Thursday, 30 December 2010

Changing Hotels at the Last Minute.

I arrived via taxi quite smartly at the Sheraton on the Park and was greeted and had bags taken which I was grateful for. However, there was a problem. The Sheraton on the Park had gone non-smoking two days before. The desk clerk was a bit inept about this, wanting me still to complete check-in and didn't seem to understand that it was a problem.

However, I escalated it and then escalated it again. It turned out there had been an email about two weeks before, it wasn't in my inbox, my spam folder or my trash. Once this was demonstrated, the attitude changed slightly from sort of helpful to very helpful.

I was offered a room at the Four Points, I don't do Four Points for week long stays. I may have been a little brusque in emphasising that. I was making the point that, any rate I could get would probably be higher than the rate I had booked at the Sheraton. They promised to arrange something suitable.

It didn't take long, I was angling for the Hilton, which claimed on line to have smoking availability. However, this is a bit of a feature on the Hilton website in that Smoking availability doesn't work well. They had one smoking room, on the "crew floor" and didn't want to let it to a Gold. Funny, that's what they gave me last time :-)

The helpful manager came back with a list of options at a similar rate. The two that stood out were the Swissotel and the Four Seasons. I've heard the Four Seasons Sydney's standard rooms are a bit pokey and it's a bit too posh for me and the location whilst nice, isn't quite where I wanted for entertainment purposes, so I plumped for the Swissotel. The manager walked me over personally and made sure I was checked in OK.

I actually ended up paying 10 AUD a night less for a large airy corner smoking room with two double beds. The location was pretty similar, although the hordes outside Myers were a bit scary. More details in a later post.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Trip Report 4 - Part 3 - MEL-SYD - QF J

Needless to say, it was bright and sunny when on the day I was leaving Melbourne.

I had originally been booked onto QF438, but I arrived rather early at Melbourne Tullamarine and the check-in machine offered me a seat on QF434 one hour earlier. I decided to take that and it was a good job I did as you'll see from the next post. There was, of course, a downside in that catering was not certain (if only). The ticket was a BA Award ticket, 30,000 miles and a pittance in taxes.

Proceeding swiftly through Domestic Security, where my bag went for a swab test, swiftly went the Qantas Business Lounge where I thought I would make up for a possible lack of catering. I'd also had no brekky that morning except for a bag of Twisties. As much as I like Twisties, they aren't brekky.

Relaxing with two glasses of tomato juice, I swiftly indulged myself in Silverside, Cheese, Sourdough Bread and some slightly naff Potato Salad. The Silverside and Sourdough were excellent, so I had some seconds. I also made use of the wireless internet for a few minutes.

The flight was then called and we went for boarding. This was the usual array of anyone with a "small" child or needing extra time to go first (a small horde of both), followed by QF Golds, Plats, OneWorld Emeralds and people with a business class ticket. We were then held up by the mother of all arguments at the gate of a pax with what was deemed to be an oversized carry-on. I will say now and the passenger over the aisle agreed that it didn't look that big to me.

Anyway, we boarded the Boeing 767-300 and the bad vibes continued as I was directed down the wrong aisle by the very mature cabin crew. I proceeded down the correct aisle, was stopped and told to go down the other aisle. I then went down the other aisle and through an empty row to get to my seat. One of the cabin crew then asked for my boarding pass and looked at it, looked at the seat and handed it back without a word. Oh Dear. The large business class domestic seats are nothing to write home about, but are like sitting in a comfy armchair from the 80's

Eventually, the flight boarded with the exception of the gentleman and his bag at the gate who was still having his argument. The pilot made a pointed and I considered unprofessional announcement about this as it was causing a delay. Oh Dear.

There was an pre-flight beverage service by the crew, but it only reached row 3 as they both had to stop and have a lengthy conversation with some people in row 2. I was in row 4. The load was about 90% in Y and 50% in J.

We took off about 10 minutes late due to the shenanigans, but were swiftly headed up towards Sydney. Service was mainly done by two crew, one was forgetful, the other was nasty. The CSD was not seen much, but may have been acting as Galley Bitch, but he did find time to go out and talk to row 2. Service was slow, which is not a good idea on MEL-SYD, it's not a long flight. My aisle was served by the forgetful one for the meal. She had a nice long chat to row 2, then decided she had to push on. I asked for the roast beef salad with no dressing, she slopped the dressing on anyway. No drink was offered, she appeared to be offering drinks randomly. Bread rolls were also random, but seconds were offered to Row 2 and no-one else. I managed to get one, the guy across the aisle didn't.

After discarding the tainted pieces of the salad. I was left with some leaves, which I ate, some couscous which had been poorly prepared and was indelible and some slices of Pedigree Chum disguised as roast beef. I ate the leaves and the bread roll. Coffee was offered, but tea never materialised, which is a shame because QF tea is usually very nice. As the other flight attendant came past, I asked for a cold drink, she snapped "no, too close to landing". However, row 2 got another round of wine a few minutes later from her.

Anyway, it's a short flight and I'd brunched in the lounge, so I just settled back to finish the Bourdain. Stuff was cleared for landing promptly, but we had the excitement of a go-round as a 747 took too long to lumber out the way. This is where a window seat would have been very nice.

Anyway, we landed about 15 minutes late at a slightly drizzly SYD. A nice clinking bag was given to Row 2 by the CSD. I quickly made my way to baggage claim which is a bit of a dump compared to the rest of Sydney QF domestic which is quite nice, looked at the un-turning carousel and popped outside for a cigarette. My bag came off reasonably promptly after I returned from my smoke and I was soon off into a taxi to the Sheraton.

All in all, the flight got me there, but were the crew on loan from United? Because they showed all the hallmarks of what stopped me flying that dire excuse for an airline. I would point out this is my 10th domestic flight with Qantas and the first one where I've had reason to be unhappy, I'll just put it down to the luck of the draw.

Hilton Melbourne on the Park

This hotel was booked on points, after my first trip, this hotel would only be booked on points. They are very amenable at taking points at Christmas/New Year and for a while that was the only thing in their favour. They also have what I consider to be a good location for what I want to see and do in Melbourne.

However, they are getting better, considerably better and I can see a day where I might actually pay them money again.

Welcome was warm, status was recognised with free Internet and my room was ready at 8:30am and I wasn't charged for the use of it as a day room. The bedrooms have been refurbished, although not the bathrooms and proved to be perfectly adequate throughout the stay. The bed was comfy, the desk was good, I had an opening window to smoke out of, the bathroom was a bit old style. The room was a little dark, but as this was my jet-lag hotel, I didn't mind that at all.

Housekeeping were OK, although the usual tightness with shower gel etc was noted, however, I went and got some L'Occitane on the second day, so that didn't matter. Turndown service was offered every evening but ridiculously early. The Internet service has gotten better as well, although still a little slow.

As is my policy with this hotel, I didn't eat breakfast here and didn't use room service etc. 

Checkout was fine and cordial.

My first stay here was horrific, my second was marginal, my third was marginal but better, this one was OK. I may actually consider paying them money in the future.


I'm a bit behind, I know, but I have been enjoying myself.

The first day was a bit of a blur, I arrived at the hotel, checked in had a very long shower, unpacked and went to the 7-11 on the corner to get the usual vital supplies for the room. Apart from a short nap mid-afternoon and a trip out to Two Fat Indians which is very, very close to the hotel for a light dinner, I did my usual zombie act. Two Fat Indians is pretty good, although there's an element of gorification in the spicing.

This obviously worked quite well, so apart from waking up hideously early (something I haven't quite managed to shake this trip, I'm usually up by 5:30am, it's a good job I'm not a night owl these days), I was fairly bright and chipper for the next morning. 

I started off with coffee and brekky with a friend in Fed Square, I went for a long black and Vegemite toast. After that we wandered around for a bit admiring parts of Melbourne's architecture, he had to head back to Sydney.

It's nice to see bike sharing schemes on the increase and the Melbourne one looked very good, I was almost tempted myself. After my friend had departed, I wandered off towards the Queen Victoria Markets, managing to get a little lost on the way there. Once there I wandered around the stalls for about an hour, stopping only for a fresh watermelon juice before purchasing Turkish Bread, Cheese, Ham and ripe Tomatoes. I then wandered back in the direction of one of my favourite parks, Fitzroy Gardens and had a small impromptu picnic until it started raining. Luckily Fitzroy Gardens is close to the hotel, so I swiftly nipped back there.

It rained for the rest of the day, so I had a nap, played some computer games, finished off the Sambrook and popped out to get a takeaway pizza. I was in bed quite early.

The next day was also grey and cloudy, my first task was to go and play hunt a light raincoat. This took a couple of hours, but eventually I tracked down a blue showerproof coat. As it was drizzling, I decided that indoor activities were the order of the day and I went to the aquarium. I thought it was was quite expensive (but the decline of the pound has lead to considerable sticker shock in Australia) and rather mixed, there were some very good bits and some very meh bits. 

I followed this up by a trip down to Docklands. Melburnians aren't going to like this, but I sense Docklands is failing, the shopping areas weren't busy, there's lots of closing down sales. The dining areas were fairly quiet (and the prices through the roof), it just has that feeling of not having moved on from two years ago. It's still nice though, even on a gray day.

By that time, it was time for a late lunch of Calimari and Salad and a small glass of beer and then back to the hotel for what I hope is the last nap of the trip before NYE. I then headed down to Fitzroy to meet a friend of a friend who runs a bookshop - nice guy, nice bookshop, excellent long black and a chat. I purchased the new Marina Lewycka as I had lost patience with Skippy Dies. I then went to Mao for a meal, it was busy, but the service was good if a bit pushy on the upsell. I found the potato prawns to be very good and the chili beef to be not so good. Nice place, but whilst it would have been reasonable in 2008, it was expensive in 2010.

The next day was dangerously deceptive, it started off very nice and I planned a nice little walking route, no sooner had I got to the Botanical gardens when the rain started. Feh. So it was back into the CBD and an impromptu trip to the Immigration Museum which is a little joy, excellent exhibits, good interactivity with some displays and a lot of history in a small space. I then wandered back through various delightful arcades of the CBD

I picked up a pie from PieFace for lunch, I was tempted by a café in the Block, but remembered I was eating out that night. I then got lost in Dymock's bookshop for a couple of hours, anyone who knows me will know I'm very good at being lost in bookshops. Eventually, I headed back to the hotel, lost myself for a couple of hours in Antony Bourdain's latest and then scrubbed up for dinner.

Dinner was out with friends, we went to Vegie Bar which is young, hip and happening, full of the gills of hipsters and trendsetters. I'm usually slightly wary of such places, but in this case, it's full because the food is cheap, good and the portions are huge. It's all a bit cramped and dark, but the service is friendly and willing even if our waiter was a bit dizzy (a tall hawt stoner/surfer boy in cutoffs, tanktop and tan). As it was all a bit cramped, you could see what others were having, unfortunately the waiter wasn't on the menu, but we ended up with some good nachos and excellent stuffed mushrooms as starters. We did consider getting some Arancini as well, but were warned off on portion size - they were right. My main was an excellent pizza with wild mushrooms, base a bit crispy, but fresh crushed tomatoes, good cheese and lovely mushrooms. My friends were faced with a huge wrap and an ginormous felafel salad respectively, they struggled to finish. Dinner for 3 was the same price as dinner for 1 at Mao, large tip left.

So it was then back to pack and get ready for the journey to Sydney. By this time I was well rested and feeling nicely relaxed which was probably a good thing considering the next day.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Trip Report 4 - Part 2 - SIN-MEL, SQ F

A Short Changi Interlude

One advantage of 1A is that you really are the first off and it’s good to stretch the legs for a while. However, my power walk was stopped by a sign board indicating that SIA wanted to speak to me. For a minute, I thought I was being put onto the next Melbourne flight in two hours or so, which I wouldn’t have minded at all. However, it was to give out compensation for the downgrade from Suites to First from Singapore to Melbourne. All I will say is that this was very generous, consisting of quite a large sum of cash and a generous duty-free voucher which has gotten me the smart new watch I wanted.

I then proceeded to the lounges, or at least the smoking terrace before the lounges for the first fag for sixteen hours or so and then decided even though I only had a few minutes I’d pop into The Private Room which is for First Class passengers only (no Star Gold elites, no First Class pax from other airlines, no SQ Solitaires).  It’s very nice, if a little stuffy looking, the waiting staff address you by name, everything is brought to you, there is a delicious food menu and a buffet. Personally, I asked for an enormous glass of water and a cup of coffee, these arrived very swiftly and I consumed them whilst making a phone call home.

It was then swiftly out again onto the smoking terrace, off to duty-free to buy 200 fags, then a brisk walk up to the other end of the A pier (I needed to burn off some of the several thousand calories I have comsumed today) to go through Security (swift, polite, no Nude-O-Scopes, no groping) only to run into a somewhat disorganised boarding process where the priority queue seemed to mainly consist of “families with children who need assistance with boarding”  and "anyone else who thinks that they may qualifyt". There were, of course, a considerable number of “gate lice” hanging around, one of which shoved in front of me with a wave of a pass and a grunt of “Business Class”. I tapped her on the shoulder, showed her my boarding pass and told her to get to the back of the queue J .

SQ 227
17th December 2010
1B, First

After a few minutes of this queuing idiocy, I finally managed to make my way onto the 747-400 and to my seat at 1B. I’m fond of the 747, and this is probably the last time I’ll fly an SQ one, so I actually wasn’t that bothered by the downgrade. Also, this is a short leg of around 6:30 minutes and I was wide awake and refreshed – in fact remarkably chirpy, so again, I wasn’t expecting to sleep, a comfy chair and good service will do me fine.

However, when you have been in the Suite, you can see why it is a downgrade, merely from the privacy point of view. I am only too aware that there are people trying to sleep behind me, so flash photos of the food ain’t happening. I would have been comfortable viewing a movie like La Haine in Suites, I wouldn’t be so happy in First. However, it’s nice enough, plenty of room and the usual charming SQ service.

I was of course offered a welcome drink, I decided on a nice big glass of water, as that’s what I needed after the fast walk up the pier and the small boarding scrum. The usual handing out of the goodies occurred and I carefully stashed many of them unopened, I’m thinking gifts not ebay, folks. Well, not ebay much, honest.

After takeoff, I switched to the Rudesheimer Riesling Spaetlese 2006. Wow, I though I was drinking an Auslese, except it was fake sweetness. I like German Riesling, mainly because it’s complex and not appreciated and therefore generally has reasonable prices. The was accompianied by the mix of macadamia and cashew again. I ended up having two glasses which is my limit unfortunately.


Chilled malassol caviar
Salad of lobster, Asparagus tips and artichoke “barigoule” with old mustard vinigarette.

Mushroom soup with spices  and truffle fois-gras royale
Oriental clear broth with watercress

Butter lettuce heart with baby cress and cherry tomato (Hazelnut vinigarette or thousand island dressing)

Chicken breast with morel polenta, roasted zucchini, asparagus and jus
Singapore Bak Kut Teh
Steamed fillet of black cod with gremolata, pickled cherry tomato and saffron potato
Nasi Uduk (coconut rice, beef redang, chicken curry, steamed fish soufflé, pickled veg)
Saffron fettucine with sauted ceps, argula, shaved parmesan, pesto

Warm chocolate cake with rum infused raisin and expresso ice-cream
Mango soup with pomelo and sago with vanilla ice cream

Selection of brie, mild chedder, true blue and smokey pepper cheeses

Fresh fruit

Tea and coffees served with pralines

The lobster was very nice, but actually the highlight was the delicious artichoke and the lovely old mustard vinigarette which blended together really rather well.

The mushroom soup sounded a wee bit too rich for me, who is after all eating a second large meal in less than 5 hours. So I had the broth, cleansing, not medicinal, lots of watercress and very refreshing, I'd certainly order that again.

I dodged the salad, I’ll make up for it on the ground, honest.

Main course was a bit tricky, anything with polenta is right out, the pasta sounds dull, but the other three are all interesting. I went for the Uduk, which had melt in the mouth beef redang (although a bit gorafied), nice chicken, good soufflé and the only downside was the rice wasn’t quite perfect.

I passed on dessert, I’m a fat biffer and one contained the demon rum and the other contained both a form of Satan’s globes and sago, despite the best attempts by two of the crew to fatten me up, I wasn’t indulging.

I did have cheese, silly question, when don’t I have cheese if it’s on offer? The cheese was a bit meh, when they say mild cheddar on the menu, they sadly meant it and that set the standard for the other cheeses. However, again a generous portion (unlike the wafer-thin slices of LH or LX) and nice big juicy grapes and dried apricots to go with it.

Again, I skipped the fruit, although I half fancied a banana and went on to a nice cup of coffee with a single white chocolate praline.

Virtually everyone else was asleep at this point with four hours to go, so I’m settled down into my book as we approach Port Headland. We fairly rattled along down to Adelaide and then on to Melbourne, with a strong headwind giving us speeds of over 1100 km/h at some points according to the Flight Map, I was content with Sambrook’s State of Emergency which as a big thick book filled with facts is amongst my favourite reading. What I particularly like about Sambrook as a historian is the sheer eclecticism that he puts in his works and State of Emergency is a very good follow up to “Never Had It So Good” and “White Heat”. Who says you need Krisworld, but I am a very textual rather than visual person.

About 90 mins out from MEL breakfast service started, it’s only a continental breakfast on this short leg, but whilst some carriers will skimp on this even in First Class, it’s a pretty decent selection on SQ. I had my usual tomato juice, two beautiful cups of black coffee, a fruit plate which included a positively lucullan half mango, a brown roll and butter and a small bowl of birchermuesli with additional fresh fruit. All done within the space of 30 minutes and done very well. Service for coffee and juice for people waking up carried on right up to 20 minutes out from MEL.

Landing had some pretty serious reverse thrust (unless the WhaleJet landing which was a greaser) but we were fairly swiftly at the gate and off. Immigration wasn't a problem, very polite and asking very sensible questions and the only slight disappointment was a fairly long wait for my bag to come off, priority baggage obviously doesn't work so well in MEL. No quarantine inspection, although a gorgeous dog sniffed the bags and out for a cigarette before getting a taxi into a very rainy Melbourne.

Once again, a very friendly and engaging crew on this flight who are a credit to SQ. I started this journey feeling not at my best physically and mentally and with a certain amount of trepidation about going. I arrive in Melbourne, reasonably well-rested, very well fed and watered, quite a bit better off than when I set off and in a much better frame of mind. I will thank my flatmate for bullying me when I get back. Next up: a few bits on Melbourne in a few days and then MEL-SYD on QF in J.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Trip Report 4 - Part 1 - LHR-SIN, SQ R

1A, Suites

Having seen that the flight was boarding, I decided to leave the lounge slightly before the main horde mainly to have a stretch of the legs and because I tend to like to board early. On reaching the gate, I was cordially escorted to a separate seating area for Suites passengers and then within seconds escorted on board. My suite was 1A, it reminds me a little of a railway sleeper carriage of the couchette era but in done out in lovely wood and leather earth tones and with a fascinating selection of cubbyholes, crannies and buttons. The charming crew introduced themselves one by one, distributing a cornucopia of goodies, a Givenchy sleep suit (yes, the XL fits even huge old me), some slippers (very comfy), socks, menus etc whilst carefully establishing drink preferences and making professional chit-chat. Some people say SQ crew are robotic, I’ve never found this, I’ve always found them consistently very good and very charming. 

Of course, I was swiftly given the most difficult choice of them all, Dom or Krug, I’m not allowed to drink much on my new exciting medication, but I trust the pharmacist in that a couple of glasses will help sleep as opposed to the quack who has cultural reasons to say no alcohol at every opportunity. I chose the Dom and it was delicious. Sadly, we had one of those lengthy slot and de-icing delays which are so common in the winter, so we ended up on the ground for about an hour. Refills were of course offered, but declined as I was rationing the consumption.
Soon after we took off the second glass was taken with some roasted cashew nuts and huge macadamia nuts – lovely. 

The menu today was:

Chilled malossol caviar
Maine lobster with celeriac-crabmeat salad and lemon dressing

Chicken and sweetcorn consommé with smoked chicken dumpling
Chinese style seafood soup

Salad of frisee and endive garnished with feta cheese, ligurian olives and semi-dried tomato. (Basil vinaigrette or ranch dressing)

Beef Wellington, Mushroom duxelle, green beans, bordelaise sauce
Prawn Sambal
Roast pork loin with caraway seed sauce, sauerkraut with bacon and potato dumplings (hello, am I on LH)
Salmon in oriental sauce with braised noodles
Assorted wild mushroom risotto with roast capsicum, rucola, shaved parmesan

Rhubarb crumble with vanilla ice cream and syrup
Vanilla ice cream with fresh mixed berries and passion fruit coulis

Somerset brie, Butlers secret mature cheddar, wensleydale with cranberry and Shropshire blue with the tracklements

Fresh Fruits in season

Coffee & Teas with pralines

Choices, choices, eh. Even the first choice is difficult, I am fond of caviar but I am also fond of lobster. I take the punt that there will be a similar choice on the next flight and opt for the caviar which comes with all the trimmings. I take a nice brown roll from the bread basket to go with the echt but too cold Normandy butter.

After that, I go for the consommé, this is quite nice, especially the dumpling, but not quite right. I skip the salad, one has to save some calories somewhere in a feast such as this, plus I like my salad to be nude leaves.

I then choose the Salmon with noodles, which also has a selection of fresh veg cooked with it. Like any reheated non-soup noodle dish, the texture is a bit variable, but a bit of crunchy is good as far as I’m concerned. It’s light and delicious and I could have eaten it all over again.

I skip dessert in favour of cheese, I’m happy to report that the cheese comes in generous portions, the Brie was a little meh, but the Shropshire blue was delicious – it’s not in the photo because it got scoffed  very quickly, as did the very good cheddar – I prefer my cheddar a little strong, but this had fine texture.

A nice cup of tea and a single praline rounded off the meal for me, with a few more pages read of Dominic Sandbrook’s latest magnum opus – State of Emergency. At this point I went to the bathroom whilst the bed was brought down and the seat folded away and changed into my sleepsuit. The bed is very ingeniously positioned in the wall and provides a decent length, single mattressed bed. It’s quite hard, but I like that and with the duvet and the doors shut I was soon snugly heading towards sleepytime.

I slept with the odd interruption for about 7 hours, the A380 is sufficiently quiet that I can sleep without using earplugs! There was a bouncy bit just over India, but otherwise the flight seemed pretty smooth.

Having the cabin converted back, I breakfasted over the Andaman Islands. I had some fresh fruit (too cold, melon a bit unripe), tomato juice and a nice large glass of it at that, two mugs of delicious black coffee, a small bowl of fruit yoghurt (very good), a croissant and Nasi Lemak. As is usual, I was asked “are you OK with spicy”, I say I’ve had it before (which is true, usually in food courts in Singapore). 

The Nasi Lemak was a good choice, the prawns in the sambal were plump and the sambal was nice and spicy but not that spicy, the little fried fish were salty heaven, the rice was good, the omelette was fine and the chicken was well, chicken.

Unfortunately, with the delays at Heathrow, it’s unlikely that I’ll have much time on my transfer at Singapore. My plan of a nice hour in The Private Room looks scuppered, but I should be able to get a look inside even if it will probably mean I don’t have chance for a shower. Well, I have no seat opponent on the next flight, I can afford to whiff a bit J

Unternehmen Changi is basically, smoke fag, buy fags, go to lounge for a bit of Intertubes, smoke fag, board. If I get chance, I might see if I can get a UK-OZ adaptor as well, but I doubt if I’ll get chance. I’m sure the hotel will have one.

I’m actually slightly regretting this flight. I have a terrible feeling that i’ll never be happy in Business Class to the Far East again. Now, I wonder how much a D to R cash upgrade is for SIN-LHR on the way back.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

I had my mind changed for me

I came back home feeling a bit sickly from work and was about to cancel. However, I was pestered by a number of people to actually go as the ticket is only refundable more than 24 hours from departure. It would have been quite a bit of money wasted.

Starving myself appears to have worked, whilst I'm incredibly tired and my what my mouth feels like isn't worth repeating, I no longer feel sick. In fact, I've just managed my first solids for about 15 hours and I still feel fine. It was a shame to miss the work Christmas lunch though.

However, after a nasty trip in snow to New Street, followed by a somewhat bouncy Pendolino Ride to Euston, a quick taxi to Paddington and HEx to Heathrow, I made it to terminal 3, which I probably haven't been to for eight years or so. I deposited the Delsey with the very nice people at check-in and got my boarding cards for the two legs. I swiftly made my way through fast-track security (what a slum compared to BHX) and into the world of duty free and it's everywhere. Obviously, I didn't look prosperous enough to be assailed by any sales critter thank goodness and I am now in the haven of the Silver Kris lounge, where I'm enjoying a bit of free internet, a nice glass of water and a couple of dim sum.

The big trip starts here.


The big Australia trip is not happening, I'll be cancelling it later today. 

This blog will probably now be dormant until the end of May.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

36 hours to go

Am I ready, am I heck.

I've done a bit of packing, I've pretty much sorted out most things that need to be sorted out, although I expect I'll be up late tonight sorting out the last bits.

On the good news front, the weather doesn't look too bad for getting down to Thiefrow. On the bad news front, Singapore Airlines have replaced the 380 with a 744 for the Singapore-Melbourne leg, which means a downgrade from Suites to First. A couple of frequent flyer friends think it's the end of the world, personally, I welcome a chance to fly again on the 747-400 with Singapore Airlines.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Coming Up Soon

I can hear you all now, what's next, Hannover? Leipzig? Essen? More moans about sandwiches and economy class seating?

Nope, the next trip is on Longhaul and it's not on Lufthansa.

Fifteen days from now, I hope to be in the dreaded Heathrow Terminal 3, sat in the Silver Kris lounge waiting for my Singapore Airlines Airbus 380 to Singapore connecting to another Airbus 380 to Melbourne. I'm in one of these seats on both flights. I won't be moaning about the cheese sandwiches, but more about the difficult choice between Dom Perigon and Krug.

After spending a few days in Melbourne, I will be proceeding to Sydney via Qantas, I hope this lady isn't doing the safety demo. After spending Christmas in Sydney, I'll be going on Qantas again to Brisvegas Brisbane for New Year, Shortly after that, I'll be heading back to Singapore on a Singapore Airlines Airbus 330-300 for some serious eating in one of the best food cities in the world and then finally back to London on the daytime SQ flight on the Whalejet but this time in Business Class.

As for next year: well, IST, YUL, MAD, VIE, TXL and MUC sound likely and I'll try and avoid FRA at all costs.

Trip Report 3 - Part 3 - Lufthansa FRA-BHX

Coming off the very tidy, very modern and exceptionally ugly railway station, it is wise to reprise the rules of Frankfurt.

  1. Always follow the signs
  2. Don't assume you know where you are going, they have bound to have changed it since you were last here
  3. Always check your gate frequently, they'll change it
  4. Always follow the signs
The passage from the long-distance station to Terminal 1 isn't quite perfect, at one point you end up going outside for about 10m and I noticed that the snow was still falling, but using my best dungeons and dragons mapping skills I managed to make my way to the check-in on concourse B. Shiny case was despatched to the baggage hold and the check-in lady informed me that the gate had moved from the dungeon of B55 to the slightly better bus gate at B32 and we were 20 minutes late but "Es kann mehr als das, die meisten Flüge sind um eine Stunde verzögert." Hmm, I might just be able to make my meeting, but it will be pushing it - a taxi from BHX will be needed.

B security was fairly vile. They have, I think 10 machines, there - 4 were operating, one for Business, First and Star Gold and 3 for the rest of us. B security has the advantage they you can see outside onto the A/B apron area and it didn't look too good. Security took about 15 minutes to get through, liveable with, but could do better. The process itself was fine, no Nude-O-Scope or groping at FRA.

Anyway, after a quick stop to buy a book and some Weihnachts-Chocolade, I proceed to the Business Lounge down at the B40's. The lounge wardens looked busy and harassed, looking at the board, I could see why, there were still undeparted flights from two and three hours before. Luckily, this is a large lounge and there were still seats available and I plonked myself down for what could be an extended stay. Sadly, the sossidges and soup that can be found were not to be seen and the usual potato salad had been replaced with Honig-Senf Quark (uuuuuugghh) to go with the usual horrid Kräuterquark. There was also some flaccid Green Bean salad. Not feeling like a gummibear binge, I settled for some bread and butter, coffee and water.

Looking out the window, the odd flight was taking off and landing through the snow and the mist, but not usually as busy as Frankfurt is. Also, my flight was slipping first to a 40 minute delay, then an hours delay, at this point I sent an email to give my apologies for the meeting, I wasn't going to make it and I could have flown back through DUS. Grrrr. The gate also changed to B30 and then to B33 (see rule 3).

Finally, the boarding light flashed by the Birmingham flight and we were set to board a mere 1hr 30mins late, except it was the usual bait and switch, having gone to the gate there was no sign of boarding. We had a plane, but our crew, it seems were still at Brussels. I was just about to slope off back to the lounge, but decided to check the gate again after a quick ciggie and found that boarding had started, A different crew had been found.

The bus took us out to the aircraft on a very remote stand fairly quickly, a Boeing 737-300 which was about 80% full. I was pleased to have a vacant middle seat between myself and my seat opponent, it's always nice and today turned out to be quite vital. The captain introduced himself and told us, it would be a short wait for our turn at the de-icers and then we would be off. Hurrah, with flights being cancelled left, right and centre, I was just pleased to be off. 

Unfortunately, it didn't quite work that way. After half an hour, the captain told us that, the de-icers would be another half-hour. After an hour, he said, they would be yet another half hour and the crew did a water and juice run. After an hour and a half, he said "I've been told it will be 20 minutes, but I don't believe them". Gulp. At the two hour mark, the sandwiches were distributed and the bar was unofficially open, the captain came out to talk to passengers and generally have a chat. That vacant middle seat was becoming a great boon. 

As it went onto three hours, an announcement was made that, a bus was coming in ten minutes to take anyone off who no longer wanted to wait. About a dozen people took this option and their bags were unloaded. By this time I was nearly through the book that I had purchased five hours or so previously. By this time, visibility was very low and ominiously we could no longer hear aircraft taking off and landing, personally, I was starting to wonder about the crew going out of hours. Just as we were coming up to four hours, there was a very ominous PA from the captain, the crew would be out of hours in 45 minutes but he'd been told that the system for de-icing had changed and we were next in the queue. We all laughed at that. We also had to be refuelled as the APU had used up so much fuel keeping us warm and with the lights on.

However, it seemed that FRAport had finally woken up to the weather and decided to actually do some sensible things, after about 4 hours and 20 mins on the aircraft, the engines started to a big cheer and we moved forward to be de-iced at the entrance to one of the runways. 10 minutes after that, we finally took off for Birmingham. The captain gunned it somewhat, we did the run in 1hr 10mins (it's usually 1hr 25ish), I suspect he had to make the Birmingham turnaround and get the crew back. We had an official bar service and the last few sandwiches were offered to those who wanted them. We eventually got in just over 6 hours late. Sadly, this was at the same time as the Emirates had landed and immigration was overwhelmed. In addition, UKBA were being politically correct - there were six agents, three for non-EU (about 40 pax) and three for EU/EEA (about 400 pax) - 35 minutes to be grunted at and the passport given  a cursory look. I really ought to sign up for Iris. Luckily, this did mean the bags were off and therefore straight out to the taxi rank, but not for my meeting, but for home.

I like to say that I thought our cabin and flight crew were brilliant. They communicated well, engaged with the passengers and kept us cheery. I'm not so convinced at LH Ops and FRAport, I understand that in bad WX conditions, it's important to have passengers on aircraft ready to go, but the priority was always going to be the longer flights. I think they should have kept us in the terminal for longer until there was a decent chance of getting us out of there.

There you go, another Lufthansa Cont Y trip - the last one of the year, but not the last trip of the year. Watch this space.

Trip Report 3 - Part 2 - DB Köln Hbf - Frankfurt Flughafen Fernbahnof

I quite often travel by train in Germany, but it's usually S-Bahn or Regional Express trains.

However, because of a requirement to be back for a meeting, I had to fly back from the hated Frankfurt rather than Düsseldorf and I took the opportunity to go on an ICE as the service takes only 51 minutes for about 170km.

This one is made up of two ICE sets, one of which starts at Köln Hbf and one of which starts from Hamburg and then joins it. This involves a bit of shunting, so if you are in the section that starts at Köln (which I was) you have to wait to board. 

On boarding, I found a lovely clean train with a seat with decent leg room, audio ports, a small fold down table and best of all it was warm. Whilst I found the seating slightly inferior to a Pendolino, I certainly had no complaints for the price I paid (with my BahnCard 25).

We pulled off 4 minutes late and were soon racing towards the only intermediate stop at Bonn/Siegburg. Whilst we were on this short run, I had a look at the travel guide at each seat detailing the route and the connections that can be made and then at the on-board menu for service at your seat. The on-board staff offered a selection of newspapers (German only) to travellers. I had a copy of the FAZ, although it is quite a stretch for my German skills, I should really get Bild.

After Bonn, first the Grippenführer came around to check tickets and then, they came around to ask if people wanted drinks or sandwiches from the on-board menu. Other items were available from the BordBistro two coaches down. I had a coffee and a cheese baguette - the coffee came in a very smart mug and was decent and the cheese baguette was tasty and much needed. The prices were reasonable and I thought the food was of better quality than the free food in say, Vermin "FIrst Class".

By this time we were rolling along at about 180 km/h into poorer weather, the visibility started to drop, there was more snow on the ground (rather than the small toe-covering we had in Köln), by the time we had rattled through Montabaur we were up to 240km/h with a very smooth ride, however, by the time we were at Limburg Süd, we had slowed up a little possibly due to the decreasing visibility as a fine, wet snow was falling.

With one halt at a red, we ended up at Frankfurt Flughafen Fernbahnhof some 8 minutes late, with my coach happily ending up right outside a smoking area. I hoisted my bags, said Auf Wiedersehen  to the train crew and got off for a fag to gird myself for the horrors of Frankfurt in snow.

Looking at the ICE versus a Vermin Pendolino, the ICE wins. It's cleaner, the ride is better, the staff are charming and it feels more spacious and has proper luggage racks. I'd give Vermin the win on the actual seat and on providing free food, although I felt my paid food was of a higher standard. On price, DB wins hands down when comparing to Birmingham-London (which is slightly longer), being 69€ (with BahnCard) to £130 over a similar distance.

Köln (and Hilton Cologne)

As quite a bit of the trip was at a conference, I didn't do much to report on until I was freed up time wise at 3pm on the Saturday. I noticed that there was a small Christmas market where the conference was (well, away from the tourist areas) and had a little poke around it before heading back to central Köln. It was in a shopping centre, had about 15 stalls and mainly had cheaper, but very nice quality goods, mainly concentrating on Christmas decorations and edibles like nuts and Aachener Printen. I came away with a few bags of the latter for the office.

On getting back to Köln, I got changed and decided to have a quick scan around the markets there, there was a large and very crowded one around the Dom, a smaller one which was a bit less crowded down by the Heumarkt and had an ice rink and another crowded one around the Neumarkt. By this time, I was frozen and headed back via tram to the hotel for a nice warm.

Normally, I'd go out in Köln on a Saturday evening, there's a nice selection of "bear" bars I quite like in one area. However, three things mitigated against this. I was quite tired, it was -5 outside and falling and at the moment I can't drink alcohol due to a course of medication. So I popped around the corner to  the Gästatte Dominikaner and had Bratwurst, potatoes and sauerkraut whilst sipping a diet Coke and looking at all the people enjoying lovely glasses of Kolsch. After that, I went back to the hotel and played a bit of EU III with the latest patch.

Sunday was cloudy and cold. My original intention had been to go to Wuppertal and explore the Schwebebahn there. However, with the weather not looking brilliant for photography and needing to get some Christmas shopping done, I proceeded to go out on a series of short shopping raids followed by a nice warm either back at the hotel or with a cup of coffee somewhere.

Over the next six hours, I mainly concentrated on the market by the Dom and purchased a number of goodies. The prices are slightly inflated there for the prime position and the number of tourists, but are pretty comparable to say the excellent Christmas Market in Birmingham. The goods at the Dom are generally of a very high quality and I bought several presents there for friends. The food stalls also cover a fairly wide range of foods, although I noticed that compared to last year, the selection was more Germanic. Lunch was a Wild Boar Roll, pricey at 8€, but very well filled with fresh Wild Boar off the spit and very tasty.

The longest search was for a Monopoly set, a friend collects them and Germany has very good game shops. As it was a Sunday before Christmas, a large number of shops were open and eventually I located a shop with a number of unusual Monopoly sets.

The evening was spent quietly, with no beer to be drunk, I settled in with a excellent book (Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski) and popped out to the local Maredo around the corner for a steak and salad. Maredo is a chain found throughout Germany, it's usually pretty decent, there was one a very short distance away from the hotel - which is helpful in the freezing temperatures.

To quickly review the hotel, I have stayed in the Hilton Cologne about 12 times over the years. It's very well situated near the Dom and the Hauptbahnhof. The rooms are very modern, although if you want a larger room, I suggest booking the deluxe rooms - which are very large. It has one of the best buffet breakfast in Germany, and whilst I wasn't on a breakfast rate, I did treat myself on the Sunday and it hasn't had any "enhancements" to it, still a very good selection of hot and cold dishes. Check-in was very good as was check-out, although there was a slight error with the bill which was quickly resolved.

Next: Trains (with pictures)

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Trip Report 3 - Part 1 - Lufthansa BHX-DUS

I didn't get chance to do any posts about different types of aircraft, it's been a busy couple of weeks one way or another. However, I'm on the move again, this time to Köln for a bit of work and a bit of leisure.

After a busy morning at the office, I managed to get a taxi to Birmingham at about 1pm, the driver was a tad late because he assumed I was psychic about the pick-up point. However, the roads were fairly clear and by 1:30pm, I had deposited shiny case at the drop off desk, gotten my fast track security pass and was standing outside in the smoking zone to get freezing cold before making my way through the maze.

This time, despite being only 20 minutes later than last time, there was virtually no-one at security - fast track really wasn't needed. Two machines operating and four people waiting, straight through, no silly business with swabs and no Nude-O-Scopes or Gropes. This meant I had plenty of time to get a copy of The Economist, buy a couple of items from Boots and even get a salad at Pret. As is usual, I didn't bother with the truly dire lounge at BHX.

Boarding was the usual bait and switch, called to the gate ten minutes before they were actually ready. Four staff at the gate, one doing the work, three doing the hindering of the one doing the work with important news about X-Factor. They really do need some better staff, there again, perhaps if they paid a bit better and didn't have horrible split shifts.....

The aircraft was a CRJ-900, I've come to like this type over the last year. I loathe its little brother the CRJ-100/200 as being cramped, noisy and unpleasant, I'll tolerate the CRJ-700 as being better as long as you don't have a window or need to go to the loo, but the CRJ-900 is OK.

We had about 20 minutes waiting for slots and the crew were good enough to tell us we could keep our electronic equipment on. I see a growing number of iPads and Kindles on flights as the year progresses. I'm still not tempted by the iPad, but I'm starting to think about an Kindle.

We took off about 30 minutes late, which doesn't really matter because there's a silly amount of padding in the schedule anyway, although not quite enough in this case as we ended up arriving about 15 minutes late. Service was the usual LH standard, a drink (my choice was water) and a choice of repulsive half sandwiches ("cheese" or "meat not pork" - declined as I'd eaten). The crew were fine, although the one had trowelled on the make-up to a drag queen standard.

As usual, arrival at Düsseldorf was to a bus gate, although at Düsseldorf at least you don't end up half way to Essen. In contrast to my last three trips through DUS, we immediately end up in the baggage area, but went through immigration into the main terminal, which would have been nice on the last three trips to stop me having to re-clear security, but this time wasn't needed.

I had to wait a little while to collect my bag, not a BHX-type wait, but sadly, shiny case was the last one off the belt by which time it was 17:45 and I had 12 minutes to get to the train station via the Sky Train. This is pushing it, it's even more pushing it when the ticket machine isn't accepting coins or non-German Eurocards and there a couple of eejits in front of you trying their card again and again. Mind you, Deutsche Bahn, a better error message might help the feckless. Anyway,  wasn't going to make the 17:57 train by this time.

Little known DUS facts - yes, you do need a ticket to ride on the SkyTrain, yes, you do need to validate it after purchase, yes, they do inspect the tickets on the SkyTrain and yes, the Grippenführer can fine you 50€ if you are caught. 

At this point, it was a choice between the 18:34 Regional Express or going down to the other station (Düsseldorf Flughafen Terminal Bahnhof) and getting the rather slow S-Bahn at 18:12 which would get me in about five mins later than the 18:34 as it goes round the Wrekin. I chose to stick with the Regional Express as it gave me the chance to have a cigarette whilst waiting at a station which can best the described as a larger slightly more desolate version of Bristol Parkway. It arrived on time and was already rammed to the gunnels, so I stood for the 40 minute journey to Köln Hbf. Next time I'll get the S-Bahn, as it starts at DUS, there must be a decent chance of getting a seat.

Luckily, my hotel is less than 5 minutes shiver from the Hauptbahnof and I was able to get to my rubber chicken dinner with a couple of minutes to spare. I probably should have lingered, then I'd have had something decent to eat this evening :-)

Next: Köln, possibly Wuppertal, a nice ICE ride from Köln to Frankfurt and then another boring FRA-BHX leg.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Luggage

You'll excuse me whilst I pontificate.

Over the years, I have spent quite a bit of money on various bits of luggage - some of which have been good and faithful friends, some of which have fallen victim to baggage handlers and some of which fell apart at the first possible excuse.

Whilst I have a couple of other things tucked away in the armoury, my use of luggage these days comes down to four pieces - which serve just about every need I can think of.

The smallest piece is my laptop bag - now I'm hard on these, cramming bits and pieces into every possible pocket and I've gotten through two in eight years. The most recent acquisition is a Targus Global Executive Plus in a sale a few months ago, it's suitably anonymous (I always felt a bit wary tromping some of the streets with a Sony branded laptop bag), it holds a laptop, accessories, a book, some paperwork and two cartons of cigarettes with ease and could probably be used for a stripped down overnight if required. 

The next smallest is the "cabin bag", it's used for trips of one or two nights and has been stretched to three nights before now. It's approved by Lufthansa as cabin luggage on anything but Barbie's Fun Jet  or a Crash-8 and was acquired during a bored moment at the Lufthansa World Ship at Berlin Tegel. It's the old design of the Titan Lufthansa Flight Cabin Trolley and comes with LH branding (which has allowed me to whisk through the Crew lane at Sydney). It's advantage is the laptop compartment, although that can be a pain for extracting the laptop at security when full and that it is soft sided and can be crammed quite full - although this can lead to fun with overhead bins on the Fokker 100 with Swiss's best jobsworths ready to pounce and gate check it. The other disadvantage is whilst it will hold a pair of shoes in the shoe holders, the addition of a pair of shoes constricts the capacity to two days. It also gets used as the cabin/laptop bag on longer trips. At two years old and in fairly frequent use, it is wearing very well. I used to be very happy with it, but now I have a terrible urge to replace it which I really shouldn't do as it's good for a few years yet.

The newest item in the collection is what I have now called "Shiny Case". A Rimowa Classic Flight 63L Trolley, it is exceptionally light (4.6kg), very well made and rather stylish. I can see me wailing about every minor dent and scuff on in for years to come. RImowa is sufficiently unusual to get appreciative comments from Brum Taxi Drivers, but common as muck in Germany. Shiny Case is for trips up to a week, or maybe five days if I have to get dressy. A four day Ruhrgebiet with three sorts of clothes, books, various ancillary tat,  a pair of boots and a pair of shoes is no problem and there's even some room left for a couple of boxes of choccies for the office. The sticker shock on purchasing one of these beasties is quite large and even more if you wish to pay in pounds Sterling. I recommend searching carefully through on-line German baggage retailers.

The oldest and largest item is my 20 year old Delsey Club. Purchased for what seemed like a small fortune back in the mists of time, the shopkeeper told me that it was a suitcase for life. It only really gets an airing once a year these days, but despite being a bit battered by baggage handlers, it's still in fairly good nick and holds enough clothes for a couple of weeks and still has some room left for gifts/books/etc. Main problems with it are that it doesn't have TSA locks, so can't really be taken to the USA and that parts are no longer available, so if the wheels go, it may have to face retirement. As an old hardshell, it's a heavy beast, so you do have to watch out for the 20kg piece limit found on many airlines if you overfill it.

I'm not off anywhere for a couple of weeks, so I might add some thoughts on aircraft next week.