ironmanjt

Jan 272020
 


This is a blog I’ve been wanting to write for some time, but it’s also something I wanted to do lots of thinking about before I wrote it. How do you distill 196 countries and 30+ years of travel down into 12 trips that were the most memorable for you? What makes a trip memorable? Is it the places? Is it the people? Is it something you did? Or, is it some combination.

Initially, I wanted to keep this to ten most memorable, because everyone likes a Top 10 list. But, I was struggling to get it under 20. I did narrow it down a bit, but in the end, there were really 12 trips that I felt really needed to be told because they’ve formed such an integral part of my travel journey.

That said, it’s obviously not a comprehensive list, and there’s a few honourable mentions that I have to put out there:

  • Traveling to Penticton, British Columbia for my first Ironman race
  • Spending three weeks traveling the South Pacific and visiting small island nations most people haven’t even heard of like Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu
  • Overland from Kinshasa, DRC to Brazzaville, Congo and then to Point Noire, Congo by train and eventually overland to Cabinda, Angola
  • First group of Americans allowed into North Korea in decades back in 2005 (you know it’s a tough choice when a trip like this doesn’t even make the list! A photo regardless:

So, with those said, let’s kick off the Top 12 list….in a bit of an order in that #1 is almost certainly the best travel memory I’ll ever had, but other than that it’s a bit random….so please don’t get offended!

#12 – Zimbabwe Coup – End of Mugabe’s Rule

I’ve been a follower of Zimbabwe for years, going back to grad school when I was studying sanctions. Ever since my first trip to Africa (where the plane actually stopped over in Harare on the way to South Africa) I’ve been fascinated by Zimbabwe and its struggles since Independence.

A few years ago for Thanksgiving I found myself with absolutely no plans when I saw in the news that the military had decided Mugabe’s time as the long-time ruler was coming to an end…and he had “decided” to resign. Except then he went on tv…and did what nobody expected with Generals standing around him: didn’t resign, or even mention it.

Knowing this wouldn’t stand, and I had a five day weekend ahead of me, I booked a last minute trip to Harare, and when I was in the air the military staged a “not coup” and removed him from power. I landed to parties in the streets celebrating hope for the future…which unfortunately has largely proved to be more of the same.

Huge historical moment, and so excited I could be there for it!

#11 First Trip to the Florida Keys

Despite a year filled with health issues, my amazing friend Jen managed to convince me that “running” 100 miles in the Florida Keys would be something I should do. Health issues continued to be a challenge, so I dialed it back to the 50 mile option (which I could easily walk in the time allowed) before finally deciding the week before not to do the race.

It turned out to be the right call, because having never been to the Keys before I way underestimated the sun, heat, and humidity. That said, I totally want to give it another go in 2020 health permitting.

I did still go down there, which gave me a chance to cheer Jen on in her 100 mile quest and spend time with my friend John who had flown down to be my crew for the race when I thought i was going to do it. Great friends, sun, and gorgeous scenery. What’s not to enjoy?!

#10 Abkhazia

What do you do when you’ve been to every country? You start “inventing” new ones of course! Not recognized by the UN, Abkhazia is a country that broke away from Georgia a few years back with the support of Russia, and now lives in relatively autonomous peace. Need proof that these “countries” are “worth” visiting? Where else can you:

  1. Have lunch at a restaurant called Al Capone’s Pizza where they insist you take pics with toy prop guns and gangster hat
  2. See a beautiful lake in the middle of winter where Stalin used to have his datcha
  3. Run into a guy walking his bear on the side of the road, only to have him tell you “have bigger one at home”
  4. In the middle of a delicious Georgian dinner have a rando drunk restaurant patron start going on and on about his love for Omar Bradley to you?!

So, if that doesn’t convince you that a long weekend in Abkhazia with a great friend is worth it, I don’t know what will!

#9 Kosovo and Macedonia

I’ve known my friend Dewon for nearly 20 years now, ever since he moved to Washington, D.C. from South Africa for work. His American adventure has taken him all around the country since then (and currently to New York) but we still manage to connect from time to time for amazing adventures.

A few years back he mentioned he’d be in Frankfurt for work and have some time afterwards, so I should pick a country in Europe I hadn’t been to yet (this was 10+ years ago I think?) and we would go for the weekend.

Well, I couldn’t just leave it at one country, and that’s how we ended up flying into Kosovo and eventually hiring a driver to take us to Macedonia. Both were fascinating in their own way: Kosovo because it was still newly-independent and finding its footing as a country, and Macedonia because…well…there were literally statues and monuments everywhere in the capital. It was totally surreal.

Plus, of course, the chance to spend the weekend with a great friend I don’t get to see enough of! Great friends and great times!

#8 Longyearbyen/Svalbard Marathon

I had always wanted to run the Antarctica Marathon, but it’s a hugely expensive undertaking…with no guarantee the boat will even be able to dock so you can run it. So, what did I do instead? Found the northernmost marathon in the world in Svalbard, Norway way above the Arctic Circle.

On top of being a stunning and scenic locale, it was also by far the smallest marathon I’ve ever run, with less than 30 participants. Unfortunately I got injured about 10 weeks before the race, but recovered enough I was still able to do it at a slow jog and really take in the scenery. Amazing memories!

#7 Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia used to be a really tricky place for “country counters” to check off their list. Unless you got invited there for work, or are Muslim and went on the Hajj, the country was completely closed to tourists. A few people have managed transit visas over the years, but I had to be content with an epic airport story (which I only tell in person over drinks) for my every country visit.

In late 2018, the Saudis announced a limited one-time-only tourist visa for a Formula-E Race that was coming to Riyadh, and country counters descended on Saudi en masse to take advantage of it. Sure, in the meantime the country has opened up even more to the point just about anyone can go at just about any time, but we didn’t know that back then. It was just dozens of country counters taking advantage of what they thought might be a one-time opportunity.

The cool thing about the whole thing was: as cool as Saudi itself was, the people were even more amazing. It was like finding a whole world full of people that “get” you, and understand why you do what you do, and why you travel to the places you do. I made many good friends out of the trip – people I still talk to frequently today.

I’d go to the “Edge of the World” with these people…and quite literally did!

#6 First Round-the-World – 40 Days for 40th Birthday

Believe it or not, back when I was at just under 100 countries visited I still hadn’t done a true round-the-world trip, where you cross both oceans basically continuing in one direction. So, I decided for my 40th birthday I would book a 40 day round-the-world trip that would be epic in its scale! What was the rough itinerary, well, something like:

  1. Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire
  2. Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama
  3. Hawaii, Micronesia, the Marshall islands, and Guam
  4. quick stops in Japan and Thailand en route to:
  5. South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland
  6. Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana: Victoria Falls!

Tired yet? It was an exhausting and amazing trip, and an unforgettable way to celebrate four decades on this planet!

#5 Johannesburg for U2 PopMart Concert

For me, this is where it all really started.

Sure, I’d been to the Soviet Union and a few trips to Europe. Less than ten countries total, but then came the opportunity to see U2 in Johannesburg for the final concert of the PopMart Tour, and when my friend Matt (as anyone who knows me knows – it’s ALWAYS a Matt) said he was game for it…a plan was hatched.

My first time in Africa, first time outside Europe and North America, and I was absolutely addicted to travel. If I could pull this off, I could do anything! It would take a few more years until I had the time and money to really start ramping up the travel, but once I did there was no stopping me.

I have U2 to thank for my love of music (I was at the original Red Rocks concert – the best thing about divorced parents who hear about these “cool new bands kids are into” and take you to a random concert) and have seen them all over the world now.

I can still pretty much see the entire concert in Johannesburg as vivid as if it was yesterday (despite being more than twenty years ago) and to this day when I go back to Johannesburg I always stay in the same hotel that I stayed in 20 years ago on that first trip. For me, it really was the trip that started it all.

#4 Dominican Republic

They say that true friends show it when you need them most. After ending a ten-year relationship I was more than a little bit of an emotional mess, and really needed something to get my mind in a better place and start moving forward again.

As luck would have it, my close friend John was headed to the Dominican Republic the next week (a country which at that time I still hadn’t been to!) with a group of 20+ friends, and pretty much insisted I join them. Anyone who knows me knows I’m very anti group trip, anti resort, anti cruise, blah blah blah, but I’m very glad I went on this trip!

I made some absolutely amazing friends, it was exactly what I needed at that point in my life, and despite just meeting all these new people they were really there for me over the coming years as I moved on and figured out my next steps in life!

Shout out to my Ottawa family for being there – and being amazing people!

#3 Easter Island

Continuing the theme of things to do when you’ve been to every country, I found a great fare to Chile a couple years ago, booked it for a week, and figured I could decide what I would do later. I had only spent a couple days in Chile my first trip, so really wanted to explore more.

Well, my friend Phil who recently moved from DC to California was up for joining, and together we hatched a plan to visit Easter Island…where we actually spent several nights sleeping in a geodesic dome! I’m normally the type to opt for posh hotels, but yes, I pretty much roughed it for several days there…and loved every minute out in nature!

Everyone knows Easter Island for the Moai statues, but what you probably don’t know is it’s also home to amazing food and some of the freshest fish I’ve ever had. I would love to go back and spend a week again – this time maybe doing more hiking all over the island!

#2 Soviet Union

When I was 17 I left North America for the first time for a four week study trip…to the Soviet Union. Yes, my first time out of North America was to the USSR! Probably proof I was destined for off the beaten path from a very young age!

My school didn’t have a ton of language options, and I had pretty much outgrown them by 11th grade so I had started spending summers at a Russian language camp to get more of a challenge. When they offered a trip over Christmas and New Years to the Soviet Union I begged and pleaded with the parents who were surprisingly ok with the idea, and off I went.

I went into the unknown with absolutely no idea what to expect, and although I dialed it back for the next few years (since I still had to learn how to travel independently and not in a school trip) I think this is what convinced me that I wanted to see more of the world.

“Weird” foods (I still remember the aspic for dinner on the first night and the joy my host family took me in serving pomegranates and coke in the middle of winter), strange customs, and not to mention “communism” (psst. mister, you have jeans? Buy rabbit skin hat?) it was all strange and so very foreign to me…and I loved it!

We spent four weeks in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Novosibirsk, and I wanted more! Strangely, it would be nearly 25 years until I would return to an independent Russia, but all the memories came flooding back. I can’t find the pictures from 1988 (hopefully I’ll find them in a box somewhere eventually) so I’ve included some of my Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Novosibirsk pictures above.

#1 Iceland – 196th (Every!) Country Visited

So, this one is probably pretty obvious! What better way to celebrate visiting every country than to hit your final country with more than 30 friends and family for four days in a gorgeous place like Iceland! It was truly a special and wonderful time and meant a lot to me that all these people I had spent so much time away from as I ran around the world were all willing to come to Iceland to celebrate with me.

From our guided walk around Reykjavik to a silly afternoon at the Blue Lagoon, to a day with SuperJeeps around the Golden Circle I think I pretty much spent the entire trip with a giant smile on my face…well, except maybe the hour I spent getting the unplanned “Iceland 196” tattoo to celebrate the achievement!

Is it terrible I’m secretly hoping someone else declares themselves independent in the next year so we can have a #Jason197 party somewhere for my 50th birthday?

Jan 032020
 


Woke up the next morning feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. Not just any old truck, but a big-ass semi that had run me over, backed over me again, and then proceeded to run me over at high speed. Turns out lots of travel, craft beer, burgers, and poutine leaves you feeling not so great when you’re not 21 anymore…nor two times 21 even.

That said, a bit of Starbucks and I rallied by a champ to chair an important two hour meeting via videoconference from my hotel room before getting ready to check out and head to the airport.

I was mildly nervous because this had started overnight, and it was coming down harder and harder as the morning went on. But this is Canada, right? What could go wrong? Even a regional jet operated by a US airline will be fine because it’s Canada…right?

Uber had no trouble, and there wasn’t even a surcharge compared with the night before, so everything was great, right? I was expecting my usual grilling when traveling between the US and Canada from immigration, but nope, even that was a piece of the gate.

The view from my gate, however, really made me worry. It was coming down heavier than ever, and was really starting to pile up. At least my inbound flight was still showing on time. Would this be the trip when I finally had back-to-back flights cancel?

But no, thanks to the superpowers of Canada my inbound landed right on time, we boarded right on time to “try and get out early in case there are delays” and away we went.

United Express flight 5877 operated by SkyWest
Calgary, Alberta (YYC) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 12:15, Arrive: 16:51, flight time: 3:36, flight distance: 1,385 miles
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N150SY, Manufactured 2015, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 203,595
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,895,897

Gin and tonic for a PDB. I needed it after the night before, and I have no idea why I ordered it. I never drink gin and tonics, but it sounded refreshing. In the middle of winter. Go figure. There’s probably something wrong in my head.

Bit of a delay for de-icing at the gate, but we got the green slush AND the orange/pink slush today – Canada doesn’t mess around!

We were about 45 minutes behind schedule due to the de-icing delay, meaning my connection in Chicago would be about 20 minutes. That’s no bueno. So let’s have another gin and tonic in flight before lunch to try and forget about that…ok?

Lunch was next, and there was a reasonably good fruit bowl, a salad with cold beef on the side, and a cookie. Overall, considering it was a regional jet, I was more than happy with this. That said, this was my longest regional jet flight ever, at nearly 3.5 hours! That said, I’ll take an ERJ-175 to a 737-800 any day! Nobody to climb over me.

About halfway through the flight I started feeling bad, really bad. Not in a way that was likely related to my beverages and burgers, but really strange muscle spasms that had me majorly concerned…to the point I starting timing the intervals between them. After about 15 minutes they started getting longer and longer, and for the last hour of the flight they were gone. Nothing is quite as terrifying as thinking you might have to page the flight attendant and be that guy that forces them to ask if there’s a doctor on board.

At least we had absolutely gorgeous sunsets to distract me the last hour of the flight:

Landed in Chicago feeling reasonable, and with no problems the final hour the desire to get home won out over the consideration to see if there was a clinic at O’Hare, so I decided to run for my gate. Because running is exactly what you need when just a couple hours prior you wear feeling horrid, right?

Well, I got to the gate for my connection exactly 12 minutes before departure and…we hadn’t even started boarding. The reason? No pilots. They were “delayed getting to the gate” and when they showed up 10 minutes later with their fresh McDonalds takeout for once I was very happy they’d decided to stop.

United flight 624
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 18:00, Arrive: 20:52, flight time: 1:52, flight distance: 612 miles
Boeing 737-800, Registration N14242, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 204,207
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,896,509

Nothing to say here – flight went quickly, snack basket and a good crew, and kept feeling better and better as the flight went on. The epilogue to the story is: stop acting like you’re 21. Eat some salads. Drink a whole lot less craft beer and wine. Hamburgers are not one of the major food groups, oh, and stop flying 250,000 miles and year and stressing yourself out prepping for meeting after meeting. 2020 is going to bring some big changes!

So, would I do the trip again? Was I’m glad what started as “join me for four days in Asia” turned into a 2.5 week trip that took me from Tunisia to Oman, Indonesia to Thailand, Toronto to the extreme Arctic? You bet. It was an amazing trip. It didn’t pair well with all the work travel that bookended it, and next year when I take a vacation somewhere I’m going to make sure it’s at a time where it’s not going to be a series of constant trips.

Best lesson from the trip? The Canadian Arctic is absolutely gorgeous, and I picked the perfect time of year to go with the short days and the pink, orange, and purple skies. I wouldn’t change a thing!!

Jan 022020
 


Nobody likes an 05:30 flight. I definitely don’t like an 05:30 flight. It was, however, really the only way to get out of Whitehorse and still have at least a tiny bit of time in Calgary. I could also have flown straight through to DC in the same day, but the way fares worked breaking it in Calgary saved a ton of money.

Given my disdain for hours before the sun comes up, I did everything possible to maximize sleep. Yes, the flight was sold out, but I was checked-in online, and that means 90 people max to get through the single security line in Whitehorse. I set everything out the night before, set my alarm for 04:00, and went to bed after verifying that the plane had taken off from Vancouver, so it would be overnighting in Whitehorse as planned.

04:00, jump out of bed, dash through the shower, and I was out the door on the way to the airport in my cab by 04:15. Just before reaching the airport I turned on my phone (oops, such a rush I’d forgotten, and was greeted with this gem from the previous evening’s flight:

Yes, it had taken off from Vancouver, but apparently had a mechanical and returned to Vancouver where they spent 2+ hours on a rolling delay before finally canceling after midnight, ensuring the crew timed out.

The airport was quiet when I arrived, confirming that everyone else had probably checked online and decided to sleep in. Total amateur mistake on my part to not double-check before leaving for the airport.

On the “good news side” the agents confirmed an extra section had been added and that we would leave around noon. Well, I’d have much less time in Calgary than planned, but nothing at all that I could do about it.

Grabbed a cab back to the hotel where they were happy to give me my room back, and by 05:30 I was back in bed where I slept for another three hours giving me a solid 8+ hour night when added up.

It also gave me a chance to explore Canada’s northernmost Starbucks…for research and science purposes of course!

Back to the airport around 10:30 for the 11:55 retimed flight, where I headed through security. I love the signs that are everywhere in Canada now warning that crossing the border with pot is illegal. Sadly, in Whitehorse they were accompanied by signs warning about the dangers of fentanyl.

No wait at all for security, and I was probably curb to gate in 5-6 minutes total, meaning I could have easily waited another 30 minutes. Just be warned, there’s only two security lines (and I’m totally usually one is only open) so plan ahead, because I’ve heard lines have the possibility of being much longer than I faced.

On the other side of security, the very small waiting area for security-required flights. (Like Yellowknife, flights headed north don’t have to go through security.)

Our plane landed at 11:10, giving them 45 minutes to turn it around, so no drama at all and we were all ready to go for our rescheduled 11:55 flight.

Air Canada flight 8771 operated by Jazz Aviation
Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada (YXY) to Vancouver, BC (YVR)
Depart 11:55, Arrive: 14:15, flight time: 1:50, flight distance: 923 miles
Canadair CRJ-900, Registration C-GJZS, Manufactured 2017, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 201,782
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,894,084

Gorgeous views of the Yukon on takeoff:

Fortunately, the flight had been re-provisioned with lunch instead of breakfast and started with a nuts and drink service. Can’t break my tradition of a glass of red.

Main course offerings were exactly the same as my Vancouver to Yellowknife the previous week, so instead of the odd General Tso’s Chicken I decided to go with the vegetarian pasta this time, which was surprisingly flavourful and quite taste. The blondie for dessert was actually excellent!

Had 90 minutes in Vancouver (I was offered a 35 minute connection, but was really not in the mood to run for it) and shockingly was able to find a seat in the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge, where I decided that a mid-afternoon snack of cookies and a Ceasar was in order. Mmmmm clams…

Boarding to Calgary was right on time with a lot of people that looked exhausted and disoriented. Turns out lots of connections from Asia on this flight, so no matter how tiring my day had been there were definitely people who had it much worse!

Air Canada flight 218
Vancouver, BC (YVR) to Calgary, Alberta (YYC)
Depart 16:10, Arrive: 18:34, flight time: 1:24, flight distance: 428 miles
Airbus A321, Registration C-GIUB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 202,210
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,894,512

Due to the short flight time the nuts and snack were served together on this flight. It was a sort of deconstructed salad niçoise today, which was at least reasonably healthy. Could have used more protein though…

Arrived in Calgary approximately six hours later than I wanted so rushed to catch an Uber and get to my downtown hotel as soon as possible so I could at least enjoy a dinner out.

The room was rather odd – it was an upgrade according to the staff, but the only thing it seemed to have is a ton of empty space. I’m not used to hotel rooms that feel cavernous! The hotel was ok, but since it was also the host hotel for the upcoming Grey Cup in a few days the hotel was swarming with media and corporate sponsors, so I imagine they had taken the “better” upgrades long before I was in the queue.

It was already nearly 8pm, so after a little research headed out on a short walk to get some dinner. The Calgary Tower was nicely illuminated at night:

Ended up at Bottlescrew Bill’s Pub due to it’s relatively promising-looking craft beer list…and proximity to my hotel of course.

You really can’t go wrong with a burger and poutine…at least until you wake up the next day and that combined with several beers reminds you you’re not 21 years old any more and can’t get away with that. At least it was delicious.

Terrifying statue on the walk back to the hotel. Nobody needs a 20 foot tall hockey mascot in a ten gallon hat mocking them.

With that, my all too short day in Calgary was over. I’d really hoped to have the whole afternoon to explore the city, but sometimes things conspire against you. I guess it just gives me an excuse to do a trip I’ve been thinking of: fly into Fort McMurray in northern Alberta and then drive to Calgary via Edmonton – trying to understand Alberta on the way. Maybe that’s something for 2020.

Off to bed….and time for the last segment: HOME!

Jan 012020
 


My flight out of Inuvik wasn’t until nearly 2pm, and I only really needed to leave for the airport a bit after 12 so I decided not to set alarm since I really didn’t have anything I needed or wanted to see left in Inuvik.

I woke up around 10am, just in time to catch the tail end of breakfast, but not with enough time to do too much more before heading to the airport. Decided on a short walk in town before packing up and heading out, and then it was off to find gas before heading to the airport.

The price of gas was a crazy C$1.99 per liter, and the Suburban took nearly 50 liters to fill up. The trip up to Tuktoyaktuk hadn’t been cheap, but was certainly worth it.

The drive to the airport was only about 30 minutes, returning the car took less than five minutes, and I was on my way to check-in with Air North. It looked online like the flight might be pretty empty, and I was hopeful it would be.

Check-in agent confirmed that indeed there would only be about 25 people on the flight today, meaning each passenger could have an empty seat next to them if they wanted – score! Our flight was doing a loop today from Whitehorse – Old Crow – Inuvik – Whitehorse, and while waiting for the plane to come in from Old Crow I spotted today’s Canadian North flight being operated by a 737-200 with a forward cargo door – COOL!

Our flight touched down right on time, and soon it was time for the 15 or so passengers joining in Inuvik to join the 10 who had come from Old Crow to board our ATR for a nearly two hour flight!

Air North flight 362
Inuvik, NWT (YEV) to Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada (YXY)
Depart 13:55, Arrive: 14:50, flight time: 1:55, flight distance: 528 miles
ATR 42-300, Registration C-FVGP, Manufactured 1989, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 200,859
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,893,161

The seats were interesting, and I’ve never seen any like this before. The two seats we really made of one piece meaning it was really one big seat with a divider. Legroom wasn’t great, but with nobody next to me it was more than adequate.

Takeoff!

Despite being a propeller plane a choice of sandwiches was served – cheese or turkey were on offer and I went with the turkey…which came with a raisin cookie. Plenty nice snack for a tiny regional flight. Well done Air North!

Flight went pretty quickly, very little turbulence, and we descended into Whitehorse right at the golden hour. Gorgeous orange skies:

Great mountain views below:

A view of our ATR after landing in Whitehorse – there’s something about this orange, white, and blue livery that I really find appealing.

There was a free shuttle to most of the downtown hotels, and I had chosen the Best Western Gold Rush Inn for the night. Best Westerns definitely aren’t my chain of choice, but given the location in the middle of town I decided it would be “good enough” for one night.

Funny enough my room came with a jacuzzi in the corner (not in the washroom!) and the window was held together with duct tape. That said, the bed was plenty comfy for a good night’s sleep!

I had about an hour before sunset, so I decided to head out for a long walk clear across town about 2km or so to Yukon Brewing to sample their products. After all, it was advertised as “Beer Worth Freezin’ For” so I had to try!

Sampler tray was quite nice, and reasonable at less than C$10. Unfortunately, I didn’t find very many of their beers very good. They were rather bland and unremarkable. I really wanted a hoodie with their logo, but just couldn’t bring myself to spend $70 when their beers were not something I wanted to advertise – despite the super cool logo.

Back to the Best Western, where I had to snap some photos of the kitsch in the lobby. You could “mine for gold” in the lobby with some sifting trays….or use the non-functional old-time telephone to make a call. But beware, the Mounties are always watching you!

Walked to find some dinner, and ran into hometown hero Jack London. Who knew!

Unfortunately, the place I had hoped to go (The Dirty Northern) turned out to be closed for a private event, and being Sunday night there wasn’t too much going on in general so I ended up at the Best Western’s restaurant – which was shockingly completely packed!

I settled in at the bar for a beer, and ended up having a super tasty bison burger and some chocolate ice cream cake – definitely decadent, but still delicious!

I wish I had had a bit more time to explore Whitehorse, including the hot springs, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the little bit that I saw. What was striking to me was a huge number of Mexican tourists (who come for northern lights tours) and how much the town felt like Alaska to me.

Inuvik and Yellowknife had felt like something totally unique, but Whitehorse really struck me as if I had just hopped over the border from Alaska – lots of similarity in how it felt.

I’ll definitely be back one day for a longer visit, but for now, it was time to end this wonderful two week trip and begin the trek back home…

Dec 222019
 


Picking up my car at Inuvik airport was relatively straightforward – certainly more straightforward than reserving it in the first place. There’s only one agency in town, and it took quite a bit of research to find Driving Force but eventually I had an SUV reserved.

What I hadn’t remembered is: it had a 100km per day limit, and there would be overage charges of 40 cents per km, and since Inuvik was over 160km each way I had to remember to factor that in. That’s not even including insanely-priced northern fuel, but more on that later.

You’d think for over $150 a day you’d get a nice SUV, but in Inuvik you’d be very, very wrong. I did get a relatively (2-3 years old?) recent Chevy Suburban with room for 14 people…and a crack the entire length of the windshield. Oh well!

The bigger challenge? It was -32 when I arrived, and the Suburban was ice cold inside. I suppose I could have started it and gone back into the airport while it warmed up, but I foolishly waited nearly 15 minute until the inside temperature was warm enough to drive into town.

Maybe a 15-20 minute drive max, and Waze worked like a charm. I found my hotel, The MacKenzie Delta Hotel, and had no problem parking. There were even outlets at each parking spot to plug in the engine heater if needed. I decided to live dangerously, and left it unplugged.

After checking in it was already less than two hours to sunset, so I headed out into the frozen tundra to do a tiny bit of exploring. First stop, only a five minute frozen walk from my hotel, was the igloo-shaped Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church:

It said there were tours three days a week at 6pm, and luckily one was today, so I stopped by at 6pm for a tour. Shockingly in the middle of winter, I was the only tourist. Unfortunately the priest was about to head out, and the nice lady who usually did the tour had to run to a dinner for her sister’s birthday. She offered me her phone number, however, and told me to call her the next day and she’d give me a tour any time. True northern hospitality!

A quick look at the inside of the church before heading out:

The hotel seemed to be the most popular dinner option, since there weren’t m/any real restaurants in town per se. One of the two was called The Roost, and TripAdvisor reviews seemed to say it was decent. It was basically a fast-food joint that did a decent takeout business, but it was just me and a group of teenagers eating.

They were having poutine, and I went with the Roost special pizza…just over C$30 for an individual pizza and can of pop. Expensive for sure, but not OMG outrageous. It was at least reasonably tasty, but definitely not gourmet. My arteries would also hate me later.

I felt like a bit of exploring after dinner, and on the walk back was the one bar in town called The Trapper Pub. It was dark, and only about 15-20 people lurking about on the inside…and eventually I got a Kokanee and set to people-watching.

The Trapper was certainly a rough crowd, all local, with quite a few who looked barely able to keep upright. Keep in might it wasn’t even 8pm yet.

Midway through my second Kokanee I heard a crash, lots of loud cursing, and screaming, and turned to see the bartender dragging a drunk patron out of the bar by the neck. He managed to get himself upright, but not for long…and a quick slug from either the bartender or a bystander (couldn’t tell) had him down for the count again so he could be dragged outside.

That was my cue to head out and call it a night. Bit more adventure than I’d bargained for!

After a delightful nine+ hours of sleep, I headed down to the hotel restaurant, which as far as I could tell was the only place in town that served breakfast. Omelet du jour and coffee, with a huge helping of spuds and toast was under $20, so definitely one of the better bargains in town. It was about 9am when I finished and still pitch black outside, so up to my room to chill a bit while the sun came up.

Just before 11am the sun was finally hinting at the horizon, so out I went to start the car for my adventure. Fortunately, it turned right over, and after about 10 minutes was warm enough to start heading out of town.

I had no idea what to expect from the new “highway” to Tuktoyaktuk, but it was fairly well-packed gravel and snow, and I managed to maintain about 80 kph much of the way. Just after noon, you can see how little daylight there still was…and the giant crack in my windshield. This was right after slamming the breaks to catch a picture of a giant caribou on the side of the road, but by the time I fumbled to get my gloves off it had trotted too far to get a pic.

About 12:30 I was almost there. A good shot of the highway and very desolate landscape. No cellphone reception either, so if something went wrong you were really on your own. This probably isn’t the time to remember I’ve never had to change a tire…and had been dealing with some health issues that had me a little uncomfortable to be somewhere so remote….but it was beautiful!

Finally, just before 1pm, I pulled into Tuktoyaktuk. Look at the colours of the sky!

Made it!

Drove through “town” and finally hit my goal…”Canada’s Third Coast” the Arctic Ocean. Today probably wasn’t a great day to think about going for a swim since I hadn’t brought an ice drill!

This was the perfect time of year to visit. Just enough sunlight to have super vivid colours…a couple weeks later it would be 24 hours of darkness, a couple weeks earlier you’d miss the vivid pastel skies.

The Trans Canada Trail aka The Great Trail marker at the Arctic Ocean. It spans Atlantic to Pacific, and branches north to Tuktoyaktuk to the Arctic Ocean as well. Pretty cool!

Driving through town, Tuktoyaktuk really is the “End of The Road”

Station of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a series of radar stations set up in the Arctic, Greenland, etc to provide for early detection of incoming Soviet bombers.

With just about two hours of daylight left, it was time to turn around and get back to Inuvik before the sun set completely. I had debated staying the night in Tuktoyaktuk, but given the lack of things to really “do” I decided to head back. Highway sign:

Warning! Bear Country! Yogi would not approve – a fed bear is a dead bear! Shortly after this I saw what I’m pretty sure was a bear in the distance, but too far to be sure or get a pic.

The Pingos are another reason people come to Tuktoyaktuk, a mount of earth-covered ice that is evidence of this areas glacial past. Unfortunately, they’re protected and it’s hard to get too close, and this is one of the better viewing points:

Posing with a pingo – you can already tell the sun is setting at 1:30 in the afternoon!

On the drive back…around 2:30pm! Gorgeous sky. I saw a few arctic foxes at this point, but too tiny to get a pic.

Probably my favourite shot of the drive, just before 3pm and sunset. Stunning colours.

…and around the next bend, even better. Absolutely my favourite picture of the trip. Such vivid colours!

Back in Inuvik just after sunset, I decided to stop by the “northernmost mosque in the world” – lots of northernmost this and that!

Stopped by the “Northern Store” for some groceries (mainly water and snacks) and debated buying a fur, but…why? The Northern Store is basically an Arctic WalMart where you could buy everything from groceries to clothes and daily essentials.

Last stop of the night was the Midnight Sun Complex. There was a local craft fair going on that I wanted to browse, plus I couldn’t resist checking out Canada’s northernmost ice rink!

Pictures didn’t seem welcome at the craft fair, and much of what was being sold was fur in every variety. I didn’t have much need for seal or fur gloves, boots, or parkas, but what….it’s public skating time at the ice rink? Now that I’m totally down for!

I only skated for like 10 minutes, but ticking it off was an amazing experience!

Back to the hotel before dinner and getting ready to head out and continue my adventure the next morning.

Dec 132019
 


Despite not even being 5pm, it was completely dark, so I didn’t get to see too much on my shuttle ride to the hotel. When I checked in, fortunately, my big box of warmies was waiting at the front desk for me. I’m amazed just how many stickers it takes to ship a simple box….

After settling in, despite the -22 degree temperatures, I decided it would be nice to go for a bit of a walk. The temperature alone wasn’t awful, but it was snowing and a bit windy….probably 25-30kph gusts or so. Lovely night for a stroll, right?

Ended up walking nearly a mile, and by the time I arrived at my destination there was already snow crusted on my eyebrows. It was a nice brisk and fresh walk, but I was looking forward to warming up!

My destination was Northwest Territories Brewing Co. (NWT Brewing) which looked online to have not only a good selection of beers, but also a decent restaurant.

Inside, I was shocked at how popular the place was! It wasn’t huge, but every seat was taken and a few dozen people were standing around too. For a town of under 20,000, it seemed the whole town was here. First, a very nice beer or two to warm up…

I ended up staying almost three hours, mainly because it was cold and dark outside so there wasn’t much else to do, and because I met some fascinating people. Apparently, very few people are from Yellowknife, and many come there for work. It’s experiencing a mini tourist boom, and as a consequence it’s very hard to find labour – many people work a series of part time jobs to keep all the local industries humming.

I also met a couple of cagey characters – exactly the kind you expect to find in somewhere rather remote. They refused to say much about what they did beyond “work in the camps” or “government stuff.” Maybe Yellowknife is Canada’s Area 51…

Back to the hotel in what was now much heavier snow and wind, and was greeted by the obligatory polar bear statue in the lobby. I’m beginning to think it’s a requirement up north to have a stuffed polar bear hanging around.

After a good night’s sleep, I had a bit of time to get breakfast. Why have a boring hotel breakfast when you can wander the town a bit more. There seemed to be a Tim Horton’s, but I can get that anywhere.

There also seemed to be an intriguing local coffeeshop called Birchwood Coffee Kǫ̀ which means coffeehouse in the local language. Again, many of the employees seemed to be from elsewhere – at least one from Europe even – but they had delicious cinnamon buns and coffee so I was thrilled!

I decided to “push” things a little and take the 10am shuttle to the airport, having seen the night before that the airport looked tiny. As we left the hotel (on the left in the picture below) the sun was just starting to rise a bit after 10am.

I was forced to check my rolling bag, despite the aircraft being a 737, which was fine – who knew if it would even have overhead bins! Remember, just because you CAN carry it doesn’t mean it’s carry on!

The snow from the night before was still raging, but if anyone could handle it I figured it would be an airline called Canadian North!

The most fascinating thing is that there was one security checkpoint, but it was only for flights going “south” – meaning Edmonton or Vancouver. All the flights that went north from Yellowknife had no security at all! Only your checked bags were scanned.

It’s been years since I’ve been on a 737-300, and I was hoping for some good ole-fashioned retro goodness!

Canadian North flight 244
Yellowknife, NWT, Canada (YZF) to Norman Wells, NWT (YVQ)
Depart 10:30, Arrive: 11:55, flight time: 1:25, flight distance: 424 miles
Boeing 737-300, Registration C-GCNK, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 200,053
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,892,355

I had managed to finagle my way into an aisle seat in the second row at check-in (no business on this ancient bird!) and despite the load being about 75% today the middle seat stayed empty. Plus, I had an amazing view of the delightful old-school moving map on the bulkhead!

My seatmate was a very friendly and chatty local from Inuvik, who was impressed a tourist was visiting during the winter. She was a wealth of information about all the things I might see and do, including an annual arts and crafts fair which would be taking place over the weekend.

Despite only having a population of about 3,200 Inuvik is a bit of a regional hub in the north, complete with a modest teaching hospital and all. At least if I started feeling any worse there might be options.

Oh, and as my view during boarding showed, the snow was still howling outside and people were trekking it in.

The flight to Inuvik would stop in Norman Wells on the way, and despite the barely 80 minute flight time of the first segment a small meal was offered to all passengers. I went with the sandwich which was pretty good, and all passengers got a bag of chips. Of course, the one person to get Cheetos was the American. I think it was politically-motivated…

When we touched down in Norman Wells only a couple dozen passengers got off, and only a few got on. We were invited to disembark and stretch our legs if we wanted, and I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see a new airport!

The entire airport had no security, and I was able to walk around freely and explore for about ten minutes. The check-in area:

There was a waiting room with a comfy couch for local elders…

After about 10 minutes it was time to board again. Much less snowy, but colder in Norman Wells. About -26C this morning!

No pictures were allowed on the tarmac in the north, so I had to take the pic above from the terminal, and the one below from the aircraft once I’d boarded. Don’t worry Pearson, I don’t think Norman Wells will be competing with you any time soon for global hub status!

The plane was still about 2/3 full out of Norman Wells, and it was time to continue on our way for the short 40 minute flight up to Inuvik.

Canadian North flight 244
Norman Wells, NWT, Canada (YVQ) to Inuvik, NWT (YEV)
Depart 12:30, Arrive: 13:18, flight time: 48 min, flight distance: 278 miles
Boeing 737-300, Registration C-GCNK, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 200,331
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,892,633

While I love using the Great Circle Mapper website to plot my routes, it’s even more fun when they’re displayed on the bulkhead…complete with both segments!

This segment would be too short for a snack, but fear not – Canadian North did have pretzels as well as water, coffee, or tea available for everyone! Impressive!

Arrival in Inuvik’s one-room terminal was right on time, and while I waited for my checked bag there was of course the mandatory polar bear in the terminal waiting to greet me!

Bag acquired, it was time to pick up my rental car and start my adventure. It was a balmy -32C outside, so hopefully it would start!!!

Dec 122019
 


Long, long walk to immigration from our gate in Toronto and when we got there fortunately there was zero wait. Scanned my NEXUS card, the machine told me it couldn’t be processed, and please see an agent.

Very polite agent manually filled out an arrivals form for me, few questions, and sent me on my way to customs…where it turned out I’d been given secondary. No indication why (one way from Vietnam maybe, bypassing the US?) but I earned myself a completely thorough baggage rummaging.

Quite oddly the agent was interested in my dirty clothes, bag, and briefly scrolling through photos on my iPad, but paid zero attention to prescription meds or anything – so clearly their interest wasn’t pharma (which is often the case at the US/Canada border since the legalization of Cannabis – although I was asked if I had any) – and seemed like they were more interested in who knows what.

To their credit: everything was very polite, professional, and efficient, and the whole secondary lasted 10 minutes tops…which is very efficient for lots of questions and rummaging through luggage. I really wonder sometimes why everyone at anglophone immigration finds me so fascinating…but never comes up with anything that interests them….lol.

Off to my hotel of choice – the Sheraton YYZ – and ready to rack out for a good night of sleep.

This was probably the third time I’ve flown direct from Asia to the Eastern North America time zone, and the last two times I landed, worried I might not sleep since I slept a lot in flight, and had no problem passing out for eight straight hours.

This time, however, wasn’t quite so good. Grabbed a couple beers at the hotel lobby bar and went to be nice and early…only to wake up at 4am wide awake. I tried to sleep a little more, and it wasn’t happening, so I did a little work and decided to go check out the domestic lounge scene in Toronto.

When flying out of YYZ it’s almost always longhaul or US for me, so the domestic lounge scene would be new. First stop, of course, was Starbucks to wake up even more, which is when I spotted the Air Canada Café across the haul which I’d totally forgotten about.

The concept of this lounge is really “grab and go” as opposed to hanging out, having a wide array of food items you were welcome to pick up and take on board with you. Could it really be that awesome?

For some reason, I thought I was hungrier than I was, so had a yogurt parfait (delicious), pain au raisin (tasty), and a turkey and provolone to go just in case the Air Canada omelet wasn’t on my flight. Really loved this lounge and concept – I’d suggest United try it, but knowing United passengers people would bring empty suitcases just to fill them with food to go. No, totally not kidding knowing Americans around free lounge food.

On top of the nice atmosphere, there was just a sorta classy feel to the café – I really liked it!

Off to the gate, where it was clear we would be on a completely packed flight today. I admit I totally stalked the Group 1 boarding area knowing things were full and overhead space would be at a premium, and was shocked at the number of people going up to the counter rather indignant their upgrades weren’t going to clear.

Air Canada flight 135
Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Calgary, Alberta (YYC)
Depart 08:00, Arrive: 10:17, flight time: 4:17, flight distance: 1,675 miles
Airbus A330-300, Registration C-GEGC, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 198,224
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,890,526

Sorry Air Canada, but 1-800-WTF. Why did you have to get on the ex-Singapore A330 bandwagon too? It’s all about expectations, and it’s a decent seat for a mid-haul flight (second time this trip – got this on OmanAir too) but it makes me wonder what in the universe seems to have me flying on ex-Singapore planes on so many airlines this year. This was my fifth time in 2019 and fifth different airline! How many of these are out there?

The Air Canada version was in extra-rough shape, with the seat taped together. I tried to joke with the crew (who seemed fun) about the ex-Singapore plane, and I quote “you are wrong, this is an old TAP plane!” Yes, it spent 9 months at TAP between Singapore and Air Canada, but dudes – I totally wouldn’t be bragging about buying from the TAP thrift shop. At least poppin’ tags from Singapore is quasi-respectable….

What’s for breakfast ce matin? The omelet! YAAAAAS!

Fruit was below average for Air Canada which usually does much better, but it was sorta artistic in a triangular configuration at least?

Today’s omelet featured a perfect balance of cottage cheese and salsa, and was absolutely delicious. Comfort food for sure.

About an hour before landing, mixed nuts were offered. Always nice to get a small snack/drink service on a shorter flight. The crew on this flight was great overall.

Landed nearly an hour behind schedule due to de-icing in Toronto, but still had just enough time for a pop into the lounge between flights. Somehow, I’d never been in Alberta before, and all the stereotypes were confirmed with the giant cattle painting in the lounge.

Caesar and some unusual peach flatbread in the lounge. Yum! Nothing says Canada like clamato!

If the cattle painting wasn’t confirmation enough I was in Cowtown, the “assistance” agents roaming the terminal definitely confirmed it! Yee haw!

Our flight to Vancouver today seemed pretty lightly loaded, and boarding was a breeze. I was a bit surprised a new crew boarded in Calgary (but then again, I know nothing about Air Canada flight attendant bases) but we still boarded on time.

Air Canada flight 215
Calgary, Alberta (YYC) to Vancouver, British Columbia (YVR)
Depart 12:20, Arrive: 12:54, flight time: 1:34, flight distance: 428 miles
Airbus A320, Registration C-GKOE, Manufactured 2002, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 198,652
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,890,954

For some reason, as an East Coaster, I just assumed Calgary was “closer” to the East Coast, so the flight to Vancouver should be longer. But, today, it was just over an hour. In true Air Canada fashion, however, we still got a small snack. Small potato chinks and salmon…plus bagged nuts. Beats the United snack basket…

Fairly short connection in Vancouver, but stopped by the Maple Leaf Lounge because….I could. Every seat was taken, and they were turning people away at the reception due to “being at capacity.” Seriously? Ugh. I wasn’t upset because I didn’t have much time, but that’s pretty poor.

Off to the gate, where I got the tingles from the sign. Yellowknife had always seemed so “exotic” to me, and I was finally headed there!

Today’s load was nearly full in economy, but there were only two seats taken in business, so I pretty much had my choice of seats. I moved from 1A to 1F so I’d have to seats instead of one.

Air Canada flight 8833 operated by Jazz Aviation
Vancouver, BC (YVR) to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Depart 14:00, Arrive: 17:23, flight time: 2:23, flight distance: 977 miles
Canadair CRJ-900, Registration C-FRJA, Manufactured 2007, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 199,629
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,891,931

Again, despite being a two hour flight, a full printed menu on a regional jet. Simple things, but impressive.

As we went on the takeoff roll, I began to wonder if I might miss impressive views because I’d switched sides of the plane. No reason to worry, the mountains were absolutely amazing the first twenty minutes in flight:

What’s this? Proper warmed nuts served before the meal? On a regional jet? On a two hour flight? Air Canada for the win, once again. It’s a simple thing that really doesn’t make a “difference” but it’s a nice touch.

This is probably a good place to say the flight attendant working business was stellar. She was friendly, personable, and when I told her about my trip was thrilled to give me all sorts of advice about Yellowknife. She even advised me to cancel my rental car, telling me that there was a hotel shuttle from the airport, and everything I was planning to do was walkable.

The forecast for Northern Lights was nonexistent for my time in Yellowknife, so no point trying to drive out of the city to see them.

I went with the General Tso Chicken because a friend told me it was good, but unfortunately…yes, it was “healthy” because it wasn’t breaded and fried, but it was also dry and completely lacked flavour. The desert blondie, however, was excellent!

The flight was over all too soon, and I was still working on my wine…which was quickly poured into a plastic cup so I could “enjoy” it all the way to the gate. Did I mention how awesome this crew was?

Sunset…at just before four in the afternoon.

No jetbridges in Yellowknife, so we had a very chilly walk to the terminal. Fortunately, I somehow contorted my 6’4 self to change from shorts to trousers in a CRJ washroom (believe me, this is an impressive feat) so I only partially froze.

Coming from Asia, I had zero warmies with me, so the trousers and a hoodie would have to do. I had shipped ahead tundra-wear to my hotel in Yellowknife, so I just prayed it had arrived and I would stay warm.

The polar bear in baggage claim reminded me what would happen if not:

Outside the terminal, walking to the hotel shuttle. Yup, we’re not in Bangkok or Manila any more!

Next up, time to enjoy my time in Yellowknife (which I never saw in the light of day) before heading even further north…to Inuvik!

Dec 082019
 


Woke up feeling a little bit better, and although 9-something seemed like a reasonable time for a flight it meant still getting up earlier than I would have liked. So early, even, that I opened to fortify myself with hotel lounge coffee instead of taking a Grab to Starbucks.

At least it wasn’t a 5 or 6am flight, which would have been miserable now that I was finally almost adjusted to Asia time…just in time to leave!

Philippine Airlines online check-in didn’t work for me, but it was a quick two minute stop by the counter with no queue to get my boarding pass and I was on my way.

Stopped by the lounge which was a bit on the warm and humid side, but did have a reasonable selection of food and drink….and people piling plates several layers deep as if they’d not eaten in weeks. While I suppose that’s possible…

On the plus side, the lounge had huge floor to ceiling windows that spanned both floors so it was super light and almost cheerful inside:

Based on online reviews, I didn’t expect much from Philippine Airlines – it looked like the longhaul product was solid, but lots of reviews of disinterested crews, barely edible food, and shorthaul flights that made domestic US flights look good had me not looking forward. Decided to get to the gate 10 minutes before the boarding time printed on my boarding pass because I expected a scrum, but when I arrived…everyone was already boarded and I was one of the last ones! 45 minutes before departure!

Philippine Airlines flight 592
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (SGN) to Manila, Philippines (MNL)
Depart 09:35, Arrive: 13:20, flight time: 2:45
Airbus A321, Registration RP-C9907, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 188,328
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,880,630

First impressions were quite good. This A321 was very well-maintained, not great seat pitch but with only two empty seats in the cabin one would be next to me, and the seats were overall very comfortable. Especially for such a short flight.

The crew was nothing short of wonderful. Refreshing cool towels on a tray, what tasted like a very sweet tea pre-departure, and a smiling, friendly, and warm-welcoming crew had erased all the negative things I’d been expecting. This had all the foreshadowings of a great flight!

I loved the art on the menus…and the fact there was a menu at all for such a short flight…with three choices!

I love plane-spotting on taxi, but rarely do it since I’ll only take window seats if they come with aisle access. AirBridge Cargo XL oversize!

The three-cup pork for lunch was amazing – if nothing else this trip had fantastic meals on many of my flights. One of the few airline meals that felt both creative, local, and delicious. The champagne was a a nice addition, although sadly the cashews were in a bag. I thought about going all Korean Air, but thought better of it…

Vanilla macadamia ice cream for dessert. Can’t go wrong! I never eat ice cream at home, so it’s always a nice inflight treat for me.

Arrival in Manila was great…until I had to figure out transfers. It had shades of Cairo a week ago written all over it, and I prayed it would not be another two hour experience. Note to self: anything that portends a terminal change in a lesser-developed country is going to be an adventure. Unfortunately, before arriving, I just assumed since it was the same airline it would be the same terminal. Oh how wrong I was…

Eventually I figured out I would need to change terminals. How hard would that be. Surely Philippine Airlines has this down to a science, right?

We had arrived Terminal 2, and when I followed the signs for transfers I eventually ended up at a transfer desk, where the agent had been expecting me as a connecting passenger…and asked me to wait five minutes while he arranged things. Here’s where it began to get interesting.

It was Cairo all over again….he eventually walked me over to immigration…who actually stamped me into the Philippines just as if I was arriving, and the agent kindly escorted me to a waiting room…where I would wait for the bus to Terminal 1.

Terminal 1 is the oldest terminal in Manila, and you would think Philippine Airlines would use the sparkly new Terminal 3 for longhaul flagship routes…but you would be wrong.

Soon, I understood why I’d been stamped into the country: the bus to Terminal 1 was outside immigration and eventually dropped me off….at the front door of the terminal where we had to clear security scans to get into the building, immigration to leave the Philippines again, and eventually security to get into Terminal 1.

All in all, it wasn’t terrible. Maybe 45 minutes to an hour max from the time I got off the plane in Terminal 2 until I was planted in the lounge in Terminal 1. It was a rather sad lounge, used seemingly by most airlines who used the terminal (except Singapore and maybe a couple others?) but it seemed my only choice.

At least they had a cool display of airline models inside…

The food looked a little dicey….so I stuck with a Coke Zero and some sweet rolls. Not glamourous, but I was hoping for a nice long sleep on the next segment…

Went to the gate shortly before boarding, and it was absolutely packed with just about every seat taken. That said, people were being quite orderly with no mad scrum visible, so boarding would hopefully also be nice and orderly.

Soon I was paged to the podium, which is never a good sign when you’re already in the top cabin. Fortunately, they just needed to give me a new printed boarding pass since I had changed my seat in the Philippine Airlines app (to get away from a family with children behaving like wild animals in the lounge….fortunately I saw their boarding passes and where they were sitting so with several empty seats I was able to move as far away from the front of the cabin as possible…. Just a thought…maybe giving your kid coke after coke and multiple ice creams in the lounge prolly doesn’t help with their hyperness.

Philippine Airlines flight 118
Manila, Philippines (MNL) to Toronto, Canada (YYZ)
Depart 16:30, Arrive: 19:00, flight time: 15:50
Airbus A350-900, Registration RP-C3507, Manufactured 2019, Seat 5K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 196,549
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,888,851

With a flight time of 15 hours and 50 minutes, this was going to be a long flight….but fortunately the seats were super comfortable and quite private. This was really all I wanted or expected from the flight, so I was very happy to see it lived up to expectations!

The same gorgeous menus, but this time with four main courses. There were also mid-flight snacks in addition to the arrival meal.

Another friendly and welcoming crew who was chatty without being over the top, and I was looking forward to another great flight. Apparently our plane was known as “The Love Bus” – we’re definitely not on a more “formal” airline like Singapore, but I was loving the Filipino hospitality!

Takeoff….I love the wings of the A350…

Canapés to start were a miss. Bread wasn’t fresh, and the moussey stuff on top made it seem a bit soggy. Made me long for warmed nuts…but hey, champagne makes everything better!

The flight attendant serving my section raved about the french onion soup as a starter, so I had to try it. Unfortunately, it was one step from terrible. No flavour, very few onions, even less cheese, super greasy…and just…blah. Also, first time I think I’ve ever seen bread served in a bowl!

The disappointments up until this point were very quickly forgotten, however. The “gourmet pork sisig” was phenomenal. A wonderful combo of flavours and textures…just a tiny bit spicy, salty, sweet….it was simply outstanding. I actually asked about the possibility of a second serving, but unfortunately it had been very popular.

The cheese was about as expected – reasonable, but not memorable, but dark chocolate ice cream and some red wine….perfect end to a meal that wasn’t anything fancy, but was much better than I had expected.

I was clearly tired – we finished the meal service about 2.5 hours into the flight, and I proceeded to pass out cold…for eight solid hours. By the time I woke up, we were almost entering US airspace. We’d taken a very southern routing today, and I was actually a bit hungry.

I decided to see how the beef burger was, and it was actually reasonably good. Combined with the fruit, it made a rather substantial mid/late flight snack.

Surely, you jest. Good food on Philippine Airlines? I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley.

Just a couple hours later, about 90 minutes out of Toronto, breakfast service started (yes, at around 6pm local time) with a glass of orange juice.

Nice big fruit plate with deliciously-ripe mango.

The omelet was no Air Canada omelet, but reasonably good. I think calling it a Denver Omelet, however, was a bit of a stretch. First time I’ve seen an omelet served with risotto instead of potatoes, however.

Washed down with a Filipino craft beer….was was decidedly average.

You know it’s been a long flight when the sun sets right after takeoff….you eat, sleep, eat some more…and then it sets for a second time in the same flight.

We were just a couple hundred feet off the ground and the engines sprang to life…turns out we had “spacing issues and the aircraft in front hadn’t left the runway yet” – this is my THIRD go-around in Toronto this year (and I’ve only had three go-arounds all year) and sixth or seventh overall. Why is this such a problem in Toronto? Well over half of the go-arounds in my nearly 3 million miles flown have been at Toronto – to the point it can’t just be coincidence.

So summing up, Philippine Airlines exceeded my expectations in just about every way. I’d expected a comfortable seat, but almost nothing more. What I got were warm and friendly crews happy to go the extra mile, good to very good food and an experience that rivals almost any business class out there. I’d be very happy to fly them again – despite the more or less useless (to me) miles.

Next up – overnight in Toronto before heading up to the Arctic!!

Dec 072019
 


After a good night of sleep (I still wasn’t rested I don’t think from all the go-go-go of the past seven+ days and jet lag) I managed to wake up feeling like I’d been hit by a Mack truck. No, make that hit by a Mack truck, and then backed up and run over again.

Based on how I’d felt the past few days it was clear I’d been teetering on the edge of something, and I finally lost the battle. I was very glad I hadn’t booked any of the side trips I’d considered, because my energy levels were such that I could manage 30-60 minutes at a time max.

This continued for two days, unfortunately, so it was mostly just short little dashes around HCMC with lots of little stops to do/see things. Thankfully, whenever I got tired Grab was there to take me back to the hotel if needed. Unfortunately, this meant I wasn’t going to get the in-depth re-explore of HCMC I’d been hoping for, but at least I did get out and manage to see a little bit while recovering.

We’ll start with the view from the Le Meridien executive lounge. It was also raining on and off the entire time I was there, so it as a good thing I didn’t plan for much walking. On the upside, while this meant it was also incredible humid, the temperatures stayed in the reasonable zone.

After a lazy morning on the first day, I felt I had just enough energy go to out and see what real Vietnamese banh mi was like (as opposed to the stuff you get in DC which is delicious, but has too many “perfect” ingredients to feel too authentic.)

One thing about feeling not so hot is that you can spend an hour researching the best banh mi online, and not feel like you’d wasted time. I skipped over the two most popular places, and based on a few reviews that said they were thrilled to have found this little place I headed to Bánh Mì Hồng Hoa. Supposedly this place could have quite a line, but when I got there there was no line at all.

There were english translations on the posted menu, and my meatball banh mi was delicious…and less than one dollar!

I still had a little energy after banh mi, so I took a stroll through the city walking for nearly an hour. Fortunately, once I got tired out I was near East West Brewing where I stopped for a sampler. Still rather impressed by the HCMC craft beer scene!

Still feeling pretty good, I decided maybe I could handle the mile or so walk to my hotel. Despite being overcast, the humidity was impressive, and as you can see when I stopped on the way to take a selfie with Uncle Ho I was already quite a sweaty mess.

After a couple of hours resting and recovering I felt good enough to go out and get some dinner, but really didn’t feel like venturing far. Since I’d had a couple good beers the night before, and their food menu looked good as well, I headed back to Heart of Darkness brewing. They did some super delicious sliders! Who would have expected in Vietnam!

The next day, I was still feeling pretty shaky, but did manage a couple of hour long walks. (Note I’m saving you from any Starbucks pictures…and you better believe I made it to Starbucks – I’d need to be REALLY sick before I skipped that.)

Apparently this bank was having some sort of opening / spirit cleansing / good luck ceremony.

At some point in the afternoon I made it to the Winking Seal Beer company while I was out walking. The tap handles were absolutely amazing with the Vietnamese hats on the seals!

I also made it to the Ben Thanh Market while I was out walking. Back on my previous visit there wasn’t more than a tourist or two in site when I walked through, and haggling was a real chore since there was no English spoken. Now? Crawling with tourists and all the merchants spoke enough limited English to haggle. Amazing how much the city has changed!

I always love looking at the fruit and vegetable sellers in markets – it always looks so fresh compared to the stuff you get in American grocery stores (unless you go to Whole Foods that is…)

One thing definitely hadn’t changed in HCMC in the last 15 years ago – there were still motorbikes everywhere, and you have to be brave to walk out into traffic to weave between them to cross the road. They’re not going to move out of your way!

It was fun still seeing a bit of communist propaganda here and there in the city, but again, way less than there was 15 years prior!

All in all, I was disappointed I wasn’t able to do more, but given how I felt I’m really happy with how much I managed to fit in. My hope was I was over things because going to the Arctic was up next…and I really didn’t want to get stuck up in the Arctic seriously ill!

Up next: off to the Arctic! I might be the only person ever to travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Yellowknife!

Dec 062019
 


Since we had a relatively early flight (well, not really that early, but when you take into account time to get to the airport, etc) we hadn’t planned much for the morning other than a lazy breakfast at the hotel to enjoy one of the better hotel buffets in the world.

No trouble getting a Grab, and since it was the weekend traffic to the airport wasn’t terrible either. We had managed to check-in online, so no need to stop by the desks, and queues for immigration and security were minimal so we had some time to try the Cathay lounge.

Just as on previous visit it was a little difficult to find, and once we did it was unfortunately absolutely packed just like the previous time. I don’t know if this is always the case for this lounge because it has flights to Singapore and Hong Kong at the same time, but it was difficult even finding a place to sit.

A couple of glasses of bubbles later, I didn’t terribly care, and decided to chat up the lounge agent and see about changing my set to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). A couple weeks prior they had swapped in an aircraft with first class seats on this route, however, they were not selling first – getting access to these seats was at the mercy of airport agents since the app wouldn’t permit it.

I totally admit that I might have been a bit flirty back to the lounge agent when they initiated it, and after much back and forth with a supervisor in some mysterious location on the phone, this exchange took place: “I would love to help you, but that seat is reserved for the bassinet.” I made a joke that “it’s ok, I’m pregnant and promise to give birth before Hong Kong” to which they laughed hysterically. First class seat was mine. Hopefully it would hold…

Cathay Pacific flight 750
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Hong Kong (HKG)
Depart 11:40, Arrive: 15:30, flight time: 2:50
Boeing 777-300, Registration B-KQT, Manufactured 2014, Seat 12K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 186,401
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,878,703

Boarding was a bit of a scrum with everyone rushing the gate the minute they started boarding, and my first impression of the seat was pretty good. Reasonably private, lots of space, and I would be happy with this seat on a 10 hour flight, not to mention a regional flight of under three hours! Ian had the seat behind me, and off to Hong Kong we went!

Bubbles and water for a pre-departure beverage…

What’s for lunch today? Can you imagine if US airlines served nice meals like this (complete with a menu!) for mid-con flights?!

In case of evacuation, throw your baby in a rubber sleepsack…

Lunch was served right after takeoff, complete with garlic bread, more champagne, and a nice thai salad.

I went with the Thai pork which was delicious. The perfect combination of savoury and sweet.

Choice of three flavours of ice cream for dessert. Strawberry for me, please!

After lunch was over, I walked past the galley and noticed a sign saying “work quietly, speak softly” – can you imagine this in the galley on US airlines? I’m sure the flight attendant unions would throw a fit! It would interrupt terribly important gripe sessions about their jobs, passengers. On the upside, a quiet environment would improve their concentration for Candy Crush and Suduko.

Arrival in Hong Kong was right on time, and since Hong Kong doesn’t trust Thai security we had to clear again – unfortunately behind what seemed like dozens of inexperienced travellers. We barely had enough time for the connection as it was, and were determined to stop in the AmEx Lounge for at least 10 minutes.

Hong Kong (along with a few other locations like Mexico City and Buenos Aires) is one of the few AmEx Lounges that has a “lounge within a lounge” for Centurion Card holders, which actually makes it a lounge I’ll go out of my way to visit.

As usual, Hong Kong was quite warm and we were a little sweaty by the time we arrived, but the champagne was poured and all was forgotten.

Despite having a very short time we were promised they could get the meals on the menu to us in five minutes or so, so we decided to order the caviar. Definitely a wonderful choice! Caviar and champagne make everything better!

Quick gobble of the goods, and then a bit of a run to the gate…where of course boarding was delayed meaning we could have spent some more time in the lounge. Said goodbye to Ian, and I was off to Ho Chi Minh City for the first time in 15 years!

Cathay Pacific flight 799
Hong Kong (HKG) to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (SGN)
Depart 16:50, Arrive: 18:35, flight time: 2:45
Boeing 777-300, Registration B-KQM, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 187,326
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,879,628

My seat assignment had stuck, and I was shown to seat 2K by the crew. It technically would be business class today, but the crew was still acting like it was first class, apologizing that they would only be able to offer business class champagne today. Could they get me some?

A bit warm from the run to-and-from the lounge, but my kitty fan and some champagne while settling into 2K made everything better.

What’s for dinner tonight? Similar to the lunch menu from Bangkok.

The thai red chicken curry was delicious – I do love the thai dishes that seem to appear frequently in Cathay business – they’re always tasty.

Choice of ice creams once again for dessert. They were out of Tegrity, so I decided to go with cookies and cream…and more champagne…this time around.

It had been fifteen years or more since I’d been in Vietnam, and in that time tourism had taken off and getting a visa had become much easier. No need to go to the consulate or embassy anymore, you can now do a visa on arrival by paying/arranging with an agency online who sends you an approval letter.

The whole process was quite confusing, and there was a waiting area where you had to fill out a form and wait. I asked about a dozen people if I needed to wait there with my letter, and the first several indicated yes, but eventually I just went up to the windows (causing several people to get upset with me) and they told me no, go straight to the arrivals queues.

Well, that would have been great, except with 20+ queues open they were all still 50+ people deep. It was going to be quite a wait. Still better than having to wait for the visa-on-arrival counter where some people said they had been waiting more than four hours!

I eventually found a line for VIP/diplomats/SkyPriority so decided that despite flying Cathay I would stand there since I have SkyPriority through Delta. That line only took about 10 minutes, but I was then berated by the guy at the counter who insisted I show him my boarding pass with SkyPriority on it – not just my card.

Feigning a bit of not understanding him he finally gave up on me and just stamped me into the country. I’m not usually a fan of gaming the system like this, but hey, to save a few hours and be able to at least enjoy the evening? Absolutely.

The other thing that had changed since my previous visit were the hotels. 15 years ago, there was no such thing as chain hotels in Vietnam, and we stayed at the Grande Olde Dame the “Rex Hotel” which was about as good as it got back then.

Now? There’s a half dozen different Bonvoy options, not to mention Hiltons, Hyatts, and everything. Grab worked well to get me to the Le Meridien (which seemed to be the recommended hotel based on online reviews) and I was given a nice room on the executive floor.

I have to wonder, however, as someone afraid of heights, what’s with all these hotels lately with 20+ floor atriums and waist-high railings where I felt I might plunge to my untimely death:

It wasn’t too late, so I figured I would head out for a walk and try and get my bearings for the coming days. The city had changed so much a walk was in order, and there seemed to be a great craft beer place less than a mile away that looked walkable.

I immediately wasn’t a huge fan of the changes in the city, as literally dozens of younger ladies from massage parlours grabbed my arm as I walked by and tried to get me to come inside. Ugh. It reminded me of Bangkok 20 years ago and the seedier side of tourism in Southeast Asia.

I managed to keep going, and was eventually rewarded with a great selection of beers at Heart of Darkness brewing. How amazing to find a Joseph Conrad-themed pub in the middle of Vietnam. While globalization definitely has its downsides in the homogenization of culture, there are some benefits…

After a couple of beers to tire me out, it was back to the hotel to rack out. I had two days to enjoy Vietnam, and wanted to make the most of them!