Aug 292011

When we were planning our hops around the ABC Islands, I was hoping to fly into one island, then to the next, then the next, and then out to somewhere in northern south america to continue the trip. The main challenge, however, was that once you were in the islands, all flights seemed to go via Curaçao. However, a bit of research turned up a small airline called Tiara Air who flew nonstop from Aruba to Bonaire, and then we could easily fly on to Curaçao and out to Caracas or Bogotá. Easy choice!

Booking Tiara Air was also pretty easy. Their website was quite easy to use and user-friendly, and soon we were confirmed at times that worked perfectly with our schedule. The big drama came when I checked my AmEx, and there was a strange charge from some company in Peru. I’ve never been to peru, and was pretty sure something was up so I called to have AmEx look into it. About 6 weeks later they e-mailed me a PDF of my Tiara Air tickets. Why they billed from Peru is beyond me – so just something to be alert to.

One thing I was pretty excited about was the plane. Tiara flies a fleet of Shorts 360 aircraft (also known as the SD3-60) which are manufactured in Northern Ireland and can hold up to 36 passengers. We’d flown planes made in the US, Canada, Brazil, Russia, China, the Netherlands to date, but definitely nothing from Northern Ireland – this was going to be fun!

Check-in was quick and efficient in Aruba, and the “non-US” check-in area was in a room which could double as a walk-in freezer it was so cold. Then, it was on to a connecting area outside which took us to the main terminal and immigration. Our incoming flight was late, so we ended up boarding and leaving about 15 minutes late.

Tiara Air (3P) Flight 303
Aruba to Bonaire
Shorts 360 – Seat 7A – Registration P4-TIA, date of manufacture unknown
Depart: 9:10 Arrive: 10:00, actual arrival 10:10

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Aug 292011

Our second night in Aruba we decided to check out the Yemanja Restaurant.  Just wanted to share a couple of quick impressions on it.

We started off with a couple of local Balashi beers which were good, but they only had them in the bottle which I thought was a bit strange for a local beer while they had Heineken on draft – a bit strange.

For starters we got the scallop sashimi with roe.  They were quite tasty, with just a little bit of light sauce on them and a generous dollop of black roe.  Came with a small fresh side of seaweed salad that was also quite good.

Now, anyone who knows us knows we don’t drink white wine – ever.  Unless a glass comes as part of a set tasting menu, I’m pretty sure we’ve never ever ordered a bottle…until this meal.  With all the fish and the hot weather, it just felt perfect, so we tried an Argentine Chardonnay which was pretty decent especially for the price.  Pretty surprising how reasonable overall wines seemed at restaurants in Aruba.

Matt decided to go with the special for his main, which was grilled local wahoo done simply on the grill with a bit of butter.  It was actually slightly on the dry side for being a local fresh catch but pretty good.  I got the baked grouper stuffed with boursin which was very tasty but too heavy on the boursin – it definitely overpowered the milder fish.  Both entrees came with a side of brazilian-style black beans, mashed potatoes, stir fried veg and basmati rice.  The rice was semi-hard and over-cooked and none of the other sides were worth writing home about either.

Final thoughts, it was a decent meal, but not sure I’d return if I was in Aruba again.  We definitely liked Wacky Wahoo’s the first night better and I’m sure there are other places on Aruba that are slightly better.  The service was good and friendly, but just seemed a little off and unauthentic overall.  Didn’t really have that warm and welcoming local feeling we’d had the night before.

Aug 272011

When I was looking around online for things to do in Aruba, the one thing I kept seeing over and over to do was a visit to the Natural Pool. This is a group of rocks at the edge of the island that form a bit of a ring and create a sort of nature-made “pool” at the edge of the island. When looking around for ways to get to it (it’s on the opposite side of the island from all the hotels) I came upon a few big tour-bus type operations, and also a rather unique tour operated by a lady named Madi. All everyone would say about Madi is that she was a “bit of a free spirt” and a native Aruban who was as much a part of this island as the land itself. I was sold!

There was only one complication – every review I saw of Madi online said she was notoriously difficult to get ahold of – both by phone and e-mail, but that persistence would pay off. I decided to put the American Express concierge service to work, and eventually after two weeks they reached her, and had everything booked – we were all set.

Madi had told AmEx that she would meet us at the hotel at 9:00am and to be expecting her big red Jeep. True to word, she was exactly on time, and we were off. She couldn’t remember if she had two others for the tour or not, but we would swing by their hotel on the way to see – otherwise, it was going to be a private tour for us!

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Aug 262011

The big day has finally arrived, and the big adventure has begun!  After several long months of planning and anticipation the day is finally here:  it’s time to head out on the big trip Around the World!

Stop one is Aruba via a Newark connection.  I have to admit, I really haven’t missed Newark in the past years since we gave up on the old Northwest/Continental alliance and went over to United, but I do admit the service on Continental.  I had two primary concerns about this segment of the trip.  First, the connection in Newark was only 65 minutes, which even on a good day could be a bit of a challenge at Newark.  Secondly, I figured (maybe foolishly) with 24 first class seats on this plane, the complimentary platinum upgrade would be a sure thing – after all, leisure routes to vacation destinations tend to be easy for the most part.

In the two months leading up to departure date, it went from 2 seats taken, to 8, to 12, and eventually to 23.  This was NOT part of the plan!  Up until the day of departure, however, it stuck at 23 seats taken so there was at least a reasonable chance one of us would get the upgrade.  One nice thing about Continental is their mobile app.  You can see right where you stand on the upgrade list in real time, along with lots of other useful information.  I really hope this stays after the merger!

Unfortunately, a 7am departure meant getting up by 430am to get caffeinated and ready, but in the end it wasn’t too bad.  Check-in at DCA was easy, the Continental staff were incredibly friendly, and everything was going off like clockwork.

Continental Flight 2185, Operated by ExpressJet
Washington, National to Newark
Depart 6:56 Arrive 8:02- actual departure 10 minutes easy, arrive 15 minutes early
ERJ-145, Registration N14991, Manufactured 2000
Seats 1A and 2A

Not too much to say about this flight. It was booked to 23 out of 50 seats, was nice and light, weather was good, and it was completely uneventful. Any time you arrive early into Newark is a good thing! We got the joy, however, of arriving into Terminal A and getting to take the shuttle bus over to Terminal C for the connecting flight. Ahhh, that’s the Newark I remember!

Continental Flight 1638
Newark to Aruba
Depart 9:06 Arrive 13:40
Boeing 757-300, Registration N78866, Manufactured 2002
Seats 6F and 21D

Unfortunately, only one of our upgrades cleared, and as an early birthday gift Matt was kind enough to give it to me. However, in the end, I think he might have gotten the better deal! An empty exit row, and not sandwiched between obnoxious New Yorkers talking about their $150,000 cars, unreliable nannies and complaining about the unkosher meals. Ahhhh, Continental!

Due to weather, we pushed back, and then got the honour of waiting roughly an hour to depart due to weather to the north of the field. Despite nearly an hour late departure, however, we ended up arriving only about 45-50 minutes late, so not all that bad in the grand scheme of things.

The meal service wasn’t much to write home about. Some eggs with potatoes, fruit, and ham, or a cereal and yogurt. Both with either a biscuit or cinnamon roll. Most of it was rather unappetizing looking, and after trading with my Atkins diet but non-pork-eating seat mate, I ended up with a meal of extra ham and fruit. Not too bad in the end!

Arrival was just a bit late, through immigration in 15 minutes or so, and out to taxi land. I had a hard time figuring out the currency situation in Aruba beforehand. I knew there was an Aruban Guilder which is the official currency, but lots of prices seemed to be published in dollars. I looked for an ABM in the airport, but not finding one, we decided to take our chances on a cab. Also, we did something we never do – despite there not being a meter, we didn’t even bother asking the fare and just set off.

Around 20 minutes later we got to the Westin, and the driver quoted a fare of “25.” Not knowing if this was fair, but seeming not too bad, I handed him $25….he went to the cab, got some change, and gave me $15 back. I guess the 25 was in Guilders. Strange, because so far everything else I’ve seen on the island has been quoted in dollars, so it’s a bit difficult to figure out how everything works.

The Westin Aruba is pretty nice, and we ended up with a complimentary platinum upgrade to an Oceanview Suite – hopefully some pictures to follow tomorrow. We were too anxious to get to the beach before sunset, so didn’t do much looking around today.

Dinner was at Wacky Wahoo’s which we had booked in advance due to recommendations on TripAdvisor. We didn’t know it was walking distance from the hotel (maybe just over 1km or so) so that was just an added bonus. We also weren’t sure if the prices were in US$ or Guilders…but even in US$ hey weren’t too bad. The service was efficient and very friendly, and the fish was amazing. Probably some of the best we’ve ever had! We started with a calimari and conch plate which was excellent, and for entrees I had a great shrimp and conch stew which was billed as “island viagra for those who can stand spicy!” It wasn’t that hot, but was absolutely delicious. I would highly recommend it!

Aug 242011

Woke up in the morning, and was honestly feeling quite a bit better.  The hallucinations were gone, the shivers and fever had mostly passed, and it was just residual stomach sketchiness.  A bit off coffee and immodium and I was pretty sure I could make it back home.  Pretty clear this was either food poisoning or some short-lived virus, so I was pretty fortunate.  The tube ride to Heathrow (at just under 90 minutes) was barely tolerable, but no major drama, and was soon ensconced in the Star Alliance lounge and sipping water before boarding the flight back to DC.

United Flight 925
London, Heathrow to Washington, Dulles
Boeing 777, Registration N778UA, Manufactured 1996
Depart 16:20 Arrive 19:45
Seat 11B

So departure came and went, and was very uneventful. Normally, I look forward to the business class meal as a way to pass a bit of time, but…this time…no WAY. Every time the crew passed through, I was either in the lav or asking for a ginger ale. But, at least I felt a thousand times better than the day prior, so that was a huge accomplishment. I considered asking for parts of the meal a couple times, but quickly realised just how bad of an idea that would be!

However, after the meal service, there was a bit of drama. The pilot came by, and asked if he could speak with me for a moment. Seems my behaviour was “suspicious” (refusing meals, etc) and they were concerned about the amount of time I was spending in the lav – I wasn’t doing anything wrong in there, was I? So, I had to explain to the guy the details (yeah, I left out the Iraq part) and he was pretty satisfied – I think. At least he didn’t bother me again, so I can only assume everything was fine!

Arrival was on time, immigration was easy, and soon I was home and relaxing. In the end, just having the extra space in business made this flight worth it. When you never know when you’re going to have to give up, just having that extra space to not have to excuse yourself past several people makes all the difference in the world!

Aug 232011

“In the event that anyone is scheduled to fly into or out of POS (Piarco International Airport, Trinidad & Tobago), be aware that our Prime Minster has declared a limited state of emergency starting at 9pm on August 22.

Limited State of Emergency At a Glance

Soldiers will exercise powers enjoyed by police during the period of the Limited State of Emergency:
– Search and seizure powers enhanced because you don’t need a search warrant
– Powers of arrest and detention are included; they will be able to arrest but will hand over detainees to police.

Police can arrest and detain for up to 24 hours after which a magistrate, or assistant superintendent (or higher), will be able to add an extra 7 days
– No bail for those arrested during the State of Emergency; courts no longer will have the power to grant bail.

You must comply with all requests by police to stop for search and seizure protocols
– A special 3-person tribunal will be set up by Chief Justice to oversee and adjudicate all possible cases of abuse of power
– Religious services, educational services, entertainments, etc. are exempt from requesting advanced permission from the Police Commissioner

NB: The entire country – Trinidad & Tobago is under a State of Emergency.”

Oh…well…isn’t THAT just swell!  I’m scheduled to do that in just a few days.  Seems this is fallout from last week’s riots in the UK, part of what was concentrated in the Trinidadian community in London, and has now crossed the Atlantic back to Trinidad, which is experiencing an explosion in robbery, murders, etc.  It might be time to start looking for alternate routes from Curaçao to Caracas!

Aug 232011

Before I get started on this, I have to be up-front.  This post might be a bit graphic in nature, and contains absolutely no pictures for reasons which will very very quickly become obvious!

We were safely ensconced in the Croatia Airlines lounge, where I believe I immediately collapsed on one of the couches…and go figure, just when I needed it most, this was one of those evil lounges that made you leave the lounge and go into the common areas of the airport to find facilities.  However, they had apple juice.  Ice cold apple juice.  The one thing that made me feel even remotely-human.  I spent most of the next hour as a shivering mess on the couch, to the point I vaguely remember Matt telling me to try and pull it together long enough that they didn’t pull us from the flight, lol.

Down to the gate, bus to the plane, and I managed to hold it together long enough to get on, board, take off, and get in the air!  Fortunately, there were only 3 people in all of business class, so I didn’t cause myself TOO much embarrassment!

Croatia Airlines Flight 492
Zagreb, Croatia to London, Heathrow
Depart 14:40, Arrive 16:05, 2 hours, 25 minutes
Airbus A319, Registration 9A-CTL, Manufactured 2000
Seat 2A

Now, as I am typing this I just realised this: no matter how badly I felt, one of two things was at work. Either I’m an über travel geek, or I wasn’t quite as bad as I thought, because I was still with it enough to manage to get the registration number of the plane. I’m going with the geek part, because I seriously was quite a mess. To the point when offered food I gave the flight attendant the look of death and asked for a ginger ale, and proceeded to try and sleep flat on the row of three seats in between bouts of shivering uncontrollably.

There’s not much to say about this flight. I managed to survive the two hours, land at Heathrow, AND make it all the way to immigration…and through immigration, without causing an international incident.  From what I remember, economy was packed, business was empty, and the crew was as nice and accommodating as could be expected.  But then again, I probably wasn’t the best judge!  Then…it was the tube. I don’t remember lots of the tube ride home, but suffice to say you regret living in Canary Wharf when it takes 90 minutes to get there and you’re barely feeling alive. I remember the following pattern: shiver, fall asleep, kick random guy across the aisle, wake up, apologize, repeat. Somehow, again, I made it, without causing serious drama.

The next 12 hours or so was a continuation of the pattern, but at least it was in bed! By morning, enough had passed that I was ready to consider the trek back to DC. I had considered just staying in London the next couple days, but the thought of going immediately with a confirmed upgrade to business far outweighed any potential recovery and going two days later in a middle seat in economy. NO THANKS!

Aug 222011

We made it to the airport in Erbil in plenty of time, and soon were through the several layers of security and in the check-in area.  There was a vehicle-check, an x-ray in a building a couple hundred metres from the terminal, and then finally another layer before getting into the terminal.  Oh, not to mention another layer before getting into the “gate” area.

Check-in was completely uneventful, but unfortunately Austrian didn’t have any sort of lounge here for business passengers.  I’m not sure if this is the first time I’ve been on an inter-continental flight in business class without a lounge, but it was what it was.  Managed to get a couple of Diet Cokes and a can of Pringles in the small cafe in the gate area, and soon we were boarding the flight to Vienna. Continue reading »

Aug 212011

Immigration was a breeze, and soon we were really there…we were in Iraq.  But wait…where are the taxis?  Now, I guess we hadn’t really planned this part too well, because it’s not like the Erbil International Airport was really prepared with a modern tourist infrastructure.  After a bit of asking around, we were directed to some folks with overpriced transportation, who offered to take us to our hotel.  We really weren’t in a position to negotiate, and since they all needed special security clearances to get into the hotel, I guess it was pretty fair.

Soon we were at the Ankawa Palace Hotel, which we had randomly stumbled upon online, and based on the website and little information we could find about looked like a reasonable and safe place to stay.  The rooms were clean and basic, the staff spoke very basic English, so all in all I would highly recommend it as a place to stay.  Plus, a reasonable breakfast buffet and internet were included in the reasonable rate of $154 per night, and given this was December 30 and 31, it was a pretty good deal.  It was 5pm and we had two things to accomplish:

One, hopefully arrange a driver to drive us into the countryside the next day, and two find some dinner.  Number one, again, we weren’t in the best position to negotiate.  Like I said earlier, there aren’t exactly a lot of tourists here, so if you want to arrange things there aren’t many options.  The guy at the front desk made some calls over the next hour, and managed to arrange us a driver for the day.  There were two waterfalls we wanted to see on the mountain road up to Hadji Omaran at the Iran border.

Our plan was to drive past the Gali Ali Beg waterfalls and the Bekhal waterfalls, on the way to the mountainous region by the border.  A driver was found for the full day trip, which seemed semi expensive, but how often do you get a chance to be driven around the countryside in Iraq?!  That sorted, we headed off the the Mehdi Mall to hopefully find somewhere to arrange dinner.  We didn’t manage to find anywhere to get anything to eat there, but did find a bowling alley, and lots of very unusual Christmas decorations.  Now, Erbil does have a rather sizable Christian population, but it seems they’ve managed to take the American commercialization of Christmas to a whole new level!

Want a blow-up Santa?  For just 30,000 Dinars you’re covered!

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Aug 202011

So up at the crack of dawn to catch our hotel-arranged shuttle to Ljubljana Airport. Nothing exciting to report here. The airport was rather small, check-in was confused and slightly chaotic (as was security) but soon we were on the other side and in the promised land: the “lounge.” This might be one of the most uninspired lounges I’ve ever been in, but at this early hour it had the single most important thing in the universe to me: a coffee/espresso machine. Several shots later I was approaching human, and life was good!

Adria flight 284, LJU-VIE
Depart 7:55 Arrive 8:45, Flight time 50 minutes
CRJ-200, Registration S5-AAI, manufactured 1998, Seat 3A

Wow – this was the same aircraft (and same seat) I had been in two days prior. What are the odds! Even on this short flight, a snack was served: something you would never see in the US!

Soon, we were landing in Vienna – where we had about 90 minutes between flights. Now, one of the biggest challenges we had was finding hotel information online. We were a bit uneasy about the hotel we’d booked, so I decided to use the lounge connection to Skype another hotel in Erbil….which was happy to offer a reservation at a rate we considered very reasonable so we snatched it up! It was then off to the gate area, and OMG this was really going to happen…we were going to Iraq for tourism! Continue reading »