As an inveterate and very persnickety traveler, I always prefer to travel as an individual – well, of course, preferably with my wife – and take advantage of special airline deals and respective buying power to get the best price at hotels or other affiliated holiday subsidiaries. The idea of taking a package tour with a group of 25 unknowns seemed much too perverse and burdensome and didn’t even qualify for the bottom of our travel bucket list.
Too many times while escorting airline media trips these past years, I had to encounter and kowtow to people that that were prima donnas, trouble makers or just royal pains who never participated in part or all the trip where they were “guests.” Or they pompously sat on their laurels saying they knew best and/or proposed new alternatives from a structured program they had already accepted. What bores!
So recently when we looked at the opportunity to travel in China with a tour company called China Spree on a two week package tour with a group of travelers, my wife and I found ourselves seriously questioning our judgement about traveling with an unknown group of individuals.After a lot of hedging, we finally decided the itinerary and the potential value-for-money were too good to refuse, and we decided to take the risk and try something we had never dared in all the years we’ve been traveling together. We would give it “a go.” We finalized the arrangements through Seattle-based China Spree and packed up for the unknown – the group, not the country.
I have to admit that prior to our departure from New York, China Spree was very helpful and sent us a booklet containing very useful information about the itinerary, a list of participants – no one even remotely known to either of us – the hotels and contact information along the way, plus a plethora of items such as “essential to pack,” “expect the unexpected,” and useful phrases (Diet Coke, supermarket, toilet, headache and even cardiac pacemaker). OMG! Some of it was actually quite alarming, but also entertaining.
Day One and we departed on our own to the first joining city – Beijing. What were we in for? I couldn’t sleep on the flight to Beijing thinking all the while, “What have I done? What will the hotels be like?”
Beijing International Airport is huge (rumored to be at some time in the future, the biggest airport in the world), but quite manageable, and once out of Chinese immigration and customs and a visit to an ATM for some local currency, Yuan or RMB, we caught a taxi to our hotel. By the way, taxis in Beijing are comparatively cheap when weighed against traditional big cities in Europe or the USA.
Our first destination was the five-star Marriott Beijing City Wall, and at first glance as we pulled up, the place seemed like a barn taking up one gigantic city block. Despite having never been to this hotel, it did seem to be well located in the center of the city. The city of Beijing is huge and spread out, even more so than Los Angeles with at least five times the population.
Walking into the hotel’s lobby kind of late morning, we were surprised to see how elegant a hotel it was. We checked in and went up to the room to unpack our bags and enjoy a soothing shower and a much-needed nap. The rooms were overwhelmingly comfortable with all the right amenities and so, we were able to adequately rest and recuperate after the long flight.By late afternoon, we thought we’d better go down to the lobby and check for a China Spree representative or other members of the tour. Relief as we turned the corner from the elevators into the main reception area and spotted a young Chinese woman holding a red (what else) China Spree flag and chatting with several couples.
Contact!! At last! We joined the conversation and introduced ourselves to our tour leader, Ming Li, a petit Chinese lady in her late twenties who spoke English and who would turn out to be the absolute star of our two-week trek. We learned she would accompany us for the entire journey and, luckily, she had once been to the USA and her English was near perfect.
With Ming leading our group, we figured we had a really good chance to understand any and everything that would be happening in the next 13 days. Ming explained our two-week itinerary and advised us of the various things we needed to know about the next few days in Beijing. The first evening would be at leisure and the next morning we were to assemble in a designated hotel conference room for introductions, enabling everyone to become acquainted and then we would review the entire journey.
That first evening was blissfully relaxing, permitting a calm and quiet overnight’s rest after a wonderful dinner. Then it was on to the next morning’s session meeting all the players. The morning meeting could not have been more helpful. Certain people already knew one another as they had come over to China in small groups, and others just melded in with the rest. There were people from all over the USA and Canada and everyone seemed to be pretty well traveled and experienced. And there even was one couple from Norfolk, Virginia, who were honeymooning on this tour and, being they were the loveliest couple, we were all thrilled to be a part of their newlywed adventure. Everyone seem to coddle them in the nicest way, paving theirs and our own soon-to-be adventures in China.
Over the next two days In Beijing, we hit all the highlights – Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the sites and the grounds used for the 2008 Olympiad, the Summer Palace, and on our own, we visited the pandas at the Beijing Zoo. One can never get enough of the pandas – they are God’s perfection of cute and cuddly, but slightly too big and too rare and endangered to be permitted to keep as a household pet. And there’s not too many places where one can buy an endless supply of bamboo to fulfill the panda’s needs.
Pandas are a wonderful image of China; I just wish the Chinese zookeepers would clean the glass on some of the panda viewing sites.
Beijing is well worth at least week of exploring; we didn’t have that much time in the Chinese capital.
Next stop, the City of Xian, and one of the most incredible underground attractions in the world, only discovered forty years ago – the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses.
These 6,000 plus life-size and life-like men and animals, all sculpted from stone, were entombed as ever-lasting guardians of the first emperor of China. They remained so for some two millennia until their discovery by local farmers drilling for water. Since their discovery, the caves have been the subject of scientific study and continuous excavation, with the likelihood of more undiscovered caverns and their treasure in the same region.
Xian also is the location of the Wild Goose Pagoda which dates back over 1,300 years. It is a photographer’s dream as it is a seven-story structure with so much background to explore and shoot. We also explored the Muslim Quarter of Xian and the seventh century Great Mosque, the center for the local Muslim community that are descendants of the merchants and travelers that plied along the ancient Silk Road that connected China with Europe.
After two days in Xian, we then flew south to the City of Guilin located on the Li River and site of some of the most magical and unusual topography on the planet. The area is spotted with seemingly hundreds of two thousand foot, limestone, conical mini-mountains, and when they’re surrounded by mist or fog, they take on an enchanting aura making you really believe that the wicked witch of the west or Harry Potter will come barreling out of the mist for a quick fly-by.
The Li River tour, a four hour boat ride meandering past the mystical pinnacles, is the region’s ‘must do’ and is well worth the effort, no matter the cost, weather or time of the year. During this cruise, a photographer can easily fill up an eight gb sim card shooting endless landscapes featuring bamboo groves, small riverside villages, boats and barges of all sizes and shapes, with or without fisherman, and a wide variety of animals from water buffalo to cormorants.
Guilin’s second natural attraction is the Reed Flute Cave. An attraction for the last 1,200 years, the caves have long been outfitted with muted lights of blues, reds, oranges and greens, and throughout the one hour walk through the caverns with the gigantic stalactites and stalagmites looming up or peering down, it seems like a moving son et lumiere light festival, particularly designed to garner the ooohs and aaahs of the visitors. It’s also a great test for the still photographers that weren’t smart enough to bring along a tripod.
Before departing the Guilin region, we visited a part of the country encompassing one of China’s most famous scenic landscapes, the Long Sheng Dragon Spine Rice Terraces. Here, rice growers, over the centuries, have sculpted and shaped 2,000 feet peaks with step-like terraces for growing their prized agricultural possession. In the Spring when the terraces are water bound, the terraces seem to resemble shiny, wavy ladders; and at other parts of the year when the rice ripens, the peaks seemingly turn into colorful rippling waves. On the hillsides adjacent to the terraces, the locals live and flourish in their centuries-old villages with narrow paths of stones built into hillsides, barely wide enough to permit mules or hand carts or wagons to carry their possessions as well as the valuable rice production. Again for both professional and amateur photographers, this Southwest area of the country offers up a treasure trove of the most spectacular visuals one could ever imagine.
From Guilin, we flew northeast to the metropolis of Shanghai. Whereas Beijing is the Washington, D.C. of China, Shanghai is China’s New York, the business and communications center of China. For my point of view, Shanghai’s overt capitalism and business enterprise puts New York and London to shame. Maybe Tokyo comes close, but Shanghai, with it’s 25 million inhabitants, is a vibrant, starry-bright fixture that is captivating and makes one wish for, at least, a one month’s stay.
In a 14 month gap between two visits to Shanghai in 2012 and 2013, the amount of building and expansion was overwhelming, notwithstanding the modernization and refurbishment of selected old and new shopping malls, residential areas and, of course, Pudong, the area of tall buildings and skyscrapers that at night, are electrified neon panoramas of commercial splendor. Shanghai, in the evening hours, takes the first prize electric light cake of any city I’m aware of; overall it’s grander than Tokyo’s Ginza and more colorful that the Eiffel Tower at Christmas, which I do love. Even the older, art deco area directly across river from Pudong, The Bund, radiates brilliance in reflective glory from the glittering neon originating from the sides of flashing buildings across the river.
For the length and breadth of shopping experiences, it’s tough to beat Shanghai. Of course, for the average western tourist, one doesn’t want to spend tons of money in the up-scale malls and shops that only feature imports from the USA and Europe; one could go broke very quickly because of the high import taxes. But there are plenty of Chinese home-grown products – excluding the fake market merchandise – that is very worthwhile. Silk goods – linens and clothing are well worth the price, as well as pearls and other jewelry, porcelain, table ware (dishes, cups, bowls, etc), furniture if you have the space and time for carriage – and traditional drawings and paintings.
One must always beware of the junk dealers and fake marketeers all over the country, in every city and town; they sell rip-off items and fakes that fall apart, break or stop working after two minutes. It doesn’t take a genius to spot these people or their ridiculous shops.Finally a word on package tours. I went into this experience dreading the “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Beijing” syndrome, but in the case of China Spree, it was an inspiring experience, and one that I will be forever grateful. And the most amazing part of the journey were China Spree’s preparations, information and presentation before and during the two week journey. And by some kind of fantastic luck. there was China’s Spree’s ability to put together a well knitted, experienced group that all melded together so well. There were no prima-donnas, black widows or bizarre personalities – and believe me, I’ve seen plenty of them. It may have been pure luck, or to my thinking to China Spree’s credit, their professional expertise and experience in creating a workable and doable itinerary with professional and extremely sociable and well-seasoned guides that made the trip a 1,000 percent value.
In addition to our national tour guide, Ming Li, who remained with our group throughout the two weeks, China Spree also provided an additional local guide in each of cities visited. Each guide was an expert, a veritable walking encyclopedia, on their particular environ, and all spoke excellent English and had the most pleasing personalities. We were well looked after, indeed!
The final take away which has turned out to be so valuable is the lasting friendships that were created during this China sojourn. We keep in touch with many of our new friends, and e-mails, Facebook messages and even videos, abound.
China Spree tour information with itineraries and pricing may be found at its web site at http://www.chinespree.com, or by calling toll-free, 855 556-68678. China Spree and its sister company, World Spree, http://www.worldspree.com, also are now offering tours beyond China to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, India and Nepal.
NOTE: I HAVE ONLY BARELY TOUCHED THE SURFACE OF THE SIGHTSEEING ASPECTS OF TOURING CHINA. THERE ARE A MULTITUDE OF IN-DEPTH BOOKS AND VOLUMINOUS TOURIST GUIDE BOOKS AVAILABLE GIVING IN-DEPTH INFORMATION AND HISTORY ABOUT ALL THE ABOVE DESTINATIONS AND MORE.
Please visit Grand Luxury Travel at
Please visit LA Times, Tuesday, Nov. 27, travel section site to view a selection of my holiday photos of New York City.
Captions gratefully written by Catharine Hamm, Travel Editor, Los Angeles Times.
While working at British Airways I had the good fortune to work on numerous inaugurals to new gateway cities in the USA as well as see the introduction of new aircraft into the airline’s long haul fleet.
It had been my hope for many years to still be in the PR seat when the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner were delivered to British Airways, and subsequently launched onto the most deserving and most profitable routes. No one in September of 2007, when British Airways first ordered the A380, really knew which American city would get the first A380, nor were there too many notions either about where the B787 would go as well. As everyone knows, both aircraft programs and airline delivery schedules were victims of unforeseen manufacturing delays.
The A380 delivery schedule into the British Airways fleet was delayed approximately three years, and when it did finally begin, I followed the first commercial flight from afar. But back in 2007 when the airline ordered the aircraft, we were already then talking about a Heathrow to the west coast USA flight and then, a second route, perhaps to one of the more lucrative Far Eastern destinations such as Hong Kong.
The choice of Los Angeles was inevitably the obvious choice for good reason and common sense as it spelled out dollars and pounds neon at both ends of the route.
Aside from London being the most important airport in Europe as well as the busiest and most slot-sought after airfield in the world, Los Angeles, with the entertainment industry, is the biggest hub on the west coast and boasts the third largest traffic throughput in the country. A high-traffic, long distance, longhaul route was what the doctor ordered and LAX filled the prescription quite nicely.
British Airways’ first A380, G-XLEA, flew on November 9, 2012, and after a multitude of hours of test flying, was finally delivered to British Airways’ Heathrow base on July 4th, 2013. How appropriate was that?
Between July and September, the aircraft underwent several hundred training flights with real time crew and passengers to Madrid, Frankfurt and several airports in the UK and France, readying all who would touch and service the aircraft.
On Tuesday, Sept. 24th, BA269, British Airways’ first commercial A380 flight touched down at Los Angeles International Airport, the sixth busiest in the world, and as luck would have it, that global ranking may seriously start to bump up as British Airways became the sixth international airline to operate A380’s at LAX.
By the way, at the end of 2013, Emirates Airlines will become the seventh A380 carrier at LAX offering non-stop flights between Los Angeles and Dubai.
For passengers, aircraft junkies and serious plane spotters, the A380 is the largest commercial jetliner currently flying in the friendly USA and global skies, and with the higher number of passengers each plane carries, the international passenger transiting LAX will certainly test the airport’s infrastructure.
This can only be good news for the airport and everything it touches in the local neighborhood as well. It means more business and tourist dollars flowing into the economic coffers of Southern California.
By sheer coincidence, the Tom Bradley International Terminal opened nine of 18 projected newly expanded boarding gates in order to accommodate the increased number of international passengers traveling out of Los Angeles the week before the British Airways A380 inaugural flight.
Why is Los Angeles International Airport becoming a hotter number on the international travel hit parade? From a poll of aspiring USA-bound travelers originating from across the Atlantic or Pacific, the number one city is New York and number two on the list is always Los Angeles.
I jogged my own airline memories and I remembered the various discussions with the British Airways’ gurus who researched numerous potential A380 routes for years before announcing their first choice. But I always thought that LA-Heathrow was a no-brainer and fit very nicely into the metrics of long distance and significant passenger lift. To support this notion, I asked several British Airways and outside sources for their opinions.
“The Los Angeles region is the second biggest economy in the USA, and the LAX-Heathrow service is the second most valuable route in the USA for British Airways,” said Sean Doyle, Executive Vice President Americas, British Airways. “Los Angeles is a perfect example of a vast travel market which requires an aircraft that provides significant capacity coupled with a non-stop range from the west coast to Europe, the Middle East, the Far East or Southeast Asia.
“And LAX has proven readiness, experience and infrastructure to service the A380 airlines, witness the past success of Qantas, Singapore, Korean, Air France and China Southern Airlines. LAX has the most A380 carriers of any airport in the USA,” Doyle continued.
Local British Airways LAX Airport Manager Kristine Morley said, “My staff and I were thrilled when it was announced that LAX would be the first destination for British Airways’ A380. For the past few months, many of the staff have trained in London to become acquainted with the aircraft as well as our ramp handlers here at TBIT already service several of the other A380 carriers so they are well experienced with the aircraft.”
Running an A380 operation anywhere in the world In light of relatively high fuel prices can’t be that cheap, but as Henry Harteveldt, a San Francisco-based travel industry analyst says.”airlines must be very careful about what aircraft they put on what routes in today’s competitive climate. In this case, the LA-London route exemplifies the high value and strength of British Airways’ trade and customer loyalty in Southern California as well as the success of British Airways’ joint business agreement with American Airlines as the two carriers can feed each other business at both ends of the route.”
British Airways’ Director of Customer Brands & Experience, Frank Van der Post said: ” The A380 is garnering a lot of interest and attention in travel agent and corporate travel manager community, both in Southern California and the UK, and we are doing everything possible from special catering, new interior decor, innovative pricing and specially trained staffing at LAX so that the A380 will greatly benefit and enhance our position on this highly competitive route.”
Most all the travel agents in the Los Angeles area were in agreement that the new A380 service brings enhanced opportunities for their international business.
Craig Carter, President, Luxe Travel management of Irvine, stated, “With London being our second largest market coupled with the fact that non-stop capacity is so limited between LA and London, this new development will open capacity, stimulate demand and give us more innovative pricing that will benefit our premium and leisure customers. Sixty percent of our business is international so we’ll have more flexibility and options to sell, and our customers will have more even opportunities to upgrade as they see fit.”
Rob Kovacs, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Cassis Travel Services of West Hollywood stated, “With the approaching winter season combined with the increased capacity and lift, we’re hopeful for our customers that prices may actually come down as the airline will have so many seats to fill, especially in the business class and economy cabins. Of course, we also expect our customers to be thrilled and excited about flying on such a new aircraft.”
The A380 is the largest civilian aircraft flying commercial passengers in the world today. In British Airways’ configuration, accommodating 469 customers across four cabins, First class will be located at the front of the main deck. and will offer 14 seats/suites.
Club World (business class) customers may choose from 44 seats on the main deck or 53 seats on the upper deck. The upper deck seats will feature a new 2:3:2 configuration across the cabin whereas the main deck provides 2:4:2. The 55 World Traveller Plus (premier economy) seats are located on the upper deck while World Traveller (economy) customers have the choice of seats on either the main deck or upper deck.
Airline food usually gets a bad rap, but British Airways has teamed up with The Langham Hotel in London and designed a stylish new menu for customers traveling in First and Club World. In first class an elegant five-course tasting menu was introduced which takes diners on a gastronomic journey with a combination of flavors brought together to work in the air. Dishes include poached lobster, chicken tea, seared scallops and braised pork belly, coupled with distinctive ingredients including goji berries and pak choi.
The first class service from London offers a range of sandwiches, artisan pastries and warm homemade scones, inspired by the range of indulgent treats offered at Palm Court at The Langham London, famed as the birthplace of Afternoon Tea over 140 years ago.
In Club World, the menu features a celebratory starter, main course and dessert. Customers may choose from a range of menu options, which will include Oxspring cured ham, fillet of beef with parsley crust and a milk chocolate bar with salted macadamia nuts.
For the pilots of the A380, the aircraft has many of the same characteristics of other Airbus aircraft. James Basnett, British Airways’ A380 Entry Into Service Manager said, “The A380 uses a control joystick located at the end of the armrest rather than the more traditional wheel shape column, and is incredibly more responsive and agile than the B747 despite the fact that the B747 is a great airplane to fly. The A380 is some 40 years advanced in design from the original B747 and sports a lot of new wizardry and gadgetry.
“For example on landing, there is a map display which illustrates the whole airport environment – much needed because of the greater length and width of the airplane. This display is like the GPS in a car only it shows the aircraft in relations to buildings, runways and taxiways; it’s an incredibly useful and necessary tool.
“With A380 pilot training, each pilot that has previous Airbus aircraft flying experience, undergoes 11 weeks of training, while pilots transitioning from Boeing aircraft experience an additional 14 to 20 days of training. The first A380 aircraft will have flown over 220 training sectors around the UK and Europe before the first flight to Los Angeles,” Basnett continued.
“In terms of its environmental contribution, the A380 represents a significantly lower fuel burn and smaller carbon footprint per passenger, and that combined with the new economics of operating such a technically-advanced aircraft, airlines and customers will experience a far greater change in travel habits and the world will become an even smaller place,” Doyle stated.
British Airways’ second A380 destination city will be Hong Kong, scheduled to launch on Oct. 22, and then next spring, LAX will begin double-daily A380 flights to London.