Oct 182016
 

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I booked my flight out of Reykjavik for 7:45 in the morning, with the airport more than an hour from the city. There are two flights to London. I could have easily booked the later one. I think it came down to two things: (1) the earlier flight was on a 767 which is pretty rare on Icelandair (only two of their approximately 30 planes are 767s) and (2) I wanted to get to London in time to be able to enjoy the afternoon.

That said, when it came time to catch the 4:30 am bus to the airport, I definitely wasn’t thinking it was such a great idea. Fortunately, misery loves company, and my mother and brother, along with friends Mark and Beth were on the same bus. They were on the Delta flight back to Minneapolis which left about the same time, so we all set out into darkness together.

The hotel was once again confused at checkout, and tried to put all the rooms on my credit card. Fortunately we figured it out in time, and miracle of miracles the FlyBus shuttle actually showed up right on time to take us to the central bus station for our onward bus to the airport. Not too much to tell here. It was dark, I dozed a bit on the bus, and we got to the airport right on schedule.

Check-in for Icelandair business was nice and easy with no line at all, and soon we were all upstairs to immigration and security. Before getting there there was a huge duty free shop that everyone was stopping at, and I spent my last few kroner on some Icelandic chocolate to bring back to coworkers. The Icelandair Saga lounge is right before immigration and security, so I said goodbye to everyone who had joined me as they headed through immigration and security to their Delta gate.

At around 6:30am the Saga Lounge was absolutely packed, to the point I had trouble finding a seat. It seemed most of the flights from North America had arrived, and people were waiting on their connecting flights to Europe. I finally managed to find a seat, the coffee machine made a decent triple espresso, and I got some skyr with fresh berries for breakfast:

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There were also tasty make-your-own sandwich supplies set out for something a bit more substantial to eat:

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I left the lounge a bit on the late side which was the right call, because by the time I got there there was zero line for immigration and security. Good timing! I walked past the Delta gate on the way to mine, and said one last goodbye to mom and friends, and as I got to my gate (filled with very weary looking tourists) they were just about ready to board.

Icelandair flight 450
Keflavik, Iceland (KEF) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 7:40, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time: 3:05
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISO, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 140,780
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,329,917

The 767s on Icelandair are configured in a 2-1-2 layout in business class, and feature the same miserable approximately 38 inches of pitch that the 757s do. The one saving grace is that if you take the middle seat at least you don’t have to climb over anyone…or have anyone climbing over you. Pre-departure beverages were offered, and it was a mystery orange juice. I asked the flight attendant what kind of juice it was, and her very helpful answer was “fruit.” Uh, ok? One shot of fruit juice coming up.

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I had pre-ordered my meal again, and went with the Icelandic tapas. Overall, I’d have to say this meal was more of a miss than a hit. Rather uninspired selection of packaged breads, very bland meat and cheese, and some prawns in a creamy mayo sauce which went untouched. I still won’t do prawns on a plane. That said, the mimosas were super generous, and served with the entire bottle:

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Upon clearing my plate, she insisted on bringing me another mimosa…

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…there may have been a third mimosa before landing. But what happens in Iceland stays in Iceland…

Unfortunately, Heathrow saw fit to be its usual miserable self. It was a warm day in London, nearly 25C and the immigration queue was more than an hour long. I decided to angry tweet the airport, which responded immediately by saying they were sorry and asking which terminal I was in. Once I sent them that, silence…

An hour later I was very glad I had pre-purchased Heathrow Express tickets, because there was no way I was going to deal with the tube after more than an hour waiting for immigration. Quick trip to my hotel with a quick connection to the tube at Paddington, and I was there.

Decided to try something different this trip, and explore SPG’s relatively new Tribute Collection. I stayed at St Pancras at the Great Northern Hotel, which I’ll give a brief review of here. The staff were fantastic and friendly, happy to help out with anything you wanted. I kept extending my original one night stay a night at a time, eventually staying four nights, and they were more than happy to help out each time. Including getting me a room for the third night on points when the property showed completely sold out.

The room was…tiny. Despite showing rooms online, they claimed there were no upgrades, and the standard room was like a closet.Maybe twice the size of a double bed and that was it! However, the air conditioning was ice c0ld, and the room did its job. Location was also fantastic, so I think I will probably stay here again on my next trip. Much better than my experiences at other SPG properties in London without functional AC, semi-aloof staff, and ancient properties with squeaky floors and thin walls.

I had a nice four days in London, even though my original plans had changed. I won’t be writing about my trip back to DC because, well, it was sponsored in the end which makes it non-bloggable. It was a pleasant surprise at last minute notice, and even better – Icelandair business class tickets…even the cheapest bucket…are completely changeable without a penalty charge. I put it off three months into the future, and now apparently I have an excuse to get back to Helsinki!

That caps off my final country trip. Amazing time, and completely thrilled that so many family and friends made the time to join me for it. It made it an incredibly memorable trip and a very special experience. Now, to start returning to places for another go around…

Jun 112016
 

I hadn’t really thought ahead since I didn’t plan on arriving in Mali late at night alone, so when I walked out of the airport – it hit me. How was I going to get to the hotel? I had no idea what a fair fare would be in a taxi, or even if the taxis were safe. As usual, before I even got out the door someone approached me trying to get me in his taxi. Since there was no formal taxi queue or price list posted, I just went with it. We agreed on what seemed to be a very fair price (since I knew the hotel was quite a ride away, and we were off.

No problem at all since the roads were empty late on Sunday night, and we arrived at the Radisson Blu gates after maybe 25 minutes. Yes, I said gates. If you remember in the news ten or more terrorists attacked the Radisson Blu Bamako in November, 2015 and took more than 100 hostages. Well, the hotel had to close for a bit after that incident, but was up and running barely a month later. There are now huge  walls around the hotel, and cars are not allowed to enter. Pedestrians are dropped off just outside the walls, and you have to go through airport style metal detectors and have your bags x-rayed to get in. No problem at all, and soon I met up with Ian in the lobby.

Quick check in, and off to the hotel’s bar/cafe for a quick snack. Caught up on things of a few Flag beers and as had become our tradition in the Central African Republic snacked on a croque madame as well. Made some loose plans for the morning, and was off to sleep. The AC was super cold in the hotel, so managed to sleep a very solid 9+ hours.

Woke up and went down to see the pool area:

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The hotel appeared to be majorly empty, which probably isn’t a surprise given the fact it had been the location of a major terrorist attack just six months prior. It felt plenty secure though, so there was really no need to worry. Grabbed some breakfast since it was included, and although it was nothing to write home ago, it was a pretty solid buffet with eggs cooked to order. Given the location, no complaints at all!

After grabbing a bite, we asked one of the guys at the front desk the easiest way to get a taxi, and he walked us out the front gates to one of the local taxi guys who hangs around. Negotiated a good price with him for a two hour city tour, and we were off. First stop was Point G. Point G is a residential area in the hills above Bamako, which is supposed to feature great panoramic views of Mali:

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Apparently the vantage point even had its own fitness area…which was in use by…nobody:

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Looking out over Bamako:

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After Point G, we went to try and see the Grand Mosque. Unfortunately, driving up to it is extremely difficult, so we parked as nearby as we can and our driver led us to the mosque on foot. Unfortunately, it was closed for prayers, so we walked around it outside the gates trying to find somewhere to get a good photo of it. There was nowhere with a good angle, due to the fact that all the streets around it were a giant market. We walked through all kinds of small passageways in the market and got very surprised looks from all the locals. I guess it’s not every day two westerners walk through the market in Mali!

After the short city tour we had to get ready to head to the airport. Agreed on a price for the trip to the airport with the driver, who was more than happy to have the business. He took the “long way” to the airport so we could see a couple of other “sites.” First up was the Monument de la Paix, or Peace Monument:

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After we crossed the King Fahd Bridge, built by the Saudis we came upon a buffalo statue at the Place de Sogolo. In the local Mandigo lore a princess was turned into a buffalo to terrorize the population. King Kone Sakaran offered a reward to hunters who ultimately shot the buffalo and they were allowed to choose among many girls for a wife. They took Sogolon Koné, the ugliest of the women, who the place is named after. Obviously I missed something in the story…

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Got to the airport, things weren’t terribly chaotic, and check-in, security, and passport control were a breeze. There were three lounges in the one-room departure haul, and the first one said it was for business class passengers only when we tried. She suggested we try the next one. I decided to give her my United card, and see if we could get in as a Star Alliance Gold benefit since we were on Ethiopian. She had no idea, but offered to go check. About 10 minutes later she came back, and said yes, please stay and you can have a guest. Finished a couple of beverages, and soon it was time to board.

On the walk to the plane we saw an Antonov 124 Heavy Lifter on the tarmac, and with a window seat I had a perfect view to get a picture of it:

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Ethiopian flight 909
Bamako, Mali (BKO) to Dakar, Senegal (DKR)
Depart 15:05, Arrive 16:55, Flight Time: 1:50
Boeing 767-300, Registration ET-AMG, Manufactured 2000, Seat 11L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 94,641
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,284,166

*shudder* coach…and not just any coach, coach on an Ethiopian 767, which must be some of the nastiest, dirtiest, poorly maintained aircraft ever. At least this one didn’t shudder and make all kids of awful noises like the last one I was on! Good view of Bamako and the Niger River after takeoff:

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a small snack was served, with the typical mystery sandwich…which I took a pass on. Two things scare me on planes: mystery sandwiches made who knows how long before serving and shrimp. At least the mini bottle of wine and Kit Kat were tasty!

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Short flight, and all things considered not totally awful in economy…I lived to tell the tale!

It had been an all-too-short visit to Mali, but due to the fact that most tourist sites like Timbuktu are off limits due to terrorism in the area, and the delays from American Airlines, I was happy that we’d made the most of it. Just three countries left to visit! Next up: Dakar!

Jun 102016
 

I should be up front before talking about this trip. With so many easier ways to get to Mali, why in the world was I detouring via LaGuardia, Chicago, London, Accra, and Abidjan? Well, it all started with a fare Ian found last year from Accra-Chicago roundtrip in business class for barely $800. I was happy to use it one way and throw away the second half, but hey, I might still have countries in West Africa left by Memorial Day, so let’s book the return to Accra then and see if it’s useful.

We found great one-way fares from Accra to Bamako via Abidjan with Air Cote d’Ivoire, so that settled it. I had initially booked nonstop from DCA to Chicago with American as well but a change in times meant I could either have a barely one hour connection in Chicago, or over five hours. I figured if I was going to play the waiting around in airports game, I would book the connection for some extra miles. I gave myself three hours to connect in LaGuardia which should be plenty…even if things went pear shaped.

The night before, I did a same-day change on American’s website so I could get an hour of sleep. I would leave on the 1pm shuttle instead of the noon, take a slightly later LaGuardia to Chicago, and still have well over two hours for each connection. Seemed great.

Got to DCA which was shockingly empty, and had the most delightful TSA agent I’ve ever had. She was joking with kids and putting stickers on her, so I jokingly asked her why I didn’t get one. She was more than happy to please, and I enjoyed my Chateau le Hector in the Admirals Club and pondered a career change….

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Then, It hit the fan. First a 30 minute delay on the shuttle. Then an hour, then 60 minutes. All the nonstops to O’Hare were completely sold out by this point, leaving me little alternative. Once the plane finally left LaGuardia they were estimating 1:11 to make the connection at LaGuardia which should be fine if nothing further went wrong. Which, of course it did. By the time we boarded and the door was closed, the connection was down to 42 minutes. Still doable, but, with the shuttle flights arriving in a different terminal from other American flights it would be extremely close.

American flight 2143
Washington, National (DCA) to New York, LaGuardia (LGA)
Depart 13:00, Arrive 14:24, Flight Time: 1:24
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration N952UW, Manufactured 2007, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 86,496
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,276,021

Flight was a completely uneventful 40 minutes or so, and we pulled into the gate just a bit further behind schedule with 35 minutes to make my connection. I thought I was going to have to reclear security with the terminal change, but American is now operating a shuttle between the two terminals. Unfortunately, the shuttle was “experiencing radiator problems” and took nearly 20 minutes to show up. By the time I got to the gate, the door had closed five minutes early…and although the plane was still sitting at the gate I was offloaded. The ever so friendly agent told me to “go to customer service and they’ll rebook you.” Ugh. Instead, I called the Exec Platinum line, and got a super helpful agent who was able to put me on the next flight about two hours later.

Of course, this meant I was going to miss my BA flight to London. I had heard about the OneWorld protection even if you are on different tickets, and the super wonderful agent in the Admirals Club was more than happy to help. Given my Chicago-London-Accra ticket was BA flights but on Iberia ticket stock, she took a bit of time to figure it out, but fortunately the inbound London-Chicago a few months prior had been on American so they still held control of the ticket. Eventually, she had no trouble confirming me on the American nonstop to London at 22:20, however, despite there being eight seats open in first she couldn’t process an upgrade to first with a systemwide because it was under gate control. Oh well, with eight seats it should be a piece of cake…right?

New flight left right on time, leaving me nearly an hour and 40 minutes to connect at O’Hare…maybe…

American flight 359
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 18:55, Arrive 20:43, Flight Time: 2:48
Boeing 737-800, Registration N948NN, Manufactured 2014, Seat 6B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 87,229
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,276,754

Mixed nuts and drinks were served right after takeoff…I really like how AA’s mixed nuts have a few pecans and pistachios thrown in:

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I went for the chicken main (forget what the other option was – some sort of pasta I think) which was pretty good. I went for the pretzel roll instead of the bland “risotto” for my carbs, and with the chocolate chip cookie I was preparing for my overnight carb coma well:

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Then, we landed. See, it’s 20:45…tons of time to make my 22:20 flight…in theory…

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See those storms? Apparently we were the last flight in before O’Hare went on a total ground stop. Yet, we couldn’t get a gate, because there was another aircraft at our gate and nothing was moving due to the weather. Nearly an 30 minutes later at 9:15 we were still sitting on the ramp. The pilot was fantastic, updating us every five minutes on what was going on with our gate. However, his announcements got progressively more and more bizarre as he got frustrated. Eventually, around 21:40 he told us “in my 25+ years with this airline I’ve never seen such a shameful performance by this airport. The ground control is fighting with the tower now, and as a result nothing is moving.”

Finally, around 10:10pm after nearly 90 minutes on the ground (and tweets to American asking when the passenger bill of rights kicked in) we finally arrived at a gate. Flight attendants and the pilot were great the whole time, and it showed – despite such a long delay there were no angry passengers, and everyone was calm. It’s amazing what communication can do.

I had 10 minutes to make my flight which still showed on time, and I sprinted across the terminal. On the way, I popped into the Admirals Club and asked if they could call the gate. They did so, and found out boarding had just gotten underway. Yay, I would make the flight but BOO, my now 80 minute connection at Heathrow was going to be messy.

Got to the gate, and asked the agent at the counter if she could process the upgrade to first please. “Oh I’m sorry, first is completely full.” I asked here how suddenly in the last 15 minutes eight people had been added to the upgrade list and cleared. “That’s confidential – please take your assigned seat.” I smelled shenanigans and demanded politely to speak to a supervisor. I had to wait a couple of minutes to get a supervisor, and explained the whole situation. She apologized at how the agent had handled it, and with a few keystrokes punched out a new first boarding pass for me. She then went the extra mile and escorted me onto the plane…so she could boot the nonrev already sitting in that seat back to economy. Awkward!

American flight 98
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 22:20, Arrive 12:05, Flight Time: 7:45
Boeing 777-200, Registration N775NN, Manufactured 1999, Seat 4J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 91,182
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,280,707

Boarding took forever, and eventually my connection in London was showing only 20 minutes to make it. I was praying for tailwinds. Then, it got to 10 minutes, and I rang my call button to tell the FA I was getting off and asking to be rebooked since I would misconnect and would rather be stuck overnight in Chicago than London. “Oh, you can’t…we’re closing the door now. Plus, I’m sure you’re wrong about your connection time. ‘They’ never would have given you an 80 minute connection to start with.”

Then, she went back to the galley, right behind my seat, and her colleague asked her “what that was all about.” “Oh, he’s full of shit. He thinks he knows more about flight times than we do.”

I was floored.

The only upside to this whole thing…service was polite, friendly, and warm for the duration of the flight. Thank God I somehow managed to not let it linger and get threatened with arrest by a flight attendant who was clearly having a bad day. Somewhere during the whole boarding, at least I got a pre-departure champagne in a non-plastic glass. Are you listening United???

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Psst, American, the 1980s called…they want their inflight entertainment system back:

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Shortly after takeoff more mixed nuts, and a very generous pour of red wine:

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Salmon starter, which was still covered in little ice chips. Apparently it hadn’t been completely thawed out….PASS.

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It’s hard to make a memorable salad in flight, but this one was really good! Creamy dressing, spinach, blue cheese, and strawberries. I have to say, both this salad and the one I had in transcon first from Miami to LA were really good. Score one for AA in the salad department!

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I couldn’t resist trying the turkey, since I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen that on a plane before. It was a breaded cutlet with an extremely sweet sour cherry sauce on it. It was edible, but a bit too weird for my tastes. Plus, notice the empty wine glass…

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Apparently, they had “forgotten” to load the cheese course, so I had a sundae with butterscotch. It was a nice change from the chocolate, caramel, and strawberry gloop choices you get on United:

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The menus:

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The agents were kind enough to let me sleep until barely 10 minutes before touchdown, so I got a solid 5+ hours and was ready for the sprint to the gate. According to the app we had made up more time en route, and I now had 35 minutes to make my connection.

The first sign of trouble was when I got off the plane and there were several agents there asking about connections. I told them Ghana, and the lady said “ohhhhhhhh…..YOU need to talk to him” and handed me over to her colleague. Apparently I had “already missed my flight” (how? I still have 35 minutes) and that had rebooked me to Ghana…on Kenya Airways via Nairobi…in economy arriving nearly 16 hours late. Um, no.

Sensing this agent had no power at all, I thanked him and headed for the transfer desk. The agents at the transfer desk were equally unhelpful, but finally agreed to ask BA if they would please put me back on the flight since the flight hadn’t even started boarding yet! Nope, completely full now according to BA, so no way to get on it. I kept pressing the issue, and no dice, BA insisted there was no way to put me back on the flight regardless if it hadn’t even started boarding. AA had offloaded me and reticketed me proactively, so they had to solve it. I would have had no trouble at all making the flight…and was texting Ian the whole time who was in the gate area. Why couldn’t AA let me take the risk of the 15 minute connection, and rebook me IF I miss it. Now, I was screwed.

The agents at the transfer desk refused to offer me anything beyond the Kenya Airlines option, even when I explained I had a connection the next day to Bamako, and finally, for the second time in 12 hours, I had to speak to a supervisor. “Why don’t you clear security and go to the Admirals Club? You’ll find a supervisor there.”

I did as suggested, security took maybe five minutes, and I explained the situation to the lady at the front desk of the Admirals Club. She was super understanding, and suggested I take a seat and she would get someone from Premium Services to come find me. The gentleman arrived about 10 minutes later, and I walked him through the whole chain of tickets and events. He asked what he could do to get a satisfactory outcome. He sat with me patiently as I got out ExpertFlyer and looked for options.

The only way to get to Mali on time now would be to fly straight there. There was no way to get to Accra in time to make my connection. I found just two seats left on Air France the next day direct from Paris to Bamako. I told him the only options would be to (1) send me straight to Bamako the next day on Air France or (2) return me home and I’ll try this trip again at another stage.

He assured me he would be happy to send me back to the US – either JFK or ORD and on to DCA…my choice…in first class either same day or the next day. That would be no problem at all. He said there was a chance he could get one of those last two seats on Air France, so why don’t I enjoy something to eat and drink while he worked on it. I finally got my cheese!

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Miracle of miracles, he came back about 30 minutes later…Air France was confirmed and ticketed! He offered a hotel and meal vouchers at Heathrow, but instead I opted to get a Heathrow Express ticket and go into the city and see friends. Not much to tell about here – it was early evening by the time I got downtown. Had a nice dinner with a friend and then met others for drinks…and ended up staying out much later than I should.

So, let’s pick this up where it gets interesting again. The flights.

Air France flight 1581
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 12:10, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A320, Registration F-GKXS, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 91,398
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,280,923

The irony of this flight is it was across the hall from the gate where I had flown London to Abu Dhabi in Etihad Apartments exactly two weeks prior. I never transit T4 at Heathrow, and here I was at two gates right next to each other in two weeks. Funny how it happens!

This flight was a hot mess. There was clearly a large family who had been in London on a shopping trip as a man, what looked to be his teen son – complete with Gucci embroidered velvet jacket – and 11 women boarded. The 11 women, two adults and nine teens/children were all sitting in business (which was completely full) and the two men were in economy. That’s when I felt a tapping on my shoulder. It was the adult who it turns out was in the bulkhead seat right behind me in coach…”will you take my seat please?” and handed me a 100 euro note. Uhhh…it’s a 40 minute flight, the seats are exactly the same…so, um, sure?

I moved one row back, and the flight attendant came up and asked me what was going on. I explained to him, and he laughed, and said “I’ll bring you your meal and drinks anyways.” Easiest 100 euros I’ve made! I had been on this same route with BA two weeks prior, and I have to say the two products were neck and neck. BA’s meal was maybe slightly better, but who needs a meal on a 40 minute flight. Both were very generous with the champagne.

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Despite ATC holds around Paris, I still had enough time to enjoy the lounge a bit before boarding my connecting flight to Mali:

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What could be more french than wine and cheese with some Evian in the lounge?

Air France flight 386
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Bamako, Mali (BKO)
Depart 16:30, Arrive 20:20, Flight Time: 5:50
Airbus A340-300, Registration F-GLZK, Manufactured 1997, Seat 6E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 93,982
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,283,507

I was excited to be flying Air France again. My first experience had been five months prior and I really had enjoyed it, so I looked forward to seeing if those two flights were the rule or the exception. PDB champagne. Real champagne. None of that US airline sparkling grape nonsense:

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The menu looked super:

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Amuse bouche…smoked salmon and cream with some crackers. Maybe the crackers weren’t, en francais, “super classy” but it was nice to have a change from mixed nuts:

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Mmmmm fois gras and smoked cod on panna cotta:

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The cod with smoked salmon and parmesan crumble with chili pepper was out of this world. Maybe my favourite airline entree of all time…and I feel like I said the same thing a few months prior on Air France. Apparently, nobody can do gourmet cooking like Air France in business class. Plus, look at those cheeses!

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…and not just one, but four mini desserts! YUM!

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Overall, Air France hit another home run with me. So much so that I’m actively trying to find a way to try their first class product now. Their seats may be a bit behind the times, but the food and service on all three medium haul flights was outstanding!

Unfortunately, my first longhaul American experience was a shambles both on the ground and in flight. If not for the amazing staff at the Heathrow Admirals club I would have been left with an extremely bitter taste in my mouth. Now, to start fighting American for the 600 Euros in delay compensation I’m due and for credit on the missed Heathrow-Accra flight.

Next up…Mali!

May 262016
 

When I booked my Etihad transfer back to the airport, they sent me an email telling me they would pick me up at 8:30am. 2:15 before the flight, based on the fact I was in first and supposedly the lounge was nothing to write home about, was just right for me. Went to bed, woke up, went down to breakfast, and was reading my email when…

I saw that at 11pm the night before, they sent me another email telling me they would pick me up at 7:45am. This was at about 8:10am when I was eating breakfast…I ran over to the front desk, and yes, they’ve tried calling my room, the driver has been waiting since 7:45…and has just left. Way to change the transfer less than 12 hours before the flight Etihad, when normal people are sleeping, and to leave without me.

Fortunately I was able to get an Uber in about 10 minutes, and was to the airport for just over 45 Dirhams. But then, dropped off at the first class check-in area (the one thing that seems to be separated on the ground for first and business passengers) and was told “oh, no, we have closed the flight. You have been offloaded.” 1:58 before the flight. It seems US flights close for checkin two hours before the flight due to US Customs/Immigration pre-clearance. Why in the world had Etihad misled me with an email leading me to believe it was ok to be picked up 2:15 before my flight? UGH!

Fortunately, the agent made some phone calls, and was very clear when she told me “this is a one time exception – next time you cannot travel” – and yes, this is ground services for a first class that is trying to compete with the best in the world. So far, except for the hard product on the A380, they were falling way, WAY short in my book.

Fortunately, no wait for immigration or security, and I’d been warned I needed to head straight to US Pre-clearance, no time to spend in the general lounge. I still popped in for one minute to confirm there is still no separate first class lounge (seriously? you build apartments in the sky but can’t build a lounge for first class?) and headed to pre-clearance. There were still plenty of people in line, I was quickly processed through Global Entry, quick interview by the agent for customs purposes, and was through to the gate area.

Etihad does have a lounge after pre-clearance, and it was incredibly small and packed again since it was shared by business, first, and all their frequent flier elites. Yes, like London, it’s nice you have waiter service, but when you have 100 people in the lounge it kind of defeats the point. At least the AC was nice while we waited to board.

Like London, no priority boarding for First, just a scrum with all the elites and business class. It really seems to Etihad they think that first class just means a better seat. That’s nice and all, but it makes them far from competitive with other international first class…and this is coming from a guy whose biggest selling point at 6’4 is generally the seat!

Etihad flight 131
Abu Dhabi, UAE (AUH) to Washington, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 17:00, Flight Time: 14:15
Boeing 787-9, Registration A6-BLB, Manufactured 2015, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 86,282
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,275,807

Just as in London, once boarded, the whole experience changed. Sure, it wasn’t an apartment, but the 787 suite was still extremely nice!

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Being a morning flight, I thought it best to go slowly, and join the glass of champagne with a glass of orange juice. Once again, dates and arabic coffee were also offered.

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The menu looked surprisingly similar to the flight in from London in many ways, just a few different choices:

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Picture of Abu Dhabi after takeoff…the rear-facing seats were great for taking pics:

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Same mixed nuts, wasabi peas, and olives starter as out of London…but I didn’t mind. Beats the usual boring nuts!

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I decided to have a full lunch as I’d had a small breakfast, so the table was set:

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The amuse bouche…I’m honestly not sure what it was, but it tasted mildly fishy.

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The scallops appetizer. Rather small, but they were perfectly cooked so a nice light starter. The green apple was an interesting contrast in flavours, and I think it kind of overwhelmed the scallops. Not a fan of the pairing. Went nicely with champagne though 😉

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Choice of breads, and butter and oil. Not sure the point of putting the little cover on the butter, but…

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Palate cleanser….mint ice…did its job…

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The onboard chef recommended the biryani, so I had to give it a try. I have to say it was absolutely delicious…great combination of spices, just enough saffron, cashews…super tasty. Also went nicely with the Malbec.

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You knew I wasn’t going to pass up the cheese. The green apples and “fruit paste” made another appearance, and added a great touch.

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In flight, love this shot of the curved 787 wing since I was seated “backwards” against the bright blue sky with the windows just slightly tinted:

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Instead of passing out, I couldn’t resist dessert…chocolate and vanilla ice cream. They seemed surprised that I would want more than one flavour. It was pretty tasty though!

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At this point, a glass of wine, and time to pass out for a nice five hour nap:

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Woke up, watched a little tv, and about 90 minutes  before landing decided to give the steak sandwich one more try. I had asked them in advance to make sure they saved one, and I’m glad I did because it was much better than the flight in from London. I know some of the preparation on board is done by the chef, so there is slight variation from flight to flight. I have to say this one did an extremely nice job!

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I asked for another cheese plate to finish off my snack, but unfortunately there was no more left. It was suggested I try the pistachio cake, so I decided to go for it. I could only manage two bites though – it was way too incredibly sweet tasting and almost hurt my teeth:

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With this, the flight was over. Landed at the domestic gate, train to the main terminal, got to baggage claim and there were about two dozen drivers waiting…but not mine. Etihad had texted me his information…so I called. Despite the fact we landed 10 minutes late my driver was still 15 minutes away. Maybe I just got super unlucky with the ground experience, but I found Etihad failed on nearly every front.

On the ground, I couldn’t distinguish what I received from business class, and the wines and food served in the air were also no better than business class quality. The only thing I found “first class” about Etihad was the seats – which were some of the best first class of any airline in the world, and the service in the air (only) which was also definitely top notch international first class standard. I will give Etihad another try, but after two flights they would be way down my list for a true comprehensive first class experience.

Next up, in less than 48 hours, I’m off to countries #193 and #194 – Mali and Mauritania. After than, just two to go!!!

May 242016
 

I had decided the night before that given a 9:35 flight time, and the desire to be there 90 minutes minimum before, combined with the fact the Bakerloo Line wasn’t running all the way to Paddington Station, that I was going to take an Uber to Paddington. I figured I already had my ticket from there, so this would be the best value for time and money.

Uber showed up within just a few minutes of requesting it, it was a pretty inexpensive ride to Paddington, and I even had time to grab some Starbucks at Paddington before my train departed. Say what you will about UK trains, but the fact trains were running on a reduced schedule this Saturday due to track work was well-posted everywhere, and the train left exactly when the sign said it would. Pretty good in my book!

Had to catch the shuttle train over to Terminal 4 for Etihad, which meant about a five minute wait followed by another two minutes or so on the train. Overall not too bad. From there, it was a relatively short walk to the check-in area, where the Etihad checkin was deserted about 1:30 before flight time. Quick and efficient check-in at the dedicated first class counter, no questions asked about checked bags, and off to security.

No wait at all at the priority security line, and was through and to the lounge maybe ten minutes after check-in. Could have been even quicker if it wasn’t a slight bit of a walk to the lounge. Took the elevator down to the lounge, checked in, and went into what was an extremely crowded lounge. There were only a few seats to be had, since Etihad operates a combined lounge for both first and business class. In fairness, as soon as I sat down an attendant came over to ask what I would like to drink and delivered it quickly, but there is nothing first class about a crammed full lounge with nearly 100 people in it.

After about 15 minutes I was over it, and decided to go for a short walk up and down the terminal to stretch my legs a bit before the big event. Unfortunately, this was another area where Etihad missed the mark. After boarding those with disabilities and families with children (at which point 50+ people boarded), they offered combined boarding for first, business, and elite members all at the same time. There was a fair bit of pushing and jostling (I hadn’t lined up, expecting first to be called first) and probably should have just waited to board last. To top things off, my boarding pass beeped and I was informed my seat was inoperative. Fortunately, it would turn out I was the only person in first class and they had put me in 3A instead of 3K – the same exact seat, just a different side.

Etihad flight 12
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Abu Dhabi, UAE (AUH)
Depart 9:35, Arrive 20:10, Flight Time: 7:35
Airbus A380, Registration A6-APF, Manufactured 2015, Apartment 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 79,194
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,268,719

I was welcomed on board by the agent at the door, and shown to my apartment for the flight, first impressions were WOW – that’s a lot of space!

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I was told to just leave my bags, and they would stow them for me after everyone had boarded. See what I mean by a lot of space? This is the perspective of the apartment from the seat:

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As soon as I was seated, it was suggested I might like a glass of champagne. Apparently, word about me had gotten out. Although the Bollinger Grande Année isn’t the most expensive first class bottle out there, I give Etihad points for originality and trying something different. Served with some dates and Arabic coffee:

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So, what’s the menu?

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Panoramic view of the suite:

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Since I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, I decided to go with a full lunch just after departure. Not just mixed nuts, but also wasabi peas and olives were offered, very nice touch!

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After that, the table was set for lunch:

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A rather unusual pea terrine as an amuse-bouche…different…

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The Arabic mezze as an appetizer. It was good, but a bit on the bland side overall. I was pretty surprised for such an extravagant hard product Etihad wouldn’t offer caviar as a starter.

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Extremely strange palate cleanser…I couldn’t quite make out what the flavours were supposed to be.

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The salmon main course. In fairness, most places usually overcook salmon on the ground, so it’s no surprise this was also a little overdone. However, considering it was done on a plane and served with creative sides, overall it was a pretty good main course.

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Now that’s better – this is what I call a cheese plate! However, the fact there were only two cheese was a bit on the stingy side, although the self-described “fruit paste” was a tasty addition.

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I wasn’t in the mood for anything sweet at this point, so spent the next few hours watching some movies and tv on the entertainment system. There was a very good selection of both movies and tv, and plenty to keep you entertained on the longest of flights.

Just over an hour from landing, I used the call button (something I’ve only recently become comfortable doing) and asked if I could have the famous Etihad steak sandwich and a glass of the Malbec. The sandwich was a bit underwhelming, but the Malbec definitely exceeded expectations:

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One last shot of the door to my apartment before landing. Maximum 3 passengers during flight:

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Upon landing, there was an extremely long line at passport control. Fortunately I’d been given a priority lane card, but this was shared with every other first and business class passenger arriving at the same time. All told, I had to wait over 20 minutes for passport control, which again is not very first class. Normally I wouldn’t blame the airline for lines at passport control, but given that Etihad (along with Emirates and Qatar) receive significant government support, passport lines are certainly within their control if they wanted.

Overall thoughts on the Etihad apartments? The seat was far and away the most space I’ve ever had on a plane. Granted, I wasn’t able to try it for sleeping so I’m not sure how comfortable it is as a bed, but overall the space was amazing. Plus, being the only passenger in first sure didn’t hurt either! The service was also top notch. The crew was the perfect balance of being friendly, personable, and professional. They were friendly and willing to chat if you wanted, but also were never the least bit bothered by any request.

The food service was slightly below what I would have expected. I expect international first class meals to have a bit of a wow factor, and on this flight it felt just like super fancy business class food. Nothing special to set it apart. The real disappointments were the ground service. Overcrowded lounge, poor boarding process, and poor airport experience on arrival.

Speaking of arrival…I had prebooked the airport transfer, and not knowing the process I went to the transfer desk where they confirmed that yes, I had preordered it, and should just go curbside to be taken care of. The curbside process was quite efficient, with the queue managers having scanners that would scan your boarding pass and confirm your transfer, and in just a couple minutes they had you in a car. Again, one more area Etihad fell short, first class was grouped with business class so I ended up waiting nearly 10 minutes for a car. If you’re going to offer a first class product, you need to make sure to provide more than business class on the ground as well.

That said, the car was very comfortable, equipped with water, powerful AC, and reading materials, and after a short ride I was at my hotel – the Aloft Abu Dhabi. Normally, I avoid “discount” chains like the plague, but my previous Aloft experiences in Bogota and Denver have left me with a rather positive impression of the brand. To top that off, many reviews list Abu Dhabi as the best Aloft in the world, so I was curious to give it a try given the extremely low rate for SPG redemption.

Friendly reception, confirmed an upgrade to a larger room, and then offered me free breakfast, two free drinks at any of their bars or restaurants, as well as two free gourmet coffees at any venue. Wow, not bad on a 2,000 Starpoints rate!

It was getting late at this point, and I was pretty tired, so I headed up to the rooftop bar to enjoy my two free pre-bed drinks. How can you resist something called the Absolutely Fabulous when you’re in Abu Dhabi?

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Overall, big points to the Aloft Abu Dhabi! I was super pleased with the experience, and it’s probably one of the best SPG value for money experiences I’ve ever had! I didn’t have a huge breakfast the next morning, but they had a huge buffet open as well. There was quite literally nothing about this hotel that could have been improved. Location-wise, I’m not sure how great it is, but it was convenient to the airport, and unless you’re a diva who needs the Ritz Carlton every time, this hotel can’t be beat. Anyone who reads my blog knows what a princess I can be when it comes to hotels, so when I say this property has it all…it really does!

Now, off to the airport for one more Etihad first flight home…

May 222016
 

Got to sleep in a slight bit since my flight wasn’t leaving until around noon, and I just hoped there wouldn’t be metro/RER drama this morning on my way to the airport. Stopped for a coffee then headed to the metro; quick transfer at Les Halles and caught an RER after just a few minutes. Unfortunately, the train was absolutely packed and was hotter than a sauna. Everyone was starting to drip sweat, and since I had extra time decided to get off at Gare du Nord and wait for the next train.

Next train was much cooler, and empty to the point I even got a seat, and from there it was a quick 30 or so minute ride to the airport. Quick walk back over to Terminal 2A, where there was a super long check-in queue for British Airways – even in the priority line. Seemed most passengers were connecting onwards to North America and had 1,400 suitcases each. Finally got to the front of the line, and got to have a bit of an argument with a check-in agent who insisted my rolling bag could not possibly fit in overhead bins. She insisted I check it.

I told her it does fit, agents don’t have a problem with it, and finally she gave in and said “fine, I’m working the gate too, we can ask the flight attendants!” With that, I headed off to a painless security queue and eventually made my way to the lounges…since the every-so-friendly check-in agent hadn’t told me which lounge to go to, when confronted with the choice of Cathay or American, well, I made the logical choice.

Since I’d only had coffee I was pretty hungry, so decided to see if there was anything interesting to eat….and OMG there it was…crack from Hong Kong. I was given a buzzer to await my crack dealer to arrive…

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Soon it buzzed, and crack in a bowl was delivered – DanDan Noodles. The glass of champagne almost didn’t happen since I encountered some kind of stopper I couldn’t figure out how to get off the bottle. Neither could the other two people who were trying. Fortunately, we were saved by a lounge attendant, and brunch was salvaged!

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Got to the gate just as they were about to begin boarding and of course nothing at all was said about my bag…which of course fit just fine in the overheads just as it had on the way in.

British Airways flight 309
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 12:05, Arrive 12:25, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A319, Registration G-EUPS, Manufactured 2007, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,762
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,265,287

Super quick flight, but not too quick…and lived up to the challenge of managing two minis of champagne before landing. Another very impressive meal for such a short flight that hit the spot perfectly.

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Took the Heathrow Express into the city, and assuming that I would have Etihad chauffeur service I’d booked in at the Le Meridien Piccadilly. Unfortunately, Etihad decided my ticket was a connection despite the overnight, and thus not eligible for chauffeur service in London. Not a big deal at the end of the day…until I found out the Bakerloo line wasn’t running from Paddington to Piccadilly, meaning a transfer. Three trains to get to the hotel wasn’t bad in the middle of the day, but the next morning that wasn’t going to happen.

There was a line of eight people waiting to check in when I arrived at the hotel, so did something I rarely do which is go to the side of the counter dedicated for SPG Platinum check-in. No problem until the next in line was called, and I walked over to the agent. I got rudely shoved by a rather rotund American gentleman who was the next in the regular line and insisted “I was next!” I told the agent I was waiting for Platinum and his comment was “well I’m gold so f*** off.” What’s that thing about the ugly American again… Not wanting to waste time, I waited the two minutes.

It was 2:15 at this point, and I was told my room wasn’t ready. They had upgraded me to a junior suite, but it would be another 30 minutes before it was ready. I was told I could either leave my bags, or go wait in the lounge. Since it was only 30 minutes, I opted to wait in the lounge and the agent said she would call up when the room was ready.

An hour went by, and still no call. So I went down to the front desk, and “oh, yeah, it’s ready – sorry I forgot.” Ugh. I know the hotel can’t be blamed for the rude guy in the check-in line, but so far I wasn’t overly impressed. On the plus side, the junior suite was quite nice, and unusual for hotels in London the temperature was actually decently on the cool side.

I was starting to drag at this point, so walked around the corner to perhaps the poshest Starbucks I’ve even been in…which didn’t stop them from spelling my name wrong yet again:

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Spent the evening catching up with friends, including drinks, followed by dinner, followed by more drinks. The hotel did turn out do be in the perfect location for walking from place to place, and was definitely a good choice! Got a nice view of Piccadilly Circus at night on the walk back to the hotel:

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With that, my short stopover in London had come to a close and it was time to get some rest so I could enjoy the capstone of the trip – flying Etihad in Apartments and First Class to Washington via Abu Dhabi!

May 192016
 

Grabbed the Airport Express train to the airport, and went straight to Cathay Pacific check-in. This was to be my first experience with them, and I was looking forward to seeing if it lived up to the hype. Many people compare Cathay and Singapore as Asia’s premier airlines, so having flown Singapore a number of times I was curious to see if it was all true. I didn’t get any pictures of the check-in area, but it was very strange. Several stand-up desks that were like cocktail tables where you stand with your agent and check-in. It was kind of strange, but I assume it’s to make things feel more personal.

Security and passport control at Hong Kong are a bit of a pain, because there’s no priority line at all. I had several hours to kill so it wasn’t a big deal, but it’s still a pain to have to wait nearly 45 minutes for this when you’re in first class. So far, the ground experience wasn’t so hot – but that’s not Cathay’s fault, just a fact of life at HKG. The other fact of life I wasn’t overly looking forward to was getting to what is supposed to be the best lounge – Cathay’s recently refurbished “The Pier” lounge. The airport at HKG is shaped like a giant capital letter T, where you enter at the base of the T and the Pier is in the far upper right corner. There’s a train which runs out to the juncture of the T, but I opted to walk it to get in a slight bit of exercise before the flight.

Upon entering the agents warned me that my flight would be departing all the way from the entry of the terminal area, and that I would have to walk back because the train only runs one way. No big deal, and I appreciated the warning. I immediately sat down in the bar/lounge area which was nice and roomy, and almost felt like living room at home. Plenty of space, but the roaming bartenders/service people were nowhere to be found. If you wanted something to drink, you had to go up to the bar to get it yourself. Awkward. There was also a small room with some light snacks, but if you wanted something more substantial you had to go to the sit-down dining area. After working for about an hour, I was getting rather hungry since I skipped lunch and headed to the restaurant. Today’s menu:

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I opted for a glass of the rosé to get things started:

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First up, I went with the tuna appetizer. Very bland and flavourless…but a decent helping of protein. Nothing to get excited about.

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I was a bit torn on what to get for a main, but went with the Dandan Noodles because I were told they were a Cathay specialty…and like crack. Now, funny fact. I hate peanut butter…have ever since I was a kid. But, I love peanut butter sauces, peanut soup, peanut butter cookies…you get the drift. It just can’t be all gooey and stuck to bread I guess. That said…I wanted a second bowl of these noodles. They were absolutely amazing…and I almost ordered another bowl. I would have if not for the upcoming flight…

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The toffee pudding…also pretty bland, and very little toffee taste. I finished it, but probably shouldn’t have…

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After a nice dinner, I grabbed a shower. The shower rooms were nice – and quite functional – but far from the nicest I’ve seen. I think Singapore and Lufthansa do far nicer, but that said not the end of the world. They were plenty nice. I worked for a little bit longer, and then took the long slow stroll back to the gate, stopping on the way at “The Wing” lounge right next to my gate. Now, I’d been warned that all the Cathay lounges have some flaw or another. The Pier – too far and inconvenient. The Wing – open air, and loud. That said…it wasn’t my complaint with The Wing.

For a first class lounge, it felt like a zoo. A zoo with no power outlets. It was more crowded than many United Clubs I’ve been in, and there were very few spaces to sit. I get that it was peak departures hour, but this place was packed. A first class lounge should never feel packed! Since this was my first real One World first class experience, I had to wonder if the One World rule granting access to first lounges made them more like Lufthansa Senator lounges – crowded because everyone and their mother gets access.

…eventually I found a power outlet…and a bottle of rosé…and all was soon forgotten. Walked downstairs from the lounge just as we were ready to board.

Cathay Pacific flight 261
Hong Kong (HKG) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 23:55, Arrive 05:40, Flight Time: 12:45
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration B-KPF, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,330
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,264,855

No sooner had I taken my seat and been welcomed than a glass of Krug and an amuse bouche showed up. It was some strange salmon and shaved ice thing, but hey, the Krug is what’s really important here!

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Have Krug, am happy:

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Despite the midnight departure, Cathay serves a full “supper” service:

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The burger snack sounded tasty, but sleep sounded better…

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Takeoff was right on time, and service began quickly with more Krug and mixed nuts. Was glad to see a few pistachios in there…

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Caviar service…I’ve heard tales if there is extra caviar you can ask them to save it and do scrambled eggs and caviar in the morning…must try on my next Cathay flight!

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Caviar done properly, with mother-of-pearl spoon:

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Very boring salad, ruined with in-flight shrimp:

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The lamb loin main was recommended, but I have to say I didn’t find it very tasty. Normally, lamb has a lot of flavour to it, but this was pretty bland. So much so that I didn’t even bother to finish it…

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Fantastic choice of cheeses…fortunately I didn’t finish the lamb, because these were delicious!

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Despite being stuffed, it was insisted I have a few chocolates with my final glass of wine before dozing off.

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Slept over 7 hours, thanks to a cabin temperature which was kept just cool enough for sleep. I managed to fall asleep right away, and woke up wrapped in a warm duvet which clearly the flight attendants had done. I can’t imagine a United flight attendant caring enough to put a blanket on a sleeping passenger…woke up, and for some reason I craved tea. I never drink tea…but it was fantastic!

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Followed by a delicious mango smoothie and entire basket full of breakfast breads.

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I went with the dim sum main (when in China?) which was pretty tasty, although a little on the dry side.

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Thank you note from the crew. The little hearts were a cute touch:

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So, what’s to say about Cathay? The food was fantastic other than the lamb, but any airline can get it wrong once and a while. The crew was very attentive and helpful without being overbearing, but it lacked the personal touch – same as I often feel with Singapore. Maybe it’s the American in me that I prefer crews to be a bit warmer and chatty, but they did seem to be that way – but only with what appeared to be two Cathay employees in first and the other three passengers, all who were Chinese. Hard to say. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the flight – I did very much – just that it didn’t WOW me. I think that extra little bit depends so much on the chemistry between the crew and the passenger, and that’s something you’re just not going to have every time.

Landed at Terminal 3 at Heathrow, which meant taking the bus over to Terminal 5 and doing transfer and security theatre there. Not a big deal, took maybe 30 minutes total, and had plenty of time to enjoy in the BA first lounge.

Here’s where I’m going to be harsh – again. Just like The Wing in Hong Kong, the lounge was a zoo. Coming from Star Alliance, first lounges should be somewhat exclusive and relaxing, and this place was absolutely heaving at the seams. Plus, shower rooms were shared with the business lounge, meaning people were being told a wait of more than an hour. Thanks to smiles and stretching the truth a bit on the time of my connection, I did manage to get a shower in about 15 minutes. On the showers, I was disappointed again. Very small and sterile – felt like a cubicle and some low-end health club. Not at all appropriate for a first class lounge.

That brings me to the lounge in general. They do put on a rather nice breakfast spread with tons of options, but it felt like eating in a giant cafeteria with dozens of your closest friends. Nothing nice restaurant about it at all. Contrast this with a Lufthansa First lounge for dining, or even The Pier, and the difference was nice and day. Long way of saying, my experiences at The Wing and the BA First Lounge were far from relaxing, and far from what a first lounge should be. It’s ok if you want to let Emerald members in, but then you need something more exclusive for your first class passengers – which I understand BA does with the Concorde Room. However, without being allowed in connecting from Cathay First, the alliance fell short in that regard for me.

British Airways flight 308
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 11:10, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A321, Registration G-EUXM, Manufactured 2007, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,546
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,265,071

Quick 35 minute flight onward to Paris and BA still managed to serve a full snack. Yes, I know people complain about this snack all the time since it’s also serve on three hour routes, but for a short hop to Paris it was rather impressive! I behaved after the Cathay flight and stopped at one mini bottle of bubbly…

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Next up – time to celebrate making it to Tuvalu by enjoying two days in Paris!

May 182016
 

After a leisurely morning, I grabbed an Uber to the airport. I have to say, it’s hard to remember what we did before Uber. You always had to either take the expensive hotel car or try and figure out how much local currency you needed to save for a cab. Uber has made all of that a piece of cake!

Originally, when I had booked my Sydney-Bangkok-Hong Kong award Thai was running one 747 a day with first class to Hong Kong, and so I booked on that flight, despite it being at the gross hour of 8am. About 48 hours before, I decided two hours in first class wasn’t worth getting up early for and switched to a later flight. Turned out to be the right call, because 24 hours before the flight they changed it to a two-class plane anyways! I decided when I got to Bangkok to check in to try my luck:

“Yes, I moved to this flight because you switched my plane from the 747 to the 777.” Yes, they agreed, very sorry about that, etc etc. So, I asked if this meant I could use the first class lounge since I was initially booked in first. Much chatting in Thai, and ultimately they agreed that would be ok. Got my escort through fast track security, and down the escalators to the lounge where my buggy was waiting to drive me through the business class lounge and down the corridors to the first class lounge:

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Got to the lounge, where I was the only person in the entire lounge, and got a whole room to myself:

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I wasn’t terribly hungry after breakfast, but they insisted on making me lunch. So, tasty green curry and mango and sticky rice…yum!

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I was half expecting to be driven in the buggy to the gate too, but nope, I had to walk. The struggle is real I tell you…a whole five minute walk to the gate!

Thai Airways flight 638
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Hong Kong (HKG)
Depart 13:55, Arrive 17:40, Flight Time: 2:45
Airbus A330-300, Registration HS-TBE, Manufactured 2012, Seat 11A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 69,336
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,258,861

Business class was just over half full today, and they were happy to block the seat next to me since I was originally scheduled to be in first. Definitely a more comfortable flight with two seats to myself. Impressive to have printed menus and a full lunch for a flight just over two hours:

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Plus, Veuve on a regional flight – I’m impressed!

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…so of course, I’m not going to turn down a glass of Veuve. Really liked the menu cover art:

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More Veuve, and some almonds…they were kinda mushy and just so-so.

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Garlic bread! Ugh, knowing my fear of shrimp on planes you can guess how much of the appetizer I ate…

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Tasty curry, but incredibly small portion of protein:

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Some post-meal fruit, which I figured was dessert…

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Nope, there was a very rich chocolate cake as well, which was super tasty!

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By the time the meal was finished we had already started the descent in to a very grey and dreary Hong Kong. I had purchased my ticket for the airport express train in advance, so after immigration it was a quick shot to the Kowloon stop and the W Hotel. I’m a big fan of this hotel, largely because of its friendly staff and amazing views. I was upgraded to a corner room this time, which had great views. I tried to get a pic across the harbour, but the angle was kind of odd so it was hard to see. But it definitely had a partial harbour view as well:

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Grabbed a light dinner and did some walking around the mall that was under the hotel. Looks like it was hockey practice night at the ice rink in the mall, and turns out the coach is the coach of the Hong Kong national team, and also a former NHL-er!

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Slept in a slight bit the next morning, went and got coffee, and it was a torrential rainstorm out side. Checked the weather, and they were expecting up to 25 cm of rain during the day and it just kept coming down with high winds. Unfortunately, this is my second straight trip to Hong Kong where my wandering outside was ruined by terrible weather.

So, instead I caught another Uber and went out for a nice Dim Sum lunch and some people watching. It was a nice relaxing stopover, and I figure I’m due for nice weather one of these times! The W was fantastic and gave me a 6pm late checkout, and soon it was time to head to the airport for my first ever Cathay Pacific first class experience!

May 172016
 

After hanging out late with friends in Sydney the night before, unfortunately I had a far too early start for the airport. I had planned to take the train back to the airport but unfortunately had also forgotten my jacket at my friend’s house. Fortunately, it was on the way to the airport, so after grabbing a quick coffee at Starbucks (the essentials, you know) I grabbed an Uber. With a quick stop en route, we were soon off to the airport. However, there’s a problem.

It seems that traffic heading in towards the international terminal is an absolute nightmare for the last two kilometers on Sunday mornings. These two kilometers alone took us nearly 30 minutes, and I arrived at the airport barely 80 minutes before my flight. Fortunately, the crew was walking into the airport at the exact some time as me so no problems at all.

Minimal waits to check in and clear security, but this also meant no time to stop by the lounge. I was pretty sure I wasn’t missing anything and if nothing else it would remove the temptation to snack in the lounge since I knew much better options were likely coming up in flight!

Thai Airways flight 476
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 10:00, Arrive 16:20, Flight Time: 10:20
Boeing 747-400, Registration HS-TGG, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 68,287
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,257,812

Immediately upon boarding, one of the flight attendants insisted on showing me to my seat. As soon as she saw my seat number, she addressed me by name (I was impressed they’d memorized all five passengers in first in advance) and showed me to my seat. First impression was great:

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I really like the purple and gold colour scheme, something about it just feels classy to me:

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Bright pink Rimowa amenity kit and a glass of Dom Pérignon 2004, great way to start a flight!

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So, what’s to eat on this flight?

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…and to drink?

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Shortly after takeoff my champagne was refilled, and macadamia nuts were offered. I obviously ate them too quickly, because the flight attendant insisted I must have more!

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Amuse Bouches – points for presentation, but overall they were just average in taste:

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Extremely generous serving of caviar was provided. I was surprised that with all the attention to little details they missed the seed in the lemon, but at the end of the day…what’s the point of lemon with caviar anyways? The breadbasket was a nice touch as well, and had several tasty options in it:

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Scallop and duck liver terrine appetizer, super tasty and still relatively light:

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This was followed by an extra meh salad, but it did score points for the thousand island dressing. Lost a few points, however, for not asking how much dressing I wanted on it. Fortunately, it was almost the perfect amount.

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Barramundi with lobster sauce main. I have no idea why, but I’ve been doing fish more and more lately on flights and have had several outstanding dishes. This one was no exception…plus it paired well with the champagne!

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Now THIS is what I call a cheese plate. I would have ordered more if I wasn’t so full – it was a great selection – especially the one on the far right which had small pieces of fruit in it. I believe it was dried apricot, but it was super tasty. Plus, kiwifruit and pineapple – two of my absolute favourite fruits. This might be the best cheese plate I’ve ever had on a flight!

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Of course, I couldn’t resist the chocolate dessert, which paired nicely with a glass of red wine. I also switched to sparkling water at this point. One thing that I really noticed is that on most airlines when you ask for more water, they have to ask you still or sparkling because they can’t keep track. On Thai, that was never an issue. This crew memorized everything, and never once had to ask a second time to confirm. It’s a very little thing, but made a huge impression about how much the crew cared.

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At this point, I was out for a couple hours for a nap. When I woke up, and put my seat upright, it took no more than 30 seconds for the flight attendant to appear and refill my water glass and wine. If I didn’t know better, I would think they hovered behind my seat the entire flight looking for the perfect moment to provide service! It was that good!

About 90 minutes for landing, another small meal was served. The Szechuan soup was a bit on the salty side, but incredibly tasty:

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I went with the dim sum snack, and it was surprisingly pretty small. It was plenty, given the size of the first meal, but I was still a bit surprised at the size. Ferrero Rocher chocolates were also offered…yum.

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Of course, on top of the chocolates, there was desert as well!

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Right before landing, was probably one of the nicest moments of the flight. The purser, as well as the entire first class service team came over to my seat, did the traditional Thai wai, bowed down, and thanked me for choosing Thai. What struck me the most was not that this just seemed to be part of the job, but that they were truly proud of the service they provided and were thankful to customers. While so many Asian airlines provide outstanding service, this personal touch that really did demonstrate on some level a connection between crew and passengers really made a big impression on me.

After rolling off the plane the famous Thai golf carts/buggies were waiting to drive first class passengers to their transfers or to immigration. There was an older Thai lady in first class, who had five people with her in business class – possibly her children. She chewed out the buggy drivers royally, and eventually her and her entourage got the whole buggy and the rest of the first class passengers were “stranded” until another buggy arrived. I guess DYKWIA passengers exist in Thailand too!

Considering the length of the flight, I was in no mood to deal with a taxi that might or might not have working air conditioning so shelled out for the airport car to the hotel. Sure, it’s quite a bit more expensive, but after a long flight being able to relax in an air conditioned Mercedes is a nice treat – especially when it’s a 30+ minute ride.

I had decided to stay at the W Bangkok, which I tried last visit instead of my usual Sheraton Grand Sukhumvit. The two hotels are very different, but both very nice in their own ways. The major deciding factors for me on the W is that it’s much newer feeling and also has an amazing breakfast buffet. I’d been upgraded to a suite, which was rather roomy:

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Typical W bling on the pillows:

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“Lights Out” sequined oversized Thai boxing gloves on the bed. At least I didn’t get the hot pink version I got on my previous stay!

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Oversized washroom, with a double sink:

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Overall, it was a great room. I find the desk very comfortable for working, fast WiFi, plenty of convenient outlets, and ice cold air conditioning. Plus, the hotel is in a great location just five minutes walk from the Skytrain, and right next to a convenience store, Starbucks, and Dean and Deluca. Overall, it’s a solid choice in a city full of great hotels.

After being on a plane all day, the last thing I wanted to do was walk outside in the rather nasty heat and humidity. So, I headed to the mall to try and find the New Zealand Natural ice cream shop and more hokey pokey ice cream. Unfortunately, it was nowhere to be found, but I got in a ton of walking trying to find it.

I did, however, find an indoor ice rink. Unfortunately, it was clear the chiller and AC couldn’t keep up with the unusually hot and humid weather, and the ice was basically a puddle:

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By this point I was tired from a long day and all the walking, and decided to just head back to the hotel for dinner. Some tasty pork satay:

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Slept like a rock, and then it was time for what I consider one of the W’s strongest selling points – its breakfast buffet. The rate I booked had it included, so I didn’t have to even use my platinum amenity on it – however, I definitely would have considering how epic it is. Huge selection of fresh fruits and pastries, eggs cooked to order, full Indian and Chinese stations, meats, salmon, cheeses, bacon, you name it – if you want it for breakfast this buffet probably had it. Some fresh fruit and pain au chocolate to start:

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Dim sum, fresh squeezed OJ, and just a little bacon…

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With that, it was time to finish packing up the bags and head to the airport to continue the trip…

May 102016
 

I had decided the night before to prioritize sleep over possible time in the lounge/etc, and learned that the check-in cutoff for Fiji Airways was 45 minutes, so I was comfortable cutting it closer than I usually would. I arrived at the airport about 80 minutes before the flight due to no traffic at all, and check-in took under a minute, then it was time for security, then immigration.

The security line was maybe five minutes, and no wait at all for immigration, so maybe 10 minutes after setting foot in the airport I was already in the departures hall. Guess there would be a little lounge time after all! Nadi International terminal is under heavy construction, which is expected to finish in a couple more months. The lounge, however, seemed finished. It was rather teeming this morning with all the international departures, but finding a seat wasn’t hard. Decent selection of drinks and snacks – all self serve. I grabbed a can of Diet Coke and a chocolate muffin since I hadn’t had breakfast, and soon our flight was called.

Short walk upstairs from the lounge, and boarding was already underway.

Fiji Airways flight 911
Nadi, Fiji (NAN) to Sydney, Australia (SYD)
Depart 9:00, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time: 4:45
Airbus A330-200, Registration DQ-FJT, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 63,625
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,253,150

If these seats look familiar, it’s because it’s the exact same aircraft I took from LA to Fiji just a few days prior…now that there’s daylight I can get a few decent pictures!

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Breakfast flights usually don’t interest me too much, but since all I had was a muffin let’s see what’s to eat:

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Breakfast flight with a wine list…now we’re talking!

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Fruit, cereal, and make-your-own mimosas:

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Bread…on it’s own…as a second course. This is right before tragedy struck…some of the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced. We were shaking all over the place, repeated sudden drops in altitude. But more seriously…right after this my entire mimosa ended up on the floor. Flight attendants had to be seated for nearly an hour at this point…

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Eventually I did get an omelette…but it was boring and flavourless, so after two bites I was done.

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Watched a couple of hours of terrible movies, and since noon was approaching (well, in fairness it was after noon without the time change) I decided to try their “signature Fijian rum cocktail.” It was basically smashed up cherries, soda water, and rum. Um, pass. Later, I found out he forgot the orange juice.

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Landed in Fiji a full 35 minutes ahead of schedule, and had a couple of days to just veg and enjoy. Took the airport train, which was a rather poor value at nearly 19 Australian dollars, and still required a walk to my hotel – the Four Points by Sheraton Darling Harbour. They offered me an upgraded “premium deluxe” room, and I asked if perhaps they had any suites available. The rather nice young gentleman working check-in was eager to please…and found me a “corner harbourview maritime penthouse suite” on the top floor! Yowzers!

How’s that for a view:

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Not a half bad room at all:

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A few more words on the hotel. It’s undergoing an extensive remodel in the lobby area, so things were closed off everywhere. The bar and restaurant were clearly in a makeshift space, so I didn’t spend any time in them. Beyond that, the staff were fantastic and the room was super nice and comfortable, so I would definitely return again!

So, not much to report on my two days in Sydney. Hung out with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while, walked a ton since the weather was absolutely perfect. Around 22C/72F the entire time, strong sun, and gorgeous days to be outside. Although I’d been to Sydney before, had to take the obligatory tourist photos. Opera House:

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Harbour Bridge:

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Sunset from the Penthouse Suite:

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On my final day, woke up and went out to get coffee, and started coughing immediately. Seems the government was doing controlled burns outside the city, and the wind suddenly changed direction and surprised them…blowing all the smoke into the city. You could tell it was bad from this picture:

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More walking all day, more hanging out with friends, and a pizza…with crocodile, emu, and kangaroo. I  mean, when in Australia…I highly recommend checking out the Australian Heritage Hotel for lunch or dinner…plus they have a great craft beer menu too!

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With that my two days in Sydney were done, and it was time to begin the truly luxury part of this trip…off to Thailand next!