Couchsurfing in NYC

I’ve written and spoken about Couchsurfing before in the Irish media and now I’m having my tuppence worth on the other side of the pond. To be honest, I love the idea of meeting random strangers and exchanging cultural what-nots but it can be seriously hit and miss…in this feature in NYC’s hip L Magazine I reflect on a fairly hairy experience couchsurfing in Brooklyn last year. Still was an experience I guess…

A Traveler’s Nightmare: Couchsurfing in NYC
Tourists, like neo-liberals, are all for doing more with less. It’s a natural human impulse to want to see the world, and to do it as cheaply as possible. Parsimonious traveler that I am, New York’s vertiginous hotel prices long kept me away — that is until I heard about a new travel craze that puts would-be visitors in touch with like-minded people and their spare beds (or, more precisely, couches).

‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I wondered as I got online and found a couple in Brooklyn willing to house a struggling arts journalist and his girlfriend for a weekend. Random strangers, an air mattress in Williamsburg, no private space — in retrospect the danger signs should have been flashing bright amber, but I was too excited about CouchSurfing in New York to notice, or care.
L Magazine
Set up five years ago by Casey Fenton, a 27-year-old from Hawaii, CouchSurfing has a simple concept: instead of paying a packet for holiday lodgings, enjoy free hospitality from one of the 780,000 CouchSurfers registered in more than 180 countries.

Underpinning the system is a philosophy reaching well beyond free accommodation. ‘Surfers’ can bring their host gifts, cook dinner or offer to help around the house in return for a bed and expert local knowledge, but the most valuable reward most users seem to get from the site is the exchange of ideas and cultures, and the creation of international friendships.

Joining is straightforward. Sign up, create a profile, populate it with witty aphorisms and photographs of yourself looking friendly and you’re ready to begin contacting members in places you want to visit. (Although some hosts prefer that a friend who’s also a member vouches for you, so they know they’re not getting a psychopath.)

The basic house rules are easy, too. Be a respectful guest (a gift often goes down well but is not obligatory), clean up after yourself and, if other surfers are coming to your area, and it suits you, reciprocate.

It might all sound a bit too rough and ready, but if you don’t have a phobia about staying with strangers, then CouchSurfing can be a great way to travel – and to save money. In the past year I’ve slept on floors and couches and made friends in Germany, Spain and the UK.

I soon realize, however, that New York poses quite unique problems for would-be CouchSurfers. First off there are just so many couches to choose from. Iceland has less than 500 registered hosts, in New York there are well over 6,000 putatively willing to have a guest.

I say putatively as when I start searching for a suitable host for my girlfriend and I a different story emerges. As befits the city itself, New York hosts display plenty of quirks and peculiarities — not least typing ‘be clean’ in upper case and surrounded by exclamation marks. Others include strange requests about background and ethnic origin and levels of education in their profiles. I may be a graduate but I would never make a university education a sine qua non for sleeping on my couch — unlike some New York CouchSurfers.

Click here to read the rest of this feature

Review of Hotel Missoni, Edinburgh

From Irish Times 15/08/09:

‘I’D WORK here just for that jacket,” my girlfriend declared after we finished checking in. As I’m a man who shops twice a year, and even then does it under duress, the receptionist’s sartorial style had passed me by. “Yes, it was very, eh, nice,” I lied, badly. “You didn’t notice it at all,” she said, guessing correctly. “It had some of most lovely, elegant patterns I’ve ever seen.”

This may be the Missoni fashion house’s debut foray into hotels, but it has not abandoned its trademark brightly coloured and patterned designs.

The first of a planned 30 luxury hotels across the globe, the striking Edinburgh Missoni opened in June, on the corner of George IV Bridge and the Royal Mile, in the heart of the city’s picturesque Old Town.

Fashioned out of curvaceous gold stone with wavy black-and-white patterns, the hotel’s exterior reflects the brand, but the full flamboyant effect has been saved for its customers. The entrance opens on to a coruscating cocktail bar that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Studio 54’s disco heyday, all glittery floors, revolving chairs and blues and purples so bright they should have come with a UV warning.

If the dark, functional foyer was somewhat understated, the long corridor that led to our room, on the fourth of the hotel’s six storeys, was anything but: a combination

of black-and-white striped carpet and alternating pink and red walls was so overpowering that I felt rather disorientated by time we reached the end.

There is certainly a love-it- or-hate-it quality to Hotel Missoni’s decor. So far I was ambivalent, but our wooden- floored and air-conditioned double room left me in no doubt.

Luscious floral motifs on the bed, cushions and chairs, and pleasingly muted green and blue walls, gave the room a clean, contemporary feel.

A heavy glass door slid across to reveal a spacious bathroom with a tiled sit-in shower and matching dressing gowns.

The Jacob Jensen telephone, Bang Olufsen TV – with free films on demand – and De’Longhi coffee machine cast aside any lingering question marks about the hotel’s five-star pretensions.

“You’re a man, so you won’t notice these things, but the fabric is immense,” my girlfriend purred, petting an upholstered chair as I attempted to connect to the free wireless.

Thankfully, no such gender bias prevented me from appreciating the room’s best feature: the view of the city’s cobbled streets and the majestic Arthur’s Seat from the full-length windows.

Despite its city-centre location, only the sound of a lone piper ever got past the room’s excellent insulation.

We skipped the hotel restaurant in favour of a pre-theatre menu around the corner on Victoria Street.

After a drink in the nearby Bowery Bar, an edgy homage to the Lower East Side complete with Brooklyn Lager and shelves stacked with biographies of Nixon, Reagan and Ford, we returned to our room, which had been freshly made up and its free minibar restocked with Peroni beer and Lurisia water. Delectable shortbread had also been left by our bedside.

Breakfast was first rate, cooked to order and served by a phalanx of brown-robed waiters among yet more amazing textiles and patterns in the bright, airy first-floor restaurant. The menu was pleasingly varied, and the eggs Benedict – perfectly poached yokes in the lightest of hollandaise sauces – were the finest I have eaten, though anyone looking for a full Scottish would not have been disappointed, either.

An elaborately laid-out buffet offered fresh fruit, cereal, nuts and, for those who like to kick-start their morning with a sugar rush, an assortment of pastries and cakes.

Staff were extremely friendly, obliging and pretty much ubiquitous, which was to be expected given how quiet the hotel was. These are difficult times for hotels, new and established, but I’m sure Hotel Missoni’s owners – the chain belongs to the Rezidor group, which has licensed the Missoni name, and also owns the Radisson and Regent brands – would have hoped to attract more than the solitary couple I spotted during our stay.

Given its splendid location, it is ideal for a luxurious break in this most charming of cities, and should prove particularly popular with this month’s festival-goers.

According to a brochure in our room, the entire hotel was scented with a unique Missoni fragrance. My less than sensitive nose failed to notice this nuance. I think I’ll have to go back next time I’m in Edinburgh, just to make sure.

Where Hotel Missoni, 1 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland, 00-44-131-2206666,

What Fashion-conscious five-star hotel in the centre of the city.

Rooms 136.

Best rates Rooms start at £135 (€160) per night, excluding breakfast. Bed and breakfast from £210 (€250). Dinner, bed and breakfast from £280 (€330).

Restaurants and bars La Cucina restaurant serves Italian-influenced dishes. Bar Missoni.

Access Two wheelchair- accessible rooms on each floor.

Amenities Car parking, gym, express check-out.

My Starring Role in the Mourne Supremacy

A piece on an exhilarating weekend in the Mournes, first published in The Irish Times:

‘I’VE BEEN CLIMBING since I was six,” says Ian, our amiable instructor at Tollymore Mountain Centre, as my girlfriend takes her first, tentative steps on the climbing wall. “My dad rented a climbing frame for my birthday, I loved it and here I am 25 years later.”

Then he asks about my outdoor experience, and the conversation ends. A lone school trip to a local adventure centre – abiding memory: almost drowning in the Shannon when my canoe capsized – the odd game of five-a-side, the occasional jog . . . and that’s it. But, surely, if anything is going to make me rethink my sedentary ways, it’s an activity-filled weekend in the beautiful Mourne Mountains.

Less than two hours’ drive from Dublin, and only one from Belfast, the Mournes offer a spectacular combination of wild upland, rolling countryside and coast.

Dominated by the majestic Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, the area around the seaside town of Newcastle is renowned for its walks but also has excellent facilities for everything from horse-riding and canoeing to orienteering, bouldering and, as we are discovering, climbing.

First off, Ian teaches us the ropes. Literally. Initially, the complex climbing knots bamboozle me (and remind me why my first scout meeting was my last), but soon both Ealasaid and I are scaling the 10m indoor climbing wall with surprising ease.

Click here to read the rest of this feature on the wonderful Mournes.

Hotel Review, Fairmont in St Andrew's

Originally appeared in The Irish Times:
I realised the Fairmont was upmarket long before we arrived. What gave it away was not the price of a room, the fancy website or the hotel’s five stars but the automated e-mail booking confirmation: alongside rail and car hire, its getting-there options included helicopter charters from Edinburgh and Glasgow airports – although as these cost £1,400 (€1,575) and £1,680 (€1,890), respectively, my first helicopter ride would have to wait a bit longer.

Working off a more modest budget, we took the bus from Edinburgh instead – open return £9.50 (€10.75). It was no loss: the two-hour journey over the spectacular Forth Bridge and through Fife’s undulating countryside was very pleasant.

Having phoned ahead, we were met at the bus station by the Fairmont Transportation and Concierge Team, a free shuttle bus that runs hourly between the hotel and town.

The imposing, if not exactly attractive, Fairmont is 10km away. Built in 2000 on a sizable estate, this monumental hotel, part of a luxury chain, overlooks both picturesque St Andrews and the North Sea.

While the exterior’s three storeys reference everything from Charles Rennie Mackintosh to classic French chateaus without a clear sense of style or intention, inside is all about one thing: Scotland. From the kilt-wearing porter, the affable Davie, to the life-size portrait of King James I, dressed in tartan, hanging over the fireplace in the foyer – don’t see too many of them for your tourist euro – the Fairmont leaves you in no doubt which side of the border you are on.

“You’ll love your stay here,” Davie remarked as he led us through the revolving doors and towards the first-floor check-in desk.

Large hotels often feel daunting and impersonal, but not the Fairmont. The reception looks on to an open-plan ground floor, with brass banisters leading down to the main dining area and an airy lobby.

Check-in was courteous and efficient. Soon we were admiring the impressionistic coastal scenes on the taupe walls of our spacious soundproofed room. If ever there was a hotel room to live in, this was it: calming dark-wood furnishings, writing desk complete with headed notepaper and cream chaise longue, all complemented by standard features such as flat-screen television and wireless internet. Wooden hangars hung in the wardrobe, and the commodious bathroom was equipped with bath, walk-in shower, matching dressing-gown-and- slipper sets and, I was assured, more than acceptable toiletries. The room also had three telephones.

With a Mediterranean- influenced restaurant, Esperante, and two bars serving food, there was no shortage of meal-time options within the hotel. We were keen to explore St Andrews, however, so the concierge, who, like all the staff, was both helpful and good-humoured, booked us a table at a reasonably priced restaurant in the centre of town.

St Andrews has a quaint, chocolate-box feel: cobbled streets, ivy-covered houses, ecclesiastical ruins and, of course, its august university, which was founded in 1410. Although many of the original buildings have been replaced, we were able to stroll through the quads of two colleges: St Salvator’s and St Mary’s.

It was graduation time, and every bar in town seemed full to bursting with mortar boards and floor-length academic gowns. Admitting defeat in our quest for a quiet pint, we caught the final shuttle and were lying on our comfortable bed before 11pm. Any twinge of disappointment at our Friday evening’s curtailment quickly evaporated in a relaxing fug of Jonathan Ross and a pair of room-service gin and tonics.

At weekends breakfast does not finish until 11am – perfect for a lie-in. Breakfast was above average: a continental buffet well stocked with fruits, cereals, pastries, cold cuts and, although not cooked to order, good sausages, bacon and eggs.

Rather than investigate the hotel’s spa we took a gorgeous stroll in the unseasonably warm spring sunshine. Our walk took us along rugged sea cliffs and past the two 18-hole championship links courses, the Torrance (designed by the Scottish golfer Sam) and the Kittocks. Guests can play both courses at reduced rates (£45-£75/€52-€85, depending on the time of year); non-golfers can book a session with the club’s resident pro.

Very competitively priced, particularly for tourists paying in euro, the Fairmont proves that you don’t have to break the bank, or even be a golfer, to enjoy a relaxing break in the home of golf. Sitting on the bus back to Edinburgh, I wished every luxury hotel could be so friendly, unstuffy and accommodating – and couldn’t help wondering what a spin in a helicopter might be like.

Where St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, 00-44-1334-837000,

What Five-star hotel overlooking St Andrews and the North Sea with two 18-hole championship golf courses.

Rooms 209 over three storeys, plus two four-bedroom properties.

Best rates B&B from £99 (€112). Sunday spa package, including B&B, from £159 (€179) per room. Book early to save up to 30 per cent. We paid £119 (€135) for a night.

Restaurant and bars Restaurant, cocktail bar and traditional Scottish bar.

Amenities Spa and pool, free shuttle, walks, golf, valet parking and conference rooms.