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How smart suitcases seem forever poised to arrive

VIRGIN TERRITORY “Remember your first big voyage, when you couldn’t wait to discover more of this beautiful blue planet?” purrs a velvety voiceover in the brand-launch video for Virgin Voyages. Unfortunately for Virgin, I do.

It started on July 31, 1984. Virgin Atlantic had been in operation for just over a month and its dirt-cheap daily flights from London (Gatwick) to New York (Newark) were still so heavily overbooked that I very nearly got bumped onto a flight to another city, with another airline. It was not a happy experience – not one of the Virgin Voyages video’s promised “serendipitous moments”. (Not that I dwell on these things, you understand.)

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Virgin Voyages is a cruise-ship brand that was recently launched at a media event in Miami, Florida, by Richard Branson. “The name ‘cruise’ is pretty awful, so I don’t like that,” said Branson, doing his bit on stage. “I don’t know why people call their companies cruise companies.” It seemed an awkward presentation and an odd statement, considering the event was being held to promote a rebranding of Virgin Cruises, which Branson himself set up two years ago.

Virgin Voyages doesn’t have any ships yet, but expects to launch the first of three in 2020. Newly built in Italy, each will carry 2,700 passengers (or “sailors”, as the new company is calling them) and be based in Florida. Go to www.virginvoyages.com for a look at the above-mentioned video and some sketchy details about what lies ahead for Branson’s new foray into the world of cruising. Sorry, voyaging.

PULL THE OTHER ONE This has been the year of the hands-free, smartphone-controlled suitcase – at least in terms of company press releases and crowd-funding hype. Nua Robotics was making noises at the start of this year, but its model seems not to be going anywhere at nuarobotics.com. The similarly self-propelled but more impressive-looking Cowa Robot, however, is now promised for delivery sometime next month.

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A third company, Travelmate Robotics, has been getting the most publicity recently with its snappy-looking suitcase which, it claims, is “the first true robot companion and fully autonomous suitcase”. It looks great in the promo video at travelmaterobotics.com, following its owner around a conveniently deserted airport terminal and performing a couple of balletic manoeuvres. You can even talk to it, and make it change colour.

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So why is it doing so badly at crowd-funding site Indiegogo? The Cowa Robot raised more than half a million US dollars on the site this year, more than five times its target. But the Travelmate – possibly because Cowa Robot stole all potential interest, or because “Travelmate” sounds like a portable hairdryer – had, at time of writing, scraped together only a meagre 6 per cent of its total goal, or just under US$6,000, with just a few days of its campaign left to go.

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Assuming sufficient funds are eventually forthcoming, the Travelmate should be ready to roll sometime next year. Let’s hope so.

SEASONS GREETINGS The Four Seasons Kyoto has finally opened in Japan’s cultural and one-time official capital city. The property was originally expected to open in early 2014, and while a two- to three-year delay is about average for luxury hotels in Asia, in Japan this is very unusual.

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The so-called “poetic heart” of the hotel is an 800-year-old pond garden, which contains a traditional teahouse that doubles as a sake den in the evenings. Located on the east side of the city, near the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex, the 123-room hotel can be found online at www.fourseasons.com/kyoto.

DEAL OF THE WEEK Headings for the handful of English-language TripAdvisor reviews for the Phoenix Waterside Gloria Resort, on Hainan Island, range from “decent but nothing special” to “OMG”.

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This mid-range property is the opening option with Westminster Travel’s two-night Sanya package, and while it might be worth a punt at HK$1,480 per person (twin share) with flights on Dragonair, there are better-value choices available. Twin rooms at the Anantara Resort start from HK$2,780, for example, and similar accommodation can be found from HK$3,130 at the Mandarin Oriental.

For full details and many more hotel and resort offerings, go to www.westminstertravel.com/hk.