NEVERLAND/CALIFORNIA TIPS ...WEST JET TRUMPS AIR CANADA
I've been reading lots of stuff at thestar.com about Michael Jackson's body heading back to Neverland. Not sure if he'd ever have the status of Elvis, who wasn't just the king of rock or the king of pop but just The King, but no doubt there are folks who'll flock to Jackson's Neverland Ranch near Santa Barbara to pay their respects.
(Actually, I wonder if whoever takes over ownership might want to keep the amusement park rides for future revenue?) Anyway, the point is that a few minutes at the Neverland Ranch high in the hills of southern California is fine. But you're gonna want to stay over and have some other fun, so here are a few thoughts. I grew up in California and spent several days in and around Los Olivos a couple years ago and just loved it.
Los Olivos is named for olives, but it's grapes that have turned this once dusty town into a tourist magnet. The main street is really just a square block with a real western/country feel shaped by the cowboys who still linger amongst the wine-sipping literati. Which makes for a fun dynamic. There are saddle shops (I recall) and cheap grocery stores selling huge sandwiches, plus trendy stores selling lavender soap and a row of wine shops where you can taste the local product without getting in your car and trying to find the individual wineries.
When I stayed there a few years ago, we nipped into Fess Parker's winery, just a couple miles from Neverland Ranch. It turns out it was Parker's 80th birthday, and the former star of Daniel Boone on TV was playing and singing that night at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Spa. My wife and I checked it out and it was like watching an episode of Lawrence Welk or something. He sang to his wife, a former Sunset Blvd. dancer, and his adorable granddaughter or great granddaughter went to the front of the room and sang God Bless America. We sat in front of a group of barbershop quarter singers of the female variety, who were wearing matching mumus or some other kind of large, matching dresses and had driven in from Bakersfield and I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.
The Fess Parker winery was used as the horrible winery in Sideways where Miles pours crappy red wine all over his head and down his shirt, but the wine was surprisingly good. You can even buy little coonskin caps to put on top of your wine bottles. The Frontier Red is pretty good for about $13 but the better Syrahs cost more like $20 U.S.
They make outstanding Syrah in this part of California, which is warm/hot but gets cooling breezes from the Pacific for a perfect temperature for wine. You can sip Sauvignon Blanc from parts of the valley that get lots of sun, and then compare with the same grapes grown in a foggier area and get a real, true handle on what the wine snobs mean when they talk about "terroir." It's absolutely magnificent.
Try Zaca Mesa, Firestone and Consilience wineries, all a stone's throw from Neverland.
There are tons of cheap chain hotels in the area, mostly in Buellton (home of Pea Soup Anderson's, as anyone who's ever driven Highway 101 can attest) and Solvang, a pseudo-Danish town with windmills that I find personally about as attractive as, ugh, Mel Lastman Square. There's a lovely Marriott resort right off the highway if you like, or move over the hill to Santa Barbara for one of the great towns/cities in North America. The beaches are lovely, the hillside scenery is pleasant and pastoral (especially in winter or spring when they're as green as Ireland), and you can get some great food.
You'd think it would be a real touristy spot, but the place where Miles ate dinner in Sideways and where Maya worked in the movie, The Hitching Post II in Buellton, is awesome. The staff is friendly and they have outstanding Pinot Noir, Syrah and Sauvignon Blancs by the glass. As I recall, we got bread, salad, potato, dessert and a huge steak grilled over local oak for about $20 U.S. and it was fabulous.
WEST JET ON THE RISE
J.D. Power has come out with its latest airline satisfaction ratings. It's good news for the friendly folks at West Jet, not so great for Air Canada.
The company rated major North American (thank God; most polls we see up here are so U.S. focussed they do us no good at all) airlines in both the low cost and traditional network categories. West Jet was in the low cost section and came up with an overall satisfaction rating of four out of five. Air Canada, a traditional network carrier, got a rating of three out of five.
West Jet was tied with Southwest Airlines at 4 of 5 stars, with Jet Blue Airways (never tried it) coming first with a remarkable five out of five in overall satisfaction. Frontier Airlines and AirTran Airways each got two stars.
The top-rated traditional network carrier in North America were Alaska and Continental (the latter surprises me, but it's been a while) at five out of five, followed by Delta with four. Air Canada, American and Northwest each were at 3/5, with United and US Airways bringing up the rear with a pretty poor two out of five overall rating.
J.D. Power asked customers to rate the airlines on an overall basis as well as on seven individual categories, for eight responses in total. West Jet came ahead of Air Canada on five of the eight and they tied in the other three.
Both West Jet and Air Canada received just two stars out of five in terms of "costs and fees experience," which is pretty poor. Both Canadian carriers got ratings of 4/5 on "aircraft experience" and "in-flight services experience," which is pretty good.
West Jet took home the trophy in all other categories. They got 3/5 on "reservations experience," compared to 2/5 for Air Canada. West Jet got a perfect 5/5 on both "flight crew experience" and "boarding/deplaning experience," compared to 3/5 for Air Canada.
Where West Jet really shined, by comparison, was on the question of "check-in experience," which certainly sets the tone for a trip. On that front, West Jet again got 5/5, but Air Canada only got 2/5.
Certainly sounds like some more work needs to be done, although I gotta say my latest Air Canada flight was quite pleasant and the flight attendants very helpful and chatty. And, no, I wasn't in business and wasn't holding a sign that said, "Be nice to me, I'm a travel journalist."
Still, West Jet ended up with an overall rating of 4/5 and got perfect marks for flight crew experience, boarding/deplaning experience and check-in experience. Pretty impressive.
"It is particularly impressive that JetBlue has ranked highest in the highly competitive low-cost carrier segment for four consecutive years," said Dale Haines, senior director of the travel practice at J.D. Power and Associates. "However, competition in the low-cost carrier segment is heating up, with Southwest Airlines and WestJet closing the gap with JetBlue."
Actually, here's a funny thing. If you separate the "overall satisfaction" rating, you can look at the seven specific categories that folks were asked about. With a maximum "score" of five points in those seven categories, a top score would be 35.
In the low cost carrier section, West Jet actually was tops in North America with 28 points. Next was Southwest at 25, followed by Jet Blue at 23. Yet when asked for their overall satisfaction rating, respondents gave Jet Blue a 5/5 rating, compared to 4 for both Southwest and West Jet. It's splitting hairs, but in one way West Jet could argue they were the top rated low cost airline in North America.
If you look at the seven categories outside the overall satisfaction rating, Alaska came away with a whopping 33 out of 35 points, compared to 30 out of 35 for Continental. Looked at that way, Air Canada came away with just 20 rating points.
Like I said, room for improvement.
IRELAND FOR BREAKFAST
The good folks at Tourism Ireland held a breakfast at the Windows restaurant on the 32nd floor of the Four Seasons Hotel in Yorkville this morning. Awesome views of the city and tons of food, including sausages and blood pudding (not bad, but not something you'd want every day).
More importantly, there was lots of interesting stuff about Northern Ireland, with Tourism Minister Arlene Foster on hand to talk about booming Belfast and the rest of her lovely country.
We had a good story in the Star from Reb Stevenson recently on Belfast. I'm probably more drawn to the Giant's Causeway and the chance to someday play golf at Royal Portrush or the new Nick Faldo course on Lough Erne in southwest Northern Ireland, which Star golf guy Ian Cruickshank says is shaping up quite nicely.
The Canadian dollar is stretching about 20 per cent further in Northern Ireland than it was a year ago, Foster said. She also said Canadians made up about 20 to 25 per cent of North American visitors to her country last year, which is pretty impressive.
I didn't know it, but she said that of the 4 million or so Canadians of Irish descent, 2.5 million of them have ties to Ulster. She said, and I'd never heard the expression, that some folks have called Toronto "the Belfast of North America."
Foster said there are new boutique hotels in Belfast and pointed to the 2012 centenary of the Titanic as a major event on the horizon.
Lots more travel news and thoughts later today on a variety of subjects....