Traveller's Checks

<b>Airlines cocoon loungers from the scroungers</b> Tour the world from your desk Author turns gamekeeper
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The Independent Travel

Airlines cocoon loungers from the scroungers I have a problem with the word "lounge". It reeks of phoney, piano-playing sophistication on the one hand, and of people asleep on their rucksacks on the other. But lounges represent the new apartheid of travel, and companies are unloading vast amounts of money and hiring swanky designers to get them right.

Airlines cocoon loungers from the scroungers I have a problem with the word "lounge". It reeks of phoney, piano-playing sophistication on the one hand, and of people asleep on their rucksacks on the other. But lounges represent the new apartheid of travel, and companies are unloading vast amounts of money and hiring swanky designers to get them right.

Airlines fighting for business travellers are doing so with carefully honed "brand values" expressed as lounges. Business travellers on Continental are invited to a batch of identical "President's Clubs" around the world - these dens are masculine, seriously panelled, high on technology, low on spa stuff. Malaysian Airlines play the Eastern well-being card with a sea of Zen-like beige and bamboo and boulders, while Virgin sexily suggests more than "sit, shave, shower" with a massage service and luxurious bath.

For economy passengers there was, last week, a glimpse of better lounge life with the launch at Heathrow Terminal 3 of The Island which is open to anyone paying a £25 entrance tariff. At last it seemed that the showers and snacks, the leather chairs and digital distractions might be ours. But absurdly it turns out to be intended for arriving passengers (that is, men in suits before meetings) and is open only until 2pm. The reason, of course, is that BAA wants to keep us on the concourse before flights so that we can do what it most loves us to do - go shopping.

On cruise ships, where interiors tend to be Tivoli Gardens meets Brent Cross shopping centre, new standards are about to be set by the Queen Mary 2, where the main event is a 1,100-seat lounge in which audiences will watch West End shows. Not to be outdone, the "cruise ship of the skies", the A3XX, recently unveiled as a lifesize mock-up by Airbus, has the posh end of its 555 passenger load swanning around in a lounge of bookcases and easy chairs that convert to beds. In the upper dining-room and lounge bar, champagne and dinner will be served. Ominously, the space that will be occupied by the remaining 400 economy passengers was an empty void, half the size of a football pitch. The two classes of passenger - the loungers and the scroungers - will not see each other at all on the new planes.

Tour the world from your desk Virtual tourism is closer to home than you think. Britain's foremost authority on Virtual Reality, Professor Bob Stone, tells me that buying a £10 game such as Unreal for Christmas will now allow access to hugely sophisticated virtual worlds. The game's 3D toolkit (www.vrndproject.com) will handle a trip through Notre Dame in Paris; you can fly through the building and up to the stained-glass windows, while watching the monks scurrying through the nave below. Stone, who is working with the DTI on kits which will be available to help heritage organisations into VR, thinks that virtual global access to sensitive sites, such as the caves of Lascaux, is about to increase dramatically. VR travellers can already take in the Golden Temple of Kyoto, Pompeii, Stonehenge and the terracotta warriors of Xian, or fly by airboat through the Everglades of the southern USA, stopping to interrogate plants en route; www.virtualheritage.net is the site to watch. Meanwhile a virtual balloon ride is the highlight of the new £2m Shropshire's Secret Hills Discovery Centre at Craven Arms which opens in February. In London two open-top tourist buses which go nowhere but offer visitors a virtual tour of the capital have just taken up their parking spaces at Hyde Park Corner and Victoria. Build in a personal snapshot facility and the problem of tourist honeypots could be solved.

Author turns gamekeeper Rather late in the day, Peter Benchley, author of Jaws and enemy of seaside entrepreneurs and Lilo manufacturers, decided that sharks are misunderstood. The man who with Steven Spielberg did for sea bathing what Hitchcock did for taking a shower has become an eco warrior. He now works supporting WildAid, the charity that encourages tourists and others to conserve wildlife on land and water. Recent figures confirm that only 15 people a year die from shark attacks: fewer than die falling in their bathtubs. But a million great white sharks are killed every year, many of them hunted for their fins which are an Asian delicacy and alleged aphrodisiac. So we're looking forward to the new film in which Richard Dreyfuss goes on holiday to hunt down thousands of superstitious people who think that fin soup will help them keep their peckers up. Sounds like an epic.

s.marling@independent.co.uk

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