29 September 2013

New York City for Work and Play

I had to go to New York City for work recently for a few days.  I decided to extend the stay through the weekend to take advantage of already being out there.  I booked a few restaurants and planned some museum and show time as well.

I flew to Newark Airport and used the New Jersey transit trains to get to Midtown Manhattan.  Usually this goes pretty smoothly.  The exception is when the Newark Airport Airtrain decides they need to do maintenance and they make you change trains in the middle of the trip to the Railink station.  But we had landed early and I had plenty of time to make a planned dinner reservation.  I had heard of a place called Suite 306 (www.suitethreeohsix.com) which does periodic vegetarian meals.  They happened to have planned a guest chef to do a dinner on my arrival day.  I arrived at the door right on time and the person who answered was perplexed as to why I was there.  I showed my email with the reservation details and payment confirmation.  It turns out the guest chef had rescheduled and moved the date to October.  However, I never received the change notification.  They apologized and promised to refund my payment (which they promptly did).  After that, my prospects for getting a dinner spot somewhere interesting and popular were not very good since it was well into the dinner hour already.  I tried walking in to abc Cocina and they did have food service at the bar, but I didn't want to wait.  I ended up not too far away at Zen Palate, which Ii used to visit often when in New York.

My work week ended on Thursday, so I lined up a meal at Atera (www.atera.com).  This would be a revisit, as I had dined their about 14 months prior when it was relatively new and before it received its Michelin stars.  I had a very nice meal, which you can read about here.

These were three of the courses I had at Atera.  I went for a late dinner at 9:30 pm.  Over three hours later, I left after a very nice meal experience.

SInce the last visit, they moved from a simple reservation system to a pre-payment /ticket system.  At the time of dining, you just pay for the beverages you decide to order.

The next day, I headed to Brooklyn to visit the New York Transit Museum. From the start, it is a very interesting place to go.  It's actually located in a subway station that is not in service.  I took the 4 train from Manhattan to Borough St. Station. I walked a few blocks and then saw a subway entrance to Court St. that was the entrance to the museum.  For $7, you can see exhibits related to the history of public transit in New York City.  I learned that New York had cable cars just like San Francisco.  It also had an extensive elevated rail system.  And I finally understood how the current subway routes came into being.  But the best part was being able to walk into several old subway and elevated cars, each with the original advertisements and maps from the time.

There are signs everywhere that say the station in an active station.  That is true in the sense that there are active 3rd rails running at full voltage.  That is the only way they can keep the subway cars lit up.  Otherwise, there are no moving trains through the station.

There are also exhibits on the history of their subway tokens and of the turnstiles used to collect the fares.

I found all of this fascinating. . . . More information on NYTM

I had a nice dessert break at my favorite dessert bar Chikalicious in the East Village (Chickalicious Dessert Bar).

For the evening, I had scheduled an early dinner at a relatively new place called Juni.  The food was good and the write-up is available here.

The meal concluded in time for me to get to the show I had scheduled for later in the evening. It was called Chamber Magic and is performed in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria (The Towers, to be precise). It is performed in front of no more than 40 people, up close and interactively.  I had heard about it from a prior visit to New York where some people I sat next to at dinner had just come from the show and highly recommended it.  It really was very entertaining and well worth seeing.  I purchased a front-row ticket and I was amazed by the show, even when sitting up that close.  Information and booking can be found at www.chambermagic.com.

Form my final day in New York, I scheduled lunch at Momofuku ko, which is kind of my go-to place if I have time for a nice weekend lunch (more information).  It was as good as always.  For the evening, I booked a ticket to see "Buyer & Cellar", a one-man show starring Michael Urie.  I found it funny and very entertaining.

The next day, I flew home from Newark Airport, ending my week of food and fun in NY.

11 September 2013

Budapest, for the first time

I had never been to Budapest before.  Originally, I was planning to visit earlier this year over the Memorial Day holiday. I had booked a non-refundable room at the Hilton Budapest during their January sale.  However, I was asked by some friends to be a tour guide for a Tokyo trip for that weekend.  Since the room had been booked at a cheap rate, I was prepared to forgo the prepayment.  However, I wrote the hotel of my predicament and asked them if I could change the dates to a time frame in August September, noting that I was a Hilton diamond VIP member.  They were more than gracious and moved my reservation to the end of summer, even giving me the lower available rate.  That kind of service reflected the type of service I received throughout my stay at that Hilton.  But I am jumping ahead. . . .

I planned the trip to start with a departure on a Wednesday evening with an early evening arrival into Budapest the next day and a return on the following Monday.  That would give me three full days to explore.  I opted to buy a Budapest Card, which provides free use of public transit, free and discounted access to museums, tours and entertainment.  It comes in 24, 36, and 72 hour versions.  I went with the 72-hour card, and purchased a voucher for it the week prior to my departure.  The only hitch I had with the purchase was that my email service was blocking all email from Hungary, so I ended up contacting them with a different email provider and they were able to resend the voucher.

I also researched how to transfer from the airport to my hotel.  It is possible to take public transit (bus and Metro) into Budapest from the airport, but I was not sure how easy it would be to get to my hotel, as it was atop a hill in the Castle District of Buda.  I found that a door-to-door airport shuttle service exists and seemed easy to use and reasonably priced (they have a website with all the details).  One could pre-book and pay for the trip online prior to arrival for a 10% discount.  But the Budapest Card also provides a 10% discount, so I just went with that, since One never knows whether a flight delay will come into play.

As it was, my flights had no issues.  Even though this trip was twice as long as my Copenhagen trip the weekend before, I still was able to use just a small carry-on suitcase for the trip and did not check luggage.  Upondarrival at the Budapest Airport, I was able to go directly to the Tourist Desk in the Arrivals area and exchange my voucher for the Budapest card.  The agent also gave me directions for the public transit option to get to central Budapest (bus #200E to the Metro, outside and to the right for about 30 meters).  Right next to the Tourist Desk was the Airport Shuttle desk, where I was able to walk up with out waiting, request, and pay for a round-trip ticket.  I paid them in euros and they gave me change in Hungarian Forints -- this helped me out as I didn't have to try and find an ATM right away for get local currency.  I was told to watch the nearby monitors for my ticket number and the van assignment that would be posted when it would be time to board.  There was a seating area to the left of the counters, so I just waited there with other passengers.  It took about 15 minutes before my van assignment came up.  I handed over the ticket and boarded.  We made one additional stop at the next terminal and left the airport with a full van.  I was among the last to get dropped off, which I expected. But I receive da nice little tour of the city in the process.  It took about an hour to get to my hotel.

The Hilton Budapest in the Castle District is located in the heart of the historic cobblestone area of Buda and has a nice view of the Pest side.I had applied for an upgrade-for-a-fee to a Baroque Suite. The multi-level room was more than adequate.

My welcome amenity

Front door and entry hall

Main bathroom
Desk level and bedroom level

A nice thing about the hotel was that the Executive Lounge Happy Hour ran until 8:30.  Even with My late arrival, I was still able to take advantage of their generous spread of hot and cold hors d'oeuvres.

After settling in, I went for a little stroll around the immediate area of the hotel.  Already, I was pleasantly surprised by the location, where nearby historic building were lit up at night , and there were great views across the river to Pest.
Parliament Building from Buda side

St. Matthias Church in Buda
For my first full day, I had planned to join the free (with the Budapest Card) 10:30 am walking tour of Buda to start getting oriented.  Unfortunately, with the jet lag and incorrect setting of my alarm, I slept until 10 am.  I rushed to get some breakfast in the Executive Lounge (it ran until 10:30).  I tehe modified my plans and would figure out how to get to the Pest side and join the free 2:00 pm walking tour of Pest. I figured out how to walk down to the nearest Metro station (Szell Kalman, about 15 minutes away).  I also watched for where the buses would run to and from the Metro station.  Turns out the little buses they run (16 and 16A) make frequent trips between the top of the hill and the Metro station.

The central part of Pest was only three stops away.  And the Metro was easy to use.  It appears that they used to be on the honor system, as there were no pay gates, just validation machines.  Now, however, at every Metro station, there are people posted at the top of the escalators to check that everyone has a valid ticket or pass.  Sometimes, they would even check passengers who were exiting a station.

The main Metro station in Pest, where all the subway lines cross, is called Deak Ferenc ter.  I headed there and then transfered to the M1 line (the oldest subway in Continental Europe) to ride one stop and get off at Vorosmarty ter to locate the restaurant I would be dining at later that evening. It was right at the station stop).  I then walked back towards Deak Ferenc ter to locate the departure point for the walking tour.  I still had time to explore on my own before the tour, so I headed up the street to Szent Istvan (St. Stephan's) Basilica.

St. Stephan's is dedicated to the first Hungarian king, who united the tribes of Hungary in 896 AD to settle in this part of Europe and converted them to Christianity.  It is a basilica because it houses a relic of the saint (his right hand).
Reliquary with St. Stephen's hand

I then headed back to the meeting point for the tour, which was the Tourist Information Center office located on Suto utca.  At exactly 2 pm, our tour guide met us and led us first to the Metro, where we would ride out to the end of one of the main boulevards to Heroes' Square.

We also went to see the nearby Vasdahunyad Castle (an amalgamation of different building styles from different eras).

And, we took a peek inside the thermal baths at Szechenyi. 
We then took the Metro back towards the central part of town and walked past many of the significant and interesting building around Pest, including the Hungarian State Opera House and Parliament.  The tour lasted for about 3 hours and was the perfect way to get oriented and learn a bit about the history of the Hungarians.  Aftwerwards, I headed back to my hotel to get cleaned up before retuning to Pest for dinner.

My dinner was at a place called Onyx, a one-star Michelin restaurant specializing in modern cuisine. The full write-up is here.  I had a very nice dining experience at Onyx.

After dinner, I took a leisurely stroll back towards Buda, crossing the Chain Bridge and taking some nighttime photos.

The next day, I made sure to get up early so that I would not miss the Buda Tour.  We strolled around the Castle district, from one end to the other over a two-hour period.
St. Matthias

Royal Palace

Afterwards, we were led down the hill and crossed the Chain Bridge to Pest.  The guide for the morning tour was going to lead the afternoon Pest tour, so we eventually ended up at the same tourist Office where I was at the prior day.

I said my farewells and headed to the Parliament Building to see if I could get in on one of the afternoon English tours.  They were all sold out, so instead, I walked over to the Hungarian Opera House for the tour of the interior.  There was an english tour scheduled for 2pm.  When buying the tour ticket, there were options for an opera mini-concert (which I took) and fee to take photos inside during the tour (which I didn't take).

The building itself is not quite as big as the Vienna State Opera House (by command of Emperor Franz Josef).  but it is still nicely done.  I was able to take pictures of the lobby prior to the tour, which gives sense for what kind of craftwork went into the construction of the theater.

After the tour, I headed towards the Central Market Hall Building (a short tram ride away).  I was hoping to make it inside before it closed, as I was sure it was going to be closed the next day (Sunday).  It turned out that it closes early on Saturday, so I didn't get a chance to walk inside.  But the exterior is very elaborate.
I took a different way home, getting on a couple of different trams, so I could see different parts of the city.

For my final full day, I wanted to do the Parliament tour and at least two museums. To make sure I has a spot on the Parliament tour, I went online and purchased a ticket for the 10:45 am English tour on Sunday.  It was easy to do and meant I didn't even have to go to the ticket office -- I just used the Business Center printer at my hotel to print my ticket. Before leaving the hotel, I sent an email to the airport shuttle service to make my reservation for the trip to the airport the next day.  They responded promptly and confirmed my seat and pick-up time.

The Parliament Building is the 3rd or 4th largest in the world.  It survived the Second World War mostly intact.  It is elaborately done, both outside and inside. It also houses the crown jewels of Hungary, including the crown of St. Stephan, and viewing is part of the tour (although you aren't allowed to take photos of the crown for security reasons). You go through a security screening before entering.  The instructions say to bring your passport becasue it will be checked, but we were not asked to show them.

Grand Staircase

Chamber of Lords
Chamber of Lords

After my visit to Parliament, I hopped back onto the Metro and headed to the Hungarian National Museum.  I learned a great deal about the history of the Hungarian people and nation.  There were artifacts going back before the arrival of the Magyar (Hungarian) tribes through to the fall of the Iron Curtain.  There was a significant amount of English captioning, which helped me benefit from the museum's offerings.

I then took a walk around the nearby Jewish quarter, with its narrow streets, shops and synagogues, including the largest synagogue in Europe.
I then hopped back onto a tram and took a different way back to the Buda side so I could see different parts of the regular (non-historic) parts of the city.  I decided to end my touring with a visit to the Royal Palace and the Budapest History Museum located there.  This helped me complete my historic picture of how the area came to be and the events that shaped the area.  I ended the day enjoying the late afternoon and evening walking around the castle district, especially as the day-trip crowds had departed.

My pick-up time was 6:10 am for a 9:45 am flight.  They had asked me whether I wanted to be picked up 3 hours in advance or 2.5 hours.  Given that it was not a huge airport and it was going to be early, I opted for 2.5 hours and that was about right. I was the second pick-up and we made a few more stops to fill up the van's seats.  It took about an hour to get to the airport.  I had checked in online with the Lufthansa phone app for both my flights and was not going to check luggage, so all I anticipated needing to do was get through security and then grab a quick bite of breakfast at an airport lounge.

One thing to note is that there is no priority line for security based on class of service.  There is a priority line that is open to specific airlines that have paid for the option.  You can also pay as an individual about $15  to use the line.  Unfortunately, Lufthansa is not one of them.  The line was not too bad (maybe taking 20 minutes).  When there was no one going through the priority line, they redirected some people from the regular line there.

Once through security, there is a lounge right there (I used my Priority Pass Card to get in).  I went in, had a quick bite and figured out what my fight's assigned gate was.  I got to the gate ans saw that the flight was going to be delayed for about a half-hour.  Fortunately, there was another lounge across from the gate, and they accepted business class flyers (they would have taken my Priority Pass Card as well).  they had slightly better food, so I took advantage of the offerings.

I managed to board with my"overweight" carry-on, but I discovered that we were flying on a 737 to Frankfurt, so my suitcase had to be inserted sideways to fit in the overhead bin.  It wasn't too much of an issue (and I was not the only one who had to do this) since I was in business class, which, while full, only seats 4 passengers per row.  We left about a half-hour late but made up some time en route. Upon arrival at Frankfurt, we were deplaned at a remote location and had to board a bus to get to the terminal.  But I only had to clear passport control before continuing on to the Z gates from where my flight would eventually depart.  I didn't have much time to spend in the lounge before having to make the non-short trek to the gate.  I wanted to make sure that there was enough time to get through the secondary security questioning and get a paper boarding pass (if needed). It turned out that the security person at the gate asing the questions and giving me the needed sticker was fine with the mobile boarding pass (he just stuck the sticker onto my passport cover).  And the mobile boarding pass worked fine on the automated gate  and let me though when it was time to board.

We had an on-time departure and the chief purser was the same one that I had when I returned from Copenhagen the weekend before.  Unfortunately, the menu was not the same, and the meal was not quite as good as last week's return flight.  But the seafood cioppino I had was fine.  There was no Riesling on this flight (not even in business class), and the pre-arrival snack featuring "chicken bouquet" was just okay.  The on-time arrival into SFO made for a nice ending to a very enjoyable trip.  I did not have enough time to cover all that I had wanted to see in Budapest, so I will have to go back. Budapest is getting played up these days as an underrated tourist destination.  that may be, but there were plenty of tourists.  It is a major stop on all the Danube River cruises.  And it is only a 3-hour train ride from Vienna.  The people are friendly, and many (especially the younger ones) speak some English. Budapest should be on anyone's destination list if in the area.

07 September 2013

Copenhagen, quickly and not smoothly

The last couple of years, I've seen business class fares to Europe drop significantly.  This year, I found a decent fare to Copenhagen for a short weekend (leave Thursday night and return Sunday), so I booked it.  While I have been to Copenhagen before, I wanted to try a couple of different restaurants, which would give me something specific to do.  Unfortunately, when I tried to make dining reservations, I discovered that the time I picked to go would be when a big food event would be going on, making it difficult to get into some places.  The best I could do was wait list and see what happens.

Despite the uncertain dining plans, I was looking forward to the trip.  It also gave me the chance t try something I had not done before, which was to travel with carry-on bags only.  I upgraded myself to First class and seemed to be all set for the trip.  After we were all boarded onto the plane, we were notified there was a mechanical issue that would take a half-hour to resolve.  As I had a 1-hour, 45-minute layover in Frankfurt, I was not too concerned.  Unfortunately, the delay gradually evolved into almost a 3-hour departure delay (it grew by an half-our several times).  I decided there was not much I could do about my connection until we departed for sure.  The plane was equipped with wi-fi, so I knew I could try and check things out while airborne.  Plus, I assumed the United Global Services staff would have everything worked out one way or another, even though the United app showed that the connection that I was scheduled to take was the last flight showing.

After we took off and they turned the wi-fi on, I send an email to the Global Services desk and asked what my options were going to be.  During dinner, I logged into the Lufthansa app and checked to see what they how as available flights that might work as options.  I saw that there were flights both on SAS and Lufthansa that I would be able to take, based on our delayed arrival time.  After I awoke from my nap, I checked my email and did not see anything from Global Services.  I checked my reservation through the United app and saw that I was rebooked onto the next available flight, which was an SAS flight.

Upon landing in Frankfurt, I was expecting to be met at the Jetway by Global Services with boarding pass in hand and instructions for where I needed to go (it's my understanding that kind of service would be something to expect during irregular operations).  So, I kept walking and looked for the nearest Lufthansa Service Center.  The first one I found asked for my destination and referred me to a different service center in another section.  At that service center, they directed me to my eventual departure gate, which was located on another concourse.  This smaller concourse had no Lufthansa Lounge and no service centers.  So, I had to wait about 2 hours before the gate would be manned.

With my boarding pass from the missed flight and my itinerary copy, I explained to the gate agent my situation.  After much looking on the computer after I gave them my inbound delayed flight and ticket number, they told me that United had not rebooked the flight properly.  They said that none of the ticketing information was attached to the rebooking.  A phone call and a few conversations later, they decided that they would deal with United later on the ticketing issue and gave me a boarding pass (in business class, which was what i had booked) that had no ticket associated with it (or any connection to my itinerary).  I was glad that I had not checked any luggage!

Soon after, it was time to board.  The flight was being operated with a CRJ-700 regional jet, so we had to take a bus to the plane.  We also had to leave our carry-ons outside the plane before boarding, which I had never done on a European flight before).  With this flight, I would arrive in Copenhagen about 4 hours later than I had originally planned.  Fortunately, my hotel was the Hilton at the airport, so I didn't have to deal with any ground transportation.  But my dinner was going to be the small snack salad that SAS now provides as part of their standard short-haul food menu for business class, as well as a few snack items from the hotel's Executive Lounge.

The next day would be my only full day in Copenhagen.  The first thing I did after breakfast was go back to the airport and try to check in for my morning flight the next day.  I was concerned that something would be wrong since I did not take my scheduled flight and the flight I did take was not properly integrated into my itinerary.  Sure enough, I could not check in at the kiosks, which is what they expect of everyone when using Copenhagen Airport.  I went up to the Star Alliance Gold agent and explained that I had a check-in issue.  The agent was able to check me in easily.  So with that set, I walked back to the Metro station and bought my day-pass for transportation around town.

Central Copenhagen  is about 15 minutes from the airport, so it's a pretty easy ride, except when there are Metro issues.  There was a technical problem and we were forced off the train at a station short of my destination.  Eventually, it seemed like alternative means had to be found.  I went up to street level and figured out the bus to take me the rest of the way.  My first stop was to a large park that I had not seen on any prior visit called Frederiksberg Gardens.  After all that, I was ready for lunch.  I decided to try this dim sum place I had seen on the internet -- they even take online reservation s(although I didn't really need one.  I hopped on a bus to take me back across town.  The dim sum was fine -- items were ordered off a menu and were typical offerings with a little bit of a modern or Nordic twist to some.  It was, however, much more expensive than comparable offerings in the U.S.


After lunch, I walked down the street, taking in a view of the Palace area.  I then went to the Marble Church, where I had not had the chance on prior visits to visit the interior.

Afterwards, I hopped back onto a bus and headed to a "dessert boutique" that I had heard about called Strangas.  I had a couple of desserts that were good, although their real specialty seemed to be macaroons.

I had a little bit more time before I wanted to head back to the hotel, so I took the regional train to a large shopping mall.  I did pick up a few things, including some travel supplies and some special Swedish candy that I had discovered the last time I was in New York at a Swedish candy store (much cheaper in Copenhagen).

Since none of my dinner plans came through, I went back to the hotel for Executive Lounge food, and then headed back out for more strolling around town and a (short) visit to the Copenhagen Casino at the Radisson Blu Hotel.

The next day, I had a leisurely breakfast and then an easy stroll to the airport.  After a quick stop in the lounge (accessible with Priority Pass), I headed to the gate.  As I was checked-in at the gate, they took issue a little with my carry-on suitcase.  They thought it was too big for the plane.  I told them that it should fit fine.  Since I was in Business Class, I think they let me go.  I didn't realize at the time that the carry -on limitations are different on foreign carriers, even among Star Alliance carriers.  There is a posted weight limit of 8 kg.  If they had done a check, I think I would have passed the size check, but not the weight check.  And once I was on board, I did have an issue with the length of the bag. Fortunately, I was able to put it in the overhead the expected way (wheels first) and force the bin door shut.  I was just glad I was on a regular jet for the hop over to Frankfurt.

After that, my flights and connections went as expected, with nice flights and good food, and my short weekend jaunt to Copenhagen came to a close.  I'll still have to go back to get to Geranium (the restaurant I was hoping to try).

Upon my return, I wrote another note to United Global Services and explained my disappointments.  I received a prompt (within 24 hours) but canned response which could have been sent to anyone at any status saying we're sorry, we'll do better, and hope you will give us another chance soon.  I'm just not sure Global Services lives up to the expectations they tell us to have.