07 December 2013

York and London

In the several trips made to the U.K., I rarely go far beyond London.  On this trip, despite the season, I decided to venture north and visit York and Yorkshire.  My intent was to visit something that I had always wanted to see since I first saw it on the original "Brideshead Revisited" series on PBS -- Castle Howard.  My plan was to fly to London and then take the train to York, stay there two nights and then return to London for two nights before heading back home.

My evening flight left on time from SFO.  There was no wifi available on the flight, but there were new programs to watch on the video-on-demand system to get me through dinner before I would try to get some sleep. The food was just okay, but the sundae is always appreciated.

I managed to get a few hours sleep and we landed at Heathrow Airport a little bit ahead of schedule.  I packed lightly for this trip, so I only had carry-on luggage.  There was no queue at immigration, neither in the Fastrak Lane nor the regular line.  My processing was quick and I headed directly to ground transportation.

To get to York, I would have to take a train.  There is frequent service between King's Cross Station and York.  After pricing out individual tickets when planning the trip, I decided to go ahead and get a first class BritRail Pass for three days.  The pass was actually sent from Canada, so delivery to me was very quick once I had made the online purchase.  I even purchased the ticket protection package, which included free shipping, and replacement for a lost or stolen pass.  At first I was not going to opt for this, but regular shipping was going to cost almost as much as the trip protection package, so it made sense to get the package.  The other thing the rail pass would do is let me ride Heathrow Express (which I almost never do because of the cost and availability of other reasonable options).

Before I was able to use the pass, I needed to validate it.  At the airport, this can be done at the Heathrow Express ticket desk.  Once I made the long trek to the train platform, I did not have to wait long for the next train.  I hopped on to the First Class car, which is more spacious than the regular cars due to 1-2 seating.  And every seat has a table.  There were no other passengers in my car.

Once I arrived at Paddington Station, I had to change to the Underground, as I had to get to King's Cross for the York trains.  To do this, I had to walk a bit back towards the Hammersmith and City line station platform at Paddington.  The rail pass is not valid on the Underground, but I had an Oyster Card with funds on it, so I was all set to ride to King's Cross (about 5 stations away).

Once at King's Cross, I looked up at the board for the next York-bound train.  In particular, I was looking for an express to York, as some trains will service intermediate stops.  I spotted a departure leaving in 5 minutes and hurried toward the platform. The conductor was blowing the final boarding whistle and I just managed to jump on.  Fortunately, the First Class cars are at the back end of the train, so I was already in the right coach.  The train was fairly well occupied, but there were a few single seats still available.  I found one that had been reserved, but not until after York.  In additional to being an express train, another nice thing is that in First Class, they will serve a meal if the ride is longer than an hour (it would be 1 hour 51 minutes to York).  For the time of day that I was riding, they offered an afternoon tea service, with sandwiches, cake and fruit.

It was well after sunset when the train arrived at York station.  I knew the general direction I needed to go to get to the Hilton York, but I still had to pull out my phone and locate myself to make sure I was getting close to the hotel.  It took about 20 minutes to reach the hotel, which is right next to the old section of York.  The York Hilton is a small Hilton without an Executive Lounge.  But it was not busy when I arrived and check-in was fast.  There's nothing fancy about the hotel, but I did get a room that faced the York Tower.

The next day, I planned to take a bus out to Castle Howard.  It's not that far from York, but if you go by bus, it takes a little over an hour to get there. And if you take the bus, they give you a discount on the entrance fee (about half off).  The bus stop was easy to find, as I was a block from Piccadilly, where most of the buses have a stop.  I went out a little early to locate the stop and then walked around old York for a bit.

The bus ride take you through the Yorkshire countryside.  Not very many people were on the bus, even though it was the first run, going from York and terminating at Castle Howard with several intermediate stops.

At Castle Howard, the grounds open at 10am and the house opens at 11.  So I started out wandering around the extensive open areas around the house.

It was amazing to be there finally after all these years.  It was at once very familiar but also different.  The way certain scenes were constructed in the miniseries and in the movie led me to think the house and rods were arranged differently than they actually were.  The house sits in the middle of 3,000 acres, and the grounds are not all flat, with some of the peripheral structures located a decent hike away from the house.  There weren't very many people there in the morning (the tour buses hadn't arrived yet), so it was like I had much of the grounds to myself.

When the house opened at 11am, I went in.  It seemed a little smaller than I had expected.  We were allowed to wander though selected rooms upstairs and downstairs.  I learned that the house was gutted by a fire in 1940 and that in the filming of the miniseries and the movie, selected rooms were restored as part of the filming, such as the Garden Room:

There were exhibits and descriptions around the house about the residents and about the production and filming of the "Brideshead Revisited" story.  The house was decorated for the holiday season (it just reopened for the season), which was generally a nice touch, although it sometimes distracted me from seeing the house as it would have been normally.

I spent about three hours in total at the castle.  I caught the return bus to York and was there in time to walk around York proper for a bit, including part of the old wall.

I stopped off at one of the Betty's Tea Room located in old York for a traditional afternoon tea service. I also stopped by the train station to reserve a seat on my return train to London.  Reservations aren't required, but I decided on a specific train that I wanted to take, and I wanted to make sure I had a specific seat saved for my trip back.

The next day, after a nice breakfast and a little more shopping, I headed to the train station to catch my train.  On the way back, the meal service was lunch, for which there were a couple of hot options, as well as tea sandwiches.  It was an express train back to King's Cross station, so in less than two hours, I was back in London.

I was back in time to check in and rest up a little before heading out for my Thanksgiving evening dinner reservation.  I didn't really have a Thanksgiving dinner, even though an American was part owner of where I dined that evening (Kitchen Table -- click here for the write-up).

While in London this time, I wanted to try and get to a place called Kenwood House.  It supposedly has an interesting collection of artwork in a historic house on Hampstead Heath. I heard about it last March when I visited the Seattle Art Museum in March.  They were displaying part of the collection there while the house was undergoing renovation.  Using a couple of Underground trains and a bus, I made it there pretty easily. Admission to the house is free.


This bridge can be seen from the house at a distance.  However, it was just an aesthetic piece to the landscape.  Upon closer inspection, it is really just a facade of a footbridge.

Afterwards, I headed to Oxford Street to check out the holiday decoration (and crowds!).

For this evening, I went to a Japanese restaurant that a friend of mine told me about that was near Berkeley Square called Umu.  At Umu, I decided to have my first traditional kaiseki dinner.  For the write-up, click here).

The next day, I boarded a Heathrow Connect train back to the airport (no Heathrow Express for me as my pass was expired).  When I went up to the Global Services desk to check in, they told me that they were oversold in First Class.  They also added that while they probably wouldn't move me, they most likely would have to downgrade some people.  they were offering the option of taking a later flight on British Airways.  I thought about it for a bit, but I wasn't sure whether I would get the lifetime miles if they moved me to another flight (I suppose I could try to make a case for them, but I'd rather not have the hassle).  I also was not too enthusiastic about trying to get to Terminal 5 at this stage of the game. I ended up telling them that I wanted to stay on the United flight.

During the time between checking in and the flight's boarding, my seat changed twice for some reason.  I guess it had to do with whether someone else was staying on the flight or not.  However, I did get the window seat I had moved myself to the day before.  After that, and a slight delay, we had an easy flight back to SFO.

17 October 2013

A Seoul Journey

I had never been to Seoul before.  United flies there non-stop from SFO, and October would seem to be a good time to visit (not too hot and not too cold).  I also found out that it would be possible to go on a tour of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone that separates North from South Korea).  So, I booked a flight, made my tour reservation for the only possible day I could do it (a Saturday), and found a well-located hotel (Hilton Millennium Seoul).

The flight departs at around 11:00 am and arrives the next day around 3:00 pm.  It was a 12-hour flight.  I was surprised at the route taken because it was almost straight across the Pacific (which is not usually the most efficient because it's longer distance-wise and usually against the prevailing wind; flights to nearby Tokyo fly up towards the Aleutians and then come down).  But the flight left on time and arrived at the stated scheduled time.

My arrival plans were not typical for me.  Prior to my trip, I had signed up for the Korean SES (Smart Entry System) privileges.  this was a benefit of belonging to the U.S. Global Entry Program.  The SES program would allow me to enter and depart Korea using the automated gates.  So, after I cleared immigration and Customs the traditional way at Incheon International Airport, I headed up to the Departures Level to complete my registration at the Auto-Immigration office.  It took very little time.  Once I grabbed a number for the queue, I was called up tot he desk and they found my information online.  They verified my passport, took my picture and digital fingerprints, had me test that I would be accepted by the system and then I was done.

That mission accomplished, I headed back down to the Arrival Level and found the Tourist Desk to purchase a 3-day transit pass (I would have liked a 4-day pass, but they didn't sell that denomination).  Turns out that I could only pay cash for the pass, so I had to go find an ATM and take out some Korean won.  Next, it was down to the train level.  The pass would have been good for the local "all-stops" train, but not for the Express train.  The Express takes 43 minutes and costs about $7 while the Local takes about 54 minutes and costs less than $4.  It was late in the day and I didn't plan to do much riding around that evening, so I chose not to use my pass so that it would cover my 3 remaining days.  But I did choose to take the Express train just for the experience (I planned take the local train back to the airport using my pass on my departure day).

The trains terminate at Seoul Station, which was conveniently located near my hotel.  You have to come up several levels form the platform before you see daylight.  I wasn't quite sure which direction I would need to go to walk to my hotel except I knew it was up a hill from the station.  I figured I would be able to look up and see it somehow.  I did spot an exit sign that directed me to a shuttle bus for the Hilton Hotel.  So I got on the bus and after a few minutes (it's an hourly service leaving at the bottom of the hour) it left for the hotel.  I discovered that airport trains let you off on a platform on the opposite side of a large train station from where, when you exit the station, you could see the Hilton.  So, I was very glad I found the bus to take me directly there.

The hotel was nice enough and had an Executive Lounge.  Checking in was easy.  After settling a little bit, I grabbed some food that was to be my dinner from the Executive Lounge, and then headed out for a walk to dry-run getting to where I needed to be for the DMZ tour the next morning by walking, if it came to that.  Turns out it was about a half-hour walk from my hotel, or a very easy subway ride.  But it was not very obvious where in the Hotel Lotte I needed to go in to get to the meeting point.  So I was glad I scoped it out beforehand.  Along the way, I walked by this gate (Sungnyemun).

In the morning, I took the subway one stop using my pass and got to the meeting point on the 6th floor of the hotel with plenty of time.  I had to show my passport and pay the tour fee at the Service Club desk.  I was then directed to the 2nd floor Tour Lounge, where I could wait until the bus in the adjacent parking lot was ready to load.  Coincidentally, a friend of mine from the East Coast was going to be in Korea this same weekend and he signed up for the same tour.  However, we were assigned to different buses as we did not sign up at the same time and they assign you specific seats on the tour bus.

It took about an hour to drive up to the DMZ.  Our first stop was a place called Imjingang, which had some monuments and memorials to the Korean conflict and to peace.  Nearby was a train station on a line that was to connect the South with the North but not currently in use.  After that stop, we went to an observatory point where we had a clear look at the North Korean frontier.
 The next stop was a visit to the "3rd Tunnel", so called because it was the third tunnel discovered by the South Koreans.  the tunnel was being dug by the North Koreans for a sneak attack.  We took a small train down 73 meter below ground to have a look at the tunnel.  Pictures were not allowed inside the tunnel.  We were allowed to walk the tunnel just about up to the point where it crossed into North Korea.  However, the tunnel was then plugged with 3 concrete blocks to prevent the North Koreans form being able to use the tunnel.  The tunnel itself was small, a little cool, and damp.  It also had a low ceiling at some points.  We had to wear helmets and stoop sometimes to pass through.  There is a walkway down to the tunnel from the surface, but the tour package include d the train transport down to and up from the tunnel.
Train into the intercept tunnel to get to the 3rd Tunnel
Afterwards, it was time for lunch, which was included with the tour price.  We went to a traditional Korean lunch restaurant.  We could choose between a beef or vegetarian lunch.  The spread was very good.
After lunch, we journeyed to the Joint Security Area (JSA)  this is where get to the border compound that is used by both North and South Korea.  Both sides have tours to the JSA and it is where the two sides meet when they decide to have discussions.  The first stop was a place called Camp Bonifas, where we had passport checks and were boarded by U.N/American soldiers who would escort us in this part of the visit.  The next stage was a visit to a briefing room, where we were given a presentation on a history of the area and how it is set up. We then had to sign a waiver acknowledging that there was a risk to the visit and there were no guarantees that we could be protected should an "incident' occur.

We were then taken to another building and led to the border zone.

We were instructed only to take picture straight ahead, towards the big concrete building.  We could not take pictures to our right, left or behind us, or else our camera would be confiscated.  There was one North Korean solder visible in front of the large building.  The blue building on the left is the actual conference room right on the border.  That was our next stop.

Inside the conference room, we were allowed to stand on either side.  The soldiers present were all South Korean soldiers (in a Tae Kwon Do-ready position).  The people standing on the other side of the conference table were on the North Korea side.  We were only allowed to stay for a few minutes to take pictures.

Afterwards, it was a stop at the JSA gift shop and then the ride back to Seoul.  I learned a lot about the Korean conflict on this tour, so it was quite interesting.

That evening, I had a dinner planned at a molecular cuisine restaurant I managed to find.  It was located across the river from the side of the city where my hotel was located.  It was called Elbon The Table.  I had some interesting dishes.

For a full write-up of my visit to the restaurant, click here.

The next day, I had scheduled in advance to be part of a free walking tour offered by the Seoul Tourist Office. The guides are local resident volunteers.  The reservations are made in advance on-line, so it is easy to arrange if you do it in advance.  Sometimes they say availability is such that you need to book one or two weeks in advance.  I managed to book this about five days ahead of time.  I chose a tour of the Bukchon section.  It's an area of old Korean houses located between two royal palaces.  The meeting point was right by a subway station, so it was easy to find the guide.

We started the tour by crossing the street to an adjacent section of town.  We went so the guide could describe many of the elements of a traditional Korean house by giving us a walk-though of a former nobleman's house, which now serves as a museum.  It happened that they were doing a re-enactment of taking  State Examination in the old ways, so the grounds were open for free.  The house was large and elaborate, as the owner turned out to be the regent for one of the last emperors of Korea.
Afterwards, it was on to our walk around Bukchon.

The walk took us up and down the hills and alleys of the area and lasted for 2.5 hours.

After the tour, I went to shop a bit along the nearby Insa-dong St. area.  I then headed over to the nearby Changgyeonggung Palace complex and the Secret Garden.  There is a fee to enter the main palace grounds, which you can see at your leisure or take a tour.  There is a separate charge to see the Secret Gardens area, and you can only do so by being part of a tour group through the gardens (done in English and Korean at specified times).  There is an additional palace located on the site further back which requires payment of an additional fee.

I then turned south and headed to the redeveloped Cheonggyecheon Stream area.  It used to be a road and they recently removed the road to reveal the underlying stream.  They fixed it up a s a walkway/park.  It's a nice find in the heart of the city.

At this point, it was time to head back to the hotel for a little rest and some food.  Later in the evening, I went for a stroll in the Itaewon area (a short subway ride from my hotel).  It traditionally was where foreigners hung out and is now several blocks of restaurants, bars and shops.  On this particular Sunday night, there were three stages of loud music, food and gift booths set up in the street and lots of people around.

The next day was my departure day, but the flight would not leave until the late afternoon.  So I devoted the morning to more sightseeing.  I headed off to the Buddhist Temple Complex called Bongeunsa on the other side of the river.  Along the way, there was some interesting architecture, as this was a very modern section of the city.

With a little time left to wander, I sought out the Yongsan Electronics Market, which is supposed to be a huge collection of shops and stalls.  It was also on the way back to my hotel.  Unfortunately, I did not get to do too much exploring as it was harder to locate than I thought. I did manage to find it eventually (thank goodness for the Internet on my phone).  I'll have to go back when I return to explore further.

Heading back, I climbed the hill one more time up from the subway stop.  In my wanderings, I had checked out my other hotel alternative, the Conrad.  It is located on the south side of the river in the "new" section of town.  While it was a flat walk to get to it, it was about a 10-minute walk via underground walkways from the nearest subway stop, so I'm not sure it would be any more convenient to stay there instead.

The shuttle bus to Seoul Station leaves the Hilton hourly at the top of the hour.  It matched up nicely with the local airport train, as I didn't have to wait too long for the next one.  The local trains were a lot like the subway cars, but not as crowded (at least at this time of day) and a bit newer-looking.
It was an easy ride t the airport.  My first stop was the Tourist Desk to return my transit pass and obtain a small refund.  I then proceeded upstairs to check in and go through security (no priority lanes for security that I saw, but the lines were not long).  Then , for immigration, I found the SES gates, inserted my passport and cleared the first gate.  My fingerprint cleared me through the second gate and then I was done.

Incheon Airport is like a huge upscale shopping mall.  So, I did a little window shopping to check out prices and items.  I then headed off to the lounge.  United uses the Asiana Lounges and I was given access to the First Class side o the lounge.  It was nice, although perhaps not as nice as I would have expected of Asiana's flagship location.
The departure gate was not too far away, and I after a little bit to eat (including a Haagen Dazs green tea ice cream sandwich), I was off to board my on-time departure and my 10- hour flight back to SFO.

07 October 2013

Tokyo in a Flash on United's Dreamliner

The opportunity came up to fit in a quick trip to Tokyo where I could fly on United's version of the 787 Dreamliner.  I had planned to try this out last January, but the planes were grounded the day before my trip was to commence.  This time, everything was a go.  I still had to fly down to Los Angeles' LAX Airport.  Normally, I do not like making connections on international flights, but there was no choice.  It was either LAX, Denver or Houston.  LAX provided the quickest connection in the shortest amount of time.  I also build in a 3-hour layover cushion by taking an early-morning flight.

The flight to LAX arrived early, so I had plenty of time to hang out in the 1st-class lounge (which I had never been to before).  Even though I was traveling in BusinessFirst (787 planes are only two-class airplanes), as a Global Services member, I have access to the lounge if traveling in Business.

As Global Services,  I also get to board very early in the process, so I was able to take photos before many people were getting to their seats.

There are two sections in the front of the plane allocated to BusinessFirst.  each had 3 rows of 2-2-2 seat configuration.  There are three lavatories in the section -- one if the very front on the right and two at the middle of the BusinessFirst cabin.

The overhead bins on the side are very spacious and can accommodate roll-aboard suitcases loaded in the wheels-first and on-the-side position.  The bins over the center aisle are shallower, but can still accommodate the roll-aboards wheels-first. I discovered that there are no overhead bins over the first row of the center aisle seats.

Seat Controls

The footwell at my seat was quite spacious and deep.This helped to make for a comfortable lie-flat bed and provide for a decent space to store a medium-sized carry-on bag (which is permitted on this plane configuration).  I discovered that this footwell size is unique to this row of seats (as I'll see on my return flight).  

Behind and to my right was a cubbyhole with the USB port, AC power socket, and headphones jack.

The plane takes a long run before leaving the ground.  It is definitely quieter on take-off cruising than other aircraft of similar size. Much like my experience on the ANA 787 over a year ago, I didn't feel the environmental conditions were significantly different.  The air was still dry, but not AS dry, and my ears didn't pop as much during ascent and descent.

We landed in Tokyo about a half-hour early.  Given that I had plenty of time to get to my hotel and make my evening dinner reservation, I decided to take the slower train to Central Tokyo, which I had not done before.  The Keisei Narita SKYAccess Express train is about half the cost of the Keisei Skyliner and about a third of the cost of the JR Narita Express.  One reason that this train worked better for me this time was because I chose to stay at the Conrad Hotel.  This is near Shimbashi Station and the SKYAccess train has a stop at Shimbashi station.  If I took any of the other trains, I would have had to transfer to either the subway or the JR commuter trains to complete my journey.  So overall, the travel time comes out almost the same (over an hour).  And, I could just use my pre-loaded PASMO card for the fare, rather than having to buy separate tickets to use.  From Shimbashi Station, I had a 10-minute walk to the hotel (either via underground passageways or elevated walkways).

For dinner, I went to a Catalan-based restaurant called Restaurant Sant Pau.  The chef has a restaurant in a small coastal town outside Barcelona and brought her Catalonian-inspired dishes to Tokyo a few years ago.  It's classified as serving modern Spanish cuisine.

Small bites to start

Squid course
Cheese course
Mignardises to conclude the meal
To read the full write-up, click here.

the next day, I had a late afternoon flight.  I decided to visit the East gardens of the Imperial Palace.  These are free to enter, but are open only on specific days (they were not open any of the days of my last visit).  While the weather was nice still, there was not much color to the gardens.  All the summer flowers were gone and it was still too warm for fall colors.  The gardens themselves used to be the site for castles and fortresses from the shogun period.

 For my trip back to Narita Airport, I had enough time to take the low train back.  However, I couldn't find a schedule anywhere that I could read.  So I asked the hotel concierge and they looked it up for me. The trains from the airport had schedules posted in English on the Keisei website, but I just was not able to find the return times.

The train was exactly on time and well-marked, so it was an easy ride to the airport.  I had plenty of time to shop and to have lunch in the lounge before heading for my Dreamliner flight back to LAX.

On the return, I was seated in row 5 center aisle, which is located i the middle of the second section of the BusinessFirst cabin.

My return trip aircraft

A peek at the Economy section

The much smaller footwell for the return flight

The return flight was ahead of schedule by half an hour on its arrival.  I almost could have tried to make an earlier flight back to SFO, but I wanted to go back to the lounge and have a bite to eat before getting back on a plane.  Since everything was running on time, with nice weather at both airports, there were no flight issues.  The only flight issue during the trip was at the very end.  We were on approach and close to landing when we began climbing and then went around the airport for another landing attempt.  The pilot came on later to say that the cockpit indicator detected an anomaly with the flaps on the first approach, but everything was fine as we set up for our second try.  And he was right, as we landed on our second attempt without incident, closing out a very quick weekend trip.