Sep 062017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The light clouds really added to the beauty.

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty typical bedroom, as big as most hotel rooms:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that was a LOT of steak.

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

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

Sep 042017
 

After landing immigration was a pretty quick affair (where I saved $117 due to not being Australian) and then it was time to figure out how to get to my hotel. A nice trick I learned several years ago is that when landing after a redeye, unless you are really in the rush for some meeting or appointment, there’s no harm in sitting down, waking up, and figuring out your game plan for a new place.

Now, Santiago wasn’t new for me, but it had been nearly fifteen years since I was last there so I figured I should take my time and plan the next steps. Sat down at a coffeeshop in the immigration area, enjoyed some espresso to wake up, and plotted how I would get to the city. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been able to find an ATM, and I wasn’t sure that taxis would take credit cards, and Uber looked like an option, so I decided to go with that.

There were official taxis where the rate was just slightly higher than Uber (and the desk looked to take credit cards) but I decided to try and be a little more independent and try Uber. I was assigned a driver rather quickly, and within a minute he texted me in the app – asking where I was waiting. He didn’t speak any English, but with a little help from google translate I was able to work with him and find out there was an official waiting area for meeting your pick-up.

Walked to the area (across the main road outside the arrivals area) and while waiting, a couple different people told me not to bother – Uber is illegal here and nobody will come pick you up. Well, my driver did show up about 10 minutes later, but the first thing he told me too is that Uber is kind of illegal here, so if anyone asks…we are friends, ok?

No problem…and a good thing, because no more than two minutes down the road there was a police checkpoint where they were checking the papers of taxi drivers…and looking for illegal Ubers. They wouldn’t talk to the driver, only to me…”yes, he’s my friend.” “How do you know him?” “Well, my sister was here last year, and they met at a club, and when I told her I was coming here she told her friend and he offered to pick me up.” I’m not entirely sure they bought the story, but they did let us go. I think the driver was impressed with my ability to make something up on the spot…in my rather bad Spanish on top of it.

Traffic was pretty bad since it was around 9am, and finally made it to the hotel about 45 minutes later. The W had agreed in advance to honour the “My 24” benefit of my status, and allowed me to guarantee a 9am to 9am stay. Was great to be able to check in right when I arrived (even if it meant no upgrade) and after a quick shower I enjoyed a fantastic two hour nap that was just enough to recharge me for the day.

It was 11am by this point, and I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my day. I hadn’t really planned too much for this stop just in case I didn’t make it on the standby flight, so some planning was in order. Fortunately, there was a Starbucks right around the corner – allowing me somewhere to caffeinate and plan. Well, maybe not me, but some guy named “Jess” at least:

Couldn’t really decide what to do, and since I’ve had luck in other cities I googled “free walking tour of santiago.” Managed to find a company called Free Tour Santiago that looked good, had tours every day at 3pm, and no booking needed. Perfect! I would go check that out, and if it was promising I would go with it. After enjoying a bit of coffee, lunch, and the latest news about the DPRK and USA alarming the world, I headed out to make my way to the Plaza de Armas for the tour.

Figured out how the subway worked, how to buy a farecard, and I was off. The plaza was filled with interesting characters, and since I still had 30 minutes until the tour I took a bench for a bit to peoplewatch. What was perhaps the most interesting to me was the extremely high number of Haitians hanging out in the square. At least 100 in several small groups. I did ask my guide about it later, and he said most of them had arrived as refugees after the big earthquake several years ago, and were having a hard time integrating due to language barriers.

3pm came, and a light rain started. This wasn’t looking good for the tour. I did manage to locate the tour guide in front of the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago which was already getting set for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis.

Lots of people about, and looked like we would be about 20 for the tour today. Strangely enough, no Spanish speakers, only Brazilians and a mix of internationals who spoke English. Fortunately there were two guides, so they agreed to do one English tour and one Portuguese tour. Our group contained a couple of girls from Korea, a few Germans, a couple of American backpackers who gave up on the rain/tour after 10 minutes, and a couple of Danes. We decided to set off from the Plaza, and see how the rain went.

First thing in the square was the statue of Don Pedro de Valdivia, a Spanish conquistador, who “discovered” and founded Santiago in 1541:

Next up was the Mueseo Chileno de Arte Precolombiano. We just stepped inside for a bit to talk about the museum, and the guide gave us enough background in case we chose to come back on our own later. It was also raining very heavily at this point, so allowed us 15 minutes to get out of the rain. When the rain let up a bit we walked a bit more and made it to the Plaza de la Constitución and saw the La Moneda Palace:

In the square was a statue of Salvador Allende, so we stopped for a brief Chilean history lesson. The very short version: Allende was a Marxist who was a cabinet minister as a member of the Socialist Party. After unsuccessful runs for President in 1952, 1958, and 1964 he finally won in 1970. In 1973, the military (supported by the CIA) attempted to overthrow Allende and surrounded him in the La Moneda Palace where he eventually committed suicide.

Eventually Pinochet took over as President and ruled as a dictator until 1990, a period during which thousands of people mysteriously disappeared.

The rain continued to be a light drizzle, so the eight of us who remained kept walking to the Opera House, where across the street is a small restaurant.When Bill Clinton visited Chile he stopped in this place (for a Coke supposedly) and ever since the restaurant has completely branded itself around him – featuring a whole menu of Clinton-inspired dishes – including the “Monica Lewinsky” hot dog…

The rain had picked up again at this point, and the timing was perfect. We kept walking (into a trendy/expensive neighbourhood whose name I’ve forgotten) and stopped for snacks/drinks at a place the tour company had an agreement for. They had a “special menu” of food and drinks for the tour (supposedly cheaper than their normal prices) and we were encouraged to try the Pisco Sour.

I’d always though Pisco was a Peruvian thing (and maybe it is) but our guide insisted that it was a Chilean drink that the Peruvians had simply stolen. Now, given Pedro de Valdivia had come to “discover” Chile from Peru, the whole thing is up for debate really since the the breaking up into countries is a bit of an artificial colonial thing…

That said, the pisco sour was indeed delicious!

After the rain let up a bit we kept walking through a park, and enjoying the park, statues, etc….

Finally the tour ended up in an area known for nightlife. Now, this is usually the downside with free tours which is that they are geared to budget-minded travelers (aka backpackers) so tend to skew towards the activities more popular with the younger crowds…aka bars and clubs.

This one was no exception at the end, but as with some other great walking tours I’ve gone on there was plenty of history and a great intro to the city included, so it was well worth it. Plus, this tour ended at a place where the group could have a drink together, and the four of us left standing at the end did…plus, it was a place that brewed its own craft beer so was definitely a win!

After the tour was over I had a recommendation for a place near my hotel called Pizzeria Tiramisu to get dinner, and when I walked in I was shocked how busy the place was for a Thursday night. Tables were all booked, but the place had multiple bars inside and it was suggested to hover by them and wait for a seat. One opened up after about 10 minutes, and I was able to enjoy a nice lasagna and beer (and of course tiramisu) which was welcome after several hours walking around in the cold rain.

I was exhausted by this point, made it back to the hotel and crashed, since it would be a very early wakeup the next morning to continue on to Buenos Aires! Not too much to say about the W as a hotel – it was located in an upscale neighbourhood with lots of stuff within walking distance. It was very clean, very W-like, and not memorable. I would definitely stay there again, but given the rather expensive price I would also consider other options.

Feb 142017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Post-takeoff, more champagne quickly appeared.

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

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Delicious thai salad.

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Very nicely set table.

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

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

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

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Rather sad fruit and cheese course. Nowhere near expectations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Very unusual sculptures in the mall.

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

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

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

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

Aug 092016
 

Up early, enjoyed a bit of breakfast (and of course some Starbucks) and checked out of the hotel. The St Regis Mumbai was absolutely fantastic, went above and beyond for me as a platinum member. However, when checking out, like at many hotels, they asked if I wanted to be billed in my card’s home currency (US Dollars) or Indian Rupees. I replied rupees, and received a receipt showing the same. However, the charge posted in US dollars, with an exchange rate nearly 7% off from the market rate. This has taken a chain of 22 emails to correct, and has marred my impression of this property. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but correcting something so easy shouldn’t take such effort. Sure, it was only about $35 on the exchange loss, but it’s also the principle. Now, waiting to see if they’ll comp some Starpoints for the annoyance of 22 emails…

Decided to take Uber Black to the airport, and the nearly 40 minute drive was very comfortable with a friendly driver and was less than $8. Definitely recommended as a way to get to the airport. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t awful and made it to the airport ahead of plan. Picked up my boarding pass from Jet Airways and headed to immigration where things got…interesting.

Upon not being able to find my visa, the immigration agent asked how they had let me in the country. I explained that on previous trips I was told I didn’t need to show the visa because it is in the computer, and how upon showing a digital copy this time I was allowed in. I also mentioned that I will of course carry the physical visa on future trips just in case it is required. He wasn’t going to have any of this, and escorted me to the supervisor’s room, who was equally incredulous, and told me there was no way they could stamp me out of India without seeing the physical visa.

Eventually, I asked: “ok, so you won’t let me out of India because I don’t have the visa, and without leaving India, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to physically produce the visa. So…I assume you’ll be granting me a permanent resident visa since you’ll refusing to ever let me leave the country?” This seemed to confuse them even further as the mental gymnastics became more and more difficult. They couldn’t make logical sense of what they should do next…so eventually relented and told me to make sure to have the visa next time!

That sorted, I had time to stop by the lounge very briefly for a bit of planespotting and a glass of wine. The lounge was rather nice, and had waiter service at the tables. They were probably some of the friendliest lounge waiters I’ve ever encountered too and seemed very disappointed when I declined a refill of the already generous pour of wine:

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Off to the gate, where the crew was just arriving 30 minutes before departure. Looked like we would depart slightly late…

Jet Airways flight 60
Mumbai, India (BOM) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time: 4:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration VT-JGV, Manufactured 2007, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 125,356
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,314,493

I had actually purchased the last seat in business, and coach was full as well. It would be a very packed flight to Bangkok. Printed menu for the flight:

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No pre-departure beverages were offered, but nuts in perhaps the most festive bowl I’ve ever seen in 737 business class and wine were offered shortly after takeoff:

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The salad was quite unusual with beans and onions in it, but rather tasty. Nice mini salt and pepper shakers too:

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Went with the Murgh main (since we got the lunch menu) and it was extremely tasty, and served with plentiful sides:

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Cheese plate was decent, but I really wonder what the point of that sad little piece of lettuce is:

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Finally an orange yogurt mousse for desert, which was very tasty:

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Other than that, a nice uneventful flight. There was hourly water service after lunch, and flight attendants were happy to help whenever asked. Overall, it left me with a good impression of Jet Airways as a very solid choice for a short regional flight. It’s too bad they don’t do much longhaul any more, as it looks like they would likely offer a competitive product based on this short flight.

Relatively short walk to immigration upon arrival in Bangkok, and decided to use the AOT taxi service to get to the hotel. I hadn’t been to Bangkok in over 5 years until this past year, and now this was my fifth time this year. It’s funny how things seem to go in cycles! No traffic at all, and arrived at the W Bangkok in a bit under 30 minutes. I had had several good stays here earlier in the year, and was looking forward to this one. No upgrade this time because they were full, and when I arrived in the room it was extremely warm:

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While the room cooled down, I headed out to meet a friend for a delicious dinner of extra spicy pad thai:

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…finished with even tastier mango and sticky rice:

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Unfortunately, when I got back to the room it was still 23.8 degrees, and wouldn’t cool further. I went to the front desk and asked to be moved, and was informed they were completely sold out at that would not be possible. They did send maintenance to the room to look, but they informed me it was working just fine. Based on the fact that all my previous rooms in this hotel had been much cooler, that couldn’t be the case. It was 23.2 by the time I woke up – barely cool enough for sleeping – so clearly something was wrong.

At least I had the amazing breakfast buffet to look forward to. On all my previous stays the breakfast room had been empty to maybe 50% full, but for some reason this time the place was absolutely packed, with most of the guests speaking Mandarin. It appeared there was a large group/package tour staying in the hotel, and it was not a group of frequent international travelers. Witnessed people using hands to pick from the buffet, children running around, and one man spitting on the floor in the middle of the buffet area. I pointed it out to the staff, who in the usual Thai fashion smiled and said they would see what they could do…but nothing was done.

Added to this, the quality of the buffet was also down significantly in just the past few months. Very limited fresh fruit (which had been plentiful before) and a reduced variety of dishes overall. Not sure if this was due to the large package group picking things over, or the hotel actually cutting back, but it was a major disappointment when I used to consider this the world’s best breakfast buffet. Oh well, things change… I’m not sure if I’ll choose the W again my next trip, as Bangkok has so many fantastic hotels that I don’t see any reason to stay in one that is disappointing in any way.

…that was easily fixed by grabbing Starbucks next door with some work colleaguers, where apparently asking my name is more difficult than just writing the Under Armour logo on my cup to identify me:

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After coffee my all too short stop in Bangkok was over, and it was time to head on to Malaysia to begin the trek home…

May 182016
 

After a leisurely morning, I grabbed an Uber to the airport. I have to say, it’s hard to remember what we did before Uber. You always had to either take the expensive hotel car or try and figure out how much local currency you needed to save for a cab. Uber has made all of that a piece of cake!

Originally, when I had booked my Sydney-Bangkok-Hong Kong award Thai was running one 747 a day with first class to Hong Kong, and so I booked on that flight, despite it being at the gross hour of 8am. About 48 hours before, I decided two hours in first class wasn’t worth getting up early for and switched to a later flight. Turned out to be the right call, because 24 hours before the flight they changed it to a two-class plane anyways! I decided when I got to Bangkok to check in to try my luck:

“Yes, I moved to this flight because you switched my plane from the 747 to the 777.” Yes, they agreed, very sorry about that, etc etc. So, I asked if this meant I could use the first class lounge since I was initially booked in first. Much chatting in Thai, and ultimately they agreed that would be ok. Got my escort through fast track security, and down the escalators to the lounge where my buggy was waiting to drive me through the business class lounge and down the corridors to the first class lounge:

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Got to the lounge, where I was the only person in the entire lounge, and got a whole room to myself:

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I wasn’t terribly hungry after breakfast, but they insisted on making me lunch. So, tasty green curry and mango and sticky rice…yum!

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I was half expecting to be driven in the buggy to the gate too, but nope, I had to walk. The struggle is real I tell you…a whole five minute walk to the gate!

Thai Airways flight 638
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Hong Kong (HKG)
Depart 13:55, Arrive 17:40, Flight Time: 2:45
Airbus A330-300, Registration HS-TBE, Manufactured 2012, Seat 11A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 69,336
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,258,861

Business class was just over half full today, and they were happy to block the seat next to me since I was originally scheduled to be in first. Definitely a more comfortable flight with two seats to myself. Impressive to have printed menus and a full lunch for a flight just over two hours:

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Plus, Veuve on a regional flight – I’m impressed!

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…so of course, I’m not going to turn down a glass of Veuve. Really liked the menu cover art:

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More Veuve, and some almonds…they were kinda mushy and just so-so.

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Garlic bread! Ugh, knowing my fear of shrimp on planes you can guess how much of the appetizer I ate…

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Tasty curry, but incredibly small portion of protein:

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Some post-meal fruit, which I figured was dessert…

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Nope, there was a very rich chocolate cake as well, which was super tasty!

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By the time the meal was finished we had already started the descent in to a very grey and dreary Hong Kong. I had purchased my ticket for the airport express train in advance, so after immigration it was a quick shot to the Kowloon stop and the W Hotel. I’m a big fan of this hotel, largely because of its friendly staff and amazing views. I was upgraded to a corner room this time, which had great views. I tried to get a pic across the harbour, but the angle was kind of odd so it was hard to see. But it definitely had a partial harbour view as well:

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Grabbed a light dinner and did some walking around the mall that was under the hotel. Looks like it was hockey practice night at the ice rink in the mall, and turns out the coach is the coach of the Hong Kong national team, and also a former NHL-er!

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Slept in a slight bit the next morning, went and got coffee, and it was a torrential rainstorm out side. Checked the weather, and they were expecting up to 25 cm of rain during the day and it just kept coming down with high winds. Unfortunately, this is my second straight trip to Hong Kong where my wandering outside was ruined by terrible weather.

So, instead I caught another Uber and went out for a nice Dim Sum lunch and some people watching. It was a nice relaxing stopover, and I figure I’m due for nice weather one of these times! The W was fantastic and gave me a 6pm late checkout, and soon it was time to head to the airport for my first ever Cathay Pacific first class experience!

Nov 182015
 

After landing at 7pm, conquering the bus gate and long immigration lines I got the MTR and just over 20 minutes later was at Kowloon station. From there, it’s a short walk through the shopping mall to my hotel of choice in Hong Kong – The W. Hong Kong is one of those cities that has a ton of great hotel options, and everyone seems to have their own favourite. The W wins for me for convenience to the airport, being connected to the mall and the MTR, and the overall great service I’ve received each stay. The biggest downside, which to be fair is the downside of most nice Hong Kong hotels, is that there’s just no way to get it on the cheap.

Check-in was pretty efficient, friendly, upgrade to a slightly larger room, but unfortunately when I got to it…it absolutely reeked like someone had been smoking in it. The response from the front desk? We are really full and really busy, can we give you a call back in 30 minutes? Seriously, what is it with my bad luck on this trip. I told them it wasn’t acceptable, and only had to wait 15 minutes for a new room. Ugh. Fortunately, that one was much better and since it was already 9pm I headed to a place next to the mall for a quick dinner.

Choice for dinner was Madame S’ate, which had a nice outside patio as well as an enclosed space. Given the humidity was oppressive and it was about 28C even at night, I definitely opted for the air conditioned indoors. Place was still quite lively that late, and opted for what was a delicious wagyu steak, lyonnaise onion and cheese tartine. Washed it down with a craft beer from the local Young Master brewery, which was also pretty good:

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Back to the W a bit before 11, where the elevator floor made sure to welcome me back:

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The W gives a bonus welcome amenity to SPG Platinum members, which is a complimentary drink in the hotel bar…I assume to encourage you to stay and spend more money. Decided to have a second beer and people watch, which is always a fun pastime in Hong Kong:

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Slept well, and unfortunately when I woke up it was absolutely pouring outside. Decided to delay sightseeing for a bit, and enjoy some Starbucks for breakfast…given its convenient location right in the mall under the hotel. I think this must be the first time they’ve ever spelled my name right at Starbucks!

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It was still pouring after breakfast, so I did a bit of walking around in the mall for some light exercise while waiting for it to taper down. Back to my room a bit before 11, and the rain was finally starting to lighten up a little bit. View from my room:

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Took a long walk through the mall to the MTR to grab some lunch a bit, and walked right past the mall’s enclosed ice rink. I think I need one of these myself given how I skate:

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Not bad for an in-mall rink…it would be pretty awesome to get the chance to play some hockey here at some point!

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The rain had finally let up, so I took the MTR one stop to Hong Kong station, to walk around and grab some lunch. The light mist and humidity were a foul combo, combined with the fact that the walk to the restaurant was pretty steep uphill:

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To the point that after the relatively short 10-15 minute walk I got there and was absolutely drenched in sweat. Gross. Went to the washroom to clean up before ordering, and was met with this poster in the washroom:

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Uhhh….thanks POTUS! The restaurant was The Roundhouse, billed as an authentic Texas BBQ and home to 25 different craft beers on tap. I have to say, the tap list was seriously impressive, containing lots of great American, Danish, and European craft beers as well as a few scary local Chinese options. Oh, and there was the BBQ…the beef shortrib sandwich was absolutely amazing:

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Had a couple of beers, and went to wash my hands afterwards, and next to Mr Obama was this poster:

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By this time the steady rain had started again, so it was back to the hotel to clean up and shower before heading to the airport for my flight back home. At least the downhill walk was a lot less sweaty, but a lot more moist do to the rain:

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Despite the rain, quite a bit of shopping going on:

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I didn’t end up getting to do nearly as much exploring as I had wanted to this trip, but by this point sleep was winning out and the rain was making things uncooperative. I guess in all my travels, I’ve been extremely lucky with weather overall so can’t complain I had a bit of a washout in a city I’ve already visited several times. There’s always the next visit. Quick shower and check-out, and it was time to MTR to the airport and begin the long trek home!

Oct 282015
 

Short ride to the airport, and there was no wait at the check-in area. For some reason, my seat had been changed from a window seat to an aisle seat (the configuration on Oman Air’s A330s is 1 window, 2 seats together in the middle, the 1 window), but that was quickly fixed by the friendly agent. Immigration and security also had absolutely no wait, so it was quickly through and to the lounge.

When I had originally booked this ticket, I was planning to go from Salalah to Turkmenistan (via Yemen) so had a Salalah-Muscat-Dubai ticket. I debated just throwing away the last segment when plans changed, but figured that was kind of risky. So, in a moment of foodborne-illness induced delirium a few days prior in the Ethiopian lounge in Addis Ababa, I changed it to a Salalah-Muscat one way in business (instead of economy) for about $100 more. I figured I would be happier, it could be done on line, and…less risk of something going wrong and them trying to put me on a Salalah-Dubai direct flight. Plus…it was a widebody and would have international business seats. This is me rationalizing…

…and this is the SALALAH Oman Air business lounge. Keep in mind this isn’t even their hub, but the lounge was large, spacious, and had great snacks out. This pic is from the mid point of the lounge towards the buffet. Behind me are recliner chairs.

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I’d already had breakfast, so settled for Coke Light and some pre-pitted dates. Delicious.

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After relaxing in the lounge for a bit, I took the short walk to the gate. On the way, there was a random traditional Omani tent just set up in the middle of the terminal. I wonder if napping here would be permitted…

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Got to the gate, and they were already boarding 40 minutes prior to departure, so straight on the plane it was.

Oman Air flight 904
Salalah, Oman (SLL) to Muscat, Oman (MCT)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 12:30, Flight Time: 1:45
Airbus A330-300, Registration A4O-DD, Manufactured 2009, Seat 14A

First impression of Oman Air’s international business class:

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Nice spacious seats with huge storage bins for the window seats:

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Centre seats…still very roomy, but not much storage:

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Interesting cultural aspect to the flight. Omani guy seated in the row next to me with a woman who was obviously a relative of some sort. But, every so often he would wave his hand around, and the woman across the aisle would leap up to tend to him. First time it happened during boarding…when he needed his seatbelt fastened:

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Welcome aboard lemon/limeade drink:

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Interesting cartoon safety video:

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She looks rather enthusiastic about that life vest…

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After the pre-departure lemon/limeade, and before the door closed, the also came around with delicious Arabic coffee:

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After takeoff, a choice of chicken patties or fish was offered. The chicken was pretty tasty, but even better was the amazing mousse with mango sauce. It was delicious! Pretty impressive meal for a short flight, but surprisingly no bread offered. I did ask (not that I really wanted any) but the flight was also dry. I didn’t think Oman Air was a dry airline, but maybe on morning or domestic routes? The crew wasn’t overly confident in English, so I didn’t push the questioning.

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From what this interaction appeared to be, he needed his napkin placed on his lap…and his companion hopped right up to do it:

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Landed on time in Muscat, and had about five hours until my next flight. We arrived at the domestic arrivals, which meant taking a bus to baggage claim, and then straight outside. There was someone asking for transfers, so I joined the group. They were confused why I didn’t have a boarding pass, and when they found out I was transfering to someone other than Oman Air they were extremely confused. Apparently in Muscat they only expect you transfering to Oman Air. Upon checking my Qatar boarding pass on my phone, they decided they would bus me over to the international terminal with everyone else, and leave it to be sorted there.

Fortunately, upon arrival at the international terminal, there was not only a transfer counter, but a special line for business class. Qatar markets its regional flights as first class, and when they saw that boarding pass they leapt up to help quickly. Only problem was, again, they only really knew how to deal with Oman Air transfers. About 20 phone calls were made, and they finally found someone who knew how to issue a Qatar Airlines boarding pass. Only problem was…it was going to take at least 30 minutes. They escorted me through security, and told me to go to the Oman Air lounge to wait.

Get to the Oman Air lounge and…no, you may not use this lounge. Uh, ok. They sent me off to the Plaza Premium lounge, which turned out to be the right lounge. I asked the agent when I get stamped out of Oman, and she was stunned I hadn’t been. She made a call to airport immigration, and seems someone had escorted me right past exit immigration without getting me stamped out. The solution? Since I was already outside immigration, and security, they send an airport employee to carry my passport to the immigration folks to get me stamped out…and hopefully come back to the lounge with it. Fortunately, this worked out just fine and all was good in the end.

Despite a good snack on the plane, I was a little hungry, and the lounge had some great hummous and mezze:

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Blogged for a little bit, got a little hungrier, so more snacks, including Fosters…Omani for beer!

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Soon it was time to walk just across the hall to our gate, where the 4 people in business class had a bus all to ourselves. The airport apparently has a huge shortage of jetbridges, as we didn’t get one in either direction. Nice thing about only four people in the front was that we each had a row all to ourselves.

Qatar Airlines flight 1127
Muscat, Oman (MCT) to Doha, Qatar (DOH)
Depart 17:45, Arrive 18:25, Flight Time: 1:40
Airbus A320, Registration A7-ADA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 3F

So, what’s to eat? Despite a short flight, we got a full menu:

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Plus a rather substantial snack:

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Beverages…today the champagne on offer was Krug…yum!

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Pre-departure towels were offered…warm or cold, your choice. Given the 100F temps, I went cold…

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Arabic coffee was offered, but no champagne on the ground in Oman “for tax reasons.” Plus the dates were packaged…kinda…cheap looking

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The champagne situation was quickly rectified after takeoff:

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The shish tahouk main…quite tasty, although rather small:

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Upon landing, again first class passengers got their own bus to the terminal. The luxury first class bus:

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It was clearly rush hour at the airport, and the lines for transfer security was enormous. Had to pass by scary interrogation bear again, and then downstairs to immigration. Fortunately, Qatar has business class lines at immigration, so I quickly got my visa (100 rials please) and was soon outside and in my taxi.

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Pretty short ride to my hotel for the night, the W Doha. I’ve said it before on this blog, but the W Doha in my opinion is probably the best SPG property in the world. Some time soon, I want to take a few day trip to Doha just to hang out there and be pampered. I was chatting with the manager on duty at reception, and he informed me I’d been upgraded to a “residence apartment” for the stay. This was a new one in my several stays there, and I was curious to see what it involved.

The residences are a separate tower, and accessed through what feels like a secret door from the lobby area with their own elevators. Once inside my apartment, there was a huge living area:

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…a very nice kitchen complete with Nespresso machine:

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…and even a washer and drier as well as refrigerator. Basically everything you could want for an extended stay.

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Not to mention, the bedroom was extremely spacious as well:

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I felt kind of bad I had such a short night. It was way too early to go to bed, but also had to be up super early the next morning. I decided four hours or so of sleep would have to do, and decided to go over to the mall a couple blocks away just to walk around and people watch. I’d been sitting around airports all day, so stretching the legs would feel good. Got to the mall, and decided instead of walking to rent some skates and go skating. Managed about an hour on crummy rental skates, but it was still lots of fun. Nothing says ice skating like Qatar!

Got back to the room, and still wasn’t really all that tired. At check-in the told me about a new service they were trying out which was a WhatsApp concierge. They gave me a number to message with anything I wanted, and they would take care of it. I decided to try and ask them to bring me a half bottle of one of the red wines on the room service menu, and it arrived within 15 minutes. Pretty impressive. Also needed the code for the internet, and they responded with that quickly as well.

All in all, the service was outstanding at this hotel again, and combined with the location and overall facilities it remains probably my favourite Starwood property anywhere in the world! Finally got to bed in time to get just under five hours of sleep. It’s off to Japan in the morning!

May 152015
 

After a solid 3-4 hour nap I woke up just before midnight, showered, and headed down to the front desk of the Asmara Palace to check out. The travel company had already paid the bill so all I had to do was sign the bill and be on my way. The hotel offered a shuttle to the airport, and it was just me and one other passenger, and soon we were off.

When we got there, the hotel doorman/concierge made a point of walking me to the check-in desk, which was absolute chaos. With Turkish and Qatar leaving within 15 minutes of each other, it was a mad scrum, with no signage anywhere. There was one desk marked business class, but it had a couple dozen people clustered around it who were most certainly not flying business. I (politely) pushed my way to the front, and was checked in all the way to Helsinki in about 10 minutes. Immigration was very quick with no questions asked, except by the driver/concierge: “perhaps you have a tip for me?” Um, no, didn’t ask for or need your help, and you insisted on following me. Grrr!

Security was somewhat silly…regular x-ray machines, and then they insisted on going through each piece of handcarry individually. Usually developing country practices in place, a quick 10-15 second check of your bag (open it up, quick look, close it up) if you were western looking, but if you looked local they basically tore it apart and flung everything out of the bag. Ugh!

Upstairs was the waiting area, which was just one big room for 300+ passengers. Just enough seats for everyone, as well as a small cafe and a couple of small shops. No lounge, of course. I decided to kill the 90 minutes until flight time (hopefully only 60 til boarding) people watching, which was reasonably interesting. Several Australian guys getting rather happy on local beer after local beer, a few exhausted looking development worker and missionary types, and lots of people looking fairly nervous like they’d never been on a plane before…you know, the usual developing country travel crowd.

At about 1:50 the plane arrived and unloaded quickly, and by about 2:30 we’d taken our bus to the plane (no special bus for business class this time) and boarded. Pushed back about 35 minutes behind schedule, which the captain said we’d likely make up in the air.

Qatar Airways flight 1444
Asmara, Eritrea (ASM) to Doha, Qatar (DOH)
Depart 02:00, Arrive 05:20, Flight Time 3:20
Airbus A320, Registration A7-ADE, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2D

Unfortunately, upon boarding we were greeting with the old style A320 seats, which since I’d already been expecting them wasn’t so bad. They’re still better than domestic U.S. first class seats since they have a couple inches of extra legroom, and they’re heaps better than European business class since they’re in a 2×2 configuration. Interestingly, my seatmate was the same guy I’d sat next to on the flight into Asmara two days prior who works in the same field as me, and we knew many of the same people. Champagne (white or rosé), juice, or water was offered before takeoff, along with a hot OR cold towel service. Quite nice! My seatmate was asleep before the plane even left the ground, but I decided to stay awake.

My plan was to get four hours of sleep before heading to the airport, stay awake for the awkward 2.5 hour redeye, and then get another 4-5 hours upon arrival in Doha since it was Friday morning anyways, and everything would be closed for prayers in the morning. It sounded good in theory…it remained to be seen if it would work in practice.

Nice meal service for a short redeye, and only myself and one of the other 12 passengers decided to partake:

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Pre-meal bubbles and nuts…today’s offering was Veuve Cliquot Rosé:

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The prawns and salmon starter, which was super tasty, along with more bread than any one person needs:

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The chicken main which was good, but nothing super special. Most surprising was the mashed potatoes…something which usually doesn’t interest me enough to partake, but which was super good. Must have been the ridiculous amounts of butter:

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….cheese course one of two. Yes, it was that good, and everyone else was sleeping, soooo…. Had it along with a couple of glasses of a fairly nice tempranillo, and just as I finished the sun was coming up outside. It was about 4:15 am and we had about 45 minutes of flight time remaining:

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Then, horror of horrors…there was no dessert left! It seems the passengers on the inbound had consumed all of them, and there were none at all remaining. Seriously Qatar? You don’t cater enough for each passenger in each direction? …and I can’t believe the crew served two each to every passenger on the outbound. Boo hiss! I need my Ladurée. Oh well, my pants thank you at least.

Parked at a bus gate (of course) and took the business class bus to the terminal. Short walk towards immigration (where I spied the creepy giant teddy bear again), and immigration was a breeze. Agent spoke nearly no English, but was anxious to try and chat. “W Hotel! Party! Hot girls!” So, I responded with the only appropriate thing: “na’am…shukran habibi!”  (yes, thanks my friend!) It’s amazing how many situations that basic phrase comes in useful in!

Easy to find a cab to the hotel and my taxi driver Mohammad from Pakistan was rocking out to Pitbull for the entire drive. Just what I wanted to hear at 6am…and 50 Qatari Rial later I was at the W. They’d been waiting for me, and asked when I’d like to check out. I’d asked for the 4pm SPG Platinum late check out, and that was no problem…how much later would I like? Can I do 6pm? “What time is your flight? 1am? Oh, how about 8pm, is that ok?” Wow, very nice job…so I had a dayroom for 14 hours. There’s a reason this is one of my favourite SPG properties in the world.

Plus, they upgraded me to a huge “W Suite”

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Closed the blinds, cranked down the AC which got nice and frigid, and after a shower was in bed just before 7am…and promptly passed out hard until noon. Was very glad to see that my plan actually worked out! Got up, showered again, and walked the four blocks to the City Centre Mall in the 44C (111F) heat…but at least unlike Massawa it was a dry heat and actually felt nice. Got there at 12:30 and everything was still closed for prayer time…I had to wait 30 minutes to get caffeine. NOOOOO! Did laps of the mall for 30 minutes to get the legs moving, and then finally…coffee!

Uh, Jason, Andrez, sounds totally the same…right?

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Walked around a bit after coffee, and found where they hide the skeletons:  😉

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What’s not to love about a mall with an ice rink? Reminds me of Kettler Capitals Iceplex where I play…except the rink is supposed to be on the roof, not in the basement! Really wanted to skate, but with a torn rotator cuff decided to be smart and not risk getting hurt by cheap rental skates and out of control children:

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I couldn’t resist Chili’s for lunch…I’m betting this margarita had no tequila in it, but honestly I was so tired it was hard to tell!

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After lunch caught an uber to the Islamic Museum and wandered around for a couple of hours. I think this is one of the most interesting museusms in the world to me, and actually manages to hold my attention for over two hours which is saying quite a lot for a museum! After wandering caught another uber back to the mall, grabbed another coffee, and then walked back to the hotel:

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Swinging chair in the corner of my room where I relaxed, blogged a big, and killed the last hour or so before heading to the airport for my onward flight. There was a sandstorm blowing in, and I hoped there wouldn’t be serious delays…

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Dec 062014
 

After a nice relaxing breakfast, it was time to catch the hotel shuttle back to Narita. Got there a bit early, so mainlined some Starbucks while I waited and very slowly came back to life. Soon Asiana check-in was open, and the line next to me provided “Happy Mom Service.” This is a thing? Seriously?

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At check-in I got the bad news that Asiana had eliminated first class service on regional routes, and I’d been downgraded to business. GRRR. Not to worry though, it was still the same plane so I’d get a first class seat with business class service. No first class lounge, however. Yuck. The great thing at check-in, however, is that the agent was willing to check my bag of scuba gear all the way to DC so I didn’t have to pick it up for three days….and I was back in the land of carry-on only. Thank God!

Through immigration, where you must remember that transporting crabs is not permitted!

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Explored the United Club lounge, had one beer because…well…automatic beer machine…before retreating in fear to the ANA lounge. It unfortunately, wasn’t much better. I’d never been in either of these lounges before, having always used the ANA First (now suites) lounge on my previous trips through Narita. The ANA lounge was fairly ok, but neither lounge was anything to get there at all early for.

I decided to head to the gate on time, and of course, boarding was thus delayed for 20 minutes. Just my luck. Our plane had arrived slightly late from Seoul, but was nice to get a good pic of her:

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Right around the time we were scheduled to leave we finally boarded.

Asiana Flight 101
Tokyo/Narita, Japan (NRT) to Seoul/Incheon, Korea (ICN)
Depart 12:30, Arrive 15:10, Flight Time 2:40
Boeing 747-400, Registration HL7423, Manufactured 1997, Seat 3A

Boarded and the crew extremely graciously brought menus rather quickly:

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I chose the Korean option, however, I noticed the crew being rather uncomfortable with the last passengers. I called the FA over and asked if I could switch to the western meal, and she gave a big smile and said of course. When I don’t really have a preference I like to make the crew’s life easier, and it was nice to help them avoid an uncomfortable situation a bit.

It was a good choice, and rather tasty:

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My help provided me with several timely champagne refills, which helped the flight go by quite quickly. I’d saved my Air New Zealand socks just for the occasion:

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The crew actually closed the curtains between first and business class during the flight, so other than the fact that the food and wine were slightly below what they would have been in first…and the lounge issue…it felt more or less like first anyways with the seat and service, so it wasn’t too much of a let down.

Immigration was pretty quick, and with no luggage checked I was outside waiting for the Korean Airlines Limo. Took a few minutes to buy a ticket and find the right route, and after about 15-20 minutes a bus came. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get to my hotel, but I seemed to remember it was a bit over an hour. Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on the fact it was rush hour, and it took nearly two hours to get there. Ugh. At least the bus was empty so I had two seats to myself.

It was a bit after 6pm when I finally got to my hotel, the W Walkerhill. I knew this wasn’t in the best location, however, I knew it would be relaxing and my first choice (the Westin) wasn’t available the night I needed. I got lucky, however, and received what was for me a rare W upgrade to a Cool Corner Room. The check-in agent was really helpful, helped me figure out all my transportation questions for using the hotel bus plus subway to get to dinner, which was really awesome. Strange furnishings outside the room should have warned me things were going to get weird:

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I’ll save the room details for later. I headed out to meet some friends for a light dinner and drinks in Gangnam. Bright lights! Heeeeeeey sexy lady!

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After dinner and a few drinks, these dancing soju bottles looked about as goofy as I felt:

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I’d had just enough to drink, and made the mistake when asked what our next stop should be of saying “I want a traditional late night experience.” Then I made the mistake of saying I would “eat anything.” Off to the fish market we went…where I was introduced to sannakji…or live octopus. It gets chopped up while alive, and you eat it while the tentacles are still thrashing from electrical impulses:

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What they DON’T tell you, however, is that the little suction cups still work, and attach to your throat on the way down in an attempt to hang on. Fortunately I avoided choking despite the amount of soju we’d consumed, and managed to make it back to my hotel…where the oddness of the room somehow seemed not quite as weird.

The Austin Powers bed. Unfortunately, it didn’t rotate:

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Living area, and walkway to the walk-in closet, door, and washroom:

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Walk-in closet:

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Strange uber-modern washroom:

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…you can’t give me a goofy red robe and slippers that match the decor and expect me NOT to put them on:

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The octopus had finally settled down for a bit, so settled down to get some sleep before what would be an unfortunately very early flight the next morning.

Dec 122013
 

I’ll be up front here: I’m not going to do Istanbul justice. I’m not going to even pretend to. I landed at 9a, having been up since 1a Istanbul time, and I was pretty tired. My main goal was to rest up in between stops, maybe see a few things, and have some good Turkish food. I did alright all things considered!

Finally out of the hotel around 11:30 after I got checked in and re-caffeinated, and it was off to the old town. The hotel suggested I walk about 10-15 minutes to the nearest tram stop, and then take the tram all the way. Awesome call, because it allowed for seeing some of the city along the way.

Got to the old town, wandered a bit, and soon was coming up to the Blue Mosque.  Outside, is an obelisk:

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The outside of the Blue Mosque:

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