Sep 152017
 

Took the Gautrain to the airport since I had plenty of time given the flight was a relatively late departure and the Hyatt would only let me stay until 4pm. To their credit, they didn’t have to give me a late checkout at all, but when I mentioned I’d been staying at this property for over 20 years despite Hyatt being the one chain I don’t have elite status with, they offered me a 4pm checkout on the condition I continue to say nice things about them. So no more! This is a great way to win loyalty of infrequent guests when you don’t have a bunch of check-ins coming!

Bigger disappointment was when I got to the airport. The check-in line for business class was about 50 people deep, despite it approaching peak hour for long-haul departures. To make matters even worse, there was only ONE desk open, and she was moving at a snail’s pace. Unfortunately, the economy lines looked even worse, with hundreds in line, and most of them having trolleys stacked high with luggage.

Lots of comments of “no wonder they’re going bankrupt” and then all of a sudden, after nearly 30 minutes in line, four more agents appeared from nowhere and opened up all at once. Are you kidding?!

Security was equally annoying, and the agent absolutely refused to let me through with my rolling bag. “It is too big” “it is too heavy” and then he actually held out his hand, and it became clear what he expected. I raised my voice, loud enough so the agents standing around could hear, and said NO, I’M IN BUSINESS CLASS, I’M NOT GOING TO BRIBE YOU JUST TO CARRY MY BAG ON. One of the other agents quickly rushed up and said “business class, please, go right ahead.” It was quite an ugly experience, and frankly quite surprising at Jo’Burg. Ugh.

When I got to the South African lounge, it was absolutely packed as would be expected at this hour, but I managed to find not only a quiet corner with plentiful outlets, but it was in a part of the lounge that also had wonderfully cold air conditioning. Definitely a win!

One of the best parts of this lounge is the super friendly attendants at the bar. Normally I’m slightly annoyed by lounges where you have to get every drink poured for you, but the agents in this lounge are always so friendly that I actually enjoy the interaction. Plus, this lounge always has a cranberry cheese that I absolutely love. I may have had a little more than I should…

Time in the lounge passed quickly, and it gradually emptied out as I was there. Perth is pretty much the last long-haul departure, so by the time I left the lounge was approaching empty.

As I headed to the gate, I had to snap a pic of one of my favourite duty free shops. I wonder if anyone ever buys the 15,000 rand (approx $1,000) zebra pelts that are for sale duty free…

Got to the gate, and we were on the wheelchair express tonight. One thing I didn’t expect were numerous elderly passengers with Zimbabwe passports in the gate area. The sign saying Perth confirmed it…I was going to get my second southern hemisphere trans-oceanic flight!

Boarding was absolutely chaos when it did open, especially because they decided to board wheelchairs and business class at the same time. That didn’t work out so well.

South African Airways flight 280
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Perth, Australia (PER)
Depart 21:15, Arrive 12:20 next day, Flight Time: 9:05
Airbus A340-300, Registration ZS-SXB, Manufactured 2005, Seat 15A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 87,077
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,464,054

South African seat maps are available online right up until departure usually, so I stalked it carefully from the lounge and managed to get myself an empty seat next to me. For business class, I find these seats a bit uncomfortably close together, so having a second one would make for a much more comfortable flight. Plus, double pillows and somewhere to set my bag. Having a bulkhead was just an added bonus!

Welcome aboard champagne and bottled water. Off to a much friendlier start with the crew than the flight from Brazil.

A bit of light reading material. When I was in the lounge, a couple of people were talking about how they had been at the airport the previous day, and there was a temporary lockdown when there was a rumour Grace Mugabe was in the airport trying to covertly flee the country…and her arrest warrant. Oops!

What’s for dinner tonight? Despite the late hour, a rather full meal:

Full breakfast in the morning as well:

After two flights, I’m comfortable saying South African really needs some work in the canapé department. Soggy bread, mushy spreads, it was just very unappetizing.

The duck breast starter was relatively light which was what I wanted, and decently flavourful. It was nice to have something different, even if they didn’t hit a home run with it.

Similarly, I can’t remember the last time I had lamb chops on a plane, completely with old fashioned mint jam. Again, not the tastiest dish I’ve ever had on a plane, but it was a nice change. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised.

Even the cheese course was significantly better tonight. The chevre was a really nice addition!

Pear tort for dessert was nice and small, but super sweet and delicious. Overall, catering out of Johannesburg was significantly better and although I wouldn’t call the meal amazing, it was solid. Definitely can’t criticize them too much this time.

Got about 5.5 hours of good sleep, woke up, brushed teeth, watched some tv on the ipad, and decided to give breakfast a go. The danish was super tasty, and I was trying to figure out what the yellowish disks were as I bit into them…only to finally realize they were the poached eggs. The texture was definitely odd, but with the salsa it worked. I wasn’t that hungry so only pecked at it, but again, for a plane breakfast they did a pretty good job!

Landed in Perth right on time, and immigration was a breeze. I saw an agent instead of using the automated gates, because I wanted a Perth stamp in my passport. Unfortunately, I was imformed there are absolutely no stamps anymore, but enjoy Perth!  Oh well, at least it was quick, and I was from the plane to exit in about 10 minutes and decided to grab an Uber to my hotel, the Four Points Perth.

Had a super friendly and chatty driver, who insisted on telling me about how much Perth has changed in the last 20 years, and I had really missed out by not traveling here sooner. He clearly loved his home town, and was eager to share details with visitors. Definitely a very friendly welcome!

After checking in and grabbing a coffee from the lounge bar and cafe, I decided to head out for a walk. Quick thoughts on the hotel: for a Four Points it was rather nice, and comfortable, and in another city could easily have been a Sheraton. The staff was quite friendly, rooms were a good size (though I must confess they did upgrade me to a junior suite), and I loved having a craft beer bar in the lobby. Definitely felt a bit more “hip” than the average Four Points, and reminded me a little bit of the Four Points in Brisbane. Plus, the location was really nice.

Several people had told me with just one afternoon the thing to do would be to take a walk to Kings Park if it was nice, and enjoy the city from above. With temps about 18C and gorgeous blue skies it was a perfect day for a walk, so off I went. It only looked to be about 2km on the map, but what I didn’t know is a large chunk of that was up the appropriately-named Mount Street which had an average incline of over 7%….for quite a long stretch. That’s one way to burn off the jet lag!

At the top, I was rewarded with a great view of the CBD:

Jacob’s Ladder, a popular staircase built into the side of the mount with lots of locals running laps up and down. From the very fit to the very unfit, everyone was out enjoying the nice day.

Path through King’s Park. Did I mention it was a gorgeous day?

Another view of the CBD from King’s Park:

World War One Memorial in King’s Park:

Boab Tree from well outside Perth. When a road threatened it it was uprooted and very carefully transported all the way to Perth to be planted in the park.

On the walk back, walked by Perth Arena which was packed with families going to see some boy band or another. I beat a quick retreat to my room for a shower, before heading out to get dinner and drinks. Being a weekend night the pubs and restaurants were packed, and I felt like I had stepped back in time a decade or more. It wasn’t quite as bad as Darwin where I felt like I’d stepped back nearly 40 years, but Perth definitely marches to its own beat and definitely doesn’t feel like the year 2017. In a way this was a really nice thing, as it gave the city a really nice unique character and made it more memorable.

One of the best parts of Australia to me is the amazing coffee culture, and I think Australia has some of the best coffeeshops anywhere in the world. So good that I pretty much avoid chains here all together knowing I’ll get something much better at an independent shop. Several sites recommended La Veen Coffee to me, so after a good night’s sleep I headed over to see what trouble I could get into.

Delicious cold brew and eggs benedict hit the spot and was amazing!

Walked around the city for another couple of hours after breakfast, and then it was off to the airport to continue my adventure to Sydney!

May 072017
 

Was nice to sleep in a bit (seriously, what kind of hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 830? that’s kinda awesome) and headed down to meet Ian at breakfast. Only choice offered was coffee or tea, and then breakfast started arriving, one piece at a time. First came porridge, then bread, then a special easter roll, then eggs, then a meat/cheese plate, it was absolutely insane – tried to eat as much as possible not to offend, but it was crazy. Fortunately, they insisted we take the Easter rolls to go, haha. Did I mention how great service was at this hotel?

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We hadn’t booked our driver until 11am, just in case we really needed the sleep, so had a bit of time to walk around in the morning first. First stop was the Ministry of Repatriation to try and get the visa, but nope, we did find a security guard outside who told us they were still closed for Easter – try back tomorrow. Hopefully we could get the visa on the way out of town!

Still had some time, so decided to stop for some “real” coffee at the place we went the day before that made decent ice lattes. On the way, we walked by the somewhat odd “Monument to the Victims of Political Repression.” Looked like a rock with some barbed wire around it…but who am I to judge “art”…

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After coffee, our driver picked us up. There was a new receptionist at the front desk of the hotel today, but the one from the previous day had clearly filled her in. She spoke excellent English as well, and apologized for not only the visa office not being open, but also for the fact our driver did not speak a word of English. No problem at all – free Russian lessons on top of being a driver!

We told him the things we wanted to see, and we were off. First stop was in the town of New Athos (Novij Afon) where the big attraction is the giant cathedral. Unfortunately, it’s in an enclosed courtyard, which makes getting a good picture of the entire thing a little difficult:

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One of the smaller towers around the courtyard:

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Back when I was taking Russian lessons, there were those words in the textbook you never knew you’d have a use for. Like “female crane operator” or “old lady.” Well, this nice old lady was soliciting money outside the monastery, so I had to wish her “good morning, old lady!” She just smiled a (mostly toothless) grin back at me.

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The monastery was located up on a hill overlooking the town and Black Sea:

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Panoramic of the area:

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Cat on a hot monastery ledge:

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The other big sight in town is a really deep cave complex, but unfortunately it was closed on Mondays in the “off season” so we wouldn’t be able to see that. Our driver suggested we go see a waterfall instead:

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Soviet era hydropower station on the waterfall:

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Nice lake at the top of the waterfall:

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Water rushing down from above:

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I am king of the waterfall!

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After the waterfall, our driver said we also had to go see a nice park nearby. Definitely a nice, calm place that you could sit for hours and read a book on a nice day like today:

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…and there were ostriches in the park. Naturally, lol

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We got in the car/van, and had driven no more than a minute from the park when we spotted a guy walking with a bear down the road. No leash, just a guy out walking his bear. Because…Abkhazia. We asked the driver to stop, and we asked the guy if we might take a picture of the bear. Fully expected him to ask for money, but nope, he was just happy to let people see his bear. Look at those claws!

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We asked, and he informed us the bear’s name was Masha. Hi Masha! “Masha and the Bear” was also the name of a popular kid’s tv program in Russia.

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Masha loved having her tummy rubbed too:

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She also took quite a liking to Ian. This was definitely one of the most random travel encounters I’ve ever had. You know, just a guy out walking his bear down the street in the afternoon. We asked him what he would do when she gets bigger, and his response was “oh, I already have a bigger one at home.” Of course you do. Abkhazia.

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We continued the drive north to Gagra, which was up near the border with Russia. Our driver knew an overlook point on the city, so up, up we went for a panoramic view:

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The “beach” in Gagra. Not very appealing, but supposedly packed with Russian tourists in the summer:

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Right next to the beach was the Al Capone Pasta, Sushi, and Pizza restaurant. Uhhh, ok. We were getting hungry at this point, TripAdvisor said it was good, so we had to check it out.

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We ordered, and then the waitress brought over some props. “You have to take a picture with the hat and guns!” Of course we do. Because…Abkhazia. So incredibly random. Let’s just assume they weren’t loaded…ok?

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After a tasty lunch, we headed out on the drive to the final part of the day, the Lake Ritsa park up in the mountains. On the way, there was an “I love Abkhazia” bridge for the obligatory photo op. It was maybe 65 degrees at this point as we headed up into the mountains:

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Finally we made it up to Lake Ritsa, and were rewarded with fantastic views:

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Lots of snow on the mountains. Stalin also had his summer dacha on this lake, but unfortunately it was also not open to visitors in the off-season. It was much colder up by the lake, maybe 50 degrees or so.

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The lake from one of the empty cafes overlooking it. You could tell that this place is really popular in the summer, but in the winter there was nobody around, despite the amazing views with the snow-capped mountains:

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Obligatory photo op in front of the lake and mountains:

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One more shot of the lake with the hills and mountains in the background. Notice the little bit of snow still on the ground:

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It was late afternoon at this point, and time to begin the drive back to Sukhumi. It was about a two hour drive back, and we made it back in time to have a relaxing evening. We wanted to make sure that we got to the restaurant from the night before with enough time to have a proper meal and still call it an early night.

I had submitted a booking request with kiwitaxi.com again, and they had confirmed, so it was good to know that our driver would be ready the next morning at 9am right after breakfast to take us back to Sochi and to the airport in time for our flight. Hopefully he wouldn’t mind a 15 minute stop by the visa office on the way so we could get the visa, and hopefully they would be open on time!

Dinner was super tasty with khatchapuri again (only this time, the smaller version) and some beef stroganoff which was rather tasty. The main street was much more happening this evening, with lots of families out strolling around, and the restaurant was packed with people having dinner.

Early to bed after a couple of drinks at the hotel’s nice outdoor patio bar, and ready for the drive back to Sochi.

Sep 122012
 

My guide/driver picked me up right on time the next morning for the roughly two hour drive into the interior of Suriname (around 120-150 km or so) and into the edges of the Amazon Rainforest. My company for the day was a Dutch lady who had been born in Suriname and her two young sons. The plan was to stop along the way to get lunch at a small roadside Surinamees/Indonesian snack joint and then head into the park where we’d lunch before starting a several hour hike into the park.

The drive to the park wasn’t too bad, except for the last 20km or so, which took well over an hour to cover. It was a nasty potholed dirt road, and when I say potholes, we’re talking 1-2 feet deep and filled with mud and water most of the time! However, we made it to the park just fine and were ready for lunch.

I still don’t remember the name of what I ordered for lunch, but it was a soup with pulled chicken in it along with lots of spices and a bag of rice and other condiments…including a hard boiled egg, to mix in. Quite tasty! While eating at some tables in the park, we were rewarded with some fantastic views.

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