Afternoon Tea

Over the last decade, the afternoon tea has come back into fashion. No longer the preserve of the wealthy, these teas are now on every high street in the land. The typical afternoon tea involves sandwiches, lots of cake and, of course, tea.

Another reason that so many pubs, cafes and restaurants now offer afternoon tea is that it is cheap to make, and the high prices mean it is very profitable. A quick online search shows me that Fortnum & Mason charge £120 while The Millstone are selling vouchers for £280.

The sandwiches are usually ham or cheese (or salmon if it is somewhere fancy) and often very small. The cakes are scones and there will always be a huge variety of teas. Despite the huge variety, people will almost always choose breakfast tea.

At the posh hotel, afternoon tea is very popular. We are encouraged to give ‘service plus’ to the afternoon tea customers (whatever that means) rather than the normal lunch customers who presumably just get ‘service’. The main difference between the two groups, afternoon tea and lunch, is that the tea customers get tablecloths. On the four sunny afternoons we get per year, there will be the option to eat outside, along with the wasps.

Most places will provide takeaway boxes so the excess cakes can be taken home although we prefer them to be left behind so we can take them back into the kitchen and eat them ourselves.

A fun game we like to play with our afternoon tea customers is trying to predict which of the following conversations will happen first:

  • Is it pronounced scone (rhymes with gone) or scone (rhymes with bone)?
  • Which goes on first – jam or cream?
Is this worth £59?

These two conversations happen at every table, every day during the afternoon tea service. Sometimes they get quite heated and a waiter gets summoned to settle the argument. Some people think it is cream first as it is a butter substitute, others think it is jam first as the jam stops the cream from sliding off. We now serve the scones plain, with the jam and cream in small pots, following complaints they were being served ‘wrong’.

To be honest, I couldn’t care less about these discussions. Do what you like. Its only cake.

Dog Inclusive Weddings

The posh hotel has been running ‘dog friendly’ weddings for a while now. This meant that people could bring their pets to the ceremony and to the reception. It was always quite popular, and the hotel earned money by charging an extra fee per hound. Then somebody took it one stage further and a new program was born, ‘dog inclusive’ weddings, rather than just attending, the dogs were to be given active roles in these outdoor ceremonies. So how has it all been going?

               The first dog inclusive wedding was for a middle-aged couple. Her father had recently passed away, so the bride decided to be walked down the aisle by her elderly greyhound, Fiona. It was quite a small wedding held in the garden, but it seemed that all the attention had taken its toll on poor Fiona. She had already eaten the poesy, some twigs and half an unattended beer and by the time her big moment came, nature was taking its course. Halfway down the aisle, Fiona stopped to do her business (which made for a lovely photo), it took a while to get her moving again which gave the bridal party time to find a plastic bag to remove the offending item. Only then was it noticed that her deposit was runny. As there were young children in the group, we then had to discreetly clean the aisle as the wedding ceremony was progressing. Amazingly, on the way out, Fiona did the same thing once again.

Trouble is brewing…

However, this was nothing compared to the next dog inclusive wedding which featured a pair of two-year-old Jack Russell twins named Lala and Po (apparently after the Teletubbies). Lala was chosen to be a bridesmaid while Po was the ring bearer. Lala had a dress to wear which matched ones worn by her human counterparts and Po had a waistcoat with a strip of Velcro which the ring box would be attached to.

Apparently, the wedding rehearsal had gone very well but that was without the excitement of the attending crowds. Problem one was that Lala did not want to wear the dress that had been specially made for her and insisted on trying to rip it off with her teeth, but the bride was insistent that it was worn. It took three people to pin her down to get the dog dressed. Getting Po into his waistcoat had been much more straight forward although while wearing it, he jumped up at a baby who immediately vomited on Po and the waistcoat meaning both now needed washing.

A doggy waistcoat

The Jack Russell twins were finally ready to go, Lala managed to get down the aisle with the other bridesmaids with the matching dresses (although attempts to repair the rips were a little less than fully successful). Po had the ring box attached to his waistcoat and as he was released from his lead, Po saw a rabbit through a gap in the hedge and went charging off for a game of chase. The ring box became detached and the entire group went chasing after both dog and ring. Lala took this opportunity to finally rid herself of the hated gown and the registrar just stood there in pure shock as the sickly baby had another explosive episode.

I am informed we have had an enquiry for a wedding featuring six chihuahuas – what could possibly go wrong?

Just A Cruise Ship Singer

The phrase ‘cruise ship singer’ has been used as an insult on TV talent shows for years. Generally speaking, the people who use that insult strike me as the kind of people who have never actually been on a cruise so have no idea what they are talking about.

However, it is fair to say, cruise ship entertainment can be a real mixed bag. The shows with the singers & dancers are often a series of vaguely connected pop songs performed with enthusiasm three times a night. These performers are great. Unlike Broadway stars, they get to perform in a variety of styles on a guaranteed contract with no risk of the show getting terrible reviews and closing after six performances.

The performers rehearse on the ship, with no understudy. If somebody is ill or injured, everybody else just does extra. I remember one show that was supposed to have thirteen people on stage, seven had a vomiting bug and the other six had to everything and change their wigs a lot. There is no wardrobe and make up department, the performers have to maintain their own costumes which means there is little room for indulgence in the buffet.

No matter what the weather, the show must go on

Something else to factor in, is the movement of the ship. The dancers jump up and while they are in the air, the floor has moved. While the shows might be a bit ‘ropey’, the performers are amazing.

This is not always the case for the guest entertainers. These are people who fly to the ship, sail for a few days, and then fly away in the next port. They can sail on three different ships in a week and get paid per show, if they plan carefully this can make for a very lucrative career. However, it is fair to say that many of these people are way past their best and can be very hard to work with.

Examples that stick in my memory include:

  • A member of a very famous 70s band who can’t walk onto the stage and wheezes throughout the show
  • A successful Broadway actress who answers her phone (every time it rings) by singing the entire chorus of the song she won a Tony for
  • A 90s TV performer who reads his entire show from cue cards and even though it is the same every time, still gets the cards mixed up
  • A variety show ventriloquist who insists everyone addresses his puppet with any questions rather than him directly
  • A record-breaking English sportsman’s wife who refuses to talk about her husband and instead does her entire show in broken French to the bemusement of all concerned

These people used to cause me so many problems, many of them couldn’t really function without somebody to look after them and seemed to forget their luggage, miss the ship, get arrested or deported for having the wrong visas on an alarmingly regular basis.

One of my favourite pieces of guest feedback concerns an American TV star from the late 1980s who would come on board every week to do a concert about his career. The complaint was that the concert would have been better had he not been in it.

When it comes to entertainment, I’ll take a ‘cruise ship singer’ rather than these so-called guest entertainers. Just writing this has made me realise how little I miss them all.

Fake Helipads

Along with the brigg, another part of the cruise ship people are endlessly fascinated with is the hospital. Every modern cruise ship sails with a team of doctors and nurses ready to leap into action when the worst happens. Thankfully, this is very rare and the team of highly qualified medical professionals spend the majority their time dishing out cough syrup and seasick tablets. This is the reason that most doctors and nurses don’t last long onboard the high seas, their work is very tedious.

The reason for this is insurance. It is a requirement of sail that everyone must have adequate medical cover and this process weans out anyone likely to need complex medical interventions. If there is any reason to suspect somebody is likely to keel over, they are immediately taken ashore to a local hospital, often the ships will divert to make this happen. Although depending where in the world the ship is, the hospitals in question can have wildly varying standards, not that the cruise lines care, they just want the ill person gone.

The medical centres themselves are very impressive. They can deliver babies, perform blood transfusions, and even sustain people in a coma. Many medical staff told me the facilities are better than the ones in the hospital they worked in ashore.

Hardly action packed…

One myth that needs busting is that of the cruise ship helipad. A lot of cruise liners seem to have a helipad painted onto the deck somewhere at the back of the ship. These are not real. Unlike a navy ship, cruise liners can’t cope with the weight of a helicopter. However, in a real emergency, it is possible to air lift a very ill person from a ship onto an aircraft hovering above the ship. Obviously, this is fraught with danger and would be an option of last resort.

In my twelve years, I can only remember one helicopter evacuation (or ‘helivac’ as we call them). The ship’s captain was very worried about the helicopter crashing into the ship so we had to close all the balconies and move everyone inside. It also led to one of my favourite complaints of all time “it was extremely disrespectful of you to schedule the helicopter during our dinner time”. These are so rare because if it is close to land, the ship will sail back to port, if it is too far from land, the helicopter can’t get there. Let’s not think too much about the cost…

Purely decorative on a cruise ship

But what if the worst happens? Do we have a mortuary? The answer to this frequently asked question is yes. There is a unlabelled door on the main crew throughfare that will hold a small number of deceased people. On the majority of vessels that I sailed on, it took three. The old joke was, if everyone was offered free ice cream, we must be looking for a space for person four. However, this simply doesn’t happen.

It is totally normal for gossip to go round that 2 or 8 or 27 or 7531 people have passed away in the three hours since we left port but it is incredibly unusual for anyone to meet their maker at sea. An interesting point to note is that the body of the deceased is given to the next port we visit. Depending on where that is, there may be a substantial fee to release it to the family so insurance is very important.

For those of us lucky enough to come from countries with free (or subsidised) healthcare, the prices charged by cruise ship medical centres can come as a major shock. Depending on the voyage, the doctors can take more revenue than the hairdressers or photographers. So here are some tips:

  1. If you suffer from motion sickness, take tablets before you start vomiting
  2. Don’t leave your prescription medication at home
  3. Can it wait? Out of hours calls will double the fee
  4. Don’t visit the doctor for insect bites, just buy the lotion from the shops
  5. For goodness sake: GET TRAVEL INSURANCE

What Should We Do With A Drunken Sailor?

When people find out I spent twelve years working on cruise ships, a series of fairly inevitable questions arise:

  • Where is your favourite place? I say Singapore, then go into an anecdote about how chewing gum is illegal there.
  • Did you get seasick? Not really, but motion sickness tablets will do the job for almost everyone who is worried
  • Is there anywhere you haven’t been? Pretty much anywhere landlocked.

A more interesting question is ‘where is the brig’? To clarify, a brig is usually on a warship, a cell into which drunken sailors are thrown to stop them causing trouble.

In international waters, the captain is king. Whatever he/she says goes. Many people are incensed that their domestic rules don’t count here and think the rules should be either stricter or much less strict depending on wherever they are from. Smoking is a good example of this, passengers who come from places with few smoking laws want to be able to smoke anywhere they like. Other people who come from places with very tight restrictions on tobacco argue the entire ship should be smoke free. To navigate this, there are usually designated smoking areas in out of the way places so both smokers and non-smokers can be annoyed equally.

The ships all have an onboard security team. Their main responsibility is to keep undesirable people and objects from gaining entry. I wonder if some of the breeches I encountered would still happen today:

  • The stowaways who came onboard while a large coach party distracted everyone’s attention. They slept on the open deck and were only discovered two days later.
  • The workmen who confidently stole a grand piano, taking it through the cargo doors during a dry dock, everyone assumed they were working on it.
  • The person who didn’t like the photo on his security pass so took the barcode to a Home Depot and simply made himself a new one. This case went to the desk of the Vice President who was amazed it was so easy.

Depending on the cruise, another set of security problems is that of people who are drunk and disorderly. People who have thrown punches or caused damage are not taken to the brig (there isn’t one) but to an empty cabin. This cabin will be one that is unsellable. It has probably had a burst pipe or electrical fault that remains unfixed. It will do for the disorderly. Then security sit outside all night to stop them leaving and they are handed over to the police of the next port we go to, along with the relevant CCTV footage.

The ‘next port we go to’ can be a real mixed bag. If it is somewhere with an established legal process where many people speak English, they will be fine. However, if it is somewhere riskier, they are on their own. The cruise line will not do anything to help. Even getting home could be a costly and difficult process, let alone the legal problems they find themselves in. It is better to just behave.

Of course, the other group we need to consider are the crew members. Working 60-70 hours per week, means there is very little time to get into trouble. Perhaps the most obvious exemption is ‘banned substances’. To tackle this, random drug tests are undertaken every six weeks, these tests pick up everything so trips to a local pharmacy can lead to danger. Apparently, the reason for all this testing is not anything to do with welfare or safety but because it allows the company to pay a lower insurance premium.

Security incidents at sea are thankfully very rare (at least those involving cruise ships). One more thing to note is pirates which are still very active in the waters of East Africa and can be a worry to ships travelling through the Suez. Pirates don’t generally attack cruise liners, they are too big, travel too fast and have too many people inside. That doesn’t stop us from doing pirate drills. Essentially these involve shutting off the outdoor music and closing all the curtains. I can imagine this would be enough to foil the pirates ‘I just can’t find that ship now the curtains are closed, let’s go home instead’.

Disfunction Rooms

Alongside all its bedrooms, bars and restaurants, the posh hotel has several function rooms. I have blogged before about the various birthdays, weddings and funerals that are hosted but another large group of bookings are from companies.

Some of them are regular customers, they book a room once a week as they don’t have their own office and use the posh hotel as it has car parking, internet access and coffee. Others use the function rooms for conferences or corporate parties. Here are a couple of recent highlights…

An obviously fake picture, nobody looks this happy in business meetings

A strategy meeting regarding a supermarket’s in store radio service. Apparently, every branch in the country tunes in while a DJ plays music and announces the specials to shoppers who won’t be paying attention. One of the talking points was regarding if there should be a ‘listen again’ feature on the website so shoppers can hear the DJ announce the chance to save 10p on tea bags over and over again. One of my colleagues was asked her opinion on this, some ‘real world’ feedback, she said she didn’t care.

An awards ceremony for a riding school. A van turned up with 92 trophies to be distributed. It took six of us to get them all up the stairs. It transpired that there were only 48 attendees making this a very tedious occasion which lasted much longer than the attention span of those present.

A trade event for people interested in petrol station forecourts. There was a life-size model of a petrol pump, a demonstration of jet washers in the car park, somebody selling display cases for vape liquids, a presentation regarding new technology in coffee machines and no mention at all about the fuel price crisis. As far as I could work out, nobody at all, other than the vendors, came to this event. Apparently, the lure of a model petrol pump was not enough to tempt the public into attending. In fact, this event was such a failure that an entire pallet of marketing material ended up in the skip. Not great for an industry trying to prove its eco-friendly credentials…

A room of doom…

A flying demonstration from a bird of prey centre. This was supposed to be outside, but the weather was too poor, so it was moved indoors. The room is quite large and has a high ceiling so was deemed suitable. The problem here was that David (a barn owl) seemed to be suffering with digestive problems and ‘soiled’ the carpet multiple times. I asked the handler about this and was informed it was an ongoing issue and last week he was booked to attend a wedding and made a ‘deposit’ on a bridesmaid.

In the diary next week, we have cheese makers, Grand National enthusiasts and nuclear waste specialists. Thankfully these are all on different days. A race horse eating cheese infused with nuclear waste is not a scenario any of us need.

How To…. Be A Good Hotel Guest

We hear a lot about what makes a great hotel. But what makes a great hotel guest? Here is a twenty-point plan on how to be a 5* customer in a hotel.

  • Book online. It takes ages to take a reservation over the phone and a long line will be building up in reception while you decide what you want. You will always get a better deal by booking with the hotel website directly. While other sites may offer lower prices, nothing extra will be included and you will likely get the terrible rooms.
  • Don’t arrive too early. Find out the arrival time and be around an hour later than that. There is always a huge queue at check in time and many of the rooms won’t be ready. Just wait.
  • Don’t arrive too late. The rooms are allocated as people arrive. The worst ones will be left until last (hoping the people in them will be so late they won’t notice the lack of hot water or the weird smell).
  • If your query is not important come back later. The other guests won’t thank you for holding up the line while you try and remember the name of somebody who used to work there years ago.
  • Pick your time wisely to pop into reception. First thing in the morning, middle of the day and during the evenings are all good times. The staff will be happy to chat to you and help with whatever you need.
  • The reason that check-in takes ages is because of mystery shoppers. They dictate a long list of near pointless questions that must be asked. Of course, you don’t want fresh flowers or a Sunday newspaper (nobody ever does) but we have to ask. Particularly if you are a solo traveller of working age. Mystery shoppers are always solo travellers of working age.
  • Check when the school holidays are, particularly if you hate children. It isn’t the hotel’s fault if there are children in the swimming pool when you wanted a quiet swim during a bank holiday weekend you hadn’t realised was on.
  • The question “what would you recommend” will cause alarm bells to ring. Nobody will have been there long enough to recommend anything. It would be much easier to google it. That is what the staff member you just asked has rushed into the back room to do.
  • If asked to make reservations for the restaurant, please do. It will be because they are short staffed – like every other hospitality business. Yes, there are loads of tables but there is only one waiter (and it is his first day). Please book even if it is just a few hours before.
  • Absolutely nobody has any idea why dishes or wines are numbered. If you order a 37, a 81 and a 12 to share, your order will be much slower as the waiter has to go and find a menu and look up what the dishes are. The kitchen staff won’t know either (they will be new too). Everyone will thank you for ordering the food by name. If you can’t pronounce it just point.
  • The croissants ‘delivered straight to you room from the local bakery’ are almost certainly frozen and purchased in bulk from Lidl. It won’t be worth the bother.
  • Before ringing to say you are missing something from your room, check the letter they gave you at check in. 90% of so called missing items turn up in the place it said they would be on the letter. Usually that place is in the wardrobe.
  • Overly tidying your room before the housekeepers arrive is very suspicious and will make people wonder what you have been doing to require all that tidying.
  • A particularly time consuming bit of a housekeepers duty is washing up the cups and glasses. If you don’t use them, the cleaning staff will love you. The stories about people washing their underwear in hotel kettles are spread widely but largely untrue. However, if it makes people use fewer cups, the cleaners won’t mind.
  •  This is an important one. If there is something you are not happy with, please let somebody know before leaving. There is nothing more frustrating that people moaning online that their easily solved issues were not easily solved because nobody said it was a problem.
  • Always ask. Unless the hotel is packed, it isn’t that hard to get that window seat or a better room. If you are a nice person, you will be rewarded. If you are not, you will get the minimum. Just ask (nicely). On that topic, it is very easy to get a gift if you say it is your birthday (don’t worry, they won’t check).
  • Check out is simple, just drop the keys in the box. If there is an outstanding balance, the hotel can charge it after you leave to the card on file. There is no need to queue up at reception unless you have something critical to say at that moment. Note: remembering the name of the person who worked there years ago doesn’t count as critical.
  • Please make sure you have everything before you go. Hotels get so many lost property enquiries it could be a full-time job. Many of the ‘missing items’ reported won’t ever turn up (presumably because they were not lost at all). At least 50% of them are regarding phone chargers. Also, nobody wants to put your half-used bottle of shampoo in the post.
  • After you leave, you will inevitably get a survey sent to your email. The results of all of these surveys are more carefully analysed than you think, the comments will be widely read. If somebody has done a great job, put their name in the survey for the managers to see. A description of what they look like and when you met them should be enough.
  • The hotel will do the best they can to give everyone a wonderful holiday. So, pick your moments and have a great stay!

Travels with Dudley, Eunice & Franklin (part three)

I was woken up at 6:15am by a text message telling me that the ferry was cancelled again. Because of the storms, I had become stranded in Belfast meaning that I had missed a day of work and couldn’t afford a second day of ‘unauthorised absence’. So with there being no ferries, I had no choice, I would have to fly.

I had sworn never to go back to an airport since I left cruise ships in 2018. One of ways my autism presents itself is an over sensitivity to sound, another is crowds. Airports (being both crowded and noisy) are horrible.

My flight wasn’t until mid afternoon but since the weather was awful (surprise, surprise) and I had my luggage with me, I decided it would be easier to get an early bus. I was very pleased with myself for finding the correct stop and the correct bus without my usual planning and settled in for a nap to pass the 40-minute journey. I woke up to see a peacock staring at me.

The staring peacock

The terminal was just as terrible as I expected. Around eight flights were checking in and only two desks were open. As is increasingly normal in departure halls, there were no chairs. I had plenty of time so sat in a café that was closed, until a cleaner told me to leave. The reason, he informed me, that I couldn’t stay there was ‘because of covid’. I didn’t ask any further questions.

One coping mechanism I have developed is finding somewhere quiet. It is rarely difficult to find a quiet space not far away. In the case of Belfast airport, this place was the arrivals terminal (just next door) where I sat in a quiet café for two hours. This (open) café must have had a lower covid risk than the previous (closed) one.

When it was time to check in, the departures hall was even worse than when I left. People and noise everywhere. Another coping mechanism that I have found is headphones playing music which I can regulate and drown out the chanting football fans, yelling hen parties and screaming babies that all wanted to fly at the same time as me. Half an hour later, I was at the front of the queue and my brain was fried. The lady at check in needed my boarding pass, which I didn’t have. By this point, I couldn’t explain and just stared blankly. After what seemed like an eternity, the lady at check in just printed out a boarding pass for me, slapped it on the desk and wordlessly pointed towards departures.

The worst was yet to come. Airport security. The most miserable place imaginable. I am sure there is a policy meaning anyone who smiles here is fired. This is one of the very few places where it is impossible to escape the crowds and the noise. It is also very hard to plan ahead. Will I need to take my shoes off? What about coats? Will laptops need separating? The answers to all these kinds of questions seem to depend on the mood of the officer on duty at the time.

My toothpaste was confiscated. It was a 125ml tube (the maximum is 100ml). The fact it was more than half used didn’t matter. I am still fairly unsure how much of a risk toothpaste is to aircraft security, how many dental cleaning based aviation incidents have there been? I also subscribe to the conspiracy theory that confiscating bottled water is a sneaky way of boosting revenue for the airport – why else is the water so much more expensive on the other side of security? Plus, if it is ok to take baby milk through on condition of tasting, why can’t that apply to all liquids?

Anyway, having to take my headphones off at the last moment makes me very aware of all the noise. The National Autistic Society says people with oversensitivity to sound are likely to experience

  • noise can be magnified and sounds become distorted and muddled
  • may be able to hear conversations in the distance
  • inability to cut out sounds – notably background noise – leading to difficulties concentrating. 

I can strongly relate to all of this and do all I can not to shut down entirely. Luckily, the staff don’t pay me too much attention and my baggage went through the machine without a problem. Upon unpacking the bag, I found a large pair of scissors that I had brought with me (and really shouldn’t have got through). Clearly large scissors are safer than half used tubes of toothpaste.

Once through the other side, I found an empty departure gate away from the football fans, hen parties and howling babies where I could decompress for a while.

Even though it was only a couple of weeks ago, I can’t really remember what happened next. I assume I got the plane and then the train home but my brain had melted. I slept for 16 hours that night and woke up hoping I will never have to go in an airport ever again.

Travels with Dudley, Eunice & Franklin (part two)

I hardly slept that night as Storm Dudley whistled through the vents, pounded on the windows and launched various objects at my building. It was not the welcome to Belfast I had been hoping for.

The next day things were brighter, I was surprized to discover that Belfast is surrounded by mountains, I was unable to spot them the previous day as the rain was so heavy visibility was almost nothing. Although the wind was still very strong and there was a lot more rain in the forecast, I got out early to make the most of the day.

My first stop was the museum at the City Hall. It offered free admission and I think it is one of those places that mainly cater for school groups. As there were no schools booked in, the café was closed and I got the feeling they weren’t really expecting any visitors, my presence seemed to surprise them. Still, it gave me a feeling for the city and made for a pleasant hour.

The true reason for my stop at the museum was I had time to kill before the next arrival of the hop on hop off bus. I am the guy who follows the route on a map as the bus goes round meaning I miss a lot of what the guide is saying. Although, this particular guide insisted on doing a singalong and told (very dated) Monica Lewinski jokes so I was quite happy to zone him out. I went the whole way round, perhaps missing the point of the hop on hop off element, as the rain was back and it seemed easier to stay inside.

Dry compared to Belfast…

My (drier) afternoon involved a visit to the Titanic Museum. This was one of the main reasons I went to Belfast. The 12 years I spent on cruise ships has given me a morbid fascination with maritime disasters and the opportunity to visit many exhibitions about them. I realise I have been to Titanic exhibitions in Southampton, Liverpool, London, Cork and Nova Scotia. The ones in Missouri, Las Vegas & Tennessee still evade me.

So, what makes the Belfast one different? It is more expensive (£21.50 per adult) but it is enormous and does include a monorail ride which none of the others can compete with. My worry about monorails is not that they will break and I will plunge to my death, rather that I will drop something over the side. So I hold my bag close, take everything out my pockets and even curl my toes inside my shoes to stop them falling off. As I write this, I realise this is a ridiculous overreaction and I am mixing up an indoor monorail at a museum with some kind of upside-down vomit producing rollercoaster.

The walk back to my hotel was an ‘adventure’. The wind was so strong, walking was a struggle. I felt like I was starring in an 80s rock video, dodging lost umbrellas and bin lids as they hurtle towards me. I took shelter in an unfinished entertainment complex while builders eyed me with suspicion.

By day two, another storm had been announced. Storm Eunice. It was due to arrive just in time for my eight hour ferry journey back over the sea. I asked at reception about the possibility of staying another night but was told the hotel was full. Oh well, I thought, how bad could it be?

Holidays in February…

As the day went on, I kept an eye on the forecast while carrying on with my planned activities. I went to a former prison (which was so cold, I put my gloves and hat on half way round) and to the Ulster Museum (who lost my booking making me queue up for ages). In short the day wasn’t great. By the time I got back to the hotel, Eunice was forecast to be the strongest storm in 30 years. I checked with Reception, now there was space but it would be £289 for another night. For context I paid less than £150 for three nights.

Having worked in hotels, I am willing to pass on a secret. It is a huge pain to make reservations at the reception desk. It takes ages and the process is very complicated. I know many receptionists who always say the hotel is full as they don’t want to get bogged down in making bookings. Knowing this, I looked on an online booking service and reserved the same room for £79.

This meant moving rooms. I had to leave by 10am and couldn’t get back until 3pm. The fly in the ointment was Storm Eunice. The worst storm for 30 years. There was no way I could do anything in that weather, so I spent five hours in the café of the local multiplex cinema. There was nothing I wanted to watch (which was lucky as the cinema lost power) so I wasted time eating toasted sandwiches (which couldn’t be toasted due to the power failure).

3pm on the dot I was back. I needed to pack up my stuff ready for the early morning ferry. Then an email came, the ferry was in the wrong place and wouldn’t be running. Oh good.

Then I heard about a third storm, Franklin. The bad news kept coming…

To be continued…

Travels with Dudley, Eunice & Franklin (part one)

Last week, for the first time in four years, I left the British mainland destined for Belfast. It is a city I have long been fascinated by and with a few days of annual leave remaining, I decided to take advantage.

What I hadn’t bargained on was the disruptive nature of my travel companions Dudley, Eunice and Franklin. For the benefit of people reading this in the future, I should clarify that Dudley, Eunice and Franklin are not members of a 1960s Scrabble club but severe Storms (in fact Storm Eunice brought the strongest wind speeds in 30 years).

On a side note, the next two storms are apparently going to be named Gladys and Herman completing the roster of names you don’t hear anymore. I wonder how historic we are going to get with storm naming, are we to plan for Storm Ethelred? Will we have to evacuate our homes for Storm Canute? Only time will tell.  

A general feeling of the Marie Celeste…

Anyway, back to Belfast. As I can’t deal with airports, I took the ferry over. It was an eight-hour journey and I spent an extra £30 for a cabin so I had my own space to relax. As it happened, the ferry was deserted. We were given numbers to embark the vessel and everyone there was in group one. I ordered lunch from the café and was given double portions as the man behind the counter said most of it will have to be binned due to lack of customers.

The reason for this is that night, Dudley was to arrive. It was already very wet and windy, the ship didn’t bounce too much as we sailed by the Isle of Man but the time flew by aided by the in cabin films and the wi-fi which allowed me to do some work. Our arrival into the (so called) City of Sanctuary was met with the news the terminal was shut, so a bus would be needed to take me to the bus stop where I would need another bus. Oh good.

Of course, with it being dark and the rain so heavy it was impossible to see the landmarks, I had no idea where my stop was so I missed it. I was deposited at the terminus. I asked the driver where my hotel was but he said he ‘hadn’t heard of it’. Oh great.

I then spent an hour wandering about in the heavy rain trying to follow maps around a city I didn’t know. This was one of those rare occasions, I realised that having data on my phone would have been a benefit (despite this experience, I still have not topped it up). Eventually, I found my final destination and was met by a horrified receptionist who asked me to leave my wet coat and bags by the door ‘I’ve only just had this floor mopped’.

The view from my window…

My hotel room was fine, I got an apartment. I have discovered they are generally the same price as a hotel room and give so much more space, plus cooking facilities. I was on the seventh floor and since the hotel was next to the river, I had hoped for a lovely view. Instead, I got some tower blocks and a motorway. Not that it mattered, I was going to bed and stay there until Storm Dudley had passed.

What I didn’t yet know was that (rather like Dickensian ghosts) Dudley was to be the first in a trio of storms that would come to visit me this holiday.

To be continued…