Feb 252018
 


So, I overslept. I mean, it was kind of intentional. I’m still figuring out this “vacation” thing where relaxing is supposed to be as much of a part of it as seeing things is. Plus, it was cold out, and a harbour boat tour didn’t sound great in that weather. When I finally got up and opened the windows around 9am, I was greeted with snow…and wind…and lots of it:

It was right around freezing so the snow wasn’t sticking that much, but it was coming down pretty hard:

The snow on the ceiling to floor windows actually gave the room a nice look:

Neither wind, nor rain, nor snow can keep me from Starbucks…I mean the US Mail…or whatever that phrase is. Off through the snow to the U-Bahn to see a little bit of the city despite the snow:

I loved this ad for free WiFi in the U-Bahn….”When you have free WiFi…and find the superfluffy!”

Got out at the Rathaus, where people were wandering about enjoying the snow. Oh, and yes, there’s a Starbucks located right on the square naturally.

Did I mention how thankful I was that I bought that hat back in Dresden?

Wandered a bit, then back to the Westin to check out and grab my bags. I’d noticed that one of the morning Hamburg to Frankfurt trains had canceled, but didn’t really think too much of it.

One of the downsides of having a rolling bag is that when there’s a few cm of slushy snow on the ground, rolling it to the U-Bahn doesn’t really work so well…and the snow was still coming down pretty hard, so rather than try and carry my bag that far I opted to taxi an actual…gasp… taxi since there are no Ubers in Hamburg. Taxi to the train station worked reasonably well, was just slightly more than 10 euro, and when I got there the station was absolutely packed and chaotic:

I still had about 45 minutes until my train (which was showing on time) so I headed up to the second level of the station to look down on the masses below. Trains to Frankfurt were pretty much hourly, and five minutes before it was scheduled to leave the train before mine canceled. Great, this means that mine will be absolutely packed.

Headed to the other side and looked down…the station was suspiciously empty at this point….

Down to the tracks….and there’s no train….five minutes past departure…no train…10 minutes past departure…no train. 15 minutes past departure….canceled.

Fortunately, the DB app works reasonably well, and I was able to book on the next train which was showing 15 minutes late. Ok, I had an hour to kill and was getting a bit hungry, so, when in Hamburg….ich bin ein Hamburger!¬† ūüėČ

Down to the trains for my train an hour later and…surprise surprise…no train. Departure time came and went and then….train canceled.

Time to find someone who worked there…and there was a DB employee in the lobby surrounded by a rather large mob of unhappy people. It took me three or four times of hearing him shout it out since my German isn’t that great, but eventually the message was clear: ALL trains from Hamburg are canceled for the remainder of the day.

Did a bit of goggling, and finally figure out what was going on: Winter Storm Friederike had hit northern Germany and the Netherlands with 100+ kph winds and snow, and was causing tons of infrastructure damage. I’ll be honest, by Minnesotan and Nor’easter standards I wasn’t all that impressed, but I get it when you have trains that go upwards of 200+ kph that it might not be safe to have them out there.

Plans foiled, and having been happy enough with the Westin, I made a quick reservation in the app, and grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. They were a bit surprised to see me back, having not heard that all trains were canceled. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one stranded, so was very lucky to get the same style of suite again, just on a different floor.

Caught up on a few emails, and back up to the lounge to relax over some light snacks and a glass of wine.

…why not make a meal of it, since I was unsure if the weather would impact the restaurants or not.

Determined to make the most of a bad situation, and warmed by a couple glasses of wine, I made the trek to the U-Bahn (I’d say sidewalks were about 25% clear finally) and made the trek out to the edges of the city to Mr. Ape – a fun little hole in the wall hipster bar which had a pretty good selection of craft beer:

The only downside to Mr. Ape? They allowed smoking, which was a bit annoying. Fortunately, it was only a couple of people and grabbing a seat at the bar was pretty far from them, but still…pretty annoying. Was debating heading out to a second place, but a long day of trying to catch trains was catching up with me so opted to go back and crash. Who knew what the trains would hold the next day….

Feb 232018
 


After a fun first afternoon and evening in Berlin, I was excited to take advantage of having another full day with absolutely no plans at all. Slept in a little, and when I woke up and looked out the window…it was snowing. There wasn’t any sticking on the ground that I could see, and a walk down Friedrichstra√üe to Starbucks confirmed most of it was melting on contact…but unfortunately that meant things were a wet and slushy mess out.

Over coffee I decided to walk up to the Brandenburger Tor and snap a few shots, and along the way I decided it might be fun to see the dome of the Reichstag if tickets were still available. They were, and with an hour to kill I had a leisurely stroll. There was a lot more snow on the ground around the Brandenburger Tor – not sure if that was because it was that much colder just 500 or so meters away, or if there were less buildings or what, but there was enough that someone had managed a sad snowman:

Brandenburger Tor:

Arrived at the Reichstag about 15 minutes before my scheduled time, but no problem and no line. Quick pass through the metal detectors and x-ray, and it was inside. Free audioguide was included which gave an interesting history and tour of the dome. The tour is a walk in a a circle around the inside of the dome, on two spiralling ramps that go up about 3-4 levels and then comes down in between:

Better view of several of the spiralling levels of ramps towards the top:

By this point the snow had stopped, and the water on the glass dome made for some neat pictures:

Nearing the top of the dome. As someone who doesn’t always do well with heights, this was enclosed just enough that it didn’t really bother me. In the middle of this picture, against the walkways, you can see a bit of a “shade” – this tracks the movement of the sun and prevents direct light from being beamed into the chamber below and blinding people. The mirrored cone in the middle directs indirect light down into the chamber, and helps provide lighting and reduces electricity costs:

Better view of the sunshade and mirrored cone from below:

By the time I finished the tour the skies were clearing and the lighting was great for pictures just outside the dome:

Front of the Reichstag building:

No real plans for the rest of the day, so I decided to just keep walking. After wandering the grounds around the Reichstag for a bit, decided to hop on the U-Bahn and go for a ride. Obligatory shot of the U2 at Zoo Station:

Getting a bit hungry at this point in the day, so when in Berlin a U-Bahn Döner is in order:

I really wanted to do the tour of Tempelhof airport, so headed there next. Unfortunately, there were only German tours on this day, but I decided that even if I only caught 50-75% of it it would be worth it to get the guided tour around the airport. Unfortunately, when I got there, they told me there would be no tour today because the guide was sick. Major bummer. Now I have to come back.

Eagle on the side of the airport:

Sun was setting by this point and I was getting sleepy, so stopped for a coffee. I wanted to check out the eastern part of the city a bit more, and coincidentally what I was promised was one of the best craft beer bars in Berlin was located there – Protokoll. This involved taking the S-Bahn to Berlin Ostbahnhof – the main train station in the former East Berlin – and taking a bus from there. Finding where the bus stopped was a little difficult, and the area right around the station was definitely one of the sketchier parts of Berlin I’ve found. No problem at all though, thanks to google maps, and soon arrived at Protokoll which definitely had a great beer list:

Although the coffee had helped a bit, it was still a Monday night and rather quiet out, so I opted to call it a semi-early night and catch the train back from Ostbahnhof to Friedrichstraße Station and walk back to the Westin from there.

It was down to about -8 degrees by this point with a bit of a wind, and I definitely froze a bit waiting for the train. Thankfully I’d bought that hat back in Dresden!

It was definitely nice to have a day with no plans or commitments, and I think I managed to see a reasonable amount. It confirmed that I really enjoy the city, and now have to make a point to get back for a longer trip very soon. Off to bed, and excited to see another new city the next day – Hamburg!

Feb 212018
 


Woke up early, and yes, you guessed it, headed over to get some Starbucks to wake up and start the day. On the ground, I noticed a few cobblestones replaced by memorial stones for local residents who had died in Auschwitz. I haven’t noticed this other places in Germany, but after noticing this one I noticed several more. Definitely a sobering start to the morning.

Apparently, the holiday season was definitely over, because in a couple of places there were piles of what appeared to be discarded Christmas Trees sitting around waiting for the trash collector.

After coffee and a stroll, I headed over to the train station to catch my train to Berlin. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a bit of a mess with trains today, because the two previous trains to Berlin were also still on the board. The first one was canceled and the second was running 90 minutes late. I assumed this meant that my train to Berlin would now be packed.

The mobile info/news screens were showing good news from back home, where the Minnesota Vikings had one and would be advancing in the playoffs.

Unlike the previous Berlin trains, mine was right on time (though it did get moved from one platform to another at the last minute) and was still relatively empty – maybe 25% full at most in first class. The train ride was just long enough to do daily language lessons on Duolingo and have a bit of a lunch snack. Creature of habit? Who me?

Arrived at Berlin Hauptbanhof right on time. It had been nearly 14 years since I was last in Berlin, and I was really looking forward to being back. I had planned the trip to have two nights in Berlin to get a taste of things again, as a bit of an appetizer to a hopefully longer trip later in the year. Bought a daypass for the U-Bahn/S-Bahn on the local train system’s iPhone app, and took the U55 two stops to Brandenburger Tor station which was just a short walk from my hotel.

Coming out of the station you are pretty much right next to the Russian Embassy which takes up an entire block and sets a bit of the Cold War mood. The two blocks I walked past the embassy were pretty much filled with people speaking Russian, which helped even more to set the mood. Arrived at my hotel…yes, you guessed it, the Westin Grand, where a piece of the Berlin Wall was on display outside the hotel.

Was allocated a supposed “upgraded room” which was pretty much half way to Poland by the time I would down several streets. The room was actually on the exact other side of the hotel facing Unter den Linden and thus was also incredibly noisy. Overall, was pretty disappointed in the room, and the staff were definitely the coldest I had encountered so far this trip.

Location, however, was great and I set out to find a coffee and do some walking. The east side of the hotel exited onto Friedrichstra√üe, which was a nice 10 or so minute walk down to Checkpoint Charlie. I’ve never been in the actual museum, but should probably do that one of these days. Obligatory picture of the checkpoint location after grabbing coffee and watching the sun set:

Thanks to already having the transit pass, as well as Google Maps to help me find the quickest route, I grabbed a bus to the DDR Museum. Overall, it was interesting for an hour, and you could buy tickets online and scan the QR Code at the entrance and save yourself a wait in line. Worked out very nicely, and the museum was actually pretty packed with (mostly) 20-somethings who probably couldn’t even remember the Cold War. Great, now I feel old.

I did, however, get a great souvenir to keep my Lufthansa ducks company:

A few different bars had been recommended to me, so the first stop was at Vagabund Brauerei located in a residential neighbourhood in the northwest of Berlin which I never would have gone to otherwise. Good beers, chance to see a new part of the city a bit, so overall a good way to spend an hour.

I clearly hadn’t thought ahead, however, as the other place I had decided to check out was pretty much on the opposite side of the city. Hopfenreich was located in the southeast part of the city, and it took a couple of train transfers and a reasonable walk to get there. Very good beer list, but pretty empty on a Sunday night which was to be expected. Again, another new part of the city for me so if nothing else checking out these two pubs gave me an excuse to explore some new areas…and make very good use of the daypass I’d bought for transit.

On the way back to the Westin, I did, however, spot the most unfortunately named travel agency ever. “Titanic” doesn’t exactly say to me: you’re going to have a safe and wonderful vacation.¬† (Again, I feel old…most people probably don’t even remember the concept of travel agents…)

Off to bed with no plans how to spend the upcoming full day in Berlin, and that was just fine. I could decide what I felt like doing in the morning, and had the entire day to do it!

Feb 202018
 


Woke up relatively early since I’d only had a little time to explore Dresden before the sun set the day before. I also wanted to get up in time to catch some of the ski race as well. Headed out of the hotel to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, and right outside the hotel the women’s race was already underway:

I wandered around the old city for a couple of hours, but didn’t really take any pictures. It was a Sunday morning and everything was pretty much closed, so I just enjoyed the time wandering about and taking in the architecture and a bit of people walking.

There was definitely something a bit charming about Dresden, but at the same time it felt quite small-town and provincial. And that was with several hundred international visitors for the ski race. My impression was definitely that it’s a bit of an “out of the way” destination, and it reflects its location in the east of Germany much closer to Poland and other central and eastern European countries. It definitely still felt German, but in a bit less globalized way than major cities like Frankfurt, Berlin, and Munich.

One nice thing about having a BahnCard is that local transportation to the train station is included with most tickets, so I hopped on the tram right outside the Westin to take me to Dresden Hauptbanhof. Arrived with plenty of time before my train, grabbed a small snack, and did some train spotting from the upper level tracks looking down on the main part of the station:

It was probably a bit silly, but I planned most of this trip around ICE train schedules. Since there is no ICE from Dresden to Berlin, I opted to do Dresden first, then backtrack an hour to Leipzig and then on to Berlin. Fortunately, since there were only a few ICEs between Dresden and Leipzig I chose the one that left mid-day so I could have a little extra time in both cities. Train was quick, and an hour later I was in Leipzig. Just enough time to knock out the day’s Duolingo lessons.

Leipzig Hauptbanhof turned out to be located barely a five minute walk from the Westin, which made for a very convenient arrival. Yes, I hadn’t really done all that much research in advance for this trip, and just enjoyed taking things as they came.

The Westin Leipzig was much more modern than the Westin Dresden, which you could tell was a much older hotel which had been renovated. The Leipzig hotel, however, seemed to be very new and modern, and was a highrise. It took a bit of arm-twisting to get the hotel to honour the Platinum best available room benefit, but when they did I finally got a nice (but semi-small) corner suite.

The sitting area with the afternoon sun streaming in:

Another shot of the living room from the other side – you can see the desk, the main entrance door, and the unusual minibar in a column which separated the living room from the entryway, bathroom, and bedroom:

Bedroom was on the small side, but perfectly adequate:

One of the nicest features of the room was that there was a balcony where I could take a good panorama of the area around the hotel:

One of the oddest features was that the bathroom also connected the bedroom and living room. It was in itself divided into FOUR small cubes…each with its own sink. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling this was one of the strangest hotel rooms I’ve gotten in a long time. Starting in the living room, you entered the toilet room, with sink:

Next to that was a sink room…with just a sink. How…useful?

The third cube was a shower cube…which connected the sink room with the bathtub room…this was the only room with no sink:

Then once you pass through the shower cube, you enter the bathtub room…which also has its own sink. Just strange.

Having had my fill of sinks for the day, I wandered out to begin exploring Leipzig. The old town was just a short distance from the hotel, and I immediately decided I liked the city.

I wandered for a couple hours, grabbed some coffee to warm up, and eventually got to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) which is probably Leipzig’s best known attraction since Bach is buried right inside the church. Trying to get cute with my photography and frame the church with some tree branches:

Statue of Bach outside the church. He’s bringing sexy Bach. Sorry for all the bad jokes….I guess I’m just going for baroque with this post.

Inside of the church, with Bach’s grave in the middle:

Looking the other direction, with the pews:

I’m not certain what this part of a church is called, but I like this shot with the stained glass windows in the back:

The Markt Square and Old Town Hall with the sun beginning to set and a pink hue to the clouds:

After a short rest back in the room, I headed down to the lobby to see what the makeshift lounge had to offer for happy hour. The lobby bar doubles as a lounge for platinum members from 6-7pm with free drinks and a “special platinum snack menu.” Reasonable choice of drinks:

The platinum snack turned out to be some mixed nuts, a small cup of soup, and a rather impression salmon roll. Some good high-quality protein. Overall, it was the perfect offering since I was planning to head out to dinner shortly.

Dinner involved figuring out how to purchase an S-Bahn ticket (turned out to be easy with ticket dispensing machines right on the platform) and some cool artwork in the arrival station:

Dinner may have been walkable if it wasn’t dark and cold, but taking the train was kind of fun too. I headed to the Bayerischer Bahnhof for dinner, which brews their own Gose beer, a style that is native to Leipzig. So, even those gose is far from my favourite beer, when in Rome:

The restaurant is located atop an old train station which sat unused until the S-Bahn was expanded and a new station opened. Now this is more like it! Sausage, potatoes, and a bit of mustard…you can’t get a much more German meal than that!

They refused to take no for an answer on desert, and it was amazing as well:

Back to the hotel where I passed out from a long day of walking, ready to get up the next morning and walk around a bit more before catching my onward train to Berlin. I definitely want to get back to Saxony in the future and explore it a bit more in depth as well as checking out some of the smaller cities – maybe in the summer!

Sep 222017
 



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “living room” area of the lounge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overhead view of the 12 suites Suites cabin:

My suite, taken from the door:

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

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

Have champagne, am happy, ready for takeoff:

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

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

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

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

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

Warm rosemary apricot tart with vanilla ice cream…amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impressive, except this scary jell-o concoction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 142017
 



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

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

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

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

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

Looking up at the peak of Lion’s Head:

Towards the water as the sun set:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 172015
 

My driver from the previous day showed up right on time as promised, and it was quite a short ride to the airport. We had already negotiated the price, so I knew exactly how much cash to save (plus a tip) to ensure I wouldn’t have any (relatively useless) Algerian Dinars left over. The arrivals area a couple days earlier had seemed rather small, so upon arrival I was surprised to see just how big the check-in area was, with over 50 different counters and three halls:

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Immigration was pretty simple, and security was a bit longer, mainly because there were a ton of Chinese construction workers in front of me who spoke neither the French or English to be able to communicate with the screeners. Of course, they also had belts on, phones in their pockets, etc etc, so the whole thing took way longer than it should. Once through, there was also a strange manual check on the other side. This may have been a shake-down for the Chinese (because he was making them empty their pockets) but we had a good chat in French (his brother lives in Montreal it seems) and off I went to the Air Algerie lounge, where I was greeted by:

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The lounge was actually quite spacious, rather empty, with big comfy faux leather chairs:

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The food selection was poor, but at least there was Coke Zero. One bite of each pastry since they were completely dry, but it was good to know that even though I wasn’t flying them, Air Algerie is always caring for me!

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However, while in the lounge, drama ensued. I got an e-mail from Cubana that my “flight had been modified, due to the IL-96 out of repair. You are rebooked on 767 flight instead in economy class.”

Hell. To. The. No.

Checking more details, Cubana had chartered a 767 from some German tour operator, with 29 inch seat pitch, so instead of being comfy in business class, they expected I would be fine sitting not only in economy, but in a super cramped economy for 11+ hours with my knees in my chest. Not happening. I started making some plans, and knew it would be drama. Unfortunately, it was time to bord.

Boarded right on time for what appeared to be (at least in coach) a relatively full flight.

Iberia flight 3305
Algiers, Algeria (ALG) to Madrid, Spain (MAD)
Depart 14:05, Arrive 15:35, Flight Time: 1:30
Airbus A319, Registration EC-HKO, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 114,729
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,153,562

 

Coach looked pretty full, but in the four rows of business there were only three people, so I was able to move over to a window for takeoff. My first time (I’m pretty sure) on Iberia, and like many places in Spain there was no English spoke. Thankfully I understand the words for pasta and wine. Well, pasta wasn’t really necessary, since it was only being used to tell me my only choice was pasta and would I like it. My meal came sealed in saran wrap…for my protection?

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Flight was incredibly…average. Usual EuroBusiness flight, and a piece of cake. Immigration was also simple, and I headed off to find the express bus to Madrid, which supposedly would drop me just a couple of blocks from my hotel. It was easy to find, super cheap at five euros, and after a maybe 30 minute ride I was dropped off for my short walk. No rain, much nicer than Algeria!

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Passing the Monumento a los Caidos por Espa√Īa on the walk, a monument to all those who have given their lives for Spain over more than two centuries:

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So, got to my hotel, and here’s where the drama would start. The check-in person at the Westin Palace was rather cold, but informed me she had oh so generously upgraded me to a “renovated” room and I “should be happy with that, because you pay a discounted rate, no?” Ok, so the room was nice enough when I got to it…except the suitcase in the middle of the room. I called down to have them remove it…but then noticed the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned either.

Went to the front desk, threw a small fit, and told them I’d like a better room, especially one that was clean and didn’t have other peoples’ belongings in it. I’m going for coffee, and when I get back, please have me in a new room and have my bags moved. I went to Starbucks down the street for some coffee to wake up, where the barista decided my name sounded like Juan and wrote that on the cup. Hah.

Back to the hotel, got the keys to my new room just a few doors down, and all seemed good. My bags had been moved and I was at least mildly happy. Did some work for a couple hours, then went to hang up my clothes…only to find out this room also had clothes already hanging in the closet. Ugh. Do these people every check their rooms? It was a complete disaster. This time, the clothes was removed, and the fight was out of me, so I retired to the hotel bar to enjoy the “complimentary 2-for-1 drink” for platinum members. That’s right no free drink, but if you buy one you can get a second one. How…generous?

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While I enjoyed my two glasses of wine, I was frantically looking for alternatives on my laptop. Finally found one that was a reasonable price, Avianca via Cali and Bogota on the 787 to Havana. Unfortunately instead of a 9p arrival it would be a noon arrival the next day, but figured that might not be too bad. Sure, I’d miss 2-3 hours of touring in the morning, but I figured the overnight hotel in Bogota might be nicer than whatever I’d get in Havana, so I booked it…praying Cubana would let me cancel.

Went out for a walk after the drink, and headed to the Mercado San Miguel to get some dinner and drinks…and people watch!

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Wandered around the various market stalls, and finally found one that had some reasonable (and cheap) house wine! Had a couple of glasses, chatted with some interesting Australian tourists, and then hung out with a group of guys from Quebec for a bit before decided it was time to wander the market a bit more and find something to eat.

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Found a stall selling wagyu beef burgers, and they did look pretty good. Again, English wasn’t a strong suit, so when asked how I wanted it cooked, I dragged out my useful Argentinian Spanish and told them “medio – a punto.” He seemed to understand….

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but, apparently in Madrid, that means, kill it, and while it’s still mooing, serve it to me:

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That said, it was delicious, and I didn’t get food poisoning, so life was awesome! While eating I also got the email back from Cubana that they were happy to do a refund and a few seconds later I got the notice from Amex that it posted. Talk about efficient…even United can’t manage that. So say what you will about unreliable aircraft, at least Cubana delivered on the customer recovery front!

More wine with the Quebecers, and we were eventually joined by a group of Swiss women whose husbands had disappeared to “somewhere” and much wine was consumed. I did, however, find my way back to my hotel before midnight, which is practically child’s play in Spain. I also managed to take a non-blurry picture:

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Off to bed for a good night’s sleep, because it was time for Cuba in the morning!

Jul 242015
 

I was in Chennai a total of 12 nights, and because I was getting a bit behind on requalifying for Starwood Platinum status this year, I figured I’d use the opportunity (especially weekends) to do a bit of hotel hopping. I usually end up with a few throwaway stays at local DC properties every year to requalify, and at around $75 each it adds up. So, I figured I’d deal with a bit of inconvenience in Chennai in order to save myself that cash.

There are five SPG properties in Chennai, and the closest to my client was the Aloft. Now, I read that it’s perfectly nice, clean, etc, but it would only save me about 20 minutes on the drive and I’d really prefer a full service option. I knew the ITC Grand Chola was the nicest of the options, and it was a tossup between the Le Meridien and the Westin. I probably should have tried all three, but ended up doing just the ITC and the Westin. The stay pattern was 1 night Westin, 4 nights ITC, 1 night Westin, 1 night ITC, 1 night Westin, 4 nights ITC. I did it this way because the first night was a weekend, so changing mid-day was easy. Then, I gave myself four days to settle in, before a few mid-week and weekend changes and finally the last several at the ITC so I could do any needed laundry/etc.

Three of the changes were on weekends, so were very easy to do, but three were on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings. My pattern was to get up early, grab a quick breakfast, change hotels (they’re a 10 minute drive apart), check in if possible, then head to the client. Big credit to both hotels, all three mornings they let me check in approximately 7/7:15am for the day. They were absolutely fantastic on this front.

I’ll compare the two properties on six metrics: room, transportation, lounge, restaurants/food, service, platinum benefits, and finally value for price.

Room: all three times I stayed at the Westin I was given a room on the executive floor. They were standard sized rooms, and as far as I could tell the amenities weren’t upgraded. The air conditioning worked well, the rooms were all very clean, and they had everything that was needed and expected. Additionally, they always stopped by a few times a day offering more bottles of water, as well as turn-down service.

At the ITC Grand Chola, my first two stays I was upgraded to a Towers room. The room was huge, probably about 550 square feet total. It had a huge washroom, with separate shower and toilet cubicles. There was also a standalone tub, as well as drawers and changing area. The AC actually got frigid, and perhaps the coolest part was that everything from lights to AC to TV was controlled by an in-room iPad. On my third stay, I asked about a suite upgrade. They said it would likely be possible, but I would have to pay the rather significant difference in the luxury tax. Luxury tax is assessed on the rack rate of the room, and because of this they usually don’t do suite upgrades. After reminding them that my corporate rate had luxury tax waived they agreed and upgraded me to a rather huge suite. I’ll let the pics do the talking, but I’d estimate it was 800-900 square feet minimum. It made for a very comfortable four nights!

Clear edge in room goes to the ITC Grand Chola.

View from the executive floor at the Westin:

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Suite at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Transportation: I only used transportation from the ITC Grand Chola twice, and that was the hotel car to the Westin and later to the airport. It was slightly overpriced, but plenty comfortable. The nice thing about the Westin was that my corporate rate had free airport transfers included. The pick up at the airport on my arrival was perfect, and they had cold towels and water waiting in the car which was much appreciated in the Chennai humidity. For my later stays, they arranged to pick me up at the ITC Grand Chola instead, and at the end of the stay transfer me to the ITC Grand Chola. Quite nice of them considering the rate specifies airport transfers and not just “transfers”. Other than that, I had a driver to my client, and used Uber for personal transit which also worked equally well from both hotels.

Clear edge on transportation to the Westin.

Lounge: So, my complaint on the lounges isn’t the fault of the hotels. Tamil Nadu state where Chennai is located was in the middle of local elections, and thus declared a number of “dry days” where alcohol couldn’t be served. At one point, it was three days in a row. To the credit of the lounges, they still offered snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.

The Westin had a proper lounge on the executive floor that was open from 1830-2130 every day, and the drinks flowed freely. Very freely. Many of the residents were in the hotel for weeks at a time, and had bonded, and it was expat drinking hour every night in the lounge. Mixed drinks, wine, beer, you name it, and plentiful snacks to the point you could easily make a meal out of them….and if you stayed until 2130 you probably would!

The lounge at the ITC was located in the lobby of the hotel, and available to all Towers and ITC One guests. Not sure what ITC One is, but being in the towers I got to use it. They had four hot snacks and a few cold snacks which rotated (seemed to be the same menu every monday, same every tuesday, etc), as well as plenty of free-flowing drinks and super friendly staff. The happy hour was shorter – only 1800-2000, but they got really generous the last 15 minutes and I ended up with 2-3 drinks sitting around several times.

I would have to declare the lounges a tie – both had plentiful snacks and drinks as well as super friendly staff.

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Restaurants/Food: At the Westin I had breakfast every day, as well as room service dinner one night. The breakfast was plentiful, with lots of breads and danishes, some fruit and other options, as well as eggs, pancakes, etc cooked to order. There was also proper American bacon, which they would cook well done and crispy upon request. There were also several warm Indian options as well. The coffee was also good, with espresso drinks also on offer. I had a sandwich from room service one night which was good and reasonably-priced, and delivered quickly and warm. One nice thing to note, the Westin is also a short walk to the Phoenix Marketcity Mall, which has several good food options including Nandos, California Pizza Kitchen, Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts should you get sick of hotel fare.

The breakfast at the ITC Grand Chola was simply amazing. Eggs made to order, tons of breads, pastries, etc, and an amazing assortment of fresh fruit every day. There was also a full Indian options hot bar, etc. By my second day they had my coffee preferences down, and I didn’t even have to ask and a double espresso would show up within two minutes of sitting down. There were also six to seven restaurants, but most evenings I was too tired to bother. Plus, they were a bit high priced, although delicious. I had dinner one night at their north Indian restaurant Peshwari, and it was a set menu for one and absolutely delicious. Pics below. I also ate in their cafe several times, which had really good sandwiches for both breakfast and lunch. It was also slightly overpriced, but made an easier light meal than the sitdown restaurants.

Slight edge goes to the ITC for a slightly better breakfast, and tons of great restaurant options.

Westin Breakfast:

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Breakfast/buffet restaurant from above at the ITC:

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Dinner at Peshwari at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Amazing fruit for breakfast at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Service/Common Areas: Can’t say enough here about both properties, because service was uniformly fantastic. Staff would remember you after one interaction, and upon returning after hotel hopping I was warming welcome back. I was doing PT for the shoulder surgery throughout the stay, and requested an umbrella from the concierge to help with exercises. Both hotels remembered, and brought me one on my second stay without asking. People genuinely seemed to love their jobs and care that you enjoyed your stay.

Both hotels win here in a big way.

Lobby in the Grand Chola:

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Group of eye surgeons having a conference at the hotel taking a group pic, lol:

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Poolside at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Platinum benefits: At the Westin, got an upgrade to the executive floor, lounge access, happy hour, and a coupon for a free drink (beer or wine) via either room service or in the restaurants and bars. I chose a glass of wine sent to my room both stays, and the third there was no love because it was a “dry day.” At the ITC, I was upgraded to a Towers Room twice, and the third time to a huge suite. This included lounge access.

Slightly edge in this category to the ITC, only because I was consistently upgraded to a larger room.

Welcome flowers and sweets in the suite at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Value for Price: Both hotels were the exact same price with my corporate rate. Since I rated the ITC Grand Chola higher in most categories, I’d consider it an excellent value for price. For the Westin, I’d still call it a very good value for price.

Hope these are helpful!

Nov 152014
 

In order to boost my stay count with Starwood, I used my iPhone to book the two unexpected nights in Fiji one at the Westin and the second back at the Sheraton again. The properties are right next door to each other, so figured I would compare them. Caught a taxi to the Westin, where the bellman was nice enough to drive me over to the Sheraton to retrieve my bag of scuba gear I’d left there, and then checked in.

They were rather reluctant to upgrade, and offered an ocean-view or such standard room at first…but only with two double beds. I pushed a little harder, and the agent agreed to go consult her manager. I reminded her it was just one night, and I was staying to compare them to the Sheraton. I thought maybe a bit of friendly competition might help. Well..ended up with a “one time only” upgrade to a royal suite, which I guess isn’t usually available in the standard upgrade pool. Took the buggy to the room with my bags, and the buggy driver mentioned to me that both John Travolta and Mel Gibson had stayed in. SCORE!

Living area:

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Sep 102014
 

Ok, this took far, far longer than I planned to get around to. ¬†I figured “I’ll be spending 30,000 miles on planes over the course of 12 days, lots of time for writing.” ¬†What I didn’t take into account is that my sleep schedule would get so out of whack that I’d find myself wandering streets at 3am enjoying cities in a whole new way, and sleeping when I could. ¬†Plus, the trip ended in Vegas. ¬†I don’t really need to explain much more. ¬†I got home after this mother of all mileage runs absolutely wrecked in more ways than one. ¬†Then there was life, and work, to catch up on…but finally…here we go!

In case you missed the post about how this trip came up, I’ve linked it here for reference.

Soon, the big day was here, and it was time to head out! ¬†Decided to be a bit frugal and take the Metro to the airport, which in rare form was running with no delays and everything went smoothly. ¬†So smoothly in fact, that I was from home and through TSA in under 30 minutes. ¬†Ended up with almost an hour before my flight, so popped into the Delta SkyClub for a quick breakfast. ¬†I wanted to check out their new offerings…and was seriously happy to find greek yogurt and hard boiled eggs. ¬†No salt anywhere though. ¬†Grrr. ¬†At least I had a chance to stock up on protein knowing Se√Īor Jeff would soon try and put me in a carb-induced coma.

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Boarding was right on time, and we were on one of United’s oldest 737-800s today…but at least there was WiFi!

United Airlines flight 1662
Washington DC, National (DCA) to San Francisco, California (SFO)
Depart 8:15, Arrive 11:19, Flight Time 6:04
Boeing 737-800, Registration N18220, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2E

Today’s route of flight was rather strange, I assume due to the storms covering the flyover states. ¬†Although we were blocked 6:04 gate to gate, flight time was announced at just 5 hours and 5 minutes…rather quick for this route. ¬†I was rather excited to be on this route, instead of having to trek out to Dulles and it was my third ever transcon out of DCA, and the first on United. ¬†So happy to have this route as an option now!

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Not only were full pre-departure drinks offered, but they came with refills if you were a quick enough drinker.  This was going to be an excellent crew!  There was almost no wait for takeoff, and we were airborne less than five minutes after leaving the gate.

Today’s breakfast choice was either scrambled eggs and sausage (powdered scrambled eggs on planes scare me…Jeff’s sausage pucks scare me even more), or the big tray of carbs. ¬†I decided to go with the carbs and a bloody mary, figuring at least it might put me to sleep.

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