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Nice try, Virgin, but it'll be a private jet next time

Published 17 January 2010
News Review
861st article



Michael with Louise Dixon, left, and Kirsten Brown in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at Heathrow airport (John Rogers)

Geraldine listens to her radio on headphones all night. In the morning I get a breakdown of the news, weather and other items. On Boxing Day she announced, "Someone tried to blow a plane up over Detroit." This was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who, getting peckish after a long flight, decided to have a roast leg. His own.

I was concerned that my 12.30pm departure for Miami on Virgin would be delayed. At 7.30am I phoned Louise Dixon, Virgin's duty manager at Heathrow, for the lowdown.

"You visited my sister's restaurant," said Louise cheerfully.

"About my flight ..." I said urgently. "It's called Delfina, in Bermondsey Street, you particularly liked her mashed potatoes ..." continued Louise.

"But what's happening to ..." I tried to get a word in.

"You said they were the best potatoes you'd ever eaten," informed Louise.

Eventually I persuaded her to tell me what delay she expected on my flight. "Forty-five minutes" was the answer.

Then my friend Steve Ridgway, the chief executive officer of Virgin Atlantic, rang. Steve explained all passengers would have a full body and luggage search both at normal entry to the customs area and again just before they boarded. He too estimated a 45-minute delay.

Heathrow was chaos. We went to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, an exceedingly pleasant lounge where Louise and Virgin's Premier customer services agent, Kirsten Brown, looked after us.

I ordered a waffle as the last one I had there was super-historic. This one was good but a little heavier. I got maple syrup on my blazer. Geraldine and I had scrambled eggs. She took coffee with soya milk; I had fresh orange juice. Geraldine's bacon had an excellent honey taste.

On the plane I ate a first-rate selection of sandwiches (twice), three cups of tea and some nuts. By the time we boarded, it was 2pm. An hour and a half after scheduled take-off.

The captain came out - you know the type: tall, deep voice, "You can rely on me, I control everything" sort of person.

"When do you think we'll take off?" I asked.

"I reckon 3pm," said the captain. "What planet did you fly in from?" I asked. "Have you see the chaos out there." I pointed towards the door. "There are hundreds of people having every bag unpacked for the second time. If we take off before 4.30 it'll be a miracle."

Know-it-all-Winner was almost right.

We took off at 4.17pm. Nearly four hours late. Much as I admire Virgin, I'll never fly on public transport again.

I promptly confirmed a private Gulfstream jet to take Geraldine and me back. Not from Miami airport (that's a total nightmare) but a charming little airstrip nearby named Opa-Locka. No delays, no customs, no immigration. Just turn up, get in, land at Luton after a snack of caviar, Dom Perignon, chopped egg and onions, blinis, smoked salmon. A snip at £44,000 for what's called an empty leg. That's where you get around 50% off normal price because the plane's going one-way empty.

It takes a bit of bottle to lay out that much. As far as I'm concerned, best money I ever spent. Except for Geraldine's engagement ring, of course.

I'd gone to Miami for a change after 28 years in a row of Christmas and new year at Sandy Lane, Barbados. Christmas Day was at Michael Caine's Surrey house. Brilliantly prepared turkey, sausages, everything. Then to Miami where Michael and Shakira have an apartment.

For New Year's Eve - normally a strained affair but not this time - they took us to Prime Italian, a superb place in Miami Beach. No funny hats, no drunks, no one blowing whistles. Just enormous and tasty portions. A salad full of everything. It would have served 25 people.

I had risotto with with rib-eye steak, unusual combination, both marvellous. Cauliflower cheese was totally memorable.

Fried zucchini, fantastic.

For dessert the waiter brought a portion of cheesecake and a portion of chocolate fudge cake. Both so enormous he cut them up and served them to six people. This left enough to fill not so much a doggy bag as an elephant bag.

Myles Chefetz, owner of Prime Italian, has a place opposite called Prime One Twelve. This specialises in steak but does everything. I know of no better restaurant in the world. Stunning.

I had sea bass plus some of Michael's prime rib. The spinach (which I normally don't like) was beyond belief. The hashed brown: best ever. An amazing creamed corn on the cob.

A selection of desserts, enough to feed 600 people at a wedding, appeared courtesy of the management. Cheesecake, chocolate chip cookies, doughnuts with warm chocolate inside. If Myles came to London I'd be standing in line every day. No I wouldn't. I'd rent a private jet to jump the queue.



  • My absence from Sandy Lane induced a short little squirt - a chubby, bespectacled theatrical agent - to seek publicity knocking me. Julius Schmulius (not his real name) phones the gossip columns whenever he wobbles. Can't believe they're so silly as to print it.



    Michael's missives

    You say you were accompanied by your hairdresser and make-up lady on your visit to the Duke William pub. Judging by the accompanying photo they were obviously having the day off.
    Peter Wiard, Conwy

    So you travel with a make-up lady and hairdresser. Whatever next? A food taster? Then you'd become surplus to requirements. Hurrah.
    Alan Rind, London

    Poor Mr Horobin of the Duke William endured a nightmare when all the other restaurants in Preston were celebrating not being visited by you. Could you not distribute misery more equitably?
    Peter Grundy, Tyne and Wear

    I saw your recent performance on Celebrity Mastermind. For some contestants the use of the term "celebrity" stretches credulity. For you the term "mastermind" takes credulity past breaking point.
    Scott Dickson, Edinburgh

    I'm soon flying to Miami. Do you think there's any chance BA will give me the names of the captain, flight service manager and airport managers if I ask? Or do I have to become a grumpy food critic first?
    Balu Anderson, Hampshire

    I've changed my name by deed poll and on easyJet I always get the names of the captain, flight service manager and airport managers who will greet me. Chit-chat is a bit dull, though.
    Michael Winner (formerly Gary Calman), Surrey

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk