Oct 182019
 


Being a work trip, and the third of three back to back longhaul trips, I really wasn’t in a mood to spend any more time than I needed to in Delhi. Combine that with the ridiculous heat this time of year, I was pretty much in a pattern of sleep – eat – work, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hotel driver was waiting for me in the arrivals area at the airport when we arrived rather late of night, and after what felt like a 1,000 meter walk through the carpark we finally arrived at the car…just kidding…you wait here and I’ll go get the car. That was really pleasant in the stifling heat and humidity.

Right….off to the hotel where the lobby was deserted at this hour, a quick check-in, and I think I was through the shower and in bed less than 10 minutes after getting in my room.

Up in the morning, and of course….decided to test how well uber would work by heading the 1,000 meters or so to Starbucks. Yes, normally that’s totally walkable, but in 99% humidity and more than 30C temps this early in the morning…no thank you.

One of the things I do like about Starbucks is seeing the interesting “local” food options. Decided to go with the “chili cheese toast” this time, what was reasonably good. Starbucks in India is not only not cheap, it’s actually pretty pricey by international standards even. Almost $10 for this.

This would be a good place to talk about the hotel, the Le Meridien New Delhi. Supposedly this “iconic” building is a Delhi landmark, and overall, I have to say the staff was fantastic.

The building was definitely showing its age, and the rooms were a little worn around the edges, but overall it was perfectly comfortable and more importantly: had reasonably good air conditioning. There was also a portable air unit in my room to add to the chill, so overall pretty good.

The hotel was built around a large approximately 20 story high atrium, and I was a bit surprised just how low the glass walls between the corridors around the rooms and the atrium were. I could easily see someone stumbling and plunging 20 stories to their death in the lobby.

Right, that vision out of the way, have a look at the middle picture below. That’s looking up from the lobby, and that black square that looks suspended by four gold bars? Well, that’s the executive lounge suspended over the atrium 20 stories up…and those gold bars are walkways across the atrium. Don’t look down when entering the lounge if you’re afraid of heights.

Didn’t get back to the hotel the first night from work until rather late, so decided to explore the rather crowded lobby restaurant. I was quite struck how many people were eating around 9pm, and I had to wait nearly 30 minutes to get a table. If I hadn’t wanted to people watch room service could have been a much better option. Surprisingly reasonable pizza, however.

The strangest thing about this hotel? In the elevator lobby on every floor there were tvs….playing old Tom and Jerry reruns from 40 years ago. I just…don’t…get it.

Reminder from your friendly Uber driver: NO SMOOKING!

Did I mention it was a little warm in Delhi? Combine this with the humidity and pollution from all the cars, the air….was not the best to be breathing.

We did get out for a team dinner one night, and I was definitely impressed with Farzi Cafe. Seemed to be an incredibly popular place with young and hip Indians, and a bit of an international crowd as well. Plus, who doesn’t like being “that guy” at a work dinner ordering a drink that comes served on top of dry ice?

Back to the hotel on the last night, and noticed…the lounge on the 20th floor? It’s apparently known as the “Flying Saucer.”

My flight the last night wasn’t until nearly 2am, so when I got back from the office the first thing I did? Grab some kulfi in the lobby restaurant which was absolutely outstanding.

I wasn’t really sure if my strategy was the best, but after enjoying the kulfi it was up to the flying saucer aka executive lounge for a few small snacks and a couple glasses of wine. One thing I want to emphasize, the executive lounge staff was fantastic. My wine glass was never empty, they seemed to have made a point to memorize every guest, ask how their day was, and were all around super friendly, helpful, and kind.

After a bit of wine, it was time to see how my strategy would work. Up to my room and in bed at 7:30pm…we’d see if I was able to sleep. Before I knew it, it was 11:30pm and I’d pulled off the four hour nap that I was hoping for. Excellent! That should enable me to stay away the first part of the flight, get a little more adjusted time-wise, and make the trip a little less rough on the body.

Leaving the hotel via the shuttle again, I was thinking: I absolutely love India for what I often call its “delightful chaos.” It was sad I didn’t really have any time to enjoy the city or country on this trip, but there’s something about just BEING somewhere else that is really energizing…even if you’re just “living” and not sightseeing around.

But that said, I was looking VERY forward to nearly a month at home after this trip…but that…all changed for reasons you’ll see shortly. Next up: the flight home!

Oct 142019
 


My time in Johannesburg was over far too quickly – as it always seems to be – and soon I was at the airport preparing for my trip home. Due to work finishing a bit sooner than expected I had moved my flight forward by a day, and in the process moved from SWISS to Lufthansa up to Europe.

I immediately waitlisted both flights for upgrade, but with the flight to Frankfurt at F2 it looked pretty hopeless. The flight from Frankfurt to DC, however, was F6 so looked much more promising! I tried to stick with United over the water to build more flights towards Global Services status, but the United flight only had J class availability and was more than double the price. No thanks!

At check-in, the agent offered to immediately confirm my upgrade out of Frankfurt (didn’t know they could do this!) and called a supervisor to try and clear my upgrade to Frankfurt as well. I found this odd as the flight was down to F0 in the meantime, but wasn’t going to argue. Unfortunately, she couldn’t and told me it would have to wait for the gate.

Got to the South African Airways lounge, where my favourite bartender in the world remembered me instantly and told me to “go sit down, I will bring it to you!” No order, no anything, and he showed up immediately…with two glasses of wine. I might need to break this reputation…

Boarding was absolute chaos as it always seems to be with Lufthansa in Johannesburg (I’m not sure what’s behind this, but it’s always a madhouse with a million pre-boards and salty gate agents) and I asked about the upgrade and politely told “if you get it we will tell you.”

I wasn’t counting on it, so when boarding started I joined the mass rush to the plane…and enjoyed a glass of bubbles while everyone else tried to part the sea and get on board as quickly as possible.

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 19:00, Arrive: 05:35 next day, flight time: 10:35
Boeing 747-8, Registration D-ABYS, Manufactured 2015, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 102,131
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,794,719

We had a great crew tonight, and they worked on being quick with service so people could sleep while at the same time being professional. It’s a nice balance. Also, I think Lufthansa might be the only airline I know who puts macadamia nuts in the business class mixed nuts (but why are they always over-roasted in business but perfect in first?!) along with walnuts.

Salmon appetizer was relatively light, but tasty. A nice change from the ever-present prawns lately.

A salad was offered separately (wow, a multi-course meal in business!) which was really tasty with feta cheese and roasted vegetables. Small, but one of the best appetizer salads I’ve had in business class in quite some time!

Grilled beef with chimichurri sauce, asparagus, and polenta. I still don’t understand the recent fascination airlines seem to have with polenta, but maybe it’s trendy again?

Baked bread and butter pudding with vanilla sauce for desert was outstanding, but the cheese course, sadly, was well below-average.

After dinner, I still wasn’t tired, but after a few more hours did manage to fall asleep and get around four hours of sleep in flight. Woke up to breakfast being served, and figured I might as well try it. I went with the roasted vegetable frittata, but it was very meh and I only had a few bites. the deli plate and muesli were more than enough food, however.

After landing, I did my usual with a seven hour layover and headed straight to the Sheraton Hotel for a solid four more hours of sleep. Feeling nice and rested, I walked to the Lufthansa First Class Terminal since my upgrade had already been confirmed.

I do love what I call the “Wall of Whiskey” that greets you upon entering the terminal.

But first, a glass of rosé and the seasonal duck to kick things off.

I wasn’t terribly hungry, but also didn’t want to pass up the usual deliciousness in the lounge, so grabbed a seat and helped myself to some snacks from the buffet. Mmmm quail eggs!

I had to order it because, I couldn’t imagine Tom Kha Gai soup in a lounge in Germany could be good. I was right. It was outstanding…and amazingly spicy just as I requested!

After lunch, it was time for a quick shower (I had maximized sleeping time in the hotel room, and went straight to the lounge sans shower) and some whiskey tasting to round off another outstanding Lufthansa lounge experience. So much choice!

It never gets old being driven from the lounge to the plane, and taking a selfie below the plane that’s about to deliver you more than 4,000 miles away!

Lufthansa flight 418
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 13:15, Arrive: 16:05, flight time: 8:50
Boeing 747-8, Registration D-ABYO, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 106,212
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,798,800

Boarded….and love seeing the reflection of the plane in the window!

Pre-departure mixed nuts…odd…usually first on Lufthansa is macadamia nuts only, but today included almonds and cashews. (…and the macadamia nuts were perfect as always in first…not over toasted!)

What’s for lunch today?

I may have enjoyed the champagne a little TOO much before departure…that or it was the whiskey tasting in the lounge…

….beautiful sight on pushback from the gate

Off we go!

Once airborne, I noticed there was a second champagne on offer as well (but only one bottle) and the purser was a total character “I call her Alex, because she is beautiful. Perhaps you’d like to take a picture with her?”

Lunch started with an amuse bouche of tuna tartar.

Followed by caviar service with a rather generous helping.

Alex also kept me company during the appetizers, which today were roast beef with asian glass noodles, tuna with mashed green peas, and “coconut mousse with curry bok choy, cliantro, and ginger mayonnaise.” The last was a bit odd, but they were all pretty tasty.

Palate cleanser of sorbet and champagne before the main event.

The butter gets me right in the feels every time.

I decided to go with the tomato and pine nut crusted tenderloin of beef which was delicious, and almost perfect at a nice pink medium.

Lufthansa first’s always-delicious cheese cart. It’s hard to pick a winner in this category between Emirates, SWISS, and Lufthansa. Now that would be an amazing trip….

Desert was outstanding – which has been the case on many of my flights lately (with the obvious exception of United and their sundaes which are basic, but good) – iced dome of white chocolate on curried pineapple carpaccio with crumbles.

Napped and worked for a few hours, and then it was time for some light bites before landing. I didn’t really need them, but it’s so hard to say no. Started with a “gourmet salad with water melon balls, olives, baked feta, and grape seed oil vinaigrette.”

Couldn’t resist trying the “club sandwich” which was incredibly soggy and disappointing. Not often I’m let down in Lufthansa First, but this one was a huge miss by a mile.

After years of not knowing that Lufthansa offers arriving passengers at Dulles a private car to immigration instead of having to take the shuttle I’m now much wiser, and sought out the agent outside the jetway, and got one more pic of my beautiful plane. YO! this was an awesome flight! (look at the wheel well…)

…and with that I was home…for a very short two nights before heading out on the road for the last instalment of this epic six weeks of travel. Next up: off to India!

Oct 132019
 


Those who’ve read my blog before will know I’ve posted about South Africa, and specifically Johannesburg on many occasions in the past. I’ve been to the city dozens of times, first for vacations and over the last decades many times for work.

On top of being an amazing city in its own right, it’s a regional hub for southern Africa, and in order to ensure no missed flights (or at least to minimize their likelihood) I try and spend days in each direction in the city.

This trip, arriving early morning with no work to do the first day, I decided to try out a new hotel and see what the new Marriott Bonvoy-branded properties are like.

I usually stay in Rosebank because I like the walkable neighbourhood that has everything I need, but this time I decided to stay at the African Pride in Melrose Arch which is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection.

At reception the staff was friendly and wonderful, but couldn’t for the life of them figure out how to merge two one-night stays together, and even worse, they had cancelled my first night as a no-show despite telling them it would be a very early morning arrival (so I’d booked the night before).

All sorted, eventually, got up to my room where I planned a 2-3 hour nap before heading out to enjoy the day. I loved the decor which I’d call “Africa modern” and the bed was super comfortable.

Super strange painting on the wall of a burglar robbing a safe. Even better? It swung to the side to reveal the in-room safe behind it. Genius!

Later in the day, I decided to take the Gautrain up to Pretoria to meet up with some friends for lunch. The Pretoria/Hatfield Gautrain Station has some problems with the local taxi mafia, and they’re not at all fond of Uber competing for their business.

I’d heard about the problem, but never expected to experience it….which I did today when a man hurled a rock at the window of my Uber, cracking it as we tried to swerve to avoid it:

Amazing and delicious lunch with a bunch of my favourite things in one bowl: bbq pulled pork over grilled halloumi cheese topped with avo and tomatoes. Absolutely delicious dish, which was surprisingly not too heavy.

The next day, I decided since it was a warm spring day to head into Maboneng to walk around the market for a bit and do some people watching.

It was a bit chillier than I expected, so I stopped at a coffee shop after a bit of walking for a perfect flat white…which may have had a bit of Amarula added to it. Delicious.

Maboneng…home of The Centre for the Less Good Idea. LOL.

Before heading to work I switched hotels to be a bit closer to things, and went back to the Hyatt where I’ve been staying for nearly 25 years now. The property is definitely showing its age these days, and there are definitely signs of cost-cutting in the property, but can’t beat it for a walkable location.

Something I’ve never noticed or had happen before…see the lamp above the picture? Well it’s solid and quite heavy metal, and when I got up from the desk at one point I accidentally bumped my head on it.

Upper left corner of the pic…that’s what happens when you bump your head into a scalding hot strip of metal. Ouch!

I’ve seen Trump’s Steakhouse in Sandton before, but who knew they had their own Biltong shop as well. Wonder if they’re any relation to the Orange Menace Trump family…

No trip to South Africa would be complete without some grilled chicken smothered in peri peri sauce!

…and a quick visit to say hi to Madiba before heading home:

Productive few days of work, and soon it was time to head back to DC to attend a wedding… decided to take the Gautrain to the airport, because, well, it’s always fun riding trains!

How long would I be home this time? Only about 30 hours actually! Then it would be time to head to India for more work. Truth be told, it was a combination of a wedding and the fact that booking the India trip separately was actually less expensive than amending and doing a multi-destination trip.

So, with that, off to the airport to fly home. I had switched my flight back to DC to Lufthansa instead of SWISS, and I was praying the upgrade gods might smile on me for a second time this trip….

Oct 122019
 


After just a few days at home, it was time to head out again and cross the Atlantic back to Switzerland. In this case, it was a total coincidence that I was connecting in Switzerland, but keeping in the spirit of maximizing time at home I left for the airport at the last possible minute.

An Uber to National Airport takes me about 12 minutes, and with CLEAR at the A Terminal only taking two to three minutes, I can easily be door to gate in under 20 minutes. So when I left home 55 minutes before the flight, and got to the gate before the incoming had even arrived, I knew I had maxed out every possible minute at home!

I stalked the gate a little bit, since the biggest problem sitting in 1A is no storage space, and you really have to be one of the first one if you want to find overhead space near you. No problem, and off we go.

Air Canada flight 7615 operated by Sky Regional
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Toronto, Ontario (YYZ)
Depart 12:45, Arrive: 14:12, flight time: 1:27
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration C-FXJC, Manufactured 2009, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 87,495
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,780,083

Takeoff on runway 1 today, and another great view of the Pentagon as we climbed:

Air Canada was mixing up the snack today, and we were offered smoked salmon which was good. Not amazing, and certainly not filling, but good. I feel like this “meal” could have used a small sweet to go with it.

After relatively quick transit security in Toronto it was off to the Air Canada Signature lounge for a more substantial snack and some champagne. Horror of horrors they were out of rosé champagne today (something to do with LCBO being out of stock) but the smoked meat sandwiches more than made up for it!

After finishing up some work it was off to the gate, where the usual chaos of rush-hour boarding at YYZ was already well-underway.

Air Canada flight 878
Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 18:05, Arrive: 07:40 next day, flight time: 7:35
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration C-FRAM, Manufactured 2008, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 91,540
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,784,128

Having changed my departure date rather late, there was only one window seat left, so I was curious to see how sitting in the last row – 11K – would be. Turned out, it was actually nice and quiet. The folded napkins were a bit weird to me – is this supposed to be fancy or something?

Shortly after takeoff was the usual warm nuts with some wine.

Sigh. Shrimp appetizer yet again. At least there were five of them so it was a reasonably substantial amount…and they were relatively tasty.

None of the other options sounded all that good today, so decided to go with the beef which was as expected rather overdone.

The usual Air Canada cheese course. Nothing adventurous, but it was tasty enough with a bit more wine.

Ahhhh the absolutely amazing Air Canada brown sugar tart. Absolutely delicious as usual.

Managed about three hours of sleep which is pretty good for me on such a short flight, especially when I knew I’d be napping shortly after arrival.

Woke up in time to have a little bit of breakfast – which I really didn’t need, but it’s just so hard to resist the Air Canada omelet with that unusual salsa and cottage cheese concoction.

Landing was right on time, and there was no line for immigration this morning and soon I was in the train station and headed straight to my hotel where I planned a solid five hour nap before getting up to enjoy a little bit of time in Switzerland.

Had no trouble at all sleeping, and woke up early afternoon and headed out for a short walk around Zurich to enjoy the city a bit and stretch my legs. The hotel had been kind enough to agree to a 6pm checkout (this was the same hotel I’d left just four days prior and I’d arranged this with them in advance) so I also enjoyed a small snack in the executive lounge before catching the train back to the airport with plenty of time before my flight.

I had a bit of drama with my return seats (SWISS had for some reason canceled my “throne” seat and put me back in a regular seat) and spent some time at the airport trying to solve it – but was unable to as the return flight was completely full.

Admitting defeat, I headed to the gate in the satellite terminal to wait for my flight. At least I would have 4A tonight – a throne seat – so I would have an enjoyable flight to Johannesburg.

Wanting something a bit more substantial I found these unusual turkey roll-ups in the lounge that were basically deli turkey, cream cheese, and a bit of pickle all rolled up in a tortilla. What’s not to love!

I spent my time in the lounge obsessively checking the seat map to make sure they didn’t take my throne seat away again tonight, and everything seemed on the up and up, so headed off to the gate to board.

Waiting to board, I chatted a bit in line with the passenger in front of me, an older gentleman who was headed to Zimbabwe. We talked about life in Zimbabwe a bit, how hard things are with the currency situation these days, and soon enough it was time to board.

The gentleman boarded first, and the machine made all sorts of angry noises when his boarding pass was scanned. The agent informed him “I’m terribly sorry sir, but we’ve changed your seat to 1A in First Class. I hope that won’t be a problem.”

I joked with the agent that if it was I’d be happy to take that seat instead…and then scanned my boarding pass…which was also met with angry noises…and an upgrade to seat 1K!

I have no idea what process SWISS uses to do upgrades when business class is full, and maybe it was a psychic wavelength, but I wasn’t going to argue – my first operational upgrade to First Class on SWISS and I couldn’t wait!

SWISS flight 288
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:40, Arrive: 09:10 next day, flight time: 10:30
Airbus A340-300, Registration HB-JMH, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 96,751
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,789,339

Warm grüezi on board from the super friendly crew, and was promptly welcomed with a glass of Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle and an amuse bouche which set the mood for what was sure to be a lovely flight!

Tonight’s menu:

Being quite a late departure, the table was set right after takeoff, and it was perhaps the most elegant table setting I’ve seen in quite a while. Loved the wooden salt and pepper shakers.

Decided to go with the balik salmon as a starter. Slightly disappointing that there’s no longer caviar in SWISS first class, but the salmon was absolutely delicious.

The flight attendant was a little hurt I didn’t want a second appetizer, so I decided to go with the meat platter from the Canton of Vaud. Super tasty, and just small enough it wasn’t too filling.

I decided in for a penny, in for a pound, and decided to risk the veal. OMG I’m glad I did, because it was cooked to a perfect medium rare with an absolutely delicious sauce. One of the best steaks I think I’ve ever had in flight!

I was getting pretty full by this point, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to try a cheese plate on a new first class product. I was very glad that I did, because it was an absolutely delicious sampler of Swiss cheeses – once again from the Canton of Vaud. I think that may have been tonight’s theme….

I really didn’t need desert at this point, but it sounded way too delicious to pass up. Layered chocolate cake with salted caramel, praline ice cream, and caramelized hazelnuts. I could have eaten several of these!

Hard to say no to a few pralines with a glass of Johnny Walker before heading off to dreamland.

Still six hours left in the flight, so plenty of time for some shut-eye!

Woke up and wasn’t all that hungry. so decided to have a mini pain au chocolate, some fruit, and being SWISS of course a bit of Muesli. I decided to skip the heavy caffeine in favour of a diet coke since I was hoping for one more short nap upon landing.

With that, a wonderful treat came to an end. I knew how fortunate I was to receive this upgrade, and it really is all about expectations. When you have no expectation of it happening it really is a wonderful treat, and your mood can go from zero to one hundred in an instant.

Now, if only the same could happen on the return….off to my Johannesburg hotel!

Oct 112019
 


After a bit over three weeks in Switzerland, it was finally time to head home. I would have just a bit under four days at home before heading out on the road again for a couple of back-to-back trips, but after three weeks away every day matters!

Got to the airport, and what better way to say tschüss to Switzerland than to pose for a selfie against the SWISS sign. Not really goodbye, however, since just four days later I would be connecting through Zurich again!

Strangely, my United flight would be leaving from the B Gates today (which I’ve never seen before) and while it would save me a train ride out to the E gates, I wondered if there was a respectable lounge on the other side of immigration in B.

Yes, it turns out there was, but there was no air conditioning! According to my temperature gauge, it was 81 degrees in the lounge too. Ouch! Fortunately, they had brought in a few fans, and sitting in front of one of them it was just barely tolerable.

You know what makes it tolerable, though? Swiss chocolates and Mövenpick ice cream! Mmmmm!

Off to the gate after about 30 minutes in the lounge. I’d never actually been to the B Gates before, so wasn’t sure just how long it would take to the gate…or how long and confusing the boarding process might be. Every day a new adventure!

United flight 53
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 11:55, Arrive: 14:45, flight time: 8:50
Boeing 787-8, Registration N29907, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 87,136
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,780,083

Boarding was relatively chaotic, with people not really line up well or the agents controlling things well, so it was unclear where to queue up. It’s one thing I really like about the newish boarding is that as a 1K you can pretty much stand anywhere you want, and hopefully if the agents are good you’ll still be called ahead of group one.

Worked like a charm today, but it didn’t really matter since we were at a remote stand and it would be a bus gate anyways. Off to the plane, easy boarding, and time to explore what’s to eat!

Pre-departure beverages. Trying to be positive and remember for someone that doesn’t get to do business class often this is still considered a real treat. However, unless it’s a special occasion I need to start giving the pre-departure sparking plonk a pass. It’s just not worth the calories on a regular basis. I do, however, appreciate the real glassware now.

Meal started off with some Spiderman socks from the amenity kit and mixed nuts and wine. I’ve started requesting water more regularly inflight now to survive the crazy mileage I’m flying this year, and this crew was great and proactively offered lemon or lime with a stirrer to make it easy to fish out and squeeze. Oh, and some shiraz, but that was probably a given.

I like the salads United has been serving out of Switzerland lately, and they’re relatively fresh, light, and tasty. Throw in some garlic bread and it’s delicious. In principle, the tomato, basil, and mozzarella caprese would make a nice starter, but every time I’ve had it the basil has had rotten spots and the tomatoes have been bland and underripe.

I went with the chicken breast and polenta cake as a lighter option, and with the skin off (and skipping the polenta) it did the trick without being too fancy. Kinda looks like institutional cafeteria food.

Note to self: ice cream sundaes for dessert are always worth the calories, especially with cherries and fudge. Cheese was decent without being too memorable, but I wish they would try some more memorable crackers to go along with it. Maybe something nice and savoury?

After a bit of a nap, decided to hit up the snack cart because I was craving the little pastries they always have. Goes well with a side of Ebola monkey on the iPad as well.

Was curious about the pre-landing chicken ragout option, and while it was pretty tasty and would make a great domestic dinner, it actually felt a bit heavy for a second in-flight meal on a relatively short flight.

I have to admit – I was starting to miss the relatively heavy “hamburger wellington” that’s been around for a lot of this year.

The flight passed relatively quickly, and just like that I was home after more than three weeks away. Time to see if four days is enough at home, or if I would really be craving getting back on the road sooner.

I had originally booked just one night at home, and then three days vacation at my next work stop before the work began, but I gave up that three day mini-vacation in favour of the time at home. I was very glad I had, but four days, well, I might start craving travel….

Sep 302019
 


Another warm week of work, but fortunately not as bad as the previous couple and it stayed at 25 or barely above most of the time. Good thing no excuse is needed to run down to the Aare River, take off your shoes, and dangle your toes in the cool water.

It’s also a good thing no excuse is needed for ice cream!

One particularly beautiful evening went for my usual run, but paused at the top of the super long climb at the end to take in the view from the Bundeshaus. Bern is seriously ridiculously picturesque!

One final day off before heading home (three days out of 22, I’ll take it!) and it was forecast to be absolutely gorgeous and cloud free down south so I decided to risk it and go see the Matterhorn!

Took two trains to get to the streets of Zermatt, but once there I was amazed I’d heard relatively little about this charming little car-free town. Yes, it was a little on the touristy side (and I’m told it’s even more so in the winter when the skiers come to town) but it was still super charming!

Plus, from the streets of Zermatt on a clear day you can very easily pick out the Matterhorn!

It was about a 15-20 minute walk from train station to the cable car station where you can start heading up to the Klein Matterhorn Paradise (Little Matterhorn Paradise) which is where you get a view of the real Matterhorn. Only way up the Matterhorn itself is mountaineering!

In the SBB railways app it looked like a series of four cable cars to get there, but not really – it was one cable car with three stops (total of nearly 30 minutes!) and then one final panoramic cable car to the top.

The line for cable car tickets was longer than I expected and took nearly 30 minutes at 11am, and I was amazed for over $100 how many people wanted to go up. I know lots were buying tickets to get off at intermediate stops, but still! Quite a pricey day.

The ride to the first transit point was pretty long, but how can you complain when you’re treated to views like this the entire time!

Finally arrived at the transit point for the final cable car to the top. At 9,642 feet above sea level the Trockener Steg station is about the same elevation as the Diavolezza mountain where I had lunch nearly two weeks prior. Only one more cable car and 3,000 feet of climbing to go!

Incredible view from the cable car of the Matterhorn when getting close to the top of ride!

Glacier nearing the top of Klein Matterhorn:

Finally – the summit! What struck me was that this stop was about 3,000 feet higher than Diavolezza, but it was noticeably thinner air…slightly dizzy and harder to breathe…I could definitely feel the altitude!

I felt like sitting down and relaxing a bit would be just the thing to adjust to altitude…but I’m not sure having a rösti covered in cheese, bacon, egg, and washed down with a beer was exactly the smartest idea!

After eating, I went for a trek through the glacier caves. Carved into the Klein Matterhorn there were all sorts of tunnels and ice carving…but even a bit of walking in here was pretty challenging and made me a bit dizzy!

Finally, I felt like I’d adjusted just enough to head to the lookout point. Heeeey Matterhorn!

At 26F it was quite a bit chillier up here!

But despite being in shorts once again (did you expect anything else from me) I didn’t notice the chill at all, because the views were absolutely breathtaking!

Panoramic view from the lookout…Matterhorn and all.

Starting to get a bit chilly, and feeling the thin air, I decided heading back towards sea level would be a good idea after nearly three hours at altitude. Back in the cable cars for the hour or so long trek back down to Zermatt.

Amazing glacier view on the way down.

The cable cars just keep going and going….it was an amazingly scenic ride. Not great as someone who doesn’t like heights, but…

roaring river Matter Vispa

lots of tacky souvenir shops

stopped for a snack

After ice cream it was time to begin the trek from Zermatt back to Bern. First Zermatt to Visp on the meter gauge railway and then from Visp to Bern via one of the longest railway tunnels in the world. It really was a slick trick, and very convenient!

I may have to come to Zermatt again, for two other “famous” railway trips. One is the Gornergrattbahn Railway which rises almost 5,000 feet in 6 miles from Zermatt to the top of the Gornergrat at 10,300 feet!

Next is the Glacier Express which goes from Zermatt to St. Moritz and is supposed to be the most scenic railway in Switzerland. Unfortunately, you pay through the teeth for the privelege, and from what I understand it’s full of tour groups….so maybe that will wait.

I’m back in Switzerland in a few weeks, however, and maybe the Goernergrat will happen….

The day was also Swiss National Day, and I got back to Bern just in time to see the fireworks from the University of Bern right atop the railway station:

The last few days in Bern were quite a bit cooler with temperatures only about 25C – it figures it always seems to happen like that where the nice weather arrives just as you’re getting ready to leave!

One last run along the gorgeous blue Aare River…

…then it was off to Zurich for the night before flying home…for just under four days before heading off to South Africa for work. Coming up next!

Sep 292019
 


My second full week in Bern was even hotter than the first. The first was tolerable most of the time with temps in the high 20s, but the second week was full on 30-35 every day. Makes being in a non-airconditioned office super difficult, but we survived the week!

The people of Bern have dealing with the heat figured out, however. It seemed in the evening seeming the whole town would descend on one of the outdoor pools connected to the Aare River via swimways:

Despite the heat, I kept up with my runs a few nights a week as the sun was setting. The bears in the bear park at least knew how to stay cool-ish hiding in the shade:

Even more tightrope walkers out the second week, and they still weren’t falling in the river enough to stay cool. I’m seriously in awe of their balance!

Even more popular than the pool, however, was the ice cream shop across the street – Gelateria di Berna – which had a super long line every evening with people drying to beat the heat. At only five francs for a large cup, it’s one of the few good values in Switzerland!

I had decided since I had one day off on the weekend I would definitely try and take another trip, so had bought a daypass again on Monday (they’re usually cheaper the further out you buy them) and decided to decide as the weekend got closer and the weather got clearer what I’d do.

The weather looked pretty iffy, so I decided going into the mountains again would be pretty futile since I might not see much, but since the morning at least looked nice I decided to try the Gotthard Panoramic Express trip which starts with a boat ride from Lucern to Flüelen and then a panoramic train ride to Lugano. The idea would be to enjoy a few hours walking around Lugano and then head back.

Day started early, but not too early with a short train trip to Luzern/Lucerne where I would catch the boat across the lake to catch the train. It was a couple hours on the boat and it was absolutely gorgeous in Luzern so I had about an hour to walk around and see the wooden bridge that Luzern is famous for:

As the time for the boat departure approached it got more and more crowded until a couple hundred people were waiting for the boat. Ugh. Looked like it would be a crowded few hours.

Once on board, it took quite a long time wandering around to figure out all the compartments and decks on the boat, but I finally found two first class areas on the upper decks that were a little less crowded.

Then, about 20 minutes into the trip…well over half the passengers (looked like a tour group) got off. WTF? So a short 20 minute boat ride must be a “must do” and then on to the next attraction? I was glad I had a few hours to enjoy the beauty of the lake and really relax.

The first class deck even had table service with waiters, so I decided I might as well enjoy a nice lunch on the trip! I wish I could remember the name of this salad…it was with some local cheese, lots of vegetables, and also diced up strips of a local sausage. What’s not to love about a gorgeous lunch al fresco on a boat?! (I can say al fresco because this trip ends in Lugano in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland)

Gorgeous day and all smiles!

The water was so blue…and it was just really nice to be outside!

The last twenty minutes of the boat or so it was starting to cloud over, and fortunately the walk to the train was less than two minutes from the boat because it started to get a bit windy and sprinkle a little. Ugh!

The panoramic train was pretty much identical to the one the previous weekend, but there was one exception: the attendant on this train was absolutely wonderful and clearly loved his job. He said it was just a weekend fun job for him, but he clearly loved it – coming around to each passenger when there was something to see and telling them to look out for it!

One of the biggest highlights of the train trip is the Church at Wassen which you actually see three times from three different vantage points as the train climbs altitude in a series of spiralling tunnels inside the mountain.

Lots of fun little things on this train….branded chocolates, pre-stamped postcards that the attendant would send for you at the end of the trip, a branded pen…although this train may not have had the views of some of the other trains, the overall experience was amazing!

Nice spacious seating too – too bad it was absolutely pissing down rain outside most of the trip.

Arrived in Lugano right on time, and any thoughts I had of wandering the city and taking in a bit of Italian-Swiss culture were dashed by the absolute downpour outside. I waited it out for 30 minutes having an espresso at the train station (which thanks to Google Translate I managed to fake just enough Italian to order) and eventually gave up.

Fortunately, there was a direct train back to Zurich about an hour later so I decided to wait it out with some ok beer. The name that is – ok. Not the beer…which was also just…ok.

Hopped in the train back to Zurich, which is one of two main types of Intercity trains. One type is a double decker and seems to ply the main line from Geneva – Bern – Zurich and this type is single deck and seems to hold less people.

Grabbed a beer at the International Beer Bar in Zurich which has a great selection of craft beers before heading back to the station to go to Bern and call it a weekend. Was really pleased how much value I managed to get out of this daypass!

Got to Zurich Hauptbanhof a bit before my train so did a little bit of trainspotting while I waited to leave.

Finally, this is the style of the other main Intercity train, the double decker on the inside. All trains in Switzerland (except the panoramic ones which need reservations) are open seating, so on an empty train like this plenty of choices!

Back to Bern after a long and exhausting but rewarding day, and ready for another week of work!

Sep 282019
 


I admit going into this trip I was a bit nervous about 23 days in one place. It would be very busy with work, but I should have my weekends free. Question was if they would be interesting or if I would be sick of it and just want to get home. I went into it determined to make the most of it, and hoped that time would fly by!

You know it’s a good sign when you get to your hotel, and the sign in the elevator knows you’re coming:

The nice thing about the middle of summer in Switzerland is that the sun sets quite late, so even though I didn’t leave work until a bit after seven most evenings it was still plenty light to walk around.

One of Bern’s nicknames is the “City of Fountains” due to the more than 100 fountains around the city. An even more interesting fact: the water that comes from them is very pure and drinkable. Definitely nice to have when it was over 30C and hot most of the time I was there. Just three of the many fountains:

The Zytglogge – a famous clock in the center of Bern. It was funny watching the tour busses drop people off, they stay 10 minutes waiting for the clock to strike the hour, everyone takes pictures…and they all pile out again.

Bright blue skies even in the evening – and I love the way many of the streets in Bern were lined with flags not just of Switzerland, but also of the Canton of Berne.

Over the week I came up with a running loop that was about 6km – perfect for a little late evening exercise after work and a great way to enjoy a really scenic city…as long as you don’t mind dodging tourists!

The Aare River and the old buildings really made it feel like wandering in a storybook fairy tale:

Many evenings people would set up tight ropes across the river. As some one majorly uncoordinated I was super impressed with the balance these guys and gals had!

The sun set pretty late in Bern, but when it did, we were treated to some gorgeous sunsets. Usually when you’re below mountains sunsets are less stellar, but there were definitely a few really nice ones!

Ended up with one day complete free on the first weekend, and I’d spent all week researching places I might go that might not be TOO touristy, so I bought a full day train pass figuring I could decide then at the last minute where I would go.

I was glad I had, because I found a mountain I had never heard of before – Diavolezza – in the far southeast of the country. It would take over four hours each way by train, but since I do love a good train ride it sounded like a great day trip…even if I would have to get up at 6am to get a start on the day!

After changing trains three times, I was finally in Landquart ready to catch the Bernina Diavolezza Express train for the short ride to the base of the Diavolezza. This was a panoramic train that goes into Italy, but I would only be riding it for a short distance, which had a supplement of like 10 francs for the panoramic car. Well worth it!

The cable cars to the top of Diavolezza only left every 30 minutes, and I had just missed one, so I had a chance to relax and wait. Return tickets for the cable car were 36 francs and were not included with the railways daypass, but it seemed a reasonable price to get up to 9,770 feet above sea level!

Once to the top there was an outdoor viewing deck, with absolutely spectacular glacier views:

Lunch with a view on the observation deck. Some delicious rösti and a Bernina Beer while enjoying. I had worn shorts and a hoodie since it was 33C in Bern, but up here on the Diavolezza it was only 5C….but given the strong sun I was perfectly warm while eating despite being in shorts.

After spending about 90 minutes on the top, it was time to ride the cable car back down and catch the train. Glacier lake on the way down:

Catching the train back to Landquart:

The views from the train were absolutely spectacular:

Decided since I had the daypass I would stop off in Zurich since it was more or less on the way, and have some drinks before heading back to Bern. But first, while changing trains, I had to get some Mövenpick ice cream!

Then one more train before the train to Zurich. Not too uncomfortable inside:

After drinks in Zurich it was back to Bern – another week of work awaited, and hopefully also another weekend adventure!

Sep 272019
 


Talk about a bit of an anticlimactic end to a trip. I had been all excited to fly two long segments with EVA Airways in their Hello Kitty service on the 777, but due to crew strikes the flights were canceled. At least I had an option that would get me home comfortably. No, it wasn’t exciting or new, and certainly not the way I wanted to end this really cook AvGeeking trip, but hey, make lemonade from lemons and all that jazz!

Woke up early after only about six hours of sleep, figuring I could always sleep on the super long flight and crossing 12 time zones my body wouldn’t really know the difference anyways. Grabbed an early coffee before heading to the airport, and what Hong Kong Starbucks called a “croque monsieur.” Close, but no croque…

Off to the airport by train again, and one thing I was looking forward to was checking out the American Express Lounge. The United Lounge in Hong Kong is known to be one of their nicer ones, but I’d also heard great things about the American Express Lounge.

I know everyone loves the AmEx lounges in the US, but they frustrate me a bit. I find them very crowded most of the time, and hard to find a seat. It also really bothers me that as a Centurion Card holder I can barely find a seat when some guy and his family of six with a Platinum Card are taking up seven seats. Anyways, rant over.

So, why was I looking forward to the AmEx Lounge then? Hong Kong, like Buenos Aires and Mexico City actually have Centurion Lounges within their “Centurion” Lounge. I always found it weird that “Centurion” lounges let platinum card holders in, but whatever.

The lounge in Hong Kong was pretty quiet, and had a nice menu to order from. How can I say no to eggs benedict and champagne in the lounge? That’s right…I can’t.

Service in the AmEx lounge was amazing, and it was easily one of my top AmEx Lounge experiences ever. Next time, I’m going to have to make much more time to stop by than just the 45 mintues or so I had before this flight.

Fortunately, my gate was not far from the lounge, and caught this view of my chariot as we waited to board:

The plane was named the “New Spirit of United” but beyond Polaris seats (which I do actually really like) I wasn’t expecting too much.

United Airlines flight 180
Hong Kong (HKG) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 10:25, Arrive: 14:10, flight time: 15:45
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration N2331U, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 78,376
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,770,964

Somehow I think this 8,063 mile flight is going to take a bit longer than 0:00 as the screen seems to promise:

Pre-departure sparkling plonk and water were offered. I commend United on upgrading to actual glass glasses for PDBs, but the Spider Man napkins and terrible sparkling wine were a stark reminder I wasn’t on Emirates anymore…or Qantas…or Thai…or Cathay…or, well, you get the point…

I love planespotting outside the US where I get to see lots of airlines I don’t see every day…today it was Air Mauritius:

Warm nuts were served right after takeoff, with more Spidey napkins. I honestly have always wondered what United “does” to their almonds. They always seem kinda mushy to me and stale.

The salad was a pretty below average offering today, and the appetizer was two rather sad looking shrimp with “yellow mushrooms”. Way to put the class in business class, United. *frown*

I felt like something was fishy with this meal, so I went with the “pan-fried halibut” with lemon caper butter sauce. It was pretty decent, and less heavy than the overcooked beef options, so overall it passed muster.

Cheese and deserts finished off the exactly-as-expected United meal. I would say the cheese was just average today (I never really find interesting or adventurous cheese on United) but the bonus cherries on the sundae were definitely a win!

Having only gotten about six hours the night before, I decided that after lunch was a perfect time for a good long nap….which lasted nearly six hours!

Woke up at exactly the perfect moment! I looked outside and the sun was just rising over extreme northern Alaska. Absolutely gorgeous views!

Pre-landing breakfast was served, with the usual offer of congee, “smoked salmon and spinach frittata” (aka cholesterol and sodium bomb) or “fruit with cereal and milk.”

There was nothing high-end about it, but the fruit and cereal were nice and light and did hit the spot, so overall it was the right choice for me.

Landed at the B Terminal at Newark, which seems to be where all my international Star Alliance flights have been coming into lately. I know SAS always lands there as does Lufthansa, but even my United flights seem to land there now. Is immigration and customs at Terminal C just that busy?

Caught the AirTrain over to Terminal C, and fortunately my flight to DCA would be leaving out of C today and not A so I could spend my layover enjoying the Polaris Lounge, which I hadn’t visited in Newark before.

I asked the bartender for a Paper Plane, but made with Mezcal (thanks ORD Polaris Lounge for introducing me to this) and the bartender gave me the most perfect Jersey “what’s wrong with you” look. She made it though, and it was delicious, and she was an absolute hoot to chat with, so bonus!

All too soon it was time to head to the gate for the short hop to DCA.

United Airlines flight 3434 op. by Republic Airlines
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:45, Arrive: 17:17, flight time: 1:32
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N642RW, Manufactured 2005, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 78,575
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,771,163

When I booked, only economy was available on this flight for an award, but the great agent did waitlist me for first. Oddly, 24 hours before the flight, there were still five seats unsold but still no upgrade for me….it dwindled to four, then three, then two…and held at one…and finally cleared for me at the gate. That was a close call.

Nothing to say about this flight. No drinks, no snack basket “due to the short length of the flight” but I really didn’t care for barely 40 minutes of flight time.

Most notable part of this flight was the beat to hell United plane at the gate next to our arrival at DCA. Get this thing a new paint job!

…and just like that, I was home from an epic 18 day vacation….and when I say home, I meant for 68 hours…because it was already time to head out to Switzerland for work….for three whole weeks! Next segments, coming up soon!

Sep 262019
 


When figuring out how I was going to get home from Singapore, none of the options looked overly attractive. EVA Air offered to try and find an option to rebook me, but since I’d paid more than I wanted to for this segment just to fly the Hello Kitty service, I wasn’t really interested in getting a lesser product for that high price.

So, I asked for a refund, and set out to search. There were options, of course, all in business class, and all cheaper than I’d paid EVA – but none of them were particularly enticing. Air China? No thanks. A few other random Chinese airlines that would get me into JFK and I’d have to take the train home? No thanks.

Then, finally, after a lot of searching, I found Hong Kong to DC on United at a standard award level! That will do nicely! No, it’s not exciting, but the Hong Kong to Newark 777 would at least feature the new Polaris seats, so I knew it would be comfortable…and save me a good deal of money.

There was, however, that small matter of how I was going to get to Hong Kong. Paid flights were about $600 which was still much less than I’d paid EVA, but I wasn’t excited about spending that AND the miles from Hong Kong. A bit more searching and I found award space on Singapore Airlines to Hong Kong…but of course United couldn’t book it.

I decided to transfer points from Chase to Singapore Airlines and hope they went through before the space disappeared, and fortunately they did, and I was all set. Whew!

9:55 was a bit earlier than I preferred to get up and go to the airport, but it still wasn’t crazy early. I decided to maximize sleep and then use Grab to the airport and grab some Starbucks once I got there. All that sorted I didn’t even have time for the lounge, but hey – if I have to choose between sleep and the lounge I’ll take sleep every time!

Singapore Airlines flight 856
Singapore (SIN) to Hong Kong (HKG)
Depart 9:55, Arrive: 13:55, flight time: 4:00
Airbus A380, Registration 9V-SKZ, Manufactured 2018, Seat 96K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 70,311
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,762,899

I’ve flown the A380 in business on plenty of airlines, but with a 1-2-1 configuration I was looking forward to seeing how roomy the seats would feel on Singapore compared to some of their competitors. The answer? Very roomy. I could be super happy in this seat even for a 12+ hour flight! Plus…how in the world could I resist the novelty of sitting in seat 96K in business class. One day, someone needs a row 100!

Pre-departure champagne was served – I really liked the simple but elegant glasses that Singapore uses – though with such a small base I wondered how stable they would be in turbulence.

I can’t remember the last time I had a window seat behind the wing, not to mention one on the upper deck. It was fun watching the wing during takeoff, especially once in the air and you could actually see the air moving over the wing!

Not terribly long after takeoff breakfast was served, which started with breakfast breads, a fruit plate, and of course since it was brunch a bit more champagne!

The fruit was followed by a cereal course, where raisin bran was on offer today. I never eat cereal at home, but it was kind of a fun novelty in flight I guess?

After the cereal there was a choice of hot meals, and I chose the cheese omelet, but who knows what happened to the pictures. It’s not like me to forget to take a picture, so I’m going to guess that it got accidentally deleted. Oh well, you’ll just have to trust me that it was tasty!

The meal didn’t end there, however. There was also a strawberry cream cake for dessert. Breakfast with dessert and champagne, what’s not to love about this!

Flight wasn’t really short at four hours gate to gate, but also didn’t feel super long. I definitely could have enjoyed the seat and the Singapore service a bit longer without wishing the flight was over!

Immigration line was fortunately not too bad when we landed, and I grabbed the train into the city. One of the nice things about the W Hotel in Hong Kong is that it’s connected to a mall right above the train station, so a straight shot from the airport and a short indoor walk (read: no need to go outside and get sweaty) and you’re there.

Strange comment at check-in: “we are sorry as a platinum member we were not able to offer you a suite on a previous visit, so we wanted to make sure to get you one today.” Wow, front desk staff that actually looked at guest history? That’s pretty impressive!

I don’t know if I should consider a view of the freeway and water filled with cargo ships a good view or not, but hey, it’s always fun to have something to look at…right?

Protests were unfortunately happening very near the hotel this weekend, and there were quite a few police hanging out near the hotel. The protestors had targeted mainland visitors this weekend, and the mainland express train also left from the mall, so there was quite a bit of action in the area.

That said, it still didn’t seem to horrible, but rather than try and deal with transit I foolishly decided to grab an Uber to head out to get some beers. Unfortunately, the police had closed several streets due to the protests, so the ride was much longer than it should have been, but at least at the end I was rewarded with some tasty beers!

Post-beers I decided to save a bit of time and grab an Uber back to the hotel as well, and snapped this artsy shot looking straight up as I waited for the Uber. There’s something about the dense chaos of Hong Kong that I find really energizing!

Off to bed – I wanted to get up in time to enjoy a lazy coffee before heading to the airport and the excitement that would be a flight home on United!