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:”

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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:

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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…

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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.

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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….

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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!

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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:

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

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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.

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

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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…

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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Nice selection, with some sweet biscuits. Fantastic.

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

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Ok, one more if you insist…

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

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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.

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Quince jelly and my favourite – manchego cheese. Yum.

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

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

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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.

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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!”

May 142017
 

After a quick coffee and beer, we headed down to the Aeroexpress train. It had already been a really long day and I was tired, so decided to spring the extra $10 or so for the business class car, and it turned out there were only 3 people in the whole car. Sure, it’s only like a 30 minute ride, but it was nice to be able to relax and enjoy it.

I had made the mistake of wearing shorts since it was over 70F when we left Abkhazia, but in Moscow it was 35F and freezing cold. After a short metro transfer, we had a 10 minute or so walk to our hotel, the St. Regis, and it was definitely a frigid walk. I’m still amazing not a single babushka came up to me and chastised me for being poorly dressed for the weather!

Check-in was quick and polite, and since both rooms had been booked under my name they were good enough to upgrade both of us to very nice one bedroom suites – can’t complain about that at all! Doing 200+ nights with Starwood last year is definitely paying off with much nicer upgrades than I’m used to receiving. Unfortunately it was going to just be a relatively short overnight and we wouldn’t really have time to enjoy the room, but it was nice nonetheless.

After dropping bags and putting on warmer clothes, we headed out for a walk. First, the obligatory Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral shot – something about the grey cloudy weather gave the perfect mood to the square:

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We wandered around trying to find a shop Ian knew that sold wonderfully kitschy Putin and Russia souvenirs, but apparently they’d gone out of business in the last year. We headed back to the GUM department store for some fantastic pistachio ice cream, and deciding we were hungry decided to check out Stolovaya #57 – a cafeteria in the department store modeled after an old school Soviet cafeteria…except with much better variety of food!

Vegetable salad with beetroot, peas, carrots….fresh fruit, stuffed bell pepper, and a chicken cutlet with mushroom sauce. Delicious and filling…and very authentically Russian…all this for under $10.

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After eating we wandered through the grocery store in GUM, and in the alcohol section they were selling Kalashnikov brand vodka….complete in a plastic kalashnikov bottle….only in Russia!

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After dinner, we headed to a small bar I’d been told about, not terribly far from Red Square, called Rules Taproom. A friend had told me they had one of the best craft beer menus in the world, but that we should expect to feel “tragically old and uncool.” We definitely brought the average age up by quite a bit, but at least we didn’t look too out of place with the extremely tattooed and hipster crowd. Plus, an amazing taplist and great taps!  A hockey trophy, brass knuckles, a grenade, a wrench, and lots of other cool stuff. Can’t wait to go back!

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Back to the hotel and bed by a reasonable hour, because we wanted to be sure to be able to hit the St. Regis’ amazing breakfast buffet before heading to the airport. Flight was at 9am, and it can take up to an hour to get to the airport, so with a 630a opening time for the buffet we knew we would be cutting it close.

Great night of sleep, at the buffet right when it opened, and it was worth the wait! Smoked salmon and whitefish, caviar, blue cheese, pain au chocolate, and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. With a pot of tea, of course!

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Took nearly an hour for our Uber to get to the airport, but was definitely the quickest option. We did make it with plenty of time, but unfortunately I lost Ian at immigration, because his gates were at a different checkpoint, and clogged with loads of Central Asians who they were taking forever to process. I, however, made it through quite quickly and even had five minutes to stop in the SWISS lounge for some water and snack. Unfortunately, none of the shops sold more Putin magnets.

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Fortunately, the lounge was only a two minute walk from my gate, so nice and easy for boarding which was right on time.

SWISS flight 1325
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 9:05, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 4:35
Airbus A320, Registration HB-IJS, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,522
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,399

Something about the welcome screens on SWISS always makes me feel relaxed and multicultural…a good feeling in this increasingly isolationist and polarized world:

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Pushback…the wonderfully kitschy lime green S7 livery and a Ural Airlines plane:

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Great view of the parked planes including a couple of Tupolevs on takeoff. Those S7 planes really stand out!

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Not a bad breakfast for a relatively short regional flight! Delicious Muesli, reasonable omelette, perfectly buttery and flaky croissant (unlike the ones usually served on US domestic flights which are more like glorified crescent rolls), some fresh fruit and cheese. I decided to make it a champagne brunch, and the fantastic crew insisted I have a second class…and pushed it on the guy across the aisle too. “If you waste the rest of the bottle, it will be a real pity!” Who can argue with that logic!

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Touchdown in a very snowy Zurich…yes, this is late April!

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Headed through immigration, and decided while I was at it to leave the secured area. As usual when dealing with Swiss border guards, they asked me a million questions, acting as if I was the most suspicious character they’d ever met. All Schengen/Swiss border controls are NOT equal – despite the intent. Why would you fly Zurich to Frankfurt? Why not just fly Moscow to Frankfurt? Why are you in Europe so much? Why do you spend so much time in Russia recently? Why is there a stamp from Somalia in your passport, on and on for nearly 15 minutes.

Headed to Starbucks for the most expensive Starbucks in the world (nearly $8 for an Americano – I think the only place more expensive might be Copenhagen…although even that might not compete these days.) On that note, any readers interested in adding to my database of Starbucks prices around the world hit me up. I track the price of a grande drip coffee (with tax) if you have a chance to look at your local shop.

After heading back through security, I headed to the SWISS lounge, where it was time for a local beer and a snack:

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One more local beer, and some Gummibärchen….because…it was still snowing and my Lufthansa flight was delayed nearly two hours:

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Finally, nearly two hours late, our flight was ready for boarding, so I headed off to the gate, where our Lufthansa plane was just pulling in….looks like we’ll be almost 2.5 hours late in the end! How un-German!

Lufthansa flight 1191
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 14:40, Arrive 15:45, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPY, Manufactured 1991, Seat 6F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,699
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,576

On the taxi out, I noticed lots of sleet and ice forming on the window:

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We were at the end of the runway, turning onto the active runway to take off, when I also noticed lots of ice/sleet/slush accumulating on the wings. Visions of Air Florida started dancing through my head, and I decided to start ringing the flight attendant call button frantically – probably 10 times in 10 seconds or so. I still don’t know if it was me, or a sensor in the cockpit, but the pilot turned off the active runway and announced to us we would need to deice before taking off due to snow moving in as we taxied out. Quite a scary moment!

Once airborne, despite the 50 minute flight time, a small snack was served. Scary sandwich, some fresh fruit, chocolate, and a glass of white wine. Skipped the sandwich, but the rest was quite tasty and impressive service for a short flight. This probably wasn’t Lufthansa’s best effort with the delay and all, but overall I still was left with a better impression that I usually am in the US. I think the attitude and composure of the crew went a long way towards helping.

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Landed in Frankfurt much later than expected, but fortunately was staying at the airport Sheraton. I was met by the general manager at check-in, who let me know that they’d followed up on my previous disappointing stay, and found a room that was extra cool with great air conditioning. I found out later they had blocked the room on both sides of me as well as above and below, and turned the air up full blast in those. A bit unnecessary, but the effort and CRM was super welcome. I’ll definitely be staying at this property again.

Headed out to Naiv, my favourite craft beer bar in the area, and enjoyed some delicious beer-braised bacon-wrapped dates:

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Along with a reasonably tasty German imperial IPA or three:

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With that, it was a quick ride back to the hotel for a bit of sleep. I wanted to make sure to be up early to enjoy what I hoped would be another amazing experience in the Lufthansa first class terminal!

Apr 292017
 

Airport in Sochi was relatively modern, no doubt a beneficiary of the recent Winter Olympics. Since it was already nearing sunset and we were exhausted from a long day of travel, we decided to go with the taxi desk in the arrivals area as opposed to negotiating with the taxi mafia to potentially save a couple dollars each. Nice quick ride with a polite driver who coincidentally enough had Abkhazia plates on his car.

10 minute ride to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Resort and Conference Centre, where check-in was a polite but disorganized affair. First they sent us to our rooms…which we realized when we got there we’d both been given the same room number. Back to the front desk, and apparently they had screwed up, and oh btw, we charged you the wrong amount. Your room requires you to pay this much more. Was somewhat odd that they expected the room to be paid upon check-in, but eventually everything was sorted, and the view of the Olympic venues from the room was fantastic:

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With the sun having set, and the stories of stray dogs around the area (which we never actually saw) there was really no point in trying to see the Olympics sites in the evening, so we decided to head into Sochi for some dinner. See, the airport and the Olympics venues are in a suburb called Adler, which actually sits right on the Abkhazia border. We called an Uber, which was really quick and reliable in Sochi, and made the 30 minute drive to the Morye Mall located in Sochi.

What was the first thing you see at the main entrance to the mall? Yup, it’s like they knew I was coming…AND Sochi managed to get my name right. Bonus points for them!

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We wandered around the mall a bit, walking off the jetlag, and the mall was majorly modern with lots of international stores – likely a beneficiary of the Olympics as well. We were getting a bit hungry, so stopped into a pelmeni restaurant for some dinner. Dozens of varieties of pelmeni on the menu, and I don’t remember what we ordered in the end but they were seriously delicious.

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After a bite to eat, a little more walking around the mall and exploring, and we found another odd vending machine to pair with the caviar vending machine in Moscow. I mean, don’t you always go to the mall and realize “damn, I forgot my contact lenses, I better hit up the vending machine!”

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There was also a huge grocery store in the mall, so explored that a bit as well. I find grocery stores fascinating places when abroad, and a good insight to how at least some segment of the local population lives. Nothing terribly unusual about this one, except for multiple aisles with nothing but alcohol.

Called an Uber which had no trouble locating us at the mall, and after a short ride we were back at the hotel where we promptly passed out for the night. Despite all the confusion over the room rate at the hotel, they did decide that breakfast was included, and it was a reasonable spread for Easter Sunday. The breakfast was seriously empty, but there was still a huge amount of choice at the buffet, both hot and cold options, plus some local sparkling wine. Not bad at all!

…and seriously, how can you resist taking a pic when the hotel has something like this set up?

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It was a nice clear morning, and unfortunately sleep won out over an early morning walk around the Olympic sites. Most of them were well behind fences anyways, so it wasn’t like I was going to get an early morning tour of them. This view from my room would have to do:

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We hadn’t put a whole lot of thought into getting to Abkhazia, but knew that there were essentially two options: take a taxi to the border, cross over, and then wait for a minibus to Sukhumi, or find a driver/taxi who was willing to make the full trip. Given it was Easter, and we didn’t know how much traffic there would be, we opted to skip the public transport option and arrange for a driver. My first thought was to hire our driver from the airport since he had Abkhaz plates, but he he no interest in making the trip.

Our second try was to see if they hotel could find us a driver. Yes, they could, but their driver wanted to leave at 6am to avoid traffic at the border, and wanted 9,000 rubles ($180) for the one-way trip. We definitely weren’t going to pay that much to get up early.

So, google to the rescue and I found kiwitaxi.com which seemed to be too good to be true. A global transfer booking company that could arrange transfers anywhere in the world? They only wanted about 5,500 rubles for the trip ($100) and only 20% in advance with the rest to the driver (I imagine the 20% is their commission) so I figured I would give it a go. Only took about 30 minutes, and I had confirmation that our driver was booked, and would pick us up at 11am as we requested.

Our driver Dima showed up right on time, and had a perfectly comfortable and modern SUV for the trip. He didn’t speak a word of English, but was extremely friendly and easy to communicate with. We set off right at 11am, and were at the border in just over 15 minutes. He made sure to tell us that if anyone at the border asks, we are “friends” since trying to explain a taxi might open him up to bribes. When we got close to the Russian side of the border he let us get out, and go walk through passport control. Exiting Russia was pretty straightforward, with just a couple simple questions “how long will you be in Abkhazia? When will you come back to Russia? Where do you live? Why do you speak Russian?” and we were through.

Dima was just getting the car cleared when we exited, and we were ready to head to the Abkhaz border post about 100 meters down the road. Here we just pulled up to the officers, said hi, showed them passports, and they waved us through without a single question. Way too easy! The whole border had taken about 30-40 minutes due to the passport control line on the Russian side, but overall really easy.

From here, it was about a two hour easy drive to Sukhumi, where we had little trouble finding our hotel. I asked Dima if he would be interested in picking us up in two days, but when we told him we needed to leave at 9am he wasn’t interested since it would mean leaving Sochi super early. No problem, we had two days to sort out transport or use kiwitaxi again, so figured we were set.

Now, time to explore Abkhazia!

Apr 252017
 

The day of the trip was finally here, and despite lots of last minute changes needed to deal with some unexpected work and personal commitments, I finally was able to salvage part of the trip. Unfortunately, that would mean missing two of the stops we had planned, but at least we would get to Abkhazia which was one of the parts I was super excited for.

American had changed their schedule about three months before my flight, and suddenly my DCA-JFK flight no longer existed. They decided instead to book me on an ERJ-145 flight instead, which meant an involuntary downgrade. Because it was the short part of an international itinerary no compensation was due, and they seemed completely uninterested in helping. Fortunately, about 45 days before the flight they changed schedules again, and there was now an option with first class. It meant a relatively short two hour connection in JFK, but I figured it should be doable in the spring.

Calling in, I got the rare fantastic agent who was able to force availability and get me on the new flight, and all was set. Day of travel I actually had quite a bit of time given the later departure, so decided to risk taking the metro to the airport, which was drama free. Rare occurrence on metro! Had to check-in with an agent to show them my Russian visa, and after they made sure to show me how annoyed they were with having to help me they checked me in and I was on my way to the lounge.

Lounge was serving the usual cheese and crAAckers along with some other unexciting kibble, but who can resist a whole carrot right before Easter?

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Blue skies, and a great view form the lounge at DCA for a bit of plane-watching. Plus, N406YX in the foreground would be my ride up to JFK today:

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Boarding commenced right on time with some rather grouchy gate agents and a total of three emotional support animals for the rather short ride up to JFK.

American Eagle flight 4540
Washington DC, National (DCA) to New York, JFK (JFK)
Depart 14:35, Arrive 15:55, Flight Time: 1:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N406YX, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,332
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,405,647

I see lots of complaints online that American is very hit-or-miss with pre-departure drinks, but today was a definite hit. The always classy Chateau le Parker in the finest plastique crystal:

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Shortly after boarding and being seated there was some commotion in the entryway. I didn’t catch the whole conversation but apparently the passenger had accidentally packed some vital medications in the bag she was forced to gate-check, and needed/wanted to get them out. All I heard was the rather nasty gate agent saying “I don’t care what you think you need you ain’t gettin’ the bag now!” Followed by “you know what, you’re a very nasty woman!” from the passenger. I was having visions of Dr. Dao at this point, and had the iPhone really to shoot prize-winning footage….but eventually the pilot who was great managed to calm the situation (after the gate agent yelled at him to) and everything was defused.

After that bit of excitement, departure time came and went…except we weren’t going anywhere. The pilot came on at five minutes past the departure time and told us we would be another 15 minutes because they were trying to locate…a first officer. Apparently the first officer’s dog had died and they were desperately trying to locate a replacement one. Another five minutes passed, and we were assured one bad been found, and he was “on his way” and we “should be out of here” in 15 minutes. Of course, 15 minutes came and went…and no first officer.

Finally, about an hour past departure, the new first officer rocked up and the door was closed a couple minutes later. My 1:45 connection had been reduced to about 40 minutes, so I was hopeful we would make up a little of the time in the air. Great view of the turn over the Pentagon right after departure:

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Once in flight, the crew broke out AA’s finest stemware, and passed around the kibble basket. Since I’m addicted to the DiBella biscotti, I wasn’t complaining for a 42 minute flight. Never seen blueberry lemon before…yum!

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We made up a tiny bit of time, and looks like we would make the gate with about 50 minutes to connect. I had to blink twice to make sure the plane hadn’t entered a time warp on the way when I saw this parked at the terminal:

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So despite flying well over 2 million miles and over 250 transatlantics in each direction, I’ve never flown internationally out of JFK before. I remember the day when international travel almost ensured you would head to O’Hare or JFK, but these days unless you’re flying a smaller international carrier, JFK is super easy to avoid. Of course, it was just my luck that my arriving flight would arrive as far from the International First Lounge as possible, and the departing flight which normally leaves from right by the lounge was also leaving as far away from the lounge as possible.

Ian was perfectly fine skipping the lounge, but I was having none of it, so he met me near my arriving flight and off to the first lounge we went.

I mean, I’m not going to turn down Bollinger and a nice cheese plate!

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Unfortunately, given time constraints, I had to limit myself to around two glasses, and then make the long trek over to my departure gate. I wished Ian well, made sure all his shots were updated for his flight back with the proletariat, and then boarded.

Finnair flight 6
New York, JFK (JFK) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 17:40, Arrive 8:50 next day, Flight Time: 8:10
Airbus A330-300, Registration OH-LTT, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 37,449
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,409,764

I had fortunately booked well in advance, so had one of the “throne” seats on Finnair. On the left side of the plane the rows alternate, with one row having two seats, and the next row having one. In the row with one seat, your footwell is under the centre console of the two seats in front of it…in the row of two your footwells are under the two large tables on either side of the “throne” seat. My fabulous Marimekko branded slippers and amenity kit were already waiting for me:

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Pre-departure champagne, blueberry juice, and water were offered. I asked for a champagne AND a water, and with the sigh that followed you would think I was asking for them to move Heaven and Earth. But, I was successful. I still love the Littala crystal – even for pre-departure drinks. I really need to pick up some of this glassware for at home.

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Unfortunately, right before the door closed, a couple boarded sitting right in front of me with twins who looked no more than a month or two old…and were already crying their lungs out. You have GOT to be kidding me. Seeing the glares they were getting from the other passengers, the purser suggested that all 12 seats in the mini cabin of business class were open, and perhaps they would be more comfortable there. They agreed to move, much to the relief of the other passengers.

With that sorted, time to get comfy and rock the Marimekko slippers!

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About 30 minutes after departure drinks and snacks were finally offered. While I was glad not to see the usual mixed nuts, a single skewered prawn doesn’t really make much of a cocktail snack….

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Even more surprising was that the meal was all served on a single tray. No courses here. I would be less surprised if this was a late departure, or if I requested the executive meal, but nope…everyone got their entire meal on one tray. This looks like something that would be served on a domestic flight in the US and not internationally! That said, the beef was rather tasty along with the potatoes, but the salad and cheese course were rather stingy and disappointing. Definitely one of the most disappointing business class meals I’ve ever had across the Atlantic. Boo to Finnair on this one!

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An hour into flight, my free internet cut out. Supposedly Finnair elites and OneWorld Emeralds get free complimentary internet for the entire flight, but for whatever reason Finnair had forgotten to load this data into the computer for this flight, so everyone was cut off at one hour. Ended up paying for the rest of the flight, which per the purser’s recommendation I will now dispute with AmEx….

Package ice cream for dessert was pretty disappointing as well, but the fun little mini pastries were a nice touch, and there was plenty to go around:

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I still wasn’t tired, so after a bit of time watching tv, I used the call button to ring for another glass of wine. A new/different flight attendant appeared this time, and he was more than happy to bring me one. He also brought a mini snack of mixed nuts and dried fruits. Thought it was odd he served this right after dinner had finished, but it was definitely a nice appreciated touch.

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After finishing this glass of wine I was getting pretty tired, but there was just one problem. Two extremely loud large russian women in the row behind me having a conversation and cackling at a volume that I’m sure even the people back in coach could hear. I’d already asked them several time to keep their voices down because people want to sleep and was just met with a dirty glare in return. The flight attendant who’d brought me the nuts tried to quiet them as well, to no avail. He suggested I could move to the back of the cabin where there were plenty of seats and it might be a bit quieter. Fortunately, when I returned from chatting with him they had mysteriously and suddenly passed out cold. Saved!

At this point I managed to pass out for a nice uninterrupted five hours of solid sleep, waking up just as we crossed the Finnish coast on descent. Flight delivered in the ways that were most important to me, a comfortable seat for sleeping and a cabin temperature that made it possible. The food was a huge let-down, but again, it was adequate. However, if Finnair really wants to compete for connecting traffic they really need to up their game in this department.

We arrived in Helsinki about five minutes late, and only had a 35 minute connection to Moscow to begin with. Fortunately, there is no need to re-clear security in Helsinki, and since we also did not need to clear immigration it was a very easy transit. No time to check out the lounge, but our gates were right next to each other and I think the change of planes took maybe five minutes maximum. Most passengers were already boarded once we got there, so just a few minutes after boarding the door was closed 15 minutes early.

Finnair flight 153
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Moscow Sheremetyevo, Russia (SVO)
Depart 9:25, Arrive 11:05, Flight Time: 1:40
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration OH-LKL, Manufactured 2008, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,877
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,410,309

There was only one row of eurobusiness 2×2 seating on this ERJ-190, and only one other passenger, so we each had two seats to our self. It should be noted that unlike Lufthansa, Finnair sells all the seats in eurobusiness on the ERJs, so you don’t get a free seat next to you. The only thing you get is a free meal, when those in economy had to pay for buy on board. Not a bad meal for a 90 minute flight, and two main thoughts: yes, the fruit may have been packaged, but was fresher than anything United serves. Maybe being sealed held in some moisture? Also, the flight attendant noted: “surely you would like some champagne, you can’t fly business class without it!” Best flight attendant ever!

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Landed at Sheremetyevo Airport right on time, my first time there since 1989. I’ve been do Domodedevo and Vnukovo since then, but never back to Sheremeyevo. They wanted to make sure and remind me that I love it:

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Immigration was a relative non-affair, with no line at all when we arrived. Got a few questions from the agent, who seemed mildly amused that I spoke Russian. Why do you speak Russian? Where did you learn it? How do you still speak it if it has been more than 20 years? She was seriously curious, and every time I answered the other agent in the booth would giggle. I guess my accent is amusing or something.

Right past immigration there was a check-in flight for connecting flights, and the agent was able to issue our Moscow to Sochi boarding passes, even though it was a separate itinerary. Next stop after checking in was to find Starbucks. I knew there was one at the airport, but we weren’t sure exactly where. We decided to trust the Starbucks app, and head to the next terminal over (connected landside) and search for it. Ian knew better than to resist my need for caffeine, and we were off on the hunt.

On the way, we passed a caviar vending machine. Only in Russia! It was tempting to buy some for our connecting flight…

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All price points from $20 a tin up to well over $100 a tin. I mean, everyone buys $100 worth of caviar from vending machines…right?

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The Starbucks was right by the vending machine, and provided some much-needed fuel to continue on with the day. After sitting and resting for a bit, we were back to the check-in area to try and find our gate. On the way, we ran into the (relatively new) Krasnaya Machina Red Army Hockey Team store. I couldn’t resist posing with the cut-out poster and buying a hat:

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Security wasn’t too bad, except for the guy who was getting busted for trying to take a cage filled with rabbits through the x-ray machine. I mean, totally normal, right?

Next stop was the lounge, which since we had arrived on OneWorld they wouldn’t let me use with my SkyTeam Elite card. Apparently, no lounge access allowed to SkyTeam Elites on domestic flights with Aeroflot? Fortunately, they did accept Priority Pass, so that made short work of the 90 minutes we had left until boarding.

Reasonable selection of food and beverage, and more importantly, places to charge devices. Biggest downside is the lounge was completely dark inside, and emerging from the lounge was like walking back out into bright daylight!

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Boarding was nice and easy, and they actually made time for elites and business class to board first.

Aeroflot flight 1124
Moscow Sheremetyevo, Russia (SVO) to Sochi/Adler, Russia (AER)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 16:30, Flight Time: 2:30
Airbus A321, Registration VP-BAZ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 33C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,205
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,411,182

About a 90% full A321 down to Sochi today, but fortunately we had booked the A and C seats and hoped nobody would take B. We asked the gate agent nicely, and she verified it was still open and she wouldn’t put anybody in it. Score!

Scary pre-packaged sandwich, mandarin, and chocolate was offered, along with tea on the two hour flight. Not bad for a $50 ticket. Legroom was also reasonable, much better than you get from most domestic airlines in the US. This was my first time on Aeroflot since the late-1980s, and things have definitely improved with Western aircraft. No more cages of chickens in the luggage racks, no more fold-down seats, and especially no more grumpy Soviet passengers lighting up and chain-smoking the entire flight. It was actually more pleasant than most domestic flights in the US these days…

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Mystery meat sandwich, fruit/chocolate, and a mandarin. Not bad…

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Landed right on time in Sochi, and it was time to begin the adventure!

Apr 032017
 

I don’t usually get too excited for flights, especially when they mean getting up early, but the combination of my room being slightly warm along with my upcoming flight on my favourite product had me up even before I needed to be.

Walked over to the B terminal of the airport, and stopped at Starbucks for a bit of caffeine to get me motivated for the long day ahead. Back to the Sheraton, packed, checked out, and then did the brisk 10 minute outdoor walk to the First Class Terminal. They’re definitely not used to people arriving on foot, but were excellent about checking me in and getting me sorted out.

The lounge was actually rather busy for 8am, and I got the last table in the dining area. I’ve never been here hungry before (usually coming off a redeye) so was nice to be ready to tear into some serious breakfast. Nice table setting to start:L

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This morning’s breakfast menu:

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I decided to go for the eggs benedict and a fresh orange juice. The eggs were actually really good, with just right amount of hollandaise sauce which was just the right tartness. Once again, Lufthansa delivers in my book.

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Now, I may not be Madonna who is rumoured to require Voss water to take her baths in, but I was pretty impressed that the First Class Terminal also has a water menu, which somehow I’ve never noticed on prior trips. Voss for me today!

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Spent a nice 90 minutes in the lounge today, before being told the car was ready to take me to the plane. Unfortunately, there were five of us in the lounge all going to the same plane, so we were packed into one car for the ride. How uncivilized! 😉 But seriously, it’s still a special feeling being driven around the tarmac for a bit before parking right next to your plane:

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There was a long queue in the jetbridge after we took the elevator up, and the driver was having absolutely none of it. “Entschuldigung, bitte!” all the way down, pushing his way passed all the queued up passengers to get on board first. It was on the verge of mildly embarrassing, but at the same time a bit fun to be treated like a celebrity.

Lufthansa flight 430
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 10:40, Arrive 13:10, Flight Time: 9:30
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 31,507
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,395,908

Good to see after my last couple of flights that the macadamia nuts are back, and the champagne remains cold!

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After takeoff, an amuse-bouche of tomato gelatin, a mini tomato, mozzarella, pesto, and a crostini:

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Clearly, Lufthansa has gotten the message that I enjoy my caviar. Despite being booked six of eight in first today, the portion took up half of the plate! I should start traveling with my own bread crumb scraper…I clearly make a mess!

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Today’s appetizers were tasty, but not mind-blowing.  Tuna with Caper and Veal Sauce, accompanied by green Asparagus.  Quail Egg and Black Salsify Salad presented with Bolzano Sauce (this one was super tasty), and Grilled Vegetable Terrine, Chive Curd and air-dried Beef.

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I liked how they did the salad after the apps…more courses, and extended things a bit more. The passion fruit dressing, as usual, was weird. One thing I don’t like about Lufthansa is how the feel the need to try funky dressings. Of course, maybe I should be thanking them for broadening my horizons…who knows.

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Went with the sous-vide prime boiled veal with red hot pepper mostarda, root vegetables, and parsley potatoes. Honestly, it wasn’t that good. The veal was flavourless, and the whole thing tasted like something out of a 1970s British cookbook. Boiled and bland.

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But not all was lost…cheese was on the way, and delicious as always. How can you not love a cheese cart like this when everyone else serves you dried out pre-plated crap. Rock salt cheese, St. Agur, Goat Cheese with Honey, L’Explorateur and Langres.

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Gorgeous cheese course. I’m not sure anyone does it quite like Lufthansa.

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My usually Johnny Walker Blue and a couple of chocolates to finish things off. No room for a full dessert today.

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After eating, I was stuffed and tired from being up early, so I shut the window shades to catch some zzzzzs. Rose, silhouetted by the one light…

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After four solid hours of sleep, I woke up just in time for the pre-landing snack. The new snack/landing menu are the same, and you just order from it as you please during the flight. I went with the Italian Spuntino plate with melon and ham skewer, bresaola with creem cheese, guinea fowl confit, arugula veal roll, and parmesan cheese and tomato olive tepanade. Definitely a winner for a second meal. Plus…pretzel bread!

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She insisted I also needed some greens, so I agreed to a salad with chicken as well.

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…and some sweets to finish it off. Not because I wanted them, because she insisted. They were, of course, delicious.

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Once again, a fantastic Lufthansa experience. The food today wasn’t exactly my thing for a few of the courses, but the fantastic service more than made up for it. Unlike lots of other folks, I actually find the Lufthansa seat great for relaxing and sleeping, although it is slightly lacking in the privacy front. I feel like they do classy in a great way that is refined and attention to detail without being at all pretentious. I won’t claim it’s the “best” product in the skies, but is probably the one that meshes best with my personality.

Upon landing, I was worried that once again the Global Entry machines would declare me persona non-grata since I was on a one-way ticket from Egypt. I’ve had very unpleasant experiences with this in the past, so really wasn’t looking forward to what might await me. This time, however, no problems at all and I was through immigration in maybe five minutes and on the way to my connecting flight.

Monorail over to the United gates, not too bad of a line at TSA PreCheck for once, and a quick stop at Starbucks for some caffeine. The wait at Starbucks was much longer than TSA (ugh!) but soon I had my caffeine and was ready to struggle through the last leg home.

United flight 622
Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive 18:55, Flight Time: 1:55
Boeing 737-800, Registration N33266, Manufactured 2001, Seat 3B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,119
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,396,520

What can I say. Generic non-meal United flight so not much to report on. Was too full to attack the snack basket, so had a super uneventful flight.

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With that, another great trip came to a close! Now, what next…

Mar 192017
 

Got a very good night of sleep, and was all set for a day of adventure ahead. Originally when I planned this trip, I had planned two days in Paris on the return, but when I had to skip the Cape Town side trip, I was no longer able to get the stopover in Paris on the way back. The options were Frankfurt and Munich, and having been to both several times I picked Frankfurt figuring I was likely to have more options for side trips from there.

After playing around on Die Bahn’s website I settled for a sidetrip to Nürnberg. I had really wanted to see Dresden or Leipzig, but spending 4-5 hours each way on the train wasn’t my idea of a good use of time. I’ll save those for another trip later this year when I have more time. I had also wanted a train trip side it had been a long time, and there were still some decent ICE first fares to Nürnberg. It was far from cheap, but at two hours each way with great times, and plenty to see in Nürnberg, I figured it was a good option

Train left super early – around 8a – which meant being up early. The great thing of being at the Sheraton attached to the airport is I just had to walk into the departures hall, and I had my own Starbucks for breakfast and wakeup. There was a good breakfast spread in the Sheraton lounge, so it made for a nice and convenient morning.

Train was about 10 minutes late, and absolutely packed. I didn’t see an empty seat anywhere in my car. Fortunately I got one of the seats on the single side, so no dealing with climbing over people – definitely plus! When I got to Nürnberg I found the machine to buy day tickets for local transit, pulled up google maps, and found out which tram I needed to take to the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände – the Documentation Centre at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds.

The museum opened in 1994, and the entrance is a long glass and steel tunnel into the front of the building – a creative play by the architect to mock Nazi architect Albert Speer. The place was much busier than I expected for a museum on a Monday, filled with school groups:

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The new Neue Kongresshalle – New Congress Hall – which was never finished. It was intended to seat 50,000 people during rallies and is the largest piece of Nazi architecture still standing.

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I spent about two hours walking through the exhibits, and there was a fantastic audiotour that you could either do a short version, or listen to lots of background in each room. It was an incredibly well-done museum with lots of historical facts as well. It was also slightly chilling given how many parallels were easy to draw to current events in the United States.

After finishing the museum, I went for a walk around the Dutzendteich – or dozen ponds, which are adjacent to the Kongresshall and museum. It was a grey a gloomy day, which somehow seemed appropriate.

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Grandstand at the Zeppelinfeld – or Zeppelin Field. It was one of the first architectural sites build by Albert Speer, and based upon the Ancient Greek Pergamon Altar. On the top of the review stand there used to be a giant swastika that was blown up in 1945 at the end of the war to symbolically show that naziism was over. It got its name because it was the site in 1909 where Ferdinand von Zeppelin landed one of his zeppelins.

 

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Looking out from the top of the grandstand:

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Sideways view when standing on the podium on the Zeppelinfeld grandstand:

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How the site looked in the 1930s and 1940s. Note the giant swastika on the top of the grandstand and the columns which no longer exist:

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From the Zeppelinfeld I continued walking around the water, and got this view of the Kongresshalle from the other side:

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Danger! Crazy-long German word ahead!

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Looking down the Große Straße – Great Road. Over a mile long and 40 meters wide it was a parade route for the Wehrmacht during the annual party meetings. It points toward medieval Nürnberg Castle and the direction was an attempt to link old Nürnburg to the Nürnberg of the Third Reich. After the war ended, the US Army actually used the road as a temporary airfield since so there was so much damage to other infrastructure.

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Outside the Kongresshalle:

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After all this walking I was getting pretty hungry so pulled up google maps again. Figured out how to get to the restaurant I wanted to go to, and there was a direct bus leaving from the museum. Perfect! Between google maps and the daypass transport around Nürnberg was really simple.  Bus dropped me right in the centre of the city near an old church:

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Statue of Albrecht Durer, a renaissance painter from Nürnberg:

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Lunch at the Hausbraueri Altstadthof – great homemade beer and Nürnberg Rostbratwurst with Kartoffelsalat – YUM!

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After lunch went for a long walk back towards the train station, passing the Frauenkirche – a great example of gothic architecture from the mid-1300s:

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Stopped at Starbucks for some caffeine, and had an absolutely terrible view on the Pegnitz River:

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The Wetterhäuschen Lorenzkirche – or St Lorenz church. Ground was broken in 1250, but the church was only finished approximately 200 years later. It was badly damaged during World War Two but later restored:

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Selfie on the Königstraße heading towards the train station:

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Train back to Frankfurt was on time, and once again managed to get lucky and get the single seat. Once again the train was completely full all the way to Frankfurt. Is this the norm lately, or was it because it was a Monday? I haven’t taken many train trips in Germany in the last ten years, but I remember first class on the ICEs used to be relatively empty lots of the time.

Had a quiet evening in Frankfurt just walking through the centre of the city, stopped at a couple of small random bars/restaurants for a beer, and then back to the airport early so that I could turn in. I had a relatively early flight the next morning, and wanted to maximize my time in the Lufthansa First Class Terminal!