Monday, May 30, 2011

Aria Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas

As long as I am on the subject of hotels (see the two previous posts), allow me to add some more thoughts about Aria Hotel and Casino, which opened about a year and a half ago on Las Vegas Boulevard (''The Strip'').

Las Vegas hotels are known for their lavishness and size, and Aria certainly has both. At 4,004 rooms and suites, the place is not small, and the property's look-at-me colors, ornamentation and all-things-happening-at-once quality turns the hotel into a 24-hour sensorium. There is the obligatory casino, with its games of chance, smoke and polyester and desperate-looking patrons trying for the big score, of course. Beyond that, the hotel boasts 16 restaurants and 10 bars. Here, as elsewhere in upscale Vegas hotels, dining is not only about cheap breakfasts and groaning board buffets anymore - though there there is a popular buffet, called The Buffet. I settled-in at Julian Serrano, the tapas place right off the main lobby, with its smart barmen, swift service and toothsome Spanish food and drink.

Speaking of the lobby, it is of course huge, and as it, too, opens off the main lobby, it has that come-hither quality. This is in sharp contrast to the big gaming hotels in Macao, China, where I went just 10 days after leaving Vegas; in Macau, military-style armed guards stand sentry at the entrances of hotel casinos, providing a distinctly intimidating air - though that doesn't stop Asian gamblers, who have long since passed Vegas in generating gaming revenue, from going in.

When you're as big as Aria, any problems can become magnified. When I checked in, the reservations computer system was down; I had to stand in very long lines for 45 minutes before the computer issue was resolved and I was able to check in. Checking out two days later took about 20 minutes - not bad but certainly not fast.

The place has big virtues, too, though. When I joined another stalled queue at the concierge desk, a staffer roaming the lobby came right over and helped me without being asked. It was a welcome personal touch in a massive hotel. The guest rooms are spacious and come equipped with lots of high-tech features, including having window curtains open automatically when you come in and flick on the lights - an energy-saving feature. Incredibly for a huge Vegas hotel, Aria has won LEEDS Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for its attention to environmental concerns.

The hotel is connected indoors and out to the inevitable shopping mall, and to The Strip. On the way out of the building, you pass a massive and nicely done water wall. Like many Vegas hotels, Aria does a lot of discounting and incentivizing. When I checked in, I was given two drink coupons, which I forgot to use. More importantly, I paid just over $100 U.S. per night to access 5-star comforts, due in part to the fact I was attending a meeting at the hotel. I am not a Vegas guy, as over-the-top glitter is not something I value highly. That said, I would stay in Aria again if, heaven forfend, I have occasion to go back to Sin City.

Aria is located at 3730 Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, NV USA, tel. 866.359.7111,

The W Hotel, Seattle

While attending the ceremonious delivery of a new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft to Cathay Pacific Airways in Everett, Washington, I checked in to the W Hotel, in the heart of downtown Seattle. It was a generally comfortable, if occasionally quirky, stay.

First, the good stuff. The Seattle W has all of the Starwood urban chic brand's signature stylishness. Staying there, you feel you should be attending an art opening or a design and fashion-themed event. And, indeed, film festival attendees - all arty stubble, shaved heads and black garb - were checking in when I was there. Location is important, of course, and the W has a good one, close to downtown Seattle's symphonic hall, tourist attractions like Pike Market, good restaurants such as Wild Ginger and happening watering holes like Purple, a cafe and wine bar. The W's own in-house restaurany is good, too, serving inventive, hearty and flavorful breakfasts, among other things.

But - you knew there had to be a but - I do have one quibble, about the hotel's business center. Traveling without a laptop or other electronic device, I was leaning on the biz center to get some business done. This was not easy, due partly to the fact that the center has just two PCs for guests' use - in a 26-story, 415-room property - and chiefly to its restricted hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., with limited access otherwise. When I asked, at about 9 p.m., if I could use the center, a front-desk agent told me I'd have to have a tech-minded staff member go in there with me, and guess what?

"I don't think any of them are here,'' she said.


I did my work the next day, with a friendly but unaccountably curious W staffer hovering close by in the small business center.

With business travelers from many time zones arriving at all hours, you'd think an urban, midsized, self-consciously proud 21st century hotel would make it easy for their guests - as in providing 24/7 access. I'm at the Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong now - that's where I am writing this post, in fact - and I was able to get in the unstaffed Ritz business center at 5:30 this morning by using my room key. That's what a smart, customer-friendly hotel does. W Seattle, please copy.

The W Hotel Seattle is located at 1112 Fourth Ave., Seattle, Washington 98101 USA, telephone 206.264.6000, Web:

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Vegas, Baby!

Billboards around my part of the planet in California proclaim in ads for the ARIA Hotel: "The Center of Vegas. Shifted.''

Allowing for the usual advertising and marketing hyperbole, that's not far off. ARIA, a mostly tasty, nifty 4,0004-room highrise (hey, it's Vegas) hotel, sports the obligatory casino, of course, but it has much more on offer for us non-gamblers. I stayed there two nights for the World Travel & Tourism Summit, where Obama administration honchos like U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood met with global travel biz leaders at a newly constructed convention center. People at the convention promoted their ventures, of course (cities, towns, nations, tour companies, hotel chains, airlines and the like) and worried about the uneven world economy and tight U.S. travel visas restrictions. (We're working on it, replied high-profile guests like presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett, a former hotel GM).

When not in meetings in windowless rooms amid tight security, I trolled The Strip and the attendant clustered hotels, restaurants and brand-name shops in City Center, the development that has been opening in stages over the past year or two in Sin City. Vegas and ARIA are about more than buffets now in the Food Department, happily. I settled-in for tapas and cava at ARIA's Julian Serrano, run by and named for the gifted Spanish chef of the same name. While not cheap, the food was sumptuous, the service swift. City Center reminded me a bit of the interconnected highrises of Tokyo, very unlike the sprawl in the desert that Vegas (Vegas, Baby! if you're enamoured of the Rat Pack and 'Mad Men') has long represented.

Of course, some things don't change. On The Strip, a street preacher was calling out: "The Bible isn't just a book, it's God's autobiography.'' Moments later, a cluster of men in cowboy hats walked by, leaflets in hand, wearing T-shirts that gave a phone number and a message that read: "Girls to your room in 20 minutes.''

Monday, May 16, 2011

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

He walked into the bar long and lean, a gun on his hip.

"Is the gun loaded?"' a journalist inquired.

"Of course it's loaded,'' he replied laconically. He wore a moustache and a big cowboy hat. Which figures, because we were in Williams, Arizona, a historic Western mining and ranching town of 3,000 on old U.S. Route 66 that bills itself as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon. The town has the restored depot of the busy Grand Canyon Railroad to bolster its credentials.

"How do you keep law and order?'' the tall stranger with the revolver was asked.

"Behave, or I'll shoot you,'' he replied.

All in fun, to be sure. The tall stranger with the revolver on his hip - unloaded, actually - and a marshal's badge on his coat was John W. Moore, the whimsically theatrical, duly elected second-term mayor of Williams. Moore takes this cowboy business seriously, along with his adopted town's heritage from Route 66, America's "Mother Road.'' It's Arizona 66 now, as the old road's role was usurped in the 1980s by Interstate 40, which bypassed Williams. Rather than give up and dry up like a tumbleweed, Williams has reinvented itself as a nostaglic tourist destination.

Thus, the old wooden bar and walls with stuffed animal heads in what signs identify as "The World Famous'' Sultana Bar, a Western watering hole opened in 1912 next to the Sultana Theatre, also "World-Famous,'' which will celebrate its centennial next year with stories and songs.

And thus, Mayor Moore, who migrated to Williams in 1986. "I wanted to see a cowboy town,'' he said, "and an old Route 66 town with muscle cars. Williams has a bit of both. We got the cowboy - that's me. And we got Route 66.''

Our group trailed after the lanky mayor, admiring his cowboy gear, as he walked along Route 66 saying hello to people he knew and likewise to people he didn't. He posed for pictures with two husky guys in Harley-Davidson shirts who were riding their motorcycles through town. Then he popped into DeBerges Saddlery & Western Wear, where one of my companions bought a fine cowgirl hat. The smell of leather drifted through the store and the workshop in back attested to the fact that they do a lot of leatherwork on-site.

Onward we strolled, past a vintage gas station that now operates as a gas-station museum, past a recreated Wild West town that looked like a movie set ("They do a lot of film work here,'' Moore said) and on down the road to Twisters Route 66 Cafe, which is decorated with 1950s-style juke-box memorabilia. I relaxed with a cherry phosphate; the chilled, sweet drink was served in an curved classic Coca-Cola glass. There was a ripe, red cherry at the bottom. It was definitely a trip back in time.

That night I bunked in the Downtowner, a nicely restored motel right on old Route 66. I spent a comfortable night there, save for the gunning engines of the motorcycle that I had glimpsed earlier, parked in the motel parking lot. I thought it was just a curosity on display. Wrong. It was in use, along with some of the muscle cars the mayor alluded to earlier. Cruising, "American Grafitti'' style, is still done.

Next morning, I ate a hearty breakfast, drank strong coffee and got back on the road.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Frankfurt Airport's Slo-Mo Upgrade

When I first started flying to and through western Germany's Frankfurt International Airport in the early 1990s, I liked it a lot. The airport, located just outside Frankfurt am Main, Germany's financial capital and knowledge-industry nexus, was well-run, easy to use and big but not too big if you were a passenger changing planes at this busy European hub.

Then, ad hoc expansion combined with congestion made Frankfurt Airport an unwieldy place to use, especially compared to Munich International - built from scratch in Bavaria, in Germany's picturesque south. Frankfurt Airport seemed to me by 2000 a workaday airport whose physical limitations made actually working there a real pain. Still, I flew through Frankfurt often, chiefly due to its excellent connectivity to other European cities and beyond, and because it is the biggest hub and home of Lufthansa, Germany's de facto national flag carrier.

After a recent visit, I am happy to report that Frankfurt's shambolic reputation - the word is British slang for haphazard, notional service, originally applied to London Heathrow Airport - should in the mid-term become a thing of the past.

In October, Frankfurt will open a new runway, helping to ease the back-up and flight delays caused by the 55 million passengers expected to use the airport in 2011.

According to Robert Payne, who handles corporate communications for international press at Fraport - the company that operates the airport - Frankfurt Airport has acquired the former site of an air force base. This, Payne told me, will enable the airport to build a third passenger terminal. Originally slated for completion in 2015, the new terminal will actually open in 2017 or 2018. This, Payne said, will enable the airport to handle 25 million more air travelers a year. Additionally, Terminals 1 and 2 are being renovated.

Oh, and coming along, too, is a new office-and-retail complex called Squaire, constructed atop the already existing ICE rail station at the airport. Glassy, classy Squaire will include two Hilton hotels. The ICE rail station, and an already-existing DR train station combine with the A3 and A5 motorways - which intersect at the airport - to make Frankfurt Airport a model of intermodal transport. All this development, Payne said, is designed to transform the airport into a 21st century Airport City. Already, some 73,000 people work there.

So, Frankfurt Airport is getting a major upgrade, albeit in slow-motion. If these plans play out the way they should, the airport's shambolic rep will be no more. And to that, this frequent flier says "amen.''

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sheraton Frankfurt Airport Hotel

There was a time, not so very long ago, when the very words 'airport hotel' conjured a picture of a dark, dank, distinctly low-rent place to stay. Some airport hotels are still like that, but, increasingly, major hotel brands are upgrading the airport hotel experience.

Such is the case with Starwood's ( property - full name, Sheraton Frankfurt Hotel and Conference Center - at Frankfurt International Airport. I stayed there earlier this week during an overnight visit to Frankfurt, Germany's financial capital. Actually, I should say overnight visit near Frankfurt, as the airport and thus the hotel are a few minutes by train outside the city center, flanked by busy highways and a lovely protected forest.

The Sheraton Frankfurt Airport is a big hotel, at 1,008 guest rooms. Not Vegas-big, but big enough, especially when you factor-in the presence of a conference center, hotel breakout rooms and a sizable, airy lobby, bar, breakfast and coffee area and substantial business center. The business center was especially important to me this time, as I was traveling without a laptop or other electronic device. The first 30 minutes of PC use (with a printer) is free; after that, it costs 8 euros per hour, including the printer, which I used to check-in and print out my airline boarding pass.

The hotel's location isn't as good as, say, the Fairmont at Vancouver, B.C.'s international airport - that hotel directly accesses the terminal. And it's not quite as stylish as the Hilton at Copenhagen International Airport. That said, the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport is a good-looking structure. Importantly, guest rooms are fairly large and well-equipped (think iron and ironing board, coffeemaker, hairdrier, Wi-Fi access) and come complete with a good desk, ergonomic chair and, thankfully, a comfortable bed. It's a 5-to-7 minute walk from the hotel lobby into terminal 1 through an enclosed corridor link.

Should you have the misfortune of getting stuck in Frankfurt airport overnight - as I did while changing planes after a visit to Berlin a few years ago, when a blizzard closed the airport at midnight - know this: There are far less pleasant places than this well-run Sheraton to spend the night and refresh yourself for your flight. The Sheraton is located at Flughaten, Terminal 1, Hugo-Eckner Ring-15, 60549, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Tel. (49)(69)69770. Web:

David's Recent Articles

I've been busy scribbling away of late, writing travel articles for some freelance outlets. Here are links to three of my recent pieces:

Global Traveler magazine, May 2011: "Belgian Brew: With a stout mix of culture, politics and business, Brussels is anything but boring.'' (Brussels, Belgium),

San Francisco Chronicle, 11 May, 2011 Business section centerpiece: "SFO's Gigantic Payoff: World's biggest jet proves airport planners right.'' (San Francisco, California USA),

Global Traveler magazine, May 2011: "Heaven on Earth: Painters and poets have immortalized the timeless beauty of Hangzhou,'' (Hangzhou, China),

Hope you enjoy. More soon.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Lufthansa Brings the Big Bird to San Francisco

Back on Oct. 25, 2007, I took a ride on the first scheduled commercial flight of the superjumbo Airbus A380 - SQ Flight 380, on Singapore Airlines from Singapore to Sydney. I hadn't been on the big bird since.

That all changed Tuesday, when I took Lufthansa Flight 454 from Frankfurt to San Francisco on another A380, one of six operated by the big German carrier (, which aims to have 15 A380s in use by 2015. I wrote about this week's trip for the San Francisco Chronicle business section; the print version of the story was published on 11 May, and the online version is posted at the Chronicle's affiliated Web site,

Because I wrote about the first flight in detail for the Chron, I won't go into a lot of detail here. I'll just mention that the ride was quiet considering the enormous size of the plane. The enormity of the A380 made all but the strongest turbulence irrelevant, so the trip was nearly all smooth sailing - er, flying - and the big windows and ample personal storage space in business class was comfortable and practical. It's not quite as ample as the combined seatside and overhead bins on the upper deck of the Boeing 747-400, but it's plenty big.

Lufthansa has installed eight sumptuous first class seats, down from 16 in first class on some of its other aircraft types. The A380 seats are beautiful, and the two washrooms in first class are large enough and pretty enough to put many home bathrooms to shame. Most passengers won't see them, as first and business class are isolated on the upper deck of the huge doubledecker aircraft from the economy seats, all of which are on the lower deck.

When the plane touched down at San Francisco International Airport ( just before noon, many of the fliers on board burst into applause. And why not? This represents the first daily scheduled A380 service at SFO; Lufthansa will be joined for the summer by Air France A380 service. On other routes, Singapore, Emirates and Qantas fly the big bird; Korean Air will become the sixth airline to fly this superb aircraft when it launches service between New York JFK and Seoul-Incheon this summer.

The Profiling Perplex

Did you catch the news the other day about the guy who pounded on the locked cockpit door of an American Airlines plane bound for San Francisco before fellow passengers subdued him and held him for arrest?

According to media reports, the would-be - well, would-be what? Murderer? Hijacker? Kidnapper? - boarded AA flight 1561 with no luggage, $47 in cash and two post-dated checks. The 28-year-old man, an immigrant from Yemen and legal resident of the United States, boarded the flight at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. About half an hour before the plane was scheduled to land at San Francisco International Airport, the passenger ran up the aisle toward the cockpit, repeatedly shouting "Allahu akbar'', Arabic for "God is great,'' according to eyewitnesses. The phrase is often used in terror attacks by Islamic militants.

How did the accused manage to slip through airport and airline security nearly 10 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States using hijacked aircraft? Isn't a matrix of indicators - luggage or no luggage, round-trip ticket or one-way, little if any cash, the traveler's religion, national origin, any criminal record, immigration status - supposed to be used to draw a profile of travelers and determine whether they pose a threat?

Ah, there it is, the charged word "profile.' Profiling is bad because it can be used to unfairly stereotype and thus stigmitize a person. And yet, in an age when fantatics are willing - nay, eager - to kill themselves and others in the name of a cause or religion, shouldn't ethnicity, nationality and religion be taken into account and weighed proportionately in assembling a portrait - a profile?

It's impossible to enter the mind of airport screeners and know for sure what they saw when the accused boarded AA flight 1561 earlier this week. But the possibility that screeners didn't want to appear to discriminate against an Arab Muslim by pulling him aside for additional screening and questioning needs to be considered. Better to pull over a mainstream-looking, Caucasan grandmother for additional screening, to make a public show of fairness.

If that is indeed the case - and I've seen it happen at U.S. airport security checkpoints - a misguided sense of political correctness is tearing holes in the security screen intended to protect innocent travelers and others. Security screeners, police, intel officers and their bosses bear full moral and legal responsbility. Yes, it's a tough job, but they accepted it.

We live in a dangerous world. The sad, unavoidable truth is that profiling is necessary in order to save lives. May as well get used to it. We're going to be living in a dangerous world for some time - I'd say for generations.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Some Plaudits for the Lufthansa A380

Newspapers are getting smaller all the time, which means newspaper articles are of necessity getting shorter. My 11 May San Francisco Chronicle ( piece on the maiden flight of Lufthansa's A380 superjumbo service between San Francisco and Frankfurt omitted responses to the plane from business-class passengers I talked to. I thought I'd pass along some of their comments, as the jolly bunch I was with on the inaugural flight liked what the airline has done with the aircraft.

Sitting next to me on flight LH 454 was Judith van Walsum, who works for the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche Group. The Dutch-born executive flies between Frankfurt and the San Francisco Bay Area once a month as part of her assignment to help integrate Genentech into Roche, which bought the South San Francisco biotechnology pioneer in 2009.

"It's very impressive, van Walsum said of the A380. "The sheer size of it. It's very quiet. There is a lot of personal storage space. I like the way the cabin is divided; it has an openness but it feels intimate.'' Lufthansa puts translucent screens between sections of its mammoth business class cabin.

San Francisco International Airport Deputy Director Kandace Bender liked the spaciousness on the big plane - the world's largest civilian passenger jet. "I think it's the high ceilings,'' she mused. "And it's very quiet for its size.''

With its environmentally attuned features - the A380 burns less fuel and is quieter than other widebodies, Bender ventured to say "I do think it's a good aircraft for San Francisco.'' San Francisco thinks of itself as very green, indeed.

Anyway: Good airplane. Good airline. I'd take the flight again.