Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Trip Reports: The Flights of The Pilot’s Pants

Whilst encouraged by (and grateful for) the positive reactions of those insomniacs who were able to make it through my first attempt at writing up a trip report, I feel that I should extend my particular thanks to all the Chief Executives whose payrolls have been wholly wasted on their employees scrolling through this drivel in work time.

Gratitude is also due, I think, to OPEC whose recent actions have slashed travel budgets the World-over and opened up a few extra seats for redemption where those self-same CEOs used to sit.

So, from 1K, thank you again and, if you were just being polite last time then I suggest you be honest from now on. Otherwise these instalments of my life aloft may keep on coming interminably.

The Prologue

The passage of time is a terrible thing. Despite the wisdom of those who have gone before and the warnings writ large for all to see, there comes to all of us that sudden realisation that one simply doesn’t have all that long left. So, with a milestone (if not landmark) birthday rapidly approaching, I awoke one summer morning to finally accept that most final of impending demises.

Yes, I had just 29 days to redeem an expiring American Express 2-4-1 flight voucher.

Understandably panicked and spurred into purposeful action, the new British Airways' redemption availability checker was pressed into service and two practical options were offered. Club World out, First Class back from Heathrow's long-in-the-tooth Terminal Four on a Boeing 777 to Muscat for 3 days at The Chedi, or First Class both ways from the still-sparkling new T5 on a Jumbo to New York for 3 ½ days. Travelling companion: MotherContinentalclub.

By the time I’d checked out the hotels, canvassed MCC’s preferences, mucked about for a bit and asked for some others’ advice, I decided to go for Option Oman. Mixed class travel not being bookable online, I would have to wait until the following morning for British Airways' Executive Club to open and do it on the 'phone.

Needless to say, by the following morning, the outward MCT availability had gone and therefore it was a quick check of ExpertFlyer seat maps to see which flights (especially on the return) had the lightest loads before heading back to ba.com to bag the JFK flights in First. Having been ‘n’ times before, it was going to be a bit of a busman’s holiday, but I knew I’d enjoy showing MCC round for her first Big Apple experience, and the prospect of another T5 Concorde Club Room visit and the front cabin of the 747 meant that I immediately started to seriously look forward to the voyage.

Newcastle to London - British Airways

As a native of the North, the first part of the trip is always a positioning exercise before the main event of the long haul. On this occasion and to maximise the time in New York, the morning JFK flight had been selected, necessitating a previous-evening departure from Newcastle and an overnight somewhere in the vicinity of Heathrow.

Having stayed, just a week beforehand, at the Bath Road Marriott, I’d seen how simple it was to connect from T5 to the Sheratons, Radisson Edwardian and Marriott etc., on the free 423 Service Bus. However, on this occasion, the desire to extend the time in the Concorde Room, and the prospect of a day which would be lengthened by a five hour time-zone retreat, dictated even more stress-free accommodations. Thus the squeaky new Sofitel would be the property of choice tonight.

Bagging 2A and 2K for the First flight had been no problem at the booking stage, but the domestic seat selections had to wait until On Line Check In opened. On the button of 'T-24' - ie 24 hours before take-off, I logged in and made it all the way through the process until the actual process of checking-in. And failed. So I logged out and tried again. Nope, still nothing. I left the office, went home and tried again at T-23. Nada. T-22 and still no success. So I phoned British Airways' Executive Club.

The situation didn’t seem to surprise the agent all that much and he suggested a work-around which involved un-checking auto completed boxes, checking in for the domestics only, re-logging in and then checking in for the internationals. Which worked perfectly. Odd.

Arriving at Newcastle with buckets of time, I used a Self Service Check In machine to print out manageable Boarding Passes and then hit the snaking Fast Bag Drop queue, which was barely moving. The lone Gold/Silver desk was unmanned – there are no premium cabined flights from Newcastle. Eventually, an agent appeared for the vacant desk and we doubled-back out of the queue and dropped the bags. I’m not entirely certain she’d ever checked in a First connecting passenger as she looked suitably flustered by the whole process.

Although there’s a Fast Track queue at Security, this is signed for BA Silver and Gold cardholders (and an assortment of others) but not for those connecting to premium cabins on an onward basis. I’ve spoken to security staff at the airport before (when not actually passing through myself) and it seems that they’re not briefed on any allowance for Business/First Class passengers from LHR so, frankly, it’s pointless trying and we join the main queue. It moves reasonably quickly and we are in the lounge in a few minutes, having negotiated the new shopping hazard (passengers are now forced to walk through the main duty-free shop, dodging the displays to reach the gates) we were quickly installed in the BA Terraces Lounge. A lack of celebrities, or indeed many passengers at all, afforded the opportunity to take a quick snap.

Having made it so far this swiftly, it was a little disappointing to see nothing on the board suggesting an on-time departure. And, with no further information seemingly available from the Swissport contract staff, it was time to pour a large G&T, stock up on the freshly-delivered sandwiches and log on to the free wifi to glean an insight into our future from the outside world. The Arrivals & Departures function on ba.com came up trumps, even if the news was that we were facing at least a 30 minute delay to the inbound aircraft.

It was also at this moment that the much anticipated email arrived from the new You First team, offering up their myriad (but unspecified) pre-departure services. The email had lagged the booking by about 80 hours and preceded the scheduled take-off time by 43 minutes, but it was a trial service, so I wasn't too disappointed. I fired an email back asking about the possibility of pre-booking an Elemis Spa treatment for the following morning and, upon logging-on in New York the next day, I picked up the reply..... Actually, it was beautifully written, apologetic and I'd deliberately emailed them to properly test the service and response time, rather than merely telephoning for an immediate answer. Anyone booking more than a few days in advance would, I am sure, be delighted by the new support. The response was that, notwithstanding the short notice, treatments are not yet pre-bookable, but the inference was that demand through You First may force their hand. Watch this space.

Back to Newcastle and, sure enough, the ba.com info was an accurate forecast of the time between 'scheduled' and 'actual' and the Airbus A320 swung on to stand for a quick freshen up and preparation for boarding. We were called from the lounge and headed to Gate 3, arriving slightly too early. After a short wait, we were scanned through and headed down the bridge to the waiting aircraft, to be greeted by name by the Cabin Services Director – an unusually senior crewmember to be operating this domestic sector. The aircraft was tidy but definitely showing a few scuffs and bumps – less so than the previous week’s equipment but certainly a bit shabby compared to the factory-fresh A321 we’d set out on our first steps to Vancouver on in June. In fact, at this point, I should like to commend to British Airways and their contractors the fantastic product known as Autoglym Intensive Tar Remover. It is a wizard at stain removal and would tart up those white bulkheads and sidewalls which take so many kicks and scrapes. Try Halfords. Not more than a fiver. I would bring my own but I wouldn’t get it through Security.

Seated, belted and jacket hung, we were greeted by another senior crew member not all that usually seen in the cabin – the driver. She appeared with the PA in her hand and proceeded to explain what was going on. The inbound delay had been due to inclemencies in the South, with Heathrow movements restricted slightly. But, she said in her most measured of flight-deck tones, conditions had deteriorated seriously within the last hour and severe thunderstorms were now affecting the area around the airfield. Indeed the meteorological situation was, she apologised, frankly ‘pants’ so, with the title of the trip agreed, we sat back to await the 75 minute behind-time pushback.

The flight itself was uneventful, despite take-off being in lashing rain, and quite a number of Berks/Bucks/Herts circuits as we waited to enter Heathrow’s flow control. On board service was friendly and professional and the usual choice of superchilled sarnies and bar service was wheeled out. In anticipation of any bumpiness (which was in the event almost completely absent) there was no hot drink service, which was also no great loss.

Landing on 27L with the glorious Welcome to London view of the tailless G-YMMM and the forlorn G-BOAB, we had a fairly short taxi on to A6 at the North end of T5. Guidance was on, jetty operator was present and we were disembarking within 4 minutes of shutdown.

Now, get this: Gate A6 has a very long jetty bridge, but we were off first so we stormed up it. Experienced enough in all things T5 to ignore the escalators, we jumped into the first available lift and whipped down to the baggage hall. And, six minutes after crossing the Airbus threshold, the bags started to appear! Ours were off third and fifth and we grabbed a trolley and headed directly for the as-yet-untried Sofitel.

Verdict for British Airways Domestic: 7.5/10. On Line Check In was imperfect, the Fast Bag Drop queue was too long, Fast Track Security needs sorting, flight information wasn’t available from lounge staff and the aircraft needed a bit of a wash. The crew (flight and cabin) were excellent however and the T5 arrival experience was quite superb.

Sofitel Terminal Five

Leaving aside the choice of a French hotelier to operate the only on-site accommodations at Britain’s flag carrier’s home terminal, I was rather looking forward to my first ever experience of a Sofitel property. Expectations were set fairly high following positive reports from New York, Chicago and a number of other outposts of the chain, but moderated by the fact that this was still an airport hotel and had only very recently opened. The previous week’s Marriott experience had been fine, although never has a hotel’s interior differed so markedly from its exterior. Outside – aluminium-clad modernity. Inside – traditional Marriott wood and brass. Strange.

Signposting from Arrivals North wasn’t too bad and we were swiftly heading up in the lift to the Sofitel link bridge, the entrance to which signals quite a significant change of atmosphere. Though still distinctly modern, the stark industrial efficiency of the generic T5 environment gives way to an altogether warmer, relaxed and comfortable if bland ambience. I may be mistaken, but I was certain that I could detect a spa-like aroma being introduced through the aircon as we walked the polished, tiled then richly carpeted floor, sloping gently down away from the terminal building. The only oddity being the strange undulation underfoot, which is particularly noticeable when wheeling a trolley and clearly a function of the construction, as tiles had been cut to accommodate the humps and dips.

At the end of the corridor is a set of doors and a porter’s post, from which we were greeted by a cheery ‘Bon Soir’ and a helpful guide to head down in the lift and then turn right to Reception. However, as we had to wait a few seconds for a lift, the porter left his station and took over the trolley. He invited us to take the escalator and he would deal with the luggage. Thanking him, we took his advice and descended to a lobby which was reasonably busy with checking-in guests – almost all of whom were BA crew. The porter arrived with the bags and parked them up, before disappearing behind the desk while I queued. The next thing I knew, our sainted porter had commandeered a vacant PC and beckoned me forward, around the crews, to complete our check-in. He wasn’t the slickest as it clearly wasn’t his usual role, but he got it right and was very friendly and professional, so full marks to Sofitel for training and empowering their staff to ‘own’ a guest’s needs.

Returning to MCC and the luggage, I found that a bellhop had transferred our bags to a hotel trolley and was waiting to show us to our room. En-route, he pointed out the restaurant and bar, told us a little about the hotel and its facilities and was, all-in-all, another superb ambassador for Sofitel. If only they could have given him a suit that fitted properly....

The twin room was a steal at £95+VAT, and the only extra that we would add to the bill was £15 for Internet access. Although not hugely spacious, with extra inches over those needed for a double bed being taken up by the two singles, the room was nicely furnished and very quiet. There was a Stressless recliner, a good workspace and a sizeable flat panel TV.

The media console on the wall is not unique to Sofitel but is very useful nonetheless. In fact, the only aspect of the room which wasn’t particularly well thought-out was the hole in the panel behind and beneath the TV which exposed messy wiring when viewing from the beds. The beds themselves are worthy of note though, supremely comfortable and trimmed with high thread-count linen of silken feel.

The bathroom, though clearly a pre-fabricated job, was also well-appointed and benefited from a separate wet-room style shower. Fixtures and fittings looked top-notch and worked flawlessly. Amenities are by Hermes and of high quality, although the quantities and range were not exactly generous. Still, the bathroom shows what can be done in a compact space and with factory construction – and therefore what a missed opportunity the T5 lounge offerings are.

And so to bed early to prepare for a sprightly start in the morning, and the anticipation of a long day of First Class fun.

Checkout the following morning was swift and painless, with luggage assistance offered but declined. With the Concorde Club Room in prospect, there was no need to dine at the hotel, so I’m afraid that the menus, service and prices went untested. Suffice to say that the restaurant looked very quiet, if stylish.

Verdict for the Sofitel T5: 9/10. Given the rate paid and the fact that the levels of service were clearly worthy of full-price, I would be delighted to stay there again and also give other Sofitels a try. Certainly the best Airport hotel I’ve ever stayed in – from a selection of not that many – but I’d suggest losing the footstool from the Stressless to free up at least a little floor space.

London to New York - British Airways

I’m a firm believer in the value of a pleasant surprise, and so it is to most things that I do try to add in a little extra. It does of course require some artful preparation, as well as expectations management and I’ve learnt that introducing a small disappointment or trial into the process has a nifty habit of increasing the effect of the subsequent delight.

So, having dealt with the online and self-service check-in processes, and the Terraces access at Newcastle without letting MCC see what was going on, we headed back along the link to T5 with her looking forward to her Club World flight to JFK.

Popping out into the Terminal at the Northern end, she was however forced to endure a trek South, passing huddle after huddle of Self Service Check In machines, at least some queueless Bag Drops and a quiet-looking Security Channel. She’s well enough trained not to be vocal in complaint, but she did wonder out loud why we couldn’t just head straight ‘over there’.

As we neared our target at the far end of the concourse however, the realisation dawned and was heralded by the simple ‘We’re not?’ with the polished First letters hoving into view. So, the preparations had worked like a dream again as the broad smile lingered far beyond the reception desk to the First Class Check In area. We were welcomed and accompanied by a lovely Scottish lady, who chatted with us for a minute or two while we waited for an agent to become free to drop our bags with. Of course, using the F area was actually a completely needless diversion, as we had our BPs already, but I suppose I was adding in a bit of theatre to the experience that, sadly, sometimes the airline fails to.

Having liberated ourselves of the luggage, we were asked if we knew where we were going to get to Security etc, albeit in that more Edinburgh way of ‘You’ll have had your tea’ rather than the Glaswegian ‘Will you be having some tea?’ I should clarify that this was not from our Scottish receptionist, but I thought that it would have been nice to at least have had the genuine offer of accompaniment.

As it was, there was no queue at the passport check and we were in the line for Fast Track almost immediately. At 7.00am, we were through in 4 minutes, with a nice BAA guy manning the operation and explaining clearly and empathetically to less experienced passengers how the systems ‘works’. In fairness, the non-Fast Track was also running just as swiftly, so non premium passengers should not have been too inconvenienced either.

Two staff were manning the secret door and one of them escorted us into the Concorde Room. He checked his PC and confirmed the gate number, advising us that the flight was showing on time and giving us some guidance on timings to get across to T5B, the satellite terminal. As a sticking plaster solution to the problem of knowing when to leave and then actually getting there, it was a worthy effort, but we weren’t addressed by name and the issue really does need some serious attention to bring the service level up to at least somewhere near the industry-leading standards of carriers like Lufthansa.

The plan had been to book in for a Spa treatment, having still not yet experienced the T5 offer. However, with rumbling stomach and a pressing need for a coffee and something fizzy, making for the Dining Room seemed a more sensible option.

We were met at the host station by three staff, all of whom smiled and said hello and one of them invited us to choose a table. Comfortably seated, she offered us menus and took a drinks order. MCC asked for tea and apple juice; I opted for coffee and champagne. A minute or two later, not long after the distinctive pop was heard (first bottle of the day then!) she returned with the glass of champagne, but an apology and no apple juice. Would madam care for something else? She chose cranberry as an alternative and it arrived promptly, but I still can’t quite decide whether it’s a worse show that the Concorde Room had no AJ, or that the staff didn’t think to nip next door to the First Class or Business lounges and get some from there.

A food order was taken – pastries to start and the full English for me; granola with a side order of berries and scrambled egg with toast for MCC. The waitress was careful to point out that MCC's berries would not be fresh, but frozen, having perhaps received complaints before. The food arrived promptly and, whilst the fruit having previously been frozen was not a particular problem, the fact that it was presented swimming in defrosted juice was not ideal.

The pastry platter was very good however, not too dainty, fresh and nicely warmed. Washed down with a glass of the (reportedly) rapidly diminishing stock of Bollinger La Grand Annee, it was a fine way to start.

Previous visits to the Dining Room had been marred somewhat by invisible staff, but there was no such problem on this occasion. We were regularly checked upon and really the only picky observation would be that it could have done with being rather less obvious. Subtle loops of the room would be preferable to the more stabbing arriving at a table, pointedly checking and then retreating once again. It’s a small thing, but it would make a difference.

Starters cleared, the main courses arrived and MCC declared her eggs perfectly acceptable. My full English was rather less successful. Well cooked and not unpleasantly presented, it was however a shock to see tinned mushrooms and then to find the sausage to be slightly more ‘gourmet’ than I am keen on. The latter, I accept, is a matter of personal preference given that I tend to prefer a traditional pork banger, but really, I think that tinned mushrooms are pretty unforgiveable for all but Scott and Shackleton.

The food dispensed with, another flute was ordered and delivered and we prepared to head out and across to B. Whilst MCC took a comfort break, I availed myself of the opportunity to have a good look at the projected artwork above the lobby fireplace. I have to say that I really enjoyed it and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I do think that it would make a nifty screensaver. I was delighted to later find that a version of it is available to view on the internet, albeit from the artist’s website as opposed to BA’s, which seems a bit of a shame. Good stuff though – do have a look.

Ignoring for once the well-versed rule that says one should always use lifts, not escalators, at T5, we left the lounge complex not by the secret door but instead via the main escalators so that a quick first look at the electronic cloud artwork could be grabbed. Like the fireplace projection, it’s quite novel and engaging, although a couple of the flipping discs which animate it were already out of action.

Reverting to the lift-is-best mantra, the descent to the transit station was super-swift and, despite just missing a ‘thing’, another one was along very quickly and we boarded for the journey across to T5B. A minute later and we were there, taking another lift up to the gates. Though speedy, taking the lift does however mean missing out on that most enjoyable view of the apron that the ascendency to departures level via escalator affords.

Boarding had already commenced and we skimmed past the queues to find the hoped-for priority lane. An unconcerned World Traveller passenger arrested progress at one point as her bag blocked the way, but a firm ‘excuse me’ saw the wheelie retracted and our passage was once more unhindered. BPs scanned, the jetty beckoned, but of course the singularity of the bridge meant that there was a small line of passengers at Door 2L - the second door back on the aircraft's port side. The detention was not lengthy however and, at the door, we were greeted by name by the Cabin Services' Director, the Purser was summoned and we were shown to our 2A and 2K – the preferred Row 1 not having opened up.

Drinks were offered and the Bollinger ordered as the bits and pieces desired in-flight were removed from the carry-ons and the bags stowed. The champagne and nuts arrived swiftly and were set down, followed by wash bags and sleeper suits. All very efficient and an already clearly charming crew. As we settled down and arranged the cushions and pillows into the most comfortable positions, the Captain came on to let us know that we would be facing a 30 minute delay to push-back, which I’m sure was a disappointment to many. Here however, it would simply offer further opportunity to enjoy watching the ramp activity outside while knocking back another glass or two of Bolli.

When pushback came, we headed out along the Northern taxiway to line up on Runway 27R, and passing along the way a Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 Superjumbo. Indeed, a sister bird to the Airbus monster had also been observed on arrival from Newcastle, with the most noticeable thing being that it doesn’t seem all that big at first. Certainly its length is unremarkable, but then its tail and bulk do become apparent especially when seen next to the Cathay Pacific Boeing 747 which was moored alongside.

At the earliest possible opportunity after take-off, the bottle was brought from the galley to top up and, what seemed like mere moments later, a selection of canap├ęs also arrived. I admit that I do enjoy these, although I know that some consider them a little run-of-the-mill. There are lots of things that I’d like to see change in First, alongside some additions, but I’d be sorry to see these modest treats disappear as the cloud cover is broken and the sun glints off the freshly-poured bubbles. I always have a little smile at that point.

The 'on-demand' audio-visual system (AVOD) is booted up and, apparently remains rock-solid throughout the flight. The CSD appears and, after a short word with the occupant of 1K (1A has either been blocked or is a no-show) then has a chat with MCC and I. She already has questionnaires in-hand and says that we’ve been selected as particularly high-value passengers. Hmm. Delighted to oblige of course and, as mentioned earlier, it’s obvious that we’re going to have a good flight. She is delightful herself, as are all our crew, although afterwards I reflect on the fact that we weren’t generally addressed by name. It underlines the fact that actually, though I do appreciate it when it happens, genuine warmth and care in service is far more important than repeating a surname.

This being a morning flight, arriving before noon, the meal service is actually a bit odd – lunch followed by afternoon tea. That said, I do feel nearly ready to eat (despite the full English) and when the order is taken I’m asked when I would like to dine. I suggest that about an hour hence would be ideal and the crew honour this practically to the minute. The cabin is lightly loaded and, when the allotted hour arrived, the crew ask if MCC and I would like to move to 5EF - one of the 'paired' seats in the First Class cabin - so that we can take lunch together. Though we politely declined, it was a nice thought and lovely to have it offered.

As an avowed cinema-dodger, I’m not usually interested in the films on board, but I let my guard down on this occasion and had a good chuckle to Kung Fu Panda while not watching the map or listening to the Audio selection. Although I couldn’t immediately detect much variation in the AVOD CD library from two months beforehand, I did have more of an explore through it and found it to be slightly more comprehensive than I’d initially and previously given it credit for. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting old and don’t recognise many of the modern bands.....

On the recommendation of FCC from the Vancouver trip, I opted to start with the Leek and Potato Soup, which was lovely. I do like soup and I think it nice to have selections in First that are not available in other cabins. So, notwithstanding the bowl sloppage that comes from serving pre-bowled from the galley, it was delicious. Much better to bring the empty bowl and pour from an individual jug/boat seatside however and add a little theatre into proceedings.

I also like my fish, so the Loch Fyne Catch of The Day – Sea Bass – was selected and it arrived really rather nicely presented by the crew. It was very tasty too but, as the picture may show, the flesh was rather more grey than white and really not all that appealing on first sight. The proof of the pudding is in the eating however, and there was no problem there.

Speaking of pudding, there does come a point when tough decisions have to be made. And so it was that the consumption was temporarily suspended in light of the desire to partake in the afternoon tea which would follow, later in the morning.....

.....which proved to be very much the usual affair, nothing at all spectacular but pleasant enough. Scones nicely warmed but really rather small and the sandwiches being nice but not what might be described as First Class. The cakes and patisserie were also slightly more Mr Kipling than Michelin-starred. Nothing offensive, of course, but there’s definite room for improvement and, without much head-scratching, some reasonably obvious ways to achieve it.

And with that, having not managed to make up any of the lost time from departure, we begin our descent into JFK and the end of another British Airways First flight which shows that, once again, it is the superb crews who raise the product above its relatively average bones. Just imagine what they could do with the class-leading tools that BA desperately needs to deliver with New First.

Verdict for British Airways First: 8.0/10. A half point drop on the June score, attributable to tinned mushrooms in the lounge and grey fish on board. It’s a wonderful way to fly, and I do remain a fan of the 14 seat non-suite layout, but it should be the carrier that adds the sparkles to the product, not the passenger!

Once More In The Big Apple

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 AndyFlyer 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.

You Are What You Eat - Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner in NYC

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.

Miles of Museums

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.