Jun 092012
 

This is going to be a short one…it seems when I get to the end of big trips that I get less motivated to write. Of course, some of that has to do with familiarity. Normally, my trips end with a transatlantic on United, and I’ve done so many of these by now that it’s just routine and I don’t feel compelled to take many notes or pictures. This one isn’t much different, but there will be some upcoming! I’ve accepted American’s challenge, so will likely be trying lots of new airlines in 2012 and 2013, so there will be a bit of excitement!

Up early in the morning, and no coffee in the room means I stumbled through check-out, no trouble at all, used most of my remaining cash to pay down the room, and was off to the airport no problem at all. My already good impression of Bulgaria was reinforced, and soon was at check-in.

Check-in was not too friendly, but no biggie. Checked all the way through to IAD, bags checked, and was off to security. Line was a bit long with no premium line, but still was through in under 15 minutes. Maybe I’m too laid-back lately, but 15 minutes seemed reasonable to me.

Stopped in the lounge that Lufthansa sent me to, and it was adequate. It had an awesome espresso machine, diet coke, and comfy chairs. Not too much else I could want! Waited until 30 minutes before the flight, then walked the 3-4 minutes to the gate.

Lufthansa Flight 1707
Sofia, Bulgaria (SOF) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Departure 7:15, Arrival 8:15, Flight Time: 2:00
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPR, Manufactured 1990
Seat 3F

Got to the gate, and the queue to board was down the hall, and over 50 people deep. Grrr! There was no marked line, so being early, hyper-caffeinated by this point (did I mention the awesome espresso machine?), I just walked to the front trying hard to ignore the stares….and the one person who DID say something I just responded to in Russian. I figure nobody likes the Russians in Bulgaria, so it was safe ūüėČ Gate agent apologised for no separate line, beeped me in, and boarding was quick.

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Jun 082012
 

After landing about 1pm, first chore was to get cash from the ABM and head to the hotel. Based on advice from Wikitravel, I decided to get a taxi from the soothingly named “OK Taxi” – and true to name, they were ok! The lady at the counter walked me out to a taxi, who didn’t speak English but we did just fine in French, and he was very curious why I’d chosen to visit his city – even more curious when he found it was for just one day! ¬†Wikitravel had told me to expect 10-12 leva for the taxi, and it came to 9,20…wow, a city with an honest taxi system, I was liking this place already.

This is a good place to mention…I was seriously impressed with Sofia, which given how tired and jet lagged I was says quite a bit. ¬†Although it was a brief trip, I was perhaps more impressed than with any other place I’ve visited in eastern europe. ¬†I can’t wait to go back for a longer trip, and explore more of the country. ¬†Everyone was friendly and helpful, and between English, French, and Russian I never once had any trouble communicating…and not just getting what I “needed” but asking enough questions to get what I was really looking for. ¬†Huge thumbs up!

That said, in deference to points collecting and status whoring, I decided to stay at the super-cheap and affordable Sheraton Sofia.  Was upgraded to a fantastic junior suite which was amazing for the one short night.  Friendly, helpful staff that answered all the questions I had, went out of their way to help me find things, and all-around were awesome.  Highly recommend this place based on my brief experience!

By this time it was around 3pm, and I headed out for a few hour walk in advance of the 6:30pm tour I was planning to take.  Walked a total of around 8km around the city, just taking in sights.  Stopped for a couple espressos (I confess, one of them was at Starbucks for all-too-predictable and needed caffeination) and then just camped out for a little bit at a small cafe near the start of the tour for a couple local beers and people-watching.

For a tour, and to see as much as possible in a short time, I’d decided to go on a walking tour with Free Sofia Tour – which was also ranked the number one thing to do on Tripadvisor! ¬†Let me just say, it was definitely an excellent choice! ¬†They say the tour is about two hours, but our guide was fantastic, and at the urging of our group of approximately 10 he went for nearly 3 hours. ¬†That combined with my earlier walk definitely had my feet sore, but it was well worth it! ¬†If you get a chance to take this tour I highly recommend it, and our guide Kiril was fantastic!

So, on to the tour! ¬†Hopefully I get the names of all the sights right…it was lots to see in three hours!

First stop was the Sveta Nedelya Church.

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Jun 072012
 

Common route right? ¬†Lots of people just happen to fly From Seychelles to Bulgaria ¬†ūüėČ ¬† There was a route with two stops, but I chose to add a third one in so I could maximize my time on nicer airlines. ¬†However, even before I got started, there was some rather serious drama. ¬†Flight didn’t leave Seychelles until mid-Afternoon, so after waking up, I went for a 5 mile or so run on the beach. ¬†Absolutely amazing running right along the water lapping on the beach, some serious waves crashing…it was definitely paradise! ¬†Got back to the room famished, pounded over a liter of water, and gave in to the diet coke in the minibar. ¬†It was listed as 500ml for $7 which was a ripoff, but I was willing to pay it. ¬†However, the can was only 300ml. ¬†I figured I’d take my changes. ¬†Make note…

After a shower, I packed my bags, and when leaning over to put the scuba gear away, heard a loud POP in my back, and collapsed to the floor. ¬†Fortunately, I was near the bed so I could break my fall, but still scary. ¬†Sitting there dazed for maybe 15 seconds, I finally used the bed to lift myself up to sitting and assess the damage. ¬†Didn’t feel awful, just really stiff and swollen, and I wasn’t going to miss my flight, so popped some serious anti-inflammatories and called the buggy to take me to check out.

Was honest about the mini-bar, and the agent called the manager on duty. ¬†He offered to reduce the Diet Coke to $6.50. ¬†Let me get this straight…it’s 40% smaller than promised, and you offer me approximately 8% off. ¬†I asked the agent to please call him back and thank him for his extreme generosity, and to please let him know he has an unhappy platinum member whose stay will always be remembered for this act at check-out. ¬†I only honestly wanted a fair price (even $5 would have worked) but the sarcasm was duly noted, and the item was removed completely. ¬†Above and beyond, tho a bit disappointed I had to go through such extremes.

Taxi came for the airport, and the driver requested 600 Rupees. ¬†I was in a negotiating mood at this point, and had put all but 500 rupees to the hotel bill….so I offered 500. ¬†He took it immediately when I said it was all I had, which I was mildly proud of, considering I’d paid 600 for the airport.

Check-in at the airport 30 min later was pretty painless, and immigration was pleasantly air conditioned, and soon I was in the lounge.  No decent food to speak of, but a few Seychellois rums and diet coke eased a bit of back pain, and the slow internet was adequate for some browsing and e-mail checking.  Soon, it was time to board!

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 878
Mahé, Seychelles (SEZ) to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD)
Departure 16:25, Arrival 19:40 Next Day, Flight Time: 4:15
Boeing 737-700, Registration ET-ALK, Manufactured 2003
Seat 4A

The most notable thing about this flight is that business only had 3 people in it, and economy might have been 33% full. ¬†The route had just started a week before, so maybe it will take time to come up to speed. ¬†There was a rather cranky family that boarded at the last second, and basically demanded to the station manager to be upgraded, and he gave in. ¬†I’d seen them in the lounge, so assume they were some sort of local VIPs, Ethopian frequent flyers, etc. ¬†To their credit, although they were a bit demanding, the small child was perfectly behaved, and having an extra 3 people in the 20 seats was no big deal at all.

The other strange fact was just how early we were going to be!  I guess everyone got boarded early, so why not!

Upon boarding, one of the stranger amenity kits I’ve ever seen was waiting for us!

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Apr 092012
 

So with my country count now at 109, it’s getting a bit more difficult to “collect” multiple countries in the same trip. ¬†When I found out that I’d have ¬†a chance to visit a friend in the Seychelles this spring, I started, of course, looking at creative ways to get there.

One thing I’ve learned the last couple years is that roundtrip fares are rarely the best way to go somewhere if you’re looking to maximize the number of countries you visit. ¬†Fares from the US tend to be expensive, and often you can string together several one-way fares at a much better deal – especially if you want to travel in the pointy end of the plane.

To that end, I found an amazing fare that would allow me to hit south asia on the way, and visit Nepal and Bhutan.  Of course, that got me wondering if I could stop by the other country in the region I still need to visit РMaldives Рand I found a way to make it happen.  Of course, on the way from Maldives to Seychelles, I wanted to see if I could transit elsewhere in the Indian Ocean Рand sure enough it looks like Mauritius is a possibility!

Now, leaving Seychelles was easier…and even better when I found a “hidden” fare to north america that was milage-based, and allowed stops in Sudan and Bulgaria on the way back for just a few airport surcharges…great deal! ¬†Now, I don’t get to leave the plane in Sudan…but by the rules of the game I can count it for now, with the hopes of returning for a real visit soon. ¬†That will make 7 new countries in just under two weeks, and bring me to 116 on the count. ¬†How is everyone else doing?

Mar 152012
 

Needless to say, the next few months is going to be incredibly busy! Starting this weekend, I have 6 big trips planned in the next three months. Short story is:

Ski and birthday weekend in Mont Tremblant, Quebec
Four days of diving in Grand Cayman, getting SCUBA certified
Then, a few days later, off to Oahu, Hawaii for a welcome home
After that, I’ll actually stay put a few days before it’s off to Nepal, Bhutan, Seychelles, Sudan, and Bulgaria
Work a few days, then off to Ottawa, Ontario to run the Ottawa marathon
…and from there, I fly straight to Longyearbyen, Norway, at 78 degrees north latitude, for the Spitsbergen Marathon 6 days later!

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Mar 092012
 

Count stands at 109, and in May, I have a trip to get five more countries already booked.  Nepal, Bhutan, Seychelles, Sudan, and Bulgaria (strange combo, for sure) are already done.  That marks 114.

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