19 AUGUST 2019

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COMMENT: Virgin out! First Trenitalia in!

Last week, the Department for Transport announced that First Trenitalia had been successful in its bid to operate the West Coast Partnership, providing train services on the West Coast Main Line. This connects London with Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, writes Andrew Sharp

First Trenitalia is a partnership between Trenitalia, the primary Italian train operator, and First Group, an Aberdeen-based plc running the Great Western Railway, South Western Railway and Transpennine franchises.

The government press release says the partnership will deliver significant benefits for passengers. It is also designed to fit with the direction of the Williams Review into the future of the rail industry, to be published “in due course”.

The release adds that “it also reflects a significant move away from the previous flawed franchising system to tackle issues already highlighted by the Williams Review, with the use of a forecast revenue mechanism (FRM) to avoid a repeat of the issues that affected the previous East Coast Main Line.

“This mechanism will be supported by a new annual review process, to ensure partnership working is effective, collaborative and continually improving.”

This rather gilds the lily. A recent article in the railway press listed 30 rail reviews since 2007, showing that when John Major’s government embarked on what his predecessor called a privatisation too far, no-one knew what the optimal organisation for our railway industry was – and they still don’t.

First Trenitalia will also oversee the introduction of:

  • more flexible and convenient smart ticketing options
  • free wi-fi and high-quality mobile connectivity on board
  • improved delay repay compensation for all passengers
  • £32m of investment into developing and delivering infrastructure improvements
  • 10 new secure cycle storage facilities; improved bus facilities; 900 new car parking spaces, and 100 new electric vehicle charging points
  • new ticket machines at stations, removal of the administration fee and enabling on-the-day changes to both advance tickets and seat reservations
  • new initiatives to increase diversity, inclusion and skills retention in the rail industry.

There will be 23 new bi-mode (diesel + electric) trains ordered, replacing the diesel fleet used for ‘off the wires’ running to places like Shrewsbury and Holyhead. By 2022, the company will operate 260 more trains each week and increase the coverage of their services.

There will be two trains each hour between London and Liverpool, some stopping at Liverpool South Parkway for John Lennon Airport. The company will launch independently-chaired regional customer panels and appoint seven regional growth managers.

First Trenitalia will also act at the Shadow Operator responsible for HS2 – a complex task, for which a conventional franchise would never have worked. As the release notes: “The government will shortly launch a review into HS2 and the Partnership has been designed in order to ensure that it can implement the review’s outcomes.”

The outgoing franchisee, a partnership between Virgin Trains and Stagecoach, has run West Coast since 1997: it will be a hard act to follow. After working through a troubled major infrastructure upgrade, new high-frequency services were launched on the Birmingham and Manchester routes in particular.  It quickly killed off the Manchester to LCY air service.

It is very impressive to stand at Piccadilly Station in Manchester watching a Euston-bound train loading while a train from Euston arrives at the adjacent platform, and knowing that in 20min the train now arriving will then be loading and the next one from London will be arriving.

In the latest National Rail Passenger Survey, Virgin West Coast was the highest-rated long-distance operator. It was scored “satisfied or good” by 91% of respondents – above Hull Trains and Grand Central, which usually fight it out for top place with Heathrow Express.

Andrew Sharp is our railway expert.  For 14 years he was director-general of the International Air Rail Organisation.  Please see About BTNews.

(See Goodbye Virgin Trains? in this issue).

Ryanair injunction decision today

In a last-minute twist to the industrial troubles at Ryanair, an application by the airline for an injunction to stop some of its Irish-based pilots going on strike from Thursday is due to be heard this morning, Monday.

Nearly 200 directly-employed Ryanair pilots based in Ireland, who are members of the Irish Air Line Pilots' Association (IALPA), were due to strike for 48hr from midnight on 22 August.

IALPA had served notice on the airline last week, confirming the dates of 22-23 August and saying it would give notification of further strike days in due course. Ryanair dismissed the Irish pilots' pay claims as 'unrealistic and unimplementable', and argued they amount to a 101% pay increase.

British pilots employed by the airline were also due to stop work on 22-23 August and have also set three dates in September in the continuing dispute over pay and conditions.

Before applying for the injunction, Ryanair chief people officer Eddie Wilson said it expected “minimal cancellations”, with affected passengers flying out at different times if the pilots went ahead with the strike.

In a message to passengers, he said: “Our hope is we’re going to cover the majority of the operation both in the UK and Ireland, and unless you hear from us, your flight is going ahead as normal.”

'New era' for East Midlands Railway

What is promised to be a “new era” for rail services between London St Pancras International, East Midlands and Luton Airport begins today, Monday, as the Netherlands-based transport specialist Abellio starts operating the East Midlands Railway (EMR) for the next eight years.

The company says it is planning an investment of more than £600m in improvements to the EMR network, which also includes across the East Midlands and between Bedford, Corby, Wellingborough and Kettering.

Among improvements Abellio says it will introduce are more regular services between St Pancras and Luton Airport, with a new Luton Airport Express-style service operated by a new all-electric fleet of trains.

Other plans outlined by Abellio UK managing director Dominic Booth include replacing the entire intercity train fleet including 165 new intercity bi-mode carriages that will link cities in the North and East Midlands to St Pancras.

There will also be an investment of £20m at all stations with specific improvements made at St Pancras including new waiting areas for all EMR customers including additional seating and better lounge areas.

“Abellio is delighted to have been entrusted to operate East Midlands Railway and we’ve already started on our £600m investment package to transform rail services,” Booth added.

A350 momentum builds at Virgin

The third and fourth Airbus A350-1000 of the 12 ordered by Virgin Atlantic have been added to the airline’s schedules over the next few weeks following arrival of the first aircraft, named Red Velvet, at Gatwick just over a week ago.

The airline has also confirmed Heathrow – Los Angeles will be the second route to feature the A350. It said operations were scheduled to begin “from next year”, but was unable to add further clarification on the date.

As already announced (see BTN Virgin doubles A350 New York frequency), the first aircraft will enter service on the prestige Heathrow – New York JFK route on 10 September, with the second joining in two weeks later.

Virgin Atlantic crews are being trained on an A350 mock-up installed at the airline’s crew centre in Crawley as the new timetable takes shape, with Flights VS3/VS4 switching from a Boeing B787 to an A350 from 5 November.

This will give Virgin Atlantic three daily A350 services except on Tuesdays, when there will be two. The move will be followed by a similar adjustment from 9 December, when Flights VS45/VS46 will also become A350 services.

The next four aircraft of the Virgin Atlantic order are expected to be delivered in 2020.

Air Canada unveils A220 plans

The only non-stop flights between Montreal – Seattle and Toronto – San Jose, California, were unveiled by Air Canada last week as the first two new services to be operated with its new Airbus A220-300 from 4 May next year.

The carrier also provided a first look at the interior features of the aircraft, which will offer passengers a choice of Business Class and Economy Class service, Air Canada’s newest in-flight entertainment system, onboard wi-fi and more.

Vice-president of network planning Mark Galardo said: "This aircraft is a game changer for us. It will further strengthen our position on transborder and transcontinental markets and be instrumental in our continued growth.

"The two routes just announced are the first of many future possibilities as the A220 will allow us to further develop our North American network, offering customers new routes and more robust year-round schedules.”

Air Canada's first Airbus A220-300, built at Airbus Canada's Mirabel facility is scheduled to be delivered later this year.  The airline will be the first North American carrier to operate the larger A220-300 version of the aircraft, which will have 12 Business Class seats in a 2+2 configuration and 125 Economy Class seats in a 3+2 layout.

Airport walk-out put on hold

A 48hr strike by operations staff at Heathrow called for next Friday and Saturday, 23-24 August, was called off last week so a new ballot can be held on an improved pay deal from the airport. The ballot closes on 2 September.

Heathrow welcomed the decision, adding: “We have put an additional £2.5m on the table since talks began, with our current offer bringing the total pay rise to 7.8% over two years ... well above RPI, and higher than any other UK airport.”

The dispute involves 4,000 security guards, firefighters, engineers, passenger service and airside operations staff across all five Heathrow terminals who are represented by the Unite union.

Talks have dragged on for weeks with strikes planned originally for 26-27 July and 5-6 August as well as next weekend but they have all been postponed amid negotiations with the Acas conciliation service.

The 26-27 July action walkout was called off on 24 July to allow a ballot on an initial new pay offer. This offer was rejected on 2 August but a new offer resulted in the 5-6 August walkout being called off the day before to allow time for the ballot.

Busiest day for UK airspace

The record for the busiest ever day in UK airspace fell last month and could be about to be surpassed again, according to the NATS air traffic control service last week, with the number of flights across the country continuing to increase.

The service says it handled 252,173 flights in UK airspace in July, an increase of 0.9% on the same month last year. Growth was seen especially in non-transatlantic international overflying traffic and transatlantic overflights, increasing by 6.5% and 5% respectively.

Traffic grew at seven of the 13 airports where NATS provides the air traffic control service, including three of the big five London facilities – Heathrow, Luton and London City.

NATS said it handled almost 24% of Europe’s traffic in July, maintaining high levels of punctuality. Across all 252,173 flights handled during the month, 98% had no NATS-attributable delay. Year to date, the average air traffic control delay per flight is 7sec.

NATS operations director Juliet Kennedy said: “Last month we recorded our busiest-ever day, with 8,863 flights handled by controllers on 5 July. We are now regularly managing more than 8,000 flights a day so that’s not to say this record won’t be broken again over the summer.”

Cathay’s top two resign amid Hong Kong unrest

Hong Kong’s political upheavals engulfed the national carrier last week when CEO Rupert Hogg and his deputy, chief customer and commercial officer Paul Loo, both resigned from their posts at Cathay Pacific.

They have been replaced by Augustus Tang, CEO of Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company (HAECO), which like Cathay is part of the Swire Group, as CEO and Hong Kong Express CEO Ronald Lam in the customer and commercial role.

After the resignations, Cathay chairman John Slosar said “recent events” had called into question the airline’s commitment to flight safety and security and had “put our reputation and brand under pressure”.

He added: "This is regrettable as we have always made safety and security our highest priority. We therefore think it is time to put a new management team in place who can reset confidence and lead the airline to new heights.”

Hogg said: "It has been my honour to lead the Cathay Pacific Group over the last three years. I am confident in the future of Hong Kong as the key aviation hub in Asia. However, these have been challenging weeks for the airline and it is right that Paul and I take responsibility as leaders of the company."

Drop-off charges under attack

Manchester, Luton and Stansted airports were singled out for criticism in a new report last week for the amount they charge people for dropping off or picking up passengers.

The RAC said 18 of the UK’s 22 airports have increased or introduced what are known as “kiss-and-fly” charges, with Manchester the most expensive at £4 for 3min. Stansted charges £4 for 10min and Luton £4 for 13min.

East Midlands, Birmingham, Doncaster-Sheffield and Newcastle were all reported by the organisation to have added £1 to their minimum fees this summer, while six airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick, offer free drop-off spaces.

RAC spokesman Simon Williams said: “Many travellers simply do not have easy public transport access to get to the airport and even if they do, they can’t always depend on it getting them to the airport in good time.

“Many drivers dropping off their friends or family will naturally spend only a minute or two doing so, which makes the experience all the more painful.

“Doing your research on the fees charged before heading to drop off or pick up at an airport has to be the best advice.”

EasyJet grows presence at Glasgow

Expansion plans at Glasgow Airport including welcoming a fifth Airbus A320 family aircraft to the Scottish base and announcing a new domestic route between Glasgow and Birmingham from next spring were unveiled (below) by easyJet last week.

The A320 family aircraft will be based year-round, providing 340,000 more seats. It joins two 156-seat Airbus A319 and two 186-seat A320 aircraft already there and will create around 50 jobs for Glasgow-based flight, cabin and ground crew.

The new route between Glasgow and Birmingham will operate 13 times a week all year, with flights starting on 29 March. Seats are due to go on sale in the coming weeks.

EasyJet’s first flight, EZY121, took off for Glasgow from Luton on 10 November 1995 and the airline says it has remained committed to the airport ever since by  maintaining a continuous operation and flying more than 34m passengers to and from the city.

Today, easyJet claims to be the largest airline in Glasgow and operates up to 294 flights a week across 19 routes. It was the first airline to carry 1m passengers in a year from Glasgow and says passenger numbers continue to grow.

Finnair biofuel breakthrough

The first two flights using biofuel produced from used cooking oil in a new carbon-cutting initiative from Finnair called Push for Change have been operated over the San Francisco – Helsinki route.

Senior vice-president communications and corporate responsibility Arja Suominen said the flights used a biofuel mix of 12%, reducing the total C02 emissions by some 32 tons.

She added: “The launch of Push for Change was an important step for Finnair to give passengers the chance to offset or decrease the emissions from their travel conveniently and we have been pleased with the early phases of the initiative so far.”

Finnair’s biofuels partners in San Francisco are SkyNRG and World Energy; Shell Aviation has provided logistics and supply chain support for the project.

The sustainable biofuel is produced from used cooking oil in California, which does not compete with food production or the agriculture industry.

Push for Change invites passengers to offset the CO2 emissions of their flights by donating €1 for a round trip within Finland, €2 for a round trip within Europe or €6 for an intercontinental round trip. Donations go to an emissions reduction project in Mozambique.

Goodbye Virgin Trains?

The West Coast Main Line rail route connecting London Euston with Glasgow Central and formerly run by Virgin Trains is being awarded to FirstGroup in partnership with the Italian firm Trenitalia from December.

Virgin’s Richard Branson said he was “devastated”. Virgin was barred from bidding to keep the route in a controversial government decision earlier this year (BTN 15 April). It said it would now work with First Trenitalia to ensure a seamless handover.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said the change was part of a shift to a new model for rail and the partnership was supported by former British Airways chief Keith Williams, who is chairing a commission into the rail franchising system (BTN 22 July).

The new partnership will operate in two phases, with the first from 8 December this year to March 2026, when First Trenitalia will operate the existing InterCity West Coast services. The second phase will run from March 2026 to March 2031, when it will operate the HS2 high-speed rail service.

First Trenitalia said its 56 Pendolino trains would be completely refurbished, with improved free wi-fi and catering and by 2022 would offer more than 260 extra services a week, increasing seat miles by more than 10% compared with 2017-18.

(See also COMMENT in this issue).

High-tech pushback for ANA

A new-generation remote-control aircraft pushback tug is being brought into full operation at Kyushu Saga International Airport in Japan by All Nippon Airways (ANA) after a trial period which began last September at Haneda International Airport.

The carrier says the Mototok Spacer 8600 high-tech vehicle will reduce workload at airports and increase pushback precision by providing the controller with access to location data in real time. Mototok tugs are also in use with BA at Heathrow.

Features to simplify pushback include an intuitive control interface which allows ground handling personnel to perform more effectively, streamlining airport operations and decreasing flight delays, ANA added.

In addition to logistic benefits, the tug is also said to reduce CO2 production, maintenance costs and fuel costs. Its 80v battery can be used to position up to 30 aircraft without recharging.

ANA executive vice-president Shinichi Abe said: "ANA actively embraces the latest technological advancements, and the use of this tug is emblematic of our efforts to set the pace for integrating new technology into the airline industry.

"The Mototok Spacer 8600 will help ANA to become more eco-friendly while boosting safety and cutting costs. By enhancing our technological portfolio, we continue to improve every aspect of air travel and challenge the status quo.”

King's Cross disruption alert

Rail passengers at London King’s Cross are being advised by LNER to stagger their journeys next weekend, 24-26 August, as the next stage of the station’s remodelling programme begins.

The project involves all the track, sub-systems and overhead line equipment being renewed in the station bottleneck from King’s Cross to 1.5 miles out, while the approaches will also be enhanced for the first time since the 1970s.

As part of the works, the disused eastern Gasworks Tunnel will be reopened and used for rail traffic for the first time in almost 50 years to reduce conflicting train movements and allow the new Azuma fleet to utilise its increased acceleration.

LNER will not be running trains between Peterborough and King’s Cross on Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 August and has issued a ‘Do Not Travel’ message to passengers.

On Monday 26 August, a much-reduced service will be in operation with trains being diverted between Doncaster and Newark or Peterborough as Network Rail’s work in the Newark area continues.

LNER said: “We are strongly advising customers to travel on Friday, when northbound evening peak ticket restrictions will be lifted, and on Tuesday where they can.”

Labotessa arrives in Cape Town

One of the oldest buildings in South Africa and a national heritage monument began a new life in Cape Town last week when it opened as a lifestyle boutique hotel called Labotessa.

A former church and with a design drawn on a history dating back to the 1700s combined with new world ideas, Labotessa offers seven accommodation options including one of Cape Town’s largest penthouses.

Situated in the heart of the city’s central business district and the only hotel on historic Church Square, Labotessa also features the city’s first non-high street exclusive fragrance outlet in Cape Town, and an outpost on the ground floor of a favourite local restaurant, Starling’s.

The seven-room property is owned and was designed by first-time hoteliers and childhood friends, Johan Du Plessis and Jan Fourie who said they were inspired by the opportunity to blend heritage and old-world elegance with a modern look.

The main accommodation, the 3,230sq ft three-bedroom Governor Suite, one of Cape Town’s largest penthouses, spans two floors while the six Signature Suites are accessible via private lift from the hotel’s mezzanine level and feature balconies and open-plan layouts. Every room also has views of Table Mountain.

Loganair signs up with Widerøe

A further boost to its international connectivity was hailed by Loganair on Friday after the Scottish carrier signed a new interline agreement with the Norwegian regional airline Widerøe.

The partnership means passengers can fly from Newcastle Airport direct to Stavanger with a seamless one-stop onward connection to both Oslo Sandefjord-Torp Airport and Kristiansand.

The new link is important for business travellers in the energy and marine industries among others which have links in Newcastle and Norway, as well as leisure travellers looking to explore more of Scandinavia.

Previously, passengers would have had to make two separate bookings, and had no protection in case of delay, whereas now customers may book on a single booking with checked-through luggage and protection in case of delay or disruption.

Loganair commercial director Kay Ryan said: “This new partnership will be of special interest to those working in the marine and energy sectors with business links in Norway and anyone keen to explore more of Scandinavia.”

The agreement is the latest addition to Loganair’s “Better Connected” programme, which aims to ensure its route network is “better connected” with strategic worldwide destinations of importance.

The airline already has agreements with British Airways, KLM, Qatar, Emirates, Thomas Cook, Turkish Airlines and Air France.

Milan debut for Hotel Indigo

A third property in Italy for the boutique Hotel Indigo brand is now open for business with the arrival in the country’s fashion capital of the 75-room Hotel Indigo Milan – Corso Monforte.

Centrally located, the building is a gateway to the world of Prada, Armani and Dolce & Gabbana with a design taking inspiration from the surrounding neighbourhood with elements from 1950s Italian vintage fashion mixed with contemporary elements.

Room features include bold prints and splashes of colour with artwork and sketches from Biki, one of the most notable names of the Milan fashion scene in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, a pioneer in the development of ready-to-wear fashion.

Her style was typically classic Italian, made specially for the Milanese ‘vita’ – the high life. Acknowledgements to this can be seen throughout the hotel through items such as large vintage leather-bound classic trunks embossed with the property’s initials.

From ‘hat box’ bedside tables, bowler-hat lamps and sewing-machine desks, the hotel boasts special design features recognisable to the fashion connoisseur while blending with the building’s original architecture.

Other points include intricately detailed classical ceilings and panelled walls in keeping with the classical era of the hotel with an arched interior courtyard for an afternoon coffee or drink.

More flights for Delta and Virgin

Gatwick will become Delta’s seventh transatlantic destination served nonstop from Boston when flights begin on 22 May 2020.  One day before, Virgin Atlantic will launch a daily flight to New York-JFK from Gatwick. Together the airlines will offer up to four daily flights from the south London airport to three US cities next summer.

Delta’s return to Gatwick will mark the first time the airlines have both served the airport since their partnership began in 2014.  UK-bound customers flying from the northeast United States will benefit from up to 18 daily flights between Boston and New York to the two London airports, plus Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

“We’re excited to return to London Gatwick, which is where we launched our first UK destination over 40 years ago as well as Manchester, and continue to grow our international network from Boston,” said Roberto Ioriatti, Delta’s vice president Transatlantic. “Together with Virgin Atlantic, we are strengthening our presence in the northeast US and in London, offering customers a greater choice of destinations combined with the excellent service they can expect from our airlines.”

Upper Class and Delta One customers, plus with Gold Card and Delta SkyMiles Platinum members can continue enjoy access to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouses at both Heathrow and Gatwick.

Norwegian axes Ireland – US flights

The high cost of leasing aircraft to replace the grounded Boeing B737 MAX is forcing Norwegian Air to halt flights between Ireland and the US and Canada from mid-September as the routes have become unviable.

After a series of financial setbacks, Norwegian had already announced late last year plans to switch from a policy of rapid capacity growth to one of consolidation to cut costs and bring losses under control.

More recently, the airline warned the grounding of the B737 MAX, which makes up 11% of its fleet, could affect its plans to return to profitability this year.

A company statement said: “Compounded by the global grounding of the 737 MAX and the continued uncertainty of its return to service, this has led us to make the difficult decision to discontinue all six routes from Dublin, Cork and Shannon to the US and Canada from 15 September 2019.”

Norwegian said it would refund customers who no longer wished to travel from Ireland to the US and Canada via other destinations and it would continue to fly from Dublin to Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Norwegian launched flights between Ireland and North America in 2017, three years after introducing the first low-cost, long-haul flights between the UK and the US.

Premium Economy coup for American

A new crown as the first US carrier to finish installing Premium Economy seats on its entire widebody fleet was claimed last week by American Airlines. The company noted it was the first to introduce the class three years ago.

Passengers on American now have access to 3,025 Premium Economy seats, more than the other US carriers combined, it added.

Located between Flagship Business and Main Cabin on long-haul international flights and behind Flagship First on select flights to Hawaii and Alaska, Premium Economy is available on American’s 124 Boeing B787s and B777s and Airbus A330-200s.

Vice-president of global marketing Janelle Anderson said: “Premium Economy is the perfect complement to flying with us and as the first US airline to introduce it we continue to invest in improvements like high-speed wi-fi, live TV, new amenities on the ground and more.”

Benefits compared with Main Cabin include blankets and pillows, more legroom, wider seats, extra recline, extendable foot rests, premium amenity kits and special menus for onboard dining with wines selected by a master sommelier.

American says the number of Premium Economy seats will increase again next year by more than 10% as it takes delivery of 12 new B787-8s.

Shapps and Heathrow expansion

The future of the plan to expand Heathrow was called into question last week after newly-appointed transport secretary Grant Shapps questioned in a TV interview whether the project "stacks up" financially.

He told Sky News he was taking "a really, really close look" at the case for a third runway despite MPs having approved the expansion by a large majority in a debate last year.

"Most people accept we need more south-east airport capacity, Parliament's voted for Heathrow," Shapps said. But he added that "there are questions about whether the whole plan stacks up".

He went on: "This is privately funded. They're going to need to make sure they bring in enough income to justify the billions of pounds spent on it, that's something that we'll be taking a really, really close look at."

Shapps was replying to a question on the government’s position on the £14bn expansion given newly-appointed prime minister Boris Johnson’s remark in 2015 that he would "lie down in front of the bulldozers" to prevent it.

Responding to Shapps’ comments, Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, the industry association that represents 13 UK-registered carriers, said: "While airlines support expansion, the transport secretary is right to review Heathrow’s funding. Costs are running out of control and the scheme is too expensive."

TAP pulls out of London City

Uncertainty over what will happen when the UK leaves the European Union was blamed by TAP Air Portugal last week for its decision to cease operations into London City Airport (LCY) at the end of October.

The Brexit factor was quoted by the Portuguese daily newspaper Diario de Noticias but the airport said the move to suspend Lisbon and Porto flights was because of over-capacity in the relevant markets.

A statement by the airport added: “We are naturally disappointed … route churn is an industry reality, but we hope we may see TAP back at London City in the future, as their services were valued by many.”

LCY said in the meantime it would “focus on re-distributing these sought-after slots with new and existing airlines” and look ahead to its new Antwerp service (see BTN last week New Air Antwerp service heads for London) “during what’s likely to be a record-breaking year for passengers at London City”.

TAP said it would try to compensate for pulling out of LCY by adding more seats on flights to Lisbon and Porto departing from Heathrow and Gatwick during peak periods.

The airline’s Porto route runs daily on weekdays with Lisbon flights operating twice daily Monday to Friday and once at weekends.

ON TOUR: The other Florida

Seeking escape from the theme parks, BTN editor Richard Cawthorne chills out in some lesser-known areas of America’s Sunshine State.

There are many ways to while away an early evening in Florida but few more relaxing than chilling out on the water with drink in hand aboard a 40ft luxury sailing catamaran.

Conscious that too many people see the Sunshine State only in terms of theme parks, BTN on its latest visit was out to check developments in the “other” Florida, principally on the Atlantic side and the areas along the Gulf of Mexico.

Our catamaran trip was a good start. This was the good ship Moonraker and we were out on the Indian River Lagoon in Vero Beach watching the sunset as we glided smoothly over one of the area’s many waterways.

The man in charge, Bruce Jackson, or just Cap’n Bruce, is now in his 10th year of providing his bespoke cruises, which are for up to six guests and can encompass almost everything waterborne from dolphin-watching and swimming to sunset trips like the one we were on. Advance booking is highly recommended.

Vero Beach, population around 17,000, is one of the principal settlements of Indian River County, named for the wide stretch of waterway on its doorstep. The city is small enough to be friendly but large enough to offer a range of family attractions as well as a collection of places to stay and places to eat. And it is right on the Atlantic, with miles of beach to match.

The county stretches along Florida’s ocean-fronting Treasure Coast with Fellsmere (pop about 6,000) and Sebastian (25,000-plus) as its other main communities. The area of coast is so called in memory of a storm of 1715 when a fleet of 11 Spanish ships and their cargoes of gold and other precious items were wrecked just offshore between the mouth of the St Lucie River and Cape Canaveral.

Many of the artefacts recovered are on show in various museums in the area. One of them is the McLarty Treasure Museum just outside Vero Beach, a fascinating and detailed account of the disaster on the site of a camp set up by survivors and the salvagers who ferried the cargoes ashore. The site is part of Sebastian Inlet State Park.

Indian River County is the geographical starting point for the Florida tropics, with winter temperatures rarely dipping below 21degC (70deg F). Sun-loving Brits can still enjoy the area in summer, when temperatures can reach into the 30degC range but with cooling ocean breezes to take the edge off the heat.

The county is centrally located 70 miles south of the Kennedy Space Centre and 135 miles north of Miami. A combination of the green and the glamorous, it boasts 100,000 acres of conservation land, 22 miles of beaches and a – ahem – treasure trove of cultural attractions.

It is also renowned for the quantity and quality of fresh citrus grown there, some of which is exported around the world. The story, from the time of the jungle-clearing pioneers to the multi-million dollar industry of today, is told in the intriguing Indian River Citrus Museum, well worth a visit.

Hotels and resorts in Vero Beach have roofs no higher than the local palm trees, giving rise to Indian River’s motto “Sunrises, not High Rises”. An idea of what it is like can be gleaned from some of its awards, including being named among “the Cutest Beach Towns in Florida” and as one of “America’s Happiest Seaside Towns”.

BTN’s base for our visit was the Costa d’Este resort and spa, right on the beach and within walking distance of the main shops, restaurants and bars. The hotel is owned by singer Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio – the Florida equivalent of royalty. Given that, great care is taken to protect the owners’ names and reputations, which means constant attention to detail, impressive service and an upmarket but relaxed and efficient place to stay.

Room 421 overlooking the pool and with the Atlantic and beach to the right, was a typically chic space with balcony, well-designed furniture, Egyptian cotton sheets on the bed plus flat-screen TV and free wi-fi. The restaurant, The Wave, complete with integral bar, was particularly memorable for its full American menu plus Cuban fusion dishes in a further acknowledgement to the owners.

For a different eating experience, one of the many other options is Mrs Mac’s Fillin’ Station on Old Dixie Highway (where else?), a down-home quirky place roughly equivalent to a transport café in the UK but with a lot more charm. Filled with motoring memorabilia like antique number plates and old petrol pump parts doing service as door handles, it is famed among Vero Beach locals for huge breakfasts and even bigger meals at other times of the day. Take your appetite and enjoy.

Given the proximity of so much water, it wasn’t long before we were out boating again, this time courtesy of the River King, which operates out of Capt Hiram’s Resort in Sebastian. The resort bills itself as “Florida with a Bahamian beat”, and its affinity for the islands is clear from the laid-back atmosphere, the casual style of the architecture and a wide choice of tropical cocktails. The restaurant, Blackfins Riverfront Grill, is a noted local spot to chill out.

In contrast to Moonraker, the River King is an all-weather 45ft Sightseer pontoon boat with twin 115hp Mercury engines and room for a few dozen passengers. It offers daily ecology tours departing from the resort marina into the Indian River Lagoon and the Sebastian River with manatees, bottlenose dolphins, pelicans and an array of waterfowl among the sights.

Sunset cruises to Pelican Island National Wildlife Reserve, the first federally-protected nature reserve designated as a wildlife refuge, are another option and the vessel is also popular with groups, as evidenced by the champagne-fuelled 12-strong hen party on board on the day BTN travelled.

More sedately, we also sampled a few of Indian River County’s other attractions, which as well as the McLarty Treasure Museum include the sub-tropical McKee Botanical Garden founded in 1929. Features include one of the largest collections of water lilies in the south-east US with 100 different varieties, some more than 3ft wide. In all, the complex houses more than 10,000 species of plants and trees.

From Indian River, BTN moved on to Fort Lauderdale and then to Florida’s Gulf coast, to be explored in future ON TOUR features. Our itinerary was created by Vero Beach-based destination, hotel and travel industry enabler Sunlark Associates, which specialises in Florida and the Caribbean.

AND FINALLY: Snooze at the Sheraton

If like many travellers you have trouble sleeping in a strange bed, consider a stay at the Sheraton Grand in London’s Park Lane.

The hotel has partnered with its neighbour Hatchards, the oldest bookseller in the capital, and sleep expert and chartered psychologist Dr David Lewis to create a library designed to help guests into the land of nod.

The ZZZ-list collection houses 30 scientifically-selected fiction and non-fiction works that follow guidelines set by Lewis, such as use of short sentences and concluding chapters meeting the brain’s desire for completeness.

The formula was used by Hatchards to curate the library, which is in the hotel’s exclusive Club Lounge.