The words “airline,” “food” and “good” rarely belong in the same sentence. In fact, in the United States, on most domestic flights, you’re lucky if you get a bag of pretzels. I’ve been on a few short hops lately that don’t even serve drinks.

Which is why I was so surprised on my recent tour of South Africa. On my first leg, between Washington D.C. and Johannesburg, not only did the flight attendants for South African Airways hand me a menu for appetizers, entrees and deserts, but they handed me a second, eight-page wine menu. I’d heard South Africa had good wine, have even sampled a few of their signature pinotages over the years, but an official menu?

The butternut squash soup that I chose as my appetizer (it won out over spicy shrimp with eggplant and tomato confit, grapefruit segments and micro greens) was hands-down the best butternut squash soup I’d ever eaten. Was I dreaming? Was I really sitting in an airline seat?

The satay spiced roast breast of chicken with a fig and port glaze (other choices were pan-roasted loin of venison, grilled sea bass or rigatoni with puttanesca sauce) did nothing to put an end to my admiration.

Okay, I reasoned, it’s an international flight. Of course, it’s going to be a cut above. But then I flew South African Airways (this was a day later, thank you very much) to Hoedspruit, a small airport near Kruger National Park where I was planning to safari. This airport is remote enough that they had to install cheetahs to keep down the warthog population that keep rooting up the tarmac. Even so, running next to the runway was a family of baboons. I didn’t hear them yelling “Da plane, da plane,” but it was almost like Tattoo welcoming us to Fantasy Island.

From Johannesburg, the flight wasn’t even 45 minutes. And guess what? Not only did the cheerful flight attendant serve drinks, but she served a hot breakfast. All in less than 45 minutes.

U.S. airlines, all I can say is “you better watch your back.”

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