22 April 2013

A Spring Dash to London for Food, The Shard, and Pompeii

I took a quick, long-weekend trip to London to break up the monotony of no holidays in the springtime.  There were a few things I wanted to do prior to the summer crowds and a restaurant that I wanted to visit.

My outbound flight on a Wednesday evening was fairly light.  It left a little early, and I managed to get enough sleep.  We landed on time as we were put in a holding pattern upon getting to Heathrow Airport.  Upon getting to immigration, where I had to use the Fastrack lane (normally it is not an issue on afternoon arrivals for me), I had to dig up the street address of my hotel.  In the past, I managed to get by with just writing the name of the hotel in London.  But they appear to want the full address now for every form. There were no lines to get tickets for the Heathrow Connect trains to Paddington Station  (the intermediate cost option between Heathrow Express and taking the Piccadilly Line subway).

I stayed at the Hilton Paddington again.  This time, I bought into a Terrace Suite, which was a nice, bright and spacious room. The deck was large (though not quite as great at the Tower Suite decks). It’s much better than the normal small-windowed rooms that I usually get.

That evening, I had a nice dinner experience at Kitchen Table in Fitzrovia.  It’s the fine dining back part of a restaurant called Bubbledogs.  Bubbledogs is a very popular place where people often queue up to get in to be served hot dogs of various sorts and champagne (and other drinks).  Kitchen Table is a 19-seat counter serving a tasting menu of fresh ingredients prepared and served in unique ways.


Champagne from Kent

The evening's menu

Jersey potatoes and crab

I also wanted to go to the observation decks of The Shard.  This newly opened skyscraper is located south of the Thames near London Bridge Station and is the tallest building in Western Europe.  You can pre-purchase tickets online for a time slot (probably advisable).  The cost is a hefty £24.95.  I bought my ticket in advance, checking out the weather forecasts for the weekend.  It turned out I picked a great day to go.  It was cloudless and not windy, so it made for a much more pleasant experience.
There is a separate entrance to The View from the Shard (as they call the observation deck).  Exit London Bridge Station towards St. Thomas St. and you cannot miss it on the left.  After going up a short elevator, you get to main reception where you must pass through security before you can get to the first set of elevators that take you to the 33rd floor.  At that floor, you change to another bank of elevators that take you to the 69th floor.  From there, it’s a quick flight up to the 70th floor enclosed observation level.  It’s very nice with wood paneling and wood floors.  There are also these electronic telescopes with screen that help you identify the London landmarks as you look out.

 Steps or an elevator take you to the observation deck on the 72nd floor.  While you are still enclosed by glass, the top is open to the sky.  You can see the rest of The Shard structure above you.
It’s worth doing at least once, especially on a nice day.

The last thing I wanted to do was go to a special exhibition at the British Museum.  An exhibit called Pompeii and Herculaneum just opened and would be there all summer.  I have been to Pompeii, but this was supposed to show artifacts in a setting meant to convey what life was like for the population before the disaster.  The items exhibited were set up in rooms meant to simulate a typical upper class dwelling. 

The exhibition was held in the center of the museum, under the dome.  It was very interesting but also a bit crowded.  But I am not sure whether it will ever not be crowded.
Garden Room fresco

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Food from Pompeii and Herculaneum

Bread loaf

Rare resin cast

A family captured in time
I also managed to work in afternoon tea at Brown's Hotel.  While it was a little pricey at 39 GBP, they did offer a healthy option if desired, and they will let you ask for repeated servings of anything you want.

Finally, on my departure day, there was one last thing I learned.  On Sundays, they switched the Heathrow Connect train service to an hourly service from half-hourly.

06 April 2013

New York, Chicago, Seattle, Las Vegas

I had to turn in my passport to get it renewed, so I planned to be "grounded" internationally for a few weeks.  I set up some domestic trips around the U.S. just to keep the miles coming in.

I flew to New York for a personal trip, which means I could fly to JFK on the United p.s. flights.  United will be changing out the equipment over the next several months from a 3-class airplane to a two-class configuration.  In all the times I have flown on p.s., I had never been in the first class cabin.  I was hoping to get a chance to do so before the change in equipment.  These days, the only real difference is the seat hardware, as the menu and video services are exactly the same in business class.  Currently, if you are seated in first, you have an angled flatbed seat.  On my outbound flight, I was lucky enough to be moved up to first class.

While it was nice to be in a smaller cabin, I can see why the seats need to be replaced.  They felt pretty narrow when using the flatbed mode.  The new seats will definitely be better.  While the food was the same, I thought the presentation was just a little nicer than what is typically done for business class.

My Chicago trip was my first since becoming Global Services, so I was looking forward to seeing what service would be like at United's flagship location.

I arrived in Chicago later in the evening. Normally, I would take the "L" into the city as it's very inexpensive.  But it does take time, and I didn't want to ride on the train for an hour (with a train change), so opted for an airport express van.  Instead of paying $2.50 for the train, I paid $32 for the van, but it only took half an hour, so it was kind of worth it.

While in Chicago, I stayed at the relatively new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  It's located near the Magnificent Mile area, which was perfect for a non-business stay.  It was very nice, especially since the weather was unseasonably cool and I had a fireplace in my suite.

Since there is not an Executive Lounge at the Waldorf, I had to scrounge outside the hotel for breakfast. Using my Around Me app on my iPhone, I found a branch of The Original Pancake House just down the street.  The wait was not too long, and it was a nice meal.
 I decided against the apple pancake, pictured on the menu.  Instead, I went with the Dutch Treat pancake, with all the fresh fruit.

I had a big dinner planned, but I knew I wouldn't make it until then without another meal, so I managed to get an afternoon tea reservation at The Drake Hotel.  While it seemed a little pricey when they brought out the food, they do offer refills on anything you want.  I could have really stocked up, but I needed to make sure that I had a good appetite for dinner.

I went with the earliest seating I could get (2 pm).  It's a very nice setting just off the lobby of the hotel. They also had a harpist playing, which added nicely to the ambiance.

Dinner was planned at a "guestaurant" north of downtown Chicago.  I had read about this place, called SousRising, in an article on this trend of gourmet dining.  Since the style of food was the kind I am always in search of, I signed up for a slot when they became available.  The food was both visually attractive and tasty.

When I arrived at O'Hare Airport for my departure, I was looking for the Global Services counter but could not see any signs.  Finally, an information agent from United directed me to a sign off to the side on the other side of security that said Global Services.  It turned out to be a separate room with manned podiums, where I spoke with an agent who checked me in and took my luggage.  I was then directed off to the right where there was direct access to the TSA PreCheck line (awesome).  This would seem to make check-in time much easier to judge at this busy airport.  It's my understanding that one of these Global Services Reception areas is being set-up in San Francisco.

I had not been to Seattle in several years, and even then, it was only for work.  This trip gave me a chance to tour around a little to see more of the city.  One new addition since my last visit is a light rail line running from the airport to downtown.  It's pretty inexpensive ($2.75), but a little slow (45 minutes).  It's also a little bit of a walk between the terminal and the train station at the airport.  But it is  easy to use.

Even though the weather in Seattle was also unseasonably cold, I saw evidence of spring warmth that had been in the area earlier.
I paid a visit to the Seattle Art Museum.  They had a special exhibit with some European painters, but I was most impressed with their porcelain display.  I found the collection to be varied and interesting.

The photo is the Porcelain Room taken as a panorama shot with my phone.

Of course, I managed to find some very interesting and good food in Seattle, where there is an emphasis on local sourcing for ingredients.  I dined at The Jewel Box at Mistral Kitchen and Spur Gastropub.
Dessert at Mistral Kitchen

Dessert at Spur Gastropub

Tuna at Mistral Kitchen

Smoked Hamachi at Spur Gastropub

I took a quick day-trip to Las Vegas to get some warm weather and see some new things. First, a new terminal opened and United switched to it, so I wanted to see how it all worked.  I also wanted to check out a new lounge by American Express that I was invited to visit for free.  Finally, I wanted to see how to get from the airport to The Strip and back using local transit.

The American Express Centurion Lounge at Las Vegas is very nice.  Once you enter, all the food and drink is complimentary, as is the internet service.  I suspect they are letting selected cardholders try it out in hopes of convincing them that it is worth the $50 fee in the future.  It’s has a nice feel to it, very open and bright.  It has lots of comfortable seating, for small groups, couples, singles and families.  There is a menu for the food buffet that changes with the time of day.  I stopped in for breakfast when I landed in the morning, and I had lunch/dinner before I departed in the evening.  The food choices were good quality and nicely prepared.  They could be a little faster sometimes in replenishing offerings.  There are showers and modern-styled restrooms to use.  Overall, it was in a class far above most domestic airline lounges and as nice or nicer than many international lounges I have visited.  The staff was extremely friendly and helpful.

Tourists do not normally see the public transit options at the airport because you have to go to Level 0, which is below the arrivals and baggage claim area.  As you walk through baggage claim, there are signs to the right that direct you to escalators down to Level 0.  As you exit, turn right and the bus stop is there.  There is one ticketing machine where you can buy either a 2-hour pass for $6 or a 24-hour pass for $8.  These passes let you ride any bus (local or express) for the designated time.  There are three lines that run from the airport.  The WAX (Westcliff Airport Express) runs hourly on the weekends and can take you quickly from the airport to the intersection of Tropicana Blvd. and Las Vegas Blvd. (The Strip).  From there, you can walk The Strip or catch the SDX or Deuce buses to head north toward the North Outlet Shops or Downtown/Fremont St.  There are two local buses (108 and 109) that head north on streets on either side of The Strip.  But you can also use them to go the other direction and get to the South Strip Transit Center.  From there, you can transfer to the SDX or Deuce buses to go north (they both start their run from there.).  The 109 and the Deuce buses run 24 hours a day.

I found that the buses worked well enough. Perhaps the only tricky part is trying to time how long it takes, especially during peak weekend times.  The main hindrance is the traffic along The Strip, which can slow down the SDX and Deuce buses during certain times of the day.  So you have to allow for this or take a different route.  There is also no space set aside for luggage.  And the SDX and Deuce buses can get crowded as they travel up and down the strip and to and from the Outlet centers at either end.