Big carriers’ executives should fly back in time with Caribbean Airlines

Surprisingly good service in economy class comes as a blast from the past

Don't let the armrest ashtrays spook you. There's no smoking on Caribbean Airlines flights, just surprisingly good economy class service reminiscent of an era when you could light up.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Ashtrays in the armrests? That’s a tad unsettling in 2012.

Sure, Boeing still manufactures the venerable 737-800, but this was clearly a high-mileage model. So, as a travel writer mostly used to big North American carriers, I figured I better take notes on my first  Caribbean Airlines adventure.

What a surprise I got.

Before leaving for the airport, I double-checked that my Toronto-Trinidad and Trinidad-Guyana flights hadn’t been delayed. Maybe I was thinking of the old “island time” cliché, even though I’ve been to Caribbean countries often enough to know that’s increasingly an unfair stereotype.

So I didn’t consider it unusual that Caribbean took off right on time, even as would-be Air Canada travelers were suffering the effects of a pilots’ “sickout.”

However, once we were airborne, strange things started to happen.

Clearly we weren’t merely flying to Port of Spain in a jet whose interior evoked the feel of a pre-Internet world or the last days of the Cold War. We’d actually gone back in time to a civilized era in air travel.

There was leg room in economy and a flight attendant (dare I call her a stewardess) offered free ear-buds for the movie. The in-flight magazine, Caribbean Beat, had several stories worth reading from start to finish.

Then they fed us dinner, honest. No charge.

Haute cuisine? No, not by a long stretch. But it was a reasonably pleasant chicken and rice dish that hit the spot. It even came with dessert, a bag of plantain chips and a small Kit Kat bar.

Blankets and plllows? No charge. Beer? Four bucks a can.

The flight attendants were attentive and friendly, maybe because they weren’t obligated to sell duty-free stuff to passengers and process credit-card transactions. Crew announcements didn’t seem to come from the usual, cloying PR scripts.

Trinidad-based Caribbean Airlines was officially incorporated in 2006. The company, which also operates Air Jamaica as a sister brand, is a descendant of BWIA, formerly British West Indian Airways. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, the safety record is quite good.

So far, after four flights (two legs each way for a recent Caribbean Tourism Organization conference in Georgetown, Guyana) all departed on time and one even arrived quite early due to a tailwind. Nobody has lost my luggage.

The journalist’s quest for quibbles had to settle for:

- Engine noise drowned out the captain’s announcements on one flight.

- The entertainment system is little more than a few small overhead screens and one channel. Caribbean Essence, the in-house production, has an irritatingly promotional feel and on the Georgetown-Port of Spain flight, everyone in the cabin had to listen. The guy next to me, trying to read a book, was also unhappy about the show.

- The garish green upholstery in some planes reminded me of cushions in the student lounge at university back in the early 1980s.

Anyway, I’ll fly Caribbean again soon for a trip both to Grenada and back in time.

It would be nice if the executives of the big North American carriers came along to see how they once brought a little class to economy class.

 

In Seattle, coffee is a form of art

Something’s brewing in the markets and the bars and even atop the Space Needle, and it’s not your average Joe

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star’s travel section on February 4, 2010. Prices will undoubtedly be a little out of date. The Chocolate Box’s wine bar has since opened, too.

Jackie McCallum shows Cindy Strohmier how to pour a latte at Caffe D'Arte on the Savor Seattle coffee and chocolate tour.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

SEATTLE – “Listen, this is important. Before we pour, you have to be sure the foam and the espresso are the same consistency, ” Jackie McCallum says. “They both have to be silky smooth.”

McCallum is jovial and patient as she shows Cindy Strohmier of Duvall, Wash., how to make a heart-shaped pattern atop a latte at Caffe D’Arte, but there’s a hint of an intensity that might serve her well at an international barista competition she plans to enter next fall.

“Let’s face it, I’m a coffee nerd, ” McCallum says after a demonstration for a caffeine culture walking tour in central Seattle.

A coffee nerd? Well, at least in Seattle, McCallum won’t be lonely.

The Pike Public Market on the waterfront is said to be the clear No. 1 tourist attraction in Washington state, but caffeinated creativity seems to infuse everything about this area. And it goes much deeper than the fact that this city is where the global Starbucks empire (including its Seattle’s Best division) got started.

The Sky City restaurant at the Space Needle, a lasting symbol of the 1962 World’s Fair, has shaken off its “Denny’s in the Sky” reputation with an acclaimed and popular new local menu that includes braised short ribs that have been marinated in coffee for 24 hours.

Go into Oliver’s at the Mayflower Hotel and bartender Patrick Donnelly will insist you try his trademark cocktail, an espresso-based concoction called the Seattle Flatliner.

Big with customers of the Cheese Cellar at Fisher Plaza near the Space Needle and at Beecher’s near the public market is something called Barely Buzz, a hand-rubbed coffee-and-lavender-flavoured creation that took the American Cheese Society’s top honours in 2007 and 2008.

“It’s actually made in Idaho, ” says Dennis Nelson of the Cheese Cellar, “but a lot of its popularity stems from Seattle. It’s a perfect fit here.”

There’s also a long list of confectioners and dessert places that work with coffee. The Chocolate Box, which doesn’t make its own products but selects and markets what it considers the best of the Seattle area, will soon open a bar dedicated to matching wines with chocolate and coffee-based foods.

Despite all the caffeine, Seattle drivers seem unusually patient and courteous. The coffee shops also seem to be friendly places where strangers are more than willing to engage you in conversation.

One morning at Seattle Coffee Works, near the market, upon learning a Canadian was present, a group of sports fans wanted to know about the chances NHL hockey might replace the departed NBA team.

Twenty-four hours later, in a Tully’s (a Seattle-based coffee chain that hasn’t expanded beyond the West Coast) there’s intense discussion among people reading newspaper coverage of a decision by big local employer Boeing to shift much of its 787 Dreamliner production to South Carolina.

There’s anger, but also expressions of confidence that creativity and coffee will deliver new jobs and wealth.

“New inventions will create new work. You’ll build on the fact that this is Microsoft town, Starbucks town, ” says Barrett Young, a software designer and “caffeine junkie” visiting from Los Angeles “for business and pleasure.”

Young tells a tale about Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz discovering a great cup of coffee in New York made using something called a Clover machine.

Upon returning to Seattle, Schultz apparently told an assistant to learn everything about Clover technology and arrange a flight so he could check it out first-hand.

“Turns out, he didn’t need a flight, ” Young says. “They could get over to Clover (in Seattle’s Ballard neighbourhood) by cab. There’s lots going on in this town, but a lot of it revolves around high tech and good coffee.”

Starbucks has since bought the fledgling Clover operation and is rolling out the new machines in various locations.

Caroline Hinchliff, who guides a coffee and chocolate tour for an outfit called Savor Seattle, tells a similar version of the Clover story. Hinchliff is passionate about coffee and big on her city’s history and its role in pop culture.

“It’s a shame, but there is no Cafe Nervosa, ” Hinchliff says of the spot where the Crane brothers would have meet in the TV sitcom, Frasier. “For Niles, it was ‘grande half-caf latte with a whisper of cinnamon, ‘” she tells a group of eight from Boston, Mississippi, Alaska, Toronto, northern California and locals from the Puget Sound area.

Hinchliff says there’s no consensus on how coffee became so deeply rooted in Seattle’s culture.

“Some say it’s because we have so many Scandinavians, ” she says. “They can’t get enough coffee in Finland and Sweden. Some people attribute it to the amount of rain we get – the need for a pickup with the lack of sunshine.”

She has a picture of a Filipino coffee-bean stall at the market from more than a century ago, but says that as late as the 1970s, it was the lack of good coffee in Seattle that inspired a trio of locals to found what we now know as Starbucks.

As for the future, she says she’s certain there are lots of new ideas and ventures in the works, pointing to Seattle Coffee Works, a collaboration of local roasters, and to small independent shops, which are everywhere throughout Seattle’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods.

“We have people coming from all around the world for coffee,” she says. “I can’t be totally certain about the past, but I’m sure there’s a great future.”

As for the present, Seattle is a fun city and a great place to grab a cup.

JUST THE FACTS

  • Do one of the coffee tours. If you’re going to be in town a few days, take the Savor Seattle one at the start of your trip. At $69 (U.S.) it may seem expensive, but with the samples, the trip on the monorail and up the Space Needle, as well as the long list of places where associated discounts are good for up to 10 days, it can be a deal.
  • The Warwick Hotel is in a handy part of town, walking distance for most of the central city. It’s certainly not five-star, but it was a clean, reasonably priced and the staff were friendly and helpful.
  • The light rail line linking downtown with the SeaTac airport will make Torontonians envious, even after we get our Pearson-Union service operational. Despite providing lots of stops along the way, it’s fast and inexpensive — $2.50.
  • The city transit system provides very good bus service for an American city. Service in the core is free between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. The downtown transit tunnel that brings light rail and buses together is an innovation that more cities should look into.