Sunday, June 10, 2012

More Admiration for Qatar Airways

I'm so impressed with this airline that I thought I'd write about my return trip from Malé to Paris via Doha.

The international departure terminal in Malé is interesting because you go through security as soon as you enter the premises. I liked this because it allowed them to have a half dozen scanners going at once. If they had placed the scanners before the escalator to departures there probably would have only been room for two to be set up, which would have made for unpleasant lines.

Once checked in, I quickly passed through passport control and went to the airport's premium lounge for business and first class travelers. This was the most impressive-looking airport lounge I'd ever been in--more like a swanky club than a place to wait for a plane. I'll post pictures later, it was very tastefully decorated with plenty of brown and tan velvet armchairs. There was a large refrigerator full of soft drinks and water, and a full breakfast buffet was laid out. I settled in a chair and an attendant stopped by to ask if I would like tea, coffee, or something to drink. I declined, and noticed that she brought coffee to other patrons. It's nice to not have to get up when juggling iDevices and hand baggage. Note: a US-to-UK electrical adaptor is useful both here and in the Premium Terminal in Doha.

I went down to the gate and was soon called to board the waiting A320. If you've flown United, this and its near-twin the A319 are the workhorse of their domestic fleet, so chances are very high you've been in one. The Qatar A320, however, was a princess compared to United's frogs. There are no jetways at MLE, so I walked across the tarmac to the front stairway, reserved for the business cabin.

"Up front" are roomy recliner seats, with leg rests, lumbar support, regular power outlets, and noise-canceling headphones. As I was photographing my easy chair, the flight attendant apologized that this was "not a very nice plane" because it is one of their older ones. I wanted to laugh. This plane beats the front of ANY US-based carrier's A320 hands down. It was clean and pleasant, with attentive staff. There was plenty of room in the overhead bins. I was offered a glass (real glass, not plastic cup) of orange juice with a slice of orange floating on the top as I sat down.

Breakfast came soon after take off--the third breakfast I'd been offered this morning, after the boat and the lounge buffet. The first course was smoked salmon, fruit salad, yogurt, and a mango lassi. The second course was apple pancakes with a custard sauce, and croissants with butter and jam. And Veuve Cliquot champagne. I sampled everything, and will post photos later. The food was definitely hot and tasty--far better than the odd feta fritatta I was offered on the inbound flight.

My only complaint, and this is minor, is that it is a tight squeeze to get out of the window seat when the passengers in front have their seats reclined. Book an aisle or the bulkhead to avoid this problem.

When I arrive in Doha I will once again face the bus-terminal-bus transfer, in 111 degree desert heat. I only have a two hour layover, much preferable to the seven overnight hours I spent on the way to Malè. After that it's a seven hour flight to Paris on an A340, or as the flight attendant this morning exclaimed, "a very nice big plane."

Saturday, June 9, 2012

I Found Love on The Maldives Aggressor

No, I did not meet someone. My love is for this beautiful boat, called the MY Grandezza by her owners but franchised to the Aggressor Fleet. "MY" stands for "motorized yacht": La Grandezza is a 37 meter motor sailor that was designed for the Maldives and is certified by the Italian government for open ocean travel. She can carry a month's worth of fuel and provisions, and therefore is capable of making round-the-world trips. There are 10 passenger cabins, roomy by scuba dive boat standards, all with private bathrooms. The bathrooms are big enough to be used as a dressing room if you don't know your cabin mate well enough to change in front of him or her. Each cabin has a decent amount of storage, air conditioning, and a fan. In a place where the average temperature is 88 and the humidity is high enough to bring on near daily rain showers, the in-cabin air conditioning can barely keep up -- but the truth is after a couple days of diving I was permanently chilled so this did not present a problem.

The main salon is very roomy, and is cooled down to refridgerator temperatures. There is a sun deck with cushioned teak loungers, and a shaded deck with a camera table and device charging stations. We had our diving briefs here, and I also lounged here when I wanted to be outside but out of the sun. (I will post pictures later.)

I was so enchanted by the boat that I undertook some research about her via Google. (Side note: I had nearly continuous 3G data connectivity on this trip due to purchasing a local SIM card upon arrival at Malé airport). Our group was also lucky to have Segio, the boat's Operations Manager, on board for our week. Sergio has been involved with La Grandezza from the beginning, and knows everything about her and the Maldives.

Between Google, Sergio, and talking to Captain Hossan I learned that La Grandeeza was built in Turkey at a cost of about $4mil USD, and was completed in 2009. On her initial trip to the Maldives in April 2009 she passed through the Suez Canal and down the Red Sea through the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean. In the Gulf of Aden she was approached by Somali pirates armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The captain (an Italian, not the man who commands her in the Maldives) issued a mayday call and tried to evade the pirates. Their boat came alongside and they put a ladder up to try to board, but the captain's girlfriend, like something out of a movie, knocked the ladder over and the boarding pirate fell into the sea. Sergio explained that, due to incoming military response to mayday calls, the pirates don't tend to stick around very long. If they can't get on board and get control of the ship in about five or ten minutes, they leave so the military doesn't get them. So, after pulling their compatriot who fell off the ladder out of the drink, they took off. The captain changed course and went very far north and east toward India to avoid the pirate zone, making their trip from Turkey much longer than originally planned. However, La Grandezza got to her new home port just fine, and has been cruising the immense chain of atolls that is the Maldives ever since. The current captain told me he's sailed her to the far southern end of the Maldives chain and back, a trip of 40 days. He's also taken her the 400 or so miles to India.

I loved sitting on deck and listening to the boat's sounds, staring up at the rigging, and daydreaming that she was all mine. It was as lovely and relaxing as being in my favorite spot in Hawaii.

La Grandezza is accompanied by a staff of nine from the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh: three divemasters, the chef, assistant chef, two stewards, and two boatmen. There was also Captain Hossan, and the captain of our dhoni. A dhoni is a traditional Maldivan boat made for transporting goods and people between the islands. We used ours as the dive boat. The dohni is highly manouverable and has a much shallower draft than the big yacht, so it is perfect for taking divers out. All our dive gear stayed on the dhoni for the week. They would tie up to the yacht between dives and do in-place air and Nitrox fills, which means we never had to move gear or tanks around.

The diving itself was memorable, and a bit challenging at this time of year. We arrived at the very start of the Southwest monsoon season, so the weather patterns were very unsettled. Currents did not always flow in the expected directions, and were often not the expected speed. Sometimes the dhoni captain or divemaster would cancel a dive and move us to another spot due to conditions. We were happy to leave things up to their judgement, and experienced a series of interesting dives in North Malé Atoll, South Malé Atoll, South Ari Atoll, and North Ari Atoll.

Although I came to the Maldives with no expectations, I did very much want to see big things. On our third day, off Holiday Isle at the southern end of South Ari Atoll, we went looking for whale sharks. They are often found there at this time of year, cruising just off the reef. We piled into the boat and headed west, and soon after the boatmen shouted that they could see whale sharks! The boatmen know exactly what they're looking for, and have amazing eyesight to boot. The dhoni got ahead of the whale shark, and we jumped into the water in our snorkeling gear. And there it was, a youngster of the world's biggest fish species! I'd seen some in an aquarium in Okinawa, but this was the real deal. I was so excited that I forgot to turn my camera on, and once I got it on I pushed all the wrong buttons! But I had a good swim, following the whale shark for a few minutes until it gracefully dove over the reef drop-off and sank out of sight. The dhoni picked up the snorkelers, and we continued along the coast. In a very few minutes another whale shark was spotted, and once again we all jumped in. We repeated this four or five times. Once I was the only person to jump in. I had a nice long swim with yet another juvenile, and this time I managed to get a snippet of video (will post later). These creatures are really big, with tall powerful tails and beautiful dappled brown and cream coloring. The juveniles were about 12 feet long, and the biggest one we saw was twice that.

Finally we donned our scuba gear and once again dropped in near a whale shark. This one was the biggest yet. After following him for a while he pulled away faster than
we could swim, so we explored the reef hoping another whale shark would venture by. My group didn't see one, but some other divers from our dhoni did--a huge one according to their fish tales. One of the dive masters later said that not only was that the fastest they'd ever found whale sharks when heading out for the day (we were only looking for about 15 minutes), but that we saw eight in all -- the most they've ever found on a single trip.

We beheld many other thrilling sights over the course of the week: a school of sixteen Mobula (Devil Rays) flew by in perfect formation. A dozen reef sharks cruised around in the current while we used hooks to hang on to the reef and watch. A lone manta ray surprised me along a wall--and just after that a turtle swam right up to me. A Napolean wrasse the size of a sheepdog cruised by a foot from my head. Considering how poor the visibility was all week (40-70 feet, when it's usually more than twice that), we saw a LOT of cool marine life.

Aside from the whale shark encounter, my other favorite experience came on the very last day. I had a 9:10am flight on Sunday, so I couldn't go on the second dive on Saturday or else I'd violate my dive computer's 24-hour "no fly" rule. I went out on the dhoni anyway, basically so I could get started breaking down my gear. The dhoni captain offered to take me snorkeling after he put the divers in the water. Once again, the boatmen's power of marine observation amazed me. They could see Manta Rays just below the surface, so they took me over and I jumped in the water to find two just below me! I watched them and followed them for quite some time, and even saw some of my scuba friends watching them from forty feet below. The dhoni picked me up after the Mantas swam away, and then dropped me in another spot, but I couldn't see the rays the boatmen were pointing at. Then they took me over to a reef where I happily swam around for a while. There I noticed three 7"-long bright screaming yellow fish acting aggressively. I was curious to know what was going on, and was about to dive down for a closer look when I noticed they were harassing a mid-sized octopus! Octopusses are very retiring and don't usually come out during the day, but this one was trying to get away from the yellow fish. I watched him swim from coral head to coral head, and when he settled I dove for a better look. He was deep burgundy, with a big pale blue eye. I dove to look at him a couple more times. After a while I started thinking I should go back to the boat so the dhoni could track the scuba divers rather than me.

Many more lovely things happened over the course of the week, really too many to tell! The food was great and included Maldivan and Sri Lankan specialties. My roommate was very sweet and a good dive buddy. The service on board was attentive and caring. Really, if I could have found away to fold La Grandeeza up and bring her home, I would have! I really love that boat.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

First Time on Qatar Airways

I seem to have put myself under a time warp spell. For the past week I've been telling myself that my flight from Manchester to Doha was at ten minutes to four in the afternoon. I even picked my departure train from Blackpool based on this. My train to Manchester Airport ran about 15 minutes late, and I checked in at the Qatar Airways counter at about 1:50pm. They happily took my bag and issued my boarding passes, and I made my way to their business class lounge. When I arrived the attendant told me he was just about to call the flight for boarding. This confused me, but I went down to the gate when called, thinking that they were boarding awfully early. Once on the plane I figured out that our departure time was 2:50pm, not 3:50! I consider myself extremely lucky that I made the flight! I'm surprised the Qatar Airways counter didn't give me any guff for checking in so late, but they acted like everything was fine and normal and didn't even tell me to hurry. I guess this is what happens when you fly a non-US airline between two non-US airports: you don't get treated like you are a potentially dangerous and/or inconvenient piece of crap.

The plane was a two-class Airbus 330. I cashed in some United miles so I could sit "up front," since my flight time would be seven hours to Doha and then another 4 1/2 to the Maldives. The seats were the reclining "pod" style, and go nearly completely flat for sleeping. To me these are the second most comfortable type of seats, after the fully horizontal lay flat seats available on some other airlines. They are much better than "angled" lay-flat seats, which a friend calls "Frankenstein slabs."

They served lunch/dinner right after takeoff. I was too hungry to remember to take pictures, but it was quite delicious. It stated with cocktails and a small minced lamb wrap. Oddly enough, they do not carry vodka on board. For appetizer I chose the mezze plate, which included decent hummus, tabouli salad, and very nice baba ghanoush served with toasted pita bread. I had chicken biryiani for the main course, and found the chicken to be very tender and the rice nicely spiced. I finished off with a scoop of vanilla ice cream served with a scoop of rose water sorbet, and a glass of port.

The entertainment system had zillions of movies on it, but a lot of them were either Arabic or old Hollywood classics. That said, they had the Sarah Palin movie "Game Change," which I'd been dying to see but missed because I don't have HBO at home. It was very interesting and Julianne Moore was fabulous as Palin, a definite "must see" movie.

Our flight route took us over Germany, central Europe, Bulgaria, and the Black Sea. It was cloudy, then hazy, then sunset, then quite foggy, so I didn't get much of a view but did manage to see the Bulgarian coastline of the Black Sea. We continued over Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia to Qatar, but I didn't see any of that because of the weather. Qatar is a peninsula sticking up into the Persian Gulf, so after passing over Baghdad and Kuwait City, we flew southeast along the Saudi Arabian coast. Every so often I'd see the flares from an oil field or refinery through the mists. It was utterly strange and disorienting, and made me think of "Blade Runner."

At this point in time, Doha International Airport isn't quite what most people initially envision when they hear the word "airport." Rather than having the terminal-with-jetway-spokes that we're used to in a place like San Francisco or Chicago, DOH is more of a gigantic paved over area next to a construction zone and a couple of bus stations. They are building the "actual" airport, but for now there is no walk-on gate service. When my plane landed, we boarded busses based on if we were ending our trip in Doha, making a transfer (business or first class) or making a transfer (coach). The busses drove quite some way, about ten minutes, to different terminals for each option. The "Premium" Transfer Terminal is quite comfortable, with several options for food and drink (included in the ticket price). I'm still so stuffed from dinner that I am not interested in food. There's also a cocktail bar, and a tea and coffee bar. It's decorated with plants and fountains, and has free wifi.  In all, a nice place to wait out a transfer.

My flight back from the Maldives next week is completely during daylight hours, so I'll try to take some pictures then.

Friday, June 1, 2012

In Search Of...

...Fish and Chips

After watching the ballroom dance competition on Friday and Saturday, I took a day off on Sunday. I didn't have a ticket for the Sunday sessions and decided I'd take the train to Lancaster instead. My intentions were good, and the weather was fantastic, but I didn't get out of bed until noon! So, rather than rush up to Lancaster, I decided to give in to my fish and chips craving and get some lunch.

I started by Googling "best fish and chips Blackpool" and quickly determined that at least half the "chippys" in town claim to be the best. I also found out that the more highly lauded ones seemed to keep weird hours. I didn't want to go to one of the dodgy looking places near the piers, and began to despair of getting my need for crispy batter fried fish met. Finally, I decided to check the Trip Advisor list of "best" restaurants in Blackpool, and discovered the Bispham Kitchen, about a mile's walk from my flat along the seaside promenade. I had local haddock and chips, and quite enjoyed my choice. On the walk back I discovered that Blackpool has self-serve rent-a-bikes. It seems like a great idea, especially since the promenade has a fantastic bike path.

...Ancient Castles

The next day the competition didn't really get started until 6:00pm, and the weather was still incredibly lovely, so I got that train to Lancaster so I could tour the old castle there. I didn't know what I was getting in to: it turns out that Lancaster Castle is about 1,000 years old, and until last year has been used as a prison for the past 800 years! It's also been in use all this time as a civil and criminal court, and a trial was going on the day I visited.

The castle itself is dark and a bit dank. What was really creepy, though, was the overwhelming sense of age. The building, although in continuous use for a millennium, is so old that they're not entirely sure who built it and when. They also don't really know the true internal floorplan because sections have been blocked off over time. Every so often they break through a wall and find an unexpected corridor or room.

Although there have been prisoners and trials there since before Columbus was born, they don't have records going back more than about 200 years as to who had been tried and imprisoned there. I found out that many many small-time criminals were tried there and sentenced to "transportation" to Australia--including young poor girls who shoplifted a small amount of merchandise. It also turns out that Lancaster (the town) was a major center for the slave trade. Four hundred years ago they had witch trials. I saw the small corner where they hanged people in front of crowds of thousands. The town is pretty, but has some bad juju.

I shook this off and headed next door to the old priory church, which at root was even older than the castle. The Romans had a settlement in Lancaster in 78 AD, and built a temple on the hilltop long before the church was started. Just down the hill from the church I viewed the ruins of their baths.

The judges who came to town to preside over the trials had a nice house built for them in the 1700's, which remained in use until the 1970's. "The Judges' Lodging" is open for viewing, and I saw amazing furniture and decorations inside. Most of the furniture was built by the now-gone Gillows of Lancaster, a 400-year-old firm that had Buckingham Palace and the ship The Queen Mary as clients. Their work is clearly a pinnacle of woodworking art and English craftsmanship.

Around the corner from the Lodging, across the street from the castle, stands a row of houses built in the 1700's. These were "artisans' cottages," and The Cottage Museum had been initially owned by a furniture maker for Gillows. Even though the owner was an artisan, he was still a member of the working poor (or perhaps the beginning of the lower middle class). This first owner had been an indentured servant, and his letter of indenture is on display in the attic. The cottage is quite small, just a tiny living room, a pantry-kitchen, and two bedrooms. A lean-to laundry porch (so the wife could take in laundry for extra income) and a root cellar rounded out the house. There was no running water, and personal needs were attended to in a shared privy in the small courtyard behind the house. Believe it or not, someone lived there--without electricity and running water--until the building was condemned for habitation in the 1970's. The most interesting thing I learned was that rats eat tallow candles because they're made of beef (or mutton) fat, so the candles were kept in a metal box hanging from the wall.

I was going to upload some pictures with this post but I'm in Doha, so the Blogger uploader app is defaulting to Arabic. You'd think it would default to the iDevice's chosen language setting! So anyway, I can't figure out which links are which. D'oh!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Beautiful Days in the Neighborhood

I'm up in Blackpool, Lancashire, England. It's a seaside resort that became popular in Victorian times with working-class families who needed a break from cities and coal mines to take in the fresh sea air. The climate being what it is, it is often cold, grey, damp, foggy and dreary here this time of year -- like Summer in San Francisco. The past few days have been a glorious exception. There's a real Summer happening now: clear blue skies, calm seas, temperatures in the high 70's. Visitors spend the day lounging in the sun outside their hotels, drinking and laughing. People actually frolic in the velvety smooth Irish Sea. My flat is about a mile and a half walk from the Empress Ballroom along the seaside promenade. There's a tramway in case of bad weather, but I've been walking it round-trip to watch the dancing.

So far I've witnessed (parts of) three events. My friends Jody & Andreas (shes's wearing the black dress) competed in the Over-35 Ballroom Championship, and came in 5th out of 200 couples from around the world. This is a massive achievement, but since the US media only thinks of competitive ballroom dancing in terms of gossip from "Dancing with the Stars," their success will go unremarked at home. The US actually had three couples in the final round -- again an incredible achievement. And if that wasn't enough, a US couple won the Professional "Rising Star" Latin event. 250 couples from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America entered the event. (For some reason South America is pretty much uninterested in competitive ballroom dancing, although there was a Chilean version of "Dancing with the Stars.") Today is the Latin championship for dancers under age 21. I walked down to watch the first two rounds. 222 couples had entered, each round eliminates approximately half the competitors. This means the six couples the Final will have been competing from 3pm to 11:30pm, dancing a total of seven competitive rounds. It's a very long day for everyone, and requires incredible fitness to compete at this level.

I wasn't feeling up to this kind of marathon, so I left after three hours and walked back to my flat. While most of the B&Bs, flats, and hotels along the Promenade are quite modest, there are a few grand examples of Victorian brick architecture. Most notable is the Imperial Hotel. I've been in the lobby and it's quite elegant, probably the fanciest place in all of Blackpool. It looks out over the sea, and today the red brick contrasted wonderfully with the blue sky. Now I'm watching "The Big Bang Theory," which seems to be on two or three times a night every night of the week. It was that or International Test Match cricket. I actually sort of enjoy cricket, but I barely understand what's going on and tonight I couldn't deal with trying to remember what I learned on my trip to Australia back in 2008.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

London, London, London

I had a grand plan after my arrival to take a short nap and then do a little shopping and wind down in a pub. I ended up checking into my hotel, the convenient and comfortable MIC, and sleeping for over seven hours. My first day in London wasted, I slept the rest of the night so I could start fresh on Tuesday.

I've been to London a lot over the past 30 years, so my main objective these days is to shop and see West End plays rather than concentrating on historic and cultural sights. My favorite shops right now are Japanese sock chain Tabio, high street women's casual/resort/party clothier Monsoon, and crazed bargain-hunter's delight Primark. I accomplished this in a fast-paced morning of power shopping, completed in time to attend a matinee performance of "Jersey Boys." This musical tells the history of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. I absolutely loved it -- of all the musicals I've seen in London over the years this has been my favorite.

I rounded out the evening by having dinner with my friend Sophie, who took a train up from Bournemouth (a 90-minute trip) just to see me! We ate at the Jamie Oliver-founded "Fifteen" in Shoreditch. They had really creative cocktails, including something made with date-infused rum. I tried burrata for the first time, and had a tasty pork chop with cannelini beans for dinner.

Day two (or I guess really three) promised to be sunny and gorgeous, so I hopped a Thames Clipper riverboat (part of the city's regular commuter transit system) to Greenwich. I'd never been there before, but had read some history about the Royal Observatory and wanted to see it. The trip down the river was fun, seeing famous sights like the London Eye, Tower of London, and St. Paul's from a new angle. Greenwich itself is leafy and green. I followed the suggested path for visitors, which begins on the grounds of the Old Royal Navy College. Many of the buildings now house studios and practice rooms for artists. The first stop was the Painted Chapel, where a music school was conducting end-of-term examinations. The public was allowed in, so I sat and listened to one of the students for a while. I heard four songs: light opera, traditional opera, a Broadway show tune, and a duet sung with another man. Due to the exams, we were not supposed to take pictures, but I managed to snag one on the sly of the ornate ceiling.

King Charles II built a palace near the College, now called The Queen's house. It currently is used as a museum of maritime paintings, but I visited just to see the architecture of the building. There were huge sculpted fireplaces and ornately painted ceilings, but the most interesting feature to me is the so-called "Tulip Staircase," a decreasing-radius spiral decorated with fleur-de-lis (not the misnamed tulips). The Queen's House will be seen world-wide later this summer, as the Olympic equestrian events will be held on the green behind the house. When I visited they were erecting bleachers and building temporary facilities where the horses would be housed.

On a steep hill above the house perches the Royal Observatory, built as a live/work unit for the first Royal Astronomer, Sir John Flamsteed. I toured his house and the three observatories that were added over the years. I also stood right on the Prime Meridian and fired up an iPhone app that reads out my current latitude and longitude. The app was off by a bit.

My last stop in Greenwich was at the restored Cutty Sark, the last and arguably the fastest of the China Tea Clippers. The design of this ship was quite remarkable: its sole purpose was to balance the factors of holding as much tea as possible while sailing as fast as possible. There is one giant hold, a short-height "in-between" deck deck, and that's it. All the crew quarters and work areas were built as little wooden buildings on the top deck. At one point there was a crew sleeping area in the forecastle (the space in the bow on the in-between deck) but it was so noisy from the sound of the ship under full sail that they turned it into additional cargo space. You might not think that a sailing ship would be noisy, but the Cutty Sark was designed to slice through the waves, so there was a lot of slapping and pounding up front.

I'm so lazy at home, but pack so much into my days when I'm traveling. If this wasn't enough activity, I then met my old friend Greg from Los Angeles who just happened to be vacationing in London. We hung out at a pub and caught up for a while, then I headed to a theater to see the show based on Queen's music, "We Will Rock You." I had high hopes for this. Like so many people I really like Queen, and the show was created with input from former band members after Freddie Mercury's death. I'm sorry to say it was a silly mess. There were tons of Queen super fans there who sung along, and the show is clearly beloved by the audience, but I just couldn't get in to it. The plot was kind of dumb: a dystopian future where rock and roll had disappeared and everyone who wasn't a "Bohemian" was white and looked like the stereotypical Los Angeles wannabe actor/model. A group who looked like the cast of "Rent" hid from this sameness and plasticity living in an abandoned Underground station, their leaders hoping to find The One--oh wait I mean "The Dreamer" who could bring back live rock by finding Excalibur--oh wait I mean the last existing electric guitar. If you think I made this sound good then feel free to waste your money on it, but be warned that only one person in the cast can carry a tune worthy of Freddie Mercury. Really, the whole thing came across as a "Glee" production.

This concludes my London adventure. At this very moment I'm on a high-speed train heading northwest to my next stop, the oddly amusing seaside resort of Blackpool. There's a lady sitting in the next row having a cell phone conversation with the volume turned up so loudly that I can hear both sides. If this is what is coming to airplanes, I really don't want it to happen.

Monday, May 21, 2012

That's One Sexy Airplane

My travel day did not start in the most auspicious manner. I arrived at SFO for the short hop down to LAX to connect with my Air New Zealand flight to London, and found the United domestic terminal to be as crowded and chaotic as Thanksgiving weekend. Rather than fight to get a check-in agent who would actually talk to me and solve problems (the woman in front of me was already dealing with a very real issue), I decided to take the easy way out and self-check me and my bag to Los Angeles. If it had been less crazy, I'd have pulled out my Air New Zealand reservation and asked the agent to check my bag through to London and to issue my LAX-LHR boarding pass. I figured I had over three and a half hours to make the connection in LAX, the weather was perfect, my plane was already at SFO, what could go wrong?

What went wrong was that some other United 757 had a mechanical problem, forcing United Operations to scramble to see which planes and flights they could swap to get the most people to their destinations as close to on time as possible. Since ours was just a short hop, we got swapped twice. This resulted in us arriving at LAX 1:10 late. Fortunately I have a personal policy for international connections at LAX: figure out what flight you want to be on, and book the one before it. This is what made it possible for me to make my connection, despite being late, having to wait to claim a bag, and making a 15 minute walk to the Air New Zealand terminal because two shuttles in a row went "out of service."

I checked in at Air New Zealand with 15 minutes to spare (they have a 90 minute cut-off), and headed to their Koru Lounge to freshen up. The lounge was comfortable, stocked with New Zealand wines, New Zealand vodka, and a decent snack buffet with salad and sandwich fixings. I opted for a bowl of comforting chicken noodle soup and a lovely glass of white New Zealand sparkling wine.

About 40 minutes later they called us to board, and as I approached the jetway I was thrilled to see I would be flying on one of the 777's in the special "All Black" livery. That's one sexy airplane, painted to honor the New Zealand national sporting teams.

If that wasn't already exciting enough for my passenger airplane nerd self, I nearly gasped when I boarded. US-based airlines: this is the future of long-haul travel. Get with the damn program already. Even your recent updates seem a decade behind. I chose to fly Air New Zealand's new Pacific Premium Economy class because it was only about $100 more expensive than flying a nasty United/Continental 757 in coach via Newark. Even adding on the $70 to fly from SFO to LAX, even adding on the hassle of the SFO delays and then race-walking from Terminal 6 baggage claim to Air New Zealand check-in at the farthest reaches of Terminal 2 while dragging over 50 lbs. of scuba gear, it was worth every bit of effort and expense. I go to the United Kingdom every year, and I *will* go via Air New Zealand again unless United miraculously steps it up. Or unless I like Turkish Airways Premium Economy even more (I'll talk about that in a couple of weeks).

The Pacific Premium Economy section is nearly indistinguishable at first glance from the Business Class cabin. As far as I can tell, the Biz people have lay-flat seats with seat-high ottomans, and the Premium cabin has pod seats that recline a not-quite reasonable amount and have cute bean bag hassocks. I'm short, so I piled my bean bag on top of my pillow on top of my tote bag to get it high enough. Each seat is a cocooned pod, with tons of shoulder room. Each seat is also stocked with a bottle of water, a real pillow, and a decent blanket. I somehow managed to snag a bulkhead seat, and found that the bulkhead curves, making it much easier to get from the window seat to the aisle.

It gets better: there was a nice amenities kit, with lip balm, moisturizer, ear plugs, toothbrush, toothpaste, eye shade, and purple socks. There's a regular power socket at each seat. Nice New Zealand Wines are included in the ticket price (you have to pay on United transatlantic flights). The bathrooms are roomy (and stylish!) and have cloth fingertip towels.

The food isn't just edible, it's tasty. The last time I flew trans-oceanic Economy on United I got a foil dish of pasta that tasted worse than Chef Boy-ar-dee. Tonight's meal consisted of non-iceberg salad with a slab of smoked salmon, warm garlic bread, cheese and crackers, and a choice of main dishes -- all served on real plates with real silverware. I had the lamb, which was paired with roasted potatoes and green peas. The lamb was a trifle chewy but in all honesty I cannot complain. The peas tasted faintly of mint and were delicious. I washed it down with two glasses of a New Zealand Pinot Noir, served from a real bottle, served in a glass glass, and finished with a slice of raspberry swirl cheesecake. At dessert time, the attendants offered a choice of a white dessert wine or port. I chose the port and found it to be pleasant.

Oh, and about those peas. I ate every single one of them, and I hate peas. (If you don't believe me I'll give you my Mother's email address and you can ask her.)

Then there's the gate-to-gate entertainment system: it lets you browse the offerings and save what you like to a personal playlist. You can start and stop anything at will. And if that isn't good enough, you can borrow a special cable to connect your iDevice to your video screen.

So, at this point, I am very much in favor of Air New Zealand's Pacific Premium Economy. Finally, a service for people who a willing to pay somewhat more than cattle class but who don't have the $$$ to shell out for an actual business class ticket. If you're going to spend 10 1/2 hours on a plane, you might as well be comfortable.

The only downside to all this is that I only slept about an hour and a half on the flight. The seat just didn't recline enough for me, and the adjustable head rest only goes up and down. It doesn't have the folding side flaps that cradle your head like on some United planes. All in all I'd say Pacific Premium Economy beats the US carriers' regular and "extra legroom" coach offerings by a landslide. Just don't expect it to be as comfortable as the old-style "easy chair" business class seats, much less the new lay flat ones. However, the price is a lot more like regular coach than it is like business class, and the cabin service is simply delightful.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Holy Cow, Where Did the Time Go?

I didn't quite realize that it has been about a year since I last posted. Yay, I have a dead blog! A lot has happened in the past year. I went scuba diving in Okinawa, Hawaii (Kona and Oahu), the Turks & Caicos Islands, Brazil, and Bonaire. I became obsessed with Waikiki and visited a half dozen times. I found out I had a kidney stone. A friend died. My mother broke her neck (she's okay, no neurological damage). I struggled through a lot of sadness and anger regarding divorcing a guy who I only had stayed married to for nine months. I read a lot of books. A LOT of books: the fiction ones were mostly by Edith Wharton, the non-fiction ones were mostly about what happens in abusive relationships and how to heal from them. I petted my cat a lot.

And now, a year later, I'm about to set off again on another Big Trip. Every year, at the end of May, the world's most prestigious ballroom dancing competition takes place in the sometimes cold and dreary Victorian working-class resort of Blackpool, England, on the Irish Sea. If this were tennis, it would be like Wimbeldon. I've gone nearly every year since 2007 with some lovely friends from my days as a ballroom dancer. I realized a few years ago that if I was going to all the trouble to get from San Francisco to the UK, I might as well tack on some other traveling. One year I went to Scotland. Last year I continued around the world to Okinawa and Hawaii. This year I will go diving in the Maldives.

In less than 24 hours I will set out on this latest adventure. I'm a bit of a commercial passenger air travel nerd, in that I know the three-letter codes for far too many airports, and the two-letter codes for more airlines than the average person. I also hate being uncomfortable on the plane. I bring this up to explain my somewhat odd routing for my trip: SFO-LAX-LHR MAN-DOH-MLE-DOH-CDG-IST-LAX-SFO. To make a long story about poor planning, changes in plans, and randomness short, I ended up needing to buy a one-way ticket to London, and a one-way ticket home from Europe. I'll get to the return part another time. When I went to book the trip to London, one-way tickets on United were ridiculously priced at about $1200. And this wasn't on the nice non-stop 777 from San Francisco (SFO) to London Heathrow (LHR). No, this was on a workaday United A-320 to Newark (EWR), and then a god-awful 757 to London. First of all, I'm a bit of a snob and feel a bit creeped out flying a single-aisle plane across the ocean. Secondly, I cannot sleep on flights shorter than about 8 hours. The SFO-EWR-LHR route would give me two approximately six-hour legs -- both long enough to be uncomfortable, yet too short for me to get any sleep. Prompted by an ad I had seen a few months ago for Air New Zealand's Premium Economy service, I decided to look into flying on them via Los Angeles (LAX). The price was about $100 more, but service was going to be so much better: bigger, more padded seat, an interesting-looking beanbag footrest, better food, and free booze. (Yes, United started charging for drinks in coach on their transatlantic flights a few years ago.) I decided to give it a try, even though it meant spending another $70 for a ticket to get myself from SFO to LAX. Anyway, I'm quite exited about sampling this service and will write all about it after I get to London on Monday.

If anyone is reading this, awesome, nice to have you come back after I disappeared for a year.