Category Archives: travel

Travel trouble

I’m getting very doubtful about getting to FOSDEM.  No problems here in the southwest, but checking several points en route to London, it seems that as soon as you hit the southeast, more “heavy snow”[1] is forecast.  Whereas London itself is forecast clear and Taunton (Somerset – the far end of southwest England) gets only sleet, as soon as you cross into Wiltshire and Berkshire it’s heavy snow.  I checked forecasts for Westbury, Newbury and Reading, representing perhaps 100 miles of the journey, and all are to get the snow.

I’ve already refrained from booking a Eurostar ticket, because they’re non-refundable.  That’s a pain, but I confirmed on the ‘phone that if I just buy when I arrive at the station, the price will not be worse than a fully flexible ticket.

I have booked a hotel in Brussels.  I had originally thought of returning to the Grande Cloche where I stayed in a very nice room for OSCON in – I forget – either 2005 or 2006.  But a look at the map shows that’s a long way from FOSDEM.  Never mind: a quick visit to tripadvisor and I got a price of 69 Euros/night on a highly-rated 4-star hotel, the Renaissance (and as bonus, a 50-Euro voucher for my next stay at a Marriot hotel).  I’m looking forward to it, and it has the redeeming feature that I can cancel on the day if I am unable to get there.

I guess a deal like that means that it’s the best of the low season at Brussels’s hotels, and that they’re in healthy competition for my custom.  It’s a shame there’s no such competition in means of transport to get there, and I have to put up with Eurostar’s pain.  There isn’t even the option of a flight or ferry without going to London.

[1] That’s english for any snow that’s sufficient to settle on the ground, where it rapidly becomes slush if warm, and ice thereafter if it freezes, causing huge transport chaos.

Portable Computing

I’ve had a laptop for years. The current MacBook is smaller, better made and more robust and portable than its predecessors. But it’s still rather heavy, useless in full daylight, uncertain how it would fare in bad weather, and not really something I want to carry around the mountains whilst on holiday.

Neither do I want to be out-of-touch for an extended period. Sometime no doubt I’ll be able to carry a USB storage stick with my private SSL keys in a virtual machine, and expect to be able to use it every time I touch base in ‘civilisation’. But nowadays, I dread getting stuck on a Windows box where I can do nothing other than surf the bloody web.

So I’m interested in an intermediate device: smaller and lighter than a macbook, with both GSM and wifi connectivity, and with some kind of terminal/ssh capabilities as well as web, POP and IMAP clients. I asked on IRC, where I happen to know pctony is a Blackberry user. But he warned me against the blackberry’s terminal capabilities, and suggested an iPhone would be a better bet.

I’d definitely be reluctant to get an iphone: with the branding and marketing, it would smell like buying designer clothes [shudder], and on a more rational level it’s rather severe lock-in. If the blackberry’s idea of a terminal is really poor, then that’s not an attractive proposition. What about an Asus eee PC? Or a top-end ‘phone with Linux or Symbian? Anyone suggest pros and cons of the various options?

Grrrr …

Talk about ripoff!

Yesterday I booked a weekend in Truro. At £85/night (b&b) for an “executive room”, I expected some modest measure of luxury.

So, I arrive at the hotel. They give me room 37: top floor, in the roof. I reach the room, and find it’s pretty tiny: have to take care not to bump my head on the beams if I go around the other side of the bed. The window is small and high – no view. And no minibar. Well, I don’t really want a minibar, but a fridge I can put a bottle of water in would be nice. Well, at least there’s a kettle and tea/coffee.

The bathroom, by contrast, is really beautiful. There’s a separate bath and shower cubicle, and the biggest shower head I’ve ever seen. And a big window, that opens onto the edge of the roof, from where a seagull screams at me.

Except … the shower doesn’t work. I turn it on, and all I get is a pathetic dribble. Feeling well pissed off, I phone reception. Third or fourth try I get through: she’ll send the porter up. OK, get dressed again, and fill in time by getting out the laptop and checking that the hotel’s wifi works. It does, and I have time for a very quick grumble on IRC.

Porter arrives, confirms that the shower doesn’t work. Can’t fix it, but can move me to another room. So now I’m in room 35, which is also pretty tiny, and lacks the luxury bathroom. So instead of beautiful but useless, I now have a working shower in a bog-standard hotel bathroom. No bath any more, which is a shame, as it would be nice to have the option for tomorrow night.

And the bed is .. well, it would be fine, except for the knobbly mattress, which is the poorest I’ve slept on for quite a while.

On the other hand, the restaurant has just served me a jolly decent meal. Not cheap, but at least it was in line with what it cost. Unlike this room.

Bah.

Cost^H^HBenefit of not having a car

On Saturday Evening, I’m taking part in The Dream of Gerontius, at Truro Cathedral. The Plymouth Philharmonic choir – in which I regularly sing – has been invited to augment the local Truro musicians in this large-scale work. Should be fun!

The downside of this is a busy and exhausting Saturday, as we get our one and only opportunity to rehearse all together in the venue. The Plymouth Phil has coaches departing at 9 a.m, to meet up at 11 in Truro. So I’d need to leave home just after 7a.m. to get on the coach, and wouldn’t arrive back home until after midnight. That’s not so much fun when we’ve been told to bring a packed lunch, because there won’t be time for a proper meal.

I could save an hour of that by taking a taxi to Plymouth for £25. Or I could take a taxi to Truro for maybe three times that. Or I could hire a car for the day and face a long drive I’m not fit for and a parking nightmare. Of those, the taxi to Plymouth is the only one that has any appeal whatsoever.

So how about the luxury option: book a hotel in Truro for Friday and Saturday nights, and make a weekend of it? The downside is that our concert is the end of a festival week in Truro, so the hotels are at their busiest. My default plan – find a B&B / guest house with glowing reviews – isn’t an option. Anything decent is going to cost something not far off £100 per night.

So what to do? The clincher is that Friday night in Tavistock is going to be miserable too, due to the local yobs club. So I’ve booked two nights in the Royal Hotel in Truro, and will travel down there on the train tomorrow evening. Back home on Sunday, which gives me a a free day of touristing. An added bonus is that the hotel is just couple of minutes walk from the cathedral, so I can do things like change clothes and enjoy a quick cuppa in comfort during Saturday’s efforts.

Add the hotel bill to meals and incidental expenses, and I’m paying at least £200 extra for this weekend. Which I probably wouldn’t even have thought about if I owned a car. Like the £800 I recently spent on a new bike, that seems expensive until you count how much I save by not having a car. But set against that, I’m gaining a nice weekend break, and a lot more comfort than my fellow choir members who are travelling down for the day.

When you consider that on a day-to-day basis, I’m the one who doesn’t spend half my life looking for parking spaces, an occasional £200 is worth it for the reduced daily hassle alone!

Corporate hotel bookings

I’ve been fuming at Amex, who deal with all Sun’s business travel, for being useless.  First with my trip to California, and now Amsterdam.

OK, California wasn’t their fault: it was arranged in great haste, and the pain was in having to go through a third-party rather than just book something online.  No matter how good or bad they are, the indirection meant delay, and therefore stress.

With Amsterdam, by contrast, we had a month’s notice.  I specified my travel preference (no problem), and listed four acceptable hotels in central Amsterdam (the conference hotel itself wasn’t an option, being already fully booked).  One of those hotels was listed as a clear first choice, but Amex came back with a ridiculous price of over 460 Euros per night on it – well over twice what expedia or hoteldiscount offered for the same hotel, had I been booking it myself.  After some time and two reminders, they booked me another hotel from my list.

Now this price, though vastly cheaper than the #1 choice, is still 20% above the expedia price on the same hotel.  And I was half-thinking that’s good: if the hotel is horrible, I have scope to move and save money.

But in fact there’s another side to it.  On arrival, I asked for a quiet nonsmoking room, which I have.  It’s also an executive room, which means the price is in fact pretty much the same as I’d have paid through expedia.  I don’t think that’s what was booked (Amex quoted a higher rate for an executive room here), so I’m guessing the hotel bumped me up (though that could easily be me getting confuzzled).  Well, I guess it’s good for a hotel’s business when a $bigco corporate guest recommends them to his colleagues, so it makes sense for the hotel.  Can’t complain too loudly.

As for the hotel itself, yes, I can recommend it as acceptable, and the nicest place I’ve stayed in Amsterdam (which includes the conference hotel itself, at the same price as this one).  But not a “you really must go there” kind of recommendation; just “you get what you pay for”, in a city where the tradeoff tends to be very expensive vs very grotty.

Travel to ApacheCon

I’m in Amsterdam for ApacheCon,+Hackathon, which starts tomorrow.  Hope and expect to have an interesting week.

The journey went pretty smoothly.  The only bit that was playing sillybuggers was the tube across London from Paddington to Liverpool Street.  I got on to a circle line train, which first took forever (paused in the tunnel) to get to Edgeware Road, then decided it was going to call itself a some-other-line train and terminate at Moorgate.  I’m not confident of navigating from Moorgate to Liverpool Street[1], or I’d’ve walked.

Even so, I’d caught an earlier train than I had to into London, and I had some spare time at Liverpool Street.  I’d just missed the 19:18 to Harwich, and I was feeling pretty peckish, so I went in search of food.  Seeing a Pizza Express, I decided that would meet my needs.  It did: the quality of both the food and the service were a pleasant surprise, though the pizza was smaller than expected.

On to Harwich, and boarding the ferry has become a much smoother operation than a year ago, since the walkway for the new (bigger) ferries is now complete.  I was able to enjoy a shower and a beer (both much-needed) in comfort before we sailed, and went up on deck only very briefly.  Got up early to overindulge in the all-you-can-eat breakfast.

Travelling straight to Amsterdam would’ve got me here at 10 a.m., so I had time to spare, and decided to take a look at Rotterdam en route.  Since Rotterdam is best known for being a mega-port, I headed south from the station towards the main river, in the expectation of finding interesting things.  I soon found myself on a path marked as a main sightseeing route, but unfortunately everything along it was closed, including such touristy things as the harbour museum and maritime museum.  So I headed back towards the station and the train to Amsterdam.

While I may have missed out on the history of a megaport, I liked Rotterdam’s architecture.  I saw more new than old, and it was classic big-city stuff on a scale more like an American or Asian downtown than most of Europe.  But it all seemed to fit in nicely, and left ample space for comfortably wide streets, walkways, etc.  A sharp contrast to the ugliness of the suburban sprawl I had passed through on the journey from Hoek van Holland.

Optimal arrival at Rotterdam station: 30 seconds later and I’d have missed the intercity to Amsterdam.  As it is, I arrived before noon, and since my hotel is just across from the station, I was able to check in early.  That is to say, do the paperwork and leave my luggage: room wouldn’t be ready ’til 2pm.  I made sure to request that my room should be both quiet and non-smoking (thankfully, it is), helped myself to some leaflets and a map, and went out.

What happened next is another posting.  Suffice it to say, a good but expensive day, just concluded with a gorgeous thai meal.

[1] OK, I could do it, but would likely get lost a few times on the way, and I was carrying a full backpack.

Checklist

Am I ready for departure to Amsterdam?

  • Ticket – to be collected at London Liverpool Street (eticket)
  • Passport – check
  • Euros – check.  Dammit, just twelve euros something left over from last time I was in .eu (real).  Can I afford more at today’s rates?
  • Plastic money – check.
  • Clothes for a week, pyjamas, toothbrush, fleece, waterproof – check.
  • Laptop, phone and their chargers – check.  Power adaptor – check.
  • Book.  Pen & paper.  Check.

OK, so what have I forgotten?  Dammit, too late, whatever it was.  Why didn’t you remind me earlier?

ApacheCon for Brits

Following my exceptionally pleasant journey last year, I’m once again booked to travel to Amsterdam by train+ferry for ApacheCon the week after next.

What was best about last year’s travel? The return journey, overnight in a very nice cabin on a luxurious modern (and huge!) ferry.

What was worst? The sleeper train to London, which fell woefully short of decent standards of comfort.

So this year, I’m travelling overnight on the ferry in both directions, and doing the train journey by day. Best of both worlds!

For any other Brits who have yet to book travel, I can strongly recommend the deal offered by dutchflyer, which bundles train travel with the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry. For those living further north, I note there are other ferry options including Hull-Rotterdam and Newcastle-Amsterdam. I can’t speak for those routes, but I’d certainly be interested in trying them if they were geographically right for me. Come to think of it, we have a good direct train service Plymouth-Newcastle, so maybe that’s an option worth looking at for a bit of variety!

BTW, I’m booked into the Park Plaza Victoria hotel this year (the conference hotel wasn’t an option – it’s fully booked). Anyone else there for ApacheCon, feel free to drop me a line!

San Francisco

Yesterday I made it in to the big city.

I left the hotel at 8 a.m. and jumped on the caltrain to San Francisco. That was a much longer journey than I’d realised: it was  after nine when I got on a train, half past ten when it arrived, and still more before I’d found the “interesting” parts of the city. Clearly what I should’ve done is to spend Friday and Saturday nights in a San Francisco hotel, to relax and enjoy the city without the hassle of travel.

I did get to see, albeit superficially, the famous highlights. The waterfront and bay, historic ships, and golden gate bridge. The steep hills and “cable car” (looks more like a mini-tram – I didn’t take a ride ‘cos they were all far too crowded, and besides, I prefer to walk). The city certainly has a beautiful setting!

I also saw the downtown centre: civic buildings, museum, concert hall, theatre. Not so impressive for a city of the size, but that was only from outside. With a bit more time, I might’ve enjoyed something there.

The downside (apart from travel time) was lunch. I managed to pick a rather bad restaurant. Shook my faith a bit: I’m generally a great fan of asian cuisines, and this was the first time I’ve eaten Thai food anywhere in the world and not found it delicious.

mariani’s inn, santa clara

I have to give this place a writeup, because I have rarely felt so positive about somewhere I’ve stayed. I’m moving out because the location is wrong, but so much else is just right!

First, why I’m here. This was a last-minute booking, and Marianis could accommodate me. Their reviews at tripadvisor.com were pretty decent, and they appeared on the map to be about two miles, or just over, from Sun’s offices. That’s a distance I’m happy to walk twice a day – no worries. And at under $100 a night all-inclusive, the price is definitely right – in the context of an area like silicon valley.

Arriving here I find the room is basic but adequate; clean, with a decent bed, bathroom, table and chairs, and a working fridge. Outside there’s a (small, unheated) swimming pool and a hot tub/jacuzzi, providing some touches of luxury. Furthermore, the staff are just fantastic, and breakfast is pretty decent, too. Drawbacks are poor sound insulation to the neighbouring room (my first two nights were blighted by their telly), and the layout with people passing right by my window. But for a low-cost two-star place, this is excellent!

The major issue is location. As I already blogged, it’s not a particularly inspiring location (though I don’t know if such a thing even exists around here). But that two miles turned out to be wildly optimistic: google maps tells me it’s 3.87 miles, and that’s by a multi-lane highway that’s not merely scary, but forbidden to pedestrians. A route I can walk to Sun’s offices is at least four miles, and all on very nasty, busy multi-lane highways, in part without even a pavement sidewalk.

With bike hire, this place would be just great. But the only place google finds that’ll do that charges about $80 per day. That’s more than a bloomin’ car, which I really want to avoid. So, I’m moving nearer to Sun’s offices. And, alas, to a much more expensive place. While that last fact may help with feeling like a valued employee, it means the new place had jolly well better be good!