Sep 302019
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glacier nearing the top of Klein Matterhorn:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panoramic view from the lookout…Matterhorn and all.

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

Amazing glacier view on the way down.

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

roaring river Matter Vispa

lots of tacky souvenir shops

stopped for a snack

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last run along the gorgeous blue Aare River…

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


Sep 292019
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorgeous day and all smiles!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sep 282019
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching the train back to Landquart:

The views from the train were absolutely spectacular:

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

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

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


Sep 272019
 


After a whole 68 hours at home (well, closer to 65 if you count the travel time from and to the airport as well as waiting time) it was time to get on the road again. 18 days of vacation was a nice break, and slightly under three days at home was just enough to catch up on the essentials before heading out of town for more than three more weeks.

Unfortunately I had to book this trip rather late and wasn’t able to take either the Geneva or Zurich nonstops out of Dulles, so had to “settle” for Air Canada out of DCA which meant leaving home about two hours earlier. Every hour matters when you only have three days at home in six weeks!

I always forget how convenient DCA is. I can be there by Uber in about 12 minutes if nothing goes wrong, through CLEAR in less than five minutes from the time I step out of the Uber, so in theory it would be possible to leave home about 50 minutes pre-flight and still be there before boarding starts.

I chickened out a bit (and I was packed and ready) so left about two hours before the flight which left me plenty of time to grab a real lunch at DCA. I’m a pretty big fan of the restaurant in Terminal A at DCA, so on the occasion I do fly Air Canada I try and stop by for what passes as a Cholesterol Madame…I mean Croque Madame…and a beer. I mean, even the iPad told me soda was the wrong thing to drink when flying!

I love Terminal A at DCA. It’s incredibly nostalgic for me. Back in the old days when I used to nonrev during university Northwest flew out of Terminal A and I was there multiple times most months headed home…or to other exotic locales. I even remember when Northwest did their giant expansion at DCA (whose slots did they buy again?) and suddenly they were flying to Hartford, Boston, LaGuardia, and if I remember right some places in Florida as well. Of course, I tried as often as possible to take these odd connections as opposed to the nonstops to Minneapolis!

The terminal has modernized slightly with a big restaurant in the waiting space, and has certainly changed with the introduction of Spirit and Southwest to the terminal as well.

Got to the gate right as the door was opening to let incoming passengers off, so I was right on time to be the first to board…essential when you’re in Seat 1A as you have no underseat storage space. You do have more legroom and nobody reclining into you, however, so it’s still my seat of choice whenever possible as someone who’s 6’4.

Air Canada flight 7615 op. by Sky Regional
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Toronto, Pearson (YYZ)
Depart 12:45, Arrive: 14:12, flight time: 1:27
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration C-FUJA, Manufactured 2009, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 78,934
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,771,522

One of my favourite parts of DCA is that 90% of the time you take off to the north on runway 1 and do a sharp bank to the left right after takeoff which affords those in A seats great views of the Pentagon.

This is always a snack flight, and I definitely didn’t need it after the cholesterol bomb at the airport, but I’m a sucker for a deli plate…especially when there’s pickles!

Uneventful flight…until the last minute. So, seriously, what is it about YYZ? Today we had a go around, and from the picture below you can see why. There was still a plane on the taxiway under us! Seriously!

I ask “why YYZ” because I’ve had probably 10 go-arounds or other unusual experiences in-flight (yes, I know that’s not a lot given how many I fly) and at least half have been at YYZ. This was my third go-around at YYZ, which is half of the total go-arounds I can remember.

I also remember an incident climbing out of YYZ on a US Scareways CRJ-200 years ago when we hear a loud BANG and the plane pitched pretty violently to the right. It felt like we were at a 45 degree angle (was probably a bit less) and the captain – very professionally and calmly – as soon as he’d fixed the situation came on and told us what had happened: ATC hadn’t spaced us far enough behind a 747 on takeoff, and we hit its wake at around FL20 which is what caused the bang…who knew wake could be that strong?

Right, well, this was a pretty short go around as the map above shows, and soon we were on the ground and I was through the transit area (basically scan your passport at a kiosk and good to go back to the transit/departures international area) and time to enjoy a couple hours in the Air Canada Signature Suites.

I still really like this lounge, though I can’t help but feel it’s much more crowded these days and the food offerings from the buffet are quite a bit poorer in quality. I know there’s a dining menu, but since I planned to eat on the plane I just wanted to drink and nibble.

The staff, however, were fantastic as always and I enjoyed a couple of glasses of rosé champagne and a cocktail called the “J Class.”

Boarding was absolutely mayhem, as it always is between 5-6pm at Pearson. The departures area is simply not large enough to handle around 10 widebodies going out full all at once, and it took me a few times, but I’ve finally realized generally you should just go up to the podium and ask where they want business class to board from.

Air Canada flight 878
Toronto, Pearson (YYZ) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 18:05, Arrive: 7:40 next day, flight time: 7:35
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration C-FIVQ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 7K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 82,979
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,775,567

I do love the Air Canada business class seat. Private in that you have lots of space to yourself and nobody next to you at the window, and even more private in row 7 (my first choice after row 1) because nobody is looking at the back of your head. (Us tall people worry about such things sometimes.)

Lots of big poofy clouds on takeoff. For years, I was never much of a window person, but lately I’ve really enjoyed watching the cloud formations and sunsets.

Warm nuts (too warm, mushy a la United), and some red whine and noisy water to start things off. Short flight today, barely 6.5 hours to Zurich! I wasn’t going to be getting much sleep!

Sigh, shrimp starter. I hadn’t been paying attention, so I took it for the greens (which I dumped on the salad and enjoyed), and a bit of garlic bread. Seriously, why does everyone think a few cold shrimp are a nice starter these days? At least Air Canada serves four while United cheaply serves only two.

Decided to go with the chicken pesto main since it sounded healthier than the beef. The chicken was a really weird rubbery consistency, but seemed to be completely cooked so I risked it. Tasted ok, the texture was just odd. I haven’t ordered chicken on planes much lately…but lately feel like the fish is often the best option – beating out overcooked beef and rubbery chicken.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge fan of Air Canada’s cheese course, because it’s just boring. Today was no exception. Tasty enough, yes, but in-flight when things lose a bit of their flavours something bolder than cheddar and mozzarella would be nice.

All was forgiven, however, when the brown sugar tart was served. OMG delicious…

I did manage about three hours of sleep before landing, but I’m not sure many others did since the windows were all thrown open and breakfast served about 90 minutes before landing. This isn’t a comment on the crew, more on the other passengers who already seemed to be up.

Not a problem, however, since I have a soft spot for the Air Canada omelet with that weird cream cheese sauce they serve it with. Plus, they always serve a really fresh and ripe fruit plate which is delicious.

I used the wifi during breakfast to book my onward train, as pre-booking in Switzerland can save you as much as 75%. Last minute to Bern is often nearly 90 francs, but I found if a took a train two hours after landing I could get it for 29.90 francs.

I decided I could enjoy some coffee at the airport even if the immigration line was long and save over $60, so it was an easy decision. Landing was nice and smooth, zero line at immigration, and it was coffee time before heading to Bern for three weeks!


Sep 272019
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sep 262019
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sep 242019
 


Thanks to a relatively solid night of sleep I was up at a reasonable hour, and able to have a leisurely morning and coffee before heading to the airport to begin the next leg of the journey. While enjoying coffee, I looked up in the atrium and thought “this might make a neat artsy picture” – you be the judge if it was successful!

Back to the hotel to check out – the “for sale” display in the lobby of the W Bangkok always cracks me up. The giant sequinned muay thai boxing gloves that are always on the bed are funny enough, but I really wonder if they manage to ever convince anyone to buy any of this stuff….

Uber is no longer operating in Bangkok, so I had to use Grab to get to the airport. Worked just as well and just as conveniently as Uber, so not really a huge deal – I assume Uber has been spinning off some of its less profitable countries to other companies?

Check-in was nice and easy, and there was no line at first class immigration or security, and soon I was into the Suvarnabhumi Airport. It’s a really neat airport, but my biggest gripe is that it always feels quite humid and warm to me. Probably due to all the glass. I do love the Thai art throughout the terminal, however!

The Cathay Pacific Lounge was actually quite difficult to find, tucked away behind some elevators, but when I did eventually manage to find it it was absolutely packed without a seat to be had in the whole place.

This isn’t a small lounge, either. I was pretty surprised Cathay has so much traffic at Bangkok that it could fill a lounge of this size, but in addition to my flight to Singapore I assume there was also one to Hong Kong, so maybe because they use it as a transit point? Why knows.

I did finally find a seat at a computer in the “business center” area to enjoy a glass of champagne. I have no idea what I was thinking, since I was feeling a bit sketchy from the night before at this point, but I guess it’s always time for champagne! (and of course a few delicious biscuits!)

Boarding area for my flight was relatively quiet, which compounded the question of why the lounge was so full. Hmmm…

Cathay Pacific flight 717
Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi, Thailand (BKK) to Singapore (SIN)
Depart 11:55, Arrive: 15:25, flight time: 2:30
Airbus A350-1000, Registration B-LXA, Manufactured 2018, Seat 21K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 68,724
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,761,312

This was my first time on the A350-1000, and my first impression was positive. The seats were quite private, had a ton of space, and the cabin felt open and light. I’d selected a seat near the back of the cabin, and it was completely empty back there. All told, business was hardly 50% full to Singapore today.

Pre-departure beverages were offered, and I decided it was still an appropriate time for champagne, but I did also get some water…because it’s important to remain hydrated you know!

For a two hour flight, I was pretty impressed that a full meal was served with salad, bread, a tasty thai pork main course, and some ice cream to finish. Nice meal for such a short flight!

We landed in Singapore at the newish Terminal 4, which I have to say at least from an arrivals perspective did not impress me. Everyone pretty much universally loves Changi Airport, but this terminal felt like what it is: a budget terminal. I’m quite surprised that Cathay opted to relocate to this terminal.

Grabbed a grab (see what I did there?) to my hotel since apparently Uber doesn’t work in Singapore either, and on the way we passed by the Singapore Flyer:

I had two nights in Singapore, and hadn’t made any plans. I was meeting up with a friend who was making a mileage run from the States for the weekend, so we decided to play things by ear. First night was really just chill, a few drinks and early to bed.

Woke up the next morning without too much of a plan, so started with coffee…and thinking about next steps.

In all my visits to Singapore I’ve never really done a proper visit to a hawker center for food, so today seemed like as good of a day as any to give it a try. Our first stop would be the Maxwell Hawker Center, since it was just about a 10 minute (hot and humid) walk from our hotel. We were there by around 11am, but the long line had already formed and was around the corner for the famous Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. I have to say it was quite tasty, but somehow I expected something a little more mind-blowing.

After some lunch we walked a bit more to try and walk off the chicken rice before our next mean, and walked through the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple on the way. Very cool, and packed with locals.

The next stop would be Hawker Chan, which is known as the world’s cheapest Michelin Star restaurant. For something like $5 you got a plate of chicken rice. The place was so popular they actually moved out of the hawker center and into a proper storefront. I have to disagree though on the chicken rice – I thought Tian Tian was much tastier. This didn’t really impress me at all.

Full of chicken rice, and having had about all the heat and humidity we could handle, we headed over to the Marina Bay Sands mall to walk around indoors and cool off for a bit while still getting in a tiny bit of exercise.

After some cooling off we took the elevators up like 50 stories to the rooftop bar for some amazing views of Singapore:

Stopped for drinks at the bar which had recently-ish been renamed “Cé La Vi” and of course, I had to do the tourist thing and enjoy a Singapore Sling…while enjoying the great views! Despite the humidity, it was nice and relaxing up there.

By this point in the afternoon, the heat was really taking a toll, so it was back to our hotel the Westin for some relaxing in the lounge, catching up on email and such while resting up.

After snacks in the Westin lounge we really didn’t need a full dinner, so decided to just head out to Mikkeller Bar Singapore for some craft beers. Of course, after a few beers you really need food, so we decided to end the night back where we’d started the day, in the hawker center near our hotel.

Lau Pa Sat is known for having one street outside that at night turns into “satay street” with well over a dozen different stalls selling satay. The smell of grilling meat was heavy in the humid air, but it made an absolutely delicious late-night snack before heading back to bed!

After gorging ourselves on satay it was back to the hotel to get some sleep. I had really been looking forward to leaving Singapore on EVA Airways Hello Kitty planes first to Taipei and then Chicago, but unfortunately due to the strike my flights had been canceled. Sad kitty!

Fortunately, I managed to find a reasonably good alternative home which while not as interesting and “fun” as Hello Kitty, would at least be nice and comfortable while saving a good deal of cash!

Stay tuned!


Sep 242019
 


Decided to take the train to the airport in the morning despite my early flight, mainly because the train station was only a five minute walk from the hotel and based on previous taxi experiences it might actually be faster to take the train.

Everything was on tie and worked out really well, and soon I was at the Thai Airways check-in desk and getting my boarding pass. Nothing unique about check-in, security, or immigration, and soon enough it was into the scary duty free area before you could get to the gates and lounge.

When I say scary duty free, I mean it: complete with M&M wearing a genuine aussie cork hat:

Had just a little time to enjoy the Singapore Airlines lounge, but despite being a little bit after 8:00 in the morning it was time for a glass of champagne. I mean, it was….oh wait, even earlier in Bangkok, but I suppose 5am doesn’t justify a glass of champagne…unless you subscribe to my theory that champagne is always appropriate.

Always liked the work/etc cubicles that the Singapore lounges have:

Soon it was time for boarding, and when I got to the gate people were swarming, so I walked up to the podium and introduced myself as a first class passenger, and they were happy to board me right away. I love the service with Thai!

Thai Airways flight 476
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 10:00, Arrive: 16:20, flight time: 9:20
Boeing 747-400, Registration HS-TGG, Manufactured 2003, Seat 01A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 67,849
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,760.437

This wasn’t my first flight in Thai first on the 747, and the seat was pretty much as I remembered. Reasonably private and comfortable, but very open – reminds me a lot of the Lufthansa First seat, but with a bit more colour:

Pre-departure Dom Perignon bubbles are always welcome, especially with an orchid:

Tyler Oakley is extremely amused at the macadamia nuts and hors d’oeuvres that were served shortly after takeoff. I totally wanted to keep the mini cocktail sticks, but had no idea what I would do with them!

Next up was the caviar service, which scored an A+ for me for presentation. Mother of pearl spoon, amazed curved condiments tray, caviar in a classy glass jar, silver trimmed plate…it just oozed class. Well done Thai! I think this is my new favourite caviar presentation in-flight…sorry Lufthansa…I still love you!

I don’t do shellfish on a plane. Ever. One too many bouts of food-borne illness, but I decided to take one for the team since I do love me some scallops and lobster…and oh, look, duck too! How can I say no! It was pretty darn tasty…

Next up was Thai beef soup with tomato and chili…it was good, but not super to my taste, so I just had a few tastes of it and saved my room for other courses. I do love the classy silver-rimmed service-wear though!

I decided to go with the “Samrab Thai” main course, which was described as “Pork Tenderloin in Pa-naeng Curry served with Som Tam Kung (Thai Papaya Salad and Prawn), Thai Northern Style Chicken and Tomato Dip, Stir fried broccoli, grilled mixed bell peppers, steamed jasmine rice.” It was pretty delicious, and I really liked the curry….

I wasn’t expecting much from the cheese course, which in my experience on Asian airlines never lives up to their European counterparts, and this was pretty much confirmed. It was ok, but not really worth leaving room for.

Dessert was Thai pumpkin custard, which was absolutely amazing!

Watched a little more tv, took a nap, and soon we were 90 minutes from Bangkok and the crew was insisting that I had to try a snack before we landed. Not one able to resist Thai hospitality, I gave in to a light snack.

Chicken satay, of course with a splash of Johnny Walker Blue on the side.

Second dessert of a frangipane raspberry tart with vanilla sauce was astounding, and paired very nicely with my friend Johnny.

There were agents waiting for first class passengers when we landed, ready to whisk us to immigration in buggies. I insisted I preferred to walk and stretch my legs, but they would have none of it and insisted I have a ride. Which was kind of weird, because when we got to immigration they just dropped us off and sped off – no indication where the premium immigration lines were. Very well-intentioned, but lacking in execution.

Grabbed a taxi to my hotel…and here’s where I confess that Bangkok is probably the only place in the world where I intentionally give in to the airport taxi service. It’s hot, it’s humid, I’ve just landed, and the last thing I want to do is take a “normal” taxi with questionable AC…or walk to the train to take that. It’s well worth the extra money to me.

Arrived nice and early at my usual hotel, the W Bangkok, which I’ve come to like because of the reliable suite upgrades and fabulous breakfast spread. I mean, how can you not like a suite upgraded like this:

I was exhausted at this point, but dragged myself out to at least enjoy a little of the city before crashing. The Skytrain is less than a five minute walk from the hotel, and was absolutely packed tonight:

Stopped by the Siam Paragon Mall, where this absolutely delightful t-shirt was for sale. I was really tempted to buy one, but figured they probably wouldn’t have “westerner sizes”

The mall was also home to the world’s saddest Zamboni. Growing up, every little kid dreamed of being a Zamboni driver, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for this guy and his attempt to maintain ice inside a shopping mall where the temperature was way, way too high for it.

I made it until maybe 10pm, despite a series of disappointments that included my usual dinner restaurant having shut down…and my favourite “New Zealand Ice Cream” shop also shutting down. I was so used to some hokey pokey ice cream! That’s not to say I didn’t eat well in Bangkok:

With that, my all-too-brief stop in Bangkok was over, and it was time to head to the airport and catch my first-ever flight on the A350-1000!

So long Bangkok! Off to the airport we go!


Sep 222019
 


With three nights and two full days in Sydney, I didn’t feel too guilty sleeping in a bit and taking some time to relax. I had pretty much been nonstop go-go-go since leaving home, and despite wanting to get out and enjoy Sydney I also wanted to do some relaxing this trip.

Finally up and going, a look out the window; it’s pretty miserable when you have views like this from your hotel room. Almost makes you not want to leave…

Finally though, seeing the ferries coming and going, I decided that I wanted to get out and enjoy the time I had. One of my favourite things to do is a relatively short hike from Coogee to Bondi Beach, and it takes 2-4 hours depending on your pace, so off I went. I’ll tell the story in pictures, since I’ve posted about it before.

At the end of the hike, I rewarded myself with a late lunch at Bondi Trattoria. Barely seared tuna pasta with chili oil was out of this world, and I absolutely devoured it.

Back in Sydney later in the day, I ran into one of the more terrifyingly-named businesses I’ve come across in a long time. One is bad enough, we don’t need an “alto ego!”

The next day was also gorgeous, so decided on another hike, but this one a bit longer, the Spit Bridge to Manly Beach hike. Again, I’ll tell the story in pictures.

I was pretty inspired on this one, and focused on trying to see what my (relatively) new iPhone XS was capable of. I admit I know pretty much nothing about photography, so if you want to comment with tips I’m happy to hear them!

Bit chilly after the hike due to a stiff breeze, so of course, had to have a flat white to warm up. I love how commonplace good coffee is in Australia!

As the sun set on the ferry back from Manly Beach, the wind whipped up and it was a freezing ferry ride back to Circular Quay. Lots of great shots tonight!

As much as I liked those pics. we did even better!

So, that’s about it. I spent two days pretty much just relaxing and walking around enjoying the gorgeous weather and seeing the sights. I realize that I actually enjoy travel most when temps are 60-75F or about 15-20C, and I’ve been planning my trips more around the weather so I can enjoy hiking.

A great time in Sydney down, it was time to enjoy a little AvGeeking next…with Thai Airways First Class!


Sep 142019
 


After getting to my hotel it was still relatively early, so I figured I had a bit of time to head out and get some drinks with friends. Couple of pints and a relatively early night, and I was hoping that I would finally be more or less adjusted to the time zone. Tried to make sense of cricket at the pub, but it still completely mystifies me.

Woke up, found a decent-looking place I forgot the name of that made a pretty respectable french-press coffee, and I was caffeinated and ready to make the most of my full day in Melbourne!

Friend picked me up in the (wrong side of the) car, and off we went to the Yarra Valley for a day of exploring outside Melbourne. One thing I think I never make enough time for is getting out of large cities when I travel, and it seems to be where I always have the best time so I was looking forward to this mini adventure!

First stop was the Yarra Valley Dairy which served up an amazing and huge platter of fresh farmhouse cheeses. I can’t believe I neglected to take a picture of all the cheese, but possibly that’s because we were so busy devouring it.

I did, however, remember to take a picture of the amazing cow at the entrance to the tasting room:

After stuffing ourselves with cheese (and of course a couple more delicious flat whites) it was down the road a bit to go to the Chandon Winery. For those of you who don’t know (like me) Chandon is indeed related to Moët and Chandon, and was born when they decided to try and produce some sparkling wines outside of France. The Chandon Winery is the result.

It was truly a gorgeous day to be out in the vineyard (although a bit chilly and windy) but was nice to walk near the vines before headed to the main event…the wines!

Decided the most proper way to explore all they had to offer was the tasting tray…and I swear I didn’t do this just because it made an amazing picture!

Super tasty wines, and even better company. It’s always great when travel allows the opportunity to catch up with friends you haven’t seen in a very long time, and honestly that was much more fun than any sparkling wine or cheese…and if you know how much I love sparkling wine and cheese that’s like the biggest compliment possible!

Back to Melbourne, walked around a bit, and I was starting to get a bit sleepy, so what better than another flat white…and a delicious mango and lemon tart. A bit more on the posh side than it needed to be, but absolutely delicious nonetheless!

Fuelled by caffeine and sugar, it was off to stroll randomly around Melbourne a bit more, and ended up outside a theater where some Harry Potter nonsense or another was just ending and it seemed half the city was outside taking pictures of some things I had no idea why I should be interested. So, I just took a picture of all them taking pictures instead.

More walking, random palm trees, seemed very out of place on this evening that was becoming rather cool and windy.

Ended up at some place that a colleague wanted to go where we literally ate squid, drank beer, and were entertained by aged hipsters. It was a rather strange environment, but also one of those cool and unique experiences you would only have when traveling!

Off to bed, more catching up on sleep….and after a good long rest it was time to get up and randomly stroll around trying to find somewhere intriguing to find a good coffee.

This random sculpture on the street was far too terrifying before I’d had a proper caffeine fix:

Caught the tram to the train station (cool fact about Melbourne: trams in the City Centre are completely free!) and then the bus to the airport which was rather convenient. In no time at all I was at the terminal and through security, and ready to enjoy one final Qantas lounge.

It was just about lunch time, and I was rather hungry, and the Qantas buffet definitely didn’t disappoint. Can you imagine a selection like this in the US, on a domestic flight, solely by virtue of purchasing a business class ticket? Oh, that’s right, in the US you’d get no lounge at all!

Qantas, however, had a make your own toastie machine, proper sparkling wine, and delicious pickled veggies and lemon bars. Grilled cheese? Beetroot? Sparkling wine? AND lemon bars? I was honestly in heaven…

Off to the gate, where we were a little behind schedule in boarding. Our incoming aircraft was late from Tasmania due to some weather nonsense or another, but soon enough we were aboard our 737 for the rather short hop up to Sydney.

Qantas flight 440
Melbourne, Australia (MEL) to Sydney, Australia (SYD)
Depart 14:30, Arrive: 15:55, flight time: 1:25
Boeing 737-800, Registration VH-VYH, Manufactured 2005, Seat 02D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 63,187
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,755,775

Super impressive three choices of meal on a flight that was barely an hour long, however, despite being in the second row there was only one choice when they got to me which was a “vegetable lasagna.” It wasn’t all that impressive, except it was a hot meal with great bread on a one hour flight! That alone was impressive!

Despite the late start we got to Sydney right on time, and it was time to catch the train back to the Marriott again and enjoy the first of several nights in Sydney.