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  😉   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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Jun 062012

Arrived at the resort just a bit after 8pm, and mysteriously was invited to have a seat in the reception area because my room was not quite ready…odd, but ok. While I was waiting, the manager on duty came over and introduced herself, apologized, gave me all the details, so that when my keys were ready in a few minutes I wouldn’t have to wait. That was nice. About 10 minutes later they were set, luggage was loaded into a golf cart, and got a short ride to the room. It was very walkable (300m or so max?) but the ride was nice with luggage. Once inside, I forgot about the wait – the suite upgrade was amazing, and came loaded with a giant fruit basket, bottle of wine, and plate full of snacks.

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Jun 042012

When I found this fare, I realised that due to flight schedules, I could actually have an 8 hour stop in Mauritius…right in the middle of the day! I figured with a good driver, on a small island nation, I could see a lot. Everything worked out, and it was an amazing day!

We landed right on time in Mauritius at 8:45am, and by 9am I was out of immigration and customs with all my bags, and my driver had met me. I had booked the “Mauritius Private Southwest Tour” with Mauritius Attractions, and they met with with one of their drivers at the airport…and dropped me off back there about 6 or so hours later. It was a slick deal, and for 100 euros I had a driver and all entrance fees covered.  For the efficient use of time, it was absolutely awesome!

Stop one was the Trou au Cerfs.  This was approximately a 30 minute drive from the airport, and is a huge natural volcanic crater, 85m deep and 200m wide that was formed millions of years ago.  It had a fantastic panoramic view of the crater as well as the town of Curepipe.  Supposedly when the sky is clear it is possible to see all the way to Reunion Island, but I was unable to find it in the distance.  The pictures don’t really do it justice, but you can see a bit of how deep it is.

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Jun 032012

I had looked online earlier in the day, and had seen the 15:35 flight was seriously delayed, and since I had to be out of my hotel room by 4pm anyways decided to go to the airport a bit early and see about getting on it. The check-in agent wasn’t too sure how to do it, and had to wait “for a supervisor” which took nearly 45 minutes…and 15 minutes before the door was set to close. Eventually, I got personally escorted through immigration and security by this supervisor, and ended up being one of only two people in business class on the flight! Of course, there was still plenty of time for the obligatory champers before departure:

…and a quick look at the menu.

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Jun 022012

This is going to be mainly a picture post, with a few thoughts thrown in. My decision to come to Maldives was basically based on two things: 1) I had to get to Colombo anyways to catch my onward ticket, and 2) I’ve spent 20+ days in Sri Lanka already, so a short detour (even though it was only 24 hours) to Maldives to count another country seemed well worth it to me. Add in the fact the Sheraton was a mere 20 minute boat ride from the airport…and I was sold. Despite the cost.

Cost? Oh yeah…the Sheraton requires a boat transfer from the airport to the island the Sheraton is on at the cost of $100 per person roundtrip. I figure in many cities I pay $30 each way for a taxi, so this wasn’t THAT awful, and I’d likely have my own boat…which I did in one direction. It wasn’t so bad. Except for the fact that when I landed, the Sheraton rep was nowhere to be found. It took me nearly 30 minutes to locate him, in shabby shorts and a stained t-shirt, no sign, he simply noticed me wandering around looking lost and came up to me. Major service fail.

That said, a picture from the airport boat jetty as we departed:

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Jun 012012

This post is just plain full of travel and plane geekery – feel free to skip if you don’t want to see what to expect on some slightly less common airlines. Paro to Male is only 3,070 kilometers as the crow flies (about 1,910 miles) but that would be too easy…and expecting two relatively out of the way places to be connected by such a straight line would be way too much to ask for…so, roundabout routing it was, involving no less than three tickets and four flights. I wasn’t really thinking ahead that in this part of the world, there’s no such thing as an easy transit, and almost got myself in trouble.

Despite my early flight, the hotel insisted that breakfast would be served. Breakfast is included, and they were going to make sure I had it. They suggested 5am, and when I went to the restaurant the overnight front desk guy was working, and happy to make me anything I wanted. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so boiled eggs, coffee, toast, and a bit of fruit it was! Then off for the short ride to the airport where I arrived just before 6am…way too early for a 7am flight out of this tiny airport! After killing time waiting (check-in, immigration, and security took maybe 10 minutes total) we were waiting…and then I realised why I wasn’t able to book business class on this segment: it was operated by an ATR! I’d read so much about Druk Air carefully selecting A319s because they were about the only plane that could navigate the tricky mountain approach into Bhutan…and now I was going to try and fly out on a prop plane? Time to start hoping that karma I earned paid off!

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May 312012

Up early to check out of the hotel to drive back to the town of Paro for our big day hike to Taktsang Monestary. The monastery is at approximately 3,100 metres above sea level, and the hike up starts somewhere around 2,200 metres so it’s a pretty steep hike! We drove the one hour from the hotel in Thimphu pretty quickly, and soon were at the base of the hill to begin our hike.

It was approximately a 2.5 hour hike pretty much straight uphill, with a stop at the canteen halfway to buy water, etc, and take a brief rest. A few pics from the hike up:

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May 302012

Up early to catch my flight to Bhutan, and if the shots with sherpas the night before weren’t enough to signal this was going to be an interesting trip…the rest of the day definitely would!

Check-out of the hotel was relatively easy, despite them making up a story about why they couldn’t take American Express (“the link to American Express is not working this morning” – really? at 6am you’ve already tried it?) and they found me a taxi no problem. Except, there was a problem. After 5 minutes in the taxi, it became pretty apparent that the previous day’s strike and protests were continuing, and the streets were lined with riot police and angry looking protesters. With a bit of sign language, and broken english (“there better” – pointing at the back of the van) that’s how I ended up in the back of the minivan/trunk area, covered by a tarp, peering out. Yes, the driver was concerned protesters might see a westerner in the taxi and cause trouble. I have to say this was a first – riding to the airport in complete secrecy!

Check-in was a non-event, and spent a little time in the only lounge in the airport – the “Radisson Lounge” – and then a two hour delay was announced. However, only 45 minutes later, the lounge agent came around again, and informed us all that boarding was now ready. Um, ok, sounds good to me!

Druk Air Flight 410
Kathmandu, Nepal (KTM) to Paro, Bhutan (PBH)
Departure 8:45, Arrival 10:20, Flight Time 1:20
Airbus A319, Registration A5-RGG, Manufactured 2004
Seat 4A

Since there’s not much online about Druk Air, I’ll be a bit more detailed with this part of the report. First, a shot of the plane as we walked up to it:

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May 242012

Even before the trip began…there was to be drama.  Storms were forecast in the DC to NYC corridor late afternoon, and when that happens flights tend to get really messy really quickly.  Today was to be no exception…my flight was preemptively delayed early morning for 2 hours…pretty much ensuring my 2 hour, 16 minute connection was going to be REALLY close.  However…when it came down to it…the delay shrank to 90 minutes, then 1 hour, then just 30 minutes a couple hours out.  We boarded on time…pulled away from the gate on time…and waited.  Pilot came on 15 minutes later telling us that for flow control, and “confusion with ATC” our new slot time was 90 minutes away…but maybe we’ll get lucky!

In the end, we did get lucky, going wheels up only about 45 minutes after scheduled departure time.

ExpressJet Flight 4695, Operating as United Express
Washington, National (DCA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Departure 16:59, Arrival 18:14
ERJ-145, Registration N17196
Seat 1A

I know lots of people don’t like the BDJ-145 as it’s affectionately known (Barbie Dream Jet), but I actually don’t mind it at all for short flights.  I almost always have been getting my preferred seat 1A for my regular hops up to Ottawa lately, and it’s a pretty comfortable ride.  With nobody sitting in front of you it’s private and quiet, and all in all…can’t complain.  Crews are usually excellent, and this one was no exception.  I think I got 3-4 refills of Diet Coke, and the 50 minute or so flight was over quite quickly.  Really not much to say – parked at the A gates at Newark, took the shuttle over to the C gates, and had a good 45 minutes in the Presidents Club…er…”United Club” to recharge the iDevices before the long flight.

United Flight 82
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Departure 20:30, Arrival 20:15 Next Day, Flight Time:  14:25
Boeing 777-200, Registration N76010
Seat 2E

This was my first time on the ex-Continental 777s with flat bed, and overall I was pretty impressed.  They certainly beat business on the ex-United 777s, mainly because there are no “middle” seats.  For me, most important thing on an overnight is aisle access with nobody climbing over me.  Hence, I don’t like the window sections of two (either I have to climb over someone, or they have to climb over me) and the ex-Continental 777s with two seats in the middle are perfect.  Overall, the hard product here is excellent.  It’s too bad the ex-United planes screwed up business so badly.

Also, this was to be my longest flight ever.  At 7,323 miles it would top my previous longest flight that I had done four times (San Francisco to Hong Kong) which clocked in at “only” 6,914 miles.  With 14:25 of flight time, there would be plenty of time to eat, sleep, watch tv, etc.  One of the most amusing parts of the plane was the entertainment system still was all Continental:

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