Inghams sets the benchmark in the surprisingly small Lakes and Mountains marketplace. I make no apologies for this apparent bias; should I need to reaffirm my neutrality I categorically state that I am not a spokesperson for Inghams, or do I or have ever worked for them. Quite simply, through my extensive experience of travelling to Austria and Slovenia I have found them to be head-and-shoulders above the competition in all of the disciplines in which one would evaluate the efficacy of a travel-company. Firstly though, I will highlight some of the other participants in this field. I hesitate to call them ‘competitors’ but nevertheless, it is well-worth perusing what else is out there if you seek a change from the big-two – Inghams and Thomson Crystal.
One such company is Barrhead Travel, a hitherto unknown company, to me at least, based north of the border. Whilst not a specialist L & M provider I am impressed with the depth of service and resort coverage that they offer. In Austria Barrhead concentrate upon Mayrhofen, Zell am See, Achensee and Fuschl. Nothing earth-shattering I am sure you will agree but along with Austria, France, Switzerland and Italy are also covered with the pleasing additions of Annecy, Grindelwald and Selva amongst their programme highlights. Flights from Glasgow aid travellers who don’t have the ability or inclination to start and end their holidays from airports further afield. I would conclude that Barrhead are a welcome addition and a viable option for Scottish travellers.
Leger Travel have long since been big-hitters on the European coach-holiday scene, catering for an entirely different demographic than the L & M operators who readily spring to mind. Offering formulaic tours which encompass trips to amongst others Krimml and the Eagles Nest, these are not tours for the die-hard alpinist but rather clients who prefer to view their scenery from afar rather than interact with it. Of course there is room in the market for all and whilst this kind of holiday is not for me, I was impressed with Leger’s 14 day Grand Alpine Tour, including stops at the Grossglockner, Kranjska Gora and Geneva. To get a broad-overview of Alpine Europe this is undoubtedly an ideal tour of the completely escorted kind. I would though say there is a danger of visiting too many resorts in too short a period of time; resorts that are worthy of longer stays or even holidays in their own right. Nevertheless I do commend Leger on their obvious knowledge gained through many years of experience, meticulous planning and listening to traveller-feedback.
Travelsphere offer something similar but with a twist. My interest was piqued by their From Mountains to Med tour, which includes both Slovenia and Croatia. Unfortunately the predictable and tired Bled makes the tour rather than its grander cousin Bohinj but nevertheless, I was pleased to see Maribor, Slovenia’s second-city on the itinerary, even if only for a day excursion whilst staying in Ljubljana. To Travelsphere’s credit this tour continues to Opatija and Zagreb, where you will fly home from (you arrive at Venice, on the northern extremes of this tour). Travelsphere also offer an Alpine Rail Adventure, taking in Austria and Switzerland, should such a tour be your idea of communing with the myriad vertiginous peaks to be found on this journey. Again, Travelsphere are realistic about their demographic-reach but this is obviously a lucrative market for them.
And so I come to Crystal Thomson. My objections to their L & M business-model when it comes to single-travellers is well documented; I know that most if not all operators are guilty of unadulterated prejudice against lone rangers but after my experience this year with Crystal Thomson, I struggle to retain an evenhanded stance during my appraisal. However, I will firstly focus on the resorts they offer that Inghams don’t. Why Inghams do not include Schladming and Scheffau in their programme I couldn’t say but these two walking-paradises are definite feathers in the Thomson Crystal cap. To their equal credit I am impressed with the inclusion of the Bohinj Park Eco Hotel, the finest accommodation to be found in any of Slovenia’s mountain-resorts. Due to the Triglav National Park correctly placing a moratorium on new developments close to Lake Bohinj, the BPEH is to be found in the administrative-centre of the Bohinj settlements, Bohinjska Bistrica. Whilst this therefore doesn’t afford their guests views of Bohinj Jezero, the lake itself is only a short journey by bus from the lake or a serene amble along the river. I strongly recommend this hotel, not just for its own merits but also because of the lack of depth in quality and quality of hotel accommodation in the area, which ironically precipitated the building of the BPEH. Well done Thomson Crystal for blinking first in including this in your programme.
This is though where the handing out of the bouquets ends. I have rarely, if ever, found the resort representatives that Thomson Crystal employ to be up to the task, often knowing little or nothing about the resorts they are attached to, not to mention their appalling pronunciation. It strikes me that these reps are probably in their element in the ski-season but look entirely lost when it comes to the more cerebral pleasures of hiking and the highbrow guests who participate in it. Just as Inghams don’t have a perfect workforce not all of Thomson Crystals reps are bad but if you decide to embark upon a Thomson Crystal L & M holiday, please go to a resort that you already know and are therefore non-reliant upon the rep who might be unable or unwilling to help you get the most out of your break away. Note to Thomson Crystal: a rep being married to a Slovenian doesn’t necessarily qualify them as being suitable for the job.
Partly by default but mainly by all-round excellence, I therefore continue to espouse the merits of Inghams and the lesser-lights of Barrhead, Leger and Travelsphere. The latter-three of these are not specialists in the field but neither are Thomson Crystal, who must do better in the design of their brochure, the mistake of offering some holidays as web-only, the quality of their website and resort representatives. A respectful nod for including Scheffau, Schladming and the Bohinj Park Eco Hotel is quite simply not enough.