Diary of a Travel Writer: 2013-02 February 2013

Eoghan Corry, Zimbabwe 2006

Eoghan Corry, Zimbabwe 2006

SATURDAY:  Travel writer and music magazine founder John Coughlan passed away at noon. He was a great companion in the skies and on the ground – forever poking fun at the pomposity that stalks the aviation sector and the bureaucracy-heavy tourism boards we deal with. Not everyone got it about John, especially the Cypriots who were asked if Turkish soldiers come over for a little R&R or the Israelis that were asked for pork at mealtimes. He will be missed.

SUNDAY: Talking road safety on RTÉ radio’s history show – how we used to kill more people on the roads when we had fewer cars (four times as many people died on the roads in 1972 than in 2012). Every time I go to Africa I am reminded that better roads, not more policing, is what reduces fatalities. In some of the most dangerous cities in the world the police spend more time collecting fines or the prerequisite gratuity that goes with it than chasing criminals. Thus was it ever.

MONDAY: On a rainy night I am off to Celbridge History Society to give a talk about weather in Celbridge, floods and snow. Uniquely we have two weather related monuments in the district, the Folly and Wonderful Barn are a reminder of the frost and famine of the 1740s. The bridge was swept away in 1802.

TUESDAY: Snow on the ground and frost on the airwaves. Michael O’Leary’s next big idea is Flybe Ireland. He wants to set up a new airline and give it 43 of Aer Lingus’s routes. Filleted Lingus, no less.

WEDNESDAY: Aer Lingus announce strong results but Michael O’Leary has spoiled the party. Christophe Mueller says his Flybe Ireland idea is a “shady deal.”

THURSDAY: Sally Ann Clarke calls in to our dining room in L’Ecrivain to see if the meal is up to Michelin standard. With a choice of venison, cod and sirloin not much can go wrong. The conversation is of a suitably high end travel experience. Catherine Reilly of Brendan Vacations and Sharon Jordan of 1STS are launching a new tourism package called Boutique Journeys. It is wet February in Baggot Street, but we are warmed by thoughts of Galapagos, Easter Island, and other places well far from the beaten track.

FRIDAY:  North Kildare could not be soggier. Dog paws have to be washed on return from a walk.

SATURDAY:  Time to pack the goggles and gloves. The snow is calling.

SUNDAY: Flight EI1730 at 6.30am out of Dublin is not full, which is surprising for mid term. The destination is probably as surprising, the road from Toulouse to Andorra has been snowbound, so we are flying to El Prat in Barcelona instead. Barcelona to Andorra is a more scenic drive, Craig our Topflight rep tells us, but I don’t think there is much difference.

We check in T2, and using the strange logic that is Dublin airport, head back to T1 to Gate 303. The flight boards early, which is a bit of a heart stopper because my daughter Siofra has disappeared to Burgerland in T1 for breakfast. Thankfully we retrieve her in time.

The bus takes four and a half hours instead of the normal three. The stop in Canvails is ike half time at the Aviva, a mill involving the contents of 16 coaches in quest of sprite and soggy chips. A handwritten sign at the corner says tour guides only where the young reps cluster. Pasta and cheese and a coke costs Eu8.50, a high price for a captive audience.


MONDAY:  There is so much snow here in Andorra that they cannot keep the pistes clear. The road to Toulouse is under an avalanche. They are still trying to dig out the ticket office at Arcalis. Here in Arinsal the footpath is now five feet higher than the road, which makes the walk from the St Gothard hotel to the lift a precarious perambulation. And a reminder of the delight of Andorra: the snow here is fluffy and powdery and a little salty, straight from the Bay of Biscay and not like the heavier wet stuff you get in the Alps.

TUESDAY:  The snow is still falling, the wind is up and it is very, very cold. Myself and Síofra (my daughter) are trying to ski downhill in zero visibility. We travel whenever there is a break in the driving blinding snow and fog and proceed with caution because along the slope there are little groups of huddled figures in the driving, cutting, icy snow, waiting for the ten yards visibility to get them a little further downhill. Down in the beginners area, kindergarteners are being blown off the magic carpet like skittles. After one descent we upped sticks, literally, and took the gondola to the bottom. “That was fun, but I wouldn’t want to do it again,” said Síofra in her classically understated way. There we found that the bus to the neighbouring resort Pal had gone out that morning and never come back, stranded on some snowy mountain by-road. So we take the public bus, Eu1.45, to La Masana where there is a gondola up to Pal, which is south facing and has lots of trees. When we arrive there, it is sunny and fresh, with blue skies and glorious pistes extending in each direction. The other side of the mountain, different planet.

WEDNESDAY: The wind died and the sun came out. All the slopes are open again. Even north facing Arcalis has 12 of its 17 pistes open..

THURSDAY: Off to Soldeu where I spend the day skiing non stop under the blue sky, about 40 kilometers with Mike Wilson, an Anglo-Italian guide living in Andorra who used to be a racer. He took off like the clappers and I tried to follow, blues, red, and black. He brought me down the world cup slope and despite several heart attacks, I made it.

Getting there was a three bus journey and I gashed my hand off my skis taking them out of the hold of one of the buses, but once there all the drama was forgotten.

They opened a new tunnel through the mountain just before Christmas which has taken half an hour off the journey back to Arinsal.

FRIDAY: Another day on skis, and then to the Caldea in La Vella, a big spa and wellness centre with Icelandic pools, hammams, saunas and an outdoor pool where you swim in heated luxury while the snow dusts your hair. We also shop for the cheap electronics and booze that makes Andorra famous. The Hiper Andorra shop is now a Le Clerc, sign of changing times, but it still has the cheapest bottles in town.

SATURDAY: Midway through the snow boarding lesson, I am asking myself why I signed up for this. So THAT’s what my backside is for. I had forgotten.

SUNDAY: We are up at 3.30 for the coach departure home, through black night and white high-piled snow, with a brief stop at Tarascon en route to Toulouse. Flight EI7531 departs early and the mid-term ski trip is suitably filled with excited, noisy children to keep us awake.


MONDAY: Chicago is more wind-chill city than windy city this week. Aer Lingus are increasing their services to Chicago to double daily this summer and are bringing us a sample the sights. We land in temperatures of minus 10 augmented by a bitter winter wind. Home for the next few nights is the Drake Hotel, a classy venue centrally located between the lakeshore and shopping-magnet Michigan Avenue – you know it is classy because there is a couch in the elevator. Room 437 has a fantastic lakeshore view. Dinner is signature mid-west steak in Benny’s Chop House. What a start.

TUESDAY:  I walk by the lakeshore in the early morning. The wind is biting but it is beautiful, a big lip of ice being pounded by the freshwater waves of Leek Michigan. Chicago knows and loves its waterfront and uses it to create a unique atmosphere. On the first morning, I am greeted to breakfast by the hotel’s Irish-born catering manager Ann O’Riordan from Clane. Small world.

WEDNESDAY: At the Shedd Aquarium, Chicago’s biggest attraction with 2.6m visits a year, we are brought up close and personal with a penguin it watches us with a curious eye. Eventually it does what penguins do best, projectile poo. It spatters the woman from the Belfast Telegraph.

THURSDAY: Portions are big here. “I asked for a small breakfast,” Declan Kearney of Aer Lingus says, “and they brought it out on a forklift.”

A prowl around the Art Institute of Chicago (home of American Gothic, the American Mona Lisa, as our hostess Nora Gainer describes it) is  followed by Chicago’s signature deep dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria.

In the evening we get upwardly mobile, ascending the Hancock Tower on a clear frosty night. The view goes for more than 50 miles in each direction. It is one of the clearest nights that hostess Jennifer Hessler can remember.

We finish with Italian fusion from John Coletta’s Quartino Ristorante and a night of music at Buddy Guy’s Blues Club.

FRIDAY: Walking on glass on the 103rd floor. When Randy Stancik came up with the idea of a glass deck on viewing floor of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tour, once the tallest building in the world but now down to number eight), he didn’t tell this bosses what was happening until the designs were complete. Since the deck was installed, visitor numbers at Willis have gone from 1.1m to 1.6m a year.

FRIDAY NIGHT: A comfortable and on-time flight EI124 home, departing just before a snow storm is due to land. Wouldn’t have minded another day in Chicago.

SATURDAY: Ken Healy and Paddy Cullen in Barberstown Castle are launching their medieval banquet tonight. The show is more Bunratty than Jury’s or Johnny Fox’s. A caped figure, Tommy Monaghan aka Nicholas Barby, tells us the history of the castle interspersed with songs by Orfhlaith Flynn, dancing by Neil Sullivan, Michael McHugh, Aoife Kennedy and Claire McDermott and music from piper Leonard Barry, bodhran player Philip King and fiddler Bernadette Nic Gabhann. The food is exceptional for a dinner show: colcannon and bacon soup, pork belly with black pudding with honey and cider sauce, and a dessert of bread and butter pudding with Bailey’s ice cream.

SUNDAY: Back to the heart of the country. Rathcoffey GAA club is celebrating its 125th anniversary, and I am here to tell the story of how the ball burst in the 1912 county semi-final just when the club had come closer to real honours than it ever would again. It doesn’t win much, but if you want to know what keeps the Association at the heart of Irish sporting culture, you could go no further than Rathcoffey.

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