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.