All posts by Stephen Overton

United – we fall/fail

United we fail
At United we fail

How can this happen? Arrive in Jackson Hole airport at 06.30 for a flight to San Francisco at 08.15. The chronology sort of goes a bit like this:

  • sometime the previous day: online check-in requires you to enter the number of checked bags you are going to fly with – which requires an additional $170 charge for checking-in six bags
  • 06.30: arrive at the end of a humungous queue for economy check-in (oh, did I not mention that it’s all self-service check-in on United, which must be the most inefficient way known to man of performing this function and guaranteed to get everyone annoyed before they start)
  • 06.35: the queue suddenly gets shorter by about 30 people as all those on the 07.15 flight to wherever are told they are too late to check-in and must form a new queue and wait for re-booking (or call 1-800-UNITED1 as “it will be quicker than waiting for us to re-book you here”)
  • 06.40: United staff overheard comforting themselves that it’s not their fault that so many have turned up late enough to miss their flight – meanwhile I’m wondering about the length of the queue and the delays caused by self-service check-in, but hey, what do I know, I’ve only got 25 years experience of airports and checking-in for flights
  • 06.50: reminder from the check-in staff to put your name and address inside your bags so “we can reconnect you with your bag when it goes missing”
  • 07.00: biggest bag of the six narrowly misses a $100 surcharge as it weighs in at 48.73lbs – just below the 50lbs limit – thank heavens the mahjong set was packed in another bag
  • 07.05: one of the baggage tags has already been lost – oh well, I’m sure it will be OK, it’ll probably only be the bag with £1,000 of riding gear in it that we’ll never see again
  • 07.15: all ready to go
  • about 07.20: flight delayed to 09.30 – no details announced
  • about 07.45: flight delayed to 10.15 – due to air traffic control in San Francisco
  • about 08.00: flight delayed to 10.45 – apparently this happens “all the time” especially with the smaller planes because of fog in San Francisco, so they just leave them on the ground where they are until they have a slot – no one has any information about when the flight is likely to take off
  • about 09.00: one of our party manages to obtain $7 ‘coffee’ vouchers for each of us – an elderly female passenger decides to spend hers on a margarita
  • 10.30: we will be going at 11.03
  • 10.45: about 10 passengers in zones 1 and 2 are allowed to board
  • 10.55: passengers in zones 3, 4 and 5 are told they cannot board yet – there has been a mistake and the cabin crew (who gave the authority to board) actually failed to check with the pilot who confirmed that the confirmed take-off time was in fact going to be 11.30
  • 11.00: 10 zones 1 and 2 passengers are returned from the aircraft – we all sit down again
  • 11.15: we all board
  • 11.30-ish: we take off, finally looking forward to a ruined day in San Francisco

Honestly, you couldn’t make it up. Of the 1,800 or more flights I’ve made this is the first time on United. Sorry, but never again. Although I should in fairness mention that the crew were actually quite nice.

If you want to have some fun at their expense, try this link when you have a moment:

Grand Canyon – and yes, it’s all for real

Now, this is something that needs to be seen to be believed. Everyone told me to be prepared to be impressed. We had seen the most unbelievable scenery on the drive down from Wyoming. The mountain ranges between Utah and Arizona, the Vermillion Mountains, must be the one place on earth where you can see further than anywhere else on the planet.

The first thing you notice about entering the Grand Canyon National Park as you drive from nationally protected wilderness, is that it’s actually quite manicured. Not nearly as wild as the hours of driving through magnificent scenery you’ve just done to get there. Decent roads, proper verges and occasional tantalizing glimpses of the canyon itself. As ever, the distances are something you are unprepared for. From the west entrance to the park you still have 25 miles to drive to get to the main ‘village’ area where the hotels are located.

There are essentially no words that you can use to describe the course the Colorado river has taken over some 6 to 20 million years as it carved its path into the canyon. Regrettably the central area where you stay is quite commercialized, but I guess this is to be expected as it is one of the premier tourist destinations in the US. We saw the Canyon the only way that I think you can really appreciate it – by helicopter. Jaw-dropping scenery and stunning sunsets. You need to go and take a look for yourself just once!

The hotel experience is not great. There is really only one decent hotel, sort of 50s style, but it does have a good bar and a quite decent restaurant. The adjoining accommodation is more like up-market hostel living – clean rooms, ensuite bathrooms, but nothing to write home about. We made the mistake of leaving unwrapped food in the room which wasn’t a great move. A rat rummaging through your suitcase at two in the morning is not the most welcome of room mates.

If this isn’t on the list of places you need to visit before you die, then it certainly should be.

Clarendon Hotel – very hot and camp in Phoenix

How to describe the idiosyncratic Clarendon Hotel in Phoenix? There kind of isn’t really anything in Phoenix itself apart from a sort of downtown high-rise bit, with offices and banks, so you probably really need a place like this to hang out. Surrounded by desert and mountains, Phoenix in the summer is blisteringly hot – 40c/110f. Everyone says it’s dry heat so you don’t feel it – well that’s nonsense – you feel it from your feet slowly traveling up your legs until you know that you badly need a dose of air conditioning.

Anyone for some modernist architecture?
Anyone for some modernist architecture?

But luckily there is the Clarendon Hotel. It all feels quite camp, from the reception to the bar and beyond. No further comment needed! The rooms are clean and quite pleasant, large with essential industrial-powered air con, but there are really three main attractions – the pool (voted the best in Arizona), the bar (where they mix incredible cocktails) and the restaurant. Where if ever you doubted whether you like Mexican food, then this is the place to dispel those doubts.

I should also mention that the service at this hotel is second to none – absolutely nothing is too much trouble. Especially when the lift is broken.

The infamous cocktail menu
The infamous cocktail menu

The pool is a very popular place to be and it is clear that on Friday evenings through the weekend all the 30-something party animals party here hard, spending their time between the pool and the bar.

But most important of all is the bar. Ruled by Matt who allegedly mixes the best margaritas in Arizona. And they are really good. He also knows about many things. The Old Tortoise and a drinking companion had worked about half way down the cocktail board when the conversation moved to whether we preferred  modernist architecture, at which point it was time to accept that we were in the wrong conversation. But the cocktails, well they were to die for.

Mind where you put it
Mind where you put it

Oh – I nearly forgot to mention … take a look in the Gents if you ever get to visit. This is a visit that you won’t forget in a hurry!

Green Valley – a Spa too far in Utah

Mmmm … this is where the trip began to come a bit unstuck. Briefly. It’s not that it was a bad place, it was after all what the Tortuga and her friend intended – a health spa stop over in St George, Utah – but the Old Tortoise was expecting another 5-star hotel, not some scientific research facility with a reception manned by Mr Personality-Removed.

Having said that the rooms were spectacular with the most amazing beds. The children had a great time in the pool and a day playing tennis, the Tortuga got herself encased in mud and massaged. And once we worked out that the dining room was not the place to be and catered au-apartement courtesy of the local Wall-Mart things turned out not so bad.

It is worth mentioning that the service in the dining room was appalling. Plus once we identified the (limited) wine list, the only interesting item – the champagne – was inevitably out of stock. I am ashamed to say that this Old Tortoise spent a day and a half mostly on the couch, mostly watching daytime TV and mostly swigging vodka and tonic, waiting for the moment he was instructed to load up the truck and head out of Dodge. He didn’t dare spark up a cigar in case the Spa Police got wind of it.

Waldorf Astoria – luxury in Park City

OK, so I have to admit it, we needed a dose of abject luxury after the rigours of six days of Waldorf Park Cityhard riding. On the way south on our road-trip journey to Arizona we checked-in to the Waldorf Astoria in Park City for two delightful nights. This is 5-star luxury as good as it gets. In the summer time it’s great, the hotel apartments are arranged around the outside swimming pool, but in the winter it must be spectacular. We had a duplex room arrangement with the kitchen and living area downstairs and a large bedroom and the main bathroom upstairs. Great set-up if you have children with you who can sleep separately downstairs.

The apartments have inside and outside fireplaces and I can imagine that sitting out on the balcony at night with the fire going, après-ski, must be sensational. The kitchen was kitted out with all the best quality gear and could quite happily have formed the centre of a luxury flat.

The service is second to none. Nothing was too much trouble from the good-natured unloading of the SUV (suitcases, boots, plastic bags bulging at the seams and spilling their contents) to accommodating a late night meal and keeping the bar (unofficially) opened. Here they officially stop selling alcohol at nine in the evening – it’s Utah after all.

A really nice touch was a barbeque area out by the pool where the children could sit into the evening toasting marshmallows. Pity the person who’s job it was to scrape the burnt sugar off the stones in the morning. But, you know, I bet whoever’s job it was did it with a smile.

We would absolutely love to come back here in the winter.

BitterRoot Ranch – a little piece of paradise

There are moments in your life where you wonder whether things can get any better. If you like horses then the BitterRoot Ranch in Wyoming has to be a place that creates one of those moments in life. It would be possible to describe it in just one sentence and then to leave it at just that – if you like horses, this is the closest you will get to horse paradise on earth.

We spent a week as guests of Mel and Bayard Fox and their son Richard and his wife Hadley. Bought in the 1970s, the BitterRoot is a working ranch where they farm cattle as well as a small number of sheep. There are BitterRoot Dog 1also llamas, dogs, cats, ducks, chicken, peacocks and turkeys (the llamas live with the sheep to guard them from wolves). So everything to make the place heaven for children, especially the dogs who they never left alone while we were there. By the way, don’t engage a Wyoming farmer in a conversation about the (re)introduction of Alaskan wolves into the region by the ‘conservationists’ – it’s like going to a dinner party back at home and talking about politics, sex or religion – you just don’t want to go there. But most important of all, there are 140 of the most beautiful horses. This is Mel’s department where she breeds Arabians and other breeds. They are the perfect hosts – both horse and human alike! Bayard spent much of his life abroad in government service, Mel was brought up on a farm in Kenya and educated in the UK. So there is a genuine international feel to their hospitality and the table talk over dinner. The week we were staying there were French, Dutch, Japanese and American guests as well as us lot (the English and the Irish). Plus the game warden who came in for dinner after having checked on a couple of wolf-kills in the herd – another interesting insight into a life that most of us will never experience.

The ranch itself is 17 miles along an un-made road from the main highway. The nearest town, Dubois, is another ten or twelve miles further along the highway. It’s essentially a long way from anywhere. And apart from the entertainment of meeting the other guests the only other ‘entertainment’, other than the riding of course, the fishing (which didn’t bite despite eating most of Bayard’s flies) and (as we found out, if you ask nicely) the clay (skeet) shooting, is the weekly rodeo on Friday night in Dubois, which is well worth the experience and something else you will never have experienced back home. The place is definitely remote, you won’t see anyone not connected to the ranch and you don’t need to lock your door.

Guest accommodation is in a series of cabins ranged along the river that runs through theBitterRoot Ranch House 2 ranch. Not 5-star hotel stuff, but clean and comfortable. Anyway, you come here for the riding, not the beds. The food is great, all locally produced and there’s loads of wine supplied. Although you learn, just once, that getting up in the morning for a 5-hour ride with a hangover isn’t exactly the greatest way to spend the day. There are never more than 30 guests at any one time and when we were there it was more like 15 of us, so it’s rather like a large family gathering. This might seem a bit intimate, but it really works in the environment once you get to meet and talk to the others.

So … to the riding. Where to start? Mel is very strict with her riders and horses alike and theBitterRoot Horse 9 first thing that happens is an assessment of riding skills to make sure she understands what you can and cannot do. Here there is fast riding for the best riders and trail walks for the less experienced. You need to know the basics like trotting and so on, but if you can gallop (well, they call it cantering, but by European city riding standards, it’s actually galloping) then you really experience the open spaces and the quality of the horses. There are a lot of steep ascents and descents on the trails, so the discipline of standing in your stirrups to take the weight off your horse’s back on difficult steep sections of the trails is important. The horses are mostly neck-reined of course, but this is an easy transition which you pick up in moments if you are used to the more rigorous contact method. The Tortuga (who had at one point threatened to sleep through the entire week) had only done a ‘learn to ride in a day’ course and one other lesson and she quite happily rode 40 hours during the week. Unless you are off on pack rides or the all day picnic rides, then you do three hours in the saddle each morning and another two to three hours in the afternoon after a lengthy lunch break. BitterRoot Horse 1Mel matches you with five or six horses for the week so you never have a tired or over-worked animal. Each of the 140 horses has a name and a character and a circle of friends. It’s very touching when you ride out and the wranglers point out all their idiosyncrasies and you realise just what a personality each horse is. And yes, inevitably you get to find a favourite. It’s clear just how much they all love their work – both horses and wranglers!

The scenery is breathtaking. There is no other way to describe it. Mountains, rivers, forests, plains – you ride it all. The ranch is about 7,200 feet above sea level, so you really do notice the altitude when you wake up in the morning with that characteristic shortness of breath – one day we rode up to 9,500 feet for what must be one of the most stunning views anywhere on earth. Each ride has two wranglers who ride out with you. There were six of them in all looking after us during the week. They are experienced women who clearly delight in what they do and most of them seemed to have come back to work at the ranch year after year and often after being guests themselves. They really know the terrain, the trails and their horses. We had a few tumbles in the group and they knew exactly what to do and how to restore confidence back in the saddle. Mind you, when you’re still two hours riding from home and there isn’t a nearest road, there’s not really too much choice in the matter but to get back on.

One of the most extraordinary moments is standing by the corral gates in the evening when the rides are all back home just as they let the horses out to the overnight pasture above the ranch. Watching a hundred or more horses rushing past you it’s hard to explain the thrill and the energy, the swirling dust and the excitement among the animals. It’s like they’ve been let out of school at the end of a long summer term day. I can’t think where else you would ever experience this.

BitterRoot Horse 2BitterRoot Horse 3BitterRoot Horse 8BitterRoot Horse 4BitterRoot Horse 7BitterRoot Horse 5

Did I mention the unbelievable stars at night? The startling brightness of the Milky Way (both bits of it)? Did I mention playing with the heart-breakingly beautiful foals? BitterRoot Foal 2 Did I BitterRoot Foal 1mention the beef? Did I mention hugging your horse? Did I mention being taught to fly fish by Bayard (unsuccessfully)? I can’t fit it all in. This is a blog, not a travel guide … but I hope you get the message.

Wort Hotel – Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Wort HotelPicture the old Wild West meets Disney. Buildings straight out of a Hollywood film set, but with shops full of designer clothes. The main street of town is packed with luxury SUVs and there are people everywhere. Jackson Hole is America’s top ski resort, but in summer time it is the centre of the outdoor life tourist scene, surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. At the centre of it all is the Wort Hotel and the best restaurant in town, the Silver Dollar Grill.

The first thing to mention about this hotel is that the service is excellent. Apart from the American doorman most of the staff seemed to be from abroad, but nothing was too much trouble for them. As you would expect the theme throughout was the Wild West, from the swing doors into the bar to the tacky pictures on the wall. Golden wood panelling everywhere, chandeliers, fake oriental carpets and plenty of glitz. Wort Hotel 3Entering the main lobby you are faced with a stairway that puts you straight onto the set of an old Western movie – the town hotel, complete with a large moose head staring at you. In your imagination you can picture the barmaid singing along to the old piano as she glides down the steps. One American guest looked longingly at a picture of a buffalo out on the prairie and nodded at it in an appreciative way, “you can always tell HIS work.”

But you just can’t help but admire the place.

The rooms are filled with large comfortable deep beds and if you’ve nothing better to do you then you won’t ever want to leave!

Dismal Delta

It wasn’t my intention to write about Delta as part our US road trip. But before I get to the interesting places we are visiting, I can’t let the flight (almost) from hell go by without an adverse comment or two. Actually the flight itself wasn’t too bad. The service was good, given the fact that Delta’s 757s haven’t been manufactured for over ten years (BA retired theirs four years ago) and therefore the interiors are tired and the seat entertainment systems don’t work any more, the food was awful, but it was all kept bearable by the tireless efforts of the crew, led by Olga from Russia.

We over-nighted in the JW Marriott in Atlanta, to get a last taste of superb beds and the en-suite shopping experience, before heading up to Wyoming. Like an idiot I went for a row in First thinking it would be a quiet flight for us with civilised fellow passengers. Not a bit of it. Amongst others there were quite a few children, clearly on their father’s Delta points, a female surgeon, a Robin Williams look-alike with his fishing rods and … the American family from hell.

The surgeon started off well by running through her presentation material on her MacBook, complete with graphic gynaecological images of a distinctly medical nature, later describing herself to a fellow passenger across the aisle as “a surgeon, you know, in the women’s plumbing department.” Nice. The family from hell were distributed all over the cabin, but managed to secure seats together after a bit of judicious reformatting of the seating plan. The fisherman was reformatted next to the surgeon, who made her wait ten minutes after she stood up to let him into the window seat while he repacked his bags. At least she demonstrated a sense of humour when she asked him whether he planned to move in.

The family from hell consisted of a father, alpha male and presumably a Delta million-miler, over-sized specimen of the species with no volume control; the wife, alpha male mate, bronzed with silly yellow shorts and a similar missing volume control feature; ‘the girls’ who sat somewhere behind keeping themselves well away from the parents; and the inevitable ten-year-old male brat, apple of the parents’ eye, opinionated loud voice and well on the way to becoming a mini version of his father. Alpha father kept shouting across to brat-child on the other side of alpha mom and the adjoining aisle, calling him “buddy”, “dude” and similar dumb-ass cronyisms. That was after he thanked Robin Williams profusely and at the top of his voice “you are so A-A-AWESOME, man.”

“Where are you from?” alpha-male-mate-and-mom asks Olga. “From Europe, originally” she politely replied. “Oh, what a lovely accent” alpha-mom announces to the entire cabin.

Thank goodness for Olga dispensing liberal quantities of Skyy vodka with a never faltering smile. Is it all airlines or is it just me?

Survival in First

We managed to get ourselves a row of First seats on BA out to the US at the start of our holiday. I have to say the old First left a bit to be desired, too much walnut and a bit shabby, but the new First configuration is incredible. You actually get to enjoy being on an aeroplane for a change.

Concorde lounge serenity
Concorde lounge serenity

Starting with the Concorde lounge at T5, rather than having to spend time with self-important business travellers bugging you with over-loud conversations on their mobiles, you sit with a wholly more reflective crowd. Very good and discrete service too, nothing is too much trouble. Of course unsurprisingly, not an English accent in evidence!

Interesting faux-effect fireplaces, which you can’t photograph because they are too reflective. A kind of 1970s throw-back to G-plan furniture and angular shapes. But apart from that a relaxing place to hang out for your flight.

Mood lighting
Mood lighting

On board it’s all low-key mood lighting, blue leather and touch controls. All borrowed from the new Range Rover it feels as though. There’s loads of space around in your compartment and plenty of room even for a special guest to come and share a meal with you if that’s what you want. Although tortoises are by nature solitary creatures they sometimes like to share things.


Survival kit
Survival kit for First

Note the absence of either reading material or an iPod in the new First survival kit – you don’t need either … the TV works and there’s no one close enough to disturb you!