Travel smart: How tech can improve solo travel

Palma Cathedral. Pictures: Pernilla Danielsson, shot on Google Pixel 3

I hate travelling abroad by myself. It makes me feel lonely and anxious - all I can see in the airport is people who have other people to talk to. 

So when the editor asked if I wanted to go to Palma in Mallorca for a couple of days, I said not really. Then she said, you get to try out a Google Pixel 3 phone. I said, really? Count me in.

A couple of days before departure, Julie from Google gets in touch to say she is going to courier a Pixel 3 to my house. 

I fantasise about crying off sick for the trip and holding on to the phone, but Google knows more about me than my wife does, so I decide against pissing them off.

I arrive at Hotel Sant Francesc a week later in the heart of Palma’s old town, not knowing what to expect; I check out 24 hours later, thinking I should get away by myself more often. Or at the very least, I should get away to Mallorca more often.

Palma is a delight, the island is outrageously good-looking and there doesn’t seem to be any hipster places serving drinks in a jar. 

That alone makes it the most must-visit place on the planet. But I probably wouldn’t have seen much of this without help from my new phone.

The Google people organising the trip set a number of little challenges around Palma, with a prize at the end. 

Given they are putting a bunch of us up in a swish hotel and have loads of money, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a Bentley Continental. So I give it a lash.

A quick squeeze of the Pixel 3 phone opens Google Assistant, which I get help with the challenges by asking it stuff like ‘where is the oldest cafe in Palma’? 

And with that, Google Maps is taking me to the oldest cafe in Palma, to try an ensaimada, a local heart-stopper pastry thing that is 730% butter. I can still taste it in my dreams.

The rest of the challenges zig-zagged me across the Old Town, to the cathedral, a famous olive tree, some hidden courtyards, an art gallery and an unscheduled stop in Zara. It was a great way to do Palma in three hours.

I meet up with a few others back at the hotel and we’re given a sunset tour of Palma old town by Pernilla Danielsson, a Swedish photographer living on the island. 

Her brief is to show us how to use the new features in the Pixel 3 camera to get a decent shot. (I’m no expert in these things, but the people who are seem to agree that the camera in the Pixel 3 is a game-changer for high-end smartphones.) 

Pernilla talks about framing and getting closer to the action, which brings my sunset shots of Palma up to the level of a decent postcard. 

It helps that the camera software in the Pixel 3 does a lot of clever things such as eliminating camera shake, which has been my calling card up to now, particularly when I’m on my second espresso.

Cala Deia. Pictures: Pernilla Danielsson, shot on Google Pixel 3

The sun goes down and we head for a bar in a sultry old Moorish townhouse. I usually don’t take photos at this hour of the night, because flash photography tends to make me look like the Wild Man of Borneo. 

But one of the Google guys points out the Night Sight feature in the Pixel 3, which allows me to take a low light shot without flash, and it does a really good job of making me look almost harmless.

After that, we head into Gallery Red, which sells statement art pieces to very rich people. (The statement being, I’m a very rich person.) 

The gallery owners are my new best friends – instead of calling the cops on our marauding group of slightly pissed Irish journalists, they actually give us champagne, allow us to take photos of the art, and even let me sit on a limited edition Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup Tin stool, yours for €4,500. 

Call in if you’re passing, just make sure you don’t break anything.

Next up was lip-smacking dinner in a swish place called Aromata. 

Pernilla offers some top tips on food photography with the Pixel 3, but I’ll never use them, because my friends would never stop laughing if I shared a photo of my dinner on social media. (It’s one of things I like about them.) 

After that, it’s back to the hotel, where myself and the guy from the Irish Times go for a few beers because it’s free and we’re from Ireland.

Port Soller

Six hours later, I wake in a strange hotel room, feeling weirdly ok. 

The room is my room and I’d set the gentle wake up feature on the Pixel 3, which simulates a gentle sunrise so I don’t wake up to some mad alarm. It’s a good way to start the day.

We leave early for a driving tour through the mountains north of Palma, and up towards the coast. Our transport is four Seat 600s from the 1970s, which is their version of the Fiat Cinquecento. 

One or two of the journalists are interested in the cars, but I’m more into the drivers. They are a bunch of retired guys who restore and drive these things for fun and they strike me as the happiest men in the world. 

The Google people wanted us to use the translate function on our Pixel 3 to direct these guys around the island, but they come from Mallorca and it would be just embarrassing at every level, so I sit back and enjoy the ride. 

I tried out the Conversation Mode feature on the phone later, and it’s basically like having a translator in your pocket that can help you communicate verbally in 32 different languages. 

And before you ask, yes, it can translate a Cork accent.

One hour later we’re standing on a cliff-top looking down on Cala Deia beach on the west coast of the island. 

Driving around Mallorca

I can see the boat from the TV show, The Night Manager, and a bunch of models below us doing a high-budget photo-shoot for Birkenstock - it’s that kind of a place. 

We sit in a circle and Rose La Prairie, head of Digital Wellbeing at Google, shares tips about smarter use of your smartphone. 

I’m surprised that a tech giant wants to show me how to me stop wasting time on their internet (it’s kind of their business model), but Rose is thoughtful and frank and full of interesting information as she lists the features in Google’s Android system that can help. 

Her best insight is that women are as bad as men at multi-tasking, with less than 1% of the population actually being any good at doing more than one job at a time. 

I won’t be passing this gem onto my wife, seeing as “I can’t help it, I’m a man” is my defence in a lot of ‘doing more than one thing at a time’ exchange of views in our place.

After that it’s lunch at Port Soller, followed by a few photo opportunities and a short ride back to the airport. I’m glad to be heading home, but not that glad.

The time I spent alone on this trip was time well spent and I’d go again. 

It turns out it is possible to spend time alone in a strange place, as long as you have the technology.


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