From the Sideline: New York Giants vs. New York Jets on Christmas Eve

Everything was setup perfectly for the type of showdown that you wish every football game could be.

It was the two same-city rivals, who only meet each other in the regular season once every four years.  They share the same stadium, alternating home games from week to week.  And, although, the Jets were officially the home team, the stadium was heavily flooded with Giants blue.  The weather was sunny and unseasonably warm and everyone was more than happy that they could leave and have, at least, the next two days off from work, instead of treking to the office as they normally would after a typical Sunday afternoon game.  Most importantly, however, the game actually meant something:  The winner would go on to play the next week in an attempt to win their division, while the loser’s season would be, effectively, over.  It was all or nothing.

I was lucky enough to be on the sidelines before kickoff.   And, also lucky for me, the New York Giants prevailed 29 to 14, in a matchup that was worthy of twice the already-inflated ticket price.

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There are many more pics that can be seen in my Flickr set for this game…

Quick Review: United Airlines International First Class Suites Service (Now United GlobalFirst)

Note as of January 2014:  This review was originally written before the full integration of products after the United/Continental merger.   This service is now known as “United GlobalFirst”, which, as of this time, is served out of the pre-merger United SFO, LA, Chicago and Washington hubs.   The hard service (seats, entertainment, etc.) has not changed since that time, but the menu an on-board service has been updated (slightly for the better, IMO).

Unlike some of my comprehensive reviews of Business and First Class airline travel, this one will be relatively quick.   Quite frankly, there isn’t too much to write home about, anyway.

For this installment, I take a look at United’s latest international first class product, marketed as the United First Class Suites.  It’s important to point out that this is the international first class services from the pre-merger United Airlines – this is NOT a review of (pre-United merger) Continental Airlines’s BusinessFirst service (you can read my review of the upgraded Continental BusinessFirst seat here, if you’d like.   It should be noted that the new United Airlines will maintain a mix of two-cabin and three-cabin services, including the seats that I review today, as well as the new-ish Continental BusinessFirst product and the fairly-new United International Business product.

This review happens to be my first experience in United First Class on an international route.  Despite that fact that I live a few miles from the “new” United’s hub at Newark, I actually have limited experience flying United over the years.  This is, in fact, only my third premium class trip on United and, to date, I have to say that I’m not overly impressed.

My route on this trip was from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport (PVG) to Los Angeles International (LAX).   The PVG-LAX route was flown on a Boeing 777-200, configured in three classes.  The first class cabin seats a total of 8 people in a two-row, 1-2-1 configuration. The adjacent business class configuration on this flight seats 40 people in a bizarre 2-4-2 forward facing/read-racing configuration – pretty much guaranteeing annoying bathroom break disturbances for every single business class passenger throughout the flight.

The single star in this service is, without a doubt, the First Class Suite.  It is a very large, comfortable seat that provides ample room for storage, making for a comfortable flight, whether sleeping, eating of lounging.

No, it’s not the most luxurious looking suite on the market today, but it is comfortable.   Each seat is slightly angled, which helps a bit with privacy issues if you’re sitting in the middle aisle – as you can see, there are no dividers between the seat next to you.   One small annoyance is the addition of a shoulder seat belt (in addition to a lap belt) in this configuration.  The shoulder belt can be uncomfortable, to say the least.

In this suite, stowage is no challenge, as there are a number of different compartments to place all of your goodies, including a huge bin located on the aisle side of the seat:

The console next to the seat provides seat controls, headphone jacks, USB charger connects, a power port and a remote control:

Legroom is quite large, even for all 6 foot 4 inches of me, although the television is relatively small compared to some of the other comparable first class products on the market (Emirates, Singapore, TAM, etc.):

My 11.5 hour flight to LAX departed at 8:25pm, so I certainly did get a chance to catch some sleep and have to say that I’ve slept as good as I ever had on a long-haul flight.  It is certainly a comfortable space.

Unfortunately, however, the service was less than first-class.  I found the food to be mediocre, at best, the selection to be limited and the preparation to be less-than-spectacular.  Don’t get me wrong, the quality of food beats anything in Economy any day, but for a $12,000 ticket, I typically expect more.  The service include:

…a sloppily presented tomato soup:

An overcooked steak:

A miniature appetizer:

A poorly-presented and tasteless pasta:

Again – I’m not expecting Michelin three star-quality food, but, at a minimum, you would think that United’s First Class service would match Continental’s BusinessFirst Serve, which is a pure business-class product.  Excellent First Class seat aside, it does not.  In fact, I find that Continental’s transcontinental domestic first class service often provides better meals.

Flight crew service on the trip was friendly and just attentive enough.  I didn’t see them much at all after dinner, but they were there in an instant when I needed something.

Upon arrival at LAX, I was greeted with further disappointment:  While United does maintain a very comfortable dedicated First Class Lounge, there are no showers in any United Club facilities.  Thankfully, however, the First Class Lounge offered a variety of food, beverages and super-friendly staff.

The Quick Conclusion

All in all, the flight was comfortable and it got me across the Pacific without much incident. But the large seat aside, I find it difficult to pay the premium for United’s First Class versus, say, Continental’s BusinessFirst service.  I have subsequently encountered several times where seats on the direct PVG-EWR Continental route had no BusinessFirst availability and, instead of choosing United First Class, chose to add another few hours to my trip by flying Emirates back home via Dubai.

National Day 2011: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and Beijing, China

I am always amazed by the variety of impressions that I hear from foreigners who have visited Tiananmen Square. My friend recently called a winter day’s visit “creepy”, while another said that it was an “uncomfortable place”, given the atrocities that occurred in June of 1989.   On the other hand, others find it fascinating and few hours exploring the adjacent Forbidden City is is a must-do on any tourist’s agenda.  Due to the Chinese government’s (fairly successful) effort to surpress the recent history of the place, most Chinese citizens are oblivious to what occurred there over twenty years ago and, on National Day, especially, the area is filled with endless signs of loyalty and patriotism.

October 1 is the day that China celebrates the formation of the People’s Republic of China, dating back to 1949.   It is also the start of one of two Golden Weeks in the PRC, marking a week of vacation for Chinese nationals.   On National Day, thousands of Chinese flock to Beijing, Forbidden City and Tiananmen Squire, happily posing for photos, waving Chinese flags and celebrating amongst the red lantern-decorated public spaces.

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

National Day 2011 - Beijing

More photos can be seen in my Flickr photo set.

Cool Hotels: Kapama Karula, South Africa

In my ongoing series, I highlight cool and interesting hotels that I’ve encountered throughout the world.

There’s something that I didn’t realize until I was just a few minutes away from arriving at Kapama Karula:  it would really be the place where I would stay for the next five days – as in there, literally, wouldn’t be anywhere else for me go to in the five days that I would be at the Kapama Private Game Reserve in northwestern South Africa.   The hotel is located a 20 minute drive from the gates of the reserve and, once your in, you won’t be going anywhere without being escorted by a shotgun-wielding escort.   This makes skipping out to the local pub or corner store a bit difficult.

Luckily this luxury “camp” is first class all the way.  And while there are several other lodges located within the Kapama Reserve, this is the most private and exclusive.  At the time that I was there, the entire facility consisted of only seven tents.  They have since added five luxury suites.  This means that you will get to know your campmates and staff quite well, since you’ll be spending 6 hours on safari with them each day, in addition to one communal dinner each evening.  This, however, makes for a very interesting time, as South Africa tends to attract people from every other corner of the earth.

The private tents are climate controlled and include king-size beds, dual vanaties, soaking tubs and a beautiful outdoor shower (which might welcome from monkey visitors from time to time).    Located on the banks of the Klaserie River, you can sometimes hear the roar of male lions at night and witness a variety of different game come very close to the edge of the camp.

(You can click on any photo to see a larger version on Flickr)

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The common facilities are equally as beautiful, including a beautiful dining room, several sitting areas, a wonderful bar and and lap pool.

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All in all, the Kapama Karula experience is the first class all the way.  The food is superb and abundant, the staff is friendly and the game reserve, itself, is filled withe everything you’d expect to see in a top-notch South African game reserve.

As mid-season rates approach 6000 ZAR per double room per night (as of this writing, about US$740/nt, before tax and gratuity), it may not exactly be roughing it in the bush, but it’s certainly worth every penny.

A full set of photos from my Kapama experience can be viewed in my Flickr photo set.