Sep 182017
 

In total, I had arranged for five nights in Sydney, and was really looking forward to this being the relaxing “vacation” part of the trip. Something I promised myself after finishing all the countries is that at least to a degree I’d slow down and explore places a little more in depth. Yeah, so I had to cross the southern hemisphere on this trip “because it was there,” but now that I was in Sydney, it was time to relax.

My first day, honestly, I didn’t do too much that was blog-worthy. Wandered around, saw some of the same sites I’ve posted on here before, and just basically killed jetlag. Lots of great coffee shops, tons of walking, and just overall relaxing…and being on vacation!

Second day, I was ready to do some serious urban walking, so after breakfast caught the bus for a rather long ride up north to the Spit Bridge to begin the Spit to Manly walk. Apparently, there’s a funeral shop just for white ladies…

The Spit Bridge, where the hike starts:

Fishing near the bridge. He was rather bundled up, and it was a bit chilly near the water, maybe 15C, but walking at a brisk pace I was nice and warm.

Lots of boats out today near the bridge:

Next to Vancouver, I can’t think of any city that has as many amazing ocean views as Sydney does.

In several parts, the walk was rather high up on the cliffs, but there were options to descend down to sandy coves for some amazing views:

At once point, there was a site where several aboriginal rock carvings had been found. This fish seemed almost too real to have survived years of weather:

How can you not love a view like this? The waves were really crashing today.

As you got closer to Manly, the trail was actually walking in the sand on the beach at several places. However, during high tide apparently, some parts of the trail aren’t passable and you have to go a few blocks inland and use city streets.

…and in other parts, it was just a nice trail through the woods.

Part of the walk that went along the water (Forty Baskets Beach) that may not be passable at high tide. I can see why based on how high the water already was:

Lots more boats. It seriously seemed like half the city must own a boat there were so many out.

Nearly Manly. Are there seriously Penguins this far north in Australia?!

After finishing the nice long few hour walk, decided to reward myself with a couple of beers and a sausage roll at 4 Pines Brewing Company. It was a weekend, and the place was absolutely packed with locals having lunch and pints.

Some other highlights from the first couple of days include one of many perfect flat whites…

…a pizza with crocodile, kangaroo, and emu at the Australian Heritage Hotel: (which, btw, has an amazing list of beers on draught, and dozens more in bottles.)

…and who needs Starbucks when you have perfect flatwhites at local independent coffee shops everywhere you look, and grumpy donuts to eat!

With that, the first two days in Sydney were done, one fantastic walk down and at least one more to go…along with a lot more relaxing, seeing friends, and just generally having a real vacation!

Sep 042017
 

After landing immigration was a pretty quick affair (where I saved $117 due to not being Australian) and then it was time to figure out how to get to my hotel. A nice trick I learned several years ago is that when landing after a redeye, unless you are really in the rush for some meeting or appointment, there’s no harm in sitting down, waking up, and figuring out your game plan for a new place.

Now, Santiago wasn’t new for me, but it had been nearly fifteen years since I was last there so I figured I should take my time and plan the next steps. Sat down at a coffeeshop in the immigration area, enjoyed some espresso to wake up, and plotted how I would get to the city. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been able to find an ATM, and I wasn’t sure that taxis would take credit cards, and Uber looked like an option, so I decided to go with that.

There were official taxis where the rate was just slightly higher than Uber (and the desk looked to take credit cards) but I decided to try and be a little more independent and try Uber. I was assigned a driver rather quickly, and within a minute he texted me in the app – asking where I was waiting. He didn’t speak any English, but with a little help from google translate I was able to work with him and find out there was an official waiting area for meeting your pick-up.

Walked to the area (across the main road outside the arrivals area) and while waiting, a couple different people told me not to bother – Uber is illegal here and nobody will come pick you up. Well, my driver did show up about 10 minutes later, but the first thing he told me too is that Uber is kind of illegal here, so if anyone asks…we are friends, ok?

No problem…and a good thing, because no more than two minutes down the road there was a police checkpoint where they were checking the papers of taxi drivers…and looking for illegal Ubers. They wouldn’t talk to the driver, only to me…”yes, he’s my friend.” “How do you know him?” “Well, my sister was here last year, and they met at a club, and when I told her I was coming here she told her friend and he offered to pick me up.” I’m not entirely sure they bought the story, but they did let us go. I think the driver was impressed with my ability to make something up on the spot…in my rather bad Spanish on top of it.

Traffic was pretty bad since it was around 9am, and finally made it to the hotel about 45 minutes later. The W had agreed in advance to honour the “My 24” benefit of my status, and allowed me to guarantee a 9am to 9am stay. Was great to be able to check in right when I arrived (even if it meant no upgrade) and after a quick shower I enjoyed a fantastic two hour nap that was just enough to recharge me for the day.

It was 11am by this point, and I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my day. I hadn’t really planned too much for this stop just in case I didn’t make it on the standby flight, so some planning was in order. Fortunately, there was a Starbucks right around the corner – allowing me somewhere to caffeinate and plan. Well, maybe not me, but some guy named “Jess” at least:

Couldn’t really decide what to do, and since I’ve had luck in other cities I googled “free walking tour of santiago.” Managed to find a company called Free Tour Santiago that looked good, had tours every day at 3pm, and no booking needed. Perfect! I would go check that out, and if it was promising I would go with it. After enjoying a bit of coffee, lunch, and the latest news about the DPRK and USA alarming the world, I headed out to make my way to the Plaza de Armas for the tour.

Figured out how the subway worked, how to buy a farecard, and I was off. The plaza was filled with interesting characters, and since I still had 30 minutes until the tour I took a bench for a bit to peoplewatch. What was perhaps the most interesting to me was the extremely high number of Haitians hanging out in the square. At least 100 in several small groups. I did ask my guide about it later, and he said most of them had arrived as refugees after the big earthquake several years ago, and were having a hard time integrating due to language barriers.

3pm came, and a light rain started. This wasn’t looking good for the tour. I did manage to locate the tour guide in front of the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago which was already getting set for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis.

Lots of people about, and looked like we would be about 20 for the tour today. Strangely enough, no Spanish speakers, only Brazilians and a mix of internationals who spoke English. Fortunately there were two guides, so they agreed to do one English tour and one Portuguese tour. Our group contained a couple of girls from Korea, a few Germans, a couple of American backpackers who gave up on the rain/tour after 10 minutes, and a couple of Danes. We decided to set off from the Plaza, and see how the rain went.

First thing in the square was the statue of Don Pedro de Valdivia, a Spanish conquistador, who “discovered” and founded Santiago in 1541:

Next up was the Mueseo Chileno de Arte Precolombiano. We just stepped inside for a bit to talk about the museum, and the guide gave us enough background in case we chose to come back on our own later. It was also raining very heavily at this point, so allowed us 15 minutes to get out of the rain. When the rain let up a bit we walked a bit more and made it to the Plaza de la Constitución and saw the La Moneda Palace:

In the square was a statue of Salvador Allende, so we stopped for a brief Chilean history lesson. The very short version: Allende was a Marxist who was a cabinet minister as a member of the Socialist Party. After unsuccessful runs for President in 1952, 1958, and 1964 he finally won in 1970. In 1973, the military (supported by the CIA) attempted to overthrow Allende and surrounded him in the La Moneda Palace where he eventually committed suicide.

Eventually Pinochet took over as President and ruled as a dictator until 1990, a period during which thousands of people mysteriously disappeared.

The rain continued to be a light drizzle, so the eight of us who remained kept walking to the Opera House, where across the street is a small restaurant.When Bill Clinton visited Chile he stopped in this place (for a Coke supposedly) and ever since the restaurant has completely branded itself around him – featuring a whole menu of Clinton-inspired dishes – including the “Monica Lewinsky” hot dog…

The rain had picked up again at this point, and the timing was perfect. We kept walking (into a trendy/expensive neighbourhood whose name I’ve forgotten) and stopped for snacks/drinks at a place the tour company had an agreement for. They had a “special menu” of food and drinks for the tour (supposedly cheaper than their normal prices) and we were encouraged to try the Pisco Sour.

I’d always though Pisco was a Peruvian thing (and maybe it is) but our guide insisted that it was a Chilean drink that the Peruvians had simply stolen. Now, given Pedro de Valdivia had come to “discover” Chile from Peru, the whole thing is up for debate really since the the breaking up into countries is a bit of an artificial colonial thing…

That said, the pisco sour was indeed delicious!

After the rain let up a bit we kept walking through a park, and enjoying the park, statues, etc….

Finally the tour ended up in an area known for nightlife. Now, this is usually the downside with free tours which is that they are geared to budget-minded travelers (aka backpackers) so tend to skew towards the activities more popular with the younger crowds…aka bars and clubs.

This one was no exception at the end, but as with some other great walking tours I’ve gone on there was plenty of history and a great intro to the city included, so it was well worth it. Plus, this tour ended at a place where the group could have a drink together, and the four of us left standing at the end did…plus, it was a place that brewed its own craft beer so was definitely a win!

After the tour was over I had a recommendation for a place near my hotel called Pizzeria Tiramisu to get dinner, and when I walked in I was shocked how busy the place was for a Thursday night. Tables were all booked, but the place had multiple bars inside and it was suggested to hover by them and wait for a seat. One opened up after about 10 minutes, and I was able to enjoy a nice lasagna and beer (and of course tiramisu) which was welcome after several hours walking around in the cold rain.

I was exhausted by this point, made it back to the hotel and crashed, since it would be a very early wakeup the next morning to continue on to Buenos Aires! Not too much to say about the W as a hotel – it was located in an upscale neighbourhood with lots of stuff within walking distance. It was very clean, very W-like, and not memorable. I would definitely stay there again, but given the rather expensive price I would also consider other options.

Jun 232017
 

It had been a few years since I’d been to Barcelona, and even then I had just rented a car at the airport and headed straight for Andorra. This time we would have a full long evening/morning in Barcelona before heading to Andorra to check it off for Ian as well as do a bit of shopping.

I had picked our hotel based on a combo of location, reviews, and cost. It was located about halfway between the airport and the city, and looked to have great transportation options to both. We made the mistake of hopping on the bus to get there, which while not a mistake wasn’t quite as easy and fast as the subway would have been. Both are a straight shot with no transfers and roughly the same price.

Our hotel was the Renaissance Barcelona Fira Hotel, which I’m pretty sure was the most uniquely designed hotel I’ve ever stayed in – and that’s saying quite a lot after going to every country. Check-in was good, Marriott status was recognized and we were offered upgraded rooms on a high floor with complimentary wine and cheese delivered to the room. Nice touch! English skills of the staff were also quite good, and they were extremely friendly and helpful.

Elevators up to the room, and this is what greeted us coming off the elevators:

The hotel is build in a basically as two long/slim corridors with a series of open-air walkways connecting them:

View from my room across the open atrium to the other “tier” of rooms on the floor. You can see elevators to the left and a staircase to the right:

After checking in and enjoying the small bottle of wine and cheese plate which was quite generous, we hopped on the subway to enjoy the long daylight in Barcelona. Sunset was after 9pm, so we had plenty of time to do some wandering before grabbing a bite to eat. First, mandatory shot of La Sagrada Familia:

We wandered a bit more, but it was already 8pm and we were getting hungry. Unfortunately, the first two places were closed because it was Sunday, and we eventually ended up at CocoVail Beer Hall, which had an amazing selection of local craft beers to explore:

Look at that selection of local meets and cheeses!

After a delicious dinner, we decided to wander the city a bit more, and ended up at Kælderkold, another pub with an amazing list of (mostly imported) craft beers. Unfortunately, it was about 30 degrees inside and packed with obnoxious drunk american college students drinking with their parents, but the bartenders and selection of beers was fantastic.

Got back to the hotel around 1am, and the rooftop pool bar was still going strong, so we enjoyed one last drink before calling it a night. A surprisingly “early” night for Spain, but hey, it was a Sunday…

Slept in a bit the next morning, walked for a bit, and got this picture of the hotel which more clearly shows the two sides where the rooms are, and the walkways that connect them:

View from the entrance. I loved the hotel and it’s funky architecture, but probably not to be recommended to those with a serious fear of heights, as it was rather open:

View from the rooftop pool and bar:

I could seriously see just spending a day lounging around at the rooftop pool and enjoying the sun:

One last shot of the open-air atrium:

We checked out around noon, headed to the airport, where Hertz apparently didn’t know which terminal to expect us at, so our car was at the other terminal. They unfortunately had no automatic transmissions at the terminal we were at, but the friendly agent assured us it would be worth the wait to drive it over to us. 15 minutes later, a fantastic E-Class Mercedes showed up – what a fantastic upgrade! This was going to make the drive to Andorra lots of fun!

This is probably old news for those who do a lot of driving in Europe, but in the couple of years since I had gone to Andorra the number of tolls on the route had multiplied massively. I remember one or two in each direction on my previous trip, but this time we had at least 6-8 different tolls. The tolls are fantastic, however, because you can just pull up, put your credit card in, and away you go. Nice and convenient, and the only downside is that you don’t get a receipt.

After about two hours of driving it was definitely time for some food, and we stopped off at a small gas station/restaurant and took our chance. It was a set menu with three choices of starter, main, and dessert – all for something like 12 euro if I remember correctly.

I chose the amazing gazpacho to start – which was super tasty:

Sorry Peter Rabbit, but you were delicious…although a lot of work for very little meat…which isn’t unusual for rabbit.

…and a delicious flan and espresso to finish it off. Great value!

Rest of the drive to Andorra was uneventful. Unfortunately, for the second time, I couldn’t find the place to pull over and ask Andorran officials for a passport stamp, so missed out on that once again. Not the end of the world, and like my previous visit I remember thinking “I can at least can an exit stamp on the way out of the country” so completely missed out.

Fortunately, this was my second trip and we were staying in the same hotel, so it was relatively easy to get there. I neglected to mention that the Mercedes also came with navigation which made it much easier to find our hotel. I remember wandering the one-way streets of Andorra la Vella last time and having a hard time. This time was comparatively super easy.

Now, time to head out and enjoy Andorra!

May 142017
 

After a quick coffee and beer, we headed down to the Aeroexpress train. It had already been a really long day and I was tired, so decided to spring the extra $10 or so for the business class car, and it turned out there were only 3 people in the whole car. Sure, it’s only like a 30 minute ride, but it was nice to be able to relax and enjoy it.

I had made the mistake of wearing shorts since it was over 70F when we left Abkhazia, but in Moscow it was 35F and freezing cold. After a short metro transfer, we had a 10 minute or so walk to our hotel, the St. Regis, and it was definitely a frigid walk. I’m still amazing not a single babushka came up to me and chastised me for being poorly dressed for the weather!

Check-in was quick and polite, and since both rooms had been booked under my name they were good enough to upgrade both of us to very nice one bedroom suites – can’t complain about that at all! Doing 200+ nights with Starwood last year is definitely paying off with much nicer upgrades than I’m used to receiving. Unfortunately it was going to just be a relatively short overnight and we wouldn’t really have time to enjoy the room, but it was nice nonetheless.

After dropping bags and putting on warmer clothes, we headed out for a walk. First, the obligatory Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral shot – something about the grey cloudy weather gave the perfect mood to the square:

IMG_4074

We wandered around trying to find a shop Ian knew that sold wonderfully kitschy Putin and Russia souvenirs, but apparently they’d gone out of business in the last year. We headed back to the GUM department store for some fantastic pistachio ice cream, and deciding we were hungry decided to check out Stolovaya #57 – a cafeteria in the department store modeled after an old school Soviet cafeteria…except with much better variety of food!

Vegetable salad with beetroot, peas, carrots….fresh fruit, stuffed bell pepper, and a chicken cutlet with mushroom sauce. Delicious and filling…and very authentically Russian…all this for under $10.

IMG_4076

After eating we wandered through the grocery store in GUM, and in the alcohol section they were selling Kalashnikov brand vodka….complete in a plastic kalashnikov bottle….only in Russia!

IMG_4077

After dinner, we headed to a small bar I’d been told about, not terribly far from Red Square, called Rules Taproom. A friend had told me they had one of the best craft beer menus in the world, but that we should expect to feel “tragically old and uncool.” We definitely brought the average age up by quite a bit, but at least we didn’t look too out of place with the extremely tattooed and hipster crowd. Plus, an amazing taplist and great taps!  A hockey trophy, brass knuckles, a grenade, a wrench, and lots of other cool stuff. Can’t wait to go back!

IMG_4081

Back to the hotel and bed by a reasonable hour, because we wanted to be sure to be able to hit the St. Regis’ amazing breakfast buffet before heading to the airport. Flight was at 9am, and it can take up to an hour to get to the airport, so with a 630a opening time for the buffet we knew we would be cutting it close.

Great night of sleep, at the buffet right when it opened, and it was worth the wait! Smoked salmon and whitefish, caviar, blue cheese, pain au chocolate, and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. With a pot of tea, of course!

IMG_4082

Took nearly an hour for our Uber to get to the airport, but was definitely the quickest option. We did make it with plenty of time, but unfortunately I lost Ian at immigration, because his gates were at a different checkpoint, and clogged with loads of Central Asians who they were taking forever to process. I, however, made it through quite quickly and even had five minutes to stop in the SWISS lounge for some water and snack. Unfortunately, none of the shops sold more Putin magnets.

IMG_4084

Fortunately, the lounge was only a two minute walk from my gate, so nice and easy for boarding which was right on time.

SWISS flight 1325
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 9:05, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 4:35
Airbus A320, Registration HB-IJS, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,522
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,399

Something about the welcome screens on SWISS always makes me feel relaxed and multicultural…a good feeling in this increasingly isolationist and polarized world:

IMG_4086

Pushback…the wonderfully kitschy lime green S7 livery and a Ural Airlines plane:

IMG_4087

Great view of the parked planes including a couple of Tupolevs on takeoff. Those S7 planes really stand out!

IMG_4090

Not a bad breakfast for a relatively short regional flight! Delicious Muesli, reasonable omelette, perfectly buttery and flaky croissant (unlike the ones usually served on US domestic flights which are more like glorified crescent rolls), some fresh fruit and cheese. I decided to make it a champagne brunch, and the fantastic crew insisted I have a second class…and pushed it on the guy across the aisle too. “If you waste the rest of the bottle, it will be a real pity!” Who can argue with that logic!

IMG_4126

Touchdown in a very snowy Zurich…yes, this is late April!

IMG_4128

Headed through immigration, and decided while I was at it to leave the secured area. As usual when dealing with Swiss border guards, they asked me a million questions, acting as if I was the most suspicious character they’d ever met. All Schengen/Swiss border controls are NOT equal – despite the intent. Why would you fly Zurich to Frankfurt? Why not just fly Moscow to Frankfurt? Why are you in Europe so much? Why do you spend so much time in Russia recently? Why is there a stamp from Somalia in your passport, on and on for nearly 15 minutes.

Headed to Starbucks for the most expensive Starbucks in the world (nearly $8 for an Americano – I think the only place more expensive might be Copenhagen…although even that might not compete these days.) On that note, any readers interested in adding to my database of Starbucks prices around the world hit me up. I track the price of a grande drip coffee (with tax) if you have a chance to look at your local shop.

After heading back through security, I headed to the SWISS lounge, where it was time for a local beer and a snack:

IMG_4132

One more local beer, and some Gummibärchen….because…it was still snowing and my Lufthansa flight was delayed nearly two hours:

IMG_4133

Finally, nearly two hours late, our flight was ready for boarding, so I headed off to the gate, where our Lufthansa plane was just pulling in….looks like we’ll be almost 2.5 hours late in the end! How un-German!

Lufthansa flight 1191
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 14:40, Arrive 15:45, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPY, Manufactured 1991, Seat 6F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,699
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,576

On the taxi out, I noticed lots of sleet and ice forming on the window:

IMG_4137

We were at the end of the runway, turning onto the active runway to take off, when I also noticed lots of ice/sleet/slush accumulating on the wings. Visions of Air Florida started dancing through my head, and I decided to start ringing the flight attendant call button frantically – probably 10 times in 10 seconds or so. I still don’t know if it was me, or a sensor in the cockpit, but the pilot turned off the active runway and announced to us we would need to deice before taking off due to snow moving in as we taxied out. Quite a scary moment!

Once airborne, despite the 50 minute flight time, a small snack was served. Scary sandwich, some fresh fruit, chocolate, and a glass of white wine. Skipped the sandwich, but the rest was quite tasty and impressive service for a short flight. This probably wasn’t Lufthansa’s best effort with the delay and all, but overall I still was left with a better impression that I usually am in the US. I think the attitude and composure of the crew went a long way towards helping.

IMG_4143

Landed in Frankfurt much later than expected, but fortunately was staying at the airport Sheraton. I was met by the general manager at check-in, who let me know that they’d followed up on my previous disappointing stay, and found a room that was extra cool with great air conditioning. I found out later they had blocked the room on both sides of me as well as above and below, and turned the air up full blast in those. A bit unnecessary, but the effort and CRM was super welcome. I’ll definitely be staying at this property again.

Headed out to Naiv, my favourite craft beer bar in the area, and enjoyed some delicious beer-braised bacon-wrapped dates:

IMG_4148

Along with a reasonably tasty German imperial IPA or three:

IMG_4151

With that, it was a quick ride back to the hotel for a bit of sleep. I wanted to make sure to be up early to enjoy what I hoped would be another amazing experience in the Lufthansa first class terminal!

Mar 192017
 

Got a very good night of sleep, and was all set for a day of adventure ahead. Originally when I planned this trip, I had planned two days in Paris on the return, but when I had to skip the Cape Town side trip, I was no longer able to get the stopover in Paris on the way back. The options were Frankfurt and Munich, and having been to both several times I picked Frankfurt figuring I was likely to have more options for side trips from there.

After playing around on Die Bahn’s website I settled for a sidetrip to Nürnberg. I had really wanted to see Dresden or Leipzig, but spending 4-5 hours each way on the train wasn’t my idea of a good use of time. I’ll save those for another trip later this year when I have more time. I had also wanted a train trip side it had been a long time, and there were still some decent ICE first fares to Nürnberg. It was far from cheap, but at two hours each way with great times, and plenty to see in Nürnberg, I figured it was a good option

Train left super early – around 8a – which meant being up early. The great thing of being at the Sheraton attached to the airport is I just had to walk into the departures hall, and I had my own Starbucks for breakfast and wakeup. There was a good breakfast spread in the Sheraton lounge, so it made for a nice and convenient morning.

Train was about 10 minutes late, and absolutely packed. I didn’t see an empty seat anywhere in my car. Fortunately I got one of the seats on the single side, so no dealing with climbing over people – definitely plus! When I got to Nürnberg I found the machine to buy day tickets for local transit, pulled up google maps, and found out which tram I needed to take to the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände – the Documentation Centre at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds.

The museum opened in 1994, and the entrance is a long glass and steel tunnel into the front of the building – a creative play by the architect to mock Nazi architect Albert Speer. The place was much busier than I expected for a museum on a Monday, filled with school groups:

IMG_3045

The new Neue Kongresshalle – New Congress Hall – which was never finished. It was intended to seat 50,000 people during rallies and is the largest piece of Nazi architecture still standing.

IMG_3046

I spent about two hours walking through the exhibits, and there was a fantastic audiotour that you could either do a short version, or listen to lots of background in each room. It was an incredibly well-done museum with lots of historical facts as well. It was also slightly chilling given how many parallels were easy to draw to current events in the United States.

After finishing the museum, I went for a walk around the Dutzendteich – or dozen ponds, which are adjacent to the Kongresshall and museum. It was a grey a gloomy day, which somehow seemed appropriate.

IMG_3047

aa

IMG_3049

Grandstand at the Zeppelinfeld – or Zeppelin Field. It was one of the first architectural sites build by Albert Speer, and based upon the Ancient Greek Pergamon Altar. On the top of the review stand there used to be a giant swastika that was blown up in 1945 at the end of the war to symbolically show that naziism was over. It got its name because it was the site in 1909 where Ferdinand von Zeppelin landed one of his zeppelins.

 

IMG_3051

Looking out from the top of the grandstand:

IMG_3053

Sideways view when standing on the podium on the Zeppelinfeld grandstand:

IMG_3056

How the site looked in the 1930s and 1940s. Note the giant swastika on the top of the grandstand and the columns which no longer exist:

IMG_3060

From the Zeppelinfeld I continued walking around the water, and got this view of the Kongresshalle from the other side:

IMG_3063

Danger! Crazy-long German word ahead!

IMG_3064

Looking down the Große Straße – Great Road. Over a mile long and 40 meters wide it was a parade route for the Wehrmacht during the annual party meetings. It points toward medieval Nürnberg Castle and the direction was an attempt to link old Nürnburg to the Nürnberg of the Third Reich. After the war ended, the US Army actually used the road as a temporary airfield since so there was so much damage to other infrastructure.

IMG_3066

Outside the Kongresshalle:

IMG_3067

After all this walking I was getting pretty hungry so pulled up google maps again. Figured out how to get to the restaurant I wanted to go to, and there was a direct bus leaving from the museum. Perfect! Between google maps and the daypass transport around Nürnberg was really simple.  Bus dropped me right in the centre of the city near an old church:

IMG_3068

IMG_3069

Statue of Albrecht Durer, a renaissance painter from Nürnberg:

IMG_3070

Lunch at the Hausbraueri Altstadthof – great homemade beer and Nürnberg Rostbratwurst with Kartoffelsalat – YUM!

IMG_3077

After lunch went for a long walk back towards the train station, passing the Frauenkirche – a great example of gothic architecture from the mid-1300s:

IMG_3079

Stopped at Starbucks for some caffeine, and had an absolutely terrible view on the Pegnitz River:

IMG_3082

The Wetterhäuschen Lorenzkirche – or St Lorenz church. Ground was broken in 1250, but the church was only finished approximately 200 years later. It was badly damaged during World War Two but later restored:

IMG_3083

Selfie on the Königstraße heading towards the train station:

IMG_3084

Train back to Frankfurt was on time, and once again managed to get lucky and get the single seat. Once again the train was completely full all the way to Frankfurt. Is this the norm lately, or was it because it was a Monday? I haven’t taken many train trips in Germany in the last ten years, but I remember first class on the ICEs used to be relatively empty lots of the time.

Had a quiet evening in Frankfurt just walking through the centre of the city, stopped at a couple of small random bars/restaurants for a beer, and then back to the airport early so that I could turn in. I had a relatively early flight the next morning, and wanted to maximize my time in the Lufthansa First Class Terminal!

Jan 162016
 

Couple of days at home after Christmas to get things sorted, and it was time to head out on the more-or-less annual New Year’s Trip. I’m actually super excited for 2016-17 New Years, because I have no plans – nowhere I “have” to go, and I can actually do whatever I want. Pretty exciting after 10+ years of using the long weekends to take advantage and visit multiple countries.

Decided to be a bit economical, and take the Metro to National Airport, and no drama at all…which is much better than my usual commute where 15 minutes frequently turns to 30-45 at least once a week due to broken down trains, smoke in tunnels, you name it, it’s been a problem with Metro lately. Note that this post is going to be mostly photos, because there is only so much you can keep saying about United service.

Instead, this time, the drama was to be with United. No sooner did I arrive at the airport then I got notification my flight would be delayed an hour due to a late arriving aircraft. Of course. Nothing to do with weather in Chicago (for a change in December) it just looked like a crew rest issue turned into cascading delays for little things.

The United Club was open, however, and had this festive offering I haven’t seen before. United Club Eggnog? That just screams salmonella in a jug to me, so I decided to pass:

IMG_5504

An hour turned into two, and I finally headed to the gate hoping to have 30 minutes left to make my connection in Chicago. But, there was drama. When I checked in, United was “unable” to assign me a seat. Gate agent confirmed the flight was “overbooked” by two in first, and based on the seat I had originally reserved (and the person eventually occupying it) it was clear I was a victim of a Federal Air Marshal. I was offered “probably” a middle seat in coach – but since the flight was overbooked she refused to even guarantee that.

I reminded her that United’s policy for overbooked first is NOT to just downgrade whoever happens to not have a seat, but to downgrade upgraders first, followed by award tickets, and then order of status/fare. Being a 1K on a paid ticket, there’s no way I should be downgraded. She refused. I asked for supervisor. She refused. I asked for her name, so I could share with corporate that she doesn’t like their policy, because it makes her life difficult when I write them for compensation.

She relented, and called up the two upgraders – both of whom happened to be Global Services. Hahaha. To their credit, they were completely understanding and took the downgrade compensation. I guess when you fly THAT much you tend not to pull DYKWIA stuff. I know it’s only a 90 minute flight, but at the same time, being on a paid first ticket it was the principle of the matter…eventually ended up sitting next to a no-status bro on an award ticket who announced pretty much right away his intention to “get totally obliterated by the time we get to Chicago because I’m going to Vegas.” Maybe the new United policy should be to downgrade in order of behaviour…

United flight 619
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 13:46, Arrive 15:05, Flight Time: 2:19
Boeing 737-700, Registration N27724, Manufactured 1999, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 123,910
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,162,877

PDB were offered, and we were treated to a nice sunset on the way to Chicago:

IMG_5511

Other than that, pretty generic United 737 flight. Snack basket was offered, and when we pulled into the gate there were only 14 minutes to make my connection. We parked next to the United First lounge, and I decided to go there first. Having lost out on my 2.5 hour connection, I asked if instead of running for it they could just put me on the later flight to London instead, so I had some time to get work done. The same fare bucket was still available, and they were happy to make the change. I love this lounge.

Another reason I love this lounge:

IMG_5512

Had a small mini pre-dinner while getting some work done. Another reason to like this lounge past Veuve…it satisfies my cheese obsession:

IMG_5513

Somewhere around Veuve number three before boarding…

IMG_5515

Flight was parked just a couple of gates away from the lounge, and got there just as they started boarding.

United flight 938
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 21:05, Arrive 11:05, Flight Time: 8:00
Boeing 767-300, Registration N658UA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 127,863
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,166,830

Welcome aboard glass of the ever-classy Oscar Cliquot, in fancy Maison Plastique crystal:

IMG_5519

Hooray…we get the short rib…again!

IMG_5520

IMG_5521

Warm nuts, and a rather respectable malbec to start things off. I never understood the obsession with “warm nuts.” I actually prefer them at room temperature – lots of times when they’re warm they verge on hot and feel a bit mushy.

IMG_5524

Coconut shrimp skewer and taboleh? Odd choice, but hey, it beats the two tiny shrimp shrimp cocktail they’ve been serving lately.

IMG_5525

All was forgiven, because the garlic bread was in plentiful supply tonight…and the salad had tasty olives on it:

IMG_5527

Baja Chicken Enchilada soup…a bit strange…and passed on it after a few bites:

IMG_5528

Nasty overcooked short rib. I really really need to learn my lesson about ordering beef on United.

IMG_5529

As cheese plates go, it was decent. Oddly, it came pre-plated, which was really strange for United. According to the crew, it came that way? Is this a new catering enhancement?

IMG_5531

Tonight’s request for “caramel and cherries” netted the average three…which overall is how this United flight was. Average.

IMG_5532

Managed a solid five hours of sleep, and woke as we were only about 20 minutes from London. Great view of the Thames this morning:

IMG_5533

Took the insanely long walk to the United First lounge, where I was asked why I wasn’t on my flight to Brussels. Um, excuse me? My new flight arrival time left a five minute connection, so there was no way to make it. Seems the agent in Chicago didn’t change my connection when she rebooked me for the later London flight, giving me a chance to make it if my arrival into London was earlier.

The club staff said they’d work on it while I showered, and when I came back 30 minutes later I’d been rebooked on the next departure – on BA! I was pretty surprised they didn’t make me wait an additional two hours for the Brussels Airlines flight, but it was a pleasant surprise! After a bit of rehydration, they offered to drive me to terminal five. Yes, it was no Lufthansa Porsche, but you read that right…United drove me across the tarmac to the other terminal instead of making me use the inter-terminal busses. I was floored…and yet another reason I think the London station remains the finest in the United system.

Having no status with One World, I got the honour of checking out BA’s regular business lounge. It was actually quite nice, I’d say even nicer than Lufthansa’s Senator lounges (note I didn’t even dare compare it to anything United offers) and I was pleasantly surprised. Can’t wait to see the First lounge on my next trip through. This was my first time in T5, and my gate was right near two very important things: Starbucks and the lounge. Enjoyed some Starbucks, and soon, it was time to board:

British Airways flight 398
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Brussels, Belgium (BRU)
Depart 15:15, Arrive 17:30, Flight Time: 1:15
Airbus A320, Registration G-EUYE, Manufactured 2009, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 128,081
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,167,048

Had a glass of water as a pre-departure, and being only one of two people in business on this very short flight, service was great. She insisted I have champagne for my first BA experience, and how could I say now. Even got my own bottle.

IMG_5538

While enjoying my second great inflight sunset in two days, she insisted on a champagne refill. Yes, that meant another bottle.

IMG_5541

Arrived to Brussels, and was absolutely wiped out. Additionally, security in Belgium was a nightmare. Apparently the Belgian police had received “very specific and credible” evidence the city’s New Year’s celebrations were to be the subject of a terrorist attack, and everything had been canceled. Trains were also running on a severely reduced schedule. I’d planned to head out and do dinner with friends in Liège, but given the late arrival, lower train schedule, I just couldn’t do it. Managed to stay awake until about 9pm, then absolutely passed out for nearly 10 wonderful hours at the airport Sheraton.

Nice leisurely stroll to the airport in the morning, stopping along the way for some Starbucks of course. Security at Brussels has been massively renovated and upgraded in the last year, and is so much nicer now. No more underground walkway between terminals, and everything is light, airy, and much more efficient. The only downside is the exit-immigration for the G Gates was a zoo today, and I had to wait nearly an hour to clear. Seems every Africa flight was operating today – along with JFK – so there were seven full A330s leaving at the same time. No priority line either, so wait wait wait.

As coffee was kicking in, I enjoyed a few pain au chocolates in the Brussels lounge, and soon it was time to board.

Brussels Airlines flight 203
Brussels, Belgium (BRU) to Dakar, Senegal (DKR)
Depart 11:05, Arrive 16:15, Flight Time: 6:10
Airbus A330-300, Registration OO-SFO, Manufactured 1994, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 2,778
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,169,826

Rather strange amenity kit, containing quite unimpressive contents:

IMG_5546

Wait…they have a beer of the month? Belgian beer on the menu? Wow – awesome and unique!

IMG_5548

Although the menu was a bit seafood heavy (which I try extremely hard to avoid on planes) it also looked super tasty, so I decided to go for it and inshallah all would be ok. There were only three people in business today on top of it, while economy was completely full. It was my lucky day!

IMG_5549

IMG_5550

Wait, there’s an entire beer menu?! Sure, the Stella and Hoegaarden aren’t impressive, but look at all those great Belgian beers. You can mark this down as the first time ever I would get rather happy in business class, and there would be absolutely no wine involved!

IMG_5554

Mackerel starter with mixed nuts and raisins, and a Gulden Draak…delicious!

IMG_5556

The smoked eel and radish starter, continuing with the same beer. It was 10% ABV so had to pace it a bit. Also, look at that awesome pretzel roll and butter. Mmm…

IMG_5559

Decided to go with the scallops main (yes, even more seafood!) and switched to the Julius beer since the menu said it went well with seafood. I absolutely wasn’t disappointed! Delicious!

IMG_5560

…and with the fantastic cheese course, the “Forbidden Fruit” beer. The nice flight attendant said “ooooh, this one I know, it has made for many not very memorable nights…I predict you will sleep after this!”

IMG_5561

IMG_5562

…and finally, I was looking really forward to the rum-pineapple-marscapone baba for dessert, but it was not to be. The chocolate mousse with passionfruit sauce was a pretty darn good substitute, however!

IMG_5563

Defying the odds (I had slept 10 hours the night before, after all) I stayed awake and watched movies, and two hours later was ready to take one more for the team and try the kriek. I usually don’t like fruit beers, but this one was pretty darn tasty and went well with some nice Belgian chocolates!

IMG_5564

…and, because I couldn’t let the last one go…

IMG_5570

Soon we were arriving Dakar on time, and the other three in business class deplaned, giving me a private plane for the onward short flight to Banjul:

IMG_5577

Since the flight time would be too short to enjoy a beverage, while waiting on the ground during cleaning, the purser asked which beer had been my favourite, and insisted on bringing me another to enjoy while waiting for the plane to be cleaned:

IMG_5581

Soon we were off for the short 25 minute flight to Banjul.

Brussels Airlines flight 203
Dakar, Senegal (DKR) to Banjul, The Gambia (BJL)
Depart 17:25, Arrive 18:15, Flight Time: 0:50
Airbus A330-300, Registration OO-SFO, Manufactured 1994, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 2,900
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,169,938

Flight was very short and uneventful, was the first one in line to immigration, and I didn’t ask about the visa on arrival, and they didn’t ask for one…so I was stamped in and that was that. In advance, the visa is $100 and visa on arrival is supposedly about $30-40, but perhaps since I arrived behind a large plane full of British tourists (who don’t need visas) they forgot to ask me? Either way, was nice to save the money. Waiting for Jordan in baggage claim:

IMG_5587

Exterior of the airport, grabbing a taxi to the hotel:

IMG_5588

With that, I’d entered my 186th country, and there were only ten more to go! Now, off to explore The Gambia!

Nov 182015
 

After landing at 7pm, conquering the bus gate and long immigration lines I got the MTR and just over 20 minutes later was at Kowloon station. From there, it’s a short walk through the shopping mall to my hotel of choice in Hong Kong – The W. Hong Kong is one of those cities that has a ton of great hotel options, and everyone seems to have their own favourite. The W wins for me for convenience to the airport, being connected to the mall and the MTR, and the overall great service I’ve received each stay. The biggest downside, which to be fair is the downside of most nice Hong Kong hotels, is that there’s just no way to get it on the cheap.

Check-in was pretty efficient, friendly, upgrade to a slightly larger room, but unfortunately when I got to it…it absolutely reeked like someone had been smoking in it. The response from the front desk? We are really full and really busy, can we give you a call back in 30 minutes? Seriously, what is it with my bad luck on this trip. I told them it wasn’t acceptable, and only had to wait 15 minutes for a new room. Ugh. Fortunately, that one was much better and since it was already 9pm I headed to a place next to the mall for a quick dinner.

Choice for dinner was Madame S’ate, which had a nice outside patio as well as an enclosed space. Given the humidity was oppressive and it was about 28C even at night, I definitely opted for the air conditioned indoors. Place was still quite lively that late, and opted for what was a delicious wagyu steak, lyonnaise onion and cheese tartine. Washed it down with a craft beer from the local Young Master brewery, which was also pretty good:

IMG_2160

Back to the W a bit before 11, where the elevator floor made sure to welcome me back:

IMG_2161

The W gives a bonus welcome amenity to SPG Platinum members, which is a complimentary drink in the hotel bar…I assume to encourage you to stay and spend more money. Decided to have a second beer and people watch, which is always a fun pastime in Hong Kong:

IMG_2162

Slept well, and unfortunately when I woke up it was absolutely pouring outside. Decided to delay sightseeing for a bit, and enjoy some Starbucks for breakfast…given its convenient location right in the mall under the hotel. I think this must be the first time they’ve ever spelled my name right at Starbucks!

IMG_2165

It was still pouring after breakfast, so I did a bit of walking around in the mall for some light exercise while waiting for it to taper down. Back to my room a bit before 11, and the rain was finally starting to lighten up a little bit. View from my room:

IMG_2167

Took a long walk through the mall to the MTR to grab some lunch a bit, and walked right past the mall’s enclosed ice rink. I think I need one of these myself given how I skate:

IMG_2169

Not bad for an in-mall rink…it would be pretty awesome to get the chance to play some hockey here at some point!

IMG_2170

The rain had finally let up, so I took the MTR one stop to Hong Kong station, to walk around and grab some lunch. The light mist and humidity were a foul combo, combined with the fact that the walk to the restaurant was pretty steep uphill:

IMG_2171

To the point that after the relatively short 10-15 minute walk I got there and was absolutely drenched in sweat. Gross. Went to the washroom to clean up before ordering, and was met with this poster in the washroom:

IMG_2172

Uhhh….thanks POTUS! The restaurant was The Roundhouse, billed as an authentic Texas BBQ and home to 25 different craft beers on tap. I have to say, the tap list was seriously impressive, containing lots of great American, Danish, and European craft beers as well as a few scary local Chinese options. Oh, and there was the BBQ…the beef shortrib sandwich was absolutely amazing:

IMG_2176

Had a couple of beers, and went to wash my hands afterwards, and next to Mr Obama was this poster:

IMG_2180

By this time the steady rain had started again, so it was back to the hotel to clean up and shower before heading to the airport for my flight back home. At least the downhill walk was a lot less sweaty, but a lot more moist do to the rain:

IMG_2181

Despite the rain, quite a bit of shopping going on:

IMG_2182

I didn’t end up getting to do nearly as much exploring as I had wanted to this trip, but by this point sleep was winning out and the rain was making things uncooperative. I guess in all my travels, I’ve been extremely lucky with weather overall so can’t complain I had a bit of a washout in a city I’ve already visited several times. There’s always the next visit. Quick shower and check-out, and it was time to MTR to the airport and begin the long trek home!

Dec 192014
 

Was up at 5:30 the next morning to drink canned coffee from the grocery store (I wasn’t taking chances so made sure I had something) to head to Jerusalem to begin our daytrip. Ian had found a tour online with Green Olive Tours that would cover the major sites in Bethlehem and Ramallah. The tour left from Jerusalem, but there was an optional add-on from Tel Aviv which unfortunately had a pick up at 6:30 am. Ugh. No worries though, I was so jetlagged that my body was used to running on little sleep.

Fortunately the Tel Aviv pickup was only about a 10 minute walk from my hotel, and even at 6am it was light out, so had a nice brisk walk in the cold. It was just me and one other person from Tel Aviv, so we headed off early. Thanks to it being Shabaat there was very little traffic, and we were in Jerusalem over an hour before the tour was scheduled to leave. The schedule the Tel Aviv pickup at the same time each day, regardless of Shabaat, which makes little sense.

The meeting point in Jerusalem was the YMCA, which might be the nicest and largest YMCA I’ve ever seen. Had a nice coffee in their restaurant while waiting for Ian…and another coffee once he arrived. The YMCA was located right off Abraham Lincoln street – LOL!

IMG_6035

Soon our group was together, and we were ready to go. Our guide was excited for this trip, since he’d just recently gotten his permit allowing him to travel into Israeli territory. Previously, the tour would have to go pick him up in the West Bank and then start. Green Olive is a Palestinian company, so it was interesting to get another perspective on the situation.

On the way, he gave us a bit of background on Palestine and Modern Israel, and explained about Area A, Area B, and Area C.  Area A is full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority, and makes up around 3% of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem but including Bethlehem, and Ramallah which we were visiting as well as Jericho.  Area B is Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control and makes up another 25% or so of the West Bank. Area C is the balance of around 70% and is under full Israeli control.

Leaving Area C, we approached this ominous sign. Dangerous to my life? Oh Israel, you CLEARLY don’t know my travel history:

IMG_6036

First stop in Area A was the tomb of Yasser Arafat:

IMG_6040

Arafat’s Tomb:

IMG_6044

Ok, so it’s a bit awkward posing next to a tomb, but the tour guide and the guards encouraged me:

IMG_6047

Continue reading »