Kia orana from the Cook Islands! Those of you who know where these spectacular islands are located will realize that I’m in paradise. It’s the perfect destination for honeymooners, adventure-seekers, and families who just want to get away from it all. For those of you who need a quick geography lesson, no need to do a Google search. I will tell you all you need to know. Believe it or not, half the fun of the trip was flying the 10-hour nonstop flight on Air New Zealand, which we will cover this week. Plus, we’ll make a pit stop in Erie for an early Father’s Day. If flying to the middle of the Pacific is just too far to travel, then maybe visiting Mexico is more up your alley. Although the swine flu has wreaked all kinds of havoc on Mexican tourism, it’s actually the best time to go right now. The beaches aren’t crowded and there are deals galore! This week, Tom Calicchio takes us to Puerto Vallarta for the Festival Gourmet International and Lisa McElroy tours us around the Mayan Riviera for some fun in the sun.
EARLY FATHER’S DAY
If you’re following me on Twitter, then you know I’m about to start traveling like an absolute madman – so much so that I really didn’t feel like getting on another plane. Especially because I would be heading in the opposite direction of the South Pacific but I knew if I didn’t go see my Dad this past weekend, then I wouldn’t be able to see him for two months. He’s in Erie for the summer so I managed to kill two (or three!) birds with one stone. I first flew to Toronto for the night, drove with Natalie to Erie (the drive takes three hours and fortunately, there was no wait at the Peace Bridge), and spent some quality time with my loved ones; my sister and her kids were also in town. Believe me – no one had to twist my arm to take this trip. I love going to Erie this time of year. The lake is so beautiful and the sunsets are seriously the best in the world.
The reason I bring this up is because I learned a trick on this trip. I bought my separate one-way tickets at the last minute and the nonstop flight from LAX to YYZ (Toronto) was over $1,000. However, American Airlines (AA) had a flight for $200 with a connection in DFW (Dallas). I definitely didn’t want to crisscross the country but I wasn’t spending $1,000. So I called American and found out that the fare rules on the connection allowed me to fly standby so when I saw there were a lot of seats left (just click ‘view seat map’) for the earlier nonstop, I tried my luck.
It was looking good and just as I was about to go to leave for LAX I got a voicemail from AA (I registered for notifications) stating that my Dallas flight was canceled due to bad weather. The message asked that I call them. I might have been the only person to jump for joy upon hearing that message but I knew this would now give me a free pass for the nonstop. It did and on top of that, my upgrade went through! (I sat in front of Eric McCormack from Will and Grace). For the way back, I used our JohnnyJet.com search engines (we have two different ones:Booking Buddy and OneTime) and kept trying different days, times and alternate airports (AlternateAirports.com). FYI:Buffalo is 105 miles away from Erie, Cleveland is 112 miles and Pittsburgh is 134 miles. The cheapest one I found was the easiest: a Continental flight from Erie to Cleveland to L.A. for $90 without taxes. What’s crazy is that the same flight but without the leg to Erie (Cleveland to L.A.) was $490. Airfares just don’t make sense.
WHERE ARE THE COOK ISLANDS?
Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know where the Cook Islands are located. You aren’t alone. Since most Americans don’t know where they are, the Cook Island Tourism Board has set up a website and game called Find The Cook Islands. In short, the Cook Islands are located in the South Pacific. They’re 620 miles south of Bora Bora, 1,870 miles north of Auckland and 1,500 miles east of Fiji. It’s on our side of the International Date Line so it’s only a three-hour time difference from Los Angeles.
AIR NEW ZEALAND
The only way to get to the Cook Islands from North America is by flying Air New Zealand. They fly nonstop once a week (on Sundays) otherwise you’ll have to go through Auckland and backtrack three to four hours. Air New Zealand is consistently rated among the world’s best international airlines and they became one of my favorites after I flew them, business class, to Auckland three years ago in their incredible 747. (You can read that story here.) This trip, I flew on their 767-300 — one way in business and I will fly economy on the way back … just keepin’ it real!
My yellow taxi was so beat up and my driver was so crazy that I was actually far more nervous about getting to the airport safely than flying across the Pacific, even after just watching the movieCastaway. After a few Hail Marys, I arrived at LAX’s Terminal 2 at 9:35pm for an 11:15pm flight. The plus side to arriving late was that there was no line at check-in for business class or economy. The agent was friendly and it took her just seconds to print up my boarding card.
There was a short line at security but as usual, I chose the wrong line. First, the Chinese guy in front of me, holding a brand-spanking-new American passport, didn’t speak a word of English and didn’t understand why the TSA officer kept telling him to go back through the metal detector because he didn’t take out his laptop, DVD player and liquids or remove his jacket and shoes. He did it four times. Poor guy probably hadn’t traveled since he applied for citizenship seven years ago so all the rules have changed and he was in real shock. It didn’t help that the officer was a jerk, too. He even scolded me for having so many cameras and electronic gadgets in one bag so he flagged it as suspicious. I didn’t want him to make my life miserable so I politely said, “That’s so strange because I fly about 100 times a year and I carry that same bag with all the same contents wherever I go and it never gets flagged.” He said, “Now that scares me.” The TSA agent assigned to do the swab for explosives started complaining to another colleague that the jerk had made him do this five times in the past 10 minutes and he was getting perturbed. But hey, I guess it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The Air New Zealand business class lounge is on the second floor and is one of the nicest lounges at LAX. It has stocked refrigerators with cold drinks, a bar, and all kinds of real food (not just peanuts and pretzels). There are also showers, computers, and free WiFi. The agents are super-friendly and the flight purser even went around to all the premium passengers to introduce himself and answer any questions. That was a first for me. Then Theiry, the lounge concierge, asked passengers if they wanted to board first or last. I prefer first since I travel with two bags (I don’t check them) and like getting bins closest to my seat; the 767 doesn’t have a lot overhead space.
767 BUSINESS CLASS
Theiry escorted me onto the plane and I quickly saw that business class on the 767-300 plane wasn’t like that on their 747-400 or even their 777. Their 747 has the best seats around with flatbeds and individual pods. The 767s seats were just okay. They are configured 2-2-2 up front and 2-3-2 in economy. All the seats are leather but they don’t have much of a leg rest so I used my carry-on as one. The seat felt a bit narrow but it could just be that I’m getting fat. But just like the 747, each seat comes with a fresh clean pillow, semi-noise cancelation headsets, a fleece blanket, and an amenity kit with a toothbrush, mask, earplugs and lotion.
An attractive, friendly flight attendant named Karen immediately offered pre-takeoff drinks. She was so cool that occasionally she would sit down in the open seat next to me for a quick chat. Dylan, the purser was also a star and he went around to passengers and knelt by their side to have a genuine conversation. Before takeoff the flight attendants then passed out bottles of water, menus, newspapers, and immigration slips. Why can’t all airlines do this?
We were delayed about 40 minutes because they were changing a tire and we pushed back from the gate at 11:48pm. Watching the fairly long taxi line, including two Qantas jets and an Air Pacific plane, got me all jazzed for the trip across the Pacific. Exactly 20 minutes (12:08am) later, we were airborne.
MINUTES AFTER TAKEOFF
Within three minutes after takeoff, the pilots turned off the seatbelt sign so I jumped up right away to use the loo (I’d drank a lot of agua) and since we were still climbing, the water in the toilet was sideways. When I popped out, the Flight attendants were already hard at work. They began by passing out hot towels, followed by the drink service.
What’s nice is that they served the food quickly, since most people want to go to sleep right away on the nine- hour, 31-minute flight to Rarotonga. Karen, looking fresh and happy, put a linen tablecloth on my tray table and on the one next to me since I was working on my laptop so I could eat and work at the same time. BTW: There are power ports for regular plugs and a USB port to charge iPods. There’s also a 10-inch touch screen with more options for movies, TV, music, games, than you’ll have time to watch. The live map is high tech with its screen of the pilot dashboard and its instrument reading (speed, altitude). The graphics for the different time zones were also a nice touch but it lacked one component: how much time left in the flight.
Dinner came with a wide selection of fine New Zealand wines. For a starter, I had an oak leaf salad with sweet Maui onions, beets, pumpkin, and feta cheese. Then came the first round of scrumptious bread – garlic, black olive, or wholegrain. Entrée choices were red wine braised beef short rib, grilled New Zealand salmon or wood-roasted organic chicken breast. When I chose the beef, the flight attendant said, “Lovely – that’s a fine choice!” I love New Zealanders’ attitudes and accents. I was going to pass on dessert since my seat was already snug but Karen said the ice cream was to die for and she wasn’t kidding. It comes with two scoops (strawberry cheesecake and pineapple coconut) and it seriously was the best ice cream I have ever had on a plane.
Although the seats weren’t as comfortable or lie-flat like my last Air New Zealand flight, I still slept for a good portion of the flight. NOTE: I was in seat 1J, the bulkhead, which I thought was the perfect choice since no one can come back and encroach on your space but according to SeatGuru.com, it’s one to stay away from. To each his own.
The seatbelt sign went on only twice and it wasn’t very bumpy at all. The first announcement after takeoff was eight hours into the flight when breakfast was being served. Upfront, it began with a choice of smoothies (strawberry), orange, tomato, and apple juices. But when I thought I heard Karen say the apple was pineapple, she said, “No it’s apple but I can get you pineapple.” Ha! Imagine if that was on a U.S. carrier? The flight attendant would be like: “You want pineapple juice? Why don’t you bend down and I will give you a swift kick and maybe with a little luck, it will turn the apple into pineapple!” Tea and coffee were served with the tray table, which had a fruit cup with a few blueberries, a raspberry, a slice of pineapple, cantaloupe, and two honeydew wedges. Then came the hot breakfast: danishes, toast with marmalade, jams, marmite, and vegemite. The main course was a croissant filled with smoked ham, Gruyere cheese, and tomato (I wonder how much fat that had?) It didn’t look good but it sure tasted divine!
It was dark outside during the whole flight and nothing to see but bright stars. However, just as we were about to land, the sun was creeping its way up over the horizon, and through the clouds, I caught glimpses of Rarotonga. It looked like an oasis and I was excited about not only adding another country to my list of destinations I’ve visited but more importantly, being submerged into a new culture.
MORE GOOD NEWS
When it was time to deplane, Karen insisted she help me with one of my heavy bags down the plane stairs so I could protect my camera from the rain. Could the service get any better? I don’t think so! Since the Cook Islands are increasing in popularity, Air New Zealand has recently announced they are going to upgrade the aircraft from LAX. Instead of the dated Boeing 767 with 230 seats, they are going to use the phat Boeing 777 with 330 seats during the peak period, December 20, 2009 through February 2010. And by the way, most people don’t realize Air New Zealand flies nonstop to London from Los Angeles. For more information, visit airnewzealand.com. In the USA, call 1-800-262-1234 and 1-800-663-5494 in Canada.
Next week, the video will include photos and clips from the flight down.
Next week: Rarotonga, baby!
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