Mar 102018
 


At the recommendation of my friend Daniel, I had booked a “Historical Center Food Tour” with Sabores de Mexico Food Tours. I figured that using my one full day to walk around the historic center while eating at a variety of places that were largely unknown to tourists sounded like just my thing – and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.

At 11:30 I met my guide, Liz, at Oaxaca en México, a restaurant that specialized in authentic cuisine from the state of Oaxaca. I learned here that there were only two of us booked on the tour today, so we could pretty much go at whatever pace we wanted. Fantastic!

Unfortunately times had gotten mixed up, so the other lady doing the tour with us didn’t show up until almost noon. Not a problem though, since I tend to move at a quicker pace normally anyways. Our first dish would be a delicious chicken tortilla with molé and some rice with local Oaxacan herbs. It was absolutely delicious, and I’m pretty sure that I licked up every drop of the delicious sauce.

After finishing the mole, we headed off for a short walk of maybe 15 minutes until we got to the large covered Mercado de San Juan. One of the older markets in Mexico City, it started out as a place to get more “exotic” and fancier foods that couldn’t be found elsewhere. We entered through the seafood section of the market:

Our first stop inside the market was at Delicatessen La Jersey Gourmet where we had some local cheeses and beats on baguette which were served with a variety of jams….and all the wine we wanted. I loved that the plates were covered with plastic covers, presumably to re-use them without washing. Environmentally terrible..

From there we moved on to another part of the market – the “exotic animals” section. Here we stopped at El Gran Cazador – or “the Great Hunter.” First up? Grasshoppers fried up in either garlic or chilis….very crunchy, but other than that the chili and garlic flavours really overpowered the insect.

Next up? A local ant that only comes out of its burrows for a couple weeks a year, which is the dedicated harvest season and as many of them are gathered up during this time as possible. Not much taste to these either… note the grasshoppers closeup underneath…

Pigeons anyone?

Decorative corns in the market…and I can’t help but see this and remember Lisa Simpson saying “or, as the Indians call it….maize!”

Next up we stopped at another stand of El Gran Cazador, where they cooked up wild boar for us….with grasshopper sauce naturally!

To fortify for the long day ahead, we stopped for a coffee from a stand reputed to have the best coffee in the area. It was pretty tasty, and the proprietor was clearly very proud of his coffee.

Final stop in the market was Rosse Gourmet, which was a fruit and vegetable stand. Here, we got a great discussion of the produce – especially tomatoes, from the very energetic Claudia who was clearly incredibly proud of the quality of her produce. Here she is explaining the difference between tomatoes and tomatillos to us:

Look at the colour of those peppers!

Claudia also surprised us with a homemade cheesecake with fresh fruits and a passionfruit sauce…which was absolutely delicious!

Now THOSE are leeks! …and look at the size of the cauliflower!

Next stop was actually at a food truck/cart with a couple of barstools on the side called El Caguamo where we were treated to a tortilla with octopus and prawn ceviche with fresh avocado. Absolutely delicious, but I was a bit nervous eating street food ceviche given that some of the worst food poisoning I ever had was from ceviche. Fortunately, no issues this time!

We were getting a bit parched by this point, so fortunately the next stop was an old school traditional cantina called La Mascota. It was like other traditional cantinas in that you pay for a (often overpriced) drink, and then you get to eat anything on the menu for free – as much as you want! The place was absolutely packed with locals chowing down, so it was a really fun and lively atmosphere.

A mezcal margarita…and yes, it’s as big as it looks. Fortunately, it was pretty watered down so wasn’t that strong. The chicken tortilla was one of the options on the food menu, and was just meh. You clearly come here for the atmosphere, not for the food and drink which was of very average quality at best.

They even had an old compact disk jukebox!

As we continued our walk, we passed a building where some of the stucco had fallen off the day before during the earthquake:

Next up we stopped at a “new school” cantina (to contrast with the previous stop) called Pasagüero. We had an empanada and a small tapas dish which were both tasty. It was absolutely packed with young people and families, and open to the street so had a very lively atmosphere. I’d definitely come back here for afternoon drinks and people watching.

It was nearly 4pm at this point, and we had one last stop – the Dulcería de Celaya – one of the oldest traditional candy stores in Mexico City – dating back over 100 years. Some tasty local treats.

It was about 4pm at this point, and I had booked tickets to see the Frida Kahlo Museum which came highly recommended and had pre-booked at 5pm entrance so after thanking Liz quickly rushed to the metro to find my way across the city to the museum. The other lady on the tour decided to come with me, and together we figured out how to buy metro tickets, went about 10 stops, and then hopped in a taxi to the museum. Much easier than it sounds.

Frida was a Mexican artist early in the 20th century, and was actually close friends with Trotsky. After he was exiled to Mexico they became close friends, and Trotsky actually lived with her for a period. Frida had polio as a child, and a terrible car accident in her teens, and this combination left her more or less confined to the house as she was not overly mobile…and she spent a lot of her time involved in political causes an artwork.

Some of the art in the museum, also known as the “Blue House”:

The gardens:

The blue walls of the house:

From the street outside:

Went for a bit of a walk after the museum, and found an amazing church:

Grabbed an uber back to the area near my hotel, and caught this great shot of the Angel de la Independencia monument all lit up at night:

I was only a little hungry at this point, so decided to head to a local brewpub which had a rather impressive beer list:

The people watching at this sidewalk bar was lots of fun. This guy might be a little proud of his country:

With that it was time to walk back to the hotel (about a 15 minute walk) and catch some zzzzs. I was feeling exhausted from having been ill the previous week and a long week of work, so definitely wanted to make sure to grab some sleep before flying home!

Feb 282018
 


It had been a great vacation, albeit a bit odd for me to spend more than a week in one country! Despite all the rushing from city to city, having to figure out and explore multiple new cities, it actually felt rather resting…last minute train challenges aside.

In order to max sleep I decided I would roll right out of bed in the morning and head straight for the Lufthansa First Class Terminal. What’s the point of getting a coffee/shower/etc when you can do all that at the lounge? I’m not a fan of the 10am flights to the US for this reason (as someone who doesn’t get up all that early) but you do what you have to…

Out of bed, threw on clothes quickly, last few things in the bag, and maybe 15 minutes after my alarm went off I’d already arrived – a bit groggy – although the walk over in the cold morning air did help a little bit. Deer in the not-awake-headlights look:

I won the check-in lottery today, getting selected for secondary screening. It’s a little more tolerable in the First Class Terminal since you get to have a nice seat, there’s no rush, and they do all the work of the explosives scanning/etc for you. This is how security should always be!

By the time I was through the check-in agent was already waiting for me with my boarding pass, and I had about two hours left before my flight, so maybe 90 minutes before boarding. First things first, a couple espressos, some eggs benedict, and nothing says “good morning!” like a glass of champagne!

A quick Instagram and Twitter of the breakfast, and quick reply from Lufthansa’s always-alert social media team:

After finishing up breakfast it was time for a shower and freshening up before boarding. Grabbed a couple of the brand new black first class terminal ducks (how sad is it that one of the first German phrases I learned was ‘can I have two ducks for my (non-existent) children?) and soon after it was already time for a car to the plane. I was only one of two in first again today, and the other passenger and I shared a Porsche to the gate.

Lufthansa flight 422
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Boston, Massachusetts (BOS)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 13:05, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,301
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,363

Every time I fly Lufthansa first I seem to snap this picture with the champagne and the rose, and it reminds me what lies ahead:

Yet another new colour of Rimowa amenity kit…I simply must stop collecting these…or find a good way to display them.

Turkey tartar amuse bouche…must admit, it was kinda weird… I wasn’t a fan.

Best part of two people in First? All the caviar you want. Extra-large double helping for me today.

Trio of starters: Stuffed beef ham with gorgonzola and date sesame chutney (super tasty!), spiced carrots with curried yoghurt (very bland, but I’ll pretend it was at least healthy), salad of shrimp and green papaya with chili (a bit underwhelming). Only one I finished was the ham and gorgonzola, but the others were worth at least a nibble.

Main course. So on the way over, I had probably the best Lufthansa main course I’ve ever had. This one was a VERY close second: variation of venison, back and bratwurst, lingonberry jus, mashed brussels sprouts, fried curd cake. The venison was cooked a perfect medium, and the lingonberry jus was phenomenal. Lufthansa definitely hit a home run with this one.

Today’s cheeseboard was absolutely amazing: rock salt cheese, Saint Agur, Goat’s cheese with honey (amazing), L’Explorateur, Langres. Served with mango pepperoni chutney. The chutney was definitely a miss and a little weird.

Now that’s what I call a cheese plate! The honey goat cheese was amazing with the sweet biscuits.

I was definitely full at this point, but the crew wasn’t taking no for an answer…and I’m very glad they didn’t. “Warm curd cake with lemon thyme, yogurt oat crumbles, sour cream ice cream flavoured with lime leaves.” Enjoyed with a glass of desert wine it was absolutely amazing.

…and of course, no meal on Lufthansa would be complete without a couple of truffles and a glass of Johnny Walker Blue.

Spent the next few hours relaxing, and watching some REALLY bad movies on the iPad….or was the movie watching me:

Boston is a relatively short flight from Frankfurt, so by the time it was time for the pre-arrival meal I was still pretty full. Eating nothing wasn’t an option, and the fantastic lead flight attendant simply said “I’ll bring you something light.”

To start, something light was some sushi, a pretzel, and some more JWB:

Next up, some delicious Tom Kha Gai soup…I was told it would go really well with a sweet riesling, and who was I to argue. This was easily the best pre-arrival meal I’ve had on Lufthansa yet:

Finished off with apple cake with cinnamon crumbles…and a little more Johnny Walker Blue.

Overall, this was definitely the best flight I’ve had on Lufthansa food-wise, and everything other than the amuse bouche and appetizers were amazing. Easily one of the best Lufthansa flights I’ve ever taken, and almost exactly the perfect length. I know some people could spend 14+ hours on a flight and never get bored, but for me once it comes up to eight hours that’s more than enough to fit in everything I want to.

Now, off to see what awaits me. Ever since my Global Entry was revoked back in September I’ve been using the Mobile Passport app to check in to immigration and customs before landing. It’s worked just as quickly as Global Entry so far, maybe even quicker sometimes. However, this time, I was getting an error message, and not letting me check in. I had high hopes this was just a software glitch, and not something more…

Feb 202018
 


Woke up relatively early since I’d only had a little time to explore Dresden before the sun set the day before. I also wanted to get up in time to catch some of the ski race as well. Headed out of the hotel to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, and right outside the hotel the women’s race was already underway:

I wandered around the old city for a couple of hours, but didn’t really take any pictures. It was a Sunday morning and everything was pretty much closed, so I just enjoyed the time wandering about and taking in the architecture and a bit of people walking.

There was definitely something a bit charming about Dresden, but at the same time it felt quite small-town and provincial. And that was with several hundred international visitors for the ski race. My impression was definitely that it’s a bit of an “out of the way” destination, and it reflects its location in the east of Germany much closer to Poland and other central and eastern European countries. It definitely still felt German, but in a bit less globalized way than major cities like Frankfurt, Berlin, and Munich.

One nice thing about having a BahnCard is that local transportation to the train station is included with most tickets, so I hopped on the tram right outside the Westin to take me to Dresden Hauptbanhof. Arrived with plenty of time before my train, grabbed a small snack, and did some train spotting from the upper level tracks looking down on the main part of the station:

It was probably a bit silly, but I planned most of this trip around ICE train schedules. Since there is no ICE from Dresden to Berlin, I opted to do Dresden first, then backtrack an hour to Leipzig and then on to Berlin. Fortunately, since there were only a few ICEs between Dresden and Leipzig I chose the one that left mid-day so I could have a little extra time in both cities. Train was quick, and an hour later I was in Leipzig. Just enough time to knock out the day’s Duolingo lessons.

Leipzig Hauptbanhof turned out to be located barely a five minute walk from the Westin, which made for a very convenient arrival. Yes, I hadn’t really done all that much research in advance for this trip, and just enjoyed taking things as they came.

The Westin Leipzig was much more modern than the Westin Dresden, which you could tell was a much older hotel which had been renovated. The Leipzig hotel, however, seemed to be very new and modern, and was a highrise. It took a bit of arm-twisting to get the hotel to honour the Platinum best available room benefit, but when they did I finally got a nice (but semi-small) corner suite.

The sitting area with the afternoon sun streaming in:

Another shot of the living room from the other side – you can see the desk, the main entrance door, and the unusual minibar in a column which separated the living room from the entryway, bathroom, and bedroom:

Bedroom was on the small side, but perfectly adequate:

One of the nicest features of the room was that there was a balcony where I could take a good panorama of the area around the hotel:

One of the oddest features was that the bathroom also connected the bedroom and living room. It was in itself divided into FOUR small cubes…each with its own sink. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling this was one of the strangest hotel rooms I’ve gotten in a long time. Starting in the living room, you entered the toilet room, with sink:

Next to that was a sink room…with just a sink. How…useful?

The third cube was a shower cube…which connected the sink room with the bathtub room…this was the only room with no sink:

Then once you pass through the shower cube, you enter the bathtub room…which also has its own sink. Just strange.

Having had my fill of sinks for the day, I wandered out to begin exploring Leipzig. The old town was just a short distance from the hotel, and I immediately decided I liked the city.

I wandered for a couple hours, grabbed some coffee to warm up, and eventually got to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) which is probably Leipzig’s best known attraction since Bach is buried right inside the church. Trying to get cute with my photography and frame the church with some tree branches:

Statue of Bach outside the church. He’s bringing sexy Bach. Sorry for all the bad jokes….I guess I’m just going for baroque with this post.

Inside of the church, with Bach’s grave in the middle:

Looking the other direction, with the pews:

I’m not certain what this part of a church is called, but I like this shot with the stained glass windows in the back:

The Markt Square and Old Town Hall with the sun beginning to set and a pink hue to the clouds:

After a short rest back in the room, I headed down to the lobby to see what the makeshift lounge had to offer for happy hour. The lobby bar doubles as a lounge for platinum members from 6-7pm with free drinks and a “special platinum snack menu.” Reasonable choice of drinks:

The platinum snack turned out to be some mixed nuts, a small cup of soup, and a rather impression salmon roll. Some good high-quality protein. Overall, it was the perfect offering since I was planning to head out to dinner shortly.

Dinner involved figuring out how to purchase an S-Bahn ticket (turned out to be easy with ticket dispensing machines right on the platform) and some cool artwork in the arrival station:

Dinner may have been walkable if it wasn’t dark and cold, but taking the train was kind of fun too. I headed to the Bayerischer Bahnhof for dinner, which brews their own Gose beer, a style that is native to Leipzig. So, even those gose is far from my favourite beer, when in Rome:

The restaurant is located atop an old train station which sat unused until the S-Bahn was expanded and a new station opened. Now this is more like it! Sausage, potatoes, and a bit of mustard…you can’t get a much more German meal than that!

They refused to take no for an answer on desert, and it was amazing as well:

Back to the hotel where I passed out from a long day of walking, ready to get up the next morning and walk around a bit more before catching my onward train to Berlin. I definitely want to get back to Saxony in the future and explore it a bit more in depth as well as checking out some of the smaller cities – maybe in the summer!

Nov 132017
 


Since this was a work trip, there wasn’t too much time to enjoy Johannesburg, which is actually one of my favourite cities in the world. Fortunately, it had only been eight weeks since the last time I was there on holiday in August. It’s funny how life works some times. Eight weeks prior, when I was there for fun, I had no idea that I would be returning to DC, taking a new job, and immediately being sent right back to Joburg. Guess this is an argument for not overplanning things!

Landed a bit before 9am, immigration was easy, and headed straight to the Gautrain to head into the city. Getting to Rosebank where my hotel was did require one change but I was still there well before 10am. Unfortunately ,they didn’t have any rooms free for check in at this hour, but after a bit of prodding and reminding them I’ve been staying at the Hyatt Rosebank for nearly 25 years I managed to convince them to give me an executive club room which was ready for less than $20 extra per day. Much cheaper than it would have been to book the extra night to guarantee the room was ready upon arrival! I’ve tried a few other hotels in Joburg over the years, but honestly the service at the Hyatt blows them all away – plus, its location right next to a Gautrain station as well as a large shopping mall is hard to beat!

Got to my room around 10am, and after a shower promptly passed out for a four hour nap. Given I woke up around 8am DC time this probably wrecked my sleep for the first two nights I was there, but I was exhausted enough that I didn’t care. After waking up I grabbed a coffee at the brand new Starbucks around the corner before getting back on the Gautrain and heading to Sandton to grab a late lunch.

Wasn’t really sure what I was in the mood for, but it was a sunny day and I decided to sit out on the patio at Wang Thai and enjoy the great weather. I was feeling like green curry, which they had, but then I noticed they also had an ostrich steak which looked great. I asked if instead of chicken or beef they might be able to do the green curry with ostrich, and absolutely – they were happy to try.

Meet the first ever South African Thai fusion ostrich green curry (which was delicious!):

So, from here, it was five days of work. It was a great intro to the new job which I was starting, and each morning before we got going I went around the corner to enjoy some Starbucks. The jacaranda trees were also in bloom, something I’ve never seen in all of my trips to Gauteng. They made for great scenery while I sat outside each morning enjoying my covfefe:

The last day of the conference, we finished a little early, so I headed over to Starbucks to get some coffee before I went out exploring. We’d been doing so well until this point, but….the curse of people not being able to spell Jason came back:

After a long late afternoon walk, I was low on energy so decided I wanted a nice dinner…but also to stay near the hotel. I went with the Grillhouse restaurant in the mall attached to the Hyatt, which I’d never been to before. A nice springbok carpaccio to start:

Main course of boerewors and ostrich medallions, with creamed spinach and mushrooms…and a nice pinotage.

The next day, I had a full day to myself. Due to the way airfares worked out, it was significantly cheaper to go home a day later (even considering hotel/etc) so I agreed to stay for a day and play tourist. Can’t complain about that! Since I’d never been before, I decided to take the Gautrain up to Pretoria for the day and wander around. First stop was the Union Buildings with the large Mandela statue:

Old cannon in front of the Union Buildings:

Pretoria is known for its jacaranda trees, and they definitely didn’t disappoint. The only bad thing about them how badly I’m apparently allergic to them!

The Union Buildings:

Next I grabbed an Uber to Church Square, which unfortunately turned out to be under construction. The statue of Paul Kruger is still in the middle of the square:

After wandering, caught the train back to Joburg and did a bit of wandering and shopping. I kinda felt like I needed to buy this for my next flight:

Ended the trip in the wonderful Hyatt Exec Lounge which does happy hour every evening. Finished up a bit of work while enjoying some wine and appetizers. This is one property where, between the breakfast and the happy hour, it’s definitely worth getting on the executive floor if you can:

Called it an early night on my last night because I wanted to get up early and go for one more long walk before heading to the airport for my flights home…

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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