Friday, February 26, 2010

Cutbacks and Payback

Travelers in Europe can be forgiven for wondering what the heck has been going on the in last week or so, as furious transport unions have launched walkouts and strikes, or threatened to.

In a word: payback. In several words: payback prompted by cutbacks.

British Airways cabin crew have voted to authorize a strike. Lufthansa pilots walked off the job for a day, then walked back on the job, then said they'll walk out again next month.

French air traffic controllers are spooked by proposals to integrate European nations' air-traffic systems under one regime - what the International Air Transport Association (IATA) calls "a single European sky.'' The French controllers fear this means job losses.

These and other labor actions are payback for staff cutbacks and various austerity measures imposed by cash-strapped employers on their employees.

How cash-strapped? Consider this: Air France-KLM lost 215 euros in the third quarter of its fiscal year. The Spanish flag carrier Iberia - poised to merge with BA - lost 273 million euros in 2009. Other European carriers are also feeling pressure. Scandinavian Airlines could come apart, with the governments of Sweden and Denmark talking about selling their stakes in SAS.

Europe isn't alone. Asian and North American carriers, too, are straining under high operating costs for fuel and security, and low revenue due to global recession, security fears and nervousness about the overblown H1N1 swine flu virus. Japan Airlines is bankrupt. U.S. carriers have bled money and are still downsizing to smaller planes, cutting the number of flights and eliminating unprofitable routes. Part of the cost-cutting in the United States includes slashing pensions, wages and benefits. Employees are understandably angry and afraid.

The simple, brutal truth is that disruptions in service will continue in the foreseeable future, especially in Europe, where organized labor is traditionally strong. What can we as travelers do about that? Not much. Fasten your seat belts: It may well get worse before it gets better.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Berlin, Re-born

Most of the travel world limped through 2009, but last year was a good year for Berlin. The German capital celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the hated Berlin Wall - and visitors to the city rose 4.5 percent, even in the depths of the Great Recession.

Celebrations and remembrances of the momentous changes of 1989 were big all over Europe, as I can attest. On Nov. 9, exactly 20 years after the Berlin Wall was breeched, I happened to be visiting Rome. When I walked to the Spanish Steps, I saw hundreds of people milling about, heard a band warming up and spied a temporary replica of none other than the Berlin Wall sprawling across the centuries-old steps. Europe was partying. Europe was happy. It has been two decades since the end of the Cold War. Europe, Germany and Berlin are reunited.

Absent another big bash - the 21st anniversary just doesn't have that same cachet - what can Berlin do for an encore?

Plenty, according to the chief executive officer of Berlin Tourismus Marketing, Burkhard Kieker, who says that the Fall of the Wall has put Berlin back on the travel map - and gives the city a platform for crafting future changes.

"This was for Berlin a starting point,'' Kieker said at a stopover in California. "Berlin was really off the map. When the wall came down, it took us quite a while to rebuild Berlin.

"In the last century,'' Kieker continued, "there were three major European capitals: London, Paris and Berlin. But this was gone.''

Now, though, Berlin is feeling good, upgrading its infrastructure, enjoying its new status as a capital of cool among artists and rolling out new attractions to draw travelers.

"Berlin is attracting so many young people from all over the world,'' Kieker observed. "It is affordable. It is receptive to new art. Can you imagine being a young artist? This reputation spreads through word of mouth to others. A certain atmosphere attracts others who want to see what's going on.''

How affordable is affordable? According to Berlin Tourismus, a room that would cost 139 euros in New York, 111 euros in Paris and 107 euros in Rome costs 76 euros in Berlin.

Eleven new hotels are slated to open over the next year in Berlin, says Kirsten Schmidt, Berlin Tourismus's director of public relations in North America. Most will be small "urban design hotels.''

On the cultural front, Berlin's promoters are touting the re-opening, last Oct. 17, of the once-war-ruined New Museum, with its superb ancient Egypt collection. For several years now, Berlin - so rich in museums, opera houses, symphony venues, clubs and galleries - has staged an annual Long Night of the Museums, during which time major institutions stay open until 2 a.m. The price is right: There isn't one. The annual Berlin International Film Festival, too, is one of the best in the world; I covered it back in the day for the San Francisco Examiner and Motorland (now Via) magazine, on my first visit. How committed are Berliners to cinema? I saw people lining up for a film-showing at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. In a snowstorm.

I am happy to see Berlin's revival. The city has had much to overcome: war, occupation, division and a delicate reunification. It is a work in progress, but the progress is real, and the reborn metropolis is one of the most compelling destinations in Europe.

Since my most recent visit, in 2006, the city has opened a state-of-the-art central train station for long-distance rail travel, and I am keen to see it. Berlin is now busy expanding and modernizing Schoenefeld airport, which will give the city renewed status as an international air hub; Tegel airport is too small and long ago fell below the standard expected of a major capital city. This is changing, too, at last.

The Wall? Seven-hundred meters of the symbol of Cold War division survive the tear-down of two decades ago, and it is of course a major tourist attraction.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

One Man's Vancouver - The Shortlist

If you're in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics, congratulations. If not, fear not - the city will still be there when the Games are a memory, and it will still be a cool place to be.

The first time I visited Vancouver, I was in backpacker mode. I took a Canadian National train from Toronto through the lakes and woods of Ontario, across the broad Prairies, through the Canadian Rockies of Alberta and British Columbia and on into Canada's largest West Coast city. I slept in my seat during the three-day trip to save money. When I arrived, I found that Vancouver was booked tight for an international convention of Jehovah's Witnesses. I hopped a Greyhound bus and kept going all the way to Oakland, California. I spent only a few hours in Vancouver, so the inaugural visit was pretty much a bust.

Things have picked up for me since then, I am happy to say. I have revisited Vancouver many times and stayed more than a few hours. I've had some great food, stayed in some great hotels - I've actually been able to sleep while prone instead of crumpled into a seat - and had fun exploring the town and just hanging out.

Here are good places to check out in Van - as the city is known to some of its fans - if you are planning to go. It's a short list of tips, and totally subjective - omitting, for example, the fabulous Asian food and shops in Richmond, near the airport, and designated fun zones such as Gastown. But I think it will hold up. Anyway, here it is:


Bacchus, Wedgewood Hotel, 845 Hornby St., tel. 604.689.7777, My wife's favorite eatery in all of this redoubtable food town. This is formal French cuisine at its best, in elegant surroundings, with a fine wine list. Not cheap, but worth it.

Glowbal Grill, 1079 Mainland St., tel. 604.629.3024, Yes, that's Glowbal with a W. Juicy steaks and savory satays are featured. Located in Yaletown, a lively district of converted warehouses. Glowbal is a good place for a drink, too.

West, 2881 Granville St., tel. 604.738.8938, Cutting-edge, seasonal food in stylish surroundings with a chic bar. Formerly known as Ouest, reborn under executive chef Warren Geraghty.

Refuel, 1944 W. Fourth St., tel. 604.288.7905, Located in the Kitsilano district, a 10-minute cab ride from downtown. I liked its predecessor, Fuel, where I sat at the counter and chatted with the hospitable cooks and servers. Writing of Refuel, the New York Times cited "the tattooed chef Robert Belcham.'' There's something more interesting about him: his food. Refined but not intimidating, Belcham's fare is very good comfort food.


Wedgewood Hotel, see above. A small, European-style hotel with conservatively elegant furnishings and comfortable suites. Downtown. The Bacchus Lounge is a good place for breakfast.

Fairmont Hotel Vancouver Airport, Richmond, B.C., tel. 866.540.4441, Don't laugh. This decade-old 4-star hotel is located actually in the airport, right above U.S. departures. It has essential sound-proofing and a stress-busting spa. 20 minutes from downtown by SkyTrain.

Loden Hotel, 1177 Melville St., tel. 604.669.5060, This cool 'style' hotel, with its chic bar, opened in late 2008 in the Coal Harbour area near downtown. Voya restaurant keynotes the 77-room hotel.

Shangri-la Hotel, 1128 W. Georgia St., tel. 604.689.11120, Opened in 2009, this branch of the Hong Kong luxury chain occupies the first 15 floors of a tallest-in-town 61-story tower. Don't miss the Tibetan-themed CHI Spa and the groovy bar.


Vancouver Art Gallery, downtown Vancouver, A good place to check out West Coast art and artists such as the painter Emily Carr, associated with Canada's Group of 7. Through May 2, the VAG is mounting a display of Leonardo da Vinci's master drawings of the human body, called "Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man.''

Robson Street, also downtown. Just walk it and follow your nose. Noodle joints, bars, shops, lots of car-cruising and eyeballing, it's central Van's liveliest street.

Granville Island, on False Creek, near downtown by the Granville Street Bridge. Actually a tidy spur of landlocked shops, food markets, eateries and more. It's served by water taxis from parts of downtown. I met Masa Shiraki there in his Artisan Sake Maker shop. Shiraki, who emigrated to Canada from Japan, holds tastings of his house-made saki on-site. Don't miss the surprisingly rich and finished B.C. red wines in shops on and off Granville Island.

University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, 6393 NW Marine Dr., tel. 604.822.5087, Nope, it's not dry as dust and not boring. This is an extensive and thoughtful take on the cultures of B.C.'s First Nations, the native cultures who preceeded Europeans and other later arrivals in this beautiful province.

Stanley Park, West End, on English Bay. Well, duh! you say - how obvious. It IS obvious. But Stanley Park, the green heart of Vancouver, ringed by a scenic seawall great for biking, walking, roller-blading, jogging and taking in the breathtaking view of the mountains across the water, is a must-do anyway. It's one of the great urban parks.

For more information, contact Tourism Vancouver (, tel. 604, 682.2222), which represents the city, or Tourism British Columbia (, tel. 800.435.5622), which represents the whole province. Both are among the best in the business.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fat Chance: What the Pilot Saw

If you follow travel news, you've probably heard about the angry online exchange between movie director/actor Kevin Smith, a self-described fat guy, and Southwest Airlines, which ejected Smith from a flight prior to takeoff when the captain saw Smith wasn't able to fit into a seat on a crowded plane.

Smith took exception to being ejected, sounded off on his Twitter page, and an embarrased Southwest gave him a $100 U.S. voucher, put him on a later flight, apologized on Twitter and called Smith on the phone to say how abjectly sorry they were for following their own rules.

According to Smith, he had bought and paid for two seats, to help him get comfortable, on a later flight from Oakland, California, to Burbank, but boarded the earlier flight on standby to reach his destination sooner, thus inadvertently setting off the crisis. Smith's fans voiced full-throated support for him in online chatter.

A clear case of discrimination, right?

Not necessarily.

Smith wrote "I'm way fat...But I'm not THERE just yet, '' in his initial complaint about Southwest. He is a person of girth. I was a movie critic and feature writer a decade back. When I was working that gig, I interviewed Smith just after his first hit movie, "Clerks,'' came out. (His new effort is the Bruce Willis star vehicle "Cop Out.'') Smith was a big guy then, and judging from recent photos, is a bigger guy now.

So, what to do at a time when travelers are growing larger and aircraft operated by cash-strapped commercial airlines are growing smaller and more crowded?

Airlines, considering the expanding waistlines of passengers, have to decide what to do when a person who is way overweight can't fit into a seat or raise and lower the armrest. Some carriers - United Airlines, Air France and, of course, Southwest, among them - require hefty travelers to pay for two seats, with the understanding that the second-seat fare will be refunded if the plane doesn't fill up. The issue, airlines say, is the safety and especially the comfort of smaller passengers, who feel themselves practically smothered by their seatmates.

One voice of reason amid the rants and the vents appeared in an story, attributed to David Margulies, a public-relations executive who specializes in crisis management.

According to the report, "Margulies questioned whether the airline was being too polite by apologizing to Smith when its policy was both fair and reasonable. He said too many companies backed down from reasonable policies beause they are scared of negative publicity...''

According to the report, Margulies issued a statement, saying in part "Southwest has taken a very reasonable and fair approach to dealing with the issue of overweight customers and should be applauded for their actions. This is the time that customers and employees should take to the Internet in defense of the company.''

Consider this post a defense. Discrimination against travelers on the basis of, say, race or ethnicity is wrong; race and ethnicity are not chosen. Poundage is; losing weight may not be easy, but it is do-able. Overweight people can choose to slim down or not.

Moreover: In an age when commercial flights are increasingly crowded and cramped, and medical experts are deeply concerned about an epidemic of health-threatening obesity, and airlines are trying to cut their considerable fuel costs and go green in part by taking excess weight off of their planes, devising policies for heavy passengers is not illogical or unfair.

Now, the airlines need to be consistent and courageous and stand by their policies.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Police barricades blocked off part of Brook Street and constables stood watch in front of London's Claridge's Hotel when I checked-in a few years back on a visit to the UK. You see, Madonna was in the house, renting an entire floor in Claridge's for her stay during London Fashion Week, and the Material Girl's visit had to be draped with 24/7 attention and security.

A small number of well-heeled elite travelers - fashionistas - hit the road to catch the big fashion shows in major capitals every year, eager to see the latest creations from famous designers, such as the British fashion leader Alexander McQueen, who has died at age 40. McQueen's passing Feb. 11 was treated as major news in the BBC World telecast I watched last night. Early media reports suggest his death may be a suicide. Whether or not that proves to be fact, it is a dramatic note on which to begin this year's Fashion Week in New York; McQueen had been expected to attend.

I am sorry to hear that the designer's life ended so soon; 40 is not old. There's no telling what he might have come up with had he lived longer.

I find it hard to love the outsized role the fashion industry plays in contemporary global pop culture, however, given fashion's terminal trendiness, its obsession with celebrity, its flashy, pouty runway displays, its love of the spectacle, its gleefully unwearable clothes. Fashion adepts, like McQueen, have real talent, to be sure; they must be masters of material, form, color and movement, and the good ones demonstrate admirable skill. Still, there is much vanity and triviality in the fashion world, and fashion's relevance to the overwhelming majority of the planet's people - especially in hard times - is dubious.

As shown by BBC News, McQueen's most out-there designs look as though they come from both Mars and Venus. 'Reptilian' and 'gothic' are words commentators used to describe them. In a Feb. 12 New York Times account of the British star's career, the writers observed matter-of-factly "Much of what Mr. McQueen crafted for the runway was difficult to sell.'' The Times also noted that McQueen, son of an East End cab driver, was "dubbed the 'hooligan' of British fashion.'' Indeed, he seemed a self-created bad-boy in the vein of the artist Damien Hirst, the actor James Dean, the chef Gordon Ramsay and any number of self-destructive pop music stars.

Fashionistas will continue to travel, of course, haunting Fashion Week in media capitals all over the world, making glad the hearts of restaurant owners, art directors, editors, photographers, Madonna and Lady Gaga, DJs, club owners, limo drivers, bodyguards, caterers, 5-star hotels and airlines with caviar and Champagne premium cabins. The road rolls on.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New and Good: Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel

MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA - The world can always use a good new hotel, especially in Silicon Valley, a subset of the San Francisco Bay Area known for leading-edge high technology if not for great hotels. Oh, there are a few fine ones around, among them the Four Seasons Hotel, on Interstate 101 in East Palo Alto, and the Fairmont Hotel, in downtown San Jose. But cool hotels are not so thick on the ground as microchips.

The Rosewood Sand Hill, which opened in April 2009, aims to change that, and the property is doing its part. My wife and I spent a night there recently, and came away impressed. Guest rooms in the 123-room property are spacious and inviting, the newly planted grounds are graced by attractive olive trees planted underneath with fragrant lavender, the place has a cool bar, an exquisite spa called Sense, and a fine-dining restaurant, Madera, that is first-rate, with an innovative menu and extensive, high-end wine list.

The Rosewood is run by the Dallas luxury operator Rosewood Hotels and Resorts, which also operates New York's Carlyle, the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek and Jumby Bay resort on Antiqua, among others. The Rosewood Sand Hill is located very close to Interstate 280, the highway that winds along the ridgetops south of San Francisco and north of San Jose. Unlike a number of lesser hotels, the Rosewood Sand Hill thought to sound-proof the windows; you have to press an ear to the pane to hear the freeway's hum. Befitting its name, the Rosewood Sand Hill is located on Sand Hill Road, the near-legendary preferred address of Silicon Valley venture capital firms. The hotel is a mile west of brainiac-rich Stanford University, which owns the hotel. Even closer is the Stanford Shopping Center, fit for all your retail-therapy needs.

We stayed on the second, top floor of a detached townhouse not far from the drive-up main entrance to the hotel, which presides over 16 acres of prime property. Our Rosewood Suite had views of the interstate, which is, of course, prosaic to look at, and woodsy foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which are anything but. The bathroom was big enough to get lost in. We did a bit of walking around the hotel grounds, but our stroll was curtailed by rainy, blustery winter weather. Nevermind, we get the idea; the place is lovely.

As you might expect for a hotel in the heartland of high-tech, guest-room technology is state-of-the-art. I didn't use half of it, my Permian Age tech needs being easily met, but for those who need the latest, the Rosewood Sand Hill is a good choice. I'll let the hotel fact sheet sum it up:

"Technology features include Control14 automation, which uses a single remote to control lighting, room temperature, television, music and video systems. Guests can also use the remote to make service requests such as valet, housekeeping, room service, spa appointments and more. Other in-room technological amenities include the Philips SoundBar, a one-piece integrated audio and video system that delivers full multi-channel surround sound, providing a full home theater experience with excellent sound and picture quality.''

Georgina loved Sense, the Rosewood Spa, where she got a 90-minute Swedish massage. "It was great,'' she said afterward. "They really have their systems down. The spa is beautifully appointed. I loved the massage. The overall spa experience was very sensual. They never dropped the ball, like a lot of spas do.''

Breakfast in the signature restaurant, Madera - bathed in natural light in the morning - is nicely done. Dinner is even better. We supped in Madera after sipping cocktails in the bar just off the restaurant, which was really hopping the Saturday night we stayed. We were expertly guided in choices of wines by Madera's wine director, Paul Mekis. Madera's executive chef, Peter Rudolph, came by to say hello. Rudolph creates lovely food. Emphasizing seasonal, local ingredients, it could be described elegant comfort food. Our dinner, in keeping with the wintery weather outside, was hearty fare. (In summer, guests can nosh out by the pool, too.)

We started off with roasted chestnut soup, pickled quince and candied walnuts. This incredibly tasty appetizer was accompanied by glasses of Cirrus Syrah 2005, from Stellienbosch, South Africa. The nicely fruit-forward wine, produced by a partnership of golfer Ernie Els and Silveroak Winery, was a neat fit. A warm wild mushroom bread salad, baby carrots, deeply savory poached duck egg, chicory, and sherry shallot thyme vingaigrette was smartly paired with a 2003 Domaine Heresztyn Burgundy.

The mains were robust and flavorful. I had seared day boat scallops, roasted chanterelle mushrooms, rapini shoots, apple, turnip and puree huckleberry jus and sipped a glass of 2007 Regis Bouvier "Close du Roy,'' Marsannay blanc, from Burgundy. My wife feasted on Duroc porchetta, roasted autumn root vegtetables, polenta and spigarello and sampled a glass of 2005 Chateau de Fonsalette Reserve Cotes du Rhone. She loved the crackling from Duroc, a heritage pig originally bred in Yorkshire. Suffice it to say, the meal was sublime.

We were too stuffed for sticky, gooey desserts, however appealing they sounded in theory. We shared a selection of California artisan cheeses accompanied by small glasses of 1985 Graham's port. It was the perfect way to finish at this special-occasion restaurant. Time was - not so long ago, maybe 15 years - when hotel food seemed an oxymoron. No more. Now, a fine hotel like the Rosewood Sand Hill can have a fine restaurant, like Madera. It's a welcome evolution.

Opening in the midst of a deep recession is not good timing for a hotel (of course, projects of this nature are in the pipeline for years before they actually open). Already, the Rosewood Sand Hill has joined the small circle of elite hotels in Silicon Valley. Now, if the multimillionaire techies and road warriors will look up from their mobile devices...

The Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel is located at 2825 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park, CA 94025 USA, tel. 650.561.1500, e-mail: Web:

Monday, February 8, 2010

Pillow-and Blanket-Talk

Which new airline fee will be the proverbial camel that breaks the weary air traveler's back? Maybe none of them; travelers seem to be getting used to paying extra for snacks, hot meals, legroom, windowand aisle seats, checked luggage, and other things not included in the price of basic airfare.

American Airlines will shortly become the latest carrier to charge extra in economy class for a pillow and blanket - at least on flights over two hours within North America, the Caribbean and Central America. The blanket and pillow will be packaged together and cost $8 USD as of May 1 for those who want a little extra comfort. Fellow U.S. carriers JetBlue Airways and US Airways already charge for pillows and blankets; both of those airlines charge $7 USD.

Might as well get used to it. It's annoying, but this is the brave new world of air travel - especially so on U.S. domestic flights. Airlines are starved for revenue, thanks to the Great Recession, security scares and security costs and the volatile price of jet fuel. The airlines have tried to raise fares, but consumer push-back has kept those raises at minimal levels - as compared to, say, the soaring cost of private health care in the United States, where patients have little choice but to pay up. Compared to that, the airline add-ons are small stuff.

Still, one does wish air fares - once all-inclusive or nearly so - were all-inclusive again. It's cleaner, faster, clearer, compared to the maze of fees, taxes, surcharges and add-ons that passengers pay now. But until airlines can return to profit on a consistent basis - and until passengers accept at least modest airfare hikes - the nickle and diming will continue.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

'Chic Battersea'

On the New York Times' interesting and useful "In Transit'' blog the other day, I caught a reference to a new food shop and culinary school, established by British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, in what called "London's chic Battersea district.''

Chic? Battersea? Trendy, maybe. "In transition,'' definitely. But, chic and Battersea are two words that seldom go together - all the less so for those who have known the Thames-side district for a long time.

My English-born wife grew up in Battersea, when the south London area was a decidedly gritty and emphatically downmarket place. A working-class district across the Thames from posh Chelsea and long-dominated by the massive Battersea Power Station, Battersea was heavily bombed during World War II, due to the presence of the power station and the nearness of Clapham Junction, with its tangle of railroad lines. The house my wife's parents lived in before she was born was destroyed by a German bomb shortly after they providently moved out; the church up the street from their new flat on Rush Hill Road was similarly obliterated. The church was rebuilt, but when we visited Battersea to see her old haunts a few years back, there was still a vacant lot and an impromptu peoples' park where my wife's parents' house once stood. Most of Battersea has been rebuilt, but much of it looks worn and weary.

Still, the old 'hood is changing, if in fits and starts. We toured the former power plant - its high roof caved in, a pair of peregrine falcons nesting in the upper reaches, the station's four landmark smokestacks stabbing the sky - in a golf cart. We were shown around on a press tour by a hard-hatted developer with ambitious plans to renovate the cavernous abandoned plant with housing, retail and dining, complete with a new fleet of swift water taxis. That project appears to have stalled, though riverside Battersea Park right nearby has been brightened, new riverside housing has been built and other changes are afoot.

Walking up Lavender Hill after taking the 137 red double-decker bus from truly chic Mayfair, we came to a stretch of road that hosted no fewer than eight estate agents' shops hawking real state. Humble flats of the type my wife grew up in were selling as condominiums for staggering sums. The old town hall is now a lively and innovative nexus for new art - the Battersea Arts Centre ( The grotty old pub at the foot of Rush Hill Road was now a smart cafe called the Lavender. The old news agents' shop is yet another estate agents' shop. The run-down old mews where shops took delivery in back is a gated community. We stopped in at an Italian restaurant and had some of the best pizza imaginable.

So far, so encouraging - but chic? I don't think so, not yet. Just off Lavender Hill, the bright re-dos give way to blocks of fixer-uppers and dog-fouled streets. Most of the buildings are Victorian-era and dreary. Clearly, Battersea is seeing better days, and this is all to the good; realistically, it has a ways to go before becoming a bona fide part of gentrified London.

So, Battersea is a work in progress, but an interesting work. If you are traveling to or around London, you might want to check it out. Battersea was until recently considered so marginal, it is one of the few parts of Greater London that doesn't have an Underground station. There is talk of extending the Northern line to Battersea, but so far, it's just talk. In the meanwhile, the district is linked by taxis and especially buses to the rest of London.

The aforementioned Jamie Oliver's food store/culinary school, called Recipease, is located at 48-50 St. John's Road, tel. 44 203 006 0001, Not far off, foodies can also find a wine bar, Artisan & Vine, founded last year, that features "natural and organic' wines. It is located at 126 St. John's Hill, tel. 44 207 228 4997, (

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Last Flight of the Concorde

Today, nearly 10 years after the crash of a Concorde supersonic jetliner in Paris that killed 113 people, a trial to assign responsibility for the accident is getting underway in France. The crash of the Air France Concorde in a plume of fire just after take-off on July 25, 2000, helped put an end to the Concorde and the era of supersonic luxury passenger service. At issue is whether carelessness by Continental Airlines workers caused debris from a Continental aircraft on the runway to puncture fuel tanks on the Concorde. Continental strongly denies the charge.

News of the trial sends my mind racing back to Concorde, the stunningly gorgeous, delta-wing, needle-nosed jetliner that flew commercially from 1976 to 2003, until lingering fears from the 2000 crash combined with recessionary post-Sept. 11 economics to ground the Concorde for good. As it happens, I was on the very last scheduled commercial flight of the Concorde, British Airways flight 002, which zoomed from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to London Heathrow International Airport on Oct. 24, 2003, carrying 100 half-smiley, half-teary, totally excited passengers. (Air France stopped its Concorde service on May 31.)

Everyone on board that day knew the likes of Concorde would not come again for a long while. Even one-way ticket prices north of $6,000 USD to cross the Atlantic didn't allow BA and Air France, the only two airlines ever to fly the Concorde, to recoup the astronomically high costs of fuel needed to operate a combined fleet of 14 Concordes. The 1970s technologies of the Concorde were very fuel-inefficient, and the ear-pounding booms when the plane broke the sound barrier prompted authorities to severely restrict how long and at what speeds the Concorde was allowed to fly over land. That, too, undermined the economics of flying the plane, which had been built with billions of taxpayers' pounds and francs.

I was in the last row of the plane when we took off shortly after sunrise, television camera crews racing in trucks along the runway at JFK to record take-off. As soon as the seatbelt signs blinked off and BA captain Michael Bannister welcomed everyone on board, passengers began popping up, taking each other's photographs in the narrow single aisle, heads bent beneath the low overhead bins, clinking flutes of Champagne as BA flight attendants wriggled past to commence the meal and beverage service. There were lobster fish cakes on the menu, and wild mushroom truffled omelets, and smoked Scottish salmon with caviar. I sipped Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill 1986, one of three Champagnes served that day.

We presslings were seated in the rear cabin of the aircraft; celebrity guests were up front in the first cabin, at safe remove from the journalists. I spotted David Frost, a regal Joan Collins, a chipper and pretty Christie Brinkley. It was a rollicking party all the way across the pond for about three and a half hours - three hours faster than normal aircraft could make the trip. As advertised, the skies were darker when we reached cruising altitude of 57,000 feet and we could see the curvature of the earth, though barely - it was a less dramatic sight than I expected. Also as advertised, the windows felt warm, almost hot, to the touch, thanks to the Mach 2 top speed: 1,350 miles per hour. I had a window seat, so I was nicely positioned to enjoy the special effects.

Captain Bannister brought the plane in low and slow down the Thames, heading east past Buckingham Palace and Big Ben before turning west toward Heathrow. Our plane was the last of three Concordes to land in quick succession, the first two having flown around Britain before returning to Heathrow. At the airport, there was a red carpet rolled out to the foot of the aircraft and scads of spectators taking photos and videos; some airport workers stood on the rooftops to have a last look at the fastest and most beautiful passenger jet ever built. At the head of the red carpet, disembarking passengers were greeted by the dignified Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, BA's chairman. The red carpet led into a big tented area where one found abundant finger food and, of course, more Champagne. I wandered about for a bit, then headed out of the tent - there was, to my surprise, no customs or immigration inspection - and over to my car for the slow glide into London and the posh comforts of the London Ritz Hotel.

It all seems like a long time ago now. I read that assorted entrepreneurs are planning to build a new generation of supersonic passenger jets - though these will probably be private jets and fly at speeds of Mach 1. If and when that happens, it will be a back to the future moment.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Casanova Restaurant, Carmel, California

CARMEL-By-THE-SEA, CALIFORNIA - Looking for a romantic restaurant for your sweetie and yourself on Valentine's Day? You could do worse than Casanova, which bills itself as the most romantic restaurant in Carmel.

Casanova, tucked away in a renovated and expanded cottage in this picturesque former artists' colony on California's Pacific coast, is more than a (borrowed) famous name and more than a place for a tryst, though. It is a first-rate eating house, specializing in country Italian and French fare, enlivened by a typically happy crowd of diners, served by polished, correct professional waiters - never a given in American restaurants - and boasting a first-class wine list. The wine cellar, hand-dug to a depth of 14 feet below the restaurant and holding 30,000 bottles of wine, can be toured gratis if you ask your server, as my wife and I have done. I love the appealingly musty smell of the cellar.

Casanova is owned and operated by the Georgis family, who come originally from Belgium, which explains the European feel. The family opened the restaurant in the mid-1970s and it has never fallen from favor among locals and visitors. When my wife and I were last there, the place was busy but quiet enough in the smaller nooks and crannies to hold a quiet conversation. The enclosed patio is bigger and louder.

Prices run moderate to high. Reservations are a must. The menu changes often, but we have never found anything that didn't work on our four visits. If you go, don't miss the rack of lamb and the slow-braised rabbit. Be sure to try the delicious, Belgian-style mussels and frites.

If you're traveling in northern California, Casanova ( is worth making a detour for, romantic holiday or no. It's located in downtown Carmel on Fifth Street, between Mission and San Carlos streets, near the Shell station. Tel. 831.625.0501. E-mail