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 resident 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.

I want to specifically point out the following statues because they were placed inside the museum as it was built. They’re so large that they wouldn’t have fit inside any of the entrances once it was completed.

A detailed list of all we saw would take forever to write, so please just enjoy the following selection of photos of some of our favorite artifacts.

After exiting the museum, we took a picture with our tour guide, Rania, and parted ways for the last time. We headed back to the hotel to rest during the remainder of our time in Egypt in preparation for the next day.

Petra, Jordan

The next day we headed to the airport early in the morning to board our flight to Amman. Upon arrival and after purchasing our entrance visa, we were greeted by Hussein, our driver for the day. He is a native Jordanian who had previously lived in the United States in New Jersey and had run a small convenience shop and deli for a few years before returning to his homeland.

Hussein was great! He was a wonderful driver and enjoyed pointing out all the different features of Jordan on the two and a half hour drive to Petra.

When we arrived at Petra, we immediately bought our tickets and headed down the main path towards the Treasury. Petra is a New Wonder of the World, dating from 312 BCE, and it certainly lived up to that distinction in our experience. After traversing a mostly open path, the canyon closes in on either side of you and you’re treated to a delightful walk between sandstone cliffs. Throughout the complex, the Nabataeans left their mark by carving intricate and interesting structures and decorations into the natural landscape.

Then, suddenly, it appears – The Treasury. The brief glimpse you can see between the canyon walls is just a preview for something so spectacular that it is hard not to be overwhelmed.

It is hard to convey just how amazing the ancient city is. The pictures get some of it across, but being there in person was just so magical. It just makes you think about how industrious and intelligent our collective ancestors were to construct such an amazing city. The Treasury was just the first piece.

Again, I took so many pictures that it is hard to narrow down to just a few, but I think the following should give a good impression.

We hiked out of the site and were driven back to Amman, Jordan for a ten hour stay at the Amman Marriott. The next day we flew to O’Hare on Royal Jordanian and to Las Vegas on Southwest, reversing the start of our journey.

Things to Consider

Angela and I had a fantastic time on our trip. For those looking to do a trip similar to this one, we have a few things you might want to consider.

First, we never felt unsafe in any way. There were police everywhere in Cairo, but they were just standing around “in case” something happened. There are people trying to hustle you for money nearly everywhere you go, but just say “no, thank you” and they’ll usually leave you alone. If you walk like you would in New York City you’ll be absolutely fine.

Second, make sure you have tipping money in Egypt. It is expected as part of the culture, especially from wealthier tourists. The amounts you’ll tip will be negligible compared to the cost of getting and staying in the Middle East. Just keep some small bills on you at all time and dispense them liberally.

Third, we would recommend not planning to drive – hire a guide with a driver and you’ll be much less stressed out and able to enjoy yourself. Personally, I think I might have had a heart attack if I tried to drive in either Egypt or Jordan.

Finally, we very much recommend a guide if you can afford one. We would not have had the same exemplary experience without our awesome guide, Rania. She was amazing and made sure that we saw everything we wanted to see with a minimum of hassle. It can seem awfully touristy to have a guide with you everywhere, but it is important to remember that you are a tourist. That doesn’t mean you should act like an ignorant American, but it does mean that you should make absolutely sure you take advantage of your time in a foreign place to the best of your ability. We try to be respectful of local cultural norms and learn a few words in the native language to help us get around, but we also know we stand out like a couple of sore thumbs as tourists so we don’t feel bad acting like them.

Our First Transoceanic Trip
Two Weeks in London & Paris

Angela and I recently returned from our first international transoceanic trip together. While we’ve previously traveled internationally, it has always been within the Americas, with trips to Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama. We’ve previously flown across the ocean (to Hawaii twice), but that’s a domestic trip, so this one was something entirely different.

This was also the single longest vacation we’ve ever gone on and capped off the most travel-filled year we’ve ever had. For us, this was a huge new experience that we were excited to tackle.

The Prelude

We were leaving in the afternoon on a Sunday and, naturally, I expected to play flag football in the morning if possible. My games were scheduled at 9AM and 10AM so I geared up to play just like I do every week. Angela and I were excitedly talking about our trip on the way to the game and we were so happy before I started playing. I mean, look at these faces:

At the end of the first game, the opposing quarterback brought his hand down hard into my forehead, splitting my eyebrow open and causing me to bleed spectacularly. I thought we had won the game (as we forced a failed conversion in overtime), but while I dealt with my bleeding head they threw a penalty flag on me – I’m still a little upset.

Anyways, I tidied myself up and ended up needing five stitches:

We eventually made it home with just enough time to shower, dress, and get picked up by our delightfully helpful friends, Melody and Justin. They took us to the airport and we checked in before heading to the Centurion lounge. We grabbed some dinner in the lounge (delicious, to be sure) before heading to our gate.

We arrived just as priority boarding finished and, because we were flying Premium Economy, we walked right up to the gate and on to the plane.

The Flight – Las Vegas to London Gatwick

We booked our flight using Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles transferred over from Chase. Because we weren’t too much cash out of pocket, we decided to book in the aforementioned Premium Economy. It was an interesting experience. Premium Economy on Virgin Atlantic is definitely not business or first class, but it is the most comfortable I’ve ever been while flying. My seat was wide enough that I never got bumped by someone in the aisle (a chronic problem on planes because of my wide shoulders). The leg room was more than adequate and I was comfortable throughout.

Meal service was excellent and Angela enjoyed two mini-bottles of wine on the trip out:

The total flight time was a tad under ten hours. From a combination of excitement and a pathological inability to sleep on an airplane, neither Angela nor I got any meaningful amount of rest even though I saw many others within the Premium Economy cabin snoozing.

Even with the lack of sleep we definitely enjoyed our flight and arrived in London ready to get into the city and to our hotel:

Transit to London and the First Night

After clearing customs at London-Gatwick, we headed to the train station located near the South Terminal and boarded the Gatwick Express. We hoisted our baggage aboard and prepared for the trip to Victoria Station. It was, quite thankfully, very straightforward and we arrived at the train station after about 40 minutes.

From the station we took a taxi to our hotel. This taxi ride was the moment I realized that the street markings in London mostly seemed to be guidelines rather than rules. The transit through the city via car was absolutely nuts to the point that I had no desire to look out the window.

We arrived at the DoubleTree Hotel London Westminster, our home for the week, and discussed what we were going to do now that we were finally in the city.

As an aside, the aforementioned hotel was very nice for us. It was definitely a business hotel, but it had room for us to store all our clothes, a comfortable bed, and decent room service. The location was close to many transit options and we never felt trapped by where we were staying. The included breakfast buffet was quite good if the weird scrambled eggs are avoided.

We both sat down for a moment to rest and immediately fell into a nap that lasted a few hours. That put a bit of a damper on what we felt we could experience the first night, so we decided to just take a walk around the nearby area and head to Hyde Park, where a winter celebration was going on.

The Hyde Park Winter Wonderland was pleasant but kitschy. It wasn’t anything different than what you’d experience in the United States with a local city fair. However, we did manage to capture a cute winter selfie:

After walking back from Hyde Park, we decided to grab dinner at the hotel restaurant. Angela had fish and chips, which she said were delicious. I ordered a steak and it was here I realized that the British apparently don’t believe in seasoning. I do not think there was anything on my steak – not even salt and pepper. It was cooked well enough, though, and I was happy to finish the day with a nice piece of meat.

Tower of London, Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, and The Globe

Our first full day in London was an extremely busy one. Of course, it started with a selfie of us wearing sweaters (something we don’t often do in Las Vegas):

Our first destination was the Tower of London. We enjoyed a tour led by a Yeoman Warder (aka Beefeater) and then were able to wander around and explore the exhibits at the location by ourselves.

Personally, I found the history of the tower to be extremely fascinating. The evolution from stronghold to residence to prison to museum was amazing to hear. To be within the walls of a place with so much history was a little surreal.

Also, the crown jewels were extremely beautiful.

Next up on the list was a short walk to Tower Bridge for the Tower Bridge Exhibition. I love beautiful architecture and, to me, Tower Bridge is one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever seen. I loved it:

We took a journey to the walkway above the main Tower Bridge roadway and enjoyed the views of the city from there. My favorite part was the transparent parts of the walkway with ceiling mounted mirrors as we were able to capture a pretty great picture:

Because I loved it so much, here’s another picture showing off a true beauty (and the bridge, too):

We strolled through a quaint Christmas market on the way to the HMS Belfast, a retired light cruiser that acts as a floating museum. Visiting the HMS Belfast was reminiscent of many other ship tours that we’ve done, including the USS Midway. Angela really took charge on the ship:

We walked to London Bridge next and enjoyed the London Bridge Experience, a haunted house type activity that plays into the history of London and London Bridge, in particular. I led the way through the haunted house and was extremely entertained as everyone behind me was startled out of their skin every 45 seconds. Unfortunately, I have no pictures or video of this.

The last stop on our first full day was the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre. We enjoyed the museum exhibition attached to the reconstruction and the tour given by our guide. I particularly enjoyed the description of the reconstruction techniques used – including the rebuilding of the thatch roof.

 

After our tour of the theatre, we decided to try the the Swan, the resaurant attached to the Globe. Angela and I both ate a savory pie and they were absolutely delicious:

Daytripping – Leeds Castle, Cliffs of Dover, Canterbury Cathedral, and a Ferry Ride

Our second full day took us out of London on a tour that we booked through Golden Tours. While we were happy with the destinations on the trip, the guide left a lot to be desired in terms of helpfulness and organization. First up on the itinerary was Leeds Castle, but not until after we took our morning selfie:

Leeds Castle was interesting. Originally built as a stronghold in the medieval period, it turned into a preferred royal residence, passed through the hands of various nobility, and then was purchased by a rich socialite in the 1900s. It is kept in the state it was last used in, that of a private residence for someone who hosted a lot of parties.

The exterior shows quite clearly that this is not just another home:

The interior was almost overwhelming in its opulence. For example, the last owner’s bathroom was completely covered in marble from floor to ceiling:

The main library had thousands of books – a literary man’s dream:

It was certainly impressive but it really just felt like a rich old person’s house on the inside. It reminded us a lot of the Anderson House from Washington DC which is similarly maintained in the style of the last person to live there. I did get one of my favorite pictures of the entire trip at Leeds Castle – check out this stunner (and don’t mind the duck)!

After the castle, we headed to the cliffs of Dover for a quick photo opportunity. The bus was parked, we were given enough time to walk to take a picture, and then we took off again. Even with the small amount of time allowed, Angela was able to grab a few great pictures of the cliffs, including several of an extremely old Roman lighthouse and old church on top of the cliffs.

We next headed to Canterbury to visit the cathedral made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer. While there was major restoration work being done on the exterior, the Gothic architecture could still be plainly seen:

The interior was equally stunning, with the trademark Gothic style really coming through in the vaulted ceiling:

If you’ve ever heard the question “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” then you’re surely familiar with Canterbury Cathedral as it was the scene of Thomas Becket’s murder. Fun fact, that phrase reentered societal consciousness just this year as it was quoted by James Comey during congressional testimony.

The cathedral featured some stunning works in stained glass:

Finally, Angela captured me doing my best Secrets of the Dead impression:

The day ended with a trip to Greenwich where we walked past the Naval Observatory and boarded a transit ferry down the Thames. There wasn’t a ton of excitement around this last part, but we did grab a photo of the Palace of Westminster’s Christmas regalia:

All of the Walking and Climbing

Our third day in London was full of lots and lots and lots of walking – the perfect way to explore any new city! We started off the day with a selfie, as usual:

Our first stop was St. Paul’s with the intent of exploring the church. Unfortunately there was a memorial service happening and we were unable to enter, but we did manage to admire the architecture from the exterior:

After getting over some mild disappointment, we headed to the Monument to the Great Fire of London, which rewarded us with amazing views of the city after a dizzying climb up a seemingly endless spiral staircase.

After taking in the beautiful sites, we headed a few blocks away to the London Mithraeum, a restored Roman temple underneath the Bloomberg Europe headquarters. This was something that I just happened to stumble upon a reference to somewhere so we put it on our list of sights to see. I’m extremely glad we did as it was extremely interesting.

The temple is restored underground close to where it was 2,000 years ago so you have to head downstairs to enter:

The restoration includes light, fog, and sound effects to try to mimic the ceremonies that would have taken place there:

Next up on our walking tour of London was Trafalgar Square and the Nelson column. There wasn’t much to do here but snap some pictures and soak up the sight of so many monuments in one place, so that’s exactly what we did:

After 20 minutes with the camera up, we headed to the only remaining house in the world where Benjamin Franklin lived. As a huge Franklin fan, I was extremely excited that Angela was able to find this for us.

After a historical reenactment tour at the former home of The First American, we headed off to Westminster Abbey. It was beautiful inside and out, but unfortunately pictures are not allowed inside so you’ll have to make do with the exterior:

We rounded out our day with a stop by Buckingham Palace because it was on the way back to the hotel and we wanted to grab some pictures:

Plundered (or Preserved Treasures) and Afternoon Tea

We reserved a whole day for The British Museum and I’m extremely glad that we did because there was so much to see. We were both extremely excited to see the treasures preserved (some would say plundered) from ancient civilizations. Of course, we had to start the day off with a selfie – I saved my special UK sweater for our day at the museum.

The exterior of the museum reminds me a lot of the Field Museum in Chicago with the columns and classical facade:

There were so many treasures in the British Museum (and you can see most of them online with pictures much better staged than ours) but I want to share some of my favorites. I found this commemorative carving of female gladiators who earned their freedom through their performance to be extremely interesting. I did not realize that women were allowed to fight in the arena and this piece of art disabused me of that perspective:

I took entirely too many pictures of busts of Roman emperors, but I found this paired set of the Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous to be extremely interesting. Last year I read a biography of Hadrian that talked extensively about the relationship between these two and it was illuminating to see the manner in which they were portrayed:

I did not realize that Cleopatra’s mummy was actually at this museum, so that was a somewhat exciting surprise as Cleopatra is such an interesting historical figure:

Angela was particularly partial to the large mosaics (from various cultures and eras) that were reassembled throughout the institution. Here were two of our favorite:

One of the most important pieces of archaeology in history is located at the entrance to the Egyptian wing. I’m talking, of course, about the Rosetta Stone. To see such an important piece of human knowledge in person made me quite emotional:

Of all the Egyptian statues, I particularly enjoyed this set of Sekhmet statues that Angela was kind enough to pose in front of:

The British Museum has a gigantic collection of items from The Parthenon in Greece. The story of how those items got into the collection is somewhat controversial, in my opinion – they were technically taken from their original location with a permit, but the permit was granted by administrators from the Ottoman Empire (given that the Parthenon was located within it) and not ethnic Greeks. Like a lot of the museum’s collection, the items are amazing pieces of history, but I felt a certain unease about their presence so far away from their original location and the circumstances under which they were acquired.

All that being said, the statuary was amazing:

One of my last favorite highlights from the museum’s collection was a Maori from Easter Island. We watched a documentary about these last year so it was great to see one in person and really be able to appreciate the artistry and scale:

We also enjoyed our first afternoon tea experience at the British Museum’s restaurant. The food was great, but the service was absolutely awful. I gestured to our waitress repeatedly for over an hour and she refused to come give us our bill. It was so frustrating.

The Shard and some Beautiful Views

Our final full day in London was relaxing compared to all the previous ones. Of course, we started with our daily selfie:

After that we visited a main shopping center in London, Covent Garden Market. It was very commercial, obviously, but because of Christmas there were plenty of delightful holiday decorations that we both really enjoyed.

After purchasing the special London scent at Diptyque (highly recommended), we were off to the Shard to get some great views of the city. I was quite enamored by the vista even if it was a little overcast and rainy:

After the soaring heights, we were back to Earth and back to our hotel for a delightful afternoon tea experience. One thing I wish I knew before we went is just how much I would enjoy these sittings in the middle of the afternoon:

The Train to Paris and a Beautiful First Night

We took the Eurostar direct from London to Paris city center and it was extremely easy. We taxied from our hotel in London direct to the terminal, checked in, and then patiently waited to board our coach. With assigned seats and large luggage racks there was nothing to worry about. I had booked us a hotel transfer direct from Paris Gare du Nord to our hotel – he was late but exceedingly nice when he eventually showed up.

Sidenote: I think in the future I’ll just eschew booking private car transfers because we have had exceptionally bad luck (including our last day when we headed back to London). My thinking has always been that the extra expense is worth it if there is a little less hassle, but everytime it ends up being more hassle than I find value in what I paid.

We grabbed a quick shot of both of us at the train station (showcasing my mildly stressed out, in the middle of travel face):

Then another one as soon as we got to our hotel in Paris, Hotel Le Cinq Codet. It was a beautiful hotel in a great location and I highly recommend it to anyone considering a trip to Paris. Look how happy we were at arrival:

After getting our bearings, we headed out into the cold Paris night and saw some amazing sights. On the way to the Arc de Triomphe we found ourselves standing by a bridge with a beautiful shot of the Eiffel Tower in the background. We couldn’t resist grabbing some pictures:

Eventually we made it to the Arc de Triomphe and it was even grander than I had imagined it would be. At the end of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, it was quite the sight. After a few shots of the exterior we headed in and up:

The views from the top were amazing:

After that, it was back to our hotel, but not before crossing over the Pont Alexandre III bridge, famously featured in the animated movie Anastasia, an Angela favorite:

Our 7th Anniversary – The Louvre and Eiffel Tower

Our first full day in Paris started with the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had at Angelina Paris. I am not exaggerating when I say that if you like chocolate, you must stop here and indulge in the creamy deliciousness that they serve. It is rich and thick without being overly sweet and I will make it a priority to go back the next time we are in Paris.

Of course, we had to take our first Paris morning selfie while we waited:

As we strolled up to the Louvre, we were greeted with a fantastic view of the famous glass pyramid over the heads of the (not-too-large) crowd:

After passing into the museum proper, we started our lengthy tour of all the art contained therein. There’s so much to see, so I’m only going to mention some of our favorite highlights. First, the Code of Hammurabi, as much a piece of history as it is of art:

Next, we walked through restored / preserved state apartments of Napoleon III to get a feel for exactly how royalty lived. Some of the finishes contained within were simply amazing:

Angela posed, quite successfully, with a very nice statue:

We saw a complete and well-preserved sphinx:

I loved this cool eagle relief that were a common theme of the architecture:

Angela captured this amazing shot of the Venus de Milo after pushing through the throng:

Several statues by Michaelangelo were next on our list:

Again, Angela fought the raucous crowd to get a great shot of The Winged Victory of Samothrace, located in a busy stairwell:

We saw several Leonardo da Vinci paintings which, even to my untrained eyes, were self-evident masterpieces. Unfortunately, there was no way to get good pictures due to reflections on the glass covering the canvas. We, of course, also saw the Mona Lisa but did not wait in the packed line to get close to it.

My personal favorite artwork from our visit is what we saw next – the mammoth scale and detail in Liberty Leading the People and Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804 brought my heart joy and took my breath away momentarily. The artists’ work on these two pieces in particular was stunning and really something to behold. It is hard to imagine the scale until you’re looking at them in person:

We finished up our visit with a look at the French Crown Jewels, located in the Galerie d’Apollon, an absolutely stunning space:

After a somewhat early dinner at a local cafe, we headed to the Eiffel Tower to go up to the top. Here’s a view from our walk up to it through a small park:

The whole structure was amazing. Here’s a look at the bottom from directly underneath it:

We waited in line for close to 45 minutes before we got to head to the top, but it was worth every minute of waiting and every euro we spent. The views were incredible:

It was absolutely freezing at the top, but we stuck it out to get some special pictures for our anniversary – I couldn’t imagine a different way I would have wanted to spend the night:

 

Versailles

We booked a Versailles tour through Viator that we were very pleased with. We were picked up at our hotel by an extremely friendly driver and escorted around Versailles by a knowledgeable and fun guide.

Unfortunately, the day we visited Versailles it was like there was a cloud hanging three feet off the ground, so we didn’t get a grand view from the palace’s courtyard or experience the gardens in any meaningful way. That being said, we did enjoy the royal surroundings.

As with every other day, we started this one with a quick selfie:

And then another one in the courtyard that shows just how foggy it was:

The estate was visually overwhelming in many ways, so I think the best way to describe it is through pictures of some of our favorite parts:

The following nondescript desk is important because it is where the Treaty of Versailles was signed at the end of the World War I – some would say the document signed here led to World War II, although I’m currently reading a book that disputes this commonly held opinion in some ways.

This painting depicts the Battle of Yorktown, which led fairly directly to an American victory in the Revolutionary War – nice to see the American-French relationship depicted in such an important place:

I also captured a picture of this super cutie I found by the gates:

We arrived back at our hotel in the middle of the afternoon and decided to rest most of the evening after enjoying a delicious dinner.

Musée de l’Armée

We spent almost an entire day in the French military museum located at Les Invalides and it was well worth. After grabbing some breakfast and our obligatory selfie, we decided to head out. The building is stunning to walk up to:

Interestingly, the location houses the largest single collection of artillery pieces (at least that is the claim) so there are cannons and bombards everywhere. I snapped a few inside the courtyard as we walked into it:

The museum is enormous and plays host to a veritable treasure trove of medieval, renaissance, and later arms and armor. Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the collection (that weren’t ruined by the glare from display cases):

The location also plays host to a set of tombs, including Emperor Napoleon I’s:

If you’re going to visit, I highly recommend the audio tour as it makes the experience much more informative. Again, after a full day of walking and reading we were exhausted and headed back to the hotel for some much needed rest.

Art, Art, and More Art

After gorging on militarism the previous day, we decided to return to a purer subject – art. We visited the Musee Rodin and the Musee d’Orsay and both were wonderful! Rodin is one of Angela’s favorite artists, so it was a real treat to see so much of his amazing work. Again, we took so many pictures but I’ll try to pick out some memorable / notable ones:

After admiring Rodin’s amazing sculptures, it was off to a less specialized, but no less amazing, art museum. On the way there we got to walk down through this quaint Parisian neighborhood, which I quite enjoyed:

Again, here are some of our favorite works (and I think you’ll recognize quite a few):

 

A Day of Bread and Cheese and Back to London

Our last full day in Paris we decided to relax and unwind given that we’d been on our feet touring two different international cities almost non-stop for multiple weeks. We woke up and headed to the local fromagerie (cheese shop) and boulangerie (bakery) to pick up some essentials for the day and hung out in our hotel room reading, talking, and recapping our trip. It was a great way to finish up our stay in Paris (and it helped that our hotel room was extremely conducive to relaxing like this).

Our last morning in Paris was beautiful and we decided to take full advantage of our final few hours by taking a brisk walk to the Champ de Mars where we snapped quite a few shots of us in front of the Eiffel Tower:

After taking those shots, it was back to London for our direct flight home to Las Vegas the next day. In retrospect, I wouldn’t do this again. I’d rather position myself in the US to a major city on the west coast then worry about flying from a specific place in Europe. We took a taxi to the train station in Paris, took the Eurostar to London, had to find our driver (who was late and kind of a dick), drive to Gatwick and get dropped off at the Courtyard Marriott at Gatwick, and then wake up early the next day to catch a (paid) shuttle to our terminal. I would not do that again, period.

Our trip was wonderful and we can’t wait to go back to Paris, hopefully during the spring when the gardens are blooming and it is a tad bit warmer. If you’ve never been, there is so much to do!

Hawaii

Angela and I recently visited Hawaii (the big island) for our two year anniversary. In whole, it was an awesome vacation – it certainly didn’t start that way though. We were scheduled to leave Las Vegas at 12:40 AM (in the wee morning hours) but due to a series of maintenance delays, we didn’t end up taking off until a little past 3. The plane was small and cramped (it was a 767, I believe) and there wasn’t room for our carry on bag so we had to gate check it. Neither one of us could really sleep on the way over the ocean, so when we got to Honolulu to switch to our interisland flight we were already really tired. After going to get our bag from the checked luggage area (because the flight attendant who “helped” us didn’t even ask if we were making a transfer when he took our gate checked bag) we ventured over to the interisland terminal and made our way to the big island via the shortest plane ride I’ve ever been on. From there, the next seven days were awesome.

Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation

After securing our rental car (a silver Ford Mustang convertible), we set off to the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. Angela had scheduled us a VIP tour that included a tour of the plantation, an overview of the roasting operation and a chance for us to roast our own Kona coffee beans. The experience was amazing.

We met our guide shortly after arriving at the coffee plantation. He was a young-ish native Hawaiian who knew a ton about the local flora and fauna in addition to the goings on of the coffee plantation itself. The plantation itself was very unassuming.

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The first thing we did was walk right past a goose who had just given birth to a bunch of goslings. That was probably the most aggressive animal I’ve ever encountered in my life. Any time we got within a dozen feet of the newborn goslings cage, the goose would start stamping its feet and hissing at us.

After that, we were introduced to the plantation’s resident pig. It was a half-feral, half-domesticated hybrid and was a lot friendlier than the goose.

As we walked down towards the coffee trees, we encountered some interesting landscape features that are unique to volcanic regions. The coolest one, in my opinion, was definitely the lava tube that run under a part of the plantation. Our guide was kind enough to take our picture while we stood on top of it.

Lava Tube

Finally, we got to the coffee trees. Because Mountain Thunder is primarily an organic grower, they don’t use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer on their main coffee plantation. To make up for the absence of those things, they have donkeys and geese roam the area, eating the unwanted vegetation and promoting the growth of the plants through their droppings. As part of our tour, we got to feed these animals. The donkeys were miniature and super duper cute. The geese were really aggressive, going so far as to step on Angela’s foot (which was an especially interesting experience for her since she was wearing open sandals).

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After the feed ran out, we learned a bit about how the coffee is harvested at Mountain Thunder. All of their coffee cherries are hand picked from the trees at the peak of their ripeness and collected into big bags of 100 pounds each. It is fairly labor-intensive and this process accounts for a lot of the extra cost of Mountain Thunder’s coffee.

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The coffee tree is part of the gardenia family and has tiny little flowers all over it, which Angela found particularly fascinating.

We next ventured up to the coffee cherry processing facilities. The process has a bunch of steps, but Angela got good pictures of all of them. Basically what happens is as follows:

  1. The coffee cherry is checked for quality by seeing if it floats in a tank of water
  2. The cherry is stripped of its rind and fruit, leaving just the bean
  3. The bean is placed into a fermentation tank to remove it of its sugary coating
  4. The bean is removed from the fermentation tank and laid out to air dry in the sun
  5. If drying isn’t happening fast enough, the bean is placed with its batch in a large propane powered drier
  6. The beans are sorted and filtered based on quality and grade
  7. The coffee is roasted

The coolest part of the process (in my mind) was the sorting and filtering based on bean size and grade. The owner of the plantation had custom-built a ton of equipment to aid in this process and it was totally awesome. Here are some pics of the process (in order):

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After the main part of the tour was over we ate some lunch that the coffee people procured for us from some local restaurant. It was fairly good, but I only mention it in particular because Angela got an awesome picture of a rooster next to Sriracha (rooster) sauce.

Rooster and Rooster Sauce

Finally, it was time for us to roast our own coffee. The owner of the plantation came over and walked us through the process on a small personal-sized roaster. We got the whole education about their roasting profile, why it is what it is and got to make it happen. It was a ton of fun. After we roasted the coffee, we got to bag it (which Angela was about a million times better at than I was) and take some home with us.

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Overall, the Mountain Thunder VIP tour was well worth the cost. Angela and I both had a blast!

Hawaii Fairmont Orchid

After finishing up the coffee plantation tour, Angela and I finally made our way to the hotel. For this trip, we decided to stay at the Hawaii Fairmont Orchid. It was on the higher end of resorts on the island but wasn’t so expensive that it made our stay untenable. I am so glad that we decided to stay there as it was beautiful.

Hotel Lobby

Hotel Bay 4

Coconut Christmas Tree

Hotel Waterfall

Room view 2

Room view 1

We were so tired that first night that we just ordered room service. It was definitely underwhelming and something we did not partake of the rest of the time there. That was probably the only bad thing about the hotel, though.

Drive Around the Island

After a day of relaxing, we set our alarms and woke up early for a tour of the island. We hopped in our car and headed to our first destination, the Punalu’u Black Sand beach. Before we had even gone five miles, we found this tribute to Angela written in rocks.

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Followed by this exceedingly creepy warning sign.

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Anyways, back to the black sand beach. Angela found this little gem while browsing around for “off the beaten path” spots that tourists weren’t likely to see. It was, by far, the coolest little beach that I’ve ever been on. The sand grains were like little black beads. Walking across the beach just felt different than on any other beach I’d ever visited.

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One interesting thing that happened there was some hippy tried to give me a CD of cello music. I declined but he handed me some pamphlet prompting me to accept Jesus. Nice guy.

The next step on our journey was Volcanoes National Park. As we drove there, we discovered one of the neatest things about this drive, which kind of goes along with the fact that the island is a volcano, is that the landscape outside of our windows changed completely about every half hour. It was crazy.

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We arrived at the park the same time as a cold and windy storm, which was unfortunate. Crater Rim Drive (the road that circles the Kilauea Caldera) was closed for the most part, so we didn’t really get to see a ton. We did stop at the caldera look out point and saw a bunch of steam rising from the opening to the red-hot earth. That was pretty darn neat.

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We left the park and continued our trip around the island. Our next stop was Akaka Falls north of Hilo. It was still cold and rainy and I was kind of being a whiny little baby about it, so we waited in the car for a few minutes for the worst of the rain to pass so I wouldn’t be cold. Angela was smart enough to purchase a hooded sweatshirt at our previous stop but I had been stubborn so was just wearing a white t-shirt.

I am glad we waited, though, because the scenery at the falls was absolutely beautiful.

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Here’s a cool picture of me in our rental car at the falls.

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After the falls we were pretty darn tired so decided to head back to the hotel across the island. On the way there, we stopped at this little coffee shop called Hilo Shark where Angela and I had the best chocolate we have ever eaten (and I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate). If you like your chocolate super dark and delicious, I can definitely recommend ordering some.

We drove towards the north part of the island and ended up going through the town of Waimea and up into some mountains where we saw an awesome double rainbow.

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Finally, we made it back to the hotel. Rather than eating at the hotel, we ventured out to the local Tommy Bahama’s restaurant. It was surprisingly delicious. I had steak and Angela had ahi tuna. We ended up going back there several times.

Tommy Bahama Steak

Tommy Bahama Ahi Tuna

Macadamia Nut Factory and End of the World

The next day it was a little rainy and wet. Instead of sitting by the pool and dealing with that, we decided to go visit the local Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company. They have a little glass walled production environment where you can watch everything happen and they have a ton of samples that you can try. There were a lot of different flavors, including one that Angela and I wanted no part of: Spam.

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Nuts

Spam nuts

After we left the factory, we decided to take a short little drive to see some different parts of the island. What started out as a short little drive turned into a several hour long venture down a “highway” that consisted of about ten one-lane bridges, crazy twisty turns around cliffs and speed limits of 15 MPH. All of a sudden, there is a sign that says “highway ends” and the road just terminates in a parking lot that looks over one of the most beautiful sights we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, the parking lot was full and we didn’t get a chance to stop (and I had to do the tightest three point turn I’ve ever done) but here is a photo taken by someone else. This place seriously looked like something out of time.

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After turning around, we went back to Waimea and had some Kona coffee mochas before heading back to the hotel. That night we ate at one of the Fairmont Orchid’s on site restaurants, Brown’s Beach House. It was definitely overrated as the food was absurdly expensive and, quite frankly, just mediocre. We still don’t understand why Yelp was all up in arms about how great the place was.

Relaxing

The last few days at the resort we just relaxed. One of the things we did while we were relaxing was drive four miles over to the sister resort near the Fairmont Orchid, the Mauna Lani, and hung out there for a little bit. It was nice and there were sea turtles there, so Angela really liked it. We also found that Mountain Thunder had an affiliated coffee shop at the resort.

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Also, we went to a Luau at the hotel called “The Gathering of Kings”. It was the story of the migration of people through the Polynesian islands (including Hawaii, Samoa and New Zealand). There was fire twirling and tons of native foods from each of the islands profiled. Angela and I tried a bunch of new foods including a Hawaiian favorite Poi. I would not recommend it as it tasted like eating Play-Doh.

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Finally, this was the first time I had gone on vacation without doing any kind of work in about four years, so it was really awesome to be able to just lay by the pool, read and drink milkshakes.

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The Journey Back

Our flight back was a lot better than our flight to Hawaii as we flew on an Airbus A330 with tons of room. There was no gate-checking involved and our flight left on time. After we got back, I took some more time off to hang out with Angela and just celebrate our anniversary. We both loved our trip to Hawaii and are already looking forward to our next trip to somewhere tropical.