The Northern Lights

I can still remember that first, breathless sighting. We stood in rosy-cheeked wonder as a pulsing river of green surged through the sky, celestial catherine wheels bursting forth and illuminating our enraptured faces. Torrents of green poured from the heavens. Warm lingonberry juice flowed like water. Elves, and then a herd of wild unicorns, stepped from the snowy forest, and we all linked arms and Riverdanced toward a self-assembling palace of ice, singing Let It Go as we went.

Here’s what actually happened:
“Is that… it?”
“God, no. Are you kidding? It’s just getting started.”
Two very long, very cold, very dark hours later.
“Is that it?”

Then, as families are prone to do when serious disappointment strikes, we turned on one another like a roomful of suspects in an Agatha Christie novel. Then we limped home, frigid, frustrated, and frighteningly vitamin D deficient.

Warm lingonberry juice flowed like water. Elves, and then a herd of wild unicorns, stepped from the snowy forest.

My point? The northern lights isn’t really a holiday. It’s not a holiday at all, in fact. It’s a bucket-list impostor, a low-season-filling, opportunistic marketing exercise propped up by a million calendars and screensavers and a swanky Latin name — “Behold the aurora borealis and its mystical wallet-emptying powers.” I’m sure they’re capable of putting on a show. (I’ve seen the screensavers.) Your chances of seeing that? Vanishingly small. It’s a $2.60 scratchcard of a holiday. Which costs $2,600.

Those clever marketing folks know this. So you’ll hear plenty of talk about “hunting” the northern lights. Like it’s a yeti or something.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting you don’t go to see them. Just that you do so by gathering round the nearest laptop and “oohing” and “aahing” at the extravagantly edited shots you’ll find online.

Then Google “villa holiday”.

And if you really must wander around in the cold and dark looking for something elusive, get a cat. —Duncan Craig

Alfresco Lunch

It sounds idyllic: lunch with family and friends under a pergola outside the agreeable house you’ve rented on a Greek island.

But it isn’t idyllic at all, because there will be a wasp. And at least one of your party will be incapable of sitting there and ignoring it. Instead, they will leap to their feet and rush about as though they are under sustained machinegun fire.

Eventually, they will sit down again, and you will resume your amusing anecdote, but then another wasp will come along. And then another. A Greek-island summer holiday is nothing but a constant conveyor belt of wasps, an insect put on earth solely to make your picnic lunch less pleasant.

I can prove this. Last summer, I spent some time on a boat in the Greek islands. At one point, we were anchored half a mile from the shore, but as soon as the food was ready, a wasp arrived. He could have found his lunch on land. There was tons of it. But no. He’d travelled about 3,000 wasp miles over open water simply to ruin ours.

There’s another problem with the bougainvillea-sprinkled Greek-island lunch. The Greeks grow vines, but they eat the leaves and throw away the fruit, choosing instead to make their wine out of creosote.

They have a similar issue with cheese. We make it from the milk of a cowess. But Spiro chooses to make it from the milk of sheep and goats. And then there’s cod. We eat it when it’s fully grown, but, over there, they eat it when it’s in an egg. All of which means your lunch is so horrid that your children will actually look forward to the arrival of the next wasp, because they can rush about screaming rather than eating it. —Jeremy Clarkson

Majorca. Who can argue that travel isn’t broadening?

Couples’ Experiences

Back in the mists of time, I used to review hotels for the duchesses’ compendium, Tatler. I say “hotels”, but they were mostly “islands” — it was during the period of travel when what all billionaires wanted was for everyone to be removed from their line of sight, so they could give themselves over to sacking Siberian miners on their BlackBerries 24/7.

One of the islands I visited was in New Zealand, and was a favourite of Roman Abramovich, whose yacht had been seen in its waters. It was a gorgeous, rough, untouched island for $19,540 a night, with an open-air bath 100ft up on the side of a cliff, where — the owner excitedly told me — I could sample a signature couples’ treatment: a “honeymoon” double massage followed by a petal-strewn bath with a bottle of Pol Roger.

I remember considering Abramovich and thinking: “You’re worth $1.3 billion, you’ve just bought Chelsea, Vladimir Putin hasn’t managed to imprison or poison you, but still you cannot escape the lilac tyranny of awful couples’ treatments. You have enough money to clear an entire island of all major fauna except a beleaguered chef and two manicurists, but still you cannot escape the reach of a ‘restorative’ and ‘deluxe’ experience, the only high point of which involves you opening your eyes at the wrong moment and catching sight of your beloved drooling.”

“You have enough money to clear an entire island of all major fauna except a beleaguered chef and two manicurists, but still you cannot escape the reach of a ‘restorative’ and ‘deluxe’ experience.”

What is the point of these “rituals”, apart from an opportunity for whoever’s providing them to fleece you for double the money? What is the point of the embarrassing his’n’hers spa slippers and robes, except joining in on a cymbals-tinkling, rainwater-dripping, two-hour express version of other cynical commercial liberties such as Valentine’s or hen nights?

There is nothing quite as embarrassing as the chitchat when two heartbreakingly beautiful local assistants are pouring “balancing” oils over your yellow jet-lagged corns.

In the interests of journalism, I did sample the honeymoon cliff-edge experience — at 10.30am on a Monday morning, having just got off a 24-hour flight. It was the least romantic experience ever, if only because the one person on this deserted island who was available to do it with me was my sister. —Camilla Long

Priority Boarding

There is a special place in hell, a place with hardly any legroom, reserved for the person who invented priority boarding. This is not because it’s totally pointless, which, of course, it is. Boarding first doesn’t mean you get a better seat. It doesn’t mean you get the window. It just means you get to sit still for longer than everyone else.

No, the reason whoever came up with this fiendish concept deserves eternal damnation is that it works. People pay good money for priority boarding. These people know it’s pointless, but they buy it anyway. And when they have it, they have condemned themselves to a whole new level of airport anguish.

They have to get to the gate in time to board before everyone else. Otherwise, what was the point? Then they must wait anxiously to see if it’s a gate that does things properly or one of those nihilistic gates where the proper rules are not applied.

I was once on an easyJet flight where the speedy boarders were boarded speedily onto a bus. They then had to stand waiting for all the non-speedy boarders to join them. As it dawned on them that they had effectively paid to board a bus, not a plane, there was very nearly a riot.

“I demand this bus leave now,” one infuriated passenger said. “I am a speedy boarder.”

The speedy boarders were boarded speedily onto a bus. They then had to stand waiting for all the non-speedy boarders to join them.

Those Yale psychologists who got students to electrocute each other in the 1960s could never have come up with anything as manipulative as priority boarding. It tinkers with the very fabric of queue etiquette. It sells something bad (spending longer on a plane) as something good (getting on a plane first).

It would make more sense if you had priority not-boarding, where you’re whisked through just as the gate is closing, as though it’s your own private jet and you’re Beyoncé.

I’d pay a fiver for that. I’d pay a tenner if it were Ryanair. —Matt Rudd

Airport Shopping

Once upon a time, I used to rather look forward to the ritual of the pre-flight shops. Accessorize for a sunhat; WHSmith for a magazine to snooze under, poolside; Boots for the least extortionate bottle of water airside. It was all part of the holiday anticipation, along with ordering currency or looking up the words for “thank you” and “where’s the loo?”

Well, not any more. And not just because I now have a rollable panama, a child to ensure I never read or snooze poolside and (it’s OK, don’t write in) a reusable bottle for the water fountains.

No, it’s because of the incredible number of shopping “opportunities” that are now thrust our way after security.

Other passengers might thrill at the idea of killing time and shaving whole pence off high-street prices, but not me. Airports with ground rent in mind and pound signs in their eyes are turning into retail parks that happen to have runways round the back, and it all feels horribly greedy.

We talk so much these days about responsible travel and putting our tourist buck into local economies, and here are our airports getting their sticky fingers into our wallets before we’ve even had the chance to buy a charming handwoven cushion cover.

Because let’s not pretend this is for our convenience. Anyone who has run so late they’ve pictured themselves Indiana Jones-ing it onto the plane will have railed against the chicane — those devious sales paths devised by behavioural-psych nerds to convince you that you’re taking a leisurely stroll, making spontaneous purchases, when in fact you’re being manipulated into buying perfumes you can’t pronounce and don’t want. (The range! Can there really be 2,789 smells in the world?)

Even Ikea has shortcuts, for goodness’ sake.

Travel, we’re told, isn’t just about the destination, it’s the journey. If only we could be let off the meandering, money-sucking “customer journey” before we get to the real thing. —Liz Edwards

Adventure travel, Orpington division.

Afternoon Tea

People just can’t get enough of afternoon tea. They love the bone china, the Battenberg cake and the sense of a bygone era. At the Ritz in London, the tradition is so popular that there are five sittings a day and you have to book at least five centuries ahead.

Here it costs $78 for adults and $52 for children. That’s $260 for a family of four. Nip down the local caff and you’d get tea and cake, for all, for less than a tenner. Sure, hotels chuck in some exotic finger sandwiches, a bit of mood music and a few more tiers on the cake stand, but, well, come on.

It’s not just the cost that grates, it’s the logistics. Do you breakfast late and pray you don’t get hangry when the couple behind you in the queue are served first? Or do you opt for a light lunch and risk not having the appetite to get your money’s worth? Not that getting your money’s worth is a realistic aim, even if you’re coming off the back of a fortnight’s fasting (see previous point).

Sure, hotels chuck in some exotic finger sandwiches, a bit of mood music and a few more tiers on the cake stand, but, well, come on.

Afternoon tea menus make a big deal of featuring dozens of obscure brews. But you just know that most will taste like petals or soap or mud (pu-erh, looking at you). And, given that we’re stubborn creatures of habit — particularly where hot drinks are concerned — we’ll probably end up playing it safe with earl grey anyway.

Your waiter will then suggest some $18-a-glass fizz. And, because you’ve already near-bankrupted yourself, you’ll say “Oh, go on, then!”, even though you’ve still got a load of shopping to do, and we all know only Wags drink tea and champagne at the same time.

By this stage, you’re over-caffeinated, over-sugared, tipsy and feeling a little foolish in that jacket you had to borrow from a relative to adhere to the dress code. But don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon — as the waiting staff need to usher you gently out of the marbled lobby, ready for (double ker-ching) the next sitting. —Susan d’Arcy

Full-Moon Parties

Obviously I wanted to go to one of Thailand’s full-moon parties. I’m a hippie, raised on a diet of the Glastonbury festival and summer-solstice gatherings, who loves partying. What wouldn’t appeal about spending all night dancing on the sand? I pictured myself wearing tie-dye and vibing out to psychedelic music with other hedonists until sunrise on Ko Pha-Ngan.

As soon as my boat arrived on the island, there were signs things wouldn’t be quite like that. A crush of already drunk teenagers were pushing their way to Haad Rin Beach in Day-Glo sweatbands and neon vests that screamed “FULL MOON PARTY”.

Around us, locals competed to flog tat: light-up plastic headbands, oversized glasses, flashing wands and the infamous “bucket cocktails” — kids’ beach buckets stuffed with bottles of whisky and Red Bull (a battery-acid-coloured concoction paired less for taste than for its ability to eviscerate).

We were herded to the beach, where tens of thousands of bodies were crushed together, forced towards the sea.

Around us, locals competed to flog tat: light-up plastic headbands, oversized glasses, flashing wands and the infamous “bucket cocktails.”

I vaguely recall some “entertainment” — fire-poi dancers who looked as if they’d got lost on the way to a 1990s music-video shoot, and a burning skipping rope that some annihilated Australians were trying to jump. Other than that, my memories are mostly of hammered teenagers in flip-flops wobbling over the sand, negotiating smashed bottles and sick, boys passed out drunk in the water, girls desperately trying to find their friends — all to a relentless pounding, clashing reggae dance soundtrack.

This wasn’t Leonardo DiCaprio finding himself on The Beach, but blank-eyed teenagers losing the plot.

Maybe once full-moon parties came with a (pseudo) spiritual backdrop or a sense of adventure. Now you’d find more enlightenment on a night out in Magaluf. And, honestly, I reckon you’d have more fun. —Katie Glass

Hotel Suites

It’s nice to have a big house. It means you can have a separate room for muddy boots, another for books, a third for your hobby: the model-railway reproduction of the Crewe interchange; the sex dungeon; whatever. Domestically, size matters.

In a hotel, it really doesn’t. You are not living in it. For the night or seven you are there, you will spend most of your waking hours out exploring or (let’s be honest) by the pool. In the room, you will sleep, read, watch telly, canoodle and glug wine — all things you can do perfectly well, and with an enjoyable frisson of decadence, while sprawled on a bed. You need enough space for that bed to be big and comfy, and a decent shower. A chair, if you must. That’s it.

For the comically stratospheric price you pay for a suite, you get all the added space and glamour of the hotel’s premium accommodation offering. There’s a moment’s thrill when you enter and see the size of the thing — two showers! Three loos! All for me! But very soon you find out that there is a limit to how much of all this you can use, and what it means in practice is that you get to watch telly in a different room.

This is depressing. There you are, in a swanky suite in an exotic city, eating overpriced dry-roasted peanuts from the minibar and watching Pointless in your pants. Instead of being usefully filled by boots or HO-gauge model-railway tracks, all that space you’ve paid so much for is bare but for bland mid-priced art and rock-hard complimentary fruit. The acres of beige carpet are oppressive, not liberating. The biggest thrill is nicking the sewing kit. It’s amazing how fast the suite experience goes sour.

Of course, if you can usefully fill the space with your large entourage of rock stars, DJs and supermodels, and have limitless funds to pay for the after-party clean-up, a suite might be worth it. If you can’t, spend your money in a local bar instead. At least if that’s a letdown, you’ll be too drunk to care. —Stephen Bleach

Tasting Menus

I started pondering this piece and had to buy an emergency packet of pretzels. Even the thought of tasting menus makes me hungry. They’re a tease; a dalliance with the very idea of dinner. A soupçon of veg, a nod to carbs (if you count that one beautifully presented morsel of volcano bread with a dab of whipped butter the size of a little-gem biscuit) and a few mouthfuls of protein. Even canapés fill you up better.

Tasting menus are like accessories — pretty to look at, but the final touches to a look rather than the outfit itself. They’re expensive, they’re treats, they’re wrapped up in anticipation. I’ve been taken on one as a date — a ballsy move, because that’s a lot of courses to get through if the chat isn’t going anywhere. Another was the denouement of a “classy” hen party — this of all occasions when you really need good, solid dining to sop up an afternoon on the cocktails. One course actually arrived on a teaspoon — even provincial caterers don’t do that any more. We had to befriend the waiter and commandeer the bread basket. Classy indeed.

Tasting menus are like accessories — pretty to look at, but the final touches to a look rather than the outfit itself.

I was talked into ordering one such menu in Sardinia on the first holiday with my now husband. It was the first time he’d encountered foam as food. Frankly, it’s a wonder our relationship survived the experience.

My advice, if you find yourself in a tasting-menu situation, is to not, whatever you do, accept the offer of wine pairing. It’s tempting, I know, but you will be irredeemably plastered by the end of it (even if you’re not on a hen party). Because a truffled quail’s egg with pumpkin smear is no match for glass after well-curated glass sloshed down to fill the very big gaps.

The thing is, these days, you don’t need tasting menus to try lots of different dishes — which is surely the point. Many restaurants offer sharing-style plates, so you can have all of the flavours without coming away with that feeling of gnawing emptiness. Plus, you won’t need to go hard on the toast when you get home. —Jenny Coad