May 312019
 


Well after I had already committed to going to Florida for the ultramarathon in the Keys, I had a work commitment come up which would require me to be in Brazil the next day. Problem was: the drive from Key West to Miami is 3-4 hours on a good day, and I would need to be in Sao Paulo by 9am for meetings.

The problem is: most flights from the states arrive after 9am, making it near impossible to get a full day in upon arrival. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I found out there was a flight nonstop from Fort Lauderdale to Campinas (about 100km northwest of Sao Paulo) on Azul which arrived at 05:00. Even with the long 1.5 hour taxi to Sao Paulo, it would work out.

To top things off, it appears that Azul is partners with United, so I could even earn some miles. Oh, and did I mention it was like 1/3 the price of United, American, and Delta and had nice seats? This was looking like a win all around!

Unfortunately, this report will be mostly about Azul…and in comparison, the nonstop flight home on United. We worked most days until 8 or 9pm, leaving me only time to check out a couple of local craft beer places and see how the scene was shaping up in Brazil…but then again you knew I’d make an hour in the evening for that…right?

So, right. I was able to check-in on Azul’s app (Portuguese only – the English version doesn’t allow check-in) but when I got to TSA (no pre-Check with Azul) the boarding pass wouldn’t scan from Apple Wallet, so I had to go back to the counter and get a paper one. Not the end of the world.

End of the world, however, is the disaster known as Terminal 3 in Fort Lauderdale. No lounges at all, and Azul doesn’t give food and beverage credits either. Fortunately, one of the restaurants does give a credit with Priority Pass, but it was a 15 minute walk from the gate. Was good for a couple glasses of wine, and I got to the gate where it was just getting time to board. Better hurry, or I’ll get stuck on Spirit!

First impressions of the seat and cabin ambiance on Azul were really positive:

right, so on with the flight!

Azul flight 8705
Fort Lauderdale, Florida (FLL) to Campinas/Sao Paulo, Brazil (VCP)
Depart 19:30, Arrive: 05:00, flight time: 8:30
Airbus A330-200, Registration PR-AIT, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 39,622
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,732,210

Couple of early observations: no clue why Azul uses such odd flight numbers. Most airlines use lower numbers for premium/international routes, but Azul seems to use very high flight numbers. No clue why. Also, there are only four really “good” seats in each cabin, as they’re the ones offset from the aisle by the armrest. The other seats aren’t bad, but four of them are extra good!

Pre departure champagne in a proper glass with a folded napkin even…unfortunately it was a tiny bit warm:

I was very curious what kind of menu Azul would offer, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. Full multi-course meal with lots of options:

The cabin was, unfortunately, extremely warm on the ground, but the air vents delivered just enough breeze that it wasn’t miserable. Fortunately, Azul’s website is quite helpful when you have a problem! It did cool down to about 75F in flight which was still warm, but not awful.

Right before takeoff, and after the pre-departure champagne, individual chocolates were offered:

First couple of hours in flight we were treated to an absolutely stunning sunset:

Amenity kit was at the seat, and while it contained the basics it was nothing worth keeping:

Soon after takeoff beverages were offered, along with a dried fruit and nut mix. Definitely something different.

I know lots of frequent fliers complain when the appetizer and main course get served together, but I thought it worked out fine. With the super early arrival lots of people wanted to get to sleep as soon as possible, so it worked out well. I thought the plating was pretty nice too…and I loved the little salt and pepper shakers:

Both cheese and an ice cream sundae were offered. Above average.

We must have had good winds, because we arrived in Campinas nearly 45 minutes early. The airport was an absolutely ghost town, and other than passengers coming off our flight it seemed there wasn’t a soul in the airport. I know it’s a relatively new and empty airport, but seems like they have lots of growth in mind!

Through immigration and to the transportation area in under 10 minutes, and my Uber showed up less than five minutes later. He complained about the length of the drive to Sao Paulo (seems Sao Paulo and Campinas are different Uber bases) but eventually agreed to take the trip when I told him I was happy to wait for another driver. Then he asked for an extra 100 Reais for gas….ok maybe 50….and when I again said I was happy to just wait…he decided he’d rather take me.

Wasn’t a great Uber experience, and I felt like he was on the verge of falling asleep several times, so I made the best of it with my terrible Portuguese trying to keep him awake and chatting. Best part was, I made it to my hotel by 06:30, giving me time for a solid 90 minute nap before heading to meetings. Winning all around!

Busy few days of meetings, but did manage to find a couple of craft beer places for an hour in the evening. First find was “TapTap” which was a little hole in the wall place on a street corner, but they did have several really good local taps, and the special treat of getting eaten alive by mosquitos while you enjoyed your beer. I’m still itching a week later!

Second find, which was much more North American or European style was Bar Ambar which was a bit further away, and located near a BrewDog of all things! Had I had another night I definitely would have checked that out as well.

Of course I made it to Starbucks as well, and of course my name was butchered as usual:

This Uber driver really has his hustle going on:

Fun and unique sculpture/art in the lobby of the hotel where my event was being held:

Just like that three days flew by, and it was time to head to the airport to fly home. Unfortunately, there was a major accident and it took over 2.5 hours to get to the airport…enough I actually worried I would miss my flight. I did arrive 90 minutes before departure, and thanks to short lines for security and immigration even made it to the lounge for 15 minutes before heading to the gate.

United flight 860
Sao Paulo, Brazil (GRU) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 21:20, Arrive: 06:10, flight time: 9:50
Boeing 767-300, Registration N663UA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 44,339
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,736,927

I think I have the absolute worst luck with United’s 767s this year. This is maybe ten flights in a row where I’ve gotten the old configuration instead of getting a new Polaris aircraft. It wouldn’t be so remarkable except over half the fleet is reconfigured now, so you’d think I’d have better luck. Oh well, at least it’s not bad if I get the solo “D” seat in the middle:

The usual PDB – sparkling plonk and water:

What’s for dinner tonight:

The usual warm nuts and a glass of wine to start:

Dinner was decent, but unremarkable. The best part of the flight was that I slept nearly seven straight hours, only waking up slightly before landing. I don’t know what it is, but every time I fly north from South America I end up sleeping like a baby. Must be some combo of time zones and being exhausted from a good vacation or work.

…and with that, four back to back trips were over and I was looking forward to almost four weeks at home before heading out on vacation. I’m going to make sure to enjoy the next three weeks remaining, because after that it’s a crazy-looking schedule:

Late June/Early June: two weeks round-the-world with short stops in London, Paris, Tunis, six nights in Australia, and two each in Bangkok and Singapore. Looking forward to a few things from this trip such as Emirates and Qantas first class, first time on the Acela train, first time business premier on the Eurostar, TunisAir A330 business class, Thai first class, and two long flights with EVA Airways and Hello Kitty service!

Then I have three weeks in Switzerland for work in July/August, followed by back to back work trips to South Africa and India. Hoping to tack a few days onto the South Africa trip to visit some favourite old haunts as well, and maybe even get up to Zim for a few days.

…but for now. Rest…and I’ll try and write some more random travel musings before heading out in a few weeks as well!

May 302019
 


Yes, to answer that question I know you must be thinking, I did make it to every country in the world before I made it to the Florida Keys. I also haven’t been to New Orleans, Austin, or New Mexico yet. These are things I definitely need to fix in the short run.

So my friend Jen who’s also an ultrarunner turned me onto the Keys 100 race, and I was determined to have my first go at 100 miles. Unfortunately, as it has done so often lately, work conspired against me, and there was no way I would be able to make the cutoff time despite pretty decent training. Fortunately, there was a 50 mile option that just ran from Marathon Key to Key West which had a super generous cutoff and I was planning to do.

Unfortunately, I got sick shortly before the race, and had to drop out, which turned out to be the right call given the heat and humidity I clearly wasn’t prepared for. That just means I can go back next year now prepared to run the full 100! Right, so you really want to hear about the trip…

Thanks to the 24 hour change policy I was able to bump my departure from 09:30 to around 13:00, which gave me just enough extra sleep that I felt human after two transatlantics in 10 days, and it was off to Florida.

I won’t bore you with the details of domestic flights on United, but they were predictably meh. More or less on time, however, and exactly what I expected, so overall I can’t complain.

Met my friend John who came down to support me for the race, and after waiting an unreasonable amount of time to pick up my car as an Avis President’s Club member, finally got this one which clearly had barely gone through the carwash. Gross.

Also took another 20 minutes to get out of the lot, but that was more a customer problem than an Avis problem. With that, we were off!

Driving 50+ miles when tired probably wasn’t a stellar call, but made it to Key Largo in one piece completely ready to crash. This was my first time in the Keys, and I was determined to make the most of it…and that combined with being jetlagged and time zone confused kept me up a bit later than I should have. So, as one does, we walked around outside a bit, got lost, and ended up with a few drinks at Skarkey’s Pub. Delicious craft beer selection…

Next morning the sun was shining, and the view from our room wasn’t bad at all…and there was a Starbucks less than 10 minutes walk away. Life was absolutely grand!

Few plans the day before the race, so we drove back up to Homestead to go to the Robert is Here Fruit Stand which John mentioned was definitely worth seeing. I had a delicious Jackfruit and coconut milkshake which was to die for, and the wildlife in the “petting zoo” was pretty cool too.

Next it was down to Marathon for lunch at M.E.A.T. Eatery and Taproom which had an absolutely delicious burger! Total dive (and was even on Diners, Dives, and Drive Ins) but absolutely delicious!

On the way back up to Key Largo, we couldn’t resist stopping at the Florida Keys Brewing Company for a set of tasters which was pretty delicious!

Back to the hotel in Key Largo the night before the race, nice sunset over the marina…

After dropping from the race I still figured I could support my friend Jen, but first decided we had to lunch in Marathon at the Island Fish Company and Tiki Bar…delicious conch fritters and deadly tropical frozen drinks.

Spent the rest of the afternoon following Jen…nearly 50 miles into the race and she was still looking amazing!

We got to Key West just before sunset, and in time to get a sunset pic at the southernmost point in the continental U.S.A….

We found an amazing little bar filled with kitch called Glitchcraft which was absolutely amazing. Great craft beer selection, and even better staff. John actually came back the next night where they were hosting a huge watch party for the final episode of Game of Thrones. Super cool place!

I’ve never met a cutout where I could take a corny pic that I didn’t like…

Brunch the next day at Blue Heaven… lethal bellinis and delicious lobster Benedict. Well worth the wait…plus they had a pony I could ride!

Plus, they had a cat who literally couldn’t be bothered. This is the life…

We decided to play tourist for a little bit, and stopped by the Little White House which was President Truman’s getaway from Washington, but was also used by several other presidents.

Of course, no trip to Key West would be complete without margaritas…

…and the iconic picture at Mile 0 of Route 1…which runs right up through home in Arlington Virginia as well, and I used to live on!

The question still needs to be answered: why did the chicken cross the road?

Last morning in paradise…picture on the beach at our hotel…the Casa Marina by Waldorf Astoria. Nice enough property, but I have to admit the rooms were sadly in need of renovation, especially given the prices. I can’t say I would choose it again all things considered. That said, the location was fantastic.

I wanted to buy this painting…unfortunately it was a little out of my price range at $12,000…even though they did offer to ship it for free….

Neat sign…had the store been open that morning I probably would have picked it up…

Driving up to Fort Lauderdale, we passed the first Starbucks from Key West…80 miles in. This sign is terrifying!

One final lunch in the keys at the Key Largo Conch House where I had some delicious conch tacos. A fitting end to an amazing rest between three hectic work trips. Anything else would have been too much, but it was just enough relaxation with an amazing friend that made it work.

So yeah, I’ll be back next year to run the full 100 Miles, wiser at what it will take to succeed. With that, we were at the Fort Lauderdale Airport, and it was time to catch my flight down to Brazil to get back to work!

May 282019
 


So, if you saw my post yesterday, you’ll have seen that I had a work trip to Paris, home for one day for an important event, then had to turn right back around to go to Germany. In an ideal world I would have either stayed in Europe, or stayed home longer, but sometimes these matters are just out of your control.

The other downside: when I booked the Germany trip it looked like Paris was going to be a full month earlier, so I’d have lots of time at home, so I agreed to a one-stop routing to save a bunch of money. Unfortunately, this meant leaving home at 11am instead of 5pm like the nonstop to Frankfurt would, so this was going to be a much less than ideal trip. I could really have used those extra six hour at home.

See, at the time, United/Lufthansa had a killer fare from NYC-Frankfurt that was like 1/3 the fare out of DC. So, even with adding a one-way ticket to JFK and a one-way ticket back from EWR, the overall fare would still be less than half. Had I known I’d have so little time between trips, I would have splurged on the nonstop. By the time the Paris trip moved, however, the price difference was more than 300%, so I was stuck with it. Oh well, make the best of it!

Delta flight 5957 operated by Republic Airlines
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to New York, Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 11:00, Arrive: 12:18, flight time: 1:18
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N206JQ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,399
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,718,987

…and make the most of my time I did, so much that I arrived DCA at 10:20. was through CLEAR/PreCheck in less than two minutes and still at the gate 5-10 minutes before boarding. I don’t usually like cutting it close and like to relax in the lounge a bit, but hey, I’ve been in the DCA SkyClub somewhere around 1,000,000 times, so the precious extra minutes at home were well worth it.

Not much to say about this one, standard short hop up to New York. The most surprising part was no wait for a landing slot at JFK (thank you Saturday morning traffic) and would actually be arriving over 25 minutes early today. Also the shortest flight time I can ever remember at 32 minutes.

With nearly five hours to kill at JFK (the only flight that left “enough” time between my separate tickets without anxiety, I decided to make up for my lounge negligence at DCA and visit every lounge I was entitled to at JFK, starting with the SkyClub right after landing.

Food was uninspiring today, but they had real honest-to-God Champagne. Cheese cubes and hummus were as normal, but the chicken strips were awful pressed/processed with fatty and dark streaks running through them. Revolting. I’ll spare you the close-up shot, but rest-assured I didn’t have a bite.

After these adventures in dining, it was time to make my way outside security in Terminal 2 and attempt to find the AirTrain to Terminal 1. Down the escalator, across the street, through a parking lot, up another elevator, and finally the train platform. Seriously, between JFK and LGA I’m not sure which is a bigger embarrassment. That said, I made it just fine on the first try and it gave me practice for my next upcoming JFK flight in a few weeks.

Security in Terminal 1 was the biggest shitshow I’ve ever encountered in the US, with no CLEAR line and no clear PreCheck line either. I asked the agent at the front about PreCheck and “I just yell to the other agent that you got it” – I asked about laptops out, shoes off, etc and was met with a nasty response. When I went through, my laptops caused problems, and the next agent snapped at me that I “should know better.” It was the last straw, and I asked for a supervisor.

“You can talk to me.” No apology, no “I’m sorry that happened” but after calmly explaining the severe attitude from the agents he just said “The one that looks like Dora the Explorer? I need you to identify her so she can be punished.” Seriously, this is what is “keeping us safe” these days? Now, I find TSA agents 99.99% of the time to be great and professional, but this entire crew at JFK was a nightmare. Is this the norm at Terminal 1? I ask because I’ll be back in a few weeks…

Up to the Lufthansa lounge, where I spotted the steed that I will take in a few weeks….the ex-Singapore A330 recently acquired by Evelop! which is operating for Norwegian on the JFK-London daytime flight. I might be crazy for trying this, but I’m kind of looking forward to it. Great views from the lounge, and a tasty array of nibbles…

The lounge was so nice I didn’t want to leave, and had amazing people-watching on top of it (including the Chinese guy with a sequinned sweatshirt that said BITCH PLEASE! in huge letters) but I vowed to try all the lounges I could…so traipsed off to the Korean Air lounge which I could access via PriorityPass.

I should have fled when I saw the elevator was out of service. Lugged my Rimowa up the stairs, and was met by a surly agent who was clearly over it. Seriously, I know New York attitude, but the airport staff (non-Lufthansa and Delta: they were lovely) were just miserable.

Also, this was the best snacks on offer. I should have once again passed…but drank the water, few sips of the wine and a fig newton, and I was off to the gate.

When I got to the gate, thanks to my need to check out the Korean Air lounge, boarding was already underway and I was concerned I might have trouble finding room for my bag due to the huge number of people queued up in front of me. I forgot, however, that the A380 is simply massive even in business class, and there would be plenty of room.

Lufthansa flight 401
New York, Kennedy (JFK) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 16:10 Arrive: 06:05, flight time: 7:55
Airbus A3800-800, Registration D-AIMJ, Manufactured 2012, Seat 22D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 30,255
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,722,843

Remember when I foreshadowed yesterday about how nice the last row of business class was in the Polaris 777 as long as there was nobody with an infant in the bulkhead? Well, karma paid me a major visit today…and I had a second passenger in the seat next to me today who seemed incredibly interested in my pre-departure beverage:

Now, in fairness, with the exception of takeoff and landing he did sleep 80% of the flight and was pretty much an angel the rest of the time, so it didn’t work out too badly, except mom was constantly working to keep him busy. Fortunately, with a 4pm departure I had no interest in sleep anyways, so it all worked out just fine.

Meal service was actually one of the better ones I’ve had on Lufthansa lately. Their business class meals can be a little on the unusual side, but they’re usually tasty. This one was more-or-less pretty mainstream, and the crew was absolutely fantastic. Once they found out I spoke some German, even though English was obviously easier, they made a huge effort to speak slowly and clearly in German to let me practice. Major points for that. Plus, the food was really good too:

Other than that, the flight was excellent. I skipped the breakfast since I wanted to head straight to bed upon landing. We arrived nearly 40 minutes early around 05:30 and I was in bed and asleep in the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport by 06:00 for a solid six hours of sleep. So much nicer this way than trying to sleep on the plane, and since it’s still on East Coast time it was very easy to fall asleep.

Woke up at noon, did a little work, and then off to catch my train to Saarbrücken for work. Unfortunately, there were no direct trains this late in the day so I would have to change in Mannheim. Unfortunately, the train to Mannheim was nearly 20 minutes late, meaning I missed my connection and had to wait another hour – making me late to dinner. D-Bahn is no Swiss train system these days – that’s for sure.

I treated myself to some Apfelwein and Pringles to enjoy the delay a little more…

Not too much to say about Saarbrücken since it was three very intense days of working with clients, but fortunately very productive. Stayed at the Mercure hotel this time which was more than adequate, and very well-located in the middle of the city. Close to Starbucks, and walkable to lots of places to eat and drink.

I had been completely unsuccessful on previous trips finding any craft beer at all, but this time found Stube 8 which at least had a couple. Not a great selection, but hey it’s a start!

Enjoyed a nice dinner with clients at Zum Stiefel as well, and got to have some traditional heavy Saarlandische food. I had to try the Saarländische Versuchung (the Saarland Temptation) and got a little bit each of three things: a “gefillder” which is basically a potato dumpling with liver sausage filling and sauerkraut, a green “hoorische” (a green dumpling) and a large meatball which I’m still not sure of…heavy, but delicious!

After successful meetings we ended just in time that I could catch a direct ICE back to Frankfurt. Unfortunately, a person was on the tracks between Mannheim and Frankfurt, and we ended up delayed on the train by nearly an hour. Worst service I’ve ever had in ICE first class, however, and never once did I see the train attendant – would have been nice to have a beer!

Arrived in Frankfurt early evening, however, with just enough time to head out to my favourite little craft beer joint for dinner. Naïv is a great little place, and this time they had several fantastic drafts and cans. Either my German was getting better or the staff’s English worse, because I managed to keep the whole thing in German this time without them switching to English. Dinner was two tasty sausages and a delicious brownie with ice cream. Oh, there may also have been a few beers….

Up somewhat early for breakfast at the airport (I sometimes feel like I live in Flughafen Frankfurt, and it’s amazing!) – my usual Iced American and Bretzelsnack…mmmm…so good! Stopped by the Senator Lounge only briefly and then strait to boarding. I needed to max out sleep this morning so little time for the lounge today.

I was pretty excited for this flight – my first time ever on the 787-10 – which was even more awesome because it had “real” Polaris 1-2-1 seating installed and I had managed to get my favourite seat – 1L – way in advance.

United flight 961
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 13:50, flight time: 8:30
Boeing 787-10, Registration N12006, Manufactured 2019, Seat 1L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,125
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,726,713

Pre-departure sparking wine delivered, and temperature sensor reporting a reasonable 71F today…at least we wouldn’t be roasted during boarding.

Mixed nuts and wine to start, while Paul judges from afar….

Meal was pretty standard Polaris fare, and nearly the identical menu I had from Paris the week before. I was glad to see the delicious pork and apricot terrine was back, and I went with the fish again as well. This is starting to be a habit! The cheese wasn’t quite as good as from Paris, but much better than from the US, and they actually had butterscotch today! YUM!

Mid-flight snack…I’m addicted to the little cakes and overly chewy macarons. Meanwhile, the Great British Bakeoff was providing some very suspicious looking bakes….and Paul was quick to glare!

Pre-arrival was the same meal options as from Paris, and since I won once with the mozzarella salad and “Hamburger Wellington” I decided to give it another go. The cheese was weirdly peppered with all the pepper on one cheese ball, but other than that it was quite tasty again.

On approach to Newark…not sure which airport this is. Approach into Newark was super, super bumpy today, with our 787 being tossed about pretty seriously.

Immigration was a breeze, though I find it annoying that more and more arrivals into Newark arrive at Terminal B these days necessitating a transfer over to terminal A or C for connection. Fortunately my connection was from Terminal C today, and I was curious if I could get into the Polaris Lounge since my arrival was on a different ticket. Yup, no problem since they were both United, and they even let me bring my Starbucks in. The Newark crew had never heard of the Mescal Paper Airplane, so I got to share that with them…though they were still suspicious of it.

Off to the gate to fly to DCA, and once more short segment to go.

United flight 3434, operated by Republic Airlines
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:45, Arrive: 17:03, flight time: 1:18
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N864RW, Manufactured 2006, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,324
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,726,912

How much can you say about a 40 minute flight from Newark to DCA. We were delayed about 30 minutes by a flat tire (seriously) but other than that we still arrived exactly on time. Very good luck today considering how the weather was. Super, super bumpy on the takeoff just as the approach had been.

…and with that two of my four back to back trips were done. Unfortunately didn’t get home until 6pm which meant a very short night to do laundry and repack since my flight the next morning was 8:30am. UGH. Fortunately managed a same-day-change to an 11:00am via Newark, so at least I would salvage a LITTLE more sleep….

May 262019
 


So, you’ve probably noticed I haven’t posted anything in a good long time. The main reason for that is…I spent nearly two straight months at home without a single trip….and it was amazing! I’m about to pay for it however, with three back-to-back work trips and a mini vacation all in the span of 18 days. Then it will be a month at home, before a two week vacation to Australia, 20 days in Switzerland for work, and back to back South Africa and India trips in the early fall.

Tired yet? I know I am…and I hadn’t even left! Actually, I’m back already. Normally, when I go to fun places like Paris I try and tack on a few extra days to enjoy the city, but with so many places to be these were all quick in and out trips…so the majority you’ll get is going to be plane reviews…which I know plenty of you enjoy! So, with that, off we go!

In another unusual twist for me, the flights to Paris would be nonstop in both directions. Normally, I would route through either Toronto or Newark to guarantee a 1-2-1 product, but due to the way fares and timing worked, I had to go nonstop…which worked out in the end because apparently United has been working on reconfiguring their 777-200s with Global First faster than I thought…and I got a Polaris 777-200 both ways! So, on to the flights:

United flight 915
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle, France (CDG)
Depart 17:20, Arrive: 06:55, flight time: 7:35
Boeing 777-200, Registration N216UA, Manufactured 2000, Seat 1L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 22,325
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,714,913

Yes, you saw that correctly. Only 22,325 miles to date in early May. As I noted above, the year has been off to a super slow start, which has been just fine with me! That’s about to drastically change, however.

Also, this flight confirmed for me that I love the Polaris seat – especially when I can get one of the odd-numbered single seats on the window. Thank God for the super strong air pumping from the vents, because this plane was a furnace. See the little cube circled below? It’s a temperature monitoring device I picked up on Amazon and love! Most of this flight was 77-78F with humidity in the 8-9% zone. Eek! I bought it so I could monitor planes and hotel rooms to see if I was (a) really crazy or (b) legitimate in being warm.

So, on the meal…..the PDBs came in real glassware with a generous pour, the sommelier featured wine goes for $8.75 a bottle per google, but I got the super tasty spicy chicken, so overall it was a pretty good meal!

I chose not to sleep on this flight given it was landing at 12:55am Washington flight, and I didn’t have to go straight to work. So I was treated to daybreak over Paris:

Got to my hotel, crashed for a delightful five hour nap, and then headed to the office for my only meeting of the day from 3-6pm. The next two days were jam-packed with meetings as well, but I did manage to get some fun in. Couple of great craft beer places to recommend that I was surprised to find in Paris: La Fine Mousse, Hoppy Corner, and La Robe et La Mousse – two of which were owned by the same people.

Of course, there was also plenty of time for a delicious hotel breakfast the way only France can do with fresh squeezed orange juice, pain au chocolates, fresh crunchy bread with nutella, amazing coffee, and a freshly made omelette. Oh, and I may have spent more than one night having wine and croque madames while people watching from a cafe…as one does in Paris!

United flight 914
Paris, Charles de Gaulle, France (CDG) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:25, Arrive: 14:50, flight time: 8:25
Boeing 777-200, Registration N223UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 15L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,186
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,718,774

All too soon, it was time to head back to DC. I had one night in the states because I had an event I couldn’t miss before turning straight around and flying to Germany. Not the most efficient thing ever, but some things take priority.

At least it was a gorgeous day to fly, and I got the 1-2-1 Polaris seating on the 777 again…which was a good thing because had it been the 2-4-2 dormitory class plane I might have completely lost it…. I decided to try row 15 this time, because it was one of the good odd-row window seats, and I heard it can be quiet in the back of the cabin as long as there are no infants in the bulkhead of premium economy behind you. There weren’t, and it was a great seat! That said, foreshadowing…

Meal was the usual from United, though I have to say the catering was a notch up from what I’ve come to expect from the downgraded Polaris catering lately. It was actually much tastier than usual, and I quite enjoyed it. Chicken on the way over, now fish on the way back….yes, this is my attempt at being BP-healthy after years of unhealthy plane and restaurant food. Thank God I’m super active or I’d probably have keeled over by now!

Not too much time to catch up on tv on the iPad this trip, because I had to write up the meetings before turning right around to do another set. I hate working on planes because it’s my relaxation time and tv time (since I don’t have a tv at home) but couldn’t be avoided this trip. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Pre-arrival….”hamburger wellington” are you kidding me? I had to order it just because it was weird…and actually was quite tasty. The tomato and mozzarella salad was also pretty good. Sometimes it’s good to try something different… Prue, however, is definitely not sure about it.

About 2.5 hours before landing, over Newfoundland, there was a call for a doctor on board. A passenger had fainted and was having trouble breathing. I could just see us diverting after I’d made this ridiculous detour home for one event, but fortunately the passenger was alright and made it to Dulles where the paramedics were waiting for us.

That concludes the super quick trip to Paris. Stay tuned: tomorrow we turn right back around and head to Germany!

Mar 192019
 


Despite this trip being nearly three weeks long, it was over in a heartbeat. I guess that’s what happens when a trip is split up into several distinct “chunks” involving work and fun, before you know it…it’s over.

After sleeping in and enjoying one more leisurely morning in Moscow, it was time to head to the airport to start the long trek home. Since I had plenty of time I opted to take the metro across town and connect to the Aeroexpress train to Domodedovo. Looks like it was my lucky day, as I had the entire train to myself!

Through immigration no problem (I admit only slight concern due to our “weird” border crossing up by Kirkenes and Murmansk) and off to the lounge. I had lots of time, so I decided to head to the Lufthansa lounge. Got a big “nyet” from the provodnitsa, despite my protestations that it was Star Alliance policy that Star Alliance Gold members on a business class ticket get access to all business lounges, she said Swiss lounge only! I knew better than to argue with a surly provodnitsa!

Off to the Swiss lounge, where it was a very sad array of snacks, beer…and soft drinks. That was it. I had a bit of cash left, and with no exchange posts or plans to return to Russia soon I decided to head to a cafe and see what I could find. Mini bottle of wine and…a champagne flute…and a piece of apple pie. When the lounge isn’t to your standards, make your own lounge!

Soon, it was time to board our non-full flight which was delayed 45 minutes, and head westward!

SWISS flight 1337
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Geneva, Switzerland (GVA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:55, flight time: 3:55
Airbus A220-100, Registration HB-JBB, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,373
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,706,961

Once again, seating is 2 on the left and 3 on the right on this aircraft, which means on the left side in “business” you have an empty next to you, but on the right side only the middle between two people is blocked. Flight wasn’t full, but I enjoyed my seat 1A. Did some plane-spotting on the taxi. First time I’ve ever heard of “Iraero” – looks like they bought some of the old Transaero 777s.

Izhavia Yak-42….now I want to come back just to fly this! Apparently they are headquartered in Izhevsk which is home to the Kalashnikov museum. Seriously, sign me up!

Looks very cold and snowy below on departure from Moscow…

I didn’t expect much of a meal on such a small plane, and was trying to figure out what to do when I landed…except Swiss had a surprise for me. Some mixed nuts/crackers to start…a choice of appetizers…choice of mains…AND choice of desserts. Seriously, on a regional flight on a small plane that seats less than 100?!

Went with the fondue starter, because I figured there was no way that could be any good on a plane. Surprise, it was actually fantastic and delicious. Who would have expected that on a plane!

Then, because the flight attendant recommended it, I went with the veal main course, which was also absolutely delicious.

To finish it off, what was described as a “crumble” and was also amazing. Could have used a little ice cream, but who am I kidding. On such a small plane on such a short flight this meal was absolutely amazing…and as good as many airlines do on much, much longer flights. VERY nicely done, Swiss! Also, let’s not forget, the crew was absolutely amazing, and once they figured out I spoke enough French and German to practice, they mixed it up every time they came around to keep it fun. Seriously one of my best flights in ages – amazing!

Descent into Geneva was much sooner than expected, and despite departing over 45 minutes late we actually landed five minutes early! Holy winds, Batman. Plus, getting in on time allowed us to see the Alps as we landed. Absolutely gorgeous!

Easy arrival, quick train into the city, and checked into my hotel. Chose it for location right next to the train station, and the Hôtel Suisse, Genève met my expectations as conveniently located ,clean, and comfortable. For a three star hotel in a great location with super friendly staff, I highly recommend it if it fits your needs. Plus, look at the view out my window…I knew I’d like this place!

Since I’d already had dinner, and my body clock thought 7pm was the new 9pm, I just wanted a couple of delicious local beers and bed. Au Coin Mousse had been closed for summer holidays on my previous trip, so I was excited to see it open this time. Lots of amazing very local small batch craft beers – I was super happy!

After a super long sleep-in, of course on the way back to the train station I stopped at Starbucks for one last four cheese toastie. Mmmm….

Gasp….what happened to Swiss law and order. My train to the airport was defaced…but colourful!

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the Swiss lounge in Geneva, which is plenty nice, is that between the Newark and Dulles flights it was packed with loud, obnoxious Americans, most porting surly teenagers. It’s funny that it only takes a few weeks away to make something I normally see on a daily basis seem out of place.

United flight 975
Geneva, Switzerland (GVA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 11:40, Arrive: 15:10, flight time: 9:30
Boeing 767-300, Registration N669UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 18,464
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,711,052

So, not too much to say…another completely mediocre United business class flight. I keep hoping I’m going to get one of the 767s with new Polaris seats since more than 50% of them are finally done, but every time I seem to get one of the old ones like clockwork. I will say, however, the food was generally better than average. A few thoughts:

The starter was two rather sad slices of “smoked” salmon and some quinoa salad. Completely forgettable, and in line with the two prawn appetizer. Seriously United, is this the best you can do? The salad, however, was way better than average, so overall, I’ll call the appetizer a wash.

I ordered the shortrib, which I figured would at least be predictable since they’ve been serving it for going on six decades now. However, this flight, apparently the usual neon brown sauce that makes it sort of sweet and BBQ like was totally absent…and it was meh at best.

Cheese course from Europe….better than cheese from the US as always. It’s not because they don’t have good cheese in the US, I suspect United is just too cheap to pay for it. SAD! At least the ice cream was delicious as always!

Giving credit where credit is due, the pre-landing deli plate was tasty. Nice variety of meats, cheeses, and pickles. Overall, nice and light-ish and just what I wanted before landing.

United business class is certainly nothing to write home about, but the seats are adequate (as long as you’re not stuck in snuggle class in the 2-4-2 777 or the “two side” of 2-1-2 business class) and the meals are solid. Wouldn’t be my first choice, but the convenience of nonstop sure can’t be beat!

I thought I’d only be home for three weeks until my next trip, but due to some work drama llama it now looks like nearly nine weeks! What will I do with myself?!

Fortunately, options to Dubai and Berlin in the meantime are already presenting themselves…stay tuned!

Mar 172019
 


Our first several days in Moscow we had seen lots of new sites quite a bit more off the tourist trail, so for the last day and a half we decided to do some of the more traditional touristy things that we had both enjoyed on previous trips. After getting a late start we headed out for a walk, but got distracted when we were both hungry and saw a cool looking craft beer place that looked somewhat promising. Delicious sausages and even better beer – a nice find!

Back into the super-crowded, but somehow always orderly, metro to head down to Red Square. Even food delivery services use the metro in Moscow!

First stop was the GUM department store for one of their delicious pistachio ice cream cones. This has been a tradition on all my trips to Moscow, and a long stop like this wouldn’t have been complete without it!

Like Kirkenes earlier in the trip, GUM seemed to also be in the throes of Chinese New Year with cherry blossoms and Chinese signs everywhere:

GUM on Red Square…since 1893!

A stop in the food store. I love going to grocery stores around the world and getting a sense for how people shop. Now, of course normal Muscovites don’t do their daily shopping at GUM (except maybe some of the higher-up apparatchiks at the Kremlin?) but if you do, plenty of $500+ champagne to choose from!

Or, if vodka is more your think, there’s Oil Brand Vodka….sold in little mini oil drums. A bargain at only $60 per 700ml can!

There were little caviar coolers all over the store, and every time I got near one a very eager sales clerk would dash over to try and help me. Based on the behaviour, I’m pretty sure the caviar sales are on commission. After a few attempts I finally let one of them give me a caviar lecture just so I could get a decent pic!

An ice skating rink had been set up in the middle of Red Square, and I was really wishing I had my skates (and it wasn’t freezing) so I could have a short skate on Red Square. Next year!

The Kremlin in the late afternoon sun.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral – one of those must-take pics in Moscow.

Now, unless you’ve spent a lot of time in Moscow this is an inside joke that probably won’t make sense, but in all my visits I always giggle that in GUM in addition to the public toilets (which you still have to pay for) there’s this sign for a “Historic Toilet.” I decided this was the time to finally see what it was all about!

Price was 100 rubles (about $1.50) instead of the 50 for the regular toilets, and it was certainly much nicer in side. Can’t imagine this is historic from communist days – this must precede the Revolution.

Some shopping for kitschy souvenirs…couldn’t decide between the Putin riding a bear t-shirt and the Trump/Putin “We Love Russia” t-shirt.

There was also this Caviar Russian Big Mac t-shirt….I’m lovin’ it!

One last photo op with Lenin in the metro on the way back to the hotel.

We decided to check out one more KHL night on our last night there, and this time ended up right at centre ice, first row of seats!

The horse mascot was…unusual.

Pre-game lined up for the national anthem. Is this a thing in all countries? I know it is in the US and Canada.

Managed to get a good video of the national anthem. Say what you will, but it’s definitely powerful and patriotic.

…and the game was off. Absolutely terrible seats. Definitely not worth the $15. Total sarcasm.

If the horse wasn’t strange enough, the dancing CSKA star was pretty amazing! Packed stands tonight – probably because it was a Friday game – and the cheerleaders were feeding off the crowd energy!

I figured after two games, I had to pick up a souvenir from a great vacation!

After a great six days in Moscow, it was time to start the trek home, and the end of a fantastic trip. But still one more post coming up…headed home…with an overnight in Geneva.

Mar 152019
 


As regular readers will know, I’ve been to Moscow many times going back all the way to 1988 when it was still the capital of the USSR. When I went back for the first time post-Soviet Union about 10 years ago, it was hard to believe it was the same country…but in some ways it still was. The familiar sites were still there: Red Square, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, GUM, etc, but all the western stores and hotels made it feel the same…just more globalized.

In the years since then, I’ve traveled all around Moscow, seeing all the major sites many times. This trip, we really wanted to take the advantage of having a long period and explore some of the more out of the way and less usual site, starting with the Central Air Force Museum way out in Monino.

Now, saying “way out” is a bit relative, given the museum is only 40km east of Moscow, but it’s nowhere near a metro or train station, so this means either multiple bus and tram connections or taking a taxi. I checked Yandex and it was only about 1200 rubles (less than $20) so we opted for convenience. Unfortunately, the traffic was brutal that morning and it took us nearly two hours to get to the museum!

The Central Air Force Museum in Monino is absolutely huge, with over 170 aircraft on display, some indoors in two large hangers, and many outdoors. There are also over 100 engines and other aircraft related memorabilia on display. It was an absolute airplane geek’s paradise.

Few words if you’re considering it: the staff speak absolutely no english at all (though I’m guessing if you speak no Russian they can do the basics like toilet, go here, etc) but that said, they were some of the nicest, friendliest, and most helpful people I’ve ever encountered at a tourist venue in Russia. More on that as I go along.

After purchasing our tickets, the first stop was the hanger with older WWI and WWII aircraft. Upon entering, the ticket taker very helpfully explained the layout of the museum to us, and gave us all the details about the layout of the museum. She clearly loved her job, and slowed down her speech speaking very clearly so we could understand every word. I was impressed – it’s not common that non-English speakers in Russia make an attempt to make it easier on tourists, and she gave a super positive first impression!

An Ilyushin 10M from World War II – 1944. The displays (mostly in Russian only, although some had English as well) not only had details on the plane, but on the types of missions they flew, and often about Hero Pilots who had flown them. Really cool!

After spending about 45 minutes wandering the two large indoor hangers, it was outside and maybe a 200 meter walk until we got to the outdoor part of the museum. Sure, it was a little cold, maybe about -15C and super windy, but how bad could/would it be. Wrong thing to question…

After walking the first part of the outdoor section, there was another non-climate controlled hanger with some larger pieces. Like this “Volga Stratospheric Balloon Car.”

Back outside, and an Aeroflot Mi-2 Helicopter:

Myasischev M-17 Stratophera – aka what happens when you forget to de-ice the plane before takeoff…mainly took this photo because I loved the look of the plane with huge sheets of ice hanging off the wings.

Posing in front of a Tupolev Tu-144 aka Concordeski…it was cool to see this given I had just seen another one in Germany the month before. 17 were built in total, two suffered fatal crashes, and only five every saw passenger service. At this point I was absolutely freezing, and it was “take hands out of pockets for two seconds, snap quick pick, and move on.”

Mi-12 Heavy Transport Helicopter…one of the most unique looking aircraft on display :

After walking around outside and freezing (dozens of more photos I didn’t share here) it was time to head inside and check what I expected would be a very dangerous giftshop. But first, I had to take a flight…

Fortunately, the gift shop wasn’t too dangerous, although the proprietor was quite a character. She was extremely chatty, impressed by Americans who spoke Russian, and wanted to make sure she showed us every possible thing in the gift shop, as well as telling us all about upcoming special events at the museum. She even encouraged us to come back in the summer when we might enjoy it even more!

Overall, a super cool experience, and if you’re an aviation geek at all I recommend it very highly!

That night, out for more delicious Georgian food. Starting with a jug of house wine…which apparently is poured into a bowl for drinking! Chug, chug, chug!

Khatchapuri again, this one being way more delicious than the previous restaurant.

We decided to branch out for after-dinner drinks, and found another pretty cool pub. Craft Republic was kind of in the basement of a building, but they had a Pac-Man machine, awesome beer list, and even some Cypress Hill blasting from the speakers!

The next day, it was off to Bunker 42 to see where the Soviet Missile Command would retreat to if Moscow was under nuclear attack in the Cold War days. I’ve been to Canada’s version, the Diefenbunker, but figured the Soviet one being right in the middle of Moscow would be super cool. But first, you walk down 16 flights of stairs to get to the depth which engineers calculated could withstand a direct hit from the earliest nuclear weapons:

At the bottom, through a metal-clad corridor into the bunker itself:

Guard-post at the entrance to the bunker complex:

The Anteroom to Stalin’s personal chambers in the bunker. I was cracking up at all the mannequins:

Da. Comrade Stalin is right upstairs:

Oh, hey Joseph! Ironically, Stalin never even ended up visiting the bunker, as its construction wasn’t complete until after he died. Oh well!

Meeting room for officials in case of nuclear attack. The room was only used one time, however, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A mock-up of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb…although our guide assured us it was real…

Missile command center…we even got to press the button and then watch a simulation film of missiles screaming towards the US…it was the ONLY time on the tour we weren’t allowed to take pictures…supposedly the consoles were the original ones, although the electronics were not.

After the launch room, we were told to go down the next corridor while the guide closed the doors behind us. Of course, he locked the door, turned out all the lights, and the red lighting came on while air raid sirens blasted. It was a pretty cool thing to see!

Standing outside the Bunker.

We ran into the metro right at rush hour, where it was packed…yet orderly in that way that people looking out for everyone else is. In DC, the metro is a disorderly mess with people stopping at the bottom of escalators, cutting each other off, and generally having no communal motivation at all. There’s a reason why it’s at capacity at a much lower point than Moscow, Tokyo, etc…

Next up our last few days in Moscow!

Mar 152019
 


Woke up, took a look out the window and the sky looked so much bluer today…quick look at the weather app and yup, high pressure and low temps. Around -20 today. Brrrr…but beautiful!

We were ready with the credit cards for breakfast this time, and after some food to fortify it was out to take advantage of the clear skies for just a few more photos before heading to the airport.

On the side of a building near the hotel…Murmansk, hero city!

The large square right outside our hotel still had some festive holiday display out…despite it being February already.

I had to, of course, have a seat on the big sparkly throne! Snow King of Murmansk!

Anyone who’s spent much time in Vegas will totally understand why I had to have this pic with Kitty Glitter 😀

After packing up we called a Yandex Taxi and off to the airport it was. Murmansk airport definitely wasn’t big, this being most of the boarding area. Pretty basic. The lounge was up the stairs, and it was also…extremely basic.

The waiting room for the bus to our flight (no jetways here) was a tiny little basement room that was very Soviet in feel and appearance. It just made it all the more awesome in my eyes. Boarding was right on time, and it was off to the bus!

Aeroflot flight 1321
Murmansk, Russia (MMK) to Moscow, Sheremetyevo (SVO)
Depart 13:10, Arrive: 15:30, flight time: 2:20
Airbus A320, Registration VP-BFG, Manufactured 2017, Seat 7D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 11,711
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,704,299

Absolutely terrified of the horrors that would await me in economy class, my worst fears were confirmed when this dude sat down across the aisle, and started blowing up his inflatable…face rest? Seriously? This is a thing?

Oh look, a two hour flight and they give us food. A+ for the tasty tea, and honestly for such a short flight….a choice of sandwiches (I went cheese) with fruit and sweet was pretty respectful. Points to Aeroflot for a very solid experience. We also had a super friendly crew who loved letting the non-Russians practice their Russian.

Landed right on time at Sheremetyevo, and it was off to the Aeroexpress Train to the city. We had just missed one, so plenty of time to check out the caviar vending machines. Only in Moscow!

Still a bit of time, so I grabbed some Starbucks to wake up. Mr. Trump, is that you?!

Train into the city, checked in at our hotel the Hilton Leningradskaya, then it was almost time to head out again for an awesome cultural experience. While waiting for the tour of the Icebreaker Lenin the day before, we got the idea to check if maybe there would be a hockey game while we were in Moscow. Sure enough, CSKA the Red Army team was playing, and we were able to get awesome and cheap tickets.

When in Moscow to see hockey, you have to have a hot dog and beer…which the saleslady made sure to tell us you could NOT bring to your seat and had to eat there. Well that’s unique!

I mean, a Russian Oil company (RosNeft) blimp flying around the rink to set the mood just made it awesome!

We were seated next to this very colourful superfan…yeah, first row seats for like $15. Absolutely awful!

Faceoffs in the corner were literally right in front of us:

Walked the concourses between periods, and couldn’t resist a picture in front of the CSKA fan banner:

One more faceoff…I think CSKA was up like 4-0 at this point…not a surprise since they were on top of the league with a record of something like 45-10.

We left shortly before the game ended, having had a great time, and one quick shot of the arena from outside. Yup, it’s Moscow and still looks cold…despite being only around -5 here compared to the -20 in Murmansk.

We walked back to the Metro, but then realized how many changes it would take to get where we wanted to go, so yup, called an Uber to take us to the cool craft beer pub we’d found a couple years back. Rule Taproom. Amazing tap list with a super cool atmosphere. Even if we were probably the oldest people there by ten years.

Out of order, but we also had delicious Georgian food…or maybe this was the second day, it sort of blurred together. Delicious Khachapuri with bacon, cheese, and egg. Soooo…good….

With that, off to bed. So much more Moscow to explore! Despite having been here several times, there’s always more to see!

Mar 142019
 


It was pretty nice to wake up with no big plans for our full day in Murmansk, so we were able to sleep in a bit and take the morning slowly. Walking to the elevator to go down to breakfast, past the big neon sign that didn’t let us forget which floor we were on:

Look out the windows while waiting for the lifts…it was -18 with a wind temp of -26, and looked pretty cold and barren:

We had passed on breakfast, not sure if we’d wake up on time…and oddly enough when we got to the restaurant they were not able to charge it to our rooms…and insisted we pay by credit card. I think that’s a first for a hotel breakfast buffet!

Back up to the rooms to get ready to head out into the freezing temps, another view from my room onto cold, cold Murmansk:


There was no Uber in Murmansk, but I chatted with the front desk and they called Yandex Taxi (which is basically the Uber of Russia) and arranged an hourly rate with them. It wasn’t all that far – we would probably walk five miles or so in total, but in these temperatures a car would be a must. First stop, the Alyosha statue – a 42 meter tall commemoration of the Soviet defence of the Arctic during World War II:

Supposedly it is common for wedding parties to visit and leave flowers, but in the arctic chill today there were none.

Looking back towards the city. You know it’s freezing when you see the steam layer turning to frozen mist over the city:

Memorial wall of the Hero Cities of the Soviet Union:

Anti-aircraft gun at the Aloysha Statue…soooo…cold….

Praise to the wartime workers of Murmansk!

It was actually still before noon, but the sun was still low in the sky when we visited the Monument to the Waiting Women, dedicated to the spouses of the Soviet Arctic Fleet awaiting the return of their sailors.

Lovers locks on a fence near the Monument to the Waiting Women:

Looks. So. Cold.

Getting artsy with the Monument to the Waiting Women

Church of Our Saviour on Waters….are you catching the theme in Murmansk? Everything was focused around the navy.

Lighthouse at the Memorial to the Sailors and Seamen who Died in Peacetime. It was closed today, but contains artifacts and memorabilia from those soldiers.

Memorial to the Sailors and Seamen who Died in Peacetime, many of whom died on the Kursk in 2009, it’s become a bit more of a memorial to submariners as well. Again….so much snow and ice…

Yes, it was THAT cold…on the hill next to the memorial.

Looking back towards the lighthouse, with groundcrew trying to keep up with the snow that was somehow falling from a blue sky:

We were frozen after a couple of hours of touring, despite the car. The driver was wonderful, and chatty despite speaking zero English. All those years of Russian lessons came in handy, however, because we got between all the sites we wanted to see in about two hours, and then even made it back to the place we had dinner the night before to have some lunch. Yup, hot apricot brandy drink sounded (and was) wonderful:

The super tasty Tundra pizza with venison, wild mushrooms, and northern berries. Yum!

…and what better on a cold day than some more lingonberry vodka along with pistachio and vanilla ice cream! Seriously, this city is a delicious foodie paradise!

After lunch, back to the hotel for a bit, before walking the mile or so in the freezing wind and snow to the Nuclear Icebreaker Lenin. Unfortunately, tours were fully booked, so they told us to try back in an hour. Fortunately, Ian spotted a cafe where we could get some hot tea and wait, and when we went back in an hour, it took a bit of pushing and shoving to maintain our spots in line, but finally we were let in:

Guided tour, Russian only, but was able to get the gist of most things. When you have a boat that big, and you’re away from shore that long, you have to be prepared for everything. Operating Room in the medical clinic:

The reactor room with a mockup of the previous nuclear reactor that powered the ship…complete with mock

Inspirational words from Lenin himself…it IS his icebreaker after all!

View from the deck onto the port of Murmansk.

View of the deck – I love how the snow made little “pillows” and there’s still a Soviet flag on the side of the ship:

Ian, hanging out on the bridge:

I decided to get a very cold picture outside, instead:

Port of Murmansk building. I love this blue colour, which you seem to only find on buildings in Russia:

Port of Murmansk, 68+ degrees north and 33+ degrees east:

Walk back to the hotel from the Lenin was past the train station….even the train station looked barren and frozen:

Of course I had to pose in front of the northernmost McDonalds in the world as well:

Found a little antique and souvenir shop in our hotel, where I found 10 Ruble notes with Putin on them. What an amazing souvenir!

So, Tunda Restaurant the night before was amazing, but there was another restaurant that looked just as good, the “Tsar’s Hunting Lodge” – so we grabbed a Yandex Taxi there (seriously, the app is just as easy to use as Uber) and were rewarded with a homemade vodka sampler! Lingonberry, cloudberry, and I think blackberry?

Starter of Pelmeni – siberian dumplings – filled with meat and served with sour cream:

Venison leg meatballs with wild mushroom spelt – this was absolutely amazing!

Yeah, there were giant, random stuffed bears in the restaurant:

…and some sort of other critter pelts sitting above our table:

Yeah, the guy working the coatcheck made me take a picture with this awkward bear display in the lobby:

For dessert, a “Murmansk Charcoal” – a cheesecake made with black currants and bog whartleberries. Don’t ask what a whartleberry is – I have no idea either – but it was delicious with the homemade honey vodka.

An absolutely amazing meal, and I was thrilled how interesting Murmansk was. I’m sure it would be amazing in the summer as well, but there was something extra-special about seeing it in the winter. Off to bed, because we were off to Moscow the next day…fortunately not TOO early!

Mar 132019
 


Woke up relatively early after a good night of sleep, and headed down to the restaurant of the Scandic Hotel to see what breakfast was all about. It was absolutely packed with people, mostly Chinese and Russians based on the languages being spoken.

The buffet seemed to be closer to Russian than Norwegian, with caviar, beets, pickles, and lots of smoked fish that could have been at home in either country. Not exactly what I expected, but a delicious wake-up call that we were about to cross the most northern border in the world!

After breakfast, we still had a few hours for a walk. Since our bus to Murmansk wouldn’t depart until 14:00, we asked the hotel about the possibility of a 13:00 or 13:30 checkout, and without even looking the front desk agent rather shortly told us NO. Checkout is 12:00 sharp. I understand the reason, but it could have been delivered in a much friendlier manner…

Off on the walk, we walked by the ice rink, which was being cleared of around 10-12cm of snow overnight. I was majorly bummed out that we would miss the tournament later in the day.

Walking through the very snowy town, I started to get excited for our upcoming border crossing:

Looking north, towards the Barents Sea. Brrrr…. Temp fortunately wasn’t too bad at about -15, but the snow and wind made it a little less than optimal walking conditions.

The Kirkenes Kirke, or the church…

The Soviet Liberation Monument, in memory of the Soviets fighting to free the town from the Nazis:

Picturesque view back onto the city of Kirkenes…yes, this was noon…

We stopped in the one coffeeshop we found after our walk for a warm coffee and sweet, and you could really tell that China was the theme of the big town festival going on. My oreo brownie even had a little Chinese flag in it. Does anyone know what it says? Google translate seems to think “family?” My reputation must have preceded me to Kirkenes….

Back to the sign, but better view of the snow “mountain” in the daylight. Little kids sledding down the other side. You can see the snow falling a bit in this pic.

Back to the hotel to check out and wait for our bus, and we still had about 90 minutes to kill. Kirkenes is famous for its king crab, and there was a tank in the lobby for the restaurant. I can’t decide if this guy looked scary or delicious…

Very snowy exterior of the Scandic Kirkenes.

About 30 minutes before our bus’ departure, we walked outside, and the bus was already full and waiting – with just two seats left for us. Everyone else on the bus was Russian from Murmansk, so we were the last ones and headed off early.

The border was only about 20-25 minutes away, and soon enough we were there. Funny enough, I had entered the Schengen Area on my work passport, which caused quite a lot of confusion exiting Norway, as I imagine they don’t see a lot of official passports at this northernmost Schengen border. Only added a few minutes, and soon we were all stamped out and back into the bus to Russia.

I debated trying to get a few pictures of this northernmost border in the world, but there was really no opportunity, and soon we were at Russian immigration. Immigration itself wasn’t too bad, although the rather junior agent decided to call over the station chief to have a look at my visa and passport. The giant 96 page passport definitely stood out, and I imagine the colourful assortment of visas in it from all corners of the planet didn’t help either. After a very short chat in pretty basic Russian no problem, stamp stamp.

Given the slight bit of extra attention customs decided they wanted to open and go through my bags, which was no problem at all, and it was maybe 15 minutes start to finish and we were through the northernmost border!

Another 15 minutes, and we came to a rest stop for a bathroom break. I think there might have been food for sale too, but we skipped that in favour of a few photos. It was a little snowy…

Russian AND Soviet flags still flying this far north. Love the contrast of the deep blue sky:

Some sort of Soviet memorial. Even zooming in the text is blurry so hard to tell exactly what to.

Fortunately, the minibus (which only held about 12 of us) had no trouble driving 100+ kph the whole way, despite the rather heavy snow, and we all lived to make it to Murmansk after less than four hours on the road. Bus dropped us right at our hotel, where after a quick check-in we were off to find some food. After missing lunch we were pretty hungry, so set off through snowy Murmansk. Snow was still coming down very heavy:

Monument to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker of Mirliki:

Dinner was at Tundra Restaurant which looked delicious online, but surely this far north in the Arctic the menu would overpromise and under deliver, right?

We started with the salmon caviar and soft cheese on black rice crackers, which was outstanding. Why it’s served on a bunch of stones I don’t know, but…

Next up was the grilled meat platter with venison, marbled roast beef, pork neck, and some sort of arctic berry sauce…again…delicious.

For the main, I went with Kamchatka king crab baked with wasabi sauce. Once again…absolutely delicious and decadent.

Couldn’t resist desert, which was the house specialty of boiled condensed milk served in “wafer tubules.” Extremely sweet and caramelly, but again…delicious.

By this point we were absolutely loving everything about this restaurant, so when in russia…homemade lingonberry vodka.

On the way out after an amazing meal, one last chance to stop and admire the slightly unusual decor:

All that was left was a nice snowy walk back to the hotel, past the monument to the Hero City of Murmansk…complete with Lenin:

After an amazing first day in the Arctic I couldn’t wait to catch up on sleep a little bit, and spend the entire next day exploring this winter weirdness!