(photo courtesy of the Virgin America website)
As you read this, Neil, my mum, dad and I are heading to Death Valley after spending some time in Joshua Tree. (NB: posts will come soon about the actual road trip!) We planned this ages ago as a way to meet up with my parents and whilst it’s not quite half-way (especially for mum and dad), it was much more do-able and meant neither party would need to travel for over 24 hours just to meet up.
As we tend to plan these things way in advance, especially when it involved people arriving from different continents and multiple room bookings (Neil’s mum is joining us in a week – we’ll pick her up in Sonoma County), you can imagine that everything was planned and booked over 6 months ago. In fact, closer to 10 months ago… And there wasn’t much wiggle room in the timing of things which I realised when Rachael started asking me how I could come so close to her and not meet up… It just wasn’t going to be possible. So when I was was contacted by Klout and offered a free flight on Virgin America as part of their promotion celebrating Virgin’s expansion in to Canada, I jumped at the offer to cash in my Aeroplan ticket (hello France, summer 2011!) and book on Virgin, a day early which would give me ample time to meet Rachael.
Since I am choosing to write about this trip, I am obliged by the Klout Perks Disclosure Policy to tell you that “I was given a free product or sample because I’m a Klout influencer. I was under no obligation to receive the sample or talk about this company. I get no additional benefits for talking about the product or company.”
I was interested to experience Virgin America since I am normally loyal to Air Canada (I find it’s always best to just keep your frequent flier miles in one place and this loyalty has earned me reward flights to France, New York and New Orleans in the past year and Mexico coming up at Christmas!). In Toronto, Virgin are unfortunately stuck in the nasty Terminal 3 which doesn’t really gel with the Virgin vibe (lounge-cool, sleek and chic). On boarding the plane, however, you are surrounded by the “vibe” – it’s all purple and high-tech. My kinda plane:
On the screen you can do pretty much everything you would need to do on a plane, except go to the washroom! Watch a film, order some food or a drink (both for a cost), watch satellite TV (I lucked out with a Top Chef marathon!), listen to some music etc… Standard drinks – coffee, tea, water, soft drinks and juice are free, and there are also some “premium” drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) you can order too. The ordering process is dangerously easy – just choose what you want and swipe your credit card. Shortly after takeoff, I was set up with a coffee and breakfast:
Though it wasn’t really very good value for money ($7.50), with just one piece of each of the fruit they advertised to make it sound like a true bounty of large amounts of fruit and a granola package containing about 5 little “Granola Crunch’ers” (I have to point out here that this is possibly one of the most terrible uses of apostrophes I have ever seen) this was a good choice for a breakfast and I was pleased to see some fresh fruit and lighter choices included.
A word about the satellite TV – depending on where you are flying over, some of the channels don’t work. There was about 20 minutes when I only had access to Nickelodeon. During this time, I checked out some of the other options, including one called “Best of the Web” where I found this (excuse iPhone in turbulence photo):
My electrical outlet did not work and the flight attendants insisted that it sas because the power was “rolling” through the aircraft (i.e. you wouldn’t always have power available in your row), I wasn’t buying that. I mean, Air Canada managed to keep my seat powered the whole way to Australia last year. Despite two “resets” of my outlet, it still was not cooperating so I eventually asked the armrest hogging neighbour to let me plug into his outlet which he was kind enough to let me do (thus, removing some of his seatmate demerit points), which further proved my point that my electrical outlet was in fact, broken. The flight attendants did offer to let me plug in my laptop in First Class, however as I was not going to be able to join it, I put up with the minor inconvenience of plugging in next door.
Later on in the flight (it was going to San Francisco first making it a very long flight indeed), I got a bit peckish and ordered the $9 tapas plate and a $3 Illy iced coffee:
This was actually a pretty satisfying snack – lots of fresh veggies and some different cheeses with a couple of pieces of fruit. Highly recommend it if you can’t bring your own (I know from experience that had I tried to prepare a nice little snack box for myself and bring it with me, that I would have had to part ways with it in US Customs…)
All in all, this was a decent travel experience – the inflight Wifi (Klout had given us free vouchers for each of our flights) worked very well and I saw a bunch of people busting through piles of work. Or, you know, Tweeting, reading blog posts and researching their upcoming vacations (ahem!). Having that really did help pass the time and I managed to get a few loose ends tied up that eluded me the day before I left. Looking forward to my direct flight back from San Francisco already (well, not really but you know what I mean…).
(My rendez-vous with Rachael and her lovely daughters Squirrel and Bug had meanwhile, become an afternoon tea with the ladies when when Jenny and Josie, two of my other LA-area blog friends were able to join us – I was so excited!!)
Arriving in LAX and being in Rachael’s car less than 10 minutes later made up for the seemingly endless lines we Canadian travellers suffer outbound to the States – we pass through customs and immigration in Toronto so that when you arrive, you don’t have to. But between that and the security queues, they’re now recommending to arrive at the airport at the very latest 2 hours before your flight and 2.5 hrs to be safe. And most of the time, you arrive well in advance and only just reach your gate for boarding because the lines are so long. As I did not have any luggage to pick up (another “perk” (not) of the free flight – having to pay $25 even for the first bag which is standard on the cheapest fare type on Virgin – I made Neil bring mine the following day – he had a 2-bags free allowance on his reward ticket), I whizzed through the airport to be greeted by Rachael, her girls and Josie and her lovely son Joe.
Navigation device in hand, we headed to Jin Patisserie located in the exotic-sounding (at least to this born and bred Aussie!!) Venice Beach, suggested by Erika who unfortunately wasn’t able to join us
It’s funny, people who are not bloggers are always a little bit shocked when I tell them I am meeting bloggers I have never met in real life. But if you are a blogger and you read someone’s blog and they read yours, when you eventually meet up, it’s only awkward for a microsecond. You naturally fall into easy, familiar conversation because, well, you really do know a lot about these people, even if you have never met them before. We did pretty well the four of us (and Bug and Squirrel) at the getting along part and I really felt like I was meeting my oldest girlfriends for a regular get together. It’s a hard feeling to describe but it’s pretty special.
We were there for the afternoon tea ($19) which we all ended up ordering:
A gorgeously presented plate (complete with dappled sunlight!) of mini treats – scones with clotted cream and fig jam, egg salad sandwiches, peach mousse, quiche, pâte des fruits (pear flavour) and assorted petits fours:
I had a lot of help with mine from a certain Squirrel (she devoured the mousse, the pâte des fruits and one of my scones!) and it certainly got the thumbs up from everyone at the table. Whilst we ate, we chatted, laughed, took photos and were constantly amused by Rachael’s girls:
And so it came time to leave and the only strike against Jin’s fair name – the bill/check. Because we each had a discount voucher, it meant that they could accept no more than two credit cards for payment of the bill. Oh-kaaaay. Not sure about that but our server seemed very insistent. Thus ensued a VERY complicated mathematical incident, saved by the fabulous Jenny who just took control:
Mucho confusion and many “start overs” because some people (ahem!) kept on chatting to Jenny and she kept on losing her train of thought. Finally, she thought it was all under control, Rachael agreed to Paypal money to Jenny to cover her portion (she was cashless and had not had time to get to the ATM), and Jenny had figured our exactly what Josie and I owed down to the penny and written it down for the poor server (ummm, isn’t that her job??) and told her exactly what should go on which card. Tick tock tick tock… about 10 minutes later (perhaps more, in any case a completely unacceptable amount of time for running two cards through the machine), she emerged triumphant. As she walked away from the table, Josie and I discovered that she had in fact, charged the wrong amount to our cards. It was just so unbelievable it was funny. Thank goodness for Paypal, I say!
Despite this comedy of errors (at each turn, we were like “Could it GET any worse” at which point it did!), it was the most lovely afternoon with three ladies I wish I lived closer to and two little girls I would be happy to babysit if I did! And in what can only be described as a food blogger moment, when I went to get my bag from Rachael’s trunk, this is what I spotted:
Right – only a food blogger would have a baking tray and a Silpat in her trunk! Why on earth, you ask? Why because she was finishing up a batch of Fuji Nana’s Deadly Almond Toffee on the way to pick me up! As you do!
Which my family has been VERY much enjoying Thanks Rachael! Not to be outdone, Josie sent me away with a batch of her famous macarons.
Which I don’t have a picture of because it’s too darned hot to set them up for a photo shoot – they’re too delicate. Rest assuerd they have been enjoyed and will continue to be with some luck and a fridge in our room in Death Valley.
I was sad to say goodbye. But happy to have solidified these three friendships in real life!
The following day, my parents and I met Neil at LAX to pick up our rental car en route to Joshua Tree, via Lotería Grill at Farmers’ Market. Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that the last time we were in New York City, we planned a bunch of meals based on an episode of No Reservations. Well this time, we were inspired by The Best Thing I Ever Ate: Chocolate, where Duff Goldman named Lotería as his favourite place for a chocolate dish – the pollo en mole poblano, a dish that Neil loves! He insisted we seek out one of the locations to try the famous mole in something!
But first, we had to extract ourselves from the living hell that was the Hertz Rental office (note: when you reserve your car and checkin to your car online, this is no guarantee that you will not have to wait in a queue and then have to seek “special assistance”). We got to hear Neil utter the excellent line “Thanks J.R.” to the guy who eventually helped us out, insisting that if someone is wearing a nametag, they are asking for you to call them by their name. I guess you had to be there but it was a slightly hysterical moment.
With our excellent Google map directions (correct for once), we were in Farmers’ Market in no time (well, for LA, it was “no time”). Now, we could have spent a LOT of time here but since all of us were in various states of jetlag, pre-trip craziness catching up on us or just plain tired, it was a bit overwhelming so we mentally added it to the list for next time and headed straight for our target:
We sat outside, under the awnings and enjoyed some lovely fresh bites of authentic (read: not smothered in a ton of cheese) Mexican goodness:
Clockwise, from top left: Pollo en Mole Poblano (chicken in mole sauce served with sesame seeds, finely chopped onion and queso fresco), Cochinita Pibil (pork slowly roasted in banana leaf served with citrus pickled red onion and chile habanero), Pollo en Pipían Rojo (chicken in a spicy pumpkin-seed and peanut sauce) and Carne Deshebrada (shredded beef served with fresh guacamole, salsa chipotle and finely chopped onion with cilantro).
These were freshly prepared and served on tiny warm corn tortillas. The mole was a hit – sweet, spicy, smokey perfection – but really they were all pretty good! The menu is extensive and I would recommend if you go, take many friends so you can try a large variety of the dishes! Another great recommendation from a TV show!!!
Lotería Grill at Farmers’ Market
6333 West 3rd Street,
Los Angeles, California
Stay tuned – I have some regular posts scheduled next week and some road trip posts coming up soon!!!