Dec 122019
 


Long, long walk to immigration from our gate in Toronto and when we got there fortunately there was zero wait. Scanned my NEXUS card, the machine told me it couldn’t be processed, and please see an agent.

Very polite agent manually filled out an arrivals form for me, few questions, and sent me on my way to customs…where it turned out I’d been given secondary. No indication why (one way from Vietnam maybe, bypassing the US?) but I earned myself a completely thorough baggage rummaging.

Quite oddly the agent was interested in my dirty clothes, bag, and briefly scrolling through photos on my iPad, but paid zero attention to prescription meds or anything – so clearly their interest wasn’t pharma (which is often the case at the US/Canada border since the legalization of Cannabis – although I was asked if I had any) – and seemed like they were more interested in who knows what.

To their credit: everything was very polite, professional, and efficient, and the whole secondary lasted 10 minutes tops…which is very efficient for lots of questions and rummaging through luggage. I really wonder sometimes why everyone at anglophone immigration finds me so fascinating…but never comes up with anything that interests them….lol.

Off to my hotel of choice – the Sheraton YYZ – and ready to rack out for a good night of sleep.

This was probably the third time I’ve flown direct from Asia to the Eastern North America time zone, and the last two times I landed, worried I might not sleep since I slept a lot in flight, and had no problem passing out for eight straight hours.

This time, however, wasn’t quite so good. Grabbed a couple beers at the hotel lobby bar and went to be nice and early…only to wake up at 4am wide awake. I tried to sleep a little more, and it wasn’t happening, so I did a little work and decided to go check out the domestic lounge scene in Toronto.

When flying out of YYZ it’s almost always longhaul or US for me, so the domestic lounge scene would be new. First stop, of course, was Starbucks to wake up even more, which is when I spotted the Air Canada Café across the haul which I’d totally forgotten about.

The concept of this lounge is really “grab and go” as opposed to hanging out, having a wide array of food items you were welcome to pick up and take on board with you. Could it really be that awesome?

For some reason, I thought I was hungrier than I was, so had a yogurt parfait (delicious), pain au raisin (tasty), and a turkey and provolone to go just in case the Air Canada omelet wasn’t on my flight. Really loved this lounge and concept – I’d suggest United try it, but knowing United passengers people would bring empty suitcases just to fill them with food to go. No, totally not kidding knowing Americans around free lounge food.

On top of the nice atmosphere, there was just a sorta classy feel to the café – I really liked it!

Off to the gate, where it was clear we would be on a completely packed flight today. I admit I totally stalked the Group 1 boarding area knowing things were full and overhead space would be at a premium, and was shocked at the number of people going up to the counter rather indignant their upgrades weren’t going to clear.

Air Canada flight 135
Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Calgary, Alberta (YYC)
Depart 08:00, Arrive: 10:17, flight time: 4:17, flight distance: 1,675 miles
Airbus A330-300, Registration C-GEGC, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 198,224
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,890,526

Sorry Air Canada, but 1-800-WTF. Why did you have to get on the ex-Singapore A330 bandwagon too? It’s all about expectations, and it’s a decent seat for a mid-haul flight (second time this trip – got this on OmanAir too) but it makes me wonder what in the universe seems to have me flying on ex-Singapore planes on so many airlines this year. This was my fifth time in 2019 and fifth different airline! How many of these are out there?

The Air Canada version was in extra-rough shape, with the seat taped together. I tried to joke with the crew (who seemed fun) about the ex-Singapore plane, and I quote “you are wrong, this is an old TAP plane!” Yes, it spent 9 months at TAP between Singapore and Air Canada, but dudes – I totally wouldn’t be bragging about buying from the TAP thrift shop. At least poppin’ tags from Singapore is quasi-respectable….

What’s for breakfast ce matin? The omelet! YAAAAAS!

Fruit was below average for Air Canada which usually does much better, but it was sorta artistic in a triangular configuration at least?

Today’s omelet featured a perfect balance of cottage cheese and salsa, and was absolutely delicious. Comfort food for sure.

About an hour before landing, mixed nuts were offered. Always nice to get a small snack/drink service on a shorter flight. The crew on this flight was great overall.

Landed nearly an hour behind schedule due to de-icing in Toronto, but still had just enough time for a pop into the lounge between flights. Somehow, I’d never been in Alberta before, and all the stereotypes were confirmed with the giant cattle painting in the lounge.

Caesar and some unusual peach flatbread in the lounge. Yum! Nothing says Canada like clamato!

If the cattle painting wasn’t confirmation enough I was in Cowtown, the “assistance” agents roaming the terminal definitely confirmed it! Yee haw!

Our flight to Vancouver today seemed pretty lightly loaded, and boarding was a breeze. I was a bit surprised a new crew boarded in Calgary (but then again, I know nothing about Air Canada flight attendant bases) but we still boarded on time.

Air Canada flight 215
Calgary, Alberta (YYC) to Vancouver, British Columbia (YVR)
Depart 12:20, Arrive: 12:54, flight time: 1:34, flight distance: 428 miles
Airbus A320, Registration C-GKOE, Manufactured 2002, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 198,652
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,890,954

For some reason, as an East Coaster, I just assumed Calgary was “closer” to the East Coast, so the flight to Vancouver should be longer. But, today, it was just over an hour. In true Air Canada fashion, however, we still got a small snack. Small potato chinks and salmon…plus bagged nuts. Beats the United snack basket…

Fairly short connection in Vancouver, but stopped by the Maple Leaf Lounge because….I could. Every seat was taken, and they were turning people away at the reception due to “being at capacity.” Seriously? Ugh. I wasn’t upset because I didn’t have much time, but that’s pretty poor.

Off to the gate, where I got the tingles from the sign. Yellowknife had always seemed so “exotic” to me, and I was finally headed there!

Today’s load was nearly full in economy, but there were only two seats taken in business, so I pretty much had my choice of seats. I moved from 1A to 1F so I’d have to seats instead of one.

Air Canada flight 8833 operated by Jazz Aviation
Vancouver, BC (YVR) to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Depart 14:00, Arrive: 17:23, flight time: 2:23, flight distance: 977 miles
Canadair CRJ-900, Registration C-FRJA, Manufactured 2007, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 199,629
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,891,931

Again, despite being a two hour flight, a full printed menu on a regional jet. Simple things, but impressive.

As we went on the takeoff roll, I began to wonder if I might miss impressive views because I’d switched sides of the plane. No reason to worry, the mountains were absolutely amazing the first twenty minutes in flight:

What’s this? Proper warmed nuts served before the meal? On a regional jet? On a two hour flight? Air Canada for the win, once again. It’s a simple thing that really doesn’t make a “difference” but it’s a nice touch.

This is probably a good place to say the flight attendant working business was stellar. She was friendly, personable, and when I told her about my trip was thrilled to give me all sorts of advice about Yellowknife. She even advised me to cancel my rental car, telling me that there was a hotel shuttle from the airport, and everything I was planning to do was walkable.

The forecast for Northern Lights was nonexistent for my time in Yellowknife, so no point trying to drive out of the city to see them.

I went with the General Tso Chicken because a friend told me it was good, but unfortunately…yes, it was “healthy” because it wasn’t breaded and fried, but it was also dry and completely lacked flavour. The desert blondie, however, was excellent!

The flight was over all too soon, and I was still working on my wine…which was quickly poured into a plastic cup so I could “enjoy” it all the way to the gate. Did I mention how awesome this crew was?

Sunset…at just before four in the afternoon.

No jetbridges in Yellowknife, so we had a very chilly walk to the terminal. Fortunately, I somehow contorted my 6’4 self to change from shorts to trousers in a CRJ washroom (believe me, this is an impressive feat) so I only partially froze.

Coming from Asia, I had zero warmies with me, so the trousers and a hoodie would have to do. I had shipped ahead tundra-wear to my hotel in Yellowknife, so I just prayed it had arrived and I would stay warm.

The polar bear in baggage claim reminded me what would happen if not:

Outside the terminal, walking to the hotel shuttle. Yup, we’re not in Bangkok or Manila any more!

Next up, time to enjoy my time in Yellowknife (which I never saw in the light of day) before heading even further north…to Inuvik!

Oct 112019
 


After a bit over three weeks in Switzerland, it was finally time to head home. I would have just a bit under four days at home before heading out on the road again for a couple of back-to-back trips, but after three weeks away every day matters!

Got to the airport, and what better way to say tschüss to Switzerland than to pose for a selfie against the SWISS sign. Not really goodbye, however, since just four days later I would be connecting through Zurich again!

Strangely, my United flight would be leaving from the B Gates today (which I’ve never seen before) and while it would save me a train ride out to the E gates, I wondered if there was a respectable lounge on the other side of immigration in B.

Yes, it turns out there was, but there was no air conditioning! According to my temperature gauge, it was 81 degrees in the lounge too. Ouch! Fortunately, they had brought in a few fans, and sitting in front of one of them it was just barely tolerable.

You know what makes it tolerable, though? Swiss chocolates and Mövenpick ice cream! Mmmmm!

Off to the gate after about 30 minutes in the lounge. I’d never actually been to the B Gates before, so wasn’t sure just how long it would take to the gate…or how long and confusing the boarding process might be. Every day a new adventure!

United flight 53
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 11:55, Arrive: 14:45, flight time: 8:50
Boeing 787-8, Registration N29907, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 87,136
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,780,083

Boarding was relatively chaotic, with people not really line up well or the agents controlling things well, so it was unclear where to queue up. It’s one thing I really like about the newish boarding is that as a 1K you can pretty much stand anywhere you want, and hopefully if the agents are good you’ll still be called ahead of group one.

Worked like a charm today, but it didn’t really matter since we were at a remote stand and it would be a bus gate anyways. Off to the plane, easy boarding, and time to explore what’s to eat!

Pre-departure beverages. Trying to be positive and remember for someone that doesn’t get to do business class often this is still considered a real treat. However, unless it’s a special occasion I need to start giving the pre-departure sparking plonk a pass. It’s just not worth the calories on a regular basis. I do, however, appreciate the real glassware now.

Meal started off with some Spiderman socks from the amenity kit and mixed nuts and wine. I’ve started requesting water more regularly inflight now to survive the crazy mileage I’m flying this year, and this crew was great and proactively offered lemon or lime with a stirrer to make it easy to fish out and squeeze. Oh, and some shiraz, but that was probably a given.

I like the salads United has been serving out of Switzerland lately, and they’re relatively fresh, light, and tasty. Throw in some garlic bread and it’s delicious. In principle, the tomato, basil, and mozzarella caprese would make a nice starter, but every time I’ve had it the basil has had rotten spots and the tomatoes have been bland and underripe.

I went with the chicken breast and polenta cake as a lighter option, and with the skin off (and skipping the polenta) it did the trick without being too fancy. Kinda looks like institutional cafeteria food.

Note to self: ice cream sundaes for dessert are always worth the calories, especially with cherries and fudge. Cheese was decent without being too memorable, but I wish they would try some more memorable crackers to go along with it. Maybe something nice and savoury?

After a bit of a nap, decided to hit up the snack cart because I was craving the little pastries they always have. Goes well with a side of Ebola monkey on the iPad as well.

Was curious about the pre-landing chicken ragout option, and while it was pretty tasty and would make a great domestic dinner, it actually felt a bit heavy for a second in-flight meal on a relatively short flight.

I have to admit – I was starting to miss the relatively heavy “hamburger wellington” that’s been around for a lot of this year.

The flight passed relatively quickly, and just like that I was home after more than three weeks away. Time to see if four days is enough at home, or if I would really be craving getting back on the road sooner.

I had originally booked just one night at home, and then three days vacation at my next work stop before the work began, but I gave up that three day mini-vacation in favour of the time at home. I was very glad I had, but four days, well, I might start craving travel….

Sep 242019
 


Decided to take the train to the airport in the morning despite my early flight, mainly because the train station was only a five minute walk from the hotel and based on previous taxi experiences it might actually be faster to take the train.

Everything was on tie and worked out really well, and soon I was at the Thai Airways check-in desk and getting my boarding pass. Nothing unique about check-in, security, or immigration, and soon enough it was into the scary duty free area before you could get to the gates and lounge.

When I say scary duty free, I mean it: complete with M&M wearing a genuine aussie cork hat:

Had just a little time to enjoy the Singapore Airlines lounge, but despite being a little bit after 8:00 in the morning it was time for a glass of champagne. I mean, it was….oh wait, even earlier in Bangkok, but I suppose 5am doesn’t justify a glass of champagne…unless you subscribe to my theory that champagne is always appropriate.

Always liked the work/etc cubicles that the Singapore lounges have:

Soon it was time for boarding, and when I got to the gate people were swarming, so I walked up to the podium and introduced myself as a first class passenger, and they were happy to board me right away. I love the service with Thai!

Thai Airways flight 476
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 10:00, Arrive: 16:20, flight time: 9:20
Boeing 747-400, Registration HS-TGG, Manufactured 2003, Seat 01A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 67,849
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,760.437

This wasn’t my first flight in Thai first on the 747, and the seat was pretty much as I remembered. Reasonably private and comfortable, but very open – reminds me a lot of the Lufthansa First seat, but with a bit more colour:

Pre-departure Dom Perignon bubbles are always welcome, especially with an orchid:

Tyler Oakley is extremely amused at the macadamia nuts and hors d’oeuvres that were served shortly after takeoff. I totally wanted to keep the mini cocktail sticks, but had no idea what I would do with them!

Next up was the caviar service, which scored an A+ for me for presentation. Mother of pearl spoon, amazed curved condiments tray, caviar in a classy glass jar, silver trimmed plate…it just oozed class. Well done Thai! I think this is my new favourite caviar presentation in-flight…sorry Lufthansa…I still love you!

I don’t do shellfish on a plane. Ever. One too many bouts of food-borne illness, but I decided to take one for the team since I do love me some scallops and lobster…and oh, look, duck too! How can I say no! It was pretty darn tasty…

Next up was Thai beef soup with tomato and chili…it was good, but not super to my taste, so I just had a few tastes of it and saved my room for other courses. I do love the classy silver-rimmed service-wear though!

I decided to go with the “Samrab Thai” main course, which was described as “Pork Tenderloin in Pa-naeng Curry served with Som Tam Kung (Thai Papaya Salad and Prawn), Thai Northern Style Chicken and Tomato Dip, Stir fried broccoli, grilled mixed bell peppers, steamed jasmine rice.” It was pretty delicious, and I really liked the curry….

I wasn’t expecting much from the cheese course, which in my experience on Asian airlines never lives up to their European counterparts, and this was pretty much confirmed. It was ok, but not really worth leaving room for.

Dessert was Thai pumpkin custard, which was absolutely amazing!

Watched a little more tv, took a nap, and soon we were 90 minutes from Bangkok and the crew was insisting that I had to try a snack before we landed. Not one able to resist Thai hospitality, I gave in to a light snack.

Chicken satay, of course with a splash of Johnny Walker Blue on the side.

Second dessert of a frangipane raspberry tart with vanilla sauce was astounding, and paired very nicely with my friend Johnny.

There were agents waiting for first class passengers when we landed, ready to whisk us to immigration in buggies. I insisted I preferred to walk and stretch my legs, but they would have none of it and insisted I have a ride. Which was kind of weird, because when we got to immigration they just dropped us off and sped off – no indication where the premium immigration lines were. Very well-intentioned, but lacking in execution.

Grabbed a taxi to my hotel…and here’s where I confess that Bangkok is probably the only place in the world where I intentionally give in to the airport taxi service. It’s hot, it’s humid, I’ve just landed, and the last thing I want to do is take a “normal” taxi with questionable AC…or walk to the train to take that. It’s well worth the extra money to me.

Arrived nice and early at my usual hotel, the W Bangkok, which I’ve come to like because of the reliable suite upgrades and fabulous breakfast spread. I mean, how can you not like a suite upgraded like this:

I was exhausted at this point, but dragged myself out to at least enjoy a little of the city before crashing. The Skytrain is less than a five minute walk from the hotel, and was absolutely packed tonight:

Stopped by the Siam Paragon Mall, where this absolutely delightful t-shirt was for sale. I was really tempted to buy one, but figured they probably wouldn’t have “westerner sizes”

The mall was also home to the world’s saddest Zamboni. Growing up, every little kid dreamed of being a Zamboni driver, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for this guy and his attempt to maintain ice inside a shopping mall where the temperature was way, way too high for it.

I made it until maybe 10pm, despite a series of disappointments that included my usual dinner restaurant having shut down…and my favourite “New Zealand Ice Cream” shop also shutting down. I was so used to some hokey pokey ice cream! That’s not to say I didn’t eat well in Bangkok:

With that, my all-too-brief stop in Bangkok was over, and it was time to head to the airport and catch my first-ever flight on the A350-1000!

So long Bangkok! Off to the airport we go!

Sep 122019
 


So, I’m very aware I’m a bit overdue with a post. Sometimes, work and life get in the way, and there are priorities to regaling folks with tales from magical places and magical flying machines.

Other things that get in the way? Waking up the day before your birthday, looking at award availability not really intending to go anywhere, and eight hours later you’re sitting in Lufthansa First Class headed around the world. Totally normal. I know all y’all have done it. Almost took four days too….so, that’s where some of the time has gone. Anyways, back to writing!

Landed in Sydney at 0h-dark-thirty, had no queue at immigration and the train to the hotel was super quick, and soon I was in the lobby of the Marriott begging for a room at something like 6am. This was a new property to me, having stayed for years at the old Four Points Darling Harbour, then at the Westin, and now with Bonvoy…trying something new.

Not only did they allow me a 6am check-in, I was upgraded to a nice bridge-view room. Got to the room, quick shower, napped for about three hours, and woke up to this. They’re not kidding – what a view:

After a slow start the first thing on my mind was coffee, so I set out to find that…with no real plan for the day. After coffee, I found my way to the Manly Ferry, and got an even more close-up look at the bridge on this cool late morning:

Bit of a walk around Manly and I was getting a little hungry, so stopped for some salt and pepper squid and a beer at Four Pines Brewing:

Wandered a bit, and the single beer had made me sleepy, so I stopped for what I was sure would be the first of many, many proper flat whites over the coming days:

After a couple of hours walking along the coast I eventually caught the ferry back to Circular Quay, and ended up lazing around for an hour before walking out to dinner.

I’m not sure if everyone else is the same, but when I go back to a place I tend to spend most of the first day visiting places I’d been before that I really enjoyed and missed. This time, it was dinner at the Australian Heritage Hotel for some crocodile, emu, and kangaroo pizza:

Fairly early night after the pizza since despite the nap I was definitely feeling the impact of two straight “nights” spent trying to sleep on planes, and I was out cold for a good long time.

Woke up relatively early the next morning, headed out to get some coffee, and on the way realized that someone is trying to Make Australia Great. Seems a rather sad situation, since at least America has been great before and we’re trying to make it great again! *wink*

After a nice relaxing coffee it was time to pack up and head back to the airport. It was time for my whirlwind tour of Australia to begin!

Quick stop in the Qantas lounge in the domestic terminal which was nice, but really nothing special, then off to the gate to board my widebody with proper business class to Perth.

Qantas flight 577
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Perth, Australia (PER)
Depart 12:20, Arrive: 15:25, flight time: 5:05
Airbus A330-200, Registration VH-EBA, Manufactured 2002, Seat 07K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,017
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,753,655

Can you imagine if US airlines had seats like this on domestic flights frequently? I was surprised when I booked a month out that the last row was the only window seat left on this flight (indicating that a good number of folks book domestic business class way out) but despite a seat next to the aisle instead of next to the window, it was a treat for a relatively long domestic flight:

Wow, even a proper menu! I had heard Qantas had been slipping, but there was no sign of that yet:

Plus, a footwell even in the last row with plenty of space for the feet…despite the seat being a little bit beat up.

Delicious roasted almonds to start. Everyone seems to get excited by the “warm nuts” on US airlines, but I often find them kind of mushy, as if they’ve been severely overheated. These? Nice crunch to them and just a little bit of salt.

Soup and salad to start…with artisan butter…and super tasty fresh bread…not like the poor excuse for bread we often get in the US. Stop me now, before I go on a rant about the quality and “realness” of food in the US compared to Australia, Canada, etc….

Presentation sure wasn’t beautiful, but the chicken tagine was really flavorful and a great meal: (yes, with a big more of the good Australian shiraz, of course):

Wait what, a proper cheese course? By this point in the US you usually get a cookie if lucky, and if luckier it’s “freshly-baked” and not pre-packaged. (Though I do love me some Dancing Deer Cookies…are you listening Delta?)

Everyone knows I love a good cheese plate, and while small it was perfectly appropriate for a domestic flight, especially with dates:

…oh yeah, and there was delicious chocolate and salted caramel Maggie Beer ice cream as well. I was in Heaven.

All in all, it was an amazing domestic flight, probably one of the better ones I can remember ever taking, and I arrived in Perth feeling relaxed and rested despite the rather terrible jetlag I was surely dealing with. The sunny and cool day probably didn’t hurt, but I was wide awake and feeling great!

Used Uber to get to my hotel which was a piece of cake at the relatively quiet Perth airport, and soon I was ready to head out on a walk and enjoy the late afternoon in Perth. But first….time to end this post and move on to the next.

Sep 022019
 


So, right, off the plane in Singapore after back to back flights and straight for a walk around the airport. Singapore is cool because T1, T2, and T3 are all connected, but if you have a long way to go and don’t feel like walking you can take the train between terminals.

After back to back flights I definitely needed the walk, so walked for about 45 minutes around the terminals to stretch my legs before heading to the lounge. Fortunately, I had done my research online before visiting, and knew that there was no dedicated first class lounge in Singapore for Qantas. It will be opening later this year, but for now I would have to share with the masses in business class. Oh the horrors!

Now, that said, if you have to spend time in a business class lounge, a Qantas lounge is an excellent place to do it. I was feeling the need for a brief detox at this point after two flights of back to back champagne-fuelled nonsense, so went with the coke light along with a little bit of curry and some dragonfruit.

After a quick snack, I felt like I should walk a bit more, so went out for another 30 minute or so stroll around the terminal before coming back for a shower. Fortunately, the Qantas showers were a much more reasonable temperature than the horrendous Emirates ones, and I actually would be heading to my Qantas flight feeling a bit fresher.

…which was definitely a good thing, because I think my Qantas flight was boarding from Malaysia the walk to the gate was so far! Oh well, it was good to get more of a stretch in before boarding!

Qantas flight 2
Singapore (SIN) to Sydney, Australia (SYD)
Depart 19:30, Arrive: 05:10 next day, flight time: 7:40
Airbus A380-800, Registration VH-OQK, Manufactured 2011, Seat 03A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 59,026
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,751,614

The signs in the boarding area weren’t clear, and I hadn’t researched, so I followed the jetbridge to the upper deck…only to discover the saddest first class seats I’d ever seen in the front of the plane. Fortunately, it was just a momentary confusion and I was able to trudge back downstairs where I found a seat much more to my liking!

This definitely takes the cake as the most unique first class seat I’ve ever been on. Faces forward for takeoff and landing, but then you can swivel the chair about 45 degrees to the light so it lines up with the monitor and foot rest. Definitely unusual, but I really enjoyed the spaciousness of it!

Nothing says welcome aboard quite like a glass of Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2004. This is actually one of my favourite champagnes, and I know I’ve said it before but it’s always nice to see airlines taking a “risk” in first class and deviating from the common offerings of Dom Perignon or Krug.

After takeoff, I must feign confusion. I remember the amuse bouche of a caviar tart…but I have no idea what this glass of what appears to be white wine is. Maybe it’s the angle of the pic, but I’m certain I would have been enjoying champagne at this point!

So what’s to eat? That’s a good question, because I also don’t have a picture of the menu! I know I was exhausted on this flight, but it’s very not like me to forget to take so many pictures. At least you can see what’s to drink!

Note that despite serving the Sir Winston during departure, they actually had Veuve Cliquot La Grande Dame during the flight. That much I remembered and actually added in my trip notes!

Probably one of the largest tables I’ve ever seen, even in first class! I do remember switching to the rather nice syrah for the main event.

Delicious appetizer, if I remember right it was a thai style spicy shredded chicken salad.

After all the eating the past few days I decided to go with the lighter fish option, which was absolutely outstanding. I’ve been ordering fish a lot more lately on flights, and so far have had mostly excellent luck with it!

Of course, I couldn’t skip the cheese. It pales in comparison to Emirates’ or Lufthansa’s offerings, but was a reasonably solid showing.

The desert, however, was a lemon tart that was out of this world. If I wasn’t so stuffed from all the flights I might have shamelessly asked if there were more, but my waistline thanks me. Plus, despite all the time zone confusion I was feeling pretty tired so decided to chance a bit of sleep.

I must have been exhausted, because I had absolutely no trouble passing out for a solid four hour nap. At this point, after two consecutive redeyes, my body had no idea what time it was anyways, so I was definitely in “nap when you can” mode.

Woke up with just enough time for a light breakfast, and enjoyed some muesli and a tasty cinnamon roll. Before anyone judges me, yes, that’s Coke Light and not red wine with breakfast. Unfortunately, the strawberries with the fruit were seriously underripe, but other than that it was the perfect light breakfast right before landing.

…and just like that it was 5am, and we were arriving into Sydney. Fortunately no queues at immigration at this hour, and had no trouble catching an airport express train straight to my hotel.

The stop was just about a three minute walk from the hotel, and despite showing up at 6am they were ready for me, and let me check in super early. Another solid four hour nap, and around 11am I was ready to head out and make the most of my day in Sydney!

Mar 102019
 


So, wait, you’ve never heard of Kirkenes? I mean, I’ve been to Norway before, so why am I going back?

Well, you see, Kirkenes is in the extreme northeast of Norway, just minutes from the Russian border. It’s well above the Arctic Circle, and the border crossing with Russia is also the northernmost staffed regular border crossing in the world. How could I skip that.

Just to put it in perspective, Kirkenes is circled below, and you can see Murmansk, Russia just to the east:

Fun sign in the gate area at Tegel Airport…yes, Berlin, you were wonderful and I really enjoyed my week. Actually sad to be leaving!

SAS flight 1674
Berlin, Tegel (TXL) to Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH)
Depart 13:30, Arrive:14:30, flight time: 1:00
Airbus A319, Registration OY-KBP, Manufactured 2006, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,637
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,225

So, in general, I do my best to avoid flying SAS. They have the same awful economy class seating as other airlines, but they don’t even block the middle seat! In fairness, they do call it “Plus” and not business, but if you redeem miles for it from United, it’s the same number of miles as business class. I was curious to see what the benefits were, other than sitting in the first row.

This flight was completely full with every seat taken, so thankfully the flight time would only be 40 minutes. Service consisted of a “snack” which was a wrap…either cheese or salmon were on offer. Only choice to go with it was water. Again, short flight so won’t complain too much, but there was absolutely nothing “premium” about this flight at all.

Arrived into Copenhagen and had 1:10 between flights due to an early arrival, so I set out on a mission to find the airport Starbucks. One, because I needed caffeine, but more importantly, I wanted to check the prices. I’m still putting together a listing of the price of a grande filter coffee around the world, and expected Copenhagen to be up there. At 31 kroner ($4.67) it was the third most expensive in the world that I’ve seen behind Geneva and Zurich, which comes in at $5.21 lately. Feel free to send me datapoints!

Walking away from Starbucks, it’s a good thing I didn’t have any longer….a Mikkeller Tap Room right in the airport? This could be seriously dangerous. I did stop for one 2dl beer, which turned into two because they poured the wrong one the first time, and at over $9 for a small pour it’s a good thing I didn’t have to pay for two!

SAS flight 1460
Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH) to Oslo, Norway (OSL)
Depart 15:25, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 1:15
Airbus A321, Registration OY-KBB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 8E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,959
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,547

In contrast to the flight from Berlin to Copenhagen, this flight was absolutely empty. Sure, the seven rows in front of me seemed to have all seats full except middles, but rows 9-21 behind me? Yes, 21 rows of “plus” class….and nobody at all in those 10 rows! Strange to see 10 completely empty rows! You’ll note I was also in 8E…a middle seat! Mainly to avoid people in front of me reclining into me…and site the seats on both sides of me were empty it worked just swell!

Beautiful views on takeoff:

Even better, I discovered on this flight that their beer was a nice Mikkeller IPA, which marked a very rare occasion for me of having a beer in flight. Pretty sure the last time I did was when I flew Brussels Airlines and their fantastic beer menu!

Short flight, only an hour, and was time to find the lounge and wait for Ian, who was meeting me there to continue the trip in Norway and Russia. Since Norway is in the Schengen Zone like most of Europe, no passport control at all, however, Norwegian domestic flights were in another terminal since there IS customs between Europe and Norway since Norway is NOT a member of the EU. For anyone who’s confused how this whole Schengen, EU, oh and don’t forget the countries that use the Euro, work, I love this diagram:

Right, so, through customs (so weird to clear customs but NOT passport control or security, and into the lounge. SAS lounges are weird in that they have a “business” lounge which you get into if you’re in “plus” or international business class, but then there’s a gold lounge in the back…which is even nicer…that you can get into as a frequent flier.

I hadn’t had a real meal al day, so decided on some Norwegian nibbles…..tuna, shredded cheese, olives, potatoes and pickles….odd, but did the trick and was tasty.

Ian showed up after a short bit, riding the struggle bus after flying Newark-Frankfurt-Stockholm-Oslo up until this point, so it was kind of nice to not be the one suffering jetlag for once! Off to our gate where boarding was just about to start for the two hour trek up to Kirkenes.

SAS flight 4478
Oslo, Norway (OSL) to Kirkenes, Norway (KKN)
Depart 17:55, Arrive:20:05, flight time: 2:10
Boeing 737-700, Registration LN-TUM, Manufactured 2002, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,812
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,703,400

I was determined to put “Plus” service to the test on this flight, so asked the flight attendant when she came around with my THIRD cheese wrap of the day, what else as on offer. Seems Plus means you can have ANYTHING from the buy-on-board menu, and don’t have to pay for it. So, I got some chips and another Mikkeller to go with the cheese wrap, and some high-quality iPad entertainment:

Unfortunately “anything” is a misnomer. When I asked for a second beer, I was told no. Apparently “by Norwegian law” they can only serve one complimentary alcoholic beverage on domestic flights. Seriously?! If I wanted to pay $8 for another I was welcome to it, but nope, only one complimentary. Way to go SAS, you are officially the cheapest non-budget airline in the world.

Disembarking in Kirkenes was at a remote stand. Doesn’t it just LOOK cold:

The Kirkenes Airport…looks more like an ice rink from the outside to me!

Bears at baggage claim! Oh no!

We went to find the bus into town, which was supposed to be like $10 a person, but when we boarded the driver told us it was free! Apparently, we’d arrived during some major festival – the biggest festival of the year in Kirkenes – and this year China was sponsoring the festival. That included paying for the bus during the festival. Whoah – finally – saved by China in all my travels!

After checking into my hotel, the Scandic Kirkenes, I was still pretty alert so went for a bit of a cold nighttime stroll. Getting artsy with snow-covered trees:

Outdoor ice rink! Turns out as part of the festival there was a big tournament of the “Bering League” the next day, but unfortunately we’d leave too early to see it. Bummer!

Sooooo much snow everywhere!

I found the library. You can tell you’re getting close to Russia when the signs are in Russian as well!

Oh look, a sign. Taking selfies to prove I was there!

World War II Memorial. Kirkenes was actually a major front in the war, where the Russians and Nazis faced off.

I found the local pub, which was absolutely packed due to the festival. So packed, that I ended up having to share my table with a local couple who spoke maybe 100 words of English (seriously, which Norwegians don’t speak English?! Ones that have lived their entire lives in Kirkenes, apparently) and a Russian truck driver who spoke no Norwegian OR English. I got to attempt to play translator from Russian to English…and then try English words until we found ones they knew. “Tax” and “expensive” and “price” were popular topics, and we had a great chat about driving across the border for cheap gas and booze. Great cultural moment!

Right outside the pub? Yup, a Chinese gate. Definitely the theme of the festival. Kirkenes was shaping up to be just as unusual as I’d hoped, and I looked forward to the next morning!

Back to the hotel, which was perfectly comfortable, and off for eight solid hours of sleep. Next up, day in Kirkenes and bus to Murmansk, Russia!

Mar 022019
 


So, this trip wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I had a nice vacation planned with a friend to Norway and Russia. Then, as happens, a work trip to Switzerland fell into place…with an awkward six days until I had to be in Norway to start my vacation. Then, work in Germany conveniently popped up in the middle. Upside: saving a lot of jetlag. Downside: more than three weeks away from home! Focusing on the positive, I moved straight ahead! Let’s start out this first post with Switzerland.

Not really anything to say about the trip there, but I do have to give a nod to United. This dish, known as the “spicy chicken” is absolutely delicious, and pretty unique for an inflight meal. …despite the fact the crew tried to tell me there “probably wouldn’t be enough for you” – um, since United prioritizes meals by status, I highly doubt this. A side note, a walk through the galley later and at least two different crew members were eating it. Plus ça change…

While waiting on my train, I reacquainted myself with one of the most fabulous fast food items in Switzerland, the five cheese toastie:

Given it was a work trip, I spent most of it cooped up indoors doing work. Of course, during coffee breaks, I walked out the door and had this view. Miserable I tell you. Actually the worst part was the big windows in the conference room which pretty much had the same view. How were we supposed to focus on work!  (Spoiler: tons of work actually did get done)

One of the trip’s highlights was a traditional Swiss fondue at a colleague’s house prepared by her partner. These are always my favourite moments of travel…spending time with the people that live there, and taking time to enjoy traditions as locals enjoy them as opposed to how a restaurant might serve it up to you in a quasi-realistic atmosphere. Very fortunate to have such amazing and hospitable clients!

After finishing up with work, I had about 24 hours in Zurich on a Friday night / Saturday morning to see the city. Most times when I come through Zurich, it’s in transit to/from somewhere, so I was really looking forward to having a full 24 hours to actually see just a little bit. Despite the -10C temperatures, wind, and snow….anyways….

I loved this ad for Swiss milk and their strong cows….

After a fun and freezing night of grabbing several craft beers outdoors in the freezing temperatures, I got up and had about four hours to see the city. I decided a long walk was the best way to do it, so I headed out from my hotel, towards the old town of Zurich, which I’d never seen before. Beautiful view across the Limmat:

Murals by Giacometti on the side of a building in the old town:

Another gorgeous view across the Limmat. Even on a cloudy day the city looks magical:

I got a new phone right before the trip (iPhone XS) and love how even when zoomed in, I got super clear views:

The pictures above were taken from Lindenhof, a park on the top of a small hill in the old town. From there, down the winding alleys towards the river. One thing that struck me on a Saturday morning was the fact that Chinese tourists outnumbers locals by a factor of at least 10:1. I’m really happy more people are traveling these days, but also really concerned with the impact mass tourism is having. Especially on the major cities in Europe.

Looking across the river at the Grossmünster church. Trying to get all artsy with the seagull in the pic:

So many birds. Everywhere.

Again, trying to be artsy:

Group of Chinese tourists on the water, getting absolutely swarmed by a flock of seagulls. It was like a cross between a bad 80s band and a Hitchcock novel. I was getting a little nervous at this point, so I ran. I ran so far away…

With that, it was time to head to the airport and fly off to Berlin for the next stage of the trip. One little thought from that. Got to fly for the second time on an A220-300 from Zurich to Berlin, and I love that on a flight of one hour Swiss can still serve a tasty little snack….with refills on drinks! In the US, we get “due to the length of this flight, no service will be provided.” Next up – a week in Berlin!

Jan 252019
 


Landed in Berlin right on time, and despite over a dozen trips my first time arriving by air and getting to experience the joy that is Tegel airport. For an arrival it wasn’t bad – we got a bus gate, the signs to the area to take the bus to Berlin Hbf station was pretty easy, and overall it wasn’t awful. I was later to find out I was deceived.

I’d decided to forego my princess side, and see if I’d enjoy staying at the Moxy Hotel Ostbanhof. Now, I fully knew that I was getting a very basic hotel, and the room would be tiny. Honestly, the room itself was completely fine, even though the neighbourhood was pretty dead. The service, however, was absolutely abysmal. It took over 20 minutes to check in because they were slow as heck, and the complete lack of desk in the room was not something I could deal with for more than one night. I’d booked the one night as an experiment, and sorry to say…I gave up and went to the Marriott after that. I had work to do, and as fun as working in a common lobby area is for people watching…it’s really not conducive to getting work and writing done.

So right…first time at the Marriott since it was my first post-merger trip, and in the past I’d usually chosen the Westin. I have to say, the Marriott was leaps and bounds above the Westin for me – and will definitely be my hotel of choice going forward in Berlin. Great executive lounge with a super long evening happy hour (albeit a bit crowded at times), and cool artwork as well:

Two of the days I was in Berlin I had a few hours free, so went on two long walks, probably about 12-15km each. Some cool graffiti:

Don’t tell anyone, but my guilty pleasure in Germany is the Starbucks Bretzelsnack and a Caramel Macchiato…

Hey Dotard….I found the wall…it’s already been built AND torn down. Plz to open the US Government back up now kplzthxbye!

Continue reading »

Jan 242019
 


Slept in quite a bit and didn’t make it down to breakfast until just after 10am…which was fine…because strangely the hotel was only serving breakfast starting at 10am. I guess they figured everyone was out past midnight, and nobody would want breakfast at a regular time? Served me perfectly, but if I was the more bah humbug type about New Years Eve, I can see being frustrated.

Regardless, when I got to breakfast at 10:30 or so, I was one of only four or five people in the restaurant. Good breakfast, and had another two hours or so to explore, so I took an Uber about 7km to the train station and decided to walk back to my hotel via the Old Town.

The train station was a good place to start, but unfortunately I got a bit distracted looking at time tables on the wall. I love train travel, and really need to make some time to do Vladivostok to London by train some time soon….with lots of one night stops along the way. I think it would be an epic three week trip!

Right, I finally got undistracted, then headed to the reason I chose the train station to start: a block full of really fun murals.

First up, the Dirty Mexican Wall!  (who knew when I took this three weeks ago there would still be a government shutdown over the wall….) but hey….

…gotta keep out those bad hombres!  (Don’t even get me started on the nasty women!)

The best mural of all….Trump and Putin sharing a joint and shotgunning some smoke. The mural originally showed them sharing a kiss, but I guess that was too controversial and it got vandalized immediately, so now…this is supposedly less controversial?

Hitler, Stalin, and Belarus president Lukashenko….let’s roll the highest joint, not build the highest wall!

Wandering through the streets of old town Vilnius…I really enjoyed the chill and laid-back feeling of the city

The Church of St. Casomir:

Back to Cathedral Square, don’t remember who was on this statue…

Vilnius Cathedral

Bridge over the River Neris, which led back north to the Courtyard Hotel:

Looking back south towards Cathedral Square from the bridge. The snow was picking up pretty heavily at this point, and I decided to head back to the hotel and seek refuge, hoping there would be no flight delays.

Memorial at the Old Jewish Cemetery of Vilnius.

Everything looked on time – one thing I love about traveling in northern climates during winter is that the airports know how to deal with snow! Although my time in Latvia and Lithuania was brief, it was far more than my previous visits, and I felt I could honestly count them as visited now. I definitely want to go back to Lithuania, however, because Vilnius seemed really cool and I wanted to check out the country a bit more.

Contact lens vending machine at the airport. I’ve only seen these things in Russia before. Odd! Just in case, you know, you’re at the airport and somehow forgot your contacts.

So, it’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged a flight, mainly because it’s been a lot of my usual routes and airlines, but I figured this one might be interesting!

LOT flight 780
Vilnius, Lithuania (VNO) to Warsaw, Poland (WAW)
Depart 16:00, Arrive:16:05, flight time: 1:05
Embraer ERJ-195, Registration SP-LNH, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 247 (first flight of 2019!)
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,692,835

Prior to the flight to Kiev, I hadn’t flown LOT in like ten years, so I partly took this route because I was curious. Plus, what better way to get a big enough sample size for opinion. I was, however, very nervous about my Rimowa bag because one half of the handle was stuck in the “up” position, and wouldn’t go down, so I was worried if it would still fit in the overhead bins. No problem on this flight!  The ERJ-195s are 2×2 seating, and in business class LOT only puts 1 person in each set of two, which works out quite nicely. As far as EuroBusiness goes, this is as good as it gets.

Here’s where it got weird, however. Flight attendant serves the four people in row one and two, then says to me and guy across from me “we do not have enough food, so buy you this from airport” – um, a giant cheese plate, a cold cut tray, a salad, roll, and a dessert? Crazy – that’s a ton of food for a 50 minute flight…plus a decent South African red wine – overall, I was glad they had run out of food! I wasn’t that hungry, so mainly just finished the cheese, double bread, and dessert, but I was impressed. (No, you can’t ask how many bottles of wine….)

Got to Poland, gate was still in the Schengen Zone, so I headed to the LOT lounge briefly to check it out. It was really hard to figure out with multiple rooms, including one “hidden” room that was for some sort of priority something only, but there was nobody manning the desk so I went in there. It didn’t look nicer, but was slightly quieter. Except the bathroom, with this helpful sign. Felt just like my last trip to Poland circa 2002 when they were still modernizing after the communist era….

Next up, the flight I was really worried about with my gimpy bag….a Dash 8 to Berlin!  I almost booked SAS via Norway to avoid this routing, but the time savings was too tempting. What would they do? Force me to check my bag and break it more? I figure it was worth the risk.

EuroLOT flight 389
Warsaw, Poland (WAW) to Berlin, Tegel (TXL)
Depart 17:25, Arrive:18:50, flight time: 1:25
Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, Registration SP-EQK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 573
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,693,161

Good news – apparently the Q400s have pretty large overhead bins – roughly the same size as the ERJ-195, so getting the bag to fit was no problem. Like the ERJ-195 the seating was 2×2 which meant that business again was one person in each set of two so plenty of room.

Impressed that we got a meal (albeit cold) on a Q400, and it was the same meal from a few days prior on the Warsaw to Kiev flight. Overall, perfectly nice for such a short flight on a propeller plane!

Seats were reasonable…especially because you get two!

Deplaning at Tegel…major the worst capital city airport in the developed world! What a nightmare!

…and with that, I was set to enjoy/work several days in Berlin!

Jan 122019
 


So, you’ve already seen the Chernobyl Post, but what else did I get up to in Kiev? Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I didn’t get to see nearly as much as I’d like. However, since this was my first visit in 30 years, I did accomplish my two goals of seeing Chernobyl and getting a feel for the place. I’ll be right up front with that: Kiev was absolutely awesome, exceeded all my expectations, and I can’t wait to go back for a longer trip!

Finally!  I’ve been to every country in the world post-independence! Move over Ukrainian SSR, I’ve now been to Ukraine!

Found a great craft beer bar called Punkraft with an amazing selection of beers – I wouldn’t have expected that in Kiev!

Tasty burger with dinner too – see the shot glass behind the burger? I assumed the black thing inside was a wet nap for after the burger…nope….it turned out to be a rubber glove. Ok, that’s….odd.

Statue at Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square – Independence Square – where in 2014 protests were finally successful at toppling the government and instituting true democratic rule for the first time.

Monument on Maidan Square:

Monument to the “Facebook Revolution” – Facebook was largely crediting for helping to organize the protests which eventually brought down the government.

Looking the other direction onto Independence Square. There was a strong wind as you can see with the Ukrainian flaga, and light snow was falling….you can see on the building it was also -2 out. Brrrr!

Thanks to google, I found some of the more artistic subway stations to visit. I love just popping around to subway stations in Moscow to see the grand Soviet architecture, so wanted to see what Kiev had to offer. Teatralna station, where the national theatre is:

Zolotoy Vorota Station – Michael the Archangel and Patron Saint of Kiev. Can you imagine religious figures in a US subway station?

More from Zolotoy Vorota, note in the upper left that all the arches are covered in mosaics:

Yaropolk II of Kiev – Grand Prince of Kiev in the early 1100s:

Slavutych Station – it’s supposed to symbolize the river. It looks more like a space odyssey:

See, very sci-fi space odyssey:

I loved the futuristic look of this station with the shiny pillars and the tiled walls and floor:

View of the Palace of Sports. Next time I’m here I definitely want to catch a hockey game:

On the way out, information board at Kiev airport. The price for business class on the way out was outrageous, so I settled for economy once I saw that if there were remaining business seats you could buy them at the airport. It was a bit of a protracted negotiation, but I finally managed to buy one for about $130. The website said $95 – so end of day it was fine.

Still Christmas in Kiev Airport!

Turned out when I got on the plane, I was the only person in business class! Made the upgrade totally worth it! It would have been empty without me, and the crew was super friendly and attentive. Bit of pre-departure champagne and a newspaper:

Three choices of snacks! Not bad! It was like my own private jet. Some smoked beef with potatoes and peas. The chocolate tort was super tasty tho…and a bit of champagne in very stylish glasses:

Sunset on the way to Riga:

Fantastic sunset tonight:

Deplaning at Riga:

Unfortunately immigration at Riga took more than an hour, due to a sour and suspicious immigration drone who decided my passport must be fake with all the stamps and “too many Russia visa.” Ugh. Eventually allowed into the Schengen Area (which is 100x easier in Frankfurt) and off to explore Latvia for the first time in 20 years!