I have been seduced by Dara White, the receptionist of Fitzpatrick's Silver Springs Hotel in Cork. She has me behaving irrationally. It happened when I decided to nip over to Ireland, a place I knew only from short stays in Dublin. My travel agent said other airports I could fly to were Cork and Shannon. I searched the wrong map in the Michelin Guide, saw Shannon, not Cork. I rang Fitzpatrick's SS Hotel, the first under Cork. This enchanting voice answered.
The charm and rhythm of speech were beyond belief. Together we almost identified where Cork was and I put a cross on my map a mere hundred miles out. But Dara told me to go to the Dingle Skellig Hotel on Ireland's west coast. She assured me it was fantastic.
An hour later I phoned Dara again. "I have a problem," I said. "I'll solve it, Mr Winner," she replied. "I only drive open cars on trips like this," I explained, "Irish car rental places don't have them." "Would a white Volkswagen Beetle 1978 do?" asked Dara. "Brilliant," I enthused. "You can have £400 for two days and you and a friend can be my guests for a weekend in London." "The keys will be at the Air Rianta Desk," said Dara "And the short-term car park ticket..."
"Dara darlink," I responded, "this is not how I travel. I do not look for desks. I am met. People lead me to the exact spot."
"I'll have my boyfriend Donal there," said Dara, and as we got off the plane there he was! He led me to a gleaming, spic and span, white convertible Volkswagen.
Lovely, I thought. Until I turned on the engine. It sounded like a 1935 London bus in terminal decline. It spluttered and banged, the exhaust was gone, the brakes and the steering were minimal.
"My friend O'Brien got you this car," volunteered Donal. "He owns a garage."
"You wouldn't think so from hearing that engine," I said, and splutter-splutter, off we went. Soon ran out of petrol, but the scenery was beyond belief and the weather sunny. Through the mountains of Killarney we chugged and then past Inch beach, one of the great sights of Ireland and toward Dingle, where David Lean made Ryan's Daughter. After three hours of heavy driving, there it was. On the outskirts there seemed to be a building site. On a heap of rubble, somewhat askew, a sign said "Dingle Skellig Hotel".
My heart sank. I lurched with my erratic engine along a dust road and there appeared before me the most awful piece of architecture I have ever seen. A 1960s-at-its-worst three-storey building, large, and with an enormous asphalt car park in front, full of cars I wouldn't normally talk to. It was too much. I did a U-turn and drove at 7.30 at night, into Dingle. I shall find an old bed and breakfast, I thought, it will be an adventure. The houses were brightly painted, each in a different colour, there was Murphy's Pub, Doland's Bed And Breakfast ... but suddenly we were out of Dingle, which is quite easy as it only has a 1,300 population. And there, on the other side of the estuary was a white Victorian house with a white picket fence and lawns leading down to the waterside. ``Please be a hotel," I prayed. And it was. Actually the smiling, red-haired owner, Angela Gill, called it a guest house, but the room was charmingly decorated and well cared for, it overlooked Dingle, the estuary and the hills, there was TV and direct dial phones and a pleasant bathroom! I was saved! But there is more to follow.
In the meantime I must tell you how disappointed I am with what was my favourite hotel, Claridge's, under its new management. Recently the doormen slouched and didn't open the car doors a first in 50 years. The managing director of the group, Ramon Pajares, assured me it would never happen again. But on another visit there were no doormen at all! The front of the hotel was totally deserted, and this at lunch time! I entered the lobby and said loudly, ``Saving on doormen are we?" and then someone came to deal with the car.
At lunch I told some under-under-manager what I thought of this and when he left a lovely old lady regular, who sits in front of me, said, "There was no doorman when I came either!" And she'd arrived 50 minutes before me. I wrote to Mr Pajares: "Since it is now self-service car parking, may I ask if you intend to introduce self-service dining at Claridge's with paper plates and plastic cutlery? Will there follow self-service catering for the rooms?" Mr Pajares wrote yet again assuring me all would be well and it was only a second-time blip. I wish I could believe him.
Some 12 years ago, I called regularly on the Air France flight catering buying office and was told that they had to purchase 1/2m pieces of cutlery every year. Having read Mr Winner's article Taking Liberties (May 7), I now understand why the losses were so heavy. To Air France's credit, they insisted on keeping to their metal cutlery standard, rather than turning to plastic throwaways.
Dennis Graham, St Albans, Herts
After reading Ms Flowers' dismissal of the food on Sally Ferries (May 7, Letters), can I suggest that if possible she travels to the Continent with Scandinavian Seaways. We ate at the Seven Seas Restaurant on the Princess Of Scandinavia recently on the way to and from Gothenburg and the quality and variety of the smorgasbord was truly excellent. At around £15 per head, it is hard to understand how the company can possibly make a penny's profit especially if everybody wolfs down as much smoked salmon and as many crayfish as I did. I disembarked five days ago and I've only found one meal to tempt me since!
John Bailey, Gunton Park, Norfolk
Understandably, Mr Winner seems to favour the South of France, but I wonder if he knows Alsace? I have lived in Strasbourg for 25 years and the Alsatian wine route is a constant joy and delight. The white Alsatian wines have a wonderful range, from dry Rieslings to subtle perfumed vendange tardive, and the food, based on simple recipes, has immense variety. At this time of the year, a favourite meal is local foie gras, local asparagus with four sauces, and light strawberry gateau. Choucroute is the famous dish, but is worlds away from German sauerkraut; we now have the fish version, which is even more delicious. I recently discovered the food of the Markstein area southern Alsace the specialities of which include a soft young cream cheese, served cold, and bathed in kirsch and sugar. If food is not enough to tempt you, the beauty of Strasbourg's architecture and its picturesque surrounding villages make the area worth a visit.
Sheilah Tanner, Strasbourg, France