Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What is it like to fly Business Class with China Southern?

Photo Credit: WikiCommons-Airbus A380-841,China Southern Airlines
After my non-stop flight from LAX to Guangzhou, many ask, “What is it like to fly Business Class on China Southern?” The first thing I say is, “China Southern’s business class is a real game changer for people who can’t sleep in Economy.” Then I tell them how I sprawled out in a 24-inch Business Class seat that -- with the flip of a switch -- reclined into a flat bed. Of course, I had to try it out -- before the flight attendant came by with beverages -- while waiting on the ground for the wide-body jumbo jet to fill with the Economy passengers. Hey, I’d been one of those poor Economy saps just the week before.

Business Class: Remedy for Claustrophobia

This was my first flight on the acclaimed Airbus 380 (A380), the largest passenger airliner on the planet. The A380 has been in commercial service since October 2007, but this was my maiden voyage on the massive craft. I’ve read that the A380-800’s cabin has 40% more usable floor space than the next largest airliner, the Boeing 747-8. No wonder the cabin feels open and spacious; it would be difficult to get claustrophobic here. In addition to my two-foot wide seat, I had a large storage compartment next to the window (I scored a window seat) and another 24-inches of table-top-like space for work files, magazines, scarves or other travel essentials.

With China Southern's 1-2-1 configuration you can get a window seat AND an aisle seat, all in one!

China Southern, a state-owned airline, flies daily direct flights from LAX, SFO and JFK to Guangzhou (CAN) in southern China. I was delighted to take my first A380 flight on a long-haul Business Class ride from LAX to CAN.
Business Class menu offers your choice of Chinese or Western

China Southern Business Class Boarding 

Earlier while walking from the boarding gate to the A380, I was directed to the elevator and gangway that took me to the upper deck. With Business Class, I’d been welcomed with Priority Boarding, so I was one of the first passengers onto the jetliner. “Oh boy, the upper deck!” I smiled. I always wondered what the ride felt like from the upstairs section. And I couldn't wait to get the upper level views of LAX at night.
Ordering dinner before take-off - check out that window right behind my head.

What does it feel like to fly on a China Southern A380?

We took off at 10:20 pm LA time. From my perspective in Business Class, the giant craft felt like a hotel taking off. From the upper level, the sensation of lift-off seemed different than the feeling I get during take-off in narrow-body airplanes. The cabin of the A380 is one of the quietest in the world, so maybe that’s why it felt more like the quiet, calm bridge of the Starship Enterprise than Luke Skywalker’s rattle-y and bouncy X-Wing Starfighter.

Speeding down the runway just before the plane becomes airborne is always my favorite part of the flight, and I pay careful attention to my body’s sensations during each take-off. You see, I’m an acceleration junkie; the sensation of taking off in an airplane is now the closest I get to the feeling of accelerating a race car. Yes, I loved racing automobiles and miss the adrenaline rush of 0-60 mph in three seconds.

The large plane seemed to lumber down the runway, hardly picking up speed. When the giant bird finally let go of the ground, we began our ascent. Throughout the duration of the 15-hour flight, I experienced a very smooth ride. Only at one point in the night was I awakened by the feeling of motion. And that sensation can best be described as the motion you would get if you were laying on the back of a large whale or dolphin. Just a comforting, gentle, gliding, streamlined motion. I went right back to sleep.

Why you should upgrade to Business Class?

I slept more than seven hours on my China Southern Airlines flight from LAX to CAN. That alone should have you upgrading to Business Class. 
Lots of room - a window seat with an aisle.

I would have slept more except I wanted to experience the exotic cuisine, free alcohol and larger individual video monitors for on-demand television, movies and audio stations. After I put my shoes in the special and out-of-the-way shoe compartment, I slipped on the China Southern slippers, went to the roomy Business Class bathroom to use the Italian body products provided by the airline and unfolded my in-flight quilt and in-light mattress bag (sheet.)
My feet can't even touch the end of the pod and I'm 5'7"

I hit the switch to unfold my 24-inch-wide seat into a flat bed (I was already relaxing in ‘cradle mode’ after the sumptuous dinner.) I grabbed my choice of pillow (two sizes), then put on the ear plugs, eye mask and calming facial mist found in my Business Class amenity bag and finally curled up to sleep. I found that I could lay flat on my back or curl up on my side just like I do in my own bed at home.
Can't beat seven hours of sleep...

I was awakened from a deep sleep by the flight attendants who had asked at dinner time if I wanted to be roused for breakfast. Of course! The bed was so comfortable and I slept so well that I think I am spoiled to ever return to Economy seating. However, I do now have the experience to write the next article, “How to Make Economy feel like Business Class.” I’ll try my best.


China Southern Airlines http://global.csair.com/US/GB/Home

Stacey "Vagabonding Lulu" Wittig is an Arizona travel writer who loves calling the Grand Canyon State home. She was hosted by China Southern Airlines for this trip that continued onto Thailand. Enjoy this article? Then sign up to receive email notification so you don't miss her next travel tips.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Mazatlán: Stories are the Best Souvenirs

It's been years since I've visited Mazatlán, Sinaloa, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Maybe twelve. Up until that point, I'd traveled to Mazatlán at least five times. The tropical getaway was one of my favorite affordable beach destinations. It's actually close – only a two-hour and eleven-minute flight from Phoenix on American Airlines. And you can typically score some great vacation packages.

Updated Travel Advisory Earns Mazatlán Another Chance

But the first thing that I did when I got the invitation to visit the Mexican “Colonial Town on the Beach” was check the US State Department advisory for the fair city. You see, ten or so years ago drug cartel activity earned bad press for Maz. One of Mexico's most powerful criminal organizations is based in the state of Sinaloa. Yet the current advisory updated on August 22, 2017, states:
Defer non-essential travel to the state of Sinaloa, except the cities of Mazatlán, Los Mochis, and the Port of Topolobampo.
Since my travel in Mazatlán, as far as I knew, would be limited to Zona Dorada (the golden coast where many of the hotels are situated), the historic town center and direct routes to and from these locations and the airport, I decided to give Mazatlán another chance.

Dia de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead

I was so excited that my visit, hosted in conjunction with Fiesta Amigos, a conference of travel professionals, would coincide with Dia de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead. I'd never attended Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and was intrigued to learn more. (Read more at my blog post What is Day of the Dead? )

I was not disappointed. I felt totally safe the whole week that I was in Mazatlán and swam, body surfed, snorkeled, and did something I'd never done before: go deep sea fishing. But my most favorite experience was the Day of the Dead processional or what is called the callejoneada, or alley stroll. And what is so cool, you don't have to wait til next year to have a similar experience. Mazatlán’s carnival is coming up February 8-13, and you’ll find the same awe and appreciation of different cultures that I found on my latest visit.

Breath in the 'present moment'

We stood in the heart of the historic district, Plazuela Machado, waiting for whatever was going to happen next.  I wore a headband of the colorful flowers typical of the holiday. The balmy night was filled with anticipation, and when I looked at the children's faces, I was reminded of my own youthful ‘nights before Christmas’ hopefulness. The square was filled with families and us, the delegates from the Fiesta Amigos conference waiting for the Dia de Los Muertos callejoneada to start.

There's something beautiful about the unfolding of unknown rituals. I felt a sense of childlike wonder take over, and I let go of the need to control or understand what was going to happen next. On the other hand, the Americans that surrounded me needed to know what was next, and since they didn't, wanted to make it – whatever it was – happen on their own. There was a sort of culture clash going on.

“What are we doing just standing here?” pouted one of the American hipsters.
“Just standing here,” I thought to myself. “Really, it’s OK to simply stand and breath in the present moment of anticipation and excitement.”
“Let's just go! Let’s just start walking,” she demanded, pushing ahead. The treasonists in our group moved slightly forward while others held back. I imagined that from above we looked somewhat like an amoeba changing shape as we pushed against the crowd, and as the crowd pushed against us. I was happy to stand my ground and wait for whatever was going to happen next.

In time, three young Mexican public relations professionals arrived holding placards on long sticks that read, ‘Fiesta Amigos.’ They positioned themselves at the front and back of our group of about 150 people. The association had asked us to dress in white for this occasion and so we stuck out of the crowd as a seemingly amalgamous group between the handheld signs.

Finally, fireworks and bottle rockets signaled the beginning of the promenade and our big white amoeba started moving forward around the square.

I expected our group to move with the masses of others that had gathered in Plazuela Machado. But I was astonished to see that those not dressed in white parted to let us through. Parted to let us through? Families with baby carts, grandmothers, ninos and ninas stood on the curb or sat on walls smiling and sometimes waving as they watched us walk by. Waving at us?

I thought we had come to promenade with the locals, but instead, WE were the promenade and the locals were watching US! I learned later that the Fiesta Amigos had been processing in the Day of the Dead parade for years. Locals reached out to touch my arm and then pointed to the flowers in my hair. “Que bonita,” I heard several times.

Some of those standing curbside were dressed in Muertos attire, and I stopped to ask if I could take their picture. They would nod solemnly, and I would snap the picture.

We walked for blocks, snaking through the alleyways of historic Mazatlán until ending up at the Malecon, one of the longest boardwalks in the world. It was an incredible experience and one I am sure to tell stories about for years to come.

Make your own stories in Mazatlán during carnival. You know, stories are the best souvenirs... Learn more at VisitMexico.com


Stacey “Vagabonding Lulu” Wittig, travel writer, was a guest of  Reynolds + Associates public relations firm while researching this article. The opinions of the opinionated travel writer are her own. The information here is posted with the best of her knowledge, but there may be omissions or changes over time.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Don’t Miss these Five Joyful Experiences in Bangkok, Thailand

Don’t miss these five joyful experiences in Bangkok, Thailand. Discover why Thailand is called the "The Land of Smiles" when you experience these five "must-see" Bangkok happenings. I was filled with great personal joy at each of these special places, and I bet that you will, too.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market 

Take your camera as colorful photo ops abound in this mayhem of Thai vendors and waterborne souvenir hunters. I loved photographing the older Thai women skillfully maneuvering their long, canoe-like boats with just one paddle. The ‘J’ stroke, the ‘Sweep’ and the ‘C’ stroke – these elders, paddling from the stern, knew ‘em all. 
Many were out early to sell vegetables from their gardens to the canal-side restaurants or floating eateries. Later, I was happy to eat a bowl of Tom Yum Lemon at one of the floating noodle restaurants where I’d seen my favorite grandmother selling earlier in the day.

Tip: Get to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market as soon as possible as the tour buses start arriving at 9 am. Although being part of the khlongs (canals) jammed with boatloads of wheeling and dealing tourists is also an exciting adventure. The market officially opens at 7 am, but many noodle vendors open at 6 am.

Bang Kra Jao Bike Tour 

Oh, what a joy to escape the chaos of the city by cycling Bang Kra Jao, a green zone located adjacent to busy Bangkok. 

We sped through the jungle-like wilderness until arriving at the Emerald Way, a series of pathways, elevated two meters above the marshland. It took some concentration to keep the mountain bike between the hand rails ...and out of the drink. The rustic homes that we rode past were built on stilts to avoid seasonal flooding. 

“When I was a boy before these paths were constructed, I swam to my friends' homes,” said our twenty-something guide. Follow the unbeaten path through the park which is known as the "green lung" of Bangkok.

Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha)

You’ll be happy to learn that Wat Pho or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha is more than a temple. 

The complex includes the first public university in Thailand. Its school of Thai medicine is known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. As I explored various pavilions, I was delighted to discover medical illustrations showing pressure points used in the traditional massage modalities. 
The complex also houses Thailand’s largest collection of Buddha statues that were brought here by one of the kings after looting of ancient relics became a problem in Thailand. 

Tip: Be prepared to remove your shoes to view the gold-leaf-covered Reclining Buddha, which is 151 feet / 46 meters long. Wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees.

Chaopraya River Cruise

Enjoy a Bangkok sunset while sipping French Champagne and cruising the Chao Phraya River. The river, long a trade route, reminded me of the Washington DC National Mall. National landmarks and royal monuments line each side of the waterway making for a perfect – and joy-filled – sightseeing expedition. 

And how easy to just sit back and watch as the Thai world goes by. Supanniga Cruise offers a choice of evening champagne cruises with drinks and Thai snacks or an exquisitely-prepared six-course dinner of Thai cuisine. 

I wondered how they could deliver such fantastically presented dishes from a boat galley. But they did! www.supannigacruise.com

Chatuchak Weekend Market

Expect to be overwhelmed by Chatuchak Weekend Market, AKA JatuJak or JJ Market, for short. Even the most-seasoned international travelers get a little starry-eyed at the immensity of this place. 

Fortunately, the 15,000 vendor stalls are divided into 27 sections. And maps are provided to this ‘delight for the inner shopper in all of us.’ Although some sections are open on other days (check the website for details), the whole market is open Sat and Sun 9 am – 6 pm. www.chatuchakmarket.org

Travel writer Stacey "Vagabonding Lulu" Wittig was a guest of Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and China Southern Airlines while researching for this article. And as usual, her opinions are her own. All the information provided is accurate and true to the best of her knowledge, but that there may be omissions, errors or mistakes. Yes, this is the disclaimer. Cheers!

Friday, October 27, 2017

What is ‘Day of the Dead’ or Dia de los Muertos?

“What is Day of the Dead?” my friends ask when I tell them I am headed to Mazatlán, Mexico, for Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos festivities.
Photo by Eva Rinaldi-Wikimedia Commons
Day of the Dead is perhaps a misnomer since the colorful celebration takes place over two days, on November 1 and 2, rather than on just one day. The name could be also considered misleading by English speakers who typically associate the dead with sadness and maybe even a little macabre fear.

On the contrary, the traditional Mexican festivity is a time to joyously honor relatives and companions who have preceded us in death. The ethereal scent of crushed marigolds fill the air as altars or ofrendas are prepared in homes and businesses and decorated with flowers and photos of those who have died.
Ofrendas are also made for celebrities. James Brown ofrenda by carmichaellibrary via WikiMedia Commons

Threshold in time 

It is believed that this is a threshold in time and space when the dead can visit their families so favorite food and drink, including tequila, mescal and other liquors, are placed on ofrendas to attract souls of the deceased.
Photo by Carmichaellibrary at Wikimedia Commons.
The sacred tradition goes back before the Spanish conquest of Mexico to the time of the Aztecs and other indigenous people who held month-long festivals to honor the dead. The Aztecs celebrated during the ninth month of their calendar (August in our calendar). After the Spanish arrived, the Aztec festival was synchronized with the Catholic holy days of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. Day of the Dead has been morphing ever since into a truly Mexican experience. It must be remembered that traditions are distinctive in different towns and continue to change to reflect the local culture.
Aztec Queen Mictlancihuatl, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Mictecacíhuatl the “Lady of the Dead” of Aztec mythology watched over the bones of the dead and presided over festivals honoring the deceased, according to An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. Today La Catrina, a well-dressed female skeleton has become the symbolic hostess of Day of the Dead. Besides La Catrina, calaveras or skulls have also become icons of the fest. Skull motifs are seen on altars, costumes, special foods and even on tequila labels.

Life Continues Through Memories of Others 

During the day, families get together in cemeteries to clean headstones, fondly remember grandmothers and grandfathers and pray for them. The living bring picnics of food and drink and maybe even hire a band to play for this life-affirming celebration.
Photo by Jared Zimmerman via Wikipedia Commons
In many towns, people gather in the evening for a callejoneada or alleyway stroll. Live music and people with painted faces, dressed as La Catrina dancing in the streets lend a Carnivalesque vibe to the promenade. I am looking forward to learning more as I travel to Mazatlán to partake in the celebration and explore the liminal space. Read more at www.visitmexico.com

Friday, October 6, 2017

La Taverna degli Orsi: a Gourmet Feast

After tromping the Alps of Piedmont, Italy, it's always a pleasure to replenish at a typical mountain restaurant. One that serves hearty stews of local vegetables and Fassona alla piemontese the renowned local beef and wine of the region. It's also an added bonus if the proprietor is willing to share amusing stories and sprinkle each course with laughter. Andre Tolasano, owner of La Taverna degli Orsi, is such a host. He calls his establishment in the Italian ski town of Limone "a typical mountain restaurant," but it is anything but ordinary. Every item on the ever-changing menu is skillfully prepared in his kitchen from the best available local foods and then perfectly paired with the appropriate wine.

I met Andre, who goes by the nickname, Prince, at his restaurant while on a Hedonistic Hiking gourmet walking holiday. We hiked high into the Alps during the day and at night, our small group of sixteen reconvened for gourmet feasts. Dinners always included local fare and this night, Prince had hand-written our menu cards and entitled them "Bear Night." For the name of his restaurant,  La Taverna degli Orsi, means Tavern of the Bear and the mountain restaurant was decorated with the mammal's motif.

We munched on homemade sausage and sipped Spumante Brut Rose by Josetta Saffirio, a light-colored bubbly, as Prince told how he made the sausage with garlic brought from his hometown of Caraglio, an Italian village known for the pungent plant. The intense 13.5 % alcohol content of the wine, made from Nebbiolo d'Alba, the quintessential Piedmontese wine grape, said Prince, washed out the garlic taste.

After the aperitif, we were presented with the first of three appetizers. "In the Piedmont region it is typical to have three small appetizers before the main course," Jackie Parsons, owner/operator of Hedonistic Hiking told me later. The first was a not so small, a crispy walnut, celery and pear salad topped with a generous slab of moist cheese. "It's made with goat cheese of this valley," announced Prince, pouring more of the Rose'.

Prince then opened a Roero Arneis DOCG Daivej from the winery of one of his best friends. Deltetto winery has been producing wines in the prestigious Piedmont wine area since 1953. The white wine had a smooth mouth feel and its aromas of pear and fruit complimented the salad and the second appetizer, a pastry hand-stuffed with salad and topped with Basne iaido sauce.

"Much too much food and much too much wine, but who cares?" said one of the hedonists, Guy, who had come all the way from Australia for this adventure in eating. We were watching Prince at a side board prepare the wine glasses for the next course. After uncorking the bottle he conditioned the first crystal goblet with a bit of the wine, swirling the glass with a flourish of his elbow. He poured that bit from the first glass to the second and did the same swirling motion. He repeated the procedure for the next fourteen glasses signaling to us that this next wine was special indeed. 

He then turned to us and announced, "My best friend is Barbaresco, the next wine. It is very tannic, but with a soft taste… It goes very well with the next course, local veal raised by my family. The wine is a bit sweet on the tongue with a subtle licorice taste. 

The main was a roasted veal stew cooked for eight hours and served with potatoes and a finger-sized squash. In Italy, the term 'veal' means meat from calves up to a year old, differentiated by the Italian word for ‘veal milk’ that denotes the younger version, which we in other parts of the world would consider veal.

A Muscato accompanied the dessert of berry cake finished with French cream sauce. And as if that weren't enough, once we were all finished with our dessert course, we were offered grappa, the grape based Italian brandy digestive.

Prince knew that it would be a perfect ending to the "Bear Night" and another gourmet feast with Hedonistic Hiking tours.

Stacey "Vagabonding Lulu" Wittig is a travel writer based in Flagstaff, Arizona. She writes about hiking, food and wine. Disclaimer: Vagabonding Lulu was a guest of Hedonistic Hiking gourmet hiking holidays, yet all opinions are her own.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Least-Known Secrets from Experts at Angel Fire Food and Wine Roundup

This last weekend I attended the Angel Fire Food and Wine Roundup high in the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico. I got to rub elbows with celebrity chefs, taste $80 bottles of wine with international wine experts and learn insider secrets on how to smoke and barbeque. I picked up a lot of good tips at the cooking demonstrations and wine tastings, so I’d like to pass them along to you.

Celebrity Chef Harry Soo at Angel Fire Food and Wine Roundup

Never rub a rub

When TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters reality show’s head cook Harry Soo speaks, backyard barbecue wizards listen. In the fun cooking demo with Harry, one of the world’s top BBQ contenders, he said “Never rub a rub. You should pat the rub in.” Makes sense! I loved his demonstration about smoking meat because Dan and I just bought a smoker and I’ve been a bit intimidated to use it much. With Harry’s encouragement and tips, I now feel confident. Another lesson learned: shake the bottle of rub before using. “The big particles might have settled to the bottom,” said the founder of Slap Yo Daddy BBQ www.slapyodaddybbq.com. Even coating of the rub is one of the secrets to his success. Others are his personal line of rubs and sauces, available online.

BBQ expert Meathead Goldwyn holds 20 lbs of Texas Waygu Beef

Trim off the bone

“The bone cannot flavor the meat,” said Chef Meathead Goldwyn, “but what it can do is much up your cooking.” The celebrity chef demonstrated grilling with buttery Texas Waygu beef from A Bar N Ranch. http://abarnranch.com “Bones are a heat shield – perfect for the reentry of the space shuttle, but not for cooking. Boneless allows you to cook more evenly.” 
Meathead Goldwyn is the founder, barbecue whisperer, and hedonism evangelist behind http://amazingribs.com the world's most popular outdoor cooking website, and author of the New Your Times Best Seller Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling

Vagabonding Lulu and Irby Wood at Angel Fire Food and Wine Roundup

This wine is a steal!

At the Wine Appreciation Seminar, I tasted eight superb wines with pricing points from $19-82, but the one that blew my proverbial socks off was the 2009 Chateau Lassegue, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, France. The Bordeaux blend had an earthiness of mushroom and dark fruit flavors. I tend to enjoy Old World wines best, but why, or why did I have to so love the $82 bottle of wine? The tasting led by Irby Wood, second generation Jackson of Jackson Family Fine Wines (think Kendall-Jackson) was a way for me to experience high-end wines. Insider secret? Wine expert Irby, who travels the world from California to Chile to France with his family’s wine business, says this bottle is a steal at $82. And with my wine sleuthing experience, I think I might be able to find an even better deal. 

Spook Keller, founder of Atomic City hot sauce

Spice up your Pina Colada with Radioactive Hot Sauce 

OK, us hot lovers have tried hot sauces in Margaritas and Bloody Mary’s, but this is the first time I’ve seen heat added to Pina Coladas. What a taste treat! Because each variety of pepper has different measures of spiciness and heat activation times, if you blend the precise recipe of many pepper varieties, you can come up with a “smooth” heat. You can find this harmonic blend of spiciness in pepper sauces from Atomic City Foods, Los Alamos, NM, www.atomiccityfoods.com. The flavor-forward condiments won’t burn out your mouth. Who else but an engineer from the Los Alamos atomic lab could invent such a perfect concoction?

Atomic City Piña Colada Recipe 
4 oz pineapple juice
1 oz white rum
1 oz coconut cream
½ tsp Agave syrup
1 tsp Atomic City Caribe sauce

The annual Angel Fire Food and Wine Roundup showcases Western hospitality in a relaxed mountain environment. The friendly and social celebration is ideal for anyone who appreciates the best in exceptional cuisine, cooking demonstrations from top chefs and wine tastings hosted by professional sommeliers. www.angelfirefoodandwine.com