Nov 132017
 

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old cannon in front of the Union Buildings:

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

The Union Buildings:

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

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

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

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

Sep 142017
 

After landing in Cape Town, I realized that on all of my previous trips I had had someone else in charge of the planning (be it family, work, etc) so I’d never really had to think how I would get to where I was going. No problem, pulled up Uber, directions to the meeting point were very clear, and had a great drive to my hotel with a very friendly driver from Zimbabwe. We had a great chat about how Harare has changed over the past decade or so, and like many Uber rides all over the world it was a great insight into immigrants working hard to make a living in a new country.

Arrived at my usual hotel in Cape Town – the Westin – and was upgraded to a junior suite which was a bit less impressive than previous stays. It was more than fine for one night, but it had been barely a year since my last stay at this property and I was surprised at the complete turnover in staff. My last stay I had booked several hundred room nights for an event, and gotten to know the staff quite well, so was surprised in this short time that everything had completely changed.

Unfortunately, that also included the stunning Executive Lounge with views of Table Mountain. The lounge was closed for renovations, and there were very vague instructions from the reception about alternate arrangements. Unfortunate, as my last stay at this property had made it one of my very favourite SPGs in the world, and now it was decidedly average. Nothing at all wrong, but just didn’t stand out.

After a super quick nap (still tired from the redeye from Brazil) my pre-arranged driver and guide picked me up for a guided hike up Lion’s Head Peak. I was lucky today, as there was absolutely nobody else on the tour, so it would be a solo hike with just me and the guide. My guide today was Nathan from Hike Lion’s Head – who was a fantastic guide the whole way.

Given the accident I had had with the car just two days prior in Argentina, I was taking things a bit slow, and given the rain and slippery rocks I wasn’t keep to be moving too fast. After heading up the peak a bit, we stopped for a gorgeous view over Camp’s Bay:

Looking up at the peak of Lion’s Head:

Towards the water as the sun set:

Amazing sunset views of Table Mountain, with the “tablecloth” of clouds covering the top:

We spent a couple hours on the hike, and Nathan was a fantastic guide – especially one on one. Sure, you could definitely do this hike on your own, but given the pricing it was great not to have to worry about transfers and to get a local perspective. Especially after sleeping on a plane the night before and doing the hike jetlagged and a slight bit injured. Highly recommend Nathan to anyone else looking for a hike up either Lion’s Head or Table Mountain!

As we arrived back at the car, a great view of Cape Town just after sunset:

Since I wasn’t interested in a tea or anything before the hike, Nathan insisted we stop at a local restaurant for what he promised was an amazing white hot chocolate. Unfortunately they were out this evening, but the regular hot chocolate was also amazing, and hit the spot after a great chilly hike in light rain.

After getting back to the hotel and showering up, I grabbed the complimentary Westin shuttle to the V&A waterfront to get some dinner. I felt like I needed some serious protein, so headed to the City Grill for some game for dinner. Of course I went with the giant grilled mixed venison skewer…

I apologize in advance for the damage I did to Noah’s Ark….but it was delicious!

I still wasn’t tired, thanks to it only being like 6pm in Brazil, so decided to check out what the local craft beer scene had been up to in the year since I was last in Cape Town. At Nathan’s recommendation I took an Uber to Beerhouse, which had an amazing selection of South African craft beer on tap. I seriously had no idea there were so many craft beers even coming out of South Africa yet!

Of course I had to have the 12 O’Clock wheel of samples…

After sleeping in a bit the next morning, I grabbed an Uber up to Truth Coffee for breakfast. Unfortunately, the nitro potion coffee machine wasn’t working today…

So, I had to settle for the regular cold brew potion coffee. I love the old-fashioned grinders:

A bit of delicious Eggs Benedict to go with the bottle of potion coffee:

Full of a delicious breakfast – and a couple of potion coffees – I decided a walk was in order so walked over to the Bo Kaap neighbourhood to enjoy the bright houses. With the bright blue sky after a light rain, it was a perfect contrast for some photos today:

Got back to the Westin just in time to check out after a long walk, and grabbed another Uber to the airport. Uber was fantastic in Cape Town, and I can’t wait to get back for a much longer visit again soon.

Check in was easy, but for some reason every flight to Johannesburg seemed to be running super late this afternoon. There was no explanation for it, but fortunately my flight seemed to be one of the least delayed. After a quick security experience, it was up to the South African lounge to wait out the delay.

Strangest combination of lounge food offerings anywhere in the world. Marshmallows, blue cheese, pumpkin, feta, and olives. That said, it was quite a tasty snack.

As I was waiting, I was my plane eventually taxi by, so it was time to head down to the gate to board, fortunately only about an hour late.

I’m not sure why, but every time I’ve taken an afternoon Cape Town to Johannesburg flight it’s been filled with loud Americans complaining about everything in South Africa. I know this flight connects to many of SAA’s flights to the US, but it always seems there’s next to no local traffic. Today, we were also joined by at least a dozen people in business class connecting on Delta to Atlanta, who were complaining that South African would be responsible for them missing their flight to Atlanta. Sigh.

South African Airways flight 346
Cape Town, South Africa (CPT) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 15:10, Arrive 17:05, Flight Time: 1:55
Airbus A340-300, Registration ZS-SXD, Manufactured 2005, Seat 16G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 81,903
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,458,880

Flight was completely full due to the delays, and a sandwich was offered as a snack. I decided the veg option was safer than mystery meat, and it was a cheese pita which was actually relatively tasty:

Landed in Jo’Burg around 630pm, and rather than deal with the Gautrain I decided to see how Uber would do to the hotel. Once again, pickup was super quick, reasonably priced, and a great option. Arrived at my hotel – the Hyatt Rosebank – barely 30 minutes later just in time to check in and enjoy the tail end of happy hour in the executive lounge.

Nearly 20 years ago on my first visit to Africa this was the hotel that I stayed at, and over the years so much has changed but some has also stayed the same. The hotel doesn’t seem to hold the glamour of 20 years ago, but I’m not sure how much of that is me as a jaded traveler now and how much of it is the property simply being much older.

That said, the executive lounge is still quite nice, but I’m not sure it’s worth the value for the money any longer unless it’s a complimentary benefit.

Why is that? Well to me the value is in the happy hour (which there’s a 50-50 chance I will miss anyways) and the breakfast. Unless the lounge breakfast is absolutely stunning, I’m usually going to skip it when there’s a relatively new Starbucks right around the corner from the hotel. The first in South Africa. Justin….close enough!

The Starbucks made for fascinating people watching. I’ve been to Starbucks now in probably 30-40 different countries at a minimum, and there was something about this one that still felt much more local and unique. It was an interesting mix of young professionals, students, but surprisingly almost no tourists at all. You can go anywhere in the world and find Starbucks full of American tourists, so it was a bit surprising to see none at all here. Then again, there really aren’t many (if any) tourists in Johannesburg anyways!

Had a bit of time in the morning, so caught the Gautrain over to Sandton for a bit of walking through Mandela Square:

Mandela Square…one of these things is not like the other…

Caught the Gautrain back to the hotel, where I grabbed lunch with a friend before packing up and heading to the airport. It had been a very short two days in South Africa, but given my year away I was really craving the time back. I really need to make a point to get back for a couple of weeks sooner rather than later!

Now, it was back to the airport to get read for my first south Indian Ocean crossing…to Australia!

Jun 252015
 

As I mentioned in my previous post, booking two days before the trip I didn’t have a lot of choice on getting to Beijing. I was finding economy fares that were super high, and looked like a middle seat was the best we would do, or we could do business for about twice the price. It remains the single most expensive round-trip ticket I’ve ever purchased for personal use, but like I said I felt like this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Plus, being in North Korea for less than 72 hours I wanted to be as rested as possible to try and maximize the experience.

Unfortunately, I don’t really remember the details on the flight in great detail, but thanks to my notes I can at least reproduce some of it. Plus, this will be a bit of nostalgia for the good old days before Jeff’s cost-cutting.

Continental Airlines flight 1104
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart ??:??, Arrive ??:?? Flight Time: Approximately 1 hour
Boeing 737-500, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 2F

Unfortunately, don’t remember much about this flight. It was a morning flight, so can pretty much guarantee I enjoyed a diet coke and not much else. I remember when Continental used to run 737s from DCA to EWR…and they were always packed. What happened?!

Enjoyed the Presidents Club in Newark, and soon it was time to board our flight to Beijing. I remember at the time thinking Continental BusinessFirst was a really big deal, and remember it being something like a six or seven course experience. Those days, well, they’re long gone!

Continental Airlines flight 89
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Beijing, China (PEK)
Depart ??:??, Arrive ??:?? Flight Time: ??
Boeing 777-200, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 10A

I remember this flight being about 80% full in business, but the back mini cabin (I think there used to be five rows in the front cabin, and rows 8-10 were in a separate mini cabin) was less than half full. We had plenty of room to stretch out in our old-school barcaloungers.

For some reason, I didn’t take a pic of the soup, appetizer, salad, or any of the starters, but these were the days service in BusinessFirst was better than anything Jeff gives us in “First” on United these days.

Apparently, I had some chicken and veg for a main, and this reminds me how Continental used to plate the veg and starch from the trolly. Potatoes? Rice? They had multiple options, and you can fully customize the meal. Not sure what’s in the small bowl at the top, but I remember the Château le Gordon being much better than recent vintage Château le Jeff!

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Good to know I didn’t miss the ice cream sundae, though I’m not too sure why there’s Kahlua in the pic since I can’t remember ever going through a Kahlua phase. I’m glad to see four cherries though, I’d be disappointed if there weren’t multiples!

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Then I slept. I remember it being a pretty good amount, probably 4-6 hours. Cabin shot here with me enjoying the view out the window. You can see just how empty the back two rows of business were:

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Landed, immigration was a piece of cake, and even getting a taxi to our hotel, the Grand Hyatt Beijing, was a piece of cake. We checked in mid-afternoon, and decided to use the little time we had to do a bit of exploring since we hadn’t been to Beijing before and would only have one evening before the flight to North Korea.

Looking jetlagged in front of the Forbidden Palace:

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Changing of the guard ceremony:

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Forbidden Palace all lit up at dusk:

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For dinner, we walked to the Quanjude duck restaurant. Don’t know how we found it, but they had a counter that indicated they’d served more than 15 million ducks since they opened:

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Our duck, being hygienically carved up table-side…it was absolutely delicious with all the sides, and the waiter showed us how to plate it up and eat it all together.

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Promptly crashed for at least eight hours, and was up way too early. Found Starbucks (do you doubt my abilities to find them, even back them?) and wandered the city just a little longer. Found a countdown to the Beijing Olympics, which were still three years away at that point:

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The Grand Hyatt:

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Then, it was time to taxi to the airport and meet up with our group from Koryo Tours for the flight to Pyongyang!

Feb 072015
 

Woke up way too early, had a nice light breakfast in the exec lounge and headed down to the Gautrain to head back to OR Tambo Airport. The airport line of the Gautrain doesn’t go to Rosebank, so had to take the train one stop to Sandton, go down the escalators, and change to an airport train. Nice and easy, and only a two minute wait for the train, so it was very smooth. I’d budgeted an hour to get from the hotel to the airport, but ended up taking barely 30 minutes.

Check-in for Airline is way over in Terminal B, practically halfway to Mozambique. The irony is, once checked in, you have to walk all the way back over to Terminal A for departures. Logical? No. But somehow, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I guess I was already getting in the Africa mindset a bit and accepting that sometimes (often) things just don’t make any sense.

Security had only one line open, so was about a 15 minute wait to get through. Off to the SAA Business Lounge, for a light pre-departure chocolate muffin and espresso:

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Walking to the gate past some of the shops…oh, good, I’d forgotten my zebra pelt at home so it’s a good thing the airport had them for sale!

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View out onto the tarmac:

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Down the escalator to the bus gates. My gate was swarming with Mormon missionaries. One started chatting me up and asked “what does YOUR church believe in?” Um, no thanks, not interested in a chat. I was tempted to explain the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to her, but didn’t feel like it was worth the effort 😉

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Boarded our bus, and when there were 29 people on board (which exactly matched the seatmap on Expertflyer – it appears for SAA/affiliates at least Expertflyer is completely accurate up until departure) we were off to the plane.

Airlink flight 8252
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Antananarivo, Madagascar (TNR)
Depart 10:00, Arrive 14:10, Flight Time 3:10
Avro ARJ-85 Regional Jet, Registration ZS-ASY, Manufactured 1997, Seat 3F

Business and economy seats on the ARJ-85 were exactly the same, just with a small moveable divider between them. The plane was a 2-3 config with four rows/20 seats in business. Only five were occupied today. I was beginning to wonder if anyone flies on SAA regional flights, as there were only 24 people for about 50 economy seats too. View after takeoff:

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There’s not too many ways you can do towel service – hot or cold, with or without tongs, maybe some lemon squeezed on them, but this was definitely a new way of handing people cold towels:

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Post-takeoff beverages – water and red wine:

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Meal choices were beef strips and chili sauce, or chicken strips and sweet chili sauce. Both were cold. I went with the chicken and it was actually pretty tasty. The pasta salad was good too, and I actually ate all of it. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for something containing mayonnaise on a plane, which usually scares me. Oh, and the berry mousse dessert was fantastic as well. Overall, a rather impressive meal for a short regional flight.

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Landing cards were passed out, which were actually small booklets containing a bit of information on the country as well:

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View out my window on approach:

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Immigration was a mess. There were a few lines, but none of them were marked, so it was completely unclear who was supposed to go where. There was a visa on arrival window, but it listed 0-30 days as free, so I went to the other window, where I was directed to a third window. There were about 20 agents at this third window, and it was unclear who was doing one. First one asked for my onward ticket, ok….then passport…then what was I going to do. She handed my passport to another person, who looked at it, looked at me, and then handed it to a third person. He looked at it, paged through it, and handed it to a fourth person…who didn’t even look at it and handed it to a fifth person. Number Five put it in a stack, so Number Six could stamp it. When he’d stamped it, Number Seven added another stamp….and I was off. Well, that was entertaining…

My driver and guide from Jean Be Tours were waiting for me in the arrivals area and we went to the car to do paperwork. Lots of paperwork. Sign this, read that, stamp stamp stamp, more things to sign, explained the detailed itinerary to me. It was definitely the most legalistic tour I’d ever been on, with everything documented, stamped, and signed. Not sure if this is a government requirement, or just how this company operates.

Then, we were off on the very long drive to my hotel. I’d originally booked the Hotel Carlton but when I found out that it has rather poor internet I looked at other options. Turned out a friend from DC happened to be in town at the same time (what are the odds!) and was staying at the IBIS, so I decided to give that a try for my first night. I could always switch to the Carlton for my second night if I chose to. Some scenes from the drive to the hotel….selling meat and sausages on the side of the road:

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Vegetables for sale:

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There had been very heavy rains most of the day, and the streets were pretty flooded:

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Finally got to the hotel, where I hadn’t made a reservation, but I had confirmed online that there were rooms. No problem, they found my corporate rate, and rooms were a full 50 Euros cheaper than the Carlton as well. Got to the room and was pleasantly surprised at it, so looked like I’d made the right choice!

Met my friend for a drink and caught up for a bit before heading out for dinner. I generally try and avoid hotel restaurants as much as possible so looked online (and on google maps) for what might be near. There was an “Italian” place called Au Stade about 900 meters away which got good reviews, so off I went. Then it started raining. Then there were no sidewalks. Then there were no streetlights. Either I would eventually get there, or I would be abducted by lemurs in the process. Fortunately, after about a 15 minute walk I found the restaurant, where I was one of three tables.

Reviews online raved about the lasagna, but decided I was a bit hungrier so went with a pizza which was actually pretty good. Along with two large bottles of THB – “Three Horses Beer.” Pretty grim beer, but went well with the pizza.

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For dessert, the Crêpe Surprise….what was the surprise? Turned out to be bananas and honey. With a bit of vanilla ice cream it was rather tasty!

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Large pizza, dessert, and two beers was 40,000 francs including a small tip, or about $15. It was quickly becoming pretty obvious that Madagascar isn’t exactly a very expensive destination. Fueled by beer the walk to the hotel wasn’t as bad, plus the streets had completely emptied out so there weren’t nearly as many people (or traffic) to content with plus the rain had stopped. Quick walk back and passed out tired from a very long day, plus…I had to be up early to head to the National Park in the morning to go nature walking!

Dec 092013
 

So, I had a weekend in Dushanbe, and the good fortune to have a seasonably unusual heatwave….highs reached 22-24C which for late November was way above normal.  The one bad thing about the Hyatt as a hotel is location.  It’s a good mile out of the edge of the main city, which means you’re more or less trapped there in the evenings.  I’ll get to the hotel a bit more later, but on Saturday I got up relatively early and ended up walking 14 miles all around Dushanbe.  It was a great day for walking, even though the sites…well not a ton to see.  I’m going to give the highlights, mainly in photo form:

Statue outside the national museum:

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Entrance of the National Museum:

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Another statue outside the National Museum:

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Jun 062013
 

Got to the hotel around 430am, the Hyatt Regency Bishkek:

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Guess this is as good of a place as any to start the hotel review…since I had problems from the very start.  Check-in was quick, up to my room, and it was roasting.  AC and blower weren’t working.  Call down to front desk and ask to switch rooms, “no, we are full, I will send someone up.”  The maintenance guy fiddled with it for 30 minutes and couldn’t get it to turn on either, and then I elevated and demanded a manager.  He still said there’s no rooms, blah blah blah.  I threw a mild fit.  Well, look there, there’s a room on the Executive Floor.  Funny how that worked out!  An hour after arriving, around 5:30am, I passed out…and didn’t wake up until nearly 2pm.

But, back to the hotel.  The staff was friendly the entire time, although I didn’t have a ton of interaction with them.  The perk of the new room was executive lounge access, but it was nothing to get excited about.  A nice espresso machine and cookies (?) in the morning, but in the evening they put out quite a nice snack display with meats, cheeses, etc, and free beverages.  I was allowed to bring my colleague in as well, so that was a nice perk.

Other than that, we really didn’t use any hotel facilities.  We had one drink in the bar which tried really hard to be cool, but weren’t overly impressed with it.  There was an in-house travel agent, who was fantastic and managed to book us a daytrip for the next day at around 9pm – impressive, and more on that later.

The room was comfy enough, and no complaints about the bed or room temp once I got a room where the AC worked.  It was plenty quiet, and my room had a huge shower and tub in it.  I would say the paying the extra $20 or so for the deluxe room upgrade was way worth it – it was double the size of the standard rooms plus had a king bed.  Overall, no question this is THE place to stay in Bishkek.

So, woke up at 2pm, and decided to go for a stroll.  I’ll go through the sites pretty quickly, and I didn’t see all of these the first day….since I had the weekend to recover.  But, going to post them all now regardless.

We’ll start right next to the Hyatt with the national opera and ballet:

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A short walk away was the Dom Soyuzov, a very cool Soviet-era building:

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Continue reading »