China Southern Airlines is growing in step with the national economy. And the ‘Canton Route’ makes it the ideal carrier for that long haul down under, says Simon Walker
Flying to the Antipodes is a long haul. I’ve done it up to two or three times every year since the 1980s, sometimes travelling with children. I’ve tried every route, but one facet of the journey can’t be changed – it’s going to take 25 hours to get to Auckland, Sydney or Melbourne, longer if you’re connecting domestically.
You have to stop somewhere.
Add in a 12-13-hour time difference, and the experience can be gruelling. If you’ve time, it’s good to break the journey for a day or two in the middle, and there are plenty of big-city stopovers.
Having made this trip on a dozen carriers over the years, I have a new favourite. China Southern is the biggest airline in Asia and sixth biggest in the world, but not yet a household brand in Britain.
Nor is Guangzhou, its principal hub and China’s third-biggest city, a routine tourist destination, though as Canton it has been a major trading hub for a thousand years. You can still hear that reflected today in the dozens of languages heard in restaurants and on the streets.
China Southern ‘air bridge’
That is likely to change. A few years ago China Southern set up an ‘air bridge’ between Britain and Australasia. The ‘Canton Route’ now features 30 international and regional routes, originating from Heathrow, Amsterdam Schiphol or Paris.
The London-Auckland route is flown entirely on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It is a wonderfully smooth and quiet plane. Business class features 24 seats that fold down into 180-degree flat beds.
There’s a 15-inch personal TV if you’re minded to watch (I wasn’t) and laptop power connections. Travel from Guangzhou to Sydney and it’s a twice-daily Airbus 380. Either way, we’re talking clean, elegant and thoroughly modern planes.
The crew are terrific. Perhaps not the most sophisticated – you can tell this is a young and growing airline – but working in the cabin of an international flight is a premium job in China, and those who succeed radiate friendliness and determination to please. Who can complain about having champagne served in a brandy balloon?
Airline meals stave off boredom but are not the high point of any journey. It isn’t the right environment to prepare sophisticated meals and there’s no pretending otherwise.
Consequently I eat very little on aircraft. But some dishes are extremely good, the fruit is excellent and a constant flow of Chinese tea staves off dehydration. China Southern has yet to be discovered by many travellers, so business class still feels very roomy. The 200 economy seats are a different matter – young bargain hunters and large families are well aware of the value on offer.
Finally, there’s Guangzhou itself. The new 72-hour transit visa exemption means British (and many other) passport holders no longer have the time-consuming and expensive requirement of a Chinese visa.
Museums and temples reflecting architectural style of the Chen Clan Academy flow easily into the multi-storey antiques markets crammed with exquisite porcelain, art work and carved jade. The ancient Lingnan provides a fascinating contrast with the bustle of the huge downtown clothes markets.
The Canton Tower is 2,000ft high. Take the lift to the rooftop observation deck and see how the Pearl river snakes its way past the former colonial concessions on Shamian Island, the Central Business District’s high-rises, and the suburban apartment buildings and wide public green spaces.
Older than Shanghai or Beijing by far, Guangzhou offers much better value. Hotels are good, restaurants cheap and delicious and residents friendly. It’s the perfect stopover for travellers re-orientating themselves between the southern hemisphere and European timezones.
China Southern has the best safety record of any Chinese airline. In 2013, that meant transporting 91 million passengers on its 500 aircraft, which have a reassuring average age of less than six years.
The ancient Silk Route brought the finest fabrics and spices to Europe. Now the Maritime Silk Route is the template for a flight path that European travellers will increasingly be taking as the world shifts eastwards. And for that long haul down under, it’s well worth a try.