Thursday, 10 October 2019

Aviation is trying hard to go green…

I have been feeling the winds of change blowing through the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) General Assembly in Juan Les Pins this week.

The airline community has been engaging with environmental issues for just about as long as I've been coming here, but to some extent this has been as a response (not always as well argued as it might be) to being framed as the whipping boy for all the world's environmental problems.
Now it's all starting to feel rather more serious and, indeed, coherent.

So, yesterday, we saw John Slattery, CEO of the promised new joint venture between Brazil's Embraer and American giant Boeing, showing a picture of Greta Thunberg at a press conference called to tell the world about the new Embraer E190 E2 – not to suggest she was some kind of pariah, but rather, an inspiration.
John Slattery – "We will be held accountable"

“My 13-year-old daughter says ‘You are running an aircraft manufacturing company. What are you doing about this?’,” he said. “We will be held accountable,” he continued: “How we build aircraft; the kind of aircraft we build; and how we operate them.”

In fact, the airline industry doesn’t have such a terrible environmental story to tell, as improved technology continues to yield significant improvements to emission levels of CO2 and NOx, alongside reduced noise footprints.

Of course, the airline industry can make the most of the happy coincidence that environmental improvements tend to go hand in hand with economic benefits: no airline is going to turn up its nose at reduced fuel burn or lower seat-kilometre costs.

This is not the case in some other sectors, most notably the cruise industry, which is up there at the top of the league of fastest growing polluters on the planet. That industry could reduce its pollution at a stroke by stopping burning low quality fuel – but such “dirty fuel” is much cheaper than the cleaner variety, so there’s simply no rush to be clean.

In all this, it pays to keep sight of the fact that, although aviation is growing, it still accounts for only about two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is constantly smartening up its act. Which is another way of saying that we could all follow Greta’s symbolic example and stop flying tomorrow, but 98 per cent of the problem would still be there.

So, Embraer-Boeing’s new E2 boasts an eight per cent reduction in emissions yet a 23 per cent increase in capacity over the type it replaces. And Mitsubishi’s redesigned Space Jet series promises a similar quantum leap in efficiency.

Indeed emission reduction has been the key element of all the major manufacturers’ announcements at the Assembly. In announcing its new short take-off and landing ATR 42 600S, due to enter service in 2022, ATR’s CEO Stefano Bortoli said the aircraft would use 40 per cent less fuel than the equivalent jet, emit 40 per cent CO2, and generate significantly less noise.

Then it was the turn of Amaya Rodriguez-Gonzalez, Head of Single Aisle Product Marketing, at Airbus. The Airbus A220 series promises 20 per cent lower fuel-burn per seat and a 13 per cent cost advantage, while also offering a roomier cabin than its rivals.
Amaya Rodriguez-Gonzalez, of Airbus

De Havilland Canada, the revived name for the manufacturer of what was the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, promises further life for the popular type, with a carbon footprint half that of the equivalent jet.
And the industry has not lost sight of moving away from fossil fuels: Embraer continues its review of the opportunity to introduce hybrid turbo-electric aircraft “in the mid to late-2030s”. And all this while work continues at Cranfield to develop an all-electric passenger aircraft.

A far greater existential threat to European civil aviation than environmental considerations is surely posed by the lingering promise to rewrite Article 261 – the European law that requires passenger compensation for delays and cancellations.

ERA President Montserrat Barriga said it was not essentially the original legislation that was the problem, but successive reinterpretations by the European Court of Justice that were now threatening to compromise airline safety by putting pressure on companies to fly in unsafe conditions for fear of incurring penalties.
ERA President Montserrat Barriga

Pending a report at the end of this year into the European Commission’s review of the law, the ERA has conducted its own review, with greater input from regional airlines – the European process sought more input from compensation claims companies than from the airlines themselves.

The ERA fear is that the likely changes will not be to the benefit of consumers by forcing airlines to withdraw from marginal routes, thus leaving remoter regions without connections. Indeed, she said the number of city pairs served within Europe had already fallen by 20 per cent due to Article 261, she said. The context for this is compensation claims that quite simply eclipse the total revenue (not even the profit margin) for the flight in question.

The ERA report advocates a compensation model based on the recently introduced Canadian system.
Another issue facing the industry is flight crew shortages and in this, back to Embraer, where Slattery offers a disarmingly simple solution: increase the measly four per cent of pilots who are women and, at a stroke, provide new career opportunities for the likes of his daughter!

Friday, 17 May 2019

Norway double-plus

The old harbour at Landøy

As I gaze out from the top of the lighthouse at Lindesnes, I reflect that there is no piece of mainland Norway to the south of me.
 Granted, I have, just the evening before, been even further south without leaving Norway – but that was to visit the country’s southernmost lighthouse, Ryvingen, which sits atop a rocky islet a few miles or minutes by fast boat from the mainland.

I have to remind myself that I am, here, on a similar latitude to Inverness, so “south” is very much a relative term. On the other hand, however, we are on the rough boundary between the oceanic climate enjoyed, or sometimes endured, by Norway’s west coast, and the continental climate, with its short but hot summers, experienced in the Oslo area. So summers are generally dry and sunny, if a little cooler than further east.

"Lighthouse family" at Ryvingen
I’m well travelled through most parts of Norway, but this is my first visit to Sorlandet, literally the South Country. I’m far from alone, even among repeat visitors to this most popular of Scandinavian countries. However, Norwegians flock here in summer. For this fascinating coastline of infinite islands, islets, coves and skerries is punctuated by pretty harbours, marinas and neatly painted waterside homes and cabins – and places where you can just sit and watch the world go by.

It’s towards the end of our third day when Tim Davis – a Norwegian-speaking British ex-pat who set up probably Norway’s most successful outdoor activity centre more than a quarter of a century ago – sums it up.

“Our challenge here is to compete with the Big Three – the Fjords, the Midnight Sun and the Northern Lights,” he says, over a beer at TrollAktiv, which offers more than 20 different outdoor adventure activities.

“What we do have is great access to wilderness – forest and mountain landscape, while still being easy to reach from Oslo, Stavanger, or Denmark.”

To that list, you can now add the South of England: Kristiansand Airport is less than two hours from Stansted Airport, via Norwegian airline Widerøe’s new service, which runs daily from June 26 and five times a week before then and after August 8.

Tim and his Norwegian wife, Gjertrud, are keen to lure more Brits to TrollAKtiv, where ambitious plans, which should start to take shape later this year, include a standing surfing wave on the awesome River Otra, which rises on the Hardangervidda plateau and is fuelled in spring and early summer by the melting snows.

Alongside these plans, Tim has just acquired another 2,000 acres of forest, with buildings, in which to extend his adventure offer, and has plans for more upmarket accommodation on the site, featuring hot-tubs and other little luxuries.

White water rafting on the River Otra
I’m here to introduce a party of four English journalists to TrollAktiv and the broader delights of the South Country. Three of us have just been getting up close and personal with the mighty Otra on an adrenaline-fuelled white-water rafting trip.

Our giddy plunge over the twin rapids has been with “Gappu”, just arrived from Himachal Pradesh. He’s one of an army of instructors and assistants who join TrollAktiv each year for the busy summer season. Gappu has learned his white-water trade in the Himalayas, where water volumes dwarf those of the Otra, itself no pussycat in the white-water world.

RIB to Ryvingen
As the Otra is dammed above the rapids, it also offers tranquil waters for some of TrollAktiv’s other activities, which, besides those that need water, also include winter sports, especially cross-country ski, forest games, commando courses, cycling and expedition work. After impressive dining at the Dølen Hotel, in nearby Evje, we round off our adventure by failing rather miserably to escape from TrollAktiv’s own ingeniously creative escape room.

Before this failure, we have already packed a lot into three days in the beautiful south – our first two nights were spent in waterside lodges at Tregde Ferie, a traditional fishing resort on the coast, a little over an hour’s drive from Kristiansand Airport.

It was from here that we began our slightly unintentional lighthouse odyssey, riding the fast RIB out to Ryvingen, where those of a solitary bent can come and stay to watch the waves crashing on, and occasionally over, the rocky perimeter of the little island.

Magne Johanessen
I get my hands inside a cod in Eila's kitchen…
For us, life is altogether less harsh, as we sup prosecco and nibble canapés before returning to Tregde Ferie. There, our remarkable chef, Eila Ingilæ, has conjured up a sumptuous fish dinner from the catch we had collected earlier in the day from nets cast by Magne Johanessen, one of the local fishermen who enjoy the right to harvest the sea in this way. It would be wrong to claim a great deal of credit for the haul we have brought to Eila’s kitchen, where she breezes around in effortless fashion, belying her advanced pregnancy. Mackerel, herring, saithe, flounder, plaice, crabs and a couple of healthy size cod succumb to the slash of inexpert knives

Liv and Øystein
That morning’s fishing trip had culminated in a visit to one of Norway’s numerous “part-time” islands, Landøy. The island has all the appearances of permanently peopled place, its well-kept houses lining the grassy central avenue, its school and adjacent playground, toys still in the sandpit. Inside the little classroom, nothing has changed since the last pupils left, decades ago. Old maps of Norway hang down beside the pulpit-desk from where the pupils were taught.

Landøy is not untypical of many Norwegian islands – the country has more than 50,000 islands of varying size and, although the principle is that populations should be supported with basic services, such as travel links and education, the reality is that many are either too remote or, conversely, close enough to “civilisation” that abandonment, in whole or part, is a practical alternative.

In summer, Landøy will be abuzz with families relaxing in its tranquil, traffic-free lawns and gardens. On our arrival, however only two part-time residents are at home, albeit rather special residents. Øystein and Liv Steinslas are dedicated not just to keeping the school in good nick, but also to maintaining Øystein’s quite extraordinary collection of seafaring artefacts, all assembled in a lovingly restored barn that is, in effect, a living museum to all things nautical and rural.
Inside the old barn at Landøy

Liv in the classroom at Landøy
Leaving Tregde Ferie behind, we have a special visit to make, en route to Lindesnes. “Under” is thought to be Europe’s only underwater restaurant and it offers – through foot-thick “glazing” – a remarkable sea-bottom vista, where regular star visitors include the prosaically named Oscar, the cod.

Under has not been open all that long, but dining places for the 2,250 NOK (£200) 15 to 18-course set menu (matching wines at 1,450 NOK (£130)) are at a premium, so we have to content ourselves with meeting chef Nicolai Ellitsgaard as he plans his menu from the locally available supplies. These include foraged plants from land and sea – our guide, Astri Kvåle, will be off diving for edible seaweed as soon as we are gone.
Presentation is everything…

We watch, captivated, as one of the kitchen team carefully arranges and rearranges whelk shells on a bed of empty cockles. We meet Trond Skog, whose elegant pottery provides both decoration and tableware. And we meet one of the Ubostad brothers, Stig and Gaulte, whose entrepreneurship and enthusiasm for the region lies behind Under, which cost a cool 70 million NOK (£6.3m) to manufacture from concrete, then move across the harbour at Bøgly and then sink at its permanent site.

The Ubostads built Under after having previously bought the hotel across the bay out of Administration, and systematically set about breathing new life into it. Of course, with many of Under’s customers travelling some distance, it now has a ready market.

Both the exterior and interior of Under are immaculately finished: floors, walls and ceilings are of locally harvested Norwegian oak boards.
Chef Nicolai Ellitsgaard
Gaulte Ubostad arrives with sand crabs

Trond Skog

When will I get to enjoy the full eating experience here? Well, first I’ll need to plan six months (but no more ahead) and then I’ll have to pay a non-refundable deposit and, of course, book my flights. But I think it might just be worth it for that very special once-in-a-lifetime dining experience.

Tregde Ferie has a fleet of new electric bikes to explore the area

Monday, 1 April 2019

Geneva gets even geneasier

As the big European hubs get even bigger and busier, getting through the airport can take the gloss off a weekend break. So we thought we'd somewhere a bit more manageable and found Geneva just to our liking.

Switzerland’s second city can boast barely 200,000 residents. But its numbers are swollen daily by around 88,000 commuters crossing the border from France.

With the city also home to a variety of United Nations and other global agencies, it’s able to punch comfortably above its weight when it comes to supporting an airport with a good range of routes, while not being oppressively big.

My surprise at what a short weekend was able to serve up was both pleasant and ample – and began with the warmth of the welcome at the Hôtel d’Angleterre, overlooking Lake Geneva towards the old town and cathedral, with Mont Blanc shyly popping in and out of the distant haze in beautiful Spring sunshine.

The hotel is the only Swiss member of the independent five-star Red Carnation collection (it acquired Ashford Castle, County Mayo, five years ago and has a number of top-end properties in London) and prides itself on the level of its service.
The Leopard Bar at Hôtel d'Angleterre is popular with both guests and visitors to the city
We enjoyed a sumptuous afternoon tea overlooking the lake and the towering jet d’eau, while the Leopard Bar on the lower ground floor, later that evening was drawing the city’s better-healed residents to live jazz in surroundings reminiscent of the best Shanghai’s golden years.

You don’t, however, necessarily have to spend a fortune to enjoy Geneva: a great find was just a saunter from the hotel. Les Bains des Pâquis is far more than just a popular outdoor swimming pool. Its functional terrace café also serves the city’s best fondue, as well as local white wines and a non-fondue dish of the day.  Food and drink comfortably the right side of 20 Swiss francs a head.

Most hotels give guests a public transport pass, which includes the little yellow lake ferries, so much lighter on the wallet than formal boat tours.

Other highlights included the vast archaeological excavation beneath the cathedral of St Pierre – layer upon layer of historic remains from Roman times to the present. Yet, it’s so easy to miss, hidden as it is down an inconspicuous staircase to the side of the cathedral.

Le Músée d’Art et d’Histoire boasts a quite extraordinary collection of mostly 19th and 20th century art, inventively curated and including Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Courbet and local hero, Ferdinand Hodler.

Room with a view – atop l'Aiguille du Midi
We had time to take a day trip out of town to Chamonix, from where we took a vertiginous cable car ride to the towering summit of l’Aiguile du Midi – a quite unforgettable experience with views across the entire Alpine range.

• We were guests of the Hôtel d’Angleterre

• We flew with easyJet from Newcastle, which is a year-round service, although some other airports only offer services during the skiing season

• Make sure you take a free train ticket from the machines in the arrivals hall for the seven-minute ride to the city centre, and do ask your hotel for a public transport pass to cover your stay.

See also my author blog.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Sumptuous Chesterfield

Get me a cocktail and make it smoky, I said to James, my waiter in the cosy Terrace Bar at the Chesterfield, in London’s Mayfair district.

Or, at least I might have done had I only known precisely what he had in mind when he urged me so strongly to try his Apple Smoked Vieux Carré, one of the signature cocktails at this immensely impressive member of the Red Carnation hotel family.

Had I read the “small print”, as it were, on the cocktail menu, I would have known this was no ordinary pre-dinner tipple, long before James set to work behind the bar with his Bunsen burner.

The cocktail duly arrived, cunningly concealed inside a bell jar full of smoke, which – upon the lifting of the lid – filled the room with a delicious fragrance of smoked apple. Somehow, the smell seemed the perfect sensory complement to the four-piece jazz band providing the early evening mood music.

I ought to add that the cocktail, featuring best bourbon, cognac, Martini Rosso and Benedictine, was exquisite, but – frankly – I’d have forgiven rough old hooch just to witness such showmanship.

My daughter joined me and opted for a Cucumber Gin Cooler, which arrived with luscious canapés atop a bowl of dry ice, whose vapours soon mingled with the smoky residue.

Butler's Restaurant
I was a little apprehensive as to how Butler’s – the house restaurant – might live up to such a curtain-raiser, but this was quickly dispelled by the arrival of our seared Orkney scallops. Searing is a bit of a delicate art: it should be done just long enough to lightly cook but never so long as to toughen. These were perfection itself.

Butler’s focuses on providing the very best of British, excellently prepared and elegantly presented. My daughter surprised me by going for the mallard in a chestnut purée, while I made a more conservative choice of chicken with panhaggerty potatoes, reflecting my own Northumbrian preferences. The mallard arrived as it should – rare and tender.

Well sated, we nonetheless simply couldn’t resist sticky toffee pudding and, unsurprisingly, were not disappointed.

Of course, none of this happens by accident and what impresses most about the Red Carnation family is the attention to detail, which lifts the Chesterfield and its ilk from the ranks of “simple luxury” to something far more personal.

My own room combined soft blues and creams on the tapestry walls, a walnut bureau, whose opening action kept me amused, and a decanter of rather fine sherry to help me settle in. Had I so chosen, I might have delved into Churchill’s war memoirs, neatly splayed on a side table. There was sumptuous sofa too, though not, I should say, a Chesterfield: the hotel is named not for its couches, but after nearby Chesterfield Hill, itself recalling the eponymous 18th century Earl and man of letters.

Red Carnation is a family brand and here I raise a glass to that family, and not last to its driving force, Beatrice Tollman, who, at 85, continues to place her personal stamp on all its properties.
  • I was a guest of the Chesterfield, Mayfair
  • A version of this review appeared in the May 2019 issue of Flybe's mangazine, Flight Time
  • See also my author blog.  

Monday, 18 February 2019

A star shines bright in the forest

There has been some debate about both the meaning and indeed the virtue of Michelin Stars, with one chef actually opting to relinquish his star amid much publicity. Some critics say that a Michelin Star is less an indication of quality, more the ability to please Michelin judges.

A visit to the extraordinary Forest Side, above, at Grasmere, renders such debate redundant. Yes, of course the restaurant at an ample country house on the edge of Wordsworth’s village reflects the kind of things that Michelin judges like to see and taste; but behind that bald assessment is the reality of exceptionally inventive cuisine, deliciously and attractively presented by exquisitely well trained staff.
Décor at The Forest Side is bold, bright and invigorating

Chef Kevin Tickle, previously head forager down the road at Simon Rogan’s acclaimed two-Michelin Star L’Enclume, in Cartmel, earned his star in late 2017 –just nine months after opening. He said then: “Everything is about our surroundings and our sense of belonging to this place.’’

So many elements of the six-course (L’ Aal ’un) and ten-course Grand ’un tasting menus – including, of course, the Cumbrian titles – reflect their local provenance… I could begin with the ones you might expect: the freshly foraged late Autumn mushrooms, the venison pastrami, the fruit and vegetables plucked from the kitchen garden and polytunnels just across the way.

Or I could cite the slightly less expected squirrel pâté amuse-bouche – a tasty by-product of the relentless battle to halt the onward march of the invasive grey. Only at Northumberland’s Matfen Hall have I previously tasted the American interloper and it was good to experience its ever so slightly nutty tones again.

The thing to remember about tasting menus is that that is precisely what they are: a succession of tantalising, titillating morsels, each designed to please not just by its looks and taste, but also by virtue of the admiration inspired for the creative minds behind their genesis.

There was so much to praise, but I’ll single out “those filthy mushrooms he cooks in bone marrow” for the way “he” squeezed out every drop of flavour; and the aged shorthorn rib, with celeriac “that’s knocking on a bit”, charcoal and dittander. Not know what that is? Well, dittander is a herb from coastal salt marshes, like Morecambe Bay, and it also yields a peppery oil.

Dashi onion
We paired our repast with wines expertly selected and explained by the young head sommelier, Guillaume Limoux – when pondering the expense of a Michelin Star meal, it’s worth recognising that there’s a small army of dedicated professionals delivering these delights.

We prefaced our dining with a couple of “foragers’ favourites” in the cosy bar – a blackberry kir royale, from the hotel’s own blackberry liqueur, and a grapefruit pisco sour, featuring also vodka and Mexican agave.
An exceptionally generously sized bedroom, with ample en suite, super king size bed and views over the gardens to the fells had greeted us on arrival, while our stay was expertly book-ended by a breakfast as near perfect as you could wish for. I was fortunate to choose the crispiest eggy-bread on the planet.
  • My wife and I were guests of Forest Side.
  • A version of this blog also appears in Flybe's magazine, Flight Time.  
  • See also my author blog.   

Monday, 3 December 2018

The city that's very much Alive After Five

It’s been a torrid few months for the UK high street, so I was very pleased to meet a man who’s helping the city of my birth to buck the trend…

An annual budget of barely £2 million may feel like loose change in an era when billion seems to be the new million. But for a small team in Newcastle it’s been enough to transform the life of the city centre.

It’s an achievement that’s just been recognised in the most emphatic way: businesses have voted by an overwhelming 88 per cent in favour to renew the city’s Business Improvement District (BID), whose third five-year term begins in April 2019.

When the BID was launched in 2008, it was on the back of a 67 per cent vote in favour; that rose to 78 per cent in 2013 and now the BID company, NE1 Ltd, is the most strongly supported of about 300 such ventures nationwide. It has also been named the best BID in Europe by the German Chambers of Commerce.

The Business Improvement District concept originated in Canada and revolves around the idea that businesses pay an additional levy so they can work together to improve trade. In the UK, businesses vote to pay additional business rates and, in the case of Newcastle, it’s an extra 1p in the pound.

The man who will steer the BID through its new term is Chief Executive Adrian Waddell, above, who joined the original NE1 team as Operations Manager in 2009, via the unusual career path of 25 years in the Army, followed by a degree in Fine Art. He moved up from Operations Director to take over the reins from outgoing Chief Executive, Sean Bullick earlier in 2018.

I meet Waddell in his office on the “top deck” of Milburn House – a Grade II Listed Newcastle office block, overlooking the castle, whose interior is modelled on an ocean liner.

After service with the Royal Artillery in Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands and Afghanistan, Lieut Col Waddell left the service in 2004 and returned to his native North East England with his wife, Corinna.

“I loved soldiering, but it was time for a change – my wife would have agreed to almost anything and so I found myself sitting in Kabul filling out UCAS forms for a Fine Art degree at Newcastle and, quite extraordinarily, they gave me a place.”

While studying, he set up a business dedicated to helping local artists to get their work displayed in offices, but trade dried up when the banking crisis hit in 2008.

When he got the chance to join NE1 Ltd early in 2009, it was as Operations Manager in a team of just three. “It turned out I was working with really interesting and talented people – it was all about delivery and making new and different things happen in Newcastle,” says Waddell.

“As a result of NE1’s initiatives and the way that we work in partnership with other organisations, we have allowed Newcastle to buck the national trend on the high street. That said, it’s a competitive environment and we are in a fight.”

The weapons that NE1 has deployed in that fight have been, says Waddell, defined by quality and ambition.

They’ve included opening a city centre marina, above, and a series of events, such as removing all traffic from busy Blackett Street to create a green “park” in the heart of the city for ten weeks in summer, featuring games and rides and family activities. Then there’s Restaurant Week, the Motor Show and Quayside Seaside, the city beach that now features nightly as national BBC link with sausage-dog walkers from the city, below. All told, the 2018 Events programme drew an additional 340,000 visitors into the city centre.

But the real game-changer has been Alive After Five, which began in 2010, when NE1 persuaded the majority of city centre shops to stay open every day until 8pm. “Alive After Five has been transformational for the city centre,” says Waddell. “It’s attracted 13.7 million additional visitors, which is equivalent to £839 million spending.

“Most significant, I think, is that it’s changed the behaviour of people using the city centre and it accounts now for 20 per cent of the city’s daily footfall.”

That in turn has led to 78 new restaurant openings, giving Newcastle the highest number of eateries per head of population outside London. And, refreshingly, the offer reflects a healthy mix of both national chains and locally-based operators. The city continues to add new hotel beds at a dizzy pace, as visitors flock to major sporting events, like four Rugby League Magic Weekends, or to three Ed Sheeran concerts.

Central to Waddell’s role is the continuous process of ensuring all key stakeholders – including two universities, a Premier League football club and a major teaching hospital – remain on board.

“We value the sense of scrutiny and the fact that every five years we get the chance to prove our worth to the city centre,” he says. “The whole renewal process keeps us very focussed on what we are doing, keeps our ideas fresh and ensures we are talking to our partners.”

The pay-off for institutions like the universities and the hospital is in helping to attract staff and, of course, students; ensuring they can all enjoy a better quality of life, with a vibrant city centre on their doorstep.

CGI of the new-look Bigg Market
For the future, NE1’s key focus is on strengthening links between the city centre and the emblematic Quayside. At the same time, a £1.6 million Heritage Lottery grant has helped a £3.2 million transformation of the public realm in the Bigg Market, once celebrated as young people’s drinking circuit.  A similar amount is being spent on Northumberland Street, the principal shopping street.

The public realm work has, in turn, helped to stimulate multi-million pound hotel and leisure investments by regionally based groups, including Malhotra, Ladhar and Tokyo Industries, which wants to create an event space and rooftop bar in the North Tower of the iconic Tyne Bridge.

All these, alongside external investment by such as German Motel One Hotels, and Ireland’s Dalata – whose new 265-room four-star Maldron Hotel, is the first in the UK – helps to breed confidence and achieve the wider goal of placing Newcastle firmly on the map of major European cities.

So plans for a major international convention centre across the river in Gateshead and a huge scheme to build the Whey Eye – Europe’s largest observation wheel – as part of major new attraction a mile downriver from Newcastle city centre, are just as welcome as investment in the heart of the city.

Says Waddell: “Businesses don’t pay much attention to political boundaries – success for Newcastle city is indivisible from success for Newcastle city region.”
  •  A version of this blog appears in the May issue of Flybe's magazine, Flight Time.
  • See also my author blog

Thursday, 16 August 2018

A right royal welcome

Classic double room at the Rubens
In the year of a Royal Wedding, I decided to pay a visit to a London hotel that prides itself on its regal pedigree…

With its proud address on Buckingham Palace Road, the Rubensat the Palace can feel justified in boasting just a bit of a swagger.

But it achieves in central London a level of guest intimacy and sense of belonging that are usually the preserve of a country house.

This is more than worth valuing, for nowhere in the UK is it easier to pay a lot of money for a lousy hotel room than in London.

At the Rubens, the good things began at the moment of my arrival – or rather even before it – as the bright and friendly receptionist demonstrated an uncanny knowledge of my likes and dislikes, including my taste in cocktails and my preferred newspaper. “It’s all the guest preference form you completed, Mr Abbott,” she reminded me, detecting my look of incredulity. I had quite forgotten about that special little touch.

Outside, the hotel reflects its regal nomination – it’s proud of being the closest hotel to Buckingham Palace – while inside it oozes both the best of modern design and tradition: I think there was one staff member on perpetual duty polishing the brass lift doors.

My room, however, was ultra-contemporary, though not in the annoying minimalist sense – and the décor echoed my favourite colour, as per the aforementioned preference form.  The bed was sumptuous, the free Wi-Fi efficient, the iPod station ready and waiting beside a hand-written welcome from the manager.

Unusually for a large hotel, each room is individually decorated, with hand-picked works of art and antiques.

This corner of London is handy for museums and galleries (including the fascinating Churchill War Rooms), not to mention trendy bars and restaurants. But why would you, given that the Rubens has recast its dining to offer a choice of the two-Rosette English Grill and the Curry Room, offering dishes from Durban’s Curry Box in the intimate downstairs space that used to be the Library Restaurant? Meanwhile, afternoon tea in the Palace Lounge remains an institution, while the Cavalry Bar has morphed into the New York Bar, complementing the brand new Leopard Bar, with its 200 whiskies and 30 champagnes.

To underscore the rich vein of pedigree, all meats are supplied by Royal Warrant holders, Aubrey Allen – so diners can boast that they ate like the monarch, too.

Although the wine list is extensive, the hotel’s pride is its close association with the Bouchard Finlayson estate, in South Africa, and I noted that the Rubens charity arm supports the Amy Biehl Foundation, which is involved in programmes aimed at empowering young people from impoverished townships in that country.

Corporate social responsibility extends outdoors, where the towering end wall was both a pioneer of the “living wall” concept, and, at 350 square metres, remains one of the largest in the capital.
  •  I was a guest of Red Carnation Hotels during my stay at the Rubens