Mar 172019
 


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

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

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

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

GUM on Red Square…since 1893!

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

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

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

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

The Kremlin in the late afternoon sun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The horse mascot was…unusual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 152019
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back outside, and an Aeroflot Mi-2 Helicopter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guard-post at the entrance to the bunker complex:

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

Da. Comrade Stalin is right upstairs:

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

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

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

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

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

Standing outside the Bunker.

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

Next up our last few days in Moscow!

Mar 152019
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 132019
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kirkenes Kirke, or the church…

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

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

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

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

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

Very snowy exterior of the Scandic Kirkenes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monument to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker of Mirliki:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nov 152018
 


So, first off, let’s get this out of the way: a million mea culpas for being out of the action for a rather long time. I wish I had a better excuse, but unfortunately it’s just work. Work, work, work and more work. In addition to the work that pays the bills, there’s been lots more time in the gym paying for the sins that first and business travel bring (aka, getting my fat ass back into shape.)

But, with lots of work comes lots of stories, and I have at least two posts that I owe you:

1) A week in Stockholm, where I ran a conference and managed to pull a newbie first: losing my wallet when I was responsible for all the bills of the conference. Lots of good stories in this one…

2) A week in Shanghai for work, with lots of firsts for me. Despite being to every country, I always felt my China experiences needed to be expanded, so this definitely helped.

On top of those, I have a bit of travel coming up…ok more than a bit:

1) A trip to Cairo, Abu Dhabi, South Africa, Zimbabwe, with just a touch of Germany

2) A far less common corner of Germany (and a new one for me) with a side-trip to play tourist in Saudi Arabia. You read that right…

3) Winter in Chernobyl, then up to Lithuania and Latvia (two places where I want to “improve” my visits) followed by the train to Kaliningrad, bus to Gdansk, and finally train to Berlin.

4) Some really juicy “unrecognized country” travel, which you’ll have to wait for details on…

Oh, and this is all in the next 90 days….sit back, because….I’m baaaaaack!

Aug 222018
 


Yesterday, I wrote a post about Air Canada’s new signature class, in which I compared the new business class offerings of the major North American carriers. Conclusion was that Air Canada has done a good job with their “Signature” launch, but beyond the lounge it was really hard to see any significant change to the in-flight offering.

On the two Air Canada trips I reviewed, I actually took United in one direction and Air Canada in the other. Not intentionally, it just worked out better that way…so it was a nice change to see how United’s Polaris implementation was progressing, and if it would finally live up to the hype. I say finally because, well, well over two years after launching the new Polaris seats only 20% or so of United’s longhaul fleet actually has them, but at least that’s finally speeding up slightly.

The other major, major failing on United’s part has been the launch of the Polaris lounges. I was at the Chicago lounge when it launched something like two years ago, and up until six months ago…they still had yet to open the second lounge, although there are finally four lounges open now. Who’s to say when Washington and LA (two other large international hubs) will see them, however. As a Washington-based traveler this actually impacts my purchasing decisions: if United’s Polaris lounge was actually open I’d be booking United metal out of Dulles much more often, whereas now I’m open to just about anything reasonable and convenient on Swiss, Lufthansa, and Air Canada.

Right, on with the review.

For the Trip where I took Air Canada from DC to Zurich via Toronto, I returned from Geneva to Washington Dulles nonstop on United. I had been doing some business in Bern, and generally either Zurich or Geneva are equidistant, and the Geneva flight was the quickest flight home at the lowest fare, so I went with it.

Two days before, United changed the seatmap to the Polaris configured 767 (I believe about 50% of 767-300s are now Polaris configured, so you have a 50-50 chance) and I hoped it would hold through departure time. When I saw the plane leave the US for Geneva, I knew I’d finally get to try out this product more than two years after its launch. With the amount I travel, that tells you just how long this has been in the works.

What’s nice about the 767-300s with Polaris seats is they’re in a 1-1-1 configuration, so everyone has an aisle seat. The best seats, by far, are the odd numbered window seats since the seat is by the window, and the “counter” part near the aisle, giving you far more privacy from the aisle as you can see:

My seat, 1L, to me was by far the best seat on the plane for a daytime flight. Nice and private from the aisle, but close enough to the front to get the crew’s attention:

Why oh why United, when you pay some marketing firm millions of dollars to design Polaris do you insist on using these cheap plastic cups for pre-departure beverages? I’m glad at least that you got rid of the ridiculous plastic Polaris “flutes” with a chocolate you tried out when you first launched Polaris, however. It really makes me wonder who were in the focus groups when you came up with this. Nothing says “un-premium” like a plastic glass of $8 a bottle sparkling wine….come on. First impressions matter, and this gives a terrible one. If you’re going to invest in an overhaul of the product, do it right!

The menu, however, looked promising…complete with the ubiquitous United “short ribs” that have been on just about ever menu in business class since 1995:

That’s more like it. A glass of perfectly drinkable wine (though nothing special) and some extremely salty mixed nuts:

The salad on offer was much better than United’s normal offerings, and bonus points for the parmesan and boiled egg. The smoked cold chicken appetizer was a bit odd and totally flavourless, but the farro and mustard on the side were actually the highlight of the appetizer. But seriously, parmesan and egg on a salad with mango dressing? Just bizarre.

Since nothing else sounded good, I went with the short rib, which was….well, about as good as it looked. The plating was absolutely awful, and looked like something out of a prison cafeteria.

Highlight of the meal by far was quite a nice cheese plate (ARE YOU LISTENING AIR CANADA?) and a delicious “sundae” with caramel. I haven’t seen the butterscotch topping in a while (which is actually my favourite) but this was a perfectly nice ending to the meal. Started off rocky, but at least they ended on a nice high note.

One thing United has done VERY well is the pre-landing snack. Grilled chicken with couscous and a nice fresh salad are a huge upgrade from the sad sandwiches of days gone by. Giving credit where credit is due, this is a huge upgrade, United….except for the mango dressing which was back for an encore *eyeroll*

Overall, loved the new seats, and they might be my favourite transatlantic seats now. There’s really not a bad seat in the plane, and as long as you get the plane, well, I can skip all the other stuff…but fail to understand why with passengers paying $6,000+ per ticket United won’t spend the extra $20 per passenger to make it an experience passengers WANT to fly.

So, notice that I said “as long as you get the plane” – well, two days before my flight down to Brazil a week later I did a same day change to get on the Dulles to Sao Paolo nonstop since it was listed as the exact same 767 which had brought me in from Geneva the day before! Since all I wanted on this flight was sleep, I was excited to have the new seats again, and life was grand!

…until five hours before departure when United e-mailed me there had been an aircraft swap, and “we’ve done our best to preserve your seating preference.

So, instead of a solo seat in a 1-1-1 config I was now in a window seat of a 2-1-2 config. Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows how I detest climbing over people or being climbed over, and when I called United I was basically told to “deal with it.” Not those exact words, but two agents in a row showed zero empathy, although the second one did offer to “see if I can get you a refund if you’re unhappy.”

Plan B was to raise it up through customer service channels I have access to as a very frequent United flier, and they were very happy to look into the problem, asking what they could do to resolve it. After very patiently listening and understanding my seating preference (hey, when you’re on back to back international trips and 6’4 it makes a difference getting kicked in the night and harming your sleep).

The agent was great, and came back with “can you get to DCA instead of Dulles in 30 minutes? I can get you out of DCA, via Chicago to Sao Paulo on a 777 in Polaris First. I was already packed, so done and done, and problem averted. MAJOR points to United for the service recovery on this one, although it is unfortunately not all people on paid business class tickets have access to this same level of service recovery. I don’t blame United for that, however, it’s just a reality of 2018 customer service – companies have pretty much gotten to a point where only the customers they recognize as their top 1% or more get their attention…it’s just reality. Long way of saying thanks United – I’ll definitely remember this going forward!  (…and because of this, in the last week I’ve booked four MORE business class tickets on United in the next two months)

So, onto DCA, where my flight was actually delayed 30 minutes by torrential rains, so I got my guilty snack of choice, United Club cheeze kubes:

I had about an hour in the Polaris Lounge in Chicago, which sadly has also suffered from the cost-cutting. I knew the Veuve Clicquot was too good to last, and alas, it is no more. I still had a nice glass of champagne though, because, hey, champagne.

Really friendly bartender who was familiar with someone of the older drinks that are no longer on the menu, and he was able to whip up a paper plane with mezcal as well:

I’ll gloss over the ugly, which was a 2.5 hour delay when our plane broke and they had to find another plane at midnight, but hey, the fact they were able to find another 777 at this hour which could be catered was pretty impressive. In the end we left at 130a instead of 10pm which ruined my first day’s afternoon meetings, but in the end it was better than a completely canceled trip I suppose, which was what would have happened if I had to go the next day.

The “first class” seats on the 777 are pretty old and tired, and basically nice business class seats, but hey, it was a nice recovery after my 767 swap, so making lemonade out of lemons:

Today’s menu – idk why they even put “first class” on the menu now, because it’s exactly the same meal as in business class. Other than the seat, there’s absolutely zero difference left between business and first on United. Very sad.

Thanks facebook filters, this is pretty much how the delayed flight made me feel:

Oh look, starting off with mixed nuts and a red wine, quelle surprise!

The nori-wrapped salmon was a unique starter, and the salad with seeds and strawberries was also a welcome change. Well done this time United!

So, the spicy chicken main. First of all: amazing flavour, nice and spicy, great different option for plane food. The downside, bit messy with splash potential for a plane, and my chicken was way undercooked and partly raw. I assume it’s just reheated on the plane, so this goes to the kitchen in chicago, but I was full enough I just sent it back largely untouched. You can see some of the red and raw areas in the chicken in this picture:

Oh sigh, you were doing so well with the cheese yesterday United. Perhaps it’s just US catering that’s bland and unimaginative?

Since there was once again no butterscotch or caramel today, the flight attendant insisted I try some cookie crumble…which was a nice change. Plus…they had cherries, which are absolutely my favourite part of any United sundae:

I was also ordered to try some of the mini deserts with some caramel on the side…I didn’t have a choice. I will admit, the mini apple pie with caramel sauce (to quote the FA: “the whole reason I’m not thin and beautiful”) was pretty delicious!

Breakfast? Well, let’s not talk about it. Bland omelette, but the sweet potatoes did have a nice seasoning to them. Fruit was pretty sad, dry and flavourless. Overall, much more of a miss than a hit.

So…overall thoughts on Polaris? The seats are great, no doubt, and when they have them on the whole fleet it’s a fantastic product. It’s sad, however, that United is majorly cutting back on the soft product, when it would cost so little to have a much more impressive product. It just gives the impression that they don’t care, which is the last thing you want when you’re trying to sell a premium product. To me, it says, “we know a lot of you are upgrading, or using awards, or your employer is locked into a contract with us, so we just don’t have to try” and that’s terrible if you want your brand to resonate with your customers. But, maybe I’m wrong…maybe they don’t care about resonating, and are happy being “ok.”

So, final verdict? Air Canada, Delta, United? It’s pretty much a wash now. They all have good seating with all direct aisle access, although United is about two years away from getting there while ALL their competition has been there for over a year now. Food? Well, pretty much the same on all of them, though it does seem Delta and Air Canada do go a bit of the extra mile so you actually feel like there’s pride in their product!

Lots more flights coming up, so watch for more reviews soon!

Aug 212018
 


Following in the trend of airlines giving their business class products fancy names (American kicked it off with “Flagship Business,” then came “Delta One,” followed shortly by United “Polaris Business,” and finally (just like with their five year behind the game WiFi installation) Air Canada got onboard with “Signature Class.”

What was different about “Signature Class?” Well, first, a little review.

American Airlines: When I started flying them 5-6 years ago, I was shocked to find they were still running 777s in a 2-3-2 configuration with seats that didn’t even go flat! Talk about a majorly updated program. Fortunately, they now have 1-2-1 pretty much across the fleet, although from what I can tell there’s been no major upgrade to the soft product.

Delta One: Delta was ahead of the game, already running 1-2-1 configurations on all its aircraft when Delta One was announced, and when they rolled out the A350 the game changer was “suites” with doors that closed – something no other North American airline has tried to emulate yet.

United: while marginally better than American’s non-180 degree flat 2-3-2 config for awhile, United has now fallen way, way behind with it’s atrocious 2-4-2 on some legacy planes, and 2-2-2 or 2-1-2 on the majority of the rest. Polaris soft product was a huge upgrade at first with better food and much better bedding, but the death by 1000 small cuts is already well underway with several of the soft product improvements yanked back. At least they are slowly (and I mean slower than a DC bureaucrat on a hot August day) rolling out a 1-2-1 product across the fleet, expected to be complete in 2089. I kid….maybe 2020. Next blog up will be a review of this hard product, which is actually pretty nice!

That brings us to Air Canada.

Their seats have been 1-1-1, or 1-2-1 for a while, and I found their food pretty good. Even their Maple Leaf Lounge in Toronto was significantly nicer than anything their US competitors offered, so perhaps that explained why they were so late to the rebranding game. I was quite curious what the rebranding would mean in practical terms, and the answer turned out to be: practically nothing.

I recently flew Air Canada on two flights: Toronto to Zurich on a 777-300ER and then a couple weeks later Sao Paolo to Toronto on a 787 (Plus connecting flights to/from DCA, but those are hardly worth a mention). Both were really nice flights, but I seriously noticed absolutely nothing different from before. So, lets start with the over to Zurich.

Up first, was the short flight up to Toronto. The flight is about 80 minutes and our flight attendant today was from Newfoundland, and a real character. A bit over the top, but the passengers seemed to love him, and he was very friendly and hard-working. Air Canada even served a small snack on the flight (I can’t decide if I like the single choice pre-plated snacks better than the US’s snack baskets or not) but A for effort. Unfortunately, today’s option was cockroaches of the sea with a tiny dab of hummus, one olive, and one tomato. Strange…

…and there was no question of refills. We were pretty much told we were getting refills, because, well, “you can’t let the rest of the wine stay in the bottle all lonely.” Perfectly good rationale if you ask me.

The transit experience in Toronto is seamless now, and you can head straight from US arrivals to international departures without having to go through an immigration check. Quite slick.

The one thing I was pretty excited to check out was the new Air Canada Signature “Suite”, only open to business class passengers. No Star Gold or Maple Leaf Lounge passes accepted, only passengers flying in business class, and only revenue tickets. Nobody on upgrades or award tickets, or those flying Star Alliance partners – in this way, it’s much more exclusive for access than even United’s Polaris lounges. (We won’t talk about American, because their “Flagship First” lounges let in every Exec Platinum under the sun, and often feel one step removed from a elementary school playground.)

I wasn’t all that hungry, so skipped the seated dining area in favour of the buffet. Quite tasty, some nice local offerings, and the Montreal smoked meat sandwich was a great touch!

Service in the lounge was fantastic and attentive, with the staff doing a great job clearing plates and refilling drinks, even when it got completely packed as the evening departure bank approached. I was quite surprised how crowded the lounge got, and unfortunately it really wasn’t that peaceful. Good for Air Canada selling so much business class, but there was nothing “suite” like about the lounge. Same complaint I have about the Polaris lounges – they get super crowded. It makes me wonder how the previous lounges handled all these people before…or are more people coming early for the “lounge experience” now?

Boarding was a complete and utter mess. With several departures at the same time, all pretty much sold out in business class, the departures area was a nightmare. We were between flights to London and Brussels, all of which were completely sold out, and boarding was a chaotic mess. It wasn’t even clear where the queues were, but that said, once aboard things were much quieter.

Amenity kit was waiting for us…filled with everything you’d expect, but didn’t rise to the level of one I’d want to keep to reuse the bag for toiletries, electrical cords, etc:

Tonight’s menu:

…and drink list:

Pre-departure bubbly was offered – I often wonder why airlines pour the pre-departure glasses like 1/3 full. What is this, maybe 1/2 glass of champagne? It can’t be cost saving, because they’re much more generous after takeoff.

The usual wine for me, and typical mixed nuts from Air Canada. Perfectly acceptable, but nothing original here.

Unfortunately at this point the crew was seated for just under two hours, because we ended up fighting some pretty terrible turbulence until we were off the Newfoundland coast. It was still not even 9pm for me by body clock, so I opted to continue the meal, as did most of the passengers since the turbulence was so bad there was no way anyone was sleeping.

The salad was boring but fine, and definite points for the duck and edamame starter. Nice and unique, while being relatively light. Plus, I’ll never complain about garlic bread!

I went with the chicken biryani as a main, probably because I remember the amazing biryani that Etihad served me a couple years ago. This was pretty good, and a nice unique option in flight. Any time I can get something that sounds and is better than the “steak” I’m happy, so this one was a winner with me.

Unfortunately, any positive thoughts I had died here. One of the saddest cheese plates I’ve seen in a long time, on par with some of the bland and boring kraft stuff that United serves. Very, very disappointing…and the cheddar was rubbery, obviously having been portioned long ago. Extremely disappointing.

The lemon cheesecake, however, was pretty tasty and a nice way to finish things off.

I had indicated not to wake me for breakfast, but I woke about 40 minutes before landing, so the flight attendant brought me the breakfast I’d indicated on the card “in case I wake up.” I wasn’t really hungry, but wanted to post this pic for one reason:

Look at that fruit bowl! Probably one of the best ones I’ve ever seen on a plane…nice fresh blueberries, pineapple, fresh strawberries, watermelon, kiwifruit…well done Air Canada!

So, let’s fast forward a couple weeks. We’re in Sao Paolo now, headed up to Toronto on a 10+ hour flight on a 787. The only times I’ve managed to sleep 7+ hours were on a 787, and this was a nice long flight at the perfect time to sleep, so I was looking forward to seeing how that played out. I forgot to mention above, but both the 777 and 787 on Air Canada had individual air vents, which I think are crucial to keeping me a nice cool sleeping temperature.

Let’s start with the meal. Look, more mixed nuts and wine. Boring, but acceptable.

The starter tonight was smoked trout with cucumber, tomato, and onions. I really wanted to like it, but it was pretty bland and boring. Could have used something to add a bit more flavour, but points to Air Canada for a reasonable sized portion which is still not heavy. Remember when United tried to pass two prawns off as an appetizer?

For the main I requested the “Spinach and Minas cheese filled chicken breast, herb sauce, vegetable risotto” but they brought me the beef. “Oh, sorry, I got them mixed up and don’t have any more chicken. Is this ok?” Ugh, not cool. On the upside, the beef was actually cooked close to medium which shocked me, but overall an unmemorable dish.

Oh Air Canada, we really need to talk cheese. This was just about as bad as the previous flight: “Emmental, Camembert, Reino” – so the Reino was interesting, but again it looked very plastic and uninspired. Is it really too hard to make the cheese course better? I suppose that would require cutting it on the plane, but…

Ok, never mind, I can go to sleep happy now with a wonderful Neapolitan ice cream bowl! It’s amazing how such simple things can make you happy even when people think airplane food is supposed to be “fancy” – but give me comfort food any day!

After passing out for a great seven hours of sleep, I was still up in time for breakfast. Another great 787 sleep, except I slept so balled up I’m still dealing with a pinched nerve in my back a few weeks later. Can’t blame Air Canada for that, but it was a good night’s sleep!

After the fruit in the breakfast to Switzerland I had high expectations, but unfortunately it was a swing and a miss this time. The kiwifruit was rock hard, the melon had zero flavour, and the grapes were mushy. Bland omelette, and a even blander muffin. I guess Air Canada breakfast catering must be highly station-specific.

Two flights is a small sample size, but overall my thoughts on Air Canada were positive. Nice seats, air vents to keep things cool, and overall “good” food. I don’t think it’s gotten worst, but the US airlines have definitely stepped their game up a little in this department so Air Canada no longer stands above them. Overall, a solid experience, except for one thing: the 787 had no WiFi, which is still the case with the majority of Air Canada’s fleet. The 777 to Zurich did have it (as do all their 777s now) but the 787 and almost none of their other planes do – to me making it a deal-breaker for most work trips. The only reason it was ok on this route is I was headed home from back to back trips, and just wanted to sleep and not work – which in this case worked out well.

Will I fly Air Canada again? Yes, definitely, especially if the other options are 2-4-2 or 2-2-2 seating on United…and especially if the planes have WiFi. The food and service are pretty much a wash these days, but it was also nice to try Air Canada again after so much Lufthansa and United lately! Next up, let’s look at United Polaris…

Aug 182018
 


So, back in late June, even before I went on my latest burst of travel, I was starting to feel like it was catching up to me. I had back-to-back trips coming up to Easter Island for vacation for a week, then two weeks in Switzerland for work, and then another week in Brazil for work. It was shaping up to be a busy period, and I was looking forward to mid-August when I would be home for two weeks before taking a two week vacation to Russia.

Problem is, halfway through Switzerland, I was feeling exhausted from all the travel…and work was entering a really busy period, so I ended up putting off the vacation. The point of a vacation is to enjoy yourself and relax, and it’s hard to do that if it’s always go-go-go. So, Russia was postponed by six months or so, and when I got home from Brazil I was really looking forward to six straight weeks at home, with a couple of short side trips to see the family….but a one to two hour domestic flight isn’t nearly as hard as an international trip, so it would be relaxing.

…and then, the avalanche started, and in the last two weeks I’ve had a minimum of five trips fall in my lap before mid-November, so I might want to enjoy this time at home while I can get it. Fortunately, on many of the trips I’ve managed to tag on a little sightseeing, so I’m looking forward to it. With that said, here’s the upcoming plans, 58,000+ miles in under three months:

Mexico City:  at the beginning of 2018 I’d never been here before, and now here I am my third trip this year.  (Well, fourth if you count the overnight on the way to Easter Island!)  Three days of work, and then I decided to stay for Saturday before flying out to see family on Sunday. I would love to hear your suggestions for what to do with a full day in Mexico City. I was tempted to do the historical center food walking tour again since I enjoyed it so much, but would also like to hear your suggestions!

El Ángel in Mexico City

Stockholm: next up in late September is a week  in Stockholm for a conference. Last time I was there was back in December of 2010, so I’m looking forward to going back when it’s at least slightly warmer. Unfortunately most of my free time will be taken up by the conference, but hopefully I have a tiny bit of time to explore as well. One of the neat things about this trip is that I’ll get to fly into an airport I didn’t even know existed before this (Bromma Airport) and on a new aircraft type for me – the Sukhoi Superjet 100. Sometimes it’s the little things….

Outside Stadhuset in Stockholm in December, 2010

Shanghai: I’ll only be back from Stockholm for about a week when it’s time to head to Shanghai for a week of meetings. I’m actually really looking forward to this, since I’ve never been to Shanghai before. Beijing, Shenzen, but never Shanghai. I booked my tickets into Beijing so I could take the bullet train to Shanghai, and also am leaving one full day on either side of my meetings to do a little sightseeing. Very excited for this, and would love to hear your “must-sees” – home-cooking with RapidTravelChai‘s mother-in-law is definitely on the to-do list!

The Forbidden City – Beijing

Bern: Home from Shanghai for one night, and then it’s off to Bern for three days of meetings again. Feels like I was just there – oh wait I was – but looking forward to returning when it’s a bit cooler. I should have two or three days free when I’m there, and thinking one of them I really want to go up the Jungfraujoch. Yes, it’s touristy, but the views in mid-October should be amazing! Any other fun towns you recommend? I definitely want to stop in Lausanne again – I really enjoyed it last time I was there!

Aare River – Bern – Switzerland

South Africa: if it’s late October, it must be Johannesburg! Off to Joburg and Pretoria for a week of meetings, right in the middle of jacaranda season. After missing them for years, I got to see them last October and discover I’m wildly allergic to them – but the beauty is worth it! I’ll also have a nine day vacation after meetings, and currently trying to plan them out. Current thinking is to fly up to Harare, skip down to the Great Zimbabwe, then Bulawayo. From Bulawayo, take the train to Francistown in Botswana and self-drive to Gaborone. Open to other ideas as well…

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa with the “tablecloth”

So that brings me to mid-November, and hopefully a quiet Thanksgiving! If anything, I think a three or four night trip to Europe will be in order, but definitely something low-key because I’m planning a 10-12 day trip over New Years to do Egypt and the Sinai, Kiev (and Chernobyl), Kaliningrad, Lithuania, and Latvia.

…oh, and mid-February? That brings me back to the trip that was supposed to start this week to Russia!  No rest for the weary for the next six months! I think it’s time to up the exercise and get the diet in order, because this is going to be pretty strenuous!

Jun 252018
 


So, yeah, I get it. It’s been a long time since I’ve posted. Mainly, that’s because I’ve actually had a nice quiet June at home. Playing lots of hockey, working extra-long weeks, and generally relaxing and taking it easy. It’s a good thing I did that (even though it was totally unintentional) because I just got hit with a couple of work trips which makes the next 5 weeks totally crazy. It looks something like:

3 day trip to Mexico City for work
10 day trip to Chile and Easter Island for vacation – woo hoo!
17 day trip to Switzerland for work

The vacation was planned, but the other two just kind of happened. I’m still without anything booked until late August, and I’m kind of hoping it stays that way. After racking up 30,000 miles in the next five weeks, in late August, I have this trip coming up:

Pretty excited for a trip to northern Russia, and still hoping to dart into Norway from Murmansk as well…time will tell.

That’s it for now, super short update because I have to pack! Next six months are gonna be a bit crazy, so look for lots more posts!

May 302018
 


Whenever I meet or am introduced to new people, there are five common questions I seem to get over and over again. I figured I’d to a post about them and give people a chance to ask any others or add their thoughts. Total top of the head rambling based on what comes to mind, and I’ll try and list them with the frequency I get them.

1) You’ve been to every country? Even North Korea? (close second: Even Greenland?)

Yes, I went to North Korea for the first time in 2005 as part of only the second or third group since the Korean War. The New York Times wrote an article about the trip, which I literally booked four days before. I’d seen an article on CNN talking about it, and having recently decided that I wanted to go to every country this was one I would knew would be hard. Thinking this might be my only chance, I dropped by far the most I’ve ever dropped on one country to do what ended up being a fascinating trip.

…and Greenland? No, it’s not a country. It’s an autonomous constituent of the Kingdom of Denmark. But I do still really want to go!

Standing on the north side of the DMZ

Meeting a North Korean military officer outside the DMZ

2) What was your favourite country?

I’ve been trying to come up with a good answer to this one for years, and still really can’t settle on one favourite. What I have managed to do is narrow it down to a few – and without exception they’re places I’ve gone back to multiple times and really got in depth. That is to say: if I spent more time in a lot of places they might get added to this list. However, there are some that, well, idk…see question 3 below. So, what makes the short list?

Canada. From the forests of British Columbia to the Okanagan Valley. Vibrant cities like Toronto and Montreal. The natural beauty and distinct cultures of the maritimes, I think what gets me most about Canada is its diversity – both its people and its nature. It’s a country I could spend years exploring and still have hundreds of totally different and unique experiences.

Argentina. It feels terrible to say this as I’ve never really gotten out of Buenos Aires, but something about the city is absolutely electric. The wines, the beef, the tango, the mix of latin, italian, and other immigrant cultures that creates an amazing tapestry. Next step is really to dig more in depth more…but I don’t know where to start!

Senegal. I’ve spent months there in probably a dozen trips now, and from Rosso in the north to Dakar, St. Louis, and Zinguinchor, it’s an absolutely amazing place with amazing people. A little bit French, a lot bit Africa, the place just has an energy and warmth that keep drawing me back.

Russia. The Soviet Union was the third country I ever visited on a student exchange back in high school, and it keeps drawing me back. I’ve been lucky enough to work in Russia (along with all the Central Asian countries) and again it’s the diversity of the country that gets me. I hear from so many people how they didn’t like Russia (or the Russians) but once you get to know them they’re some of the most fascinating people you’ll meet anywhere. I can’t wait to do the Trans-Siberian soon and spend a work or more sharing stories…

South Africa. Another place I’ve gone to dozens of times now, and keeps drawing me back. I’m going to sound like a broken record, but maybe writing this article has made me realize something: it’s countries with huge diversity of people, nature, and experiences that draw me back. South Africa has an amazingly complex history and a lot of challenges in front of it, but it’s definitely a place with a vision for the future and people who want to help it get there.

Place du Souvenir Africain in Dakar, Senegal

Red Square, Moscow, in December…brrrr!

Monument de la Renaissance Africaine in Dakar, Senegal

3) What was your LEAST favourite country?

I think I might actually get this question more than which is my favourite, and in the same vein I haven’t been able to answer it. There really wasn’t any country that I hated. It sounds cliché, but I really do believe most places have some redeeming feature that makes them worth visiting. Now, that doesn’t mean that I want to go back to every country, far from it. Some of the bigger challenges:

Bangladesh. I loved the country, but when I went in 2006 it was a really tough place to do as a solo tourist. Lots of people desperate to make a buck trying to scam you. Grinding, in your face poverty that wore away at the spirit, and an urban chaos in Dhaka that made it very difficult to navigate when you were only there for three days. That said, I really want to go back now, but with someone who either lives there or knows the place well. I know there’s a million things to explore, and the warmth and kindness I was shown by several people on my first trip make me want to go back.

Niger. I loved my four days there, but you know, it was just enough. As far as tourist sites go, I feel like I pretty much saw them all, and any extra time invested would be diminishing returns. I don’t do patience well, so going to a place and chilling for a couple weeks while hoping to having fascinating experiences is hard for me.

Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu. Again, island time, and there’s just not enough to “do” for my tastes. Yeah, I could spend days or weeks trying to get a boat to the outer islands, but hey…more islands. I think I crave more culture and activities, and these are definitely places that move at their own pace. Some of the most beautiful nature (and OH the sunsets!) I’ve seen, but I like a little more activity.

Grand Mosque of Niamey, Niger

Sunset in Tarawa, Kiribati

Sunset in Nauru

4) Have you ever been robbed / arrested / afraid for your life?

Knock on wood, I’ve been to every country on the planet without ever being robbed. Closest I came was a taxi driver in Prague back in 2002 slipping me some old worthless Bulgarian currency as change. I lost like $3. As far as being robbed goes, I’ll take it!

Arrested? Not formally, although I’ve been detained several times by police and immigration officers and ironically the longest detention was in my home town of Washington, D.C. when Customs and Border Protection decided they didn’t like my shady trip to Egypt. Fortunately, after around four-five hours they gave up on it and let me go.

Afraid for my life? Not really. No real civil unrest, war zones or the like, but three incidents stand out. Terrorists blowing up a police car about 1 km in front of us on a road out of Karachi, Pakistan. When we tried to turn around and hightail it back to Karachi? Smoke ahead on that highway too. Thanks to a great driver he knew some side roads through a village and things were just fine. I also had a flight with Uzbekistan Airlines where the pilot landed in Amritsar, India in the middle of a monsoon. I’ve never felt such horrible turbulence. Final story? An overpacked ferry on rough seas in Sierra Leone with no way to the exit and multiple people vomiting everywhere. I was convinced my life was over.

The scary ferry in Sierra Leone…morning after

5) What was the hardest visa to get?

Far and away, it was Angola. I made over two dozen visits to the embassy before I got it. Supposedly there’s now a visa on arrival and while the rules and such aren’t completely clear, it’s much much easier than when I did it about five years ago. Honourable mentions go to:

Yemen. I had the visa, and canceled my trip two days before due to rebels overrunning Sana’a. I visited later, actually without a visa, but my understanding is this is still a very very difficult visa to get.

Saudi Arabia. Easy to get a business visa if you have a good reason, but as a tourist? You can shell out several thousand dollars to one of the very few companies permitted to run tours, or you’re out of options. How did I visit then? Six hour airport transit, where thanks to a friend I pulled off a story worth of an “authentic local experience.” Given my criteria for counting a country is an amazing story and interaction with locals…I count it for now…but look to improve upon this one!

seafront in Luanda, Angola

Cathedral in Cabinda, Angola

Church in Luanda, Angola

Sunset Luanda, Angola

What was your hardest visa? It definitely can depend on passport and timing!

So with all that said, what questions do YOU get asked a lot about your travels?  …or what else should I answer?