Sunday, May 15, 2016

Fort Lauderdale Power Weekend – Day 1

"OK kids, there's something we have to tell you," I said to Magnus and Stella one Tuesday afternoon as we were relaxing at home after an exceptionally average day. "We are taking a private jet down to Fort Lauderdale for the weekend!"

Magnus's face lit up and the smile stretched from ear to ear, threatening to extend further, as the possibilities began clanking around in his brain. Stella looked panicked and asked, "Do I have to miss any school?"

"Yes, we are flying back on Monday night so you will miss that day," Ana replied.

"Monday??" she screeched, now giggling uncontrollably and bouncing up and down. "I don’t even care about Mondays!" Stella attends an enrichment program on Mondays and it is her least favourite day of the week so for the first time in her life, she was actually happy to be missing school.

Now how does one get the opportunity to fly on a private jet? Even now, I’m not entirely sure how it all came together. Through one of Ana's colleagues Yvonne I was offered the chance to write a few articles for the in-flight magazine of a small, executive airline charter company called Charter Air Transportation Services (CATS). As we were discussing the topics of the articles, the chief operating officer Kevin contacted Yvonne to ask if we would be interested in a one way trip down to Fort Lauderdale, as he had an empty plane going there to pick up some clients. When Ana called me and told me this I checked my calendar to see if it was April 1st, but seeing it was already the 16th I simply assumed she was having a slow day and wanted to torture me for fun. Once I realized she was serious, it took exactly one second to decide to go!

Ana found us a great deal on a hotel and rental car and got in contact with their manager of flight coordination Josh to arrange the itinerary. Besides allowing us to choose the time we wanted to depart, he also offered help in arranging airport transportation, accommodations and even asked us if there were any particular drinks or snacks we wanted them to have available for us in the cabin. Now Josh must have known we were imposters when we did not ask for Beluga caviar, Russian blini and Dom Perignon, but we really didn't want to push our luck. We also asked him how far in advance of our departure time we would need to arrive at the executive terminal of the Pearson airport in Toronto. He casually replied, "10 minutes is plenty."

We arrive at the Skyservice Business Aviation terminal in Toronto shortly before 8am on Saturday morning. We walk into a small, quiet, luxurious terminal and the first thing I notice is the smell of fresh coffee brewing. The second thing I notice is the absence of people as there is only us, one administrative person, one baggage handler, and one of our pilots, who immediately comes over and welcomes us, introducing himself as Alex, and asks which of our bags we want with us in the cabin. Ana and the kids take a washroom break while I am put through the rigid and demanding security and screening process that involves Alex asking me, "Mind if I have a quick check of your passports?" After a brief look he tells us we are good to go and I stand there dazed, wondering why this part of the travel process takes three hours at a regular airport.

We exit through the terminal doors and are led by Alex over to the Gulfstream G150 that is sitting there waiting for us. I still can't believe that we are actually about to board a private jet, and in the back of my mind I am expecting Alex to hand me a package and say, "Oh, by the way, I just need you to carry this somewhere discreet – maybe shove it down your pants. Here's the address of our associate Guido in Miami, would you mind dropping it off to him?"

I have my camera out and am trying to get a good picture of the airplane when Alex offers to take a photo of us. So Ana, Magnus, Stella and I line up, trying to look as cool as possible, while Alex captures us standing in front of this amazing aircraft, on a gorgeous and sunny day, at the start of our Power Weekend to Fort Lauderdale. Are we happy? Hell yeah!

We climb the five steps into the aircraft and are welcomed by the pilot Nelson. We turn into the main cabin to find a luxurious spread awaiting us. There are four large leather seats and a bench seat that the CATS team used to spread out a selection of gifts for us, including shirts for everybody, four beautiful journals and pens, two Instamatic cameras for the kids, magazines, scarves, a fancy package of pencil crayons, three containers of sunscreen and a big tray full of snacks. Our cabin bags have already been loaded and we settle ourselves into the comfy seats and get buckled in. I look over to Magnus to see a ridiculously huge smile on his face and I realize that I too am grinning wildly and feeling very much like a giddy little kid about to take my first plane ride. The aircraft is outfitted with Wi-Fi so Ana is already logged in and posting the money shot to Instagram. Stella is looking so cute with her fancy hat and has already found the CATS in-flight magazine and is leafing through it excitedly. In fact, I don't remember a time when we have all felt so exited and giddy, not to mention outrageously privileged and quite satisfied with our current position in life.

It has been a mere 15 minutes since we arrived to the terminal, and we are already taxiing out to the runway. The ride is smooth and the airplane moves quickly over the ground. After a very short wait, we move into position on the runway and hear the jet engines winding up. The plane leaps to life and we begin speeding down the runway. The acceleration is much greater than that of the big commercial planes and within seconds we have left the ground and are headed upwards into the bright blue sky on a fine Saturday morning.

Once we at cruising altitude Alex appears in the cabin with a big tray of snacks and bottles of water for everybody. He tells us there are all sorts of drinks and other snacks available in the onboard galley and points it out for us to help ourselves. He shows the kids the giant iPad that is loaded with movies and offers it to them, which they happily accept. He spends a while chatting with us, telling us a bit about his career as a pilot and some of the interesting trips he has done. Ana mentions to him that we have a number of friends who are airline pilots and he immediately smiles and replies, "Well, now you have another one!"
The Gulfstream G150 flies faster than commercial jets so our flight time to Florida is under two and a half hours. We spend the time chatting, leafing through the magazines and newspapers onboard, looking out the window, taking selfies and group shots, and sometimes looking at each other while simply smiling with disbelief. I wish I had a guitar because I am sure feeling like a rock star. The pilots interrupt the kids watching a movie on the giant iPad to bring them up to the cockpit to show them the view out the front window and all the airplane controls. They are clearly intrigued, as they stay up there for quite a while. I walk over to have a look at the onboard lavatory, which is located at the rear of the rear of the airplane and is just as luxurious as the rest of the interior – black, glossy finish, large mirror, hot and cold water and this nifty leather seat that flips up to reveal a toilet seat beneath. I briefly consider the merits and risks of yanking my wife in here so we can join the "Mile High Club" while the kids have the pilots distracted, but my stupid adult brain takes over and decides to leave it to my imagination for now!

As the airplane flies down the coast of Florida Captain Nelson's voice comes on the intercom and announces that we are currently passing Cape Canaveral to the right and will be landing soon. We get buckled back in and are soon passing right over the expansive beach and many canals of Fort Lauderdale. The landing is fast and smooth and the pilots pull the airplane right up to the front of the small terminal building. We gather our things, take one last mental picture of our private jet and then step outside into the glorious heat and humidity. We pass through the doors of the building and inside we encounter….silence. The single US immigration officer checks the pilots through and then us. There seems to be nobody else in the building except him and a porter, who quickly passes our bags through a screening machine and then leads us outside. Alex comes over, worried, and tells us that our transport has not yet arrived, but we tell him that we were supposed to call the car rental company after we landed, so it's all good. The porter offers to give us a ride, so we say our goodbyes to Nelson and Alex and are whisked away to the Budget rental car where they have a lovely Mazda 3 waiting for us. Yes, I know, after arriving by private jet we really should have been driving around a Maserati or Ferrari, or at least a Bentley but I suppose the charade had to stop somewhere!

We drive a short distance to Las Olas Boulevard and find a parking lot where we do a fast change in the car to get rid of the Canadian jeans, socks and sweaters and replace them with shorts, sandals, t-shirts and sunglasses. We follow our noses to a lovely bakery where we order three gargantuan sandwiches and enjoy lunch on the outdoor patio. Las Olas is the main east-west artery slicing through Fort Lauderdale and is home to many high end boutiques, galleries, restaurants, bars and shops of all types. As we eat our lunch we enjoy the parade of beautiful people and luxury cars passing by, but are keeping our eyes on the time as we had planned to go for an afternoon cruise on the "Jungle Queen" tourist boat.

We finish lunch and drive all the way down Las Olas until we reach the beach and turn right, which leads right to a big marina. We see the Jungle Queen right away and there is a huge mob of people there so I drop the family off to get us tickets while I park the car. Of course, the afternoon trip is sold out so we are put on a waiting list and stand by in the hot sun while an endless stream of people arrive with tickets and walk aboard the boat, including a group of four bodacious, bountiful Caribbean ladies that must have had 1400 pounds between them. As we watch the Jungle Queen sail away with its hundreds of sweaty passengers crammed into the seats, I am not feeling too unhappy. As a fine consolation prize we change into our bathers and walk across the street to the enormous beach. Ana throws off her shoes and takes off across the sand, but because the sand is scorching hot, and she still has her sensitive Canadian winter foot flesh, her soles start to burn and she accelerates rapidly to a full-on sprint, running wildly across the sand like a crazy lady, leaving the rest of us shoe-wearers behind in the hot dust. I think there may have actually been steam coming off her feet when they finally hit the water.

The beach is lovely, busy, and stretches north and south as far as I can see. The water is warm, clean, calm and thankfully shark-free. We let the sun do its work on our pasty skin and we bake in the glorious heat for nearly two hours. We then take a walk along the beach and up to the street where there is a series of beach bars and restaurants. We find a nice spot to sit down and I order up my first beer – a Presidente – while Ana and the kids eat ice creams. After a spell of leisurely people watching we wander back to the car, but not before doing a quick walk around the marina, which is obviously the millionaire’s club as I don’t see any small or even medium sized boats. I pass by one yacht that is at least 200 feet long and see two elderly couples on board sitting down for an afternoon snack, being waited on by eight crew members in uniforms. I reach up to give the owner a high-five, but it is about fifteen feet up to the edge of the boat and they won’t throw me down a ladder, so instead I give him the “Olson nod” once I back away far enough from the boat for them to see me again. Of course, they have their eyes firmly locked on the caviar crackers and champagne so it is pretty much a wasted nod.

We drive back up Las Olas and check into our home for the weekend - a lovely and grand old place called the Riverside Hotel. By this time we are getting pretty hungry so we get back in the car and drive north to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea to see if we can find a Caribbean restaurant called Aruba that the airport porter had mentioned to us. It doesn’t take long for us to get there, but when we do arrive we realize we aren’t the only ones looking for somewhere to dine on a Saturday night - the place is packed with a line stretching out the door. But the queue moves quickly and, amazingly, they have a table for us immediately. The restaurant is much larger than I first thought and we are seated beside a series of windows looking out to the beach. The food is decent and the kids get to try conch fritters for the very first time. We finish up dinner and then take a walk around the area. There are people everywhere and the public spaces we find are amazing – playgrounds, streets lined with art installations, colourful chairs everywhere, and even a full band playing on a stage set up on the corner of a busy intersection. We are so happy to be able to walk around at night wearing just t-shirts. For a Canadian coming off winter this is a big deal.

We watch the band for a while, enjoying the warm evening air, and then drive back to our hotel as we are all getting a little tired. Once we are back in our room I consider heading down to the outside patio of the hotel for a cigar and beer, but I make the mistake of lying down on the wonderfully comfortable bed to work out the details of my plan and I do not get back up.

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