Feb 212018

Woke up early, and yes, you guessed it, headed over to get some Starbucks to wake up and start the day. On the ground, I noticed a few cobblestones replaced by memorial stones for local residents who had died in Auschwitz. I haven’t noticed this other places in Germany, but after noticing this one I noticed several more. Definitely a sobering start to the morning.

Apparently, the holiday season was definitely over, because in a couple of places there were piles of what appeared to be discarded Christmas Trees sitting around waiting for the trash collector.

After coffee and a stroll, I headed over to the train station to catch my train to Berlin. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a bit of a mess with trains today, because the two previous trains to Berlin were also still on the board. The first one was canceled and the second was running 90 minutes late. I assumed this meant that my train to Berlin would now be packed.

The mobile info/news screens were showing good news from back home, where the Minnesota Vikings had one and would be advancing in the playoffs.

Unlike the previous Berlin trains, mine was right on time (though it did get moved from one platform to another at the last minute) and was still relatively empty – maybe 25% full at most in first class. The train ride was just long enough to do daily language lessons on Duolingo and have a bit of a lunch snack. Creature of habit? Who me?

Arrived at Berlin Hauptbanhof right on time. It had been nearly 14 years since I was last in Berlin, and I was really looking forward to being back. I had planned the trip to have two nights in Berlin to get a taste of things again, as a bit of an appetizer to a hopefully longer trip later in the year. Bought a daypass for the U-Bahn/S-Bahn on the local train system’s iPhone app, and took the U55 two stops to Brandenburger Tor station which was just a short walk from my hotel.

Coming out of the station you are pretty much right next to the Russian Embassy which takes up an entire block and sets a bit of the Cold War mood. The two blocks I walked past the embassy were pretty much filled with people speaking Russian, which helped even more to set the mood. Arrived at my hotel…yes, you guessed it, the Westin Grand, where a piece of the Berlin Wall was on display outside the hotel.

Was allocated a supposed “upgraded room” which was pretty much half way to Poland by the time I would down several streets. The room was actually on the exact other side of the hotel facing Unter den Linden and thus was also incredibly noisy. Overall, was pretty disappointed in the room, and the staff were definitely the coldest I had encountered so far this trip.

Location, however, was great and I set out to find a coffee and do some walking. The east side of the hotel exited onto Friedrichstraße, which was a nice 10 or so minute walk down to Checkpoint Charlie. I’ve never been in the actual museum, but should probably do that one of these days. Obligatory picture of the checkpoint location after grabbing coffee and watching the sun set:

Thanks to already having the transit pass, as well as Google Maps to help me find the quickest route, I grabbed a bus to the DDR Museum. Overall, it was interesting for an hour, and you could buy tickets online and scan the QR Code at the entrance and save yourself a wait in line. Worked out very nicely, and the museum was actually pretty packed with (mostly) 20-somethings who probably couldn’t even remember the Cold War. Great, now I feel old.

I did, however, get a great souvenir to keep my Lufthansa ducks company:

A few different bars had been recommended to me, so the first stop was at Vagabund Brauerei located in a residential neighbourhood in the northwest of Berlin which I never would have gone to otherwise. Good beers, chance to see a new part of the city a bit, so overall a good way to spend an hour.

I clearly hadn’t thought ahead, however, as the other place I had decided to check out was pretty much on the opposite side of the city. Hopfenreich was located in the southeast part of the city, and it took a couple of train transfers and a reasonable walk to get there. Very good beer list, but pretty empty on a Sunday night which was to be expected. Again, another new part of the city for me so if nothing else checking out these two pubs gave me an excuse to explore some new areas…and make very good use of the daypass I’d bought for transit.

On the way back to the Westin, I did, however, spot the most unfortunately named travel agency ever. “Titanic” doesn’t exactly say to me: you’re going to have a safe and wonderful vacation.  (Again, I feel old…most people probably don’t even remember the concept of travel agents…)

Off to bed with no plans how to spend the upcoming full day in Berlin, and that was just fine. I could decide what I felt like doing in the morning, and had the entire day to do it!

Feb 202018

Woke up relatively early since I’d only had a little time to explore Dresden before the sun set the day before. I also wanted to get up in time to catch some of the ski race as well. Headed out of the hotel to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, and right outside the hotel the women’s race was already underway:

I wandered around the old city for a couple of hours, but didn’t really take any pictures. It was a Sunday morning and everything was pretty much closed, so I just enjoyed the time wandering about and taking in the architecture and a bit of people walking.

There was definitely something a bit charming about Dresden, but at the same time it felt quite small-town and provincial. And that was with several hundred international visitors for the ski race. My impression was definitely that it’s a bit of an “out of the way” destination, and it reflects its location in the east of Germany much closer to Poland and other central and eastern European countries. It definitely still felt German, but in a bit less globalized way than major cities like Frankfurt, Berlin, and Munich.

One nice thing about having a BahnCard is that local transportation to the train station is included with most tickets, so I hopped on the tram right outside the Westin to take me to Dresden Hauptbanhof. Arrived with plenty of time before my train, grabbed a small snack, and did some train spotting from the upper level tracks looking down on the main part of the station:

It was probably a bit silly, but I planned most of this trip around ICE train schedules. Since there is no ICE from Dresden to Berlin, I opted to do Dresden first, then backtrack an hour to Leipzig and then on to Berlin. Fortunately, since there were only a few ICEs between Dresden and Leipzig I chose the one that left mid-day so I could have a little extra time in both cities. Train was quick, and an hour later I was in Leipzig. Just enough time to knock out the day’s Duolingo lessons.

Leipzig Hauptbanhof turned out to be located barely a five minute walk from the Westin, which made for a very convenient arrival. Yes, I hadn’t really done all that much research in advance for this trip, and just enjoyed taking things as they came.

The Westin Leipzig was much more modern than the Westin Dresden, which you could tell was a much older hotel which had been renovated. The Leipzig hotel, however, seemed to be very new and modern, and was a highrise. It took a bit of arm-twisting to get the hotel to honour the Platinum best available room benefit, but when they did I finally got a nice (but semi-small) corner suite.

The sitting area with the afternoon sun streaming in:

Another shot of the living room from the other side – you can see the desk, the main entrance door, and the unusual minibar in a column which separated the living room from the entryway, bathroom, and bedroom:

Bedroom was on the small side, but perfectly adequate:

One of the nicest features of the room was that there was a balcony where I could take a good panorama of the area around the hotel:

One of the oddest features was that the bathroom also connected the bedroom and living room. It was in itself divided into FOUR small cubes…each with its own sink. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling this was one of the strangest hotel rooms I’ve gotten in a long time. Starting in the living room, you entered the toilet room, with sink:

Next to that was a sink room…with just a sink. How…useful?

The third cube was a shower cube…which connected the sink room with the bathtub room…this was the only room with no sink:

Then once you pass through the shower cube, you enter the bathtub room…which also has its own sink. Just strange.

Having had my fill of sinks for the day, I wandered out to begin exploring Leipzig. The old town was just a short distance from the hotel, and I immediately decided I liked the city.

I wandered for a couple hours, grabbed some coffee to warm up, and eventually got to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) which is probably Leipzig’s best known attraction since Bach is buried right inside the church. Trying to get cute with my photography and frame the church with some tree branches:

Statue of Bach outside the church. He’s bringing sexy Bach. Sorry for all the bad jokes….I guess I’m just going for baroque with this post.

Inside of the church, with Bach’s grave in the middle:

Looking the other direction, with the pews:

I’m not certain what this part of a church is called, but I like this shot with the stained glass windows in the back:

The Markt Square and Old Town Hall with the sun beginning to set and a pink hue to the clouds:

After a short rest back in the room, I headed down to the lobby to see what the makeshift lounge had to offer for happy hour. The lobby bar doubles as a lounge for platinum members from 6-7pm with free drinks and a “special platinum snack menu.” Reasonable choice of drinks:

The platinum snack turned out to be some mixed nuts, a small cup of soup, and a rather impression salmon roll. Some good high-quality protein. Overall, it was the perfect offering since I was planning to head out to dinner shortly.

Dinner involved figuring out how to purchase an S-Bahn ticket (turned out to be easy with ticket dispensing machines right on the platform) and some cool artwork in the arrival station:

Dinner may have been walkable if it wasn’t dark and cold, but taking the train was kind of fun too. I headed to the Bayerischer Bahnhof for dinner, which brews their own Gose beer, a style that is native to Leipzig. So, even those gose is far from my favourite beer, when in Rome:

The restaurant is located atop an old train station which sat unused until the S-Bahn was expanded and a new station opened. Now this is more like it! Sausage, potatoes, and a bit of mustard…you can’t get a much more German meal than that!

They refused to take no for an answer on desert, and it was amazing as well:

Back to the hotel where I passed out from a long day of walking, ready to get up the next morning and walk around a bit more before catching my onward train to Berlin. I definitely want to get back to Saxony in the future and explore it a bit more in depth as well as checking out some of the smaller cities – maybe in the summer!

Feb 192018

First, sorry for the delays in continuing with this trip report. It will probably come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that I’ve been traveling the last week.

Jetlag was finally wearing off by this point, and I was starting to adjust to the time zone so woke up at a relatively normal hour. I know I’ve sang the praises of the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport multiple times, but the executive lounge I find to be one of the best anywhere in the world. Grabbed a “light” breakfast after getting in a quick workout:

Off to the Frankfurt Airport long-distance train station, where I caught an ICE to Frankfurt Hauptbanhof, which according to the train maps was the same one which would continue to Dresden. What wasn’t clear to me is that when it arrived at Frankfurt Hbf my train would be joined to another train, and I would have to run down to the other end where my car was. Slightly confusing, but worked out just fine in the end.

The train ride to Dresden was nearly four hours, and the would be the second longest of my trip. Time passed pretty quickly catching up on some tv on the iPad, but there were some “gaps” in tv to look out the window:

Given the length of the train ride, there was definitely time for a snack and a beer…plus a good opportunity to practice a little German. DB crews overall speak really good English, but for some reason seem much more willing to tolerate my poor attempts at Germany than other service-oriented businesses Two flams, one greek and one traditional bacon and onion:

According to Google Maps my hotel seemed to be closer to the Neustadt train station in Dresden than the Hauptbanhof, so I got out there and started trying to find my hotel. Fortunately, it was very easy, and a short 10-15 minute walk just as Google Maps predicted. Got to the Westin Dresden where the place was buzzing with activity. Turns out there was a giant olympic-qualifying cross country sprint ski race going on in town that weekend, and turns out they were all staying at my hotel. This was going to be absolutely awful 😉

Full hotel meant they needed to upgrade someone, so I ended up with an absolutely giant suite. The living room:

Another shot of the living room – it was absolutely massive:


There was also a newspaper waiting in the room, full of the latest news from America where I got to learn some very useful German vocab:

Out for a wander after checking in mid-afternoon. The races had just wound up for the day so I missed that, but went for a walk. First stop was the Catholic Church:

Great DDR mural on the side of the Concert Hall:

It was actually cold and windy, with a bit of light snow falling during the walk, so I soon had to stop – where else – Starbucks for a nice hot coffee and snack to warm up. It seemed to be the most happening place on a Saturday in Dresden, with a line 50+ people deep out the door. It was absolutely crazy.

Warmed by coffee, I wandered around the city a bit more, eventually stopping in a shopping mall to buy a warm hat and gloves to stay warm. I had expected it would be cool, but with temperatures about five degrees below zero it was cold even for me and definitely required warmer clothing. That said, I miss having “real” winter living in Washington, DC, so one of my goals was to get some good cold weather this trip. (Foreshadowing: I would regret this by the end of the trip)

Now warmed with hat and gloves, I began the walk back to my hotel for a short rest. Panoramic of the Schloßplatz near the cathedral.

The Courthouse am Schloßplatz:

After a short rest, it was time to wander in the opposite direction – into the “new city” to try and find a restaurant/bar I was looking forward to trying out for dinner and drinks. Statue of King Friedrich August the Second also known as the Goldener Reiter:

After about a 20 minute walk I finally found the place I was looking for, Zapfanstalt, which had a very impressive beer list full of German and imported craft beers. The bar staff spoke absolutely zero English, so it was a wonderful opportunity to practice my German – made easier by a few good German beers:

Had a delicious Haloumi Cheese “burger” for dinner, and then it was time for the long cold walk back to the hotel. When I’d arrived at Zapfanstalt around 8pm it was pretty empty, but by the time I left around 10 it was absolutely packed wall to wall so – in proof that I’m getting old – it was time to head out and get some rest to continue trying to adjust to the local time zone. I wanted to get up early to try and catch some of the races as well, plus I had an afternoon train to continue my trip to Leipzig!

Feb 122018

After a very good night’s rest, it was up early to take care of a couple meetings before heading over to the airport. I checked out the Le Meridien club lounge to hopefully find a bit of breakfast, but the rather small spread was disappointing. The only thing I really wanted was some hard boiled eggs, but some giant local-looking muscled-out dude had taken what looked to be two dozen of them and was peeling and eating them one by one….so I settled for coffee.

Over to the airport, and first stop was the baggage scanners before being allowed into the check-in hall. Put my bags on the belt, walked through the metal detector, and the guard demanded “Passport!” Told him it was in my bag…and he got so caught up harassing the little old lady walking through the metal detector after me that he completely forgot to check mine. Ah security theatre!

Check-in with EgyptAir at the dedicated First/Business counter was suprisingly quick, and the agent confirmed I was the only person in business class today. 24 seats all to myself…maybe EgyptAir wouldn’t be so bad after all!

Passport Control, even in the expedited business class line was its usual shambles, and took nearly 30 minutes to clear. Despite knowing the grim fate which awaited me I headed to the lounge near my gate for a quick bite. I have to admit, the orange soda and cold pizza they serve has actually kind of grown on me…since everyone knows cold pizza is the best pizza. I wish they still had Diet Pepsi, but it seems they got rid of that nearly two years ago and now it’s only the full octane stuff.

Boarding was pretty quick and painless once I got to the gate, and off to Vienna we go.

EgyptAir flight 797
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Vienna, Austria (VIE)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 13:30, Flight Time: 3:45
Boeing 737-800, Registration SU-GDA, Manufactured 2009, Seat 12A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 8,244
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,528,306

Waiting for me at the seat was an assortment of goodies: an amenity kit, a set of stickers to be woken up for various things, some very poor quality headphones, and a blanket.

EgyptAir’s 737s are actually not bad at all, and have great legroom for short-haul flights.

Welcome aboard orange juice, and chocolate:

It was a bit strange getting a Merry Christmas chocolate not just on EgyptAir, but in mid-January:

Before takeoff a family of six joined me in business class who boarded at the last minute. One man and five women, the man wearing an EgyptAir ID badge around his neck. Despite now being seven people in 24 seats they occupied the last two rows and it still felt extremely private and roomy. View of dusty Cairo after takeoff:

So, what’s to eat today? Laminated, reusable menus were passed around:

…complete with a festive holiday cover:

Despite being a dry airline, they was still a drinks menu:

Starter of a couple salads, salmon, cheeses, and plenty of bread:

I went with the beef for a main, and it was about as disappointing as expected. I think he was trying to make a point with the bread, practically demanding that I take more…

The chocolate cake, despite being a little bit dry, was pretty good.

I passed the time watching movies, and about an hour before landing, a small snack of nuts and dried fruit was passed out. EgyptAir sure didn’t want me going hungry!

Overall, a pretty reasonable and comfort flight, made even better by the relatively empty cabin. No, EgyptAir service isn’t quite as refined as European airlines, but the 2×2 configuration and the extra legroom made it a much better flight overall than taking Lufthansa, Austrian, or Swiss. I would definitely take them again, especially if the flight timing worked out well.

Immigration and security in Vienna were relatively quick and painless, and I had about 45 minutes to enjoy the lounge and get a bit of work done while waiting for the next flight. Unfortunately, my connecting flight was at the very last gate in the terminal, so was a bit of a hike from the lounge. Oh well, after spending four hours on a plane it felt good to stretch my legs a bit.

Austrian flight 131
Vienna, Austria (VIE) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 15:10, Arrive 16:45, Flight Time: 1:35
Airbus A319, Registration OE-LDA, Manufactured 2004, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 8,631
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,528,693

Once up in the air, Austrian served a fantastic snack for a 75 minute flight with a chicken skewer, grilled vegetables with feta, and a delicious lemon tart. The tart was SO good I might have asked if there were any more left…but unfortunately not. I also had to practically beg the flight attendant to stop refilling wine – completely packed flight, but still fantastic service.

Arrived in Frankfurt right on time, and it was a relatively quick walk down the entire length of the A gates to my hotel at the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport. Nice surprise to get one of their few suites for the night, although it had way more space than I needed. I almost prefer not to get the suites there because they don’t seem to cool quite as well. The living room area:

The fantastic five hour long happy hour was already going on in the Club Lounge, so I stopped in for a very high-brow snack of gummi bears and a glass of wine:

Caught the S-Bahn into the city, and met a couple of friends for beers and catching up. Being a Friday night the bar/restaurant was absolutely packed and super loud. Naiv definitely has the best beer list by far in Frankfurt, although I might give it a miss on a Friday night unless you’re looking for a loud, happening bar. Plus, they took my favourite item (the bacon-wrapped dates) off the menu, so that was a little disappointing.

I had an early train the next morning, and was still feeling a little behind on sleep due to the redeye flight two days prior, so called it a relatively early evening and caught the train back to the hotel to crash. Next up, off to Dresden!

Feb 112018

Nice change compared to my last few arrivals in Frankfurt in that we arrived at the “top” of the Z gates so it was a very short walk to immigration and the transfer gates. No real NEED to go through immigration except one: I had about three hours, and wanted to get some Starbucks and go to the First Class Terminal. As one does. No silly first class lounge at the B gates for me with the risk I wouldn’t get a ride to the plane!

Only one problem today: immigration lines were rather long. Managed to talk my way through one of the shorter lines, and was through quickly enough and I made a beeline for caffeine. I have no idea who “Can” is, but it doesn’t sound remotely like Jason and I think I got his coffee….

For some reason, I’m always burning up after a redeye flight, so the chilly walk to the First Class Terminal felt great. Fantastic agent at check in, and unfortunately I got selected for random extra screening by security. Normally, this would be a pain but at the First Class Terminal they’re almost apologetic about it.

Since I’d skipped breakfast on the plane it was time for a proper breakfast before grabbing a shower. Eggs Benedict, Pain au Chocolate, fresh-squeezed OJ and some rosé? Don’t mind if I do! My only small quibble with the lounge (other than the temperature, but that’s a German thing) is that they stopped carrying english muffins some time in the last 6 months and now serve the benedict on toast. Oh well, I’ll live. Since it’s happened several times in a row now I assume it’s the new normal.

Nice shower, grabbed a few ducks (anyone interested in trading some Lufthansa ducks let me know), and soon enough it was time to board my flight to Munich. I didn’t expect that anyone else in the lounge would be going to Munich, but surprisingly I was one of four people! I guess either there were lots of HON Circle members headed to Munich today, or others with first class connections out of Munich?

Lufthansa flight 100
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 10:15, Arrive 11:10, Flight Time: 0:55
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISZ, Manufactured 2009, Seat 9D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 5,143
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,525,205

Today’s flight time? a whopping 37 minutes in the air….but that doesn’t stop Lufthansa from serving a nice deli plate and making TWO drink runs. Also, a first for me on a Lufthansa A321, there were 15 rows of business class today! As most people know, this is “EuroBusiness” which is just standard economy seats with the middle blocked. This means they can easily move the divider between cabins….and today there were 58 seats in business!

Relatively short connection in Munich of barely 90 minutes, but one of the best things about the First Class Lounge in Munich is that when you enter there’s an immigration desk, and they take care of immigration while you enjoy the lounge…and then you collect your passport on the way out and re-enter the correct part of the terminal: Schengen or not.

Unfortunately I was still full for breakfast, which meant no enjoying the Schnitzel in the lounge today. But there was time for more coffee and a glass of Champagne while I enjoyed the views of the tarmac:

Down to the gate, and boarding was right on time.

Lufthansa flight 586
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart 12:55, Arrive 17:35, Flight Time: 3:40 (actual departure 15:39, arrival 20:37 – 3:02 late)
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPC, Manufactured 1989, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 6,774
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,526,836

Unfortunately, departure time came and went and after 10 minutes the captain came on. Apparently we had some sort of mechanical issue, and the mechanics would be coming on to check it. They showed up a little bit later, checked some things out, and as they left the plane the only word I could make out to the flight attendants was “Kaput!” That’s not a good sign.

Sure enough, the pilot announced that this plane was going nowhere today, and please wait while they figure out what’s going on. Turns out, there was another plane sitting around which they hoped to have catered and ready to depart in about an hour. Please collect your bags, head back to the terminal, and we’ll let you know what’s up.

After about 15 minutes of milling in the gate area they told us where our new gate would be, and that boarding would hopefully begin in 30-40 minutes. So yes, back to the lounge where the agents were already aware of the issue, and said they would come get me when it was time to board. Yes, that meant time for another espresso and glass of champagne. The struggle is definitely real.

After about 20 minutes they told me boarding was ready to begin, but when I got to the gate it took about 20 more minutes for us to start boarding. We finally ended up pushing back about two hours and 44 minutes late…so it was beginning to look like I was just going to miss out on the 300 euros mandatory compensation under EU Regulation 261. Boo! If I’m going to be 2:44 late I can take another 16 minutes!

Fortunately, I was the only person in my section of seats, so I had a whole row to myself. This meant I could use one of the fold-out tables from the bulkhead just for food and drink and another for watching films on the iPad. Not a bad way to fly on a narrowbody.

Lunch started with drinks and packaged almonds:

Then it moved on to a full lunch. The burrata and plum tomatoes with pesto were fantastic, and there were three choices of main: veal goulash, halibut, or canneloni I went with the goulash which was much better than expected…and the “cocoa bean cream on mango cubes” was fantastic for desert. Fantastic meal for a shorthaul.

About an hour before landing, chocolates were handed out…so why not have one more glass of wine:

We landed 2:43 minutes late, so unless this taxi took 17+ minutes it looked like I was going to miss out on 300 euros by mere minutes. Not sure if anyone else has heard the expression “BFE” which stands for “Bumf*ck Egypt” implying somewhere is in the middle of nowhere…but that’s definitely where we landed today. The taxi went on and on, as the minutes ticket closer and closer. 2 hours and 59 minutes late, we finally parked….and the flight attendant was ready to open the door.

However, apparently, at the 2:58 mark Lufthansa declared us “arrived” despite the door still being closed. Hard to not think this was intentional…

Oh look, 20:35…exactly three hours late…and the door is still closed. It did eventually, at 20:37, finally pop open three hours and two minutes late. Lufthansa has yet to reply to my request for compensation under EU261, so it’ll be interesting to see how much of a struggle this is…

For the first time ever for me, there was absolutely no wait at all for immigration or a visa, so I handed over my $25 at the bank, got a visa sticker, quickly through immigration, and maybe 15 minutes after arriving I was at the Le Meridien checking in.

Dropped my bags in the room, and headed down to the sports bar for a quick drink before turning in for the night. Unfortunately, however, it was Thursday night and half of Cairo was at the sports bar drinking and smoking up a storm. My lungs couldn’t take it, so I headed up to the relatively empty lobby bar for some cheesecake and a glass of bad Egyptian wine before turning in.

With that done it was time to get some sleep before taking care of a few things in the morning and then turning right back around to head to Germany to begin the real vacation portion of the trip!

Feb 102018

One thing I like about flying to Europe out of DCA is that it requires a connection, which means any thoughts of going into the office are unrealistic. Got a bit of work done from home, had plenty of coffee, and despite sleeping in managed a very leisurely stroll to DCA to catch my initial flight to Chicago in order to get this thing started!

My favourite part of DCA is the old Continental President’s Club, which has become the United Club. The grand ceiling of the main room, and now that there’s the smaller “hidden” room in back it doesn’t feel quite so crowded. Of course, had to start the trip with a little “caviar” – United style:

Decided against all that corn and beans since I’d be spending the next 12+ hours on planes, I opted instead for some cheese cubes…and some pepper strips to get some vitamins:

I had noted on the seatmap that despite first class being full, economy was only booked to about 30 people – completely empty! I considered moving back and taking a whole row to have a little more space, but decided not to risk it with snacks and drinks.

United flight 1264
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 11:45, Arrive 12:56, Flight Time: 2:11
Airbus A319, Registration N892UA, Manufactured 2006, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 612
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,520,674

Interesting options in the snack basket today, so I opted for the fat free, gluten free, low sodium, low taste gummi bears knowing I would get much much better ones in a few days in Germany.

Beyond that, it was a typical, boring short domestic flight so I’ll skip right ahead to why I chose the flight with the 3.5 hour connection in Chicago: to give the Polaris Lounge one more try. This also had the benefit that if there were to be any winter weather surprises, I was leaving myself plenty of cushion before my international flight. No worries today, and we actually arrived Chicago a little bit early, so off from the B terminal to the C terminal to enjoy the Polaris Lounge.

First impression: the lounge was as empty as I’ve ever seen it, which always helps to make a more positive impression. It did fill up quite a bit by the time I left, but initially it was empty. Glass of Veuve Cliquot at the bar to start things off while I finished up a bit of work.

Headed over to the new dining area from there, which is much nicer and more “private” than the previous area. My only small complaint would be that the staff were more “midwest friendly” than refined, which maybe isn’t the best thing in a premium lounge. It isn’t a complaint, just a bit out of line with the experience they’re trying to project. Now, serious, not complaining….when they say things like “I just figured you would have finished your champagne by now so I brought you another!”

The seared tuna tataki was good, with a nice presentation…and the perfect light starter with a big Lufthansa meal coming up:

I had heard many good things about the Blue Door Kitchen Burger, so decided to order it – fried egg and all, and promised myself I’d only have a few bites to try it. It was pretty good, and ended up finishing a bit over half before heading back to the bar to do some pre-flight work so I could hopefully relax and enjoy the vacation a bit more!

Nice chat about the “paper plane” cocktail with the lounge manager, who’s actually been sitting at the bar just about every time I visit the lounge doing some paperwork.

After a nice visit, back through the psychedelic tunnel to the B gates to find my Lufthansa flight. Overall impression of the Polaris Lounge? Blows away anything else in the United States with the possible exception of the JFK American Flagship Lounge. It will be very interesting when (and if) United finishes more Polaris Lounges if they manage to replicate this very high standard.

Long line to board when I went to the gate, and the business class line was super long as well, so I just walked up to the counter, mentioned to the gate agent that I was in first, and was invited to board immediately so I didn’t have to stand in line. Very nice touch by the gate crew.

Lufthansa flight 431
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 16:20, Arrive 7:40 next day, Flight Time: 8:20
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 4,956
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,525,018

My seat was already set up when I boarded, and champagne and nuts made a very quick appearance. I was the only person in first today, and I had a very “old school” crew who did everything by the book and provided a first class experience that was over the top from a service perspective…without being awkward and “too much.” I’m seriously curious what kind of “notes” Lufthansa keeps on their passengers. Despite never having flown with this crew before, they knew several personal touches that they never would have without someone having told them (or read this blog maybe.)

Immediately after posting the above pic to Instagram and Twitter, Lufthansa (always on top of their social media game) was quick to reply:

I sort of find it comical that Lufthansa social media knows me well enough that they dare reply with Beyoncé memes. As I was the only one in first today, the crew had already made up the seat across from me as a bed for when I was ready for it later inflight. The gate agents did upgrade someone from business at the last minute, but I heard them telling the crew “he will just sleep and doesn’t need any service. We just want him to have a private bed.” I don’t know who he was that he got this treatment, but to the crew’s credit I never would have known he was there.

I forget what the amuse bouche was, but I remember it was tasty…

Since I wanted to try and convince myself to be sleepy, I told the crew they could turn the cabin lights dark from the start of the flight so the other guy could sleep. Apologies on the slightly dark pictures because of it. Tonight was an “all the caviar you want” flight, so I just asked for a medium portion. I was more in a sampling mood, and the main course sounded excellent…

Next up were appetizers and salad: herb shrimp with fennel salad and tomato oregano dressing, buffalo style chicken, celery with gorgonzola mousseline and farro salad, and chilled ratatouille parcel with balsamic glaze. Overall, mostly a miss unfortunately. The buffalo chicken was tasty, but the rest “tried too hard” and just wasn’t great.

Finished maybe half the appetizers, which were followed by an amazing bowl of lobster bisque. I think this was intended to be a main course, but with no other passengers, the crew insisted:

Next up, far and away the best airline main course I’ve ever had. Grilled beef filet (a perfect medium) and lobster claw served with mac and cheese. The mac and cheese was just a little spicy, the asparagus was perfectly cooked, and the whole thing was a home run!

Last but not least, a helping of cheese. I was stuffed by this point, but couldn’t turn the cheese down. Good selection:

After clearing the table, the flight attendant serving first offered “can I get you a Johnny Walker Blue, one ice cube as a night cap?” Again, no idea how he would have known that unless he reads this blog or Lufthansa keeps records on their first class episodes.

One quick check of email before calling it a night, and facebook suggested the following filter for a goofy selfie. I think they know what I was up to….

Slept nearly five hours, woke up just in time for some tea and freshening up before landing, and it was time to enjoy some time in the First Class Terminal before my connecting flights.

Feb 052018

So, I had all kinds of glorious plans of doing a double round the world trip in opposite directions. Then, nonrev life happened and the A350 flights to Seoul filled up, which made the whole thing go a bit tits up. I debated still risking it, but the chance of possibly getting stuck in Korea, needing to buy a ticket home, combined with the roundtrip Finnair ticket I planned to buy made it a bit risky.

At the same time, things at work got a bit complicated, putting any personal travel and leave in February in doubt. I decided rather than take the risk I would do the simple thing, and use up some tickets I have sitting around and actually take a vacation for once. Yes, more than a full week in one country! I’d been wanting to do a train trip through Germany, and I love winter in Europe so this seemed like the perfect time.

I want to take a second to thank the readers who’ve sent me comments over the last month asking if I was ok. Yes, I was just really taking a vacation for the first time in a long time and not bothering with blogging. I had a great trip, and used the little down time I had to stay on top of work so I didn’t come back to a big steaming mess instead of writing blog entries. Sorry for the delay, but lots to come soon!

On top of this, it would finally give me a chance to see some cities in the east of Germany that I hadn’t visited before, along with getting in a couple of long 4+ hour train trips on the ICE. Win win! In the end, the trip ended up looking like this:

If you’re more interested in my route around Germany for over a week:

Now, of course, like most of my trips what I had planned isn’t exactly what happened. Fortunately, the changes were relatively minor this time, and the drama was all recovered from with minimum inconvenience. However, there was just enough drama that I need to get back to Germany soon, as one sidetrip I was looking really forward to ended up happening. I think I’ll split the report into these parts:

1. DC to Frankfurt with United and Lufthansa First
2. Frankfurt to Cairo with Lufthansa and overnight in Cairo
3. Cairo to Frankfurt with EgyptAir and Lufthansa, overnight in Frankfurt
4. Frankfurt to Dresden by train, overnight Dresden
5. Dresden to Leipzig by train, overnight Leipzig
6. Leipzig to Berlin by train, first night in Berlin
7. Full day in Berlin
8. Berlin to Hamburg by train, overnight in Hamburg
9. Unexpected bonus night in Hamburg
10. Hamburg to Frankfurt by train, overnight in Frankfurt
11. Frankfurt to Boston with Lufthansa first
12. Boston to DC with United…and a pleasant unpleasant welcome home

Sit back, grab some champagne and caviar, I’m going to try and knock this one out in short order since my next trip is less than a week away!

Dec 142017

Bonus points if you get the reference in the post title…

So, it all started innocently enough. I wanted to fly the newish Delta A350, and an opportunity arose that made sense to take a long weekend and go to Seoul.

Then, due to an early 2018 work trip being moved, a one-way ticket to Europe I’ve been holding for around 10 months already will have to be used just one or two weeks later since I can’t get away in February as planned.

So the problem is, I have a one-way to Seoul, and a one-way to Europe. Unfortunately, these are both trips AWAY from home. I started by looking at two one-way tickets to complete them. Long weekend in Seoul, full week in Europe. but that’s boring. I kept thinking about them as separate trips. That just wasn’t doing it for me.

The first trip was limited on time, since I’ll have six days max to pull it off. The second trip I can span two weekends, so I should be able to get 10-11 days out of it.

Then…I found it…the ticket that pulls it all together. A great Seoul-Europe-Seoul fare that will get me almost all the way home on “Trip One” and then get me from Europe back to Seoul on “Trip Two.” Oh, wait, I still would need to one way tickets to complete this. Plus…not sure where the adventure is.

Without pulling the trigger yet, it’s currently looking like the trip may be:

First Trip would essentially be:

  • DeltaOne A350 to Seoul
  • Two nights in Korea
  • Finnair A350 to Helsinki
  • Overnight in Helsinki
  • Finnair to Berlin
  • ICE first class train Berlin to Frankfurt
  • Overnight in Frankfurt
  • DeltaOne from Frankfurt to DC

Second Trip gets much more complicated since I have longer:

  • Lufthansa First to Frankfurt/Munich
  • ICE first class train to Leipzig for a night
  • Train to Dresden for a night
  • Train to Berlin for two nights
  • Finnair A350 to Seoul
  • Aeroflot to Vladivostok for two nights
  • Aeroflot business class to Petorpavlovsk-Kamchatky for two nights
  • S7 business class to Seoul
  • China Eastern business class to Shanghai for a night
  • DeltaOne from Shanghai to DC

Is it insane? Absolutely! I haven’t had insane New Years trips in several years. I somewhat miss the days when it always meant ticking off a new country:

2003: started small – Czech Republic (17 countries visited)
2004: little more adventurous: Poland and Hungary (26 countries visited – 9 new)
2005: Taipei, Australia, New Zealand via Malaysian Airlines First Class – now we’re talking! (32 countries – 6 new)
2006: Australia again in Malaysian Airlines First Class – plus New Caledonia and Vanuatu (35 countries – 3 new)
2007: Rio, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Iguazu – I’m addicted. (45 countries – 10 new)
2008: Belarus, Baltics (60 countries – 15 new)
2009: Turkey and Jordan (66 countries – 6 new)
2010: Iraq – full on crazy now! (73 countries – 7 new)
2011: UAE, Iran, Afghanistan (82 countries – 9 new)
2012: Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti… (108 countries – 26 new)
2013: Libya…then to Myanmar and Hong Kong on a whim! (131 countries – 23 new)
2014: Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, DR Congo, Angola…yup, crazy! (154 countries – 23 new)
2015: Madagascar, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar (177 countries – 23 new)
2016: Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone…and no Ebola! (190 countries – 13 new)
2017: Nothing! Every Country Complete and I want a rest.
2018: Back to the Crazy…Maybe!

So, time to jump back on the wagon! Your encouragement welcome!

One great thing about this post – people ask me all the time when I “decided” I would visit every country. It was definitely before 2005 because I remember when the DPRK opened up to Americans for the first time, I knew I “had” to go in case it might be my only chance since I wanted to visit every country. However, 2011 looks to be the year I decided to “go for it – adding 23-26 new countries a year over the next four years.

So, looks like I have over 39,000 miles to fly in the next month. Fasten those seatbelts, this will be a long one!

Nov 272017

I had been pondering for a few weeks what to do with the Thanksgiving holiday week. Due to some comp time built up, it made sense to go somewhere for the week since I could get a nine day vacation for the price of two days. Due to some fluctuations with flights and availability my plans changed a few times, but as a long-time Zimbabwe watcher, when the coup (sorry, “protection of democracy”) happened it made my choice pretty easily.

Unfortunately due to some other commitments, I ended up having less time than originally planned and unfortunately it became a shortened trip, which unfortunately meant I arrived in the country the day after Mugabe’s resignation. You can’t exactly plan and time these things well, and at least I would be there the next day and see the very first day of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Enough background, let’s get into the trip!

Delta flight 151
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Atlanta, Georgia (ATL)
Depart 15:04, Arrive 17:00, Flight Time: 1:56
Airbus A321, Registration N324DX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 14B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,002
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,500,403

Overall, a pretty average domestic hop to start the trip. Yes, I ended up in a middle seat, but at least it was Comfort Plus so I had plenty of legroom. Unfortunately, I had a “passenger of significant size” on BOTH sides of me. The gentleman in the window was as polite as possible and “leaned” toward the window as much as he could, but the guy on the aisle was far less pleasant. He insisted on keeping the armrest up, and made no effort at all to avoid spilling all over me. Ugh. Even in an uncomfortable position you can still make an effort to be as helpful as possible to your fellow passengers. I think the flight attendant took pity on me, however, because she she made the drink run and I asked for red wine…well, she was generous!

Delta flight 200
Atlanta, Georgia (ATL) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 18:17, Arrive 16:30 next day, Flight Time: 15:13
Boeing 777-200LR, Registration N707DN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 11A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 144,441
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,508,842

This was my first time on Delta’s 777 product, and although the seats were a little old-fashioned and worn, first impressions overall were pretty good. I’m a huge fan of all-aisle access, and this product does that will still being roomy and relatively private given the high walls.

“Tray service” in business class doesn’t bother me as much as it does some others, and I liked having the appetizer, soup, and salad at the same time so I could alternate bites as I felt like it. The ceasar salad was meh, although the dressing was pretty good. Loved the butternut squash soup, and the “butternut squash, date, and meyer lemon compote” was a little odd – but taste. Seems United’s asparagus fetish has company in Delta’s butternut squash fetish. Plus….pretzel roll! Yum!

Four choices of mains, and I went with the butter chicken. It was good, but nothing outstanding.

Cheese and sundae. Sundae was tasty, and I love the biscuit with it. Good selection of cheeses as well, cypress grove midnight moon, kaltbach gruyère, and buttermilk blue affinée. Overall pretty good for a business class selection, plus it came with fig compote so extra points! (yes, I’m still on my figs with cheese kick)

Dinner was over, and I managed seven straight hours of sleep before getting up and watching a bunch of tv. Shortly before landing was the second meal, which was either a lentil salad with grilled chicken or a hot roast beef and cheddar sandwich. The sandwich was really tasty, but the potato salad super bland. The blueberry tart, however, was quite good.

Not too much exciting to say about my overnight in Johannesburg. Had I planned better I probably would have connected straight to Harare that evening, but it was night to have one night in a familiar surrounding to relax. I was back at my favourite hotel by far in Joburg, the Hyatt Regency, where I had stayed just three weeks prior.

In fact, I had come back so quickly that the jacaranda trees still had some flowers on them:

Slept in, had some covfefe, and then it was time to head back to OR Tambo for my flight to Zimbabwe. Mugabe had finally resigned the previous evening, so I was very curious to see the energy on the streets when I landed.

South African Airways flight 28
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE)
Depart 14:50, Arrive 16:25, Flight Time: 1:35
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-SJV, Manufactured 2003, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,035
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,509,436

Despite being a mid-afternoon flight, a snack plate was offered. Nothing extraordinary, but a solid offering for such a short flight. You’d never see this in the US on such a short flight.

While waiting in line at immigration to pay for my visa, I noticed all the immigration officers seemed to be in great moods. I chatted a bit as mine wrote up my receipt, and cracked a joke about “what, did something exciting happen here recently?” It was like the entire nation was in the middle of one great big party, and I had just arrived!

I had arranged for a hotel driver to pick me up, since at $25 it was the same price the airport taxis were rumoured to extort you for. I was staying at Meikles Hotel, which had recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday in 2015 and bills itself as the oldest hotel in Zimbabwe. I’d read many reviews online that it doesn’t live up to its five star reputation and is old and tired, but my experience was exactly the opposite. No, it’s not a brand new sparkling hotel in Dubai, and I’m not usually one to go for “old school charm” but I found it a very nice place to stay – especially given its location in a country that’s been experiencing economic malaise for nearly two decades.

I had splashed out for a club floor room with a park view, figuring if the demonstrations were still going on against the government at the Parliament across the park I would have a great view. Unfortunately, I was a day late on that as the park was empty by the time I arrived, but I did have a great view! Parliament is just across the square past the trees:

Sun was setting, but I was determined to at least get out a bit before the sun went down. According to the map there was a Pick n Pay Supermarket just two blocks away, so I headed there to pick up a few supplies since I’d actually be spending multiple nights in the same hotel.

The supermarket was packed, and people were staring at me. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was due to me being the only white person in sight, or if it was the tattoos, but it was definitely noticeable. Not in an uncomfortable way, just once of those – I’m standing out here ways.

One of the things that had made me hesitant on the trip was the currency situation. Zim uses the US$ now, and travel sites warn you to bring lots of small notes, because nobody has change. I didn’t have a chance to get to a bank before going, so had to rely on yuppie food stamps for the trip ($20 bills) which turned out to be no problem. If they don’t have US$ change (which, in every transaction I made in the country nobody did) they give you Zim “Bond Notes” in return which everyone took for me at par. Supposedly you can exchange bond notes for US$ on the black market at a 30-40% discount, so I’d have to imagine that for any large purchase if you pay US$ cash you can probably negotiate a discount. Just saying…

That over, I really did want to get out of the hotel for dinner, so I grabbed a hotel car to Pariah State bar/grill in Barrowdale. I hadn’t had enough time to read up on the taxi situation, and while the hotel car price seemed a bit high at $25, it was a 20 minute ride and I figured for safety it was worth it. Dinner was rather tasty, and the people watching was fantastic. Plus…got to sit outside and have dinner which was a treat given winter is coming back in Washington.

Near the end of dinner, two low-level soldiers walked into the bar, and several white Zimbabweans went up and thanked them for what they’d done (ousting Mugabe) and took selfies with them. Amazing…this is why I chose to come now, and it was awesome to see people showing their appreciation to the military.

Decent night of sleep, even though I woke up a bit after 4am (I don’t know why – but the last year I’ve had a tough time with jetlag going to Europe/Africa, something I never had before) so I actually did a short workout in the hotel gym and then off to breakfast. One major negative for the hotel, the person who walked me to my room pointed out the club lounge and told me “you can have your breakfast there.” I asked if it was included, and he said yes…so I went. I was presented with a bill at the end of breakfast, but assumed it would be an internal charge back like many hotels do. Unfortunately, when I checked out, it was on my bill and I was told that whoever told me it was included was wrong…and they wouldn’t budge on the charge. Left a poor taste in my mouth.

Full menu to order from (the lounge has its own kitchen) as well as a mini buffet of fruits and pastries. I went with the eggs benedict, which was on the small side, but given its richness that was just fine. Very tasty, and excellent hollandaise sauce. I can forgive the lack of proper English muffins in Zim:

I had arranged a 9am walking tour with Lynnette from Free Walking Tours Harare, and let me just start by saying she was absolutely amazing! Great communication before the tour via Facebook messenger and WhatsApp, and since I was going to be the only client for the day, we could start whenever I wanted. Awesome!

We started at the Museum of Human Science, and I decided I didn’t want to spend my time in a museum – I wanted to be out walking and feeling the energy of the city. We walked for about 10 minutes, and the first place we came upon was the ZANU PF political party headquarters. The previous evening there had been a huge rally here to greet the return of (now) President Emerson Mnangagwa, and in the process, Mugabe’s face had been ripped out of a billboard:

The HQ building was an impressive structure, but has clearly seen better days. Looked like missing windows, and the exterior was a mess. I would have loved to go inside, but unfortunately that probably wasn’t a good idea given the political situation this week…

From there we walked another 15 minutes to the Harare Gardens. Lyn shared stories about spending weekends there in her childhood, and how the gardens aren’t in great shape now. She hoped with the new government, they could recapture some of their glory. A WW1/WW2 memorial in the gardens:

As we exited the garden, on the far side was the National Art Gallery. Sculpture outside:

Mask on a tree:

After another bit of a walk it was looking like rain, and just in time we reached the Roman Catholic Cathedral:

Very nice on the inside…and I loved how the pink/tan/dark hues played off each other. Lyn shared stories of Zim in the 70s and 80s when it was pretty much compulsory to be Catholic to have access to a good education. Stories of her family and their education, and it was very interesting to hear how things have changed over the last few decades.

Military vehicle in the street. First one I’d seen, so I asked the soldier if I could take a picture. Of course! I should have asked if I could climb up and take one with him…I’m sure he would have said yes. I really need to get better at asking what I perceive are “uncomfortable” questions so I can get better photos! Skill I have yet to master in all my travels!

In front of the Reserve Bank of Zim, with another military vehicle:

At this point we were back by my hotel, in front of Parliament. There were still a few signs out from the celebration of Mugabe’s resignation a couple days prior:

Loved seeing how participatory the whole thing was:

Parliament. Rare flag “flying straight out” shot. I try and get flags like this all the time, and rarely success:

The coup was so low-key, that the guy sitting out in front of Parliament was alseep:

Right next to Parliament was the Protestant Cathedral of St Mary. Very pink inside, and equally nice:

Quiet gardens behind the cathedral – you forget you’re in the middle of a bustling capital city:

Near the Parliament the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission had set up voter registration, and they were doing a brisk trade in people signing up to vote in the 2018 elections. Now that there is a chance of “free and fair” democratic elections next year, people were excited to register and make their voices heard. One thing every person I talked to said is “it can only get better. If the next guy is bad, we will not stand for it any more.” People were very excited for change, and virtually everyone felt it was going to be a major turning point for the country.

The Eastgate Mall – one of the first in the world to use architecture to provide for natural cooling via airflow. It was noticeably cooler inside, despite no artificial AC and 30 Celsius temps outside.

Took this pic on the walk back to my hotel, not knowing just how famous it would become. Several times over the next day I would see BBC, CNN, etc on tv, and all walking by and talking to these same three fruit vendors and interviewing them for their opinions. I’m guessing it was because they were one block from the one nice hotel in town, so that’s where the news crews ventured.

For example, BBC – I took this pic while having a bottle of water in the Club Lounge. Background look familiar? Yup, she’s in my hotel with the park in the background…exact same view as from my room. Most likely she was broadcasting from her own room less than three doors down from me.

It was early afternoon at this point, and despite a semi-heavy breakfast I was super hungry thanks to the long walk. I googled for a bit, and found there was an app called GTaxi with an online portal where you could supposedly book a driver – just like Uber. Price was given to you in advance, and they quoted me half the price of the hotel car to go back to Borrowdale, so I figured I would try it. Car showed up in under 10 minutes, was nice and clean, driver was chatty and professional, and was a great way to move around the city. Highly recommended!

I had lunch at the Pistachio Cafe in the Borrowdale Mall, and had a delicious “100% Zimbo Beef Burger” and a passionfruit/mango/etc smoothie which was all delicious.

After lunch walked around for a bit before calling GTaxi again to take me to the Zimbabwe National Heroes’ Acre. Unfortunately, given the “current situation” it was closed, as it is a bit of a politically sensitive site. Especially since the “war veterans” (of the liberation war) had come out against Mugabe when he failed to resign in his TV address, this was probably seen as a bit of a sensitive site. Oh well…at least when I called another GTaxi to come get me they were there in about 10 minutes.

Walked around the downtown a bit after I got back, but it was soon sunset so I retreated to the club lounge where I had chats with several very interesting characters. A few diplomats in town for the inauguration of the new president the next day, foreign news crews, a couple of ambassadors who were based in Pretoria but also tasked with covering Zim….it was a veritable who’s who of Southern Africa. This was my first time being in a “small” country at the top of international headline news, and I couldn’t have been more glad that I chose this hotel….and paid the premium to be on the club floor.

I had read on TripAdvisor, and some folks in the lounge confirmed to me, that one of the best restaurants in Harare was Sabai Thai. So yeah, Thai in Zimbabwe was such a strange concept, I had to go and check it out.

The restaurant was in a residential neighbourhood in a small house/garden, so another chance to eat outside. Even better, when I sat down, the resident cat hopped up on lap demanding to be pet. When I ordered the penang curry with chicken I was asked how spicy I wanted it. Potentially a good sign, as long as “spicy” didn’t mean “ok, has a little flavour to humour the westerner.”

I can confirm it was authentically thai spicy, to the point I scarfed three ciders total and had to pace myself as I ate. I’m going to attribute this to the owner’s wife who is from Thailand. DC has more Thai restaurants per capita than anywhere outside Asia so we’ve got lots of great Thai here, and Sabai Thai ranked right up there with the best of them. Very glad I made it for dinner, since it also was a very authentic local atmosphere and allowed me to get a bit of a feel for how those in Harare with money celebrate out on special occasions.

My flight was relatively early the next day so I made sure to get to bed early so I could enjoy a couple hours in the morning before heading to the inauguration. Good thing I was up early, because the club lounge was packed with dignitaries rushing off the the ceremony at the national stadium. Diplomatic staff from several southern African nation were having breakfast, and there was me…in shorts and a t-shirt, hanging out with them just observing.

Headed down to the lobby to go for a short walk before going to the airport, and had to pause…because there was a red carpet set up coming into the hotel, and people were lined up along it. I figured why not, so got in line…and no more than a couple minutes later a series of town cars pulled up with Zambian flags waving from them. That’s how I got a handshake from former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda! Pic I took while waiting my turn (I believe the other guy in the lei is one of the other recent Zambian presidents):

Flags and red carpet outside the hotel entrance:

Took the hotel car back to the airport, which is one of the few things named after Mugabe still standing. His picture has already been removed from the immigration hall, but the welcome sign to the airport was still there:

Bit of time in the lounge which was nothing to write home about, but loved that the news was calling it “Mugexit” LOL. Trying too hard there guys:

South African Airways flight 23
Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 1:40
Airbus A320, Registration ZS-SZH, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,629
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,510,030

Now, remember, this is an 80 minute flight tops. Lunch was offered, with THREE hot meal choices. I went with the lamb. While it might not look super appetizing, it was really tasty…and the potatoes were really good too. Just creamy enough, and the red sauce on the side (which I couldn’t quite figure out) made sure I finished my plate.

Headed to the South African lounge after clearing immigration and security. I was still undecided if I was going to stay another night in Johannesburg, or head straight home, and I was still holding reservations for both. I decided there was no point to another night in South Africa, given I had just been there for a week and didn’t know what I would do with what would literally amount to a dinner and coffee in the morning. Decided to skip it, and catch the next flight hope, saving a few hundred dollars in hotel/meals/etc.

South African Airways flight 209
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Accra, Ghana (ACC)
Depart 18:50, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 5:55
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 148,526
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,512,927

The South African flight from Joburg to DC stops three days a week in Dakar on the way, and the other four days in Accra. When I was working in Senegal I took it back and forth to DC several times, but I’d never had the opportunity to take it the whole way from Johannesburg. That might have been part of my motivation for going straight back too. Fortunately, the day I was going was a Dakar stop day. Why is that important? Well, on the days it stops in Accra the stop is from 10:30 to 11:30pm and the days in Dakar it is roughly 1-2am. Much easier on the body clock to stop earlier and have more time to rest on the redeye westbound to DC. Pre-departure champagne was offered in a nice glass flute (are you listening United?) and then we were off.

I was in the “mini cabin” of business with only three rows, and only 5 seats out of the 12 were occupied so it was nice and private and quiet.

Canapés and wine. While I applaud the effort to do more than mixed nuts, the canapés were soggy and relatively flavourless. Two days later, I can report I risked the cockroach of the sea (aka shrimp) and it’s tiny speck of caviar, and avoided food poisoning from it, hah.

Salmon and trout mousse starter. It was soup…or salad…OR starter. No, you can’t have more than one. Seriously South African, way to look cheap. The only reason I went with this option was for a bit more protein, but after one bite that was enough. Fishy tasting and overall yuck.

…at least there was garlic bread? Except it was soggy and had almost no garlic or butter taste. Oh, and you get half a loaf because it’s not cut well enough to pull apart.

Pan fried beef fillet…the beef was two tiny slices, like seriously maybe 3oz at most, and cooked beyond well done. Yuck. The highlight was the butternut squash (seriously…are you guys and Delta in cahoots?!) and the maelie pap and corn cake because it was novel. While I appreciated the reasonable portion sizes a la Finnair, it just didn’t work.

I posted a trip report a few months ago on South African’s new Airbus A330-300 with the 1-2-1 layout, and that was another reason I chose this flight. Glad to see the config was as comfortable as I remembered.

After dinner I fell asleep for nearly three hours, a good nap on the way to Accra. While I’d hoped to stay awake to Accra then sleep 8+ hours to DC, the body clock had other ideas.

According to TripIt, the Accra to DC flight is only 12% on time, and we were to be no exception. We arrived in Accra with only 30 minutes until scheduled departure, and ended up leaving nearly an hour late. By the time they had done what they called a “TSA security sweep,” cleaned the plane, catered, and boarded the new passengers, it took nearly 90 minutes. Not sure if our flight was typical, but 75% of passengers got off in Accra, and at least 100-150 new passengers boarded. You have to schedule more than an hour for all of that!

South African Airways flight 209
Accra, Ghana (ACC) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 6:15 next day, Flight Time: 11:30
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 153,822
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,518,223

No pre-departure beverages offered, and actually no interaction with the crew at all. There was a crew change in Dakar, and while the first crew had seemed disinterested, this new crew was literally nowhere to be seen.

So bad that once we were in the air, the first interaction was a “we have dinner, you don’t want it do you?” Well, because of that, I had to see if it would be any better.

Nope, the canapés were similarly ugh looking. I ate one just to see….anyone who’s read my blog can probably guess which of the three I went for:

In complete fairness, the “soup of the day” was delicious – it was carrot ginger – and one of the best soups I’ve ever had on a plane. I didn’t ask if I could have the salad or appetizer this time because I wasn’t that hungry, but very glad I went for the soup.

I’m not sure what made me risk the beef again (just like the previous flight, there were four meal choices – beef, chicken, fish, and veg just like the previous flight) but the description of “grilled beef fillet with potato and pumpkin gratin” got me…partly because of the gratin part.

That said, this beef was light years better than the previous one, and the sauce and the gratin really added. A very solid meal. I don’t know if this is catered out of Accra or Joburg, but the two meals appeared to be night and day in quality. Sorry for the low-light pics, but this crew insisted on serving meals with the cabin lights completely turned down.

Despite the three hour nap, I managed to pass out after dinner for a solid six hours. I guess the previous days of less sleep than I’m used to had gotten to me so that was good at least. Why did I wake up? Well the crew insisted on turning on all the lights two full hours before landing, and the resulting noise resulted in me waking up since I was already halfway there. No big deal, I got enough sleep, but seriously, why do you need two hours for a small one-tray meal service? On this rant…they also insist you power down (yes, no airplane mode allowed) all electronic devices at the TOP of descent…a full 45 minutes before landing. Ugh.

Anyways, I went with the hot breakfast option. The eggs were meh as expected from eggs on a plane, but something about the mushrooms and red sauce were actually delicious.

Plus, given the hour delay, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset over the wing as we were on approach:

So, final thoughts on the trip. I literally decided the day that I left that I was going to do this, so absolutely zero planning went into the trip. That said, it was amazing. Sure, I wish I ‘d gone a day earlier and captured Harare the day Mugabe resigned, but you can’t exactly plan those things. Being there the first day in Zimbabwean history without him as President was equally amazing…especially when you saw how quickly people moved on and were ready to build a new nation.

It was also kinda cool to be so spontaneous and head 9,000 miles away on a whim. Great time, great experiences, and despite the exhausting I’m super glad I went. I’ve been struggling a little with “what next” after going to every country, and maybe I need some more spontaneous trips like this!

That said, no plans yet for New Years or 2018, so stay tuned!

Nov 132017

Since this was a work trip, there wasn’t too much time to enjoy Johannesburg, which is actually one of my favourite cities in the world. Fortunately, it had only been eight weeks since the last time I was there on holiday in August. It’s funny how life works some times. Eight weeks prior, when I was there for fun, I had no idea that I would be returning to DC, taking a new job, and immediately being sent right back to Joburg. Guess this is an argument for not overplanning things!

Landed a bit before 9am, immigration was easy, and headed straight to the Gautrain to head into the city. Getting to Rosebank where my hotel was did require one change but I was still there well before 10am. Unfortunately ,they didn’t have any rooms free for check in at this hour, but after a bit of prodding and reminding them I’ve been staying at the Hyatt Rosebank for nearly 25 years I managed to convince them to give me an executive club room which was ready for less than $20 extra per day. Much cheaper than it would have been to book the extra night to guarantee the room was ready upon arrival! I’ve tried a few other hotels in Joburg over the years, but honestly the service at the Hyatt blows them all away – plus, its location right next to a Gautrain station as well as a large shopping mall is hard to beat!

Got to my room around 10am, and after a shower promptly passed out for a four hour nap. Given I woke up around 8am DC time this probably wrecked my sleep for the first two nights I was there, but I was exhausted enough that I didn’t care. After waking up I grabbed a coffee at the brand new Starbucks around the corner before getting back on the Gautrain and heading to Sandton to grab a late lunch.

Wasn’t really sure what I was in the mood for, but it was a sunny day and I decided to sit out on the patio at Wang Thai and enjoy the great weather. I was feeling like green curry, which they had, but then I noticed they also had an ostrich steak which looked great. I asked if instead of chicken or beef they might be able to do the green curry with ostrich, and absolutely – they were happy to try.

Meet the first ever South African Thai fusion ostrich green curry (which was delicious!):

So, from here, it was five days of work. It was a great intro to the new job which I was starting, and each morning before we got going I went around the corner to enjoy some Starbucks. The jacaranda trees were also in bloom, something I’ve never seen in all of my trips to Gauteng. They made for great scenery while I sat outside each morning enjoying my covfefe:

The last day of the conference, we finished a little early, so I headed over to Starbucks to get some coffee before I went out exploring. We’d been doing so well until this point, but….the curse of people not being able to spell Jason came back:

After a long late afternoon walk, I was low on energy so decided I wanted a nice dinner…but also to stay near the hotel. I went with the Grillhouse restaurant in the mall attached to the Hyatt, which I’d never been to before. A nice springbok carpaccio to start:

Main course of boerewors and ostrich medallions, with creamed spinach and mushrooms…and a nice pinotage.

The next day, I had a full day to myself. Due to the way airfares worked out, it was significantly cheaper to go home a day later (even considering hotel/etc) so I agreed to stay for a day and play tourist. Can’t complain about that! Since I’d never been before, I decided to take the Gautrain up to Pretoria for the day and wander around. First stop was the Union Buildings with the large Mandela statue:

Old cannon in front of the Union Buildings:

Pretoria is known for its jacaranda trees, and they definitely didn’t disappoint. The only bad thing about them how badly I’m apparently allergic to them!

The Union Buildings:

Next I grabbed an Uber to Church Square, which unfortunately turned out to be under construction. The statue of Paul Kruger is still in the middle of the square:

After wandering, caught the train back to Joburg and did a bit of wandering and shopping. I kinda felt like I needed to buy this for my next flight:

Ended the trip in the wonderful Hyatt Exec Lounge which does happy hour every evening. Finished up a bit of work while enjoying some wine and appetizers. This is one property where, between the breakfast and the happy hour, it’s definitely worth getting on the executive floor if you can:

Called it an early night on my last night because I wanted to get up early and go for one more long walk before heading to the airport for my flights home…