Simon Calder: Canaries... going cheap could be a costly mistake
The man who pays his way
Saturday 28 November 2009
A hostage to winter: is that how you feel? This afternoon, the sun will set on London at 3.57pm, and on Edinburgh 10 minutes earlier. Hardly worth getting out of bed, is it? But if you are able to flee the pre-Christmas gloom in search of endless summer, let me warmly recommend the place where I have been pretending to work this week: La Palma.
La Palma is Spanish, but it is neither the capital of Mallorca (Palma) nor that of Gran Canaria (Las Palmas); it is, in fact, an island in its own right, at the wild west of the Canaries. It also constitutes the last gasp of GMT before the time zone is swallowed up by the Atlantic. For those who long for long summer days in the midsts of winter, it is unparallelled: long after the street lights have gone on in St Albans and St Andrews, the people in the island's capital, Santa Cruz, are enjoying another warm bright afternoon that scoffs at winter. And, just across the island, the resort of Tazacorte boasts of being the sunniest place in Spain.
At the bitter end of November, this is a dream location for a television crew making a travel film - and a blessing for The Independent's Sound and Vision unit, which found itself in the Canary Islands this week: at 6.30pm on Monday evening, enough daylight remained to film a "top shot" from the lip of the volcanic crater high above Santa Cruz.
First, though, you have to get there. While links to the Canaries have never been better, the island of La Palma has hardly any flights from the UK. And there's another problem: the great irony that seeking to depict the blissful ease of exploring the brighter sides of the world demands an awkward extravagance of bulk, shape and weight. Not among the members of the film crew, but their baggage. "Lights, camera, action" requires an unseemly ensemble of bags and boxes that would do credit to the entourage of an 18th-century Grand Tourist.
Now, filming is already expensive enough without spending a fortune on flying. The cheapest itinerary I could find was on easyJet from Gatwick to Tenerife, with a connection from there to La Palma on the Canaries' main domestic airline, Binter. Except that "connection" makes the arrangement sound rather more organised than the reality. First, the easyJet plane arrived in Tenerife South airport, while the Binter service departed from Tenerife North – on the far side of the island, about 50 miles by road. Next, the plan played fast and loose with the concept of "minimum connecting time".
On paper we had just 70 minutes to reclaim our impressive array of accessories, jump into a taxi and drive to the other end of Tenerife before check-in closed for the flight to La Palma.
A tight schedule, but manageable if the easyJet plane left on time at 7am. I convinced everyone, including myself, that despite easyJet's patchy punctuality, it strives to get the first wave of flights away on time – otherwise the remainder of the day's schedule gets messed up. As ours would be if the flight were late.
*** Everyone from pilots to passengers had got up at some unearthly hour to drag themselves through the drizzle to Gatwick's Gate 109. So you might imagine that all would be raring to escape to sunny Spain. But a mañana feeling prevailed. Boarding started late, and the flight was delayed by 20 minutes – a trifle for everyone on board with the sense not to plan an ambitious schedule at the other end.
*** When even a Spanish taxi driver repeats "The one o'clock flight?" while raising his eyebrows and shaking his head, you know you're in trouble. He deposited us at Tenerife North 10 minutes after check-in closed for the flight to La Palma.
Spain has suffered even more than most of Europe from the travel slowdown. So you can understand the ground staff of Binter looking askance at us and saying, "You've missed the 1pm flight, so please pay an extra €100 for a flight in two-and-a-half hours and, by the way, you're not seriously thinking of checking that amount of luggage in?"
Except they didn't. Instead, they asked if we were prepared to take everything on board as hand luggage, and issued our boarding passes without fuss. After an encounter with security that resembled a particularly knotty challenge from the days of It's a Knock-out, we were whisked on to the plane and invited to stow our profusion of possessions around the cabin. On arrival at La Palma, we had no need to wait at baggage reclaim, and suddenly found ourselves ahead of schedule. No longer hostages to fortune, we could start capturing La Palma's beauty on screen.
Time for a refund?
The Aer Lingus flight home from the Canaries arrived 25 minutes early, to everyone's delight. But Jonathan Bye, flying on another Irish airline, Ryanair, takes a different view: "On a recent trip to Dublin, both flights were early. Now, if they're as enjoyable as Ryanair say I don't see this as a reason for rejoicing. In fact, I have been denied some of the flight-time pleasure I had paid for. Consequently I have requested Ryanair to refund me the proportion of the flight time missed. What do you think of my chances?"
Approximately zero, according to Ryanair's Stephen McNamara, who alludes to the psychological phenomenon whereby hostages become enamoured of their captors: "It will take some time for passengers migrating from frequently delayed BA and easyJet flights to warm to Ryanair's unbeatable punctuality, but we believe this passenger and the millions like him will soon adjust from this 'Stockholm syndrome' – like belief that delays are an inevitable part of airline travel."
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