A memorable African experience
Our safari in Southern Africa

Angela and I recently finished a trip to Southern Africa that encompassed three countries, with a long layover in Qatar on the way home. This was our first journey to Sub-Saharan Africa, if you exclude Mauritius. We didn’t really know what to expect as, unlike most of our trips, our itinerary was all-inclusive for much of this one.

Booking our trip

As with all of our trips, there were three major parts to handle when booking this one. First, we needed to figure out how to get to where we were going and back home. Next, we needed to determine where we’d be staying during the time we were away from home. Finally, and most importantly for this trip, we needed to determine what we were going to be doing and the logistics of getting from place to place.

The easiest part of this was airfare for getting to and from South Africa. I knew that the United States to Africa is a sweet spot in the AA award chart and that it is possible to transit the Middle East on the way in order to give us the most possible flexibility and to fly the best products. In addition, I knew that South Africa to the United States via HKG on CX is a sweet spot in the AS award chart and that it was possible to stopover in Hong Kong for a few days if desired.

I booked our outbound flights first and then, once I knew when we would arrive in South Africa, worked to nail down our intra-Africa itinerary. I then booked our flights home.

Our initial booking was as follows:

  • 75,000 AAdvantage Miles + $6.10 per person in taxes and fees.
    • LASORD on AA Y
    • ORD-DOH on QR J
    • DOH-JNB on QR J
  • $293.16 per person booked via the Chase Ultimate Rewards at $0.0125 per point.
    • JNB-CPT on SA J
  • 70,000 Alaska MileagePlan Miles + $94.33 per person in taxes and fees.
    • JNB-HKG on CC J
    • Two night stopover
    • HKG-LAX on CX F
    • LAX-LAS on AS Y

I made a few changes along the way to our AA award booking (free changes are the best feature of AA award bookings) and then, a few months later, we decided we wanted to shorten the backend of the trip a little bit. Coincidentally, different availability had opened up that worked for us. As such, I paid the AA change fee for a destination change (offset by the refund from our cash booking), and canceled the AS booking for free because of my AS MVP Gold status. Our final airfare itinerary looked like this:

  • 75,000 AAdvantage Miles + $6.10 per person in taxes and fees + $300.00 in change fees.
    • LAS-LAX on AA J
    • LAX-DOH on QR J
    • DOH-CPT on QR J
  • 75,000 AAdvantage Miles + $68.73 per person in taxes and fees.
    • JNB-DOH on QR J
    • One night layover
    • DOH-PHL on QR J
    • PHL-LAS on AA J

We shortened the end of our trip by three nights so we could get home sooner and save the AS miles for another trip. I knew there were a few things in Cape Town that we wanted to do and that it would be good to spend a few nights adjusting to the new time zone before setting out on our safari. As such, I scheduled three nights in the city at the beginning of our trip giving us two full days to adventure.

In terms of our intra-Africa experience, I felt completely overwhelmed by the plethora of options available to us after doing some basic research. Understanding my limitations and my desire to have a relatively stress free experience, I reached out to several South African travel agents for proposals. I did my best to express our preferences and available budget and asked the agents to provide us with some options.

After a few back and forths, we decided to proceed with an itinerary developed by Rhino Africa that we were happy with. We chose a luxurious journey that included lodging at all-inclusive properties, air transport, ground transport, and game drives. We’d be responsible for getting to the airport at the beginning of our itinerary and paying for things outside the scope of our package (like gratuities). Everything else along the way would be arranged for us.

After accepting the itinerary, we were sent a link to pay 40% of the cost of the package alongside 100% of the non-refundable airfare. We were informed the rest would be due 60 days out from our trip. Helen, our contact, was a joy to work with and always responded promptly to my questions. The documentation we were provided throughout the process was exceptional. I felt totally at ease even though I had almost no part in booking the individual parts of our trip. I’ll talk more about the lodges that we stayed at throughout this blog post.

I will say that we chose to pursue this route because we were relatively price-insensitive and we figured that, if we were going to fly around the world for a particular experience, it was worth it to pay what was necessary for that experience to be as smooth as possible. There are tons of other options that we didn’t pursue because they weren’t right for us, but it is likely they would be right for other individuals or couples.

I made a few mistakes during the booking of this trip that could have led to a lower overall out of pocket cost. First, I should have booked our AA award all the way through to CPT in the first place to avoid the destination change fee. I didn’t do so because the taxes and fees on the BA flights from JNB-CPT totaled as much as buying a separate ticket and I didn’t anticipate availability opening up on DOH-CPT. Second, I paid a change fee on the AS award before reaching MVP Gold status and then ended up canceling, forfeiting the change fee. I definitely left some money on the table, but I learned some things from it.

A long journey to Africa

Eleven months after our initial booking, it was finally time to start our trip. We dropped Fitz off at Camp Bow Wow and caught a car to the airport about two hours before our initial flight departed. After filling up in the American Express Centurion Lounge, we boarded the plane for our short trip to LAX. The forty minute flight was uneventful and comfortable, just the way you want a short flight to be.

With a three hour layover at LAX, we decided to spend some time at the American Airlines Flagship Lounge in Terminal 4 before heading to the Oneworld Business Lounge in Terminal 5. Both spaces were quite nice, with the food and decor at the Oneworld Business Lounge being slightly better, in my opinion. I got some work done before we headed to our departure gate and boarded the 777-300ER that’d be taking us to Doha, Qatar.

This flight was special as we were lucky enough to get on a Qsuites equipped plane. I selected the rearward facing pair of seats at the back of the business class cabin and this meant that there was almost no foot traffic around our seats throughout the entire flight. I was impressed by every part of our flight as the seat, service, food, and amenities were all excellent. Most importantly, both Angela and I were able to sleep a considerable amount, almost eight hours, during the flight. We arrived in Doha after fifteen hours feeling refreshed.

We had a lengthy layover in Doha which we spent in the Al Mourjan Business Lounge. I worked, Angela read, we both ate, and then we embarked upon the second half of our journey. This time, we were on an older A350-900 with QR’s reverse herringbone seats. The seats were quite comfortable, if not state-of-the-art, and the business class cabin was extremely spacious. The service during the flight was excellent and we were able to get a bit more sleep, although it was a little rougher given how hot the cabin was.

Ten hours later we arrived in Cape Town. We made our way through immigration without any issues and met our driver shortly after passing through customs. We were at our hotel, 15 on Orange, An Autograph Collection Hotel, about twenty minutes later, checked in shortly thereafter, and given some champagne (for Angela) and fancy grape juice (for me) while we waited for our room to be ready. We were escorted to our room about forty minutes later and surprised by a stunning view of Table Mountain from the huge window along one side of our room. We settled in and decided to call it a early night in preparation for our long day ahead.

15 on Orange is a very nice property. There are spacious common areas, a beautiful lounge, and an adequate gym. The rooms are clean and modern and can offer spectacular views of Table Mountain if you end up in the right one. I look forward to staying here again on our next trip to Cape Town.

An early morning shark diving adventure

We woke up very early the next morning due to jet lag, got a workout in, and then prepared for our trip to Gaansbai to go cage diving with sharks. Our pickup was scheduled for 4:55AM and the driver arrived exactly on time. We piled in with some other tourists and were on our way. The drive from Cape Town to Gaansbai took almost three hours. We passed the time by chatting with the other people in our group.

Upon arrival, we were ushered into The Great White House, Marine Dynamics’ base of operations. We checked in and were assigned wetsuit sizes after giving some information to our guide. We had a light breakfast, received a safety briefing, and were given some information about what to expect from the experience. After heading outside, we were fitted with lifevests and rain jackets and herded towards the boat, Slashfin. We boarded and immediately headed to the top deck for the best possible views.

The ride out to “the shallows” took about twenty minutes. Our ship’s crew started chumming the water and throwing bait out to attract some sea life. Before long, several copper sharks and a short-tailed ray showed up and started tracking the bait. It was thrilling to see the animals so close to the surface and feet from the boat. Before long, the first group was in the attached cage enjoying the frigid water. We watched for quite a while while the first, second, and third groups enjoyed their experience. Then, there was a sudden excitement and the crew got everyone out of the cage to move to where there had been a great white shark sighting.

Once we changed locations, Angela and I were put into the cage along with the group who had just been pulled out. We watched as the copper sharks swam around us and eagerly awaited the fabled great white to show itself. About ten minutes later, the group we were with got pulled out of the cage while we got to stay in and move to the corner. Five minutes after the cage was closed again, our dreams were fulfilled as a great white shark showed up about two feet from us. The glimpses were fleeting and the water was murky, but it was awesome to be so close to one of the greatest predators in the oceans.

We spent another fifteen minutes in the cage and were lucky enough to see the great white another few times. We were brought back on board, given some tea, and then prompted to change for our return to shore. Another twenty minute ride brought us back to The Great White House where we were treated to some vegetable soup and a video of our experience. After that, it was back to Cape Town via another three hour ride with a brief stop at a scenic overlook.

By the time we made it back to our hotel we were quite hungry. We decided to grab dinner at the V & A Waterfront, a tourist hot spot if there ever was one. After some tasty dishes at Firefish, we returned to our hotel and quickly fell asleep.

Our guided tour of the Cape Peninsula

We, thankfully, had a much more relaxed morning on our second day in Cape Town. After waking early we made use of the gym again before enjoying a fairly leisurely breakfast. It was delicious and varied and the service was excellent. After gathering our things, we headed downstairs to await our guide for a private tour of the Cape Peninsula. He arrived promptly at 8:30AM and we were on the road shortly thereafter.

Our guide for the day was Chris and he happily shared his knowledge of the area and South Africa in general with us. We were lucky to have him with us for the day. Our first stop was Hout Bay, a tourist trap with plenty of vendors hawking wares clearly targeted at a specific demographic. There was also a man who had somehow trained a seal to do tricks and take pictures. We weren’t very interested in hanging around so, after grabbing a few pictures of the harbor, we returned to the car to tell Chris we were ready to move on.

The next stop was much better as we visited an extremely scenic spot along Chapman’s Peak Drive. We were able to look out towards the ocean, along the coast, and back towards Hout Bay (which, incidentally, looks much more beautiful far away than up close). To say the views were breathtaking is an understatement. We were lucky to have amazing weather on this day with nary a cloud in the sky.

After that, we were driven through the countryside to the Cape of Good Hope in Table Mountain National Park. We stepped out to visit a wild ostrich and then took some pictures at the Cape of Good Hope, including a few super cheesy ones at the sign indicating the spot.

Afterwards, we drove around the peninsula a bit and were dropped off at a path that took us to the top of Cape Point. We saw a small baboon family on the way up to the lighthouse at the peak. Once at the top, we were treated to some absolutely stunning views of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. On the way down, Angela casually strolled alongside a baboon that we saw steal someone’s hand sanitizer.

From here, we drove through Simon’s Town, stopped for a brief look at the Simon’s Town harbor, and made our way to Boulders Beach to see some southern penguins. Our guide first brought us to the beach itself where we were able to get up close and personal with some of the local wildlife. We immediately saw a pair of penguins walking across the beach towards us and I was lucky enough to capture a quick selfie. After some brief rock scrambling, we were fortunate enough to see a large otter chilling on the beach calmly exfoliating himself. He wiggled back and forth while we watched before slowly slinking back into the crevice between a few boulders. Finally, we made it to the end of the beach and sat down to hang out with a small family of penguins.

We clambered back over the boulders, and made our way to the penguin sanctuary. We saw tons of penguins in various stages of life. It was so cool to see penguins again this year after seeing some on our previous trip to Australia in March. We have now seen the smallest (in Australia) and second smallest (in Africa) species of penguins.

Our final stop before the long drive back to our hotel was a scenic shot of Fish Hoek Beach. It was probably the largest single beach I’ve ever seen!

After grabbing a shot of the beach, we drove through the Constantia Wine Region and were told all about the amazing restaurants and wineries we were passing. We returned to our hotel, relaxed for a bit, and fell asleep anticipating what was to come next.

Off to our safari

The next morning, we ate breakfast, checked out, and waited for our ride to the airport. We procured our boarding passes, made our way through immigration and security, and headed to the lounge at CPT accessible via Priority Pass to relax for a few moments before our flight. We flew an SA Airlink E190 from CPT to MQP and were met by an airline representative who ushered us to a small waiting room and inquired about our bags so she could make sure they were moved to our next flight.

After a forty minute wait, we were collected and walked to the plane for our next leg, a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan Ex. Unlike the last time we rode in a propeller plane (many years ago on a flight between Costa Rica and Panama), I was totally comfortable on this particular aircraft.

When we landed, we were greeted by an open jeep with 10 passenger seats, our luggage was offloaded and placed on another jeep, and we were driven to our lodge for the next four nights, Chitwa Chitwa. Our experience with African wildlife started immediately as we saw zebra and elephants within ten minutes of arriving at the airstrip. We were checked in and asked what we’d like for lunch for the day.

At this point, I think it is worth explaining how things at Chitwa Chitwa worked in order to avoid repeating myself. There are two game drives a day and three planned meals. A wake up call is provided before the morning game drive and an escort is provided from your room to the meeting area in the morning and from dinner back to your room at night. In general, our wake up call was at 5:00AM, we were picked up at 5:30AM, and we were out on our game drive by 6:00AM. The drive would last until about 9:00AM and then we’d be returned to the lodge to eat breakfast a la carte. We would order our lunch while at breakfast, and it’d be delivered to our room at 1:30PM. We would meet at 3:30PM for tea in preparation for our evening game drive that would generally last from 4:00PM until 7:00PM. We would be returned to our room, unless there was a special group dinner, and then picked up around 8:00PM to eat. On each of the drives, we’d stop about thirty minutes before completion for drinks and snacks.

Every meal was uniformly delicious. The room we were provided with was spacious, with plenty of room for lounging, and the bed was quite comfortable. Every staff member we interacted with was attentive and friendly. We were immediately excited given how delicious our first dining experience was.

At 3:30PM we met our guide and tracker for the next few days, Stevan and Beth, respectively. For the first two game drives, we were lucky enough to be the only people in the jeep! From here on out, I’ll generally only talk about the things we saw on the drives or anything that was out of line with the above described general schedule.

Our first drive definitely set the tone for our experience at Chitwa Chitwa. Soon after leaving the lodge grounds, we stumbled upon a lone giraffe and stopped approximately 25 feet away. Stevan gave us some information about the giraffe and told us how to distinguish a male from a female. We talked about the general lifespan of the animal and snapped a bunch of photos.

Shortly after leaving the giraffe behind, our guide found a lone male white rhinoceros and this is where we were able to first observe what made staying in Sabi Sands so special. Our guide left the trail, something you can’t do in Kruger National Park, and drove off into the bush to get us close to the animal so we could see, quite clearly, the recent scarring that had developed as a result of fighting with another male over territory.

We tracked the rhino for quite some time before he started displaying signs that he’d like us to leave him alone. Later on in the game drive, we were treated to some exceptional views of four female lions resting. We stayed with the lions for quite some time hoping that they might set off on their hunt, but after they showed little ambition in that direction, we eventually headed off on the rest of the game drive where we observed an African fish eagle and some impala.

Shortly thereafter, we finished our first night out in the bush and headed back for dinner, a shower, and some sleep.

Our first full day in the bush

After an early morning wake up call and the best homemade granola bars ever, we were off into the bush for our first morning game drive. Unfortunately, this began a series of mornings where we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife. Our guide mentioned that it was likely because of the rains that had come through the area a couple of days prior to our arrival.

All that being said, we did see some wildlife. We saw gnu and kudu during this drive, along with a white-backed vulture and a lilac breasted roller. The lilac breasted roller is one of the most beautiful birds we’ve ever seen. This morning was our last private experience of the trip.

We returned after our initial game drive and enjoyed our first breakfast at Chitwa Chitwa. Angela ordered creamy scrambled eggs while I opted to have mine poached on toast with avocado and basil. There was a small buffet of additional items, including some delicious granola, natural yogurt, fruit compote, and charcuterie. Everything on offer was scrumptious and we’d stick with our initial orders throughout the rest of the trip. We relaxed for a few hours in our room before lunch was delivered, and then we enjoyed some time alone on our private patio as we awaited our afternoon game drive.

When afternoon tea time rolled around, we met the four people that would be joining us for the remainder of our time at the lodge; an older couple joined by their younger daughter and her husband. The younger couple were the only people close to our age that we met on our entire trip who weren’t on their honeymoon.

After tea, we set out on our game drive and it was much more exciting than the morning. We saw dwarf antelope, a herd of elephants, and some zebra.

We observed the zebra for a while, but our guide suddenly got an alert about a pair of leopards that had been sighted. We rushed to the sighting and were treated to a very interested female trying to seduce a very uninterested male. A hyena delicately approached to see what was going on, but quickly left after observing the leopard pair. Our group watched them lounge about for quite some time before eventually giving up and going off in search of another leopard that had been noted in the previous days.

Our guide and tracker found the leopard and we followed her through a stand of trees and around a dry stream bed as she lazily pursued a scrub hare. Eventually, the leopard laid down in the bush to relax while we admired her below the setting sun. After a short stop for drinks and snacks, we were back to the lodge area where we were brought together for dinner as a group.

The group dinner was delicious, with a soup course followed by a buffet of various meats, including steak and curried chicken. The night was filled with vivacious discussion on a variety of topics. A few hours later we were driven back to the lodge (with Angela riding in the tracker seat) for a shower and some sleep.

A day of good sightings

On our third day in the bush we’d fallen into a pretty awesome routine. Get up, grab a granola bar (or two), swig some coffee, and set out to see what we could see. Unfortunately, the morning was slow again, although not entirely devoid of wildlife. We saw two beautiful birds – a crowned lap wing and an African fish eagle (which happens to be the national bird of Zambia and Zimbabwe). We stopped in the middle of two separate herds of elephants and spotted a hyena when we stopped for our morning snacks.

The afternoon was a real treat, though, as we played witness to a healthy pride of three female lions lounging and a male rhinoceros attempting to mate with a female but being flummoxed by her child. We also got up close and personal with several giraffes.

Dinner was a la carte on this night and Angela and I enjoyed each other’s company before being escorted back to our room to rest for the following day.

One more day in paradise

Our last full day at Chitwa Chitwa was the reverse of the previous two, with a plethora of sightings in the morning and a dearth in the afternoon. In the morning, we were able to spot a lone male giraffe, enjoy the company of a herd of elephants, and rush to take a look at a pack of wild dogs. They were distant, but it was a real treat to see them playing with one another. Later, on our coffee break, a hyena approached and sniffed us out.

After breakfast, I accidentally brushed the electric fence while trying to take the following picture of what we thought was a male kudu (it wasn’t).

Luckily, a male kudu did show up for us on the lodge grounds right outside the breakfast tent on the way to the entrance. He patiently waited while we took some pictures of him.

In the afternoon, we were lucky to sit right in the middle of two different herds, elephant first and cape buffalo second, as they milled about. This afternoon was our first sighting of cape buffalo and there were hundreds of them that grazed around us as we watched.

After the evening game drive, we had another opportunity for a community dinner where I talked at length with some members of a different group who were with us while Angela flung herself into deep conversation with our guide. In all, it was a successful last day. After dinner, we packed our bags so they’d be ready the next day because we wanted to go out on the morning game drive.

Our final game drive and starting our time in Zambia

Setting out the next morning, we didn’t expect to see much based on the previous few days. We got lucky, though, and immediately saw a pair of juvenile hyenas. Later on, we saw a monkey, some zebras, and another herd of elephants.

After our final game drive, we ate breakfast at the lodge and were driven to the airstrip by our guide to await transport. Our plane was slightly delayed so we had about half an hour to talk to Stevan about his plans for the future and thanked him for showing us such a good time.

Our aircraft arrived, we boarded, and waved goodbye to Chitwa Chitwa. Before long we were at our connecting airport where we checked in for our trip to Livingstone, Zambia. The flight to Zambia was smooth and, after deplaning, we headed into an immigration line that took about an hour to clear. When we finally got to the front, we had to find $100 in pristine bills which, even though we performed a withdrawal immediately before leaving the United States, proved quite difficult. If you intend on paying cash for a KAZA UNIVISA, make absolutely sure that your bills are spotless in every way and guard them closely.

We exited immigration, stopped at an ATM to withdraw some Zambian kwacha, and met our transport outside. We were driven 20 minutes to The Royal Livingstone Hotel located inside the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park on the banks of the Zambezi River. The property is exquisite and the surroundings are wondrous. Our room was comfortable with a great view of the river and the sunset.

After freshening up, we made our way back to the lobby, hopped on a tour bus, and were driven to The Royal Livingstone Express, a dinner train experience that departs from Livingstone. It was included as part of our hotel stay and proved to be a bizarre outing. The dining cars were filled with mosquitoes to the point where we decided to spend the non-dining portion of the train ride outside where there were, somehow, less bugs.

Eventually, the train stopped to allow passengers to disembark and walk across the Victoria Falls Bridge on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, before you even step from the train you are accosted by a dozen people trying to get you to buy wooden bowls, copper bracelets, and counterfeit billion Zimbabwean dollar note. I don’t mind dealing with this, in general, because touts are present almost everywhere you go in tourism hot spots, but they were annoyingly persistent, even after rejection, and eventually stopped trying to sell you things and asked for money directly.

We got back on the train after taking some pictures and made our way to the dining car. Dinner was mediocre at best, but the wait staff were polite and attentive throughout the meal. Mosquitoes continued to plague us throughout dinner and on the ride back to our origin. We exited the train, were driven back to the hotel, and hit the hay in preparation for an exciting following day.

Hanging out on the edge of the falls

We woke up and enjoyed a delicious breakfast on the outdoor veranda, relaxed a bit, and then set off for the most adventurous part of our vacation. As soon as we started investigating things to do in Livingstone, we were immediately drawn to the Devil’s Pool, a chance to sit on the edge of Victoria Falls, 355 feet above the gorge into which water plummets. As such, that’s what was on the schedule for this day.

As with every other activity, we were picked up at reception and driven to the launch site. After signing some waivers with extremely scary language, we were huddled under a tent to wait for the four other people joining us. Eventually, we were led to a boat, driven across the Zambezi to Livingstone Island, and given a surprisingly delicious corn based drink.

Our guide showed us around the island before prompting us to grab a towel, ditch our outerwear, and join him in swimming across a calm part of the Zambezi. It only took about thirty seconds of a combination of swimming and walking to get to the rocky outcrop from which we’d enter the pool. To be quite honest, I was a bit nervous based on my perusal of images from the Devil’s Pool, but there was no reason to be. While the lip separating you from a great time and certain death seems small in some pictures, it is really about three feet wide. In addition, there is a staff member in the water with you to make sure you don’t go over the edge. In short, it seems extremely safe and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the experience to anyone.

Angela and I were the first couple in the water and it was exhilarating. While safe, you are allowed to hang over the edge if you’re willing to crawl a bit once you’re up on the rocky lip. It seemed that the staff member was much more insistent on keeping the women back from the edge than the men, but that is completely anecdotal from our observations. Once you swim out to the edge and are on top of it, you’re prompted to pose and take tons of pictures.

Angela and I discussed the experience afterwards and both agreed that it would have been nice to take less pictures and have a little bit more time to just enjoy the scene around you. There’s an opportunity to watch the water pouring over the falls to your right, wonder at the view of the rainbows from your unique position on the edge, and acknowledge the general sense of being in a place that few people will get to be. The ability to actually do those things is abbreviated by the guide’s insistence on taking, literally, 900 pictures of you. Our suspicion is that most tourists desire this because they’re looking for the perfect image but we wish we would have known in advance to advise the guide we wanted to take some of our time to just look around.

After everyone had their chance in the water, we swam back across the river, dried off, handled tips for our guide, and then were treated to a delicious plated lunch that exceeded our expectations. We enjoyed the company of our fellow tourists, a younger couple on their honeymoon and another that were celebrating the wife’s fiftieth birthday.

We were met and driven back to the hotel and walked across the property to The Royal Livingstone’s sister hotel Avani. During our walk we saw a variety of wildlife including some monkeys, mongooses, and zebras.

We chose to eat dinner at the hotel’s restaurant and would recommend other guests take the opportunity to do the same as the meal was delicious. We started with a trio of African dishes, including mopane worms. Angela ordered lamb curry for her main course while I opted for a steak on the recommendation of our waitress. Both dishes were fantastic tasting. The dining experience was extremely ordered and proper, although our waitress did audibly and visibly react when our worms came out and we let her know we were trying them for the first time. They were OK, but we would end up having a better preparation later in our trip. The only negative thing about the dinner was the sheer volume of bugs at and around our table, but I think that could have been remedied by choosing to eat inside rather than overlooking the Zambezi River.

Exploring the park and a delightful last evening on the Zambezi

After breakfast, we decided to take a stroll through the falls section of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. We were allowed free entry to the park based on our stay at The Royal Livingstone, having to to present our key as proof. Once inside, we were greeted by a guide who gave us a rundown of the park and some suggestions on walking through it. The scenery was beautiful and the views of Victoria Falls were quite nice, even considering we were visiting during the dry season. We both agreed that we want to return during the wet season to see the water in full volume.

The only bad part about the park is the sheer number of people hassling you for cash. Angela used the restroom and someone tried to shake her down for a few kwacha. We were walking along the path and someone tried to lead us off it towards the edge to take pictures while asking for a tip. We spent about twenty minutes getting guilted by someone from Zimbabwe while explaining that we weren’t actively carrying any cash with us. It made an otherwise very enjoyable walk somewhat less so.

After our walk around the park, we decided to spend the afternoon by the pool. The chairs were comfortable and the provided towels were fluffy, but there was a distinct lack of service. I wanted to buy some water for Angela and walked up to the bar near the pool, but it remained unattended for the entire three hours we were there. Of course, that didn’t prevent me from relaxing and getting some sleep.

Later that evening, we enjoyed a sundowner cruise on the Zambezi. We were able to observe a variety of wildlife both in the river and on the riverbank. I consumed a few mocktails while Angela had a glass of rose sparkling wine. We had a few appetizers and watched the sun go down over the river before heading back to the hotel and getting some rest.

Off to Botswana

After a filling breakfast, we checked out and met our driver for transport to our next location, Botswana. Unlike our previous transfers, this one would be a land border crossing rather than one between international airports. We were driven to the Zambia-Botswana border, an area full of dirt roads and tractor-trailers awaiting customs clearance. Our driver took our passports and cleared us through Zambian immigration before navigating the rows of trucks and driving us to the riverbank. We waited there for about fifteen minutes until our boat arrived. Our bags were placed on the front seats, we sat down behind them, and we enjoyed a slow cruise to Botswana that took about six minutes. From the middle of the river we were able to see four different countries, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana.

We alighted from the boat, hopped into another truck, and were driven three minutes to Botswanan immigration where we waited in line for about twenty minutes before getting our passports stamped and continuing on our way. We rubbed our shoes on a disinfecting mat to protect wildlife against foot and mouth disease (or so we were told) and then hopped back in the jeep and were driven to Chobe Chilwero, our home for the next three nights.

To say the location was luxurious would be an understatement. While checking in we watched as a family of banded mongooses and baboons crossed the lawn in front of the dining area. We were given a tour of the property and invited to eat lunch while our room was prepared. Thus started our incredible dining experiences at the lodge as we were treated to a three course plated meal with a main course of impala loin cooked to perfection. After the delicious start to our time on property, we relaxed in our room before meeting our guide at the main lodge area prior to our evening game drive.

Our first drive in Botswana was nothing like any of our previous ones. We were driven to a boat launch with two other couples and hopped into a small eight seat motorboat. During our three hour adventure we were treated to a unique perspective on a variety of wildlife from the comforts of the Chobe River. We saw so many amazing animals in such a short time. Rather than list them, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

After our game drive, we had a delicious barbecue style dinner with a wide variety of dishes including eland (an incredible game meat) and mopane worms. The worms at the lodge were much better prepared than those at The Royal Livingstone, being sauteed in some type of delicious sauce rather than charred to a crisp. They were so good that both Angela and I went back for seconds! We were escorted to our room after dinner where we headed to bed in preparation for another exciting day.

A day in Chobe National Park

At this lodge, mornings were handled a little differently with an abbreviated breakfast at 6:30AM followed by a four hour morning game drive in Chobe National Park. After that, we were served a plated lunch. Breakfast was good with a selection of items on a buffet alongside eggs and coffee to order. Because we were doing our game drives in the national park, we were constrained to the existing trails and not allowed to go off-road like we did in Sabi Sands. Fortunately, this didn’t negatively affect our game viewing in any way.

On our first morning game drive we saw a wide variety of wildlife. The highlights included being in the middle of a breeding herd of elephants walking to the water to drink and witnessing some female lions guarding a cape buffalo carcass. In addition, Angela snapped an incredible shot of a lilac breasted roller.

Lunch was delicious and, after an afternoon of relaxation, we were out on the jeep again. I’ll let the pictures do the talking given the variety of wildlife that we saw.

Dinner was served a la carte and was absolutely delicious! Angela and I both opted for the kudu steak and it was one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever eaten.

Our last full day on safari

We split our time on our last full day in Botswana between the national park and the river. While Angela and I had seen almost everything we wanted to, our last remaining wish was to view a male lion and, on the morning game drive, we were lucky enough to see two. While the lions were initially lounging, a pair of warthogs came trotting along without understanding that there were apex predators present. As soon as they turned the corner and sensed the lions, the warthogs turned and ran faster than I’ve ever seen an animal run. For us, it was excellent because the male lions perked up and we got to see them in their full majesty.

We saw other animals, obviously, but the male lions were definitely the highlight of this day.

On our second drive, we were out on the water again and got incredibly close to a huge crocodile and, later, stopped and observed a large elephant herd drinking.

Unfortunately, I felt very ill on our last night on safari so after our evening game drive I returned to the lodge and went to sleep early. Angela took advantage of the delicious cooking once again and was treated to, I was told, one of the best steaks of her life. In addition, she was asked by lodge staff if she would like any of the recipes from things that she had during her stay.

A final game drive and our departure from paradise

Luckily, my rest paid off and I felt better on our final morning in Botswana. I’m so glad that I did because we were treated to an incredible sighting of a male leopard walking on the road within five minutes of entering the park on our game drive. The leopard’s stroll was magnificent and it was a great way to start our last game drive.

After cruising through Chobe National Park for an abbreviated morning game drive, we stopped back at the lodge to grab our bags and, after checking out, were driven by our guide to the airport. We checked in, went through immigration and security formalities, and headed to a small, but well-stocked, lounge. We grabbed some water, reviewed our many pictures, and hopped on the short economy flight to Johannesberg. We took the free shuttle to the Protea Hotel O.R. Tambo Airport. The hotel was a great value as I booked using Marriott Bonvoy points. Everything in the rooms was aviation themed and I enjoyed plane spotting as we had a great view of the tarmac.

The long journey home

We woke up early, skipped breakfast, and hopped on the shuttle to JNB. After checking in, we passed through security and immigration and headed to the Aspire Lounge to have some breakfast and refreshments before boarding our flight to DOH. The ten hour flight was pleasant with QR’s service being exceptional on the old A350-900 product.

On arrival in Doha, we cleared immigration and took an Uber to The Westin Doha Hotel & Spa for an overnight. We arrived late enough and left early enough that we didn’t even have time to visit the lounge. That being said, the room was beautiful and the bed was extremely comfortable. A small plate of delicious treats was left in our room. We’ll likely return to this property the next time we have an overnight in Doha.

The next morning we reversed our steps from the night before, grabbed some breakfast in the Al Mourjan Business Lounge, and boarded our fourteen hour flight to PHL on another QR A350-900, this time with the Qsuites hard product. Upon arrival in PHL, we lounge hopped during our seven hour layover before boarding a late night flight to LAS, getting picked up by our driver, and finally arriving home.

Some final thoughts

This trip was absolutely incredible. It was so incredible, in fact, that we have already booked a Kenyan safari for next year. It was much less active than our usual vacation and was a step up in luxury from any other trip we’ve taken. While I had some reservations about the managed nature of the trip, I don’t think there’s anything I would change. The airlines we flew were great and the accommodations were exceptional, both at traditional hotels and out in the bush.

A surprise birthday trip to Paris

Angela and I just finished up a quick trip to Paris to celebrate her birthday. This was our third sojourn to The City of Light and we loved it just as much as our previous two visits. We had previously seen many of the popular tourist sights, so this trip was focused on spending time together, eating delicious food, and enjoying the city and its surroundings.

Booking our trip

This trip was a bit more spontaneous than others. I usually book our travels ten months in advance, but this trip was only booked in mid-April. An opportunity arose via a Delta SkyMiles flash sale to travel to Paris, France or Seoul, South Korea for four to five nights for a reduced price. I strongly considered Seoul given that we’d been to Paris twice before, but in the end I knew I’d want to go somewhere we’d previously visited for such a short trip. I booked an itinerary of LASLAXCDGMSP-LAS for 128,000 SkyMiles + $134.73 each. I was able to accrue those SkyMiles by signing up for American Express’s Delta Gold Business and Delta Platinum Business cards and putting ongoing spend on them and other American Express cards. I generally don’t compare directly to cash costs, but it would have been prohibitive to book a similar trip during the end of summer period without using airline miles. As an added bonus, we were booked to fly on Delta’s new product, the Delta One Suite, on both TATL flights.

For lodging, I was looking for a luxury property that wouldn’t annihilate our travel budget but would be worthy of the celebration of Angela’s birthday. I eventually settled on Hotel de Berri, a relatively new Marriott property near the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. It is convenient to public transit, the individualized decor for each room is an interesting feature, and the price was half that of similar properties. I won’t talk much about the hotel, but we enjoyed our stay there and appreciated the service we received. I’m glad we stayed there on this trip, but I wouldn’t recommend it to most people traveling to Paris and would likely not stay at the property again.

Off on another adventure

We dropped Fitz off the morning of August 1st and made our way to the airport. After checking in, we skipped the Centurion Lounge and opted for The Club at LAS because it was much closer to our gate and we were limited on time. For water, coffee, and a light bite it was a perfect place to stop.

Our flight to Los Angeles on Delta’s E175 was short and uneventful. We took the inter-terminal bus from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3 so we didn’t have to clear security again and set off for the Delta Sky Club located a two minute walk from our gate. The Sky Club was fine, with drinks and light bites on hand. The service was friendly and attentive. Sky Clubs aren’t the most extravagant lounges, likely because of their relatively lax access policy, but they do the job when all you want is a place to rest away from the craziness of the terminal.

Before long, we were boarding and settled in for our journey. For this flight and the return, I booked Angela and myself seats across the plane from each other so we would each have a private suite to maximize our ability to rest if so desired. I had heard a lot of good things about the Delta One Suite and I wasn’t disappointed. The seat was soft, comfortable, and spacious. The bedding was adequate and the privacy door is a good addition that makes a difference on overnight flights where you want to be isolated. The service on our outbound flight was mediocre, but the service on the return was friendly and attentive. The food was generally good, particularly the main courses, but the accompaniments left a bit to be desired. Delta undeniably has a winning seat, but they could work on their service consistency.

We flew overnight to Paris and, after passing through immigration (which took quite a while, unfortunately), we hired a taxi to our hotel for check-in. Our room was, amazingly, ready for us. We jumped at the chance to settle in, unpack, and get a shower and some rest before heading off for our first stop of the trip, Chez Monsieur.

We visited this restaurant on our last trip to Paris and were excited to return. Luckily, the food was just as delicious as we remembered. We started with a dozen exquisitely prepared escargots – so delicious! For our mains, Angela ordered blanquette de veau while I opted for the duck breast. Both were exceptional. For dessert, we decided to split the profiteroles which were quite tasty with just the right touch of chocolate. This meal was a great way to start the trip!

It was, somewhat surprisingly, still quite light out during our walk back to the hotel. We enjoyed a languid stroll through the Parisian streets, stopped at the supermarket to pick up some bottled water, and got to bed in preparation for a busy day.

A birthday visit to the gardens

We awoke on Angela’s birthday and, after a light breakfast, set off for Versailles. This would, ordinarily, be a rather straightforward journey from downtown Paris. Unfortunately, there were several train lines undergoing maintenance that caused our voyage to take much longer than anticipated. We eventually got off the metro completely, walked two miles, and then jumped back on to the RER C at Javel and rode it to Gare de Versailles-Château–Rive Gauche. At least we got some good pictures on the way.

We alighted from the train and walked the short distance to the palace grounds. We had purchased our tickets in advance and were able to bypass the gigantic line into the chateau and walk directly into the gardens.

The gardens are incredible and enormous! We walked the entire grounds, visiting each individual grove, and heading up and down the Grand Canal.

We also walked to The Grand Trianon and The Petit Trianon. We explored both buildings, marveling at the opulence and splendor. They are really something to behold and are well worth a visit.

Overall, I’m glad we returned to Versailles to see the gardens in bloom and explore the Trianon Estate.

After walking more than a dozen miles around the garden, we returned to Paris via train, stopped briefly at our hotel to freshen up, and headed off for a very special dinner at l’Arcane. This restaurant was recommended by someone on Reddit as one of the best places they’d ever eaten, so I made reservations months in advance to ensure we’d have a table. After taking our seats and ordering some sparkling water, we were informed we could opt for the five course or seven course mystery menu. We chose the seven course option and started an incredible culinary journey.

Salmon roe cups and lime candies

Goat milk and basil sorbet with diced cucumber

Seafood platter with clams, fried oyster, shrimp ceviche, snails on toast, and squid foam

John Dory sashimi with fried artichooke and saffron foam

Lightly seared beef filet with sesame accompanied by dashi broth

Sous vide octopus in Thai coconut, ginger, and lime soup

Veal filet, veal tartare, candied tomatoes and eggplant, and eggplant caviar

Soft meringue with creme anglaise, hazelnut tuille, and raspberry coulis

Earl Grey tea infused roasted fig with almond milk sorbet and blueberry sorbet

After stuffing ourselves, we headed back to our hotel for some much needed rest. Thanks to the Paris metro for shuttling us efficiently around the city!

An accidental lie-in and whole roasted duck

The next day, we accidentally slept in until 11AM and awoke after breakfast was done being served. Although this was unintended, we were glad for the sleep and laughed that the previous day must have really taken a lot out of us. We had intended on relaxing on this day, anyways, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Taking advantage of our time in Paris, though, we headed out to buy some sweets and chocolates.

First, we stopped at Five Guys for lunch. There are several locations of this American chain around Paris and we chose to eat there as a somewhat hilarious comparison to our ridiculously fancy meal the night before. To my surprise, the burgers were quite delicious. What started out as a joke turned out to be a great decision.

After lunch, we stopped at Pierre Hermé for some macarons. We both chose the mogador as one of our two selections. Angela selected the lychee macaron as her second option whereas I decided upon the chocolate macaron. We ate them later that afternoon and they were soft and delicious, as always.
In addition, we picked up some chocolate from our favorite Parisian chocolatier, Jean-Paul Hévin.

We returned to the hotel to drop off our sweets and then headed out for dinner at La Rôtisserie d’Argent, a recommendation from the concierge at our hotel. On the way there, we encountered some street art, both disturbing and charming.

We also passed by Notre Dame and were able to see the restoration underway.

The restaurant’s specialty is whole roasted duck for two so that’s what we ordered after starting with mixed charcuterie. The meal was a true delight! We enjoyed the fact that the host brought the roasted duck to our table before it was cut so that we could see the way in which it was cooked. I wholeheartedly endorse this restaurant.

After dinner, we strolled along the Seine in the direction of the Louvre before jumping on the metro and heading back to our hotel. It was endearing to see all the Parisians along the banks of the river, drinking wine and having intimate conversations with their friends.

Our day trip to Strasbourg

Having fairly exhausted the sights we’d wished to see in Paris, we decided to take a daytrip to Strasbourg to explore the Alsatian city that is now home to the European Parliament. We took a two hour train ride from Paris Gare de l’Est to Strasbourg Station, walked from the station to the Barrage Vauban, and started our exploration. There’s a corridor that runs the length of the bridge and some stairs that allowed us to visit the roof to take some pictures of Petite-France.

After crossing the bridge, we walked to the Petite-France area and enjoyed reading about the development of the city and the unique provenances of the buildings contained within. There is a considerable amount of signage describing the different buildings, which I greatly appreciated.

We explored the Église Saint-Thomas, the main seat of Lutheran worship in the city. Mozart visited this church and commented on the excellence of the organ.

From there, we walked to the town’s main square, home to the oldest Gothic cathedral in the world, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. The building is incredibly impressive from the outside and, we were later to learn, the inside as well.

Before continuing, we stopped at an Alsatian restaurant to enjoy some local food. While I didn’t particularly enjoy my meal, Angela really liked hers and declared Restaurant Gurtlerhoft a winner.

After lunch, we explored the inside of the cathedral.

After leaving the cathedral we walked to Neustadt, the area of German expansion between 1880 and 1917 during which Heidelberg grew considerably in size. The difference in architecture between Petite-France and Neustadt was quite striking.

From there, we headed to the European Parliament building, which we admired from without, and then walked to a beautiful park, Parc de l’Orangerie. The park was incredibly well-manicured and had some interesting features, including huge storks’ nests everywhere.

After exploring for a while we walked back to the tram and returned to the cathedral. We decided to head to the top and I’m glad we did. The views were incredible and you’re able to see the entirety of Strasbourg and much of the surrounding area. I really think it is a must do for anyone visiting the city.

Shortly after descending, we bought some ice cream to enjoy on the way back to the train station and headed back to our hotel.

The long journey home

After a quick breakast, we jumped in a taxi to the airport, cleared security and customs, and eventually boarded our plane. The flight to Minneapolis was very pleasant. Once we arrived, we had a ten hour layover and, as such, we chose to eat some delicious burgers and wings at Blue Pub Door before heading to the Sky Club. It was a pleasant enough place to sit for a while even if it is was packed. Eventually, it was time for us to head home. We left the lounge, walked to our gate, and hopped aboard the flight to Las Vegas.

Overall, we had a great trip! It was an excellent combination of activity and rest. We ate so much delicious food and every bite was worth it. We likely won’t return to Paris again any time soon, but we will always cherish the memories that we were able to build there.

Around the world and back
Our first Chinese experience

Angela and I recently completed a lengthy trip that covered most of the circumference of the Earth and visited a variety of distinct locations. Over the course of three weeks, we stopped in Houston, London, Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Lucerne, Zurich, and Milan before returning home. To illustrate our route, here’s an image displaying the different legs we flew (divided by stopovers of greater than 24 hours). Click the image for a larger version with more detail.

The trip was somewhat involved to plan and prepare for, but it was well worth it. We accomplished what we wanted and saw things that I would have considered pipe dreams only a few years ago. We also learned a lot about ourselves and our personal priorities and what that means for our future travel.

I won’t be discussing the booking for this trip as there’s not much interesting to be said. I found great cash rates on several different fares through the FlyerTalk Premium Fare Deals forum and nested them to create our trip. For one-way hops, I used airline miles to book what would otherwise be oppressively expensive fares. For the hotels, I found properties with the amenities I wanted in convenient locations and booked the cheapest refundable rate, checked back every week to see if the prices had decreased, and rebooked our room if they had.

Our start in the Lone Star State

The fare I booked to get us from the United States to Europe originated in Houston. Luckily, we have family in the city so we flew in a day early to ensure that we’d have some time to spend with them. After a night at the Houston Airport Marriott at George Bush Intercontinental, we were picked up by the Young family and took to breakfast for a morning of high-spirited conversation and catching up. It was so nice to see members of our extended family, even if it was only for a few hours. Unfortunately, in all our frivolity we forgot to take any pictures of our small family gathering!

From Houston, we flew to London via Dallas on American Airlines. The flight was a delight, with comfortable seats and relatively good service. I would say that American Airlines’s business class seats on their 77W are in the top three of all business class seats we’ve flown and would recommend them to anyone. I’d go so far as to say they might be superior to the 77W first class seats in many ways.

A delicious start in London

Once in London, we checked in to the Moxy London Heathrow, rested for a bit, and then headed into the city center for some delicious food at Dishoom. We specifically visited this restaurant after seeing several mentions of it across social media it did not disappointed. It is said that the second best place to get traditional Indian food is London and, if Dishoom is any indication, that consensus isn’t wrong. We enjoyed lamb biryani, chicken ruby, garlic naan, and a delicious rice-based dessert.

One caveat is that we did have to wait for about an hour for our evening meal at the Covent Garden location. The restaurant’s servers were happy to ply us with warm drinks to make the wait more palatable, though, and the food was good enough that I’d wait again.

Art and afternoon tea, a delightful combination

Our second day in London started at The National Gallery, yet another treasure trove of European art. We enjoyed wandering the galleries and discussing our favorites. The artwork on display ranged from late-medieval to the modern era.

The National Gallery isn’t The Louvre or The Uffizi, but it is worth a stop if you’re an admirer of the visual arts and I’m glad we visited it.

After leaving the gallery we walked to The Ampersand Hotel for their themed Science Afternoon Tea. The Drawing Room restaurant, where we took tea, was beautifully eclectic with interesting art and eye-catching decor.

The star of the show, though, was the tea service itself. It was fun and tasty and a great twist on a classic British experience.

After our treats, we headed north to walk through Hyde Park and work off some of the calories we’d just consumed. We stumbled upon the Albert Memorial shortly after entering and spent a few minutes admiring the symbolism contained therein.

We walked along The Long Water, a hilariously British name for a body of water, and around the Princess Diana fountain. We were lucky enough to spot a few dachshunds, along with many other good dogs, along the way. Eventually, we exited and returned to our hotel for a workout and a good night’s sleep to prepare for the continuation of our journey.

Off to China (via Frankfurt)

We awoke bright and early for our one-stop flight to Beijing. Skipping breakfast at the hotel, we visited the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge at London Heathrow which had a fairly standard array of breakfast items. While we had access to the Senator Lounge, on account of our first class connections, we skipped it because it was much more crowded than the Business Class Lounge and didn’t offer anything exclusive in terms of food or beverage.

After a short hop to Frankfurt, we were invited to the First Class Lounge nearby the gate where we landed. We were greeted by name, informed we’d be driven to our plane at boarding time, and invited to enjoy the amenities of the lounge. The First Class Lounges in Frankfurt all have spas, shower rooms, resting rooms, and full restaurants. We were asked what we’d like to drink, ate some good food (although my steak was overcooked), and had deep conversations about the philosophy of life before Angela went off to grab a nap while I did some work.

Before long, it was time to leave for China. A lounge attendant found us and led us to a Porsche for transport to our flight. After waiting a few minutes for another passenger, we were driven directly to an elevator that deposited us in front of the boarding door.

We entered, took our seats in the nose of the 747-8i, and started enjoying Lufthansa’s first class experience. The flight was great from start to finish and is a touchstone experience that I will be unlikely to forget. I particularly enjoyed the caviar service prior to dinner and the bedding that allowed us to get a good five hours of sleep during the relatively short flight.

We were met at the gate upon exiting the plane, whisked through customs (where our Chinese visas were carefully checked), and into a car to take us to the JW Marriott Hotel Beijing Center, our home for the next five nights. We had intended on hitting the ground running in China, but the ride to our hotel took longer than anticipated and we were both somewhat tired, so we spent the afternoon and evening resting.

Visiting the Summer Palace, our first exposure to Chinese tourism

We were up early the next morning, ate a deliciously varied breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant, and headed out for our first stop, The Summer Palace. We walked to the subway stop nearby our hotel, bought our single ride tickets, and then encountered a security checkpoint for the first time. Luckily, these checkpoints didn’t slow us down in any meaningful way – a simple bag scan and wanding with the metal detector and you’re through.

We arrived at The Summer Palace right around opening and I’m glad we did because we beat the mass of people who would arrive later. We bought tickets and headed inside where we slowly made our way around the circumference. We enjoyed the Chinese architecture, including several temples and pagodas. Much of The Summer Palace had to be rebuilt in 1860 after China’s defeat in the Second Opium War so very few of the structures were original to the initial construction.

Of particular interest on the grounds is the famed Marble Boat, a lake-side pavilion. The construction of this particular structure was fraught with acrimony as state funds meant for naval forces were diverted to build it.

The man-made lake that occupies three-quarters of The Summer Palace is impressive in size and scope and, on most days, offers pleasure cruises and paddle boat rides. Unfortunately, there was a wind gust warning for the day we visited and we were unable to get out on the water. We did enjoy sitting alongside it, though, and taking in a peaceful view of the lake and the surrounding scenery (even as a ton of people passed behind us).

We learned a couple of important things in our five hours at The Summer Palace. First, it was going to be hot and humid with little relief during our stay in China and it was definitely going to affect how we structured our days. We were beat after the first half day of tourist activities! Second, we were going to be much closer to many more people than we are used to in our day-to-day lives.

Cognizant of our plans for the following day, we decided to head back to the hotel in the early afternoon, get a work out in, get some work done, and grab a bite. We were asleep shortly after dinner and looking forward to the next day.

A hike to the Great Wall and some traditional Chinese food

I wanted us to have a unique experience with the Great Wall of China. After combing through various options, I eventually found Wild Great Wall, a tour company specializing in single and multiple day trips to the Great Wall from Beijing. I contacted them to get a recommendation for an adventure and, after some back and forth, we settled on a one-day guided tour from Jiankou to Mutianyu.

After breakfast, we met our guide for the day, Tony, and set off on our way. Our first stop was the base of a mountain about two hours from Beijing. Apparently, hiking the non-restored sections of the wall isn’t legal, but our guide assured us that it was only a “small crime.” Of course, this “small crime” had a giant sign associated with it.

We hiked upwards for about an hour before reaching the first guard tower of our visit. At the guard tower, we climbed a ladder made of wooden rods lashed together with some thin wire. It was a little scary to feel that ladder flexing underneath me in a way that it didn’t underneath Tony or Angela.

Following a short ascent, we were on top of a guard tower pretty high up in the hills with an incredible view of the surrounding landscape, including several distinct sections of the Great Wall. We stopped to take plenty of pictures before continuing on our way.

Our walk on the Jiankou section of the wall was adventurous. The wall is not dissimilar to a pile of rubble in many places and we found ourselves walking through a small jungle bursting through a pile of bricks at times.

After about an hour and a half, we found our way to the intersection of the Jiankou and Mutianyu sections of the wall. In order to transition between the sections, we shimmied along a five inch wide ledge around a guard tower and walked through a very narrow passageway that might have been related to water runoff.

From there, we were no longer alone as the Mutianyu section is much more popular with tourists given that it is rebuilt and safe. We walked down the Stairway to Heaven, through a crowd of people gathered at each of the next six guard towers, and made the decision to descend the rest of the way via cable car. After queueing for about twenty minutes, we were lucky enough to get into the car that Michelle Obama rode on her visit to the Great Wall. The views on the way down were great and both Angela and I were happy to not have to walk anymore given we had a lot of vacation left.

We met our driver at the parking lot outside the main entrance and were whisked off to a local restaurant for lunch. We hadn’t planned on having lunch as part of the trip given how hot we were, but it was included so we decided to give it a shot. I’m glad we did because it was absolutely delicious. Our guide brought us to a family restaurant (after asking us “Do you like Chinese food?” as if we were going to say no) where they served us huge portions of a few delicious dishes.

After lunch, it was a smooth two hour ride back to the hotel. We talked to our guide about China and what he thought about the United States. He said he’d like to visit, but doesn’t like that there are guns everywhere and that the police torture black people. That informed my understanding of how Chinese people view the United States.

Visiting the Forbidden City, a failed attempt

We awoke early and ready to tackle the Forbidden City. After a delicious breakfast, we hopped on the subway and headed to the station directly south of Tiananmen Square. We exited into a huge mass of people at 07:30 and stood in line for about 45 minutes to get through a security check. After security, we headed straight to the Forbidden City as I knew tickets could sell out, but I figured if we got there within five minutes of opening we’d be able to score some.

To make a long story short, we did not procure entrance tickets on this day and, while I knew that was a possibility, I was very disappointed. I resolved that we would get there earlier the next day and make sure we were one of the first ones to the ticket office. Why didn’t we buy tickets in advance? You can only buy tickets in advance through a Chinese language website with a Chinese bank account and, unfortunately, that made the whole process untenable for us. While you can purchase tickets through an agency like Viator or Trip.com, I did not feel like paying a ridiculous upcharge to include a tour I wasn’t really interested in. In retrospect, I should have just asked the concierge to purchase them and charge them to my room, but hindsight is 20/20.

We exited the Forbidden City to the east and walked directly north to Jingshan Park. After paying a very small entrance fee, we wandered the park for a couple of hours, spending quite a bit of time at the Wanchun Pavilion that overlooks the Forbidden City. The vistas were fairly incredible as it gave you a full view of the scope of the Forbidden City.

We admired the architecture of the five pavilions in the park before walking several miles through Beijing back to our hotel. It was hot and humid, but I always love the opportunity to ambulate through a new city. I took some pictures of the government buildings I found interesting.

We stopped at Starbucks to see what their regional specialty drink was in China and ordered some fizzy fruit refreshers with boba tea balls in them. They were pretty good. Angela then successfully negotiated ordering an ice cream cone – who says language barriers have to mean anything? After all that, it was up to our room to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for an even earlier day the next morning.

Visiting the Forbidden City, a success story

Knowing that we had to be at the Forbidden City early, we took a different route through a smaller security line. We got off the subway at Tiananmen West station and made it through the checkpoint in about two minutes, considerably shorter than the previous day. We headed inside to the ticket area and were herded into a crowd of, conservatively, 750 individuals. We were packed like sardines with others physically trying to move us or refusing to scoot backwards as police officers attempted to force us into straight lines. It was a distinctly uncomfortable experience – hot, sweaty, in a crowd of a ton of people who do not care to leave any space at all between one another – but it was necessary to get what we wanted.

At precisely 8:30, police officers opened the gates and directed people in a surprisingly orderly manner into the Forbidden City. We were the tenth people in line for tickets and were able to secure them without any issues. Interestingly, you’re not issued actual tickets – the agent just types in your passport number and then, when you go to the entrance, they type in your passport number again before letting you in.

Anyways, we headed inside the Forbidden City and it was just as massive as promised. We wandered for hours, snapping photos and admiring the layout and architecture of the Imperial residence. A huge section of the complex is devoted to the Empress Dowager Cixi, who lived within its walls while her son was emperor. Talk about being a mama’s boy.

After we exited the palace, we walked back to the subway and headed to the hotel. Now is a good time to mention that, in Beijing and Shanghai, there are a lot of electric scooters and they believe that they qualify as pedestrians so you’re constantly dodging them as you’re walking on the sidewalks. It was fairly unpleasant, but better than gasoline motors, I suppose. Anyways, Angela had to literlaly stiff arm a scooter who wasn’t looking and almost accelerated directly into her. It was sudden, and she handled it like a Heisman trophy winning running back.

We decided to try Chinese KFC because we’d heard that it was different than back in the United States and because it is somewhat of a cultural touchstone as the most popular fast food restaurant in the country. We both ordered the Dragon Twister, a tortilla wrapped piece of fried chicken with cucumbers vegetables and duck sauce. I was surprised by how tasty it was! Angela also ordered an egg tart and enjoyed it.

Off to Xi’an on China’s high-speed rail

To get around within China, we opted to use the high-speed rail system connecting the major cities. I purchased our tickets in advance from China Highlights and had them delivered directly to our hotel. There were three classes for the trains we were looking at: Second Class, First Class, and Business Class (in ascending price order). The Second Class and First Class were both standard commuter train seats in more and less dense configurations, respectively. The Business Class seats were more like little pods with padding that could be configured as seats or beds. It was a bit of a splurge, to be quite frank, but it was worth it to be comfortable on the 4.5 and 6.5 hour rides that we had.

Anyways, we took a taxi from our hotel to the Beijing West train station, quickly passed through security (once we figured out which desk we were supposed to go to), and relaxed in the business class lounge while we waited for our train. We were able to exit to the platform directly from the lounge and walked all the way to the end of the train to board our coach.

The seats were very comfortable, we were served green tea almost immediately, and were given a snack box full of small delights. The ride passed without incident and, before long, we were in Xi’an.

We again grabbed a taxi from Xi’an Bei to our hotel, the Renaissance Xi’an where we checked in and were surprised with an upgrade to a Junior Suite from a base level room. Incredibly, we were treated to the single biggest hotel room we’ve ever stayed in. It was definitely the nicest room I’ve ever inhabited outside of a super luxury property. While we were thinking of getting out into Xi’an that evening, we decided to take advantage of our luck and relaxed in our room to rest for the next day’s activity.

Experiencing the Terracotta Army

After a tasty breakfast in the lounge, we met our guide for the day in the lobby. She escorted us out to our car and relayed to us a brief history of Xi’an and a contemporary reading of the city and its province during our hour long ride to the Terracotta Army Museum. The guide secured our tickets and escorted us to the museum complex itself.

As with the other tourist destinations we visited in China, this place was packed with visitors, mostly domestic tourists. Almost everyone was in a tour group of some kind so the whole area was saturated with flapping flags and hanging stuffed animals as the groups were ushered from place to place. After wading through the herd, we eventually made it into the first pit complex (and were presented with another mob of people).

It was much larger than we expected it to be, spanning the length of multiple football fields. The figures within the pits were incredible in their variety and number. It seemed like about 20% of the pits had been escavated at this point, with many of the figures having been restored or reconstructed.

There are five statues, in particular, that were discovered in excellent condition. They are displayed separately in secure display cases. Our guide told us about each in turn so we didn’t have to fight through the crowd to try to read the signs.

We visited the remaining pits and saw the command cadre and more statues from the army. It is hard to describe, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

At the end of the day, we left the museum complex and walked through a small market area (promoted by the region, apparently), and were driven back to our hotel. Again, we decided to spend the early evening relaxing in preparation for our upcoming travels. However, we came to the conclusion that we’d definitely return to Xi’an in order to enjoy the other sights.

Another trip on the tracks – off to Shanghai

Our next destination was Shanghai, the cosmopolitan city on the coast and a modern metropolis. We took a taxi to the train station we’d arrived at two days prior and hopped on another high-speed train. From this train station, we took a taxi to our hotel in the middle of Puxi, the JW Marriott Hotel Shanghai at Tomorrow Square.

The Executive Lounge featured an afternoon tea service, which we prevailed ourselves of on the first afternoon, and had views of Pudong, including the World Financial Centre and Shanghai Tower. The same views were present from our room.

We rested and prepared ourselves for the following day.

Two non-traditional museums, a temple, and getting accused of passing counterfeits

After a delightful breakfast, we headed off to our first destination, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center. This museum recounts the rise and development of Shanghai, from a sleepy fishing village to the mega city that it has become. It also spells out goals for the ongoing development of the city in the future, including sustainability, the expansion of urban green space, and stable population targets.

It was quite fascinating. We both particularly enjoyed the side-by-side photos of mid-century Shanghai and modern Shanghai.

Also, the scale model of the city was amazing.

Finally, there was an art exhibition inside of the exhibition center. We loved some of the art pieces and pictures don’t really do them justice.

After the exhibition, we hopped on the subway and headed to our next destination, the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. We walked towards the indicated location and eventually saw a sign pointing us into a residential area where we took some stairs down to a basement to buy tickets.

I saw on TripAdvisor a review that said “If this sounds like something you will enjoy, you will enjoy it.” I would say that is an accurate sentiment. The art was varied and interesting and encompassed various eras of Communist China, spanning Chairman Mao’s rule and that of his successors. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside. We bought a book, though, so if you’re interested in seeing some of the posters, please ask us!

While the museum was excellent, we were left with a sour taste in our mouth after visiting the shop. We purchased the book using a 100 CNY note and a 50 CNY note. The 50 CNY note had been handed to us as change when we bought our tickets. After handing over the notes and, as we were on our way out the door, we were stopped and told that we were trying to pay with counterfeit cash. I stated that was impossible as Angela informed me where we had received the 50 CNY note. We left without paying more, but the whole incident left me wondering whether they were trying to scam us or if it was truly coincidental.

With that incident resolved, we walked over to Jing’an temple, home to several notable statues of the Buddha, one of wood, one of jade, and one of silver.

From Jing’an, we took the subway back to our hotel where we went for a brief walk through People’s Park and got to pay witness to the marriage market, a vestigial remnant of old China where parents try to arrange marriages for their offspring.

After that, we got a great workout in – of course, we had to take a shot to prove it or you don’t get the gains.

A walk along the waterfront and dining with the locals

We enjoyed a filling breakfast and started off into the city to do our customary exploration on foot in spite of the air quality warning that we were dealing with. From our hotel, it was a short walk to the Huang Pu river and we slowly wandered west and then north along the natural bend, enjoying the parks along its banks. As we walked along the river on the Puxi side, we encountered the Monument to the People’s Heroes and saw The Bund, a sampling of colonial Shanghai, up close. We rounded the bend to the north and then took the subway under the river to the the Pudong side.

We continued our walk and marveled, up close, at the World Financial Centre and Shanghai Tower. We took many pictures of the Oriental Pearl Tower. We walked through a huge fancy mall looking for a doughnut shop that was not actually there. Eventually, when we had seen all we wanted to see, we headed back to our hotel to freshen up.

I didn’t want to leave Shanghai without eating their signature dish, xiaolongbao (soup dumplings). Before our trip, someone had recommend Jia Jia Tan Bao as the best vendor in the city, so we walked the half mile to the shop and got in line with twenty others, all of whom looked to be looks. When we reached the front of the line, there were only a few types left and we chose pork and egg yolk. We sat down at a table with some others and patiently awaited our dumplings.

They were absolutely fantastic. In fact, they were probably the best thing we ate the entire time we were in China. I wish we had ordered double what we did. I would go back and stand in line again without question. On top of the pork and egg yolk dumplings, we also got to try crab dumplings because our tablemates decided they were full and generouly offered them to us. They were good, too, but I definitely preferred the pork.

After that, it was back to the hotel to pack up and prepare for our onward journey out of China.

An afternoon in Hong Kong

We awoke early for a lengthy taxi ride to Pudong airport outside of Shanghai for the three hour flight down to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Upon arrival we stowed our bags at the airport, purchased two round-trip Airport Express tickets, and set off into the city.

Our first stop was Yum Cha, where we visited on our previous trip to Hong Kong. We ate a wider variety of dishes on this visit, but I was happy to order, pose with, and eat the BBQ pork bun as before. The custard buns, which we did not order last time, were especially amazing.

After lunch, we went off in search of a book store and then multiple comic shops to try to find a Chinese language TMNT comic for one of our friends. Unfortunately, our search was for naught as we were unable to find one. With luck, though, we ended up nearby a top-rated egg waffle shop.

Mammy Pancake is a small vendor tucked away on a non-descript street. It is also Michelin star rated, and for good reason. The egg waffles we ordered, both plain and coffee flavored, were delicious and well worth going out of the way for. We ate them as we slowly walked back to the subway and headed back to the airport.

At the airport, we relaxed in the Singapore Krisflyer First Class lounge where we each enjoyed a much-needed shower after a day on the streets in Hong Kong. Before long, we were up in the air and on our way to Zurich in Swiss Airlines First Class. Angela and I both enjoyed dinner and then fell asleep for a majority of the flight to Switzerland.

A wonderful day in Lucerne and Zurich, Switzerland

On arrival in Zurich we were met at the door by a Swiss Airlines representative and escorted to a van with our fellow First Class passengers. The representative asked if we wished to enter Switzerland or go to the lounge for our entire layover. Given that our layover was 14 hours, we decided to enter the country for the day and hopefully see some pretty scenery.

The van we were in dropped some passengers off at the lounge and then took us to a special passport control desk. Our passports were stamped with entry into the Schengen Area, we returned to the van, and we were dropped directly at customs from which we walked out and to the train station.

We stowed our luggage in lockers at the train station, purchased two tickets to Lucerne, and got on our way. A little over an hour later we were walking out of the train station and into one of the most beautiful cities that we’ve ever been to. The view of the surrounding mountains was beautiful. The city was quaint and walkable. We saw the historic Chapel Bridge and the Lion Monument. We bought chocolate and ate half of it. It was an excellent journey.

We considered visiting Pilatus and taking The Golden Circle route there and back, but I didn’t want us to be rushed and decided we’d do it on a return trip to Switzerland (which I have since booked).

We got on the train back to Zurich airport, but decided to hop off at Zurich’s main station on the way to explore that city as well. Again, it was absolutely gorgeous. We walked from the train station, along the river, to Lake Zurich, crossing the river along the way for closer views of the Fraumunster and Grossmunster. We sauntered through the old city and came upon a fair before stopping at Movenpick for some of the best tasting ice cream I’ve ever had. Once we reached the Zurich Opera House, we doubled back and made our way to the train station and returned to the airport.

Once at the airport, we enjoyed our time in the First Class Lounge where we were treated to a delicious restaurant dining experience and all the cappuccinos I desired. Eventually, it was time for us to leave. We got on a plane bound for London, returned to the Moxy near London Heathrow airport for the night, and rested up for our trip to Milan the next day.

A luxury stay in Milan

We checked out early, grabbed some light bites at London Heathrow before our flight, and flew to Milan. Once there, we walked to the train station and took the Malpensa Express to Milan Centrale Station. Our base for the next few days, the Excelsior Hotel Gallia was directly across the street so we checked in, dropped our bags, and set off into the city to explore while we waited for our room to be ready.

Unfortunately, our first two days in Milan were also the apogee of an unfortunate summer cold for me, so I was having a rough go of it and looked a bit like Rudolph given my tissue usage, but I was determined to have a good time!

We walked through a park in the central business district on the way to Cimitero Monumentale di Milano, an ostentatious display of wealth and patronage from Milan’s leading families. The gravemarkers, tombs, and mausoleums were undeniably artistically and architecturally impressive, but the amount of wealth that was used for the preservation of the dead left both Angela and me with a bit of a conflicted feeling.

After wandering the cemetery for a couple of hours, we wandered around for a bit and, eventually, made our way back to the hotel. I hadn’t yet been notified that our room was ready so we sat in the bar and ate a pizza for lunch and Angela enjoyed her first Aperol spritz of the trip. Eventually our room was ready, and it was definitely worth the wait. Our suite had a separate sitting area and bedroom, an enormous bathroom with a soaking tub and shower with a steam unit, and enough closet space for both of us to store all of our clothing.

We had made reservations for the night, but decided to cancel them in the interest of getting to bed early and heading off any further illness. Besides, we had a big day the next day!

A guided tour through Milan’s most famous sites and sampling the signature dish

After an amazing breakfast, including multiple of the best cappuccinos either one of us has had, we set off for Santa Maria delle Grazie, the starting point for our half-day tour. The tour starts there because it is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, one of his most famous pieces. Our group eventually coalesced, our guide gave us a brief introduction, and we headed inside. It was a real treat to visit the church and see the painting, so unique for its time. Even through the damage and wear of so many years, you can see the masterpiece and imagine how stunning it must have been when it was first created.

After fifteen minutes, our time with the masterpiece was over and we headed out into the city itself. We walked through Parco Sempione on the way to the Sforza Castle where we walked through the courtyard and admired the architecture of this ducal home. After a brief break, we continued to La Scalla, the world famous opera house. From there, we journeyed through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an upscale shopping and dining center built in honor of the unifier of Italy, and arrived in Piazza del Duomo.

To say the Milan Cethederal is stunning is accurate, but insufficient. The large square gives you an incredible view of the building and our guide provided us with some background on its design and construction. We walked slowly around the edifice and our tour ended at the back. This was perfect, because Angela and I had purchased tickets to the cathedral’s rooftop and the entrance was directly adjacent to our final point on the tour.

We went through security and took the elevator to the top where we were treated to details of the wonderful architecture and some truly beautiful views of the construction and its encompassing square. We sat for a while on the rooftop just taking everything in.

We slowly circumnavigated the exterior before descending into the cathedral, admiring the architecture, visiting the Crypt of Saint Charles Borromeo, before finishing up in the archaeological area that exposed the ruins on top of which the modern cathedral was built. We also stopped in the Museo Duomo to examine some of the artifacts

After exiting, we headed back through the Galleria and stopped at Biffi for a late lunch to fill us up for the rest of the day. Angela and I both ordered the osso bucco and risotto ala Milanesa. The dishes were exquisite and the service was good. Generally, a place like that could be a tourist trap with an overpriced menu and mediocre food. We were very happy that wasn’t the case.

From there, we headed to La Scalla for our scheduled tour of the opera house. We arrived early and the tour was delayed due to ongoing rehearsals, so we spent our time perusing the on-site museum, popped out for some gelato, and then returned to join up with our guide. We were lucky to be able visit the royal box, box seats that had been left in their original condition during the latest restoration, and floor seats that gave a grand view of the stage. The guide also showed us the backstage area and described how the venue is able to exhibit so many performances every year due to its unique, and voluminous, area behind the curtain. The mechanics were absolutely incredible, in my opinion.

With that, our day was complete and the active part of our short stay in Milan was done. The following day, we consciously decided to enjoy our luxury hotel with a leisurely breakfast, some lounging in our room, a delightful workout in the on-site fitness room, and an evening of looking through the many pictures that we took, some of which are included in this blog post.

The long journey home

We checked out early the next morning, unfortunately having to skip breakfast (and the delicious cappuccinos) to get to our flight on time, and headed to the train for which I had bought tickets the night before. Unfortunately, all of the Malpensa Express trains were cancelled because of strike action, so we had to come up with another way to the airport. Our initial idea was to grab a taxi, but I noticed a sign for an airport bus, we headed that way, and were able to pick up a few tickets before stepping on. The bus got us to the airport earlier than the train would have, somehow, and we were on our way from there. It was a long day of travel that included several lounges, British Airways and American Airlines flights, security screenings, and, eventually, our home.

We had a wonderful trip and I was happy with the way things worked out. Some parts were more enjoyable than others, and China presented a culture shock that I was slightly unprepared for, but I think we both dealt with it as best we could. Was China our favorite place we’ve ever gone? I think I can safely answer no. We got to see the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army, two destinations that were on our personal lists of desired sights, and the trip was worth it for that fact alone.

Would I fly the long way to Asia again? I do not think so. We made a special exception in order to fly Lufthansa and Swiss First Class and experience their ground services, but now that we’ve done so, I wouldn’t do it again. On our next trip to China (or anywhere else in Asia) we’ll be flying TPAC with a stop in Japan, Hong Kong, Taipei, or Singapore on the way to our final destination.

An Ancient American Experience
Our Trip to Peru

We recently returned from a week long trip to Peru with three of our closest friends. The five of us explored Panama City, Lima, and Cusco, soaked in the ancient monuments left to us by the Incan Empire, and relaxed at one of the highest value hotels we’ve ever stayed at. We chose Peru specifically because of the variety of experiences it offered on a relatively short trip.

Booking our trip

As with most of our trips, this one began by figuring out how we would get where we needed to be. Unlike other trips, this one involved finding transportation for five people instead of two. I knew it wouldn’t be easy and I knew I’d have to book whatever I found as soon as I found it. As such, I gathered the necessary information from everyone going on the trip and got to work.

Cash flights to Peru, even in economy, are pricey so I was looking exclusively for award travel. I knew it’d be likely that we would fly overnight, so I strongly preferred business class. I first checked for direct routes to Peru from the United States but quickly found that the routes that I had access to with my point balances would prove impossible to find for five people. In fact, it seems like most of the direct routes to Peru open between zero and two seats during the entire booking window.

I really didn’t want to split our group up so that meant I needed to find five seats on the same flights. I also knew that we were going to visit both Lima and Cusco during our time in Peru so was looking for a program that allowed stopovers. I eventually found an itinerary that fit these criteria and booked it immediately. The booking was made through UA and cost 70,000 Mileage Plus miles and $81.88 per person. The flights contained in this itinerary were:

  • LAS to PTY on CM in J
  • PTY to LIM on CM in J
  • LIM to CUZ on AV in J
  • LIM to PTY on CM in J
  • PTY to LAS on CM in J

The flight times weren’t ideal and the hard product would leave a bit to be desired for our 6-hour flights to and from the United States, but it fit the criteria I had laid out and was relatively easy to book. The initial ticket accounted for most of our flights, but we still needed to get from Cusco to Lima for our flight home. For that, I relied on BA Avios and the program’s generous distance based award chart. I ended up booking CUZ to LIM on LA in Y for 4,500 Avios and $4.25 per person. I later paid $6.00 per person to move us into a priority row so that we could board early and would definitely have room for our carry on bags.

There were several changes to our itinerary during the months leading up to the trip, but UA’s system kept me apprised of changes and reservation agents moved things around for me when necessary. There was a mismatch between CM’s systems and UA’s systems at one point that made me a little nervous, but it all worked out. I was happy I was able to find availability for five people given the fact that I’d never booked for more than two people at once before.

For lodging, I decided to book early, leverage reward points, and try to keep everyone’s out of pocket costs as low as possible so we could spend money on tours and activities during our journey. We ended up with an overnight in Panama City, Panama and I booked us three rooms at the Aloft Panama City for 7,500 Bonvoy points per room for the stay. For our three nights in Lima, Peru, I settled on the Four Points by Sheraton Miraflores for 33,000 Bonvoy points per room per stay (this was booked prior to the Marriott / SPG merger completed and this rate is no longer available). For Cusco, Peru, I decided to book our stay at the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, a luxury hotel located in a converted convent. The cash rate was relatively low when I booked, so I opted to save our points for future travel.

Late night flights and a lazy start to our trip

We arrived at the airport at around 11:30PM in preparation for our flight scheduled to depart at 1:43AM. After a lengthy check-in process, followed by reprinting our boarding passes with precheck stamped on them, we were on our way through security. The Club at LAS was technically closed, but Angela and I managed to sweet talk our way in and grab a couple of bottles of water to drink before our flight.

Before we knew it, our flight was boarding (literally half an hour earlier than our boarding passes indicated it would start). We made our way to the gate and boarded with the first group. By the time we all made it on the plane, all of the overhead bins in the business class cabin were full. I had to stow my bag in the first bin in economy, which was a little annoying but a definite first-world problem. We settled in for the overnight flight to Panama City and hoped for the best.

To be quite frank, it was not something I’d recommend doing. The service was attentive and prompt, but the seat was uncomfortable and didn’t have a leg rest, the food tasted terrible, and no one got a meaningful amount of rest. We were woken up about two hours before landing for breakfast and spent the rest of the flight in a groggy eyed stupor. Deplaning went smoothly and before long we were on our way through immigration. After departing the line to fill out paperwork that we missed the first time (and that should have been given to us on the plane), we passed through customs and found that the driver that I had arranged was not present. After four calls to the Aloft Panama to figure out what was going on, a taxi was sent for us. We found out later that we should have just used Uber, which we proceeded to do over the rest of our trip.

When we arrived at the hotel we were all exhausted from the overnight flight. We were able to get into our rooms early, thankfully, and were granted access to the restaurant breakfast for four people due to the property recognizing my Marriott Ambassador status in addition to my wife’s Platinum status. We each rested for a few hours before heading out for a dinner at Atlantic & Pacific Co, located at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center.

I made a reservation via email about a month prior to our visit and was able to confirm a table on the patio overlooking the canal. Unfortunately, traffic was very bad on the way to the locks so we didn’t get to visit the museum because it closed before we arrived. We asked the security guard if we could enter the locks area before heading up to dinner and he waved us through. Eventually we got chased away from the canal’s edge by a different security guard so we headed upstairs.

The dinner itself was varied and delicious, but the real highlight was watching several ships pass through the locks during our time there. We got to witness the transition from day to night and enjoy the lights.

I highly recommend the taco appetizer. We both enjoyed our mains and Angela loved the cuatro leches dessert. Everything was good – it isn’t just a tourist trap.

On the way to Peru

We visited the gym the following morning (which was surprisingly well equipped), ate a filling breakfast, and grabbed an Uber to the airport. After a slow, but pleasant, check-in, we made our way through security and visited the Copa Club for a quick refresh before boarding our flight. We were delayed approximately 35 minutes because of a huge smoke cloud from local vegetation burning. In spite of this, the three hour daytime flight was much more enjoyable than the overnight flight had been. The service was friendly and attentive, the food was better, and the journey passed fairly quickly.

We arrived at the hotel around 5PM, checked in with an awesome agent, and headed to our rooms to unwind a bit before dinner. The hotel is very nice and our room was large and well-appointed with a separate bedroom and sleeping area. The property was perfect for our stay of a few days and the view from our room was pretty amazing. Surprisingly, each room received a small welcome amenity of chocolate truffles.

We all went to the local grocery store to pick up some bottled water and snacks and, after depositing our provisions at the hotel, headed out for dinner at Saqra. Our meal was delicious! We tried two different varieties of ceviche, three different cuts of steak, and two seafood dishes (an octopus starter and Angela’s fish entree). The meal was quite cheap, a recurring refrain for our time in Peru.

After dinner we found a small coffee shop and grabbed some espresso and treats before heading down to the ocean. We walked to the Pacific, enjoyed the sounds of the ocean crashing against the coast, and wandered along the beach a short ways before heading back. The waves hit the beach, covered in river rocks, and the riptide results in an extremely unique sound that is unlike anything I’ve heard before. In all, it was a very successful first evening in Peru.

Ancient monolithic monuments

Our first full day in Peru started off with a tour to the Temple of Pachacamac, an ancient archaeological site located to the southeast of Peru. We walked to a hotel a few blocks from where we were staying and were picked up at the specified time. A short drive through Peru’s traffic and into the desert surrounding the city brought us to our destination for the morning.

The site is in an interesting state. It seems to be half-restored, but it is not always clear exactly what parts are original. One thing that is clear, however, is that the site is sprawling. It was so big that we spent most of the time traversing it in a van rather than walking (for better or worse). There are several pyramids with ramps in the first part of the complex, the main temple of Pachacamac in the center, and the Temple of the Sun towards the top of the hill that sits near the site facing the coast. The vistas were incredible and it was interesting to see the combination of Incan and pre-Incan construction. The museum was small but informative and our tour guide was knowledgeable and friendly. I enjoyed the tour and would recommend it to others looking for an interesting way to spend the morning.

After our tour concluded, we were dropped off at Larcomar, an upscale shopping mall obviously targeted at tourists and wealthy Peruvians. We chose to eat a late lunch at Mangos. The meal was OK, but service was severely lacking and it isn’t somewhere I’d go out of my way to eat.

During the afternoon we wandered through the parks near our hotel, including Parque Kennedy, named after the US President John F. Kennedy for his aid to Peru during his presidency. The park, interestingly, is home to many stray cats. We visited the nearby ChocoMuseo and were treated to various cocoa related samples. After that, it was time for relaxation in preparation for an adventurous day ahead.

A thrilling ride around Lima and visiting the founding site

After a quick breakfast, we walked to the meeting point for the gastronomical bike tour we had booked through Huarique Bike. After signing some disclaimers, we were given our bikes and introduced to our tour guide, Manuel, and our “security guard” for the day. As an aside, the security guard should really be renamed the “bike bouncer” because his only real job was staying by the bikes while we went and ate at different places – security guard might give people the wrong idea. Unfortunately, one of the restaurants that was supposed to be included on our tour was closed because there was an issue with their kitchen. Fortunately, they were going to give us an extended tour with a different restaurant in a local market as a way to make up for it.

After a brief seat adjustment period, we were off into the city. Riding in Peruvian traffic was easy and straightforward. In Miraflores there were plentiful bike lanes and automobile traffic explicitly respected bicyclists’ right of way. Our first stop was the El Chinito sandwich stop where we were treated to a variety of meats as well as pickled red onions. All of the options were tasty, but the specialty chicharrón was definitely the best.

We left El Chinito and rode to the Barranco neighborhood where we were given a brief tour of the area by our guide. The neighborhood played host to a wide array of street art and distinct architectural styles. It was a real treat to see the brilliant murals on the sides of houses and shops and learn about the artists and others who live there.

Leaving Barranco we rode back to Miraflores for a stop at a medium sized outdoor market packed with fresh fish, meats, fruits, and vegetables. We were treated to an incredible spread of ceviche, plantain chips, and corn two ways (boiled and roasted). The fish was exceptionally fresh and the acid was so vibrant. It was one of the best things we ate on the entire trip and eating it felt like a true local experience. At the same market we were given a selection of fruits, including the incredibly sweet granadilla (Peruvian passion fruit).

Finally, we were off for the last stop on our tour where we enjoyed several different varieties of flavored ice. It was a nice break from the moderate heat. In all, the bike tour was phenomenal and something I would recommend to anyone looking for a way to see Lima from a few different angles. We rode about 25 miles over the course of four hours, stopping for food and to admire the views along the coast.

After a brief stop at the hotel to freshen up, we were off to Plaza de Armas for a visit to the most famous sights in the city. Plaza de Armas is the birthplace of Lima and the site of the founding of the city by Francisco Pizarro. While there, we visited the Cathedral of Lima and the Archbishop’s Palace of Lima.

The cathedral is the home of the tomb and remains of Francisco Pizarro, a number of side chapels, a museum of colonial religious art, and a crypt. Pizarro’s tomb and the crypt were both interesting and unique. The museum featured, to be quite frank, lackluster examples of period art and the chapels were impressive in some ways but very similar to those from the Spanish homeland in Europe. It was nice to visit, but I wouldn’t say going into the Cathedral of Lima is something you need to make specific time for if you’ve been to any of the major cathedrals in Europe (or are a huge Pizarro fan). The Archbishop’s Palace is also a “nice to see” but if you’re crunched for time, it might be best to just hang out in the Plaza and enjoy your time there.

We left the plaza, ate some street churros, and wandered through a park that is supposed to have murals on the walls. It must be seasonal, though, as we didn’t see any art. The park did have a giant living wall, though, and it was quite pretty.

For dinner, we opted for Asnapa because it had good reviews and was right across the street from our hotel. The dinner was a delight with good food and good service. The reviews were spot on and we were happy with our decision to eat there. We headed to the hotel afterwards and prepared for an early morning.

A short flight to Cusco, exploring the Incan capital, and gazing at the stars

The next morning we awoke super early for our flight to Cusco. While the flight wasn’t scheduled to depart until 7:55AM, the front desk suggested we leave for the airport around 4:45AM to arrive with enough time to not be rushed. I was glad for the suggestion because getting into the airport via car was a mess. We also dealt with a slow check-in, not because of any problem, but because identity verification and boarding pass printing for a group takes more than for two people.

After clearing security, we headed into the VIP Caral Lounge with access provided by Priority Pass. It was a decent enough place to sit and wait for our plane with good coffee, nice treats, and comfy chairs.

Our flight was slightly delayed. We boarded about half an hour late and were in the air shortly thereafter. The plane was much nicer than Copa’s 737 and the service was polite and attentive. It was an enjoyable hour and a half flight over some of the most stunning terrain I’ve ever seen. We deplaned via a rolling stairway, walked through the baggage area, and into Cusco proper. After calling for an Uber (and accidentally getting into a different silver Toyota Yaris), we arrived at our hotel.

The first impression of the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco is one of stunning beauty and sublime service. It really felt like everyone working there wanted to make sure we were having the best possible time. Check-in was smooth and we were informed, because we had arrived early, that we’d be notified when our room was ready. We stopped by the local tourist office to purchase the Boleto Turistico del Cusco in order to have access to all the sites we wanted, and set off for the first one, but not before a quick visit to the main plaza.

Our first tourist stop was Qorikancha. This site is now part of the Santo Domingo church where Dominican priests built a church on top of Incan foundations after Cusco was conquered by the Spanish. The detail in the intricate stonework was legitimately amazing (as you can tell by the attention I’m giving it).

Our next stop was the Twelve-angled stone. We grabbed a couple of pictures while examining this ancient construction artifact and continued on our way.

Our last major stop for the day was Sacsayhuamán. The general advice is to take it easy when you first arrive at altitude. Because of the compressed schedule we had arranged, that wasn’t really an option. Angela and I walked up to the aforementioned ruins and struggled almost every step of the way. Our hearts were pounding and our lungs felt heavy. We stopped every hundred feet or so, including a brief rest for Angela to hold a goat. Eventually, we made it up to the monolithic stone walls to take in the glory of the site.

It was beautiful, with amazing views over the city and some of the largest pieces of stone I’ve seen outside of the Great Pyramids of Giza. We spent a few hours wandering around, enjoying the scenery, and scoping out every part of the site.

After our afternoon of exploration, we headed back to the hotel to get our room keys and distribute everyone’s baggage before grabbing some pizza and preparing for some stargazing. We met in a plaza nearby our hotel, took a bus up to an observatory, and enjoyed an hour and a half of lecture about how Incans viewed the stars and some glimpses of stars, nebulas, and galaxies through high-powered telescopes.

We returned to our hotel and, before heading to sleep, I called down to the front desk and requested five bagged breakfasts for our early morning start and confirmed our taxi pickup time for the journey to the train station.

Our trip to Machu Picchu

We awoke early, retrieved our bagged breakfasts, and were picked up by our transport promptly at 5:10AM. The bagged breakfasts were definitely the best “to-go” breakfast I’ve ever received from a hotel with an apple, carrot cake, ham and cheese sandwich, yogurt, and a juice box.

We arrived at Poroy station 45 minutes before our train was scheduled to depart and settled in for the short wait. We’re lucky we got there early because we were able to relax at a table while the rest of the area filled up with people. The ticket takers verified our tickets matched our passports and ushered us on to the train. For the way out, we chose the Expedition train and for the way back we chose the Vistadome train. If possible, and I don’t remember if it is, I likely would have reversed this given that the big windows on the Vistadome did no good when it was pitch black out (and overcast so we couldn’t even see the stars).

A shade over three hours (and a quick snooze) later, we arrived at Aguas Caliente station. We disembarked, got our bearings, and started walking towards Machu Picchu. It took about twenty five minutes to walk from the train station to the trail head (down a road with buses screaming past you) and then it was a sixty minute uphill ascent, partially in the rain, to the summit and the ancient city. The trail was well-maintained, but the walk was a rough one which required quite a few stops along the way. There are stairs the entire way, but they are not a consistent height and were quite slippery in places due to the rain we encountered. All that being said, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. We got to see the mountains poking through the clouds during our ascent and it made me feel like we were earning our visit.

We queued for entry shortly after reaching the top. Luckily, we only had to wait ten minutes before passing through the gates and into the site. As we entered, the place seemed to be packed! There was barely a foot between each person and I was worried that was going to be the crux of experience. Luckily, as soon as you clear the first stairway the pack disperses and you’re free to wander, take pictures, and really enjoy the views, both of the city and from the city.

We took a few pictures of the other members of our group and then we split up and wandered freely for a while before briefly joining back up for a group photo.

After that, it was off to wander again. We took our time, but it felt like we were able to see the entire site and appreciate each nook and cranny in about three and a half hours. We exited, stamped our passports with the Machu Picchu exit stamp, and headed back down the mountain. The descent was much, much easier than the ascent. We walked back to the train station, grabbed some water, and waited for our trek back to Cusco.

The train ride back was interesting. We were treated to a creature from Peruvian folk tales and a fashion show. Three and a half hours later we were met by our driver and taken back to the hotel for some much needed sleep after one of the most adventurous days in recent memory.

A tour through the Sacred Valley

Our day started a little bit later so we were able to partake in the delicious breakfast spread offered on property. The eggs were properly cooked and delicious, fresh smoothies were available, and the pastries were incredible (especially the almond croissants). After breakfast, we were met by our tour guide, Reuben, and whisked off to the Sacred Valley.

Our first stop was a traditional camelid weaving factory where women use traditional techniques to produce some incredible pieces of clothing and decor. We were introduced to the animals that are sheared for their wool, including the rare vicuña. Afterwards we were shown the traditional dye making techniques using minerals and organic materials. After browsing the shop, it was off to a scenic viewing spot where we were able to take some pictures.

After snapping a few shots, we started towards Pisaq. On the way, we were given an opportunity to grab some panoramic shots of the Sacred Valley.

Once in Pisaq, our guide showed us an old Incan cemetary carved into the hills surrounding the main monument. He also alluded to how the Incans moved their giant monolithic pieces of stone and what the really impressive part of their construction was, the cutting and joinery of the giant blocks.

Following the Pisaq Archaeological Site, we were brought to a silver shop in Pisaq City where a few people in our group opted to procure some souvenirs before heading off for lunch. To be honest, lunch was nothing special – a buffet with the main courses served in small portions by staff – but it was a nice break in the day. The next stop was Ollantaytambo, another city filled with Incan and pre-Incan ruins. We climbed the terraces, observed the orientation of the site, and took a bunch of pictures.

We stopped at a scenic spot for a last few pictures on the way back to the hotel and peppered our tour guide with questions regarding further reading about the Incan civilization and the Spanish conquest.

For dinner, we chose to eat at Qespi, the bar in the lobby of our hotel. It was very good and astonishingly cheap given the quality of the meal and the service. I particularly enjoyed my “Mango Friends” specialty tea that I ordered without fully understanding what I was getting.

A much needed day of relaxation

We had originally planned on hiking to 14,000 feet and visiting a glacier lake on our last day in Cusco, but after some discussion, we decided to cancel our tour and spend our last day relaxing. We did a mini self-guided coffee tour of Cusco, visited the San Pedro covered market, pet the hotel’s resident baby alpaca, relaxed in the delightful spa, and ate guinea pig for the first time.

Taking a day off at the end of our trip was the right move and one that I think we all needed. After all of the exertion at elevation, our bodies were definitely at a breaking point.

The long journey home

After another delightful breakfast, we packed up, checked out, and started our lengthy itinerary home. Unfortunately, we had extremely long layovers in both Lima and Panama City before arriving in Las Vegas. I worked, everyone else slept or otherwise entertained themselves, and we made it, even if it wasn’t smooth along the way. 80% of the party was initially stopped at immigration in Lima, the Star Alliance contract lounge was closed in the same airport, the Priority Pass lounge was extremely strict about their four hour limit, and the Copa Club in Panama City has food that can only be described as lackluster.

There were some highlights, though! I was able to eat at the Priority Pass restaurant in Lima with Justin and it was legitimately good food (for free, even). I, and a few others, took a much-needed shower in the Copa Club in Panama City in some very nice facilities. Finally, I got a ton of work done on an important project so I was able to feel fulfilled at the end of our travels (and not behind).

Our Journey to Australia
The Land Down Under

We recently completed a two and a half week trip to Australia during which we created many memories that will last a lifetime. We chose to prioritize the land down under over other destinations primarily because the last few years have seen a near constant stream of stories about bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef from chemical dumps and temperature changes. While there has been some recovery, we wanted to see this natural wonder before it ceased to exist in a recognizable state. Other than that, we really wanted to experience Australian culture (including their famed coffee scene) and see a few specific sights on the continent.

During our time in Australia we chose to prioritize the cities on the eastern part of the continent given how vast the country is. In the future, we may return to visit the Australian interior and Western Australia, but we didn’t want to rush through our trip by trying to do everything.

Booking our trip

In case you’re not aware, Australia is really far from the United States. Cash fares to the continent have recently been fantastic, but I knew that flying in an economy seat for 16 hours and arriving at 6AM would leave Angela and I absolutely crushed and unable to enjoy the start of our trip.

Business class tickets on the limited direct flights to Australia from the United States (there are only 18 routes in total spread across NZ, AA, DL, QF, UA, and VA) are above my pain point and rarely go on sale due to demand and the low overall passenger count per day. As such, I started evaluating how to best use my stash of airline miles to get us there and back. I quickly found that UA almost never releases low level award availability on their Australia routes and discarded that as a realistic option. The same goes for NZs fifth-freedom routes. DL and VA require an absurd commitment in terms of miles so that left me with AA and QF as the only realistic options. Luckily, both airlines are part of the oneworld alliance so I could use my stash of AAdvantage Miles to book either airline for any routes that became available.

I knew we wanted to go in the Australian fall as temperatures started to drop and crowds thinned out. Given that, I set up a plethora of award availability alerts on ExpertFlyer and waited for something to match up that would give us two and a half weeks in country. My patience paid off and I was eventually able to snag two separate itineraries within a few days of each other.

Our outbound itinerary was LAS-DFW-SYD with the first leg in AA Y leaving at 1:00AM from LAS and the second leg in QF F on an A388 leaving at 8:55PM from DFW. I didn’t really want to leave at 1:00AM, but that was all that was available at the time of booking. A few months later, award space opened up at a more reasonable time and I was able to change our flight from LAS leave to later in the day. AA’s policy, when booking with their miles, is that you can change your flights to any that have availability as long as your origin and destination remain the same. As such, you can book something non-ideal and hope something better opens up in the future. The total cost of this booking was 220,000 AAdvantage Miles + $68.80.

For the return to the United States I booked MEL-SFO in QF J on one of QF’s new 789 aircraft. Unfortunately, there was no availability from SFO to LAS at the time of booking. I wanted to secure the long-haul so I bought a ticket in AS Y using a $0 companion fare from SFO to LAS to complete our journey. I eventually ended up canceling the Alaska ticket and booking a WN flight home the night of our return for 21,019 Rapid Rewards points and $11.20 (due to our Companion Pass). The long-haul booking cost 160,000 AAdvantage Miles + $159.02.

We would be flying extensively inside of Australia as we moved between cities. Another oneworld alliance partner, BA, has a distance based award chart so I used their program to book short flights on QF. AS is a non-alliance partner of QF and I used their fixed region award chart to book the longest flight inside of Australia. This was perfect because Angela had some lingering AS miles that we’d been struggling to find a use for. I found award availability was plentiful on all of these intra-Australia routes.

  • SYD-BNE in QF J – 18,000 BA Avios + $35.02
  • BNE-CNS in QF J – 30,000 BA Avios + $42.60
  • CNS-MEL in QF J – 40,000 AS Miles + $59.80

Why fly business class on these one to three hour flights? First, I had enough miles stashed away that it was not a burden to do so. Second, we would have access to the QF lounges within Australia to relax and work while at the airport if necessary. We could have saved a considerable number of points by flying economy but circumstances were such that we didn’t have to limit ourselves.

In terms of lodging, we stayed at the following places during our trip:

We are generally loyal to Marriott given their large footprint and the value we get out of the status benefits we’ve accrued, but the Park Hyatt Sydney is one of those properties that everyone raves about and is bookable using World of Hyatt points. We used 90,000 points for three nights and I emailed the manager to secure a cash upgrade to a room with a view of the Sydney Opera House. The rest of the properties were booked using cheap-ish cash rates that I monitored and rebooked if they decreased. I also, generally, booked through some type of cashback or award portal to get a little bit extra out of the rates we were paying.

A harried start to our journey

On March 11th, we dropped Fitz off, double checked that we had packed everything, and waited anxiously for our driver to come get us for our flight. That’s when we started getting flight delay notifications about our LAS-DFW leg. The flight was continuously pushed back from a departure time of 12:54PM and we finally left the gate at 3:33PM. This left us a little over fifty minutes to get from gate to gate once we arrived in DFW. Having never connected through that airport before, we didn’t know what to expect but all of the AA agents we spoke to said we’d be totally fine. In addition to the reassurances, they moved us into the row right behind first class so we could deplane quickly.

Luckily, we caught a tailwind on the way to DFW and landed considerably earlier than expected! We were even told we would be parking at Gate D18, three gates away from our flight to Sydney. That did not end up happening. We sat on the tarmac waiting for twenty minutes before the pilot was directed to taxi to Gate A8. By the time we got off the plane, our flight to SYD was already boarding. We walked briskly (and if you know our regular walking speed, I’m sure you can understand what walking briskly means) to the Skylink tram that whisked us between terminals, got in line, and boarded our flight about twenty minutes before doors closed.

We generally do not cut things that close, so this was a bit of a stressful experience for us. That stress quickly melted away once we settled into our seats on QF’s A388. Each seat in F is more like a self-contained suite. We stowed our bags, enjoyed some pre-departure beverages and canapes, and settled in for the long haul.

I didn’t really know what to expect because we’d never flown on an A380 before. Takeoff was long and smooth as the huge aircraft set off into the sky. As soon as we hit 10,000 feet the flight attendants asked us what we wanted for dinner and I moved to join Angela in her suite so we could eat together. Dining together on a flight was pretty neat and something that I’ll be looking for with the other experiences we’re having this year.

For dinner, I started with the steak sandwich and Angela opted for the Moroccan carrot soup. We both chose the beef filet as our main course. The service was top-notch throughout our meal and the food was uniformly good, although the steak was a little more done than I would have liked. For dessert, Angela had fresh fruit while I indulged in a cherry streusel tart with coffee. The tart was nicely composed with the cherry coming to the forefront and a thick vanilla cream accenting the pastry.

During dinner, the flight attendant made up my bed with a thick mattress pad and copious pillows and bedding. After our meal, I changed into the extremely comfortable pajamas we were provided, laid down, and fell asleep with few interruptions for the next nine hours. This was, without a doubt, the best sleep I’ve ever gotten on an airplane. The combination of the suite’s privacy, the bedding’s comfort, and the ideal flight time (an evening departure) turned out exactly like I had hoped.

When the flight attendant saw that I was awake he asked if I wanted anything and quickly delivered the water and coffee I requested. He also stowed my bedding on request as I went into the forward area to do some stretching and headed upstairs to check out the lounge area.

Before long, we were asked if we’d like to enjoy breakfast before landing. The answer was a resounding yes! For this meal, Angela joined me in my suite so we could have the experience from the other seat. Angela ordered scrambled eggs and bacon whereas I opted for the poached eggs and bacon. Each dish was served on a lightly toasted piece of bread. Our eggs were perfectly cooked, a rarity on airplanes, and I gobbled mine up so fast that the flight attendant jokingly asked if I wanted more. I responded in the affirmative and she set off to find me some more eggs to poach. After five more cups of coffee, Angela and I settled in for landing.

The entire flight experience was incredible. The food was delicious, although not the best I’ve ever had on a plane. The service was attentive but not overbearing. The seats were huge and the bedding was extremely comfortable. It was worth the miles I used for it and is something I would do again in an instant given the opportunity (and a need to get to the South Pacific).

Arrival in Sydney and a whirlwind start

Immigration and customs at SYD were a breeze. There are automated gates for those with e-Passport enabled passports, like ours are, and the customs check with nothing to declare is cursory after collecting your checked bags.

After exiting the international arrivals area we saw ample signage to the train station. We purchased an Opal card before the entrance gates with enough credit to get us into the city from the airport, back to the airport at the end of our trip, and a few bus rides within the city. The train ride from the airport to Circular Quay was quick and we had less than a mile to walk to our hotel, the Park Hyatt Sydney. We landed early in the morning so we requested to drop our bags and get our room keys later in the day when our room was ready. We stopped for a quick selfie with the Sydney Opera House (the first of many) and started our day full of adventuring.

It started to lightly rain, so we popped out our umbrellas and headed to The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. There was a tremendous array of flora on display. We saw towering trees and delicate flowers. We encountered our first Australian flowers and marveled at the local indigenous birds. One of the first things we noticed was that the Australian replacement for the pigeon, the Ibis was much more interesting to look at than our alternative. We strolled through the garden for quite a bit of time and ended up at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair before turning around.

We then made our way to Hyde Park passing St. Mary’s Cathedral on the way. I found the cathedral to be surprisingly impressive in terms of size and architecture.

The single most impressive part of Hyde Park is the Anzac Memorial located at the southern end. The memorial was a somber remembrance of the soldiers who fought in The Great War. It is specifically designed to highlight the tragedy of war and memorialize individuals rather than glorify the acts of warfare and the conflict about which it speaks.

Another interesting structure in the park is the Hyde Park Obelisk. At first glance it looks just like any other city’s random memorial obelisk. It is only upon further examination that you discover it was originally designed as a sewer vent and, in days past, spewed gases from the sewer into the air in the middle of the city.

Angela had read about a coffee shop, Black Star Pastry, that had watermelon cake and is considered a must-visit in Sydney. We wandered through a random mall for a few minutes and eventually found the place. Our first flat whites in Sydney were delicious and the cakes were delightful. The watermelon cake was both light and fresh and Angela really enjoyed it.

We walked to our first timed activity of the trip, a tour of the Sydney Opera House. The structure is absolutely incredible both from a distance and upon closer inspection. The tour commenced, after a few technical difficulties with our headsets, around 11:30AM and took us into both large theaters and one of the four smaller theaters. The venues were impressive with the rich wooden surroundings in the Concert Hall being my personal favorite. We were given some information about the genesis of the plan and the actual construction of the building, but it was a tad light on details. The group size was fairly large as well. I’m glad we took the tour because it is the only meaningful way to get access to the places we wanted to see without actually paying to see a show, but I think there is some definite room for improvement.

After our tour completed we were off to our second planned activity of the day, BridgeClimb Sydney. After checking in, we grabbed some Australian snacks to give us energy for our climb. We chose kangaroo and crocodile jerky along with a bit of coffee. The jerky was good enough to give us a bit of energy but it wasn’t something I’d eat again if other food is available.

We were called into a room at our scheduled time and filled out a waiver before being fitted for our jumpsuits and geared up for the next few hours. The process was extremely well-orchestrated and included an introduction to our climb leader, a simple orientation for the climbing process, and several reminders about safety. Most interestingly, everyone was required to submit to a breathalyzer before the climb for, I’m assuming, liability reasons. Before long we were off to the top. Conditions were windy and cool with light rain falling sporadically throughout the climb. Even with the adverse weather conditions we had an absolute blast. It is definitely a tourist activity, but it is one that I would recommend to anyone looking for an interesting perspective on the city, both visually and historically.

We were famished after our hours on the bridge and stopped at a local chain, Ribs & Burgers, for a quick bite before calling it a night. Angela and I both opted for the The Aussie, an interesting burger with the following things:

  • Beef patty
  • Pineapple
  • Bacon
  • Beetroot
  • Swiss cheese
  • Egg
  • Pickle
  • Lettuce
  • Tomato
  • Onion
  • BBQ sauce

It was a delicious mouthful – who knew that pineapple on a burger would feel so right?

After dinner we headed down the street to our hotel and grabbed our room keys. As soon as we walked in, I knew I’d made the right decision to arrange an upgrade to a room with a view as the Sydney Opera House was omnipresent from everywhere in our temporary home. It was an incredible sight the first time and every time thereafter. Our very busy first day ended with us admiring this view.

Our first diving experience

We awoke early from excitement on our second day in Sydney and decided to keep things easy and eat breakfast at the hotel. The spread was scrumptious and the egg dishes offered were quite delicious. It wasn’t a great value because of the cost, but it certainly made the start of our day smoother.

After breakfast, we put on our water shoes and headed to the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium for our first ever diving experience. Because we arrived early, we were able to tour about half of the aquarium before meeting our dive instructor and preparing to meet some aquatic animals up close.

Our instructor was Harry and he did a great job introducing us to the diving concepts we’d use during our experience. We went over breathing through the regulator, using hand signals, what to do in case of discomfort, and everything else we might need to know. After an in-office orientation we were geared up in a wet suit, dive boots, gloves, cowl, buoyancy control device, and pressurized air cylinder. We first entered the water in a training tank where we rehearsed everything we’d be doing underwater. We practiced breathing through the regulator, clearing water out of it if it came loose from our mouths, clearing water from our masks, equalizing the pressure in our ears, and moving around. After the instructors were comfortable with our preparation, we headed into the main tank.

The experience was exhilarating. There were moments where we were just inches from the sharks, fish, and rays in the tank with us. They swam above, behind, and directly at us at times and it was just wondrous to be there with them and know that we were strangers in their land.

The dive was complete in what felt like no time at all. We exited the tank, stripped ourselves of our diving gear, and showered the briny water off of us before viewing the pictures and videos from the dive. We had a fantastic experience from beginning to end and even made an awesome new friend in our dive buddy. We wholeheartedly recommend Shark Dive Xtreme if you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We resumed our tour of the aquarium after our experience was complete. The aquarium had a decent number of exhibits, but is not somewhere that we would specifically recommend if you weren’t going to be doing the dive experience alongside it and have previously visited a top tier aquarium. The signage was a little lackluster and that made it hard to identify a lot of the species on display. We still had quite a bit of fun, though.

We were greeted with bright sunshine after leaving the aquarium, a complete turnabout from the 100% chance of rain that had been predicted, and decided to take advantage of the great weather and head to the beach! We took the bus from Circular Quay to Coogee to start our trek along the coast. We walked alongside the ocean for several miles from Coogee Beach to Bondi Beach and the vistas were absolutely incredible. There were several beaches along the path and a ton of sheer rock cliff faces that made for very dramatic viewing. We even walked alongside an enormous collection of grave sites called Waverley Cemetery.

We were peckish, as they say, after our long walk and decided on a pizza place near Bondi Beach named Da Orazio Pizza + Porchetta. The service was great and the pizza was good. The dough was extremely tasty, although less crisp than I would normally expect, and the toppings were fresh and flavorful. I enjoyed the chili oil we were given and would definitely use it on pizza in the future. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat after your beach walk, I would recommend this place.

After dinner, we took the bus back to Circular Quay, grabbed some gelato in the rain on the way back to our hotel, and ended the day with a few bites of deliciousness.

A fantastic breakfast, some underwhelming art, and an interestingly delicious dinner

We’d been so busy during our first few days in Sydney that we didn’t have much left on our list. The only thing remaining was the Art Gallery of New South Wales so we decided to take in a leisurely breakfast before strolling over at the opening hour. For breakfast we chose The Fine Food Store and I am very glad we did. We both ordered the brioche breakfast roll with poached egg and split the blueberry bircher muesli to provide a little lightness. Everything was delicious.

We strolled through the previously visited garden on the way to the gallery and stopped to enjoy the carnivorous plant display that wasn’t open on our aforementioned visit.

We enjoyed a few exhibits at the gallery before making our way out into Sydney proper. To be quite frank, there just wasn’t a lot to hold our interest. That being said, there were three things that we did like. The first was a mixed media exhibition comprising drawing, painting, and film from William Kentridge. The artist managed to bring a bunch of disparate techniques together into an interesting whole, completely outside my expectations.

The second interesting section was landscapes of central Australia and parts of New Zealand. The terrains depicted by various artists were otherworldly, in a single word. They looked like alien worlds you’d see in a science fiction film rather than something that should exist here on our home world.

Finally, I really enjoyed the work of young artists that were on exhibition. It was obvious that the student eyes had yet to be jaded by the world around them and this led to some interesting pieces with commentary on the world around us or interesting visual effects. Apparently the art gallery has exhibited students’ final projects since 1983, something I find quite astonishing.

We grabbed a final selfie in front of the Sydney Opera House because the weather was beautiful.

After the museum we headed to the hotel to rest up after two and a half non-stop days following a 16 hour plane ride. For dinner, we decided to try something unique and chose Tayim, a contemporary Middle Eastern spot. We tried the Wagyu cigars, Tayim plate for two, kangaroo kebabs, lamb shoulder, and a tomato and cucumber salad. Each piece of the meal was tasty, although the lamb shoulder was a little less spiced than we expected. I left the meal feeling extremely satisfied.

A day of work and travel

After an exhilarating start to our Australia adventure, we took a break day to allow us to catch our breath, get some work done, and move to our next destination. In the morning, we took a quick trip to Playfair Cafe to get a bite. The restaurant is more like a deli counter with some tables set up on the street than a traditional cafe. The food was simple and good, but we both left wishing we’d gone back to the Fine Food Store again.

After a few more hours of work, we checked out of the Park Hyatt and bid farewell to our view of the Sydney Opera House. We took the train back to the airport and alighted at SYD’s domestic terminal. QF only allows 7 kilograms per bag for carry on luggage so we were forced to check our roller bags. Luckily, the process was quite quick and we were through security without much delay. We had access to the Qantas Business Lounge in Terminal 3 and hung out in there for several hours as we waited for our flight. It was a great place to work and the food was acceptable, if not great. There were barista made espresso drinks on offer, a real delight, and plenty of other beverages to be had.

Our flight boarded swiftly and took off on time. We flew on a 717 for the first time, which was fun. The service was prompt and attentive and we were offered a meal which turned out to be quite good. Upon arrival in Brisbane we collected our bags and headed to the Airtrain. We walked off the train into the city center twenty minutes later and headed to the Four Points by Sheraton. After a quick check-in we headed to our room for some much needed sleep before our busy next couple of days.

We had a cuddle with a koala and fed kangaroos

We chose to stay in Brisbane for three nights and elected to allocate two full days to the Australia Zoo, home of the Crocodile Hunter. On our first day, we decided to do a koala encounter and, because of this, we had to get up super early to take the first train from Brisbane to Beerwah, where the zoo is located.

After alighting from the train we started walking to the zoo given that the signage indicated the courtesy shuttle wouldn’t be running until much later in the morning and we’d miss our encounter time. After we walked 75% of the way, the courtesy shuttle pulled over to the side of the road in front of us and prompted us to jump on board. After a brief stop at the station we arrived at, we headed back to the zoo.

Checking in with our pre-paid tickets was smooth and easy and we were quickly into the zoo proper. We wandered over to the information desk, past some crocodiles, and inquired as to where and how the encounter would be happening.

We waited at the designated meeting spot, were shortly thereafter met by a photographer, and made our way to the koala meeting area. Once there, Baloo was brought out to us to start our encounter. There were two other people with us – a young American girl and a British woman. We would each get two chances to hold the koala. The first would be a short session to allow the zoo photographer to grab some official photos and the second would be a longer period of time to allow us to take personal photos and just enjoy the koala.

Angela volunteered to hold the koala first and it was a great decision because she got to share a special moment with the koala. He liked her so much that he pooped on her! I held Baloo next, followed by the Briton and the young lady. Unfortunately, Baloo started acting up a bit and we had to do a koala swap. His daughter, Macadamia, came out and was a total sweetheart. We went in reverse order for the second session and everyone snapped some great pictures of themselves and the koala.

The experience was exceptional and totally worth doing, in my opinion. Koalas, it turns out, are extremely solid. The small ones we were holding weighed around 15 pounds and were extremely warm. It was a dream of both of ours to hold a koala and it was even better than expected. After our encounter, we started exploring the rest of the zoo. There is a zoo shuttle that runs every half hour so we grabbed the next available one and took it to the back corner of the property to work our way forward. I would recommend anyone visiting the zoo to approach things this way.

We started in Africa where we saw giraffes, zebras, rhinoceros, and meerkats.

Next, we wandered through Bindi’s Island which was full of ring-tailed lemurs and a few big tortoises.

The next stop on our tour was Southeast Asia where we watched the tigers snooze and were able to spot some red pandas up in the trees, but we weren’t able to get any pictures.

After that, we bought some “roo food” and headed into the kangaroo and wallaby enclosure where we got to freely interact with the animals. They hopped right up to us and fed out of our hand. Angela and I both snapped kangaroo selfies and Angela, in particular, was amazed at how soft their fur was. It’s obvious that these animals are used to human interaction. They weren’t aggressive, but definitely knew how things should go down. It was extremely enjoyable.

We left the kangaroo enclosure and headed to the echidna pen at just the right time because as soon as we were inside it started pouring rain. We checked out the echidnas for a few minutes and then patiently waited out the worst of the rain. On the way there, we took a couple of personal shots with an awesome lizard.

We popped our umbrellas and headed for the wetlands area where we saw a few birds, including the surprisingly (and hilariously) vocal emus.

We were getting hungry after this so we stopped at the Crikey Cafe where we ate some, surprisingly adequate, steak sandwiches. While we were eating we were treated to another torrential downpour – we were lucky enough to avoid both of them that happened on this day!

After lunch we walked back to the Tiger Temple for the Tigers Live! show where the handlers showed off the tiger’s athletic ability during feeding time. On the way, we passed through the dingo and farm animal enclosures.

It was pretty cool to see how tall the smallest tiger at the zoo was – a full eight feet when standing upright – and to watch him leap and climb for food. I also enjoyed seeing the bond between handler and tiger as they talked about how they had been with him since the day he was born. The comfort and respect shown between human and animal was really interesting to see.

After the tiger demonstration we walked through the rainforest aviary, filled with colorful free-flight birds, before visiting the wombats, snakes, and birds of prey.

Knowing we had another day of entry we decided to call it a day and head back to Brisbane. After a short courtesy bus ride and an hour long train journey we were back in the city and, soon, fast asleep in preparation for the next day.

The zoo part deux

We had a more leisurely start to the second day at the zoo, waking up a little later and taking the second train to Beerwah instead of the first. As soon as we arrived we headed straight for the exhibits we hadn’t previously seen. This included the otters, Tasmanian devils, and another look at the echidnas. First, we stopped to admire the Irwin family statue.

Shortly after we arrived we were treated to Otters Live! where the otters showed their intelligence, the handlers talked about their habits, and we learned the structure of an otter family. We also learned that Asian small-clawed otters are an indicator species, meaning that they act as an indicator of the ecological health of the region that they are occupying.

After the otter demonstration we visited the casowary and binturong enclosures to take a peak at some unique animals. We later heard the casowary referred to as a prehistoric murder turkey, which strikes us as accurate. Angela also posed with a barking owl and its handler.

We grabbed some ice cream and sauntered over to the Crocoseum to get ready for the big show at noon. The highlight show of the day was entertaining, if a little short. We were treated to some tropical birds, some birds of prey, dingoes, and an awesome crocodile feeding. It was all tied together with a video on the big screen by Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter himself.

Our final stop at the Australia Zoo was the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital. It only cost 2 AUD per person to enter and it was well worth it. We saw an orphaned baby kangaroo being bottle fed by a veterinary tech, witnessed some type of bird being operated on, and spoke with one of the helpful staff members at length about her experiences at the hospital.

We walked to the on-site bus stop and caught the bus to Caboolture, boarded the train to Brisbane, and were back in the city after a short delay because of telemetry issues. We stopped at Burger Project for dinner and each ordered The Aussie. The burger itself was delicious. The patty was a little thin, though, and left us both wanting more. After a brief stop at our hotel we walked through the City Botanic Gardens before heading to Bean Cafe (delightfully situated down a random alley next to a loading dock) to finish the day with some delicious flat whites. Then, it was back to the hotel to rest up for the next part of our adventure.

Journey to the cyclone zone

After two great days with an amazing array of wildlife, we were off to the Port Douglas area to experience a little bit of Northern Queensland and visit the intersection of two UNESCO Heritage sites. We left our hotel relatively early and arrived at the airport about half an hour later. After self-tagging and dropping our bags we went to the Qantas Business Lounge. There is a separate security checkpoint that was empty when we entered.

The lounge itself was quite nice and was a great place to get some work done before our flight up to CNS. Of course, it wasn’t a great sign when every staff member who found out our destination was like “Ha – good luck with the weather!” Regardless, I worked for a while while Angela read and we eventually made the three minute walk to our gate. The flight took a little over two hours and we landed into a surprisingly sunny Cairns.

We collected our bags and then, because our flight landed a bit early, we waited an hour for our scheduled shuttle to depart. We boarded the shuttle and, after an hour drive on windy roads through varying amounts of rain, we arrived at our hotel. We were upgraded to a studio suite with plenty of room and direct pool access. There was also a welcome amenity in our room with a full bottle of bubbles for Angela and a cheese and fruit plate for us to share.

Of course, it didn’t look like we’d be doing much swimming because of Cyclone Trevor. The weather report for our stay in Port Douglas showed rain throughout its entirety, but we were determined to have a good time.

We felt a bit peckish after checking in so visited the bar for some quick eats. We ordered a couple of cocktails (mine virgin, of course) and some BBQ pork buns. The drinks took forever to come out and the BBQ pork buns were adequate but nothing to write home about. When we settled our bill, the waitress, without us prompting in any way, removed the drinks from it because of the long wait. We headed back to the room and passed out in preparation for our action-packed week.

A brief lull in the action

On our first full day in Port Douglas we didn’t have anything specific planned so I took advantage of the time to get some work done. Other than working, we also headed into town to check out the local shops and restaurants. We took a twenty minute walk down Four Mile Beach to Port Douglas’s main street. We decided to grab some coffee at Origin Espresso alongside some doughnuts from Duke’s Doughnuts. The espresso was awesome and the doughnuts were great, especially the one that the barista gave us for free!

We stopped at the grocery store to pick up some snacks for the upcoming week and then took the regularly running shuttle back to our resort. Angela took her bottle of bubbles and we headed to the main lobby area to relax and get some work done. Unfortunately, the rain never appreciably abated so there was no opportunity for outdoor activities beyond the beach walk. That being said, we were excited for the following day.

Diving on the Great Barrier Reef

We awoke bright and early, ate a filling breakfast, and prepared for our trip out to Australia’s most famous natural landmark. We booked our reef trip with Quicksilver Cruises, a well-reviewed activity outfit operating out of Port Douglas. We opted for coach pickup at our hotel and stepped on board at 9:30AM. After a five minute ride, we obtained our boarding passes from the company’s storefront and headed to the boat. Unfortunately, the sun did not come out and we were stuck with rain and wind for our journey out.

Coffee, tea, and biscuits were served on board and Angela and I both grabbed a cup before heading upstairs. The ship started underway right on time and was immediately rocking back and forth by some modest swells. Neither Angela nor myself get sea-sick so the rocking wasn’t an issue for us but there were definitely people having some major difficulties on the journey out.

Shortly after the journey started we attended our dive briefing for the introductory diving activity we chose. This was mostly a repeat of the dive training we’d received in Sydney prior to our shark diving experience with the exception that we’d be in the open ocean this time. The briefing took about half an hour and then we just waited for arrival at the reef platform that Quicksilver has anchored near Agincourt Reef.

Upon arrival, we had about fifty minutes before our dive session. We moved on to the platform in pouring rain, changed into our Lycra bodysuits (for protection against jelly stingers), grabbed some flippers, and checked out the underwater observation platform for a few minutes while we anxiously awaited our dive.

At our appointed time, we headed to the dive platform and got ready. Our instructor was Hiromi and she was awesome. She made us feel very comfortable as she verified our basic skills and throughout the dive. After checking that all four of the people in our group could breathe underwater, change their regulators, and clear their masks, we headed down to the reef.

Our dive was scheduled to last for about half an hour and, during that time, we saw a wide array of aquatic life. We saw quite a few fish, a giant clam, a few brightly colored coral worms, and more. It was awesome swimming around under the ocean’s surface and it felt like we were experiencing life to its fullest. The reef was not as colorful as I expected on this dive, but the variety of life was definitely present. It was a real treat.

As soon as we surfaced, Hiromi expressed surprise that it was Angela and my first open ocean dive. She said we were naturals and definitely didn’t act like beginners. Afterwards, she mentioned we could dive again after half an hour for an additional charge and we immediately agreed. We went into the cafeteria area, prepared a couple of plates of food for our journey back and asked the kitchen staff to set them to the side, then went back to the diving platform. On our second dive, it was just the instructor, Angela, and me and it was awesome. We explored a much wider area of the reef and saw a ton of bright and colorful wildlife, including a trumpet fish, a lion fish, and a huge grouper. Most excitingly, we saw a whitetip reef shark in the open water about twenty feet from us. Angela got so excited she made a heart symbol to our dive leader with her fingers. We also saw parts of a research project being run by Quicksilver Cruises in conjunction with scientists in the Queensland area that is attempting to stimulate reef production by application of an electric current to a metal mesh.

Free swimming through the ocean was amazing. I wouldn’t trade the experience we had on this cruise for anything else in the world. After our second dive we changed out of our Lycra suits, grabbed our plates, and enjoyed the journey back to Port Douglas during which we talked about life and the world with one of the Quicksilver crew members, Scott. He was kind enough to draw us a map highlighting the best restaurants in Port Douglas on a seasickness bag.

We hopped on the coach back to our hotel and relaxed the rest of the day after a tiring, but amazing, trip to the Great Barrier Reef.

A brief lull in the action

We had scheduled a recovery day after our Great Barrier Reef excursion and I’m glad we did because it was an extremely wet one. There were bursts of torrential downpours interspersed with milder rainfall. Essentially, though, we were trapped inside with nothing to do for most of the day. The rain disappeared long enough for us to make our way into Port Douglas for dinner at Watergate which was recommended to us by staff working at our resort. The quality of the food and creativity in the dishes were both outstanding. We started with crocodile karaage, enjoyed kangaroo loin and chicken supreme stuffed with crocodile and prawns as our main, and finished the meal with a dark chocolate brownie. We left satisfied and ready to face the next day.

We awoke early on Saturday ready for our journey into the rainforest but, while we were at breakfast, we were informed that our tour had been canceled due to the paths being washed out by heavy rains. We were extremely disappointed but eagerly rebooked for the following day hoping things would clear up and we’d be able to go out. After two more hours of on-and-off rain, Angela and I decided to escape our hotel room and walk into town rather than pay the extortionate shuttle fee. The mile and a half walk was sweaty and hot but, thankfully, devoid of rainfall. Once in town we found a delightful little book shop, Whileaway, and ordered some drinks to sit in the air conditioning and escape the heat. We lingered for about an hour as the rain decided to restart as soon as we sat down.

It was lunch time and we were hungry so we ambled over to Salsa, another recommendation by a Port Douglas local. Do not be confused by the name as this is not a Mexican spot. It offered a wide array of foods that seemed to have little in common. We ordered chicken spring rolls to start with beef filet and tiger prawn linguine as our mains. The spring rolls, in particular, were incredibly rich in their depth of flavor and seemed to be curry based, which neither of us had experienced before. I would recommend this restaurant to anyone looking for an interesting and delicious meal. Afterwards we stopped into the local grocery store to stock up on provisions before walking back to the resort in the sun.

When we returned, we were lucky enough to get some time in the pool with a blue sky and enjoy the sun for another hour before the clouds rolled back in and it started to rain again. Overall, we made the best of a bad situation with our tour being canceled and crossed our fingers hoping things would be good to go the following day.

Tour into the rainforest

Our crossed fingers worked because our tour was on for the next day! We were picked up promptly at 7:25AM, joining three others, and headed out to Mossman Gorge, the first stop on our itinerary. We took a small hike up into the rainforest around the gorge and witnessed the raging Mossman River, elevated because of high rains, and the heavy flow of Rex Creek, similarly elevated. Our guide showed us a few species of plants and we spotted an awesome looking lizard.

Next, it was off to the Daintree River for a crocodile spotting cruise. We piled on to a small river boat with eight other people and set off down the murky river. There was ample evidence of storm and water damage from the three floods that have already occurred this year and the river was high on its banks due to the recent storms. It started raining about halfway into the cruise, but we managed to stay pretty dry.

The best part of the river cruise was spotting two crocodiles. The first was a juvenile about four feet in length. The second was a named mature female, Lizzy, about six feet in length. It was awesome seeing these apex predators in the wild. We got about twenty feet away from Lizzy at one point – close enough to admire her in detail. We were dropped off at the ferry pier, rejoining our tour guide.

From there, we stopped at a beach for a bit of tea and coffee before continuing on to a longer trek through the rainforest to admire some of the native flora and fauna. On the way from the beach to our trek, we got to witness a bit of Daintree humor.

The rainforest trek was awesome and full of incredible vistas. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

We stopped at Cape Tribulation after our rainforest trek and admired the beauty of David Attenborough’s favorite place.

After leaving Cape Tribulation it was a slow drive back to Port Douglas as the rain started up and we encountered a mudslide over the only road at one point. We stopped at one final lookout spot before heading back into town.

Overall, the Daintree Rainforest tour by Tony’s Tropical Tours was a delightful controlled trek through some some truly amazing scenery. The moments of sunshine highlighted the beauty even further, but I will say that the rain wasn’t all bad. It led to some truly amazing river vistas as they roared through the forest.

A quick trip to the land of the hip

Our final stop on our Australian journey was Melbourne. We packed up our things, ate some breakfast, and hopped on our coach back to the Cairns airport. Again, we relaxed at the QF business lounge for a few hours before boarding our plane for the three hour hop down to Victoria. The flight went by quickly, although by the time we got to Melbourne and suffered through a time change, it was already 6:30PM. I addressed an issue that had come up with work and then we headed out for dinner. We wanted to go casual on our first night and chose Metro Burgers.

We both ordered the Metro Supreme with an extra patty and it may just be the best burger I’ve ever had. The seasoning was great, the toppings were fresh, and there was just the right amount of mess. Also, we made the dude sitting next to us audibly laugh after I told Angela “It’s easy to eat this – just unhinge your jaw like a snake and take a bite.”

After burgers we decided to grab some doughnuts for dessert and wandered over to Walker’s Doughnuts. Angela chose a glazed jam-filled doughnut and I opted for a French toast ring. Both were exceptionally well-cooked and flavored. I highly recommend Walker’s for anyone looking for a treat.

After that, it was back to our room to relax and prepare for the day of tourism we had ahead of us.

A walk through Melbourne

After a delicious breakfast at our hotel, we set off into Melbourne to experience the hum of the city. Our agenda for the day was simple and consisted of walking through a bunch of parks, doing some light shopping for some individuals we were meeting, and visiting the State Library of Victoria. We accomplished all that and more.

We couldn’t get started until we had some coffee, though, so we made our first stop at Dukes Coffee Roasters for some flat whites. The place was packed and, we found out, for good reason. The drinks we had were delicious.

Afterwards, it was off to Fitzroy gardens for a brief stroll and some picture taking. The amount of green in Melbourne is awesome and, by this point, we were already excitedly talking about it being a place we’d love to live. We saw several groups exercising and meditating in the park, including a promotion being filmed for Active April, a government-run campaign prompting people to get up and move around.

Our next stop was the Carlton Gardens but, unfortunately, much of the space was blocked off due to the forthcoming Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. We still experienced about half the park and got to see the facade of the Royal Exhibition Building, an impressive structure in its own right.

Next up was the State Library of Victoria, a modern civil engineering marvel. The big draw is the reading room’s dome, but there is a variety of exhibitions inside of the library itself that are worth seeing.

From there, it was time for a walk across town to a boutique pet shop to get some treats for Fitz, Noodle, and Frankie. The latter two are Australian dachshunds who we met via Instagram and arranged meetings with in Melbourne. The walk through the city was quite enjoyable and led me to believe that Melbourne is, basically, a cleaner San Francisco. The city views on our stroll were great.

We stopped for a brief respite back at our hotel before continuing across the Yarra River to the South Bank where we walked through three more gardens before arriving at the Shrine of Remembrance, a memorial built to honor those who served in The Great War and later extended to include a courtyard and other structures honoring World War II veterans and those from other conflicts. We were not expecting this, but there is a huge museum dedicated to Australian war efforts throughout their history underneath the memorial itself. We ended up spending a majority of the afternoon there, only leaving five minutes before close.

We strolled back to the hotel, got dressed, and headed to dinner at Bistrot d’Orsay. The restaurant was located, literally, across the street from where we were staying and had amazing reviews on every site that I looked. Unfortunately, we walked away a bit underwhelmed. The food was good, but the meal wasn’t special in any meaningful way and Angela left feeling slightly unsatisfied.

Not to worry, of course, as we were able to easily wrangle up a drink and small meal in the Lobby Lounge at our hotel. The chicken wings we ordered were delicious and Angela’s Westin Mule was, reportedly, a great way to finish off the day.

Cafe crawl and the dachshund community brings people together

On our last full day in Australia we decided to avail ourselves of the local cafe culture and opted for a guided tour by a local. We met a few blocks from our hotel and sampled a variety of local coffee spots, a patisserie, a chocolatier, and ended at a hip cafe for lunch. Along the way, we were given a brief glimpse into the history of Melbourne and, specifically, the coffee and restaurant scene.

We were on the tour with one other American and an older Australian couple. Robert, the retired Australian electrician, and I really hit it off. So much that, apparently, our guide joked about giving us our time to ourselves at one point. I loved talking to the Australian couple and understanding their perspective on the world and on life.

After our tour concluded, we were off to Chokolait so that Angela could get a Pavlova before we left Australia. It is one of the country’s most famous dishes and, from all reports, this particular shop makes a delicious one.

Angela took a bite, stored the rest, and then we jumped on the tram for a very important date with Noodle and Alison at Journeyman Cafe.

We had a wide-ranging chat with Alison, gave Noodle some gentle pats while admiring his handsomeness, and enjoyed another great cup of coffee. We said our goodbyes when the cafe closed and walked to the St. Kilda Pier to see the sunset and wait to see our first penguins in the wild. Our stroll included some interesting sites and we were lucky enough to see some of the little penguins after the sun went down.

A last day of decadence and the long journey home

On our last day in Australia, I must admit that we slept in. We’d done so much over the previous two weeks that we decided to rest a bit before a long day and a half including an 18 hour time change. After we awoke, though, we were out in the streets and eating and drinking everything in sight. We stopped at three separate cafes for espresso: Sensory Lab, Pelligrini’s, and Brother Baba Budan. Sensory Lab’s espresso was bitter and Angela didn’t bother drinking hers but both Pelligrini’s and Brother Baba Budan were delicious! In fact, Brother Baba Budan had such good coffee that I bought beans to bring back to the United States for my favorite local barista. We finished with another stop at Dukes Coffee Roasters.

We didn’t just drink coffee, though! We also stopped at Koko Black for some chocolate truffles, a cupcake from Little Cupcakes, and a crossaint from the aforementioned Dukes Coffee Roasters.

After packing up, we checked out and were off to meet with another Melbourne dachshund, Frankie! We had a delightful afternoon with Frankie and her pawrents with a wide-ranging conversation over the course of more than two hours. It was an amazing way to end our time in Australia.

We took the tram halfway back to our hotel before it stopped unexpectedly due to a tram accident on the rails ahead. It was a walk of about a mile from there where we picked up our bags and headed to the airport. Check-in was extremely pleasant with the agent asking us if we wanted to sit together and then saying “Oh – you’re actually in the best seats on the Dreamliner so I’ll just leave you there.” We visited the Qantas Business lounge after picking up some Tim Tams at the airport shop, ate some decent food, and waited patiently for our flight.

We boarded about forty minutes before departure and, before long, we were off to the USA. The seats on QF’s Dreamliner are quite comfortable, if a little firm, and I had enough storage space for my phone, laptop, and Nintendo Switch. Pajamas were provided, a rarity for business class in my experience.

The flight attendants provided friendly service throughout the flight and the meal served shortly after takeoff was delicious. Angela and I both opted for the barramundi with polenta and I’m happy I did.

After dinner, Angela and I chose to snooze and we were both awake with about four hours remaining in the flight. We entertained ourselves until the light dinner served about ninety minutes before landing and, before we knew it, we were back in the United States. Once we landed, we decided we’d rather go home than overnight in San Francisco so I booked a Southwest flight using Rapid Rewards points and our companion pass. After a short car ride, we were home and unpacking.

Some thoughts and what we would do different

We learned a lot during this trip, the most important being that we loved all of the places we visited in Australia, Melbourne in particular. Each major city was beautiful in its own right and diving on the Great Barrier Reef is an experience that we’ll never forget. We can’t wait to go back in the future and explore more of the country, including Tasmania and Western Australia, and will almost certainly return to the Cairns / Port Douglas area at some point, as well.

If we could go back in time and revise our trip there are only a few changes we’d likely make. First, we might start in Northern Queensland and then work our way down the coastline. In addition, we would try to visit when there isn’t an active cyclone drenching Port Douglas in rain. Finally, I would choose to stay somewhere somewhere a little nicer when in Brisbane so that we would have water pressure during our showers. Other than that, I was happy with our schedule and activities and look forward to a future return to the country.

Valentine’s Day in the City
A Whirlwind NYC Adventure

We recently took a trip to New York City, this time for an entire week. It was Angela’s fourth visit in the last year and a half (fifth overall) and my third as a tourist. We spent most of our time in Manhattan, as we did on previous trips, but finally journeyed to one of the other boroughs. About half of our travel was booked using airline miles.

Each trip to New York City has been a unique experience with echoes of familiarity. We try some new things, we partake in some activities that are reminiscent of times past, and we return to our favorite spots. Most importantly, we try to act like we’re not tourists even though we definitely are. I love the city and Angela loves it even more than I do – that’s why we continue to visit.

Planning (and booking) the trip

Our last trip to NYC as a couple was over Valentine’s Day in 2018. It was a surprise for Angela – she didn’t know we were going somewhere until 24 hours from departure and didn’t know where we were going until we were on the way to the airport – and it was our first time traveling in luxury. We flew JetBlue Mint, stayed at the St. Regis NYC and the Park Hyatt NYC, and spent the entire time relaxing without a care in the world.

This trip was going to be different. We’d be gone for a week, meaning I’d need to work in the early mornings and evenings. I was hoarding Marriott Rewards points for luxury stays at properties that we haven’t previously visited so we’d be paying cash for lodging even though we still wanted to stay in Midtown, a notoriously expensive part of Manhattan. Finally, we wanted to maximize our time in the city so we needed to take that into consideration alongside award availability when booking our flights.

With these things in mind, and the idea that I wasn’t trying to best our previous luxury trip, I set out to start booking. As with all of our trips, I started with the flights.

Flying west to east across the United States is tough, especially on a transcontinental flight. First, you “lose” three hours because of time zone changes. Combine that with a five hour flight and you’re looking at a day that is wasted on travel. With that in mind, I knew we’d be flying direct from LAS-NYC on the outbound. There are a few airlines that fly that route with a business class cabin, but the clear winner in terms of product is JetBlue Mint. Luckily, it is generally affordable as far as domestic transcontinental premium class seats go, sometimes getting as low as $449 each way.

I didn’t want to pay cash for the flight if I could avoid it. As such, Angela applied for the JetBlue Plus credit card when we were booking a different JetBlue flight. At the time, the sign up bonus on the card was 60,000 points. On top of that, Angela earned 6 points per dollars on the flight purchase we made and eventually earned points from flying the itinerary we booked. From this activity, we had enough to book our LAS-JFK flights for 83,600 TrueBlue points + $11.20. We booked early enough that we were able to choose the throne style seats in the second row to maximize our experience.

I had a very specific itinerary in mind for our return to Las Vegas as I wanted to try American Airline’s Flagship First offering, including the Flagship First Dining experience at JFK. I set availability alerts via ExpertFlyer for February 17th to the 21st. Eventually, two seats in first class opened up on the JFK-LAX route and I was able to book JFK-LAX-LAS in Flagship First followed by a short economy segment. A few months later, domestic first class opened up on LAX-LAS and American Airlines moved us into the premium cabin after a quick phone call. This booking cost 100,000 American AAdvantage miles + $22.40 which we generated by signing up for the Citibank AAdvantage Platinum Select card, among other activities.

I considered a variety of options for lodging and looked at a plethora of different offers, including those through a Virtuoso agent. I settled on the JW Marriott Essex House. It has an executive lounge, so I’d have somewhere to work, is located on the southern edge of Central Park, and is part of the Marriott portfolio. It was somewhat serendipitous because I stumbled upon their Long Term Stay rate by accident and it was considerably lower than any other property in the same tier in all of Manhattan. The rate did not show on the comparison pages, but appeared when I clicked through to the property. In addition, I booked through TopCashback when they were running a 10% back promotion to save a bit more cash.

An excellent flight and an unpleasant arrival

Our outbound journey started early with a 4:45 AM departure from our house in preparation for a 6:30 AM flight. We scheduled car service through the company we generally work with, Personal Sedan Service, West Coast. Our driver was at our house ahead of time and we were at the airport in about half an hour. Security was empty and we were at our gate ten minutes after being dropped at the front of the airport. Unlike most of our journeys, this one didn’t start with a trip to The Centurion Lounge because they don’t start serving hot breakfast until 6AM and we knew we’d be getting good food and coffee on the plane.

JetBlue Mint continues to be an amazing product. We were the first people on the plane and, after quickly stowing our bags, were offered our choice of pre-departure beverages. I opted for coffee while Angela chose to imbibe some sparkling wine to start the day. Shortly after take off we were asked for our meal choices – in Mint you’re offered six dishes and asked to pick three. Between the two of us we sampled:

  • Fresh Fruit (which included kiwi, my favorite)
  • Red Wine Poached Pear with Yogurt and Granola
  • Chicken Sausage (which doesn’t count towards your selection of dishes)
  • Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding (Nick)
  • Cheese & Chive Biscuit Sandwich (Angela)

Every single item we were served was delicious with the poached pear plate being particularly sublime. I chose to have my meal accompanied by an Americano whereas Angela’s beverage of choice was a cappuccino. Both were surprisingly delicious given how rare it is to receive a good espresso drink on a plane.

The rest of the flight passed without incident besides some minor turbulence on our descent into New York City. I was able to get copious amounts of work done thanks to the free and fast in-flight WiFi and even managed to play some Zelda: Breath of the Wild on my new Nintendo Switch during the journey. We arrived at JFK after an extremely comfortable five hours, walked down the jet bridge that was partially covered in snow, and strolled the twenty minutes to the Terminal 5 taxi stand. We grabbed a taxi into Manhattan, our preferred mode of transport from JFK, and quickly checked in to our room.

On the day we arrived, the streets were covered in grey slush and it was below freezing. We got splashed by passing cars because our driver refused to go around the block to drop us off at our hotel and made us get out and cross the street carrying our bags, so we decided to call it an early night after picking up some water and snacks from a nearby CVS. We ordered room service, grabbed coffee from the Executive Lounge, and watched some documentaries on Netflix as we prepared for the next couple of busy days.

Instagram friends, delicious food, and a new cultural experience

We awoke the next day to cold weather and, thankfully, no precipitation. The sun was shining as we left the hotel for our first trip to Brooklyn. We were particularly excited because we were meeting up with a friend we made via Instagram.

How exactly does one make a friend via Instagram? Well, it starts with posting pictures of our dog, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, on an account we created to share photos and videos of him. Creating that account led to us interacting with other dachshund accounts on Instagram and eventually getting to know the people behind the dogs. We corresponded with Noodles and his owner, Lori, extensively over the last year and developed a rapport. I reached out to Lori to see if she wanted to meet up after I finalized our trip itinerary and she was gracious enough to say yes!

Lori sent us directions to a spot convenient for her and she warmly greeted us shortly after we got off the train. We said a gentle hello to Noodles but were careful to maintain our distance until he got to know us. While it was tough because he’s so darn cute, we knew from Lori that it was the appropriate thing to do. We took a brisk walk around their neighborhood and chatted about Noodles’ origin story and how Lori ended up with him.

Luckily, he warmed up to us by the time we finished our walk and we were graced with the opportunity to give him some pets and snout rubs before parting ways. He also greatly enjoyed the treats that Fitz sent his way from our local pet boutique.

While it was time for Noodles to rest, Lori joined us for a treat at Little Cupcake Bakeshop, our favorite bakery in the world. Angela and I enjoyed our favorite cakes, the Brooklyn Blackout and Dreaming Princess, respectively. They were delicious, as always. If you are ever in New York City, be sure to stop for an amazing dessert.

We talked with Lori most of the afternoon about anything and everything. She told us about growing up in Brooklyn and what it’s like as a native New Yorker. We told her the story of us, a story we never tire of relaying. We talked about parents and how they are all the same in their worries, whether they’re from rural Indiana or live in one of the largest cities in the country. It was an excellent afternoon of conversation and one I won’t soon forget.

To be honest, I had become a bit disenchanted by social media over the last few years as it morphed into something far from my naive vision of possibility. This afternoon restored some of my faith that it can be used to connect people rather than divide them if you put in the effort.

We hopped on the train and stopped briefly at our hotel before heading off to dinner at The Greek Kitchen. As always, I was lucky enough to dine with a one-of-a-kind beauty.

The dinner was great! Everything we ordered was flavorful and fresh. Our order consisted of the following.

  • Avgolemono soup for each of us
  • Red wine marinated grilled octopus to share
  • Grilled salmon with side salad for Nick
  • Mixed grill with side salad for Angela
  • Galaktoboureko for dessert, a sweet custard pie with a unique texture

I highly recommend any and all of these dishes if you happen to stop in to this restaurant. To finish off our meal, I enjoyed a Double Greek which I’m fairly certain made me sprout at least a dozen brand new chest hairs. After eating our fill, we walked over to Lincoln Center to see our first opera, Don Giovanni.

After seeing this show, Angela and I decided that we are fans of opera as an art form and excited to see more in the future. The story was interesting, the singing was top notch, and the music was sublime. I’m really glad that we tried something new and enjoyed it so much. A brisk walk back to our hotel ended with us in the downstairs bar. Angela ordered a Moscow Mule and it came out strong as the bartender gave her a heavy pour of vodka. I asked if there were any non-alcoholic cocktails available and he looked at me like I had a third eye before stammering that he could make me a Virgin Mojito. That’s how I ended up with a fancy $14 glass of Sprite.

Visiting the crown and a theatrical experience for the ages

We woke up the next morning excited for another adventure and one that I’ve been thinking about since I was a kid. We hopped on the train to head downtown, exited near Battery Park, and retrieved the tickets for our cruise to Liberty Island. We had previously visited the Statue of Liberty but this time was going to be different because we had secured tickets for the crown. In addition, we’d be able to explore Ellis Island together as it was closed on our previous visit due to damage from Hurricane Sandy.

The ferry ride was pleasant, if a bit cold, and the sight of Lady Liberty as we drew near to the island was just as breathtaking the second time as it was the first. We wanted to make sure we left enough time to fully explore Ellis Island so we made a beeline for the crown access stairway and immediately started our ascent. It was awesome seeing the interior skeleton and copper skin of one of the most audacious pieces of engineering of the nineteenth century.

The climb was easy for us, especially compared to some of the staircases we faced in Europe over the last couple of years. That wasn’t true for the person in front of us, though, so we had to stop four times over the course of 146 stairs from the pedestal to crown. Once we reached the top, we crowded on to the observation platform with a few other people and took some pictures. The windows are small and the viewing platform was packed with only six people on it. Nonetheless, I was glad we had chosen to make the climb and fulfill one of my childhood dreams.

After we left the crown we stopped on the pedestal for a few pictures of the Manhattan skyline and the statue herself. It was an exceptionally clear day and we were able to get some great shots.

From there, we headed to Ellis Island. The ferry ride is short and the museum is exceptionally assembled. The exhibit on the first floor shows how people came to the United States from every corner of the globe; some of their own volition, some through coercion, and some through force. It tells the stories of those immigrants and the reasons behind their journey.

The second floor is divided into two parts. The first was a recreation of the processing flow for immigrants arriving in New York Harbor from the late nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century. It showed how an immigrant would proceed from initial examination through admittance. The second part of the museum contained details of virulent anti-immigrant sentiments throughout American history. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose.

We left Ellis Island on the last ferry that would leave us a reasonable amount of time to freshen up before dinner. After a brief stop at our hotel to change, we headed to Basso56, one of Angela’s favorite restaurants in Manhattan. The dinner was fabulous and I highly recommend the location if you’re looking for some rustic Italian dishes. From dinner, we made our way to the Richard Rodgers theater to see Hamilton for the third time. This was going to be special, though, because of the seats I’d been able to purchase during a Ticketmaster Verified Fan offering. We were lucky enough to be seated third row center.

I was excited but also a little worried that the experience wouldn’t be meaningfully different from our last visit to the theater. In the worst case, we’d realize it is better to sit higher up. It turns out that my fears were entirely unfounded. The entire experience was incredible. Seeing the actors emote throughout the show and embrace their roles in the context of the stage is something that you can’t appreciate without being so close. I can only describe the show as emotionally intense and well worth the expense.

Duty calls, but we took breaks for tacos, burgers, and cupcakes

After a few days full of activities, I needed to spend Friday working. However, Angela eventually dragged me out of the hotel to go eat lunch and, eventually, dinner. We headed to Tacombi for lunch to enjoy some tacos. We decided to visit this particular eatery because of a recommendation from another dachshund account on Instagram, Django.

That dachshund really knows his tacos because they were delicious! We tried a wide variety including chicken, beef, pastor, seared fish, and battered fish. Each taco was delicious in its own way. I highly recommend Tacombi to anyone looking for tacos in Manhattan.

After lunch, we went to Gregory’s Coffee to enjoy a CBD latte at the recommendation of our local barista, Adrian, at Desert Wind Coffee Roasters. Unfortunately, New York City embargoed CBD as a food additive a few days before our visit so we couldn’t try it. We procured some other coffee drinks and I headed back to work for the rest of the day. Of course, the embargo was postponed a few days later and we didn’t hear about it until we got home. Oh well!

For dinner, we headed uptown to procure some miniature cupcakes at Two Little Red Hens (on Lori’s recommendation) before having dinner at Hero Certified Burgers. It was a good burger at a good price with friendly staff and a reasonably convenient location. I’d go back in the future, if only for the giant slab of cheddar that was placed on my dual patty burger.

We walked back to the hotel along the eastern edge of Central Park and enjoyed the buzz of the city around us.

We visited a graveyard and ate a ton of ethnic food

Saturday was another day full of adventure and eating and started in the mid-morning after getting some work done earlier. We took the train downtown to Trinity Church to pay our respects to Alexander and Eliza Hamilton. It was interesting seeing the monument to a man who had such a consequential impact on history. It is, all at once, a reminder that everyone dies but that the things we do when we’re alive matter.

After leaving the church, we stopped by Laughing Man Cafe for a couple of flat whites, apparently the official coffee drink of Australia, on our way to buy some fancy candles. Laughing Man is a company founded by Hugh Jackman to support coffee farming communities and the families that produce coffee in an environmentally friendly manner. The coffee was good, but not the best I’ve ever had. I did enjoy the flat white’s texture, though, and I look forward to having many more on our upcoming trip down under.

After stopping at the Cire Trudon boutique and picking up a few Egyptian themed specialty candles, we were off for some grub from Angela’s childhood at Little Poland. If you walk in and are not sure what you’re in for, they have this article hanging on the wall by the door.

We each enjoyed a hearty bowl of chicken noodle soup and split a combination platter of kielbasa, potato pierogies, gawumpki, and sauerkraut. It was intensely delicious and Angela said it brought back memories of her childhood and her great-grandmother.

We passed on Polish dessert in favor of , a cookie dough boutique. We sat in Washington Square Park and enjoyed people and dog watching while we imbibed our sweets. We even saw a pair of dachshunds come by and give us the stare down while we were lounging. Afterwards, it was back to the room for an afternoon and evening of work.

Around 9PM we started getting hungry and I decided I wanted to try Tim Ho Wan’s Hell’s Kitchen location. I have read such amazing reviews about the restaurant that originated in Hong Kong that I couldn’t wait to try it for myself. The food was, unfortunately, not very good. Many of the dishes seemed to be overcooked and really lacked the meat I’d expect them to have. Some of the items just tasted bad, in my opinion. To say I was shocked would be a bit of an understatement given the rave reviews the restaurant has received for its Hong Kong and Tokyo locations. I was glad we tried something new, but disappointed in the dishes we were served.

Pondering abstract art and steakhouse delights

In case Angela hasn’t informed you yet, she’s a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As such, we try to make it there every time we’re in the city. There’s always something new to see or experience. On this trip, we were treated to The Daguerrotypes of Girault de Prangey, Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera, and Jewelry: The Body Transformed.

Each exhibit was interesting in its own right. We particularly enjoyed the daguerrotypes because many of them were produced in locations we’d recently visited in Italy. It was interesting to compare our recent memories of the landscapes with the nineteenth century portraiture.

Abstract art is always fun to look at. Some pieces are certainly easier to appreciate than others, but I think we can all agree that it is extremely easy to enjoy the conversations of people who are looking at a piece of art and eventually giving up and saying “I don’t get it.”

After closing down the museum, we wandered down to Benjamin Steakhouse and had an absolutely incredible meal. From start to finish, the dishes and service were both exceptional. We opted for the following:

  • Caprese salad
  • French onion soup (Angela)
  • Porterhouse for two
  • Sauteed mushrooms
  • Apple strudel a la mode

We sat at the bar because I didn’t make a reservation. Even with that caveat, the dining experience was great and the bartender, Andrea, took great care of us throughout the night. This is one of those restaurants that I’ll return to again and again and again.

Amazing doughnuts and a late night experience

Monday was a big day for us and one we’d been anticipating for a few months. It started off with a visit to The Doughnut Project for some of the best doughnuts we’ve ever had. I chose a Peanut Butter & Jelly and Angela chowed down on a Chandonut Rose.

Then, we were on the way to the Ed Sullivan theater to wait in line for our visit to The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Stephen Colbert has long been one of our favorite comedians so it was a real treat to see him live. The show itself was free, but getting tickets and attending is a whole process.

First, you need to request tickets from the ticket vendor for the show. I started monitoring availability about six weeks out from when we’d be in New York City and, as soon as the dates that we would prefer became available, I created an account and made a ticket request. About a week later, I was notified that my request for two tickets had been accepted and that I could claim them. We were lucky enough to get Priority tickets.

The tickets you get outline a deadline for when you have to be present in order to gain admission to the theater. However, I’d read on several different blogs and on TripAdvisor that it was best to show up a few hours before the deadline to get in line and make sure you got good seats. We arrived at the theater around 2PM even though check-in wasn’t supposed to start until 3PM. I’m glad we did – we were the 10th and 11th people in line.

We waited outside in 39 degree weather after receiving our admission wristbands and had to wait until 3:30PM to enter the theater. At that point, we were all herded into a line and people were allowed to use the bathroom. It is highly recommended that you go when you have the opportunity because you are not able to leave the taping once it starts. After everyone has a chance to use the restroom, you are herded into the theater after being informed multiple times that you need to turn your cell phone off and cannot take it out, even to check the time, or you’ll be escorted out of the taping.

Once in the theater a comedian, Paul Mecurio came out to warm up the crowd and get us loud, the Late Show’s stage manager came out to show us the signal for when we’d need to be on our feet, and then Jon Baptiste and Stay Human came out and played a bit. Finally, Stephen Colbert came out and took some questions from the audience before the show started taping in earnest. The rest of it is pretty much what you see on your screen with some modifications for time.

It was a great experience. I loved it and loved being in the crowd. Colbert is just as charismatic and funny in real life as he is on the screen and I’m so glad we spent the afternoon and evening attending the show. I don’t know if I’d go through it all again, but I was happy to do it once.

After the taping we ventured to Pazza Notte for pizza. The service was friendly and the toppings were fresh and tasty, but the crust was mediocre. There are much better pizza places in New York City and wouldn’t recommend a visit here.

A relaxing morning and the long journey home

On our final day in the city we spent the morning and early afternoon relaxing and decompressing. We hit the gym, drank some coffee, did some work, and packed up for our journey home. Before long, we were in a cab on our way to JFK with a taxi driver telling us how hospitals poison everyone’s blood. It was an experience.

Once at JFK we made our way to American Airline’s Flagship First Dining area inside the Flagship Lounge. It was everything I hoped it would be. The dining is a la carte and it was amazing. In fact, the food was better than most restaurants I’ve eaten at. We had the following:

  • Crab stuffed shrimp (Angela)
  • Duck confit egg roll (Nick)
  • Demkota ranch filet mignon
  • Chocolate brownie sundae

The steak was cooked perfectly medium-rare which is not always the case when we go out to eat. The service was exceptional, with Richard, our waiter, taking a particular interest in my laptop such that we ended up talking technical specifications for the new desktop I had recently built alongside discussing which mechanical keyboard is best. After dinner we relaxed at our table with copious refills of espresso and sparkling water before heading to our gate.

If you have access to Flagship First Dining at JFK, do not skip it! It was worth jumping over Las Vegas on the way to Los Angeles and doubling back.

The seats in Flagship First on American Airline’s 32T were extremely comfortable and the in-flight service was great. I ate again on the plane and the food was better than the average that you’d have at 30,000 feet. Furthermore, I was able to get some sleep on the lay-flats and stretch in the aisle when needed because there was so much space.

After arriving in LAX we took the airport shuttle to the Renaissance LAX, where we have stayed previously for quick overnights. We checked in, got our five hours of sleep, and headed back to the airport for the short domestic first flight on an American Airline’s 32S to LAS. The seat was comfortable and there was tons of leg room on this flight.

In all, I was quite pleased with this trip and I look forward to a return to New York City.

An Eastern Excursion
Our First Trip to Asia

In late September and early October, Angela and I took our first trip to Asia with stays in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Kyoto. We sprinkled in several day trips from Kyoto to ensure our experience was as varied as possible. Over two and a half weeks, we experienced the best hotel stays ever, walked more than a hundred and fifty miles in hot and humid conditions, experienced wind gusts from a typhoon, and enjoyed a lot of what Japan and Hong Kong have to offer.

In addition, this was our first international trip primarily funded with credit card points and airline miles so I’ll explain how I planned the trip with an eye on minimizing the out of pocket costs while maximizing the sense of luxury.

Why these places?

Before last year, we had no specific intention to travel to Japan or Hong Kong. We knew we’d eventually end up in Asia because we have a strong interest in interacting with elephants in Thailand, but we didn’t feel like a trip to the continent was a huge priority. However, after learning of an award travel sweet spot (which I’ll cover in more detail shortly), I decided it was an opportunity that we had to take advantage of before it disappeared. With the schedule flexibility that I’m afforded due to my line of work, there’s no reason not to grab the high value awards while they exist. For what it is worth, this is a continuation of the reasoning that led to our trip to Mauritius.

The sweet spot specifically covered air travel to Japan. As long as we were so far from home, I reasoned we should visit at least one additional country. After doing some reading, I settled on Hong Kong for our short intermission from Japan because it would be different enough to provide a meaningfully unique experience and small enough to hit some highlights during a relatively short stay.

Planning the trip

This trip was going to be a big one, so I planned it in several stages using things I’ve learned from reading the /r/churning and /r/awardtravel subreddits along with various blogs, nearly all of which are aggregated at Miles Feed. I had a basic outline of how long I wanted us to spend on the trip and where I wanted us to go and I worked from there to keep costs relatively low while providing us with a luxurious experience.

Booking the sweet spot

The focal point of this particular trip was the round trip flight for two people to Japan from the United States and, as such, that was the item I worked on booking first. Booking award flights can be complicated and it can be difficult to gauge if you’re getting a good value, but this one was fairly straightforward. There are clear restrictions on what can be booked, an easily determined value for the booking, and a coherent set of steps to follow.

A round trip ANA First Class flight from the west coast of North America can be booked (at the time of this writing) using 110,000 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles plus taxes and fees. The flight must be operated by ANA and both the outbound and inbound flights must be non-stop from (or to) a North American gateway city to (or from) Japan. I searched for availability on United’s website, called Virgin Atlantic to put the tickets on hold, transferred over the miles needed from American Express Membership Rewards, and then called Virgin Atlantic to finalize the booking.

I was able to transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles at a ratio of 1 point to 1.3 miles because of a limited time transfer bonus (that has since been repeated every six months or so). As such, it only required 170,000 total Membership Rewards points to make the booking. The Membership Rewards points were earned via a single signup bonus (and the spending required for it) on my American Express Business Platinum Card.

The total cash outlay for taxes and fees was $166.12. The retail value of the tickets (at the time I made the booking) was $35,897.32. I will cover the flight experience in more detail later in this post.

Positioning flights and a single overnight

Once the linchpin of the trip was in place, it was time to consider what to fit around it. The first piece was positioning flights. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we generally fly Southwest on positioning flights from LAS to whatever hub we need to be in if we can’t build a flight from our home city into the main itinerary for some reason.

That’s what we did here, with a single overnight in Los Angeles at the beginning of the trip before leaving from LAX the next day. On the return, I only built in enough buffer to get through customs and to our gate for the flight home. I chose an overnight on the outbound because I wanted to make sure to account for anything that might go wrong – I’d hate to lose such a valuable booking because of a flight delay on an hour long flight!

I used Southwest Rapid Rewards points earned from credit card sign up bonuses for the positioning flights and paid a total of $22.40 in taxes and fees (we used our Companion Pass to stretch the points even further).

For our overnight, I chose the Renaissance LAX. I’m a big fan of the Renaissance brand, in general, but it also happened to be the cheapest property near the airport with free shuttle service. We tend to prioritize Marriott properties given that I currently hold Platinum Premier Elite status with Marriott and we do almost all of our hotel bookings in my name. We paid cash for this stay.

Japan to Hong Kong and back again

As my plans developed, I knew I wanted us to spend a few nights in Tokyo, a few nights in Hong Kong, fly back to the Kansai region of Japan to stay there as a home base for day trips, and then finish our trip in Tokyo before heading home. I’d read that booking short, single segment flights is best done with British Airways Avios and knew that there were a couple of quality Oneworld partners that might have availability. I also knew that I wanted us to experience a multitude of airlines on this trip so we can best decide where to spend our miles in the future.

The first regional flight I booked was HND to HKG on Japan Airlines. This flight was scheduled on a retrofitted 777-200ER featuring JAL’s brand new Sky Suite III.

The return to Japan was booked on Cathay Pacific from HKG to KIX flying their recently introduced A350. We had previously enjoyed this particular aircraft from MRU to CDG during our vacation to Mauritius and I was eager to try it again with another carrier.

Each flight was 40,000 BA Avios for the two of us in business (20,000 each). The total taxes and fees were $71.84 and $83.16, respectively. I transferred the Avios from Chase Ultimate Rewards which we earn from ongoing spend on dining and travel as well as through my business.

Figuring out where to stay

With our major transport booked, it was time to figure out where we were staying and for how long. I wanted our hotel stays to match our prospective activities, which I had basically determined as the following:

  • Three night stay in Tokyo – two full days of tourism while fighting jet lag
  • Three night stay in Hong Kong – one full day of tourism and one full day of work
  • Seven night stay in the Kansai region – day trips with a relatively heavy workload in the evening
  • Three night stay in Tokyo – remaining tourist activities with a heavy dose of relaxation

With this outline in mind, I booked a standard room at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo for 12,000 World of Hyatt points a night for our first stay in Tokyo. I knew we’d be spending a minimal amount of time in the room and we’d be so exhausted at night that we would fall asleep as long as there was a comfortable bed. A business hotel seemed perfect. I transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards to the World of Hyatt program for this booking.

For Hong Kong, I booked a stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong on a cash rate to ensure that we’d have the view I wanted without having to rely on an upgrade. I booked a room with Club Lounge access so we could relax, eat our fill of food, and so that I’d have a pleasant place to work. To be quite frank, staying at this hotel was a big reason we were even going to Hong Kong in the first place, so there was never really any question about where we were staying during this part of our trip.

In the Kansai region, I redeemed a 7-night certificate (that I’d received as part of a travel package redemption that included United Airlines miles used to book a future trip) for a Deluxe Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto. Our day trips wouldn’t take all day, so I wanted somewhere comfortable for Angela and I to relax and for me to work comfortably at night. It helped that this is one of the best reviewed Ritz-Carlton properties in the entire world.

For the final part of our trip, I booked us into a standard room at the Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills for 25,000 World of Hyatt points a night. I knew we’d want somewhere to relax, comfortably, as we prepared to return to normal life and this seemed like just the place. Additionally, I really wanted to try out the Andaz brand to see if it would be a good fit for us during future travels. Again, I transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points to the World of Hyatt program for this booking.

Getting around

The final piece of the puzzle was how to get around Japan and Hong Kong. Luckily, this part proved extremely straightforward. For our time in Japan, we purchased the Japan Rail Pass for long-distance journeys between airports and cities. Once in Tokyo, we purchased a Pasmo card for each of us. Pasmo is a branded reloadable IC card usable on mass transit around many Japanese cities, including Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.

For our stop in Hong Kong, I purchased a round trip airport express card with three days of unlimited mass transit travel for each of us. It was the easiest option, but not strictly the most economical. I was willing to spend a little bit more for flexibility and ease of use.

Through the judicious use of HyperDia for figuring out time tables on longer journeys and Google Maps for finding subway routes, we didn’t have any problems getting around. It helped that most major transit stations had copious amounts of English, as well.

A great start in an unexpected place

As previously mentioned, our first stop was the Renaissance LAX for a quick overnight. The team at the hotel reached out to me via email a few days before the stay asking what our plans were and when we’d be arriving. I wrote back with a few quick details, including our flight times, and indicated we would be staying a single night before we jetted of to Japan the next day.

Upon arrival, we were automatically upgraded to a very nice junior suite. Concurrently with our entry into our room, a staff member arrived and delivered a huge charcuterie board with crackers, cheeses, meats, and some pickled vegetables. We also received a complementary bottle of wine. Most surprisingly, the tray included a personal note wishing us well on our trip – it even had a big sticker of Mount Fuji on it!

To say the staff at the Renaissance LAX went above and beyond would be an understatement. Most importantly, the room was clean, cozy, and comfortable. We had a few bites at the on-site restaurant, Studio 12, and were delighted by the quality and variety of what was on offer. We’ll definitely make it a point to stay at the Renaissance LAX in similar situations in the future.

Our first international first class flight

The next morning, we woke up well-rested and extremely excited for our first international first class flight. While we’d flown international business class a few times on a variety of carriers, we didn’t know what to expect from first class – would it really be that much different?

We rode the hotel shuttle to our departure terminal and quickly made our way through security. We headed to the Star Alliance First Class lounge to eat some breakfast and relax while we waited for our flight. The lounge was a delightful place to spend a few hours at the airport. We each ordered an omelette and I followed that up with a steak salad. Everything on offer was scrumptious and my steak was cooked perfectly.

After finishing our meal we moved to large recliners to relax until our boarding announcement was made.

We were informed, when checking in at the lounge, that we needed paper boarding passes for the flight (in spite of the fact that ANA checked us in automatically and emailed us mobile boarding passes). Luckily, we didn’t have to do anything. One of the lounge attendants took our passports and retrieved our boarding passes for us while we relaxed.

Before too long, we were on our way to the gate and boarding the plane, a 777-300ER. The first thing I noticed about our seats was the amount of surface area that each open suite occupied. The seat was huge and there were plenty of storage compartments for everything I needed accessible during the flight. I instantly knew that there would be no issues with comfort for the next 11 hours.

After getting everything stowed, the flight attendant approached and asked if I’d like to change into my pajamas. I affirmed that I would and was led to the larger front lavatory to change. The flight attendant was standing by when I exited and took my street clothes from me – I had no idea what was happening but handed them over to be taken care of. The pajamas on offer are extremely comfortable, although the sizing is a little odd. I was offered a set of large pants and shirt. The shirt was quite snug but the pants were extremely loose – I don’t know if it is just my larger than average frame or if others experience this as well. Angela fit in her pajamas without any issues.

I was offered a pre-departure beverage shortly after returning to my seat and chose water. Angela chose champagne and we gently toasted each other as we prepared for take off.

We were on our way shortly thereafter with a smooth take-off and climb to cruising altitude. The flight attendants started meal service as soon as we leveled out. I requested sparkling water with lime, my go-to drink on longer flights, and Angela chose a German Riesling from an extremely lengthy wine and cocktail menu. After pouring our drinks, the crew set our tray tables with white linens and a full set of cutlery.

I won’t discuss dinner in much detail other than to say the quality of food far surpassed most meals I’ve had in restaurants, let alone on an airplane. The service was attentive and friendly and I got the feeling that I could ask for anything within reason and it would not be a problem at all.

After we ate, I pulled out my laptop to work during the flight and was treated to an endless series of sparkling water and espresso refills. I never had to press the call button or otherwise summon an attendant as someone would just magically appear when I needed to be topped off.

I got hungry in the middle of the flight and decided to order some food (which you can do at any time, an awesome touch in my mind). I opted for a panini and ANA’s classic curry. Both dishes were fantastic tasting.

After my light dishes, I reclined my seat and got some sleep. I woke up tucked in and covered by a large duvet, a pleasant surprise. This was the first time we’ve flown in a lie-flat seat where I felt like I had room to move around while sleeping. The seat was larger than any I’ve previously experienced – always a plus with my wide shoulders.

Angela, being smart and anticipating that she’d want to rest, asked the flight attendant to make up her bed. They rolled out a mattress pad for her, which was apparently quite comfortable, and gave her a large foam pillow separate from the one distributed on the seats prior to boarding.

Shortly before landing we were offered an additional meal. I was so full by this point that I just requested a fruit plate to tide me over until we could get out of the airport and to our hotel. Angela requested the same with tea service.

If I had any complaint about the flight, it would be the extremely limited WiFi bandwidth you’re granted. Even as first class passengers, we were limited to 100MB total of data between takeoff and landing which required some careful rationing on my part. Other than that, the flight was perfect in every way – the seat was awessome, the food was great, the service was excellent, and we left the plane feeling relaxed and refreshed. We even got a personalized card and gift from the flight attendants when we arrived in Japan.

I wondered if the international first class experience would be demonstrably different from a business class one and it ended up surpassing my expectations. There’s no way I’d pay retail price for this particular flight but I was more than happy to redeem points for it and would do so again without hesitation. It made me even more excited for the first class flights we have booked for next year on various carriers.

Our first night in Tokyo

After deplaning, we made our way through immigration and customs and headed to the train station attached to the terminal. There, we purchased tickets on the Narita Express to Shinjuku station. The Narita Express is included as part of your Japan Rail pass, which I mentioned previously, but we wouldn’t be activating our pass until we returned from Hong Kong so it didn’t do us any good at this point.

After a train ride of about an hour we arrived at the station and headed for the exits. The Hyatt Regency Tokyo is about a half mile from Shinjuku station so we figured we would walk rather than take a taxi.

As soon as we made it outside we were hit with the full force of Japanese humidity and subjected to a moderate rain shower. I started sweating immediately and, by the time we made it to the hotel, I was dripping perspiration from my face. I felt like a monster as we checked in. We made it up to the room, which was exactly as expected, and freshened up. Angela went to sleep and I did a bit more work before joining her.

Parks, shrines, and schmoos in tall buildings

Our first day started with a big breakfast at the hotel. In general, we try to eat a hearty breakfast that will keep us full throughout the day so we don’t have to stop sightseeing until it is time for dinner – that was our plan throughout this trip and it worked well. Hotel breakfast isn’t always the most exciting, but it is generally reliable in terms of the items on offer.

After eating our fill, we headed out to get a feel for Tokyo and see the first few things on our list. Our first stop was conveniently located next door to the hotel, Shinjuku Central Park. This park plays hosts to a shrine where we experienced our first true taste of Japanese culture.

That third picture is of a Torii gate, something you’ll see a lot of throughout this post.

Our next stop was the Meiji Shrine a few miles away. The shrine is located inside of a massive forested park with a variety of winding paths. As you approach the shrine, you pass through one of many huge Torii gates.

You then encounter a ritual washing station called a temizuya that was present in some form at every Shinto shrine we visited. There, you can perform a purification ritual known as timizu.

Finally, you reach the shrine’s structures. They are complex and beautiful without being unnecessarily ornate. I thoroughly enjoyed the architecture of all the shrines we visited with the Meiji Shrine setting the standard for the rest of the trip.

As we left the park, we took a path past barrels of sake and wine that are consecrated and offered in memory of the deified souls of the emperor and empress that, supposedly, reside at the Meiji Shrine.

We took a trip back to the hotel to cool off, but not before stopping to briefly admire some of Tokyo’s varied architecture. While Tokyo often felt like “just another big city,” there were definitely some distinctive buildings that stood out in the skyline.

After cooling off, we walked across the street to visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which houses observation decks on the top floors of the north and south towers. The best part is that, unlike Tokyo Tower or the Tokyo Skytree, access to the observation deck is free and easy. We first stopped at a small exhibit dedicated to the 2020 Olympics which will be hosted by Japan.

Then, we headed to the top where we were treated to clear views of most of the city. The thing that really stood out to me was the building density and how the city seemed to stretch forever. It was really a sight to behold.

After returning to the ground floor we set off through the main Shinjuku shopping district towards a few other parks that were on the docket for the day. On the way, we decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant where no one really spoke English. In this case we lucked out that they had picture menus for tourists. We pointed at some dishes that looked good and went from there. The view from our seating was great (and we got to have an aerial look at the next place we were going to visit).

Eating local food in a foreign country is part of the full travel experience, so we try to make it a priority when possible (and within the constraints of us not wasting time with food that we know we’re not going to eat). When the meal arrived, mine had a raw egg in a bowl that I had no idea what to do with, but everything else looked delicious.

Angela’s dish, which is pictured, was fairly similar to mine but had sashimi as the main component as opposed to my beef. Regardless, there were definitely things on the tray that we had no idea what they were and I happily gobbled them up. This became somewhat of a recurring trend.

We finished our lunch and set off for Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, what is supposedly a beautifully landscaped complex. I say supposedly because after we walked quite a ways towards the entrance, we were greeted with a sign that showed the park was unexpectedly closed. We still don’t know why it was closed on that particular day, but we’ll just treat that as a reason to return to Tokyo in the future!

We walked further south to take a look at the new New National Stadium being built for the upcoming Olympics. It is huge and it was fascinating to see it about halfway done – you essentially stumble upon it in the middle of the city with no warning, which I found pretty neat.

Finally, we decided to take another walk through the Meiji Shrine complex on our way back to the hotel to grab a couple more pictures and walk a different path to see if anything popped up. The park was a bit more peaceful in the later afternoon.

By this point we’d already walked a dozen miles on our first full day, so we headed back to the hotel for some much needed rest, skipping dinner from sheer exhaustion.

An ancient temple and an expansive museum

Our destinations for our second day in Tokyo were fairly far away so we introduced ourselves to the subway system. The first step was to buy an IC card, which I have previously mentioned. This was straightforward, but the kiosk that we purchased our card from was initially out of card stock to issue us a pass. After we purchased the card, the screen showed a processing message for a longer time than I thought was appropriate until a small door opened next to the kiosk and a gentleman who worked for the rail system poked his head out. It was quite startling, to say the least.

He asked if we were trying to purchase a commuter card, which we were, and then added some to the machine’s inventory so they were issued to us properly. It was an amusing way to start the day.

We eventually got used to the public transit system in Tokyo, but it was definitely a struggle the first time we looked at a transit map:

Before long, we arrived at our first destination, Sensō-ji. Sensō-ji is an ancient Buddhist temple in Tokyo that has stood in some form or another since 645 AD. It is a wonderful complex of buildings, statuary, and artifacts. I highly recommend a visit to this temple to anyone in Tokyo.

If you’re interested in learning more about the temple, I recommend taking a look at the previous link. Otherwise, here are some pictures of the grounds that we captured.

After thoroughly exploring the temple, we headed off to the Tokyo National Museum which housed a plethora of amazing artifacts from the long history of Japan. To be quite frank, the sheer number of items is too much to discuss in detail, but we captured some shots of some of our favorites, including various printed items, clothing, and swords made by Japanese masters.

Following the museum, we walked through yet another beautiful urban green space, this time with lily pads.

Then, on the way back to the hotel, we stopped in to Starbucks for Angela to try the Crispy Sweet Potato Frappuccino, which I was informed was a complete delight.

Then, it was off to bed to prepare for our journey to Hong Kong the next day.

A comfortable flight, views to remember, and our first Michelin star dinner

We woke up early the next morning and took the limousine bus from our hotel to Haneda airport. It was an extremely straightforward experience as we were able to book our tickets via the hotel’s bell desk and hop on fifteen steps from the front door. The trip was relatively short, taking about an hour with a few stops along the way, and cost about $10 per person. I would recommend this over the train for anyone with a moderately large bag (including large carry ons like we had).

After checking in at a kiosk to get our boarding passes, we made our way to the Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge Skyview which, luckily, was extremely close to our gate. The food selection was quite good and made me happy that we’d skipped breakfast. I particularly enjoyed the Japanese beef curry with a huge helping of rice. The espresso machines had instructions in English, which was a delight, and Angela really liked the cold Oolong tea on offer.

Boarding started exactly on time and we were on our way within a few minutes. Japan Airlines was exceptionally efficient in getting people on board and with their onboard service. I ordered a kiwi juice, which was delicious, and settled in for the relatively short flight.

I was excited for this route because it featured JL‘s newest seats. My excitement turned to a bit of disappointment as I found the seats to be fairly uncomfortable. The padding was hard, the seats didn’t have separate section controls (just a take-off / landing to bed continuum), and I felt there was a lack of storage space. It was better than any economy seat, but definitely one my least favorite business seats we’ve flown in.

I also found that the flight attendant had to reach over my shoulder to deliver food, making it an uncomfortable experience for both of us. The meal service was efficient, but the flight attendants seemed to disappear afterwards. In short, I won’t be itching to fly on JL’s product again.

We made it to HKG safely and made our way from the gate, through customs, and to the train station in about fifteen minutes. We picked up our Airport Express passes and hopped on the train. It took about twenty minutes to get from the airport to Kowloon Station, helpfully located directly underneath the building containing our hotel. We passed through a luxury mall on the way to an elevator that whisked us up to the 103rd floor where we completed check-in.

Our check-in experience was great. Room keys were ready on arrival because I’d checked in through the Marriott app on the way to the hotel. The check-in agent recognized my Platinum Premier Elite status and gave us some coupons valid for a discount on spa services and free drinks at Ozone bar (the highest bar in the world). We were escorted to our room where a plate of macarons, some fruit, and several moon cakes were waiting for us. The escort asked if we’d like a dinner reservation at any of the places on property so I asked for her to book us at her favorite place. She recommended Tin Lung Heen, a Michelin starred Cantonese restaurant.

The first thing that struck us was the views – they were everything that I’d hoped for when I booked the room.

After we got settled in and refreshed we headed up to the Club Lounge for the first time to enjoy afternoon tea service. I instantly recognized that this was going to be a completely different lounge experience than at other hotels where access is complimentary based on status. There is a full wait staff ready to attend to your every need and the food is delicious and bountiful. If you are going to stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong, do what you need to in order to get a room with Club Lounge access.

Afternoon tea was delicious and, after enjoying the full spread with savory and sweet snacks, I requested some more plain scones with clotted cream and jam. The staff was happy to oblige. We spent a lot of time in the Club Lounge over the next couple of days, so I’ll try not to talk about it too much, but the experience was absolutely amazing across breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner.

That night we got dressed up and headed downstairs for our reservation. The meal was absolutely amazing – definitely one of the best I’ve ever had. We ordered a broad variety of dishes to share. We lucked into availability for barbequed Iberico pork shoulder that you usually need to order a day in advance. We had Peking duck for the first time and we even tried jellyfish, which we enjoyed quite a bit.

After a long day and a sumptious meal we returned to our room, admired the Hong Kong skyline at night, and got a great night’s sleep in preparation for the next day.

The standard Hong Kong tourist experience

The next day we decided to head to Victoria Peak, which I believe is a requirement for anyone visiting Hong Kong for the first time. When we mentioned our plans for the day to Nancy, our server at breakfast, she suggested a restaurant in Hong Kong Central for us, Yum Cha.

We took the MTR from Kowloon Station to Hong Kong station, a short ride of a few minutes. We exited the station and walked to the Victoria Peak Tram. Tickets were reasonably priced, the wait was short, and we were on our way with haste. The journey to the peak was definitely interesting. The car was packed tightly and the angle of descent can only be described as extreme. The ride was over in about ten minutes and then we were at the top.

The views were astounding. It was so exciting to be able to see Hong Kong island and Kowloon from a different perspective. Interestingly, we were at the same elevation while at the top of Victoria Peak as we were in our hotel room on the other side of the harbor.

We took the tram back down and then started off towards the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately, for the second time this trip we were greeted with an unexpected park closure so we couldn’t go in. We walked down some winding streets and main thoroughfares as we headed to lunch. I always love walking through a new city because you really get a feel for the locale and this was no different. We eventually made it to Yum Cha where we ate some delicious (and Instagrammable) steam buns and wontons.

We headed back to our hotel and enjoyed some scones while I worked for the rest of the evening and throughout the next day. Overall, our time in Hong Kong was a true delight. The luxury of The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong was a big part of that and we will definitely return. We have a few things we want to do next time we go to Hong Kong and I’m already excited to go back. The only thing that went wrong was we got stuck in an elevator between the 113th and 114th for about ten minutes before maintenance came to force the door open. I didn’t really mind and we got half off of our dinner because of it. We had some other passengers in the elevator who were definitely freaking out, though.

The return to Japan and another amazing meal

After a delightful three nights in Hong Kong we were back to Japan for an extended tour of the country. After reversing our journey on the Airport Express we passed through security and visited Cathay Pacific’s business lounge The Bridge. CX is known for having some of the best lounges in the world at their Hong Kong hub, so I was excited to see what was on offer. We were directed to the right after checking in and found the selections somewhat underwhelming. I checked one of the lounge reviews I’d saved and realized there was another part of the lounge on the other side so we walked past the reception desk and enjoyed a spacious, practically empty, lounge experience. We ate quite a few dumplings and steam buns and then enjoyed some barista prepared espresso while we waited for boarding to start.

We walked to the gate and arrived just as boarding was starting. Unlike with JL, boarding did not start on time. However, that was the only way in which JL was superior to CX. We boarded the plane and the experience was excellent from start to finish. The seats on the A350 were roomy and comfortable, the service was attentive and proactive, and the food was delicious. I was a little disappointed that the flight was only three and a half hours long.

When we arrived in Kyoto we headed to the train station and exchanged our JR Pass voucher for rail passes that we’d be using the remainder of our time in Japan. From the airport, we took the Haruka Express to Kyoto station before transferring to the subway and eventually coming above ground a quarter mile from our hotel.

Again, the check-in experience was great. We were escorted to our room shortly after arriving and everything was completed there. We were informed, much to my surprise, that breakfast would be included with our stay. The Ritz-Carlton brand doesn’t usually provide complementary breakfast, even to Platinum Premier Elite members; I was happy to accept the gift. Without going on and on about the hotel, our stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto was absolutely magnificent, from start to finish. The room was large and well-appointed, the staff ensured we were taken care of, and all of our needs (and then some) were met.

Our first night in Kyoto we decided to dine at La Locanda and chose a set menu. The experience was sublime. For the second time on this trip we had one of the best meals of our lives.

Underappreciated art and a journey to Arashiyama

I arranged an art tour from The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto’s activities list for our first full day. After breakfast we headed to the concierge desk and started an intimate tour of the hotel with an inside look at many of the unique features that the architect and designer incorporated. The tour surpassed all of my expectations. Our guide was thorough and made sure we had a good time and we learned a lot of things that we would have otherwise overlooked. Angela captured some great pictures, of which I’ve posted a sample, and I would recommend the tour to anyone who makes their way to the hotel.

From here on out, you can assume that we took the train or walked to get everywhere otherwise this post will get quite repetitive. Our first day in Kyoto we decided to keep it simple and take a short journey to the western outskirts of the city. Arashiyama is a gorgeous area on the western outskirts of Kyoto home to quite a few old shrines and temples and a set of paths through a verdant bamboo forest. This was probably the single most picturesque area we visited on our entire trip.

Our first stop was the Tenryū-ji Temple, a Special Place of Scenic Beauty, as designated by the Japanese government.

Next, we meandered through the famous bamboo forest and snapped a few pictures of the delightful landscape.

Our next stop was the Nison-in Temple, which includes one of the most ancient cemeteries in Japan. Several emperors are interred at Nison-in and the gravesites are open to the public.

There is a huge bell at the temple which you are invited to ring. Of course we did so.

We continued to explore the Arashiyama area before heading back for the night – it was a great place to start our time in Kyoto and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the Kansai region.

Our first Shinkansen ride and an ancient castle

Our second day trip from Kyoto brought us to Himeji, site of the eponymous Himeji Castle. After a quick trip on the Shinkansen (a Japanese high-speed train) we walked down the city’s main boulevard to the imposing hillside edifice. There, we were treated with open access to a reconstructed medieval fortress, which I encourage you to read about in the above link. We took a bunch of pictures as we ascended through the five story structure.

When we returned to the hotel, we changed and made our way to Mizuki, the on-site Michelin starred Japense restaurant. We were treated to an amazing Omakase (chef’s choice) sushi course. The chef carefully prepared every single piece and explained to us what we were eating. It was a great way to try things that I otherwise would not have ordered. The salmon, in particular, was quite delicious. The sea urchin is something I don’t think I would have tried if we hadn’t left it up to the chef. If you like sushi and have the opportunity, I highly encourage you to try it omakase style at some point.

One piece of advice that I had read before going to Japan. If you are eating sushi at a sushi counter, please ask if it is OK to take pictures of the chef or the dishes the chef prepares before you do so. It is apparently a sensitive thing at some places.

Another day of Japanese history in Osaka

Our next day trip started with a trip to Sumiyoshi-taisha, one of the oldest shrines in Japan having been built in the mid-900s. The architecture is unique because it was constructed before Chinese and Korean influences were imported into the country. One of the most impressive features of the shrine complex is the half-moon bridge that leads to it.

Next, it was off to Osaka Castle, which played a major role in Japanese unification during the 16th century. The history of Osaka Castle is extremely interesting and I encourage you to read the previously linked Wikipedia article to learn more.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped to pick up Uncle Rikuro’s Cheesecake at Osaka Station. We specifically went out of our way to get this after we saw it featured in several places prior to our trip. While the flavor wasn’t my favorite, the texture was really interesting. I’m glad we made an effort to get one.

The treasures of Kyoto

Even though we had been in Kyoto for several days, we had yet to really explore the city. First, we made our way to the park containing the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The palace is one of the Emperor of Japan’s active residences but parts of it are open to the public. Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed inside. The grounds around the palace were fun to explore after seeing the beautiful structures within.

Next, we went to Fushimi Inaria-taisha. There are an astounding amount of torii gates at this shrine, each donated by a business or individual wishing for good fortune in industry (Inari is the god of rice and, believe it or not, rice represents industry and production in Japna).

While the shrine was packed, we were able to secure some good pictures, including one that makes it seem like we were all alone on the path of 10,000 gates. This was one of my favorite stops on our entire trip because it looked so surreal. The gates are packed together, base to base, and as you’re walking through them, it really seems like they go on forever. We also took this opportunity to imbibe some street meat.

Because we didn’t go far, we made it back to the hotel in the middle of the afternoon and were able to engage in one of our favorite rituals, afternoon tea. The tea service at The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto is probably my favorite that we’ve done with every single item being delectable.

A sobering trip, a ferry ride, and fearless deer

Our final day trip from Kyoto was to Hiroshima and the nearby Miyajima.

Hiroshima is a place that is likely more important than many others in the history of the world. This is true not because of something that Hiroshima produced or some cultural movement that started there, but because of what happened to the city itself. If you are a student of history or humanity, I think it is a must visit.

Our first stop was the Atomic Bomb Dome, the famous structure you’ll see in most pictures of Hiroshima. The building survived because it was located almost directly underneath the hypocenter of the blast and was shielded, somewhat, from the shock wave that followed.

Next, we wandered around Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park which is packed with monuments to the victims of the bombing as well as structures that intend to promote peace and understanding and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

We made our way through the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall and read reminiscences about the victims of the blast. It contains pictures of the city before and after the blast from different viewpoints and contains an art intallation of 140,000 mosaic tiles that signifies the number of victims whose lives were extinguished by the end of 1945. No pictures are allowed in this hall, but I can say that it is worth a visit.

Finally, we visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which recounts the development of the atomic bomb and the events leading up to its deployment at Hiroshima. The museum contains artifacts from the city after the bombing, some of which have an accompanying story about the family or individual who donated the item.

The entire time we were in the vicinity of the park and museum, I felt viscerally ill thinking of the horrors of the atomic bomb. Angela and I are both well-versed in the arguments and counter-arguments as to its deployment, but I don’t know how anyone can go there and feel anything other than horror and shame. As an aside, while we were there I saw some guy wearing a shirt that said “Sons of America: Infidel Division” with an American flag patterned skull on it and I was absolutely disgusted by his tone deafness.

After Hirosihima, we were off to Miyajima to see the famous “floating” Itsukushima Shrine, which you can observe as you approach the island.

After landing on Miyajima, we wandered through the main shrine complex and were able to snap some more photos from a different perspective. Angela and I felt that the shrine area was extremely commercialized, even more than other tourist attractions we visited. As soon as you exit the shrine you’re greeted with a Starbucks – it was a little disorienting.

On the other hand, the plethora of human activity means that the fauna are more than happy to walk right up to you. We were able to get extremely close to several deer and even managed to take a selfie with one. After purchasing a few snacks, an intrepid deer tried to grab it out of our hands as we were eating!

The return to Tokyo

After a tourism free last day in Kyoto, we were off to Tokyo the next morning to finish off our trip. Unfortunately, this was a little more exciting than we anticipated. With Typhoon Trami bearing down on mainland Japan, the rail companies decided to do a last-minute cancellation of all trains heading from Kyoto to Tokyo at noon. Luckily for us, we happened to arrive at Kyoto Station at 11:45AM and made it through the ticket line quickly enough to purchase tickets for the 11:58AM train to Tokyo Station. The train was packed to the gills and we ended up spending two and a half hours standing in a sardine can.

We eventually made it to Tokyo and checked in to the Andaz, which turned out to be a fairly nice luxury hotel. The room we were provided was large and comfortable and the hotel offered all guests wine and snacks in the lounge between 6PM and 8PM every evening with non-alcoholic drinks provided for free at all other times.

Our first night at the Andaz was an interesting one as the typhoon made its way through an area close to Tokyo and the building was hit with heavy winds. We woke up to the skyscraper swaying noticeably with a loud continuous howl for almost two hours in the middle of the night. It was definitely an experience.

Sushi worth the wait

The heat was intense our first day back in Tokyo, so we decided to lay low for most of it. However, we did venture out to enjoy some local cuisine at Umegaoka Sushino Midori Ginza. We lined up and waited about an hour for our number to be called. As a reward for the wait, we were treated to the biggest cuts of fish I’ve ever seen. We ordered a bunch of tuna and a couple of rolls and everything was absolutely delicious. Afterwards, we made our way to Manneken for Belgian waffles. After a few hours of decadent eating it was back to the hotel to relax and stay out of the heat.

That night, we were treated to an absolutely clear sky which allowed us to capture some breathtaking views of the Tokyo skyline from our room.

Another palace, a memorable plaza, and a beautiful garden

Our final day in Japan was full of walking in preparation for sitting on a plane the next day. First, we headed to the Tokyo Imperial Palace to see the surrounding scenery. Again, this is an active residence of the Emperor of Japan and, while tours are allowed, they are restricted and require advance signup which we didn’t want to commit to. The grounds were pleasant enough, though.

Next, it was off to an attraction that Angela kept secret from me until we arrived. Excitedly, I discovered that we had arrived at Godzilla Square, featuring a nine foot tall statue of the eponymous monster. I did my best to strike poses in horror and imitation.

Finally, we wandered through the most beautiful public green space that we visited in Japan, the Hamarikyu Gardens. The relatively modern grounds were manicured and beautiful. Beside that, they contained spots of historical interest related to the Tokugawa Shogunate that had previously owned the grounds.

A grand trip, complete

That stroll through the garden completed our trip to Japan as we packed up and headed home the next day. The flight to Los Angeles was just as much a delight as the one to Tokyo had been, and the Southwest flight to Las Vegas was not noteworthy in any way, the best you can hope for from Southwest.

I’m so happy we took the opportunity to visit Japan and Hong Kong and that we were able to do so in such luxury. We will definitely return to both places in the future and are looking forward to more varied and interesting adventures when we do. If at all possible, I highly recommend a trip with a similar itinerary to anyone even remotely comfortable with trying something different.

Springtime in Paris
A Beautiful Second Visit to the City of Lights

In April, Angela and I visited Paris for the second time in six months. After the frigid cold of December, it was a true delight to experience the city and its people in the springtime.

Paris, Again?

Some people might ask “why visit Paris again so soon after you’d just been there?” That’s a valid question that I think deserves an answer. While Angela and I loved our experience in December with thinned crowds, clear skies, and cheap prices, we wanted to go back while the gardens were alive and the city streets were humming with people. April was a perfect time for that! Children are still in school and I was able to find a solid deal on the flight to Paris. Furthermore, hotels were far from peak prices. We’d get to see the city we loved so much in a whole different light. Besides, there was still so much to do!

Getting to Paris

For this trip, I set up a Google Flights alert for round-trip business class flights originating on the west coast heading to Paris. The nice thing about Google Flights is that you can set up multiple departure cities for alerts, so I selected Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Salt Lake City (LAS, LAX, SFO, SEA, and SLC) as departure cities and Paris (CDG) as the destination. Eventually, fares dropped to around $2,000 per person from a normal price of more than $3,400 per person on the SEA – CDG route. I was able to book an Air France flight on the way out and a Delta One flight on the return. I booked Southwest flights to position us on the LAS – SEA route using our companion pass (so we only pay for one ticket and both Angela and I get to fly).

Unfortunately, Air France was experiencing labor unrest around the dates of our departure. There was a chance that a strike would lead our flight to be canceled and a travel waiver was granted. Luckily, I was able to switch us to a Delta flight on the outbound – we’d just have to wait a little longer to try Air France (which we eventually did on our return from Mauritius).

Seattle to Paris

Our first business class (Delta One) flight with Delta was a true delight. The seats were extremely comfortable and the service was exceptional. We flew on a 777-200 on both the outbound and the return with the seats in a herringbone configuration – I found this particular configuration extremely comfortable. We both got a fair amount of sleep on this flight so we arrived in Paris well-rested. The flight attendants were kind and attentive and fueled my addiction to sparkling water with lime.

Renaissance Republique – A great hotel in a happening neighborhood

On this trip, I decided we would stay in a less tourist laden neighborhood and booked us a room at the Renaissance Republique with breakfast included for the first part of our stay. The location of this hotel is great! It really felt like we were in the middle of a neighborhood rather than separated into our own enclave of foreigners. In fact, there was a large rally held for Basque independence about a block away from the hotel during one of our nights there. It was great to feel like we were part of the city. The hotel itself was a happening spot, with people queued up for dinner on many of the nights.

We stayed in an Artist Studio Suite, which had more than enough room for rest and work. The on-site breakfast was exceptional, with an amazing assortment of baked goods produced in-house in addition to tasty omelettes and other egg dishes. We like having a hearty breakfast when we travel as we tend to only eat breakfast and dinner on most days and the one provided at this hotel definitely fit the bill.

Check-in was quick and they stored our bags after we changed to head out for the day. The staff spoke excellent English (always a plus given that I tend to butcher foreign languages) and always seemed eager to help us with whatever we needed, including dinner reservations.

I highly recommend the Renaissance Republique if you’re looking for an affordable, but pleasant, stay in a hotel in Paris. Try to get a room with window seats like we did:

The gardens were green and we walked forever

We ventured out into the city shortly after we stowed our luggage. Our first destination was the Jardin des Tuileries. We previously visited the garden in the winter and it was pleasant. However, the grounds in the spring were an entirely different level of beauty. Luckily, I was able to capture two beauties in one picture:

The greenery made an excellent backdrop to the statuary within the park:

After an enjoyable walk through the garden, we stopped at Angelina Paris for breakfast. The drinking chocolate at Angelina is one of my favorite things in the entire world and I can’t imagine going to Paris without having it!

With our hunger sated, we started off on a long day of walking. We were lucky enough to see many of the sites that we didn’t have time for on our last trip. We first passed the Palais Garnier which we’d be lucky enough to attend a ballet at later in the week:

We saw the beautiful Église de la Sainte-Trinité de Paris on our walk and Angela snapped this picture of it alongside blooming flowers:

We meandered past the vivid Moulin Rouge and snapped a few shots down Paris’s unique streets:

Finally, we arrived at our first major destination for this trip, Sacré-Cœur. After climbing quite a few stairs, we were able to snap some shots of the misty city before turning around and admiring the beauty of the architecture before us:

The interior of the cathedral is visually stunning. Unfortunately, visitors are discouraged from taking pictures so we were only able to snap a couple:

After touring the cathedral we took the long way back to our hotel and got a great night’s sleep in preparation for a busy second day.

The great church tour and we scale a tall building

Our second day in Paris was a continuation of our first, with a determined stroll through great French architecture. First, though, a brief photo shoot along one of the many bridges over the Seine.

Our first major stop was Notre-Dame de Paris, a stunning example of French Gothic architecture and one of the true icons of Paris. As with most great works of human ingenuity, reading about and looking at pictures of it is one thing, but being there to appreciate it in person is another entirely. I would rate this building as a must-see for any visitor to the French capital city. A look at the main entrance reveals the grandeur – it is absolutely stunning:

The detailed stonework on the sides of the building is incredible, in my opinion. I appreciate the artisans who produced it:

The interior was equally beautiful with the vaulted ceilings seeming to stretch forever and the stained glass windows revealing an intricate artistry that is hard to contemplate:

Back to the exterior, we were treated to features of the cathedral from different directions that we hadn’t been able to previously appreciate:

Before we left, Angela paused for a quick selfie with the one and only JPII:

Next, it was off to Sainte Chapelle. This particular church is located inside the Ministry of Justice grounds, making it an interesting place to visit. While the exterior is beautiful here, the interior really steals the show:

I highly recommend a visit to Sainte Chapelle if you can manage it. The colors inside are so vibrant and the stained glass so detailed that I think missing it would be a mistake.

We next headed to the Panthéon, a building with a varied and interesting history. It started as a church, transitioned to a secular structure, and then flip flopped twice again. It is now a permanent mausoleum for famous French persons, including Voltaire and Marie Skłodowska-Curie. It also played host to one of the most important demonstrations in modern physics, the hanging of a large Foucault pendulum to demonstrate the rotation of the earth.

The edifice is imposing and grand and, as you approach, it is obvious how important the building is:

The interior is expansive and beautiful. The ceilings alone are a cause for celebration and the subject of many photos, I’m sure:

There are clear reminders that it was originally a church:

The secular part really wowed us, though. The range and quality of the artwork, including the pieces in the mausoleum, was exceptional:

Outside, the Eiffel Tower was beautiful in the distance:

We walked some more and saw a replica of the Statue of Liberty in a small park:

Finally, continuing our journey to the top of tall buildings, we went to the Montparnasse Tower to take in the views from the observation deck. We were greeted with a beautiful day and amazing vistas as far as the eye could see:

We took a short stroll through a beautiful park on the way back to the hotel to rest after a busy two days in Paris:

Ringing bells and our first European ballet

After a day of work, it was back on to the streets of Paris for another stop at Notre-Dame de Paris. We were unable to secure tickets to the top on our first visit so we returned to get a good look at the famous bells and gargoyles:

After our trip to the top of the cathedral, it was off to Opéra Bastille for a matinee ballet performance of Romeo & Juliet. We had previously attended a ballet in New York City during a trip in February and were somewhat underwhelmed. However, we wanted to experience another couple of performances to really know whether we liked ballet or not. This performance was the first of two in Paris and helped us understand what we like and don’t like about ballet.

This particular show was a more modern take on the art form and was much more lively than the traditional ballet we had previously seen. I really enjoyed the movement and frantic action. That being said, this show ingrained in me the belief that ballet just isn’t our thing. We were going to give it one more shot later in the week, but that would likely be it for ballet for us.

After the ballet we wandered around Paris before and after another wonderful dinner. One of my favorite things about the city is that history seems all around you at every corner and you never know when you’re going to happen across an interesting piece of architecture:

Switching hotels for the view, the food level of a department store, and one of the best meals ever

I previously mentioned that we’d be attending another ballet later in the week. It would be at a different venue, the Palais Garnier. As such, and to give us a bit broader experience on this trip, I decided to move us from the Renaissance to the W Paris, Opera located directly across the street from the opera house. We were upgraded to a huge suite with an amazing view of the Palais Garnier from our room and it was easy to walk outside and take some snaps from street level:

Also located nearby was a department store with a whole building devoted to food and foodstuffs. We spent quite a bit of time there walking around, looking at and smelling the spices, and buying chocolates for ourselves and others.

The lobby lounge at our hotel was a nice spot to enjoy some espresso and Pierre Herme macarons:

We also had one of the best meals of our lives on this day at a small restaurant named Chez Monsieur. We sampled charcuterie, escargot, veal stew, lamb, and amazing desserts. Without a doubt, it was some of the finest food we’ve ever eaten and the price was definitely right – it cost about the same as a single person’s dinner at a nice place on the strip. If you know me, you know how much I value my food. I can say, without any hesitation, that if you find yourself in Paris that you should take a trip to this restaurant.

A beautiful spring day in Paris

Our last full day was absolutely gorgeous. The weather was perfect, the sky was clear, and we took a ton of photos as we strolled around the parks and gardens of Paris with little plan on where we were going and where we’d end up:

After a long day of strolling, it was off to the ballet again. This time we were treated to the up and comers from the Parisian ballet company. It was a treat seeing so many young performers, but this visit really solidified the fact that we are not big fans of ballet as an art form and would much rather spend our time with others.

The real star of the show was the venue. The Palais Garnier is opulent in a way that is hard to describe in words, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking:

A good night’s rest and a successful journey home

We had an early morning the night after our second ballet. We woke up, ate breakfast, caught a taxi to CDG, and retraced our flight path in reverse. Our CDG – SEA flight was amazing from a service standpoint with the Delta flight attendants surpassing my expectations in almost every way.

My glass was refilled every time it got close to reaching empty. I was provided with warmed cookies and milk from the purser without even asking. It was a great flight and really raised the bar as to what I expect in a business class cabin.

Southwest got us home to Las Vegas safely and gave us some time to contemplate how lucky we are. As soon as we left Paris, I was already thinking of returning – it is truly one of the world’s great cities and I’m glad we were able to spend some time there together in the spring. We can’t wait to go back!

Five Nights in Paradise
Our Wonderful Vacation to Mauritius

Every year, Angela and I try to take at least one vacation where I don’t work at all; a true break from the craziness of day-to-day life and the stress that comes with it. This year, we were lucky enough to go, literally, halfway around the world for the most amazing tropical getaway I can imagine.

Why Mauritius?

This trip was the result of an opportunity. Last year, I found the FlyerTalk Premium Fare Deals forum and started checking it every morning for a couple of minutes to see if anything really great had popped up. One day, I saw a deal appear that seemed almost too good to be true. The gist of it was round trip business class tickets from Chicago to Mauritius via Europe for less than $2,500 per person. The catch was that booking had to be done through an OTA, like Expedia, and a hotel night had to be bundled with your airfare.

I thought about it for a day and then decided to check if the deal was still active for dates that worked for us. It was, with one-stop in either Amsterdam or Paris in either direction. I ended up finding itineraries that priced out at approximately $2,400 per person with a bundled night at some tiny little hostel that cost $49. I priced out the itinerary separate from the deal and it would have cost $8,600 per person. Given the opportunity, and the fact that I didn’t think I’d ever see anything like this again, I jumped in with both feet and didn’t look back.

Getting to Mauritius

Like most good flight deals, this one departed from a specific set of points. In this case, you could leave from either Chicago or Washington, DC. We’re more familiar with Chicago so we decided to depart from O’Hare airport.

Given that we live in Las Vegas, that meant we had to position to Chicago in order to leave on the flight we actually wanted to be on. We had done this a few times previously, positioning to Chicago for our trip to Egypt and positioning to Seattle for our last trip to Paris. For this particular itinerary, I decided to book us overnights in Chicago on either end to account for any weather delays (or other unfortunate circumstances). I didn’t want us to lose the deal of a lifetime because our positioning flight was delayed.

For our positioning flights, we chose to fly Southwest because I have the companion pass (which means I only pay $11.20 roundtrip for Angela to fly anywhere in the United States with me) and all flights include two checked bags. Southwest only flies to Midway in Chicago so we have to change airports when we arrive. It’s fairly easy to do via the orange and blue lines and only takes about 90 minutes to go from one airport to the other. As I said previously, though, we decided to overnight in Chicago on this trip to take the edge off.

A few nights at The Gwen

For our overnights, I decided to use two free night certificates that I had earned from SPG due to a promotion they targeted me for earlier this year. The certificates were valid at any Category 5 or below hotel and, given that all SPG hotels in and around Chicago are Category 5 or below, I had the pick of any of them!

I had heard really great things about The Gwen so I decided to use one certificate on either end of the trip.

To be honest, the property was a bit of a disappointment. My status with SPG was not mentioned at check-in, we were upgraded to a room with a view of Grand Avenue rather than Michigan Avenue (which I’d say is probably a downgrade, honestly), and the breakfast, which I picked as my SPG Platinum perk, was a pastry and juice or $10 credit towards another item (per person).

It wasn’t all bad, though. The rooms were nicely decorated and the bedding was clean and comfortable. For overnights on either end of a trip, it was fine. I’m extremely happy I didn’t have to pay room rates, though, and would have been upset with my experience if I had. And, of course, we got to spend time in a city that we both love and that means a lot to us.

Chicago to Amsterdam

Our first flight was on a KLM 747-400 from ORD to AMS. I was particularly excited for this flight because I had chosen us the seats all the way in the nose of the plane. In addition, I’ve come to love flying in and out of O’Hare – it is simple to navigate and has some decent lounge options and art installations.

Our experience on this flight was quite good. The service was polite, but not overly attentive. After the initial meal service, I hardly saw our flight attendant. Angela enjoyed KLM’s signature cocktail, the Flying Dutchman, and I got to experience the flight attendant laughing when I ordered a virgin Cosmo.

I liked flying in the nose as it felt even more private than other business class flights we’ve taken. When you can’t see any other passengers in front of you, it almost feels like you’re flying by yourself. Be warned, if you fly in the nose of the 747, it sounds like the world is ending when the nose gear retracts – I was glad that I was aware of this and had warned Angela as well.

Our long layover in Amsterdam

We arrived in Amsterdam early in the morning and were off the plane with our carry-on luggage in a few minutes. We cleared immigration and customs quickly and were out in the greater airport shortly thereafter. There is a train that runs direct from the airport to the city center, so we purchased tickets from an automated kiosk and headed towards the platform. We only realized that we were supposed to scan our tickets at an entry pole once we took the escalator down to the train. We went back up the escalator, scanned our tickets, and headed back down.

Our train departed almost immediately and twenty minutes later we were stepping off at Amsterdam’s city center station. I had specifically not planned to do anything other than stretch our legs over the course of our 11 hour layover, so we started walking around the city pretty much immediately.

We visited the central plaza, Dam, and snapped a few pictures of the Royal Palace before heading off to walk down the famous canals. We stopped and enjoyed the early morning peace on a small bench looking over one of the canals and witnessed an impromptu duck fight club.

After relaxing for a while, we headed off to an extremely large park in the city named Vondelpark. The enormity of the green space became apparent as we walked through it for quite some time without ever reaching the end. In fact, we spent much of the rest of the day lounging on benches, people and dog watching, and just enjoying the peace that comes with knowing you don’t have anything you have to do.

After exiting the park, we went to a local burger restaurant recommended by a Dutch friend of a friend, Lombardo’s, to grab a quick bite. After polishing off a couple of delicious burgers, we found a few coffee shops (serving coffee and baked goods, not drugs) to relax at before heading back to the airport.

Before we knew it, we were back on the train to AMS and ready to continue on our way to Mauritius. We relaxed in the KLM lounge for a while before our flight and were struck by two things. First, there was an issue with getting us into the lounge because our Air Mauritius boarding passes were not validating in their system. Second, the food was extremely limited in scope (although there was quite a bit of alcohol if you’re a drinker).

Amsterdam to Mauritius

From AMS to MRU we flew on Air Mauritius’s A340. If I could plan this trip again, I would have paid the extra $100 per person for a short connection in Paris to avoid this plane. It was definitely the least comfortable business class seat I’ve ever sat in and I really struggled to get any rest on the 12 hour flight to the southeast coast of Africa.

While the seat was subpar, the service was prompt, attentive, and friendly. The food was good, except for a beetroot mousse that was one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten. The only complaint I really have about the soft product on this flight is that they served instant coffee rather than brewed. I love my coffee and instant coffee is such a drag – even on a plane. Angela fell in love with Mauritius vanilla tea on this flight, though.

The flight was fairly smooth and I nodded off a few times, even with the uncomfortable seat. Before I knew it, we were making our descent into Mauritius and admiring the beautiful greenery of the island. The immigration and customs process in Mauritius was straightforward, although we did have to provide proof of an exit ticket and submit a health questionnaire and answer questions about our previous travels.

We were quickly greeted by the car company that our hotel had arranged to take us to our resort for the next five nights. The drive was a winding one, taking us through acres of sugarcane fields, past the small towns that dot the landscape, and fishing villages along the coast. The Indian Ocean was a vibrant blue as we rounded a corner to drive past Le Morne Brabant mountain and journey the final few miles to the St. Regis.

St. Regis Mauritius – an exceptional resort in every way

For this trip, we stayed at the St. Regis Mauritius. Our experience was amazing. I don’t have as much experience with the top-tier of luxury as some people do (and definitely not as much as the travel bloggers we all read), but I can’t imagine how I could have been any happier with the stay. I am SPG Platinum because of a Marriott status challenge earlier this year, and I think that helped make our stay great.

I booked a Bed & Breakfast cash rate in a Beachfront Junior Suite for this stay. Surprisingly, the room rate was less than we’ve paid for a mid-tier hotel room in San Francisco during some of my business travel.

We had great service before our stay – I reached out the to the concierge to book transport to and from the resort to the airport on either end of our trip and to and from the helipad for our helicopter tour. I had the worst time getting the helicopter tour company to actually respond to me – I emailed them five times, reached out via Twitter, and called every one of the offices three times each and never got a hold of someone. Eventually, in desperation a few days before our trip, I asked the concierge to try to get someone to respond to me and they did.

On check-in we were upgraded to a Beachfront St. Regis Grand Suite, most likely because it is currently low season. The bed was extremely comfortable, but the best part about it was that we were fifteen steps away from lounge chairs on the beautiful beach. We, admittedly, didn’t spend a ton of time in the room but loved having a large terrace to take our coffee on in the morning. The bathtub in the room was enormous, easily fitting two people.

We availed ourselves of the fitness room twice and, surprisingly, it was pretty well equipped. There were adequate free weights for a meaningful weight lifting workout as well as a solid selection of machines. Olympic barbells are always a pleasant surprise at a hotel.

The property also had quite a few common spaces that were quite nice, although we admittedly didn’t spend any appreciable time in them.

All the food I ever wanted

The first morning at the resort we ate buffet breakfast at Le Manoir and it was delicious. There was an egg station along with a wide variety of foods on the buffet. We received a note in our room later that day that we were entitled to enjoy a la carte breakfast at The Boathouse Restaurant on the beach because of my status. Breakfast at The Boathouse was absolutely amazing so if you are planning to visit here, I’d recommend trying to reach Marriott Platinum status before arriving. Every morning we’d sit about one hundred feet from the ocean and enjoy delicious steak and eggs, crepes, French toast, and espresso drinks. We definitely got our fill and didn’t need to eat again until dinner.

Speaking of dinner, we ate at four of the five restaurants on property: Le Manoir, Simply India, Floating Market, and The Boathouse. All were delicious in their own way, and I really enjoyed the “fish market” grill at The Boathouse. By far, the single best restaurant is definitely the pan-Asian Floating Market. I ate garlic-ginger steak there and it was prepared perfectly. Service was exceptional regardless of where we ate and we received a few comped desserts from the staff for no reason. Dinner was reasonably priced for a resort and definitely not lacking in taste like it has been at some locked-in places I’ve been, like Hawaii.

Butler service was great throughout, promptly delivering pressed clothing, bringing our wake-up hot beverage service within minutes of us calling, and even providing a few extras like a fresh fruit plate delivered to us on the beach and a romantic floral petal arrangement on our bed one day.

An experience we’ll never forget – Air Mauritius Helicopter

The bottom line is this; the helicopter ride over Mauritius was something that we’ll never forget for the rest of our lives. It was also surprisingly cheap given the quality of the experience, costing just $480 for the two of us for a 1/2 hour flight that covered half of the island. I’m glad I availed ourselves of the opportunity.

It is difficult to describe how amazing the sights were from the air. We took so many pictures that it is hard to pick the best ones. The highlight of the journey was certainly the view of the “underwater waterfall” illusion off the coast of Le Morne Brabant.

Beach, beach, and more beach

The overwhelming amount of our time was spent lounging on the beach reading and listening to the waves break on the reef. We took a bunch of selfies with the Indian Ocean in the background and each read several books. It was exactly what I needed after half a year of expanding my business.

The long journey home

We had an extremely late departure on the way back to the United States, and the St. Regis was nice enough to grant us a courtesy room to use late into the afternoon when our driver met us to take us to the airport. Our car ride from the St. Regis to the airport was probably the least pleasant part of our entire trip. The driver was a madman, whipping around corners on single lane roads and passing slower moving vehicles with abandon, even in the presence of blind spots. When we reached the airport, we were earlier and had to wait thirty minutes to check in.

Once we were able to check in, though, the process was smooth and uneventful. We proceeded through security and headed to the Air Mauritius lounge, which was packed to the gills. Eventually they started to clear out and we were granted a reprieve from the wails of screaming children.

We flew from MRU to CDG on one of Air Mauritius’s brand new A350. The flight was amazing, particular in light of our previous experience on the A340. The seats were so comfortable and I slept like a baby even through heavy turbulence. The A350 has Nespresso machines on board but, depressingly, they still served instant coffee.

When we arrived in Paris we connected international-to-international, which was fairly straightforward, but our flight was delayed so we had to move pretty quickly from our arrival to departure gates. Unfortunately, our Air Mauritius flight was delayed about half an hour, so our bags ended up missing the connection and did not arrive in Chicago.

Our flight from CDG to ORD was uneventful aboard an Air France A330. The service was stellar and the food was delicious – I got a huge kick out of the fact that the crew could not believe that I did not want to have any wine. I gladly took my sparkling water with lemon, though! Once in Chicago, we overnighted at The Gwen before heading to Midway for our final flight home.

I’m glad that we grabbed this opportunity when we could and I still can’t believe the deal we were able to secure. I couldn’t be happier with the service at the St. Regis Mauritius and, while I’m not sure we’ll return because there are so many more places to see in the world, I would never hesitate to recommend it to others because of our exceptional experience.

The Middle East
Our Trip to Egypt and Jordan

Angela and I recently journeyed to the Middle East for the first time, with stops in Egypt and Jordan. We had no intention of making a trip like this during 2018, but when I saw a 40% off flash sale on all Royal Jordanian fares pop up on January 1st, I decided to take the plunge and purchase two roundtrips from Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI) via Amman, Jordan (AMM). The return routing was the same with several options in terms of timing. I chose one that allowed us almost a full day in Jordan in between Cairo and the United States so we could go see Petra.

Getting to Egypt

As previously mentioned, we decided to fly Royal Jordanian because of the sale fare. Of course, that left us the issue of getting from Las Vegas to Chicago. Thanks to the Southwest Companion Pass and my stash of Rapid Rewards points, we were able to position for free to Midway (and return to Las Vegas on the same route). From there it cost us $3 each to hop on the orange line, transfer to the blue line, and make it to O’Hare with plenty of time to spare.

The check-in process at O’Hare was smooth. We waited in line for about fifteen minutes before the check-in desk opened because we got to the airport fairly early. We wanted to leave sufficient transfer time between the airports because it was impossible to know if the positioning flight would be delayed or otherwise take longer than anticipated. We cleared security without any issues after checking in and headed to the Air France – KLM lounge. It was decent, but not as good as The Centurion Lounge at McCarran Airport (LAS).

We boarded the flight about an hour before takeoff. Angela and I were the first ones on the plane, other than those who required assistance, and I could immediately tell it was going to be a delight. We found both a pillow and blanket at our seat and were immediately offered Arabic coffee – if you haven’t had it before (like I hadn’t), it is absolutely delicious. The fragrance is enchanting.

The seats we chose were 1D and 1G – the first row in the business class cabin and situated so we both had direct aisle access. The plane was a recent Boeing 787 Dreamliner. I won’t go into the flight too much, but we were both extremely comfortable, enjoyed the dinner and breakfast provided, and were able to get a solid amount of rest on the flight from ORD to AMM. Angela and I generally find it hard to sleep on airplanes, but flying business class is an absolute game-changer. It allowed us to arrive at our destination without much of the terrible jet lag that we would otherwise experience.

We had a two and a half hour layover in Amman, mostly spent in the business class lounge enjoying complimentary water and coffee, before heading to Cairo. Upon landing in Cairo, we were met by an agent, arranged through our hotel, who took care of everything. We were whisked through customs and immigration with no questions asked and no standing in line at all. Unfortunately, Angela’s suitcase did not make it on to the plane with us to Cairo so we had to spend some time filing a lost luggage claim. Luckily, the bag was delivered to our hotel a day later – it was stressful, but worked out in the end.

Our Accommodations in Cairo

We decided to stay at The Nile Ritz-Carlton, Cairo on this trip and arrived there about twenty five minutes after leaving the airport. We were greeted with an extensive security check – bollards surround the hotel, there is a carefully guarded entrance, every vehicle is checked for weapons and sniffed for bombs, and guests have to x-ray their bags and walk through a metal detector on every entry into the premises. I do not know how much of this is security theater and how much of it is actually required due to ongoing threats, but it was certainly an experience.

We were upgraded from the deluxe room that I booked into a junior suite on the top floor overlooking the Egyptian Museum.

The room was spacious and comfortable. We booked a fantastic rate that included breakfast and I was extremely happy that we did so. It was delicious and featured both Western and Middle Eastern cuisine every day. I was particularly delighted by the fresh kiwi and other fruits, as well as the shakshouka.

Exploring the Citadel and Old Cairo

Our first full day in Cairo was spent exploring the Cairo Citadel.

The Mosque of Muhammad Ali is located inside the Citadel itself. The building itself is an interesting combination of limestone and alabaster and is absolutely stunning.

The details are beautiful. The following piece of metalwork was apparently cast as a single piece. Our tour guide told us that perfection was insisted upon and this was just one example.

The courtyard had a large structure that our guide said was a fountain, but restoration work was being performed on it when we visited. The vibrant colors stood out against much of the beige and brown that we saw throughout the rest of the complex:

The interior of the mosque featured large chandeliers and painted domes. It seemed extremely European in its execution. One of the men leading a tour inside the mosque was kind enough to demonstrate the acoustics of the dome with a beautiful call of Allahu Akbar. The sound travel was amazing – it reminded me of the US Capitol building.

After leaving the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, we were treated to a stunning vista view of Cairo. The city is absolutely sprawling and is home to 25 million inhabitants. I tried to capture some of the vastness in the following three shots.

There are a lot of beautiful mosques all across Cairo, including the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan which I was able to capture from the Cairo Citadel area.

We walked over to the Al-Nasser Mohammed Ibn Kalawoun Mosque next. This mosque is older and more classically Arabesque in design. The courtyard was expansive and the columns were extremely interesting. One even included a cross as it was previously used in a Christian church. I found the sundial that timed out the calls to daily prayer to be particular interesting – while the nail that would have cast a shadow was no longer present, the purpose of the etching was immediately apparent.

After leaving the Cairo Citadel, we headed to Old Cairo where we visited several older religious buildings. The first was the Coptic Christian Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. This church sits over the cavern where the Coptic Christians hold that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph stayed during their flight to Egypt.

The following photos show the original stones from the floor of the cavern and the crib where Jesus is said to have slept.

The rest of the church was beautiful and had a few particular interesting features. Our tour guide told us that the church was built in the style of Noah’s Ark, as you can see from the ceiling.

There was an anchor carved into the exterior wall of the church, continuing the play on the Noah’s Ark theme.

We next visited one of the few remaining synagogues in Egypt, the Synagogue of the Levantines. It is said that this synagogue is located where Moses was found by the Egyptians before being taken into the royal family. Pictures were not allowed in the synagogue, but I took this photo outside showing the symbols of three religions.

After that, we took a short walk to the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George – it was gorgeous.

Our penultimate destination was the Fortress of Babylon, which played an important role in the history of Egypt by guarding the Nile River and collecting tolls from boats passing through. It was rebuilt by the Romans, which is what you can see in the photo.

Our final stop in Old Cairo was the The Hanging Church. I found this church to be particularly interesting in the use of Arabesque styling. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside (although I did sneak one of a fit-joined ivory and wood inlay), but the interior was just as beautiful as the exterior.

Giza, Saqqara, and Memphis

The second day in Egypt was definitely the busiest as we visited three separate locations during a full-day tour. We were first driven to Giza to see The Great Pyramids. Along the way, we passed over the Nile River and were given the chance to step out and take a few photos.

Angela and I have both wanted to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza since we were children but I don’t think either of us thought we would ever be lucky enough to do so. To say they met expectations would be a significant understatement. The scale of the pyramids is overwhelming as you approach them. It is hard to relay the feelings that I felt standing in the shadow of the monuments, but I think our tour guide had it right when she said:

Man fears Time, but Time fears The Pyramids.
Rania

I took a ton of pictures of the pyramids, but none of them do justice to the size and scope of the complex. I do have a few favorites, though.

After walking around Khufu’s pyramid, we visited an excavated tomb that belonged to a high-ranking nobleman.

The interior was amazing – it was our first real glimpse of ancient hieroglyphics and to be able to touch them and appreciate the work of artisans from thousands of years ago was something that cannot be described.

The tomb had a shaft dug to the original resting place of the person who was interred within it. We clambered down there and I got to take a couple of shots of Angela doing her best Assassin’s Creed impression.

After exiting the tomb, we headed back to the car for a short drive to something I’d been looking forward to since I booked our trip to Egypt – a camel ride across the desert.

Our tour guide spelled out exactly how much it would cost, $25 each, for the ride out to the spot where we could take the best pictures. She handled payment for us and made absolutely sure we got what we wanted. She held on to our cash until we returned from our short trek. This was one of the places in which I was particularly happy to have had a guide with us.

I was able to snap some pictures from the back of the camel – it was a little tough because my camel, Casanova, had a real attitude problem.

Our camel driver was kind enough to both take some awesome pictures of us and to take a selfie with us when we reached our destination.

I also snapped some photos myself – I couldn’t believe the view. It was like something out of a fairy tale.

Angela’s camel was very well-behaved. While she wouldn’t give him a kiss, she did get close enough to snap a really sweet shot.

We headed to the Great Sphinx of Giza next and it was, again, even more impressive than I anticipated. The monument itself is a monolith carved from a single piece of rock. The reinforcing bricks were added later as part of preservation efforts.

We were lucky enough to witness an archaeological dig in person while at the Great Sphinx. It reminded us of how much active work there is still being done to discover the history of Egypt.

We then left Giza and drove to Saqqara. It is separated from the main city of Cairo by about 15 miles and houses some of the first pyramids in Egypt. These were, essentially, the prototypes for the Great Pyramids that would come later.

The most well-preserved pyramid at Saqqara is the Pyramid of Djoser. It is the main feature of a complex that features a colonnade entrance, among many other things.

We also saw some examples of Hieratic text in a preserved chamber. Hieratic text was used as a less time-consuming form of writing compared to hieroglyphics.

The site played host to many other ancient structures, including worker’s lodgings and other general buildings. In lieu of a detailed list, please see the following pictures.

On the way out of the Saqqara site, we stopped to take some pictures of the vista with date palms (we think) as far as the eye could see.

Our last stop of the day was Memphis, the ancient capital of Lower Egypt. We saw many statues and monuments in the small museum area, but the highlight was definitely the Statue of Ramesses II.

The Egyptian Museum

In case you don’t know, Angela and I both love museums. We’re usually happy to do self-guided tours, but we’re glad that we paid for a guide given that only 10% of the items were labeled. This should change in the near future as the new Egyptian Museum should open within the next couple of years. For now, though, if you’re going to visit, then I highly recommend securing a guide.

Let me preface this section with this – the absolute coolest things we saw in the Egyptian Museum were those that we weren’t able to take pictures of. Notably, Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus and headdress. The priceless artifacts were tremendous in their beauty and craftsmanship.

In addition, the museum plays host to quite a few partially or wholly unwrapped mummies, providing a glimpse into the results of ancient preservation techniques. Unfortunately, photography in those areas is also forbidden. It is too bad because the bodies were absolutely amazing given the age of each.

The building that the museum is hosted within is beautiful in its own right.

The courtyard contains a small fountain that features papyrus and lotus flowers, the symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Once inside, the vastness of the collection is immediately obvious. There are statues and artifacts everywhere you look. It was also completely full of people. Luckily, we were somehow able to capture a picture that shows all the cool Egyptian items without any of the other people.