A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
We brought the Hyatt rubber ducky two friends from the Lufthansa lounge
We brought the Hyatt rubber ducky two friends from the Lufthansa lounge

I suspect that some of my readers have been appalled by some of the travel conditions we’ve endured during parts of our RTW trip.  Cramped buses, dirty hotel rooms, limited food options, etc.  Overall it hasn’t been nearly as bad as some might think but I will agree that there were a few days here and there where the situation just plain sucked.  November 5th did not fall into that category.

A seat AND a bed!
A seat AND a bed!

November 5th was the day we were scheduled to take Lufthansa Flight 741 from Osaka to Frankfurt with an onward connection to Berlin.  This flight is operated by Lufthansa’s 747 aircraft which they are in the process of retrofitting with a new First Class product.  Their product is unique in that it offers first class passengers both a traditional seat as well as a dedicated bed.  Many airlines offer lay-flat beds but most are seats which convert into beds – obviously some design compromises must be made there.  The icing on the cake is that Lufty has their First Class on the upper deck of the 747.

Champagne and macadamia nuts
Champagne and macadamia nuts

After climbing the stairs and being shown to our seats we got down to business.  Namly, Champagne and macadamia nuts.  A short while later, and still during boarding, the flight attendant came through and offered an amuse-bouche so that we wouldn’t starve to death.  She also gave us all the other supplies we’d be needing: a stack of food and wine menus, slippers, pajamas (ours to keep) and Bose headsets (ours not to keep!).  She also gave us each our Lufthansa rose.

Before even seeing the menus I had decided that I would be selecting the Japanese menu on the flight.  It seemed like it was my last chance at some gourmet Japanese food for a while so why not?  I started with caviar and a wonderful seared tuna appetizer.

Zensai Sanshu: Caviar with all the fixings and a starter of seared tuna with grilled watermelon
Zensai Sanshu: Caviar with all the fixings and a starter of seared tuna with grilled watermelon

As is traditional in a Japanese Kaiseki meal, there are many many courses.  My caviar and seared tuna were followed up with three more dishes in the “zensei sanshu” course (click for enlargements and menu text).

Honey glazed Duck Breast, Vegetable Salsa, Micro Greens and Seasame Dressing
Honey glazed Duck Breast, Vegetable Salsa, Micro Greens and Seasame Dressing
Scallops and Shiitake Mushroom with Bonito flavored Cream
Scallops and Shiitake Mushroom with Bonito flavored Cream
Kudzu Cake with Cod Milt, Salmon Roe and Dashi
Kudzu Cake with Cod Milt, Salmon Roe and Dashi

Next up was the beautifully-plated “Hassun” course.

Hassun: Snow Crab Sushi, seared Blowfish Sushi, Fish Roe rolled with Kelp, blanched Blowfish Skin served with Ponzu Sauce, Gisei-Tofu and Kumquats simmered in Syrup
Hassun: Snow Crab Sushi, seared Blowfish Sushi, Fish Roe rolled with Kelp, blanched Blowfish Skin served with Ponzu Sauce, Gisei-Tofu and Kumquats simmered in Syrup

I was getting pretty full by this point but I still hadn’t reached the biggest dish of the meal, the “Omozakana” course.  One highlight of this course was the rice.  Rice often gets dried out and tough on the plane but Lufthansa has solved that by serving the rice packaged in a bamboo sheet.

Omozakana: Simmered Sea Bream and Turnip served with Gin an Sauce, Kintoki Carrot and steamed Tawara Rice
Omozakana: Simmered Sea Bream and Turnip served with Gin an Sauce, Kintoki Carrot and steamed Tawara Rice
Gohan: Steamed rice wrapped in a Bamboo Sheet
Gohan: Steamed rice wrapped in a Bamboo Sheet

To close out the meal they served some miso soup and then some Japanese sweets.  Japanese sweets often leave the western palate unsatisfied as they tend not to be very sweet.  I enjoyed mine but I will admit that I supplemented with some truffles and a coffee.

Wagashi: Japanese Sweet with Otemoto Stick
Wagashi: Japanese Sweet with Otemoto Stick
Some truffles to top things off...
Some truffles to top things off…

Thoroughly stuffed I took a stroll around the plane before heading to the lav to change into my pajamas.  The meal took a couple of hours so by the time we finished we were making our way across China and headed for Mongolia.  I spent a long while just staring out at the barren terrain thinking about what a wonderful experience it was to travel in Mongolia.

Mongolia!
Mongolia!

I stirred after a few hours of sleep and decided it was high time to investigate the snack options.  I availed myself to both the western (canapes) and Japanese (onigiri) snacks.  One of the flight attendants also pointed out that we were half-way to Germany so I decided to order up a nice beer, a Erdiner Weissbier to be exact.  Meanwhile, Amy was still chiseling through the movie selection.

Amy enjoying her bed and the movies
Amy enjoying her bed and the movies

Before we knew it, our 12 hour flight was nearing its end and the flight attendants were preparing to serve the second meal of the flight.  I scarcely had room left in my belly but I did my best.  Even so, I had to skip a couple of the courses.  

Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!
Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!
Omozakana: Simmed  Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice
Omozakana: Simmed Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice
Chocolate Spicy Cake
Chocolate Spicy Cake

Sadly, we were right on schedule touching down in Frankfurt (flights like this you always want to go long) but there was more luxury waiting for us in the First Class Terminal (FCT).  Lufthansa has a dedicated terminal building in Frankfurt for First Class passengers.  The facility is primarily intended for passengers originated in Frankfurt, however, transit passengers such as ourselves are equally welcome.  The only downside is that it required us to pass through security and walk down the street a little ways.  It is well worth the effort though!

Upon arrival at the FCT our credentials were checked and we were subjected to a respectful screening at the dedicated security checkpoint.  Next, we were introduced to our personal assistant who would take care of us during our stay.  Normally this person would also collect our passports so that they could be processed at the facilities private immigration facility, however since we had an onward domestic flight to Berlin this wasn’t necessary.

Nice shower rooms at the Frankfurt First Class Terminal
Nice shower rooms at the Frankfurt First Class Terminal

Our first order of business was showers.  The FCT has some excellent spa facilities with huge “rainfall” shower heads and enormous bathtubs which are very welcome treat after a long flight.  To be honest though, what I was really excited about was picking up a souvenir of the occasion: a Lufthansa Rubber Ducky.

A quality spread on the buffet line...cured ham, anyone?
A quality spread on the buffet line…cured ham, anyone?

Rubber ducks in hand, we headed to the dining area for some more food.  Amy made a pass at the buffet while I ordered a pumpkin salad and the weiner schnitzel.  I can also report that dying of thirst is not a risk at the FCT as there is a choice of seven different types of bottled water.  Their selection of alcoholic beverages is also formidable: I counted 66 different single-malt whiskeys on the menu!  All of this is complimentary of course. 

...and the schnitzel
…and the schnitzel

The FCT experience ends with a bang.  About 15 minutes prior to our flight’s scheduled departure time our personal assistant came to find us and asked that we follow him downstairs.  Waiting downstairs is a row of Mercedes limousines and Porsche SUV’s.  We climbed in one and headed out across the tarmac to our waiting aircraft.  Our assistant escorted us onboard and introduced us to the crew.  As soon as we sat down the doors were closed and off we went – everyone else was already on board!  I think that is about as close as we can get to having a private jet.

Our ride to our Berlin-bound aircraft
Our ride to our Berlin-bound aircraft

The flight to Berlin was short and uneventful and we soon made our way out to the curb to find the city bus.  I would venture to guess that we were one of the only Lufthansa First passengers to also use a city bus that day.  The bus took us from Tegel airport to Potsdamer Platz and the Grand Hyatt Berlin.  Of course there is no way that we could afford such fancy digs on our budget but I had a some free Hyatt nights saved up for such an occasion.

We scored a nice upgrade at the Grand Hyatt Berlin
We scored a nice upgrade at the Grand Hyatt Berlin

Thanks to my soon-to-be-expired status with Hyatt’s rewards program, we were given an upgrade for the night to a suite.  The room was spectacular and we made good use of the hotel’s facilities which included a beautiful indoor poor on the top floor.  As an added bonus, they even comped the contents of the massive minibar!  Too bad we could only stay one night.

We brought the Hyatt rubber ducky two friends from the Lufthansa lounge
We brought the Hyatt rubber ducky two friends from the Lufthansa lounge
Crossing Asia in Style
The red carpet awaits
The red carpet awaits
A seat AND a bed!
A seat AND a bed!
Champagne and macadamia nuts
Champagne and macadamia nuts
Amenity kit, slippers, pajamas and a Bose headset
Amenity kit, slippers, pajamas and a Bose headset
Amuse-bouche to keep us from starving during the boarding process
Amuse-bouche to keep us from starving during the boarding process
When flying Lufthansa, one must not miss the pretzle rolls!
When flying Lufthansa, one must not miss the pretzle rolls!
Zensai Sanshu: Caviar with all the fixings and a starter of seared tuna with grilled watermelon
Zensai Sanshu: Caviar with all the fixings and a starter of seared tuna with grilled watermelon
Combination of Sesame crusted Yellow Fin Tuna, grilled Water Melon and Capsicum Parfait
Combination of Sesame crusted Yellow Fin Tuna, grilled Water Melon and Capsicum Parfait
Honey glazed Duck Breast, Vegetable Salsa, Micro Greens and Seasame Dressing
Honey glazed Duck Breast, Vegetable Salsa, Micro Greens and Seasame Dressing
Scallops and Shiitake Mushroom with Bonito flavored Cream
Scallops and Shiitake Mushroom with Bonito flavored Cream
Kudzu Cake with Cod Milt, Salmon Roe and Dashi
Kudzu Cake with Cod Milt, Salmon Roe and Dashi
Hassun: Snow Crab Sushi, seared Blowfish Sushi, Fish Roe rolled with Kelp, blanched Blowfish Skin served with Ponzu Sauce, Gisei-Tofu and Kumquats simmered in Syrup
Hassun: Snow Crab Sushi, seared Blowfish Sushi, Fish Roe rolled with Kelp, blanched Blowfish Skin served with Ponzu Sauce, Gisei-Tofu and Kumquats simmered in Syrup
Omozakana: Simmered Sea Bream and Turnip served with Gin an Sauce, Kintoki Carrot and steamed Tawara Rice
Omozakana: Simmered Sea Bream and Turnip served with Gin an Sauce, Kintoki Carrot and steamed Tawara Rice
Gohan: Steamed rice wrapped in a Bamboo Sheet
Gohan: Steamed rice wrapped in a Bamboo Sheet
Misoshiru: Miso Soup
Misoshiru: Miso Soup
Wagashi: Japanese Sweet with Otemoto Stick
Wagashi: Japanese Sweet with Otemoto Stick
Some truffles to top things off...
Some truffles to top things off…
...and coffee, with more chocolate.
…and coffee, with more chocolate.
Dessert wines and cheeses on the way but I was stuffed.
Dessert wines and cheeses on the way but I was stuffed.
A bit of a strange routing to begin with
A bit of a strange routing to begin with
Mongolia!
Mongolia!
Lake Baikal in Russia
Lake Baikal in Russia
Sporting my Lufty PJs
Sporting my Lufty PJs
Canapés as a mid-flight snack
Canapés as a mid-flight snack
My last chance at some onigiri for a while so I had that as a snack as well.
My last chance at some onigiri for a while so I had that as a snack as well.
Half way to Germany, might as well celebrate with a German beer.
Half way to Germany, might as well celebrate with a German beer.
Amy enjoying her bed and the movies
Amy enjoying her bed and the movies
Why look, it is time for another meal!
Why look, it is time for another meal!
Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!
Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!
Hassun: Osaka pressed Sushi featuring Mackerel, Prawn and Eff, Sea Bream, minced Chicken Cake covered with Poppy Seeds, small River Fish rolled with Kelp, Petit Arrowhead Bulb pickled with Sweet Vinegar and Ginger
Hassun: Osaka pressed Sushi featuring Mackerel, Prawn and Eff, Sea Bream, minced Chicken Cake covered with Poppy Seeds, small River Fish rolled with Kelp, Petit Arrowhead Bulb pickled with Sweet Vinegar and Ginger
Omozakana: Simmed  Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice
Omozakana: Simmed Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice
Chocolate Spicy Cake
Chocolate Spicy Cake
I decided to try some plum saki.  Tsukinoi Nihonshu Shikomi Umezake
I decided to try some plum saki. Tsukinoi Nihonshu Shikomi Umezake
Nice shower rooms at the Frankfurt First Class Terminal
Nice shower rooms at the Frankfurt First Class Terminal
A quality spread on the buffet line...cured ham, anyone?
A quality spread on the buffet line…cured ham, anyone?
I order off the menu a pumpkin salad
I order off the menu a pumpkin salad
...and the schnitzel
…and the schnitzel
Hot chocolate for dessert
Hot chocolate for dessert
We scored a nice upgrade at the Grand Hyatt Berlin
We scored a nice upgrade at the Grand Hyatt Berlin
The walk-in closet at the Grand Hyatt Berlin was about the size of our whole room at the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong
The walk-in closet at the Grand Hyatt Berlin was about the size of our whole room at the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong
Huge bathroom!
Huge bathroom!
We brought the Hyatt rubber ducky two friends from the Lufthansa lounge
We brought the Hyatt rubber ducky two friends from the Lufthansa lounge
We couldn't even put a dent in the complimentary minibars
We couldn’t even put a dent in the complimentary minibars
Nice sculture in our floor's elevator lobby
Nice sculture in our floor’s elevator lobby
Our ride to our Berlin-bound aircraft
Our ride to our Berlin-bound aircraft

Those of you who have been viewing the website regularly have probably noticed that we have switched continents again. In fact, I am writing this post in hot and sunny Windhoek, Namibia. About 12 days ago we were packing our bags in tropical El Nido, Palawan which is tucked away in a remote corner of the Philippines. Since then we have passed through Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, Poland, Austria, Switzerland and South Africa. Quite a bit of flying for 12 days!

The crazy routing was mainly due to a bargain redemption that I spotted on the United award chart a couple months ago. One-way awards from Japan to Southern Africa (that is, most of the continent south of the equator) are 40/50/60k miles in coach/business/first respectively. 60,000 miles for an intercontinental first class redemption is a good value but this one in particular is spectacular due to the overall distance traveled and the very generous routing allowance.

Boeing-Lufthansa 50 years of partnership special livery
Boeing-Lufthansa 50 years of partnership special livery

United’s Mileage Plus awards are now governed by a “maximum permitted mileage” (MPM) rule that limits how far you can fly on a given award. The MPM is based on the given origin/destination city pair you are traveling between – basically, they look it up in a big table. For Osaka to Windhoek, the MPM allotment is a whopping 15,880 miles – to put that in perspective, the straight-line distance is a mere 8,627 miles!

Krakow to Vienna, again with EuroLOT
Krakow to Vienna, again with EuroLOT

With a huge cushion of routing allotment to work with, I set to work finding a good set of flights on our desired travel dates. Lufthansa had some nice availability on their Osaka-Frankfurt flight and, as an added bonus, there was a rumor floating about that it would be operated by 747′s featuring their new seat+bed first class product. Even without the new seats, Lufthansa First is a fantastic product that I was eager to try again.

Vienna to Zurich, my first flight with Austrian
Vienna to Zurich, my first flight with Austrian

The next challenge was finding award availbility on the Europe to Africa portion of the trip. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a flight that lined up well with our inbound flight from Osaka. Award space on the long-hauls to the southern tip of the continent is pretty scarce. In the end, I found space with Swiss on a flight but it was four full days after our inbound flight from Osaka. This would be a deal-breaker for some, but it was still usable with a little bit of work.

Our Joburg-bound A340-300 as seen from the first class transfer limo.
Our Joburg-bound A340-300 as seen from the first class transfer limo.

United one-way awards don’t allow stopovers so it wasn’t possible to scheduled a stopover in one city for a few days without paying for two award tickets. What their rules DO allow are an unlimited number of connections provided you still observe the MPM restriction. Connections are defined as stops of less than 24 hours in a given city. The Star Alliance has an incredibly dense mesh of routes across the European continent so it feasible to bounce from city to city to pad out the schedule. So that is just what we did!

Getting closer to our final destination.
Getting closer to our final destination.

The routing I pieced together gave us 23 hours in Berlin, Warsaw and Krakow plus nearly a full day in Zurich and an overnight in Vienna. What’s amazing is that we still had 2,880 miles left in our MPM allottment. If I had really tried, I probably could have fit Portugal, Norway and Turkey all on the same ticket!

Namibia, at last!
Namibia, at last!

Actually getting United to ticket this five-airline, eight-segment, 13,303 mile routing was a challenge in and of itself. At first, the agent expressed complete disbelief that such a redemption was possible. Foruntately, she was open-minded and was willing to go through the rules with me. Eventually, she took down the routing I had come up with and called the rate desk to see if they would authorize the booking. This took quite some time but she gave me updates every few minutes. She let on that the rate desk was very unhappy with the routing but that it was indeed within the bounds of all their published rules. When it was all said and done the tickets came to 60,000 miles plus $220 in taxes per person. Not a bad deal since even the cheapest economy ticket from Osaka to Windhoek was over $1800!

Lots of interesting airlines on the apron at WDH - that's Windhoek
Lots of interesting airlines on the apron at WDH – that’s Windhoek

Positioning ourselves in Japan was fairly easy.  We used Zest Air (“Asia’s most refreshing airline”) to get from Palawan to Manila and then continued with Cebu Pacific to Macau.  After a day in Macau and two nights in nearby Hong Kong, we flew Cathay Pacific to Osaka on award tickets issued by American Airlines (a friend owed me some miles!).  So all in all, Philippines to Namibia the slightly long way!

Readers who have been watching the map on the website have probably noticed that we are no longer in Sri Lanka.  Indeed, we left the Pearl of the Indian Ocean a little over a week ago.  After almost 25 days of frequent use of Sri Lanka’s public transportation, coach seats on a Bangkok-bound airplane felt absolutely luxurious!  I still have quite a bit more to write about Sri Lanka but I thought I would interrupt the normally scheduled broadcasts and share our upcoming adventures.

During our last week in Sri Lanka I spent some quality time looking at airline award charts.  Ever since we left the States in July, I have been carrying hard copies of redemption charts for United, America, British Airways, British Midlands, and US Airways – all airlines in which I have a fair number of miles sitting in the bank.  I am sure I really confuse other travelers and locals alike when I sit someplace public and pour over these tables but staring at them for a long time is the best way for me to find the fun corner cases.  While planning our escape from Sri Lanka I think I had some good luck finding one of those corner cases.

The basic goals we had were as follows:

  • Thailand for a quick jaunt to Cambodia/Laos
  • Hong Kong – a city neither of us has visited
  • Mongolia – a country that has long been on my must-see list
  • Philippines – for more SCUBA and snorkeling

The first idea I had was to cash out some British Airways miles for an award with Cathay Pacific.  This would take us from Sri Lanka to Thailand for a stopover then onward to Hong Kong for another stopover.  Finally, the award would terminate by carrying us from Hong Kong to either Manilla or Cebu in the Philippines.  This seemed to be a good value but I wanted to stretch it even more.

Mongolia has long been on my must-see list and we are in the same neck of the woods, sort of.  OneWorld has no service to Ulaanbaatar but Air China, a Star Alliance member, has once daily service from Beijing.  Nesting a second award ticket inside of our Hong Kong stopover was doable but the miles required wasn’t all that attractive and the Chinese visa issues even less so.

Image from Wikipedia Mongolia article

Mongolia

Eventually it occurred to me that I could probably accomplish most of our goals with a single ticket using my British Midland (BMI) miles.  BMI allows stopovers, even on one-way awards, and prices their awards with a zone-based system which favorable groups all those destinations into adjacent zones.  By booking two one-way reservations I was able to construct a ticket to take us from Sri Lanka to Thailand for a stopover and then onward to Ulaanbaatar.  After a 16-day stay from Ulaanbaatar a second one-way ticket will take us from Mongolia to the Philippines…but wait, there’s more!

While I was checking the Star Alliance timetables for Manilla, I noticed that Continental’s Micronesia division has twice-weekly service from Manilla to Palau.  I also noticed that Asiana has four-times-weekly service from Seoul to Palau.  I wasn’t sure if the airline would accept the detour through Palau but I was determined to give it a shot.  After checking award seat availability I phoned up BMI and read off the segments.  The agent commented on the long routing but also noted that routing through Singapore, a much longer distance, was legal.  He had to get a supervisor involved but eventually all was approved.  15,000 miles were used for the entire ticket: Sri Lanka to Thailand to Mongolia to Palau to the Philippines.

My good friend Charles opined that we will perhaps be the 55th and 56th people ever to fly from Mongolia to Palau.  It is certainly a strange routing and a testament to the power and flexibility of air miles and global airline alliances.  Even if we aren’t the 55th and 56th, travel that day should be a radical change of scene after 16 days out on the steppe!

Palau image from Wikipedia

Palau's Rock Islands

So in the end we didn’t accomplish the goal of visiting Hong Kong but we did add the bonus destination of Palau!  Hong Kong should be easy enough to hit up some other time as its a major hub.  Our stop in Thailand is scheduled to last 12 days; not enough time for Laos but certainly enough time to visit the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  We could have stopped longer but the Mongolian winter is closing in.  Even this week, the second full week in September, they are already seeing lows around 15F (-10C)!  It’s high time to shop for some cold weather clothing!

Our award ticket from Brunei to Sri Lanka allowed us to make a free stopover in Singapore along the way. We have both visited Singapore in the past so we didn’t have any particular sightseeing in mind, however, we were eager to dig into Singapore’s diverse food scene. Much like Malaysia, Singapore’s food world is a mix of Chinese, Indian, and Malay cooking styles and for being a relatively expensive travel destination, the food is comparatively cheap.

It had been a couple of years since I last visited and I remembered hearing all sorts of hype about the new Marina Bay Sands development on reclaimed ground near downtown. The development is supposed to be Singapore’s up-and-coming 24/7 entertainment district with shopping, theaters, a casino, museums, and a luxury hotel. The hotel is housed in three 55-story buildings that are bridged at the top by a “SkyPark.”

Although most of the complex is finished, public transportation infrastructure is still a work in progress as we discovered. Getting there was a sweaty schlep through a construction site in Singapore’s hot afternoon sun. For an orderly country like Singapore, this is way off the norm! Wandering around Marina Bay Sands was interesting enough but neither of us were willing to cough up the exorbitant SG$20 (US$17) admission cost to visit the SkyPark.

The following day we paid the Asian Civilizations Museum a visit. There was an absolutely massive line stretching out the door that we later found out was due to a visiting exhibit of terracotta warriors from China and because admission was free for the day. The wait was something like 90 minutes for the special exhibit but we found out way into their permanent collection and soaked up the aircon for a few hours. It is a fascinating museum and I particularly liked the video consoles that showed how some of the arts and crafts were made.

Black carrot cake (don't ask me about the name), a Singaporean favorite
Black carrot cake (don’t ask me about the name), a Singaporean favorite

As always, Singapore treated our bellies quite well. We made plenty of stops for snacks and meals at the food courts and hawker centers that fill just about every nook and cranny of the city center. On our last day we made the pilgrimage to the Maxwell Road Food Centre and I got a plate of chicken and rice from one of the famous stalls. I also ordered up some black carrot cake which is a strange wok-cooked savory dish that is a local favorite.

Departure board at Changi International Airport
Departure board at Changi International Airport

By mid afternoon on the third day we were growing tired of the hot weather and decided to head to the airport early. For those of you who haven’t visiting Singapore’s Changi airport, it is a sight to be seen. The airport has won piles of awards for being one of the world’s best. The usual passenger facilities like check-in areas, security and immigration are all well-designed and adequately staffed but what really sets it apart is what lies behind immigration. Loads of shopping outlets, free movie theaters, hundreds of free internet terminals, koi ponds, butterfly gardens, etc. Literally enough to keep one entertained for days on end.

We crashed out in some free massage chairs for a while next to a koi pond before making our way to Singapore Airline’s Silver Kris Lounge. We started at the lounge in Terminal 2 but it was very crowded due to some renovations that are taking place. Terminal 3 was much quieter and we made good use of the shower facilities and their speedy internet connection. I also made good use of their sushi and open bar!

The flight to Colombo was a short 3-hour hop on one of Singapore Airline’s new A330-300 aircraft. Amy had special ordered a vegetarian meal and I availed myself to Singapore Air’s “Book The Cook” service. Good thing I did “Book the Cook” because the menu was strikingly similar to what we had on the flight from Brunei. We didn’t know it at the time but the flight was to be our last taste of luxury (or even somewhat comfortable) transportation for the next few weeks!

Lobster thermidor
Lobster thermidor
Singapore to Sri Lanka
ArtScience Museum (left) at Marina Bay Sands
ArtScience Museum (left) at Marina Bay Sands
Cooling off with an ABC at Marina Bay Sands
Cooling off with an ABC at Marina Bay Sands
Singapore's much-visited Merlion
Singapore’s much-visited Merlion
Hindu temple in Chinatown
Hindu temple in Chinatown
A few of the many interesting treasures at the Asian Civilizations Museum
A few of the many interesting treasures at the Asian Civilizations Museum
Chicken and rice and sweet barley drink at the Maxell Road Hawker Centre
Chicken and rice and sweet barley drink at the Maxell Road Hawker Centre
Black carrot cake (don't ask me about the name), a Singaporean favorite
Black carrot cake (don’t ask me about the name), a Singaporean favorite
Departure board at Changi International Airport
Departure board at Changi International Airport
Regional business class seats on SQ's new A330-300 aircraft
Regional business class seats on SQ’s new A330-300 aircraft
Prawn salad
Prawn salad
Lobster thermidor
Lobster thermidor
Kenyan AA coffee and creme brulee
Kenyan AA coffee and creme brulee
The rather obvious routing from Singapore to Sri Lanka :)
The rather obvious routing from Singapore to Sri Lanka :)

Once we finished our diving and snorkeling at Sibuan, we headed back to Semporna and bought tickets for the overnight bus to Kota Kinabalu.  Completing three dives that same day left me exhausted and I was certain that I would sleep like a baby regardless of the conditions on the overnight bus ride.  Naturally, I was proven wrong.

Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!
Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!

The bus left at around 7:30PM and by 9PM the air conditioning had stopped functioning.  Air con buses are great but air con buses with a broken AC unit are ten times worse than a bus without AC because the windows can’t be opened!  We spent the next few hours tossing and turning along with the other 47 people on the bus.  Around midnight we came screeching to a halt at some nondescript roadside eatery out in the middle of Sabah’s palm plantations.  Half the passengers and the drivers jumped out to take a break.  Since neither of us was managing any sleep in the sauna-on-wheels, we stretched our legs.  What happened next was quite unexpected.

Just as we were about to leave, the ticket guy from our bus came over and said we should move to the other bus.  Nobody else was moving but he said we could go “same seats, same seats” he proclaimed.  I double, no, triple-checked to make sure the bus was also headed to KK.  Indeed it was and he was just moving us because there happened to be open seats on their other bus (from Lahad Datu, another east coast city, I presume) and the AC was working.  I was mighty impressed by this gesture!

We arrived in KK at some horrid hour…3:30AM or thereabouts.   The second bus was much more comfortable from a temperature standpoint but the legroom was painfully minimal.  Making matters worse was the fact that they guy behind me wouldn’t let me recline my seat at all.  No sleep for me that night but at least we were out of Semporna!  Our hotel in KK was completely locked down so we had our choice between a 24-hour KFC and a 24-hour McDonalds.  We mooched McD’s wifi and enjoyed a couple of beverages for the next three hours.

Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan
Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan

Brunei, one of SE Asia’s more obscure countries, was our next destination on the trip.  Brunei has two small slivers of land on the north coast of Borneo and is home to about 400,000 people.  Huge amounts of oil have been discovered in Brunei and this has developed the country and made it one of the richest in the region.  Apparently, it is possible to get to Brunei overland from Sabah but it is a huge pain.  The easier route, and the one we selected, was to take a boat from KK to Pulau Labuan and then switch to a second boat bound for Brunei.  We left KK a little late in the day which unfortunately forced us to overnight in Labuan.  We found some decent Indian food there but there was little else of note.

The next day we made the quick one-hour crossing to Brunei’s port of Muara and caught a bus from there to the country’s capital – Bandar Seri Begawan.  Our immediate impression of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB, for short) was that it is strikingly similar to Singapore.  Not in the sense of there being huge glamorous high-rises and crazy shopping malls – there isn’t anything of the sort, but rather, in the sense that the place was impeccably clean and well organized.  We just barely beat a tropical rainstorm to the hotel.

Downpour on arrival in BSB
Downpour on arrival in BSB

After settling into our room we walked to the city center and hired a boatman for a quick spin through Kampong Ayer, the nearby stilt village which many call the “Venice of the East.”  Apparently, Kampong Ayer is one of the largest stilt villages in the world and the nickname makes sense to me.  It is a bewildering labyrinth of canals and wooden houses and shops all strung together by wooden walkways.  What makes it particularly interesting is how the government has officially embraced its existence.  Our boatman kept pointing out schools, police stations, and even fire departments that were built into the village.  Additionally, many of the houses have drinking water and city sewage service.  Very cool!

From the boat, we also got a brief glimpse of the Sultan’s enormous palace which has 1,788 rooms!  It’s too bad we weren’t visiting Brunei a little later in the month because at the end of Ramadan, the palace opens for everyone to visit and feast.  One of the locals we met later in our stay told us that he goes with his family each and every year and that it is a party not to be forgotten.  If you are on Borneo for Ramadan, make it a point to be there – that was the message.

The Sultan's palace
The Sultan’s palace

The main attractions in BSB include the strikingly beautiful Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the Royal Regalia Museum.  The pictures of the mosque speak for themselves, it is an incredible structure and it is unfortunate that we weren’t able to visit the interior (closed to visitors during Ramadan).  The Royal Regalia museum was also quite interesting.  Photos weren’t allowed inside but you can imagine what is inside: all sorts of fancy royal clothing, huge parade chariots pulled by a 30 men, and of course the many gifts the Sultan has received from other governments.

On our second day in BSB we rode on a speedboat to Brunei’s Temburong district which is isolated from the rest of the country by a small piece of Malaysia (Sarawak).  The Lonely Planet highly recommended the ride even if we didn’t have a specific reason to go to Temburong and they were right.  The boat held about 20 people but had two 150-hp outboards strapped to the back.  Jetting through the narrow channels through the mangroves was lots of fun!  Once in Temburong we wandered a bit and then grabbed some cold drinks at a restaurant before heading back to BSB.

On the ride back, and I’m sorry I wasn’t fast enough to get a photo, we saw a huge crocodile sunbathing along the bank.  Now as a Floridian I feel that I am relatively well-qualified to make statements about the size of water-borne reptiles.  When I say huge, I mean HUGE.  This thing was far larger than the largest American alligators that I’ve seen back home.  The Wikipedia article on the matter informs me that water crocs can reach 20ft in length and top the scales at 2,000lbs – it also provides some scary narrative about their feeding behavior.  I believe every bit of it and I am sure glad that we weren’t kayaking the mangroves!

Seafood noodles
Seafood noodles

We found some delicious food in Brunei.  Much like Singapore, the local cuisine is a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian foods.  As we often do in our travels, we quickly found a convenient and favorite place to eat and we returned for a number of meals over the course of our three day visit.  The roti canai cooked up at this place for breakfast was mighty tasty and we also had some excellent noodle dishes for dinner.

Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!
Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!

BSB’s airport is one of only two on Borneo that is served by Star Alliance airline (on their own metal, at least) and available for award redemption.  Since flying out of Kota Kinabalu would have involved backtracking to Seoul, we booked two business class seats on Singapore Airline’s twice-weekly widebody service from Brunei.

Massage chairs at Royal Brunei's Sky Lounge
Massage chairs at Royal Brunei’s Sky Lounge

Brunei’s international airports departure lounge has vaulted ceilings and some small koi ponds scattered about that gave it a slightly Changi Airport (SIN) feel.  After thoroughly exploring the curbside section of the airport, including the very nice rooftop “waving gallery” that has tarmac views, we headed through passport control to get showers in Royal Brunei’s Sky Lounge and have a few snacks.  The flight to Singapore was a short 2-hour hop and we had a good view of the Sultan’s palace shortly after takeoff.

Brunei
Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!
Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!
Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan
Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan
Downpour on arrival in BSB
Downpour on arrival in BSB
Fancy hotel room in Brunei
Fancy hotel room in Brunei
The direction to Mecca.
The direction to Mecca.
This is what happens when you go from an aircon building into the humid outdoors in BSB.
This is what happens when you go from an aircon building into the humid outdoors in BSB.
The Sultan's palace
The Sultan’s palace
Central BSB
Central BSB
Our ride to the Temburong district of Brunei
Our ride to the Temburong district of Brunei
Ginger drink
Ginger drink
Seafood noodles
Seafood noodles
Tasty roti canai for breakfast
Tasty roti canai for breakfast
Pizza Hut, even in Brunei!
Pizza Hut, even in Brunei!
Downtown BSB
Downtown BSB
There is a great observation deck on top of BSB airport.
There is a great observation deck on top of BSB airport.
Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!
Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!
Coi at Brunei's Airport - it's like a minature Changi airport!
Coi at Brunei’s Airport – it’s like a minature Changi airport!
Our plane for Singapore
Our plane for Singapore
Massage chairs at Royal Brunei's Sky Lounge
Massage chairs at Royal Brunei’s Sky Lounge
The Sultan's Palace
The Sultan’s Palace

Seoul Subway Map
Seoul Subway Map

We flew from the Cooks to Seoul by way of Auckland and Sydney – an 8,300 mile journey in total.  We had a 16-hour overnight connection in Sydney where we had hoped to make a quick trip down to the harbour.  Unfortunately, the weather was absolutely terrible with gale force winds and heavy rain.  In the end we didn’t venture far from the hostel which made the stop mostly a waste of time.  It was also an expensive one due to Sydney’s horrifically expensive airport transportation – the train from the airport to town (a 15-minute ride) costs close to US$20 each way!

Bibimbap, the Korean national dish onboard OZ602 from Sydney to Seoul
Bibimbap, the Korean national dish onboard OZ602 from Sydney to Seoul

The flight up to Seoul was our first with Asiana Airlines, Korea’s contribution to the Star Alliance.  Both the food and the service were exceptional and the passenger load in business class was only about 30%.  After passing along Australia’s coast we crossed Papua New Guinea and then a good portion of the western Pacific ocean.  For the second meal I went with the Korean menu and got to try bibimbap for the first time – some assembly required.  Fortunately for me, Asiana includes a brief set of instruction in English in the back of the menu.  The basic idea is to add rice to all of the provided fillings (meat, pickled veggies, mushrooms, sprouts and some small dried fish in this case), top with sesame oil and then mix until combined.  Quite easy and the result was absolutely delicious.

Seoul's Incheon International Airport
Seoul’s Incheon International Airport

In contrast to Sydney, Korea’s airport transportaton is affordable.  A little less than $4 got us train tickets from Incheon International to Hongik University in central Seoul – a 44 minute ride.  From there we had a 10 minute walk to our hostel that was made much easier by the map they provided.  Like many places in Asia, postal addressing is seriously wacky in Korea and most business cards include a map otherwise.

Hustle and bustle with lots of neon.
Hustle and bustle with lots of neon.

Seoul felt a world away from the quiet island we left behind.  Lots of people, lots of noise, and lots of neon.  We spent a better part of the first day wandering some of Seoul’s over-the-top shopping malls.  I made the stupid mistake of leaving my portable hard drive in Rarotonga (it’s being shipped home now) so I was in the market for a new one.  Fortunately, Korea has plenty of hard drives so that problem was easy to solve.  I also got to work on satisfying my craving of strange and exciting packaged food products which is one aspect of the far east that I love so dearly.

The Han River
The Han River

The landscape around Seoul is strikingly industrialized.  From the roof of one of the malls, I snapped this photo of the Han River which splits Seoul.  It looks like a black and white photo, doesn’t it?  Well it’s not…that was full color.  It was just a hot and hazy summer day.

Much like the Japanese, it would seem that the Koreans love their shopping and the country certainly has a good assortment of over-the-top department stores.  Usually they are 8 to 10 story affairs with a built-in grocery store and food court (basement), many levels of shopping (middle), and then a floor or two of fine dining (top).

On our second day we took the subway downtown to check out some of the sights.  I bought some seaweed rolls with pickled veggies to have for breakfast and we grabbed a bench just outside one of the major department stores.  As I was chomping down on my food we watched the growing mass of people eagerly awaiting the 10AM opening.  Eventually, two white-gloved employees from the store wheeled out a cart with fresh OJ, cookies and coffee to give away to the waiting horde.  What it a promotion?  I suspect not, probably just business as usually in a country that highly values customer service.  Free OJ to go with my seaweed!

Namdaemun Market
Namdaemun Market

A little later we stumbled upon the changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Deoksungung Palace so we popped in for a quick look around.   There were a number of traditional Korean buildings as well as a couple western-inspired structures that were built around the turn of the century.  There is also supposed to be a very nice art museum on the palace grounds, however, we had a lunch reservation we had to make.

Changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace
Changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace

Amy had read about a small obscure restaurant in Seoul that specializes in “Buddhist temple cuisine.”  Thanks to another blogger’s thorough description we had no problems finding Gamrodang which is very impressively hidden down a series of winding alleyways.  We selected their cheapest meal option, an 11-course meal which cost about $25 per person.  Each course was rather small but we were decidedly stuffed by the time we left almost two hours later!  The food was excellent and there were all sorts of strange ingredients I had never tried before.  Bamboo salt is one of the stranger things I have tasted!  Below is a listing of the courses.

  • White lotus leaf tea
  • Cabbage kimchi with cactus
  • Germinated brown rice porridge with pine mushroom
  • Salad with herb sauce
  • Grilled pine mushroom, grilled lotus root, grilled yam with pine needles + bamboo salt
  • Fried tofu with hot pepper paste
  • Vegetables wrapped in rice pancake
  • Assorted pancakes with vegetables + glasswort sauce
  • Spicy wild lanceolate root and pear with mustard sauce
  • Rice and cereals, Bean-paste stew with dried cabbage, wild greens and korean pickles
  • Dessert-rice nectar, Acacia with honey wrapped in millet pancake, Ginger cookie
11-course vegetarian temple meal at Gamrodang
11-course vegetarian temple meal at Gamrodang

On our third day in Seoul we visited Changdeokgung, a 15th century palace which is famous for it’s huge Secret Garden.  The garden can only be visited by guided tour and we followed advice in the guidebooks and reserved tickets in advance.  So far on this trip we have been very lucky with weather but that can’t be said for our morning in the Secret Garden.  Because of the rain we finally caved and bought umbrellas from a vendor in front of the palace.  No doubt he went home that day with a huge load of won!

The Royal Library in the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung
The Royal Library in the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung

The garden was quite nice although it was much different from what I was expecting.  Unlike a Japanese garden it was less landscaped and felt more like a natural growth of the forest.  The most notable structure inside of the garden is the Royal Library which looks out over a pond.  Pity about the rain because I am sure the garden is all the most impressive when the weather is good.  Either way, the garden is a nice change from the big city just over the wall.

After the garden we took the subway back to the hostel to grab our bags.  We decided to grab one more round of cold drinks at a convenience store before we headed off to the airport.  As always I scoured the shelf looking for the strangest thing I could find.  Eventually, I came across a bottle whose only English read “oriental raisin water.”  I thought that sounded promising so I threw down some won and made off with it.  It tasted nothing of raisins, grapes, or fruit for that matter.  The liquid was clear and light brown similar to tea.  After asking Amy for her opinion we concluded that it tasted like water that had been infused with the flavor of Rice Krispies.  I love how weird Asia can be!

“Oriental raisin water” (which tasted like Rice Krispies) and some other snacks
“Oriental raisin water” (which tasted like Rice Krispies) and some other snacks

Later that evening we flew with Asiana from Seoul Incheon to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo.  It’s about a five hour flight to get down there and we flew on an A321.  Dinner was served shortly after takeoff and I plowed through some fried monkfish and a very nice German reisling.  Out the window there were bright lights dotting the ocean as far as I could see – squid fishing boats out in full force.  We encountered some pretty ominous t-storms over Manila but the crew skillfully threaded through them and we hardly had a bump the whole way down.  Arrival into Kota Kinabalu (KK for short) was right on time and it wasn’t long before we had our packs and Malaysian visas!

Squid fishing boats somewhere south of Korea
Squid fishing boats somewhere south of Korea
Seoul, Korea
Bibimbap, the Korean national dish onboard OZ602 from Sydney to Seoul
Bibimbap, the Korean national dish onboard OZ602 from Sydney to Seoul
Seoul's Incheon International Airport
Seoul’s Incheon International Airport
Seoul Subway Map
Seoul Subway Map
Nice big screens showing the position and number of the next train.
Nice big screens showing the position and number of the next train.
Technically correct, I suppose.
Technically correct, I suppose.
Hustle and bustle with lots of neon.
Hustle and bustle with lots of neon.
Canned coffee: one of my favorite treats in the far east.
Canned coffee: one of my favorite treats in the far east.
Some kids were really working these machines over.
Some kids were really working these machines over.
One of Seoul's many malls.
One of Seoul’s many malls.
The Han River
The Han River
A parade at COEX mall.
A parade at COEX mall.
Remember those giant rodents (capybara) we saw in Bolivia?  Well a cartoon version is now all the rage in the far east.  Meet Kapibarasan!
Remember those giant rodents (capybara) we saw in Bolivia? Well a cartoon version is now all the rage in the far east. Meet Kapibarasan!
Some department store food court fare.
Some department store food court fare.
Message received.
Message received.
Gimbap: a common Korean snack.  Seaweed wrapped around rice and a filling (often kimchi)
Gimbap: a common Korean snack. Seaweed wrapped around rice and a filling (often kimchi)
Quiet city street near our hostel (Hongik University area)
Quiet city street near our hostel (Hongik University area)
Namdaemun Market
Namdaemun Market
Changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace
Changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace
11-course vegetarian temple meal at Gamrodang
11-course vegetarian temple meal at Gamrodang
5 months and 20 days into the trip and I finally caved on an umbrella purchase.
5 months and 20 days into the trip and I finally caved on an umbrella purchase.
The Royal Library in the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung
The Royal Library in the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung
“Oriental raisin water” (which tasted like Rice Krispies) and some other snacks
“Oriental raisin water” (which tasted like Rice Krispies) and some other snacks
Departure board at ICN.
Departure board at ICN.
A “sunny” summer day in Seoul!  That white dot is indeed the sun.
A “sunny” summer day in Seoul! That white dot is indeed the sun.
Squid fishing boats somewhere south of Korea
Squid fishing boats somewhere south of Korea
Storms near Manilla
Storms near Manilla

Map showing our routing across the Pacific.

After I returned to the States in early June, I had no specific plans as to where to go next.  The volunteer opportunity I had pursued in Africa all but fell apart so I really didn’t have a specific reason to head in that direction – at least not yet.  I spent hours combing through airline award charts and award seat availabilities.

The Republic of Palau, a small group of islands in Pacific, looked to be an awesome destination.  It’s an island paradise with all sorts of natural wonders to explore.  Continental operates its “island hopper” flight which makes stops at cool places like Truk, Kosrae and Kwajalein as it plies the Pacific from Honolulu to Guam.  I’ve heard that the flight is quite interesting but award availability was extremely scarce for the dates we wanted to travel.

Eventually, I came upon some nice availability for travel to the Cook Islands.  The Cooks are a popular destination for Kiwis and Aussies but are relatively unknown to North Americans.  Surprisingly enough it is possible to fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Rarotonga (the priciple island in the Cooks) once a week with Air New Zealand.  But why fly nonstop when you can go by way of Auckland (a 2000+ mile detour) on one of Air New Zealand’s brand new planes for the same price?!

Air New Zealand recently took delivery of Boeing’s latest addition to its 777 series, the 777-300ER, and made headlines in aviation circles with their innovative seat designs.  They have a “Sky Couch” product in economy, some very comfy looking “Spaceseats” in premium economy and a revamped lie-flat seat design in Business Premier.  As luck would have it, award space was available on NZ1, the flight operated by the new plane, so I snapped those up as fast as I could.  Using my United miles, business class tickets to the Cooks came to 60,000 miles and $2.50 in taxes.

Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback

After a bit more searching around I was able to piece together an exit plan for getting off the Cooks.  We would fly to Malaysia Borneo (Kota Kinabalu) by way of Sydney and Seoul with a stopover in the latter.  I know it sounds a bit roundabout but it is the most direct routing available using Star Alliance carriers.  Even so, it took a supervisor at British Midland to authorize the long routing.  The total worked out to 18,750 miles and $401 in taxes and fees for the business class booking.  Oh, and if anyone is wondering the total flown mileage on these two tickets is about 19,025 miles.  The Pacific is one huge ocean!

Dinner and a movie well underway
Dinner and a movie well underway

So…on to the flights.  Air New Zealand Flight 1 from LAX to AKL was incredible.  The new seats were easily the best business class seats I have flown and I would say they compete nicely with many carriers first class products.  In particular, the quality of the cushioning when the seat is in “bed mode” is superb.  The back of the seat actually folds forward to reveal a separate matress for the bed.  In most lay-flat seat designs the seat itself just goes flat and isn’t a true matress.  Another nice feature of the plane is the fact that the galleys are equipped differently so that the crew can actually cook (as opposed to reheat) food on the aircraft.  I had some great waffles for breakfast just prior to landing in AKL!

Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast

After some showers in the Koru Club we boarded one of Air NZ’s older 767 aircraft.  Nothing too exciting in terms of the seats or in-flight entertainment but the service was exceptional as it always seems to be on Air New Zealand.  The load was light that day (5 of 24 seats occupied in business) so it did feel a little like a private jet.

Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga

Arrival into Rarotonga was a nice firm landing runway 8.  I guess pilots don’t like to waste precious runway…especially then it comes to landing a widebody on a 7,500ft runway!  Much like Easter Island there are no jetways so everyone takes the stairs and immediately gets to soak in some of the great island weather.  A local band was playing in the baggage claim area and before we knew it we were through customs to meet the representative from our guesthouse.

Across the Pacific
Us and our shiny Air New Zealand 777-300ER
Us and our shiny Air New Zealand 777-300ER
My seat number, just in case I forgot.
My seat number, just in case I forgot.
Air NZ's new generation of herringbone suites.
Air NZ’s new generation of herringbone suites.
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
Some bubbly and nuts prior to pushback
A tasty seared tuna appetizer
A tasty seared tuna appetizer
The chef's selection plate as a light main.
The chef’s selection plate as a light main.
Dinner and a movie well underway
Dinner and a movie well underway
Time for bed.
Time for bed.
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
Waffles with strawberries and banana whipped cream for breakfast
There is nothing quite like I nice hot shower just after a long flight.
There is nothing quite like I nice hot shower just after a long flight.
Nicely appointed showers at Air NZ's Koru Club
Nicely appointed showers at Air NZ’s Koru Club
Some vegemite at the lounge.
Some vegemite at the lounge.
Climb out from AKL
Climb out from AKL
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
Our first glimpse of Rarotonga
I love it when there is no jetway!
I love it when there is no jetway!

As I had mentioned in earlier posts, we ran into some problems with entering Peru due to a mining protest that closed the Bolivia-Peruvian border for a number of weeks.  The detour we selected was to travel back to Chile by bus and then fly to Lima with a stopover in Santiago.  We would have preferred to stop in Lima instead but there was no award availability so we just had to make due with Santiago.

After our visit to Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol, we returned to La Paz and spent one last day there.  The next day we were booked on a 10-hour international bus from La Paz to Arica, Chile so of course this had to be the time when I was to come down with some sort of stomach bug.  Fortunately the bus was mostly on time and we had saw some nice volcanoes along the way.  The only glitch was an extra hour at the border thanks to some older Bolivia lady who thought she could bring a huge load of merchandise (snacks, bottled drinks, etc) into Chile without paying import duty.  Removing her and all her merchandise from the bus took far longer than it should have!

The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.
The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.

Arica, the northernmost city in Chile and just a few miles from Peru was pretty nice as border towns go.  The city has a lively harbor with more than its share of sea lions and pelicans.  We found it entertaining to watch the fishermen feed fish scraps to the sea lions as well as the pelicans’ unrelenting efforts to steal some for themselves from the clumsy yet powerful beasts.

Me hungry!
Me hungry!

Flying from Arica to Santiago was uneventful.  It was a late-night flight with LAN Chile that departed around midnight and arrived around 2AM.  It was still much better than a bus ride, that is for sure!  In Santiago we had a day to kill so we visited one of the produce markets.  Lots of vendors were selling fresh fruit juices so we ordered up some lucuma – a new fruit for both of us.  This may sound strange but the juice tasted like cake batter with maybe a hint of maple syrup.  It wasn’t tangy at all nor was it overly sweet.  Lucuma is truly strange fruit and I have to say I rather liked it.

The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.
The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.

We took another flight with LAN Chile to get from Santiago to Lima.  This time around I discovered that I could request upgrades through the LAN website prior to check-in thanks to my recently-comped Comodoro status in the LANpass mileage program.  I was shocked when I checked in and was given a business class boarding pass because we were traveling on award tickets issued using British Airways miles.  Normally, when you redeem miles for free flights they are strictly non-upgradeable.  Maybe it was a glitch, but either way I wish I had known to try this before our flights out to Easter Island and back!

Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile
Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile

Our connection in Lima was an 8-hour overnight one so we opted to camp out in the airport.  We were able to use the airport’s shared lounge (Sumaq) but unfortunately some displaced passengers from a delayed Delta flight had already occupied all of the nice sleeper chairs in the lounge.  All in all, it was a pretty sleepless night but we did get to take some showers just prior to boarding our flight to Miami.

My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami
My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami

We arrived in Miami and within the first two hours of being “welcomed” home we experienced a lengthy immigration queue, enhanced pat-downs, and a full-on TSA meltdown whereby they yell for everyone on the concourse to freeze where they are until the alert is over.  I sure hadn’t missed this circus over the past few months!  What I had been missing, however, was some tasty American fast food.

...and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.
…and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.
The Trip Home
Food poisoned on the bus, again.  At least I had some Coca-Cola in a little bottle.
Food poisoned on the bus, again. At least I had some Coca-Cola in a little bottle.
The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.
The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.
The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.
The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.
Me hungry!
Me hungry!
Arica, Chile
Arica, Chile
The coastline around Arica
The coastline around Arica
Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile
Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile
My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami
My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami
At last, a burrito the size of my head.
At last, a burrito the size of my head.
...and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.
…and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.


Our time in South America is rapidly coming to a close.  We are scheduled to fly back to the States from Lima, Peru on June 7th for my brother’s wedding.  We thought we had everything planned out, that was until a good old South American protest got in the way.

After leaving La Paz, Bolivia we had hoped to cross into Peru and hit up some of the major sights.  A few days around Lake Titicaca then a short flight over to Cuzco to check out Machu Picchu followed by another short flight into Lima to link up with our award ticket back to the States.  Unfortunately, the border between Bolivia and Peru was closed by large scale protests (about mining rights) in Peru about three weeks ago.  From what we read in the news, all of the possible land border crossings have been closed by the protesters.  Looting, burning cars in the streets, gunfire and what-have-you are the sorts of things in the news.  Not exactly where we want to be.

Most of the other travelers we have met are planning to detour through Chile in order to continue their trips into Peru.  Flying is also possible but prices are sky-high due to the increased demand as well as Bolivia’s crazy ticket taxes.  The vast majority of Peru is still safe for travel but we decided it would be too much of a rush to fit in this detour.  Instead, we opted to visit the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca and then use some miles to get from northern Chile (Arica to be exact) to Lima for our flight home.  It is an 8-hour bus ride from La Paz to Arica but that hopefully won’t be too bad.

The only routing available was via Santiago but that was still preferable to many hours on Peruvian buses and giving up our visit to Lake Titicaca.  We will be making a two-day stop in Santiago and then will continue on to Lima, Miami, Denver then finally Montana.  Peru will just have to wait for another trip.  Of course the blog posts will keep coming over the next few weeks…I have quite a backlog of stories and photos to share!


Chile is a big country.  It is certainly possible to travel by bus but distances are absolutely vast.  Before I left on my RTW trip I researched mileage redemption options within Chile in hopes of finding a cheaper and more comfortable way around.  As it turns out, British Airways has a very generous mileage award for travel within Chile.Chile award routing courtesy of gcmap.com

Easter Island has long been on my list of places to see and, being part of Chile, is accessible using this British Airways award on their partner, LAN Chile.  At the suggestion of some friends I decided to see just how far I could stretch one of these tickets.  Surprisingly, the agents at BA allowed me to piece together a very elongated routing (over 7,500 miles!) that would not only allow me to visit Easter Island but also the far south of Chile.  20,000 miles and $59 in taxes later it was ticketed.

The first flight on this ticket was from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas in Region XII of Chile.  It is a relatively short two-hour flight and, provided it is clear, you are treated to spectacular views of fjords, mountains and glaciers.  Upon arrival in Punta Arenas we immediately made our way to the bus terminal to catch a bus north to Puerto Natales which is the jumping off point for Torres del Paine National Park.

Chiloé to Puerto Natales

 

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