Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Virgin Atlantic: Indulgence with a Conscience

Business class is business class - we know what to expect, right? From its 1984 conception, Virgin Atlantic has been 'flying in the face of ordinary', as they like to boast, ever since, conjuring new and exciting ways to keep its brand from fading into the often sterile, drab backdrop of air travel. On top of that, Virgin Atlantic prides itself on its commitment to being an environmentally sustainable airline. Its 'Upper Class' product is tipped to be a sort of 'higher business class, lower first class'. I find out what it's all about.

I decide to take a quick pre-wedding, pre-Christmas trip to NYC. It also would provide a good opportunity to pick up some his & his wedding rings from Tiffany, and the shorter trip seemed to justify an upgrade even more so!

Virgin Atlantic will be my airline of choice. CEO Craig Keeper recognises perhaps more than most airline executives the increasing environmental impact flying has. The airline claims it will be committing $8 billion to ensure the most fuel efficient aircraft are used, aiming to improve fuel efficiency by 30% by 2020. This perhaps explains the move to the Boeing Dreamliner rather than the initially planned (but now delayed) Airbus A380, burning 27% less fuel than the A340-300s which may eventually be phased out of Virgin Atlantic's fleet. The airline is also experimenting in biofuel technology, a priority of Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson.

Climate change may be a much debated or questioned science, but many worry about aviation's contribution to this. Some scientists think that the gaseous emissions of aircraft at high altitude are more significant than emissions at ground level. The overall proportion of greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft are considered at roughly 1.5%, expected to rise to 2.5% by 2050. Virgin has its own 'Fuel Panel' consisting of pilots and engineers who meet regularly to address ways of reducing consumption.

Weight is also a significant factor. Each tonne represents roughly 420 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, meaning every fibre and fabric of the fleet is carefully considered.

By 2020 the airline also aims to reduce noise aircraft noise emissions by 50%, as developments in new aircraft allow.

These commitments aren't limited to aircraft alone. There is also a planned reduction in electricity and water consumption, and waste disposal on the ground. Suppliers are ethically chosen and sourced, including crew uniforms. 'One Water' is provided on board supporting the Free the Children charity to provide clean drinking water in the developing world. Upper Class amenity kits are made of 100% recycled plastic from an estimated 4 million plastic bottles a year - turned into PET which has a 90% lower carbon emission footprint than nylon.

The airline's work with communities in Africa, China and India is astonishing, with Virgin Atlantic staff assisting with Free the Children in various literacy and health programmes,and allowing air passengers the chance to donate to the cause via Change for Children. In fact between 2010 and 2011, just over £1 million was raised from passenger's loose change.

Safe in the knowledge of an ethical choice, needless to say I am rather excited about flying Upper Class. My journey starts on a morning train from Devon to London Paddington. It's worth pointing out I am extremely impressed with the new FGW First carriages after an extensive overhaul - very swanky and a much 'cleaner' feeling than the old ones.

The first 'perk' to experience is Virgin's drive through check in, at their dedicated Upper Class Wing at Heathrow terminal 3. Having arranged a drop off with LHR Cars, I call the wing after receiving a text from the driver, giving the registration details. These must be provided to Virgin Atlantic in advance, but can be done on route to the airport. The process seemed very easy. You can also arrange for one of their own chauffeurs to collect you. On arriving at Paddington I am collected at the Hilton just around the corner, in a very flashy looking Mercedes.

LHR Cars are prompt and reliable - the driver is friendly and professional. He seems to know the drill with drive through check in as we approach and wait at a set of traffic lights at the private entrance. As we pull in, I see the Virgin Atlantic staff lined up waiting, looking very smart indeed. Door is opened, and as I step out, bags are swiftly taken and within seconds boarding passes in hand. Not another soul in sight and a very pleasant experience as I wander down the hall to the private security lane. I am taken by surprise as the lady greets me with a smile and asks how I am. Not a usual occurrence with security.

I then make my way to the second major perk: the world renowned Heathrow Clubhouse. I must admit I'm a little surprised how far the walk is from this area - I had it in my head that it was closer and didn't require walking through main terminal area so much. No bother though - I expect to be eating a lot in the Clubhouse so the walk is welcome!

I climb a striking marble staircase, and receive another very friendly greeting at the top. A lovely lady ushers me in, giving me a brief lowdown of where everything is.

Wow. There is an immediate suspension of belief that I am in an airport. The Clubhouse resembles more of a luxury boutique hotel. First stop is the spa to book a complimentary treatment. Each Upper Class passenger receives one complimentary service. I book a head massage for later.

As this is my first time here like a giddy child I want to explore! I pop upstairs briefly to the Grey Goose bar which I've heard isn't always open, and try a quick game of Frogger on one of the tables with in-built gaming downstairs.

My flight is at 20:05 and it's only 5pm so plenty of time to play. I take a seat in the dining area and eye up the menu. Again staff are fabulous, friendly and attentive. I order butternut squash soup to begin, and a delicious roasted vegetable smallish main. I don't want to over-indulge as I plan on eating on board, but I'm very impressed with the vegetarian options. The chocolate brownie dessert is to die for though, and I can't resist! I round it off with a cup of herbal tea - if it wasn't for having a bit of a winter cold I would certainly have been sampling some of the fantastic cocktails!

I make my way over around 6pm to the spa waiting area, and offered another drink by the superhuman staff. I'm called in for my head massage, which is absolutely divine. I have a little bit of a headache at this point from my cold so it's certainly welcome. Even hot stones are placed in my hands while the luxurious head massage takes place with a relaxing fragrant oil.

The flight is announced as delayed by about half an hour, but all I can say to this is I'm not bothered in the least. The time is flying by in the luxury of the lounge and before I know it I am called for boarding.

I feel a little awkward walking in front of all the queuing economy passengers who have obviously been waiting for some time. I am greeted (not by name though this time) and shown to my seat. Champagne quickly in hand, not to be refused, I take up the offer of a 'sleepsuit'. The Virgin Atlantic sleepsuits are essentially very comfortable cotton pyjamas to wear for the flight (and to keep, if you like).

A gentleman approaches me and demonstrates how the seat controls work. I struggle a little bit to get the left armrest down to create extra space - I do think this part of the seat is a little bit unnecessary.

I miss out on the hot towel run as I make a bathroom trip, but return in time for some crisps served in a china bowl. Departure is just after 20:30. My 'suite' is very spacious, private and comfortable, and I love how you can recline and your put your feet up even on take-off due to the Upper Class suites having inbuilt airbags. I find that they recline to just the right level before you'd actually want a proper lay flat position.

As a vegetarian I notice that there are several 'V' options on the standard menu. I ask one of the crew before meal service if I can choose these as I had pre-selected a veggie meal online. I am told it is the same food anyway. My only slight criticism here is that there are actually two veggie options on the menu, and it's sheer luck they bring me the soup rather than the mushroom option, my preferred choice anyway. If I had wanted the mushroom option it could have been a bit awkward. Note to self: don't pre-select veggie meals if flying UC!

The soup is great, followed by a brilliant curry, then toffee pudding, topped off with the cheese selection which I barely had room for but couldn't resist.

I can't really speak for inflight entertainment as I'm one of those people that never bothers with it - perhaps the excitement of UC is too much to miss! I do however watch a quick documentary about cats though, as you do, after dinner...

I follow up my delicious meal with a chamomile tea, and just as I get up for the bathroom a member of crew approaches and offers to make my bed up. I thought this was very observant.

I come back to find my suite transformed into a very comfortable looking bed, complete with mattress, duvet and full size pillow. Very snug and comfortable. I chill for about an hour but can't really sleep as the UC excitement prevails, so I decide to go and park myself at the on-board bar.

The bar is one of Virgin Atlantic's signature products and it's nothing short of awesome. A lady sitting there promptly leaves as I arrive (was it something I said?) so I chat with a crew member who gave me some tips on NYC over an orange juice. You really can't beat having a bar at 35,000 feet!
I notice how fantastic the mood lighting is throughout, another signature of Virgin. It really does create a sense of calm and style at the same time, and seems to soften the overall feel of the cabin.

A little more chilling in bed, followed by the whir of everyone's bed motors as we approach JFK. As nice it as it would be to still be tucked  in bed while landing this isn't allowed! We caught up on ourselves and landed ahead of schedule. The cabin crew give a friendly goodbye, then follows the atrocities of US Immigration. I am first in line but also first to be 'greeted' by the rudest man of all time... Perhaps they need a few lessons from Virgin Atlantic?

I have to say that I really am blown away by Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class product and I am truly converted. It really is a class of its own nestled somewhere in between business and first. The iconic Virgin brand really enhances what is already an incredible product. If only every airline had the courage to do things differently - and moreover to have the same ambition of becoming the most sustainable airline in the world. With an increasing consciousness among passengers of the ethics behind air travel, increasing numbers will consider an airlines environmental policies - as well as such potential luxury - as a big deciding factor.

More on Virgin Atlantic's environmental policies can be found here.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Tenerife Packaged

An all inclusive week on the beach, or by the pool; sedentary sipping of cocktails while intermittently dipping into the water, before racing to the buffet before there's no more ambiguous slop left, repeatedly... For some people I completely understand this is heaven. For me, a total nightmare. However, can some of the shorter cheap deals be a platform for an interesting break? I take a last minute budget trip to the Canary Island's volcanic island, Tenerife.

I'm going somewhere, but I don't know where. I'm totally open to ideas, and for once I decide to delve into the world of last minute 'sun holiday' internet deals, that usually cater for the above. This is a departure from my normal mode of choose destination, book a flight, book a hotel and plan.

At first it looks like the only choice is Malaga. My stomach churns at the thought of dodging intoxicated 'Brits abroad' and finding a grain of culture, somewhere. But then a deal emerges up for Tenerife, departing the following week and staying in a three star self-catering apartment for three nights. The gamble is made and the deal is booked. If I hate it, it's only three nights to survive...

The prospects, or 'rules' if you like, are no excursions (beyond the local resort), and keeping costs to an absolute minimum.

The time comes around quickly, and I am boarding my flight to Tenerife with Thomson. I'm not sure what I expected; hordes of stags and hens perhaps, but the flight was fine. In fact the flight wasn't too busy at all, and mainly occupied by pensioners. Often you can judge the sobriety of a 'resort' by the flight occupants - so far so good...

Arriving at the airport with no checked bags to collect, I am out into the Tenerife sun in about five minutes and trying to locate the dreaded holiday transfer bus. I board very quickly, but then reality sets in that no matter how quickly I was able to organise myself, the real deal is that we have to wait for everyone else. That waiting takes an hour - an hour of sitting on a mildew smelling bus in a car park for discombobulated, inappropriately dressed tourists. Finally the last few dazed passengers board and we begin the journey - all very nice at first with cactus and beautiful desert flower lined roads - and then into a battered old industrial estate.

I'm not sure what was piled up higher; my various feelings of dread, or the rubbish outside along the road. More than two hours since landing and numerous hotel drop offs, the scenery improves somewhat and the bus turns a corner around a looming mountain, bathed in the last moments of sunset, and we pull up alongside a hotel. "Oh, that looks nice" I hear, before the announcement is made that this is our accommodation. Things are looking up.

The Oasis Mango Apartments are at the top of a large hill in Los Cristianos. Said hill has been much slated in a number of whingey reviews, so I'm curious about just how challenging this will be. I approach the outdoor reception and we are met with pleasant smile and prompt check in. I'm immediately relieved and surprised at how immaculate and pleasant the hotel complex is, even though it is getting dark now. Perfectly manicured gardens are dotted around splendidly, and not a blemish in sight.

But could the room be the catch? Would it be filthy? Would there be large and scary bugs? A few steps up, and a nervous key turn - the apartment itself meets the same standards. So clean, spacious and nicely decorated. Each room facilitates a smile of relief. The balcony overlooks Montanas Guaza - something on the 'to do' list.

Now to tackle the infamous hill to pick up some 'survival supplies' from the supermarket. Of course, not much of a challenge on the way down. Arriving in a 'strange land' at night, there is always a slight sense of disorientation and a subtle hint of foreboding. However, the route is easy, and I quickly realise that getting lost would be difficult. I pick up water and breakfast for tomorrow, and acknowledge how cheap everything is. 'Surviving' on this budget should be easy.

The journey back up the hill with shopping is less easy, but no way near as astronomically challenging as suggested by some. Were they carrying six crates of beer? Were they blind drunk? Who knows.

Unfortunately the Spanish neighbours are a little noisy on this first night. Part of me wonders if this could be some sort of secret party destination. The noise dies down and I manage to get a pretty good night's sleep.

Day one is bearings day. Where on earth am I? This time the walk takes me further than the supermarket, all the way down to Los Cristianos harbour and beach. In the middle of the roadways, there is an immaculately manicured garden area, giving the first taste of some of the wonderful plant life that Tenerife fosters. Tall palms, interesting trees with hanging brown pods (I wish I knew what they are) and topiary bushes lead the way. Pots of aloe vera and cacti seem to be well treasured by residents.

In the quiet of early morning, the harbour is lovely and tranquil. The warmth of the sun is already apparent. Not a place for beach lovers, if this is your thing, although there are a few man-made beaches dotted around as I walk further. No sign of the expected hordes of tourist just yet....

I stop for a cup of tea in front of the well looked after vista of palms, sea and decorative paths, and pause for some people watching. This is absolutely a place for a tourists - not a whisper of conversational Spanish thus far. Not so much of a surprise.

Further strolling past the plethora of cafes catering for British tastes, I witness the holidaymakers oozing into position for breakfast, some perhaps with a dose of after-sun and aspirin. Despite this 'tourist trap', this area is relatively clean, and certainly at this time doesn't feel too much of a 'Brits abroad' nightmare.

A large Fred Olsen boat departs near a breakwater which extends out from the harbour. As I walk out, I notice that this seems to be a 'selfie' hotspot. To the far left is the mountain nearest our hotel, Montanas Guaza, stretching out to the coast, and on the right, Chayofita and the beginnings of the infamous Playa de las Americas. For my own sanity I spared myself the hub of Tenerife's tourist zone, at least. Behind me is Mount Teide, magnificent as it is, although within the confines of this budget challenge, I won't be experiencing it this time.

Now to tackle the full brunt of the return journey up the 'epic' hill. In the mid-morning heat, this is a little bit more challenging, but still no expedition. The supermarket serves as a pit stop for some lunch supplies - local fresh bread and cheese.

Lunch is quickly devoured on the ample balcony, and followed by the obligatory task of attempting to sit by the pool. I last an hour before my inherent 'let's explore' gene pulls me away from the cocktail sipping companions.

'Monkey Park' is up next, virtually around the corner. As a PETA supporter I have awful visions of tiny cages, poor conditions and subsequent marching out just as soon as I have arrived. However, as soon as I have arrived and collected my tub of fresh vegetables to feed the residents, it's clear that this place is actually something far from the visions I had. To start with the gardens are exceptional. All manner of beautiful colours and unusual foliage are abound. I traverse a raised wooden walkway with crocodiles below. Everything here is maintained well.

From what I could tell, the animals were more than looked after with spacious and well appointed enclosures, one of which guests were able to walk into. I enter a caged door which leads to an area with lemurs, guinea pigs, giant tortoises and iguanas. It was a pleasure to be able to feed them.

Winding paths appointed with more wonderful desert blooms and various cactus types surround more spacious enclosures. I am able to hand feed a spectacularly colourful bird - an experience not normally given in a regular zoo. Some of the larger monkeys extend their arms through the cages with open hands as I pass. Judging that they have spotted my vegetables, I offer them some chunks of apple which are gladly plied from my fingers.

I'm never one to be completely satisfied that zoos are a happy place for any animal, but Monkey Park did seem to convey a sense of well being from them.

After the quick journey back to the apartment, the evening is spent relaxing and sampling the local wine, Vina Norte. Supposedly enriched by the volcanic soil, which permeates into the flavour, I found it to possess a fruity, punchy yet somewhat acidic flavour. I also get to try some delicious pizza - though from one of the many packed in cafes catering purely for tourists - it really does give some mainstream pizza restaurants in the UK some stiff competition in terms of both price and quality.

The second and final day of this very short Tenerife sampler arrives and first on the agenda is tackling Montanas Guaza, one of the easier mountains of Tenerife just next to the apartment. As mountains are, the route upwards is deceptive as it involves actually going downhill first to the harbour and then left along the coast to access the footpath. There is a welcome cooling breeze as I leave the giant concrete hotels, which give way to some beautiful private villas and then finally the start of the footpath.

Glancing up, I can already see the interesting change in plant life even at such a small altitude change. The bushes give way to smaller cacti and then finally some of the huge spiny big brothers towards the top. Tiny lizards scurry for cover as I loosen some of the rocky rubble leading up the winding mountain path.

I make it to what might be considered 'base camp', affording views of the highly developed coast. At this point I begin to realise that although there is no genuine culture to speak of here, the real 'culture' of Los Cristianos is very much tourism fueled. At the very least as an observer, it offers a glance into the typical lego-like constructions of a purely generic holiday landscape, nestled into the real and rather spectacular landscape of Tenerife.

'Hiking' sample achieved, it's time to sample what everyone else seems to be doing - people watch. I later park myself in a peaceful eatery far left of Los Cristianos harbour, and take in the views of swaying palm trees, the rapid arrival and departure of ferries, and the various caricatures of package holiday lovers shuffling by, some of them in dire need of the local aloe-vera after-sun.

Package holidays really are a culture in themselves. If you are able to mindfully remove yourself from the equation, even just to observe briefly the comings and goings, the trials and tribulations of the package tourist, it makes for an interesting experience. Wherever you go in the world, there's always one or two aspects of the genuine article that permeate through - in Tenerife's case it's the majestic mountainous landscape. 

With the current GBP to Euro rate, the small budget was very easy to stick to with ample supermarkets available for DIY meals. One really could easily make a package deal a starter platform for a more substantial trip. I would be happy to return with the North of the island and Teide in mind, and break the bonds of the tourist laden South for a more rural affair.