Monday, November 16, 2009

The Optimist's Optimum

The kind of vacation I just returned from makes it difficult to try and encapsulate the entire experience in one article. At the same time if I were to share my experience regarding every facet of the adventure I would probably be posting articles will in to June of next year! Then the idea came to me that would fall somewhere in between those extremes. Publications such as Conde Nast Travel are constantly ranking service providers in a myriad of categories so I thought I would do something similar.

Below please enjoy the listing of service providers I employed to get me to, from and around both New Zealand and Australia while also keeping me in lodgings and fed in most cases. The links are to their individual websites but for the more noteworthy in each category please look for an article to be posted in the near future.

I give you, "The Optimist's Optimum"

Best Airline:
American Airlines
Qantas Airways
Jetstar Airlines

Winner: Emirates
Why: I flew their trans-Tasman service between Auckland and Sydney on the new A380. The flight was on time, the aircraft roomy, the 34" pitch the most generous of all the flights and a full hot meal service that was included in the price of the ticket. Laptop power and a USB port at each seat beat Qantas by nose (shared power) and an entertainment system designed for flights longer than 12 hours - we were in the air for less than three. The Emirates system came with its own directory booklet that featured not only how to use the system but all of the games, music, television and movie programming on offer, including numbered codes for each item to punch in to the satellite phone controller to take you directly to your selection instead of scrolling through the endless listings one at a time. On-demand technology finished off the icing by allowing passengers to choose what and when to stop and start their programming. Oh, and how about the wood trim in the coach!?

Best Airport
Dallas/Ft. Worth
Los Angeles

Winner: Sydney
Why: This one was close between both Australian airports, really. Melbourne almost got the nod simply because the airport featured one terminal for both international and domestic operations, similar to Wellington. Both of those airports, however, are smallish affairs. Between them, Melbourne would get the nod although Wellington offers views and approaches over the water that are challenging to pilots and exciting for plane watchers.

That was the edge that Sydney got over the others in the same class. All featured separate terminals either for airlines or between international and domestic flights but Sydney wins overall. The terminal was easy to navigate, distance between gate and runways fairly short (sorry DFW) and, while DFW is the only one that has a dedicated observation area, the views of Sydney airport across Botany Bay from the beaches along General Holmes Drive are second to none.

Best Car Rental

Winner: Hertz
Why: Very simple really. Hertz allowed me to receive credit for my AAdvantage frequent flyer account, Europcar did not. More heinous than that, however, Hertz allowed me to change the form of payment at the end of my rental, Europcar did not. Both cars were similar, the Toyota Yaris at Hertz and the Hyundai Getz at Europcar, both were clean, ran well, sipped gasoline and the counter staff were helpful and pleasant. Not getting mileage credit or particularly being allowed to alter payment, however, are hard to get over.

Best Restaurant
The Meat and Wine Company

Northerner Motor Inn
Daniang Dumplings
Tony's on Wellesley
Bordeaux Bakery

Okurukuru Winery

Winner: Tony's
Why: The surprising contender was the Northerner Motor Inn in rural Kaitaia, New Zealand. The attached restaurant served enticing food thoughtfully prepared and in a nouvelle style quite unexpected in a city of only 6,000 and heavily dependent on the summer tourist trade which was still a good month away.

Tony's is a favorite because of the old world decor and the generous cuts served in unique styles, from a fiery peppercorn and cream sauce to the "Pacific" which includes crabmeat stuffing and lobster sauce topping succulent fillets. My choice, the "Scotch Fillet" was a bit more rare than the medium/medium-rare I preferred but both meal and service were otherwise par excellence.

Best Hotel
Sydney Travelodge
Wellington Mercure Willis Street
Rendezvous Auckland
Mantra Tullamarine
Northerner Motor Inn

Winner: Rendezvous Auckland
Why: With the exception of the Mantra and the Northerner I booked the other three online through either Expedia or Orbitz. Rendezvous was one of the ones that was paid in advance but the rate was less than $70/night. What a steal! A member of the Clarion/Choice chain of hotels, this was a former 4-star property that still in my mind deserves the rating. Queen bed, marble vanities, separate glass shower, Jacuzzi tub and a location in the heart of the city, barely two blocks from the Sky Tower. This is "the" new address for me in Auckland whenever I return, on par with any Hyatt or Hilton to be found in the United States.

Best Tour
Harrisons Cape Runner
Host Family - Taranaki

Winner: Host Family
Why: Always go with a local if they are willing to take you around. There is no time limit on how long to stay at any one location, no scheduled "rest" breaks at gift shops on the take who also happen to have restrooms. Even better, as in the case of this picture here, sometimes the views and locations are better than any place the scheduled tour can reach. This particular view is enjoyed by wedding parties who wish to use the mountain above the lake as a backdrop for their nuptials. Had I driven around the Taranaki region of New Zealand on my own or as part of a tour I would most likely have not enjoyed anything this spectacular.

Harrisons offered a solid, comprehensive nine-hour tour of Cape Reinga and Ninety-Mile Beach out of Kaitaia in the Northland region of New Zealand, about five hours north of Auckland at the very tip of the island. They offered access to Ninety-Mile Beach I wouldn't have dared with a rented car so kudos to them for that. Like any guided tour, however, they were on a schedule which meant short visiting windows at some of the attractions along with the "rest stop" at the town gift shop and artifacts emporium which means they share the receipts for any sales made between them. If it weren't for Ninety Mile Beach alone I would have never signed on but this is what happens to cars that venture on to the sands and stop in the wrong places.

Best Internet
Gloria Jean's
Rendezvous Auckland
Melbourne Airport

Winner: Gloria Jean's
Why: A large internet cafe featuring more than 60 workstations, some with CD and DVD burn capability is attached to one of this chain's stores in central Sydney. What I liked was being able to establish a user account by paying in as little or as much as I liked, including come-and-go privileges for unused internet time. I did not have to use all my paid time in one sitting and could pay to add as much time as I liked without fear of being timed out and logged off in the middle of critical e-mails or other work. The charge? An astoundingly cheap Australian $5 bought me over 3.5 HOURS on the web!

Melbourne Airport offered $5 but only for 30 minutes, knowing there were only so many options at an airport and especially once past security. Rendezvous offered a similar rate, $5 for 30 minutes but also only up to 10mb of downloadable material. I blew threw the meter several times while trying to watch sports highlights from back home without knowing why I was timing out well short of my limit. Not good.

Best Music Store
Real Groovy
JB Hi-Fi

Winner: JB Hi-Fi
Why: First let me say that I love Real Groovy. It is a very large and funky record store that would fit right in with Rasputin's or Amoeba in Berkeley, California, featuring new and used CDs, DVDs, vinyl LPs, printed and tie-dye tee-shirts and all the usual trappings one might expect in a music store of this kind. What caused me to choose a more conventional chain such as JB Hi-Fi, however, was the fact that they had the music I was looking for but also a very helpful stock clerk who knew her inventory and her music. The ding against Real Groovy this time was the performance stage/runway they added in the back of the sales floor, ostensibly to showcase up and coming local talent as well as bring in potential new customers at the same time. This was a bad thing because a local band cranked up a short set list in full volume just when I was trying to sample a new band at a listening station. Can't do both at the same time and in this case I was pressed for time. Kinda hard to feature new releases at listening stations while a one-off band is playing music others in the store may not care to hear.

Gotta go!

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