23 December 2014

Toronto, Vancouver, London, Honolulu-- bits and pieces

The autumn brought several short trips.  Nothing very elaborate, but new hotels were tried and new (and old) food places were visited.


I hadn't been to Toronto in a few years.  But over the summer, I had applied for and received my Nexus program credentials.  I hope to visit Canada more, and being in Nexus greatly expedites the entrance process into Canada.  It also gives you Global Entry back into the U.S. (so my expiration date was extended).  It's definitely worth doing.

Currently, there is a lot of construction going on in downtown Toronto.  They are building a new underground station, with plans to open a new rail link between downtown and the airport in Spring 2015.  There used to be an Airport Express bus service, but as of October, that service no longer runs.  Until the new rail link is up and running, the only public transit alternative is to take the Toronto public transit bus to the closest subway station (Kipling Station on Line#2).  The total trip involves bus to subway train to subway train to get to downtown.  It's inexpensive at C$3.

On both my trips to Toronto this year, I dined at Shoto, a momofuku/David Chang restaurant.  It's located on University across from the Hilton Toronto and adjacent to the Shangri-la Toronto Hotel.  It's in a multi-level building that houses several related restaurants.  My write-ups for Shoto can be accessed here and here.

In Toronto, I stayed at the Toronto Hilton both times.  On one visit, they gave me a very nice suite.


I hadn't been to Vancouver in several years.  Since then, they extended the Skytrain to the airport, which makes it really easy to get to downtown.  There is a surcharge from the airport area of C$5 to the fare.  It makes it worthwhile to go ahead and buy a pass for the day (no added surcharge if you use the pass to board).  You just have to find the 7-11 store at the airport that sells the pass, since you cannot buy one at the station.

I decided to try a hotel from a different chain, as there is just a Hampton Inn from the Hilton chain.  The Shangri-la seemed a good choice, especially since it was where I wanted to try afternoon tea, as well as sample dinner at their signature restaurant.  The rooms were very nice:

There was even a little semi-enclosed balcony with seating.

The afternoon tea service was very nice, They make their own scones, which were especially good (they had an unusually chewy exterior).

The restaurant at the hotel served a decent dinner, although I didn't do a write-up on it:


I spent 5 days in London over the Thanksgiving week.  that made for a somewhat unusually long stay there for me.  It was actually nice to have the time, as it gave me ample opportunity to visit many places I enjoy seeing, do some shopping, and dine at a variety of restaurants on my list.

Hilton opened a new property in London.  It was formerly an Intercontinental Hotel.  They turned it into the Conrad St. James Hotel, located right next to the St. James Underground station and an easy stroll from Westminster Abbey and Big Ben/Parliament.  Because of the location, decided to just take the Underground from Heathrow Airport, instead of taking the train to Paddington station.  I still had to change trains, but it was easy to do so (Piccadilly Line to Circle/District Line).  Overall, it probably took the same amount of time.

The hotel was very nice, with modern appointments and large bathrooms.  The Executive Lounge was nice as well, rarely crowded, except at very peak times.


My first dinner was at fera at the Claridges Hotel.

For the full write-up, click here.

The following evening, I went to a place called Restaurant Story in Bermondsey.

For the full write-up, click here.

And, of course, I had to visit one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs.

For the full write-up for this visit, click here.

For a more casual dining experience, my friends at Kitchen Table recommended a Japanese udon restaurant in Soho call Koya.  It is one of the few places anywhere that still makes the noodles the traditional way (using footwork).  I was warned that it was a very popular place, but I went early and was able to secure a nice seat at the counter facing the kitchen.


In early December, I set up a trip where I would fly back from DC to SFO and then pick up an afternoon flight to continue on to Honolulu.  With a 5-hour layover, it seemed like a no-worries itinerary for making connections.  However, my day of travel coincided with the worst storm of the season to hit the Bay Area, with the peak predicted to be right when my DC flight was to arrive.  I was anticipating the worst, thinking about possible re-routings I could ask for.  However, much to my surprise, my flight from Dulles Airport to SFO had no delays, and even landed early.  Our only issue was finding a gate, since so many planes were delayed on the ground.

At this point, I would then normally be concerned about whether my outbound flight to Honolulu would be delayed due to a delay of the inbound arrival of the aircraft to be used for the trip.  However, it turned out that the plane to be used had cancelled its flight to Honolulu the day before due to a mechanical issue.  So, the plane was actually at the maintenance hangar at SFO and just needed to be brought to the gate (which it was after about a half-hour delay).  Serendipity seemed to be working in my favor to allow for a relatively smooth travel day at a time when circumstances would normally dictate a very difficult one.

The main purpose of the trip was to enjoy a little warm weather and dine at Vintage  Cave to check out the new chef.

The meal experience was very good.  It was a bit more classical in construction and preparation than my prior visit.  But there was still extensive use of local ingredients.  For the full write-up, click here.

12 September 2014

Amsterdam Food and (Museum) Frolic

Earlier in the year, United ran a business class seat sale to compete with a Delta sale.  While the sale was centered around Delta hubs, the United prices were good enough to warrant booking a separate repositioning trip to take advantage of the fare.  My designated weekend to do this was going to be Labor Day weekend.  I had wanted to go back to Amsterdam (I hadn't been there since my first visit 8 years ago), so I set that at my target.  I tried various routings until I found one that would work with my schedule originating in San Diego.  A round trip bracketing the Amsterdam flights was inexpensive and still made the overall trip a bargain.  On the way over to Amsterdam, I would be on my preferred flights (that I would have taken anyway) routing through SFO and Frankfurt.  On the return, I would route through Chicago and then direct to San Diego.

So, my travel day began on a Wednesday, where I planned the day flying down to San Diego and then back to SFO to catch my evening flight to Frankfurt.  I had originally planned to take an early-morning flight down and then take a noon flight back, giving me large margins of error for delayed flights.  A couple of days before, I discovered that friends from San Diego would be passing through SFO on their way to Europe, and that if I could get back to SFO earlier, we could meet up to chat for a little bit before their flight departed.  When looked at changing my flight options, I saw that the earlier flight back to SFO was pretty full.  I decided to wait and see what would happen on the day of travel.  On the travel day, I learned that my plane going to San Diego would be the same one turning around to come back to SFO as the next flight.

So when I got off the plane in San Diego, I went up to the gate agent and asked if I could get on the earlier flight back to SFO.  She said the plane was full.  Disappointed, I walked over to sit and wait for my schedule departure,  However, I saw the wait list and decided that I should at least try, just in case there was a no-show.  I went back up to the gate agent and asked to be placed on the standby list.  She said there were already people on it.  I responded that I understood, but I didn't say that I knew that if I was put on the list, I would be placed at the top because of my United status.  Since this was a commuter jet and only an hour flight, I didn't care about carry-on space (since they would gate-check most carry-on luggage anyway).  It turned out that I was at the top of the list and their was exactly one no-show.  So I was the last one on the plane for the earlier flight.  So I made it back in time to meet up with my friends.  It did mean that I would have a longer layover in SFO (I could even go home and come back), but instead of leaving the airport, I decided to hang out in the First Class lounge to enjoy the catering.

The flight to Frankfurt was novel in that it was my first experience with the United wifi streaming personal entertainment system.  It worked pretty well.  While there was some overlap between what was available versus the plane's in-flight entertainment system, there were some differences, so it did add to what was available.  Additionally, the picture quality while watching on my iPad was very good.

We arrived in Frankfurt on schedule, and I connected to my Amsterdam flight on Lufthansa with no difficulty.  Since the Netherlands is a Schengen country like Germany, there was no passport control upon landing.  I headed straight for the trains to the city.  There were lots of kiosks where train ticket can be bought with cash (coins) or cards.  But the cards had to be issued by a Netherlands bank.  I went to a ticket window to purchase a single-use, one-way ticket.  Given the short length of my stay and that I would have a transit pass with my Iamsterdam tourist card, I did not want to buy a reusable train farecard.  But also didn't like that they charged 1 euro extra to use the single use card.  At the ticket counter, they take the major credit cards (chip and signature included).  Ticket in hand, I "tapped in" and headed downstairs to the appropriate platform for city-bound trains, platform (spoor in Dutch) 3.   After I boarded, it was about 20 minutes to Amsterdam Centraal Station.

I arrived in Amsterdam around 6:30 pm.  Conveniently for me, the hotel I selected was a new (to me, since it wasn't there on my last visit) DoubleTree Hotel located next to the train station.  I was checked in and in the Executive Lounge in about half an hour.


I had opted for a room with a balcony.  Given the small size the the room, it was a good choice, as it made the room seem much bigger.  I liked that the room came with a computer, particularly since I didn't bring mine, traveling only with my iPad.  After snacking for dinner in the Executive Lounge, I retreated back to the room to unpack and plan out my two full days.

Before departing for Amsterdam, I purchased online the Iamsterdam Tourist card.  It provides for free use of local transit and free and discounted admission to many attractions.  Upon arrival into Amsterdam, I discovered that the Tourist Information Office near the train station closes at 5pm.  Therefore I could not pick up my card that evening.  I probably could have picked it up at the airport, but decided that I could wait until I got into the city since I could not use it beforehand anyway.

So, my first task in the morning was to walk over to the tourist office, where I picked up my pass.  Armed with my means to public transit and my map, I was off.  My second task was to figure out which tram to take to get to the Rijksmuseum.  This was closed for renovation during my prior visit.  I found which trams would take me there from Centraal Station.  I also discovered that the transit system changed their procedures a little.  Now, all tickets require a tap on the machine when you board (front door only) and then a tap when you depart (through any door).  The Iamsterdam card serves as the transit ticket, as well as the discount card (it used to be a separate paper ticket).  Still, it was simple enough to use.

Since the Rijksmuseum is one of the most popular attractions in Amsterdam, I wanted to visit early in the day. It was a good strategy.  The lines were minimal to buy a ticket (the Iamsterdam Card provides only a small discount on admission for this specific museum).  And as the morning progressed, the crowds grew, so I was happy to be there early.  It was also one of the few museums that allows you to take photos.

The Night Watch
The Gallery of Honor

Art Library

I had a lunch reservation at 12:30, so after i finished with the Rijksmuseum, I headed back to my hotel to freshen up.  This was a really nice day to enjoy the outdoors, so I was glad that my luncheon venue was in a greenhouse.  The restaurant was called Restaurant De Kas and is located in a park about a half-hour tram ride from Centraal Station.  Much of the food served is either grown in the greenhouses on the premises or at their farm not too far away.

To read the full write-up for the restaurant, click here.

The lunch was enjoyable and healthy.  I definitely would go back.  I'm glad I went for lunch, as it allowed me to enjoy the surroundings in full daylight.

After lunch, I headed back to the center of town.  Another Iamsterdam Card benefit was a free 1-hour canal cruise with one of two companies.  I'd done one on the last visit, but the boats can take different routes.  The one that I took wove through the canals and then out to the harbor for a bit.

Film Museum

Science Museum

After the canal cruise, I headed back to the hotel to rest up.  My dinner reservation was at 7:30, so there was some time to relax.  Getting to the restaurant would be easy, as it was just across the alley from the hotel.

The restaurant was called &samhoud places.  The ground floor of the building housed the informal "streetfood" establishment, while upstairs was the more formal 2-star Michelin restaurant.

They gave me a great seat at a counter, where I could watch the kitchen prepare many of the dishes.  The food was interesting and fun, so it was a nice experience.

To read the full write-up, click here.

Three hours later, it was nice just to be able to walk back across the way to my room.

The weather for the next day was predicted to be showery, so my planned activities were going to be mostly indoors.  The Van Gogh Museum opens at 9:00 am (most open at 10:00 am), so I started there.  The collection is based on the works that were owned by Van Gogh's brother Theo.  Being there at the opening, I beat the crowds and enjoyed much of the artwork without many people around, especially on the upper floors.  The Stedelijk Museum was right next door.  It is the largest museum in the Netherlands devoted to modern and contemporary art and design.  That was my next stop.  Then afterwards, I shopped at the museum stores, bot in the respective museums and the centralized one.

Next up, I went to Rembrandthuis.  This was a building where Rembrandt lived for a few years.  The included audio guide described everything from the kitchen in the basement all the way to the top studio and exhibition of etchings.

Afterwards, I had enough energy to do one more museum, so I headed over to the Hermitage Amsterdam.  I have been to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, as well as the Hermitage in London at Somerset House.  There was a special exhibition at this one on artifacts from the Silk Road.  Normally, admission is free with the Iamsterdam Card, but with the special exhibition, there was a surcharge of 3 euros.  It was a little crowded It was mid-afternoon), but it was worth the visit (plus, it was pouring rain outside).

Back at the hotel, dinner was just going to be Executive Lounge food, which wasn't bad.  I then had to pack up, as I had a morning flight to catch.

The next morning, I was up before breakfast.  To save time, I walked over to the train station to pre-purchase my train ticket back to the airport.The ticket windows weren't open yet, so I just used coins to purchase my ticket from one of the many kiosks.  I also looked up the train times, so I would know which platform to head to when I came back after breakfast.

It was a Sunday morning, so there weren't too many people taking the train to the airport.  Once at the airport, I located the Lufthansa check-in area.  Even though I had a mobile boarding pass for my flight to Frankfurt, I wanted to check-in again to receive all my boarding passes (at least the one for the UA flight from Frankfurt to Chicago).  The machine printed out all three, which was fine.  I was probably going to get new ones once I got to Frankfurt and checked in with UA -- required if I wanted a San Diego boarding pass with TSA-Precheck marked on it.

Security was okay.  It could have been faster except they didn't like the shape of my penlight attached to my keys, so they had to find and inspect it.  But after that, I was through.  First, I did some quick duty free shopping for some chocolates (I was hunting for some Dutch chocolate).  I then figured out that the lounges were centrally located and not close to the gates.  So I stopped for just a little bit in the lounge for a drink and then headed out to the gate.

The flight arrived in Frankfurt perhaps a few minutes late, but at least we arrived at a jetbridge.  It was, however, near the end of the A concourse, so it was a long walk to passport control and then up to the Z concourse,  Just as I was getting off the escalator, I heard them announce my flight to Chicago.  They had decided to board early because we would have to be bused to the plane.  They took care of my formalities (including new boarding passes) right away and let me board the bus before general boarding.  It didn't matter much, as the bus didn't leave until it was full with passengers.

It was going to be a long travel day, but the flight to Chicago was nice, with a good meal and enough time for a nap.  Upon arrival in Chicago, I was surprised when we rolled up to a gate with only one door on the jetbridge.  I had never flown into Chicago on a large jet from an international flight.  Evidently all international flights have to deplane only through a single door.  I couldn't believe we were going to deplane an entire 747 through one door.  It didn't affect me too much, as I was right by the door and was the first one off the plane.  Stepping off, I was met by a Global Service agent who gave me yet another boarding pass.  Immigration and baggage claim were pretty busy, but with Global Entry and only carry-on luggage, I was out of there relatively quickly.  I still ad to stand in a line to turn in my form, but it only took about 5 minutes.  I had plenty of time anyway, with a 4-hour layover.

After a shower and a snack in the Global First Lounge, I was off on a four-hour flight to San Diego.  The A320 I was on had the beta wifi entertainment system, so at least there was something to watch after dinner (I watched Lawrence o Arabia, which I had never seen before). I actually was impressed with the quality of the presentation.  On my iPad, the movie was very clear and sharp.

Once in San Diego, I called for a shuttle to pick me up.  I chose just to stay at the Hilton on Harbor Island (closest Hilton to the airport).  They were nice enough to upgrade me to a large suite.  After a good night's rest, I headed back to the airport for a late morning flight back to SFO to finish up my trip.