Mar 102018

At the recommendation of my friend Daniel, I had booked a “Historical Center Food Tour” with Sabores de Mexico Food Tours. I figured that using my one full day to walk around the historic center while eating at a variety of places that were largely unknown to tourists sounded like just my thing – and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.

At 11:30 I met my guide, Liz, at Oaxaca en México, a restaurant that specialized in authentic cuisine from the state of Oaxaca. I learned here that there were only two of us booked on the tour today, so we could pretty much go at whatever pace we wanted. Fantastic!

Unfortunately times had gotten mixed up, so the other lady doing the tour with us didn’t show up until almost noon. Not a problem though, since I tend to move at a quicker pace normally anyways. Our first dish would be a delicious chicken tortilla with molé and some rice with local Oaxacan herbs. It was absolutely delicious, and I’m pretty sure that I licked up every drop of the delicious sauce.

After finishing the mole, we headed off for a short walk of maybe 15 minutes until we got to the large covered Mercado de San Juan. One of the older markets in Mexico City, it started out as a place to get more “exotic” and fancier foods that couldn’t be found elsewhere. We entered through the seafood section of the market:

Our first stop inside the market was at Delicatessen La Jersey Gourmet where we had some local cheeses and beats on baguette which were served with a variety of jams….and all the wine we wanted. I loved that the plates were covered with plastic covers, presumably to re-use them without washing. Environmentally terrible..

From there we moved on to another part of the market – the “exotic animals” section. Here we stopped at El Gran Cazador – or “the Great Hunter.” First up? Grasshoppers fried up in either garlic or chilis….very crunchy, but other than that the chili and garlic flavours really overpowered the insect.

Next up? A local ant that only comes out of its burrows for a couple weeks a year, which is the dedicated harvest season and as many of them are gathered up during this time as possible. Not much taste to these either… note the grasshoppers closeup underneath…

Pigeons anyone?

Decorative corns in the market…and I can’t help but see this and remember Lisa Simpson saying “or, as the Indians call it….maize!”

Next up we stopped at another stand of El Gran Cazador, where they cooked up wild boar for us….with grasshopper sauce naturally!

To fortify for the long day ahead, we stopped for a coffee from a stand reputed to have the best coffee in the area. It was pretty tasty, and the proprietor was clearly very proud of his coffee.

Final stop in the market was Rosse Gourmet, which was a fruit and vegetable stand. Here, we got a great discussion of the produce – especially tomatoes, from the very energetic Claudia who was clearly incredibly proud of the quality of her produce. Here she is explaining the difference between tomatoes and tomatillos to us:

Look at the colour of those peppers!

Claudia also surprised us with a homemade cheesecake with fresh fruits and a passionfruit sauce…which was absolutely delicious!

Now THOSE are leeks! …and look at the size of the cauliflower!

Next stop was actually at a food truck/cart with a couple of barstools on the side called El Caguamo where we were treated to a tortilla with octopus and prawn ceviche with fresh avocado. Absolutely delicious, but I was a bit nervous eating street food ceviche given that some of the worst food poisoning I ever had was from ceviche. Fortunately, no issues this time!

We were getting a bit parched by this point, so fortunately the next stop was an old school traditional cantina called La Mascota. It was like other traditional cantinas in that you pay for a (often overpriced) drink, and then you get to eat anything on the menu for free – as much as you want! The place was absolutely packed with locals chowing down, so it was a really fun and lively atmosphere.

A mezcal margarita…and yes, it’s as big as it looks. Fortunately, it was pretty watered down so wasn’t that strong. The chicken tortilla was one of the options on the food menu, and was just meh. You clearly come here for the atmosphere, not for the food and drink which was of very average quality at best.

They even had an old compact disk jukebox!

As we continued our walk, we passed a building where some of the stucco had fallen off the day before during the earthquake:

Next up we stopped at a “new school” cantina (to contrast with the previous stop) called Pasagüero. We had an empanada and a small tapas dish which were both tasty. It was absolutely packed with young people and families, and open to the street so had a very lively atmosphere. I’d definitely come back here for afternoon drinks and people watching.

It was nearly 4pm at this point, and we had one last stop – the Dulcería de Celaya – one of the oldest traditional candy stores in Mexico City – dating back over 100 years. Some tasty local treats.

It was about 4pm at this point, and I had booked tickets to see the Frida Kahlo Museum which came highly recommended and had pre-booked at 5pm entrance so after thanking Liz quickly rushed to the metro to find my way across the city to the museum. The other lady on the tour decided to come with me, and together we figured out how to buy metro tickets, went about 10 stops, and then hopped in a taxi to the museum. Much easier than it sounds.

Frida was a Mexican artist early in the 20th century, and was actually close friends with Trotsky. After he was exiled to Mexico they became close friends, and Trotsky actually lived with her for a period. Frida had polio as a child, and a terrible car accident in her teens, and this combination left her more or less confined to the house as she was not overly mobile…and she spent a lot of her time involved in political causes an artwork.

Some of the art in the museum, also known as the “Blue House”:

The gardens:

The blue walls of the house:

From the street outside:

Went for a bit of a walk after the museum, and found an amazing church:

Grabbed an uber back to the area near my hotel, and caught this great shot of the Angel de la Independencia monument all lit up at night:

I was only a little hungry at this point, so decided to head to a local brewpub which had a rather impressive beer list:

The people watching at this sidewalk bar was lots of fun. This guy might be a little proud of his country:

With that it was time to walk back to the hotel (about a 15 minute walk) and catch some zzzzs. I was feeling exhausted from having been ill the previous week and a long week of work, so definitely wanted to make sure to grab some sleep before flying home!

Mar 092018

I just realized that I had way more pictures from Mexico City than I thought I did, so I’m going to break this up into two pieces. The first will be the five days I was there for work, while the second part will be mostly the food tour I did on my last day there. With that out of the way let’s get right to it.

The line for immigration and customs was super long – I would guess 500+ people – since a few widebodies from Europe had just landed. Fortunately, there was a crew and diplomats line which I was able to use that only had a few flight attendants in it. Saved me at least 30 minutes, maybe closer to an hour, which was a good thing since I was getting tired after being ill much of the preceding week.

Outside customs, I pulled up Uber and got ready to call a car, but apparently Uber had decided there was fraud on  my account and they had locked it. I submitted their “proof you own the account” form, but after 15 minutes still hadn’t heard anything so I chose one of the pre-paid official taxi services which actually didn’t end up being much more than an Uber anyways. Stopped at the ATM for some cash, and we were off.

I had heard how awful traffic in Mexico City could be, and since I was going clear across the city to the west side area of Santa Fe I was worried it might be awful. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t too bad this late at night and it only took maybe 45 minutes to get to my hotel, the Sheraton Santa Fe.

This property used to be an Embassy Suites I believe, so all the rooms are suites, but they had upgraded me to a larger corner suite as a platinum member. The living room area was huge, with a dining table and desk for working:

Living room from the other side….full sofa, couple of chairs, and tv area….it was quite spacious!

Bedroom was nothing special, but was also quite roomy:

Bathroom was quite roomy as well. Not pictured was the shower cubical which was to my back in the pic:

I was a little hungry, but not enough that I wanted to order anything from room service, so minibar time it was. Cuando en México…

Slept reasonably well even though the room wouldn’t cool quite as much as I would like, and was up early for a short run. Despite no major time change I was feeling super jetlagged and sluggish and couldn’t figure out why. I knew Mexico was at altitude, and I thought something like 5,000 feet, but turned out it was more like 7,400 feet above sea level. Definitely enough to feel it.

No matter, a quick breakfast at Starbucks would take care of that. I wish that I was Jessi’s girl….

Not too much to say. Spent the next five days working long days, but seeing this sunset every day from the parking ramp around 6pm was pretty awesome and cheered me up after a long day:

Client dinners a few nights, including an amazing dinner at Restaurante Cascabel in Santa Fe. Delicious tapas and some cactus salad and octopus tacos. Out of this world – highly recommend it!

Even the room service at the Sheraton wasn’t bad….tacos arachara and tres leches cake….yum!

This fashionista at Starbucks was definitely ready for the day ahead!

On my last day there, we were just wrapping up work and getting ready to head out when a loud siren started going off in the building. That’s when I learned a new word in Spanish – sismo – earthquake. I was amazingly impressed how everyone knew exactly what to do. People moved quickly, and I mean VERY quickly, up the stairs and out the building, and everyone knew where the designated meeting/shelter spots were.

We had about 45 seconds due to the distance from the epicenter, and just as we got to the meeting point you could definitely feel the ground shaking. About an hour later we were given the all-clear, and fortunately there was no major damage despite the earthquake being relatively strong at 7.2 on the Richter Scale.

This lady, however, had had a major panic attack. I was impressed just how quickly paramedics got to her and took care of her.

Back to the Sheraton, packed up, and called an Uber to take me to the centre of the city for my last two nights so that I would be able to maximize my one full day in the city. Unfortunately, due to the earthquake, traffic was an absolute mess and it too me nearly two hours to get to the Le Meridien. By the time I got there it was after 10pm, and despite it not being that late by Mexican standards I was exhausted from a long week of work and opted to just have a small dinner in the hotel bar.

More tacos arrachara which were amazing, and a local craft beer. Not bad at all! I wish all room service were this good!

Upstairs for a shower and sleep. They had upgraded me to a suite, but only had ones with two smaller beds, so I just took the regular room – which was still quite big. I think this hotel had also been an Embassy Suites since all the rooms were suites as well. When your faucet isn’t marked, you make do the best you can….stencilling it on the wall with marked. Classy.

Slept well, and managed to sleep in a little bit. Best part of the Le Meridien? There was a Starbucks right in the same building so that made getting breakfast nice and easy! Still not sure what they thought my name was…

Walked around a little bit before my walking tour was to begin, and there were earthquake meeting points painted on the ground all over the place. I have to say, I was really impressed with the preparedness.

Next up, a food walking tour of the historical center…I hope you’re hungry!

Feb 202018

Woke up relatively early since I’d only had a little time to explore Dresden before the sun set the day before. I also wanted to get up in time to catch some of the ski race as well. Headed out of the hotel to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, and right outside the hotel the women’s race was already underway:

I wandered around the old city for a couple of hours, but didn’t really take any pictures. It was a Sunday morning and everything was pretty much closed, so I just enjoyed the time wandering about and taking in the architecture and a bit of people walking.

There was definitely something a bit charming about Dresden, but at the same time it felt quite small-town and provincial. And that was with several hundred international visitors for the ski race. My impression was definitely that it’s a bit of an “out of the way” destination, and it reflects its location in the east of Germany much closer to Poland and other central and eastern European countries. It definitely still felt German, but in a bit less globalized way than major cities like Frankfurt, Berlin, and Munich.

One nice thing about having a BahnCard is that local transportation to the train station is included with most tickets, so I hopped on the tram right outside the Westin to take me to Dresden Hauptbanhof. Arrived with plenty of time before my train, grabbed a small snack, and did some train spotting from the upper level tracks looking down on the main part of the station:

It was probably a bit silly, but I planned most of this trip around ICE train schedules. Since there is no ICE from Dresden to Berlin, I opted to do Dresden first, then backtrack an hour to Leipzig and then on to Berlin. Fortunately, since there were only a few ICEs between Dresden and Leipzig I chose the one that left mid-day so I could have a little extra time in both cities. Train was quick, and an hour later I was in Leipzig. Just enough time to knock out the day’s Duolingo lessons.

Leipzig Hauptbanhof turned out to be located barely a five minute walk from the Westin, which made for a very convenient arrival. Yes, I hadn’t really done all that much research in advance for this trip, and just enjoyed taking things as they came.

The Westin Leipzig was much more modern than the Westin Dresden, which you could tell was a much older hotel which had been renovated. The Leipzig hotel, however, seemed to be very new and modern, and was a highrise. It took a bit of arm-twisting to get the hotel to honour the Platinum best available room benefit, but when they did I finally got a nice (but semi-small) corner suite.

The sitting area with the afternoon sun streaming in:

Another shot of the living room from the other side – you can see the desk, the main entrance door, and the unusual minibar in a column which separated the living room from the entryway, bathroom, and bedroom:

Bedroom was on the small side, but perfectly adequate:

One of the nicest features of the room was that there was a balcony where I could take a good panorama of the area around the hotel:

One of the oddest features was that the bathroom also connected the bedroom and living room. It was in itself divided into FOUR small cubes…each with its own sink. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling this was one of the strangest hotel rooms I’ve gotten in a long time. Starting in the living room, you entered the toilet room, with sink:

Next to that was a sink room…with just a sink. How…useful?

The third cube was a shower cube…which connected the sink room with the bathtub room…this was the only room with no sink:

Then once you pass through the shower cube, you enter the bathtub room…which also has its own sink. Just strange.

Having had my fill of sinks for the day, I wandered out to begin exploring Leipzig. The old town was just a short distance from the hotel, and I immediately decided I liked the city.

I wandered for a couple hours, grabbed some coffee to warm up, and eventually got to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) which is probably Leipzig’s best known attraction since Bach is buried right inside the church. Trying to get cute with my photography and frame the church with some tree branches:

Statue of Bach outside the church. He’s bringing sexy Bach. Sorry for all the bad jokes….I guess I’m just going for baroque with this post.

Inside of the church, with Bach’s grave in the middle:

Looking the other direction, with the pews:

I’m not certain what this part of a church is called, but I like this shot with the stained glass windows in the back:

The Markt Square and Old Town Hall with the sun beginning to set and a pink hue to the clouds:

After a short rest back in the room, I headed down to the lobby to see what the makeshift lounge had to offer for happy hour. The lobby bar doubles as a lounge for platinum members from 6-7pm with free drinks and a “special platinum snack menu.” Reasonable choice of drinks:

The platinum snack turned out to be some mixed nuts, a small cup of soup, and a rather impression salmon roll. Some good high-quality protein. Overall, it was the perfect offering since I was planning to head out to dinner shortly.

Dinner involved figuring out how to purchase an S-Bahn ticket (turned out to be easy with ticket dispensing machines right on the platform) and some cool artwork in the arrival station:

Dinner may have been walkable if it wasn’t dark and cold, but taking the train was kind of fun too. I headed to the Bayerischer Bahnhof for dinner, which brews their own Gose beer, a style that is native to Leipzig. So, even those gose is far from my favourite beer, when in Rome:

The restaurant is located atop an old train station which sat unused until the S-Bahn was expanded and a new station opened. Now this is more like it! Sausage, potatoes, and a bit of mustard…you can’t get a much more German meal than that!

They refused to take no for an answer on desert, and it was amazing as well:

Back to the hotel where I passed out from a long day of walking, ready to get up the next morning and walk around a bit more before catching my onward train to Berlin. I definitely want to get back to Saxony in the future and explore it a bit more in depth as well as checking out some of the smaller cities – maybe in the summer!

Feb 192018

First, sorry for the delays in continuing with this trip report. It will probably come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that I’ve been traveling the last week.

Jetlag was finally wearing off by this point, and I was starting to adjust to the time zone so woke up at a relatively normal hour. I know I’ve sang the praises of the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport multiple times, but the executive lounge I find to be one of the best anywhere in the world. Grabbed a “light” breakfast after getting in a quick workout:

Off to the Frankfurt Airport long-distance train station, where I caught an ICE to Frankfurt Hauptbanhof, which according to the train maps was the same one which would continue to Dresden. What wasn’t clear to me is that when it arrived at Frankfurt Hbf my train would be joined to another train, and I would have to run down to the other end where my car was. Slightly confusing, but worked out just fine in the end.

The train ride to Dresden was nearly four hours, and the would be the second longest of my trip. Time passed pretty quickly catching up on some tv on the iPad, but there were some “gaps” in tv to look out the window:

Given the length of the train ride, there was definitely time for a snack and a beer…plus a good opportunity to practice a little German. DB crews overall speak really good English, but for some reason seem much more willing to tolerate my poor attempts at Germany than other service-oriented businesses Two flams, one greek and one traditional bacon and onion:

According to Google Maps my hotel seemed to be closer to the Neustadt train station in Dresden than the Hauptbanhof, so I got out there and started trying to find my hotel. Fortunately, it was very easy, and a short 10-15 minute walk just as Google Maps predicted. Got to the Westin Dresden where the place was buzzing with activity. Turns out there was a giant olympic-qualifying cross country sprint ski race going on in town that weekend, and turns out they were all staying at my hotel. This was going to be absolutely awful 😉

Full hotel meant they needed to upgrade someone, so I ended up with an absolutely giant suite. The living room:

Another shot of the living room – it was absolutely massive:


There was also a newspaper waiting in the room, full of the latest news from America where I got to learn some very useful German vocab:

Out for a wander after checking in mid-afternoon. The races had just wound up for the day so I missed that, but went for a walk. First stop was the Catholic Church:

Great DDR mural on the side of the Concert Hall:

It was actually cold and windy, with a bit of light snow falling during the walk, so I soon had to stop – where else – Starbucks for a nice hot coffee and snack to warm up. It seemed to be the most happening place on a Saturday in Dresden, with a line 50+ people deep out the door. It was absolutely crazy.

Warmed by coffee, I wandered around the city a bit more, eventually stopping in a shopping mall to buy a warm hat and gloves to stay warm. I had expected it would be cool, but with temperatures about five degrees below zero it was cold even for me and definitely required warmer clothing. That said, I miss having “real” winter living in Washington, DC, so one of my goals was to get some good cold weather this trip. (Foreshadowing: I would regret this by the end of the trip)

Now warmed with hat and gloves, I began the walk back to my hotel for a short rest. Panoramic of the Schloßplatz near the cathedral.

The Courthouse am Schloßplatz:

After a short rest, it was time to wander in the opposite direction – into the “new city” to try and find a restaurant/bar I was looking forward to trying out for dinner and drinks. Statue of King Friedrich August the Second also known as the Goldener Reiter:

After about a 20 minute walk I finally found the place I was looking for, Zapfanstalt, which had a very impressive beer list full of German and imported craft beers. The bar staff spoke absolutely zero English, so it was a wonderful opportunity to practice my German – made easier by a few good German beers:

Had a delicious Haloumi Cheese “burger” for dinner, and then it was time for the long cold walk back to the hotel. When I’d arrived at Zapfanstalt around 8pm it was pretty empty, but by the time I left around 10 it was absolutely packed wall to wall so – in proof that I’m getting old – it was time to head out and get some rest to continue trying to adjust to the local time zone. I wanted to get up early to try and catch some of the races as well, plus I had an afternoon train to continue my trip to Leipzig!

Oct 092017

Since I would be sitting on the train for a good part of the day, and my train wasn’t scheduled to leave until nearly 4pm, I decided to go for another walk around St. Petersburg in the morning. It was also an excuse to stop by Starbucks and get some decent coffee to wake up. Ended up walking nearly 3 miles down Nevsky Prospekt before heading back to the W to pack up and head to the train station.

I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how small the international departures area of Finlandsky Station was. It was basically one large medium sized room with a couple small kiosks. Compared to the station in Moscow which I had departed from it felt positively tiny. When it was time to board, both Finnish and Russian train personnel were on hand to check IDs and tickets.

If there was any question I’d already done enough walking, the business class car was located at the very far end of the platform. The nice thing was, this allowed time to get a great picture of the Allegro train:

Inside seating was in a comfortable 2-1 configuration, but compared to the SAPSAN trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg it felt quite cramped. Granted, this is business class instead of first class, but still…

2-1 seating was nice, as it meant nobody to climb over or have climb over you.

Well, that would be the case if anyone was actually on the train. There were a grand total of three people in business class today!

Almost as soon as we left the station, the “menu tray” came out.

Despite the menu tray promising five options, today there would be onto two choices…both sandwiches. To drink? Two little cups of water. Very strange “meal” for a “business class.”

Oh wait…the cabin attendant came back a few minutes later. Apparently, he’d forgotten to give us the cheese course as well…

Perhaps the “coolest” part of the journey was crossing the Schengen border by train – something quite difficult to do these days. First the Russians stamped you out of the country, and then the Finns came by and stamped you into Finland and the Schengen. Many fewer points these days where you can get Schengen train stamps, but I remember the days when you would get them on the train even going between Germany and France.

Near the end of the ride, I was getting a little hungry, so headed to the dining car to see about a snack. Gotta love that the beer comes with a custom glass…

Welcome to Helsinki station!

I had booked the Radisson Blu Plaza right across the plaza from the train station which was a quick five minute walk from the train at most. The corridors certainly had some very funky lighting, and the room numbers were projected on the floor:

My train had arrived over an hour late, meaning it was already late when I got in so I went straight to grab a bite to eat. Sori Brewing right around the corner from the hotel was recommended to me, so I started out with their five beer taster. Sori is actually brewed in Estonia, and from what I understand it’s still cheaper to import than it is to get the licensing to brew craft beers in Finland. I know this is changing, but…

They also had a fantastic burger, and it hit the spot. Tomorrow would be a very long travel day, and I wanted to make sure to get lots of rest with four flight segments coming up! I really need to make time to get back to Helsinki and Finland in general soon for a proper visit – perhaps in the summer for the white nights.

Oct 052017

Nice relaxing morning before I had to head to the train station to catch the train. I had left myself plenty of time, so was able to have some breakfast, grab some coffee, and go for a bit of a walk before heading to the train station.

It was a gorgeous sunny morning, so decided to walk the 10 minutes or so to Byelorusskaya Station to catch the metro to the train station where the trains to St. Petersburg leave from. Caught the metro to Komsomolskaya and when I came out of the station I was on what is known in Moscow as “three stations square” because there are three long-distance train stations here: Leningradsky, Kazansky, and Yaroslavsky. Not surprisingly, the train to St. Petersburg goes from Leningradsky Vokzal, and I had no trouble locating it.

I had more trouble resisting shopping at the Red Army Hockey store in the station, but somehow managed…

I had read there was a lounge in the train station, but had a bit of trouble locating it. When I did, it was confusing because it looked like it was also a coffeeshop. I asked the agent sitting in the front and she confirmed yes, half is a coffeeshop and the other half is the lounge….and can I bring you some coffee or tea?

Right on time, my train was ready to board. It was one of THREE trains to St. Petersburg in an hour, and they were all the SAPSAN high speed train. Forget priority boarding here, though, after getting your bags scanned by security it was a mad dash to the train:

First class was all the way in the front, which gave me a great excuse to grab a picture of the front of the train:

Extremely spacious seating in a 1-2 configuration:

The pair of seats on the other side would be great for people traveling together – and the RZD Russian Railways website is great about letting you pick your seats in advance, and the diagrams are completely accurate.

There were also a couple of sets of four seats facing each other:

Pre-departure champagne was offered, and I didn’t have to be asked twice!

Wow, not only was there a choice of meals, but a printed menu! Sorry for the slightly blurry pics.

I went with option two, and got the “roastbeef rolls” to start followed by the rolled porn with bacon and potato croquettes. Overall, it was reasonably tasty, and much better than I would have expected on a train! Only wanted one glass of wine, so unfortunately can’t report back if it was all you can drink or not.

First stop for the train was in Tver, where we were treated to the golden domes of an Orthodox Church while we waited less than 10 minutes for joining passengers.

Double cappuccino cake and black tea for dessert. The crew spoke extremely basic english, which was barely enough to keep the several Chinese tourists in first class happy. Unfortunately, the tourists spoke even less English so it was a bit of a struggle for them the whole trip.

Overall, the trip was super comfortable and I would definitely book the SAPSAN again versus flying between the cities. Internet access the entire time, power outlets, a ton of space, and maybe (at most) an hour longer once you take into account the need to arrive to the airport early for security, etc. Definitely a very positive experience!

Upon leaving the station I decided to see if my good luck with Uber would continue, and yup, absolutely no problems whatsoever. Soon, I was checking into my hotel – the W St. Petersburg. Not too much to say about the hotel. The staff all spoke excellent English and were warm and friendly, although the hotel was not able to offer any room upgrade at all despite status. When I arrived my room was initially a bit warm, but it cooled down pretty quickly after the sun set.

Quick shower, and out to enjoy the last 90 minutes or so of daylight. Statue of Peter the Great along the Neva River:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, as seen through Alexandrovsky Park:

The Hermitage Museum and the Alexander Column…looks a little different than when I saw it in 1988 in the dead of winter during the Soviet days. The first time I left North America really was in 1988, and after a few days in London it was straight on to Leningrad. I guess my love for traveling to out of the way/unusual (at the time) places was born way back then. Returning felt like coming full circle a bit.

The Arkha Glavnova Gate:

Panoramic of the square, with the Winter Palace on the left:

The Winter Palace was gorgeous in its shades of blueish green and gold. I’ll have to see if I can find my old hard copy photos to compare it to – I can’t imagine it was always this majestic.

By this point, the sun was setting, so I headed to the W’s rooftop bar to watch the sunset…and freeze. It was only 8 degrees at this point (yes, in August)_ but the view was worth it:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral again. Did I mention the W is in an absolutely fantastic location?

After the sunset, I googled some ideas for dinner, and ended up finding a great brewpub just down the street. The Craft Brew Cafe was certainly nothing fancy, but it had a great selection of local craft beers on tap, and actually made a reasonably good burger for dinner as well.

Short walk back, something about the streetlights in Russia feels distinct to me….so a selfie was warranted.

Early to bed, because I had planned a very, very long day of walking for the next day!

Sep 212017

The third full day in Sydney dawned with absolutely perfect weather – almost 20C – warm enough for another coastal hike in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts. Considering the average Sydney weather this time of year, I was getting super lucky! Caught the bus out to Coogee to start the Coogee to Bondi Coastal Walk. The view was pretty spectacular right from the start:

The great thing about winter is, the beaches are empty and it’s a much more peaceful walk – especially on a weekday. Not saying that’s necessarily an advantage, but that combined with the cooler weather compared to summer did make it a much quicker hike.

Warning! Birds swooping! Australia! Fear Everything!

One of my favourite coves on the walk:

Ocean, hills, rocks, it was a gorgeous day to be out just walking and enjoying some nature.

Selfie along the coast.

The waves had really kicked up, and there were quite a few surfers out as well despite the super cool water.

Waverley Cemetery, right on the coast. Thousands of graves…

Tombstone, vegetation, and the Pacific Ocean:

Rounding Bronte Beach:

Bright blue water, smooth sand, perfect weather…

Last stop before Bondi is Tamarama Beach, and decided to stop for a coffee and cookie after a couple hours of walking and just enjoy the perfect day.

Coming around Mackenzies Point…

The waves were really going at this point, and the view was spectacular.

One last shot looking south to where the walk had begun. Crashing waves under the rocks:

The Bondi Icebergs Pool, right up against the ocean…

Stopped for lunch at Bondi Trattoria, after having such an amazing meal there a few months ago. They had changed chefs in the meantime and the meal was still amazing, but wasn’t quite the same as previously. The Angel hair with barely touched tuna, zucchini, rocket, chilli, lemon, and capers was still fantastic, however.

So what else did I do with my last two days? Not a whole lot other than relaxing and walking around. One evening, took the train out to Sydenham to go to Batch Brewing Company, which was fantastic. This might be one of the best tasting flights I’ve ever had:

Other than that, not a whole lot. Also went for tastings at Wayward Brewing Company another night, which was equally awesome. One of the best things about both Batch and Wayward was getting to see a part of the city that it looked like few tourists ever make it to. They both felt like they were in much more industrial neighbourhoods, and it was nice to see places off the tourist trail.

With that said, four days in Sydney came to a close way, way too quickly, and it was time to start the long trek home…with several fun stops in between, of course!

Sep 182017

In total, I had arranged for five nights in Sydney, and was really looking forward to this being the relaxing “vacation” part of the trip. Something I promised myself after finishing all the countries is that at least to a degree I’d slow down and explore places a little more in depth. Yeah, so I had to cross the southern hemisphere on this trip “because it was there,” but now that I was in Sydney, it was time to relax.

My first day, honestly, I didn’t do too much that was blog-worthy. Wandered around, saw some of the same sites I’ve posted on here before, and just basically killed jetlag. Lots of great coffee shops, tons of walking, and just overall relaxing…and being on vacation!

Second day, I was ready to do some serious urban walking, so after breakfast caught the bus for a rather long ride up north to the Spit Bridge to begin the Spit to Manly walk. Apparently, there’s a funeral shop just for white ladies…

The Spit Bridge, where the hike starts:

Fishing near the bridge. He was rather bundled up, and it was a bit chilly near the water, maybe 15C, but walking at a brisk pace I was nice and warm.

Lots of boats out today near the bridge:

Next to Vancouver, I can’t think of any city that has as many amazing ocean views as Sydney does.

In several parts, the walk was rather high up on the cliffs, but there were options to descend down to sandy coves for some amazing views:

At once point, there was a site where several aboriginal rock carvings had been found. This fish seemed almost too real to have survived years of weather:

How can you not love a view like this? The waves were really crashing today.

As you got closer to Manly, the trail was actually walking in the sand on the beach at several places. However, during high tide apparently, some parts of the trail aren’t passable and you have to go a few blocks inland and use city streets.

…and in other parts, it was just a nice trail through the woods.

Part of the walk that went along the water (Forty Baskets Beach) that may not be passable at high tide. I can see why based on how high the water already was:

Lots more boats. It seriously seemed like half the city must own a boat there were so many out.

Nearly Manly. Are there seriously Penguins this far north in Australia?!

After finishing the nice long few hour walk, decided to reward myself with a couple of beers and a sausage roll at 4 Pines Brewing Company. It was a weekend, and the place was absolutely packed with locals having lunch and pints.

Some other highlights from the first couple of days include one of many perfect flat whites…

…a pizza with crocodile, kangaroo, and emu at the Australian Heritage Hotel: (which, btw, has an amazing list of beers on draught, and dozens more in bottles.)

…and who needs Starbucks when you have perfect flatwhites at local independent coffee shops everywhere you look, and grumpy donuts to eat!

With that, the first two days in Sydney were done, one fantastic walk down and at least one more to go…along with a lot more relaxing, seeing friends, and just generally having a real vacation!

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!

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!