Review: Flying Delta’s Business Elite

Delta planeSometimes the stars line up just right, which is why I’m able to bring you a review of what it’s like to fly first class on Delta’s transatlantic Business Elite service.

It happened on recent flight back to the United States and was due to an upgrade, oh blessed, blessed upgrade. The flight was from Heathrow to San Francisco with a connection in Minneapolis and for the important leg of the trip, the crossing the pond bit, I flew Delta Business Elite.

Even though I am neither very business-like nor elite.

As it happened, there was a little bit of excitement before we boarded because this was the morning a plane had mechanical troubles after taking off from Heathrow and had to return for an emergency landing after streaming smoke across the sky above London.

Do you know how disturbing it is to sit at the gate watching footage of an injured plane making an emergency landing in the very airport you are about to take off from?

Very disturbing.

Normally, I would have freaked the freak out. But not this time. I was too excited thinking about the luxury in store.

Being elite and all I was at the front of the line and was zipping along when a guy with a mere premium economy ticket, wearing, incidentally, a black turtleneck and tragically hip glasses, tried to step in front of me. Did I remonstrate vulgarly? Try to cut him off with my 19″ spinner? Not a bit of it. I merely paused and gave the pained stare of the privileged while a gate agent quickly stepped forward and blocked Mr. Turtleneck with a stern, “Just a minute, sir.”

Ha. Peasant.

I sailed serenely forward to my cabin in the sky.

Oh the space! The pristine leather seat! The flight attendant greeting me with a smile and a drink! I had a window seat which meant I essentially had my own little mini-cabin, ample storage space above, all kinds of extras including a TUMI Dopp kit filled with essentials and, of course, a good sized screen loaded with more entertainment than I could reasonably get through in one flight.

The food — well, to be perfectly frank, the food was still airplane food. Served on china with real cutlery so it was definitely superior to being back in steerage sawing away at rubber pasta with a spork, but that’s about it. The appetizer of smoked salmon was tasty, but the main dish was your basic chicken.

(Making airplane food tasty is a real headache. Apart from the logistical problems of having to chill and reheat the meal, there’s also the issue that our tastebuds are dulled in flight. It turns out Delta is about to launch a televised competition for a new airline chef, I’ll have more on that next week.)

But food, drink, entertainment — these are just foreplay. The real draw is the flat-bed seat, available on the 767-400ER I flew. I was worn out from a week of gin tasting — Don’t laugh. It’s exhausting. — and could not wait to set that bad boy down and bundle up in my comfy duvet. With full-size pillow!

I know what you’re thinking. How much more was all this? Too much more, I am sorry to say. The regular ticket is about $1,500; flying business is more than double that. It’s not likely I’d ever pony that up from my own pocket even if I had it.

However, I am able to report the experience was, without a doubt, the best flight I ever had. When we arrived and were being whisked off the plane first, who should make a reappearance but Mr. Turtleneck, shoving his oversized carry-on (containing, what, a month’s supply of black clothing?) in front of me. Did I complain? I did not. With a gracious, “After you,” I waved him on.

I would like to say that hours of heavenly luxury had made me a better person. But in truth I was loath to get off that plane and go back to my decidedly economy-class life.

Cheers, classily.


Ten Things to Know Before You go to Chile

Click here for an update of this post.


Ten things to know before you go to Chile

1. Passport. Here’s the link to the U.S. government page.

2. As always, pack as lightly as possible. If you can get everything into a carry-on and shoulder bag, do. Think black knit and roll everything up, stuffing underwear into shoes and then putting shoes in a bag to keep everything nice. Note: the official sizes of carry-ons seems to be shrinking. My 21-incher did not make the cut on international flights. Of course there were the usual  boors who somehow managed to haul on enormous suitcases, braining people on either side of the aisles as they waddled along. But you don’t want to be one of them. Weather conditions vary. Think layers. Traveling in the Chilean spring, I was glad of my packable rain coat which kept out cool, coastal breezes. Long-sleeved T-shirts with a zip jacket and Capri pants/modest skirts were the right compromise for cool mornings and warm afternoons. Leggings or tights under the skirt worked for night. California casual chic worked fine, although I did notice the business people of Santiago were sharp dressers.

3. If you are bringing electrical devices, be aware that the current in Chile is different from the U.S., 220v/50h vs 110v/60h, and the plugs are shaped differently, too. So you will need both an adaptor for the plug, small and cheap, and a larger device  to moderate the current, bigger and less cheap. My solution was to count on finding hair dryers in the relatively upscale hotels I stayed in, which there were, and to take only my iPad, which can run on either current, and adaptors I got from the Apple store, no doubt at a wildly inflated price. It turns out I could have just borrowed adaptors at the hotel. Also, a note to smart phone users. Unless you have/buy some type of international plan, it is very important to turn off roaming capability if you do not want to get stung with fantastically expensive bills. Just to be on the safe side, I kept my phone off except for times when I was in an area with free wifi (wee-fee in Chile, fyi), in which case I turned that on but turned off all the update, “push data” settings so my phone wouldn’t run up a tab getting the latest tweak of Fruit Ninja.

4. The flight to Chile from the United States is long. You will thank yourself later if you bring a stout pair of socks to put on, ditching your shoes, and an oversize sweatshirt/hoodie to cozy up in. If you are of the feminine persuasion I recommend wearing underpinnings that are short on style, long on stretch. Put a stretch knit dress or tunic-leggings combo on over that and you’ll still look reasonably smart. (Please note: Just because you could just wear sweats doesn’t meant you should.)

5. First thing you do when you get off the plane in Santiago, which is where you’ll most likely land, is pay the reciprocity tax. This is equal to what Chileans have to pay to visit the U.S. and as of October 2010 was $140. It’s good for the life of your passport. They take credit cards. The lines can be a bit free-form; be alert for swiftly moving queues.

6. Visa: this is required; flight attendants will give you a form to fill out on the plane _ no big deal. BUT, the other form you have to complete, attesting to the fact that you are not bringing in plant or animal goods is a big deal. The list of forbidden items is long and comprehensive. Lots of things count, including those chocolate covered peanuts you forgot you had stuck in the pocket of your carry-on. The fine is substantial if you get caught. Best bet is to mark “yes” if you have any doubts at all and then describe the items in question to the customs officials.

7. Which brings us to language. A lot of the people I met on my recent whirlwind trip of Chile spoke English, some amazingly well. But if you have any high school Spanish that you can brush up in the weeks before your visit do so. For one thing, it may come in handy, if, let’s say, you have to do some chatting at the Aduana (Customs) checkpoint.  For another thing, it’s fun to try to communicate in another language. Even if, as I did, you do tell a tableful of people that you are full of “mierda”, (crap, to put it politely) when you meant, “miedo”, fear.

8. Food. Get ready to eat some fantastic seafood. A great place in Santiago is La Mar, Av Nueva Costanera 3922, Vitacura, Santiago. This is actually Peruvian cuisine. The ceviche was super, the congrio, a local fish, was simple and so tasty. La Mar has a few locations around the world, including one in San Francisco, I’m going to have to try that one and see how it compares.

9. Visit. If you are in Santiago, the Mercado Central is worth a visit.

10. The really key thing: Have a pisco sour for me!Salud!

South America memories


Sunset over the Renacer winery in Mendoza /Michelle Locke

Back home again today _ so weird to hear everyone speaking English! _ and still processing the many things I saw, learned and experienced on my trip down south.

Here are some highlights.

Sunset in the Mendoza, that was a magical moment as the sky slowly turned golden and a chorus of frogs tuned up.


An outdoor tasting at the Veramonte winery in Chile's Casablanca Valley /Michelle Locke


Tasting Chilean wine in the vineyard where the grapes were grown, a ground-to-glass experience that never gets old for me.


Learning the tango in Argentina. Allegedly there are photos of this, but with any luck they won’t circulate.

MEAT! Here we got up close and personal with our soon-to-be lunch.











And, finally, there’s a highlight of the trip that I don’t have on camera, but I do have in my heart. Sitting in the Santiago airport and watching the last of the Chilean miners being brought to the surface. I must have been allergic to the pisco sour I was drinking. though, because my eyes would not stop watering.


Aiming high in Argentina

The Andes seen from the Nieto winery in the Mendoza /Michelle Locke

The high desert of the Mendoza wine region is not the Napa Valley. But winegrowers in both places share a similar idea: Higher is better.

In Napa, that means planting grapes on the slopes of the valley’s gentle hills. In the Mendoza, it means getting a little closer to the Andes. The theory for both places is that vines that have to work harder to survive produce more intense fruit.

Beautiful but arid, the wine growing areas of the Mendoza give off an austere vibe even in mild spring weather. Many of the vines grow very tall here; it’s hot, so need to keep the grape clusters close to the earth. Another unusual sight — black netting is strung along the tops of vines as protection against the hailstorms that can develop from the Andes mountains and are a major threat to crops here.

Walking along the Mendoza vineyards and looking up at the Andes looming in the distance is something I haven’t gotten used to. It feels like someone’s Photoshopped in the craggy, snow-dusted peaks. But they’re real all right and useful for more than a stunning backdrop. An intricate system of channels and aqueducts siphons runoff from snowmelt to the region.

In just a few days, I’ve only gotten the vaguest notion of the local culture. But here is a performance of a traditional dance that I liked a lot. The dancers were so graceful and elegant. (And I totally have to have some of those gaucho pants.)

Hola, Argentina!


Street scene in Mendoza /Michelle Locke

Friends, you know what’s a good way to introduce yourself to Argentina’s wine country? Riding through the vineyards of Mendoza on horseback.

Yes, I couldn’t be more surprised myself, but that’s what happened. My horse, named Socket, for reasons I was unable to determine, was a teensy bit self-willed, but we got on tolerably well. I think my, “Whoa, boy, I’ve put you in ‘park'” proved efficacious, And I flatly deny that was me squawking, “Ooh, Mummy!” when we went up that tricky bit. As you can no doubt gather I’ve arrived in Mendoza, center of Argentina’s wine country. I haven’t seen a great deal of it so far, but what little I have seen has been very attractive. Lots of green parks and gracious buildings.

Not surprisingly since this is prime cattle country, the menu has been meat followed by meat with a side of meat, please see below.

Speaking of meaty issues, I have now eaten my first blood sausage. It was OK, but nothing to get excited about. Squeamish-wise, I think if you’ve eaten Spam you’ve pretty much plumbed the depths of alimentary adventure, but I doubt I’m going to be combing the Berkeley farmers’ market for this. Next up, tango lessons. It can’t be that hard, right?

Hasta la vista.

Wine at the bottom of the world

Wine at the Valdivieso winery in Chile's Sagrada Familia wine region /Michelle Locke

In ancient times, map-makers wrote “Finis Terrae,” world’s end, on the spot now known as Chile. With the Earth being flat, clearly this was where the unwary traveler would go a step too far and fall off.

Luckily, nothing like that has happened to me, yet, although there have been some rather complicated turns involving big buses and small roads. The kind of operation where one guy gets out to wave his hands about while the other guy drives and you sit there saying, ever so politely, “I don’t mind getting out and walking. Really I don’t.”

I did learn a new phrase: Camino sinuoso, or winding road. Sounds better in Spanish, doesn’t it?

Anyway, there have been quite a few discoveries at the end of these particular long and winding roads, including some wines I tried at the Valdevieso winery at their vineyards in the Sagrada Familia district about an hour south of Santiago.

A standout was a 2010 single-vineyard sauvignon blanc, which went well with a local dish I tried, criadillas, served chopped and in a spicy broth. What are criadillas? Well, they’re a part of the bull, let’s put it that way.

So here I am tasting some nice wines and crossing a gustatory Rubicon or two. Who says I don’t know how to live on the edge?

Buen provecho!

What not to wear, vineyard version

IMG_4510What should you wear when you’re going to get out in the vineyard to observe the nitty gritty, emphasis on gritty, of grapegrowing?

Here’s a hint. Don’t follow the example of a group I  encountered recently who showed up for a vineyard tour wearing sleeveless tops and flip-flops _ and here’s a bulletin folks; toes are not pretty _ not to mention one ill-advised pair of 3-inch platforms.  Stumbling and shivering ensued followed by the kind of whines you don’t find in a tasting room. Continue reading “What not to wear, vineyard version”