Sep 222017
 

I was feeling a bit lazy in the morning, so I decided to spend the extra $20 or so to save 30 minutes or so and call an Uber to the airport. Last time I tried this, there was a super long backup for cars to get into the airport so it actually took longer, but this time it went absolutely perfectly.

Unfortunately, Singapore’s check-in was at the very last desk in the hall, which meant quite a walk inside the airport once I’d been dropped off. However, once I got there, I was rewarded with my very own lane:

The check-in agent confirmed that yes, I was the only one in Suites today, and I would have the entire cabin to myself. Score! After a quick duty free shop it was through security and immigration which was pretty quick, and then a rather long walk to the satellite gates where many of the Star Alliance airlines have their gates.

Once in the Singapore First lounge, strangely, there were about 10 other people hanging around, in addition to 4-5 lounge staff who were all sitting around and having a chat. Rather strange, especially since I knew I was the only one in suites today. The others, I assume, were top level Singapore elites, but the whole environment was a bit strange. Anyways, made a quite pit stop before getting food….I’m surprised anyone in a first class lounge needs to be told this is recycled water and they shouldn’t drink:

Agent presented me with a menu of what was on offer in addition to the buffet…naturally, I went with some eggs benedict:

The buffet did look rather tasty, however. Even with ten or so people in the lounge you had to wonder how long it had been sitting around for though…

Most important part of the buffet. I tried to pour myself a glass of champagne, but the lounge staff was mortified and insisted on bringing it to me.

The “living room” area of the lounge:

My eggs benedict were super tasty, although my Veuve came cut with orange juice. I suppose it was only 10am so I can forgive this, but I did ask for “champagne.”

I love the little seating cubes that Singapore has in their first lounges. They’re the perfect combination of private, space, functional, etc.

I think I tried two or three different times to go down to the gate to board starting about 45 minutes before the flight, only to be told by the lounge attendant that it wasn’t time yet. Of course, with about 15 minutes left until departure I tried again, at which point she simply told me “yes, you can board now.” Hmmm…..

Singapore Airlines flight 232
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Singapore (SIN)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 17:20, Flight Time: 8:20
Airbus A380-800, Registration 9V-SKD, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 93,106
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,470,083

Once aboard, however, the crew instantly greeted me by name (easy since I was the only passenger in Suites) and was the perfect blend of helpful and hands off. Normally, I struggle with crews that are cold and lazy or the other extreme: too deferential and won’t let me have a bit of space. From the very first moment this crew read me perfectly. Nice note in my suite letting me know it was ready for me:

Glass of champagne? Don’t mind if I do!

Overhead view of the 12 suites Suites cabin:

My suite, taken from the door:

Seated, looking across to the other site of the plane with all the doors/windows opened:

Bit of an angled shot into the suite directly across the aisle from me:

Have champagne, am happy, ready for takeoff:

After takeoff, candied nuts and more champagne. Personally wasn’t a big fan of the candied nuts.

Next up was the caviar course, which was fantastic. Debated asking for another helping, however, knowing all the food that was coming I was glad I passed. It was served with some of the butteriest and most garlicky bread I’ve ever had on a plane. Winning!

White onion and thyme soup with prosciutto ham…was way more flavourful than expected!

Very tasty salad with cranberries, goat cheese, and walnuts:

…and the book the cook main course, the Boston Lobster Thermidor. The most interesting part to me was that Singapore offers two different lobster thermidor dishes, but depending where it’s catered from it seems potlatch which you will eventually get. It was slightly overcooked, but given it was being served on a plane it was pretty tasty!

Warm rosemary apricot tart with vanilla ice cream…amazing.

If you’ve read my blog for long, you know I can’t turn down cheese. I could make a whole meal of it…which gives me an idea for a future flight. However, I was pretty stuffed by this point. The crew, however, would not be deterred, and insisted on making me a cheese plate with a little bit of everything. I have to say, Singapore is the only airline that can rival Lufthansa in my books on the cheese course.

We’re finished, right? So I asked for a Johnny Walker Blue, one ice cube, so I could watch some tv. I was offered pralines. I declined. “Are you sure we can’t just bring you one?” Ok, one. This is what came:

They tried to give me more food before landing, but I just couldn’t. I was still stuffed. Plus, the whole point of arriving Singapore late afternoon was to enjoy the magic that is Singapore’s street food scene! I did, however, have one more Johnny Walker for the road. This flight was absolutely amazing, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. My last A380 flight in February I felt a little cheated because I slept 90% of it, but this time I definitely maxed out the experience!

First thing I wanted upon landing was a washroom, and look…first one I found had a perfect view – from the urinal – of the plane I had just arrived on:

My phone rang at this very second, and reminded me:  “Welcome to SIN!”  Uhhh…..

Decided rather than melt in the humidity I would try Uber once more, which was super easy, and soon I was checking in at the Westin. After a shower and a bit of rest, headed up to the executive lounge, which had a rather impressive happy hour buffet and drinks service, despite the lounge being absolutely empty.

Impressive, except this scary jell-o concoction:

After recovering a bit, I headed out to one of the best things about this hotel. It is right around the corner from the Lau Pa Sat market, which has a street next to it that is known as “Satay Street” at night. So, it was time for dinner: delicious chicken satay.

See the right side of the pic? That is more than a dozen stalls with grills all making satay. Plenty to choose from, and all delicious. But the heat, smells, and humidity are overwhelming!

I was pretty exhausted at this point, so headed back to the room to get some sleep. Only one problem. When I opened the door, I couldn’t see anything. This was perhaps the most strangely designed room I’d been in anywhere in the world. No light switches near the door. When I finally did find one, I took pics to show why it’s so confusing.

View from the door. Imagine this long corridor in the dark:

Then, when you find your way to the end and turn left, you have THIS long corridor…also pitch black. See where my suitcase is? Once you pass that, there is finally a light switch on the left. Incredibly odd design!

That said, after dozens of times in Singapore, this was only the second time a hotel has really impressed me. I seem to stay somewhere different every trip, and never am super happy with my stay. They’ve all been “fine” and never really “bad” but also never impressive. The Westin, however, despite the light switch, I really liked. The other one I’ve really liked is the Mandarin Oriental, but for price reasons, that’s just not a regular option.

The view, however, from the approximately 30th floor “lobby” of the Westin is great:

After an all too short overnight in Singapore, it was time to head back to Changi Airport to enjoy the world’s best airport and also the Private Room Singapore First Lounge! Called another Uber, and I was on my way…

Sep 162017
 

Grabbed an Uber back to the airport in Perth, where I learned that Perth airport is actually four different terminals – two of which are connected together for domestic flights, and two more for international flights. The domestic terminal was pretty small, and it was super easy to get a boarding pass from the kiosk and I think I was through security in less than five minutes after getting out of the Uber.

It was kind of cool seeing the departures board with all the “exotic” place names from all over Australia:

I wasn’t entirely sure which of the two Qantas lounges (the “Qantas Club” or the “Domestic Business Lounge”) was the better of the two but a quick google found several reviews which suggested the domestic business lounge was actually better, and based on the dress code seems I made the right choice. I can think of some Admirals Clubs and United Clubs that could benefit from a sign like this!

Gift shop just outside the lounge….it was very tempting to get koala oven mitts…

The lounge was a nice place to spend an hour or so, with a rather nice buffet, fresh pizza constantly being made, and plenty of space. I can imagine how it might get crowded at certain times, but when I was there it was rather pleasant. Some tasty mezze and a Diet Coke while I waited…

Boarding was just two gates over from the lounge, and a rather civilized affair, although just like domestic flights in the US everyone started swarming the boarding lanes at least 15 minutes prior to boarding.

Qantas flight 476
Perth, Australia (PER) to Melbourne, Australia (MEL)
Depart 12:55, Arrive 18:25, Flight Time: 3:30
Airbus A330-200, Registration VH-EBA, Manufactured 2002, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 88,759
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,465,736

Now this is a treat…great lie-flat international seats for a domestic flight! Comfortable, spacious, plenty of storage space, and overall nicely designed!

What’s this trickery, a menu on a domestic flight?!

For some reason, despite booking months in advance, Qantas had 75% of the seatmap blocked and the only seat I could select was in the very last row. Fortunately, their app works pretty well, and shortly after checkin 1A opened up and I grabbed it.

One of my favourite parts of flying over Australia is it always seems I get to see some amazing weather. Look at that crazy localized downpour:

Almonds and a glass of wine to start off…

The smoked trout with papaya, pomelo, and chili was delicious, and the bread even came with artisan butter!

Second lamb chop in two days! Seems to be something I never se on a plane, and here it was twice in two days. Maybe it’s a Perth thing, who knows. It was super tasty though!

What is this sorcery, a cheese plate on a domestic flight? Though I’m not sure what this fetish Qantas seems to have for almonds is…

Cheese AND dessert. I swear Australia has the best ice cream flavours. Honeycomb and caramel, mmm…and yes, that’s a glass of dessert wine. On a domestic flight. Crazy.

Overall, I was super impressed by Qantas on this flight. This blew away any transcontinental service you might find in the US, of which the best may be American’s 777 between Miami and LA. United’s premium transcon service doesn’t even come close in my book.

Although Qantas seems to get mixed reviews on international routes, all my experiences domestically continue to be absolutely fantastic.

Landing was about 20 minutes ahead of schedule, and when I walked into the lounge in Melbourne I noticed that there was a 7pm flight to Sydney (I was booked on the 8pm) and asked the agent if I might be moved to the earlier flight. Despite being on an award ticket, this was no problem at all, and I would make it into Sydney an hour sooner. Great customer service as well!

Qantas flight 462
Melbourne, Australia (MEL) to Sydney, Australia (SYD)
Depart 19:00, Arrive 20:25, Flight Time: 1:25
Boeing 737-800, Registration VH-VZX, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 89,198
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,466,175

Wasn’t really hungry on this flight after the rather substantial meal in the previous flight from Perth but was super excited to have the seat next to me empty…until right before the door closed.

Not too sure who my seatmate was, but he was clearly a Qantas employee and someone extremely important based on the extremely polite and deferential way the crew were acting towards him. I got the impression he was some major senior executive – potentially CEO/President level based on the way the crew was going about making sure everything was just perfect.

Unfortunately it was dark and I couldn’t get the lighting right to take a good picture, but for a 75 minute flight they served an impressive hot mean which I pecked and and can confirm it was pretty tasty!

Arriving Sydney an hour ahead of schedule was fantastic, and I was looking forward to getting a good few nights sleep after spending two nights of the previous four sleeping on planes. Once again, Qantas had done a fantastic job impressing me and I look forward to trying them longhaul soon hopefully!

Sep 152017
 

Took the Gautrain to the airport since I had plenty of time given the flight was a relatively late departure and the Hyatt would only let me stay until 4pm. To their credit, they didn’t have to give me a late checkout at all, but when I mentioned I’d been staying at this property for over 20 years despite Hyatt being the one chain I don’t have elite status with, they offered me a 4pm checkout on the condition I continue to say nice things about them. So no more! This is a great way to win loyalty of infrequent guests when you don’t have a bunch of check-ins coming!

Bigger disappointment was when I got to the airport. The check-in line for business class was about 50 people deep, despite it approaching peak hour for long-haul departures. To make matters even worse, there was only ONE desk open, and she was moving at a snail’s pace. Unfortunately, the economy lines looked even worse, with hundreds in line, and most of them having trolleys stacked high with luggage.

Lots of comments of “no wonder they’re going bankrupt” and then all of a sudden, after nearly 30 minutes in line, four more agents appeared from nowhere and opened up all at once. Are you kidding?!

Security was equally annoying, and the agent absolutely refused to let me through with my rolling bag. “It is too big” “it is too heavy” and then he actually held out his hand, and it became clear what he expected. I raised my voice, loud enough so the agents standing around could hear, and said NO, I’M IN BUSINESS CLASS, I’M NOT GOING TO BRIBE YOU JUST TO CARRY MY BAG ON. One of the other agents quickly rushed up and said “business class, please, go right ahead.” It was quite an ugly experience, and frankly quite surprising at Jo’Burg. Ugh.

When I got to the South African lounge, it was absolutely packed as would be expected at this hour, but I managed to find not only a quiet corner with plentiful outlets, but it was in a part of the lounge that also had wonderfully cold air conditioning. Definitely a win!

One of the best parts of this lounge is the super friendly attendants at the bar. Normally I’m slightly annoyed by lounges where you have to get every drink poured for you, but the agents in this lounge are always so friendly that I actually enjoy the interaction. Plus, this lounge always has a cranberry cheese that I absolutely love. I may have had a little more than I should…

Time in the lounge passed quickly, and it gradually emptied out as I was there. Perth is pretty much the last long-haul departure, so by the time I left the lounge was approaching empty.

As I headed to the gate, I had to snap a pic of one of my favourite duty free shops. I wonder if anyone ever buys the 15,000 rand (approx $1,000) zebra pelts that are for sale duty free…

Got to the gate, and we were on the wheelchair express tonight. One thing I didn’t expect were numerous elderly passengers with Zimbabwe passports in the gate area. The sign saying Perth confirmed it…I was going to get my second southern hemisphere trans-oceanic flight!

Boarding was absolutely chaos when it did open, especially because they decided to board wheelchairs and business class at the same time. That didn’t work out so well.

South African Airways flight 280
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Perth, Australia (PER)
Depart 21:15, Arrive 12:20 next day, Flight Time: 9:05
Airbus A340-300, Registration ZS-SXB, Manufactured 2005, Seat 15A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 87,077
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,464,054

South African seat maps are available online right up until departure usually, so I stalked it carefully from the lounge and managed to get myself an empty seat next to me. For business class, I find these seats a bit uncomfortably close together, so having a second one would make for a much more comfortable flight. Plus, double pillows and somewhere to set my bag. Having a bulkhead was just an added bonus!

Welcome aboard champagne and bottled water. Off to a much friendlier start with the crew than the flight from Brazil.

A bit of light reading material. When I was in the lounge, a couple of people were talking about how they had been at the airport the previous day, and there was a temporary lockdown when there was a rumour Grace Mugabe was in the airport trying to covertly flee the country…and her arrest warrant. Oops!

What’s for dinner tonight? Despite the late hour, a rather full meal:

Full breakfast in the morning as well:

After two flights, I’m comfortable saying South African really needs some work in the canapé department. Soggy bread, mushy spreads, it was just very unappetizing.

The duck breast starter was relatively light which was what I wanted, and decently flavourful. It was nice to have something different, even if they didn’t hit a home run with it.

Similarly, I can’t remember the last time I had lamb chops on a plane, completely with old fashioned mint jam. Again, not the tastiest dish I’ve ever had on a plane, but it was a nice change. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised.

Even the cheese course was significantly better tonight. The chevre was a really nice addition!

Pear tort for dessert was nice and small, but super sweet and delicious. Overall, catering out of Johannesburg was significantly better and although I wouldn’t call the meal amazing, it was solid. Definitely can’t criticize them too much this time.

Got about 5.5 hours of good sleep, woke up, brushed teeth, watched some tv on the ipad, and decided to give breakfast a go. The danish was super tasty, and I was trying to figure out what the yellowish disks were as I bit into them…only to finally realize they were the poached eggs. The texture was definitely odd, but with the salsa it worked. I wasn’t that hungry so only pecked at it, but again, for a plane breakfast they did a pretty good job!

Landed in Perth right on time, and immigration was a breeze. I saw an agent instead of using the automated gates, because I wanted a Perth stamp in my passport. Unfortunately, I was imformed there are absolutely no stamps anymore, but enjoy Perth!  Oh well, at least it was quick, and I was from the plane to exit in about 10 minutes and decided to grab an Uber to my hotel, the Four Points Perth.

Had a super friendly and chatty driver, who insisted on telling me about how much Perth has changed in the last 20 years, and I had really missed out by not traveling here sooner. He clearly loved his home town, and was eager to share details with visitors. Definitely a very friendly welcome!

After checking in and grabbing a coffee from the lounge bar and cafe, I decided to head out for a walk. Quick thoughts on the hotel: for a Four Points it was rather nice, and comfortable, and in another city could easily have been a Sheraton. The staff was quite friendly, rooms were a good size (though I must confess they did upgrade me to a junior suite), and I loved having a craft beer bar in the lobby. Definitely felt a bit more “hip” than the average Four Points, and reminded me a little bit of the Four Points in Brisbane. Plus, the location was really nice.

Several people had told me with just one afternoon the thing to do would be to take a walk to Kings Park if it was nice, and enjoy the city from above. With temps about 18C and gorgeous blue skies it was a perfect day for a walk, so off I went. It only looked to be about 2km on the map, but what I didn’t know is a large chunk of that was up the appropriately-named Mount Street which had an average incline of over 7%….for quite a long stretch. That’s one way to burn off the jet lag!

At the top, I was rewarded with a great view of the CBD:

Jacob’s Ladder, a popular staircase built into the side of the mount with lots of locals running laps up and down. From the very fit to the very unfit, everyone was out enjoying the nice day.

Path through King’s Park. Did I mention it was a gorgeous day?

Another view of the CBD from King’s Park:

World War One Memorial in King’s Park:

Boab Tree from well outside Perth. When a road threatened it it was uprooted and very carefully transported all the way to Perth to be planted in the park.

On the walk back, walked by Perth Arena which was packed with families going to see some boy band or another. I beat a quick retreat to my room for a shower, before heading out to get dinner and drinks. Being a weekend night the pubs and restaurants were packed, and I felt like I had stepped back in time a decade or more. It wasn’t quite as bad as Darwin where I felt like I’d stepped back nearly 40 years, but Perth definitely marches to its own beat and definitely doesn’t feel like the year 2017. In a way this was a really nice thing, as it gave the city a really nice unique character and made it more memorable.

One of the best parts of Australia to me is the amazing coffee culture, and I think Australia has some of the best coffeeshops anywhere in the world. So good that I pretty much avoid chains here all together knowing I’ll get something much better at an independent shop. Several sites recommended La Veen Coffee to me, so after a good night’s sleep I headed over to see what trouble I could get into.

Delicious cold brew and eggs benedict hit the spot and was amazing!

Walked around the city for another couple of hours after breakfast, and then it was off to the airport to continue my adventure to Sydney!

Sep 142017
 

After landing in Cape Town, I realized that on all of my previous trips I had had someone else in charge of the planning (be it family, work, etc) so I’d never really had to think how I would get to where I was going. No problem, pulled up Uber, directions to the meeting point were very clear, and had a great drive to my hotel with a very friendly driver from Zimbabwe. We had a great chat about how Harare has changed over the past decade or so, and like many Uber rides all over the world it was a great insight into immigrants working hard to make a living in a new country.

Arrived at my usual hotel in Cape Town – the Westin – and was upgraded to a junior suite which was a bit less impressive than previous stays. It was more than fine for one night, but it had been barely a year since my last stay at this property and I was surprised at the complete turnover in staff. My last stay I had booked several hundred room nights for an event, and gotten to know the staff quite well, so was surprised in this short time that everything had completely changed.

Unfortunately, that also included the stunning Executive Lounge with views of Table Mountain. The lounge was closed for renovations, and there were very vague instructions from the reception about alternate arrangements. Unfortunate, as my last stay at this property had made it one of my very favourite SPGs in the world, and now it was decidedly average. Nothing at all wrong, but just didn’t stand out.

After a super quick nap (still tired from the redeye from Brazil) my pre-arranged driver and guide picked me up for a guided hike up Lion’s Head Peak. I was lucky today, as there was absolutely nobody else on the tour, so it would be a solo hike with just me and the guide. My guide today was Nathan from Hike Lion’s Head – who was a fantastic guide the whole way.

Given the accident I had had with the car just two days prior in Argentina, I was taking things a bit slow, and given the rain and slippery rocks I wasn’t keep to be moving too fast. After heading up the peak a bit, we stopped for a gorgeous view over Camp’s Bay:

Looking up at the peak of Lion’s Head:

Towards the water as the sun set:

Amazing sunset views of Table Mountain, with the “tablecloth” of clouds covering the top:

We spent a couple hours on the hike, and Nathan was a fantastic guide – especially one on one. Sure, you could definitely do this hike on your own, but given the pricing it was great not to have to worry about transfers and to get a local perspective. Especially after sleeping on a plane the night before and doing the hike jetlagged and a slight bit injured. Highly recommend Nathan to anyone else looking for a hike up either Lion’s Head or Table Mountain!

As we arrived back at the car, a great view of Cape Town just after sunset:

Since I wasn’t interested in a tea or anything before the hike, Nathan insisted we stop at a local restaurant for what he promised was an amazing white hot chocolate. Unfortunately they were out this evening, but the regular hot chocolate was also amazing, and hit the spot after a great chilly hike in light rain.

After getting back to the hotel and showering up, I grabbed the complimentary Westin shuttle to the V&A waterfront to get some dinner. I felt like I needed some serious protein, so headed to the City Grill for some game for dinner. Of course I went with the giant grilled mixed venison skewer…

I apologize in advance for the damage I did to Noah’s Ark….but it was delicious!

I still wasn’t tired, thanks to it only being like 6pm in Brazil, so decided to check out what the local craft beer scene had been up to in the year since I was last in Cape Town. At Nathan’s recommendation I took an Uber to Beerhouse, which had an amazing selection of South African craft beer on tap. I seriously had no idea there were so many craft beers even coming out of South Africa yet!

Of course I had to have the 12 O’Clock wheel of samples…

After sleeping in a bit the next morning, I grabbed an Uber up to Truth Coffee for breakfast. Unfortunately, the nitro potion coffee machine wasn’t working today…

So, I had to settle for the regular cold brew potion coffee. I love the old-fashioned grinders:

A bit of delicious Eggs Benedict to go with the bottle of potion coffee:

Full of a delicious breakfast – and a couple of potion coffees – I decided a walk was in order so walked over to the Bo Kaap neighbourhood to enjoy the bright houses. With the bright blue sky after a light rain, it was a perfect contrast for some photos today:

Got back to the Westin just in time to check out after a long walk, and grabbed another Uber to the airport. Uber was fantastic in Cape Town, and I can’t wait to get back for a much longer visit again soon.

Check in was easy, but for some reason every flight to Johannesburg seemed to be running super late this afternoon. There was no explanation for it, but fortunately my flight seemed to be one of the least delayed. After a quick security experience, it was up to the South African lounge to wait out the delay.

Strangest combination of lounge food offerings anywhere in the world. Marshmallows, blue cheese, pumpkin, feta, and olives. That said, it was quite a tasty snack.

As I was waiting, I was my plane eventually taxi by, so it was time to head down to the gate to board, fortunately only about an hour late.

I’m not sure why, but every time I’ve taken an afternoon Cape Town to Johannesburg flight it’s been filled with loud Americans complaining about everything in South Africa. I know this flight connects to many of SAA’s flights to the US, but it always seems there’s next to no local traffic. Today, we were also joined by at least a dozen people in business class connecting on Delta to Atlanta, who were complaining that South African would be responsible for them missing their flight to Atlanta. Sigh.

South African Airways flight 346
Cape Town, South Africa (CPT) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 15:10, Arrive 17:05, Flight Time: 1:55
Airbus A340-300, Registration ZS-SXD, Manufactured 2005, Seat 16G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 81,903
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,458,880

Flight was completely full due to the delays, and a sandwich was offered as a snack. I decided the veg option was safer than mystery meat, and it was a cheese pita which was actually relatively tasty:

Landed in Jo’Burg around 630pm, and rather than deal with the Gautrain I decided to see how Uber would do to the hotel. Once again, pickup was super quick, reasonably priced, and a great option. Arrived at my hotel – the Hyatt Rosebank – barely 30 minutes later just in time to check in and enjoy the tail end of happy hour in the executive lounge.

Nearly 20 years ago on my first visit to Africa this was the hotel that I stayed at, and over the years so much has changed but some has also stayed the same. The hotel doesn’t seem to hold the glamour of 20 years ago, but I’m not sure how much of that is me as a jaded traveler now and how much of it is the property simply being much older.

That said, the executive lounge is still quite nice, but I’m not sure it’s worth the value for the money any longer unless it’s a complimentary benefit.

Why is that? Well to me the value is in the happy hour (which there’s a 50-50 chance I will miss anyways) and the breakfast. Unless the lounge breakfast is absolutely stunning, I’m usually going to skip it when there’s a relatively new Starbucks right around the corner from the hotel. The first in South Africa. Justin….close enough!

The Starbucks made for fascinating people watching. I’ve been to Starbucks now in probably 30-40 different countries at a minimum, and there was something about this one that still felt much more local and unique. It was an interesting mix of young professionals, students, but surprisingly almost no tourists at all. You can go anywhere in the world and find Starbucks full of American tourists, so it was a bit surprising to see none at all here. Then again, there really aren’t many (if any) tourists in Johannesburg anyways!

Had a bit of time in the morning, so caught the Gautrain over to Sandton for a bit of walking through Mandela Square:

Mandela Square…one of these things is not like the other…

Caught the Gautrain back to the hotel, where I grabbed lunch with a friend before packing up and heading to the airport. It had been a very short two days in South Africa, but given my year away I was really craving the time back. I really need to make a point to get back for a couple of weeks sooner rather than later!

Now, it was back to the airport to get read for my first south Indian Ocean crossing…to Australia!

Sep 132017
 

No wait to check in with South African, although I was mildly surprised that the check-in agent spoke extremely limited English. Not that I expect Brazilians to speak English, but I was definitely surprised that doing check-in for a country where the lingua franca is English you wouldn’t have English-speaking agents – especially in the business class check-in line!

No worry though…and maybe it was good practice because while security was super easy, passport control decided she wanted to ask about the extra pages in my passport. Except, her English didn’t go beyond “how many days” and “where you work” – so my terrible Portuguese and passible Spanish got the point across, but it was definitely a trying interaction.

The last time I was in Sao Paulo it was on a long transit with United, and I remember a smallish United club that was definitely not the most pleasant place to pass the time. This has since been replaced by a rather nice Star Alliance lounge which is not only spacious, but also rather bright and airy. The only downside was that it was slightly warm since it was “terminal temperature” but overall it was quite nice.

I didn’t check out the showers, but there were plentiful places to charge your devices, and even with the lounge rather full of evening departures to Johannsburg, Frankfurt, Zurich, Houston, etc, there was plenty of seating. For some reason, I was feeling some protein was in order, so a hamburger pattie, meat pie, and some more pão de queijo it was!  …with a glass of reasonable Argentine malbec to wash it down, of course. For anyone taking notes, the entire bar was also self-service.

After about an hour in the lounge I headed towards the gate, and was glad I got their slightly early to (a) catch a short of my plane before the sun set, and (b) because it was at the very last gate in the terminal. I joked about the long walk to the gate agent as we were queueing to board, and she said “it costs more to park closer.” I don’t know if she was kidding, but….

Boarding started 30 minutes before departure, and I was excited to see just how much of an improvement South African’s A330-300s were over their tired old business class.

South African Airways flight 223
São Paulo, Brazil (GRU) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 07:25 next day, Flight Time: 8:25
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 6K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 80,325
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,457,302

I opted for seat in the sixth row, towards the back, since the flight looked completely empty and it looked like I would have the entire empty fifth row between me and any other passengers. I ended up being right. They actually blocked off the mini cabin behind the galley and kept it empty. In total, there were only nine passengers for the 28 seats in the front business class cabin.

First impressions: loved the colour scheme, and loved how spacious it felt. Very similar to the Delta seat I had come down to Santiago on.

View across the cabin, in 1-2-1 configuration.

The red accents were a nice touch. Headphones hanging at the ready:

Middle pair of seats – even here plenty of room between you and your seatmate.

Happy…and very tired to be on-board and settled in.

Pre-departure champagne was served…in a real flute. There were some delays in boarding, so when she came to collect the glass I asked if I might have another. “No. One per passenger.” was the reply. Ugh.

Event the seatback video was advertising…the seat we were already in. Maybe this was meant for economy?

Nice-looking amenity kit, but just the basics inside.

The menu looked a bit better than I remember from recent South African long-haul flights:

Service began about 30 minutes after takeoff with drinks and canapés. The canapés reminded me of something I would see on a US airline – just uninspired and kinda cheap looking.

The roasted filet starter. It tasted better than it looked, but was definitely a little too roasted for my taste. That said, it was reasonably tasty. But what’s with the unnecessary random lettuce garnish. The 90s called…they want their plating back.

I don’t remember why, but I went with the chicken main. It was perfectly cooked, and the vegetables were a bit better than the usual super-uninspired fare. Given my usual low expectations for catering on South African, I’d say this meal overall did pretty well. Plus, there was garlic bread…

The milk pudding with caramel sauce, however, was amazing.

Ok…the cheese plate was pretty bad. I would almost venture to say worse than Untied with the cheap packaged biscuits and rubbery cheddar…but there was fig spread. So tough call…

The novelty of the trans-South Atlantic route hadn’t worn off on me yet, but I was a little concerned about our apparent flight path. Upside…maybe a quick stop in Ascension or St. Helena?

I managed nearly five hours of sleep, and wasn’t really hungry when I woke up, but the crew insisted I “at least have a little.” Ok, so I went with the deli plate. It was reasonable, except that damn lettuce garnish made another appearance…

Upon landing, some rather official looking people boarded, and the flight attendants announced over the PA that everyone must remain seated while customs officials boarded the plane. A woman’s scream could be heard from deep in the economy section, and a few minutes later two women with Louis Vuitton handbags were escorted off the plane. No clue what it was all about, but added a bit of excitement.

Rather long walk to immigration, and the usual early morning long lines in Johannesburg. Fortunately things moved relatively quickly compared to normal, and I was through in about 30 minutes. No questions, quick stamp into the country, and on my way.

On previous trips I had opted to skip the arrivals lounge, but out of curiosity I decided to check it out this time. It’s a short elevator ride up just beyond the baggage area, and while small has everything you need upon arrival. There was an extremely friendly agent working the desk who was not only welcoming but also offered a shower (with escort to the shower) and offered if there was anything else I needed be sure to ask her. A nice touch after a redeye when you’re tired and jetlagged.

After a shower and a couple bottles of water it was through the arrivals area, to the domestic wing, through security (which moved pretty quickly) and into the domestic South African Airways lounge to wait for my connecting flight. Was nice to see the large model plane in the lounge still:

Boarding was via a bus gate (as widebody domestic flights usually are at Johannsburg) because the plane had arrived internationally and was still parked at the international pier. Bus to the jetway, walk up a long flight of stairs into the jetway, and time to board.

South African Airways flight 323
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Cape Town, South Africa (CPT)
Depart 10:05, Arrive 12:15, Flight Time: 2:10
Airbus A340-300, Registration ZS-SXC, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 81,114
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,458,091

I had originally chosen a seat in the middle section since I hate people climbing over me and I hate climbing over people. I wasn’t looking forward to these seats in a couple of days to Australia after the great experience I’d just had:

There was even a small snack served on this flight which could have been much better, but given that I wasn’t hungry it was adequate for pecking at the fruit at least:

Overall, South African actually managed to exceed my expectations on this flight. I had great hopes for the new A330-300 seat, and it met all of them with flying colours – although I’m sure the light load on the flight also helped to colour my perspective a little bit. South African can also be extremely hit and miss with service, but it was definitely a home run this time due to a great new hard product and well above average crews. Now, time to enjoy Cape Town a bit!

Sep 082017
 


After a good night’s sleep thanks to great wine and a beef coma, got up early to do a bit of walking around the city before my evening flight to Sao Paulo. I wanted to get to the airport early and explore the newish AmEx Lounge there for a couple of hours before my flight. The Sheraton had no problem giving me a 4pm checkout, so I had most of the morning and afternoon to walk around.

Rather than get breakfast in the lounge I opted to get an early start and get breakfast on the way. Nice try on the name Argentina, but the Dulce de Leche muffin was absolutely delicious.

Continued walking, and came to the Avenida 9 de Julio, one of the widest avenues in Buenos Aires with nearly six lanes in each direction.

As I was crossing the street (legally according to having the “walk” sign) a driver made a left turn right into the crosswalk, striking me and launching me onto the hood of her car. I won’t write this up again as I already did a post on this with all the details, but fortunately her car ended up worse off than I did:

I was completely in shock after being hit, despite being upright, and all I remember was yelling and gesturing at the driver to pull over and shouting at some pedestrians to call the police. One or more drivers must have seen the accident and called it in, because the police appeared in less than a minute after I was hit.

After shaking it off, and determining I was more or less ok, for some reason I decided to continue on my walk. Perhaps the ultimate irony about the accident is that I was struck by a car…walking to a cemetery. My destination had been the Recoleta Cemetery to a bit of touristing around. Main entrance to the cemetery:

The main attraction of the cemetery, Evita’s family crypt:

Tons of huge elaborate tombs sitting in rows:

As I left the cemetery, I got to thinking that if I was going to continue on with the trip, I would be doing a lot of flying over the coming weeks, and the last thing I needed was the possibility of a rogue blood clot from possible internal bleeding. Problem solved when I stopped in a pharmacy to buy some aspirin…it was amusing the look on the pharmacist’s face when he queried why I needed it. Positive from this whole experience: my Spanish vocabulary has expanded to being able to talk about being hit by a car. Hah!

Small, but empty park, on the walk back to the hotel:

As I went to check out, I encountered a phenomenon I’ve never had anywhere in the world. Normally, when leaving a country, I pay the bill with any cash that I might have left over in order to not lose it before my next trip and then pay the rest with a credit card. I’ve started doing this since Uber became common, knowing I wouldn’t need any cash after leaving the hotel.

However, upon checking out at the Sheraton, the guy at the front desk told me that if I paid the room in cash, then he would need to charge me tax on it. If I paid with credit card, no tax. Made no sense at all. Thinking back on it, I might have had about $50 in cash, and the tax was going to be something like $40, so I decided even if I had to exchange it at the airport at a bad rate I would come out ahead. It was just strange.

Then I called an Uber…and it turned out that in Buenos Aires Uber doesn’t accept American Express. However, you CAN pay the driver in cash. That went a long way to taking care of my leftover cash.

Quickish trip to the airport, and on the way we drove down Avenida 9 de Julio. Stopping at a red light, a mime came out into the middle of an intersection and did a little performance for tips. I get it: wear a bright red shirt and be 6’4 and you get hit by cars, but if you’re a mime you’re safe. Odd.

Check-in, immigration, and security were nice and easy at the Aerolineas Terminal at the airport, and soon I had found the American Express Lounge. This lounge was recently built when the new terminal opened, and had been moved from the old terminal. In the old terminal, there was also a lounge within a lounge only available to Centurion Card holders, so I was curious to see if it existed in the new lounge as well.

Entered, showed my card, and was pointed to a door on the side and told someone will be right here to escort you in. Nice! I was the only one in the lounge when I arrived, and had the whole place to myself. While it was self-serve if you wanted, there was also one lounge attendant who kept insisting on bringing me drinks. Half of the bar…great liquor selection (especially the Johnny Walker Blue) and a pretty respectable Veuve for champagne:

Other half of the bar, including wine selections:

The main seating area of the lounge:

I decided to start with a glass of champagne, to celebrate my near miss with the car. Note the Veuve Cliquot stemware:

Buffet area:

Tasty selection of cheeses. These weren’t out when I arrived, but when I got there (I think I was the first guest of the day) they quickly rushed to set up the entire buffet just for me.

…that included mini sandwiches and a selection of cheeses and cold cuts:

After a bit, I decided to be extra-classy and enjoyed some sour cream and onion Pringles with a glass of Johnny Walker Blue…neat. This was followed by a couple more glasses…which weren’t measured…but the bottle was roughly 1/3 full when I arrived…and empty by the time I left…

Fortunately, the boarding gate was just two down from the lounge, and the lounge attendants insisted I enjoy the lounge until the last possible moment so I could be the last to board. At this point, there were two other very loud Americans in the lounge, waiting for their Delta flight to Atlanta. Strange characters, dressed in jeans and hunting jackets with baseball caps, and complaining that there was no Budweiser in the lounge. Not who I would imagine to be Centurion Card holders, but you never know!

Aerolineas Argentinas (Operated by Austral) flight 2242
Buenos Aires, Argentina (EZE) to São Paulo, Brazil (GRU)
Depart 22:00, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 2:45
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration LV-CET, Manufactured 2010, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,694
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,452,671

All aboard, I was the only one in business class on the ERJ tonight. Only one of nine seats taken, but coach looked to be pretty much completely full except a seat or two.

Oh look, there’s even a mini amenity kit. Despite the J code on the ticket, I guess technically the call it “ClubEconomy.” Probably a better description, since when most people think of business class they think of seats that convert into flat beds and not domestic/regional seats.

Welcome to Seat 3A

I’m going to rant a little now. About 15 minutes into the flight, the flight attendants came on the PA system and announced there would be no service on this nearly three hour flight, due to the fact they were expecting turbulence. Now, I get this for short periods, or if there was an area with known weather, but this was one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever been on. Maybe two or three little bumps the whole way.

As if to make their point, they also blocked off the flight deck and galley by placing a service cart in the aisle. Want to use the washroom? Head all the way to the back of the plane…because that’s safer when there’s suppose to be turbulence? The turbulence was also sooooooo bad (sarcasm) that the crew spent around 90% of the flight standing around in the galley eating and drinking and chatting with each other…including at least one of the pilots.

No question this was just a lazy crew looking for an excuse to provide no service at all. I even tried to ring the call button at one point to ask for a glass of water…multiple times…and was completely ignored. This must have been the laziest crew in the history of aviation.

Thus, I can’t comment on food and beverage available….because we were never offered anything. Water included. Awful.

Great view of Sao Paulo on descent, however…the city just goes on and on!

After deplaning, quick shot of our ERJ:

Managed to change the rest of my pesos at the airport at a pretty bad rate, but losing 20% on $20 or so isn’t really the end of the world as far as things go. Decided to take an official taxi which accepted pre-payment by credit card, and I was off to my hotel to enjoy two nights in Sao Paulo before continuing on to Africa!

Sep 062017
 

I had forgotten that one of the best things about southbound/northbound redeye flights with no time zone change is the total lack of jetlag. Ended up going to bed around 10p my first night in Santiago, and slept over nine straight wonderful hours due to being so tired…and no waking up in the middle of the night due to jetlag. It was wonderful!

First stop was down the street to Starbucks to get some coffee and wake up, but for some reason (despite the opening hours indicating otherwise) the store was closed 45 minutes after it was supposed to open, and there was no sign of life inside. Hmm, oh well, on to plan two – breakfast at the W which was included with my room.

For some reason was feeling like fruit this morning, so went for a light breakfast of fruit and cheese, along with plenty of coffee. Fruit was fresh and super tasty – does anyone know what the fruit in the upper right of the picture is?

Still hungry, I went for a bit more fruit…and some pastries of course…

Sufficiently awake, I checked out, and called an Uber to head to the airport. No problem getting an Uber this time (despite the supposed illegal status in Santiago) and was at the airport and checked in in no time at all. Through immigration and security rather quickly, and walked through the duty free shop on the way to try and find the lounge. In Russia there was vodka in plastic kalashnikov rifle bottles, and apparently in Chile there is pisco in Easter Island statues for sale. Anything as a gimmick for the tourist dollar!

Finally found the Starbucks, and no thanks to signs, the Avianca lounge which is hidden in the basement. Never would have found it without asking someone where it is. Makes you wonder why there aren’t signs. The lounge is about as disappointing as every Avianca lounge I’ve been in, but did the job with plenty of bottled drinks and some chocolate chip cookies to go with my espresso, so I was happy.

Headed to the gate about 40 minutes prior to departure, and there was a huge throng of people waiting to board. Lots of jetlagged people continuing on from Toronto, including the obligatory “I’m a silver elite member” pushing people out of the way to try and board. Ahhh….just like being back home. But the Air Canada baby blue 787 looked striking against the grey, rainy sky:

Boarding was pretty easy, and a very friendly crew welcomed me on board and showed me to my seat – 1K

Air Canada flight 92
Santiago, Chile (SCL) to Buenos Aires, Argentina (EZE)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 13:40, Flight Time: 1:55
Boeing 787-9, Registration C-FKSV, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 74,624
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,451,601

Bienvenue á bord! Day three of trip, third language…

Must have gotten to the airport just on time, because the skies opened up and very heavy rain had begun to fall For pre-departure, the choice was water, water, or water. At least it wasn’t served in a plastic cup…

Great view of the Andes soon after takeoff. No sign of any soccer players…

Love this shot of the snow-capped Andes with the distinctive 787 wing.

The light clouds really added to the beauty.

About 30 minutes into the flight, lunch was served. Not too bad for a flight under two hours, and a continuation flight. I find generally when airlines do these “tag” flights onto a longer flight, the second flight has a tiny snack at best. This had a full lunch service which was super tasty. There was even a simple menu for the short flight:

High marks to Air Canada – the lunch was super tasty and fresh, and one of the better meals I’ve had on such a short route anywhere in the world. Plus, the Deutz is a less-common champagne that was a nice change from some of the more frequent offerings.

As we were approaching Buenos Aires, it was suggested I have another glass of champagne. My mild protests fell upon deaf ears….as did the ones 15 minutes before landing. “You’re having more, and I’ll put it in a plastic cup so you can enjoy it right up to the gate.” Did I mention I loved this crew?

Not feeling like dealing with Uber at the airport I allowed myself to get taken advantage of by the official taxi service, which was quick and prevented me from having to wait in the heavy rain outside looking around for an Uber. When I got to my hotel, the Sheraton Congress Centre, check-in was a little on the slow side, but they did inform me that they had upgraded me to a suite for my one night stay. Not too shabby for the low rate. The living room upon entry:

Looking from the living room back to the door and kitchen area:

Pretty typical bedroom, as big as most hotel rooms:

Great view out the window of the Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina, the Torre Monumental, and the Retiro train station:

Previous trips to Buenos Aires I had always stayed in the Luxury Collection Park Tower (which is right next to the Sheraton) but for some reason on this stay rates were more than double, and I figured for one night I would try and be a bit economical. Short version: I was perfectly happy with the Sheraton, and glad that I hadn’t spent the extra money simply for a nicer room.

It was still a light rain when I headed out, but decided to walk for a bit in hopes of not getting too wet. Monument to those killed in the wars in the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands:

Heading up the beginning of Avenida Florida past San Martin Park as dusk set in:

After about an hour of walking it was dark and I was getting damp and tired, so headed to my favourite parilla, El Establo, to get some delicious Argentine steak. The place was a bit more run down than I remembered it being, and of course prices are much higher now that the blue market exchange rate is more or less a thing of the past, but a half bottle of good malbec and a giant lomo/filet mignon with dessert was still under $30. Can’t beat it!

Almost perfectly cooked….could have been just the tiniest bit more red, but given the propensity of Argentines to overcook steak (even when ordered punto jugoso) I was very happy with it!

Now that was a LOT of steak.

…but of course, being Argentina, there was still room for some Dulce de Leche ice cream. Also being Argentina, there’s no such thing as a small dessert!

With that, it was getting late and I was getting tired, so it was time for some sleep so I could enjoy more Buenos Aires in the morning before heading onwards…

Sep 012017
 

I’m still not certain how I ended up with this routing, but once it all came together the circle around the world sounded really fun. Only problem was to make it work, somehow I had to get to Sao Paulo, Brazil, which would require a visa. After my previous nightmare getting a Brazilian visa nearly ten years ago I wasn’t looking forward to it, but this turned out to be easier than I expected.

Once this was planned, I couldn’t resist a couple more stops in South America, and when I found award space from Santiago to Buenos Aires then Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo it all seemed to fall into place. There was even award space from DC to Santiago with United so it all seemed to work out.

But then a few weeks before the trip, I started to have buyer’s remorse about all the miles I had spent on the trip, and began to think of ways to possibly cut things back a little. After a little checking, I found lots of space on Delta to Santiago, so decided that I would give standby a chance. Now, lots of people have realized over the last couple of years that even when you find space for an award ticket, the toughest part can be the domestic segment to your gateway. Unfortunately, I learned with standby it can be the same thing.

In the few days leading up to the flight, just about every flight from DC to Atlanta went from having lots of open seats to being nearly full. I probably would have gotten on one, but it looked very, very risky. After some checking, I knew I could get to LaGuardia, and since Delta flies to 30+ destinations from there I figured I could get from there to somewhere and eventually to Atlanta. Yes, the LaGuardia to Atlanta flights were also extremely full.

So, I found myself at the airport, and with lots of open space, no problem getting on the flight to LaGuardia.

Delta Shuttle Flight 6140, Operated by Republic Airlines
Washington DC, National (DCA) to New York, LaGuardia (LGA)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 12:13, Flight Time: 1:13
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N823MD, Manufactured 2005, Seat 7A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 68,281
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,445,258

DCA is one of the few airports I actually prefer a window seat, especially on the A side of the plane. On a clear day, I love this view right after takeoff:

…and on approach to LaGuardia, you’re treated to this. Makes being “penned-in” to a window seat very worth it. Fortunately, in this case, the aisle was even empty!

After landing and a short wait for the shuttle bus, it was off to the main terminal at LaGuardia to enjoy the Centurion Lounge for a bit…and plan how I would get to Atlanta.

Glass of Veuve Cliquot, a nice seasonal salad and some tomato soup made for a tasty lunch.

At this point things were still a little iffy, and I started playing around with options to get to Atlanta. Originally I was thinking of flying via Richmond, but that started filling up. Some more playing around, and I found an option I didn’t even know existed: Savannah, Georgia. The flights were wide open, so I booked it and then headed over to the Delta terminal to sit out the rest of the wait in the SkyClub.

I got there just in time, because they were rolling out the hot dog cart. Who knew they served hot dogs in the SkyClub. Fun, and different. Lunch part two, with a glass of wine.

Delta Flight 3366, Operated by Endeavor Air
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Savannah, Georgia (SAV)
Depart 15:10, Arrive 17:47, Flight Time: 2:37
Canadair CRJ-900, Registration N924XJ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 69,004
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,445,981

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who figured out this route. I was joined by another 20+ standbys also trying to get to Atlanta who figured out that this was likely the safest routing. Still not a full flight, and got both seats to myself…and a Comfort+ seat to boot. Can’t complain about that at all…and much better than getting the last middle seat on a nonstop to Atlanta from DCA!

Wine, Biscoff, and Almonds for the ride down to Savannah. Delightful service for a long regional flight.

20 minutes out from landing I looked at the radar, and found this. The blue cross was our location…this was going to be very bumpy on the ride in…

Wasn’t too bad as far as turbulence, but after deplaning looked out to the tarmac and saw this view. Yup, the skies are angry!

I admit – part of the reason I chose this route was to see a new airport I’d never been to before and to add to my routes flown. I may have to do these strange connections more often just to get a little variety on my flight map!

Although the connection was supposed to be only 30 minutes making it tight, thanks to weather things were a bit delayed and I ended up having almost 90 minutes between flights. Just enough time to get Starbucks and wake up a bit. Another fun fact: people may have heard of the “Big Mac Index” where the Economist did a relative cost of living exercise for different cities around the world using the price of a Big Mac. I’ve been doing the same at Starbucks for a couple of years, using the price of a grande drip coffee (tax included). If anyone would like to contribute to this project, feel free to send me datapoints!

Delta Flight 1475
Savannah, Georgia (SAV) to Atlanta, Georgia, ATL (ATL)
Depart 18:15, Arrive 19:25, Flight Time: 1:10
Boeing 717, Registration N972AT, Manufactured 2002, Seat 11E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 69,219
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,446,196

Not much to say about this flight – the crew spent the whole thing seated due to turbulence, which fortunately ended up not being as bad as expected. Nice short hop, and soon we were in Atlanta.

Checked one more time online, and things still looked very good, so I headed to the SkyClub to enjoy my time before boarding. Couple glasses of wine and some cheese, and when I saw I had been assigned a seat headed down to the gate to enjoy the spoils of my victory: saving 55,000 United miles and still getting to ride in the pointy end of the plane in DeltaOne.

Delta Flight 147
Atlanta, Georgia, ATL (ATL) to Santiago, Chile (SCL)
Depart 22:25, Arrive 08:00 next day, Flight Time: 9:35
Boeing 767-300, Registration N183DN, Manufactured 1993, Seat 7D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 73,914
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,450,891

Welcome aboard bubbles…in a glass. A real glass. Are you listening United and American?

Nice simple, but useful Tumi amenity kit.

Warm nuts came around after takeoff, which was nice…except for the tinfoil ramekin. Found out later from some in the know that there’s been a catering shortage in Atlanta recently which should hopefully be resolved soon.

Soup, salad, and appetizer were all served together on a tray. Normally I wouldn’t be too fond of this, but given it was a 10:30 pm departure, efficiency was appreciated.

The corn and green chili bisque with cilantro lime sauce didn’t look very appetizing, but was absolutely delicious.

Sad salad with ramekin of veg. I suspect maybe this was supposed to be poured over the salad before serving?

Went with the grilled beef tenderloin expecting it to be overcooked, which it was. It was still tasty tho, and the polenta and grilled artichoke were nice as a different side from the potatoes and mushy veg I’m used to.

For a US airline cheese plate this was really good, not to mention it was served with fig compote. Everyone knows how I like my fig compote! Plus, I can’t quite put my finger on it but the simplicity of the sundae was also really good. Big fan of this desert combo compared to what I’m used to on United and American.

Slept nearly seven hours after all the food and wine, and missed the breakfast service as usual on longhaul redeyes, waking up with just enough time to brush my teeth and put some contacts in before landing. On the walk to immigration, we were greeted with this sign:

I love how they blacked out other countries no longer subject to the reciprocity fee, and made it very clear only Australians are the bad guys in Chile these days. Immigration was nice and simple, and with that it was time to find my way to the hotel and start enjoying the trip!

Jul 142017
 

After a relaxing breakfast, we still had a bit of time so walked around the city a bit before I headed to the airport. I wanted to see if on a Monday things would be a bit busier, but even at 11am the city felt like a bit of a ghost town. Several readers have commented that there’s not a huge population, it’s not well-known outside Portuguese tourists, but I think most of it was the fact that the tourists who DO come don’t spend a bunch of time in the city – except maybe mealtimes which explained why dinner reservations were needed.

Ian’s flight was a bit later in the afternoon, so he dropped me at the airport before going to wander around the city some more. How can you feel unsafe when the airport is named after Pope John Paul the Second?

Pope says: safe travels and boa viagem!

Checked in, headed to the lounge, and very quickly realized that I had gotten to the airport way, way too early. I had received a notification when I woke up my flight was delayed by 45 minutes until 4pm, so I had arrived about 1:30 hoping to enjoy the lounge. Unfortunately, lounge was rather depressing. Essentially nothing to eat save some cookies and crackers, but a decently stocked fridge full of beverages.

About an hour before my flight I was bored, and since Azores Airlines only has two A310s it was pretty easy to track them online. One, scheduled to operated my flight, was sitting coming from Lisbon and the other was sitting in Ponta Delgada. The one that was already there was scheduled to operate the later 5pm flight to Boston for some reason (it had its engines open so probably maintenance?) and mine was coming from Lisbon. The only problem was…according to every site I could track it on, it was still in Lisbon…2.5 hours away….an hour before my flight. Azores Airlines own site said it wouldn’t be Lisbon until 4:30….or 3:30 local.

I checked with the agent in the lounge, who insisted I must be wrong. The flight is on time. I asked her if she could check with someone. “No, I do not need to. It is on time.” Uhhh….I may have started stirring the pot, letting my fellow passengers know that our plane was still in Lisbon, so there was no way we were leaving at 3:15 pm…

Finally, at about 3:30pm a supervisor came to the lounge and singled out me and two other passengers. Yes, the plane was still in Lisbon (duh) and won’t be here for quite some time. He had proactively rebooked me and the other two passengers on the 5pm flight. There were only three seats left, so everyone else was left to wait and hope. How we had been chosen, I’m not quite sure. I was on a full fare paid ticket, so maybe that helped, or maybe he’d seen me inciting revolution in the lounge and wanted to get rid of me.

Then, of course, just after he left, our new flight the 5pm was hit with a 90 minute delay. Now we would be leaving at 6:30pm. That meant arrival at about 8:20pm. Fortunately, the 90 minute delay (which turned out to be due to a connection from Praia, Cape Verde with 80 connecting passengers) held, and we were underway.

Azores Airlines flight 281
Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal (PDL) to Boston, Massachusetts (BOS)
Depart 17:00, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time: 5:50
Airbus A310-300, Registration CS-TGU, Manufactured 1991, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 65,805
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,442,782

Fortunately we had a bus gate (as are all gates in Ponta Delgada) so I got an up close and personal shot with my first ever A310:

As soon as I boarded, I got this notice from Air Azores:

My original flight had canceled. All 150+ people booked on it would be stranded in Ponta Delgada overnight, and both flights to Boston the next day were already booked completely full. I’ve never been happier that I paid the extra to be in business class!

Unfortunately, I forgot to get a pic of the seats. Thanks to Flyertalk user Carfield this is what they look like:

Far from the best business class seats across the Atlantic – they might be the worst – but with all their flights being under five hours it really was a pretty decent product. They were nice to lounge in, and very comfortable, and the price was certainly good. I knew roughly was I was getting going into it, so was very pleased with the product.

Pre-dinner drinks and ziplock-bagged mixed nuts were served:

“Meat or fish” were the option. FAR from the most appetizing looking meal I’ve ever gotten, and it was all Saran wrapped…to seal in freshness? I did find it odd that whenever I asked for sparkling water, she would bring me a fresh bottle and glass each time.

Didn’t look much better with the shrink wrap off. The beef did, however, taste much better than it looked.

Flight passed quickly, and we circled Boston a bit before landing, due to what the pilot called “very big rain.”

With less than 40 minutes to clear customs and change terminals I had kissed my connection goodbye, but upon landing my flight had been delayed…by over three hours….to 12:40am! Blessing in disguise!

Rushed over to the other terminal and got to the gate, and in the meantime the flight was hit with a further delay, now departing at 1:55am. By that time, I would have been up almost 24 hours plus the time to get home to DC, and best case I would be in bed by 4:30am. There was absolutely no way I was going to work the next day on 2-3 hours of sleep, so decided to throw in the towel and find an agent and asked to be rebooked the next day.

Unfortunately, my experience with JetBlue agents left a lot to be desired. They were all rather surly and curt, and seemed completely disinterested in helping. I finally after trying two or three found one who agreed to rebook me the next day, given my flight was delayed by over four hours. Yes, the hotel would be at my own expense, I get it.

Left the airport to get my Uber, and found out that the Uber waiting area is about a three minute walk outside from the terminal. Only problem was, those heavy rains that the pilot told us about. It was a torrential downpour, and even the short sprint to the uber got me absolutely soaking wet.

My hotel, the Le Meridien Cambridge also left a lot to be desired. The gentleman working the front desk had the personality of a 1980s Soviet hotel worker, and when I told him the AC in my room sounded like a plane taking off “we have no other rooms. Anyways, they are all like that.” Geez. I was hungry at this point, so decided to call room service. Guess who I got on the phone? Yup, grumpy front desk guy also takes room service orders. “No, you can’t have wine. Not after 10pm.” Sigh. Fine.

I went down to the bar, in hopes I might talk the bartender into a glass to take up to my room. Let me just say, he was the warmest most helpful person I encountered, and was the only reason I didn’t demand my points back. The sandwich I got from room service was also terrible, and  sleeping with a jumbo jet going wasn’t terribly helpful. In retrospect, I should have taken the 2am delayed flight. Oh, wait, no I shouldn’t have….because after all that they ended up canceling it just before 1am. UGH!

Surely when I got back to the airport, the next day would be better. It couldn’t be much worse. Except for the world’s largest emotional support animal in the gate area.

The gate agent was wonderful, and I may have flirted a bit, but he did manage to not only get me an aisle seat, but got me one in the second row. Score.

JetBlue flight 1155
Boston, Massachusetts (BOS) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 13:25, Arrive 15:00, Flight Time: 1:35
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration N298JB, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 66,204
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,443,181

Score…except for the fact the dog was across the aisle from me, and as soon as it lay down it rested its head on my feet. Ok, that’s cute I guess…and the owner was good looking and apologized for the dog doing that….at which point he fed it what looked like three benedryl. I didn’t think that was good for dogs…

Then, I was really excited. Seemed there was one seat empty on the plane…and it was right by me. But right before the door closed, it was not to be. A rather large lady who I’d estimate in the neighbourhood of 400 pounds came onto the plane huffing and puffing with two giant bags of fast food. Of course she was seated next to me, and tried to put the armrest up as she sat down. I very politely told her I preferred it down and was met with “well how am I supposed to sit down then!” Fortunately, the great flight attendant was right there, and told her “ma’am, the armrest must be down for takeoff. You can take a later flight if that would be more comfortable.”

I won’t go into more details, but it was an extremely unpleasant flight. Ok, one more detail…the guy across the aisle got a beer, and put some in a cup….for the dog to drink. See, all my fears of coach ARE well-founded!

Another great trip in the books, look for another one soon…

Jul 092017
 

After enjoying our Starbucks at Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport it was off to the gate for our flight to the Azores. There was a great rooftop cafe where you could watch the planes taking off – which was quite fun on the narrow runway. Do a search on wikipedia for the Funchal airport – it’s considered one of the most difficult landings in the world.

I briefly stopped to check out the SATA lounge which was partnered with priority pass, but while it had a few serve yourself drinks and cookies, that was about it. I had a quick cookie and a Diet Coke before heading back out to join Ian – I would have been better off getting a custard tart from the cafe with the good view!

The gate area was rather packed considering it was a turboprop flight only holding about 70 people, but it looked like most of them were connecting in Ponta Delgada to flights to the US and Canada. Seemed like such a strange place for a connection, but I would be taking that flight myself in a few days.

SATA flight 161
Funchal, Madeira, Portugal (FNC) to Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal (PDL)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 13:55, Flight Time: 2:05
De Havilland Q400, Registration CS-TRG, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 63,410
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,440,387

Quick taxi and takeoff, and despite the flight time under two hours we were serve a box snack with a sandwich and some cookies. Take note: I actually not only ate the sandwich this time, but it was tasty and I didn’t get sick!

Nothing else really to say about the flight. It was full, but on time and comfortable enough – about all you can ask for on a short route like this.

Our rental car was a bit strange here, as the agency met us in the arrivals hall, and dropped off the car for us. They told us which spaces to park it in when we returned. It seems the agencies don’t have big lots at this airport, so they just bring the cars in as needed. You actually sit down with the agent in the arrivals hall and fill up the contract while sitting there.

Drive to our hotel was pretty short, but the strange thing is that we couldn’t really figure out where we were supposed to park. Street metered spots we found out were free on weekends, so we would be fine until 7a on our day of departure. We were staying at the Hotel Talisman, and check in was pretty quick and we were on our way to our rooms. Not too much to say about the hotel. Initial impressions were that it was a bit odd in that the rooms had no desk, but the AC was freezing cold and the bed seemed comfortable, so overall I was pretty happy with it on first impression.

It was mid-afternoon at this point, and we decided to go for a short walk around the downtown area and just get a feel for the city the first day. The next full day would be for driving around the island of São Miguel and actually seeing things.

First stop near our hotel was the Church of Sebastian:

As we walked along the coast, lots of locals were out sunning themselves on the concrete “beach.” Did I mention the temp was only about 18C/65F? Maybe that’s warm in Ponta Delgada or something?

Posing for a photo near the water:

The city gates, right by the Church of St. Sebastian:

Huge old tree in the courtyard outside the church of Sao Jose. Does anyone know what kind of a tree this is? It was so big that it actually had support beams holding up several of its limbs:

Not too sure about this statue outside the military museum….

We headed to the Taberna Açor Restaurant for dinner, and didn’t have a reservation, so they didn’t think they would be able to seat us. We asked if we could wait, and after about 45 minutes they did find a table for us. Incidentally, we tried to come back the next night and there was absolutely no way we would get a table. Reservations are essential here.

The wait turned out to be a good thing, as a small local wine producer was tasting his wares outside the restaurant. He had a small winery on the Ilha do Pico, and the wine was actually quite reasonable. It was good enough that we actually ordered a bottle when we got back to the hotel after dinner.

Speaking of dinner, the amazing local sausages and cheese plate. Super tasty with local honey and condiments. It was huge, and more than enough to make a dinner for two people.

Next morning we were up to enjoy what TripAdvisor reviews described as the incredibly generous breakfast buffet at the Hotel Talisman. It was ok, but honestly nothing super impressive. The usual fare, but what struck me were the people going back for plate after plate. I got the sense this was a bit of a group tour budget destination, and people were stocking up on the free food to keep costs under control.

We headed out in the car, and finally we figured out where all the people were hiding. See, other than the restaurant, the whole island felt eerily quiet. No people anywhere. All the stores were “fechado” – closed. It just seemed weird and empty. But the Sete Cidades “twin lakes” had tonnes of cars parked at it and lots of tourists.

The name of the lake is actually a misnomer, because it’s really one lake with a road that divides it into parts. The different colours are because of different depths, so when the sun hits it it reflects are green on one half and blue in the other:

There was an old abandoned five star hotel next to the lakes, which was a great vantage point for taking pictures of the lakes from a higher perspective. Apparently the hotel opened about 25 years ago, and was in business for less than a year before closing. Seems it was just close enough to the city that nobody wanted to stay out there and be isolated, so it didn’t have enough business to keep going. They kept guards around for a couple of years, hoping to reopen it, but even that was given up on. The place was complete abandoned and looted now.

Except for Pokemon:

We only saw the one above, but the walls made sure to let us know we should be on the lookout for more:

View from the roof of the abandoned hotel:

From the top floor, looking down into the atrium lobby:

Couldn’t get enough of the view from the roof:

King of the Sete Cidades!

Standing in a heap of rubbish in the atrium of the hotel, looking up:

The lifts had long since been looted, and decaying concrete towers were all that remained:

We kept driving across the lakes to the northern part of the island and the Ponta da Costa vantage point. I’ll admit I planned most of our stops based on where google maps indicated there seemed to be vantage points, and this one was pretty awesome. View from the top of the long winding path down to the ocean:

We walked about halfway down, and this was the view looking west across the northern part of the island:

Just me and the North Atlantic Ocean:

After driving a bit more we stopped in the town of Ribeira Grande for lunch. We chose the Restaurante O Silva which was said to be very popular with locals, and was packed with families having a sunday lunch together. I don’t remember what kind of fish I ordered, but it was absolutely delicious:

We headed back inland after lunch to stop at the Caldeira Velha – which actually turned out to be hot springs. There was a nominal fee to go into the park, and it seemed the thing to do was to bring your bathing suits and sit in the various hot springs and relax. This one had such a high mineral content it was an orange colour…and so hot that it was actually boiling in places:

We drove on to the next Miradouro (I told you that word would keep coming back over and over on this trip) – the Miradouro do Lagoa do Fogo – the lake of fire. Another great view:

Climbed halfway up the steep path overlooking the lake. We were pretty high up on the island at this point, and there was a light mist we were so close to the clouds:

View from up high:

I should note there was also a cycling race going on on the island, and despite them reaching impressive speeds of over 40 kph most of the time, we found ourselves in a line of cars behind the racers at several points which had slowed us down. We were making good time, however, so weren’t too concerned about making it all the way around the island.

As we worked our way around to the eastern side of the island, I found a lighthouse on google maps which looked neat to see. Nobody else was parked there, but we decided to see it. I found it strange that it was a lighthouse, yet we were very high up on a cliff at this point, but still had to park at the top. Where could the lighthouse be?

This sign should have been a warning. Walk down to the lighthouse, don’t drive….35% incline down…

Yup, it was a pretty steep road…we did see one or two locals in pickup trucks doing it, but they clearly knew how to drive this road from experience:

We were rewarded with great views:

Finally, at the bottom, we were rewarded with the lighthouse:

Starting back up the 35% incline, I instantly regretted coming down to see it:

Walking almost straight uphill:

Amazing views.

Back to Ponta Delgada, parked the car, and as it was almost 8pm at this point we headed back to the same restaurant to have dinner. No luck tonight as I mentioned above, and almost everything else was, yes, closed:

It was odd. The only place in the city you saw people were at restaurants, otherwise the streets felt absolutely empty. Pretty much every restaurant, however, was either closed or packed full on a Monday night. It was the strangest thing. We eventually ate at the Calçada do Cais around the corner. Despite being out of several things on their menu it was a reasonably tasty dinner al fresco, which was perfect for the last night of the trip.

It would be up relatively early the next morning to start the trek home, and to enjoy a new aircraft type I had never flown before!