Monday, June 28, 2010

This blog is running the risk of becoming an anti-airline rant but I feel compelled to mention in passing my Royal Air Maroc experience from Casablanca to The Gambia, not simply because of utterly abysmal customer service from check-in to departure, but because it is doing a great disservice in promoting connectivity between first and purportedly second or third world destinations in Africa.

If you don't want to run the gauntlet of dubious African carriers as part of a trip into the heart of Africa, then certainly for The Gambia at least there are currently only two viable options - Royal Air Maroc out of Casablanca, and Brussels Airlines out of Brussels. In hindsight I wish I had now bitten the Nigerian bullet and taken Arik Air out of Lagos (a one-year-old airline, and so far so good reputation-wise).

Emirates Airline is also launching its Dubai-Dakar routing in September which makes a short hop across to The Gambia a quick fix and one which, I hope, will spur the country's tourism gurus to look at driving awareness and interest. Not such a difficult task as The Gambia already has a sizeable Lebanese population for whom this is a boon, but also for expats looking for an alternative Africa experience.

Gambia's other plus is that it is a predominantly Muslim country, albeit very open, so this also offers tourism legs for a different segment of the Middle East market.

But I made it, I'm here in West Africa's smallest country, and 24 hours in it's already been an eye-opener, from the friendly welcome at immigration and ease-of-access to securing a month-long entry visa, to the team members that I will be working with at the Association of Small Scale Entrepreneurs in Tourism (ASSET)and the UK husband-and-wife team at my award-winning guesthouse (Safari Garden); each of whom is passionate about developing Gambia's sustainable tourism potential for the long-term.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cheap seats to sweet eats

I've fallen out of love with Emirates Airline over the past year or so due to woefully inconsistent service and a disappointing re-engineering of their Skywards programme points system which seems to be doing all it can to deter the cheap seat traveller (me) and encourage only the big spenders.

However, on the flight from Dubai to Casablanca yesterday my faith was somewhat restored due to a delightful chief purser called Jamal whose attention to detail and personal service philosophy made a broken seat back a memorable experience. OK, so it was an upgrade situation and I guess they're supposed to play nice with even the fake biz class passengers, but he went from hands and knees under-the-seat maintenance (didn't work) to frothy cappuccinos (pretty darned good) to red wine bottle takeaways (that'll do nicely) along with a good chat about aircraft durability (not boring in the slightest), mutual movie faves and travel hotspots.

There will be a follow-up email from my side to the Emirates powers-that-be, a positive one, as good service seems to be going the way of the dodo - and not just on board award-winning carriers. Am looking forward to seeing whether Royal Air Maroc measures up tonight!

And the Casablanca stopover experience? Not the prettiest city, but I knew that already and a two-hour city tour is ample time to hit the high points. The real winner has definitely been the food. My faithful friend - Trip Advisor - came up trumps yet again with the accommodation option, a 1940s villa in a well-placed suburb 25 minutes from the airport.

Dar Itrit is run by a delightful Moroccan-born Frenchwoman - Estrella - who is something of a culinary goddess. For 23 Euros I enjoyed a wonderfully memorable dinner of tarte aux magret de canard, a piquant kefta tagine and cooling dessert of melon with mint and lemon-laced yoghurt. Rick's Cafe isn't a patch on this home-cooked feast!

And so to The Gambia.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The power of the written word

I am a convert.

Nothing radical you understand. Well, maybe not radical in the easily misconstrued sense.

I am a convert to The National. In fact I am now a subscriber to The National (thanks for the gift of the pen btw).

When I first moved here 11+ years ago from Thailand, I eagerly signed up with Gulf News. That early morning thunk on the doormat was something I'd missed in my little corner of the Far East and the idea of lounging over the Sunday (Friday) papers with a pot of good coffee, a slice of toast and the luxury of time, had me rubbing my hands in glee.

It didn't take long for this to become more a case of me wringing my hands in despair. OK, maybe not quite so melodramatic as that, but I'd pretty much whizzed my way through the whole thing before the kettle had even boiled, and apart from the occasional interesting op ed or 'cut out and keep' recipe (which ended up consigned to the depths of a kitchen drawer), I was not exactly reaping the benefits of my investment.

I then spent far too many years of my life wasting time reading the dailies and clipping them as part of my job in PR, so the pleasures of reading a newspaper properly fell by the wayside unless I was travelling. Until this February that is.

Now I don't read all the sections of The National religiously (sorry Sports Ed) but I do read it every morning, either at my desk over a bowl of porridge or on the weekends with..yes, you got it, a pot of coffee and a bakery item. And apart from being on top of all things vaguely newsworthy, I am gaining a store cupbaord of off-the-wall facts that I am already boring work colleagues and friends with.

Today's edition was particularly insightful. In addition to a breakdown of Dubai Holdings finances, I now know that Harrison Ford has both a type of ant and spider named after him; that in Nabati poetry kandura can also mean a short annoying man; and that coriander (cilantro) contains aldehydes similar to those found in soaps and lotions - hence the love or loathe debate.

Quiz night questions. Inane talking points. Personal amusement value. Ticks all my boxes.