In which we present a regular round-up of news from the world of Grown-up Travel
The Devon zoo that inspired a Hollywood movie
Benjamin Mee, who opened zoo on Dartmoor, says it would have gone bust without film starring Matt Damon.
Benjamin Mee, a freelance writer who bought a dilapidated zoo on the edge of Dartmoor as a retirement home for his mother, will probably not mind if disappointed visitors discover he has a little less hair than Matt Damon.
Mee, whose unorthodox career change has been turned into a Hollywood blockbuster – We Bought a Zoo – is simply grateful to have visitors arrive through the gates of Dartmoor Zoo. And the reassuring thing about visiting a zoo which has inspired a big-budget movie is that the exotic animals are just as luxuriantly furred as their charismatic Hollywood counterparts.
Damon, Scarlett Johansson and the director Cameron Crowe – of Jerry Maguire fame – pitched up just in time. If it wasn’t for their film, which premieres in London on Thursday night, the family-run zoo would have gone bust.
At the beginning of this month, Mee’s company credit card was rejected when he tried to buy milk for the cafe because he only had £45 of credit left. Now, says Mee, there is hope.
On a sunny March morning, his 33-acre zoo appears idyllic. Solomon the lion gazes imperiously from his hilltop enclosure, while tigers Vlad and Stripe go on the prowl. A lone wolf sits in the picturesque woodland while meerkats and monkeys bounce around in their enclosures.
There is one problem: it’s been open for an hour and there is not one customer. Through a warren of Devon lanes, the zoo is not easy to find. Making a Hollywood movie has proved simpler than persuading the council and highways authority to erect the correct brown signs for the tourist attraction. Is anyone here? “They’ll be along shortly,” said the zoo curator Colin Northcott.
Mee took over the crumbling zoo in 2006, after persuading his mother, Amelia, to sell the five-bedroom family home in Surrey and buy – with the same £1.2m asking-price – the run-down house on the edge of Dartmoor that happened to come with a zoo. Their purchase saved 200 animals from being shot.
This decision caused one of Mee’s brothers to fall out with the rest of the family and take legal action against them. On the fourth day of Mee’s ownership, their jaguar, Sovereign, escaped. Instead of heading into the local village he got into another enclosure and picked a fight with a tiger.
While Mee battled to reopen the zoo, his wife, Katherine, died of a brain tumour, aged 40, leaving him to raise their children, Milo, 11, and Ella, 9.
It is little wonder the film rights to Mee’s story were snapped up. But a $50m movie has not aided a Hollywood ending. Although Mee benefited from £250,000 when the film went into production and they will receive 5% of the movie’s net profit (less impressive when distribution costs and legal fees are subtracted), the zoo went into liquidation in 2009. Mee had to borrow another £160,000 from donors to keep it going.
Edinburgh becomes boutique guesthouse capital
Edinburgh has become the capital of Europe for fashionable boutique guesthouses according to the latest Michelin guide.
In its latest guidebook about the best places to stay and eat in Europe, four out of five of the new entrants in the ‘guesthouse’ category are in the Scottish capital.
Although Michelin’s Main Cities of Europe 2012 book covers 44 cities in 20 European countries, it only recommends 11 guesthouses to stay in across the entire continent. Of these, a total of seven are in Edinburgh.
The city’s Georgian architecture and the massive global success of the novel One Day – about a relationship between two students who meet at Edinburgh University – have contributed to the surge in popularity of the city, meaning that more guesthouses have opened, tourist chiefs say.
Rebecca Burr, the guidebook’s author, said that guesthouses are defined as private houses which offer bed and breakfast but do not have all the facilities of a hotel. They must have a minimum of three bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms to qualify.
Ms Burr said that Edinburgh’s large Georgian townhouses lend themselves to this type of accommodation.
“Edinburgh has always had great guesthouses. It is in a great location and the rooms are enormous. Paris is not a guest house type of place, nor is Milan,” she said.
Guesthouse owners put their new-found popularity down to consumers wanting to get away from impersonal corporate hotel chains.
Mike Gordon, co-owner of One Royal Circus, a townhouse in Edinburgh’s New Town that is one of the new Michelin entrants, said: “There is a trend for people staying in non-corporate environments.”
Luton airport expansion plans unveiled
The operators of one of the UK’s biggest holiday flight airports today put forward “rival” expansion plans.
Proposals to increase Luton Airport passenger numbers from 10 million a year to 18 million have already been announced by the Bedfordshire airport’s owners, Luton Borough Council.
Today the Spanish-owned operators of the airport announced a plan to increase passengers to between 15 million and 16 million a year over the next 10 years.
Ryanair, easyJet, Monarch and Thomson are some of the airlines that fly from Luton.
The operator’s strategy involves turning Luton into “London’s local airport” through continual improvement of transport links with the capital.
The operator – London Luton Airport Operations Ltd (LLAOL) – said its plans for phased development would “avoid overbuilding capacity, and passing on unnecessary costs to airlines and passengers”.
The plans include improvements to the terminal building through the construction of a new pier, an extension of the taxiway to increase the number of aircraft movements, creating new aircraft stands and upgrading existing ones.
Announcing its plans last month, the council – in the form of owners London Luton Airport Ltd – said to carry out its proposals it may need to terminate LLAOL’s contract before its expiry in 2028.
Blokes’ paradise – heaven thy name is XXXX Island
They say every man is an island, but Aussie blokes may soon be conquering an island of their own.
XXXX Gold has taken a three-year lease on a 6ha Southern Great Barrier Reef island off the Capricorn Coast to create a blokes’ paradise called “XXXX Island”.
From October, the beer company intends to send groups of four mates, won in promotions, to the island now known as Pumpkin Island.
Organisers will seek ideas from the public as to what should be added to the island, such as a “one hole golf course” and an “ingenious beer delivery system”.
The Pumpkin Island website describes it as an “untouched tropical holiday getaway”, with five “self-contained, eco-friendly beach cottages”.
Both XXXX and the island’s owners declined to discuss the value of the lease, citing a confidentiality agreement.
The island belongs to John and Sonja Rumble, a South African-born couple who bought the island in 2003 for $1.3 million through their business, Sojourn Properties Pty Ltd.
They then gave Pumpkin Island to their son, Wayne, for his 27th birthday, according to Capricorn enterprise CEO Mary Carroll, which he now runs with his partner, Laureth Craggy.
“His dad actually said ‘make it work’, so this campaign is certainly a way for him (to) make it work,” Ms Carroll said.
“The improvements they made were absolutely beautiful.”
Wayne Rumble, 31, was made a director of Sojourn Properties in December, last year.
He said he was convinced that XXXX would support the local community by involving the region’s businesses in the island’s development.