I traveled a lot in 2013, or at least more than I usually do. So I thought I'd share the first ever annual Hobie Awards for the best things I experienced. I flew on over a dozen airlines, stayed in over 30 hotels, took three cruises, and visited 20 cities on four continents. And the winners are:
Best Airline (U.S.-based)
Everyone seems to love Virgin America in all those reader polls, but not me. Their econ class is cramped, and the only bad trip I had last year was when I upgraded a $100 economy fare from Newark to LA to their first class last minute for $350. Maybe the flight attendant knew that I didn't pay the full $2600 that Virgin charges for first, but he disappeared soon after the meal service to chat with his colleagues back in coach, only re-appearing as we were about to land. My seatmate went back to get some water, and when the first class flight attendant finally showed his face and was asked where he disappeared to he replied, "That's what the call button is for." No, Virgin is not the winner. I'm going with a tie: United (gasp!) and American Airlines (gasp!) on this one (okay all you haters, can it). Domestically, I flew on Frontier, Hawaiian, United, Southwest, JetBlue, American, Delta and US Air last year, but I was impressed with the two legacy carriers' in-flight service (no disappearing flight attendants!) and their attempt to introduce new products like the 777-300ER on AA and United's revamped p.s. service on the transcon routes. That and their vast networks made travel easier and better this year.
Best Airline (non U.S.-based)
No surprises here: Singapore Airlines, with British Airways a very close runner-up. I flew on one of the last Singapore-LA nonstops, and on their A380s and triple-sevens too. Just a class act, year in, year out.
Best Airline Seat (Economy)
JetBlue. You can't beat the extra legroom, free in-flight TV and newish planes.
Best Airline Seat (Business Class)
Again, a tie. American Airlines' new 777-300ER, with aisle access for all seats, ties with United's supremely comfortable new p.s. BusinessFirst class lie-flat seats in its 757-200 cabins. Most econ and business class seats end up pinching me (usually under the knees) or otherwise annoying me after a few hours of flight, but the seats on these two aircraft were the next best thing to in-flight La-Z-Boys.
Best Airline Seat (First Class)
I haven't flown in Singapore's, Emirates', Etihad's or Qatar's first cabins, although I've seen them on the ground and they look pretty spiffy. But British Airways' first product is one I can vouch for personally. I flew it on their new A380 as well as on 777 and 747 services this year, and especially on the Airbus there's nothing wanting. Very easy to get a restful night's sleep, very private, and the tasting menu inspired by chefs at London's Langham Hotel, served course-by-course with wine pairings, is delicious.
Best In-Flight Entertainment
American Airlines' new in-flight video and audio selections on the 777-300ER and A319 are just the best. (Even on older AA planes, I love listening to the radio channels). The selection is clever and I like that they invite a guest d.j. curate the music, as they did in December with Incubus' Mike Einziger for the "On The Edge" channel; and that you can go online to see the playlists and even buy songs you like. The movie and CD selections are varied and surprising.
Best Airline Tweeters
American Airlines again. They get Twitter more than any other airline in the world. @AmericanAir
Best Airline Food
Yeah, yeah, I know, when and where it exists, it's an oxymoron. Should I just skip this? Other than the aforementioned first class tasting menu on BA, as much as I didn't like Virgin's first class, the food was pretty good when you could find someone to serve it to you.
Best Airport Lounge
This would have to be Cathay's Hong Kong lounges, all of them. Loved those crab salad sandwiches and the noodle bar. And the Champagne bar.
A tie: British Airways' A380 and their new Boeing 787. I flew in first, business and economy class (the latter 13 hours from Hong Kong to London) on the Airbus. So quiet I hardly needed my Bose noise-canceling headphones. And the 787, which I flew from Newark to London and back, although not as quiet as the A380, really is more comfortable than any other plane. Your contacts don't dry out and it's easier to breathe when you're pressurized a few thousand feet lower than normal. Very close runner-up: American's 777-300ER. Just a super piece of metal.
Best Hotel (United States)
Let's see where did I stay? XV Beacon in Boston, Jenny Lake Lodge in Wyoming, the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, the Halekulani in Honolulu, the Dolphin Bay in Pismo Beach, a bunch of Courtyards and Garden Inns, too many to mention here. But the winner was Travaasa Hana Maui Resort, where I stayed for three memorable nights in a "sea ranch cottage." Loved the adults-only pool, the views of the Pacific and the ranch, the cuisine, the general peacefulness of the place. The Jenny Lake Lodge and the Halekulani (as always) were wonderful, too.
Best Hotel, Asia
Best Hotel, Europe
The Pavillion de la Reine in Paris' Marais district gets the nod this year. No cookie cutter rooms here, and the location in the Marais is the best. Plus, there are high intensity bedside reading lights--a must for those of us who like to read in bed. Much better than the Accor I stayed at in Calais, where the wake up call never came, causing me to miss my Eurostar to London and almost miss my flight back home. You get what you pay for.
Best Value Hotel, Anywhere
With frequent specials starting at $150 per night, it's hard to imagine how they do it, but they do. I'm talking about you, Quail Lodge in lovely Carmel, California. Newly-refurbished rooms, an ideal location, just perfect.
Best Airport Hotel
Sofitel Heathrow. I stayed here three different times in 2013 (one time for five nights)! Excellent rooms, great breakfast buffet, fast and free wifi, and an easy walk to Terminal 5. Runner up: the Crowne Plaza Changi Airport Singapore.
Best Hotel I Didn't Stay In
I did get a tour and dinner, however. And the winner is The Isle de France on St. Barts. What a location, steps from the beach! And the newly-renovated rooms! And the gorgeous wait staff! And, and, and...
Best Meals on Land
The dinner tasting menu at Nougatine (the cheaper room at Manhattan's Jean Georges); dinner at the Top of The Hub in Boston (the view is mesmerizing, the food is still as good as ever); and a dim sum lunch at the Hotel Icon's Above and Beyond in Hong Kong, with that view of the harbor (I hesitate to say that a city is worth flying to just to eat, but dim sum in Hong Kong is worthy flying for).
Best Travel Innovation
I finally signed up for Global Entry, which gives you speedy immigration entry back into the U.S. plus an expedited customs clearance line, plus TSA PreCheck, all for $100 for 5 years. And if you're an Amex Platinum Card member, they pay the fee.
Best New Travel Tech Product
This would have to be T-Mobile giving subscribers unlimited data roaming plus 20 cent mobile phone calls virtually anywhere in the world, all for $70 plus tax per month.
Best Cruise Line
I've sailed on almost every imaginable line, but Seabourn gets the nod here. I first sailed on them 25 (gulp!) years ago. Two years ago it was a cruise from Athens to Venice. This year it was a 10-day on the Seabourn Soujourn to the Caribbean in December. Great cabins, awesome cuisine, exemplary service.
So Happy New Year to all, and hope your travels in 2014 are joyful.