Grown-up Travel Guide News Update – 25.05.2012

In which we present a regular round-up of news from the world of Grown-up Travel

Put up or shut up: The reality of shrinking legroom on planes

Air travellers are facing a tighter squeeze getting into their seats, with Aussie airlines shedding up to 10cm of legroom compared to industry recommendations, placing health at risk.

The “magic formula” for legroom in economy class created by plane manufacturer Boeing in 2001 reportedly recommends a minimum 81cm. But this is increasingly being ignored by airlines as they battle to make ends meet amid rising fuel costs and demand for cheap airfares.

The formula, hailed as the ultimate guide for legroom, was based on calculations of how many cubic centimetres of leg, rear-end and shoulder space it takes to create a “tolerable” experience for passengers.

However Australian budget airlines Tiger Airways and Jetstar have seats with just 71cm of legroom – 10cm less than what is recommended, while Qantas offers 78cm and Virgin Australia between 76 and 83cm.

Those who can’t fit into the seats are expected to either put up with the lack of space or fork out extra cash for exit row seats or an upgrade with a risk of deep venous thrombosis (DVT) if they attempt to squish themselves in.

Ingrid Just from consumer advocate group Choice said small airline seats were a common travel frustration, with each generation of Australians getting taller.

“Economy seats are shrinking, there is just nowhere for many passengers to put their legs,” Ms Just said. “Tall passengers are fed up at paying for a premium for exit row seats – if they’re lucky to score them.”

Seating room is not regulated in Australia and legroom varies between the airline, aircraft and seat location. The best indicator of legroom is seat pitch – the distance from a certain point on one chair to the same point on the chair in front – with airlines arguing the width of the seat padding on seats has become smaller as legroom decreases.

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What’s the best beach in America?

USA Today

If you believe the hotly anticipated annual rankings compiled by Florida International University professor and coastal expert Stephen P. Leatherman – a.k.a. “Dr. Beach” – it’s San Diego’s Coronado Beach. The 300-yard-wide, 1.5-mile-long stretch of silvery sand fronts the red-roofed Hotel del Coronado, a National Historic Landmark where Marilyn Monroe cavorted in the 1959 classic Some Like it Hot.

Coronado was runner up to Florida’s Siesta Key last year, and represents the first California beach to win in the 22 years that Leatherman has been crafting his top-10 list of major public recreational beaches along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts.

Contenders are ranked based on 50 detailed criteria, from public safety and noise to water quality and sand softness. Landing the top spot typically brings a 15% to 20% boost in visitors, the Associated Press notes. But once a beach wins, it is retired from further competition – a fact that has earned the doc some criticism, even from Hawaii, the state with the most winners.

Two reasons for the absence of winning Golden State beaches in previous years: cold water and pollution. But while California swimmers can’t do much (other than don a wetsuit) about Pacific water temperatures in the 60s, pollution is another matter, says Leatherman.

“There are still some problems, especially where rivers and streams meet the ocean,” he says. “But California has really cranked it up the last 10 or 15 years to turn around the water quality.”

Rounding out this year’s top 10:

2: Kahanamoku Beach, near Waikiki’s Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu, Hawaii

3: Main Beach, East Hampton, N.Y.

4: St. George Island State Park, Florida Panhandle

5: Hamoa Beach, Maui, Hawaii

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Glitzy Baku seeks to sparkle at Eurovision

 Eurovision is everywhere in Baku, the easternmost city to host the annual song contest, as the Azerbaijani capital seeks to present a glitzy and sparkling front to the world for its biggest ever event.

The Eurovision symbol is emblazoned on the city’s new fleet of London-style cabs, flashes on video screens on metro platforms and even goes up in lights on LCD displays on skyscrapers overlooking the Caspian Sea.

Locals strolling along the seaside promenade proudly point out to sea to the city’s newest landmark: the Crystal Hall, built at high speed to host the contest.

Lit up with flashing lights, it stands on a pier with the sea on both sides, lined with flowers that workers were still putting in place on Tuesday evening as guests dressed up to the nines arrived for the semi-finals.

It’s best to ignore the sulphurous smell wafting off the water, the legacy of years of heavy pollution into the Caspian Sea.

Also disguised by the shiny buildings are the controversies that have marred the contest, with activists accusing Azerbaijan of human rights violations and a bitter diplomatic row building with its neighbour Iran.

Locals instead prefer to see the competition as a chance to put their city — which already boasts fine fin-de-siecle architecture and an enchanting old town — firmly on the European map.

Waving a flag with the Eurovision symbol on one side and this year’s slogan “Light your fire!” law student Aygun, 18, took photographs with friends next to a sculpture of a globe decorated with outstretched hands and yet more sparkling lights.

“Our Crystal Hall is really amazing, it’s cool,” she said. “We’re seeing lots of tourists, we’re very proud of our city, we see they like our city, our country.”

The location could hardly be more symbolic of national pride: right behind the hall is a giant 162-metre (530-foot) flagpost with a rippling 70-metre-long national flag, lit up at night with lasers.

Guarded by police, the flagpost briefly held a world record as the tallest before being outdone by Tajikistan.

Across the bay, three skyscrapers called Flame Towers being constructed at a cost of $350 million switch on a synchronised light display of the flags of all the countries taking part in the song contest and the heart-shaped Eurovision symbol with the Azerbaijan flag inside.

Eating popcorn on the promenade, English graduate Aytaj Farzali, 22, said she could not get tickets for the events, but saw the contest as a chance for Azerbaijan to put itself on the map.

“Our city is very beautiful as you see and I think that many countries don’t know this. This would be a chance for us… We changed a little bit, in order to meet our guests.”

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A tour of James Bond’s favourite haunts in a supercar to match

The National

The Furka Pass snakes upwards towards snow-capped Alpine peaks. A touch on the throttle and my Aston Martin snarls into the hairpin bends like a greyhound off its leash. The throaty roar says it all: this is a 4.7L, eight-cylinder engine doing what it was born to do. Behind the wheel, I am dressed to survive. James Bond may have preferred polished leather footwear, but Converse plimsolls are much better for driving, less likely to slip off the pedal and put the Vantage S over a cliff.

As the debt crisis bites in lesser nations, hiring a supercar is one way travellers can taste the high life. The Alps are designed to test skill sets under pressure, while Germany, less than an hour from Zurich, is the only country where you can put your foot on the gas and not be pulled over for speeding. When driving any car that does zero to 100kph in less than five seconds, the Black Forest is the perfect refuge from the long arm of European law.

Essex-born Mark Heather sold a flourishing IT consultancy to start Ultimate Drives in 2009. His grandfather worked as a mechanic in the Air Force during the Normandy landings in the Second World War, so engines are in his blood. He bought his first car – a Ford Escort – when he was 17, but soon graduated to an Alfa Romeo and then a Porsche. When he fell in love with driving mean machines round tight Alpine bends, he chose Zurich for the headquarters of his fledgling petrolhead operation.

Of the cars you can rent on his Ultimate Drives menu, my shiny new Vantage S comes near the bottom of the pecking order. If I were to buy it new, it would cost a mere Dh635,285, small change compared with a Ferrari 458 Italia, on sale for more than Dh1m. Alternatively, you could hire a Mercedes SLS AMG – that’s the one with doors that open upwards like wings. Purchase price? From Dh1m.

Typical Ultimate Drive clients are testosterone-led boys on tour. That’s boys in spirit rather than in age because insurance doesn’t allow for those under 27. The lucky ones, mainly high-profile clients in their 30s and 40s, are on corporate jollies. Their sponsors put a fleet of two-seaters at their disposal but they’re not into sharing, preferring to race their mates and claim bragging rights at the top of the pass. Couples come into the equation for landmark birthdays: she gives the gift, he takes the wheel and they have a lovely romantic time, which is fair enough, provided those familiar bones of contention – dangerous driving (his), route guidance (hers) – don’t spoil the mood.

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