Travel Destinations

CD Traveller visits Stoke Park and savors a little taste of paradise

Set in 350 acres of ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphrey Repton designed parkland, Stoke Park is a celebrity favorite: everyone from Daniel Craig to Claudia Schiffer, Hugh Grant, Renee Zellwegger, Jodie Kidd and Robbie Williams stays (and plays) here – and they all keep coming back for more.

And understandably so, for nobody can deny that when it comes to luxury Stoke Park knows how to put on a show and they’ve been doing it for decades: the estate has been in existence for 1,000 years and Britain’s greatest Country Club since the turn of the century.

Yet while we were expecting a fancy hotel that we could relax and unwind in after a hectic year, even we couldn’t anticipate the sheer luxury we were about to walk into.

The distinctive cream-colored Palladian mansion, designed by James Wyatt – King George 111’s favorite architect – is opulence personified: all marble pillars, high ceilings, historical portraits on the walls and oriental rugs on the floors. The 21 bedrooms are straight out of a scene from Gosford Park with wood paneling, desks, fireplaces, free-standing bathtubs and priceless antiques. Not surprisingly, given their quintessential Englishness, it’s the mansion rooms that the American tourists adore – particularly the Pennsylvania Suite that Bridget Jones and Daniel Cleaver, aka Renee Zellweger and Hugh Grant, romped in after rowing on the nearby lake in Bridget Jones.

Bridget Jones on the Lake

By contrast, the 28 rooms in the Pavilion (the newer part of the estate that opened in May 2008) has a more contemporary feel. CD Traveller was shown to room 102, although to call it a room is akin to calling the Sistine Chapel ceiling merely a mural. A favorite with Daniel Craig, the hall corridor is lined with shelves groaning under the weight of worthy reads. At the end of the corridor, you’ll find a small office (the perfect place to read one of the books – or write one), while a right turn brings you to the bedroom adorned with handmade mirrors as well as hip, iconic artwork including modern oil paintings, large photographs, Andy Warhol lithos and film posters and dominated by a grand four poster king size bed boasting Egyptian cotton sheets. There’s also an HD television, iPod dock, moreish mini-bar treats (we can vouch for the smoked almonds) and arresting views across the verdant gardens. The bathroom meanwhile is a marble haven of heated floors, SPC toiletries, cozy dressing gowns, a roomy rain shower, his ‘n’ her sinks and a large bath.

Leaving such luxury is something of a challenge. Should you manage to do that, the award-winning £20 million spa is accessible within steps and seven-star in terms of service and facilities. There’s an array of pampering body and face treatments (CD Traveller signed up for the SPC Active Glow Facial) to choose from along with more unusual options like ear candling, teeth whitening, counseling and lifestyle coaching. Afterwards, spa-goers get to relax in a private atrium with a stunning five-meter tropical aquarium – a blissful environment that city spas just can’t compete with.

Tennis (Grass)

If you don’t fancy lying on a treatment table all day, the sporting options are the first rate from the brilliant indoor and outdoor tennis courts (Stoke Park hosts the annual Boodles’ Challenge every June) to the 4,500 sq ft gymnasium, beautiful indoor pool. Last – but by no means least – there’s the 27 hole Championship golf course (hailed as “the most stylish club in Great Britain” by Golf International) where James Bond memorably defeated Goldfinger on the 18th green in 1964. Another Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, was filmed at Stoke Park as were Brit flicks Bridget Jones’ Diary, Bride, and Prejudice, Layer Cake, and RocknRolla.

Worked up an appetite after all that exercise? It’s time to sample one of Stoke Park’s restaurants. There are three restaurants but it’s The Dining Room – presided over by the restaurant manager, Howard Davies, formerly of The Compleat Angler and The Baglioni – that is Stoke Park’s finest culinary destination. Designed by Chris Wheeler, ex-right hand man to Jean-Christophe Novelli, the modern British menu boasts delightful dishes such as scallops with bacon and caviar and poached sea bass with spinach and champagne cream sauce. Furthermore, food and drink are well priced, given the quality, with a three-course dinner weighing in at a not extortionate £39.50.

For a more informal eating experience, San Marco isn’t a bad option offering an array of classic Italian dishes. It’s also an ideal spot for breakfast –a sumptuous buffet featuring eggs cooked to order, pastries, cheeses, tropical fruits, tea and coffee. Over at the orangery, an indulgent afternoon tea is the order du jour.

Howard Davies, Restaurant and Bars Manager

Should you decide to venture out of Stoke Park, there’s plenty to see and do. Stoke Poges Church (Thomas Gray’s inspiration for Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard) is on the doorstep while Windsor Castle is also close by, as is the village of Cookham (home of artist Stanley Spencer) and the ancient woodland of Burnham Beeches. But the bottom line is this: nothing outside of the hotel beats what’s inside!

Need to know:

Stoke Park
Park Road
Stoke Poges
01753 717171

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Travel Rumblings

The decision before Christmas by the courts to view the 12 days strike by the union Unite at BA (see CD-Traveller 15/12/09) as illegal meant that it was nearly inevitable that there would be another strike ballot. That has been announced for next week.

Last time the criticism of the length and timing of the strike almost made the public strong supporters of the BA management since the cabin crew or Unite were seen as deliberately trying to ruin people’s Christmas. This time maybe the union and the cabin crew have learnt from that PR debacle.

When this new ballot was announced different media were quick to scream that this could mean that Easter flights would be disrupted whereas Unite has not decided what days any strike would take place on or how long it would be. But it did force if that is not too strong a word, the union to come out and say that Easter flight plans would not be hit. At least it looks as though they have learnt the PR lesson from last time.

The high vote in favor of a strike last time (9:1) is unlikely to be repeated. The strong reaction by the public surprised the cabin crew. The balloting will be scrutinized very carefully this time to make sure Unite don’t make a hash of it again. And if there is a strike, then the length of it will be shorter.

But if there is a strike and you are affected check your insurance. Make sure there is a clause allowing you to get a refund if there is one. And if you haven’t bought insurance for your flight, pick a policy with that clause in it. If your flight is affected, BA will let you have a refund, re-book you onto another flight subject to there being seats available or book you to a nearby airport, if you wish, provided that the flight to that destination is running. There will be no charge for altering flights BA says.

One other thing. Once any strike dates are announced, if you book flights for those dates after the announcement, it is unlikely that any insurance policy will cover you

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Travel Rumblings

From the headlines in the media you would think that we are all going to holiday and travel more this year. That’s not quite the truth because this headline applies to the world as a whole. Some parts of the world will holiday more, some won’t and some will stay the same. But you can’t get a catchy headline out of “Certain countries in the world will attract more tourist in 2010 proving a new pandemic, war, or disaster doesn’t happen.” You might just as well add “or if there is an X in the month.”

I haven’t seen one downbeat forecast yet. We are going to spend more time visiting our own countries, Spain will rebound, Turkey will continue its growth; Sri Lanka will have double-digit growth. You don’t see a report saying that Costa Lot is going to have 25% fewer of us visiting this year.

Everyone is positive. But this can’t be right. Not everywhere can have growth. But no-one wants to admit that.

So what you decide to do and where you decide to holiday will only have an impact at the end of the year when these same destinations will explain why you didn’t go to Costa Lot or Totally Boring by-the-Sea.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) is the latest to have a stab at saying what we’ll be doing. They suggest a bounceback as well. They think that destinations in Europe suffered a 6% decline but that doesn’t apply to domestic holidays in the UK. That rose. The base their belief on that will holiday more on the fact that we are more confident about things now. I am not sure that is the answer. I think tourism is the chocolate factor. You holiday in order to have a break from the everyday problems. You have a bad time, you eat a chocolate bar. You have a bad three months, you have a holiday. Confidence only affects how much you spend on a holiday not whether you have one.

But I am talking generally. Some people won’t have a holiday at all. Some people will have lots of half days to surrounding attractions. That’s still a holiday.

It’s just that the forecasters aren’t very good at picking up on the small things that you and I do.

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Travel Destinations

The Staffordshire Horde

Back in September (CD-Traveller 30/9/09) we wrote about the Staffordshire Hoard of over 1500 finds that had been found in a field by a metal detector. When they went on display in Birmingham, the queues to see it went to the museum and tickets were rationed. (
Such a magnificent find (for once the word isn’t an exaggeration) deserves to stay in the Midlands rather than London and so Birmingham Art Gallery & Museum is trying to raise £3.3 million in just 13 weeks to buy the hoard. They will then need another £1.7 million to display it. So far £500,000 has been raised in the first week.

If you feel you can contribute, please go to

Bill Wyman, Michael Palin, Tony Robinson and Dr. David Starkey have all let their names to try and raise the money needed and there are fundraising meetings as well. Some of the items will be on display from 13 February to the 7th March at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent.

This could well be the most significant find about our past in the last 60 odd years. Keeping this hoard in the Midlands will give a boost to the view that our national treasures should be spread throughout our countries rather than placed in just our capital cities. It will encourage visitors to see museums and galleries that are less frequently visited and give revenue to the local economy. It is believed that this hoard will vastly extend our knowledge about the Kingdom of Mercia. And in the old Kingdom of Mercia, the hoard should stay.

I’ve sent my donation. May I urge you once again that if you can donate please do so.

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Travel Destinations

Last month we gave you the low-down on what to see and do in Doha – the Qatari capital that is making claims to be the region’s next big travel hotshot. But there’s more to Qatar than its capital… Leave Doha for a day and get to grips with the former fishing town of Al Khor – only a short 45 minute drive away

We’re not going to mince words; Qatar’s main draws are most definitely in Doha. However, when you’ve exhausted the capital, there are a few places further afield that warrant a visit and Al Khor (Arabic for ‘stream of water’) is arguably the pick of the bunch. Once famous as a center for the pearling industry, life here moves at a more sedate pace than Doha making this former fishing town the perfect place for a pleasant week-end break.

What to see

Most visitors head straight to the harbor where you can see the distinctive silhouette of dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) bobbing up and down. For a different perspective of the Al Khor landscape, consider cruising the azure waters of the Arabian Gulf on board a show. Meanwhile, beach babes will relish Al Khor’s wonderfully unspoiled beach; here you can laze on sand whiter than a dentist’s chair while soaking up the rays of the Middle Eastern sun.

Of course, Al Khor isn’t solely about sun, sand, and sea – the sleepy village has a fascinating history and up until the mid-nineteenth century, pearl diving was the main source of income for the locals. The pearling journey (called Al ghawa al Kabir) typically took from three to four months, usually June-October of every year when the waters were warm, and whole communities came to the shore to see off their menfolk who were renowned for their courage and stamina. However, the discovery of oil in the 1930s altered the fate of Qatar with many pearl divers becoming employed in the burgeoning petroleum industry, which transformed the tiny Gulf state into one of the richest countries in the world. The decline of the pearl trade soon accelerated as Japanese businessmen began farming cultured pearls (created by placing a shell bead inside an oyster manually) and selling them at a small fraction of what a natural pearl cost. A visit to the Al Khor museum – housed in an old police station – will reward those looking to learn more about the history of Muscat’s relationship with the water. This miniature museum is also the place to view archaeological discoveries dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages as well as weaving, wood carving, and other traditional Qatari crafts, plus some gorgeous gypsum carvings. Once you’ve completed your cultural odyssey, nearby attractions include mangroves and pretty public gardens that are ideal for picnics in.

Yet ultimately while there are things to see and do in Al Khor, a trip to this town cannot be described as a ‘must do’. Make no mistake; there are definitely more compelling places to visit in the Middle East. Despite this, if it’s peace, seclusion and a change of scene that you’re seeking, then Al Khor scores.

Where to Eat:

At Ain Haikitan Restaurant diners can feast on familiar Arabic fare (think fattoush, mutabal and more), at Pizza Hut prices; don’t leave without trying the fantastic falafel sandwiches. Alternatively, make a beeline for Beitiut Pearl Restaurant. The food here, while perfectly adequate, is unlikely to win any awards but the arresting vistas of the coast make Beituit Pearl a great spot in which to sip sweet mint tea or to quench thirst with a refreshing fruit juice.

Where to stay:

Al Khor’s appeal as week-end getaway is bolstered by the sprawling Al Sultan Beach Resort ( Perched picturesquely on the waterfront, the resort boasts vast bedrooms with arresting sea views and a smattering of superb restaurants. Leisure facilities include a temperature controlled outdoor swimming pool (rumored to be the largest in Qatar), high-end health club and top-notch tennis courts.

How to get there:

Al Khor is situated 40km north of Doha. Follow the Al Shamal (meaning ‘north’) road out of Doha city center all the way to Al Khor. The drive should take approximately 45 minutes.

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Travel Destinations

Most country destinations begin a new year with a forecast or wish about how their tourism industry will do. South East Asia has been a growth area for long distance holidaymakers from the UK. The combination of climate, different cultures, currencies that haven’t been altered much against sterling, wildlife and some inexpensive fares on particular routes have helped those countries tap into British holidaymakers.

One country forecasting tremendous growth in Sri Lanka. With the end of the civil war, the government is fostering new tourism projects such as the Trincomalee tourist zone in the northeast of the country. Whilst the war was on, only about 35,000 tourists a month visited the country. By 2016, the government is hoping that 200,000 people will visit it.

Indonesia does not attract that many British and Irish tourists apart from to Bali (focussing on attracting more of its core visitors from Japan and Australia in 2010) but have high hopes of attracting us now that the state airline, Garuda, is flying again to Europe. This year they hope to attract about $7 billion in tourist spend or about $1,000 per person making the maths easy, an additional half a million tourists this year.

Thailand has become the largest South East Asian destination for British and Irish tourists. Last year the government supported its industry by giving landing fee discounts. They have now abolished that but are still encouraging airlines to fly thereby giving the rebates based on them flying extra passengers there. Frequently named as providing the best value for tourists, it will launch a strong campaign to persuade us to return or visit for the first time.

It’s neighbor, Malaysia, doesn’t receive quite the same publicity but last year over 435,000 visited it and we the UK remains the largest European provider of tourists. Over 17% more of us visited it last year making it one of the highest growth areas for British tourists. Even then tourism rose by a healthy 7% as more than 23.5 million people visited the country.

Vietnam has been the quiet success story of the last few years and shortly CD-Traveller will be carrying the story of a three-week trek around the country. Other countries in the area are to trying to catch up such as Cambodia which has opened a new eco-tourism resort and is planning a new island resort to open next year near Sihanoukville in one of the tourism belts.

I haven’t mentioned Singapore yet. Unfairly considered just a place to change planes, it offers a number of guided tours if you are strapped for time but it also offers a microcosm of South East Asia for visitors but with all the range of elegant accommodation that you’d expect from a bustling center

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Travel Rumblings

In 2009 more than 1.5 million of us took a cruise. This year the figure is expected to grow by about another 100,000 making it one of the few bright spots for a type of holiday that already has quite a high appeal.

What is that is appealing to holidaymakers? Can the growth keep on continuing?

According to the cruise review site,, there are two main reasons for this attraction. The first is the willingness of cruise companies to slash prices to fill berths and the second is that cut-price offers attract those people who like a bargain. They might not usually consider a cruise but the bargain price appeal is the clincher. So the size of the market might continue to grow as long as the number of bargain hunters grows.

That’s not the entire story because the ship owners need to continually adjust what they offer otherwise passengers will think that many cruises are just like ones they have already been on.

One feature that raised its head last year was the introduction of add-ons to bills much like no-frills airlines have been adding on fees for baggage and so on. Resistance to this and onboard tipping is something that many cruise lines are reconsidering. CruiseCritic highlights the fact that some companies are including tipping in the price and thereby offering all-inclusive rates. Tour operators have been doing this for years and the all-inclusive market has grown and grown as holidaymakers saw the benefits of being able to budget their holidays.

CruiseCritic also thinks that the number of deals to get bookings will begin to dry up and suggests holidaymakers look at getting value for money. Are the flights included? Are some excursions thrown in? Are there some free upgrades available to better cabins?

Certainly, cruise companies are feeling more bullish as they locate more cruise ships in our waters and thereby removing the need to lose time by flying to our embarkation port. And with sterling as an onboard currency, there are no worries about exchange rate problems.

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Travel Destinations

Each country asks visitors from time-to-time whether they would revisit their country. Today, customer satisfaction specialists say that there are only a few questions that matter. They are whether you would revisit and would you recommend to your friends and relatives. (The reason for asking whether you would recommend to friends is that you are felt to be more likely only to recommend it to people you know if you were really happy to do so.)

So in the latest survey by Visit Wales, 70% of people said they would revisit and 86% said that they would recommend. These are high figures so, naturally, Alan Ffred Jones, the Assembly minister responsible for tourism and Visit Wales are rather pleased.

I have frequently written that tourism offers vital economic support in terms of jobs and local income. On the back of this report comes a plan by the North Wales Tourism Partnership (NWTP) to build on the 37,000 current jobs that exist in tourism in North Wales and the £1.8 billion that gets fed into the local economy. Overall fewer of us have been visiting Wales over the last few years. It"s not just the recession because the decline has been over the good times and the bad. You might have thought that staycationing in Wales might have been popular last year so the figures may well rise. Over the last three years or so the number of people visiting Wales has dropped by over a million to just over 9.5 million visitors and that includes both people from the home countries and from abroad.

Why is it when the recommends and the revisit figures are so high?

The answer is that the latest satisfaction levels are higher than the last time the same survey was undertaken in 2006. With new higher figures, the number of us visiting Wales may well rise. But lots of other areas are spending more and more as the benefits of us visiting their destinations become more obvious. And Visit Wales has had its budgets cut. The satisfaction levels have risen but will we go now that there will be less money spent on attracting us?

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Travel Destinations

This year there are 3 capitals, Istanbul in Turkey, Essen in Germany and Pecs in Hungary. Now that there are so many countries in the EU it is getting to the point where one place each year will mean it will take 27 years to get around to the same country again. So we will have at least two per year and probably three. Yes, I know Turkey isn’t in the EU but the definition they use of Europe is wider than the geographical or political definitions.

So, a little about each

Istanbul is already a favorite city break destination. As the link between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has been one of the tourist hot spots since its south coast beach areas offer almost guaranteed sun and inexpensive prices. Istanbul offers what most city breaks provide but with a very definite non-European flavor.  The Blue Mosque, the covered bazaar (about 4,000 “shops” are here,) the Spice Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia Museum, the Hippodrome, the Sulieman Mosque are tourist draws of international appeal.  And from Camlica Hill you have a tremendous view of not only Istanbul but the Bosphorus as well.

Essen started its year as a capital of culture this past weekend at a ceremony in at its world heritage site, Zeche Zollverein which was once the world’s largest colliery. Essen, in the Ruhr, is associated with heavy industry so you may not think of it as a tourist destination. Lose that idea by going to Kettwig, the old town or go to Essen cathedral and see the oldest Madonna sculpture which dates back to about 1000 AD.  We have a number of garden cities in our countries and in Essen there is a place called Margarathenhohe which was designed as a housing estate for workers. Even though it has altered and become gentrified it is well worth a visit as is the Villa Hugel, formerly the home of the Krupp family and which now houses an art collection.

Pecs also launched its year at the weekend with a day-long cavalcade including street acts with 450 performers. This city is, I’m told, a fascinating mix of cultures with Turkish influences left from an occupation by the Ottomans lasting 150 years. Oddly, the Gazi Kasan Mosque is now a consecrated church! There are Celtic, Roman, Christian, and Slavic (it is not far from the border with Croatia) influences all through the city and the cemetery (Sopiane) has world heritage status. This is one city I don’t know at all and one that sounds well worth a visit this year.

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Travel Rumblings

Looking out of the window at the large dollop of snow that has fallen overnight, it is easy to think of warmer parts of the world and getting away from the cold and bleak view I see. Where to go is one issue but who I go with is another.

You could be forgiven for thinking, after seeing the Which? Holiday report on tour operators that you should avoid the big companies like Thomson, First Choice, Thomas Cook, Cosmos, and Virgin because they haven’t done very well in the report.

You would be wrong

This is not to say that the survey is wrong. The Consumers Association, (CA), publishers of the different Which? Reports have strict and solid research techniques and knowledge. No, the problem is the sample. It is drawn from members of the CA which is largely upmarket, middle class. These are not the sort of people who tend to book package holidays with the large tour operators so the number of people surveyed who have holidayed with those I mentioned earlier is proportionately much lower. Low response means a few positive or negative responses can affect results.

The whole survey is only 4,507 responders so the people responding per tour operator could be low.  A minimum of only 30 has to reply for each tour operator to be included. Thirdly, smaller tour operators like VFB, which came top (and congratulations to them), move comparatively small numbers of people compared to the millions moved by the big companies. It is always easier to get better customer satisfaction ratings from smaller companies than larger ones and that applies to whichever industry you survey. And to be fair, Rochelle Turner, head of research at the CA said that it might be harder to provide the attention to detail in big companies. Finally, it should be said that the tour operators interview people during their holiday. The CA interviewed people after they had returned home and, in some cases, holidays could have been quite a long time ago. Answers may vary as time elapses.

I should make an admission. I have worked with most of the big tour operators over the years on their customer satisfaction programmes so I know how much time effort and money go into it and the responses they make to problems.

The big tour operators try as hard as the little ones to make your holidays as enjoyable as they can. And if there is a problem, they will try, by and large, to resolve it. I cannot remember, over the last 10 or so years, of any of the biggest tour operators ever being voted number 1. And I wouldn’t expect them to in any survey of CA members

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