27 April 2009

Diamonds are forever!

When we last travelled in the late 1990s, the big technological breakthrough was a mobile phone with international roaming. Although we both had laptops, we found no compelling reason to take them. We were still using a camera with real film in it. If we wanted information, we used guidebooks. If we wanted to know where we were, or where we were going, we used maps. A decade on, all that has changed. We debated whether we should be equipped with a netbook, a portable satnav, a video camera, and what the cheapest option was for getting mobile phone coverage overseas. Every time we went into Dick Smith or Tandy for an electrical bit for Nahani, we would examine the netbooks and satnav systems. An issue was that none of the netbooks we liked the look of had a built in 3G modem. We have one which plugs into our old laptop, but it is a PCMCIA card, and new netbooks only have USB ports. To buy the USB version was about $300 up front, or a new contract. We found satnav systems around the $300 mark, but then discovered we would have to pay close to another $200 for European maps. And a video camera would be a further expense, and another item to lug and potentially lose. We wisely decided to visit friends Tom and Anne in Hobart, who'd just returned from a cruise from USA to Europe. They are early adopters of technology, so we were curious to see what they had taken. We discovered that although they each own very small netbooks, all that they had taken was their HTC Touch Diamond smart phones. Tom had also taken a credit card sized camera, but we were seriously impressed with photos and videos that Anne had taken using her Touch Diamond. After a closer look at the capabilities of these super sleek devices, we were strongly attracted to them, but somewhat deterred by the price: the RRP for a new one is $995. The next evening I googled HTC just to see if there was anyone selling them at a discount price, and bingo, a used phone popped up on eBay at about $350, with 4 minutes to run. Instant decision time. I put in a bid, won the auction and the phone arrived in Melbourne a day after our return from Tasmania. It was to be Peter's birthday present, but after a week of using it he has been having such fun he decided we should buy a second one, which is now on its way. The phones have a built-in GPS, and the second purchase has navigation software and maps bundled in the price. We are still admiring the way this one neat bit of technology will do everything: wireless web browsing and email, run Windows, Word, Excel, act as a camera, MP3 player, and satnav system with built-in GPS, no external aerial, not to mention the primary function of being a 3G phone. And they are so small we should be able to carry them at all times, reducing the risk of having them nicked out of the car or hotel room. All we have to do now is learn how to drive them properly.

15 April 2009

Plans and preparations

Here we go! No longer constrained by concerns for my mother’s health (since she died last June at the impressive age of 95), we’re free to leave Australasia and travel to real Foreign Parts. In choosing our destination we were determined to limit ourselves to a fairly small geographic area, to avoid the if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Paris syndrome. Peter has a yen to visit rural France, having only been to Paris and Marseilles. I thought we could include Spain and Portugal without exceeding the limit for the number of countries you can visit in 6 weeks and stay sane. And we both have had a lifelong dream of barging up and down French canals. With those parameters and a huge swag of Frequent Flyer points between us, we got on the web and started exploring. By mid-April when we were off to Port Davey in Nahani, thereby going out of internet access for an extended period, we had used our points to book a return flight to Paris, organised a Eurolease deal giving us a new Renault for the whole trip, found a centre for our first two weeks by renting self-catering accommodation in the Loire Valley near Amboise (see http://www.vrbo.com/23364), and made firm plans for the last fortnight by renting a powerboat from Daon to explore the rivers and canals of Anjou (see http://www.canalboatholidays.com/selectregion.aspx?countryid=290). That leaves a little over two weeks in the middle free to drive ourselves around Spain and Portugal. We are pathetically excited about the whole trip, because it is over a decade since we crossed the equator into the other hemisphere. Peter has even stopped dreading the long flights to the other side of the world as we’ve managed to book business class flights on Finnair from Hong Kong to Paris via Helsinki, business class on BA from Paris to London, and premium economy on Qantas from London to Melbourne. Qantas is generally very miserly with frequent flyer bookings, but its partner airlines seem more generous. Our only real cattle class flight is the first leg from Melbourne to HK, and we still have hopes of upgrading that before we leave. Meanwhile, I’m trying to resuscitate my schoolgirl French and am pleasantly surprised to find that although I can no longer remember what happened yesterday with any certainty, the French that I learned five decades ago doesn’t seem to be too far below the surface for retrieval. Vraiment incroyable.