Saturday, 31 December 2011

December's Sur in English

This month in Sur in English, I write about Lyon, France and the trials of travelling United Airlines. 


My material is on pages 20-23.

Next month Sur will feature a cruise on P&O's Adonia and a piece on car hire.

This 'Around the World in 60 days' blog (http://mdsouter.blogspot.com/) itself continues to attract a new audience, with over 12,256 people now reading it -  600 more this month alone!

I continue to do radio interviews about the trip in the UK and in Spain.

You can check out the best photos from the trip at:

https://picasaweb.google.com/113030621059953130627/TheBestOfAroundTheWorldIn60Days?authuser=0&feat=directlink

Once again, may I pass on my grateful thanks to everyone who has been so supportive of 'Around the World in 60 Days'.

Friday, 25 November 2011

November Coverage in Sur in English

This month in Sur in English, I write about Hollywood, Florida and Michigan. 


My material is on pages 27-30.

Next month Sur will feature the final destination of my Round the World trip,  Lyon in France.

This 'Around the World in 60 days' blog (http://mdsouter.blogspot.com/) itself continues to attract a new audience, with over 11,656 people now reading it -  427 more this month alone!

I continue to do radio interviews about the trip in the UK and in Spain and will next be on Talk Radio Europe (http://www.talkradioeurope.com/) at 1630 CET on Friday December 9th.

You can check out the best photos from the trip at:

https://picasaweb.google.com/113030621059953130627/TheBestOfAroundTheWorldIn60Days?authuser=0&feat=directlink

Once again, may I pass on my grateful thanks to everyone who has been so supportive of 'Around the World in 60 Days'.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Sur in English - Denver


If you go to the link below, you can see the coverage, in Sur in English,  of my visit to Denver:

http://services.surinenglish.com/virtual/20111021/

My material is featured on pages 24-27. 


Next month Sur will feature Hollywood (Florida) and Michigan in November and, finally, Lyon in France in December.

This 'Around the World in 60 days' blog itself continues to attract a new audience, with over 11,180 people now reading it -  517 more this month alone!


I continue to do radio interviews about the trip in the UK and in Spain.


You can check out the best photos from the trip at:


https://picasaweb.google.com/113030621059953130627/TheBestOfAroundTheWorldIn60Days?authuser=0&feat=directlink

Once again, may I pass on my grateful thanks to everyone who has been so supportive of 'Around the World in 60 Days'.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

AN ‘L’ OF A JOURNEY – LANSING, LONDON AND LYON

Shuttling between terminals at Chicago O'Hare


First Class in an United Airlines B767-300


First Class on the Heathrow Express
Swimming Pool at the Grand Hotel des Terreaux


Lyon beat Paris in providing a fleet of hire-cycles


A detail of the Lyon Fresco


The River Saone in Lyon


Toilet door at the Cafe des Federations


Graffiti atop the Fourviere Basilica


The Lyon Opera from the roof of the Fourviere Basilica
Macaroons in the Paul Bocuse Market


Lyon tram
At Capital City Airport, Lansing, there are two personnel on duty at United check-in. I double-check that my bags are through-checked. Transport and Security Administration seem to have more blue-shirted staff than there are passengers. But it makes for an easy transition to the business lounge
At the gate, there’s a hiatus when the same man who checked me in has to tell a wheelchair passenger that he can’t get on the flight because the airport-owned device to lift him on to the aircraft has broken and nobody can be found to mend it.
In Chicago, I am expecting to have a challenge changing terminals, but United has a little shuttle bus, which achieves the objective within minutes by crossing the taxiways while dodging arriving and departing aircraft. Another first!
I check the boards for my London-bound flight, which is nowhere to be seen. In United’s Red Carpet Lounge, I am told that the aircraft has a maintenance issue and that my flight will either be cancelled or badly delayed. Oh what joy. So I am waitlisted on the next available flight, one of which is already boarding.
United’s system for such eventualities appears to be that you turn up at the gate, irrespective of the class in which you are booked,  until everyone else is on board and wait to see if there’s a seat. There is, but it is down the back end. No thank you.
 An hour later, the same palaver all over again, with no clue as to whether I’ll be on the flight or stuck at O’Hare overnight. Gate supervisor Editha is clearly hassled and is busy changing seat allocations and calling standby passengers forward. I stand in front of her for twenty minutes and not once does she smile, say anything to me, or make eye contact. Then, without a murmur or change of facial expression, she hands me a boarding card for First Class.
I hand her my luggage tags to ensure that my bags, which I have been told are in a ‘Priority handling area’ are loaded on to the plane and scamper back to the nearby lounge to collect my iPad and carry on luggage.
On the B767-300, the First Class cabin only has six seats, one of which is reserved for an off-duty pilot. With two cabin crew for just five passengers, the service from the British male staff is friendly and efficient. The quality of the fit is, in my opinion, second only to the Air New Zealand/Virgin Atlantic business-class offering, but is similarly impressive, with lie-flat beds and plenty of storage space. The quality of the catering is also splendid. (I check later on the price and discover that a single First Class Chicago to London fare is $9500 US, more or less the same as my round the world business class ticket!)
After a good night’s sleep, I watch the priority luggage go round the carousel with no sign of either of my bags. When I check at the United desk, the lady tells me that they are still in Chicago. She can’t tell me why they are not on their way on my original plane, which, despite all the misinformation in Chicago, is due to arrive at Heathrow on schedule.
Of course the bags don’t arrive home when promised and, as in Chicago, the quality of care and communication from United Airlines is woeful. Indeed, as I write this, some 10 days later, they have still not demonstrated any real element of care or concern. However, the bags do arrive home – eventually.
Anyway, not to dwell on that, because my final destination calls. I use the fast and efficient Heathrow Express to reach central London and, uncluttered by baggage, transfer stations to reach my ultimate destination of Stansted Airport.
From there, it’s only an 80 minute EasyJet flight to Lyon in France, where the airport has a spectacular building designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the man behind the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
I am staying at the Grand Hotel des Terreaux, perfectly situated on the peninsula between the rivers Saone and Rhone in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Area. It’s only a three-star, but the former coaching inn has been splendidly refurbished with a most attractive reception and bar area. There’s even a small swimming pool and Jacuzzi featuring stones from a former church!
Rhone-Alpes tourism has kindly organised a guide but, as often happens, she tries to cram in far too much in too short a time. But at least we get to see some of Lyon’s fascinating ‘Traboules’, little passageways through buildings which link adjoining streets.
There’s a lovely atmosphere in the city, very outdoorsy, unthreatening, calm, relaxed.
As in many cities around the world, Lyon has a ‘City Card’, which for €41, gives you three days unlimited access to museums, attractions and public transport. (Passes for one or two days are also available).
And what a wonderful public transport system Lyon has. Four metro lines, trolleybuses, trams and buses, it really is incredibly impressive.
One of the funicular lines takes you to the foot of the Fourviere Basilica, completed in 1896. Most often, I avoid religious buildings but, twice a day, a small group of visitors gets taken on a ‘Visite Insolite’ (unusual visit) of the upper galleries and rooftops. The views across the peninsula across the city towards Switzerland are truly spectacular. The 80-minute tours are, however, totally in French and I’ll admit to having tuned out after 30 minutes of intense concentration.
Just down the hill is the impressive Roman Amphitheatre, still used as a concert venue and, below, the narrow streets of the charming medieval old town.
One of the friendly receptionists at the hotel has recommended the nearby ‘Leon de Lyon’ for dinner and it turns out to be a really good choice with nicely prepared food and a great atmosphere. At under €70 for a meal for two, including drinks, good value as well.
Hotels in France can often be parsimonious about their breakfast offering, but the Grand Hotel has an excellent spread of cereals, bread, pastries, meat, cheese and two
types of egg. Certainly about the best breakfast I have ever had in France.
While my chum Pat goes off to explore the splendid fine arts museum, I use my Lyon card to do some serious examination of the comprehensive public transport system, which I can’t fault.
One discovery I make is that the Metro Line to the former workers’ area, Croix Rousse, is so steep that the trains are assisted by a rack and pinion system, which I don’t think I have experienced before in a city underground network.
I hire a bike from ‘Velo V’, Lyon’s excellent and cheap cycle hire scheme, which introduced the system two years before Paris, and have a lovely time pottering along the banks of the River Rhone.
Lyon was very much the centre of French Resistance during World War Two and there’s an excellent museum devoted to the story. Aided by an informative audio guide, it documents a fascinating, if horrific, period of local history. At the end of the tour it moves away from resistance to holocaust, which is terribly moving.
My host Isabelle meets me for lunch at the Café des Federations to have a typical Lyonnais ‘Bouchon’. We are berated in impeccable French and English by the Rumanian waitress, Sabina, for not making a great deal of inroad into the huge portions. No wonder the gent’s loo has a brilliant cartoon of a pig on the door!
Nearby, just in front of the fine arts museum, is the splendid Bartholdi fountain, originally destined for Bordeaux, but bought for Lyon when the original purchasers couldn’t stump up the cash!
I am a huge fan of produce markets, so set off on the C3 trolleybus for the Paul Bocuse market. While it’s hugely impressive, with a vast array of mouth-watering top-end products, it’s not what I am looking for. Near the hotel, on the banks of the River Saone, I get what I want. A local market with freshly harvested fruit, veg. and locally produced cheese and honey.
In the evening, we wander off to find a restaurant and strike gold. The ‘Second Soufflé’ jazz restaurant at 5 rue Neuve has been opened for less than a month and, accompanied by a very shortsighted pianist expertly tinkling the ivories, we have the best meal I have had anywhere on the current trip around the world. They do say that Lyon is one of the centres of French gastronomy – and they are not wrong!
The following morning, I have time for another cycle ride and a visit to the local bakery to buy some crusty French bread to take home. I sit by the Rhone watching the world go by and am lured to busy Perrache Station and the vast Bellecour Square to see the comings and goings.
Lyon has been a revelation. It’s a city that is chock-full of surprises, historic, charming, picturesque, accessible and really tourist-friendly.
Back at Lyon Airport, there’s no architect-designed terminal for EasyJet. Instead, the modern equivalent of a marquee, poorly equipped, cramped and not very clean, with inadequate seating. Of all the airport terminals I have visited over the past two months, it’s far and away the worst.
Just as I started this trip, it’s back on the train to Norwich and an easy bus trip home.
With no suitcases and only carry on luggage, it’s a painless process.
And so, journey’s end.
Sixty days to go round the world with almost no changes to the original plans and a week on top to do Lyon and wait in vain for the promised calls from United Airlines.
Thanks to the many folk who have been so wonderfully supportive of the trip and with whom I have interacted since I left my home in Norfolk, England, on February 28th. People who were acquaintances are now friends. Links with existing chums are now closer than before.
Also, my sincere appreciation to the more than five thousand people who are now reading the blog. Your kind comments and encouragement have helped keep me sane.
Thank you.


A selection of images from all the destinations visited in ‘Around the World in 60 days’ is at




Lyon photographs are at:










Regional Express train at Perrache Station


Bellecour Square


Lyon Airport's dreaful Terminal 3


Journey's End: Norwich Bus Station

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

San Francisco


If you go to the link below, you can see the coverage, in Sur in English,  of my visit to San Francisco:

http://services.surinenglish.com/virtual/20110916/

My material is featured on pages 28-34. 

Next month Sur will feature Denver, before I start heading homewards across the United States with Hollywood (Florida) and Michigan in November and, finally, Lyon in France in December.

This 'Around the World in 60 days' blog itself continues to attract a new audience, with over 10,557 people now reading it - 1112 more from the USA this month alone!


I continue to do radio interviews about the trip in the UK and in Spain.


You can check out the best photos from the trip at:


https://picasaweb.google.com/113030621059953130627/TheBestOfAroundTheWorldIn60Days?authuser=0&feat=directlink

Once again, may I pass on my grateful thanks to everyone who has been so supportive of 'Around the World in 60 Days'.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Round the World Photobook Now Available

I’ve just created a Photobook with some of my favourite photos from my Round the World Trip and thought you might want to see it.

If you like what you see, you can even order a copy of this Photo Book for yourself - and if you're new to PhotoBox, you'll get 50 free prints when you sign up today.
Just click on the link below to get started: http://www.photobox.co.uk/1xC8C8A7/creation/856906538?cid=puksecs001

By the way, this blog http://mdsouter.blogspot.com/ should this week notch up its 10,000th. reader!

All the best.

Mike Souter









Thursday, 21 July 2011

This month's Sur in English - South Island New Zealand

If you go to the link below, you can see today's coverage, in Sur in English,  of my visit to South Island New Zealand including earthquake-hit Christchurch:

http://services.surinenglish.com/virtual/20110722/

My material is featured on pages 34-39. 

Sur will feature Norfolk Island next month, before I start heading homewards across the United States with San Francisco due to be featured in September.

This 'Around the World in 60 days' blog itself continues to attract a new audience, with over 8,253 people now reading it - 279 more from the USA this week alone!

I continue to do radio interviews about the trip on both the BBC in the UK and on commercial radio stations in Spain.

Once again, may I pass on my grateful thanks to everyone who has been so supportive of 'Around the World in 60 Days'.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Around the World in 60 Days -Sur in English coverage of Auckland and Hamilton

If you go to the link below, you can see today's coverage, in Sur in English,  of my visit to Auckland and Hamilton in North Island New Zealand:

http://services.surinenglish.com/virtual/20110617/

My material is featured on pages 35-39. 

The current planned schedule is that Sur will feature South Island New Zealand next month and Norfolk Island in August, before I start heading homewards across the United States.

This 'Around the World in 60 days' blog itself continues to attract a new audience, with over 6,539 people now reading it - 283 from the USA this week alone!

I continue to do radio interviews about the trip on both the BBC in the UK and on commercial radio stations in Spain.

My grateful thanks to everyone who has been so supportive of 'Around the World in 60 Days'.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Sur in English - Singapore and Melbourne

If you go to the link below, you can see today's coverage, in Sur in English,  of my recent visit to Singapore and Melbourne:

http://services.surinenglish.com/virtual/20110520/

My material is featured on pages 38-42.

This 'Around the World in 60 days' continues to attract a big audience, with over 5,200 now reading it.

I continue to do radio interviews about the trip; my next scheduled interview is on BBC Radio Norfolk on 31 May and I will be back on Talk Radio Europe in the next couple of weeks.


My grateful thanks to everyone who has been so supportive of 'Around the World in 60 Days'.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

AN ‘L’ OF A JOURNEY – LANSING, LONDON AND LYON

Shuttling between terminals at Chicago O'Hare

First Class in an United Airlines B767-300

First Class on the Heathrow Express
Swimming Pool at the Grand Hotel des Terreaux

Lyon beat Paris in providing a fleet of hire-cycles

A detail of the Lyon Fresco

The River Saone in Lyon

Toilet door at the Cafe des Federations

Graffiti atop the Fourviere Basilica

The Lyon Opera from the roof of the Fourviere Basilica
Macaroons in the Paul Bocuse Market

Lyon tram
At Capital City Airport, Lansing, there are two personnel on duty at United check-in. I double-check that my bags are through-checked. Transport and Security Administration seem to have more blue-shirted staff than there are passengers. But it makes for an easy transition to the business lounge
At the gate, there’s a hiatus when the same man who checked me in has to tell a wheelchair passenger that he can’t get on the flight because the airport-owned device to lift him on to the aircraft has broken and nobody can be found to mend it.
In Chicago, I am expecting to have a challenge changing terminals, but United has a little shuttle bus, which achieves the objective within minutes by crossing the taxiways while dodging arriving and departing aircraft. Another first!
I check the boards for my London-bound flight, which is nowhere to be seen. In United’s Red Carpet Lounge, I am told that the aircraft has a maintenance issue and that my flight will either be cancelled or badly delayed. Oh what joy. So I am waitlisted on the next available flight, one of which is already boarding.
United’s system for such eventualities appears to be that you turn up at the gate, irrespective of the class in which you are booked,  until everyone else is on board and wait to see if there’s a seat. There is, but it is down the back end. No thank you.
 An hour later, the same palaver all over again, with no clue as to whether I’ll be on the flight or stuck at O’Hare overnight. Gate supervisor Editha is clearly hassled and is busy changing seat allocations and calling standby passengers forward. I stand in front of her for twenty minutes and not once does she smile, say anything to me, or make eye contact. Then, without a murmur or change of facial expression, she hands me a boarding card for First Class.
I hand her my luggage tags to ensure that my bags, which I have been told are in a ‘Priority handling area’ are loaded on to the plane and scamper back to the nearby lounge to collect my iPad and carry on luggage.
On the B767-300, the First Class cabin only has six seats, one of which is reserved for an off-duty pilot. With two cabin crew for just five passengers, the service from the British male staff is friendly and efficient. The quality of the fit is, in my opinion, second only to the Air New Zealand/Virgin Atlantic business-class offering, but is similarly impressive, with lie-flat beds and plenty of storage space. The quality of the catering is also splendid. (I check later on the price and discover that a single First Class Chicago to London fare is $9500 US, more or less the same as my round the world business class ticket!)
After a good night’s sleep, I watch the priority luggage go round the carousel with no sign of either of my bags. When I check at the United desk, the lady tells me that they are still in Chicago. She can’t tell me why they are not on their way on my original plane, which, despite all the misinformation in Chicago, is due to arrive at Heathrow on schedule.
Of course the bags don’t arrive home when promised and, as in Chicago, the quality of care and communication from United Airlines is woeful. Indeed, as I write this, some 10 days later, they have still not demonstrated any real element of care or concern. However, the bags do arrive home – eventually.
Anyway, not to dwell on that, because my final destination calls. I use the fast and efficient Heathrow Express to reach central London and, uncluttered by baggage, transfer stations to reach my ultimate destination of Stansted Airport.
From there, it’s only an 80 minute EasyJet flight to Lyon in France, where the airport has a spectacular building designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the man behind the airport in Bilbao, Tenerife's performing arts complex and much else besides.
I am staying at the Grand Hotel des Terreaux, perfectly situated on the peninsula between the rivers Saone and Rhone in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Area. It’s only a three-star, but the former coaching inn has been splendidly refurbished with a most attractive reception and bar area. There’s even a small swimming pool and Jacuzzi featuring stones from a former church!
Rhone-Alpes tourism has kindly organised a guide but, as often happens, she tries to cram in far too much in too short a time. But at least we get to see some of Lyon’s fascinating ‘Traboules’, little passageways through buildings which link adjoining streets.
There’s a lovely atmosphere in the city, very outdoorsy, unthreatening, calm, relaxed.
As in many cities around the world, Lyon has a ‘City Card’, which for €41, gives you three days unlimited access to museums, attractions and public transport. (Passes for one or two days are also available).
And what a wonderful public transport system Lyon has. Four metro lines, trolleybuses, trams and buses, it really is incredibly impressive.
One of the funicular lines takes you to the foot of the Fourviere Basilica, completed in 1896. Most often, I avoid religious buildings but, twice a day, a small group of visitors gets taken on a ‘Visite Insolite’ (unusual visit) of the upper galleries and rooftops. The views across the peninsula across the city towards Switzerland are truly spectacular. The 80-minute tours are, however, totally in French and I’ll admit to having tuned out after 30 minutes of intense concentration.
Just down the hill is the impressive Roman Amphitheatre, still used as a concert venue and, below, the narrow streets of the charming medieval old town.
One of the friendly receptionists at the hotel has recommended the nearby ‘Leon de Lyon’ for dinner and it turns out to be a really good choice with nicely prepared food and a great atmosphere. At under €70 for a meal for two, including drinks, good value as well.
Hotels in France can often be parsimonious about their breakfast offering, but the Grand Hotel has an excellent spread of cereals, bread, pastries, meat, cheese and two
types of egg. Certainly about the best breakfast I have ever had in France.
While my chum Pat goes off to explore the splendid fine arts museum, I use my Lyon card to do some serious examination of the comprehensive public transport system, which I can’t fault.
One discovery I make is that the Metro Line to the former workers’ area, Croix Rousse, is so steep that the trains are assisted by a rack and pinion system, which I don’t think I have experienced before in a city underground network.
I hire a bike from ‘Velo V’, Lyon’s excellent and cheap cycle hire scheme, which introduced the system two years before Paris, and have a lovely time pottering along the banks of the River Rhone.
Lyon was very much the centre of French Resistance during World War Two and there’s an excellent museum devoted to the story. Aided by an informative audio guide, it documents a fascinating, if horrific, period of local history. At the end of the tour it moves away from resistance to holocaust, which is terribly moving.
My host Isabelle meets me for lunch at the Café des Federations to have a typical Lyonnais ‘Bouchon’. We are berated in impeccable French and English by the Rumanian waitress, Sabina, for not making a great deal of inroad into the huge portions. No wonder the gent’s loo has a brilliant cartoon of a pig on the door!
Nearby, just in front of the fine arts museum, is the splendid Bartholdi fountain, originally destined for Bordeaux, but bought for Lyon when the original purchasers couldn’t stump up the cash!
I am a huge fan of produce markets, so set off on the C3 trolleybus for the Paul Bocuse market. While it’s hugely impressive, with a vast array of mouth-watering top-end products, it’s not what I am looking for. Near the hotel, on the banks of the River Saone, I get what I want. A local market with freshly harvested fruit, veg. and locally produced cheese and honey.
In the evening, we wander off to find a restaurant and strike gold. The ‘Second Soufflé’ jazz restaurant at 5 rue Neuve has been opened for less than a month and, accompanied by a very shortsighted pianist expertly tinkling the ivories, we have the best meal I have had anywhere on the current trip around the world. They do say that Lyon is one of the centres of French gastronomy – and they are not wrong!
The following morning, I have time for another cycle ride and a visit to the local bakery to buy some crusty French bread to take home. I sit by the Rhone watching the world go by and am lured to busy Perrache Station and the vast Bellecour Square to see the comings and goings.
Lyon has been a revelation. It’s a city that is chock-full of surprises, historic, charming, picturesque, accessible and really tourist-friendly.
Back at Lyon Airport, there’s no architect-designed terminal for EasyJet. Instead, the modern equivalent of a marquee, poorly equipped, cramped and not very clean, with inadequate seating. Of all the airport terminals I have visited over the past two months, it’s far and away the worst.
Just as I started this trip, it’s back on the train to Norwich and an easy bus trip home.
With no suitcases and only carry on luggage, it’s a painless process.
And so, journey’s end.
Sixty days to go round the world with almost no changes to the original plans and a week on top to do Lyon and wait in vain for the promised calls from United Airlines.
Thanks to the many folk who have been so wonderfully supportive of the trip and with whom I have interacted since I left my home in Norfolk, England, on February 28th. People who were acquaintances are now friends. Links with existing chums are now closer then before.
Also, my sincere appreciation to the more than five thousand people who are now reading the blog. Your kind comments and encouragement have helped keep me sane.
Thank you.

A selection of images from all the destinations visited in ‘Around the World in 60 days’ is at


Lyon photographs are at:





Regional Express train at Perrache Station

Bellecour Square

Lyon Airport's dreaful Terminal 3

Journey's End: Norwich Bus Station

Saturday, 30 April 2011

22. Meeting a pampered pooping pooch in mid-air and a return to Michigan


US Airways First Class

Charlotte Airport

Fletcher at home in East Lansing

The Union Flag fluttering proudly in East Lansing

Ellie's Country Kitchen Menu

Tom Fredericks and Ken Beachler

Lansing State Capitol

Silver Birch on Lansing Riverwalk

'The World's best blueberry pancakes' at Sawyers
The guy next to me on my US Airways’ flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, is clearly tense. He is pushing frantically at the buttons on his smart phone, then peering at the screen looking for an instant reply.
He continues to do this after the door is closed until the flight attendant tells him that it has to be powered off. At this, he flings the phone into the seat pocket and begins to aggressively turn the pages of the in-flight magazine.
After a while, I ask him why he is so stressed up. ‘I have issues,’ he says. ‘I’ll be fine after I have my vodka.’
Geoffrey, our flight attendant, appears shortly after take off, promising his First Class passengers that ‘you’ll have such a good experience, you won’t want to get off’.
He’s a bit constrained in what he can actually do to achieve that, but my companion participates fully in his hospitality and swiftly sinks three miniatures of vodka before engaging in a noisy conversation about American football with a very loud Bostonian woman across the aisle.
At Charlotte we are held up as a result of tornadoes sweeping the southern states and, in a first for me, the aircraft is pushed away from the gate before parking for an hour in a spare bit of tarmac. Eventually, we are cleared for take off and take a somewhat circuitous route to Chicago to avoid the storms.
My new companion is a woman, dressed expensively, who announces to the cabin crew and the world at large that ‘she has recently come out of rehab’. She’s brought aboard a little dog, a Pekinese I think, which she wedges underneath the seat in front, forcing me to squish my legs into the little space that is left.
The dog is fine, but she insists on constantly lifting the cover and peeking inside, eventually removing the animal and sitting it on the armrest between us. After I indicate I am not hugely enamoured with the situation, she takes it, in her arms, for a walk around the First Class cabin and galley.
A short while afterward, she reappears, having been told by the flight attendant that the animal has to go back in its box.
She does what she is told but, shortly afterwards, the nauseous smell of dog poo wafts up from the basket. I excuse myself to go to the toilet and have a short discussion with the flight attendant about the rules of dogs on aircraft.
As I return to my seat, madam heaves the dog basket from underneath the seat, knocking her cola over in the process and, without apparently noticing, heads to the lavatory to clean up the dog mess.
As the stewardess clears up the spilled drink, she tells me that the woman arrived at the gate with the dog in a stroller.
Why are we not surprised?
Poor bitch.
The dog, I mean.

Despite being over an hour late at Chicago, everything else is delayed, so I have over an hour to wait for my 30-minute flight to Lansing, which should already have left.
I have packed carefully for my flight. United managed to lose my bag on the same route last year, so I have packed enough in each of my two checked in bags to deal with any eventualities.
At Lansing, my old US Navy Captain friend, Ken Beachler, meets me and we head off to baggage claim where the luggage is already arriving. Not many people have bags to claim, but neither of my ‘Priority Luggage’ tagged bags is anywhere to be seen. After about a minute, the carousel stops and there’s an announcement ‘That concludes the baggage service. If your bags have not arrived, report to the check-in desk, where we will be momentarily.
Forty minutes later, Bill appears, in response to a helpful maintenance man going into the ‘authorized persons only’ area to find someone. This after we have asked the information desk, security staff, a police officer and a cleaner to see if anyone from United can be found.
There’s no point me documenting what happened over the next 24 hours, beyond saying United don’t cover themselves in glory, especially as we later discover, the  bags are delivered to Lansing the same evening and nobody from the airline can be bothered to tell us.

Because of my Navy connection, I have been to Michigan many times over the past 15 years. It’s a lovely state. Lansing houses the state capitol and, in East Lansing, Michigan State University. My chum was, for many years, the director of its enormous and impressive performing arts centre
I am somewhat restricted on my first day by only having the t-shirt and shorts in which I left hot and humid Florida, I busy myself indoors in almost constant dialogue with the unimpressive United Airlines, waiting in for calls that are never returned and trying numbers that appear never to be answered.
But the Union flag is flying outside the Beachler Residence in honour of my visit and, with true British ‘stiff upper-lip’ spirit, we head out to the excellent and popular Coral Gables in downtown East Lansing for a really tasty and great value soup and sandwich lunch before heading out grocery shopping.
And to buy me a long-handled scrubbing brush!
In the evening, we meet with local attorney and cornet player, Tom Fredericks, at the highly-rated Bravo Italian restaurant. It’s a fun evening, although there’s no real excuse for the restaurant running out of one of their recommended red wines and the veal dish which the server has suggested we try.
It’s become a tradition when I visit the US that I take in a least one film in the cinema. Ken and I decide to visit NCG’s Eastwood Cinema complex, where we find we are the only patrons for the lunchtime showing of the very funny, thought-provoking and beautifully-crafted ‘Win Win’.
For lunch, we would have gone to PF Chang’s China Bistro, had Matthew on reception not kept us waiting for an eternity while he dealt with several telephone calls, with not even an acknowledgement to the prospective guests. So the nearby Max and Erma’s, who ‘serve coke products’, hits the spot, although they insist in squishing us into a crowded part of an almost empty restaurant.
In the morning, we head to Williamston, where Tom Fredericks kindly hosts us to an extremely tasty and well-prepared breakfast at ‘Ellie’s Country Kitchen’.
It’s Friday, so I make a return visit to the well-attended Lansing Rotary Club where a rendition by an excellent 17-year old saxophonist, Jordan Lulloff, wows the audience. Jordan is visiting Scotland in the summer with his parents and some family friends, so his dad, who’s a music professor at Michigan State, is already in contact with me for my independent advice!
On a picture-perfect day, we make the one-hour drive to Grand Rapids, where we are entertained to a very tasty home-cooked meal at the home of my host’s brother, Fred and his wife, Ruth.
It’s sadly my last day in East Lansing on what has been an all-too-short visit.
We head out downtown to sample ‘The world’s best blueberry pancakes’ at Sawyer’s.
I am hoping the fare will give me the strength I need to wrestle again with United Airlines who, if they get something right for a change, will be getting me back to Chicago and onwards overnight to London before the final leg of my journey, to Lyon in France.
They might even manage to get my luggage there too, but that’s a tale for another day.


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Friday, 29 April 2011

21. United Airlines and their biggest enemy. The customer.

United Airlines Departure Board

United Airlines desk at Lansing

I have been less than impressed, to put it mildly, with the quality of service I have experienced during ‘Around the World in 60 Days’ at the hands of the staff of United Airlines. Having travelled in Business/First on six Star Alliance carriers since the first day of March, United is unique in their ability to screw up almost everything they touch.
Forgive me if I don’t go back into the details. To be frank, just thinking about their attitude to customers makes my blood boil.
In my forty years of globetrotting, I have never before experienced such a collective group of people who seem to thrive on being rude, uncaring and unhelpful. They seem to have such a hostile attitude; it astounds me that many of them are actually in a job at all.
But should we blame the unions, bad management or poor training?
No, the finger must point at the individuals who seem, universally, to have the attitude that the world owes them a living. We, the customer who pays their wages, are seen largely as an inconvenience to their cosy way of life.
The trouble is that the world is changing and they – and their airline – have been very slow to embrace the new way of life.
I find it difficult to believe that a company which relies almost totally upon the delivery of a quality travel experience can be so completely unable to provide it. The attitude I have experienced seems to be endemic, part of the culture. Indeed, it seems the ‘United scowl’, is almost a badge of honour to be worn with pride by the vast majority of their staff. A natural smile is rarely, if ever, seen in the world that is United Airlines.
What seems to me to be a huge issue is not just their total lack of concern when they get something wrong, it’s their absolute inability to communicate in any meaningful fashion. The printed word appears alien to them - they appear unable –or probably can’t be bothered – even to read notes in bookings.
Certainly any sense of contrition is totally absent. Sorry really does seem to be the hardest word.
It’s sad to report that, when you recount your experiences with United to business and professional contacts in the USA, they just give you a knowing look and act totally unsurprised. Which perhaps indicates that their customers have either not complained enough or that United Customer Service are so good at stonewalling complaints that most folk just give up in frustration.
The quality and consistency of information given out by their staff is truly dreadful. Ask three people to confirm your baggage allowances and you get four different answers. That’s just in the US. When you are connected to their call centre in the Philippines, they often seem unable correctly to answer even one.
At Lansing Airport, Michigan, I waited for over forty minutes in a long queue of just me, for a member of their staff to appear from the back office to report my lost bags. This being in response to their PA announcement when the carousel stopped turning that ‘they would be there momentarily’.
I was there to report that neither of my bags had arrived on my 30-minute flight across Lake Michigan from Chicago. One of the bags on the route got lost last year but, as always, I pack to cope with such eventualities. When two go missing, the plans go awry.
I accept that bags do, occasionally, go astray. But I find it unforgiveable that nobody can be bothered to tell you that they have been found and the onus is on you to do the chasing.
Shockingly, United only contacted me after I had gone to their PR people in frustration. In the end, I collected my bags from the airport myself, having been told that they might not be delivered until 5.30pm, some 18 hours after they had actually arrived at their original destination.
As for compensation, don’t ask Kevin at United in Lansing, who says the airline won’t pay you anything ‘until 24 hours has elapsed’.
That is of course totally incorrect. United, like other US airlines, has had to toe the Department of Transportation line that ‘all reasonable expenses’ should be reimbursed.
At Lansing, the bell that used to summons United staff has been disconnected, their phone rings without being forwarded to anyone who can render any form of aid. They seem to be strong supporters of a United philosophy of making themselves almost impossible to contact.
On United Airlines flights, their President and CEO, Jeff Smizec, smilingly greets you, promising ‘great customer service’. What I have experienced is quite the reverse. Far from smiling, the top man should be grim-faced as he clears out an awful lot of folk who should have no future in his airline.
Mr. Smizec, who has economics and law degrees from Princeton and Harvard, is clearly bright and has been credited with achieving great results during his 15 years at Continental.
But will his mountainous task trying to change the frosty-faced culture at United be his ultimate undoing?

Thursday, 28 April 2011

20. The other Hollywood

Denver International Airport

First Class meal on US Airways

Desoto Awards

Hollywood Beach

Desoto Oceanview Inn Gardens

Le Tub burger

Young Circle, Hollywood

Relaxing by the Intracoastal

Sunset over the Intracoastal

Denver’s light and airy International Airport is an hour’s ride away from the city. The RTD bus takes a fairly circuitous route, but the driver kindly helps me on and off with my baggage.
Check in with US Airways is quick and easy. I ask the lady if the airline has a lounge at the airport. She laughs. ‘With just three check in desks and two gates, we are lucky if we have a chair to sit on!’
The security staff is friendly and efficient and it’s nice to be able to get through without ending up in a tangled heap as tends so often to be the case.
There’s a chatty lady sitting next to me in First Class, who is on the way to see her son and his family in Charlotte. As someone who has been involved in business in the city, she’s very interested in my views on Denver. She seems pleased when I praise ‘whoever was responsible for the city’s progress in recent years’. This person seems to be a friend of hers, the former mayor, who is now the State Governor.
We are served a splendid meal and the journey to Charlotte passes quickly and very pleasantly.
I am delighted that the connection to Fort Lauderdale works seamlessly. The man next to me on this leg is highly stressed. He is very reluctant to switch off his Smartphone, and flings it into the seat pocket in a rage when he is told by the flight attendant to switch it off. He then turns the pages of the in-flight magazine with an unbelievable ferocity. By the time we arrive in Fort Lauderdale, he has downed four double measures of vodka, which at least seems to have calmed him down.
Collecting a car at Hertz is the normal nonsense of too few staff on duty and them trying to sell you additional insurance and a larger car. The technique works, I am sure, with jet-lagged tourists, but not with me!
I have chosen Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport as it is only a short drive from the Desoto Oceanview Inn, where I first stayed when writing ‘Hidden Florida’ in 2009. It’s my third visit.
The Desoto is charming. It is small, friendly, is right next to the beach, full of character amid splendid gardens and delightfully quiet. Manager Steve Welsch
is a firm believer in being green and guests are encouraged to recycle as much as possible.
Steve is pleased that I notice a new bookcase, on the back of which are some of the Inn’s many awards. A neighbour was throwing it out and, with a bit of work, the piece of furniture provides both a place for books and a functional display space.
I visit Winn Dixie, a Florida supermarket chain, where I stock up with necessities for the short stay in my comfortable self-catering apartment.
It’s a holiday weekend, the roads are busy, it is stiflingly hot, and so I decide not to be a tourist but to fit in with the Desoto’s relaxing ethos.
For the first time in almost two months, I sit down with a book and actually relax.
The beach is 30 seconds from the shady spot where I have been reading and just before the sun goes down, I enjoy a dip in the warm Atlantic Ocean while watching huge cruise liners set off from Port Everglades.
The Desoto is at the north end of Hollywood’s two-mile long Broadwalk, a promenade popular with walkers and cyclists, which allows easy access to the six miles of top quality beach.
The water taxi, which, for years, has taken visitors around Fort Lauderdale’s many waterways, has now been extended to Hollywood. The two-hour return journey along the Intracoastal Waterway allows a close up view of the cruise ships as well as linking in to the popular circuit around ‘The Venice of America’.
In the Wilton Manors district, I marvel at the expensive homes in their waterfront location and gleaming white boats tied up at the bottom of the garden.
No visit to the United States can be complete without a visit to a shopping mall, where the prices, by European standards, are amazingly cheap.
Thus I buy three new pairs of shoes at Oakwood Plaza, allowing me to dispose of two, which Steve at the Desoto retrieves ‘to pass on to needy folk’.
I drive down the A1A, Ocean Drive, to explore Hollywood Beach, but the great weather and the holiday weekend has brought out the crowds and there is not a parking space to be found. So I resort to plan B, cross the bridge over the Intracoastal, and enjoy the relative calm of downtown Hollywood, with its ArtsPark at Young Circle and the tree-lined Boulevard with pleasant street cafes.
I am hoping to visit Stranahan House, built in 1901 and on the National Register of Historic Places, where there is a ghost tour. But, because of the holiday, it is closed.
So I resort to the beach where I enjoy the Atlantic breakers crashing against the shore while I devour more of my book.
The following day, I take one of the Desoto’s complimentary bicycles and potter around the nearby Anne Kolb Nature Center, which has more than 1500 acres of coastal mangrove wetlands alongside the Intracoastal Waterway.
Steve has been laid up as a result of a knee injury, so it’s just his Venezuelan partner Josias and I who head into Hollywood Beach for dinner.
We visit Le Tub, built in 1975 totally from flotsam and jetsam on the site of a former petrol station, and overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s weird, wacky and full of character. Its sirloin burger is reportedly Oprah Winfrey’s favourite and was once named by Esquire magazine as ‘The Best burger in America’.
But when it arrives, after a wait of 40 minutes (warned about in advance) it is disappointing. The meat is clearly great quality, but the ‘13 ounces of pure ground sirloin’ burger is let down presentationally by being served on a disposable plate with plastic cutlery and some very tired lettuce and tomato.
In the morning, Steve says he’s pleased that I have been able to relax into the Desoto’s lifestyle.
As am I. It’s been just what I had needed.
As I am unloading my bags at Hertz, having driven just 71 miles in 3 days, one of their employees, Fred, kindly offers to drive me and my luggage in the car to Terminal 3 to catch my flight to Lansing, Michigan, via Charlotte and Chicago.
It’s a much appreciated gesture at the end of a relaxing few days in Florida.

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