25 November 2011

A Santorini sunset

An ex was something of a sunset chaser, so I’ve seen the sun disappear into the sea many, many times. Whether California or Wales, I’ve seen and photographed them all. However, the sunset over Oia in the Greek island of Santorini takes some beating, and renewed my faith in the magic of a sunset.

Although the crowds tend to flock to Oia to watch the sun slip into the caldera, if you get a good spot early, you’ll feel like the only people in the world.

We watched the spectacle from a hidden away bar called Sun Spirit. Claiming to be the “most proposed to point” in Santorini, the romance was lost on me as I was there with a friend. But there was quite an air of anticipation both from those waiting for the magic to happen, and from the numerous women who were dressed for the fatal question to be posed.

View from Sun Spirit
You’ll find it by going to the main viewing platform above the castle ruins, and turning right towards the sunset. When you reach a wooden windmill, you’re there.

Kastro is another classy restaurant with an even classier view that’s perfect to watch the sun fade from yellow, to orange, to deep red. Tables can be reserved, and it’s good for small groups and for enjoying the delicious mix of Greek and wider Mediterranean food.

Wherever you watch the sunset, ensure you have a glass of cold, dry Assyrtiko or Nykteri white wine in your hand. Two local grapes that are best enjoyed bathed in an orange glow or in one of the many island vineyards. Such as the Santo Winery which is also a great place to go and watch the sunset while enjoying a glass of wine. In fact, when I was in Santorini a couple we met were getting married there and the photos with the orange sun meeting the sea in the background were just beautiful. The vineyard sits in a small town called Pyrgos, near to the middle of the crescent shaped island, and the small town is worthy of a wander if you if you fancy venturing outside of the winery itself.

View from Fira
Fira is slightly trumped by Oia in my opinion for the sunset. None the less, the town is probably slightly more interesting than Oia, and so a sunset trip there is a must if you are not sunsetted out. The eve we went, the sea was literally swamped with cruise ships, which were putting on a light show of their own as the happy cruisers attepted to capture the moment on their cameras. We went to a restaurant called Ristoroni to watch the show. Possibly one of the best meals we had in Santorini and the company and the view made it a night I'll never forget. Despite the many margeritas.

There are several UK flights a day directly into Santorini. Alternatively, you can fly to Athens and get a boat to the island as part of an island hopping experience. You’ll dock at the island base and get a donkey to the cliff top. Not for the feint hearted (or the sensitive nostrilled) but perhaps worth it for the experience.

14 November 2011

Make me love you

Working in marketing (yes I do have a day job) I'm pretty cynical about stunts and promotions. Especially if they're too blatantly selling product. However, this summer, Cono Sur ran a Show What you Grow competition that really entertained me and quite possibly made me a fan.
Some of the tomatoes I grew in my garden
People could send in their pictures of goodies they'd grown themselves, and the best ones would be rewarded with a bottle of wine. Good clean fun. Well sometimes. Some of the vegetables were questionable shapes to say the least! Take a look at the gallery in their Facebook page, it is quite amusing.

It's a tough job doing alcohol promotions. There's a whole load of regulation around targeting the right age groups and not encouraging people to drink too much. That's why I think this campain hit the right level. Firstly because they understand their audience. People who grow their own produce are likely to be pretty middle class and like the good life. Secondly because, other than more wine, food's the best thing to go with a nice glass of something tasty. And thirdly, it gives fans a moment of fame, by displaying real pictures of people online page whether they're winners or not.

Finally because it works as a great sampling opportunity. Allowing people to try Cono Sur even if they hadn't thought of buying it before.
Me, a large courgette, a tomato and a bottle of Cono Sur
I, for one, had never really tried this brand before. However, I won the competition twice (yep, it's true) and I got to try a Pinot Noir and a Viognier from their Bicycle range. Both were delicious, but I was particularly impressed with the Pinot Noir since I am a bit of a snob and only tend to buy PNs from New Zealand or France. They also sent me a selection of recipes to give me ideas for what I could do with my home grown fare, and what to enjoy with my freebee wine.
A bottle of the Pinot Noir I won for my marvellous photo
All this must have engaged me with the brand because I even downloaded the Cono Sur app. Which, although disappointingly isn't configured for iPad, and doesn't do much more than list their range, I was surprised by how extensive their range was. Especially the 20 barrel range, a premium wine range which I had never seen before.

So the moral of this story is that well targeted promotions work. And did it make me drink more wine? Am not sure that is possible!! Would I buy Cono Sur in the future? Almost certainly.

6 November 2011

My review on reviews

I first discovered Trip Advisor a few years ago when increasingly, hotel and holiday searches brought up the review before the official page.

Since then, I have written 24 reviews and actually look forward to coming home from a holiday so that I can share experiences. You can see my profile: Pinotnoirgirl on Trip Advisor

Trip Advisor has also started to include reviews of restaurants which is great because, for me, what you eat and drink when away tends to add to your overall holiday or travelling experience. The site also updates you on how many people read your reviews or view your profile. I love this because it gives you an indication as to whether people are looking at what you write and are finding it useful. Apparently, my reviews posted this year have been read 1,027 times so far, which I find really interesting.

However, lately, I've fallen a bit out of love with Trip Advisor. And so I wanted to explore this in an attempt to renew my love.

People don't give feedback directly
One of my favourite UK hotels is Hotel Terravina. Based in the New Forest, it's run by the guy that set up Hotel Du Vin and has the perfect mix of delicious food and drinks coupled with friendly service.
My balcony when I stayed at Hotel Terravina
On the Hotel Blog the hotelier's wife, Nina Bassett, recently wrote about the frustrations of visitors who rant about their experiences on review sites after they have left, having given only positive feedback during their stay. Nina finds this difficult because it gives her staff little opportunity to rectify issues during a visitor's stay, meaning they only find out about mistakes after the point.

This seems mental to me. Absolutely write about your experience on review sites, as it helps other travellers to make informed decisions. However, you've paid for your holiday (or if you're lucky someone else has!) and you deserve to enjoy it while you are there. So if something is not right and can be rectified, speak up and try and get it resolved.

The reviews aren't real
Increasingly I hear people claiming that most of the reviews on Trip Advisor are made by hotels or travel companies rather than genuine holiday makers.
Beautiful Santorini - the reviews are great, but I believe them
This upset me because I have made many a decision based on reviews on Trip Advisor. Whilst I'm sure this does happen, I just can't believe that the majority of reviews are false. I recently stayed at a lovely hotel in Santorini called Hotel 28. Everything about this experience was brilliant. The staff couldn't do more to please, the rooms were spotless and the whole place was classy and relaxed.

On Trip Advisor the hotel is currently rated second in Kamari. I've read the reviews and many are from people we met while there because they're talking about the same things! One of them is quite mixed, and I know the occasion they are referring to, so I know it to be true.

It's the only way you can get poor experiences dealt with
These days, some people believe the only way to get a problem dealt with is by complaining in the social sphere. Many companies have become savvy to the fact that publicly responding to complaints on review sites or on other mediums such as Twitter can reflect well on the hotel or supplier.

Yet I believe that, like in many other areas of life, customer centric companies tend to respond to complaints and those that don't care, well, don't.

For example, I recently booked a cheap and cheerful holiday to Ibiza and chose Hotel Buenavista. While there were some positives about the place, there were a great deal of bad points. The staff were sourly to say the least, the rooms were scruffy and dirty and the pool was treacherous. I gave feedback to our tour operator, Thomson, directly through the forms on the plane and the post holiday email questionnaire and indirectly through Trip Advisor. None of these complaints have been dealt with or acknowledged in any way.

Reviews take too long to get published
Due to Trip Advisor's popularity, it's taking them longer and longer to approve reviews, especially if they contain photos. I once put up a review that took 14 days to be sent live, and then some of the pictures had been moderated out without a reason being given.

Whilst I understand that the site wants to minimise spam and offensive comments or photos, this can be frustrating because you want your review to be available to travellers as soon as possible, and no one likes to wait!
One of my photos that did not get published. Maybe my foot was offensive!
It astounds me that Trip Advisor has not invested in better technology to get around this and it's clearly all still manual. I know that in other social media spheres such as Facebook you can invest in monitoring tools such as Conversocial which immediately remove spam or swear words. And when you build forums or blogs you can plug in technology which operates similarly. For something as big as Trip Advisor, it seems crazy they are still relying on a manual work around.

The verdict?
Overall, I still love Trip Advisor. It's not perfect, but it's the biggest and most comprehensive holiday review site. I'll never go on holiday without having a little look at the review first, but probably take the following things into account:
  • If the review sounds like something out of a brochure or too good to be true, it probably is
  • If the review sounds like a rant or nit picking then ignore it
  • People have different standards so look at their other reviews. Are they just serial complainers
  • Those with more reviews tend to be more trustworthy and look at more than one review
  • Load up your pictures separately as the photos can take ages to load
  • Don't expect companies to respond or even look at Trip Advisor. It isn't an official complaint medium. If you have a problem, tell your operator or hotel at the time and try and get it fixed
  • There are other places to look at reviews or holiday experiences. Travel blogs like mine can be a great place to get a more informed view of a destination, rather than a snapshot
  • And finally, hey it's your holiday. Don't let yourself get too stressed, sometimes a lovely glass of wine can make everything seem better

31 October 2011

I like this one, no this one ....

One of my favourite holiday past times is going wine tasting. I fancy myself a bit of a wine connoisseur and love going to vineyards and pretending that I can taste grass or green or mumbling knowingly about legs and good years. I suspect however, that it all ends up like an episode of Absolutely Fabulous. Me as Eddy or Patsy in a tasting room in France, completely paralytic, snorting and pointing to glasses saying "this is the one, no this one, no this one."

So over the years, I've pushed open (fallen through) the odd cellar door, and I thought I would write about a few of them here. These are not necessarily recommendations, rather they are a collection of experiences, from around the world which I hope to substantially add to over time.

Canava Roussos Vineyard, Santorini, Greece
September 2011

We went to this vineyard following the recommendation of the rather handsome barman at our hotel, Hotel 28, Kamari. If I'm honest, there are probably vineyards in Santorini that have more spectacular views. Santo Wines for example has a much more picturesque vista and I met a couple who got married there and the photos look spectacular. However, Canava Roussos was within walking distance of where we were staying in Kamari and it was owned by the family of the hot barman.
The Vineyard claims to be one of the oldest in Santorini, and uses many of the traditional methods of wine making they have for over a century. If you are after a glitzy, and polished experience, this probably isn't for you, however there was no hard sell and it felt like a very relaxed and earthy experience.

From Kamari, you reach the winery by walking up a long, dusty path past all the white washed buildings and blue and white churches you would expect in Santorini. The vineyard itself is small, has a nice tasting area dripping with vines and grapes, a small amphitheatre and an area where you can view the barrels and traditional production methods.

They offer two types of tasting, dry and sweet and I obviously did both! Each had four varieties of wine and cost a few euro. Santorini is known for its dry white wines, the most famous of which is which is often blended to make a Nykteri wines. This is perfectly suited to my taste as it is very dry, but has a distinctive and slightly misleading honey, sweet smell.
I ended up spending a fortune, which I always do, and one of the lethal errors of going to vineyards and making a purchase decision after a few glasses of wine. My favourite was probably a sweet wine made from the Assyrtiko grape or Vinsanto which had a lovely plummy-burnt caramel-figgy taste. Served perfectly cold and utterly delicious. It may be worth noting that the tasting rooms close fairly promptly at 7pm, so don't expect to hang around for the sunset in the summer.

Mudgee Vineyards, New South Wales, Australia
November 2005

I was a vineyard virgin when I went to Mudgee and it was perfect for a first timer. I went upon the recommendation of an expat friend of mine who claimed this was the less commercial sister of Hunter Valley and the one Sydney siders tend to choose for a more authentic experience. I guess it's about a three hour drive outside Sydney on a mainly fairly dull drive, although you can stop off at the Blue Mountains en route if you choose (which we did).

I went with my brother (Bordeauxboy) who was a wine tasting novice at the time but has since taken on wine tasting as a professional hobby. We were camping at the Mudgee Valley Tourist Park and hired bikes nearby, as you can reach a range of wineries by pedal.
I loved Mudgee for a number of reasons. Firstly because it was utterly unpretentious and very, very cheap. None of the wineries charged for tastings which I was later to discover is an absolute rarity (I'd love to know if this is still the case today as this was several years ago). Secondly, every person working the cellar door was friendly and knowledgeable and seemed genuinely grateful of the company. Thirdly, the measures were generous and free flowing.

This was also the first time I tried Ice Wine which is a fortified wine made from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. Before this day I had formed the opinion that I hated dessert wine, but drinking this delicious, cold, clean wine completely changed my mind for life.

The whole experience was perfect for me as I knew little (nothing) about wine. Wine tasting can be a slightly pretentious and snobbish affair, and sometimes the clueless can be sneered at. However, there was none of this here. Just friendly helpfulness, and wine that kept flowing.

The result was a very drunk Pinotnoirgirl and Bordeauxboy doing some rather Kamikaze cycling around Mudgee. We also got dive bombed by territorial magpies, adding to the immense gratitude for our cycle helmets.

Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia
November 2009

So I thought it only fair to include Mudgee's big sister, Hunter Valley.

An exceptionally full of life Kiwi friend of mine drove that day. So I was lucky that I had her company and also that I didn't have to drive. From Sydney, you can easily go there and back in a day. When we went, an art exhibition was taking place called Sculpture in the Vines. Which meant we could sup wine, beer and (not) champagne while looking at a range of slightly bizarre, but very fun, art. They also hold a Jazz in the Vines event which my brother has been to which he thought was excellent.
There are lots and lots of cellar doors to choose from, and although more commercial than Mudgee, the place still oozes with the friendly charm that Australia does so well.

A couple of highlights were having a "Sticky Experience" at the De Bortoli cellar door which merited a mention just for the name. I enjoyed six different types of fortified wine including a (not) Tawny Port and the famous Noble One Dessert Wine. We also supped some (not) champagne overlooking the vineyards at the Peterson House tasting rooms. It was called a Champagne House then, but I notice it has since been changed to sparkling wines, I assume due to champagne appellation laws. We had a delicious meal and enjoyed some delicious wines in a beautiful setting.

To make our tasting experience complete (and to cement the future hangover) we went to the Hunter Beer micro brewery which is located at the Potters Brewery and resort. As a lover of alcoholic ginger beer, it was great to find some spicy litre bottles here that we could try and buy.
Needless to say, my head was lolling all the way back to Sydney, with my very sober friend looking on disapprovingly. Until we got home, and proceeded to finish off most of the wine and beer we had bought during the day.

I'm going back to Syndey soon, and I definitely plan to make a trip here again.

29 October 2011

Swilling wine in America

As I've been to a couple of vineyards in California, I thought this merited a separate entry. I have to say that wine tasting is a different experience in California from Europe or Australia. It tends to be a more slick, money generating machine. So you have to try hard not to end up in a tourist line, trying a thimble of wine. But Californian wine is far more than the mass produced brands such as E&J Gallo or Echo Falls and there are some amazing artisan wine makers in this place that has a unique climate for wine production.

Iron Horse Vineyard, Sonoma, California, America
September 2010

We had been staying in Bodega Bay for a couple of nights and thought we'd take a trip to one of the Vineyards. We chose Iron Horse Vineyard because the guide book boasted of its spectacular views and was close enough for us to reach within an hour or so of the beach. Again, I was not driving which meant I could enjoy myself.
The estate takes a bit of finding, but it is definitely worth all the wrong turns, especially if you are a fan of Pinot Noir like me. As with most California Vineyards, the entire estate is utterly pristine, and the rows of vines are intersected with beautiful beds of flowers and fruit trees. The tasting rooms are little more than a wooden shed which is quite rustic by Californian terms.

Iron Horse is famous for Pinot Noirs and sparkling wines, and after a few glasses of fizz, I struck up a bizarre conversation with an Australian man about my nail varnish. This was indicative of the friendly, informal nature of the surroundings. I could have spent a long time chatting to the warm, friendly people and looking at the spectacular view. And of course I walked away with a bottle or two.
Pacific Star Vineyard, Mendocino, California, America
October 2010

We literally fell across this vineyard on a road trip from San Francisco up through Northern California and onto Crater Lake in Oregon. We had nearly been inadvertently eaten by a Mountain Lion (true story) and I was seriously in need of a glass of wine to steady my nerves. So we saw a road sign to Pacific Star Winery off Highway 1 and headed into a very unexpected winery.

The Tasting Rooms overlook the wild pacific and you can sip your wine on one of the wooden benches overlooking the cliffs which get regularly and violently bashed by the huge waves of the sea. Far from being the slick operation that you often expect in California, this place is very laid back and has much more of a hippy vibe (quite in keeping with Mendocino in general). 
We were greeted by an ancient looking beagle who followed us around, hoping for picnic scraps. What I remember most were the random names of the wine- It's my Fault and Dad's Daily Red are just a couple of examples. And the eclectic mix of items they sold in their shop including a book of Dogs living in North American Wineries which I can only assume must have a fairly limited audience. 

An experience, and well worth the detour off Highway 1. 

A Sonoma Valley Wine Tour, California, America
August 2008

I was on a girly road trip round California, and on the way back from Lake Tahoe when we decided to stop in Sonoma for a couple of nights. As all of us wanted to drink, and we knew little about wine, so we opted to do an organised wine tour. This turned out to be a bus trip where we were about 50 years younger than the other participants. 

This isn't necessarily an experience I would want to repeat, and I would strongly recommend finding a way of visiting vineyards independently. We were taken to about five vineyards that all pretty much blended into one. It was all very hard sell and commercial. The tasting rooms were vast and crowded, with large shops selling all names of tat that they were practically supermarkets. Most of the tastings were a measured dribble, and due to the huge numbers of people, there was little opportunity to learn about the grapes or the wines.

On the positive side, Sonoma is beautiful as are all the vineyards. The whole place is like a beautiful, lush green dream. The estates are wonderfully tended and the grounds are plush with flowers and in general this is a stunning place to be. I tasted some delicious wine, and actually bought a couple of bottles of Mes Trois Amours from the Ledson Winery because the barman took the time to talk to me. The main square in Sonoma town centre has some lovely eateries and to top it all off there is a Ben and Jerry's scoop shop in Sonoma Plaza which is virtually worth the visit in itself.

23 October 2011

Me myself and I

What is it about hotels that makes it virtually impossible to travel as a single person?

I don't want to sound like a bitter old spinster as normally it is my preference to travel alone. It means you can choose when you go, where you go and, quite frankly, you switch off more if you completely detach from life.

But hotels really don't make it easy.

A friend of mine is getting married next summer in Cyprus and I would completely love to go. She has booked a wedding package through Thomas Cook to the Olympic Lagoon Resort in Nissi Bay.

However, I can't get a single room at the hotel. I've tried directly with Thomas Cook and also on several other aggregators like eBookers. But there are no single rooms available. Plenty of double rooms but no singles.

I just don't get it. There must be lots of single people travelling these days, and not all of them want to stay in hostels or have enough money to pay double.

And likewise, when I travel with a friend or a colleague, I don't always want to share a room with them. I live on my own for a reason, and I would quite like to have the same privacies when on holiday or a business trip. However, sometimes even asking for twin beds rather than a double seems like a difficult task. 

For example, I recently stayed with work at the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane in London. I had to share a room with a colleague and the receptionist assured me that there were twin beds in the room. And yes, there were twin beds, but they were side by side with a shared double duvet! Eventually I managed to get two single bed spreads, but not without complaint, and still the beds were pushed right together. Mmmmm, not at all awkward.

I really feel like hotels are missing a trick here. And it would be in their interests to be more flexible with room layouts to accommodate lone travellers. Because I'm on my own, I'm even more of a trapped audience. I'm less likely to eat away from the hotel (yes I still feel the stigma of going to restaurants alone) I'm more likely to order expensive room service and have late night glasses of wine. Essentially they would get more value from me if they took the time to welcome me.

So it looks like for my friend's wedding that I'll have to stay at another hotel nearby. I have found some lower rated hotels in the area that will permit me to stay as a single person in a single room (at a premium may I add) which I guess is OK. But I may not be able to use the facilities at the hotel where the rest of the wedding guests are staying, I'll have to walk to and from another hotel in order to have things like evening meals with them. So not exactly ideal or especially safety conscious.

If anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them. In the meantime, I'll have to suffer being a social leper as a woman travelling alone.

Both the photos on this page were taken during a road trip through Northern California (top) and to Crater Lake in Oregon (directly above) and they are me!

22 October 2011

View from 30,000 feet

I'm quite fussy when I fly, especially long haul. I see it as an experience and part of the holiday, and not something worthy of compromise. 

I'm not saying that I fly first class, because I simply can't justify the expense. (Although I did once fly Virgin Upper Class to Cape Town, and it is up there with one of the most amazing experiences of my life). But I'd rather spend a bit more to ensure I get all the special touches.

My airline of choice is Virgin, but I'm about to fly to Australia with Singapore Airlines, so I'll let you know how I get on. I've also flown with BA and Quantas to Australia, but it was over 10 years ago, and I'm not sure its fair to comment on the experience now.

I like to choose my seat before I fly and I'm a big fan of Seat Guru because it lets you see where your seat is on the plane, where the toilets are and the formation of the seating layout. It also lets you know handy things like which seats have slightly more leg room and whether you have a plug point and USB port. 

My preference is by the window. On many flights, because of the shape of the planes, you get a bit more space to the side of you which is useful for sleeping or putting your bag when you're in the air.

But the main reason is because I love seeing the earth from the air, and planning where to go based of the places I see from 30,000 feet. I once went with a friend to Crater Lake because she had flown over it so many times commuting from Oregan to San Franciso that she wanted to see what it was like from the ground.

And the best thing about flying long haul? An endless supply of red wine. And Virgin tend to have a good choice- the last couple of times I've had a lovely red from the Languedoc region of France.

Here are a couple of the views that I have found most beatiful from the sky: (I hope to keep adding to this in time.)

Over the Adriatic Coast
When flying from London to the Greek Islands, you generally fly through France, over the French Pyrenees (which nearly had a mention on their own) down to Italy and over the Adriatic Coast. I've never been to Italy or Croatia, but it is definitely on the list because of how it looks from the sky. (photo taken with my iPhone out of the window!)

The whole of the coastline looks absolutely stunning. The sea is Bombay Sapphire  blue, and there are lots of little, craggy island formations, sea lagoons, sea spits and inlets. It looks absolutely beautiful and I hope it is the same from the ground.

Up North from California
Once when I flew out from San Francisco, because of some freak weather, the route took me directly North over Oregan and then North East over Greenland. If nothing else, it was a great lesson in Geography!

To start, the view leaving San Francisco took us straight over the bay and Golden Gate Bridge, and its a great way to get your bearings on the city and also say goodbye! From the sky, you can clearly pick out the red, red of the bridge, Alkatraz and the magical bay of Sausolito. (If you must, and if you have no taste, you could probably see Fisherman's Wharf).

I then flew up through Northern California where is was a bit cloudy but I managed to get a view of Mount Shasta which is one the highest volcanic peaks in Northern California and part of the Siskiyou County. I'll no doubt talk about this area of Northern California at some stage, because it is definitely worth a visit.

Finally, we crossed over Greenland during the night. I did take some photos, but as it was dark, none of them came out that well. So I'll have to describe it instead! Quite simply, it looked like a winter wonderland. Beautiful swathes of ice and snow, and even at night, you could pick out the icebergs and frozen lakes below. Because it was night and many people were asleep, it really did look like a dream below (and I'd had a few glasses of rouge by this stage). Amazing.