10 March 2012

London and Leeds

One of the nice things about London is that it always offers something new and different to entertain, regardless of the time of year.  So, I never mind going in the winter and had planned this trip a few months in advance.  Coincidentally, I had found out a few weeks before the trip that some friends were going to be there at the same time.  Fortunately, the plans that I made beforehand, plus the length of the overall trip, made it pretty easy to do a lot of different things, both solo and as a group.

My late-afternoon flight put me in London late-morning.  I had purchased a round-trip ticket on the Heathrow Connect (not Heathrow Express) train.  I got to the platform and saw the train and just jumped on board as the sign said it was about to depart.  Someone else also jumped on.  The conductor came by and checked his ticket and said he was on the wrong train (he had  Heathrow Express ticket).  He glanced at my ticket and told me the same thing.  I wasn't sure he was right but I got off anyway as the doors were about to shut.  What happened what my ticket, which was bought at a machine that dispenses both Heathrow Express and Heathrow Connect tickets, was printed on ticket stock that typically indicates a Heathrow Express ticket and the conductor probably just saw the stock colors of the ticket.  Now, the ticket machines at Heathrow Airport normally do this, so my ticket was correct.  Had I had time to think, I wold have explained to him the ticket that I had.  Normally, when you buy an Heathrow Connect ticket at a regular train station, it's a greenish color.  Oh well.  I only lost half an hour.

My primary activity for my arrival day was a dinner at The Ledbury, a two-star Michelin restaurant that I had booked a couple of months in advance.  I would be eating there on my first night and last night in town.  Later, I had plans to meet my friends for drinks at the newly refurbished and opened Renaissance St. Pancras hotel (It's quite a building -- unfortunately, it was nighttime and I did not take any photos).  But here are some shots of my dinner:

The next few days, I spent time with my friends exploring different parts of London.  We decided to take advantage of London Walks.  The nice thing about London Walks is that you do not have to pre-book, they have several different walks every day, the walks are conducted by the famed Blue Badge Guides, and are very convenient to use (they start and stop at London Underground stations).  They usually last about 2 hours or so, cost GBP 8, and are conducted rain or shine.  We decided to do the Hidden London walk (which takes you around the back alleys of the original City section of London) and the Olympic walk (which toured in and around the site of the main 2012 Summer Olympics venues being constructed in East London.

We also did a day trip to Leeds Castle.  This required taking a train from Victoria Station to Bearsted (about an hour)and then taking a scheduled shuttle bus to the grounds of the castle.  I had been wanting to visit Leeds Castle for several years, but just never got around to it.  It was a very nice day to make the trip and it is a very pretty location.   The castle exterior has been restored to its 17th century look.  The site of the castle has been in use since just after the Norman conquest.  There are records going back to 1080 deeding the site to nobles.  The interior of the castle has been modernized over the years as it was used as a residence up until the 1960s.  Today, it can be booked for meetings, conferences and weddings.  It is open year-round and the purchase of a ticket entitles you to visit the castle as many times as you want over the next 365 days.  In addition to the castle itself, the grounds are extensive and include an aviary, a difficult outdoor maze, gardens, and a dog collar museum.

On this trip, we also went to a restaurant called The Square, a two-star Michelin restaurant that is a sister restaurant to The Ledbury.

My return flight was pretty straightforward.  My Global Entry access got me through Immigration and Customs pretty quickly and my luggage was delivered fairly promptly, which I have noticed has been an consistent improvement over the last few overseas trips.

08 March 2012


Although the heart of this trip was to fly the 787 on a long-haul flight and that was on a free ticket, I did pick up some miles from the adventure because I had to fly from SFO to Tokyo.  Consequently, there was a lot of flying and not much time on the ground because I had to fit this into a slightly elongated weekend.  This was also an unusual trip because I was away for under 72 hours and I did not stay at any hotel.  Despite that, and feeling like I was on the go the entire time, I had a fun time.

I flew to Narita Airport on the regular, late-morning United flight from SFO.  If we were on schedule, I would have about 9 hours on the ground.  During that time, I had to change to Haneda Airport to catch the 787 flight to Frankfurt.  My plans were to make a 6:00pm dinner reservation at the Tapas Molecular Bar in downtown Tokyo, pay a visit to the new Chikalicious Dessert Bar outlet called Amarige, and then make my first trip ever to Haneda Airport.

My flight to Narita arrived a little early, during which I had a decent nap.  I was among the first off the plane and made the long trek to immigration and passport control, where there is always a little wait.  Fortunately, it was aslo my plan not to check any luggage, which was a first for an international trip, so once I cleared immigration, I quickly dashed for the Keisei Skyliner ticket desk with my backpack and small duffel bag.  Turns out I had some time anyway since there was going to be a wait for the next train into town.  I prefer the Skyliner because it's a shorter trip (time-wise) than the Narita Express and less expensive.  I also knew that I could catch the correct subway line to go directly to the restaurant without changing subway lines.  Waiting for the next train cost me some time, but I ended up walking up to the restaurant at precisely 6:00pm.  I settled down to a very nice winter menu.  The gentleman next to me (who did not speak much English) was having a birthday and decided to buy us all drinks mid-meal.  Since I was not having alcohol with this meal, I just had a very nice glass of orange juice.  Some highlights from the meal:

The dinner was surprisingly flavorful for a winter menu, so I enjoyed my third visit to the restaurant.  The nice thing about eating there was that they are on a schedule because they have a second seating at 8:30pm.  So, I knew I would be out by then at the latest.  By my calculations, that would give me enough time to get to Amarige, which is on the other side of town but using the same subway line that brought me to the restaurant would bring me to Amarige as well.  They were expecting me at around 8:45pm and I was pretty much on time.

The restaurant is decorated with several photos of the New York dessert bar and New York, so it seemed very familiar.  And I had met one of the people working there when he trained in New York.  Below is the amuse bouche (a whipped cream with fresh fruit), the main dessert of pink lady apple sorbet and brown sugar panna cotta, and the petits fours finale of a warm apple tart and signature marshmallow with coconut.

I left after a little over an hour and headed to the new part of my night's trip.  There are a couple of ways to get to Haneda Airport, which is closer and cheaper to get to than Narita.  I decided to take two subway lines to catch the Tokyo Monorail to the Haneda International Terminal.  I think the trip took about 50 minutes and was very easy. There are three terminals at Haneda and the new International Terminal was the first of the airport stops on the monorail.  The building is large and feels very airy.  I was able to check in at a kiosk and received my boarding passes for both my outbound and return flight (since the return would be on the same plane six hours after landing in Frankfurt).  I passed through immigration and security without any problem and made my way to the ANA lounge.  Because Haneda is a 24-hour airport (unlike Narita), there were several flights scheduled to depart that evening, including my 1:00am departure.  The lounge was so crowded that there was a waiting list of 19 people for the showers, which was part of my plan.  I wasn't going to be part of that queue, so I just washed up a little and then had a beverage and caught up on email.  Gradually, the room emptied and I snacked a little before leaving the lounge for my flight.

I've posted a complete trip report of my 787 experience on milepoint.com:  787 Trip Report

When we landed at Frankfurt Airport, we were assigned to a remote parking spot, so we were picked up by bus and taken to the B-gate section of the terminal.  I had hoped that we would be parked at a gate so that I could easily figure out where I needed to be for the outbound flight.  It was not bad having to take the bus as there was an ANA representative just inside the doors and she told me the departure gate, which was also going to be in the B gates.  So, I did not have to go through passport control and just had to pass  through security.  I then found the Lufthansa Senator Club (one that I had not used before) and it was a large one and virtually empty at 5:30am in the morning!  So, the first thing I did was go for a shower and clothes change.  Then it was breakfast and email and time to watch some videos.  The lounge did not serve any hot food for breakfast, but it was still okay to make it to around 11 am.

We boarded on time and I was on my way back to Tokyo.  My plan was to take the monorail back into town.  I had debated whether I would get a day room at a capsule hotel or visit an onsen (Japanese bathhouse), or get a massage.  I decided to get a massage and that would allow me to wash up.  I then headed to Ginza because I had time (my departure was scheduled for 4:00 pm) and shop in the food halls and perhaps pick up a snack.  I wasn't looking to eat too much as I was going home in first class and would have access to the International First Class Lounge, which usually has a good selection of food (the regular Red Carpet Club did and I was expecting the First Class Lounge to be a step above).

I took the Skyliner back to Narita Airport.  I was about 3.5 hours early for my flight, so the check-in counters were very quiet.  There was one person working the First Class desk and he checked me in.  I learned that there is a special First Class security room that I was going to have access to.  This greatly sped up that part of the process.  However, when exiting, it led me to the same immigration/passport control area that I have used before which can be very slow.  As I had plenty of time, I wasn't too concerned.  After clearing immigration, I did a little shopping at duty free and then headed for the First Class Lounge for a late lunch.

The return flight departed on time.  I again chose the Japanese meal option (which I had done on the flight to Tokyo) and finally had a sleep cycle that matched up with my body clock and I slept well.  We landed early Sunday morning and I now have a much greater appreciation for people who do not check luggage.  With my Global Entry privileges, I passed through immigration very quickly and was able to leave the Customs area immediately before any luggage was starting to show up on the carousel.  The customs officer even asked if I had all my luggage.  I said yes, he said okay, and I was out of there, headed to the BART station and home.  Whew!