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Amazing Sicily and Tuscany

Amazing Sicily and Tuscany
via British Airways First Class
October 2012

Mrs. SFO and I are off to Italy today, joining our SoCal travel buddies for four days in Taormina/Sicily and three days in Siena/Tuscany. While we love our new home, the one thing I miss about SFO is... SFO. Sure weather can cause havoc at times, but the international nonstop options are outstanding, and one learns to schedule around the weather.

While Catania in general is one tough place to get to conveniently and in comfort, its even tougher from DEN. With LH not releasing F seats until T-14 and no other non United non-stop options to Europe, I decided to give BA another chance. The last time we tried BA was 2+ years ago during the strike. That didn't work out very well. But with a Chase 2-4-1 certificate expiring early next year and two more just added to our accounts, BA it is. The good news is BA has daily nonstop DEN-LHR service. The bad news is no First Class cabin. Mrs. SFO, who once upon a time opined that she would rather fly non-stop Economy than connect in First, has seen the light and without hesitation decided "connect in First". With plenty of BA options back in March, I went for ORD as it was cheap 120,000 miles roundtrip for both. That plus $2,100 in BA/UK taxes and fees of course.
 
-AA DEN check-in and Admirals Club Denver
-AA 3765 (American Eagle) DEN-ORD
-American Airlines Flagship Lounge at ORD
-BA Terraces Lounge and First Dining at ORD
-BA First Class Lounge at ORD
-British Airways First Class Chicago to London
-BA Terraces Arrivals Lounge including Concorde Breakfast Room
-BA First Class Lounge at LGW
-Priority Lounge at LGW
-British Airways Business Class London LGW to Catania
-San Domenico Palace Hotel (Taormina, Sicily)
-Taormina and Sicily
-Sala Lounge at CTA
-Alitalia Economy Catania to Florence
-Castiglione del Bosco (Montalcino, Tuscany)
-Exploring Tuscany
-Sala Lounge at FLR
-Air France CityJet Economy Florence to London City LCY
-Le Meridien Picadilly London
-Brasserie Zédel and Ghost: The Musical
-British Airways Concorde Room at LHR
-British Airwarys First Class London to Chicago
-American First Class Chicago to Denver
 
AA DEN check-in and Admirals Club Denver

Mrs. SFO has turned into a wonderful traveler... from multiple bag checker a few years ago to carry-ons on most trips (except today), and amazingly on time. No longer do I have to lie about our departure time. When I say 10:45, she is ready at 10:30. Our new DEN driver Joe dropped us off at DEN at 11:15A.

There was no line at the Priority ticket counter as we stopped to check one bag all the way to LHR. CLEAR is great way to bypass the ID checker when PreCheck is not available. Although DEN needs to learn from the T-3 CLEAR team at SFO, that cuts the line and gets you to the front of the conveyor line!! Arrived at the AC at about T-60. The new DEN AC is conveniently located (once you get the lay of the land) on level 4, a quick elevator ride from the exit at the rear of the gate bound trains. Pleasant AAngel welcomed us in and confirmed that we were #1 and #2 on the upgrade standby list. Unfortunately, all but 3 F seats on the CR7 had been sold for 6 months. Our flight today was now showing only F1 after someone used miles or an SWU earlier this morning. The DEN AC is new, spacious, attractive and with a great staff of AAngels.

All morning, Mrs. SFO insisted that we decline the upgrade so we could sit together. After the fourth or fifth try, I convinced her to take the F seat so at least we both won't be cramped in 6CD. We arrived at the gate at T-30 and the one that wanted to decline the upgrade, has now become very possessive. When do I get my new Boarding Pass? What are they going to serve for lunch? How about I send it back to you? Since the Upgrade List was not scrolling on the monitor, I waited at the podium while GA was checking with the crew as to when to start boarding. When our GA returned, she agreed I was a wise husband by giving my upgrade to Mrs. SFO. She also blocked her just vacated window seat. "Oh now I get it" says Mrs. SFO, "you get two seats to yourself"

AA 3765 (American Eagle) DEN-ORD and psycho FA

We boarded together as GA called F and EXPs, etc... Once on board, Mrs. SFO looks at her 1C and sees the teenie seats in Y and uttered those words I love to hear, "OK, you were right." See you in Chicago. Although considering the megaphone voice of the psycho FA in First, I'm not sure who had the better deal today. Even with my Bose NCH, I could still hear her back in row 6. "Let's get the hell outta here" was apparently her favorite line, screamed at the top of her lungs both in DEN and ORD, where it was accompanied by her dancing and running up the jetway as we all were waiting for our gate check bags. Today's F options were the chicken salad or 3 mini cold cut sandwich. Mrs. SFO declined both figuring she'd eat in Chicago.

My EXP coach lunch. I'll eat in Chicago as well.

Up Next: AA Flagship Lounge at ORD.

American Airlines Flagship Lounge at ORD

A 10 minute walk from G-3 to K-20 and one lands in the holy grail of AA lounges, the Flagship Lounge. Not as large as the LAX or JFK Flagship Lounge but hands down the best and friendliest staff of the three I've visited, from the AAngels at the front desk to the great waitstaff, who make frequent rounds cleaning and pushing food and drink.

Nice selection of pupus both cold and hot...

And premium liquors...

A nice feature at ORD is the AA to BA shuttle bus, from both the G and K concourses. Not the most luxurious offering and you need to schlep your bags down and up stairs, but it beats having to trek over land-side and re-clear security. Buses leave the K concourse, gate K-20 from right next door to the Flagship Lounge, every half hour at :10 and :40.

Up next: BA First Dining at ORD: One of the best airline lounge dining experiences ever!

BA First Lounges at ORD and an amazing First Dining experience

The AA to BA shuttle bus is not the most elegant ride, but it does beat the alternative. Our 6:10 shuttle departed around 6:15 and 10 minutes later we were dropped off at the T-5 but a long walk from the M-11/12 and the BA lounges.

Our 1st stop was the BA First Lounge located on the tarmac side of the concourse.

Wow, I thought SFO was bad but this has to be one of the smallest and ugliest excuses for a First Class lounge I have seen in ages. The place was packed, no doubt with loads of OW Emeralds on Y or J tickets. No lounge dragon at the desk checking any one. One other pax noted that he'd been there for 15 minutes and hadn't seen any agent. The only redeeming feature of this sorry lounge seems to be the direct to the jetway for boarding. See ya later.

What a contrast across the corridor in the Terraces Lounge. We warmly welcomed by the agent. When she saw our F BPs, she stood and offered to escort us to the dining room. Mrs. SFO declined (initially) and we walked back to explore the lounge which is more a series of lounge areas. Nothing luxurious but comfortably functional. We found a seating area and I went off the explore the rest of the lounge.

But I struck gold when I peeked into the First Dining room, a lovely and elegantly appointed private enclave to First pax, with not a soul at any table and a wait staff eager to please. I took one look at the wonderful menu and excellent wine selection and figured that there was no way I was going to pass this up. I went back to retrieve Mrs. SFO, who at first was reluctant to "eat" but then agreed to sit with me while I ate.

Once she saw the dining room and the menu, her "I'll sit with you while you eat" turned into "I think I'll have the salad and the Vidalia Onion Gruyere Tart."

My heirloom tomato and fresh mozzarella salad with positively sensational

Mrs. SFO loved her local baby green salad with balsamic vinaigrette.

Vidalia Onion Gruyere Tart was amazing, with chive oil and sherry syrup

My coriander seared Grouper filet was fabulous, accompanied with jicama slaw, coconut rice and mango salsa.

And the wines? OMG, a Casa Lapostolle?? We have the Clos Apalta in our cellar and what a treat to try their Sauvignon Blanc... one of the best of the year!

The wait staff was absolutely incredible... friendly yet professional and well trained to leave us alone, but checking back every 5 minutes for wine refills. I guess we must have gushed so positively that Chef Frank came to our table after dinner to say hello. He and Mrs. SFO talked shop and vinaigrette reductions. His was simply divine. I can't say say enough about this incredible culinary experience and treat. This is an absolute must for anyone flying BA First from Chicago.

Next: This is a First Class lounge??

BA "First Class" Lounge at ORD

At about T-40, we did adieu to the wonderful staff in First Dining and the Terraces Lounge and walked across the corridor to the "First Class" lounge. What a pathetic excuse for a lounge... small and cramped with limited food and booze offerings. Most of the pax using this lounge weren't traveling First tonight, but gained access from a strange OW Emerald benefit... FCL access when traveling on any OW carrier in any class.

Nice view of Etihad though.

The only reason to use this lounge is as a boarding gate. Mercifully, boarding commenced within three minutes after we arrived.

Next: BA296F ORD-LHR. Great service, comfy ride, so-so food, horrid wines.

ORD-LHR
BA 296
First Class
Seats 2AK
747-400
G-CIVA (Old First)
8:35P-10:00A
September 25, 2012

 

When I check the NF status earlier in the day, I was disappointed to find out that we wouldn't experience the new F, especially since 297/296 had been tracking over 90% New First. Nevertheless, for an old cabin, it was attractive and clean, much nicer than the two relic QF 744s we endured earlier in the year.

OK, we're not talking CX here but for only 7 hours, the seats were quite comfortable...

After our last flights, Mrs. SFO complained that she wasn't seeing the attraction with all my 1AK choices, and wanted to get away from the closet action and try a row 2. Kudos to the Princess. IMO, 2AK is indeed the best combination of space and privacy even for a couple. We were able to communicate with each other easily, yet still have our own space. And 2A and 2K are still close enough that, with a good stretch of the arms, we could pass things to each other without getting up.

I had read mixed reviews of BA service in the BA forum, but tonight's crew was excellent. Friendly, professional, and seemingly always there to anticipate your needs. As we took our seats, various crew members stopped by to say hello and drop off amenity kits, PJs and pre departure Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle.

OK dude, you selected 1K. Why have your front window shade down??

Shortly after take off, our cabin crew jumped into action with cocktail service and menus...

Tonight's menu included creations from Simon Hulstone, apparently a recipient of a Michelin star.  Yo Simon, if you are going to lend/sell/rent your name an airline, make sure they can deliver in flight.

While the Grand Siecle is a nice choice, the white wine offerings were not even remotely close to F quality. The two we tried were positively horrid, while the third, the St-Supery Sauvignon Blanc, Mrs. SFO uses as cooking wine at home. Mrs. SFO tried the 2010 Saint-Aubin 1er Cru La Chateniere. I had a sip and agreed it was undrinkable. She sent it back as did I sent back the equally awful 2009 Stefano Antonucci Verdicchio Dei Castelli Di Jesi Doc. We both went back to the safe Grand Siècle.

Wine List
After Dinner Selections
Breakfast

Our set up, carefully placed on our tray table...

Scallop brochette amuse bouche was very good.

Just not with the 2009 Stefano Antonucci Verdicchio Dei Castelli Di Jesi Doc. Mercifully still lots of Grand Siecle to go around.

The Seared hamachi with tanginesse of tagarashi, jalapeno and sumiso sauce with fava beans and toasted almonds sounded delicious and looked great. Unfortunately, that's where is ended. It simply lacked much taste at all. With all those ingredients, how about using them so we can taste them.

The Main: aka How about some pork fat with your veggies? 

Full disclosure: I love pork. And pork fat. Have so ever since my German grandmother fed me pigs tails when I was barely out of diapers. But whoa nellie. I've never seen anything quite like this. I opted for Simon's Pork belly with creamed celeriac and wild mushroom ragout, napa cabbage and crisp crackling. Once again sounded great, and I had visions of something like this: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/content/r...ts/pork-belly/

The presentation was quite nice and the wild mushroom ragout excellent...

But when I went to sample the pork, that pork belly turned out to be mostly fat, with just a morsel of rather tough pork. Yikes.

Cheese course with Warre's 1992 Colheita Tawny Port.

For dessert, I went with the Ice cream sundae with chocolate toppings.
Very good but would have been even better if someone hadn't taken the ice cream out of the freezer way too early.

Time to turn in for a few hours sleep before landing.

Declined breakfast but 1K went for it.

Fast Track and Arrivals lounge info/passes.

Our approach to LHR and more big birds.

In spite of the poor wines and disappointing inflight food, the overall impression was positive. Great crew, great service but the pre-flight First Dining at ORD was the topper. As others in the BA forum have noted, in future I would eat on the ground at ORD, have a few drinks on board and then go to sleep.

Next: BA Arrivals Lounge and off to Gatwick

With an on time arrival and prompt baggage delivery, we had plenty of time before our driver picked us up at 11AM.

Mrs. SFO decided she'd rather sit and wait than walk to and explore another lounge, so I walked off to sample the Arrivals Lounge.

The pleasant lounge dragon asked for my BP and then wrote out a pass to the Concorde Breakfast Room, reserved to F pax.  Functional space with multiple seating areas and eager to please wait staff, comically pushing food like my grandmother.

I was just planning on having a yogurt (cherry)...

But friendly CBR attendant insisted I have more. "Try the Eggs Benedict. They are wonderful" OK, if you insist.   Meh, not so wonderful. Tasted about as good as it looked, lathered in hollandaise sauce.

Next: Gatwick BA First Lounge and the Priority Lounge.

BA First Lounge at Gatwick

Our regular London driver Nasser met us promptly at 11AM in the T-5 arrivals lobby.
With very light traffic, we pulled into LGW departures just before noon, nearly 4 hours before our LGW-CTA departure.

Easy check in at the First Class counter, at the far right side of the counters. We were the only ones checking in.
At nearby Priority security, there were only two people in line before us.

Both BA lounges are on Lounge Level 4, First Class on the right...

Terraces on the left...

Friendly dragons welcomed us into the First Lounge, pleasant lounge with numerous attractive and comfortable seating areas.

Nice selection of booze and other beverages...

But a rather weak selection of food offerings...

We both freshened up and showered in pretty dated and basic facilities...

 

Three hours in any lounge other than the LH FCT/FCL in FRA is way too long.
For variety, went down to the main floor level to tour the Priority Lounge. Very nice looking lounge with numerous comfortable seating areas.

Next: BA Club Europe LGW-Catania, Sicily

LGW-CTA (Catania, Sicily)
BA 2594
Club Europe (Business Class)
Seats 1DF
737-400
3:50P-8:00P (sked)
4:35P-8:45P (actual)
September 26, 2012

Our flight had consistently showed 20-25 minute departures delays as the inbound aircraft was running late.
With a now posted 4:15P departure from an ominous sounding gate 107, I decided to start the long trek at T-50.

Gate 107 is in a separate concourse/pier about a 10 minute snake like walk from the lounge. Interesting solution to the "how to get pax there and back" as apparently the designers never though of an underground walkway, instead opting to building a elaborate and expensive skyway over everything. And in order to make sure there was ample clearance for even the largest plane to pass under, this sucker is high and boasts some of the longest escalators I have ever seen.


Note: Old Google file photo not mine.

We actually had the "pleasure" of using this three times due to my unfamiliarity with LGW/BA systems and the inept lack of information from both LGW and BA. We arrived at Gate 107 at 3:35P to find absolutely nothing... no plane, no pax, no GA, and gate sign that had no destination/flight and simply read Gate Closed. The departure monitors in the pier list on that pier's flights an our flight is not listed. No BA personnel any where in sight to query as the other gates are EasyJet gates. OK, surely BA.com will tell me the correct gate. Wrong. Flight status on BA.com is useless as no gate info is provided. I figured the gate assignment changed during our trek. The only option was to walk back to the main terminal and find the correct gate. 10 minutes and we were back in the lounge where the gate agent confirmed that indeed the correct gate is 107, telling me that gate assignments are not posted to the public until just before boarding, and that we should go back to gate 107. Another 10 minutes and we are back at gate 107, where lo and behold there is an airplane and pax.

Boarding commenced at the posted departure time of 4:15P, with pre-boarding for Business Class. I use the term Business Class loosely as the front cabin on most European airlines' intra-Europe flights is ridiculous coach seating with an open middle seat. Give me a break. The only good seats on these planes are bulkhead seats. With my OW Emerald status, I had selected 2AC which other FTers had noted had the most bulkhead legroom. Whilst sitting in 2AC during boarding, it became clear that 1DF had at least 4-5" more legroom. With only 5 other pax in J and no one in 1DF, we moved over after boarding was completed.

Our original 2AC...

Much more legroom in 1DF...

Once we got going, it was an excellent flight with good service from our attentive Purser.
Although with only 7 pax, why the insistence on using the cart for everything? Is it that difficult to walk back and forth to/from the galley?

A menu specific for the Catania flight...

We both opted for the lamb, which was quite tasty. But again amusing to see dinner service from the cart, including the FA plating the meal from the aluminum container onto our plate in full view.

Although we touched down at 8:25p and pulled into the gate couple minutes later, the jet bridge wasn't working properly necessitating use of the popular European transport mode... the airplane shuttle bus. And of course, instead of being the first ones at passport control, we were near the end of the pack after the crowded buses disgorged everyone.

On the positive side, by the time we got to baggage claim, our checked bag was on the carousel and our driver was waiting for us.
Call me spoiled but the AA domestic First experience is so much better than Euro-fraud Business Class. Much better seating, better food, better drinks/nuts, better signage/information, inflight WiFi.

Next: Spectacular Taormina and the beautiful San Domenico Palace Hotel

 

San Domenico Palace Hotel
Taormina, Sicily

About 35 minutes north of Catania is the autostrada exit for the picture perfect Taormina, a classic old Sicilian town sitting on a cliff some 2,000 feet above the Ionian Sea. 10 minutes of winding roads and tunnels, and just off the main piazza lies a 14th century monastery converted to beautiful hotel.

Suite 255
Grand Suite, Sea view with Terrace

Our wonderful terrace overlooking the Ionian Sea...

Hotel pool...

Next: Wonderful Taormina