Aug 072017
 

One of the most frequent questions I got last year was “after you’ve been to every country, what will you do next?”

Over the last two years, the only community of “Country Collectors” or “Competitive Travelers” (take your pick) has actually come together quite a bit more, thanks to a combination of Facebook and various other websites. It’s a small club of 200-300 people by most accounts, and it’s been interesting to watch how people travel after going to every country.

Many people can’t stop collecting, so they go for the Travelers Century Club list of 325 distinct places. Others start ticking off US States, or Russian regions, or the UNESCO heritage list. There’s an endless number of possibilities for those of us who are list focused.

My plans were to at least take the next year to revisit places I had enjoyed, and spend a bit more time doing fun trips. My results at that have been decidedly mixed. Due to heavy work travel, I found myself in Croatia, Thailand, and Vienna over the last year – getting to see all three more in depth due to spending a week at a time in one city. I also made a round the world trip back in February, returning to places I’d already been and flying a variety of fun routes.

Then of course, I got sucked into the “list” thing a bit in the spring, when Ian convinced me to go to South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Abkhazia since they are quasi-independent. I’m still very interested in doing more of these autonomous places, but happy to take the pace slower.

So, with that, I figured I would celebrate the one year anniversary of going to every country with a bit of a fun trip. The routing would be somewhat determined for me, since I had a few tickets I had bought over the past year which would soon expire if I didn’t use them (non-refundable, but date-changeable) so it became a matter of piecing things together to make those work.

I toyed with all kinds of routings. I wanted to take some “fun” flights just for the experience. I wanted to try and get to some places I hadn’t been in a long time. Due to the existing tickets, I also had to go to Sydney, Singapore, and Helsinki. Yeah…not exactly on the same side of the Earth, eh?

So, this is how it all shook out. I didn’t set out to hit all six permanently inhabited continents, but that’s how it’s going to happen. The final routing looks like this, barring any surprises:

You might notice the trip ends in Detroit. Thats because I land back in the US on not only the one year anniversary of my getting to every country, but also the day before my NEXUS membership expires. …and just my luck, they’re requiring an interview for me to renew.

That puts me in Detroit/Windsor at the front end of a long holiday weekend before my birthday…so who knows where the last five days will take me. I’m intentionally leaving it open-ended for another week or two at least.

The start is also a little uncertain. I’m considering being brave and flying non-rev down to Santiago to start the trip, but fortunately I have a backup refundable award ticket booked on another airline just in case. So the front and end are a little questionable, but the middle is solid now. Who knows, since I’ll be in Detroit maybe I’ll make a quick two day hop to Europe or Asia at the end. All depends how things shake out!

Rather than go through all the details, I’ll just highlight a few of the flights/travel parts I’m really looking forward to:

  • Air Canada 787 from Santiago to Buenos Aires
  • The Private Room in the AmEx Centurion Lounge in Buenos Aires
  • My first South Atlantic crossing: Sao Paulo to Johannesburg
  • My first South Indian ocean crossing: Johannesburg to Perth
  • Singapore A380 suites from Sydney to Delhi, with a 23:55 connection to enjoy Singapore and the Private Room
  • Uzbekistan Airways 767 and 787 from Delhi to Moscow with stops in Amritsar and Tashkent
  • Russian SAPSAN train first class from Moscow to Petersburg
  • Allegro train from Petersburg to Helsinki

Feel free to share any must-see things to see/do along the way. Leaving in just a couple of days now…

Mar 032017
 

Easy trip by train to the Sydney airport, and soon was at the Qatar check-in area. Qatar slightly unusually has one queue feeding into separate check-in counters for first and business, so after asking an agent I ducked under the ropes and waited for the first agent to be free. When she was, I started walking up and the guy at the guy of the long queue literally rushed over and physically shoved me out of the way. I politely asked “are you in first class?” and he just glared at me and went to the desk. Ok, whatever.

When the agent was free she did apologize for what happened (although it was not her fault) which was a nice touch. She informed me that I was all alone today in first, so I would have the cabin to myself – which seat would I like? The cabin was empty when I booked so I had already selected the seat I wanted, but I appreciated her letting me know I could have whichever one I would like. Immigration and security were painless, and soon it was into the departures lounge.

I’ve flown into and out of Sydney multiple times, but never on a OneWorld airline internationally, so I haven’t had the chance to use the Qantas First lounge before now. In general, I’m not a fan of what OneWorld calls first lounges, because they’re usually heaving with all the OneWorld Emerald members, so they’re usually no more quiet or exclusive than a Star Alliance business class lounge.

This lounge was no exception as there were well over 100 guests, but it was huge and well laid-out, so didn’t seem quite so noticeable. Decided on a quick shower to wash off all the rushing around the city, and on the way to the showers noticed our plane parked right in front of the lounge. At least it would be a short walk!

IMG_0701

Showers were fine, nothing special, but definitely got the job done. I decided to head over to the dining area and order some light snacks. I had reached out to a few friends who are well-versed in this lounge, and they told me I had to try the salt and pepper calamari. It was good, but not mind-blowing:

IMG_0702

I was going to leave after this, but the very charming lounge agent named Henry wouldn’t let me leave without some dessert. Ok, now this is fun:

IMG_0704

I stayed around a couple more hours getting some work done, with Henry always being attentive. Despite him only asking once, he never forgot any preferences and as I was leaving, I complimented him on his memory. He smiled and told me “there are three rules in hospitality: smile, genuine, and remember.” I need to hire this guy! I honestly can’t say I remember the last time I’ve received such fantastic service from an airline.

Walking out of the lounge to my plane, the lounge features a very interesting living green stuff wall:

IMG_0705

Boarding was a mad rush for first and business, no separate lines or boarding call, and we were soon aboard.

Qatar Airways flight 909
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Doha, Qatar (DOH)
Depart 22:10, Arrive 05:05, Flight Time: 14:55
Airbus A380-800, Registration A7-APD, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 24,006
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,388,407

First thing I noticed…I was already the fourth person in first. I thought I was the only one? Very polite Korean crew, but there was a rather significant communication gap. Their English was some of the poorest I’ve ever had from a crew on Qatar/Etihad/Emirates. They were perfectly polite, however, and Krug soon made an appearance along with olives and cheese. Unique and tasty choice.

IMG_0707

Lots of space, but the seat is rather lacking in privacy. By this point, the cabin had filled to seven of eight seats. I asked the purser what happened and she said “business class is too full today” so I guess there were six lucky people who got operational upgrades to first. Small silver lining, the one seat kept empty was the one across the aisle from me, so they at least tried to keep it as private as possible.

IMG_0708

Lots of folks are fans of Qatar’s lifejacket demo guy in the video, and it appears they have a special guest in the current video:

IMG_2112

IMG_2134

Soon after takeoff, it was warm. Very warm. I asked the crew several times if they could turn the temperature down, and they said they were trying, but the cabin remained extremely warm – I would say approximately 25C/80F.

Started off with the caviar course, which came with blinis and toasts, as well as plenty of sides:

IMG_2884

Rather odd what I think was an attempt at a crab cake, but whatever it was was bland.

IMG_2885

Nice bread basket and amazing butter.

IMG_2886

Sous vide lamb  with spinach and feta cheese gnocchi, crushed peas, baby carrots, and radish. Noticeably lacking: anything resembling spinach or feta cheese or gnocchi. The lamb was also cooked well-done. This whole meal was a huge miss.

IMG_2887

The empty seat across the aisle. With the privacy screen up it was pretty private, but had that seat been taken there would have been very little privacy.

IMG_2888

Rather sad cheese plate. The one thing they did nicely was add some jam/chutney to the offering.

IMG_2889

The entertainment selection was pretty extensive, but every video started with an annoying few minute ad for tourist in Qatar. I got kind of sick of them asking this woman about her wedding day. It was more irritating since I was watching tv shows, so every 20-30 minutes I got to watch her.

IMG_2908

Chocolate soufflé  with strawberry coulis:

IMG_2938

Despite the efforts of the crew, the cabin remained an oven. I decided to change into lightweight gym shorts and shirt to try and sleep as opposed to the rather heavy pajamas they were offering. I also tried to stay awake as long as possible on this flight so that I could somewhat switch to arrival time. It must have done the trip, because I slept for a solid eight hours and woke up just about an hour before landing.

Wasn’t too terribly hungry, but the crew insisted I eat a little. Nice little bread basket, some tea, fresh orange juice, and a banana and cinnamon smoothy, which was actually quite tasty.

IMG_2946

I really wasn’t feeling a big breakfast, but I wanted to eat a bit in the lounge, so I just asked for the “cured balik salmon with chive cream cheese, egg and caper berries.” It was smaller than I expected, but plenty untilI got to the lounge. The crew actually seemed offended whtn I wouldn’t let them cook me eggs.

IMG_2947

The cabin hadn’t cooled down at all in flight, so I waited until the last moment to change back into regular clothes. We landed in a very dark Doha about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule and I was wide awake thanks to the time shift.

Overall, Qatar was pretty much what I expected: good, but not great. Like Emirates and Etihad I think the first class product was a lot of show without the little touches that make first class “exceptional.” You can’t just spend money on things like caviar and champagne and expect a world-class product to materialize. It was a big step up from Thai/United/American, but nowhere in the same league as the big boys like Cathay, Singapore, Lufthansa, Air France.

Next up, two hour transit and on to Cairo!

Mar 022017
 

This one is going to get a little long. Yes, it’s only two days in Australia, but there’s just that much to see and enjoy that I can’t do it justice without at least a few dozen pictures.

Australian immigration is super easy now that ePassports can be scanned at the gate and you don’t have to deal with an immigration officer. Through the gates, straight to customs, and hand my slip to the customs agent. After asking how long I was here for, and hearing three days, he asked why so far for three days. Told him it’s been a rough few months at work, so decided to take a bit of a trip around the world to get away from all the drama in Washington DC lately. His response was so typically Australian: “yeah, that President’s a bit of a wanker, isn’t he?” Perfect welcome to Australia!

On to the Airport Express Train and off to my hotel – the Westin Sydney. I’ve always stayed at the Four Points Darling Harbour before, but it’s in the process of rebranding so it was time to check out a new part of the city. I’m very glad I did, because although it wasn’t on the water I was very happy with my stay here. Yes, I had the perfect storm of problems with my room (bad air conditioning, a door lock that froze in the locked position and needed a manual key to open, etc, etc, etc) but major kudos to hotel management for doing their best to make things right in the end. Suffice to say, for a stay with so many problems, I will definitely be giving them another chance.

Check in, quick shower after sleeping on a plane, and given it was already mid-afternoon it was time for a walk. Strolled down to The Rocks, and on the way stopped at a small pub I like for a couple of beers and an emu, crocodile, and kangaroo pizza. Lunch al fresco, ahhh….

IMG_6255

Got down to the waterfront just in time, while it was still full daylight, and enjoyed playing tourist a bit. The Harbour Bridge:

IMG_6258

Sydney Opera House just as the sun was beginning to set:

IMG_6259

Bridge selfie:

IMG_6260

Harbour panorama:

IMG_6262

Opera House just before dusk:

IMG_6268

Late afternoon Harbour Bridge:

IMG_6269

I definitely stayed around the water for a couple hours just walking around and people watching. Even after having been to every country there’s something I really enjoy about going to the World’s great cities and just tourist/people watching. It’s amazing to see people who are still excited about the vacation of a life time, and watching the joy as they discover new places.

Opera House just after sunset:

IMG_6272

The next morning, I ended up sleeping in a bit later than planned (thanks jetlag and finally catching up – I think this was my first full night of sleep since I left DC) so by the time I headed out it was just afternoon and already approaching 40C / 105F. I was convinced it would be cooler by the water, so decided to head out on my planned excursion regardless.

My friend Ryan had suggested heading to Coogee Beach to do what is known as the Bondi to Coogee Walk. He suggested, however, doing it in the reverse direction, because finishing the walk in Bondi has great views and drops you in a much more happening area where you can celebrate and enjoy a long walk better. Bit of googling seemed to agree with this, and a couple pages suggested actually starting the walk even further down the coast in the the town of Maroubra.

Only problem was – how do I get there? Those of us over 35 remember when traveling meant maps, guide books, etc, but now things are easy. You tell google maps where you are, you tell it where you want to go, and it gives you bus directions. It works like a charm. I had already purchased a local transit card and loaded fare onto it, so it was an easy matter of finding the bus stop, waiting for the bus, tapping on, and getting off and tapping the card in the right place. Couldn’t be easier!

Even the busses in Sydney are sports-crazed:

IMG_6283

Near the bus stop in Maroubra, getting read to head down the South Coogee Stairs towards the water:

IMG_6362

After about 15 minutes of walking Coogee Beach appeared:

IMG_6370

Fantastic view of the water against the beach:

IMG_6371

After Coogee Beach I had to stop. I was already baking 30 minutes into the walk, and severe sunburn was imminent. Fortunately every little corner store sells 100 types of sunblock, so after stopping for a can of spray-on SPF 50, water, and red bull, I was back on my way. A short while later, I rounded the corner again to Gordons Bay:

IMG_6381

Looking back towards Coogee:

IMG_6384

Next up was Clovelly Beach, with an ocean pool. Didn’t get pics of the pool, but did manage a selfie up against the small inlet:

IMG_6389

After walking around Shark Point, with some serious elevation gain and fall, I came upon Waverley Cemetery. The main walk along the water had been washed out in storms the pervious summer, so a detour straight through the cemetery and a bit inland was in order.

IMG_6399

Path right through the cemetery:

IMG_6403

Gravestones with Ocean backdrop:

IMG_6405

Rounding the next corner after the cemetery brought me to Bronte Beach. Time to stop for a bit, reapply sunblock, before continuing on my way.

IMG_6408

Local kids contemplating some cliff diving:

IMG_6413

Tamarama Beach – the last beach before Bondi, and the fourth beach I’d passed on the walk already:

IMG_6414

Rounding Tamarama Beach to Mackenzies Point:

IMG_6416

IMG_6417

Coming around the bend, Bondi Beach was in sight:

IMG_6425

Rock overhangs on Mackenzies Point:

IMG_6428

Bondi Beach:

IMG_6431

Great view of Bondi:

IMG_6432

By this point I was starving, and found a great little Italian place for a late lunch/early dinner thanks to Tripadvisor. Highly recommend checking out Bondi Trattoria if you’re in the area.  Burrata, figs, and balsamic. Outstanding.

IMG_6435

Angel hair pasta, raw tuna, and chili oil. Again, outstanding, and makes me wonder why such simple, fresh dishes are so hard to find in the US:

IMG_6436

After stuffing myself post-walk, headed back to Bondi and sat down on the hill overlooking the beach to watch the sun go down:

IMG_6438

IMG_6439

Sunset:

IMG_6444

Found a fun little Star Wars-themed bar near my hotel when I got back, which had several great local NSW craft beers and was a fun way to close out the evening. All the walking had tired me out, and it was a relatively early night. I had nearly a full day the next day, but wanted to be sure I could get up at a reasonable hour and make the most of it.

Despite that, slept in a bit longer than I wanted, so hurried back towards the water to catch the ferry to Manly. Great view of the Harbour Bridge heading out:

IMG_6456

After docking in Manly, a quick shot of the beach. It was a gorgeous, although slightly hot, morning:

IMG_6459

Manly’s fierce and fearless avian inhabitants:

IMG_6461

Still wasn’t really hungry, but decided to stop by the 4 Pines Brewing Company to sample their beers. Definitely a great selection!

IMG_6465

The clouds were starting to gather, so I rushed back to the ferry to head back to Sydney and get my bags before the weather looked too bad.  Of course, a quick stop at Starbucks first to re-caffeinate for the long night ahead. About five minutes into the ferry ride the clouds started looking ominous, so I went to the railing and put the camera on rapid fire mode, hoping that I would catch something exciting. Just a few minutes out from Sydney, I got this amazing shot! Perfect way to end the trip!

IMG_6465B

Had to wait about 30 minutes at the pier for the super torrential rains to let up, and grabbed another crocodile pizza on the way back to the hotel and then it was time to check out and catch the train back to the airport. It had been an amazing few days in Sydney, and I can’t wait to go back.

But first, the Qatar A380 in first class to Doha…

Jan 152017
 

So, yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve written a travel blog. I think after Iceland I was a bit exhausted, and combine that with the fact that October-December are always my busiest months at work it meant I really didn’t have much time for travel – or for writing about it.

If there’s any interest, I can put together blogs on two trips I took in the past few months to Zagreb and Bangkok, but you’re not going to see too much outside of hotels and tons of airplane pics because it was long work days without much time to get out and about. However, if you want to see more Lufthansa First as well as my impressions of the first day of United Polaris service I’ll be happy to put those up.

February is going to be an interesting month. I had originally planned to stay closer to home and enjoy the car I make payments on but never seem to drive and take a long roadtrip through the Southern United States to visit four of the eight states I haven’t been to.

However, travel has a way of pulling you back in, and so I started looking at what I could use some of my miles for…and managed to piece together a crazy 17 day round the world with stops in some of my favourite cities: Hong Kong, Bangkok, Cape Town, Paris….oh, and it would involve first class travel on ANA longhaul, Thai on the A380, Qatar on the A380, Emirates on the A380, and yes, more Lufthansa first. It’s pretty hard to say no to, even though I should be a bit fiscally responsible…time will tell!

I recently did an interview for another website which will be up shortly, and I’ll link to it when it’s live. As part of it, I was asked to pick some of my favourite travel photos of myself, which was fun going back through memories. So, my favourite are below. Promise I’ll write more regularly again!

Top of Huayna Picchu near Machu Picchu, Peru

IMG_0039

Crossing the river from Rosso, Senegal to Rosso, Mauritania:

IMG_1144 2

Jumerah, The Gambia

CZX6ebs5RvWEsubHpd3pgw_thumb_14e9e

New Years Eve stranded in Gabon, due to a coup in Democratic Republic of Congo:

gabon bottle

Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan

IMG_1747

Koala cuddling in Brisbane, Australia:

IMG_4799

Cuzco, Peru:

IMG_5119

Hanging out with the Wrestling Cholitas in La Paz, Bolivia:

IMG_6016

On the equator in where else, Ecuador:

IMG_6585

Waiting for the tube in London, UK:

IMG_6755

Friendly lemurs in Madagascar:

IMG_7357 2

Inland lake in Comoros:

IMG_7728

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt:

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_8746

Leptis Magna, Libya:

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_af78

Aug 162016
 

With 195 of the 196 countries in the world visited now, I’d like to think I’ve learned at least a little bit about different places. Sure, some of these trips have been less than 24 hours and I’ve only scratched the surface of the country, but even in a short time it’s easy to discover that lots of the misconceptions you might have had about a country before visiting just don’t stand up. So, in no particular order, 14 common misconceptions I’ve recently discovered in my quest to visit every country:

10. Iranians hate Americans. The media in the United States repeats it constantly, and Iran’s government certainly doesn’t do much to dispel this notion. However, it’s hard to wander the streets of Iran for five minutes without someone coming up to you, asking where you’re from, and often inviting you back to their home for tea. I found Iranians to be some of the warmest and most hospitable people I met anywhere in the world, and they’re genuinely curious about how things really are in the United States. Sure, our governments and politicians can be pretty easy to hate on both sides…but on an individual level the vast majority of Iranian people will welcome you with open arms.

IMG_1275

9. Africa is full of disease and hunger. Usually when I tell people who haven’t visited Africa about an upcoming trip, their first questions revolve around what shots/medications I had to get, and how will I find enough safe food to eat. Sure, there are tropical and other diseases that are much more common in Africa (malaria, dengue, even HIV), but that doesn’t mean that walking down the street you’re going to drop dead. Regarding food, yes, there’s not a McDonalds on every corner, but you would be surprised how many places you see KFC! There are, of course, lots of hungry people in Africa, but there are lots of hungry people in the United States as well. …and like Iran, the number of times people insisted I come back to their home and join them for a meal was amazing. People may not always have much, but you’re a guest and they’re happy to share it with you.

IMG_0972

8. People in China are pushy and rude. While it’s true that overall Chinese culture isn’t the same as the west when it comes to queueing this is changing to some degree in larger cities. When people start pushing (such as boarding a plane) it’s not an attempt to be rude, but simply doing what one needs to to not get trampled in a society that views that as a norm. There’s no rudeness intended at all, and firmly holding your ground will be respected.

sb2004-206-hong kong

7. The Australian Diet Consists of Blooming Onions, Fosters, and Vegemite. In several trips to Australia I’ve never once seen a blooming onion, and all the Australians I know confirm it’s an American invention. As for Fosters, it’s incredibly uncommon and nobody drinks the stuff. Victoria Bitter (VB) is much more the stereotypical beverage and a higher quality beer costs up to $30 for a six pack thanks to taxes. Unfortunately, the vegemite part is true…and is definitely an acquired taste no matter how thinly you spread it and how much butter you use.

…but you can also get kangaroo and crocodile pizza:

IMG_0338

6. Argentina is Nothing but Cowboys, Steaks, and Evita. While it’s true all three play a huge part making up the Argentine identity, there’s so much more to the country. You can’t deny that modern Argentine politics was largely shaped by Peron and Evita, and you’ll find some of the most mouth-watering steaks in the world, but you’ll also find a vibrant international city in Buenos Aires and amazing skiing in the south and west. Oh, and don’t forget the amazing waterfalls at Iguazu and the Casa Rosada at night:

IMG_3292

5. You Can Get By Everywhere in English. While this is more true than it’s ever been, it’s still not universal. In most major world cities you will have no trouble in English (and in most European capitals the quality of English will be astounding) but there are still places where English is extremely limited. In Europe, Spain and Portugal are exceptions, and especially in Brazil you will find almost no english spoken outside the most touristic of places. Similar in China – get off the few major sites and international hotels, and limited to no English. Plus, if you want to see smaller towns you’ll find English much less common. This also goes for Russia and Central Asia outside capital cities. That’s not to say don’t go – most people will be happy to help, and do their best to communicate with you despite the language gap.

4. South Africa is rife with crime. Yes, South Africa is no stranger to both petty and violent crime. Yes, the stories of carjackings and people being robbed at gunpoint on the street are true. However, the same things happen in major American urban centres if you venture into the wrong neighbourhoods at the wrong time of time. Keep to well-trafficked areas, and use the “women, children, and old people rule” and you’ll be fine. The rule means simply if women, old people, and children are out strolling in the area, chances are things are just fine.

Cape Town sunset:

IMG_6875

3. Nigeria is nothing but Investment Scams, Corruption, and Oil Money. Is there corruption in Nigeria? Absolutely, but there’s also amazing beaches and some of the most amazingly warm people in Africa. One day I was sitting on a deserted beach just outside central Lagos, and the next partying at the craziest wedding I’ve ever been to. I found Nigerians to be some of the most fun-loving and happiest people I met in Africa…and they want you to join in the fun! I highly recommend to anyone who has a Nigerian friend they know in the US – try and get yourself an invite and see the real country. It’s an amazing place!

Very festive Nigerian wedding…the theme was obviously pink:

IMG_0657

2. Japan is all Pokemon, Anime, and Cat Cafes. Sure, all three of those things are very modern Japan, and all originated there and have become global phenomenons. At the same time, however, Japan is still a deeply traditional society with traditions and a history that goes back thousands of years. While Western society is certainly very at home in downtown Tokyo (as attested to by Starbucks everywhere), just turn the corner and you’ll find a temple that goes back hundreds of years that young and old alike still visit and respect. I found nowhere in the world where modern and traditional manage to exist side by side quite like in Japan.

IMG_2564

IMG_2589

1. The Gulf States are Largely a Vast Desert Full of Camels and People that Despise Western Culture. So, first off, yes, there’s a lot of desert in the Arabian peninsula. It gets extremely hot and dry, and yes, there’s a lot of camels – outside the cities at least. Speaking of the cities, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and especially Qatar and the UAE and littered with enourmous shopping malls full of western brands. Dubai has dozens of Starbucks, Caribou, Tim Hortons, Costa and every other coffee shop known to western man. …and all of them are packed with local men sitting for hours and talking over coffee. Like with Japan, Western culture and convenience have been imported and customized for local tastes. Infrastructure and convenience wise the gulf states are some of the most modern places on earth which in some part is owed to the fact that in many of them (especially Qatar and the UAE) over 75% of the population is expatriates!

IMG_1870

IMG_1786

So that’s my list of 10 of my bigger surprises – what has surprised you about places you went? What did you discover that you didn’t expect?

May 172016
 

After hanging out late with friends in Sydney the night before, unfortunately I had a far too early start for the airport. I had planned to take the train back to the airport but unfortunately had also forgotten my jacket at my friend’s house. Fortunately, it was on the way to the airport, so after grabbing a quick coffee at Starbucks (the essentials, you know) I grabbed an Uber. With a quick stop en route, we were soon off to the airport. However, there’s a problem.

It seems that traffic heading in towards the international terminal is an absolute nightmare for the last two kilometers on Sunday mornings. These two kilometers alone took us nearly 30 minutes, and I arrived at the airport barely 80 minutes before my flight. Fortunately, the crew was walking into the airport at the exact some time as me so no problems at all.

Minimal waits to check in and clear security, but this also meant no time to stop by the lounge. I was pretty sure I wasn’t missing anything and if nothing else it would remove the temptation to snack in the lounge since I knew much better options were likely coming up in flight!

Thai Airways flight 476
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 10:00, Arrive 16:20, Flight Time: 10:20
Boeing 747-400, Registration HS-TGG, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 68,287
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,257,812

Immediately upon boarding, one of the flight attendants insisted on showing me to my seat. As soon as she saw my seat number, she addressed me by name (I was impressed they’d memorized all five passengers in first in advance) and showed me to my seat. First impression was great:

IMG_0344

I really like the purple and gold colour scheme, something about it just feels classy to me:

IMG_0345

Bright pink Rimowa amenity kit and a glass of Dom Pérignon 2004, great way to start a flight!

IMG_0347

So, what’s to eat on this flight?

IMG_0348

IMG_0349

…and to drink?

IMG_0350

IMG_0351

IMG_0352

Shortly after takeoff my champagne was refilled, and macadamia nuts were offered. I obviously ate them too quickly, because the flight attendant insisted I must have more!

IMG_0358

Amuse Bouches – points for presentation, but overall they were just average in taste:

IMG_0359

Extremely generous serving of caviar was provided. I was surprised that with all the attention to little details they missed the seed in the lemon, but at the end of the day…what’s the point of lemon with caviar anyways? The breadbasket was a nice touch as well, and had several tasty options in it:

IMG_0364

Scallop and duck liver terrine appetizer, super tasty and still relatively light:

IMG_0365

This was followed by an extra meh salad, but it did score points for the thousand island dressing. Lost a few points, however, for not asking how much dressing I wanted on it. Fortunately, it was almost the perfect amount.

IMG_0366

Barramundi with lobster sauce main. I have no idea why, but I’ve been doing fish more and more lately on flights and have had several outstanding dishes. This one was no exception…plus it paired well with the champagne!

IMG_0369

Now THIS is what I call a cheese plate. I would have ordered more if I wasn’t so full – it was a great selection – especially the one on the far right which had small pieces of fruit in it. I believe it was dried apricot, but it was super tasty. Plus, kiwifruit and pineapple – two of my absolute favourite fruits. This might be the best cheese plate I’ve ever had on a flight!

IMG_0370

Of course, I couldn’t resist the chocolate dessert, which paired nicely with a glass of red wine. I also switched to sparkling water at this point. One thing that I really noticed is that on most airlines when you ask for more water, they have to ask you still or sparkling because they can’t keep track. On Thai, that was never an issue. This crew memorized everything, and never once had to ask a second time to confirm. It’s a very little thing, but made a huge impression about how much the crew cared.

IMG_0371

At this point, I was out for a couple hours for a nap. When I woke up, and put my seat upright, it took no more than 30 seconds for the flight attendant to appear and refill my water glass and wine. If I didn’t know better, I would think they hovered behind my seat the entire flight looking for the perfect moment to provide service! It was that good!

About 90 minutes for landing, another small meal was served. The Szechuan soup was a bit on the salty side, but incredibly tasty:

IMG_0373

I went with the dim sum snack, and it was surprisingly pretty small. It was plenty, given the size of the first meal, but I was still a bit surprised at the size. Ferrero Rocher chocolates were also offered…yum.

IMG_0374

Of course, on top of the chocolates, there was desert as well!

IMG_0380

Right before landing, was probably one of the nicest moments of the flight. The purser, as well as the entire first class service team came over to my seat, did the traditional Thai wai, bowed down, and thanked me for choosing Thai. What struck me the most was not that this just seemed to be part of the job, but that they were truly proud of the service they provided and were thankful to customers. While so many Asian airlines provide outstanding service, this personal touch that really did demonstrate on some level a connection between crew and passengers really made a big impression on me.

After rolling off the plane the famous Thai golf carts/buggies were waiting to drive first class passengers to their transfers or to immigration. There was an older Thai lady in first class, who had five people with her in business class – possibly her children. She chewed out the buggy drivers royally, and eventually her and her entourage got the whole buggy and the rest of the first class passengers were “stranded” until another buggy arrived. I guess DYKWIA passengers exist in Thailand too!

Considering the length of the flight, I was in no mood to deal with a taxi that might or might not have working air conditioning so shelled out for the airport car to the hotel. Sure, it’s quite a bit more expensive, but after a long flight being able to relax in an air conditioned Mercedes is a nice treat – especially when it’s a 30+ minute ride.

I had decided to stay at the W Bangkok, which I tried last visit instead of my usual Sheraton Grand Sukhumvit. The two hotels are very different, but both very nice in their own ways. The major deciding factors for me on the W is that it’s much newer feeling and also has an amazing breakfast buffet. I’d been upgraded to a suite, which was rather roomy:

IMG_0384

Typical W bling on the pillows:

IMG_0386

“Lights Out” sequined oversized Thai boxing gloves on the bed. At least I didn’t get the hot pink version I got on my previous stay!

IMG_0387

Oversized washroom, with a double sink:

IMG_0389

Overall, it was a great room. I find the desk very comfortable for working, fast WiFi, plenty of convenient outlets, and ice cold air conditioning. Plus, the hotel is in a great location just five minutes walk from the Skytrain, and right next to a convenience store, Starbucks, and Dean and Deluca. Overall, it’s a solid choice in a city full of great hotels.

After being on a plane all day, the last thing I wanted to do was walk outside in the rather nasty heat and humidity. So, I headed to the mall to try and find the New Zealand Natural ice cream shop and more hokey pokey ice cream. Unfortunately, it was nowhere to be found, but I got in a ton of walking trying to find it.

I did, however, find an indoor ice rink. Unfortunately, it was clear the chiller and AC couldn’t keep up with the unusually hot and humid weather, and the ice was basically a puddle:

IMG_0393

By this point I was tired from a long day and all the walking, and decided to just head back to the hotel for dinner. Some tasty pork satay:

IMG_0396

Slept like a rock, and then it was time for what I consider one of the W’s strongest selling points – its breakfast buffet. The rate I booked had it included, so I didn’t have to even use my platinum amenity on it – however, I definitely would have considering how epic it is. Huge selection of fresh fruits and pastries, eggs cooked to order, full Indian and Chinese stations, meats, salmon, cheeses, bacon, you name it – if you want it for breakfast this buffet probably had it. Some fresh fruit and pain au chocolate to start:

IMG_0398

Dim sum, fresh squeezed OJ, and just a little bacon…

IMG_0399

With that, it was time to finish packing up the bags and head to the airport to continue the trip…

May 102016
 

I had decided the night before to prioritize sleep over possible time in the lounge/etc, and learned that the check-in cutoff for Fiji Airways was 45 minutes, so I was comfortable cutting it closer than I usually would. I arrived at the airport about 80 minutes before the flight due to no traffic at all, and check-in took under a minute, then it was time for security, then immigration.

The security line was maybe five minutes, and no wait at all for immigration, so maybe 10 minutes after setting foot in the airport I was already in the departures hall. Guess there would be a little lounge time after all! Nadi International terminal is under heavy construction, which is expected to finish in a couple more months. The lounge, however, seemed finished. It was rather teeming this morning with all the international departures, but finding a seat wasn’t hard. Decent selection of drinks and snacks – all self serve. I grabbed a can of Diet Coke and a chocolate muffin since I hadn’t had breakfast, and soon our flight was called.

Short walk upstairs from the lounge, and boarding was already underway.

Fiji Airways flight 911
Nadi, Fiji (NAN) to Sydney, Australia (SYD)
Depart 9:00, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time: 4:45
Airbus A330-200, Registration DQ-FJT, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 63,625
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,253,150

If these seats look familiar, it’s because it’s the exact same aircraft I took from LA to Fiji just a few days prior…now that there’s daylight I can get a few decent pictures!

IMG_0302

IMG_0303

Breakfast flights usually don’t interest me too much, but since all I had was a muffin let’s see what’s to eat:

IMG_0305

IMG_0306

Breakfast flight with a wine list…now we’re talking!

IMG_0308

Fruit, cereal, and make-your-own mimosas:

IMG_0309

Bread…on it’s own…as a second course. This is right before tragedy struck…some of the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced. We were shaking all over the place, repeated sudden drops in altitude. But more seriously…right after this my entire mimosa ended up on the floor. Flight attendants had to be seated for nearly an hour at this point…

IMG_0311

Eventually I did get an omelette…but it was boring and flavourless, so after two bites I was done.

IMG_0313

Watched a couple of hours of terrible movies, and since noon was approaching (well, in fairness it was after noon without the time change) I decided to try their “signature Fijian rum cocktail.” It was basically smashed up cherries, soda water, and rum. Um, pass. Later, I found out he forgot the orange juice.

IMG_0314

Landed in Fiji a full 35 minutes ahead of schedule, and had a couple of days to just veg and enjoy. Took the airport train, which was a rather poor value at nearly 19 Australian dollars, and still required a walk to my hotel – the Four Points by Sheraton Darling Harbour. They offered me an upgraded “premium deluxe” room, and I asked if perhaps they had any suites available. The rather nice young gentleman working check-in was eager to please…and found me a “corner harbourview maritime penthouse suite” on the top floor! Yowzers!

How’s that for a view:

IMG_0318

IMG_0320

Not a half bad room at all:

IMG_0321

IMG_0322

A few more words on the hotel. It’s undergoing an extensive remodel in the lobby area, so things were closed off everywhere. The bar and restaurant were clearly in a makeshift space, so I didn’t spend any time in them. Beyond that, the staff were fantastic and the room was super nice and comfortable, so I would definitely return again!

So, not much to report on my two days in Sydney. Hung out with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while, walked a ton since the weather was absolutely perfect. Around 22C/72F the entire time, strong sun, and gorgeous days to be outside. Although I’d been to Sydney before, had to take the obligatory tourist photos. Opera House:

IMG_0325

Harbour Bridge:

IMG_0326

Sunset from the Penthouse Suite:

IMG_0330

On my final day, woke up and went out to get coffee, and started coughing immediately. Seems the government was doing controlled burns outside the city, and the wind suddenly changed direction and surprised them…blowing all the smoke into the city. You could tell it was bad from this picture:

IMG_0335

More walking all day, more hanging out with friends, and a pizza…with crocodile, emu, and kangaroo. I  mean, when in Australia…I highly recommend checking out the Australian Heritage Hotel for lunch or dinner…plus they have a great craft beer menu too!

IMG_0338

With that my two days in Sydney were done, and it was time to begin the truly luxury part of this trip…off to Thailand next!

Nov 232014
 

I should subtitle this entry “because there hasn’t been enough drama already” but I’ll resist. Woke up to an email…my Virgin Australia flight had been canceled. For some reason, the inbound was canceled so might flight was canceled as well. Called Virgin, and they said “no problem, you’ve been rebooked for tomorrow.” Um, I don’t want to go tomorrow, I want to go today. Ugh.

Fortunately, my good friends at Solomons Air also had a flight that day…but Virgin wouldn’t rebook me on it. It actually took nearly 30 minutes of fighting to get them to agree to give me a refund. Ugh. There was an upside though – the new flight on Solomons wasn’t actually about $100 cheaper booked day of…so in the end, things actually worked out well!

Got to the airport only about an hour before the flight after all the drama, but no problems at all. Checked in, got the exit row again, and life was grand.

IMG_5208

Oh look, same plane as a couple days prior! That’s because Solomons only has one jet…

IMG_5210

Welkam on board!

IMG_5211

Solomons Airlines flight 700
Honiara, Solomon Islands (HIR) to Brisbane, Australia (BNE)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 17:15, Flight Time 3:15
Airbus A320, Registration H4-BUS (ex Air Canada) Manufactured 1992, Seat 15C

The flight was only about half full today, which meant I had the entire exit row to myself. Score! Double score…there was no sketchy sandwiich on this flight but a proper meal. It was described as “beef” and was actually reasonably tasty:

IMG_5212

Quick shot how the “other half” lives on the way out.

IMG_5215

Landed right on time, and decided to give the eGates at Australian immigration a try, not wanting a repeat of my experience coming into Darwin. It worked like a charm, and soon I was on the airport express train downtown and back to the Four Points hotel. The downtown area was an absolute security nightmare, with the G20 set to happen in a couple of days.

Checked in, had a quick shower, and headed out to get some dinner. While I was talking to the front desk lady about something, I heard a loud popping sound, kind of like if someone had popped a giant piece of bubble wrap. I looked around expecting to see something broken, on fire, something. What I didn’t expect to see is a giant flying creature that apparently I had stepped on.

IMG_5219

Quiet evening, caught up on sleep a bit, and then had another full day to decide what to do. With the giant security mess, I decided I would get out of dodge for the day and see something new. Caught the train down to the Gold Coast…or at least attempted to. It took me like three tries to figure out the trains…because not every train goes to every station. Then you need to take a bus. Then, your iPhone decides to die when the bus drops you off, so you have no idea where anything is in town. Yeah, that.

Grabbed some lunch, and my iPhone decided to come back to life. I had an email from my hotel…note this was about 2pm. The email told me they were sorry, but needed me to move out of my upgraded room to my original room no later than 4pm. Um, you told me at check-in I had the room for both nights. Replied that I’m sorry, at the beach for the day, but happy to discuss with them when I return. This was followed up by an email instructing me if I couldn’t move on time, I would have to pay for the upgraded room. Uh, you expect people to sit around their hotel all day waiting? Then, they offered to pack up my belongings and move them for me. Um, no. That’s a recipe  for things to get lost and the blame game to start.

Finally, sent them an email saying I was really disappointed in the way they were treating a platinum member over what is a $50 a night upgrade. (It was just a high floor room.) They went silent. When I got back later, the new manager on duty was very apologetic, offered Starpoints in compensation, said I could keep the room, and said “this whole situation could have been handled much better.” Ok, apology accepted.

Back to enjoying the beach. Wandered around for a bit, and what do we have here:

IMG_5235

Couldn’t resist, and had a very fun hour or so trying! Sometimes, the most fun travel experiences are the ones that are totally unplanned. I went down to the Gold Coast with no plans what so ever, and ended up having an unexpected great time.

A few shots of the beach at Surfers Paradise:

IMG_5237

IMG_5238

IMG_5240

Post-surfing lesson reward. Mmmm…

IMG_5243

Surfers Paradise has this meter maid thing down. I think I’m going to suggest to DC that they make this the meter maid uniform in DC as well:

IMG_5245

Caught the train back in time to get some quick dinner before crashing early. It had been an unexpectedly busy day going down to the beach (rough life, I know) and was going to be an even earlier morning with the flight to Auckland!

Nov 062014
 

This flight was early. Way too early. Combine that with the fact I’d heard Nauru Airlines wasn’t overly reliable and I wanted to get there early, and it was the recipe for a very tired morning. When I got to the check-in desk nearly three hours before the 7am flight (yes, 4am…just imagine when I had to get up) there was already a line of about 20 people waiting to check-in. Oh, and about 100 bags. I’m not exaggerating…it looked like they were trying to ship the entire contents of a WalMart with them back to Nauru. One guy even had 14 27 inch televisions on two different luggage carts waiting to check-in.

Fortunately, many of them were “a group” and offered to let me check-in in front of them. Well that’s thoughtful. The lovely agent? Well she was a little confused. “Wait, you’re going to Nauru…as a tourist? Is that right? Tourist? Just to holiday? Right?” Apparently, this is not a normal thing. She was very lovely though, and even reserved the exit row aisle for me when I asked. Given the rather healthy appetites of many of my fellow passengers, I figured the extra room in the exit row would come in very handy.

Through security, where horror of horrors, the coffeeshop didn’t open until 5:30. There was also a Virgin flight to Auckland about to board, and the natives were getting very restless at this hour without proper caffeine. Eventually it did open, I got caffeine, and all was right with the world.

Wandered down to the gate, where our 737-300 was waiting for us:

IMG_4820

About two months ago, Our Airline rebranded themselves back to Nauru Airlines. Several years ago they had gone bankrupt and had their one 737 impounded and seized in Australia, forcing them to change their name from Air Nauru to Our Airline when they opened back up for business. Now, they were going back to Nauru Airlines. Confused yet? Yeah, that’s just how Nauru works apparently.

Nauru Airlines aka Our Airline Flight 2
Brisbane, Australia (BNS) to Honiara, Solomon Islands (HIR)
Depart 7:00, Arrive 11:00, Flight Time 3:00
Boeing 737-300, Registration VH-PNI, Manufactured 1997, Seat 11D

Flight was about 2/3 full today, but I had the entire exit row of six seats to myself. Score! “Today’s flight time to Honiara will be three hours. Now sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight.” Honiara, WHAT? This was supposed to be a direct flight to Nauru. Uh, ok, got it. After about 30 minutes, the crew came by with breakfast, and I asked if we were really going to Honiara, and if so why. Yes, apparently we are, just “for a technical stop.” Uhhh, ok.

Breakfast was decent, considering it was economy and all:

IMG_4831

On approach to Honiara:

IMG_4832

Ah, so 2/3 of the seats were taken, but the last 6 rows were “empty” because they were filled with peoples’ bags! Including many of the aforementioned televisions, all strapped in. Apparently this is a common occurrence on Nauru Airlines, as they had it down to a science:

IMG_4833

We stopped in Honiara for about 50 minutes to take on fuel, which I eventually learned from the crew was because we had so much cargo today and were extra heavy, so couldn’t make it all the way otherwise, lol. This despite 1/3 of the seats being empty. It was pouring rain in Honiara, and I felt quite bad for the fueling guys who were having to load up the plane. Soon, we were taking off again for the continuation of our flight to Nauru.

Nauru Airlines aka Our Airline Flight 2
Honiara, Solomon Islands (HIR) to Nauru Island, Nauru (INU)
Depart 11:55, Arrive 14:55, Flight Time 2:00
Boeing 737-300, Registration VH-PNI, Manufactured 1997, Seat 11D

A “snack” was offered on this segment, and it really was a snack. Well, “Le Snak” to be precise, lol. Apparently America doesn’t have a monopoly on processed cheese spread:

IMG_4838

IMG_4839

Another shot of my, “fellow passengers” taking up the last six rows:

IMG_4843

Just about an hour late due to the fuel stop, and soon we were landing on Nauru where it was bright and sunny out. Taxiing to the terminal:

IMG_4845

Disembarking for the walk to the terminal:

IMG_4847

Waiting for immigration, a local mural. Note the Our Airline plane in the pic:

IMG_4848

Immigration was one officer at a desk for the entire plane:

IMG_4850

I’d been told there was a $100 visa on arrival for tourists, confirmed by Nauru Airlines when I booked. However, the immigration officer was very helpful, and said since I was there less than 48 hours she would consider it a transit, so there would be no visa fee! Score…always happy to save some money! Shortly I was reunited with my bags, and was off to see Nauru!

Nov 062014
 

I’d intentionally booked a midday flight so I could sleep in a bit, so made my way to the airport nice and leisurely. There were some incredibly classy tourists sharing the airport bus with me today:

IMG_4745

Check-in…well it was fun! From what I could tell there were absolutely no Qantas agents working behind counters in Melbourne, they had the whole process entirely automated. Checked in at the kiosk which I was used to, but then the kiosk also spit out my bagtags…which it then gave me instructions how to put them on my own bags. Whee, my chance to play airline employee! Then, it was off to the scales in front of the baggage belt, where you scanned your boarding pass, weighed your bags one at a time, and threw them on the belt. In fairness, there were quite a few Qantas employees hovering around being very helpful if you couldn’t figure it out, but I was mainly puzzled just because I’d never seen the whole process so automated!

Next stop, Qantas lounge, for a proper breakfast since all I’d had earlier was coffee. First mission: try the automatic pancake machine! Not bad, not bad at all!

IMG_4746

Still a little bit hungry I decided to try the sandwich press too, taking some extra ham and cheese from the buffet to make a nice gooey sandwich. Yum! I wish US airlines could take a page from this playbook…but then again classy US passengers would probably bring doggy bags and treat it as the typical “get my money’s worth” opportunity. THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS!

IMG_4747

Boarding right on time, and a completely full flight up to Brisbane today.

Qantas flight 616
Melbourne, Australia (MEL) to Brisbane, Australia (BNE)
Depart 12:05, Arrive 13:15, Flight Time 2:10
Boeing 737-800, Registration VH-VYD, Manufactured 2005, Seat 3C

There was a choice of some sort of salad, or a tuna melt. Yes, seriously, a tuna melt on a plane. I had to have it just for the novelty. It was actually pretty good. The tomatoes were marinated in balsamic before grilling and were actually super tasty.

IMG_4750

Landed in Brisbane a few minutes ahead of schedule, and took the airport train downtown to the central station. Few block walk to my hotel, the Four Points. Upgraded (I guess you can call it that, they did) to a top floor room with a nice view of the city. One of the more modern Four Points I’ve ever stayed in, and almost felt more like an Aloft. I was in a rush, because I wanted to get to the Lone Tree Koala Sanctuary before it closed at 5pm.

Only option to save time was to take a taxi out there, which was $50. Ouch.

Cool lizard greeting me at the entrance:

IMG_4756

Continue reading »