Sep 222017
 

I was feeling a bit lazy in the morning, so I decided to spend the extra $20 or so to save 30 minutes or so and call an Uber to the airport. Last time I tried this, there was a super long backup for cars to get into the airport so it actually took longer, but this time it went absolutely perfectly.

Unfortunately, Singapore’s check-in was at the very last desk in the hall, which meant quite a walk inside the airport once I’d been dropped off. However, once I got there, I was rewarded with my very own lane:

The check-in agent confirmed that yes, I was the only one in Suites today, and I would have the entire cabin to myself. Score! After a quick duty free shop it was through security and immigration which was pretty quick, and then a rather long walk to the satellite gates where many of the Star Alliance airlines have their gates.

Once in the Singapore First lounge, strangely, there were about 10 other people hanging around, in addition to 4-5 lounge staff who were all sitting around and having a chat. Rather strange, especially since I knew I was the only one in suites today. The others, I assume, were top level Singapore elites, but the whole environment was a bit strange. Anyways, made a quite pit stop before getting food….I’m surprised anyone in a first class lounge needs to be told this is recycled water and they shouldn’t drink:

Agent presented me with a menu of what was on offer in addition to the buffet…naturally, I went with some eggs benedict:

The buffet did look rather tasty, however. Even with ten or so people in the lounge you had to wonder how long it had been sitting around for though…

Most important part of the buffet. I tried to pour myself a glass of champagne, but the lounge staff was mortified and insisted on bringing it to me.

The “living room” area of the lounge:

My eggs benedict were super tasty, although my Veuve came cut with orange juice. I suppose it was only 10am so I can forgive this, but I did ask for “champagne.”

I love the little seating cubes that Singapore has in their first lounges. They’re the perfect combination of private, space, functional, etc.

I think I tried two or three different times to go down to the gate to board starting about 45 minutes before the flight, only to be told by the lounge attendant that it wasn’t time yet. Of course, with about 15 minutes left until departure I tried again, at which point she simply told me “yes, you can board now.” Hmmm…..

Singapore Airlines flight 232
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Singapore (SIN)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 17:20, Flight Time: 8:20
Airbus A380-800, Registration 9V-SKD, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 93,106
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,470,083

Once aboard, however, the crew instantly greeted me by name (easy since I was the only passenger in Suites) and was the perfect blend of helpful and hands off. Normally, I struggle with crews that are cold and lazy or the other extreme: too deferential and won’t let me have a bit of space. From the very first moment this crew read me perfectly. Nice note in my suite letting me know it was ready for me:

Glass of champagne? Don’t mind if I do!

Overhead view of the 12 suites Suites cabin:

My suite, taken from the door:

Seated, looking across to the other site of the plane with all the doors/windows opened:

Bit of an angled shot into the suite directly across the aisle from me:

Have champagne, am happy, ready for takeoff:

After takeoff, candied nuts and more champagne. Personally wasn’t a big fan of the candied nuts.

Next up was the caviar course, which was fantastic. Debated asking for another helping, however, knowing all the food that was coming I was glad I passed. It was served with some of the butteriest and most garlicky bread I’ve ever had on a plane. Winning!

White onion and thyme soup with prosciutto ham…was way more flavourful than expected!

Very tasty salad with cranberries, goat cheese, and walnuts:

…and the book the cook main course, the Boston Lobster Thermidor. The most interesting part to me was that Singapore offers two different lobster thermidor dishes, but depending where it’s catered from it seems potlatch which you will eventually get. It was slightly overcooked, but given it was being served on a plane it was pretty tasty!

Warm rosemary apricot tart with vanilla ice cream…amazing.

If you’ve read my blog for long, you know I can’t turn down cheese. I could make a whole meal of it…which gives me an idea for a future flight. However, I was pretty stuffed by this point. The crew, however, would not be deterred, and insisted on making me a cheese plate with a little bit of everything. I have to say, Singapore is the only airline that can rival Lufthansa in my books on the cheese course.

We’re finished, right? So I asked for a Johnny Walker Blue, one ice cube, so I could watch some tv. I was offered pralines. I declined. “Are you sure we can’t just bring you one?” Ok, one. This is what came:

They tried to give me more food before landing, but I just couldn’t. I was still stuffed. Plus, the whole point of arriving Singapore late afternoon was to enjoy the magic that is Singapore’s street food scene! I did, however, have one more Johnny Walker for the road. This flight was absolutely amazing, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. My last A380 flight in February I felt a little cheated because I slept 90% of it, but this time I definitely maxed out the experience!

First thing I wanted upon landing was a washroom, and look…first one I found had a perfect view – from the urinal – of the plane I had just arrived on:

My phone rang at this very second, and reminded me:  “Welcome to SIN!”  Uhhh…..

Decided rather than melt in the humidity I would try Uber once more, which was super easy, and soon I was checking in at the Westin. After a shower and a bit of rest, headed up to the executive lounge, which had a rather impressive happy hour buffet and drinks service, despite the lounge being absolutely empty.

Impressive, except this scary jell-o concoction:

After recovering a bit, I headed out to one of the best things about this hotel. It is right around the corner from the Lau Pa Sat market, which has a street next to it that is known as “Satay Street” at night. So, it was time for dinner: delicious chicken satay.

See the right side of the pic? That is more than a dozen stalls with grills all making satay. Plenty to choose from, and all delicious. But the heat, smells, and humidity are overwhelming!

I was pretty exhausted at this point, so headed back to the room to get some sleep. Only one problem. When I opened the door, I couldn’t see anything. This was perhaps the most strangely designed room I’d been in anywhere in the world. No light switches near the door. When I finally did find one, I took pics to show why it’s so confusing.

View from the door. Imagine this long corridor in the dark:

Then, when you find your way to the end and turn left, you have THIS long corridor…also pitch black. See where my suitcase is? Once you pass that, there is finally a light switch on the left. Incredibly odd design!

That said, after dozens of times in Singapore, this was only the second time a hotel has really impressed me. I seem to stay somewhere different every trip, and never am super happy with my stay. They’ve all been “fine” and never really “bad” but also never impressive. The Westin, however, despite the light switch, I really liked. The other one I’ve really liked is the Mandarin Oriental, but for price reasons, that’s just not a regular option.

The view, however, from the approximately 30th floor “lobby” of the Westin is great:

After an all too short overnight in Singapore, it was time to head back to Changi Airport to enjoy the world’s best airport and also the Private Room Singapore First Lounge! Called another Uber, and I was on my way…

Sep 142017
 

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

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

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

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

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

Looking up at the peak of Lion’s Head:

Towards the water as the sun set:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Sep 062017
 

I had forgotten that one of the best things about southbound/northbound redeye flights with no time zone change is the total lack of jetlag. Ended up going to bed around 10p my first night in Santiago, and slept over nine straight wonderful hours due to being so tired…and no waking up in the middle of the night due to jetlag. It was wonderful!

First stop was down the street to Starbucks to get some coffee and wake up, but for some reason (despite the opening hours indicating otherwise) the store was closed 45 minutes after it was supposed to open, and there was no sign of life inside. Hmm, oh well, on to plan two – breakfast at the W which was included with my room.

For some reason was feeling like fruit this morning, so went for a light breakfast of fruit and cheese, along with plenty of coffee. Fruit was fresh and super tasty – does anyone know what the fruit in the upper right of the picture is?

Still hungry, I went for a bit more fruit…and some pastries of course…

Sufficiently awake, I checked out, and called an Uber to head to the airport. No problem getting an Uber this time (despite the supposed illegal status in Santiago) and was at the airport and checked in in no time at all. Through immigration and security rather quickly, and walked through the duty free shop on the way to try and find the lounge. In Russia there was vodka in plastic kalashnikov rifle bottles, and apparently in Chile there is pisco in Easter Island statues for sale. Anything as a gimmick for the tourist dollar!

Finally found the Starbucks, and no thanks to signs, the Avianca lounge which is hidden in the basement. Never would have found it without asking someone where it is. Makes you wonder why there aren’t signs. The lounge is about as disappointing as every Avianca lounge I’ve been in, but did the job with plenty of bottled drinks and some chocolate chip cookies to go with my espresso, so I was happy.

Headed to the gate about 40 minutes prior to departure, and there was a huge throng of people waiting to board. Lots of jetlagged people continuing on from Toronto, including the obligatory “I’m a silver elite member” pushing people out of the way to try and board. Ahhh….just like being back home. But the Air Canada baby blue 787 looked striking against the grey, rainy sky:

Boarding was pretty easy, and a very friendly crew welcomed me on board and showed me to my seat – 1K

Air Canada flight 92
Santiago, Chile (SCL) to Buenos Aires, Argentina (EZE)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 13:40, Flight Time: 1:55
Boeing 787-9, Registration C-FKSV, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 74,624
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,451,601

Bienvenue á bord! Day three of trip, third language…

Must have gotten to the airport just on time, because the skies opened up and very heavy rain had begun to fall For pre-departure, the choice was water, water, or water. At least it wasn’t served in a plastic cup…

Great view of the Andes soon after takeoff. No sign of any soccer players…

Love this shot of the snow-capped Andes with the distinctive 787 wing.

The light clouds really added to the beauty.

About 30 minutes into the flight, lunch was served. Not too bad for a flight under two hours, and a continuation flight. I find generally when airlines do these “tag” flights onto a longer flight, the second flight has a tiny snack at best. This had a full lunch service which was super tasty. There was even a simple menu for the short flight:

High marks to Air Canada – the lunch was super tasty and fresh, and one of the better meals I’ve had on such a short route anywhere in the world. Plus, the Deutz is a less-common champagne that was a nice change from some of the more frequent offerings.

As we were approaching Buenos Aires, it was suggested I have another glass of champagne. My mild protests fell upon deaf ears….as did the ones 15 minutes before landing. “You’re having more, and I’ll put it in a plastic cup so you can enjoy it right up to the gate.” Did I mention I loved this crew?

Not feeling like dealing with Uber at the airport I allowed myself to get taken advantage of by the official taxi service, which was quick and prevented me from having to wait in the heavy rain outside looking around for an Uber. When I got to my hotel, the Sheraton Congress Centre, check-in was a little on the slow side, but they did inform me that they had upgraded me to a suite for my one night stay. Not too shabby for the low rate. The living room upon entry:

Looking from the living room back to the door and kitchen area:

Pretty typical bedroom, as big as most hotel rooms:

Great view out the window of the Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina, the Torre Monumental, and the Retiro train station:

Previous trips to Buenos Aires I had always stayed in the Luxury Collection Park Tower (which is right next to the Sheraton) but for some reason on this stay rates were more than double, and I figured for one night I would try and be a bit economical. Short version: I was perfectly happy with the Sheraton, and glad that I hadn’t spent the extra money simply for a nicer room.

It was still a light rain when I headed out, but decided to walk for a bit in hopes of not getting too wet. Monument to those killed in the wars in the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands:

Heading up the beginning of Avenida Florida past San Martin Park as dusk set in:

After about an hour of walking it was dark and I was getting damp and tired, so headed to my favourite parilla, El Establo, to get some delicious Argentine steak. The place was a bit more run down than I remembered it being, and of course prices are much higher now that the blue market exchange rate is more or less a thing of the past, but a half bottle of good malbec and a giant lomo/filet mignon with dessert was still under $30. Can’t beat it!

Almost perfectly cooked….could have been just the tiniest bit more red, but given the propensity of Argentines to overcook steak (even when ordered punto jugoso) I was very happy with it!

Now that was a LOT of steak.

…but of course, being Argentina, there was still room for some Dulce de Leche ice cream. Also being Argentina, there’s no such thing as a small dessert!

With that, it was getting late and I was getting tired, so it was time for some sleep so I could enjoy more Buenos Aires in the morning before heading onwards…

Sep 012017
 

I’m still not certain how I ended up with this routing, but once it all came together the circle around the world sounded really fun. Only problem was to make it work, somehow I had to get to Sao Paulo, Brazil, which would require a visa. After my previous nightmare getting a Brazilian visa nearly ten years ago I wasn’t looking forward to it, but this turned out to be easier than I expected.

Once this was planned, I couldn’t resist a couple more stops in South America, and when I found award space from Santiago to Buenos Aires then Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo it all seemed to fall into place. There was even award space from DC to Santiago with United so it all seemed to work out.

But then a few weeks before the trip, I started to have buyer’s remorse about all the miles I had spent on the trip, and began to think of ways to possibly cut things back a little. After a little checking, I found lots of space on Delta to Santiago, so decided that I would give standby a chance. Now, lots of people have realized over the last couple of years that even when you find space for an award ticket, the toughest part can be the domestic segment to your gateway. Unfortunately, I learned with standby it can be the same thing.

In the few days leading up to the flight, just about every flight from DC to Atlanta went from having lots of open seats to being nearly full. I probably would have gotten on one, but it looked very, very risky. After some checking, I knew I could get to LaGuardia, and since Delta flies to 30+ destinations from there I figured I could get from there to somewhere and eventually to Atlanta. Yes, the LaGuardia to Atlanta flights were also extremely full.

So, I found myself at the airport, and with lots of open space, no problem getting on the flight to LaGuardia.

Delta Shuttle Flight 6140, Operated by Republic Airlines
Washington DC, National (DCA) to New York, LaGuardia (LGA)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 12:13, Flight Time: 1:13
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N823MD, Manufactured 2005, Seat 7A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 68,281
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,445,258

DCA is one of the few airports I actually prefer a window seat, especially on the A side of the plane. On a clear day, I love this view right after takeoff:

…and on approach to LaGuardia, you’re treated to this. Makes being “penned-in” to a window seat very worth it. Fortunately, in this case, the aisle was even empty!

After landing and a short wait for the shuttle bus, it was off to the main terminal at LaGuardia to enjoy the Centurion Lounge for a bit…and plan how I would get to Atlanta.

Glass of Veuve Cliquot, a nice seasonal salad and some tomato soup made for a tasty lunch.

At this point things were still a little iffy, and I started playing around with options to get to Atlanta. Originally I was thinking of flying via Richmond, but that started filling up. Some more playing around, and I found an option I didn’t even know existed: Savannah, Georgia. The flights were wide open, so I booked it and then headed over to the Delta terminal to sit out the rest of the wait in the SkyClub.

I got there just in time, because they were rolling out the hot dog cart. Who knew they served hot dogs in the SkyClub. Fun, and different. Lunch part two, with a glass of wine.

Delta Flight 3366, Operated by Endeavor Air
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Savannah, Georgia (SAV)
Depart 15:10, Arrive 17:47, Flight Time: 2:37
Canadair CRJ-900, Registration N924XJ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 69,004
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,445,981

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who figured out this route. I was joined by another 20+ standbys also trying to get to Atlanta who figured out that this was likely the safest routing. Still not a full flight, and got both seats to myself…and a Comfort+ seat to boot. Can’t complain about that at all…and much better than getting the last middle seat on a nonstop to Atlanta from DCA!

Wine, Biscoff, and Almonds for the ride down to Savannah. Delightful service for a long regional flight.

20 minutes out from landing I looked at the radar, and found this. The blue cross was our location…this was going to be very bumpy on the ride in…

Wasn’t too bad as far as turbulence, but after deplaning looked out to the tarmac and saw this view. Yup, the skies are angry!

I admit – part of the reason I chose this route was to see a new airport I’d never been to before and to add to my routes flown. I may have to do these strange connections more often just to get a little variety on my flight map!

Although the connection was supposed to be only 30 minutes making it tight, thanks to weather things were a bit delayed and I ended up having almost 90 minutes between flights. Just enough time to get Starbucks and wake up a bit. Another fun fact: people may have heard of the “Big Mac Index” where the Economist did a relative cost of living exercise for different cities around the world using the price of a Big Mac. I’ve been doing the same at Starbucks for a couple of years, using the price of a grande drip coffee (tax included). If anyone would like to contribute to this project, feel free to send me datapoints!

Delta Flight 1475
Savannah, Georgia (SAV) to Atlanta, Georgia, ATL (ATL)
Depart 18:15, Arrive 19:25, Flight Time: 1:10
Boeing 717, Registration N972AT, Manufactured 2002, Seat 11E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 69,219
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,446,196

Not much to say about this flight – the crew spent the whole thing seated due to turbulence, which fortunately ended up not being as bad as expected. Nice short hop, and soon we were in Atlanta.

Checked one more time online, and things still looked very good, so I headed to the SkyClub to enjoy my time before boarding. Couple glasses of wine and some cheese, and when I saw I had been assigned a seat headed down to the gate to enjoy the spoils of my victory: saving 55,000 United miles and still getting to ride in the pointy end of the plane in DeltaOne.

Delta Flight 147
Atlanta, Georgia, ATL (ATL) to Santiago, Chile (SCL)
Depart 22:25, Arrive 08:00 next day, Flight Time: 9:35
Boeing 767-300, Registration N183DN, Manufactured 1993, Seat 7D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 73,914
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,450,891

Welcome aboard bubbles…in a glass. A real glass. Are you listening United and American?

Nice simple, but useful Tumi amenity kit.

Warm nuts came around after takeoff, which was nice…except for the tinfoil ramekin. Found out later from some in the know that there’s been a catering shortage in Atlanta recently which should hopefully be resolved soon.

Soup, salad, and appetizer were all served together on a tray. Normally I wouldn’t be too fond of this, but given it was a 10:30 pm departure, efficiency was appreciated.

The corn and green chili bisque with cilantro lime sauce didn’t look very appetizing, but was absolutely delicious.

Sad salad with ramekin of veg. I suspect maybe this was supposed to be poured over the salad before serving?

Went with the grilled beef tenderloin expecting it to be overcooked, which it was. It was still tasty tho, and the polenta and grilled artichoke were nice as a different side from the potatoes and mushy veg I’m used to.

For a US airline cheese plate this was really good, not to mention it was served with fig compote. Everyone knows how I like my fig compote! Plus, I can’t quite put my finger on it but the simplicity of the sundae was also really good. Big fan of this desert combo compared to what I’m used to on United and American.

Slept nearly seven hours after all the food and wine, and missed the breakfast service as usual on longhaul redeyes, waking up with just enough time to brush my teeth and put some contacts in before landing. On the walk to immigration, we were greeted with this sign:

I love how they blacked out other countries no longer subject to the reciprocity fee, and made it very clear only Australians are the bad guys in Chile these days. Immigration was nice and simple, and with that it was time to find my way to the hotel and start enjoying the trip!

Jul 082017
 

Up way too early, and check out at the AC Hotel was just as inefficient as the check in had been. Overall, given the price and quality of the room I would stay here again, but for a major chain hotel it was one of the least welcoming and service-oriented I have stayed in in a long time.

To that point that when we tried to take the airport shuttle to the airport (which we had confirmed the day before) the driver refused to take us, saying there were no reservations. Only by complaining to the front desk (who also had no record of our reservation from the day before) did they begrudgingly agree to take us. Oh, and on the way, we stopped at the other AC hotel and picked up several people. Were they just planning to not go at all? It made no sense.

We got to the airport, and check-in was an equally unpleasant experience. The checkin agent from Binter Canarias made a dramatic point of telling us it was a very small plane, and no, you can’t carry your bags on with you. Lots of sighing and unhappiness, but no requests for money, and our larger bags were checked. We were off to security which was quick and efficient, and then I was on a mission: find the Starbucks allegedly located somewhere in this airport.

It wasn’t too hard to find at the far end of the terminal from where our gate was, although they clearly had spelling issues. Also, not too sure why there’s Hebrew writing on my Evian bottle off the western coast of Africa, but it is what it is. I had caffeine, and I was a happy camper.

By the time we made our way to the gate it was almost time to board, which was via a bus, but all in all pretty quick and efficient. No complaints at all.

Binter Canarias flight 912
Las Palmas, Islas Canarias, Spain (LPA) to Funchal, Madeira, Portugal (FNC)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 12:20, Flight Time: 1:30
ATR 72-500, Registration EC-JQL, Manufactured 2006, Seat 11C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 62,798
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,439,775

Nice short flight in a relatively newish ATR-72, and to Binter’s credit, they served a sandwich and choice of drink on this short flight. I never feel like juice, but decided to order a pineapple juice. Maybe I subconsciously wanted to show that I knew the Spanish word for pineapple – who knows. Overall, given the flight length, aircraft, and route, I was pretty impressed overall with Binter (minus the salty checkin agent, of course).

After landing, I waited for our bags while Ian went and got the rental car sorted. He was driving this time, due to the lack of affordable automatic transitions, so it was up to him how and in what we got around. We got a relatively tiny car, which in the end would turn out to be somewhat of a blessing on the compact roads of Madeira.

Thanks to google maps, we had no problem at all finding the “hotel” we had reserved on booking.com, which in reality was really more of an AirBnB type situation. It was someone’s apartment which they had found a way to list, and honestly, it was my first AirBnB type stay. The owner was super good with communication in advance, and had directed us to a local parking garage which was perfect for us – about five minutes walk from the flat.

When we got there, the housekeeping lady was waiting for us, and gave us the keys without saying much at all. I got the impression she thought we wouldn’t speak/understand Portuguese at all, and that was fine. The flat was absolutely huge, about 100 square meters, with three bedrooms – way more than we needed. Yes, there was no air conditioning, which wasn’t great as it was quite warm, but for a couple of nights we dealt with it.

After grabbing a quick lunch near the flat, we decided to take the cable car up to the top of the mountains to see Madeira from above. The view just after leaving the cable car station:

Crossing over a highway on the way to the top:

View from the top:

We grabbed a small snack at the top (there’s a local liquor called “poncha” which is basically a strong fruit-based liquor with a pretty high alcohol content) so I had a mandarin one and a delicious Portuguese tart before walking around a bit. After walking around, it was time for the long cable car ride back to sea level. Pic on the way down with another car crossing behind:

Nearing the coast again. Nothing but Atlantic Ocean in the distance:

We relaxed for a bit in the flat and had a couple of glasses of wine, before heading out to find some dinner. We walked along the water to a place that looked interesting called Beerhouse. Even if the food wouldn’t be great, the view of all the boats on the water plus the hills of Madeira made for a great view:

After dinner we walked down the busy street near the flat (the Rua de Santa Maria) which was full of restaurants and bars. We stopped at a place called the Mercearia da Poncha which had just about every kind of poncha imaginable on the menu. I forget what Ian had, but I was brave and tried the absinthe poncha. It was definitely a good nightcap, and despite the warm temperatures in the flat I slept reasonably well.

Up early the next morning to begin our driving adventure around Madeira. We had slept in a bit and gotten a reasonably late start, so grabbed brunch near the flat which did reasonable coffees and sandwiches. Shortly before noon, we were finally ready to head out and explore the island.

We headed west out of town, to what was flagged as a great viewpoint – a “miradouro” which would become a term we would be familiar with over the next few days. The drive to the top was pretty terrifying as someone who doesn’t do great with heights, but when we got to the top of the Cabo Girão viewpoint we were rewarded with a great view:

Steep cliffs, 600 meter drop straight into the Atlantic:

After a small snack and a poncha to deal with the winding roads, we headed west to turn inland towards the north coast of Madeira on the VE4 road. Great views in the valley between two mountains/hills:

Looking down into the valley. Winding roads and hills everywhere:

Looking back towards the southern coast of Madeira. Gorgeous views:

After we reached the northern shore we turned east on the VE1. For some reason, google maps didn’t think this was a great way to the eastern coast (it wanted to send is all the way back south and east instead of along the northern shore) but with views like this, they must be wrong:

As we continued east, the road got progressively worse, until it was like this….hundreds of feet in elevation from the shore, and look at that tiny tunnel ahead:

Yes, this was taken from the car on the tiny road we were on. The northern shore almost reminded me of the Road from Hana on Maui, which has some similarly narrow and high up scary roads:

But the views made it so worth it:

I mean, look at this. Worth every minute of the relatively terrifying drive:

Eventually we got close to the eastern tip of the island, and the roads majorly improved. After stopping at a gas station for some Red Bull and snacks, we continued to the eastern tip of the island. The Ponta do Buraco looked to be a pretty major viewpoint (again, miradouro in Portuguese) on google maps, and it lived up to it when we got there:

I mean, look at the panorama of the bay:

Posing for a pic against beautiful nature:

After driving back to the city it was already evening, and a quick shower saw us off to dinner. We decided to stay near the flat since we had an early morning coming up, and ate at Restaurant Mozart. The Maitre D (dressed as Salieri) was an absolute hoot, and stopped by our table repeatedly during dinner to check up on us. Personally, I think he just had a thing for Ian 😉  Bottle of wine and tasting menu ordered, and away we go. Amuse bouche…with a Dorito. Very nouvelle cuisine of them:

For a starter, I went with the Beethoven, which was a delicious octopus carpaccio:

Next up was the Pedro de Cristo, parrot fish with baked tomato and brie cheese. Also excellent.

Selfie against the restaurant sign. We might have had a bit of wine at this point.

a small pre-dessert. As I mentioned, the service was excellent:

Desert was the Handel – honey cake pudding with crunchy topping and ice cream. Amazing.

The whole dinner was superb, and for the price I can’t recommend Mozart highly enough. Al fresco dining, super service, and a super tasty meal. Overall, much much more than I expected to find on the dining scene in Funchal!

After a good night of sleep, we picked a random cafe near the car park for breakfast the next morning. Espresso and pasteis de nata (portuguese custard tarts) for breakfast – can’t beat it for three euro!

After breakfast we left the flat (just leave the keys inside) and parked the car to check out the Christian Renaldo (aka CR7) museum. It was the biggest egopiece of a museum I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to North Korea) – the trophy room:

Vanity paintings all over the walls:

Even the staircase to the lower level was nothing but vanity:

Someone loves himself:

All in all, we crammed a lot into 1.5 days in Madeira. I could see spending more time there, but only if you wanted a really relaxing trip – or wanted to take things slowly. The driving is definitely not for the faint of heart, but I was super impressed by the quality of the food and the nature on the island.

Next, it was off to the airport and onto another Portuguese Island group, the Azores!

Jul 032017
 

We parked the car in front of our hotel, the A Casa Canut, where it was nice and simple to walk inside, hand the keys to the guy at the front desk, and he took it away to be parked for a very reasonable fee. The room I received was a bit on the strange side, in that it didn’t have a desk or anywhere to sit in the room. It was, however, considerably larger and less expensive than the previous time I had stayed here. I guess being there in June as opposed to August made a huge difference.

After dropping our things off, we headed out into the city of Andorra la Vella to walk around and explore. After grabbing a coffee at the new Starbucks, we came upon this bridge which required a photo. If there wasn’t going to be a passport stamp to document our visit to Andorra, a picture with this bridge would do:

Yes, I should have worn sunglasses…

Salvador Dali artwork near the bridge:

We continued our walk, taking in the sites of this quaint, yet very busy city nestled in the Pyrenees:

Looking out at the mountains:

All the walking had made us hungry, and it was already late afternoon, so retiring to a nice sunny square for some tapas and sangria seemed to be the logical thing to do:

Because octopus as a tapas in the middle of the mountains seemed so logical at the time…

We wandered for a couple more hours, and took part in some great duty free shopping deals, and ended up calling it a relatively early night so that we would be able to get up and enjoy the long drive back to Barcelona the next day the “long way.”

After getting up and grabbing some Starbucks for breakfast (since we weren’t hungry enough to pay 20+ euro each for the hotel buffet – even though I remember it being fantastic from the previous visit, we eventually checked out and headed out on our drive.

We had entered Andorra from the southern side which is the Spanish border, and would be heading out via the eastern French border. As with my previous trip to Andorra in 2014 the first stop would be  Llívia, a small Spanish enclave completely surrounded by France. The route highlighted on the map below is the route that we took into Andorra from Spain.

We were planning to go out the east side on the yellow road you see, and head down the E9 highway to Llívia. On my previous trip I found this border of Andorra to be much, much more mountainous, and a very scenic drive. Views on the windy road leaving the city:

Snow-capped Pyrenees:

Unfortunately, since my previous visit, the big windy roads and switchbacks had been replaced with a giant toll tunnel, and we missed the turnoff to be able to take the windy road instead. Oh well, it made for a bit of a quicker driver, and given the fog and light drizzle it was definitely a safer drive as well.

Soon after entering France (where we couldn’t find anywhere to stop for a passport stamp either) we came to right back into the Spanish enclave of Llívia:

The strangest thing happened after we parked in Llívia and started to walk around: the entire town seemed completely empty and there was nobody at all on the streets. We tried three or four restaurants to get a late lunch, and not a single one of them was open. It was the strangest thing.

We eventually did find one small restaurant and hostel open for lunch, and it was a three course meal. The proprietor spoke no english or french at all, and even his Spanish was a bit challenging. It was starting to feel like real Catalonia, until this strange noodle dish showed up:

There wasn’t really anything more to see in Llívia since everything appeared closed, and we were well ahead of schedule to make it back to Barcelona in time for our evening flight, so I convinced Ian to go ahead and detour to Perpignan, France for an afternoon coffee. I think I just wanted to cross the Spanish, French, and Andorran borders as many times as I could in one day, but there were some super windy mountain roads on the way towards Perpignan:

Note how it winds all the way down into the valley:

Train trains for the Ligne de Cerdagne, otherwise known as the Train Jaune:

For perspective, leaning on a rock and you can see just how far of a drop is by how tiny the road right behind me looks in comparison:

Our good luck, we happened to be there right as the Train Jaune was passing over the bridge. Not a ride for those with a fear of heights!

We entered Perpignan, but had real trouble finding somewhere to park the rather large Mercedes on the small town streets. We eventually spied an underground carpark next to a square, and decided to head in. It was extremely narrow, and would have been much better-suited to a small car, but I did manage to park it and we headed back up to the square for a coffee.

The coffee was served complete with ashtray on the table, because…France. Also, the espresso was delicious, again, because…France! Unfortunately there were no crepes or other food to be had, because the kitchen was “on a break” and “who can say” when they will be back. Repeat with me….France!

After walking around I did manage to extract the car from the parking garage, and the highway back to Barcelona was in fantastic condition (and full of tolls) and we made it in just a couple hours, in plenty of time to catch our onward flight. It was time to get on island time now…

Jun 162017
 

After convincing my driver that I knew what I was doing, he agreed on an 02:30 pick-up from my hotel for an 04:05 flight. They were strongly advocating a 01:05 pickup, but knowing there was absolutely nothing on the other side of security (and a 20 minute right to the airport) he relented to an 02:30 pickup.

Alarm went off at 2am, giving me about four hours of sleep, down to the front desk for a super quick checkout, and my driver was already waiting for me. I managed to still get to the airport about 02:45, and I was checked in and through immigration and security by 3am – still giving me 30 minutes to kill in the duty free and lounge.

Now, during the day, the duty free store is critical. They sell 2 Euro mini bottles of wine, red bull, and everything you could need for a successful airport wait or even flight if the crew doesn’t mind. It’s much better than what I honestly believe is one of the two worst airport lounges anywhere in the world. Almaty’s lounge is tied with Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, the only two lounges I’ve ever been in where you have to PAY for drinks.

This was my first time flying Lufthansa out of Almaty, and they were incredibly generous: you could have one beer or glass of wine on Lufthansa. Or a bottle of water. Everything else was pay. I decided to have a second beer, I was charged nearly 10 euro for it. Absolutely ridiculous. Still rates as one of the worst lounges anywhere in the world. I was still tired, and boarding was on time, and I had definitely made the right call not to endure this lounge for long:

Lufthansa flight 647
Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 04:05, Arrive 07:10, Flight Time: 7:05
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKR, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 52,184
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,429,061

Boarding was pretty efficient, and every seat in business was taken for this morning’s flight to Frankfurt. Business had had 6-8 seats free the entire week before the flight, but despite the load in coach being light, business somehow filled up, and first, which had nobody booked three hours before the flight, somehow went out full. No clue what contributed to this, and it didn’t really matter.

I was really impressed that Lufthansa actually bothered to do the safety announcement in Kazakh on top of Russian:

Shortly after takeoff, a light snack was offered. Perfect late night snack, with which a couple of glasses of wine put me to sleep for close to four hours. On top of the four hours I’d gotten in the hotel it was definitely plenty to keep me going for the next day. I find these super early morning flights really awkward timewise, but for jetlag they are a miracle. You’re plenty tired to sleep when you get on them, and when you wake up it’s bright and sunny out, and your body thinks it’s like 10/11am so it’s ready to go…even though it’s only like 7am local.

Upon waking there were about two hours left in flight, and the crew was going around individually as people woke up and offering them breakfast. Very nice touch. First time I’ve ever had an omelette and a chicken kabob with muesli for breakfast, but was definitely tasty.

I had nearly four hours in Frankfurt, so decided to of course clear customs and head out to Starbucks for some proper caffeination. My travel has gotten so bad the last six months the staff at the Frankfurt Airport Starbucks actually know me by name, and I was paid a nice compliment that my German was really improving. Can’t complain about that!

Unfortunately, about this time, I realized just how exhausted I was. I was supposed to land in DC, have a four hour turnaround, and then fly directly back to Madrid. It wasn’t happening. I called United, asked about changing, made a comment I was in Frankfurt, which was met with “but you fly DC to Madrid tonight” and there was one seat left in my fare class, and she was kind enough to waive the change fee because “it’s kind of like a same day change” and I was booked on the same flights the next day – giving me 24 hours in DC. Great customer service United!

After coffee to wake up it was back through immigration and security to the Z Gates and the Lufthansa Senator Lounge where I had my usual breakfast of bread, cheese, salami, cucumber, and tomato:

Boarding was right on time for my next flight, and it was absolutely packed full on all classes. Three weeks before departure they had downgraded it from a 747-400 to an A340, resulting in a massive loss of seats. The flight must have been lightly booked (at least not enough for a 747) but as an A340 it was going out completely full.

Lufthansa flight 416
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 10:30, Arrive 13:10, Flight Time: 8:40
Airbus A340-300, Registration D-AIFC, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 56,265
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,433,142

Shortly after takeoff, warm almonds and a glass of wine. This plane didn’t have first class, so I decided to just pretend since I was in row one it was kind of the same…minus the macadamia nuts and high class champagne:

Choice of three starters was offered for lunch, and I went with the “shaved black angus beef with lime crème fraîche, sweet chestnuts and Tête de Moine cheese” It was definitely unlike anything I’ve had on a plane before, but absolutely delicious!

Seasonal salad which was kind of sad, and wouldn’t have been at all out of place on United:

Choice of three main courses, and of course I went for the Spargel again…which instead of cold cuts was served with a veal tenderloin this time. Once again, super tasty and confirmed my favourite time of year on Lufthansa! Even in business class!

Far cry from the first class cheese cart, but this Chaumes, Gouda, and Goat Cheese with Date Sesame Honey Chutney was pretty good for business class. Can’t complain – except the lack of sweet biscuits.

Boo pre-packaged ice cream, but yay delicious Crème Brûlée flavour with mango. Definitely an unusual ice cream and super tasty.

Time flew super quickly watching lots of tv and napping a couple hours, and the pre arrival meal was served. Minestrone soup and caesar salad with chicken was ok, and the coconut raspberry pie just rated an “adequate.” The pretzel was the star of the meal, but did a nice job rounding off a solid business class service.

By the time I landed I was very glad I wasn’t turning around in four hours, although I could easily have made it home, showered, and back to the airport in time. Having even one night at home would make a major improvement on my enjoyment of my next part of the trip, as long as nothing further went long and didn’t make me need the extra night in Madrid I had booked along the way…

Jun 142017
 

Upon landing in Almaty fortunately immigration was super quick, and with no checked luggage I was probably from the plane to the sidewalk in under 10 minutes. The team I was visiting had insisted on sending a driver for me, despite my assurances that I was plenty comfortable navigating Almaty at 1am alone, but unfortunately he was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, I only had to wait 10 minutes and I was off to my hotel.

There really are three major choices of hotel that I have discovered in my trips: the Ritz Carlton, the Rixos, and the InterContinental. As far as rooms and facilities go, I think it is a draw between the Ritz Carlton and the Rixos. Both are true five star hotels. The Rixos is located more “downtown” and walkable to some restaurants and stores, while the Ritz Carlton is a bit more on the edge of the city. The InterContinental, while nice, is a fading four star hotel that just isn’t as modern and nice as the other two…and the same price.

I tried the Ritz on my last trip, and decided I liked it a little better than the Rixos for three reasons: (1) it’s located next to a luxury mall, with good places to eat like Paul and a lovely gourmet grocery store that is open until 2am (2) it’s part of Marriott, so in theory they recognize my Platinum status and (3) it’s right next door to a Starbucks.

…and when I say Starbucks, this was my morning view as I sat sipping my coffee on Starbucks’ patio:

Get to the hotel around 130a, check in, no room upgrade possible because they were full, and to my room only to find it had two beds. Normally not the end of the world, but the hotel had reached out to me three days prior as a Marriott Platinum and SPG 200 member, and ensured they would take care of my room preferences. They failed. That is now 0-for-3 for any sort of elite recognition at this property. Granted, I don’t stay at many Ritz Carltons, but is this the norm for the chain?

Honestly, not the end of the world, and while I was at work the next day they did move me to a room with one single king bed so it wasn’t a big deal. I slept great, woke up a bit early due to jet lag, and enjoyed this view of the city before heading downstairs to get some Starbucks:

Not much to say about the day. I refused the offer of a driver, and used Uber to get to and from the office, and it was a perfect experience – not to mention dirt cheap. Maybe $3 US for a 20-25 minute ride in each direction. In many ways Almaty functions perfectly right up there with major western cities, and is by far the most developed place in Central Asia.

Back to the hotel absolutely exhausted after a long work day, and only had energy for a quick dinner in the hotel bar.. Some manti (Kazakh dumplings) for dinner, and I was out like a light.

The event I was facilitating didn’t start until 10am the next day, so down to Starbucks again it was. On the patio the mountain view is one way, and this art view is the other direction:

The art is by Jaume Plensa, a Catalonian artist who has done lots of interesting work. Rather than pretend I know anything about art, I’ll just say I enjoyed this piece and lots of his stuff I googled online. Worth checking out if that’s your thing.

Then, also in the courtyard between the Ritz Carlton, Starbucks, and the mall is this Bottero sculpture:

It is worth noting as I enjoyed my coffee on this second morning, that the Almaty Starbucks (unlike almost every other one in the world) got my name perfectly right – despite ordering in Russian and slowly pronouncing it. Who says the Kazakhs aren’t Westernized and knowledgable! Major points!

As I was leaving to head to work, I noticed this young art critic enjoying the Bottero sculpture:

So beyond that, not much to say about my approximately 48 hours in Kazakhstan. Another lovely visit super productive, and despite the short time on the ground I was able to have some great sessions and work with over 250 people for a very effective full day of seminars. I definitely came away from the event sensing that it had been well worth my time to come all the way to facilitate it.

Kazakhstan (and specifically Almaty) continues to impress me every visit. Even more so than Russia in many ways the country continues to develop and westernize, while at the same time really holding on to aspects of local Kazakh culture that make it unique and really enjoyable. The Kazakhs are also some of the most welcoming people I’ve met anywhere in the world, and are truly curious to learn about other people and places.

If you’re not sure you’re ready to reach out of your comfort zone, I strongly recommend Almaty as a starting point. There is enough there to make you comfortable while you stretch yourself and have some more authentically local experiences…all while retaining the ability to retreat to a familiar environment to rest and recharge.

My event finally ended around 9pm with dinner, drinks, and yes of course karaoke and disco (this is central asia after all) and I managed about three hours sleep from 10p to 1am before my driver collected me to take me back to the airport so I could head to Spain…via Washington DC!

May 182017
 

So, a lot of this post is likely going to seem a bit familiar since I did this exact same route just four weeks prior. That trip, however, wasn’t the best Lufthansa First has to offer (at least in the air) although it was still a great trip. I was curious to see how this one would compare…and would it satisfy my craving for Lufthansa First for a while.

Rather than get up early, I had a bit of a revelation the night before. Why get up, shower, dress, get sweaty walking to the First Class Terminal when you can just roll out of bed, throw on anything, and walk there and shower…thus gaining nearly 30 minutes of FCT time? That was settled, so all that was needed was to roll out of bed and across the street to Starbucks, have a quick iced coffee, check out, and walk to perhaps my favourite airport terminal in the world. 10 minute walk from the Sheraton, and I was…”home:”

IMG_4154

I don’t think anyone (except maybe me and a few frequent flier nerds) actually walks to the terminal’s lower level entrance, and most get dropped off 0n the “departures” level of the terminal/airport one level up. But, for the few of us who do, Lufthansa has the entrance well-signed:

IMG_4155

Took the lift up, quick check-in and when the agent saw my name he seemed to have a flicker of recognition. He still asked if I’d ever been to the terminal before, and when I said yes he escorted me through security, told me to make myself comfortable, and he would be right back.

I’d heard rumour that the limited edition Easter ducks were long gone at this point, and when he came back five minutes later with my boarding pass, he told me “we’ve been expecting you, and we saved you a special Easter duck knowing you would want one for your collection for sure!” Now if that isn’t service, I don’t know what is…

IMG_4156

I was pretty hungry by this point, so I joined the duck for a breakfast of fresh-squeezed orange juice and some eggs benedict…which was delicious. Not just “airport good” but honestly one of the best eggs benedict that I’ve had anywhere in the world.

IMG_4157

Still not quite full, I decided to be healthy with some of their more “exotic” fruits on the buffet, and had some dragonfruit, mango, and pomegranate…which I promptly offset with a couple of viennoiseries….

IMG_4158

I was offered more water, and while Voss may be good enough for Madonna, I requested some Valser still this time. Why? Because with the First Class Terminal’s water menu…that’s your prerogative!

IMG_4160

After breakfast had a nice long shower and just took some time to relax. Sitting around in lounges gets old quickly, so was nice to use up my time this morning productively before it was time to head to the plane. I was the only one in the terminal headed to Chicago today, so the Porsche to the plane was all mine:

IMG_4161

Long ride around the airport today, which ended with a nice picture of my rides:

IMG_4162

It’s always great being the only one to walk from a car to the plane, and see the looks you get from your fellow passengers when boarding 😉

Lufthansa flight 430
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 12:45, Flight Time: 9:00
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYP, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,043
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,417,020

Upon boarding champagne was quickly offered, and perfection awaited. Special treat today: 1998 Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs. Don’t get me wrong, I love airlines that pour Krug and Dom, but there’s something extra thoughtful about pouring a slightly more obscure high end champagne. The Sir Winston Churchill on Asiana was memorable, and this Henriot was also a delicious surprise.

IMG_4164

Pre-departure amuse bouche of chevre with mandarin…and if I remember right a roasted red pepper sauce.

IMG_4172

Up in the air, the table was set, and the usual stellar Lufthansa service provided. I must have smiled because upon commenting it’s always nice to see the garlic bread and caviar…

IMG_4174

…they made sure to offer an extra-generous portion of caviar today.

IMG_4175

Trio of starters: marinated tenderloin of veal with lingonberries, smoked rainbow trout with purple potato salad, and leipziger allelei vegetable salad. The salad was underwhelming, but the other two were fantastic.

IMG_4177

Spring onion soup with parmesan cheese and croutons – surprisingly flavourful and tasty!

IMG_4178/>

Time for the main event – decided to go with the fish option today, and the “monkfish in pommery mustard sauce with ginger cucumber and parsley potatoes” was absolutely amazing. I could have done without the potatoes, but the monkfish was delicious.

IMG_4179

Here comes the cheese and dessert cart. I don’t think anyone does cheese like Lufthansa.

IMG_4181

Nice selection, with some sweet biscuits. Fantastic.

IMG_4186

How could I resist finishing with an apple strudel and some Johnny Walker Blue?

IMG_4187

Ok, one more if you insist…

IMG_4189

Somehow, I wasn’t tired after all this food, so opted for a double espresso and a couple of movies.

IMG_4193

After about five hours of movies, it was time for a pre-landing snack. I was recommended the seafood soup with crawfish tails and chilis and the Spanish meat and cheese plate. Went great with another glass of the delicious Henriot and some pretzel bread.

IMG_4194

Quince jelly and my favourite – manchego cheese. Yum.

IMG_4195

A couple of scoops of cassis sorbet and another glass of Henriot to finish off an absolutely delightful flight.

IMG_4196

They wouldn’t let me finish without a couple of chocolates for the road.

IMG_4197

All in all, another fantastic flight with Lufthansa that lives up to my expectations as my favourite first class product in the world. It’s not the most private seat, it’s not the most exotic food, it’s not necessarily “big name” champagne, but what it is – to me – is solid in every respect. I know what I’m going to get, and I don’t have to wonder if the crew will be good, or what could go wrong today. So, instead of having my Lufthansa fix for a bit, you can believe that I’m looking for another opportunity soon to enjoy it. If I’m lucky, it’ll happen this week…

Immigration and customs were a non-event in Chicago with Global Entry, and I was off to Starbucks to try and wake myself up. Seriously America, I leave you alone for a week and you come up with Unicorn Frappucinos? I weep for the future.

IMG_4198

I stopped by the United Club. I don’t know why. It was depressing. Hot, crowded, and felt like a high school cafeteria. I think I might have lasted five minutes before leaving.

United flight 622
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 17:55, Flight Time: 1:55
Airbus A320, Registration N432UA, Manufactured 1996, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,655
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,418,532

Not much to say here – I think I dozed on and off the whole flight. It was a United domestic flight – there’s nothing to get excited about after getting off of Lufthansa first. It’s funny how context can really impact things – I’m sure it would have been an exciting and thrilling flight (except for the lack of meal) if it was your first time in domestic first.

I was planning after this trip to stay home for a while, but life had other plans. Next absolutely crazy trip starts in under a week, and let’s just call this trip report “One doesn’t go to Marrakesh to study – one goes on the way to Western Sahara! Very Nice! I LIKE!”