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12 Nights on a Virgin Voyages Cruise

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Like many in the UK my impression of the demographic who “go on a cruise” is of people in their 70s or 80s who’re too old to travel themselves and instead go on what is basically a floating hotel to different places, then do organised excursions on land. When my girlfriend suggested we go on a Virgin Voyages cruise my initial thought was “but I’m way too young for a cruise, I know I’m getting older but I’m not that much older”. It turns out I was completely wrong and instead I had the best holiday ever! Some review style writing and a shed load of photos to follow.

What is Virgin Voyages?

Virgin Voyages are an adults only cruise company (part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group) which (as of the time of writing) has two brand new, state of the art cruise ships that can house around 2700 passengers. They sail around the Caribbean and Mediterranean and we travelled on the latter. What sets it apart from the stereotypical “oldies” cruise ships my imagination made me think of is that their offering seems aimed at a much younger audience.

On board you can find several gyms (and I don’t mean just a few running machines, there is everything you’d need to stay in shape if you’re an elite level athlete, want to do yoga with an amazing view, hit a heavy punch bag or if you just want to do arm curls in front of a mirror). There’s even a running track! With countless classes from early morning yoga to HIIT sessions to one on one personal trainers to massages (all booked via the app on your phone while on board) there’s plenty to stay active. Plus you can get your haircut or even have a tattoo if you so desire (I skipped this one).

With over 20 restaurants (more about them later – spoiler: the food was amazing) you’re never stuck for something to eat and they have a full blown theatre where we saw various acts from acrobats to stand up comedy to a man who could solve the rubik’s cube blindfolded in seconds (I can solve the rubik’s cube in a few minutes so to see someone with such mastery was something to behold – very impressive).

There were pools and jacuzzis as you’d expect along with a large selection of bars. But the most striking thing to me was the staff who were absolutely delightful. They told us they were encouraged by Virgin to be themselves and it was nice to see so many of the crew being just that – there were countless nationalities, many people with tattoos, awesome haircuts and they made the trip even more fun as we got to know a lot of them.

And the demographic of the people on the cruise? I’d say they were mostly 20s-30s, fit, active and I definitely felt more towards the upper limit in terms of age (although there were people older than me). However age didn’t matter, everyone was treated the same and there was something for everyone to do.

The Cabin

Prior to departure Virgin Voyages offers a bidding process where you can bid for room upgrades to some of their “Rock Star” suites. Think business class vs economy class. I figured “what the hell”, bid on a few and ended up getting what’s called a “Brilliant Suite”. It was appropriately named.

The room was massive. It had a walk in wet room, the sort of bathroom I’d expect in a luxury hotel, a super king sized bed, balcony (all balconies have a hammock – where I spent plenty of time swinging watching the sea go by), L-shaped sofa to relax on, a record player (oh yes), a large drinks cabinet with free alcohol (almost none of it we drank but I can say the tequila was lovely) and a really handy vanity area for looking even more gorgeous (which I left to my girlfriend because it was never going to work on me).

One of the coolest features was the rooms lights and curtains were controlled from a tablet. It contained “moods” that once clicked would set the mood. One was “get it on” which closed the curtains, turned the lights to a nice shade of pink and played exactly the sort of tune you’d expect to hear if you were going to “get it on”! First time that button was pressed it was hilarious! 😀 I love the attention to detail.

Having such a luxurious and relaxing cabin meant we were more than happy to spend time chilling there. It was great after a day hiking up a hill on shore to come back and unwind, watching dolphins from the hammock. 12 nights there didn’t feel like long enough, it very quickly felt like home, something I never find even in top class hotels.

Now that said, having had a look at the standard rooms while on the ship I would also have been quite happy to spend time there too. With clever design features to maximise the space and the option of having “day mode” where the bed converts into sofas it wouldn’t have been much of a hardship. Although for me having a balcony would be essential, I loved relaxing watching the world go by from it.

The Valiant Lady (The Ship)

A cruise ship that can house 2700 guests comfortably is pretty big. Fortunately there were just under 1000 people on board when we travelled which meant we had free rein and never felt overcrowded anywhere we went. There were plenty of places to chill out and relax in the sun, or in the shade, or in the quiet, or where there were other people, in fact you could pretty much imagine any setting you wanted and go and find it on board. It was clear that a lot of thought had gone into the design of the ships various areas to provide different moods or atmospheres with a common design language throughout.

Staying in a rock star suite meant we had access to Richard’s Terrace, a section at the front of the ship where there was free champagne on offer in the late afternoon. It was cool, but we found our favourite spot was towards the back of the ship so didn’t spend a great amount of time there. Interestingly the average age of people on Richard’s Terrace was probably mid-60s! No conclusions drawn.

Having never been on a cruise ship before I had to keep reminding myself I was actually on a cruise ship. My brain thought I was in some luxury hotel / village and there was nothing to give away that I was floating on water. Well except when walking out on deck, obviously.

The staff were always on hand so were happy to go and get you food and drink lest you get off your lazy arse and get it yourself. Which brings me onto the next point…

The Food

Oh my. Where to begin. You know when you do your web based research about an eatery and of course all the photos of the food look amazing? Usually it’s because the photographer has used all kinds of tricks and things like hair spray to make the food look delicious and better than the reality. In this case, if anything the food was better than I expected, and I was expecting very very good food.

With over 20 restaurants to choose from, we were wondering if we’d be able to try everything in the 12 days of time on ship. Half a dozen of the restaurants need to be booked in advance – which you do on the app on your phone – but the rest are drop in. We started with “The Test Kitchen” as that looked the most interesting on paper with a selection of experimental style dishes and it did not disappoint. I’ve had tasting menus in Michelin star restaurants and while it wasn’t quite to that standard, it was pretty close. Thinking we’d already been to the best restaurant we went to “Extra Virgin” a couple of nights later (an Italian) and that was even better! Incredibly fresh seafood, delicious sauces and cooked to perfection. That high standard of cuisine was the common thread throughout our stay.

There was literally everything you could want whether you wanted to eat healthy salads, cakes, fried food, tasting menus, drink fancy coffees, etc. I can see why people put weight on when going on cruises if this is what it’s like – and the fact that all the food was included in the price made it even more of a bargain. I’ve been to a lot of restaurants over the years but few have rivalled the food I had on the ship. Here’s a selection of photos that show how it looked, but trust me, it tasted even better! (And no hairspray was used).

The Land Based Activities

Ok so a cruise is on water but eventually it docks and you can either stay on the boat or get off and go do something. While Virgin Voyages offered excursions you could book via the app, we prefer just wandering and hiking around so Google Maps combined with general web-based research gave us some great ideas for where we landed. Normally their mediterranean cruises start and end at Barcelona but we were on a one-off run from Portsmouth to Barcelona via La Coruña, Lisbon, Cådiz, Gibraltar, Målaga and Palma de Mallorca. In each place we found plenty to do and it was great spending a day wandering around, getting in the sights and then going back to the ship and relaxing. It was literally like staying in a luxury hotel that moved you from place to place while you slept. A lot easier than driving around and living out of a suitcase.

Can you tell I was coming around to liking cruises?

Anyway, as wonderful as the cruise ship was, it was nice to hit land and explore. And explore we did!

Overall Thoughts and Summary

Having previously never been the sort of person remotely interested in a cruise, I’ve 100% changed my mind. It’s a great way to see a bunch of different places without the stress of driving around, making connections, changing hotels and locations and things inevitably going wrong. When I drove around New Zealand that road trip was part of the fun, but if you want to both explore and unwind then a cruise like Virgin Voyages is an excellent way to go.

It’s basically two holidays in one. One is staying in a luxury all inclusive resort with amazing food and entertainment. The other is touring different cities on the coast. With none of the drawbacks! I’ll certainly cruise with them again, and it’s also made me want to check some of the other companies out to see what they’re like.

And when I am in my 70s to 80s, then I’ll know which ones cater to my age group. But for now, Virgin Voyages very much gets the John Conners Seal of Approval! Except the wifi, that was glacially slow. But I was on holiday so I didn’t care! 🙂

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A Road Trip around North West Scotland

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I grew up in Scotland and spent my formative years driving to the mountains then hiking up and down them (with a bit of mountain biking thrown in). Even when I moved to Yorkshire at 24 and travelled around the world I always loved coming back to my home country and seeing just what a beautiful place it is. As life got in the way I’d still visit Scotland but hadn’t been up in the mountains for too many years. I decided it was time to break that cycle and have an old school road trip around some of my favourite parts. A trip down memory lane, literally. And Scotland did not disappoint!

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Visiting the Same Glacier 22 Years Apart – Seeing Climate Change in Action

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Way back in 1995 my friends and I took an old MG Montego on a road trip from Scotland to Chamonix in the French Alps which also happened to be my first holiday abroad. I wrote about it a few years ago – The Spirit of Adventure. My abiding memory of that trip was taking a hike up the mountains to see my first ever glacier. I was expecting it to look pristine and white, not covered in rocks and debris so initially asked my friend where the glacier was before he pointed out that everything in front of me was a glacier! You can understand my confusion, this is the photo I subsequently took:

Scott and Gary and the Mer de Glace

Wind forward to the Summer of 2017 where I had the pleasure of spending a few months living in France including a couple of trips to Chamonix. First time was with a friend for a few days and we went up to the highest point a cable car can – the Aiguille du Midi (which was too expensive for the John Conners of 1995 to afford) – and I was hoping once again to catch sight of this amazing glacier I’d seen over 20 years before. Turns out I should have looked at a map – the glacier was on the next set of mountains over. But it was pretty spectacular nonetheless!

Nice view at the top! I'm the one on the left

A few weeks later I returned and this time I had a better of idea of the glacier I’d originally seen – I reckoned it was the mighty Mer de Glace. So I figured out how to hike there and one morning that’s exactly what I did. Rather than being a lazy tourist and taking the funicular railway to the top I walked – starting straight up a ski slope (those things are pretty steep and relentless to walk up). And after a couple of hours I found myself in truly spectacular scenery.

The Mountains above the Mer de Glace

It was shortly after I was in for a bit of a shock. Turns out the glacier has receded dramatically over the 22 years since I’d been. To the point where there are signs on the cliff as you go down showing you where it was in a given year.

I couldn’t help but feel sad – upset if I’m honest – to see such a dramatic difference in such a short space of time (22 years really isn’t long at all). The sheer volume of ice that’s melted just boggles the mind, but it wasn’t until I finally got around to scanning in the negatives of my photos from 1995 that I was really able to compare the before and after as it just happens that I’d taken pretty much the exact same photo 22 years apart (I’m nothing if not consistent).

The photos were taken at around the same time of year and it’s pretty clear that the rock and green line is significantly further from the glacier than it used to be. When you multiply that by how long the glacier is, that’s a hell of a lot of ice that’s no longer there. When you look at a photo like those above and see the difference it’s pretty unsettling. But when you walk there and see it with your own eyes and remember what it looked like before, it really does bring it home to you how our planet is warming. We live on a beautiful planet, but it’s fragile.

A couple of generations from now that glacier will be entirely gone. Enjoy it while you can.

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Two Weeks Driving The Circle National Parks

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I was lucky enough to spend two weeks driving from Colorado to Las Vegas and back in a circular route taking in some of America’s most impressive national parks (covering 2500 miles in the process). Not only was the scenery scarcely believable (it was like being in a different country every day), but the people were incredibly friendly and generous everywhere I went and the food – despite stereotypes to the contrary – was superb, and healthy too.

The general route follows (usually a couple of days exploring in each place) and I’d highly recommend you give it a go – we could have easily spent 2 weeks in each park!

  • Flew to Denver airport
  • Drove to the Rocky Mountain National Park
  • A long drive (via some scenic stops) to Canyonlands National Park
  • An amazingly scenic drive to Bryce Canyon (what a place!)
  • A few days in Vegas (which I wouldn’t recommend to be honest)
  • Next up, the meteor crater near Flagstaff (wanted to go since I was a kid)
  • The relatively short hop to the Grand Canyon (yes, it’s as stunning as everyone says)
  • Then onto the south of Lake Powell and the famous Horsehoe Bend
  • Heading east to Mesa Verde National Park
  • Through Rio Grande National Forest towards…
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park – completely unexpected sand dunes!
  • Finally back to Denver and off home!

My favourite US state is definitely Utah as it has some incredible roads, scenery and every day was jaw dropping! I had a drone that I flew for some aerial shots when I could (they’re banned in National Parks). Anyway, some random photos of the trip follow – enjoy!

 

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A Few Days Snowboarding In Chamonix

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Some friends and I went to Chamonix this year for 4 days of snowboarding and skiing. Turns out it’s not the cheapest of resorts if you like a few heavy nights out (as we did) but the conditions were very good considering the comparative lack of snow on previous years. Beautiful scenery in the shadow of Mont Blanc too as I’m sure you’ll agree!

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The Tour De France Comes To Yorkshire

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I’ve watched the Tour de France on TV for probably 20 years and have driven up and down the insane mountain climbs they go up and power down, always marvelling at what I believe to be the toughest endurance sport on Earth. While Lance Armstrong may now be a disgraced rider that doesn’t detract from how much I’ve loved and love the sport (and even knowing the performance enhancing drugs he took I still loved watching him power up climbs and take the races by the scruff of the neck back in the day – great entertainment). So to hear it was coming to Yorkshire and pretty much past my house I couldn’t wait to see it!

That day came yesterday and the first stage passed Addingham (a couple of miles away and so a short walk) and the second through Silsden, the village in which I live. To say it was an amazing experience would be to massively understate things. Watching it on Eurosport as I’ve done over the years but see all the places I’ve spent the past 15 years of my life was awesome, and to see these guys shooting past at incredible speed in the flesh was a dream come true for me. Even better was seeing just how many people had turned out to watch – people were EVERYWHERE! The people and countryside of Yorkshire did us proud.

I took a few photos, but you really needed to be there to feel the atmosphere and appreciate just what amazing athletes these guys are!

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A Week In Cornwall In November

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Cornwall seems to be turning into my second home as I was only there back in July. However I had some time to take off and figured we’d head back down to Watergate Bay to see what it’s like off-season (summary, the restaurant are shut on week evenings and there are less people, but it’s still great). Also, the dog loves running on the beach and the prospect of there being even less people was most appealing! So without further ado, here are a few photos that summarise the trip!

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Cornwall July 2013

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In what seems to be turning into an annual tradition we took the dog to Watergate Bay in Cornwall for a week of beach running, eating and lazing around. Warning – there are a lot of photos of my dog that follow!

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John’s Luggage Advice For Non-Flying Business Trips To London (And Other Cities)

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Long time readers will know I’m obsessed with luggage. Whenever I see a shop that sells luggage I stand and look at it, imagining it being grabbed by its owner at baggage reclaim in some far-flung part of the world. Oh the adventures it would have being thrown into a taxi and driven to a secluded getaway in a tropical paradise, a beautiful city, a historic town, student accommodation in a new place. If only someone would buy it from this shop and give it the life it deserves… But I digress.

Following a period of a lot of flying I wrote John’s Guide To Travelling With Hand Luggage Only and at the time was a big fan of those cases that have wheels for wheeling around an airport. Large enough to fit a few days clothes and yet small enough to stow safely in the overhead compartment of a plane. I recently spent a few months working several days a week in London and initially used my favourite piece of hand luggage for the job. But soon I realised that while it was great when flying to New York, it wasn’t so good in the following scenario:

  • Travelling 3 hours on a train in the morning and fitting neatly in the overhead compartment, some of which are smaller than others.
  • Jumping on the London underground, fighting through busy crowds on the way to various offices without getting caught in people’s feet and not being awkward when carried up and down stairs.
  • Going back to the hotel via the London underground (see above).
  • After unpacking at the hotel acting as a day bag for the rest of the week in an office – so not being as large and unwieldy when fighting through those crowds (see above).
  • Looking cool, hip and not too business-like (London is full of annoyingly good-looking youngsters).
  • Travelling home for 3 hours on a train (see above).

My hand luggage bag was too rigid to be carried on the shoulder over distance (the best way to battle through crowds) and didn’t compress when I took all the clothes out of it – so continuing to be no fun to carry on the shoulder. I began to do some research and after a while came across a type of bag known as an “overnight bag”. Such bags are soft, worn over the shoulder, can be stuffed full of assorted paraphernalia, come in a variety of rather cool designs (and some uncool ones) and it seemed like the perfect bag design for my travel needs. They’re basically large messenger bags and lots of hipsters wear those – what’s not to like?

In the end I settled on the Weird Fish Hopton Overnight Bag. It looks something like this (pictured here with a regulation Lhasa Apso for size comparison):

My Hopton Overnight Bag And Billy

Let me first note that I paid for the bag myself so I speak only as a happy customer. Also note that any free luggage will be gratefully received (did I mention I’m obsessed with luggage?). I looked at and tried other bags but in the end the combination of the following features put this bag over the finish line:

  • You can stuff loads of things in it and it swallows them easily. Put a couple of things in and it seems like a much smaller bag, taking up no space at all. Ideal for travelling or use as a day bag – it’s like a shape shifter.
  • Nice thick, adjustable strap and nice, thick shoulder pad. Too many of these bags have thin, poorly designed straps that aren’t much use when it’s stuffed full of laptops, clothes and washing kit. They’re often too long and when you want to shorten it the shoulder pad doesn’t actually fit over your shoulder. A heavy bag hanging down your knees is a bitch to carry – that’s not a problem here.
  • It’s flexible. Rigid bags that hold their shape mean no matter how empty or full it is, it’ll always sit in a fixed position on you when it’s on your shoulder. This isn’t great when it’s only got a laptop in it – it’ll be too bulky and you’ll knock into people on the tube and spend all the time being apologised to (even though it’s you who owe them an apology). A flexible bag shapes around your body no matter how full it is – you can pick through crowds like a ninja!
  • A couple of external pockets that actually close for easy-to-reach storage. Pockets are great, there’s no sense having to fish around inside the main bag when you have pockets. Some bags, though, have magnetic clips to hold the pockets closed – except they never stay closed. Proper push studs or straps are a must (this bag has the former).
  • It’s brown. I don’t know if you’re aware of this but all cool luggage has to be brown. Black is for “suits”, brown for everyone else. Just like shoes.

You can see a series of photos below explaining the various design features that make it a winner for a multi-day business trip to London:

If you’re thinking of taking a business trip to London – heck even a non-work weekend trip to London – then you owe it to yourself to invest in the proper luggage. I don’t want to see a photo of an overnight bag on a website, in a shop or a magazine. I want to see it slung over your shoulder while you attend a board meeting, sip cocktails in a posh bar, check into your 5 star hotel (the usual Presidential Suite), sit in a sushi restaurant munching on raw tuna, get thrown out of a strip club and run away from the paparazzi into the night. Because that’s what quality luggage is for!

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A Week In Lanzarote

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Following a miserably cold and wet Winter which was preceded by a miserably cold and wet Summer my good lady and I decided we needed a bit of sunshine. We didn’t want to fly long haul and we didn’t want to spend a fortune. In fact our criteria was “the hottest, cheapest place we can find”. And that turned out to be Lanzarote.

It’s a bit of a British holiday destination but where we were staying, Costa Teguise, is pretty quiet at this time of year and not full of drunken teenagers making a lot of noise (we’re a bit old for that sort of thing these days). Anyway, we pretty much got what we wanted and a few photos follow! I think it’s fair to say we drank a lot of coffee.