I always feel slightly heartened when I hear of airlines increasing their flights and upgrading their services. And even more so when those airlines send that new capacity and those shiny new planes down to the southern tip of Africa.
Emirates has boosted its flights to southern Africa recently; Edelweiss Air is a new charter airline flying directly to Cape Town during the southern summer; Etihad may have dropped Cape Town, but has increased frequencies to Johannesburg and improved connections once you land in Abu Dhabi; Thai Airways has resumed flights... the list goes on.
What’s more, there are an incredible number of A380 superjumbos to be seen on the tarmac of OR Tambo International Airport nowadays, with the likes of Air France, Emirates and Lufthansa bringing their big birds to Africa.
And the next bit of good news is that British Airways is upping its schedule to offer a third service from Johannesburg to London. The new flight will operate three times a week, and that's in addition to its double-daily services, and flights out of Cape Town to Cape Town.
Happily, BA plans to use one of its brand spanking new Boeing 777-300ERs on the route. These new aircraft, the most-modern in the BA fleet, are also fitted with the airline’s revamped First class product. Perhaps of more interest to those of us not flying on expense accounts though, it will also offer the new World Traveller (economy) and World Traveller Plus (premium economy) cabins. New cabins means new seats, better entertainment and – hopefully – a more comfortable flight, so it’s good news all round on that front.
Interestingly, British Airways has also decided to operate this third daily frequency as a daylight flight, leaving Johannesburg in the morning and arriving at London Heathrow the same evening.
South Africans aren’t all that used to daylight flights to Europe – we have traditionally preferred an overnight, arriving bleary-eyed into a London rush-hour – so it’ll be interesting to see what the uptake is. I think you can expect BA to have some very good specials in the pipeline to encourage us to try out a daylight flight.
If you have more time than cash it can be a good way to travel though too. In essence, you simply spend a fairly relaxed day watching movies, catching up on reading, enjoying a meal or two and slowly easing into your holiday. You arrive in London that evening, head to your hotel, enjoy a decent meal, get a good night’s sleep and start your travels relatively refreshed. It’s obviously not for everyone, but if you’ve got a little time to spare it’s well worth considering.
Either way – overnight or daylight – more flights into and out of South Africa can only be a good thing for both local tourism and long-haul travellers. Star planning those trips now!
I’m a big fan of two things at the moment: great burgers - made with minced or chopped steak, a decent bun and a healthy portion of good fries on the side – and Bistro1682, the more casual of the two restaurants on Steenberg estate in the Constantia winelands.
The chef, Brad Ball, does an awesome range of bistro dishes that have an upmarket edge to them, yet retain their relaxed feel. No foams or mousses here, rather classic dishes done well with perhaps a tweak or two to add a modern touch.
Along with the well-priced wine list and chic interiors, it’s my restaurant of choice at the moment.
So when I was invited to sample Brad’s signature burger last Friday, let’s just say my chair was left spinning at the desk.
The Sunday Times Food section listed Brad’s ‘Steenburger’ as “one of the best hamburgers in the land,” and it’s not hard to see why. For starters, he only makes 10 per week, and they’re only available on Fridays. When they’re gone, they’re gone. So get there early.
The reason he only makes 10 is that there’s more to each burger than slapping some mince on a bun.
Eighty percent of the patty is made up of fillet steak (yup, that’s the expensive one) that’s been minced with pork fat. That’s the other 20 percent. While your arteries may scream in horror, it’s the fat that makes the burger extra succulent. That’s then slapped on a hot griddle and served up with fresh rocket, red onion, a tangy tomato ‘konfyt’. Oh, and did I mention the slab of goose liver on top?
Brad gets the goose liver from a local producer, and he swears that it’s not like imported foie gras. These livers are naturally enlarged and – supposedly – more ethically reared. I didn’t have a chance to grill Brad further, but I’ll do that next time.
Burger, a few greens, goose liver, and a tin of skinny fries on the side. Pair it with a 2009 Steenberg Nebbiolo and you have perhaps the finest way yet invented to enjoy a Friday lunch.
No surprise that the Steenburgers are often booked (and sold out) in advance. Even with a price tag of R105.
“I am a huge fan of burgers, and I have really gone out in search of the perfect specimen,” says Brad. “When I had a hard time finding what I would call the ‘ideal’ hamburger I set out trying to create it myself, and that’s all there is to it!”
Is this the perfect hamburger? Quite possibly, although a little touch of flame-griddled crust wouldn’t go amiss. But that’s just nit-picking really. It’s far and away the tastiest burger I’ve had in the city.
It looks like burgers are the new foodie battleground though, so I’ll have to go and see if Clarke’s or the (oddly-named) Dog’s Bollocks can measure up. Watch this space.
Pisa leans on tourist tat
Wherever I happen to go wandering in the world, I always find it fascinating to see what souvenirs are on offer. Apart from an unhealthy fascination with the tacky, you can tell a lot about your proximity to the tourist-hordes by the things you see for sale. Oxford Street mugs? Turn and run. Knock-off Yankees caps fluttering in the wind? You won’t see the Manhattan canyons for the Mid-Western package tourists.
Souvenir shopping is obviously a matter of highly subjective taste, but it really is incredible to see some of the rubbish out there that people will pay good money for. Bits of singing plastic, religious icons, bawdy jokes on cheap mugs.. the list goes on.
The one dependable is the ubiquitous 'I (heart) London' /Tokyo/New York T-shirts. They’re everywhere, and to my mind are the souvenir equivalent of watching paint dry – boring, uninspired and the mark of a tourist with no imagination. And please, if you decide to buy one, don’t do like so many tourists I saw in New York, and wear your 'I (heart) New York' shirt while you’re still in the Big Apple? Please?
But I have another reason for a heightened interest in tacky souvenirs. For years now my brother and I have had a competition of sorts, and it goes a little something like this.
Wherever we travel in the world, we have to buy a souvenir for the other. To briefly wear the souvenir-shopping yellow jersey, it has to be a souvenir so tacky – so devoid of artistic merit or plausible good taste – that it tips the scales into becoming so ugly it’s beautiful.
It’s a hard ask, let me tell you, and countless hours have been spent scouring tourist markets for the ugliest possible souvenirs. Of course I’m shopping with my tongue firmly in cheek, so it’s always entertaining to see those travellers earnestly discussing the merits of a snow-globe with the Eiffel Tower versus one of those over-sized pencils evidently made to be used by giants.
All of which means that we each have a respectable pile of glossy plastic tourist-tat sitting atop bookshelves and desks... gaudy reminders of places we haven’t visited. A clock (not working) set in a plastic diorama of the Greek island of Rhodes; a dashboard Ganesha deity (9V battery not included); a toothpick holder in the shape of the Kuala Lumpur Petronas Towers, a Venetian gondola trimmed in shiny silver plastic; nesting dolls of an Arabic family... the list goes on. As does the competition.
So I was saddened to read this week that the Italian town of Pisa is cracking down on the high-art of tacky souvenirs. Our competition started only after I last visited the city of the Leaning Tower, but it means my chances of upping the ante with some suggestive underwear now appears lost forever. Perhaps an 'I (heart) Pisa' shirt will have to do.
A month or two back I was asked to be part of a profile piece in Fresh Living magazine on people who travel a lot for a living. I was happy to do the short interview, but the photo-shoot certainly taught me a few lessons about being on the other side of the camera! It's out in the July issue, if you're interested, but this is what it had to say...
Born-and-bred Capetonian Richard spent a decade meandering between Rhodes University, Joburg and London, until he settled back in Cape Town.
When did the travel bug first bite? In my first year of varsity I cajoled a few friends into a VW Caddie and we set off for Mozambique. Since then I’ve always had a suitcase within arm’s reach, and my camera and Moleskine at the ready.
What are your stand-out travel experiences? Being mesmerised by the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. Who’d have thought watching ice melt could be so exciting! Cruising the Beagle Channel off Ushuaia, Antarctica (the southernmost town in the world) in search of orcas was cool, too.
What’s your favourite destination in SA? The Cederberg. There isn’t much to beat sitting on the stoep of the Sleepad hut, deep in the mountains, sipping single-malt whisky out of a tin mug. Back-to-basics bliss.
Your top travel tip? Scan your passport and email it to a web-based email account. You might need it unexpectedly.
I took a whirlwind trip to Switzerland to check out the new SWISS cabins (outstanding) and spent some time on the (unfailingly punctual) railways. The flipside of a whirlwind intercontinental trip is that you also end up spending a lot of time in airports. Cape Town, Johannesburg, Zurich... then repeat in reverse.
Along the way I was reading a fascinating – and fitting – book on my Kindle: ‘A week at the airport’, by Alain de Botton.
This erudite author/philosopher spent a week at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (recently expanded, if you read below) and the book is a collection of his observations, anecdotes and musings. It’s fascinating reading, especially when you find yourself as one of the thousands of nomads roaming the endless corridors of the world’s airports.
Perhaps the first thing we do when strolling through the automatic doors is to look up at the destination board of departing flights, and I just loved what de Botton had to say about the promise of adventure they hold: “The lack of detail about the destinations serves only to stir unfocused images of nostalgia and longing: Tel Aviv, Tripoli, Miami, Muscat via Abu Dhabi, Grandy Cayman via Nassau... all of these promises of alternative lives, to which we might appeal at moments of claustrophobia and stagnation”
That ‘alternative life’, the chance to be someone completely different – or equally, yourself without the labels of home – is for me one of the real joys of travelling. And anybody with itchy feet will know well that sense of stagnation, and the need to head off into the wild blue yonder.
But as much time as I spend on the proverbial road, there’s always a longing – an excitement – at the thought of returning home. The return to the familiar, the loved ones, the favourite chair, the coffee brewed the way I like to make it. All of those things draw us home eventually, but – as Alain rightly notes – it is to a changed place: “Home all at once seems the strangest of destinations, its every detail relativised by the other lands one has visited.”
But for me – and perhaps you - after awhile, that sense of familiar begins to worsen the itch. We forget the queues of tourists, the in-flight meals, the jetlag, the lost luggage and rip-off taxi drivers. We happily slip on our rose-tinted glasses and “gradually return to identifying happiness with elsewhere.”
I know I am guilty of that, no doubt. A nagging urge to get on the road again – “we recover an appetite for packing, hoping and screaming” - yet once on the road there’s again a sense of quiet excitement at returning home.
Perhaps it’s just my restless feet, but if you need to calm your mind on the next long-haul flight to somewhere far-off and exotic, you’d do well to ponder your place in the world’s planes with a page through ‘A week at the airport’.