Apr 082018
 


Yeah, so it was Saturday morning. Woke up. I was having coffee, looking ahead to a completely boring day with zero plans. Sitting around on the couch sounded so, so nice. But it was Easter weekend…and there was really nothing at all going on…people were out of town…and before I’d finished my coffee I was bored. I had managed to resist the idea the day before on Friday (you know, when I could have actually gone there and spent the night) but I had a feeling today would be different.

30 minutes later, I’d grabbed a shower, threw a few things in a backpack, and was out the door. There was a flight to Detroit in 70 minutes, and from there on Delta I could pretty much head anywhere in the world. I’d always wanted to do a spur of the moment trip to somewhere – anywhere – and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. So without any plans at all, off to Detroit I went.

Quick Uber to National Airport, check in, through CLEAR with no line, and I was at my gate. I might have even had 10 minutes to spare in the SkyClub, but I was already feeling a bit rushed so decided to head to the gate. Time to head to Detroit, and the great beyond!

Delta Airlines flight 6188, operated by GoJet
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 14:20, Flight Time: 1:35
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N669CA, Manufactured 2004, Seat 4B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 17,013
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,537,075

Boarded right on time (and yeah, I had 15 minutes to spare, I don’t know why I felt rushed) and ended up in seat 4B, which has more legroom than any other seat on the plane as you can see in the pic below. Given that Comfort Plus has free drinks just like first class on a short flight like this, this seat was actually probably BETTER than ended up in actual first.

Both 4C and 4D remained open, so I decided to move over to 4D right before takeoff. Still pretty much unlimited legroom, and DC is one of my favourite places for a window seat. I’m usually on the A-side so get great Pentagon shots on takeoff, but today it was the Jefferson Memorial and the US Capitol:

I’ve been trying to be nicer to my liver lately, so was content with a bag of snack mix and a diet coke. I should have had some Biscoff cookies, but the little Dorito things in the snack  mix are just soooo good!

Landed in Detroit about 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and look what was right across from my gate:

I had a few vague ideas where Delta flew from Detroit. I knew about London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris in the evening, but was surprised to see there were actually THREE flights to Amsterdam, one to Rome I didn’t know about, and of course there was also Canada and the rest of the US as well.

Overwhelmed, I headed to the lounge for a snack to explore options. Meatballs, cheese, hummus, and a beer. Giving United’s famous “brown meal” a run for its money:

After looking at how full flights were, I settled on the second flight to Amsterdam. However, as the flight got closer, more and more people started snapping up the available seats, to the point where even if I did get a seat it would be a middle seat in the 1-2-1 configuration. Now, don’t get me wrong, those seats are way better than 2-4-2 on United where people have to climb over each other, but I was really hoping for a solo window seat since I didn’t plan to sleep.

Given the odds from Amsterdam were looking dicey, I took a look back at Paris…and wow…plenty of seats. Choice made, I bought the ticket, and of course was unable to check in online. Tried the counter in the SkyClub, and they couldn’t check me in either since we were only 50 minutes before departure. Time to run to the gate.

Met with the “how did you get through security if you’re not checked in” the gate agent made a production of reminding me she was doing me a favour by checking me in…and just like that it was time to go!

Unfortunately, I was having trouble refunding my Amsterdam ticket online…but did get the very last seat in business class. Fortunately, I could see online they did eventually unload me and I was able to refund it later. Off to Paris we go!

Delta Airlines flight 98
Detroit, Michigan (DTW) to Paris, France, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 18:11, Arrive 8:15 next day, Flight Time: 8:04
Airbus A330-300, Registration N803NW, Manufactured 2003, Seat 9A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 20,976
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,541,038

Pre-departure “champagne”  – I’m still not sure a $5 bottle of sparking wine is “worth it” in the calories department, but hey, it came in an actual glass and this spur of the moment trip was definitely something to celebrate! I tend to be someone who overthinks things, so being spontaneous is something to celebrate!

Mixed nuts to start off once we were in the air, and a glass of wine. These glasses always look like they shouldn’t be stable in turbulence, but I’ve never had a problem. Also, love that the mixed nuts include pistachios, pecans, and cashews – my three favourite nuts.

Appetizer tray. I know others don’t like business class service on a tray, but it doesn’t bother me. The salad was pretty underwhelming, but the appetizer was phenomenal. I don’t know how they came up with this combo, but “grilled apricots with whipped ricotta, truffle honey and crispy prosciutto” was absolutely amazing. I wanted more. Plus a pretzel roll and tomato/basil bisque soup was super tasty and good comfort food.

Another home run with the main course, pistachio crusted australian lamb rack. It’s pretty rare you get lamb chops on the bone on a plane, but they were also cooked medium (best you can expect on a plane) and the pistachio crust was amazing. This mean alone made me want to do more Delta transatlantics before it goes away!

Cheese and ice cream for dessert. Cheese was nothing special, but ice cream with a little hot fudge is always welcome.

I had decided I was going to stay away the whole flight to avoid jetlag, since we would be landing around 1am east coast time in the US. Given I often stay up that late on weekends anyways, it was definitely easy to stay awake…and allowed me to catch up on tv. I never watch tv at home, so I rely on downloads of the shows I like to my iPad to catch up. Good use of time in the air.

Small mid-flight snack with about three hours to go:

I decided I would have breakfast “for science” but the frittata of potato and gruyere was much better than expected and I ended up eating most of it. The tomato hollandaise was super tasty too. I suspect Delta must have gotten a sale on asparagus and tomatoes this month!

Oh, and since it was still technically midnight body clock time, a glass of champagne with breakfast was welcome. Now that’s a generous pour. The crew on this flight was friendly and fantastic.

Landed 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and up into the terminal where I managed to get a shot of my ride to Paris:

See, it was all fate that I ended up on a flight to Paris! Paris has been waiting for me!

During the flight I had done some searching, and fortunately managed to find a flight home that was wide open. Looked like I would have about three hours on the ground, and then it would be right back to Cincinnati. Found the Air France/Delta transfer desk a short walk from the plane, and they had no trouble checking me in to Cincinnati. We had arrived at the M gates of Terminal 2E, so I would have to head to the L gates if I wanted to use the Yotel lounge, and my flight would of course depart from the K gates.

So, good news first. After some confusion and asking around, managed to find out that the Yotel is actually outside security in the L gates, so I wouldn’t have to reclear security. One of the worst things about how Terminal 2E is designed at Charles de Gaulle is that it has three piers: K, L, and M, each with their own security. As far as I know, there’s no way to transfer between them without clearing security.

So, the Yotel was like 80 degrees, so I’m not sure the shower I took really helped all that much, but I suppose it was better than nothing? The lounge visit also came with 10 euro in food credit, which I used on two large bottles of Evian and a bottle of Orangina. Given how hot it was I think I sweat it all out immediately, but better than nothing. Stopped in a cafe in the terminal for a delicious pain au chocolate and espresso, because hey, when in Paris, and just like that it was time to head to my next flight!

Back on the inter-terminal train to the K gates, and managed to find security…where the line was nearly AN HOUR long. Even the fast track/premier line took almost 30 minutes. Once again, CDG demonstrating what an absolute pain it is as far as being user-friendly.

That said, I do love the retro-futuristic design of the K terminal:

Only had about 10 minutes to wait to board after all the checkin/inter-terminal shuffle, so it was a very nice and quick visit to Paris, but time to head home now!

Delta Airlines flight 229
Paris, France, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Cincinnati, Ohio/Kentucky (CVG)
Depart 10:35, Arrive 13:53, Flight Time: 9:18
Boeing 767-300, Registration N175DN, Manufactured 1990, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 25,132
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,545,194

Despite the flight being relatively light in business (maybe 2/3) the agent had assigned me a middle section seat towards the back. A polite request and I got 3A. The odd numbered window seats are my favourite because the large “console” part of the seat is next to the aisle, giving you a little more privacy. The downside is, when the seat is at all reclined it can be a bit tight to get out past the console. Bedding, amenity kit, headphones, water were waiting for me when I boarded. It was now about 3am eastern time, and sleep was beginning to sound amazing.

Bubbles…because…celebration…blah blah….

Cool takeoff right over Paris Le Bourget airport:

Yay, more pistachios!

After the amazing appetizer on the way over, this one was a bit more disappointing. I don’t “do” shrimp (aka cockroaches of the sea) but in exchange the salad was definitely and upgrade. Oh, and fresh baguette was just as good as having pretzel bread. The thai coconut soup, however, was outstanding and probably the best soup I’ve ever had on a plane:

Grilled beef tenderloin (a nice medium) and fregola sarda pasta. Definitely well above average for steak on a plane:

The cheese was also much better than the other direction, although I’d expect nothing less for a flight originating from Paris. Morbier, Cantal, and Pavé d’affinois with a bit of chutney. Oh, and of course I didn’t pass on the ice cream.

Having eaten, and now about 430a body time, I absolutely passed out for the next five hours and had a wonderful nap. Waking up about an hour before the pre-landing snack was served, a pretty good cuban sandwich:

Hello Cincinnati!

I should probably say that part of what had sold me on Paris was the hope I could take this route back. Back in 1988 the first time I ever flew Transatlantic was on a Delta L1011 from Cincinnati to London Gatwick. Back then, I remember Cincinnati airport being pretty busy, and certainly when I went back in the mid 1990s it was quite busy.

Now, however, it seemed like a bit of a ghost town. We hit immigration right after another flight from Cancun, and now it was time to put Global Entry to the test. This was the first time I would be entering the US since my Global Entry had supposedly been reinstated, so I looked forward to seeing if it was true. The only “evidence” I had was an email telling me that upon review they agreed they would reinstate it and…yup! Went perfectly.

Only one question from the agent when I turned in my receipt of “where are you coming from?”  “Paris.” “Just Paris?” “Yeah, just Paris.” “Welcome home.” Whew, no questions about how long I had been in Paris that would have required an awkward explanation.

To get back to the gates TSA was right in the arrivals area, but unfortunately no PreCheck, no CLEAR, so off come the shoes, out come the laptops, etc etc. Ugh. But the cool thing was, right after this it was an escalator up right to the departure gates. I could have probably even pulled off a 30 minute transit here if I needed to.

But, that done, I had time for Starbucks. Yay!

This airport has certainly seen busier times. View from the SkyClub:

Time to board the flight back to DCA. Gracias and Merci Delta for a fun trip!

4D once again, the same seat I had on the way to Detroit just…24 hours prior. Wow, this had really been a whirlwind.

Delta Airlines flight 6214 operated by GoJet
Cincinnati, Ohio/Kentucky (CVG) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive 17:28, Flight Time: 1:28
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N354CA, Manufactured 2002, Seat 4D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 25,544
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,545,606

Cool Kalitta Charters II 727 on taxi:

Lots of great plane spotting on the taxi with all the cargo that moves through Cincinnati, so that made having a window seat really worth it.

Quick hour flight to DCA, nothing special, no beverage service “due to the length of the flight” though water was available to anyone who requested it. The guy sitting next to me asked for a beer, but was told no. Kinda defeats the purpose of Comfort+ except the added legroom.

Overall, I felt really privileged to have been able to do something so crazy. Would I do it again? Most definitely – but it surprisingly took a bit more out of me than I thought it would. It was a great excuse to be lazy, catch up on tv watching, and just enjoy flying for the sake of it. Now, time to do it again soon!

Jul 032017
 

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

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

Yes, I should have worn sunglasses…

Salvador Dali artwork near the bridge:

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

Looking out at the mountains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow-capped Pyrenees:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 212016
 

Arriving Paris early afternoon, I was looking forward to getting to my hotel and resting a bit. Of course, the trains had something completely different in mind for me. Back in January when I was in Paris, after an annoying hour waiting for passport control I ended up having major drama with the trains due to some track problems that took over three hours to get into the city from the airport. Unfortunately, this trip was to prove to have even worse drama.

The walk from terminal 2A where British Airways has its gates to the RER station is relatively long, but not too bad and was nice to have the exercise after spending all night on a plane. Got to the train station, bought my ticket, and then there was an announcement. I only began to hear it because people started yelling and the station flooded with heavily armed police. I decided the wise thing to do was follow the panicking crowds back up the escalators in the direction the police were yelling and pointing.

When I got to the top of the station and started walking back towards the terminal the announcement was much clearer: please evacuate the station due to a suspicious package. Seriously, that’s all? It seems to happen pretty frequently in the D.C. metro these days, so was surprised at the level of panic. After waiting over an hour, we were finally allowed back into the station. I headed towards the platform for the RER, and was directed back again by the police. Seems now, the Terminal 2 RER station was closed due to track problems. Please head over to Terminal 3 and get the train from there. Seriously, ugh.

Took the inter-terminal shuttle train over to the Terminal 3 train station, only to find out with a bunch of other passengers, that trains were now suspended all the way to Aulnay-sous-Bois about six stations down the line. Oh, did I mention it was also pouring rain at this point? Instead of getting on the shuttle bus towards Aulnay, I decided to wait it out for 15 minutes in the station. At this point, they still had no idea when the line might reopen, so I resigned myself to the shuttle bus, which took nearly an hour to Aulnay after stopping off at every station along the way to pick up more passengers. Fortunately, I’d managed to get a seat because the bus ended up packed with soaking wet uncomfortable people. It was NOT a pleasant experience.

Fortunately, once I got to Aulnay the ticket I’d purchased at CDG still worked for the trip into Paris (it better since it’s a shorter trip!) and I made it the rest of the way to the hotel in less than 45 minutes. As an added bonus, it was now only misting out so the five minute walk to my hotel from the Metro station wasn’t bad at all. By this point, it was nearly 5pm and all of the afternoon had been lost. Fortunately, this time of year it stays light until nearly 21:30 in Paris, so was able to go out and grab some drinks with friends still.

Got back to the hotel around 9pm, and was ready to collapse. The restaurant I’d wanted to eat at was completely packed and couldn’t promise a seat until after 10, so I pulled up TripAdvisor and decided to see what else was within a short walk since it was nearly 21:30 at this point. Of all things, there was a Thai restaurant that was highly recommended just around the corner.

Communication was an interesting experience. Their accents were incredibly difficult in French, so we made due with some Thai-French-English blend which resulted in me getting my Pad Thai just as I wanted it – no fish, extra chicken, and very spicy. Ironic to get Pad Thai after I’d just been in Thailand a few days prior, but hey, that’s Globalization for you!

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Slept a solid 10 hours which was awesome with the big time zone shift the night before, and headed out in the morning to get some coffee. After coffee I felt like going for a walk, so just decided to start wandering. About 15 minutes later I was at the Louvre, which was absolutely packed with tourists. After taking pictures for three different Russian weddings and a group of loud Midwesterners (seriously the only people in the area without selfie sticks – which are EVERYWHERE in Paris these days) I snapped a quick photo for myself:

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The day was the perfect amount of overcast – just enough to keep things cool for a long walk, but the sun poked through just enough times to keep things warm as well. Headed out of the Louvre past the Place du Carrousel:

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Kept walking through the Jardin des Tuileries and stopped for a bit at one of the fountains to people watch, and watch some baby ducks splashing around:

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Past the statue of Julius Ceasar:

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To another small pool, where I sat for a bit to take enjoy the view of the Grande Roue de Paris:

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This is where things got a little weird. A tour group of Americans came by and their French leader asked them to get themselves arranged to take an end of tour photo. I wasn’t really paying attention – just zoning out and enjoying the view – and he came up to me and asked “excuse me sir, can I bother you a moment?” My tired brain wasn’t registering at the moment, and he sounded like another trinket seller trying to get me to buy something, so I asked him to please go away. He persisted and asked “no, I just want you to take a picture please.” This is when I’d realized I’d been a little rude, and of course agreed to take the photo.

He got the group together, I gave them the “1-2-3 Cheese” and then “one more” and went back to sitting down and enjoying the view. He switched back to English with his group and said “yes, they’re good! sorry about that, it’s those kind of people who give us Parisians a bad name with tourists!” Never in my life has my terrible French been mistaken for Parisian, so I guess – in a way – it was a compliment!

Statue at the Place de la Concorde:

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The Obelisk of Luxor:

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Love this kinda artsy shot of one of the fountains…ruined only by a Calvin Klein ad in the background:

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Took a nice leisurely stroll up the Champs-Élysées stopping once at the park and another time in the middle for some coffee and people watching, and finally got to the Arc de Triomphe:

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I could only have so much playing tourist, so didn’t bother going up to the top for the view, plus the lines were absolutely insane! Instead, since my “short walk” had already taken me so far, I decided why not keep going. Wandered down some side streets I’d never found before, which appeared to be through a bit of an Embassy district. Also found a little sign of home:

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Kept walking until I got to the Trocadero Gardens, and finally got a great view from across the Seine of the Eiffel Tower:

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Kept walking along the Left Bank, and eventually the pedestrian Passerelle Debilly:

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By this point, I’d had enough of walking. I considered walking up the Left Bank all the way to the Musée d’Orsay and Notre Dame, but it was already mid-afternoon at this point, and I was getting pretty tired out. So, I caught the RER and decided to get off at Bastille, since I hadn’t wandered through that area in several years:

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By this point, I realized I was starving since I hadn’t eaten in over six hours and had just had a few coffees during the long walk. I picked a café at random that looked just local and busy enough, and grabbed a seat for some people watching. Relatively friendly service for Paris, efficient, and a tasty glass of Médoc and a Croque Madame for a tasty late lunch:

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With that, I ended up meeting some friends out for evening drinks and passing out early. The long day of walking had worn me out but it was nice to just take in the city without any plans or itinerary. Was a great way to spend a full day and enjoy Paris without being too touristy. Drinks with local fiends and just taking in the city and people watching made for a very nice trip.

Fortunately, my flight out the next morning wasn’t too early, so I also got to sleep in just a little bit. Next up, quick stop in London!

Jan 262016
 

Fortunately, my adventures on the RER were much less of a problem today – and not only that – I managed to catch and express train and was at the airport barely 45 minutes after leaving my hotel…which gave me 3.5 hours to spare. I was going to need it, however, to figure out my way through this maze of an airport.

Leaving the RER station, there were a bunch of Air France kiosks, which made checking in and getting my boarding pass easy. So far so good. Rather long walk, but eventually navigated my way through the sea of checkin counters and found the area for departures. Exit immigration was a breeze with no line at the business class counter, and priority security was also rather empty…save the woman with about 200 metal bracelets and trinkets all over her body. Seriously, do people not thing ahead when they are flying?

Regardless, found my way to the lifts underground, and to the Air France lounge with plenty of time to spare. To top it off, my flight would be leaving from the main terminal 2E building, meaning a short walk from the lounge. Looked like everything was going well today!

Since I’d only grabbed a quick coffee at Starbucks, I decided to find out what my food options were in the lounge.

A lounge with real cheese and not Tilamook? Score!

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Main course of a chicken and mushroom stew of some sort, and cheese wrapped in ham…with an apple tart for dessert. Not at all bad for lounge food Air France. Not bad at all!

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Since I had plenty of extra time thanks to the RER running well today, it left me a few extra hours to get some work done in the lounge before it was time to take the short walk to the boarding gate.

Air France flight 770
Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Freetown, Sierra Leone (FNA)
Depart 13:35, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 6:35
Airbus A330-200, Registration F-GLCB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,374
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,176,412

As soon as I was seated, pre-departure champagne was offered along with amenity kits. I decided to fit in this time, and when I wasn’t offered a blue one on the tray, asked if they might have any blue ones. The flight attendant apologized, and immediately went off to fetch one. Hah!

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Today’s menu…rather tasty looking once again!

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Today’s flight was the same number as my flight from Conakry two days prior, and apparently it does a circle Paris-Freetown-Conakry-Paris every couple of days. Worked out perfectly for me, and obviously lots of others because today’s flight appeared to be completely sold out in all classes. Everyone I could see in business had either American passports of Chinese, leading me to believe it was largely a mix of development workers and the usual Chinese “infrastructure” people. Tasty snack of cashews and cranberries along with a creamed pea mousse:

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Shrimp starter, along with more fois gras. Looking around – I found almost everyone poking at…and then refusing to touch the fois gras. Next time I’m on Air France I’m going to ask for them to take double helpings for me from all those who can’t or won’t appreciate it!

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Extremely tasty risotto, and cheese! I’m branching out from my usual beef offerings this trip with vegetarian risottos, scallops, monkfish…what is this world coming to?!

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Trio of desserts. It’s no Jeff Sundae, but it’s way tastier!

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My impression after two medium-haul flights on Air France: nobody can beat them for business class food. Sure, Emirates and Singapore can try and be “fancy” but they save the truly impressive stuff like lobster and caviar for first class anyways. Air France serves good, solid, high quality food in business class that doesn’t taste and look like it came out of the dollar bin at your local WalMart. Normally I’m the first to find airplane food boring and meh, but I can honestly say the Air France meals were things I would order in a restaurant. Well done Air France!

…and as a nod to Air France, my seatmate was displaying extremely Haute Couture – a bedazzled New York Yankees sweatshirt:

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This is where stuff got interesting. After a great flight, we landed at Lungi International Airport where the passport queues were extremely slow and sweaty. Country #189 visited! Now, Lungi Airport is rather interesting. It’s about 10 miles or so from the capital of Freetown, but those 10 miles are if you can walk on water. If you can’t you take the long way around the bay by car, which usually takes 3-4 hours. Yes, that’s right, hours. So, what most people do is take the ferry.

I had read nightmares about the ferry, and the process of procuring tickets, which were approximately $35-40. For $60, the Radisson would send someone to meet you at arrivals, transfer you to the ferry, give you your ticket, and pick you up on the other end. Sounded like a bargain to me…and I went with it.

My driver was waiting for me in the arrivals area, and handed me my ticket. He took me to the bus area, where I would wait for the bus to the ferry. Yes, that’s right, first you need a ferry ticket. Then the ferry company drives you to the pier. Then you take a ferry. Then you need transport on the other side. Well worth the premium I paid.

Fortunately, the ferry company’s van had awesome air conditioning, and soon we were off. About a 10 minute drive to the pier in complete darkness, but it didn’t matter, because once we got to the pier we waited nearly an hour to board the ferry. No answer why, other than soon soon. Eventually we boarded, and it was clear they were going to cram an entire A330 of passengers on a ferry which was marked “Capacity: 55”

I personally counted at least 80-90 people, and there was lots of yelling and complaining about the boat being overloaded. But, see, there’s a problem. It had one deck. With one door. In my foolish rush to board I had moved away from the door, and if this thing sank, there was absolutely no way I was getting off on time. I was hoping reason would win it, but no, they just slammed the door. A staff member gave some half-hearted safety demonstration that included comments about life jackets and the easter bunny…not sure if either really existed..and the motors sputtered to life.

Fortunately, it was pitch black outside, and we couldn’t feel the terror we were about to embark on…the first five minutes weren’t too bad, but then the waves started, and the boat started pitching pretty hard side to side as the waves would hit the boat which was loaded down worse than a pregnant woman well past her third trimester. I tried to strike up a conversation with the local couple seated next to me (we were some of the lucky ones with seats) but that didn’t work when they told me they’d taken this ferry dozens of times…and it had never been loaded down this badly. They were clearly worried.

I started looking for small and weak people between me and the door, deciding who I would trample when we capsized. I also started practicing holding my breath, trying to figure out how long I would have to get to the door once the water came rushing in.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, that’s when it started. Now, Sierra Leone had recently been declared free of Ebola, and to do so they constantly reminded people of the way it spread: avoid bodily fluids of sick and dead people. Well, that’s when the first woman lost her cookies…all over a couple of people also standing in the middle of the boat.

A couple of minutes later, it happened again with another person. All told four people threw up all over other passengers. While it made the time pass by quickly, if a sinking boat didn’t kill us there was a reasonable chance Ebola would. Eventually, we made it to the other side…the air heavy with the smell of vomit and fear.

True to their world, the Radisson shuttle driver was waiting for me, and soon we were off to the hotel. Quickly messaged Jordan and Dan that I’d arrived, and that they were free to meet me in the hotel bar/restaurant as after checking in I would need something to make me forget my near death experience.

This item on the menu didn’t reassure me:

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Yes, you may have a beer, but only after you sanitize your hands:

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After a couple of beers and some food, it was time to head to bed so I could get up at a reasonable hour and maximize my time in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, the room air conditioning in no way met my standards, nor did the internet which only reached about a foot into my room. I was too tired to care, and had good data service on my cell phone, and eventually passed out for eight solid hours of well-needed sleep.

Got up to have a bit of breakfast before heading out, and was surprised to run into Dan and Jordan there. They had some sort of buy one get one free rate that didn’t include breakfast, and given the hotel wanted over $25 for it I hadn’t expected to see them. The buffet was rather basic, but enough to do the trick, and certainly better than several we had had on this trip.

They had arrived the prior day, and agreed to show me around the area near the hotel so I could maximize my time before leaving. We headed down to Lumley Beach, which thanks to “National Exercise Day” on Sunday, was packed:

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I was doing my best to “STOP the EBOLA Virus” but given all the vomiting on the ferry the night before, I wasn’t overly confident.

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The beach was packed with people playing football, lots of people just walking, and vendors selling water and other drinks in the incredibly hot sun:

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I spotted one football team getting ready to take a picture, and rushed over to ask if I could take their picture as well. This got them to do their championship pose, and I found out they had just won the beach league tournament of some sort. Given the dozens of games going on at the beach, there seemed to be tons of different leagues and casual games going on, and most of them even had referees. It was a rather large affair and apparently THE thing to do in Freetown on a Sunday.

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After a while of walking around we eventually headed back to the Radisson to try in vain to cool down ever so slightly with some cold drinks before heading to the airport for our onward flight to the final new country of this trip: Liberia!

Jan 242016
 

The guesthouse was nice enough to give me a ride back to the airport, but unlike the approximately 20-25 minute drive to get to the guesthouse in the morning, it took us more than 90 minutes to get to the airport. I had left plenty of time so it wasn’t a problem, but was still mildly annoying. Plus, I got a free long French lesson out of it, since it was just me and one of the owners in the car, so we covered everything from US politics to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, African dictators, you name it. Quite a good conversation for a couple of folks speaking their non-native languages who had just met less than 12 hours prior.

Air France check-in was no problem at all, and immigration and security were a breeze as well. I was soon camped out in the common-use lounge Air France uses to wait for my flight. It was still festively decorated for Christmas as well:

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Decent selection of beverages, and some pastries that were a bit past their freshness:

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The downside on the beverages…I ended up having three beers, and as I got up to leave and board my flight she came running over asking me to pay for the third one. I don’t have a problem with that itself, but she should have informed me when I ordered it that there would be a charge. Oh well, there were plenty of electrical outlets, comfortable seating, fast internet, and good AC, so if that’s the biggest problem with a lounge in Guinea I’m pretty ok with it!

As we were boarding, nurses were waiting in the jetway, and writing temperatures on the boarding pass to “prove” you weren’t sick at the time of boarding:

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Air France flight 770
Conakry, Guinea (CKY) to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 23:10, Arrive 06:25, Flight Time: 6:15
Airbus A340-300, Registration F-GLZK, Manufactured 1997, Seat 6E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 6,445
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,173,483

I had changed my seat right before boarding to 5E, since according to ExpertFlyer there were two seats left to sell, and 5E and 5F were both open on the seatmap. It turned out to be the right call, because even though I was in the last row, I had nobody sitting next to me. Amenity kits came in a choice of colours, and I noticed several of the passengers around me being very particular about which one they got…and the crew seemed to think this was completely normal. Seriously, the contents were the same (I asked) so people were being fussy on the colour?

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Welcome aboard champagne. Yes, champagne. Real champagne. In a glass. Take that United!

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I do love monkfish, and figured if anyone can do it right on a plane it’s the French, so I broke (for the second time this trip) my no seafood on a plane rule and ordered it:

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Not a bad menu for an 11pm departure!

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Dessert and starter served all at once. Mmm, cheese, profiteroles, and fois gras. This has the makings of the best business class meal ever!

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The monkfish was absolutely amazing, and the mashed pumpkin was a tasty addition:

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Managed to get almost four hours of decent sleep, and woke up just before landing in Paris. It was my first time dealing with the situation at Charles de Gaulle outside the United area, and what a mess! So many parts to the terminal, connected by a maze of passageways and trains, but eventually I did make it to immigration where the wait was over an hour in the business class line! They were questioning every passenger very hard – probably due to a combination of the refugee situation and the recent terror attacks. My turn? When I finally got to the front it was a look at my passport “where do you live?” “Washington DC” stamp and go. No questions beyond that, but in my hour of waiting saw at least 20 different people pulled into the office for secondary.

Long hike to the train station to catch the RER, which was a nightmare. There were track problems going on, and four trains in a row got canceled. It took over an hour to get a train into the city, and once we finally moved it took probably 15 minutes between stations. Finally, I arrived at Les Halles just over three hours after leaving the airport. Yes, three HOURS. There were also problems on two metro lines, and the station was more than a little congested:

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To the point people were getting majorly impatient:

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Eventually I made it to my hotel just after 11am, despite landing before 7am. Absolutely crazy. First order of the day was to take a short nap, and then head out on a long walk:

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I usually stay at a small family-run hotel in the Marais, and decided to head out on my usual walk starting first past Notre Dame:

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From there, I continued up past the Pompidou, Louvre, and eventually down the Champs Elyssees to the Arc de Trimophe. Unfortunately, no pictures of that part of the walk since with coffee and pastry stops along the way it was super dark by the time I arrived. I had hoped to have a bit more of the day, but the train/metro disaster kind of squashed that, so I had to settle for just a long walk, which was pretty awesome.

Since it was after dark, and headed into the weekend I headed out to grab drinks with a couple of friends who live in Paris before calling it a relatively early night. I still had to get up in the morning and head back to the airport for Air France adventure part two, and a few more days in Africa. Given how the trains had been operating I decided not to risk missing my flight, so headed to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

Sep 222014
 

Plan was to wake up early in order to have a nice casual drive to Barcelona. However, jetlag was starting to catch up to me, and I just couldn’t do it. Finally made it up around 9am, and headed down to the hotel restaurant for a quick breakfast. Hard boiled eggs, baguettes with Nutella, and some good strong coffee. What’s not to love? The very nice dining room of the Casa Canut:

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After breakfast, I wanted to mail a few postcards, so wandered the town trying to find the local post office to mail them. I’d purchased postcards and stamps the night before and wrote the out over breakfast. The walk was a nice wake-up, and I got another good view of the ferris wheel in daylight:

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Then, it was time to drive. Checked out of the hotel around 10:30, and the doorman brought Pépé the Smart Car around for me.  First stop was Llívia, a small Spanish enclave completely surrounded by France. The route highlighted on the map below is the route I took into Andorra from Spain. I was planning to go out the east side on the yellow road you see, and head down the E9 highway to Llívia. This border of Andorra was supposed to be much, much more mountainous, and a very scenic drive.

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Total travel time was forecast at one hour and 13 minutes, so I was expecting 1:30 to 2 hours with stops along the way for photos:

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Leaving Andorra la Vella, some amazing views:

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Sep 182014
 

After fueling up at Starbucks…

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…it was time to find terminal 3 at CDG. I made my way to the CDGVal train, which was pretty self explanatory, and then there was the maybe 200 meter walk to T3. It seemed kind of silly, but I’m used to the C-terminal train at Dulles which also involves a long walk to the terminal, so I’m used to strangely planned train systems.

What I’m not used to is airport terminals that feel like a warehouse. Or bus terminal. Some place that not only doesn’t have first class facilities, but no lounges whatsoever. It was a terrifying place. I started to break out in a cold sweat. What’s this…a line…and there’s no way to cut to the front of it. What’s worse, after 20 minutes standing in it, I was still stuck in the line!  Dear God, I take back every thing I’ve said about how being elite on United no longer is what it used to be…it was traumatizing.  30 minutes later, I was at the front of the line…and based how slowly the line moved I expected the Spanish Inquisition (see what I did there?) before I could check in.

J’ai déja enregistré et j’ai besoin seulement de mon carte d’embarquement….” (looks at passport, tap tap tap, clunk clunk clunk) and out comes my boarding pass. That’s it.  15 seconds. I waited in line for 30 minutes for a 15 second transaction. Dear Vueling: YOU NEED KIOSKS. KTHXBYE LOVE YOU.

I still had about an hour until my flight, so find a little store selling bottled water…it was reasonably priced and I decided to head for security. Took all of 5 minutes to get through, and the waiting area on the other side was just a large collection of seats for 5 or 6 “gates” which were really just doors to busses since T3 has no jetbridges.

Bus to the plane at departure time, and we finally left about 20 minutes late. I’d paid an extra 10 euro to sit in the exit row, which at 6’3 is more than worth it. I shared the row with two very lovely ladies from Kansas who were going on a Mediterranean cruise.  They spent the next 90 minutes telling me all the fascinating things they’d discovered in their few days in Paris. I did lots of smiling and nodding and pretending to be fascinated 😉

Vueling flight 8243
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Barcelona, Spain (BCN)
Depart 9:50, Arrive 11:35, Flight Time 1:45
Airbus A320, Registration EC-JSY, Manufactured 2006, Seat 14D

So, what was it like to fly a low cost carrier?  Well, not that bad.

I had legroom.  Chatty, but nice row-mates.  I got a Coke Light…it cost me like 3 euro, but I got one.  We were only 30 minutes late, so all in all, I can’t really complain too much.  The best part was the exit row briefing…you had to speak and understand either Catalan or English to be allowed to sit there.  I got briefed in Spanish, which I was super proud of being able to pass well enough in, and the nice ladies from Kansas got briefed in English.  All went well.

Then…it was off through Barcelona to find my car.  I have a confession here.  I can’t drive a manual transmission.  About 100 countries ago I said I’d learn.  I still haven’t.

My options?  A Mercedes E Class at 199 Euro a day (for two days…ouch!) or a Smart Car for about 50 Euro a day.  You can guess what I chose.  The rental agent spoke basic english, and combined with my basic Spanish we got the song and dance done…including the “are you SURE you don’t want extra insurance?”  Yes.  “Oh, and one last thing…se llama Pépé.”  Yes, my car had a name according to the rental agent.

Introducing…Pépé:

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Now, it’s important to remember.  I’m not a small guy.  I’m 6’3 and north of 200 pounds.  There was enough room in this car for me and my one tiny bag, but that’s about all.  I was welcomed with this hangtag in the car:

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She’s winking at me…there’s something she knows I don’t.  Oh, wait, it’s how to drive this thing!  Wait, I have to shift even though it’s an automatic?  Yes, there’s no clutch, but still the shift from 1st to 2nd up to 5th etc was a manual shift.  Once I kinda got the hang of that…I was off.  Fortunately it took a long time to get out of the car park, which gave me lots of practice.  Programmed Google Maps on my iPhone to read me directions to Andorra…and I was off to brave the highways of Spain!

The first hour was a bit of a hot mess.  I made several wrong turns, forgot to shift, got stuck doing 80 kph on the highway, it was a wreck.  But eventually after 90 minutes or so I was getting the hang of it.  Just in time to pull into a rest stop and refuel.  I needed caffeine and calories.  See, isn’t Pépé gorgeous in the sunlight?  It was about 85F and a gorgeous day.

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Sep 162014
 

Having landed right on time, I grabbed a triple iced espresso for fuel at the D-gates Starbucks, and headed straight to the Washington Flyer bus, where I learned that the bus doesn’t start until 7:45 on weekends. It was only 7:10. Grrrr. In an attempt to (a) be fiscally responsible and (b) curious about the new bus to metro service on the silver line, I waited. This meant a $5 bus plus about $5 metro ride vs a $55 taxi….

Shortly, the bus arrived, and the Washington Flyer bus is no longer a nice coach bus, but a glorified public bus with luggage racks. Actually was glad to see this, because the bus now runs every 15 minutes instead of every 30, and is $5 instead of $10, so it’s definitely a win. Soon we were at metrorail, and I was enjoying a quick ~25 minute ride to my place. Can’t really complain about 40 minutes door to door on public transit from Dulles!

Emerging from metro, looking a bit scruffy, bags already forming under the eyes, but none the worse for wear:

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So, I had exactly 10 hours in DC, one of which was eaten up getting home.  So, first order of business was a load of laundry.  Then packing a weekend bag for Andorra.  See, I’d left my luggage in Honolulu, to be picked up on the way to Vegas, so I had only my laptop bag with me.  Packed a weekend bag, and by 10am I met some friends at a local restaurant for a quick brunch and catching up on this crazy trip.  One of the friends did a 48 hour Johannesburg mileage run with me about a year ago, so the insanity was easily related to.

Now 11:30 and still 6 hours before my flight….so I unwisely went and played an hour of hockey.  Why not, right?  It’ll make me tired for the flight!  Had a great time, more than a little amused at my own insanity, and by 2p was home, showered, and right back on Metrorail to take me to Dulles.

I’d checked in online, so it was straight to security where there was almost no wait at pre-check, and less than 15 minutes after arriving at Dulles I was already in the D-gates Red Carpet Club, which I don’t think I’d been to in years.  It was time for some delicious Tilamook cheese and a few glasses of Château le Jeff.  Despite a huge brunch of french toast and two sides of bacon, I was starving from hockey, so I went to town:

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The Dubai flight was also leaving from the D gates shortly, and the people watching was nothing short of fascinating.  Several younger military looking types getting absolutely tanked on Bud Light (their lack of tolerance made me ashamed to be American) and perhaps the scariest part…a middle aged portly Texan guy who ordered “6 shots of Jack Daniels on the rocks.”  Yes, he paid like $70 for it and didn’t seem phased.  I’m gonna guess he has a fear of flying…more surprisingly the bartender didn’t seem surprised at all.

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Aug 092014
 

Earlier this year, United published, either by mistake or not – it’s not entirely clear – a $1500 all-inclusive business class fare for the summer from a handful of U.S. cities to a handful of European cities.  There were somewhere around 100 possible combinations.  Unfortunately, Washington was not one of them.

This was probably a good thing, because my leave time for 2014 is already all committed, due to my upcoming four weeks in the South Pacific in November, and two plus weeks in East Africa over new years.

But wait…Baltimore is on the list…now that’s tempting…even for a three day weekend.  But it was $1500 for any combination…Baltimore felt lame when perhaps I could do it from the west coast.  Yup, I found San Diego…but that meant getting to San Diego…and if I’m going to go all the way to San Diego, I wonder if….YES once again United seems to want to FORCE me to go to Hawaii.  Honolulu to Paris, business class in August, $1500.  In contrast, the lowest coach fare at the time was about $1650.  This is an absolute bargain.

Alas, I didn’t have the leave.  Didn’t stop me from looking how I could conserve days, and when I could do it.  Wait, I need to be in Las Vegas for a bachelor party late-August.  Las Vegas is on the way back to DC from Hawaii.  That was already planned Wednesday through Friday, so I just needed a way to get Monday-Tuesday off.  I trimmed a couple days off my South Pacific trip…and it was set.

Now…to justify the cost of flying to Hawaii.  Ok, Hawaii-Paris would earn 25,000 more miles than DC-Paris, so that justifies $400 of the fare to Hawaii.  My ticket to Vegas was going to be $1200 for a P fare, so suddenly $1600 is justified.  Buying DC-Honolulu and upgrading with a regional upgrade, done.  One way Honoulu-Vegas on a P fare…done.  Vegas to DC on a P fare…done.  It was all too perfect.

Unfortunately, to guarantee the upgrade, I had to fly DCA-Cleveland-LA-Honolulu.  Ugh.  Leaving at 6am.  Double ugh.  Oh well.  But then, there was a schedule change.  I whined to United I wasn’t comfortable with a 30 minute connection in Cleveland now.  I found upgrade space on DCA-San Francisco-Honolulu leaving at 8:30 – 2.5 hours later – and connecting to the same Honolulu flight.  I begged.  They relented.  It was getting too awesome.  Simply too awesome.

The routing was set:

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You may have noticed Barcelona in there.  See, I decided that 48 hours in Paris in August might get boring since the city clears out a bit.  Plus, I’ve been to Paris literally dozens of times.  So, I did what any good country collector would…set out to find the last country in Europe I haven’t been to:  Andorra.  Only way really to get there is to drive from Barcelona and Toulouse.  Barcelona had better flight connections…plus, the only automatic transmission rental car I could get was a Smart Car.  The chance to drive, my 6’3 self in a smart car, through the Pyrenees was way too much to pass up.  I booked it.

Then, looking at a map of Andorra, I noticed something super fun.

See this?

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Thats Llívia, Spain, a little tiny Spanish enclave not connected to Spain, but completely surrounded by France.  To a geography nerd like me this is perhaps the coolest thing ever.  Then, I thought…wait, I’m going to enter Andorra from Spain…I could exit out the other side of Andorra into France, and then drive to Llívia, back into Spain!

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But of course, this isn’t nerdy enough.  So, I’ll get to Andorra, and spend the night.  Next morning, drive into France, then back into Spain at Llívia, and have coffee…or whatever one does late morning in Spain.  Then, I’ll drive for a very short way BACK into France at Bourg-Madame and have a nice lunch.  Maybe a Croque Madame in Bourg-Madame…then back to Spain and Barcelona Airport, where I will fly to Paris for the night.  Before flying back to Hawaii.

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So, are you lost yet?  So far we’ve done:

Day 1:  DCA-San Francisco-Hawaii – Overnight Honolulu

Day 2:  Day in Honolulu, and Honolulu-DC redeye

Day 3:  All day in DC where I hope to have brunch with friends, play some hockey, before the redeye DC-Paris

Day 4:  Paris-Barcelona, drive in my little Smart Car to Andorra

Day 5:  Drive Andorra to France to Llívia, Spain for coffee, to Bourg-Madame, France for lunch, to Barcelona, Spain for a flight to Paris, France where I’ll spend the night, get a great meal hopefully and maybe some drinks with friends.

Whew.  Because next up is:

Day 6:  Paris-San Francisco-Honolulu, and dinner in Honolulu

Day 7:  Honolulu-San Francisco-Vegas

Day 8-9-10:  Vegas.  What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Day 11:  Vegas-Houston-DC

I’m already tired, and the trip hasn’t started.  If I pack strategically, I can take a suitcase to Honolulu on Day 1, with everything I’ll need in Vegas, and leave it there to be picked up on Day 6.  Of course, if I forget anything, I have 10 hours (random) in DC on Day 3 to pick up anything I forgot…plus pack a weekend bag for Paris and Andorra, lol

This is crazy.  I’m insane.  But you’re going to read it…admit it…  😉