Thursday, April 28, 2011

Around the world in 52 days

If you are old enough to remember Cinerama, you may recall Around the World in Eighty Days, with David Niven as Phileas Fogg and Cantinflas as Passepartout in the 1956 film adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. The movie poster featured the two of them in a balloon.

This morning, eating breakfast in the executive lounge at the Hilton South Wharf in Melbourne, my wife and I looked out the window and saw five balloons rising over the harbor. The hostess explained that this is a daily occurrence, organized by commercial balloon excursion companies for people who want to pay ridiculous sums to then have to rise at three or four in the morning in order to get to the launch site in time for their adventure. I guess we’ll be passing on that experience, although we were up well before then today, having just arrive in Melbourne yesterday morning local time and not having adjusted completely to the time shift yet.

In any case, the blog will be given over to a travel journal for the next few weeks. If this bores you to tears, feel free to stop back mid-June, when it will return to the regular mishmash of more professional observations.

The occasion for this junket is a series of speaking engagements Tina arranged for herself in such a way that we end up circumnavigating the globe. This is something airlines like to encourage people to do, and so they offer deals. In particular, Star Alliance (owned by Lufthansa but participated in by many airlines) offers two plans, one about half the price of the other. If you can limit your itinerary to five stops (stops quite loosely defined, so that you can land in one city and take off from another, arranging your own transportation between them) and you can make the trip in less than 26,000 air miles, then you can take advantage of the lower-priced deal. Tina, in addition to being the sort of person who gets invited to speak all over the world, is also a savvy travel planner; she gets the credit for making this trip possible.

We also have a pretty good deal with Hilton that makes it possible for us to hole up for free in luxury hotels from time to time and eat free in the executive lounge. That cuts way down on daily expenditures as we go along, even as it embarrassingly intensifies the sense that we’ve become the kind of tourists we mocked in our youth.

Eat your heart out, United
The domestic airline whose mileage program we participate in is United, a Star Alliance member. Tina accumulates enough miles to qualify for a variety of privileges that I, as her spouse, get to enjoy as well. The occasional upgrade out of cattle class is one.

The first two legs of our trip were a short flight from Hartford to Washington followed by a cross-country flight to San Francisco, where Tina grew up and still has friends. We flew first class on both planes. This is not particularly special. While there are only two seats on either side of the aisle, rather than three, it is the space between seats that is wider, not the space between the armrests. In fact, in economy class, in most rows, you can raise the armrests between seats, providing a little extra hip room. In first class, the armrests are wide and filled with gadgetry, but they cannot be raised, so the seat is effectively narrower than an economy seat. There is slightly more legroom, but the tray tables extend only so far, making it a tight squeeze for someone my size, and the distance to the seat in front is not quite enough to comfortably open up a laptop. So much for plan A. Meanwhile, the entertainment, such as it is, is on an overhead monitor, not a seatback monitor, so you have no choice in what to watch. The only personal option is to not bother putting on your headphones; that’s the one I exercised, as the programs on offer were not suitable for anyone over the age of 13. There was a meal, but it was nothing memorable.

After a few days in the bay area, during which I was treated to lunch by a client and had drinks and light meal with some editing colleagues, it was off to Melbourne by way of Auckland, on Air New Zealand. We had to check out of our San Francisco hotel at 3:00 in the afternoon, but we couldn’t check in for our flight until 6:15. A good part of the interval between was spent in slapstick comedy as we chased between terminal buildings trying to track down a lost passport that wasn’t lost at all, just in the wrong person’s possession. Let’s just say that one of us was (accidentally) holding both of our passports and neither of us realized that. By the time we found it, it was time to get in line to check our bags. Then we were finally able to navigate unencumbered. We headed through security and on to the lounge.

Traveling as Star Alliance gold members, we have access to airport lounges. We had the choice of United’s Red Carpet Club or the Eva Airways Evergreen Club lounge shared by several of the international carriers. Hmmm. Decisions, decisions. Well, we know what Red Carpet Club offers—cookies and crackers, mini-slices of plastic-encased processed cheese, underripe fruit, and soft drinks. Anything else that might be on offer, such as beer or mediocre wine, comes at a steep price. Let’s try the other one. Lovely trays of charcuterie, interesting New Zealand cheeses, sliced fresh fruit, New Zealand wines (quite nice), and more. All free. Not a hard choice.

We had paid for an upgrade to Economy Premium for the fifteen-hour flight to Auckland. Now on United, there is something called Economy Plus, which is the first several rows in the economy cabin. It gets you five inches additional knee room, thus preventing permanent injury, but is otherwise identical to regular cattle class. On Air New Zealand, though, it entails a substantial array of perks. On board, we learned that Economy Premium is its own seating area. Leg room is comparable to United’s first class seating. The tray tables push away several inches further than in United’s first class, making it possible for me to sit up and eat like a normal human. A large storage locker on the window side holds a large, heavy duvet to supplement the standard-issue airplane blanket. Service includes complimentary beer or red, white, or sparkling New Zealand wine and the sorts of amenities, such as hot washcloths before meals, that United provides in Business Class. The supper menu started with cured and seared tuna with salad ratatouille and lobster dressing over mesclun greens. For the entree we had a choice of New Zealand lamb lin with yellow bell pepper salsa, lyonnaise potatoes, and broccolini with lemon; pan-seared cod with lemon caper sauce, baby potatoes, spinach, and caramelized shallots; or wood-roasted chicken breast with soft herb mash, zucchini, mushrooms, and red onion. We both had the lamb. A basket of various interesting warm breads was passed with dinner. Dessert was a berry almond sponge cake with a dollop of cinnamon cream on the side. There was an after-dinner plate of New Zealand cheeses with grapes and apricots, but neither of us had room to consider even looking at it.

Breakfast began with a fruit plate, yogurt, croissants (warm) with New Zealand butter and fruit conserves. Cereal was available but we passed. There was a further choice of cheddar and chive scrambled egg served with chicken sausage, mushroom ragout, and cherry tomatoes; or Belgian waffles, strawberries, manuka honey apple syrup, and freshly whipped banana cream. Tina had the eggs. I had neither, as I was still full from dinner.

The menu for those traveling the other direction, Auckland to California, is entirely different for both meals, featuring more fresh New Zealand ingredients, but of the same quality. While I don’t know what the choices were in regular economy, I note that this is the Premium Economy menu I’m talking about, not the same menu as is offered in business class or in first class, and yet it is quite elegant, and the food lives up to the description.

The onboard entertainment system on many international carriers consists of individually controlled seatback monitors. The Air New Zealand system, in addition to whatever musical offerings, informational pages about destinations, and television episodes it had, offered a choice of seventy movies—many more than I’ve seen offered on any other airline. I generally don’t bother unwrapping the headphones. There were the expected kids’ movies, romantic comedies, and recent action flicks. There were extensive selections in Japanese and Chinese. And there were classics. On the transpacific flight I saw Elmer Gantry and almost all of The Misfits, neither of which I’d ever seen. So that was pretty cool. On the Auckland to Melbourne flight, I saw Buena Vista Social Club, another I had missed.

About an hour before breakfast, we were awakened by a PA announcement requesting the assistance of a doctor or registered nurse. Tina turned out to be the only doctor who volunteered, and her major contribution was to be present so that the aircraft’s medical kit could legally be opened. The medical problem was one that the nurses who volunteered were much more qualified to treat than Tina was. Nonetheless, the crew were quite grateful for her stepping forward. As a consequence, on our Auckland to Melbourne flight, we were upgraded from the regular economy seats we had booked (I can tolerate tight knee room for three hours) to business class.

In Auckland we did a little airport shopping and proceeded to the Air New Zealand lounge for our second breakfast of the morning. (Really, we ate little, but there was a nice buffet spread that included scrambled eggs, pancakes, a selection of breads and pastries, fresh fruit, and more.)

Business class was interesting. Maybe you’ve seen ads for business class seats that recline into full-length individual beds. That was the arrangement. Each pod included a comfortable seat (wider, finally, than any of the other seats so far), an ottoman that doubled as a guest seat (it had a seatbelt) and a large table (normally stowed) that is adequate for two people to eat facing each other, which is how we had our third breakfast yesterday. Service began with a choice of water, juice, sparkling wine, or a banana-honey smoothie. This was followed by a sliced fruit plate, assorted cereals, bircher muesli, and yogurt. The passed bread basket included croissants, muffins, Vogel’s (a New Zealand brand of dense, whole grain bread), or fruit toast, served with New Zealand butter and fruit conserves. This was followed by a choice of smoked chicken pesto and parmesan omelette with slow-roasted tomato and chicken sausage; or corned beef and root vegetable cakes with grilled field mushroom (actually, it was half a portobello), leaf spinach, blistered vine tomato, and tarragon mustard mayonnaise. The breakfast entrees were credited to, respectively, chef Geoff Scott of Vinnies Restaurant, Auckland, and Rex Morgan, Boulcott Street Bistro, Wellington.( A third chef pictured in the menu did not have a dish listed on this version.) The corned beef was a minor and subtle ingredient in an almost latke-like cake of shredded vegetables—not what either of was expecting, but much lighter and more subtle.

As a further gesture, when we were about to land, the plane’s concierge stopped by to speak with Tina and handed her a bottle of one of New Zealand’s better Cabernet Sauvignons.

United Airlines is the U.S. flag carrier. We’ve flown their D.C. to Paris route, once, by mistake. In comparison with any other Star Alliance carrier we’ve been on, they are an embarrassment to their flag. The food is barely edible, even by American standards. Service is generally polite but never warm, regardless of class. On the Paris flight, there were perhaps two members of the cabin crew who spoke French. Every other flag carrier we’ve traveled on has been superior on all counts and in all travel classes.

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