Dec 182014
 

Not too long of a taxi ride in the pouring rain, and eventually made it to my hotel, the Park Plaza Orchid. I’d booked it because I had lots of Club Carlson points to burn, and I expected a nice hotel of Radisson standards. Unfortunately, that was not really the case. There was nothing particularly wrong with the hotel, it just felt really old and a little…off. The room was ok, bed was comfortable, the AC worked well, etc, it just felt like it was a bit cramped and older. For free, however, it was great.

The staff, however, was a completely different story. Throughout the three nights I was there, the front desk staff was almost universally surly and unfriendly, and although they would answer questions I definitely got the feeling I was a bother each time I asked.  In fairness to them, I did see them dealing with several customers from Hell, who would yell at them and chew them out. Mostly all demanding, nasty stereotypical New Yorkers. Several times I just stood in the lobby and watched the interactions in disbelief that people could be that nasty to each other.

I had about an hour to grab a quick shower and rest up before meeting up with Ian, a reader of my blog from New Jersey who I met via FlyerTalk and who happened to also be visiting Israel at the same time, although staying in Jerusalem. Ian showed up almost on time (thanks to the Israeli train system’s stunning punctuality – I wonder if they hire consultants from Fiji Airways?) and we got ready to head out for Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, it was Thanksgiving, and yes, we were promised dinner. Max, another reader of my blog who I met via FlyerTalk and who lived in Tel Aviv had heard about the dinner through a local events list and thought it looked fun…so recommended it to us. Thanksgiving Dinner in Tel Aviv? Can you GET a more awesome cultural experience? Signed up, paid, and waited.

In the meantime, I did a little research into what I’d actually signed up for. The event was called “My Big Fat TLV Thanksgiving” and was hosted by an organization called Nefesh B’Nefesh. It was one of their activities in their “post Aliyah group” but made no mention of who was welcome. It described a “lively crowd of Young Professionals, Internationals, Israelis and Lone Soldiers for a delicious and traditional Thanksgiving meal with fine Israeli wine and Negev brewed Beer.” There would be beer, I was sold. I was pretty sure we’d be the only non-Jews there…and at this stage I didn’t even know what an “Aliyah” was…so when the event registration asked if I’d made one I decided I probably hadn’t. I wasn’t sure what a “Lone Soldier” was either, but hey, again, beer and turkey were promised.

When we showed up fashionably late, the event was already in full-swing:

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The table was already pre-set with the first course. Some salads, hummus, and wine:

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After maybe 45 minutes or so, the yams, rice, turkey, and stuffing came out:

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Eventually, our table filled up, pretty much with 20-25 year old men with American accents…pretty much all from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Oh, and their one random Colombian friend. They had all “made Aliyah”” and joined the Israeli military. Rather than mangle it, I’ll let Wikipedia define Aliyah: “Aliyah (“ascent”) is the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the land of Israel. Also defined as ‘the act of going up’ or as in progressing towards Jerusalem.” The stories these guys told were pretty fascinating, but all had similar themes. They’d finished high school in the states, wandered about a bit, never really “found their thing” and then came to Israel where life suddenly made sense and had meaning. Several said they’d “found a sense of purpose.”

It was quite interesting dinner conversation. Especially due to the wine. And beer. And when that was gone they found whiskey. Then, one of the servers came around with arak shots. Things were pretty messy at this point. Like 20-25 something males worldwide when the source of alcohol ran out, the conversation turned to where they would go to find more…and where it was cheapest. And where they could pick up some company for the night. We also learned from them that if you really want to find willing companions, you should go to a Kibbutz, because apparently everyone there is on the prowl. The only sign you were in Israel and not the US, is several of them, despite being in street clothes, were toting automatic weapons. I mean, I always put my gun on the Thanksgiving table…don’t you?

Proof there might have been a little alcohol consumed:

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Continue reading »


Dec 122014
 

After a whole 72 hours in DC, it was time to head out again. After 4.5 weeks away in the South Pacific I came back, played a little hockey, did a LOT of laundry, worked three days, and soon it was time to head out. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas. There was a bit of a snow/ice/sleet storm on the east coast, and DC and NJ were both affected. Four of the five evening flights from DCA to Newark were canceled mid-morning, and miraculously only mine was not. Living right after the Fiji Airways nightmare.

Of course, I was watching the plane. One of the things I like best about united.com is you can see where planes are coming from, and I noticed my plane kept falling further and further behind due to weather in Newark, yet my flight wasn’t delayed. Fortunately I’d booked a long connection, so I had high hopes I’d be fine. When I left for DCA, it was officially one hour late, although based on times online I was almost certain it would be at least two hours late…but I’d still be ok.

When I got to DCA, I was surprised that the remodeled half of the United Club was already open, and seemingly nobody else knew of it. Perfect for snapping a couple of pics:

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I love the vintage United pics on the wall. Major kudos to United for a nice remodel. After a couple of glasses of Château le Jeff and some Tilamook cheese, we finally boarded almost exactly two hours behind schedule, just as I’d predicted.

United flight 3900, operated by Republic Airlines
Washington, National, USA (DCA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 18:09, Arrive 19:42, Flight Time 1:33
DeHavilland Dash 8-400, Registration N342NG, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2A

It’s United Express. The crew used “weather” as the reason no drinks – even water – would be served, not even pre-departure. I asked if they would make an exception for first, and the answer was no. With a nearly one hour flight time, and almost no turbulence, I wasn’t impressed…but also not surprised. Sigh. At least we still made it to Newark over an hour before my connection. I was so glad I’d booked a three hour connection…and very fortunately to be the one flight that didn’t get canceled.

United flight 90
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV)
Depart 22:45, Arrive 16:20, Flight Time 10:35
Boeing 777-200, Registration N76021, Manufactured 2010, Seat 8E

Stopped briefly by the United Club for a bit of water, and then off to the gate. The Tel Aviv gate was cordoned off by some portable walls, and there was a boarding pass check to get into the gate area. After getting into the gate, your hand luggage was searched by hand. It was a bit of ridiculous security theatre, because when my rolling bag was opened up I think they spend 2-3 seconds running their hands around the bag before letting me go. No “real” security here. Hah. As soon as they finished it was time to board.

A lovely glass of Dom Jeffignon was waiting for me, along with the menu:

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I like the Continental layout on the 777, as long as I’m in the middle, because both seats have aisle access and there’s no climbing over people. To top it off my seatmate was a quite and polite person, so it seemed it would be a pleasant 10 hour flight. This was in stark contrast to the woman across the aisle from me, who was a nightmare for the crew. She was grandma, sitting with grandpa. A few rows back were her daughter and son-in-law, and somewhere around were the 6 grandkids. She made certain the flight attendant knew she’d bought 10 business class tickets, and when the kosher meal wasn’t to her liking, she demanded they get the regular meal. No matter how much the flight attendants tried to explain there were no extra meals, she went on and on about how much money she’d spent. At leas she was relatively quiet about it, so it provided a bit of free in-flight entertainment ;)

Fortunately, she was also a martyr, so eventually quieted down and sacrificed the few normal meals that were found to the grandkids while she passed out to sleep in her Coco Chanel eyeshade ;)

Meanwhile, I enjoyed some Domaine Ste. Jeff and warm nuts:

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The appetizer. Nowhere up to international business class standards, but for United shockingly good. I’ll take a few pieces of salmon any day to their one prawn appetizer.

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I don’t know what happened to my salad pic, but the rack of lamb was something I’ve never seen on any other United flight. It was slightly better than the usual beef options, and was a nice change.

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Le fromage. Pretty good. Fortunately, tonight, I didn’t want seconds, sparing me from having to battle with the crew for it.

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Tonight I went with “caramel and cherries.” I think nine cherries might be a record. The flight attendant went kinda nuts:

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I slept 4-5 hours after dinner, and as hoped woke up about three hours before landing. Since the arrival time was late afternoon I wanted to wake up a bit before landing to adjust a little bit to local time, especially since I’d likely want to sleep within eight hours of landing or so.

What’s this for the pre arrival meal…more salmon with…caviar on it? United serving caviar? Is the world coming to an end???

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The main was decidedly nasty eggs and potato thing, with the sugar and flour and cinnamon roll. I think I took about four bites of this yellow and brown meal before giving up.

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Landed right on time, and then it was off to deal with immigration. I’d heard lots of rumours over the years about Israeli security, so was quite curious to see what it was all about. Immigration was a big non-event, and I was through in probably one minute. Couple of innocent questions that would have been at home anywhere in the world, and I was off to find cash, and a taxi in the pouring rain, to head to my hotel. I think the only thing they were curious about were all the African visas in my passport, and that was only because they cared if I had Ebola.

It was already dark when we landed around 4pm, so it was if I’d lost a whole day. We took off at night, flew through the day with the blinds closed, and landed again in the dark. Hopefully I’d slept just enough to keep going, but not enough that I’d have trouble sleeping a few hours later…


Dec 102014
 

Got an early start, grabbed some Starbucks at Frankfurt Hauptbanhof, and then headed in to the airport on the S-Bahn for my final flight of the South Pacific part of this trip. I already had my mobile boarding pass, so headed straight to security and the Lufthansa Senator Lounge. I still think it’s shameful that United can only get you an invite to the same lounge its business class passengers use at the hub of its closest partner. Oh well, a delicious german beer and pretzel for a late breakfast and all was nearly forgiven:

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The usual pre-boarding security theatre for flights to the States, consisting of some mall security asking you a bunch of silly scripted questions that anyone with 1/100 of a brain isn’t going to get wrong. One of these days we’ll start taking genuinely meaningful security measures that actually have a chance of keeping flights safer…

United flight 988
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington/Dulles, Virginia, USA (IAD)
Depart 11:25, Arrive 14:35, Flight Time 9:10
Boeing 777-200, Registration N227UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1K

After Asiana and ANA, I knew United was going to disappoint me, even in Global First. I’ve flown the product dozens of times before so I knew what to expect: a comfortable seat, TGI Fridays quality food, and wines I could generally buy for $10 a bottle. The thinking is that nobody actually pays for United first, it’s mostly either upgrades from business, award tickets, or employees, so there’s little incentive to invest in the product. It’s really a question of chicken and egg, however. If they don’t invest, people won’t buy it, and if people don’t buy it it’s hard to justify investing.

Ok, enough of the soapbox. I was offered a glass of “champagne” pre-departure, and today’s choice was a lovely non-vintage Veuve Smisek:

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So, what’s to eat?

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A wine list so steeped in tradition, from the finest terroirs of the old and new world. The actual wines are so outstanding, they have to be kept secret so the competition doesn’t steal United’s palate-delighting ideas:

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…but never fear, you get an amenity kit, not one but <strong>two</strong> pillows, <strong>AND</strong> noise-cancelling headphones. You know, because serious airlines don’t offer any of these things in business class much less first class!

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Up in the air, I decided to switch away from the champagne since I’d been sufficiently tempted by the wine list. Today’s secret wine was a lovely Château le Jeff 2014 which had subtle undertones of burnt leaves and oak with a refreshing rotting pumpkin that lingered on the palate:

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…but hey, garlic bread. That makes up for a lot of shortcomings in my book. Mmmm….

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Then this happened. Really. That’s an appetizer. Two little skewered pieces of chicken breast with a little couscous. Wow. I literally can’t even.

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The zucchini and parmesan soup, however, was surprisingly tasty:

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…as was the salad. Surprisingly good. They really could invest in higher-quality croutons, however, and please…get rid of those strange dressings United is oh so fond of serving. I think today’s was Creamy Guava Delight, or something similarly corny. Maybe it was Tantalizing Passionfruit…I’ve forgotten. Either way it was mildly creamy, had citrus fruit undertones, and was just plain strange.

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The beef. Not good. Not good at all. Somewhere between well done and shoe leather. The sauce made it salvageable, and the few pieces of defrosted microwave broccoli and carrots really made the dish!

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The cheese. Mmmm. I asked for seconds. I was told no. I saw the crew eating cheese and crackers later in the flight. #FAIL. Really too bad, because the cheese was actually quite good, and likely the best part of the meal.

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…and to finish things off…the sundae. I sometimes get caramel, sometimes hot fudge, always with “cherries.” Today I decided to go wild and have both, still with cherries. It’s always fun watching United crews interpret “cherries.” It’s been as little as one, and as many as 15 or so. Today, it was three:

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Finished off dinner with a glass of the Late Harvest Changes You’ll Like Cellars Icewine, which was divine. Or maybe it was amaretto on the rocks. I get the two confused sometimes….

After dinner I napped a couple hours, watched some tv on the iPad, and soon enough we were about 90 minutes out and it was time for the pre-arrival snack. Now, don’t get your hopes up here.

It’s fruit. The same fruit the serve in business class. A box of two chocolates…the same two chocolates they serve in business class. And a sandwich…which is decent. Not amazing, but at least it’s decent.

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So, overall summary: the crew was friendly and efficient, even if they did lie about having extra cheese. The seat is nice, reasonably private, and comfortable sleeping. The food and beverage? Well, they’re something ANA and Asiana would be embarrassed to serve in business class not to mention first. But again, it’s understandable why United does what it does.

With that said, quick trip through immigration and security, and it was off to the condo to spend a whole 72 hours in DC (after five weeks away) before packing up again and heading to Israel and Palestine for Thanksgiving!


Dec 092014
 

Woke up pretty early, and considered taking the hotel shuttle down to the subway station to grab some Starbucks, but it was absolutely pouring rain out, so rested around the hotel a bit before giving up and catching the KAL Limo Bus back to the airport. I was the only one on the bus until the last stop, so had my own luxury coach:

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No traffic at all, took barely an hour to get to Incheon Airport, where Heaven awaited me:

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I’ve had every name under the sun on my Starbucks glasses – Justin being the most common, but also Jadon, Trason, Mason, you name it. This was a new one, however:

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Friends had told me that after check-in, Asiana agents would escort you through security and passport control, all the way up to the lounge. Well my agents were friendly and helpful, but after they escorted me to the security line they left. No big deal at all, and I actually get kind of uncomfortable with people being overly helpful, but was just surprised based on what others had told me.

I had about two hours to kill in the lounge, which was nice, and I had a couple glasses of champagne while catching up on this blog a bit, and soon it was time to wander to the gate for the main event. Again, I’d been told there was an escort from the lounge to the gate, but no such thing was mentioned.

Asiana Flight 541
Seoul/Incheon, Korea (ICN) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 16:35, Flight Time 11:45
Boeing 747-400, Registration HL7418, Manufactured 1994, Seat 3A

Not one, but two stellar champagnes were on offer. Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill 2000 and Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaire 1995. I give Asiana a lot of credit for not taking the easy way out with Krug or Dom, and offering two different stellar champagnes. I went with the Pol Roger, and wasn’t disappointed at all.

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Continue reading »


Dec 062014
 

After a nice relaxing breakfast, it was time to catch the hotel shuttle back to Narita. Got there a bit early, so mainlined some Starbucks while I waited and very slowly came back to life. Soon Asiana check-in was open, and the line next to me provided “Happy Mom Service.” This is a thing? Seriously?

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At check-in I got the bad news that Asiana had eliminated first class service on regional routes, and I’d been downgraded to business. GRRR. Not to worry though, it was still the same plane so I’d get a first class seat with business class service. No first class lounge, however. Yuck. The great thing at check-in, however, is that the agent was willing to check my bag of scuba gear all the way to DC so I didn’t have to pick it up for three days….and I was back in the land of carry-on only. Thank God!

Through immigration, where you must remember that transporting crabs is not permitted!

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Explored the United Club lounge, had one beer because…well…automatic beer machine…before retreating in fear to the ANA lounge. It unfortunately, wasn’t much better. I’d never been in either of these lounges before, having always used the ANA First (now suites) lounge on my previous trips through Narita. The ANA lounge was fairly ok, but neither lounge was anything to get there at all early for.

I decided to head to the gate on time, and of course, boarding was thus delayed for 20 minutes. Just my luck. Our plane had arrived slightly late from Seoul, but was nice to get a good pic of her:

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Right around the time we were scheduled to leave we finally boarded.

Asiana Flight 101
Tokyo/Narita, Japan (NRT) to Seoul/Incheon, Korea (ICN)
Depart 12:30, Arrive 15:10, Flight Time 2:40
Boeing 747-400, Registration HL7423, Manufactured 1997, Seat 3A

Boarded and the crew extremely graciously brought menus rather quickly:

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I chose the Korean option, however, I noticed the crew being rather uncomfortable with the last passengers. I called the FA over and asked if I could switch to the western meal, and she gave a big smile and said of course. When I don’t really have a preference I like to make the crew’s life easier, and it was nice to help them avoid an uncomfortable situation a bit.

It was a good choice, and rather tasty:

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My help provided me with several timely champagne refills, which helped the flight go by quite quickly. I’d saved my Air New Zealand socks just for the occasion:

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The crew actually closed the curtains between first and business class during the flight, so other than the fact that the food and wine were slightly below what they would have been in first…and the lounge issue…it felt more or less like first anyways with the seat and service, so it wasn’t too much of a let down.

Immigration was pretty quick, and with no luggage checked I was outside waiting for the Korean Airlines Limo. Took a few minutes to buy a ticket and find the right route, and after about 15-20 minutes a bus came. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get to my hotel, but I seemed to remember it was a bit over an hour. Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on the fact it was rush hour, and it took nearly two hours to get there. Ugh. At least the bus was empty so I had two seats to myself.

It was a bit after 6pm when I finally got to my hotel, the W Walkerhill. I knew this wasn’t in the best location, however, I knew it would be relaxing and my first choice (the Westin) wasn’t available the night I needed. I got lucky, however, and received what was for me a rare W upgrade to a Cool Corner Room. The check-in agent was really helpful, helped me figure out all my transportation questions for using the hotel bus plus subway to get to dinner, which was really awesome. Strange furnishings outside the room should have warned me things were going to get weird:

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I’ll save the room details for later. I headed out to meet some friends for a light dinner and drinks in Gangnam. Bright lights! Heeeeeeey sexy lady!

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After dinner and a few drinks, these dancing soju bottles looked about as goofy as I felt:

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I’d had just enough to drink, and made the mistake when asked what our next stop should be of saying “I want a traditional late night experience.” Then I made the mistake of saying I would “eat anything.” Off to the fish market we went…where I was introduced to sannakji…or live octopus. It gets chopped up while alive, and you eat it while the tentacles are still thrashing from electrical impulses:

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What they DON’T tell you, however, is that the little suction cups still work, and attach to your throat on the way down in an attempt to hang on. Fortunately I avoided choking despite the amount of soju we’d consumed, and managed to make it back to my hotel…where the oddness of the room somehow seemed not quite as weird.

The Austin Powers bed. Unfortunately, it didn’t rotate:

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Living area, and walkway to the walk-in closet, door, and washroom:

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Walk-in closet:

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Strange uber-modern washroom:

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…you can’t give me a goofy red robe and slippers that match the decor and expect me NOT to put them on:

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The octopus had finally settled down for a bit, so settled down to get some sleep before what would be an unfortunately very early flight the next morning.


Dec 052014
 

Slept through my first alarm, and was running late in the morning. As I rounded the corner from my room, I saw the elevator there and people heading for it. I picked up my pace a bit and ran for it, putting my hand in the doors to keep it open…which caused a flurry of Chinese and some excitement from the already fully elevator. Given the earpieces and the way they all freaked out, I’m pretty certain I was in the elevator with President Xi, lol. You’d think they’d control the elevators so they don’t stop or something?!

Checked out, stopped by Starbucks to fuel up, managed to find the airport bus, and given the relatively early hour it was a nice quick traffic free drive to the airport. Check-in was pain-free as well, and I had a time for a quick snack in the lounge before boarding. I just had a small nibble at it, knowing there would likely be more in flight:

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Got to the gate just as boarding was starting, and was one of the first on board to grab a photo. I’ve actually never taken a business class flight before with herringbone seats, and was curious how I’d like it. Generally, I strongly prefer planes with all-aisle access business class so I’m not having to either climb over people or have people climb over me.

Air New Zealand flight 99
Auckland, New Zealand (AKL) to Tokyo/Narita, Japan (NRT)
Depart 9:45, Arrive 16:55, Flight Time 11:10
Boeing 777-200, Registration ZK-OKG, Manufactured 2006, Seat 4K

First thought, these seats look crammed in there and people are right on top of each other:

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I usually am very meh about amenity kits, but these came with awesome socks that matched my shoes. Everything goes better with bubbles:

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Continue reading »


Dec 042014
 

Fortunately, due to my late arrival the night before, I managed to sleep in a bit the next morning. After a bit of Starbucks to attempt to wake up my brain, I went for a bit of a stroll around Auckland. I was considering a haircut, but decided asking for a “little off the top” might be interpreted the wrong way at this place:

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I was just in relaxation mode and wandered around the city just seeing what I might see. Found a delicious lasagna for lunch, and a new beer which Untappd informed me was the 500th unique beer I’ve tried. Hah!

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It’s Christmas in Auckland!

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After an afternoon of walking, and as the sun was setting, I found a place right by the cruise ship terminal serving craft beer samplers. Major props to them for a super creative holder!

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It was getting really cold out at this point, and the wind was kicking up. Temp dropped to maybe 15C with a wind, and it was time to find some food and get in teh warms. I was craving Thai food after being away form home so long, and one of the highest recommended restaurants in Auckland on TripAdvisor was Thai, so I decided to go for it. Plus, it gave me another chance to figure out the busses. The inner loop bus served me well, and soon I was at Blue Elephant Thai, where the footprints on the ground led you down the alley to find it:

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Delicious chicken satay starter:

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Tasty penang duck curry…ordered mainly because I’ve never seen anyone offer duck before. It was quite tasty, but not really a traditional penang curry. Regardless, it was tasty.

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I somehow resisted the mango and sticky rice for desert, because for the past week I’d been thinking of the delicious gelato I’d had previously at Giapo. Headed back there after thai for a little dessert before bed, and once again wasn’t disappointed. One of the flavours was “Hokey Pokey” which they described as the “national flavour of New Zealand.” It was vanilla ice cream with honeycomb toffee in it, and in true Giapo fashion they topped it off with some caramel piping, crumbled chocolate cookies, and some more honeycomb crisps. Absolutely amazing.

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It was a reasonable walk from Giapo back to my hotel, and as I approached the hotel there were police everywhere, and swarms of people. Clearly something was up. The closer I got, the thicker the police and people got:

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Noting all the Chinese flag, and that most of the people looked Chinese, I asked one of the police what was up. “We have a VIP guest.” Based on the level of security, my DC-radar told me it could only be a head of state, and most likely President Xi was about to show up at my hotel.

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The strange thing was, the police could have cared less about my keycard, and anyone could walk into the hotel without showing ID. I’m not sure what the point of hundreds of police was if they weren’t checking people going into the hotel, but there you have it.

When I got up to my room, checked the news online, and confirmed that President Xi was indeed arriving in Auckland that evening and it appeared likely he was staying in my hotel. That would explain the unexpected upgrade…most likely he didn’t want to be in a corner room with so many exposed windows.

Crashed the minute my head hit the pillow…it was going to be an early morning flight to Tokyo!


Dec 042014
 

I’d arranged a taxi to meet me at Fagali’i Airport, and was back at Aggie Grey’s way before my flight to New Zealand. Since I’d already checked out in the morning before heading to Pago Pago, decided to grab a small appetizer at the hotel restaurant and enjoy one last sunset beer. Hotel provided a free shuttle to the airport about two hours before the flight, and in no time I was there and checking in. Nothing exciting, immigration and security were a piece of cake, and soon I was in the departures lounge. The duty free store was all sorts of festive:

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Our plane arrived from Auckland about 30 minutes late, giving us only 30 minutes to turn it around, so it was becoming clear we’d be slightly late. Of course, they waited until the scheduled departure time to tell us it was going to be “a little late.” A little late became a little later. And a little later. An hour after departure time, I was getting worried the turnaround crew would go illegal, so asked the gate agent what the story was. Appears there was only one working lav on the entire plane, and they were doing their best to fix it. 90 minutes past departure time they gave up, and we decided to board:

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Air New Zealand flight 997
Apia, Samoa (APW) to Auckland, New Zealand (AKL)
Depart 21:45, Arrive 00:45 next day, Flight Time 4 hours
Airbus A320, Registration ZK-OJC, Manufactured 2003, Seat 11C

As we were boarding, the flight attendants informed us there would be a one beverage limit per passenger “except in case of emergency” due to the fact there was one working washroom for over 150 passengers. It was a completely full flight except for four seats, and coincidentally all 4 seats were in the same row…a row which according to ExpertFlyer became completely empty 10 minutes before departure, and then they placed one passenger in the middle seat of each row. These passengers were very chatty with the gate agent, and it’s a safe bet they were either friends or employees. Rather sad.

Before takeoff, it was time for the most epic safety video ever:

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Some thoughts on the flight:

It was only about four hours, which is about the limit of what I can tolerate in economy, even in the exit row. Fortunately my row-mates were polite and not overly large, so it was a pretty good flight. The odd thing is, how the food on the flight works. You only get free food and drinks if you purchase a more expensive fare, which appears to be approximately a Q fare or above. I figured this meant very few people, but it looked like nearly half the passengers were offered a meal. Everyone else had to pay for something from the buy on board. The meal was actually decent, certainly on par with what you’d get in domestic first in the states.

The coolest thing about the plane was that you could order drinks or make requests through the seatback touchscreen. It even knew what fare you were on, and if you needed to be charged for your request or not. After dinner, I decided to try my luck and order a second glass of wine. The very friendly flight attendant appeared with it about 5 minutes later, and reminded me it was only one drink per passenger except in case of emergency. I smiled at her, and said “it’s dark…I won’t tell if you don’t tell…and plus…the wine volume in my blood is getting dangerously low…almost to emergency levels!” She laughed, and just said to use the touchscreen when I needed more. Needless to say, a great crew can make an otherwise average flight great!

Landed quite late, just after 2am local, and fortunately immigration and customs was a short wait. Took the airport bus downtown to my hotel, and was finally in bed just after 3am. Was very glad I’d canceled my kayaking trip the next day due to rain, since it would have been a very very short night otherwise. I was staying at the SkyGrand hotel, and for some reason they’d kindly upgraded me to a nice corner room where I promptly passed out the moment my head hit the pillow.


Dec 042014
 

Because this is too good not to post, I’m interrupting the trip report for a Fiji Airways story. A month later, after the Tuvalu failure, I’m still waiting for the ticket refund to post back to my credit card. It’s been over four weeks since it was authorized at the Nadi Airport ticketing office, but nothing. So, I figured I’d e-mail for an update..and got this:

Thank you for contacting Fiji Airways.

This is to confirm receipt of your email which has been passed on to our Guest Relations team for handling.

Rest assured that one of our Guest Relations Officers will respond to you within the next 21 days. Please allow us up to 60 days to resolve any refund requests.

For all our guests travelling and to/from the United States and/or Honolulu, we will follow the Fiji Airways Customer Service Plan. This response serves as an acknowledgement to your feedback and we will provide you with a substantive response within 60days.

Only at Fiji Airways is 60 days an acceptable amount of time for customer service….


Dec 042014
 

Made it to the tiny Fagali’i Airport on Samoa about 65 minutes before my flight…and the flight was still not open for check-in! I guess that’s how it works when the entire airport is one little room! I did still have to pay for my return ticket, so took care of that while I waited. Why didn’t I just buy a roundtrip online? Well, see, Samoa and American Samoa sit on opposite sides of the International Date Line, despite only being 50 miles apart. I was departing Samoa at 12:30 pm one day, and arriving at 12:05 pm the PREVIOUS day…a full 24 hours and 25 minutes before I’d departed! I would be returning the day before I left…and you can’t buy a roundtrip ticket where the return date is earlier than the departure date. Crazy!

Eventually check-in opened, and through immigration and security in less than 2 minutes, and time to wait for the flight.

Polynesian Airlines flight 240
Fagali’i Airport, Samoa (FGI) to Pago Pago, American Samoa (PPG)
Depart 12:30, Arrive 12:05 Previous Day, Flight Time – 35 minutes
Dehavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter, Registration 5W-FAY, Manufactured 1980, Seat 2A

Old-school handwritten boarding pass:

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Today’s flight was packed with all 15 or so seats taken, and soon we were off. Views of American Samoa on approach:

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Just 30 minutes flight time (max) and we were on the ground. I snapped this picture of the inside of the plane as we left:

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Talofa! Welcome!

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Immigration took longer than it should have for 15 people, and I think they were mostly just curious what the hell I was doing there. I guess not many tourists show up from Samoa for the day “just to see it” – especially ones with US passports. CBP doesn’t run the show here so no Global Entry kiosks, so it was the full questioning. America, but felt like “not America” at the same time.

Outside the airport, my next task was to either rent a car or taxi for four hours. I didn’t know where I was going so thought a car would be a bad idea, so I started negotiating with the taxis. In the US mainland a taxi would ask hundreds for four hours, and the first guy I approached wanted $100. The second guy tried $75. The third asked for $60. I probably could have gone lower, but honestly for four hours of driving me around and playing tour guide I thought that a pretty fair price.

First stop, an ATM, since I had no US Dollars to my name to pay him…and look, it’s right next to a Ford dealership. We really are in America!

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After the ATM I told the driver I just wanted to see the island, and needed a good lunch, so we set off. You can see the close ties between Hawaii and Samoa…

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Most of the drive was right alongside the ocean, with terrible views:

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Despite massive cutbacks in recent years, the economy of American Samoa is largely dependent on the tuna industry, and on StarKist in particular. You can smell the factory long before you get to it:

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StarKist workers outside waiting for a bus:

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For lunch, my driver took me to Tisa’s Bar & Grill:

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Can I get a menu? No, we have fish today. Ok, I’ll have the fish! Delicious grilled fish marinated in coconut milk, citrus juice, butter, and spices. It was amazing. The thing on the right is a local sweet potato that grows straight up out of the ground:

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View from Tisa’s deck:

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After lunch I stuck around for a bit and chatted with Tisa and Chef Candyman who’d made my lunch. We talked about American Samoa, how things had changed, how Tisa had gone to LA for a few years and hated it, so came back to Pago Pago. After a large group of US National Park collecting tourists left (see, people collect things stranger than countries) it was nice to hear their perspective in life on the islands and why they’d chosen to live there.

Soon it was time for a bit more driving before heading back to the airport:

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Most…exotically-furnished…bathrooms ever:

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Check-in area. This is the BUSY day too with a flight to Honolulu:

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I asked for seat 1A this time so I could watch the flight deck, and they had no trouble giving it to me. Unfortunately, at boarding, I got moved back to 3A for weight and balance reasons. Bummer. We were booked full again except for two seats.

Polynesian Airlines flight 269
Pago Pago, American Samoa (PPG) to Fagali’i Airport, Samoa (FGI)
Depart 16:30, Arrive 18:00 Next Day, Flight Time – 350 minutes
Dehavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter, Registration 5W-FAY, Manufactured 1980, Seat 3A

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Nice quick flight back to Samoa on the little plane held together by wires, and it was time to go pick up my bags at Aggie Grey’s, check out, and head to the airport for my flight back to Auckland.