Tuesday, August 30, 2011

African Trip Review -- Bike and Wine Tour

I've been riding bikes a bit on vacations lately - Orlando, Palm Springs, and Los Angeles.  When reading the guidebook we found a couple references for Bike Rentals in Cape Town -- once we started digging a little further we found a Bike and Wine Tour in Stellenbosch.  There were three options for the ride 9k, 15k and 21k.  While I'm not a fit or avid cyclist, 21k isn't that far, I was quite confident we could do it without a problem.  We opted to take the Adventure Ride, or 21k trip.  We signed up to take the tour on Saturday morning.  The folks at BnW were very helpful and great to work with.

We were told to meet at 08h00 at a coffee shop just a few minutes walk from our hotel.  From that point on, we'd head to the main train station and go to Stellenbosch station, about an hour away.  We arrive at the coffee shop to find a man from BnW telling us the ride had been cancelled.  He said the train to Stellenbosch had been sabotaged and no trains were leaving today.  This was a little concerning -- sabotage?  What exactly does that mean? Who is sabotaging the train.  Come to find out, it was more just vandalism -- people were stealing the copper off the power lines.  Whew.

We were able to move our reservation over to Sunday vs. Saturday.  Surprisingly we were the only people on the tour.  Our tour guide, whose name I forget, was an 18 year old kid, who was quite knowledgeable about wine.  He grew up drinking wine with his attorney parents.  We met at the coffee shop, and walked to the train station -- we took the train to Stellenbosch without incident.  The trains looked a little old and not all that well maintained. I don't know if all lines were like this or if it was just this one.

Our tour took us to 3 different wineries plus one brandy distillery.  Our guide gave us the option of visiting the distillery first or last.  We opted to do it last, as it was right near the train station and would make a nice way to close out the day.  The bikes were well maintained and in pretty good shape...unlike us.  No where in the literature did it mention that this ride would be on mountain bikes through the vineyards proper. I expected us to be riding on pavement or at least hard packed trail trails...nope.  We rode quite a bit on loose sandy trails.  I should mention that it was 35C when we started the ride.  The first part of ride was smooth and easy...but about 4 minutes in we had to go up a very steep hill -- VERY steep.  There was a 120 meter increase in elevation in just a couple kilometers.  This was torture.  I worked my hardest and couldn't make it up the hill.  I made it about 60% up before I had to get off and walk my bike up.  MS also ran into an issue, but he made it up about 75% before he had to walk it.  I'm so happy we were the only ones on the tour - I would have been horribly embarrassed if there were others watching me crap out.  It was bad enough with MS and the 18 year old guide.   

Once we reached the top of the hill (mountain??) we had a short ride to the first winery, where we did a quick tasting and had a flavorful lunch.  We were so exhausted from this first part of the ride, I was uncertain I could finish it.  We drank a ton of water immediately then headed to the tasting before the lunch was served.  Unlike every other tasting I've done, we only got a small amount (truly a taste).  I've been lucky enough to do tastings with industry people and get very full pours.  I'm glad the pours weren't large -- It would have killed me off, I'm sure. 
 The views along the route were really beautiful.  No one was out on the "trails" with us.  It was so calming out there.  As we headed down the hills we often ran into loose sand that caused us to really slow down -- luckily none of us took a tumble (surprisingly).  Of all the wineries we visited I liked Spier the best.  The service was great and the wine was quite tasty.  I like it the best because of the outdoor seating area and we managed to make up some time so we could really sit and enjoy various wines. This is the only place where we bought wine, too.
 The Stellenbosch region was surprisingly green, considering how sandy and dry the whole area was.  We had a really great time, even when we were crossing over a rickety old bridge -- so rickety and old we had to walk our bikes across.  Pretty cool though.

The brandy distillery was nice, but definitely my least favorite of the visits.  I was in no mood for Brandy when it was 35C and I was exhausted.  At least the service at the distillery was top notch and it was fully air conditioned with LOTS of water.

When I go back to South Africa (when, NOT if), I want to do this tour again. I've been riding my bike much more here and I think I am now able to do the first elevation completely -- I'd probably struggle, I am confident I'd finish and not need to walk any of it.


If South Africa is on your short list, I say you MUST do this tour. It is absolutely amazing and well worth eating up an entire day in South Africa.  just do it!

The final picture here is taken at the train station. There were HUGE chickens just hanging out on the platform.  I can't imagine how tough (or mean) this rooster would be.  I'm sure that big old bitch would peck you to death and think nothing of it.

Friday, August 26, 2011

African Trip Review -- Cape of Good Hope Drive

As noted before, we decided to do the Cape Drive on Sunday.  After an annoying encounter with the Eurocar people, we were on our way.  We were using the Frommers South Africa 2010 book as our guide.  As we headed out of Cape Town, we stopped off at the University (CTU).  We wanted to see the University and the Rhodes Memorial.  The school is on the hill, which would have been problematic if I went to school there -- was quite lazy as an undergrad.  CTU was built on land donated by Rhodes -- the statue recognizes his generosity.  I haven't read to much on him, but the little I have leads me to believe he was quite the imperialist -- I could be wrong though.

Next as we continue south through the suburbs then out to the bay.  We drove through Muizenberg to St. James tidal pool beach with some beautiful multicolored bathing boxes.  The beach looks quite rocky from this picture, but that wasn't the case.  The beach was separated from the main road by train tracks -- it is a quick train ride out here from Cape Town...but an even quicker drive.  There were so many families out and about enjoying this wonderful weekend at the end of summer.

We continue a few minutes further south to Kalk Bay which is full of little antique shops and traditional beach town souvenirs.  We didn't spend much time in this little down, but there was some nice art pieces that would have been horrible to get home.  There was a little Cuban place and far be it for me to turn down a mojito in a cool little bar with tobacco hanging from the ceiling.

While we enjoyed our mojitos we watched a cricket match (I believe it was the world cup of cricket, or some such nonsense.  There were several people in this bar (can't tell from the pictures) watching the match.  I'll pretend it is my bad posture and the pattern on my shirt that makes my belly look bigger than it is....ugh.

The next stop was Simon Town -- this was my favorite stop along False Bay -- so much better than Kalk Bay.  You all know I'm not a big seafood guy -- I love sushi, but once fish is cooked, I'm not a big fan.   The fish was so fresh -- I do love the places that are right on the water and the menus are on chalk boards - gotta love super fresh food.  This place had a nice selection of fish. I opted for the Mahi Mahi, and I forget what MS had.  They had several different sauces -- a spicy plum, a curry, ketchup, homemade tartar and a few that we weren't 100% sure what they were.  We tried all the ones we knew though.  The chips were pretty damn tasty too.  The best part, it was served in butcher paper, eaten on a  picnic like table and served with bottled beer.  Loved it.
We knew the emperor penguins were just a couple kilometers down the road.  I must admit, I was shocked.  I (mistakenly) thought emperor penguins would be huge.  I was expecting (slight exaggeration) them to be about 1-1.25 meters tall -- something that a Batman Villain could train to wreak havoc upon Gotham.  
Nope, these little guys might have been .25 meters.  I still enjoyed seeing them -- hell any animal that is traditionally in a frozen wasteland that has made their way to a warm sub tropical climate and thrived is good in my book!
Continuing down the Cape we didn't run into any more towns, basically we after Boulders Beach (penguins) we were at the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.  It was surprisingly barren -- I don't know what I was expecting, but it was pretty rocky and scrub brushy.
 The water was so blue.  Again, I'm not a water guy either, I can't swim and I don't like getting splashed (even in the pool), but this water was so inviting.  Up until this point I had only seen penguins in Africa, no other animals (unless I was eating them).  The Baboon! sign greeted us as we entered the park -- I was excited to see my first African animal in the wild.  I knew that baboons (all primates) can be a bit aggressive -- and I sure as shit didn't want to end up like Charla Nash, I would stay clear of all baboons, chimps, apes, gorillas and anything of the like (although only baboons were in the area).

 I like this beach photo -- I had no idea I'd see ostriches here.  This photo makes it look like I'm a lot closer than I really am.  Ostriches will kick your face off, and I'll have no part of that either.  MS kept saying "get closer".  Fuck that.  It's still a pretty cool picture and not once was I afraid of getting sliced.
ARGH! A BABOON!!!!".  MS thought that was quite hilarious...and I must admit, I did too. We still find ourselves saying "ARGH a BABOON" from time to time and laughing quite heartily. 

The drive up for the next 5k-10k looked like the Pacific Coast Highway -- beautiful but I'm a little jaded: a pretty coastal road is a pretty coastal road.  We had two options to get home, cut inland a bit (adding about 10 minutes if that to our drive) and staying along the coast and going over Chapman's Peak.  I don't like heights as much as I don't like water, but much less than I don't like fish.  We went the Chapman's Peak route. I did ask MS to be extra cautious was we went along the route -- as one small hiccup could send the car careening over the small brick "guard rail" to our firey/watery grave.  The drive was amazing.  MS drove expertly and surprisingly we didn't run into much traffic.  I won't get into the details of the road, as you can see that in Wikipedia yourself.  The views were amazing and a bit intimidating. 
The guidebook recommended we stop in Hout Bay at the Chapman's Peak Hotel for what they described as "the most delicious calamari, on the veranda".  While we don't take the guidebook as the bible we figured we'd give it a try. 
It wasn't like calamari we see traditionally in the US.  It wasn't heavily battered thin rings -- it was THICK strips of calamari, lightly breaded and seasoned with a light garlic lemon butter.  We opted for the smaller appetizer size because we just wanted a larger dinner in Cape Town.  We also ordered a couple glasses of Chenin Blanc to go with our app.  I do wish we had ordered a couple of entree portions of this appetizer - it was so damn good. Right on Frommer's, this is the best calamari on the planet.  Absolutely love it.  
We watched the sunset as we finished our Chenin Blanc and reflected on an amazing day.  This day was truly once in a lifetime opportunity.  A lovely nicely paced drive through some beautiful country.  If you are in Cape Town you must take this drive as well. I leave you with a picture from the south suburbs of Cape Town - a small town called Camps Bay (quite an affluent suburb).  I cannot wait to do this drive again sometime soon.

African Trip Review -- Cape Town Review/Gay Pride

The guide books all said that Cape Town was dangerous City where one should not walk outside in the evenings with or without accompaniment - you must take a cab or a car.  For the first couple of days we heeded this warning -- it wasn't until the last day that we decided to throw caution to the wind and spent time wandering after hours out and about.  Guide books frustrate me at times when they are uber cautious.  I know why -- silly Americans are afraid of their own shadows.  Anyway...

The first night we popped over to the V&A Harbor and had an acceptable dinner of African Meat (Ostrich for me and Boar for MS).  A couple beers and then back to the hotel.  We had a lot to do over the next few days and were running on limited sleep.

The next day we slept in a bit then headed up to find a Cape Malay restaurant that we had read so much about.  It was called Bo Kaap Kombuis and was really great.  The food itself looked a little funky -- see...

During our lunch were were shocked by a very loud explosion.  We were the only ones in the restaurant who seemed to care.  After asking a couple times what the noise was, we were informed it was the Noon Gun -- a cannon that is fired at noon each day so the laborers know when it is lunch time.  We got use to it -- and actually enjoyed it from that point on.  The guide book did warn us about the gun, but we paid no attention to that warning either.

After lunch we headed over to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and many other prisoners were held.  It's a quick ferry ride from Cape Town. The guided tour was well done, but not something you need to do more than once.  It is something you MUST do whilst in Cape Town.

After Robben Island we walked up and down Kloof Street, looking for a few good restaurants.  We didn't see anything that really jumped out at us as a fantastic place, but everyone said this is the place to walk.  We found a nice little place at the base of Table Mountain, called Asoka, for a couple of specialty cocktails made with fresh herbs and loads of liquor.  The service was really good and it was a great way to kick off our second evening in Cape Town.

After drinks we walked around trying to find a great sushi place called Kyoto Gardens -- but we couldn't find it.  We looked all over and I swear it must have gone out of business.  We chose to eat at a small Thai place a block or two from Asoka.  The food was quite lovely - we dined al fresco both places this evening.

After dinner we decided to go out.  We aren't big on the whole gay scene -- we don't go clubbing, we don't have to stay in the gay neighborhood, although traditionally one night in a new City we will go to the gay ghetto for a cocktail and to see what the locals do.  Cape Town's gay area, that we saw at least, was pretty casual (like the rest of the City). We walked around for a bit, but didn't find anything that really jumped out at us.  As we were sitting outside eating dessert, a place around the corner up a hill caught my eye...called Bubbles. Immediately I thought it was a little champagne bar -- and well, that's all I need to see and I'm all over it!  We ventured up the hill and then up the stairs and heard a live show...it was a drag show.  Maybe we will find the gay bar we were looking for after all.  We aren't into the gay scene and we really aren't into the drag scene either.  This place was great though.

The owner/performer was Polish and she told us the place had been open just a few days.  She and her husband recently moved from Paris to start a new life in Cape Town.  When she was younger she use to perform in Poland and live in Paris -- and commute weekly for her show.  The club had 6 other Americans inside (ugh) they informed us that they flew in from the US for Pride Weekend...we were completely shocked that it was Pride in Cape Town.  The owner at Bubbles was leading the parade the following day and performing in their new HUGE football (soccer) stadium.  We were invited to join her VIP area, but alas we were taking a drive to the Cape of Good Hope the next day (whew).

The performers name was Lola (like my Grandma) and of course she sang "Copa Cabana", which just made my day.  Her name was Lola, she was a show girl...and I am a Fan-ilow!

The next day we decided to take a drive down to the end of the continent (which was amazing and will be reviewed next).  The day after the drive we went on a GREAT bike and wine tour (to be reviewed shortly).

The final day in Cape Town we decided to hike Table Mountain, which was high on our list from day one.  One thing I didn't mention yet, is the weather.  Cape Town was windy (blew the smog and filth out of the City) but it was warm. It was in the 30s each day. I loved it.  Table Mountain is extremely steep.  There were a two ways to get to the top -- either cab it part way up and then hike, or take the cable car.  We opted for the latter.  It was a very quick ride to the top and interestingly enough the inside of the cable car rotates, so no matter where you stand you'll get a full 360 degree view of the area.  Going up the mountain you can look out and see Robben Island and all of Cape Town.  I hate heights but with a firm grasp on the railing I enjoyed the ride.

At the top of the mountain we decided to walk around for a bit...it was much cooler at the top and was really surreal.  As we moved a little bit away from the observation deck we really found no one else out and about, it was really surprising.

The weather can change pretty quickly on the mountain.  You'll notice the wind damaged sign above.  The "hooter" they refer to is the siren to warn everyone to get off the mountain (or you must WALK down...no thank you).  The clouds from form over Table Mountain and from a distance it looks like a table cloth over the table -- really quite extraordinary

After the Table Mountain Hike we headed back to the Hotel and MS had dinner with his uncle's friend. I opted to go to dinner on my own.  The next day we headed to the airport early and continued our journey to Zimbabwe.

Cape Town was one of the most beautiful Cities I have ever visited.  My biggest regret about Cape Town was not being their for the World Cup.  The City has such a great energy when we were there, I just cannot imagine what it was like with thousands of footballers there (and the whole world watching).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

African Trip Review -- Westin Cape Town

We opted to stay the four nights in Cape Town at the Westin. This hotel was near the convention center-- which wasn't a selling factor for us, but the lucrative Starwood Points + Money option did. We paid $45 plus 4,000 points/night. I started Tweeting to the hotel and Starwood before we left and once we arrived we were upgraded to nice corner suite with a view of Table Mountain (partial view).

The room had a lovely large bathroom, a bedroom and a living room/office.  The real savor here was the separate rooms.  MS snores a bit, especially when he is exhausted.  I am a light sleeper, so coupling us together can make for a night (or nights) of limited sleep.  Unfortunately we did have to take turns sleeping in the living room area.  While we were upgraded to a suite, we weren't offered access to any Executive Lounge or a complimentary breakfast.  MS is also an elite Starwood guy -- still no Lounge or other amenities.

The location of the hotel was pretty good.  It was a very short walk to the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Waterfront, which sort of reminded me of Navy Pier in Chicago.  There were street performers, dozens of restaurants (of varying quality...everything we had there was far from Michelin rated, that's for sure).  Our hotel had a shuttle every 15 minutes to and from the V&A Waterfront - which was a nice little bonus.

The hotel had a nice lobby bar with a pretty nice port selection.  We really became fans of port as a nightcap after spending a couple weeks in Portugal in September 2010. It's nice being someplace where you actually have a choice of ports.

The hotel also had a EuroCar kiosk in the lobby.  I've never used EuroCar before, so I can't speak to the overall service at this company, but I can say the folks at this hotel were absolutely horrible.  We decided to rent a car for a day and drive down to the Cape of Good Hope. We reserved a car once we got there (Thursday) for rental on Saturday.  We then confirmed again on Friday and our car was set and ready to go -- we could pick it up anytime after 08h00.  We show up at 10h30 and we don't have a car, no reservation, nothing.  I walk away and let MS deal with this...after about 45 minutes we are given a car and we are off  to the Cape.

Cape Town has gone through a major change since hosting the World Cup in 2010 -- our guidebooks often had phases like "should open in 2010", "major renovations expected before Summer 2010".  We used the concierge quite frequently during our stay because of this.  Each of the concierges were quite knowledgeable and managed to get us reservations several times and at a moments notice.  I wouldn't hesitate to rely on these people for recommendations for a second.  Top notch service -- plus they all had pretty cute South African accents.

Would we stay here again -- for the price, I absolutely would stay hear again.  If we had to pay market rate (currently $250/night), I wouldn't rule it out.  It would be nice to try some place else in the City.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

African Trip Review -- Transit: LHR:CPT

Carrier: South African Airways
Flight #: 9839
Equipment: A330-200
Seat: 50C
Departure: March 2, 2011 - 20:15 / 20:55
Arrival: March 3, 2011 - 10:30 / 10:36
Travel Time: 12 hours 15 minutes / 11 hours 41 minutes
Flight Miles: 5,994

I have never flown South African before. To that end, I did a ton of research before hand and found that the planes that were flying between LHR and CPT were some of the oldest in the SAA fleet, with crap amenities. All the reviews I read indicated no individual entertainment system, just the drop down video display. That makes for a long 12.5 hour red eye. Two days before my trip began a friend JB (not JFB) who is also a travel nerd sent me an article showing that SAA had purchased a couple of old planes from Iberia (my least favorite airline because of the crappy pitch). The Iberia planes also had only ONE entertainment screen per cabin -- the old pull down screen...and those planes had issues with their audio, so they'd just pump the audio for the movie through the PA...no way to sleep on that flight.

Luckily I had the best of the crappy LHR:CPT SAA flights.

You see from above how strange this cabin is. Also, remember, I'm only 6', my knees were JAMMED into the seat in front of me. I was terrified this flight would be torture. 12.5 hours in the air like this... I couldn't handle it. Luckily no one sat next to me, so I could stretch out. The arm rest would fully lift up, but I had plenty of room for my legs and was comfortable enough to sleep. Before nap time, we were served what I would call one of the best meals I had on the entire trip and probably the best meal I've ever had on a plane. I opted for the lamb curry -- amazing. The stew was good about giving us multiple bottles of wine -- he knew he was doing only one service and expecting everyone to sleep. Wine was tasty and it was nice not getting banged by the beverage card multiple times throughout the night.

I don't have a major problem sleeping on a plane, but I knew I needed to get a good amount of sleep in flight as I was landing in CPT in the morning and I had a full day ahead of me. I brought ear plugs, a sleep mask and a travel blanket. Since I had room to spread out, I covered my head with my blanket and slept. I slept well. I woke up and felt about 80% rested...I checked my watch and found that I had 8.5 hours left in the air. Ugh. The cabin was fully dark, the movies were turned off -- it was pretty creepy how dark it was. No one working or watching a personal movie -- everyone was sleeping...no one was even reading. DARK.

I slept off and off for the next 6 hours until the two children across the aisle from me started screaming for a bottle...then the whole plane woke up. Not too shabby since the kids didn't make a sound for about 9 hours in the air...amazing, eh? I do believe those kids make that London:Cape Town trip quite often based on what the parents were saying. The breakfast was a standard pastry, yogurt and juice.

We landed slightly after our scheduled time, but still much earlier than we should have considering our delay out of London. We parked at a remote gate and were shuttled to the terminal. One great thing about South Africa is the new modern airports -- the World Cup really helped improve the infrastructure. The move through the Customs/Immigration was quick and painless. I walked over to the domestic terminal to wait for Mike, who was arriving 60 minutes later from JNB.

I was thoroughly surprised at how great I felt after this flight. I did not need a nap at all, I wanted to get out and see this beautiful city.

African Trip Review -- Day in London with Friends

After clearing customs I head to the nearest pay phone. Since I use Verizon (and at the time of this trip was using a phone without a SIM card), I had to find a pay phone to call my friends in London to get the final plans or the day. I had already purchased my Heathrow Express (HEX) ticket online while in the US. We decided to meet at Liverpool Street Station. I guess at this point, I should remind everyone that I spent 4 weeks in London while in College, but that was 10 years ago. I know how to ride the Tube and I have a basic understanding of London streets.

The HEX is the best deal ever. for $50US you get a coach seat (which includes free wifi) from Heathrow to Paddington Station in only 15 minutes (it would take over an hour on the tube). Since my flight to CPT was leaving at 2050, spending 2 hours on the train was not acceptable.

I arrive at Paddington and spend about 10 minutes studying the transit map, trying to figure out where Liverpool Street was. For a moment, I thought Liverpool might border Paddington Station, but that didn't make sense. I opted to take the Hammersmith Line 5 stops to Liverpool. I didn't mention the woman I was meeting for lunch, I had never met before. AS is a woman that I worked with, electronically (email and phone) for a couple of years and just hit it off with. As I leave the Liverpool station I had a thought that I wouldn't actually see AS, but just wander aimlessly. Surprisingly we managed to find each other without an issue at all.

We headed to lunch in the new Lloyd's of London building, the restaurant was Lime Street (I believe). There were 5 of us, 3 from Heath Lambert and one from Dewitt Stearn. I knew all the Heath People but not the DS guy. We ordered apps (I had the prawns) and honestly I have no idea what my entree was. The prawns were tiny (but had a good count in the dish) they still had the head and legs on and had something in the legs. None of us were sure how to eat them -- they were small enough, it wouldn't surprise me to eat the whole thing head an all. Once you pulled it all apart there wasn't much left to it. Obviously my entree wasn't great since I remember nothing about it.

After lunch we walked around to a little pub near Paddington station again. Since I had never had an unofficial stay over in London like this, and I was heading on to CPT that night, I wanted to get to Heathrow a bit early to make sure I got everything I needed done. I decided I would take the 1711 train back to Heathrow, again, leaving from Paddington. We sat in the pub in Paddington for about 2.5 hours chatting enjoying a pint and just relaxing. Another friend, who I met through the consular crowd in Chicago also popped over to see me, which was quite lovely.

I hopped on the HEX and said a sad good bye to my friends and headed back to Heathrow. There was no one in line at the South Africa desk and no one in line at security. I was sitting in the Star Alliance Gold Lounge at 1747. I could have stayed for another pint in London...actually I seriously considered training back in to the City to meet Nina again for another pint, but I thought that might be cutting it close. Instead I stayed in the lounge had a bit of snacks (love trying the different flavored potato chips) and watched TV and just relaxed.

If you haven't been to the International Transfer Terminal at Heathrow, they have a big holding/shopping area and once you're flight has been assigned a departure gate (usually 15-20 minutes before boarding begins) you can walk to the gate. My gate to CPT wasn't assigned until after we were supposed to be in the air. I was nervous thinking that maybe the flight was actually boarding and I was going to miss it (turning into my mother, I guess) but there were 3 or 4 other people in the lounge waiting for the announcement too. Once it was announced I headed on out -- again not knowing exactly how far my gate was. After about 5 minutes of walking I saw the beautiful SAA plane sitting WAY OFF IN THE DISTANCE. I walked and walked and walked and finally arrived at the gate. The excitement was building -- Africa is within my grasp!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

African Trip Review -- Transit: ORD-LHR

We planned this trip to Africa because MS had a friend getting married in Joburg. I couldn't take enough time off to go to the wedding so I came late. The isn't an easy way to get to Cape Town from Chicago - definitely no direct flights, you have to transfer at least once and more often two or three times to get there. I took the shortest option: ORD-LHR-CPT. This will quickly review that flight.

Carrier: United Air Lines
Flight #: 938
Seat: 20B
Departure: March 1, 2011 - 21:01 / 21:00
Arrival: March 2, 2011 - 11:05 / 10:47
Travel Time: 8 hours 4 minutes / 7 hours 50 minutes
Flight Miles: 3,953

I worked all day on Tuesday, came home to finish packing and head off to the airport. I was flying coach, but was offered an upgrade to First Class, but only for this leg, not the long leg to Cape Town. United wanted over $900 for the upgrade. This is totally insane, even I wouldn't do that...but if it was $900 for the whole ticket round trip to upgrade, I would have totally gone for it. I arrive at ORD in time to check in and hit the Red Carpet Club (RCC). I enjoyed a bad glass of red wine and headed off to my gate. I really love the RCC near B14 at ORD, the others are too big or too small and not as modern.

My flight looked about only 70% full, so the night before I changed my seat from an exit row with a seat mate to an aisle without a seat mate. Imagine my surprise when I sit down and another traveler sits next to me. He was part of a large group of Brits returning from a football (soccer) exhibition in the US and Canada...unfortunately not a single one of them were cute. Ugh.

The service started while on the ground, the stews were handing out a section of newspapers (Financial Times or the Globe). The Brits didn't want either and they made it abundantly clear. I couldn't move to another seat as there weren't any better seats in my area. The Brit next to me, smelled like he'd been out on a bender for several months (booze, beer and cigs). He used the washroom quite a bit but wouldn't ask me to move, he'd just crawl over me. After I told him I'm more than happy to get up, he said it wouldn't matter and continued to crawl over me.

I had the ravioli for dinner, which I'd rate a 5 out of 10 - traditionally the ravioli is top notch -- not so much today. The movie selection was acceptable, but the only film I really wanted to see was The Kings Speech. I thought it was very well done, even if it was "edited for content and length". After dinner I closed my eyes and slept off an on for about 5 hours total -- waking up as my neighbor was crawling over me, then I'd watch another snippet of The Kings Speech" then doze off again. This continued every 45 minutes for the entire flight. Less than ideal.

We landed at LHR and had a short taxi to the gate. As it was Heathrow it did took about 9 hours of walking to get to Customs/Immigration. I had a short session with the officer, who was quite confused as to why I would be spending only 8 hours in London and not just sitting at the airport until my evening departure. I can't believe this is an uncommon practice. London is a major transfer hotel and I'm sure most people don't just sit and wait...do they?

African Trip Review -- Introduction

I've been wanting to do a full review of my amazing trip to Africa in March, but haven't gotten around to any of it yet. It seemed like too daunting of a task -- 10 days in Africa pushing myself to try new things and experience something that is so far from my normal life was a bit overwhelming for me.

Lately I've been reading a TON of travel blogs and everyone I read handles their trip reviews in small manageable chunks: Not necessarily a day by day review, but it could be an experience by experience review -- you just bite off a little bit at a time and before you know it the recap is over. I will follow this model on Africa -- and hopefully will have it mostly completed before I run off to Paris. Below is what I envision the review will fold out:
  1. Transit: ORD-LHR
  2. Day in London with Friends
  3. Transit: LHR:CPT
  4. Westin Cape Town
  5. Cape Town Review/Gay Pride
  6. Cape of Good Hope Drive
  7. Bike and Wine Tour
  8. Transit: CPT-JNB-VFA
  9. Matetsi Water Lodge
  10. Game Drives
  11. Victoria Falls
  12. Birders
  13. Transit: VFA-JNB-LHR
  14. LHR: Star Alliance Gold Lounge
  15. Transit: LHR-ORD
  16. Final Thoughts
Fingers crossed that this works out as I expect, eh? Based on the number of things I want to discuss I have to do more than one post a day if I want this to be completed before I go to Paris...Good luck with that!

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Hilton Toronto Review

I was surprised a couple weeks ago when I received a letter from Hilton offering me Gold Status (second tier elite) until February 2013. I have never stayed in a Hilton in my life - I was granted this status because of some sort of arrangement between United and Hilton. I had a trip planned shortly after I received this notification, so I decided to switch hotels from the Courtyard Marriott Toronto (lower class Marriott) to the Hilton (not top of the line, but higher class in the Hilton chain). I figured, I'd give it a try, and if it sucked, I'd never return. I actually kept my Marriott reservation for 2 of the three days, just in case I hated this hotel.

Before the trip, I began following Hilton and Hilton Toronto on twitter and corresponding a bit with them -- they were quite responsive. Hilton allows you to check in online early (neither Marriott nor Starwood allows for this). I like the idea, and you get to choose which room you want. I opted for the Junior King Suite on the 27th floor, away from the elevators and the ice machine. I tweeted HiltonToronto and told them I loved the online check in option and asked if I had picked a good room. In just a few moments their Social Media folks had contacted me and said they had changed my room to a lower room because my selection wasn't the best. Good to know.

I arrive around 2200 and went to the Gold Elite Check-in Counter. Check-in was easy and the front desk gave me a run down of the amenities offered by the hotel. Once I arrived in my room I found a nice note from the Social Media people, along with some cookies and a fruit bowl. The fruit was tasty but the cookies were quite stale. Being a gold member I have access to the Executive Lounge which has limited food/drinks throughout the day. We had breakfast their one morning. My room was a great size for 1 or two people traveling together. It definitely needed a full refresh though. The room seemed to have an overall "dirty" feel, but there wasn't a single thing that jumped out as dirty in the room. One thing that did concern me was the amount of hair in my room. Short hair, long hair, straight hair, curly hair -- it's like Dr. Seuss hotel review. The bathroom as a different story though. Look at the picture in the tub below - lots of residual stains/dirt.

My colleague's room had a nasty stink in the bathroom. We mentioned this to the Executive Lounge receptionist and she was quick to get the cleaning crew out and offered us a free restaurant breakfast for the following morning. Evidently the bathroom wasn't dirty, per se, the shower curtain just had a severe mold/mildew issue. After the second time requesting a clean job, they fixed the issue.

Now for the food at the Hilton. The bar food was great - some amazing sliders with stone ground mustard and a tomato remoulade. Loved it. We ate breakfast one day at Tundra (gratis because of the stink in my colleague's room), and well...it was a buffet breakfast at a hotel. If I would have paid the $26C they were charging I would have been very upset. The breakfast was subpar, but we were expecting that.

I am not sure if I would stay at this hotel again...the service was really great, but the property itself was a little off. Perhaps the staff was aware of this and were compensating by being very attentive (or perhaps all Hilton's are that attentive....?).

Friday, August 19, 2011

Guest Room Finale

It has been an extremely long time since I've blogged. I was updating quite a bit earlier this summer, especially when I was so manic about doing the art and updating the world every boring step. If you remember I wanted the art finished and the guestroom finalized by mid July when I had two friends coming to stay...well that didn't happen. I did manage to get some art on the wall before a SECOND guest game.

LT came to visit last week and I was pretty disgusted with myself that I hadn't even put art (or worked on any of my other projects). I was pretty swamped that week before she arrived so I had to throw thing together right before she arrived -- even though I had months to prep...that's how I live my life though.

Pictures of the guest room are at the bottom of this post. As you can see, I put my home made canvas art above the bed as a pseudo head board. On the east wall I put a grouping of 5 black and white photos near the window. The photos are just printed on standard printer paper -- I figured I'd want to see how the art looked before I paid for real prints (silly, I know, since prints cost about $0.03 each, but still). I took all the photos myself -- and they are all taken from my neighborhood -- all less than a 10 minute walk from my home.

I still haven't decided what to do at the foot of the bed on the wall. I thought about putting a TV on the wall, but I'm not sure if I really want a TV in there or not. I did manage to hang that $5 mirror I got from Salvation Army. I opted not to paint it, because 1) it doesn't have a wooden frame, but a metal frame and 2) I didn't have time. I do like the bit of color on that wall.

I did keep the standard amenities available but added one small art piece to the guest dresser.

Let me know your thoughts. Do you like the lay out? What about the red hexagonal mirror? What should go on the wall at the foot of the bed? Have you done any changes to your home or guest room specifically? What project should I work on next?