Me at Culpepers Bar

Did you know, London Gatwick Airport has its own boutique gin distillery?

To be fair it’s not the airport making gin, it’s Nicholas Culpeper Pub & Dining on ‘landside’ at Gatwick’s North Terminal who are doing the distilling.

Culpeper's Pub & Dining, North Terminal, LGW

Culpeper's Pub & Dining, North Terminal, LGW

They opened the distillery in Feb 2016, and I dropped by to try their Aviation Gin after a work visit yesterday to the airport.

The gin – formerly called Nicholas Culpeper London Dry Gin, now renamed in honor of their location – is hand crafted in small batches of under 20 bottles in their copper pot still named ‘Judith’ after the famous botanist, Nicholas Culpeper’s fiance who was tragically struck down by lightning the day before their wedding in 1634.

Culpeper's distillery

The distillery itself

Aviation Gin uses more than twice the quantity of botanicals that most standard gins, including Lemongrass, Coriander Seeds, Cassia Bark, Angelica Root, Liquorice Root, Cardamon Pods, Cloves and Juniper Berries, and it tastes delicious!

Our barman, Mike, took my colleague, John Bell, and I into the tiny distillery for a look.

Needless to say, I didn’t leave without a bottle (£30).

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Small cruiser on the Canal du Midi, France

I recently spent an evening on the river at Kingston-upon-Thames with the team behind the European rental boat operator, Le Boat, and their Managing Director, Cheryl Brown, and it was both interesting and surprising at the same time.

Surprising because even though it is currently up for sale, Le Boat is positively buoyant!

Interesting because this is an iceberg of a company; multi-faceted and much larger than it looks on the surface!

People on board river cruise boat on ThamesLe Boat specialises in self-drive river cruising. Those who know about boating on European rivers & waterways may recognise its 40-year heritage; it was formed in 2008 by parent company TUI merging three of its boating brands – Crown Blue, Connoisseur and Emerald Star (although Le Boat still uses the Emerald Star name in Northern Ireland).

The resulting behemoth operates 900+ boats from 39 bases in 8 countries (France, Italy, England, Holland, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, & Belgium), and it is selling its 200+ cruise itineraries to holidaymakers from all those countries and more, the latest being Russia. The bit of the iceberg that Brits see is quite small. We are the third largest customers accounting for 11% of Le Boat’s sales. The Germans are No.1 at 26%.

Despite being a large organisation, Le Boat under Cheryl Brown, is agile and innovative.

“I found myself talking recently to a potential customer, who said he’d love to go river cruising but was single”, she said. “I realised there was a large untapped market and got together with our sister company, solo traveller specialists, Intrepid, to create boating holidays for singles.”

boats in flotilla on riverWhen she realised many potential first timers are nervous about skippering their own boat, she created flotilla cruises so that they could travel together as a group with a flotilla skipper to chaperone and deal with any problems.

Le Boat has 36 different models of boats for couples, families and groups up to 12 people, but recently they’ve been using customer feedback to design the ‘perfect’ boat for couples & small families – something that Cheryl has been enthusiastically overseeing. The result is the new Horizon class, with panoramic windows, USB ports in the saloon & cabins, air-cooling, the largest bridge deck for a boat this size with sunbathing area, table, sink & BBQ, and joy-stick controls (Bow thrusters! Dontcha luv em!)

Le Boat's Horizon class cruiser

All three of these innovations came into play this year. Flotilla cruises are now available in Italy. The new Horizon class boats have been introduced in all of Le Boat’s most popular cruising areas, which include the Canal du Midi (THE most popular, accounting for 40% of Le Boat’s sales) and Burgundy Region in France, The River Thames in England, and other popular waterways in Italy, Holland, & Germany, and the new Singles Cruises are also available on the Canal du Midi.

The result of these improvements can be seen in a 30% increase in pre-sales for 2017, and they are not standing still. There are continuous updates to their app (yes, they have an app!) which enables skippers to plan their routes, look for interesting places to moor, restaurants, book excursions, etc. And they are extending their cruise area across the Atlantic. In 2018 they will be offering boating holidays on the 200km Rideau Canal in Canada, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

So it’s easy to see why they are so optimistically un-fazed by being one of the 50 brands in the Specialist Travel Group (newly renamed Travelopia), which TUI has just announced it is selling off.

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Logs in the street

Residents of Montréal woke up to a torrent of logs in one of their main streets last week.

The art installation, conceived and produced by architectural firm, KANVA, is called 560 KM. It consists of one thousand logs scattered along the pedestrian zone on Sainte-Catherine Street in the heart of the Quartier des Spectacles, in a metaphorical representation of river driving, the 19th century method of moving timber down Quebec’s rivers.

560 KM owes its name to the length of the St. Maurice River, the last Quebec river used for floating log booms before the practice ended in 1996.

The installation is only brief. It opened on 5 May and ends on 29 May.

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All wood used for the installation (12- to 16-foot logs, each about 1 foot in diameter) comes from the West Brome sawmill. It has FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) environmental certification, indicating that the wood comes from responsibly managed forests. After the work is disassembled, all logs will be returned to the sawmill for processing into useful products.

Photo: Ulysse Lemerise / OSA Images

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Harschbichl summit, St Johann in Tirol, Austria

The boutique Austrian ski resort of St. Johann in Tirol is little-known to British skiers who are more familiar with its bigger neighbours, Kitzbuhel, Ellmau & Soll, but St. Johann has its own unique characteristics that make it a perfect choice for families, beginners and intermediates.

Map of KitzAlpesFor a number of years there has been talk of linking the self-enclosed resort slopes of St. Johann with the Kitzbuhel ski area, but local politics have so far got in the way. Those aspirations have re-surfaced again recently, with a new Scandinavian company investing in the lift company. However, although if it did go ahead it would open up St Johann to a new market of mixed ability ski parties, enabling the experienced skiers to go over to Kitzbuhel for the black run excitement they crave, part of me hopes it doesn’t happen.

I was in St. Johann just recently, and I rather fell for the place. I like the way it is a small and self-contained, single mountain ski area. It gives it a small town community feel and a clear identity.

Main street St. Johann in Tirol

That’s helped by it being a ‘real’ town with colourful old Tirolean buildings in the centre – think: elaborate frescos and wooden balconies – not just a purpose-built ski resort. There are lots of good bars and restaurants and because they cater for locals too, the prices are not quite as exhorbitant as in a purpose-built ski resort.

Huber brewery

If you are eating in town, try the rather quirky restaurant at the top of what looks like an airfield control tower, at the independent, family-run Huber Brewery. Good food, fun location.

I’ll also mention here my guest house, Hotel Gasthof zur Schöne Aussicht (trans: “Hotel Good View”) which is in pole position on the piste overlooking the town and the base area and comes with simple ski-in/ski-out convenience!

Hotel-Gasthof zur Schone Aussicht

The main lift from the base area is a two-stage gondola that takes you to the summit of Harschbichl at 1700m. From here, it being a single mountain resort area, all the pistes can be reached – simples!

Summit Harschbichl – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

And there’s nothing to frighten intermediate skiers from here. St. Johann’s pistes are nearly all Blue (Beginner) or Red (Intermediate). There is only one Black (Advanced) run.

Piste map, St. Johann in Tirol

It’s ideal for those who want to take it easy, like me, or family groups who want to take it at the pace of the weakest skiers. The pistes are mostly wide & open, and are well-groomed and topped up with snow makers.

skiers on piste, St Johann in Tirol

This was important when I was there at the end of January because there hadn’t been much fresh snow for a while and the temperatures were high. As a result, the streets in the town centre were snow free, the cross-country ski enthusiasts (cross-country is HUGE around here) were all trudging up the resort pistes because it was the only snow around, and Oskar Reisenbauer, St. Johann’s Head of Marketing was tearing his hair out as peak season (Feb & Feb half-term) was approaching.

Thankfully, just after I left Mafeking St. Johann was relieved, and they had a large dump of snow. (Conditions as I write are near perfect. 92cm at lower levels, cold clear blue skies and more snow forecast for the weekend)

It highlights an important point about Austrian resorts in general. Some of them are at low altitudes compared to the big ski resorts in the French Alps (Eg. Courcheval 1850, Meribel 1500). St Johann is 670m. Kitzbuhel is 760m, but doesn’t necessarily mean they are unreliable for snow. Local climate conditions and temperatures in the eastern Alps, can mean they have the same level of snow reliability as higher resorts in the western Alps.

The other thing that makes it ideal for those who want to take it gently is the number of on-slope eateries. As Kathy, my ski instructor explained, it’s easy to take a break:

“St. Johann is the best resort for that because there are 19 restaurants on the mountain. It’s so easy to stop for 10-15mins and then get going again”.

Angerer Alm, St. Johann in Tirol

She’s right. The mountain is littered with them. Ideal, if your idea of skiing is ski-relax-ski-relax! And in St. Johann, you don’t have to feel guilty because you’re sitting with your coffee, practically alone on a terrace mid-morning, with shoals of enthusiast advanced skiers hurtling past. In St Johann, nobody is hurtling past and you’re not alone!

NB: I was hosted by The Austrian National Tourist Office and Kitzbuheler Alpen (St. Johann in Tirol, Oberndorf, Kirchdorf & Erpfendorf) but my views are my own.

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Ski tips against a blue sky

I’m on my hands and knees in the snow at the side of the gentle sloped practise area, and people are looking on with horror as, in between panting for air, I empty the contents of my stomach onto the formerly pristine white snow.

This is not a recent event. This is around 17 years ago at Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont, where I thought I’d try snowboarding and quickly discovered it required a level of fitness I simply did not own at the time!

“See! I knew there was some horror story you had buried deep!” said Kathy, my Comeback2Ski instructor in St Johann in Tirol, Austria.

We were well into my first two-hour session with her. Kathy is a cross between psychologist and ski instructor, and it had taken this long for me to open up completely, but now she understood what was lurking in my subconscious, she could address it, and it was literally downhill from here.

Gentle ski piste

Long shushy Blue runs! That's what I like!

Ski Again, or Comeback2ski as St Johann in Tirol calls it, is a simple initiative to ease lapsed skiers back onto the slopes. The National Austrian Tourist Office has a dedicated web page that explains the idea and how you can re-kindle your former passion for skiing at a number of ski resorts around Austria.

The packages, which can be bought in the UK through operators like Inghams and Ski Solutions, can include flights, transfers, 7-night accommodation, 6-day lift pass, 6-day ski hire, and up to 12 hours of small group refresher SkiWorkShops™ with a local instructor, or, as in my case, include much more personalised one-on-one instruction. The Comeback2ski package at St. Johann in Tirol includes 3-nights accommodation, 2-days lift pass, 2-days equipment hire (skis, poles, boots) and 2 x 2-hour private ski lessons with a Schischule Wilder Kaiser instructor.

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So, what were my goals?

Just to get comfy again on skis. The last time I had skied was seven years ago when I went with my, then, 14 year-old-son to join some family friends in Meribel, and I really enjoyed skiing casually down long shushy Blue runs (in France, Blue is ‘gentle intermediate’, a grade above Green (Beginner). In Austria, there is no Green. Blue is ‘Beginner’. Confusing but not critical!). I wanted to get back to that again. I did not want to ‘stretch’ or challenge myself and I did not want to go anywhere near a Black run (that colour, they agree on!)

Kathy my instructor, was perfect. She made it clear, we weren’t going to do anything I didn’t want to do. All we were going to do was simple stuff; working on my turns and making me feel confident in my abilities again.

So, that’s what we did.

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Was there a significant improvement in my ski abilities by the end of the second day? No I don’t think so, but was there a significant improvement in my confidence? Yes, and that was the whole objective – to have fun again.

NB: I was hosted by The Austrian National Tourist Office and Kitzbuheler Alpen (St. Johann in Tirol, Oberndorf, Kirchdorf & Erpfendorf) but my views are my own.

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