Monday, 22 September 2014

Checking-in and checking-out a B&B

Last weekend I had planned a little adventure. After the marathon-workload that was my August when I worked for twenty-nine of the thirty-one days of the month, I decided that a little treat had been earned and that treat would encompass one of my passions, Neolithic stone circles.

I did not expect it to be a learning opportunity for me as a potential B&B owner. It was, and I thought I'd share some of my thoughts here to gauge the opinions of others. I do not plan to name the B&B in which I stayed for the sake of fairness since I did not mention any of the points listed below to the owner because I did not think he would take kindly to my feedback.

I had booked a B&B online, chosen for its location and for the rave reviews that others had left about the establishment, and because it looked 'quirky' and 'homely' and I do like quirky, homely places.
It was priced a little on the high-end of the market, in honesty more than I would have expected to pay for a bed and breakfast, but the location was perfect and I thought I'd earned it, so I arranged a stay and the owner immediately took £140 from my bank account which surprised me but perhaps that is the norm?

Point 1. I would not expect people to pay the full amount in advance. What if there were 'issues' either with my establishment or with their travel plans? Would not 50% be more reasonable as an upfront payment?

So, the booking was confirmed and I was told that I would have an en-suite room, which, for that price, I would have expected.

Point 2. Check-in time was 5pm. Check-out time was 10am. I would have liked to have arrived a little earlier, at 4pm perhaps, in order to relax after a strenuous day at Stonehenge, to bathe, change and prepare for dinner at a nearby pub/restaurant. And I would have liked to have had the option to leave a little later, especially on a Sunday morning.

I arrived, was met by the male owner (his wife has a job outside of the B&B) who was polite and smiling in a ... no, no bias here, in an apparently friendly, albeit a little patronising way (my personal opinion), and escorted to my room, past a sign instructing me to remove my shoes, which I failed to notice on arrival and so entered fully-shod, carrying my own laptop case, overnight bag, bag of books on Neolithic stone circles, goodies purchased at Stonehenge, my picnic bag, camera and handbag, none of which the owner offered to carry for me and all of which I had been obliged to remove from my car since a notice in the village's 'resident parking area' had cautioned me that thieves operate in the area. No parking at the B&B itself.

Point 3. I did not feel 'loved'. That may seem like a small point but a middle-aged, oft-times shy woman, travelling alone, does appreciate a few gestures of kindness and consideration. Again, a personal opinion.

My room was 'interestingly' furnished. As I said before, I do like quirky, I seek out the quirky, but there's quirky and then there's a room that looks as if it's the store-room for a junk shop. But, again, a matter of personal taste. There was not, however, a dressing-table or a chest-of-drawers and the only hanging space was a cupboard with a single, sad coat-hanger swinging sadly from a low rail. I was only there for one night and had no need to unpacking but it would have been nice to have had some useful bedroom furniture.

The refreshment tray comprised tea-bags, one herbal, one organic, four 'value', some cartons of long-life milk and cream, tubes of sugar and instant coffee. I had brought my own teabags and some fresh milk, a small packet of biscuits and some decent decaffeinated coffee. I'd have provided those to guests and, I think, home-made biscuits and maybe, being in rural England, a little home-made fruit cake, a scone and jam or a cupcake... A welcoming tea-tray is important, I think, and for £140 a night a biscuit would not have broken the budget.

On a practical point, the kettle and tray were on a low coffee table which made bending double to pour boiling water a potentially hazardous affair. It could easily have been located on one of the 'interesting' pieces of furniture at worktop-height.

The other surprise was that the room was not en-suite, my bathroom being situated along a corridor. This was not welcome news and unexpected since I'd been told I'd have an en-suite. Large bath robes were provided, the bathroom was large and lovely, the toiletries were of good quality but padding along a corridor to perform my ablutions was not a pleasant prospect given that the other guest room had been taken by two men. Call me old-fashioned, call me middle-aged, call me silly, but I felt put-off. My own B&B will not have en-suites but the two bedrooms will only be offered to couples, families or friends and that entire part of the house for guests will be for their sole-use.

Point 4. I think it a good idea for the owners to stay in their own guest rooms in order to test the facilities they are offering.

I did not bathe before dinner. I went out and found the pub that the owner suggested, a 10 minute drive from the B&B and past some lovely small stone circles and one avenue of stones, had a decent dinner and returned to my quirky room.

Being a fan of fresh air I opened the sash windows as wide as possible which proved noisy, given the pub next door at which people were drinking at tables outside, and the road into the village which passed in front of the B&B, and the loud shouts of people leaving the pub at closing time, but I live in a quiet little house at the end of a lane and am accustomed to only hearing owls and the sound of my own eyelids blinking when I am in bed so, again, a personal opinion.

I slept well in a comfortable bed with good pillows and linen, although I did wake several times, once after a dream  in which I was obliged to cook breakfasts for everyone and once when I dreamt that I over-slept and missed the check-out deadline, which I take as an indication that I did not feel at ease. And I did have to scuttle to the bathroom once which was not nice. I tweeted that incident and someone replied that for £140 there should have been a limo service, to which I responded, or at least a piggy-back?

The morning shower was not good. The shower head was directly overhead and fixed in place so I risked a thorough drenching which, with long hair that did not need washing, made cleaning myself awkward. I could have had a bath, I'd brought  some lovely organic lavender bath soak for that purpose, but I'd been told that breakfast would be served at 8:30 am on the dot, and I hadn't time to linger in the bath.

Point 5. Breakfast at 8:30 am precisely, on a Sunday morning. I would offer guests the choice of eating breakfast between 7 am and 10 am. Later if they wish to have a lie-in. They are, let's face it, on holiday.

I entered the dining room, again furnished like the store-room of a junk-shop, where a table had been laid for one and where the other two guests were already seated at a second table with their backs to me, gazing out of the window. I said a polite 'Good morning' and sat down. I think they replied with a similar greeting but I can't be sure. We ignored each other after that. There being no sign of the host I ate the interesting little bowl of fresh fruit salad that was on my table and then popped upstairs to fetch a book for company. The owner appeared, asked if I wanted the 'vegetarian cooked breakfast' which was all that appeared to be on offer, and would I like brown or white toast which I declined since there was only an odd-looking vegetable spread in little luminous green packets on the table and no offer of butter, and disappeared to find my coffee. While he was gone I drank my concentrated orange juice, observed some packets of cereals on a sideboard nearby and wondered if they were for guests, or for show.

My coffee was, coffee. My cooked vegetarian breakfast was awful - a fried egg, some potatoes, sliced mushrooms a fried tomato sprinkled with something green, cheap-tasting baked beans and the worst vegetarian sausage I have ever encountered. It was tepid, tasteless and truly awful.

Point 6. Breakfast could have been the saving grace of the B&B. A fluffy cheese omelette, pan-fried mushrooms on thickly-sliced, generously-buttered toast, poached eggs and toast,  boiled eggs and toast soldiers, cheeses and fruit, the list of possibilities could go on...  Needless to say, a nasty pink, cardboard-textured vegetarian sausage should never, ever, ever be included in a meal for anyone. I wished that I'd accepted his offer of ketchup, which I should have taken as a warning and why wasn't it on the table anyway?

I think that breakfast was the nail in the coffin of the B&B.
I could have forgiven the lack of an en-suite because the bathroom was lovely and the towels were fluffy and the toiletries were nice.
I could have forgiven the sad tea-tray because I had brought my own provisions.
I could have forgiven the lack of bedroom furniture because the bed was comfy and the linen good.
I could have forgiven the noise from outside because the view of outside was of a stone circle and sitting in bed, sipping tea and gazing at it next morning was lovely.
But I could never forgive the breakfast and, let's face it, breakfast is one half of the B&B experience.
When I arrived home yesterday evening The Ragazza showed me an episode of a TV series in which a set of B&B owners stay at each others' establishments and compete to win a prize for the best value B&B. The B&B at which I had stayed had taken part a few years ago. They had charged £250 a night. The other B&B owners who judged it raised similar points to mine, above.  Needless to say, it came last in the competition. Had I watched the programme before I booked the room I would not have stayed there, but now I understand why I formed the impression of the owner that I did, having seen how he behaved during the competition.

An interesting experience and a good lesson in how not to run a B&B.
Location may be important, being situated next to a stone-circle may be a bonus, but really....


Sunday, 14 September 2014

Kayaking the Pink Granite Coast

I am a firm believer in the benefits of play.
As adults our lives are often so stitched-up with work and worries, duties and daily tasks, that we can easily forget to have fun. And when that happens our minds become narrow and closed and we lose an important element of that which makes us human - our curiosity and our sense of adventure.

So, on holiday, I like to return to my seven year-old self, the little feisty kid with waist-length blonde plaits, scraped knees and freckled face. On holiday I like to play.

The Rags and I went kayaking in the Gulf of Maine twelve years ago and, aside from an unsuccessful attempt at canoeing on the Thames when I capsized my craft so often and had to be dragged from the water so frequently that our instructor gave up on me, we hadn't enjoyed Riparian Rolics for a long time. So, with The Ragazza and the BF, I planned a kayaking adventure on the Pink Granite Coast.

I'd taken the precaution of booking online and in English to avoid any confusion and hitches but even so... We arrived early at the Club Nautiqe de Tregastel (link here) which was not easy to find and which driving down dead-ends and round in circles had put the BF (our self-appointed driver in France) in a mood that was tense, to say the least. We parked and walked expectantly to the club where small, sun-tanned kids were wandering around in wet-suits and everyone seemed to know what they were doing and where they were going, except us. We marched into the reception area to be greeted by a woman who spoke only French and who insisted that she had no record of our booking.  The BF's tension increased and the pressure on me mounted. There was an exchange, polite but insistent, no there was no booking, yes there had been, no there hadn't, yes there had, until I suggested that we make one for that afternoon, an hour kayaking with a guide for three people, that being all that I could afford to pay when presented with a new price list. And so, it being lunchtime when everything in France grinds to a halt, we left to find food.

An hour later we were back. And this time we were armed with the e-mail confirming our booking, courtesy of The Ragazza's phone. We found the changing rooms (no signs on the doors or directions), we changed into suitable clothing, we wandered outside feeling self-conscious and gauche, and were duly pointed to a row of kayaks and pretty much told, there they are, see you in an hour.


I protested, we had requested an hour with a guide, we were not capable of venturing forth alone and unguided on the high seas, we would pose a risk to shipping and a danger to ourselves, what if we ended up encountering a Brittany ferry?  What if the currents returned us to England? What if...?

And then everything changed. A guide was found, we were informed that our bill would be a great deal less than we'd been told that morning, we were promised two hours instead of the one that I thought was all we'd been allocated, we were kitted out in life-vests, handed a paddle and asked to follow Eric to the kayaks on the beach.

And from that moment it was blissful, heavenly, brilliant!
We paddled in the shelter of the pink granite rocks which, as I kept informing the Ragazza and the BF, would once have been the tops of mountains higher than the Alps, wasn't that amazing? We navigated small channels between the rocks with only the occasional mishap when one of us, the oldest and wisest, became stuck on said-rocks and had to be pulled back into the sea. We admired the crystal-clear water and all that we saw beneath the waves, and you have to be above the waves to appreciate the beauty of that which lies beneath. We ventured out into the sea beyond the safety of the little bay and battled the current. One of us, the oldest and least wisest, even tried to copy the guide as he practiced some fancy-schmancy kaykaing near the rocks, before being politely told to desist. In short we had a wonderful afternoon.

Our guide was great, patient, reassuring and even laughing at my silly French humour.
It had all been worth the hassle and the misunderstanding.

When we finished and when I finally managed to extricate myself and my wonky knees from my craft, having thought at one point that I might have been forced to board the ferry home still 'wearing' a kayak, we thanked Eric and gave him a tip which, he said, was not expected, but which we said had certainly been earned, and which he said would buy him a lot of beer, and we left to find a certain establishment nearby that sells the best cheese omelette and fries in the world, by way of celebration.

We will return, that much we've promised ourselves, perhaps for a whole day of kayaking next time.

Sadly, I have no photos with which to illustrate his post.
Save for the one that I took from the restaurant which, I think, captures the mood of the day perfectly. Apologies for reproducing it but it is my favourite.

So, kayaking at Tregestal.

Useful Information:
The Club Nautique Tregastel caters for all ages and offers courses in kayaking, windsurfing, canoeing, sailing etc.

Equipment for kayakers:
Shoes, suitable for those occasions when you part company with your kayak and find yourself standing on rocks, stones, sharp stuff on the seabed. Carrefour sell cheap canvas shoes that do well.
A hat if you find the sun too much.
Swimsuit, see shoes, above.
Sun cream, unless you like to look like a cooked lobster.
Wetsuits are provided if you kayak in cold weather or plan to be submerged in deep water.
Life-jackets are provided and must be worn.

Changing facilities, toilets and showers are provided on site but there are no lockers for valuables so best to leave the diamond tiara at home.
Car parking is available nearby and is, of course, free.

One last picture, of my muse, the pink castle that inspired me to write my second novel