ironmanjt

Jul 142017
 

After a relaxing breakfast, we still had a bit of time so walked around the city a bit before I headed to the airport. I wanted to see if on a Monday things would be a bit busier, but even at 11am the city felt like a bit of a ghost town. Several readers have commented that there’s not a huge population, it’s not well-known outside Portuguese tourists, but I think most of it was the fact that the tourists who DO come don’t spend a bunch of time in the city – except maybe mealtimes which explained why dinner reservations were needed.

Ian’s flight was a bit later in the afternoon, so he dropped me at the airport before going to wander around the city some more. How can you feel unsafe when the airport is named after Pope John Paul the Second?

Pope says: safe travels and boa viagem!

Checked in, headed to the lounge, and very quickly realized that I had gotten to the airport way, way too early. I had received a notification when I woke up my flight was delayed by 45 minutes until 4pm, so I had arrived about 1:30 hoping to enjoy the lounge. Unfortunately, lounge was rather depressing. Essentially nothing to eat save some cookies and crackers, but a decently stocked fridge full of beverages.

About an hour before my flight I was bored, and since Azores Airlines only has two A310s it was pretty easy to track them online. One, scheduled to operated my flight, was sitting coming from Lisbon and the other was sitting in Ponta Delgada. The one that was already there was scheduled to operate the later 5pm flight to Boston for some reason (it had its engines open so probably maintenance?) and mine was coming from Lisbon. The only problem was…according to every site I could track it on, it was still in Lisbon…2.5 hours away….an hour before my flight. Azores Airlines own site said it wouldn’t be Lisbon until 4:30….or 3:30 local.

I checked with the agent in the lounge, who insisted I must be wrong. The flight is on time. I asked her if she could check with someone. “No, I do not need to. It is on time.” Uhhh….I may have started stirring the pot, letting my fellow passengers know that our plane was still in Lisbon, so there was no way we were leaving at 3:15 pm…

Finally, at about 3:30pm a supervisor came to the lounge and singled out me and two other passengers. Yes, the plane was still in Lisbon (duh) and won’t be here for quite some time. He had proactively rebooked me and the other two passengers on the 5pm flight. There were only three seats left, so everyone else was left to wait and hope. How we had been chosen, I’m not quite sure. I was on a full fare paid ticket, so maybe that helped, or maybe he’d seen me inciting revolution in the lounge and wanted to get rid of me.

Then, of course, just after he left, our new flight the 5pm was hit with a 90 minute delay. Now we would be leaving at 6:30pm. That meant arrival at about 8:20pm. Fortunately, the 90 minute delay (which turned out to be due to a connection from Praia, Cape Verde with 80 connecting passengers) held, and we were underway.

Azores Airlines flight 281
Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal (PDL) to Boston, Massachusetts (BOS)
Depart 17:00, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time: 5:50
Airbus A310-300, Registration CS-TGU, Manufactured 1991, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 65,805
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,442,782

Fortunately we had a bus gate (as are all gates in Ponta Delgada) so I got an up close and personal shot with my first ever A310:

As soon as I boarded, I got this notice from Air Azores:

My original flight had canceled. All 150+ people booked on it would be stranded in Ponta Delgada overnight, and both flights to Boston the next day were already booked completely full. I’ve never been happier that I paid the extra to be in business class!

Unfortunately, I forgot to get a pic of the seats. Thanks to Flyertalk user Carfield this is what they look like:

Far from the best business class seats across the Atlantic – they might be the worst – but with all their flights being under five hours it really was a pretty decent product. They were nice to lounge in, and very comfortable, and the price was certainly good. I knew roughly was I was getting going into it, so was very pleased with the product.

Pre-dinner drinks and ziplock-bagged mixed nuts were served:

“Meat or fish” were the option. FAR from the most appetizing looking meal I’ve ever gotten, and it was all Saran wrapped…to seal in freshness? I did find it odd that whenever I asked for sparkling water, she would bring me a fresh bottle and glass each time.

Didn’t look much better with the shrink wrap off. The beef did, however, taste much better than it looked.

Flight passed quickly, and we circled Boston a bit before landing, due to what the pilot called “very big rain.”

With less than 40 minutes to clear customs and change terminals I had kissed my connection goodbye, but upon landing my flight had been delayed…by over three hours….to 12:40am! Blessing in disguise!

Rushed over to the other terminal and got to the gate, and in the meantime the flight was hit with a further delay, now departing at 1:55am. By that time, I would have been up almost 24 hours plus the time to get home to DC, and best case I would be in bed by 4:30am. There was absolutely no way I was going to work the next day on 2-3 hours of sleep, so decided to throw in the towel and find an agent and asked to be rebooked the next day.

Unfortunately, my experience with JetBlue agents left a lot to be desired. They were all rather surly and curt, and seemed completely disinterested in helping. I finally after trying two or three found one who agreed to rebook me the next day, given my flight was delayed by over four hours. Yes, the hotel would be at my own expense, I get it.

Left the airport to get my Uber, and found out that the Uber waiting area is about a three minute walk outside from the terminal. Only problem was, those heavy rains that the pilot told us about. It was a torrential downpour, and even the short sprint to the uber got me absolutely soaking wet.

My hotel, the Le Meridien Cambridge also left a lot to be desired. The gentleman working the front desk had the personality of a 1980s Soviet hotel worker, and when I told him the AC in my room sounded like a plane taking off “we have no other rooms. Anyways, they are all like that.” Geez. I was hungry at this point, so decided to call room service. Guess who I got on the phone? Yup, grumpy front desk guy also takes room service orders. “No, you can’t have wine. Not after 10pm.” Sigh. Fine.

I went down to the bar, in hopes I might talk the bartender into a glass to take up to my room. Let me just say, he was the warmest most helpful person I encountered, and was the only reason I didn’t demand my points back. The sandwich I got from room service was also terrible, and  sleeping with a jumbo jet going wasn’t terribly helpful. In retrospect, I should have taken the 2am delayed flight. Oh, wait, no I shouldn’t have….because after all that they ended up canceling it just before 1am. UGH!

Surely when I got back to the airport, the next day would be better. It couldn’t be much worse. Except for the world’s largest emotional support animal in the gate area.

The gate agent was wonderful, and I may have flirted a bit, but he did manage to not only get me an aisle seat, but got me one in the second row. Score.

JetBlue flight 1155
Boston, Massachusetts (BOS) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 13:25, Arrive 15:00, Flight Time: 1:35
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration N298JB, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 66,204
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,443,181

Score…except for the fact the dog was across the aisle from me, and as soon as it lay down it rested its head on my feet. Ok, that’s cute I guess…and the owner was good looking and apologized for the dog doing that….at which point he fed it what looked like three benedryl. I didn’t think that was good for dogs…

Then, I was really excited. Seemed there was one seat empty on the plane…and it was right by me. But right before the door closed, it was not to be. A rather large lady who I’d estimate in the neighbourhood of 400 pounds came onto the plane huffing and puffing with two giant bags of fast food. Of course she was seated next to me, and tried to put the armrest up as she sat down. I very politely told her I preferred it down and was met with “well how am I supposed to sit down then!” Fortunately, the great flight attendant was right there, and told her “ma’am, the armrest must be down for takeoff. You can take a later flight if that would be more comfortable.”

I won’t go into more details, but it was an extremely unpleasant flight. Ok, one more detail…the guy across the aisle got a beer, and put some in a cup….for the dog to drink. See, all my fears of coach ARE well-founded!

Another great trip in the books, look for another one soon…

Jul 092017
 

After enjoying our Starbucks at Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport it was off to the gate for our flight to the Azores. There was a great rooftop cafe where you could watch the planes taking off – which was quite fun on the narrow runway. Do a search on wikipedia for the Funchal airport – it’s considered one of the most difficult landings in the world.

I briefly stopped to check out the SATA lounge which was partnered with priority pass, but while it had a few serve yourself drinks and cookies, that was about it. I had a quick cookie and a Diet Coke before heading back out to join Ian – I would have been better off getting a custard tart from the cafe with the good view!

The gate area was rather packed considering it was a turboprop flight only holding about 70 people, but it looked like most of them were connecting in Ponta Delgada to flights to the US and Canada. Seemed like such a strange place for a connection, but I would be taking that flight myself in a few days.

SATA flight 161
Funchal, Madeira, Portugal (FNC) to Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal (PDL)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 13:55, Flight Time: 2:05
De Havilland Q400, Registration CS-TRG, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 63,410
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,440,387

Quick taxi and takeoff, and despite the flight time under two hours we were serve a box snack with a sandwich and some cookies. Take note: I actually not only ate the sandwich this time, but it was tasty and I didn’t get sick!

Nothing else really to say about the flight. It was full, but on time and comfortable enough – about all you can ask for on a short route like this.

Our rental car was a bit strange here, as the agency met us in the arrivals hall, and dropped off the car for us. They told us which spaces to park it in when we returned. It seems the agencies don’t have big lots at this airport, so they just bring the cars in as needed. You actually sit down with the agent in the arrivals hall and fill up the contract while sitting there.

Drive to our hotel was pretty short, but the strange thing is that we couldn’t really figure out where we were supposed to park. Street metered spots we found out were free on weekends, so we would be fine until 7a on our day of departure. We were staying at the Hotel Talisman, and check in was pretty quick and we were on our way to our rooms. Not too much to say about the hotel. Initial impressions were that it was a bit odd in that the rooms had no desk, but the AC was freezing cold and the bed seemed comfortable, so overall I was pretty happy with it on first impression.

It was mid-afternoon at this point, and we decided to go for a short walk around the downtown area and just get a feel for the city the first day. The next full day would be for driving around the island of São Miguel and actually seeing things.

First stop near our hotel was the Church of Sebastian:

As we walked along the coast, lots of locals were out sunning themselves on the concrete “beach.” Did I mention the temp was only about 18C/65F? Maybe that’s warm in Ponta Delgada or something?

Posing for a photo near the water:

The city gates, right by the Church of St. Sebastian:

Huge old tree in the courtyard outside the church of Sao Jose. Does anyone know what kind of a tree this is? It was so big that it actually had support beams holding up several of its limbs:

Not too sure about this statue outside the military museum….

We headed to the Taberna Açor Restaurant for dinner, and didn’t have a reservation, so they didn’t think they would be able to seat us. We asked if we could wait, and after about 45 minutes they did find a table for us. Incidentally, we tried to come back the next night and there was absolutely no way we would get a table. Reservations are essential here.

The wait turned out to be a good thing, as a small local wine producer was tasting his wares outside the restaurant. He had a small winery on the Ilha do Pico, and the wine was actually quite reasonable. It was good enough that we actually ordered a bottle when we got back to the hotel after dinner.

Speaking of dinner, the amazing local sausages and cheese plate. Super tasty with local honey and condiments. It was huge, and more than enough to make a dinner for two people.

Next morning we were up to enjoy what TripAdvisor reviews described as the incredibly generous breakfast buffet at the Hotel Talisman. It was ok, but honestly nothing super impressive. The usual fare, but what struck me were the people going back for plate after plate. I got the sense this was a bit of a group tour budget destination, and people were stocking up on the free food to keep costs under control.

We headed out in the car, and finally we figured out where all the people were hiding. See, other than the restaurant, the whole island felt eerily quiet. No people anywhere. All the stores were “fechado” – closed. It just seemed weird and empty. But the Sete Cidades “twin lakes” had tonnes of cars parked at it and lots of tourists.

The name of the lake is actually a misnomer, because it’s really one lake with a road that divides it into parts. The different colours are because of different depths, so when the sun hits it it reflects are green on one half and blue in the other:

There was an old abandoned five star hotel next to the lakes, which was a great vantage point for taking pictures of the lakes from a higher perspective. Apparently the hotel opened about 25 years ago, and was in business for less than a year before closing. Seems it was just close enough to the city that nobody wanted to stay out there and be isolated, so it didn’t have enough business to keep going. They kept guards around for a couple of years, hoping to reopen it, but even that was given up on. The place was complete abandoned and looted now.

Except for Pokemon:

We only saw the one above, but the walls made sure to let us know we should be on the lookout for more:

View from the roof of the abandoned hotel:

From the top floor, looking down into the atrium lobby:

Couldn’t get enough of the view from the roof:

King of the Sete Cidades!

Standing in a heap of rubbish in the atrium of the hotel, looking up:

The lifts had long since been looted, and decaying concrete towers were all that remained:

We kept driving across the lakes to the northern part of the island and the Ponta da Costa vantage point. I’ll admit I planned most of our stops based on where google maps indicated there seemed to be vantage points, and this one was pretty awesome. View from the top of the long winding path down to the ocean:

We walked about halfway down, and this was the view looking west across the northern part of the island:

Just me and the North Atlantic Ocean:

After driving a bit more we stopped in the town of Ribeira Grande for lunch. We chose the Restaurante O Silva which was said to be very popular with locals, and was packed with families having a sunday lunch together. I don’t remember what kind of fish I ordered, but it was absolutely delicious:

We headed back inland after lunch to stop at the Caldeira Velha – which actually turned out to be hot springs. There was a nominal fee to go into the park, and it seemed the thing to do was to bring your bathing suits and sit in the various hot springs and relax. This one had such a high mineral content it was an orange colour…and so hot that it was actually boiling in places:

We drove on to the next Miradouro (I told you that word would keep coming back over and over on this trip) – the Miradouro do Lagoa do Fogo – the lake of fire. Another great view:

Climbed halfway up the steep path overlooking the lake. We were pretty high up on the island at this point, and there was a light mist we were so close to the clouds:

View from up high:

I should note there was also a cycling race going on on the island, and despite them reaching impressive speeds of over 40 kph most of the time, we found ourselves in a line of cars behind the racers at several points which had slowed us down. We were making good time, however, so weren’t too concerned about making it all the way around the island.

As we worked our way around to the eastern side of the island, I found a lighthouse on google maps which looked neat to see. Nobody else was parked there, but we decided to see it. I found it strange that it was a lighthouse, yet we were very high up on a cliff at this point, but still had to park at the top. Where could the lighthouse be?

This sign should have been a warning. Walk down to the lighthouse, don’t drive….35% incline down…

Yup, it was a pretty steep road…we did see one or two locals in pickup trucks doing it, but they clearly knew how to drive this road from experience:

We were rewarded with great views:

Finally, at the bottom, we were rewarded with the lighthouse:

Starting back up the 35% incline, I instantly regretted coming down to see it:

Walking almost straight uphill:

Amazing views.

Back to Ponta Delgada, parked the car, and as it was almost 8pm at this point we headed back to the same restaurant to have dinner. No luck tonight as I mentioned above, and almost everything else was, yes, closed:

It was odd. The only place in the city you saw people were at restaurants, otherwise the streets felt absolutely empty. Pretty much every restaurant, however, was either closed or packed full on a Monday night. It was the strangest thing. We eventually ate at the Calçada do Cais around the corner. Despite being out of several things on their menu it was a reasonably tasty dinner al fresco, which was perfect for the last night of the trip.

It would be up relatively early the next morning to start the trek home, and to enjoy a new aircraft type I had never flown before!

Jul 082017
 

Up way too early, and check out at the AC Hotel was just as inefficient as the check in had been. Overall, given the price and quality of the room I would stay here again, but for a major chain hotel it was one of the least welcoming and service-oriented I have stayed in in a long time.

To that point that when we tried to take the airport shuttle to the airport (which we had confirmed the day before) the driver refused to take us, saying there were no reservations. Only by complaining to the front desk (who also had no record of our reservation from the day before) did they begrudgingly agree to take us. Oh, and on the way, we stopped at the other AC hotel and picked up several people. Were they just planning to not go at all? It made no sense.

We got to the airport, and check-in was an equally unpleasant experience. The checkin agent from Binter Canarias made a dramatic point of telling us it was a very small plane, and no, you can’t carry your bags on with you. Lots of sighing and unhappiness, but no requests for money, and our larger bags were checked. We were off to security which was quick and efficient, and then I was on a mission: find the Starbucks allegedly located somewhere in this airport.

It wasn’t too hard to find at the far end of the terminal from where our gate was, although they clearly had spelling issues. Also, not too sure why there’s Hebrew writing on my Evian bottle off the western coast of Africa, but it is what it is. I had caffeine, and I was a happy camper.

By the time we made our way to the gate it was almost time to board, which was via a bus, but all in all pretty quick and efficient. No complaints at all.

Binter Canarias flight 912
Las Palmas, Islas Canarias, Spain (LPA) to Funchal, Madeira, Portugal (FNC)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 12:20, Flight Time: 1:30
ATR 72-500, Registration EC-JQL, Manufactured 2006, Seat 11C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 62,798
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,439,775

Nice short flight in a relatively newish ATR-72, and to Binter’s credit, they served a sandwich and choice of drink on this short flight. I never feel like juice, but decided to order a pineapple juice. Maybe I subconsciously wanted to show that I knew the Spanish word for pineapple – who knows. Overall, given the flight length, aircraft, and route, I was pretty impressed overall with Binter (minus the salty checkin agent, of course).

After landing, I waited for our bags while Ian went and got the rental car sorted. He was driving this time, due to the lack of affordable automatic transitions, so it was up to him how and in what we got around. We got a relatively tiny car, which in the end would turn out to be somewhat of a blessing on the compact roads of Madeira.

Thanks to google maps, we had no problem at all finding the “hotel” we had reserved on booking.com, which in reality was really more of an AirBnB type situation. It was someone’s apartment which they had found a way to list, and honestly, it was my first AirBnB type stay. The owner was super good with communication in advance, and had directed us to a local parking garage which was perfect for us – about five minutes walk from the flat.

When we got there, the housekeeping lady was waiting for us, and gave us the keys without saying much at all. I got the impression she thought we wouldn’t speak/understand Portuguese at all, and that was fine. The flat was absolutely huge, about 100 square meters, with three bedrooms – way more than we needed. Yes, there was no air conditioning, which wasn’t great as it was quite warm, but for a couple of nights we dealt with it.

After grabbing a quick lunch near the flat, we decided to take the cable car up to the top of the mountains to see Madeira from above. The view just after leaving the cable car station:

Crossing over a highway on the way to the top:

View from the top:

We grabbed a small snack at the top (there’s a local liquor called “poncha” which is basically a strong fruit-based liquor with a pretty high alcohol content) so I had a mandarin one and a delicious Portuguese tart before walking around a bit. After walking around, it was time for the long cable car ride back to sea level. Pic on the way down with another car crossing behind:

Nearing the coast again. Nothing but Atlantic Ocean in the distance:

We relaxed for a bit in the flat and had a couple of glasses of wine, before heading out to find some dinner. We walked along the water to a place that looked interesting called Beerhouse. Even if the food wouldn’t be great, the view of all the boats on the water plus the hills of Madeira made for a great view:

After dinner we walked down the busy street near the flat (the Rua de Santa Maria) which was full of restaurants and bars. We stopped at a place called the Mercearia da Poncha which had just about every kind of poncha imaginable on the menu. I forget what Ian had, but I was brave and tried the absinthe poncha. It was definitely a good nightcap, and despite the warm temperatures in the flat I slept reasonably well.

Up early the next morning to begin our driving adventure around Madeira. We had slept in a bit and gotten a reasonably late start, so grabbed brunch near the flat which did reasonable coffees and sandwiches. Shortly before noon, we were finally ready to head out and explore the island.

We headed west out of town, to what was flagged as a great viewpoint – a “miradouro” which would become a term we would be familiar with over the next few days. The drive to the top was pretty terrifying as someone who doesn’t do great with heights, but when we got to the top of the Cabo Girão viewpoint we were rewarded with a great view:

Steep cliffs, 600 meter drop straight into the Atlantic:

After a small snack and a poncha to deal with the winding roads, we headed west to turn inland towards the north coast of Madeira on the VE4 road. Great views in the valley between two mountains/hills:

Looking down into the valley. Winding roads and hills everywhere:

Looking back towards the southern coast of Madeira. Gorgeous views:

After we reached the northern shore we turned east on the VE1. For some reason, google maps didn’t think this was a great way to the eastern coast (it wanted to send is all the way back south and east instead of along the northern shore) but with views like this, they must be wrong:

As we continued east, the road got progressively worse, until it was like this….hundreds of feet in elevation from the shore, and look at that tiny tunnel ahead:

Yes, this was taken from the car on the tiny road we were on. The northern shore almost reminded me of the Road from Hana on Maui, which has some similarly narrow and high up scary roads:

But the views made it so worth it:

I mean, look at this. Worth every minute of the relatively terrifying drive:

Eventually we got close to the eastern tip of the island, and the roads majorly improved. After stopping at a gas station for some Red Bull and snacks, we continued to the eastern tip of the island. The Ponta do Buraco looked to be a pretty major viewpoint (again, miradouro in Portuguese) on google maps, and it lived up to it when we got there:

I mean, look at the panorama of the bay:

Posing for a pic against beautiful nature:

After driving back to the city it was already evening, and a quick shower saw us off to dinner. We decided to stay near the flat since we had an early morning coming up, and ate at Restaurant Mozart. The Maitre D (dressed as Salieri) was an absolute hoot, and stopped by our table repeatedly during dinner to check up on us. Personally, I think he just had a thing for Ian 😉  Bottle of wine and tasting menu ordered, and away we go. Amuse bouche…with a Dorito. Very nouvelle cuisine of them:

For a starter, I went with the Beethoven, which was a delicious octopus carpaccio:

Next up was the Pedro de Cristo, parrot fish with baked tomato and brie cheese. Also excellent.

Selfie against the restaurant sign. We might have had a bit of wine at this point.

a small pre-dessert. As I mentioned, the service was excellent:

Desert was the Handel – honey cake pudding with crunchy topping and ice cream. Amazing.

The whole dinner was superb, and for the price I can’t recommend Mozart highly enough. Al fresco dining, super service, and a super tasty meal. Overall, much much more than I expected to find on the dining scene in Funchal!

After a good night of sleep, we picked a random cafe near the car park for breakfast the next morning. Espresso and pasteis de nata (portuguese custard tarts) for breakfast – can’t beat it for three euro!

After breakfast we left the flat (just leave the keys inside) and parked the car to check out the Christian Renaldo (aka CR7) museum. It was the biggest egopiece of a museum I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to North Korea) – the trophy room:

Vanity paintings all over the walls:

Even the staircase to the lower level was nothing but vanity:

Someone loves himself:

All in all, we crammed a lot into 1.5 days in Madeira. I could see spending more time there, but only if you wanted a really relaxing trip – or wanted to take things slowly. The driving is definitely not for the faint of heart, but I was super impressed by the quality of the food and the nature on the island.

Next, it was off to the airport and onto another Portuguese Island group, the Azores!

Jul 072017
 

Dropping off the car with Hertz was nice and easy, and we had already checked in online with the Vueling app, and they were happy to check my extra luggage and we were soon on our way through security. Security was really quick and maybe five minutes, and we still had over an hour to kill before boarding.

No lounge access with Vueling, but there are several Priority Pass lounges in the Barcelona Airport, so we decided to stop in one for some snacks and beverages. The self-serve beer, wine, and liquor was plentiful, but just like my visit a couple of years prior the food selection was rather poor. Oh well, still beats sitting around the terminal for an hour.

Next, off to the gate, where I would see if the excitement of my previous trip on Vueling (also with the purpose of going to Andorra) would be a repeat for excitement.

Vueling flight 3000
Barcelona, Spain (BCN) to Las Palmas, Islas Canarias, Spain (LPA)
Depart 21:40, Arrive 00:15 next day, Flight Time: 3:35
Airbus A321, Registration EC-MLD, Manufactured 2016, Seat 28D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 62,459
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,439,436

Boarding was a rather disorganized scrum, but we soon found our way back to 28D and 28E, our exit row seats. I know we paid a bit extra for this, but for 3.5 hours it was totally worth it. Look at this legroom!

Can’t say too much about this flight. Unlike my last Vueling flight, it was a very quiet three or so hours down to Las Palmas in the dark. The crew spoke very little English, but there was plenty of buy on board available, although I had to repeat my requests in Spanish several times to get what I wanted. My Spanish isn’t good enough to know if they weren’t comfortable in Spanish, or they were amused by my Spanish, or my requests for another beer were strange, but regardless it was a very young and friendly crew.

Perhaps the most excitement came with about 45 minutes in flight when there was an urgent page for a doctor. None was found, but we continued to our destination nonetheless. Couldn’t have been too bad, I guess!

Since it was a domestic flight all we had to do was collect our luggage (which took about five minutes) and find our driver. We had used KiwiTaxi again (which we found out about on a previous trip to Russia) and they were fantastic with having a driver meet us. I’ll stress it again: I love this website so far in multiple countries, and will continue using them. Stay tuned to see how they do for me next month in St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, and Minsk!

Driver was waiting and super pleasant, and soon we were at our hotel, the AC Hotel Gran Canaria. First off, let me say a few things: our rooms were nowhere near as modern as those in the pics. I didn’t see any evidence of the lounge or rooftop pool (although we didn’t look hard) and all the staff we encountered seemed incredibly disinterested and annoyed with any questions we asked.

The room was very comfortable and clean, the AC very cool, but the service was absolutely terrible. For the price, I was still happy with it as a choice – especially given the facilities – but the staff attitudes need a serious makeover!

After a great sleep, we went for a wander to find coffee. The first two places we tried were “closed for holidays” which seemed strange in late May, but we eventually found a little hole in the wall place with terrible coffee and great views:

It was almost noon by this point, so we wandered the beach for a bit more than an hour before giving up and decamping for some proper food. We found a little italian joint with good food, and more importantly…local beer:

The beach views were pretty good I’m not going to lie:

After eating, we walked the beach for another hour or so, but it was really just more of the same:

By this point we were tired again, and retired to the Café Caracas for some espresso…and tasty alfajores:

Odd statue in the lovely park outside the café:

We had noticed the El Muelle Shopping Mall near our hotel, so decided to wander over and check it out. It was pretty sad and anticlimactic, but several stories high and had a great view to the port:

There was also a nice patio bar on ground level, which afforded great views with a beer:

Based on online research, we had been recommended to try Tasca Galileo for dinner. Reviews cast it as a little hole in the wall with just a few tables, but amazing food. It didn’t open until 8pm, but we were advised to be there early to grab one of the few tables. We camped at a nearby place before for a beer, and were there 10 minutes before opening, and I think we grabbed the last table. The whole restaurant seats maybe 20 people, but has amazing food.

I think we ordered six tapas over the next couple of hours between us, and several were delicious. Most memorable were the fried cheese with melon sauce, some great ham, and a wonderful liver dish. The wine selection was also really good and cheap, and the whole experience was amazing. Reviews said they spoke good English, but our “decent” Spanish was enough to not have to try in English. That said, there were some English folks there who seemed to be trying (and managing) in English, so it’s a very tourist friendly place. Can’t recommend it enough!

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a tiny craft beer pub called The Situation. It had an absolutely amazing craft beer list that I totally didn’t expect, and I only wish we’d been there earlier in the day and had room for more than one beer. That said, the one I did have was amazing:

It had been an interesting day of walking on the beach and exploring, but if you’re the type who constantly needs to “do things” I can see how Las Palmas could be a bit boring. It definitely caters to the beach crowd, although we were clearly there the wrong time of year.

Relatively early to bed, because we had to be up early the next morning for our onward travels…

Jul 032017
 

We parked the car in front of our hotel, the A Casa Canut, where it was nice and simple to walk inside, hand the keys to the guy at the front desk, and he took it away to be parked for a very reasonable fee. The room I received was a bit on the strange side, in that it didn’t have a desk or anywhere to sit in the room. It was, however, considerably larger and less expensive than the previous time I had stayed here. I guess being there in June as opposed to August made a huge difference.

After dropping our things off, we headed out into the city of Andorra la Vella to walk around and explore. After grabbing a coffee at the new Starbucks, we came upon this bridge which required a photo. If there wasn’t going to be a passport stamp to document our visit to Andorra, a picture with this bridge would do:

Yes, I should have worn sunglasses…

Salvador Dali artwork near the bridge:

We continued our walk, taking in the sites of this quaint, yet very busy city nestled in the Pyrenees:

Looking out at the mountains:

All the walking had made us hungry, and it was already late afternoon, so retiring to a nice sunny square for some tapas and sangria seemed to be the logical thing to do:

Because octopus as a tapas in the middle of the mountains seemed so logical at the time…

We wandered for a couple more hours, and took part in some great duty free shopping deals, and ended up calling it a relatively early night so that we would be able to get up and enjoy the long drive back to Barcelona the next day the “long way.”

After getting up and grabbing some Starbucks for breakfast (since we weren’t hungry enough to pay 20+ euro each for the hotel buffet – even though I remember it being fantastic from the previous visit, we eventually checked out and headed out on our drive.

We had entered Andorra from the southern side which is the Spanish border, and would be heading out via the eastern French border. As with my previous trip to Andorra in 2014 the first stop would be  Llívia, a small Spanish enclave completely surrounded by France. The route highlighted on the map below is the route that we took into Andorra from Spain.

We were planning to go out the east side on the yellow road you see, and head down the E9 highway to Llívia. On my previous trip I found this border of Andorra to be much, much more mountainous, and a very scenic drive. Views on the windy road leaving the city:

Snow-capped Pyrenees:

Unfortunately, since my previous visit, the big windy roads and switchbacks had been replaced with a giant toll tunnel, and we missed the turnoff to be able to take the windy road instead. Oh well, it made for a bit of a quicker driver, and given the fog and light drizzle it was definitely a safer drive as well.

Soon after entering France (where we couldn’t find anywhere to stop for a passport stamp either) we came to right back into the Spanish enclave of Llívia:

The strangest thing happened after we parked in Llívia and started to walk around: the entire town seemed completely empty and there was nobody at all on the streets. We tried three or four restaurants to get a late lunch, and not a single one of them was open. It was the strangest thing.

We eventually did find one small restaurant and hostel open for lunch, and it was a three course meal. The proprietor spoke no english or french at all, and even his Spanish was a bit challenging. It was starting to feel like real Catalonia, until this strange noodle dish showed up:

There wasn’t really anything more to see in Llívia since everything appeared closed, and we were well ahead of schedule to make it back to Barcelona in time for our evening flight, so I convinced Ian to go ahead and detour to Perpignan, France for an afternoon coffee. I think I just wanted to cross the Spanish, French, and Andorran borders as many times as I could in one day, but there were some super windy mountain roads on the way towards Perpignan:

Note how it winds all the way down into the valley:

Train trains for the Ligne de Cerdagne, otherwise known as the Train Jaune:

For perspective, leaning on a rock and you can see just how far of a drop is by how tiny the road right behind me looks in comparison:

Our good luck, we happened to be there right as the Train Jaune was passing over the bridge. Not a ride for those with a fear of heights!

We entered Perpignan, but had real trouble finding somewhere to park the rather large Mercedes on the small town streets. We eventually spied an underground carpark next to a square, and decided to head in. It was extremely narrow, and would have been much better-suited to a small car, but I did manage to park it and we headed back up to the square for a coffee.

The coffee was served complete with ashtray on the table, because…France. Also, the espresso was delicious, again, because…France! Unfortunately there were no crepes or other food to be had, because the kitchen was “on a break” and “who can say” when they will be back. Repeat with me….France!

After walking around I did manage to extract the car from the parking garage, and the highway back to Barcelona was in fantastic condition (and full of tolls) and we made it in just a couple hours, in plenty of time to catch our onward flight. It was time to get on island time now…

Jun 232017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at that selection of local meets and cheeses!

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

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

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

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

View from the rooftop pool and bar:

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

One last shot of the open-air atrium:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, time to head out and enjoy Andorra!

Jun 182017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 162017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 142017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 112017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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