San Francisco / Las Vegas / LA Trip Notes – Nov & Dec 2009


An unexpected and not exactly planned-in-advance trip – brought on by unbelievably cheap airfares and a favourable exchange rate.

A is for Alcatraz Island: Or “The Rock” as it is commonly known. Far more imposing than ‘Pelican Island’ (La Isla de los Alcatraces) which is what it was designated by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. It was a federal prison for only 29 years but had served as a penitentiary institution since US Civil War days. Officially, there were no recorded escapes although 36 prisoners tried 14 times (2 tried twice), 23 were caught, 6 were shot and killed and 3 (being Frank Morris, John Anglin and his brother Clarence Anglin) were lost at sea and never found. So the question as to whether there were any successful escapes will remain unanswered as the FBI still their files open ! Personally, I doubt it. The swim in either direction to the nearest land appears short but the current can be fast and the waters are deep. On the day we went, it was particularly choppy, so much so that they cancelled all afternoon sailings just as I arrived back in San Francisco. On the whole it is what a prison ought to be – devoid of creature comforts, depressing, ugly and intimidating. ‘D Block’ is particularly ugly – this was solitary confinement without windows. Worth a trip to see to say you’ve been but there are a lot more pleasant things to see when you are in SF.

B is for Biltmore: So it’s a Company Property – but that’s not the reason for the highlighting. It has history (which is a lot more than can be said for a lot of downtown LA). When it opened in 1923, it was the largest hotel west of Chicago. It then had 916 guestrooms (which increased to 1500 a year later – 683 now after remodelling) and it was designed in a mere 47 days ! It hosted the Oscars in 1931, between 1935-39, and again in 1941 and 1942 and they say that the Oscar statuette was designed on a napkin in the Emerald Room. JFK was nominated as the Democratic candidate for President in 1960. And it is a very beautiful building especially in the public areas and ballrooms. The lobby was in fact relocated between 1984 and 1987. The ceilings in the Galleria and Crystal Ballroom were in fact hand painted in 1922 by Giovanni Smeraldi (apparently it took seven months). Overall, the styling of the look and feel is Spanish / Italian Renaissance style (whatever that means), celebrating that heritage which is part of Los Angeles. There’s plenty on offer within but I’m afraid I did not partake of the offerings at ‘La Bistecca’ in the Rendezvous Court – an Italian Steakhouse. It is run by two authentic Italians and the menu looks pretty good. Nor did I indulge at ‘Sai Sai’ which is the Asian / Fusion restaurant there. But Smeraldi’s restaurant serves a decent breakfast buffet. It’s a frequently used filming venue – indeed right throughout my stay there was a Warner Brothers associated production doing some filming on the top floor – the concierge is also only too happy to give you a (partial) list of the films in which the hotel has featured.

C is for Cable Cars in San Francisco: Think of San Francisco and one will invariably think of the Golden Gate Bridge and also the famous cable car system. There are three dedicated lines – Powell-Mason, Powell-Hyde and California Street. The system in place now is a shadow of what is was at its peak. And what you see now is what was thoroughly rebuilt in the early 1980s and only reopened in 1984. There are no drivers as such – the cable cars operate by the gripmen are responsible for stopping / releasing the brakes. The controls themselves appear simple – pull the big main lever hard to stop and release as required but there are three braking mechanisms (main track, front wheels, rear wheels) and the Gripman (there is only one Gripwoman, I gather) has to coordinate all of that. Not easy. Maximum patronage per car is 60 (half standing, half seated) and this is strictly enforced. The best views are on the Powell-Mason line just past Nob Hill and if you feel up to it, then hang on to the poles and enjoy the ride. You might want to just sit down on your first trip, though. The turntables at the end of each line that reset the cars for their next run is worth a look. And bell-ringing is a serious business here – there are annual contests for the best bell ringers – one ring = stop, two rings= go, three rings = emergency stop, four rings = back up. Travel Tips: Firstly, get a MUNI Pass ahead of time – this will save you the hassle of forking over $5 for each trip. Secondly, unless you are prepared to wait up to half an hour at the terminii, hop on board like the locals at each stop. A map of routes can be found here: http://www.sfcablecar.com/routes.html

D is for Dining (in various forms): Travelling unencumbered (again), this allowed for some flexibility.

–In San Francisco, Sears Fine Food (439 Powell Street – http://www.searsfinefood.com/) was recommended for breakfast – famous for its ’18 Swedish Pancakes’ (each the size of an old US Dollar coin), this institution was rescued ironically by the owners of a rival chain of diners (Lori’s Diner – they look and feel like the NZ Burger Kings with a retro 1950s appearance) – I can confirm that the pancakes and the french toast are very good and the dinner menu is pretty good also. SF is also good for seafood, particularly oysters and seafood chowder that is served in sourdough cob loaves. Time was short and the queue at Boudin long so I made a beeline for the first crab merchant with a queue for chowder (Guardinos). It’s one of the things you have to try even though the chowder might not be particularly thick and tasty. Unfortunately, time did not permit a messy feast of Dungeness crab – I’ll leave that for the next trip.

–Vegas confounds the mind – if you are habitually indecisive, this is not a place to come to as your mind will boggle from the options available to you. Why not go upscale at Joel Robuchon (at MGM) for example for a truly world-class fine dining experience ? Of course everyone has heard of the famous “$1 Buffets” which are, sadly, very much a part of history. But having heard many reports of a decline in quality (and a recent outbreak of food poisoning at some of the cheaper places), I gave them a wide berth and grazed along the Strip. Pink’s Hotdogs will be known to you if you’ve been to West Hollywood and their Vegas branch is located in Planet Hollywood (appropriately). Having flown in that afternoon and only got a cold drink on the flight, I was hungry. But not after one of their Vegas Strip Chili Dogs and a side of fries. I didn’t need breakfast the next morning…..When I went to LA five years ago, we were based out in West Hollywood right near the Beverly Center. Here we discovered the fantastic takeout from the Grand Lux Café which was simply spectacular in terms of breadth of menu and quality of food – and that is just the appetisers / starters alone ! So I resolved to visit Grand Lux is HQ’s at the Venetian (and is actually the high-end division of The Cheesecake Factory business – http://www.grandluxcafe.com/menu.htm) if ever I went to Vegas. It did not disappoint. A starter of seared ahi tuna with three salads and a lunch order of enchiladas made for an excellent meal.

E is for ESTA: (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) This is the electronic pre-clearance required to be done prior to departure for the United States. Most New Zealanders should be able to qualify for 90-day entry as a visitor without needing to obtain a visa for the USA provided you obtain an ESTA at least 48 hours prior to departure from NZ and complete the VWPP form given to you on the plane ahead of arrival. If you are planning to travel to the US or even entertaining the idea within the next 12 to 18 months, it is worth applying for now (normal validity will be 2 years or until expiry of your passport, whichever is the earlier). Also, you need to remember to update the details should you travel to the States again within the period of validity ! That’s the new and confusing part. Apply via the website – the link is here: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/ At present, the service is free.

F is for Fake Replicas of Europe: Can be found in quantity in Las Vegas. They provide some moderate amusement, intensified if you’ve actually heard someone remark that there’s no need to go and see the real thing when Vegas has it all. Where to start ? Well, Paris, Las Vegas is as good as any. At night, the replica Tour Eiffel, Opera Garnier and Arc de Triomphe look very good, almost as good as the real thing. By day, well, that’s another story. The Venetian has, as its name suggests, an unpolluted and clear water canal which never floods, gondoliers with almost authentic accents (according to the publicity – not so, in my opinion). So that’s the Renaissance a la Vegas. One can go back in time at Caesar’s Palace (in more ways than one – the current headline acts are Cherilyn Sarkasian and Bette Midler). But the moving statues are comical, if a bit grotesque (Weta Workshop’s talents are much needed here, methinks). Of course, Vegas also shrinks and repackages other, closer places too. New York, New York being the obvious one. Sadly, I have no frame of reference – that will have to wait until a future trip.

G is for Golden Gate Bridge: It would be a travesty and a major omission if the newbie did not at least get near it on their first visit to SF. I must say I did not walk across it (it was windy – I nearly got blown off the open-top bus, actually) but was driven across it twice to Vista Point, once at sunset which was really beautiful. But I enjoyed the experience. Oh, in case anyone is wondering, the official colour designation for the bridge is ‘international orange’, a sort of orange vermillion, if you will. (RGB 255, 79, 0)

H is for Hotels: Bit of a “liquorice allsorts” type of affair.

–Sheraton Gateway Hotel LAX: Crashed here upon arrival (didn’t want to endure a domestic flight and all the hassles with that after 14 hours in the air). There are quite a few hotels in and amongst this area and you get a free shuttle out and back (runs every 15 minutes or so). If you don’t like hotels that are not completely noise-proof and the sound of jet aircraft taking off with some regularity during the late evenings and early mornings, this and the other surrounding hotels are unlikely to be for you. Also, the lack of any decent eateries around the place can be a problem – neither Starbucks or Subway are haute cuisine. Also the carpets were a throwback to the 1970s. For the actuaries amongst you, it has 802 rooms including 51 suites.

–Hilton San Francisco Union Square: Good location (close to Union Square) and the cable cars. Which means the views out of your rooms are of the buildings next door. If you want sea views or something like that, stay closer to Fishermans’ Wharf. The most amusing thing was the carpets which were a throwback to the 1960s (do you see a pattern here ?). Oh, and they give you a key for the minibar ! Beancounters will be interested to know that it has 1908 rooms including 160 suites – hence its popularity as a corporate / conference hotel. The reviews on TripAdvisor are not exactly all complementary, however.

–MGM Grand Hotel & Casino: Somewhat ironic that I was looking at their very slick website a few months ago (when this trip was the furthest thing from my mind) and now I can say I’ve stayed there. Apparently, it is the second biggest hotel resort complex in the world with 4293 rooms and 700 suites in the main complex alone (the more exclusive areas are the 51 Skylofts at MGM and the three Signature at MGM towers which have 576 suites each !). You can understand it therefore when they say that your room will be ready by 3.00pm and not before – one can only begin to imagine that army that is housekeeping and what they have to go through when the hotel is at or close to capacity. They have the troops all set to go by 8.00am precisely, I noticed. The carpets were a throwback to the 1980s (at least they were a lot more modern) and the bathrooms were a bit dated but functional. But overall very good. Although if you don’t like green spot lights illuminating the façade of the building at night you may have a problem. Fact: When it opened, it took 39 armoured vehicles over two days to bring in sufficient cash to get the casino going. Travel tip: Check in at the Airport, not the hotel itself. The queues can be woefully long !

–Millennium Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles: See ‘B’ above.

I is for Ice Skating: No, I did not partake (having done my ankle badly this year and it is still not 100%), but I was amazed to see it at Union Square – obviously it wasn’t that cold that the rink set naturally but it is an annual tradition commencing about Thanksgiving time. Fun to watch.

J is for J. Paul Getty Villa: I got ‘criticised’ by certain cultural cognoscenti for not visiting this place (or the Getty Center) on my last visit. So when my friend offered to take me around the villa after a drive through Malibu, I jumped at the chance. The villa is dedicated to the study of the ancient arts and cultures of the Greek, the Romans and the Etruscans. The villa itself is modelled on the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum (although I hasten to add that the rather sterile amphitheatre attached to it isn’t). And it is a somewhat controversial place – Italy and Greece have maintained that several of the items exhibited were either stolen or looted. Doubtless there must have been a denial of liability involved, but some credence was given to this in the form of repatriation agreements with Greece in 2006 and Italy in 2007. However, relations must be good – they had the stunning Etruscan bronze work known as the Chimaera of Arrezzo on loan from the National Archaeological Museum of Florence (no photos allowed – pity). The Chimaera dates from about 400BC. From the Getty Collection, we also saw, inter alia, the Landsdowne Herakles, a copy of a Greek statue ordered by the Emperor Hadrian and dating from about 125AD – this was one of J Paul Getty’s favourite items in his collection, apparently. Aside from that, the centrepiece of the permanent collection must be the bronze ‘Victorious Youth’ dating from some time around the first century BC or AD (they aren’t certain) but this was one of the few life-size Greek bronzes to have survived just about fully intact. If you have any interest in these civilisations, a visit here is a must.

K is for Karsh: Having time to kill in LA before leaving for the airport, I stumbled in to the Los Angeles Public Library. As well as a copy of the California Road Code, I was delighted to find tucked away in a rather remote alcove an exhibition of some of the portraits taken by legendary photographer Yousuf Karsh – these included the well-known 1941 portrait of the belligerent looking Winston Churchill (his glare is simply because of the fact that Karsh took away his cigar after much time had passed), Pablo Picasso’s portrait taken in his ceramic gallery, Hemingway in the turtleneck sweater, a magnificent portrait of Fidel Castro (those eyes !) and a similar one of General (later President) Dwight D Eisenhower (again, that steely look) and the wily, wizened George Bernard Shaw. Magnificent.

L is for Los Angeles: I was last here in 2004 and pretty much saw the majority of the tourist spots. So there was no pressure to go and redo them except to take a few shots with the digital camera this time around.

–One thing I had seen on Channel 9’s “Getaway” programme was LA Metro system – surprisingly efficient, if a little limited in terms of routes and so forth. However, should you find yourself staying at Millennium Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles and want to get to Hollywood & Vine or Hollywood & Highland in 20 minutes (Red Route – Pershing Square station) , then this is the cheapest and most efficient way of doing so. Stations are patrolled very well and there’s no smoking, eating or lewd behaviour around there ! However, one can’t quite get rid of the sense that if you have money, you are riding in a car above ground. If you don’t you take the Metro.

–Also, I had better mention that the Los Angeles Lakers are the current NBA champions (their 30th title) – just as well I found this out before I went. Oh, and LA also have a ice hockey franchise (the Kings).

M is for Malibu: Playground (one of many) of the rich and famous. Not being either, I’ll bet you never thought I’d go there, right ? Wrong. Thanks to the generosity of a friend and her Mercedes, we spent a day cruising the highway and seeing the various sights on the way and around Malibu and Pacific Palisides. Very nice. ‘M’ is also for “Moonshadows” where we had lunch – this is the place where Mel Gibson got plastered before going off and getting stopped for DUI and that now infamous rant about a certain prominent ethnic group. The food the was good but the conversation was better !

N is for Nevada (which is where Las Vegas is located): What can I say about Sin City (that I have not already said above) ? Well, plenty actually. And things are not as bright as the lights would lead you to believe. Early this year, MGM Mirage and Las Vegas Sands were near bankruptcy and although they both won respite from their bankers and shareholders, they are not out of the woods yet. Indeed, MGM Mirage is hoping like crazy that its CityCenter development (over USD11 billion worth of property investment which includes the 4004 room ARIA hotel and casino, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the vdara Hotel & Spa, the Harmon Hotel and residential condos – in all over 6000 new hotel rooms) will go some way to salvaging what has been a near-calamity (and still might be). Only the vdara was being opened on the day I left with the MO scheduled to be opened on December 4 and the retail and entertainment complexes the previous day. Even at the more tacky end, Hooters Las Vegas had filed a notice with the SEC that it was in default of its lending facility and was something like USD $147 million in debt and losing money pretty badly. A lot of that loss was down to a lack of food and beverage revenues (and closing half their nearly 700 rooms to fix plumbing issues probably didn’t help either !). Add to all of that double-digit unemployment which has not spared Vegas. The owners are talking up the prospects for 2010 and claim to see some signs of recovery after the once-in-a-decade room rates, declines and revenue and so on. My two cents ? Good luck, MGM Mirage, you’re going to need it……..The State Government is also getting in on the act – prior to travelling, I saw a couple of ads taking pot shots at California (mainly over business tax, or rather the lack of it in Nevada by comparison). While a few businesses are nibbling at the apple, don’t expect any majors to move any time soon. It will be a long, slow and hard-fought recovery around here.

O is for OTT Opulence: When entering any of the major Las Vegas casinos, one is struck by the scale of the lobbies. Then you wake up and realise how tacky it actually is. At least that is how I felt when walking in to most of the major casino hotels. Because in about five seconds you see (and hear) the gaming floor. And you realise why most people come here. One exception, perhaps the only one, is Bellagio – the lobby is grandiloquent as you would expect but the Dale Chihuly glass sculpture ‘Fiori di Como’ (over 2000 hand blown glass flowers) on the ceiling is amazing and I love the Water Fountains which (in winter at least) play on the half hour to 8.00pm and then every fifteen minutes to about midnight. They would have to be my favourite attraction in Vegas, to be honest. The Venetian is good as well, the conference areas in particular very opulent and grand – walking through them was a very pleasant experience. At the end of the day, Vegas is Vegas and one should have no illusions as to what it is.

P is for Photos: A total of 1706 images in total. 20 on the journey up, 615 in San Francisco, 451 in Las Vegas (I’m actually quite pleased with some of those night shots), and 589 in Los Angeles. And 31 on the way back. (Boy, do I need a new external hard drive …..!)

Q is for Quizzical Rhetorical Questions: There were many, many such questions. I have bitten my tongue and limited it to the top 5.

–Why are some people overcome by a ridiculous desire to drink foot-long cocktails served in cheap, tacky-looking foot-long ‘glasses’ in Las Vegas ?
–Why can’t you admire and watch the Water Fountains at Bellagio in silence ?
–How effective is a TV advert which starts “Attention, catheter patients on Medicare !” ?
–If the idea at Paris Las Vegas is to promote a higher, more refined class of entertainment, why do the girls at Le Burger Bar (itself an offence to the palate) wear skimpy costumes ?
–Speaking of Paris Las Vegas, is it not a crime against drinking decent wine to even think about selling tetra paks of wine as they do ?!

R is for Retail Therapy: In the tradition of Phillieas Fogg, it is good practice to ‘buy on the way’. However, the over-zealous enforcement of restrictions on cabin baggage etc. by the TSA curbed one’s enthusiasm somewhat. You can’t take snow globes on the plane because they contain too much liquid. You might as well forget about packing them in your checked luggage because they might break. And so on and so forth……

–There’s a lot going on around Union Square in SF – you can’t ignore Macy’s flagship West Coast store (even with the 85 foot Shasta White Fir tree with goodness knows how many lights and 1500 red and gold ornaments). The ‘Black Friday’ (day after Thanksgiving) sales were well patronised and a 20% on all chocolate was gratefully exploited ! Westfield Center (yes, the same folks that own / operate the malls here) is also well positioned. With Bloomingdales and Nordstrom as key tenants, it certainly not short of foot traffic. Didn’t really have sufficient time to explore any other areas in much detail.

–I suppose that in Vegas, you have three options to readily dispose of money legally – you can lose it on the gaming tables, you can have an agreeable meal or you can go shopping. But it’s Vegas ! So, as the Frommers’ guide cleverly puts it, it can either be Nirvana or an endless Sisyphean repetition of every mall you’ve ever been in. However, putting all sense and nonsense aside, the two places to definitely look at are the Appian Way, Forum Shops and Roman Hall at Caesar’s Palace and the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. The strange thing at the Caesar’s however is that during the day, the lighting is for night, at night it is lit up full glare for day time – this must be to try and fool your body clock somewhat into making you buy more. I wasn’t fooled. The ‘Miracle Mile’ at Planet Hollywood is worth a look – some nicely presented shopping can be found here.

–Can’t tell you much about LA. Except if you want to see a ‘Hunky Santa’, try the Beverly Center. The Candy Cane Girls are there also.

S is for San Francisco (in general): Although its origins dated back to 1776 when the Spanish set up a fort at the Golden Gate, modern SF is basically about 100 years old – given that it was 80% destroyed after the 1906 earthquake and fire, it has a charm and a character lacking in other major cities. Prior to the earthquake it had built up a reputation as the west coast financial centre and quickly sought to rebuild that reputation in the years that followed. They did something right because during the Great Depression, not a single San Francisco-based bank collapsed. Additionally, the city fathers commenced building the Golden Gate and the Oakland Bay bridges at the height of the depression. It’s a hilly place so in that regard it is similar to Auckland – some actuarially minded person has done a count and there are some 50 hills within the city limits. Many of the highlights are described in detail above but some of the others include:

–Fishermans’ Wharf / Pier 39: The subject of several put-downs – “tacky”, “kitsch”, ‘touristy”, “meh!” and so forth. Of course it is ! And if it is your first visit, come on down. After that, no need. The sealions (the population of which seem to keep expanding) are always worth a look.

–Lombard Street: You may have heard of this street. If not, all I can recommend are some lines from Bill Cosby:
“They built a street up there called Lombard Street that goes straight down, and they’re not satisfied with you killing yourself that way—they put grooves and curves and everything in it, and they put flowers there where they’ve buried the people that have killed themselves. Lombard Street, wonderful street.”
It is very steep and one should drive with caution. The locals hate the tourists who come for the spectacle but what can you do ? I have an mpeg of a cyclist who takes the hairpins at speed followed by a SUV which doesn’t. The contrast is quite amusing.

–Ghiradelli Square / Old Chocolate Factory: Domenico Ghiradelli started making chocolate in San Francisco in about 1852 after first establishing a general store and a café (both of which burnt down about the same time). In 1855, he set up the factory in what is now Ghiradelli Square and the business quickly took off. The company is the second-oldest chocolate maker in the USA and still controls every aspect of its chocolate making and in fact the Broma process (of removing the cocoa butter from cacao beans and thus leaving cocoa solids) which is now widely used in the States to make chocolate was developed here. The family no longer control the company and its takeover history is quite interesting – it was bought by the (then) Golden Grain Macaroni Company which about twenty years later got absorbed into the Quaker Oats family of companies. But in 1998, Lindt & Sprüngli bought the Company – a natural fit, one might think. The chocolate factory now lies on the other side of the Bay Area but the people come and queue for the hot fudge sundaes. I just came to see the Christmas Tree. And sample a bit of the chocolate. Yes, it is very good. I resisted the temptation to try a hot fudge sundae (I did, I really did). That’s an incentive to come back.

T is for Thanksgiving: Due to a slight miscalculation on my part, I arrived in LA from Sydney on Thanksgiving Day itself (what significant holidays are on Thursdays ?!). This meant having to negotiate the crowds at airports on the Friday and the Saturday as well. I felt like a bit of a turkey, frankly so to commemorate, I bought a small stuffed toy from Bristol Farms. And while I am sure your Thanksgiving Dinner was another legendary and satisfying repast, although they served roast turkey and potatoes on the plane, officially my Thanksgiving Dinner was a packet of Chipotle flavoured kettle chips and Diet Coke. I had a lot to be thankful for………

U is for US Airways: Flying domestically in the US has been something I have sought to avoid. Except for Virgin America (see below), tales of surly crew, uncomfortable journeys, annoying passengers, lost bags and everything else are legendary. Security screening takes forever (you might as well treat a domestic flight as an international one and get there three hours prior to departure) and it is thoroughly unpleasant. I timed it – it took an average of 40 minutes to clear security at LAX, SFO and LAS and this was not at peak times. And what about the airlines ? Didn’t want to fly United (they break guitars !), Virgin America’s fares from SFO to LAS were too high, didn’t want to fly Southwest (after seeing Airport USA, who would ?!), didn’t want to fly Northwest (their pilots sometimes miss the airport !), couldn’t fly Alaska Airlines (they don’t fly SFO LA or LAS LAX), so pretty much ended up with them. I should feel safe, after all it was a US Airways flight that ditched in the Hudson this year.

SFO – LAS: Bought the last seat but one on US 467. How do I know this ? Because you could only select from seats 14E or something right down the back. Fortunately, this aggravation was alleviated at check-in for the cost of USD 5 and a forward aisle seat was obtained. Oh, and the bag charge is USD 25. What a nuisance ! Service was not warm and cheerful but they did what was necessary. You get a complimentary cold beverage on US Air which is good and the ex-America West A319s are relatively comfortable for short flights.

McCarran International Airport is remarkable for having slot machines at each gate area. You know you’ve arrived in Vegas !

LAS – LAX: US 104 was not as full when booked but was full on the day – I managed to get a window seat towards the front, luckily. Apart from an aggressive idiot moaning about having his bags removed from him at the gate due to no available locker space (to be checked in), the flight was ok. Drinks service was late resulting in a rather undignified ‘finish-it-in-one’ manoeuvre just prior to gear down.

LAX T1 is shared by US Air and Southwest. So it’s crowded, noisy and there’s only one bag carousel for all US Air flights. So you have to hurry up and wait…..

V is for V Australia and Virgin America: At time of writing it is open slather on the trans-Pacific routes out of Australia and NZ to the West Coast of the US. Until last year, there was a comfortable duopoly (Qantas and United) which had only been interrupted periodically when Air New Zealand bought Ansett and started SYD – LAX services for about eighteen months or so. This year, V Australia (the Virgin Blue international arm) and then Delta have all arrived in a big hurry. V Australia (http://www.vaustralia.co.nz) now flies out of SYD, BNE and MEL most days of the week. United serves both SYD and MEL (albeit via SYD). Delta is daily out of SYD. Let’s not forget that Air New Zealand is still an option (albeit via AKL) and Air Canada has daily flights too. Initially, when scoping this trip, I envisaged a short but somewhat uncomfortable flight across the Tasman on a Pacific Blue flight to connect with V Australia. Then VA announced a codeshare with Emirates through Sydney – bonus ! One could fly on the A380 to SYD and then connect to a 777-300ER from Sydney. Then the airfares got released – double bonus ! AKL SYD LAX return in Economy would cost you about $1200. I opted for a premium economy upgrade on the return leg and that was only $1550. So was it good ? Absolutely ! Economy is new, the seats are wide enough and comfortable enough for the 14 hour journey. Premium Economy is excellent and worth it if the differential is only a few hundred dollars – separate check-in, wider seats, better food, a very good amenity pack and an inflight bar area. Interesting point – in Economy one alcoholic beverage is included with your meal. Thereafter, you will need to hand over your credit card should you want any more. Of course, these restrictions did not apply to Premium Economy and indeed there is a nice little self-service bar (built by the clever team at the Air New Zealand cabin interior subsidiary) which one can access when you’ve levelled off after take off. One very good point – you arrive at Terminal 3 at LAX. The only airlines that use T3 are Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, V Australia, Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air. If you’ve suffered through the queues and delays at the TBIT (Tom Bradley International Terminal) – believe me, I have – then this is something of a godsend.
Two minor / major criticisms: you can’t check-in online which is a nuisance. And while I made the connection with some time to spare, the one-hour transfer from the SYD flight to the LAX flight is too short.

A short note on Virgin America (http://www.virginamerica.com/va/home.do)- travelled with them from LAX to SFO. Has the comfort of Pacific Blue / Virgin Blue but the luggage locker issues of Jetstar (i.e. the lockers get filled up in seconds – Travel Tip: try and get seated as far forward as possible and take as little carry on baggage as you can). No extras or refreshments for free but the flight was good and the aircraft pleasant. And as they use LAX T3, it’s not as crowded or chaotic as say LAX T1.

W is for Weird Stuff: For your amusement….

–Prior to departing, I was given some interesting advice – never pack chocolate in your checked luggage while travelling in the States. You might find that the scanners pick it up as ‘suspicious’ (something to do with density, I believe). Nut-filled chocolate is particularly suspect, I am told.

–Snow Globes are banned from your carry-on luggage also, by the way (ok if in your checked baggage). This is because they breach the 3-1-1 rule (3 oz container, 1 quart bag, 1 bag per traveller). Also, you should pack your bag in layers to make it easier for the happy campers at the screening station to see what you have in your bag (easy for me – I already do this).

–It took almost two hours (!) to get from San Francisco International Airport to the city. Not because of the traffic, but because (wait for it), the shuttle driver could not stand driving just me so we went to the domestic terminals (10 minute wait at both terminals), then he took one passenger to the Mission district (and got a bit lost in the process), then dropped off a person on the edge of the CBD (when he could have dropped off myself and another in another five minutes), then he got really confused when two passengers indicated that they lived beyond the Presidio in the Sea Cliff area (past 25th Street) – it took over forty minutes to get there from the CBD after one drop off and then back ! I should be grateful, I suppose, I now know what the majority of Geary Boulevard looks like, went through Japantown, South Van Ness Avenue, all the touristy areas……The return trip to the airport took just under 20 minutes !

X is the Roman Numeral for 10 – the Top 10 Highlights:

–The Water Fountains at Bellagio
–The Cable Cars in San Francisco
–Having lunch at Moonshadows, Malibu Highway with a good friend
–Strolling about and through the J Paul Getty Villa
–V Australia’s Premium Economy class
–Taking advantage of some ridiculous prices at the post-Thanksgiving / pre-Xmas sales
–Lombard Street, San Francisco
–Everything Coca Cola, Las Vegas – taste 16 different Coke-owned beverages from South Africa, India, Mozambique, UK, Italy, Japan, China and the USA for USD 7. I was expecting shot glasses, they serve in the small plastic cups in two trays !
–Lunch (any meal, actually) at the Grand Lux Café.
–The Karsh exhibition at the Los Angeles Public Library

Y is for yelp.com: Great online guide particularly for San Francisco. Recommended for dining tips and hints and what’s good and what’s not. YMMV in some cases, however.

Z is for Zoetic – Everyone knows that zoetic means ‘living’ or ‘vital’ and indeed travel is itself a zoetic activity. Speaking of which, plans are already well advanced for a trip to the UK and Paris in June 2010 – more details closer to the time.

**HAPPY HOLIDAYS IN ADVANCE AND BEST WISHES FOR 2010. **

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About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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