As I’ve said before, I’m very lucky that my job in travel allows me to do some amazing things.

This week I was a guest of British Airways at Heathrow to have a look at their £10m simulator for its new Airbus A380 aircraft which enters service for them later this year, first to LA then Hong Kong.

IMG_7595

Below are my results at take off and landing – well, full disclosure, I’m behind the camera here filming a colleague, but I had just had a go with very similar results.

Take off seemed relatively easy (he said, modestly) – get to 145 knots and then gently pull back on the lever. Simple (!)

Landing though was a different kettle of fish altogether. With the help of a proper pilot keeping an eye on me, I managed to get the 560 tonne beast just about on the Tarmac twice and crashed once, bringing the plane down about 100 feet short of the runway that time.

Although the general public can’t have a go in this particular simulator, you can have a go flying a 747 or a 737 with Virtual Aviation

I love flying on the A380 – I’ve been on Emirates, Singapore Airways and Qantas so far. Main difference to the 747 isn’t really the space, it’s the quietness. I can’t wait for BA to start operating it.

TAKE OFF

LANDING (wait for when it smacks the run way at around 0.22!)

 

While Britain shivered waiting for Spring to arrive, I was away for Easter, in Istanbul, Turkey’s capital in all but name.

I stayed in the Beyoglu neighbourhood, which was lively and easy’ish to get to from the airport (1 metro ride, followed by a busy tram, followed by a funicular up the hill) – just over an hour, and about £3.70 all in all. Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to recommend the hotel I chose (Ansen Suites) who claimed not to have my reservation, despite the fact it had been made directly through their website. Luckily I had the print out. It also faced the charming “Good Mood” bar and club directly opposite, which pumped out Donna Summer till at least 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. Ho hum. Ear plugs are a traveller’s best friend.

Istanbul is a great destination for a long weekend. About 3.5 hours from London, and heaps to see and do. Easy to get around. Great food and very friendly people. (I know the “friendly locals” is a terrible cliche, but I have always found the Turks to be fantastic, ever since I first went there as a student in 1989).

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Looking out from the balcony of the 360 bar and restaurant in Beyoglu, towards Ortakoy and Yildiz

The tram in Beyoglu runs up to Taksim square along busy Istiklal Avenue - a bargain at £1.15

The tram in Beyoglu runs up to Taksim square along busy Istiklal Avenue – a bargain at £1.15

Mean-looking graffiti panda in Beyoglu

Mean-looking graffiti panda in Beyoglu

Looking towards the Blue Mosque

Looking towards the Blue Mosque

Inside the Grand Bazaar - surprisingly unhassly

Inside the Grand Bazaar – surprisingly unhassly

Yum - a glass of freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice ("Nar Suyu") for 4 lire or about £1.50

Yum – a glass of freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice (“Nar Suyu”) for 4 lire or about £1.50

On the Galata bridge, where the locals have more important things that tourists on their mind

On the Galata bridge, where locals have more important things than tourists on their mind

A ride on an Istanbul ferry is a bargain at 3 lire (£1.15)

A ride on an Istanbul ferry is a bargain at 3 lire (£1.15)

Busy Erminou is perhaps the most tourist-friendly spot from which to catch a ferry, after you've wandered over the Galata Bridge or visited the Topkapi Palace or Hagia Sofia

Busy Erminou is perhaps the most tourist-friendly spot from which to catch a ferry, after you’ve wandered over the Galata Bridge or visited the Topkapi Palace or Hagia Sofia

Erminou

Erminou

When I first went to Istanbul in 1989, the Lonely Planet guide advised a certain spot inside Hagia Sofia where you stand and clap and you'd hear the echo all around you - something that I think just isn't possible in these days of easyJet and Ryanair

When I first went to Istanbul in 1989, the Lonely Planet guide advised a certain spot inside Hagia Sofia where you stand and clap and you’d hear the echo all around you – something that I think just isn’t possible in these days of easyJet and Ryanair

You don't have to go too far from the centre of Istanbul to feel like you're in a small Turkish town instead

You don’t have to go too far from the centre of Istanbul to feel like you’re in a small Turkish town instead

Yum - Turkish pretzels ("simitci")

Yum – Turkish pretzels (“simitci”)

Istiklal Street - Istanbul's main pedestrian thoroughfare, packed with shops and cafes - and people!

Istiklal Street – Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, packed with shops and cafes – and people!

In January I visited the Galapagos islands, 1000km west of the coast of Ecuador.

This was very definitely the trip of a life time because of one over-riding factor – the cost. It’s ain’t cheap but you’re paying for the remoteness and expert guiding. We travelled with Miami-based Ecoventura who I can thoroughly recommend. In the UK they can be booked via South-America specialists Geodyssey, who again I would definitely recommend.

There are two amazing things here – just how close you can get to the animals & birds who seem totally unafraid of humans, and just how much sea lion sh*t really, really stinks. Surely no other animal poop on the planet comes close. Even just remembering it now, I’m dry heaving.

Anyway if a picture paints a thousand words, I’ll download some photos and shut up.

Land ahoy Mr Darwin!

Asleep not dead

The Eric: Our home for the week along with 18 other Brits, Americans, Aussies and Swiss, plus (lovely) crew

Boobies!

Lord of all (s)he surveys

Sitting pretty

You looking at me pal?

Frigate birds

Kids always want feeding

The iguana version of the pub

Just a few hours old

Blue-footed booby

Frigate birds mobbing a fishing trawler

The Galapagos are all about getting up close

Just keeping an eye on things

 

Here’s my report on a long weekend I took in Moscow last month that appeared in the Mail on Sunday (24th Feb) ahead of new easyJet flights that are launching there from Gatwick and Moscow, with a few added photos that I took.

There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Remember that when it's -30 in Moscow

Tatiana likes Vladimir Putin and fur coats but thinks Napoleon is a total wimp. ‘Everyone talks about the harsh winter finishing off his army in 1812, but they only made it as far as October,’ says my Moscow guide. ‘Pathetic!’

As I stared across the frozen Moskva river, the sun glinting off the golden roof of the Archangel Cathedral in the Kremlin, I had a trickle of sympathy with the diminutive Frenchman. At least I was bundled up under half a dozen layers, thermal gloves, thick socks and a bobble hat of which Benny from Crossroads would have been proud.

Come appropriately dressed and the Russian capital can be a year-round destination. On my visit, temperatures never climbed above minus 11C during the day, but fresh snow added a charming dimension to my long weekend.

From next month (March 2013) Moscow will be easier and cheaper to get to as easyJet launches flights from Gatwick and Manchester which should bring down prices on a route historically dominated by BA and Aeroflot.

I was a student when the Soviet Union collapsed. I visited Russia twice in the Nineties – on one occasion I was pickpocketed by a drunken train guard on the St Petersburg Express; the next time I danced in Red Square at dawn with a mysterious brunette after a vodka-fuelled night.

Since then, companies such as Costa Coffee, TopShop and M&S have sprung up in Moscow, but the city and its inhabitants remain undeniably different, defiant and proud, more sure of themselves and of the future than at any time in the past few decades.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square

I spent my time with Tatiana in Red Square and at the Kremlin, which is an absolute must. You can easily spend a day at the latter, but arrive early to get a timed ticket for the fabulous exhibits housed in the Armoury.

My guide, Tatiana

We also explored quirkier sites such as Novodevichy cemetery, where Sergei Prokofiev, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva and Boris Yeltsin are all buried. ‘You English love cemeteries,’ said Tatiana as she tried to hurry me along. ‘I find that very strange.’

Novodevichy cemetery

In the afternoon I was let loose on my own and tackled the city’s famous metro system, with its ornate stations bedecked with chandeliers, mosaics, stained glass, frescoes, murals and tributes to glorious Soviet workers who, history eventually showed, weren’t quite so glorious after all.

Moscow metro - it's quite a revolution

One trip cost me just 28 roubles (60p) and trains arrived at least every three minutes. Prepare to get lost unless you can read the Cyrillic alphabet, although after the first few trips it becomes easier.

Park Kultury (ie Gorky Park) station

Eventually I found my way back to my hotel, the imposing Radisson Royal which, in the Fifties, was the tallest hotel in the world.

The Radisson hotel (formerly the Ukraine - in the 1950s it was the world's tallest hotel)

Later, I met up with 24-year-old Maria Motyleva. Last year, she and several advertising industry colleagues set up It’s Sooo Russian to guide visitors around unusual sides of the capital. The team organises everything from jam sessions with local musicians to trips to suburban flea markets, and are busy organising their own music festival this autumn.

My guide Maria Motyleva in Zvenigorod

Like many young Russians, Maria speaks excellent English and has travelled widely. She helped me buy a ticket at Moscow’s Belorussky station and we set out for a 75-minute trip to the town of Zvenigorod.

Our journey took us past endless rows of functional Seventies-built tower blocks, before the scenery changed to fields and then birch forests.

After arriving in Zvenigorod, Maria and I hopped on a bus that took us to the spectacular 14th Century Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery and – even more jaw-dropping – the golden Rozhdestvensky Cathedral.

Zvenigorod

Inside, bearded monks went about their business while groups of fur-clad babushkas prayed in silence.

A nearby cafe served cheap and delicious borscht with sour cream, and we bought bread and pastries from the bakery next door for the return journey. That evening, back in Moscow, we met up with Maria’s friend Lena to visit an exhibition on Soviet life during the Fifties and Sixties.

Most of the paintings were of women with mournful eyes, while political posters revealed that Russians were as paranoid about the US as Americans were about communists. We ended up in Kam­chatka, a retro bar on Ulitsa Kuz­netsky Most, serving nostalgic snacks, beer and Soviet ‘champagne’ from behind a canteen-­style counter.

It was packed to the raft­ers with youngsters singing along to Russian pop music from 20 years ago, the kind of cheesy stuff that would water the eyes of even the most ardent Eurovision fans. My eyes welled up too. The Nineties? Retro? Already? Moscow is a city that seems proud of its past, increasingly confident about its future but still uncertain about how it should reflect on a turbulent 20th Century – all in all, plenty to keep you going for a weekend.

The arrival of easyJet doesn’t just mean we’ll be unleashing groups of stag party lads dressed as Bat­ man and Robin on unsuspecting Muscovites. It also means we get to welcome more ordinary Russians to Britain with the lure of Primark, Marmite, Boris bikes, baked beans and One Direction.

I’m not quite sure what Tatiana’s going to make of that lot.

Me and a snowy statue of Tolstoy

Regent Holidays offers three nights on a B&B basis at Hotel Izmailovo Gamma-Delta from £360pp including easyJet flights from Gatwick or Manchester. There’s a £220pp supplement to stay at the Radisson Royal. It’s Sooo Russian offers tailor-made guiding in Moscow from £85 per day for up to three people. EasyJet flies to Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. Aeroexpress trains run frequently from there to Paveletsky station in about 40 minutes, from where you can transfer to the metro. A one-way ticket is £7. A tourist visa for Russia costs £75

(I suppose I should legally say copywrite on this is with Associated Newspapers, but as I wrote it……..)

 

 

Rio de Janeiro – beaches, football, Christ, Sugar Loaf Mountain, dental-floss bikinis. And juice

It isn’t hard to get your five a day in Brazil. On practically every street corner in Rio there’s a juice bar where, for around £2/$3 you can get a freshly-squeezed glass of something that you’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce.

Sucos are juices straight up; Vitaminas are blended with milk. My favourite was Fruta do Conde (custard apple), which really did have a sweet custardy flavour. Abacate (avocado) is another goody too, blended with milk and a bit of sugar. Maracuja is passionfruit, and abacaxi (pineapple) is worth it just for the pronunciation alone (ah-bah-cash-eee).

Then there’s superfruit acai, which is beetroot-purple and served as a sort of frozen sherbert/ice cream, with a bit of guarana juice, and perhaps some granola – great for when you’ve been for a jog along Copacabana beach (…..like I’d know!)

Acai. You can also pick up a coconut at the beach for about £1.70 / $2.70

If you are heading for the beach there are ways you can minimize standing out like a tourist, even if you aren’t quite prepared to wear a dental-floss bikini (ladies) or a pair of sungas (gentlemen), the thicker-sided speedos that most locals sport. For a start, never take a towel, especially not to lie down on; locals either stand or sit on a folding chair. And they don’t take much with them at all – a mobile, a wrap (kanga), sunglasses and a bit of cash for snacks.

Ipanema

If you want to escape from the crowds, you can go hiking in Tijuca, the world’s largest urban rain forest and just a 15 minute drive from the main tourist hang outs. I had Gabriel Morand as my guide (who you can book through local Brit-run tour operator Dehouche), who’s also a biologist so was easily able to point out monkeys, snakes, humming birds and toucans as well as a dizzying variety of plants and trees. It’s a fun and rewarding, if sweaty, way to see a very different side of the city, and you get great views.

Gabriel Morand

As for staying, I was in the Copacabana Palace Hotel which is certainly the place to be if your budget will stretch to it and you fancy a bit of old-world glamour. But if you want to live like a Carioca, hire a local apartment through Rodrigo Harold, whose company Rio Luxury Boutique rents out chic flats and houses from around £100 a night to £1,500+ (and for the latter you are getting seriously swanky, with pads in lush suburbs like Joatinga with views to match – see below).

Rodrigo Harold, at one of the apartments he hires out

And if you’re looking elsewhere in the country for accommodation with heaps of individual character, try Hidden Pousadas run by expat Brazilophile Alison McGowan.

Ipanema sunset

A really good local blog with tons of practical info about the city is Gringo Rio