Mar 092017
 

Woke up right on time, nice quick check out from the Le Meridien, and a short walk over the bridge over the airport road and I was in Terminal 3. There is a baggage x-ray before you can get into the check-in area, and the guards will not let you in without either a printout or phone copy of your ticket. That accomplished, over to the check in desk where there was no line.

Asked about getting a seat with nobody else in the row, but the check-in agent informed me that all seats would be taken on the flight today. Oh well.

15 minute wait for immigration because the priority line wasn’t open, which left me 15 minutes to “enjoy” the EgyptAir Lounge. It’s gotten even worse (if that’s really possible) than the last time I was there, because on top of the horrible food offerings, they no longer have Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi either. The espresso machine was reasonably functional, so had a quick coffee then off to the gate.

Security at the gate was pretty easy, and we boarded right on time. All things considered, for Cairo, it was a pretty easy and relatively pleasant transit to get on board.

Lufthansa flight 587
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 7:35, Arrive 10:40, Flight Time: 4:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQT, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,977
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,391,378

Upon boarding, it was clear why we were full today. There were six rows of EuroBusiness today, which meant 24 seats, and at least 10 of them were filled with uniformed Lufthansa crew. Not sure if a plane broke down in Cairo or what, but that explained all the full seats. Fortunately for me, my window seat was taken by a teenager who slept the whole flight and never got up once, so for being a full flight it wasn’t bad at all.

Breakfast was another story – definitely not the tastiest thing I’ve eaten. My request for champagne was met with “we don’t have that.” So I asked for sparkling wine. Ok, that she could do. Normally I love Lufthansa crews, but for whatever reason this one definitely wasn’t having a great day. I probably wouldn’t be either if I was working a 7am flight out of Cairo.

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Other than that, flight was super uneventful. Immigration to get into Germany had no line, but unusually they actually asked questions like how long I would be in Germany and what I would be doing there. Avoided “no clue, I had planned to go to Paris but changed my mind at the last minute” in favour of “three days, just a bit of tourism.”

Nice and easy, security was also quick, and I had time for a bit of time in the Senator Lounge. I’ve never actually been in the Munich Senator Lounge, only the first class lounge, so this was a new experience.

To go with that white whine, a bit of white wine:

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There’s something about the Lufthansa pretzel bread with cheese, salami, and tomato that I love. Unfortunately there was no cucumber today.

While in the lounge, I looked up the registration of my upcoming plane, and was excited to see it was one of Lufthansa’s relatively brand new A320-neo planes!

Lufthansa flight 105
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 12:00, Arrive 13:05, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320neo, Registration D-AIND, Manufactured 2016, Seat 3F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 27,163
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,391,564

Unlike the last flight this one was totally empty in business. 24 seats again, but only four were taken. Can you believe this was the meal on a 40 minute flight…and that refills on beverages were offered? It was much tastier than the meal from Cairo, especially the salmon, and I actually enjoyed most of this one.

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When I had changed two days prior from Paris to Frankfurt, the Airport Sheraton was by far the most reasonable Starwood option, and being on top of the airport (and thus Starbucks and an ICE station) made it a very convenient choice for me. My two nights here would be the closest I’ve ever come to living in an airport, and I have to say it was kind of fun.

Stopped at Starbucks after landing to get some coffee before checking in, and then after a shower I headed out for a bit of a walk around the city. I’ve never had the time to do much exploring of Frankfurt, so I just went on a bit of a random wander. Caught the train into the city, and then just started walking. The giant Euro symbol in front of the European Central Bank:

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Walked for a while and came upon the main square:

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…and Frankfurt Dom/Cathedral:

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Kept walking for a bit, and eventually decided to check TripAdvisor for somewhere tasty for dinner. Settled on a place called Naïv which was a bit of a Germany craft beer geek’s heaven. German craft beer sampler:

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Bacon wrapped dates…which were absolutely amazing!

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Why a German beer is called Miss Florida IPA is completely beyond me, but there you have it….(and it wasn’t very good)

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I was still a bit hungry, so asked the bartender for a light recommendation. I was told I had to try the Handkäse mit Musik – or “handcheese with music” salad because it was a Frankfurt specialty. Definitely tasty and different!

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I was exhausted at this point from a very early morning, so headed back to the airport to head to bed in my unusually warm room. It was winter, and being Germany they had the heat on, and there was really no way to cool the room down much. They were happy to deliver a fan to me, and perhaps the nicest thing about the Towers Lounge is their happy hour goes until 10:30pm and they leave beer, wine, and snacks out until that time. Rather nice!

As tired as I was, it didn’t bother me that it was warm, and I passed right out. It would be another early morning with the daytrip I had planned!

Feb 142017
 

After a refreshing shower, I still had about 90 minutes to enjoy the ANA Suites Lounge. Not one of the more impressive first class lounges for Star Alliance, it was still pretty empty when I arrived. It did, however, fill up quite a bit over the next hour. Before it got busy, I took a chance to have some tasty Japanese snacks and plum wine.

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Not much more to say. I actually liked it when it got a bit busier, because the lounge attendants hovered less…and they actually let me pour my own water/drinks. It’s nice having helpful people around, but at ths same time I really don’t like being waited on hand and foot and feeling like I have “staff.”

Thai flight 677
Tokyo, Narita (NRT) to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 17:30, Arrive 22:30 next day, Flight Time: 7:00
Airbus A380, Registration HS-TUD, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,775
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,374,176

Boarding was a little late, and was the “usual” cast of characters. Three large western guys and their Thai “companions,” a Thai pop star (according to the flight attendant) and then there was me. While the hard product isn’t really world-class, it’s much better than what any US airline offers.

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“Can I get you some Dom Perignon?” Very first-world nit-picking, but while other airlines are more subtle, our flight attendant quite emphatically stressed the brand. As if he was trying to impress people. This perhaps goes back to my impression that Thai has some things in common with US airlines, including that lack of finesse in service. I suspect a much larger percentage of their premium cabin passengers are upgrades/awards.

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Thailand is still in mourning for the king, and after the safety video a brief video celebrating his life was played.

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Post-takeoff, more champagne quickly appeared.

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Very strange amuse-bouche. A curry puff and very fatty chicken yakatori.

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Delicious thai salad.

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Very nicely set table.

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Chilled seafood starter. Normally I avoid seafood and mayo on planes, but decided to go for it this time. I regretted it within 12 hours…

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Chestnut soup with duck liver mousse. A bit unusual, but quite tasty.

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The pork curry. Super tasty – definitely the highlight of the meal.

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Rather sad fruit and cheese course. Nowhere near expectations.

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Rum savarin with orange sauce, and a glass of Johnny Walker Blue. It was a bit on the sweet side for me, but definitely good.

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Unfortunately after dinner I passed out for two to three more hours, putting a dent in my plans to stay awake so I could get on a normal sleep schedule once I got to Bangkok. Oh well! The crew was largely absent after I woke up, but after using the call button they did show up with tea and water. They were perfecly friendly and helpful, but there was nothing proactive about the service. Nothing bad, just nothing outstanding.

I had an 18 hour overnight thanks to the award, so decided to stay at the W Bangkok. I’ve had very mixed experiences here before, but decided I would give it one more try. They proactively upgraded me the day before to a “Marvelous Suite” which was the largest suite I’ve gotten here. I think I actually prefer the junior suites I’ve had before, but on the upside the air conditioning was freezing in the room I got.

Six solid hours of sleep, and it was off to enjoy what I think is one of the best hotel breakfasts in the world – especially for the price! Sure some five star/$500 hotels might do a notch better, but for the price point this property’s breakfast can’t be beat! I wasn’t super hungry, but started with some super fresh fruit, salmon, and duck.

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After breakfast I went for a walk to walk off the jetlag. First, the view from the hotel:

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Stopped by the Siam Paragon Mall to walk around in air conditioned luxury, and then headed down the street to satisfy my craving for some Hokey Pokey ice cream. You can’t really find it in the US, so wanted to use this opportunity to make sure to get some…even if it was 10am!

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Very unusual sculptures in the mall.

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Walked by the in-mall ice rink, but no time for skating this morning.

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Back to the W, and decided to use my free drink coupons. Sure, it was only noon, but couldn’t use them the night before due to it being what the front desk guy called “some kind of respect the buddha holiday” causing a ban on alcohol sales. Decided to try the W’s signature cocktail, which was super sweet and came with 24 karat gold leaf.

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With that, it was time to call an Uber and got a fabulous ladyboy driver wearing a Hello Kitty shirt and giant silver bow in her hair. When we got to the airport, I asked to take a picture with her, and she suddenly got really nervous and wouldn’t do it. Awe!

Time to check in, and off to Hong Kong I go!

Oct 182016
 

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I booked my flight out of Reykjavik for 7:45 in the morning, with the airport more than an hour from the city. There are two flights to London. I could have easily booked the later one. I think it came down to two things: (1) the earlier flight was on a 767 which is pretty rare on Icelandair (only two of their approximately 30 planes are 767s) and (2) I wanted to get to London in time to be able to enjoy the afternoon.

That said, when it came time to catch the 4:30 am bus to the airport, I definitely wasn’t thinking it was such a great idea. Fortunately, misery loves company, and my mother and brother, along with friends Mark and Beth were on the same bus. They were on the Delta flight back to Minneapolis which left about the same time, so we all set out into darkness together.

The hotel was once again confused at checkout, and tried to put all the rooms on my credit card. Fortunately we figured it out in time, and miracle of miracles the FlyBus shuttle actually showed up right on time to take us to the central bus station for our onward bus to the airport. Not too much to tell here. It was dark, I dozed a bit on the bus, and we got to the airport right on schedule.

Check-in for Icelandair business was nice and easy with no line at all, and soon we were all upstairs to immigration and security. Before getting there there was a huge duty free shop that everyone was stopping at, and I spent my last few kroner on some Icelandic chocolate to bring back to coworkers. The Icelandair Saga lounge is right before immigration and security, so I said goodbye to everyone who had joined me as they headed through immigration and security to their Delta gate.

At around 6:30am the Saga Lounge was absolutely packed, to the point I had trouble finding a seat. It seemed most of the flights from North America had arrived, and people were waiting on their connecting flights to Europe. I finally managed to find a seat, the coffee machine made a decent triple espresso, and I got some skyr with fresh berries for breakfast:

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There were also tasty make-your-own sandwich supplies set out for something a bit more substantial to eat:

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I left the lounge a bit on the late side which was the right call, because by the time I got there there was zero line for immigration and security. Good timing! I walked past the Delta gate on the way to mine, and said one last goodbye to mom and friends, and as I got to my gate (filled with very weary looking tourists) they were just about ready to board.

Icelandair flight 450
Keflavik, Iceland (KEF) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 7:40, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time: 3:05
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISO, Manufactured 2000, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 140,780
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,329,917

The 767s on Icelandair are configured in a 2-1-2 layout in business class, and feature the same miserable approximately 38 inches of pitch that the 757s do. The one saving grace is that if you take the middle seat at least you don’t have to climb over anyone…or have anyone climbing over you. Pre-departure beverages were offered, and it was a mystery orange juice. I asked the flight attendant what kind of juice it was, and her very helpful answer was “fruit.” Uh, ok? One shot of fruit juice coming up.

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I had pre-ordered my meal again, and went with the Icelandic tapas. Overall, I’d have to say this meal was more of a miss than a hit. Rather uninspired selection of packaged breads, very bland meat and cheese, and some prawns in a creamy mayo sauce which went untouched. I still won’t do prawns on a plane. That said, the mimosas were super generous, and served with the entire bottle:

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Upon clearing my plate, she insisted on bringing me another mimosa…

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…there may have been a third mimosa before landing. But what happens in Iceland stays in Iceland…

Unfortunately, Heathrow saw fit to be its usual miserable self. It was a warm day in London, nearly 25C and the immigration queue was more than an hour long. I decided to angry tweet the airport, which responded immediately by saying they were sorry and asking which terminal I was in. Once I sent them that, silence…

An hour later I was very glad I had pre-purchased Heathrow Express tickets, because there was no way I was going to deal with the tube after more than an hour waiting for immigration. Quick trip to my hotel with a quick connection to the tube at Paddington, and I was there.

Decided to try something different this trip, and explore SPG’s relatively new Tribute Collection. I stayed at St Pancras at the Great Northern Hotel, which I’ll give a brief review of here. The staff were fantastic and friendly, happy to help out with anything you wanted. I kept extending my original one night stay a night at a time, eventually staying four nights, and they were more than happy to help out each time. Including getting me a room for the third night on points when the property showed completely sold out.

The room was…tiny. Despite showing rooms online, they claimed there were no upgrades, and the standard room was like a closet.Maybe twice the size of a double bed and that was it! However, the air conditioning was ice c0ld, and the room did its job. Location was also fantastic, so I think I will probably stay here again on my next trip. Much better than my experiences at other SPG properties in London without functional AC, semi-aloof staff, and ancient properties with squeaky floors and thin walls.

I had a nice four days in London, even though my original plans had changed. I won’t be writing about my trip back to DC because, well, it was sponsored in the end which makes it non-bloggable. It was a pleasant surprise at last minute notice, and even better – Icelandair business class tickets…even the cheapest bucket…are completely changeable without a penalty charge. I put it off three months into the future, and now apparently I have an excuse to get back to Helsinki!

That caps off my final country trip. Amazing time, and completely thrilled that so many family and friends made the time to join me for it. It made it an incredibly memorable trip and a very special experience. Now, to start returning to places for another go around…

Jul 292016
 

After purchasing my ticket, I headed to the AeroExpress train to Moscow. It was only 1,000 rubles for a “business class” ticket (around $17) so I figured the extra was certainly worth it for a 45 minute train ride. It was definitely the right call, as the economy section was packed, and business had less than half the seats full and plenty of space to spread out. The train went to Pavletskaya Station in the southeast of the city, and it was an easy transfer to the metro. Unfortunately, I had to change metro trains as well, so this meant two transfers. Slight pain with a rolling bag, but really not bad at all.

Got off at Lubyanka station, which was right next to my hotel. I had chosen to stay at the St Regis in Moscow mainly because I still had to stay at one in order to complete Starwood’s stay at every brand in 2016 promo and I had a great corporate rate.

Oh, and it was also just across the square from a Starbucks….but that had nothing to to with my choice…

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I’d been “upgraded” to a tiny room on the top floor, with a perfect view of the old KGB headquarters, now home to Russia’s FSB Security Service:

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Overall thoughts on the hotel. The room was rather warm, although it did eventually cool down to around 22C after I asked the butler. 20C was the lowest setting on the thermostat, but that didn’t get the room below 25C, so when I asked the butler she said the engineer could do a manual override and set it for 17C. That helped the room get down to 22C, which was reasonable.

Other than that, bed was comfortable, but the room was super small. I’m also not used to hotel rooms with chandeliers hanging over the bed, but hey, everyone has their tastes in decor. The stay confirmed that the St Regis brand really isn’t my thing, although I have nothing but positive reviews for the hotel. It just felt a little too uptight and formal for my tastes, but the internet was super fast, since I unfortunately spent almost two hours on Skype getting my onward tickets sorted out. Tickets sorted. I headed for a walk.

Just five short minutes from my hotel, I passed the GUM department store and headed into Red Square:

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Lots of flowers. This was my first time in Moscow NOT in the winter, and it’s a totally different city:

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Red Square on a clear summer day:

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St Basil’s against a clear blue sky…complete with bird flying by:

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The Kremlin…I wonder if they’re busy searching for Hillary’s missing emails inside…

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Lenin’s tomb…unfortunately it had already closed for the day so I couldn’t verify if he’s still there…

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Stopped in GUM after my walk for an ice cream cone. They’ve been selling them there forever, and it’s a treat lots of folks look forward to when visiting. Plus, they’re an absolute bargain. Pistachio please!

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I did, however, pass on visiting GUM’s “historic toilet” – I wonder if it dates back to Soviet times, or what…

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Grabbed a quick dinner, and headed back to the room to get to bed early. Watched some rerun KHL hockey on tv, and noticed the Lubyanka was even more eerie looking lit up at night…this is after 10pm!

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Had a good night of sleep, and headed down to check out the breakfast. Very formal at St Regis, but also very Russian at the same time. Where else can you have smoked eel, caviar, and tea for breakfast?

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Walked around for a few more hours, before taking the metro back to the airport. Watching for a change of trains at Park Kultury station:

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Finally arriving at Pavletskaya to change to the AeroExpress train:

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One of the cool things about the Moscow Metro is that lots of the old soviet murals and architecture have been left completely unchanged:

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Check-in and security were super easy, and soon I’d arrived at the S7 airlines domestic lounge. Nothing to write home about. More meatballs as snacks. Seriously, what is it with S7 and meatballs?

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Last minute gate change meant a bit of a hike to our plane, which appeared to be absolutely packed. There was a family of eight occupying eight of the twelve seats in business class, and they were scattered around the cabin – probably a last minute purchase. Some swapping, but other people refused to give up their seats so I was stuck next to a 10 year old for the whole flight. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad…maybe he’d be well behaved…

S7 Airlines flight 181
Moscow Domededovo, Russia (DME) to Novosibirsk, Russia (OVB)
Depart 17:20, Arrive 00:15 next day, Flight Time: 3:55
Airbus A320, Registration VQ-BRG, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 119,579
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,308,716

S7 has an…interesting colour scheme going on….purple seats:

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Raspberry and lime flight attendant uniforms:

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Lime green safety cards…in case of a water landing, your flight attendant’s lips may be used as a flotation device:

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Even the toilet seat and the bathroom were lime green:

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Oh, and a snapshot of our plane…

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Just kidding….

S7 even had a printed drink menu for a relatively short domestic flight:

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Started off with a glass of red wine…I like the little airplanes…

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Nice and tasty salad and some good black bread:

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Chicken stew…it was way tastier than it looked.

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After eating, I watched some movies and had a few glasses of wine. At one point, I got up and went to the washroom, and remember thinking “I should slow down…I could swear I had a full glass of wine when I left.” Got a refill, kept watching more tv, eventually went to the washroom again. Came back…again empty glass…and then it clicked. The 10 year old was drinking my wine when I went to the washroom! I tapped his dad on the shoulder in front of me and told him what was going on….and he congratulated the kid with almost getting away with it. Ugh!

Soon, time to land, and they passed out some sort of vegetable juice shooter….it was…interesting…

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Overall, S7 was solid service for a domestic flight. Comfortable enough seats that rival anything in North America, and are way ahead of what you would get in Western Europe. I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again. With the time change it was just before midnight when we landed in Novosibirsk, and we ended up with a remote gate. There was a special bus for business class passengers, which meant we were from plane to taxi rank in less than five minutes. Can’t complain about that! Then, it was off to the hotel and time to explore Novosibirsk!

Jul 172016
 

Upon arrival at Dubai, despite being in first on Lufthansa, I was absolutely exhausted. Didn’t want to deal with getting any local currency and getting a cab, so took a black car from the airport since they accept credit cards. Was about a 30-35 minute drive to the hotel, and the small premium for air conditioned comfort and not needing to deal with local currency was more than worth it.

For a normal stay in Dubai I’ve been staying at the Sheraton Mall of the Emirates which is a great property with excellent SPG platinum recognition, but this time I was trying to complete an SPG promo by staying of all 11 of their brands in a year. Since the Grosvenor House was a member of the Luxury Collection, which I hadn’t yet stayed in had a very reasonable rate I figured it was a good place for an overnight.

Arrival was great – they had upgraded me to a nice suite which was way more space than I needed for a short overnight. Got to the room, cranked down the AC which struggled to get cool but was just barely acceptable, had a shower, and quickly passed out. Body clock was way off, but I managed a solid five hours or so of sleep before giving up and going down for an early breakfast.

The breakfast at the hotel was a huge impressive spread and one of the more impressive offerings I’ve seen from an SPG property. Friends Daniel and Rianda who live in Dubai were nice enough to come by the hotel for coffee before I had to head to the airport early – was great to see them and thanks to them for making the early trek out to the hotel!

Got ready to go to the airport, and that’s where the drama started. One of the benefits of suites at this property is it includes complimentary airport transfers. SPG policy is that when upgraded to a room, you are entitled to all the benefits of the room. The hotel refused to honour this, and insisted on charging me something approaching $100 for the transfer. I told them fine, go ahead put it on the bill, and I’ll make sure to take it up with SPG later. They made a “one time exception” and did it complementary, but supposedly this hotel has a history of this. They need to make up their mind: either stop upgrading people to suites, or provide the benefits.

That said, the transfer was extremely comfortable, and made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare before my flight. That, of course, also meant time for Starbucks! Since it was Ramadan, I had to have my coffee behind the screens of shame so nobody fasting had to watch me consume it:

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FlyDubai has a small lounge now in Dubai T2 and I spent maybe five minutes there to grab some water before the flight. The best part, however, is that there is a separate boarding gate for business class passengers and you get a private bus to the plane. Anyone who’s ever dealt with the chaos of T2 will certainly appreciate this. It was a nice touch!

FlyDubai flight 731
Dubai, UAE (DXB) to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (ASB)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 2:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration A6-FEL, Manufactured 2014, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 114,917
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,305,054

PDB was offered: water, water, or….water!

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I love FlyDubai’s safety video, I find the animated characters and their expressions to be hysterical. This guy looks absolutely terrified to be flying:

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These ladies look equally terrified:

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…maybe they knew the oxygen masks were about to fall down:

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Wow, not only business class but also a menu on a low cost carrier? FlyDubai was doing better than domestic airlines in the US by far!

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FOUR choices of meal? Wow, impressive!

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I went with the chicken which was decent, but far from memorable. But, then again, they not only knew what a mimosa was, and were happy to provide as many refills as I wanted:

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Soon, we were on approach to Ashgabat. Note the green roofs on all the buildings:

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Passing the centre of the new city on approach…Ashgabat is known as the “City of White Marble” for a reason apparently:

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I had arranged for visa on arrival, and the process was a bit confusing…..since the office marked “Wisa” in the arrivals hall was dark when I arrived I assumed that you just got it from the guy at the immigration counter. Wrong. By the time he’d sent me back to the (now open) visa booth there was a bit of a line. No big deal. Handed over the visa on arrival fee of $86 plus the registration tax of $15, and quick and easy got the very nice and unique visa sticker.

After the long wait for the visa and finally immigration stamp, by the time I got into the arrivals hall my driver was already waiting for me. We were off to the hotel so I could rest up before Ian arrived on a redeye from the recently-attacked Istanbul Airport at 7a and we set off for touring. I was very thankful to have a night to recover!

The standard hotel proposed with the tour looked “adequate” but when I heard there was a “North Korean style over the top supposed five star hotel” I insisted we pay to upgrade. First approach to the Yyldz Hotel, which is supposed to be shaped like a teardrop, and was built by the major French construction firm Bouygues to be highly seismic resistant. See, in 1948 most of Ashgabat was leveled by one of the largest earthquakes ever on record outside the pacific rim, with a magnitude of 7.3 and estimates are that over 100,000 people were killed. The Yyldz Hotel from outside:

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The extremely understated lobby:

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Checked in to my room, which was absolutely palatial for a “standard” room. There were only like 8 rooms per floor, and the entire place seemed rather deserted. It was overall a really surreal experience, and very similar to my experience in North Korea in that the whole place just seemed kind of empty. Had dinner in the top floor sports bar, where I was the only person eat…and watching the Euro football championships. (Sorry, Poland.) Had dinner and a couple of very overpriced (at the official exchange rate) $10 beers and crashed early. Next day was going to be the tour of Ashgabat city!

Jun 212016
 

Woke up at oh-dark-thirty to check out, and the front desk guy at the hotel was nowhere to be found. I eventually found him in the hotel bar asleep in a chair with his head on a table. To his credit, he woke up pretty quickly, and check-out was reasonably efficient. There was a surcharge for using a credit card, and only visa cards were accepted. As promised the night before, the hotel shuttle was waiting for us and we made the short drive to the airport in maybe 10 minutes. On the map the airport looked a long way out of town, but when I asked the shuttle driver apparently that’s the new airport being built by the Chinese…like everywhere else in Africa.

Upon entering the terminal there was an x-ray and metal detector, after which some official people with badges asked for passports and escorted is to the check-in area. Apparently there was nothing official about them at all, and they just wanted a tip for showing you where to check in. Seriously, the airport is two rooms – one for waiting and one for checking in. Did they not think we could figure it out? Eventually they went away without a tip, but they were hassling the woman in front of us pretty hard. She told them all she had was a 20 euro bill, and they took it…and eventually she realized she wasn’t getting any change. Amateur mistake!

No problems at all checking in, short wait for immigration and security, then the Angola-style “please come into this room.” I managed to get out of it, but it was the currency control room, where they tried to find money on you which you hadn’t declared…and take it. Ian got away with no issues and we got to wait in the departure haul which maybe had a couple hundred seats and was buzzing with flies and mosquitos, even at 5am. There were even a couple of stray cats to complete the wildlife scene. Eventually one of the shops opened and was selling bottles of water so we could get rid of the rest of our currency. There apparently was a Mauritania Airlines lounge, but if it’s even still in business it was very, very closed at this hour. Instead, we were treated to several people watching loud bollywood movies without headphones in the waiting area. Ugh.

Boarding eventually started about 30 minutes before departure, and was a walk across the tarmac to the plane. I tried to take my phone out to get a photo, but was quickly yelled at by one of the security guys. Ok, I get it, no photos.

Turkish Airlines flight 593
Nouakchott, Mauritania (NKC) to Dakar, Senegal (DKR)
Depart 06:00, Arrive 07:00, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-900, Registration TC-JYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 94,894
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,284,419

The flight goes Istanbul – Nouakchott – Dakar – Istanbul, and when we boarded there were still about 50 people on the plane, headed to Dakar. Of course one of them was in my assigned seat and looked annoyed when I showed him my boarding pass. The flight attendant looked annoyed to, and just said “take any seat.” Uh, ok, score another one for Turkish Airlines.

Took off maybe 15 minutes late, but with a flight time of only about 40 minutes we arrived right on time. Nothing was offered at all to eat or drink on the short flight, and soon we arrived Dakar. It was also still mostly dark when we took off, so no real photos for this completely unremarkable sector other than a view of Dakar as we came in for landing:

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The 50 people got off in Dakar, and maybe 100 more boarded, and it looked to be a nearly full flight back to Istanbul. I only saw two empty seats in business and maybe a handful that I could see back in coach. Fortunately, there was a crew change and our rather surly crew was replaced by one that only seemed mildly annoyed.

Turkish Airlines flight 593
Dakar, Senegal (DKR) to Istanbul, Turkey (IST)
Depart 07:55, Arrive 17:55, Flight Time: 7:00
Boeing 737-900, Registration TC-JYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,200
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,287,725

True to form on Turkish we had a “chef” on board. I’m pretty sure they’re just flight attendants who wear a chef’s hat and apron, but hey, it’s amusing. I usually go with the lemonade pre-departure the offer, but this flight decided to go with the orange juice. Unfortunately, the turkish delight they normally hand out with it was missing this flight:

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So what’s for breakfast this morning?

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Flight attendant came around with hazelnuts, which have mercifully moved from being in a bag to a bowl. Must have been some blowback from the Korean Airlines incident. When I asked for a mimosa, they looked confused. I decided to explain “can I get a champagne and orange juice.” “Oh we have no alcohol on this flight. I think it is because of the religion.” Seriously what. the. eff. I get not serving it out of Mauritania as a dry country but what is the point on a Dakar to Istanbul flight? Is it because it was the first day of Ramadan? Doubtful, as they were serving us food during the day…I was cranky, and decided I needed coffee…and another fresh orange juice:

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Usual delicious turkish appetizers…cheese, pepper slices, jam, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and fruit. Super tasty…now I’m craving peppers and cheese…

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The “turkish pancake” – I wasn’t very impressed with it. Found it incredibly bland with almost no flavour at all. I spread a little of the jam on it and that helped, but overall, not impressed.

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Five hours flew by. Seven hours is a seriously long flight on a 737, but at least Turkish gives generous pitch in business class with plenty of room to stretch out. I killed time watching movies on my iPad, and a small snack before landing. Yes, more cheese and sliced peppers on a roll, and the delicious berry cake that Turkish often serves. Mmmm….

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Overall, for a seven hour flight it wasn’t the greatest but it could have been much worse. We landed in Istanbul right on time, and I checked at the transit desk to pick up my boarding pass for the next morning. I had decided to splurge when I was in Mauritania and changed my routing home. The Turkish flight had always been planned, but then I was going to go on to Zurich for a night in Turkish business, then take United first nonstop home. Decided since there was availability to treat myself to an Istanbul to Frankfurt routing on a Turkish A330 followed by Lufthansa first home via Newark. A few hours later, the nonstop Frankfurt to Dulles opened up so I ticketed that.

First time I’ve ever seen absolutely no immigration line at Istanbul, and since we’d done the eVisa we didn’t have to wait in line at all. Quick trip through customs and a stop at Starbucks in the arrivals hall to get some caffeine in an attempt to wake up. We tried calling Uber, but after several minutes nobody had responded, so we decided to take a regular cab.

We were staying at the Gezi Hotel Bosphorus, part of Starwood’s relatively new Design Hotels collection. Normally I choose the W in Istanbul, but it’s not walkable to all that much, and the Gezi is right on Taksim Square. It was a relatively long taxi ride since traffic was heavy, and when we arrived the room wasn’t ready – because despite requesting a room with two beds they informed us they had pushed them together and made one bed. They invited us for more coffee in the restaurant while we waited, and 15 minutes later, the room was ready. We were definitely rewarded with a great view of the city:

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Quick stop in the room, and then we headed out. Unfortunately, it was already 7pm at this point and although we’d hoped to wander around a bit and at least see the Grand Bazaar and maybe the Hagia Sofia from the outside, we were absolutely wiped out. We took the Tunel metro down to the water and walked around for maybe 45 minutes before admitting defeat and heading back to grab some dinner near Taksim Square.

We decided to head to Faros Kebap on the recommendation of a coworker, and life was much better after a couple of large beers…and a cheese appetizer…holy cow that’s a lot of cheese:

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I went with the pistachio kebab for a main, and it was super tasty:

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At this point I was a bad influence and insisted we get some raki…and of course baclava to go with it:

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Short walk back to the hotel, and time to pass out at 11. That early morning wakeup call was going to come far, far too early…

May 242016
 

I had decided the night before that given a 9:35 flight time, and the desire to be there 90 minutes minimum before, combined with the fact the Bakerloo Line wasn’t running all the way to Paddington Station, that I was going to take an Uber to Paddington. I figured I already had my ticket from there, so this would be the best value for time and money.

Uber showed up within just a few minutes of requesting it, it was a pretty inexpensive ride to Paddington, and I even had time to grab some Starbucks at Paddington before my train departed. Say what you will about UK trains, but the fact trains were running on a reduced schedule this Saturday due to track work was well-posted everywhere, and the train left exactly when the sign said it would. Pretty good in my book!

Had to catch the shuttle train over to Terminal 4 for Etihad, which meant about a five minute wait followed by another two minutes or so on the train. Overall not too bad. From there, it was a relatively short walk to the check-in area, where the Etihad checkin was deserted about 1:30 before flight time. Quick and efficient check-in at the dedicated first class counter, no questions asked about checked bags, and off to security.

No wait at all at the priority security line, and was through and to the lounge maybe ten minutes after check-in. Could have been even quicker if it wasn’t a slight bit of a walk to the lounge. Took the elevator down to the lounge, checked in, and went into what was an extremely crowded lounge. There were only a few seats to be had, since Etihad operates a combined lounge for both first and business class. In fairness, as soon as I sat down an attendant came over to ask what I would like to drink and delivered it quickly, but there is nothing first class about a crammed full lounge with nearly 100 people in it.

After about 15 minutes I was over it, and decided to go for a short walk up and down the terminal to stretch my legs a bit before the big event. Unfortunately, this was another area where Etihad missed the mark. After boarding those with disabilities and families with children (at which point 50+ people boarded), they offered combined boarding for first, business, and elite members all at the same time. There was a fair bit of pushing and jostling (I hadn’t lined up, expecting first to be called first) and probably should have just waited to board last. To top things off, my boarding pass beeped and I was informed my seat was inoperative. Fortunately, it would turn out I was the only person in first class and they had put me in 3A instead of 3K – the same exact seat, just a different side.

Etihad flight 12
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Abu Dhabi, UAE (AUH)
Depart 9:35, Arrive 20:10, Flight Time: 7:35
Airbus A380, Registration A6-APF, Manufactured 2015, Apartment 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 79,194
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,268,719

I was welcomed on board by the agent at the door, and shown to my apartment for the flight, first impressions were WOW – that’s a lot of space!

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I was told to just leave my bags, and they would stow them for me after everyone had boarded. See what I mean by a lot of space? This is the perspective of the apartment from the seat:

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As soon as I was seated, it was suggested I might like a glass of champagne. Apparently, word about me had gotten out. Although the Bollinger Grande Année isn’t the most expensive first class bottle out there, I give Etihad points for originality and trying something different. Served with some dates and Arabic coffee:

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So, what’s the menu?

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Panoramic view of the suite:

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Since I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, I decided to go with a full lunch just after departure. Not just mixed nuts, but also wasabi peas and olives were offered, very nice touch!

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After that, the table was set for lunch:

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A rather unusual pea terrine as an amuse-bouche…different…

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The Arabic mezze as an appetizer. It was good, but a bit on the bland side overall. I was pretty surprised for such an extravagant hard product Etihad wouldn’t offer caviar as a starter.

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Extremely strange palate cleanser…I couldn’t quite make out what the flavours were supposed to be.

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The salmon main course. In fairness, most places usually overcook salmon on the ground, so it’s no surprise this was also a little overdone. However, considering it was done on a plane and served with creative sides, overall it was a pretty good main course.

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Now that’s better – this is what I call a cheese plate! However, the fact there were only two cheese was a bit on the stingy side, although the self-described “fruit paste” was a tasty addition.

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I wasn’t in the mood for anything sweet at this point, so spent the next few hours watching some movies and tv on the entertainment system. There was a very good selection of both movies and tv, and plenty to keep you entertained on the longest of flights.

Just over an hour from landing, I used the call button (something I’ve only recently become comfortable doing) and asked if I could have the famous Etihad steak sandwich and a glass of the Malbec. The sandwich was a bit underwhelming, but the Malbec definitely exceeded expectations:

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One last shot of the door to my apartment before landing. Maximum 3 passengers during flight:

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Upon landing, there was an extremely long line at passport control. Fortunately I’d been given a priority lane card, but this was shared with every other first and business class passenger arriving at the same time. All told, I had to wait over 20 minutes for passport control, which again is not very first class. Normally I wouldn’t blame the airline for lines at passport control, but given that Etihad (along with Emirates and Qatar) receive significant government support, passport lines are certainly within their control if they wanted.

Overall thoughts on the Etihad apartments? The seat was far and away the most space I’ve ever had on a plane. Granted, I wasn’t able to try it for sleeping so I’m not sure how comfortable it is as a bed, but overall the space was amazing. Plus, being the only passenger in first sure didn’t hurt either! The service was also top notch. The crew was the perfect balance of being friendly, personable, and professional. They were friendly and willing to chat if you wanted, but also were never the least bit bothered by any request.

The food service was slightly below what I would have expected. I expect international first class meals to have a bit of a wow factor, and on this flight it felt just like super fancy business class food. Nothing special to set it apart. The real disappointments were the ground service. Overcrowded lounge, poor boarding process, and poor airport experience on arrival.

Speaking of arrival…I had prebooked the airport transfer, and not knowing the process I went to the transfer desk where they confirmed that yes, I had preordered it, and should just go curbside to be taken care of. The curbside process was quite efficient, with the queue managers having scanners that would scan your boarding pass and confirm your transfer, and in just a couple minutes they had you in a car. Again, one more area Etihad fell short, first class was grouped with business class so I ended up waiting nearly 10 minutes for a car. If you’re going to offer a first class product, you need to make sure to provide more than business class on the ground as well.

That said, the car was very comfortable, equipped with water, powerful AC, and reading materials, and after a short ride I was at my hotel – the Aloft Abu Dhabi. Normally, I avoid “discount” chains like the plague, but my previous Aloft experiences in Bogota and Denver have left me with a rather positive impression of the brand. To top that off, many reviews list Abu Dhabi as the best Aloft in the world, so I was curious to give it a try given the extremely low rate for SPG redemption.

Friendly reception, confirmed an upgrade to a larger room, and then offered me free breakfast, two free drinks at any of their bars or restaurants, as well as two free gourmet coffees at any venue. Wow, not bad on a 2,000 Starpoints rate!

It was getting late at this point, and I was pretty tired, so I headed up to the rooftop bar to enjoy my two free pre-bed drinks. How can you resist something called the Absolutely Fabulous when you’re in Abu Dhabi?

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Overall, big points to the Aloft Abu Dhabi! I was super pleased with the experience, and it’s probably one of the best SPG value for money experiences I’ve ever had! I didn’t have a huge breakfast the next morning, but they had a huge buffet open as well. There was quite literally nothing about this hotel that could have been improved. Location-wise, I’m not sure how great it is, but it was convenient to the airport, and unless you’re a diva who needs the Ritz Carlton every time, this hotel can’t be beat. Anyone who reads my blog knows what a princess I can be when it comes to hotels, so when I say this property has it all…it really does!

Now, off to the airport for one more Etihad first flight home…

May 222016
 

Got to sleep in a slight bit since my flight wasn’t leaving until around noon, and I just hoped there wouldn’t be metro/RER drama this morning on my way to the airport. Stopped for a coffee then headed to the metro; quick transfer at Les Halles and caught an RER after just a few minutes. Unfortunately, the train was absolutely packed and was hotter than a sauna. Everyone was starting to drip sweat, and since I had extra time decided to get off at Gare du Nord and wait for the next train.

Next train was much cooler, and empty to the point I even got a seat, and from there it was a quick 30 or so minute ride to the airport. Quick walk back over to Terminal 2A, where there was a super long check-in queue for British Airways – even in the priority line. Seemed most passengers were connecting onwards to North America and had 1,400 suitcases each. Finally got to the front of the line, and got to have a bit of an argument with a check-in agent who insisted my rolling bag could not possibly fit in overhead bins. She insisted I check it.

I told her it does fit, agents don’t have a problem with it, and finally she gave in and said “fine, I’m working the gate too, we can ask the flight attendants!” With that, I headed off to a painless security queue and eventually made my way to the lounges…since the every-so-friendly check-in agent hadn’t told me which lounge to go to, when confronted with the choice of Cathay or American, well, I made the logical choice.

Since I’d only had coffee I was pretty hungry, so decided to see if there was anything interesting to eat….and OMG there it was…crack from Hong Kong. I was given a buzzer to await my crack dealer to arrive…

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Soon it buzzed, and crack in a bowl was delivered – DanDan Noodles. The glass of champagne almost didn’t happen since I encountered some kind of stopper I couldn’t figure out how to get off the bottle. Neither could the other two people who were trying. Fortunately, we were saved by a lounge attendant, and brunch was salvaged!

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Got to the gate just as they were about to begin boarding and of course nothing at all was said about my bag…which of course fit just fine in the overheads just as it had on the way in.

British Airways flight 309
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 12:05, Arrive 12:25, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A319, Registration G-EUPS, Manufactured 2007, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 75,762
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,265,287

Super quick flight, but not too quick…and lived up to the challenge of managing two minis of champagne before landing. Another very impressive meal for such a short flight that hit the spot perfectly.

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Took the Heathrow Express into the city, and assuming that I would have Etihad chauffeur service I’d booked in at the Le Meridien Piccadilly. Unfortunately, Etihad decided my ticket was a connection despite the overnight, and thus not eligible for chauffeur service in London. Not a big deal at the end of the day…until I found out the Bakerloo line wasn’t running from Paddington to Piccadilly, meaning a transfer. Three trains to get to the hotel wasn’t bad in the middle of the day, but the next morning that wasn’t going to happen.

There was a line of eight people waiting to check in when I arrived at the hotel, so did something I rarely do which is go to the side of the counter dedicated for SPG Platinum check-in. No problem until the next in line was called, and I walked over to the agent. I got rudely shoved by a rather rotund American gentleman who was the next in the regular line and insisted “I was next!” I told the agent I was waiting for Platinum and his comment was “well I’m gold so f*** off.” What’s that thing about the ugly American again… Not wanting to waste time, I waited the two minutes.

It was 2:15 at this point, and I was told my room wasn’t ready. They had upgraded me to a junior suite, but it would be another 30 minutes before it was ready. I was told I could either leave my bags, or go wait in the lounge. Since it was only 30 minutes, I opted to wait in the lounge and the agent said she would call up when the room was ready.

An hour went by, and still no call. So I went down to the front desk, and “oh, yeah, it’s ready – sorry I forgot.” Ugh. I know the hotel can’t be blamed for the rude guy in the check-in line, but so far I wasn’t overly impressed. On the plus side, the junior suite was quite nice, and unusual for hotels in London the temperature was actually decently on the cool side.

I was starting to drag at this point, so walked around the corner to perhaps the poshest Starbucks I’ve even been in…which didn’t stop them from spelling my name wrong yet again:

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Spent the evening catching up with friends, including drinks, followed by dinner, followed by more drinks. The hotel did turn out do be in the perfect location for walking from place to place, and was definitely a good choice! Got a nice view of Piccadilly Circus at night on the walk back to the hotel:

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With that, my short stopover in London had come to a close and it was time to get some rest so I could enjoy the capstone of the trip – flying Etihad in Apartments and First Class to Washington via Abu Dhabi!

May 102016
 

Slept in a bit, and had one final walk around the town before getting ready to head to the airport. It was maybe a 90 second walk from my hotel to the terminal at Funafuti…the terminal which is huge:

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Went to the airport at 9:30 to check-in three hours before the flight as recommend, which was maybe a 90 second walk…if that. I was ticked off the list of passengers they had, they checked my bag, and I got to choose my seat from one of those sticker seatmaps. Then, I was asked to complete immigration…which took about 5 seconds. After immigration…we were free to go. Yes, we had technically left the country, but they didn’t care if we left the airport. To quote the immigration guy “small country, we can find you!” Hahaha, guess there’s not a big problem here with people getting stamped out of the country and then deciding not to leave…

My hotel had a 10a checkout policy, and I really didn’t want to wait around in the hot and sticky airport terminal for 2.5 hours. They offered 11a checkout for an extra 20 Australian dollars, and I was sold. Small price to pay for an hour of air conditioning!

Finally at 11, I walked over to the Hotel Filomena, which is right next to the terminal, and does a brisk business on its patio selling drinks to waiting passengers. Right beyond the patio fence, you see the runway:

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Plane arrived right on time, and we boarded about 20 minutes before scheduled takeoff. Quick boarding, and doors were closed 10 minutes early. Every seat was taken today, except the one next to me! Everything was going right this trip. It’s easier they said to take a full plane back to Fiji, since there are other diversion options near Suva.  However, if they get near Funafuti and can’t land, it requires going almost all the way back to Fiji!

Fiji Airways flight 280 – Operated by FijiLink
Funafuti, Tuvalu (FUN) to Suva, Fiji (SUV)
Depart 12:20, Arrive 14:50, Flight Time: 2:30
ATR 72-600, Registration DQ-FJZ, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,579
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,251,104

View just after takeoff of Funafuti Atoll. See the wide part on the “corner?” That’s where the airport and “city” of Funafuti are located:

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Full lunch offered, beef or chicken. Went with the beef, and it was surprisingly good!

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Landed in Suva right on time, and had a nearly three hour wait for my connection to Nadi. I decided since the Tuvalu jinx was now broken to hit the cafe in the Suva airport, and enjoy a slice of their now-famous chocolate cake. It was just as tasty as I remembered!

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Time actually passed rather quickly, and soon it was time to board the final leg.

Fiji Airways flight 18 – Operated by FijiLink
Suva, Fiji (SUV) to Nadi, Fiji (NAN)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 18:30, Flight Time: 30 minutes
ATR 42-600, Registration DQ-FJY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,655
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,251,180

Boarding our ATR at twilight made for cool views of the plane:

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Nothing to say – very uneventful 30 minute flight. Sat next to a Fiji Airways employee and discussed the challenges they’ve had in the past and how they’re really working hard to overcome past problems. I have to say, my experience was night and day better compared to my previous attempt 18 months before, and it looks like Fiji Airways, formerly aka Air Hot Mess, might actually be improving!

Grabbed a taxi back to the Sheraton, where I had an incredibly honest driver who told me the fare was $25 when I asked him to confirm it was $30. It’s always nice getting honest taxi drivers!

The Sheraton, however, was a mess. The first room they gave me the AC didn’t work, and it took three visits from maintenance before they would admit it. All this time, I was also waiting for a room service menu in the room, since it didn’t have one, and it took them over an hour to bring it. Two hours after check-in, they finally agreed the AC would never work and reluctantly agreed to let me move rooms. The second room was perfect, and I have no idea why they were so reluctant.

Overall, this stay really left me with a sour taste in my mouth. There was no warmth or desire to help from the employees, and they acted as if they were being annoyed when you asked for things. To top it off, when I checked out it took 10 minutes of arguing about the rate despite me having a printed confirmation. Overall, while Fiji Airways seems to be well on the road to improvement the Sheraton is definitely going the other direction. Next time, I would definitely look elsewhere on Denarau.

I’d originally planned three nights in Fiji in case I had to try to go to Tuvalu a second or third try, but since I made it on the first I cut my stay in Fiji short and instead of heading directly to Hong Kong, I decided to head to Sydney for a couple days in between. Next up: Nadi to Sydney on the Fiji Airways A330.

Jan 172016
 

About two weeks before the trip, I got an email from SPG that the Sheraton Gambia Resort was no longer the Sheraton, but had kindly agreed to honour SPG awards but not benefits. Well, considering it was like 2,000 SPG points per night (a complete bargain since I value points at 2.5 cents…meaning $50 a night and the paid rates were over $200) I could forego the benefits for a super cheap stay.

Upon arrival, the resort looked much better than online reviews would lead you to believe. People complained about shoddy run-down facilities, terrible food, disinterested staff, mosquitos eating you alive in the middle of the night, you name it. People did not have nice things to say about this property.

I got a nice little bungalow on the second level, and overall it seemed good. It was a bit damp and musty smelling, but hey, this is a country where humidity hovers around 99% so what do you except. Clearly not rebranded toiletries:

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After a quick shower to wash off the plane gross, headed down to the hotel outdoor bar and cafe for a bit of dinner. The creatively named JulBrew (Banjul, get it?) and a big heaping plate of chicken yassa. Definitely super tasty! I don’t know why people were complaining about the food…AND cheap! Most of the people at the resort were Brits and on all-inclusive package tours, so they seemed quite confused when we wanted to sign our drinks to the room.

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Had a good night of sleep, and in the morning had to be up at oh-dark-thirty for our “Roots Tour.” Daniel had found the tour, and since the former Sheraton was a bit out of town, we were the early stop on the tourbus pickup. The bus kindly came with a map of The Gambia on it, so you could see the river – part of which we’d be navigating. This seemed like a good way to spend the day, since when an entire country is named after a river it would be a shame not to spend some significant time on said river!

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The views from the pier weren’t half bad…it was a bit overcast, which was great for keeping the temps cool:

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Our boat:

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Just kidding…this was our boat…marginally better:

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After a nice two hour or so cruise up the river in relative cloud cover, we finally docked on this beach:

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…and arrived at the twin villages of Albreda and Juffureh:

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The “Roots Tour” was so named because in the 1970s American author Alex Haley wrote a book called Roots which claimed he had traced his slave ancestry all the way back to The Gambia and “The African Kunta Kinte.” These were the villages Kunta Kinte were supposedly from. I say supposedly, because there’s lots of controversy around the book involving plagiarism and allegations that the book is largely a work of fiction based on what he experienced trying to find his roots. Regardless, it was a very interesting insight into his journeys. A “never again” monument to slavery in the village:

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The remains of an old Portuguese church – possibly one of the earliest Christian churches in Africa:

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The women and children of the village were all assembled to sing for us…and of course the donation basket was out:

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Jali, playing the Kora – he wrote a special Ode to Jordan the Traveler…unfortunately I can’t get the video to post!

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Jufurreh…a baby-friendly community!

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…and there were certainly lots of children around…again, note the donation tin. Pay us for being cute!

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Women pounding out grains for either tourist photos or to eat…it was unclear which. But the way she pointed at me…and said YOU PAY ME…I have my suspicions…

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We were followed around the village the whole time by a group of local Gambian police, including my friend “The Colonel.” He kept saying to me “Big man! My friend! You lift weights!” To his credit, he never asked for money or anything, he just wanted a photo as we got on the boat and ready to leave…I love this pic!

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Once back on the boat, a buffet lunch was served. Some spicy beef rice (with extra hot sauce), pumpkin, and other local vegetables. Rather tasty!

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Soon, we were approaching Kunta Kinteh Island:

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Why was this island so important? Well I’m glad you asked!

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Remains of the old fort where slaves were held, often hundreds to a room, before transport on to Goree Island in Senegal and eventually across the ocean:

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Cannons from the Old Fort:

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More ruins of the fort:

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After the island, we settled in for the long two plus hour cruise back to Banjul. Chatted with a couple of Londoners on the trip back, who snapped this pic of us just handing out on the boat…complete with passed out Swedish tourist in the foreground:

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On the way back into town, we convinced the bus driver to stop a second to snap a picture of the national liberation monument:

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Back at the ex-Sheraton, and after a quick dinner completely passed out. Daniel was staying at another place across the street, so once we had dinner he took off and I’m pretty sure we all passed out quickly.

Up early, and a nice view of the pool, with the ocean in the background:

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Beach chairs, and a volleyball net:

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The beach at the resort…only moderately crawling with local hucksters trying to entice you on boat tours, “come drink with me in my local bar” (I mean, I’d love the chance to get drugged and mugged, sign me up!), etc…and it was a nice beach, so worth the mild hassle:

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Strange art at the resort. There were several cats roaming the property, and this was apparently an artist’s rendition:

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The walls of the resort were covered with all sorts of local art:

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We had arranged with the bus driver from the day before to drive us to the Senegal border in the morning instead of trying to negotiate with some random taxi, and while we waited, I checked out the local news. The President was apparently urging all Gambians to live “as one strong family”

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There were also 20+ full page ads in the newspaper from various companies, wishing His Excellency, President Sheikh Professor Doctor Al-Hadji Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa a Happy New Year. Now if that name isn’t impressive…

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Our driver arrived right on time, and it was time to get on the road for Senegal!