And we’re back! Actually, we’ve been back from Africa over a week, but I’ve been in post-vacation mourning.
That coupled with the fact that as a self-employed person, I made $0.00 during my little three-week break, and yet, my bills still came in during that very same three-week period and—quite rudely—those not-so-nice credit corporations and utility providers still expect to be paid. Which led to a flurry of “Hey, remember me? Can I do some work for you this week?” full-on panic-work activity and therefore, no blogging.
I’ve got TONS to say about South Africa and Tanzania and different safari styles and small little islands north of Zanzibar and Great Migrations and artisan gins and hot air balloon flights over the Serengeti (yes, that happened and wow), but before I get to all of that, I have to start at the end—with our flight home.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with Emirates First Class at this point. It’s pretty ridiculous. And I say this as someone who has flown in Singapore First Class, which I also deem….pretty damn ridiculous.
Similar to our Singapore flight, we were facing more than 21 hours of time in the air plus layovers, so for us, upgrading to such comfortable accommodations made total sense. Here’s how our return flights home broke down:
Pemba to Zanzibar: 30 minute flight on a Cessna that held 12 other people with questionable hygiene and no air conditioning.
Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam: 30 minute flight on the same Cessna with a group of new people with questionable hygiene and no air conditioning. Actually, I have no further questions on the hygiene of my fellow passengers. It was abundantly, nose-stingingly clear.
Dar Es Salaam to Dubai: 5 hours, 40 minutes.
Dubai to Dulles in D.C.: 14 hours, 20 minutes.
It was, to put it mildly, a haul, even in First Class. Which, I know, sounds a bit like complaining that my diamond shoes are hurting my feet.
So, we cashed in those miles for a true first class adventure on an airline that consistently gets rave reviews for its customer service. And, since the total flight time was around 19 hours (7.35 from New York to Frankfurt, 11.25 from Frankfurt to Singapore) PLUS a two-hour layover in Frankfurt, it’s worth using the miles to have a truly relaxing and pampered experience.
We started at the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK. It was my first time there and it was a freaking awesome lounge! So coolly designed, yet cozy at the same time. Amazing (and free!) food and drinks, and they even had a spa featuring Dr. Hauschka products. I got a $20 15-minute moisturizing facial and then settled into a giant lounging couch with a blackberry bramble and a flatbread pizza for a snack. I almost wanted to just stay in the lounge. (Still, it’s no Turkish Airlines Istanbul Departure Lounge, which has to be the most amazing lounge I’ve ever been to, hands down, bar none).
Back to Singapore Airlines: Soon, it was time to board the gigantic A380 aircraft. We went down a separate, dedicated bridge to get to the front part of the plane, where our flight crew was waiting with champagne and newspapers to greet us (no trashy magazines, alas. I had to bring those myself.)
Now on to the star of the show-–the much talked about suites: The whole set up reminded me of the old train berths.
There are 12 suites, and on our first flight from New York to Frankfort, there were only two other people in the suites section.
We had picked the middle two seats, which can be folded down and combined into a double bed. Your seat is surrounded by private walls and your “pod” even includes a door. But the walls don’t go all the way up to the ceiling, so a very curious tall person walking by could still crane their neck and look down into your “pod.” And there were a lot of people (flight crew, mostly) walking around throughout the flight. Nevertheless, you did feel completely private and blocked from the view of those sitting around you.
The tan leather seats were like recliners, huge and wide and with lots of leg and back settings. Across from me, in another tiny seating/footrest alcove was the entertainment system and the Givenchy bedding. Soon after boarding, we received our pajamas and a Salvatore Ferragamo amenities kit, including a full-sized perfume.
The fold-down bed is just awesome. There’s no denying that the best amenity on any first class flight is the ability to change into some pajamas, get completely prone on nice comfy pillows and sheets, and get some sleep. That, and all the new movie releases they have on board, which can keep you from getting any sleep at all (on our Cathay Pacific flight home, I made this mistake, watching “Foxcatcher,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Horrible Bosses II,” and something called “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.” I was very cranky by the time we landed in Chicago. And I still had a flight to DC to look forward to.)
The food on the Singapore flights was, of course, good. I’m not sure it measures up to my favorite – Lufthansa, and it certainly couldn’t compete with the meal we’d had the night before at Le Bernardin! XFE had pre-ordered his meals using their Book the Cook option online, including a delicious pork cooked in beer (!) for the flight from Frankfort to Singapore. I don’t remember much of what either of us ate–I think I had some beef brisket on the first flight and a duck confit on the second, both off the menu–but I’m sure it was better than whatever food box I might have had the option to purchase on a United flight.
What I do distinctly remember is how ridiculously nice everyone was on both legs of our flights. The Singapore Airlines flight crews were incredible and so attentive. They consistently address you by name, your champagne glass is never empty. They’re attentive without being annoying. They made a super big deal out of my birthday, offered up suggestions on things to do in Singapore and where to get the best chili crab, and just really made the whole trip special.
When I didn’t finish my duck at dinner on the Frankfurt-to-Singapore leg (hard to cut duck with nothing more than a butter knife), they were pretty upset and concerned that it wasn’t prepared properly (it was) or that I hadn’t gotten enough to eat. Which is crazy when you consider that we basically ate something every few hours, and my main course had been proceeded by an appetizer, a soup, and a salad.
Overall, it was an amazing experience, and a great start to my birthday trip. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to use that option again, but I’m extremely grateful for having had the chance to roll around and relish all of it.
(*OK, maybe not half. Maybe more like, a third of the fun. Or even a smaller fraction. If I were good at math, I’d be able to tell you what a smaller fraction would be. But I’m not. Back to the blogging.)
First, let me clarify: it does not take 20 hours to get to Croatia. Unless. Unless you are travelling using your United Airlines miles, which automatically puts you at a direct-flight disadvantage, particularly if you’re going overseas.
And, if you want to go on a specific airline because they have a new product, like, for example, they’ve upgraded their business class (like Austrian Airlines just did) or, you already know and like the existing product (like Lufthansa first class).
Let’s review — the options are: get to Croatia relatively quickly (7.5 hours to London, 2 hours to Dubrovnik), but crushed back in coach, OR take the long way in first class and eat mountains of caviar and sample wines and champagne from around the world for hours on end while wearing Lufthansa-provided pajamas. That you get to KEEP.
We went with the second option. And today, Lufthansa is low on their monthly caviar supply.
Croatia has long been on my bucket list of places to visit. I heard about it pretty much the same way everyone else did – on the news because of the Balkan Wars and the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Later on, when I lived in London in 1997, I remember British people telling me about how beautiful Croatia was before the war and how it had been such a popular vacation destination. They talked about all the beautiful coastline, and how it was like Italy but cheaper (that’s still true, by the way).
And, it just sounded so exotic and different. I certainly didn’t know anyone who’d been there (other than the nostalgic British people I came across). I just kept reading about it on travel lists.
Then suddenly, we were going to Croatia. The right deal at the right time just came along.
After my embarrassment over my ignorance of Peru’s recent political upheavals (“wait, is there a Peruvian version of ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians?’ No? Oh, well then I’m not really invested”), I decided to actually read a bit about Croatia’s history.
I read two books: one bodice ripper “Croatia: A Nation Forged in War.” Let me tell you, it was a laugh a minute. It was a very dense book, but it definitely covered everything. And what I learned is Croatia has been a country that’s been kinda screwed. It had been occupied by the Greeks, the Romans, the Venetians, the Austrians, the Hungarians, and even the French before being consolidated into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which was then invaded by Germany during World War II.
That’s another thing – I also learned about Croatia’s own ethnic cleansing and genocide against Jews, Serbs and gypsies during World War II. I was totally unaware of the Ustashe before I read this book.
Well-prepared, I luxuriated in Lufthansa first class, finally tearing myself away from the caviar just in time to get my first glimpses of Croatia’s more than one thousand islands (no, seriously, there are over 1,000 islands). They were little dollops of greenery edged in tan and turquoise dropped into the cerulean blue Adriatic waters.
Yep, it was that inspiring and poetic. And romantic.
We eventually waddled off the plane in Dubrovnik and picked up our rental car. This was actually done outside the airport at these portable buildings like they used to have at school, which gave the whole thing a slight air of delinquency. I kept looking around to see if any scholastic authorities were about to pounce and ask me what I was doing hanging outside the portable classrooms.
But no, my only companions were a bunch of mildly Mediterranean dudes smoking cigarettes and dealing with other clueless tourists, primarily very young people from England and Japan.
After securing our Volkswagon, we were off, driving about 35 minutes of twisty hillside roads from the airport to our hotel in Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you all about that hotel. It’s worthy of its’ own post.
That’s not a picture of our hotel, by the way. That’s me, bedding down in first class.
Just in case you were wondering: first class on Thai Airways does not suck. No, actually, I’m even willing to go a step further and say it’s quite nice. Alright, alright, the truth is it was fantastic. Un-freaking-believable.
Oh, and for the record, in general, (and I say this with some expertise now) the first class experience on a foreign carrier overall is leaps and bounds nicer than on a U.S. carrier. Sorry, but it is true. I don’t care if I do cause some diplomatic incident here.
For example, the state of our first class lounges in the U.S. is a national embarrassment and I fully expect Congress to get on this issue immediately. They are a disgrace compared to our international cohorts.
Dear Congress, Do you know that I once spent a wonderful morning in the Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul and I swear on all the Real Housewives that they had a mini-theater? Sure, it was showing some philharmonic something-or-other, followed by some nature stuff, but it was a mini-theater, none the less. There was also a pool table. And a hanging honeycomb in the breakfast buffet so you could slice your own pieces of wax and honey and slather them over delicious biscuits and butter. HONEYCOMBS HANGING FROM A STRING, people!
What do American first class lounges offer? Some sad little goldfish snacks and well drinks. (OK, they’re slightly better than that, but not by much.)
But even more delightful than that Turkish Airways lounge (did I mention the honeycomb?) was our experiences as first class passengers on Thai Airways.
If you want something difficult to get done, let’s say, getting your child into a certain daycare facility or, maybe, getting to the bottom of an insurance bill, let me just offer up a suggestion — get someone at Qantas on it. No, seriously. These guys take care of difficult stuff, quickly and efficiently and very pleasantly.
Let me explain: So, after three days of wining and dining and lazing our way through the Barossa Valley, we reluctantly drove back to Adelaide to board a 7 pm flight back to Sydney. We planned to fly to Sydney the night before our 10 am flight to Bangkok so that we’d have one last night in Sydney and plenty of time to get up and make our way to the airport in the morning.
You probably see where this is going already, don’t you?
Yes, there was some rain and weather in Adelaide. And yes, our 7 pm flight to Sydney got cancelled. And, of course, there were no more flights out that night. All of us on the Sydney flight were told that we’d been put up in a hotel in Adelaide, given vouchers for meals and cabs, and been rebooked on a 7 am flight the next morning.
However, a 7 am flight would not work for us since we had a 10 am connection in international, and would need to pick up our luggage, recheck it, go through security in the international terminal, and be in the boarding area about 45 minutes before the flight.
We explained this to the lovely Qantas people in the business lounge at the Adelaide airport and not only did they deal with the other 100-plus passengers (most of whom were typical, laidback Australians about the whole thing – “no worries,” — but a few of whom were THOROUGHLY disgruntled and unpleasant), but the lovely Qantas people also worked their butts off getting us on an earlier 6 am flight.
And, Lisa (that was the manager on call in the lounge that night) checked through our two largest bags on through Sydney onto Thai Airlines, so we wouldn’t have to pick them up and recheck them. Just check in at Adelaide in the morning, give them our bags and we’d see them waiting at the carousel in Bangkok.
We finally left the airport around 9 pm to hightail it to the lovely Majestic Roof Garden Hotel (no St. Regis, but it was fine) for a night of one last bottle of Barossa wine purchased at the airport gift shop as it was closing (a Turkey Flat Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvedre blend), and a pretty bad lasagna ordered from room service, before getting up at 4 am to return to the airport.
Alas, Lisa’s efforts came to naught, although we do genuinely appreciate the effort.
No, our primary luggage remained in Sydney for the two days we were in Bangkok. We’re not sure who is to blame (Qantas in Adelaide for thinking they could check it through? Qantas in Sydney for not paying attention to the international connection tags? Or Thai Airlines, who let us check on our two additional carry-on bags at the departure counter in Sydney, but seemed to have an awful lot of technical difficulties doing it, which makes us wonder if they did something to override the earlier bag check-ins?)
Luckily, we’d had the foresight to repack our smaller carry-on bags while at the Majestic in Adelaide. We both packed a couple of changes of clothes, our bathing suits and a few other essentials.
Things like my full-size hair products (which I desperately need all three of, and will defend them to my dying breath) had to be clawed from my frizzy-headed grasp and placed in the full size suitcases since we weren’t sure what the Thai-TSA-equivalent rules were exactly. If they weren’t all so damn expensive (including a curl cream I have to order from Canada – yes, I am spoilt and high-maintenance), I would have risked it. As it was, I just made sure I had some spare barrettes on hand.
Our bags did eventually catch up with us in Bangkok. Unfortunately, they were actually delivered around midnight of the morning we were departing. We had them brought up around 7 am, just so we could grab some clean clothes and my beloved hair products out of them, before hauling them right back to the airport.
So, while I started this post by saying that Qantas can do just about anything, I should say, they aren’t superhuman or anything. But they really do the best they can, and they’re very pleasant about it. I can say their customer service that night was way beyond what we’ve experienced in similar situations here in the U.S.
Now if Qantas could just find a way to let a poor girl carry on her full-sized, over-priced, difficult-to-replace hair products, I’d be their absolute biggest fan ever. I’d probably even get their logo tattooed on my ankle or something. It’s a pretty cute kangaroo.
My travel-agent-for-life XFE and I are both signed up for Travelzoo’s weekly email deal alerts. And every week we’re tempted beyond belief by last minute deals. I guess it was only a matter of time till we succumbed.
And that’s when we first learned about OpenSkies, a subsidiary of British Airways.
OpenSkies is an all-business-class airline operating non-stop service from Newark and Dulles to Paris-Orly Airport. With only 84 passengers per flight, the 757 aircraft, which typically holds 220 passengers, is roomy and comfortable while providing privacy and personalized service.
The wide, comfortable seats recline almost completely and have extendable foot rests. It was like I was being cradled. I slept both coming and going. They also gave you these little packages with socks, eye masks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, which was very nice. And the leg room? Holy stretched legs, I couldn’t even reach the seat in front of me, which was a problem when I wanted to get one of my magazines, but as my friend Linda would say, “First World Problems.”
The crew provided personal in-flight entertainment systems that had games, TV shows, and lots of new movies and documentaries. Well, new to us since we never go to the movies. We watched The Hangover II on the way over (meh) and Bad Teacher (hilarious – and I’m not even a Cameron Diaz fan) on the way back. I tried to watch Midnight in Paris on the way back as well, but only confirmed my annoyance with all things Woody Allen (seriously, how is he still allowed to make movies?). I fell asleep during that one.
OpenSkies promise “freshly prepared gourmet” meals, which is a bit of a stretch (the breakfast croissant was particularly bad and less-than-fresh, ok, stale is what we’d call that), but it is probably fair to say it’s better than average airplane food, which isn’t exactly a high bar. They also promise wine, champagne and spirits, which was not a stretch and was indeed, available and free.
OpenSkies also provided access to airport lounges where complimentary drinks, snacks and wireless internet was available. Sidenote: The lounge at Orly far surpassed the Dulles lounge in terms of snack choices. For example, they had these individual packets of marinated green olives called Oloves. Single serving, doesn’t need to be refrigerated. GENIUS. I loved them so much. When oh when will we get some of these here??
Anywho, the whole experience on OpenSkies was pretty great. We had weather problems in DC, so unfortunately, we were delayed about an hour and a half, which is unfortunate, but no fault of the airline. They came by with champagne and nuts and kept us up to date on the situation.
On the way over, my personal entertainment thingy wasn’t working, so they brought me a new one. And, my seat wouldn’t recline, but luckily, the flight wasn’t full and we were able to move to two other seats in the back to sleep. Annoying, but not a big deal.
The only glitch on our way back is that the universal plugs kept cutting in and out and XFE’s personal entertainment thingy ran out of battery juice and wouldn’t charge. They brought a new cord, but it really was just a wonky plug. If you pushed the thing in all the way, it turned red; if you left it hanging out, it turned green.
With the October special they’re advertising on their site, it’s a great deal for what you get. I would definitely fly them again.
While in Paris, we rested our weary little heads at Le Meridien Etoile, a Starwood property, naturalement.
It’s located in a nice neighborhood near the Porte Maillot metro stop and across the street from a mall that we never made it to. There were tons of little restaurants all around and the whole area had a great neighborhood vibe. It was also walking distance to the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysee. And, as we discovered the second night, you could even see the Eiffel Tower from our room.
We had a very nice room (7056), probably larger than most European hotel rooms. It was nicely decorated, very W like, with crisp white linens, modern chrome and dark sleek wood. And an odd light/art piece thingy.
The bathroom was fine, although only a shower and only a half glass partition (no shower curtain). I felt like all the cold air was coming in and all the water was splashing out! Also: the water didn’t get very hot, but admittedly, I like my showers scalding hot, so that’s more of a personal peccadillo. The toiletries were made especially for the hotel, I don’t remember the brand, and they were very pleasant. XFE, of course, brought home a stash of them. But since the only thing he bought himself in Paris was a jar of Dijon mustard, I’m prepared to humor his hotel kleptomania.
Overall, the hotel public spaces were very modern and hip with low couches and marble tables. We went into the jazz bar our first night for a nightcap and while there was no cover charge to sit at the bar, the drink prices were exorbitant (like 17 euros for a gin, and another 4 or so for the tonic), so we ended up skipping the drink and going up to our room.
Ah, and about going up to our room – the elevator makes weird noises! One morning it was running water that sounded a bit like a toilet overflowing. Other times it was birds or jungle noises. Kinda odd. We giggled every time.
All of the concierge(s? – when plural, is it with an ‘s’?) were wonderful. Very patient and helpful. We even called one when we were standing outside a club that would not let us in. They called the club, but alas, we still weren’t let in. Read my Yelp review for L’Arc for the full story on that. Not the concierge’s fault, but still very annoying. We definitely would definitely stay here again and recommend it to others. The location, staff and rooms were great.
This picture is apropos of nothing. Except the fact that we were walking down the street and I told XFE that we should keep our eyes open for tag art. We had seen Banksy’s documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” a few months ago and so I knew there is a lot of graffiti/tagging art in Paris. Literally, five seconds later, we looked up and saw this piece by Space Invader. Pretty awesome.