Nov 132017
 

Since this was a work trip, there wasn’t too much time to enjoy Johannesburg, which is actually one of my favourite cities in the world. Fortunately, it had only been eight weeks since the last time I was there on holiday in August. It’s funny how life works some times. Eight weeks prior, when I was there for fun, I had no idea that I would be returning to DC, taking a new job, and immediately being sent right back to Joburg. Guess this is an argument for not overplanning things!

Landed a bit before 9am, immigration was easy, and headed straight to the Gautrain to head into the city. Getting to Rosebank where my hotel was did require one change but I was still there well before 10am. Unfortunately ,they didn’t have any rooms free for check in at this hour, but after a bit of prodding and reminding them I’ve been staying at the Hyatt Rosebank for nearly 25 years I managed to convince them to give me an executive club room which was ready for less than $20 extra per day. Much cheaper than it would have been to book the extra night to guarantee the room was ready upon arrival! I’ve tried a few other hotels in Joburg over the years, but honestly the service at the Hyatt blows them all away – plus, its location right next to a Gautrain station as well as a large shopping mall is hard to beat!



Got to my room around 10am, and after a shower promptly passed out for a four hour nap. Given I woke up around 8am DC time this probably wrecked my sleep for the first two nights I was there, but I was exhausted enough that I didn’t care. After waking up I grabbed a coffee at the brand new Starbucks around the corner before getting back on the Gautrain and heading to Sandton to grab a late lunch.

Wasn’t really sure what I was in the mood for, but it was a sunny day and I decided to sit out on the patio at Wang Thai and enjoy the great weather. I was feeling like green curry, which they had, but then I noticed they also had an ostrich steak which looked great. I asked if instead of chicken or beef they might be able to do the green curry with ostrich, and absolutely – they were happy to try.

Meet the first ever South African Thai fusion ostrich green curry (which was delicious!):

So, from here, it was five days of work. It was a great intro to the new job which I was starting, and each morning before we got going I went around the corner to enjoy some Starbucks. The jacaranda trees were also in bloom, something I’ve never seen in all of my trips to Gauteng. They made for great scenery while I sat outside each morning enjoying my covfefe:

The last day of the conference, we finished a little early, so I headed over to Starbucks to get some coffee before I went out exploring. We’d been doing so well until this point, but….the curse of people not being able to spell Jason came back:

After a long late afternoon walk, I was low on energy so decided I wanted a nice dinner…but also to stay near the hotel. I went with the Grillhouse restaurant in the mall attached to the Hyatt, which I’d never been to before. A nice springbok carpaccio to start:

Main course of boerewors and ostrich medallions, with creamed spinach and mushrooms…and a nice pinotage.

The next day, I had a full day to myself. Due to the way airfares worked out, it was significantly cheaper to go home a day later (even considering hotel/etc) so I agreed to stay for a day and play tourist. Can’t complain about that! Since I’d never been before, I decided to take the Gautrain up to Pretoria for the day and wander around. First stop was the Union Buildings with the large Mandela statue:

Old cannon in front of the Union Buildings:

Pretoria is known for its jacaranda trees, and they definitely didn’t disappoint. The only bad thing about them how badly I’m apparently allergic to them!

The Union Buildings:

Next I grabbed an Uber to Church Square, which unfortunately turned out to be under construction. The statue of Paul Kruger is still in the middle of the square:

After wandering, caught the train back to Joburg and did a bit of wandering and shopping. I kinda felt like I needed to buy this for my next flight:

Ended the trip in the wonderful Hyatt Exec Lounge which does happy hour every evening. Finished up a bit of work while enjoying some wine and appetizers. This is one property where, between the breakfast and the happy hour, it’s definitely worth getting on the executive floor if you can:

Called it an early night on my last night because I wanted to get up early and go for one more long walk before heading to the airport for my flights home…

Oct 122017
 

Alarm went off around 7am, and as usual the first thing I did was turn off Airplane Mode. The flood of notifications started: email, facebook, instagram, twitter…and United. Hmmm, that’s unusual. Must be that it was time to check in for my flight tonight from Washington Dulles to Detroit for my NEXUS renewal interview.

Nope. Almost 22 hours before the flight was scheduled to depart, United canceled it for “weather.” Um, there’s no weather in or predicted for either Washington DC or Detroit – what gives? I can only guess that the hurricane was stranding planes all over the place, and of course because it was weather…tough luck.

Called and got an agent who told me she could get me out the next morning…at 6am…via Chicago…with a 40 minute connection. Um, that’s not going to work, and I have to get to the airport here in Helsinki. I’ll touch base when I have more time – but please protect me on that 6am and note that I still have the right to cancel. Great agent, and she was happy to do that.

Quick breakfast at the Radisson Blu as it was included with my rate, and I was super impressed. Huge buffet spread with lots of tasty options, and the only downside is that the breakfast room was absolutely packed. The checkin agent the day before did say they were booked to capacity, and it was a Monday, so that probably explains a lot of it. That said, I’m definitely staying here again my next stop in Helsinki.



It had been about a year since I was last in Helsinki, and since then trains from the main station had started running to the airport. Quick walk across the square, easy to buy a ticket from a vending machine, and only had to wait about five minutes for the train to depart. This makes this hotel combo absolutely priceless going forward. Plus…a great beer restaurant right around the corner!

Arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and the station was quite a hike from the terminal. Given I’d be spending the whole day on planes that was just fine with me, and quickly found the SAS check-in area and got my boarding pass. Of course, the most important place in the terminal was in the other terminal: Starbucks. Got my venti americano, and all was right in the world. Now, off to the gate.

Back to the other terminal (about a five minute walk) up the escalator, and surprised to find absolutely no security queue at all. I was through in 2-3 minutes, and even had 15 minutes for the lounge. The SAS Lounge was right by the security area, and since I had just had breakfast and coffee, I just wanted somewhere to charge my devices for a short bit and sit down. Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before boarding – which was a waste – because the plane only arrived about 30 minutes before departure, and we started boarding maybe 15 minutes before departure.

SAS flight 707
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Stockholm, Sweden (ARN)
Depart 11:15, Arrive 11:15, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-600, Registration LN-RCW, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,640
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,617

Does that mean we’ll depart late? No. Despite an absolutely packed flight, departure was still right on time. No matter how much you like airlines in the United States, one thing that is horrible is the refugee exodus that happens during boarding. People bringing on everything they own. Maybe I’m being a snob because I get to board first and bring slightly more than I “should” but if you’re in group 8 or 9….be realistic! You know you’re going to have to check that giant Sampsonite!

Rant over, time to fly. Only 45 minutes in the air, but they still served a small snack…which was much tastier than expected! I never figured out if Seat 2A was technically “business class” or “economy plus” but didn’t matter to me in the end. I got a drink, the middle seat was empty, and I was happy.

Off the plane right on time, and first job was to try and find a transfer desk and get my Icelandair boarding passes since it was a separate ticket. I had considered a flight in Finnair which would have left me 1:45 to connect (aka more sleep) but decided not to risk it. Looks like I could have, but end of the day, risks like that aren’t usually worth it. Finally found an SAS transfer counter, where the sole agent was busy dealing with a very unhappy passenger who had missed the only flight of the day to her destination for some reason.

Eventually, she got around to helping me, and apparently Icelandair is a bit of a pain because she looked like I was seriously annoying her. I probably shouldn’t have asked her (after getting boarding passes) if there was still a Starbucks in the terminal, because I got an annoyed “no, it closed. The only one is outside.” Ok fine…could you maybe point me to the lounge? “Well i *guess* you can use that one” – pointing to the elevators right across from the desk.



Up to the SAS lounge which had cool barcode scanners for admission. Also, where my Icelandair boarding pass didn’t seem to work. The agent in charge seemed puzzled if I should get in or not, and asked for a frequent flier card. I gave her my United Star Gold card (despite them having nothing to do with Icelandair), and she scanned that and it didn’t work either. She was sure I should be let in, but couldn’t figure out how to do it, so eventually decided research was more work than it was worth and just manually let me in.

Not much to say about the lounge…good spread of food and drink, huge and plenty of seating, and ample places to plug in and charge the laptop. Other than that, it was a pretty average lounge, although it did have pretty good tarmac views.

Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before departure, and it was a relatively short five minute walk from the lounge. I knew the flight was very full, but the gate area was packed, and there were at least 20 wheelchairs waiting to board. Lots of American passports showing, and this was clearly the Sweden to America geriatric express.

Icelandair flight 307
Stockholm, Sweden (ARN) to Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF)
Depart 14:20, Arrive 15:30, Flight Time: 3:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISP, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 99,977
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,476,594

Fortunately, business “Saga” class was only about half full today, which let me move to a window seat and keep the seat next to me empty in the 2-1-2 config. I’ve posted quite a lot how I hate climbing over people or having them climb over me, so it’s always nice when I can get a window seat and still avoid this. Of course, the internet wasn’t working on this plane, so that was a big negative to the flight.

Menus were passed out as we waited for everyone to board:

Wine list was included:

Service on this relatively short flight started out with a beverage and nut service. The nuts came in a chinese takeout container, and were sugar coated almonds. Strange, but points for originality.

I had preordered my meal online, but it wasn’t catered. In addition to the internet not working, my already low impression of Icelandair was even going lower. First the internet wasn’t working, and now my meal wasn’t loaded. Two strikes. That said, the fishy entree was pretty tasty.

Short connection of about 50 minutes in Reykjavik, and when I tried to stop in the lounge (which is on the Schengen side before immigration) I was told there was no time, I had to go straight through immigration to the gate…so I did.



You can guess what this meant. 30 minutes of waiting in the gate area to board my connecting flight. My memory of this wait is of an extremely obnoxious guy and his mother waiting to board. He was bitching up a storm that nobody in Iceland could manage to charter him a plane to fly him home, and they had to pay $2,500 for one first class ticket and the other person had to sit in coach. Making him even more of a jerk in my mind, was that he made his mother sit in coach while he sat in business class. After three weeks away, ugh, welcome back to the ugly side of America.

Icelandair flight 645
Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 16:50, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 6:20
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISW, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 102,776
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,479,753

This flight was already looking up…and like a flight to the US…with plastic glasses of sparkling wine offered pre-departure…different aircraft, but this one also didn’t have working internet. I was beginning to wonder if Icelandair was paying their bills:

Once again, they hadn’t loaded my pre-ordered meal, but the menu looked relatively tasty:

No almonds in a takeout container this time, but the “famous” Icelandair carmelcorn:

I went with the veal main, which was very United-esque in taste and poor plating. The herring starter with deviled egg was tasty….but stay tuned…

Landed on time, exhausted, and since my United flight to Detroit was canceled I figured I might as well spend the night at home and save money. My hotel in Detroit was kind enough to waive the late cancelation fee, so it was off to Uber and a fantastic night in my own bed. Since my NEXUS interview wasn’t until 12:30 the next day, that still left me plenty of time in the morning to make my way to Detroit.

When I got home, I had a look at Delta, and noticed the morning flight to Detroit had a bunch of empty seats, so opted to ask United for a refund and decided to risk going to Detroit standby. Fortunately, when I woke up, the flight was still very open and I had no trouble at all getting on it.



Unfortunately, the minute I stepped into the Delta Skyclub, I knew I’d made a very, very poor decision eating fish and deviled eggs on a plane the previous day. Nausea and all the other food-borne illness side effects rapidly just set in, and I just prayed I would make it through the flight…

Delta flight 2359
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW)
Depart 7:30, Arrive 9:03, Flight Time: 1:33
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 24C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,182
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,159

Hey, at least I got an aisle seat so that’s a positive! I can’t say no to a Diet Coke and Biscoff, even if I was seriously nauseous.

By the time we landed I was full on majorly nauseous. Head was spinning when walking, and overall just felt sick. If it wasn’t for the fact my NEXUS (and thus Global Entry and PreCheck) was expiring in three days, I would have turned around and gone home and tried to reschedule. Lesson learned: don’t leave things to the last minute.

Was originally planning to Uber to my appointment and ask the Uber to wait, but for some reason that felt logistically difficult so I decided to see if I could get a rental from Hertz. No problem, great rate, much cheaper than a roundtrip Uber, and I was set. Off to the shuttle to the Hertz lot, fantastic agent brought me into her office as a Platinum member, and asked if a Volvo would be ok today. Sweet upgrade, although I was feeling too nauseous to even care.

By this point, I should have heeded all the warning signs from the universe: canceled United flight, food-borne illness, but no, I didn’t and proceeded with the interview, which started off perfectly fine. The Canadian agents processed me in under a minute, then it was on to the American agent, who seemed not in the best of moods. First comment to his colleague: “hey…Martha…look at this! You ever seen someone who’s been to so many countries…ut oh, Cuba? We have a problem”

Without going into details, the agent seemed completely unaware of the changes a couple years prior towards US policy to Cuba and refused to approve my renewal. I was told “if you find any documents that support your case, please fax them.” Ugh. Yet, he still took my fingerprints and biometrics. Odd.

Back to the airport, drop off the car, and off to the Delta Skyclub where I sat as a nauseous mess for a couple hours until it was time to board my flight.

Delta flight 1144
Detroit, Michigan (DTW) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:35, Arrive 17:10, Flight Time: 1:35
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 15D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,588
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,565

Fortunately, I got an aisle seat again, and the flight passed without any major excitement. Quite an overly-eventful end to what had been a fantastic 3+ week trip.

Just to finish the story, about two weeks later, after faxing my explanation of how my Cuba trip was “legal” under the new US policy, along with a citation of the policy….someone approved my NEXUS renewal in the system and two minutes later…revoked my status. I read this as “I didn’t have grounds to deny the renewal, but in my authority as a border agent I revoked it later.”

The case is currently with my US Senator who is following up, along with the CBP Trusted Traveler Ombudsman. Per the letter of the regulations I followed them exactly, and backed that up in writing when requested. We’ll see where this goes, but in the meantime (and $85 later) at least I have TSA PreCheck for the time being….

We’ll see how my first non-Global Entry immigration experience goes in two weeks on my next work trip…

Oct 072017
 

Another great night of sleep, and despite being go go go on this vacation, one thing I was managing to do pretty well was catch up on sleep. Now, that might be due to the tremendous amount of walking I was doing in general, but either way, it was actually feeling like a vacation!

My rate at the W included breakfast, so made a point to partake in that before heading out. I would rate it pretty middle of the road as far as hotel breakfast go, but there were plenty of choices including eggs and porridge cooked to order, so it was more than enough to get a start on the day.



After fueling up, it was time for a walk! I had highlighted some of the sights I wanted to try and see, so the plan was to head out and see how much I could do before I got absolutely exhausted from walking. First stop near the hotel was the Fountain of the Admiralty:

Plan was to head over to Nevsky Prospekt and head east-southeast before heading back north and eventually crossing the Neva River. First major site was the Stroganov Palace, and yes, that’s the family that beef stroganoff was named for. Since I only had one full day I opted to walk around and see as many sites as I could from the outside, without spending the time in line for tickets and exploring the inside. Stroganov Palace:

a little further down Nevsky Prospekt was the Kazan Cathedral:

Statue of Field Marshall Prince Kutuzov of Smolensk:

At this point, the grey weather and walking was catching up with me, so I stopped at Starbucks for a large iced coffee and a sandwich. After resting up a bit, I continued the walk. Crossed Nevsky Prospekt, and passed the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood:

Very impressive up close, and swarming with tourists:

Best part about tourists? All sorts of souvenir stands. I was pretty disappointed they only had this shirt left in a small size, because I totally wanted to buy it:

I did, however, managed to find a whole bunch of awesome magnets:

From this point, back to Nevsky Prospekt to catch the metro up to Finlandsky Station and continue my walk on the north side of the Neva River.

Finlandsky Vokzal, you can see how dark and heavy the clouds got, but it never did rain.

Two reasons for coming to Finlandsky Vokzal. First was to see where it was so I knew where to go for my train the next day, and second reason was the giant statue of Lenin. Looks especially ominous against the clouds:

The fountains in front of the train station made a nice contrast. I love this shot with the bright reddish-orange brick, the dark greyish-blue sky, and the contrast of the bright coats the pedestrians are wearing.

Finally figured out where/how to cross the tributary of the river, and a great view of the Nakhimov Naval Academy with the cruiser Aurora docked in front:

Another shot downriver with the Aurora:

The Aurora was closed to tours today, but that didn’t stop the large groups of Asian tourists from milling about and taking pictures:

Close-up of the Aurora:

Bit more of a walk, and the Peter and Paul Fortress:

Kept walking…and walking…and eventually passed the Yubilyeni Sports Palace. Wait, is that an ad for a pre-season hockey game…tonight? Even better, a bit of googling, and it appeared absolutely free. Registeted on the website, and very quickly my free tickets were e-mailed to me! Score. I had planned on a relaxing evening after over 10 miles of walking during the day, but how could I pass that up!

Given the game was less than two hours away, I cut my walk a little short and took the metro back to the hotel to change clothes and rest up a little bit. Only had about 30 minutes to rest before I had to catch the metro right back to the arena for the game. It was open seating, and appeared 25% full at most:

Let’s get a little closer to the ice…now these are great seats!

Cheerleaders and dragon mascots:

Old Soviet National team memorabilia on display:

It was nearly 9pm at this point, so I opted to skip the third period and head out to get some food and drink before it got too late. On a recommendation from a friend, I headed to Craft Pub to have a bite. Keeping in the theme of the day, a delicious beef stroganoff and a few great beers to wash it down:

Unusual decor in the restaurant…what would the Singapore First Class lounge think of this?!

One final local imperial stout to close out the evening:

With that, more than 10 miles walked and a hockey game, I think I made a pretty amazing dent in seeing St. Petersburg given the extremely limited time I had there. Now, it was time to get to bed so I could enjoy my train ride the next day…and my final stop: Helsinki.

Oct 032017
 

Landed at Domodedovo, immigration was a snap: “you are visiting a lot this year, what is the reason?” me: “our countries are great friends now.” him: “why do you speak such good russian” me: “I”m sure you speak even better english my friend.” …and that was that. Foreshadowing, but amusing…..

Was originally going to grab an Uber into the city given it was already late, but just in case there was traffic, and because I think the Moscow Metro is one of the best tourist sites in the world, I decided to hop the AeroExpress train. Arrived in the station with two minutes until the next train, quickly got my ticket, and settled into a completely empty business class car. Put in the earbuds, and hit shuffle, and my iPhone spits out “Back in the U.S.S.R.” The irony was absolutely delicious. I had the feeling this was going to be a great end to the trip.



Train, metro, and a 10 minute walk, and soon I was at my hotel. About five years ago, I stayed at the Sheraton on my first visit back to Moscow since the late 1980s, and had a fantastic experience. Since then, I’ve been staying at the St. Regis which is much better located, has an amazing breakfast, but is a but stuffy for my taste overall. This time, the Sheraton was an absolute bargain at barely 7,000 rubles, so I couldn’t say no.

Upgraded to a very nice one bedroom suite with way more room than I needed, and promptly proceeded to pass out given it was like 4am in Australia, where my body clock was still set to. Woke up in the morning, grabbed a quick bite in the executive lounge (where I was the only person there – guess there’s not much business travel in August) and headed out for a walk. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but decided to just head out and wander. Rain was in the forecast, so we’ll see how far I get.

Down Tverskaya Ul. towards Red Square, statue of Mayakovsky in front of the Tchakovsky Concert Hall:

It was cool out for mid-August (barely 10 degrees) but still lots of people out enjoying the swings in front of the concert hall:

Kept walking and walking, and soon I was at Red Square. I think. I’ve never seen Red Square like this before. Set up for a giant military tattoo, the whole square was full of booths selling things, and parade stands for the night’s show. I debated getting tickets, and it would have probably been a fascinating show, but I just wasn’t in the mood for what was being billed as a four hour extravaganza.

So, amid the thousands of tourists (mainly Chinese) I went into GUM. I’ve seriously never seen so many tourists in Moscow before. Is this an August thing, or a 2017 thing?

Clearly, someone in GUM was smoking some good stuff, because they had filled one of the fountains with melons as an art display. Uhhhh….sure? I like to think I have a pretty good window into the Russian national psyche, but this was beyond even my understanding…as is most modern art, to be fair.

Best part of GUM: the obligatory 50 ruble pistachio ice cream cone! Enjoyed outside, where it had gotten quite a bit warmer, in front of the Kazan Cathedral.

Walking off the jetlag was feeling great, so I kept going, until I got to Lubyanka. Lots of people were taking pics of this car, so I had to too. Felix would be rolling over in his grave at this ostentatious display of capitalism.

Felix is watching…

Meanwhile, the local Mexican restaurant across the street was trying to win over customers…this isn’t your grandfather’s Lubyanka anymore!

Right about this point I was tired…so I grabbed a Starbucks. As I exited, the skies began to get super dark and it was only about 2:30, so I decided to google “what to do in Moscow on a rainy day.” Remember how I mentioned above that I love the metro? Well, one of the first things that came up was a self-guided walking tour of the metro. Sold!



I’m going to do this up front and plug Moscow360’s self-guided metro tour. Go to their site. Click on the ads. I’ve been to Moscow dozens of times now, and this is seriously some of the best tourist advice I’ve gotten. Lots of history about the stations and the country, and a great introduction to the city. You must see it! No, I’m not affiliated with them at all, but they put out a damn fine tour!

So, since you can read all about it on their site, just the highlights.

Ploschad Revolutsii Station. Note the hammer and sickle, the years 1917 and 1947. This was the starting station of the tour…yes, this is the ticket hall. Imagine that in DC or New York!

What makes this station notable is the 76 bronze statues, in four sets of 19, of various professions of the “new Soviet Man.” If you know anything about Russians, they are super superstitious. All sorts of things, like having to touch certain objects they pass every day for good luck. We’ll come back to that in a second.

An athlete:

A student of some sort:

This guy? Well you might notice the bronze on his leg is a big rubbed off. It’s obviously been polished more evenly lately, but in the past supposedly his…well-endowed statue used to be noticeably touched over and over in the same place. I’ll let you guys why people were touching him, but given superstition, chances are it had something to do with either fertility or….bringing the magic back.

Moving onto Kurskaya Station, which was one of the first place there were designated capitalist busking stations set up. This band “C-Jam” was’s pretty unusual, but not bad!

Leaving Kurskaya station, the words to the Soviet National Anthem were inscribed in the rotunda. However, a while back under Comrade Kruschev, there was a verse erased from the anthem because…it mentioned Stalin. That meant it got erased from this rotunda as well…until Mr. Putin put it back a couple years ago. Basically translates to Stalin raising up the great deeds of the motherland.

Large sword on the wall of Kurskaya Station:

Wow, this hall in Kurskaya Station looks like it needs a statue…

Oh, look what used to be there. Another example of de-Stalinization.

Next up: Komsomolskaya Station. Look at the ornate ceilings – this could be a museum!

Comrade Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle and the end of the station:

Lenin mosaic on the ceiling….however, this didn’t used to be Lenin…it featured Stalin 50 years ago as well.

Super Soviet athletic…”woman.” Look at those biceps! Notice anyone missing from the reviewing stands of the Kremlin? Yup, Stalin used to be looking down on her…

Trampling out Nazis…

One more shot of Komsomolskaya, seriously, it felt more like a museum than a metro station.

Next station: Novoslobodskaya. I remember back on my first visit to Moscow in high school in the late 1980s, my classmates and I used to love riding the metro and imitating the announcer’s voice. “Be careful! Doors closing! Next station….” it used to always draw grins from Muscovites, one of those rare moments of sunshine in Soviet times.

Novoslobodskaya was one of the last stations finished under Stalin, and oddly enough, looks the most like a church with all the stained glass. Ironic as Stalin destroyed 2/3 of the churches in Russia at the time….

Mother, son, and the…..holy doves?

…oh, wait, this was the original stained glass. Stalin-approved. Supposedly, the lady was supposed to originally have three kids as well, but they were running behind schedule. Fearing Stalin would show up any minute and it would be unfinished, they rushed it to completion with one kid. Plus, what ideal hard-working Soviet woman would have all that time to be making three babies?

Next up is Byelorusskaya Station (Belarus Station.) Look at those hard-working soviet belarussian women!

Monument to Byelorussian partisans who fended of the Nazis in World War II:

Final station on the tour was Mayakovskaya. This station was somewhat lighter and a bit airy feeling, with great artwork on the ceiling:

Paratrooper:

Despite being light and airy, it again felt like a museum:

Exit elevators in Mayakovskaya Station. This is one of the deepest stations in the system, Stalin used to deliver New Years addresses to the people from here in World War Two. Also, note the huge steel blast doors designed to seal off the station in case of bombardment. The metro stations often served as bomb shelters during the war, and can still serve that function:

After heading back to the hotel, grabbing a light dinner, I headed off to my favourite craft beer bar in Moscow for some great drinks. I’ve posted about it here before so won’t go into too much detail, but Rule Taproom is a great place…as long as you don’t mind feeling slightly old. The selection of tap handles alone is fantastic:

With that, it was time to get some sleep before getting up and catching the train onwards to Leningrad…I mean St. Petersburg! Does it count as a new city if you haven’t been there since it changed names?

Sep 282017
 

Fortunately, there was no line at all at immigration tonight, and I was through in just a few minutes. I had pre-arranged a driver with my hotel (always a great idea in Delhi given the general chaos that is the arrivals area) and soon we were on the way to the car. Hit the 1000 degrees and 1000 percent humidity outside and wilted as usual, as we fought our way through the crowds to the parked car:

Took about 15-20 minutes to get to the hotel, and went with my usual choice the ITC Maurya. I’ve stayed here probably a dozen times, and it’s always a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, upon entering the lobby the entire thing was under construction. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but the new check-in area was apparently two tables by the elevators where a couple of agents were struggling with a queue of over twenty people.

I asked the bellman nicely if they could do priority checkin for Platinum members, and was met with a negative, as they tended to more than a dozen members of an Air France crew all checking out and having to settle the cash advances the hotel had given them. I get why airline contracts are helpful to hotels, but given their significantly discounted rates, and knowing there was construction, you would think there was something they could have done for a platinum guest so I didn’t have to wait over 20 minutes to check in. Very bad first impression.

Once I was checked in, it was a huge rush, here’s your key, ok thanks bye, someone will show you to your room. Ugh. Got to the room, and it was super hot and stuffy. Turned on the air conditioning, and even after running for five minutes it sounded like a jet engine. While waiting to see if it would cool/quiet down, I decided to at least get a shower.

Apparently, this shower was made for much smaller people….

The maintenance condition of this room was appalling.

Called to the front desk to ask for a new room, and they told me “wait a bit longer, it takes time.” Um, it sounds like a jet engine no matter how cold it gets. I want a new room.” “We will see what we can do.” Decided not to wait, went to the front “desk,” to the front of the line and asked for the manager. Shockingly, there was no manager available, but a lady directing traffic in the lobby (not sure her actual job, seemed like a concierge or something) took note of the problem, asked me to have a seat while she sorted it.

In fairness, 10 minutes later I had a room that was much better, but combined with the long checkin and changing rooms I’d lost an hour of sleep. Not a huge deal, but considering I was already going to get around six hours best case, I was pretty upset to have lost an hour.

I feel bad leaving such a negative review of this property, because on all previous stays it really was rather lovely and I enjoyed the stay overall. However, this time, they really dropped the ball.

Anyways, I slept reasonably well, and the next morning, of course, my pre-arranged transfer to the airport wasn’t ready and it took nearly 30 minutes even after I confirmed it the night before AND with a call right when I woke up. Overall, a super disappointing experience.



Got to the airport, nobody in line at the Uzbekistan Airways checkin area, and the agents seemed genuinely annoyed that I cared what seat they put me in. They were even more annoyed when I cared what seat I was on on my connecting flight. Oh well, given both flights were full I was very glad I persisted and got the seats I wanted, since there seemed to be no way to assign them in advance, despite numerous calls and emails to all their global offices.

Since I was cutting it close, I opted to skip the lounge today (nothing to write home about in Delhi) and grab some Starbucks to wake me up. Best part of Delhi Airport is the Starbucks in the gate area…complete with heavily armed guard. Hands off my coffee!

Sitting in the gate area, just 20 minutes prior to departure, there were only like 15 people in the entire gate area. Worried I had missed the flight, I asked the gate agent, and she informed me there were only 22 people from Delhi, but the plane would be full from Amritsar. Wow.

Boarding was 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure, but no problem when there’s only 22 people to board!

Uzbekistan Airways flight 422
Delhi, India (DEL) to Amritsar, India (ATQ)
Depart 8:50, Arrive 10:00, Flight Time: 1:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration UK67006, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 95,942
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,472,919

First row centre bulkhead. Flight attendant saw me take this pic, and very sternly wagged her finger at me. Apparently, Uzbekistan Airways still has an incredibly strict no photos policy. How very….quaint.

Didn’t stop me from snapping a few ones on the down low. Plane was in a 2-1-2 config.

As soon as we were 10 minutes in the air, “snack” and water or juice was offered. Normally I would have steered way clear of the cheese sandwich, but couldn’t really resist it with ketchup?!

About 30 minutes prior to landing, the pilot asked the flight attendants to be seated, because we were like to encounter some turbulence. What followed was without a doubt the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced in flight – especially in a widebody – we were thrown from side to side, several sharp drops in altitude, audible screams from the few people on board, and I was honestly making headlines in my head “22 whole passengers killed on 767 jumbo jet in monsoon.”

But, just like that, we were maybe 2-3 minutes from landing, and it was all smooth again. Literally terrifying. As soon as we landed, it was a bit more clear. There was a torrential downpour in Amritsar, and the monsoon was clearly in full effect.

Boarding was via stairs, and I have to admit, it was kind of entertaining watching 200+ completely soaked people stagger aboard. Well over 90% of the passengers were Sikhs, and I’ve heard Uzbekistan Airways does quite a business connecting this flight to their flight to Manchester. If today’s load was any indicator, they do quite well. Seemed to be a lot of families with small children who had gone home to visit relatives, now returning after the end of summer break.

Even with the monsoon and full plane, we were boarded on time, and ready to go. I admit I was terrified how bad the turbulence would be on climb out.

Uzbekistan Airways flight 422
Amritsar, India (ATQ) to Tashkent, Uzbekistan (TAS)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 13:00, Flight Time: 2:35
Boeing 767-300, Registration UK67006, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 96,669
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,473,646

Fortunately, the turbulence, while still pretty heavy, was nowhere near as bad, and well within “ugh” limits, and we were clear of it less than 10 minutes after takeoff. That means it’s time to eat!

Dish of peanuts, “meat”, some veg, bread (on a plate), and some sort of potato or cabbage salad in heavy mayo. Wasn’t really the best meal, but I wasn’t all that hungry anyways, so picked at the parts that were interesting and that was plenty. It was a relatively short flight, so not a huge deal. Kudos to them for at least offering a hot meal on such a short flight.

After deplaning, there was an agent yelling “connections” and then repeating in Russian. She asked me (in Russian) connection? Yes? Where to? I asked her why she asked in Russian and not English, and she said “because you don’t look Indian.” Hah, I guess that’s something?



Apparently, I was the only person connecting in business class today, which seemed kind of odd. I’m not sure where all the Sikhs were going in that case, unless the plane continued straight on to Birmingham and they just went through security and then right back on. Which is entirely possible.

That meant, even with security and the time before boarding the next flight, I would have over five hours to kill in the Uzbekistan Airways lounge. At this point, my cell phone still hadn’t gotten data service, and I was worried it was going to be a very, very long five hours. This was confirmed when I found out that the wifi in the lounge was down.

There were a few power outlets around the lounge so that was good at least, and it was rather spacious and a reasonably cool temperature…especially since I found an AC unit near the wall to sit by.

Quite spacious:

Snacks. I wasn’t thrilled at first, but the small meat-stuffed pastries were kind of addicting, especially after popping them in the microwave for a bit. Yes, there was a microwave in the lounge.

Chatted with the agents a little bit, who were the same ones who had been handling transit earlier. After chatting a bit, it was clear the other reason they spoke Russian with me – they were far more comfortable in it than they were in English. She tried English once to ask about my tattoos, but got flustered quite quickly and switched back to Russian – after which point we had several nice small chats over the next five hours.

The lounge remained empty the entire time, except this fashionista who came in about an hour before I left, wearing  a dress from the 2017 Trump/Putin Prison Collection. She was also fond of the little meat pies.

With about an hour to go, I decided to ask what I might have to drink instead of Fanta. Oh, there’s wine…white or red? Both were from the “Georgian Patio” winery, and had the high endorsement of “wine for restaurants.” Hmmm, yup, tasted about as good as you’d expect. I had a second glass to make sure, however. Science.

Boarding was pretty much on time, and our plane was at a remote stand. The minute I took my phone out of my pocket to try and get a picture of it, I was met with a chorus of NYET! from the several armed police “guarding” the plane. Ugh, ok. I have to say the 787 looked supremely sexy in the green, yellow, and blue of Uzbekistan Airways at sunset, however. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Uzbekistan Airways flight 601
Tashkent, Uzbekistan (TAS) to Moscow, Domodedevo, Russia (DME)
Depart 19:00, Arrive 21:15, Flight Time: 4:15
Boeing 787-8, Registration UK78701, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,391
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,368

I did, during pre departure beverages, manage to snap a shot of the seats on the 787. Not bad. Not sure I would want these all the way to New York from Tashkent, but they were pretty comfortable, and the nice divider in the middle prevented them from being footsie seats.

Sneak peak across the aisle:

…and the other side.

Laminated menus!

Wow, now that’s what I call a meal. Just kidding…this is just the appetizers. Seriously! The red wine on board was marginally better. We had multiple kinds of bread on a plate. Upgrade from peanuts to cashews this flight. A nice little cucumber/tomato/cheese salad. Cheese plate. Meat plate. Fish plate. Whew.

I went with the beet stroganoff for a main, which was pretty tasty….I mean, it wasn’t gourmet cuisine, but overall I liked the regional flair to the meal, and nobody is going to go hungry on this flight. I fear how much they must serve all the way to New York!

I was pretty full, but kept the plates that could reasonably be considered desert to munch on with a bit more wine while I watched some movies:

Overall, I have to say Uzbekistan Airways exceeded my expectations. I had set them really low, but they exceeded them by leaps and bounds. I mean, the next cheapest option was $700 more…AND a redeye, but it was nonstop and avoided the six hours in Tashkent.

I chose Uzbekistan to save money, to save sleep, and for the novelty factor, and they definitely hit a home run with these flights. They have a way to go to be a serious international competitor, but for the price they were a fantastic option and I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.

Now, it’s time to take a break for a few days from flying, and take some trains!

Sep 252017
 

Slept in a little bit, and then did some walking around Singapore in the morning. Frankly, in the heat and humidity, it really wasn’t that pleasant for walking around, so I headed to the mall at Bugis Junction to at least get a bit of air conditioned exercise in (and I won’t lie…I also wanted Starbucks so I killed two birds with one stone.) It was mid-day heat at this point, the time of day when no sane person from northern climes would be caught dead outdoors in Singapore, so I checked out of the Westin and made a hasty retreat to Changi Airport.

Now, let’s be honest. Since I was flying in first I not only had the awesomeness that is Changi at my disposal, but the Private Room in the Singapore Airlines lounge as well. In my previous attempt six months earlier at enjoying Singapore A380 suites the one thing I did right was enjoy the Private Room. But, frankly, after a while a lounge is a lounge and it’s pretty easy to get bored in there. So, I didn’t want to get to the airport TOO early.



Caught an Uber to Changi, piece of cake, and in case you’re unaware many passports can now leave Changi via automated gates so there’s not even a need to queue for passport control. Biggest downside is that you also don’t get stamped out of Singapore…if that matters.

It was early afternoon at this point, and I was getting pretty hungry, so I decided to stop by the Private Room first for a bit of lunch. Today’s menu, notably absent was the lobster which they were serving in February..

I figured I would go with the satay as a starter, which was absolutely delicious, with a glass of champagne. Singapore has really upped the champagne game since my previous visit, however, and they were now pouring 2002 Piper-Heidsieck Millésieme Cuvée Rare. I know I’ve said it before here, but people have long associated Dom Perignon with luxury airline champagne, and Krug is also on that list. In the club scene (at least in the US) Cristal would also be a “bling” label…so it’s always nice to see a really high end champagne that’s different on offer.

I was a little hungry still after the satay, so asked the attendant what was small, and was recommended the dim sum. Perfect amount of food along with the satay, and a rather generous top up of the champagne.

Unfortunately, they only had vanilla ice cream today, but that was just fine with some chocolate flakes and almonds as a dessert!

Completely full on lunch, and with nearly four hours remaining until my flight, I decided to do a lap of the airport. The entire airport. Changi is shaped in a giant U shape with terminal one being the “bottom” of the U that connects terminal three (where the private room is) with terminal two.

Fight thing I saw when I left the lounge was my plane, already parked next to the lounge, waiting to take me to Delhi in a few hours. Coincidentally, it was the same A380 that had delivered me from Sydney the previous day!

So, I walked all the way to the other end of terminal three, the entire length of terminal one, and then to terminal two where I decided I was getting sleepy…and wanted to enjoy the flight ahead…so I stopped for some Starbucks. The people watching in T2 was fascinating, given many budget airlines leave from this terminal.

Walking past this gate, it wasn’t difficult to figure out where this flight was headed. Given the attire of the passengers, many already in their Ihram dress, headed to Jeddah and on to Mecca.

Caught the monorail back to T2, and had a little more time to enjoy the private room. The decor definitely reminds me of a living room…if you live in a really expansive and non-fashionable place with lots of dark wood and marble:

Enjoyed a shower (nothing luxurious at all about the shower facilities in the Private Room), a couple of glasses of champagne, and it was time to finally head down to the gate to enjoy my flight to Delhi.

Singapore Airlines flight 406
Singapore (SIN) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 17:10, Arrive 20:10, Flight Time: 5:30
Airbus A380-800, Registration 9V-SKD, Manufactured 2008, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 95,685
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,472,662

Compared to the previous day when I had the entire cabin to myself, today I had two other people joining me. It seriously felt so crowded that I want my miles back! Just kidding…but I did move up to suite 1F so it seemed like nobody else was in the cabin, given they were both back in row three. Pic of another A380 as we taxied out:

KLM 777 with a great livery:

Boats in the harbour shortly after takeoff:

One note on the crew. Maybe it was the length of the segment, or maybe Delhi is a less desirable route than Sydney (maybe they do an immediate turnaround?) but there was something slightly less polished – and more fun – about this crew. When I say less-polished I mean it in a good way. People often accuse Singapore crews of being “robotic” and while I have never really found that, this crew was very lighthearted in a way you very rarely see with crews of Asian airlines. There was just enough informality that I really enjoyed this crew.

That said, let’s start with another glass of champagne. Yes, there were also a couple of glasses before takeoff, but I didn’t manage to grab snaps of those:

This was followed by more satay right after takeoff. I definitely got my fill of satay in these 24 hours!

After the satay, the crew suggested they could begin the dinner service in a little over an hour. I’m sure they would have been happy to do it whenever I wanted, but truthfully I was still a little full from the lounge, so that sounded like a great idea. I enjoyed catching up on some tv on the iPad, and soon enough some nuts came around. The champagne was flowing the entire time.

For a starter, “seared tuna on niçoise salad with quail egg” – this was absolutely delicious. Note the water glass, we had quite a bit of turbulence.

Indian style creamy carrot soup with coriander. Spicy, and delicious!

…and I quote: “Green coral lettuce, frisee, spinach, cherry tomato and red radish” – for such a fancy name, it was a pretty meh and blah salad overall.

The Boston Lobster Thermidor. Frankly, the one out of Sydney was better. It was definitely delicious, and that big ripe tomato was amazing, and there was more lobster than out of Sydney, but it was just kind of bland and overcooked from a flavour point of view. That said, it was still in-flight lobster so you have to like it!

Who can say no to a cheeseboard like this?! This is pretty much my idea of Heaven. Lufthansa has some serious competition in the onboard cheese department!

Why yes, I’ll have a nicely plated small amount of each. Should have asked for extra of the Stilton – it was delicious!

In fairness, I wasn’t overly excited by the dessert, which was listed as “chendol with coconut ice cream” but I think at the end of the meal it was definitely the best part. Absolutely delicious, and paired very nicely with a glass of Johnny Walker.

After dinner pralines with my friend Johnny. By the time the meal was over, we were barely an hour away from landing in Delhi.

With that, all too soon, my two fantastic Singapore A380 suites experiences were over. It was a great experience, a fantastic way to travel, and I would love to do it again if the opportunity presents itself. However, I can finally check “flying it just for the fun of it” off my list, and get back to other products I’m still curious to try, as well as just flying the most comfortable product on the routes I do need to fly.

Now, time to engage in the delightful chaos that is India…

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…