Jul 282012

Since we’re just past the middle of the year, I figured I’d do a bit of a comparison of how my travel stats have changed through mid-July 2012 compared to mid-July 2011.  I’m definitely taking more, shorter flights, but also visiting more new and unique places.  A few statistics is the best way to sum it all up:

Total Miles Flown to Date:

55,084 flight miles compared to 51,002 at this time last year

Total Number of Flights to Date:

65 flights this year, compared to 32 at this time last year – average flight is obviously MUCH shorter!

Total Number of Airlines this year:

26 including first time ever on Kenya Airways, East African Safari Express, Daallo, Ethiopian, Egyptian, Colgan, Air India, Druk Air, Sri Lankan, Air Mauritius, Air Seychelles

10 airlines total at this time last year

New Countries so far this year:

20 so far this year, compared to a total of only 5 at this time last year

Lots more booked already for 2012, including 42 more flights already booked…and I’m sure there will be MANY more!

Jul 252012

What, you’ve never heard of the Diefenbunker? Well, despite many many trips to Ottawa lately, I hadn’t either until the friend I was staying with mentioned it this weekend. When I heard about it, I knew this was something I had to see.  You’d never see something like this in the United States open to the public…ever!  Way too many “secrets” that could potentially be exposed.  I think the closest I saw was the U.S.S. Pueblo which is currently moored in Pyongyang, North Korea.  Even that has been stripped of anything remotely interesting, so a chance to experience this part of Cold War history was super exciting to me!

Correction:  Appears the Greenbrier Bunker in West Virginia is now open to the public too – however, no pictures allowed!  I know my next weekend trip from D.C.!

So, what is the Diefenbunker?  Also known as Canadian Forces Station Carp, it’s a 4-level underground bunker built outside of Ottawa in order to house the Canadian government in case of imminent nuclear attack.  Named after the 13th Prime Minister of Canada John Diefenbaker, it was just far enough from Ottawa that it was thought to be safe from the main targets (Parliament Hill, Canadian Forces bases,etc) but close enough that essential members of government could be evacuated there on short notice.  Construction began in 1959, and was completed in just a few months.  It was never actually activated, but during the Cuban Missile Crisis preliminary steps were taken to make it operational.

According to Wikipedia: “The underground 4-story bunker was capable of withstanding a near-hit from a nuclear explosion. It had massive blast doors at the surface, as well as extensive air filters to prevent radiation infiltration. Underground storage was built for food, fuel, fresh water, and other supplies for the facility which was capable of supporting several hundred people for weeks. A vault was also constructed on the lowest level to hold the gold reserves of the Bank of Canada

In 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union, CFS Carp (aka the Diefenbunker) was decommissioned, and in 1998 was re-opened as Canada’s Cold War museum.  You can tour the entire site, and many parts are just as they were left in the 60s and 70s.  After purchasing a ticket at the kiosk outside, there is a small plaque detailing what the site is:

Just past the sign, you enter the building through the massive blast doors:

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Jul 182012

After getting a taxi, it was off to the hotel for my short evening. It was already nearly 5pm, and I if all worked well I’d have enough time to sit on the beach a bit, watch the sunset, get a good dinner, and head out the next morning. I’d booked at the Catamaran Hotel which was right on the beach in Foulmouth Bay.  It was a very laid-back sort of Caribbean place, and while I got everything I needed, service was quite distant.  Actually after arranging a taxi to dinner for me the reception locked up…and as far as I could tell left for the night!  I actually ended up leaving the door unlocked the next morning with the key on the desk, because the office wasn’t open!

Room was good-sized, bed was comfortable, and the AC worked!  Location wasn’t near much, and it seemed most everything was closed up for the off-season.  There was a good-sized convenience store just down the street where I picked up some Diet Cokes for the morning, as well as a local ice cream shop just up the road which was super popular.  Other than that, it was quite a quiet area.  There was a small marina near the hotel beach:

Also, a bird who was intent on posing in my obligatory shot towards the water:

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Jul 172012

Landed in Dominica, and that’s where the drama started. Immigration was a snap, and soon found the small shack/hut that housed the rental car companies. Went over to the Avis “desk” (which, seriously, is an overstatement. It’s a small wooden podium, with a rather nice, but disinterested man who may or may not be behind it.) Nope, no reservation. Showed it to him. “Oh, how interesting. Can’t help you.” He had no car, and while he could get me one from another agency, no matching the rate, etc etc. Chatted with the (much more) helpful lady from the other agency, and she told me for what I was doing in Dominica, I would be much better with her “friend’s” taxi. He would take me round-trip to my resort, and make sure things were happy….all for the same price as my rental car. Since I only planned to hike and chill here, I went with it.

I’d chosen to stay at the Hotel Beau Rive – and in summary – it was an awesome choice.  I normally prefer locations much more in the middle of it all.  Places to go out to eat, walking distance to cool things to see, etc etc.  You get the idea.  Beau Rive?  Well, it was absolutely none of this.  What it was, however, was set in the middle of Dominica’s awesome natural beauty with the most amazing hosts and staff you could ask for.  This is all made very clear on their website, online reviews, etc.  If you’re not ready for an “at home” atmosphere, pets on premesis who are quite friendly, and a home away from home…this isn’t the place for you.  Yet, despite being from from my normal “style” I absolutely loved it here.  I’ll go into more details, but the pics will do much more talking here.

My taxi driver was awesome….on the approximately one hour drive to Beau Rive he told me all about his island, the people, the locations…it was like a mini guided tour.  Plus, the roads were seriously harpin and pretty tricky.  Much less stressful not to drive on them!  Got to the hotel, checked in (I was one of two rooms occupied!) and immediately took this awesome shot from my room’s balcony:

Another shot from the hotel’s veranda:

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Jul 142012

The Barbados airport was several times the size of any one I had encountered yet on this trip, which meant I actually had to wait for my baggage a good bit…but it was an air conditioned area with “modern” baggage belts….unlike some of the previous islands whose baggage reclaim areas cum customs cum immigration areas felt like you’d traveled back in time many decades.  The Barbados airport felt modern, efficient, and decidedly different…aka everything the average tourist loves.

While waiting for baggage, I chatted a bit more with the guy who’d been sitting near me.  He was from Barbados, home for a month to visit during the summer, and would return to Canada for university in the fall.  He’d been in Grenada for business, so was back home now to enjoy the rest of his vacation.  I was offered (and accepted) a ride to the hotel, “as long as you don’t mind a few stops along the way.”  Hmmm, I was going to save a $25 taxi and have a fun adventure…why not?  In retrospect, yeah, it’s everything you’re advised not to do…but once again, taking a chance paid off!  After a quick, very bumpy, and bat-out-of-hell style ride in a jacked-up old Hummer, we were at his house where he swapped clothes and dropped off luggage while I waited.  Was nice being in an actual neighbourhood far away from what any tourist ever see, and to see how the locals actually live.

The next part I hadn’t expected.  It was a series of at least four or five stops to pick up friend after friend who was joining him at the beach party.  It was especially cool to get a real view into the diversity of Barbados.  People had come from everywhere, and everyone was some mix of different cultures that blended into something truly local and unique.  Eventually, there were seven of us in the car, and we were off to the hotel.  Right before dropping me off, I was told if I could hurry I should join them for the beach party.  Um, sure, why not!  Luggage dropped off, checked in quickly, and a quick photo from the room:

Back downstairs, and we were off for a five minute drive to the party on the beach.  I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever been to a sunset Sunday night party on the beach before.  It was a completely local crowd, everyone seemed to know everyone, and it was lots of dancing, rum, and just enjoying a Sunday evening.  I checked out after a couple of hours, because I had dinner plans at the Brown Sugar Restaurant near the Hilton.

It was a date for one….me, a good book on my iPad, and a delicious dinner.  Brown Sugar gets very mixed reviews online, but due to location I decided to give it a go.  It was exactly what I expected – not superb, but fun, somewhat local, and good food…even if I did have to sit next to a family from Jersey who kept complaining about things instead of focusing on the things they were liking about their vacation.  Enough said!  After multiple drinks on the beach, I was starving, so went with the Caribbean Jerk Porn appetizer.  Nothing fantastic, but it was tasty, and went well with the rum punch.  (Sensing a theme here?  I mean, I really had to compare how each island did them!)

Then, it was time for the main course.  I decided to go all out and get the Martin’s Choice, described as “A bountiful seafood platter with fried flying fish, grilled Mahi-Mahi Dolphin, breaded shrimps & a crab cake.”  It was rather tasty, but also rather more fried than I would have expected.  I still don’t know what “Mahi-Mahi Dolphin” is, but I’m gonna hope it wasn’t really dolphin.  It tasted like Mahi Mahi so I’m going with that.

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Jul 132012

Upon landing in Grenada, immigration was fairly quick and friendly, and soon I was in the arrivals area.  I knew the hotel/lodge I’d chosen based on TripAdvisor reviews was a little bit out of the city, so I’d e-mailed and asked the hotel to arrange a driver due to my late arrival hour.  I’m glad I did, because the Lance Aux Epines Cottages were definitely in a much quieter and residential area.   It was a small property definitely geared more towards self-caterers, and if you choose to stay here I’d probably say that a car is essential.

When I got there around 830pm the office was closed, but the hotel driver and the security guard knew where my welcome packet and key had been stashed.  The driver was also kind enough to point me to the nearest restaurant about 1/2 mile down the road which should still be open for a bit.  The Red Crab was about a 15 minute walk away, and probably one of the most amusing restaurants I’ve ever been to.  I had some jerked pork and a couple of rum punches, and sat watching a very strange mix of people.  Grenada is home to a large medical school full of (primarily?) Americans, and there were several here.  I wouldn’t highly recommend the food, but for location since it was the only thing in walking distance it definitely was a good find!

Back to the cottage (which by the way was huge – nearly 100 square meters I’d guess) and watched a little TV on the iPad before bed.  The rooms are not air conditioned, except for the bedroom, which worked out just fine.  Close the door overnight, and I was nice and ice cold to sleep.  It was quite nice having a coffeemaker and full kitchen in the unit, and this would be a fantastic place to stay as a self-caterer for a longer trip with friends or family.  The housekeeping staff will even go grocery shopping and cook local meals for you in your unit!  How’s that for a bonus!

I didn’t have much to do until my early afternoon flight, so decided to head out onto the hilly and humid roads for a run.  I made it a total of nearly 8 miles which was awesome given the oppressive humidity, but about 1 mile from finishing the skies opened up and an absolute torrential downpour ensued.  To the point that once I got back I spent the next two hours sipping more coffee, wishing I had access to food and, um, wondering how I was to get back to the airport.  See, it was Sunday, and everything (including the hotel office) was closed.

Decided to wander out at noon, and hope I could find someone who could help me arrange a taxi for some lunch and then the airport…or, since checkout was noon, I was hoping my driver would pick that time to wait around for me.  All the worrying was for nothing, because the hotel owner/manager had come in on a Sunday especially to welcome me and check me out (despite things being pre-paid) and take care of things.  The driver would be happy to take me to lunch, then come back in a bit over an hour to drive me to the airport.  Perfect!

I can’t say enough about how kind the staff were here.  It was probably not the best choice for me for a quick overnight, but for anyone on a longer stay I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Everything did, however, work out great in the end.  Based on many recommendations, I ‘d wanted to get lunch at BB’s Crabback, but unfortunately they were closed on Sundays….as were 90% of places on the island.  I decided to go with TripAdvisor reviews, and settled on the #5 rated restaurant in Grenada – “Umbrellas Beach Bar” which was near the airport, and whose site made clear they were open for lunch on Sunday.  Confirmed with the owner of the hotel and he was pretty certain they were, so off I went!

When I got there, it was a bit questionable.  There were several staff around at 12:15, but not a customer in sight.  I’d read this place could be packed with a long wait for a table, so I wondered what I was missing.  One of the staff quickly shouted “FIRST CUSTOMER!” and they scrambled I decided to take a seat at a high table at the edge of the restaurant near the lanai, so I could enjoy a view of the ocean while I ate:

It’s pretty easy in the picture to see just how heavy the rain had been.  This was nearly an hour after it had stopped, and there were still large ponds of water everywhere.  However, there was a nice breeze out, and after my run I was absolutely starving.  However, as was becoming tradition on this trip, it was tip to start with some rum punch!

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Jul 122012

Having arrived in St Vincent, it was already quite late.  However, it was quite easy to get a taxi to my hotel, the Paradise Beach Hotel and check-in was swift.  The AC was strong, and it was still an hour til closing time at the hotel bar on the beach…which was filled mainly with Trinidadian businessmen trying to impress anyone that would talk to them.  It made for a few interesting discussions!  Now, a few thoughts on the hotel:

The restaurant was odd.  Yes, they served food, but it doubled as the hotel bar and patio.  However, when asked, the bartender could produce a menu and breakfast, dinner, snacks…you name it.  More than adequate, and the two meals I ate there were very tasty.  Rooms were clean (but spartan) and the AC was strong enough to keep cool, so overall it was a bargain for the price paid.  I would definitely stay here again, although you really need a taxi to get anywhere.  That said, when asked, the hotel staff could easily arrange taxis to get you anywhere you needed.

I finished off the evening watching reruns of the Tour de France Prologue, and a couple local beers, while trying to explain cycling to the Trinidadians.  They found it “a challenging sport, but I could never wear all that elastic clothes.”  Hmmm!

Local brews consumed, I passed out for almost 10 straight hours due to sheer exhaustion.  It was time to rise, and start the day.  It took me a good hour to get moving, but when I did I found “breakfast” was just at the bar.  Sat outside watching the waves, and when the bartender brought the menu I just skipped it…and told him to bring me what he’d eat for breakfast.  Turned out to be a perfect choice!

Salt fish, hot peppers, and some local bakes (bread rolls) which I swear weighed at least a pound each they were so dense…but OMG it was delicious.  Coffee consumed, I was ready to try and arrange a day of touring!  Oh, but first I caught up on a bit of internet time, while enjoying the view from breakfast:

I must admit…it was 10am, and I was just not feeling it.  I don’t know if it was jet-lag, the 10 hours of sleep was too much, but I was absolutely exhausted and sluggish.  I’ll admit taking an hour nap post-breakfast, before stopping by the front desk and asking to arrange a tour.  She got to work on it, while I headed back to the bar for more wave-watching and a couple of delicious diet cokes.  Soon, a torrential downpour started, and I was informed that my tour could begin at 12:30 and the driver was mine for $50 to take me wherever I wanted for up to four hours.  Perfect!

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Jul 112012

After landing and a very quick trip through immigration where I confused the officer (transit? how do you transit? oh, you’re going to the domestic/regional airport….what will you do here for 10 hours? Oh, fascinating.) I was through in less than 3 minutes thanks to the American escort. Talk about amazing service. I think I’m going to get some business cards with this website printed…if nothing else to share with immigration officers. It lends credibility to my “country collecting/visiting” story, and immediately defuses the tension when they see my 192 page passport.

Based on very strong recommendations on TripAdvisor, I’d booked my day with Serenity Vacations and Tours.  I was doubly sold when their transfer service promised “homemade rum punch.”  I mean, come on, how much better does it get?!  Immediately through immigration the very cheerful representative and driver met me, and we were set for the day.  Up front, the van was wonderful (at least six people could have fit in it comfortably), the rum punch was delicious and plentiful, and the local beer was also supplied.  Now, on to what we actually DID!

Landing was just before 2pm, so it was around 2:15 by the time we got going.  We did a short drive, and my guide was fantastic in answering all the little questions I had about St Lucia.  Questions about the demographics, economy, politics, you name it.  She knew her country well, and was thrilled to share the details.  I knew I was in great hands!   First, a view from the side of the road near the start of our drive:

Before doing any actual climbing, we stopped at the Tet Paul nature reserve, where I got a fantastic view of the Pitons….this is two small mountains known as Gros Piton and Ptit Piton.  Honestly, they’re almost the same size, and the easiest way to tell them apart is that Ptit Piton is more “pointy” shaped.  We did a short hike around Tet Paul, and got some great views of the Pitons:

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Jul 102012

So let’s see, as I mentioned earlier, this was it. In the dark of the night, I was about to cheat. I felt dirty. I snuck around before the sun rose…I went to see a mistress who had been sending me all sorts of love notes online…and finally I gave in to her seduction. She said she’d treat me better than my long-term lover did. She would lavish me with all sorts of goodies.

Now, in fairness, I’d been here before. But that time, I was in an unhappy relationship. Northwest was abusing me, forcing me to jam my knees into seatbacks and suffer the indignities of international economy. It was awful, and I was looking for something happier. I had a fling with United when she promised me something better. No incentive, just give me a try…you’ll have fun with me. That was around six years ago, and I sure have….to the point I’ve done 950,000 miles on her since then. However, she’s gotten a bit cranky since her evil relative came into the picture and all they do is argue. In front of me. It’s not pretty. I hate spending time around her when all she can do is complain about how bad her recently re-joined siamese twin is. It’s not pretty…at all. To top it off, I hate to admit it, but she’s falling apart.

Last time we went for a romp across the ocean, she was stuck in place. Couldn’t even recline. I’d paid big money for us to enjoy this trip together, and she was stuck in place unable to recline back for hours. It wasn’t enjoyable for either of us, and when I told daddy Smisek, he gave me a pitiful increase on my weekly allowance and said “don’t worry, I think this is a change you’ll like.”

Thus is was, I found myself at DCA at 4:45am ready to cheat on her. I felt dirty, but there it was…and here we go.

4:45am isn’t pretty. Honestly, I still don’t believe it exists. Especially because it required being away at 3:30am, a few espresso shots and a monster energy, a taxi conversation about recent developments in ethiopian politics, and…yeah, I’m boring you. Normally I like hard-copy boarding passes, but at 5am there was no way I was standing in line at the ticket counter to get one. Mobile pass flashed to the TSA nitwits, through the x-ray, no need to opt out today, and I was outside the Mistress’s Lair, I mean Admirals Club, five minutes before opening.

What waited inside? A smile. Yes, at 5am, a SMILE. Whoah…and donuts. United might have slung some yogurt at me if I was lucky, but these were honest to God sugar-filled chunks of 5am happiness. Top this off with awesome smiling staff, and I was in Heaven…until I got to the gate at 6am.

There, I was met with my worst fears. See, I’ve been to 116 countries, but there’s two cities in America I’m ashamed to admit never having been to: Miami, and New Orleans. New Orleans because my already-fragile liver is afraid of it, and Miami because, well…yeah. Getting to the gate, I noticed half the flight was already wearing sunglasses. Mind you, it was 5:20 am and we were inside DCA. That didn’t seem to matter to any of them. Gucci, Prada, tell me what you like…gate 22 at DCA never mind the gate lice! Boarding passes were printed by the ambivalent gate agent, and soon we’d boarded.

Seats? Well, they seemed a bit flimsy in “first” on this 737-800, but nothing terrible. Wide enough, good enough leg room, the standard (to me) United OJ or water offered. So far, just another day up front.

American Airlines flight 2185
Washington, National (DCA) to Miami (MIA)
Depart: 6:05 Arrive: 8:35 Flight Time 2:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration N904AN, Manufactured 1999
Seat 5E, First Class

So, honestly, there’s not much to say about the flight. I know, you expected rocket science, right? It was a standard domestic U.S. flight. A few notes: “breakfast” on American in this case meant a bowl of cereal, a banana, a plate full of blueberries, and some carb bombs…aka biscuit or bagel. Skipped on the bombs, had a bloody mary and enjoyed (dry) the fruit and cereal. As someone who normally skips breakfast it was a perfectly happy start to the day.

Flight itself was completely uneventful, and unfortunately I have very little to report. It was what I’d come to expect from similar flings, and honestly, while the variety was nice my socks weren’t knocked off. I’m definitely not leaving my regular partner for her any time soon because of this. We landed on time in Miami, and culture shock was about to set in!

I think I’m in Detroit, and having a flashback to the last time I had an affair. See, back then, my partner…let’s call her Northwest, used to make me take a train up and down to all parts of town to visit her. She couldn’t sit still, and we’d go to Detroit and zip back and forth on this little red train. It was fun, but soon grew old. Now, this new mistress was going to make me do the same…except in Miami. Zip, zip, zip, from one end of the long terminal to the other, and into her den of iniquity…yes, the “Admiral’s Club.”

Now, a few thoughts on this place, that are easier in numerical form:

1) The lady up front smiled at me. She genuinely cared. She wasn’t a dragon. She was really happy to see me.
2) There was no cheese. No crackers. Some rather sad cookies, but a decent espresso machine. That works for me.
3) Everyone was habla-ing the español. J’étais confusé. What IS this place. I think I got off in Havana by accident.
4) Oh, and why pray-tell is everyone still wearing sunglasses? Indoors? Is there something going on I wasn’t aware of?  My mama’s warned me about places like this.

Never mind, it was a quick stop for espresso, iPad recharging, and agua, and off to the gate. Boarding was quick, things were once-again friendly, and I was ensconced on the 757 where thanks to my learnings of FEBO (Front-Even, Back-Odd) I was near the back of the cabin. See, this chick doesn’t believe in serving her frequent clients first….she just cares where you live. On even-numbered days, she likes the ones up front. On odd-numbered days, she likes the ones in back. Being an odd-numbered day, I’d picked a seat in back so she’d get to me first. Wise choice!

American Airlines flight 2297
Miami (MIA) to St Lucia, Hewanorra Airport (UVF)
Depart: 10:15 Arrive 13:50 Flight time 3:35
Boeing 757-200, Registration N612AA, Manufactured 1989
Seat 5E, Business Class

Once again, I can’t say much on this flight. I had some sort of a chicken dish for lunch, which was tasty enough. I have to admit though….cookies for dessert? Come on, this isn’t grade school. I don’t do dessert often, so look for something tasty when I treat. A cookie just doesn’t cut it. For quasi-domestic though, it was exactly what I’d come to expect from my current partner so I can’t complain or be happy either way.

I did feel guilty, however, that in the galley I had a chat about my current partner with the mistresses employees. They were unaware that the mistress had made such a wide offer to all the guys who’d been hanging out with my current partner, and were extra-anxious to show how fun they were. Yes, this involved beverages….and I have to say…she keeps just as cheap of wine at home as the current. Can’t win or lose here!

Overall first impressions? Same, same…but different. Only noticeable difference is the mistress is noticeably happier these days, while Ms United the partner is quite grouchy in general. That could all change, but I’ll be giving them both a chance…two-timing through at least mid-2013 until I can make my mind up. After all, what’s the point of a mistress if you can’t string both of them along while you think you can get the best of both worlds?

Deplaning was quick, and walked down the stairs into the heat and humidity of St Lucia…country #117 visited. Inside the terminal, I was met with something United has never done for me. There was an agent with my name (and two others…I assume other Exec Platinums) on a board, who personally escorted us to the front of the immigration queue, thanked us for flying American, and made sure we were through in under 5 minutes. WOW! 100+ international flights with United, and they’ve never done that!