Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Thursday, August 31, 2006

My holiday reading books

As it's still the peak holiday period (just), thought I'd share my holiday reading from this summer. As a child and a young adult I used to read prodigiously but now I'm older (ahh) and seemingly working more hours, it's all I can do to keep up with the post each day and a couple of computer magazines - I'm usually way behind on reading my emails for instance.

Holiday time is just about the only opportunity I get to actually sit down and read a book.

This year I read two books on holiday, The Midden by Tom Sharpe and The Bear and the Dragon by Tom Clancy.

I read The Midden first and like Amazon's review of The Midden, I wasn't overly impressed by it. I quite like Tom Sharpe and his early books are an absolute scream that you just can't stop laughing when reading (e.g. Rioutous Assembly, Ancestral Vices or Wilt). This one has the same madcap characters and farcical situations but I found most of it was fairly predictable and there was only a few momments where I smirked at the humour. Not Mr Sharpe's best IMHO, but still overall a fairly enjoyable read.

Next up was (or should I say IS?, because at 1136 pages I'm still reading it - up to page 783 so far) The Bear and The Dragon.
Tom Clancy's also written some excellent books (The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger, Red Storm Rising, etc) and I've always been impressed by the way he weaves together a complex story and brings in loads of insights as to modern warface and chain of command.

In some respects TBATD is similar, there are several different threads of the story (plot to kill the chairman of the GRU, Jack Ryan as US President, mineral discoveries in Russia, Political issues in China, etc) and they way they're weaved together is as usual very clever with dipping between the different story lines. However the book is way way way too long (I liked one review on Amazon that advised "If you must read this book then only start on page 773 as that's where the action starts" and it feels like it could have done with a bit of an editor's cut.

As usual (for Clancy) the American's are portrayed as the Hero's and everyone else gets relegated (the Chinese are portrayed as dumb and sexist and the Russians as being wannabe capitalists).

Don't get me wrong, I do like the book, it's got a good story line, it feels comfortable as Clancy has built the story around many of his characters from previous stories (although it does feel at times like a bit of a contrived reunion), and the way that parts of the story are built together is excellent (e.g. a CNN news reporter ends up filming a Papal envoy getting shot by the Chinese police causing US citizens to abandon buying Chinese products and thus tipping them towards war with Russia).

Amazon's reviews of The Bear and The Dragon on Amazon are mixed. Some people liked it but equally some people that have given it a poor review.

Me ? I'll keep on to the end now, only 300ish more pages to go and the story is supposed to improve towards the end.

Once I've finished with the books I'll leave them on the bookshelf in our Brittany Holiday Gite so guests can read them whilst they're staying. If you want to form your own opinion then you're welcome to come and stay and read them yourself!

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

First holiday booking for 2007

In amongst the hundreds of junk emails I received whilst away on holiday were a couple of 2007 rental enquiries for our Brittany Holiday Home.

Over the weekend I corresponded back and forth with one of the enquirers answering questions about things to do in the local area surrounding the Gite, facilities at the Gite and the various routes and costs of getting there (including pointing out the Speedferries £27 open ticket offer). By the end of Sunday they'd decided to book a a two week holiday in the Gite for July/August 2007. Additionally this was our first holiday booking received from RentalSystems (formerly VillaRenters) which makes the advert worthwhile.

Although it's great news to be receiving rental enquiries and a booking for 2007 when we're still in the middle of the peak 2006 holiday season, it did remind me that we need to make our own 2007 holiday plans for when we want to go to the Gite . One of the advantages of owning a holiday home is supposed to be the opportunity to use it yourself - if we don't get our act together then we're likely to miss out - like we did this year!

Yesterday I then had to spend an hour or so adding 2007 rental dates to the Gite availability calendar for all the way up to January 2008. We're offering 2006 rental prices for all 2007 bookings that are confirmed by the end of this year so hopefully that'll bring in a few additional bookings as well.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

I succumbed to the SpeedFerry offer

Further to yesterday's blog about special offers from SpeedFerries, I decided that it was too good to miss out on and so I've just got the 'flexible friend' out and bought a 10-trip super voucher for £240 - 10 single trips from Dover to Boulogne (or the vice versa return crossing) to be used any time within the next two years.

Although it's a long (6 hour) drive from Boulogne to our Brittany holiday Gite, it's motorway almost all the way and for us in fact it's about 2 hours quicker and considerably cheaper than taking alternative ferry routes to France with Brittany Ferries or LD Lines.

It's only really 5 return trips (and we've two years to take them) and at £24 each way (even for peak school holiday crossings) is I think great value.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Back from our own holidays & two great SpeedFerry ticket offers

We've been away on our own holidays for the last couple of weeks (hence no blogs), but are back now and I'm wading through the 557 emails that I received whilst I was away ! Just where does it all come from ?

Amongst the emails I found details of two great ticket offers from SpeedFerries who run a low-cost ferry operation on the Dover/Boulogne route (and I've written about a few times before, most recently when they made a modest ticket price increase from £19 to £25. Even at that price they remain in my view a very cost effective way of getting to France, and of course to our Brittany Holiday Gite.

The latest two offers are open tickets for £27 each way (valid for 12 months between 12th September 2006 and 12th September 2007) and a 'bulk discount' of 10 single journeys for £240 (valid for two years from purchase date).

As I've written before, we've used them a few times as even with the €20 tolls and £40-50 for fuel it's still a very cheap way of getting to our Gite. As I did last time they had a similar offer on, I plan to buy a few open tickets myself.

Hurry though because this offer finishes on Sunday 21st.

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Friday, August 04, 2006

New Brittany Gite website design - coming soon (part one)

For the last few weeks I have been working on a redesign of our Brittany Gite website, and although it's still quite a long way from being finished I thought I'd share the work so far.

This is probably the most major redesign of the site I've done since it was first completed in January 2005 so if I'm going to go to all this effort then I'd really like to make sure that it's a step forwards rather than backwards - please comment as to what you think.

The first thing I've been doing is to break the text up on the page more and add subheadings so that it's both easier for the visitor to read the page quickly and (hopefully) it'll boost my search engine placement as well. Many of the search engines apparently place greater significance on the words within headings (such as <H1>) than on ordinary page text and as I originally never had any headings I was probably missing out. So far I've made this change to the travel options page and now the home page and I think they both look better as a result.

Next to tackle was the page width.

When I originally designed the site it was deliberately designed so that it viewed properly (without having to scroll left and right) on an 800 x 600 screen size. Looking at my website logs for 2005 and 2006 I feel that's still the right decision, it's the third most popular screen size and that's used by 13% of visitors to the site. However the majority of site visitors have 1024 x 768 (56%) or 1280 x 1024 (16%) screen sizes so I've been thinking for some time that I needed to redesign the site so that it takes advantage of the whole screen width.

My original design has used a fixed width HTML table (e.g. <TABLE> <TBODY> <TR> <TD> text ... etc) to position the 'masthead logo' at the top, the menu bar down the left, the main text in the middle and the pictures to the right. The great advantage of this approach is that it's relatively easy to do the HTML coding and it guarantees that the page text appears just where I want it to do. Unfortunately on a wider screen size the text all still appears fixed width with a lot of white space to the right hand side. Using a table for the website layout is hard to get it to expand to full screen width and this approach is now somewhat frowned upon - if possible a CSS solution is considered "better design".

The other problem with using tables is that everything has to appear in the HTML in the order it appears on the page from top to bottom, left to right. This means that first in the file is the header picture, then the menu text, then the main text, and finally the images. Although this all sounds logical it can cause problems for some search engines that attach more 'significance' to the earlier words in the HTML file. So a search engine reading my site would have to wade through 'Home', 'The Gite', Things to do and see', ... all the way to 'Site Map' before it got anywhere near the actual interesting stuff on the page. Some search engines only read the first few hundred characters in the file so with the approach I'd adopted I was potentially cutting down my search engine marketing effectiveness.

The first redesign attempt was to add DIV sections for the header, table of contents down the left hand side and the main site contents in the middle/right. I then used absolute positioning in the CSS file to position the DIV's in the appropriate places (e.g. #nav{ position:absolute; top:100px; } ) and it actually all worked pretty well.

There's a test version of the homepage restyled like this at and in both IE6 and Firefox 1.5 it looks good no matter what size you make the width or height.

However I have slightly cheated with this page as although it uses CSS to position the menu bar it still uses a table to position the pictures to the right of the main text.

Next challenge was to try to get a CSS solution working to position all elements of the page. My first attempt was to simply extend the 2 column approach, add an extra DIV around the pictures and position it using CSS. This didn't work properly on the first attempt as the text still expanded to full width and the images then appeared on top of the text. Putting a padding-right on the centre DIV (where the text is) that's the same width as the pictures fixed the problem.

Again, there's a test version of the homepage restyled like this at This looks pretty good in both IE6 and Firefox 1.5 until you reduce the screen width to less than 800 when the pictures start overlapping the text in Firefox (but strangely enough have no such problems in IE6). I've not worked out how to fix this particular issue - the CSS command 'min-width' should fix it but it doesn't appear to in Firefox.

So far the restyling has been fairly cosmetic. The next set of changes I've been trialling get far more radical ...

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Bargain Ryan Air flights to Brittany

Received an email today from Ryan Air advertising their latest cut price fares.

Currently they're offering flights from London Luton to Brest (which is about 2 hours drive from our Gite) for 44p, Stansted to Dinard (about an hour's drive) for 9p or Nottingham East Midlands to Dinard for 24p.

There's a number of other cheap flight offers on RyanAir's website from the UK and Ireland and even after you add the taxes (about £15) it's still a bargain.

We've still got availability in our holiday home for the week of September 12th to 19th and from the 29th September so if you fancy a cheap holiday I'm sure we can do a deal ...

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