Sep 112017
 


Arrived at my hotel, the Marriott Renaissance, just before 11pm. Fantastic check-in, and found out that they had upgraded me to a junior suite. Before the SPG/Marriott merger, Marriott would have been far down my list of choices in most cases since I tried to stick with SPG hotels, and if there aren’t any convenient ones then I would chose Hilton properties. With Marriott giving status to SPG holders, they’ve now become my #2 choice, and this hotel delivered!

After dropping my bags in my room, headed down to the bar to get a drink, but unfortunately they were just closing. Headed back to the front desk, where the helpful agent who checked me in was still working. “Is everything good with the room?” “Yes, but I was hoping to get a beer before bed – is there anywhere else around here that I can get one?” He told me not to worry, and asked if he could send some up to my room.

15 minutes later, this arrived. Three Brazilian craft beers in a bucket of ice. This hotel was impressing me already!

After sleeping in a bit in the morning, I opened the windows to see that the cool, misty, rainy weather of Buenos Aires and Santiago with temps in the 60s had been replaced with a gorgeous day in Sao Paulo. They’d also been having temperatures on the cool side – hovering around 70F, but today was an exception and it was a gorgeous 80F and almost no humidity. This would be a great day for walking around!

I had missed breakfast in the exec lounge since I slept in, so I stopped at the Starbucks right around the corner from the hotel to get some coffee and pães de queijo for breakfast.

I had never spent any time in Sao Paulo on previous trips, so was looking forward to walking around and enjoying the city a bit. I hadn’t planned it this way, but couldn’t have planned it better if I did. On Sundays, Avenida Paulista, one of the main roads through the city shuts down to traffic and becomes pedestrian only. My hotel was at one end of it, the weather was gorgeous, and it was one of those travel coincidences where everything just works out. Time for a long walk!

Just outside the hotel, a local Metal band was performing….

Starting the stroll southeast on Avenida Paulista…

Crowd gathering to watch some performers…

After about an hour or so of walking, I came to the Japan House near the southeast end of Paulista. Really cool architecture:

It was a bit after noon by this point, and with the gorgeous weather if felt like the whole city was out enjoying it. After years of hearing that Sao Paulo was a boring business city with no soul, today was proving that nothing could be farther from the truth!

After three to four hours of walking, and another coffee, I took a walk in a different direction down Rua Frei Caneca. It was still close to the hotel, but less international chains and felt a bit more authentic. Lots of smaller local roadside bars and shops, and fascinating people watching. After about an hour, the sun was setting, so I retreated back to the hotel after a very long day of walking. Just what the jetlag needed, and just what my hip needed after the encounter with the car the day before.

Headed to the executive lounge, which was absolutely teeming with people. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a packed executive lounge at any hotel anywhere in the world. The only table I could find was a large one with about six seats, and when a small group asked if they could join me I figured I’d meet some interesting people….however, they turned out to be a group of American flight attendants who had just flown in.

Mentioned to them how interesting I’d found the city, and got lots of tips for how to return to Sao Paulo standby, which was great since I now have a ten year visa!

Caipirinhas, chocolate mouse, cheese, and other small munchies. You could easily make a dinner out of the spread in this lounge!

It was such an interesting chat, and being Sunday night I wasn’t too in the mood to head out late, plus I was pretty full from the lounge food, so after it closed I just headed down to the lobby bar to people watch. I forget the name of the small local appetizer the bartender recommended:

Another great night of sleep, and up to wander for a few more hours before heading to the airport for my inaugural south Atlantic crossing. My main stop for the morning would be the Havianas flagship store for two reasons: 1) it would let me walk through some new neighbourhoods, and 2) I hoped to maybe find some fun/local designs.

Look at all those electrical cables on the street!

On the way, the Jet Lag pub. Looked closed, or I feel like I would have had to go in just to check it out. Something to add to the list for my return trips!

No luck at the Havianas store, just didn’t find anything that really interested me. The store was on Rua Oscar Freire, which clearly was one of the poshest streets in the city. Lots of fancy cars, super high end designer shops, and the whole area felt distinctively unlike the other parts I’d already seen. I got the feeling I could spend weeks in this city, exploring different neighbourhoods, and keep having interesting new experiences!

I still had a couple hours left, so on the recommendation of a friend grabbed an Uber (which worked really well in Sao Paulo, for future reference) to Hotel Unique which was supposed to have amazing views of the expansive skyline of the city.

Once I got there, it was a bit difficult figuring out how to get to the roof….but essentially it involved walking all the way through the lobby, out the back door, to another set of (heavily guarded) elevators, which would take you up to the roof.

Once there, I managed to find a seat outside, and it was a pretty awesome view…swimming pool, skyline…

View of the skyline. The city keeps going, and going…

Wasn’t really too hungry yet, and knew I’d probably get plenty to eat on the flight and in the lounge, so decided to just have a caipirinha and enjoy the view…

One more shot of the pool and skyline. Had to actually move seats after a little bit to get out of the sun before getting burned!

One more view of the pool:

It was getting to be time to head to the airport, so caught an Uber back to the hotel, showered and packed up, and caught another Uber to the airport. Love this picture I snapped out the uber window of a pet store:

With that, it was off to the airport, and time to cross the South Atlantic for the first time!

Jul 312016
 

Upon arrival, I looked for the driver who had my name on a sign board, but couldn’t find him. Not knowing the taxi situation in Novosibirsk, coupled with the fact we were supposed to arrive just after midnight, I ordered the “business sedan transfer” offered on the S7 website when I booked. For 12 euros a driver was supposed to meet me, and take me to my hotel. Finally found him after 10 minutes (he was slightly late) and we were off through very dark roads to the city.

One thing that immediately struck me, was that for the third biggest city in Russia (according to some sources) and definitely the largest east of  the Urals, it was dark. Very dark. There were a good number of buildings, but it just struck me as very very dark. Arrived at my hotel just after midnight, the Marriott Novosibirsk. They wanted a bit over $100 a night for the stay, but I got it for an absolute steal on points. This hotel is a fantastic value!

Check in was quick and polite with decent English spoken, but the weirdest part was the insistance that they had to photocopy every page of my passport for “local border region security services.” Definitely a new one – I’ve never experienced this anywhere else in Russia – but I didn’t really have any room to complain. Fortunately, this passport was filled with relatively boring stamps. 😉

The hotel had reached out to me a few days before the stay to ask if there was anything they could do to make the stay extra special, so I mentioned I was coming back for the first time in over 25 years, and looked forward to seeing how the city had changed. Oh, and any upgrade they could give would be appreciated 😉 I certainly didn’t expect this huge corner suite:

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Odd layout with bed on the middle of the room, with a mini wall separating it from the living room area:

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Huge shower cube:

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Plus a tub and double sink:

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To top it off, they had left some brownie bites, chocolates, macarons, tea service, and a bottle of wine for me, well done!

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Didn’t end up making it to bed until nearly 2:30 given the time change, but no problem. I slept in until nearly 11, and then grabbed tea in the lobby (included with the suite upgrade) before heading out for a walk around the city. First stop was right near the hotel, the Novosibirsk Opera House. It’s the largest Opera House in Russia (bigger than the Bolshoi in Moscow) but unfortunately, there were no performances going on while I was there:

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The opera is located on the Lenin Square, which still has not been renamed, and has great statues:

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…including Lenin himself:

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Workers of the world, unite!

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I then headed down Krasnij Prospekt, or Red Avenue…surprisingly still quite a number of symbols and names from Soviet days remaining in Novosibirsk. Stopped at the Chapel of St Nicholas, which is said to sit at the geographic centre of the old Soviet Union:

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After walking another hour or so, I decided to stop for lunch when I came upon a place called “Pivofactory” – literally translated as beer factory. I had a seat and asked for a menu, and was told “nope, we only have the business lunch menu now.” Sure, why not…when in Novosibirsk…

I was asked if I wanted dark or light beer, and I went with the dark. First the schci (cold soup) came out with cilantro, radishes, potatoes, cabbage in broth along with a salad of shredded cabbage, cucumbers, more radishes and vinegar along with the beer in a mini boot and a bag of bread. This was a ton of food!

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Basket of bread:

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…but wait, there’s more! Mystery steak (somewhat like salisbury steak) with a BBQ sauce and mixed vegetables…and a nicely garnished plate sprinkled with paprika: …I also asked to try the light beer, which they were happy to bring:

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Grand total for all that food plus the second beer? Just over US$7. What a bargain! Kept walking, and was surprised at an intersection to see another of my favourite Washingtonians…Alex Ovechkin, peering down from a billboard:

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You can see how wet the ground is. There were periodic sprinkles and downpours all afternoon, in between which there would be sunny skies. During one downpour I decided it was a good time to check out the metro system. Took a ride to the end of the line, and found out the KHL Sibir hockey rink wasn’t far away. Thanks to google maps I managed to figure out which bus would take me there, and piece of cake I was able to get on. I had no idea how the busses worked but it was a piece of cake. Each stop a lady would come around selling tickets, super easy!

According to the website the rink had a fan shop, so I did a walk around looking for it. First, came upon the team bus. Given the location of Novosibirsk, I can’t imagine they drive to too many games:

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After a bit of wandering, someone finally asked what I was looking for. Told him, and it turned out he was the team equipment manager. He brought me inside, and showed me around the rink. It was much smaller than I expected:

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The “team store” turned out to be a glass display case with a few pieces of merchandise in it, but I did manage to pick up a t-shirt and hat at least. Banner outside the rink – you can see it sits right in the middle of a residential neighbourhood – “Sibir Hockey Club – Novosibirsk State”

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Full view of the rink:

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Then, it was time to head back into the metro and ride a bit more. It wasn’t as fancy as the Moscow metro, but still really cool to see:

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There was a station called Gagarinskaya – after Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin, so I had to get off and take a themed pic of the station. You can’t see it well in the picture, but it’s a lit up pic of Gargarin in the circle:

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Got off at the station near the Ob river, and walked out onto the bridge. Unfortunately, there was really no good place to take a picture, but this was the best I was able to do:

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After a bit more walking around, I was getting really warm (it was nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit and humid!) I headed back into the metro. Note the murals of Lenin still in the station:

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I guess that was fitting, since the station near the hotel was called Lenin Square:

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After a bit of a rest at the hotel (the hotel doesn’t have a lounge, but has this weird arrangement where half the lobby cafe/bar is set aside for breakfasts and happy hour for club room guests. They had several snacks, and the staff was quite pleased to see I was willing to eat local pickled fish and other local foods along with a couple of rather poor local beers.

Finally headed out for some dinner. Many years ago, when I studied near Novosibirsk in high school, there was a pelmeni eating contest sponsored by the local Young Pioneers chapter. Pelmeni are a dumpling that is common in the region, filled with diced mixed meats. Needless to say, given the fact I won the championship 25 years and there was a whole restaurant for pelmeni, I had to go there. On top of it, it was called Beerman and Pelmeni…how could I go wrong!

They had several different kinds on the menu, but I decided to go with the “pick any three” sampler. I have to say the beer menu was a bit of a let down, but the pelmeni were great. I had one that was mixed beef and lamb, the black ones are squid ink filled with calamari, and the final one I think was called the Novosibirsk with onions and lamb, it was delicious, but unfortunately I’ve lost a bit of my touch – wasn’t able to finish them all:

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After a good night’s sleep, headed down for breakfast in the lobby. Lots of fresh fruit, croissant and nutella, boiled eggs, local cheese, and pickled mushrooms with fish. Quite tasty!

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Unfortunately my visit to Novosibirsk could only be for two nights due to the change in plans. With one more night I would have loved to go out to the small town of Akademgorodok where I studied and see how things have changed. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have recognized anything at all! All too soon it was time to head off to the airport, and begin the onward trip…

Jul 262014
 

Woke up again at 630am after another solid 8+ hours of sleep feeling fantastic and went back to Rituals coffee for breakfast. Another great triple iced espresso, but instead of the bagel sandwich today they had amazing double chocolate chocolate chip muffins….yum!

Met Jeff in the lobby again, and Dive St Kitts picked us up right on time for another morning of diving. When we got to the shop, we learned we were the only two people diving today so we could get going as soon as all the gear was set up. Sweet!

Out first dive site was called “The Rocks” and the coolest feature is that the last couple of months a reef shark had been hanging around the site, and we’d try and find it. Strategy was to try and find a lionfish to spear, and then dump it on the ground and wait for the shark to smell blood. The dive was in a fairly narrow “channel” between two reefs, and dropped from about 50 feet where we entered to about 75 feet further down where we turned around and swam back on top of the reef.

It didn’t take long to find a spear a lionfish, and no sooner was the divemaster chopping it up, than this guy started circling:

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A couple of slow circles around us and the dead lionfish, and he darted in a snapped it up and swam away.  For maybe the next 5-10 minutes he followed us around as we swam down the reef, probably hoping we’d feed him another easy meal.  Laziest shark ever!

Along the reef:

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Jul 232014
 

The day started early. Very early. So early it might still have counted as the previous night…I’m not entirely certain. What I am certain of is that I’d had lots of caffeine quite late in the afternoon, and getting up in time to not only make a 6am flight…but in time to check luggage for one, was not likely to be a whole lot of fun. Even though I’m only about 2 miles from the airport, by the time I manage to get an Uber, etc etc, it still takes time…and with the 45 minute baggage cutoff, there was no way I wasn’t leaving at least 90 minutes before the flight…and that meant getting up at least two hours before…yes, 4am. NO THANKS.

I’m still not sure why I didn’t just fly American one-stop via Miami instead of United. It was a paid business ticket anyways, so it’s not like I had any particular reason to give Uncle Jeff my money…oh well, lesson learnt. Oh, and did I mention I had managed to leave myself a 70 minute connection in San Juan? Add that to the fact that upon check-in I learnt United doesn’t have an interline agreement with Seaborne…and I was looking to be screwed. No way I would get my checked bags, find out where Seaborne is located (turns out, in a different terminal) and check my luggage…while still making it to the gate on time…in 70 minutes. Yeah. Not one of my brighter travel decisions.

Despite having access to the 1K/elite/whatever line at DCA, it took me more than 20 minutes to get to an agent.  United was woefully understaffed this morning, and something as simple as checking a bag as a top-tier elite should not take 20 minutes.  Ever.  Fortunately, there was no line at TSA PreCheck, and I made it to the gate just as we were about to board.

United Express, Operated by Skywest, flight 5249
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 6:00, Arrive 7:00, Flight Time 2:00
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N113SY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2A

Skywest just recently started flying this route for United Express, and their E175s are a dream for elites.  Only about 75 seats total, of which 12 are in F, giving them probably the best upgrade chances in the fleet.  I was on a paid business fare today, and until four days before the flight was the only one in the first cabin.  By takeoff, there were three uniformed pilots, and all the other seats were taken as well.  My usual shot of the Pentagon upon takeoff:

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I’d made the incredibly risky decision not to have any coffee before the flight in the hopes I might catch a little extra sleep.  Anyone who’s seen my pre-caffeinated in the morning will understand the risks we’re talking here.  Fortunately, shortly after that Pentagon pic, I completely passed out and managed another hour of sleep.

Into gate B20 at Chicago, and my departing flight was from the C gates.  We were a little early, so no huge rush and I decided to stop at Starbucks.  Now, Starbucks rarely gets my name right.  I’ve been Justin, Jasmin, Jensen, Jackson, you name it, but rarely Jason.  Today, they were really butchering names, and I have no idea how they pulled this one off.  If it wasn’t for the “grande in a venti cup extra ice” I would have assumed it was someone else’s:

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Happily beginning to caffeinate, made it to the gate with plenty of time to spare:

United flight 1688
Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU)
Depart 8:10, Arrive 13:55, Flight Time 4:45
Boeing 737-900, Registration N69818, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2E

Pre-departure beverage was a Coke Zero with lime…mainly to test if they had limes…which they did!  I’m not sure what I was thinking on the caffeine front (probably the Starbucks hadn’t quite hit yet so I wasn’t thinking) but I was bouncing off the walls by the end of this.

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Breakfast choices?  “Scrambled eggs” or the “Giant Plate o Carbs.”  Eggs on planes scare me, so I decided to go with the carbs.  Carbs, carbs, and even more carbs.  I think I’m about to go into a diabetic coma just looking at this pic….and yes, there was more Coke Zero.

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There was no way I was getting any more sleep after all that caffeine, so I stayed up and finished off season 2 of House of Cards.  There was a dedication plaque

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Feb 232014
 

One problem I was having when booking this trip was the price of rental cars. They were absolutely outrageous, coming in at well over $100 a day for a compact car. Ugh, and that was on the cheapest sites. I spent some time on google, and eventually came across Discount Hawaii Car Rental dot com. Checked their rates…and it seemed too good to be true…plus they weren’t even asking for a credit card to confirm it!  I booked, they told me it had been booked with Alamo, and I checked Alamo’s website…and it was there.  Wow.

Fast forward to Kona, and I get to Alamo to pick up the car.  As promised, it was a two door jeep, and the price was as promised as well.  Wow…score another win for teh interwebz!

Short 20ish minute drive, and we were at our hotel, the Kona Sheraton.  Parking was an absolute bear, with no spots at all in the lot.  Eventually I just gave up and gave the car to the valet…which turned out to be good, because when I checked in it turned out valet was complimentary for Starwood Platinum members.  Something they should probably alert you about in advance maybe?

There was good news, however.  We’d been upgraded to an “Ohana Suite” which was an amazing room with an oceanfront view.  Found out one other disappointing thing at check-in:  it was 9:15pm and all the hotel restaurants were already closed.  Seriously, I know it’s a resort and it’s Hawaii, but no food after 9pm?!  We ended up ordering room service (which delivered only until 10) and had two outrageously priced burgers and beers for like $60.  At least they were quite tasty.

Then, it was time to brush the teeth…or so we thought.  Turned on the faucets…and a stream of brown water came out for like 30 seconds.  What is this, Sochi?  I know well enough to avoid “dangerous face water” but it was running clear after a minute, so figured it was at least good enough to shower in.  Called the front desk, they apologized profusely, and sent up several bottles of water for drinking…and then we passed out.

Woke up reasonably early, maybe 8a and the view outside the room of the pools was amazing:

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The hotel had a great little coffee shop/stand, and we grabbed some great kona coffee and small snacks for breakfast.  This is something I wish more hotels had:  a local coffeeshop with great food and drinks so you don’t have to have a giant breakfast in the morning.

The pool looked awesome out our room, so we opted to spend the rest of the morning being completely lazy and sitting by the pool until check-out time.  It was fantastically relaxing and just what I needed to start the trip off.  Yes, I said check-out.  We were in Kona for three nights, but ended up booking each night at a different hotel.  When I booked, the Sheraton was only available the first and last nights, and the King Kam Courtyard was only available the middle night.  Odd, but at least I’d get two Starwood stay credits!

We checked out at exactly noon, and drove to the King Kamehameha Hotel to check in.  It’s right in the middle of the city, and I’d stayed there many times 15+ years ago when I used to go to Kona each fall to volunteer at the Ironman.  The hotel was in much rougher shape than I remembered, but maybe that was partly to do with the lack of the festive atmosphere I remember from Ironman…who knows.  They did give me a free box of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, however, for being a Marriott Gold Member.  Heh. The hotel was so-so and really musty smelling, and I don’t know…I just had really good memories of it and it was a bit of a let down.

Walked to lunch at the Kona Brewing Company, about a 10 minute walk from the hotel:

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Very tasty Cuban sandwich with Kailua Pork, and even tastier samplers:

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