11 September 2012

The Best Laid Plans (Germany and Belgium)

I booked this trip 7 months in advance.  I was trying to book everything I could on United before the computer systems merger and the conversion to the Continental SHARES system.  The plan was to go to Germany and visit a new Conrad Hotel in Berlin (and its new Pierre Gagnaire restaurant), as well as take a flight out of the new Berlin Airport (Willy Brandt International).  The hotel was to open on September 1 and the airport was due to open mid-summer.  My plan was to fly into Frankfurt, spend a couple of nights, take the train to Berlin, spend a couple of nights, and then fly out of the new airport.  Hilton decided to delay the Conrad Berlin opening, and the new airport suffered a very controversial schedule change (which still has yet to be resolved) after the airlines had all posted new schedules.

The airport change was tricky, as Lufthansa had canceled my original flight itinerary and booked a new flight out of the old airport at Tegel.  United had to grab that new reservation and integrate it into my existing ticket.  For the hotel, I had stayed at the Hilton Berlin before and it would be fine.  I had not made reservations yet.  And I did search and find a suitable restaurant substitute in Berlin.

My evening flight from SFO to Frankfurt went off without any issues.  I had lost my originally selected seat when the system changeover happened.  But, for whatever reason, my seat was switched back at the gate to the section of the business cabin that I preferred.  So, other than not getting the upgrade to Global First, I was fine.  The weather in Frankfurt was not going to be the best on arrival.  It was nice that it wasn't going to matter as I was booked again at the new Hilton at the airport and would not have to go outside.

I had requested a paid upgrade to a suite at the Hilton and got it.  The room was ready upon arrival, as it should be for a 3pm arrival time.  It was a very nice room.  And it is amazing that you never hear the airplanes from anywhere inside the hotel.

Living Room

Entryway and second washroom

Living room, desk, bedroom door

Bedroom and walk-in closet

Primary bathroom
Besides the walk-in shower, there was a full bathtub just behind the bathroom door.

The hotel was very quiet during my stay.  Being off in a corner also helped that feeling.  The Executive Lounge was only two floors up.

Originally, I had no definite sightseeing plans while in Frankfurt.  There's always plenty to see nearby via train, so was not concerned.  However, a couple of weeks before the trip, I found out that some friends were going to be in Brussels at the same time, so I looked into the train schedules and found that  Brussels was only an easy 3-hour train ride.  So we made plans to meet in Brussels for the day and take a trip to Ghent, where I had been before last December but they had never visited.

I did not tour the fortress on my prior visit, so after walking around a bit and having a traditional Ghent lunch, we toured the fortress, which is just a block away from the main market square.

After the fortress, I left my friends to continue touring Ghent and I left for Brussels.  IN addition to catching my train to Frankfurt, I wanted to go back to an olive oil store that sells oil exclusively from Provence.  When I got to the Ghent train station, I discovered  had just missed the train and would have to wait a half an hour.  Once back in Brussels, I had about 50 minutes to run my errand (via subway and a walk -- or jog -- to the store).  I made it back to Brussels Zuid station with 10 minutes to spare.  My scheduled train starts in Brussels and was already on the platform but not yet boarding, so I was good.  The train goes directly to the Frankfurt Airport station, where we arrived on time and in time for me to grab some dinner from a couple of the various food options still open that evening.

The next day, I walked 5 minutes from my hotel to the train platform for my late morning train to Berlin.  Unfortunately, I was not on a direct train and would have to change in Hanover.  We ended up getting to Hanover about 5 minutes late (my planned layover was 17 minutes).  However, upon arrival, I checked the boards and my scheduled train was running about 2 hours behind due to fallen overhead electrical lines.  I wasn't too concerned as I could still make my dinner reservation on that delayed arrival.  I pulled out my iPhone and started up my Deutsche Bahn app and checked for the trains running from Hanover to Berlin.  Turned out there was another ICE train (Inter-City Express) scheduled to leave Hanover for Berlin at almost the exact time as my original train that was running 15 minutes late.  Since I was traveling with a first class ticket, I was pretty certain there would be room on that train, and I was right.  So I ended up getting to Berlin pretty much on schedule.

Dinner was at a restaurant called Reinstoff.  It was located a couple of subway stops north of my hotel, so it was very easy to get to.  I was glad I booked an early reservation (7pm) as the dinner lasted for almost 4 hours.  Since I am not a big fan of traditional German food, I was glad to have a modern cuisine dining alternative.

Snails in the Forest
Beef Carpaccio with Goose Liver Cream
Peach Sorbet and Basil

Grapes and Cherries
The next day was very nice -- a arm, fall-like day.  I spent time just walking around areas I had not visited before, including the Prenzlauer Berg area.

Before leaving the States, I also pre-booked a twilight/evening cruise on the river and canals of Berlin.  The 3-hour bat ride started on the Spree River just north of my hotel and circled through different canals returning back to the starting point.

Tech Museum/Berlin Airlift Plane

Bodes Museum

Berlin Cathedral and Museum Island

Netherlands Embassy

Jannowitz Bridge

Many low-clearance bridges on the tour
The nice thing about Tegel Airport is that it is very close to the center of town.  Although my flight was at 9:30am, I went out early because I wanted to make sure there were no ticket issues with the change of airports.  Turns out there was.  The kiosk would not let me check in.  I went to the Lufthansa Ticketing Desk and they could not make the ticket work.  They finally figured out that they had to update the airport code and re-issue the ticket to allow me to board the flight.  They weren't sure if I could check-in all the way through.  I went up to the kiosk and tried again and I received both my boarding pass to Frankfurt and my United boarding pass to San Francisco.  And everything was on time, so it was an easy (but long) trip back home.  The only anomaly was that we had to use a bus to get to the San Francisco flight, which usually is not the case (but has happened on occasion).

10 September 2012

A Very Quick Trip To London

This was the shortest overseas trip with a hotel stay that I've ever done.  Three reason is that it was planned only about 6 weeks in advance, and I did not have any more vacation time to schedule for it.  I took the trip because there was a last-minute fare sale to fill business class seats.  So, I left on a Thursday night after work and returned on Sunday afternoon, giving me two nights in London.

The trip did not start off perfectly.  I had found out the day before that the plane had been switched from the refurbished 3-class 777 to the old configuration 777.  This meant that the seats in business class were not the nice lie-flat ones.  On the other hand, the older plane had 4 more first class seats than the newer plane (for which I was waitlisted).  As it turned out, about an hour before the flight, I was upgraded to first, which meant I ended up with a lie-flat seat anyway, although the entertainment system was the older one, the plane felt a little worn, and the seat was not as comfortable as either the first or business class on the newer plane.  But I did get my miles and upgrade fee back, which was welcomed.

Otherwise, I really like the night flight to London, as it makes it easy to sleep on the plane.  And, as this was a very short trip, I was not planning on adjusting too much to the London time zone.  I landed in time to try and get a walk-in seat to a restaurant which I was not able to secure a reservation (after trying for several weeks).  It's one of the hottest restaurants in London at the moment called Dabbous (booked through early next year).  I was not able to get in for dinner, but they said to try coming back at the end of the lunch service the next day and try then for a walk-in seat.

Since this trip was so short, I splurged on the room. I stayed at the Hilton Paddington, where I often stay when in London because of the location convenience, both in getting around town and getting to and from the airport.  However, I was tired of staying in the same type of room that they always give me.  And there were sale rates when I booked, so I signed up for one of the two tower suites.  These are multi-level suites.  Mine was called the Great Western Brunei Suite.  The entrance is on floor 5 (the hotel has six floors).  But this is only to the vestibule.
Entrance vestibule

  A glass staircase leads up to a level even with the roof and a door that goes out to the very large deck on a corner of the building.  There was a coat rack and hooks for all your outerwear to hang.

Doorway to the private roof terrace

 The structure on the left side of this photo and appearing below is the tower, which contained the rest of my room levels.  The terrace was outfitted with lots of furniture and lights, perfect for gatherings (unfortunately, I had none to host).
The bedroom level had a sitting area and a TV that pivoted to face the bed or the seats for viewing.

These are shots of the top level.  With the extra-high ceiling, it felt very spacious.

This was the spiral staircase between the bedroom and top levels.

On such a short stay, I had several options for what I would try to do.  Some of it depended upon the weather, which was not expected to be good.  However, the morning of my only full day was still dry (for the most part), so I set out to buy some olive oil from this electrical store that sells oil from Cyprus and Turkey.  It was a little bit of a walk from Angel Station, but I had been there before on a prior trip only to find it closed.  Since this was a Saturday morning, they were open.  They let me sample both the Cypriot and Turkish oils and I went with the Turkish olive oil for my purchases.  With that accomplished, I headed back to try for a table at lunch at Dabbous.

I got there at 1:45.   It was just starting to rain, so the timing was good.  They said to check back at 2pm.  I did and they found a table for me, so I was very happy to have the chance to test out the restaurant on this visit.  I could see why the restaurant was so difficult to book.  It's a small space, and the food is distinct for what is currently offered around London, especially for the price.  This was the menu posted outside.  There were several things I wanted to try.  But as it turns out, they only do a set lunch with fewer choices for lunch.

Industrial chic decor

 The food was simply prepared, meant to accentuate the seasonal ingredients. I skipped the meat course for two fish courses. and this first dessert (I was able to order an extra one) was a peach served in a seasoned peach juice sauce.

With lunch accomplished, I headed back to enjoy my hotel room some more and stay out of the weather.  I rested up, planned some future travel (a trip on one of United's 787 Dreamliner planes).  Late on, the weather let up a little and I strolled around a bit.

The next day, I had a late breakfast and still had time to enjoy some sunny weather on the roof terrace before an early afternoon flight back home.  except for a very delayed luggage delivery, everything went smoothly on the return trip . . . just in time, as my next scheduled trip would take me back to Europe on Wednesday evening.