Saturday, May 26, 2012
Thursday, May 24, 2012
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.
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
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."
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).
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
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.