Aug 162016
 

With 195 of the 196 countries in the world visited now, I’d like to think I’ve learned at least a little bit about different places. Sure, some of these trips have been less than 24 hours and I’ve only scratched the surface of the country, but even in a short time it’s easy to discover that lots of the misconceptions you might have had about a country before visiting just don’t stand up. So, in no particular order, 14 common misconceptions I’ve recently discovered in my quest to visit every country:

10. Iranians hate Americans. The media in the United States repeats it constantly, and Iran’s government certainly doesn’t do much to dispel this notion. However, it’s hard to wander the streets of Iran for five minutes without someone coming up to you, asking where you’re from, and often inviting you back to their home for tea. I found Iranians to be some of the warmest and most hospitable people I met anywhere in the world, and they’re genuinely curious about how things really are in the United States. Sure, our governments and politicians can be pretty easy to hate on both sides…but on an individual level the vast majority of Iranian people will welcome you with open arms.

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9. Africa is full of disease and hunger. Usually when I tell people who haven’t visited Africa about an upcoming trip, their first questions revolve around what shots/medications I had to get, and how will I find enough safe food to eat. Sure, there are tropical and other diseases that are much more common in Africa (malaria, dengue, even HIV), but that doesn’t mean that walking down the street you’re going to drop dead. Regarding food, yes, there’s not a McDonalds on every corner, but you would be surprised how many places you see KFC! There are, of course, lots of hungry people in Africa, but there are lots of hungry people in the United States as well. …and like Iran, the number of times people insisted I come back to their home and join them for a meal was amazing. People may not always have much, but you’re a guest and they’re happy to share it with you.

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8. People in China are pushy and rude. While it’s true that overall Chinese culture isn’t the same as the west when it comes to queueing this is changing to some degree in larger cities. When people start pushing (such as boarding a plane) it’s not an attempt to be rude, but simply doing what one needs to to not get trampled in a society that views that as a norm. There’s no rudeness intended at all, and firmly holding your ground will be respected.

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7. The Australian Diet Consists of Blooming Onions, Fosters, and Vegemite. In several trips to Australia I’ve never once seen a blooming onion, and all the Australians I know confirm it’s an American invention. As for Fosters, it’s incredibly uncommon and nobody drinks the stuff. Victoria Bitter (VB) is much more the stereotypical beverage and a higher quality beer costs up to $30 for a six pack thanks to taxes. Unfortunately, the vegemite part is true…and is definitely an acquired taste no matter how thinly you spread it and how much butter you use.

…but you can also get kangaroo and crocodile pizza:

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6. Argentina is Nothing but Cowboys, Steaks, and Evita. While it’s true all three play a huge part making up the Argentine identity, there’s so much more to the country. You can’t deny that modern Argentine politics was largely shaped by Peron and Evita, and you’ll find some of the most mouth-watering steaks in the world, but you’ll also find a vibrant international city in Buenos Aires and amazing skiing in the south and west. Oh, and don’t forget the amazing waterfalls at Iguazu and the Casa Rosada at night:

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5. You Can Get By Everywhere in English. While this is more true than it’s ever been, it’s still not universal. In most major world cities you will have no trouble in English (and in most European capitals the quality of English will be astounding) but there are still places where English is extremely limited. In Europe, Spain and Portugal are exceptions, and especially in Brazil you will find almost no english spoken outside the most touristic of places. Similar in China – get off the few major sites and international hotels, and limited to no English. Plus, if you want to see smaller towns you’ll find English much less common. This also goes for Russia and Central Asia outside capital cities. That’s not to say don’t go – most people will be happy to help, and do their best to communicate with you despite the language gap.

4. South Africa is rife with crime. Yes, South Africa is no stranger to both petty and violent crime. Yes, the stories of carjackings and people being robbed at gunpoint on the street are true. However, the same things happen in major American urban centres if you venture into the wrong neighbourhoods at the wrong time of time. Keep to well-trafficked areas, and use the “women, children, and old people rule” and you’ll be fine. The rule means simply if women, old people, and children are out strolling in the area, chances are things are just fine.

Cape Town sunset:

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3. Nigeria is nothing but Investment Scams, Corruption, and Oil Money. Is there corruption in Nigeria? Absolutely, but there’s also amazing beaches and some of the most amazingly warm people in Africa. One day I was sitting on a deserted beach just outside central Lagos, and the next partying at the craziest wedding I’ve ever been to. I found Nigerians to be some of the most fun-loving and happiest people I met in Africa…and they want you to join in the fun! I highly recommend to anyone who has a Nigerian friend they know in the US – try and get yourself an invite and see the real country. It’s an amazing place!

Very festive Nigerian wedding…the theme was obviously pink:

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2. Japan is all Pokemon, Anime, and Cat Cafes. Sure, all three of those things are very modern Japan, and all originated there and have become global phenomenons. At the same time, however, Japan is still a deeply traditional society with traditions and a history that goes back thousands of years. While Western society is certainly very at home in downtown Tokyo (as attested to by Starbucks everywhere), just turn the corner and you’ll find a temple that goes back hundreds of years that young and old alike still visit and respect. I found nowhere in the world where modern and traditional manage to exist side by side quite like in Japan.

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1. The Gulf States are Largely a Vast Desert Full of Camels and People that Despise Western Culture. So, first off, yes, there’s a lot of desert in the Arabian peninsula. It gets extremely hot and dry, and yes, there’s a lot of camels – outside the cities at least. Speaking of the cities, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and especially Qatar and the UAE and littered with enourmous shopping malls full of western brands. Dubai has dozens of Starbucks, Caribou, Tim Hortons, Costa and every other coffee shop known to western man. …and all of them are packed with local men sitting for hours and talking over coffee. Like with Japan, Western culture and convenience have been imported and customized for local tastes. Infrastructure and convenience wise the gulf states are some of the most modern places on earth which in some part is owed to the fact that in many of them (especially Qatar and the UAE) over 75% of the population is expatriates!

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So that’s my list of 10 of my bigger surprises – what has surprised you about places you went? What did you discover that you didn’t expect?

Aug 072016
 

Since I hadn’t heard anything from Etihad four hours before my flight, I called to check the status of my car transfer. Since the booking was made less than 24 hours before flight, I was advise they couldn’t guarantee the car, but would see what they could do. When I called at 9am, they assured me that yes, the transfer was scheduled and would be there at 10am. 10am came and went. 10:15 came and went. At 10:30 I gave up and called an Uber to the airport.

Arrived in the first class check-in area, and first thing I asked was what had happened with the transfer…she made some phone calls, and “yes, the car came to get you…at 6am.” Um, seriously? You sent a car for me eight hours before the flight? First off, it’s not true because they would never send a car that early, and second, why did they then tell me 10a when I called? Complete confusion on the part of Etihad, and makes three for three the amount of times they failed to show up to take me to the airport as promised. Completely unreliable.

Anyways, moving onto check-in, the agent starts paging through my passport. “Where’s your visa?” I have a ten year multi-entry India visa, in another passport. The agent presses on “but I need to see it.” Now, time for a bit of background. A few trips ago, in Delhi, the agent told me “why are you showing me that? I can see your visa in the computer, there’s no need to bring it and show it every time.” So, I haven’t My last three trips to India, no questions at all on the visa. But, this agent wouldn’t budge. To the point she had supervisors calling the Indian Embassy. They were standing firm. No visa, no checkin, no flight.

So, I asked her “if I’m transiting, I don’t need a visa. If I buy an immediate ticket out of India will you check me in.” Her: “no, because we know you will attempt to stay in India.” But yes, I will attempt, and if they tell me no, I’ll go right back out on the connecting flight. I even bought a one-way on Air India from Mumbai to Colombo, departing three hours after arriving in Mumbai. She wouldn’t budge. “Ok, I will go to Colombo, not try and go to immigration, and will sort out the visa from there.” Exasperated, she finally gave up, and agreed to check me in.

This had wasted nearly two hours of time, which meant I only had 15 minutes to enjoy and check out the new Etihad First lounge. I will say, this is the one part of the Etihad ground experience that was amazing. I had a perfectly lovely former flight attendant dedicated to helping me out, and she saw to it that I got some champagne, pronto:

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Bar/lounge area of the Etihad First lounge:

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I shared my check-in experience with her, along with my poor experiences with the limo service and in flight service where they frequently run out of food options. She was very pleasant and genuine, and it was nice to finally be able to experience a bit of actual service with a human touch on Etihad. Of course, there was also a huge downside to a lounge. There was a group of about 10 Etihad staff having a rather loud meeting in the lounge – seems an extremely weird place to be having a meeting but it appeared to be some kind of training. Mid-day was a rather quiet time in the lounge so maybe it was the best time if they had to do it, but still just seemed a bit…unclassy.

Rather long walk to my gate, the very last one in the terminal, and soon it was time to forget all the stress and enjoy the A380 experience. Of course, I was asked to show the visa again at the gate, but showing the connecting ticket was just fine for them. The boarding area was an absolute madhouse, and boarding had already begun when I reached the gate. The agent was fantastic when he saw I was in first, and actually escorted me down the long jetway, actually pushing other passengers waiting in a long line in the jetway aside so I could go past.

Etihad flight 204
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH) to Mumbai, India (BOM)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 19:20, Flight Time: 3:40
Airbus A380, Registration A6-APE, Manufactured 2015, Seat 3K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 123,471
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,312,608

Very nice welcome aboard with champagne, dates and arabic coffee:

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Forget the stress of the whole limo/check-in drama with Etihad, and enjoy relaxing in the A380 apartment:

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Unfortunately I didn’t have all this space for a 14 hour flight to Melbourne as planned, but 2.5 hours to Mumbai would have to do:

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Full menu for the short flight:

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Our captain today was SMOKIN’ hot!

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Shortly after take off cashews, mixed nuts, olives, and more champagne:

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Arabic mezze to start…relatively tasty:

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By this point, the WiFi was also up and running, and I sent some emails back home to see if I could at least get a scan of my visa. Thankfully, less than 30 minutes later, a friend had found the passport for me and taken a shot of the visa, so at least I had photographic proof of the visa, if not the actual visa. Oh, and if you think I’m bad with all the photos, the guy in the apartment across the aisle had a go-pro set up to record his entire experience, lol:

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Since it was so good the last time I’d had it, I got the biryani for a main and the in-flight chef insisted on making me a salad to go with it. Delicious once again:

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Fortunately, this time, they didn’t run out of cheese, although the selection was quite on the disappointing side:

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Couldn’t resist a bit of ice cream and arabic sweets…were also super tasty. Not sure what flavour the ice cream was, but tasted a bit like speculaas and was super tasty:

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Panoramic shot of the suite:

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Unfortunately the flight went by all too quicky and we landed in a very stormy and rainy Mumbai as the sun was setting. See, when I woke up and decided going to Mumbai sounded like fun I’d forgotten to do any research and had arrived in the middle of monsoon season! Our A380 from the gate upon arrival:

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Headed down to immigration where the business class line was pretty short, and handed him my passport…and waited. Eventually, he asked, where is your visa? I told him I have a 10 year visa in another passport, and no I don’t have it with me, it should be in your computer. He seemed completely confused…either Mumbai does things differently or something has changed. So, I offered him my phone with the picture of the visa, oh piece of cake, that’s plenty, here you go, welcome to India!

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Even a bigger surprise, when I left the airport, the Etihad drivers were all there…but none for me. So I asked one of them if there were any other drivers…he asked my name and I told him. “OH! FIRST CLASS!” were his next words and he called another driver who was apparently waiting right outside for me. Apparently, not only did Etihad get the transfer right this time, but first class gets better cars or something. Was a very nice ride of maybe 30 minutes in spacious air conditioned comfort and soon we were arriving at the St Regis Mumbai. Before this trip I’d never stayed at a St Regis before, and now this was to be my second time in a week…and a huge surprise awaited me with a giant two bedroom suite. The living/dining area:

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Full kitchen as well:

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Another shot of the living/dining room area:

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At first I was worried when I saw I’d been given a room with two beds:

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…but at least it has a nice bathroom:

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…but wait, there’s a second bedroom as well!

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…with its own bathroom:

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Got a fantastic night of sleep, and enjoyed the view from my room in the morning:

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Headed down to breakfast first, and it was a huge buffet, but the place was absolutely packed. There were probably 200+ people eating, and the place felt like an absolute madhouse. There were also lots of large families with children running around, not what I would have expected at a St Regis. Had a small bit to eat, and then found out…just next door…was Starbucks! I decided to get my caffeine there before continuing on with my day.

Managed a good day of work, which was good because spending much time outside didn’t really appear to be an option since it was torrential downpours pretty much all day…then the rain would stop, sun would come out and bake in the humidity….just in time for another downpour. I did get out for a bit of a walk as well in between storms, but other than work it was a pretty uneventful day.

Oh, and on top of work, I did manage to decide what I felt like doing next…heading to Bangkok!

Back to the St Regis, and up to the top floor bar where they supposedly had a happy hour for platinum and suite guests. There was a snack menu, as well as anything you wanted to drink. I decided to go with the pan fried dumplings and some Indian red wine which wasn’t bad:

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…this may have been repeated a few times. The weirdest part was when I left, then told me I had to sign. Ok, fine, and then they brought me a bill….for nearly 9,000 rupees – or nearly $150! I was assured I didn’t have to pay it, they just needed the bill for “internal bookkeeping.” Ok, fine by me. Who knew a few glasses of wine and three small appetizers could cost so much….more than the room even! With that it was off to bed, because I had to get up relatively early to continue on to Bangkok the next day!

Aug 042016
 

The Almaty airport has to go down as one of the worst major airports in the world. First, you scan your bags, and then proceed to the check-in area. Etihad staff were quite nice, and when I asked if the flight was full in business class today, they couldn’t understand. Switching into Russian he said “oh no, there are only two passengers, but economy is very very overbooked, so it will be full.” Great, just my luck, 14 people getting for free what I paid extra for. Oh well!

Through passport control and security, and into departures. Departures is one large hall with one lounge, a few cafes and smoking lounges, and a large duty free shop. At least I was able to get some caffeine duty free while I waited:

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I’m quite amazed that for such a modern city with such so many high end luxury malls, Starbucks, and tons of international brands, the airport is so poor. In the business lounge, you get two drink coupons…but not valid on alcoholic drinks! Only coffee, tea, juice, and water…and only two of them. Probably the poorest excuse for a business class lounge I’ve seen at a major international airport. Only Abidjan was almost as bad. To its credit, it did have reasonable AC which almost kept it cool…and compared to the departures hall that was very welcome.

Walked over to where my bus was boarding from (since everything here is a bus gate) and there were only like 50 people waiting….and then, looking over to security, it was obvious what had happened. There was a group of 100+ Indians clearing connecting security. It was a large sports team that was coming from Uzbekistan and just connecting, which explained why the flight was so oversold. On the bus to the plane, we passed the very unfortunately named SCAT Airlines:

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Etihad flight 297
Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA) to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH)
Depart 17:20, Arrive 20:25, Flight Time: 5:05
Airbus A319, Registration A6-EIE, Manufactured 2003, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 122,245
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,311,382

It was easy to determine which plane we would be on, as Etihad only has one A319 with business class. Fortunately, it was on time, and we boarded right on schedule. Pre-departure beverages were offered, and champagne was no problem:

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Printed menus:

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The mezze starter was rather tasty, and great presentation for a narrowbody flight:

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The lamb tikka was delicious, and went quite well with a glass of wine:

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Chocolate cheesecake dessert was nothing special, but went well with red wine:

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The flight took a very roundabout route, presumably to avoid Afghan airspace:

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Not terribly much to say about the flight. Five hours is a bit long on an A319, but Etihad gives plenty of legroom, way more than US carriers do on a narrowbody. Only one of the free upgraders was a bit obnoxious, constantly putting his bare feet up on the armrest of the woman in front of him. Oddly enough, despite banging her arms with his bare feet repeatedly, she didn’t seem to mind at all.

No line at immigration which was nice, so it was off to the Etihad Chauffeur service to get a drive to the hotel. No wait at all, unlike my last time, and was in the car and off instantly. About 20 minutes later, checked into the Aloft Abu Dhabi. I had stayed there a couple months prior, and been really impressed for an Aloft. This time, wasn’t as good. The staff seemed a bit overworked and puzzled, and not quite sure how to do their jobs. They were incredibly nice, but it was just a little bit off. As an example, previous visit they had offered two complimentary drink coupons. This time, it was one. When I asked for a second, she said, “oh, well, I guess that is ok.”

At least they upgraded me to a larger room, same type as previously, and the AC operated on arctic:

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Typical functional Aloft washroom, but plenty spacious:

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Nice selection of little cakes was waiting in the room:

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Decided to head upstairs to the top floor sports bar and enjoy my free drink coupons. Apparently, they were about to show games from the European Football championship and the floors were covered with tacky green fake grass and there were flags everywhere. Did enjoy a couple of beers, and then headed back to call it a night just as all the football fans were beginning to show up.

Woke up, went downstairs, and enjoyed their rather large buffet. It’s no St. Regis, but for an Aloft it was rather amazing. I’ve been rather impressed overall with Aloft properties – they’re at a lower price point, but not as old and run down as many Four Points. I’d be happy to stay in one again.

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Elevator up to the room encouraged me to take a selfie, and always one to listen to elevators, I complied:

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This is when disaster struck in the form of a notification from TripIt. Apparently my flight from Abu Dhabi to Melbourne had been delayed. Opened up Etihad’s website to look…and it was delayed seven hours! Instead of a 5pm arrival into Melbourne in time to do a planned dinner and evening with friends, I would be arriving at midnight! Did lots of frantic research for the next couple hours using Etihad’s website along with FlightRadar24, FlightAware, and a few other tools to map out Etihad’s fleet of A380s. Fortunately there are only eight of them, so it was easy to tell where they were coming/going from.

Etihad flies the A380 to New York JFK, London, Mumbai, Sydney, and Melbourne. I was able to trace the delay to one of the A380s going mechanical in Melbourne, and being out of service for over 48 hours. They seemed to be trying to run all flights with just seven planes, which meant JFK was delayed as well…by 14 hours! Apparently JFK and Melbourne worked best, because the other routes were still operating on time. I waited a couple hours to confirm the two A380s that COULD help me leave near on time did leave (to London and Mumbai) and once they had, it was set. My delay officially meant the point of my going to Melbourne was moot and while I considered still going, it just wasn’t going to be worth it.

So, I did what I’ve never done before: canceled all my onward flights, and decided to throw caution to the wind and live in the moment.

Called the front desk and extended my room for one more night since it looked like I wouldn’t make it out. Then, it was time to start thinking where to go next. But first, caffeine would be needed. Headed off to Yas Island Mall, where Jerab got some Starbucks:

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Now, all together please, say YAAAAAAAS!

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Back to the hotel after a couple hours and started to sort out a plan. I really wanted to try the A380 apartments again, and it looked like I could do that if I headed to Mumbai the next day. So, why not! Decided to book a ticket to Mumbai and go to India for a few days…from there, who knew where the rest of the trip would lead me!

Headed back up to the sports bar planning to get a burger or something for dinner, but was promptly refused entry for wearing shorts. Sports Bar apparently means classy in Dubai, so back to the room to put on some trousers and headed up. I began to wish very quickly that I hadn’t. The place was filled with smoke and eastern european women that I had a hard time telling if they were expatriates, flight attendants, or what. I was like some trashy eastern european nightclub in there…and so bad I couldn’t even stay for a beer there was so much smoke.

This is where Aloft continued to lose me. Apparently, room service also isn’t a thing at this property. You can get something from the takeout cafe and have it brought to your room for a small charge, but you actually have to go down and pay for it yourself…then they will bring it up for you if you want. Overall, it was beginning to feel much more like the budget experience I expected and less like a nice relaxing stay…next morning it was up, and hopefully my car would show up to take me to the airport…

May 262016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Palate cleanser….mint ice…did its job…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 242016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So, what’s the menu?

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Panoramic view of the suite:

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

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After that, the table was set for lunch:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 212015
 

Called an Uber to take me to the Dubai airport, and the driver showed up in less than 10 minutes, very clean car, polite, chatty but not too chatty, overall a very good experience. Was maybe 10 Dirhams or so more than the taxi the day before, but for the convenience of using up the last of my cash on the hotel and paying by credit card it was well worth it.

Arrived at Dubai T2 and it’s amazing how much this terminal has changed in the past 10 years or so. My first experience was in 2007 when I attempted to fly KishAir to Kish Island, and the entire terminal was basically one small room with a few bus gates on the other side. These days, it has a bright and sunny check-in area with probably 30 counters, 12 or so “gates” which are essentially just bus waiting areas, but the whole thing is a much nicer experience…except it is massively crowded since it houses all flights of FlyDubai as well as other airlines from dubious neighbouring countries such as Iran and Afghanistan.

Check-in took about 10 minutes, and even that wouldn’t have been necessary since online checkin worked just fine. I wanted to check about the possibility of discount upgrades, but it appears FlyDubai doesn’t do this at all…and my 737 only had a total of 30 passengers, so there was definitely no need for it today. All checked-in, before heading through immigration and security I decided to grab a little breakfast…at where else? See, I told you T2 had improved since my previous visit!

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Caffeinated and ready for adventure, I headed to immigration. After double-checking to make sure Stephen Harper wasn’t around, I decided to skip this special immigration line and head to the main line:

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Immigration was question-free and security took about 10 minutes, but that was only because the truple (not sure what else you call a man and what appeared to be his two wives) in front of me had eight children with them, and three strollers (including a doublewide), and security was insisting they had to collapse every stroller and put them through the x-ray. Try doing that with eight children…no easy task. And they were having none of me trying to go ahead of them in line.

The gate area was jam-packed with at least 15 different flights waiting to board. However, for some reason that I couldn’t figure out, the crowds were all congregating near the food court, and at Burger King in particular. There were still a few seats left at the gates, so it was easy to sit and wait. Because waiting is what you do when your flight time passes, and then 15 more minutes pass, and finally after 30 they announce boarding for your flight. I would have asked what was going on, but, well, there were no airline employees anywhere to ask.

Hmmm. Short bus ride to the plane, and it was time to head off.

FlyDubai flight 8039
Dubai, United Arab Emirates (DXB) to Salalah, Oman (SLL)
Depart 9:00, Arrive 11:05, Flight Time: 2:05
Boeing 737-800, Registration A6-FEJ, Manufactured 2013, Seat 6E

Boarding confirmed there were only about 30 people on the flight, and since I’d paid an extra 100 dirhams for the bulkhead I had the entire row to myself. Got to sit in the middle and enjoy the amusing safety video:

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We also had a few stowaways for the flight…

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All in all the flight was extremely uneventful. As a low cost airline FlyDubai charges for absolutely everything, which means my Starbucks was more than enough to hold me over for about 100 minutes of flight time. At least in economy I prefer this model, because I can pick and choose exactly what I want. More legroom is always worth it, and if I decided I want something to snack on, I can pick exactly what.

Arrived Salalah slightly late, and then it was off to immigration. The airport was very new and modern, despite only having a handful of gates, and had clearly been built with growth in mind. First stop was the visa on arrival desk, where I asked if I needed one. I’ve read several times that if you arrive from Dubai that covers both the UAE and Oman, but once again was told this isn’t true. Maybe that’s only the case if you have to pay the UAE for your visa? Regardless, the foreign exchange counter finally opened, which is where you pay for and receive a receipt for your visa on arrival. They were happy to take Euros at a pretty miserable exchange rate, and that done passing immigration and customs was a piece of cake.

My pre-arranged driver was waiting just outside, and took me off to my hotel for the few days, the Salalah Hilton. It’s located a few kilometers outside of town on a relatively quiet part of the beach. He agreed to drop me for a couple of hours to rest and have some lunch before heading out on our afternoon tour. I’ll cover the tours in the next post, and for now will just focus on the hotel.

Grabbed a lunch at the beach bar, which was service nice cold Stella:

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In the evenings, there was another lounge/bar which did a nice happy hour deal of a burger and beer for a very reasonable price. It was just cool enough that sitting outside in the evenings was nice, although the biting insects were pretty terrible. I ended up with bites that itched for nearly a week after I got home, which is pretty amazing. That said, the burgers weren’t bad at all, the the service was super friendly. Plus, can’t complain about the views:

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Especially once the lights went on, hahaha

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As a Hhonors Diamond member breakfast was included, and they had quite a nice spread. My favourite part was the guy who brought you your coffee. He was wearing an apron that said something like “coffee man” had had lots of little pockets on it that were filled with different tea bags. Definitely different. But the breakfast was tasty, and could be pretty healthy if you wanted:

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A few thoughts on the hotel. It was definitely not a luxury Hilton, but at the sametime it was a nice and well-maintained property. The staff was super helpful and friendly, and several times asked if everything was alright and if there was anything else they could do. The rooms felt slightly older and worn, but this is a beach property, and a bit of mustiness is to be expected. The AC wasn’t ice cold, but worked plenty well to get a good night of sleep, so points in that department. The rooms were also slightly larger than your average Hilton room, and the internet was quite a bit faster than I had expected.

A view from my pool/ocean view room, with the daily anti-mosquito fogging going on:

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All in all a solid property, and if you have Hhonors points to burn it’s an amazing value – some say it’s one of the best values anywhere in the world for using Hhonors points. Next up, just why did I come to Salalah, Oman, anyways? 😉

Oct 152015
 

Hotel shuttle to the airport got me there right when I wanted to, and already had my boarding pass from the previous evening so was able to head straight to immigration. Almost no line, and in probably 10 minutes I was inside the departures area…and not a second too soon. I believe in being completely honest about travel, and something about Ethiopia and I didn’t get along.

I got to the lounge I usually go to, and she told me “yes, but there is a better lounge you can access” which nobody had ever told me before. I’ve always been Star Alliance Gold, and always in business or first out of Addis, so how this was news to me I don’t know…but it was. The problem was, she insisted I go use the nicer lounge, and I was rapidly losing the battle against…something I’d eaten the day before. I don’t know if it was the hotel pizza, or the plane lunch, or the bar snacks at the hotel,  but by the time I found the nicer lounge it was not a second too soon.

Disaster averted, it was time to check out this lounge. Did some re-arranging of flights for later in the trip on the internet which had quite good speed, and enjoyed a diet coke or two. The most notable features that made this lounge better than my usual one were that it wasn’t a dark dungeon and was actually well lit, had a group of people sitting on traditional chairs burning incense, drinking coffee, and eating what looking like popcorn in some sort of quasi-traditional setup, and had plenty of power outlets. It also definitely improved my impression of Addis airport immensely!

Soon, it was time to board. Out of the lounge, through security, to the gate, and no plane anywhere to be found. Agent told me boarding was at least 30 minutes off, so why don’t I go back to the lounge. Out of security, to the lounge, a little bit of blogging and another Diet Coke, and finally back through security and to a bus to board. There was a special bus for business class…all three of us. Yes, the plane seats 28 in business, and only three seats were taken.

Ethiopian flight 602
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD) to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (DXB)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 15:30, Flight Time: 3:35
Boeing 777-300, Registration ET-APY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2L

First impressions of business class on the Ethiopian 777, my first time on their long-haul business product. Middle seats in business, who does that anymore, ugh, it’s almost as bad as United:

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Similar to my Turkish flight a week before, they had the footsie seats which went completely flat, but where you were very likely to end up playing footsie with your seatmate as you sleep:

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Settled in with bubbles in what basically felt like a private plane…couldn’t even see the other two in business:

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Amenity kit which, while not super fancy, makes a great case for storing the small stuff I tend to keep in my carryon. Just big enough, but not huge. It’s now beat out amenity kits from ANA, Lufthansa, Swiss, and South African which I used to use. I feel it’s that well-designed!

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Today’s menu:

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More airplane-shaped crackers with bubbles as as pre-lunch snack:

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The salmon starter wasn’t bad, and the salad was decent as well:

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The Cape Malay Chicken Curry, however, was absolutely delicious despite being a bit scary looking:

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But once again delicious cheese…glorious cheese…and they refused a second serving. Grrr!

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Arrival at Dubai involved a pretty long walk to immigration through several escalators, and the line was about 10 minutes as well, but stamped into the country with no issue at all. That is, until I passed the immigration desk and a woman in an abaya started pointing at me and screaming HARAM! HARAM! HARAM! It took a minute to figure out what was going on, but I think she’d seen the rather large tattoo on my arm (and I’m sure wearing shorts wasn’t thrilling her either) and had decided to make sure everyone knew just how awful I was. Thanks! Fortunately nobody else seemed to care.

Stopped at the ABM for some cash, and into a taxi for the ride to the Sheraton Dubai Mall – my first time at this property. I think every time I’ve visited Dubai I’ve ended up at a different hotel. Since this was a relatively short overnight I wanted somewhere convenient. I had some shopping to do for the rest of the trip (mainly something warmer for Mongolia) so being attached to the mall seemed a logical choice. Upgrade to a nice suite:

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The room was quite large with a bedroom, large bathroom, huge walk-in closet, and a sitting room with a couch, tv, desk, etc. Much more space than I needed, but extremely comfortable. Headed down to the attached mall for the shopping, and could have been anywhere in America. They even have Shake Shack now…Michelle Obama would be so proud!

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Stopped at Starbucks for a quick caffeine and snack. No clue how I was hungry, but I was, so…

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I still had a couple of hours to kill, so stopped by Ski Dubai to embarrass myself. The only place in the world you can go skiing inside a shopping mall. This was my third visit, and I keep hoping to snap a picture of a woman in an abaya going down the slopes, but they remain elusive. Perhaps on the next trip!

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Also, probably the only Hollister in the world with two twenty foot high television ocean displays outside the store:

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Back to the hotel for a short bit before dinner, and the executive lounge had an amazing spread. Alcohol is available at hotels in Dubai, but it’s also extremely expensive. Not only were drinks in the lounge free, but they were poured very generously. I think I had two glasses of wine, and probably finished off 2/3 of a bottle. Plus, they had tons of tasty bar snacks and desserts:

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Shortly after drinks I was picked up at the hotel by my friend Daniel, a long-time reader of my blog who lived in Dubai. We had met just under a year ago in Bali of all places and did some touring, and then met up again a few days later in East Timor. Now I was on his home turf, and it was time to catch dinner and catch up. Daniel and Rianda picked me up, and we drove a short ways to another mall (because that’s what you do in Dubai) to find some dinner. Car parked, and we set off to find somewhere to eat. Walked past the water show, and it was pretty much people taking pictures and not really looking at the show:

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We managed to grab a delicious dinner at a Lebanese place in the mall, which was blessed with fantastic air conditioning. Lots of great grilled meats and catching up, and regrets that we weren’t going on to Turkmenistan together. Daniel and I had originally planned to do the Turkmenistan part of this trip together, but when they denied me the visa he decided to go on alone and enjoy while I made other plans. After a couple of hours it was back to the hotel to get some sleep because they had to work in the morning and I had an early flight. One of the treats of traveling so much has been meeting people who live all over the world, and feeling like you always know at least someone in all major cities!

Up early the next morning, and off to Oman!

May 222011
 

You may have noticed the title of this post, yes, the plan was to fly Lufthansa. Up early and to the airport for the final segment of our trip. We were flying LH first from DXB-MUC-LHR and then on another ticket I had to unexpectedly continue on LHR-IAD on United with a 2 hour or so connection in LHR. Piece of cake.

Check-in at DXB at the LH F counter was horridly slow. They had called some passengers over from another line, and it was an elderly couple with lots of issues to sort out. Nearly 15 minutes later a supervisor finally realized what was happening, and called us to the business queue to check-in. Not the best, but also not totally their fault.

We didn’t have a lot of time, so opted to skip the lounge in favour of caffienation at Starbucks, and then off to the gate for boarding. I didn’t spot it but when when we hadn’t started boarding 45 minutes before departure the other Mr Ironmanjt realised one of the engines on the A340 was open…and they were tinkering around with something. Not a great sign. Even worse when it was announce that there has been a “mechanical issue with the aircraft” and more information would be available in 2.5 hours. Um, say what? There goes my connection…. Continue reading »

May 222011
 

The goal of this day was simple: rent a car, and visit the remaining Emirates of the United Arab Emirates. In a large part, this was driven by the list put out by the Travelers Century Club of what they continue to be a “country.” I personally don’t agree with this list, but we figured while we were in the neighbourhood we should get to collecting.

There are seven emirates in the UAE, and we had visited Dubai years ago. Flew out of Sharjah to Afghanistan on this trip, and had taken a trip south to Abu Dhabi before Iran (the other five emirates are all north of Dubai, so it made sense to swing south to Abu Dhabi on its own) so that left four more to visit.

As you can see on this map:

There were two other interesting places we wanted to visit in the east of the UAE: the Omani Exclave of Madha which is entirely surrounded by the UAE, and the UAE Enclave of Nahwa which is entirely surrounded by the exclave of Madha! Confused yet? Continue reading »

May 202011
 

So we made it to the airport, and first thing inside was a baggage scan – all bags went through, and soon we were in the check-in area which was absolutely mobbed. Took probably 30 minutes to get to the front of the queue, and check-in was taking place from a list of names that had been printed out…and they were checking them off! Based on the list, we were the only ones with prepaid and pre-assigned seats, so we were in 1A and 1C again.

Upstairs, into the security check, and some how these folks I think managed to be more efficient, more aware, and shockingly more respectful than the average TSA agent. Go figure! Then we were dumped in a giant holding room from where four flights were boarding. One was a domestic flight, another was a flight to Delhi on Ariana, and a fourth was headed to Karachi. Sharjah here we come. Continue reading »