Then back to Zim, batteries re-charged, refreshed to face whatever challenges the vagaries of life in Harare present.
My “somewhere warm” this year was short-listed:
Cuba (where Zimbo chums had wonderfully warm welcomes; high-levels of affordable hospitality); cruising from Palm Beach, California, down Mexico’s Pacific coast; a restful beach break in the Sinai –– possibly Tabas –– as it’s fun to have (Orthodox) Christmas again two weeks after our traditional family festivities; sometimes the Muslim New Year falls is at the same time.
Taba, in Egypt’s Asian bit, abuts the Israeli resort Eilat, with (nowadays) easy access to Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Ferries ply the Gulf of Aqaba to Jordan’s historic eponymous port, with more biblical and pre-Christian sites and sights a short drive away.
Purely as flight times from Gatwick gelled better with coach arrivals from Aberdeen in north-east Scotland, I went for a fourth choice: the Dominican Republic.
I’ll write more about this happy-go-lucky, laid-back, Spanish-speaking postcard picture country, two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, a land-mass shared with voodoo-ridden neighbour, Haiti, later.
I went hard on the Dominican Republic (not to be confused with fairly-close Caribbean neighbour, the English-speaking, cricket-playing island Dominica) as the Pommie weather turned parlous and potentially perilous.
Doubting National Express’s ability to dump me at Gatwick (after changing at Heathrow) by 07.55 check-in (and as my kids were moving home), I travelled 24 hours before planned.
I’ve previously raved about National’s service, having travelled thousands of kilometres with them, comfortably and safely. In my experience –– whatever the weather and road conditions –– if they say your ETA is (say) 07.40, after a 900 km trip through two countries, you’ll usually de-bus by 07.37.
The overnight trek from Aberdeen to Gatwick, leaving Saturday, January 2, was obviously an exception. On reaching Glasgow, the driver’s body language clearly bellowed something was (in Scots terms) very awry.
It surely shouldn’t happen with computerised booking, but with two more stops: Hamilton and Carlisle, we’d be four seats short! It took an hour plus to sort out the mess, moving passengers without luggage to another bus, and, as the engine ran through the debacle, we’d then have to divert miles to re-fuel.
The driver said he hoped to make up lost time on the motorway. As it was covered in sheet ice, with deep snow-drifts both sides and in the centre division, wipers working overtime keeping windscreen and headlights snow-free, I fervently hoped he wouldn’t try!
Had I travelled Sunday night, and the situation had been no worse than on my actual trip, I would probably have been able to check in by about 9.15, cutting things fine for a 10.55 Monday charter flight. Had it been a scheduled flight I might have risked it.
Googling accommodation near Gatwick, most outlets charged similar prices, but somehow Castle Lodge Guest House, Horley, jumped from the electronic page!
It looked and sounded homely: free shuttle service to and from the airport within five or six minutes; all rooms had free Wi-Fi (one international chain charged a stratospheric £10 an hour).
Owners Paul and Judy Scarlett came across as hands-on. I felt I already knew them, booking on-line and getting confirmation in 30 seconds. As good as her word, Judy uplifted me within six minutes of my phoning; a pearl-coloured station wagon whisked us to a half-timbered B&B in its own grounds in about the same length of time.
Ensconced in my room by 09.30 and tired, I gave myself a big tick for spurning hotels, where check-in was 2pm at the earliest.
The room was warm and clean, beds comfortable, plenty of storage. A bijoux bathroom featured a contemporary version of a Victorian hip-bath, with a modern shower above. It was over 24 hours since my last bath and I’d travelled 14 of them.
Washed, shaved, soaked in hip-bath, showered and shampooed, I rinsed through a few garments (drying in a couple of hours on the central heating radiator); there was still ample scalding water.
Castle Lodge is continental bed and breakfast only; but their guide named maybe a dozen eateries within a five minute stroll.
Air brisk and crisp, it put roses in my cheeks, honing an already fairly hefty appetite.
Six pubs are listed. Had I known the Jack Fairman was a JD Wetherspoon operation, I’d have gone straight there. This incredible chain of boozers offers a pint of real ale at just £1, serving splendid grub cheaply all day.
In Aberdeen, I’d used their Archibald Simpson a few times, having great steak and kidney pud once; haggis on a later visit (£3,99 a dish). Simpson was the architect of much of the Granite City. The Victorian-Gothic pub bearing his name was built by him: as the North Scottish Bank.
Apparently Fairman was involved in motor-racing. The rambling pub named after him used to be a cinema and offered a “Sunday Club” menu of braised shoulder of lamb with mint and rosemary gravy, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, sage-and-onion stuffing, three tasty vegetables, pint of Tuborg Danish lager included, at £8,50. Had I chosen roast beef, pork, half a chicken or –– unbelievably –– vegetarian “roast”, the bill would have been £l,50 less.
En route back to “the digs” I called at The Foresters, a pub occupying Horley’s oldest building: from the Napoleonic Wars. With friendly locals, I watched sport on a huge TV, taking much pleasure in Leeds beating Manchester United in the FA Cup. (“Fackup” as ZBC “news” says!)
Continued in the Standard on Sunday