29 December 2012

Berlin and the 747-8i Intercontinental

This was a last minute booking, although I had been thinking about it for awhile.  Some friends (who were Berlin veterans) were going to be in Berlin during the weekend I had targeted, and I was also looking for a chance to fly the new 747-8i plane that Lufthansa has put on a few routes.  About 10 days or so before the designated weekend, some flights lined up and I took advantage and I booked a First Class ticket to Berlin using miles only.  So, this trip wouldn't get me anywhere regarding my lifetime mileage.

My outbound trip was fairly routine as I was on United SFO-FRA.    The only dodgy part was worrying about the weather in Germany -- lots of rain and snow around.  But we arrived on time and I had plenty of time before my Lufthansa connection to Berlin.  They fly hourly, but it takes a lot of effort to get on an earlier flight than the one originally booked.  I even pared down and did not check any luggage since the trip was so short and it gave me more flexibility in case there were flight issues.  It turned out the the earlier flight to Berlin was delayed, but my flight was going to be pretty much on time, so it worked out fine.  I spent more time in the new Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the just-opened A Terminal expansion.  The lounge is much bigger and the terminal is generally much nicer.

Upon arrival in Berlin, I had a couple of options.  Tegel Airport is not very far from central Berlin.  I could take a cab for around 20 euros or an express bus (TXL Airport bus that terminates at Alexanderplatz) for 2.40 euros.  Since I was not in any particular hurry, I went for the bus.  I just had to remember where to catch it.  Fortunately, the airport is well-marked with signs and I followed the bus symbols farther than I thought I had gone before and found the bus terminus.  There was a bus there ready to go and an agent outside selling tickets II did not have to use the machine).  He was even selling day passes (6 euros), which is what I wanted because I had places to go later.  I hopped on the bus and was on my way.

The TXL cuts across town, passing by several Berlin landmarks and the main train station (Bahnhof) where many people got off.  I was headed for the Friedrichstrasse stop on the Unter den Linden, which would put me about 5 blocks from my hotel.  there's some major construction going on with a new subway station being built, so that the intersection is quite torn up and I wasn't sure where the stop was going to be.  When it did stop, I was let off at the perfect location for a direct walk to the Hilton Berlin.

In keeping with the "free" nature of the trip, I decided to book an extra nice room with Hilton points.  I reserved a Dome Suite, which was very nice.  Upon entry to the main level, there is a guest parlor, living room, dining room and butler pantry.  Up the stairs, there's a study area and bedroom with dressing area and large bathroom. Needless to say, I was quite comfortable for my short stay. There was even an electric juicer in the pantry and I later was given a large bowl of oranges.

I had a dinner adventure planned for that evening -- a molecular cuisine restaurant called Maremoto.  So after getting settled and freshening up a bit, I was off to the area near Zoological Gardens and Savigneyplatz.  The nice thing about the Hilton is that it is centrally located and right on a couple of subway (U-bahn) lines, including the main east-west line.  And while there was sill snow on the ground and lots of slush, the weather was not too bad, even at night.

I enjoyed my meal at Maremoto.  Turned out that it was just me and a holiday party of 14 dining that evening.  There were definitely some interesting dishes presented.

Dakota steak and vegetables

Snowball in Autumn

Costa brava prawn ceviche-style

Foie gras, corn jelly and chocolate

The next day was my only full day in Berlin for the trip.  I wandered a bit, visiting some of the many Christmas Markets around town.
Christmas Market in Prenzlauerberg

I met up with my friends later for an early dinner at a place called Fellas! in Prenzlauerberg, as we all had early flights out the next day.

My scheduled flight was at 7:45 am.  According to the posted scheduled, the TXL bus back to the airport would be running in time for me to take it if I wanted to try.  I had originally planned to take a taxi, but I had gotten up and was ready pretty early, and the weather was dry, so I opted to try using the bus.  I found the stop on Unter den Linden (there were still some people out as it was early Sunday morning so some Saturday night partyers were around).  I paid cash for my fare and was at the airport in 25 minutes (no traffic!).  After a little early breakfast in the lounge, my flight was off to FRA on schedule.

Upon arrival in FRA, I had a choice.  I could use the new Lufthansa First Class Lounge in the A Terminal right at the Z gates, or I could go out of security and use the First Class Terminal Building that I had been to before.  I decided I should go ahead and check out the new lounge and save some time.  the First Class Lounge is like a miniature version of the First Class Terminal in looks and services.

In the time that I had, I took a nice bath, had a more proper breakfast, and explored around a bit.  When time came to leave for my flight, unlike the First Class terminal, I would have to get to the plane myself (no car service).  After passing through passport control, I was up on Z gate level and it was all new. If I had to do this again, I would have used the First Class terminal instead.  It was a very long walk to the Z gate where my flight was leaving (probably about 20 minutes or so).  I then had to queue up as we waited for boarding to begin.  I think I much prefer avoiding the long walk and the queue up for boarding even though I would had to go through security (but using the streamlined First Class terminal screening).

Once on board, I found the First Class setup on the main deck towards the nose of the plane.  It looked very similar to the A-380 First Class product I had experience before, only without the super-huge bathrooms.  the lavatories on the 747-8i are a little bigger than standard, so they were fine.

The cabin crew was also having their first flight with the new plane, so they were learning as well.  Unlike the A-380, the 747-8i has overhead storage starting just behind row 1.  Each seat also has a storage locker.  everything else seemed pretty much the same as the A-380, including the two-level shade controls.

The food presentations were at the Lufthansa standard.

And turn down service was as expected. I liked the motorized privacy panel.  When down, it keeps the cabin felling a little more open.  When up, it affords more privacy.
I slept pretty well and awoke in time for a breakfast service.

Now the non-fun part.  And this is why I prefer flying directly home and not stopping as much as possible.  I landed at Dulles Airport in DC and fortunately, we were taken to the mid-field terminal immigration area since we were transferring.  I cleared immigration quickly with Global Entry privileges and had no luggage to pick up.  But it took me 45 minutes to get through security (no priority lines).  That was a real drag.  It was a good thing I had time to spare. While waiting for the mobile lounge, I spoke with some passengers who sat in the new Lufthansa Business Class seats.  These are true flat-bed seats and not the old tilted ones.  However, each seat in a pair is angled towards each other.  The comment was that if your seat neighbor is short, you are more likely to bang legs when sleeping.

I headed straight for the United International First Class Lounge and was told that they would not let me in as I did not come in on a United flight (even though first class passengers on outbound Star Alliance flights can use the lounge).  They recommended I go back to the B terminal and use the Senator Lounge if I had enough time, which I did.  The Senator Lounge is much better, but it is in a different terminal than the UA domestic flights, so extra travel time must be allowed for.  But once I got over those hurdles, I still had a 6+ hour flight home that would land a little late at 10:30pm -- a very long flying day.

18 December 2012

Osaka and Nara

I had not been to Osaka before, although I visited the Kansai region in 2008 on my around-the-world trip.  I spent most of that time in Kyoto and bypassed Osaka to visit the Himeji Castle.  On this trip, I planned to explore Osaka proper and visit Nara as well.  I also had a couple of nice restaurants lined up.

United offers non-stop flights form SFO to the Kansai Airport.  However, the prices are significantly more than the fares to Tokyo.  And the long-distance trains in Japan are very dependable.  So, I opted to fly into Tokyo and then catch the trains directly to Osaka. I purchased a rail pass before leaving to help keep things simple. At a Japanese travel agency, I purchased a Japan Rail (JR) rail pass voucher with the options I wanted.  You can buy a pass good for 7, 14, or 21 days.  You can buy one for the regular coaches or for the green (reservation-only) coaches.  And you can buy either a regional or country-wide pass.  Since I was going to cross regions (Eastern Japan to Western Japan), I needed the full-country pass.  I opted for the green car upgrade, where the coaches tend to be less crowded, although the pass allows you access to the non-reserved coaches as well.

Upon landing at Narita Airport in Tokyo, I cleared immigration and customs and headed to the JR Travel Desk (where there was a little line) so I could exchange my voucher for a pass.  They also booked my reservations for continuing on my journey to Osaka.  This involved taking a Narita Airport Express train to Central Tokyo (about an hour ride) and then changing trains at Shinagawa station for the Shinkansen bullet train to Osaka (20-minute layover).  The rail pass lets you ride any JR train except the Nozomi and and Mizuho trains (the super express trains with minimal stops--between Tokyo and Osaka, it only makes about a 15-minute difference in travel time).  The Narita Airport Express train I took was pretty uncrowded in the green car.  My Shinkansen train's green car had surprisingly more people.  My flight was about an hour late, but the trains are so frequent that it did not pose any problems.  From airport to hotel (which also involved a subway ride) took about 4.5 hours.

The St. Regis located in the central part of Osaka.  The rooms are comfortable and calming.

The Japanese-style shower room was behind a glass door and wall.  I like these shower rooms because there is a nice deep-soaking tub with a lot of space for showering.  My American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts package included a nice buffet and cook-to-order breakfast, as well as one formal afternoon tea in the bar.

For my first two days, I planned on exploring Osaka proper.  I visited Osaka Castle, the observation deck of a very interesting modern building, the Ceramics museum, and a temple area.  I was aided by a two-day Osaka tourist pass, which gave me free access to all public transportation within the city and and free or discounted admission to selected attractions and museums.

View from Osaka Castle top

Floating Garden Observatory

Floating Garden Observatory at the top

I also visited the Dotonburi area, several blocks of restaurants and shopping centered around a canal.

One evening, I went to a 2-star Michelin restaurant called Fujiya 1935, a molecular cuisine restaurant I had found out about and managed to make a reservation for my visit.

On my final full day in the area, I took a train ride out to Nara (thanks to my JR rail pass).  Nara was the first capital of Japan and has many treasured temple areas, as well as the famous deer that are allowed to roam essentially unhindered in the park area.

In a separate section of Nara, partway back towards Osaka and a little hike from the train station, is a collection of the oldest wooden structures in the world at the temple complex called Horyuji.

I also visited a restaurant called XEX West in Osaka near the main train station.  Because I had taken advantage of my free afternoon tea earlier, I only ordered a few small plates for dinner.

Vegetable and tofu salad

Shrimp and avocado

Miso grilled local chicken

Stewed orange and sweet potato with sweet potato gelato
On my departure day, I would have to travel from Osaka back to Tokyo to catch my late-afternoon flight back to SFO.  In most cases, I would not count on a long-distance train to get me to an airport in time to connect with an overseas flight.  But the trains in Japan are both consistently on time and frequent enough to take a mid-morning train for a 3-hour ride to Tokyo and then another hour train trip to the airport with adequate back-up options.  I was not disappointed, and I was even fortunate enough to get mu first glimpse of Mt. Fuji.

After some airport shopping and some food in the First Class Lounge, I boarded my plane for an on-time departure back to SFO.