|Travelogue: November in San Antonio||
Big Bird goes to Denver
We picked up Kevin and Lara at noon so that we could have a traditional lunch at Applebee’s before the 2:40 flight to Denver en route to San Antonio. We all crammed into Hunnybear’s Nissan Altima and fought through heavy lunch-hour traffic at Southcenter to get there. When we arrived, we were told by the hostess that there would be a five-to-ten minute wait, and then she asked if that would be OK. I said “no.” I don’t think she had ever heard that answer before. I explained that we had to catch a flight. I looked around and saw one large table in the corner and asked about it. That table, we were told, is reserved for parties of seven or more. Oh. So we wait five to ten minutes, then the manager comes, looks at us, and seats us as—you guessed it—the large table in the corner. “You’ll have lots of room to spread out,” he boasted.
We finished lunch and drove over the San Francisco-like hill to the airport. I love doing that. The car always feels like it’s about to flip over backwards. MasterPark, as always, is a delight, and this time I’ve remembered to ask Hunnybear to print out a coupon from their Internet site, http://www.masterparking.com/ so we can get the $9.75 rate instead of the usual $12.95. Plus Alaska Miles! As usual, they load and unload all our luggage. Delightful.
I shepherd Kevin and Lara into the 1K line, where one of my favorite agents, Susan, greets us. Hunnybear and I have already confirmed a business-class upgrade on this 747, but what to my wondering eyes should appear but a pair of boarding passes labeled 4A and 4B! Now I may only have flown 96,000 miles this year, but I know that 4A and 4B are not in business class on a 747. So I ask if there’s been a change of equipment. She says it’s a 747. Yes! The vaunted double-upgrade! Now comes the amazing treatment. She can’t find seats together for Kevin and Lara, so she phones the gate and asks if she can give them an operational upgrade into business! No problem. We are very appreciative.
We hit the Red Carpet club briefly, then proceed on board. Boy do I love turning left. This big bird has 36 FC seats, and the rest of the cabin is divided about equally into coach and business. Upstairs is also business. This is by far the easiest place to get an operational upgrade on, since they sell far more coach seats than exist. Today’s flight was completely full, and we sipped champagne as we looked over our shoulder to see passengers trickle in for quite some time. Seattle has no facility to board from two jetways simultaneously, so boarding takes quite a while. We have the old seats—no massage, no personal video, no noise-reducing headsets, but they do have the electric footrests although the recline is manual. As always, the crew is totally delighted to be flying the jumbo jet, so they’re all glowing and smiling, and I just know we’re going to have a great flight. We tell Kevin and Lara we’ll be up front having our pedicure.
We have the projection TV on this flight, which I like. On the flight I took last month from ORD-SFO, they had the newest bestest seats with personal VCRs, and they didn’t even bother to show the main feature on the big screen in FC. That’s too bad, because I like that big screen. It’s kind of nice for Kevin and Lara that they still have something to look forward to. Lara’s face lit up when I told here that there were massage seats…
The closet opened on takeoff, as almost always happens on 747s. As always the landing gear made a tremendous noise here in the nose of the 747, which can be unsettling if you’re not expecting it. First-class and business-class service are almost identical on this two-hour flight, the only difference being a Mrs. Fields cookie versus a pack of Pepperidge Farm Milanos and a hot towel in FC. No nuts, just a pretzel/cheese cracker mix. Fortunately Hunnybear and I have our own private stash of nuts filched from airport lounges around the world. The snack was a choice of chicken-salad trio or prosciutto ham sandwich. We both ordered the chicken, then watched as FA Ann Marie painstakingly set a crisscross pattern of tiny tablecloths across the large console in the middle of FC. It reminded me of those carnival games where you have to cover a spot with five metal disks. Neither one is easy.
Before Friends began, they showed a short film reassuring everyone that planes would not fall from the sky because of any Y2K issues. Nice touch. We have nothing to panic about but panic itself. The wine was once again the excellent Louis Martini cabernet or the Calterra chardonnay. The chicken salad was very healthy—big chunks of chicken accompanied by sautéed vegetables and an unfortunate choice of bulgar wheat for the starch. It looked like paper pulp and tasted like Play-Doh. Hunnybear got a chocolate-chip Mrs. Fields cookie and I received an oatmeal one. We switched of course.
First class on a 747 is the ultimate in domestic travel. While this short flight did not have all the amenities, such as special crystal and china, I’ll take this any time over the Shuttle.
We landed in Denver about 10 minutes late, leaving a half-hour until our flight to SAT left. I quickly downloaded my email in the RCC West, telling the ladies at the foot of the escalators in a hushed voice that while my flight left from the East, I was coming to their RCC because it was the better of the two. I winked conspiratorially, then bounced up the escalator and did the email exchange in record time.
I arrived at gate B45 in the midst of boarding. Kevin and Lara each had a middle seat in the exit row, so I suggested that they swap one of them for a window in row 24, thinking that it would be easier to get someone in the middle seat of row 24 to switch than to get someone with a window or aisle to take a middle. We ended up moving four people around, but finally got them seats together in row 24. Hunnybear and I sat in seats 1A and B.
Service on the 90-minute flight to San Antonio was exemplary. Since we boarded late, we missed the ceremonial smashing of the ice by the first flight attendant; however, we had a rare tandem safety announcement. One stewardess had a coughing fit in the middle of explaining the seat belts, so she seamlessly switched with the second-string quarterback in mid-announcement. It was done so smoothly that I don’t think anyone in coach noticed. Preflight drinks and coat-hanging service were offered the moment we stepped aboard, followed by an incredible choice of mixed grill (filet, chicken sausage, and lamb chop) and citrus salmon for dinner! I thought we’d get a chicken Caesar salad! I think it’s just that we’re flying at the dinner hour, but that is really amazing food service for a short flight. Hunnybear and I each ordered a glass of sparkling mineral water with lime, and toasted the Queen. Dessert was the patented United Airlines tricolor neon cheesecake. There’s a kind of Creamsicle orange on the bottom, a thin stripe of raspberry, and a chartreuse on the top, the color of green tennis balls. The mixed grill came with a very nice risotto. The beef was overdone, unfortunately, as is almost always the case.
After a hot-towel service the temperature of the surface of the sun, we touched down about 10 minutes early. Then the dream ended.
The nightmare begins
They lost our luggage. All four pieces. The agent says it’s in Denver, and the next flight doesn’t get in until 3:30 tomorrow afternoon! We ask them to deliver the bags to the Westin Riverwalk and proceed to the Hertz van. In a kind of surreal reversal, the driver announces that I, the Hertz #1 Gold member, will be dropped at the #1 Gold booth, while all the other passengers will be taken directly to their cars. I don’t think they quite get the concept of #1 Gold here. Anyway, we get to the kiosk and my name appears twice. Both cars are completely at the other end of the row and both are Ford Tauruses with Neverlost. We pick the dirty blue one over the dirty red one.
The Neverlost doesn’t know about the Westin Riverwalk, open less than a week, and so we enter the address. Unfortunately, the confirmation from Westin says 420 Market St. and Neverlost offers a choice of E. Market and W. Market. We choose wrong, but that gives us a chance to have more fun with Neverlost. It takes us around the block through a traffic jam, but eventually gets us there.
We are shocked to find that this hotel is still under construction. Scaffolding surrounds the building, which has brick facing installed only halfway up the walls and construction dust everywhere. The interior is beautiful, and the staff bends over backwards to help. Michelle, the front-desk manager, gives us the best rooms they have, which are only on the sixth floor because the top nine floors aren’t open yet! Hunnybear and I get a room with two balconies and a pocket-sized river view but mostly a view of the pool, which is still under construction. It’s a corner room, but there are windows on only one wall, which we find curious. The marble bathroom is enormous with a giant bath and separate shower. The bed is very nice and supposedly Heavenly, but not as great as either the one at La Cantera or the W Seattle. It has a polyester duvet instead of the beautiful white comforter at La Cantera.
We call down to see if we can get some toiletries to tide us over until our luggage arrives. They bring toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, and shaving cream, and insist on sending someone out to purchase contact-lens solution for us. Wow.
We walk along the river looking for a place still serving food at a quarter to midnight and settle upon a place I had heard was good, Boudro’s. We get a table overlooking the paseo and the river and settle in with a round of margaritas (I have my dry Herradura, the rest have the frozen prickly-pear special). This place, this Riverwalk, is magical. It’s not like any place I’ve ever seen. If I had to compare it, the closest thing that comes to mind is Disneyland. Sitting looking at a hundred-year-old tree towering over us, watching people who just walk around—they paseo—that’s what they do! We have a terrific waiter named Charles, a soft-spoken young man reminiscent of a head-shaven Robert DiNiro. We had six or seven rounds of margaritas and ordered everything Charles recommended including the ice-cream balls for dessert. It was fabulous.
When we return through the construction dust to the Westin, we find the contact-lens solution waiting for us. They brought up extra towels for us. The same guy, Chris, seems to be doing all the actual work. We gave him lots of tips.
A new day
We are awakened at six a.m. by the alarm clock, then again at 7:30 by construction noise from the pool below. Grr. Later we found that Kevin and Lara’s alarm clock also went off at 6! Since Michelle told us we were the first ones to sleep in these rooms, somebody installed these clocks turned on!
We had lunch at Rio Rio on the Riverwalk. Good chicken mole and a super pitcher of frozen Herradura margaritas. Then we visited the Alamo, where some guy named Crockett apparently had a battle, and then we strolled over to the Tower of the Americas, San Antonio’s copy of the Space Needle. It was only $3 to go up, so we did.
Texas is flat.
The Tower is in a park surrounded by beautiful waterfalls. We sat on a bench for awhile looking at the sunlight sparkle in the water, then we headed back to the hotel for a rest and to wait for the baggage. E.T.A.: 8 p.m.
My baggage reaches 1K before me
Well, 8 p.m. came and went but no bags. I called the 1K hotline and asked for the baggage department. Once again I explain that I am Mr. Lion, but the bags are checked under Miss Hunnybear. The agent quickly brings up the record on her computer, then sits in shocked silence. After a while, she speaks. I hear the names of several places: Orange County, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin. Continental Airlines. I hold. Apparently no one at Continental will answer the phone. She thinks the bags are still in Austin (how did they get there?). The earliest they will arrive is 10 p.m.
While I have her on the line, I ask what the procedure is for getting reimbursement of our out-of-pocket expenses. I had told the agent on the previous phone call that afternoon that we had spent a total of $350 among the four of us to buy some inexpensive clothes to wear. United’s policy is to reimburse for 50% of that, which sounded very reasonable to me. She offered to send me $150 and Kevin and Lara $100. I got a little more because I’m 1K, she said. Beaten but not broken, we pop the cork on a bottle of Louis Martini cabernet sauvignon and toast the health of our bags.
Dinner tonight is at my favorite San Antonio restaurant thus far, Little Rhein Steak House. In August, we ate inside, but tonight we had a large table overlooking the river. Once again the food and service were superb. Three of us had Caesar salad and peppercorn-crusted filet mignon, and Kevin had a Roquefort tomato salad and Norwegian salmon. Asparagus and mushrooms completed the entrée.
There’s nothing like walking along the river after a fine meal. Back at the hotel, we popped into the cozy little bar they have set up next to the stairway closed for construction and had a nightcap. Walls are paneled mahogany and pictures of horses cover the walls. They make some kind of pineapple-Midori margarita there that is just phenomenal. Sipping it, I called the 1K desk back to ask about my luggage. This time, before transferring me to the baggage department, the agent grilled me for my 1K number and all kinds of details before transferring me. I suppose they have a problem with cranks calling the 1K line in the middle of the night, trying to get preferential baggage service.
The agent this time, Mel, tells me that he thinks the bags are in San Antonio but he’s not sure. The United agent is going to walk over to Continental and try to claim them. He will call back in 35 minutes with an update. Cool. We have another round of pineapple-Midori margaritas. It’s amazing how little having your baggage matters when you’re sipping margaritas in a brand-new horse bar overlooking the closed-for-construction staircase. When he calls back, right one time, he says the bags are in San Antonio! They will be delivered during the night.
Tomorrow we are planning a day trip to Austin, so we hope the bags will be available when we get up. We give Ed, the Service Express agent (formerly bellhop), the heads-up and he promises to flip our message light on when the bags arrive. We awaken the next morning to the sounds of construction at 8:30 and sure enough our lights are on. I press the message button and hear five messages left over from the previous occupant of this room (and they told us we were the first!) but nothing about bags. So I call Service Express and ask to have the bags brought up. She takes a message, and a few minutes later we get a call back. They are confused about the names. I explain to bring the bags for Lion and Hunnybear up, but leave the other two. A few minutes later there is a knock on the door. I answer in my La Cantera bathrobe. The bags!
I inspect the barcode labels. The original one was indeed destined for SAT, so who knows how it went astray. But there is another tag for Continental, marked “rush,” and routed to SAT via Houston! I guess there are no nonstop flights from AUS-SAT. The kicker was that the name on the new tag was “Flemosbberhansen”! Poor Mr. Flemosbberhansen’s bags are probably still flying endlessly around the system like Charlie on the MTA.
Lost in Austin
We popped over to Starbucks to drug ourselves for the 73-mile drive to Austin. It’s a straight shot, all freeway. When we arrived, we asked Neverlost for the closest restaurant and found ourselves at a Schotzky’s Deli, a chain of fast-food delis that I hadn’t tried before. It was OK. My Reuben had homemade discus-shaped individual loaves of bread surrounding unremarkable corned beef. Next we asked Neverlost what the local attractions were. We decided to pass on the state capitol and instead went to the Austin Zoo. It’s a medium-sized zoo with a very nice selection of well cared-for animals, including two big male lions(!) and my favorite, the capybara. If you’ve never seen a capybara, it’s a hamster the size of a pig. I can never decide if they’re cute or revolting.
After the zoo, Neverlost took us to the Bats of the Bridge. We sat on a grassy knoll with a hundred other bat watchers waiting for the million bats who live under the Congress St. Bridge to wake up and fly from their roosts at dusk. Well, unfortunately the bats had already left for Mexico, because we only saw about three bats instead of a million. The sign said the bats only hang around till mid-November, so I guess we just missed them. On the other hand, the sign also said that this was one of America’s most popular tourist attractions, so I’m not sure how much it can be believed. We sat for 45 minutes or so watching a guy who looked a bit like Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club use his Boston Terrier to flirt with all the cute girls in the park.
We had hoped to have dinner at Sullivan’s. The Austin branch of this steakhouse chain has an adjoining jazz club where I once saw a fabulous quartet and ate their signature mint baked Alaska. Alas, it was closed Sundays. So we hopped across the street (without the aid of Neverlost) and had a great meal at Gilligan’s. Three of us had the Tuna Mignon, a seared rare tuna filet that was just incredible. Margaritas were the “Hairy Dog,” made with Herradura and Cointreau.
We strolled up and down Sixth St., which was pretty dead on a Sunday night, then headed back to San Antonio for a nightcap at the horse bar in the Westin. The construction dust flew as I pulled up to the valet parking. Our friendly waitress Sonia was just leaving, so the bartender Richard took care of us. We ordered four of the special margaritas, which turned out to be pineapple-mango-Cointreau, not Midori as previously thought. He approached the table and said he had miscalculated on the quantity, so we had a little extra. He brought us about one and three-quarters margaritas each. So I miscalculated on the tip and left him about 25%.
The return home
We woke up at 5 (3 Seattle time) and set the Neverlost for the nearest gas station. It took us to a deserted lot halfway across town. So we decided to head for the airport instead. Once there, we again set Neverlost for the nearest station, and it found a Texaco a mile away. We filled up, returned to Hertz, and were at the checkin counter with plenty of time to spare. I gathered a stack of IDs and Mileage Plus cards and handed them to the First Class/Premier agent. She took the and spread them out on the counter like a blackjack dealer. Then she asked me a question I’ve never heard before: “Are any of you under 18.” I looked back and asked Hunnybear if she was under 18. She said no. The agent then proceeded to check us in. I couldn’t stand it. I had to ask.
“So that question about us being under 18…? What was…that about…?” I asked. “Well,” she said,” I don’t have to check photo IDs of anyone under 18.” The thought that immediately comes to mind is, what if we had said we were all under 18? Would she have to check IDs to see if we were under 18 and therefore she didn’t have to check ID?
Anyway, First Class was sold, so there was no way to upgrade Kevin and Lara on this 727 to Denver. Hunnybear and I sat in seats 1A and B. The purser on this flight, Geraldo Domingo, was just terrific. We had an extremely attentive preflight drink service and even the vaunted pre-flight hot towel, something usually seen only on international service, unheard of on domestic flight and certainly on a 90-minute short hop from San Antonio to Denver! He said he had done international for eight years.
One big disappointment marred this otherwise wonderful flight. Seat 1B had a gaping hole where the recline button was supposed to be. I’m a guy who likes to recline (lions spend 18 hours a day reclining). What I find upsetting is that United clearly knew the seat was broken (because of the gaping hole) but sold it anyway. I’ve fired off an email to Dave United, Jr., telling him just what I think about that. I’ll expect a seat-recline button shipped to me by Federal Express.
Again we were treated to a superior meal service on this short flight. Breakfast was a choice of fruit and cereal or a hot sampler. HB and I took the sampler, which turned out to have a fabulous French toast with cinnamon-apple sauce and a decent egg-potato dish with a slice of ham. It was a bit high-carb for our taste, but very good.
We landed at DEN on time but our gate was briefly occupied, so we taxied very slowly through the SNOW! It’s the first snow I’ve seen in quite some time, so I’m excited. Upon arrival I had a few minutes to download email at the RCC East, where they kindly allowed my entire entourage up. Kevin, Lara, and Hunnybear sat at a very nice window table watching planes and snow while I attempted to break through the busy circuits to reach AT&T Global Network. Finally I succeeded in using the toll-free number. That complete, we headed down to B46 to catch flight 875 to Seattle. This is the same flight number, although not the same aircraft, that goes on to Tokyo and Bangkok (it becomes a 777).
They were giving the final boarding call as we arrived 20 minutes before flight time, and I once again asked about upgrading Kevin & Lara. Full again. But wait! Incredibly, after HB and I had boarded, the gate agent followed us on and said there was a seat available and did I want to upgrade one person? I was very grateful for the service, but declined. But moments later he returned, saying there were actually two empties! I gave him Kevin and Lara’s names and 2000 miles in certs and presto! Kevin and Lara were upgraded. Thanks, Gerry Boyer!
I started to hang up our jackets myself, knowing that the 2 stewardesses in FC on the 757 had a lot to do before takeoff. But one of them insisted that she do it, so I gracefully yielded. As we were boarding, Lara found a copy of the same Harry Potter book she had inadvertently left on the 747 en route to Denver! It’s a pretty good coincidence, even if it is the world’s best-selling book right now. I wonder how many copies are floating through the UA system right now.
We taxied over to the de-icing area and watched the War-of-the-Worlds-like spraying machines clear us of snow before takeoff. We did a full-power runup, I guess because of the icy conditions, and took off like a shot. The video on the flight began once again with the Y2K message from United, then continued with “It’s Like…You Know” and a nice short on toys from The Learning Channel. Our second breakfast of the day was even better than the first, with a mini-quiche, a wedge of bread pudding, sausage, ham, and fruit.
We landed hard, probably an autopilot landing due to low overcast, and quickly got to our gate. When we reached baggage claim I immediately went over to the problem desk, just to get in line in case our bags didn’t show up again. But they did, although the first-class neon tags were ignored as usual. MasterPark arrived seconds after I called them and the car, as always was waiting with the trunk open.
The drawback to the secret freeway that goes from the airport to our apartment is the drawbridge. We got to be first in line for the 6-minute show, but for some reason I never actually see a boat go through. I think the mast must be one inch higher than the bridge, so they need to raise it but I never see it. I dropped Hunnybear off at work, and Kevin and Lara off at their places, and we all agreed it was a fabulous weekend.
© 1999, Richard Brodie
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