provided a nice change from the typical hotel amenities. I didn’t get too much black ink on my fingers either! Have you remarked these types of initiatives elsewhere?

Recycled newspapers India, Minter Dial, The Myndset digital marketing*Bobo = Bohemian Bourgeois

 

Emotional Food Rau – Restaurant in Naples‏ with interesting concept

Emotional Food Rau NaplesRaù, a trendy ‘Mediterranean’ restaurant in the heart of Naples, boasts a fairly novel concept: “Emotional Food.” While we did not get a chance to try the place and experience the food, I was struck by how ‘on trend’ the concept was and thought it worth sharing. I found a few snapshots of Rau food taken Emotional Food Rauby others; however, they don’t overflow with emotion, per se. That said, I am sure that the concept could be rendered true in the right hands… Here is a writeup on QYPE.

If you are ever in Naples, here is the address to go and report back on!

Starter Emotional Food Rau

Raù Emotional Food, Vc. Satriano 8/C, Chiaia, 80121 Napoli, Tel +39-81-245-5057
email: info@rauemotionalfod.com

A Worthwhile visit in Kent: Ightham Mote

Great Hall at Ightham Mote, Kent EnglandIf you are driving around Kent, England, and are wondering which National Trust sites to visit, I recommend putting Ightham (pronounced item) Mote, Sevenoaks, high on your list.  This medieval moated manor house, dating from 1320, has a splendid history.  After a GBP10 million 15-year restoration, the site is in great nick.

Dog Kennel at Ightham Mote, Kent EnglandThe visitable sites of Ightham Mote include the magnificent Great Hall (photo left), the Crypt, and a fine Tudor Chapel with a hand-painted ceiling, replete with symbols of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and commissioned by the owner in the hopes that the King & Queen would come visit.  They never did, and despite Henry’s many other wives, the then owner did not repaint.  For those of you men who are frequenters of the doghouse, here is one for you:  a Grade I-listed dog kennel (right), situated in the picturesque courtyard, large enough to house a full adult. 

We did not try the restaurant on site, but it looked very nice.

Gift Aid Admission Prices: (with Standard Admission prices in brackets): £10.40 (£9.40), child £5.20 (£4.70), family £26 (£23.50). Groups (£8.85).  
Winter weekends, 7 Nov–20 Dec: £5.50 (£5), child £2.75 (£2.50)

Contact information:
Mote Road, Ivy Hatch, Sevenoaks, Kent TN15 0NT
+44 1732 810 378
email: ighthammote@nationaltrust.org.uk

Marrakesh Airport Passport Control – Government 2.0?

Controle des Passeports Marrakesh Airport Sign
At the airport of Marrakesh, Morocco, as we were leaving, I snapped this photograph (above) of the “official” sortie. The Passport Control desk has a sign above it in three languages. The French is given prime real estate. I trust the Arabic is spelt correctly. Meanwhile, the person who approved the English neeeds to revisit his or her spelling (yes, one ‘e’ too many). And, for that matter, one ‘s’ too many as well. I failed to find a “Suggestions & Complaints” box, so had to resort to the blog.

I do wonder how much the world could be a better place if there were open channels of communication for accepting people’s voluntary comments, etc. Aside from figuring out the logistics, one of the problems would be: how many of the suggestions would be right and/or appropriate (cf Wikipedia)? A government 2.0 site for fixing ‘errors’? It could speak volumes for a co-creative relationship between citizen and state?

Do you think life would be better if people had the opportunity to write to the government every time they had a constructive criticism?

A weekend in Sunny, Windy, Rainy Dorset

We spent last weekend in sunny, windy, & rainy Dorset, around the wedding of my dear old friend, Tom. Using our Tom-Tom to find Tom was something of a leitmotif for the weekend as we drove around endless country roads hidden from cows’ views by huge parallel hedges. Having not had the opportunity to stay up to date with the progress in GPS (“satnav” in the UK), I found out that this Tom-Tom also told us off when we sped (note to Audi: this functionality is not available in my Audi GPS).  

For historic value, you will not find this type of photo opportunity too frequently any longer: driving a London double decker through the country roads of Dorset. This bus shuttled the wedding guests to and fro the church. The major benefit was that, riding on top, you could finally look over the ever present hedges. The downside was that the overhanging trees were not used to the more-than-average vehicular height.

Red Double Decker Bus Driving Down Dorset Lanes



A couple of highlight addresses from our visit:
We stayed at the Old Manor, Kingston Maurwood, near Dorchester, run by the charming Andrew and Mulu Thomson, whom we thoroughly enjoyed. The rooms are large and comfortable. Plenty of charm in this manor house whose roots date back to the late 16th century, but which needed a major rebuild (basically up from scratch) in the 1990s. 

Down the road from the Old Manor is Athelhampton House & Gardens (Entry £8.75/adult). This is a charming 15th century house (built 1485, the year of the Reformation) that is owned and lived in by Patrick & Andrea Cooke (in the North wing). To be visited is the King’s Bedroom which was never slept in by a King; and the double bed is at best Queen size. The top floor of the House has an exposition of the Russian artist, Marevna. We had a lovely walk the the garden (dating back to 1891), featuring splendid topiary pyramids (picture below). Athelhampton is a prized wedding location (although you only have the ceremony in the House, because it does not have any large rooms in the house itself). The House was used recently in the about-to-appear film “From Time to Time” by Julian Fellowes with Dame Maggie Smith.


Athelhampton House Dorset

Despite the blustery winds, it was a grand weekend and a lovely wedding.

Holidays Visit to Marrakesh Morocco Part 1 of 3

For our six-day visit to Marrakesh (or Marrakech if you prefer) en famille, we stayed at the not-even-opened Beldi Country Club Hotel (+212 (0)624-38-3950), on the route to Amizmiz, in Chérifia just 6 kilometres outside of Marrakesh.  Founded by Jean-Dominique Leymarie, the hotel is charm personified with a magnificent rose garden, splendid views of the Atlas mountain range (on clear days at least) and an entire infrastructure built from scratch using only local artists and talent. There are also myriad little cozy rooms in which to go and lounge about.

Beldi Country Club, Marrakesh Morocco
If the pools are not heated (a tad chilly for the April climate) and the tennis pro was more of a tennis am (as in pro-amateur), the lunchtime scene at le Palmier Fou around the Beldi’s southern pool was very Marrakesh haute société. The rooms are well done with lovely little details (cushy towels, soft cotton sheets and local “green” shampoo and body cleanser). The kids took advantage of some pottery classes (although 100 dirham per child per hour was a rather steep rate) with a transplanted Chilean artist. We benefited from the clay tennis court that was “unveiled” the morning of our arrival.  A second court is under construction.

Every day, we went into Marrakesh, visiting the hotspots as identified in the “Guide du Routard” including the visit of the trilogy of sites: Museum of Marrakesh in a 19th century traditional mansion, the Ben Youssef Medersa Koranic school, and some antique latrines.

On the 12th century latrines, one can literally take a pass. Not wanting to take the piss out of the historic site, there is not much to see here. The latrine’s explanatory board itself is almost out of sight. The visit of the 16th century Koranic school, on the other hand, is very worthwhile, especially to see the mosaics and lovely latticework in the stone and wood. Schooling up to 900 students at one point, this medersa is the largest in North Africa.

The stroll through the Medina souk with the jabs, taunts and enticements of the veritable carpet sellers does not diminish in stress over time. If this was my third visit to Marrakesh, the harassment in the winding souk is no easier to deal with. Yet, the magical buzz and clamour on the Place Jemaâ El Fna is no less enchanting than before. Between the snake charmers, the imprisoned monkeys and the charlatan magicians, the experience is remarkable. I can only imagine the strong imprint on the children’s minds.

We were spoiled by being invited to dinner in an absolutely magnificent Riad just outside the walls of the Medina, west of Marrakesh. The grandeur of the open skies, the multiple coves hidden away in the many corners, the ex-harem’s quarters and exquisite kilims, not to mention the wonderful food, made for a most memorable evening.  (Thank you to our local hosts)

Okaimeden Ski Lift Morocco

We made a number day trips, too.  We hit the valley of Ourika on two occasions. The first was tempered by heavy fog and rain, so we scrambled home to find the sunshine decorating our Beldi temporary residence. On the second – and substantially more successful – visit, we hit the town of Ourika (views), Oukaimeden mountain (skiing) and the village of Ourtes (lunch). The standout experience was surely the chairlift up the Oukaimeden mountain (3,200 metres peak), situated just 75 kilometres from Marrakesh. It was April 12th and we saw some thirty or so Moroccans swishing through the slush in equipment dating back to the end of the 20th century. Most authentic. The chairlift (25 dirhams per person round trip) is operated by the “Office National de l’Eau Potable,” translated to the National Office of Drinking Water. The ticket (see left) warns you that, in the case of stoppage or temporary closing of the slopes, you have no recourse on your 25 dirhams. While extremely slow, the ride was peaceful and offered some great views on the way back down.  Hard to believe that in April, you can ski in Morocco, but we have unadulterated proof. Nonetheless, not much would have tempted us to rent the archaic equipment to struggle through the thickest, wettest snow you are likely to see.

We took the kids to the water park Oasiria (route d’Amizmiz), run by a man from Toulouse, to enjoy the local attraction along with a mixture of French and well-to-do Moroccans. On balance, there were not many people and there were certainly no lines for any of the rides. Oscar (12) enjoyed the “camel” ride, a booming water slide.  On the downside, the wave pool takes 15 minutes to generate its waves. Unless you know people, you can’t last much more than four hours, especially if the weather is not too warm (only one heated pool).

I will write again with a review of food (part 2) and some commentary on Morocco (part 3)!  Watch this space.  In the meantime, your comments are, as ever, welcome.

Oh Trip – A good blog resource for European Holidays

In the realm of other blogs that I have come across, if you are looking for a blog about travelling in Europe (mainly Paris, Rome and Barcelona), try Oh Trip (it’s the travel blog of the European accommodations site, Oh-Holidays). For example, if you want to know about the 10 most romantic things to do on Valentines in Barcelona, I say start with going to Barcelona, a romantic city in itself. Or, if you want some sightseeing tips for Paris, there are a few good ones here. It’s a good site with lots of resources if you want to find out what to do; it covers local scams and-tourism as well.