06 December 2015

Milan -- da Vinci and the Expo

When I first heard about the special Leonardo da Vinci exhibition being planned for the summer in Milan, I decided that was something I wanted to see.  I picked the July holiday weekend and set up a short visit, since I had been to Milan before.  When the tickets for the exhibition became available, I went ahead and purchased the time slot I wanted.  Once that was set up, I identified a couple of restaurants I wanted to visit, so I secured a lunch and a dinner reservation.  I had also heard that the World Expo 2015 was going to be held in the Milan area.  I wasn't that interested, although I had never been to a World Exposition before.  After looking what I had planned, and researching the costs and time involved, I decided to include a visit to the Expo.

I chose to fly United all the way, which meant a day flight to Newark and an evening flight to Milan's Malpensa Airport.  One reason I chose UA all the way was that they recently changed the plane on the Milan segment to a 3-class 767, which I generally like flying.  The only really bad thing I encountered on the journey over was the layover in Newark.  There is no special Global First Lounge there and the regular United Club was overcrowded, making it difficult to find a seat and to find an electrical socket for charging devices.

I landed at Malpensa mid-morning.  Unfortunately, all of Europe was in the midst of a severe heat wave, so it was already quite warm.  Prior to departing for Milan, I had purchased online a Milan Card with an Expo 2015 package which gave me unlimited Milan public transit use, a round-trip regional train ticket to the Expo 2015 site, and a ticket to the Expo for any day I choose.  So, I had to first hunt down the location where I could exchange my voucher for the package.  And from the airport, there are several ways to get into Central Milan.  In addition to two bus companies, there is also a train.  As I wasn't in a big hurry, I chose a discounted bus ride.  The schedule is pretty regular, although it was a little bit of a challenge to figure out where to catch the correct bus from the company for which I bought my ticket.

The bus took me to the Central Station in Milan, which was only a few blocks from my selected hotel, the Hilton Milan.  My room, not, surprisingly, was not ready.  Bu they let me use the Club Lounge to freshen up and change clothes so I could make my luncheon appointment.

My lunch was near the center of the city by the Duomo.  It was called Ristorante Cracco:

For the full write-up, click here.

After lunch, I returned to the hotel to claim my room, a junior suite:

After getting settled and resting up a bit, I had to get ready for dinner.  Fortunately, it was on the later side.  But it was in a part of town away from the center, so it would take a little time to get there.  It was in a section of the city around one of the canals -- Ripa di Porta Ticinese.  The streets along the canal were lined with bars and restaurants and seemed to be a popular area (I had never been there before).

The restaurant was called Al Pont de Ferr.  In addition to an extensive a la carte menu, they had several tasting menus to choose from.  I chose the longest one, where the chef just chooses a series of courses to send.  It was a nice meal, but much more food than I needed to have.

For the full write-up, click here.

I used the Milan subway, which was easy enough to use, especially with the Milan card.

The next day (my only full day in Milan), I was to start off with going go to the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit at the Palazzo Reale.  With my pre-purchased timed entry ticket, I was able to bypass the ticket line and just had to wait for my entrance time to arrive.  The ticket came with a free audio guide, which was nice, as there were only limited descriptions in English.  Unfortunately, they did not allow any photos. It was a very good exhibition, with some famous works by da Vinci, including some items that rarely go on public display.  I was done in about two hours. I was very happy that I was able to see this exhibition.

After that, it was time to head out to the Expo site, which would occupy the rest of my day.  As part of the Milan Card package, I received a round-trip ticket on the commuter rail service that goes directly to the Exposition site located just outside Central Milan.

 Fortunately, the main walkway through the center of the grounds was covered.  But it was still very hot (close to 100 degrees).  All the pavilions had air conditioning, and there was plenty of food and drink.  each pavilion had a shop for the "native" trinkets, an exhibition on sustainability in food or water or energy, and food.  It was kink of like Disney's Epcot World Showcase on steroids.

There were a lot of people, but it was not super-crowded.  There were a few pavilions where there was a lengthy line to get in.  I did not bother with those.  In that sense, it would have been nice to have more time to spend over a couple of days.  But I went into several of the pavilions and felt like I saw enough after 4 hours.  I finished up with an early dinner at a building where several Italian food vendors were set up -- I went for pizza and then gelato.

The next morning, I had a mid-morning departure.  Fortunately, the bus departure area for the airport buses was near my hotel, and the schedules were posted.  So I knew which bus I wanted to catch and when. 

Since I was flying United directly back to the U.S., I wanted to make sure I had a enough time for all the formalities.  I actually ended up not having very much time before boarding.  I found the lounge that was available to me.  It was fairly busy, and I ended up spending about 20 minutes there before heading to my gate.

Upon arrival at Newark Airport, I cleared immigration quickly with my Global Entry privileges.  I thought I was going to have an abundance of time to get to my gate to continue my trip.  However, for some reason, I was singled out for immigration inspection.  It took a while before I was called.  The customs officer asked some questions and then began inspection of my suitcase.  Once it became known that I worked for the federal government, the inspection proceeded quickly and I was cleared to leave.

I still had a decent amount of time, especially since I could use the Global Services reception area to access the TSA pre-check line.  I was not worried about missing my flight, even with the extra time spent in Customs.  I headed to the UA Club, which was almost as crowded as when I passed through on my way to Europe.  I did manage to fine a decent place to sit and regroup for a bit before heading to to catch my flight back to SFO.

13 September 2015

Hong Kong at the Unofficial Start and and End of Summer

There hasn't been a posting in awhile.  It hasn't' been for lack of travel.  There has been a lot of travel this summer and a lot of food, which has taken up a lot of writing time.  But U just finished up all the food writing, and just came back from my last trip for the summer.

It happened that I traveled to Honk Kong over the Memorial Day (combined wit a stop in Singapore) on a solo trip and also for the Labor Day holiday to play tour guide for a friend.  So the write-up here is a combination of the two trips.

Arriving into Hong Kong, it's great to have the e-gate access.  It speeds up the whole arrival process.  My friend tried to apply, however, and was told that he had to demonstrate more frequent visits to Hong Kong (although the stated qualifications say you can also just be a member of a participating frequent flyer program).

It is now possible to purchase before arrival the Airport Express Tourist transit pass.  They only take two types of credit cards online, while on site, they will take additional ones.  It's an easy way to get set up for free subway rides for three days and have an Octopus stored-value card to use for other transport means (like the Star Ferry) and for purchases.  I used mine for the ferry, to purchase food, and to cover entrance fees at museums and attractions.

My hotel for both stays was the Shangri-La Kowloon, which does have a Victoria Harbour view.

 The Executive Lounge (called the Horizon Club) is very nice.  The main part of the Lounge is on the 21st floor (elevator only goes to 20), but there is a sub-lounge on the 20th floor, which is also where the lounge staff for checking in and out are located.

There is a breakfast buffet in the lounge.  But you also can order up to two hot items from the breakfast menu (both Western and Asian choices).  Also, if you book via the website, you are offed the use of a portable wifi hotspot for the duration of your stay (very hand!).

For a new visitor to Hong Kong, one nice way to start off is to take the Star Ferry for the short (7-minute) ride from Kowloon across the harbor to Central on Hong Kong Island.  Most of the locals buy a ticket for the cheaper lower deck.  Most tourists pay for passage (it's not a lot more) to ride on the upper deck for better views.  Once off the boat and out of the terminal, head diagonally right to bus stop 15C.  This shuttle bus will take you to the Victoria Peak Tram station.  I think it used to be free, but now has a nominal fee (Octopus Card works).  The bus is modern and air-conditioned.  Given that it was a very warm and humid day, it was a nice way to go.

Arriving at the tram terminal, the line looked a bit daunting.  But it looked like it was moving and it was a decently clear day, so it was a good time to do the tram.  The line did move along, but it is expedited if you are going to pay for your ticket with the Octopus Card.  There is only one line to a point.  but once you get about 20 people away from the ticket window, if you pay with the card, they will direct you to the turnstiles instead.  And the card will automatically give you the equivalent of buying a round-trip fare when you tap the card on your return trip down.

I also used the card to purchase the entrance ticket to the top-deck observation platform, where the view was spectacular.

Panorama shot
There are a couple of multi-level malls at the Peak.  If you need to load more money onto your Octopus Card, you can do that at the 7-11 store.

After returning down wit the tram, it's an easy walk down to catch one of the double-decker street trams (very Hong Kong) -- pay when you get off with the Octopus card -- eastward for a few stops to the start of the Mid-level escalators.  The long series of escalators take you up the hill.  Exiting at Hollywood Road puts you on a main commercial street populated by bars, restaurants and antique shops.  On this street is Man Mo Temple, the oldest one in Hong Kong. The temple is very much in use and the incense smoke inside was very heavy.  I couldn't stay inside for very long.

There are other interesting temple complexes to visit.  One is called Wong Tai Sin.  It is located on the Kowloon side north and east of the central harbor area.  It has its own named stop on the Kwun Tong Line.  The temple complex is adjacent to the station plaza and consists of several buildings and a garden area.

Another temple complex to visit is the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery in the New Territories.  To get there, take the East Rail Line to the Sha Tin station.  At the exit, head down the bus ramp, walk past the park, cross the street and go up and turn right down a street that ends at the edge of a wooded area.  Towards the left there is a trail that follows some fencing (as well as a sign).  It's quite a hike up some steps or a concrete path.

Every statue along the path is different.  


 Several of the buildings are columbaria.

It is definitely worth the effort of the hike up.

It is also worth the time to pay a visit to the Hong Kong History Museum.  It provides an easy and visual way to understand the history of the area, the natural history of the region, as well as how the city came about.  It wasn't until the British were ceded the island that Hong Kong started its development towards a major port and settlement.  At the time of my visit, there was a special exhibition at the museum that displayed many artifacts from the Han Dynasty, which was a major force in uniting the northern and southern tribes in China 260 B.C. to 220 A.D.).

Jade suit with gold thread

Hong Kong has also transformed a former military command post into a luxury shopping complex.  While the expensive watch shops may not be in interest inside, the outside is a nice example of  British colonial architecture.  It's called 1881 Heritage.

It wasn't all serious sightseeing during the trips.  There was some time spent at Hong Kong Disneyland.
Mystic Manor
I also had a couple of nice meal experiences at a 3-star Michelin restaurant called Bo Innovation.  

"Fragrant harbor" amuse bouche

Smoked quail egg, taro nest, caviar

Tomato, tomato, tomato

For the full write-ups for the restaurant visits, click here and here.

My departure from Hong Kong on the seconds visit was an example of how travel sometimes isn't as smooth as I make it sound.  First, I had some concern with the plane being able to depart on time because it arrived the day before almost 3 hours late due to a mechanical delay.  But we boarded the plane on time.  We even pushed back from the gate on time.  But we did not complete full start-up of all the engines.  After a little bit, we returned under our own power back to the gate (but remained on the plane).  They had at least three successive delay announcements before they decided the flight would be cancelled.  They had to figure out the problem, find the part, and then put the part in and test it.  Unfortunately, by the time they found the part, the engine was still too hot to put the part in and the crew was about to time out (with no reserve crew available).  They rescheduled the flight to leave the next day and provided a hotel and food vouchers for the Marriott Sky City hotel nearby (which was nice for an airport hotel).  They told us that there were no options to re-route us home on different flights on that day.

The next day, I saw that the regularly-scheduled daily departure from Hong Kong was on-schedule and had open seats in my class of service.  So, when I went to the airport, I asked if I could be switched to that flight, since it would be leaving an hour earlier than my "make-up" flight.  They could do that, but they also said that it was possible that plane was going to be delayed as well.  So, they moved me to the earlier flight, but kept my reservation on the second flight as well.  It turned out that was a propitious move.  While sitting in the lounge, we saw the regularly-scheduled flight was subsequently cancelled.  We learned later that a truck had hit the plane, so the flight was not going to depart.  With two cancellations in two days of the same flight departure, things were a little hectic.  While I had a paper boarding pass for the earlier flight, I still had a mobile boarding pass for the make-up flight.  So, while other people had to stand in line to get a new boarding pass, I could and was able to board with what I had.  We ended up leaving late by 45 minutes as they tried to accommodate people onto our flight, but we did finally manage to take off for SFO and the trip eventually came to a close.