Photo of the day – Flying Mariachi band

photo of the day
Last week, Virgin America launched new flights from San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. What better way to get into the espíritu than with a Mariachi band? Frommers editor and Flickr user DavityDave was on board to get this shot and taste some Mexican goodies. We wonder if the band had to purchase an additional seat for their guitars or if they could just fit them in the overhead bin. Did they perform the safety demo too?

Have you ever flown on an inaugural flight? Seen anything else fun on a plane? Add your best shots to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use it for a future Photo of the Day.

Virgin America lets loose in Cancún

Virgin America Cancun Launch

Virgin America just can’t sit still these days. In the past two months, they’ve launched service to Dallas/Forth Worth (and added frequency from both LAX & SFO), placed an impressive order for 60 new A320’s (to be delivered starting in 2013), said adiós to Toronto for the time being, and launched service to two cities in Mexico; Los Cabos and now, Cancún.

Everything about Cancún seems like a good fit for the airline. It’s sunny. It’s flashy. It’s exotic. It attracts a young crowd and has high seasonal traffic with a significant need for competitive nonstop options from the West Coast.

But Cancún is a destination that has a way of polarizing travelers. For most Americans born after 1975, it’s notoriously synonymous with Spring Break, loud nightclubs, and excessive resorts as far as the eye can see. For some vacationers, these are the only reasons to go. For others, they are the reason to never even consider going. Yes, the beaches may be spectacular and the attractions plentiful, but the rush to develop and commercialize both has left most of the city devoid of a single trace of ‘authentic’ Mexican culture – a fact that managed to earn Cancún the top spot on Gadling’s list of places not to go in 2011.

With that in mind, allow me to be the mediator here and tell you exactly why you should go (or at least fly to) Cancún in 2011…

Simply put, Cancún is an affordable, accessible, and a safe gateway to the larger Yucatán peninsula. Yes, it may be an overdeveloped tourist mecca with little soul or culture in the eyes of true travelers. But the vivid blue waters, white sand beaches, and Mayan ruins of the outlying areas offer an entirely different world that’s only six hours away.

Before taking Virgin America’s inaugural flight from LAX to CUN, the farthest I’d ventured in Mexico was Puerta Vallarta. I didn’t really have high expectations for the Mexican Riviera, since my association of it was a blur of generic beach scenes from a decade-old MTV Spring Break broadcast. Which is ironic in hindsight, considering that our flight was the backdrop for an episode of VH1’s Top 20 Countdown; complete with an in-flight performance by the Goo Goo Dolls.

The 5 hour flight itself was great. The margaritas were festive and the atmosphere was as playful as all Virgin America’s inaugural launches are. The only hitch that passengers will encounter in the ‘complete’ Virgin America experience is the lack of in-flight WiFi after crossing the US-Mexico border – an issue that Gogo and Aircell will hopefully address with coverage expansion in the coming years.

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Upon our arrival, our Virgin-worthy accommodation was the gorgeous and brand-new Live Aqua. If you’re accustomed to hotels with two white Rolls Royce Phantoms parked outside, chic interiors filled with hip ambient music, extensive spa services and an array of tasteful eateries, then this is the place you’ll want to stay. It is plausible that you could forgo leaving the hotel grounds and be perfectly content with relaxing by the beach for your entire trip. And for the price of an all-inclusive stay, that’s exactly what I would do.

But, it turns out there are actually things to do around Cancún besides lounging and clubbing. Escape the herds of tourists and head south to quieter beaches at Playa del Carmen, where you can hop across to Cozumel and explore Mayan ruins. Or venture west and check out the ‘authentic’ colonial town of Tizimín on your way to catch a boat to the tiny but charming Holbox Island (and swim with whale sharks in the summer).

If you’re short on time but looking for adventure, then look up one of Cancún’s best day trips; Selvatica’s zip-line & ATV jungle excursion. In the span of a half day, you can fly through the trees on seven different zip lines, drive your own ATV, and swing from ropes into a beautiful blue cenote (Spanish for giant swimming hole).

I can understand why people dislike Cancún. It’d be very easy to come expecting authentic Mexican charm and leave never wanting to lay eyes on another beer-toting American again. But keep your time in the developed area of Cancún short, and you won’t be dissapointed.

Needless to say, my only regret is that I didn’t have more time to explore the outlying areas of Cancún. For a sub-$500 flight that’s just under 5 hours from LAX, or roughly 6 hours from SFO, it’s an easy trip that I certainly plan on making again. Especially if Virgin America can keep their fares low, which they usually do for recently launched destinations. Better yet, enter to win one of three VIP trips that the airline is giving away right here.

If you have your own crazy stories or suggestions about why or why not to go to Cancun this year, leave them in the comments section below!

Air New Zealand’s new 777-300ER; punching above their weight

Air New Zealand's new 777

Prior to arriving in Seattle, I was completely oblivious to the events surrounding a Boeing airplane delivery.

I suppose in the back of my mind, I knew that all airplanes had to come from somewhere; but it might as well have been a mystical factory in the clouds that teleports sparkling new craft to a freshly vacated gate. I never gave consideration to the fact that after months of piecing together a giant flying technological puzzle, the manufacturer has to then “hand-off” the finished product to the airline that’s patiently awaiting the completion of their expensive investment.

But this wasn’t any typical delivery. For Air New Zealand, it was a grand celebration of four long years spent developing, prototyping, and refining an entirely new ‘cabin experience’.

The processions kicked off with a welcome dinner in a lavishly decorated event hall of Seattle’s Experience Music Project. Seated around white-clothed candlelit tables sat a mix of Boeing, Air New Zealand, and third party personnel responsible for everything onboard the new 777-300ER; right down to the seat fabrics and inflight entertainment system.

Somewhere during the conversation over dinner, a British executive from Panasonic made the statement that New Zealand is “a country that always punches above their weight”. In the time that I spent in New Zealand, I thought a lot about this statement and found that it rings true in many regards.

For a country of 4.3 million people that is literally in the corner of the world, they have managed to put themselves at the center of the world stage on several occasions. Kiwis were first in granting women the right to vote, they are the only nation in the world to successfully legislate themselves as a nuclear-free zone, and even though the All Blacks have yet to win a rugby world cup title since the very first tournament, you’d be hard pressed to find a rugby fan that doesn’t think they deserve another one.

Kiwis are a proud yet self-conscious people. One of the first questions visitors always hear is “so what do you think about New Zealand?”. Somewhere at the intersection of this ambitious yet self-aware legacy lies Air New Zealand’s desire to boldly pursue such a radically different concept and well thought-out flight experience.

The morning following Boeing’s welcome dinner, the same group of journalists and airline personnel gathered at an unusually sunny Boeing Field to walk through the plane at long last.

The first moments of stepping onboard Air New Zealand’s factory fresh 777-300ER were a sensory overload of sorts. Shiny chrome surfaces at every turn. Soft pink and purple mood light lining the entire cabin. Smooth white leather and plastic in the front of the plane contrasted with stark black cloth in the rear of the plane. Wallpapered lavatories. Vivid, responsive LCD touch screens. The excited hum of the plane’s very first crew, eagerly getting familiar with their new workplace.

But the most striking sensation was something I hope I’ll never forget.

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Imagine driving home from your favorite dealership in a brand new car and inhaling that satisfying scent of leather, plastic and surface coating as they all begin to settle in together. Now, picture that sweet fragrance scaled up by a factor of one hundred and imagine that your shiny brand new car has wings and is about to whisk you across the Pacific, serve you tasty food, and entertain you all the while. There’s really nothing quite like that elusive “new plane smell”.

After touring the cabin and sampling each of the seats, we were taken through a brief security check before re-boarding the plane to make our journey from Seattle to LAX to Auckland. I settled into my lush business premier seat; glass of champagne in hand and flashy Air New Zealand striped socks on my feet, and tried to take it all in.

For someone with an appreciation for aesthetics, the flight was like a mini treasure hunt to find the plane’s carefully crafted details. LED lights illuminate spaces that would normally be ignored. The most detailed IFE system that I’ve ever seen. Certain surfaces have even been coated with several layers of pearlescent finish so that they’re not too cool to the touch. It makes me wonder if a major U.S. airline has even thought twice about how their exposed metal surfaces will make my bare legs feel.

Even economy class doesn’t feel like economy class. The Skycouch (cuddle class) is a great option for families and couples, and a genius use of space that simply isn’t being utilized in any other economy cabin. And that’s the main takeaway; every type of passenger has been taken into consideration with the new design, and every passenger benefits from it.

But the experience is more than skin deep. The crew rest area on the 777-300ER is enormous; a happy, rested crew means better service. Premium economy is designed to promote a better social experience, and the beautiful open galleys are a great place for passengers to congregate and make small talk. And even though the new induction ovens on the plane weren’t working (and my egg breakfast was a little watery), I’ve been assured that the food served will be top notch.

All in all, my full appreciation for the amenities of the new 777 came when I boarded a now very much outdated 2005 Boeing 777-200 for my return flight to SFO. While business premiere is more or less the same on the older 777, premium economy and economy will certainly be somewhat of a disappointment for passengers that have come over on the new plane. An additional 777-300ER is expected to enter service between London and LAX in April, connecting two of the airline’s most popular long-haul routes.

My advice? Start planning a trip to New Zealand. It’s a stunningly beautiful country. It’s hospitable. It’s closer than you think; especially with a flight experience like this. Just make sure you’re booked both ways on the 777-300ER.

If you’re not planning on going overseas anytime soon, then you better hope that New Zealand has indeed caught the world’s attention yet again and we start seeing this dedication to detail spread to U.S. domestic carriers. And unless there really is a magical factory in the clouds, I don’t think we’ll be seeing that anytime soon.

Virgin America kicks off service to Cancun

Dying to get your Spring Break on in style? Then pack your sandals, sunscreen, sombrero and head on over to Virgin America’s website to grab some great fares or a chance to win a VIP getaway to Cancun, Mexico.

This morning, Virgin America is launching their service from LAX & SFO to the Mayan Riviera (aka Cancun) and Gadling is onboard to witness the festivities. Remember the Goo Goo Dolls? Apparently they’re still churning out the hits and have brought VH1 aboard to tape a mile-high episode of the Top 20 Video Countdown and show us how to travel like rock stars.

So if you have questions for the Goo Goo Dolls or song requests for the in-flight sing along that’s bound to break out, leave them in the comments below!

You can sign up to enter Virgin America’s VIP giveaway right here. If you don’t win, fares from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Cancun start from $139 each way and depart five days a week.

We’ll do our best to get in every shot of VH1’s special Top 20 Video Countdown episode, so tune in on January 29th at 9am EST to catch our ugly mugs.

Onboard Air France’s A380 inaugural flight from New York to Paris

The Airbus A380 has reached American shores once more. Late last month, Air France began service between New York’s JFK and Paris Charles de Gaulle, one of the few select routes on the planet served by this massive, double-decker jumbo jet.

As the third fourth customer to receive the now-famous Airbus A380, Air France is betting big on assigning it to this route. The gamble is especially perilous, considering the high volume of traffic already serving the route, the state of the economy and the recent drop in demand for air travel. Indeed, the only other A380 route from New York, an Emirates service to Dubai, was canceled earlier this year because of scarce traffic.

So Air France has a lot to prove; not only must they successfully operate this aircraft across the Atlantic, they need to look good doing it. After all, Airbus is based out of Toulouse and Air France is the country’s flagship carrier. With their national travel reputation at stake, these companies must seek perfection.

However, inaugural flights remain a time for festivity, and performance metrics were far from the minds of the travelers participating in last month’s flight. Kickoff activities played out over the course of a long weekend from Paris to New York and back, with 380 winners of a recent Air France charity auction joining passengers from the corporate ranks and media world. From the New York side, festivities started with a magnificent cocktail hour at the French Embassy on 7th Ave on Friday evening, then passengers had a full day to recover before departing eastward on Saturday evening.

And how is flying on Air France’s A380?

%Gallery-79543%Fantastic. To begin with, the aircraft is enormous. Staring at the aircraft from the gate (because you will) is like looking into the eyes of a monster, complete with a tiny little black strip near the eyes where the pilots sit. One gets the feeling that an entire regional jet could fit inside of one single engine and then be chewed up and spit out the back, an easy meal for a machine of this size.

It’s boarded by class and floor, and if you’re on the top deck (business and some economy) you leave JFK’s terminal 5 and walk up a fair distance until you reach the forward cabin. Like many other A380s there are curved staircases, situated in this configuration at the rear of the aircraft. There’s a lounge area in the front of the top floor, and speckled inside of the cabin are numerous galleys, where a small cutout is set aside to host drinks and snacks during the flight. Walking around it’s as if one is traversing a small cruise ship finding small features and treasures here and there and all around the cabin.

Mind you, the fuzzies usually wear off after getting to your seat and settling in. Apart from larger windows and an enormous interior, the seat pitches, widths and in-flight entertainment are fairly close to the regular Air France transatlantic product – there’s just more of it – 538 seats to be exact, with around 85 business class seats and only 9 in first class.

To that end, Air France continues to keep the standard high. The business class cabin on this Airbus A380 was roomy, classy and cozy, with mood lighting, plenty of stowage (even on the cabin wall) and the largest windows manufactured into a current commercial aircraft. The Rolls-Royce Engine Alliance engines are remarkably quiet, making the cabin hum smoothly as the business-seats recline into their almost-flat position. As passengers drift into sleep after their 8:30 departure there’s a sense of satisfaction that pervades through the crowd as they admire the clean, enormous cabin. Or perhaps that’s just the Champagne speaking.

Another nice touch to the A380 is the inflight media. It should be expected that Air France installed the finest of inflight entertainment systems into every seat back, complete with movies, seat to seat chat and television shows — but they exceed their standard excellence with updates to the mapping system and additional exterior cameras. This may not impress the everyday airline passenger, but there’s something thrilling about watching ground operations at JFK scramble around from the tail-mounted camera.

Inaugural festivities were kept to a respectable volume. At the New York gate there was a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony with CEO Jean-Cyril Spinetta Pierre Henri Gourgeon and some of the charitable partners; while onboard a three piece brass band bounced around playing French music prior to pushback. All media on the flight was shuttled to the jaw-dropping Sofitel Arc de Triomphe for our nights on the ground, and, apart from a welcoming brunch and an outstanding dinner at Spoon, we were largely left on our own to explore the city.

I could gush volumes on my time and company in Paris, but we all know how the city of lights can have an effect on a person. Paris is an inspiring city: it earns its reputation as a beautiful, romantic metropolis with a cafe on every corner, amazing architecture, outstanding gastronomic fare and a lifetime of history. Air France’s A380 service from New York to Paris embodies this character perfectly, from form, to class to function. Like me, you won’t be disappointed.