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!

Jul 032017
 

We parked the car in front of our hotel, the A Casa Canut, where it was nice and simple to walk inside, hand the keys to the guy at the front desk, and he took it away to be parked for a very reasonable fee. The room I received was a bit on the strange side, in that it didn’t have a desk or anywhere to sit in the room. It was, however, considerably larger and less expensive than the previous time I had stayed here. I guess being there in June as opposed to August made a huge difference.

After dropping our things off, we headed out into the city of Andorra la Vella to walk around and explore. After grabbing a coffee at the new Starbucks, we came upon this bridge which required a photo. If there wasn’t going to be a passport stamp to document our visit to Andorra, a picture with this bridge would do:

Yes, I should have worn sunglasses…

Salvador Dali artwork near the bridge:

We continued our walk, taking in the sites of this quaint, yet very busy city nestled in the Pyrenees:

Looking out at the mountains:

All the walking had made us hungry, and it was already late afternoon, so retiring to a nice sunny square for some tapas and sangria seemed to be the logical thing to do:

Because octopus as a tapas in the middle of the mountains seemed so logical at the time…

We wandered for a couple more hours, and took part in some great duty free shopping deals, and ended up calling it a relatively early night so that we would be able to get up and enjoy the long drive back to Barcelona the next day the “long way.”

After getting up and grabbing some Starbucks for breakfast (since we weren’t hungry enough to pay 20+ euro each for the hotel buffet – even though I remember it being fantastic from the previous visit, we eventually checked out and headed out on our drive.

We had entered Andorra from the southern side which is the Spanish border, and would be heading out via the eastern French border. As with my previous trip to Andorra in 2014 the first stop would be  Llívia, a small Spanish enclave completely surrounded by France. The route highlighted on the map below is the route that we took into Andorra from Spain.

We were planning to go out the east side on the yellow road you see, and head down the E9 highway to Llívia. On my previous trip I found this border of Andorra to be much, much more mountainous, and a very scenic drive. Views on the windy road leaving the city:

Snow-capped Pyrenees:

Unfortunately, since my previous visit, the big windy roads and switchbacks had been replaced with a giant toll tunnel, and we missed the turnoff to be able to take the windy road instead. Oh well, it made for a bit of a quicker driver, and given the fog and light drizzle it was definitely a safer drive as well.

Soon after entering France (where we couldn’t find anywhere to stop for a passport stamp either) we came to right back into the Spanish enclave of Llívia:

The strangest thing happened after we parked in Llívia and started to walk around: the entire town seemed completely empty and there was nobody at all on the streets. We tried three or four restaurants to get a late lunch, and not a single one of them was open. It was the strangest thing.

We eventually did find one small restaurant and hostel open for lunch, and it was a three course meal. The proprietor spoke no english or french at all, and even his Spanish was a bit challenging. It was starting to feel like real Catalonia, until this strange noodle dish showed up:

There wasn’t really anything more to see in Llívia since everything appeared closed, and we were well ahead of schedule to make it back to Barcelona in time for our evening flight, so I convinced Ian to go ahead and detour to Perpignan, France for an afternoon coffee. I think I just wanted to cross the Spanish, French, and Andorran borders as many times as I could in one day, but there were some super windy mountain roads on the way towards Perpignan:

Note how it winds all the way down into the valley:

Train trains for the Ligne de Cerdagne, otherwise known as the Train Jaune:

For perspective, leaning on a rock and you can see just how far of a drop is by how tiny the road right behind me looks in comparison:

Our good luck, we happened to be there right as the Train Jaune was passing over the bridge. Not a ride for those with a fear of heights!

We entered Perpignan, but had real trouble finding somewhere to park the rather large Mercedes on the small town streets. We eventually spied an underground carpark next to a square, and decided to head in. It was extremely narrow, and would have been much better-suited to a small car, but I did manage to park it and we headed back up to the square for a coffee.

The coffee was served complete with ashtray on the table, because…France. Also, the espresso was delicious, again, because…France! Unfortunately there were no crepes or other food to be had, because the kitchen was “on a break” and “who can say” when they will be back. Repeat with me….France!

After walking around I did manage to extract the car from the parking garage, and the highway back to Barcelona was in fantastic condition (and full of tolls) and we made it in just a couple hours, in plenty of time to catch our onward flight. It was time to get on island time now…

May 062017
 

Our driver had a bit of a difficult time locating our hotel, but after a couple minutes of searching we found it. We had booked the Leon Boutique Hotel based on TripAdvisor reviews and when we arrived it was quiet – and almost deserted looking. However, the lady working the reception desk was super pleasant, spoke excellent English, and had us quickly on the way to our rooms. Unfortunately, the bar and restaurant were closed because of Easter, but other than that no problems.

My room was a short walk up the staircase from reception, which I thought might make it a bit noisy, but that was never a problem…since breakfast didn’t start until 8:30 anyways and the bar closed down quite early. Room was rather small, but very comfortable with everything needed, and had excellent air conditioning. All in all, a great value for the price.

We headed out for a walk and to get a bit to eat, but first asked the helpful lady at the front desk about finding a driver for the next day to see some sites outside of the city. She of course had a friend who was a driver, and she would call him and check while we were out. Super helpful.

Short walk along the Black Sea waterfront, trying to find a cafe which had been recommended called Cafe Penguin. First attraction was a waterfront statue called “Nika and the Record Player.” Supposedly it is about a girl whose lover is out to see, and she frequently gets records that remind her of him…

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Pier jutting out into the Black Sea:

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We finally found Cafe Penguin, but it was closed for Easter. Ian had to have a conversation with the penguin statue to make sure it really was closed….

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If only I spoke Abkhaz, I might know who this was on the side of a building with the Abkhaz flag…it doesn’t LOOK like the President Raul Khajimba

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yes Sukhum! Posing with the name of the city on the waterfront.

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We finally found a place that was open called Barrista Coffee which made a pretty decent iced latte and rather tasty cheese varenyky:

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After sitting and having lunch, we wandered through the super quiet city, trying to find the office where we had to go and purchase the Abkhazia visa before leaving the country. We figured it wouldn’t be open on Easter Sunday, but best to know where it was so we could find it on Monday. On the walk, this place encouraged us to just take some coffee. I think they mean takeaway…

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Another political poster…not sure who this guy is either…

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We did manage to find the visa office…I mean the “Ministry of Repatriation” and then walked towards what looked like a large burned out building on the edge of the city centre. This was formerly the Council of Ministers for the Abkhaz Autonomous SSR in Soviet Times, and after independence was taken over by Georgia. After war broke out (over fears by Abkhazia that under a Georgian state they would lose their autonomy and be treated harshly by the Georgians) in 1992 the local Abkhazis were largely supported by Russia and other autonomous groups in the Caucuses against the Georgians.

Long story short, after multiple violated ceasefires by both sides, the last battle of Sukhumi was fought in September 1993. Eduard Shevardnadze was even still in town, and barely managed to escape. The Georgian forces/government retreated to this government building and after a campaign and hundreds were killed by the separatists when they arrived. The building still stands, burned out and scarred:

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Flag of Abkhazia flies atop the building…

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After nearly 25 years, lots of vegetation is growing inside the first floor.

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Staircase to the second floor that has seen better days. Of course we went up.

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Nothing left on the second floor except lots of rubble and graffiti.

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Bullet holes in the staircase.

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Posing on the second floor.

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Pro-Moscow graffiti.

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Outside of the building. There were some kids on the roof, but no idea how they got up there. The staircases from the second floor were all welded shut, and the lifts had long ago been looted.

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After exploring for a bit, we headed back to the hotel the long way. The Nefertiti beauty salon was also closed…

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After a quick rest up at the hotel, we headed out to try and find dinner. First, the helpful lady at reception informed us her driver could take us on a group tour, but we would only see what was on the itinerary, for about $30. For $60 for the whole day, we could have a car to ourselves, and the driver would take us anywhere we wanted. Easy decision! Plus, this meant not leaving on a schedule, and being able to head out at 10am when we wanted – sleeping in and having breakfast.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the restaurant at 730, we were informed that the kitchen was closed because it was Easter. Seeing how bummed we were, she offered that “the khatchapuri oven is still open. You can have that.” After a bit of back and forth (do you want an egg on it maybe?) we also asked if we could get some Abkhaz wine…since we have heard how good it is. That seemed to please her, and after asking “dry or sweet” we got a respectable bottle of dry red wine, and delicious khatchapuri with egg. Yes, they were as big as they look, and enough for a meal.

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After eating, the guy at the next table and his companion started chatting us up in very broken English. In a mixture of English and Russian we had a nearly hour long chat with them. Seems she was Russian, and has a visa to visit the US, but doesn’t know now if she wants to come because of Trump. Him? Supposedly he’s a big-deal Abkhaz filmmaker, but can’t leave Abkhazia because there are no jobs. The whole conversation was surreal…until he started telling us what a big fan of Omar Bradley he was. It was definitely one of those unique travel experiences. Back to the hotel and crash, big day of driving the next day!

Nov 052014
 

It was getting pretty late by the time I got to the Sheraton, but check-in was quick. I got a small studio suite as an upgrade, and the staff at the front desk was extremely genuine and welcoming. The room was also very nice, and overall for a Sheraton I was extremely impressed.

It was after 9pm at this point, but I wasn’t quite ready for bed, so I asked the concierge if he could recommend somewhere good and local to get a glass or two of wine and some tapas. He was very passionate about his job, and said there was a great little wine bar and bottle shop just down the street called the Melbourne City Wine Shop. It was excellent, and I had a couple of very good glasses of wine and a small cheese plate and called it a night.

After a good solid sleep got up and went wandering for a coffee. I’d been warned that it was sacrilegious to drinks Starbucks in Melbourne since it had so many delicious local coffeeshops, so I picked the first one that looked good and gave it a good. The coffee exchange was delicious, and I got a fantastic cup of Seven Seeds filter coffee and had “The Hipster” for breakfast. I’ll admit I ordered it for the name, but when I saw it had haloumi cheese too I was sold.

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After breakfast I headed out for a good long walk to see the city centre. First stop was Federation Square:

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Flinders Street Station:

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Feb 232014
 

One problem I was having when booking this trip was the price of rental cars. They were absolutely outrageous, coming in at well over $100 a day for a compact car. Ugh, and that was on the cheapest sites. I spent some time on google, and eventually came across Discount Hawaii Car Rental dot com. Checked their rates…and it seemed too good to be true…plus they weren’t even asking for a credit card to confirm it!  I booked, they told me it had been booked with Alamo, and I checked Alamo’s website…and it was there.  Wow.

Fast forward to Kona, and I get to Alamo to pick up the car.  As promised, it was a two door jeep, and the price was as promised as well.  Wow…score another win for teh interwebz!

Short 20ish minute drive, and we were at our hotel, the Kona Sheraton.  Parking was an absolute bear, with no spots at all in the lot.  Eventually I just gave up and gave the car to the valet…which turned out to be good, because when I checked in it turned out valet was complimentary for Starwood Platinum members.  Something they should probably alert you about in advance maybe?

There was good news, however.  We’d been upgraded to an “Ohana Suite” which was an amazing room with an oceanfront view.  Found out one other disappointing thing at check-in:  it was 9:15pm and all the hotel restaurants were already closed.  Seriously, I know it’s a resort and it’s Hawaii, but no food after 9pm?!  We ended up ordering room service (which delivered only until 10) and had two outrageously priced burgers and beers for like $60.  At least they were quite tasty.

Then, it was time to brush the teeth…or so we thought.  Turned on the faucets…and a stream of brown water came out for like 30 seconds.  What is this, Sochi?  I know well enough to avoid “dangerous face water” but it was running clear after a minute, so figured it was at least good enough to shower in.  Called the front desk, they apologized profusely, and sent up several bottles of water for drinking…and then we passed out.

Woke up reasonably early, maybe 8a and the view outside the room of the pools was amazing:

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The hotel had a great little coffee shop/stand, and we grabbed some great kona coffee and small snacks for breakfast.  This is something I wish more hotels had:  a local coffeeshop with great food and drinks so you don’t have to have a giant breakfast in the morning.

The pool looked awesome out our room, so we opted to spend the rest of the morning being completely lazy and sitting by the pool until check-out time.  It was fantastically relaxing and just what I needed to start the trip off.  Yes, I said check-out.  We were in Kona for three nights, but ended up booking each night at a different hotel.  When I booked, the Sheraton was only available the first and last nights, and the King Kam Courtyard was only available the middle night.  Odd, but at least I’d get two Starwood stay credits!

We checked out at exactly noon, and drove to the King Kamehameha Hotel to check in.  It’s right in the middle of the city, and I’d stayed there many times 15+ years ago when I used to go to Kona each fall to volunteer at the Ironman.  The hotel was in much rougher shape than I remembered, but maybe that was partly to do with the lack of the festive atmosphere I remember from Ironman…who knows.  They did give me a free box of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, however, for being a Marriott Gold Member.  Heh. The hotel was so-so and really musty smelling, and I don’t know…I just had really good memories of it and it was a bit of a let down.

Walked to lunch at the Kona Brewing Company, about a 10 minute walk from the hotel:

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Very tasty Cuban sandwich with Kailua Pork, and even tastier samplers:

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