Jul 302018
 


After our day wandering around Santiago, it was time to check out from the W and head to the airport. We were fortunate that the hotel agreed to a 5pm late checkout, meaning we could stay around most of the day before heading to the airport. A bonus nice touch, at the reception they were offering champagne not only to customers checking in, but also to those checking out. Nothing super high quality, but a classy touch!

Uber to the airport was much shorter than the two hour nightmare we endured in the opposite direction, and we approached the terminal just as a nice rose coloured sunset over the field was happening:

We had been able to check in with Aeromexico on the app, so headed straight through to immigration and security which had hardly any line and off to the Delta Skyclub to spend the hour or so before it would be time to board.

The Delta Skyclub, unfortunately, is one of the more dismal ones I’ve encountered. It’s in the basement at tarmac-level (ie, below boarding/jetbridge level) and was pretty small and cramped. Almost every seat was taken, and it only thinned out a slight bit in the time we were there. A glass of respectable Carmenere and some empanadas and nuts were marginal at best…but it wasn’t terrible either. Adequate, but nothing I’d ever go out of my way to spend time in.

Off to the gate, where a huge group of gate lice had formed, and people were clearly in a grumpy and agitated move. To the point I had one guy shove me out of the way because it was very important for him to board first. Um, dude, the priority boarding line was more of a scrum, and since we’re all in this together…I don’t think those five seconds you saved were worth being nasty to people. Very proud of the example you set for your kids. Heh!

Aeromexico flight 11
Santiago, Chile (SCL) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 21:20, Arrive: 05:10 next day, flight time: 8:50
Boeing 787-8, Registration N964AM, Manufactured 2013, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 65,134
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,585,409

Unfortunately, no plane swap this time like we had been lucky enough with on the way down. We still had the 787-8 as planned, and the less than desirable 2-2-2 seating. We were in the middle section, so it wasn’t bad, just not nearly as nice as the 1-2-1 configuration on the 787-9. Oh well, business class problems. Decent (very small) pour of welcome aboard champagne:

The 2x2x2 seating, being modelled by Phil during boarding. Not bad, but certainly not as nice as the 1x2x1 seating in the same plane!

Despite being a late flight, the crew was pretty slow to spring into action. The wait, however, was rewarded with cheese as a starter again. It’s going to be really hard to go back to United and their semi-warm nuts. I’m also super fussy on my fruit, but the strawberries were perfectly sweet and delicious, and the whole combo went nicely with a glass of cabernet.

I ordered the hockey puck as a main course…I mean grilled chicken…which would have been a terrible miss if not for three things: (1) lots of protein (2) the goat cheese sauce, and (3) the fact I was starving. The salad was also pretty terrible, and the lettuce tasted funny. The mozzarella, zucchini, and basic starter was just odd when there was already a salad on the tray, and a cheesy main course. Overall, a pretty disappointing meal.

To top that off, this just doesn’t look appetizing at all. I took one bite and skipped the rest.

According to the crew, there was no dessert, despite it being listed on the menu. I don’t think they were being lazy, I think it just genuinely wasn’t loaded at all. Oh well.

Got a few hours of pretty decent sleep, and soon we were descending into Mexico City where we would arrive nearly 45 minutes early. Mexico City is like the US in that international and domestic flights are mixed in the same terminal, so everyone has to go through immigration first. Fortunately, we had plenty of time and the lines at immigration weren’t bad, so it was a pretty painless transit experience.

First stop after we re-cleared security was, of course, Starbucks, where Juan Jose  slowly came back to life after a good strong coffee…and another helping of the delicious cheese sandwich I’ve become addicted to over the last month:

After Starbucks, we headed up to the American Express lounge to relax and wait for our flight as well as shower. When we arrived, I asked about a shower, and the agent informed us there was a two hour waitlist for the shower. Seeing there were less than five people in the lounge, I asked how this was possible. Apparently, the showers are shared between the Platinum and Centurion lounges, and Centurion members don’t get priority. With all the money AmEx has been sinking into making great lounges lately, it’s hugely disappointing that Centurion members often have to wait for a table in US lounges (or get the evil eye if they take one of the reserved tables) and now apparently they have to wait for showers too. What’s the additional benefit of the card then?!

Off to the gate, un-showered, where I was just in time for boarding. Said goodbye to Phil who was off to LA, and about five minutes later we started boarding. Unfortunately, about three weeks before my flight, Aeromexico had changed the aircraft from a 787 to a 737. Ugh. I mean, not the end of the world at all, but when you book a specific routing because of the aircraft, it’s disappointing when it changes.

Of the 16 people on the flight, I recognized at least 10 of them from the flight to Santiago. Either lots of people got in on this JFK to Santiago fare, or it just happened to be a super popular routing today.

Aeromexico flight 408
Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) to New York, Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 07:15, Arrive: 13:20, flight time: 5:05
Boeing 737-800, Registration XA-AMN, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 67,225
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,587,500

Fortunately, this time, I got my first choice of meals and what was described by the crew as a tamale was reasonable. Since vacation was almost over, why not have a champagne breakfast. Reasonable breakfast, and probably the only reason it stood out was the chance to have a unique breakfast option. I feel like in the US it’s always the same nasty eggs or cereal, so the variety was very appreciated.

Also, the 787s had the terrible wifi where you paid like $20 and got 50MB, which you can go through in 10 minutes easily – quite a ripoff. On the 737 it was wifi by GoGo, and for like $15 I got unlimited for the whole flight. For a daytime flight, that’s almost enough to make me want to choose the 737 over the 787. Did I mention I’m WiFi addicted?

About an hour before landing, we were also offered a snack of mixed nuts. Unfortunately, it was mostly peanuts. 🙁

Landed at JFK right on time, and despite JFK tending to be a bit of a nightmare there was no wait at immigration for Global Entry, and I was out and looking for the SkyTrain soon.

SkyTrain was pretty easy to fine, and it whisked me off to Terminal 8 where American and their One World partners depart from. I was a little concerned about this connection if anything went wrong, but it didn’t and I was in the JFK Admirals Club with about an hour to kill. That was easy work with a glass of wine, and what I affectionately call the Admirals Club “tan snack”

Boarding for the flight to DC was right on time, and it was nice to have a 737 for such a short hop!

American flight 2773
New York, Kennedy (JFK) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:47, flight time: 1:47
Boeing 737-800, Registration N915NN, Manufactured 2013, Seat 4B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 67,438
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,587,713

Not just a 737, but the TWA heritage livery plane. As an aviation geek, I love the nostalgia of this. I wish more airlines would do it!

Nothing to say about this flight, it was almost 30 minutes early into DC (that happens when you have the rare short taxi at JFK and aren’t #30 in line for departure) and with that the trip was over all too soon. I wasn’t sad, however, knowing I had two more international trips coming up in under a month. I was actually starting to look forward to time at home more than time on planes!

That said, be on the lookout for more posts very soon!

Jul 242018
 


Had a nice leisurely morning since we were in no rush, and let the host know we wouldn’t need breakfast since we were going out for one last long walk and would just grab something on the way. In a way, I think they were a bit offended we didn’t want to eat breakfast there, but at the same time…it saves them money. I’ve never understood how a hotel/etc is such an important part of the experience that it’s so important – but then again I’m not a big breakfast person. Give me a nice strong cup of coffee and maybe a small roll or such, and I’m good to go.

Strolled around the city for a bit, grabbed coffee at Polynesian Coffee and Tea again, and after only two days the proprietor was sad to see us go. Seriously, if you go to Easter Island and like good coffee, this is the place to go to!

Our host dropped us at the airport (after making sure again that everything had been perfect, and nothing was wrong with the breakfast) and gave us leis again as a farewell. A fantastic island experience that made us feel more like family than hotel guests, and I can’t recommend it enough if you’re looking for a unique experience.

I just realized, it seems like I’m gushing about this trip. Maybe that’s because I finally spent four straight nights in the same place on vacation. Maybe it’s because we tried a few unique new things and really enjoyed them…either way, it definitely ticked the box of a nice relaxing vacation!

Nice quick check-in at the tiny airport, and grabbed a shot of our plane from the other side of the fence while waiting to be let through into the secure side of the airport. I’d say the departures hall but, well, it’s not so much a room as just the open air on the other side of the security screening!

In the security line is when I realized I still had the key for the geodesic dome. I went up to the coffee shop in the airport, and figuring since it was a small island, I could just ask her to call the owner…and then leave the key with her. She wasn’t able to get ahold of him, but promised she’d hold onto the key until she could get ahold of him and he came to pick it up. There’s something to be said for small places where everyone is like family!

LATAM flight 844
Hanga Roa, Easter Island, Chile (IPC) to Santiago, Chile (SCL)
Depart 11:25, Arrive: 17:45, flight time: 4:20
Boeing 787-8, Registration CC-BBB, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2H
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,049
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,581,324

Ooooh welcome aboard and pre-departure beverages offered by a friendly crew…including champagne and mixed nuts…before takeoff!

Today’s flight path:

I decided to go with the tuna steak, which was kinda meh, but the whipped sweet potatoes (at least that’s what I think they were) were delicious in a balsamic sauce…salad was ok, but the passionfruit creme bruleé (if I’m remembering right…maybe it was mango) was delicious:

Nothing much to say about this relatively short flight. Domestic flight so we went straight to the taxi area, and probably 10 minutes from the door of the plane opening we were in our taxi. Unfortunately, it was absolutely pouring rain, and there were multiple accidents all over the place, making our drive to the hotel take over TWO HOURS. Yes, I get that it was rush hour on top of it, but what a nightmare experience.

We didn’t have much energy at that point for anything other than a quick dinner, so walked a few blocks to Tiramisu which had opened a new room since the last time I’d been there, that was a bit of a bar with 20 craft beers on tap. The perfect place to destress after a long taxi ride.

Slept in a little the next morning, and went down to enjoy the breakfast buffet at the W. I wasn’t all that hungry, but it was nice to have a wide variety of fresh fruits to choose from after being on an island where that was slightly lacking. The Belgium-France football game was underway in the lobby/bar area as we went to breakfast, and it seemed like half the hotel was there watching it:

Not a bad view from our hotel room in the morning either:

It was a pretty overcast day, so we decided to just take it easy and having a casual day before meeting up with the Free Santiago Walking Tour. I had done this tour when I was there the previous August and really enjoyed it, but it had also been raining which made it not so fun, and since Phil had never been to Santiago again we decided to go.

Not too much to say, but I enjoyed it way more without the rain…and we ended up having the exact same guide which I had had almost a year before! I ended up not taking any pictures, not intentionally, but I think I was just focused on seeing everything I had missed the prior time when I was focused on staying dry and taking pictures.

After the walk we ended up at KrossBar Bellavista, where we enjoyed a few good craft beers while warming up from the slightly chilly walk:

We ended up heading back to the hotel after KrossBar, and grabbed a really quick dinner at Tiramisu again before getting to bed earlyish. We wanted to be up at a reasonable hour to do a bit more sightseeing before we headed to the airport for our flight home. We fortunately had a 4pm checkout, so that would give us time to sleep in a little and still see some things.

First up was a walk to the SkyCostanera, and a ride up 60+ floors in the escalator to the observation deck. We had one of the supposedly rare crystal clear days in Santiago, and the place was pretty crowded because of it. But look at those views!

Looking the other direction:

From the 61st floor you could take an escalator up one more floor to the 62nd floor outdoor observation deck. Looking up, nothing but blue sky!

One more look at the mountains….what a view:

Bit of a wide-angle shot so you can see the windows too…I was a bit surprised with my fear of heights that this didn’t bother me at all:

In the mall at the bottom was a grocery store, with something I’ve never seen in any other country. Choose your shopping trolley by volume!

We still had a little time, so hopped on the subway and headed to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, a museum and memorial to the thousands of people who disappeared under Pinochet’s dictatorship. Museum from the outside:

Wall containing pictures of “los desaparecidos” – the disappeared:

I think the story of the disappeared is one of the earliest political memories I have – thanks to a song by Sting of all people about the mothers who danced alone in the square with pictures of their disappeared loved ones hung around their necks. Out of fear of being arrested themselves for protest, they danced in silence with the photos…which I imagine must have been a terribly powerful sight.

Back to the hotel to head home, I noticed this collection of colourfully painted park benches near the hotel:

Another colourful bench:

…of course, we couldn’t resist stopping for one last pisco sour, which was by far the strongest and tastiest of the trip…and there might have been a second just to be sure.

…back to the hotel where the Russia/Croatia game was wrapping up, and a 4pm checkout turned into 5pm…but the W was fantastic about it, and happy to give us the extra hour. Next time, no doubt I’ll be returning here again. Now…off to the airport to begin the long, long trek home!

Jul 182018
 


Alarm went off way too early, but fortunately check-out was nice and easy, and despite the dubious legality of Uber in Chile our Uber showed up in two minutes and we were off to the airport. A fun fact that we discovered about Chile, which I think I’d previously since forgotten: if you allow hotels to bill your credit card in US Dollars instead of Pesos you don’t have to pay the approximately 15% VAT on lodging – a pretty sweet deal – especially since they bill in actual US Dollars quoted and not some horrid Dollars to Pesos back to Dollars exchange rate that lots of hotels try and pull. I’m pretty sure this only applies to foreign tourists, but still a nice benefit!

Got to Santiago Airport in under 30 minutes, and then were faced with an interesting question: is Easter Island from the domestic terminal or international? We couldn’t find a flight board to verify (nor a gate!) so decided to head to domestic security. Lots of these far-flung island parts of countries can be considered international for customs/immigration purposes, so you can never be sure. Fortunately, we were right, and right past security was Starbucks. Looks like Fils and Joseph are off to Easter Island!

Flight was completely full in business class and about 80% in economy, but unlike Aeromexico there was nobody at all in the premium line, so we were able to be the first on board.

LATAM flight 841
Santiago, Chile (SCL) to Hanga Roa, Easter Island, Chile (IPC)
Depart 08:30, Arrive: 12:25, flight time: 5:55
Boeing 787-8, Registration CC-BBF, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 58,713
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,578,988

Too few airlines seem to use the mood lighting on the Dreamliner, so LATAM was very eager to make up for it. Ugh to the 2-2-2 seating configuration, but yay to the warm pink/purple glow that greeted us onboard:

I am definitely not a fan of 2-2-2 seating and having to climb over people, but I did love how open the cabin felt. I might not have felt the same way on a nighttime flight, but for this daytime flight it was a really spacious feeling…or maybe that’s just the mood lighting….

Another cabin view because…either I’m obsessed with the mood lighting, or I was impressed how roomy it felt. I never take this many cabin pics, so you can decide for yourselves.

Pre-departure drinks consisted of water or orange juice, and a tiny amenity kit. Had the only thing I really wanted for a daytime flight (socks) so I was happy enough with it. Honestly on a flight this short I don’t expect an amenity kit during the day anyways.

Shortly after takeoff – the view of the Dreamliner engine with the curved wing never gets old to me…

While everyone was settling in they turned the mood lighting to a cool blue…and Phil was trying very hard not to look at the ghost that was seated across the aisle…

Breakfast was a rather uninspired omelette, some tasty, but meagre fruit (though I can’t remember the last time that I was given pear on a plane) and plenty of carbs to go along with it. The frosted lemon cake was delicious, and while I took the croissant for science, I’m happy to report it was properly buttery and flakey, and entirely consumed with a little marmalade.

The flight passed quickly, and soon we were spotting Easter Island:

It was a gorgeous day when we deplaned via stairs, and I loved seeing the very unique airport. There are too few airports that are this unique these days, so I love it when you get to see them:

Thatched roof and all…we’re definitely in the South Pacific!

After purchasing our national park permits at the airport (available with US$, Chilean Pesos, or by credit card) it was out to the parking lot to wait for our driver. We were getting a little nervous when we didn’t initially see the sign, but right on Island Time we spotted him and we were off in the pickup truck to Mamma Nui Glamping.

So, as anyone who’s read my reports for any length of time knows, I can be a bit of a princess and I like my accommodations comfortable. There was one high-end option on the island, but the price was insane and the location didn’t look great…so when I spotted the opportunity to sleep in a geodesic dome, well, I ran with it. This wasn’t for one night either, it was for a whole four nights! This was either going to be an adventure that I loved…or hated.

Leis on arrival at the airport, and a quick “King of my Geodesic Dome” photo:

It was early afternoon at this point, and we’d decided to do an afternoon hike that looked doable from the Dome, but first, we decided we needed some lunch. We went to Restaurant Dominican right around the corner from the hotel (chosen 99% based on location and 1% on TripAdvisor reviews) and were quickly served a huge plate of absolutely delicious ceviche. It wasn’t cheap, but at maybe $30 for the lunch with a beer it wasn’t outrageous either:

So, off we set for a hike from the Dome. We walked south along the coast, coming first to Ana Kai Tanata – which was supposed to have some really cool cave art. It definitely had an amazing view out to the ocean:

The lava volcanic landscape reminded me a lot of the big island of Hawaii:

Unfortunately, the cave art was closed because, well, the cave had apparently been collapsing over the previous months and was no longer safe to be inside. Oh well, it was a short detour, and rewarded with great views of the coast.

Continuing on, we started to ascend the Rano Kau volcano. Fortunately, it wasn’t too hot, because the climb was pretty much straight up, and just when we thought we saw the summit up ahead it would keep going and going:

About 90 minutes later we were finally to the top at around 400 meters or so, and rewarded with a great view down into the volcanic crater lake:

Panoramic of the volcano:

Mandatory proof I was here selfie:

One more…because the view was just that mesmerizing, and after that hike we’d definitely earned it:

We knew that continuing the hike would take us to the old village of Orongo, but it wasn’t entirely clear how to get there…and we were pretty tired and jetlagged by this point so after a rest headed back down the volcano. Going down still took a while, but was so much easier than going up. Great way to spend the first afternoon, and an even better way to get some exercise and walk off all the airplane food!

…which was an excuse when we got back to town to grab some ice cream, which turned out to pretty much be the theme of the trip! Back to the glamping place around 6pm, and the setting sun did a nice job of showing the dome:

Unfortunately, despite the outside temperature being around 22 degrees celcius, the temperature inside the dome from the direct sun hitting it was well over 30. So, what better to do than to decamp to the attached restaurant for some pisco sours and eventually some delicious pizzas for dinner. Given it was our first night there, some relaxing was definitely in order, and we just hung around the restaurant for the evening playing with the resident cat and dog, and enjoying unwinding. We had absolutely nothing planned that we had to do the next three days, so for once, I was really looking forward to actually being on vacation!

By the time we got back to the dome around 10pm it had cooled down nicely, and the outside temp was maybe 13-15 degrees and the dome was the exact same temperature – wonderful for sleeping! Managed a solid 9 hours of sleep in the wonderfully cool dome (thankfully I’d brought ear plugs, because the sound of roosters at 4am combined with dogs barking would have woken me up otherwise) and was ready to actually get out and explore Easter Island!

Jul 152018
 


After a great night’s sleep (but not nearly long enough) I woke up a little earlier than I needed to so that I could fulfil that most important morning duty: getting coffee. See, there’s a Starbucks attached to the Sheraton Maria Isabel, and it was advertised as opening at 7:00, so I showed up around 7:15, went inside…and there were no employees anywhere to be found. When one finally did emerge from the back room, she would only tell me they were opening “later.” Hmmm, ok…at least I knew the airport would have multiple Starbucks, so I would be saved as long as I could survive the un-caffeinated ride to the airport.

At least the early wake-up was rewarded with a beautiful pink sky over El Ángel:

Nice quick Uber ride to airport, under 20 minutes, and I got the honour of queuing to check in. When I say queueing, we’re talking nearly 45 minutes in line to get to an agent. Yes, this was the business class and elite check-in line, and it reinforced my theory of everyone on Aeromexico being an elite of some sort.

When I finally got to the front, the agent pulled up my reservation (it had let me check in online from JFK to Mexico City, but wouldn’t allow me to check in to Santiago) and asked me if I was an Aeromexico employee. Uh, no?  Apparently, somehow, something in my reservation mentioned stand-by status, despite not having this problem on the first segment. It was as simple as telling the agent this, and tap tap, click click, out came my boarding pass. Maybe a language gap?

Onwards to security and the all-too-delayed Starbucks, and I came across this sculpture in the lobby. First the check-in issue, and now this…this airport was definitely doing everything it could to mess with my early morning un-caffeinated brain!

Fortunately security took under five minutes, and the Starbucks was right there. Apparently Justin needs coffee too. One of the downsides to all these Mexico City trips recently is that I got addicted to the Tres Quesos panini at Starbucks. Fortunately the airport location had it, and I was caffeinated, fed, and happy.

Off to the American Express Centurion Lounge, which weirdly is up a rather long staircase, and from what I could tell had no way to access it by elevator. There may have been one, and I missed it. Found Phil who had arrived on the redeye flight from Los Angeles, and in we went. This lounge, unlike the lounges in the United States, is divided into two sides: a “regular” side, and a “centurion” side which is for Centurion cardholders and it appeared certain local bank customers may have also had access. It wasn’t at all crowded with maybe 10 people, and we were actually outnumbered by the staff I think.

At the insistence of the staff we accepted a glass of champagne, since, you know, vacation!

Unfortunately we only had about 30 minutes to spend in the lounge, then it was off to the gate for our flight to Santiago. Good thing we arrived relatively early, because once again there were 50+ people in line for priority boarding.

That said, boarding was quick and efficient, and I was soon at my seat. Overnight, the aircraft had been changed from a 787-8 to a 787-9 so that meant instead of 2-2-2 seating it was 1-2-1. Definitely a superior product, but it resulted in us being split up. Lots of people were in the same boat and trying to get seats together…or get a window seat now that they were single seats, and eventually we just decided to stay where we were…despite the gentleman who was coughing up a storm and seemed on the verge of sudden death between us.

Aeromexico flight 10
Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) to Santiago, Chile (SCL)
Depart 10:10, Arrive: 19:07, flight time: 7:57
Boeing 787-9, Registration XA-ADH, Manufactured 2018, Seat 5J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 56,377
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,576,652

For those who like such things, the Boggi amenity kit. It was functioning and had all the things I normally want, but wasn’t cool enough that I decided to keep the bag to reuse later.

Meal service was definitely strange on this flight…and was listed as a “refreshment” right after takeoff, and then “lunch” 90 minutes before landing. Hmm, ok. There were two refreshment choices, a “BLT Sandwich” or “Mushroom tamale with green sauce.” Of course, by the time they got to Row 5 there were no tamales left, so it was sandwich, sandwich, or sandwich.

To be fair, it was a pretty tasty sandwich, but in no universe whatsoever can it be called a BLT sandwich! There wasn’t even bacon on it…but there was a tasty little bowl of jalapeños to add to it…and when prompted the flight attendant begrudgingly opened a bottle of Jacquart Brut champagne.

The next five hours passed as predicted. The flight attendants dimmed all the windows and LOCKED them in the dark position (one thing I dislike about the Dreamliner) in order to encourage people to sleep. They also turned up the heat pretty high…ugh. So, I spent five hours in forced darkness watching tv on my iPad…and only once did they come around offering drinks. Not the best in the service department.

Just under 90 minutes before landing at 7pm, they finally started “lunch” service. Once again, it started with a cheese plate. For everything else I was disliking about Aeromexico, the plate of cheese instead of mixed nuts was one thing that I actually loved! Today’s selection was Brie and Manchego:

Dinner choice was chicken breast, “short rib,” or pasta. Given the disaster the pasta had been the day before I opted to go with the short rib. I swear between the side of asparagus and the short rib that this meal had been catered by United…as I feel like half their business class meals are that option. It was pretty much as expected, except the super wilted and disappointing lettuce in the salad:

Another glass of the Montes Alpha Cabernet (which was actually pretty tasty), and a chocolate mousse bar for desert. You really can’t go wrong with a glass of cab and chocolate mousse! The perfect pairing!

Landed about 30 minutes early, no line for customs, and we were pretty quickly in a taxi to the Four Points. Since it was just a short overnight we didn’t see the value in a nicer hotel, so opted for the Four Points thinking it would be nice enough. Well, it would have been, except for torrential rain and multiple accidents on the highway, which made the drive to the Four Points take just over two hours. Ugh. What should have been 30 minutes took four times as long, and by the time we arrived it was much later than hoped.

Waiting in the room was one of the saddest welcome snacks ever. I think it was some sort of cake, but the grey gloopy SPG on the plate made me want to go nowhere near it:

The Four Points was nice enough, however, to give us a couple of drink vouchers for the tiny lobby bar, where we were able to enjoy welcome pisco sours while figuring out next steps.

Fortunately, there were a couple of bars and restaurants near the Four Points. We weren’t terribly hungry after the flight, so opted for a small snack at a place called Sacramento. A delicious tres leches for desert and a glass of Carmenere was just what I needed.

On the wander back to the Four Points we ended up stopping at some rather trendy restaurant called Piso Uno for another drink. The best way to describe would be to say it was sushi, craft cocktails, and most of the bartenders were heavily tattooed with appropriately hipster manicured facial hair. It made for fascinating people watching while we enjoyed a couple of drinks, but was definitely mildly uncomfortable not being dressed for such a place. However, to their credit, they didn’t seem to care at all, and it was a fun way to end the night.

Back to the Four Points, off to get some sleep, and a very very early morning start for our flight to Easter Island!

Jul 142018
 


So, a bit of a background. First, as I’ve mentioned before, this trip came about because of an incredibly good business class fare from New York to Santiago, Chile. Two things that make that noteworthy: first, I had to find a way to get up to New York to start and end the trip. I debated trying to fly standby, but with a paid ticket on the line, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk…so bought a one way up to JFK on Delta, and home on American. Why? Because the timing worked best with a 2:30 to 3:30 layover in New York. Other options would have been too close to risk, or so long it was ridiculous. Easy enough.

Now, two years ago, when I finished going to every country, I always felt a bit bad about Mexico. I’d probably been to Mexico 5-10 times, but always daytrips to Tijuana or Nogales…although I once spent a three day weekend in Ensenada which is actually like 20 miles into Mexico, so I didn’t feel like I’d totally cheated. That said, I also didn’t feel like I’d “seen” Mexico.

So, I was looking forward to an overnight in Mexico on this trip to see a tiny bit more…but then a couple weeks after booking, I ended up with a five day trip to Mexico City for work, which gave me a couple of full days to explore the city. Then, a week before leaving on this trip…another last minute trip back to my client in Mexico City, meaning I would be flying BACK from Mexico City on a Wednesday…and then flying right back on this trip on Thursday. Yes, twice 24 hours apart. Life has a funny way sometimes of surprising us.

Right, so, not much to say. Off to National Airport, no real lines, and boarding right on time. I had decided to risk the upgrade for the short flight rather than pay Delta the extra $150, and I was surprised three days before when my first class upgrade came through. Nice little surprise…until I woke up the morning of the flight to see that Delta had downgraded me again…the usual DCA issue of Federal Air Marshalls taking your seat at the last minute…although they’ll never really admit that’s what happened. 10,000 miles later, Delta had done the right thing – I only hope the government is compensating them for all these clusterfucks…I’ve seen it happen at DCA way too many times.

Delta flight 5937 operated by Republic Airlines
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to New York, Kennedy Airport (JFK)
Depart 11:00, Arrive: 12:29, flight time: 1:29
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N875RW, Manufactured 2007, Seat 6C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 50,201
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,570,476

Quick flight, no taxi/takeoff delays which is very unusual on a DCA-JFK flight, and soon we landed in JFK. I’ve never flown Delta through JFK before, so apparently I was destined for the complete experience. Landing and parking at Terminal 2, taking the “JFK Jitney” bus over to Terminal 4, and then walking pretty much to Connecticut to the rather remote Delta SkyClub.

I was rewarded with some hummus, grilled chicken breasts, and a glass of wine for my trouble. There was a rather large group of bros in the club who looked like they were heading on spring break, gorging on the chicken breasts like they’d been protein-deprived for months…I think people-watching might be one of my favourite parts of travel…

Of course, the Aeromexico flight was at the far end of Terminal 4 from the SkyClub, so I promptly left Connecticut, and undertook the rather long walk to New Jersey. Stopped at Peet’s Coffee on the way (ok, so maybe I don’t hate Terminal 4 quite so much now) and was greeted with a 100+ person long queue for priority boarding at the Aeromexico gate. I was beginning to get the impression that everyone must be “elite” in Mexico, but no big deal..there would be plenty of overhead space.

Unfortunately, Mexico had just lost to Brazil in the World Cup, and my flight was packed with fans coming off the Aeroflot flight from Moscow who were all in a rather dejected mood.

Aeromexico flight 409
New York, Kennedy Airport (JFK) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 15:20, Arrive: 19:15, flight time: 4:55
Boeing 787-9, Registration N446AM, Manufactured 2018, Seat 2J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 52,292
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,572,567

First impression of the seats on the Aeromexico 787-9 was fantastic! Roomy, and quite private.

Impressed from the other side too – the walls are high enough you can’t see the people, and the way the seats are angled to the window you’re not looking at the person across the aisle either. Plus, the seats were nice and wide. What a fantastic product!

Welcome aboard bubbles…the flight attendants were unusually particular about putting the coasters down, and collecting them along with your glass. No, you can’t save one for a souvenir…

Once up in the air, lunch service promptly started. I’m pretty over the mixed nuts that seem to start off every international business class meal, and Aeromexico was definitely out to impress. Cheese as a starter pre-meal with my wine? Aeromexico, I think we’re going to get along just swimmingly!

I can’t remember the time I went with the pasta option for a main, and I regret doing it now. Bland, flavourless, and the quinoa salad was pretty terrible as well. This meal had so much potential…just a bit more bacon on the pasta, maybe a bit more cheese, and a little more cream to the sauce and it would have been wonderful. Unfortunate, because after the cheese starter I had such high hopes!

I know lots of people whine about “packaged deserts aren’t appropriate in business class” but give me some delicious ice cream any day to some dried out piece of cake. Simple is best when it comes to desert in the air!

Landed about 30 minutes ahead of schedule, no line at all for immigration, and soon I was in my taxi. It was absolutely pouring rain outside, but there was no traffic at all (how can that be at 7:30pm in Mexico City?!) and in less than 30 minutes I was at the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel.

On my previous trip when I had a weekend “downtown,” I chose the Le Meridien, which I found very disappointing. Not a great location with much going on around it (though very convenient for my Historical Center walking tour), and old rooms that loud rattly air conditioning. Add to that a very disappointing and shabby bar, and I wasn’t keen to try it again.

Either my Spanish is getting better, or the staff at the Sheraton wasn’t too keen to practice their English, so I think I managed my first every check-in completely in Spanish, complete with a discussion about all the platinum benefits they offer. Not bed!

Lobby had a giant soccer ball in it in honour of the World Cup…only sad that Mexico had just been eliminated.

Upgraded to a very, very nice suite, with a view of El Ángel right outside my window. Picture taken from my room:

Sleeping area was pretty generic Sheraton-standard, but ice cold air conditioning was very welcome!

Second room of the suite…you could have a party in this room it was so big!

…they must have known I was coming, because a couple of craft beers and some snacks were waiting for me in the room.

Went for a short walk to stretch my legs, and ended up at Fiebre de Malta which I had discovered on my previous trip. I didn’t need a whole lot to eat after the Aeromexico flight, but how can I resist some tacos?! When in Mexico…

Back to the Sheraton, I still wasn’t tired, so decided to have a Patron margarita and enjoy the World Cup decor in the lobby bar. MUCH nicer than the lobby bar at Le Meridien.

The margarita showed up, and was clearly made with fresh-squeezed lime and was delicious. This stay couldn’t have been more night and day compared with my stay at the Le Meridien, and there’s no doubt I would stay here again. I had such a nice stay that I think I need to return again for a 3-4 day weekend and explore the city a bit more in depth next time.

Off to bed, as I had a rather early flight the next morning onwards to Santiago…

Jun 052018
 


Time for another throwback post, this time back to 2008 when I was alerted to a mistake fare that Lufthansa had published. The fare was meant to be for DC to Helsinki, but when publishing it in the list of permissible connecting cities they accidentally put the code for Johannesburg. This meant that for a “normal” sale business fare to Helsinki you could add in several more miles earned plus have the chance for a 12 hour stop in Johannesburg! Back in the younger days when I flew more just for the adventure this sounded like a wild deal. I was sold!

Of course, I had nearly 14 hours in Frankfurt on the way to Johannesburg, and that just wouldn’t do at all. At this point I was at only 63 countries visited, so I started looking if there was a sidetrip from Frankfurt that I could pull off within 14 hours. Noticing the frequent flights from Frankfurt to Zurich, I decided that pulling off Liechtenstein would be possible, so a quick booking and I was set to try it!

Fast forward to the flights were relatively uneventful, so few details. Fortunately I was into Frankfurt on time and had no trouble making my connecting on SWISS. Fortunately, since they were both on separate tickets it could have been trouble. This was also in the dates before inflight WiFi, so it’s not like I could just log on and cancel the SWISS ticket if we were going to be late.

Fortunately, no problems.

United flight ???
Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart approx 17:30 Arrive: approx 7:00 next day, flight time: approx 8 hours
Boeing 767-300, Registration N657UA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 6K

SWISS flight 1071
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 10:20, Arrive: 11:20, flight time: 1 hour
Airbus A319, Registration HB-IPY, Manufactured 1996, Seat 10F

Landed right on time in Zurich, and I had exactly 7.5 hours between flights to go see Liechtenstein. Down to the train station in the airport, and a first class ticket to the Swiss town of Sargans purchased. It was just over an hour to Sargans, where upon arrival I bought a connecting bus ticket to take me the rest of the five miles or so into Vaduz, Liechtenstein.

First impressions, a bank with some very modernist architecture:

More walking, and I was really impressed by just how green everything was:

This was around the time it seemed like every city had to have statues that represented the city, painted a bunch of different ways. DC had its donkeys and elephants, Berlin had its bears, and apparently Liechtenstein has its….cows.

…again just how green it was. But brrr, it was mid-August and everyone was still in jackets.

Herzlich willkommen!

Small tourist train running around Vaduz:

After walking around for around three to four hours, I decided to walk back to Switzerland, you know, as one does. There haven’t been a whole lot of international borders I’ve crossed by walking!

Old wooden bridge between Vaduz and Switzerland:

Apparently, the local graffiti artists are less fond of Switzerland:

…and walking back into Liechtenstein one more time for good measure:

…and back into Switzerland. How many different border signs can I find!

…just one more, I swear!

Caught the bus on the Swiss side back to the train station, and back to the airport in plenty of time to relax in the lounge for a bit before flying back to Frankfurt. Very productive stopover!

SWISS flight 1076
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:55, Arrive: 20:00, flight time: 1:05
Airbus A319, Registration HB-IPS, Manufactured 1997, Seat 36A

No need to clear immigration since at this time Switzerland wasn’t in an immigration union with the Schengen countries, so got to stay in the international area the whole time, and plenty of time for a stop by the lounge on the way to the plane. Best part of the flight down to Joburg? I was so exhaused from sleeping on the plane the night before and walking around all day that I passed out. Plus, this was the old 747-400 configuration with 4D, the solo seat in the nose that people used to call the “Captain’s Chair” because it was in the middle of the deck.

Lufthansa flight 572
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:35 Arrive: 8:50 next day, flight time: 10:15
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABTF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 4D

This was also in the days before the Gautrain, so I had to hope a shared bus taxi into the city, which dropped me right at Nelson Mandela Square. Looks just the same as it does now 10 years later! I had a great lunch Al Fresco while walking off the jetlag as much as possible before heading back to the airport to fly right back to Frankfurt!

Most awkward part about flying back to Frankfurt? It was the same plane I had come in on in the morning, and I had exactly the same seat heading back! Third straight night sleeping on a plane, and fortunately the seat was still form-fit to me so I quickly passed out and slept just about the entire way to Frankfurt. Three nights in a row on planes will do that!

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:55 Arrive: 5:25 next day, flight time: 10:30
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABTF, Manufactured 1991, Seat 4D

Lufthansa flight 3102
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 9:35 Arrive: 12:55, flight time: 2:20
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQW, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4C

Spent the first day in Helsinki walking off jetlag and playing tourist a bit, and then it was time to head to Estonia for a night. I’d never been on a helicopter before, so it seemed the way to go!

Loading the baggage….much easier than a plane!

Excited to be boarding my first helicopter. Back in 2005 Copterline had a crash on this route killing all 20+ aboard, but I wasn’t nervous for some reason….I’m not sure why, but…

Copterline flight 140
Helsinki, Finland (EFHE) to Tallinn, Estonia (EECL)
Depart 17:00 Arrive: 17:20, flight time: 20 minutes
Augusta Westland 139 Helicopter, Registration OH-HCR, Manufactured ?, Seat 2A

Look at those views! We passed over the Tallink Ferry, which would be our ride back to Helsinki the next day:

After landing at Tallinn City Hall Heliport:

One last evening picture…back when it was cool to have holes in your jeans, I know…

Took the more direct route home, not via South Africa, and really did make the most of a five day weekend! Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, South Africa, Finland, Estonia…any trip where you have more countries than days is pretty successful!

Lufthansa flight 3103
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 13:40 Arrive: 15:10, flight time: 2:30
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQW, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2F

Great surprise….an operational upgrade at the gate to first class for the last segment back to DC. What a great way to end what was a fantastic trip!

United flight 933
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 17:00 Arrive: 19:44, flight time: 8:44
Boeing 777-200, Registration N768UA, Manufactured 1995, Seat 1A

Hopefully these throwback posts make an interesting read – I’d love to see how some of these places have changed with time – share your stories!

May 292018
 


After a few more long and successful days of work and meetings, it was back to OR Tambo to finally head home after being away for three weeks. I had checked in online, so headed straight to security (which oddly enough had zero lines at all) and then through to passport control, which also had no lines. This means that less than 15 minutes after getting off the Gautrain, I was back in the South African Airways Lounge. Walking up to the counter to get a drink, the bartender quickly recognized me:

“My boss! Long time! Go sit down, I will bring you the usual at your usual place!” Yeah, so maybe I need to be spending less time in Johannesburg for the near future…

Apparently I looked thirsty, because I’d barely taken a sip when 10 minutes later he returned with another glass. Did I mention how I love the service in this lounge?

Off to the gate after a short bit, and my chariot was waiting for the ride to Frankfurt:

Boarding was the usual Johannesburg mess, with rather rude helpers roaming the boarding area demanding to see passports. Knowing the game, I loitered near the front of the queue, and when the boarding agent got flustered with the first few passengers another came right over and started a second line, and I think I might have been the first to board…

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 19:00, Arrive: 05:35 next day, flight time: 10:35
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYR, Manufactured 2015, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 42,315
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,562,377

I rather like the 2-2-2 configuration on the Lufthansa 747-8i, and no it’s not all aisle access, but the seats in the middle section have a ton of space. Sitting in the window seats is definitely cuddle class. Yuck. 2005 called, it wants its seats back.

Pre-departures were offered, and I accepted a glass of the (warm) sparking wine. It got two sips and that was it. Ugh.

As soon as the door closed I was praising myself for my cunning stalking of the seatmap, and one of the few empty seats in business class was next to me…until the flight attendants brought up a friend from coach and sat her next to me. Ugh. Lufthansa was not doing a good job this flight of living up to their regular high performance. To top if off, “friend” immediately removed her shoes and socks and put her bare feet up in the shared foot area. Ugh. I expect better than this from Lufthansa…

At least the menu looked interesting:

Glass of wine and some nuts to start. I’m so glad Lufthansa finally got rid of the packaged nuts. As a bonus, the flight attendant working my section recognized me from the elevator at the hotel in the morning, where we traded good mornings as I was headed down to Starbucks and he was headed down to the end. Staying in the crew hotel has its benefits…and I got great service the rest of the flight 😀

The duck and pineapple starter was really tasty, but way too small… Of course, United considers two skewered prawns an appetizer, so…

The salad and the main were served together, and both were quite tasty. The beef goulash was also a nice non-traditional choice and a welcome change from the usual chicken or beef madness.

Wow, a business class salad with more than three ingredients. One of the better business class salads I’ve seen in a long time!

Above average business class cheese plate (but sadly no fig spread), and a delicious chocolate cake to finish off the meal.

I wasn’t really that tired, and stayed awake pretty much the whole flight watching tv. Around the middle of the night, I also started to lose all feeling in my right hand. Thinking I had just leaned on it weirdly I got up to walk around a bit, and it didn’t get any better. I stood up and chatted with the flight attendants a bit, and let them know…but the numbness didn’t seem to be spreading so I wasn’t too concerned. This is probably also a good place to mention I’d been dealing with a few (what I thought were) mosquito bites for a few days that had gotten progressively itchier. Fortunately, it never got any worse, but this wasn’t a good sign. (When I got home, medical geniuses decided it must be “some sort of spider or something that bit you in the middle of the night” – wonderful. Fortunately a month later, numbness is finally gone.)

Now, having not died in the middle of the night – or forced a medical emergency landing in Niger (seriously, they probably would have kept going, because, let’s be honest…), it was finally time for breakfast. Despite being dark out, nearly two hours before landing (mind you, 3:30am – no time change) they turned on all the cabin lights and brought round breakfast.

The omelette came with super tasty grilled bacon (though almost tasted more like a pork cutlet) and some cheese and fruit. Overall a rather impressive breakfast!

We landed about 15 minutes early, no line at all at at immigration, so I decided a proper sleep would help, so I headed to my semi-regular haunt the airport Sheraton to get four solid hours of sleep. I had just under six hours between flights, and that was way too long to sit in the lounge, and I figured 3.5 to 4 hours in a bed would make me feel human for the flight home.

Crashed as soon as I hit the bed, got four solid hours, and was worth every cent. Off to immigration and security which had zero line, and I actually had time for 20 minutes in the lounge on the way to the gate. Could have slept more, but had no way to know there would be no lines. Right, on to the flight.

United flight 961
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 14:00, flight time: 8:40
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration N2331U, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 46,185
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,566,247

I’d booked this routing largely to finally try the new United Polaris seats, and decide if this was enough to finally give United a try. Well, they weren’t doing themselves any favours with terrible pre-departure sparkling wine in plastic cups:

‘MURICA sized seatbelts, perfect for someone with a 50-60 inch waist:

We taxied past the new Lufthansa livery…I don’t hate it as much as others do, but think it was a giant waste of branding budget.

The Polaris “wine flights” had gone away two days prior, but they still had the mini glasses, and the excellent flight attendant was more than happy to pour me all three to taste:

Above average salad (I’m always a sucker for a greek salad), and extremely sad appetizer. One sad wilted basil leaf, two slices of underripe tomato , a glop of gelatinous balsamic, and some mozzarella. The mozzarella was good at least…the rest was embarrassing.

I went with the short rib, knowing it would be essentially the same short rib from the last five years. It was, although very overcooked today.

At least dessert was awesome, partly because they had butterscotch for the rock hard ice cream today, and the macarons? Well, they were incredibly stale 🙁

Rather sad cheese plate, but because I’m a sucker for all the varieties they had, I’ll give that a pass!

At this point, the internet STILL wasn’t working, so finally the purser offered me compensation and an apology. The crew was absolutely fantastic on this flight, and really apologetic, but the frequency with which United has problems even on new planes is embarrassing. Nope, I’ll continue to book away from them whenever possible. To add insult to injury, the new compensation offers are laughable and insulting. As a 1K only $75 travel voucher or 3,500 miles? Just insulting for eight hours of missed work time.

Pre-arrival “deli plate” was not bad, and a nice lighter option. There was also a heavier-sounding option of a sandwich, but honestly this wasn’t bad. Though, the silly pre-packaged polaris chocolates are a sad excuse for a dessert.

We landed at Newark slightly early, and pulled into a gate in the B Terminal. It seems like United has been using the B Gates for international arrivals lately, and I assume this is to relieve overcrowding in the C Customs Hall? Anyone have more insight into this?

This was my first entry to the US since getting my Global Entry reinstated on appeal after a rogue agent revoked it, and I was curious to see how it would go. Couldn’t have gone better, nice and quick, and I was literally plane to landside in 10 minutes. Score!

Of course, this meant waiting for the airtrain to Terminal C, and then dealing with Terminal C security, which took 40 minutes even in the TSA PreCheck line. sEWaRk indeed – what a disgrace. Shame this airport and LaGuardia represent our great nation.

United flight 1743
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:19, flight time: 1:19
Boeing 737-700, Registration N54711, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 46,384
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,566,446

The Port Authority, however, appears to be making me into a national hero. Armed with my cell phone, eyes, and ears I shall protect America’s airports!

Oh wait, never mind, apparently that’s Jason’s job, and I’m just Mason.

With that, it was a super nice treat to get a 737 from Newark to Washington National. Back around 2005 this used to be the norm on this route for Continental, but ever since the merger it’s been an endless stream of ERJ-145s with the occasional ERJ-170 thrown in for good measure. So this was a pleasant treat, and a really nice way to end what was a really nice trip.!

Now, with that, I have no travel booked for 4.5 weeks…and I can’t imagine that will last so….stay tuned!!

May 272018
 


As a fair warning, this post is going to be a bit long and rambling. After my plans to visit Zimbabwe for two nights then Botswana for two nights fell through, I was completely up in the air. The first of four nights was going to get eaten up staying in Johannesburg, since it was nearly 6pm when I landed from Namibia.

Nice night of rest, and woke up, and tried to figure out how to sort out my life. Air Zimbabwe was flying in the late afternoon from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, so I could just as easily pick up my trip! Of course, you can’t buy Air Zimbabwe tickets online, so off to OR Tambo I go with my baggage. The very helpful agent “wasn’t sure if it will go today, or if so when – it gets canceled a lot. Maybe by 11pm.” Uhhh, yeah, that’s not a chance I want to take.

Bit more research, I could pick up Air Botswana directly to Francistown and then drive to Gaborone, but it was going to be more than $800 between change fees for my return ticket and the car, so that just wasn’t happening. Rather than waste anymore time, I decided to chalk it up to “this time, the travel gods were not with me” and head back to my hotel.

Fortunately, I was able to book another night on cash+points, so spent the evening relaxing, scheming, and decided that I was going to make the most of it. Despite dozens of trips to Joburg, I decided I was going to try and dig a little bit deeper. My trip out to Maboneng had been super cool a week back, so I’d use the next two full days to explore until I had to get back to work.

Walking to Starbucks the next morning, fate intervened and I saw the sales centre for the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus. Quick look confirmed it stopped at a lot of places I hadn’t been, so I bought the two day pass. Why not…I think I’ve only done one of these touristy busses once, and they really can be a good way to see a city in a short time. Plus, it was an absolutely gorgeous 22 degree day, and the next day was forecast to be more of the same.

Pickup/start point was right by my hotel, and off we go. I even got a seat on the upper deck…kinda like a 747…same same but different…

I decided to get off first at Constitution Hill and see the Number Four prison and constitutional court. Unfortunately, lots of the site was closed today due to private group tours, but you could still do a self-guided tour of the Number Four Prison. Entrance had one of my favourite Mandela quotes:

Number Four was built in the 1890s under Paul Kruger and Ghandi spent time in Number Four in 1906.

Shot of the prison yard as it stands today. For some reason, the Orange is the New Black theme started going in my head, and I caught myself humming it. Probably not terribly appropriate…

Pictures of Ghandi and Mandela at various points in their lives…

Solitary confinement cells. Stepping inside and to the back of one sent shivers down my spine.

Hillbrow Tower as seen from Constitution Hill. On my first trip to South Africa in 1997, Hillbrow was always regaled to us as that super terrifying lawless place that you didn’t dare set foot anywhere near.

Waiting for our bus to leave Constitution Hill for the next stop.

Since I’d gotten a late start, I figured I’d ride past all the next stops and stop at the SAB World of Beer which was the last stop. That would allow me to see which of the stops looked interesting for the next day, and would conveniently put me at World of Beer at roughly happy hour time.

The tour was over an hour long, and absolutely…terrible. I’ve been on a few brewery tours , and this was probably one of the worst. It was basically a “history of beer” and honestly….was just bad. Our guide was fantastic, but it was basically 90 minutes of prelude before they let you do the good stuff: the beer tasting.

The tasting was kinda fun, five or six (I forget now) different beers from the SAB lineup, poured one at a time from bottles for the whole group. Apparently if the colour/taste of the beer is just ordinary, the tasting term for that is “unremarkable.” Unremarkable was what I’d call this whole experience, but the tour ended on the rooftop beergarden with two tickets and the VIEW was remarkable!

Next day, I got a slightly earlier start. Back onto the bus, and noted this very hoity-toity private school we drove past:

Then the bus would right through downtown Johannesburg. While undergoing some gentrification and revitalization, there are still plenty of signs that the area has a very, very long way to go. For example, this highrise with a history of fires and busted out windows just sitting empty…though likely home to squatters.

Another building which has clearly seen better days, but has apparently found a buyer:

Springbox jumping over a fountain in front of a casino at one of the stops. This seemed to be the most popular of all stops, and I was tempted to get out for an hour, but how exciting can a casino be?

Winding over a bridge into the central business district, an ad for Amarula – made from Africa!

I got off at the stop for Braamfontein, which along with Maboneng is known to be a “hip, young, and edgy” area of the downtown. Madiba on the side of a building:

Turn of the century building, now a bar:

Found some seats at the patio bar across the street, and ordered a cider while I people watched.

Shortly after ordering a second cider, a 6’5+ drag queen came over and sat next to me…and ordered a cheeseburger. Apparently, her name was Miss Winnie Gets-In-Your-Pants (a nod to Winnie Mandela I assume?) and she’d come from the bar/club across the street. Like was common in the US in the 80s/90s, gay bars were found in the edgy parts of town and this area was very popular with alternative crowds – gays, goths, and just general people who lived outside the “mainstream.” Great lively street scene, and fantastic people watching. I think I spent almost two hours just sitting there and watching the city go by.

Back to the hotel, caught an Uber out to Randburg to check out Craft Beer Library which I’d been told has the best beer list in Johannesburg. The setting was cozy, but lots of fun, complete with shoeless hipster singing…

Definitely a cozy little place, but great beer list and super friendly staff. Definitely on my list of places to return to in JoBurg…maybe as soon as a few days from now 😉

…and with that teaser, couple of days of work stood ahead before the trek home and final part of this trip report.

May 262018
 


Woke up way too early, turned on the iPhone, and as usual the messages started coming in. Emails, text messages…and the notification from TripIt that my flight with Air Namibia from Windhoek to Harare was canceled. UGH. I was already unsettled about this part of the trip given Air Zimbabwe’s recent fleet problem of being reduced to one airworthy plane, but this was a whole new wrench in the works.

It looked like I might be able to fly to Johannesburg and then to Bulawayo, but of course Air Namibia and Air Zimbabwe took no responsibility, and this would be several hundred dollars out of pocket. Too tired to really focus on the impending problem, I did what any sane person would do, and headed around the corner from the Hilton to Slowtown Coffee.

Ok, in fairness I stopped by the Hilton Exec Lounge first, but the caffeine looked unpredictable, and the lounge was filled with loud americans touting their “status” so I made a hasty retreat. Slowtown definitely seemed to be THE place to be in Windhoek this morning:

Plus, a super tasty iced coffee and a pastel de nata and I was much more prepared to figure out what I was doing with the next few days:

I debated just spending another day checking out Namibia, but after four nights I didn’t think there was that much I was going to see, plus the cost of extending the car might get crazy. I decided to head to the airport, fly back to Johannesburg, and decide from there if I could salvage the trip at all.

Back to the airport, up to the Hertz counter, and guess what? Yes, their credit card terminal was down again, so “please write on this paper what you think you should pay for” and that was it. I basically wrote down the four days of rental plus taxes, and decided to see how things went. No one way drop off fee. None of the crazy insurance they tried to push on me in Walvis Bay. I had a feeling this was going to get bad, but at the same time I was pretty confident that American Express would have my back.

Security and immigration took maybe five minutes today, and the airport was a ghost town compared to a few days prior. How much of a ghost town? This is the ENTIRE departures hall:

Short stop in the generic business lounge, which actually had a reasonable variety of snacks and beverages, and a couple bottles of Savannah Dry Cider later, and it was time to board. Our flight today had a total of 60 people, so it would be nice and relaxed.

This time, no complaints about taking pictures, and was able to grab a good shot of our plane while boarding.

British Airways flight 6274 operated by Comair
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 14:55, Arrive 16:45, Flight Time: 1:50
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-ZWJ, Manufactured 2006, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,935
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,997

No pre-departure drink at all, but right after take off a glass of sparkling wine and a bag of nuts:

For such a short flight, meal service was still done in two parts, with the salad, cheese, and dessert coming first:

In case you’re curious exactly what it was:

Beef, chicken, or veg, and I went with the chicken. Unusual choice for me on a plane, but not only did I go with the chicken but I opted to stick with champagne. It was good – not great – but I was plenty happy with it. Slightly dry like I expect airplane chicken to be, but who knows…maybe I was feeling just a wee bit healthy?

Landed in Johannesburg almost 20 minutes early, got a bus gate, and it was time to head back to my hotel…and figure what if anything I was going to doing with the next three nights…since my journeys to Botswana and Zimbabwe looked to be at risk…

May 222018
 


After a very long week of even longer days at work, it was time for a bit of holiday before going back to work. Due to prior commitments I couldn’t get all my client commitments lined up in one week, so decided to separate them by a week and take some holiday in the middle. So, Saturday morning arrived, and I was off to OR Tambo Airport to get away.

Every time I’m there I totally want to buy the zebra pelts in duty free as a rug, but at a price tag of 16,000 rand, it’s a bit steep for my budget!

While I waited, I caught a great view of my plane waiting for us. I had opted to go with Air Namibia for the novelty factor, despite their points not being worth anything. The flight time also allowed me an extra 90 minutes of sleep over South African, so that was a bonus as well. Air Namibia used a contract lounge whose name I can’t remember, but it was pretty decent, and I would say about as comfortable as South African’s lounge, which I rather like.

No priority boarding queue at all, and it was a mad scrum of European tourists. I think I boarded maybe #100 on the plane or so. Also, it might be the longest jetbridge in the world. If you look at the pic above you can see the part that connects to the plane, but at the top it zigs left and hugs the terminal building finally ending near the nose of where the Turkish plane is parked. Yes, ALL of that is jetbridge!

Air Namibia flight 726
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Windhoek, Namibia (WDH)
Depart 11:40, Arrive 13:45, Flight Time: 2:05
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANM, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,026
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,088

First impression: I love the cabin. Sure, the seats are super old school leather recliners, but they weren’t lumpy at all and reasonably firm, and….

…look at that legroom! The inflight magazine quoted 54 inches, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was accurate. Extremely generous for a plane that often does 90 minute to two hour flights! You don’t see that often at all!

Sadly, the pre-departure beverage was water, water, or…water.

Flamingo…the in-flight magazine.

After 30 minutes after takeoff, out came the appetizer. A warm piece of what I’m pretty sure was beef, some grilled pineapple, and some orange wedges. Along with a roll…and some South African sparkling wine that was absolutely terrible. I asked to see the bottle, and was met with a “we cannot do that.” Uhhh…ok? At least it was a friendly refusal.

Beef, vegetarian, or fish. I went with the beef, and it was straight out of the United Airlines short rib kitchen. Tasted the same, looked the same, and once again, repeat after me: like grandma’s cooking. Now, remember this meal…we’re going to be coming back to it later…

Soon we were over the amazing landscape of Namibia…

Arrival was about 15 minutes late, which worried me because I only had a 45 minute connection to begin with. I had tried asking the flight attendants if this would be an easy connection, and they didn’t seem terribly interested in helping me.  Encountered probably one of the rudest immigration officials I’ve ever met anywhere in the world who finally stamped me into the country, but not before making very clear that she disliked me.

The path to connecting flights led me…right into the arrivals hall, where fortunately the departures hall was just a two minute walk away. It wasn’t entirely clear if I needed a new boarding pass or what, but there were literally hundreds of people queueing in the checkin lines, so decided to head for the door to security and try my luck. They seemed a bit puzzled with me (since everyone else was going straight from a check-in counter to the door towards security and departures) but apparently after explaining I was connecting that was enough.

Security was pretty quick and easy, and then….immigration counters. Wait, I’m on a domestic flight. Why are there immigration counters. Well, I just walked up and told the guy I was on a domestic flight, and he waved me through. Turns out the one room departures lounge has five gates that handle both international and domestic traffic.

I didn’t have to worry about the close connection since we left over 30 minutes late, so soon it was time to walk to our plane. I tried to snap a pic, but was very sternly chastised by a ramp agent. Ho hum.

Air Namibia flight 715
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Walvis Bay, Namibia (WVB)
Depart 14:30, Arrive 15:10, Flight Time: 0:40
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANN, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,210
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,272

Unlike the previous flight, pre-departure sparkling wine was offered. Unfortunately, it was pretty terrible again.

Nothing to say about the 30 minute flight, except it was absolutely packed. Oh, and we got a “snack”:

Pretty sad…and again…make a metal note of this for later…

Arrival in Walvis Bay was a casual affair, and passengers continuing to Cape Town were asked to remain on board, which seemed to be about 75% of the crew. Finally snapped a pic of our plane upon arrival:

Just walk from the plane to the terminal…it’s out there somewhere…

Finally, the terminal building…one of the smallest I’ve ever seen…and this is the “new” terminal!

I had rented an SUV from Hertz for the five days, and when I arrived the contract price was more than double what my confirmation said. First, there was a one-way rental fee when Hertz Platinum told me there wasn’t. Then there were about six or seven different insurances, etc. The guy seemed confused, but I just crossed out and initialed what I refused to pay for, and he was like “oh, ok.” I figured this would get interesting when I returned it. Oh, and the Walvis Bay location no longer takes AmEx, but he was “pretty sure” they do in Windhoek. He eventually agreed to let me go by writing down the credit card number, and we were off.

Drive into Swakopmund was just under an hour, and finally I found my hotel the Swakopmund Plaza Hotel. I had booked the larger “family room” since it was only slightly more, and it still wasn’t very large, so I was glad I’d spent the little bit extra:

It did, however, have an amazing view of the South Atlantic Ocean:

Oh, and it also had a lovely beer garden right on site which brewed its own beers. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good…

Walking along the beach:

Local house in old german architecture:

Sunset over the jetty bridge:

Africa meets the South Atlantic Ocean waves:

Sunset from the jetty:

More old German architecture:

The Höhenzollernhaus – a 1904 baroque building that’s been during into condos:

Kücki’s Pub, location of tonight’s dinner. First thing that struck me: the staff switching back and forth between Afrikaans and German, with English clearly the third language. I actually didn’t know before this trip that more Namibians speak Afrikaans as a first language than English.

Determined to explore the deliciousness of African wildlife, started out with a springbok carpaccio:

Followed up with an oryx burger and a side of Spätzel:

The first of many malva puddings on this trip:

With that, it had been a long day so I walked back to the hotel and promptly crashed. Only to wake up at 12…and 1230, and 1, and 130….clearly something had gone off (most likely airplane lunch based on timing) and I was suffering one of the most violent cases of food poisoning I’d had in many years. Fortunately, around three o’clock, with nothing much left in my system I finally managed to get back to sleep, and prayed that I would feel well enough the next day to even consider the five+ hour drive ahead of me. I hoped so, or this trip was over before it even began….