Friday, May 31, 2013

Virgin Atlantic Fails to Wow

Author's note: The advertising campaign referenced in this post is that of Virgin America. 

My God, it’s Miss Brahms.

There’s a young blonde speaking into the public address handset with a high, thick, twang-y cockney accent. Her uniform is neat, hair coiffed and makeup just so. OK, it isn’t Miss Brahms, the sales assistant on the old British sitcom “Are You Being served?” but it might as well be. Except this isn’t Grace Brothers department store, it’s an Airbus A340 and Miss Brahms is a flight attendant.

In fact all the flight attendants onboard sound like they’re from south of the Thames. These are not the posh English accents of British Airways. This is my first time flying the much-hyped Virgin Atlantic, and my expectations are suitably high. In the States, Virgin has launched an enormously costly advertising campaign to promote its image as an urbane, chic, highly stylized experience—if you will—for its customers.

This experience as projected in the outdoor billboards in Los Angeles seem to tout air travel for the sake of air travel, forget wherever you’re trying to go. Fly VA and you’ll have your own touch-screen television, electrical outlets at your seat so you are never, ever unplugged, your teeth will be whiter, your hair glossier, clothes hipper, hips narrower, and you’ll be at least three inches taller.

After the impossibly mod Miss Brahms gives us the standard spiel, I realize that I have not grown three inches, nor are my teeth whiter. But then I’m in economy class with the rest of the poor schlubs. The beautiful people must be in Upper Class. Yes, I mean Upper Class. Not first class, that’s too pedestrian. Any middle-class cad can now and then afford first class, after all. VA calls its premium seating cabin Upper Class. Actually, according to their website, it’s the Upper Class Suite. The word cabin is apparently too blasé as well.

That’s also where all of the electrical outlets are it seems. No one back here in steerage has one. We also don’t have a walk-up bar, either. No matter, I like having an excuse to turn my phone completely off, I tell myself. Actually, I really do, so it’s not that big a deal. I guess I just didn’t read the ads closely enough.

I console my gadget-less self by taking the entertainment system for a spin. I poke the screen. Nothing happens. I poke again. Still nothing. I glare at the screen. That doesn’t bend it to my will like I had hoped, but it does make the lovely young lady sitting next to me point to the remote latched into my armrest. Fine.

Remote? Seriously? I mean, I remember flying JetBlue when they came on the scene and they had touch screens. And that was when Jesus was a boy. Even the airlines I love to loathe have touch screens on the planes that offer individual TVs. Come on.

But at least I’m not the guy behind me. Dinnertime rolls around and the special-ordered meals are passed around first, as with most airlines. The kosher, the low-sodium, the vegan—vegetarian is a standard issue option as with a majority of carriers now. I overhear the man directly behind me quietly call Miss Brahms after the regular meals have been delivered. Everyone on the aircraft is horking down the no-better-or-worse-than-any-other-airline food except this guy. He tells her he requested his vegan meal when he purchased his ticket. She goes and checks. Nothing. She says she’s so sorry and tells him though the chicken option is gone now, there’s beef stew and the vegetarian—pasta with cheese—option left, what can he eat? He answers, “No beef and no dairy.” The attendants manage to find him a couple of pieces of fruit from somewhere and that’s all he eats during the ten-hour flight. I bet he’s pissed about the touch screen, too.

For all the hype, I’m underwhelmed. Like most other airlines, VA charges extra for more legroom, extra bags, exit row seats and whatever else they care to. Here in economy class, I can tell no difference between vaunted Virgin Atlantic and any other carrier I’ve flown in the past ten years. The days of getting to splurge (reasonably) on an upgrade to an open first class seat are gone too. It would take a further $1,500 today to mosey on up to the fully-extended, flat beds, real bar with real bar stools, power outlets and—I bet—touch screens in Upper Class.

The company may try to separate itself from the herd with glossy advertising and all kinds of high-end perks for high-end clientele, but when you’re just one of the herd back in economy, the cute accents don’t help.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

More to Cancun than Spring Break - Part 2 of 2

After three nights at The Mayan, the well-reviewed hostel in the perfect spot in the city center next to the best park in Cancun—well away from the dreaded Hotel Zone—I start to itch.


I recognize the flat, round red blotches. I’ve been attacked before. This isn’t a bottom-of-the-barrel hostel. Neither was the hotel wherein I got nibbled on in another country. It just happens. They don’t carry disease; nonetheless, I’m a little tired of my five other roommates in our six-bed dorm—not counting the bugs—so I decide to splurge on an upgrade.

One block east and three north on the main drag, Avenida de Tulum, is Hotel Meson de Tulum. I blow an extra $18 per night, for a grand total of $28 for a private room, though I’m sharing a women-only bathroom.

The building is newer than The Mayan, the facilities are modern and well-kept. And it seems that nearly all of the other guests are Mexican. Score. Which is why it seems so incongruous that I find myself playing the night away in a place called Plaza Hong Kong.

The two-story strip mall located in the plaza is home to the cavernous Grand Mambo Café. It’s a pleasant 20-minute walk down Avenida Yaxchilan from the new hotel, though the green-and-white cabs are everywhere. I’ve joined a few people I know from The Mayan and we spend the evening salsa dancing with locals while the tourists pack the clubs in the Zone.

Like most spots in Cancun, there is an open bar for a small-enough cover charge, though the drinks get weaker as the night progresses. That turns out to be a blessing however because the dancers are excellent and I could easily get dehydrated from all the exercise.

The members of the eight-piece salsa band look like a cross between Nsync and the cast of Jersey Shore, but no matter. They’ve got chops and keep everyone on their feet on the ample but crowded dance floor.

Grand Mambo is a staple of local salseros and just when I’m feeling rather proud of myself for keeping up with my leaders, I have a fatal failure in judgment. I accept a dance from a stranger, not realizing he’s had more from the open bar than most. We make it halfway through the song before he trips, tumbles backward and takes me with him. Everyone around us scatters like mosquitoes in bug spray leaving me to scramble up off of my bruised knees in plain view of the whole room. There goes my pride.

“Playa Delphines; that’s where we go,” said Oscar. “It’s a longer ride, but that’s the best beach.” I’m searching for a place to relax and recover from the tumble the night before.

“We” means Cancun natives. Oscar works the front desk at Meson so I take his word for it and hop on the R1 right outside the hotel on Avenida de Tulum. Cabs are great for buzzing around the city center, but the bus system is just as good and easy to use.

The R1 runs the length of Tulum and the Hotel Zone ‘round the clock. A ride costs about 80 cents. I take Oscar’s advice and head toward the south end of the Zone, past most of the big hotels and their beaches to Playa Delphines—or Dolphin Beach.

I step onto the sand with some trepidation. I know it’s going to burn my skin off when the grains pop into my sandals. But it doesn’t burn. Though warm, it’s not hot even though the day is a scorcher. It’s comfortable and soft. Brilliantly white against the aqua and sea-foam of the endless Caribbean Sea. I have the beach nearly to myself in the middle of a Wednesday. There’s a light breeze blowing as I settle into the sand and doze the day away. 

I ask Victor, my new friend and owner of El Callejon in Mercado 28 where I should spend my last evening without the possibility of a heavy workout like at Grand Mambo.

He steers me to Avenida Yaxchilan, a couple of blocks from the hotel. Yaxchilan is a middle ground of sorts; a place where the townies mingle happily with the tourists now that they aren’t serving them in hotels down the way. The avenue is lined with restaurants, sports bars and clubs for karaoke—a pastime that is wildly popular here. I choose La Parrilla, a large restaurant mostly for its atmosphere. I can hear the ubiquitous mariachis crooning away from the street.

However, I’m thrilled with the food. In just moments there’s a huge, simple margarita in front of me, followed by a platter of tacos. Real, honest-to-goodness, Mexican tacos: fish, shrimp, chicken, pork and beef. I couldn’t decide which kind I want so I end up with one of each. I’m going to vomit tonight; I know it. Just like the drunken spring breakers down in the Zone.

I order a song from the band, and surrounded by blaring trumpets and tinny-sounding violins, my waiter waltzes me around the softly lit floor wearing a big, kind, toothy grin.

This is Cancun.