Jun 232017
 

It had been a few years since I’d been to Barcelona, and even then I had just rented a car at the airport and headed straight for Andorra. This time we would have a full long evening/morning in Barcelona before heading to Andorra to check it off for Ian as well as do a bit of shopping.

I had picked our hotel based on a combo of location, reviews, and cost. It was located about halfway between the airport and the city, and looked to have great transportation options to both. We made the mistake of hopping on the bus to get there, which while not a mistake wasn’t quite as easy and fast as the subway would have been. Both are a straight shot with no transfers and roughly the same price.

Our hotel was the Renaissance Barcelona Fira Hotel, which I’m pretty sure was the most uniquely designed hotel I’ve ever stayed in – and that’s saying quite a lot after going to every country. Check-in was good, Marriott status was recognized and we were offered upgraded rooms on a high floor with complimentary wine and cheese delivered to the room. Nice touch! English skills of the staff were also quite good, and they were extremely friendly and helpful.

Elevators up to the room, and this is what greeted us coming off the elevators:

The hotel is build in a basically as two long/slim corridors with a series of open-air walkways connecting them:

View from my room across the open atrium to the other “tier” of rooms on the floor. You can see elevators to the left and a staircase to the right:

After checking in and enjoying the small bottle of wine and cheese plate which was quite generous, we hopped on the subway to enjoy the long daylight in Barcelona. Sunset was after 9pm, so we had plenty of time to do some wandering before grabbing a bite to eat. First, mandatory shot of La Sagrada Familia:

We wandered a bit more, but it was already 8pm and we were getting hungry. Unfortunately, the first two places were closed because it was Sunday, and we eventually ended up at CocoVail Beer Hall, which had an amazing selection of local craft beers to explore:

Look at that selection of local meets and cheeses!

After a delicious dinner, we decided to wander the city a bit more, and ended up at Kælderkold, another pub with an amazing list of (mostly imported) craft beers. Unfortunately, it was about 30 degrees inside and packed with obnoxious drunk american college students drinking with their parents, but the bartenders and selection of beers was fantastic.

Got back to the hotel around 1am, and the rooftop pool bar was still going strong, so we enjoyed one last drink before calling it a night. A surprisingly “early” night for Spain, but hey, it was a Sunday…

Slept in a bit the next morning, walked for a bit, and got this picture of the hotel which more clearly shows the two sides where the rooms are, and the walkways that connect them:

View from the entrance. I loved the hotel and it’s funky architecture, but probably not to be recommended to those with a serious fear of heights, as it was rather open:

View from the rooftop pool and bar:

I could seriously see just spending a day lounging around at the rooftop pool and enjoying the sun:

One last shot of the open-air atrium:

We checked out around noon, headed to the airport, where Hertz apparently didn’t know which terminal to expect us at, so our car was at the other terminal. They unfortunately had no automatic transmissions at the terminal we were at, but the friendly agent assured us it would be worth the wait to drive it over to us. 15 minutes later, a fantastic E-Class Mercedes showed up – what a fantastic upgrade! This was going to make the drive to Andorra lots of fun!

This is probably old news for those who do a lot of driving in Europe, but in the couple of years since I had gone to Andorra the number of tolls on the route had multiplied massively. I remember one or two in each direction on my previous trip, but this time we had at least 6-8 different tolls. The tolls are fantastic, however, because you can just pull up, put your credit card in, and away you go. Nice and convenient, and the only downside is that you don’t get a receipt.

After about two hours of driving it was definitely time for some food, and we stopped off at a small gas station/restaurant and took our chance. It was a set menu with three choices of starter, main, and dessert – all for something like 12 euro if I remember correctly.

I chose the amazing gazpacho to start – which was super tasty:

Sorry Peter Rabbit, but you were delicious…although a lot of work for very little meat…which isn’t unusual for rabbit.

…and a delicious flan and espresso to finish it off. Great value!

Rest of the drive to Andorra was uneventful. Unfortunately, for the second time, I couldn’t find the place to pull over and ask Andorran officials for a passport stamp, so missed out on that once again. Not the end of the world, and like my previous visit I remember thinking “I can at least can an exit stamp on the way out of the country” so completely missed out.

Fortunately, this was my second trip and we were staying in the same hotel, so it was relatively easy to get there. I neglected to mention that the Mercedes also came with navigation which made it much easier to find our hotel. I remember wandering the one-way streets of Andorra la Vella last time and having a hard time. This time was comparatively super easy.

Now, time to head out and enjoy Andorra!


Jun 182017
 

After a fantastic 24 hours at home, it was time to head back to the airport and head off to Spain. Staying home for a night was definitely the right call as it allowed me to relax, and just enjoy some downtime after a hectic week. Back off to Dulles, where check-in and security were completely uneventful. Went to the United lounge, where a fantastic bartender looked after me. Make no mistake, United is no Lufthansa, and the rather sad cheese and crackers and mass production chips and dips along with the $5 bottles of wine are quite sad, and it often feels like a bit of an all you can eat buffet restaurant, but at the same time, there’s something “familiar” about it.

My routing today was DC to Newark, and then onto Madrid, with nearly a three hour connection in Newark. That’s why I wasn’t too worried when my phone buzzed and notified me of a one hour delay for air traffic control. I got slightly more concerned an hour later when that stretched to 90 minutes. I began to get really concerned when it became two hours, leaving me around 40-45 minutes in Newark. I began to explore options.

The super late Dulles to Frankfurt and Dulles to London flights were out, as they were completely sold out in business. I tried multiple phone agents and lounge agents to get on the late Frankfurt flight in first, but that was a non-starter. They absolutely refused to consider it. The late Dulles to Munich flight on Lufthansa was available, but it wouldn’t get me into Madrid until nearly 7pm the next day – way too late to make my connection to Marrakech (separate ticket) and would cost me my entire first day in Marrakech.

When my Newark connection was down to 15 minutes, I pulled the trigger and switched to the Lufthansa option. Absolute worst case scenario would be getting stranded in Newark overnight, so I wasn’t willing to risk a tight connection there, even though the DC to Newark flight started boarding. The flight to Madrid was booked completely full in business, with another 15 plus on the waitlist, so I couldn’t see them holding the flight for me if anything went tits up.

(Side note: by the time DC to Newark landed there was 8 minutes to make the connection based on the door closing, and it was nearly one end of the C terminal to the other – I suspect strongly I wouldn’t have made it)

Rebooked via Munich, I decided one last Hail Mary was in order. I headed to the gate for the United flight to Frankfurt, and asked the agent if there was any way they could get me on this flight – I was even willing to use one of my Global Upgrades to get into first. “I can only put you in economy – and all we have left are middles near the back.” Uh, no thanks. That’s way worse than losing my whole day in Madrid.

Off to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge next, where I began trying to rebuild my trip. This entire time, Ian had been stranded at JFK as well, awaiting a severely delayed flight to Madrid, where he was afraid he was going to misconnect to Marrakech as well. Worst case, we would lose our 24 hours in Marrakech, take a full day delay in Madrid, and only have a short overnight in Marrakech before heading to Western Sahara.

We both started boarding at this time, and promised to reconnect in Europe and see where life took us.

Lufthansa flight 415
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 22:30, Arrive 12:45 next day, Flight Time: 8:15
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKJ, Manufactured 2005, Seat 10G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 60,428
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,437,405

It had been barely 24 hours since I’d gotten off of a Lufthansa A340 Frankfurt to DC, and here I was boarding a Lufthansa A330 to Munich. Something felt, familiar…although very strangely, we had one of the most disappointing Lufthansa crews I’ve ever had. No personal touch, didn’t seem to enjoy their jobs, and no smiles to be found anywhere. It was like I was flying on United or something! Mixed nuts and a glass of the same wine from the day before…

Due to the late departure, the entire meal was served on one tray. Blech. Not impressed. That said, it was one of the better business class salads I’ve had in a long time. I went with the “seared beef filet, béarnaise sauce, root vegetables and whipped potatoes.” As expected, the beef was severely overcooked and disappointing. Overall, this is a meal I would expect from United, not Lufthansa.

Even the cheese course was sad. Is that one sad lettuce leaf supposed to class it up?

Ice cream…in a container. It was tasty, but seriously…in business class?

After dinner I passed out, and slept a solid six hours. It was nice having nobody next to me, so extra pillows and plenty of space. Woke up just about 15 minutes from landing, made myself barely presentable, and checked my phone. Ian had misconnected as expected, and was spending the night in Madrid. Thus, there was no need to find a way to Marrakech today, so I was a bit more leisurely.

Headed over to the Senator Lounge in the international gates, and they tried to steer me to the Schengen gates since I was going on to Madrid in a few hours. Told them I preferred to stay here for now, and they were happy to let me in. Delicious breakfast of cheese pretzel and potato salad. When in Germany…

Started looking for ways to Marrakech, and realized it would actually be $50 cheaper to fly Frankfurt-Marrakech the next day instead of Madrid-Marrakech. On top of that, my preferred hotel in Frankfurt is more than $100 cheaper than the one in Madrid, so it was an easy choice. I’d overnight in Frankfurt today. I will totally admit that choice was driven largely by the opportunity this presented to do one of my favourite things in Europe – a long ICE trip.

I didn’t actually realize that Munchen Hbf was so far from the airport when I bought the ticket, so it was a huge rush to get on a train to the central station so I could catch my train to Frankfurt. I maade it though:

A couple hours into the journey I was getting a bit hungry, so I ordered a beer and some Flamkuchen. Yum!

Checked into my hotel – the usual Frankfurt Airport Sheraton that you’ve all become very familiar with this year from my frequent stays, so I’ll say it was just perfect like the last stay. I requested in my reservation (and got) the exact same room as a few weeks prior, and just like that stay it was ice cold and fantastic.

Caught the S-Bahn to the city, and had my favourite bacon-wrapped dates and a few beers before taking a late night walk and enjoying the fact that at 930pm it was still light out.

When I got back to the hotel, the drama that this trip was turning into notched itself up another level. Royal Air Maroc e-mailed me that my flight had been “modified” the next day:

Um, a zero minute connection in Casablanca now?! I called Royal Air Maroc, and they refused to put us on an earlier flight from Marrakech to Casablanca, claiming they were “all full” and “you will make your connection – no worry.” Um, with zero minutes and a terminal change? I don’t think so. This was not good. Not good at all.  Our choice was to risk getting stranded overnight in Casablanca, but the only problem was the flights to Dakhla don’t go every day. This was becoming a right proper mess.

We decided (virtually) to cut our losses and not risk going just to Morocco and missing out on Western Sahara. We decided we would rather do the back half/islands part of the trip with extra days to really enjoy each of the islands, and come back to Western Sahara another time. Of course, Royal Air Maroc refused refunding us. The dispute is still pending with AmEx, but I have no doubt the outcome…because I also have screenshots showing that the connection in Casablanca actually became negative 15 minutes…and we would have been stuck.

Before going to bed we decided the plan would be to meet up in Barcelona the next day, and from there we would find a way to get to Las Palmas to continue the trip. The added bonus was instead of one night each in Las Palmas and Madeira, we could now do two nights in each, as well as having a night in Barcelona. Silver lining!

Off to bed, wake up, and oh…I have to get to Barcelona today. Let’s check the options. Ticket prices are pretty high on Lufthansa, even in economy, and looks like flights are super full. Not good. End of the day I decided to splurge on a business class award, which while not cheap made things more comfortable…which after the mess was welcome.

Enjoyed the Senator Lounge, where I had a right proper German lunch of sausages, potato salad, pretzel, and beer:

Boarding was one gate down from the lounge, and right on time.

Lufthansa flight 1134
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Barcelona, Spain (BCN)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 16:00, Flight Time: 2:00
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISK, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,108
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,438,085

Pretty generic flight in EuroBusiness, but for a two hour 2pm snack flight, how can you complain about this meal?!

Landed right on time and Ian was waiting in the arrivals hall. We grabbed a coffee, figured out thanks to Google Maps how to get to the hotel I had booked (took the bus – it actually would have been slightly easier taking the subway) and then it was off to the hotel to buy the final flights to put this trip back together…and enjoy an unplanned night in Barcelona!


Jun 162017
 

After convincing my driver that I knew what I was doing, he agreed on an 02:30 pick-up from my hotel for an 04:05 flight. They were strongly advocating a 01:05 pickup, but knowing there was absolutely nothing on the other side of security (and a 20 minute right to the airport) he relented to an 02:30 pickup.

Alarm went off at 2am, giving me about four hours of sleep, down to the front desk for a super quick checkout, and my driver was already waiting for me. I managed to still get to the airport about 02:45, and I was checked in and through immigration and security by 3am – still giving me 30 minutes to kill in the duty free and lounge.

Now, during the day, the duty free store is critical. They sell 2 Euro mini bottles of wine, red bull, and everything you could need for a successful airport wait or even flight if the crew doesn’t mind. It’s much better than what I honestly believe is one of the two worst airport lounges anywhere in the world. Almaty’s lounge is tied with Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, the only two lounges I’ve ever been in where you have to PAY for drinks.

This was my first time flying Lufthansa out of Almaty, and they were incredibly generous: you could have one beer or glass of wine on Lufthansa. Or a bottle of water. Everything else was pay. I decided to have a second beer, I was charged nearly 10 euro for it. Absolutely ridiculous. Still rates as one of the worst lounges anywhere in the world. I was still tired, and boarding was on time, and I had definitely made the right call not to endure this lounge for long:

Lufthansa flight 647
Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 04:05, Arrive 07:10, Flight Time: 7:05
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKR, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 52,184
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,429,061

Boarding was pretty efficient, and every seat in business was taken for this morning’s flight to Frankfurt. Business had had 6-8 seats free the entire week before the flight, but despite the load in coach being light, business somehow filled up, and first, which had nobody booked three hours before the flight, somehow went out full. No clue what contributed to this, and it didn’t really matter.

I was really impressed that Lufthansa actually bothered to do the safety announcement in Kazakh on top of Russian:

Shortly after takeoff, a light snack was offered. Perfect late night snack, with which a couple of glasses of wine put me to sleep for close to four hours. On top of the four hours I’d gotten in the hotel it was definitely plenty to keep me going for the next day. I find these super early morning flights really awkward timewise, but for jetlag they are a miracle. You’re plenty tired to sleep when you get on them, and when you wake up it’s bright and sunny out, and your body thinks it’s like 10/11am so it’s ready to go…even though it’s only like 7am local.

Upon waking there were about two hours left in flight, and the crew was going around individually as people woke up and offering them breakfast. Very nice touch. First time I’ve ever had an omelette and a chicken kabob with muesli for breakfast, but was definitely tasty.

I had nearly four hours in Frankfurt, so decided to of course clear customs and head out to Starbucks for some proper caffeination. My travel has gotten so bad the last six months the staff at the Frankfurt Airport Starbucks actually know me by name, and I was paid a nice compliment that my German was really improving. Can’t complain about that!

Unfortunately, about this time, I realized just how exhausted I was. I was supposed to land in DC, have a four hour turnaround, and then fly directly back to Madrid. It wasn’t happening. I called United, asked about changing, made a comment I was in Frankfurt, which was met with “but you fly DC to Madrid tonight” and there was one seat left in my fare class, and she was kind enough to waive the change fee because “it’s kind of like a same day change” and I was booked on the same flights the next day – giving me 24 hours in DC. Great customer service United!

After coffee to wake up it was back through immigration and security to the Z Gates and the Lufthansa Senator Lounge where I had my usual breakfast of bread, cheese, salami, cucumber, and tomato:

Boarding was right on time for my next flight, and it was absolutely packed full on all classes. Three weeks before departure they had downgraded it from a 747-400 to an A340, resulting in a massive loss of seats. The flight must have been lightly booked (at least not enough for a 747) but as an A340 it was going out completely full.

Lufthansa flight 416
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 10:30, Arrive 13:10, Flight Time: 8:40
Airbus A340-300, Registration D-AIFC, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 56,265
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,433,142

Shortly after takeoff, warm almonds and a glass of wine. This plane didn’t have first class, so I decided to just pretend since I was in row one it was kind of the same…minus the macadamia nuts and high class champagne:

Choice of three starters was offered for lunch, and I went with the “shaved black angus beef with lime crème fraîche, sweet chestnuts and Tête de Moine cheese” It was definitely unlike anything I’ve had on a plane before, but absolutely delicious!

Seasonal salad which was kind of sad, and wouldn’t have been at all out of place on United:

Choice of three main courses, and of course I went for the Spargel again…which instead of cold cuts was served with a veal tenderloin this time. Once again, super tasty and confirmed my favourite time of year on Lufthansa! Even in business class!

Far cry from the first class cheese cart, but this Chaumes, Gouda, and Goat Cheese with Date Sesame Honey Chutney was pretty good for business class. Can’t complain – except the lack of sweet biscuits.

Boo pre-packaged ice cream, but yay delicious Crème Brûlée flavour with mango. Definitely an unusual ice cream and super tasty.

Time flew super quickly watching lots of tv and napping a couple hours, and the pre arrival meal was served. Minestrone soup and caesar salad with chicken was ok, and the coconut raspberry pie just rated an “adequate.” The pretzel was the star of the meal, but did a nice job rounding off a solid business class service.

By the time I landed I was very glad I wasn’t turning around in four hours, although I could easily have made it home, showered, and back to the airport in time. Having even one night at home would make a major improvement on my enjoyment of my next part of the trip, as long as nothing further went long and didn’t make me need the extra night in Madrid I had booked along the way…


Jun 142017
 

Upon landing in Almaty fortunately immigration was super quick, and with no checked luggage I was probably from the plane to the sidewalk in under 10 minutes. The team I was visiting had insisted on sending a driver for me, despite my assurances that I was plenty comfortable navigating Almaty at 1am alone, but unfortunately he was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, I only had to wait 10 minutes and I was off to my hotel.

There really are three major choices of hotel that I have discovered in my trips: the Ritz Carlton, the Rixos, and the InterContinental. As far as rooms and facilities go, I think it is a draw between the Ritz Carlton and the Rixos. Both are true five star hotels. The Rixos is located more “downtown” and walkable to some restaurants and stores, while the Ritz Carlton is a bit more on the edge of the city. The InterContinental, while nice, is a fading four star hotel that just isn’t as modern and nice as the other two…and the same price.

I tried the Ritz on my last trip, and decided I liked it a little better than the Rixos for three reasons: (1) it’s located next to a luxury mall, with good places to eat like Paul and a lovely gourmet grocery store that is open until 2am (2) it’s part of Marriott, so in theory they recognize my Platinum status and (3) it’s right next door to a Starbucks.

…and when I say Starbucks, this was my morning view as I sat sipping my coffee on Starbucks’ patio:

Get to the hotel around 130a, check in, no room upgrade possible because they were full, and to my room only to find it had two beds. Normally not the end of the world, but the hotel had reached out to me three days prior as a Marriott Platinum and SPG 200 member, and ensured they would take care of my room preferences. They failed. That is now 0-for-3 for any sort of elite recognition at this property. Granted, I don’t stay at many Ritz Carltons, but is this the norm for the chain?

Honestly, not the end of the world, and while I was at work the next day they did move me to a room with one single king bed so it wasn’t a big deal. I slept great, woke up a bit early due to jet lag, and enjoyed this view of the city before heading downstairs to get some Starbucks:

Not much to say about the day. I refused the offer of a driver, and used Uber to get to and from the office, and it was a perfect experience – not to mention dirt cheap. Maybe $3 US for a 20-25 minute ride in each direction. In many ways Almaty functions perfectly right up there with major western cities, and is by far the most developed place in Central Asia.

Back to the hotel absolutely exhausted after a long work day, and only had energy for a quick dinner in the hotel bar.. Some manti (Kazakh dumplings) for dinner, and I was out like a light.

The event I was facilitating didn’t start until 10am the next day, so down to Starbucks again it was. On the patio the mountain view is one way, and this art view is the other direction:

The art is by Jaume Plensa, a Catalonian artist who has done lots of interesting work. Rather than pretend I know anything about art, I’ll just say I enjoyed this piece and lots of his stuff I googled online. Worth checking out if that’s your thing.

Then, also in the courtyard between the Ritz Carlton, Starbucks, and the mall is this Bottero sculpture:

It is worth noting as I enjoyed my coffee on this second morning, that the Almaty Starbucks (unlike almost every other one in the world) got my name perfectly right – despite ordering in Russian and slowly pronouncing it. Who says the Kazakhs aren’t Westernized and knowledgable! Major points!

As I was leaving to head to work, I noticed this young art critic enjoying the Bottero sculpture:

So beyond that, not much to say about my approximately 48 hours in Kazakhstan. Another lovely visit super productive, and despite the short time on the ground I was able to have some great sessions and work with over 250 people for a very effective full day of seminars. I definitely came away from the event sensing that it had been well worth my time to come all the way to facilitate it.

Kazakhstan (and specifically Almaty) continues to impress me every visit. Even more so than Russia in many ways the country continues to develop and westernize, while at the same time really holding on to aspects of local Kazakh culture that make it unique and really enjoyable. The Kazakhs are also some of the most welcoming people I’ve met anywhere in the world, and are truly curious to learn about other people and places.

If you’re not sure you’re ready to reach out of your comfort zone, I strongly recommend Almaty as a starting point. There is enough there to make you comfortable while you stretch yourself and have some more authentically local experiences…all while retaining the ability to retreat to a familiar environment to rest and recharge.

My event finally ended around 9pm with dinner, drinks, and yes of course karaoke and disco (this is central asia after all) and I managed about three hours sleep from 10p to 1am before my driver collected me to take me back to the airport so I could head to Spain…via Washington DC!


Jun 112017
 

There was something refreshing about being able to head out at 10p on a Sunday for a work trip instead of leaving on a Friday or Saturday and losing an entire weekend. I was actually able to enjoy my weekend, and only head out to the airport around 7pm to catch my flight to Frankfurt. Only one small problem: I was on a J fare, and while my United upgrade to first cleared at the time of booking, Lufthansa was still holding me on the waitlist to Almaty despite first only being booked to three of eight seats. It looked like I wouldn’t find out my fate until I got to Frankfurt. That said, Frankfurt to Almaty (via Astana) was a daytime flight, and with a 2-2-2 configuration in business it was questionable if it was even worth the upgrade.

This was my first time flying United out of Dulles in about six months, and it was rather pathetic to see how United has completely given up on their first product. Premium check-in is tucked away, and there’s no separate check-in for first anymore. Even worse, the agent I spoke to didn’t know there was a difference! “We just have Polaris class now.” Sigh, it just gets worse and worse. It’s to the point I’ve already more than doubled my premier qualifying dollars, have hit the miles, but still don’t have my required four segments on United. Sigh. They still have the best frequent flier program in Star Alliance, however.

Fast forward to the terminal, and my first task was to find some new headphones. I had left mine somewhere on a recent trip, and had forgotten to order new ones, and by the time I realized it it was mid-day Saturday and I didn’t know anywhere good in my ‘hood to buy them. So Dulles it would be.

After getting to the C terminal on the walk to the Global First lounge, I came across one of those Best Buy vending machines I’ve seen the past couple years. I was intrigued by the novelty, and picked up some wired Beats earbuds from the machine. A few weeks later, and I have to say: they’re really good quality and I’m thrilled with my purchase!

Got to the Global First lounge, which was absolutely packed. It’s my understanding they pretty much let all Global Services members in business class in now, and it was the most crowded I’ve ever seen it. High quality self-service bubbles as always, but what passes for cheese these days is absolutely pathetic. The quality of this club is now firmly below the Chicago Polaris lounge. Next time, I’ll actually go to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the B Terminal.

Wait for the flight was uneventful, and soon it was time to board.

United flight 932
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 22:00, Arrive 12:10 next day, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 777-200, Registration N219UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 45,736
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,422,613

Shockingly, United First had been booked to eight of eight a full two weeks before this flight. Either they gave away lots of upgrades and awards well in advance, or they actually managed to sell some first fares. Either way, in years of flying United I’ve never seen first sold out on a Europe route before the day of flight.

Nothing says first class like welcome aboard sparking wine in a plastic bottle served in a plastic flute. I know some people actually consider this aspect of “Polaris” charming, but to me it’s charming in the same way that a Costco hotdog is better than cooking a hotdog at home. You can put cheap lipstick on a pig, but this says “no class” way more than “first class.”

Best part of Polaris: the gel cooling pillow. This proactive crew passed them out to the eight passengers in first, and were soon heard telling the passengers behind us in business there were none left. United corporate may be failing to protect United First, but this crew was spot on.

Soon after takeoff the ramekin of warm nuts arrived, complete with a skewered olive, mozzarella, and tomato. I guess its better than just nuts?

“Seared tuna, kale salad with apple and red quinoa, wasabi paste” – while the tuna looked appetizing it was absolutely flavourless, and the wasabi paste looked more like a baby turd. While better than some of United’s previous attempts at a business appetizer (like the single skewered prawn I got once) it still fell way short.

Carrot ginger bisque soup. Giving credit where credit is due, this was perfectly seasoned and actually delicious.

Salad of cabbage, bok choy, carrot, mango. Just…no. Who needs that much raw cabbage in flight. Nothing says first class like cheap shredded cabbage. Since they’re in this picture, I will note, I love the golf ball salt and pepper shakers in Polaris. Also in this picture which I hate: first class service ON A TRAY.

“Seared short rib” with barbecue sauce, basmati rice, carrot, sugar snap peas. I showed this to a friend who agreed the radioactive red colour of the short rib was rather terrifying. Fortunately, it tasted much better than it looked. I normally hate fattier cuts of beef, but something about United’s short rib gets me every time.

Sigh. What United calls a cheese plate. I might have been impressed if not for what you will see later in this post…

Remember when United served ice cream sundaes? Sure, it’s extremely simple, but sometimes it’s nice to have something simple that reminds you of being a kid. Unfortunately, the fancy new Polaris ice cream sundae dishes seem to have a habit of shattering and putting glass shards in peoples’ mouths, so United has replaced the ice cream sundae with cheap mango sorbet in a cardboard container. Gross.

The mini apple pie and chocolate/nut bar were fairly tasty, to be fair.

Nothing more to say about this flight. I chose the flight for three reasons, and United delivered on all three: the late 10pm departure time, a nice cool cabin for sleeping, and generous pours of red wine which enabled nearly six hours of uninterrupted sleep on the way to Frankfurt. Sleep was so good, actually, that I was out cold until 10 minutes before landing. I had ensured the crew 10 minutes would be enough to bring me to life, and they kindly obliged. I feel the need to mention again this crew was fantastic, and it’s sad United didn’t give them more to work with and be proud of.

On the taxi in Frankfurt, an Uzbekistan 767 which I am very excited to be booked on in a couple of weeks:

Upon landing, I pulled up my reservation on Lufthansa’s app, and something had changed. The waitlisted segment had gone away and it looked like it was confirmed it first, but it was really hard to tell. So, I just headed to the first class lounge, and pretended that all was right. The agent was puzzled, and gave me the “but you are booked in business class.” I told them the app told me the upgrade was confirmed, and when they checked a bit more “yes, the gate JUST processed it. Please come in and enjoy.”

Quick shower, where of course I picked up another Saunaente before enjoying a double espresso and glass of bubbles for “breakfast.”

Fortunately for me, my flight today would be departing from a bus gate, meaning I got a ride to the plane. They may have waited until the very last minute to confirm me, but I was going to get the full Lufthansa First service today. Let’s see how it compares to the Untied flight I just came off of.

Lufthansa flight 646
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Astana, Kazakhstan (TSE)
Depart 13:20, Arrive 22:55, Flight Time: 5:35
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKP, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 48,422
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,425,299

Wow…champagne…and it’s with classy nuts, not in a plastic flute, and I get a rose. I love the little classy touches on Lufthansa.

My ride to the plane…one of the things I love about Lufthansa.

Beef tartar amuse bouche. A bit risqué for an inflight meal, but super tasty with a little creme fraiche.

It may not be the highest quality caviar, but there is something simply elegant about Lufthansa’s caviar service which I love. Plus, they always give me an extra generous helping.

Lufthansa does an appetizer trio, and I admit that usually at least one of the appetizers is a little funky. Today was veal with turnip salad and wild garlic sour cream (super tasty), pomegranate couscous with feta and cashew nuts (also tasty), and the odd prawn cocktail. Odd because it was a single prawn with a creamy sauce that I understand is a german thing. Regardless, compare this (with caviar) with the tuna nightmare United served me, and you can do the maths.

Salad…it’s hard to be too fabulous with salad, and this was just ok. Mixed leaf lettuce with sauteed mushrooms, tomatoes and pumpkin seeds.

Now, I admit I don’t normally think of this as a main course, but when it is Spargelsaison in Germany you can’t pass on the white asparagus entree. I’ve had this a few times now, and I won’t lie – I’ll book trips in May just to have it again. The hollandaise sauce is the perfect accompaniment and the side of smoked turkey breast and cecina de vacuno added just enough protein to make it worth it.

See the United cheese plate above. See the entire Lufthansa cheese CART below. I don’t think anyone does a cheese course like Lufthansa does.

The only reason the plate below is small is because I was stuffed. A couple of the cheeses were wonderful and I would have liked more for sure.

a bit unusual, but delicious: melon strawberry gazpacho with sour cream ice cream. It was so good I asked for more later in the flight, but alas it had all been eaten.

To finish it off, a delicious double espresso with chocolate.

After a few hours of working, I was offered a mezze plate and pretzel before landing in Astana for our brief stopover. Accompanied with another double espresso and some Johnny Walker Blue of course.

Since there was no more gazpacho, it was insisted that I have the tahiti vanilla ice cream with warm cherries. I love cherries, and these were nice and sour and perfectly delicious. Two for two with the desserts tonight. Sure beats pre-packaged mango sorbet!

When we landed in Astana, 90% of the passengers got off. This was quite in contrast to my last time on this flight maybe six months ago when almost everyone was going to Almaty. Today, it would be just me in first class, three people in business class, and according to the crew maybe 40 in economy.

Lufthansa flight 646
Astana, Kazakhstan (TSE) to Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 01:30 next day, Flight Time: 1:45
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKP, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 49,013
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,425,890

I was offered a snack of some sad sandwiches on the segment, but opted to just relax and have a couple of Johnny Walker Blues before landing. Watched some more tv, and before I knew it another fabulous flight in Lufthansa First was unfortunately over. Now, time to get to Kazakhstan and get to work!


May 182017
 

So, a lot of this post is likely going to seem a bit familiar since I did this exact same route just four weeks prior. That trip, however, wasn’t the best Lufthansa First has to offer (at least in the air) although it was still a great trip. I was curious to see how this one would compare…and would it satisfy my craving for Lufthansa First for a while.

Rather than get up early, I had a bit of a revelation the night before. Why get up, shower, dress, get sweaty walking to the First Class Terminal when you can just roll out of bed, throw on anything, and walk there and shower…thus gaining nearly 30 minutes of FCT time? That was settled, so all that was needed was to roll out of bed and across the street to Starbucks, have a quick iced coffee, check out, and walk to perhaps my favourite airport terminal in the world. 10 minute walk from the Sheraton, and I was…”home:”

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I don’t think anyone (except maybe me and a few frequent flier nerds) actually walks to the terminal’s lower level entrance, and most get dropped off 0n the “departures” level of the terminal/airport one level up. But, for the few of us who do, Lufthansa has the entrance well-signed:

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Took the lift up, quick check-in and when the agent saw my name he seemed to have a flicker of recognition. He still asked if I’d ever been to the terminal before, and when I said yes he escorted me through security, told me to make myself comfortable, and he would be right back.

I’d heard rumour that the limited edition Easter ducks were long gone at this point, and when he came back five minutes later with my boarding pass, he told me “we’ve been expecting you, and we saved you a special Easter duck knowing you would want one for your collection for sure!” Now if that isn’t service, I don’t know what is…

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I was pretty hungry by this point, so I joined the duck for a breakfast of fresh-squeezed orange juice and some eggs benedict…which was delicious. Not just “airport good” but honestly one of the best eggs benedict that I’ve had anywhere in the world.

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Still not quite full, I decided to be healthy with some of their more “exotic” fruits on the buffet, and had some dragonfruit, mango, and pomegranate…which I promptly offset with a couple of viennoiseries….

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I was offered more water, and while Voss may be good enough for Madonna, I requested some Valser still this time. Why? Because with the First Class Terminal’s water menu…that’s your prerogative!

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After breakfast had a nice long shower and just took some time to relax. Sitting around in lounges gets old quickly, so was nice to use up my time this morning productively before it was time to head to the plane. I was the only one in the terminal headed to Chicago today, so the Porsche to the plane was all mine:

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Long ride around the airport today, which ended with a nice picture of my rides:

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It’s always great being the only one to walk from a car to the plane, and see the looks you get from your fellow passengers when boarding 😉

Lufthansa flight 430
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 12:45, Flight Time: 9:00
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYP, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,043
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,417,020

Upon boarding champagne was quickly offered, and perfection awaited. Special treat today: 1998 Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs. Don’t get me wrong, I love airlines that pour Krug and Dom, but there’s something extra thoughtful about pouring a slightly more obscure high end champagne. The Sir Winston Churchill on Asiana was memorable, and this Henriot was also a delicious surprise.

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Pre-departure amuse bouche of chevre with mandarin…and if I remember right a roasted red pepper sauce.

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Up in the air, the table was set, and the usual stellar Lufthansa service provided. I must have smiled because upon commenting it’s always nice to see the garlic bread and caviar…

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…they made sure to offer an extra-generous portion of caviar today.

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Trio of starters: marinated tenderloin of veal with lingonberries, smoked rainbow trout with purple potato salad, and leipziger allelei vegetable salad. The salad was underwhelming, but the other two were fantastic.

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Spring onion soup with parmesan cheese and croutons – surprisingly flavourful and tasty!

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Time for the main event – decided to go with the fish option today, and the “monkfish in pommery mustard sauce with ginger cucumber and parsley potatoes” was absolutely amazing. I could have done without the potatoes, but the monkfish was delicious.

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Here comes the cheese and dessert cart. I don’t think anyone does cheese like Lufthansa.

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Nice selection, with some sweet biscuits. Fantastic.

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How could I resist finishing with an apple strudel and some Johnny Walker Blue?

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Ok, one more if you insist…

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Somehow, I wasn’t tired after all this food, so opted for a double espresso and a couple of movies.

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After about five hours of movies, it was time for a pre-landing snack. I was recommended the seafood soup with crawfish tails and chilis and the Spanish meat and cheese plate. Went great with another glass of the delicious Henriot and some pretzel bread.

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Quince jelly and my favourite – manchego cheese. Yum.

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A couple of scoops of cassis sorbet and another glass of Henriot to finish off an absolutely delightful flight.

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They wouldn’t let me finish without a couple of chocolates for the road.

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All in all, another fantastic flight with Lufthansa that lives up to my expectations as my favourite first class product in the world. It’s not the most private seat, it’s not the most exotic food, it’s not necessarily “big name” champagne, but what it is – to me – is solid in every respect. I know what I’m going to get, and I don’t have to wonder if the crew will be good, or what could go wrong today. So, instead of having my Lufthansa fix for a bit, you can believe that I’m looking for another opportunity soon to enjoy it. If I’m lucky, it’ll happen this week…

Immigration and customs were a non-event in Chicago with Global Entry, and I was off to Starbucks to try and wake myself up. Seriously America, I leave you alone for a week and you come up with Unicorn Frappucinos? I weep for the future.

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I stopped by the United Club. I don’t know why. It was depressing. Hot, crowded, and felt like a high school cafeteria. I think I might have lasted five minutes before leaving.

United flight 622
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 17:55, Flight Time: 1:55
Airbus A320, Registration N432UA, Manufactured 1996, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,655
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,418,532

Not much to say here – I think I dozed on and off the whole flight. It was a United domestic flight – there’s nothing to get excited about after getting off of Lufthansa first. It’s funny how context can really impact things – I’m sure it would have been an exciting and thrilling flight (except for the lack of meal) if it was your first time in domestic first.

I was planning after this trip to stay home for a while, but life had other plans. Next absolutely crazy trip starts in under a week, and let’s just call this trip report “One doesn’t go to Marrakesh to study – one goes on the way to Western Sahara! Very Nice! I LIKE!”


May 142017
 

After a quick coffee and beer, we headed down to the Aeroexpress train. It had already been a really long day and I was tired, so decided to spring the extra $10 or so for the business class car, and it turned out there were only 3 people in the whole car. Sure, it’s only like a 30 minute ride, but it was nice to be able to relax and enjoy it.

I had made the mistake of wearing shorts since it was over 70F when we left Abkhazia, but in Moscow it was 35F and freezing cold. After a short metro transfer, we had a 10 minute or so walk to our hotel, the St. Regis, and it was definitely a frigid walk. I’m still amazing not a single babushka came up to me and chastised me for being poorly dressed for the weather!

Check-in was quick and polite, and since both rooms had been booked under my name they were good enough to upgrade both of us to very nice one bedroom suites – can’t complain about that at all! Doing 200+ nights with Starwood last year is definitely paying off with much nicer upgrades than I’m used to receiving. Unfortunately it was going to just be a relatively short overnight and we wouldn’t really have time to enjoy the room, but it was nice nonetheless.

After dropping bags and putting on warmer clothes, we headed out for a walk. First, the obligatory Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral shot – something about the grey cloudy weather gave the perfect mood to the square:

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We wandered around trying to find a shop Ian knew that sold wonderfully kitschy Putin and Russia souvenirs, but apparently they’d gone out of business in the last year. We headed back to the GUM department store for some fantastic pistachio ice cream, and deciding we were hungry decided to check out Stolovaya #57 – a cafeteria in the department store modeled after an old school Soviet cafeteria…except with much better variety of food!

Vegetable salad with beetroot, peas, carrots….fresh fruit, stuffed bell pepper, and a chicken cutlet with mushroom sauce. Delicious and filling…and very authentically Russian…all this for under $10.

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After eating we wandered through the grocery store in GUM, and in the alcohol section they were selling Kalashnikov brand vodka….complete in a plastic kalashnikov bottle….only in Russia!

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After dinner, we headed to a small bar I’d been told about, not terribly far from Red Square, called Rules Taproom. A friend had told me they had one of the best craft beer menus in the world, but that we should expect to feel “tragically old and uncool.” We definitely brought the average age up by quite a bit, but at least we didn’t look too out of place with the extremely tattooed and hipster crowd. Plus, an amazing taplist and great taps!  A hockey trophy, brass knuckles, a grenade, a wrench, and lots of other cool stuff. Can’t wait to go back!

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Back to the hotel and bed by a reasonable hour, because we wanted to be sure to be able to hit the St. Regis’ amazing breakfast buffet before heading to the airport. Flight was at 9am, and it can take up to an hour to get to the airport, so with a 630a opening time for the buffet we knew we would be cutting it close.

Great night of sleep, at the buffet right when it opened, and it was worth the wait! Smoked salmon and whitefish, caviar, blue cheese, pain au chocolate, and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. With a pot of tea, of course!

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Took nearly an hour for our Uber to get to the airport, but was definitely the quickest option. We did make it with plenty of time, but unfortunately I lost Ian at immigration, because his gates were at a different checkpoint, and clogged with loads of Central Asians who they were taking forever to process. I, however, made it through quite quickly and even had five minutes to stop in the SWISS lounge for some water and snack. Unfortunately, none of the shops sold more Putin magnets.

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Fortunately, the lounge was only a two minute walk from my gate, so nice and easy for boarding which was right on time.

SWISS flight 1325
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 9:05, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 4:35
Airbus A320, Registration HB-IJS, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,522
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,399

Something about the welcome screens on SWISS always makes me feel relaxed and multicultural…a good feeling in this increasingly isolationist and polarized world:

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Pushback…the wonderfully kitschy lime green S7 livery and a Ural Airlines plane:

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Great view of the parked planes including a couple of Tupolevs on takeoff. Those S7 planes really stand out!

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Not a bad breakfast for a relatively short regional flight! Delicious Muesli, reasonable omelette, perfectly buttery and flaky croissant (unlike the ones usually served on US domestic flights which are more like glorified crescent rolls), some fresh fruit and cheese. I decided to make it a champagne brunch, and the fantastic crew insisted I have a second class…and pushed it on the guy across the aisle too. “If you waste the rest of the bottle, it will be a real pity!” Who can argue with that logic!

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Touchdown in a very snowy Zurich…yes, this is late April!

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Headed through immigration, and decided while I was at it to leave the secured area. As usual when dealing with Swiss border guards, they asked me a million questions, acting as if I was the most suspicious character they’d ever met. All Schengen/Swiss border controls are NOT equal – despite the intent. Why would you fly Zurich to Frankfurt? Why not just fly Moscow to Frankfurt? Why are you in Europe so much? Why do you spend so much time in Russia recently? Why is there a stamp from Somalia in your passport, on and on for nearly 15 minutes.

Headed to Starbucks for the most expensive Starbucks in the world (nearly $8 for an Americano – I think the only place more expensive might be Copenhagen…although even that might not compete these days.) On that note, any readers interested in adding to my database of Starbucks prices around the world hit me up. I track the price of a grande drip coffee (with tax) if you have a chance to look at your local shop.

After heading back through security, I headed to the SWISS lounge, where it was time for a local beer and a snack:

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One more local beer, and some Gummibärchen….because…it was still snowing and my Lufthansa flight was delayed nearly two hours:

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Finally, nearly two hours late, our flight was ready for boarding, so I headed off to the gate, where our Lufthansa plane was just pulling in….looks like we’ll be almost 2.5 hours late in the end! How un-German!

Lufthansa flight 1191
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 14:40, Arrive 15:45, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPY, Manufactured 1991, Seat 6F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,699
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,576

On the taxi out, I noticed lots of sleet and ice forming on the window:

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We were at the end of the runway, turning onto the active runway to take off, when I also noticed lots of ice/sleet/slush accumulating on the wings. Visions of Air Florida started dancing through my head, and I decided to start ringing the flight attendant call button frantically – probably 10 times in 10 seconds or so. I still don’t know if it was me, or a sensor in the cockpit, but the pilot turned off the active runway and announced to us we would need to deice before taking off due to snow moving in as we taxied out. Quite a scary moment!

Once airborne, despite the 50 minute flight time, a small snack was served. Scary sandwich, some fresh fruit, chocolate, and a glass of white wine. Skipped the sandwich, but the rest was quite tasty and impressive service for a short flight. This probably wasn’t Lufthansa’s best effort with the delay and all, but overall I still was left with a better impression that I usually am in the US. I think the attitude and composure of the crew went a long way towards helping.

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Landed in Frankfurt much later than expected, but fortunately was staying at the airport Sheraton. I was met by the general manager at check-in, who let me know that they’d followed up on my previous disappointing stay, and found a room that was extra cool with great air conditioning. I found out later they had blocked the room on both sides of me as well as above and below, and turned the air up full blast in those. A bit unnecessary, but the effort and CRM was super welcome. I’ll definitely be staying at this property again.

Headed out to Naiv, my favourite craft beer bar in the area, and enjoyed some delicious beer-braised bacon-wrapped dates:

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Along with a reasonably tasty German imperial IPA or three:

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With that, it was a quick ride back to the hotel for a bit of sleep. I wanted to make sure to be up early to enjoy what I hoped would be another amazing experience in the Lufthansa first class terminal!


May 112017
 

Woke up around 8am, since we wanted to be at breakfast at 830 right when it opened. We had asked our driver to meet us at 9am, and hoped he would be on time. Well, when we got to breakfast he was already there, and it was the same driver who brought us from Sochi two days prior. I guess he changed his mind and decided to make the trip after all! I never did ask him why he changed his mind, as he’d likely had to leave Sochi very early in order to come get us.

Quick breakfast with him waiting, and I noticed he was chatting with the lady at the front desk. She had kindly already explained to him we needed to make a quick stop at the Ministry of Repatriation on the way out of town to get the visa, and he was ok with that. On the way, I think we almost got hit two or three times, which launched him into a long tirade about the quality of drivers in Abkhazia. Found the ministry by 905a, and luckily they were already open.

Found the room where visas were issued, and there was no wait. We were invited in, the good bureaucrat started writing down all of our information, asked if we would pay together, and then asked for a credit card – never telling us the amount. Based on information I found online, they usually keep your passport, tell you how much the visa is, and then you have to go a couple blocks away to the bank to pay for it. Seems now, as long as you pay with credit card, you can pay on the spot. One problem, I told him, American credit cards won’t work in Abkhazia. He insisted on trying, and it went through no problem on the first try. All told, we were maybe there five minutes, and left with shiny new Abkhazia visas (which incidentally, were never checked after all.)

Not much to say about the drive to the border. We’d made most of the drive twice already, and it was completely uneventful this morning as well.

Got to the border, and were sent out of Abkhazia without much more than a 5 second glance at our passports. Same routine as before on the Russia side. Driver takes the car through, and we walk over to the passenger processing building and queue in line. I went first, and after a few questions from the junior-looking FSB agent (clearly stated on his uniform) he asked me to go have a seat and wait. A few minutes later, Ian got the same treatment. Now, entering Russia from an unrecognized country on a US passport probably isn’t something they see every day, so I figured we were just waiting for a more senior agent to check his work. This was confirmed 10 minutes later when a guy with more stars on his uniform came in, handed us our passports, and said thank you for waiting. Just like that, we were in.

One note: Russia does not stamp you in or out at this border, so there is no documentation of your visit to Abkhazia. Similarly, Abkhazia does not paste the visa in your passport, and they do not stamp your passport. Thus, no problems with getting into Georgia later.

Back in Sochi, and a minute later we drove past some of the Olympics stadiums:

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Made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and check-in was a relative breeze as well. Unfortunately, the Aeroflot agent was having absolutely none of me, and insisted my rolling bag was going to be checked today. Decided not to fight it too hard, and just go with it. After grabbing my first decent coffee in a couple of days, we decided to sit down for some lunch before the flight. Delicious borshch with fresh garlic cloves and meat and a dark russian beer:

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After that, it was through security, where they had the best giftshop ever. I wish I’d been thinking a bit clearer, because I definitely would have bought a few more things. I mean, check out these t-shirts:

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Shapkas, magnets, and even strangely Philadelphia Flyers magnets for some reason. Because…Russia!

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I picked up a couple of magnets for my fridge:

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Unfortunately, Ian got the last one of these:

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We got to the gate just as they were boarding the buses to our plane. For some reason, they had subbed in a 777 on this route a week before this flight, and based on the seatmap online and the buses, it didn’t look like it was even close to a full flight today!

Aeroflot flight 6552 operated by Rossiya
Sochi/Adler, Russia (AER) to Moscow Vnukovo, Russia (VKO)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 16:30, Flight Time: 2:20
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration EI-UNP, Manufactured 1998, Seat 61A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,053
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,412,030

The plane was parked at an international gate, which is apparently why we had to take a bus to it. When we got there, Putin’s leopard friend was smiling at us:

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Last row of the plane! I had no idea row numbers even went up this high!

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Yup, it was definitely a light load today, way under half full, and in the back there was pretty much nobody except us!

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Goodbye Sochi!

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Good view of the Olympic venues as we flew out over the Black Sea:

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Only water and a “snack” were offered. Still not sure what this was – one was some sort of chocolate meringue thing, and the other was vanilla.

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Uneventful flight, and with all the space it was almost a pleasant flight as well.

Meow, our plane saying goodbye to us in Moscow:

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After retrieving my bag (which thanks to the elite bagtag actually did come off the plane first) I found the best cafe ever. Coffee and Beer House! My two favourite things (excluding champagne) in one place! We had to stop while waiting on the next Aeroexpress train to the city to arrive.

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After a quick espresso and beer, it was off on the train to enjoy our one night in Moscow!


May 072017
 

Was nice to sleep in a bit (seriously, what kind of hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 830? that’s kinda awesome) and headed down to meet Ian at breakfast. Only choice offered was coffee or tea, and then breakfast started arriving, one piece at a time. First came porridge, then bread, then a special easter roll, then eggs, then a meat/cheese plate, it was absolutely insane – tried to eat as much as possible not to offend, but it was crazy. Fortunately, they insisted we take the Easter rolls to go, haha. Did I mention how great service was at this hotel?

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We hadn’t booked our driver until 11am, just in case we really needed the sleep, so had a bit of time to walk around in the morning first. First stop was the Ministry of Repatriation to try and get the visa, but nope, we did find a security guard outside who told us they were still closed for Easter – try back tomorrow. Hopefully we could get the visa on the way out of town!

Still had some time, so decided to stop for some “real” coffee at the place we went the day before that made decent ice lattes. On the way, we walked by the somewhat odd “Monument to the Victims of Political Repression.” Looked like a rock with some barbed wire around it…but who am I to judge “art”…

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After coffee, our driver picked us up. There was a new receptionist at the front desk of the hotel today, but the one from the previous day had clearly filled her in. She spoke excellent English as well, and apologized for not only the visa office not being open, but also for the fact our driver did not speak a word of English. No problem at all – free Russian lessons on top of being a driver!

We told him the things we wanted to see, and we were off. First stop was in the town of New Athos (Novij Afon) where the big attraction is the giant cathedral. Unfortunately, it’s in an enclosed courtyard, which makes getting a good picture of the entire thing a little difficult:

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One of the smaller towers around the courtyard:

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Back when I was taking Russian lessons, there were those words in the textbook you never knew you’d have a use for. Like “female crane operator” or “old lady.” Well, this nice old lady was soliciting money outside the monastery, so I had to wish her “good morning, old lady!” She just smiled a (mostly toothless) grin back at me.

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The monastery was located up on a hill overlooking the town and Black Sea:

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Panoramic of the area:

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Cat on a hot monastery ledge:

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The other big sight in town is a really deep cave complex, but unfortunately it was closed on Mondays in the “off season” so we wouldn’t be able to see that. Our driver suggested we go see a waterfall instead:

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Soviet era hydropower station on the waterfall:

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Nice lake at the top of the waterfall:

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Water rushing down from above:

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I am king of the waterfall!

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After the waterfall, our driver said we also had to go see a nice park nearby. Definitely a nice, calm place that you could sit for hours and read a book on a nice day like today:

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…and there were ostriches in the park. Naturally, lol

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We got in the car/van, and had driven no more than a minute from the park when we spotted a guy walking with a bear down the road. No leash, just a guy out walking his bear. Because…Abkhazia. We asked the driver to stop, and we asked the guy if we might take a picture of the bear. Fully expected him to ask for money, but nope, he was just happy to let people see his bear. Look at those claws!

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We asked, and he informed us the bear’s name was Masha. Hi Masha! “Masha and the Bear” was also the name of a popular kid’s tv program in Russia.

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Masha loved having her tummy rubbed too:

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She also took quite a liking to Ian. This was definitely one of the most random travel encounters I’ve ever had. You know, just a guy out walking his bear down the street in the afternoon. We asked him what he would do when she gets bigger, and his response was “oh, I already have a bigger one at home.” Of course you do. Abkhazia.

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We continued the drive north to Gagra, which was up near the border with Russia. Our driver knew an overlook point on the city, so up, up we went for a panoramic view:

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The “beach” in Gagra. Not very appealing, but supposedly packed with Russian tourists in the summer:

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Right next to the beach was the Al Capone Pasta, Sushi, and Pizza restaurant. Uhhh, ok. We were getting hungry at this point, TripAdvisor said it was good, so we had to check it out.

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We ordered, and then the waitress brought over some props. “You have to take a picture with the hat and guns!” Of course we do. Because…Abkhazia. So incredibly random. Let’s just assume they weren’t loaded…ok?

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After a tasty lunch, we headed out on the drive to the final part of the day, the Lake Ritsa park up in the mountains. On the way, there was an “I love Abkhazia” bridge for the obligatory photo op. It was maybe 65 degrees at this point as we headed up into the mountains:

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Finally we made it up to Lake Ritsa, and were rewarded with fantastic views:

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Lots of snow on the mountains. Stalin also had his summer dacha on this lake, but unfortunately it was also not open to visitors in the off-season. It was much colder up by the lake, maybe 50 degrees or so.

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The lake from one of the empty cafes overlooking it. You could tell that this place is really popular in the summer, but in the winter there was nobody around, despite the amazing views with the snow-capped mountains:

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Obligatory photo op in front of the lake and mountains:

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One more shot of the lake with the hills and mountains in the background. Notice the little bit of snow still on the ground:

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It was late afternoon at this point, and time to begin the drive back to Sukhumi. It was about a two hour drive back, and we made it back in time to have a relaxing evening. We wanted to make sure that we got to the restaurant from the night before with enough time to have a proper meal and still call it an early night.

I had submitted a booking request with kiwitaxi.com again, and they had confirmed, so it was good to know that our driver would be ready the next morning at 9am right after breakfast to take us back to Sochi and to the airport in time for our flight. Hopefully he wouldn’t mind a 15 minute stop by the visa office on the way so we could get the visa, and hopefully they would be open on time!

Dinner was super tasty with khatchapuri again (only this time, the smaller version) and some beef stroganoff which was rather tasty. The main street was much more happening this evening, with lots of families out strolling around, and the restaurant was packed with people having dinner.

Early to bed after a couple of drinks at the hotel’s nice outdoor patio bar, and ready for the drive back to Sochi.


May 062017
 

Our driver had a bit of a difficult time locating our hotel, but after a couple minutes of searching we found it. We had booked the Leon Boutique Hotel based on TripAdvisor reviews and when we arrived it was quiet – and almost deserted looking. However, the lady working the reception desk was super pleasant, spoke excellent English, and had us quickly on the way to our rooms. Unfortunately, the bar and restaurant were closed because of Easter, but other than that no problems.

My room was a short walk up the staircase from reception, which I thought might make it a bit noisy, but that was never a problem…since breakfast didn’t start until 8:30 anyways and the bar closed down quite early. Room was rather small, but very comfortable with everything needed, and had excellent air conditioning. All in all, a great value for the price.

We headed out for a walk and to get a bit to eat, but first asked the helpful lady at the front desk about finding a driver for the next day to see some sites outside of the city. She of course had a friend who was a driver, and she would call him and check while we were out. Super helpful.

Short walk along the Black Sea waterfront, trying to find a cafe which had been recommended called Cafe Penguin. First attraction was a waterfront statue called “Nika and the Record Player.” Supposedly it is about a girl whose lover is out to see, and she frequently gets records that remind her of him…

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Pier jutting out into the Black Sea:

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We finally found Cafe Penguin, but it was closed for Easter. Ian had to have a conversation with the penguin statue to make sure it really was closed….

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If only I spoke Abkhaz, I might know who this was on the side of a building with the Abkhaz flag…it doesn’t LOOK like the President Raul Khajimba

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yes Sukhum! Posing with the name of the city on the waterfront.

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We finally found a place that was open called Barrista Coffee which made a pretty decent iced latte and rather tasty cheese varenyky:

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After sitting and having lunch, we wandered through the super quiet city, trying to find the office where we had to go and purchase the Abkhazia visa before leaving the country. We figured it wouldn’t be open on Easter Sunday, but best to know where it was so we could find it on Monday. On the walk, this place encouraged us to just take some coffee. I think they mean takeaway…

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Another political poster…not sure who this guy is either…

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We did manage to find the visa office…I mean the “Ministry of Repatriation” and then walked towards what looked like a large burned out building on the edge of the city centre. This was formerly the Council of Ministers for the Abkhaz Autonomous SSR in Soviet Times, and after independence was taken over by Georgia. After war broke out (over fears by Abkhazia that under a Georgian state they would lose their autonomy and be treated harshly by the Georgians) in 1992 the local Abkhazis were largely supported by Russia and other autonomous groups in the Caucuses against the Georgians.

Long story short, after multiple violated ceasefires by both sides, the last battle of Sukhumi was fought in September 1993. Eduard Shevardnadze was even still in town, and barely managed to escape. The Georgian forces/government retreated to this government building and after a campaign and hundreds were killed by the separatists when they arrived. The building still stands, burned out and scarred:

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Flag of Abkhazia flies atop the building…

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After nearly 25 years, lots of vegetation is growing inside the first floor.

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Staircase to the second floor that has seen better days. Of course we went up.

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Nothing left on the second floor except lots of rubble and graffiti.

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Bullet holes in the staircase.

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Posing on the second floor.

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Pro-Moscow graffiti.

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Outside of the building. There were some kids on the roof, but no idea how they got up there. The staircases from the second floor were all welded shut, and the lifts had long ago been looted.

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After exploring for a bit, we headed back to the hotel the long way. The Nefertiti beauty salon was also closed…

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After a quick rest up at the hotel, we headed out to try and find dinner. First, the helpful lady at reception informed us her driver could take us on a group tour, but we would only see what was on the itinerary, for about $30. For $60 for the whole day, we could have a car to ourselves, and the driver would take us anywhere we wanted. Easy decision! Plus, this meant not leaving on a schedule, and being able to head out at 10am when we wanted – sleeping in and having breakfast.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the restaurant at 730, we were informed that the kitchen was closed because it was Easter. Seeing how bummed we were, she offered that “the khatchapuri oven is still open. You can have that.” After a bit of back and forth (do you want an egg on it maybe?) we also asked if we could get some Abkhaz wine…since we have heard how good it is. That seemed to please her, and after asking “dry or sweet” we got a respectable bottle of dry red wine, and delicious khatchapuri with egg. Yes, they were as big as they look, and enough for a meal.

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After eating, the guy at the next table and his companion started chatting us up in very broken English. In a mixture of English and Russian we had a nearly hour long chat with them. Seems she was Russian, and has a visa to visit the US, but doesn’t know now if she wants to come because of Trump. Him? Supposedly he’s a big-deal Abkhaz filmmaker, but can’t leave Abkhazia because there are no jobs. The whole conversation was surreal…until he started telling us what a big fan of Omar Bradley he was. It was definitely one of those unique travel experiences. Back to the hotel and crash, big day of driving the next day!