Posts in the “USA” category...
Hotel website Tablet has published a useful list of popular New York City hotels on its online magazine, detailing whether the hotels are open, closed, or partially affected.
Tablet themselves are based in the city and are promising to keep the listing updated as and when they can contact more properties.
For those visiting Manhattan in the coming days and as the clean-up operation continues, the listing could prove to be a useful resource.
Continental Club extends our very best wishes to everyone affected by Hurricane Sandy, from the Caribbean to Canada and around the world through family and friends, during this challenging time.
In January 1997, I arrived at the Essex House Hotel to check in on my first ever trip to the Big Apple. Much more momentous an event than that however, was the fact that this was the first time I’d ever booked a hotel room online. It had taken days, if not weeks, of preparation, was painfully slow and was the result of research which had still been undertaken through printed matter. I rocked up to Reception and they had no idea who I was. Worse still, they didn’t know who my boss was. It didn’t mark an auspicious start to our relationship with the web, nor his with his whipper-snapper of an assistant.
11 years later and it’s easy to take for granted just what can be achieved online. Within 43 minutes of logging on to book our flights, I had e-tickets and seat assignments, confirmed reservations for return Town Car transfers, had printed out a voucher which would afford us fast-track access to most of the main tourist attractions in town, made dinner reservations and secured overnight en-route accommodation at Heathrow. In fact, the only thing I hadn’t been able to complete online was the main hotel booking, which required a quick phone call to access a special rate. That done, emails arranged some housekeeping requirements and confirmed arrival and departure times. Another alerted the hotel to the fact that this would be a birthday celebration trip – well, why not?
And, slotted in with my little file of confirmations, I had an email from a good friend with another list of hints and tips.
Any lunchtime arrivals at JFK Terminal 7 are fairly rare and the middle of the day is a quieter time for the airport in general. So we were treated to a very slick inbound taxi and jetty connection. In fact, it was quite a job to be up and organised to gallop off the plane. The crew bade cheery goodbyes and, through the stuffy warrens to Immigration, we were treated to zero queues whatsoever.
The entirely charm-free officer asked only a couple of quick questions, relating briefly to both this and our last trip, and then we were off to the baggage belt. Even more welcome than the lack of Immigration congestion was the appearance of our bags within the first half dozen to emerge, so the delayed touchdown was now completely wiped out by being in the Arrivals Hall somewhat earlier than anticipated.
The driver from Lincoln Limousine presented himself and gathered up our bags to take us to the car, which was parked on the ground floor of the multi-storey immediately outside. He asked us whether we preferred windows or air con and off we set for Manhattan in that most American of motors, a reasonably new Lincoln Town Car. The car was fitted with Sat Nav, which our man did his best to totally ignore as he was clearly far more in tune with the prevailing traffic patterns. With some nifty re-routing, he had us heading over the East River remarkably quickly, the only downside being, I guess, that MCC’s first impressions of New York were not of the most salubrious suburbs. Not that any approach is all that charming.
The first sight of those iconic spikes on the horizon – the Chrysler, the Empire State, the Woolworth and more – is always an inspiration, no matter how many times that Manhattan skyline is glimpsed. MCC was visibly rapt as the driver piloted us across the Queensboro Bridge and on to the island. The very last mile was, understandably, the slowest but we drew up at the corner of 5th and 55th in a frankly amazing 50 minutes. The standard Yellow Cab fare from JFK is $45, so this pre-booked service was more than competitive at $55, plus a standard 20% gratuity applied to the credit card payment. Tolls etc are extra for both cab and Town Car.
Our lodgings would be, for my second time, the St Regis Hotel. Although the side of the property runs along Fifth, it’s not all that obvious to the passer-by, so for those unsure it is opposite the Peninsula and four blocks South of Central Park. It’s a great location for walking and cabbing, the only slight downside being that there’s not an immediately adjacent Subway station, if that’s your thing.
The St Regis is a Beaux Arts landmark, the tallest hotel in the city upon its construction by Titanic victim John Jacob Astor in 1904, and enlarged by his son Vincent in 1925. It is a city hotel very much in the traditional mode; intimate, a retreat, not a place to watch C-List celebrities theatrically attempt to brush away the paparazzi that they’ve ensured that their people have invited. Richly carpeted steps lead up from the canopied pavement to the polished brass revolving doors and sturdy columns support the frescoed ceiling from which the chandeliers drip.
Our far-earlier than anticipated arrival coincides with a full-house the previous evening, so we’re unable to check in immediately. The King Cole Bar beckons therefore, where we take a comfortable seat and order complimentary tea, while we take in the view of the stunning Maxwell Parrish mural which adorns the main wall of this, the birthplace of the Bloody Mary.
The Receptionist calls to check that we are comfortable and keep us updated on progress and then, bang on the button of when he said the room would be ready, the phone rings and we’re invited back to the desk. We have a Grand Deluxe room on the 12th Floor, which is the third grade up from base in the hotel.
It has a 55th Street view (nothing much to speak of, but not a bin store at least) and is quietly insulated from the outside world, with a seating area and 32″ LCD TV which rises from the ottoman at the foot of the beds.
The bathroom is opulent with bath, separate shower and a smaller LCD TV.
The decor is a contemporary and light interpretation of the traditional, and it’s a restful place to recharge in between city sightseeing. On a summer weekend, it’s fairly easy to access an ‘SPG50’ rate, which knocks 50% off the full (rack) rate and about 20% off the hotel’s ‘best available rate’ on the lowest grade of room, bringing the charge in at $550 plus tax per night, undercutting anything comparable in the area and offering full Starpoints, stays and prevailing promotional bonuses.
Washed, showered and raring to go, the decision is made to walk down to Grand Central for MCC’s first taste of the mean streets of Gotham. Which turn out to be a good deal meaner than might otherwise have been anticipated as the skies darken and, above the screeches and groans, wheezes and horns of the city, loud cracks of thunder rattle down the concrete canyons, seemingly pushing before them warm draughts of forceful breeze.
And then, just as the shelter of the scaffolding surrounding a Lexington Avenue office refurbishment project is reached, the clouds give up their struggles and relinquish their burdens with flashing fury. Within seconds, the roads are awash to kerb level and crossing pedestrians are marooned on central reservations. A few time-pressured ladies who risk wading from their mid-stream islands lose their dainty flip-flops and end up flailing around in the ankle deep waters desperately trying to retrieve their submerged Choos. The yellow cabs are slowed to a crawl, pushing bow waves ahead of them and creating wakes which break over the kerbstones. Those at the end of their rides wait at the roadsides, their passengers unwilling to risk the lashings from above or stepping into the flowing gutters below. It’s quite the show.
The storm abates as quickly as it blew up and already there’s a freshness to the air as we dodge the remaining drips from rooftops high above to dart into the Helmsley Building and down into the Grand Central Concourse. It’s rush hour and the activity is frenetic so it’s a challenge to stay upright and un-bumped as the famous back-to-front celestial ceiling is gazed upon from beneath. The best vantage point is from the stairs up to the bar at the Eastern end, from where not only is the mural clearly viewed, but also the vastness of the concourse and the bee-like swarms of commuters passing through. Diving beneath the ground level, a whole world of dining and shopping opportunities is revealed, including the World-famous Oyster Bar – Grand Central’s oldest business – and the abundantly stocked fresh foods market. As an introduction to New York at work and on the move, it’s a fascinating way to spend a couple of hours.
As the day’s time-zone induced extension starts to be felt, we head West across to Fifth and walk back towards the hotel to rest, regroup and, if spared, prepare for the onslaught of sights and sounds which will fill the coming days. Not before the butler knocks however, gliding in with a birthday bottle from the hotel to wish me a Happy Birthday. It’s a nice gesture and certainly accelerates the path to unconsciousness.
The morning dawns cloudy and not quite as fresh as the immediate aftermath of the earlier tempest, but there’s no time to be precious about schedules, so the list of attractions to tick off will be attacked with gusto. The butler is paged and appears with a large pot of coffee to kick start proceedings and we turn our attention to the top priority of our empty bellies, in the process noting that our coffee table orchid has developed a fault and one of the dainty blooms has parted company with the stem. Tsk.
The hotel’s breakfast is very chi-chi and quite lovely but generic. Far rather get a more authentically New York angle on things so, with the cock still crowing, we hoof across to Sixth and down to Lou’s Cafe next to the Hilton at 53rd Street. It’s far from classy, but it’s a great location to sit outside and watch the World go by while tucking in to a hearty and ridiculously cheap breakfast of New York signatures. Think coffee, juice, ham, eggs, herbed potatoes and toast for £7, or go down the waffles, bagels, granola or fruits routes for even less. It’s fuel not finesse and it sets the tourist up royally.
In the back pocket is our Viator self-printed voucher for our City Passes, a pre-paid voucher book which grants access to a good number of the city’s main tourist haunts and which, if made good use of, represents about a 50% saving on the aggregate cost of entering the attractions individually. The pass is available from the publisher’s own website, but Viator offer it at the same price and then, chucking in the ‘CodesUK’ authority at checkout, take another 5% off the price.
First stop is the Empire State Building which, armed with our City Pass voucher, is only worth considering as the collection-point for the Pass first thing in the morning. The queues any later are horrendous without the fast-track that City Pass permits, but if you’re collecting the Pass here then you have to queue with the masses. So, if it’s early doors it’s fine to pick-up here, but at any other time collect it from one of the other attractions and benefit from avoiding most of the queuing later at the ESB.
The lobby and much of the interior of the Empire State are undergoing a long-term renovation, so the impression continues to be rather shabby inside. At the main observatory level (there’s an extra-cost higher but enclosed level) the view is just about as far as Lady Liberty but, despite the murk, it’s a useful point from which to orientate the visitor and make out most of the major landmarks. There’s no real need to linger though and, ears popping and un-popping, we plummet back to street level and hail a passing cab to head across town to Pier 83 at 42nd Street.
As part of an exercise in orientation and immersion, a cruise around Manhattan is another excellent idea and Circle Line’s two hour ‘Semi-Circle’ or half-island tour fits the bill perfectly. Neatly, passage is included with City Pass, so having surrendered the relevant vouchers at the VIP and Groups window, we grab a coffee at the wharfside cafe next door and then join the queue ready to board. Their workmanlike tubs are basic but practical and the commentaries reliably informative. It’s amazing how, once cast off, the seemingly thronged cargo of self-loading freight seems to dissipate and there’s always a railside space from which to view the passing panorama.
Heading out into the Hudson, the guide points out the principal features of both the Manhattan and New Jersey shores, passing the Chelsea Piers and the World Trade Center site to the East, Hoboken, Jersey City and the Colgate Clock to the West. The boat then steers a course towards Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, affording glimpses of the former from a distance and the latter at much closer quarter. To ensure that even those who steadfastly remain seated in some hidden corner of a deck, the Captain swerves and loops around so that all sides are exposed to La Republique’s famous gift.
There follows a great view of the Southern tip of Manhattan, before the cruise crosses the path of the Statten Island Ferries and sets a course around Governor’s Island and up the East River towards the BMW bridges. There’s a good view of the first of the temporary (and, to be honest, somewhat underwhelming in daylight) New York Waterfalls before the Brooklyn Bridge looms and passes overhead. At the Manhattan Bridge, with the Williamsburg in the distance, the boat makes a broad U-Turn and begins its return loop back to Pier 83.
Back on dry land, there’s a distinct absence of Cabbery and, lacking the exact change needed to ride the New York bus, we strike out in search of a yellow chariot to take us to lunch. As is always the case in such circumstances, there’s never a free one heading in the right direction but, after a few false starts, an available carriage draws up and we clamber aboard. Destination: the first of a selection of very fine dining recommendations.
Perry Street is on the Western Edge of Greenwich Village and occupies the anonymous ground floor of number 176. Indeed, so anonymous is the restaurant that it takes a guided eye to even notice it’s there, and then some bravery to identify the correct door. It would seem that this is some sort of test however, as the mere act of successfully locating it would appear to be the qualifier for entry into this extremely cool, stylish, minimalist but supremely comfortable white dining room.
Seated almost immediately, menus were provided and a couple of glasses of champagne whipped up. The bread arrived next and the friendly staff smiled broadly to the varied and clearly happy crowd they were charged with serving. Our order taken, we sank back into the pale banquette to cool our heels and wet our whistles. An inspired choice of midday retreat.
In fact, the only two things that surpassed the relaxed comfort in terms of excellence were firstly the food – a delightful salad of crab and mango, followed by a beautifully grilled and pinkly tender steak and then a luscious chocolate pudding – and secondly the sheer minuteness of the bill. Our guide had suggested that a bargain was to be had, but his information was duff. Rather than the expected $36 for three courses, it was a frankly hilarious $24. I gather however that they do rather well with bar bills of an evening…..
Fed, watered, rested and rejuvenated, we took to the streets once again. Or, more accurately, the still-being-redeveloped Hudson River Park, which when complete will stretch all the way from 59th Street to Battery Park. It’s a quite un-New York-like environment of pleasure gardens and refurbished piers, with joggers and stroller-pushers mingling with readers and cyclists and sun-bathers. It’s less frenzied and hemmed in than Central Park and really rather nice.
With a few breaks in the flow, it’s an easy-to-follow route along the riverside down to the World Financial Center and the Winter Garden. There’s an opportunity here for a comfort break, before continuing South East through WFC to the brutally truncated Skybridge which leads to Ground Zero. Despite the building works having now brought the site up to within a few storeys of ground level, it’s still a breath-catching vista. It was interesting to see how much more profoundly it affected MCC on this, her first ever visit, than me on my third since 9/11. It remains a wholly sobering experience and one that is much the more affecting thanks to the authorities’ almost total prohibition of hawking and commercialism. I did notice that a new interpretive centre has opened near the Fire House on Liberty Street, about which I wasn’t all that sure to be honest. Far better to take some moments to head to the East of the site and visit St Paul’s Chapel, centre of the operation to look after the rescue workers involved on the day and in the aftermath and get a feeling for the human side of what went on. Only time will tell how the ‘Freedom Tower’ will affect the impact that the site has on visitors during and following its construction, with completion expected in 2014.
With a long and full day behind us and a dinner reservation ahead, speed was of the essence for our return to the St Regis. So, another New York rite-of-passage was called for as we descended into the pits of Hades and the Subway. It’s a two-change dash North to get to either 51st or 59th Street Stations on the 4/5/6 Lines, their being exactly equidistant from the hotel on 55th. On board, the air conditioning is extremely welcome as a relief from the heat and hustle of those Crocodile Dundee platforms.
Reaching the surface once again, MCC declares it a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with that stern look that leaves no-doubt to the true inference of the statement, and we trot back to the welcoming arms of the St Regis.
Foregoing the opportunity to take in a signature ‘Krug Bath’ for the bargain price of $1,650, the rather nice Remede lotions and potions more than suffice during a restorative shower and, washed and polished, we prepare for dinner in the hotel’s signature restaurant – Adour by Alain Ducasse – noticing that, during our absence, the faulty orchid has been removed and replaced with a fully-functioning model.
A relatively recent addition to the in-house dining options, which otherwise consist of the aforementioned King Cole Bar for cocktails and snacks, and the central Palm Court which serves almost continuously throughout the day from Breakfast, through Lunch and Afternoon Tea to Dinner, Adour is a richly furnished fine-dining experience which is building a strong reputation.
The concierge had arranged the reservation prior to our arrival in New York, and we were shown to a spacious setting in a circular ante area which housed another 3 tables, passing on the way a small bar area at which other diners were enjoying pre-dinner drinks. Seating was comfortable and the table nicely sized. We were offered cocktails immediately and menus were presented at the same time.
Glasses of champagne were poured at the table and we decided to investigate the restaurant’s highlight tasting menu at $110, subject to chef being pragmatic enough to tweak his creation to accommodate MCC’s ‘no-bones’ rule. The Maitre d’ draws alongside to offer menu assistance and we enquire about the veggie-variation. His response: ‘Madam, anything you would like. Anything. What would you prefer?’
She selects a gnocchi dish from the a la carte offering to replace the meat course, deciding that the two fish courses will actually be OK, as she does still partake in the odd poisson.
And so, we sashay through a pleasant if not spectacular ‘multicolour vegetable composition’, followed by ‘lobster ravioli with zucchini juice’ which is altogether more historic, to paraphrase a man of dinners. Next is ‘olive oil poached Gloucester cod’ which, despite me not having previously realised that the West Midlands was host to a significant trawler fleet, was absolutely superb. Our menu paths diverged here as there followed, for me, beautifully seared veal and MCC’s gnocchi, before we converged once again with a ‘strawberry and white cheese composition’ and then a menu extra of a (thankfully) very dainty cheeseboard.
Ideally, at this stage, a couple of ladder-back trolleys and two burly removal men would have been handy to get us back to the room but, as it was, we had to stagger back unaided and marvel once again that, despite a French chef, the American interpretation of nouvelle definitely challenges the European belly when taken in tasting menu marathons.
We slept well, anyway.
Not entirely unexpectedly, breakfast did not feature as a priority the following morning. With the sun shining and the Saturday city altogether fresher and weekend-relaxed, we headed North along a shady and breezy Central Park East to the Guggenheim Museum. Our arrival coincided with the removal of the scaffolding which has shrouded the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece for half a decade, although the painters were still present atop a copse of cherrypickers.
Previous visits have tended to reinforce my opinion that it is the architecture which is the principal draw to the Gugg, and this one was no exception. The spiralling galleries contained, to my untrained eye, a varied selection of trash and pretence which serve only to remind that art is always a matter of personal opinion. We had a nice scone in the cafe however, and exited reasonably swiftly into the warming morning. The decorators had been busy and had almost finished their works as we re-admired the overhanging invert conical ramparts. Indeed, their painting would appear to be rather more impressive than those hanging inside.
Next stop on Museum Mile would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an institution which I have so far managed always to miss on New York trips. Not this time though, as we maximised the value of our City Passes and we were swiftly inside and touring the galleries. This is probably one of the more difficult museums to plot a sensible route around, so we found ourselves backtracking a good deal. That said, we found much to interest and delight, alongside the inevitable but thankfully limited amount of right old dross.
We lunched at the Ground Floor Petrie Court which was buzzy and efficient, enjoying tasty Panini and a couple of ice cream sundaes, before venturing back up to the roof to take in the views of Central Park and the fantastic Jeff Koons sculpture installations, which I thought magnificent.
Then, not quite like Clark Kent and Lois swooping down from inner orbit, we took the express lift groundward once again to take in the Superheroes Exhibition, the highlight of which undoubtedly being one of Wonder Woman’s original (if faded) outfits.
The day’s cultural immersion would end with another New York first for me – the Frick Collection. Although there were certainly many impressive hangings in the museum, I have to say that for me, the more interesting facet of the visit was actually just being inside one of the few remaining mansion houses in Manhattan. There’s a very charming lily-ponded garden outside and a very relaxing internal courtyard with playing fountains and benches. The trickling water is not for those faint of bladder however, so do make sure that you’ve identified the fairly anonymous door to the subterranean salles des bains before need overtakes available searching time.
And so, with that, a diagonal line through Central Park to Columbus Circle takes the stroller past tea houses and coffee shops, baseball grounds and skating rinks, lawns and trees to experience the juxtaposition of urban retreat and high-octane activity that is this busy amenity, in contrast to the far more laid-back Hudson River Park of the previous day.
Then, back along Central Park South, passing the Essex House and scene of that first flirtation with the interweb for travel planning, past Mickey Mantle’s Sports Diner which remains a long-time favourite for American staples and the newly refurbished Plaza Hotel.
The St Regis had all flags flying to welcome us back for a pre-dinner freshen. Our reservation for this evening, a deliberately early one, had been made by the concierge once again and upon recommendation at Trattoria Dell’Arte, opposite the Carnegie Hall on 7th Avenue. Despite being obscured somewhat by scaffolding, it was easy enough to find and just a 10 minute walk from 55th at 5th.
The restaurant’s principal feature is a quite spectacular antipasti bar, from which one can point and choose, or sit and order from the menu. Even at 7.30pm, the sidewalk, front and rear dining rooms were busy with families, singles, couples and groups, all contributing to the energetic atmosphere. The antipasti bar provided numerous choices for MCC, although the menu in general was varied and interesting. After the previous evening’s haute cuisine, she settled on deep-fried artichokes and I upon a mixed seafood selection from the bar. We both ordered pizza main courses, which were huge, spectacularly light and crispy and topped with the most flavoursome delights. The bill was very reasonable indeed and we left at shortly after 9pm, happy, replete and fuelled for some last minute nocturnal sightseeing.
First stop was the bright lights of Times Square but then, the highlight of the evening and in some ways the whole trip, beckoned. Since discovering that by far the best time to visit the Eiffel Tower is in after-dinner darkness, I’ve been a fan of night time observation decks. So, we crossed town again to the Rockefeller Center and the recently reopened Top Of The Rock attraction. Although significantly shorter than the more famous Empire State, the Rock benefits from a number of significant trump cards over the ESB.
Firstly, the queues are much less long – fast track or not. Secondly, the interior of the building is newly refurbished and not the continuous building site of its taller neighbour. Thirdly, the ascendency to viewing level is far less tortuous and then, when you’re there, the design of the decks means that the vistas are uncompromised by barriers, railings and grilles. The final and probably most significant differentiator (at least at night) is that the Rock affords a great view of the ESB which is, of course, invisible to itself. Since the Rockefeller is not as striking an edifice as its near neighbour, it’s far more interesting to be on it looking up at the floodlit Empire State than vice versa. With the lights twinkling all around though, it was soon time to head back down to street level, the hotel and our last night in the Big Apple.
Our final morning dawned even brighter and bluer so, after our butler-delivered coffee, we struck out for Lou’s and a pavement table in the sun. Well fed and juiced, we were ideally located for our last big culture hit – MoMA. Unlike the Guggenheim, I do like MoMA. I always find new things that I definitely like or don’t like, but seem to find myself more engaged with. The Sculpture Garden is a most interesting place and it’s fascinating to look up and around and see all the different downtown styles of architecture jostling for space. Indeed, from here, the Beaux Arts St Regis even gets a look-in.
The galleries do offer up one or two dead ends, but otherwise it’s an easy museum to tour around methodically with hugely interesting, esoteric and relatively traditional exhibits.
Cafe 2 is a good place to stop for lunch. It’s a hybrid self/waiter served refectory-style troughing shop, but the Italian-influenced food is just ideal for fuelling a day on foot, as long as quiet respite is not required.
So, cultured and cuisine-out, we made our way back to the St Regis for the last time, taking advantage of our pre-arranged late checkout.
Needless to say, of course, our keycards didn’t work when we got back, so it was a bit of a hike back to Reception for a re-activation and grovelling apology. We had ample time to pack and relax before heading down once again to settle up, passing the little bit of home that is the oil painting of Durham Cathedral and Castle behind the Concierge Desk and the doorman letting us know that our Lincoln Limousine Town Car was already there and waiting, well ahead of time.
We bade farewell and jumped in the car which, thanks to a beige and cream interior, was showing up the marks of well-use, but was otherwise reasonably new and quite comfortable for our trip back to JFK. Once again, the driver seemed well-versed in the detours and diversions needed to avoid the worst of the traffic and, within 55 minutes on a Sunday afternoon teatime, we drew up outside British Airways’ Terminal Seven.
Air Canada flight AC546 was, at the time of booking, to be Airbus A320-operated and two Business Class seats showed available for Star Alliance redemption. Using the bmi British Midland ‘cash and miles’ system, these were snapped up for 11,250 miles and £75 plus tax each, with the third seat required being cash purchased to earn at least some of those miles back. Air Canada’s website is clear and straight forward, with fares presented under differing names rather than just cabin service classes. The Las Vegas flight was to operate two-cabin, with Business Class service being the newly refitted Executive Class. This gives wider seating, greater recline and Maple Leaf lounge access amongst other benefits.
A couple of weeks after booking however, the flight had been downgraded to an Embraer E190 and further idle searching showed no redemption seats being offered on other flights now using the smaller aircraft. We were very lucky to have got in when we did. A slight timing change flagged up the equipment change, which was notified by email immediately from AC with reference to the paid-for booking. To this day we await the booking confirmation or schedule change notification from bmi. The earlier seat selections were knocked out with this change but were swiftly reset with a call to Air Canada in London – taking all three seats of row one.
Check-in at Calgary was very quick, even though we’d not completed the formalities on-line in advance. Seat selections had been maintained however and I looked forward to my first ever Air Canada flight. The check-in agent advised that US Immigration pre-clearance was on site at Calgary and we were directed towards it. She was unable to provide I-94W Visa Waiver forms however and said we could sort this at the US desks. Baggage check is post-immigration, so with our cases still in tow, we lumbered off.
I hate US immigration.
The tensa-barrier queue snaked around, but moved reasonably swiftly. Eventually, we were called to a desk, whereupon we had our passports examined. The official did not trouble himself to disguise his heartfelt pain at being presented with non US/Canadian documents and, with much harrumphing, rummaged about for I-94Ws. He broke into a new pack, thrust them at us and told us that we should have filled them in already. Ahem. He sent us off to a naughty desk, telling us to walk back to the front of the queue to be recalled, and we quickly filled them. Back at the front of the queue, a different official called us. In the hurry, we’d all forgotten to fill in that bit of the form underneath where it says ‘For Government Use Only’. Amazing how, when under pressure, one follows instructions even more closely, even when experience tells you that the instruction is wrong. So, we get sent away with thinly veiled venom again – trudging to the naughty desk with our cases once more for the three seconds it takes to fill in a flight number and then wait to be called again. Officious fool.
We finally make it through and the longed-for relief of the Maple Leaf Lounge and Air Canada hospitality. No darts. There is no Maple Leaf Lounge in the pre-cleared area of Calgary, despite all the airline website’s sales patter, promises and justifications of the Business Class fare. Very poor.
The inbound aircraft is running 30 minutes late, so we linger with the proletariat until we are finally called, all of about 2 minutes after the crew have boarded. Clearly the ground staff want shot of us, although special assistance, status and premium pax are at least called first. Which, as it’s North America, means that everyone, apart from the Ukranian who didn’t understand the announcement, stands up and surges forward.
At the door of the aircraft, we shock the still-unpacking crew and I hold back the increasing force of high-rolling fortune-seekers behind until the chief steward has fixed his hairpiece and cleared the cabin for boarding.
The aircraft decor is fresh, new and pleasantly fitted and the seats rapidly fill. There are three rows of Executive seating, arranged 1L 2R and then a kink in the aisle to centralise it between 2-2 Economy Class seating. Executive seats are proper non-convertibles, with decent recline and a curtain separates the forward cabin from the veal at the rear. There are seat back (or bulkhead) screens and On Demand Audion and Video, even on this basic bird. A pre-departure drink is hurriedly offered – orange, water, a beer if asked nicely.
Doors are closed and pushback is as swift as could be hoped for, and we commence a short taxi before take off at just after 8pm.
So, so far, immigration has been a joke, we’re feeling a bit short-changed by the lack of lounge and less than impressed by sloppy boarding. Still, the seat is comfy and there is a spectacular sunset above the clouds. Roll on great Canadian service.
And roll off. The entertainment system is inoperative. The seatbelt sign is off, but the cabin divider curtain curtain remains open and Economy passengers fill the Business Class aisle queuing for the loo. The curtain to the galley is drawn however, to ensure that the full-of-bladder wait in the cabin, not at the trap door. The pale bluey-green curtain is filthy with the stains of the previous hundred sectors.
There is a choice of salmon or chicken salad, on the same ‘base’. Remarkably, given the cheapness of the ingredients, it is presented in a china receptacle. Which is chipped. And sadly it seems as if the caterers have used at least as much aviation fuel as has been wasted on flying the weight of the china pots as a quite unique alternative to vinaigrette. The beer does little to overpower it. The quantity of the food can’t be faulted, but the quality certainly can. It is, quite honestly, rotten, and anyone who has the temerity to complain about British Airways Club Europe food should be beaten with an Air Canada salmon fillet. Now I know what happens to the stuff that John West rejects.
The entertainment system eventually gets booted into some sort of action, but never really settles during the two and a half hour flight to Sin City. I spend most of the flight with Gloria Gaynor stuck in a loop (interspersed occasionally by Dame Burly Chassis asking if she could touch me here), while the participants of various bachelor parties scratch their crotches in the aisle next to me prior to pebble-dashing the reverse side of the bulkhead in front. And all for a bargain £360 one-way.
At least the crew are friendly, even if they do seem rather dejected at the abysmal level of service they are cost-controlled to deliver. Hairpiece Harry chats happily with MCC and FCC on approach to Las Vegas, as Gloria continues to wail that she is what she is, she is, is she, she is. Ad nauseum.
The pain is eased by a smooth landing, a short taxi and then a not too lengthy walk to the baggage hall. The driver from CLS Limos is waiting for us and the bags pop out surprisingly quickly given previous tedious experiences at McCarran Airport.
Final verdict for Air Canada: a disappointingly low 5/10. No-one was physically injured, I guess, but the bmi Diamond Club Miles credit for the paid-for Business Class ticket was stingy too at just 1039.
Now, dear reader, if you have made it this far and have read all preceding reports in chronological order, then you will have been peering at your screen for very nearly the same length of time as it would have taken you to undertake the trip yourself. For this I apologise, but I fear that you should also apologise even more to your boss, as you’ve probably been doing it on company time.
So, if you started at the first post and read the full list of Trip Reports, you’ll have been expecting this trip to Las Vegas. Which is more than two out of three participants in the actual trip were. You see this was all a surprise in recognition of MCCs 60th and FCCs 65th birthdays this year. The news was broken in the US Immigration queue at Calgary. MCC looked a bit excited. FCC looked as if his wisdom teeth were giving him gyp. A former member of the communist party, he has matured towards geriatry as all ardent socialists do – by veering from thinking that Stalinism was a bit wishy-washy to ending up politically-aligned slightly to the right of Genghis Khan. En route, of course, they pick up little of the charm of either extremism and therefore hedonism remains their constant foe. Viva Las Vegas. Hehe.
Purely for the purposes of badness and to ensure that his discomfort began immediately, I had booked a superstretch for the short whisk to the Four Seasons. Rolling around on the back seat like an egg in an earthquake, under the fibre optics and booming Bose, he was clearly not enjoying himself. His pain being made much the more excruciating by the fact that MCC thought the whole thing hilarious. Me too. I was still laughing when we slumped out at the Four Seasons and, leaving them to variously glower and titter on a sofa, I checked in.
I soon stopped laughing. The receptionist was sweetness itself, tapping the keyboard as she stood next to her superior. She described the beautiful room we had booked, confirming everything that I knew from my pre-trip research. I have long since learnt that you should never book anything that you know will not meet your expectations, resting all your hopes solely and potentially vainly on an upgrade. Book what you want; anything better is a bonus.
But now she tells me about this wonderful suite upgrade that I can have, which is of course excellent as the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts rate includes a subject to availability upgrade. And she can do this for just $150 a night. Definitely no laughter here. I manage a smile to point out the Ts&Cs; of the AMEX rate. Either there’s an upgrade available or there’s not. If there isn’t, I’m happy with what I’ve got. If there is, then comp. it as part of the rate, an example of great Four Seasons service and my first taste of the hotel and the company. She looks at the superior nervously.
The supervisor stares intently at her screen, ignoring the conversation. I press the receptionist on the policy, but she says that it’s too big an upgrade to comp. For fun now, I offer half. No can do. She completes the check-in and walks us to the lift. She wishes MCC a happy birthday just past and, out of earshot of the superior, apologises profusely for the upgrade scam. ‘I’d have given it to you,’ she said, ‘but y’know……’
Apart from the really poor first impression, the particularly daft thing was that, when we got to our room, there was a lovely Birthday Cake waiting for MCC. Which, of course (unless there were two?) wouldn’t have been in the suite we were nearly nickel and dimed into.
I’ve since spoken to a charming Manager from the Four Seasons, who called me in response to their post-stay online survey and he’s promised to look into the policy and the way it’s communicated. I hope they do review it, or others will I am sure feel as I did. In these difficult economic times, impacting nowhere more than Las Vegas, the Four Seasons missed a real opportunity to impress and encourage loyalty there.
Back to the room however, on the quiet (non-airport side) of the hotel and with a fantastic full-length strip view. The Four Seasons occupies the uppermost floors of the Mandalay Bay resort and our foreground view is of Luxor’s pyramid, with the Stratosphere twinkling in the distance.
Yet another hotel unable to service a room booked for three guests with amenities of similar multiples, however with a quick call to housekeeping to acquire an extra coffee mug, the Geriatric Meerkats and this Passepartout sit, with the lights off, eating birthday cake and gazing at the neon, and trying to reconcile having woken up in Banff that morning.
The room itself is generous in proportion and expensively (if a little sparsely) furnished. There are two doubles, a large side board, plasma, coffee maker, desk, coffee table and easy chair. The wardrobe space is not overly large however (something I’ve previously thought to be an issue at The Wynn, too). The bathroom is marble, large and well lit, with a separate room for the loo, an over-sized bath and glass shower cubicle.
Things perk up immeasurably in the morning. Despite the AMEX FHR package including ‘continental’ breakfast, confirmed verbatim by the embarrassed receptionist of the previous evening, no such thing exists on the menu. Beaten and cowed, but seated in wonderfully comfortable chairs at a spacious table on the poolside outdoor terrace, welcomed warmly by greeter and serving staff and surrounded by lush planting, we are in no mood to query further.
Uniquely on this trip, there is no breakfast buffet, so we order a la carte from an extensive menu. The service, food and environment is just lovely and it sets us up royally for the day ahead. Even FCC looks like he might be starting to lighten up, although I suspect that he is still considering what General Pinochet would do in a similar situation.
Given that trip reports abound on the many diversions and distractions which this most iconic of cities can offer, there seems little point in merely repeating them.
Suffice to say that it’s an expedition of several hours in length to cover merely the principal sights of The Strip, accelerated slightly at beginning an end by the Mandalay/Luxor/Excalibur tram and the Las Vegas Monorail respectively. There’s nowhere like it on Earth; not even the places it’s meant to replicate.
A little unhelpfully, the Monorail does not hug Las Vegas Boulevard as it heads back South, runnng several blocks East of The Strip in line with the Las Vegas Convention Centre and Hilton rather than hotels like the Venetian, The Mirage, TI or The Wynn. It snakes West to the Strip further South by Harrah’s. That said, there is a free shuttle from The Wynn to the Convention Centre Monorail Station, which drops and collects from The Wynn’s Tower Suites entrance on Sands Avenue. The monorail takes you South to the MGM, from whose station a walk through the gaming floor, out of the main entrance, across the road and into The Excalibur takes you to the free tram back down to Luxor and Mandalay Bay for the Four Seasons.
Helped by the 96 degree June heat, FCC appears to be thawing as the time to freshen-up for the evening ahead arrives. It actually sounds like he might have been quite impressed by curved escalators and painted ceilings in malls that can fool you momentarily into thinking you are indeed outdoors. He’s even chatting about the (now relatively antique) animatronic show in Caesar’s Forum and the indoor gardens at the Bellagio and The Wynn.
Scrubbed and smartened, a cab takes us behind The Strip to avoid the teatime traffic and drops us at The Wynn again in time for our dinner reservation at Daniel Boulud’s eponymous brasserie. The reservation is the earliest available, to give us time to make our later theatre performance.
There seem to be a lot of management-looking types milling around as we approach the desk and, when I go to present ourselves, I first have to step out of the path of a passing sniffer dog. The table, it transpires, is not quite ready so, taking a risk leaving them alone in a strange country, I tell the Meerkats to sit and stay and head off to the Box Office to pick up our tickets for Le Reve, one of The Wynn’s two shows. One less job for later. When I return, I feel sure that they will have been seated but, no, 10 minutes after the booked time, they are still standing.
I go to the desk and ask what’s going on. Cue much dashing about, the arrival of a Maitre d’, profuse apology and a welcome to us all. He offers us a table indoors or out; we opt for indoors and he seats us with a clear view of the Lake of Dreams. En route, he explains the delay. The President of Chile is in the adjacent private dining room and the security arrangements have been slightly more intrusive than they had hoped. Our own Pinochet looks slightly uncomfortable as he tries to remember whether the current postholder is friend or foe.
We are then fussed over and generally treated exceptionally well by the entire staff, who subtly and comfortingly acknowledge that we have to be seated for a show later, are already running a little late and do everything they can to make us as relaxed as possible. As a veggie, MCC asks the server if Chef can offer anything to augment the menu which, though otherwise extensive, is not particularly well-populated with meat-free options. The server describes today’s Chef’s vegetarian creation and MCC signs up. FCC orders the famous db Burger, while CC here plumps for the Tenderloin.
With our tickets on the table, we are kept informed of progress in the kitchen as drinks are refreshed, bread basket replenished and the restaurant fills up. When it arrives, the food is nouvelle in US terms, but for us Brits it remains hearty in proportion, is beautifully presented, professionally served and, most importantly of course, tastes wonderful.
We have coffee before heading to the theatre, with the staff offering us the option, if we wish, to return after the show for dessert. A nice touch and one which is a good sales strategy for them too, I would think.
Le Reve is the creative work of one Francois Dragone, formerly of Cirque du Soleil and, more recently, feted as the man behind Celine Dion’s A New Day show in Vegas. The theatre is specially built, in the round, and most notable for its stage which rises and falls from a huge water tank. As ‘curtain up’ approaches, it’s obvious however that the theatre is not particularly full. I have booked the VIP Package, which includes a half bottle of Perrier-Jouet champagne per person, special seating and chocolate-dipped strawberries. These seats constitute the back row of the theatre, forming a circle above and around all the standard seats. The lowest, front seats are classified as Splash Zone. Ours, meanwhile, are of almost Lay-Z-Boy proportions and each pair is separated by a coffee table. Upon each of these is a plate of four large strawberries per person, and champagne flutes. A server is assigned, greets, pours the first glass and then keeps the bottle on ice.
The show is stunning, in an admittedly very generic way. There are no celebrities, no stars, no well-known music, just an acrobatic performance of consummate skill, choreographed and lit superbly, with great sound. The stage moves in and out of the water, with the performers regularly falling into the water, swimming, diving, jumping and then being held submerged while they are fed oxygen by scuba divers out-of-sight below the surface. VIP guests can see some of this underwater action on monitors set into the low wall in front of their seats. The water makes the impossibility of some of the moves and holds performed by the acrobats even more incredible.
Speaking of incredible, here’s a thing. Every time I put my drained champagne glass down, I could see, from the corner of my eye, the neck of the bottle swooping down to refill it. Maximum setting down to pour time: 6 seconds. Impressive. I did start to feel very relaxed and, through a fug of fizz, began to consider the possibility that I may have had slightly more than half a bottle. Perhaps the meerkats were not quaffing so quickly? I resolve to observe. FCC is not downing it, but MCC is certainly taking advantage. The pouring continues unabated. The show ends and our server asks us if we would like the rest of the champagne ‘to go’. So, expecting a few remaining drops in a stoppered bottle, I say ‘amen’ to that and wait a moment. She arrives back with three Wynn-branded plastic oversized tumblers and shares the contents of what must have been near-enough a full bottle between them.
God bless America!
We head out into the casino with our buckets of fizz sloshing, feeling quite the lushes and veering slightly. Dulled by the booze, FCC puts up no fight when forced to sit at a slot machine, and I ceremonially present a single dollar bill. He plays it and emerges triumphant with a 60% return. MCC is less successful with hers, recording a mere 2% upswing. Expecting them to keep their winners’ slips as souvenirs, I move to leave but no, they wish to cash their chips. Meerkats. Who’d have ‘em?
We cab it back to the calm serenity of the Four Seasons in preparation for an early start the following morning. I try to convince Pinochet that if he’d dropped a mill, he’d be sitting on another 600K now, but he’s having none of it. He is looking forward to his turndown chocolate though. And hiccoughing fizz quite a lot.